Sunday, July 14, 2024

Finding A Family And Looting The Room: Greta Kelly On How Dungeons & Dragons Helped Create ‘The Queen of Days’

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Ever since the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons came out in the late 70s, there has been a constant cycle of fantasy creators cutting their storyteller teeth on beholders and mind flayers before moving on to publish their own fiction, which in turn is reflected by their fans and even the game itself as it draws on the shifting seas of the fantasy genre. The popularity of the game’s Fifth Edition has been reflected in just how many authors now play it (we used to host a podcast of just fantasy writers). I got a chance recently to chat with Greta Kelly, author of The Warrior Witch duology as well as her newest book: The Queen of Days.

The Queen of Days cover

The Queen of Days by Greta Kelly

Harper Voyager; October 24, 2023

IBSN-13: 978-0063240964

Hardcover; $30.00; eBook; $14.99; Audiobook; $27.99

It follows a family of thieves taking on the heist of a lifetime, one that will take them through the dark streets of the city and pit them against the gods themselves. Unsurprisingly, Dungeons & Dragons is baked into the core of this book, and I wanted to find out just how that influence came to be.

It’s been mentioned that your inspiration came from a D&D game you were playing. Can 
you tell me about what that moment was? 

Yes, of course! My adventuring party was investigating a bad guy and somehow we got a lead that he was storing some very incriminating goods at this bank. So we decided to break into the vault. (As one does.) And literally everything that could have gone wrong, did. We got made instantly, we couldn’t unlock the door, we got locked in an upper-floor office, someone accidentally started a fire. It was a disaster in the most hilarious and epic way. And even though it was a failure in every sense of the word, it ended up being one of our most beloved games, because it was so freaking fun. And I remember driving home that night thinking to myself, damn… if I could just distill that game into a book, it would be epic! And so I went back to a book idea that had been languishing on my hard drive, and the rest is history.

Do the characters in Queen of Days come from D&D as well? 

While they don’t come from any of my personal games, I did actually draw up character sheets for everyone in the Talion gang. Party makeup isn’t just important in D&D games, but also when you’re writing an adventure book with an ensemble cast. Everyone in these stories needs to have a place and a specialty. And so the Talion does have the ‘face-guy’/ bard in the main character, Bal. They’ve got an arcane trickster in Tassiel, the titular Queen of Days. There’s a ranger, a barbarian, an artificer, and a monk too. And they are just archetypes, of course, but it thinking of them in those terms was a great jumping-off point.  

What’s the magic system like in Queen of Days? What’s a “good” magic system in your mind? 

The magic in The Queen of Days is definitely a softer magical system—and by that, I mean that there aren’t a ton of explicitly stated rules involved. Don’t get me wrong, I love more rigid magic systems. But making one for this book would have really gotten in the way of the storytelling because there are so few characters who are able to use magic. But as for defining what makes a ‘good’ magic system—I really think it’s the same as any aspect of worldbuilding. Whatever you do, it should always both add to the conflict and feel invisible on the page. And it’s a hard balance to strike, but think about the last time you found yourself skimming over a page. I bet it was a bit of worldbuilding that went on just a little too long!

How does playing tabletop games affect your writing more generally? 

Tabletop games are hugely informative for me as a writer. I have played with the same group for a decade now, and they still manage to make character choices that absolutely floor me. I think if you want to write stories with larger casts, joining a TTRPG is invaluable homework from a purely characterization standpoint. But going deeper than that, it also can teach you something about plot and pacing. If you look around the table and see half the party checking their email, think about what is going on in the story and wonder if there’s anything like that in your book too. And if there is? Kill that darling and move on!

What tricks did you pick up from Dungeons & Dragons to help with your character work? 

I mentioned previously that I make character sheets for everyone who appears in my books. It’s something I’ve been doing for years and was actually a suggestion I received from an editor once. I find it so helpful because D&D character sheets do a really great job of crystalizing what each person is great at as well as what they suck at—and it’s the flaws that are the most important. I think a lot of new writers mistakenly believe that audiences love certain characters because of how good they are at stuff, and I really disagree. I think we love the characters we do because they have real flaws and real blind spots and have to fight to succeed in spite of all that. So if you’re struggling with a character that seems too good to be true, grab a character sheet and input that standard array. I guarantee you’ll learn something about that character.

Did D&D help in plotting and writing this book as part of NaNoWrimo? 

Of course! The first draft of The Queen of Days was a NaNoWriMo project. And for me, at least, you cannot go into NaNo without a game plan and without a very carefully thought-out story map. So in addition to the character sheets I made, I also wrote a very detailed outline. And although I’ve never been a GM, I imagine it’s a similar process to planning out a dungeon crawl. You really have to think through every aspect of plot, every contingency for if things start going off the rails and how you want your characters to reach that final battle. And that might sound like a slog, but I kinda love the prep work that happens before I even sit down to write. I guess I might have to run a game someday!

Where does the “found family” trope come from for you? 

Applying the found family trope as a description of The Queen of Days is a bit of a misnomer, because most of the gang are related. But I love playing with familial relationships because they are so nuanced and so layered. An argument is never just about one thing, it’s always gonna be tied back to that one time you got your brother grounded as a kid. (Sorry, Karl!) So it’s just a gold mine. But Tassiel is coming in late to the party, and honestly, she is an unwanted addition. Which is so hard—I mean it’s hard enough to make friends as an adult without throwing the fate of a city in the mix! But I think there is something really powerful in finding your tribe, and in claiming to the world that these are my people and by extension, this is who I am. And I think this is one of many reasons we all keep coming back for these stories.

Who IS the Queen of Days?

The Queen of Days is a title used by a very mysterious woman called Tassiel. And she is essentially a criminal for hire: you need a mercenary? She’s it. You need to break your crew out of prison? Call Tass. You need to rob a museum? Say no more. The major caveat of hiring Tassiel, however, is that she will not work for money. She only works for time. Your time. You work with her, keep your gold. You’ll just die a month earlier than you were meant to. In a world where believing in magic and the gods went out of vogue a hundred years ago, the demand sounds insane. Which suits her just fine. Because crazy or not, she gets results. And she has been getting results for a very, very long time.

The Queen of Days will be published by Harper Voyager on October 24th at an MSRP of $30.00. As always, please support independent booksellers through IndieBound or AbeBooks.

Images via HarperCollins

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