#WIPjoy summer 2017: The Star-Studded Black

These are all my WIPJoy answers for the summer 2017 edition, revised and expanded from the social media answers. I’ve bumped it to the front page for that reason. Enjoy!

Day 1: who are you, and what are you writing?
Since you’re here, I imagine you have some idea as far as the first question goes. If not, there’s an ‘About’ page.

I’m writing a novel-length piece called The Star-Studded Black, set in the same universe as my debut novella We Sail Off To War. They take place in a hard science fiction universe in the middle of an all-out war, and both focus on characters’ experiences rather than the grand sweep of things. I find that the most relatable military history and military fiction does the same.

Day 2: describe your protagonist in seven words.
Lloyd Church, war correspondent: old-school. Trilbies, pen and notepad, newsprint.

Day 3: what was your first inspiration for this project?
I’m going to cheat and cite two.

First off, the setting for The Star-Studded Black features the Naval Arm of the Confederacy of Allied Worlds experimenting with a new class of ship: the gunboat. Small but heavily-armed, agile, and cheap, they’re well-suited to commerce raiding, fleet reconnaissance, and a number of other tasks, which our heroes discover over the course of the story. The idea for a gunboat story came from some reading about the Civil War. The Union had a fleet on the Mississippi River; at the outset of the war, they were all ironclad gunboats of idiosyncratic design. I wanted to do something similar, so I spent some time thinking about what sort of space terrain mirrors a river, and came up with asteroid belts and planetary ring systems. Both are constantly changing in terms of navigational hazards (though an asteroid belt isn’t much of a hazard). A working ship in such an environment should be small and have powerful engines, given that the obvious kind of work to be done is moving objects around. I won’t say any more, because doing so would give away a plot point.

The inspiration for Lloyd Church, war correspondent, comes from something I’m reading right now. A year and a half ago, I was at the local library’s used book sale. I came across a volume called William Russel, Special Correspondent of the Times. Active from about 1850 to 1890, he was the first true war correspondent and a roving journalist for the Times of London. Through his descriptions, the Victorian world comes to life, and I wanted to write a similar figure.

Day 4: what are three books which go well with your work in progress?
1. Master and Commander, or any Jack Aubrey book: although I don’t go quite as far as David Drake in writing seafarers in space, I do aim for that aesthetic in many ways. The classics of the genre deserve a spot on your shelf.

  1. Red Storm Rising: Tom Clancy is basically the Rembrandt of military fiction. I don’t delve as deeply into politics in The Star-Studded Black, but I hope to write something similarly thrilling.

  2. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: an interesting read on a frequently-glossed-over topic in Civil War history, and the best source on the gunboats I mentioned in the previous answer.

Day 5: share a line where your story comes to life.

Lloyd Church was in the dark. He hated being in the dark.


For the last four weeks, he had been all but confined to his spartan quarters in the Caledonian freighter Katherine Anne, where his chief at the Confederate Press had booked him passage to Odyssey.

Life in Katie, as her crew called her, seemed normal enough at first, but Church had since compiled a long list of suspicions about her true purpose. For one, the crew were far too deferential to be merchant sailors. In his experience, only career Navy men could be so polite while saying so little.


Day 6: would you rather spend a week in your universe, or have your antagonist spend a week in ours?

Well, the antagonist in these naval war in space stories is “the horrors of war”, and as far as its presence in our universe goes, that ship sailed quite a long time ago.

To pick a more concrete antagonist, though, the warship commanders opposite our heroes are upstanding, gentlemanly sorts. I wouldn’t say no to having them stop by so I might pick their brains.

On the other hand, spending a week in my universe basically means I get to spend a week IN SPACE, which is pretty cool. I have to say I pick that one.

Day 7: share a line in which the plot thickens.

In which our intrepid correspondent is surprised:

In the belter hangar was what Church took to be a warship, but it was like no warship he had ever seen.


Day 8: what would your protagonist be like as the antagonist?

I’ll answer using the deuteragonist today. Confederate war correspondent Lloyd Church would very likely be United Suns war correspondent Lloyd Church, minus some lingering health problems from time in Caledonia.

Ship’s Lieutenant-in-Command Aubrey Harper, on the other hand, is more interesting. She’s part of the Naval Arm’s Special Action Group, where all the off-book projects end up, and while she enjoys the work, she hasn’t had much opportunity to distinguish herself as a commander. She has a knack for it, and Exile frigate captain or fleet admiral Aubrey Harper would be a formidable foe, given time to settle in. Daring, canny, and inventive are a dangerous combination of traits for a commander.

Day 9: what would your antagonists be like as protagonists?

I make my antagonists, for the purpose of this question, to be Exile captains. The short answer is ‘less effective’. The long answer starts below.

The Exiles—properly speaking, the United Suns—have their genesis in a splintering of the original colonization project which founded the Confederacy of Allied Worlds. Owing to disagreements which are too nuanced to recount here, one ship was exiled from the five-ship colony fleet. Four carried on to form the Confederacy. The remaining ship, locked on a different course by the other four, became the first world in the polity which would eventually become the United Suns. They never quite got over it, and their distaste for the Confederacy only increased when the Confederacy instituted exile as a form of capital punishment.

Fast forward 340 years or so. The United Suns make contact with the Confederacy. They have war on the mind—a war of conquest, yes, but also a war of revenge for three centuries of slights. Their spies bring back information on the Confederate Naval Arm, and their shipyards build their fleet with an eye toward beating their most hated foe.

The Exile War kicks off, and Confederate captains find themselves outgunned. The insufficiently crafty ones die. The Exile Navy, at the time of The Star-Studded Black, has not yet faced that kind of selective pressure.

Day 10: talk about a favorite side character.

Meet Leading Sailor John Ellet. He’s an ambitious young man in his early 20s, who, as the junior man in his boat, got stuck with minding the war correspondent. He takes to the task with aplomb. Not content with his lot among the ship’s enlisted company, he’s looking to join the Naval Arm’s officer corps by taking the qualification test in a few years, once he gets his warrant. Our reporter Mr. Church thinks he has potential.

He’s named for a number of Ellets who served the Union in the Mississippi theater. They weren’t regular soldiers or sailors; they were private citizens who purchased a number of river tugs, armored them, added ram bows, and placed themselves under the command of the Union forces in the theater. Private soldiering at its finest.

Day 11: what parts of your story are based on personal experience?

Pretty much none. I’ve never served in a military, written for a newspaper, or been to space. That said, ‘write what you know’ is a terrible slogan for authors of fiction (provided you interpret it as ‘write what you’ve experienced’). If we all stuck to that advice all the time, we wouldn’t have speculative fiction at all. “Speculative” is right there in the name.

Day 12: share a line you nailed.

In which we meet our intrepid war correspondent:

Lloyd Church was in the dark. He hated being in the dark.


Day 13: would you rather never publish this WIP, or watch it be turned into a horrible movie?

From a crassly financial perspective, I’d much rather watch it be turned into a bad movie. Not only do I, in this scenario, have the money from selling the movie rights, I also have a book which sold well enough to in turn sell movie rights to.

Day 14: share a GIF which represents your main character’s personality.

Bonus: this is war correspondent Lloyd Church and, at present, me.

Day 15: share a line in which a decision is made.

Once again, it’s more than a line. My characters don’t do single-line things. Starting now:

“Did he mention the prize incentives?”

As one, every Navy man in the room leaned forward ever so slightly.

Harper stifled a smile. “I see he did not. No ten-percent prize if we destroy a target off his list. No, the Navy pays us the full appraised value, whether or not we bring it back.”

Church could see the avarice sparkling in the sailors’ eyes.

“Which is why,” Harper continued, “we won’t be hunting them in particular.”


Day 16: pick an ideal reading spot, musical number, food, and drink for your work.

Food and drink: something roasted, and a classic cocktail. (An Old Fashioned, say.)

Place and music: see this video.

Day 17: something you’re still working out.

That would be the main character’s voice. I haven’t quite decided yet if he’s direct and plainspoken, or eloquent and literary.

Whichever I pick, it bears heavily on editing. Unlike We Sail Off To War, which was a story about Winston Hughes narrated in the voice I commonly use for Exile War stories, this story is supposed to sound like Lloyd Church. (I toyed with the idea of writing it in the same old-time war-correspondent-memoir mode I’ve read in 19th-century newspaper archives, but passed on that as too gimmicky.) When I have Church altogether figured out, I’ll have to go back and put his voice in through the whole story.

Day 18: share a thought which keeps you going as an author.

It’s less a thought and more a routine. The steady drumbeat of serialization deadlines keeps me honest. For The Star-Studded Black, I plan on setting some milestones through the end of 2017 and mid-2018; by that time, I need to be done if I plan to hit my 2018 release date.

Day 19: share a line which was hard to write.

I can’t, because I haven’t written it yet. Suffice it to say that this is a war story. People we like die. That’s the nature of war. For all the fun I have writing these, I dread having to write the consequences.

Day 20: would you rather have tea with your antagonist, or be stuck in an elevator for three hours with your main character?

Lloyd Church is a fascinating man with a lot of stories. I’d probably aim to finagle more than three hours of his time.

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