An interview with science fiction, fantasy and mystery author Mike Adamson
Mike Adamson holds a Doctoral degree from Flinders University of South Australia. After early aspirations in art and writing, Mike secured qualifications in both marine biology and archaeology. Mike was a university educator from 2006 to 2018, has worked in the replication of convincing ancient fossils, is a passionate photographer, master-level hobbyist, and journalist for international magazines. Short fiction sales include to Metastellar, Strand Magazine, Little Blue Marble, Abyss and Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Compelling Science Fiction and Nature Futures. Mike has placed stories on well over 230 occasions to date, totaling over 1.1 million words. Mike’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Tradition of Evil, has been released by Belanger Books, and his short fiction has appeared in translation in European magazines. You can catch up with his journey at his blog ‘The View From the Keyboard,’ http://mike-adamson.blogspot.
Tell us something about your books, including your genre and your characters and/or themes.
I’ve been a writer most of my life in one sense or another and have worked in both long- and short-form. I dabbled in selling short stories in the 90s but had a university education to pursue, and writing was sidelined. I became involved in writing again after my PhD was at last out of the way, and have been serious about selling short stories since 2016. I write in a host of genres—SF, fantasy, horror, adventure, historical, mystery—and have spread my work across the range from flash to novella in that time, with my first novel, Sherlock Holmes: A Tradition of Evil, having now appeared from Belanger Books.
I have a wide range of thematic material. My most prolific project is the science fiction opus “Tales of the Middle Stars,” which is approaching 60 stories at this time, 40 having placed to date. It charts the human expansion into the stellar neighbourhood in the centuries to come and our dealings with the many other races we encounter. But I have many other series or collections of stories in play, such as my fantasy outings, “Avestium,” “Conalore,” “Lemuria” and others. I have a vampire series too, “The Chronicles of Lucinda Crane, Vampire/Hunter,” which is a lot of fun to write and will be appearing in anthology form from Hiraeth Books soon. I have a long-running collection of stories focused on the concept of Cetacean sentience and the consequences to the world and our collective futures, should it become a new paradigm that there is a second world-spanning order of intelligence here. I wrote many stories and novels in this stream long ago—my first published short story was one of these, “The Island of the Sun God,” appearing in the long-gone magazine Underwater Geographic around 1986. In 1994, I came within a whisker of my novel Calypso appearing on the Ballantyne label. I often think I need to rework the pieces from those days to reflect the new world in which we live.
I also have an expanding group of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, which have been very popular, and an original Victorian detective series, a contemporary of Holmes, “The Inspector Trevelyan Mysteries” (created in partnership with my sister, Jen Downes), which is characterised by a supernatural element in each story. Add in both a series of Second World War RAF flying adventures and sword-wielding action in 19th-century India, appearing with Storyhack Magazine, and I have a pretty comprehensive assault on the breadth of the current market.
Where are you based?
I was born in the UK but have lived in Adelaide, South Australia, for fifty-two years.
Latest releases and upcoming titles?
My novel Sherlock Holmes: A Tradition of Evil appeared in August from Belangers, and I seem to be scoring high ratings at Amazon and Goodreads—fingers crossed for good sales as time goes by! I have an invitation to write a second and to curate a collection of my short stories with the same firm, which is wonderful.
I have a further standalone release coming from Black Hare Press here in Australia—one of their Short Reads series, If Thine Eye Offend Thee—a horror piece set in an isolated mental hospital one stormy, terrifying night. My first in that series was a “Middle Stars” novelette titled The Salamandrion. Coming from Hiraeth Books, hopefully in 2024, will be Crimson Blade, a collection of my vampire tales. You can find my ghost novella, The Last Train to Deakin Valley, in their range, too. I have several stories in forthcoming Sherlock Holmes anthologies from Belanger Books (A Year of Mystery 1885 and 1886, and Adventures in the Realms of H. P. Lovecraft), as well as a second Holmes story appearing recently in The Strand. I have also joined the writing pool for the MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories anthology series, with two pieces placed to date.
My Inspector Trevelyan story “The White Calf and the Wind” was a finalist in the 2023 Derringer Awards and appeared on the Honor Roll on The Best Mystery Stories of the Year for 2023, both of which are a delightful accolade. I hope to place more Trevelyan tales soon.
What are you currently working on?
Lately, writing seems to have taken a step back, with marketing coming to the fore. As a short story writer, I’ve had a fair year of placements, while my total fresh wordage is well down against previous years. But I’ve certainly found a niche in period mystery, and a fair part of my output in the last couple of years has been Sherlock Holmes. I tend to always have some new material coming along. During this year, I’ve been working on an all-original novel too, an urban fantasy with sci-fi elements, pitting magic against organised crime and climate change a few decades hence. It’s nearly complete, and I’m hoping to put it in the hands of an agent next year.
What inspires you to write?
Many things…often visual imagery. The simplest things—light sparkling in dew on a spider’s web…a stormy sky over bare trees…I find inspiration to be a very visceral thing, sometimes proceeding from an idea, an abstract thought, a connection. But often, the real creative impulse is less about thinking and more about feeling—the need to capture and communicate those impressions and perceptions.
When and why did you get into writing fantasy?
My first fantasy stirrings were some forty years ago, very much inspired by Robert E. Howard and indeed by H. P. Lovecraft, though I had not actually read the latter at the time, merely absorbed something of the feel of his work through parallel sources—art, commentary, pastiches. I did not delve deeply into fantasy writing at the time, and tried my hand again many years later.
Who are your favourite fantasy writers/ fantasy authors?
I’m a lifetime fan of the work of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and in the 80s encountered Clark Ashton Smith for the first time. Many years later, I devoured the works of Lovecraft, completing the Weird Tales trifecta, and of course absorbed Tolkien along the way. I have a great many modern fantasists to work through—Fiest, Kerr, Wurtz, Hobb, Holdstock, de Lint—and will get around them in due course! I also took the obligatory wade through the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, though I found he’s not exactly a favourite for me.
Do you follow any fantasy entertainment outside of books? (Video Games, Boardgames, Comics etc)
As a kid, I was introduced to Howard’s work through Marvel’s Conan comics and have loved them ever since. This flowed on into Heavy Metal, Epic Illustrated, and others. I tried an RPG or two many years ago but never got into gaming.
What kind of books did you read that contributed to your upbringing, as far as fantasy and science-fiction?
As a young child my obsession was 20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea, and by the age of ten or so I was expanding to the novels of E. E. Smith, Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein. At 11, I first encountered the “New Wave,” which had the potential to confuse and disturb, but I navigated those waters the same way as any others—take what appeals, leave what doesn’t.
Was your upbringing pretty geeky?
Pretty geeky! Dr Who was regular viewing in our house since I was born, the TV series of the late, great Gerry Anderson likewise. Star Trek was wholeheartedly embraced, and the space program was avidly followed. Science was respected and the future looked forward to avidly. Fantasy came on the scene a little later and charmed with its appeal to the past instead of the future, no doubt contributing to my eventual PhD in archaeology.
Why should anyone read your book?
Because it’ll be good! 🙂 Seriously, I think I have a lot to offer, both in terms of writing competence and the wealth of background experience I can bring to bear, from academia and from life in general. Unusual themes, well-drawn characters, exotic places—these are all stock-in-trade, but doing them well, keeping them fresh, is a knack. Let’s see how my current novel project is received!
Do you have a process, do you plan or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I’ve done both, and while there are still short stories that emerge in a flurry of creativity from a single inspiration, I think my best work is more planned these days. I’ll still work out details as I go, sometimes discover a planned idea isn’t working and change it on the fly, but I’ll often prepare a route map to get from the first line to the last, and I find it really helps. This is especially important when writing mystery, in which the interplay of the material must make consistent sense and the reveals must occur in exactly the right order.
How has your writing process changed since you first started writing?
I like to think it’s a lot more structured—less inspiration-based, more attuned to what other people want to read (and thus more marketable) than simply to what I want to write, which was the natural-enough place to start. Back in the eighties, I would write between midnight and 3am, when the house was quiet, rewarding myself with wine in the process, but now I try to treat writing as a job—a day job!
How long does it normally take you to write a fantasy novel, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
It can take a long time. I wrote a Celtic historical around twenty years ago—perhaps my most complex work ever—and I recall it taking two years or so. It was pursued part-time, as I had my Honours and Master’s Degrees in archaeology to concentrate on at that point. I’ve never offered that one out; perhaps it would be one to revisit with an updated, reworked edition.
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
The pleasure of creating—getting the work out of the soul and onto paper. That first draft or two, before it becomes hard work, polishing and revising. It’s one’s vision, best expressed through those hours, which one hopes to communicate clearest to the reader.
Have your previous vocations influenced your writing?
Definitely! I learned scuba diving in the late eighties and set many a story underwater for years after. I was (and am) devoted to the study and protection of dolphins and whales, and that fascination led to a degree in marine biology in the early nineties, all of which fed back into my writing.
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?
I’m lucky enough to have an unspeakably brilliant sister, Jen Downes, who is also a lifetime writer in many fields (she’s placed stories with Analog, and currently has novels on the prowl for an agent), and her technical knowledge of writing is superb. We confer, brainstorm ideas, and beta/proofread for each other, and it’s an excellent working partnership. She also built and illustrated my dedicated author website—talk about a polymath!
As far as writing goes, what do you use? Software, Apps, Hardware etc?
Many years ago, I wrote longhand on legal-size paper, then learned to use a keyboard properly and never looked back. Since the nineties, I’ve composed at the computer and have used a narrow range of word processors. In the DOS days, I used PFS First Choice and WordPerfect 5.1. My favourite Windows application was Lotus Word Pro, but when operating systems no longer supported it, I changed to MS Word and have been there ever since.
Do you do a lot of research for each book? If so how do you conduct your research?
Yes! If I’m writing about the real world, I try to get my details correct down to the smallest. In SF or fantasy, this is not so critical as you’re doing your own worldbuilding—you can mix’n’match elements from historical periods, and all should be generally well so long as the world you’ve constructed is internally consistent. But real-world narratives are another matter. When I write adventure stories set in, say, the Second World War, I get my details correct, right down to what an airman would have in his pockets and what the weather was like on the day. While the goal is to entertain, I feel it would not be respectful to the generations that went before if I was less than truthful to their lived reality, insofar as it’s possible. Likewise, when I write Sherlock Holmes, I use 1890s maps of London to plan the action—the city has changed so much over the last century that to try to write Victorian material with modern London as a reference would leave you hopelessly wrong. And for Victoriana, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Thankfully, a great deal of research is readily available out there, and assembling the details is, for me, part of the fun.
How do you overcome blank writing spells?
My old standby was the adage that one should read ’till one’s cup runneth over,’ because when it runs over, it pours back through a keyboard as your own work. But variety is as good as a rest, and sometimes a change of pace is all it takes to get the creative juices flowing again. If science fiction is palling, try fantasy; if speculative fiction is the problem, write real-world. If one is feeling particularly disenchanted with the dreary realities of today, delving into history can help. Things were far from wonderful in the past, but you can be selective about it.
A number of fantasy/sci-fi authors have been known to use art, music, exercise, alcohol and even drugs as a way to find inspiration to enter the zone! Do you use any tools to enter into your creative headspace?
Many years ago, I used audiovisual input—I would listen to favourite music, often the futuristic compositions of Vangelis and Jarre, while browsing through science fiction and fantasy artbooks, to fuel the creative impulse. As I say above, change is as good as a rest, so these days, when I go blank on one thing, I may sidestep into another. As a short story writer, there’s always plenty to look at, and sometimes a momentary inspiration will give rise to a whole new piece. But to bring the mind under control and get the serious work done, I generally supply myself with tea and biscuits and keep plugging away. Yet, when the cortex really doesn’t want to cooperate, I rest from the job and play chess and Chinese checkers. I find the exercise in logic the games represent seems to fine-tune the mental reflexes, and before long I can come back to writing and it’ll flow again.
Do you prefer to write in silence and or have some sort of sound in the background?
I’m a silence person. Having noisy neighbours makes this hard…research, doing this interview, not a problem—but when it comes to fiction composition, I often use earplugs to get the “concentration space” I need.
Describe the road you took to publishing your first novel? And how that has changed.
I’ve written a fair few novel-length projects in my time, but I’ll focus on A Tradition of Evil, as it’s been a direct process from inspiration to publication. I had the idea in loose notes for a year or so before approaching Belangers. They had picked up several of my short stories in the two years previous and welcomed a novel, which put me in an excellent place, and I got down to writing at the end of May, 2022. I had a complete draft in three months, then spent the next three months in the editing and polishing process, during which I had the inestimable benefit of my sister’s fiendish grasp of the English language’s ins and outs. With around seven or eight full passes on the project between us and countless edits attended to, I got the manuscript away at the end of ’22, and by mid-’23, a successful Kickstarter was taking place to support the project (I was delighted to find nearly a hundred backers ready to invest in my book). Derrick and Brian Belanger created a most amazing promotional video in the form of a movie-style trailer, which can still be viewed on the Kickstarter page (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1606726313/sherlock-holmes-a-tradition-of-evil), which I’m sure was very influential in securing funding. Official release was August 1st, and I’ve taken every opportunity to talk up the book on social media and through interviews like this one!
Will your next book be traditional or indie published?
I’m keen to go traditional. I’ve looked at indie, of course, but the demands in time, money, concentration, adjusting materials and settings to suit changing Amazon algorithms on the fly, frequently modifying blurbs and covers—the whole scenario is, frankly, intimidating. My goal is to secure an agent in the next year or two, while pursuing a small-press career to put in the foundations, as it were. A second novel and an anthology with Belangers are now in discussion; two, possibly three anthologies with Hiraeth are on the table, and have an invitation to run a novel by another small press. I’m hoping this track record will stand me in good stead to take things to the next level in due course.
Obviously, with an outlook like this, I would not recommend self-publishing to aspiring authors: it’s too easy to become lost in the millions of independent projects out there, competing for the shopper’s attention, the vaster majority of which simply do not succeed. And, as I understand it, once a project has been through the indie process, a traditional publisher will not want to consider it. If you commit to that road, it has to work, or your book is essentially buried.
What sort of input do you give to formatting, cover design, marketing?
Very little at this point—nothing at all on formatting, though some discussion is possible with small presses, where there is likely none with the big guys. For The Salamandrion, from Black Hare, I was invited to select the cover image myself, which was certainly nice. I discussed cover design with Belanger Books, but Brian Belanger’s final design was very much his own conception (and what an eye-catcher it is: those Victorian handcuffs framing and connecting individuals in the classic 19th century police class portrait, which is strongly metaphorical of the subject matter). For The Last Train to Deakin Valley, I was able to show Hiraeth the photograph that actually inspired the story, and they opted to use it on the cover, suitably “spookified” by their digital artist.
For the new illustrative material on The Worlds of Mike Adamson website, I had direct input, helping frame the AI prompts and suggest text overlays, which has been a most rewarding process. I would hope to have some minor input on a few future projects, too.
Marketing—that’s the holy of holies, and I use my social media channels and contacts to talk up projects as they come along, though I know this is minor compared to the marketing lengths many go to. Book fairs, conventions, personal appearances, signings—these are more or less beyond me at the moment. There are not many in this corner of the world, certainly with the genre applicability and the kind of reach or clout to deliver the sort of effect I’m looking for. I may be wrong, though, and the personal approach is always worth considering if circumstances dictate.
Marketing is so important nowadays, what’s your best advice to fellow authors?
If you go the indie road, marketing is what you’ll live and breathe. There are those who’ve made a deep study of it, and have made fortunes in the process, but it takes a world of dedication and an unusual mental toughness. Some say they spend eighteen hours a day at a keyboard, chatting in writers’ groups, participating on forums, reviewing other writers’ work in exchange for reviews of their own, doing damage control when tempers flare, struggling to not put a foot wrong… One is justified in wondering where their life balance is, to be able to write as well as market and have some kind of existence outside the process. I’ve always found this mountain too steep to contemplate, thus my persistence in seeking to do things the traditional way.
Being available for online Q&A sessions with interest groups is a very rewarding way to interact with folks, and one can certainly belong to writing groups without living on the sites. Reviews of A Tradition of Evil will be appearing in subject-specific venues, such as Strand Magazine, which constitutes targeted exposure. This was arranged in partnership with my publishers. Marketing is, perhaps, a process of taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves, though I’m the first to admit that I’m not an expert in this area.
What legal publishing advice can you give?
Keep a sharp eye on your contracts—they are actually much of a sameness, so you get a feel for differences. Submission Grinder (https://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/) monitors the legal aspect and advises writers if a market has an unusual approach on points like payments or control of rights. Writer Beware (https://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/ and https://writerbeware.blog/ ) is worth checking for publishers who have developed a poor reputation and other situations. I shy strictly away from markets that use a creative commons licence that allows copying or reformatting of work in other markets (usually on sole proviso that no change is made, though how that would be policed, I have no idea). I prefer a standard contract that simply specifies a period of exclusivity for the purchasing market to have fair possession of the piece for the duration of the sales potential of the edition in which it appears. Then rights revert, and you can pursue reprints elsewhere. This is also by far the most common type I’ve encountered.
Advice on making an impact in today’s busy Scifi and Fantasy markets.
Familiarise yourself with the scene—nobody can read everything that’s out there, but try not to work in a vacuum, either. Know the market, publishers, agencies, magazines—use sites like Submission Grinder and Duotrope: they take a lot of the hard work out of the submission process. Study agency listings in detail; never jump too soon when looking for representation—beware of shysters. There are plenty out there who’ll take your money for a host of “services,” and you’ll only end up poorer. Consider starting small—in short stories, say, before tackling the novel markets; then you can more than likely use a couple of small-publisher contracts as the basis to land a decent agent who can open doors for you at larger firms.
Must Read Fantasy novels?
I’m a traditionalist, so I would say Lord of the Rings is an obligatory read, and one does not go far wrong giving Burroughs’s Pelucidar series a look. Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen—excellent for the foundations of fantasy and “the strange” in modern culture. Among the moderns, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and sequels, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (except for the ending…), Terry Brooks’s later Shannara volumes, and of course multitudinous works by Terry Pratchett—Discworld, almost anything.
Must read non-fantasy novels?
There are so many to choose from! I love the adventure novels of Wilbur Smith (not so much his modern ghost-written stuff) and the sea novels of Douglas Reeman (including his pen name of Alexander Kent). The maritime adventures of South African novelist Geoffrey Jenkins have also helped shape my taste for the exotic in a real-world context. Christian Jaqc’s novels of Ancient Egypt are a wonderful read, though thoroughly romanticised and well “sanitised” for the modern reader. As a Holmesian, I of course recommend the original Conan Doyle canon. And when it comes to horror, I’ve enjoyed the novels of Guy N. Smith, especially his Crabs series. I’m not sure I would call them must-read, though!
Most prized fantasy book in your collection?
A rare leather-bound Lord of the Rings—from the 1970s, if I remember correctly.
Do you read digital, paperback or hardback or do you listen to audiobooks?
I’m a bibliophile and adore physical books, hard- or softback. The ebook will never replace print for me, though I’ve read Burroughs’s Venus novels on my phone for convenience when travelling. Audiobooks can be wonderful, though I have yet to find time to immerse myself.
What are some difficulties you’ve experienced in your writing career; how do you handle book critiques/criticism?
Handling criticism is a major aspect of this business. If your temperament is wrong, it can and will drive you right out of the game because everyone, without exception, is going to get bad reactions. Growing a thick skin is part of it, but also being objective about critiques counts too—not just seeing a valid point and doing better next time, but also assessing comments as purely subjective opinion and dismissing them as such. I’ve had a story that was rejected as unpublishable in its existing form by one market, then went into print with another with barely a word changed. This underlines the fact that publishing is a collective organism composed of individuals who have very different outlooks, expectations and standards. If you keep showing your work around, eventually it will cross the desk of an editor who sees your point and appreciates your style, and that’s perhaps the most important thing. Of course, they might not be the markets that pay the best—and styling your product for the big guys is another important factor if you plan to make a living at writing.
What are the best experiences in your writing career?
Being invited to give a guest lecture in a special archaeology seminar series at my university some years ago on the subject of archaeology in fiction. (On the back of that talk, I was invited to produce an entry for the Global Encyclopedia of Archaeology on the same theme, and am delighted to say it’s in the new edition!). There must have been a fair few with aspirations in the audience, because they asked publishing questions and hung on my words when I replied. I realised in that moment I was the expert in the room and was serving them with my experience, which was a wonderful feeling. It’s also really nice when you receive good feedback from readers, which, in a direct sense, doesn’t happen often.
What are some encouraging words you’d give to another author/writer?
Never give up, always write, believe in yourself, and, if your basic craft is sound, take criticism with a grain of salt. Critics are only human too!
I’m not heavily into social media—certainly, many writers who use social media as a marketing tool report there are not enough hours in the day to both write and build a social persona in the hopes of moving stock. At this point, I’m focused on the work of writing and marketing short fiction and novels, and it’s a seven-day-a-week job. I use Facebook, of course (https://www.facebook.com/mike.adamson.10) and have a professional profile (from my archaeology days) at LinkedIn.
Since 2016, I’ve run a blog, The View from the Keyboard, which you can find at http://mike-adamson.blogspot.com … however I have a major new author website, The Worlds of Mike Adamson, which you can find at dream-craft.com/mikeadamson/ and which I hope will serve as my masthead from this point forward. It features listings of all my work (something like three hundred short stories now) broken down by genre, with links to the hundreds of venues in which they have appeared. There’s a major list of free reads, plus some site specials, a few stories in a newly-polished form with beautiful new art. Jen Downes is not only a writer and poet; she is also a brilliant digital artist (and writes decent AI prompts these days too), as well as wrangling the code that makes it all go, so my gratitude is frankly boundless!
The Last Train to Deakin Valley (Hiraeth Books) (.pdf purchase page)
A Tradition of Evil