This July, Tor Books released the fourth volumes of two very different urban fantasy series: D.B. Jackson’s Dead Man’s Reach, the latest installment of the Thieftaker Chronicles, about a supernatural detective of sorts in Revolution-era America; and Max Gladstone’s Last First Snow, part of the Craft Sequence, a mix of legal thriller and second world fantasy. It turns out that the two authors have more in common than their concurrent book releases—they’re also longtime friends.
We asked D.B. and Max if we could sit in on a conversation about how to write a series—keeping the plot moving, developing characters, building a world, and making sure readers (and writers!) stay invested.
D.B. Jackson: I’d like to begin by saying that it’s a pleasure to discuss writing and storytelling with Max Gladstone. I’ve known Max since he was a kid, brilliant, but shy, coming to my very first book signing in our small town in rural Tennessee. Max is brilliant still, of course, and has developed into a terrific writer and an equally wonderful person. I admire his talent, his passion, his creativity, and I look forward to watching his career continue to unfold.
Max Gladstone: And it’s a distinct joy to share a Q&A with a great writer who also was singularly patient with a kid who walked into his signing full of questions about the mechanics of writing fantasy novels. I grew up reading David’s books and talking about them with friends, and it’s an honor to share the page with him!
Plotting a series to build momentum
D: I started my career writing epic fantasies in extended story-arc form, so my plotting built organically with each volume. Now, with the Thieftaker Chronicles, a sequence of stand-alone historical urban fantasies, building momentum in the series takes on a different meaning. I’m no longer developing a single storyline; instead I’m creating in each book ever-greater challenges and ever-more-dangerous circumstances and opponents for my protagonist, Ethan Kaille. What’s at risk—Ethan’s survival and the continued viability of the movement for American independence—remains the same, but the stakes increase. The series begins with a murder committed the night of the Stamp Act riots. Next comes a mass murder committed as the occupation of Boston begins. In the third volume, a particularly nasty villain aims his attacks directly at Ethan. The fourth volume, Dead Man’s Reach, out today, corresponds with the Boston Massacre. Higher stakes, greater danger, more torment for characters and readers alike, which we writers just love.
M: Reader tears are the perfect flavoring to any cocktail, I find. Since my Craft Sequence books star different characters in different cities within the same fantasy universe, for me series plotting ends up depending more on theme—each book poses certain questions and tries to answer them, only for the answer to become the problem for the next book. As we get deeper into the layers of questions, the reader’s desperation for an answer increases. Also, since books may pass before readers get to see characters they know and love again, some momentum’s built solely by the prospect of seeing old familiar faces. My new book, Last First Snow, released last week, stars Elayne Kevarian, the brutal and shadowy mentor figure from my first novel, Three Parts Dead, opposite Temoc, a priest of fallen gods from my second novel, Two Serpents Rise. I know readers are excited to see these characters pitted against one another.
Developing character arcs across volumes
D: Writing a series of stand-alone novels, some set years apart in a fictional timeline, demands that I strike a balance. Since, I want my readers to fall in love with my protagonist and his supporting cast, the characters and their points of view should feel familiar from volume to volume. At the same time, I don’t want my readers too comfortable, and I don’t want my characters and their relationships to ossify. They need to grow, to change over the course of the series. Ethan Kaille, my thieftaking, conjuring hero, evolves politically: He begins as a Crown loyalist and gradually embraces the patriot cause. His romantic relationship with Kannice Lester deepens; they come to expect more of each other. Diver, Ethan’s best friend, begins as a knave, but matures. Familiarity and growth—finding the balance between them allows me to make my characters both relatable and interesting.
M: I love that point about balance; sometimes it can be even more important to show how a character remains the same in different circumstances than to show them changing!
Keeping a world consistent, leaving room for growth
M: Last First Snow, like my other novels, takes place in a post-industrial fantasyland—this story’s about real estate developer-necromancers trying to gentrify the sacred precincts of dead gods. Like you do! The Craft Sequence setting is vast, but each book stays more or less confined to one city and its environs, so there’s always more room for the setting to grow on the edges as needed. Still, I try to lay the ground for future work in each book. That way, when I set a novel in the Skeld Archipelago, or in Iskar, my readers think, “Oh, I’ve heard of that place before, and I know more or less how things function there,” rather than: “Hey! You just made all that up!” I mentioned the central political conflict of Last First Snow in an earlier novel, Two Serpents Rise, but the details were very sketchy. That gave the story room to grow when I finally sat down to write it.
D: Planting seeds in that way is brilliant, and works really well. And I need to do something similar with my historical setting for the Thieftaker books. But I also like to play with my magic system, which I’ve superimposed on the historical. Any fantasy author will tell you that magic needs to remain consistent, but it also has to accommodate ever more complex story lines. So I strive to make my magic as believable and grounded as I can, while also looking for ways to stretch the boundaries of what’s possible within the confines of my immutable magical rules. The threats get bigger, meaner, more dangerous, and Ethan, my hero, has to find innovative ways to combat them with the magical tools at his disposal. It’s a fun challenge. For me, at least. I put Ethan through a lot of crap…
Maintaining that sense of discovery
M: This is so hard and so important. The more I define a world, the less remains to define; that spark of first creation gutters. That’s why I hold questions and corners in reserve, for exploration later, or hint at mysteries that might one day come to fruition—which is where Last First Snow came from! Also, there are lots of different kinds of discovery: learning what a card game or a sports match or an art exhibit looks like in a given fantasy universe may supply as much spark as detailing a full-blown magic system. A character can have whole universes in herself. Also, I save important details or revelations for later, so I have elements to flesh out in future books. How do you handle it?
D: The history behind the Thieftaker books really helps me here. Each book is set against the backdrop of a different historical event. As I mentioned earlier, Dead Man’s Reach coincides with the Boston Massacre. So in a way, I have something new and exciting already built into each plot line, and I have new challenges with each book, as I seek to weave the fictional and the historical into something seamless. Beyond that, I find the character growth I mentioned earlier can be a rich vein to mine in this regard. Discovering my characters anew, seeing how all the stuff I put them through alters them and their relationships also brings opportunity for discovery, for my readers and for me.
David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of eighteen fantasy novels. As D.B. Jackson he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. As David B. Coe he writes the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy.
Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated twice for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award. Last First Snow, his most recent novel, is about zoning politics, human sacrifice, dead gods, and parenthood.