Welcome, travelers, to a new interview feature. Today, we’re going to be showing you a conversation that we had with one of our long-time collaborators, the wonderful C. J. R. Isely, who has been working on her William of Alamore series (and the adjacent stories and spinoffs) for many, many years now. With the fourth book in the main series on the horizon, it’s a great time to learn more about the author. Read on to discover Isely’s process, her origin story, and what’s next for her.
Tellest: Greetings, C. J.! Thank you for spending time with me and allowing me the opportunity to better introduce you to readers and fans. Every time we speak, you’re always working on the next big project, and I know that time is likely to be rare for you. I very much appreciate it.
You and I have collaborated enough times at this point that I was actually under the impression that we had already conducted an interview. That just goes to show you that there’s always more to discuss and learn, and now I’m very excited to get something concrete in the books. If you’re ready, we’ll jump right in!
C. J. R. Isely: Thanks, Mike. It’s always great when we can collaborate. Let’s get started!
T: I start most of my interviews with the same important beat. I’m looking to see what sort of things inspired you to take your first creative steps. Every artist has someone or something that helped to push them on their journey, and I’m interested in finding out what helped to mold you into the passionate storyteller you are. Did you have a favorite author who sparked some interest in your mind, or did you have a book or TV series or movie that helped to inspire you?
CJRI: Actually, it’s kind of a funny thing, but I’ve discovered that I am descended from quite a few authors. So, I think that had a huge influence. I knew when I was little that my dad had written—though at that time hadn’t published—a western. At that time, I really loved creating stories too. In fact, when I was in first grade or so, the first story I ever wrote was the start of a western. I was homeschooled so when I started writing, we shifted the schedule around so I could actually have writing breaks between other lessons, since I loved it.
But, I learned pretty fast that my writing toward medieval history and fantasy because I’ve been fascinated with the dark ages for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t until later that I found out that I’m the fourth generation of author in the family. So, I would say that has been an interesting piece of family history to uncover, and really did help me get started. In terms of shaping my writing, though, and helping me find voice in the fantasy and medieval genres, I have to say K. M. Grant and J. K. Rowling’s works were near-and-dear to my heart. I keep a copy of Harry Potter and a copy of Grant’s Blood Red Horse always on my office shelf, to help on days when writing seems difficult.
T: How do your other family members feel about you writing not just one book, but a whole set of fantastic stories that help to develop this entirely different world from ours? They’ve got to be excited and proud!
CJRI: That they are! I’ve been very lucky in having an excellent support system of encouragement as I dive into writing. My dad gets especially excited and always comes to me asking for extra copies as he carries one on hand anytime he leaves the house and gives them away to people who mention they like the genre. In 2021 he even changed his fall plans when I won a ticket to the 20 Books to 50k convention so he could go with me. We had a blast and he turned around and went with me—both of us paid our way because the books were doing well—in 2022. My mom always reads my books prior to release and has to let me know her favorites and the characters she feels deserve a side story. And my husband is even the one who helped me redo all the covers. I doubt I could do half as much as I do without them.
T: With as incredible of a shared universe as you have—and a growing one at that—your team also extends beyond your closest supporters. You have a handful of collaborators as well. Your books are all released on Audible, and you’ve amassed quite a bit of talent there. What is it like working with so many people to make a dream like this come true?
CJRI: It’s been fantastic! I have loved working with others, especially in bringing the audiobooks to life. Jordan, my first narrator, ended up stepping away from audio work after The Cutthroat Prince but, at that time, I’d met a found talent who was bringing Shadow of the Sword to life and he said he could take on the series. So, Steve Coleman, who did an amazing job with Laster’s story, has plunged right in and started on The Fallen Heir. He’s been great to work with, always very helpful and he really does an incredible job in giving each character their own voice and life. I was worried when this started that I wouldn’t be able to work with others, not sure how to bring people into the world of Alamore to help it grow, but it’s happened very naturally and I’m so lucky to have met such brilliant people who give these books their heart and soul as well.
T: You mentioned that the books were doing well, but then you qualified that by adding in 2022. Does that mean that they slowed down since? I feel like there’s always been a lack of consistency in the market. Do you think you know what might have caused that bit of change in your output?
CJRI: Well, it has slowed a little bit, but I’m more referring to how they actually took off by percentage of growth in 2022. In 2021, when all was said and done, I could have bought maybe a couple dinners in royalties but not my way to Vegas. After that first 20 Books, they started to grow and that’s how I paid my way. For example, the books went from getting about 30,000 page reads a month on KU in January, February, and March of 2022 to November of 2022, my best month, coming in at a staggering 398,000. That leap really floored me. They’ve slowed a bit since December, but my slowest month since has been 200,000 page reads.
T: I remember when we started off by promoting Ranger of Kings—which is currently a Kindle Deal for the month of May. Since we worked on that, you’ve released four more books set in the world of Alamore, and you’ve got another one set to release later this year in December. How do you stay dedicated to a world like that, and manage to keep things feeling so fresh and entertaining throughout?
CJRI: This was a struggle at first. I used to panic or grow bored with writing certain things, but the William of Alamore series has been a project that I’m very close to, so I’ve been determined to get that series out to the world. The whole series, actually, was written about 12 years ago, while I was in middle and high school, so I have an idea of where it’s going. An idea, but not much more, because I’m a pantser and have been going through all the books and rewriting the series as I go. The fourth book—which I’m actually hoping to drop early since it’s almost through edits already—was a complete rewrite without any of the plot.
There have definitely been days that I wanted to throw in the towel, but I have a few amazing readers who’ve reached out and, when I’m stuck, I remember that this story belongs to the readers as much as me and this is their adventure, too. They want to know what happens to these characters and—being a pantser—I wouldn’t mind knowing it for myself.
T: Speaking of being a pantser, and letting the story kind of tell itself, how do you try and figure out just where to put up rails? What I mean by that is, if you had an idea for how your story was going to go, and your character just sort of up and decided I’m going to take that road there instead of the one that fate had in store for me, how tight would you hold them to the original path?
CJRI: I would venture to say that I have literally no control of my characters. A good example is that, when I was 12, I envisioned the world of Alamore to be an epic fantasy with magic, dragons, and beasts. I got through six books and there wasn’t any of that. It fell right into low fantasy but I honestly love how that happened. For a while, though, I tried to fight tooth and nail to hold on, but now I’ve realized that holding onto my story ideas sometimes runs me straight into writer’s block, so I just offer a nudge in the right direction and back on track.
T: One of my favorite metaphors for unearthing a story is that you have to use a toothbrush to make sure that it’s done without interrupting the flow or strongarming the story into the direction you want it to go. With the way that you allow your characters to let the threads of fate beyond your influence dictate their story, how gentle would you say you are when you’re exploring the content that is perhaps the most mysterious to you?
CJRI: I try to ease into everything for sure. If I am trying to push the story in any which direction, I just tend to know where I am going and try not to over think how I get there. If I do that, I end up with a flat tire at a writers block and delete pages upon pages of work. When I wrote the second book, that happened. I ended up trashing around the equivilent of 170,000 words because I wanted to push the story a certain direction and it didn’t want to go there. There were plot twists that I didn’t truly realize were coming that were continuing to interupt the flow. Once I took a step back and let each character act for themselves, the book came together in very little time.
T: So, you’ve been at this for a long while. Alamore has consumed more than half of your life at this point. How do you go about keeping track of all the details? Are the characters that you write akin to real people at this point? You must have a better understanding of them than most people do about their coworkers!
CJRI: Honestly, I think I do know them better than coworkers at this point! When I first got back into writing this series, after letting it sit around for all those years, I worried that I couldn’t keep them straight. I made all these organized flashcards with character name, description, how they met the MC, etc.… yeah, I don’t even know where those cards are at this point, so I clearly didn’t use them enough! But, something that helps, is that my 12-year-old mind concocted Alamore into being, and the characters, and they had an extra 12 years existing only for me to each have their own story and background.
Some of the side characters that aren’t major fall to the wayside for me, but even they have to have some form of background in my mind, a place they came from to get to that page. I’ve had to flit through prior books to find minor details, but most live in my head with their own stories behind each.
T: How do you think 12-year-old C. J. would react to this fantasy empire you’re building now?
CJRI: She would have been absolutely enthralled with it, though she may have wondered what took me so long in getting it out there to the world! I sometimes still realize I’m that kid at heart when I get a message from a reader telling me that they love the world of Alamore. It gives me that giddy sense that I used to always imagine I would feel when I published. 12-year-old me would have loved to see how far the world of Alamore has come—especially that Laster’s story finally got put to paper in Shadow of the Sword.
T: A while back, you wrote The Falcon and the Stag, which is meant to be an introduction to the world with some content that helps to fill it out and offer some context about how the world has ended up where it is now. What was it like stepping further back in the timeline? Have you ever felt the pull to tell those stories again?
CJRI: Honestly, I didn’t know quite what would happen with that one. It was supposed to be just a super short snippet to give background but, I really loved stepping back in time with those characters. A few of them reappear in another spin-off—Shadow of the Sword—and each, again, has their own background now. That being said, I can’t shake these characters and have been tossing around the idea of writing a few more ‘History of Alamore’ style books that go further back, exploring the reign of King Valren of Alamore, or King Paradon.
T: I’m sure with those flash cards earlier, it helped to some extent, but your world has only grown since then. And with how far things are expanding, have you expanded to things like World Anvil or anything along those lines?
CJRI: No, but I’ve been considering something like that. I feel that, as I break into spin offs especially, I will likely look into a more modern technique of organizing characters, ages, and backstories so they don’t get too tangled in the chaos of creation.
T: Of course, we can’t call this a proper interview without talking about the next big steps in the William of Alamore story. Your fourth book in the main series is set to be released in December of this year. What can you tell us about Rogue Amongst Royals?
CJRI: Well, right off the back, Rogue Amongst Royals is going to bring in a new cast of old enemies, as the main villain hasn’t reared his head before but was glimpsed in a prior book. I am excited for that, as it brings other characters forward, shows again more history and background. The characters are fifteen now, too, so training is intensifying and life at court is changing for them a bit. One of the things I look forward to most, and won’t overshare on, is that the Ranger of Kings will take on a squire himself.
T: That brings me to another point that is very interesting about your stories. Your books focus on a younger cast, but you never really make their age a detriment to their development. Just like in the real dark ages, people were forced to grow up early. What was it like telling these darker stories with a cast of characters who were still coming of age?
CJRI: They really would have. It’s something I’ve always thought interesting and a little terrifying to consider—how much older the youthful years seem when times are hard. When I wrote the books originally, I aged with the cast of characters—though they actually were ahead of me by the final books. This made a big difference, I think, because childhood me was a bit more fearless than the me who’s broken a few bones and doesn’t like to fall now. It makes me more aware that there’s a strength in youth that is, too often, underestimated.
T: Right! There’s a bit of a naivete and fearlessness because we were all made of rubber back then. But that does bring up a bit of a good point. As we grow up as writers, it’s hard to really get a good grasp on what being at that age was like. Now, you’re certainly closer to that age still than I am, but how do you manage to stay truthful to the ideas of youth—the foolhardiness, the risk-taking behavior, first loves?
CJRI: Exactly! Someone probably should have reminded me back then, though, that I wasn’t made of rubber. I’d have fewer scars and old broken bones to show if that was the case. Honestly, I try to remind myself to act childish at times. If it rains, I have two choices—grumble at the mud or jump in it. I’ve taken to calling it ‘my inner Rowan’ and I tend to make myself act and then think, because I’m fairly confident that’s how I handled most of my childhood. It holds true with jumping onto a horse from a fence, going out to shoot archery without an armguard—which I don’t recommend—or falling in love and getting your heart broken for the first time. We dive into everything like we’ll be fine at that age and that’s what I constantly try to remember.
T: While you’re still hard at work with the main William of Alamore series, you did begin exploring side stories in Shadow of the Sword. What other stories are you aiming to tell in the Alamore universe? Are we going to see more spinoffs along the way, or even some other spots in the world that we haven’t seen before?
CJRI: Oh, most certainly! As I mentioned in terms of the past stories, there are some other characters that will likely get their own spin-offs, some may get their own series. The Ranger is one that I have been tossing some ideas around about for a while now, as I think a trilogy about his becoming the Ranger of Kings would be a blast to write. He’s got one of the most in-depth backstories already formulated. Another that I’ve been looking at is Lady Serena, as her backstory would pull people from Alamore and into southern lands, such as Kelkor. Overall, I wouldn’t mind giving most of the knights a background story, and some of the other cast of characters as well.
T: There are certain places in the book series that sort of pop out at you, thanks to the way that you’ve written them. We’re certainly familiar with Alamore castle and the like. But are there places in your world that you’re excited to explore in written form for the first time? Are there places you’re interested in your characters seeing that they haven’t before?
CJRI: Yes! There are some that have been glimpsed—Thornten and Kelkor especially—but cultures and geography outside of the William of Alamore series interests me too and I hope to pull it into future works. I’ve been wanting to explore the northern countries that are ‘off map’ with my readers and have a series in mind that may allow that, as well as the finer details of Alamore geography.
T: Some of the things you do outside of writing are very much things that feel fantasy adjacent. You’re working with horses; you have experience sailing… Do you think you were born in the wrong time period?
CJRI: There are days that I definitely do feel that way! Medieval history has always had such a strong pull for me that I think it would be fascinating to visit the time. I say visit, though, as I think I’d like to have a longer life expectancy than my 30s. So, since I do appreciate electricity and indoor plumbing, maybe I am born in the right timeframe! I just can’t shake the idea, though, that I would love to peer through those times and see the world then. Especially the trades and talents that are almost lost in the modern age. I love knowing what I write about, so riding and getting to know my own horses is very important for me in my writing, as is doing archery, learning a bit of fencing, some hand-to-hand combat, welding and metal work, and sailing. It makes it more entertaining to write those scenes for me, though I have to be careful I don’t get into too much boring detail with all of it when I do.
T: There is a fine line between entertainment and academia! But you manage to always toe the line gracefully. Readers feel like a part of your world because it’s immersive, and they learn some things, even if they don’t realize it at first.
As writers, we have to learn a bunch, too. Though you’ve had some experiences that tie into what happened during the age that your books emulate, there’s certainly been some things that you didn’t have firsthand experience with. What does your research process look like, and do you enjoy it?
CJRI: It can be anything from videos to reading to me getting up and trying something out! Researching for my writing is honestly one of my favorite parts, though it can become a rabbit hole and I get lost for hours if I’m not careful. My process largely is decided by what feature of my writing I’m working on. When it came to the third book, I wanted to get brushed up on some of my sailing knowledge but didn’t want to bore my readers with those details. So, I’ll go over some basics in video form or find easy descriptions of key knowledge on board. But, with fighting, I find it far more interesting. I took a little bit of martial arts, so balance and stance always entertained me to think about or get up and practice. Anything my characters do with horses, I tend to try out—with the exception of trying to mount onto a fast-moving horse. When younger, I attempted it, but my poor mare was so bewildered and kept stopping to let me get on properly.
T: When we’re telling stories, we’re often doing so from a romanticized point of view. What’s something that most authors do that is just completely out of touch from reality, compared to their tales?
CJRI: Over-describe. I have to be careful, because I’ve been known to fall prey to this—especially with horses. But when writing, we will over-describe something that is a normal day-to-day thing for our character. It’s something they might not think twice about, and we’ll spend a page trying to get the reader to understand it. But I’ve realized as a reader that it just takes a person right out of the story and sticks them in front of a textbook. So, I work on describing just enough to make it clear that the character knows what’s being done and that the reader can get a grasp of the idea.
T: Shortly before we came together for this interview, you began a pretty large rebranding lift. Your website has been given a facelift, and your covers have had a fresh coat of paint. What told you in your heart that now was the right time to begin such a large endeavor?
CJRI: It actually has been an internal battle for about a year! I’ve been torn with riding through with my current branding from start to end so that people could have all the books in that style. I felt the covers were good but that they didn’t capture the story. Still, I like matching books and didn’t want people to be left out of that. But, after some serious debate and consideration over the last year, I realized that timing won’t ever be perfect and that I needed to give the best branding possible to find the readers who will enjoy Alamore. So, after talking to some readers and getting their thoughts on if I should get newer covers, I got a few mock-ups and cover ideas, and began pushing for a rebrand. It’s been a lot of work, but book four tips us into the second half of the series, so I figure it’s a great time to plunge ahead with changes for last part of the journey.
T: Now, you say “the last part of the journey”, but does that mean that you’re considering a closing point on all of Alamore, or are you talking about the main William of Alamore series? Can you ever imagine closing the book on Alamore altogether?
CJRI: I would say mainly for the William of Alamore series at this time. I would probably find a closing point for the world of Alamore but it’s not quite there yet. There are a lot of characters who deserve their tales told and the future and past are both wide open. Will’s story, his journey through training as a squire, will always be the foundation of Alamore in my mind.
T: Also, speaking of websites, where could readers and fans go to learn more about you?
CJRI: My website, www.cjrisely.com is usually the best way! I love having readers reach out through there for discussions and thoughts. And, if people don’t want to reach out, there are always fun bits and pieces around the site, such as character art and character backgrounds in the blogs. Soon—I hope soon—there are going to be some extra chapters available on there as well.
T: Bonus chapters are always very much appreciated! I saw that you’re also experimenting with AI to help visualize your characters. How has it been having a tool like that available to help you bring your characters to life in ways that you haven’t had the chance to before?
CJRI: It has been! I was really quite skeptical when I first dabbled in AI but, honestly, I do think there is a certain amount of wisdom in learning to work with the tools of the future. I’m not sure I could handle AI taking over my books and writing for me, but to help piece together characters and create images that can inspire readers, it’s been fantastic.
T: And I do believe that it would be difficult indeed to replace you and your experiences for how to properly tell a tale that has been in your head and heart for so long. I can tell you that I am very excited for the next book to be released, and I’m sure you’ve got plenty of readers who are as well.
Thank you for spending the time to pull back the curtain on these adventures, and on your writing journey. It’s been enlightening, and it’s very interesting to see how your experiences have helped to form the tales in a way that only you could tell them.
CJRI: And thank you, Mike, for spending this time and for all of your support throughout the wild adventures that are the world of Alamore. It’s always a pleasure.
T: I want to once again thank C. J. R. Isely for spending time with us, talking about the books that she’s released, and those that are on the cusp of releasing and beyond. I also want to thank her for drawing back the veil and letting us see what the process of getting here looked like, and what sort of challenges she’s faced and the successes she’s found. We’ve followed Isely for a while, and it’s so exciting to see more new material come out. In fact, in the time between running this interview and publishing it, Isely’s new book has indeed released. You can check out Rogue Amongst Royals (William of Alamore Series Book 4) on Amazon today!
And if you want to start at the beginning, you can check out Ranger of Kings (William of Alamore Series Book 1) on Amazon!
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