AMY: Across the Jade Sea has excellent depictions of steam-powered ships. Tell me about the research you must have done to be able to write so fluidly about this subject.
SHELBY: I've always enjoyed reading classic adventure stories, like Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. That helped give me a general familiarity with the age to start from.
After that I just kind of looked at where my story was going to go, and got every book I could find in my local library on the subject. I like to read widely when starting to research a particular story, because I'm worried that too narrow a focus will cause me to limit my mental horizons, rather than expand them. So I'll pick up any book that catches my eye that seems in some way related to the stories I'm working on or planning to work on, and any movies or documentaries about the era I could get my hands on, and so on, as well as the stuff I have chosen particularly for research.
Eventually I switch my focus to doing most of my research on the internet, as I fill in specific gaps in what I have got from the books. For Across a Jade Sea I spent hours searching an online database of ships comparing their average speeds, their tonnages, and the real life progression of sail to steam to diesel or gas, trying to get a feel for the commercial issues involved, and the variety of ships that would be out there. Since my heroine worked with diesel engines, I also spent a considerable amount of time hunting down a photo of an early naval diesel engine, so I would have a better idea of what her working environment would look like.
My theory as a speculative fiction writer is that the key to doing settings well is to really understand that setting. If you know how a diesel engine works, and why it rapidly replaced steam engines in freighters, but not in passenger liners, then that understanding will allow you to present a world with a complexity and depth that will feel real, even if you never include one word about how a diesel engine or a steam engine works in the actual story.
AMY: Why did you choose to write the novel from a young woman’s perspective?
SHELBY: I have always felt comfortable writing both female and male viewpoints. I usually choose my protagonist based on who I think is going to do the best job of driving the story forward. Who keeps the plot moving forward, and who ends up solving the main story problem? In this case it was such a team effort that question didn't help me much. I chose to use the female lead as the point of view character for three reasons: the first was that she was from the country that would likely seem the most familiar to readers, secondly because she knew less about what was going on -- that meant that the reader could discover what was happening along with her, and the third was that the spark that started the story was a scene in a dream in which the male lead did not appear, so it just felt a little more natural to use her viewpoint, at least for the first volume.
AMY: How long did it take you to write the book, from when you started research to when you published?
SHELBY: I guess that depends on how you count it?
I posted to my blog on Tuesday, September 28th, 2010 that I had a "shiny new" story idea, only three days old. I started developing the background right away, possibly because the story I was writing at the time had stalled. I started the first draft writing longhand in a notebook because I wasn't supposed to be writing this story yet. (I have a rule I made for myself about finishing what I start). By December I was still calling it "the story I'm not supposed to be writing", but I had already almost written an entire book, I just didn't know that I had because the story kept on going and the words kept on flowing. I announced a completed first draft of over 800 handwritten pages on Saturday, May 14th, 2011.
I usually set my rough drafts aside for at least a year before revising them, but I kept pulling this one out and rereading it (all 800+ messy pages!) and so I gave in early and began typing it up long before a year was up. In November I announced that I had it all in a word-processor now, and holy moly it was over 230,000 words. It wasn't a book. It was a trilogy.
Sometime in the next year, time I decided to let my husband publish two works for me: a graphic novel, and Across a Jade Sea, after which we would decide if we wanted to continue or not. I did another round of revisions, sent it out to betareaders, and in the fall of 2012 I began on the cover art. I did all the artwork for the three books myself, which took me over a year, during which I also did edits, wrote glossaries, built a website, etc.
We began serializing the first volume of Across a Jade Sea in 2013, and put each volume up for sale on our own site as we got it into what we hoped was readable shape, but we didn't actually announce or try promote the books at all until the third volume was completed early in 2014.
So, it took at least three and a half years to do all three books. But probably less than three years if you are only counting the first one.
AMY: Tell us about your writing process. Did you always want to write the story in this time frame or did the story and characters come first, and the setting come second?
SHELBY: Ah, the embarrassing revelation: This story started with a dream about underwear. Seriously. I dreamed up this phone conversation in which a mother was complaining to her daughter about how she was trying to help her son-in-law register his underwear, but it was made of silk, and she didn't know what the right process was for registering silk.
As soon as I was awake I dumped the underwear registration with extreme malice. I'm sure there are speculative fiction authors out there that could get a lot of mileage out of that, but it wouldn't suit me at all. Several other aspects of that dream fragment really intrigued me, however. I wanted to know who these people were, and how they had gotten into the relationships they had... and that meant I needed to figure out the world, because for me a character isn't something I can develop separately from the world they come from. Who you are is influenced far too much by where you've been.
The dream hadn't given me many clues to go on, and I'd already shot one down. That left silk, and telephones. And I said "Telephones? So it's a modern story? That's so boring!" But then it occurred to me that there have been telephones of one sort or another around for quite a long time. If I went back to the beginning of telephones...
Within a day I had a diesel-powered passenger liner, a castaway foreigner being chased by pirates/sea-raiders, and a long list of topics I needed to research.
AMY: Why did you end up self-publishing?
SHELBY: The short version is that one day my husband said "I need a new hobby" and I said "Why don't you try publishing, and publish me?" and he replied. "Yes, I think I will."
The long version is that I made my first professional sales in 1995. I sold a short story and an article and I said "Okay, I've proved I can do that, lets get back to writing books now, since that's what I really love." And none of the books sold. I couldn't really figure out why they didn't sell -- people said they were good enough, and by "people" I mean editors who wrote me personal letters, and authors who were kind enough to betaread for me and so forth -- not just my mother and friends. (Although my mother said it too, of course.) I thought maybe I was just really bad at query letters, until I found a "send me your query letters on this particular and I will respond to every one I get" event, and the comment on mine was "This is one of the best queries I got. I like the voice. It sounds like it might be funny. I am not looking for humorous fantasy." So... it wasn't that I could't write, it was that I was writing the wrong stuff?
I did get one manuscript past the slush pile stage, but it sat on the editor's desk for five years unread. At the sixth year anniversary of my submission (it had taken a year for the slush readers to get to it) I decided I couldn't stand it being ignored any longer and withdrew it. It was a good story, it deserved better than that. I knew, because my betareaders would recommend it to their friends, who would recommend it to their families... I kept getting emails asking "Is it okay if my [son, friend, wife] reads my copy?
So, when my husband said he needed a new hobby, I suggested publishing. It suits him right down to the ground, actually. His degree is in English, with a minor in history, and he's got twenty years of experience in retail management.
AMY: To you, is Across the Jade Sea a romance or an adventure story? With strong elements of both, I had a hard time classifying it.
SHELBY: Technically it is not a romance. But I don't think readers should worry about the technicalities, because who really wants to pull their book apart and analyze the nature of the central story problem? This isn't supposed to be an English assignment, its supposed to be fun. And in the pursuit of fun, I almost always mix the two together like that. The way I usually phrase it is that I prefer to give my characters something important and exciting to do while falling in love. Saving the country seems to work.
AMY: And finally, what’s next? Can we expect more adventures from Batiya and Chunru?
SHELBY: I had a lot of other stuff in the works when I started on Across a Jade Sea. So I've stopped at three... for now. The next books I have coming out are set in a fantasy world. Cantata in Coral and Ivory, and Pavane in Pearl and Emerald, are court intrigue/romances set in the imperial palace of a tropical empire.
But I do hope to return to Batiya and Chunru's world eventually.
Buy Across the Jade Sea on Amazon
Visit L. Shelby's official website
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Amy R. Biddle, co-founder and editor at Underground Book Reviews, was raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains and has since made a living on the great blue sea. Find out more at www.amyrbiddle.com or check out her book, The Atheist's Prayer.