Today, I want to feature my good friend’s E.M. Swift-Hook’s books. I say books because she has done something I admit I’m envious: to write nine books in the same saga. That’s exemplary discipline.
Fortune’s Fool is a saga of science fiction novels that begins with the travails of the people living in the outskirts of galactic civilization, on a planet colonized before FTL and just recently entering the games that fate likes to play. If you want to know more, go and get the books HERE.
Now, E.M. and I didn’t talk about every aspect of the book, instead, we focused on her world-building process. Because hey, you get to enjoy the ride when you read the books, but you don’t see the backstage building process.
Me: I’m sure you get asked this quite frequently but what are your most important sources of inspiration for your Fortune’s Fool world?
E.M: It would be a bit simplistic to say it had just one inspiration as every book I ever read and enjoyed will be somewhere on the list. But looking at it in the way historians view events, whatever the long-term causes, the ‘trigger’ was undoubtedly a 1970s BBC TV science fiction series called Blake’s 7, which turned so much of the expectations of science fiction at that time inside out and rewrote the rules. If you haven’t ever seen it, I’d recommend checking it out. The SFX might be a bit cardboard and sticky tape, but the characters – even the incredible antagonist, Servalan – and most of the storylines (it had writers such as Tanith Lee for a couple of episodes even) are superb. I called one of the major characters in Fortune’s Fools ‘Avilon’ in a tribute to two of my favorite characters in the series.
Me: Would you define your setting as hard SF or do you leave room for the unexplainable?
E.M: It is soft sci-fi boarding into science fantasy. For a start, I include the Two Great Lies many writers of science-fiction indulge in – that faster than light travel is possible and that humans could live on other planets. To the best of my understanding the former is still unlikely ever to happen and the latter less so. For us to be able to live on the surface of a planet it would need to be biochemically identical to our own. Even the most Earthlike is unlikely to be so. It would only take a slight difference to our own biospheres balance to be completely toxic to human life.
That said, I do try to keep a very realistic and gritty feel to the series.
Me: I know realism is a big thing for you. How that does has impacted on your world building? It has allowed you freedom or has forced your hand at times?
E.M: Both. I think realism does not mean the setting needs to be completely consistent with physics as we know it, but it does need to be logical and rooted in the reader’s understanding of how things work. This means I do have tremendous freedom to build logical seeming extensions to the real world. The bigger test, for me as a writer of character-driven stories, is to ensure that the people in my books behave like real people. They may have spaceships and body shields but they are still human beings dealing with human issues like corruption, betrayal, greed, fear, and ignorance.
Me: You have mentioned before that Durban Chola is one of your favorite characters from your books. And he is certainly a fan favorite. Having read your stories before, I can say they tend to be complex beings. But how do you build your characters?
E.M: My characters are ‘born’ at the point where story need meets the character concept, but the senior partner is story need. Mostly it’s a simple matter of asking a few searching questions: What kind of person would do this? What skills would they need – and so what kind of background must they have? Then I can look at more interesting things like What sort of quirks would this person have that add story interest? What flaws or strengths of personality might their background have thrown up? And so on. Sometimes this is a very conscious process and sometimes much of it kind of ‘auto-fills’, leaving me the freedom to focus on the more fun aspects of the character.
Me: Fortune’s Fool started as a trilogy that somehow grew into a trilogy of trilogies. How did that happen? Did you have some vague idea of the overall plot or the story grew organically like those alien carnivorous plants that writers tend to have on their orchards and have tame now and then, else they eat the local inspector?
E.M: Again, a bit of both. Transgressor began with a very simple idea – having a high-tech raised individual crash on the most primitive planet in the galaxy. A medieval level of primitive, in a galaxy with FTL travel. But what if it was not just A.N. individual? What if it was a wanted freedom-fighter?
The culture shock on both sides would be immense. But I wanted to show that just because they were ‘primitive’ that did not make the people any less capable, intelligent or potent. The stranded man is not lauded or respected, he is despised and enslaved. And on his part, the difficulty of coming to terms with the situation and the assault on his physical and mental resources. That was what Transgressor was planned to be. But in the end, it became so much more and once I had finished it, I realized there was a bigger story to tell and so Fortune’s Fools as a series was born.
Me: How would you describe the aesthetics of your world? Is it all shiny like Star Trek, all war-torn like Star Wars, all rusty like Firefly, all toyetic like Tomorrowland or…?
E.M: Considering it is a galactic civilization and not a single world, I would have to say that depends where you happened to live. If you lived in Central, the high-tech hub of the Coalition, you would eat, breath and poop ‘shiny’. Your life would be long, fulfilled and prosperous.
If you lived on one of the Middle Worlds you would be noticing the edge knocked off the shine as a bit and on the Periphery, if you were unfortunate enough to live on a planet caught up in a resource conflict between two of the political-corporate conglomerates, it would be living in a war zone. Then again, if you lived on Temsevar, it would be little different from living in a medieval Earth society and about at that tech level.
Of course, even on the same planet, you would have very different ways of life. Thuringen, for example, has a pretty regular society on one continent, but the other is home to Starcity, which has laws that effectively empower organized crime. The ‘City is therefore truly the criminal capital of the galaxy and trades on that fact. There the aesthetic is shiny on the surface as it is pretty high tech, but scratch that surface and you find a layer of dried blood…
Me: Did you world build before writing the story or your world build responds to the specific needs of your story?
E.M: A bit of both. The fundamental ideas were there from the first, my take on what a sci-fi universe should be like. But as specifics were needed to advance the plot or to fill gaps in the background, I put them in.
Me: What are your golden rules for world-building in a saga this long?
E.M: Consistency is paramount. If I invent something or name something, it has to be there ongoing as it impacts the entire story verse.
Me: Finally, what kind of music (a specific song, a musician, a playlist, an album) would fit your story? Care to share a link of a video as a sample of this?
E.M: Very tough as I don’t really link music with writing. Unlike many authors who use music as inspiration or background, I tend to prefer to write in silence or, if there are distracting noises like someone digging up the road outside, I’ll put the headphones on with rain sounds to cover it.
But, if pressed I could maybe give you some music that to me is kind of musical mood I might associate with my characters perhaps and from that, you’ll get a very good idea of my musical tastes too…
Avilon: Heart of Steel – Manowar
Durban: Soon from Gates of Delirium – Yes
Jariq: Time Table – Genesis
Jaela: China in Your Hand – T’pau
Jaz: Crawling – Linkin Park
Charis: Days of Our Lives – Queen
Grim: The Swing of Things – A-Ha
And for my main antagonist, Kahina Sarava: Stargazer – Rainbow
Thanks, E.M. for sharing your world-building process!
If you want to know a bit more about her:
E.M. Swift-Hook takes seriously the words that Robert Heinlein put into the mouth of Lazarus Long: ‘Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.’
Having tried a number of different careers, before settling in the North-East of England with family, three dogs, cats and a small flock of rescued chickens, she now spends a lot of time in private and have very clean hands.