My Favorite Bit: Tobias S. Buckell & Dave Klecha talk about THE RUNES OF ENGAGEMENT

Tobias S. Buckell & Dave Klecha are joining us today to talk about their novel, The Runes of Engagement. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The Lord of the Rings meets World of Warcraft in this delirious mashup pitting the U. S. military against legendary monsters from fantasy novels and roleplaying games. From a science fiction award-winner and an author, former Marine, and extreme amateur-landscaper comes a riotous fantasy/military science fiction adventure that will delight fans of Terry Pratchett, J. R. R. Tolkien, and John Scalzi.

What’s their favorite bit?

Tobias: There are two of us who wrote this, so I’m going to propose a conversational essay, that okay with you Dave?

Dave: You know me, I love a good dialogue.

Tobias: So, our favorite bit! That’s tricky, because the whole book is like one of your kids. How do you chose the best one? I don’t know, but as we were pregaming this talk, you mentioned this idea of us trying to carry two buckets of water at the same time in this book. The idea behind the book, basically, is that Marines go to generic Fantasyland and shenanigans ensue. But while it’s a funny book, in many ways, the roots of one of the core concepts for it come from a pair of pretty non-funny experiences: that of being a Marine, and the other very far-off (seemingly) frustration of grinding in videogames.

Dave: Well yeah, it’s sometimes seen as a cliche, or only something that happens to folks in the military as a punishment, but even for supposedly elite infantry in a combat zone, the reality of military service can often be one of drudgery and toil. Let’s just start with filling and moving sandbags… 

Tobias: Sandbags?

Dave: Yes… sandbags. Bags filled with sand, often used as temporary fortifications. Often filled by Marines who don’t have pressing duty at the moment, because you can’t have too much fortification. (Well, okay, yes you actually can, like when it restricts your fields of fire, thankyouverymuch Staff Sergeant Self Important.) But other than moving from one place to another, and trying to get enough sleep, tasks like that can often be what fills most of a Marine or soldier’s time, even when deployed.

Tobias: I remember a Red vs Blue episode you showed me of two soldiers standing there guarding an empty warehouse discussing something very inane very animatedly, and you said “that’s the heart of many a deployment experience right there.”

Dave: I can’t even tell you how many inane conversations I’ve had like that, standing post with someone. 

Tobias: So clearly, to become successful, bestselling authors, we wanted to accurately and immersively recreate this experience of grinding away at dreary chores for our readers as a way to engage them… wait, we may have made a huge mistake here! Except… AAA videogames that people invest millions of hours into playing famously will send gamers on long, repetitive task-oriented sidequests that call for you to grind away at harvesting 100 animal pelts to unlock a new skill, quest, or step in the game. And it’s a game mechanic both Dave and I have long wanted to make fun of in a story.

Dave: For sure! It’s one of those places where art and reality dovetail in really interesting sorts of ways, bringing us right into one of our very favorite bits. We find that moment in what most writers think of as the dreaded middle of a novel, between the exciting and gripping opening and the thrilling conclusion. Which for us was not something we dreaded, but more like a playground where we could have maximum fun getting our characters from A to B. This ended up involving a situation where our Marines need to make nice with a critically important character, and the only way to do that was to bring him tallow for his candles and horn for the chandeliers he likes to make. Which could only mean… 

Tobias: I can tell the readers what they won, Johnny! Which is a sidequest! Our characters end up having to harvest an ungainly amount of tallow and horn to create the conditions they need to continue in their mission. But unlike a gamer grinding away to the strains of vaguely Celtic, but easy to listen to over and over again for hours, music our heroes have Opinions about grinding.

Dave: Well, I’d say gamers DO have Opinions about grinding, but that’s because a number of our characters are gamers, and readers, and viewers, and only occasionally indifferent to the tedious or “unrealistic” parts of their favorite media. In fact, their expectations are one of the things we really loved playing with in this novel, because we allow them to have some genre awareness. They know they’re in Fantasyland, they think they know how it should work, especially when it comes to heroes of legend not needing to grind away at sidequests. But that’s not even how the real world works, as attested to by my expertise at filling sandbags. So why should Fantasyland be any different?

Tobias: It’s hard to find that balance in writing between humor and the humor the characters themselves bring to a situation. I think we worked really hard at letting the humor live in the worldbuilding and the situations we put these characters in, but the characters themselves are going through an experience that we tried to ground in realism. Dave’s realism in knowing what it was like to be part of a Marine squad, and also the realism of just seeing the humor in how grinding in a game can drag on. After that, Dave’s insight into how deployment could be a grind as well, allowed us to connect all that together. Taking those two ideas, somehow it became like peanut butter and chocolate as we begin to write scenes like a bunch of Marines being sent out to collect all the tallow and horns they could carry to make nice with someone important on the ground. Suddenly the situation becomes a funny anecdote you’ll imagine the character telling another in a bar one day at a VFW, but right now? It sucks!

Dave: At the same time, it’s so important to note that this isn’t necessarily hilarious for them in the moment, and overall the situation itself isn’t funny. They believe that this is their best option to move forward, accomplish their mission, and survive the experience. 

Tobias: Exactly, we have to be honest to the characters, and how they see that exact moment from their on-the-ground point of view. That being said, my other favorite bit comes right before the collection grind, where the Marines are offered a sidequest by a rich man in furs when they’re trapped in a small town. Just more fun with elements of these genres that made the book so much fun to write with you.

Dave: And hopefully as much fun to read as it was to write, especially for the reader who is aware of more than just fantasy RPGs. There’s a lot more in here than just sidequests, after all.

Tobias: yes, that just Our Favorite Bit, but there are a lot more bits and pieces that make up the whole. One of the things that I loved so much about working on this project is that there are so many fun set pieces, every single time I did a revision pass on this book I would text Dave random bits of book that were making me laugh even though we’ve done dozens of passes on this book over time. So many situations this poor squad of Marines gets into came out of jokes we’ve told each other that we’d love to see done in a fantasy novel over the years, so seeing it finally come together has been so much joyful fun. I really hope that sense of playful collaboration is picked up by readers, because in terms of fun per square inch of page, this for me is the most fun I’ve had writing something.

Dave: Definitely the most fun I’ve had writing something as well, and here’s to more opportunities to do it again.

Tobias: Yes, readers, go buy many copies of this so we can keep doing this. It was way too much fun, and we need more fun in the world! And thank you to Mary Robinette for having us on her blog to talk about Our (My) Favorite Bit(s)!


Book Link

Tobias Socials:


Dave Socials:

Blue Sky


Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times bestselling writer and World Fantasy Award winner. He was born in the Caribbean, grew up in Grenada, and has lived in the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. He is the author of the popular Xenowealth series (Crystal Rain), along with other standalone novels and almost one hundred stories. His latest novel is A Stranger in the Citadel. Buckell lives in Bluffton, Ohio.

Dave Klecha was born in Detroit and studied Russian and history in college. He then joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. In addition to writing, Dave engages in a number of other creative pursuits, including acting, set-building, scriptwriting, and extreme amateur landscaping. His fiction has appeared in the Subterranean Press MagazineClarkesworld, and various anthologies. Klecha lives in Rochester, Michigan.

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