The question “Where did you get the idea for Codex Alera”?

The answer “It started with a bet.”

The long answer which follows was transcribed by ImagineaBookSF from Jim Butcher’s Q&A at Encounters Con on October 13, 2013.

So there was a discussion happening that there were two sides to it, and I was kind of the champion of one side, and there was another guy who was the champion of the other, and it was one of those discussions where you read what the other guy has to say and then you just roll your eyes and hit caps lock and start typing. It was one of those discussions.

But anyway, the discussion that was going on was the concept of the presentation skill of the author versus the Holy Idea. Capital H, capital I. Where the other side of the argument said that if your idea is good enough, the idea of the book is what is important, if your idea is good enough it doesn’t matter how bad you write it, it will still be successful, and they said look at Jurassic Park. That was their example, not mine. Jurassic Park, great idea, genetically re-engineering dinosaurs, oooh great story, you can’t fail with that. And then the other side of the argument was, my side of the argument was, is it doesn’t matter how old and tired your idea is if you have a writer who comes in and can put a fresh creative spin on it you can tell a great story that people will love even if it’s an idea they’ve heard many times before. I mean how many versions of Romeo and Juliet have we seen?

So that discussion went back and forth for a while and finally the guy on the other side said “You know what? I want you to put your money where your mouth is. I want you to let me give you a terrible idea and see you write a saleable book out of it.”  And being as I was young and not too bright I looked back at him and said, “You know what, I’ll tell you what, I want you to give me two terrible ideas and I will use them both!”  And this was long before challenge accepted but, you know, it was CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

So the guy says all right, first terrible idea is lost Roman legion. I am so sick of lost Roman legion stories, all the lost Roman legions should have been found by now, lost Roman legion, that’s the first idea. And I’m like good, lost Roman legion, what’s the second idea? And he says “Pokémon”.  And I said ”Fine”.

And I took them, I took the lost Roman legion and I said how am I going to make a story out of this and I said well where is the lost Roman legion going to go? Ah! Land of the Pokémon, got it. They’re going to the Land of the Pokémon. And then I went and researched Roman legions. And I found out that the 9th legion, the big famous missing legion that marched north of Adrian’s Wall and never came back, that they were made up of about half Roman citizens and about half German mercenaries. They would have camp followers and such. I said OK so this is my colonial force, my nucleus of whatever society I am going to build. And they marched into a thunderstorm and they marched out into the Land of the Pokémon.

So I said let’s go research Pokémon. And Pokémon itself is a mixture of two ideas, which is a literalization of the Shinto religion which believes that there is a holy kanji or holy spirit inside of every natural thing. Inside a giant mountain that there is a giant kanji and you’d better respect it. But even inside a little pebble there’s a little kanji and you probably should respect it but if you don’t what’s it going to do, it’s tiny. So Pokémon is a mixture of that idea and professional wrestling.

So I decided to take the kanji part of it, the Shinto part of it, and I said OK I’m going to build this land and they’re going to go to this land where there are these spirits of the divine and everything and what am I going to call them and Big Trouble in Little China was on in the background and [name] goes “all movement in the universe is caused by tension between positive and negative furies” and I went, ooh, furies, it’s even Greco-Roman, and I grabbed it and I said OK we’re going to call them furies and that’s where they are going to go and I dropped them off and gave them a couple of thousand years to ferment and this lost Roman legion showed up and started doing what Roman legions do and conquering and they developed this kind of bifurcated society that was sort of half these big cosmopolitan cities and half these German style freeholds out in the countryside and that was how I built Codex Alera.

So I went back to the list, and the story was coming together pretty well, and I went back to the list and I said you know what, and the guy’s like are you going to post this story and I’m like no, you know what, I’m not going to on account of I really think that this is a pretty good story and I’m going to see if I can’t sell it and he goes so, in other words, I win! And so six books later it’s like yeah man you won. Yeah you won that argument. But that’s where it comes from.

So if you read the first book Furies of Calderon which was originally supposed to be called Shepherd Boy’s Fury, and they wouldn’t let me do that, but if you go read Furies of Calderon and the scene at the ford, it’s kind of the very first fury battle, you can just go and start playing the Pokémon music to that in the background and just have people going “Brutus, I choose you” like that and it totally works.