Some Thoughts with … J.D. Mitchell
J.D. Mitchell is a Canadian writer of speculative fiction. His stories are informed by his historical studies and transient upbringing. The latter, while terribly angst-inducing, exposed him to a rich tapestry of people and places, as did his varied service industry jobs and a sixteen-year stint in the Public Service of Canada (but who’s counting?). He lives in Ottawa, Canada with his wife and two wonderful goldfish.
Welcome to my favourite section of the blog. Today we are accompanied by J.D. Mitchel, author of Springtide Harvest, an interesting debut.
Let’s dive in!
1.- What made you decide to go the self-publishing route?
Necessity. I queried with Springtide Harvest from May 2019 to January 2022. My first rejection came in November 2019, the last in July 2022. I received thirty-eight form rejections, one personal rejection, and had fifteen non-responders. Rather than give up, I made revisions throughout the process, tweaking and rewriting the story to strengthen the plot and characterization. Every round of rejection made my story stronger. It forced me to tackle things that I thought were good enough. “Good enough” is the death knell of all creative endeavour.
About a year ago, after giving it my all and relying on kind readers and fellow writers for support, I opted for professional assistance. No, not psychological assistance, though that would have been welcome: I hired a developmental editor, Kat Howard, author of An Unkindness of Magicians and Roses and Rot. She helped me focus on the story and realize why certain chapters were resonating while others fell flat.
With a confidence born from hard experience, tough edits, and supportive beta readers, I made one last foray into the querying trenches. I was rejected sixteen more times. It was time to self-publish.
2.- Being your debut novel, which aspects of the creative process were the most difficult for you?
Plotting. I can write people, actions, descriptions, and dialogue all day. Figuring out who characters are, what they want, and why they hate each other is no problem; weaving all that together into a coherent whole is where I struggle. Plotting needs a satisfying rhythm, and I was a monkey desperately flailing at a Drum Kit of Plotting +1. I managed in the end, but, man, was it tough.
3.- How long have you been writing?
I wrote my first short story in Grade 2. I think it was inspired by an elephant-headed creature in an old Conan comic book my grandma let me buy (I very cleverly hid the damsels and decapitations). My first short story was about a monstrous, elephantine monster-child wondering about its own existence, though the reader didn’t know it was an elephantine monster-child until the end of the story. My teacher was both impressed and disturbed.
Later in life, my storytelling was restricted to running games of Dungeons & Dragons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Call of Cthulhu for my teenager friends. I made a few awkward stabs at writing short stories after discovering Call of Cthulhu but didn’t return to story writing until Springtide Harvest took root in my brain in December 2018 (and refused to get the hell out until it was properly written).
4.- I like the graphic style of the book, such as using the lunar phases as the day separator; is it all your design?
Yes, and thanks! I love designing documents. Font, layout, pagination… A well-laid-out page really turns me on. That’s probably another reason I opted to self-publish rather than pursue a small press. The satisfaction of a simple, yet impactful layout with just the right margins, of getting the gutter and font size just right… Mmm.
Where were we? Right, the moons. One of my goals for Springtide Harvest was to create a familiar, lived-in fantasy world, a world that felt right without the reader having to wade through pages of exposition and world-building. The moon features heavily in the story and lends a sense of otherworldliness, but it’s also our Moon, which makes it familiar. The same goes for using the Julian calendar. By depicting the moon phase and using a familiar calendar, it helps ground the reader in the fantasy world.
As for the cover, while I did go to art school, digital design isn’t my forte, so I kept it simple. The cover is inspired by “The Tower” tarot card, the visual design of the card being applicable to the story and its protagonists. I taught myself how to use free editing software (GIMP) and edited a bunch of royalty-free images to create a simple yet, I hope, impactful cover that visually represents the main characters’ peril.
5.- What inspired the world of your novel?
Dungeons & Dragons, from Basic and Advanced right up to Fifth Edition, and our own, flawed world. It was a cold, dark December in 2018, and my wife was horribly ill with the flu. I had been running a great Fifth Edition D&D campaign for my friends, which was based on the First and Second Edition game I ran for them when we were kids (their original characters were historical figures in that world). On holiday, and left to my own devices, I decided to run a game for myself—a totally random, totally brutal, First Edition, never-ending, Roguelike dungeon crawl. I hadn’t cracked open the First Edition books in a long, long time, but had always loved the random dungeon generation tables in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
I started with a totally randomized main character (Haskell) who would take on hirelings for his adventure. I expected it to be crazy, brief, and a Total Party Kill. Not fudging any rolls made it nail-biting, and after a quick adventure full of ups and downs and improbable escapes, it turned out to be the foundation of a rather interesting short story. Not knowing that LitRPG was already a thing, I set out to write a short story about a dungeon crawl that would be an interesting general read. People liked it, fantasy and non-fantasy fans alike, so I kept going.
As the story grew, I decided to set it in the old game world of my youth with story elements from my current campaign. Why not use the stories and settings in which I’d invested for over twenty years? So, I invented Branthall and set Haskell on his path.
6.- I have to ask, what were Haskell’s AD&D stats?
Heh, things have changed a little since Haskell’s first adventures, but only a little. I made him slightly shorter and a bit older in Springtide Harvest, and not yet a specialist with his sword. I counted brigandine as banded mail, which is only slightly less protective than plate-and-mail.† Writing a character to his random stats, personality, and background was a fun and interesting challenge.
† I know brigandine exists in 2e, but AC 6? Not with what we’ve learned about it since.
7.- Why did you decide to write about a questing world which has changed so much?
Hm, that’s a big question. The thing that got into my head was a story revolving around the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game system itself. Looked at from today’s perspective, AD&D is a perfect analog for The West That Was. It is, at its root, an exploitative, capitalistic, colonialism simulator. Coin is king and the goal is to take it from other races to further one’s career, and to eventually gain land at the expense of the multitudinously monstrous “other”. I’m a history major, so that tracks with pretty much all of human history, elements of which creep into the story to give it a gritty realism.
The AD&D Dungeon Master’s role is to challenge the players and make sure they never get too rich, to always keep them down just enough to ensure thrills and engagement. That whole system—the machine designed to make you struggle, to hunt and slay other races and take their coin so you can get ahead, calling it heroism all the while—was the speculative engine for Springtide Harvest. What would the AD&D First Edition rules look like as a plausible, real-world place? How would I account for having to gain coin to level up, to have arms and equipment at the ready, hirelings and mercenaries aplenty, to pay for training to level up, and where adventurers can live fast and loose?
Enter Lanesford, Branthall, and the Questers Guild. A corrupt burg in the borderlands, where conflict is constant even between major wars, and there’s always someone with their hand out, ready to take what you’ve earned. But that was just the start. The real reason I couldn’t get the story out of my head, and to get back to your question, was because it’s about a failing system. The Questers Guild is a shadow of its former glory and Lanesford is prospering. The realm is changing. Turns out the old world wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Rents are up and old alliances are failing, the system is cracked, and its bottom has fallen out. Change is in the air and there’s trouble ahead. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?
8.- What can we expect from J.D. Mitchell in the future?
A few more novels, novellas, and short stories in this world. Things are just getting started, and Haskell and company have a long road ahead. There are a lot of dangers to face and many hard decisions to make. I know where the story is headed, but not how things will ultimately pan out for everyone. The characters will tell me when I get there. They always do.