The most surreal thing in the history of things has happened today. My debut novel, A Study of Ash & Smoke, is officially available for purchase.
I’m absolutely overwhelmed to finally be here, five years after I sat down to write the first draft.
Since I’m feeling nostalgic, let’s talk about how the plot for Ash & Smoke came to be.
The first books I’d ever penned involved enormous monsters called anarchists, even bigger ones simply knows as the Five, and the high king – the most monstrous of all. They were all vicious and bloodthirsty cyborgs.
I’d been writing about these huge beings and the monolithic struggle to defeat them for a really long time when up hopped a plot bunny. Then another, then another.
A Video, a Game, and an Article
I was either pretty near the end of the trilogy, or had just finished writing – I’m not sure – when I watched a SciShow video about the world’s deadliest viruses. After the massive high king and co. in the last series, the idea that something tiny could be an antagonist excited me.
Dragon Age: Inquisition came out around the same time. I’m still one of the biggest Dragon Age fangirls in the world, and I adore these games. In fact, I tied my deadline for finishing the trilogy to the launch date of DA:I.
What I loved most was finally being able to play the Grand Game – the political maneuvers of powerful people. This idea of warfare using only honeyed words and sharpened tongues speaks to me.
I used to frequent sites like Bored Panda often in the time after I’d finished writing that first trilogy, which is where I came across an article about how historical beauty standards had changed. Before, blondes had been coveted, but during the early Victorian era, the brunette rose as the pinnacle of beauty. With the arrival of bleach, blondes made a comeback, but then brunettes rose again in the Edwardian era. I’ve been looking for this article for years, but haven’t been able to find it again. If you do, please drop me a line.
Anyway, these three concepts are totally unrelated at a glance, but the more I thought about it, the more they fit.
A Story Seed in Bloom
It began with questions.
What if some sort of plague was the Big Bad of this story? What if the place where this plague broke out was closed off from the rest of the world? And what if the cure was physically out of their reach?
Then what if, instead of open warfare, people went to battle in palace courts, with words and subtle actions? What if there were entire organisations dedicated to this kind of warfare? If information is key, there would probably be loads of spying and blackmail.
And what if having dark hair was considered especially beautiful? Maybe the world could even be the opposite of ours, and blond hair could be genetically dominant in certain regions, while being brunette is rare. If that was the case, maybe having dark hair would be the trait of specific bloodlines, something that marked a person as special.
It was important that there’d be a threat in the rest of the world too, not just a plague in the closed off kingdom. I reckon this is where my love of Star Wars kicked in, because the next logical step was resistance to unwelcome power. And of course this unwelcome power would be an emperor.
With that decided, it was easy enough to come to the conclusion that the thing cutting off the kingdom from the rest of the world wouldn’t be some kind of wall, but rather a force field. I could easily justify that with my steam technology.
In the early stages, my husband and I were trying to think up a name for the forcefield, and joked it was a mantle. I liked the name, and it became the Mantle.
I’ve always been thoroughly obsessed with the UK and Europe, amplified by the time we lived in Germany. Lucky that one of my favourite tropes happens to be worlds set in the UK and Europe, don’t you think? I reckon steampunk goes especially well with Brittish settings.
Still, I wanted a diverse world, not just European. We met people from all over the globe while we lived in Germany and Toronto, so I wanted people from all over in the book.
I was especially taken with our friends from Iran, and Farsi fascinates me to no end. So there definitely would be a Middle Eastern element to this story.
If there was a plague in the story, I’d need someone who could treat it, right? Enter the physicians. I figured another layer of urgency would be added if the protagonist wasn’t yet a fully-fledged physician, but an apprentice instead. If she (of course it would be a she) was still learning about her trade, she wouldn’t have the skill to cure the plague.
Making it difficult for her became a theme. Writers, am I right?
It wasn’t such a leap to bring oppression of women into the plot, nor was it to slap on some angsty history for this protagonist. She’d have dark hair, something that would make her stand out, so obviously she’d have to hide. Her life would depend on it. Again, I wanted to up her stakes, so not only her life depended on her hiding.
So Cara was born.
Another viewpoint character would be her mentor, the physician to her apprentice. Nathan would be a famous surgeon, and maybe not too keen on his apprentice. Of all the characters, I think Nathan has evolved the most in the various drafts of this novel. From the typical stiff upper lip trope to a flawed human, he’s come a long way.
This plot needed a viewpoint character in court. And, just for the sake of extra drama, wouldn’t it be cool if this person was somehow tied to Cara? And maybe also dependent on Cara remaining hidden?
I named her Seraphine, and she’d be Cara’s opposite. If Cara was brunette, Seraphine would be blond. If Cara’s life was dedicated to service, Sera would be served. If Cara had to hide, Sera would be front and center, impossible to ignore. In court, that meant a queen.
In later drafts, two more viewpoint characters were added.
Lance, a slummer, who was there when the first plague victim was discovered. He’d be lowborn and kind of roguish, our window to the destruction of this illness.
When the kingdom under the Mantle became too small a playground for this author, I figured I needed someone on the outside. Varda would be a pseudo-Viking princess who would show us what was up with the resistance and the emperor, and also kick some arse while she was at it.
And like that, I had a story.
I’m not much of a planner. Most of the threads had to be torn apart multiple times, rewritten to form a cohesive tapestry. Still, I find it really fascinating that all of this started because of a video, a game, and an article. Inspiration comes from the strangest of places.
If you’re interested in getting your hands on a copy of Ash & Smoke, I have a handy little link listing all the stores where you might find the book. I’d also be super grateful if you left an honest review afterwards. Reviews do wonders when it comes to connecting like-minded readers with new authors.