Assaph Mehr: Bridge between fantasy and reality
Writing fantasy doesn’t always require lots of research, but Assaph shares a bit about how he learned how to make a story feel more real, which is a requirement in a good fantasy novel. It’s not always about historic concepts, however, which is something Assaph enjoys. But, he does share a bit about his process and what he has learned about successful fantasy writing.
Do you go by that name as a writer?
My first name is actually very common where I grew up (Israel), but I’m the only one crazy enough to spell it with a “ph.” Makes getting usernames across the web very easy.
I write under my own name, as seeing my name in print was always on my bucket list. Using a pen name defeats the purpose.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Family, kids, day job, occasional martial arts practice, reading (in whatever is left of my spare time).
When did you start writing?
I started to write only recently. I have had my nose in a book since I was a child, and while seeing my name in print was on my bucket list, I never thought to actually go and do something about it.
I had the idea for a fantasy detective story and for the particular twist ending for a while. Then one hot night in January 2015, my wife complained that she had nothing good left to read, so I just sat down and started writing. And I didn’t stop until I finished the novel.
What did your novel become? Did she read that one?
As mentioned, I started with the idea for the mystery and the twist in Murder In Absentia. I had a clear idea of where it was going, but I am not a compulsive plotter. I find that part of the fun is discovering the story for myself.
So the story itself largely follows the path I had set for it even though I discovered new elements to it. Some things got shuffled around, and some aspects were modified.
As for the next step – probably a blockbuster movie deal 🙂
She certainly did read it, and has been reading all the short stories I published since. She also keeps reminding me that she’s waiting for the next novel in the series, so I better keep writing.
What are you currently working on? How did you begin working on it?
Currently working on the second full-length Felix mystery. I published the first one, Murder In Absentia, last year. I wrote a few short stories with Felix in between and have now started on the second novel.
I start with a story premise—the quintessential essence of it. I know where the story starts and where it needs to end. From there, it’s a collaborative process between Felix and me (the novels are in first-person POV). I put the situation to Felix, he goes around trying to resolve things, and I complicate his life on the way.
I have a general feel for what needs to happen at each point, but I don’t plot an outline. Part of the fun is discovering the story for myself as I write it.
What inspires your writing?
Inspiration is easy. Ideas come at all times of day from anything I see, or hear, or imagine around me. It doesn’t take much for the spark of creativity to start up. As an example, I’ve recently wrote a short story inspired by a music video I was watching.
It’s what comes after that counts. The persistence required to sit down and transform that sudden inspiration into a story, a novel. In the sense of what inspires me to work daily, to continue ’til I’m done, I have to credit my wife and her strong belief in me as an author.
What is the biggest mistake you think you make while writing? How do you overcome it?
There is only one mistake while writing (as opposed to editing or publishing)—and that is not writing. If you want to write, it’s imperative to do just that; write. A crappy first draft is better than no first draft. Things can be fixed later in editing and redrafting, but only if they exist in the first place.
As to how to overcome it, set yourself a daily goal. Even a small goal. Writing 250 words per day is about one paperback page. If you do that consistently, you’ll have a full novel in a year. Set a time to write (whatever works in your routine), turn off everything else, and just write.
If you find it hard to come up with those 250 words, spend the rest of the time (as in, during the shower or commute) with planning ahead. You’ll find it a lot easier to write a page after you’ve spent some time considering what needs to go on it. It doesn’t have to be full on plotting—so long as you know the general direction, you just need to figure out the next small step. And then take it. And the next one.
What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
Fame and fortune, enough to retire to a small private island and read and write all day . . .
More seriously, I don’t really try to achieve anything beyond the writing itself. Telling the stories and knowing they are read and enjoyed is its own reward.
Which authors inspire you?
So many! On the Roman historical fiction side, probably Colleen McCullough, Steven Saylor, and Lindsey Davis stand out. The last two also cover historical mystery novels, and I will only add the amazing Boris Akunin for his incredible Erast Fandorin series.
On the fantasy side, too many to mention, from classics like JRR Tolkein and Fritz Leiber, to modern authors like Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett.
Would you like to tell us more about your book?
Quite simply, Murder In Absentia is the story I always wanted to read. I’ve loved historical fiction about ancient Rome since the first time I read Asterix. I’ve read a lot of classic sci-fi and fantasy in my youth, as well as classic detectives. Lately I’ve read a lot Roman detective mysteries, like those of Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis. So when it came time to write, I knew exactly what I wanted.
The story itself is a classic noir detective. A young man dies; his powerful family wants to know why. Felix goes after the people responsible and gets drawn into a little circle of nasty people. What makes this story unique – besides the very surprising plot twists – is the setting. The melding of Ancient Roman culture (I’ve done hours and hours of research into every aspect) together with the high-fantasy magical world.
I’ve subtitled the novel as a “Story of Togas, Daggers, and Magic” as it draws on all three elements equally.
Interesting question for a fantasy novel 🙂
Actually, my novel is based on ancient Rome and I have done a lot of research for it, particularly the everyday culture. While I have put a spin on some things—for example, I have chosen the very early Roman mythology, before the Greek influences—most are still reasonably accurate.
It starts with everyday life. The garum (fish sauce) that Felix likes so much was a Roman condiment. When he has to go to a factory and describes the (rather revolting) way of making it, it’s accurate. The festivals mentioned have all been held in Rome. The curse words in particular were fun to research. My novel is very classy; all the cursing is in Latin . . .
Then there are the gods. What we know as Jupiter was called Iuppiter in Latin. However, what is less known is that this is a transformation of a much older name—Iovis Pater, or Father Jove. He is the sky-god father figure that is common across many Indo-European cultures.
When Felix has an adventure in the sewers and sacrifices in thanks to Cloacina, that refers to a real goddess. Her temple was located next to the forum in Rome and besides being the patron goddess of the sewers (cloaca), she was also the patron goddess of marital relations. I could not make this stuff up!
I put in a glossary and notes at the end of the book, as it makes subsequent readings that much more enjoyable.
What about the historical concept is fantasy?
The main fantasy element started with the inclusion of magic in an ancient Roman society. I wanted to explore how the Romans, with their unique society and dispositions, would approach something like that. At the same time, I did not want to be tied down to a particular year in Roman history, with its associated personalities and events. It is not necessary for the stories themselves.
I therefore created the high fantasy world of Egretia and used the Roman culture as a basis. At that point I also started to play with a lot of other “what ifs,” and mixed in a bit of other ancient elements, most notably the city of Alexandria.
So the answer is that there a lot of real historical data in the culture and fabric of the world—from food to gods—however, don’t treat this as a study book.
How much of your book do you need to be true in a high fantasy genre?
There’s a saying by Diane Duane, “There is a rule for fantasy writers: The more truth you mix in with a lie, the stronger it gets.” It’s not so much about an absolute truth, but the more bits and pieces of real-world facts and stories that are mixed in with the fantasy, the richer and better the story becomes.
To put it another way, a single person cannot think up all by themselves a complete and rich world, with all its idiosyncrasies and logical inconsistencies from years of tradition that make up a human society. Even Tolkien based a lot of his novels about English traditions and lore, from the old poems like Beowulf to almost the 19th century village life. Mixing in real history allows us to create a far richer high fantasy world.
How long did you research historical concepts before you started writing?
I was always in love with ancient Rome and have been reading both fiction and nonfiction on the subject well before I started writing. I would not consider myself an expert in any way, but as I wrote, I spent time looking up particular aspects that I needed.
How does it affect you when reading something historically inaccurate?
Usually if something catches my eye as potentially inaccurate, I’ll go and double check. One must remember that “historical accuracy” can be somewhat fluid. We have only fragments of evidence, which are prone to interpretation. So, it’s always a learning opportunity for me.
If something is glaringly wrong, which seems to happen more in movies and TV than the books I choose to read, then I’ll wonder why the author made it that way. If I’m enjoying the story, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that this was poetic license. If the book is otherwise not to my taste, I might give up on it.
Are you reading any books right now? If so, what are you reading? If not, why?
About to start Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. So many fans have told me that Felix reads just like Harry Dresden in a Toga; I figured I should take a look at it.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would have a lot of stern words with my younger self about certain life choices, but the only one pertinent to writing is to start. The only way to become a writer is to write, and writing today beats writing tomorrow any day of the week.
How can readers and fellow writers discover more about you and your work?