Shoebox Time Machine: Jeff Salyards Geeks Out About the Past

Geek Speaks…Fiction! GeekMom

This week I invited epic fantasy/grimdark author Jeff Salyards to GeekMom to tell us what made him geek out while he was writing his Bloodsounder’s Arc series. The third book of the series, Chains of the Heretic, is out today in e-book (it can be found in hardcover on 2/9/2016)!

I’ve been a knucklehead my whole life (or “assclown,” if I’m being less charitable to myself). I still have the occasional outburst or episode now and then, as anyone who knows me even remotely well will testify, but back in my teens and twenties, I did ridiculously dumb things on a routine basis. Sometimes hourly.

Image: Night Shade Books
Image: Night Shade Books

More often than not, this was detrimental, self-sabotage, or just silly but relatively harmless hijinks. Occasionally, my assclownery was in the name of a good cause (even if it was driven by hubris and a mistaken sense of invulnerability). Such was the case of an aborted Honors Project in college. A little backstory. . .

I’d played D&D a lot in junior high and high school, but pretty much stopped once I got to college. However, the summer after my junior year, for reasons I still don’t recall, as they probably involved alcohol, we started a campaign in the Al-Qadim setting, which was a very Arabian adventures sort of dealio–some history blended with myths, legends, and TSR‘s own spin on the whole thing. It didn’t last all that long, but was a ton of fun, and a real change of pace from the more standard and familiar D&D settings.

The thing that really caught my attention though was the Mamluk fighter/warrior class. TSR made it their own for Al-Qadim, but it was obviously modeled on some historical precedent. The Mamluks, both in game and history, were freed slave warriors who owed allegiance to an Emir. I’d heard of slave soldiers before, but never as the backbone of an empire, so I was fascinated.

It occurred to me that TSR headquarters was only an hour and a half drive from my house, so I made a little road trip up there one day, figuring it would be really cool to sit down with one of the writers or designers and pick their brain. You know, because they have nothing else going on and love unannounced college kids dropping in to bug them. Despite being before the Internet/email book, this was still the era of huge cell phones and ubiquitous land lines, but I didn’t call. I saw no need (see “assclown”; see also, “Jeffcentric”). I just got in my rusty jalopy and drove north. Without GPS, I also got lost. A lot.

But three hours later, I pulled into the parking lot and stormed the lobby. Most of the leads who worked on developing Al-Qadim were, surprise, surprise, unavailable when I showed up. I was sort of shocked, inexplicably, and crestfallen, understandably, but then one of the guys who had been assigned to the project heard there was a dopey college kid about to cry in the lobby, so he agreed to chat with me.

Image: Night Shade Books
Image: Night Shade Books

I talked his ear off for hours about the whole setting, but really zeroed in on the Mamluk warrior class in the game, and asked if he had any non-proprietary sort of stuff he could share about the origins. He told me to wait, and came back a few minutes later with a working bibliography, with a bunch of entries about the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt highlighted.

(Of course, it needs to be said, this example of things mysteriously working out in my favor despite me not really deserving them to only contributed to my general cavalier attitude and firm belief that I had a magic circle around me. This would be dispelled soon enough; comeuppance loading…)

I was thrilled, and took that list and ran with it, picking up books at the library, pouring over them. It was a true geek out moment. I’d always loved classical and medieval history, but maybe because I knew so little about this subject, I just couldn’t get enough.

Fast forward a bit, heading into my senior year in college, I decided I was going to do an Honors Project. Most Creative Writing majors did a book-length collection of short stories or poems, or maybe a novella, or a screenplay. But, being predisposed to making awful choices, I decided I was going to write both a full length novel and a three-act play. In one year. While still taking a normal course load. Oh, and just for kicks, I decided the novel and play were both going to be a different treatment of a sweeping story set in Egypt and Mongolia in the 13th century, focusing on the daughter of a Mamluk Emir and a Mongol shaman with performance issues, culminating with the Mamluks seizing power and clashing with the advancing Mongol forces.

Image: Night Shade Books
Image: Night Shade Books

Which meant I needed to spend the first several months of my senior just researching like a crazy person so I could create some authenticity about a time and place I really knew almost nothing about except what I gleaned in my initial, but still limited, forays reading about the Mamluk Sultanate.

Some might call this incredibly ambitious. Most, especially given my gifted procrastination skills, would have called this lunacy. Or brazen stupidity. Almost no one would have called this a good idea, including the chair of the committee overseeing the Honors project, who sternly cautioned me to do something else. Anything else.

But one of the primary characteristics of the assclown in the wild is a total inability to recognize or listen to good advice. So, undeterred, I locked myself in my honorary Honors Project office, and scoured every book in English written about the Mongols, the Mamluks, their furusiyya, the architecture, religions, textiles, diet, etc. I fell into so many rabbit holes, I didn’t know which way was up, but as the weeks rolled by, I kept compiling notecards with furiously scribbled details, first hundreds, then thousands.

As I quickly discovered, no matter how much I researched, it was never going to be enough. I would need to research half a lifetime to be able to create something half as evocative as Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings.

I began calculating how many pages I would need to write every day to somehow, miraculously pull this off. And every day I continued researching and not writing, that number became more staggering until it was a running joke with my flatmates: “You only need to write 35 pages every single day to do it, Jeff. No problem. You got this. Go, man, go.”

So I approached the Chair of the project and scaled it back–I’d write a novella and a one-act play. Right after I researched enough to feel confident enough to start.

Which, as you might have guessed, never, ever happened. With two-thirds of the year gone, and not a word written, I finally acknowledged the truth that had been self-evident to everyone but me–I had bitten off way more than I could chew. My choice was to bullshit and crank out what was probably going to be a pretty crappy novella and threadbare play, full of gaps and holes and slapdash writing, or I could accept that it was time to pull the plug. Or scale it back to a limerick and a T-shirt slogan.

So I called it. I got credit for the research as an elective, but the Honors Project was dead.

I was pretty disappointed in myself at the time. But it was a learning moment. And maybe more importantly, I kept those shoeboxes full of notecards. They yellowed and curled a little as the years went by (you know, because I was too much of a jackelope to store them properly), but I kept them. I didn’t really know why at the time. They were mostly a monument to monumental failure. But some part of me had a hunch they might come in handy someday. That, or I’m a horrible packrat. Whatever.

Anyway, more than a decade down the road, I was kicking around an idea for a novel or series about a callow scribe who finds himself accompanying a military company without having any clue what kind of horrible intrigue and betrayals he was in for, and I was trying to flesh out the background of the military faction. Even though the series was going to be fantasy, I wanted it to be grounded, to feel plausible and realistic.

And then it hit me, what is more realistic than reality?

After doing a little digging, I finally found that old treasure trove. I opened a tattered shoebox and started rereading those copious notes, so may devoted to the Mamluks–their system, infrastructure, coups, loyalties, sense of identity, the odd dissonance and contradictions and still brutal effectiveness. And then I started brainstorming, cherry picking some of the details I initially found so utterly fascinating back when I was callow but hopelessly overconfident youth myself, playing with them, synthesizing them with bits and pieces I’d picked up over the years about the Ottomans, Janissaries, Byzantines, and putting it in the blender that is my crazy imagination.

As I built and expanded, spiraling away from that inception, I included my own elements like the Memoridons and how that impacted the dynamics of the Syldoon slave empire that would play such a central role in Bloodsounder’s Arc. And that informed Braylar and Soffjian and shaped their relationship, also central. But there’s no denying that the initial impetus was found in those banged-up shoeboxes, the remnants of a failed Honors Project about the Mamluks.

I could wax about the lessons in all of this, but I’m sure most would just end up being justification for packratting or procrastination. But the real point is, I’m glad I geeked out and made a pilgrimage in a broken down car to TSR headquarters lo those many years ago. I was an idiot for not phoning first, but pursuing something you are passionate about is never a bad idea. Unless you are passionate about stalking someone, or blowing up a government building, or… OK, there are a lot of passionate pursuits that totally ill-advised. But so long as you follow the golden rule, being inspired is always a good thing.

Even if it takes decades to pay off.

Photo: Gabe Macintosh

Jeff Salyards grew up in a small town north of Chicago, where he honed his writing skills, leaning toward stories that were loud, chaotic, and full of irrepressible characters. While his tastes have grown a bit darker and more mature over the years, he’s never lost his fascination for the fantastic. By day he’s a book editor for the American Bar Association, but he writes his own novels by night. Salyards resides in Chicago with his wife and three daughters, and Chains of the Heretic is his third book.

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