A Conversation With Dave Duncan

by Claire E. White

Popular fantasy and science fiction author Dave Duncan
Photo of Dave Duncan
was born in Scotland in 1933. After studying geology at the University of St. Andrews (playing not one hole of golf all the time he was there) he came to Canada in 1955. He lived in Calgary for the next thirty years as a successful scientist and businessman. He took up his secret vice -- writing -- in his fifties, and made his first sale two weeks after a cyclical slump in the oil business put him out of work for the first time in his life. He switched careers and never looked back. His first published novel, A Rose Red City, was released in 1987 to rave reviews. Since then he has written several fantasy and science fiction series, including the popular "Seventh Swordsman" series: The Reluctant Swordsman (Del Ray, May, 1988), The Coming of Wisdom (Del Ray, Aug., 1988), and The Destiny of the Sword (Del Ray, Dec. 1988); and the "A Man of his Word" series: Magic Casement (Del Ray, 1990), Faery Lands Forlorn (Del Ray, 1991), Perilous Seas (Del Ray, 1991), and Emperor and Clown (Del Ray, 1992), as well as numerous stand-alones such as The Cursed (Del Ray, 1995), and, under the pen name Sarah B. Franklin, Daughter of Troy (Avon Eos, 1998).

Duncan is known for his complex characters, intriguing magic systems and exciting plots. Kirkus Reviews describes the "characteristic Duncan style--good characters; fine plotting; a lean, supple narrative." Locus notes that he, "is an expert at producing page-turning adventure." His latest novel is The Gilded Chain (Eos, 1998), which is set in a new fantasy world which revolves around Ironhall, a strict training school where young boys go to become one of the privileged King of Chivial's Blades. Bound to absolute loyalty by a magical ritual that includes a sword stroke through their hearts, they stand ready to defend the King or whomever else he designates against all perils, whether human or sorcerous. The greatest fencer Ironhall has produced in its long history is young Durendal, so when King Ambrose needs a Blade to accompany his agent on a dangerous mission to the far ends of the Earth, it is Durendal he designates. The world of the King's Blades will also serve as the setting for a new young adult series he is under contract to write for Camelot/Avon Books.

Over one million of his books have been sold in over a dozen countries. He has been married to his wife for 40 years, and has one son, two daughters, and four grandchildren. He generously credits his wife for much of his success, claiming he'd still be "moldering in slush piles" without her deft hand at editing his work. Dave spoke with us about his career shift from scientist to fantasy/SF novelist, how he created the world of the King's Blades in his latest novel, and gives some excellent advice for aspiring fantasy/SF authors.

You were already a success in another field before you began writing novels. What prompted the switch in careers?

Impulse and a lot of luck. I had taken an evening course in creative writing about ten years earlier and dabbled in short stories, with no success. One day I decided to try again, this time a novel, just for my own amusement. I soon found novel writing to be highly addictive. When I finished one, I tried submitting it, and started another. In the spring of 1986 the oil business made one of its cyclical nosedives, leaving me without work for the first time in my life. Two weeks after I completed my last consulting contract, an editor phoned from New York, wanting to buy a book I had sent her a couple of months before. Magic!—I wasn't unemployed, I was a writer. I sold two books that year and three the next, so I've been fully professional ever since.

Do you ever miss life in the corporate/scientific worlds?

I did at first, but I had been self-employed for ten years, so the working conditions were familiar. A team of Przewalskis wouldn't drag me back to an office job now.

How did you make your first sale of a novel?

Throwing stuff over transoms. The first thing I wrote was a very long, waffly fantasy called The Seventh Sword. I sent the beginning and a summary to Del Rey, which was the dominant publisher in the genre in those days. Veronica Chapman asked to see the whole thing. In the end she did not buy it, but I was encouraged. I sent it elsewhere, kept on writing. I tried a Science Fiction, rewrote Sword as a trilogy, and then a standalone Fantasy, A Rose-Red City. That was my first sale and my sixth completed book-length work in roughly a year and a half since I first typed "Chapter 1..."

What do you love most about being a writer?

The sense of creating something unique and perhaps worthwhile. In my previous incarnation as a geologist, I did have some success at finding oil and gas fields, but all I was doing was getting to them before the competition did. Those reserves would have been discovered sooner or later. We would still have relativity without Einstein, without Gates there would be something much like Microsoft, but only da Vinci could have painted the Mona Lisa. When I complete a book, I have produced something nobody else would have written. Of course there is an added kick when people tell me they enjoyed the result, so I know the trees have not died in vain.

What is your advice to aspiring SF and Fantasy writers hoping to get published?

"There's a sense that the electronic revolution is about to change everything. University textbooks, for example, have now become customized desktop items. In another ten years, authors may create their books in multimedia. I'd enjoy doing my own dragons, I think."
Write a great book. I do believe that a really worthy story will still find a publisher. When I started, a better-than-average story would do, but it keeps getting tougher to break into the market—and stay there! Secondly, work on marketing. Writing the book is the fun part, but even a great book won't sell if it is left lying in a drawer. Thirdly, keep trying. I once estimated it took me 19,000 sheets of paper to get published. Much of that was just picky-picky revision and reprinting hard copy, but you can't hope to get it right first time. Who ever does? Writing is like golf: The rules are simple, but only practice will teach you how to do it.

World building is one of the most difficult aspects for a novice fantasy writer to master. What are some mistakes to avoid when creating a new fantasy world?

I disagree. I think the hard part is creating characters that readers can believe in and identify with. World building is the easy part. It's extremely addictive and much less work than struggling with all those thousands of nasty little words. Creating truly original worlds may be hard, and must be getting harder, but adequate worlds come penny for six. I've had fans tell me that they've built a world and can't seem to get the book written, would I like to accept/buy/use their world? Or write the novel, please? I know writers who choked their stories with a surfeit of "world" and turned them into travelogues. And listening to someone describing his personal fantasy world is worse than hearing about the dream he had last night.

What do you believe are some of the elements of a really great fantasy novel?

Characters first—likable people in trouble, bravely battling odds. Next, a sense of... not just wonder, but of place, too. Of being somewhere marvelous: Barsoom, Pern, Treasure Island, Perelandra, Mirkwood, Ringworld, Amber... Put those two elements together and you've got it.

Your most popular series to date is the Seventh Swordsman series. How did that series come about?

As I already mentioned, that was the first thing I wrote, although before it sold it went through several complete rewrites and grew from one book to a trilogy. I wish I knew what I caught then that I never quite managed to capture again, but I suspect that some of the work's appeal comes from the sense of just-having-fun in which I wrote the original version. Somehow that survived all the rewrites and excused the clumsy mistakes. It also supports my answer to the previous question; Wally is just a nice guy struggling to get by in a Wow! world.

What are your writing habits like? (Do you use the computer, do you write with music in the background, do you have a set schedule, etc.?)

Compulsive. I type on a computer, four-fingered and very badly. I need quiet, although I enjoyed background music when I was doing geology. Most often I write in the morning and evening and goof off in the afternoon, but that schedule isn't invariable. When a book's going well, I do 1000-1500 words a day. Ideally, the day I do a first draft of Chapter 12, I begin by polishing Chapter 10 and rewriting Chapter 11. I will also think about tomorrow's Chapter 13. Of course it rarely goes quite so neatly. If I run into problems, I go back to the beginning and polish everything I have done so far. I do all my editing on hard copy, wasting a terrible lot of paper. Writing is actually two processes: making up a story, then coding it into words. Mental story goes stale quickly, so too much on hand results in insomnia and frenzy; too little causes writer's block. Happiness and prosperity stem from proper balance.

I'd like to talk about your latest book, The Gilded Chain, which starts a new series in the fascinating world of the King's Blades. What was the inspiration for this new series?

Cover of
The Gilded Chain by Dave Duncan
I make stories the way an oyster makes pearls -— some tiny seed gets in there and niggles. To stop it irritating me, I cover it with the mental equivalent of layers of nacre. That may get rid of it completely or turn it into a pretty thing. In the case of Chain, it began with the deathbed repentance of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England. When Henry VIII's men came to take away his chain of office, the dying rogue said, "Had I served my god as well as I have served my king..." and so on. The scene was very well done in the old movie, A Man for All Seasons. You will may recognize the first chapter of my book as an echo of it, except that in my version the old chancellor can't be arrested because he has a deadly young swordsman there, sworn to defend him to the death. Where did he come from? Well, let's see... So it begins.

The training center for the new King's Blades, Ironhall, is a wonderful creation -- part military academy, part prep school, part secret society. Did you draw on any of your own school experiences when you write about Ironhall?

I hope not. I look back on them with horror.

The magical system in the land of Chivial is quite interesting. How did you create it?

Dreaming up new ways of magic has been something of a specialty of mine. In The Cursed, magic was a disease. In The Great Game the magic is based on a vast exaggeration of charisma, which I believe is the nearest thing to magic the real world can offer. Like any form of world-building, the magic must support the story. I think in Gilded it sprang from the bindings, an image of a young man sitting on an anvil while two friends hold his arms and the king thrusts a sword through his heart to bind him to absolute loyalty. That picture suggested a sort of confinement, like a pentagram, and the rest of the trappings just grew up around that.

I hear that you are writing a young adult novel set in the world of The King's Blades. Tell us about that.

"I once estimated it took me 19,000 sheets of paper to get published. Much of that was just picky-picky revision and reprinting hard copy, but you can't hope to get it right first time. Who ever does? Writing is like golf: The rules are simple, but only practice will teach you how to do it."
My editor at Avon Eos, Jennifer Brehl, thought that Ironhall, the swordsman school, would appeal to younger readers, and suggested that Avon Camelot invite me to do a series for them. This genre was a switch for me, but I was so flattered to be offered a blind contract that I said I'd try. The first one, Sir Stalwart, begins with a boy who is (of course) the best fencer in the school but has a puberty deficiency problem, in that he looks too absurdly young to wear the uniform of the Royal Guard. So he becomes a plainclothes swordsman investigating evil sorcerers. I enjoyed writing it, and Avon likes it. The series will be called "The King's Daggers" and I'm halfway through the second book now.

Do you prefer writing for the younger audience?

Prefer, no. Enjoy, yes.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

The witness invokes the fifth amendment.

Do you have a favorite of the series you have written?

The current one, The King's Blades, because it is different. The three books are not mere episodes in a serial, as in most trilogies. They are standalone novels, which together create a bigger story. For example, the forthcoming Lord of the Fire Lands covers much the same time interval as The Gilded Chain, but tells of other events from other points of view. It is neither a sequel nor a prequel, so I call it a paraquel. It rollicks and buckles swash, but it also milks several sacred cows on the way, and the hero is the most complex character I have managed to create. (He's a real nice guy if you don't get in his way.) The third book is called Sky of Swords and turns the first two upside down.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced as a novelist?

Being original but not weird. I refuse to repeat myself, although this is probably the safest way to success in writing. We can all think of writers who turn out the same book ad infinitum. I cannot write to a formula -— Gilded Chain is a long way from a standard sword-and-sorcery, although that was roughly what I had in mind when I began. The challenge is to ring enough changes to keep me interested in the writing without throwing faithful readers off on the curves. Some of my experiments did not work, I know. On the other hand, some critics have complained that Gilded Chain is too conventional.

How much do you use the Internet? Do you find it a useful tool as an author?

I'm not a fanatic about it. After a working day in front of the screen, I need a change of scene. But e-mail is close to indispensable, web pages are essential, and so on. I'm currently experimenting with working away from home, and I hope the Web will help make up for the absence of my library.

How has the publishing industry changed since you published your first book?

Cover of
The Cursed by Dave Duncan
I'm no expert on numbers, so this is subjective. Back in the late eighties, the fantasy genre was still expanding. Now it feels as if it's contracting. Media spinoffs and cookie cutter series have stolen a huge chunk of the market. I suspect that just as many new writers are coming on the scene, and old ones are being steadily fed to the sharks. There's a sense that the electronic revolution is about to change everything. University textbooks, for example, have now become customized desktop items. In another ten years, authors may create their books in multimedia. I'd enjoy doing my own dragons, I think.

When you're not writing, what are your favorite ways to relax?

Nothing dramatic. I read a lot, mostly nonfiction -— anthropology, ancient history, astronomy, and so on. One day I'll get to the Bs. I listen to classical music, go for walks. If I did white-water rafting and skydiving, I wouldn't need to write swashbuckling books, would I? Just now my wife and I are setting up a winter home in British Columbia, to escape the prairie cold, and this is an entirely new experience for us.

What are some of your pet peeves in life?

Your call is important to us. Control freaks -— political, religious, and others. Doctors who keep their waiting rooms full. Television. One of the nicest things about my life at the moment is that peeves can usually be avoided and not domesticated.

What else are you working on now?

I'm halfway through Book 2 of Daggers. Book 3 of Blades is written and marinating in a drawer. I'll go back and reread it in a month or two. They're both due to be handed in this summer, and I expect they'll come out together in the fall of 2000. After these series . . . I don't know. I try to keep new ideas suppressed until I'm ready for them. All the same, when Alaric and his Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD, some rich Romans fled to Africa, to estates their families had owned for generations and never visited. That niggles...

More from Writers Write

  • Clarkesworld Magazine Temporarily Closes Submissions After Surge in ChatGPT Generated Stories

  • Prince Harry Easily Tops Bestseller Lists With Spare

  • Stephen King Compares Elon Musk to Tom Sawyer

  • U.S. Postal Service Honors Shel Silverstein With Forever Stamp

  • Twitter Reveals Edit Button Under Development