Interview with Sarah L. Stewart and Frances “Fran” Stewart, authors of Vigilant: Through Shadows and Dreams Book One, a Scarred Lands novel.

Janet: Tell me about yourself. Tell me what was happening in your life that motivated you to tell this story.

Sarah: I’ll start, since I started us on this whole “journey.” I’ve worked in the tech industry for over 20 years. In early 2017 I was told my job was going to be eliminated. While I was waiting for my new job to start, I had a bunch of free time. So, I decided to try my hand at writing. I had a story and a character. I knew I wasn’t the best at writing “scenery,” but I’m married to someone who is.

Fran: I think you underestimate yourself! Initially you asked to step in as an editor. But very quickly we each got excited about the other’s ideas, and it turned into a collaboration. I had a novel of my own that I had been working on, but I loved the passion you had for the story, and I wanted this to succeed. And you’re also a fantastic motivator.
Sarah: And then the new job fell through, and my story sort of took over our lives.

 

Janet: Why did you write Vigilant?

Sarah: Back in 2013 Nocturnal Media bought the Scarred Lands D&D setting that I absolutely loved. They had an open call for writers, and I’d thought I’d take a crack at it. So, I wrote a short story retelling the start of one of their modules from the point of view of an NPC (Non-Player Character)  I’d used a lot. But I never submitted it. I felt too self-conscious, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. At the time I was more interested in writing fiction than game content, and they wanted content writers. So, the story sat for several years—until I got laid off.

Fran: Turning it into a novel started with us thinking about that old line, “Everyone is the hero of their own story.” Eochaid is this tiny character who’s just there to kick off a huge adventure for the player characters in the game. And yet, somehow this schmuck farmer came into possession of one of the most dangerous artifacts on the planet. That’s a damn good story right there. And nobody was telling it.

Sarah: At least on Scarn [the world of the Scarred Lands]. <laugh> Initially I wanted to tell how Eochaid became the person he later is in my D&D game, but to do that we really needed to tell his story from the beginning. Vigilant is how he got the artifact and became that unexpected hero. The story I initially intended to tell will hopefully come in later books. So, book one is sort of a book-length prequel.

 

Janet: Why Scarred Lands?

Sarah: Back when D&D version 3 came out, Sword & Sorcery got their Creature Collection out shortly before Wizards of the Coast’s Monster Manual. I picked it up because I really liked the new system, and I wanted monsters to terrorize my players with right away. It was only black and white, not glossy and full color like the Wizards of the Coast books, but I was blown away by the background. This one image of a colossal mithril golem, standing on the edge of the cliff looking over an ocean of blood with a city at its feet—I loved that so much! Ever since, I’ve just gone back to Scarred Lands over and over again in my D&D campaigns.

Fran: Most D&D settings don’t have complicated morality.

Sarah: At least they didn’t back then.

Fran: But in the Scarred Lands, you had paladins who followed Corean, the god of valor and honor, teaming up with hordes of orc followers of Vangal, the god of slaughter.

Sarah: Both gods of war. But very different war.

Fran: Because Titans like Chern or Gaurak threatened pretty much everything that lived on the face of the planet. Even after they were gone, that complexity stayed in place. Your alignment doesn’t necessarily determine your allegiances. You can tell such great stories when you have that degree of moral complexity.

Sarah: As a GM I liked that there was so much material. Prior to Scarred Lands my main experiences with D&D were playing Vault of the Drow tabletop and the Neverwinter Nights video games. I’d gamed for a long time, but I was relatively new to D&D. I was used to these small modules—get the players from A to B—or having to make it all up myself. But with Scarred Lands there were huge maps, and locations, and politics, and tons of NPCs, and it was messy. And very high magic, which I loved. Yet it still had a lot of room for the players to really be the heroes of the planet, rather than just hear about the heroes. Most of Scarn’s heroes died in the big war 150 years ago. There’s room for players to step up and replace them.

You can still run a “rescue the princess from the monsters” game if you want—I did run that, actually, although the princess was a halfling and the “monster” turned out to be her orc boyfriend. But Scarred Lands combines standard D&D “stuff” with world-breaking horrors of a Cthulhu-esque nature that you can scale to as you go. You can run urban, ruin delving, pirates, jungle, desert, ice, and everything in between in one setting.

 

Janet: Tell me more about your main character. How did Eochaid Lenahr come into existence?

Sarah: It was my third Scarred Lands campaign, I think. I had the Serpent Amphora modules, starting with a little free PDF that got the players through the first couple of levels and set up the story. I decided one of the PCs [Player Character], who lived in the little town where the story starts, was the brother of the NPC  who kicks off the story. The module assumes the NPC dies after delivering his message. But my players, being gamers, fought hard to keep him alive, especially the person playing his brother, who got really invested. Later, when the players came back near the little town, they naturally wanted to know what happened to the brother and family. I hadn’t worked that out yet, so I cleverly postponed it by saying “They disappeared mysteriously on the night you left. Nobody knows where they went.”

Fran: Dun dun DUN!

Sarah: Then I had this idea:  do something more dark and horrifying with the “brother.” My players were kind of a goody two-shoes bunch, which is fine and easy to run, but I wanted to remind them what it was like on Scarn. Also, I love characters who *spoiler spoiler spoiler*

Fran: Yes. Yes, you really do love *spoiler*.

Sarah: If you’ve read the book, you kind of get a hint of that in the epilogues. Vigilant is about Eochaid before all that happens. It’s about how hard it is to be a hero in a world like this.

 

Janet: All your characters seem very relatable. They have a lot of personality and emotion. As they move through the adventure, they make choices that seem natural to their personality. How did you make these characters? Are they people you know, an amalgamation of people you know, or did you let them create themselves through telling the story?

Sarah: Well, Eochaid was easy. He talks exactly like me. When it came to writing his dialog I’d always ask, “Would I say that?” and I’d read it out loud to find out. His personality is certainly different—I’m not an introvert, and he very much is. I really had to think about that tiny side of me, and about how introverts I know react to things.

Fran: Some of it also came out of the fact that Eochaid existed as an NPC in a 10-year-long game campaign.

Sarah: Yeah, I’d literally been playing him for years. He was my “GM-PC” when I was running my campaign.

Fran: We spent all that time breathing life into him.

Sarah: A lot of his personality comes from what I needed for the game. I wanted someone I could play who was mostly a background character (thus a quietly introverted rogue), but smart enough to feed my players information at key moments, but not wise enough to make decisions or be a leader. And nicely messed up to create interesting relationships with the players. He even kept the party together at one point when the player characters weren’t getting along.

Fran: I really hope nobody finds Amra relatable, though.

Sarah: <laugh> No. Amra is another featured character from the Serpent Amphora modules. I don’t want to spoil things, but Amra plays a critical role in “The Serpent in the Fold.” She, Skywarder, Kelemis Durn, Trophion, and some of the commanders came from the Scarred Lands source material. But we developed Amra Varith and Skywarder a lot further.

Fran: As for the original characters, it was a combination of life experience, the needs of the story, and a lifetime of gaming and inhaling stories with great characters.

 

Janet: How did you make the combat so realistic? Are either of you fighters? Do you have any training in martial arts or with weapons?

Sarah: I did fence in college for two years. So, I have a Iittle background in fighting. But most of it was really knowledge from playing a lot of D&D games.

Fran: And obsessively obeying the rules of Dungeons and Dragons combat as we wrote.

Sarah: Yeah. I kind of drove Fran nuts with that. We based on all the combats described in the book on the new Scarred Lands Player Guide for Pathfinder.

Fran: Even though it was difficult to get natural-seeming combat out of turn-based combat and initiative order, in the end, those constraints led us to credible, complicated fights and tactics. For a lot of the bigger combats, we’d even set out miniatures on a grid and game out the best solutions.

Sarah: The “cannibal cultists” fight was enormously complicated. It helped that we only had to describe Eochaid’s point of view, but we had that fight all figured out for everyone in it. Round to round, we knew where each character was.

Fran: And yes, if anyone wants proof, we can show you Eochaid’s character sheets at various levels throughout the book.

 

Janet: You said the characters in the book grow out of your own life experiences. Tell me more about that.

Sarah: Well, one character, Holtz, was named after the boss who laid me off at the start of this thing. I wanted Eochaid to face a bully, and I loved the image of this villain with a medieval mullet. But then Holtz grew organically into a much more interesting character.

Fran: We also drew a lot of the characters from people we didn’t see represented commonly in fantasy fiction.

Sarah: We made Skyward explicitly asexual, for example.

Fran: We’re friends with asexual people, and we listened to what that was like. That’s just one example.

Sarah: I drew from some personal experiences of gaslighting and abuse. And trauma. My own experiences with PTSD and panic attacks. Mine weren’t from combat, but I put those physical feelings into the scenes. And then Fran wrote the therapy end of things.

Fran: The idea that “talking” D&D classes are healers in more than one way. And that combat and “adventuring” could really leave you a mess, and probably would.

Sarah: We joke that D&D characters are “murder hobos,” but you can’t go through that without some trauma.

Fran: You don’t fight through a once-prosperous land that’s been literally drowned in the blood of an ancient evil and then skip merrily off to tea. Stuff like that leaves marks.

 

Janet: Tell me about the artist and the choice of cover illustration. Tell me about the modifications made to the cover.

Sarah: <laugh> We came out of the blue for Onyx Path.

Fran: We pretty much literally walked in off the internet and said, “We wrote you a novel!”

Sarah: Thankfully they liked it. But we weren’t on their budget schedule, so our cover is lifted from the cover of the old 3rd Edition “Player’s Guide to Rangers and Rogues” Scarred Lands book. They were generous enough to update the existing art with Eochaid’s darker skin color and some background art.

Fran: It’s not a perfect match, but Michael Phillippi’s art does a solid job of representing the characters, and we’re grateful that they found something so suitable.

 

Janet: How long have you played tabletop games?

Fran: I’ve played tabletop games for far longer than I haven’t, at this point. I got my start in 4th grade.

Sarah: I didn’t start until college, other than 1-2 tiny “almost” games in high school. But tabletop was more of a “boys” thing back in the 80s than it is today. I was stuck in one of those situations that girls got into where you only got to play because a guy invited you, and they stuck you with playing the cleric. In First Edition. Where clerics sucked.

Fran: You also grew up in a really small town.

Sarah: So my first real opportunity was in college, at a women’s college no less. By my second year of college I was running GURPs. I was also in several games with Fran and her friends, which is basically how we met.

Fran: …and you turned into a monster power gamer.

Sarah: Still am, if the wizard+fighter+rogue combination thing I rolled up and played yesterday is any indication.

Fran: Yeah. You’ve never met an evocation spell you didn’t like.

Sarah: Well, there’s Melf’s Acid…no, wait—that’s conjuration. You’re right. <laugh>

Fran: Ha! Nerd!

Sarah: Oh, like you can talk. I remember you showing me the table you worked out of optimal Battletech mech configurations.

<both laugh>

 

Janet: What are your other favorite games?

Sarah: We’ve been playing D&D for so long I’ve forgotten there are other games. <laugh> As I mentioned, I started with GURPs and still love that system.

Fran: Cyberpunk is my go-to if I could get people to play. I think people just got tired of me shooting them in the head.

Sarah: No. Things just got busy.

Fran: Chaosium’s “Call of Cthulhu” system. The original West End Games Star Wars system.

Sarah: We use a heavily modified version of that for our annual Ravenloft tournaments, run by a close friend of ours.

Fran: We play a lot of homebrew. And I own a billion other systems that I’ve never even had time to run.

Sarah: And I also play various board games (including a lot of RPG-esque map building games), video games…

Fran: Honestly, if we talked about all of the games we play this would go on for pages.

 

Janet: Tell me about your writing process. You mentioned that the two of you paired and passed the keyboard back and forth. How did that work?

Sarah: Initially, I wrote and Fran edited.

Fran: And then I started making suggestions, and you started saying “Ooo! Yeah!”

Sarah: And I really liked your scenery descriptions, so I wanted you to write those. The first chapter of Vigilant you wrote on your own was Chapter 11, which started as all scenery—I still love “the flood.” Although a lot of people’s favorite sections are mine, which I find endlessly amusing.

Fran: You’re a faster writer than I am, by a good bit. So a lot of the time you would come up with an idea and run out ahead. And then we’d sit down—

Sarah: And plug the laptop into the TV and start working out the details.

Fran: Shaking out the exact right words. Acting out scenes in the living room, like two weirdos.

Sarah: And even bringing out the maps and miniatures sometimes.

Fran: In the end that’s how we wrote most of the second half of the book.

Sarah: Everything I wrote you edited. And everything you wrote I pulled apart. It was really chapter 11 that made us figure it out.

Fran: Made us work out a good process. We’ve met other writers who’ve said, “…and you’re still married?

Sarah: It helped that I always made sure to listen to your ideas…

Fran: …and that I conceded ownership of the story to you. I could argue as long as I wanted—

Sarah: And you did.

Fran: …but in the end, you owned the characters and story and you got the last vote.

Sarah: But it was still very, very much a collaboration. I love that we both got surprised by the solutions we worked out together.

Fran: And it was a wonderful experience and a great process. The results speak for themselves.

Sarah: Another great benefit is that we never got writer’s block. A few times we rewrote big pieces because it wasn’t going in the direction we wanted—like throwing out 5,000 words at one point—

Fran: Yeah, that hurt. I wish we could find a good use for that.

Sarah: But we never got stuck. We’d hash out ideas, write them out, and then figure out where to go from there.

 

Janet: What would you tell other would-be authors about how to make their dream into reality?

Sarah: Um…I have no idea.

Fran: Don’t give up.

Sarah: I could not have written book one if I had been working my day job. The struggle of book two proves that.

Fran: There’s no one right way to come at it. Finding an audience is always a challenge. The most important step is to keep writing. Even if it’s a frickin’ word a day. And write whatever you want. Any writing you do that gets read and commented on by other people builds your skills.

Sarah: It was reading fan fiction that showed me I could do this. There are some fabulous, publish-worthy fan fiction writers out there. But there are others that are, frankly, not as good. But even the “not as good” ones can get thousands of readers. So I thought, “if this fanfiction writer can do it, and do it with such success, I can give it a shot.” They inspired me. Eochaid’s love of trashy Shelzari romance novels is a nod to that. You can certainly start with fan fiction. It’s the writing part that’s important.

Fran: Write what excites you. My best writing comes when I’m excited about the subject.

Sarah: We also had a few mantras that we used a lot. “ABC: Always Be Writing!”

Fran: Shout out to Dave Noonan for that one.

Sarah: “If it’s boring to write, it’s boring to read,” which told me when to summarize sections—don’t get stuck in the minutiae. It’s okay sometimes to “tell” to get to the next cool “show” bit more quickly.

Fran: Yep. You learn these rules so you know when to break them.

Sarah: And I’d never used the phrase “Eochaid was” sad, angry, happy, etc. It was always describing how he felt in every sense.

Fran: How he felt in his body.

Sarah: We’re literally using some of these techniques as we answer these interview questions. <laugh>

Fran: For my part, the best piece of writing advice I can give you is when you read writing advice, pick it up, turn it over in your head, do some experiments with it, and if it doesn’t work for you, shove it out the airlock and never think about it again.

Sarah: That was a really long sentence.

Fran: Yup. I spent ages stuck on the idea that I was a bad writer because I didn’t write messy, sloppy, fast first drafts. But that’s how I write. I sit and stare, and work out the perfect words, and have a clean first draft, because that’s my style.

Sarah: Which meshes well with my messy first drafts that are full of “<Fran: fix this>” interjections.

Fran: Yep. Oh, and what else do we never do?

Sarah: Blindly trust MS Word’s grammar suggestions?

Fran: Yeeessss.

 

Janet: What are your plans for the next book?

Sarah: We’re well into book two, but it’s going a lot slower than I’d like.

Fran: We don’t have the time to devote to it that we did with book one.

Sarah: I took a year off work to write book one (if initially unintentionally), but I had to go back to work. And then I got breast cancer, which stole any energy I had for book two for six months (I’m better now, thank you). But the sequel is in the works, and we have plans for several books beyond that. There’s a lot of Eochaid’s, and his friends’, story to tell.

Fran: And we promise, he does still have some friends.

Sarah: Book two starts with Eochaid in the hands of the enemy.

Fran: The life he gave for the vigil and for his ideals is effectively over. So now, what kind of a life can he have? We’re moving to a much seamier setting—Femulyae, the capital of the fading empire of New Venir.

Sarah: Unlike book one, which was all outdoors and romping around in the wilderness, book two is in an urban setting. Still high fantasy, but now in the crush and dirt of the city.

Fran: Eochaid has to figure out how to navigate this new wilderness that he’s lost in. We could say more, but, by Goran’s half-beard, the spoilers!

 

Janet: Are you planning to attend any cons this year?

Sarah: We’ll be doing a reading at NorWesCon (in Seatac, WA, April 18-21) if you want to say hi. We’ll be at PaizoCon (in Bellevue, WA, May 24-27) running D&D. We’re also looking into tabling and maybe running some games at Dragonflight (in Bellevue, WA Aug 16-18th) and GeekGirlCon (Seattle, WA Nov 16-17th), but those plans haven’t been settled yet. And we’ll definitely be at OrcaCon (Bellevue, WA January 10-12th 2020).

Fran: We’ll keep a schedule of our upcoming attendances and appearances on our web site.

 

Janet: Anything else you’d like to add?

Sarah: If you have any more questions or comments for us regarding Vigilant, Through Shadows and Dreams, Scarred Lands, or anything else we’re working on, feel free to reach out to us through our web site.

Fran: I should remind our readers, as a standing offer if you read our book and give a review of it anywhere you can track me down (I’m on twitter as @RonelynValor) and I will write a haiku for you on any subject you ask.

Sarah: And she means it. Anything.

Web Site: http://www.morelikethisindustries.com/.

One Reply to “Interview with Sarah L. Stewart and Frances “Fran” Stewart, authors of Vigilant: Through Shadows and Dreams Book One, a Scarred Lands novel.”

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