A few weeks back, we gleefully announced that Saga Press had acquired print rights to three serial novels from Serial Box Publishing, an innovative fiction startup that delivers genre stories in weekly, bite-sized chunks via ebooks, audiobooks, and a specialized app. And while we do dearly love our precious, precious print books, we’ve got to admit, the serial publishing experiment is truly fascinating. Serial Box stories are produced like TV shows, with team of “executive producers” guiding the narrative and a writer’s room of authors producing weekly installments.
Curious about how such a project is organized, we reached out to the team behind the current Serial Box project, The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, an alt-history cold war drama conceived by Max Gladstone and Lindsay Smith and written by Gladstone, Smith, Ian Tregillis, Cassandra Rose Clarke, and Michael Swanwick. Here’s what we got back.
The idea, as bad guys say on The Middleman, was sheer elegance in its simplicity.
Magic, in an urban fantasy setting—that is, in a setting which resembles the modern world, but in which monsters and wizards Live Among Us, performing dread sorceries by night and shopping at Safeway by day—is, by definition, secret knowledge that shapes the lives of ignorant Muggles. One other genre shares that exact structure: the spy story. This particular peanut butter and chocolate mix is hardly a new idea—Tim Powers’ Declare and Charles Stross’ Laundry Files both explore the world of the magic spy—but I wasn’t aware of a story that focused on the transfer of secret information, and the interpersonal work of recruitment, trust, and betrayal, in the way I had in mind.
A traitor-spies-with-magic story would work best as a period piece, taking advantage of the spymaster-vs-spymaster power dynamic of the Cold War. Setting the story in the past would also let us draw on documentary evidence and declassified information, in addition to contemporary sources. Prague seemed like an ideal setting for historical magic espionage, a point of contact between East and West with its own pronounced occult history. And—Prague just feels like spies to me, for some reason. I visited back in the 90s and fell in love with the city, and the whole time I was there I was sketching an outline for a fictional James Bond screenplay called CZECH MATE (If you want to send me a check, Broccoli Productions, my paypal email’s on my web site). So: spies! Magic! Prague! 1970!
Now, if only I was an expert on spies, or Prague, or 1970…
Max got about as far as “spy-witches in Cold War Prague” in his pitch before I jumped enthusiastically on-board. I’ve written paranormal historical spy thrillers before, and I absolutely loved the thought of delving into a similar type of setting, this time with the potential for expansive storytelling of the sort afforded in a serialized saga.
I’m an avid student of Soviet Russia, from the first shot of the revolution on through the Great Patriotic War (as they call WWII), the space race and Cuban Missile Crisis, and the gradual thaw under Gorbachev. Adding a mystical element, one rife with secret societies and dark powers that must be shared with only the utmost of care only enhanced the wonderful sense of paranoia and intrigue that Cold War settings offer. But it wasn’t enough for me to hold my own studies all in my head—I had to ensure the writing team was working from a common foundation to bring our vision of mystical 1970s Prague to life.
While the Serial Box folks assembled our black ops team of writers, I drew up a “series bible” for Witch that covered everything from a brief history and architectural survey of Prague to notes about the most popular songs and movies in the US and the USSR of 1970. I drew from former CIA director Allen Dulles’s own The Craft of Intelligence and other memoirs from former spooks to write a crash course in spycraft, since the lawyers said no to kidnapping the writers and forcing them to spy their way to freedom.
Then I laid down the basic framework for our magic system, opting for something medieval and alchemical with lots of elemental magic and rituals, which we felt best suited our vision for mystical Prague. Finally, the series bible included detailed writeups of all the main characters, to ensure we all drew from the same understanding of our leads’ personalities and quirks. With the chessboard constructed and the pieces set, it was time to figure out how Season 1 should play out.
For that, we needed writers with exacting skills at portraying the foggy, snowy streets of Prague, at torturing their characters, at prodding them toward their goals, and at making each moment both delightful and terrifying along the way. We needed Ian Tregillis and Cassandra Rose Clarke.
It was a [REDACTED] afternoon in [REDACTED], and I’d just settled in for my weekly routine of inventorying the go-bags hidden about my property. (“Four fake passports? Check. Thirty thousand euros? Check. Glock 9mm? Check…”) All in all a quiet day, the kind of day when you can almost pretend you live a normal life, until the neighbors across the street raised the blinds on their north window.
The blinds that never, ever move except in the most unusual circumstances.
Took me a moment to remember the number—I’d heard it was disconnected after the fiasco in Skopje—but I did. Several code phrases (and satellite hops) later, I was patched through to a stilted, electronically distorted voice. It was like talking to a sentient numbers station. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, the hoary old rumors out of Bishkek did contain a grain of truth after all.
“We understand you have certain skills,” she-or-he-or-it said, without preamble. “We will hire those skills. We will trade on your experiences to our mutual benefit.”
Skills. Experiences. That’s what they call it when you write a trilogy of fantasy alternate history novels pitting British spies and blood mages against scientifically-enhanced Nazi and Soviet agents.
Visually inspecting the flash-bangs in the front-door booby trap, just in case the call was a distraction, I said, “The Milkweed project was mothballed years ago. I don’t do that any more.”
Can a machine chuckle? This one did. “You spent years of your life constructing a secret magical history of the Cold War. Nobody makes a clean break from that.”
“Wrong again,” I said, preparing to kill the call. “Check my backlist.”
“Join us and you’ll swim in those waters again.”
And then the penny dropped. In retrospect, it was obvious. “You’re from Serial Box.”
The line fell silent for an extra beat. That’s how I knew I was right.
Two hours later, the helicopter arrived.
Cassandra Rose Clarke
I was in between jobs, taking a bit of R&R down south, when the message came in. I knew it as soon as I saw the encrypted email waiting for me in the inbox, a mess of nonsense that you would take for spam if you didn’t know better. It was my contact from the Agency.
In the sweltering heat of a summer afternoon, windows open, metal fan blowing the hot air around, I decrypted the message by hand, just like old times. It was simple: A new outfit called Serial Box has contacted the Agency. Contact goes by the name of Julian. They’re looking for a writer interested in spies, magic, and the ’70s. You in?
Spies, magic, and the ’70s? Sure sounded like my thing. But then I learned that the proposal was unique—I’d be working as part of team, not solo like I usually did. And that really piqued my interest. Because this game, it’s a lonely one. And sure, I’m okay with it. I came in knowing isolation’s part of the gig. But we’ve all got our certain skillsets, and I could only imagine what we’d create if we could put those skillsets together. All strengths and none of the weaknesses.
So hell yeah, I was in. I sent word back through the proper channels, and six months later I was on a charter plane to an undisclosed location up north. We met at Julian’s place, assembling like the Avengers: Max and Lindsay and Ian and me, plus an expert named Margaret Dunlap and some of the Serial Box crew. We had one weekend to plan our approach. I wasn’t sure we’d manage, but after tearing through gallons of coffee, piles of delicious food, and at least five packs of 3×5 notecards, we had it. A plan.
It was time to get to work.
Leah Withers, Serial Box director of publicity
And what work was that, exactly? Well…
Here at Serial Box, we’ve take the TV-writing model and brought it to fiction. What that means is that we get an idea (generally from an author who has pitched us the concept), hire a team, and then lock them together for three days while they hash out a season’s worth of plots, plans, and characters. They then divvy up the episodes and scurry back to their cozy writer caves for 9 months or so. Over those months are rounds of drafts, edits, redrafts, new edits (repeat, repeat, repeat), and eventually proofreading and copyediting. Meanwhile a whole mess of other cogs are whirling: we’re hiring audio producers, auditioning talent, and recording episodes; we’re hiring an artist and having them create individual covers for reach of the episodes; we doing all the many things that go into publishing a book—we’re just doing it as the book—*cough* we mean serial—is being written. It’s an exciting, fast pace, and collaborative take on the usual publishing model and—most importantly—it’s fun.
The Witch Who Came In from the Cold is currently on mid-season hiatus, which means it’s a perfect time to catch up.