|Josephmallozzi's Weblog - Author David Weber Answers Your Questions||Jun 2009|
|SF Crowsnest - In Honor I gained them||Jun 2009|
|Wild Violet - David Weber||Jun 2009|
|Adventures in SciFi Publishing - David Weber and Lucas Moreno||Jun 2009|
|Agony Column Podcast - David Weber vs Geekspeak||Jun 2009|
|Black Five - An Interview with David Weber||Jun 2009|
|Fast Forward - March 2007||Jun 2009|
|Fast Forward - April 2009||Jun 2009|
|Wordcraft and War Fiction: An Interview with David Weber||Aug 2009|
|The Author Hour Interview||Feb 2010|
A collection of David's interviews, reprinted with permission.
The following interview originally appeared at josephmallozzi.wordpress.com and is reprinted here with the permission of Joseph Mallozzi.
So on Wednesday, I gathered up the five full pages of fan questions for author David Weber and sent them his way with the understanding that he could feel free to pick and choose among them. After all, he’s an immensely busy guy and you wouldn’t expect him to respond to all five pages. Well, that’s what I assumed – until this morning when I discovered a twenty-three page document sitting in my inbox.
Well, I read it over and found it both enormously entertaining and incredibly informative, not simply with regard to the Honorverse but on the topic of writing in general. Even if you didn’t get a chance to read On Basilisk Station, you really need to check out David’s take on the collaborative process, scene mechanics, and, oh yeah, his resurrection of SG-1’s Janet Frasier.
A huge thank you to David for taking the time to visit with us. A huge thank you to his wife Sharon for helping to organize the Q&A. And a huge thanks to Laura and the gang at Baen for the Weber/Baen gift bags that include all the Honor Harington books, a Baen water bottle, and an advance copy/galley of the upcoming Storm from the Shadows that hits bookstores this March). The two lucky gift bag winners can be found at the end of this entry.
Jon K.: “1. When you first came up with the idea for this book did you see it as a multipart series? 2. When starting a series like this, before writing the actual book did you have to sit down and spend a lot of time coming up with the science, back story, and other elements of the universe? 3. Looking back on this first novel, On Basilisk Station, is there anything you would have liked to change in the story or for that matter in the universe as a whole?
DW: Actually, the Honor Harrington novels were planned as a multipart series from the beginning. “Standalone” books of mine have a tendency to sprout sequels anyway, so Jim Baen asked me to propose a deliberate series. I handed him several concepts (including the Honorverse), only to discover that he’d been looking for someone for about 20 years to do what he thought of as a “Horatio Hornblower in outer space” series. The rest, as they say, is history.
Usually, before I start any book, I sit down and write myself an essay about the universe in which it’s going to be set. That deals with the science, politics, military balance — all that stuff. In the case of the Honorverse, the original essay was about 80,000 words long. By now, the tech bible is up to at least a quarter million words, I’d estimate, including timelines.
There are always small things you wish you’d done differently, even in the most successful book. Overall, though, I’m inclined to say that I wouldn’t have made any significant changes. One reason I say that is that as soon as you start tinkering with one significant detail, there are ripple effects that have a tendency to prove that the law of unintended consequences works in fiction as well as in real life.
Charlie’s Angel: “My question for David Weber: With the incredible detail and woven tapestry of your Honor Harrington series, how do you keep track of all the plot points and character motivations?”
DW: Lots and lots and lots of notes.
Frankly, I don’t know that I could do as good a job as I manage (and I’m not perfect about it, despite my best efforts) in a pre-computer era. Not because I have set up detailed databases, although I did try to keep up with that approach for the first three or four books, but because I have all of the books in electronic format, which makes it easy to do searches for points my memory isn’t completely clear about. I can usually remember approximately where an event took place, or approximately what a character did, and then I can hunt through the electronic files to find the actual passages and make sure that I’m not introducing continuity errors.
As I say, I’m not perfect about it. Another writer — I think it was Poul Anderson — once said “Perfect continuity is possible only for the Almighty, and a close reading of Scripture would suggest that even it failed in that respect upon occasion.”
Iamza: “1. How much work went into researching the gravity drive/walls/waves, etc.? Did you speak with anyone involved with gravity wave research, or was it mostly all done through published journal articles? What made you think of this idea for propulsion/defense to start with? 2. Do you enjoy reading science fiction as well as writing? Do you have any particular favorites that you like to reread often, and if so, what is it about those stories that draws you back again and again?
DW: I can’t honestly answer the first part of your first question, because a lot of my thinking was based on all kinds of stuff that have passed through my mental seines over the years. I didn’t specifically speak with anyone involved in “gravity wave research,” but I have noodled over the details with a couple of physicists, including a fellow from JPL, over the years. To be honest, one of the reasons I decided to work with gravity (and its manipulation) as a means of propulsion and as so central to my technology in general is that we’re still at such a relatively early point of truly understanding it. I’m not saying we don’t understand a great deal about its effects, or how to describe those effects mathematically, or about the ways in which it is naturally generated. What I am saying is that in terms of what we may someday be able to do with it, and how it might be possible to generate/manipulate it, we’re not even at the crystal set level of understanding yet, far less vacuum tubes, transistors, or semiconductors. Heck, we’re not even to the telegraph stage yet . . . although we’re probably at least a little ahead of Ben Franklin and his kite. That means that at this stage the field is pretty much wide open for people like me. I remember another writer, I think it was Larry Niven, who once said that he had discovered an incredibly useful new element for science fiction writers — an element which, assuming the proper isotope was selected, could accomplish literally anything. He dubbed it “Balonium.” Or, as David Drake once put it about the weapons he developed for his Hammers’ Slammers stories, “Exactly how it works is an engineering issue; I’m a concepts kind of guy.” As far as the specifics of the impeller drive are concerned, I also have to admit that the basic concept appealed to me — once I started playing around with it — because it actually gave me a solid reason to reintroduce broadside naval tactics in a three-dimensional combat environment.
I enjoy reading other science fiction, as well as history, detective novels, historical novels, fantasy novels, political science, and — if all else fails — the backs of cereal boxes. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of being a writer, and especially of being a production writer, is that you run out of time to read yourself. When I think about it, I’ve probably been able to do less reading of other people’s work over the last five to ten years than any time since I graduated from high school . . . which, believe me, was a long time ago. As far as what draws me back to the books that I read and reread, I think it’s ultimately two factors: characterization and background. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the books — it’s that simple. Plot is obviously very important, but in the end, it’s seeing how the characters (human or otherwise) deal with the problems they confront that makes a story come alive. The other factor is background, the question of how good a job the writer has done of constructing the universe in which his characters live and breathe. It doesn’t all have to be shown to the reader, but it all has to be there, at least in the writer’s mind, to provide that sense of consistency and texture that makes a fictional world “real.” I always enjoyed that sort of “world building,” but I think probably the writer who actually first made me most aware of it was Anne McCaffrey, who, by the way, is a lovely lady. She’s actually the one who started me thinking in that direction back when I read her first Pern novel when it was serialized — in Analog, I think. Good characters will carry a weak background better than a strong background will carry weak characters, but the kind of books that bring people — or me, at least — back again and again to the same stories are the ones that balance characterization and background and are most successful at it.
Mark B.: “1. What do you enjoy writing most — the relatively tightly focused, independent ship captain stories like the first few HH books or the more expansive stories of the more recent novels? 2. Do you still plan on writing the Stephanie Harrington/Sphinx Forestry Service series one day? I’m very much looking forward to those, but I can certainly understand why they aren’t a high priority being prequels and with everything else you have going on! 3a. I’ve heard you say in other interviews that showing the cost of war is an important part of the series [and rightly so IMO], and that you don’t tend to outline your stories vary tightly before writing. When you were writing OBS, how did you decide which characters survived? Was there a starting plan or did you just let things happen as you wrote? 3b. Have you ever felt at the end of writing a book that not enough sacrifices were made? Or that too many characters died? If so have you ever gone back and changed someone’s states to accommodate those feelings? 4. The heavily detailed universe is one of the most appealing aspects of the Honorverse to me. Has a detailed background ever prevented you from doing something you wanted to, or forced you into doing something you didn’t want to?“
DW: Cheez. Okay, first, I like writing both kinds of stories. Within the context of the Honorverse, though, I always realized that Honor was going to grow beyond the independent captain level. Put another way, I had decided that I was not going to do a James T. Kirk and have her stuck forever as a starship captain just in order to keep her on a tactical bridge. I did give her sufficient political enemies and other factors to keep her there longer than her abilities would normally have permitted, given the military situation the Star Kingdom faced, but I always intended for her to grow to fleet command levels. The reason I make this point is that I enjoy writing series, and the “more expansive stories” were both inherent and inevitable from the outset. For me, and I realize other people’s opinions may vary on this, what matters is more the characters than the specific circumstances of the action around them. That is, I’m equally happy writing about a character’s actions and insights in the world of political infighting and interstellar skulduggery as I am writing about a character’s tactical prowess and courage under fire.
I do still plan on writing the Stephanie Harrington books. As you point out, however, I have a lot on my plate already. Sometimes it’s hard for me to realize that I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, but I look forward to doing it for at least another 20, and hopefully I should get to about — oh, at least 25% of all the stories I still want to write. I suppose it’s much better to have more stories I want to tell than time to tell them in than it would be to have commitments to write books and not have a clue what I want to put in them, but it’s still frustrating to realize I’m not going to get it all done, however hard I try, before “the dark comes down.”
When I was writing OBS, I had a list — smallish — of characters I knew I wasn’t going to kill, at least in that book. I hadn’t specifically earmarked anyone to receive the black spot when I started out, but aside from that handful of people I knew were going to survive, everyone else was potentially mortal. Within that caveat or restriction, depending on how you want to view it, I more or less let the developing storyline dictate who survived and who didn’t. I knew the basic plot line, but there’s a difference between knowing the plot and knowing the story. The first is a skeleton; the second is a complete, hopefully living body, and until you’ve finished it, you don’t really know how it’s going to come out yourself, even if you are the writer. Or, at least, that’s the way it works for me.
One of the reasons I develop the amount of detail that I do in my literary universes is a deliberate effort on my part to introduce constraints. It’s a way to insure against the temptation to provide a “god weapon” when your characters get into really deep kimchi. It also gives the characters a hard and fast “toolbox” with which they have to solve the problems which confront them, and I think that’s a good thing, too. It makes their problems more difficult and it also allows the reader to think along with them in terms of “Now how would I solve that problem?” because he already knows the options available to them. Now, sometimes the constraints can pinch the author’s toes a bit, and part of the art of writing successfully is knowing when it’s time to step outside the original constraints as long as whatever you introduce remains consistent with what you’ve already introduced. There have been a couple of times when the details I’ve introduced, or the “historical flow,” I suppose you might say, of one of my universes has forced me to change my original plans. I suppose the most telling example of that in the Honorverse would be the fact that I had originally planned for Honor to die at the Battle Manticore in the novel At All Costs. That had been totally fundamental to my thinking when I began the series, since she’s actually a Horatio Nelson analogue more than she is a Horatio Hornblower analogue, and the Battle of Manticore was supposed to be the Star Kingdom of Manticore’s Battle of Trafalgar. I realized that the notion of Honor’s death would be somewhat . . . mildly upsetting to some of her fans, and I always visualized it as a high risk move, but that was the plan. The Honorverse wasn’t supposed to end when she died, though; instead it was supposed to resume about 20 years to 25 years after her death with her children as the focal characters. Unfortunately for that plan — although, quite possibly, fortunately for the continued success of the series — it didn’t and couldn’t work out that way courtesy of what Eric Flint had done. When he began writing his short fiction about Victor Cachat, he asked me about a threat which a Manticoran intelligence officer and a Havenite intelligence officer might find themselves pulled together to combat. So I gave him one, without really thinking about the fact that it was the deeply hidden, secret Evil Empire which the Children of Honor were going to be taking on after her demise. His initial story worked well enough that he did a couple of others, and before I realized it, we’d pulled the “hidden threat” too far forward in time. If I killed Honor off at the Battle of Manticore, I wouldn’t have time for her infant children to grow up and replace her before that “hidden threat” came out into the open. So (not without a sense of profound relief, I must admit) she got a reprieve.
TinyPenny: “How were you able to keep the battles straight in your head? Did you have models or drawings so you could remember were each ship was during the events? How did you research the specifics of the ships?”
DW: To answer the last question first, since I designed the ships, I knew what their specifics were. [G] Over the last two or three years, however, I’ve enlisted the support of some very good people in working on the hardware aspects of the Honorverse. Some of them appear (or are in the process of preparing) in the later books as characters — Tom Pope, Bill Edwards, etc. And, of course, there’s Ken Burnside, of Ad Astra Games, whose Honorverse gaming products have led to some fundamental re-examinations of some of my original assumptions which, I think, have strengthened the series and its technical background.
Where the battles are concerned, I don’t use drawings or models. What I do do is to plan out the basic “architecture” of the battle — that is, the starting points, initial velocities and headings, etc. — and then do “time cuts” throughout the battle. Assuming that I began from time “X”, then given the accelerations I’ve specified, where will both fleets be at “X” + 35 minutes? At + 45 minutes? At + one hour? Obviously, I have to allow for changes in heading, as well, and that can get a bit complicated, but once I’ve established my basic data points for each side in the battle, then I have a solid framework and I can pick any given moment and any given range I want for the specific events I deal with. Sometimes I discover that what I wanted to do in the original plan for the battle simply won’t work, in which case I have to either rewrite to create different beginning conditions or else find a different tactical solution. Frankly, the need to find a different tactical solution often ends up improving what I originally planned to. In a way, my characters and I are involved in solving the problem simultaneously, and I think it shows in the final product.
Bridjess: “Have you read the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb and if so did you see any connection with the link between human and animal (cat in this case)?”
DW: I haven’t actually read the books myself. My wife, Sharon, has read them and likes them very much. She’s also reading Hobb’s current series, I believe. I’ve discussed the Farseer books with her to some extent, since we often discuss whatever it is each of us is reading at the moment, but I can’t claim to really be familiar with them. I’d say that probably the biggest difference between the relationship of treecat to human and the relationship in the Farseer books is that the vast majority of humans who are adopted are only partially aware of the linkage or of its depths, whereas the treecats are fully aware of it. And another difference is that the treecats are both fully functional telepaths (at least among their own kind) and a fully sapient alien species. In fact, my original inclusion of the treecats — and of Honor’s link with Nimitz, in particular — was intended in no small part primarily as a toe in the door to eventually explore the second sentient species living in the Star Kingdom of Manticore.
Chevron7: “How do you go about creating your own universe? Does it come bit by bit as you write the story or do you sit down and brainstorm it separately?”
DW: I think I already covered most of this responding to Jon K. I would only add that the starting point for this kind of exercise is quite often a single question or supposition that I start playing around with. As I turn it over in my mind and think about it, it grows and the offshoots of the original thought or concept lead me into a more fully realized and defined literary universe. Probably the single most outstanding example of that would be my Mutineers’ Moon series, which all began from looking up at the moon one night and wondering to myself “What if we don’t actually have a moon at all? What if what we actually have up there is a gigantic, camouflage, extraterrestrial starship? Ooooooohh, shiny!” Because once I started wondering about those things I couldn’t quit until I’d come up with answers, and each answer lead to more questions, which led to more answers, which led to the entire universe in which the books are set.
Thornyrose: “First, could you give us a quick rundown of which books you have scheduled for publication in the next year or so? And which of your series they are a part of? In the Honorverse, might we look forward to a direct military conflict between the Solarian League and Manticore at some point in the future? When you do joint books, are you approached about doing them, or do you seek out other authors? In such cases, how much of the collaboration is yours? (In other words, is your name attached to the book merely to help boost sales, or do you contribute a fair amount to it?) Do you do the mathematics involved in the Harrington books yourself, and who’s the lucky person who has to proof it all? Besides Janet Frazer, have you planted any other nods to Stargate in your novels? (I only picked up that reference on a recent reread.) And what is/are your favorite Stargate episodes? Finally, as an author, is there a genre you have not yet written in you’d like to try? Whether short story, mystery, or straight historical fiction?”
DW: Hooo boy! Okay, let’s see here now . . . .
First, the publication schedule. In March, we have Storm from the Shadows (Honorverse), in which Michelle Henke takes center stage. In July, we have By Heresies Distressed (the third book in the Safehold series). Then, in the last quarter of 2009, we have Torch for Freedom (which Eric Flint is currently working on) and Mission of Honor (which I’m presently trying to finish up), both in the Honorverse. We’re also working on the next Honorverse anthology of short fiction, with a scheduled turn-in date for the stories of April. Frankly, I think we’re going to come in a little late on that, but since the book hasn’t been scheduled for release yet, we’ve got some play in the timing. I’m also supposed to be writing the fourth Safehold novel in the first quarter, and I’ve got a solo novel scheduled for Tor for turn-in sometime around midyear. Exactly when those are going to be scheduled for release, I don’t know. And as soon as I’m done with those Tor projects, it’s back to the Honorverse again.
As far as a direct conflict with the Solarian League is concerned, well, tum-te-tum-te-tum. [G] What I will say is that there is a lot of conflict coming and that what’s happened so far has been mainly prelude, in a lot of ways.
Most of the joint or collaborative works that I’ve done have been my idea. The only time I’ve been specifically approached about doing a collaboration with someone was when Jim Baen asked me if I’d consider doing a collaborative series with John Ringo, who was then not yet published, although that was about to change. I’d read the rough draft of John’s first novel — Hymn Before Battle – (which I’d liked a great deal, but which, frankly, was very rough at that point), and Jim told me that he thought John was a natural storyteller but that he’d never had any training as a writer. He also said that he felt John had a very steep learning curve, and asked me if I’d be willing to do a series with him at least in part as a training exercise. I agreed for several reasons, the most important of which was that I had liked his first solo book so much. And I discovered that Jim was entirely correct about John’s learning curve. In the first book of what became the Prince Roger series, he was very much the newbie; by the second book he was getting his feet firmly under him; by the third book, we were equal partners, although I still had final edit (because someone has to do the final edit on a book written by two people). Given John’s production rate and solo successes, I’d say that, if anything, Jim had underestimated his potential as a storyteller. Which, as an aside, is I think a very important consideration. Learning how to master the mechanics of writing may make you a better storyteller, but it cannot make you a storyteller in the first place. That has to be something you bring to the mechanics with you, which John did. And if you have the storytelling bent, then I believe (your mileage may vary, of course) that it’s much easier to acquire the mechanical skills.
I have never done a collaboration in which my name appeared on the cover only to increase sales. I think that’s an unfair cheat, and I also think — from a purely pragmatic viewpoint — that it’s ultimately self-defeating for the “name” author. I believe word gets around when you do that sort of thing, and I think readers quite rightly feel that you are attempting to take advantage of them rather than provide an honest product. When I do a collaboration, I do it only because I expect to enjoy the project; because I think the final book is going to have strengths that both writers bring to it and neither has alone; and/or because I expect to learn something (or, hopefully, teach something) in the process. (And, by the by, I think any writer who isn’t constantly looking to learn something from his own writing or someone else’s is in serious trouble.) As for exactly how the various reasons for doing collaborations tie in with one another, it varies widely from project to project. I don’t do as many collaborations as some writers; I do more than others. It’s always on a case-by-case basis.
I do the math myself. Mind you, I’d love to let someone else do it, but it’s amazing how few takers there are. [G] Actually, there’s not any practical way to let someone else do it, because I can’t afford to stop, drop an e-mail to someone else, and ask him “Given that launch geometry, what’s the maximum effective powered range of the missile? And how fast is it going to be when it reaches its target? Oh, and how fast will the target be going when the missile gets there?” As a general rule, my copy editors take my word for the math these days. I did have an exchange with a NASA scientist who took me to task for my acceleration figures in one of my books. (Please note that one of the advantages of using the reactionless drive system I’ve come up with for the Honorverse novels is that I don’t have to take into account little things like relativistic mass increase when calculating sustained accelerations.) His problem, however, was that he came up with different numbers from mine. I told him I was confident of my numbers, and he told me that he was glad I was confident, but that they were wrong. So I looked at the ones he’d sent me, and realized that the problem was that I had been rounding to the 10,000ths place . . . and he hadn’t. When I pointed this out to him, his response was silence for a day or two, and then an e-mail that said, more or less, “Well, if you’re going to be that way about it,” followed by a request to know when the sequel to the book was coming out.
I don’t recall any specific Stargate nods other than Janet at this point. There may be another one in there somewhere, but I got ticked off when they killed her off, so I decided to bring her back. What can I say?
I must confess that I have a dreadful memory for episode titles. I think probably from the original series, my two favorite episodes were the ones in which O’Neill and Teal’c get caught in the time loop and keep repeating the same day over and over again and the one in which Daniel initially meets Vala. As to exactly why those two episodes are my favorites, all I can say is that I have a twisted sense of humor.
There are several things I’d like to write — other than science fiction, I mean. I really enjoyed the fantasy novels I’ve been able to do, and I look forward to doing more of them (eventually). In fact, I have a five-volume fantasy magnum opus Baen Books and I plan to do at some point. I also have a complete story arc outline (and the fairly detailed plot outline for the first three novels in it) for a historical series beginning at the start of the American Revolution and continuing through the present day. The problem is that what I’m doing now is sufficiently successful that publishers and distributors want me to do more of it, not wander off to play around with something else, and that it’s using up too much time for me to pursue other genres. I don’t know when (or if) that’s going to change.
GenericWhiteGuy: “In each successive book, your space naval battles make use of ever more powerful weapons and tactics. I think you’ve written a logical progression from one advancement to the next, but has it made each book more difficult to contain yourself so you don’t reach a dead end? [...] Second question: Do you have a plan for the overall plot of the Honor Harrington series? Is there an eventual end to the story you would like to reach?”
DW: The biggest problems with the changes in technology in the Honorverse are (1) that they are inherent and inevitable; (2) that each upward bound in range, effectiveness, and tactical flexibility actually begins to devalue the individual capabilities of the starship captains; (3) that they lead to a “matériel-dominated” feel to the books; and (4) that for the people who aren’t hardware geeks, they tend to become an aside (and frequently an irritating one).
When I say that they are inherent and inevitable, I mean there’s no way for me to avoid them, once I started breaking the centuries-old tactical paradigm that existed at the beginning of the First Havenite War. Once you open that particular bottle, you can’t put the genie back in (not unless you want to adopt some strikingly irrational reasons for it, at any rate), so you have to simply deal with it. When I say that the advances in technology began to devalue the individual capabilities of the starship captains, what I mean is that as weapons ranges extend and the tactical environment becomes more and more dominated by remote sensors, by massive salvos of missiles, etc., then at anything above the single-ship duel between relatively light units, individual maneuvering and adaptability begin to drop to secondary importance. When I say they lead to a matériel-dominated feel, I mean that tactical success and victory become more and more primarily an issue of who has a longer range and can fire off the massive missile salvo first; tactics become a question of how you maneuver yourself into the initial position of advantage to let yourself do that, not how you maneuver once battle is actually joined, and the capabilities of your hardware begin to dominate your operational and strategic thinking. And, finally, for those of us who aren’t hardware geeks (and I am one, in case someone hadn’t noticed), pages of details about how the weapons work tend to get skipped over in pursuit of more “interesting” details. One of the other problems with the evolution of hardware is that, like the evolution of the political situation, the writer really has to keep the reader informed about changes. In order to understand why someone chooses one set of tactical alternatives, you have to understand where the breakpoints in opposing capabilities lie, and that means understanding how that person’s technology differs from that of his (or her) opponent’s. Or, for that matter, from what that person might have had available himself two or three books earlier. So I explain it. Some readers object to that, and I fully understand their viewpoint. Some of those who object simply ignore the explanations while they get on with the rest of the book, while some find it sufficiently objectionable that they don’t read the book. Others read the books for the hardware and only “put up with” the history, politics, and the characters because I will insist on inserting all those boring details.
I’m not worried about reaching a “dead end.” I may eventually reach another plateau point, at which I allow the technologies of the opposing sides to equalize and reach a fully mature level and don’t keep pushing towards the next one, but that’s not quite the same thing.
Yes, I have a very definite plan for the overall plot of the Honor Harrington series. I’ve touched upon that in some of my earlier answers, so I’m not going to go back to all of it now. I’ll just say that there have been some departures from my original plan, but that aside from the time telescoping effect which changed my plans for Honor’s personal demise, the departures have been relatively minor and have consisted more of a couple of side storylines I wanted to follow up on than any shift in where the series was headed. There is an eventual end to the storyline that I’d like to reach, but it’s still quite some way in the future.
Andrew Timson: “(1) How far ahead of time are you plotting the overall arc of the series? I know that you also have the Crown of Slaves and Shadow of Saganami series to think of when you’re plotting the next mainline Honor book. But Honor’s definitely undergone changes over the years, and I’m wondering how much of that you had planned from the get-go. (2) Are there any plans for the anthologies to continue? I’m sure they must be a pain in the butt for you to coordinate, but they’ve been able to flesh out some interesting side stories.”
DW: Again, the overall story arc plotting question is one I’ve touched on above. In relationship to the Crown of Slaves and Shadow of Saganami series, there’s been a slight change in plans, largely because (as I mentioned above) Honor didn’t get killed off in the Battle of Manticore after all. Initially, I intended to keep those two plot strands separate, and one of Honor’s children would have pursued the military career that the Shadow of Saganami books were supposed to lead into while his sister would have pursued the covert operations career that the Crown of Slaves books were supposed to set up. Essentially, the Shadow books were supposed to be the place where I would have relatively junior officers — as in roughly equivalent to where Honor was by the time of Honor of the Queen – so that I could go on fighting the desperate single-ship actions and so forth which Honor had become too senior to dabble in while simultaneously setting up the eventual confrontation with Mesa and its Solarian proxies in the Talbott Cluster flashpoint area. At the same time, the Crown books were supposed to start coming at Mesa from the other side, in a convergence of the Audubon Ballroom’s terrorists, the planet of Torch, and the cooperation of Havenite and Manticoran intelligence operatives even while the war between the two star nations continue. Both of those were supposed to take long enough that Honor’s kids would have time to become fresh-out-of-the-Academy participants in them. When things got telescoped, I changed that concept, however. Instead, what I’m doing now is really advancing the mainstream books on three fronts which are not anywhere near as clearly separated from one another as they started out to be. You’ll see what I’m talking about in March when Storm from the Shadows is released. It’s set primarily in the Talbott Cluster, and the primary senior officer in it is Michelle Henke, not Honor, but it’s very definitely part of the main story arc and, in fact, advances it significantly. The same thing is going to be true of Torch for Freedom (the current title for the second book in the Crown of Slaves “series”). Basically, my canvas has gotten so big now that unless I want to write 600,000-word novels, I have to go to a sort of “dispersed architecture.” So far, I think it’s working pretty well.
Yes, there are plans for the anthologies to continue. The current anthology project is well under way with a scheduled turn-in date of April (although I think we are probably going to miss that by a little bit) and is scheduled to contain stories by me, Jane Lindskold, Tim Zahn, and Katherine Kurtz.
RobyRiker: “What inspired you to write about a space navy? Did you do any research into naval tactics for the novel? Or naval procedures and protocols?”
DW: I think one of the most important rules of thumb for any writer is that he ought to write the sort of stories he likes reading. There are several reasons for that, including the fact that if it’s something you like to read, you’ll probably do a better job of writing it than you would of writing something you really, really hate reading but you figure might sell. Another significant reason, from a commercial perspective, is that there are very few of us who are so unique that there aren’t going to be other people who enjoy reading the same sorts of things we enjoy reading — in other words, there ought to be a market. Writing about a “space navy” was sort of a natural call for me because I’ve always loved science-fiction and I’m a military/diplomatic historian by training, with a particular interest in naval history. The two sort of logically came together. I didn’t do a lot of specific research into naval tactics for the novel, but naval tactics, weapons, doctrines, logistics, and the evolution of all of them have been something I’ve been studying on my own for the last 40 years or so. As far as naval procedures and protocols are concerned, some of it comes under the heading of that same 40 years of study and other parts of it come under the “It’s my Navy; I can organize it anyway I want!” school of writing. Although there’s certainly a “Royal Navy feel” (as in Royal British Navy) to the Royal Manticoran Navy, the truth is that the RMN is conceptually closer to the U.S. Navy in a lot of ways. That’s because it’s a deliberate fusion — one that I didn’t want to be too close an analogue to either of its progenitors.
Suziesbluefeather: “This is the first time I’ve read any of your work and I wanted you to know that I really enjoyed it. I do not usually enjoy military-based books. I really felt like I was there within the action with Honor. What led you to come up with her? And how did you come up with Dame Estelle? I also like her character. You do well with writing influential female characters.
Also I always find it difficult in writing, reading, or even watching action on ships. It does not matter if they are in space or at sea it always feels so confined in limited as to the actions the ship can make and what can be done inside. When I was reading this book I did not get that at all. Do you have any recommendations as to how to write a scene that is trapped in a limited area so it doesn’t feel limited?”
DW: First, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Second, quite a few people have asked me over the years not only how I came up specifically with Honor, but why so many of my books feature strong female characters. In fact, I think I can honestly say that all of them feature strong female characters, and probably in the majority of them the strong female characters in question are also the protagonists. Now, as to why this happens, I really don’t know. The best explanation I’ve been able to come up with is that I’ve known a great many strong women in my life, I’ve liked most of them (not all!), and as the lead characters in stories, I prefer strong, responsibility-taking characters to weak characters. I think there probably has been at least a little bit of enjoyment on my part in putting women into what have been “traditionally” male roles, but that’s never been a significant factor, really. I guess what it comes down to in a lot of respects is that I figure that if we’re on the right track when it comes to questions of gender equality (and I think we are), then by the time of a character like Honor Harrington the question of whether or not we should have specific sharply gender-limited roles is going to be about as significant to those people as we find Pharaoh’s policy towards the Hittites is to us. It’s going to be a done deal, and that’s one reason why I have a problem with far-future science fiction (as opposed to near-future science fiction) in which female characters face exactly the same barriers that women have faced in in the 20th and (so far) 21st centuries. I think that near-future science fiction is a perfectly reasonable vehicle for the exploration of those barriers; I think that far-future science fiction in which the mainstream culture hasn’t dealt with and removed those barriers devalues both the historical process and the inherent strength and ability of women to stand up for themselves and/or perform in those “traditionally male” roles.
As to how to avoid feeling “limited” when dealing with something as small as a shipboard “universe,” it’s one of those things that I’ve never really analyzed in myself, and I’m not really sure that I have any advice to give. I’ll take a sort of free-associating shot at it, though, if you like.
I think that part of it lies in whether or not the characters aboard the ship feel limited or constrained. How they feel about their environment is going to be reflected in how they interact with one another, how cramped and/or confined they feel, and how comfortable they are — in how “natural” their environment feels for them because of a combination of training, experience, etc. Another technique for avoiding feelings of limitation in that sort of environment might lie in finding things for the characters to do. Send them to the gym, for example. Keep them busy doing things. In the “furniture” of the scenes, give them things to touch, manipulate — coffee cups or mugs of hot chocolate, for example — that fill in the sense of space around them. And, I think, another important factor if you’re dealing with a spaceship, in particular, is that occasionally you have to let the characters look outside the hull. The immensity and beauty of the physical universe, even for those of us living at the bottom of planetary gravity wells, is one of the never ceasing wonders of our existence. All too often, we ignore that immensity and beauty even in our own lives, because we’re too tightly focused in on “more important matters” to pay that much attention. Writers also sometimes have a tendency to ignore the visual and physical texture of their characters’ universes in order to concentrate on more “important” things. Every so often, you have to just step back. Let the character look out a viewport, or at a visual display, and really see the stars and planets, the galaxies, which lie right on the other side of the bulkhead. And as the omniscient observer, writing the story, never lose track of that immensity yourself. If you, as the writer, are treating the ship as a platform moving through the depths of space and interacting with the space around it, then the ship becomes a stage and not a confined room somewhere.
I hope that makes some sort of sense. As I say, it’s not really something that I’ve thought about before, so I’m sort of shooting from the hip here.
Judy in SATX: “One of my favorite parts of the novel takes place when Klaus Hauptman is introduced and you provide a quick history on Manticore’s origins. I’ve always been more interested in the sociological and cultural aspects of SF than the technological, so your description of how a technologically advanced human society consciously chose to change from a democratically-elected board to a constitutional monarchy was always intriguing to me. Did you have this in mind when first coming up with the story, or did the universe building happen after you came up with the character of Honor and the plot line? Did you come up with the political machinations between people and systems as you went along, or did you have it mapped out through your first few books?”
DW: When I do my universe-building essays which turn into tech bibles, I actually usually start with the political structures. In the case of the Honorverse, I’d come up with the character of Honor, and I was deliberately reaching for the Napoleonic wars as a template. Mind you, I never intended for the match between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the Kingdom of Great Britain or between the People’s Republic of Haven and the revolutionary French Republic to be as tight as many of my readers assumed. However, I did intend for Honor to come from an aristocracy-dominated society, and when I started structuring, Manticore grew out of that.
Some people have wondered if I have an anti-democracy bias, since I tend to have characters who are living in monarchies, empires, etc., and I also tend to have façade democracies which are theoretically democratic but are actually corrupt. The answer is that it’s not quite that simple. For example, people who have read the StarFire novels that I did with Steve White will find that while there are corrupt “democratic” societies, the “good guys” of the very first novel — Insurrection – are in fact fighting to preserve their democratic way of life against the corruption of the central government. And those who have been following the Honorverse novels all along have seen the shortcomings of an aristocratic society in which those not directly accountable through popular election can warp and twist national and foreign policy, while the “corrupt” People’s Republic of Haven has been reborn as a functional, healthy representative democracy. As a historian, my observation is that any working form of government is a study in dynamic tensions. Once power becomes concentrated, it inevitably begins to become corrupt. It doesn’t matter whether the power is concentrated in a political party which holds dominance for decades, or in the hands of an hereditary aristocracy, or in the hands of a local political machine, the process is always there. It’s my personal opinion that representative democracies have a greater inherent resistance to that sort of concentration of power, given the fact that they overtly enshrine the notion of accountability, but that they certainly aren’t immune to it (especially when that notion of accountability is allowed to fall by the wayside or politicians are allowed to evade it). Conversely, there actually have been examples of dictators and despots who have done quite a lot of good . . . at least initially, which means that any form of government can be — or become — either good or bad.
Hierarchical, non-elective governments (or, at least, power structures) are more susceptible to that sort of concentration of power, but have a certain inherent efficiency in operation as long as the person(s) at the top know what he/they are doing. That makes them attractive in survival situations. Thus we have the Protectorate of Grayson in subsequent Honorverse novels. It also means that I think there will be a tendency towards hierarchical, probably autocratic forms of government for a lot of interstellar colonization efforts, especially those which hit unanticipated crises. So I foresee a lot of these colonies going through the evolutionary process from kingdom/empire/dictatorship towards a more democratic form of government.
From a story writer’s perspective, I find kingdoms and empires attractive because I’m looking for situations in which individuals in leadership positions don’t have to spend all of their time dealing with elections, public opinion polls, and all of that sort of thing.
And, from a final historical perspective, I would simply observe that while democratic government appears to be the only logical ideal from our current perspective, that is a relatively new perspective, historically speaking. There have been far fewer truly functional democracies in the history of mankind than there have been kingdoms, theocracies, and dictatorships. Indeed, one might well argue that if you get past the surface façades, there are actually relatively few functional democracies in existence today. Some of the ones we have are very large and very powerful, but they’re still in the minority as a percentage of the world’s total governments.
Sorry. I seem to have wandered just a bit afield of your original question here. But that’s your fault. You’re the one who brought up “sociological and cultural aspects of SF.” Now see what you started? [G]
Antisocialbutterflie: “Firstly, I would like to thank you for a wonderful book and for answering our questions. (1) I was incredibly impressed with the character of Honor. Was there any person who inspired you to create such a strong female character? Was there any one whom you based the character on? (2) You seem to have a rather extensive grip on the physics of your universe and your technology. What resources did you turn to when creating your universe?”
DW: Thank you for the compliments on the book. I think I’ve already pretty much answered your second question up above in response to other readers, so I’ll concentrate on your first one.
I wouldn’t say that there was any specific person who inspired me to create such a strong female character. If you mean have there been influences in my life — as in people who were influences in my life — who have made me aware of and comfortable with strong female characters in general, then, yes, there certainly have been. My mother, for one. My current wife, for another. I can easily think of at least another half-dozen women who have been strong people, responsibility-taking people, who were also pivotal figures in my life. My basic observation has been that it doesn’t matter how your chromosomes or your plumbing might be arranged. What matters is whether or not you are ready, willing, and able to stand up for yourself, your beliefs, and your obligations. I’ve known at least as many women who are all of those things as I’ve known men who are, just as I’ve known both men and women who are none of those things.
My wife, Sharon, is a very strong person. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her fragile points, just as I do. But this is a woman who’s had three major spinal surgeries, who got her first job when she was 12 to help her mother make ends meet and it was pretty much just the two of them against the world, and who has faced adversity on her own two feet for as long as I’ve known her. I won’t say she’s the inspiration for Honor Harrington, but there’s definitely a lot of her in Honor, just as there’s a lot of bits and pieces from other strong women who I’ve known over the years.
Shirt’n'Tie: “Thank you so much for answering all these questions. Thanks also for a great book! I understand Forester was an inspiration, and I’m sure many will have asked about other influences and how you got started, etc., so I’m going to ask a little off-center question. I loved the front cover of the book, how much editorial control do you have when choosing the image? Does the Honor on the cover represent the Honor you had seen in your head as you were writing her? Also, the breadth and broad scope of this type of writing must be a nightmare to edit? Is there a specific system you have, or do you leave it to your publishing house’s editors?”
DW: To be completely honest, I’m not absolutely certain which version of the cover you’re talking about! [G] The more recent Honor Harrington covers have all been the work of David Mattingly, who is one of the most conscientious artists I know when it comes to getting the details right. Generally speaking, for example, if there’s an error in Honor’s uniform, it’s my fault, not David’s.
Most publishers feel — with justification, I might add — that where cover art is concerned, authors are as little children and should be kept far, far away from the process. Some people may find it odd that I say this, since I’m one of those writer people, but they should reflect on the fact that I also spent about 20 years working in marketing, which gives me a somewhat different perspective on what cover art is supposed to achieve, and also means that I spent those same 20 years working with artists trying to successfully execute concepts, whether mine or a client’s. Out of my own experience, I know that giving an artist too much direction guarantees that you won’t get the artist’s best work. What will happen is that a conscientious artist will start trying to follow direction rather than relying on his or her own talents and interpretive ability. From a marketing viewpoint, the function of the cover is to attract the attention of readers who are likely to enjoy (i.e., purchase!) the book. Now, I’m not a great believer in putting a stunning blonde on the cover of a book which is about a brunette, Eurasian heroine. I don’t care how many books that cover is likely to sell; it’s just plain wrong. But I think that writers (and I’m not an exception to this observation) tend to have particular, favorite scenes in the book that they’d really, really, really love to see on the cover . . . but which might very well not be the most effective scenes from a marketing perspective.
After a certain point, a writer begins to “earn” greater input into what goes onto the covers of his books. In my opinion, however, it’s unwise for him to try to insist on controlling the art. I think it’s entirely appropriate for him to look at the proposed art and say “Oh, no! I hate that!” if it really sets his teeth on edge, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for him to say “We are going to use this scene, and I want her eyes to be looking to the left, and his eyes to be looking to the right, and in the background, I want to be sure we get that nice begonia I described. Oh, and don’t forget the polkadots on his vest!” That kind of control and micromanagement is not likely to produce an effective cover.
Having said all of that, I have to admit that David’s (that’s David Mattingly’s) Honor does not look exactly as I have visualized Honor looking. On the other hand, if I were a graphics artist, and not a writer, then I could have drawn her myself. I can’t do that. I really, really like David’s covers. Some of them I’ve liked more than others, but I can’t really think of a Mattingly cover I’ve disliked. And if his iteration of Honor doesn’t exactly match mine, it also doesn’t jar with the descriptions in the books, and it’s consistent from cover to cover. So, overall, I’ve been extraordinarily pleased with Baen’s decision to pair his art with my books. And yes, generally speaking, I do see the preliminary sketches and have the opportunity for input, and David is almost always very careful about seeing to it that I get to see the final product at the same time Baen does.
Iamaza: “You know, every time Nimitz showed up on the page, I was reminded of James Schmitz’s Telzey Amberdon stories and Telzey’s telepathic pet companion, TT. I loved those books . . . For the longest time, I thought the reason I kept thinking of Telzey and TT was because Nimitz had been named for Schmitz. Of course, when I remembered Schmitz’s surname correctly, it was obvious this was not the case. So, was Nimitz named for the Fleet Admiral? The aircraft carrier? Something/someone else?”
DW: Nimitz is named for Chester Nimitz, the fleet admiral for whom the aircraft carrier is also named. (But I bet you already knew that! [G]) Later on, when Honor gets to bestow “two-leg” names on some more male treecats, she comes up with names like “Farragut,” “Nelson,” “Hipper,” and “Togo.” All of them, you will note, wet-navy admirals.
Holly: “Mr. Weber — I was curious about your background. Do you have any personal military experience? Do you have special training or education in a particular field that has contributed to your writing? Who do you enjoy reading when you want to pick up a good book? Anything on your nightstand now? And how about your wife? I’m always curious about whether spouses of writers share the same taste in books.”
DW: I’m not sure, but I may hold the record for attempts to enlist in the navy. My older brother served a hitch in the Navy, but when I turned up, with migraine and seizural headaches, bad eyes, deafness in one ear, and torn cartilage in a knee, the friendly local naval recruiter more or less told me thanks but no thanks. So did his successor. Now, his successor’s successor told me that if I’d go away and come back with a masters degree, he could probably get me a limited line staff commission, which wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, so I gave up and told him thanks but no thanks. Later on, when I was in graduate school, one of the professors who held a major general’s rank in the Army Reserve and taught every year at Leavenworth, told me that it was either a very good thing or a very bad thing that the recruiters had turned me down. I would, he said, either have gone far . . . or else been thoroughly miserable because of my inability to tolerate fools, given that some of the fools I would have been encountering would have had shiny things on their collars and shoulders or, in the case of the Navy, nice rings of gold braid on their cuffs.
I have, however, a great many friends who are current-service or ex-military, pretty much from all branches, but probably more Marines than anyone else. My brother-in-law, for example, spent the better part of a quarter century as a Marine, and I was taught firearms safety and marksmanship by another Marine. I also served as a mentor in graduate school to a couple of special forces guys who the Army wanted to get credentialed for further promotion. So while my own personal military experience is nonexistent, I have several “resources” I can call upon when a specific question puzzles me.
My own training is as a historian, with primary emphasis on military history, and secondary emphasis on political and diplomatic history, and I imagine you can probably see certain echoes of that training in my novels. The fact that I supported myself, one way or another, as a writer from about the time I was 18, also contributed, I’m sure. I’ve done newspaper stories, travel articles, advertising, training brochures, HUD studies, radio scripts, television and radio advertising, and just about any other type of public relations/public information writing you could name. That kind of experience gets you accustomed to meeting deadlines and to taking editorial criticism.
I don’t have as much time as I’d like to have to read anymore, but I have entirely too many writers whose work I enjoy to single any one or two of them out. I like Vernor Vinge, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Greg Bear, Tim Zahn, Anne McCaffrey, Eric Flint, and bunches of other currently producing writers. As far as the “oldies but goodies” go, I’m a huge fan of Roger Zelazney, H. Beam Piper, Heinlein, Keith Laumer, Poul Anderson, Fred Saberhagen, Murray Leinster, Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Howard, Sprague deCamp, and the list goes on. I also like techno-thrillers, and I am an incredible sucker for a good historical novel.
What’s on my nightstand right now, actually, is CS Lewis and Anne Rice’s latest novel (which doesn’t have anything to do with vampires), and, believe it or not, Norman Friedman’s design history of United States destroyers. Of course, what with deadline pressure and three children under the age of eight, reading time for Dad is somewhat limited. But I’ve just finished reading Prince Caspian to them, and we’re currently negotiating to see whether we do The Silver Chair or The Last Battle next.
Sharon and I enjoy many of the same books, but overall, our reading tastes are quite different. She certainly doesn’t share my fascination for military hardware and military history, and techno-thrillers aren’t exactly her cup of tea, either. She does like a good historical novel, and she and I are both very fond of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels. (For that matter, we were very fond of the television series, short-lived though it was.) She read all the Harry Potters before I did — they were strongly recommended to her by Joan Saberhagen, Fred Saberhagen’s wife — although I’m the one who’s now read the first . . . three, I think, to the kids.
By and large, we probably read more books that are different from one another than we do the same titles. And one thing she definitely doesn’t read are my books, but there’s actually a good reason for that. Unlike me, Sharon literally cannot stand to read a book when someone’s told her how it ends, and she has to put up with me working out the details of my books as I go along. I frequently try passages on her or ask her opinion about plot notions, and in some cases (like anything to do with swimming, for example) she’s one of my expert sources, etc. So by the time the book is finished, she already knows what’s in it as wel