Take 10: Vaughn Roycroft and The Severing Son
It’s a great pleasure to share our in-depth interview with regular WU contributor, assistant editor, stellar community member, and now published author Vaughn Roycroft, on the publication day of his debut novel, THE SEVERING SON! For as long as we’ve known Vaughn, he’s worked to craft this story world–a journey that has lasted nearly two decades and provided material for six novels. The first of those novels, out today as an e-book and in paperback, has already created waves in the fantasy world.
“With a fast pace and sweeping battle sequences, not to mention one of the best duels in fiction, The Severing Son will appeal to action-hungry readers of such authors as John Gwynne, George R.R. Martin, and Evan Winter.”
— Philip Chase, PhD aka YouTube’s Dr. Fantasy
“The author blends history with imagination to create a dramatic and engaging story. The Severing Son will appeal to lovers of historical fiction and epic fantasy enthusiasts alike.”
— Juliet Marillier, author of the Blackthorn & Grim and Warrior Bards series
Read on for an inspiring look back at what it took for Vaughn to get to this moment, and what’s next for him and his career.
Which character did you imagine first, and what was it about him/her that made you sit down and write?
VR: I perfectly recall the day that I jotted down my first story idea in the world that became Dania and Pontea. I was working as a carpenter, rehabbing an older cottage. I was waiting for a concrete delivery, to pour a slab for a new porch, and I jotted it down in a pocket-sized notepad with a carpenter’s pencil. I’d already been reading about the fall of Rome and the role of the Goths in it.
I can’t find the notepad anymore, but the idea revolved around a Gothic scion, about to come of age, who wanders to the mountains at the border of his people’s realm, on the fringes of the empire. I immediately imagined ancient ramparts and the ruins of a tower and gate. I knew the young man was about to encounter someone who’d known his father. I knew he didn’t recall his father, who had left their homeland years prior, only to become entangled with the empire.
But the most important and memorable part of getting this vision—the thing that had me super excited—was that the scion was secretly being watched by a guardian. I immediately knew the guardian was a warrior woman who was about his age, and that she’d been assigned to him. I imagined her as being super competent and a bit dismayed by the bumbling nature of her subject (this is how my super competent wife plays into the original idea).
So the answer to the question is that I first imagined Thaedan and Ainsela, the son and niece respectively of Vahldan and Elan, the protagonists of my forthcoming debut, The Severing Son.
Thaedan’s and Ainsela’s unique relationship, its awkwardness and promise, was the thing that finally—after several years of “intending to write”—got my butt into the chair and words on the page.
I’m glad we’re able to talk about this early—the scope of this story, the multi-generational nature of the world you’ve created in your imagination. First, can you tell us how many generations of characters you’ve explored on and off the page to create this society and its many layers of history and conflict? And can you reveal how long you’ve worked to build this world?
VR: I’ve explored three generations of the ruling clans of the Gottari (who are loosely based on the Goths) and of the Skolani (an Amazon-like female warrior sect allied with the Gottari), although the preceding generation of both groups only show up as backstory. I have, however, written a story that delves into an explosive incident between the key players of the previous generation that sets the scene for The Severing Son. I can imagine polishing that up for publication at some point.
The day at the jobsite I describe above was 18 years ago. I explored the set of characters envisioned that day in a trilogy of which I finished the first draft in 2009. During the revision process and the early submissions for book one of that trilogy, I started to explore the key players in the previous generation. From that exploration, I wrote a manuscript that evolved into The Sundered Nation Trilogy, which begins with The Severing Son. I’m super excited to go back and rewrite the original trilogy—there’s so much that informs the story anew! I think presenting the entire multi-generational story chronologically will feel organic to readers.
I feel like I’ve known these people and this place for half of my life (not quite true, but feels that way). Much of the world-building has evolved over time. It’s gained a lot of depth and dimension over the years. Hopefully it makes for a richer experience for readers.
Did it ever feel overwhelming to you? Did you ever feel awed but perhaps a bit intimidated by the scope? If so, how did you push through that? What did you rely upon to keep you going in terms of needed notes to self, maps, etc?
VR: Looking back on the first trilogy, I’m startled by the huge challenge I so willingly embraced. The series has over a dozen POV characters, is set in two worlds, and spans a decade. I was either foolish or naïve (a bit of both?). It was only after I finished the first draft, sought feedback, and started immersing myself into the craft of writing, that I became intimidated. The first major thing I did to push past that feeling was to hire my first editor. With her help, I began stripping the story back, trying to master it at an elemental level, focused on one protagonist in one part of the story-world. But the story did not respond well to my efforts. It felt like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. There were many moments during those early years of revising when I felt like quitting, or briefly did quit. The darn thing wouldn’t let me go, though.
My first major success in breaking through the malaise came with my decision to start the prequel story that became The Severing Son. The work on the father’s story immediately provided a better grasp of the stories of the sons. It went so well that I ended up setting the first story aside. The father’s story is more straightforward, and I was able to add layers and nuance as my skills and grasp of storytelling grew (rather than retroactively). I’ve grown a lot through writing and polishing it.
As far as the tools I relied upon, I’m an old-school guy. I still prefer handwritten notes and actual, physical maps. I drew countless maps, from the breadth of the empire down to city street-level in scale. All of them are amateurish and for my eyes only. I have a dozen notebooks and a two-sided “cheat-sheet” for each of the trilogies, with character and place names, invented terminology, and even horse names. Unfortunately, all of it is poorly organized and would probably drive most of you nuts. Some days it drives me nuts.
I’m a very visual reader and writer, so I also rely heavily on images to aid my visualization of the story, many of which I’ve collected in two files on Pinterest.
I’m also lucky in that I’ve been able to travel fairly extensively through the area I based the setting upon, which has also been hugely informing. Particularly the Roman ruins I’ve experienced, such as those at Ephesus. I can almost feel the spirits of my characters calling to me in those sacred spaces.
What is it about fantasy that calls to you? Have you ever imagined writing in another genre?
VR: I guess I should admit that fantasy was sort of a foregone conclusion for me. I’ve told the story before, I think even in one of my WU essays, of my dad handing me an issue of Time Magazine folded open to the page with Tolkien’s obituary. That was the day that I knew I would write, and that it would be fantasy. I was twelve. It was three decades later, after my wife and I sold our business and moved to what had been our getaway cottage, when I began grappling with what it took to actually write a novel. But even after all of that time and life experience, there was never any doubt it would be epic fantasy, inspired by Tolkien.
Thanks mostly to my mom, I read pretty broadly after reading LOTR. I was always seeking the same sort of immersion. I wanted to be swept away into another world, and I occasionally found non-fantasy books that did it. I learned that, for me, history and epic scale were the critical components to immersion. So escapism is part of what calls to me, and maybe it’s the first element. But that’s not all of what draws me to fantasy.
I think fantasy offers a portal to a place that is both excitingly different and yet comfortingly familiar. Fantasy stories allow me the distance to get outside of myself and, through the obstacles and conflicts presented, to look back and gain perspective on the conditions of my life and the world around me. By transporting me to another world, full of life-and-death peril and all-encompassing love, epic fantasy provides me with an incomparable means of exploring the human condition.
Before we get back to craft talk about your story world, can you share some of the books that have transported and even taught you something about the craft, and about the craft of fantasy in particular, beyond Tolkien?
VR: As I said, I’ve always loved historical fiction on an epic scale. Hindsight reveals that I collected story ideas from a variety of old favorites. As a teen I was captivated by The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye. I loved being transported to exotic 19th C. India, but it was from this story that I latched onto the idea of forbidden love between guardian and subject. From books like Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth I gained an appreciation for examining conflicts from multiple points-of-view. From books like The Bastard and North and South, by John Jakes, I swiped the idea of having brothers or close kin on opposing sides of a cultural rift or a war. The books of Allen Eckert, particularly The Frontiersman, showed me how adding the right historical details can provide depth and richness to story.
It might sound odd, but the bulk of my fantasy reading came after I began writing. Right before I began, I read Last of the Amazons, by Steven Pressfield, which gave me an appreciation for the power of language in providing immersion. Even though I began reading them after my journey began, I have to give a lot of credit to both George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb. As different as they are, reading them is like a master class on fantasy storytelling and its possibilities.
You mentioned “grappling with what it took to actually write a novel.” What did that look like for you? Where did you begin? What were your earliest frustrations, and how did you overcome them?
VR: When I started actually writing, I was utterly clueless about how to go about creating a story on the page. Honestly, I was dabbling in my spare time, and all I wanted from writing was fun. Having ideas come to me and flow out in the form of words provided a refreshing sort of exhilaration, different from anything I’d experienced. It was addictive. I was too intimidated to actually study the craft, because doing so meant sharing what came of it. That thought terrified me!
In the beginning, I simply sat at my wife’s old desktop and typed. It came mostly as stream-of-consciousness pantsing, with no chapters and even very few paragraphs. It wasn’t for sharing, so I invested little effort in making it digestible, let alone palatable. I’ll never forget my brother-in-law taking a look at what I was doing and asking, “What the hell is this?” He asked why I would even bother unless I was trying to create something that someone else—anyone else—might appreciate. I saw his point.
My next strategy was to tell myself that I was writing it for family to read. After I finished a draft of book one, I sent a bound copy, printed at Kinkos and snail-mailed, to my eldest sister Marsha. For months I didn’t hear anything back. But going through the motions seems to have offered a reprieve. I felt like maybe I could move on from my little writing experiment. It was only when, many months later, I heard from Marsh that the writing bug bit me again. My big sister gave me the gift of belief that I could make something of this story. And it seems like the pattern repeats—each time I feel like giving up or moving on, I get a sign from the universe that I’m working on something worth striving to share.
It’s taught me that, if we’re open to it, we are often given the faith and the strength to persevere. Or perhaps it’s that we’re shown that we’ve had those qualities inside us all along.
You mentioned the importance of immersion. I think we’d all like to write and read novels that offer this portal to another place, the ability to blink out on reality for a while. What do you think it takes to create an immersive novel? What does it mean for you, and what did you work hard to build in your own stories to create this experience for your readers and even for your own satisfaction?
VR: I think the most important ingredient for creating immersion is passion. You really have to be passionate about where you’re seeking to lead others. You have to be selective about the details that set it apart from the day-to-day. This is about quality more than quantity. Do you love thinking about your story-world, deeply and over extended periods? It’s a requirement. Allow yourself to really dwell there. What intrigues you? What excites you? Why do you love being there?
When I speak of passion, it’s not just found in what you love about your story-world or its characters. Passion can be found in the darkness as well as the light. What terrifies you about this world? What would you never want to face that you can have your characters face instead?
Have you ever gained an expertise that’s so complete that no one else could possibly cause you to second-guess yourself? If you feel that way about your story, its world and characters, I think you’re there—once you’ve embraced the fact that you’re the world’s foremost expert. Which makes you the master of what is revealed, as well as when and how. It can be a delicious realization, but also a daunting responsibility. It’s a power that demands that you strive to use it efficaciously. Once you’re willing to offer outsiders a window into that sort of passion, it can provide a moving experience.
If I’ve succeeded, every reader who ventures to Dania, and who gets to know my characters, will have a unique experience—one that is all their own. Because for me, that’s what true immersion is—a trip only a reader can take. Hopefully I can offer the sort of experience that moves them and leaves them thinking and feeling.
What was your darkest moment as a writer? When—and/or how many times—did you almost quit? Was there a theme to your challenges?
VR: During the early part of my writing journey, while working as a carpenter, I injured my shoulder. The injury actually provided me with an opportunity to buckle down and complete my first trilogy. Later, as I began to collect rejections for a manuscript that was far from ready for primetime, I also began to heal physically. Although my wife has always been supportive of my writing venture, there was a point at which I felt it didn’t make economic sense for me to continue. (This was without talking to her, of course.) Over a period of several months I tortured myself about getting back into carpentry, and letting go of my writing dreams. I wasn’t interested in the sort of cottage handyman work that was abundant in our little resort community, so I launched an experiment into furniture-making, with a side gig of door and window construction and repair—things I could do in my own workshop.
After about a year of being more focused on perfection than production, it became clear to me that I wasn’t cut out for the furniture and door business either. I could’ve done better as a Walmart greeter.
Although I have entertained the thought of quitting several times, this was the point when I was closest to actually going through with it. I clearly recall lying in bed, despairing the thought of abandoning the writing project. It’s funny, but I think I was mostly mourning for my characters. I felt like I was betraying them. And it felt as real—as shameful and painful—as any real-world betrayal could.
The solution, of course, came in the form of hashing out the scenario with my wife. By then she recognized that I had to see this thing through, perhaps even better than I did. We agreed that there was no other course. We both had to pursue the pathways our hearts had dictated. Why else had we sold our business and moved to our cottage? My wife has always been my biggest cheerleader, but since that conversation, she has been my biggest supporter in every way possible. We are dedicated partners in the venture that is our lives; in living to seek our truest selves, expressing our creativity, and sharing our passion.
So I suppose that’s the theme of both the challenges I’ve faced and the path to overcoming them: staying true to myself and to the partnership formed with my best friend. I can’t wait to see where this next chapter takes us, and I know she feels the same.
At some point, you decided to self-publish. Can you tell us about the journey to that decision. What challenged you about the choice itself, and also about the execution? What, if anything, would you like to say about the process, for others who are considering it for their own works?
VR: I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I sought a traditional deal, or that self-publishing was not my first choice. I consider my quest for a traditional deal successful in a lot of ways, and I’m still very glad for what I’ve gained and learned through the process. I’ve had terrific mentors and guidance due to the pursuit. I believe this book is better for it. I’ve made great friends because of it, as well.
I decided to self-publish about two years ago. My decision was originally born of my belief that this book, and this series, should be out there rather than sitting on a hard-drive or in a desk drawer. The process felt daunting then, and I must admit, most days it still feels intimidating. Still, since those early days I’ve begun not only to enjoy the process, but to see its advantages. I had often heard about the creative control self-publishing provides, but experiencing it has given me a new appreciation. Toward the end of my quest for a traditional deal, I began to receive some feedback that made me believe that, if I were to accept a traditional deal, there would likely be sacrifices made and changes required to my original vision for the book. I think there was a time when I would’ve willingly made those changes. I think the long road I’ve taken to get to this point helped me to recognize how important staying true to that original vision is to me.
Besides the execution of the story itself, it’s been rewarding to have complete control over the look and feel of the book itself. In that regard, I don’t think there’s any aspect of the physical book that’s more important or exciting to me than the cover. My wife and I have had a terrific journey with our cover artist, the very talented John Anthony Di Giovanni, and my graphics designer, Denise Plumb (of Three Star Smoked Fish, who also created the map image above). The entire process, of deciding on the imagery, choosing how it’s presented, to its final placement on the book, has been with our oversight and approval. I don’t think that kind of control would’ve been available to me had I taken any other course to publication. And I couldn’t be happier with—or prouder of—my cover and this book.
I guess I would advise anyone considering their route to publication to stay open to all avenues. The technology and the available tools provide us with unprecedented options. Don’t discount or avoid self-publication strictly out of fear. It’s challenging, but if your heart tells you it’s the right path for you, you will be up to those challenges.
What’s next for you?
VR: I worked hard for many years to complete the entire story for The Sundered Nation trilogy. I think it was important to getting the arcs for each book just right, and for the fine-tuning of the story and its themes. Since the trilogy is complete, I’m determined to rapidly release the second two editions of the story—at least within a year’s time. There are still some uncontrollable variables, but I really want readers who start the series to have access to the entire story without the need to struggle to recall where the last edition left off. It truly is one big story. As a reader, I know I appreciate having the next edition of a story like this reasonably quickly, and I want to provide that benefit to my fellow fantasy lovers.
Beyond my publication quest, I’m super excited to get back to the story of the next generation. In fact, I’ve already started work on what will become the fourth in the series. The second trilogy is titled A Legacy of Broken Oaths, and the first book is The Bonds of Blood.
I’m not sure where my writing journey will carry me from there, but I do know it will continue. And, if Therese will have me, I plan on staying around Writer Unboxed. I often say I don’t know where I would be without WU, but it sure wouldn’t be here, celebrating my debut with all of you. I want to thank each and every one of you, for every conversation, every reply to a post, every shared session, and every pat on the back. They’ve all helped to make me the writer I am today.
Learn more about Vaughn’s work on his website.
Have additional questions for Vaughn about his journey, the process of writing and/or publication? We have a feeling he’ll answer them in comments!
And if you haven’t yet seen the fabulous review that “Dr. Fantasy” himself left for Vaughn on his Booktube channel, watch that below or click HERE.
Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~50 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. In 2014, the first Writer Unboxed UnConference (part UNtraditional conference, part intensive craft event, part networking affair) was held in Salem, MA. Learn more about our 2019 event, ESCAPE TO WuNDERLAND, on Eventbrite. In 2016, the Writer Unboxed team published a book with Writer's Digest. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published has been well-received by readers who seek help in overcoming the hurdles faced at every step of the novel-writing process--from setting goals, researching, and drafting to giving and receiving critiques, polishing prose, and seeking publication. James Scott Bell has said of the guide, "Nourishment for the writer's soul and motivation for the writer's heart." You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter, and join our thriving Facebook community.