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An Orc and a Dark Mage Walk Into a Dungeon – From an Idea to a Full Novel

With Shadows Over Kaighal, the third book in my epic fantasy adventure out, I thought it would be interesting to share the process of how the story and the setting came to be. I tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, but it does explain aspects of the world, so if you haven’t read By the Pact yet, and you’d like to dive into book 1 knowing as little as possible, you might save this text for later. But if you’re already a fan of the series, you don’t mind knowing more about the setting before you start, and if you’re curious on how my novel came to be and what an orc and a dark mage have to do with a book that has neither, keep reading!

I don’t know if any of the authors get that light bulb moment of inspiration after which the story is clear in their head, but for me it’s more like putting puzzle pieces together: I usually have one or two bits that are really interesting, and I have to find ways that they fit together, often with other exciting pieces I find. And while I put the whole puzzle together, it often changes shape and color, and sometimes I get rid of those bits that, although interesting, don’t fit in the picture anymore. And in the end, I might be left with a different story than I initially thought I had.

The inspiration for By the Pact came initially from a video game. It was a time in my life when my day job was weighing heavily on me, and I felt burned out and uninspired. I shared those thoughts with my partner, and he said, “Then we’re going to play video games and get inspired.” I picked Skyrim, for the game’s vast lore, open world, and countless possibilities. Yet, By the Pact has nothing to do with Nordic themes or dragons… So how exactly did the game inspire the book?

By the Pact Cover

While playing, I was exploring ideas and tropes that appealed to me in fantasy. The game has an epic feel to it, and I wanted something similar for my story. And in the classic epic fantasies, there was always the Great Evil to be conquered, one way or another. This was the first piece of the puzzle: what if to save the world, that Great Evil had to be freed and not destroyed? I really liked the idea, but I had nothing solid yet. I played with other tropes, like having a prophecy and a chosen one who is actually the one to destroy the world, and I felt that it would be a dark tale with a not-too-happy ending.

To put it shortly, I was wrong.

First, I discovered that I really hated prophecy stories, so I scratched that part. Then I settled on the fact that I’m not fan of the chosen ones either: I prefer the characters to grow into the hero’s positions rather than being born into them.

So all I had left from the initial ideas was freeing the unnamed and undefined great evil. It was time to add other pieces, and possibly the most important one, the protagonist. At that time, I remembered a very vague idea I had of two cliche characters, a female dark mage and her magic-resistant orc companion who explore old dungeons in search of treasures. They seemed perfect, and all I had to do is change the cliches into something more interesting.

I needed dark magic to become something else, and that meant creating two opposing schools of magic. The first one was that of arcanists who made pacts with demons in exchange for access to magic. Common folk would call them demonologists, and in the past they were the ones responsible for the great Cataclysm that wreaked havoc across the continent, because they summoned a higher demon to the world. From this event, another school rose to power: high magic that didn’t require pacts anymore. High mages defeated the demon and reigned, while arcanists—though not always perceived as evil—became shunned and distrusted. And there it was, I had Kamira: my dark mage-like character and her background. Moreover, the magic system I created tied nicely into the initial idea of freeing the great evil, since I now had the defeated demon to use for that purpose.

For me it’s important that pieces of the world fit together, so once I had demons from another world, I wanted to make sure they were an important part of the setting. Thus, in the world of Kinyal there are no gods, but some misguided people regard demons as deities… and some people aren’t even misguided: to the north of the continent, there is Tivarashan, a whole nation that made a deal with powerful demons, exchanging worship for protection of their lands. Even Veelk, the mage killer who replaced the orc from the initial idea, has demon ties, as the scars that protect him from magic attacks contain a gift from the demon-guardian of his tribe.

My world was starting to take shape, but I didn’t want it to be one-dimensional. I needed more sides to it, and once more I grasped at an old and vague idea of two nations separated by the sea that were somehow tied together. I couldn’t really fit it into the story, but it was enough to prompt me to create the kingdom of Devanshari on the other continent, protected by a powerful magical artifact and attacked by demon armies. The refugees fleeing the lost war across the sea added another layer and a faction to the story, and among them was Ryell, another important character in By the Pact who was created from an idea of a betrayed general that I never explored as it didn’t fit, and became a disillusioned royal guard who had witnessed his queen’s betrayal.

One of the things I don’t like is uniformity of any faction or group as it feels a bit unrealistic. People connected by a common cause still have different ideas of how to reach the goal. Thus, even though high mages would do anything to maintain their influence and power, they aren’t beyond backstabbing each other if it suits their own goals. Second archmage Yoreus craves the leader’s position, while archmage Loktra would rather be left out of politics as long as she can have a pleasant and comfortable life, and the first archmage Irtan… Let’s just say he’s a sneaky weasel and you better watch out for him. Other factions have similar situations. It’s in the demons’ very nature to plot against each other, and backstabbing is an integral part of their culture. Even the refugees are divided. Their queen wants to rebuild the artifact that fed them magic, and she’ll work with a guild of inventors (that also happen to be the high mages’ competition), while her son would rather find a cure for their addiction to magic. There’s also Ryell whom I mentioned before, and his desire for revenge provided a lot of ideas for complications.

I love a good intrigue and schemes, so setting up all the factions this way provided me with endless opportunities. It was enough to figure out which character wanted what and who would be in their way because of their own desires. It created shifting loyalties, temporary alliances, and plenty of things to happen in the story, giving me enough ideas to make a four book-long series. Many of the ideas or plots wouldn’t become apparent until later in the series, but they were already there, waiting to come into play at the right moment.

And as funny as it may sound, after all that world building… I don’t make detailed outlines of my novels. I know where the story is going and how it’ll end, and I have a bunch of crucial or exciting scenes in mind, but the rest is filled and expanded on as I go, making sure that all the pieces fit. This is why, for example, I abandoned the idea of showing the final days of the war with demons, as the timelines wouldn’t match, some characters never became lovers, because they wouldn’t have enough time to develop such intimacy, and later in the series, an unexpected character got their redemption… To me, such an approach ensures that I’m not going to write myself into a corner or create huge plot holes while leaving space for excitement and enhancement. One of the most exciting moments is when a newly invented scene or character ties other plots together, or solves an issue I was having with the story.

As you can see, for me it takes quite a lot of plotting and brainstorming before I actually start my novel. I consider myself a slow writer, and though part of the reason is that I’m a second language speaker, I think the way I get inspired and create stories also plays its role. Needless to say though, it’s what works for me, and I savor this part of the writing process.

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If you enjoyed the post and it got you interested in Pacts Arcane and Otherwise series, the first chapter is available on my website. The ebook version of By the Pact, available at all major retailers.

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

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