This is the fourth in a series of interviews regarding “The Drifting Isle Chronicles” shared world project. In this interview, we meet one of the collaborating authors, Katherine Tomlinson and learn how she’s applying her noir style of writing to this more traditional fantasy setting.
Your life seems wedded to words. You’re a self-published author, a self-professed bookworm with a lifelong appetite for reading and writing, and you’ve worked as a journalist, a TV and film writer, an editor, and a freelance writer. I’m sure Drifting Isle isn’t the first time you’ve collaborated with a group of creatives on a shared project, but what in particular drew you to the Drifting Isle project?
I had just finished participating in a shared world anthology—Paul D. Brazill’s Drunk on the Moon, which began with two stories he wrote and which I published in the now-defunct Dark Valentine Magazine. There were ten writers contributing stories about his character and his world, but we weren’t really interacting in terms of sharing characters—we were all sort of working with the characters Paul had created and his world.
When I saw Joe Lewis’ shared world project listing on Craig’s List, I thought it sounded like a lot of fun and a more collaborative collaboration, if that makes sense. We’re five very different writers coming up with ideas about all sorts of things. One of my contributions—a spy organization known as “the Shadows”—is being used by another writer while I’m not using it at all, although my main character has a cousin who’s involved with the organization.
I also loved the idea of using the wiki to keep track of ideas. I had never used one and had to be tutored on how to code the entries, but everyone was very nice about helping me out there.
How has Drifting Isle compared to those other collaborative projects?
I have been writing an illustrated serial novel with artist Mark Satchwill for almost two years. The project began as a twice-weekly story published on the AOL-owned micronews site patch.com. We called it NoHo Noir (for North Hollywood, CA, where the stories took place). We ended our association with AOL last October, and began a new volume of stories on a new website called NoHo Noir. This incarnation of NoHo Noir features all new characters, new settings and a new logo. The stories are also darker in tone and have frank language.
Mark’s based in the UK, and I’m in Los Angeles, but thanks to the wonders of technology, we’ve managed to collaborate on this project under some serious deadlines. I met Mark through an artist friend, and we clicked immediately. We have a level of trust that’s amazing, and there have been times when I had only a vague idea for a chapter and his illustration gave me the inspiration to finish the story. Sometimes I’ve even changed a story because his artwork gave me a better idea.
With Drifting Isle, the give and take has been a five-way communication that’s very exciting. We have the wiki for ideas, but we’ll often thrash them out in emails before putting them down.
Were there any shared worlds you enjoyed as a reader (Thieves World, Wild Cards, etc.)?
I didn’t actually know that there were so many Shared Worlds out there. I’ve read books in the Wild Cards series and enjoyed them. I’ve also read my share of Fan Fic, which is a version of a shared world I suppose.
While each novel in the Drifting Isle world will be a standalone story, they must conform to a common, shared world. How is writing a novel in a shared world different from your usually independent fiction works?
Well, you have to be aware of the timeline. We have an event that is, as they say in screenwriting, the “inciting incident” and the stories all take place around that time. We have two different main locations so we have to be aware of what’s going on in the other stories to make sure that two characters are not in the same story space.
Having other people contribute to the world makes it a lot richer because you don’t have to think of everything yourself. It also gives a very organic and consistent feel to things. We decided early on that naming conventions would be German, for instance.
Did you take a different approach for your Drifting Isle novel (e.g., used an outline when you normally don’t)?
This project has forced me to be more meticulous in my outlining. The biggest change is that I’m actually writing a novel. Unlike my co-writers, I’m not really a novelist. The serial novel, the first volume of which came out to about 106K words, was written as two short chapters a week. One of the challenges of this project is to complete the novel.
I’m moving slower on this project than I normally do. I can write a 1500 word story standing on my head, but putting together a 1500 word chunk of a larger story is challenging for me. It took me forever to get to 5K words, and then to 7.5 and then I went back and did some major revision. Everyone else has posted chunks of their story but I want to wait until I’m at 10K, which should be early next month when my day-job commitments go on hiatus and I can just pound it out.
The Drifting Isle team is almost halfway through the original timeline for publishing the collection of novels. How are things going with your novel?
Well, as I said, I’ve been slower than everyone else. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time developing details for my character and the world he inhabits. Most of my story takes place in the “floating island” location and my character is not one of the steampunk techies. I’m completely fascinated by steampunk and had never written anything in that genre, so that was another thing that lured me in.
I have the whole novel outlined. I have the opening chapters in almost final shape and sketched out middle chapters. I have the ending. (That’s rare for me. When I write short stories, I often don’t know exactly how a story will end.) I love my main character, who is a young man going through a coming-of-age experience that coincides with the larger story. I’ve fallen in love with a couple of characters, including middle-aged twin inventors who mentor my character. Physically they’re modeled on my best friend, so it’s easy to visualize them.
I noticed on your blog you read a lot of fantasy fiction when you were younger, then you stepped away from the genre as a reader for a while (only to venture back in recently with Brent Weeks’ “Night Angel: The Way of Shadows” novel). Most shared world projects (at least the ones typically mentioned) use sci-fi and fantasy as the preferred genre. Do you think particular genres are better suited for use in shared worlds?
I think you could do a shared world in almost any genre, even romance, if the original concept was rich enough. For example, if someone created a western town and you were free to be anyone in the town and introduce any sort of situation, from a mining disaster to an attack by Indians. I think fantasy appeals to writers because the really good fantasies are so detailed and layered. We all read Tolkien. We all know George R. R. Martin. There are so many little corners in the Shire of the seven kingdoms of Westeros that you can stake out your own little piece of literary real estate. One of my all-time favorite books is Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was stunned by the lengths he went to make everything seem real.
Your writing is often grounded in our current-day world with a heady mix of fantastical noir. How have you approached writing in the more traditional fantasy world of Drifting Isle, and are you finding yourself introducing elements of noir into your Drifting Isle novel?
My very first attempt at a novel was a version of the King Arthur story I called The Chanson of Dagonet. All the nomenclature was French (and Old French at that) and there was a lot of magic with Merlin and Morgaine and such. I also have a lot of scraps of fantastic stories that never came to fruition, so in some ways, traditional fantasy was my first writing love.
Most of my urban fantasy is set in Los Angeles, where I live, and I just layer the paranormal stuff over the real locations. For Drifting Isle I’m in a completely made-up realm and that has helped me make my story more fantastical. A lot stems from my main character, who is an apprentice “star caster,” or what we’d think of as an astrologer. Making his world seem real is important, so I am trying to ground things in a realistic way, but he lives in a world of music magic and talking birds and a magical liquid that’s very dangerous.
There are elements of my story that are dark but not in the way my paranormal noir stories are dark. I definitely think this is going to be very different from my normal writing, which makes me happy. I want to try new things and this project is a great way to diversify.