Sunday 21 July 2013

Enter the Citadel: Bringing 40K to life - writing background


This was the last of the seminars at Enter the Citadel, with a talk from Guy Haley (Black Library author) and Graeme Lyon (Black Library author and editor).

Who comes up with the idea for a story?

It can happen either way. Sometimes, an author will come up with an idea and pitch it to Black Library. In other instances, Black Library will ask authors for something to a specific brief. Guy, with his history as a journalist, is happy to write to a brief. His recent book, Death of Integrity, is based on three paragraphs in an Imperial Armour book. He very much wants to do the "Night of ?Vospis?" (but apparently quite a few other authors do as well).

How do you turn a background entry into a fully fledged story?

Drama comes from tension. The Death of Integrity is a joint operation by the Nova Marines and the Blood Drinkers - so you gain tension from the differences. The Nova Marines see themselves as offshoots of the Ultramarine Chapter, but have changed due to their isolation from the rest of the Imperium - which creates its own internal tension. You then get a further level of tension from two very different Space Marine chapters trying to work together.

How do you keep stories consistent with previous background?

"Highly trained editors." Recently, Black Library has undergone somewhat of a restructure. Games Workshop has now created a mega publications department, with all the writers in the same office. This helps keep things consistent. Everyone talks to each other. They can see potential overlaps or issues.

Some of their staff have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the background. For example, Laurie Goulding knows the Horus Heresy background incredibly well.

Guy Haley mentioned he's been playing for 30 years, and knows a lot of the setting backwards. He regards it as part of his job when he's writing to get it right. For his next, book, about the Eldar, he's read the last three Codexes, Gav Thorpe's Eldar series, and the Dark Eldar series. He likes to weave tiny things in.

Graeme then mentioned that he loved how Gav Thorpe had made all the Exarches speak in haiku. Guy hadn't noticed this yet, said a few affectionately terrible things about Gav and muttered something about redrafting an awful lot of dialogue. Something about writing a tactical briefing in haiku...

Do you try and stay true to the mechanics of the game?

They try to stay true to the mechanics of the world, not the mechanics of the game. They try to keep the right power balance of armies. They try not to make the army they're currently writing about too awesome when writing its background.

Is it hard to write things from an alien perspective?

Guy is still working on his Eldar book, but recently published Skarsnik, and writing goblins is very similar to aliens in terms of trying to write a non human mindset. For Skarsnik, he mediated this through human observers, which lets you get into their world from a sympathetic viewpoint. The closer an alien is to human, the harder they are to write. However, they've still been created from human experiences by games designers, who are humans. They work well as identifiable archetypes for a game, but you've got to find the people within the archetypes.

What can't you write about?

They avoid sexual violence and violence against innocents. You won't see it happen. In some ways, the 40K world is a strangely moral place, even if the government is fascistic.

Guy mentioned that everyone is the hero of their stories. Even the Night Lords have their own moral code.

What do you like best about writing for Black Library?

Tie in fiction has been historically looked down on. Most of it is non-canonical. A big example of this is the Star Wars novel "Splinter of the Minds Eye", created after Star Wars, but it doesn't match with the second film in any way. However, writers are getting to write canon for Black Library.

There was then a question about points of view characters, which got into a discussion of how they won't do a Tyranid point of view character, as they haven't worked out how to make that accessible and understandable given the complexities of the Hive Mind.

Guy mentioned he had done a short bit of Genestealer point of view in Death of Integrity, but this works because Genestealers are designed to operate on their own ahead of the Hive Fleets.

Do you use historical characters and cultures for inspiration?

Historical cultures do inspire the 40K universe, but Guy doesn't go back to these sources. You would end up with odd ancient Greeks, for example, rather than xenos. There is enough written about 40K now to research within the universe.

How do you deal with absurdities?

You can work with them. One of the commonly cited things that don't make sense are a certain Grey Knight and a certain demon primarch's heart. You figure out what's behind the text and develop that to make it work. There is an audio drama called Mortarian's Heart coming out soon, incidentally...

If something is removed from canon, do you have to remove it from your work?

In short, it hadn't really come up for either of them so they couldn't really comment in detail.

What next for the Horus Heresy?

There can be a long time in the game universe between books. The start and end of the Heresy of have been well detailed, but there is loads of room for new stuff in the middle sections. Dan Abnett is working on Unremembered Empire for the Ultramarines, covering what happens after Calth. They will keep releasing books for a long time yet.

Anything else you'd like to write?

Guy said he'd like to write something for almost every entry in the old Ork Freebooters book, mentioning Khornate Orks and Ork Genestealer Cults.

Do you ever plan to go into the 42nd Millennium?

You don't need to. You've got 10,000 years of history to play with. After M41.999 is your story to tell. There are loads of other areas to explore still - they will probably do the Scouring after the Heresy.

Do secondary characters ever take over a book?

Yes. It always happens. They take on a life of their own...

And with that, it was the last of the seminars - you can see I was flagging with what I was writing by this point... Tomorrow, I'll throw together a few thoughts on the event in general, and a few bits and bobs of comments and observations that don't really fit anywhere else...


  1. I've been reading all of your posts about this event and let me thank you for the amount of work it must be to rewrite everything form the notes/tapes you might have taken. Tremendous job...

    1. I'm glad to get it all written up - a good bit of my hobby is actually the blogging. I hand write my notes at events - I'm too terrified that any low end recording device would run out of batteries or be unintelligible. High end recording equipment is not permitted at the events, so pen and paper is the way forward!

      I also think it's taught me a bit for Games Day this year in terms of getting it from paper to blog. I'm going to see if I can get a slightly slicker operation going... But don't bet on it!