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Ed discusses his latest novel set in the Forgotten Realms, where Elminster must solve the mystery of the mythical Lost Spell!
Rumors race around Cormyr regarding the mythical Lost Spell, a powerful enchantment designed centuries ago by the presumed dead god of spells—a spell long thought lost to the ages. Found by some magickless merchant, rumor has it the Lost Spell is to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
It is a powerful lure, and archwizards of every stripe descend upon the merchant, only to be trapped with him inside his manor by a vicious spellstorm—escape impossible, and their magic useless with the interference from the storm.
Moreover—they find themselves faced with the infamous Elminster of Shadowdale, who claims he’s just there to decide who gets the Lost Spell, but who clearly has an agenda of his own.
But before Elimster can put whatever plan he has in motion, archwizards start dying.
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Susan Morris: Spellstorm is fairly unusual for the Realms in that, in addition to being an adventuresome romp, it’s also a closed circle murder mystery! Was that more difficult to write than a classic adventure, or did you find that the limitations actually helped spur the creative process?
Ed Greenwood: It was easier to write a closed circle murder mystery than a more usual “freewheeling high magic” Realms novel rather than more difficult, because limiting the magic cuts down on “rabbit spell up my sleeve” moments and forces the group of frankly antisocial, powerful archmages thrown together in Spellstorm to have to interact with each other far more than they otherwise would. They can’t blast someone with a spell or throw up a magical barrier because, due to the spellstorm, they can’t trust their spells— and they’re stuck in a rotting old country mansion with many other spoiled, angry, frightened veteran archmages. At least one of whom is a murderer—an active murderer. So very soon they’re all under pressure, and very much wanting to blast others or throw up string barriers, and the reader gets to see something of what they’re really like.
Susan: What was the inspiration behind Spellstorm? Was there a particular moment or scene that strikes you as the heart of the book?
Ed: For a long time I’ve wanted to write a book that combines suspense and action with a prolonged spotlight on character development, and some time ago it struck me that the “country house” style of murder mystery (in which all the characters are isolated by some force or other in a wilderness or other remote locale, so the reader knows the murderer must be someone onstage, not “someone, somewhere in this sprawling and crowded city”) would be the ideal way to do this. Eventually Elminster’s wayward career came to a point at which it was possible—so here we are.
I would say that the scene at the heart of the book is a brief discussion Elminster and Alusair has about “preening idiots.” Elminster is jesting, but he sees clearly what he essentially is (in the context of the wider world), and admits it, and is content with his role (rebounding from the “I’m tired and just want to die” state he was in for much of the Sage of Shadowdale trilogy). Readers who re-read Spellstorm after enjoying it as a mystery, the first time through, might want to watch for moments when various members of the cast see themselves clearly. They meet or embrace their fates more readily, when they can.
Susan: Spellstorm is incredibly atmospheric—both in that I could see the manor, and in the sense of foreboding and stuff. How did you craft such a rich and creepy atmosphere?
Ed: Description (not hold-everything exhaustive passages, but taking care not to neglect the passing scene) and dialogue that reflects the tension. Which readers can see I contrast, from time to time, with what’s said by characters who aren’t feeling that tension. Make the rising stakes clear, and keep the mansion creepy. After all, most of what goes on in a fantasy novel deals with age-old themes and familiar situations; it’s the way in which it’s told that imparts the richness. Or as the saying goes: all of our lives end at the same final destination. It’s the journey that makes a life rich, or otherwise.
Susan: There might be fewer characters in Spellstorm than in most of your books, but each of those characters plays a substantial role, with his or her own goals and methods of achieving those goals. How did you go about keeping them all distinct, and weaving together all those different plotlines?
Ed: First, map the house. Second, as scenes are being written, move character markers around—meeples or “little men” from family boardgames work just fine, as do gaming miniatures—to make sure people have time to make any movements described in the story, and to check for chance meeting “intercepts.” That’s the rock-bottom “blocking” (as they call it in theater: moving bodies around the stage, not just for traffic reasons, but to reinforce the way in which particular characters or scenes will strike the audience; the impressions that will be created and amplified).
Third, keep a very clear idea in mind whilst writing of what each character wants. If that changes during the story, mark the point of each change, and clearly understand why.
So at any one “freeze frame” moment, I could go around the house in my mind (“the king was in his counting house, counting out his money/the queen was in the parlor, eating bread and honey” as the old nursery rhyme goes) and know what every character was aiming for . . . so that made it much easier to figure out what they were actually up to. And make sure the “eat, sleep, garderobe breaks” needs were timed in, even if not shown to the reader.
Susan: All those archmages in one house—I remember Philip Athans talking about writing Annihilation, and how hard it was to write the battle between the lich Dyrr and Gromph Baenre, because they were both so intelligent, so crafty, and so powerful. And there are eleven intelligent, crafty, and powerful archmages in Spellstorm! (Not even counting Elminster.) How do you keep them all in line?
Ed: That third factor I mentioned: keeping in mind what characters want, at any given point in the story. Then it’s a matter of deciding where the writer’s eye, that guides the reader’s eye, focuses. Who are we paying attention to, at what times during the story, and for how long? Writers and editors often talk about Point Of View, and generally want to avoid “head-hopping” where that viewpoint switches from one character to another within the same scene—but what underlies that general rule isn’t (or shouldn’t be) “because this editor doesn’t like when a writer does that” but rather, what works most effectively.
With this many characters who are all powerful personalities who all use arcane magic and who are all used to getting their own way all in play, bouncing off each other, the reader should be kept aware of how they are different (so as to keep them all “straight” in mind), and should be immersed in the moment, so the reader feels the limitations and frustrations the characters are feeling, and sees why they do what they do. The writer can then use shifting scenes and different pacing to “cleanse the reader’s palate” between interactions of various characters to help the reader keep everyone straight, and to remind the reader about what’s at stake.
Which is a very analytical, calculating and long-winded way of saying what I tend to do instinctively; if when writing a scene I’m getting mentally tired of this conversation or that confrontation, it’s time to move the reader’s eye elsewhere (even if we’re going to jump back later).
Susan: One of the characters, Maraunth Torr, struck me very much as a young Manshoon, and I found the contrast between them was perfect for drawing out the ways Manshoon had changed over the years. Was that intentional? How would Manshoon and Maraunth each feel about the comparison?
Ed: Yes, that was indeed intentional. Both characters are egocentric and would be irritated by the comparison (but would know it was valid). They would not want to discuss it. What I’ve been exploring with Manshoon over the past thirty years or so is how a gleeful villain of a ruthless evil archmage mellows as he ages, how he tastes the mantle of absolute tyranny and tires of it (Fzoul “beat” Manshoon because Manshoon let him; Manshoon was already looking for a way out of being “top man of the Zhentarim and top target”), how he finds satisfaction in different ways and achievements as he gets older . . . and by the time of Spellstorm, what stage in his self-judgment and in his re-evaluation of his relationship with Mystra (he was offered the mantle of being a Chosen, and repudiated it, because he feared and mistrusted Mystra and everyone else, and trusted only in himself and going it alone) he had reached.
Maraunth Torr is very much what Manshoon used to be, and Manshoon dismisses him as a rash young fool. Maraunth Torr looks at Manshoon with scorn and a little fear—not just because of what Manshoon can do, but because he’s afraid that he’ll one day become the Manshoon he sees, and he doesn’t want to become that “weak” older person. Manshoon sees Maraunth Torr as a callow, headstrong idiot—such a dolt that he mistakes the wisdom of experience for weakness.
One of my later Forging the Realms columns was all about the stages in the life of Manshoon. I’ve been exploring the effects of aging on Elminster too, of course, and it’s been interesting to me that some readers don’t seem to want Manshoon to grow and change; they see the later Manshoons as “wrong” because they don’t match the earlier versions of Manshoon they saw in Spellfire and contemporary Realms fiction.
Susan: Without giving anything away, we learn some secrets about Alusair and her nature in this book—are we going to get to hear more about her story, and what those revelations mean? I could think of a number of interesting implications!
Ed: Time will tell in what way and how much more I’ll be able to explore Alusair; there are so many characters in the Realms I’d love to delve more deeply into (her mother Queen Filfaeril, just to name one off the top of my head). I want to keep Alusair as mysterious as I can right now, because I have some juicy ideas and untold moments of her past sizzling away, awaiting the right moment and right venue to present. I also want to avoid leaving the impression that “she’s a super-character, this flying, invisible-when-she-wants-to-be ghost!” Super spy, maybe—but for whom, and why? What motivates her? A love for Cormyr, obviously, but what else? For so long she lived her life in contrast to her parents—but they’re gone now, and she as a ghost can obviously learn and grow and change as a “person,” so. For her, what now? (Time to tease by adding: We’ll just have to see.)
Susan: Do you have a favorite secondary character from Spellstorm about whom you’d love to tell more stories?
Ed: Mirt, of course, but Alusair especially. If you take both of those off the table, then Myrmeen Lhal. And to mention a character we see very little of: Vangerdahast. Like Elminster, Vangey is good for a 12-book series any chance I get to sit down and write it! So is Manshoon, of course, and for that matter every one of the archmages we see trapped in the mansion together in Spellstorm. I would need a dozen potions of longevity to have years enough left to write about them all. Hmm . . .
Susan: What part was the trickiest to get right?
Ed: The shift from slowly unfolding menace to the “chasing around the house” scenes—without draining away all the tension by having it be lost in the sudden outbreak of action. Those changes in atmosphere are harder and more crucial than mere changes in pace.
Susan: Do you have a favorite section?
Ed: The highsunfeast (supper) scene. It’s very short, because it gets interrupted by events (behold a not-so-adroit avoidance of spoiler, folks), but I found the venomous dialogue great fun to write and great fun to read, and had to actively stomp on my personal desire to airily write a long, long chapter of the diners slanging each other about life, the Realms, and everything. I could have filled pages upon pages with jests, philosophy, and colorful little tales from the pasts of all of these fascinating characters—pages that would have had little or nothing to do with the main story. The temptation was there, and I oh-so-manfully/womanfully resisted it, but that temptation existed because it was my favorite bit of the book.
Susan: One thing I love about this book is that it has two themes—that of the fight between freedom and binding law, and the fight between selfishness and altruism—that don’t stand alone, but instead actively engage with each other, making kind of a super theme about the importance of scope. How did you go about creating this complex thematic structure?
Ed: By linking them with a third theme: there are no easy choices. Or rather, choices made quickly and without thought are rarely the right ones. Every choice has its price; do we ignore that price or fool ourselves about it to make the choosing easier or to do what we emotionally want to do? Or do we try to “take the long view,” to consider the wider implications for others, to weigh them as heavily as “how it will benefit me”? Do we go for short-term gain, or short-term pain for long-term gain?
By keeping the focus on characters choosing, in the heat of the moment, the story stays practical and avoids getting preachy about philosophies except when characters are deliberately getting preachy.
Almost every one of the cast of Spellstorm is powerful enough that they make or define (by their support or enforcement, or at least interpretation) law/local rules in some situations, or consider themselves above the law either all the time or in certain circumstances, so in that debate, freedom almost always wins; “law” is used for self-justification or for judging others. So I kept it as personal as possible, in dangerous action situations, to avoid lengthy philosophical discourse (or to put it very simply, I hewed to the old writers’ maxim: “show, don’t tell”).
Susan: As a follow-up, it strikes me how those themes essentially embrace the classic themes of D&D—that of lawful versus chaotic, and good versus evil. (That’s awesome!) Are you making an argument for a particular alignment, with Spellstorm?
Ed: Oh, no, I’m not advocating one alignment over another. Life is about making moral choices, and I want to explore that complex, real people (and fictional characters) will sometimes go one way, and at other times go another, as their lives unfold. Every choice has consequences; every decision of law versus chaos or good versus evil in a novel should show the reader those consequences. Not to be preachy, but to share the stakes: “If you do thus, the cost will be this. Yet if you do thus-and-so, the outcome will be that.”
The cheat, in fiction, is to have actions without consequences, and impart the message of: Do as you please, following your whims or being truly random, because none of it matters in the slightest. It does matter. Not just to those who become casualties, but to those who survive and even flourish.
Susan: Does Mystra really trust Elminster with the fate of the Lost Spell? Or is it a test? Will she step in if Elminster “gets it wrong”?
Ed: Yes, it’s a test. Of Elminster as well as the archmages. And of herself. Although she anticipates that these archmages—most of them real troublemakers to Mystra’s aim of getting magic universally embraced and used, because they have used their magic in ways that make people hate and fear them—will whittle each other down, when shut in together, and thereby lessen the problem she has with them, Mystra is testing herself because she has seen that the more deities meddle with mortals, the more they corrupt and taint those mortals, and the more they cheapen the worship they receive and blunt the aims and causes they promote. She is seeing if she can bear to remain more aloof than she has been in the past, if she can manage to keep herself apart from the deepening fray.
However, I do think that if Elminster had turned tyrant or abetted the “wrong” person in the mansion and allowed them to become a tyrant, wielding the Lost Spell, Mystra would have stepped in and squashed the tyrant, then and there, and administered whatever “justice” she deemed necessary to everyone else within the walls, while she still had them all together, and before they got loose marauding across the Realms.
She is of course hoping the archmages can be forced into working together, because that’s what she wants mortals to do more of (and reasoning that if they know each other personally, they’ll both be able to “read” each other better and they’ll be unable to casually lash out at each other because the “faceless foe” has been replaced by someone they know). Yet Mystra is wise enough to know that it’s a slim chance this brightest outcome will happen.
Susan: Would you want the Lost Spell, if you were one of the archmages in Spellstorm? If you had to give it to one of the characters, which one would you choose?
Ed: Probably I would, if I was one of those characters (the power would be irresistible). However, if it was really “me as me,” put in the place of one of the archmages in the mansion, I’d refuse it—because I see the downside as overwhelming the possible good outcomes. I know I can’t be trusted with that sort of magic—and I know I’d make a mess of it. (And the world would be a better place if more people admitted to themselves what they’ll make a mess of, and what they can’t be trusted with.)
Susan: Elminster’s tale is quite substantial at this point! Do readers need to start with Elminster: The Making of a Mage, or can they dive right in with Spellstorm?
Ed: Readers can start with this book, by all means. Longtime Realms fans will enjoy the nuances more because they know more of the back stories of the wacky collection of folks trapped together in the mansion—but Spellstorm can be enjoyed as a straight-ahead mystery novel by someone new to all of the characters.
My Elminster saga has several good “starting points,” from Spellfire and Elminster: The Making Of A Mage and the short story “Elminster At The MageFair” to Elminster Must Die! and this book, Spellstorm. My next Realms novel is shaping up to work well for a newcomer to the Realms to enjoy by itself and then go back to read my earlier books, too. I seem to be all about two-way travel.
Susan: How do you balance writing for new readers and writing for established Realms fans?
Ed: I provide Easter eggs and tiny asides that answer outstanding lore or check-ins with characters from earlier tales, for the established fans, but the story must and should stand on its own (and hopefully satisfy), for new readers.
Susan: What’s next for Elminster? Anything you can tell us?
Ed: I’m just about finished my next Realms novel, and whereas Spellstorm finds El in an isolated locale in the countryside of Cormyr, the next one takes him somewhere familiar and a bit more populous, for a very different sort of tale. (No, I’m not starting an “Elminster Murder Mystery” series. Not that it wouldn’t be a fun idea to do one . . .)
ED GREENWOOD is the creator of the Forgotten Realms® fantasy world setting and the New York Times best-selling author of almost 200 books and thousands upon thousands of articles, short stories, game modules, campaign settings and more. His novels alone have sold more than 20 million copies in over 30 languages; there are an estimated 50 million-plus copies of Ed Greenwood creations “out there,” and whenever Ed isn’t writing—he’s writing something else! He lives with his wife Jenny and has been trying to train Missy, The Cat Who Must Be Obeyed, to catalog the more than one million items in his personal library. (Missy feels she needs an intern.)
SUSAN J. MORRIS is a fantasy author and editor. She also wrote a critically acclaimed writing advice column for Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog, worked for over six years as the editor of the Forgotten Realms novels, and worked for just over a year in the Books department at Amazon.com. In her spare time, she has published four middle-grade books and designed Dungeons & Dragons for kids. She was delighted to be a 2012 Industry Insider Guest of Honor at Gen Con.