Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today: Always fascinated with history and literature, as an imaginative child Jay devoured books of all sorts, especially adventure novels. At Miami University he earned an undergraduate Bachelor of Arts in English Composition and later a master’s degree from Ohio University. While in school he won an international poetry and began publishing short stories. In 1989 Jay began a successful free-lance writing career providing games and defining new worlds for TSR, Inc. the publisher of ‘AD&D: Advanced Dungeon & Dragons’ and ‘Dungeon Magazine.’ From 1990 to today, Jay traveled the world on international business, where solid and concise written communications became a chief element of his success, and he authored several blogs, white papers, and articles for technical journals, such as the 2021 publication ‘The Media Workflow Puzzle: How it all fits together.’
Jay’s current independently published work includes the Forerunner Series, the story of Thorfinn Agneson, a young boy with a ghostly affliction, and his adventures with Viking sailors cruising treacherous waters and meeting strange “hidden folk.” This historical fantasy novels introduce readers to 9th Century life in the petty kingdoms of pre-England Britain, their medieval beliefs, customs, and lore, and relates major Viking Age historical events through the eyes of participants. Bit by bit, the stories introduce more “fantasy” into the narrative until the books and characters pass completely into the Norse Realms beyond Midgard. The Forerunner Series consists of ‘Thorfinn and the Witch’s Curse (2019),’ ‘The Vardoger Boy (2020),’ ‘On Viking Seas (2021),’ ‘Kara, Shieldmaiden of Eire (2022),’ and the planned ‘Marauders in Jotenheim’ (to be released),’ and the series finale ‘Voyage to Cordova’ (to be released).
Jay and his wife raised a family and now live in the first state, Delaware, at the Mid-Atlantic shore where we enjoy the mild winters, the fresh seafood and craft beers, and the proximity to Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
Thanks so much, Jay, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
Jay Veloso Batista: I started to draw and write comic books and little plays at age 13, and truth be told, they were awful! Still, I dreamed I could be a writer. When I was a freshman in college advanced placement English composition, a professor chose my story as the “best in class” and encouraged me to keep writing. I had a few stories and poems published in the University press, and at 21 I won a poetry contest with an actual monetary prize, great news for a starving student. But the real moment I discovered I was good at writing came in 1989 when TSR, Inc, at the time the publishers of Advanced Dungeon & Dragons, published a game I had written and asked if I would consider free-lance writing for their publications. This began a 4-year relationship where I wrote 3 to 5 pieces each year, including contributing to a boxed set of adventures set in a fantasy Asian land, the re-write of the Monster Manuals and adventures for their ‘Dungeon’ Magazine and stand-alone publications.
JSC: Have you ever taken a trip to research a story? Tell me about it.
JVB: Like many authors, travel inspires for my work. My current series is set in the Viking Age and features a Danish family who have established a homestead near the English city now known as York. Back in the 1990s we were invited to a wedding in York and really enjoyed the old town, the castle and the “Shambles” and the cathedral. There is a wonderful interactive archeological museum called the “Jorvik Viking Tour” which I found fascinating—later in the early 200’s we took our daughter back to York and visited the museum again, and this time I took notes for my series set in the Danelaw period of Britain. This is a wonderful dig-based facility with a tram ride and wandering local actors dressed in period costumes and willing to spend as much time as one wants discussing life in “fishergate” town. I gathered many details of ninth century life, clothes, and folk beliefs, which I worked into my fantasy story. Our most charming memory was the “scratch and sniff” Viking latrine postcards we got there… well, maybe not appealing but certainly great fun!
JSC: How long on average does it take you to write a book?
JVB: Because it is not my full-time work, it takes me about a year to write and edit a fantasy novel with a page count of approximately 100K words. I calculated that if I was to devote fulltime effort to the writing, I could probably shorten this time to 6 months, which is 3 months to get a first draft and 3 months for a series of editing passes and the turn-around time for an external line-editor review to check for typos. If I ever get to retire, I could devote more time to my writing schedule and crank out more novels—I don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, only a lack of time.
JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
JVB: Definitely a plotter – items discovered in one book of my series become vastly important two books later! I always enjoyed big, expansive novels with many different character points of view, such as books written by GRR Martin, Clavel, Michener, and Sapkowski. My D&D work also heavily influenced my writing style because gamers hate it when they discover a “Deus ex Machina” move, so the author needs to plant seeds and foreshadowing carefully or the players will never be satisfied with their adventure – you need those, “Ah-ha!” moments when someone realizes, “so, that was what that was for….” I “map out” the plots for each point of view character and move the story lines around to ensure each chapter ends on a cliff-hanger moment for one of the points of view, then begin the next chapter with a different point of view to keep the reader engaged. Personally, I can only achieve this through plot development before I begin to write. That is not to say that I don’t let serendipity and creativity adjust the plot and pace as I am writing, because sometime that inspiration has a wonderful impact on the story, and one can always go back into the work in an editing pass and add elements, historical or mythological references, or subtle foreshadowing.
JSC: How do you approach covers for your indie stories?
JVB: Full disclosure, I found a list of cover artists on social media and perused web sites until I came across Jake Caleb of “Bad Ass Covers!” Living in South Carolina with his family, Jake does amazing illustrations, is very communicative and interactive as he works on a design, and he has captured my cover ideas even down to some of the nuances I needed to display to tie into a novel’s plot. Jake is always open to support changes and has been a great support. I will be using him for my next series as well.
JSC: What was the most valuable piece of advice you’ve had from an editor?
JVB: Early in my writing career I learned to avoid passive voice (unless in dialogue), too many vocal tags and replace adverbs and adjectives with descriptions, the old, worn adage of “show, don’t tell.” A valuable idea I use now is to write down the theme of your work on a post-it and place it on your desktop, so you subconsciously think about the theme every time you sit down to write, unconsciously thinking about it for every chapter. But the best piece of writing advice I received was from an author friend who was reading my story as an ARC. They passed me a list entitled “Weasel Words,” a full page of single words that make one’s writing weak. Many of these words I knew and already avoided or edited out of a manuscript, but some of them were extremely instructive, and now I run a search on my first draft of any novel and find/replace all the weak words.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for Kara, Shieldmaiden of Eire?
JVB: I wanted to write a historical series based in the period of Britain’s “petty kingdoms” past with real historical events, but where all the folk beliefs and mythologies of the ninth century are an actual part of the characters’ reality, including Nordic volva witchcraft, the Scandinavian hidden folk, the Norse pantheon and lots of medieval superstitions. The books follow the Agneson clan in “Midgard,” but because of witch’s curse, the youngest boy becomes a ‘vardoger’ ghost of himself where his spirit unconsciously precedes him into rooms when he is awake, but at night his consciousness is freed to roam in the realm between the Nine Realms of Norse Mythology – this opens the series to more and more fantasy elements as young Thorfinn and his family are separated by war, blood feuds, and Viking voyages. This novel is number four in the series and primarily follows second daughter Kara as she runs away from an arranged marriage to achieve her dream of becoming a warrior like her father, grandfather and uncle. Her adventures are intertwined with those of her oldest brother “Cub” who has escaped slavery to join Rolf the Ganger (the future King Robert the first) in Normandy, her brother Sorven who is hiding with outlaws in the Welsh mountains, her uncle Karl who has heeded the call of Harald ‘Tanglehair’ to join him in battle, and her youngest brother Thorfinn who helps all of his siblings from the realms beyond Midgard… until he is kidnapped by an 8-armed giant raised from the dead! I am pleased to announce that on September 1 Kara, Shieldmaiden of Eire was selected as the 2023 Bronze Medal winner by Readers’ Favorite International Awards in the category of Epic Fantasy Fiction.
JSC: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
JVB: There were two main goals for this novel. The first goal was to carry the series forward—this series started as 80% real world and 20% fantasy, but the fantasy and the level of violence increases in each novel, so that Book 2 was 70/30, and book 3 was 60/40. I wanted this novel to have a battle in every chapter and more than 50% of it in the realms beyond the physical earth, including the mythology of ninth century Ireland and the summer fairy courts, giants, warlocks and witches, trips to Asgard, and Thorfinn’s pet lindworm, a Nordic dragon. Kara’s tale becomes tragic for many of the characters, and bittersweet for others and leaves the Agneson children is some desperate situations. I also worked hard to portray a theme of LOVE in all its aspects throughout the novel, and I believe I achieved this goal without being too heavy handed. While this is not a romance novel, I was able to tell a fantastical adventure story with elements of tender first love, “puppy love” infatuation, unrequited love, unrecognized love, historical stories of love triangles and love challenges, tragic love lost, and even comedy derived from mishaps of affection. This theme does not interfere with the story and may not even be noticeable, which I am proud to have achieved.
JSC: Star Trek or Star Wars? Why?
JVB: Yes, I saw ‘A New Hope’ seven times when it was released in 1977, and “Strikes Back” is a cinematic triumph, but when I was 8 years old, there was only one show I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime and watch with my father and that was the original adventures of Captain Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Dr McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, and all the red shirts that died in the line of duty! Star Trek fired my imagination. As a middle schooler, these shows went into television syndication and played every afternoon after school, so I learned most of the episodes by heart and later learned they were penned by great science fiction writers and copied plots from Shakespeare. Roddenberry’s dream of a great society achieving amazing accomplishments instills my spirit to this day.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
JVB: Book 5 of the Forerunner Series is titled Marauders in Jotenheim and this book is epic fantasy, striving for 80% adventure in realms beyond Midgard! The fourth installment ends with Kara and Sorven in grave danger, a lost Thorfinn recovering from malnutrition and torture, and the damaged crew of the Karl’s longship victorious after the battle that unites Norway under a single king. Book 5 will feature Norse giants, trolls, monsters, dark elves, meddling Norse gods, and danger in the Halls of the Mountain King! Here’s the current blurb summary, subject to adjustments as I write:
Cub braves danger in Anglia to return to his Jorvik homestead. In Mercia, impatient Gurid sails to seek her run-away daughter, while in the Unseelie Court Kara struggles to escape magical imprisonment.
Across the North Sea, Thorfinn the Forerunner and his Uncle Karl consent to a Thunder God quest. Cub claims his estate, but when wrongly blamed for murder, he must overcome unjust accusations and his own doubts to lead his clan.
Faced with a comatose child, Gurid realizes she needs more than a steady sword arm and mother’s love to save her starving daughter—is Gurid willing to accept ghostly clues?
In a strange realm where strength of arms fails her, Kara must cultivate new skills and navigate courtly intrigues before her captors carry her to Vanaheim forever.
For the crew of the Verdandi Smiles, raiding Jotunheim brings perils and riches, but to save his scattered family, young Finn must overcome loss and conspire with a hated enemy. And who is this blue man who fights like a dervish, is he friend or foe?
I am excited to finish and release book 5, the penultimate book in the series.
And now for Jay’s book: Kara Shieldmaiden of Eire:
Battles and adventure crisscross the Viking Age! From monumental sea clashes to beleaguered mountain strongholds to war with the tribes of Eire, circumstance drives the scattered Agneson clan across the known world. And beyond the lands of Midgard, mythic hidden folk challenge our forerunner hero. The award-winning Forerunner Series epic continues….
Fleeing an arranged marriage, Kara escapes across the narrow sea to follow her warrior dreams. Escaping slavery, Cub joins Rollo’s horde in Britany, while his outlawed brother Sorven fights for survival in the Welsh mountains. Uncle Karl and his warriors rally to Harald Tanglehair in his ambition to unify the wild kingdoms of the North Way, and young Thorfinn is left behind, safe and secure in a tiny fishing village… or is he?
Kara gains her place in king of Dublinn’s ranks to prove her mettle, but being a warrior is not what she expected, and what of these new feelings she finds for her closest companion? Will Karl and his crew perish in the great battle of Hafrsfjord? And how will an unprepared Thorfinn survive kidnapping by an 8-armed giant, leaving behind worried friends and a very angry dragon?
Don’t miss this 5-star epic fantasy critics are calling “whimsical and gritty,” with “fabulous, engaging characters.” If you enjoy the history of The Last Kingdom and Nordic myths and legends, the Forerunner Series is a grand tale not to be missed!
Chapter 6. A Vardoger in the Seelie Court
Thorfinn in the Realm Between Realms
Chapter 6. A Vardoger in the Seelie Court
Thorfinn in the Realm Between Realms
Finn considered his sister—he could tell she worried about something, the way she arranged and re-arranged her blanket, the way she chewed her bottom lip, her little jump at any noise in the dark, the way she kept her hand near Father’s sword hilt, her fingers twitching. Tapped for watch duty midway through the night, he walked alongside her as she patrolled the area, inspected the dark stand of trees at their backs, and squatted by the coals of dying campfires. Finn decided if Kara worried about this trip, he should be extra watchful. He felt apprehensive about the next day, how to offer protection should his sister be drawn into a battle while he was far away. As the sun began to tint the eastern sky pink, knowing well she could not feel him, he touched her hand, took his leave, and sailed back to his sleeping lich.
The next evening, he landed amid a battle. Strange warriors charged a defensive line. Too many attackers! And more rounded a paddock at the end of a nearby village, torches held high. He stumbled through the combatants—Kara! Where was Kara?
After a panicked search, he found her. She had backed into a wood, her sword drawn, her back pressed against a tree. Smaller than her fellows, she seemed less threatening, her pale face shining in the gloom. Her companions scattered in the brush, separate and easy targets. Dropping his bullrush, Finn ran to his sister and drew his sax sword.
Kara parried blows, fighting a direct assault. Finn saw the attackers circle the Dublinn force, surrounding them. Battle noise masked their movements, and one grinned as he snuck behind her—he never saw the vardoger in his way, and Finn laid him out with a quick stab from Gunhild.
Someone shouted for retreat. A great brute of a man hammered at his sister, overwhelming her with his sheer size and weight. Finn rushed past Kara and struck the warrior, leaving him to collapse in a heap. Kara did not pause to investigate her luck; she turned and ran into the forest, chopping at low-hanging branches with her sword. A nearby opponent saw her and moved to chase, but Finn collided with his headlong rush and Gunhild paralyzed him.
Thorfinn trailed Kara, mindful of her pursuers, pausing occasionally to turn those who gained on her into a quivering mess in the undergrowth. Much to his disappointment, the wood began to fill with those little flying pixies and fairies, filling the air in the Realm Between. Soon he had to swat at them to keep them from swarming his sister.
His sister slowed her reckless run through the dense foliage, tired of collecting scratches and bruises on her face, upper arms and calves. Kara untied her bed roll and loosened the blanket, gripping it in her left fist like a fighting net. The homespun snagged on the brambles underfoot, and she jerked and shook it free as she continued to push through the wood. Her hunters fell behind. She moved at a more measured pace and worked to control her breath. Finn walked at her side. Her flushed cheeks showed exhaustion, but other than cuts and welts, he could find no lasting wounds on her unprotected legs and arms. Her leather armor seemed intact. He felt relieved.
Kara pushed through a curtain of vines and stumbled into a clearing. Finn knew at once this was a magical place, no place for his sister to wander. He tried to push her. He tugged at her arm to no avail. She moved forward into the glade.
Finn wasn’t certain what Kara saw, but here in the Realm Between Realms, this dell hung festooned with hidden folk, in the air, on the ground, and lined on each branch overhead. Glowing, glittering, sparkling, like the parade he had witnessed, fae creatures of many shapes and sizes collected around a central dais built upon a hump of dirt. On the throne a beautiful, elven woman lounged, three tall warrior elves standing behind her, brandishing ornate spears and pointing them threateningly at Kara and Finn. Their platinum hair shone with golden highlights, and their skin reflected a rich, yellow tinge, their silver breastplates worked with golden filigree, their tall helms gracefully tipped with a topknot horsehair mane.
The air filled with winged fairies, as if disturbed dandelion fluff puffed into a swirling breeze. One of the Alfheim guards stepped forward and grumbled, pointing his spear at Thorfinn. “Who are you to interrupt the Seelie Court?”
Glancing around, Thorfinn realized many light elves ringed the glade. All turned to stare at him and his sister, who unknowingly continued to stumble forward, creatures before her in a mad scramble to get out from underfoot. Most of the other elves knelt before the lady on the throne—unsure, Finn dropped to one knee and bowed his head.
“Forgive us, we did not mean….”
Finn raised his eyes. In Midgard, his sister batted at the creatures swarming her head. Her blows missed the dancing creatures, and on all sides, little twitters of laughter began to sound, her angry movement so ungainly and predictable. The Fae found her struggles funny.
The elf on the throne seemed to flow into a sitting position and stretched out her hand in a graceful movement. “A fyreferd,” she said, and gestured with elegant fingers at Thorfinn. “Such a thing, to find here in my court.”
One of her guards spoke, “True, majesty, we have not seen a vardoger for centuries of seasons….” He waved his spear at Thorfinn. “Why trespass on the Alfheim?”
“I protect my sister.” Finn gestured at Kara. Frustrated with the fairies dancing about her head, she began to swing her blanket—the little creatures thought her actions a new game, swooping in and around the swirling homespun, their laughter like chimes in the night.
The elven woman spoke, her voice a clear alto cutting through the tinkling laughter. “They smell her elsk, she reeks of love sickness.”
With an unexpected snap, Kara flipped her bedroll and captured one of the tiny, hidden folk. She grabbed the loose fabric and tightened her grip. Inside, the little fairy squeaked and thrashed, fighting to escape.
“Stop it!” Kara demanded, and smacked her blanket against the ground.
A sudden silence fell over the multitude. Many froze, mouths ajar. The creatures watched Kara, while a few glanced to their elven leader. Finn watched her slowly rise from her seat, her mouth compressed into a severe line, her eyes squinting.
Unaware of the situation beyond Midgard, Kara unwrapped her tiny captive—a glittering puff erupted from her cloth, and Kara stood astounded as she caught a glimpse of the creature lying still in her open hand. Finn held his breath—all around Kara the hidden folk began to buzz in anger.
With a shudder, the tiny fairy shook itself and shot into the night.
A sigh of relief sounded on all sides—Finn watched Kara blink at the creature receding into the starry sky, her mouth agape. Her face paled, and she jerked her head from side to side, suddenly wary and confused. Finn started to rise to his feet, but one of the guards leveled his spear at him, his intent clear. He watched his frightened sister crash through the vines and underbrush, disappearing into the forest.
One of the guards stepped forward. “Bow to our queen.” Finn dropped his eyes.
“Please, I must…” Thorfinn pleaded, his eyes on the grass.
“Hush, fyreferd.” He peeped at her—Standing on her mound before her throne, the Elven queen stood taller than the assembly, her hair drifting from her shoulders as she gathered Siedr magic. Like a halo, her golden-white mane crackled with arcane energy. She held out her finger, and the broken fairy dropped from the sky to perch there, its wings twisted and drooping. She gently blew on the tiny Fae, and it glowed like a breath across hot coals. The miniature creature straightened and unfurled gossamer wings. She cast the pixie back into the air to flutter into the trees.
“But my sister…”
“Your sister is not your true concern, ghostling.”
Around him, Finn realized the crowd of hidden folk gathered closer. The Alfheim had risen and moved to stand around him, tall, slender, and graceful. While none moved to hold him, he felt trapped. He had fought an elf once… a dark Vanir, but similar to these in stature. He remembered how the elf had fought him, so quick and strong—There are so many, he thought. Raga warned me, if I die in the Realm Between, I can never return to my lich… he held his breath and suppressed a shiver as a multitude of creatures surrounded him.
The queen settled on her throne, her guards moving to posts behind her. Her hair floated back to her shoulders, her charm dissipating. She regained composure, the angry squint fading from her eyes and a slight smile lifting the corners of her mouth.
“Fyreferd, you ward and protect family.” She lifted her hand to quiet the throng. “A noble trait among your kind. Not so common, as I recall.” Elves around nodded in agreement. “I commune each night with the Norns, the Jotun maidens of Mogprasir, Wyrd, Verdandi and Skuld. Their whispers hint of past, present, and future. All mentioned our paths shall cross, the ghostling who carries the remnants of great sax Gunhild. I see her there at your side. Fear you should, oh child of Midgard, yet, like a hunter’s arrow flung into the sea, your dread misses wide its true target.”
Thorfinn knelt, confused by her words. My fear misses a true target? He scowled—what could that mean?
“You may depart my presence, vardoger.” The Fairy Queen snapped her fingers in a dismissive way. “We, the Seelie Court of Eire shall not molest you, nor your naïve sibling. Be on your way but carry my warning: You protect the wrong lich this night.”
Relieved, Thorfinn gave an uncertain bow and stumbled to his feet, dashing through the wood to catch his sister. Behind him, he could hear the elves speaking, but he ignored their voices and rushed through the trees, following the path he thought his sister had taken. The hilt of his sword, the part of the magicked blade existing in Midgard, caught on twigs and bushes as he forced his way through the underbrush.
He had to find Kara. He had to protect her, alone and lost in enemy territory. And he remembered he had lost his bullrush—he would need another if he was to get home.
Searching took nearly an hour to find her. She surrendered any attempt at passing silently, rushing headlong through the trees. Branches had scratched her face in the dark and he could see her hand bled from a cut. She kept glancing over her shoulder and gripped Father’s sword tight to her body. Finn pressed close and remained at her side, comfortable to be near in case anything went wrong. As the predawn began to fade the stars from the sky above, they stumbled across a roadway through the wood, a path rutted by wagon wheels and horse hooves. Kara began to run at a steady pace, and Finn, after following for a while, spotted a marshy wash with cattails and reeds. Leaving his sister to jog away, he searched the pond edge for a bullrush suitable for the Siedr magic to carry him back to his body, sleeping far to the north. With a cutting in hand, he muttered the spell and soared into the early morning sky.
Late, much later than he usually returned home, Finn had tarried too long, watching over his sister. As he flew over the rollicking ocean and the rising sun topped the horizon, he felt light-headed, and a funny pang hollowed out his stomach. His sight began to darken, his vision constricted as if he fainted. Suddenly weak, he clung to the reed as it soared through the clouds. His breath sobbed, his chest heaved, his thoughts became muddled, and he drifted into a deep slumber, the first time he had slept since the witch had torn his hug from his lich and changed him to a vardoger.