The Big Idea: Diana Pharaoh Francis

From a small mud volcano in southeast Asia to the very end of the world? That’s quite a journey. But it’s the journey Diana Pharaoh Francis took in the process of writing Bitter Night, the first book in Francis’ new “Horngate Witches” series of fantasy novels. Along the way, Francis considers a new kind of apocalypse — call it an intelligently designed apocalypse, one intended for a very specific purpose. Francis has quite a lot on her mind, it’s clear, none of great news for the humans in her books, but that’s what they get for being fictional characters. Here in the real world, you don’t have to experience the end of the word (YET), but you do get the read how Francis imagines one into being. Lucky you!


It all started with the mud volcano in East Java. The volcano, named Lusi, spewed out (and continues to spew out) the equivalent of a dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools of hot mud per day and the expectation is that it will go on doing so for decades, if not longer. It’s buried farms and towns and factories. Its power is inevitable and slow moving, chasing everyone in its path to the sea. Not a good thing when you live on an island.

Then there was the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis. And Hurricane Katrina (which chronologically happened before Lusi erupted, but only began agglomerating together into a Big Idea after I started thinking about the others). Disaster after disaster—tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, drought, fires, famines, mudslides, tornados—and all of them seeming to be coming at us more frequently and with increasing death tolls. What could be the meaning of it? Why was it all happening?

The answer seemed obvious: None of these are accidents. It’s all deliberate: an attack on humanity. But to what end?

Genocide. Apocalypse.

I love a good apocalypse.

This is where I started rubbing my hands together in gleeful anticipation. I was sure I was on to something. But I didn’t have a story yet. I needed answers to the questions yammering at me—what brought on this particular apocalypse? And why not do it right and just set off the Yellowstone volcano or let a meteor come take care of things in one fell blow? Cliché yes, but that wasn’t a good reason for why not. The real problem is that that sort of destruction is too easy, too quick, and frankly, it kills indiscriminately. I didn’t want an extinction level event. I wanted to kill a lot of people and unravel and restitch the world, but I didn’t want to annihilate everything, because there didn’t seem to be much fertility in that sort of novel: “Everybody and everything dies. The world is sterile. The end.” Great story, eh?

So there had to be more behind this apocalypse and it had to have something to do with what brought it on and who was going to live and who was going to die—or perhaps it might be better said as who was intended to live and who was intended to die?

The answer lies in the villains and therefore the heroes of Bitter Night. My Big Idea and my zygote story were nothing without characters.

Aside from a great apocalypse, I like a really good villain—one who is as good as he his bad, and following that logic, I appreciate heroes who are as terribly flawed as they are heroic. Hitler thought he was a hero, the British thought Napoleon was evil—it all depends on perspective (except that Hitler really was evil, but that’s not the point today). So I got to thinking—what if the apocalypse was a good thing—at least for someone? Who would benefit from it? Who would be willing to commit genocide?

Humans are always being accused of destroying the world with our carelessness, our arrogance and our decided sense of invincibility. Sooner or later, someone might want to teach us a lesson—rein us in a bit. I began thinking of all the things that might share the earth with us—creatures of potentially no little power. These would be things from myth and legend and folklore. What if they were tired of being driven into hiding, their powers dwindling, their lives steadily eroding has humanity poisons the magic of the earth? What would they do if suddenly they had the means to take back their world?

They’d fight back; they’d overthrow the evil invaders who are destroying them and they’d slaughter everyone they could. Human annihilation.

All right, not all of humanity. Just most of it in order to bring back the balance of magic in the world. Ever since humans have been ascendant, magic has been fading away. Soon it will be gone forever. It’s time to rebalance the scales and restore the magic before it’s too late.

Obviously humans are going to see the war as evil—after all, most of them are going to be slaughtered. On the other hand, the magical creatures who’ve been verging on extinction are going to see it as salvation. But there are a few in the middle—those who used to be human, for instance, or their allies, and those who don’t like being manipulated and pushed around—who have to figure out where they stand. Because the natural disasters are only the start. The guardians of the earth who’ve begun this apocalypse are going to need an army to go house to house and clean the vermin out, and the question for the few in the middle is—which side are they going to fight on? No one gets to be neutral Switzerland in this war.

What you might be able to see is that Bitter Night was quickly becoming epic in scope, and in fact, that was the thing I wanted to do all along. That was the real Big Idea. I wanted to figure out how I could bring some of the epic qualities of high fantasy into contemporary fantasy. I wanted to meld the best qualities of each type of book, which includes fast-pacing, rich description, gritty stories, world-ending dangers, snarky repartee, fantastical creatures from myth and legend, and real-world slang, fast food and guns. And on top of all that, I get to make my own personal apocalypse. It’s good to be a writer.

The final finishing touch to my Big Idea was that this was not an apocalypse that could be prevented—no last minute saves, no deus ex machina. It’s the end of the world as we know it and it’s unstoppable. This book isn’t about saving the world, it’s about the struggle for salvaging what can be salvaged and learning to live with what’s left. It’s about those people struggling with making choices and standing by them. It’s about villainous heroes and heroic villains.

And that, in a nutshell, was my Big Idea. But before I go, one last thing. You might be wondering of Lusi made an appearance in the book. The answer is no. It catalyzed my imagination and was the golden seed for the whole novel, but it didn’t get so much as a mention. Maybe next time.


Bitter Night: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Bitter Night. Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter.

18 Comments on “The Big Idea: Diana Pharaoh Francis”

  1. Of the generally very good Big Idea essays, this is one of the most promising I’ve read. I’ll have to give it a look.

  2. Cool idea for a book, but a very unfortunate Cover. Books with Busty, leather-clad, “babexors” holding knives are a dime a dozen at the borders, and I’ve conditioned myself to walk by them.

    Good job this ended up on Scalzi’s blog, or I would have ignored it for certain.

  3. Diana – I loved this bit:

    >Aside from a great apocalypse, I like a really good villain—one who is as good as he his bad, and following that logic, I appreciate heroes who are as terribly flawed as they are heroic. Hitler thought he was a hero, the British thought Napoleon was evil—it all depends on perspective<

    IMHO, both villains and heroes who are flawed make for much better reading. I try to do that in my own books, and am so excited about reading Bitter Night, since it sounds right up my alley. :)

  4. I’m wondering if I’m the only one who doesn’t get the strong desire to read any of the books featured in the Big Idea column. Even books I know I’ve read and liked have seemed unappetizing when described this way. Maybe I should skip directly to the comments!

  5. The cover kind of throws me off. The Big Idea is that there is no stopping the apocalypse. Humans vs. the magic world. The covers says “she’s the wepon of choice” as if it all comes down to this one girl. I would hope that humanity does not leave all its eggs in one basket. If so, we do deserve to be wiped out. I really liked the Big Idea, but that cover just derails the whole idea for me. Am I reading too much into it?

  6. Hey, Kilauea’s been destroying homes (and building new land) for 30 years! Where’s the credit? ;)

    This sounds interesting, though possibly gloomy.

  7. Stan: I hope you do!

    Ben: I know we aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but . . . I totally get it. Marketing will have its way, however.

    Maria: I hope you enjoy!

    Missy B: You are so good for my ego :D

    Ruthling: Sigh. I did not mean to make it unappetizing. But really! It’s a great read :D

    Jason: Actually it’s more an ensemble book than it looks from that cover bit. *shrug* I have no say in anything relating to covers and so it is what it is.

    Linkmeister: Kilauea may come into play later. I have some ideas about it . . .

  8. This sounds terrific. On my next up list. (just a side note…does she not have the greatest name for an author of fantasy, makes me want to check out the book even without the terrific Big Idea essay)

  9. We now know with 99% certainty that Lusi was man-made. It was caused by drilling a gas exploration well. I have published a couple of scientific papers on this. Google ‘Lusi Richard Davies’ to find these and related articles.

  10. I don;t suppsoe Diana wants to turn this into a series of adventures for DnD? Or any other system. This sounds so cool I’d buy and learn a new system to play it out.

    This one HAS to go to the top of the Christmas list.

  11. Not sure what cover would work, but everyone’s right. I only even read this “Big Idea” piece because Iwas out of Whatever to read during lunch. Glad I stopped by.

  12. lilacsigil and Richard: I know it’s manmade, but at the time it started, I didn’t. Hence the trigger. But the fact that it is manmade works really nicely for my plotting (she said, rubbing her hands together and giggling). And Richard, I will look up those articles. Lusi fascinates me.

    Joel: A DnD game. Hmmm. That *would* be fun, wouldn’t it?

  13. Diana,
    Wow! What a spectacular start to a series! I loved Max and her “take no prisoners” attitude, and I loved the whole witches and shadowblades story line. In fact, it was one of only two books that I ever read, then re-read immediately, it was so good!

    Here’s a quick response to the issue of the book’s cover raised by two of your readers. I’m a highly visual person (probably like most guys), and when I scan through 1000 different covers at a B&N or Borders, only the most attention grabbing covers draw me into reading the back cover. This cover of a “busty, leather-clad, “babexors” holding knives” (as one of your readers described it) is attention grabbing enough for 99% of your male readers that they will at least take it off the shelf and read the cover or the first few pages (which for a talented author like yourself is 90% of the battle). And for me, reading those first few pages was all it took to realize what a terrific book I was holding.

    Bottom line: your advertising guys did a great job, and gave us a super picture of how to imagine Max. That cover is a perfect fit for your description of her.

    Give us more “Max to the max”!