Brett Murrell makes a mess of personality tests. In daylight, he designs systems and consults for investigative agencies as the premier expert on crime and bomb scene management. At night, he imagines wildly. And in the twilight in between, he is an accomplished game theorist, author, and world builder. As our Author of the Day, Murrell tells us all about his fantasy series, Dusties.
Please give us a short introduction to what Dusties is about.
Dusties is a five-book unfolding mystery in a fantasy setting. A group of strangers awaken in a dark, dangerous place. The survivors begin to unravel a trail of discoveries that lead to a building realization of who and where they are. Each book takes up from where the other left off, but each is a full plot arc in itself, always with a series of enormous surprise twists at the end. Dusties has a steampunk and romance flavor as well, but the real core is the layered mysteries. Some last only a chapter, some a whole book, and many others span books. Readers have to be on their toes to gain a sense of what might be happening before the characters do.
What inspired you to write Dusties?
Well, my teachers always accused me of having an over-active imagination. Guilty as charged. Dusties was built on dreams and daydreams. In the case of Dusties, it all started with one particular idea. I thought of an ordinary person who is forced to make a choice between giving in to a tyrant, or being devoured by a monster. And that person looks into the tyrant’s eyes and says, “I choose the monster.” That thought is what kicked off Dusties.
Did you plan from the start to make this into a series?
Yes, definitely. All the threads of mystery gradually weave together until the final book, where everything falls neatly into place. To make that happen took a great deal of mapping out where the trails had to lead.
You are an expert on crime and bomb scene management. How do your experiences in your day job influence your writing?
I make my money organizing people to do tough work. The discipline from that is what kept me writing sentence after sentence for five books. I highly recommend to most authors that writing not initially be your primary focus, especially early in life. Experience, family, and career produces all those virtues that you need to be a disciplined and knowledgeable writer who has the life experience to truly write something memorable.
Tell us more about the Dusties - what makes them so likeable?
The Dusties setting is a weird, unique place. But as weird as it is, the characters within it are as recognizable and real as your friend next door. That’s the key to highly unusual stories. The characters must be absolutely approachable and loved to offset the disorientation of Strangeland. It’s what makes weird classics like Wizard of Oz so perfect. One common effect of the book is that readers latch on to several of the characters, often so tightly that, as one reader put it, “I just put my life on hold for ten days.”
What drew you to write your story in a dystopian setting?
The Dusties setting is dystopian. But there are two kinds of dystopian genres, and they are entirely different from each other. The first is the “dark” tale, like 1984, where the dystopia is the ultimate winner and the writer provides a lesson or warning from it. The second is where a dystopia, despite its overwhelming assault on the characters, is eventually defeated. I like the second type. Nothing is more enjoyable than watching an evil empire get cut off at the knees, and Dusties brings that delight over and over with sudden surprising twists.
What kind of readers seem to like Dusties best?
Dusties is not for everyone. But then, no book is. Each Dusties book is 450 paper pages and expects the reader to pay attention, so this is definitely no bathroom reader. But, people who like things like the Lost TV series, Maze Runner, Dresden Files often love Dusties, and if your favorite parts of Harry Potter were the delicious mysteries set up in the first couple books, you’re a good candidate.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I had the special privilege of growing up in wild country. Even better, my father was a conservation officer and in charge of rehabilitating wounded raptors and other wild animals at our homestead. So we had hawks, eagles, and other creatures around all the time. Long story short, eagles are amazing, hawks are friendly, and owls are not too bright. So Nature and me, we’re tight, except when it wants to kill me.
You included many miniature mysteries and puzzles that your characters have to work through in the book. Why did you take this approach?
Mystery drives imagination. I wanted to give the reader a chance to walk alongside the characters and have the delight of discovering a mystery even before the characters do, or at least have a suspicion. And the best reading rush is the reveal that turns everything you thought you knew right on its head. Dusties is a rollercoaster of surprise twists.
Readers say you had them hooked throughout the book. How did you pull this off?
Dusties is a long series. Normally longer books have an amount of “fluff” added, containing interesting but not entirely necessary material. Sometimes this is a good way to just power down the reader for a time. In Dusties, there is honestly not a single fluff section. Every sentence in Dusties has an important job to do, weaving the mysteries and pulling the readers into a relationship with the characters. Some reviewers have called Dusties more of a young adult story because it does not let up on the action much. I tend to disagree. I think they are mistaking the constant engagement of the reader with a feel of non-stop action, because Dusties has a good share of quieter moments.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
Nothing is more productive to me than to be in a crowd of activity that does not involve me. I will go to a mall or dance practice or some event, and write while everything is swirling around me.
Does writing about surreal worlds and enigmatic scenes present any particular problems?
Oh, yes. I touched on it before. Strange places are disorienting to most readers. You must have realistic, understandable characters that act as the anchor for the reader’s sense of involvement. Many authors make the mistake of thinking that weird places with weird characters is a good combination. It usually isn’t. There is simply no firm footing for the average reader. This is also why weird characters in very normal surroundings is effective, such as Men in Black and most superhero stories.
Many people dismiss the genre as pure escapism - and nothing more. What would you say is the purpose of fantasy and sci-fi?
No, that’s simply not true. Baseball is pure escapism. Sudoku, that’s escapism. The romance genre is escapism. Fantasy and science fiction have powerful virtues, and they are different from each other. Modern fantasy sprang to life from five greats who understood the strength of the genre. Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker understood that a monster is the most effective representation of evil to be overcome. George Macdonald revealed that there is more to us than what we see. C. S. Lewis demonstrated the incredible descriptive power of fantasy. And J. R. R. Tolkein gave us the depthless world where we could wrestle with our most basic aspirations and fears.
Science fiction can be an effective sounding board for political and cultural issues because it is founded in a human world that is not our own, allowing us to step back from our newsfeeds. But fantasy is the place where the most basic of human nature can be turned over and inspected‑-good, evil, love, sacrifice, truth, and meaning.
Now, having said that, it is my opinion that far too many presumed writers have their message as their primary goal in writing, leading today to a swollen wealth of absolutely horrid fiction. If you do wish to impress readers with your beliefs, please impress them with your storytelling and character development first. Public service announcement. Mic drop.
What are you working on right now?
I develop board games in coordination with writing, with the hits Duel of Ages and Duel of Ages II released in the past decade. That’s where my success began, with Duel of Ages being #1 Boardgame All Time for five years running by Dice Tower’s Tom Vasel. Dusties and the board games all fall under a common universe called Worldspanner. Currently I am working on Tragick, a fantasy board game with much of the feel of Dusties. In the future I will begin the Jurney Series, which is a companion series to Dusties. Worldspanner is beginning to get traction among authors and game designers as well, as they can open source their own Worldspanner-based projects.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
www.worldspanner.com is the main source for all things Dustie and for the Worldspanner universe. Feel free to ask questions on Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/author/dashboard?al_user=32130204-brett-murrell, which is a great gathering place for readers. You can also keep in touch on the Facebook feed at https://www.facebook.com/worldspanner/. See you out there!