Scott Oden is a bestselling author of swashbuckling historical fantasy, including his latest, Lion of Cairo. I recently got to ask him about Lion, history, and advice for young writers.
Q: What do you want to tell us about Lion of Cairo?
The Lion of Cairo is an adventure story, part fantasy and part historical, set during the turbulent years between the Second and Third Crusades . . . roughly 1170 AD. Its cast of characters includes shadowy assassins, seductive courtesans, wily thieves, barbarian Turks, a foul necromancer, and a fierce hero who is “known from Seville to Samarkand as the Emir of the Knife”.
It’s a little dark, a little grim, but filled with rousing battle scenes and moments of daring—perfect for a story which takes its cues from Robert E. Howard and the Arabian Nights.
Q: Lion is set during the Crusades. You’ve written other novels set in Egypt’s Late Period and the Golden Age of Alexander the Great. What draws you to a certain historical period?
The people, mostly. That’s what the study of history is, to me: discovering people no different than you or I, who were born, played, learned lessons, fell in and out of love, gave birth, laughed, cried, worked, slept, dreamed, lived, and died. I look for moments of blood and thunder, moments when peace and good order have been thrown out the window . . . moments that call for ordinary men to undertake the extraordinary.
History is full of these make-it-or-break-it moments. Some are well-known, like the Normandy Invasion during WWII or the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae during the Persian Wars; others are obscure or forgotten altogether, like the naval battle at Artemisium that gave the Spartans time to make their legendary last stand or the siege of Halicarnassus where Alexander the Great came within a hair’s-breadth of defeat. Or, in the case of Lion of Cairo, the largely unknown battles between the Christians of Jerusalem and the Muslims of Damascus over control of Egypt. I love these murky corners of history; here, one finds blood and thunder in quantity.
Q: Lion is a blend of fact and fantasy, myth mingling with real historical events and figures. Why did you decide to write a story like that?
In a way, it’s how I see the past. Humans spring from some pretty superstitious roots; our collective literature is rife with gods and devils, witches and warlocks, and all manner of things that go bump in the night. Those who made history were not immune to this unseen world. Even today, in the relatively enlightened world of the 21st century there persists a belief in magic and the occult. Fantasy is simply part of who we are.
One thing most historical fiction doesn’t do well is to tap into the sense of wonder and mysticism a character from, say, the 11th century, would likely possess. We tend to filter our characters thoughts and actions through the prism of our modern worldview—we insulate ourselves from the howling darkness at the edge of the map through science and logic. Such insulation just wasn’t that widespread in the age of the Crusades. Thus, Lion of Cairo has elements of sorcery and Eastern mysticism. Is it real? Is the protagonist’s knife possessed? Do the dead truly speak to the villainous necromancer? I don’t know, but my characters believe it’s real and that’s enough for me.
Q: Name some books that influenced you growing up. Is there one particular book or author that inspired you to try your hand at writing?
As long as I can remember I’ve been a fan of fantasy. I cut my teeth on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I think my life changed for the better when I came across my older brother’s collection of Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales. Howard wrote in a fast-paced, headlong style that seemed to rise up off the page and grab a young reader like me by the throat. Conan was the sort of hero I always wanted to be: cunning, resourceful, and indomitable. But being a pasty kid with asthma and Coke-bottle glasses, I had to settle with living vicariously through REH’s prose.
When I first started writing, at around age 14 or so, I tried to mimic Howard’s style . . . my heroes were men of action with grim pasts and even grimmer futures. My efforts were laughable, at best. After many years of reading all types of books, studying history and English, I think my style has evolved into something close to his but still original enough to call my own.
Q: I happen to know that one of the first things you ever wrote, when you were still in high school, was a self-published roleplaying game called Rogue Warrior. Can you tell us about that?
Way to make me wince, Kris! Yes, my first publishing credit, if you can call it that, was a sword-and-sorcery RPG called Rogue Warrior. It was unbalanced, with characters having an average lifespan of two or three combats—though on the plus side, it took maybe five minutes to make a new character—and it was chock-full of execrable writing. What makes it mildly interesting is that it’s also chock-full of art from a then-teen-aged Cully Hamner (the artist on the original comic series Red, now a movie with Bruce Willis). Cully and I went to high school together.
Otherwise, I’d like to forget Rogue Warrior, now . . .
Q: What advice would you have for a young person who wants to become a writer?
Read, widely and voraciously. Read everything. And start looking at what you read objectively: why did you like it or dislike it? What made it memorable for you, or was it memorable at all? And after you read, write. Carry a notebook with you and jot down your thoughts, feelings, observations. Describe what you see outside your window or on your way to school: smells, colors, sounds, tastes, textures, use the whole palette of human senses to paint a picture of your world, as you see it. Write what you imagine you see, also. Give voice to the creatures that might be lurking at the back of your mind.
And, when the mood strikes, use all of this to tell a story.
Though times, technologies, and industries change, one thing that is essential to anyone contemplating a career as a writer is patience. Boundless patience. Bide your time, hone your craft, research your opportunities, read, write, then read some more. Submit your work to reputable magazines, publishers, and agents . . . and be patient. Publishing can move at the speed of a tectonic plate, though sometimes earthquakes do occur.
Cross-posted on my personal blog.