SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author-Editor-Gamer Dave Gross

Dave Gross is the former editor of Dragon Magazine, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. By day, he is lead writer for Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, which reunites him with the beloved Forgotten Realms setting. Also for Realms, he wrote Black Wolf, Lord of Stormweather, and other stories and novels. More recently he’s written Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils and Queen Of Thorns for Pathfinder Tales, featuring the not-always-heroic Jeggare and his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan. Find more tales of Radovan and Jeggare online. Gross has stories in the recent or upcoming anthologies Tales of the Far West, Shotguns v. Cthulhu, and The Lion and the Aardvark. He can be found on his website as well as on Facebook on on Twitter as @frabjousdave!


SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?

Dave Gross: The library. And I’m not joking. My folks encouraged us to read at an early age, and then they let us loose on the library. That’s where I started discovering the horror, science fiction, and fantasy books I came to love.

SFFWRTCHT: From the library then, Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?

DG: Ray Bradbury was the first author I learned to seek out as a child. More than anyone else, he made me want to write. Roger Zelazny solidified my love of noir sword and sorcery. Lord of Light and the Amber novels are among my favorites. The more I’ve worked in fantasy, the more I’ve drifted away to other genres and back to old loves, like horror novels. I love reading history and historical fiction, mysteries, and detective fiction. I dig Alan Furst’s espionage novels or Arturo Perez-Reverte’s thrillers. But I also love Jane Austen.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?

DG: Like most of us, I think, I started writing when I was a kid, both for English class and just for myself. My fourth-grade English teacher read my werewolf story to the class and launched my lifelong affection for older women.

SFFWRTCHT: Obviously you learned your craft in college studying creative writing. Did you study any before that?

DG: I didn’t have many writing classes in college, but I took almost three times as many English classes as I needed. Which meant I wrote a lot of papers, so I learned writing by writing and by paying attention to the authors I liked.

SFFWRTCHT: How’d you get involved with RPGs?

DG: My middle-school friend Jeff Tucker and his older brother Mike taught me to play D&D when I was around 12 or 13. They had the little pamphlets, but soon after, my parents gave me the original basic box for Christmas. It wasn’t long before I was DMing games. I did that throughout high school, college, and beyond. Later, I ran five weekly text-based games on the GEnie network as part of the TSR Roundtable.

SFFWRTCHT: You eventually edited Dragon and D&D magazine for Wizards/TSR. How’d you get involved with that?

DG: While I was teaching at JMU, a friend pointed me to a job notice for associate editor of Polyhedron Newszine. The full story is a bit complicated, but eventually they hired me. A year later, I moved over to Dungeon, then Dragon. I was editor from about 1996 to 2002. I associate editor shortly before then.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you have any formal training in editing or learn as you go?

DG: Insofar as I studied English and had a couple of professors who emphasized writing, I learned to write and edit from them. Teaching English honed my editing skills, but I also learned a lot from my peers at TSR and Wizards. Probably I learned the most from my mistakes, which is to say by practice. It’s a cliche because it’s true.

SFFWRTCHT: Your Forgotten Realms books are tied to the Sembia project which is a gateway to the Realms universe. Past guest Phil Athans edited those. How involved were you in creation of Tal and Chaney and that set up?

DG: There’s a much longer tale to tell about my half-finished Ravenloft novel when the line was canceled. Short version: Instead of a kill fee for a novel I felt wouldn’t convert well to the Realms, I asked to write a new novel. Publisher Mary Kirchoff gave me second choice of the characters in the Sembia series. (Ed Greenwood had first pick.) Most of them had very brief descriptions like “first son” or “chamber maid.” But the second son had “his secret is that he’s a werewolf.” So I picked him and named him Talbot for the obvious reason. It was intended to run for an anthology and seven books. But the seventh book was canceled.

SFFWRTCHT: You did write two books, however, Black Wolf and Lord Of Stormweather. I really enjoyed the characters in the novella. Tell us a little about them.

DG: Black Wolf is the story of Talbot Uskevren, second son of a wealthy Sembian family. His best friend is Chaney Foxmantle, a ne’er-do-well who serves mostly as comic relief. His nemeses include a brutal werewolf cult leader, and Radu and Stannis Malveen, the latter of whom is an eel-like vampire. Later, when the author who created the first son couldn’t write the follow-up novel, Phil asked me to step in. Complicating things, Ed also had a time conflict, so Phil asked me also to end the story of his character, the patriarch. To get a hook on the story, I decided to include some of my characters as supporting cast. Radu and Chaney are key figures. To make Lord of Stormweather a true climax to the series, I asked the other authors permission to use their characters. Everyone was generous, so that final novel wrapped up the entire series with participation from everyone.

SFFWRTCHT: And you’ve done other things with Forgotten Realms, including as writer for Baldur’s Gate? How’s that coming?

DG: Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition launches November 28 for the PC and soon after for the iPad. Other versions will follow. Our developers and a legion of volunteers have smashed a bajillion bugs and made improvements to gameplay and graphics. It’s the full game plus Tales of the Sword Coast. We’ve also added a new arena campaign and three new NPC companions. Most of my contribution was done long ago, so I’ve been outlining additional content for BG2:Enhanced Edition with producer Phil Daigle. My title is Lead Writer, but that’s misleading. Phil Daigle had outlined the story and done a lot of work before I arrived. As we outline BG2EE, I’m more involved in the story outline, but Phil is still really leading the charge. But really, most of the credit has to go to Scott Brooks, who makes it all work.

SFFWRTCHT: But as I understand, game creation is very much collaborative, so you have the freedom to adjust things and discuss?

DG: Yes, very collaborative. The writers most of the typing, but some of the best ideas come from others on the team.

SFFWRTCHT: Then you wrote some Pathfinder Tales launching the line with stories of Jaggare and Radovan. How’d you invent them?

DG: The basic story I pitched was based on an outline I’d previously written for another editor who disappeared. Then I modified the characters to suit the setting. Along the way, I discovered Radovan’s voice. Which was probably inspired by a recent month-long binge on film noir. Then the characters took shape and I revised the story substantially.

SFFWRTCHT: Radovan is a bit of an odd mix. Tell us about him and then about Varian please.

DG: Radovan is a hellspawn, a man with something wicked in his family tree. Radovan was sold into slavery by his own mother and grew up on the mean streets. Later, he came to work for a lord. That lord is Count Varian Jeggare, a half-elf who’s outlived almost all his human peers. He knows a lot. They’re a little like Holmes and Watson in that they unravel mysteries, usually for the Count’s aristocratic friends. But Jeggare is also a Pathfinder, a group of Indiana Jones types. The novels follow their adventures away from home.

SFFWRTCHT: Which came first with their adventures–plot or characters? Theme?

DG: It was plot with characters, then a big transformation of the characters to fit the world, and then theme. I often don’t think of a theme at the beginning but latch onto one as the outline develops.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did the novel take you to write?

DG: From contract to turnover, Prince of Wolves was a little over two months, although I’d written the outline earlier. I seldom work without an outline, and when I do it’s harder. While I’m a hard-core outliner, as I write I alter up to about ten percent of the plan, usually in small ways.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve written three novels and four shorts so far, right? How many books are planned?

DG: For Pathfinder Tales, this is the third novel. There are also two novellas and four short stories available athttp://t.co/MDBFAPiy. A fourth novel is underway. James and I have discussed my blue-sky list, but we plan one book at a time for now.

SFFWRTCHT: Prince Of Wolves is told in first person POV, which makes it stand out from other Tales books. Why that choice?

DG: “Hell’s Pawns, the novella introducing the characters was in Radovan’s first-person POV and present tense. That suited the noir mystery I wanted to tell, but it was very specific to that kind of story. I wrestled with how to change that for the novel. I knew I wanted Jeggare’s POV to alternate with Radovan’s. I wrote the first five chapters in present-tense first, then past-tense third, and finally past-tense first-person. It took a while to find Jeggare’s voice and make it distinctive from Radovan’s. There’s a little too much overlap in Wolves. Jeggare’s diction is a bit thick in the early chapters of that, but it loosens up later as I find the right balance.

SFFWRTCHT: How does Queen of Thorns fit. Are they all standalone adventures? What’s the basic premise of this 3rd tale?

DG: Queen of Thorns takes place in Kyonin, which Radovan calls “Elfland” for the obvious reason. Count Jeggare never knew his elven father, but a long time ago the old man sent him the fabulous Red Carriage. Jeggare seeks out the person who built the Red Carriage and discovers much more than he bargained for. In fact, both of the boys learn more about their pasts than they expected or, in Radovan’s case, wanted to know. They also learn a lot more about how Pathfinder elves differ from humans, and from elves from other settings. They might resemble Tolkien’s elves in some ways, but they are subtle, political, dangerous, and sometimes vicious. Perhaps even more dangerous than the demons squatting on their territory to the south. Also there are gnomes. Gnomes are cool.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about the setting. You are working varied parts of Golarian, the Pathfinder setting. How did you choose which? Why?

DG: Before I wrote for Pathfinder I’d become a fan of the setting. Like any gamer, I have my favorite areas. The problem is that I have many favorite areas, and the sandbox is only so big. We have to share. I was jealous when Tim Pratt got Numeria first, but I got Ustalav, Tian Xia, and Kyonin first, and others will follow. Robin D. Laws gave us our first look at the Worldwound, and next year the boys will go there on a very different quest. Even in one nation, Golarion is vast and diverse. You could tell a hundred stories in Cheliax without repeating yourself. So when I choose, it’s usually because there’s something in that area of Golarion that demands the story be told there. Kyonin makes sense this time because it’s where Jeggare’s mother met his father. And also for spoiler reasons.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like–specific block? Write ’til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

DG: Until this past April, I wrote for a few hours in the morning, then for a few more in the afternoon. Occasionally I’d go into a trance and write all day. That still happens sometimes. I look up and it’s two a.m. These days I have to balance day-job writing with freelance writing, and it’s tough. Fortunately, my boss has just agreed to let me go part-time, so I have a few days reserved each week just for fiction.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? write to music or does silence reign?

DG: I have used Word for years, and WordPerfect for years before that. Recently I’ve tried converting to Scrivener. But there’s a learning curve. Sometimes I snap and go back to Word for shorter projects. I’m hoping my next Pathfinder novel will be the first I compose entirely in Scrivener. Usually I find music helpful, but sometimes when the trance comes upon me, silence is better.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

DG: The best has got to be, “butt in chair.” You’re not a writer because you have published a novel. You’re certainly not a writer because you go to workshops. You are a writer when you are writing. The worst, or most misguided, might be “write what you know.”

SFFWRTCHT: What is your best advice for new writers?

DG: Write. Write! There’s nothing for writing like writing.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you approach writing short stories differently than novels?

DG: Definitely. Short stories are harder but more satisfying. Much more focused on a single idea. I love and fear them. On the other hand, novels are more satisfying in other ways. You get to use more colors and build more complicated arcs. I love them just as much but don’t fear them. It certainly takes more preparation. Outlining makes it much less daunting.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

DG: Several cool things are in the works but still under wraps. The one I can reveal is the next Pathfinder novel. In it, the boys travel to Sarkoris, a land now known by its dominant feature, the Worldwound. Demons pour out of a rift from the Abyss. It’s a problem for the locals. Property values, law enforcement. You know. The cool thing about this novel is that it ties in directly to the story of the Wrath of the Righteous Adventure Path. Players and GMs can read the novel and get a sense of what’s going on during the AP without spoilers. Plus, both Jeggare and Radovan will face huge revelations about themselves, even huger than those in Queen of Thorns.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any plans for non-tie-in, original novels?

DG: Yes. A couple of times I’ve set aside to do just that, but then life events changed my course. Next summer I will get serious about either a fantasy epic or a mystery novel. Both have been calling to me for years.