SPFBO Finalist Interview: Morgan Stang, the author of Murder at Spindle Manor
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Morgan Stang lives in the humid part of Texas. He graduated from the University of Houston with a BBA. By day he works in accounting and by night he sleeps, and sometime in between he writes in a wide variety of fantasy genres, ranging from dark fantasy (The Bartram’s Maw series) to gaslamp murder mystery (The Lamplight Murder Mysteries) to cozy fantasy (The Bookshop and the Barbarian). He is a fan of all things nerdy, and lives with an immortal ball python.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in the deep, dark, dank jungles of Texas, and there I learned the secret art of accounting. I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember, and just started self-publishing in early 2020. Other than writing, I enjoy all things nerdy, including video games, board games, Dungeons and Dragons, reading, Legos, etc.
I currently have eight books out. Murder at Spindle Manor was the sixth book I published. Because I’m terrible at creating a distinct author brand, I write wildly different flavors of fantasy books, including gaslamp murder mysteries, super violent dark fantasy, and comedic cozy fantasy.
Do you have a day job? If so, what is it?
I do! I work in accounting. It’s very boring. Let’s do everyone a favor and move on quickly.
Who are your favorite current writers and who are your greatest influencers?
My favorite current writers are probably Joe Abercrombie and Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson is just so incredibly readable, and Abercrombie is an amazing writer.
As for the greatest influencers? I’ve got a lot. The two mentioned above, certainly. George Martin is always the holy grail for attaining that wonderfully close third-person narrative. Jacqueline Carey for her amazing attentiveness with her characters and worlds, and having sexuality respectfully built into those worlds. Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers for their dialogue and larger-than-life stories about seemingly normal things. Terry Pratchett, even though I’m a tiny, fluttering LED light compared to his brilliant sun in the sky. Travis Baldree, for making cozy cool again. Tolkien, specifically the Hobbit, for making cozy cool back in the day. Isaac Asimov and Michael Crichton, because all my books are secretly sci-fi, and Asimov especially was amazing at big twists and reveals. Agatha Christie, for being the whodunnit master. Various authors from the Romanticism period, and those who carry the torch today like Susanna Clarke. Kentaro Miura, for his incredible ability to write dark things with that little bit of hope and optimism in the distance, and also for having a protagonist who carries around a big giant sword and chops monsters in half with one swing.
Can you lead us through your creative process? What works and doesn’t work for you? How long do you need to finish a book?
My pace so far has been about one book every six months, although I could see that slowing down. Basically I let ideas cook for a bit, some on the back-burner, and then I’ll write an outline for the whole book, just a short outline, do small write-ups for the main characters, write down the main concepts and themes I want to focus on, then start writing it. I leave room in the outline to come up with new stuff, as you always come up with new stuff while writing. I try to write daily, about a thousand words a day, although I generally don’t on weekends because my brain is in fun mode and wants to go do other stuff. Then when done, I do a revision, then send it off to beta readers, get their feedback, and do more revisions, and then I’ve got a book.
That all sounds rather standard I think, and pretty uninteresting. I suppose if there’s a mental thing I do for coming up with what to write, it’s that I first come up with the “big scenes”, and the overall big huge thing that makes the book worth writing. After that, I piece it all together, connecting all the juicy stuff to make it a coherent story.
It’s also important to focus mostly on the actual current bit that you’re writing, even if it’s not one of those “big scenes”, and try to make whatever chapter or scene you’re currently writing the very best part of the book, so that a potential reader could come along and say “that was my favorite part”. So any part of the book could be someone’s favorite part. I think Sanderson said that once. He’s said a lot of things.
What do you think characterizes your writing style?
Aside from my very first published book (which was overly long and had pacing issues), it would be quick, snappy writing in a relatively short package. Chapters that end in a way that makes you want to keep reading. Intrigue that makes you ask questions. Other than that, my genres can be super different, so my writing style changes a lot between books. My cozy fantasy reads nothing like my murder mysteries, which don’t read like my dark fantasy books.
They can all be goofy though. I guess that’s the underlying thing tying them together? I just can’t stop from putting in a certain level of absurdity. (Even in my dark fantasy, which features a cocaine-addicted faerie who lives within the bosom of a noblewoman.)
Thematically, all of my stuff also seems to be about optimism versus pessimism, and generally having optimism win out.
What made you decide to self-publish Murder at Spindle Manor as opposed to traditional publishing?
Finding success in self-publishing can be just as difficult as finding success traditionally publishing. They’re both incredibly difficult, and both require a lot of hard work and luck, and I went in knowing this. To do either, you really need to be okay with writing for yourself most of all, because there’s a good chance that’s who you’re going to be writing for. I think Sanderson said that once.
So both paths can lead to failure. But the way I saw it, at least with self-publishing you have a consolation prize: your physical book, in your hands, on your shelf. Possibly with a sale or two. As opposed to traditional publishing, where failure results in a rejection letter and that’s it.
So I suppose that’s why I went straight to self-publishing. I just wanted to make books. Even if I never found an audience, I would still have those books in hand, and that’s just cool to me.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of self-publishing?
My favorite thing about it is the freedom. And the speed. You can write a book and publish it within a small amount of time. In traditional, the wheels turn very slowly. And I can also write weird stuff that I don’t think traditional would probably be interested in publishing.
My least favorite thing about it is the freedom. You’re telling me I have to come up with my own cover, my own blurb, my own marketing, my own website, my own mailing list, and so much more? Really, the business side of self-publishing is a job in itself, and I am terrible at it. To any aspiring self-published authors, do not look at me as an example. I just write a lot and hope for the best.
Why did you enter SPFBO?
For the free hor d’oeuvres. So you can see why my disappointment is immeasurable.
But really, why wouldn’t you want to enter SPFBO if you’re self-published? It’s an awesome contest full of cool people. Some really amazing books came out of this contest. I’ve really enjoyed Sword of Kaigen and The Lost War.
I didn’t even know about it until SPFBO7, which was the first time I entered. Someone on Reddit told me about it and said I should enter because my book is good, and so I did. This is the third year I’ve entered, so third time is a charm I guess.
What would you do if you won the SPFBO?
Probably have a panic attack first. Then eat some orange slices. After that, I’m not sure. I feel like I’d seek out a mentor who’s won in the past honestly. I mean you’d have to capitalize on it, right? But whatever the case, whether winning or not, I’d be grateful. It’s an honor just to be a finalist.
How would you describe the plot of Murder at Spindle Manor if you had to do so in just one or two sentences?
A monster hunter and her plucky sidekick hunt a monster who is posing as a human (The Thing style), and they end up in a spooky haunted mansion, where someone is murdered, and now just great, there’s two mysteries. A gaslamp fantasy comedic horror murder mystery set in a pseudo-Victorian world.
What was your initial inspiration for Murder at Spindle Manor? How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea?
I’m not sure how long I’ve been working on it, because ideas cook in the back of the mind while you’re working on other projects. I’ve always wanted to do a spooky whodunnit murder mystery, because I greatly enjoy them in general. The “snowbound murder mystery” being the most entertaining to me, where a small group of people are stuck in a small place together. I also really like the Victorian era in general.
Inspiration came from Agatha Christie’s works, the movie Clue, Penny Dreadful and those classic monsters included, The Hateful Eight, the monster-hunting of Witcher, and Dark Souls/Bloodborne games.
Aside from other works, a ton of inspiration came from the Spiritualism movement of the Victorian era. I’ve always felt like this was an overlooked little piece of history and underused in fiction. The book has a bit of steampunk in it, but I view it mainly as a gaslamp fantasy work, and to me that means Victorian era Spiritualism. Seances. Mediums. Ghosts. Fortune tellers. Mesmers. Romanticism, just before it died out and was replaced by reason and logic.
If you had to describe it in 3 adjectives, which would you choose?
Fun, intriguing, and spooky. Emphasis on fun, because that single word has basically been the cornerstone for my philosophy for approaching these books. Metaphorically, they’re built like an old haunted roller coaster ride, complete with smoke machines and animatronics.
Is it part of the series or a standalone? If series, how many books have you planned for it?
A series. I don’t have an exact number of books planned. It’s going to be more than a short trilogy, but I also don’t plan on just going on forever and ever. I want each entry to have some substantial stuff included in it, not just a throwaway one-shot story.
Who are the key players in this story? Could you introduce us to Murder at Spindle Manor’s protagonists/antagonists?
Isabeau Agarwal is the protagonist. She’s a Huntress, whose job is to hunt monsters, Witcher-style. Turns out she’s also good at solving murders and dealing with ghosts. A stern, serious exterior, all cinnamon bun on the inside.
Evelyn Turnstall is her plucky sidekick and coachman, and the fire to her ice. She’s sunshine where Isabeau is all glorious brooding. They’re an odd couple.
Penny: I’m including her because why not? She’s a young woman who died recently, and was brought back to life via the fusion of mesmer and medium magic, and is now a “living doll person”, who can’t really communicate in any meaningful way, and her mouth is perpetually sewn shut, and if it was ever unsewn then her soul would leave her body and she’d die for good this time. She’s an MVP honestly.
For the antagonist, it’s—wait a minute! You almost got me. You’ve got to read to find out whodunnit.
Does your book feature a magic/magic system? If yes, can you describe it?
It does, in a way! Fairly soft magic system, I would say. This goes back to my answer about Victorian-era Spiritualism. I basically ask, what if that was all real? And there you have it. Mediums exist, and they can talk to the dead. Fortune tellers exist and can actually tell your fortune. Mesmers exist and can manipulate the human body. Ghosts exist, and they have a bit of a system of their own.
Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Can you tell us about the idea behind the cover of Murder at Spindle Manor and the artist?
The artist is Inkwolf Designs. I got this cover before I started working with artists on actual custom covers, meaning that yes, this was a premade cover. Which some may scoff at, but I think it’s pretty good for a premade! People have said it looks good, at least. I think it’s an example for others that a good cover doesn’t have to break the bank, and you don’t have to go all out. Inkwolf Designs and other artists have some great premades, and as long as it looks good and it matches what you’re looking for, why not?
The idea I went out looking for was something simple and elegant, and something that would convey the idea of a setting around the 1800s or so. It also has a few elements featured in the book, including spiders and a ghost (no, that’s not Isabeau on the cover).
Which question about the book do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
This is a tough one. I feel like people have already asked me the big questions, like “What’s up with the weird Nobles?” and “What’s up with the random teleporting girl?” and “Will Isabeau and Evie ever hook up?” So I’ll go with a fun question, just for funsies:
How would you cast your characters if this was filmed?
Good question! A few of these I had in mind while writing, and a few after the fact, and also many characters I wouldn’t really know, I have nobody, they’re just in my head. Also this is for both Spindle Manor and the sequel, Murder on the Lamplight Express.
Evie: Sophia Lillis
Penny: Jenna Ortega
Mr Homes: John Cleese
Esmeralda Valdez: Sofia Boutella
Teddy Field: Ewan Mcgregor
Mr Tin: Idris Elba
Benjamin Curtain: Michael Emerson
Mateo Torres: Guillermo del Toro
What’s your publishing Schedule for 2023/2024?
(I assume you mean 2023/2024 :P) Right now I’m in the middle of writing the third book in the Lamplight Murder Mysteries, and it’s going good! It’s going to have a fairly different vibe than the first two books, which share a similar snowbound whodunnit skeleton. The third book will be set in the actual city of Lamplight, and will have our Huntress traveling about all over the city instead of locked down in one location. To continue the metaphor from earlier, if the first two books are roller coaster rides, then this third book is the whole amusement park where you skip about from one spectacle to another.
Since my books generally release 6 months apart, and my last book was released on August of this year, then that means this new one should come out around February 2024. But now that I said that it’ll probably be much longer!
After that I’m either going to start right up on the fourth book in the series, which would revert back to a smaller snowbound mystery (literally this time), or I’m going to finally write a standalone novel I’ve been meaning to write for a long time now, starring a certain mysterious teleporting woman. But that keeps getting pushed back. I’ll get to it eventually.
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 suppose I’ll leave with a secret about my books, but don’t tell anyone, it’s just between you and me: all of my books take place in the same universe, Sanderson-style. I suppose the Stangoverse.
I’ve never confirmed it in the open before, but there is evidence in the books that tie them together. I don’t think anyone has noticed. It’s just small easter eggs, not some big huge thing where you actually have to read everything to know what’s going on.
Each different series takes place on a different planet with its own vibe. So this is why I earlier said that all my books are actually secretly sci-fi. There’s a big huge universe in my head that explains everything.
So theoretically, in the future one character might possibly appear in an entirely different series!