What does a productive day of writing look like for you? Do you have any habits or rituals that help you stay focussed or be more productive?
I’m currently working on ritualizing 1,000 words a day minimum. I’ve been all over the place, ranging from zero to 8,000 in a single day. A good day is when I’m in a state of flow, when the words seem to come of their own accord. That only comes if I’ve been regularly writing for a few weeks. Habits right now are hard to form, because I have three toddlers. But I do have a special writing station, I have noise cancelling headphones and my favorite 16th century choral music station on Pandora, and sometimes, that works.
"I do have a special writing station, I have noise cancelling headphones
What is the greatest obstacle between you and your writing?
Myself. Having a self-defeating mindset that feeds on internal negativity. Sometimes I can’t write. Then I hate myself. But recently I’ve gotten pretty good at just forcing myself to work through it. Still have some bad days, though.
Your work is inspired by the Russian Folktales; I can relate as my work is based off the Norse Myths. Where does the writing process start for you: with an original idea or with the folktale?
Good question! The folktale is the frame for me, the backbone. I don’t study it or read it; it’s inside me already, I grew up with them. So within that world that I know, I then start to think about original ideas inspired by the tropes of the fairy tales. If I’m stuck, then I’ll read a folktale I haven’t read before, and often I’ll get weird tangential ideas for mythical creatures or obstacles or conflict that way. It’s fun.
"The folktale is the frame for me, the backbone. I don’t study it or read it; it’s inside me already, I grew up with them."
But there’s something about them that engages very intrinsic parts of human beings, no matter what the culture. Tolkien talks about this, modern neurobiology confirms it with interesting studies on brain scans. Basically, there’s something about fairy tales that can tell a deep truth in a way that goes straight to the heart, sometimes even bypassing the brain. It’s some like incantation or music, which is more experiential than rational.
"there’s something about fairy tales that can tell a deep truth in a way that goes straight to the heart,
What is next for you creatively? Do you have another project on the go?
I’m taking a very long time editing book 4 of my series, which is a novella, but has taken longer than almost any other book I’ve written. It’s got a lot of emotional stuff in it, which I need to get right. And I’ve been battling… what do they call it? crippling self-doubt? Something like that. I’m also working on a screenplay with another writer, a historical fantasy set in the early days of medieval Russia, when the Russians were basically Vikings. It’s been fun.
Where can we find more about you and your work?
I blog about Russian folk history and culture, and I write book reviews on my website, where you can find all my books as well. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, where I share images that inspire my writing.
Read more from Nicholas and find his Raven Son series on his website.
It is my firm belief that the kinds of stories a culture tells will, in fact, tell you far more about that culture than the stories themselves. What kind of stories do we tell today? I sense futility, anger, hopelessness, selfishness, and defeat in most of them. A sense of embarrassment about the story we are currently telling through how we live is already openly acknowledged: how often have you heard people shudder as they ask what their grandchildren might say of us and how we treated the environment, or nuclear science, or genetics research? But there are other cultures and with them other stories that we might tell instead.
"It is my firm belief that the kinds of stories a culture tells will, in fact,
What sort of people tell that kind of story? What kind of culture lets their heroes lose? Couldn’t the strength of Thor, the cunning of Loki, the beauty of Freya, the keen senses of Heimdal, or the wisdom of Odin divert this terrible disaster? No. The gods are doomed and each must live under the shadow of this impending apocalypse. Does that sound familiar? I think we might have more in common with the ancient Scandinavian story-tellers than most people imagine.
What sort of people tell that kind of story? What kind of culture lets their heroes lose?
So what is the response of Odin and the gods to their plight? Do they give up? Do they lay down their swords and surrender to their inevitable end? Do they drink themselves blind in light of the doom that awaits? No. Odin plots ceaselessly to seek out the bravest and wisest warriors to join him in Valhalla where they constantly prepare for Ragnarok. Thor continues to beat back the frost-giants with his hammer Mjolnir and Heimdal remains ever-watchful at his post atop Bifrost. And, of course, the iconic viking warrior emulates the Norse gods: despite the odds he fights, more concerned about finding a good end than in trying to avoid it.
So I offer this thought: if the stories we are telling today are not the sort we’d like people to remember us by then let’s look back and find stories worth telling. After that, when we are ready, we’ll embrace a new way of looking at the future and learn face the inevitable challenges that lay ahead with courage instead of cowardice. Then we’ll start telling stories worth living.
For more on Ragnarok Joshua recommends Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation of the Norse Myths.
Do you have any advice for writers trying to distribute or sell their work online?
Be an active and genuine contributor to the community. Nobody responds well to the person with the megaphone shouting buy my book. By being consistent and yourself you can build a genuine following of readers who you can then appeal to. It is also important to learn how to talk about yourself, which I’m still trying to improve on. There will be times when you need to sell yourself and your product, so having a good concise elevator style pitch is very useful for all forms of marketing.
"Be an active and genuine contributor to the community.
Your background in Zoology and Classics is quite unique. Are there any interesting intersections between those two subjects that most people don’t know about?
My friends at university used to joke that my future career would be teaching Latin to cows (LOL). The skills that I learned from both disciplines have been incredibly useful both in writing and in my career. Arts and sciences are far more intimately intertwined then I think many people realize, across a wide variety of careers. My favourite topic to discuss is how mythical creatures could have hypothetically survived. Applying zoological concepts to myths, and examining how humans have interacted with animals for centuries is always really fascinating.
Given your background in Zoology do you have any advice for writers trying to create fantastic creatures or monsters in terms of physiology or biology?
Animals adapt and develop characteristics based on environmental pressures. For example, a fish living on the bottom of the ocean has a mouth positioned under its body so that it can find food in the sand. Or a fish that lives in a coral reef is more likely to be colourful to help it blend in with its complex surroundings. When creating your own creature, think about the environment that organism is from and what features it would need to survive there: how does it get food, how does it protect itself, how does it reproduce? It is a fun creative exercise, and you can find inspiration from real animals to start you off. Nature already defies our imagination.
"When creating your own creature, think about the environment that organism is from and what features it would need to survive there: how does it get food, how does it protect itself, how does it reproduce?"
Are you currently working on a sequel or an entirely new project?
I usually have a few projects going at once. The most exciting thing I am currently working on is an extended version of Demons at the Doorstep for release next year. Stay tuned for that! It is the first in a series and so I do have drafts in the work for the following books in the series. I am also working on a pirate fantasy as part of NaNoWriMo, and I hope to be able to explore that more in depth in the future.
Where can we find more about you and your work?
You can follow me on Instagram for lots of fun things - @rbellirving. I also have a website and blog where you can learn more about the series, the characters and lessons learned, at www.rbellirving.ca.
Also, find a sneak-peak of Rachael’s novel Demons at the Doorstep here.
Joshua Gillingham is a Canadian author from Nanaimo, BC. He writes Norse fantasy, Celtic songs, and non-fiction essays about writing craft.