Questions from Gary Oswald
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us. First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals to you about the genre?
I’ll admit that Alternate History was something I enjoyed in a passing fashion and not seriously – the occasional short story and such – as a reader until I met Eric Flint at the Superstars Writing Seminar in 2014. Like most writers I know, there are countless ideas I’ve collected as I started to write and one of those became 'The Crossing'. The trouble was I had no idea “how” to write an alternate history. Meeting Eric, and having his keen interest in the project even as an idea, helped me take that idea and begin crafting a story.
I’ve always followed Ray Bradbury’s definition of science fiction as “the art of the possible.” Once I could wrap my brain around the idea of alternate history, I found an immense amount of appeal to it. One of the things I enjoy most is in the study of history, there are connections and possibilities for change almost everywhere you look. Eric taught me to think of alternate history as if I’m watching a drop of water hit a still lake. The temptation is to believe the change event, in this case the drop, is what’s important. It’s actually the ripples of change spreading from the event which are where the story is – and I thoroughly enjoy that aspect.
Your new book 'The Crossing' is within the Assiti Shards Universe of
'1632' and a bunch of other books. Had you been a fan of those books
previously and how did you come to be involved in that?
The original idea for the story – what I asked Eric for his thoughts on – was:
Before the Battle of Trenton, George Washington reputedly threw a coin across the Delaware River. What is that was a bicentennial quarter?
When Eric and I discussed my initial idea, he pointed me to 'Timespike' which he had written with Marilyn Kosmatka and first broached the idea of the causal event being an Assiti Shard. From there, we discussed using a smaller Assiti Shard event and having “The Project” (scientists in the original timeline) beginning to track these events with the hope of not only observing, but using them for actual travel.
So, I devoured Timespike and jumped back and quickly read '1632' to get an idea of what I needed to focus on to make the story fit. When I’d worked out the plot and the outline, Eric told me to go for it and I did.
The, sadly recently departed, Eric Flint, the creator of the Assiti Shards Universe, acted as a co-writer for 'The Crossing'. What was his role and how was working with him?
Eric consulted with me on the story and was my editor for 'The Crossing.' The original intent had been for him to contribute a companion story to be included in the book, but his health over the last few months prevented that contribution from happening.
Working with Eric was an amazing experience. As a mentor, he was really a one-of-a-kind. I’m going to miss his keen wit and our conversations on all matter of topics. He’d temper my anxiety and tell me to focus on what really mattered in the story – to trust my instincts. As my editor, he’d tell me where I was doing things well and then what to stop doing – usually in very Eric ways. He was direct and clear in his comments. He’d tell me to stop being melodramatic and make the characters work for it.
He was my friend and I’m miss him terribly. 'The Crossing' wouldn’t exist without his excitement for the idea and his belief that I could pull off the story.
The concept of 'The Crossing' is a bunch of cadets from the present day are sent back in time to the Battle of Trenton where they aid the revolutionaries. What appealed to you about that particular clash of cultures?
In our initial discussion, I told Eric I was thinking about using cadets and he loved the idea. I taught Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and I’d been a cadet myself. Having cadets who remember historical details would be fun, but they’d also be inexperienced and having to learn an entirely new, and much slower, way of life. Mistakes would certainly happen along the way, and I thought it would be an entertaining story. As we discussed the cadets, it wasn’t just their knowledge which would have an effect on how history would be changed. Their diversity would challenge thought at that time. The presence of women as soldiers on the battlefield would challenge thought. I saw trust as something important to develop between the cadets and Washington’s Continental Army as well, and doing so meant the cadets would have to act rather than sit back and hide as history played out around them.
The interesting thing about that concept to me is that Trenton and indeed the War were already won by the Americans, you are just adding more resources to the winning side. Did you worry about the lack of tension because of that or do you think audiences are more invested in the fates of individual characters than the overall winners of battles?
For tension, I had the cadets immediately take casualties, lose their senior leader, and a modern rifle to the enemy. As they realize the ramifications of those events, they overcome their fears and believe they have to report to General Washington. Once they meet Washington, there are some subtle changes to the battle plan at Trenton which play out differently in both the fight and the aftermath – of which a couple will certainly change the course of the war in future volumes.
From this point forward, if a sequel is “green-lighted,” there are many things
which could change for the Americans – both good and bad – based on the
events of 'The Crossing'.
Outside of AH, you're a prolific writer of military science fiction and thrillers. What story are you the proudest of writing?
I have written or co-written twenty novels at this point and I’d have to distill those favorites down to a couple. Aside from 'The Crossing', the one I wanted to “pull off” the most was 'Super-Sync' which is an Elmore Leonard inspired crime novel in space. Leonard was one of my literary heroes and I had desperately wanted to meet him before he passed away a few years ago. Leonard’s ability to begin a story in media res, or in the middle of things, with a group of less-than-honorable characters and pull you into their struggles (personal and professional) was legendary. He’d twist and turn the story along the way and I was able to pay homage in 'Super-Sync'.
I’m also proud of my debut novel, 'Sleeper Protocol'. There’s a lot of me and my personal stories in that book. The premise is a soldier from our time wakes up three hundred years in the future without his memory or identity. He’s given one year to figure it out or be euthanized by the state. He also has to figure out if the future he’s been brought back to save is worth it. Being my debut novel, it was the first time I’d written a book which got the attention of a publisher and really told me that writing was something I could indeed do. The novel has been out of print for a bit, but it’s returning this summer and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Given you mostly write military science fiction set in the future, how different was the experience of writing about armies from the late 18th century (prior to radios and railroads) when logistics and weapons were significantly more primitive?
Challenging! In a sense, we’re used to living life at the speed of light with
communications and information sources. That didn’t exist in the 18th century and it was a constant reminder to me of pulling back and staying with what was prevalent then. While the cadets have some technology with them, how meaningful could it be? Would they be able, on a more personal level, to live without it? On the flipside of that, what would the cadets bring from a modern understanding of technology. Ideas like interchangeable parts, steam and internal combustion engines, and even potentially airplanes and the like could have huge ramifications in that timeline. Technology, though, has a limitation on the overall story line. In the case of 'The Crossing', it truly is about the characters and what they bring to table more than what they have with them.
You're a retired Army space operations officer. How much do you draw on that experience in your writing and what do you see as the main errors people without that experience make when writing about the military?
I draw on my military experience a great deal. For example, all of the cadets in 'The Crossing' are amalgamations of actual cadets and soldiers who I served with at one time or another. Understanding tactics and logistics and battlefield communications helps to maintain a sense of realism and authenticity. All of those things I learned over the course of 20+ years really helps in writing military fiction. But, I’m always drawn back to the characters and their unique situations and bonds with one another.
From a mistake perspective, I think the biggest thing I see is character interactions especially between officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted soldiers. For example, I know of no one in the modern military who has ever called their sergeant “sarge.” That is a fast way to extra duty and making one’s life miserable. Those little nuances in a story really let me know if a writer has done their “homework” in crafting their characters.
What would your advice be to a new writer trying to make it in the
Seek out mentors. Ask them the questions you’re not sure of and great things can happen. As I said earlier, while I was writing and making sales, things didn’t really take off for me until I met with mentors – one of them being Eric Flint. Without him, The Crossing wouldn’t exist.
Find friends amongst fellow writers. Go to conferences and workshops. Put your work out there – meaning find a critique group or writer’s group and share your writing. Don’t be afraid to submit your work to market. There are a million little comments and lessons learned I could cover, but it really comes down to one thing – you cannot write in a vacuum. Find others and you’ll really see your writing improve.
Most writers in the field want to help. Reach out.
And what can we expect to see from you next, both in AH and in other genres?
I’m currently working on two books set in the Four Horsemen Universe with my friend Jason Cordova. Both Jason and I have written multiple novels in this 75+ book shared universe created by Mark Wandrey and Chris Kennedy. We’re finally bringing our fan-favorite characters together for a storyline that will impact the entire Galactic Union.
I’ll be working later this year on a new Murphy’s Lawless novel in Chuck Gannon’s Caine Riordan universe and then, as I mentioned above, I hope to get moving on a sequel to 'The Crossing' and potentially a series following the characters and events therein.