Lisbeth Campbell: Five Things I Learned Writing The Vanished Queen

When a country is held in thrall to a vicious, despotic king, it’s up to one woman to take him down.

Long ago, Queen Mirantha vanished. King Karolje claimed it was an assassination by a neighboring king, but everyone knew it was a lie. He had Disappeared her himself.But after finding the missing queen’s diary, Anza–impassioned by her father’s unjust execution and inspired by Mirantha’s words–joins the resistance group to overthrow the king. When an encounter with Prince Esvar thrusts her into a dangerous game of court politics, one misstep could lead to a fate worse than death.

Esvar is the second son to an evil king. Trapped under his thumb and desperate for a way out, a chance meeting with Anza gives him the opportunity to join the resistance. Together, they might have the leverage to move against the king–but if they fail, their deaths could mean a total loss of freedom for generations to follow.

Set in a world where resistance is as dangerous as it is important, The Vanished Queen is a tale of the courage and sacrifice it requires to take on a tyrant.

STALIN WAS REALLY REALLY BAD

The biggest change between the published novel and the earlier ones is that I focused the plot almost entirely on the political resistance to the king. This meant I had to do some reading about authoritarianism.

I had known Josef Stalin was a dictator, up there with Hitler and Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein, but I hadn’t know any of the details of his life or regime. Having grown up under Reagan, I had developed skepticism toward anyone bad-mouthing the Soviet Union, and I had not known how really bad Stalin was. Well. He was bad.

He ordered the collectivization of agriculture which resulted in famine that killed millions of people and may have been directed at ethnic Ukrainians, the show trials of the 1930s in which he eliminated rivals, and the “Great Purge” of 1936-1938 in which hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, people were killed, many of them ethnic minorities. Stalin, his chief of secret police Lavrentiy Beria, and his other cronies were ruthless, cruel, evil people, of the sort that made me feel dirty after I read about them.

I added details inspired by this history here and there in the novel, but it was pretty brutal to realize that nothing I could imagine was as horrific as things that had actually been done.

THE KINGDOM OF AKSUM WAS A PLACE

I also read The Emperor, by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński (1978), which is an oral history of the fall of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia and dictator. This book is fascinating and was useful to me for its depictions of how Selassie played his ministers off against each other while cultivating the adoration of his subjects.

I knew that Ethiopia had existed in some form since antiquity, but I knew absolutely nothing about it prior to the Selassie regime, so I did some additional reading. The Kingdom of Aksum, which encompassed parts of modern Ethiopia, Eritrea, and other regions in North Africa, was a major player in the trade and politics of the first ten centuries of the Christian Era. The last ruler of the Aksum dynasty was the Empress Yodit in CE 912. (Eventually Ethiopia was ruled by the Solomonic Dynasty, which began in 1262 and lasted until Selassie.)

I have not learned nearly as much as I would like to, and I am really hoping that multiple writers of African origin will use Ethiopian history as a setting or model for a setting to write some completely badass epic fantasy. So much history waiting to be retold!

EXPLOSIVES ARE NOT INCENDIARIES, AND VICE VERSA

In movies, whenever something explodes, there’s a big boom and a big fire. In the opening scene of the first chapter of Queen, something explodes. I wanted it to be a loud explosion that would break some windows and make it hard for people to hear each other afterward. I also wanted lots of flames, because dramatic. Since I have no personal experience of explosions, I decided I had better do some research and not trust Hollywood.

It turns out that an incendiary is a chemical reaction that releases energy slowly, while a bomb causes explosive damage by releasing energy suddenly and powerfully. It generates shock waves and noise. Pulling the trigger on a gun sets off an explosive reaction which propels the bullet out of the barrel. Dynamite blows up rocks but doesn’t set them on fire. A Molotov cocktail, on the other hand, does its damage by burning things. Damage from the shattered glass is incidental.

It’s possible to have both heat and noise in one device by using an explosive charge to ignite the incendiary material, but the technology is complicated and was beyond the means of my characters and their environment. So I had to put a separate fire-source on the site to have both booms and flames.

PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY IS A SIGNIFICANT COMPONENT OF PLOT

In writing, I’ve often let my settings develop intuitively and focused my worldbuilding on customs, food, religion, transportation, and so on. In earlier versions of the book, the capital city was a river city. I decided somewhat arbitrarily to make things a little more interesting for myself and change the setting to islands in a lake. That led into all sorts of other things I hadn’t anticipated at all.

Control of the lake gave the king much more control of the populace. It was easy for his minions to limit access to various parts of the city. People leaving the city had to have a way “off-Island.” Even his sons couldn’t just get up and go. On the other hand, an entire economy related to shipping developed, and that introduced targets for the resistance. The resistance suddenly had the ability to attack vulnerable docks and to sow dissent by playing merchants off against their insurers. Changing the physical geography to one of isolation at the outset turned out to be extremely useful for coming up with small plot points that I could string together. This relationship between geography and plot has been a useful tool to add to my writer toolbox.

FAMILY DYNAMICS AND POLITICAL DYNAMICS ARE MUCH MORE INTERESTING WHEN THEY ARE INTERCONNECTED

I knew I wanted to explore power dynamics in Queen, but the book wasn’t gelling. So finally I sat down and thought about my favorite Shakespeare plays: Henry IV, Part 1; King Lear; Macbeth; and Hamlet. What I realized was that the core of each of these plays is a family story. Prince Hal has to negotiate his relationship with his father; Lear grievously misunderstands his children; Macbeth operates in concert with his wife; Hamlet is driven by his father’s ghost to kill his uncle. The politically powerful positions of the characters shape the plots, but what makes the plays meaningful is the family dynamics.

That power and family are more interesting when combined seems really obvious, and I had known it intellectually. But I didn’t really learn it until I was trying to make the connection important for all the characters. In earlier drafts, my main character Anza was an orphan; in this version I gave her a father who had been executed by the king, which not only raised the stakes for her but made all her interactions with the king’s son Esvar more complicated and twisty. In turn, Esvar’s relationship with his missing mother shapes his own actions. These changes gave the story a lot more meat.

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Lisbeth Campbell grew up in Illinois and western Pennsylvania. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her jobs have run the gamut from housecleaner to teacher. When she is not writing, reading, or spending time with her husband and daughter, she is probably attending to one of her cats.

Lisbeth Campbell: Website

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