Author Nicki Huntsman Smith is a longtime book lover who became hooked on post-apocalyptic fiction as a preteen. Troop of Shadows (2016), Beauty and Dread (2016), and Moving with the Sun (2018) are her first offerings in the Troop of Shadows Chronicles, a series of post-apocalyptic dystopian thrillers that follows the survivors of a global pandemic (sans aliens and zombies) as they fight for their lives and their humanity. Visit Nicki at NickiHuntsmanSmith.com and on her Amazon author page.
What sparked the initial story idea for Troop of Shadows, the first book in the Troup of Shadows Chronicles? At what point did you realize the story was strong enough to carry a series?
I have a lifelong love of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction that began with No Blade of Grass and The Omega Man, which I read as a preteen. I became intrigued with the concept of prepping in 2014 and began researching the subject. After publishing Secrets Under the Mesa, I was ready to write a second book, and a post-apocalyptic, prepper-themed premise sounded fun. I wanted my story to have a twist, though—one that didn’t include zombies or aliens. So I created a unique concept for the pandemic which precipitated the apocalypse. I soon realized that to properly tell my characters’ stories, I would either need to write a 200k-word novel or split it into two books. While writing the sequel, Beauty and Dread, I realized the fundamental story could continue in other settings and with new characters by utilizing one of the more colorful secondary characters as a common thread, connecting one book to the next. There is no limit for this series and populating it with a new cast and providing a new location each time will keep it fresh.
What was the most difficult aspect of world building for the books?
Getting the bleak imagery just right—life without technology and creature comforts—but not going into too much tiresome detail. For example, I allowed readers to conjure their own images of the characters doing their bathroom business under primitive circumstances rather than spelling all that out for them. It was a tricky balance.
Tell us a little about your main characters and why readers will connect with them. After three novels, did your characters still surprise you as you wrote their story?
The four main characters in the first book are Stephen, Julia, Pablo, and Logan. They each have their own third-person, limited narrative POV. Stephen is a prepper whose fierce determination to do more than merely survive in this harsh new world is someone readers can relate to. I was able to share much of my recently acquired prepping know-how through Stephen, the details of which readers will find interesting, I think. Julia is a molecular geneticist. I utilized her scientific dedication to solve the mystery of the pandemic’s origins as a vehicle to explain the pathologies of the disease. Logan is one of several antagonists in the book. He is an intellectually challenged serial killer possessing savant-level proficiency with firearms. Writing from his childlike POV was especially fun (I realize that makes me sound creepy). The more my characters developed, the more helpful they were in writing their own stories. Their personalities and natures determined their choices and actions. Yes, they often surprised me. I love when that happens.
Why did you decide to use the particular settings you chose? Do you consider the setting a character in the books?
I live in North Texas and spent my early childhood in Central Kansas, so I wanted to use at least a couple of settings familiar to me. I don’t consider the setting a character in either of the first two books, but I suppose it is in the third book (Moving with the Sun) because of Florida’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and its inevitable hurricanes.
Did you discover anything interesting or surprising while doing research for the series?
I did a huge amount of research on a variety of unglamorous subjects: electrical engineering, waste management, gasoline and propane storage, firearms, greenhouses, and water wells. What I found the most interesting was food preservation and both the modern and primitive techniques used therein. In my quest for knowledge, I bought a pressure canner. I learned how to preserve meat and other low-acid foods for long-term storage. I have eaten chicken that I canned five years ago, and it tastes as fresh and delicious as if I had cooked it the same day. It’s remarkable that food can be preserved in such a way that it will last for decades with little degradation.
What was your favorite part of putting the Chronicles together?
Creating the characters that propel the story. They became my friends—even the scary ones.
Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I wish I had known I could do it—that I could write a book beginning with “Chapter One” and finish with “The End.”
Besides your series, you’ve also published Secrets Under the Mesa (2014), a standalone sci-fi suspense novel, plus a “creepy anthology” titled Dead Leaves, Dark Corners (2017) that includes a novelette and “thirteen delightfully disturbing short stories.” Of all your book projects, which one was the most challenging and which was the most enjoyable to put together?
The first book I wrote, Secrets Under the Mesa, was the most challenging. It began as a short story which suddenly grew legs long enough to expand to novel-length. I had never written a book and, frankly, didn’t know if I could (or would) finish the thing. It took me a year to write the first draft, and I experienced doubts the entire time. I had the most fun writing Dead Leaves, Dark Corners. I came up with the short story ideas over the course of many months and saved them first on my iPhone and then in a Word document. It’s fun and gratifying to create a world and write a complete story arc in just a few days or weeks.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a standalone novel, The Sublime Seven, which I expect to publish in the spring/summer of 2019. The tagline is: Time Travel with a Transcendent Twist. After I finish writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing, editing, and editing, I’ll publish it and begin work on the fourth book in the Troop of Shadows Chronicles.