Author J. M. Aucoin has a new novel out, Honor Among Thieves, the first in an adventure series called Hope & Steel, set in 17th Century France. You may already know him from his pirate series featuring Jake Hawking. So what is Honor Among Thieves about? Here’s a taste:
France, March 1609. The French Wars of Religion are over, but forces still conspire against the crown…
Darion Delerue, former soldier turned highwayman, has only two things of value—the hope in his heart and the steel at his side. After a heist on a royal ambassador goes wrong, Darion is thrown into a political plot to undermine the crown, pitting his old life as an honorable soldier against his new life as a highwayman. His actions could send France back into civil war.
HONOR AMONG THIEVES is a gripping tale of daring sword-play and political intrigue, with superb historical detail of 17th Century France that’ll have readers ready to draw their swords and fight for glory!
Mr. Aucoin took the time to answer some questions for me, and here are his thoughtful and thought-provoking answers:
Let’s go back in time for a minute. Tell us when you first started writing. Were you an avid reader as a child?
I remember writing some pretty creative and weird tales as early as the second grade (there was something about a fish), but the first real taste of writing for me came in the eighth grade. We read The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell. I was blown away by the story and still read it regularly.
As a creative writing assignment for school, we were asked to fill in the gap between the hero and antagonist’s final showdown and the very last scene in the novella (what happens between the two scenes isn’t explained by Connell). I ended up writing my first ever action scene. Considering that I was at a Catholic school at the time, I’m sort of surprised I didn’t get in trouble for the violence.
As for reading as a kid, I was into the Matt Christopher books and Goosebumps.
What drew you to historical fiction in particular?
A few things led me to historical fiction. I’ve been a huge fan of Zorro and The Three Musketeers ever since I was a little kid. I used to watch reruns of Guy William’s Zorro on the Disney Channel every Wednesday after dinner, and got my first taste of the Three Musketeers in the 1993 Disney adaption.
I was completely enthralled by both stories. The idea of fighting injustice and writing wrongs against huge odds with nothing more than a sword really captured the interest of my nine-year-old self. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be a dashing hero who fought villains with a rapier.
So we can thank Walt Disney for part of my love for historical fiction.
The second half of the equation came in college. I was walking around the city with a friend. She knew about my love for pirates and swashbuckling, and nonchalantly said “You should write pirate stories.”
It was an epiphany moment for me. Five simple words that were so obvious as to what I wanted to do in life, but I didn’t think of it myself because college is all about preparing you to get a boring day job instead of finding your passion and purpose in life. I started taking fiction writing workshops the next semester and it’s been a trip ever since.
So we can also thank LJ for being my compass as it were.
Tell us a bit about your piratical series of stories and what got you interested in that sub-genre.
I love the romanticized pirate. I love the escapism of swashbuckling pirate stories. To be able to board a ship and go anywhere in the world is very alluring to me. It’s a type of freedom and liberty very few of us get to experience. I envy my friends who are able to just pack up their life and go in search of adventure and new experiences. The rest of us are ball n’ chained to heavy student loans. So reading and writing historical fiction is a way of living new experiences.
The Jake Hawking Adventures are an ode to Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. Like Blood, Jake Hawking is a cerebral pirate, a rogue who would rather outwit his adversaries than fight them head on. To counter act that, we have Little Queen, an ex-slave who now acts as Hawking’s second in command and right hand (wo)man. She’d rather crack skulls and ask questions later. Their interactions and opposite personalities make for dynamic writing and hopefully fun reading.
Right now I have three Hawking short stories out (A Pirate’s Honor, The Royal Bounty Hunters, and Little Queen’s Gambit). All three tales are also compiled into an omnibus edition that includes some bonus swashbuckling poems and short-stories I’ve written over the years.
Now you have branched out into a different sub-genre with Honor Among Thieves. Did that storyline evolve out of your personal interest in swordplay?
I would say Honor Among Thieves still fits in the historical adventure/swashbuckling genre that the Jake Hawking Adventures are. Just instead of pirates and ships we have masked highwaymen and great steeds.
I think the main difference between the Hawking Adventures and the Hope & Steel series is the tone and history. Hawking is light, classic swashbuckling fun (think Errol Flynn), while Honor Among Thieves is a little more serious (think Captain Alatriste series). That’s not to say there isn’t high adventure and humor in Honor Among Thieves; it’s just closer to the gallows side of the spectrum.
The research level is also different between the two series. Research for the Hope & Steel series is much more intense. Where the Hawking plots are 100% fictional with a historic backdrop, Honor Among Thieves intertwines a fictitious plot into real historical events. It meant a lot more research and making sure I get the facts right. It’s also challenging to come up with a compelling plot that fits neatly into history.
But the storyline for this novel definitely came out of my personal interest for swordplay. My love for Zorro and the Musketeers is what drives my writing. I practice historical rapier fencing and do stage combat for local RenFaires and indie-films. I also met my fiancée at a sword-fighting workshop and proposed to her with a medieval dagger instead of a ring (she said yes, by the way) that she can use at shows. So the love for the sword runs deep in our apartment!
Share with us your talent in fencing as well as your interest in cosplay.
Talent, eh? You flatter me.
I’ve been fencing since I was a junior in college. I took an Adult Beginner’s class for foil and did that for a few years before finding the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Instead of wearing all white and using thin fencing foils, they were wearing period clothing and using full-length rapiers and daggers, cloaks and bucklers. I knew instantly that was home. That was the place to fulfill my childhood dreams of being a cavalier.
I’ve been fencing with the SCA ever since. It got me into study period fencing treatises and making my own period garb…
…which, in some ways, led me to cosplay. I’m a big nerd at heart and I was seeing some amazing work from people creating the outfits of characters from comics and video games. People were making EVA foam look like futuristic armor, creating unreal monster makeup, and generally making some amazing works of art come to life. It’s super nerdy and super cool. And I wanted in on the fun.
I’ve learned a lot of cool skills from cosplay. Last year I won the Boston Comic Con Pre-Con Contest & Parade (that’s a mouthful, eh?) for my Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag/Edward Kenway cosplay.
I’ve also made Gambit, Sir Didymus, and armored Nightwing.
Honor Among Thieves is the first in a series. What do you anticipate for the series when it comes to plotlines (without giving too much away, of course) and number of books you have planned?
I have the first four books for the Hope & Steel series all lined up in my head. So there’ll be at least four books, but probably (see: hopefully) more than that.
I look at my research, see what the major events are or some lesser known but still interesting incidents were in the period, and try to figure out how I can fit my characters into the action. I think each book will have a thread that leads to the plot of the next book, too. Little breadcrumbs for the readers. There’s a trail like that in Honor Among Thieves and that hints to what the next book will be about. Historians might have an upper hand in this game.
I’m hoping that this will be a long running series, much like the Sharpe series. There’s plenty of interesting events in French history during the 17th Century, and I’d like Darion, Peppin and Jacquelyna to be part of as many of them as possible.
Tell us about your protagonist in Honor Among Thieves? Is there a bit of yourself in him?
Our main man in Honor Among Thieves is Darion Delerue. He’s a Gascon who fought in the French army in some smaller skirmishes after the Wars of Religion ended. He was a promising soldier, looking at a life as an officer, but unfortunate events threw his life into disarray. Being that he was so young and hot blooded, he may have overreacted and did himself in. He left his life as soldier and became a highwayman in the countryside, joining the menacing band known as the Falcon Highwaymen.
So when Honor Among Thieves begins, Darion’s been a highwayman for several years. He’s grown tired of the life as a thief and bandit, but he’s not sure what else he can do. He deserted the army, so he can’t go back into the military, and his life as a highwayman is also hanging worthy. So he’s sort of stuck. But fortunately (and unfortunately), he’s thrown into a political plot to undermine the crown. His old life as a soldier is pitted against his new as a highwayman. Loyalties will be tested and his actions could throw France back into civil war.
The leading lady for the novel is Jacquelyna Brocquart. She’s the daughter of a count and a lady-in-waiting for Queen Marie de Medici. Alas, the queen and her confidant Galigai aren’t fond of Jacquelyna. That relationship strains more when the king names Jacquelyna Mistress of the Robes for the queen. It’s a coveted role, one the queen and Galigai wanted Galigai to have. Like Darion, Jacquelyna gets roped into this plot to rekindle war in France. She starts off the novel as a little timid and naïve, but if she wants to survive the ordeal, she’ll need to change her thinking quickly.
When do you hope to release your next book in the series?
With any luck, sometime in 2016. I have the basic premise for the next Hope & Steel book, but I need to hammer down the specifics of the plot and figure out what the twists and turns are. That’ll take a little time. And although good for paying bills, having a day job makes writing a slower process than I’d like.
Honor Among Thieves was about three years in the making. It was the first novel I completed (several other attempts failed partway through). I ended up rewriting the story all over again in the second draft. I learned a ton about the novel writing process with this book, learned a lot about how I write, and who these characters are. So I’m hopeful that future books in the series will go smoother and I’ll be able to pump them out faster.
You have chosen the independent publishing route. Tell us why?
I’ve seen some extremely talented writers go years without getting as much as a sniff from agents and, when they did, they were turned away after some back and forth. If you want to go the traditional publishing route, it could be decades before you get a contract —if you’re lucky enough to get one at all. That’s really depressing to think about, and there are amazingly talented writers who are writing great stories that we’re not reading because they’re not being published. What a bummer.
I didn’t want that to be my fate. I didn’t want to waste time hoping and praying to find an agent and then land a publisher. For years, I tried getting some of my short fiction into lit-mags; alas, the adventure magazines didn’t want stories set in the 17th or 18th Century, and the histfic magazines didn’t want adventure stories. On top of that, publishers don’t seem overly interested in the swashbuckling adventure genre, so I decided to bypass them altogether. I know I’m not the only person in the world who likes these stories. I want to be proactive in getting my stories out there, not a passive bystander.
I fully admit that I’d like fiction writing to be my full-time job. I want it to be my career, not just a hobby. I know some authors balk at that idea, and say writers should only write for the love of writing. I don’t see why it can’t be both. Why can’t I love writing and also want to make a living doing what I love? But I can’t have a career in writing if I’m not getting published. Indie publishing allows me to chase my dream on my own terms. And if I never get to write adventure novels full-time, well, at least I know I tried and didn’t leave my fate up to chance.
I give full props to the men and women who score a traditional publishing contract and make good on it. It’s a huge achievement and they should celebrate their milestone. It takes a lot of patience and tenacity to go year after year after year with no deal, and wade through rejection after rejection after rejection. It builds character for sure. But indie-publishing isn’t a walk in the park either — not if you’re serious about it. You need to be your own CEO, marketing department, and product. Both avenues are challenging with their own unique set of obstacles to overcome. Every individual author needs to decide what will work best for them.
But since we’re writers and we enjoy a good metaphor, you can say that I’m drawn to self-publishing for the same reasons I’m drawn to the romanticized pirate. It’s about taking charge of your destiny and creating your own adventure.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the publishing industry, and where do you think it is going in the future?
It’s definitely going through some growing pains. We saw this happen with newspapers when online publishing and blogs became popular. Newspapers refused to acknowledge the obvious change in how people consumed news, and when they finally did acknowledge the change, they had no idea how to react to it. The industry hasn’t recovered since. Unfortunately for this journalism degree touting author, I came out of school right as the newspaper industry began its steep nosedive into oblivion. The music industry had similar situation, but has been able to recover for the most part thanks to lawsuits and iTunes.
There are still some big name journalists who curse the Internet for killing their industry. Guess what? Online publishing didn’t kill the newspaper industry; publishers who couldn’t adapt to the changing times did. They got complacent and they got burned. And a lot of unfortunate reporters felt the brunt of their stubbornness.
And we’re seeing some of that now with the book publishing industry. Places like Amazon and Smashwords are making it easy to publish books. Technically speaking, all you need is an idea and Microsoft Word and you can publish a book. There’s more that goes into it, of course, if you want a good final product. But we have publishers condemning indies because it threatens their market share, and some publishing houses are doing silly things like charging the same price or more for an eBook than a paperback to prove a point.
But modern publishing technology – be it for news, music, or fiction – has made it easier and more profitable for individuals to get their work out there. Artists don’t need middle men anymore. If you have the talent — and also the business know-how — you can go about it on your own, and have long, successful careers. The Internet also made finding niche markets a lot easier. Before the Internet, you had to swallow whatever the major industry leaders spoon fed you. Now you can find what you like. It’s a win-win for readers and creators.
For some reason we celebrate indie bands for going out on their own and bypass traditional avenues, but crap on indie authors for doing the same thing. It’s silly. A good story is a good story, just like a good song is a good song.
What the publishing industry will end up being remains to be seen. The old ways can’t continue as they have been and still be in business. I don’t think we’ll see 100% indie industry either. Maybe something in between? Some sort of hybrid model? Or maybe a lot of smaller presses who are willing to take risks, give good contracts to authors, and aren’t afraid of change and experimentation will win out. Or maybe some new industries will sprout. Maybe instead of agents trying to hook authors up with publishers, they switch gears and become a marketing machine for the author and hook authors up directly with readers. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.
It’ll be interesting.