Monday 3 October 2016

Meet Author Kat Caffee,

K Caffee is a writer of fantasy fiction – boasting a catalogue of novels in her Followers of Torments series, plus a selection of companion novellas too – and she's stopped by the blog to chat about her work. Kat's thorough in her answers - so grab a coffee, settle down and enjoy the chat...

Hi Kat, and welcome to AI. For readers of the blog, I should mention that we first bumped into each other out there in social media land, where I can honestly say you're something of a powerhouse for promoting other people's work! We'll come back to that in a bit, but first let's start with your series, which I understand got its first spark from a roleplaying campaign. Tell us a little about that genesis. Also, the series focuses on the life of Nameless, a child born to become a gladiator, a gladiator born to ascend to greatness through a series of arenas in the novels. That's a brutality and intensity that's far away from many a roleplaying campaign – what drove your narrative along that path?

I was part of an online chat platform called “IMVU”, and gravitated toward the role-play rooms. Most of those are not human-character friendly. The one where I had at least one person I knew REALLY was anti-human unless you were someone’s lunch or pet (submissive slave). The real me fits neither of those descriptions, and so I had to come up with something else.

I’m not really into vampires – I like to have characters that aren’t limited to any time of day, or type of weather – so that also ruled out the other dominant species: the werewolves. I lurked for a while, trying to get a better feel for the room’s atmosphere before I made up my mind what type of creature I wanted to come up with. If you’ve already guessed the room had a rather dark/evil twist to it, you’re spot on. I dug through my extensive library of characters played through various Dungeons and Dragons game campaigns to see if I had any that would fit, and came up with nothing. Even when I was running the games, I tended to have good guys (or at least stupid idiots) as my characters. That meant I had to start digging deeper.

I did a little research online for something that wasn’t necessarily “good”, and definitely wasn’t human. I also wanted a race I could wrap my head around. I’ve got a good imagination, but when you’re learning new game rules, you really need to be able to see life through your character’s eyes. I eventually wound up on the White Wolf Changeling: The Dreaming pages, and found what I thought I was looking for – their Pooka. Mischievous scamps – I can do that. They bring laughter and joy – yup, that works for me too. And they love to help – that was the clencher.

I introduced my first pooka into the room, but it soon became apparent he wasn’t going to fit in – too much of a goody two shoes. A little more thought, and Nameless was born. Even then, he did not start out as dark as he wound up becoming. Over the next year or so, Nameless turned cynical on me, and proved to be just a touch more malicious than I’d ever thought I could dream up. He also was an extreme masochist. However, a small group had formed up around him, and loved the changes that occurred. (Don’t ask me why, I’m still puzzled about that.) And a story line had begun to emerge between the six characters. Because we weren’t able to explore it properly in the original room, we split off and formed our own, just to see where the story would take us. The game carried us all to the point where we needed to start incorporating some backstory for our characters, and that is ultimately what led to the books. I was content to let Nameless continue to be just a character without any real history. Until one of the others asked me “But, where does he come from?”

The answer to that is what would form the first six chapters in Out of the Darkness.

When the group drifted apart, as most roleplay groups do, I figured my time with Nameless was over, and shelved the story and character so I could move on in real life. I should have realized that he wasn’t done with me.

You have a very well developed wider world around your stories – lots of maps, detail on your website about the different arenas and so on – how much work do you put in beyond the books themselves, the word count that your readers see, to shape the world of your stories? And what are your favourite aspects of that background work?

::chuckles:: Almost none. The detail I’ve posted on Pukah Works all comes from the story itself. I filled in a little that isn’t immediately noticeable from the books, but not much. I tend to write in a very tightly focused third person (third limited? Is that even a point of view?), but I also tried to include pieces of the world outside of that focus to help give context when it was needed. I know there is much, much more of the surface world to be explored yet, and I’m hoping as other stories come into being I get to see other areas of Alterraden, the people who live there, and the cultures that keep them from waging staggering wars on each other.

I’ve really found it intriguing to build up the pantheon that exists in the world. In part, because I know where the Followers of Torments should end up but also in part because those various religions help to shape the races that exist in the world. I get to explore a little more of the real world’s religions, and how they have affected the various historical cultures or shaped them into what we consider our predecessors.

I also have found that building the featured characters – whether they are the primary or secondary cast – is a whole lot of fun. Then again, I like to know how someone thinks, and that goes back in large part to their culture and beliefs. It’s all kind of circular, which really makes things interesting.

I've got to talk about the maps a little – you seem to put a lot of work in there, how do you create those?

Those are both my pride and joy, and something I’m entirely unhappy with. After digging around on the wonderful thing called the “internet” (yes, tongue-and-cheek there) I came across a YouTube video that explained how to draw at least basic surface maps. The background I found when I was looking for the Photoshop brushes to make the mountains – I’m nowhere near that good freehand, much as I’d love to claim credit! Between the video, Photoshop Elements, and the brushes I was able to get something that I could live with for the surface maps, though it took a little while to figure out how to get the shapes. Finally wound up scrounging up a flat map of Earth and moving pieces around until I could see how this village or that castle fit into the travel detail that was included in the books. (I still think it’s not to scale, but I’m not going to say it is – there’s a Realm skip in there, so I can get away with a little imprecision, right?)

Do you do a lot of planning before starting to write? What's your writing process? And does that help structure things as you proceed through the following books?

Planning? There’s such a thing? I’m lucky if I have an idea of where I want things to end up, or at least where the break point is so I can (hopefully) wrap up the arc in each book. I did mention that Nameless wasn’t done with me when the roleplay ended. He’s the one who really determines how the stories come together.

Pretty much, when I’m “writing” *I* (as in the person recording things) am not present. Nameless is the one telling the tale, or in the case of Into the Sunlits or And Keep This In Mind one of the secondary characters. I’m just a vessel they use to get the words down in a form others can enjoy. I’ll skip to the last question, and come back to the second in a second. The overall structure is defined by the final outcome. It took quite a bit of coaxing to get Nameless to give me an answer for which way he would decide when I finally pinned him down long enough to talk outside of a writing session. I’m still not convinced what he told me is the final one, but I’m watching the story develop that way, so am praying it is. (Otherwise, there’s going to be a lot of upset readers and a *very* upset writer when I have to pull one or two books to rewrite for an alternate ending!) There are a few points along the way that I know need to be worked in – mostly from the role play that sparked off the series. If those aren’t included, then the series title will make absolutely no sense, and I’m not sure the ending will have the desired impact that I think the cast wants.

Going back to my process… I’m not exactly sure I have one. I do find that music can help tease the characters out of the woods if I have had to shut them down for some reason, but I’ve also had sessions when the characters babble at me when I am no where near the type of music I write to.

I have also found that knowing the characters – not just their names, but the way they think helps. That was what sparked off the companion novellas. There is a huge problem dropped in everyone’s lap at the end of Into the Sunlits and Nameless isn’t present to help get things rolling in And Keep This In Mind. I realized when I started the last one I couldn’t clearly hear the cast, and so I didn’t trust what was happening. When I get involved in the writing, it turns stiff and stilted, and the edits go through the roof. So, I took a step back to write the novellas, so that I could get to know each member of the secondary cast. So far, I’ve finished two of the novellas, and am working on the third (and, to be honest, hardest).

You've said that Nameless started out as a way to vent during a rough time in life. Do you think that helped bond your personal connection to the character? And if so, do you ever feel rough when putting him through the challenges of the arena? As a creator, what's the hardest thing you've written for him?

That’s not quite true. It wasn’t really a rough time, so much as a BAD time. When Torments decided to hit me in the head with the ultimatum, “Write me, or don’t sleep” I was working almost full time, just starting grad school, and taking on more to help my parents through some medical issues. With those three time demands, I was sure fitting anything else into my 29-hour day would be impossible. I was wrong. I managed to find and/or make time.

I did have a couple of clients who made work rather low on my list of favorite activities – but nothing outstandingly bad. (If you work in any group, there’s always going to be one or two you just don’t click with very well, and that’s what happened here.) However, I’d known Nameless for a very long time, and we were at least comfortable in each other’s presence, though I would never have called us friends. (Still don’t, actually.) I actually enjoyed the sessions where I would boil down my frustrations, or foul attitude and let the story pick up the emotions to inject into any given scene. Didn’t ever feel bad about it, and found that it was almost critical at times to have that spur planted in the story’s side to keep things moving. There were a couple of times when I tried to take it a little easier on Nameless (or the other characters as they joined the cast), and every time I would run into a stagnant scene, or idea jam. The most common way to work through the issue was simply to add another goad, and watch everyone jump around trying to get out of the skillet.

As for the hardest thing to be written so far, is the start of And Keep This In Mind, which will be book four in the saga. I’m in a heated debate with the story – it keeps trying to shift over to first person, yet the rest of the full length novels are in third. I’m worried that if I let the point of view shift that the continuity will be lost, and no one would understand why that shift is made. Because of this, along with having to pause so I can get to know the support cast a little better, progress has stalled. Once it’s flowing again, the next trouble spot was coming up with a set of rules that let Nameless mangle his syntax while still able to carry on an understandable conversation; especially when Akantheldama (his vampire trainer) is awake during the daylight hours. Between the two of them, some of the verbal interactions have been extremely difficult to keep moving, much less moving with the pop and sizzle necessary to indicate the emotional tone for the scene.

What do you most enjoy about writing him?

The action scenes. There is something inherently satisfying for me to take a situation I’ve had during the day that I couldn’t do anything about and see it pop up in the story, and watch Nameless physically demolish whatever caused the situation in the first place. (Have a client who’s being a mule-headed fool? They just became Nameless’ next “toy” that he breaks. Have that boss who keeps giving you the run around? They’re there too – being run to death as Nameless chases them into submission or death – whichever comes first.)

Honestly, having someone who’s a “very not-nice” person as my primary focus has provided a point of catharsis on days that I would have preferred to just skip and pretend I’d experienced.

Now, we can't go too far in without talking to you about Pukah. Pukah is the race of Nameless, right? But much more than that too, it appears to be something you've embraced in life. So tell me, what's a Pukah and what's so magical that it's hooked you in?

Yes, Nameless is a Pukah, though not one many would recognize. Where most Pukah bring joy, laughter, and mischievous help into the lives of all they encounter, Nameless brings terror, destruction, and death. However, he also brings a level of honesty and personal integrity that the other Pukah could envy. Not necessarily in what he says, but in his actions; if he promises he will do something, he follows through. He never threatens, he promises. If he says it will happen it does without fail. That has gotten him into trouble on multiple occasions.

As for what drew me into the world of the Pukah; it is because of my own nature. I love helping others. Sometimes that means bringing a laugh, or a hug, a pun, or just getting behind them and pushing them to excel when they thing there is nowhere else to go but down. It comes naturally for me to be a cheerleader, or to offer options that are often outside the box for others to try (and to try right along side, if I can, to keep pushing someone even higher toward their success.) And, I also love to make people laugh, or to reach for their dreams.

Believing in the impossible, striving for the improbable, and having a good time along the way – that’s really what the Pukah I’ve met enjoy. And, I’ve met a few in person, not just in my books. There are times I wish I wasn’t quite as much of a Pukah as I am, or that the Pukah who visited me weren’t quite as demanding as they are, yet the results that come from it almost always make it well worth the trouble I get into along the way.

I gotta ask – do you have a fantasy casting for Nameless? When the series gets turned into a seven season epic on HBO, who have you got lined up in your perfect casting?

I haven’t ever thought of actors or a dream cast for my books, to be honest. Each character develops themselves as the story develops – from their mannerisms to their looks. Even the avatars I use in my promotions, or the people’s faces that I find don’t match the vitality or rugged determination that I see when I go back and read what I’ve written. Beyond a few minor cosmetic things – like the red hair for many of my characters, or their gender, if this ever did go into video production I would have to evaluate the individual actors on a character-by-character, case-by-case basis for that “something” that defines Nameless and his support cast. (I’m also lousy at remembering names, though I seem to be OK at remembering characters.) The closest one I could say that I’ve seen is the actress who portrayed Belletrix Lestrange in Harry Potter – she would make an EXCELLENT Akantheldama!

Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange

Aside from the main series of novels, you have a range of companion novellas – what's the thinking there? Do they allow you to explore other parts of the world beyond the main series?

The companion novellas actually have several purposes. Primarily, as I’ve mentioned before, they are a chance for me to get to know the support cast: Akantheldama, Raonal, Beslynx, and Celecanepo. But, they are also tie in points for a couple of other series that are already starting to kick at the gates to their stalls. (Like the Twin’s tale, which ties in mostly through Akantheldama and a little through Raonal.)

They are also slowly opening up new areas of the world, or new Realms. Again, Raonal is the prime driver for this, though Celecanepo will add quite a bit once I can get her novella written.

The last piece it allows me to explore is a little of the world’s history. Except for Beslynx, the cast are all very, very long lived. ::chuckles:: It’s funny, but when I started working on the novellas, I unconsciously organized them in reverse order of their life span expectancies. (Even with the special circumstances in Akantheldama’s life, she’s actually younger than Raonal.) Some of that will tie in with the Torments saga, some has already planted the seeds for other books and/or series that I haven’t even allowed to whisper at me yet. One major project at a time, please!

In terms of influences beyond the story's gaming roots, who would you say are the writers that have had the greatest impact on your writing?

Oh, you would have to ask this one. There are several authors that have helped shape the characters, the story, the world, and my writing style, I think.

For character development, I love the way that Elizabeth Moon and Raymond E. Feist develop their characters. In many of their stories, the protagonist starts as a nobody and develops into someone helping to set and develop policy with the rulers. They have a knack of making each step a logical, incremental step along the way. Moon is a little smoother about it, probably because Feist comes from a Dungeons and Dragons background (according to rumor).

For world building, I turn to Sharon Lee and Steve Miller as well as Holly Lisle and Jean Auel. All of these authors build their worlds up a little at a time and with enough complexity, you feel as if you can step into them and know where to find just about anything you need to survive. (Please note, this does not mean you can survive comfortably!)

And for my writing style, I take full credit for that. I have been a storyteller since I was very young. When I am writing, I do my best to just tell the tale and not worry about “is this shown not told” or any of the “rules” which can constrain an author. Even in the editing process, my editor(s) and I focus on the grammar and continuity rather than the rules. About the only rule I do try to follow is to keep the point of view reference the same (first or third person). Other than that, the rest are fair game to be ignored to some extent or tossed out the window entirely.

And as for the gaming side, what are the games that you've loved playing – and that you've been playing more recently?

My favorite was Rifts, believe it or not. The one I have most experience in is Dungeons and Dragons (3rd edition), which is a lot of fun too. However, since I don’t have a game group, or much time for a good gaming session, I’ve been drawn to what I like to call my “ant farm” games – something I set running in the background and come back to poke from time to time just to see things scurry around. Most of those have been social media games that don’t have a neighbor requirement, or an energy requirement to keep going. Since I don’t play continuously, I refuse to purchase a game. I’ll deal with the ad filled (or at least ad interrupted) ones when I do decide to wander down that particular rabbit hole.

Board games or role playing games, which do you prefer?

Definitely role playing games top that list. If I am not introducing myself to a new character, then I enjoy playing with one I’m more familiar with to learn even more about them, and discover new facets of their personality or depths to their thinking processes.

Okay, on the social media side, you seem to really enjoy helping to promote others' work – and by damn, you're active out there! What do you enjoy on the social media side and what is the toughest hurdle?

::chuckles:: The same thing is what I enjoy best, and what I find hardest to achieve: meeting new people. Because of my time demands I do a LOT of schedule juggling. I try to make sure that I have at least a little time to interact on social media, though I don’t always succeed. Except for a few groups, I actually wind up being a lurker. However, draw me out of my shadows, and I turn into one of my playful Pukah, as you’ve discovered.

I’m still working on figuring out how to carry that playfulness out among strangers, as that is not natural to me. I’ve had someone compare me to a tiger’s eye pendent – transparently opaque. It’s something that I take pride in, but also realize can cause me to see a bit distant and/or strange and off-putting.

I also tend to fall into the “lecture mode” a little too well. I’m good at explaining things, but not so good in drawing people out to ask questions or want to talk back. (Probably because I answer thoroughly the first time, and they have to go chew on the answers for a while. ::Points up to the previous answers:: Case in point?)

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of the big two – Twitter and Facebook – when it comes to spreading the word? I tend to find Twitter has greater reach, while Facebook has greater ongoing engagement. How about you?

They are both about the same for me, as far as engagement. I have one street team member who’s on Twitter that does her best to keep up with sharing the content posts every day, and I’ve got one or two on Facebook who try to keep up and share out posts that hit my Author’s page. I really haven’t been pushing the engagement on either platform. I’ve been trying to use them to get folks to explore my site and blog(s), since that’s where most of my original content hits first.

With that said, I think Twitter is an excellent place to experiment with different promotional material. It moves so fast that if you have an absolute flop it’s buried quick enough no one will really remember it. But if it strikes a nerve? It stays active and visible for quite a while – usually long enough you can sort it out of the stack of other pieces you’ve put out recently.

Facebook is more of a place to actually meet-and-greet fellow writers, exchange tips and tricks for writing, marketing, or even snippet critiques and have discussions. I know there are ways to use Facebook as a marketing tool, but until you have something that semi-works, it’s not the best place to experiment. Posts tend to hang around too long, or you get buried in the algorithms, so no one sees your NEXT post. Neither are desirable.

You're self-published – what's the biggest hurdle in that process, you find?

Marketing! (See above!) Getting the engagement without turning into annoying spam is a nightmare for me. If you approach and obviously are interested in buying something, I can probably sell you the entire bookstore section in the genre you like. Getting people to wander up and say “hi”? Uh, uh! I still have big problems managing that. Though, as I said earlier, I am working on chipping away at that issue.

And what's one of your favourite moments since publishing?

Hearing back from the two or three who are self-admitted addicts to my work. And hearing from a classmate (who doesn’t even read in my work’s genre) that they’ve been hearing good things about my books.

The first group gives me the incentive to keep pushing on, even when I feel slightly overwhelmed because of the tidal wave of destruction hovering overhead, and I know it’s going to crash soon. Their encouragement is the bucket, shovel, or drain hose I find to start trying to break down the wave before it crashes down and sends everything into disarray.

The classmate? Even thinking about it still sends me out to pink cloud nine. I have no idea who they’ve talked to, but from what they said whoever it was read my work and liked it enough to rave about it. It wasn’t just something picked up from my infrequent posts to my Facebook timeline – there were too many details I have not included in the promotional material, it had to come from the books.

Okay, last question here is a traditional one on the blog – what are you reading right now and what's your favourite thing you've read in the past year?

Right now I’m bouncing between two reading projects. A first read through of my own hard copy proof for Out of the Darkness, to see if there’s anything I need/want to change before I start ::shudders and winces:: writing on the pages. (there are, and I’m torn – don’t want to mark up any book, but if I don’t I’ll miss some of the issues on the actual file-edit pass.) and promised read/reviews (you can see the list on the Home Office section of Pukah Works.)
As for my favorite… Do I have to pick just one?

I quite literally am reading my favorite for which ever book I’m reading now, unless it’s a really steamy romance or erotica. When I started accepting read/reviews, I was so mind-hungry for anything published after about 1996 that I cannot pick and choose. A few authors stand out, mostly because I’ve read them recently enough they haven’t been buried under school work or the next reading binge.

Thanks very much for calling by, Kat!

You can find out more about the works of K Caffee on her website, She is also on Twitter as @pukahworks, and on Facebook. Her books are available through Amazon and Smashwords

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