Star-crossed love, supernatural evil, and martial arts fuse in Dark Territory, the launch title of The Tracks, HCI Teens’ first foray into young adult fiction. Coauthored by J. Gabriel Gates and Charlene Keel, the July release introduces two teen gangs—wealthy preppies called Toppers and the working-class Flatliners—which both use a strict code of honor and martial-arts skills to battle one another for pride, territory, and survival.

After Gates and Keel became acquainted through a rather unusual route, the series had an uncommonly long gestation period, and found a home at Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based HCI quite serendipitously.

After graduating from Florida State University with a degree in theater, Gates, a Michigan native, moved to Los Angeles, where he acted in TV commercials and penned several screenplays. “I’d also written two novel manuscripts, but like all young writers, I faced the conundrum of finding an agent and getting my manuscripts noticed, and I thought it would be a good idea to network with a more established writer,” he explains. He put an ad on Craigslist (“young author seeks mentor”) and Keel, who has written a dozen novels and how-to books, as well as scripts for popular TV shows, responded.

“It was Charlene’s idea to pitch some ideas to TV networks,” says Gates. “I was taking kung fu classes, and came up with an idea for a TV series called The Tracks—a teen drama with kung fu. Some of my friends had laughed at the idea, but Charlene got it, and so we fleshed the idea out as a treatment for a TV series.” But it never got pitched since Keel moved back to Florida, her home state and, Gates says, “We went our separate ways.”

Then, six years later, Gates says, “Charlene contacted me and said she’d been thinking about The Tracks and thought it would make an awesome teen book series.” Through a mutual friend, Keel met Peter Vegso, HCI’s president and publisher, who asked to see a proposal.”

Though up until now, HCI has published only nonfiction for the YA audience, Vegso was sufficiently impressed with the proposal to sign up the series. ““We saw a very appealing star quality in Gates—his talent bowled us all over,” says HCI director of communications Kim Weiss. She notes that it’s possible that HCI Teens will publish additional fiction in the future, “for now we are focusing on The Tracks.”

Thrilled to have landed a contract for the series, Gates recalls, “I thought, ‘This is fantastic!’ but then realized that, though we had most of the characters in place and the broad strokes of the story arc, I now had to sit down and write 500 fantastic pages of the first novel. That was a daunting moment.”

He and Keel collaborated on the novel via e-mail, with Gates writing the first draft of each chapter, and Keel sending it back to him with her additions and edits. “It was a smooth process, and became more and more so as we got used to working with each other,” Gates recalls.

Carol Rosenberg, HCI’s managing editor and an acquisition editor, who is editing the series, agrees that the coauthors’ collaborative process works well. Though she had never before edited YA fiction, she notes: “I’m an avid reader of fantasy, so for me the genre is like a comfortable, old but stylish, shoe. Editing well-written fiction by such masterful storytellers is truly a pleasure.” Of the series’ specific appeal, she says, “The martial arts, which are so popular among teens, are virtually missing from this genre. This aspect of The Tracks series fills this gap in a realistic and entertaining way.”

To promote the series’ launch, the publisher has created an app, ring tones, wallpaper, and a downloadable poster, available online. Ghost Crown, the second installment of The Tracks, is due in January 2012. Gates will make selected bookstore and school visits. And Gates’s stand-alone teen horror novel, The Sleepwalkers, will be published by HCI Teens in October.

Asked how many novels he expects The Tracks will encompass, Gates replies, “That’s hard to say. I have ideas for four novels and further ideas that could expand it to seven books. I think of this as a literary soap opera. There are so many characters in such a rich world, that I feel it could go on indefinitely. It’s just a question of how long we’re interested in writing it and how long readers are interested in reading it.”

The Trackers: Dark Territory by J. Gabriel Gates and Charlene Keel. HCI Teens, $9.95 paper July ISBN 978-0-7573-1574-7