When I started to write Empire of Dust I didn’t really know much about my setting. I didn’t build my universe first and then people is and dream up stories. The people came first, and along with them a predicament.
A woman is on the run from a corrupt and dangerous ex-lover. A man who failed once is given a second chance. A cult leader wants to lead his followers to a place where they can make a fresh start. An official of a huge corporation sees a way of benefiting the company and advancing himself, and isn’t too bothered who he has to step on to achieve his aims.
Those themes could fit into almost any setting: Al Capone era America; the South Sea Bubble; present day Delhi; the English Civil War.
I chose to set my story in outer space, five hundred years in the future. Then I had to start building not just one world, but several. Central to everything are the psi-techs, implant enhanced telepaths with a diverse array of other ‘mind’ skills from navigation to manipulating machinery telekinetically.
Cara (a Telepath) and Ben (a Navigator) live in a future in which mankind has learned to travel through the Folds via jump gates. Commerce is king. Megacorporations such as Alphacorp and the Trust are more powerful than any one planetary government, even that of Earth, which is now ruled by the Five Power Alliance. The megacorps race each other to gobble up resources across the galaxy, seeding and controlling new settlements.
Platinum is the vital catalyst required for every jump into and out of foldspace. With each jump a small but significant amount of platinum is lost. Scientists and engineers are working hard to fix the problem, but until then platinum is vital to the operation of interstellar trade. And it’s rare. Super-rare. (All the platinum ever mined throughout the history of our world amounts to less than 25 cubic feet!)
To keep the jump gates open and trade running, the megacorps are constantly searching for more and more platinum. It’s a cut-throat business, sometimes literally. A platinum find can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams – as long as you can stay alive long enough to collect on it.
So that’s the basic set up. Over the next few blogs I’ll be going into the details of how everything fits together in my universe, starting today with the power structure.
The Five Power Alliance When an incoming meteor broke up and simultaneously destroyed the southern USA and large parts of China/Australasia, the breakdown of those countries (and many others that had not been directly struck due to the catastrophic rise in sea levels and dust in the atmosphere) in the resulting Meteorite Winter that lasted for decades a new power structure arose. The Five Power Alliance became a global government consisting of Europe, Africa, Soumerica (led by Brazil), Western Asia and Sino-Russia. Though the megacorps have an economy that outstrips that of Earth, mankind’s mother planet is still the largest centre of human population in the galaxy.
The Megacorporations How did the megacorporations become so powerful in the first place? You only need to look at what’s happening in the world now to see the seeds that might grow into something closely akin to the megacorps in my books. The changing rights of corporations in the USA is fascinating. Extrapolate from there. The corporations which jumped on the space bandwagon early (before the impact) made enormous profits, firstly from research and then when colonies were established, from exploration and trade. In 2210 the Tanaki Dominion Trust (later to be known simply as The Trust) financed the first out-of-system gate between Earth and Chenon (settled by a slower-than-light mission). They used Chenon as a staging post for gate expansion and colony exploration. There has always been intense rivalry between megacorporations, especially in terms of the number of colonies. Takeovers still abound and jockeying for position is rife. The Trust, Arquavisa, Alphacorp, Ramsay-Shorre, Eastin-Heigle etc. play dirty tricks and use whatever advantages they can to establish and keep their position. All megacorporations and aspiring corporations rely on psi-techs, not only in space, but on Earth and in the colonies as well. Each megacorp has its own psi-tech training facility.
The Trust The Trust’s headquarters are just north of Durban in South Africa, one of the most prosperous nations on Earth with its virtual monopoly on Earth’s remaining platinum resources. The Trust’s board of directors is led by Chair and CEO John Hunt, but Victoria (Tori) Le Bon is a rising star. The sub-sections of the Trust are located off-planet, all in different, but well-established colonies. Colony Operations is located on Chenon.
Alphacorp Just a whisker behind the Trust in terms of wealth and influence (and always trying to catch up) Alphacorp runs all its operations from Earth (though they have offices on many colonies). Headquarters is based in Sandnomore in the Saharan Rainforest. CEO and chair of the Board is Akiko Yamada. Alphacorp’s Special Ops unit (run by Ari van Balaiden) is situated in York, England.
Charles Stross: The Family Trade – Merchant Princes #1
Two books, one story. I bought them as individual books, but they are now available in the omnibus The Bloodline Feud.
Damn you, Charlie Stross! I was just getting into this when it ended inconclusively and thereby forcing me to immediately order the second one in the series. Yes, it’s that good!
When Miriam, an investigative journalist, uncovers something dirty and takes the scoop of the century to her boss, she’s immediately sacked along with the analyst whose done some of the research with her. Later, at a loose end, she visits her adoptive mother only to be given a family heirloom, a locket with a strange pattern on the inside. Later, at home, she discovers that pattern enables her to walk between worlds. What meets her in that alternate America is stranger than she ever thought possible. It turns out she’s the long lost heir to a fortune and is part of a clan of families who make millions in the import/export trade and via a series of courier operations, running drugs and high value commodities via various inter-world routes.
The whole new family situation is a vicious tangle of politics. Several different factions seem to want Miriam dead and she doesn’t know who to trust. And then there’s Roland, a somewhat distant cousin, world-walker and her forbidden lover, Can she really trust him?
And just when it’s getting warmed up with Miriam accepting her place in the alternate world and determining that she would make changes from the inside… it stops.
Charles Stross: The Hidden Family – Merchant Princes #2
Ah, good, a satisfying ending to the second Merchant Princes book without tying up all the loose ends. Miriam is now settling into the idea of being Helge, the long lost countess with a whole heap of money at her disposal courtesy of the Clan who walk between worlds and who are settled in an alternate America that’s pretty well stuck in the medieval period. (Castles, mud, poor sanitation and disenfranchised peasants.)
This story opens immediately after The Family Trade finishes and really the two books are one continuous story. At the end of book one Miriam had gone to ground in the regular American world, hiding out with her friend and business partner, Paulette, trying to keep from getting killed by two separate factions from Other America. At the same time she’s trying to move her own plans forward for separating the family from its trade in illegal drug smuggling by proving to them that there are better ways of making more money. She suspects there’s a third world and finds it via a locket taken from a dead assassin.
This book is mostly about Miriam finding that third world, New Britain, and starting up a proftable business in it. It’s another historically diverse America, but still under British rule, at war with the French, so very security oriented, and at a level of technology that thinks steam-driven motor cars and airships are the ideal method of transportation. Miriam’s idea is to take the ideas from old (expired?) patents and sell them as new industrial ideas, starting with brake shoes for steam cars. She’s advancing tech in New Britain while making money from the industrial processes.
But all this has to be done while world walking between the three worlds, which is physically painful and too exhausting to do without resting in between. The only things (or people) that she can bring over must be literally carried across the threshold. So no bringing in fully formed combustion engines.
And there seems to be a new Clan that no one else knows about. They’re based in New Britain and harbour a grudge against the five wealthy world-walking clans in the second world.
This races to a confrontation where Miriam must face the whole Clan in a Special General Meeting (more like a courtroom drama) while at the same time, the mole on the Clan’s power base is moving against them all.
As a year, 2020 sucked bigtime. It was not fit for purpose. If I’d paid good money for it I’d want a refund. Sure, it wasn’t too bad in January and February. The weather was miserable so I mostly stayed in, hiding behind my keyboard. My daughter and family visited for a few days in February, which was nice as we hadn’t seen them at Christmas due to son-in-law not having enough time off to make the visit worthwhile.
Then, in March we started to realise that this Corona virus thingy was real and growing. My mum is 95, so deeply into the endangered age range. We started self-isolating even before the full lockdown was announced. On 13th March my last outting was to collect my new-to-me car, agreed upon (and paid for) earlier in the month. My other half filled it up with petrol on the way home from the garage. That was 12th March, as I write this on 14th December it still has half a tank of petrol. At least we’ve not been contributing to climate change this year.
So from March onwards, we had all our groceries delivered (thank you, Tesco) and kept in touch with family and friends on Skype or Zoom.
All writing events were cancelled, conventions and Milford. I was due to attend the World Science Fiction Convention in New Zealand in July/August, but that dream (and Hobbiton and the Weta Workshop) vanished. Luckily I did get my flight money back thanks to good advice from my excellent travel agent. I was due to attend the Milford Writers’ Retreat in May which didn’t happen, and then the main Milford Workshop week in September was also cancelled. We’ve rolled everything on for both events to May and September 2021. Fingers crossed.
We were due to see our son and his wife in the summer. They are based in Virginia, USA, and were supposed to be running a study tour to Rome for son’s students. Of course, it didn’t happen, and all visits were off. Christmas is a non-starter for them because of the travelling and the 14 day isolation period. But to be honest, even though Boris says we can get together with family, I don’t think we should. It would be so silly to take a risk and fall victim to C-19 just before the vaccine kicks in. I’ve spoken to a lot of my contemporaries and they’re all saying the same thing. The virus doesn’t know it’s Christmas, so let’s not host a super-spreader event. If we get on top of C-19 now, next Christmas should be back to normal.
I kept up with my writing – which consisted mainly of editing The Amber Crown which I signed a contract for (with Daw) in the middle of the summer. At the moment it’s scheduled for publication in January 2022. I’ve seen the cover already but I can’t show you yet. Suffice it to say that I love it.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I’ve done a lot of reading this year and listened to a ton of audiobooks. My reading blog is here: https://jacey.dreamwidth.org/
So as 2020 draws to a close what is there to look forward to in 2021?
Well, there’s Brexit, of course. By the time you read this we might know whether there’s a deal or not, but as I write, hopes are dwindling. Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for Brexit. I’m pretty sure that if there was another referendum right now we’d be staying in the EU, but the Tories seem intent on driving the country off a cliff. Don’t get me started!
I have a short story due out in one of the Zombies Need Brains anthologies in 2021. This antho is called Derelict, so that’s my theme. I’m working on the story now. I don’t have a title yet. Sometimes titles come easily, sometimes I have to wait until a project is finished before I settle on something.
So what am I working on right now? I have a couple of linked books on my hard drive that need thoroughly editing, but I think they’ve got legs. They are set in my Psi-Tech universe, but about a thousand years in the future of Empire of Dust, so there are no characters in common. The action all takes place on one planet, isolated from the space lanes.
As I write they are starting to roll out the Covid-19 vaccine in the UK. Mum should have hers in the first batch of local shots. BB and I will be in the queue as soon as we’re allowed. Once vaccinated, I hope we can catch up with friends and family again. BB and I have a significant wedding anniversary coming up in August, so we’re hoping to have a bit of a do. Fingers crossed.
Wishing you all a hopeful and healthy 2021. May you succeed in all your endeavours.
I really liked this one. Telepathy, space travel, adventure, a damaged heroine and tormented telepathic hero. What’s not to like? Sirantha Jax carries the J-gene that enables her to jump ships across space. It’s a talent that’s likely to kill her. At 33 she’s already survived all her classmates who’ve burned out and cracked up or died on the job. It makes her a navigator-star of the Corp until she’s blamed for the accident that kills seventy people including her pilot and lover, Kai. Banged up in a psych facility her ‘doctors’ are setting her up to break her so she takes the fall for the crash and she looks all set to end up on a prison planet or in an asylum. And then March walks into her life – literally – and whisks her out of the lock-up into a desperate situation which becomes even more dire when he delivers her to a bunch of renegades who want to break the Corp’s stranglehold on jump transport. Various adventures follow as the Corp hunts Jax down while she and March and their oddball crew race to find the source of the J-gene to establish a new breed of jumper. There are battles with bloodthirsty predators, rival clans, the deadly Morgut, one of March’s old enemies, Corps goons’ and a shapeshifting bounty hunter that turns out to be not such a bad guy after all. And at the end there’s a big showdown. March and Jax versus the Corps. No prizes for guessing who wins. It’s an action adventure romance with a heroine full of attitude.
It’s well worth reading the whole series. Jax and March, together and independently, teeter from one crisis to another and neither of them succeeds without paying a hefty price, physically and mentally. There are six books altogether: Grimspace, Wanderlust, Doubleblind, Killbox, Aftermath, and Endgame.
I have two blogs, this one and a book blog at https://jacey.dreamwidth.org/ where I blog every book I read and every movie I see in the cinema – that one’s a bit thin on movies this year, but rich on reading. What I don’t blog about is deeply personal stuff. There’s such a thing as oversharing.
However I thought you might like a quick peep into what I do when I’m not writing.
In my other life I’m a music booking agent for folk musicians in the UK. For obvious reasons that’s a bit quiet at the moment. Covid-19 has eliminated a lot of work for arts professionals – and that includes performers, sound and lighting technicians, roadies, tour managers, venue staff and yes, managers and booking agents too. With lockdown all gigs have been cancelled until… at least summer 2021 depending on how fast they roll the vaccine out. I’ve rearranged some tours into 2022.
But let us not look at the blip that is Covid-19. Hopefully the arts scene will begin to recover once the vaccine has been widely deployed. I’m not here to moan. I’ve been in the music industry since 1985 when I became a performer with three-part a cappella harmony group Artisan with my husband, Brian Bedford and our very talented singist friend Hilary Spencer. I suppose you could classify us as folk, but we slide across the boundaries of a few other styles, too.
We got together to sing at a fundraising night in our local village hall, discovered we had a good blend of voices, started singing at local folk clubs (the nearest American equivalent is the coffeehouse) and people began to ask us to go back… for money. It took a few years but by 1988 we knew we were going to go professional, so in 1989 we gave up the day jobs and with a pretty full diary of gigs, went for it full time, singing songs in three part harmony. We started off singing traditional and contemporary songs but it didn’t take long before Brian was writing all our songs. This is one of his. The tune is quite lovely.
What Am I Bid?
What am I bid for a bell with no sound In a carpet of blue by a stream? I’ll bid you a dream
And what am I bid for a single rose With a guard of thorns the fool soon knows? I’ll bid what I’ve seen
I pity the man who sees no need For the silent bell for the worthless weed I pity the man that needs to own And keep for himself what was freely grown
So what am I bid for a bell with no sound In a carpet of blue by a stream? I’ll bid you a dream~
What am I bid for the dawn I see Mounted here in a window frame? I’ll bid you my name
What am I bid for the virgin kiss And the memories of my youth? I’ll bid you the truth
I pity the man who has to buy The painted smile and the sculpted cry The woodland scene of what might have been And view it alone, in a vault of stone
So what am I bid for the dawn I see Mounted here in a window frame? I’ll bid you my name
Is it going once to the shifty nod? Is it going twice to the builders hod? Is it going cheap to the rich mans heirs? It’s obscene to buy shares In a single rose or a silent bell I’ll bid them to Hell
So what am I bid for the single rose With it’s guard of thorns the fool soon knows? I’ll bid that it grows
And what am I bid for the bells with no sound And the streams by which they dwell? I’ll bid them farewell
Friends kept asking us if we could earn enough, especially since Brian and I had two kids – then aged 7 and 10. We simply said, “Define enough.” We were doing what we loved and managing to keep the kids in shoes. In truth, singing isn’t the best paid job in the world, but we had twenty wonderful years on the road. We were indie before it became a thing. We made fourteen albums, one video tape (remember those?) and one DVD. (All the albums and the DVD are still available on the Artisan website.) We toured the length and breadth of Great Britain and also played in Belgium, Germany, Australia (and Hong Kong on the way) – and from 1995 to 2005 we did thirty one tours to the USA and Canada, playing festivals and venues, making lots of friends and driving several thousand miles. We’ve sung to 20,000 people at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and three people and the landlord’s dog in a pub in Folkestone in the middle of a snowstorm.We did our regukar concerts all year round and then in December we toured all over with our Christmas Show. (Yes, we have Christmas albums as well.) If you want to hear what we sounded like, there are samples on our album page, and links to audience-uploaded vids on Youtube.
All things come to an end, though, and in 2005, though we still loved singing, we’d had enough of travelling. We’re still friends and we never say never again, so we did reunion tours in 2010 (withb another new album, Random Play) and 2015, and we will still occasionally come out of retirement for a festival or a charity gig.
In 1996 we met the fabulous Canadian band, Tanglefoot at a festival in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I tried to get our (then) agent to book a UK tour for them, but he wasn’t able to do it, so I did. In 1998, the first Tanglefoot tour marked the beginning of my agency, which I still run. I book gigs for artists from abroad, including the wonderful Zulu Tradition and Ritchie-Parrish-Ritchie which is the band Tanglefoot morphed into after ten years of UK tours. I also book gigs for UK artists, and I facilitate Tier 5 immigration paperwork for artists from outside the EU (and from January 2021 for artists from the EU as well, depending on Brexit and what our government manages to negotiate). You can see what I do here on my agency website. What does an agent do? I research suitable venues and approach them to host a gig for my artist. If they say yes I negotiate the details, send out the contract, send publicity materials to the venue, and pass all the relevant information on to the artist. If artists are travelling from outside the UK I will often have them stay with us between gigs. It makes it easier for them and it’s fun for us. That’s not something most agents do, but I’ve turned into something of a music-mum over the years.
So where does my writing fit in to all that? I sold my first short story in 1998, then several more short stories while I was both Artisanning and agenting, and then my first full length novel in 2013, by which time the writing was only competing with the agency for my time.
I have six novels out now and the seventh, The Amber Crown, will be out at the beginning of 2022, published by DAW in the USA.
I’ll be perfectly honest, though I liked the first Raine Benares book, Magic Lost, Trouble Found I wasn’t 100% in love with it. Luckily I liked it enough to get the second book, Armed and Magical, which picks up just days after the first book ends. Raine Benares, daughter of the criminally active Benares clan, is a small-time sorceress, a seeker, who has just, in the last book, become magically twinned with the Saghred, a soul-sucking Goblin stone of unimaginable dark power. She’s either its guardian or its servant. Which one of them will come out on top is by no means clear.
She’s come to the Isle of Mid, where the Conclave of Mages rules, in order to find a mage wily enough to unhook her from the stone. All she wants is her life back, but the stone has other ideas, and so do the factions that want to use it through her. The Goblins, sexy dark and dangerous, think it’s theirs. The Elves, gorgeous, light and equally dangerous want to keep it out of the Goblins’ hands and since Raine is an Elf they think she’s theirs. The Mages and their Conclave Guardians (think: magical police force) want to keep it locked away where it can’t do any damage. Rival mages just want to see Raine dead because they think she’s as dangerous as the stone. And its previous owner, nutty as a really poisonous fruit cake and supposedly dead a thousand years ago, wants it back and he doesn’t care how many souls he has to sacrifice to get it.
On Raine’s side is her dashing, piratical cousin Phaelan, her young spellsinger friend Piaras, now a student at the magic college, and (probably) the archmagus himself, plus Mychael, head of the Conclave Guardians, a hunky, spellsinging elf who is obviously head over heels in love with Raine, but that won’t strand in the way of his duty. If the Conclave says lock her up, he’ll do it.
This has a simple but twisty get-out-of-this-if-you-can theme. Raine has to avoid all attempts to gain control over her and the Saghred while keeping Piaras safe, protecting her own hide and thwarting the plans of at least four different factions. There’s a slow-burning romance, almost unacknowledged, between Mychael and Raine and a passionate attraction between Raine and her old friend/adversary Tam, a reformed Dark Mage – or is he… reformed that is.
By the time I’d read this I was totally hooked on the series. There are seven books in the main series with (so far) another two set in the same world featuring the handsome goblin Tam Nathratch, and Raine’s pirate relative, the criminally gifted Phelan Benares. Though these read like standard fantasy the flavour or much more contemporary and upbeat, more akin to urban fantasy, fast paced and exciting.
This was first written for Tiffani Angus’ blog. Tiff teaches creative writing and publishing. Story interspersed with my comments in bold italic.
This first scene pretty much sprang into my mind fully formed. When I started to write I didn’t know the details and I didn’t know where it was going, but I had a solid impression of a young woman standing in the shadows of her dying mother’s bedroom, filled with resentment for something that happened in the past. I wasn’t even sure of the time period. It could have been anything from medieval to Victorian. After a lot of thought I settled on 1800, towards the end of the Enlightenment period, and in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. George III is on the throne (and suffering occasional bouts of madness), America has gained its independence, at some cost, and Napoleon is raging across the continent.
The setting is Plymouth, which is somewhere I haven’t been for a long time, but as a child/teen I went to Devon for family holidays. I remember Sutton Pool and the walls of the Citadel quite vividly. It’s become so much busier, now, of course. Sutton Pool is a crowded marina (you can see it all on Google Earth) but it still maps beautifully on to old plans of Plymouth streets. This is where the Mayflower sailed from.
If you want to read the whole scene straight through without comments before you look at the annotations, go here.
Or simply, read on…
The stuffy bedroom stank of sickness with an underlying taint of old lady, stale urine and unwashed clothes, poorly disguised with attar of roses. I’d never thought to return to Plymouth, to the house I’d once called home; a house with memories so bitter that I’d tried to scour them from my mind with salt water and blood.
Had something in my own magic drawn me back? I didn’t know why it should, though it still had the capacity to surprise me. I could control it at sea, but on land it gnawed at my insides. Even here, less than a mile from the harbour, power pulsed through my veins, heating my blood. I needed to take ship soon before I lost control.
I added the second paragraph later during the editing process because I realised I needed to put magic on the table right at the beginning of the book.
Little wonder that I’d felt no need to return home since eloping with Will.
Just dropping in a little teaser about the past. The important reveal comes later.
My ears adjusted to the muffled street sounds, my eyes to the curtained gloom. I began to pick out familiar shapes in the shadows, each one bringing back a memory and all of them painful.
She has such vivid recollections of an unhappy childhood. She was suddenly been replaced in her parents’ affections by a brother. The longed-for BOY. The heavy dark wood furniture is brooding and oppressive. I wanted the reader to taste that room, the bitterness, the old-lady staleness, the wooden furniture.
The dressing table with its monstrously carved lion mask and paw feet was where I had once sat and experimented with my mother’s face powder and patches, earning a beating with the back of a hairbrush for the mess.
The tall bed–a mountain to a small child–upon which I had first seen the tiny, shawl-wrapped form of my brother, Philip, the new son and heir, pride and joy, in my mother’s arms.
And there was the ornate screen I’d once hidden behind, trapped accidentally in some small mischief, to witness a larger mischief when my mother took Larien, our rowankind bondsman, to her lonely bed. I hadn’t known, then, what was happening beneath the covers, but I’d instinctively known that I shouldn’t be a witness, so I’d swallowed my puzzlement and kept silent.
No explanation yet, but the rowankind bondservants are wrapped tightly into the main plot line. I needed to drop them in here and expand on them later. We will meet Larien again, later in the book.
Now, the heaped covers on that same bed stirred and shifted.
“Philip?” Her voice trembled and her hand fluttered to her breast. “Am I dreaming?”
Even after all this time, her mother still thinks of the brother first.
My stomach churned and my magic flared. I swallowed hard, pushed it down and did my best to keep my voice low and level. “No, Mother, it’s me.”
“Rossalinde? Good God! Dressed like a man! You never had a sense of decorum.”
So now we get the name and the information that Rossalinde is in man’s clothing, and that she’s comfortable dressing that way. I hope I slipped that in without hitting it with a brick. NOTE I avoided the trap of Ross seeing herself in the mirror on the dressing table and describing herself.
It wasn’t a question of decorum. It was my armour. I wore the persona as well as the clothes.
“Don’t just stand there, come closer.” My mother beckoned me into the gloom. “Help me up.”
She had no expectation that I would disobey, so I didn’t. I put my right arm under hers and my left arm round her frail shoulders and eased her into a sitting position, hearing her sharp indrawn gasp as I moved her. I plumped up pillows, stepped back and turned away, needing the distance.
Ross immediately slips back into being the obedient daughter and then realises that she doesn’t have to any more, so she grabs a little personal space. I wanted to show that Ross’ relationship with her mother is multi-dimensional. She still wishes that things were different.
I twitched the curtain back from the sash window an inch or two to check that the street outside was still empty, listening hard for any sound of disturbance in the normality of Twiling Avenue–a disturbance that might indicate a hue and cry heading in my direction. I’d crept into the house via a back entrance through the next door neighbour’s shrubbery. The hedge surrounding the house across the street rippled as if a bird had fled its shelter. I waited to see if there was any further movement, but there wasn’t. So far there was nothing beyond the faint cries of the vendors in the market two streets over and the raucous clamour of the wheeling gulls.
‘Hue and cry’ I was going for slightly more archaic language and this would have been current at the time. Twiling Avenue is invented, but it’s on the very edge of the town in a place where there could have been a fine Georgian house. I’ve used maps of Plymouth at the time to chart Ross’ later progress through the town.
Satisfied that I was safe for now, I turned back to find my mother had closed her eyes for a moment. She snatched a series of shallow breaths before she gave one long sigh.And now we know that Ross is in danger, a fugitive, and half suspects this is a trap. She’s taken a big risk coming back to her family home. Opening her eyes again she regarded me long and steady. “Life as a pirate’s whore certainly seems to suit you.”
Her mother is full of bitterness too. If she wants reconciliation, she’s certainly not going to admit it.
“Yes, Mother.” Pirate’s whore! I pressed my lips together. It wasn’t worth arguing. She was wrong on both counts, pirate and whore. As privateers we cruised under Letters of Marque from Mad King George for prizes of French merchantmen, Bonaparte’s supply vessels. As to the whore part, Will and I had married almost seven years ago.
Another mention of Will. This also sets the timescale. Ross and her mother have not seen each other for seven years.
“So you finally risked your neck to come and say good-bye. I wondered how long it would take. You’re almost too late.”
I didn’t answer.
“Oh, come on, girl, don’t beat about the bush. My belly’s swollen tight as a football. This damn growth is sucking the life out of me. Does it make you happy to see me like this? Do you think I deserve it?”
I shook my head, only half sure I meant it. Damn her! She still had me where it hurt. I’d come to dance on her grave and found it empty.
I really liked this phrase. ‘I’d come to dance on her grave and found it empty.’ Sorry for being smug.
“What’s the matter?”
I waited for Cat got your tongue? but it didn’t come.
An echo of previous arguments.
“Give me some light, girl.”
I went to open the curtains.
“No, keep the day away. Lamp light’s kinder.”
I could have brightened the room with magic, but magic–specifically my use of it–had driven a wedge between us. She had wanted a world of safety and comfort with the only serious concerns being those of fashion and taste, acceptable manners and suitable suitors. Instead she’d been faced with my unacceptable talents.
I begin to peel back the layers of their mother/daughter relationship. Magic is one of the causes of their estrangement (in addition to the elopement with Will.)
I struck a phosphor match from the inlaid silver box on the table, lifted the lamp glass and lit the wick. It guttered and smoked like cheap penny whale oil. My mother’s standards were slipping.
This foreshadows her mother’s later revelation that the money has run out.
I took a deep breath… then, to show that she didn’t have complete control of the proceedings, I flopped down into the chair beside the bed, trying to look more casual than I felt.
Her iron grey hair was not many shades lighter than when I’d last seen her, seven years ago. Her skin was pale and translucent, but still unblemished. She’d always had good skin, my mother; still tight at fifty, as mine would probably be if the wind and the salt didn’t ruin it, or if the Mysterium didn’t hang me for a witch first.
She’s still trying to maintain both an emotional and a physical distance, but she can’t resist studying her mother’s features. And we get a little teaser about why she’s in danger. The Mysterium hangs witches. (Or at least, unregistered ones.)
She caught me studying her. “You really didn’t expect to see me alive, did you?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t known what to expect.
“But you came all the same.”
“I had to.” I still wasn’t sure why.
There is a solid magical reason, but we don’t find out until much later in the book. Ross’ mother knows, but she’s not going to let on. This is just a tiny bit of foreshadowing.
“Yes, you did.” She smirked. “Did you think to pick over my bones and see what I’d left you in my will?”
No, old woman, to confront you one last time and see if you still have the same effect on me. I cleared my throat. “I don’t want your money.”
“Good, because I have none.” She pushed herself forward off her pillows with one elbow. “Every last penny from your father’s investments has gone to pay the bills. I’ve had to sell the plate and my jewellery, such as it was. All that’s left is show. This disease has saved me from the workhouse.” She sank back. “Don’t say you’re sorry.”
“I won’t… because I’m not.”
Leaving had been the best thing I’d ever done. Life with Will had been infinitely more tender than it had ever been at home. I didn’t regret a minute of it. I wished there had been more.
So where is Will now? I’m laying groundwork for the reveal.
The harridan regarded me through half-closed eyes. “Have I got any by-blow grandchildren I should know about?”
“No.” There had been one, born early, but the little mite had not lasted beyond his second day. She didn’t need to know that.
“Not up to it, is he, this Redbeard of yours? Or have you unmanned him with your witchcraft?”
I ignored her taunts. “What do you want, forgiveness? Reconciliation?”
“What do I want?” She screwed her face up in the semblance of a laugh, but it turned to a grimace.
“You nearly got us killed, Mother, or have you conveniently forgotten?”
“That murdering thief took what was mine.”
That would be the ship she was talking about, not me.
Her mother was more annoyed that Ross and Will took the vessel that was supposed to have been Ross’ dowry, than she was about Ross running off.
“That murdering thief, as you put it, saved my life.”
And my soul and my sanity, but I didn’t tell her that. He’d taught me to be a man by day and a woman by night, to use a sword and pistol and to captain a ship. He’d been my love, my strength and my mentor. Since his death I’d been Captain Redbeard Tremayne in his stead–three years a privateer captain in my own right.
“Is he with you now?”
“He’s always with me.”
That wasn’t a lie. Will’s ghost showed up at the most unlikely times, sometimes as nothing more than a whisper on the wind.
So Ross’ happy-ever-after was short lived, but here I introduce Will’s ghost who is a major character in what becomes a love triangle later in the book. We don’t actually meet Will’s ghost until the next chapter, but he’s a jealous ghost and also slightly ambivalent. Ghosts don’t always have the same goal in death as they did in life.
“So you only came to gloat and to see what was left.”
“I don’t want anything of yours. I never did.”
“Oh, don’t worry, what’s coming to you is not mine. I’m only passing it on… one final obligation to the past.” Her voice, still sharp, caught in her throat and she coughed.
“Do you want a drink?” I asked, suddenly seeing her as a lonely and sick old woman.
“I want nothing from you.” She screwed up her eyes. Her hand went to her belly. I could only stand by while she struggled against whatever pain wracked her body.
Ross might be ready for reconciliation if her mother gave the slightest opportunity, but her mother isn’t going to relent.
Finally she spoke again. “In the chest at the foot of the bed, below the sheet.”
I knelt and ran my fingers across it. It had been my father’s first sea-chest, oak with a tarnished brass binding. I let my fingers linger over his initials burnt into the top. He’d been an absentee father, always away on one long voyage after another, but I’d loved his homecomings: the feel of his scratchy beard on my cheek as he hugged me, the smell of sea salt and pipe tobacco.
I pulled open the catch and lifted the lid.
“Don’t disturb things. Feel beneath the left hand edge.”
I slid my hand under the folded linen. My fingers touched something smooth and cool. I felt the snap and fizz of magic and jerked back, but it was too late, the thing, whatever it was, had already tasted me. Damn my mother. What had she done?
I drew the object out to look and found it to be a small, polished, wooden box, not much deeper than my thumb. I’d never seen its like before, but I knew winterwood when I saw it, and knew full well what it was. The grain held a rainbow from the gold of oak, to the rich red of mahogany, shot through with ebony hues. It sat comfortably in the palm of my hand, so finely crafted it was almost seamless.
My magic rose up to meet it.
I tried the lid. “It’s locked. Is this some kind of riddle?”
She had an odd expression on her face. “Your inheritance.”
“How does it open? What’s inside it?”
“That’s for you to find out. I never wanted any of it.”
My head was full of questions. My mother hated magic, even the sleight of hand tricks of street illusionists. How could this be any inheritance of mine? Yet, I felt that it was.
Mother deliberately tricked Ross into touching the object. It shows she knows more about magic than she’s ever let on, but Ross doesn’t realise this at the time. Ross getting the box is the inciting incident that kicks off the whole story.
I turned the box around in my hands. There was something trapped inside that wanted its freedom. No point in asking if anyone had tried to saw it open. You don’t work ensorcelled winterwood with human tools.
Wrapping both hands around the box, I could feel it was alive with promise. It didn’t seem to have a taint of the black about it, but it didn’t have to be dark magic to be dangerous.
I shuddered. “I don’t want it.”
Instant rejection of the ‘call to adventure’ if you subscribe to ‘The Hero’s Journey.’
“It’s yours now. You’ve touched it. I’ve never handled it without gloves.”
“Where did it come from?”
She shook her head. “Family.”
“Neither you nor Father ever mentioned family, not even my grandparents.”
“Long gone, all of them. Gone and forgotten.”
“I don’t even know their names.”
“And better that way. We left all that behind us. We started afresh, your father and I, making our own place in society. It wasn’t easy even in this tarry-trousers town. Your ancestors companied with royalty, you know, though much good it did them in the end. You’re a lady, Rossalinde, not a hoyden.” She winced, but whether from the memories or the pain I couldn’t tell. “That blasted thing is all that’s left of the past. It followed me, but it’s too much to… ” Her voice tailed off, then she rallied. “I wasn’t having any of it. It’s your responsibility now. I meant to give it to you when you came of age.” She narrowed her eyes and glared at me. “How old are you, anyway?”
‘hoyden’ I tried to use words in keeping with the century without losing the immediate appeal of contemporary dialogue. You tread a fine line when writing about the past, so I tried to keep the dialogue free from contemporary words with a light sprinkling of words that feel period-appropriate.
I was lean and hard from life at sea. You didn’t go soft in my line of work. “I’m not yet five and twenty, Mother.” I held up the box and stared at it. “What if I can’t open it?”
“I suppose you’ll have to pass it on to the next generation.”
“There won’t be a next generation.”
She shrugged and waved me away with one hand.
“Give it to Philip.” I held it out to her, but she shrank back from it and her eyes moistened at my brother’s name. What had he been up to now? Likely he was the one who’d spent all her money. I hadn’t seen Philip for seven years, but I doubted he’d reformed in that time. He’d been a sweet babe, but had grown into a spoilt brat, manipulative and selfish, and last I saw he was carrying his boyhood traits into adolescence, turning into an opportunist with a slippery tongue.
“Always to the firstborn. But you’re behind the times, girl. Philip’s dead. Dead these last seven months.” Her voice broke on the last words.
“Dead?” I must have sounded stupid, but an early death was the last thing I’d envisioned for Philip.
The grievances I’d held against him for years melted away in an instant. All I could think of was the child who’d followed me round begging that I give him a horsey ride, or told him a story.
“A duel. In London. A matter of honour was the way it was written to me.”
“Oh.” It was such an ineffectual thing to say, but right at that moment I didn’t really know how I felt. Had Philip actually developed a sense of honour as he grew? Was there a better side to my brother that I’d never seen? I hoped so.
Ross would like to think the best of Philip. This foreshadows something that happens later in the book when Philip reappears, not dead after all, and she gives him the benefit of the doubt, which is a bad move.
“Is that all you can say? You didn’t deserve a brother. You never had any love for him.”
I let that go. It wasn’t true.
“I thought you might have changed.”
My mother’s words startled me and I realised my mind had wandered into the past. Stay sharp. This might yet be a trap, some petty revenge for the wrongs she perceived that I heaped on her: loss of wealth, loss of station; loss of son. Next she’d be blaming me for the loss of my father, though only the sea was to blame for that.
“That’s all I’ve got for you.” She turned away from me. “It’s done. Now, get out.”
“I’m ready for my medicine.”
Probably laudanum. She’s about to take an overdose. She’s done what she needed to do – pass on the box – and now she welcomes a quick death rather than a slow and painful one from cancer.
I knew it would be the last time I’d see her. I wanted to say how sorry I was. Sorry for ruining her life; sorry for Philip’s death. I wanted to take her frail body in my arms and hold her like I could never remember her holding me, but there was nothing between us except bitterness. Even dying, there was no forgiveness.
Even as she thinks this, she knows it will never happen.
I turned and walked out, not looking back.
I wrote this scene to find out what was happening, who my protagonist was and what major factors were going to shape the action. It’s largely survived intact through all the edits. What do we know about Rossalinde at the end of this scene?
She’s not yet 25. She eloped 7 years ago with Will Tremayne. They were together for 4 years before he died, and since then she’s dressed in men’s clothes and taken his place as captain of their privateer ship. As privateers they have letters or marque from the crown. She’s pretty obviously a strong woman, but in this scene she’s vulnerable. She has magic and the Mysterium will hang her if they catch her. (We don’t yet know what the Mysterium is.) She’s worried that this visit to her mother’s deathbed is a trap and that she’s been followed.
There was a child, but he did not live.
Ross had a brother called Philip. She resented him as a child, when he replaced her in her parents’ affections. She might have cared for him, but he turned into a spoiled brat. And now he’s dead, which jolts her as she never expected him to die young.
Ross would accept reconciliation if her mother was open to it, but the old woman is going to hold on to her grievances until the bitter end. She has one last duty to discharge, to pass on the box made of ensorcelled wood.
Both the Mysterium and a rowankind bondsman have been mentioned but not explained. The rowankind was named as Larien. All are vital to the future plot.
By the time I finished writing this the whole story had coalesced in my mind – maybe not the detail, but I knew what the main plot was, and how it would end.
You can buy my books from Amazon on both sides of the Atlantic. In North America it’s also available on Kindle and as ebooks from Barnes and Noble, and from good independent bookstores. Buy books, make an author very happy.
Published by Angry Robot, The Alchemist of Souls, Merchant of Dreams, and The Prince of Lies are the three books in Anne Lyle’s Night’s Mask Trilogy, set in Elizabethan London with (kind of) aliens. Queen Elizabeth has married, produced heirs and is now widowed. Voyagers to the New World have found a race of non-human skraylings who have a strange kind of magic that humans have barely fathomed. One of these talents is the ability to be reborn. It’s against Skrayling law to be reincarnated as a human, but renegade skraylings exist, known as guisers, and they are dangerous. Skrayling-human politics are finely balanced. The crown appreciates Skrayling trade – even depends on it – while at the same time fearing the strangers. The Skraylings also have their own internal political struggles and factions.
In the first book Mal Catelyn, well-born but now a down-on-his-luck soldier of fortune, is hired as bodyguard to the new skrayling ambassador to London, it’s not by accident. He has to overcome his own prejudices, and guilt for what his family once did. He’s on an even steeper learning curve when he also gets hired by Walsingham, the queen’s spymaster. A job he can’t refuse. Mal’s in a tricky position, a secret Catholic, he has to hide his faith, but he has other secrets, too. His twin brother Sandy, incarcerated in Bedlam, is just one of them, but what Mal learns from the Skrayling ambassador turns his world upside down and gives him an even bigger secret to guard.
The second book is a satisfyingly convoluted plot involving French politics, a cross-dressing female, Mal’s brother, Sandy (sometimes Skrayling, sometimes not) and a spying mission to Venice on behalf of Walsingham.
In the third book Mal has been knighted for his efforts and now, at last, has his old home reinstated, his brother returned to sanity, a wife and an adopted son. But there’s a plot afoot. The queen’s grandchild is a guiser, human seeming but with a Skrayling soul and his aim is to take the throne. Mal must stop him, but killing the queen’s grandchild is hardly an option, so in this book Mal fights magic with magic. There’s a satisfactory – if bittersweet – conclusion to the whole trilogy.
I love the setting, the characters and the complexity of this trilogy, and it doesn’t hurt that the covers are gorgeous. Highly recommended.
2020 has not been the year it was supposed to be. (Not fit for purpose. Can I get a refund?) I didn’t get anywhere as much writing done as I could have, but I read, and re-read an awful lot. Some of these books have been lockdown lifesavers. Now that gifty time of year is almost on us, Time to start ordering. Here are my recommendations.
Of course, I’d love it if you bought my books too, for yourself or for your friends. Buying their books is the best present you can give any author. Go to my website at http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk for details of mine. Copies are available via Amazon in the UK or Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or any good bookshop in the USA and Canada. (I heartily recommend Bakka-Phoenix Books in Toronto; one of my favourite SF bookstores.)
And while you’re at it, when I sang with Artisan we made a number of CDs – all still available – including some Christmas themed ones which make good gifts. If you like harmony singing, go and take a listen: http://artisan-harmony.com/albums.htm
Anything by Jodie Taylor. Her St Mary’s books feature a bunch of disaster magnets who investigate historical events in contemporary time. (Don’t call it time travel.) Start with Just one Damn Thing After Another. This year’s offering is Plan for the Worst, the 11th book in the series with a delicious reveal about Markham as a twist in the tale. (Markham is one of my favourite characters.)Books are light and funny with a serious thread running through. New out this year is Hard Time – the second book of the Time Police. If you want to start with the first it’s Doing Time. This is a spin off series from the Main St Mary’s novels featuring Matthew Farrell, offspring of St Mary’s regulars, Max and Leon. Ms Taylor also writes the Frogmorton Farm series starting with The Nothing Girl. I’ve never read a book of hers that I didn’t like.
Anything by Lois McMaster Bujold. She writes both fantasy and science fiction. My current favourite book is Curse of Chalion, a fantasy set in a country not unlike medieval Spain featuring the best hero ever, Cazaril. Her Science fiction is set in the universe of the Vorkosigan family, dubbed the Vorkosiverse by fans. The first two book (chronologically) are the duo now available as Cordelia’s Honour, about Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan, but the main character in most of the books is Miles Vorkosigan, their song. Born stunted and brittle-bones onto a society with a proud warrior tradition, Mikes has to thing his way out of situations that his overthinking has got him into in the first place. The Warrior’s Apprenticeis a good starting place.
John Scalzi’sInterdependency trilogy is thoroughly absorbing. Set in a universe where the routes between human habitats are gradually disappearing. Start with The Collapsing Empire, then The Consuming Fire, and finally, The Last Emperox.
Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer is set in the aftermath of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies in 1815. Here are six separate interwoven (and sometimes desperate) stories, connected only by the effects of the Year Without a Summer. More literary/historical than SF.
Juliet E McKenna has written a series of books about a half Dryad who (because of his heritage) ends up dealing with magical threats from British myth and legend. Start with The Green Man’s Son, and then go on to The Green Man’s Foe. This year’s offering is The Green Man’s Silence. Think: urban fantasy gone rural.
I’ve read two very different books by Katherine Addison this year: The Goblin Emperor a fantasy with a lot of court intrigue, and The Angel of the Crows which is set in a variant of Victorian London, and riffs off Sherlock. Both excellent.
My friend, Liz Williams, has an excellent new book out, Comet Weather, featuring four very different sisters, attuned to the magic around them, in search of their missing mother. Highly recommended.
T. Kingfisher is the pen name of well-loved children’s author, Ursula Vernon. She writes grown-up books as T. Kingfisher. This year’s books are A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, (which would also be fine for a teen reader). My absolute favourite of hers, however, is Swordheart, which I read last year. Also Paladin’s Grace – another fantastic romantic fantasy book.
Last year I discovered the Greatcoats quartet by Sebastien de Castell. I loved these so much I raced through all four back to back. Titles are: Traitor’s Blade,Knight’s Shadow, Saint’s Blood, and Tyrant’s Throne. Four books, one long story.
I’ve mentioned Leigh Bardugo on previous book lists. I still think Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are the best things she’s written. Massively complex characters, dark plot lines. These are supposedly YA books, but I think they are better than her more recent book which is supposedly for adults.
If you like light, racy historical romances, you can’t do much better than Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton and Rokesby books. The two families are intertwined. She handles historical romance with a light touch. Expect humour and witty dialogue. The Bridgertons are soon to be a TV series. It doesn’t matter if you don’t read in order.
Thoroughly absorbing, interesting characters who are changed by events that happen to them, great backstory, twisty plot in the front-story leading to nail-biting tension. Highly recommended.
Trying not to give away too many spoilers we get to see the formation of the Gentlemen Bastards, a gang of young men devoted to the gentle art of thievery in a fantasy analogue of Venice. Through inserted backstory interludes we see them as starveling orphans being gradually educated and moulded into a five-man gang so close-mouthed that even the other thieves in the city (and the Capa who rules them all) don’t know what they get up to.
Locke is a cocky child, too clever for his own good, who grows up into a cocky Gentleman Bastard devising elaborate scams to part the rich from their money. The balance of power changes with the arrival of the Grey King and his powerful bondmage, a challenge to the Capa Barsavi and his stable rule of the underworld, and an even bigger challenge to Locke and his gang who, as it turns out, are still too clever for their own good.
This builds from Locke’s success through setback upon setback. There are penalties and consequences for everyone, but a very satisfying conclusion kept me up reading way later than I should.
There are two more Gentleman Bastard books, also excellent, and potentially one more, as yet unpublished, if it ever appears.
I was supposed to be going to the World Science Fiction Convention in New Zealand this year, a country I’ve never been to, even though I visited Ausralia in 2000. Australia and NZ look conveniently close when viewed on a world map, but believe me, they aren’t. I’d done my research, checked out trains for travelling from Auckland to Wellington, sussed out potential visits to Hobbiton, the Weta Workshop and geothermal and cultural sites. I found out lots of things I didn’t know, but it’s not a substitute for being there.
So this is my trip to Tallinn in 2017, which was a research trip tagged on to another Worldcon trip. This blog was first posted on August 21, 2017
Following my trip to the World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, I took a side trip to Tallinn to do some research for my novel-in-progress ‘The Amber Crown’ set in an analogue of the Baltic States in a time period roughly equivalent to the mid 1600s. It’s only a couple of hours by ferry from Finland to Estonia.
It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to do an actual research trip, and I’m so glad I did because there were things which I couldn’t possibly have learned from a guidebook. Getting a general feel for the place was just the start of it.
So what did I learn by being there?
Cobbles are very difficult to walk on. Most of the streets I think of as cobbled in England are actually paved with flattish stone sets (as are some of the Tallinn Streets) but Estonian cobbles are round-topped, uneven in size and shape, and really easy to trip and slip on. Street chases will have to be re-thought.
We took a horse-drawn trip round the Old Town in a landau-type of carriage drawn by a single (gorgeous) Friesian horse. The horse didn’t seem to have problems with either the cobbles or the stone sets, but the carriage was a bumpy ride despite the springing – and that was at a sedate walk. In an older type of unsprung vehicle any pace faster than a walk would be likely to shake your teeth out of your head.
I knew Tallinn (or Reval as it was called way-back-when) was one of the northern outposts of the Hanseatic League, that confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns which dominated Northern Europe and the Baltic maritime trade for three centuries from the Gulf of Finland through the Skagerrack and the Kattegat to the North Sea. I hadn’t realised, however, how enormous the Hansa influence was.
The medieval buildings are very different from English Medieval architecture, and houses are not unlike the frontages in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels in terms of the colour-washed walls, the steep gables (houses often gable-end on to the road) and the multiple rows of tiny attic windows set into red tiled roofs. Could this commonality be to do with ideas spread via the Hanseatic League?
The architectural style is labelled ‘Gothic’. Since I always associated Gothic architecture with the great sweeping cathedrals such as York Minster, all pointy windows and flying buttresses, I’m not sure Gothic in this context means what I think it means.
6 Kuninga Street
Helpful wall plaques
6 Kuninga Street. The frontage is to the left of the plan. Keldrikorrus mean basement in Estonian.
This is a blurry shot (no flash photography or tripods allowed) of a fireplace in the Tallinn City Museum with a strange lowered ceiling supported by a masonry pillar. This wasn’t a one-off, similar constructions appear all over the town.
I looked up Tallinn’s architecture on the web and found (on visittallinn.ee) which seems to back up my ideas about the Hanseatic League:
The most important period in the architectural development of Tallinn was 13-16th century. Tallinn’s gothic architecture was influenced by the architecture of the island of Gotland, Lower Rhine and Westfalen and subsequently by the architecture of the Hanseatic Towns and the German Order. Local construction material – limestone – added character to the architecture.
In the 15th century (Late Gothic era), a town hall, guild building, convent buildings and residential houses were built in the town. These are characterised by the high dormers on the high-stretched facades. Of the different layouts, the prevalent type of house was that with two rooms, a diele and a dornse. A diele is a spacious room that extends to the height of two storeys with a fireplace at the back wall; this type of building was primarily used as an office or workshop. And behind it was the dornse – a living room with hot-air heating. The upstairs, cellars and attics were used as storage rooms.
Tallinn’s town plan is largely unaltered from the 13th and 14th centuries, with narrow streets and even narrower alleyways. Unlike Medieval York where streets such as The Shambles are tunnel-like because of the cantilevered upper floors hanging over the road, the houses of Tallinn are straight up, and then up some more, with narrow houses rising three or four storeys and then two further levels of windows in the steep pitch of the red-tiled roofs. There are plenty of houses which might have been merchants’ houses because they have a crane over a tall doorway on the upper floors and – according to a model in the city museum – the upper floors in the roof-space were often used as storage. Though it would seem logical to store heavy goods on, or close to, ground level, I guess that using the attics for storage was also good for security.
Tallinn Town Hall.
Almost every entrance to a medieval building was either up or down steps – sometimes just one or two, sometimes seven or eight. Of course, street levels may have changed. (They’re not likely to be the same stone sets and cobbles from the 1600s or earlier, though to be fair the medieval doorways did not appear to be compromised by a significant change in street level.) The ‘ground’ floors of many shops (such as the old apothecary’s shop still running as a pharmacy is half a flight of steps up (with, no doubt, a cellar below). The Town Hall entrance is down half a flight of steps, so the lowest level (a vaulted space, probably once a cellar) is half above/half below street level. The old steps to the next upper level are massively steep and narrow, and there’s a similar set of steps to the ‘posh’ bit, i.e. the council chamber and court room. (Luckily there’s a newer stair that we discovered after climbing the first flight and that meant we didn’t have to brave the second flight and could exit via the easier steps.)
Town Hall interior
I am always humbled when I travel abroad that English is spoken in so many countries, at least in the main tourist centres. In today’s Tallinn I heard Russian, French, German, Japanese and a number of Nordic languages which my ear couldn’t differentiate from Estonian – Finnish and Swedish, I expect. But most people had a smattering of English and many people spoke it well and almost unaccented. And so it must have been when Tallinn was a great trading port. I doubt that English was common, but to trade with Germany, Sweden and Russia, there must have been a core of multi-lingual people, at least in the port area and the trading heart of the city.
In addition to all the things I gleaned that are useful for my book, I also discovered that Tallinn is just as beautiful as its reputation says and that I want to go back there some day.
Tip for first time Tallinn tourists. Avoid the bicycle taxis from the ferry port to the city. They’ll charge you twice as much as they originally quoted by saying the price is per person, and lie about being able to take you into the Old Town itself, leaving you to lug heavy cases from the Viru Gate to your hotel. (Luckily that was only a short walk for us.) So the last thing I learned from Tallinn is that there’s always someone willing to take advantage of a stranger. A good lesson.
Short story collections don’t sell. Everyone in publishing will tell you that.
Every writer who has a few short stories under their belt loves the idea of having them collected into a slim volume. Unfortunately, very few people are interested in reading them.
Best selling authors have the clout to get their anthologies publised. You can see them smiling in the publicity photographs, delighted to have their precious children are out there in the world. Look closely and you’ll see their agent and editor exchanging glances in the background. They’re waiting for their charge to get it out of their system so they can get back to writing another novel. That’s where the real money is.
And that’s best selling authors. You’d have to be mad to write a short story collection.
I didn’t intend to write Midway. I had an idea for a novel sit in an old cotton mill near where I live. I was working on the preliminary notes when my father took ill. The next six months, the last months of his life, threw everything into turmoil. The mill stories got caught up in my thoughts at the time and became my way of dealing with the situation. I wrote little else that year, but it didn’t matter. Midway was my catharsis. But I finished the book and life moved on.
I wondered at first about seeking publication. The stories were very personal. It was my wife who persuaded me to send them out into the world. As she pointed out, other people had been through the same thing. They might find them helpful.
It turns out she was right. This is the first book I’ve written that my friends have read. By that I mean my non writer friends, my friends who aren’t SF or Fantasy fans. The vast majority of the people I know, in other words.
Of course, my friends have bought my books in the past, but that was just out of politeness. They read the first chapter, but it wasn’t for them. I don’t have a problem with that, we all have different tastes and interests.
But to my surprise this book connects with many people. No, not to my surprise. My wife said it first, and she was right. This book is for people who’ve been through the same thing. People who recognise the situations depicted in it.
Someone said to me: this book made me cry. Well, that’s why I wrote it, to try and understand those feelings. I think I understand them better now.
So, the book is out, it’s published. If it sells a hundred copies I’ll be delighted, but it doesn’t matter.
Any book which opens with the main protagonist swinging by his heels in Hell has got my attention from page one. This grabbed me and never let me go.
Det. Insp. Chen is the cop whose responsibilities include the underworld as it impinges upon his city – the franchise city of Singapore 3. He’s a snake agent, one of the people who can travel between earth and Hell, so when a murdered young woman’s soul fails to end up in the realm above where it was destined to go, Chen has to follow the clues to Hell and back uncovering corruption in the highest echelons. He’s teamed with his Hellish counterpart the Seneschal Zhu Irzh, demon vice cop. Starsky and Hutch they are not, but there’s an element of the buddy-cop story as each character gets the measure of the other. Chen also has to avoid his wife’s relatives who are understandably miffed as she’s a demon he snatched from Hell before the story begins with a guardian who is sometimes a badger and other times a teakettle.
This is the first of Liz William’s Detective Inspector Chen books and introduces us to the strange and wonderful world of Singapore 3 where ordinary mortals, if they know what they’re doing, can travel between earth, hell and heaven – and return again. The background is richly drawn. The interweaving of myth, legend and imagination combines flawlessly. Highly recommended.
I’m currently reading/listening to Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari who says that early farmers did not domesticate wheat, wheat domesticated them. By the process of gradually farming it rather than gathering wild grains, early farmers (previously nomadic) began to stay in one camp for increasingly long periods to take advantage of wild (then planted) wheat until eventually they built small settlements. From then on they became a slave to their wheat, tending it, protecting it and finally harvesting and storing it. Thus they became domesticated by virtue of growing rather than gathering grain.
I’m being domesticated by my garden.
Google defines domesticated thus:
(of an animal) tame and kept as a pet or on a farm. – “domesticated dogs”
(of a plant) cultivated for food; naturalized. -“domesticated crops”
Humorous – (especially of a man) fond of home life and housework.
I’m not sure about the ‘especially of a man’ thing. I’ve never been very domesticated as in ‘fond of housework’ but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve become domesticated by my own apple trees.
There’s a silly meme that Yorkshire folks are parsimonious.
“A Yorkshireman is like a Scotsman with the generosity squeezed out of him.”
“A Yorkshireman would cut a ha’penny in half.”
In my case it manifests as not wanting to waste anything, so after seven or eight years of giving us no fruit at all, a couple of years ago our apple trees decided to deliver a modest harvest of apples, I was determined to make use of them. The bigger ones I peeled, sliced and oven-dried (yummy) and the smaller or less than perfect ones I turned into apple jelly. And because there’s only so much basic apple jelly that you can eat or give away I started to experiment.
I made apple jelly with:
You can, no doubt, see a theme developing.
Having bought a jam pan, and not wishing to waste it (i.e. leave it standing idle) I made strawberry jam and rhubarb jam with our own fruit which I’d frozen earlier in the season. At a friend’s request I bought gooseberries to make jam. It would have been cheaper to buy gooseberry jam, so I’ve since planted gooseberry bushes and hope to make it with my own fruit next year. I’ve also put in blackcurrants and jostaberries (a cross between gooseberry and blackcurrant). I have space for raspberries to go in next year.
Those on my side of the Atlantic will acknowledge the looming threat of Brexit, since our government (no, I didn’t vote for them) seems determined to drive us off the edge of a cliff with no tradedeals in place by the deadline of 31st December 2020. So with food security in mind we returned to our raised beds (neglected for a few years), bought seeds, sowed and planted our vegetable garden. We put in onions, beans (broad and runner), peas (snap and pod), cabbage, beetroot, kohlrabi (purple and white), cauliflower, parsnips, carrots (yellow and orange varieties), garlic and six different varieties of courgettes. The much neglected strawberry bed continued to produce though we had to grab the fruit before the slugs did.
So when Covid-19 hit, and the UK went into social isolation, we already had a head start on the garden and it absorbed some of our lockdown time. It helped to keep us sane to be honest. We were completely self-sufficient in vegetables during July, August and September. As I write this at the beginning of October we’ve only just begun to supplement what’s in the garden with a few items shop-bought veg. The greenhouse has produced four different varieties of tomatoes, Purple Ukraine, Ruthie, Yellow Submarine, and Pink Tiger. I have new potatoes and fantastic onions in store, and carrots and parsnips still in the ground. The leeks are growing nicely, and we’re planting chard, kale, savoy cabbage and Brussels sprouts and swede for the winter and will put in onion sets and broad beans to overwinter and produce earlier crops next spring.
That’s real domestication for you. I don’t know whether to be pleased or horrified!
And just because I couldn’t resist… here’s my Calendar Girls photo (complete with lockdown hair) without the embarrassment of getting undressed! What whoppers!
Everyone has their favourite Heyer. This is one of mine.
When Crazy Jack Staple, lately of Wellington’s army returns to civilian life after the defeat of Napoleon, he finds that there’s not much to satisfy the adrenaline junkie he’s become, and no woman who really interests him. Then, while escaping from his boring cousin’s boring houseparty he rides into Derbyshire to visit a friend and puts up for the night at a lonely toll gate cottage when he finds the gate-keeper has left his ten year old son, Ben, alone and petrified.
Jack not only finds a mystery, but he finds romance in the shape of Nell, granddaughter of the ailing squire, competent and capable, and somewhat too tall for polite society and the ‘ton.’ It’s love at first sight for Jack, but since he’s masquerading as the gatekeeper’s cousin Nell takes a bit of convincing, however her retainers (faithful groom and nurse/companion) have no qualms about Jack and quickly decide that he’s Nell’s likely saviour as she’ll soon be ousted from her home when her grandfather dies (as he has left it to her the obvious male heir, her unsympathetic cousin).
At its heart this is as much mystery as romance. The keeper, Ben’s father, only stepped out for an hour, but now he’s missing. Nell’s odious cousin and his even more odious friend have installed themselves in the manor which the cousin hopes soon to inherit, but they don’t seem to have a very good reason for doing so. There’s a good-hearted highwayman and a Bow Street Runner sniffing around.
Jack latches on to the mystery, determined to solve it and so the romance almost takes a back seat until romance and mystery collide. There’s much more derring-do than in Heyer’s usual Regency Romances and it fairly bounds along to a pistols and fisticuffs conclusion.
The characters are well-drawn from Jack and Nell, to Nell’s grandfather, once a sportsman and now laid low by a stroke, but far from unaware that something is amiss. The low characters nearly all speak thieves cant, which is probably unrealistic as they aren’t all thieves. Jack manages passable cant-speak, too and I suspect Ms Heyer had access to Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) on her desk as she comes out with words like ‘jobbernoll’ and ‘slumguzzle’ and phrases like ‘dicked in the head.’
There’s a lot of information to keep in your head if you’re writing a book. There’s even more if you’re writing a trilogy or a series.
I happily wrote seven books without having a single style sheet… and then I got published.
Empire of Dust, the first book to be published (not by any means the first book I wrote) was duly delivered, went through the editing stage (content editing, that is) and then, when the story was as good as we (the editor and I) could make it, it went off to be copy edited.
At that point I started to get questions. Was it jumpgate, jump gate or jump-gate? Should telepath be capitalised or not? Was it Arquavisa or Arquevisa because I’d spelled it both ways. At that point I realised that although I thought I’d (mostly) been consistent (except where I hadn’t), it wasn’t immediately obvious to the copy editor.
Also there were words of phrases that I’d appropriated that meant something slightly different in my universe. House gold was a type of beer. Telepath was capitalised when it was an implant-enhanced Telepath, a psi-tech, but not when it referred to a natural telepath or telepathy. The Folds (capitalised) was the proper name of that supposedly empty space between jump gates (not hyphenated), but foldspace (not capitalised) was a type of space, not a proper name. Jump drive was not hyphenated to jump-drive unless it was a compound modifier.
All that and more.
I didn’t have a style sheet. It was a rookie mistake, and one I’ve not made since.
The copy editor of Empire of Dust had to make a style sheet of every name, unusual phrase etc. and the publisher very kindly passed it on. I used it as the basis of a series style sheet for all the Psi-Tech novels. I’m still using it.
Every character name is on there (twice – listed as Fred SMITH (m.) and SMITH, Fred (m.) so I can find it whether I look it up under surname or forename. (Surname always capitalised, just so I know.) Every hyphenation is on there where there’s a choice of whether to hyphenate or not. Every place name is on there. Every unusual phrase is on there.
So every time you start a new book have a file open for your style sheet. Every time you decide whether or not to hyphenate a term, stick it on there. Every time you introduce a new character, or invent a new place, stick it on there. Every time you use a new swear word, stick it on there (especially if you decide to use frell or frack instead of the obvious four letter word).
Since mine has become a series style sheet, if I kill off a character I note it on the style sheet (and which book they die in), so I don’t accidentally have a walk-on character appear while dead, which would be very embarrassing.
I use Scrivener to write my first draft (and probably second), but my style sheet is a word doc. I use a twenty-three inch screen, so I can have Scrivener and Word open alongside each other while I work. And, of course, Scrivener incorporates places for your research and your character files, so you don’t need detail on your style sheet, just enough of a reminder so that the copy editor knows what’s what.
Whenever I deliver a finished book to my publisher I send the latest version of the style sheet. It saves a lot of questions. I don’t get to communicate with the copy editor while the process is going on, but the managing editor at DAW (not my book editor) goes through any changes I don’t like or don’t understand, and we usually reach a compromise. (There are some Americanisms that I don’t like such as ‘gotten’ or ‘in back’ unless they are part of an American character’s dialogue.) I don’t always get the same copy editor as I had for the last book, and even if I do, they aren’t guaranteed to remember what went before any more than I am.
So do yourself a favour… when you start a new book, make a style sheet as you go along. Note every new character, every new place, every word that has multiple spelling or hyphenation or capitalisation options. You’ll be glad you did.
Joe Abercrombie never fails to disappoint. After thoroughly exhausting myself reading his First Law trilogy towards the back end of 2011 it took taken me a while to come to Best Served Cold. I anticipated reading it last year but knew I didn’t have the time to do it justice. Now, at last I’ve managed it. And I was right. It took time to read, but every page was a gruesome delight.
Abercrombie’s writing is dense and gritty. He’s not afraid to explore the darker side of his characters – indeed sometimes you feel as though they are all darkness – but twisted through the darkness is even blacker humour. Don’t get me wrong, Best Served Cold is anything but a comedy, but it’s saved from unrelenting grimness by the reality of the emotions.
Visceral and brutal, described as ‘splatterpunk sword and sorcery’ by George RR Martin, I shouldn’t love these books as much as I do, but yet it’s the very moral ambiguity of the characters that draws me in – characters who do wicked deeds for good reasons and good deeds for bad reasons.
Set in the same world as the First Law Trilogy and employing some of the peripheral characters from those books, this moves to Styria, outside the Union. Monza, is the Snake of Talins, the Butcher of Caprile. For Duke Orso she and her brother Benna have slaughtered their way across the land at the head of the Thousand Swords. Monza with a sword in her hand, Benna backing her up with sly guile and ruthless ambition. It’s all going as well as death and destruction can go until Orso, frightened that she and Benna are getting too popular, arranges for their death.
Benna is killed, but Monza survives, broken and scarred, and begins her quest for revenge on the perpetrators, Orso, his two sons, the mercenary from the Thousand Swords who betrayed her to take her place, the banker who helped finance it, Orso’s foremost general and his personal bodyguard. Seven men she has sworn to kill. And to help her do this she engages a northern barbarian, an ex-con, a pair of poisoners, and the man she betrayed when she took charge of the thousand swords herself, plus assorted other turncoats and crooks.
It’s hard to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad, but to paraphrase from the book: this is war, there is no right side. The action rolls from one bloody revenge killing to the next, with plenty of collateral damage, but Monza doesn’t care about that as long as she gets her men in the end. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but it doesn’t always taste sweet. Monza’s single-mindedness doesn’t only destroy her enemies.
But at the end of the sprawling, brawling 600+ dense blood-filled pages there’s a glimmer of… is it redemption? Maybe. It’s enough.
Very highly recommended if you’ve got the stomach and the time.
As humans we look for patterns. Three is the smallest number of elements that can form a pattern. Superstition suggests that three is the magic number, or that both bad things and good things come in threes (depending on who you ask). Storytellers, orators and writers employ the rule of three. If you want something to stick in your reader/listener/audience’s mind, use the rule of three.
Friends, Romans, countrymen…
Blood, sweat and tears
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Faith, hope and charity
Is it any wonder that stories rely on threes. We have Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three Wise Men, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Three Musketeers, The Book of Three, Three Men and a Baby, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. It’s no coincidence that when you rub the magic lamp, wishes come in threes, or that Macbeth encounters witches in threes, as indeed do Terry Pratchett’s readers when they meet Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat.
Plays have three acts. Stories have beginnings middles and ends… and trilogies have three times beginnings middles and ends – firstly in each book, and then an overarching beginning middle and end for the whole trilogy.
Confession: I have committed trilogy – twice! And both times by accident.
Once upon a time, as a very novice writer, I set out to write a trilogy. I found myself an agent (I think it was beginner’s luck) and she shopped around my Book One. In the meantime I continued to write Book Two. Unfortunately Book One didn’t sell, though I still have the we-nearly-bought-this letter from HarperCollins. At that point I realised I’d spent two years writing a second book which would never sell if the first one didn’t. Rookie mistake. Bummer.
So after that I determined to write standalones that had potential for follow up books.
Skip forward a number of years, and a couple of agents…. I’d submitted Winterwood to DAW‘s slushpile after an introduction from a writer friend. In July 2013 I got the email I’d been waiting for all my life. Sheila Gilbert said, “I want to buy your book.” And just like that all my birthdays and Christmasses came at once. And then she uttered those miraculous words, “What else have you got?”
By that time I had seven completed novels sitting on my hard drive. Sheila bought Empire of Dust and Winterwood, the two that were destined to become the first books in the Psi-Tech Trilogy and the Rowankind Trilogy. And on a one page synopsis I’d hastily cobbled together, she ordered a sequel to Empire – as yet unnamed. (That one became Crossways.) Sure I’d thought about the possibility of writing sequels, and I had ideas, but I hadn’t committed anything to paper – it was all mush and fluff in my head.
I’m a neither a complete pantser nor a meticulous plotter. I fall somewhere between the two. I start out with a solid beginning, and I have a good idea of how I want the story to finish, but in between my vague plot often simply says ‘stuff happens’. Anyhow, as my relationship with DAW developed I ended up with a further two book deal – for the third Psi-Tech book, Nimbus, and the second Rowankind book, Silverwolf – and then a single deal for the final book in the Rowankind trilogy – this time simply titled, Rowankind. In each case I knew – even before contracts were signed – that I was going to get the opportunity to finish the whole trilogy, so I was able to shape the beginning, middle and end novels accordingly.
Cara and Ben are my main characters in the Psi-Tech books. She’s a highly skilled telepath, on the run because she knows too much. He’s a company man through and through until he has to choose between serving the company or saving a bunch of settlers. Expect megacorporations, dirty dealing, space battles and void dragons.
In Winterwood, my main character is Rossalinde (Ross) Tremayne, a cross-dressing privateer captain and unregistered witch, with a crew of barely reformed pirates, and the jealous ghost of her late husband. When she pays a deathbed visit to her estranged mother she ends up with a quest she doesn’t want, a half brother she didn’t know she had, and an implacable enemy who will stop at nothing to prevent her from completing the quest. (See what I did there – another set of three!) Enter Corwen. He’s handsome, sexy, and capable, and Ross really doesn’t like him; neither does Will’s ghost.
I’ve enjoyed spending time with my characters in both the fantasy and the science fiction trilogies, and I haven’t completely ruled out continuing some of the stories, or maybe revisiting some of the secondary characters, but not yet.
I suppose after writing two trilogies, that I should embark on a third, but I’ve broken the pattern. The next book, which I’ve just signed the contract for, is going to be a standalone called Amber Crown, set in an analogue of the Baltic States in the mid 1600s. It’s not going to turn into a trilogy, but it does have three main viewpoint characters who tell the story between them.
This is the first of my new alternate Tuesday reading posts, so I thought I’d dip back in time to tell you about three books that are each the first in their own well-loved series. They all owe something to Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels (which I love), but each one is different and stands up on its own.
Enjoyable urban fantasy romp set in London and featuring Alex Verus, a mage whose main magical talent is that of a diviner, someone who sees all possible futures and can therefore (usually) figure out what to do next. His actual magical talent – other than that – is fairly low-key, but don’t underestimate him. He keeps a magic shop, the Arcana Emporium in Camden Town, where canal meets railway line meets leyline, and generally tries to stay under the radar of more powerful magicians, particularly the dark ones, having had a nasty experience in his past.
Unfortunately a bunch of powerful magicians, opposing factions of the dark and the light, have decided Alex’s talents can help them to unlock the secrets of a powerful artefact and both he and his friend Luna, herself under a longstanding family curse, are drawn into danger. If the artefact doesn’t kill them the magicians trying to get at what’s inside it will. Alex has to face up to his dark past if he’s going to have any future.
Alex is an engaging protagonist, a genuine nice guy with decent values, but a problem past. I now buy each one of this series as it comes out.
Atticus O’Sullivan is the last (real) druid. he’s been on the run from Aenghus Óg: Celtic god of love, who has been pursuing Atticus for over two thousand years to retrieve the Fragarach, a sword of unearthly power that Atticus acquired on the battlefield. Currently Atticus, a permanent twenty-something in appearance, is the proprietor of the Third Eye bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, about as far away from any portals available to malevolent Irish gods as he can get, but Atticus is getting fed up of running, so when he gets several warnings that Aenghus Óg is getting close he decides to stand his ground.
There are some good characters including Oberon: Atticus’ Irish Wolfhound who communicates telepathically with Atticus and has some snappy dialogue (and for a talking dog is quite an engaging character and very dog oriented). Atticus himself narrates the story in first person and since he’s got two millennia worth of knowledge and experience, nothing much comes as a surprise to him, so it’s not a question of figuring out what next but more about Atticus figuring out how to deal with what’s next.
In addition to Irish gods from the Tuatha Dé Danann, some friendly, some not and all forming factions, Atticus’ attourney is a werewolf and the boss of the law firm is a vampire (cue the occasional joke). There’s also Granuaile: barmaid at the local Irish theme pub, who is currently possessed by an Indian witch and interested in taking up the magic trade.
As a first outing it lives up to expectations as a fast paced, engaging urban fantasy with mythic overtones.
Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer, and has the ability to magically reach into books and acquire objects. His speciality is SF. He’s currently working as a small-town librarian and part time cataloguer for the secret magical society, the Porters, for which he used to be a field agent until he broke some serious rules. Unfortunately when you reach into books, they sometimes reach back. Forbidden to use magic, all he has left of his former life is a magical and somewhat neurotic fire-spider called Smudge who has a tendency to burst into flames at the first sign of danger.
When Isaac is attacked by a bunch of vampires, he’s saved by Lena, a tough, sexy, magically created dryad who brings bad news with her, her lover, Vainio’s former shrink, has been taken by vampires and Lena needs Isaac’s help in a rather strange way.
But this attack is just the tip of a very nasty iceberg. There have been other attacks on Porters. Isaac’s own former friend and mentor has been killed and Gutenberg (yes, that one) the founder of the Porters and the only controller of unstoppable automatons, is missing. Isaac and Lena have to trace the dark power behind the vampire attacks before there’s an all-out, bloody war between the vamps and the Porters which will expose the magical world once and for all, and not in a good way.
This is fast paced, extremely readable and Isaac is a complex character, sympathetic despite his failings. The magic system is neat. Anything that’s been written about can be brought into reality (one of the vamp species is instantly recognisable because they sparkle!) though generally Libriomancers are limited by the physical size of the page of the book, so Isaac can grab a laser pistol from a space opera or a syringe of truth serum (from Barrayar as it turns out), but he can’t grab a tank. There are limits. It’s not as if each book is an unlimited cornucopia. There’s always a price to pay and for Isaac, who has transgressed before, that price is his sanity, presuming the bad guys don’t kill him first.
If you haven’t tried any of these series, they’re all excellent. You can’t go wrong with any of them. If I had to pick a favourite it would probably be the Alex Verus books, but I like them all.
Detail from Stephan martiniere’s cover illustration for Crossways.
I write science fiction. I’m pretty sure my sub-genre is space opera. I’m happy with that definition.
I grew up reading my dad’s Lensman books and the distinctive Gollancz yellow jacketed SF, however I wasn’t aware of any distinction between SF and space opera, so I thought I’d look it up.
Apparently the term, Space Opera, was coined back in 1941 as a pejorative in a fanzine article by Wilson Tucker. He defined it as ‘a hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn’. The term was a play on ‘soap opera’ and ‘horse opera’. Indeed some critics likened space opera to cowboy stories set in space – a concept that began with EE Doc Smith’s Skylark books, which were first published in the 1930s, and came full circle in 2002 with Joss Whedon’s much-missed TV series, Firefly.
Detail from Stephan martiniere’s cover illustration for Crossways.
By the 1960s the term was regarded as less pejorative, and in 1975 the anthology ‘Space Opera’ edited by Brian Aldiss redefined it. Space opera became ‘the good old stuff.’ The Del-Reys challenged the term yet again, completely rejuvenating it when Del Rey books reissued titles as unashamed space opera.
Following on from Star Trek came the huge popularity of Star Wars and the transformation was complete. Space opera was no longer outmoded and hackish, but was (and still is) riding the crest of a wave in popular culture. By the early 1980s not only the cognoscenti, but the wider public owned the term, and by 1990 it became a legitimate subgenre of science fiction, no longer scorned. Amazon lists over 10,000 books in the Space Opera category featuring authors such as John Scalzi, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robert A Heinlein, David Brin, EE Doc Smith, James A Corey, Frank Herbert, Stephen Baxter, Iain M. Banks, Peter F Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, and Arthur C Clarke.
So what is space opera? The accepted definition is an adventure story set (mostly) in outer space, but with the added expectation that it will be large in scope, plot and action, colourful and dramatic. Characters will be heroic and sympathetic and romance might be involved. It isn’t always hard science fiction in that it doesn’t always acknowledge the laws of physics and the nature of space as we understand it (though it can do). The galaxy – or even the universe – is no longer constrained by physics. Faster than light travel and wormholes abound and space battles are often in evidence, so much so that military SF has become a popular sub-genre of space opera.
I’m still finding my way around this fascinating genre. I think my Psi-Tech trilogy falls broadly into this category, though your take may differ. What makes it space opera? Sympathetic characters, space ships, galaxy-spanning adventure, gates through the void (not quite wormholes), space stations, space battles, peril, and a touch of romance. Sounds like space opera to me.
I’ve been posting writing-related blogs every other Tuesday, and I’ll continue to do that, but from now on I’m also going to do reading-related blogs on the intermediate Tuesdays. Yes, that’s right, this blog is going weekly. I blog everything I read on my dreamwidth blog, liked or not, but here you’ll find the pick of everything I’ve read (or listened to on Audible) going back ten years, and looking ahead to upcoming books I’ve reviewed.
If you’ve chosen to receive this blog by email, I’d like to thank you very much. (If not, you can still do it.) Please feel free to reblog and link back. You are in good company with over 1200 other people, but increasing traffic to my blog is always wonderful.
Similarly if you’ve read my books I always appreciate reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Twitter, or your own blogs. I can’t tell you how important it is to get reviews out there, and it’s never too late, even for my early books published 2014 onwards. If you like a book, shout out about it. (Not just my books, either. All authors appreciate your kind attention.) Also, I love it when people send me shelfies if they’ve spotted my books in their local bookstore. You can find my contact email address on my website at http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk which also has a link to my mailing list.
I’ll leave you with my favourite shelfie – it’s from Powell’s World of Books in Portland Oregon (2018). Happy reading.
Just after Game of Thrones finished, Iain Grant sent a few of us some revealing questions about Game of Thrones. I know the ending was contentious, but though I would have wished for a happier ending, I wasn’t honestly expecting one. Here are Iain’s questions and my answers.
You’re Cersei. Your city is about to be attacked by a fire breathing dragon and the dragon queen’s army. How would you have successfully defended King’s Landing?
If I’m Cersei, and if I have a modicum of common sense, I won’t even try to defend King’s Landing against a fire breathing dragon AND a superior army. I’ll leave Qyburn in charge and head for the nearest unobtrusive (but comfortable) boat with a bucket of gold, jewels and (hopefully) my best brother. I will skulk in a sheltered cove until all danger of being flamed from above by Drogon has passed. I would, of course, have laid very nasty (explosive) traps as revenge for losing my hold on the Seven Kingdoms. Should Qyburn and the Golden Company prevail I will slip back into the Red Keep again as unobtrusively as I left. I have already stashed a large amount of Lannister gold with the Iron Bank of Bravos against the eventuality of having to cut and run.
If you could have crowned any GoT character apart from Bran, who would you have put on the Iron Throne and why?
Gendry of House Baratheon. Because he knows the common people. He has little experience of ruling and court politics, so he would appoint Tyrion and Davos as joint Hands of the King. Sadly he still won’t get Arya Stark as his lady, but I’m sure that, in time, he’ll find a nice princess from Dorne who will bear him many children. They will be brought up sensibly, educated by Samwell and Brienne, and not spoiled rotten. You’re the hand of the king. King’s Landing is in ruins. The kingdom is a mess. Winter is here. What would be your key policies and first acts as de facto ruler of the kingdom?
If I’m Tyrion Lannister I’ll put some of my family’s gold to good use. The first job is to feed and shelter the survivors and set up some treatment for the wounded. (Food from High Garden.) All the surviving soldiers would have to bury or burn the bodies before they became a health hazard. I would personally say words for the dead because I need the people to believe that I care, but I won’t let the church gain too much power ever again. Morale is important. After the immediate clean-up I would send most of the foreign soldiers back home, Dothraki, especially as they will only cause trouble if they have nothing much to do. The Unsullied can stay and help the rebuild if they want to, since they don’t really have a home to return to. I will treat the population well because it’s the only way to have them at my back against any outside enemies (rather than circling around behind me with sharpened implements). I will bring in as many maesters as I can prise out of Old Town to heal the hurts that can be healed, because a healthy population is key to rebuilding. I’ll put most of King’s landing’s surviving soldiers to work rebuilding the city. First of all I’ll direct them to build temporary accommodation – shanty-town shelters using timber from Euron Greyjoy’s destroyed fleet and what can be rescued from the rubble. Once the people are not in immediate danger of freezing or starving to death or dying of disease caused by rotting corpses, I’ll put the skilled ones to work (for a fair wage) to rebuild the city walls. I’ll have a well thought out plan for the new city. No more Fleabottoms. The population is smaller, now, so there will be more space. I’ll give them decent houses with fresh water and drains, with roads wide enough to be passable by refuse carts. Maybe I need to clear a quarter of the city at a time and rebuild it properly, from scratch. You’re the hand of the king. Davos, Samwell, Brienne and Bronn have all quit your small council (sorry). Which GoT characters would you appoint to your small council in what role and why? Do not be afraid to focus on just one.
If Bran is king, then Gendry is available for the small council. He knows the common people and he learns fast. He’s strong, but even tempered and practical. I’d put him in charge of rebuilding the city. Illyrio Mopatis was working with Varys and seemed to have similar aims. He might be worth calling up to be master of coin. Perhaps Podrick would also be a sensible choice. A female council member would be good, but not Yara Greyjoy, she’s too short-tempered. Possibly Gilly, she’s brighter than she seemed at first and she’s got a healthy helping of common sense. Game of Thrones, Series 8. Was it a triumph or a disappointment? Tell us why.
A triumph, I think (with a few qualifiers). It wasn’t what I might have written, but it’s not my story, and I’ve been following all the seasons avidly. It rounded off a lot of story arcs well. I didn’t like Dany going from good-ish to evil, but it was foreshadowed by the number of people she’d already flamed unnecessarily – the Tarlys and Varys for instance. Jon was the only possible candidate for having to do the dirty deed, but Tyrion also didn’t make the decision lightly. It was a good twist and proved the earlier comment ‘If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.’ The fact that Dany immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was Jon who’d betrayed her when Tyrion went to tell her about Varys, shows that she would have turned on Jon sooner or later. Sadly, once she flipped, she was as bonkers as her dad.
Jaime and Cersei died in each other’s arms, and despite Cersei being the evil bitch queen, in the end she was simply a woman afraid of death. I’m sorry someone as potentially noble as Jaime wasted himself on someone like Cersei, but he loved her unreservedly, so taking responsibility for her and being with her at the end was entirely in his nature. I think he redeemed himself as much as he ever could have. There were some good deaths. Theon Greyjoy redeemed himself at Winterfell. Jorah Mormont went out the way he would have wanted to, and just at the right time. He would have been horrified and heartbroken if he’d seen Dany turn psycho. (I don’t think he would have been able to stop her if he’d lived.)
The Clegane showdown was very effective, especially since Sandor made Arya see sense at last. (I thought she gave in and changed her mind a bit too quickly, but there’s only so much you can do in six episodes.)
Sansa made a perfectly good Queen in the North. Her arc was completed satisfactorily.
Jon never wanted power. Going north was a good ending for him. Once he gets to grips with what he did to Dany I believe he’ll have a good life. Tormund won’t let him get too introspective.
I don’t think Bran will be a particularly effective ruler. He’s all about the past, not the future. I wish the producers hadn’t made him quite so wishy-washy. Yes, he came out with a few good lines such as ‘You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.’ But too much mystical bollox is not going to work well for the survivors of King’s Landing and the Six Kingdoms. It needs someone practical – which is, I guess, where Tyrion comes in. He is now de facto ruler of the Six Kingdoms – which Bran would say, is exactly what he’s supposed to be. And he’s the right person for the job. I adore Tyrion.
There were some personal happy endings. Bronn got his castle. Gendry was legitimised and made Lord of Storm’s End. Brienne became a knight, and though she lost him again, she did almost get her happy ending with Jaime. Podrick survived and got his knighthood. Davos and Tyrion came out on top. Sam became a maester and a father and is absolutely the nicest character in the whole series.
And now I want to see Jon become King Beyond the Wall, because he still has a lot of unfulfilled potential, and he’s learned such a lot and can do so much good. And I want to see the spinoff series, ‘The Further Adventures of Arya Stark’.
I’m also looking forward to reading the next book, The Winds of Winter, whenever George finishes it. There’s one more book to come after that, I believe. It must be doubly difficult to write the end of the series because we’ve all seen it on telly, but there’s no reason the TV series and the books have to have the same ending. There are lots of places where the book and TV versions differ.
In 2017, when Alma Alexander asked if I’d be interested in writing a story for her refugees anthology, Children of A Different Sky, I jumped at the chance. There are so many refugee crises in the world that a writer is almost spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing a setting for a story, and all of them are worth writing about, but I wanted to step back from the world of now. I chose a little-remembered refugee crisis, something that happened way back in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War.
When the centenary of the end of the First World War came around we didn’t know whether to commemorate or celebrate. Instead of celebrating something so tragic we do well to remember it, and try not to repeat it, while paying our respects to those who fought and died, as well as to those who were displaced.
My own grandfather, Tommy Bennett, fought in that conflict. He was a British infantry soldier who took part in one of those famous football matches on Christmas Eve in 1914. He was in the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and survived Ypres and the Somme, but was invalided out at Passchendaele in 1917 with half his calf muscles shot away. I mention this only because I learned about some aspects of the First World War directly from someone who’d been in it. (Though like many soldiers, he glossed over the really rough bits.)
I only knew about the Belgian refugees, however, because a few years ago I did some biographical research on a Yorkshire dialect poet called Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. Dorothy was a high-ranking, and wealthy, member of Yorkshire high society. She was born in Brighton, but married into the Ratcliffe/Brotherton family in 1909. Her husband, Charles Ratcliffe, was the nephew of, and heir to, Edward Allan Brotherton, self-made chemical magnate and—in 1913-14—Lord Mayor of Leeds. (Later MP for Wakefield and made a peer of the realm as Lord Brotherton of Wakefield.)
Being a widower and having no closer female relative, Brotherton asked Dorothy to be his Lady Mayoress and so, at the outbreak of World War One, Dorothy, age twenty-six, was firmly in the hot seat.
On 1st August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, seeking an easy passage to France. The Belgians didn’t oblige them. They fought back, but they didn’t withstand the might of the German army. The Germans shelled and sacked cities, and slaughtered civilians. For those who could reach the coast, Britain offered safety. The Belgians came in their thousands. As many as 250,000 escaped to Britain. On October 14 1914 alone, 16,000 Belgians arrived at Folkestone, Kent.
And we took them in without question.
Let me say that again…
We took them in.
It was the largest influx of refugees that Britain has ever seen. The War Refugees Committee appealed for accommodation and over 100,000 offers flooded in. Some went to the South West, others to South Wales. (Famously the fictional detective, Hercule Poirot’s backstory was that he was a Belgian refugee in England.) Refugees were sent north by train, and that’s where Dorothy Una Ratcliffe comes back into the story.
Because she was a fluent French speaker (having been to finishing school in Paris before the war) Dorothy headed a committee of ladies welcoming the Belgian refugees arriving in Leeds by train.
And that’s the opening scene for my story. Dorothy even appears in it herself, but I’ve told everything through the eyes of her secretary. Did she have a secretary? Almost certainly she did. (I met one of her secretaries many years later.)
My story starts wide and focuses down to what’s left of one small, shattered Flemish family. A barely grown young man and his deeply disturbed sister are helped by a young Yorkshire woman. It’s a story that must have been repeated time and time again as the Belgians came and settled.
Yet they were not to stay. After the war they vanished almost without trace.
In early 1919, after the close of hostilities, the British government in its infinite wisdom decided that enough was enough. British soldiers were being demobbed and needed homes and jobs. The Belgians were offered free passage back to Belgium, with a strict time limit. Basically the government said: Go home now or pay your own fare. The Belgians were quick to take the hint. Within a few months of the end of the First World War ninety percent of Belgians had gone back home to rebuild, and within a very short space of time their presence here faded from memory.
More First World War stories…
Writing my refugee story for Children of a Different Sky led me to do more research on the Belgians, and from there to the local effects of the First World War, in particular the Leeds Pals, a volunteer regiment raised in Leeds and equipped by Edward Allen Brotherton with the aid of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, the only female on the committee. That led to writing another short story, Make Me Immortal with a Kiss, which was published in Second Round – A Return to the Ur-Bar, edited by Patricia Bray and Joshua Palmatier. It’s set on the eve of the battle of the Somme in which the Leeds Pals regiment (along with many others) was destroyed.It tells the story of a soldier in the Pals and an army nurse.
Not being able to stop at two stories (because three is a nice round number) my third First World War story, A Land Fit For Heroes, was published in Portals, another anthology from the excellent Zombies Need Brains Press. This time it’s about the aftermath and what the ordinary British Tommies came home to. And, yes, there’s a portal which looks like nothing more than an ordinary garden gate.
Writing science fiction and fantasy involves worldbuilding. Sometimes we take a concept, strip it right down to basics and invent a planet where the sea is pink, the sky is upside down and the dominant life form has seven tentacles and inhabits arid polar regions which have daytime temperatures of minus 60 Centigrade. Our hero is a brave giant tardigrade with a serious Walter Mitty complex and its love interest is a tri-gendered cephalopod with stunning bioluminescence that screams, ‘Come and get me, baby!’
Other times we base our world on something closer to home. Our characters are human, living (maybe) five hundred years in our future or two hundred years in our past, but they are like us and they come from places that we might easily recognise.
We might set our fantasy on this earth, in this century (much urban fantasy occupies this niche) or we might use a medievaloid setting which is recognisably British or European, or—increasingly popular—a non-European setting in Africa, Asia or the Arctic.
Even when writing a second-world fantasy like (say) Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, the laws of physics are clearly our own and the land—mountains, rivers, lakes, valleys, deserts, oceans–looks as though it was formed in much the same way as our mountains, rivers lakes etc. were formed. That means it’s a world with wind and weather, continental drift, vulcanicity, recurring ice ages etc. All of that may be completely incidental to the actual story, of course, but it gives us a setting we can internalise and accept. (And of course we can always mess with it magically.)
But how do we decide on a setting, and how do we build a world?
If we’re going to base it on part of our world, it helps to have a jumping off point Though you might never need to explain this in your book, you should know it. My Rowankind trilogy opens in 1800, in a world like ours but with an undertow of magic, and a race of placid bondservants. Some things are the same. King George is bonkers, Britain is at war with Napoleonic France. America has won its freedom. The industrial revolution is in its early years with steam engines used for pumping water out of mines, but not yet used to power locomotives.
But where does the magic come from? Has it always been there? Yes, it has, but for the last two hundred years it’s been strictly controlled by the Mysterium. Why? It all stems from the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Something happened to bring knowledge of magic and its possibilities to Good Queen Bess, and her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. If I told you exactly what you wouldn’t need to read the first book of the Rowankind trilogy, Winterwood, and I hope you do.
Two hundred years after the formation of the Mysterium, only licensed witches are allowed to perform small magics from carefully limited spell books. Enter Ross (Rossalinde) Tremayne, my cross-dressing female privateer captain. Ross would gladly have registered as a witch when she turned eighteen, as the law demanded, but she was busy eloping instead. Now, seven years later, she’s a widow, and she’s captain of the Heart of Oak, accompanied by the jealous ghost of her late husband and a crew of barely-reformed pirates. When she pays a deathbed visit to her estranged mother she receives a task she doesn’t want and gains a half brother she didn’t know she had. And then there’s that damned annoying wolf shapechanger, Corwen. (Don’t call him a werewolf, he gets very annoyed, because he’s NOT moon-called!)
Ross and Corwen’s story moves forward in Silverwolf and the worldbuilding widens. A race of magical people, the Rowankind, have wind and weather magic and the potential to change Britain’s developing industrial revolution. Why would we need steam engines, when the Rowankind can lift water from the depths of a mine by magic? That’s almost incidental to Ross and Corwen’s personal story, but I have to consider how something like that could change future history. It echoes through Silverwolf and the final book in the trilogy, Rowankind, out now from DAW.
My Psi-Tech trilogy, Empire of Dust, Crossways and Nimbus, all published by DAW, is set five hundred years in the future when megacorporations more powerful than any single planet have raced across the galaxy to gobble up planets suitable for colonisation. Their agents are psi-techs, humans implanted with telepath technology. These elites are looked after from cradle to grave, until/unless they step out of line. Cara is a rogue telepath fleeing Alphacorp, Ben is a Trust company man through and through, until the Trust tries to kill him. Why? It’s all about money and resources. Cara has taken refuge with Ben on his colony mission, thinking she can keep her head down for a few years until Alphacorp has stopped hunting her, but trouble comes looking for both of them.
Travel across the galaxy is only possible via jump gates, but jump-gate technology has one flaw. With every jump through foldspace a small but significant amount of platinum (a vital catalyst) is lost. To keep the jump gate system open, more and more platinum is needed. Platinum isn’t uncommon in the galaxy, but it’s found in tiny quantities and the refining process is slow. Fact: all the platinum refined so far on earth would not fill an Olympic swimming pool to more than the depth of twelve inches. So when a colony that Ben is setting up happens to be on a planet discovered to be rich in platinum, the Trust will stop at nothing to get its grasping hands on the bounty. And if that means destroying the colony and all of Ben’s psi-tech team, so be it.
So in my psi-tech universe, I’m not so much worldbuilding as building multiple worlds linked by a network of jump gates. I’m also building enhanced humans who might, on the whim of their company, be sent for neural reconditioning to adjust their attitude—and that’s not good. But despite the wetware implants, they’re still human, gloriously, awkwardly so.
So what am I working on right now? Amber Crown is a standalone fantasy set in the mid 1600s in a place not unlike the Baltic States with a few significant differences. There’s magic, political intrigue, a cast of diverse characters, and a missing queen. Worldbuilding for this has been interesting. I’ve done a lot of research on costume, food and customs. I’ve discovered some delightfully bonkers facts like the existence of the Polish Winged Hussars, who rode into battle with huge wings strapped on to their backs, and for more than a century were the best cavalry in all of Europe. Three thousand Polish Winged Hussars broke the might of the Ottoman army at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. That’s a gift to a writer.
I don’t write much short fiction these days unless I get an invitation to contribute to an anthology. Mostly it’s because I’m too busy writing long fiction. My novels are published by DAW in the USA. I’ve just signed a contract for Amber Crown to be published in January 2022.
Let’s go back six years… I’d just delivered my first two books to DAW, so I set aside some time to try and place the backlog of stories I’d written, sent out a couple of times, and shelved. I decided that I would send them out and keep sending them out until they sold. Within a few months I’d sold nineteen stories. In less than 6 months I’d doubled my all-time total of short story sales.
Some years I’ve only sold two or three stories in the whole year, and other years none at all. So why the sudden surge? Were editors suddenly being impressed by my book deals from DAW? Had I at last learned to write perfect short stories that no editor could turn down?
Ha! I wish!
My sudden run of good luck is entirely down to a kick in the pants administered by my writer friend Deborah Walker, who writes and sells an amazing number of excellent short stories. Deborah points out in no uncertain terms that unless you actually send out short stories, no one is going to buy them. It seems obvious, yet writer types (like me) are often good at writing but utter rubbish at marketing.
Towards the back end of 2014 I took stock. I had a backlog of about thirty stories. Some were previous sales and therefore available to be resold as reprints. Others were new stories that had been submitted to a few markets, but had not sold. Just because a story doesn’t sell on its first submission doesn’t mean that it’s a poor story, all it means is that you didn’t land it on the right editor’s desk at the right time – and that’s often a matter of luck. I’ve sold stories on their first time out, and on their twentieth.
Pitch appeared in here.
With Deb’s advice in mind I started to send out my backlog of stories. Each time one bounced back I immediately (same day) sent it out again, and again and again… And I had an acceptance, and another, and another.
So now it’s time for honesty. Yes I achieved nineteen sales and publications in 2014/15, but how many submissions did I make to get those sales? Well, taking the last three months of 2014 and the first three of 2015 together (because I started my submissions project in October 2014) I made eighty-six submissions, had forty-one form rejections, nineteen encouraging personal rejections, sixteen sales in 2015 plus three in 2014. So in total I sold nineteen short stories.
So what about the ones that didn’t sell?
Rejections can vary from a simple: This story does not suit our needs at the present time, to an encouraging: I’m going to pass on this one, but I like your writing style, so please send something else. Sometimes writers pore over their rejection slips, trying to figure out whether their story was rejected by the first slush-pile reader, or whether it had been passed upwards for consideration before it was finally rejected by the editor-in-chief. Writers refer to this as ‘rejectomancy’ and to be honest, figuring anything out in this way is next to impossible. Save your time. Either cast the runes or, better still, just send the damn story out again.
In fact that’s all there is to it, really. Write a story; polish it until it’s as good as you can make it; format it correctly; research potential markets; pick one that looks like a good fit and send it out. When it comes back, pick another market and send it out again. If it sells, that’s a bonus. Some writers select their preferred markets by the remuneration, others send first to markets that are known to have a fast turnaround. A rejection in two or three days leaves you free to send the story out again. whereas some markets take two or three months, or even longer.
Always remember that the best answer after YES, is a fast and firm NO. It leaves you free to find a market better suited to your story. The worst thing from a writer’s point of view is a long wait of six months followed by a rejection, or simply never hearing back at all.
Unless the market’s own guidelines say that they are prepared to accept sim-subbed pieces (i.e. pieces submitted simultaneously to more than one market) then send your story out to one market at a time. There are several good market listings, but I recommend Ralan and The Grinder as being the two I find most useful.
Ralan and The Grinder will point you in the right direction, but then go to your chosen publication’s own web page. Read the guidelines. If the editor asks for it formatted in purple ink on pink paper in curlicue font, then do it, but most likely you’ll be asked to submit it black on white, standard format, i.e. double spaced on American letter or A4 paper with one inch margins in 12 point font. Times New Roman will work, but you can still use Courier. Most markets are happy to have your story as a doc, docx, or rtf file. Some prefer you to paste it into the body of an email. Hardly any require paper submissions these days. Whatever they ask for, do it! Make sure your address and contact details are included on your actual document (unless they ask for an anonymised submission with your contact details separate). No one can buy your story if they don’t know how to get in touch with you.
If the story sells, great. If not, don’t take the rejection as a personal slight, just shrug and send it out again.
Make Me Immortal with a Kiss appeared in here
As proof of the pudding I can tell you that my frequency of sales has dropped back to one or two a year since my spurt in 2014/15. That’s because I’ve been so busy finishing the latest novel that I haven’t had time to follow my own rules and send out the returned stories. It’s also because I haven’t written many new short stories in the last few years, and most of the ones I have written have been for specific anthologies.
So, write your stories and send them out. When they come back in, send them out again. It works. A funny thing happens when you stop sending them out… they stop selling. Who’d have guessed it?
This time it’s the turn of Hookey Garrity, barely reformed pirate, and Ross’ faithful crewman and occasional sidekick.
I never had a mother, though I guess I was squeezed out from between some woman’s legs. I don’t know who she was or what happened to her. She might have been a princess or a portside doxy. All I can say is I never knew her. First thing I remember is Missis Garrity sending me out on to the street to be a distraction so that Henry, a big grown up boy of at least ten, could part a gentleman from whatever was in his pocket. I ran away from the Missis when I was big enough to join His Majesty’s Navy. Yes, the Navy’s a hard life, but at least it’s a life. That was the year Henry was hanged at Newgate, and I could see my fate written on the wind that whistled round the gallows.
So there I was, a powder monkey to begin with, and then eventually part of a gun crew on the frigate Antigone. I learned my trade, and how to walk a rolling deck, and how to cowtow to the officers, and how to make sure no one messed with me and mine without the bo’sun noticing. I was doing all right for myself until we went into action against a Yankee ship off Port au Prince and I came out of it minus one hand. The least said about that experience, the better. The sawbones took it off at the wrist, what was left of it, and that was it. Next time we made port I was turned off, unfit for duty, and left on Antigua, where I took up with a dusky widow woman, name of Marguerite. A fine figure of a woman, she was.
I was twenty one, near as I could figure, and the sea was all I knew, so I got me a hook fitted in place of my hand and I worked it until I was damn near as good with it as I was with a full set o’ fingers. Then I looked for a crew to join. Captain Tree of the Orca took me on and for three years I sailed with as decent a captain as you could find anywhere, carrying cargo around the Caribbean and to the Americas. I saw Marguerite whenever I could, but there’s a reason that sailors have a woman in every port, and that’s because a woman has a sailor on every ship. Marguerite didn’t lack for company when I was gone and I didn’t begrudge her that.
I might have gone on like that forever but the Orca was took by pirates off Bermuda. I was one of the lucky ones, offered the choice of joining the pirate crew or going overboard with the captain and first mate. I liked the captain, but not enough to die with him, so that’s how I became a pirate. The ship was the Black Hawk, then captained by Edgar Ransome. He was a hard man and sometimes a cruel one. His favourite sport was to pit two crewman against each other, to fight to the death for a silver piece. I was picked six times. You learn a lot of dirty tricks when your life’s on the line. All I can say is that I’m still alive and I have six silver pieces, lucky pieces, not for spending.
I’d been on the Hawk for three years when young Jim Mayo joined the crew. You could tell right from the start that he was ambitious. I treat men like that with caution. They might not mean to, but they can get you killed if you follow them into whatever scheme they cook up. It took him six years to become first mate, and then one night it happened. There was some kind of scuffle, but it was all over by the time all the crew was up on deck. Ransome was overboard and Mayo, cool as you please, was on the quarterdeck with Ransome’s tricorn hat, and Tarpot Robbie at his back. “Men,” says he, “I claim the right of captaincy if you will but vote me in.” Half the crew cheered instantly as if they’d been in on this new venture from the off, and the rest of us, seeing no other obvious successor to Ransome, came around to it before violence was offered.
I didn’t much like Mayo. He was a hard man like his predecessor, though he stopped the death matches in favour of training with weapons, and gun drills. All came to a head when instead of chasing down merchantmen we took an island, Auvienne, by landing in a sheltered bay and attacking Ravenscraig, its only town, from the landward side. Mayo fortified the town, used it as a base from which to attack shipping and drew other pirates to his stronghold. I’ll give him this, he was a clever man. Then one day we had an altercation with a British privateer, the Heart of Oak, captained by Redbeard Tremayne, a hulk of a man with a fearsome reputation. The Black Hawk and the Heart of Oak were both set on the same French merchantmen. I figured Mayo would fight for the prize, but the two captains agreed that Mayo would take the cargo and Tremayne would take the ship for the bounty paid by the English. I didn’t realise that the deciding factor was Tremayne’s wife, a slip of a thing who wielded a blade and a pistol as fierce as any man. Mayo was smitten by her.
A year later there was a conclave in Ravenscraig between pirate captains and privateers, to determine how we should deal with each other. I heard that Mayo gave more concessions than he intended, partly due to Tremayne’s woman. I liked the cut of Tremayne’s jib and figured that sailing aboard a privateer was less likely to get me hanged if King George’s navy came chasing pirates as they sometimes did. My mind was made up when I heard from Tarpot Robbie that we were to see that Tremayne had an accident. I might have been a pirate, but I didn’t figure that was right, especially on account of a bit of skirt. I made up my mind and that night the Heart of Oak sailed from Ravenscraig, with me on board, before any damage could be done to either Tremayne or the treaty. To this day I’m not sure whether Mayo instigated the plan or whether Tarpot Robbie decided to do his captain a favour.
When I came to know the Tremaynes, I realised that had Robbie succeeded that night it would certainly not have thrown Rossalinde Tremayne into the arms of James Mayo. They were truly bonded to each other. They must have seen something in me because Tremayne insisted I learned my letters from Mr Rafiq, the quartermaster, and the art of navigation from Mr Sharpner, the sailing master. Sad to say, Tremayne died one stormy night, a random accident with a falling spar, and though you could see the grief in her eyes, Ross steadied the crew and promised nothing would change. From now on she was her husband, and she would lead us into skirmishes against the French in his name. I think some didn’t believe her, but we took our next merchantman with Ross, dressed in man’s attire, leading the boarding party. Mr Sharpner, was on one side of her, and me on the other.
Her side became my new place, and my new mission in life was to see her safe. Not that she was weak or fragile, far from it, but any captain needs someone to watch their back, even if she is a witch who can control wind and weather. (No one ever speaks about that. She might be a witch, but she’s our witch.) So it was that I was in Plymouth with her when she made a last fateful visit to her dying mother which started off the trouble with that thrice-damned Walsingham, the Fae, and the rowankind bondservants. We ended up chased by Redcoats, fleeing overland on horseback—Ross, her new brother she hadn’t even known about until that night, and me. You should know that it isn’t right to put a sailor on a horse. I proved that by falling off the damn thing more than once. We met with outlaws in the Okewood. I learned later they were fairy folk under some kind of glamour, but I’m glad I didn’t know it at the time. I was a bit puzzled when a wolf led us to safety, but I was so busy trying to stay in the saddle that I didn’t have time to question anything.
Do I love Ross Tremayne? Yes, with all my heart, but not that way. Ross has Corwen, and I have a woman of my own. No, not Marguerite, I heard she married a merchant and had six children. I’m not sure how a man like me deserved the attention of Lady Henrietta Rothcliffe, but I have it all the same. Ross will always be the family I never had, though. She gave me her trust, she gave me her friendship, and she made me captain of her ship when her path took her elsewhere. Wherever she goes, I’ll stand by her to the end.
I’ll admit it. I have a reputation for getting a lot done. People ask me if I sleep, or take vacations, or have down time. And the truth is that I generally log about seven hours sleep a night, take a couple of trips for fun (in a normal year), and spend some time each night reading for pleasure or watching a movie.
Personally, I always feel like a slacker because my to-do list inevitably outpaces my ‘done’ list. I make calendars and lists with the best of intentions, and life gets in the way, which slows me down. So I always cringe a little when someone asks ‘how do you get so much done’ because in the back of my mind, I know what I also planned to do and didn’t. But I guess it’s all relative.
I publish multiple books a year under two names, do a lot of marketing, and (again, in a normal year) attend more than a dozen conventions, plus I’m usually participating in a handful of anthologies. I didn’t start out doing all that—for a long time, I wrote one (big) book a year, and eased into the other elements. Now that we are largely indie published, the frequent publication schedule is just part of making a living. I’m not competing with anyone or trying to out-do anyone else. And there are a lot of things that I don’t do to make room for what gets done.
There’s no one ‘right’ way to be productive, and that word is going to mean something different for every person. Your priorities are going to shape how you spend your time. When I still had kids at home, I couldn’t do what I’m doing now. When I was earlier in my career and didn’t have as much experience, I couldn’t work as fast as I do now. Practice helps. (So does doing things wrong the first time and learning from it.)
I rely on lists and outlines to structure my work, matched to a calendar and a good idea of what my ‘average’ wordcount is for a day’s writing and what my ‘exceptional’ wordcount can be, for short spurts. I can’t function without a to-do list, and without an outline, I waste writing time going down dead ends or off on tangents, which requires time-consuming major re-writes. I outsource as much as I can on marketing and some other tasks, to buy myself some time. And it’s a huge ‘cheat’ that my husband (and co-author, Larry N. Martin) is in the business full time with me, because that saves time by sharing the load on so many things.
Some authors swear by specific programs that help them organize and be more productive. That can include note-taking/research storage programs, story structure programs, or voice dictation. None of those seem to work for me, so for as much as I am very much a computer person, my lists and calendar remain on paper. Your mileage may differ.
Aside from that, it’s really just priorities. I don’t watch very much TV. Outside of conventions, I don’t do a lot of socializing. I try to look for ways to make errands and chores as streamlined and time efficient as possible. And lists! So many lists.
I’m always on the lookout for ways to do things better, or new software programs or websites that make things easier, quicker or cheaper. I try new things, and sometimes they work better. That all helps. But the lists are at the heart of it all.
The point of all this is….do things the way that works for you, and it’s okay if other people get great results doing other things. I’ve tried in the past to make myself use some fantastic system that everyone swore by, and it just made me miserable and brought everything to a halt. You’ve got to do you. Our brains don’t all work the same.
So write at the pace and in the way it works for you. Be willing to learn from other people, but don’t worry about who’s faster. It’s not a race. Just turn out the best books you can, and you’ll get where you’re going!
Gail Z. Martin writes epic fantasy, urban fantasy and steampunk for Solaris Books, Orbit Books, SOL Publishing, Darkwind Press, and Falstaff Books. Recent books include Witch of the Woods, Sellsword’s Oath, Inheritance, Monster Mash and Black Sun. With Larry N. Martin, she is the co-author of the Spells Salt & Steel, Wasteland Marshals, Joe Mack and Jake Desmet series. As Morgan Brice, she writes urban fantasy MM paranormal romance including the Witchbane, Badlands, Treasure Trail, Kings of the Mountain and the upcoming Fox Hollow series. Nearly all the books are either already available on audiobook via Audible or are coming soon.
Chopping and Changing – Revisions, Cuts and Additions.
How long should your story or novel be?
A piece (story, novel or poem) should be as long as it needs to be – but that’s not always as long as you, the author, thinks it needs to be. I want to talk about cutting, pruning and restructuring, i.e. the drastic changes.
Let’s suppose you have a first draft. You’ve written the whole thing, typed The End, and put it away for at least a few weeks so that you can have a breather and then look at it again with fresh eyes. That’s the stage where most of us wonder why we wasted months (or years) of our lives on this steaming heap. Or perhaps we see some glimmer of hope for it, but we realise there’s still a lot of work to do—namely a major revision. You’re not simply tickling a few words with this revision pass, you’re probably doing the literary equivalent of slash and burn, or perhaps a surgical strike.
Let’s firstly differentiate between content editing (revision) and copy editing. Yes, I know a lot of you know this already, but I’ve come across some would-be authors who think that someone who spell-checks their magnum opus has edited it.
Content Editing / Revision.
In a content edit or revision you restructure what you’ve written (to varying degrees) maybe changing scenes around, adding in new scenes, deleting others. You might add new material all the way through the piece to strengthen a character, or lay the ground for a later reveal. Maybe you foreshadow something that happens later. Someone fires a gun in chapter three, so you have to go back to chapter one and put the gun on the mantlepiece in readiness. Maybe you decide one of your characters has acted out of character, so you go back and tweak events. This is the time to decide you’ve started in the wrong place, so chapter five becomes your new beginning and chapters one to four are set aside to be dismantled for parts (flashbacks). You might even decide to turn the whole thing on its head and start at the end and tell your story backwards.
I once cut a baby out of a book. You’d think that would be massive, wouldn’t you? Your main character has a baby and you cut out that whole plot strand. Actually it didn’t take much cutting at all to remove all mentions of said child, proving the arrival of it, had very little bearing on the plot.
You will probably want to do a self-edit before you hand it over for professional input.
If you have a hands-on agent they will probably want to see it before it goes to your publisher. If you are traditionally published, your editor will undoubtedly make further suggestions for alterations or additions (or cuts). S/he may tell you that one of your side characters is two-dimensional or that you need to evoke more sympathy for your antagonist (who is, after all, the hero of his/her own story) or for your main character’s mum. Maybe you’ve taken a side trip up a blind alley, story wise, or arrived at a conclusion without making your reasoning clear. Perhaps you have a deus ex machina ending and you need to backtrack and add in some earlier event that hints at the possibility of the solution to your problem. After you’ve made alterations, your editor might have further comments and might still ask for more changes. Rinse and repeat until your editor is satisfied that, between you, you have the best version of the book that is humanly possible to produce. At this stage it’s not too late to make major changes.
I once finished a novel at 240,000 words. I knew I’d never sell a first novel at that length, so I cut 50k words and emailed my (then) agent to say it was finished at 190,000 words. She said, ‘Make it 119,000 and then send it to me.’ After I’d finished swearing, I set my unedited book on one side (complete) and played with a cut down version. I didn’t just shave a paragraph here and trim a sentence there, I cut out a whole sub-plot and knocked back a secondary character who was making a takeover bid. I chopped out a whole incident which advanced character but not plot, and that saved me 6,000 words. In the end, I got it down to 115,000 words without losing the story. Soon afterwards I parted company with that agent, so I added back 8,000 words of character development that I’d lost.That brought me up to 123,000 words. That’s how long it was when DAW bought it. Luckily DAW likes long and complex novels (which suits me just fine). By the time my editor had suggested adding this and that (all of which had been in the book at its longer length) I ended up with 171,000 words, and that became Empire of Dust. It was strengthened by cutting the initial flab, and then strengthened again by adding back the important stuff.
That’s what a good editor is for. Thank you Sheila Gilbert. (She won the Hugo for long-form editing in 2017!)
I met Ann Leckie at the SFWA reception at the 2014 London Worldcon. Those of you who are familiar with her Hugo winning Ancillary Justice will know that it’s a story which starts in the middle and then zips forward and back as the mystery unfolds. What actually happened in the past to precipitate current events? Originally Ann wrote it as a linear story, starting at the beginning and going through to the end. It was only when she revised it and chopped it into a forward and a backward arc that it became so intriguing.
I’m not telling you what to do with your story (it’s YOUR story after all) but I am saying think outside of the box. Consider all possibilities and come up with something that makes your story zing.
When you’ve licked your story into shape and you have the structure arranged to your liking, you should still check it for flabby phrases, sentences that don’t move the story along and weak verbs. I’ve talked about using Wordle to highlight overused words. It’s surprising how many words you can lose by getting rid of surplus ones or using one strong word where before you had two. (Try ‘he trudged’ instead of ‘he plodded along slowly’. Half the number of words and probably better for your story.)
I have a poor habit of not only over-explaining, but doing it twice, so I have to be really careful. Sometimes my beta-readers make notes in the margin like, ‘Yes! We KNOW already!’ This is one of the things the beta-readers are really good at, so listen to advice and then pick which bits you want to follow.
Though I’ve gone on to write a couple of things since, my novel To End All Wars, out last week from publisher Aethon, was my first stab at writing historical fiction. It was a dramatic about-turn for me after years of telling myself that the appeal of genre fiction was that you didn’t have to worry about getting the details right; make up every last element and nobody can grumble that, on page 247, the coin you describe as showing King Leopold the Pedantic wouldn’t be minted for another seventy-three years! So why make life hard for yourself? Especially when inventing stuff is half the fun of this writing business.
Only, history has always drawn me, and so have new challenges. But even if that wasn’t the case, sometimes an idea demands to be written, and sometimes a dream about a man in a World War One officer’s uniform wandering across barren moorlands feels too meaningful to not pursue wherever it leads. Both of those ingredients were crucial, I felt, the uniform and the fact that this man – who would go on to become my protagonist Rafael Forrester – was wearing that uniform somewhere that obviously wasn’t the trenches of the Western Front. In other words, the history was baked in from the start, and there was no discarding it, no dressing this tale up in fantastical costume. If I was going to follow it to its logical conclusion, I’d have to learn a heck of a lot more about the First World War.
And the First World War isn’t a subject you approach lightly. One of the saddest impressions I took away from four months of research was that of how much has been widely forgotten or misremembered, and of how much horror simply can’t be represented. Watch every movie made on the topic back to back and you’ll still have experienced the smallest fraction of the suffering that so many endured and that cost so many lives. It’s hard not to conclude that the war to end all wars ought to have been precisely that, an event so appalling that it guaranteed nobody anywhere would take up arms again. And that’s quite the weight to assume, especially when what you want to write, ultimately, is at something of a tangent. The novel that became To End All Wars was always about the terrible conflict that served as its backdrop, but it was about many other things as well. How could I tell the story I wanted to tell without the reality overwhelming it or making it seem hopelessly trivial?
In retrospect, the solution I came to was an obvious one that any writer tends eventually to learn by heart: I let my characters take the lead. One of the great difficulties of researching history for the purposes of fiction is that no-one ever thinks they’re living in the past, because obviously from their perspective they’re not. And in general, human beings don’t focus on the sorts of details that historians fussing over their vanished lives a century later regard as so important. For the most part, we’re infinitely more concerned with the little things, even when the big things are screaming in our faces. Sure, there’s a war to be fought, but is that any more important, in the moment, than the question of whether you can get a decent cup of tea?
But the flipside, as a writer, is the freedom that comes with absorbing perspectives that aren’t your own. That’s also, I guess, a large part of the draw of writing about history in the first place – and, of course, of writing full stop. Lieutenant Forrester is, in countless ways, not me and not much like me, and the more I grew to understand him, the easier things became. I didn’t have to encapsulate the horrors of World War One or be true to the ordeals of millions of people, I just had to figure out what Forrester had suffered and seen and the ways in which his experiences had shaped him. Sure, that remained far from an easy task, but it was a possible one. And perhaps more importantly, it was infinitely more productive for what the book would end up being than an attempt to honour every last tragedy I’d read about could have been.
As is often the way, ninety percent of that research would eventually be discarded, and what remained would largely feed into a mere four chapters. The book is, after all, predominantly a work of genre fiction, and beyond a certain point, the genre elements had to be allowed to take the lead. That rekindled my worries that I might trivialise the real-life events, and the most I can say is that I tried my hardest not to. To End All Wars ended up being about a bunch of different things, a hotchpotch that drew on everything from The Prisoner to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to The 39 Steps; but more than anything, it’s about the possibility of peace in a world where that prospect seems vanishingly rare. And in the face of the First World War, and traumas alternately so huge that they boggle the mind and so personal that they’d break the hardest of hearts, it strikes me that perhaps the most useful lesson history has to offer is how never to repeat its mistakes. It’s not one we’ve come even close to learning, sadly, but for me, the process of writing gave me an opportunity to at least explore that notion.
David Tallerman is the author of numerous novels and novellas, most recently the historical science-fiction drama To End All Wars, thriller A Savage Generation and ongoing fantasy series TheBlack River Chronicles. His comics work includes the graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science, with artist Bob Molesworth, and his short fiction has appeared in around a hundred markets, including Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A number of his best dark fantasy stories were gathered together in his debut collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.
One small step… the actual moment Neil Armstrong stepped on to the surface of the moon in the shadow of the lander.
I watched the SpaceX terminated launch last Wednesday 27th May, and then again the actual launch on Saturday 30th – immediately followed by watching Apollo 11, the documentary using newly unearthed film footage and audio recordings. Apollo 11 was the (then) pinnacle of US achievement, landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in July 1969. I was reminded that although things change, they also stay the same. This time it’s Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in the hot seats. The preparation, the suiting-up, the journey to the rocket and up into the Crew Dragon capsule. The countdown and then – finally – the launch itself. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Mission Control, hen and now. Apollo 11 and Crew Dragon
Though the number of accidents remains low (Challenger in 1986, Columbia in 2003) to the uninitiated observer every launch feels like there’s a 50/50 chance of something going wrong, after all, the astronauts are sitting in a tiny sealed compartment on top of a giant bomb – a Falcon 9 rocket fuelled with kerosene. This time the tension was ramped up because this was the first launch of a manned American-built rocket from American soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, and Crew Dragon launched from pad 39B at Canaveral – the same pad that Apollo 11 launched from.
The space shuttle always had scenarios where, if there was the right combination of failures, the crew was toast, but Crew Dragon has a fail-safe system designed to launch the capsule safely away if there’s a problem with the rocket on launch or ascent.
Though I’m impressed by the work on the International Space Station (as much for the cooperation between nations as the scientific achievements) like many others I’ve been frustrated by the world’s apparent lack of interest in establishing a moon base in the fifty years following the first landing. However, SpaceX now presents us with a commercial alternative to government funded space exploration. It’s in the name, SpaceX, commercially funded by Elon Musk. Crew Dragon didn’t just appear fully formed, of course. An earlier design, Dragon 1, launched 20 times to deliver cargo to the space station between May 2012 and March 2020. Mr. Musk revealed the seven-seat Crew Dragon concept in 2014. The astronauts are in a capsule attached to a trunk (jettisoned before re-entry) which has solar panels, heat removal radiators and fins to provide stability in case of an emergency abort. The capsule and trunk together stand at 8.1m tall and 4m in diameter, with the capsule itself being almost 5m tall. The Crew Dragon has 16 Draco thrusters for manoeuvring in orbit.
Goodbye joystick, welcome touchscreens. The astronauts have three large interactive screens, allowing them to monitor systems and control the craft. Astronaut Doug Hurley commented on the lack of physical feedback from the touchscreen – but that’s progress, I guess, and the touchscreen allows for manual control.
I watched the countdown and the launch, and then tuned in to the live channel again in Sunday for the docking with the International Space Station, a deliberately slow procedure that went without a hitch. All the photos in this blog post are from screen caps that I did during the launch and docking.
ISS from Crew Dragon on approach. It’s dark out there.
Crew Dragon with the nose cone up, coming in to dock with the ISS
Crew Dragon docking weith the ISS
The big advantage of this commercial set up is that the spacecraft, or most of it, is designed to be reusable. The Falcon 9 rocket returns to earth after separating from Crew Dragon and lands on a drone ship – spot on from watching the recordings. A reusable craft could be the first step to humanity’s return to the moon and our first trip to Mars.
Unlike the space shuttle the Crew Dragon can’t land on a runway, so on re-entry the capsule hurtles through the atmosphere at up to 25 times the speed of sound, deploys parachutes, and splashes down 450km off the coast of Florida. Of course, as I write, that is yet to happen. Reentry is probably more dangerous than launch. Safe return Bob and Doug.
Anyone who knows me will testify that I’m not usually stuck for words. It’s not that I don’t believe in writer’s block (obviously it is a thing) it’s that I’ve rarely experienced it. However, recently I had a period where I was spinning my wheels (metaphorically) because one project was finished, another was waiting for comments from my agent, and I needed to start something new while I was in that limbo-land of between. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write, but I couldn’t decide what to write. I had a couple of back-burner projects, one of them with 18,000 words already written, but I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that it ‘sparked joy’.* And if it didn’t spark joy in me it wasn’t going to do much for my readers. So perhaps it was time to stop digging through my bottom drawer projects and start something new.
My stories usually start with an idea for a scene, a situation and then work outwards from there.
I love a good opening sentence. One of my favourite opening sentences is from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids:
When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts out by sounding like Sunday, there’s something seriously wrong somewhere.
That gives me shivers.
An opening sentence doesn’t have to be complex to hook the reader’s attention. This is the opening from Stephen King’s novella, The Gunslinger:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
I do, however, think Charlie Dickens went over the top with A Tale of Two Cities. I’d have been happy with: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ (That’s what most of us remember.) Instead we have:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Whew, I’m exhausted just reading the opening. (Yes, OK, styles were different then, and Dickens was being paid by the word.) He was much more succinct in A Christmas Carol:
Marley was dead, to begin with.
Of course a story doesn’t need to start at the beginning. In Liz Williams’ first Inspector Chen novel, The Snake Agent, the beginning is close to the end:
Hanging by his heels and twisting slowly in the draught that slipped beneath the crimson door, Detective Inspector Chen tried desperately to attract the demon’s attention.
I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly got my attention. We do find out what led up to that moment, of course.
A good opening should lead us into the story. There’s all kinds of writing advice out there.
Start in medias res (in the middle of the action).
Start as late in the plot as you can.
Don’t stress over your opening, you can always come back and fix it later.
Whatever advice you take, and whatever the ‘experts’ say, make the opening your own. An opening can set a scene, introduce a character, set tone and attitude, reveal character voice, make us ask questions, set a story in motion, and most importantly, make us want to read on. Hopefully your opening will do more than one of those things. Take a look at some of these.
It was the day my grandmother exploded. – Iain Banks (The Crow Road)
The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel. – William Gibson (Neuromancer)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell (1984)
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina)
There was once a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it. – C.S. Lewis (Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. – J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter)
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. – Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God)
I’m pretty much fucked. – Andy Weir (The Martian)
To return to my brief moment of stuckness, I decided to see if I could come up with an opening to shake myself out of it. Without thinking too deeply or worrying unduly about where it might lead I gave myself ten minutes and sat down to scribble random first lines.
It was a sunny day in Hell and Chaff was musing on the fate of the world, or more precisely on the fate of one particular human in it.
From his vantage point in low orbit, Royn could see the red-brown planet slowly spinning below him.
As the last notes of the chorus died away Exie smiled to herself and thought, Got away with it, again.
If Adrian continued eating like this the whole household would be bankrupt within a month.
Lola reached out in wonder to touch the questing nose of the dragonet, barely noticing the dark shadow that loomed over her left shoulder.
I’ve never died before, thought Maximilian. This should be interesting.
Eva was on a mission—in search of the perfect pair of shoes.
Rain splashed into Polliarno’s eyes. Oh, this was bad. It was very bad.
Zoran ran his disfigured hand over the satin-smooth finish of the casket.
If this was what passed for perfection in this place, Craeg wanted out.
Alden waited quietly in line, hoping the big man wouldn’t notice him.
The clouds nestled into the bottom of the valley like a flock of woolly sheep.
Cordelia wanted a drink of water.
Danzig curled in the belly of the boat wondering if you could die from sea-sickness.
The vehicle that bounced Marnie from one world to the next was an ambulance. How ironic.
Jim downed the amber liquid in one searing gulp, cleared his throat, and pushed his glass forward for a refill.
“I used to be able to do that,” the old woman said as the young man took the stairs two at a time.
I scribbled seventeen of them in ten minutes. Do any of them spark joy? I don’t know, but some of them are already attracting story elements to themselves in my head. Some are short story ideas, some may be more. Or I may just sit down again and write another list.
It took me a long time to get here, possibly too long. If I’d known then, what I know now, it might not have taken so long… but I didn’t, so I did.
If only I could go back… I probably wouldn’t do anything different.
To start at the beginning. I’m a Yorkshire lass through and through. I was born in Barnsley, a working class town in the middle of what was then a thriving coal field. I was only two generations away from grandfathers (and their grandfathers) who hacked at the coal face for a living. Mum and Dad belonged to the first generation to be totally free of coal dust in their lungs. They were the post-war Brits who wanted more out of life than their own parents had. Dad left school at 16, drove a tank across the Western Desert in the Second World War and then put himself through night school to end up with a management job, so though we didn’t have much when I was young, we were doing comparatively well for ourselves by the time I hit my teen years. Comfortable, though never rich.
But let me backtrack.
I was a really good reader even before I went to school, so I skipped the first year and went straight into a class of kids who’d already had a year of school. Sure I could read, but I was a very slow writer. So my mum encouraged me to write a little story when I went home for lunch. Twenty minutes of me, a pencil and a Basildon Bond writing pad. A new story every day… and bit by bit I didn’t feel so left behind in class.
And I got into the habit.
As soon as I was old enough to get tickets I spent every Saturday morning in Barnsley children’s library picking the five books I would take home for the week. They were all pony books, of course: Monica Edwards, Elyne Mitchell, Ruby Ferguson, the Pullein-Thompson sisters. And then I found a pony book called The Horse and His Boy, and that was my gateway book into fantasy. I ended up reading all C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books in the wrong order, but that didn’t matter. I discovered Hugh Walters’ space adventures… and that was it, really; horses, fantasy and space – what more could the discerning young reader want?
It was the days of grammar schools and secondary moderns; your future decided by how well you could answer a series of exam questions on one particular day in your eleventh year. Pass and you got a decent education, fail and you ended up in a school that told you not to worry about fractions because you wouldn’t need them down the pit or on the factory floor. An unfair system, but I can’t grumble because I passed and spent the next seven years in a girls’ high school learning academic subjects. School even taught me how to bake a decent Victoria sponge, but not much about how to navigate the grown-up world. When I left I could write an essay on glaciation, but I didn’t know how to open a bank account.
I did know how to ride a horse, however. Reading all those pony books as a kid had led me to the nearest riding stables where I cleaned tack, led out little kids on rotund ponies, and shovelled shit in return for rides. A pony of my own was out of the question, but I loved riding other people’s.
Was there a point where I realised that I needed to write? I do remember being set English homework when I was about fourteen. Write a story about a storm at sea–at least two pages long. Mine was twenty pages. I could see that storm, taste the salt of the ocean, feel the icy blast of wind-driven water on my face as I struggled hand over hand along the rail–the deck rolling beneath my feet. I knew nothing about the sea or sailing, but I managed to make it feel real.
By the time I was sixteen I’d started to write my first novel. It was terrible, but my friends thought it was wonderful. It was a future dystopia (eat your heart out, Hunger Games) and the characters were thinly disguised versions of my favourite pop stars. The fact that I never got beyond chapter six is a blessing. I wanted to write. I had to write. I couldn’t not write, but I was a terrible writer.
I went away to college, learned to be a librarian, got married, circled back around to Barnsley where I became the custodian of the same children’s library that I’d haunted from the age of five. I loved that library, the brown wood panelling, the smell of old paper, the funky little twisted staircase that put it outside the reach of the main lending and reference library. It was my own little kingdom. Surrounded by books all day, I went home to my best beloved and wrote – longhand in an old exercise book.
Yes, it was a fantasy story.
Two kids later, and a move to the house we still live in, I joined the village babysitting circle. My daughter was never a good sleeper, so by the time we’d wrestled her into bed and finally settled her down, there wasn’t much time for writing, but babysitting for other people’s sleeping kids gave me hours of me time. I turned up with a bag full of handwritten manuscript and if the little darlings woke while I was working, I never heard them.
Then my friend and neighbour was called away to look after ailing parents and she lent me her Amstrad PCW. Green screen, and not even WYSIWYG, it was still a revelation. I’ve never been an accurate typist, but at least this gave me a fighting chance. By the time my friend came home I couldn’t do without it, so somehow I managed to scrape together the money for my own Amstrad. And I wrote my first two books on that. OK, I admit, they are still in my bottom drawer, but that’s probably how it should be.
I mentioned earlier that I got married. I did and I am still… but that led to a second career in music. Yes, I know I haven’t mentioned music before, but I sang in the school choir, and my husband, Brian, went through music college (playing cello) and eventually taught in a primary school (general subjects with a big slice of music) and just because he’s wired that way he wrote songs for the kids.
Sometimes I don’t step back quickly enough when people call for volunteers. Our village hall needed a new roof and I said I’d organise a folk concert to fundraise. No one told me you couldn’t make money out of folk music, so I did. And because we needed an opening act I found myself on stage with Brian singing folk songs. A chance meeting with Hilary Spencer expanded our duo to a trio. We went to folk clubs in the area to advertise our fundraising folk nights at the Village Hall, and people started to ask us back. By that time we’d persuaded Brian to write some songs for us, and Artisan was born. No one should ever decide to give up the day job and go on the road full time as an itinerant folk singer until the gigs are coming in so thick and fast that you literally can’t manage to gig in the evening and still do a day job. We reached that tipping point in about three years , and so in the summer of 1989 Brian gave up his deputy headship and the three of us went on the road full time.
When we were making up our mind about whether this was a good idea, Brian phoned his mam, a very down to earth Barnsley woman. He expected to get an earful of abuse for giving up a safe job for what is the very definition of the gig-economy, but all she said was, “You do right. It’s no use getting to seventy and wishing you’d done it.’ Thanks Mam. That started twenty years of touring the length and breadth of the country and, eventually, Canada and the US. We did 31 tours to North America in a decade, and one to Australia via Hong Kong. We did a little bit in Belgium and Germany but preferred to sing in places where English was a first language. Brian’s lyrics are pretty good. Hey, you can make up your own mind if you go to www.artisan-harmony.com. There’s some youtubery on there and a page full of our CDs. Tou can even buy some of our CDs is you want – they are all still available.
Anyhow, did I forget about writing? Well, no. The thing about singing for a living is that there are gaps between the gigs with time to write. Also, when we discovered America (or America discovered us) we were introduced to the joys of the internet. It’s great for booking gigs on the other side of the planet (which was one of my jobs in the band) but also I discovered the wonderful world of usenet and a group called misc.writing. Those guys on there taught me the basics of manuscript format, and the work ethic of: apply bottom to office chair and fingers to keyboard. Write, revise, polish, send it out. While you’re waiting for it to come flying back, apply bottom to office chair, fingers to keyboard and write something else. Rinse and repeat. I’m eternally grateful, and I’m still in touch with some of them close to a quarter century later.
It was through music that I got my first invitation to write a story for an anthology. Annie Scarborough – Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Nebula winner for The Healer’s War – had been commissioned to edit an anthology for DAW. A music friend of mine was writing a story for it and suggested I should ask Annie if I could do the same. Annie, being an Artisan fan, figured that if I knew how to entertain an audience I could probably tell a story, and so my first short story publication, The Jewel of Locaria, came out in Warrior Princesses. That led to getting an invitation to go to Milford a full week of SF writers critiquing each other’s work. If that sounds scary, it is, but it’s also a massive learning experience. Previous writers who’ve been through the Milford mill include Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin. In my first year I was with Liz Williams and Alastair Reynolds (before either of them got their first book deals) plus oft-published American author, Patricia Wrede. It’s not just the critiquing, though that’s educational, but the contacts you make and the hints and tips about the business of writing, and markets for science fiction and fantasy.
We can skip over several years during which life happened. I worked on novels and sold a story or two; Artisan retired from the road (and did a reunion tour five years later and then ten years later) and I became a folk booking agent, driving a desk for a living. I continued going to Milford, and I got an introduction to an editor at DAW via a writer-friend I met there. It was July 2013 when I got the email I’d been waiting for all my life. Sheila Gilbert said, ‘I want to buy your book.’
Let me say that again because it never gets old… ‘I WANT TO BUY YOUR BOOK!’
And just like that all my birthdays and Christmases had come at once. Then Sheila followed up with, ‘What else have you got?’ And because I’d taken that misc.writing advice to heart, I already had another six books completed. I got a three book deal for Winterwood, Empire of Dust, and a sequel to Empire as yet unnamed (which became Crossways). Incidentally Empire of Dust was the book I took to my first Milford in 1998 and it became my first published book in 2014. So my overnight success only took sixteen years. I’ve now got two published trilogies; one is space opera, the other historical fantasy, and there’s another (standalone) book in the pipeline, but probably not until 2021. I can’t tell you more about that, or I might have to shoot you.
So that’s me.
Thanks, Mum, for encouraging me to write those little lunchtime stories when I was five. It’s all your fault.
I’m a big advocate of critique groups. I’ve been attending the Milford Writers’ Conference since 1998 with enough regularity that eventually I’ve ended up being the secretary. Milford is an annual event for published SF writers, and a great battery recharger. It’s held in September each year at Trigonos, about nine miles south of Caernarfon. For the last few years we’ve also held a writers’ retreat there in the spring.
Of course, this year, during the pandemic, we are still waiting to see if the events will happen, in particular the spring Retreat which is due to start on 6th June. More about that on the Milford web pages as soon as we know what’s happening.
Eight years ago, a few of us from Milford decided that it was about time we had a regular writers’ group in the north, since there were a number of London-based or southerly ones, but nothing in our area. So we got together to form Northwrite SF. We meet four times a year on the second Sundays of January, April, July, and October – only ever moving the date if it clashes with a major SF convention such as Eastercon or Fantasycon.
This year we moved the date to the third Sunday in April so as not to clash with Eastercon, but, of course, we needn’t have bothered since, by late March we were all on Coronavirus lockdown. We normally meet at our house (on the edge of the Pennines, near Huddersfield) because we have plenty of room, and we’re relatively central. Our original members came from both coasts (Yorkshire and Lancashire) and from all points between, on both sides of the Pennines. There were ten of us originally, and though some members have changed we’ve maintained a steady number. The geographical nature of our membership has broadened. We now have members from as far away as the Isle of Arran, Gloucestershire and Cambridge. Some of the ones with a long way to travel arrive on Saturday and stay over until Sunday evening or Monday morning. As I say, we have plenty of room and it’s lovely to see people.
This year, with the Covid 19 lockdown in place we either had to cancel or meet up online for our session on 19th April. We tried a few different meeting apps and eventually decided to go with Google Hangouts. I confess to being technologically challenged. Yes I’m familiar with Skype, but a novice at Google Hangouts, Zoom and Discord. Zoom allowed multiple meeting members, but the free version limited meetings to 40 minutes. So we decided on Google Hangouts. One of our members set up a meeting, sent out the invitations, and we were on it from 10.30 a.m. to almost 5.00 p.m. with a few bathroom breaks and a half hour for lunch. I have to report that most of us had better picture clarity than with skype. One had difficulty with sound, and one was a little fuzzy because of bandwidth problems in his rural location, but by and large it worked very well.
We use the Milford Method of critiquing, which evolved way back in the 1950s when Damon Knight formed Milford in Milford Pennsylvania, USA. (Milford was brought to the UK by James Blish in 1972.) The Milford Method: we read and critique the pieces in advance of the session. Then everyone sits around the room in a circle, and the person whose piece is up for critique has to remain quiet while the rest take a turn to offer their critique in a (timed) four minute slot. (They need not use their full time. If four minutes doesn’t sound like much, believe me, it is.) When everyone has offered critique, the author gets uninterrupted right of reply. Then at the end there’s usually a short period of general discussion if matters have arisen during the critique or response. Afterwards it’s customary for the written critiques to be handed to the author, or sent by email after the meeting. Critiques are thorough, but must be delivered to help the author make the piece the best it can be. No ad hominem attacks allowed.
So this tried and tested format actually works well online as well as face to face.
With Google Hangouts, whoever is talking is on full screen while the others are tiled down the side. This is particularly good because during the crit we pass from one person to the next, one voice at a time. It works less well if several people are trying to bat a conversation back and forth between them. You can’t talk over each other as that simply doesn’t work. The result being that on Sunday the discussion after the author’s right of reply tended to be truncated, but in general we got through all our critiques in good time and four or five of us hung out at the end for a bit of social chat, which was lovely.
The one thing we couldn’t do on Google Hangouts was share lunch and take a break mid-afternoon for cake o’clock as we usually do. (I cook lunch since I don’t have to travel.) We’ll be glad when lockdown is over, but in the meantime, I pronounce Google Hangouts to be a workable substitute.
Fiction must make more sense than real life. I think we all know that real life isn’t making much sense at the moment. If we wrote about a global pandemic in which presidential staff held hands and prayed that it would simply go away, it would seem ridiculous beyond words. It would be unrealistic if we had people believing that it was being caused by mobile telephone signals and attacking masts. We’d glance heavenwards and sigh loudly to see our PM making announcements flanked (too closely) by his cabinet members and whisper ‘of course’ when he tested positive for Covid 19. We’d wonder at the mentality of the great and the good standing too close together at the opening of a new coronavirus hospital in a London Exhibition centre. We’d yell at the screen if a president told his citizens to take an unproven drug against the advice of his public health experts. I’ve taken all of those examples from recent news reports on both sides of the Atlantic.
I see that conspiracy theorists are already posting to Facebook, positing that Covid 19 is a bioweapon from China meant to destabilise the rest of the world.
In my last blog entry I said that I always wanted to write about science fiction, I didn’t want to live in it – especially in a dystopia, which is close to where we are right now.
It’s been more than three weeks since Best Beloved and I stepped out of the front door. Any socialising we’ve done has been via Skype or Google hangouts. Our kids are too far away (one in the south of England, one across the Atlantic in Virginia) but even if they were not, we wouldn’t be able to visit in person, and that’s a good thing because my daughter and her family have definitely had something. Of course without readily available testing, either the virus test or an antigen test, we can’t be totally sure it was Covid 19. Since they’ve come through it relatively easily I have to hope that it was and that they are now immune.
My first ever veggie harvest
We’ve been (so far) getting our groceries delivered but there’s every sign, now, that delivery slots are drying up because demand is far outstripping availability. We have a small greenhouse and a big garden so, though it’s many years since self-sufficiency was the trending thing, we’re going full-on vegetable growing in the knowledge that it will be several months before we start to produce anything edible. In fairness we’re not new to growing our own fruit and veg. We’ve had raised vegetable beds in the garden for the last ten years or so, but other than the strawberry beds, they haven’t been productive in the last couple of years due to lack of time and energy.
Yes it’s a tomato!
When we were newly married we had a yen for a smallholding with enough pasture for a couple of horses, a donkey or two (just because: donkeys), and a plot for fruit and vegetables. Maybe I would have been OK on that smallholding. Though if life had turned in that direction I might never have had time to write.
They say write about what you know, but I have to say right now that I won’t be writing about a global pandemic. However some of the experiences brought on by Covid 19 could be useful to a writer. Sowing all the seeds for the vegetable beds has reminded me just how much time it takes to produce your own food. This of course was highlighted superbly in Andy Weir’s The Martian. (If you haven’t read it, do so now. Highly recommended.) Growing food (on Earth or on an alien planet) is a major achievement. I’ve been checking my greenhouse daily, knowing that the first batch of seeds I sowed were mostly out of date. Whoo-hoo, today I have five broad beans (out of twelve) just beginning to show through. Result! Now, if only the others germinate, too. If this was truly post apocalyptic and there was no way to get fresh seeds, my life (and the lives of my family) would be depending on me cajoling a few packets of out of date seeds into life. (Yes, I have bought fresh seeds, now, though there’s also been a run on seed suppliers. Who’d have thought that getting Cos lettuce seeds would ever be difficult!)
The other thing that self-isolation has made me acutely aware of, is how socialising with family and friends over video links is what you might do if you were in space, or on a colony planet. Daughter is 200 miles away, son is 5,000 miles away, but honestly, they could be in the next street or on the moon. I can’t give them hugs in person. I must be satisfied with long distance relationships. Yesterday I managed Skype calls with son and daughter (and families) and all is well.
Due to Covid 19 we’ve pulled up the drawbridge and dug a shark infested moat around Bedford Towers. No, we’re not sick, but I’m diabetic and my other half has suddenly become classified as elderly. How scary is that? Our main reason for self-isolating, however, is my mum, who lives in the interconnected granny-house next door. She’s 95 and getting increasingly frail. She’s definitely elderly, and definitely at risk if Coronavirus comes knocking.
There are advantages to self-isolating, especially if you’re a writer.
Best Beloved and I work from home. He’s had to cancel upcoming bookings in the recording studio, but since I drive a desk for a living, and talk to people by phone and email, I can keep going. As well as my writing, my day job is arranging gigs for folk musicians (British and foreign) and issuing work permits for musicians coming in from outside the EU. As you can imagine, most of my work is currently taken up with cancelling gigs and trying to rearrange them for next year. As for work permits… just no (at least not until we’re over the peak and theatres and venues are encouraged to reopen). The government seems to have closed all venues, at last, after merely advising people not to go to concerts, theatres and suchlike. A lot of the venues are suspending operations for the time being. Government guidelines are changing daily, and though there are signs that some venues are flouting this, they’ll probably make it law pretty soon. Don’t ask me why some young people are still congregating. Haven’t they got grannies they need to protect? (Note: as I’m writing this the PM has announced an official lockdown for three weeks. As I said, things are changing daily.)
To be honest, though my day-job income has taken a hit, I can ride it for a few months at least – though I’m worried that a lot of performers are not so lucky. They live the very definition of ‘gig economy.’
I’ve just had to cancel a whole tour for Canadian performer, Dan McKinnon. He actually flew in to Heathrow, caught the train up to Yorkshire, stayed with us for a couple of nights and then went down to the West Country for two gigs. And then the Canadian government advised all citizens abroad to get home while they still could, i.e. before there were no flights, and before Canada closed its borders. Dan’s not only had to pay the normal tour expenses, but Air Canada charged him $2500 for a new ticket home, despite the fact he already HAD a ticket home in April which will now be unused (and possibly not refundable). I’ve been heartened by one folk club offering him a cancellation fee, and another offering to buy 15 of Dan’s CDs to help offset the gig fee he would be missing out on. How lovely is that? If you want to buy his CDs this is Dan’s website. I can promise you his music is lovely. (Intelligent songs, great voice.)
Since I can’t do anything about Covid 19 and its ravages on the music industry, my writerly thoughts turn to two things:
What can I do with the spare time?
How can I get a story out of this?
Time. Lovely time. I usually don’t have enough of it, but once I’ve sorted out the tour cancellations (Dan’s and others) I will have time, no visitors, and no commitments. So what have I got to do? Well, I have edits on two books which I’ve started but not yet finished, plus edits on a short story which has already been committed to a small press anthology, and when I’ve finished those, a new first draft to get to grips with. Plenty of things to occupy me. I’ve never been the sort of person to sit around saying I’m bored, and I like being in the office in front of the computer screen. And if I’m stuck I can even catch up with some knitting.
And how can I get a story out of this? It’s almost too science-fictional already isn’t it? I want to write science fiction, not live in it. Does anyone remember Survivors, the TV series from the 1970s? It’s about a bunch of disparate people who come together in the wake of a pandemic which started in China. In this case it was a bioweapon that escaped and spread rapidly, leaving only 1% of the population alive. The series was created by Terry Nation, inventor of the Daleks, and ran for three seasons. (Note: there was a remake but it wasn’t as good as the original, which is still available on DVD.)
Global pandemics, from bioweapons to zombie apocalypses have been done and done again. We’ve read about them, watched them at the cinema and on TV, and now we have to deal with the reality.
However, to take a different story tack, how would our politicians react to losing (mostly) the elderly, the sick and disabled? Those are the people either receiving state pensions (which they’ve paid for all their working lives) or some kind of disability allowance such as the Personal Independence Payment. A few days ago our prime minister (don’t blame me I didn’t vote for him) said that to achieve herd immunity 60% of our population would have to catch Covid 19. Our current population is (2019 figures) 67,530,172, so 60% works out at 40,518,103 people. If just 2% of that 40.5 million die, then we’re looking at a UK death toll of 810,362. (Don’t forget they are people, not just numbers.) Our politicians might put on a glum face, and yet be secretly rubbing their hands together. Basic state pensions are £6,718 per person per year (yes, a pitiful amount and many will get more than this). Multiply the basic state pension by the likely number of deaths and that’s an annual saving to the government of £5,444,011,916. What’s not to like? And at the same time the government can blame any financial disaster onto Covid 19 instead of the whole Brexit debacle, and continue with punitive austerity.
Hey, I’m speculating here because I’m a speculative fiction writer!
The other tack is that with 40.5 million sick and maybe 2 million of them needing hospitalisation, our society is going to go into meltdown. Not just the NHS workers who are on the front line without adequate protection (plus the army medics standing by to supplement hospital staff), but people self-isolating for 14 days if one member of the family comes down with symptoms. It’s not simply 14 days of lost work, but if a second member comes down with symptoms on Day 13, the 14 day quarantine resets. Those in isolation rely on grocery delivery drivers (who are not immune). Supermarkets are already struggling because of the numbers of people ordering groceries online, and over-ordering because everyone else is panic buying. I don’t know how long Amazon will continue to deliver on time, but their drivers and warehouse staff are not immune either. We’re looking at severe staff shortages in all major goods and services industries – medical, transport, food, power. Maybe even water. Perhaps all those buying spare toilet rolls and bottled water know something I don’t.
I paid for a new-to-me car last week to replace my little 13 year old runabout, and the salesman asked if I would like to pay in toilet rolls. I laughed, but there was something about it that sits uneasily. (Of course now I have a lovely little car and nowhere to go, but I paid him in pounds, so preserved the toilet rolls in my cupboard..)
I like doing interviews, especially when the questions are both thoughtful and taxing. Carl Slaughter presented me with an intriguing set of questions way back in 2016. I thought I’d revisit them.
CS: Your first series is cyberpunk space opera. Your second series is alternate history swashbuckler magic fantasy. Is it safe to say you haven’t settled on a genre or subgenre yet?
JB: I’ve always written both science fiction and fantasy and would prefer not to be pinned down. I don’t really want to settle on a specific genre or subgenre because there’s so much that interests me. The first book (more space opera and not so much cyberpunk despite the cool brain implants) was not actually the first book I wrote. In fact it wasn’t even the first book I sold. It just so happened that DAW had a gap in their science fiction schedule earlier than the one in their fantasy schedule, so although the historical fantasy was the first one they bought, the space opera was the first they published.
CS: Both of your series involve vast expanse and epic adventure. I also noticed that the main characters in both series are on the run from oppressive, all controlling authority. And pirates, lots of pirates. Is any of this a coincidence?
JB: Yes, I think it is pretty much a coincidence though underdog and rebel stories are always interesting to write. Stories are all about conflict. so main characters sometimes need something to kick against to give them momentum. What better than something big and oppressive? That might be the society they live in or invading aliens or simply an overbearing family. The ‘kicking against’ might be central to the plot, it might be in the background. The Psi-Tech universe has megacorporations which have a bigger economy than your average planet, but that’s not dissimilar to today where companies like Wal-Mart have a gross value larger than some countries. It’s just scaled up a notch. As for pirates… they just sprang into being, fully-formed, along with the first scene which was more or less dictated by my ‘muse’ – whatever the hell that is.
CS: Your Psi-tech series involves 2 types of rather complicated hard science. How do each of these work and how are they integrated into each other, integrated into the character development, and integrated into the plot?
JB: I presume you mean the neural implants that enhance my characters’ natural psionic talents, and also foldspace and jump gates. Let’s take the latter first. To quote Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Space is big.’ Let’s face it, the distances between solar systems even in this arm of our spiral galaxy are immense – too vast to contemplate journeys between worlds without a shortcut. If writers had to stick to real science, then no one would be writing science fiction that involved interstellar space travel, or at least not without taking into account time dilation and generation ships. So there are only a few ways to shortcut the immensity of space. Either you have to use FTL, such as Star-Trekkian warp drives, or you find wormholes that act like snakes on a Snakes and Ladders gameboard (Chutes and Ladders in the US, I believe), or you have to have to fold space-time in some way. Einstein’s equations indicate that’s possible, but, of course we haven’t a clue how to do it yet. In my Psi-Tech universe, we fold space, entering and exiting via jump-gates, but there’s something between the gates. The Folds are not like anything we’ve ever encountered before. The physics of foldspace are convoluted and unpredictable and there may be more there than we think. (More on that in the third Psi-tech book).
Now, as to the neural implants… just writing about telepathy would make it fantasy, right? There’s nothing in medical science as we know it that can measure a tendency toward psionic powers, but we still keep writing (and reading) about telepathy as if we’re refusing to believe it’s all pure hokum. Perhaps we like to think that there might be something in it, some tiny but immeasurable thing that would turn us into post-humans and let us talk to each other in our heads. (Whether that’s your idea of heaven or hell is up to you.) I’m not going to spoil it like midichlorians spoiled the power of the Force for a generation of Star Wars fans, but hey, don’t you think it would be fascinating if you could have some kind of magical wifi that enabled you to make brain-to-brain phone calls and control machines with your thoughts? That’s what my guys have got – and more. Whatever slim tendency towards psionic powers is lurking in their brain my neural implant will amplify it. Of course, they have to learn how to control it, and there are some people who try it and are instantly driven bonkers, but that’s the risk they take.
CS: How does religious fundamentalist Neo-Luddism fit into the big picture?
JB: There are always going to be people who think it was so much better before tech ‘ruined’ the world and in some ways they might be right, but technology is a genii you can’t put back in the bottle. Whether it’s the alphabet, the wheel the printing press, the vacuum cleaner or the silicone chip, technological advances have shaped the way we live. So I figured the just like the Amish today, in five hundred years time there will be groups of people who are wary of technology. Maybe it’s from a religious standpoint, or maybe from a social one, but those folks will still resent changes and want to live without them. It’s ironic that the very thing that will give my Ecolibrians the opportunity to create their new Neo-Luddite world is the very technology they are trying to escape. So their big question is, do they give in to technology now in order to secure their desired future, or do they just continue to sit where they are and grumble ineffectively about it? My guys decide that they’ll compromise their principles (just once) in order to make a fresh start. Of course, it’s not as simple as that.
CS: In the Rowankind series, how does the war between King George and Napoleon fit into the plot?
JB: It’s integral to the ocean-going part of the story and in the background all the time. Ross Tremayne’s ship, The Heart of Oak, is a privateer, not a pirate ship. It’s a thin (and sometimes very wobbly) line between the two, but it does mean that Ross has letters of marque which enable her to attack the ships of King George’s enemies legally (from the English point of view). She’s mostly chasing after French merchantmen, making a nice profit while disrupting Napoleon’s supply lines. The privateering trade is Ross’ livelihood and she’s used the profits to make sensible investments which mean she’s an independently wealthy woman, something fairly unusual in the Georgian era. Being a widow gives her a certain amount of autonomy that women who are daughters or wives rarely get in this period. It wasn’t impossible for a woman to have control over her own money, but it was fairly rare.
The wars between France and England run almost continuously throughout the story. There’s a very brief peace in 1802 which is actually pretty disastrous for the crew of the Heart (but that’s in a later book). The second book in the series, Silverwolf, is set (mostly) in England, so we see a certain amount of civil unrest developing due to shortages (the Bread Riots), and, of course, the government of the day is petrified of a French-style revolution happening here. But at the same time as all this is happening the Industrial Revolution is steaming ahead (literally), so that’s mixed in, to the second book, too. The big question is: how are magical events going to affect the industrial revolution, society and the Napoleonic Wars?
CS: Give us some insight into Ross’ character and predicament?
JB: She eloped with her late husband, Will, a sea captain, after a massive argument with her mother who was trying to go back on her late father’s promise that the Heart of Oak would be her dowry when she married. She was only eighteen at the time and as a result of the kerfuffle she ran away to sea and never registered her witchy powers with the Mysterium – the body that governs magic-users in Georgian Britain. That means she’s now outside of the law, an unregistered witch. That’s a hanging offence. She’s learned to use some of her magic, but she’s still largely untrained. When the story opens Ross has been a widow for three years and the ghost of her late husband is still with her. She’s clinging to him because he’s all she has left. Her crew of barely-reformed pirates have become her family. When her estranged mother dies, she inherits a magical winterwood box, a half-brother she never knew she had, and a task she doesn’t want. Ross isn’t ready for change, but she’s catapulted into it. She’s gutsy and resourceful and physically capable, but resistant to taking up the challenge until it becomes obvious that she can’t avoid it. Once she does take it up she follows it though and does her best to make some difficult decisions.
CS: Why is the Mysterium trying so hard to find Ross? Because they are so strict about regulating magic or because she has something they need/fear?
JB: The Mysterium in general are not actively hunting for Ross. She’s been on their wanted list for seven years. If she makes a mistake, however, and they spot her, they’ll haul her off to the cells in a heartbeat. The one who’s searching so hard for Ross is outside the Mysterium, but as an agent of King George, he can demand the Mysterium’s unquestioning cooperation. He is, in fact, above the Mysterium in all practical ways. He’s chasing Ross because of the box. What’s inside it could change the world, or at least the corner of the world known as Britain.
CS: Who would play Cara and Ben in a screen adaptation? Who would play Ross, Will, and Corwen? Who would play the supporting characters in both series? Especially the corporation/government agents?
JB: I’m not one of those writers who finds an actor to pin a character on. I have tried ‘casting’ the characters in retrospect, but never quite managed it successfully. I’m a big Pinterest fan and I keep a lot of photos on my Pinterest boards to give me visual clues. Sometimes I find a photo of an actor and think that they look perfect for a particular part, but then the next photo of them that I find I think… not so much. There was one photo of Charlize Theron with a pixie haircut that could have been Cara, but Cara’s probably not quite that pretty. Ricky Whittle (The 100) might make a good Ben, or maybe Ben could be a younger version of Colin Salmon if we could step back in time. I always thought that the villain of the piece in Empire of Dust, Ari van Blaiden, would look like a young Robert Redford – way too pretty for his own good, and Jason Isaacs could play Craike. Alexander Siddig could be Garrick, Katherine Hepburn, Nan, and someone not entirely unlike Jim Sturgess could be Ronan,
As for Ross, Will and Corwen, I have no idea. The cover picture of Winterwood is actually digital art using a live model. The young lady is an actress. Wherever she is, or whoever she is, she’s my Ross now. [Edit: The actress in question is Caroline Ford, who is currently playing Sophie Longerbane in Amazon’s Carnival Row. She’s definitely my Ross.] Corwen could be a young Barry Bostwick circa mid 70s, if Barry Bostwick had had silver hair at that age. We only ever meet Will as a ghost. Maybe Chris Hemsworth as he appears in the recent movie ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ would be a fair likeness. I hadn’t thought about ‘casting’ Will before, but that feels just about right.
CS: What’s is liking being a DAW author?
JB: It’s a dream come true. When you’re hunting for a publisher for your first book, you know you can’t be picky. Frankly you’d take the first sensible offer that came along. You couldn’t afford not to, right? But all along you have in mind that some publishers are better than others for you. I mean, yes, I’d have been happy to sell my first book to any of the major players, but when I look at my own bookshelves I have so many books that are published by DAW. Some of my favourite authors are in DAW’s stable of authors. I seem to resonate with their style. My editor, Sheila Gilbert, is a marvel, and everyone at DAW has been lovely to work with. It’s still very much a family firm and they support their authors in so many ways. I’m very happy there.
CS: You’ve done an awful lot of workshopping. How has that contributed to your career?
JB: I can honestly say that I would never have got my book deal if it hadn’t been for the connections I made, and lessons I learned, while in critique groups and attending the Milford SF Writers’ conference in the UK. I didn’t even know what manuscript format was when I found my first online writing group (misc.writing – a usenet newsgroup). The help I got there enabled me to sell a short story which qualified me to attend Milford, a week-long get together for published SF writers in the UK. With a maximum of 15 writers at any one event it’s small but intensive. We get together to critique works in progress. Crits are stringent but fair, and are professional level. Everyone is offering suggestions to help improve the stories/books. There’s no snarky sniping. It’s all incredibly supportive but it digs deep for potential failings in order to make the pieces as good as they can be. And because we’re fifteen writers miles from anywhere in a not-so-secret location in the Welsh mountains we all talk about… writing. So you learn about publishers and markets and agents. I’m the current Milford secretary, so I invite you to find us on the web at http://www.milfordSF.co.uk.
CS: You recently discovered the convention circuit. What did you discover that kept you on this circuit?
JB: I love it. A lot of my writer friends go, so conventions are great social events with panels that can be both entertaining and informative. You can also volunteer to sit on panels which is not only a chance to indirectly publicise your books, but also great fun. The first panel I ever sat on also had George R.R. Martin. How cool is that? And it turns out that George is also a Milford alumnus.
I was really lucky that right after I sold my first novel both World Fantasy Con and Worldcon came to the UK within nine months of each other. Mostly I just get to do UK conventions, Eastercon and Fantasycon being my favourites, but I’ve signed up for Worldcon in Helsinki in 2017 and I’m hoping Dublin gets to host it in 2019. If it does, I’ll certainly be there.
CS: Your short stories are all over the place. How do you find and customize to so many markets?
JB: I have a friend, Deborah Walker, another Milford alumnus, who has a motto and that is: “Submit until your fingers bleed.” Debs is a great role model when it comes to submitting stories. It’s very easy to send a story out and then either not chase it up after the allotted time or maybe get it back with a rejection slip and fail to send it out again straight away. Debs always reminds me to send, send, send. And, you know what? When you send stuff out you have a much better statistical chance of selling it than you do when you let it languish on your hard drive. You do have to be fairly well organised, however. I have a database of what I’ve sent out and the response I got. You just have to remember that getting a rejection slip is not a personal insult. It just means that your short story wasn’t right for that market at that particular time. Maybe they’d just bought three cat-resurrection stories and didn’t need a fourth. Send it out again and next time, or the time after that, it might just hit the right desk at the right time. I’ve had stories that sold on the first submission and stories that sold on the twentieth.
As well as using my database to record submissions I also use The Submissions Grinder when I’m looking to see which markets are currently buying what. That’s http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com. Since the wonderful Duotrope started charging rather more for subscriptions than I – as a very occasional short story writer – thought was reasonable to pay, the Grinder has become my first go-to place. It’s searchable by stories of a specific length and style. Ralan at http://www.ralan.com/ is not quite as searchable, but it has some excellent market news for F & SF.
CS: When are the next sequels and how long will each series continue?
JB: Oh, that’s a good question. I have contracts for Silverwolf, the second Rowankind book, and for a third book in the Psi-Tech series, Nimbus, which is likely to be out in late 2017, though I don’t have a firm date for publication yet.
I think Nimbus will be the last in Cara and Ben’s storyline – for now at least – though I don’t guarantee I’m completely done with them yet. I also have a couple of books on a back burner which are set in the same universe, but hundreds of years in the future, when the planet Jamundi, where the Ecolibrians ended up, has become separated from the rest of the colonies. The Jamundi sequence could easily turn into a trilogy, plus I have an idea for a standalone set maybe fifty years after that when Jamundi is ‘found’ again. Essentially that will be a first contact story. That universe could run and run, but not necessarily with the same characters. I also have a sneaking fondness for Max and for Ronan, two supporting characters in Cara and Ben’s story arc, so they might end up with their own short stories or novellas, if not novels.
The Rowankind series is very likely to turn into a trilogy. I’ve just finished the first draft of Silverwolf (due January 2017) and there’s definitely enough unfinished business for a third book. I also have a children’s book which I wrote on spec a few years ago. It’s contemporary, but a couple of the long-lived characters from Winterwood pop up in it. I like making connections and building layers on top of already built worlds.
[Edit: Both trilogies are complete and available now.]
I do have other books in the pipeline. One I’m particularly keen to get on with is a second world fantasy set in an analogue of the Baltic states around 1650. Just for a change that’s not one where someone is on the run from an oppressive society. It starts with the aftermath of a royal assassination and has three main viewpoint characters, Valdas, the dead king’s failed bodyguard; Lind, the assassin; and Mirza, a landloper witch who has a connection to the spirit world.
Thanks for your thoughtful questions, Carl. I’ve enjoyed answering them.
I was a voracious reader as a child, working my way steadily through the stock of my local public library children’s department. My literature of choice was anything with horses or ponies in it. Some of the books in my local library were quite old, so I read my way through stories by Monica Edwards, Elyne Mitchell, Ruby Ferguson, Judith M. Berrisford and the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Josephine, Diana and Christine. If it had a horse on the cover I would read it.
Imagine my surprise, then, when one horse book I read turned out to be something a little different. The Horse and His Boy was my gateway book into fantasy (horses and a magical fantasy land!) and after that I read all of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books and never looked back.
So a few years ago I decided to see what pony books were available today and I was horrified by the number of shocking (in more ways than one) pink covers depicting sparkly ponies or even unicorns. Where were the ‘serious’ pony stories of my youth? What do little girls read when they grow up but don’t grow out of wanting to read about horses?
What do writers do when they grow up, but still want to write about horses?
So between writing the fantasy and space opera trilogies for an adult audience, I started writing a pony book aimed at young readers. I’ve been a child, a teen, a tween, I’ve been a children’s librarian and I’ve had children, so I had a reasonable head start, however I’m not a child any more so the plot started to get twistier and the characters more complex. I reined myself in, edited out some of the twists and completed a simple version, which would work well for middle grade, but I wanted something a little meatier and so after leaving it on one side for a few years while I finished other projects I’ve come back to it. And… I think it wants to be a Young Adult book. So I’m doing an editing pass to age-up the characters, add back some of those twists and a touch of romance.
There are still horses, of course.
It’s set in the same story-world as my Rowankind books, though two hundred years later. What happened in the Rowankind books slowed down the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, so though it’s close to modern day there are no personal computers or mobile phones. Television is in its infancy and buses and trains run on steam power with petrol engine cars a bit of a rarity. Not every family has a car, but that’s okay because they’re hardly reliable anyway and often more trouble than they’re worth.
Magic exists, but it’s a well-kept secret, helped by the fact that nomps, non-magical people, can’t cope with the possibility of magic, so they find ways to explain it away and generally believe that it doesn’t exist, so for them it doesn’t. Any time they witness something magical they rationalise it and it soon disappears from their memory.
My main character, Tiv, is from a magically talented family, but despite all expectations she’s got hardly any magic at all, and though she went to a specialist private school she flunked all her practical magic exams and took extra geography and history instead. Her talents lie elsewhere. She’s a talented young horsewoman and rides a piebald Romany Vanner called Jester. Their neighbours’ son, Ryan, has a thoroughbred-cross-something called Bonaparte who has been troubled by a series of unpredictable and dangerous attacks of the terrors. It has put an end to his promising showjumping career, Ryan is currently his caretaker, not his owner. Tiv may not be much of a witch, but she knows about magic, and so when Boney has an attack of the frights one day she quickly identifies the problem. The title of the book is: YOUR HORSE SEES DEAD PEOPLE.
There’s more to it than that, of course. Ryan’s dad is suffering from a form of early dementia, possibly magically induced, and Tiv’s dad disappeared during a magical investigation almost a year earlier. Tiv and her mum are determined to find out what has happened to him. There are surprises and revelations along the way. If I told you, I’d have to shoot you.
I’m not generally one of those writers who finds actor-lookalikes for my cast of characters, but I do work visually… and Pinterest has some stunning images of horses of all kinds, so I have cast my horse characters.
Sometimes it’s hard to know how to end a book. With this one I have the opposite problem. I have two potential endings and I like them both, so obviously I have to make a hard editorial choice. Fortunately I think I can work in my favourite scene from one of the endings into the other one.
All is not yet lost!
Before you ask, it’s a long way from finding a home. I’ve just had some exciting news about another project which is going to distract me for a while, but I can’t tell you yet.
I posted this to the Milford blog this week, but I’m so taken with it, I thought I’d post it here, too.
Whether you’re self-published or traditionally published there’s a good chance that you’ll need to shout out about your new book release. It’s only a smallish number of best selling authors that have the might of their publisher’s publicity department behind them. The rest of us might get a few hours of a publicist’s time if we’re lucky. So that means getting your shoulder behind your own book and giving it a shove. To do that it helps if you have some good images.
If you’re an indie author (or even if you aren’t) there’s a really interesting lesson on book cover design on Derek Murphy’s DIY Book Covers site . It takes forty-three minutes, but listen – it’s time well spent. I learned a lot, especially about keeping it simple. I’m very lucky, my editor asks for my input of the cover image, so this gives me some information on the kind of thing that works (and doesn’t).
Remember, it’s not the job of the cover to sell the book, its job is to get the potential reader to pick it up. The sales pitch is the cover copy on the back. All your cover needs to do is to entice a potential reader to pick it up and turn it over.
When I was a singer with Artisan (that’s me in the middle), I knew what audiences thought. They applauded, whistled, stomped and even sometimes leaped to their feet. After the show they came and chatted to us over the merchandise table and bought CDs – i.e. they voted with their wallets.
I’ve had six books published now, and my seventh is finished and waiting for my editor at DAW. Yes I have sales figures, but it’s not the same as having that direct jolt of approval that you get when you’re face to face with the consumers of your art.
It’s always nice to hear from readers. It’s even nicer when they post reviews as well, and do the word-of-mouth thing.
My first novel, Empire of Dust, showed up on the Locus Best Seller list in the month it was published (just in that month and then it vanished again) but I don’t know if that means anything. I can’t even go into my local bookstore and see my books on the shelves because I’m in the UK and I’m published in the USA. Sure, readers at home can buy my books on Amazon (though not as a Kindle book because of rights issues), but they don’t see it on the shelves. Is it even real? If I didn’t have a few boxes full of author copies and some nice reviews, I’d wonder if I really had six books out there already.
Powells World of Books
Some very kind folks have sent me ‘shelfies’ of my books in bookstores. I love that. It’s validation – and that’s all we writers look for. If you are in the USA or Canada (or anywhere in the world) and find my books in your local bookstore, please send me a shelfie and tell me which bookstore. You can find my address on my website: http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk/
Land journeys Looking at the amount of storage required on board ship for all the provisions, it quickly becomes obvious that carrying anything close to naval rations for even a small party travelling on land would require wagons or, at least, a string of pack ponies plus extra ones to carry oats or barley for the equines. For pioneers heading into the wilderness with no opportunity to re-stock, most of their carrying capacity would be allocated to food. Water would (hopefully) be found along the way. There may always be the possibility of hunting for meat, and refilling water barrels.
The Oregon Trail Centre gives a list of supplies for travellers setting out on the Oregon Trail, a five month, 2,000 mile trek from Missouri to Oregon in 1841 includes (for a family of four) 600 pounds of flour, 400 pounds of bacon, 100 pounds of sugar, 60 pounds of coffee and 200 pounds of lard. These basics would be augmented by hard tack, sacks of beans, rice, dried fruit, baking soda and corn meal. (The corn meal made pretty good packing for eggs, and bran made good packing for bacon.) Seasoning would include, salt, pepper, vinegar and molasses. If they had a milk cow, butter would be churned as they went by simply hanging it under the bumpy wagon in a bucket and letting the trail do the work. In the early days, game (buffalo and antelope) was plentiful, but when the wild animal population diminished settlers might take a herd of cows for meat as well as milk.
Journeybread or Journeycake? My Facebook friend, musician Jennifer Cutting recently posted about trying journeybread made by a local woman who ferments the dough herself. It’s a dense, unleavened whole grain loaf chock full of dried apricots, raisins and walnuts. Jennifer said: ‘It tastes of rye and hardship.’
Instead of journeybread why not journeycake? A traditional fruit cake/Christmas cake contains all of the above dried fruits and nuts, and is also baked with ground almonds and eggs as well as flour and sugar. You can bake it slightly harder than normal to prevent it from turning into a crumbly mess. Trickle brandy over it once it’s cooled from the oven. It’s much more palatable than rock-hard bread. There’s a reason it’s a mid-winter cake – it’s a great way of preserving. It will keep for months and be just as good as it was on the day it came out of the oven. It’s very nutritious, especially if you eat it with hard cheese (like a mature cheddar or aged gouda). Anyone who hasn’t eaten Christmas cake with cheese should remember the rhyme: Fruitcake without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze. It’s almost a complete meal, with the cheese providing extra protein.
Stew Anyone who hasn’t read Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland should at least go and read the entry on ‘stew’. Go on, I’ll wait… Right. OK, then, let’s get started.
Stew is undoubtedly a staple of all those fantasy inns because you can fill a big pot full of cheap cuts of meat and plenty of root vegetables (and possibly beans, lentils and barley) and let it simmer all day. (It can simmer overnight, even.) Of course, if there’s any left the following day, just throw more vegetables and water into the pot and set it going again. Rinse and repeat until there’s a very small meat-to-veg ratio, whereupon you call it soup, serve it all up, and start a new pot of stew as soon as you’ve scrubbed the pan. (Note, since you don’t want to poison people it needs to be kept up to temperature, not left to fester. Before refrigeration, cooks used to keep a stock pot on the go for weeks by making sure it was boiled up thoroughly, every day, to kill off bacteria.)
When I was a kid my granny used to start a stew off on the back of the coal-fired range on a Sunday night with shin beef and any leftovers from the Sunday joint. With daily additions of more potatoes and vegetables and a handful of split peas and lentils it would generally last until Friday. It would probably do two main meals for the family of five (one with dumplings and another with thick pancakes) and also a midday meal for whoever was at home. I’d have it for lunch every day when I came home from school. It started off thin on day one, but by the time the end of the week came around it had so many potatoes and lentils in it was thick and still delicious.
But stew like this only works on a commercial basis if you regularly have hungry mouths to feed, so inns situated in out of the way places won’t cook a big pot of stew that they’re unlikely to be able to sell. Neither will they have a huge roast of meat just waiting for travellers who may never come. So your poor travellers may see a lonely wayside inn and stumble through the door only to find that the only available food is the fare the innkeeper had put by for himself and his family.
Making stew on a journey would be a nightmare because it takes a long time to cook to be palatable and for the meat to be tender. However if you’re travelling with a wagon and you have a Dutch oven, or a straw-filled box, you can get your stew started in the morning (get it good and boiling over the fire) then put the covered pot into the straw-filled box and the whole thing continues to cook in the residual heat. When you make camp at night, you simply finish it off over the fire for a much shorter time than would otherwise be required. (Making sure it’s brought up to temperature for long enough to avoid food poisoning.)
Meat plus heat You’ll probably find that you need good teeth to live off the land. A steak is more tender if it’s aged, but if you’re catching meat on the hoof and cooking it immediately over an open fire (i.e. quickly) it’s probably going to be tough. Also all that hunting takes time. How quickly do you need to complete your journey? You’d probably be wise to pack some smoked or salted meats and jerky. Dried meats are light to carry and keep well.
Who doesn’t remember the bean scene from Blazing Saddles? You? Go and watch it, I’m sure it must be out there on your video delivery service of choice, or on DVD. It forcefully reminds you that beans were one of the most abundant foods in the cowboy’s diet, but only if there was a chuck wagon handy (say on a cattle drive or overland trek). We’re not talking about tins of baked beans, but dried pinto beans, which have to be soaked in water for hours before cooking. And once cooked, don’t save for later.
Comparatively light to carry and it keeps forever (almost). Dried apples, raisins and apricots plus berries and maybe prunes are staples (depending on where you are in the world – this one or an invented one). I’ve tried drying apples (to use up some of the crop from our two small trees) and they are very successful and keep a long time, though it takes a lot of work to prepare them for drying, even with a peeler/corer/slicer. I dry my sliced apple for four hours in a fan oven set really low (60 degrees) and get apple crisps. Unless you keep them in an airtight container they will soften up over time, but they are still edible. As an experiment I kept some of last year’s apple crisps in a clean glass jar, and though they were no longer crisp, but they were edible a year later. (And they didn’t kill me!)
So what do you feed your characters on when they are travelling?
As a fantasy writer I’ve given much thought to what characters eat on those epic journeys by land and sea. My Rowankind Trilogy involved stocking the Heart of Oak, Ross’s tops’l schooner, for an Atlantic voyage. You need to base that shopping list on real life to keep it believable. I’m indebted to David Fictum’s ‘Colonies Ships and Pirates’ for making available a chart of British Navy Food Rations, 1677-1740s.
Sailors’ Rations In 1677, Samuel Pepys, the Secretary to the Admiralty, established predetermined rations for each sailor: one pound of biscuits and a gallon of beer each day. Four pounds of beef, two pounds of salted pork, three eighths of a twenty-four-inch cod, two pints of peas, six ounces of butter, and between eight and twelve ounces of cheese each week. There were suitable substitutions if necessary (depending on the climate they were sailing in). Some of the (salted) fish might be replaced with oatmeal, or even rice, or flour and suet. In 1731 it was official policy to issue canvas with which to make pudding bags so that one day a week the cooks could boil puddings of flour and suet to replace that day’s salt beef ration.
On board ship it was important to make sure the sailors got enough liquid. A gallon of liquid was important, but sailors were not fond of being reduced to drinking plain water. Beer could go off more quickly in warmer climates, so a suitable substitute was two pints of wine mixed with six pints of water (especially on Mediterranean voyages) or a Madeira mix if in the West Indies. Half a pint of rum a day in the West Indies could be too intoxicating, until the navy began to mix it with water and limejuice to make grog. (Limes helped against scurvy, of course.)
Ship’s biscuit or rusk bread The Royal Navy allowed a pound of ship’s biscuit per seaman per day. Made only with cheap wholemeal flour and water (no yeast or salt) and baked hard into a round close to the size of a plate, a sailor would get three to five biscuits a day depending on the size, and they would underpin his ration. Something like this would translate reasonably well to a land-based journey, but it’s probably easier to carry a bag of flour and some salt and cook up something bread-like or pancake-like every day otherwise you risk your biscuit being rendered into crumbs by a frisky pack pony.
This was a mix of whatever was available stewed up in the ship’s galley. It might include different meats and fish, all cooked together – a gastronomic mash-up. It was supposedly a treat on a pirate vessel.
2019 has been a pretty good year. I did a few conventions, read a lot of books, finished editing a couple of my own, saw a lot of movies, kept up with the day job, organised (and attended) a couple of Milford weeks, and (as part of Artisan) took to the stage again.
So, starting with books. There will be a full rundown of books for the year on My other blog at Dreamwidth, which is where I blog about all the books I read, and all the movies I see. In the meantime the highlights of the year are the four Greatcoats books by Sebastien de Castell, Traitor’s Blade, Knight’s Shadow, Saint’s Blood and Tyrant’s Throne. Well worth reading. I’ve also read his Spellslinger books this year, which are good, but the Greatcoat books remain my favourites.
I certainly couldn’t rank the books I’ve read and loved this year in order of preference, but if I was made to try, Swordheart by T. Kingfisher (the pen name of Ursula Vernon) would be very high on my list. It’s marvellous with elements of fantasy and romance. Halla and Sarkis are simply fabulous characters. I couldn’t stop reading. I raced to finish it, and at the same time didn’t want it to end.
Last year I discovered Leigh Bardugo’s books Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. This year I was delighted to read King of Scars, set in the same Grisha universe. Highly recommended, and there’s a sequel due sometime (soon I hope).
There have been a number of Jodi Taylor offerings this year about the historians of St Mary’s who don’t so much time travel as ‘ observe historic events in real time’ without interfering. Yeah, right. The whole lot of them are disaster magnets. This year there was Hope for the Best and the short story When Did You Last See your Father? plus a spinoff book, Doing Time, which features Max and Leon’s son as he joins the Time Police. You can’t go wrong with these books, but I thoroughly recommend starting at the beginning with One Damned Thing After Another.
Calling Major Tom by David Barnett was an unexpected highlight and featured a curmudgeonly astronaut helping a bunch of kids, and their nan, with a series of long distance phone calls from outer space. Highly recommended. I didn’t intend to read Lord of Secrets by Breanna Teintze immediately after I downloaded a review copy from Netgalley, but I glanced at the first page and got sucked right in by the main character’s ‘voice’ and the streak of dark humour running through a book that does terrible things to its lead character. The book strap line is: Magic is poison. Secrets are power. Death is… complicated. That pretty well covers it. I also loved Brightfall, by Jamie Lee Moyer, a Robin Hood book with a difference. Marian is the main viewpoint character. She’s a witch living in the forest with her (and Robin’s) two children, while Robin, distant and embittered, has retreated to Tuck’s monastery. When someone starts killing off Merry Men this turns into a magical medieval murder mystery.
I go to the movies on a Wednesday afternoon with my cinebuddy, Hilary. We try to see every new science fiction or fantasy movie that comes out, with occasional forays into other genres that take our fancy. We saw more movies in the early part of the year than the later, mainly because from August to November there was precious little that took our fancy. As I write I’m looking forwards to the upcoming Star Wars movie, but I might not get to see it until the new year.
One of my absolute favourite movies was How to Train Your Dragon – The Hidden World. Who says animations are for kids? In case you haven’t seen it yet check out Jon Snow meets Toothless the dragon, made by Dreamworks to advertise the movie, but a positive gem in its own right. It’s a Game of Thrones/How to Train Your Dragon mashup featuring Kit Harrington (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, and one of the voice actors in The Hidden World) and a ‘big Hollywood star’. At the opposite end of the movie spectrum I really enjoyed All is True, with Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench depicting the last days of Shakespeare. Green Book with Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali is a buddy movie, a road trip movie, and a movie about prejudice and friendship. Thoroughly enjoyable and even uplifting.
Yesterday, the movie featuring songs by the Beatles, was unexpectedly sweet. The new Terminator movie, Dark Fate, was better than I expected largely due to Linda Hamilton playing a badass sixty-some year old, and Arnie’s terminator swan-song.
This year was the year of Avengers Endgame, of course, one of the most anticipated movies of the season. It didn’t disappoint and arguably brought to a close this extended cycle of Marvel movies, though in a way Spiderman – Far From Home was the post script.
So that’s books and movies taken care of.
I had a few trips away this year. There were two Milfords, in May (the retreat week) and September (the regular SF writers’ conference). Both held at Trigonos, the delightful centre in Snowdonia. Great fun and peaceful writing time in May, and some constructive critique (and more good fun) in September. Kettle a bunch of writers together in a place like Trigonos, surrounded by mountains and with its own lake frontage, and you get instant bonding and a lot of laughs.
Milford retreat week
I missed Eastercon this year because it was held at Heathrow, not one of my favourite places, but I flew to Dublin in the summer for Worldcon. Worldcon is huge and a large contingent of Ameican fans and professionals turn up, so I got one-on-one meetings with my editor, Sheila Gilbert, and my agent, Donald Maass, and I also went to the Hugo Awards ceremony on the Sunday night. In October I went to Fantasycon, held just outside Glasgow. Maybe it was because it was so far from London, but I didn’t see as many publishing people there as I expected to see. Then the following week I was on a train to the opposite end of the country for Bristolcon, a much smaller event, but very sociable. I also managed to combine it with a short trip to Bath for a bit of historical research.
In October I dusted off my tonsils and once again took to the stage with Hilary and Brian, as one third of Artisan for a fundraising concert for the South Yorkshire Motor Neurone Disease charity. Artisan was a full-time entity for twenty years, and officially retired from international touring in 2005, though we did reunion tours in 2010 (Canada and the UK) and 2015 (UK only). We had great fun rehearsing with each other again, and the audience reaction was very gratifying. We never say never again. If you want to know what we sound like there are videos here – http://artisan-harmony.com/videos.htm, or you can buy CDs here – http://artisan-harmony.com/albums.htm
I have a theory, and it’s only a theory, so accept it or not as you wish. My granddad, Lance Corporal Tommy Bennett of the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry took part in the Christmas Truce in 1914. It wasn’t one isolated incident, spontaneous peace and goodwill broke out up and down the lines where English and German troops faced each other across No Man’s Land.
Some years ago I was talking to my German friend, Gunnar Wiegand, about this and he told me that the unofficial truce on Christmas Eve 1914 wasn’t something that was known about in Germany, however there were stories of troops in earlier wars (Napoleonic times) meeting up at Christmas to share festivities. Indeed in the days when wars were fought hand-to-hand the troops would sometimes trade across the lines when battles were not raging – without permission from their officers, of course.
My theory is that the 1914 Christmas truce was not a one-off, but it is very probably notable for being the last Christmas truce between opposing armies. As wars became less personal, and more reliant on artillery and air raids to kill from a distance, common soldiers lost the opportunity and the wish to meet their opposite number in peace.
Grandpa didn’t talk much about his time in the trenches, except in very general terms, but Mum told me the story some years later, after he’d died. I wish I’d been able to question him about it, but I was too late. The story always resonated with me, and some years later, as part of Artisan, I recorded Mike Harding’s song about Christmas Eve 1914. Here it is: http://artisan-harmony.com/Soundfiles%20fullsongs/artisan-christmaseve1914.mp3
Though our family has never been religious we take advantage of the season and enjoy our version of Christmas which is all about family, food, presents, games and Dr Who or a new movie on TV.
When Brian and I were first married, we went to my mum and dad’s for Christmas Day, and Brian’s mam and dad’s for Boxing Day (26th December for my leftpondian friends) because 26th was Mam’s birthday and also Brian’s maternal grandparents’ wedding anniversary. (No it’s not a typo. My mum was Mum and Brian’s mam was Mam.)
We had our first child, in late November. She was only six weeks old at Christmas, so we went once more to my parents’ home. The year after that we figured that it would be nice to have our own family Christmas in our own home, so my mum and dad came to us, along with mum’s maiden-aunt-ish cousins, and Brian’s mam and dad. There were always people floating through at Christmas – both family and friends – and I usually ended up doing Christmas dinner for twelve or fourteen people. Always a turkey and a ham joint with all the trimmings – sausages wrapped in bacon, bread sauce, two different kinds of stuffing, brussels sprouts with chestnuts and bacon, roast potatoes, roast parsnips and honey-glazed carrots. I always did prawn cocktail for strarters (and still do) because I make a cracking cocktail sauce with a secret ingredient that is utterly yummy. (Okay, the secret ingredient is horseradish!) I always have a Christmas pudding on hand, but we’re generally too stuffed to eat it. This year I’ve bought a sticky toffee Christnas pudding from Marks and Spencers, so I hope we don’t end up wasting it.
Thinking of Christmasses past, Brian’s grandma cooked her turkey nose-down in a new bucket bought specially for Christmas. It kept the breast meat very moist. I’ve never tried that, though I did cook my turkey breast-down in the pan one year. Yes, it was moist, but it looked like a road accident. When I was very young we never had a turkey at Christmas (a bit too expensive, I suspect). I remember we had a capon one year, basically a big chicken!. We didn’t have a lot of money in those days. Dad was going to night school while working in an office job. When he got his first management job, one of the perks for the senior staff was a Christmas turkey. It was an 18 pounder and we didn’t have a tray big enough to cook it in. We borrowed one from the local butcher, but the turkey was so big it hung over the edge of the tray and wouldn’t fit into the (coal-fireside) oven until we cut a leg off. I must have been about eight, but I can still remember Grandma kneeling in front of the oven trying to shove the turkey into it! What a tarradiddle!
We’ve always loved Christmas in this house, with an open fire and plenty of room for the biggest Christmas tree we can fit in the car. Our kids are grown and flown now, and it’s lovely when they can come home for Christmas, but we don’t expect it or get upset if it doesn’t happen. Ghillan and her husband, Ian, have two lovely kids, but they live south of London and so a family visit has to allow a day for travelling either side of the visit itself. This year Ian doesn’t have enough time off work for them to drive up here, enjoy a few days of Christmas and then get back again.
Our son and his wife are even further away, in Blacksburg Virginia, where he’s an assistant professor at Virginia Tech State University. He was in the UK for a conference in November, so came home for a pre-Christmas visit, but it will be next May/June before they both manage another visit.
Family Christmas with the kids and grandkids will be by Skype, this year. We have friends coming for Christmas dinner, and my mum, who is almost 95 and getting a bit frail, will be there.
We went out and bought our Christmas tree a few days ago, but haven’t put it up yet. Brian hauled the decorations out of the loft, so we’re on the verge of being ready.
I spent today making the last batch of apple jelly from our own (small) apple trees. This batch was apple and red wine, but I’ve also made apple jelly with: port wine, white wine, rose, mulled wine, cider, and just for Christmas dinner I’ve made a batch that’s simply mulled apple jelly with loads of mulling spices and extra cinnamon and cloves. That will be lovely with Christmas dinner instead of the usual cranberry jelly, which I’m not so keen on. I made apple sauce, too.
When I checked the cake box I found one of last year’s Christmas cakes, iced and ready. Since I put a lot of brandy in my chrissie cakes, I figure it will still be fine to eat, though we might need a hammer and chisel for the icing. To that end I’m in the process of making a Guinness fruit cake as a back-up. It’s lovely and moist and fruity. It’s one of those where you boil up butter, sugar and fruit in a can of guinness and then leave it overnight for the fruit to soak up the liquid. Then you whack in eggs and flour, give it a good old stir and bake. It’s best if you wrap it in foil and keep it for a couple of weeks before eating.
Presents? Well, we’re trying to go easy this year – at least for the adults – though I am sending a box of stuff down to Ghillan and Ian for the grandkids. I always think Brian is difficult to buy for and he says the same about me.
Will we have a white Christmas? We live nearly a thousand feet up on the edge of the Pennines, so if anyone is going to get snow, it will probably be us, but that’s OK. Our back garden looks magical when it snows, and we don’t have anything to draw us out of the house unless we want a snowball fight.
So that’s us for Christmas this year. If you want to add a little cheer to my Christmas, you can buy my books, for yourself or for friends. That would be wonderful. Or there’s just about time to order an Artisan CD – either contemporary songs, or Christmas ones.
I’d like to wish you all merry Christmas, happy holidays, or the seasonal salutation of your choice. Be safe, be happy, be kind.
Here’s a recipe for you.
Guinness Fruit Cake
900g (2 lb) mixed dried fruit
225g (8 oz) butter
450g (1 lb) dark brown sugar
1 generous teaspoon ground mixed spice
1 can (440 ml) Guinness
3 large eggs
340 g (12 oz) self-raising flour
2 tablespoons whisky or brandy – optional
Put the fruit, butter, sugar, spice and Guinness into a large saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer for 10–15 minutes. (Smells delicious.)
Remove from heat and allow to cool. (I usually leave it overnight.)
When cool add the eggs, beating well. Fold in the flour. Stir in the optional whisky. (Doesn’t need to be so complicated – just chuck in eggs, flour and whisky and give it a good stir.) It should be dropping consistency (if too thick add liquid of your choice).
The origional recipe says to turn the mixture into a buttered and lined 20-cm (8 inch) diameter round cake tin, but that makes it very deep I find this quantity makes two generous sized cakes, or use a bigger tin – say a 9 inch one. Bake in a preheated oven (160°C/325°F/gas mark 3) for 1 – 1½ hours. (That’s how it was passed on to me, but I find it takes much longer – maybe up to 2½ – 3 hours. Smaller cakes need a shorter cooking time if you divide it into two. I’ve also made great muffins with this mix.)
The cake is cooked when a skewer into the centre comes out clean. Leave the cake to cool in its tin for 10 minutes before turning it out onto a wire rack.
When cool, wrap in foil and hide at the back of a cupboard for a couple of weeks. It’s a great moist alternative to a traditional Christmas cake. As well as serving as cake, try warming a slice up in the microwave and serving with a dollop of custard, cream or ice cream.
I signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) at the beginning of November, a commitment to write 50,000 words in a month. It’s fewer than 2000 words a day, so it should be—if not easy—not all that difficult. I’ve done it before – about four times since my first go at it in 2008. This year I managed about 260 words on the first day and then nothing.
Why couldn’t I sit for a couple of hours each day and simply put words down on the screen? I have an ongoing novel project that’s just crying out for fifty thousand words of first draft. I know how the story starts; I’ve written the first 17,500 words. I know how it ends (though I’m not giving that away here) but I need to work on the middle bit, the development of plot and character. I need to map out a few twists and reversals, and engineer a gradual coming together of story and motivation to bring my characters to a place where the ending can happen naturally, rather than because I (as author) insist that it will. All that is covered in my vague back-of-the-envelope plan by the phrase: Stuff Happens.
So why did all my good intention flush down the pan of life? I think I have the answer.
Creativity is not something you can pull out of a box and shove back in when you’re done with it. It’s something that should be ongoing, a process of you like.
And I have a day job.
There are not many published writers who don’t have a day job of some kind. Sure, a few full time writers are either fantastically successful beyond their wildest dreams, like J. K. Rowling, or their career runs alongside their day job for several books until they’ve built up enough back catalogue to have a steady income from royalties, and possibly a firm book deal from their publisher that gives them a guaranteed income for the next so-many years. Most writers are not that lucky. Getting the average publishing deal is nice, but it doesn’t allow you to immediately chuck in the day job. If you manage your career well, I understand that it takes a back catalogue of around twenty steadily selling novels to maintain a decent income from royalties.
I have six novels out there at the moment (so please go and buy one or more of them), so my income from royalties might take me to the supermarket for groceries once or twice a year, and my advances are modest.
So yes, I have a day job.
I’m very lucky because I’m self-employed. I work from home as a music booking agent, and I also process Certificates of Sponsorship – work permit applications for musicians coming to the UK from outside the EU. I have a dedicated (messy) office, and love a job I can do in my pyjamas. I hit the office every morning before I even get into the kitchen to put on the coffee. I don’t have an endless commute, or regular nine-to-five hours.
My messy office
The phone can ring at any hour of the night or day. Someone has left it until the last minute and needs eleven Certificates of Sponsorship processing for a band from the USA who are already inbound to the UK on the New York to Heathrow flight, and the British tour manager has only just discovered they didn’t deal with immigration paperwork before they left. Or I get a call on a Sunday evening, at 7.00, from someone who asks if I process CoS for Mexicans. “Yes,” I say. “How long does it take?” he asks. “Well, I ask that you allow four weeks. How soon do you need them?” It turns out that he needs them within an hour because he has four Mexican musicians in a holding room at Heathrow airport because they tried to come into the UK totally unaware that they needed permission to work. If they don’t get their CoS within an hour they’re on the next plane back to Mexico. (Luckily Heathrow gave me a bit more time once they learned the application was in hand.)
So, ‘stuff happens’ is not just the outline of the middle section of my new book, it’s the laugh-track of my life.
Now, I don’t mind dealing with occasional emergencies, even if it means staying up until midnight or beyond, to make sure some poor souls don’t get deported instead of coming in to play a few gigs for their British promoter who has already sunk money into venue hire and promotion, but it does cut into my time.
And that brings me back to creativity.
Waiting for the muse.
To be creative you don’t only need time to create, you need time to think about creating. Ninety percent of writing creativity happens in your brain, not when your fingers hit the keyboard. You have to make space for thinking, for daydreaming, for lollygagging in a comfy chair with a notebook which you might never open. The ideas are floating out there on the ether, you just need to open up your mind to let them in.
And I didn’t do enough of that before NaNoWriMo, which is why, when it came to the crunch, I wasn’t ready to write 50,000 new words in a month.
I need brain-space. I’ve had some of my best writing ideas while lying in bed trying to get to sleep, which is why I keep a notebook and pen on my bedside table.
Once I’ve opened up my mind to ideas, the words flow, and when the words start flowing other words rush in to join them and… well… when I’m on a roll I’ve been known to write 10,000 words in a day. No, that kind of word-count doesn’t happen often, and I can’t keep up that pace for more than a day or three, but when it does happen it’s glorious. I generally consider 4,000 to 5,000 words a day excellent going, and that’s much more sustainable.
I’ve been on a couple of Milford writing retreats and I’m going again in June 2020. To be able to spend a full week without day-job interruptions or family obligations, or breaking off from what I’m doing to take my elderly mum to the supermarket, or put a meal on the table, is a wonderful experience. Of course a week isn’t long enough to write a book (though Catie Murphy wrote 33,000 words at the last Milford writing retreat) but it does get you off to a fine start, or a good middle, or a satisfying ending. (Note: there are still spaces on the Milford writing retreat 2020 at the time of writing this blog post.)
In addition I’ve decided to take the whole month of January off from the day job. Yes, there might still be the occasional emergency, the odd bunch of Mexicans stuck at Heathrow, but if I make it clear to my regulars that I’m not available in January, and if I can bear let the phone go to the answering machine, then I stand a good chance of getting some creative time. And I’m never open for day-job work between Christmas and New Year, usually because the house is full of family. This year, for various reasons, our kids can’t be with us at Christmas, so between the mulled wine and mince pies, and the Christmas Day Skype session, I can sit and daydream.
I’ve been thinking about process over the last few weeks. I’m writing a new, story which I hope will turn into the next novel project. It’s as yet untitled, and if I had to describe it at all it would be to say that it’s a Robin-Hood-meets-aliens story, except that it’s not Robin Hood, they’re not quite aliens, and the ‘Sheriff of Nottingham’ character is female. I’ve written the set-up for both my main characters. I’ll probably end up changing names yet but I start off with a wild boy, raised by a hermit in the woods. He’s not a chosen one or anything like that. He chooses his own path, though not always very wisely. My second character is a female cavalry captain who finds herself at loggerheads with the king, so she’s posted to the back end of nowhere to quell local unrest… and it just happens to be close to where there’s a problem with alien incursions. And the stage is set for conflict.
I know (roughly) how the story is going to end, but now I’m looking at the middle bit. My whole plan for this is ‘stuff happens’. I’m beginning to work out exactly what. It has to increase the stakes and increase the tension. This is going to be fun.
I work in Scrivener, which is a wonderful programme for writers. It has three columns on screen. The middle column is a fairly standard word processor. The left hand column is the binder where you can display all your chapters and scenes. (I just use scenes until I’m near the end of the revisions before I divide it up into chapters.) You can move the scenes about by drag-and-drop in the binder. You can also keep research files, even photos in the additional files, and they are all accessible via the binder column, too. So you can access character files, places and place-names, plus any glossary you need, via the binder. The right hand scrivener column has an index card where you can outline the scene you are working one and with one flick of the mouse you can see these on the corkboard view (middle column again). Again this is great for ordering your scenes.
So I’m thinking that the next thing to do is to start planning the ‘stuff’ that ‘happens’ in Scrivener and see if it starts to hang together.
Inspiration doesn’t always hit me like a bucket of water. Sometimes it comes in drips, disordered drips, so excuse me while I do a mop-and-bucket act, collect all the drips and then splash them around in some semblance of order.
NaNoWriMo – National NovelWriting Month-takes place each November. You sign up Her: https://nanowrimo.org and commit to writing 50,000 in November, which means writing just a little under 2,000 words a day. It’s only 3rd November, you still have time to sign up if you want to.
They used to be pretty prescriptive about not starting your project until 1st November (though you could do as much prep as you wanted beforehand) but they’ve eased up on that.
If you have a writing project on the go and you want to pace yourself alongside other writers, it’s not too late to sign up. You’ve only missed (by the time this blog is published) four days.
My first NaNo was 2008 when I added over 50,000 words of first draft to the novel that would eventually become Winterwood. I’ve used NaNo to pile word count on to projects-in-progress. I’ve added wordcount to Winterwood twice for different sections of the novel, Silverwolf, though not (suprisingly) Rowankind, the third in the Rowankind trilogy. From the Psi-Tech trilogy, I added word count to Nimbus, the final part.
I know other published authors who also use NaNo for adding words. My buddy Jaine Fenn is doing it this year, so I said I’d join her. I’m finding it difficult to transition into my writerly headspace, though. October was busy-busy with lots of day job (music industry) work and two consecutive weekend conventions taking me to Glasgow and Bristol. That’s possibly just an excuse because it’s Day 3 of NaNo (as I’m writing this) and so far I’ve written just 287 words on my current project, which already has 17,714 words written – most of the first act, in fact.
If I think of this book as a three act novel I’m probably ready to start the second act. I’ve talked before about the difference between pantsers and plotters. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants, i.e. to find out what happens. Let’s call it discovery writing. Plotters… well it’s just what it says on the tin. They work out what’s going to happen in advance and write out a detailed plot and then (if luck allows) they stick to that outline. Some writers outline chapter by chapter, or even scene by scene.
I usually know where the whole book is heading but my method is to write the opening, jot down what the ending will be, and that great gaping hole in the middle is covered by ‘stuff happens’.
So while The Amber Crown is with my agent and editor, I’m working on an untitled fantasy which I’m currently referring to Robin Hood Meet Aliens, though it’s not really Robin Hood, and they’re not really aliens.
So, over the years I’ve completed NaNo four times out of five and I’ve written 294,442 words in total. This year? Well, I’d better get my writing head on and sprint to catch up… after I’ve done those urgent day-job jobs, skyped my son in the USA and dealt with six buckets of apples from the tree in the garden. Procrastinating? Me?.
If you’re doing NaNo this year and you want to add me to your buddy list, I’m ‘artisan’ and my project is listed as Untitled Robin Hood Meets Aliens Novel.
With hindsight this is really interesting. This (edited) collection of blog posts is from the early days of writing The Amber Crown, which then had the working title of Spider on the Web. (Sometimes the working title became That Bloody Baltic Novel.) I’d almost forgotten what this book looked like in its earlier incarnation. I’ve changed character names several times and refined the setting, but it’s still recognisably the same book, started so long ago, and then put on one side when I got my publishing deals for the Psi-Tech and Rowankind trilogies. I’m delighted to be able to go back to it. Spider on the Web became The Long Game before it became The Amber Crown. Hari became Marek and then Valdas. Lind stayed Lind. Miro became Mirza. The process is interesting.
Wheezing sucking noise as the Tardis whisks us back in time to 2008. Read on…
16th September 2008
Idea borrowed from Warsaw via Pinterest for a scene in Chapter 2
I’ve done a bit more work on Spider on the Web, my potential next novel project, but I haven’t quite got the bit between my teeth yet and I keep bumping up against the problem of magic.
So far I have the first two chapters and part of a third (about 8k words altogether), plus a fourth that needs some revision because I’ve already made an emphasis shift since I wrote it. I’ve got three main viewpoint characters, Hari, Lind and Miro, and I’m intending that the VP be kept tightly focused (tight third) on each one in turn, giving them (probably) a short (2 – 3,000 word) chapter at a time. Only one of them – Miro, the third we meet chronologically and even then not until the fourth chapter – has any kind of magic. The other two don’t have much patience for it so it barely impinges on their consciousness.
I’m chasing myself round in circles at the moment. It’s my natural inclination to show that magic exists in this world earlier rather than later, but in order to do that I have to artificially insert some show-not-tell magic into either Hari or Lind’s first chapter which is essentially two sides of a successful assassination of Hari’s king by Lind, and the aftermath of same for each man. Magic just doesn’t fit there.
The earliest I would be comfortable bringing it in would be Chapter Three, Hari’s second chapter, by which time he’s on the run from the new king and for the first time realising that good as he was as an army officer, he’s become institutionalised and isn’t used to being on his own. So even if I bring in ‘country magic’ as a concept at this stage it won’t appear until about the 9,000 word mark. It will be closer to the 11,000 word mark if I wait until Miro’s chapter.
I’m really going to have to think hard about this. I may have to put the actual writing aside for a bit and go chew the plot over in a little more detail. I feel as though the focus is still a little off-centre.
[NOTE: I took it to Milford and the general consensus was that it should have a specific setting, not a generic fantasyland one, so I moved the action to a version of the Baltic Staes and Poland that never actually existed.]
4th November 2008
[NOTE: It’s NoMoWriMo time and I cleared the decks and paced myself alongside NaNo in order to add 50,000 words to the novel in the month of November.]
Marek might wear a red mente like this one when in uniform
I’m starting to get reasonably comfortable with the not-quite-Poland setting for Spider on the Web, though every two minutes I’m flicking to Google to see if the Polish Cavalry used straight swords or sabres (it was sabres) and whether they had field artillery in the 1650s (they did). There’s an amazing amount of historical Polish stuff out there – especially on costume and equipment – much of it from reenactors. Some of the regiments look absolutely fantastic. (I take my kolpek off to you all, gentlemen and ladies.)
I am so going to have to run this whole thing by someone who speaks Polish, before I can let it loose anywhere in case I’ve made some howlers with names – especially if there are masculine and feminine versions of surnames. (Does anyone know?) The one advantage is that my city is quite cosmopolitan with Catholics, Muslims and Jews all welcome (Quite modern for 1650) so there’s a mixture of cultures and hopefully a mixture of names.
I’ve stuck to recognised religions and even mentioned far off countries like Italy, and advances in science such as those made by Kopernik but my map doesn’t look anything like anywhere in Europe.
This is a big experiment for me trying to mix real and imagined. I need just enough real to make the setting feel right but not too much that it ties it down.
5th November 2008
So what’s happened today?
Lind, who has more hangups than the average wardrobe (especially re sex, gender and orientation issues) has just persuaded the queen to strip off so he can dye her hair. (And she really doesn’t turn him on in the slightest.) All this so he can get her past a troop of Hussars who are looking for a copper-haired woman.
Russian Royalty. The dead king’s sister?
He doesn’t actually know she’s the queen yet. He thinks she’s a high class lady fleeing her family’s wrath after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. For now he’s helping her to lay low because it’s in his own best interests. (He’d be just as quick to slit her throat and leave her in a ditch if that was in his better interests!)
Yesterday Marek finally stopped feeling sorry for himself and started to listen to his dreams, only he’s not so good at remembering them when he wakes. He’s about to leave the Koszaki host, turn round and go hurtling bull-neck back to Tel City, but Miro has the situation (and Marek) under control. She’s got her instructions – from the ghost of Marek’s assassinated King – and before he goes back to Tel City Marek has to pay a visit to the King’s sister. Like it or not, Miro’s going with him. Who else is going to make sure he stays on the right track and translates those dreams correctly?
8th November 2008
I managed to write the sex scene in which Miro gets laid at last. It’s not a love scene. She wants to lose her virginity, has finally found a man who isn’t scared off by the fact that she’s a witch and who isn’t horrified by the big port-wine stain (birthmark) all down one side of her face. It’s Marek, of course, who will enthusiastically shag anything in a skirt, but he’ll do it with good humour, good grace and good manners. Miro made an excellent choice and they’re going to stay good friends – albeit they’ll always be verbal sparring partners unless they’re actually horizontal.
Since this isn’t a relationship that’s going to last I’m not sure how long to let it run on for and how she’s going to tell him that she’s got what she wanted now back off and leave her alone. They are in each other’s company for the whole book, but not in a sexual way, I think. Marek is definitely going to meet up with Aniella again.
1st December 2008
Winner’s Badge 2008
I hit my target 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo in the middle of the week and just decided to keep on going. Result? at 11.54 p.m. Sunday with 6 minutes to go to the finishing time I clocked up 62,081 words on Spider on the Web. I’m now on 71,027 words in total because I had the first two and a half chapters in the bag before I started. This is definitely the beginning of the end that I’m writing now. Maybe another 20,000 words and it will be finished. It’s unlike me to finish any novel in a mere 90,000 words, of course, but I live in hope.
[NOTE: The novel ended up at 163,000 words. So much for a 90,000 word novel!]