I guess every writer has been asked at one time or another: “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer is easy, and yet it isn’t. Ideas just…come.
I can’t speak for others, but I think my mind is always in story mode. Things people say and do, the way people look, things I see in the news, or just taking a trip and seeing unfamiliar sights can spark ideas for a novel. I love dramatic stories, both novels and movies, and the atmosphere around me seems to power the idea mill.
As a kid I wrote profusely. I could have been an honor student in high school (as I was in grade school), but I spent most of my time writing rather than studying. It drove my teachers nuts—on the one hand, they saw a brilliant future for me as a novelist (which I never achieved), but on the other, they said my talent for writing should have made me a better student.
But writing was a lot more fun.
At that age, of course, I had virtually no experience in anything. I wrote lots of sports stories, which were easy because I had played some sports, but I also tried to write more “grown-up” stories, like war stories and love stories, but I was shooting completely in the dark on those things. The ideas came, but they were immature and unrealistic.
It wasn’t until 1993 that I got serious about what eventually became The Fighter Queen saga. The idea had rattled around in my head for years, but it was vague, nebulous; the only way I could describe it then was “a war in space”. I had played with it in high school, filled a notebook with a very rough story about a war between Sirius and the Federation. My friends loved it, but I never completed it. More than anything, it was just practice.
Somewhere over the years I came up with the name Onja as my main character. She was a refugee girl from a ravaged planet who had only one thing on her mind: Revenge. I didn’t know her last name or much of anything about her until the late 1980s, when I began toying with the idea again, and even when I started the first novel (in 1993), I had not identified her as the Fighter Queen. She did that herself, as I was writing a battle scene, when she used the call name “Fighter Queen” for the first time.
To this day I don’t remember how I came up with her last name, Kvoorik. Onja was supposed to have been adopted by a Norwegian family, and Kvoorik just sounded Scandinavian, so I went with it.
Onja was a gunner on a fighter ship (sort of like tail gunners in World War II). So she had to have a pilot, and for romantic interest her pilot had to be a man. Driving home from work one night, as I rounded a curve in the freeway, the name Johnny Lincoln popped into my mind. Don’t ask me where it came from because I don’t remember, but I knew instantly that I had identified Onja’s pilot. (And before you ask, I swear it never occurred to me until years later that my own name, on my birth certificate, is Johnnie.)
I don’t much care for stories about super heroes, even though I enjoy the occasional Superman or Batman movie, but for Onja to survive the long war that I knew was ahead of her, she had to be the best gunner in the fleet. She also had to have the fleet’s best pilot, so both Johnny and Onja were prodigies. Johnny’s father, Oliver Lincoln, owned the leading defense plant in the Federation, which meant Johnny grew up in a cockpit; and Onja…well, she just had the coolest eye and the steadiest nerve in history. Before the Saga was over, she would have the highest body count of anyone in the Federation military.
The original version of The Fighter Queen was much too big for a new author to get published, It encompassed the early years of Onja’s war and then jumped ahead two decades to see her finish it. I knew no publisher was likely to take a chance on a work like that with a “new” author, so I decided to split it into two books. Those books were The Fighter Queen and A Vow to Sophia. When I finally did find a publisher, my editor suggested I switch the titles, stating that the first book had more to do with the goddess Sophia than the second, so that’s how they came to be named as they are now. (I’m still not sure I agree with the title change, but I was in no position to fight it and I don’t think it makes that much difference in the long run.)
The Fighter King
People who read the first manuscript kept asking me, “How did this war start? Who are the Sirians, anyway? Why did they attack Vega 3? And who is Oliver Lincoln III?”
Good questions, all. I had no idea. But if people were asking those questions even before The Fighter Queen was published, maybe they needed to be addressed. So I wrote The Fighter King as a prequel to the other two books.
The Fighter King went through three drafts before I was done. Each draft was dramatically different from the others, and the first two just had too many problems to solve, so the final draft was radically different, and wasn’t finalized until around 2000 or 2001.
One of the characters in FK is a man named Brandon Marlow. He is a Sirian citizen and a college buddy of Oliver Lincoln III (the protagonist). By definition, Brandon and Oliver should be enemies, as they hold radically different ideas about politics and civil rights, yet their friendship persists throughout the novel and into the next. Brandon’s family owns a huge plantation on Sirius 1 and Brandon himself has a slave girl who adores him. Oliver, try as he might, simply cannot reconcile himself to any of this, yet Brandon remains his best friend through thick and thin.
When I created Brandon’s character I had no name for him. One night in 1996 I was sitting on the bleachers at my son’s basketball game and one of his teammates took the line for a pair of free throws. As I sat watching him, it occurred to me that the kid looked like a young Marlon Brando…and his first name was Brandon. Suddenly, there it was—just reverse the names and you have it: Marlon Brando = Brandon Marlow. I had a name for Oliver’s friend.
Before Johnny Lincoln met Onja Kvoorik, he was dating his father’s secretary, Angela Martinez, and fathered a child by her. Toward the end of the novel, when Johnny and Onja come home on leave, Angela tells Johnny that her younger brother, Rico, has joined the Star Marines.
No big deal. But in the original draft of The Fighter Queen, there was a transition chapter between the early war and the later war which contained letters the characters had sent to one another; the letters were designed to bring the reader up to date on changes between the two periods. In one of the letters, Angela’s son, who was about ten years old, writes that his Uncle Rico (Angela’s younger brother) was killed at the battle of Periscope Harbor on Beta Centauri.
Neither one of those incidents meant a thing except as human interest…until I began thinking about the “rest of the war”. So far, the only stories told in the series had been those of Onja, Johnny, and Oliver…but what about the bigger picture? This was a HUGE conflict, spanning 22 years and involving half a dozen star systems. Surely there had to be more stories, millions of them. So I decided to write a stand-alone novel about the larger war. Oliver and Onja would be included, of course, but it wasn’t really about them.
That was when I put the previous snippets together and decided Rico Martinez would be a major character in the novel, and the original title of the novel was The Battle of Periscope Harbor. When I wrote the second draft, I changed that to Star Marine!, because Periscope Harbor was only one battle that occurred at the end of the book. (My publisher, despite my protests, deleted the exclamation point from the title and removed the italics, which I still think was a huge mistake.)
Star Marine! actually has three protagonists, which is unusual in most novels. In addition to Rico Martinez, the Star Marine, there is also senator’s daughter Regina Wells, who first appears in a cameo in A Vow to Sophia; and Wade Palmer, a new character, the only one of the three who interacts with the other two in the story. (There is also a “B story” featuring ResQMed pilot Capt. James Carson and the beautiful battle surgeon, Lt. Carla Ferracci.)
None of this happened in chronological order. First came the original The Fighter Queen, then the first two versions of The Fighter King. Somewhere in between I wrote the first eight or ten chapters of Nick Walker (more about him later), and then came both drafts of Star Marine!
At this point I had three novels, but only Star Marine! was anywhere near ready for publication. I took another took at the first two novels and went back to work. I did the final draft of The Fighter King, and was almost there.
But The Fighter Queen was still much too big, and the early chapters just didn’t work very well (the protagonist, Onja, didn’t even appear until chapter 4). I had submitted most of the novel to an online workshop, SFNovelist.com, and several readers had suggested it needed a serious rewrite. But I was exhausted, depleted. I just didn’t have the energy to do it all over again.
Finally, in 2004, I realized I had no choice. I went back to work, split the novel into two books, and rewrote the first ten chapters of the first one (which ultimately became A Vow to Sophia). What was left over was much too short for the series (all of the novels exceeded 100,000 words), so I took what I had and began writing additional material to fill it out. I knew I was taking a chance that it would come out disjointed, and when I was done, I could see where the patches were…but nobody else seemed to notice them.
I had heard of e-books before, but resisted the idea. I wanted validation by a New York publisher, and yet every attempt I had made to get New York’s attention had failed (I couldn’t write a decent query letter to save my life). Finally, after my younger son told me that his generation was “all about” e-books, and he compared e-books vs print books to TV vs radio…I decided to give it a shot.
In the spring of 2009 I was introduced to AKW Books.
And, at age 60, I finally got published.
The Sword of Sophia
Even before the Saga was published online, I had debated the wisdom of writing a fifth book for the series. I had thought about a post-war novel that showed Onja returning to Vega 3 to live out her final years, but I put that on hold; what seemed more important was the idea of an interim story about what happened on Vega 3 after the Sirian occupation. There is a span of 25 years between The Fighter King and A Vow to Sophia…so what happened during that time? Whatever became of Brandon Marlow, Ursula Sebring, or Adam Pedersen?
Given the nature of the Sirians and the brutality of the Confederacy, I knew it would be a difficult story to write. To the Sirians, slavery is an economic necessity and rape is a team sport, so a story about the occupation of Vega 3 would be a brutal one. I actually wrote about 10K words and set them aside, not sure if I wanted to take that final step. And yet…for the rest of the series to have the impact it needed, it was a story that had to be told.
Finally, in the summer of 2010, I bit the bullet and wrote the book. Most of the original 10K words became backstory and only three chapters made it into the final draft. The backstory was so useful that I knocked the whole thing out in 24 days, and there was no second draft (the fastest book I have ever written, or ever expect to write). The title was The Sword of Sophia.
Nick Walker, U.F. Marshal
With the Fighter Queen saga finally put to bed (and published), it was time to move on to other projects. At first I had no idea what to do—the Saga had consumed more than 15 years of my attention, and it was difficult to think about anything else.
But there was still Nick Walker, whom I had created in the mid90s. Nick lived in the same universe as the Fighter Queen, but several hundred years earlier. He was a United Federation Marshal during the period that Sirius and Vega were still Federation colonies, and his job was to enforce Federation law in any territory that didn’t have its own legal system. The story I had started in 1995 was incomplete, but I still liked the idea because Nick was assigned to Sirius 1, which would eventually engulf the entire galaxy in a bloody war. His assignment was to a dusty cow town on the Sirian frontier, which made his story a futuristic western (at that time, Josh Whedan had not yet come out with Firefly and I knew of no other “space westerns” except for the old Sean Connery movie Outland, which was less a western than a remake of High Noon. The idea of a “space western” was intriguing.)
When I returned to Nick in 2011, I still hadn’t heard of Firefly (although I watched it later on Netflix), and when I pitched the idea to my editor, Verna McKinnon, she loved it, referring to it as “Gunsmoke”.
Finally, fifteen years after its conception, the Nick Walker novel got written, but I was only able to use about four chapters of the original text. I threw out the rest and plunged ahead, drawing on knowledge of the Saga universe that I hadn’t possessed in 1995.
The story takes place in the pre-Confederacy period of Sirius 1; white supremacy has taken over much of the planet and only the unincorporated areas are still under Federation control. Nick fights back as slavery and human trafficking become epidemic, but he can only do so much—a man named Lucius Clay is running for election, and if he wins, he promises to organize the entire planet into a Sirian Confederacy; if that happens, the Federation will lose its grip and Sirius will become an independent star system.
Many details in the novel came directly from the Fighter Queen saga: Suzanne Norgaard is a Vegan woman; locales include the Sirian Outback, Missibama, and Texiana; and the title, Sirian Summer, is also straight out of the Fighter Queen saga.
When Verna McKinnon read the first draft, she agreed that AKW Books would publish the e-book, but decided to try for print publication as well. Verna was a Canadian citizen living in Canada, and acting as my agent, submitted the story to Edge books, which features mostly Canadian authors. Edge only wanted three chapters at first, then asked for three more, and finally the entire novel. The process took about nine months, and ultimately Sirian Summer was turned down. AKW published it anyway, but I was glad we went through that process, as it was the closest I ever came to being published by a major house. (Verna believed the only reason it failed was that I was not Canadian, but I’ll never know for sure.)
Asteroid Outpost and Rebel Guns
In Sirian Summer, I made it clear that Nick Walker was on his second assignment as a U.F. Marshal and his first assignment had been to the asteroid belt. It seemed only fitting to tell the story of his first assignment, so for Asteroid Outpost I sent him to Ceres, a rookie marshal straight out of the U.F. Academy. As a rookie, he was bound to take some hazing from older marshals, and when he did it was revealed that, during his time as a Star Marine, he had been involved in a pivotal battle during the Alpha Centauri uprising a few years earlier.
I hadn’t planned on that. In fact, I didn’t even know about it until Marshal Milligan, Nick’s boss, told it. But the minute I learned of that battle, I knew I had another story to tell, and as soon as the first draft was done I stopped work on AO and began writing the third book in the series, Rebel Cults of Alpha Centauri (once again, my publisher saw fit to change the title, because he thinks the word “cult” turns people off; I completely disagree, since names like Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh are a source of fascination for millions…but the title was changed to Rebel Guns of Alpha Centauri).
Rebel Guns was relatively easy to write. I was able to keep Suzanne Norgaard from Sirian Summer as I sent Nick back to the same town on Alpha Centauri where, eight years earlier, he had won the Galaxy Cross for courage above and beyond. Conflict was easy to create—Trimmer Springs was home to members of the religious cults Nick had fought in the war, and many of the men he killed in that crucial battle still had relatives living there. To make matters worse, the non-cultic townspeople had erected a statue honoring Nick for his actions in saving the town, and the statue was an open wound to the cult people.
What made the book even easier to write is that I was actually raised in a cult myself, and fleshing out the cult characters was as easy as describing people I had known most of my life.
Once Rebel Guns was wrapped up, I returned to Asteroid Outpost and finished it off. The hardest part was wrapping up the story; once the bad guys had been identified and arrested, there were still loose ends to be attended, and it took me a couple of months to figure out how to do it. (Part of the reason for this is that I never outline a book before I write it. I start with an idea, a few characters, and a general plan of where the story should go, then I start writing. This allows me to discover the adventure along with my characters, and I probably have more fun writing it than you do reading it. On those occasions I have tried outlining, the story never goes where I expect, and the outline becomes meaningless anyway.)
The Nick Walker series currently consists of three titles, but more are on the way. As I write this, I have a partial manuscript titled Bounty Hunter at Binary Flats, which will probably be available in 2014. Even though the stories take place in the future, I want to keep the Western flavor alive, and I think my readers do too.
As stated earlier, sometimes ideas just appear out of thin air. I really can’t remember where the Starport idea came from, but it showed up some time in 2010. I do remember the idea of a starship carrying a cargo of coffee (don’t ask me why), and the idea of political intrigue on a space station. I think gas prices were soaring about that time, so as the ideas began to accumulate like pieces of a planet coming together, coffee, oil, terrorist bombs, and rebel insurrection all came into play at about the same time; add to those elements a hysterical presidential election, and the job was almost done.
I wanted to do a book or series of books in a totally different universe than before. Nick Walker and the Saga both take place in our future (i.e., the future of Earth, aka Terra). I wanted to get away from that and create something completely new, in a different time and place, a universe roughly equivalent to the one we live in now, but where space travel and far-flung populated worlds were commonplace. So I created the Trimary System.
Starport starts with a terrorist bomb on an orbital station that destroys Askelon’s reserve oil supply. At the same time, a rebel insurgency on the neighboring planet of Environ threatens the hydroleum supply that Askelon depends on for its fossil fuel, all of it designed to oust Askelon’s first female president, who is running for reelection. What follows is, I think, a pleasing blend of politics and military action, with a touch of espionage to spice things up.
And Tyler Unruh, a high school senior, drives his car off a cliff, launching him straight into an adventure he could never have imagined.
I had no plans for anything beyond Starport, but a few months later another idea materialized from somewhere: the words “Guerrilla Girl”. As I mulled it over, I realized I could work it into the Starport universe. One of the five planets in the Trimary System is Tropicon, which, as the name implies, is a rather hot planet with a mostly tropical climate. Tropicon itself is broken up into four countries, three of them friendly with Askelon, one of them hostile. Terra Lafirma, the guerrilla girl, lives in the hostile country and has been raised to hate Askelon for exploiting Tropicon’s riches. At age 16 she leaves her mountain village and tries to join a local militia regiment, hoping to get a chance to fight the “evil Askelonis”. Instead she encounters overt sexism because the local militia only employs girls as civilian employees or prostitutes.
Terra is a strong, single-minded girl and refuses to be brushed aside. She is determined to be a soldier and will not take no for an answer. In the meantime, we learn who was responsible for the rebel insurgency that dominated the first book in the series, a man named Jorge Sorres who is richer than God and determined to bring Askelon to its knees for his own personal reasons. Sorres owns half the media outlets on the Five Planets of the Trimary and manipulates politics from the shadows, using his own money to finance everything from political hate blogs to military uprisings. And Terra Lafirma is caught in the middle of it all, without a clue as to what is really going on.
The Starport Series
As I write this the third Starport novel, Famine Planet, is in final edit. A fourth, Prisoners of Eroak, is awaiting final edit, and the fifth (and probably last) is under way. The series should be complete by summer of 2014.
EDIT January 24, 2015: Prisoners of Eroak is now on sale at Amazon. The final volume, Occupy Eroak!, will be published in the spring of 2015.