John G. Hartness: Five Things I Learned Writing In The Still Of The Knight

Murders are happening outside Charlotte’s hottest nightspots. A new vampire society has set up shop in the sewers. And Jimmy Black’s about to run afoul of the Master of the City. If Jimmy weren’t already a vampire, the week ahead would be the death of him.

Between murder, monsters, pesky vampire ethics, and territorial disputes, Jimmy is about to discover how far he’s willing to go to save the world and one friend’s soul.

There are no easy choices, even for vampire geeks.

The boys are back with all-new monsters to battle, puzzles to unravel, and asses to kick in this fifth volume of the award-winning The Black Knight Chronicles series.

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Have a Road Map

I often tell people that I screwed up when I started this series – I saved the world in the first book. And it’s true – I did. Because I didn’t start writing this as a series. I wrote a standalone novel about a pair of comic book geeks who got turned into vampires and decided to play Batman. Then a few people bought the book, and a few more, and a few more, and I started getting emails asking when the next book would be out. So I wrote one. Then I wrote another one. Then I sold the series, including three books I hadn’t written yet, to a publisher.

And we blew up the first three books and took a year rebuilding them. Along the way I had a long telephone conversation with my editor where we laid out the plan for the six books they had under contract. It was just a rough sketch, really, just an idea of where we were going with the series as a whole. But now, four years later, it’s come back to save my ass more than once. Not because it tells me where to go and when, but because it tells me where not to go, and when not to go there.

Having a road map keeps me from giving away secrets and resolving plot issues too early. If I know I’m working with six books, I don’t want to give away the Big Bad in Book #2, because then there’s no mystery in Books #3-5. It’s okay to reveal the villain in the end of Book #5 (which I do), because then you have Book #6 to build to a final battle.

Torture is Fun!

Not like that, you pervert. Put down the flogger and the Crisco. I’m talking about torturing my characters. I learned from the best – I’ve read a lot of Jim Butcher, and if anybody’s been put through the wringer, it’s Harry Dresden. I’m also a big Kim Harrison fan, and she’s not afraid to break a character or two to make an omelet, either.

I tore apart a lot of the world I’ve been building in this book. Not like in a Galactus come for dessert kind of tore apart the world, but some things we’ve come to take for granted are gone. And that makes things really hard on my protagonist, because his support network is failing. He doesn’t have all the people to lean on that he’s used to having, and that makes life a lot tougher.

It also makes for a stronger character (if he survives). Torturing characters has the added benefit of torturing readers, which is the only thing writers love more than torturing characters! I put Jimmy Black, the lead character in In the Still of the Knight, through a terrible wringer in this book, with the hopes that he comes out stronger in the end. We’ll see, I still have one book left on this contract. J

The Best Comedy Makes You Cry

I’m pretty outspoken in my opinion that M*A*S*H is the best show in the history of television. A lot of that has to do with Alan Alda’s nuanced performance as Hawkeye Pierce, but most of it comes from the fact that you never knew with that show whether you were laughing until you cried, or just crying until you couldn’t cry any more.

The writers of M*A*S*H were geniuses in using comedy to hide the horrors of war, until it was time to make a point. I write comedy. The Black Knight Chronicles is a comedic series. It’s typically very lighthearted and fun, until it comes time to make a point. There are a few points I focus on making in In the Still of the Knight, and I hope that the comedy provides a solid counter to the real things I’m talking about. It’s not easy, walking the line between comedy and drama, and a lot of things we just don’t deal with in a lot of genre fiction. In a way, this turned out to be a coming-of-age story, except my protagonist is in his early forties.

Being a Hero is a Solitary Business

The Black Knight Chronicles have been an ensemble series up until this book. In the Still of the Knight is where I took everything away from Jimmy Black, my main character. I took one of his best friends away, I took his girlfriend away, and I took his business partner/sidekick away. Because at the end of the day, the hero has to stand alone. This book is a stripping-down process, a peeling away of the accessories and helpers that Jimmy has had, until he stands alone against a seemingly insurmountable force. Because it’s only when everything is ripped away that we can see where the strengths of a character really lie. And it’s only through the fire that we can temper the steel. In the Still of the Knight is very much Jimmy’s tempering process, and we’ve all got to wait until Book #6 to find out of he’s been sharpened or shattered in the process.

Sometimes Art Mirrors Life, and that Sucks

I said earlier that I love to torture my characters, and I mentioned just above that I worked at taking a lot away from Jimmy in this book. Unfortunately, one reason this book is coming out in June 2015 instead of June 2014, is because 2014 was the year I got put through the fire myself. I changed jobs twice, spent half the year unemployed, and my mother died. So the year sucked. And I couldn’t get much writing done, because I wasn’t in a good headspace to write, so I wasn’t making any money there, putting me further and further into the spiral of depression. It wasn’t until after my mother’s death in September that I was really able to focus and move forward with this or any other projects. I’m fortunate to have a patient editor and patient fans, but it sucked.

So I learned that I don’t write well when my world is falling apart. I don’t know many people who do. I certainly put words down on the page, but most of them were terrible and I went back later and rewrote almost everything I’d touched. But a strange thing happened through that process – I was able to go deeper into the characters than I have before, able to touch their motivations and backstory more deeply, and I think a better book came out of it. So 2014 sucked, and it delayed the release, but it made it a better book in the end, which goes back to that whole tempering thing.

So I guess the central thing I learned through writing this book was that even if you think you’re in control, sometimes you’re not, and maybe the story you’re writing is really your own.

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John G. Hartness is the author of The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, a comedic urban fantasy series that answers the eternal question “Why aren’t there more fat vampires?” He is also the creator of the comic horror Bubba the Monster Hunter series, and the creator and co-editor of the Big Bad series of horror anthologies from Dark Oak Press and Media. 

In his copious free time John enjoys long walks on the beach, rescuing kittens from trees and recording new episodes of his ridiculous podcast Literate Liquors, where he pairs book reviews and alcoholic drinks in new and ludicrous ways. John is also a contributor to the Magical Words group blog. An avid Magic: the Gathering player, John is strong in his nerd-fu and has sometimes been referred to as “the Kevin Smith of Charlotte, NC.” And not just for his girth. 

John G. Hartness: Website

In The Still Of The Knight: Amazon | B&N

11 comments

  • I have never read that series because I am Vampired-out, even though I have been told it is a good series. After reading this I will have to pick it up. Great insight into characters also. I also have often felt that in the end the hero must stand alone.

  • July 2, 2015 at 3:26 PM // Reply

    Oh dear, your post here sounds very familiar–especially with the ‘I never intended for it to be a series’ and “It is incredibly difficult to write when you don’t have the spiritual and emotional energy to do so.’ You can bet I’m taking notes–and adding your series to the TBR list. 🙂

  • Not a big fan of Vampire books but this one looks intriguing. That guy on the cover has a great sense of style by the way. His T-shirt is awesome!

  • John, thank you for sharing your experience with grief and art. Writing while losing a parent is tricky business and it’s the tightrope I’ve been walking for about 5 years. It’s like life fits you with those giant military binoculars, but doesn’t let you control the settings. Sometimes you see further and clearer into your story than you could have otherwise, and sometimes the settings switch to night vision in the middle of a sunny summer day and you’re incapable to seeing anything at all. You just have to wait for things to come into focus again.
    It’s good to know this is a universal downside of being human and caring for other humans.
    Now get back to work.

    Jk.

  • I just wanted to say Hi and that I think you’re awesome. I’m so sorry about your tragedies but I am glad that you overcame them and you’re still using your gift. That is the best healing process.

  • Awesome post! Will definitely read, I love vampires! The covers look amazing too!

    Sorry to hear about what you have been through. It’s never easy losing someone close to you and sadly I have learned that one tragedy never happens alone. I know how it is when everything seems to go wrong and each time you manage to get up a tiny bit, you get punched down by the next disaster. I am glad you managed to break through that vicious cycle and get back on your feet.

  • I’m so sorry to hear about your mum’s passing, John; I can empathise with the lack of impetus to write at times like that, having gone through a similar thing when my father-in-law died a couple of years ago. Thank you for all of your insights – they’re especially useful to me, having embarked on a story that I originally planned as a trilogy but I might have to end up calling a ‘series’ (in case I can’t tie the whole thing up in a neat(ish) bow in just three books.)

    And your vampire series has definitely sparked my antenna. As long as they don’t sparkle and stalk angsty emo-teens I’m adding them to my Kindle Wish List 😉

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