SPFBO Finalist Interview: H.L. Tinsley, the author of We Men of Ash and Shadow
About H.L. HL Tinsley is the pen name of professional blogger and creative writer Holly Tinsley. Based in the UK, she is a published author of Fantasy, Gothic Horror and Grim-dark fiction as well as a regular contributor to gaming, TTRPG and pop culture websites and blogs. Her work has been featured in Horla Magazine online, An Hour of Writes and by the British Fantasy Society journal ‘New Horizons’.
Book Information: We Men of Ash and Shadow Series: Vanguard Chronicles (#1) Published: October 26, 2021 Genre: Dark Fantasy Pages: 347
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little about yourself.
Thanks for inviting me! I’m Holly Tinsley, also known as HL Tinsley. I write gritty grimdark(ish) fantasy and blog about pop culture, video games, and board games. I live in a beautiful old miners' cottage, have two cats and a dog, and once accidentally rugby tackled Lionel Ritchie on the streets of Paris.
Do you have a day job? If so, what is it?
I have a part-time job in the healthcare industry, and I also do business and corporate writing. My working week is usually about 30% the day job and the rest is writing. I’m fortunate to be able to dedicate a lot of time to both, so I count myself very lucky.
Who are some of your favorite writers, and why is their work important to you?
Robin Jarvis is an English children’s author whose work had a massive impact on me. His books The Alchemists Cat and The Woven Path were some of the first dark fantasies I read. I loved the portrayal of characters, particularly the darker, morally questionable ones. There were a lot of themes he touched on, like grief, death, and war, that were refreshing in their honesty and emotional nuance. There is an antagonist called Leech in The Alchemists Cat who still sticks in my mind years later. Leech was a bit of an inspiration when I was building Tarryn Leersac's character.
I also love Terry Pratchett and his world-building, particularly the social structure of the DiscWorld. No matter when you read it, everything is still relevant to the real world as it is and so beautifully observed. I would have to say Nicholas Eames and Scott Lynch as well, for their characterization. I've based many a D&D character on Clay Cooper!
What do you think characterizes your writing style?
RJ Bayley, who narrated the audiobook for We Men of Ash and Shadow, recently described me as a sniper writer. So I might go with that, as it sounds dramatic. I go for a pared-down style of writing that’s quite clipped and informal - I like a story to feel organic and natural, so I always try to keep that in mind. There’s a bit of quiet humour in the stories I write, although I tend to lean more towards gallows humour and ‘snarcasm’ rather than jokes. I'd also say I tend to keep things very 'cloak and dagger' and less about big battle scenes, although there will certainly be a few more of those coming up.
What made you decide to self-publish We Man of Ash and Shadow as opposed to traditional publishing?
Like many independent authors, a deciding factor for me was creative control. More than that though, I wanted to know I could take on the challenge of self-publishing and see it through as far as I could go. I wanted to find out what I could achieve by myself and set myself personal challenges. There is a huge feeling of accomplishment in doing something you never knew you could do - you learn a lot about yourself as an author through self-publishing. You only have to look at the amazing achievements of some of the big names coming out of self-publishing to see what an incredible platform it's become.
What do you think the greatest advantage of self-publishing is?
In my experience, one of the biggest advantages of self-publishing is having access to a network of peers and supporters in the same boat. It doesn’t matter what stage of the journey you are at, someone else is experiencing the same thing, so there's a feeling of camaraderie about it. There’s a really strong community out there. You can also discover a lot about who you are, what you want to achieve simply by doing it yourself and testing out different styles, ideas, etc. without the same pressures you might get from going the traditional route.
On the other hand, is there anything you feel self-published authors may miss out on?
I don’t know that I would call it missing out, but I think there is still an element of gravitas applied by some people to traditional authors, which means self-publishing can sometimes be viewed with certain scepticism; fortunately, times have changed and continue to do so thanks to things like SPFBO and the successes of self-published authors who have worked so hard to really showcase the work that is out there.
One of the big challenges with self-publishing is finding readers. Was that your experience?
There were certainly challenges; however, I feel very fortunate to have had some wonderful bloggers and reviewers support my work, particularly early on. Without them, I don’t believe I would have found as many readers as I did in those first few months, so I owe them a lot. I’m lucky I can put a lot of time into engaging with book lovers and readers, so I drive a lot into social media. My book was released in October and by January I was doing podcasts and online conventions, so that early support meant the world to me and helped lay the foundation for finding readers. One of the most difficult challenges is building momentum and keeping it going.
Why did you enter SPFBO?
Honestly, I was in two minds about whether or not to enter this year. I’ve followed the previous SPFBO competitions and wasn’t sure I was ready for it yet. Like most authors, imposter syndrome tends to kick in every time I think about leaping into something like this, but at the end of the day you don’t get many opportunities like the SPFBO, so when you do you have to grab them. It’s all about putting yourself out there and taking the chance, and I’m grateful that I did. Partial credit must go to fellow self-published author PL Stuart, who really helped push me to enter. Thanks PL!
What would you do if you won the SPFBO?
I’d be thrilled (and pleasantly surprised) if I won the SPFBO, so it would probably take me a good three or four-day period to process and absorb. I’d most likely celebrate with my family and then get back to work, motivated to push myself even harder. My mindset is very focused on trying to improve. I'm always learning and trying to become a better version of myself. So, I’d take that mantle very seriously. Oh, and naturally, I’d use my powers for good, not evil.
How would you describe the plot of We Men of Ash and Shadow if you had to do so in just one or two sentences?
Shadowy assassins in a dark and desolate city test their morality and abilities through the mediums of stealth, slashing, and snarcastic humour. It’s a gateway grimdark reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed, Peaky Blinders, and Gangs of New York.
What was your initial inspiration for We Men of Ash and Shadow? How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea?
I knew I wanted to write a story set in a very industrial world, and I drew a lot of inspiration from pre and post-industrial revolution history. I find the social upheaval that happened in the period between 1700 and 1900 (approximately) fascinating. So much of the foundation for the modern world was lain down during those years. There were so many changes to the way we think about society, economy, politics, etc. It was a game-changing time. The fact it was also a very bleak period lends itself well to the sort of genres I prefer, so that was a big factor. I’ve always been inspired by things like the Penny Dreadful, From Hell, and writers like Alexander Dumas and Charles Dickens. I was working on the story for about a year - on and off - before I sat down to focus on it. Originally it was much more steam-punk than gas-lamp - John Vanguard was part-automaton in early drafts, but that didn’t work for me, so I shelved those versions. I needed him to be human for the character to work.
If you had to describe it in 3 adjectives, which would you choose?
In the words of the illustrious Mr Bjorn Larssen - dark, entertaining, Henriette-ish
How many books have you planned for the series?
I have four books planned, the second is in the late drafts of editing and (at the time of doing this interview) about to go to my editor for another run-through. The third is in outline, although I’m not a great plotter so will probably change a lot. I know where each character is heading and what will happen to them, so I’m looking forward to seeing how they all get there.
Who are the key players in this story? Could you introduce us to We Men of Ash and Shadow’s protagonists/antagonists?
The main protagonist is John Vanguard, a soldier-turned mercenary with a moral code that keeps him from being completely despicable. He’s got a lot of layers you need to peel away to get to the man inside. He's got a good core, although it might not always seem that way. As my editor puts it, he’s 'less of a murderous little bastard than all the other murderous little bastards'. Tarryn Leersac and Felix Sanquain are my two antagonists. Tarryn is a character that twists and turns and has a tragic past that leads to his view of the world being very harsh and quite sad. Sanquain is the leader of the corrupt city they all reside in, he’s a puppet master pulling all the strings and playing everyone off against each other.
How did you select the names of your characters?
I don’t really have a system when it comes to naming characters, they just tell me who they are, and I go with it. There aren’t any particular meanings behind them, it’s just whatever I think suits that character.
Does your book feature a magic/magic system? If yes, can you describe it?
This is an interesting question. A big part of my world is the mystery of how the characters that have particular abilities do what they do. There isn’t a magic system, at least not in the sense of spell casting or powers, but there is something extraordinary about certain people in the world. Whether it’s magic, supernatural, or something else is a question the characters themselves need to find answers to, and nobody really knows much about it yet. I dive into it more in the second book and begin to expand on what makes the characters different from other people. I think there will be a few surprising revelations.
Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Can you tell us about the idea behind the cover of We Men of Ash and Shadow?
My cover artist is Luke Michael Copsey, who runs Nevercity Creations. He’s a talented local artist, so we’ve crossed paths a few times. He creates these fantastic graphic novels, and a lot of them have a very industrial, machine-punk style to them which really appeals to me. We discussed a few ideas for the cover, after which I sent him the first few chapters of the book so he could get a feel for it. The mock-up he sent me is pretty close to the finished cover, so he really tapped into what I was looking for straight away. I'm convinced he's a mind-reading wizard.
Which question about the series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
I really can’t think of any I haven’t already been asked. I’ve been lucky to chat about my book with some incredible people who have really helped me to dive into the world and characters. Unless you count ‘do you need anything to help you complete the next few books?’ - in which case the answer is ‘yes, coffee, lots and lots of coffee’.
Can you, please, offer us a taste of your book, via one completely out-of-context sentence.
It is an unfortunate truth of the world that people will always want to soil beautiful things
What’s your publishing Schedule for 2021/2022?
I’m hoping to get the second book out at the end of this year or early spring but we’ll have to wait and see. After that, I’ll take a short break and get onto book three.
Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?
I’d like to say thank you to all the readers, reviewers, bloggers, and everyone else who has been such a support to me over the last year and to those involved in the SPFBO. They build the stage on which authors like myself stand, and we’re eternally grateful for the work and dedication they put into shining a light on self-published works.