Jessie Kwak is an author with a theory, and it’s this:
Sci-fi + crime = an awesome story.
To prove her theory, Jessie has put together an anthology of sci-fi crime stories. It’s her second anthology like it, and Crooked Volume 2 features 18 stories by 18 authors, including the likes of Jim Keen, EL Strife, Kate Sheeran Swed, and me!
My contribution is Good As Gold, a tale about a bank robbery that takes place in New Yesterday — a city where events in the present can change the past.
I got to sit down with Kate Sheeran Swed to chat about her story, Ace In The Hole. It’s a fantastic space opera set on a starship that’s travelling in convoy, carrying humanity’s future. It’s filled with twists, turns, action, heart, humour, style, intrigue, a killer plot, fantastic characters, and a unique premise. If you couldn’t tell already, I absolutely adored it.
Hi, Kate. First up, tell us a little about Ace In The Hole. What’s it about, and what inspired it?
Ace in the Hole takes place on an a fleet of intergenerational spaceships, where the passengers are already a few generations into their voyage to a new world. It’s set a couple of decades before the action of the main series takes place — it’s a prequel to my forthcoming series, the Interstellar Trials — and the events of the story essentially kick off the war that leads to a split in the fleet.
So in Ace in the Hole, we follow a law enforcement officer named Wes as he basically sanctions illegal poker games on the ship and dabbles in other mild trouble. And then he meets with a mysterious stranger who’s living off the grid — and believes that life on the fleet isn’t as calm and borderline utopian as some might believe.
Intergenerational spaceships usually have some conspiracies going on, some power grabs. So that’s really what the story is pointing to.
Originally, Ace in the Hole was a piece of the first novel in the series it kicks off. But I changed direction with the series, so I re-imagined Wes’s story as a separate entity. I think it works!
Poker plays a big hand in your story. It’s cool to imagine that poker still exists in your sci-fi future. Do you play poker yourself? And how important do you think games are to our human nature?
I’m really interested in poker, mainly because I cannot understand it at all. I mean, I understand it intellectually, but when I sit down to play, my brain has trouble with it. It might as well be advanced trigonometry — it’s another language. (I know people will laugh, but it’s true.) So I like to watch it, and maybe if I practiced more I could play. But I like the fact that it’s about people as much as it is about game itself, which makes it a great thing to use in storytelling.
And gaming plays a big part in the world of the Interstellar Trials. There are arcade games on the ships. The heroine in the first book, which takes place after Ace in the Hole, enters a secret black market section of the ship by playing a specific combination in a Pac-Man-esque game.
And of course, the first book in the trilogy is the Tournament. One half of the fleet is essentially offering an olive branch to the estranged other half, after the war. They’re using these games, these Olympic-style events, to try and heal the breach between the ships. Supposedly, anyway 🙂
So yes, I think games are incredibly important to social structure, human development. They’re a good way to show culture, too. In the Interstellar Trials, one half of the fleet encourages gaming while the other bans it. I’m definitely making a comment there.
Your characters are incredible. It was so easy to imagine Wes. How do you come up with such vivid characters?
The simple answer is that I’m not really sure. Which is so annoying, sorry. Sometimes a character just comes into my head and talks. It’s been a while since I first put Wes on the page, even though I did completely revamp the story to stand on its own, but I’m pretty sure Wes began just that way.
I can say that I had kind of a breakthrough book when it came to characterization. That was Bypass the Stars, a stand-alone YA, and I wrote it several years before I actually published it. I had just reread a Tale of Two Cities, and as I was kind of struggling to write one of the point-of-view characters in the book, I realized that he had a lot in common with Sydney Carton. And if you’ve read Cities, you know that Carton steals the show, that he’s absolutely the most riveting character every time he’s on the page. He’s one of the greatest characters ever written, in my opinion. Dickens is good like that, what with Miss Havisham and Scrooge, etc. I’m a big Dickens fan.
Anyway, this realization changed everything about the character, whose name is Kol. He was ultimately inspired by Sydney Carton, but he isn’t Sydney Carton, and that’s an important distinction. It’s not fan fiction (I love fan fiction, but it’s not that!) though readers might see nods to Sydney if they do read it. I think what really happened is that I was inadvertently studying a great character written by a great author, and the lesson just kind of… stuck.
I actually wrote that book before almost any of my other published books, with the exception of the first superhero book (Alter Ego). I’m not sure? It’s a process. I’m always trying to get better.
So maybe the answer is that I read a lot, I take in a lot of media, and I’m always jotting down random sentences when the voices in my head deign to speak to me 🙂
If the characters of our stories traded places, and Wes got to visit New Yesterday, what would he change about the past, and why?
I think at heart, Wes just wants to be part of Lyra‘s community. (Lyra is the ship he lives on.) He’s not looking to be a hero, really. He’s just a young guy who wants to build a life in the best way that he can. At the same time though, he’s kind of wary of strict rules even though he’s in law enforcement.
So without spoiling the end of the story, I think if Wes got to visit New Yesterday, he’d probably make himself more. Just more everything. More fun at the bar, more engaged in the games — he really only ever sits on the sidelines — more of a hero, even. And he’d definitely want to make a life with the girl he likes. I think he’d want to do it himself, though, rather than just… waking up one day to find her there. If he made himself more, maybe she’d finally notice him.
I was trying to think whether he’d object to the setup of New Yesterday, but I think he’d be on board with it. And where others on the fleet might wish their ancestors had never sentenced them to a life between the stars, I think Wes would stay where he is. (If New Yesterday were a ship in the fleet, rather than a city in a different world!)
How do you approach writing a short story compared to writing a novel? And what does your normal writing process look like?
I approach them really differently actually!
I’m typically an outliner when it comes to novels. Not because I think that’s the better way or anything, but because I really have trouble finding the magic in a scene if I don’t know what’s going to happen. I need to know what the characters are after, where they are, and how the fight will roll out. If I have those things planned, I can see this sort of “outside the snowglobe” view of the story, and that makes me more confident about diving in. I use a variation on Libby Hawker’s character-driven outlining method, which she writes about in her book Take Off Your Pants. (I love that title, heh.)
With short stories, I like to play. Test weird voices, bring out my inner Douglas Adams. Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I just start with a weird idea or a strange sentence and see where it takes me.
Ace in the Hole probably started out with more of an outline since it was originally a section of a novel.
What’s your origin story when it comes to being an author? And why sci-fi?
My origin story! I love it. I was one of those kids who started writing early on, probably around fourth grade — always had a book hiding under my desk during math lessons and all that. I went to school for music, did a bunch of other jobs as a camp counselor, fundraiser, admin. All while scribbling books at 5am before the start of the day.
I grew up obsessed with fantasy. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, anything with intense magic and a big cast of characters. I think the house could have exploded while I was reading one of those books, and I wouldn’t have even noticed.
Except that I’ve always been kind of obsessed with space, too. I’m not sure exactly when I committed 99% to writing sci fi over fantasy — I still read both, and I have a superhero series that sort of crosses the line between them. Space epics have so much in common with epic fantasy, though, so in a way I think my writer heart has always been headed there.
I’d love to do a big fat science fantasy trilogy, too. Just saying.
Have you any tips for budding writers out there who are looking to build worlds of their own?
I generally shy away from giving short-form writing advice. So my biggest tip is to trust your gut and ignore advice that doesn’t resonate — no matter how insistent the advice-giver is about it being the “only way.” I’ve seen writers get sidetracked — and have gotten sidetracked myself — for LONG stretches of time simply because one favorite or famous author said their way was THE WAY to do something.
For example, I used the believe the nonsense that outlining sucks the magic out of writing. Lots of people believe this, that your book will be lifeless if you outline it. And for some people, it’s true. Absolutely.
So I tried to not outline. And guess what? I couldn’t FIND the magic without my outlines. And still, for way too long, I believed outlining was the wrong way, and I avoided it. Now I know myself, and I ignore what anyone else tries to push on me.
There’s no one way to do this, so try new things if you want to… but if something’s working for you, don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong. It’s right. I promise.
I understand that Ace In The Hole is just the beginning of a brand new series that you’re working on. What’s next for this series?
The first two books in the series are launching October 4th via Kickstarter! They’ll be exclusive to Kickstarter backers until several months into 2023. So if you’re interested, now’s the time to check those out.
Or you can buy my books directly on my website, and find buy links to other retailers, at KateSheeranSwed.
Thank you so much for joining me, Kate.
Check out Kate Sheeran Swed’s other stories by visiting KateSheeranSwed.com, or support her Interstellar Trials campaign (at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/interstellar-trials/the-interstellar-trials-2-dystopian-sci-fi-adventure-novels) and follow Kate on Instagram and TikTok @katesheeranswed.
You can find out more about the Crooked Anthology Volume 2 by following this link. It’s available now as an ebook and paperback.
What do you make to Jessie Kwak’s theory? Is she right? Do sci-fi and crime mixed together make for an awesome story? If I’m basing my answer on Ace In The Hole by Kate Sheeran Swed, then I can say without a doubt that the answer is yes. It absolutely does.