Five Questions with Author C.J. Brightley

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I’m currently in an Indie Fantasy Bundle from Story Bundle with a slew of great authors. The bundle is curated by an up-and-coming (and past StoryBundle participant) Blair MacGregor, and includes a World Fantasy award winner, Gemmell and Spectrum award finalists, Nebula finalists, and Writers of the Future award winners. You can head here to see more about the bundle, and click on each book cover to see reviews, a preview and a personal note from our curator, Blair.

One of the authors in the bundle is C.J. Brightley, who wrote The King’s Sword, one of the eight offerings in the bundle. I had a chance to read over her excerpt and really enjoyed it, and thought I’d interview her to spread the word about her novel and the bundle as a whole.

Here’s what C.J. had to say.

I was taken by Blair’s description of your novel. She said, “It’s historical fiction about a land that doesn’t exist.” That’s a wonderful description, and in my eyes, a wonderful compliment, because it means you have a depth and breadth of world that allows the reader to fully immerse themselves in the story. Was that important to you in the writing of The King’s Sword?

Thank you! The book does have the feel of historical fiction to me. Although the book is fantasy, there is no magic. I didn’t set out to write a magic-less fantasy, but magic was never necessary to the story.

The world actually flowed from Kemen’s character rather than as background independent of the story. I originally conceived the story as a coming-of-age tale about the spoiled prince, Hakan, as told from his mentor Kemen’s point of view. That change from the stereotypical point of view changed everything about the story, including the culture and demographics of the characters. Kemen is a Dari, a dark-skinned minority in his country, but he’s grown up immersed in the Tuyet majority culture, serving in the military for most of his life. He has both an outsider’s and an insider’s perspective.

There are multiple races, cultures, and countries, but the story is tightly focused on Kemen and Hakan and the small part of the world that is relevant to them during this short period of time. I think what makes the story come alive is Kemen’s character and voice—he’s authentic and (mostly) self-aware, and he appreciates the beauty of his world while recognizing some deep flaws.

What sort of research did you do in order to reach this level of detail and immersion? What was the most surprising thing you discovered over the course of that preparation?

I have a political science background, so imagining cultures and political factions was natural. You’ll discover more about the world throughout the series, especially the Tarvil people to the north. However, The King’s Sword is much more a book about characters than a book of political maneuvering.

Kemen’s voice came easily to me. I’ve been involved in various martial arts for over twenty years and have taught fairly extensively. Professionally, I’ve also worked within the military and national security communities. Kemen is his own character, but I drew on some of the best examples of the respect, dedication, and purpose in people I’ve known.

Much of my research was on wilderness survival and early medical care. Although most of what I learned didn’t make it into the book, I read many inspiring stories of survival, medieval war, and war’s aftermath. I’m intrigued by the different ways throughout history that people and society have dealt with war and the emotional aftereffects of trauma.

Talk to me about openings. I’m assuming the book preview in our Story Bundle is either a prologue or the first chapter. True? I was taken by how quickly the story drew me in. Our protagonist, Kemen, finds a boy stumbling through the snow. He’s clearly being chased, or hunted, and Kemen makes the decision to save him. It’s subtly intriguing, what you’ve done in that short segment, pulling the reader in with a deft hand, not resorting to fireworks to try to draw the reader in. Do openings come easy to you? How easy (or not) was it to find this opening?

Yes, it’s the first scene in the book. I’m glad you like it! So far, openings have come naturally to me, but I’ve only written two books that are the first in a series with the challenge of introducing a new world. If I’ve had success so far with openings, it may be a result of my writing process itself. I’ve heard many writers, especially fantasy writers, talk about how they write these huge first drafts and their editing process tends to be subtractive, cutting out the extraneous bits until they discover the real story. Mine is the opposite; I write extremely lean first drafts, generally very short, and my editing process tends to be additive. If I don’t know the story, I’m just stuck; I do my mental processing internally rather than by writing and then cutting.

With the opening of The King’s Sword, I started where the action started, where Kemen has to make the first decision. There’s background, of course… why is Hakan fleeing, what is Hakan like, etc. But the action from Kemen’s point of view starts here, when he first sees the tracks in the snow.

Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers for how to open a novel?

The openings that work for me, both as a writer and a reader, do a few essential things. First, a good opening scene will introduce at least one of the main characters and give me a reason to be interested in him or her. Make her interesting; make him sympathetic. Give me a reason to follow this person through the rest of the story. This doesn’t mean giving background on the character; instead, show the character acting now.

Second, the scene will introduce a problem or a question affecting that character. It may not be the essential problem or question of the book, but it needs to be important in some way to that character’s story or growth. If it foreshadows or echoes something at the end of the book, so much the better. This problem or question should have an arc within the scene, although it shouldn’t be fully resolved without leading to a new problem or question. Pull the reader deeper into the story.

Third, the scene should provide at least a little bit of scene-setting; give me a hint about the world in which the characters are living. It doesn’t need to be much; too much exposition in an opening scene isn’t helpful. Setting can be like a character; use the setting to show your characters’ personalities in the same way you would use dialogue or body language.

Finally, the opening is just that… the opening. It’s the beginning of the story, not the buildup. Start with something relevant to the story, not the average day right before the interesting stuff starts happening. Start with the interesting stuff!

There was something familiar and almost reassuring (in a good way) about the tale of Kemen and the young Prince Hakan. What were your goals when you began writing this book? That is, what did you hope to have in your hands by the time you typed the final word?

Thank you! One of the themes I come back to in my stories is the ideal of heroism. Heroes aren’t perfect, but they choose to do the right thing, even when it isn’t easy. One of my reviewers said that I write the opposite of grimdark, and I think that’s true. Grimdark, to me, is characterized not only by dark characters but a dark world, in which good cannot triumph and justice cannot prevail. There’s a place for darkness in literature, and there’s a place for understanding that the good guys don’t always win.

But sometimes they do! Sometimes courage and kindness really do change the world or one corner of the world. C. S. Lewis said, about fairytales, that “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” Those are the stories that I want to write.


Be sure to check out the Indie Fantasy Bundle, where you can read reviews and excerpts for all the novels included in the bundle. Pay what you like, and set the amount going to the authors vs. the publisher. There’s also an option to earmark some of the money for charity!