INTERVIEW: with Heather and Chris Dunbar | Dark Alliance Authors

Happy Halloween! 

Welcome Heather and Chris. HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Thanks for joining us. Can you please give our readers a brief description of your Book Dark Alliance, Morrigan’s Brood, Book III?

 Heather:  A very brief description would be to say that it’s a historic fantasy that involves beings that live off the life essence of mortals, and that they don’t sparkle.  We both love how cultures worldwide have universal myths, and the ‘vampire’ is one of those.  They all have different names and different powers, and we thought their interactions would be entertaining.  Therefore, this book is about how these groups, who were enemies in the past, find a common enemy that scares them all.  Throw in political intrigue of the era that I can research, and it becomes a fun journey for Chris and I.

Christopher:  First a lame answer and then a more serious answer.  OK… there is this guy, who like, invaded these other guys’ homelands, killed their families, or something, but now some big evil thing is happening, and this not as evil guy comes begging his enemies to, like, bury the hatchet to like fight this greater evil.  Dude.  (Sorry, but I had to indulge in some 80’s Valley-like colloquialisms.)

In our universe, races of blood-drinkers derived from the gods and goddesses of many ancient cultures from the world over vie for power in the ancient world.  The latest backdrop for this conflict is 801 CE, and it encompasses many ancient kingdoms at the time, including the Frankish Empire / Carolingian Empire / Holy Roman Empire (though HRE is not recognized by most scholars until the reign of Otto I and his crowning as Emperor by the Pope in 962 CE).  An evil menace threatens the new Emperor’s ability to protect the people, and so whispers and then shouts of devilry give pretence for Pope Leo III to challenge the Emperor’s dominion over secular matters by claiming the murders are an ecclesiastical matter for the Church.  Woe to the landowners of Burgundy and their serfs, who are caught in the middle of this schism.  Of course, blame cannot reside squarely on “devils” or mortal man, for blood-drinkers whisper and shout into the ears of many, steering the course of human events for their gain from night’s sweet embrace.

I’m curious.  How did spouses become a writing team?  That is a rare occurrence.

Heather: About ten years ago, I wrote a manuscript called Philosopher’s Stone. It was sort of a run-of-the-mill urban fantasy with vampires.  Anyway, one day an editor took a look at it and said that my flashback to sixth century Ireland was entertaining and that it was better than the rest of the story.  I knew that my modern-day story was somewhat dull, and I loved putting my historical research skills to the test.  With some encouragement from Chris, we began to rewrite the manuscript.  At first, Chris just sort of tossed some ideas around, but then he really started to do a lot more than just make suggestions.  So, we worked together and came up with a larger story involving the flashback.

Christopher: Spouses?  Oh… yes, me and… um, wifey… authorey.  I think we to-be-spouses began writing through the dating ritual, which for us lasted some seven years or so, but who was counting?  Heather had written something on her own and had sent it to agents and publishers.  Well, five or so wrote back, and one or two of them said they thought the urban fantasy stuff was overdone, but the ancient stuff was brilliant, and could she re-write a story that just takes place in the ancient history?  Well, somehow she snagged me into this writing bit… not sure whether that occurred before or after I popped the question, but I think our beginning efforts on what would become Morrigan’s Brood book 1 began before we strolled down the aisle.  For whatever reason, she still tolerates me peeking over her shoulder and telling her where to place a comma.

How do you work together on such a project?  Take it in turns?  One writes whilst the other sleeps and then you swap?

Heather: Not quite.  We work on it together.  We sit down, after dinner, during lunch meetings, sipping on coffee and we just sort of talk out various events and piece together dialog. Then I go back home and start typing it out.  The strange thing is that the manuscript usually gets split into two or three books.  I know some authors who swap chapters or characters, but to me that confuses the voice a little.  If we write together, it feels like it’s OUR story, not my chapter, my character, my idea.

Christopher: The mechanics seem simple now… find what one does best and contribute that talent… but it took us a little while to figure out how to be at our best without egos and power trips getting in the way.  In the beginning, we tried swapping scenes, i.e. she writes, then I write, and then she writes, but our voice was not unified.  We soon figured out that I was good at storytelling and she was good at writing stuff down, adding embellishments and setting, and doing research, so we evolved this collaborative effort that we still use today.

Do you use tools like timelines and story boards to help you keep track of all the characters and what is going on in their lives?

Heather: We used to have character bibles, but I think I lost them in a move some time ago.  Sometimes, we’ll write out a timeline, but most of the time I have a fairly good memory for what the main characters are doing.  Sometimes I’ll take some notes on what I think they’re doing.  Then again, we do love creating short stories once in awhile about what happens in the meantime.  Right now we have two that are available for free as an ebook on Goodreads, or if you really want you can pay for them through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Christopher: Um… timeline?  Storyboard?  When we started the series, we had worked up fairly detailed dossiers, including pictures of actors we felt comparable to a character’s appearance, for each key character and several secondary characters.  We had also developed a high-level structure… an outline, if you will, that we intended to follow.  However, we found that our characters actually evolved as we brought them to life, and then they destroyed the outline by hijacking the story and taking it places we had not envisioned.

Heather and I often ask ourselves, “is this what such and such would say in this situation?” or “what would Mandy do?” (‘Mandy’ or ‘Mandi’ is our pet name for one of the characters, Mandubratius.)  We used to keep a log of character changes, referencing manuscript page number, character name, and change, but that became too cumbersome with the sheer number of characters we have created.  So today, we keep much of that information in our heads and rely on multiple re-writes to validate that the right character says “what?!?!” in the right manner with the right context befitting that character.

How often do you get to write?  Do you have a routine?

Heather: We write together every few days.  Sometimes it’s easier to do it outside of the house without the chit-chatting of the katkids.  Lots of times, I’ll do it during my lunch too.  

Christopher: We write in phases, and what phase we are in determines roles and routines.  From a macro-level, we generally complete a manuscript as a first draft before we even look back to edit.  We sometimes deliberately follow a single plot line until we are ready to intersect with another plotline, and then at a later point, we weave, cut up, re-sew, and embellish these threads through successive re-writes.  We also, at a macro-level, often write manuscripts that are the equivalent of 900 or more trade paperback pages, so that manuscript becomes three books.

At a micro-level, at least for the first phase, Heather and I will go out to eat (for some reason, we can’t write at home) and sit down to write out a scene or two.  I generally see the scene, sometimes entire chapters, in my head playing like some cerebral cinema, and I verbalize to Heather what I see and hear.  We generally write a scene from only one character’s perspective, so I sometimes have to translate the omniscient view of the moviegoer to the single-perspective view of the character.  While I am spouting off dialog and character movements, Heather writes it down in her own words, though often she looks at me with incredulity to tell me that Máire would never say that or that I don’t understand women.  Sometimes, we get into a brew-ha-ha about some plot point or dialog, but we work it out and move on.  Boom… end scene.

At some point later, after we have come home, Heather switches on her music and transcribes her short-hand from her notepads (no high-tech gadgets for us… just notepads, pens, and a leather notepad holder I made… check out my Facebook page for pictures) into Word.  Lo and behold, after a while of plugging away at this writing thing, we have a completed rough draft of a manuscript.  Heather then makes a second pass, moving things around, cutting stuff that doesn’t work, and sometimes engaging me to write new scenes.  During her third pass, she breaks the manuscript into chapters and into books.  We then add additional character and plot backgrounds to subsequent books from the manuscript to reduce reader angst at the possibility of forgetting a key element from the previous story.  Next, I have a go at the completed manuscript, then she does, and then it is off to the editor.

World building.  Love it or hate it?

Heather: I love it because it involves a lot of history research and that’s something I’ve always done.  I could spend a year or two researching different eras, geographic regions, and the people that lived during those times.  It’s actually a little difficult for me to pull back and say… okay this is enough and now it’s time to pull our characters into this world, and I do love our characters, so I want their playground to be fun for them, us, and our audience.

Christopher: I personally love world building, whether creating an allegorical world or using our own world, which is what Heather and I have done with Morrigan’s Brood.  It is a world from ancient history and mythology of the old gods and goddesses, and the new.  … a world of ancient societies of blood-drinkers, created by these very same gods and goddesses, who, from night’s sweet embrace, try to steer human events for their satisfaction or to bring them more power.  Yes… world building = good.  Love it.

Which authors do you look up to?

Heather: I have a really strange reading list, but that’s kind of par for the course for most librarians.  I guess the authors I really look up to are my friends, who are on the same course as Chris and I are; the ones who smile when we meet up at cons, meetings, and festivals.   Friends who write and who encouraged me to write, such as Tracy Angelina Evans, Cornelia Amiri, Heidi Ellis, and Lisa Spence, who read our prologue for the first book over a decade ago.  Let’s see, Alison Weir, Morgan Llewelyn, Neil Gaiman, Carole Nelson Douglas, and M.R. ‘Murv’ Sellars are must-haves in my library.  I don’t read vampire books as much as I used to because I don’t want to borrow their ideas accidently, though I read Anne Rice’s works throughout my high school and college days.   

Christopher: My hair looks up to Neil Gaiman for inspiration, though I find his writing quite mind-stimulatingly good.  Among other living authors, I would have to say R.A. Salvatore and Douglas Niles were more recent inspirations with their 1980’s and 1990’s works through TSR’s Forgotten Realms novels.  I had also found early inspiration with Edgar Allen Poe and Jack London, for some reason.  I also look up to our fellow author friends of ours, some of whom we knew before we started writing, but most we met after we began indulging in the craft.

If you could have ONLY ONE thing in your life, what would it be?

Heather: Probably my husband as he’s pretty entertaining, but if we’re talking inanimate objects, that would be my laptop.

Christopher: The love of my wife, Heather.  No fooling.  Full stop.

Aww! How cute! 
What are your favourite times of year and why?

Heather: Fall and winter.  We live in Texas, and it’s simply horrible most of the year.  This is why my summer in Europe was magical to me.  We have winter for about a month in January and February, and the rest of the year is just known as ‘does this heat ever end?’.  Fall and winter are recharge time for me.  Halloween or Samhain is my favorite time of year.  Yes, we’re the crazy Halloween people in our neighborhood.

Christopher: Halloween… no question.  It is the beginning of the time out of time, a period when the veil between this world and the next thins a bit, allowing some to see beyond now at what lies ahead.  Mostly, however, I love scaring kids.  Oh, and I love winter.

Which came first, the idea for the series or your love for history and religious pantheon?

Heather: History and religious pantheon for me.  This series allows us to combine all sorts of things that fascinate us.  I’m one of those people who loves learning new things, but a far better reward to me is sharing that knowledge.  The love of world history, religion, and spirituality is probably what inspired most of the books.

Christopher: Don’t ask me… I just got yanked into this writing thing.  I never thought I would ever write a book… I’ve never been a big reader on my own, except when I had to read something for class that was assigned, but I did read all of those Forgotten Realms novels.  Hmmm… AD&D and my wife both conspired to make me the demented author I pretend to be.  The spark of creation for the series came from Heather, but I already possessed a fondness for history and mythology, so when Heather drafted me to help her write this epic series about blood-drinkers which involved mythology and history, how could I say ‘no’?

This is the 3rd book in the series, how many more books have you got in store for us?

Heather: Honestly, when I started out, I figured it would be just one book.  Then, I realized that we couldn’t leave that universe behind.  So far, we have three books out, two will be coming out soon, and then we have three more that we’re working on at the moment.

Christopher: Well, books 4 and 5 (oh sorry… IV and V) are two-thirds of a trilogy with book 3, all of which take place in 801 CE and involve most of the same characters; both books are complete manuscripts and await queuing in the publishing schedule.  We are today in the process of writing books 6, 7, and 8 of the series, but we have proposed plots for books 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and possibly 15.  We look for obscure yet pivotal events around which to base our stories, for example Caesar’s reconnaissance of Britain in 55 BCE and Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor on the 25th of December, 800 CE.  We have plot ideas going up to the 1960’s, and books 6 and 7 take place around 814 CE, so we have a long way to go.

Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?

Heather and Christopher: We’d say our blog is a great source.  We’re also about on Facebook, Goodreads, Shelfari, LinkedIn, The Library Thing, Authors Den, and a few other places.


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