A Little Wisdom From R.A. Salvatore

Franklin Brown and R.A. Salvatore

One of the biggest challenges of writing a novel within an entirely original fantasy world is fleshing out the details and minutiae of the place.  What are the various cultures like? What is their history? What do the landscapes look like? What governments, economies, and social structures are in place around the world?

It can be very easy to get lost in the task of world-building and miss out on the actual storytelling.

I decided to employ a gimmick to prompt myself to work on the details of my fictional realm and flesh out some tertiary characters in it. I started a Dungeons and Dragons campaign set within the world of the novel I’m working on, and I invited my family members to join. This has provided an opportunity to enjoy a weekly night of dinner and gaming, and also forces me to create new material on a regular schedule that fills in a lot of the space around my story. After eight months, the campaign is still going strong and has provided a wealth of fresh ideas to exploit.

When I first came up with the idea, I had thought it to be somewhat original, but also a bit trivial; I had doubts as to whether I’d get anything accomplished with this campaign, or if it would just be a distraction.

It was about that time that I’d started reading the 25th Anniversary collection of “The Legend of Drizzt” by R.A. Salvatore. The first dozen or so books about his famous Drow Elf Ranger have been presented in four substantial volumes, and after plowing through the first, I immediately had to pick up Book II. Its dedication is reprinted from the original publication of “The Crystal Shard in 1988, and contained the following:

“… and to the rest of my AD&D game group, Tom Parker, Daniel Mallard, and Roland Lortie, for their continued inspiration through the development of eccentric characters fit to wear the mantle of a hero in a fantasy novel.”

Evidently my idea was not all that original. Nor was it trivial. To date, R.A. Salvatore has written dozens and dozens of novels, and has sold over 15 million copies. Further, he is not the only successful author to draw inspiration from a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for his work. Greenwood, Weis, and Hickman have been enormously prolific employing the same tactic.

Earlier this afternoon, I found out R.A. Salvatore was doing a signing at a campus bookstore at Arizona State University to promote his 27th novel in the Drizzt series, “Rise of the King.” As soon as I finished work, I packed my very-understanding family in the car and made the long drive to Tempe with my only expectation that I would ask him to sign my copy of “The Legend of Drizzt: Book II,” and perhaps convey my appreciation for the affirmation I found in the book’s dedication.

After dinner at The Chuckbox, we walked over to the Sun Devil Marketplace and discovered that Salvatore wasn’t just signing – they had a room set up for him to give a talk and take questions. Signing would happen after the Q&A session.

I wish I’d had the foresight to record the event, so that I could quote him exactly. Instead I’ll have to paraphrase some of the talking points that stuck out the most to me (emphasis on “paraphrase,” my memory is hardly perfect, and I will stand to be corrected if necessary):

  • Salvatore is clearly still geeked to be writing Drizzt novels, even after all these years. He has no intention of stopping, killing off the character, or anything like that.
  • The idea for the character, as he tells it, sounds like he essentially pulled the concept out of thin air while on a phone call that demanded he come up with a sidekick for Wulfgar, who was originally supposed to be the central figure of the first novel. What seemed a zany idea at the time turned into the hero that has now carried over two dozen books.
  • Salvatore also plugged his new DemonWars: Reformation role-playing game, and shared a little history on its origins and the nature of the Kickstarter effort that made it happen. He loves the concept of crowdfunding, and compared it to his favorite sport (baseball) saying that it gives you no place to hide – it’s just you and the ball, and you’re responsible for all aspects of the project. Signed copies of the first edition are still available at a really reasonable price on his website.
  • When asked about writer’s block, he said very bluntly “It doesn’t exist.” Writer’s block is just lack of self-confidence. Sit down and start typing. Even if it’s garbage you throw out later, just get to work. Tape your mortgage statement to the side of your monitor if you need motivation.
  • When I told him about how I decided to use a D&D campaign to help with world-building on my own work, he said gaming is great to draw inspiration from, and cited examples where events in-game had provided the seeds of ideas used in his novels, but insisted that attempting to transcribe a gaming session and make a novel from that would be a bad idea.  Character and plot development in your fiction needs to be more deliberate, and not left to chance rolls of the dice or the whims of whoever you’re gaming with. Very few actual characters from his game sessions have made it into his work.
  • Escapism in fantasy is fine, but he says the world we’re trying to escape today isn’t the problem. The world today is a better place than it was 30 years ago, and fewer people every year die to violence and disease. The problem is we’ve been screwed up in the head by a rabid media that makes an awful lot of money sowing strife, conflict, fear, and worry.
  • Along those lines, his novels do not have real-world parallels, even though they often speak to issues and challenges that we have all the time in the real world. His objective is not to give you answers – it’s to help you ask questions so you can find your own answers.  Ultimately, he has, and always intends to make sure his stories have a hopeful message.
  • On how he choreographs such good fight scenes: “I played hockey.” Salvatore is deliberate in the tone, pacing, and intensity of his fight scenes. The mechanics are derived partly from personal experience in athletics such as boxing, and from his time working as a bouncer in college. Most of it is based on simple observation of fights, fencing, and other athletic events ranging from gymnastics to figure skating.

My overall impression is that Salvatore wasn’t sugar-coating anything with regards to his writing process or how he’s found success. There’s no easy button, silver bullet, or magic beans when it comes to punching out a good story and finding a publisher for it. Hard work, tenacity, dependability, and improvisation are his allies. You need to love what you do, and you need to be willing to sweat for it.