In this edition of AutoCrit Author Spotlight, we’re speaking with AutoCrit Elite members Chris & Sophie Brousseau, as we shine a light on their exciting new fiction novel Isle of Chaos (“The Sopranos meets Pirates of the Caribbean”).
What inspires the writing of this power couple? Find out in our exclusive interview!
Tell us a little about yourself and your background. Have you always been avid readers and writers? What was it that inspired you to take the leap toward publishing your own book?
Chris: I grew up in a small mining town in Canada, about a ten-hour drive north of Toronto. That’s the closest place of reference most people recognize. It’s quite remote, so as a kid there was not much to do other than taking myself on adventures and exploring in the woods. If you had a good imagination, you could keep yourself busy there. It was fun actually; I loved growing up there. Well, other than the freezing minus 52 Celsius temperatures.
Anyway, I loved (and still love) storytelling; a lot of people in my family do. So I remember thinking I should try writing and when I was in grade ten, I did exactly that. I wrote a vampire story and my English teacher told me whilst it was fun, it was horribly written, and I should probably stay away from writing altogether. So, I did, and I threw myself into the world of video games and now I actually make them for a living. I’ve worked (and still work) for some of the biggest companies in the industry such as EA and Zynga.
I’ve never actually been an avid reader, which I think shows in our writing style. Games and television have always taken precedent. I love television, especially high-quality shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones (before the last season) through to comedies such as Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny. What inspired the leap to write a book is kind of related to my work. I had always wanted to make a pirate game, but that takes a whole group of people, so I thought you know what doesn’t need a group? Writing a book! So that’s how I decided to go down that path. I quickly re-fell in love with the whole idea of writing and had written a few first drafts of different stories. I even completed a novella on my own (which, looking back now, I can see how flawed it is) and then they just sat in my Google drive. Isle of Chaos or as it was known then, Pirates of Nassau, was about fifteen percent written.
Fast forward about seven years and I met Sophie. After we married, we decided we wanted to work on a project together. At the time she was writing research papers and hadn’t even attempted fiction, but I knew she could. I told her of all the drafts and gave her access to the drive. She read a few and instantly fell in love with the pirate tale and said “let’s make it into a full book… except these two characters, they’re bad!” So we cut them out, added in another, and got started!
Sophie: Yes, those characters didn’t fit with the rest of the story in my mind! Okay, so I can’t say I’m one of those people who dreamt of writing a book from a young age. As a kid, I sure did love reading and often had my head stuck in an Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl book, but that died off once I hit my teens. I left school at sixteen; I was pretty directionless if I’m honest. All I knew was that I wanted to go on an adventure. I enjoyed collecting stories and going to different places. I loved the freedom and independence that travel brought (kind of like a pirate).
So, at the age of nineteen, I set out on that adventure and traveled far from my home and birthplace of East Yorkshire and wound up living in Australia for much of my adult life. It’s actually where Chris and I met (though we’ve recently relocated to London). Workwise, I’ve spent much of that time in healthcare and when I returned to study in my thirties to pursue a career as a psychologist, it was actually there that I discovered my love of writing. I ended up working in research, and whilst I found the subject matter fascinating, it turned out scientific writing wasn’t my thing. As Chris said, after we married, we decided we wanted to take the leap and work on a project together and the rest is history as they say!
You described your book Isle of Chaos to us as The Sopranos meets Pirates of the Caribbean, and that alone had us hooked! Tell us about the novel – where did the idea for the plot come from, and what can readers expect from the book’s tone and content?
Chris: The first season of Game of Thrones had just aired, and I loved the multiple characters and multiple plots, so, I thought why not do that but set in a pirate world (this was before Black Sails had come about.) So that’s where the idea came from. As for the plot, I developed the characters and tried to give them each a mission of their own to try and achieve. Joy needs money to pay someone so she can avenge her sister. Popino is in masses of debt. Isaac wants to find the treasure and Captain Crow is trying to stop a mutiny. Everyone has their own goal to achieve and whilst trying to accomplish their individual goals their paths cross. And when those paths cross, those goals come into conflict with each other which is where the real fun starts.
The characters are all morally gray; there’s no one person who is obviously good or bad. Everyone has questionable morals and that makes for fun interactions. We’ve been told that the world is well built and feels rich. We keep it light on description but heavy on dialogue, with interesting people at every corner. Since you follow six individuals, the cast and side cast are quite large which I think helps draw you into the world. When reading it, Nassau feels alive; it feels like a functioning city where everyone has something going on and we think that helps build the world.
As for the Sopranos element of the story, there are three main factions that run the island. Two women, Jane & Vella and a man named Thad. They are powerful, they lend money, do custom mercenary jobs. They are a source of income for the people on the island and a lot of the problems our characters encounter revolve around them. Jane is one of the main characters, so you get to see things from her point of view. Another main character is Molly who is Vella’s right hand woman, so you get to see how Vella’s faction runs differently to Jane’s. Thad however is more mysterious, nobody has ever really seen him, and he likes to work from the shadows, but he is the more powerful of the three… for now.
Sophie: That’s where the book gets its drama. All those clashing characters, their clashing worlds and then we lighten the dark with some humorous dialogue and goings-on. It’s energetic too, really fast paced with cliffhangers galore!
We’ve been told that the world is well built and feels rich. We keep it light on description but heavy on dialogue, with interesting people at every corner. Since you follow six individuals the cast and side cast are quite large which I think helps draw you into the world.
How was the experience of steering the ship (pun intended) together and sharing responsibility for those big story decisions? Did you tend to write a chapter each, or work together scene by scene?
Chris: I’ve studied story and character creation, not just because of my work but because I love it and always wondered how it was done. I wrote the entire first draft of the book. Now, personally, I don’t think my writing is very good; my storytelling is decent, and my character creations too, but the writing bit… not so much. Maybe that English teacher of mine was right!
But Sophie’s writing is top notch. So, she reads the first draft with fresh eyes and gives feedback and critique. I fix up any story elements and then she gives it a re-read. If it’s story things I need to fix then I will. If she can fix the rest then she just makes notes and starts with the second draft. Sophie can explain her part of it because to be honest I think it’s the hard part.
Sophie: I think it’s just that we have strengths in different places. Okay, so once Chris has worked his magic, I really try to absorb the story as a whole. I typically give it another read, make sure I’ve got my head around everything story wise and then get to writing. I take it a chapter at a time, absorb the essence of the story and then re-write it, making sure I still capture the soul of the story and don’t remove any crucial bits. I’ll run that by Chris if there’s something I want to take out altogether, because even the smallest thing might impact the story, especially in Isle of Chaos where there are multiple perspectives with an intertwining story. Once I’m done with a second draft, Chris gives it a read, I address any feedback and then start my third and final draft. Add in copious amounts of black coffee, pacing around the kitchen grumbling to myself and a bit of yelling at my computer and you get the idea of how it all comes together!
While it’s a fictional tale, Isle of Chaos no doubt required a great deal of research into the lifestyles of historical pirates, their responsibilities, and the challenges of seafaring. How did you tackle the research side of things, and did you keep a keen eye on historical detail while writing?
Chris: Yes, research is one of the fun bits for us. Now, there’s actually no seafaring in this book – that happens in book two! But we did have to look into things such as… did they have toilets back in the day? What did they use for a light source? Did most people know how to read or write? All of these bits influenced the story and the picture we wanted to build. Sometimes we let it slip but then one of us usually caught it.
Sophie: Yes, at one point we had a character who couldn’t read, who then was suddenly reading a note in a later chapter. We had to add in a scene where somebody read the note for him because he really needed the information in that note for the story to progress.
Chris: The dialogue is the only part we didn’t keep historically accurate. It’s more modern, for easy reading which is very important to us. I think that might bother some of the historical fiction fans out there, but we are trying to appeal to more of a mass audience.
Sophie: Yes, it’s certainly not historical fiction. Adventure is at the heart of Isle of Chaos, we wanted it to be fun and feel accessible, even to those who don’t typically read much.
Which authors would you say most heavily influence, or inspire, you and your work?
Chris: Now as I said I’m not an avid reader, so it’ll be a short list. For me, Stephen King. I read his book On Writing and that was very influential.
As a reader, I’m a fan of Joe Abercrombie. His writing style is great. It toes the line of fantasy but not full-on fantasy, so no lengthy detail and description etc, and he’s a bit of an experimental writer too. He always tries different things in his books that haven’t really been done before. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but I learned a lot from him and love his style.
Sophie: I’ve only really got back into reading fiction whilst writing this book, actually. Prior to that, for years I’ve either been reading textbooks or research papers. Let’s see… two authors spring to mind, Stephen King and Clive Cussler. I also read On Writing; it’s like a glorious writer pep talk from the master himself, plus I’ve really enjoyed his Hard Case Crime Collection, such page turners! As for Cussler, he’s the adventure king! You get swept up with the story with all his tales and not bogged down in any detail. Like Chris, I’m not a fan of lengthy descriptions.
You’re self-publishing under your own banner of Maple Lion Fiction, and it looks as though you’ve put a ton of effort into presenting the book as professionally as possible. The cover, for example, is very impressive. How long has the road to publication been, and how have you found the experience? What would you say were the biggest challenges you faced along the path?
Chris: Sophie can definitely speak to that as she dealt with most of this stuff. Probably 90% of it. It’s a lot of work though, I can tell you that much.
Sophie: We really wanted the book to look and feel as professional as possible, so I’m glad it’s paid off. The road to publication from first draft to Isle of Chaos being out in the world has been eighteen months. I’d add in that I’ve been working on it full time for twelve months of that too (though we did move internationally too which held things up a little). I think it’s a process that will be quicker for the second book, but honestly there was a lot of learning to be done.
One thing I must say is that the writing community on Instagram was a really great support throughout the whole process. I’d definitely recommend dipping your toe in. Great to meet a lot of other self-publishing authors and learn from them, too. It’s actually where I found both our cover designer and editor!
One of the biggest challenges was teeing up everything, especially if you want to do paperbacks and not solely e-books. For example, the cover designer needed the final page count so they could adjust the spine accordingly for the paperback, but I hadn’t even sent the manuscript off to our editor at that point, so I had to ask them very kindly to put it on hold which they were able to do, but it really depends on their workload. Moral of that story, get your cover done later! Again, that can be tricky because often they’re booked out for months and your editor might be, too, so it’s just a case of being flexible and realizing that nothing ever goes totally to plan.
I continue with my third draft and then put it back through [AutoCrit] after and see if I’ve managed to improve the score. I then look at the ‘unnecessary filler words’ and ‘passive indicators,’ address those, and keep trying to improve that score. We aim for about 80% and once it’s at this point, I know it’s ready to go off to our editor.
Since you’re AutoCrit members (you wonderful people!) we naturally have to ask: where does AutoCrit fit into your process? How would you say the platform has strengthened or influenced your writing?
Chris: I’ve actually used AutoCrit before this book, about seven years ago or so when I started out writing. As I said my actual writing isn’t that great, so a tool like this was perfect for me. It really helped me to learn, highlighted everything to avoid and how to improve it. Sophie uses it as part of our self-editing process which she can tell you more about.
Sophie: I do indeed and like Chris, it has helped me learn a lot. When I’ve finished my second draft, I run each chapter through the program and take note of the overall score. I then look at the strong writing section and pay particular attention to ‘showing vs telling’ and fix that up. I continue with my third draft and then put it back through after and see if I’ve managed to improve the score. I then look at the ‘unnecessary filler words’ and ‘passive indicators,’ address those and keep trying to improve that score.
We aim for about 80% and once it’s at this point, I know it’s ready to go off to our editor. The really great thing about it is it highlights things I don’t think you would pick up on by yourself. Once you’ve looked at a manuscript for so long you don’t notice certain things and for someone new to writing fiction the ‘showing vs telling’ feature was a total life saver.
What’s next for you both?
Chris: Another book! We’re actually going to take a break from this genre and change to a detective story. However, it’s going to be based on one of the characters in Isle of Chaos. Think Sherlock Holmes but with pirates. We think it’ll be fun, thrilling, exciting, weird and hopefully get a few laughs in the process.
Sophie: Yes! It will be Jane Hatch’s origin story. She’s been a reader favourite and exploring how she came to be one of the most powerful women in Nassau should be a lot of fun.
Any final points you would like to mention?
Sophie: Thank you for having us! If you want to follow our progress as we write the next book, you can head on over to our website at www.maplelionfiction.com and sign up for our monthly newsletter, or alternatively come find us on social media @maplelionfiction.
The husband and wife writing team behind Maple Lion Fiction, Sophie and Chris Brousseau have published five novellas, now released as a full novel, Isle of Chaos.
Sophie honed her writing skills working in behavioural science research, while Chris developed his storytelling prowess over the past decade working in video games.
To hear more from this dynamic duo, visit Maple Lion Fiction or catch them hanging out together on Instagram.