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Story behind A Discourse in Steel by Paul S Kemp

So, what’s behind A DISCOURSE IN STEEL?  The ghost of Fritz Leiber, maybe?  My unholy love of Fafrhd and the Mouser and Conan and sword and sorcery generally? My even more unholy love of whisky and ales?

Probably all of the above, to a greater or lesser degree.  Greater in the case of whiskey, obviously.  

More seriously, what’s behind the story are my regular re-reads of Leiber and Howard (with some Brackett and Burroughs thrown in for good measure) and the way they made me want to strap on a loincloth and go out and have adventures, by the Gods!  Well, maybe the loincloth is a bit much (maybe), but you get my  point.

I first read Lieber and Howard when I was a kid, and they struck me even then as wondrous tales.  I appreciate them even more now.  They’re unabashed, unselfconscious, non-ironic adventure tales.  Ripping yarns.  Full stop.

In short, they’re a goddamned blast to read.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have something to say, of course. It just means the narrative never loses track of itself as primarily a great adventure story designed to make readers keep flipping the damned pages to see what happens next, grinning wide at the witty dialog the whole time.   

And because I loved those stories so much (in an unholy way; I mentioned that, yes?), I wanted to write one.  And I did, by Crom, and the result was THE HAMMER AND THE BLADE, which is the first Tale of Egil and Nix.  And then THE HAMMER AND THE BLADE got drunk, hooked up with a lovely sword and sorcery yarn that will go unnamed, and the offspring of that one night stand was A DISCOURSE IN STEEL, the second Tale of Egil and Nix. 

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As it was with HAMMER, so it is with DISCOURSE -- I’m trying to write a story that is, foremost, a ripping yarn, an unabashedly entertaining, goddamned fun adventure story, albeit one with a point to make. 

Funny thing is, I pitched A DISCOURSE IN STEEL to Angry Robot with just a couple paragraphs. They read it, liked it (they’re weird that way), and, to my surprise, didn’t require an outline.  “We trust you to deliver the goods,” said they.  “Awesome,” said, I, immediately followed by, “Oh, shit.  I still need an outline.”

Why? Because I always work from an outline.  In fact, writers who work without outlines are not to be trusted.  NOT TO BE TRUSTED.  ;-)

Even more important than the outline, though, was the hook.  This is sword and sorcery, baby, and sword and sorcery ain’t sword and sorcery without a great opening hook.  What to do?  Woe and alack. So I writhed, prayed to dark gods, engaged in the bloody rituals of authorial self-mortification, sacrificed finally the whiskey gods, but just could not come up with what I wanted.  And then…bingo.  

I was reading THE WEIRD (which is a great anthology, btw) and read one of the many short stories in it.  I don’t remember the name of the story, but it was early on in the book, so it must have been a very old tale (the stories are in chronological order, starting with some written in the 19th century).  Anyway, this story had a kind of throwaway reference to a magical/mystical street that moved around.  I was taken with that idea right away. Hell, I went to sleep thinking about it.

The next day on my drive home, inspired by that magical street, I thought up Blackalley (I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t’ read DISCOURSE, but Blackalley plays an important role in the tale).  I dictated all the important facts of Blackalley on a Dragon Diction app for my iPhone.  

Sounds easy, yeah?  Except that this was not long after having my tonsils torn from the flesh of my throat.  So, you know, my diction was terrible (owing to the horrific pain and scarring in my throat, natch).  Needless to say, the dictation came out all kinds of fucked up.  IT was like a foreign language.  For a while, I was sure Dragon Diction was just fucking with me.  It is, after all, a Dragon, amirite? 

Anyway, I was eventually able to piece together my thoughts and get them dictated and viola: Blackalley came to life.  From there, the rest of DISCOURSE just flowed.  And that wasn’t a surprise.  Once I get started on the Egil and Nix stories, they come pretty easy.  They’re just a blast to write, Nix’s voice is enormously compelling, and I just have a ball.  Hell, I just hope readers have as much fun reading the book as I did writing it.


Paul S Kemp
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