David Keck: Five Things I Learned Writing A King in Cobwebs

“A gritty, medieval fantasy full of enchantment” (Publishers Weekly), David Keck’s epic Tales of Durand trilogy concludes with A King in Cobwebs

Once a landless second son, Durand has sold his sword to both vicious and noble men and been party to appalling acts of murder as well as self-sacrificing heroism. Now the champion of the Duke of Gireth, Durand’s past has caught up with him.

The land is at the mercy of a paranoid king who has become unfit to rule. As rebellion sparks in a conquered duchy, the final bond holding back the Banished break, unleashing their nightmarish evil on the innocents of the kingdom.

In his final battle against the Banished, Durand comes face to face with the whispering darkness responsible for it all―the king in cobwebs.

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Of Daughters & Day Jobs

I learned a little about writing and time while I worked but on The Tales of Durand. The final book, A King in Cobwebs, was a wee bit late — it really ought to have been published in the 1850s. And, for this inordinate delay, I would like to blame my family.

When I was an unattached, semi-employed youth, I had a special sort of time. There were whole days and evenings and weekends when time yawned like the sea and I could jump right in. If I wanted to work out ideas and build stories (or worlds) over months and months, I could do it. Magic. Now that I’m a proud parent with a real job and various responsibilities, I’ve noticed some fairly obvious things about writing in scattered fits and starts.
First, if you don’t keep nudging a story along on a nearly daily basis, the whole architecture of the thing tends to fade from the imagination. (I want to use the word “palimpsest” here, or maybe some metaphor with watercolors and drizzle, but I’d better not). When the interrupted writer returns to the work from a long break, the story has become a strange place. And it can take real time to find the blueprints and collect the tools. So, clearly, a monastic life of penury and solitude is the way forward. (Although now that I think about it, there are advantages to love and regular meals which ought to figure in the balance. You may wish to draw your own conclusions).

The Magic of the Jouster’s Armpit

The Tales of Durand is a harrowing story, but researching the books was a great fun. For me, the best finds were those telling, unexpected bits that make a person feel that the past is a real, weird, particular place you’ve never been before. They popped up everywhere. I remember reading a First World War memoir and gathering stories of mud and fleas. A crowd of school kids and I heard an old castle guide explain time (with sundials and bits of dangly jewelry). And modern day jousters? They use the internet to grumble about how a well-struck lance chews up the lancer’s armpit. How can you not collect these things?

I suppose the notion is that readers will, for a second or two, feel like they’re meeting the real people of some real place (at least as peculiar as our own).

Squashing My Orcs

There is great fun to be had in catching cliches, and I caught a few while I was working on Durand.  (I imagine every writer fights with them). If you can spot one of these terrible things — and squash it — the resulting splatter of new and interesting ideas can be immensely satisfying.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to catch the things: they will often arrive disguised in little bits of superficial creativity. I remember, as a teenage writer, feeling quite proud of the unique qualities of “my orcs”, for example. And, to this day, I keep a forest of cunningly disguised elves hiding just off camera. Fantasy is full of such temptations.

But, when you do manage to catch a cliche, what fun you can have! I’d planned a scene where my hero would ride up to a strange castle and call for the man in charge. You can picture a castle wall. Guards on top. A big gate.

Fortunately, before I tried to reupholster scene, I caught myself. What if there was no one at the castle? What if everyone has vanished? What if they’d followed their leader into the hills? It could be a pilgrimage! What sort of holy place could it be? Why would they go? In the end, I was very pleased with the little world of motivations and repercussions that popped up when the story left the well-trodden path. (There’s a scene now where a doomed father grieves a lost but once-promising son in a strange gorge of hanging rags).

Splat!

Time, Tide, and Disappearing Horses

In the future, I may write a novel set entirely in a single room.

In my favorite stories, the landscape is alive. It is its own character, and it has the power to conjure up boatloads of awe and dread and wonder. I’m thinking of the cold, claustrophobia of the Icelandic sagas; the majesty of the Tolkien’s broad spaces; Sherlock’s moors; or Shelley’s arctic wastes. It’s all good fun.

If you are going to take your readers through a few good landscapes; however, you are almost forced to put your characters on horseback and send them trotting all over creation. (This is unfortunate).
Horses are ticklish things. Anybody who knows anything about horses will tell you that nobody knows anything about horses. I gathered useful hints about personality and maintenance from guidebooks and handbooks and conversations with actual people, but no practical amount of research could ever do the job. There is a neat and frustrating divide among historians, for example, about whether a medieval charge was a galloping affair or only a grim and resolute canter full of razor sharp points.  Worse, horses have a curious tendency to disappear from the pages of a novel. During the revision process of The Tales of Durand, horses popped in and out of existence more times than I am comfortable admitting. I suspect that this is where centaurs came from.

When there’s a lot of traveling, time soon becomes a challenge as well. In The Tales of Durand, time is measured by the movements of the sun and moon. In fact, the moon has a new name each month (based on timeless cycles of the agricultural year, because it’s a fantasy novel and people expect things). Sadly, all of this created a record keeping issue. Over the course of the series, I’m not sure how many times I put two full moons in the same month, two sunsets in a single day — and I’m still not sure I understand tides.

(Thank goodness for editors. Really).

Little Actual Exploration

The seed of this trilogy was a flawed little short story about a fellow who felt miscast in the role of hero. He did the job, but he didn’t feel that he deserved the accolades. That was the idea, but I’m not sure I could have told you precisely where the story was going; the notion of the doubting hero felt like something I wanted to explore.

Three novels in, I’ve started to see more clearly where my head was. The reader meets quite a number of tortured souls in these pages, and, typically, their wounds are self-inflicted. People hang onto their guilt or doubt or anger no matter how it hurts them. And, because we’re in an enchanted world, their suffering renders them monstrous and tears at the landscape. Thankfully, by the end, some of my favorite characters are beginning to come to their senses. (They might even have a chance at happiness).

Maybe what I’m saying, in several hundred thousand words is that we should cut ourselves some slack.

And be careful with our armpits.

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David Keck is a New York based writer, teacher, and cartoonist who grew up in Winnipeg, Canada.

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