The Next Big Thing: On The Novel-In-Progress

by Brian on November 28, 2012

in Fiction

Last Wednesday, my friend Gary Jonas pulled a tag-you’re-it on me, for a Q&A session called The Next Big Thing. It’s been spreading for the past several weeks, and the premise is simple: answer 10 questions involving your newest or next major project, then pass it on to 5 or so authors of your choosing. Kind of like transmitting a social disease through your own promiscuity, only nobody needs antibiotics.

(1) What is the working title of your next book?

Not counting a couple of upcoming standalone novellas, or new hardcover and e-book editions of earlier books, but the next full-blown novel … I’ve been calling it Leaves of Sherwood. All along, that’s what the title has felt like it should be. It not only IDs a specific, instantly recognizable setting, but it also has intimations of a family tree.

(2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

For a long time, I’ve been interested in doing a take on one of the two great foundational legends of England’s heritage, which have by extension woven their way into the American consciousness, as well. But the Arthurian mythos has been done to death. To be sure, it’s been explored from a lot of different angles, and some of it has been quite wonderful, but at the same time, there’s a certain rigidity to the strictures of its story elements.

The Robin Hood mythos, on the other hand, can be a lot more malleable. Whatever the historical basis there may be for the figure, what ended up in the archaic ballads and stories is much broader than what could reasonably be embodied by a single person: commoner, royal, freedom fighter, career criminal, murderous thug, social activist, etc.

So my notion was to look at the figure not as a single individual, but as a kind of legacy that would, in a series of novels, span about 250 years of history, and begin much earlier than when the story is normally placed. Some of the legend’s seeds actually seem to have come from the last diehard rebels who refused to make peace with the Normans after the Conquest of 1066.

It all begins with a sister and brother, the youngest children of an Anglo-Saxon thegn (local chieftain) who’s desperate to remain in good favor with the Normans just to hang onto what he has. But the brother sees that, at the rate the Normans are confiscating land, there’s going to be nothing left for him to inherit, while the sister is equally desperate to avoid being married off to one of them.

They’re fictional, of course, but they do rub shoulders with a few choice historical figures, primarily an English rebel named Hereward, who was a fascinating guy and has a great story in his own right. Fortunately, there also seems to be a gap of a few years in what’s known of him that fits right into the timeframe of this story.

(3) What genre does your book fall under?

It’s more a historical than anything, as it takes place in a definite time and place, against a backdrop of actual historical events. But it also falls at the intersection where history and folklore collide.

(4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I have no idea. With a lot of past works, I’ve visualized various people (not always actors, necessarily) as particular characters, but for some reason, in this case, not a single person comes to mind. However I’ve been visualizing anyone has mostly come from inside.

(5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In the first bloody years after the Norman Conquest of England, three Saxon rebels sow the seeds of the legend of Robin Hood.

(6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will go to my agent.

(7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It’s not finished yet. I hate to even calculate how long this one has been in the works. I’ve gone at it in fits and starts, while alternating with other stuff. The greatest challenge has been the complete inability to rely on the modern world. While there may have been historical or cross-cultural interludes in a few of my earlier novels, they’ve all been set primarily in contemporary America. Set something a thousand years ago, and you have to throw all that out. The world was different, social structures were different, culture was different, people’s worldviews were different.

It’s really been a challenge to recalibrate for all of that. But it seems as though every writer has a novel like this at some point along the way: the one that feels like you’re trying to drag a truck by your teeth.

(8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The closest I can think of is Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales series. He’s done a number of series as well as standalone novels, but these are my favorites. They’re set during the time that England began coming together as a unified country out of separate and sometimes warring kingdoms, primary during the lifetime of Alfred the Great. It’s all told from the point of view of a warrior named Uhtred, who’s English by birth but was raised by Danes, so he has these dual allegiances and familiarities. It really is an ingenious way of vacillating between both sides at a time when England kept absorbing wave after wave of Viking invaders.

(9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I can’t add anything here that wasn’t covered already in #2.

(10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

No matter what kind of work I’ve done, I’ve always been most drawn to mining the story for as much of its potential human and emotional drama as I can dig into. This one isn’t any different. So I think it will appeal to anyone who’s ever felt compelled to refuse, resist, and reject an order that’s been imposed on them by someone or something else: family, community, church, outside forces, etc. Cultures and worldviews may change, but the human heart seems to be a constant through the ages.


And now to pass the baton in this relay. These five friends and fellow scribes will be answering the same questions on their own sites next Wednesday, December 5. Except for the one gonzo loon who just couldn’t wait.

Sean Doolittle. My brother by another mother. Crime writer par excellence. Superb company on road trips across wintry post-storm landscapes. Probably post-apocalyptic, too.

Carole Lanham. First got acquainted as a fellow contributor at the Storytellers Unplugged blog. Loved loved loved her debut book, a collection called The Whisper Jar. Still owe her a picture of myself in an apron. Don’t ask.

Elizabeth Massie. One of my two most longtime wordslinging friends in the world, going way back to a life-changing week in Boston. Embodies epic wonderfulness, as a writer and a human being.

Yvonne Navarro. Taught me how to behead an enemy with a Gurkha kukri knife. That’s Von all over. Love her books or take your chances.

Clark Perry. My other most longtime wordslinger friend. Steadfast partner in many a decadent adventure. Where others just talk about cracking the world of TV writing, he’s done it. And appears to have been so overeager to give his own answers to The Next Big Thing, he’s already got them posted.

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