Charles Coleman Finlay is an author you are familiar with if you’ve read more than a couple of issues of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. His recent story, “The Political Prisoner” was a Nebula Award nominee and is currently a Hugo Nominee and a Sturgeon nominee. And of course, it’ll be in the next volume of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best.
I’ve known Charlie since I started writing through his involvement with the Online Writers Workshop. Charlie was the first professional author I really got to know, and he was immensely helpful in helping me learn the ropes. It’s been really educational to watch his career progress, as he’s always been willing to share the ins and outs of his experiences in publishing.
Let’s talk about the first book, and then head into the interview.
The first book of his Traitor to the Crown series, The Patriot Witch introduces us to the world of 1770s America on the verge of a war with the Empire. Our protagonist, Proctor Brown, would appear to be your average farmer of the period. He has his wife picked out, plans to expand his farm. He’s a minuteman, but hopes that the scuffle that’s brewing doesn’t turn into a war, but if it does, he’ll clearly side with the patriots. But there’s just one other thing– Proctor Brown is a witch. He’s inherited his ability from his mother, who is originally from Salem, and has kept her talent secret.
When Proctor witnesses the use of magic by a British soldier, he begins to realize that he may have to use his talent and fight magic with magic. And he’s off on a wild adventure that takes him through some of the early battles of the war.
Finlay’s writing is tight, lean prose, and he especially writes action well. I found myself holding my breath a bit during some of the tense battle scenes. One thing that really stood out is that war kills people much more indescriminately than I expected. The protagonist will be having a conversation with someone and then five pages later, their leg will be blown off by a musket. It really drove home the nature of war in this time period for me.
His take on magic is really interesting, and definitely draws from the lore of the time period regarding witches. Proctor is only just learning what magic is capable of, but by the end of the first book, he’s considerably more skilled than before.
Can you share with me a little bit about the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts of your writing process? How did you make time to write the book, with your full family life and a full time job? How long did it take you to write the book from first conceiving the idea to finishing the book and submitting it for publication?
There are four of us at home, including two writers and two teenage boys, all piled up on top of one another. Our house isn’t big enough for us to have a room where Rae (my wife and sometimes co-author, Rae Carson Finlay) or I can get away for enough peace and quiet to write. So when I’m working on something, I either do it late at night after everyone else goes to bed, or I leave the house and find someplace else to work. You’ll see Luck Bros Coffee in Grandview Heights, Ohio, mentioned in the acknowledgements of my books. That’s because I set up office for months in one of their front booths, and they kept me quietly and efficiently supplied with fresh coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches while I wrote.
How did you make time to write the book, with your full family life and a full time job?
The only way to make enough time to write was to take it away from other things. I gave up weekends. I spent my weeks of vacation hunkered over the keyboard. I neglected washing dishes or vacuuming the house. I have three years’ worth of papers spilling out of boxes in need of sorting and filing. But I don’t miss work, and I don’t skip my kids’ soccer games or school plays unless I’m out of town at a convention.
How long did it take you to write the book from first conceiving the idea to finishing the book and submitting it for publication?
Back in 2006, my agent called me and asked if I had any ideas for historical fantasy series. He thought that would take advantage of my background as a historian and play to my strengths as a writer. I didn’t have any ideas at the moment, but I said if he gave me a weekend I’d see what I could come up with.
That was on a Thursday afternoon. By Monday morning, I had a detailed outline for the Traitor to the Crown series. Once I had the idea for a secret history about witches fighting the Revolution, everything sort of clicked into place. Over the next couple weeks, I wrote seventy pages of sample chapters. Then my agent took the series to Del Rey to see if they were interested. The negotiation process took about a year. I rewrote and added to the sample chapters (selling a short story version of it to Fantasy & Science Fiction), did research on the period and on witchcraft, and refined the outlines.
At the beginning of June, 2007, we had a deal. That’s when the writing took off like a rocket. I was supposed to write the three books over nine months. It was closer to eighteen. The second book was the hardest one to pull together. The third book deviated the farthest from the original outline, but all the pieces fell into place. I turned in the final book in January, 2009. So from first concept to all three books finished and published took three years. The actual writing was more like eighteen months.
I know that you’re the founder of the novelist workshop Blue Heaven, with past attendees including Tobias Buckell, Greg van Eekhout and Sarah Prineas, and you thank several of your fellow workshoppers in the acknowledgements. Can you give some specific examples about how the workshop experience improved The Patriot Witch and the subsequent books?
In 2007, I took 114 pages of The Patriot Witch and my outline to Blue Heaven, and I hashed out the strengths and problems of the novel in detail with Greg van Eekhout and Holly McDowell. In 2008, I only had about 250 pages of A Spell for the Revolution done, but Paul Melko and Daryl Gregory put it through the paces and made sure I got on track for the right ending. In both cases, being able to workshop the partial novel and talk about the direction it appeared to be going and the better directions that it could go was essential to my process. I didn’t have time to workshop the third book, but by that time everything felt like it was clicking. And I had Rae to help me as I wrote.
How did you conceive of writing the story of Proctor Brown as a three book series? Was it a decision made by the publisher? Also, can you tell me a little bit about why the books are being released so closely to one another, seperated by only a month?
The Revolution lends itself naturally to a three-part narrative division. The first stage of the war took place in New England, in and around Boston. The second stage of the war involved the overwhelming British victories and Washington’s ultimate recovery in and around New York and New Jersey. The third stage of the war involved the guerrilla conflict in the southern states and diplomacy overseas. There were many volunteers who followed the war from one stage to the next, so it was easy to imagine Proctor as one of those men.
On the publishing side, Del Rey was interested in three books. The number one reason readers buy a book is because they’ve read something else they like by that author. Bringing the books out in quick succession creates a shelf presence and a chance for readers who like the first book to immediately move on to the second. Del Rey had done something similar with the Naomi Novik books and wanted to try it again.
It sounds like, also from your acknoweldgements, that much of the research for the book came easily due to your job as a research assistant. One thing that always strikes me as terrifying about writing stories with a historical basis is getting some of the details wrong. Was your approach here to basically steep yourself so utterly in the time period via primary literature? Did you find any aspects difficult to get “right”?
You’ll always get something wrong. Four different people copy-edited or proofed the book and a couple errors still slipped through. It’s even worse when you’re doing the history because you don’t have someone there to check you on every single detail. Sherwood Smith, in her otherwise favorable review of the book, points out a mistake about young ladies’ headwear in the very first pages.
That said, what I did was spend as much time in primary sources as I could, and not just written sources, but images of the clothing, weapons, and architecture of the period. Whenever I assumed I knew something, I double-checked it, because you make the most mistakes on the things you think you know. I tried to make sure the details enhanced the story, making it vivid and immediate, so I was also ruthless about cutting out information that didn’t drive the narrative forward. In the end, the history must serve the story, not the other way around.
The Traitor to the Crown series marks your first series. Your first novel, The Prodigal Troll, was published by Pyr. What were the professional lessons you learned from your first book that you took and applied in the writing and marketing to publishers of your latest series?
The only lessons that I applied are in the writing of the books. The Prodigal Troll was structured more episodically, with different POV characters that made each section feel like it had come to a full conclusion. That was a natural outgrowth of the lessons I had learned by writing short stories. In the new series, I kept the POV simpler and the narrative whole so that these would be fast-paced books.
I don’t know that I have any useful lessons about marketing to publishers. Lou Anders was just getting Pyr started and he came to me as an up-and-coming author for his debut season. He did everything he could to get The Prodigal Troll in front of readers, and I’m very grateful for the chance I had to work with him. With the new series, it’s a situation where my agent and I were talking with Chris Schluep at Del Rey from the start. Del Rey publishes Naomi Novik, Harry Turtledove, Greg Keyes–it just seemed like a good fit. Luckily, they agreed!
Thanks again to Mr. Finlay for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope that you all check out his books. I can’t recommend the first one enough, and the second title is sitting in front of me as I type this, taunting me.