Got dragons? Naomi Novik does, and she, along with fellow military fantasy writers Chris Kennedy, David Weber, and James Hunter, were more than happy to talk about how they factor the fantastical into their writing. A full crowd was on hand Friday afternoon in Hyatt Embassy EF to listen and learn about the ways these authors weave our reality and theirs together.
Neither Novik nor Weber have any actual military experience, with Weber describing himself in his younger years very much like Steve Rogers pre–super solider serum. Both have extensively researched for their respective writing time-periods, and have people who have military backgrounds to bounce questions off of, but Weber doesn’t believe lack of personal experience is a problem. “None of us have actual experience with being a starship captain,” he pointed out. Novik specifically, because she writes in historical periods, seeks out first-person accounts from as close to the time-period as she can get.
Kennedy and Hunter, on the other hand, are both vets; however, they don’t necessarily write the type of military they served in, so their experience doesn’t negate research, nor does it shield them from criticism. Hunter pointed out that yes, it’s easiest to write what you know, but for many things, especially contemporary fiction, you can not only research and talk to others, but you can go to a firing range, or a re-enactment where you can pick up and learn the fundamentals of various types of weaponry. Accuracy is vital to storytelling, but you have more wiggle room when you’re dealing with something that you created. If your weapons actually exist, please get them right!
A question posed was how they match real weapons against magic and magical creatures. Novik chose her time period, which is the Napoleonic era, because that was the time that it made the most sense to have her dragons, given the technology and the design of her dragons. “If you have a dragon, do you need a howitzer?” wondered Hunter, who went on to talk about the importance of figuring out what the limitations you want to build into your story, so that your magic and/or creatures aren’t invincible. “Magic can’t be too nebulous. If you can just say ‘well, I hand-wave away the problem because magic,’ that’s a really boring, terrible story.”
Looping back to criticism, the panel was asked about a favorite moment when readers had called them out for flaws in a story. “Where are all the cows coming from?” is a popular question to Novik, whose dragons eat a considerable amount of fresh beef. A Duke University PhD made a comment about one of Kennedy’s books that “obviously this person doesn’t understand antimatter.” So when he finished his next book, Kennedy offered the manuscript to this reader to take a look at. What ended up happening was the reader gave his PhD-candidate class a project to figure out how the antimatter suits would work. A cutting review Hunter received once said in part that the author clearly didn’t know anything about the Marines, or combat. “… I would challenge you to a duel,” Hunter (a former Marine Corps Sergeant) responded, in jest. Maybe. Weber’s favorite fan criticism came when he received an email from a NASA scientist, telling him his acceleration numbers were off. They had a back-and-forth about what the numbers should be, until Weber replied that he’d “rounded to the thousandth place, you know.” “Oh, well in that case…” was the response.
To wrap up the panel, each author shared how they keep track of their worlds and if they have a story bible, so to speak. Novik does not; she relies on the fan wiki, which is quite comprehensive. Weber accidentally wrote a character into a completely different star system than they should have been in, and had to decide which version he liked better. “That’s what really happened; that other thing, he’ll wake up in the shower.” Hunter uses beta readers who are hardcore fans, so they check for canon errors for him. Kennedy simply pointed out he killed a (minor) character twice.