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 you about writing in that genre?
For me, the story is everything. I never sit down and say “I’m going to write sci-fi today” or steampunk, or alternate history. I write the story and don’t really worry about what genre to classify it as until it comes to publish it.
To be honest, I didn’t know I was writing Alternate History with the Misfit Squadron series. In fact I’m fairly sure I wasn’t even aware that AH even existed as a genre before being reviewed on SLP’s blog. Being published by Sea Lion hasn’t changed how I write much, though, apart from maybe inspiring me to delve a bit deeper than I would have done into the whys and wherefores of the world I have created.
You've written two series of books for SLP, the Misfit Squadron series (with eight books so far) and the Displacers series (which is complete and had five books). What would you say is the secret for writing a book as part of a larger series which is both satisfying in itself and makes the reader want to read more?
As far as I’m concerned, writing a series is just like writing a long book, with the books as the chapters. The characters need to progress, just like in a book, as does the story. The only difference being that each of the “chapters” need to be self-contained stories. If the characters remain interesting and the story engaging then readers shouldn’t ever become bored. When stories start being recycled and characters get stale, or caricatures of themselves that readers start to lose interest.
The best example in my writing is the Displacers series. The series has an arc and the stories have their place within it, with a beginning and an end, but just as importantly the characters have their own arcs, especially Sam Vives, the main character. He completes his fool’s journey during the series, changing with every new experience, going from bullied teenager to confident adult, and it is the feeling of almost living that with him which makes that series in particular a fulfilling one in my opinion and my best work.
How far in advance do you plan things for the Misfit Squadron series? Do you know how many books are left and what the ending is going to be already or is a lot of that still up in the air?
I don’t really plan. Very often I start books without much of an idea of where they’re going to go, beyond where they start and where I would like them to end up, which often changes as well. I like to let my characters lead the way for themselves and that often leads down paths that I’d never considered. I believe that gives a spontaneity and unpredictability to my books, which makes them more interesting and also means that writing a book is as much fun for me as reading it would be.
When I started the Misfit series all I really knew was that I wanted to have them fighting in some of the most important battles of the air war. One book leads me naturally into the next one, or the next two or three, but then something might happen that strikes me as being more interesting than what I originally had in mind and the plan radically changes. Even now, eight books in, I don’t have much of an idea what’s going to happen next, apart from what the arcs of a few of the characters are going to be and a few of the places the squadron is going to be sent to in the future.
What I do know is that there’s going to be at least as many books as I’ve already written, if not more, and as for the ending... I’m looking forward to finding that out myself.
The Misfit Squadron books are an alternate WWII only with a spring-based technology setting and an Imperial Prussia replacing Nazi Germany, what was the inspiration behind that setting?
I love flying. I was in the CCF at school and wanted to go on to join the RAF and fly jets but wasn’t able to because of my eyesight. I did learn to fly, though, and I developed a love for WW2 aircraft so it was only natural that I looked to that period to write a story about pilots. However, I didn’t want to set the Misfit series in our world, that’s been done too much and is too limiting for such a wide-sweeping series, I wanted to create a world and I quite fancied trying my hand at Steampunk.
Once I settled on that the rest of the pieces fell into place quite quickly.
As I wasn’t setting the book in the stereotypical Victorian era I needed something that suited the genre and, while “Steampunk Hitler” (Hitpunk? Steamler? Shi… uh, nevermind) might have been interesting, an age of empires was far better and gave me the opportunity to incorporate the same kind of societies as would have existed in the late nineteenth century to give it a steampunk feel. Steam being a simpler and more accessible technology than internal combustion has led to less hunger and want, more culture and greater satisfaction amongst the people, meaning, among other things, that the ruling class in Russia was never overthrown and that the treaty of Versailles was far more lenient. The state of the world is therefore far more like how it was before the turn of the century than after the First World War.
The springs came about because they are a natural choice to power fast and light aircraft whereas steam would be too heavy and impractical. As an accompanying technology to steam they are perfect and it is completely believable that they could be developed far beyond the point that they have been in our world, especially in the absence of other options. I also didn’t want to write a steampunk series where everything is steam-powered and the reader just has to accept it, however absurd. I wanted there to be a reason why the technologies were being used and for it to be credible.
By the way, while we’re on the subject – there isn’t a single point of divergence in the world of the Misfits, there are a few. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say they revolve around this adoption of steam as the main propulsive force rather than the internal combustion engine. However, readers of the series will find that the internal combustion engine does actually exist in the world…
The Displacers series is less of a classic AH story and more a tale of time travellers trying to change and unchange past events. As a writer, what appealed to you about that idea?
What is there not to like about it? It’s so much fun, from both a writer’s standpoint and a reader’s. With the Displacers charged with making sure that history gets back on course if it wanders off I have the perfect excuse to play around with any event I want, from the Gettysburg Address to the Jack the Ripper murders, putting my own spin on them before the characters resolve the matter.
Rather than AH, I like to think of the Displacers series as being “Alternate Present”; the Honourable Society of Displacers don’t just have to contend with history that doesn’t always stay on the right track, they also discover that a group with the same powers as them has been manipulating time to suit their own devices, so the present that we are living isn’t the one we are supposed to have.
How much historical research do you end up doing when writing historical fiction and what details do you think are most important to get right?
I hate getting anything wrong, so if I’m writing in the past I spend a fair amount of time researching the details and minutiae of the actual circumstances. Silly things like how far the train lines had progressed in South Africa in the year my characters Displace there, or how big the garden is in real life in the building I chose for the Displacers Headquarters and how big it was one hundred years ago are important to me for some reason.
It’s silly, probably unnecessary, and the vast majority of readers wouldn’t notice or care, but I don’t want even one person to be brought out of the story by thinking “no, it’s not like that”.
Of course, I don’t have to worry most of the time because the majority of my books are set in worlds of my own creation and I can do what I like!
Outside of SLP, you've written the Twin Ambitions books about ballet dancing for Sgt Frosty Publications. How different is your writing style when aimed at young adults rather than a purely adult audience?
The TA books are for audiences of seven and up, so obviously the subject matter and language has to be appropriate, as does the vocabulary. I also have to say things more directly and more succinctly than I might for an adult audience, leaving much less implied. The way I write stays largely the same, though; as far as I’m concerned, and in my experience, you can tell a child a story much the same way you can tell one to an adult.
You're an ex ballet dancer yourself, how much of your own experiences did you give Max and Emily Cooper, the heroes of the Twin Ambitions books? And how much do you see yourself in your characters generally?
Max and Emily begin their dance careers under completely different circumstances than I did, they start at an early age, which is quite typical, whereas I started at 18, which isn’t, so there isn’t much in my own experiences that I can really use. What I do have, though, is inside knowledge of the world and especially of how it feels to be a man doing ballet - I began my classes as the only male in a school of over a hundred pupils. That’s changing now, but there is still a bit of a stigma over a man doing ballet, there are still certain assumptions made and the bullying he suffers can be all too real.
I put a lot of myself into the Displacers books and Andrew is modelled after me (I will insist on playing him in the films when they get made) but generally there isn’t much of myself in my characters. As an actor I regularly put myself in the shoes of people who are completely different to myself and that’s what I do with my characters. I make them as real as I can by acting their parts in my head, speaking and behaving as they would.
And what are your plans for the future in terms of writing?
I have so many ideas bumping around in my head and so little time to write as unfortunately I don’t earn enough from my writing for it to be my full time job.
At the moment I’m in the middle of a new series, probably a trilogy, set in post-apocalyptic Japan. I’m having fun with swords and samurai – martial arts is how I got into dance and it is what I turned back to when I retired as a dancer. At the time of writing I have one book, titled “The Black Book”, published and a second already well advanced.
Once I’m done with that I will probably return to the Misfit Squadron because there is a lot left to tell there. I already know what the next book is going to be, but I would really like to bring out a graphic novel as a prequel, featuring the Battle of France. The only trouble is I have no idea how to find an artist and wouldn’t know how to publish a graphic novel. (If anyone does and fancies collaborating then get in touch!)