Having completed the five books in her Burnt Mountain series, writer Cheryl Campbell is turning to science fiction with Echoes Of War (paperback, Kindle), the first book in her Echoes trilogy. In the following email interview, Campbell explains where she got the idea for this post-apocalyptic sci-fi story, the research that went in to writing it, and whether, when the time comes, you should eat a certain corporate cookie while reading all three books in a row.
Photo Credit: Irvin Serrano
To start, what is Echoes Of War and when and where is it set?
Echoes Of War is the first book in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi trilogy that follows Dani, a mid-twenties woman living as a scavenger on Earth in 2113. She’s a member of a nearly-immortal race of aliens called Echoes. In 2069, a faction of the Echoes called Wardens attacked Earth, intent on wiping out all humans to claim the planet as their new home. Dani has lived her life avoiding the Wardens and the local military, but that starts to change as she sees the need for the military and civilians to work together to defeat the Wardens. The first book is set in northern New England in Portland and Bangor, Maine.
Where did you get the idea for Echoes Of War and how did that idea evolve as you wrote the book?
The story started from an actual four o’clock in the morning dream. In the dream, I was watching a movie of a young woman that had died and had to face an older woman that was like a prophet. The prophet told her that she’d messed up again and she could decide to go back and repeat her life, try again, or move on to the afterlife. The catch was that the young woman had already repeated her life several dozen times trying to get it right.
I woke before I learned what the woman decided, and I was so angry that I couldn’t get back to that dream to find out what happened. Then I realized that if this dream had hooked me that hard there might be something bigger to it. I dictated for about an hour into my phone, making notes about the dream, then went back to bed. I was nearing the finish line to release Burnt Mountain When Heroes Fall when I had that dream, so the story went on a backburner for a few months.
Once Burnt Mountain When Heroes Fall wrapped up and released, I tackled the sci-fi story. It started off as set in almost current day or near future and the aliens would steal memories from humans to remain young. But that part just wasn’t working for me because it didn’t make enough sense on how that could even work. World-building requires so many questions to be answered, and that story slant created too many wonky problems without answers.
Originally, Miles was a local police officer, Oliver was his son, and Dani was their neighbor and Oliver’s after-school sitter. That wasn’t working either. I scrapped everything but didn’t give up.
It took me months to sort out what the aliens wanted, why they wanted it and such. Once I had valid answers for a vast majority of the questions, a different kind of story began to emerge that was much more futuristic, post-attack but with the war still raging, and Dani as a bit of a train wreck.
As you said, Echoes Of War is set in Portland and Maine. Why set it there, in New England, as opposed to New York or Los Angeles or West Orange, New Jersey?
I specifically chose Maine as the launch point for the trilogy because I think the state gets overlooked too often due to its ruralness. I also picked it for tactical reasons. The more I thought about how this attack from the Wardens would shake out, using the assumption I was the one doing the attacking, I’d go after the big cities first too. Their goal was to wipe out humans, so I figured they would overlook Maine and go after the cities and wipe out millions at a time.
This then sets up the smaller towns still standing as being able to thrive in their own way. I’ve seen first-hand how the people of Bangor and the surrounding areas respond to major snowstorms or other weather events. They come together to help each other out.
I figured if Bangor was overlooked in a massive alien attack, they’d still do the same thing and band together. So that’s what I did with the story. Portland took a more minor hit during the initial attack, so it is disjointed with the Commonwealth’s military forces and Brigand civilians working against each other.
Bangor, however, thrives because the Wardens completely overlooked them and the Commonwealth doesn’t bother to have a large presence there or really enforce the rules. This sets up the Brigands to live more freely and to create a community that works.
Prior to Echoes Of War you wrote the five books in the Burnt Mountain series. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Echoes Of War but not on those earlier books?
Once I decided that Dani would be a scavenger, I wanted to give her some handy but realistic skills. I started reading survival books such as 100 Deadly Skills and Survival Hacks for ideas. I also read Left Of Bang and On Killing for more insider perspectives from authors that knew far more about war, combat zones, and psychological impacts of war than I could ever learn by watching documentaries. Those two books had direct influences on certain details that went into the creation of Echoes Of War.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big influence on Echoes Of War?
Oh, wow. The list is long. The movie Battle For Sebastopol was one that I watched a few times as I worked on the outline for Echoes Of War. It wasn’t completely accurate on the history of the main character, but I still liked the overall story and the significant impact one person created with her particular skillset. I had only been writing on Echoes for about a month, maybe less, when the Wonder Woman movie came out. The story line for Diana had several subplots but the main one was the war constantly going on in the background, and I liked that.
I watched several documentaries about World War II, the SAS, Afghanistan, and others to get a feel for what I wanted the characters to experience while doing recon and even in battle. I also spent a lot of time with my friend Mike, who is a retired Marine. I got a few pints in him and started taking notes. He is an absolute wealth of information. The use of sim rounds and Dani getting shot in the neck with the equivalent of a paint ball was a direct result of one of Mike’s stories.
I spent several months taking historical society tours of Bangor and Portland, including a couple of touristy tours in Portland to get some additional background on these places. The Devil’s Half-Acre is an actual area in Bangor. Hattie was developed out of a merger between two notable women in Bangor’s history. Some of the attack points and locations in Portland were created after visiting those places on the tours or just by wandering around.
There’s a ton of work that goes into world-building, but only the tip of that iceberg gets shown to the readers. It sounds like wasted effort, but for me it isn’t. I’d rather do the research and create a realistic world, giving the readers little nuggets of fact blended in with the fiction so they can’t tell which place or detail is real, semi-real, or pure fiction.
Now, you’ve already said that Echoes Of War is the first book of the Echoes trilogy. What was it about this story that made you think it needed to be a trilogy as opposed to a stand-alone novel or a duology or whatever a seventeen-book series is called?
The Burnt Mountain series was supposed to be one book that turned into two. Then I had an idea for a third and was going to make it a trilogy except I’d opened too many cans of worms in three. I needed books four and five to put all the worms back. I learned a lot from that lack of planning, so when I wanted to tackle sci-fi, I decided I would be deliberate in my decisions on how the story would go. Based on what I had in my head for Echoes and how I wanted Dani’s larger overall arc to play out, I needed three books to pull it off and get that balance of not cutting things too short but also not dragging them out.
So do you know when the other two books will be out and what they’re going to be called?
The second book is written and will go to the editor by the end of this year. It is currently unnamed and slated for Spring 2021. The third book, also unnamed, is just over halfway complete for the first draft. I plan to have that one ready for my beta readers in the spring.
As you know, some people will wait until all three of the books in this trilogy are available before reading any of them, and some of them will then read all three in rapid succession. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait? Or should but not binge the trilogy? Or that they should wait and binge the trilogy while binging an entire box of Oreos?
I think they should buy now to read the first book then once the second one is out, re-read the first and dive into the second. Repeat that re-read of one and two then dive into three once it’s out, of course with Oreos in hand during readings. I mean, it’s Oreos!
Most of my beta readers have done the re-read of the prior book then jump into the next one with a fresh recall of what happened previously. That’s how I like to do a series, too, especially when waiting for the next one.
Earlier I asked if there had been any movies, TV shows, or video games that influenced Echoes Of War. But has there been any interest in making a movie, show, or game based on Echoes Of War or the Echoes trilogy?
No talk of a movie or anything at this point, but I do think movies would serve the trilogy well for storytelling. I think a game would be good too. There’s action in all three books and that would translate well to a movie or game.
If Echoes Of War and the Echoes trilogy was going to be made into a movie, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
Claire Foy strikes me as a good Dani. When I saw her play Lisbeth Salander in Girl In The Spider’s Web, I realized that was a pretty good representation of how I saw Dani in my mind. Take away a few layers of goth, and it was Dani. Plus, Claire Foy is just really freakin talented.
For Miles, I envisioned him as Clint Barton / Jeremy Renner, not for looks but more for personality. I loved that Avengers: Age Of Ultron spotlighted the Clint Barton / Hawkeye character with a bit of humor despite the persistent militaristic posture and mannerisms. Miles has been a lifelong soldier; I could see him looking/behaving much like Barton.
I don’t know enough about child actors to have a guess for who would play Oliver. I never really settled on an actress for Mary or Hattie, either.
Finally, if someone enjoys Echoes Of War, what post-apocalyptic sci-fi story of someone else’s would you suggest they check out?
They’re not post-apocalyptic, but the sci-fi series, The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is fantastic. The first four books are novellas, and the fifth book is a full-length novel [Network Effect] that releases in May. Murderbot is such an atypical protagonist that I immediately fell in love with it. To me, Dani is also atypical. Her life tends to stay a bit messy, she’s a defective Echo that can’t remember her past lives, and she’s basically a walking disaster. But though she’s a bit of a mess, she’s still a kind soul. As much as Murderbot tries to avoid human contact, it still cares about the humans it protects.