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David Mack: Five Things I Learned Writing The Midnight Front

The epic first novel in the Dark Arts series.

On the eve of World War Two, Nazi sorcerers come gunning for Cade Martin but kill his family instead. His one path of vengeance is to become an apprentice of The Midnight Front — the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program — and become a sorcerer himself.

Unsure who will kill him first — his allies, his enemies, or the demons he has to use to wield magick — Cade fights his way through occupied Europe and enemy lines. But he learns too late the true price of revenge will be more terrible than just the loss of his soul, and that there’s no task harder than doing good with a power born of ultimate evil.

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Don’t Be Afraid to Think Big

You’d think I’d have internalized this notion before trying to write a years-spanning World War II epic fantasy. But it wasn’t until I tried to craft something “epic” that I saw how hard it was.

In this case it meant trusting my instincts with regard to my supporting cast. There are sections of the novel that are unrelated to the main character’s mission. During development I worried that these might be seen as digressions. Now I think my multiple point-of-view characters are part of what gives the novel its “epic” quality — a broadened perspective on the war.

When I was younger and less confident, I might’ve cut all those secondary narratives. Instead, I chose to treat this book as an ensemble piece. Weaving all of its tales into a tapestry of causality made them all stronger and provided a foundation for my larger story universe.

Research Pays Off When You Least Expect It

One reason I’d never before tried to write historical fiction was that I’d been daunted by the degree of research it would entail. Though I felt as if I had a reasonable grasp of the World War II period in Europe, I knew that readers of historical fiction are quite demanding when it comes to accuracy. So I dug in and did my homework.

I spent over a year reading both online and in libraries. I visited the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

The great thing about researching a subject in such depth is that it’s like soaking your brain in smart juice. It works its way into your gray matter’s fatty squiggles and comes out when you least expect it.

Several such moments of serendipity graced my work on The Midnight Front. The most notable instance came late in the writing of the book.

While trying to write a pivotal sequence, I realized that Omaha Beach was, for many reasons, the wrong setting for the action I needed to depict. Then I remembered reading about Pointe du Hoc — a D-Day objective less often depicted but in some ways even more dramatic because of what the 2nd Ranger Battalion accomplished there. Once I transplanted my battle sequence to that location, one of the key sequences in my book came into focus.

Marinate your brain in facts and they’ll flavor your story in amazing ways.

In a Thriller, You’ve Got to Keep the Pressure On—Always

One note I received from my agent was to make sure that my heroes felt the pressure of the war at all times. Keep the heat on. Never let your characters feel free of peril. Always have a looming threat, an impending deadline, a ticking clock, a bundle of dynamite with a burning fuse.

This is one of the tricks to making certain the middle of a thriller doesn’t bog down. If you need to deliver exposition, have it happen while characters are under fire, on the run, or bleeding from an open wound. If you can’t find a way to do that, at least have them challenged by a conflict that can ruin some other aspect of their lives.

A scene in which no one has anything to lose is one for which a reader has no reason to care.

You Can Humanize Villains Without Forgiving Them

I wanted Kein Engel, the villain of The Midnight Front, to be as fully realized as the hero. I wanted his motives, if considered separately from his methods, to seem almost reasonable.

Consequently, I decided his plot was to save the world. Of course, what one person calls salvation another might call destruction. So I had Kein blame humanity’s ills on its embrace of technology before we as a species were ready to control such gifts. He argues that the wonders of science are a fast track to danger, environmental disaster, and economic slavery.

What the heroes can’t know in 1942 is that Kein is right—at least with regard to the threat posed by developing technologies faster than we can understand how those inventions might hurt the world. Where Kein goes off the rails, of course, is how he proposes to solve it. But this is why he can’t see himself as a bad guy. He’s willing to do terrible things to save the day … but what hero isn’t?

Ultimately, though his motives might be justifiable his actions are monstrous. We are judged by what we do, not by what we intend. Making Kein’s motive reasonable doesn’t absolve his evil actions. I was willing to give one of his minions a path toward future redemption, but I never let myself forget that Kein himself is a villain.

Adjectives Do Not an Epic Make

The first draft of The Midnight Front weighed in at around 200,000 words, and, according to my agent Lucienne Diver, there wasn’t “a single unmodified noun” to be found anywhere within its pages. My friend fellow author Kirsten Beyer observed, “You never wrote like this before.” This prompted her to ask, “So why would you start now?

In my desire to craft something “epic,” I went overboard with adjectives (and, to a lesser degree, adverbs). This observation struck me as odd, since I’d thought I’d learned many years and many books earlier to use modifiers with care. But with my mind focused on other goals (“It must feel huge! Grand! Sweeping and majestic!”), I lost my focus on the basics.

With the help of a text-analysis application, I flagged every single adjective in my manuscript. During my rewrite, I cut more than 8,000 adjectives and nearly 4,000 adverbs. That one action improved my sentence structures, clarified my meanings, and strengthened my prose.

I am happy to report that I do not seem to have repeated this error in the writing of the series’ second book, The Iron Codex.

I have, no doubt, committed all-new errors.

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David Mack is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty novels of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure, including the Star Trek Destiny and Cold Equations trilogies. Mack’s writing credits span several media, including television (for episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), film, short fiction, and comic books. His new novel The Midnight Front is available now from Tor Books. Excerpt here.

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