RJ Mirabal (aka RJ the Story Guy) is a retired high school teacher building a second career as a writer. He’s the author of an adult fantasy series (the Rio Grande Parallax trilogy) and a children’s book (Trixie Finds Her People) inspired by his adventurous rescue dog. His newest release is Dragon Train (2020) which takes young adult readers on a unique quest in a different kind of dragon story. You’ll find RJ at RJTheStoryGuy.com and on Facebook at RJ The Story Guy and Dragon Train Quest Book Series. Read more about RJ and his writing in his 2015, 2017, and 2020 interviews for SouthWest Writers.
What would you like readers to know about the story you tell in Dragon Train?
This is a story that brings together a motherless boy and a mother who fears she will lose her family. The boy’s mother died while he was a child, but he has no memories of her. The mother in the story (not related to the boy) has three children and a mate who are enslaved. She escapes bondage but fears her escape will mean death to her family unless she can rescue them. The boy and the mother team up to attempt a rescue mission. There’s adventure in that quest, but the relationship of a mother without her family and a young man longing for a mother allows them to develop a close bond. I want readers to quickly understand that and watch how the two work together to achieve their mission and find a meaningful relationship with each other.
Who did you write the book for?
The book is aimed mainly at young readers from ages 11 to 15, though advanced younger readers and typical young adult and older readers should find this appealing. Because of the main character and the many action scenes, I suspect boys would enjoy the story the most. The story’s audience includes anyone who likes dragons, a satisfying adventure, and those looking for stories of how mutually rewarding relationships can develop. Readers who enjoy fantasy and elements of magic will like the story because of the existence of dragons in a pastoral society much like the 18th Century. In addition, the fact that Blue Dragons are intelligent and can communicate with humans telepathically makes the story appealing for most any fantasy reader.
What sparked the story idea?
After writing a fantasy trilogy clearly aimed at mature readers, I wanted to write something more appropriate for young readers. I surveyed a number of books in that genre and realized that dragons appealed to me more than vampires, zombies, and the like. However, I wanted to take a new approach to the usual dragon stories, but what?
One evening, as I was dropping off to sleep thinking about dragons, the words “dragon train” popped in my head. Wow, where did that come from? I researched the internet and Amazon and didn’t find anything to do with dragon trains. Later, on an online European book site, Rakuten Kobo, I found a book with that title, but it was a very different instructional story for children. So, I was convinced I had a fresh idea. But do dragons ride on this train or… It occurred to me that because dragons are big, powerful, and can fly, maybe they could tow a train by pulling it as they flew a few feet above the tracks. Dragons could be a source of power in a world where steam power had not been invented yet. But would dragons really want to do that? If they were intelligent — and I was convinced they wouldn’t be interesting characters if they weren’t highly intelligent — would they put up with that? The answer is “no.” They would resist, but clever and devious humans could develop ways to control the dragons. And on went the thought process.
Who are the main characters in the story?
To avoid writing complicated explanations about how the whole situation in the story developed, I decided Skye (a Blue Dragon) and Jaiden (a fifteen-year-old boy) would first become friends. Jaiden, who lives in a small farming town, wouldn’t know much about the world and how dragons were forced to tow trains. This allowed Skye to explain all this through family stories about how the dragons lost control of their lives. Since I needed a major female character, I decided the Blue Dragon would be a mother. The boy begins to think of her as a positive mother-figure and the story develops from that. Jaiden immediately proves himself to be resourceful and fearless when he helps her escape. He continues to be useful as he helps Skye avoid capture by the humans. Her storytelling and their exploits allow the two to bond since each satisfies a need in the other. And since Skye wants to rescue her family before it’s too late, that provided an adventurous quest to attract a decent-minded, but bored, young man who longed for excitement.
What was the most difficult aspect of world building for this book?
Since I had decided I needed a world whose technology didn’t include steam power, I needed to develop details of that world which meant research and some careful thinking about how Blue Dragons (the size of a barn) could be controlled by humans. The fun of fantasy is to create worlds, but you have to make it logical because sharp readers can find flaws if you make it too easy for one group of beings to control another group. However, the intelligence of my dragons, their ability to fly, and their strength allowed them to have dominance over humans just a generation or so before my story takes place, so there is considerable tension between these formidable enemies.
I decided against incorporating a lot of magic because so many fantasy stories depend on it for nearly everything. My challenge as a writer was to find ways that interesting beings and civilizations can overcome one another by means other than magic. However, I did give the dragons the ability to communicate telepathically so that Jaiden and Skye can communicate. That also allowed me to develop the dragons into complex characters. I also included other kinds of dragons such as Gold Dragons and Silver Dragons who are smaller, less intelligent, and have different behaviors than the superior Blues. More will be developed about those dragons in a sequel.
Tell us how Dragon Train came together.
From the inception of the idea to the finished book was a little over a year. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but with help of the critique group I belong to, the book fell into place quicker than I expected. Their careful reading and suggestions gave me confidence I was on the right track, if I can be allowed to make a pun on Dragon Train! I was concerned about cover art because I didn’t know anyone who could design and draw dragons. Through Divergent Art, a website collective of artists, I found a young lady known by the name Celebril, who creates beautiful dragons very much like what I imagined when I thought of Skye. I had an image in my head of Skye towing a train with Jaiden in the lead car holding the reins on Skye as if he were the pilot. Celebril was able to create a remarkable cover matching my vision and her rates were very reasonable.
What did you learn in the process of completely this project that you can apply to your future work?
To format this book and a previous book, Trixie Finds Her People, I acquired a program that allowed me to format the book precisely the way I wanted it to look. Since publishing Dragon Train, I have also learned how to completely format and create print-ready PDF files using a new program that works the same way as In-Design. I’m now ready to produce my own books from beginning to end and use Ingram Spark as my printing/distribution service provider.
Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
First, I eventually realized a writer must learn everything he/she can about writing before trying to get published. Not just the grammar and mechanics, but the process of writing smooth, economical sentences and paragraphs that clearly convey the vision of your story, characters, setting, and theme. And it’s important to find your “voice.” What is, and how do you communicate, your unique perspective of the universe and life as a human being? I found that exploring and discovering those things through writing short works and gaining feedback from fellow writers is how you can learn to write effectively. Without feedback, you’re existing in an echo chamber and may not communicate with anyone beyond the confines of your head. This is what SouthWest Writers, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and my critique group have done for me.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.