Writing What We Know (Or Not)

A friendly-looking white man in glasses and a red pullover, sitting in the woods, looks at the camera.David B. Coe / D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of nineteen fantasy novels. As David B. Coe, he writes THE CASE FILES OF JUSTIS FEARSSON, a contemporary urban fantasy series from Baen Books, including Spell Blind, His Father’s Eyes, and Shadow’s Blade. Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes THE THIEFTAKER CHRONICLES, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and Dead Man’s Reach. David is also the author of the Crawford Award-winning LONTOBYN CHRONICLE, which he is in the process of reissuing, as well was the critically acclaimed WINDS OF THE FORELANDS quintet and BLOOD OF THE SOUTHLANDS trilogy. He wrote the novelization of Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. David’s books have been translated into a dozen languages. He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two daughters. 

Story ideas come to us from everywhere. They invade our sleep, they interrupt us in mid-conversation, they materialize out of an exotic scent, or a strain of unfamiliar music, or a glimpse of breathtaking landscape. Robert Frost once said that an idea is “a feat of association,” a joining together of two (or three, or six, or twenty) disparate stimuli.

I think about ideas a lot, because as an author of speculative fiction, I’m asked often about the source of my inspiration for the books and stories I write. Sometimes people are genuinely curious; sometimes I suspect they’re a little bit frightened of me. For all I know, the question is intended as a stall tactic, something to keep me talking until the authorities arrive to cart me off…

I have recently re-issued a newly edited version — the Author’s Edit — of my first novel, Children of Amarid. Published in 1997, Children of Amarid is the opening volume of my LONTOBYN CHRONICLE, which won the Crawford Fantasy Award for best work by a new author, and established me both critically and commercially. (The series continues with The Outlanders and Eagle-Sage, both slated to be reissued later this year.) And while the inspiration for some of my later work might be harder to divine, the idea for this series is nearly as old as I am.

I started birdwatching when I was seven years old. My older brothers got me interested in birding mostly because, at that age, I could be persuaded to wander into thickets of brambles and poison ivy to flush possible rarities from their hiding places. Later on, my brothers assure me, they continued to bring me along because they liked me. But somewhere along the way, undeterred by thorns and rashes, I came to love birds. When I was young, my favorite book was a Grosset and Dunlap science book for kids called Birds Do the Strangest Things. I was a bird geek through and through.

In particular, I have always been fascinated by birds of prey: hawks, falcons, eagles, owls. So, when the time came to create my magic system for this first series, I made certain that hawks and owls would play a role. My mages draw their power from psychic connections they form with avian familiars — either hawks (including falcons) or owls, or on rare occasions, eagles. They share their consciousness with the birds; they can “fly” with their familiars by opening their minds to the birds’ sensations when aloft; and when their familiars die, they are vulnerable, not only because they have no access to magic, but also because unbound mages are subject to a dark curse. (Interesting, right? Read the books…)

This was fantasy on a couple of levels. Yes, I was writing books about magic, set in an alternate world of my creation. But through my characters I was also living out my childhood fantasy of having a hawk or owl of my own. More than a pet, I wanted an avian soulmate, which is what I gave to my mages. And if that soulmate also brought the ability to cast spells and ward off evil, all the better.

“Write what you know,” is a mantra of writerly advice. At times, I fear, “write what you know” does more harm than good, by limiting the creative process. The adage, if taken too far, would kill speculative fiction; how can we write what we know but also create stories that take place in make-believe worlds and involve magic or as-yet-uninvented technologies? Starting out, I was fortunate to stumble upon an idea for a magic system that allowed me both to write what I knew and to sound the depths of my imagination.

To my mind, that is the essence of what speculative fiction ought to be. Whether we write horror or science fiction, epic fantasy or paranormal romance, we who write in this genre seek innovative — at times fantastical — perspectives on the familiar. At its best, speculative fiction is a mirror through which we see our own world. The reflection is imperfect to be sure, but frequently more effective because of those distortions and variations. The LonTobyn Chronicle is a story about mages and hawks, but it’s also a first-contact narrative, an exploration of what happens when technology-run-amok meets a pastoral society. In other words, my lifelong love of birds was merely a starting point, a “write-what-you-know” jumping off place for a more involved tale.

A brown owl with yellow eyes glares at the camera.

Great Horned Owl

And that should be the end of the story and this post. But I’d like to leave you with a personal anecdote. Back when I was starting my career and had begun work on Children of Amarid but had yet to find a publisher, I went out to California to defend my Ph.D. thesis in U.S. environmental history. I stayed with a friend, and the evening I arrived he and I walked through the campus while I told him about this book I was writing, and about the existential career crisis in which I found myself. I was about to complete my degree, but I wanted to give up on my academic life to pursue a career as a fantasy author. It seemed crazy, but that’s where my heart was taking me. In the midst of our walk, and my angst, we happened upon, of all things, a family of Great Horned Owls: two adults and a brood of three unfledged balls of fluff. I was speechless. My friend told me it was a sign that I should follow my dream.

I don’t know if he was right, but it’s certainly how I chose to interpret that moment. In the years since, I’ve treasured the opportunity to blend concepts, emotions, and experiences that I “know” with worlds, characters, and forms of magic that I discover along the way. I’ve drawn upon other passions and life experiences beyond birds — my love of history, my fascination with politics, our family’s experience living in a foreign land for a year, the struggles of people I know and love with mental health problems and addiction. And I’ve found time and again that writing speculative fiction allows me to delve into these topics in ways that are at once personal and revealing, imaginary and utterly real.

Readers, what are some of your favorite birds in fantasy? One lucky commenter will receive a copy of The Children of Amarid.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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  1. I finished reading Spell Blind not too long ago and I LOVED it! I already have book 2 on my reader just waiting for the right moment. Such awesome characters!

  2. My 5-year-old son loves birds of prey, and I’m learning to appreciate them from him. His favorites are Great Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcon and Red-Tailed Hawk.

    I hadn’t given it much thought before, but my favorite birds in fantasy would probably be Tolkien’s Eagles.

    • That’s great that your son is into birds, Yagiz. I started birding when I was 7, and it has literally given me a lifetime of joy. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I liked the goshawk in Path of Fate by Diana Pharaoh Francis which actually has a similar looking cover to your Children of Amarid which I have yet to read. But since I love birds and magic too, I’m going to have to add that to my to read list.

    • Thanks for the comment, April. If you check the back of Di’s book, you might find my name. I blurbed the book when it first came out — -my series had come out a few years earlier. She and I have the same agent, in addition to having similar tastes in fantasy worlds. Amarid’s Hawk in the LonTobyn books is actually a Goshawk, too.

  4. My favorite fantasy bird was created by Lindsay Buroker. He is Kei, a parrot, in the Chains of Honor series.

  5. Fav bird Gene Wolfe’s Oreb!

  6. I’m wondering if there will be an audio version of Children of the Amarid.

  7. Maria, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of CHILDREN OF ARAMID!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  8. The plot concept sounds quite interesting. I grew up in Mexico City where you would be lucky if you saw one hawk in a very large park. However ever since I’ve lived in the boonies near Valle de Bravo which is essentially forest I get to see hawks circling the sky all of the time. Black vultures are also common further south. I recently bought a Cannon T6 rebel and it would be nice to take photos. Do you have any suggestions to take photos of raptors? There is a village that is a 20 minute bus ride from my job where those beasts fly in the sky all of the time. I’d really like to nab a photo with my new camera. It’s now autumn and the monarch butterflies have finally arrived. The park is a bit further away, around 40 minutes but easily reachable by both bus and taxi. I went to that place called Peña Redonda two years ago with my old pocket Olympus but the photos are blurry (the park guides only allow you to stand around 100 feet away from the butterfly colony for their safety). I have a GoPro and felt disappointment the photos I took were barely visible due to the distance.

    If you have never seen a monarch butterfly colony up close it’s something really amazing. It’s like the sound of clapping one hand multiplied by 10,000. I’m going to be insanely busy running a gazillion errands (and on vacation) the next two weeks but I’m hoping to go to the park in December when the colonies are at their peak. Nabbing a photo of a raptor would be a plus.

    Your book concept sounds really interesting BTW, I’ll be glad to read the books when I have the time.


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