Some Thoughts with … Cal Black

13 Sept 2022

The Author/s

Cal Black

Cal Black

Cal Black is a Canadian writer based in Ontario who enjoys writing about messy people who make an effort to improve their situation. Cal was a contributor to the Advent of Winter anthology, a Finalist in the SFINCS novella contest, and is the author of the Legends & Legacies series. Cal writes gaslamp fantasy, cosmic fantasy, and has a bad habit of ‘trying out new genres’ when already full up on projects.

The Interview

Welcome to my favourite section of the blog, being able to talk with the authors. Today we are accompanied by Cal Black, author of No Land For Heroes, a great western fantasy novel.

Let’s dive in!

1.- What made you decide to go the self-publishing route?

I originally planned on pursuing traditional publishing, querying agents and going on submission, the whole thing… Then the pandemic happened. Traditional publishing was turned on its head and there was a paper shortage, and shipping issues, and I noticed that all of a sudden, agents were leaving, editors were leaving, and the trad world looked much more unstable than it once had been. At the same time, self-publishing tools had improved quite a lot since I had last looked into them. After reading the posts Travis Baldree shared about his Legends & Lattes experience, I realised that I could make the jump into self-pub.

So I did! I was lucky enough to have some experience in selling online, marketing, and running a small business, along with editing experience and photoshop training. I still had to learn a bunch, but I had a solid base to start from. It turns out I really enjoy creating the book from start to finish, and plan to continue to self-pub the books I have lined up, waiting to be written.

2.- Which aspects do you find more difficult in the process?

I think the absolute hardest part is behind me now. It was coming into this self-pub world with no existing body of work to point to, and I had to try to convince reviewers that my book was worth a read. In trad, there’s a certain level of trust readers have, that a book has been edited and proofread and is worth reading (which is not always true, but that trust is there at the start of the relationship) while with self-pub, you start with nothing. You need to convince readers to pick up your book, prioritize it over their list of other books to read, and then tell other people about it.

Getting over that hurdle was a bit tricky, but I decided to re-do the cover of my book to suit the story better and entered the book into the SPFBO contest, which meant someone had to actually read my book. I’ve also been hustling to send review requests and booked the Escapist Tour to get my name out there. It’s working, and at this point, I feel like the next step is for me to buckle down and get back to writing the sequel.

3.- What made you decide to use a Western setting for No Land For Heroes?

This sounds a bit silly, but spite is a strong motivator. I watched the trailer for Netflix’s Godless series and was extremely excited about the prospect of a western about a town full of women who have to face the usual hardships of the frontier, but also the expectations that they’ll fail… just because they’re women. Then the series came out and it wasn’t about the women at all, it was about the usual ‘younger man has issues with his father figure and there’s a shootout where the young man kills his ‘father’ to become his own man’. Talk about a letdown.

So I started talking to some friends about how awesome an idea that trailer had been, and it snowballed into writing a story about some of our characters in that setting. Later, I overhauled the story and turned it into what it is now. The characters and story are completely different from Godless, but it was a wonderful seed to start with. 

4.- Why did you decide to include the American Civil War as part of the lore of the world?

While looking into the actual period of the ‘wild west’, I realised that it was quite short in our world, and there were civil war veterans who moved west to start a new life. The American Civil war was a defining moment in our world, and it is in Amelior, too. Even though the Amelior Union is significantly smaller than the United States was at the point of the war, the core values can be applied. One side wants to continue its economic practices (cough-slavery-cough) and the other wanted to abolish slavery…. And just have regular underpaid workers instead.

Having the war as part of the character’s and the world’s history lets us look at the idea of having to face a past that you’d rather leave behind, and decisions you made that you now regret, all within one lifetime. 

5.- Millie has some characteristics that are really distinctive of her, what could you tell us about her? What made you design her like it is?

Millie is albino! That means she has no melanin in her skin, and as a result, is both extremely pale and gets sunburnt extremely easily. Typically, in media, being albino means one of two things: You’re extremely magical, or extremely evil. Millie is neither, she’s a complex character who has done bad things, but is trying to be better. She’s also so unmagical that she undoes some spells just by standing too close to the spellcaster.

This causes some friction with the Ghost Eye clan, which her father had been part of. In some (North American) indigenous cultures, pale or unpigmented animals are seen as spirit versions of the animal, notably the Kermode bears in British Colombia. I wanted to translate that into a belief that applied to people, too. In Ghost Eye, the most powerful magic users and medicine people have some kind of lack of pigmentation. Either their hair is silver or white, their eyes are pale, or in rare cases, their skin as well. When Millie shows up decades after her father left, the clan expected her to be a powerful magic user. She was not, and everyone was disappointed with that.

Indigenous elves also can swivel their ears like cats, to better pinpoint sounds. It’s a trait that has been lost (or never developed) among old-world elves, who have smaller ears that are fixed in place. 

6.- Frédéric Rousseau is a key character in the past of Millie, is he inspired by somebody real?

Nope! Fred is his own, mess of a person. He’s created from the idea of the man who has failed upwards until he’s out of his depth, and he self-destructs because of it. He’s named the war hero that saved the Amelior war for the Union, but he’s also kind of terrible with finances and keeps getting into debt.

7.- Where did you draw inspiration for No Land For Heroes?

I love music and visual inspiration, so I typically build playlists to listen to for characters and an action scene playlist, while also building pinterest inspiration boards for the characters and locations to help give me a feel for who they are and what they’re like.

A lot of the plot revolves around the consequences of decisions: Millie kills someone early in the story that causes her a lot of grief in the end, while Gilbert’s decision to flirt with a hostile elf result in the town immediately distrusting him and his buddy, Hal.

8.- Elfs, orcs, and humans, how did you include so many races in your world without friction?

Well, there’s certainly friction, but this book is a zoomed-in look at a certain part of that world where groups that might not typically interact have had to band together to survive. It’s also worth noting that the real cowboys in our timeline were mostly indigenous, latinx, and black. People moved to the edge of ‘society’ to be free from the constraints that more established and rigid cities placed on them.

Naturally, there are still societies on the frontier, they’re indigenous ones like the Ghost Eye (elven), or the Osaga people (orcish and human)  who we meet in book 2. There was actually a period in time when the Lakota empire in our world overlapped with the United States’s territory, but both sides had learned how to work with the other, because the meaning of that territory was different for each party. Now, that didn’t last in our world, but in Amelior the indigenous peoples have a much stronger position on the continent. There were no pandemics that killed half the population, and the power difference between guns and no guns is mitigated when one side can perform magic.

But nations fight, and argue, and have trade embargos, and that all exist in the world of Amelior, too. It’s just beyond the immediate cares of our characters at this point in the story.

9.- You also do some custom crafts like D&D Dices, could you expand a little in that regard?

(For the reader, link to the store:

I sure do! I’ve had a small Etsy shop since 2020, where I sell handmade dice and accessories like bags, rune sets, and more. I find working with my hands rewarding, and it’s nice to have a second hobby to switch to when I get tired of writing.

The shop actually helped me learn how to run a small business, along with learning how to market online, which has helped with getting No Land for Heroes out into the world.

10.- What can we expect from Cal Black in the future?

Book 2 of Legends & Legacies is the top priority right now. I’d initially planned for an October release, but unfortunately, I managed to develop long COVID and that delayed the writing process. I also have a neon-noir urban fantasy in progress that I plan to write between books 2 and 3 of Millie’s story. There are also plenty of other characters in No Land for Heroes who deserve to have their story told, so I expect to turn Legends & Legacies into an ongoing series similar to the Dresden Files or Discworld. A shared world, interconnected characters, but after book 3, it won’t be a rigid series the way the Malazan books are.