Author Interview – J.M. Aucoin Discusses “Honor Among Thieves”

Hey, folks. My friend Justin is getting ready to release his new book, Honor Among Thieves (Hope & Steel Book 1), which is now available for pre-order for the Kindle. Here he is to tell everyone about it!

JustinTell everyone about the new book and what inspired the story.

Honor Among Thieves is the first book in the Hope & Steel series. It takes place in early 17th Century France, during King Henry IV’s reign and about a decade after the French religious wars ended.

In the book, we follow Darion Delerue, a former soldier turned highwayman, and Jacquelyna Brocquart, a lady-in-waiting for Queen Marie de Medici. Both are unwillingly thrown into a political plot to undermine the crown and could throw France back into chaos and civil war.

As for inspiration, I’ve always been a huge fan of swashbucklers and the historical adventure genre. I’m a carnivore of all things Three Musketeers. I love the high adventure, the weaving of fictional plots with historical events, and the camaraderie of the characters. I’m also a fan of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste series, which is full of swordplay, history, and a dash of realism. So I tried combining both into the Hope & Steel series. You get a lot of high adventure in the plots but with the gritty realism of life of 17th Century France and all its consequences.

Your previous releases (the Jake Hawking books) were all short stories. What drove you to tackle a full-length novel?

It’s funny, Honor Among Thieves gave birth to the Jake Hawking Adventures in some ways. I was in the middle of a major re-write for Honor Among Thieves and I was getting a little frustrated with the process. I was struggling to fill major plot holes and I was second guessing myself on what point of views to keep and what to cut. I needed to step away from the project, but I also hate going too long without writing anything. I need to feel productive or I get grumpy. So I decided to write a few piratical short stories. Nothing serious. Nothing grim. Just fun, light-hearted tales. And voila! Jake Hawking, Little Queen, and the crew of the Broad-Wing were born.

Doing the Hawking stories also gave me my first taste at self-publishing, which was good. The trio of short-stories and then the omnibus collection let me ease into the industry and figure things out without like hiring a cover artist and formatting for Kindle and Createspace.

But it’s always been my plan to write full-length novels.

Is this the first in a series for this character or a stand-alone novel?

This is the first book in what I hope becomes a long-lasting series. I have the first four books more or less outlined in my head, but I’m hoping for a long and prosperous career of fighting for Darion and company.

This is your first new release in more than a year (since Jake Hawking & the Bounty Hunters (A Jake Hawking Adventure Collection Book 1), released in April 2014). What took so long?

Rewrites. Day job. Procrastination. Take your pick!

Honor Among Thieves has been about three or four years in the making. It was the first full-length novel I actually completed (I had tried and failed at completing novels a few times prior), so there was a lot of problems with the first draft. It was way too long (140K words), and the second half of the novel didn’t really jive with the first half. It was a perfect case of the story taking a life of its own and running away from my outline.

So I basically torched the first draft and started over. I thought I would be able to use large chunks of the original copy in the second draft, but I think I rewrote about 90% of the book. In the middle of all this is when I took a break and let Hawking come to life. Then I went back and finished it. Sent it out to test readers. Went over their feedback and then hunted for an editor, which was a bit of a nightmare in itself. Finding one that was good and also in my budget was tough. It’s one of the harder parts of being a self-pub author.

I really wanted this book to come out last October, but I also didn’t want to rush things. Delaying it eight months was the right course, I think.

And, of course, I still need a day job to pay the bills, so that’s 8-10 hours of possible writing time gone. I get writing in during my lunch break and I try to do some writing after work, but some days the brain won’t have it, so an hour or two might be all that I get done. It makes getting projects done a slow process.

How research-intensive was this story?

A lot. I wanted to fictional characters to interact with historical figures and weave fictional plots into real world events. I also wanted to paint a picture of what France was like in 1609, and not just what we all assume it was like because of the movies. So to do that I needed to do a good amount of research into what was happening and who was in charge and doing what, and who liked (or didn’t like) who, etc. for this time period.

Amazingly, my local library (Boston Public) didn’t have a lot of books on King Henry IV of France or that time period. It seems to be a very un-sexy era for researchers. However, I did find a lot of research material via Google Books that I was able to download for free. I found about 10 books from Google Books in total and bought a couple of more online and in local bookshops. I also looked for maps of France and Paris from around the time, so I could get street names and bridge names correct for the early 17th Century.

Readers shouldn’t take my portrayals of historical characters as gospel, but a lot of research went into this swashbuckler to get things right. I want to get people interested in the era and have them do their own research after.

I’m going to assume there are plenty of action sequences. What was your process for putting those together?

What’s a swashbuckler without a little action, eh?

There’s a good amount of fighting in this novel. Far more steel is brandished in Honor Among Thieves than in the Jake Hawking Adventures. Darion’s a former soldier turned highwayman; he’s young, proud, and can be hot tempered. Drawing steel is how problems get solved in his life – for better or worse.

But unsheathing one’s sword is a serious affair. You don’t draw your rapier unless you were absolutely certain you were ready to use it. It’s not like modern Olympic fencing or even HEMA/SCA rapier combat. It meant life or death.

So I try to approach my action scenes in the same way. I don’t just throw in a fight scene for the sake of a fight scene being there. Action scenes need to serve a purpose in fiction. It needs to convey some new information about a character, solve (or create) a problem, or further the story somehow.

We have to talk about the cover, because it’s pretty kick-ass. Did you have any input on the concept, or was it all left to your cover artist?

HAT Cover

I absolutely love this cover. Graham Sternberg made it for me. He’s a good friend of mine from my fencing circle and also a fantastic artist, so he was perfect for the job.

The concept of the cover was a little of my idea and a lot of Graham’s idea. When we started talking about what the cover should be, I wasn’t sure what I wanted it in terms of action and setting, but I knew what I wanted the overall feel and tone of the cover to be. I wanted the cover to convey the action and sense of urgency of the story, and I knew I wanted it to look like a painting. I wanted the brush strokes and the roughness of a not-so-quite-finished painting to be seen. I also wanted more jewel and earth tones, so it would be a little different looking than the Hawking covers, which use a lot of primary colors.

So that was my main contribution. Graham did the rest. He came up with idea of doing a wrap-around cover, so the front and back is one artwork – which I loved. He drew up about half a dozen pencil sketches of ideas based off the plot of the book. From there I chose the ones I liked and gave some feedback based on what I saw and he would go do what he did best until we had the final design.

What’s the next project?

Got a few projects in the works, all at different stages.

I have a stand-alone pirate revenge story that’s about 20K words in. I think that’ll be my “I need to work on something different” project when other stories are becoming obstacles. I have an idea for a pulp mystery/suspense series that I’m aiming to work on – at least for a little bit – in the fall. I think that’ll be a novella length project. And I’m world building, off and on, for a possible fantasy series, but I don’t expect to actually write that for some time.

Of course, once Honor Among Thieves is published I’ll start the second book in the series. I have a general outline all set; it’s just a matter of filling in the details of the plot. There are some bread crumbs in book one that’ll lead to book two.

I think I have the classic dilemma of too many ideas, not enough time!

A Game Of Questions

My friend and fellow writer J.M. Aucoin recently finished reading Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins, and he asked me to participate in a little author Q&A, something he’s done with other indie authors. That Q&A session is now up at his official website.JMAucoin

Not one to let it go at that, I decided to reciprocate, and get Justin chatting about his Jake Hawking shorts, his novel project, writing in general, and personal hygiene. Here’s what he had to say…

Pirates, huh? Why pirates? What makes piratical fiction attractive to you as a writer, and what makes them attractive to readers?

For me it’s the swashbuckling. I grew up on reruns of Guy William’s Zorro and Disney’s 1993 adaption of The Three Musketeers and in both cases it’s good defeating evil at the end of a sword. And for a five-year-old Justin, that was enthralling. I must’ve gone as Zorro for Halloween for five years straight as a kid (not that much has changed in my adulthood).

But I think people enjoy pirate stories and other swashbucklers because it’s a classic form of escapism. It allows readers to go back in time and vicariously live a life of adventure and danger without having to put their own lives on the line. The stories tend to be pretty romanticized – especially pirate tales – and full of fun action. Armed with just a rapier and a dagger, characters in swashbucklers can change the world, and that’s a very tantalizing idea for folks. 

Why did you start out with short stories first? Why not go for a full-length novel? 

It sort of came for two reasons.

I had two novels already written but they weren’t in publishing shape. One of them is still in editing mode and the other is archived for the time being. Editing and revising the novel was going terribly slow last summer – to the point of frustration — so I decided to work on something new. I had just finished reading The Fortunes of Captain Blood, a collection of pirate short-stories by Rafael Sabatini. I was thoroughly inspired to start my own pirate series in Blood tradition – a pirate who out-wits his opponent and not just blows them to pieces with his cannon.

The second reason was I wanted to give self-publishing a try. My writer-friend Jack Badelaire has had great success with his World War II action series, and it inspired me to give it a shot myself. I figured a smaller project would be easier to start off with. Something a little more contained to help me figure out the self-publishing ropes and how to go from a first draft to a final product. But titles sell titles, so I decided three short-stories would perform better than just the one in terms of sales. 

Speaking of novel-length works, what’s going on with that project? Give us your sales pitch, and when do expect to make it available? 

Oh, man. Soon I hope. The first draft was good, but needed a lot of work in some areas, so the first half is being rebuilt from the ground up. I’m hoping once I get to the second half it’ll be more revising and less rewriting. So that’s still on going. If all goes well, I’m hoping to make a deal with the devil to get it out this summer. *fingers crossed*

As for what it’s about… it’s the first in what I hope becomes a long swashbuckling adventure series. First novel is tentatively titled Honor Amongst Thieves. It takes place in France during the early portion of the 17th Century under King Henry IV’s reign. France is still healing from the Wars of Religion and is on the verge of becoming a major political power in Europe. Our hero, a soldier turned highwayman, gets a little more than he bargained for during a midnight hold up in the countryside. Soon he’s pulled into political court conspiracies and finds himself well over his head. I’ve tried mixing the grittiness of the Captain Alatriste series with the high adventure of The Three Musketeers. So folks can expect a lot of swordplay and some political intrigue. 

Back to the Jack Hawking series. You mentioned a possible omnibus edition collecting the three shorts. How’s that coming along? 

Still the plan, but things hit a snag last summer. I hired someone to do the cover art (different artist than who did the solo covers) for the collection as a way to make it stand out from the solo bits. But months went by and the cover never got completed. So now I need to go back and find someone else to do the cover art.

And therein lies one of the great challenges of self-publishing – juggling multiple projects at once. Since I’m editing Honor Amongst Thieves and the Hawking solo shorts are doing well, creating a collection edition is a bit lower on the priority list.

I should probably go and do that soon, eh?

Jake Hawking Series

The character of Little Queen seems to be a favorite, both for you as a writer and among fans? What’s the attraction? And where did the character come from? 

She was a happy mistake in some ways. I originally wrote Little Queen as a male. I wanted to create this large, former-slave turned pirate who was called Little Queen by the slavers and her fellow slaves as a way of further demeaning and emasculating him. He was supposed to be the silent but deadly type who overlooked Hawking’s safety. But I used the pronoun “him” only once in the first draft of A Pirate’s Honor, so a few beta readers read him as a her.

And it was love at first sight…

The character took a whole new level of awesome and became more interesting and compelling to me as a woman. She’s not only a female pirate, but also a former slave, so she’s been through a lot emotionally and physically. She’s also highly feared and respected among the rest of Hawking’s crew and other pirates to the point that buccaneers seek her out to try to prove their own prowess. She’s second in command on the Broad-Wing and the crew recognizes this and has no qualms with it. It may be a bit of a modern sentiment, but I’m writing for a modern audience. And woman pirates are far from being pirate myth, too. Anne Bonny and Mary Read being the most famous lady freebooters known to history, but there’s also William Brown, a black woman sailor who pretended to be a man in the service of the Royal Navy. She had quite the remarkable career, as well.

What I love most about Little Queen, though, is she action-focused. She’s a shoot first, ask questions later type. One reader described her as a pirate version of Xena because of her fighting prowess and the myth that proceeds her wherever she goes, which I love. And her demeanor is a perfect complement to Jake Hawking who prefers to use his wit before his sword. So I think people enjoy the dynamic she and Hawking have, and appreciate the deep and platonic friendship they share. Little Queen’s life as a slave has made her very untrusting of folk, but she’s also extremely loyal to her friends, so she’s a complicated and exciting character to explore as a writer, and as a reader.

I have big plans in store for Little Queen.

We were talking recently about the challenges of writing action sequences. How do you approach action scenes? Do you map them out in advance, or let them happen organically as you write? 

Pretty organically. I’ll know how it’s supposed to end more or less, and any major points in the skirmishes, and sometimes I’ll get ideas for really cool fight sequence as I’m drifting to sleep, but I let the action scenes write themselves for the most part. Of course, sometimes the fights go differently than I first envision it, but that’s part of the fun of writing, right? Watching as your characters take over your story. I try to make each character I write have their own fighting style, their own tendencies, and preferred weapons. And their personalities and emotional state can be seen in the fights – if I’m doing it right, anyways.

Writing ship to ship battles is a bit more challenging, mostly because it’s hard to write naval battles without double entendres creeping onto the page. Editing those out at least make me chuckle as I hit the delete key. 

Follow-up question: when you write swordfights, do your backgrounds in stage combat and fencing – and, what the hell, hockey – come into play? 

Oh yea. Definitely. And it’s a balance between both worlds, too. I study and practice period fencing manuals, so I have a strong knowledge of the technical skills and terminology used in the era. But if I were to just describe a sword fight using strictly that knowledge, the fights would be very dull and too technical for the average reader to enjoy. So I steal the basic idea from stage combat in that the fight needs to tell a story in itself. Even with swashbucklers, where sometimes guys with flashing blades come out of the woodworks, random fights shouldn’t happen – or rarely happen anyways. There needs to be a reason for the fight, and the readers should learn something about the characters in that fight.

At the same time, it’s historical fiction, and die-hard readers of the genre love those tiny details, and some are pretty fluent in the ways of period fighting. You want to quench their thirst, too. So it’s a balance between the two, though I tend to learn heavier on stage combat background because of its entertainment value, and sprinkle in period fencing as a garnish.

Alas, not so much with my hockey background, though maybe I’ll write a fight scene where Little Queen hipchecks someone into a bartop and then she, Hawking, and the Broad-Wing crew drop the gauntlets for a good ol’ fashion donnybrook. 

Best film adaptation of The Three Musketeers, and the worst, and why respectively?BBC Three Musketeers 

Do miniseries count? If so, the 1966 BBC adaption is the most accurate book to film adaption. They actually have all the musketeers’ servants in the movie and, hell, Brian Blessed is Porthos. And when I say Brian Blessed is Porthos, I mean that he is Porthos. It’s like Dumas wrote the character knowing that it’d be the perfect role for Blessed.

If we’re disqualifying miniseries because it can do the book in 10 or so segments, than I’d have to go with Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers or Gene Kelly’s The Three Musketeers. Kelly might be my favorite d’Artganan and Oliver Reed my favorite Athos. Those two movies do a great job are translating the book to a two-hour movie without it feeling like huge gaps of the plot are missing.

As for the worst adaption, that might have to be The 4 Musketeers. It’s a French adaption in with a sci-fi/fantasy twist. In that movie, Milady de Winter does die at the hands of Athos, but she made a deal with the devil, literally. So she comes back from the dead and has super natural powers. D’Artagnan also has this white falcon that brings him good luck or something, Richelieu is a crazy catlady (that’s actually historically accurate, though; he had upwards of 14 cats!), and the musketeer cassock looks like a graduation gown. The English voiceovers are also atrocious, as is the sound effects. It’s really just all around awful.

We’ll put it this way. My fiancé isn’t allowed to make me watch Manos: Hands of Fate again and I’m not allowed to make her rewatch The 4 Musketeers.

Also, Asylum’s modern take on the musketeers is downright awful, but with a charm that only Asylum can achieve.

Neither of us shave very often, but I think you shave less frequently than I do. What’s up with that? You know it makes you look like a hobo, right?

Beard

Now that you know Justin better, go read A Pirate’s Honor (A Jake Hawking Adventure) on the Kindle — only 99 cents!