I've decided to talk to Nic after reading her epic space opera Those Left Behind.
Hi and welcome! :) Could you please introduce yourself?
Of course! My name is Nic, but if you’re familiar with my books, you might know me better as N. C. Scrimgeour. I’m a sci-fi and fantasy writer from Scotland, and I decided to take the leap into self-publishing around this time last year.
Let’s jump right into discussing your space opera Those Left Behind. Would you like to say a few words about it for those who haven’t read it?
Those Left Behind is an epic, galaxy-spanning space opera in the tradition of Mass Effect, Star Wars and The Expanse. Think lots of different planets and factions, space exploration, strange alien threats and a big cast of characters, and you’ll get the idea!
The story itself focuses on the crew of a scout ship who leave behind their dying planet to find a new home for humanity. But when they stumble across ancient alien technology that could threaten the entire galaxy, their original mission gets a whole lot more complicated…
How did it start? When did you first get the idea for the book and how much time passed before you started working on it?
I’ve always wanted to write the kind of big space opera that I grew up loving as a kid – namely Star Wars! A few different ideas and storylines had been playing on my mind for a while—first contact, old friends on the opposite sides of a war, leftover alien technology—and over the course of a few months I started to string them together to form what would be the first rough outline for the story. After I fleshed it out a bit more and started planning, the first draft took me just over a year to write.
Did you know that it was going to be a trilogy from the start?
A trilogy seemed like a natural way to tell the story, and I had the structure of it pretty much nailed down from the start. I knew right away it was going to be a multiple-POV story. I don’t think I could have told it another way—there’s too many different strands to it and I always wanted it to have that large-scale, epic kind of feel that you get with a big cast of characters scattered across different parts of the galaxy.
I’m very much a planner though, so by the time I started writing the first book I already knew the direction I wanted the overall trilogy to go, and most importantly, how it would end. It’s important to me to plant seeds in the first book that will lead to what’s going to come later on! Of course, things always change as you write, but I definitely had a good idea of the big moments I wanted to hit throughout the course of the entire story.
There are so many things I enjoyed about the book! Let’s start with the characters. I found them well developed, complex and real. I liked how each of them had a motivation of their own driving the plot forward. What’s your process of creating characters and what’s important for you when you work on them?
Characters are usually the first things that come to me during the writing process. I might have a vague idea or concept that I want to explore in terms of the plot, but it’s not usually until I start to think about characters that it really starts to come together. Most of what I write is very much character-focused and character-driven, and I think that’s because I enjoy crafting their backgrounds and personalities and strengths and weaknesses, and seeing how that all plays out when they interact.
In Those Left Behind, the characters of Niole and Rivus were always there pretty early on in my brainstorming. I really liked the idea of old friends turned enemies, and that’s how the whole legionnaire/Idran-Var conflict grew. It’s quite funny, because although the central plot might be more focused around the mystery of the waystations, that actually came later!
In terms of how I create characters and what’s important, the main thing I focus on is making them feel real. I rarely write characters that are completely good or completely bad—I prefer them to have flaws and make mistakes and lose sometimes. I also think a lot of my character development comes from interactions with the other characters they share their journeys with, whether that’s having some of their influence rub off on them, pushing back against them or even starting to fall for them! These small, personal moments can be some of the most important when establishing what kind of a person the character is.
Speaking of Niole and Rivus, some of your characters are aliens — I personally enjoy that kind of thing a lot :). How did you create your alien species? What questions did you ask yourself?
I wanted them all to be distinct from each other, but also not be a monolith either. There may be some traits that are more common in one species than another, but I didn’t want to reduce it down to a “all dachryn are tough guys, all sioleans are loners” type of thing. I wanted to make sure there was as much diversity between the alien characters as there was between the humans.
If you’ve read the book, you’ll understand that the cold, commanding Tarvan is a very different kind of dachryn to Rivus, who is more introspective and emotional. Same with someone like Kite, who is quite a wise-cracking, sociable siolean, compared to someone like Niole who is wary of letting people close. I think making sure that alien characters still have their own individuality and aren’t just representatives of their entire species is a really important thing when it comes to making them feel more real.
Makes sense! Another thing that I think is quite challenging is a tricky balance between making them different enough yet relatable. You can’t make them so unlike humans that your readers won’t get them, but making them too similar is quite boring. You know, sometimes aliens are basically weird-looking humans, there is nothing special, peculiar or striking about them. I loved that you gave your alien characters some original traits that directly influenced their lives and culture. What do you think the right balance is? Do you have a favorite alien character or race that you think is done really well?
I definitely wanted to strike a balance between making them relatable without making them just seem like humans. As I mentioned before, I think a key aspect was giving them certain traits or attributes that were common to them as a species without turning the entire species into a monolith. Some of those can be physical descriptors, such as appearance, voice or even movement, whereas sometimes it can be more cultural.
For instance, I describe the dachryn a lot in terms of their physicality—their exoskeleton, the way their bone plates move to show their expressions, their deep, rumbling voices and so on. But with the iskaath, I go into more detail about their way of life, the bonds they have with each other and their families etc.
As for aliens done well, I always liked the krogan from Mass Effect. They have a violent history and are fractured in warring clans, but there are still those among them who think differently and want to overcome the mistakes in their past to find a new path for their people.
World-building was another thing that I enjoyed a lot. You’ve created a complex, nuanced and believable universe populated by various species. Can you tell me a bit about the process of world-building? What kinds of things were important to you, what you paid attention to, what questions you asked yourself and what you wanted the end result to be.
A lot of my worldbuilding is developed as I write, and then I come back later to flesh it out and make sure it’s consistent. Of course, I’ll plan out some of the details beforehand, but I think there’s always a danger of sinking too much time into writing extensive notes and details on worldbuilding rather than concentrating on the actual story! So I prefer to worldbuild as I write, and use plot points or character interactions to delve into what different planets or species or factions might be like. I can then come back and add more details later on.
One of the key parts of worldbuilding for me is creating a sense of place. Particularly with planets or cities, or even ships, I like to describe the world based on the characters’ interactions with it—what they experience with their senses, how they move around in it, how it treats them etc. I think that really helps to ground people in the story and feel like they’re experiencing it along with the character rather than learning through an infodump full of details. A few people have told me they can vividly picture my settings and scenes like they’re watching a movie, which I always like to hear as I think that cinematic quality can really help readers feel immersed in the story.
How did you keep track of all the planets, species, powers and relationships between them?
A big cheat sheet in a Word document! I basically have different sections for planets, characters, species, factions and list everything I mention in the books with a brief description to keep myself right. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget something as simple as a character’s eye colour!
What was the most challenging thing about creating the world of Those Left Behind?
Probably trying to balance all the different POV characters and give them equal weight and importance in the story. I knew from the beginning I didn’t want one or two main characters and a couple of secondary characters—all five POV characters are important to the overarching story, even if they’re involved in different things. So I wanted their own individual storylines to feel unique and interesting while also tying in to the main narrative at the same time. It was a lot to juggle, but I think it worked out in the end!
What did you enjoy the most while working on the book?
I love delving into a character’s motivations and history and seeing how that shapes the decisions they make during the story. Having different characters play off each other in different ways—whether that’s friendship, conflict, flirtation or something else—is really fun to do and it’s often these little character interactions in quieter moments that are the most enjoyable to write.
In particular, Niole and Rhendar’s developing trust and friendship was a really rewarding relationship to write, and I also had a lot of unexpected fun with the trio of Ridley, Halressan and Drexious!
I also liked establishing the setting and describing the planets. Part of the reason I love Star Wars so much is the variety of different planets across the galaxy, and I really wanted to capture that feel of exploring lots of different ecosystems and climates and cultures. We visit eight different planets in the first book, plus a number of ships and space stations, and there are five more new ones to be introduced in book 2!
What should the readers expect from book 2 and when are you planning to publish it?
The next book will be titled ‘Those Once Forgotten’ and is due to be released in April. You can expect higher stakes, more conflict between the different factions, heightened emotions, new planets to explore and the mystery around the waystations to start to unravel.
There’s often an impression that middle books serve as filler, with all the big, important scenes happening in the final book, but I wanted this book to have a real impact and follow through on some key moments rather than just setting them up for the next book. I think there will be plenty of twists and turns and gut-wrenching moments to keep readers hooked throughout!
Can’t wait! Do you think interstellar travel will be possible in the future? What kind of future do you see for humanity? What kind of future would you like us to have?
I definitely hope so! I love reading about space and all the technological developments happening as we explore further and further. I would love to see the moment the first human steps foot on Mars—I think it would be incredible to witness history happening like that.
I’m a massive fan of the Expanse and I love the whole concept of humanity’s colonization of Mars and the Belt…but maybe we could do without the brutal wars and protomolecule side of things!
Haha, yes, we should definitely try to avoid all that stuff :). Is there anything that makes you hopeful about the future?
I think you have to be hopeful! Sometimes it feels like the world can be a terrible place, but I also believe that we’re capable of amazing things, and it would be nice to think we can use that to do some good, whether it’s at home or out there in the stars somewhere!
I like this thinking! What do you do for fun?
I read/watch/play any kind of medium that involves fantasy and science fiction! I love the genre so much and can easily get hooked on a good book, TV show, movie or video game that I can get lost in.
I also used to do a bit of rock climbing, but that has been on pause for pretty much all of the pandemic. My goal in 2022 is to get back into it—for fitness reasons as well as enjoyment!
What kind of sci-fi do you like reading? What do you look for in sci-fi and other genres that you read?
My favourite kind of sci-fi is a character-driven story. I’m not one for really dense or overly-technical details when it comes to technology—I much prefer the sociological side of science fiction where characters and their relationships are at the heart of the story. Same with fantasy—I love exploring fascinating characters, creatures and magic in a strange world I can escape to.
Could you recommend a few great sci-fi books?
The Expanse – James S. A. Corey: This is possibly my favourite series of all time. I love the characters, the politics between the different factions, the overarching mystery of the protomolecule alien technology, just everything about it works so well. Plus I read the final book in the series recently and it absolutely sticks the landing, which after 9 books is no easy feat!
A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine: I love this book (and its sequel) so much! It’s got a really distinctive prose style that I find very lyrical and beautiful to read, and the characters are so endearing. It almost starts as a bit of a murder mystery but is so much more than that – lots of themes of colonization, language, power structures and shared/collective memories which I find fascinating.
A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers: I always say Becky Chambers’ books are less like following a story and more like diving into her world for a visit, meeting lots of interesting characters, learning about different alien cultures and lots of wholesome, heartwarming content in between. Maybe not for someone who really needs a strong plot, but full of great character moments.
Chilling Effect – Valerie Valdes: This book is so fun. It’s FULL of humour, and the main character is a bit of an asshole but you can’t help but love her and enjoy all the messes she gets into and out of. It gets almost over the top in terms of hijinks sometimes, but it made me laugh all the way through and the characters are really fun. A slightly dysfunctional but found family crew, alien romance, psychic cats, lots of action and drama!
If you could visit a world described in one of the books you’ve read, where would you go and why?
Most of the books I read have worlds that seem much too horrific or dangerous to go visit haha! I would probably choose one of the worlds from Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, as I love the coming together of all the different species and there’s so much optimism in the world she creates. Or maybe Teixcalaan from Arkady Martine’s books, as the culture and language aspects seem really fascinating.
You’ve mentioned that you like playing story-driven RPGs. What are some of your favorite games and what do you like about them?
Knights of the Old Republic was the game that got me hooked on story-driven RPGs. I loved Star Wars anyway, but this game took it to another level! I’m not so much a fan of open-world games—I like the story to be the main focus and being able to meet interesting characters and unravel a compelling plot which really makes you feel immersed in the setting.
My favourite games include the Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect series. I also played Greedfall last year, which reminded me of the original Dragon Age: Origins a lot and it quickly became a favourite too!
Has playing games influenced your writing?
I love games that have a cast of companions that your character can become friends (or enemies) with, and who travel with you throughout the game as your relationship develops. Maybe this is partly why my writing is so character-driven!
What’s your wildest dream?
I would love to be able to write full-time. Writing is what I love doing and what I’ve always wanted to do, so being able to do it as a full-time job instead of squeezing it in where I can would be a dream come true.
I hope it will come true! If there is anything you’d like to add, please do.
Thank you so much for arranging the interview! I’ve had a lot of fun answering your questions and it’s always nice to reflect on your own writing.
It’s been a pleasure for me too! Thank you so much for doing this <3