A Reflection on Call of the Conjurer.
“It is always fun to drop a bunch of people into a small room and see what happens.”
Call of the Conjurer was released nearly two years ago and went through a number of iterations to get it just right. I realise how much more fluid I have become as a writer; ,y later books have required less editing. I have received plenty of feedback since then; I know my problems and plus points; what people liked with Call of the Conjurer and what they disagreed with. Overall, hearing opinions about your own work is amazing. Today, I decided to put my thoughts down on how and why the book was written in the first place.
As I’ve said at the start of this blog, Bloodfest originated in the late 90’s as an amateur animated film about a bunch of soldiers fighting the Grim Reaper and his army of zombies for some reason. Back then it was just a bunch of eleven year olds spouting off funny lines (or what we thought were funny) and pushing a Lego coach into a crowd of plasticine zombies. The film couldn’t even be animated with a standard home camcorder. God knows I tried but recording 1/24 frames a second with only a pause button was impossible.
I might look back with disdain, but it was fun. I can still recall the smell of modelling clay and red acrylic paint.
The Bloodfest series stuck with me over the years as a collection of sequels, drawings and models, all improving over time. I had made (most of) an RPG based on the film and kept my mind afloat by coming up with short side stories. It might sound weird, but I wanted to hold on to this made-up world. Sometimes the real world doesn’t compare to the ones we imagine. You know what I mean?
About 2010, after one joyful day playing through the entirety of the Metal Slug series at a friend’s house, I wondered how Bloodfest would fare as an old school arcade shoot-em up game. Something really Contra-like; pixelated violence where every-goddamned-thing explodes. It would have totally worked, and as I considered a plot I began to think about the origins of the characters from Bloodfest, which I had never really considered before. What was the first mission for the veteran, magically enhanced soldiers Ace Mcdagger and Shimon Arkasone, with their respective shotgun and sword prowess? What did they do long before the rest of the Bloodfest team came along, long before they faced the Grim Reaper and his zombies?
For a game, Ace and Shimon would be players one and two, of course. And this origin story would have been how they met Tiffany Milich too. I needed a fourth character, and immediately pictured Captain Mason. The superior officer, someone who Ace would look up to. Mason was armed with a shotgun, to indicate the inevitable passing of the torch to ‘Shotgun’ Ace Mcdagger. Maybe Mason would have to be an unlockable, secret character. He would be too powerful, perhaps.
Characters in mind, I envisioned a straight forward plot to keep things simple: there are monsters, shoot them all. In my mind the enemies would have to be straight forward and instantly recognisable. They would be humanoid monsters; medieval ghouls, perhaps. Occasionally a skeletal ghost or an orge shows up.
I pictured the game clearly, and what would essentially become the second half of Call of the Conjurer. Video games in the 90’s usually started Level One with a hilly, grassy stage. Level Two is in the woods, or a misty mountain, or a factory for some reason. Level Three is the Water Stage and Level Four is the Volcano, obviously.
For my Level One I imagined a cave; and I instantly remembered visiting the Valkenburg Municipal Caves a school trip in 1998. A warm, inviting cavern of carvings and Christmas lights. In my head I filled that location with ghouls and stuck a giant, tree ghost as the end of stage boss. The Waldgeist; a step up from the regular foes but nothing too daunting.
Waldgeist sketch from 2010.
The end of the story (which in my non-existent arcade shooter is Level Six) takes place in a haunted castle. Everything is chaotic; a red storm scrolls past the windows, the enemies are leaping from the ceiling and floors. There’s a boss rush, right before the final encounter with the most evil of all; a person. An unexpected instigator – a young woman, a teenage girl, perhaps, going full blown sorcerer and about to end the world.
That was about all I had for the game for now. My brain shifted to focus on the actual story – because the first mission couldn’t be the start of things. Ace, Shimon and Tiffany needed training, and that was where Call of the Conjurer truly began.
I was out of work at the time, only ever taking up short Animation jobs or contracted labour roles. I knew I wanted to do something more, and my confidence had reached a stage where I decided to write a Bloodfest novel. Instead of re-writing the old films, I thought it best to introduce Bloodfest to the world by starting right at the beginning, and set about writing “Bloodfest 0”, also code named “Training Days”.
Old character sketches from around 2010.
Right from the beginning I wanted to invoke that feeling we get when we start in a new place. The first day of school, college, work; being in a room surrounded by unfamiliar faces. It’s a moment of potential. You look around and wonder who all these people are, who you’re going to get to know; maybe some of them will become your best friends, maybe you’ll meet a lifelong partner, or an enemy. Maybe you’ll get to know some people quickly, drift apart, and get to know the others even more.
Maybe you’ll stay distant and none of them will know you well, but it’s impossible not to learn a little bit about somebody new in a day, even in an hour.
I felt this was a good starting point for the characters. The audience knows nothing about who these people are except for what is given to them, and more details filter in over time. It was a perfect way to introduce the world of Bloodfest – the set up or magic soldiers, working for a secret organisation who rule the world.
We had always set the first Bloodfest film in the year 2012. Back when we made the home movie in 1996, that date seemed like a long way off – a time when futuristic technology might be readily available; when laser rifles and robots might be common place, but not so far into the future that everything is laser rifles and robots.
I worked out that Call of the Conjurer would have taken place in 2003. That was a lot to look back on. The world was different 13 years ago, although it doesn’t feel that way. Back then, tablet computers and iPhones were less prevalent. People still used CD players… at least I did. I wanted the characters in the story to be using ordinary, time relevant equipment. Although it is suggested that the Hidden Government possess advanced technology, I didn’t think that recruits would have access to the best stuff right away, and the training facility seemed more homely and familiar with ordinary, every day items. I didn’t want the place to be flashy and alien, so it was all conceived to be rustic and plain, like an average office or public school.
I did, at the same time, want to take the main two British characters away from home. I established the training base in America, because it seemed like the right place for it to exist. I also wanted to set it in a warm, welcoming location, somewhere that might feel like a holiday; a step up from the normal world, somewhere quite vibrant and well off. The east coast came to mind amd I eventually decided upon Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.
I kept the cast to a minimal. There were a few who I knew had to exist; such as Lieutenant Baker to act as Captain Mason’s counterpoint, and Gretel Salneth to help Ace show his humanity. My preference of character creation is to envision them and go with that initial concept – it goes back to my ‘first day of work’ ideology; the people you met are already there. I don’t want to build a world where it seems like everybody has been placed purposely (unless the story calls for a situation like that). I would rather populate my stories with natural people, maybe even ugly and broken ones, than a selection of checkboxes. I actually feel that with Call of the Conjurer you could remove or replace a lot of the characters and the ending would always be the same – it had to be, it was written as a prequel, after all – but that would only serve to reduce the overall story. It could have worked with just Ace, Shimon, Tiffany as the recruits and Mason showing them what to do, but it would have been a very short book. I wanted to involve more characters. It is always fun to drop a bunch of people into a small room and see what happens. I think that even the most minimal, one line characters need a bit of back story or a vivid description. The other recruits, soldiers and civilian characters all developed organically. Again, I just went with initial ideas and eventually everybody settled into place. I quite like how the character Cheng takes a long time to open up, and you only really get to know him right before the end.
Various concepts for cover art.
Call of the Conjurer for me is a collection of ideas. It is potential; it is the first day at work where the job is selling the Bloodfest series to the general public. I hope it holds up to that, even if the going has been very slow. Writing the book was a great learning experience, and now it exists.
Today I am interviewed by hungrymonsterreview.com on Call of the Conjurer.
“A World Where Magic Is A Natural Force”
Call of the Conjurer is a story about a group of diverse soldiers brought together to be initiated into magical combat. What was your inspiration for blending military fiction with magic and the paranormal?
Call of the Conjurer was actually written as a prequel to a homemade, stop-motion film some friends and I made when we were kids, way back around 1996. It was called Bloodfest, and it was mainly about a squad of modelling clay soldiers tearing through a Lego city full of demons and zombies. It would have been on youtube, if that had existed back then. Ultimately Bloodfest was just a weird little black comedy with minimal plot, although the whole setting and the characters stayed with me for years afterwards. It was when I started toying about with programming and began work on a Bloodfest video game that I started to give it more thought. The original story was a bare concept, and we had made the Bloodfest team far from professional – quite “Monty Pythonesque” in their quirkiness, so I had to ask myself: ‘Why was it up to this squad of soldiers to save the whole world from monsters? What made them capable to do such a thing?’ That was when I had the idea of giving them all super powers and magic spells. I wanted to make an RPG game, and to let players customise the characters with a selection of spells and abilities. I also thought more about the backstory, how the team were in service to a shadowy “Hidden Government” who deployed them to fight off extreme threats. Working on the world building to explain how and why the soldiers had magic; why their abilities were so rare and why there were monsters in existence, eventually led me to write Call of the Conjurer when I wanted to try self-publishing books. I decided to start from the beginning, and work my way up to writing Bloodfest as a novel. I never quite finished that RPG game, but maybe I’ll get back to it sometime!
I felt that the military jargon and tactics used was well displayed. What research did you do for this novel to get it right?
The main thing I had to research was what happens during military training, and then work that around the setting I wanted to write about. The military is something that has always intrigued me. In England we celebrate the heroism of those who fought in wars, and conflict is a big part of our history, so it is the kind of thing I’ve read about a lot over the years. I’ve also known a few people who have served in the British Army and United States Army, and one thing I wanted to get across in Call of the Conjurer was how these soldiers are just ordinary people with the same flaws and ambitions we all have. Bearing in mind the rarity of the recruits in the story – their magical abilities which are desperately sought after – the characters in Call of the Conjurer are granted more privilege than most soldiers would be given in reality. This allowed me to occasionally put the cast in relaxed situations where they could be themselves, which was important for building them up as a team who trusted each other, and letting them grow as individuals.
There is magic used throughout the story. How do you keep magic believable in your story?
For most of the characters in the book, magic is a startling experience to begin with but it eventually becomes second nature. Some of them had prior experience with it, and I wanted a world where magic is a natural force but being able to utilise it is a rarity. It is a mysterious power tied to genetics and human history, and the Hidden Government has an entire Magical Science department dedicated to studying the phenomena. Over the years these scientists have tried to quantify, categorise and explain magic; successfully turning it into a weaponised asset for battle, but like all fields of science their understanding changes with new developments. In this way I can make magic a standard tool for the soldiers who use it every day, but leave many mysteries and revelations to be explored throughout the Bloodfest series in upcoming books.
There are a lot of diverse and interesting characters in this novel. What was your favorite character to write for and why?
I wanted a diverse but small cast, and as Call of the Conjurer was written as a prequel, there were a few key characters that had to be included. I liked having this chance to re-establish characters like Ace and Shimon, writing about them several years younger where they were different people to how I knew them. Captain Mason was instantly a good character to write about. My aim for him was not to be a typical drill-instructor people might expect. He’s much kinder to the recruits (sometimes chastised for being so), but still has to be tough at times. He’s a warrior, and a powerful spell caster. He’s fatherly and considerate, though in private he is a very solemn individual with a huge burden on his conscience. His inner turmoil is a big undercurrent throughout the story, and becomes more impactful to the whole plot towards the end. I enjoyed writing Gretel as well. I wasn’t sure where she was supposed to go at first; how she would develop, but I wanted to write a character who is initially perceived as a snarky, aloof ‘Goth’ but actually has a lot of personality and depth. She’s full of surprises, and I’ve had a lot of feedback from people saying she was their favourite part of the book.
What is the next book that you are working on and when will that be published?
The next book is Typhoon of Fire, which is finished and in the proof editing stage right now. The story follows the surviving recruits from Call of the Conjurer several years later as fully fledged soldiers now on active duty. They’re on a mission in an arid setting, living rough and facing greater threats in hostile conditions. “Hell on Earth” is a big theme of the story, and the whole book is a strange mix of Vietnam War films and Dante’s Inferno. It is definitely grimier and darker than Call of the Conjurer was, taking away the safety nets and really pushing the characters into some difficult situations while expanding on the whole Bloodfest universe even more.
I have been working on the Bloodfest series for a long time now and I feel the need to explain myself; how the series works and what the ultimate goal is.
Stage 1: establishing the world
At the time of this post, I have written three books: one firmly self published on Amazon while the others are in the copy editing phase (I keep referring to it as ‘post production’).
In order to rebirth the series from a long slumber, I decided to write three original stories to firstly; practise writing again, and secondly; develop the characters for a modern era. These three books are all prequels to the “main event” called Bloodfest.
Call of the Conjurer is set in the year 2003, and follows the initiation of British born “magic soldiers” Ace Mcdagger and Shimon Arkasone. They have been ushered into the secretive organisation known internally as the Hidden Government, and are to be trained up in the art of magic combat. Several other characters find themselves in the same position, and a large part of the story is about team work.
Ace and Shimon are key to the whole Bloodfest series; or at least how it begins. But for Call of the Conjurer I wanted to write a bigger story, and invented the character of Calbert Mason – a figure for Ace to look up to – along with many others for Ace and Shimon to form close ties with. Some of these characters will make further appearances in the series.
Despite the establishing set up with Ace and Shimon, Call of the Conjurer became more of Calbert Mason’s story, and this formula of multiple viewpoints continues into the next book.
Typhoon of Fire continues the exploits of Ace, Shimon, and their close allies three years later in 2006. New key characters are introduced, and life changing events will affect the main cast for years to come.
Finally The Sardonyc changes perspectives entirely, focusing away form the action of the battlefield and onto the introverted scientist Sidney Gaterling. Set in the year 2010, this is one for the geeks. The pace is different; far more technical and steady. The Sardonyc is more of a psychological thriller, with a group of characters trapped on a ship and slowly going mad. Through these remarkable circumstances, Sidney faces his own battle against a mental threat, and his story gradually ties the prequel trilogy together.
Ultimateley, these three prequel books are not essential reading to understand Bloodfest, but help deepen the main characters’ motivations and hint at future events.
Stage 2: the Main Event
Bloodfest is a planned saga, currently shaping up to span five books. The first one has been written completely, and I am piecing the rest together all at once. I admit it is taking a while…
The conclusion has been planned, and I know what kind of story I want each book to tell. The series may be one saga, but each novel has its own collection of themes and arcing plotlines. I hate to leave a story on an unsatisfying cliffhanger, and want each one to have a concluding story.
Stage 3: the blog
Suffice to say the overall story arc has been mapped out over a number of years. Small changes have been made over time and continue to be made, but my primary intention is to put this series out and leave a little bit of me to the world.
Not only me: but my friends who helped directly create and inspire the series. A fellow called James is the key partner in crime here; co creator of the original home movie and continued contributor of ideas. He also writes, and is already penning a side story to Bloodfest that is totally original. I have no input on his tale and I love that. Even if he never finishes it, I love the idea of an expanded universe.
More about the origins of Bloodfest can be read here. I like to elaborate, and I want to answer questions and build up a reference source for the series with further texts and concept art.
Being a writer means constant practise. Some nights on the train ride home from London, I jot down mini stories built around the world of Bloodfest and I plan to post them on the blog as little treats.
For now, I hope you enjoy the character bios and develop an interest in the series. Please stay tuned as this blog fills with information!
A soldier who needs re-training. She comes across as lazy and aloof, argumentative and unwilling to take part, but maybe she has every reason to feel that way.
Gertrude ‘Gretel’ Salneth hails from Hungary, where she lived a quiet and unassuming life with her father and younger brother, occasionally helping around the family owned garage. Looking for a sense of purpose and wanting to go beyond the norm, she enlisted in the military. Without any choice or warning, she is transfered to the globally operating Hidden Government Army a few months later.
“Unfortunately, my name’s Gertrude. Gertrude Salneth.”
“It’s too old fashioned. I like to be called Gretel,” she said, smiling.
Recruit Salneth has become a familar face in the Myrtle Training Base. The 2003 season of training is her third appearance, and she doesn’t seem fussed. Captain Mason and his Lieutenants recognise her as a trouble maker – she lacks the discipline to work along side others, but Gretel claims that each squad she has been placed in were ‘a bunch of jerks’, among other words.
She speaks little about past experiences, but the recruits of 2003 seem more like her cup of tea. She likes her bunk mate – Tiffany – the only other woman in the group, even though they don’t walk much. She forms a close bound to Ace Mcdagger in particular; a kind, sweet hearted lad who seems very sad inside. She wants to work him out.
Gretel is happy to give everybody a chance, but she also makes it clear if you’re not responding to her. In reality, Gretel is considerent and honest; she does want to take part and work within a team, but she needs to feel comfortable with them. her arrogance is more of a shield. She tries to be ruthless in order to stop herself being nervous.
Gretel lowered her voice. “I do Witchcraft,” she said, and gave a cheeky smile. “Power of suggestion; manipulation, curses. I can make people do what I want.”
Sometimes she is very strong, and sometimes she is very fragile, espically when she realises that her past actions are putting her in jeopordy. The Hidden Government Army is a serious operation, and doesn’t take kindly to liabilities. Gretel simply isn’t ‘valuable’ enough to get away with her deeds, and she could pay for it any moment.
- Gretel’s creation was a response to how Hollywood tends to make the goth girl bad, or downright evil. (think pretty much any character played by Fairuza Balk. Except Dorothy of course.)
- Her weapon of choice is the AK-63, staple of the Hungarian Defence Force.
- She is fluent in Hungarian, English, German and Russian.
- Like the other characters in Call of the Conjurer, Gretel has a close affinity to one of the magical elements. Hers is Ice, although she hates having cold feet.
The head training instructor of Myrtle Base. Gentle natured and world weary, Mason can summon loyal creatures in a safe environment, allowing new recruits to practice their spell casting combat.
He is a fatherly figure, to the point of caring far too much about those under his charge.
Captain Mason examined his reflection, adjusting his jacket lapels symmetrically. He’d been there for about an hour now, just getting ready; taking a look at himself in the mirror and admiring his finest qualities. He felt ridiculous doing so, but needed to psyche himself up.
Calbert Mason was born under a different name in Jamaica. He hails from a small inland village where his parents worked various small jobs throughout the year. Home life was very stressful, and his father was particularly aggressive. Calbert had two older brothers who worked from a young age, though one of them disappeared when he was five. Being the youngest child, Calbert felt like nothing more than another mouth to feed.
It was around this time that Calbert was visited by a creature formed of light; an angel, he concluded, unaware of his ability to conjure spirits into our world.
The creature called itself Vaschelim, and Calbert was instantly enthralled. Its mere presence helped him to feel safe. Though Vaschelim stayed invisible for the most part, other people saw sometimes it, though no one could comprehend what this strange spectre was. It was often dismissed.
No one truly believed what they saw, except for Calbert.
Calbert joined the Jamaica Defence Force at 18, seeing few other prospects available. He took on the name Mason; the title of a creator, because it sounded strong. Only months into his career he was approached by a different faction; a group who called themselves the Hidden Government, and they made a very convincin argument to transfer Calbert into their own private army. They told him of his ability to summon; that other creatures like Vaschelim existed, and Calbert could control them all.
And contol them he could, forming stong bonds to particular monsters such as the legendary Golem of Yom Tov Lipmann Heller and strange, indescribable spirit wraiths. Vaschelim stayed by his side constantly, but throughout his service Mason never felt like a soldier. He did not enjoy killing, and was eventually able to secure a role as a combat instructor. Perhaps the position had always been intended for him.
He had once been a young, foolish boy. Now he is an experienced Combat Instructor looking into a mirror to practise his steely, piercing gaze aimed at trouble makers.
Mason, as he is known now, still harbours a resentment for his family. Maybe he feels ashamed for leaving, or perhaps he recognises a bit of his father in himself when he feels angered. Mason is generally calm, but can snap in the face of overwhelming injustice. His feelings for the Hidden Government have dropped over the years, and reached their lowest in 2001, but he knows he is stuck in his place. His only solace is to keep his recruits safe, but ultimately his job is to train them up to confront certain death.
Mason bides his time, doing the best he can. He knows he can do nothing more, but he holds onto hope. Hope for what, exactly, he isn;t sure.
- In early drafts for what was code named Bloodfest 0, Mason was much younger and the Captain of Omega Squad. Omega Squad was made up of trainees, including Ace and Shimon, and were immediately deployed into combat. The whole second half of Call of the Conjurer was once the entire story, before I went back and created the training facility scenario. It made more sense that way.
- He rarely uses weapons, instead commanding his conjurer beasts to act as supportive units. The shotgun he uses is purely symobilc, for the sake of ‘passing the torch’ when the time comes.
… she preferred to keep her head down in active duty situations. Whilst on base, Tiffany seemed to come alive more – offering to fulfil the mundane tasks that needed doing day to day. She loved to take care of the little jobs, the ones nobody would notice.
A bright, quiet young woman with a fantastic mind. She remembers everything in perfect detail, choosing to employ this skill to learn as much as she can.
When introduced in ‘Call of the Conjurer’, Tiffany comes across as rather avoidant, maybe even a little abrasive towards anyone trying to get to know her. I tried to keep her out of focus, until she slowly opens up to the rest of the team and becomes a vital player in ‘Typhoon of Fire’.
For years Tiffany had no idea that she was special. Everybody around her generally regarded her uncanny mind to just ‘being smart’. Everybody said so; friends, family, and the jealous bully types.
Tiffany had a humble upbringing. Her family were ordinary, and she had hoped to become a doctor, but couldn’t due to the costs of studying. Instead, she entered the military to become medical personnel. It was only when she was ushered into the Hidden Government Army that Tiffany knew she might be more than just ‘smart’. She is told that her memory is perfect, able to recall the smallest details that one might not even notice at the time. Tiffany also displays adept magical combat, demonstrating a natural talent right away.
Despite all the praise, she tries to keep a low profile, fearing that people will regard her as boastful and bigheaded. Still, she has a nervous compulsion to correct people when they are mistaken and feels embarrassed for doing do. She tries to keep her head in books, learning all she can about any variety of subjects – with the ulterior motive of avoiding social situations.
I’m always spouting facts! It’s like… it needs to escape! I’m always rabbiting on. It must be very annoying.
Thankfully the other recruits are receptive and welcoming. Ace in particular wants to bring the group together and tries to encourage some confidence out of Tiffany, acting as wing man to his smitten buddy Shimon, but doesn’t quite succeed.
Thankfully, Shimon manages to speak up, and the two of them mesh right away. Tiffany takes to Shimon quickly, naive in romance and charmed by this boy who shows her interest. For all that she can read in books, nothing compares to first hand experience.
Where Shimon is darkness, Tiffany is light. Together they are like ying and yang; an ideal pairing who need one another and play off each other perfectly. But with Tiffany’s ambitions, Shimon’s unique abilities, and their relationship embroiled in the sercret military service, the two might be separated at any time. Their lives are at the whim of higher powers. Can there be a happy ending?
- It took me awhile to stumble on a first name for Tiffany. While documenting her orignal design to computer many years ago, I noticed the ‘.Tiff’ file extension and settled on that.
- ‘Milich’ deviated from the word millet, mostly because it sounds nice, but also because millet is earthly and full of potential and growth.