Science fiction and fantasy have always captured my imagination—they offer endless possibilities.
Marshall Maresca is a Book Country member from Austin who primarily writes city-based traditional fantasy—a place where urban, epic, and traditional fantasy stories coalesce. On his blog, he lets readers look under the hood and see maps from his fantasy worlds. For the member spotlight, we chat with Marshall about his books, fantasy worldbuilding, and writing villains.
Nevena: Thanks for joining us. Let’s get to brass tacks: when did you start writing and what inspires you to carry on?
Marshall: I was dabbling for quite a while, more talking about what I wanted to write instead of actually writing it. In 2007, though, I went through a bit of a crisis of vocation—I had been saying I wanted to be a writer, but what was I really doing about it? So that’s when I put my nose to the grindstone to really get projects done. And, now, with three novels out shopping with my agent, and a fourth about to go out, I’ve come too far to give up!
Nevena: That’s fantastic—fingers crossed! So why do you write fantasy and sci-fi? How do these genres resonate with your inner storyteller?
Marshall: Science fiction and fantasy have always captured my imagination—they offer endless possibilities. What excites me most about them is the freedom to explore something culturally that can’t or doesn’t exist in the real world.
Nevena: Walk us through your creative process on how you come up for ideas for books.
Marshall: The core of my process comes from outlining. I come in with a strong sense of who my primary characters are, but I can never get going until I’ve prepared a roadmap for myself. I’ve actually put together a twelve-part outline structure based on my own research of storytelling and novel structure. Breaking out the outline involves writing a paragraph or two for each of those twelve sections. Once I have that, I’ve got the spine of the whole story.
Nevena: That’s fascinating. How about worldbuilding? What are your particular strategies in that area?
Marshall: I’m a big believer that the first step is geography, and geography will dictate your options in terms of agriculture, and that will dictate options for cuisine. Once you have a sense of those aspects of worldbuilding, you’ve got your foundations for culture. That’s literally just the foundation; I could go on and on about the subject.
I also think research is key. Every worldbuilder should read Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond. Some other good books for foundation research:Collapse, also by Diamond; The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan; Saltby Mark Kurlansky; The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. That last one is great for a sense of science-as-history.
Nevena: You’ve finished three books. What’s your “pet” project at the moment?
Marshall: I just finished a rough draft of Way of the Shield—a fantasy political thriller of sorts. I’ve described it as a fantasy mash-up of Les Miserables, The Last Samurai and The Pelican Brief. One of the motivations of this book was to dig deep into the politics of the world where I’ve been working . A lot of fantasy settings are based in monarchies, and I wanted to explore a more democratic, voice-of-the-common man method of fantasy. Also, I’ve built this world past the more traditional medieval/renaissance type setting, to something a little more Dickensian—but I still had this central character who was part of an old school knightly order. A lot of fantasy books have those sorts of orders—and there comes a point in culture where the forces of civilization (e.g., a standing army and police force) render such an organization pointless. I wanted to explore what it’s like being part of something that’s becoming obsolete.
Nevena: Which part of that book was the most challenging to write, and how did you overcome that?
Marshall: I hit a real roadblock about a third of the way through, and it took me a while to figure out the problem. For a while, I wasn’t taking my antagonists seriously. I had made them one-dimensional buffoons, and so who they really were didn’t matter. Which made the book stop dead in its tracks. Once I had my head around that problem, then I was able to get it moving again.
Nevena: So the lesson is: take your villains seriously.
Now let’s switch gears: what do you do when you’re not writing? You mention in your bio you’re an amateur chef. Tell us more about it.
Marshall: My wife and I run Spanish classes and camps for children and adults, and that includes a culinary component. But I’m also constantly dabbling with food, and food is such a big part of culture, so I always put that back into the books. I try and write very specifically about food, and there’s no dish in any of the books that I haven’t actually made.
Nevena: That’s impressive. And I have to ask, why are you on Book Country?
Marshall: I met Colleen Lindsay at a conference in Dallas, just before Book Country went live for beta. (At the time I think she was calling it the Secret Project.) That brought me in on the ground floor.
Nevena: Is there anything else you want to share with the Book Country peeps?
Marshall: I’m also one of the coordinators for the ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop (with the fantastic Stina Leicht). The convention is taking a year off in 2013, but will be back next summer. So if you need an excuse to come to Texas in the summer, it’s a really excellent convention and a very valuable workshop. Even if I wasn’t coordinating it, I’d highly recommend it.
Nevena: Thanks for the rec, Marshall. Good luck with all of your writing projects.