Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Dragon Lord Chronicles Author Q&A with Miles O'Neal

Photo Credit: Esther Dale
 Welcome back to Drink Read Love. I'm delighted that you're here to join me as Dragon Lord Week continues with an Author Q&A with Miles O'Neal, the author of the Dragon Lord Chronicles, his amazing YA historical fiction with dragons series.

When I originally put together this Q&A, Year of the Dragon Lord and Nemeses Unexpected were the only two books of the series that had been published. Into Otherness was still in the works, but I had had the honor of reading a draft of it to give feedback. Of course, that meant I had to think extra hard about my questions to try to make sure I wasn't giving away anything from Otherness, but it was a small price to pay to get to read that draft. :P Of course, then I ended up not getting the reviews or Q&A published because life went absolutely haywire, so now I'm able to be less restrained, because the first 3 volumes of the series *have* been published, and I have *not* read anything from Volume IV, so I have no secrets to give away. *laughs*
Hi, Miles! Welcome to Drink Read Love. I'm SO excited that you've joined me for a chat about your books. I'm a huge fan, and I appreciate you sitting down to talk.

To start, can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was always a bit of a nerd. I frequently got in trouble for being bored at school; for instance, I knew all four basic math operations before first grade, and had already written letters to relatives. While the teacher was making sure that everyone in the class knew their left from right so they could color two large circles appropriately, my deskmate and I colored our circles, wrote our names and the date on our papers, and started designing rockets and flying saucers. We had to write 100 lines that night: “I will not talk in class.” That was a portent of things to come. In 10th grade I accidentally shorted out a power outlet and nearly gave my English teacher a heart attack.
I grew up on the edge of the desert. I’m at home in wide open spaces by myself or in anything other than a large crowd. I’ve been a hippie and a member of the establishment. Now I’m just me. I know who I am, and I love who I am. I love God. I love people.
I play guitar, bass, and percussion. My visual art talents are restricted pretty much to simple comics. I love motorcycles. I survived a tornado. I grew up expecting to live on Mars; I still hope to at least walk on the Moon. I almost died of diabetes, but I’m fully healed. Sharon and I have been happily married for 40 years. We have two wonderful bio-kids, and a lot more we consider our kids but (mostly) never had to change diapers for. I’ve sold flowers, written software, flipped burgers, sold stereos and PAs, handled mail, mechanic’d, and worked in a factory for a living. In college a friend and I were convinced to sign a contract to sell encyclopedias and dictionaries door to door but we tore up the contract during the three day grace period. I’ve been a youth pastor. I’ve performed weddings in formal cowboy attire and in tie-dye. And I’ve written a lot.

How did you get started writing? Did you always want to be an author?
No, but I have loved storytelling as far back as I can remember. I have loved writing almost as long as I have loved reading. I had my own library card at age 5. I got more involved in writing after reading Harriet the Spy in the 5th grade, and even more in the 6th or 7th grade when Claude Thompson and I failed to write a book together. I think the belief that I actually could write came about in 12th grade under my creative writing teacher, Marian Unger. My first published work was a technical article for a brand new, niche computer magazine. That’s when I realized I could actually get paid to write. I co-authored the first book on Java’s AWT (for user interfaces) It was a really good book, but out of date within a year.

You’ve said that this series started with a dream. Can you tell us how it went from a dream to a series of books?
I woke up and recalled only the beginning and ending of a dream. I set out to weave those into a short story, which was 99% or more of what I had written to date (the remainder being poetry). After a few false starts I wrote 1,200 words and had just the opening scene. The next night I wrote 1,400 more without getting to the end of the beginning sequence. And decided it would be a long short story. Two nights later I thought I had a novella. Two nights later I realized I was writing a novel, and a night or two later admitted it would be a series because there was far too much to fit into one book.

Were all the characters and events in the dream?
Gerald (the protagonist) and his extended family were in the dream, along with Cuthbert (the dragon lore master) and Argyll (the primary dragon antagonist), and several of Gerald’s family members. The prologue and part of chapter one, a few tiny bits of the rest, and about half of what will be the final three chapters of the last book were in the dream. Everything else just emerged as I wrote, or occasionally in discussions with friends and family.

Are any of the characters based on people you know?
Yes. Kenna, for instance, is based on a very insightful, witty red-haired friend who used to make really cool jewelry. K’Pene is based on a black friend who had just moved cross-country on a quest to help people. Murdoch is based on a quiet, strong leader I know. There are elements of my siblings and I in Gerald and Sally (although we didn’t lose our parents to dragons). Norbert is a composite of bullies I knew in my childhood and Dudley Dursey. We won’t talk about where Freda came from. To the best of my knowledge, Aurelia isn’t based on anyone I’ve known. Just now I realized that King Donald is partially based on a boss from early in my software career! In some cases the characters are not, but traits or dialogue are. Also, some of the banter is a direct descendant of banter from real life, especially with certain college buddies (Nick, Lowell, Robin, Rich, Conrad, Esther, et al).

What kind of research have you done in the process of writing the Dragon Lord Chronicles?
In addition to drawing on some travel experience, I’ve read up on everything from building materials to clothing to weaponry to languages to food to people groups to weather to flora and fauna to general history. I have erred on the side of reality in a fantasy series with an altered timeline- but I tend to think of this as historical fiction without the dragons being excised. I’ve also removed some words or phrases from dialogue because research indicated they were not known to be in use until much later.

I know you traveled to Scotland and Albania after writing Year of the Dragon Lord. Do you feel like that impacted Nemeses Unexpected and/or is impacting the rest of the books in the series?
Definitely! For example, even though Edinburgh castle ended up different in Nemeses Unexpected, the feel and general layout grew out of actually walking and looking at it. The lay of the land and route planning can be done with Google maps (which has amazing feature most people don’t even realize), but seeing the hills from ground level, walking through the pines, touching the flowers- these make it more real to me. That makes it easier to make it real for the reader. This is even more true of the next books.

Did the trips make it easier to write? Did it change anything you had planned?
They helped a lot. Again, they made it real. Imagine my excitement when I picked a location where I needed a huge castle in Albania based solely on geography, searched for nearby castles, found one on the mountaintop I had picked, and it turned out to be castle whose ruins I had spent 2-3 hours exploring with my Albanian friends, complete with a bizarre legend!
I suspect the main thing they changed was around movement- walking, riding, and flight routes and distances. Between the geography and the different scale of things, I rethought quite a bit. I even moved a couple of key locations. I had hoped to have maps in each book, and for the first time was glad I don’t (so far).

Are you planning further research trips for the series? If so, can you tell us where?
I’m hoping to go back this year (and possibly next) to explore a handful of sites: the Western Isles; where Kiergenwald should be; and rural Albania, especially around The Teeth in the Accursed Mountains. Ideally I should sail off the coast of Ireland and come ashore on the coast of Wales for the fourth book.

Did your trip to Germany in the same time frame to visit your family end up getting worked in to anything or inspire any future books?
I had hoped to work that into Gerald’s travels to Albania, but travel by boat and horseback would have grown Into Otherness (volume III) into something the length of one of the final four Harry Potter books, and I’m trying to keep these more the length of the Hunger Games books.

How many books will the series be in total? Do you already have the names of the rest of the books?
I originally planned to have “Dragon Lord” in each title, but could only come up with cheesy names for volume II. I picked the second and third volume names only when I had to have something to put at the end of the book I was already working on. Into Otherness had a code name of Albanian Internet Kittehs until I had to get the Nemeses Unexpected manuscript to the designer for formatting. Volume IV’s actual name is Golden Dawn. It will be the final book in the series.

Is there any chance of spin-of series about some of the other characters, such as Sally, Kenna, Selene, Santana, and/or Cuthbert? Because I would LOVE to read books based around them. :P
Unless I get hit by a meteor or something, there definitely will be. I want to write at least one book each from the perspective of Sally (and possibly Scythia) and Kenna. I plan to do something with Cuthbert and dragon lore, and a book about one or more dragons. There are also stories (already started) set in modern times along this timeline, involving at least two characters from the main series (dragons tend to be long lived). These are the books I know I want to write; there could be more. That makes at least nine books around this history, and quite possibly a dozen.

Do you have any other books floating around in your head that you plan/hope to write soon?
Define “soon”; I have to get the dragon books finished first! There’s a Star Wars book with a character unlike any I have seen (from another dream). There are other science fiction books, too. Possibly a sequel or related book to The Book of Tiffany (middle grade wild west short stories) with children who are native American, Mexican, and other ethnicities. I’d love to collaborate with authors from those groups. Last, but not least, I want to turn stories I told or wrote for you and Josiah, and for your children, into picture books. I have a book on intimacy in the works. Those are the top of the heap.

When I first read Year of the Dragon Lord, I noticed the name Cair Parn. Is the similarity to Cair Paravel (from the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis) coincidental?
It was not intentional, but I doubt it was coincidental. My subconscious was undoubtedly messing with me. I dearly love Lewis’ books!

Do you have a favorite part of Year of the Dragon Lord and/or Nemeses Unexpected?
Answer #1: whichever part I am writing at the moment.
Answer #2:
YotDL… When Kenna and Gerald are waiting at Cair Nonesuch on Skye; I love both the banter and the tenderness of their developing brother/sister relationship. When Gerald wakes to Santana in his face. Freda and Norbert. The quests.
NU: The way Gerald handles himself as envoy. Inquisitions and standing stones; I knew before volume I was finished that those would show up somewhere. The lady of the loch. The Voices! Oh, the Voices. Who knew birds would be so witty?
IO: This is perhaps the toughest one to pick a favorite part. Pretty much anything to do with otherness. The edge. The statues. The mystery. If you placed Morticum on my breast and forced me to pick, at the moment it would be Gerald’s time as a tiny dragon.

What has been your favorite part of writing and publishing the Chronicles?
The whole thing has been an adventure, but I think my very favorite part is talking with an excited reader, especially when they tell me something about the book that I didn’t know. 8^)
Tied for second place would be the sheer joy of discovery as I write the stories, and seeing the finished product. Have I mentioned how thankful I am for the brilliant team I work with?

Do you design the covers yourself?
I came up with the concept based on the leather journal Sharon found at the Renn Faire. We discussed it at length and came up with the general idea for propagating the design through the series. But other than the color coordination, all the details come from my brilliant designer Allison Metcalfe. We collaborated on the theme; she sent samples, we picked from those and ran them by some trusted peeps, and ended up with some of the best covers I have seen in fantasy lately- and I would say that even if they adorned someone else’s books. (But I’m really glad they are on mine!)

One of the things I love visually about the books is the sketches at the beginning of each chapter. Are you involved in coming up with those?
Somewhat. I give Alli Ritchie ideas if I have any, although she comes up with a lot of them. She gets me rough sketches to show what she’s thinking. Sharon and I look them over and discuss them with Alli, and she then produces the final images. But I have lots of faith in Alli; we’ve only asked her to change a handful of things.

What is the process to get from first draft to publication?
As soon as I finish a chapter I print a copy for Sharon. This provides some feedback as I go, if only in the form of questions. It also provides motivation because as soon as she reads a chapter she wants the next. 8^)
Once a full draft is done we both read it all the way through just to read it. At this point we mainly make notes on plot issues, technical questions, discrepancies, or egregious errors. I’ll do a pass to take care of those and clean up whatever else I notice . Since my initial writing is unedited stream of conscience, there’s a lot to do in terms of phrasing, word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, etc.
I’ll get copies of this out to my early readers for feedback. Once I have the feedback, I go through all of it, discuss things with the various contributors (including Sharon), and do a rewrite based on that. Sharon then reads it as an editor; she’s picky about grammar, punctuation, and other details. Meanwhile, I will do several readings- one for overall plot, one for dialogue, one for location and culture issues, one for tense, and so on.
Then I’ll edit based on all of my notes and Sharon’s. We’ll read again. We might have some early readers go through all or part of it again. When it feels stable enough, it goes to Sally Hanan (Inksnatcher) for final editing. Once we’ve agreed on the final manuscript, it goes to Allison (the designer) to be properly formatted. When the images are approved, Alli sends those to Allison.
Somewhere in there, we discuss the cover details and Alli gets me a proof copy. I also have to come up with the front and back matter and cover blurbs. Those also go through Sally to Allison.
Allison sends me the final versions of the cover and the interior. I put on my publisher hat and drop them into the process that turns them into actual books.

Are you looking into putting the Chronicles in audiobook and/or e-book format?
Yes! Volume 1 and 2 are available on Amazon now, with Volume 3 due any day/ They should be available on iBooks next, and hopefully Barnes & Noble before too long. I hope to produce audio books at a later date; the demand is definitely there.

What genre(s) would you classify the series as?
Technically it’s YA fantasy, but as with Rowling’s and Collins’ work, adults like them as well. If there were a category called “historical fiction with the dragons left in”, I’d go with that.

Have the books developed how you originally had in mind or do the characters ever take the reins and go off in their own directions?
As much as possible I just let the characters tell me their stories. This means I get lots of surprises!
The parts where I have had something definite in mind  have usually worked, but not always. There have been two deaths I neither foresaw nor liked. The relationship between Gerald and Dree (an older young warrior) turned out much different than expected. Someone I thought was a jerk turned out to be downright evil. The dragon Drachmaeius has surprised- even confounded- me at every turn. He is not at all who I thought he was. What is an African queen doing in the Scottish highlands? In volume III, all bets were off. I had no idea what some of those characters were going to do. That volume brought in plot twists and characters I never imagined early on. Inspirations for characters and events range from Joe (“Joey?” “No. Joe.”) in the Princess Diaries to real life friends in Albania (a famous magician and someone who ought to be a queen) to Dr. Strange- though you might not recognize any of them. Otherness is a bizarre place where anything can happen and some of the least likely things do; it’s pretty much where I live inside my head.

Can you tell us anything about the rest of the series?
Volume IV sees resolution of some key plot points, but will leave some mysteries unsolved (for now). Pirates and actual Scottish and Albanian legends have key parts. We’ll look into the mystery of Cair Nonesuch. There’s at least one part in there that will either have you screaming, “What? Why didn’t I see that coming?” or “I knew it! I knew it!” The roller coaster just gets crazier with each book.

Is there a particular drink (alcoholic or otherwise) that you think of as pairing well with the Chronicles?
Either blaeberry wine or a good Scottish ale. Dark Island Reserve and Dark Island (both from Orkney) are highly rated ales. While a good Scotch whiskey might seem in order, it’s a bit much for these books. You can get blaeberry wine from Orkney as well.
For a soft drink, I’d pick cranberry juice.

Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to tell us?
Apparently bits and bobs of my personality show through without conscious effort on my part, such as Gerald’s love of bacon.
There are a number of Easter eggs throughout the books- subtle references to other books, movies, real life, and so on. There will be  a contest around these for each book at some point.

Note: Before we finish up, I'll include the same note I included in my review on Monday. The author of these books is my dad, and I received these books for free as a gift (with no expectation of review, just a plain straightforward gift) from my parents. However, the opinions in this blog post are my own and are not influenced by the author being my dad. I would not ever recommend something unless I genuinely liked it on it's own merits, regardless of my relationship with the creator.