I’ve always enjoyed reading Sherwood Smith’s fantasies, in particular the Inda sequence, and I just realised there are more books in her bibliography that I misse4d, so I can see I’m going to have to spend some time catching up. Here’s one I read back in 2014.
When sixteen year old Anna’s father is dying in Naples he arranges for her to be married off to a sea captain in Nelson’s navy. Henry Duncannon is a penniless officer estranged from his good family, who is more or less forced into the marriage of convenience. Within half a day Henry and Anna are separated as Henry heads back to sea, leaving the marriage unconsummated and Anna under the protection of Lady Hamilton. But war is flowing through Europe in the shape of Napoleon’s armies and soon Anna is left alone – with her faithful maid – and determines to make her way using her only skill, music. She takes up singing in an opera company. It’s six turbulent years in war-torn Europe before Anna and Henry are reunited and the love story truly begins.
This is a book in two halves – the opera years and the regency romance and both have their appeal. Ms Smith says that the novel came about because she originally intended to novelise the journals of Betsey Wynne, and, indeed, there’s lots of rich detail in here and an underpinning of authenticity. The story is a slow-burn romance despite the early marriage of convenience. Anna survives post-revolutionary France, a theatre fire, touring with the opera company which at times is nore hazardous than the Battle of Trafalgar. Possibly more terrifying still is Anna’s introduction to Henry’s English family and the woman who spurned him for his older brother.
Packed full of ideas, but not falling into the trap of unlikely melodrama this is an engaging read. Highly recommended.
At last I’m allowed to show you the cover of my upcoming book, The Amber Crown. It’s not out until 11th January 2022, but that will be here before you know it. It’s available to pre-order from Amazon and other good book retailers. It says paperback, but it’s actually large format paperback (known as ‘trade’ paperback), and it will be out in normal format paperback later in 2022.
Of course I’d be delighted if you would pre-order it. It makes a huge difference to an author if there are a bunch of pre-orders on release day. I’ll be organising some signed bookplates for the release.
In this new epic fantasy, three societal outcasts must work together to fulfill the orders of a dead king’s ghost or risk their nation falling to a tyrant
The king is dead, his queen is missing. On the amber coast, the usurper king is driving Zavonia to the brink of war. A dangerous magical power is rising up in Biela Miasto, and the only people who can set things right are a failed bodyguard, a Landstrider witch, and the assassin who set off the whole sorry chain of events.
Valdas, Captain of the High Guard, has not only failed in his duty to protect the king, but he’s been accused of the murder, and he’s on the run. He’s sworn to seek justice, but his king sets him another task from beyond the grave. Valdas doesn’t believe in magic, which is unfortunate as it turns out.
Mirza is the healer-witch of a Landstrider band, valued and feared in equal measure for her witchmark, her scolding tongue, and her ability to walk the spirit world. When she’s given a task by Valdas’ dead king, she believes that the journey she must take is one she can never return from.
Lind is the clever assassin. Yes, someone paid him to kill the king, but who is to blame, the weapon or the power behind it? Lind must face his traumatic past if he’s to have a future.
Can these three discover the real villain, find the queen, and set the rightful king on the throne before the country is overcome?
It’s generally easier to start writing a book at the beginning, keep on going until you reach the end, and then stop. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Sequential storytelling mirrors the world we experience on a daily basis. We live our lives chronologically, but that might not be the best way to tell a story.
Where do you begin?
Sometimes I begin in the wrong place, write a couple of chapters and then stick them in a holding file before starting again. I have occasionally also committed prologue, usually when writing my way into a story, however by the time my novel reaches publication, I’ve come to my senses and ditched anything resembling a prologue. A prologue often tells the reader something that happened before the story proper starts. It’s out of time (and/or place) with the rest of the novel. It might reveal information that the main protagonist does not know, or finds out much later in the book. Sometimes a prologue is just one huge infodump, and you wonder if you should set a test for your reader when she gets to the end of it.
What you have to ask yourself is: Does a prologue improve my story?
Whether it’s a prologue or a couple of chapters that I need to ditch, I never throw anything away. I’ve been able to use bits of my deleted scenes/prologue as flashbacks to add explanations where necessary. It’s often a mark of how unnecessary a whole prologue or chapter is that the flashback I end up using is barely a paragraph or two.
If you want to create a gripping opening, it’s good to start as close to the action as you can. It’s known as ‘in medias res’. You drop your protagonists into the middle of the narrative without any preamble or explanation. You can dripfeed worldbuilding details into the narrative without infodumps or pausing the story for explanations.
When you do need to explain backstory consider doing it with flashbacks. Used carefully, flashbacks can add information, motivation, emotion, and characterisation to a story. You can reveal something at the precise moment you, the author, want to. It can add greatly to the reader’s understanding. Using flashbacks you can show rather than tell what happened to motivate (or terrify) your protagonist.
But don’t overdo it. Sometimes you can pare down a ditched chapter or a whole prologue to a visceral pivotal paragraph.
I took an early version of my first published novel, Empire of Dust, to my first Milford workshop week where a bunch of published SF authors kindly took it apart and made constructive suggestions. One of those suggestions was, ‘I think you’ve started in the wrong place.’ I later surmised that this was author speak for: ‘There’s something wrong but I’m not sure exactly what it is,’ but since I didn’t know that at the time, I took the comment to heart, went away and wrote close to twenty thousand words of backstory. Eventually I realised that I didn’t need the backstory. I needed to know it, but I didn’t need my audience to read it. I did however, get three short flashbacks of a few hundred words each, which I inserted into the book at a much later stage.
This was up for a Best Novel in the Hugo awards and if I’d been eligible to vote that year I’d certainly have voted for it. Yes, it’s aimed at YA, but what the hell, it has Important things to say so don’t overlook it.
Marcus is 17, a clever kid, a gamer, a computer hacker and a bit of a rebel when it comes to skipping out of school to go off gaming with his three closest friends. What he is not, is a terrorist, but when terrorists blow up the San Francisco Bay Bridge Marcus and his three friends are in the wrong place at the wrong time. His best friend Darryl is injured in the post-bomb panic and while trying to attract help the four of them are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security – effectively bagged, tagged and disappeared without rights – and subjected to interrogation of the nastiest kind using techniques such as deprivation, degradation, scare tactics and mental torture. Marcus – for asserting his constitutional rights – gets on the wrong side of one of the DHS goons and is subjected to worse than the others, but eventually, just when he thinks they are going to either kill him or ship him out to some anonymous holding facility without trial, he’s released along with his friends – or two of them at least. Darryl has disappeared. No one will admit he was ever in custody and the three survivors are warned that if they tell what happened to them they will disappear permanently.
It’s the start of a nightmare in which Marcus leads a campaign to fight back using hacker techniques to bring together the young disaffected and corrupting the ever increasing surveillance technology as San Francisco, besieged by the DHS, becomes a divided city – half of its population living in fear while the other half applaud the DHS measures to protect them from the invisible terrorists.
No spoilers in this review because that would be a shame. You need to read this book for yourself and make your own mind up just how far fetched this scenario might be given the right set of circumstances. Have our freedoms already been eroded? How close are we already with facial recognition software, tracking via mobile phones and the chips in our bank cards? is it invason or privacy or all for our own protection?
Cory Doctorow has written a tense, exciting novel with relentless pace and a totally believable protagonist who is alternately scared and brave – or often both at the same time. It’s one of those books that you think should become a classic. Maybe in a few years it will be required reading in schools. I hope so. It deserves to be. Then again, maybe it will become a subversive text, passed from hand to hand beneath the desk. Either way – it works for me.
The first scene of Winterwood came to me almost fully formed. I knew there was a young woman paying a deathbed visit to her estranged mother and finding that there was still no forgiveness between them. I knew the young woman was dressed as a man and captained a pirate ship (later changed to privateer). She was also a witch. At that point it could easily have been set at any time period from late Medieval to Georgian. I had to settle on a time period. It would have been easy to set it in a Pirates of the Caribbean type world, more fantasy than history. Almost too easy. So I opted for 1800.
And then I had to start researching. Winterwood is a fantasy, so I could get away with inserting elements of magic, but it also had to have a certain amount of historical accuracy, or at least verisimilitude. 1800 was firmly in the Napoleonic era. Britain was under threat. King George III had already had his first bout of madness from which he recovered, but it left the country fragile. The loss of the Americas was still raw. To this historical background I introduced the Fae, shapechangers and a race of gentle bondservants called rowankind.
I was starting from as close to scratch as it’s possible to get. I knew that what I didn’t want to do was involve high society, the ton and all the Regency romance stuff. (Strictly speaking the dates are earlier than the Regency, but it falls roughly into that period.) There are no balls or eligible dukes, but I do weave in some real life politicians (Pitt the Younger and Fox) and also King George III features in Rowankind as the trilogy is reaching its conclusion. Ross’ ship, The Heart of Oak, is a privateer vessel, preying on French merchant shipping, but when a peace arrives in 1802, Ross’ crew of barely reformed pirates has to go legitimate. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Also, without giving so much away that I’d have to shoot you, I have a real reason for King George’s madness that makes sense within the context of the book.
I’m not the sort of writer who does masses of reading and then decides to write a book. If I did that I’d never get started because it’s so easy to fall down the Great Rabbit Hole of Research and never find your way out again. I absorb some general background information and then I start to write the story. I research the detail of it when I need to. Initially, Wikipedia is your friend, but don’t get too cosy with the Wiki. It’s a good starting point, but you do need to cross check the information, and go into more depth either on the web and/or in book form. I like reading fiction on Kindle, but I have to have non-fiction in paper format because flipping back and forth via the index is essential for research. I don’t always read non-fiction through from beginning to end, I dip in and out.
Since my knowledge of sailing is limited to being able to sing a few sea-shanties, I needed to do a whole lot of research on eighteenth and nineteenth century sailing ships. Firstly I had to determine what kind of vessel the Heart of Oak is (a topsail schooner, small but nimble) and then how to sail her through calm and storm, including effecting emergency repairs.
Paying attention to the details can help to give the book its authenticity. Sometimes I’m surprised by a fact and follow it up. A lovely little book on the Georgian fad of sea bathing (Louise Allen: The Georgian Seaside.) delivered the delightful information about King George’s bathing machine. It was painted red, white, and blue and had a ten foot flagpole on top, as if it wasn’t already obvious whose machine it was. And the ‘dipping ladies’ of Weymouth had GSTK (God Save the King) woven through their girdles. You just couldn’t make that stuff up. But once you know about it, you have to use it. Hence the sea-bathing set piece in Rowankind.
I used Vauxhall Gardens for a headlong chase sequence featuring hell-hounds, but this was out of season, which took even more research. There has been plenty written (and painted) featuring Vauxhall inhabited by crowds having fun, but not much to show what it was like in dank weather when the gates were closed.
I then sent my protagonists to ‘shoot’ London Bridge, i.e. risk the dangers of passing under the bridge in a small boat when the water rushing through between the arches, and the starlings that supported them, caused a waterfall effect that could be a six foot drop. This was the perdiod after all the buildings had been removed from the bridge, but it was still the same medieval structure that forced the fast flowing river between the broad starlings and under the narrowed arches.
When I started researching Georgian Plymouth (for the opening chapters of Winterwood) I found a fabulous website with historical maps of Plymouth including the Sutton Pool area, the new Guildhall (very recently built in 1800) and the streets close to the waterfront. The site later disappeared, but luckily I’d downloaded some of the most useful maps. I also found a terrific set of maps of London in 1801 and 1806, which gave me accurate street names and enabled me to see which bits of the city were already there. Mostly the bits of London my characters inhabit are Wapping, Westminster and the river frontage that runs between them.
I had to research everything from lock-picking, road transport, boat construction and sailing, to American slang of the era, and colourful British slang. If you look on Project Gutenberg for Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811, you will be amazed at some of the terminology. Did you know there was a term for a turd (a sirreverence) wrapped in paper and thrown over your neighbour’s wall’? It’s a Flying Pasty. I also needed answers to some fairly obscure questions such as who actually stitched together the red coats for the British army, and how were the contracts to produce them handed out? That took several attempts and a lot of Rabbit Holes.
I’m sure I’ve made some historical mistakes, but so far, readers have been kind enough not to point and laugh. One error I caught just before the last book went to press, was due to listening to a documentary on BBC radio. I had a scene in Rowankind, where Parliament is debating something important, and in that scene I had my protagonists viewing from the public gallery – which not only didn’t exist in 1802, but even if it had existed, women would not have been allowed. I had to make superfast alterations at the proofing stage where I should not have been doing more than correcting the odd typo. Luckily my publisher allowed me to make life difficult for them. Whew! I try my best, but I’m sure there are things that I miss. I was heartened by a best selling historical fiction author writing about crowds on Vauxhall Bridge (London) celebrating a British victory – some twenty years before the bridge was built. Thank goodness it’s not just me.
I discovered Tanya Huff in 2003, Lois McMaster Bujold was a couple of years after that and Patricia Briggs in 2008. Brent Weeks become my discovery of the year in 2009. His Night Angel trilogy is riveting. Having bought the first on spec in Waterstones I hurriedly ordered the second two from Amazon. Firstly – even without the story, the covers are gorgeous Calvin Chu illustrations
Okay – to the story. Violent and compelling the first book of the trilogy starts with three feral children, Azoth, Doll Girl and Jarl, who are part of a street gang in the Warrens of Cenaria City, doing whatever they can to survive, living under the terror regime of the rising leader, Rat, an abuser of the worst sort. The Littles are afraid of the Bigs, the Bigs are afraid of Rat, but everybody is afraid of Durzo Blint, the legendary wetboy and enforcer-for-hire of the the Sa’kagé – an underworld of street gangs, organised and disorganised crime, prostitution and death for hire.
‘A wetboy is like an assassin the way a tiger is like a kitten,’ we are told. A magically enhanced killer who doesn’t have ‘targets’ – he has ‘deaders’, because once a wetboy takes a contract his victim is as good as dead. Before Durzo will take him as his apprentice Azoth must prove himself by killing Rat. Azoth hesitates – with devastating consequences for his friends and so begins his education as a wetboy and his change of name to Kylar.
The first book tells of Kylar’s apprentice years – riddled with disappointment as his innate magical talent refuses to manifest – and his final test. He doesn’t understand the taciturn Durzo, doesn’t know what the man wants of him, more often than not gets beaten for his efforts. He has to learn how to move in high society and how to figure out Cenarian Court politics as invasion looms.
It’s a sprawling, complicated, hard-edged political fantasies where the stakes are high and emotions run deep. This book is a wild ride of action and emotion and just my type of read.
Writing is a funny old business. Writers probably learn most by reading. You are what you read. Reading develops your ear for tight prose and snappy dialogue. Without even thinking about it, you learn about character and plot. The difficulty comes when you have to put all the innate skill you’ve probably already learned into practise, and put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I sold my first short story in 1998, but I didn’t sell my first novel until 2013.
When I started to write my first book way back in the 1990s (the one that’s still in the bottom drawer) I did it in omniscient point of view, head-hopping from one character to another, jotting down their thoughts and emotions randomly. Then I read my first ‘how-to’ book which was Plot by Ansen Dibell. It was a revelation. There was a chapter called ‘Would You Trust a Viewpoint with Shifty Eyes?’ which crystalised everything down to basics – single viewpoint versus multiple viewpoint, and how to transition between multiple viewpoints. (Hint: not mid paragraph.) What an excellent book for a beginner to stumble upon. It covers a lot of the basics, plots, openings, exposition, sub-plots, set pieces, transitions and framing devices, as well as the valuable advice, ‘When you come to the end, stop.’
A few months later I found ‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers,’ by Renni Brown and Dave King. It took me a step further along the road to considering the novel as a whole, including the invaluable advice: see how it sounds. Yes I always read my work out loud as the (hopefully) last thing before sending it off. My mouth picks up errors that my eyes do not. Clunky sentences and repeated words are exposed in time to be corrected.
I have many books on writing. These two taught me the basics.
The one that kicked me up a gear was ‘Writing the Breakout Novel‘ by Donald Maass. I’m not just saying this because Don is my agent. In fact, I read the book before he was my agent. His recent book ‘The Emotional Craft of Fiction‘ is also excellent, but take note, these two are not for beginners. They introduce writers to subtleties that really make a difference.
Writing Rowankind, the third book in my Rowankind trilogy, confirmed what I learned when writing Nimbus, the third book in my Psi-Tech trilogy. Sequels are difficult, and sequels to sequels are doubly so. For the final book in a trilogy, you have to pick up a story which already has the first and second books published (so no retrospective continuity shifting allowed). Without giving away too much of what happened in your previous books, you have to make it possible for someone who hasn’t read the others, to read this as a standalone. At the same time you have to tie up all your loose ends and deliver an ending that will satisfy both your new and your long-term readers.
I’m terrible for overexplaining things, so much so that my beta readers often scrawl, Yes! We KNOW already! In the margin. Beta readers are a wonderful resource. I’m part of a small critique group called Northwrite and we will often beta-read for each other. I also attend Milford SF Writers’ Conference (Covid permitting) which is a full week in the heart of Snowdonia with fifteen like minded (published) writers who come together to critique each others work. It’s not only brilliant to have your work critiqued by other professional writers, but you learn an enormous amount critiquing other people’s work as well, and then listening to what other people said about the piece you just critiqued. Sometimes it’s as if all fifteen people read something different into the same piece. Fascinating and instructive.
But before Northwrite, and before Milford, back in the mid 1990s I joined a usenet newsgroup called misc.writing. The folks there were generous with their knowledge. I didn’t even know what manuscript format was when I started. But I think their most valuable piece of writing advice was something like this: Apply seat of trousers to office chair and fingers to keyboard and write. Revise as necessary. Finish what you write. Polish it. Send it out. While you’re waiting for it to come whistling back, write something else. Rinse and repeat.
I’ve learned an enormous amount, but there’s always more to learn. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson.
This is a gorgeous multi-layered work with a cast of characters which includes the city of Merafi – as much a part of this as are Gracielis, failed Tarnaroqui assassin-priest now courtesan and spy; Thiercelin, husband of one of the Queen’s closest advisors and feeling like a spare part most of the time; Joyain, loyal soldier, out of his depth, just trying to keep it all together; Valdarrien, slain in a duel, but not yet gone.
And then there’s Merafi, a city of many contrasts, prosperous and rich with shipping, merchants, artisans and courtesans. The Queen and the high houses on the hill overlook the Low City with her toes in the river, dank, damp, dark and decaying, yet thriving despite it all – until the upstart Prince Kenan of the Lunedith, and Quenfrida, the Tranaroqui spy mistress conspire to remove the bonds of ancient magic allowing the river to rise, setting free the opaque ghosts and demons, invisible to the Merafiens, but plain as day to Gracielis. The river’s floodwaters bring pestilence and violence, and while loyal Joyain tries to do his duty, only Gracielis can end it – if he wants to. But Gracielis is in thrall to Quenfrida, while at the same time drawn to help Thiercelin, Thiercelin is driven by the apparent disregard of his wife, and haunted by the memory of his dead friend, Valdarrien. Valdarrien, by now more than a revenant spirit, grows even stronger and seeks a way back to find his lost love, Iareth. Iareth is in the retinue of the prince, but also playing a dangerous double game by spying on him for her father, the Lunedith spymaster.
Gracielis knows the final solution requires a sacrifice, but who? Thiercelin is horribly afraid that he might know.
Complicated? Yes, or say rather complex, because all this unfolds at an almost leisurely pace, drawing out the tension to almost unbearable pitch before we finally get resolution. It’s not a happy ever after ending, but it does resolve and resolves well, with some characters left standing, but not all. This is Kari Sperring’s debut novel, published by DAW in 2009. She’s a bona fide medieval historian with many academic books to her credit, and a self-confessed lover of the France of the Three Musketeers. Her writing is as elegant, as complex and as multi-layered as her characters and plot. Highly recommended.
The story of Fulke (known as Brunin) FitzWarin and Hawise de Dinan from the time Brunin is taken into the de Dinan household (Ludlow Castle) as a ten year old squire, at the request of his father who wants the gentle Brunin ‘made into a man’. Brunin and Hawise grow up together, firm friends, but their eventual marriage is not in their own hands in a world where marriages are arranged for political, economic and security reasons.
This is set against a background of upheaval. It’s England in 1148 and Prince Henry of Anjou is making a determined bid for the throne – and will soon become Henry II. FitzWarin and de Dinan are supporters of the victorious Henry, but that’s a no guarantee that when the dust settles they won’t have lost what they consider to be theirs, for Henry is a capricious king, given to redistributing his favours (and his strongholds) according to the need of the moment.
Gilbert de Lacy contests the right to Ludlow and as the de Dinan family and Joscelin de Dinan’s young but growing squire are drawn into battles determined by the course of history. Brunin does, indeed, grow to manhood, every inch a Norman knight, learning eventually to overcome the enmity of his brothers, the fear of his harridan grandmother (who never lets anyone in the family forget that they carry William the Conqueror’s bloodline) and the disappointment of his father, earning respect and eventually coming into his inheritance.
But Brunin’s betrothal to Hawise (portrayed entirely realistically not as a great romance, but as a great friendship blossoming into love at the behest of both their families) is what brings Ludlow down – because in all his time in the de Dinan household he – and everyone else – had discounted the feelings of Marion – another de Brunin fosterling who is much more unstable than anyone suspects. It’s Marion’s treachery that loses them Ludlow in fact, to a private battle with de Lacey, and Henry that seals it in law.
This is also a story of the love between Joscelin de Dinan and his wife Sybilla. Joscelin, an ex mercenary and good judge of men holds Shrewsbury as his wife’s inheritance. Joscelin is a rarity. A truly good and strong man whose one fear is of letting his wife down. He was given Ludlow (and Sybilla) together and fears that losing one will lose him the other. A well-written and engaging book that I read because someone left it here. I’m glad I did. I don’t read many historicals, but I’m inclined to seek out more Elizabeth Chadwick and there is a continuation of Fulke/Brunin’s story in Lords of the White Castle (written four years before this book) which is now on my wants list.
As a long-time folkie I watched with great amusement as the Good Morning America TV show interviewed Nathan Evans – the twenty-six year old Scottish postman whose Tiktok renditions of sea shanties seem to have sparked off their discovery by a whole new, and hitherto unenlightened, audience. 74 million views and counting.
Of course sea shanties are not a new phenomenon to many of us.
The breakfast-show hosts played a short clip of Nathan’s The Wellerman while telling the audience that it’s called a ‘sea shanty,’ emphasising the two words as though they’d never been spoken in English before, and explaining that it was a ‘serous throwback all the way from the nineteenth century’. Then the other host explained that ‘Sea shanties date back to the 1800s; folk songs that were sung by sailors working on whaling ships.’
Close but no cigar.
The Evening Standard said, ‘Elon Musk is among celebrities embracing the medieval music trend started by a postman.’
Medieval? I think not. (There certainly may have been work chants in Medieval times, but none survive today.)
Sea shanties are rhythmical work songs, commonly sung to set a pace for specific types of labour on board a sailing vessel – not just whaling ships, of course. You get capstan shanties, windlass shanties, and halyard shanties, for instance – differently paced songs for different types of task, hauling or heaving. The shantyman would set the pace and sing the call while the crew doing the work would sing/shout the response. The deck of a ship was no place for a smooth trained voice. The requirements for a shantyman was that he could be heard over a force eight gale, he could keep a steady rhythm suitable for the job, and that he could improvise the call lines (the response always being the same) to make the shanty as long or as short as it needed to be to get the job done. Bonus points to the shantyman for lewdness. Hey, sailoring was a hard life, they had to take their fun where they could find it.
It’s likely that shanties (or chanteys) developed from work chants much earlier than the 1800s, of course. Sometimes they were accompanied by a fiddle, but more often they were sung without any instrumental accompaniment. You can find a great many shanties in what it probably one of the definitive works of the genre: Stan Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961). Stan – known as the last shantyman – was not only a singer with a great repertoire, but also a collector of shanties.
You also get forebitters, sea songs usually sung by sailors while at rest, for entertainment, rather than to mark rhythm for a shipboard task. But that’s a subject for another day.
If you are thinking that this current interest in shanties is the first revival, think again. The folk song revival of the 1950s and 60s which continues to the present, of course, adopted shanties and sea songs enthusiastically. Nathan Evans has now been signed up to Polydor Records, and the harmony version of The Wellerman by Bristol group The Longest Johns has gone viral. However for the last 60 years there has been a long line of shanty and sea song singers from The Shanty Crew, Kimber’s Men, ‘unsung’ heroes such as Johnny Collins (solo and with Jim Mageean) and the Keelers to Fisherman’s Friends, recently brought to public consciousness by the movie of the same name.
If you want to listen to some sea-shanties from those well-known-in-folk-circles performers who are definitely not ‘famous’ try this: https://youtu.be/-CuyLbC2TZo
So why have sea shanties gone viral with a new audience?
Times are very strange. I wish I had a shiny penny for every time the news broadcasts use the word ‘unprecedented,’ whether it’s referring to Coronavirus, the US presidency of the orange one (now thankfully terminated), or the storming of the Capitol building by armed insurrectionists on 6th January 2021. These are strange times, indeed, not only strange but terrifying. (At the time of writing the UK is approaching 100,000 C-19 deaths.) I think sea shanties provide a simplicity that we all yearn for as modern life becomes ever more complex. Music has always raised the spirits. As has been proved on Tiktok, shanties are simple enough for anyone to join in with, and singing together, even via Tiktok, Youtube or Zoom, if you can’t currently meet in person, is good for the soul.
Which brings me to the literary connection… in the author’s own words. Please welcome Elizabeth Ann Scarborough to the blog.
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s Songkiller Saga The Phantom Banjo / Picking the Ballad’s Bones / Strum Again
The Songkiller Saga is an extended attempted murder ballad comprised of three books, Phantom Banjo, in which the good guys discover and begin to thwart a plot by the Evil Forces aka Devils, to obliterate folk music, Picking the Ballads’ Bones in which the same good guys travel to the places where various important songs began, taking them to their roots, and Strum Again? in which the music, newly remembered and performed again, does battle with the Devils again to keep itself as relevant and useful as it always has been.
If I were writing it today I would include the phenomena of how a plague forced modern people indoors and onto the internet where they rediscovered Sea Shanties. The nautical work songs were all but lost except for specialty festivals in areas with a seagoing history, but were no longer necessary as they were in the days when they contained the beat, the pace, and within their lyrics the instructions for work aboard the sailing ships that once plowed the seas hauling cargo and killing whales. The latter activity, while currently considered politically incorrect, nonetheless had a lot of the best songs. Where once the world’s economy was interwoven with the sea songs, up until recently people asked “what’s a shanty?” Nowadays the answer seems to be “an internet sensation performed in chorus with whoever wants to join in, connecting house-bound landlubbers and relieving some of their tension, anxiety, and isolation.”
I wrote the series when restrictions and regulations stopped the interaction of (particularly) Canadian and US performers and their products across the border, also interfering with the movement of the songs and performers of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Not only was the flow of traditional songs dammed, but new songs no longer reached the ears of all possible audiences. Something had to be done!
Who better to tackle the task than the musicians and lovers of the music I called friends? I didn’t use real names or identities for the most part because basically, in the context of the book, they didn’t exist. None of my friends have done the things I describe in the books (except for the singing, of course) and if any of the Devils resemble real people or organizations they might object to the use of their true identities. A few characters are composites of characteristics of people I know. People seem to have fun guessing who is who. Those I know and have used as inspiration are aware of it and approve of it. For using any portion of any of their songs I obtained written permission. Although the books fared commercially about as well as most of the songs, I have received fan mail and good comments about them from people I’ve admired for a long time. The “Take it to its Roots” song I wrote as the theme song for the books was recently recorded by Tania Opland, who may or may not have inspired one of the characters. In recent years I’ve written two more novels in my original SONGS FROM THE SEASHELL ARCHIVES series, carrying the timeline forward to include steam punk memes. The first book is THE DRAGON, THE WITCH, AND THE RAILROAD and the most recent is REDUNDANT DRAGONS. I have also written several books and stories about a cat detective named Spam who lives in the same town I do and solves “purranormal” mysteries with the help of other critters. Currently I am working on a new one in the Godmother series about animals.
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough is the author of 30 solo fantasy and science fiction novels, including the 1989 Nebula award winning Healer’s War. Additionally she’s written 16 novels with Anne McCaffrey, most recently the Tales of the Barque Cat series, Catalyst and Catacombs (from Del Rey). Her latest solo novel is Redundant Dragons, a steampunk spinoff of her Songs from the Seashell Archives series. She has had short stories published in numerous anthologies and 3 collections. She loves folk music, cats, Mexican and Native American folk art and singing in groups big enough to drown her out.
More about the universe in which the Psi-Tech books are set.
The Monitors – Galactic Policing Formed in 2391, the Monitors are an interstellar policing force largely concerned with providing law in the space-lanes and for those newly established colonies that have not yet achieved critical mass in terms of their own law-keeping. They are not affiliated with the megacorps, though they often have to work together. They have massive ships that carry a self-contained circuit court. The circuit-court ships tour the subscribed colonies and independent settlements, generally dealing with the more serious crimes.
Well-established colonies have their own police forces but the Monitors hold precedence over local law if necessary. In practice they prefer to work with local forces rather than ride roughshod over them, but there are times when they have to muscle in. Funded by levies from all the subscribed worlds, Monitor effectiveness is limited by their ability to respond quickly to requests for intervention. They are one of the few organisations that keeps a modest fleet of jumpships for fast response.
Some of the independent settlements (i.e. not owned by one of the megacorps) also pay a levy to the Monitors. Theoretically speaking the Monitors are obliged to pursue the process of the law whether or not individual planets are signed up, but it’s a delicate balance on the independent worlds.
Before working with the Trust Ben Benjamin started his career in the Monitors, but encountered corruption and realised it was something he couldn’t fight alone, and preferred to be somewhere where he could truly make a difference. When offered a job settling new colonists on virgin planets, he took it.
Punishment Most planets do not have capital punishment. Those that do are generally planets not signed up to the Monitor ‘circuit courts’ and the prison planet system, and are without resources to build their own prisons. The Monitors have access to designated prison planets, usually marginally survivable worlds. There’s no rule on any prison planet except the rules the prisoners make for themselves, i.e. survival of the fittest. Prisoners are stripped of their handpads, dropped and left with only the clothes they stand up in. If they have a set-term sentence they must present themselves at the drop point on the day their sentence is up (presuming they can keep track of time without their handpads). They have only one opportunity to get off planet. If they miss their pickup they are stuck. Unsurprisingly only a small proportion of prisoners ever show up for pickup. Some prison planets are lawless hell-holes, others are not much different from independent colonies. Much depends on the prisoners themselves. Once a prison planet has a population of fifty thousand it’s closed to further inmates. If, fifty years later, if it has become ‘civilised’ it can apply to become an affiliated settlement. The acceptance process takes long enough that by the time colony status is granted the original prisoners will all have died of old age, natural and unnatural causes, and the population will consist only of their children and grandchildren.
Crossways Crossways is an enormous rogue space station peopled by criminals, gangs, arms dealers, weapons labs, and used as a home base by pirate and smuggling fleets. It’s governed by a coalition of crimelords. Street crime (though not entirely eliminated) is severely frowned upon since in order for outsiders to come to Crossways to do business, the streets have to be relatively safe. Crossways was once a megacorps station, but some years ago fought a war for independence, which they won. The damage to the station was extensive and over the years it has been repaired piecemeal, giving the whole place an irregular outline as bits have been built on and sealed off. Don’t get the wrong idea, Crossways is not anarchic. The governing crimelords ensure that the non-criminal inhabitants can still live and work, bring up their children and run legitimate businesses. Someone has to feed and clothe the populace, see to their medical needs, and maintain the station’s infrastructure. The station has its own security force and it’s armed to the teeth against outsiders. The Monitors leave it alone unless invited in. The crimelords deal with transgressors harshly. Anyone who breaks the rules finds themselves taking a short walk out of the nearest airlock.
There are no dragons in this book – well there is one, but not a significant one and it only appears on the page once, in a dream. So having got that out of the way, this is early Briggs (1995). It’s the second in her Sianim books, the first being her debut book, Masques which is so difficult to find that it’s listed at several silly prices from around $135 (so I haven’t read it yet). However not having read the first is no problem because this is a complete standalone (apparently the two books share some side characters) in which former dancer/slave, Rialla, is asked to return to the land of her slavery on an important mission for the Spymaster of the mercenary nation of Sianim.
She’s disguised as a slave to her spy-mission-partner Laeth and the big issue at first is whether she can go back to the guise of slavery and, indeed, whether, after seven years of freedom. she’s ever really left slavery behind. This is heightened by the appearance of her former slave-master and his demand (unmet) that his property be returned to him. When Laeth is accused of murder and incarcerated, help appears from a totally unexpected quarter, the somewhat hunky, but rather strange healer, Tris, who is more than he appears. He’s not-quite-human for starters. With Laeth rescued and heading back to the Spymaster with the first part of the required intelligence, it’s left up to Rialla and Tris to find the real killer and that, means Rialla is going to have to let herself fall into her former owner’s clutches again.
Patricia Briggs has learned a lot about writing since she wrote ‘Steal the Dragon’, but the early promise was definitely there and this is well worth reading. Rialla’s internal conflict about her independence and her feelings about slavery are well done and not too heavy-handed. Tris is a decent love interest – for once a hero in a fantasy novel who does not carry weapons of any kind. Rialla is the sword-wielder of the pair, though mostly the problems are solved by brain-power rather than muscle power and by some hearty running away. Nice! But the ending – the actual consummation scene between the two protagonists – is a missed opportunity to explore the last of Rialla’s relationship issues. Briggs has herself admitted that (in an online interview) but also said that – at the time – Rialla’s issues had taken her right to the edge of her (then) writing ability. Happily her abilities to bring out characters and their issues and not take the easy option have developed at a great rate (see the Mercy Thompson novels for proof of that), however I’ve caught up (retrospectively) with some other early Patricia Briggs novels and it’s fascinating to see the progressive development of a huge talent.
Oh, and Steal the Dragon is a sneaky chess-like game of skill, strategy and guile which Tris is delighted to find Rialla can not only play, but can beat him at, too.
Early Space Exploration Humans established several stations on the moon, and a joint scientific facility on Mars by 2050. At the same time commerical expeditions to mine the Kuiper Belt proved successful, and, following a twenty year scientific study, shipyards were built on Europa, Jupiter’s ice-shrouded moon.
Humanity’s first baby steps outside of our solar system were to stars such as Proxima Centauri, where a ten year journey was within the capability of a human crew, thanks to the new cryogenic process developed in Russia.
The idea of folding space had been around for some time but it wasn’t until Ernest Evien Wixler postulated the jump gate theory in the late twenty first century that a practical application was tried. A jump-gate route between Earth and Chenon (previously settled the long way) was opened, and from there new routes were forged, and a network established that could transport humans across the galaxy.
The biggest problem was that platinum was required as a catalyst and with each jump a small but significant amount of platinum was lost in the Folds of space. Platinum is found across the solar system, but only in minute amounts. With the race to open up the galaxy for pleasure and profit, the race to find platinum was on.
The Folds Even with platinum to keep the jump gates open, navigating the Folds is still a dangerous business. Ships enter but don’t always leave again. In the early days many ships were lost, but the potential rewards were too great for humankind to return to interstellar travel at slower-than-light speeds. There’s no quick profit to be had from sending out a generation ship or an expedition that won’t return until after you’re dead. The real breakthrough in jump-gate travel came when neuroscientists developed an implant to enhance psionic tendencies that had previously been unacknowledged or consigned to the realms of fringe science. Psi-Navigators were suddenly in high demand.
People transiting foldspace, whether a pilot or passenger, often see things that aren’t real – or aren’t supposed to be real according to the training manuals. Hallucinations? Almost certainly – at least some of the time. However some Psi-tech Navigators see the same hallucination time and time again. Are Void Dragons only in the mind or is there something really out there? What creatures inhabit fold space, and are they dangerous or benign?
You’ll need to read the trilogy to find out.
Next time: Law and order in the vast reaches of space.
The continuing adventures of Lakewalker, Dag Redwing Hickory and his ‘farmer’ wife Fawn Bluefeld, following on directly from the events in ‘Beguilement’ which ended with Dag and Fawn’s wedding at the Bluefeld farm, having more or less overcome her family’s objections. Now they’re off to face Dag’s family which is going to be a much more difficult sell because the Lakewalkers think they’re a cut above, magically, that is, and that the rest of the world – farmers whether they farm or not – are a bunch of ignorant ingrates.
Lakewalkers can sense ‘grounds,’ that’s life-energy to you and me, and they are dedicated to killing ‘malices’ – power-hungry entities that pop up out of the ground, and blight everything around – including people. Only Lakewalker magic can kill a malice, they’re immortal and immune to everything but specially prepared bone knives imbued with mortality. Nothing is more important to Lakewalkers than this duty and their whole way of life is dedicated to supporting their patrollers. It’s a tight knit little community that Fawn walks into – hoping she can impress Dag’s harridan mother. She doesn’t and neither does Dag who, it seems, is the son who can’t do anything right. Dag’s brother Dar is as much of a problem as his mother. Luckily there are one or two patrollers that Fawn met in ‘Beguilement’ who, while not openly accepting of their marriage, are not hostile to Fawn and so the couple settle down to married life with the threat of a council meeting hanging over their head to proclaim on the validity of the marriage.
Dag shows his mettle, grows in talents and in saving others manages to get himself into malice trouble again and only with Fawn’s help does he get out of it, but despite proving herself over and over again, she’d never going to be able to make Yorkshire Puddings like Mother makes. Dag solves the problem in his own way which lead them nicely forward to the much anticipated third book in the series, ‘Passage.’
Everything I said about the first book in The Sharing Knife sequence stands here. Well-written, well-rounded characters and if the plot is less than action-packed, the dramatic tension remains high. We learn more about Dag, his first marriage, and some of the reasons why he never followed through and became a captain, despite that being his obvious destiny in his younger days and one of his obvious talents. The fact that he cares so much about others is one of the appealing things about him. Dag doesn’t – in any way – consider himself above farmers. Dag and Fawn are an engaging couple deliberately mismatched for extra interest and cultural misunderstandings.
If you’re looking for the kind of pace Miles Vorkosigan keeps up, you may need to look elsewhere, but this series is on a par with Bujold’s Chalion novels for character and interest. Her writing never disappoints, whatever the style.
My Psi-Tech Universe has implant-enhanced humans who have telepathy to a greater or lesser extent, combined with other psi talents. My main characters, Cara and Ben are psi-techs. Cara is a top class telepath with a side order of empathy, and Ben is a weak telepath but a talented navigator able to connect with ship’s systems and fly through the Folds of space. (More about the Folds next time.)
Psi-TechsHistory In the latter half of the twenty-first century researchers in China worked with individuals whose talent for telepathy could be enhanced to give them instant communication between ship and home. They learned how to nurture a talent for navigation bordering on the extraordinary, developing psi-Navigators with the ability to fly the Folds safely. An unexpected by-product of the programme delivered Empaths, Healers, Finders, Psi-mechanics who can interface and control bots, and exozoologists, known in the trade as Dee’Ells (for Dolittles) who can influence and understand non-human creatures.
Developing psi implants became a research priority. The corporations sank an enormous amount of resources into R&D. Rowan-Markesa’s scientists led the field. During an attempted hostile takeover by Arquavisa the entire R&D department of Rowan-Markesa resigned and published their findings, making the technology available to all. This prevented any one company getting a complete stranglehold. The Monitors (law enforcers), planetary governments and the Five Power Alliance in Earth also implant and employ psi-techs.
Even those with no psi aptitude can have an implant fitted, but it’s expensive and allows only a basic facility to receive telepathic messages, not to instigate them without the mediation of a Telepath. It’s possible for someone with a receiving implant to wear a damper to retain privacy, but because of the possibility of intellectual and industrial theft via an implant, the top executives tend not to have them and rely on personal telepaths to be at their beck and call for urgent communications.
The Cost Factor It’s expensive to find, implant, and train a psi-tech so their employers tie them into long term, contracts. They are well paid and well looked after, but always in hock to their megacorp. Any psi-tech who steps out of line is likely to be scheduled for Neural Readjustment. If that doesn’t work, their implant can be removed or they can be scheduled for neural reconditioning, but with predictably messy results. So the psi-techs are bound to the megacorps if they want to retain their sanity. Psi-techs can change companies as long as their new company buys out their contract. They can also buy out their own contracts, but this is so expensive that it’s hardly ever achieved in practice as there’s a cumulative amount for ongoing maintenance of the implant – insurance of sorts that if anything goes wrong the company will look after it (and them). When they retire (they can always be recalled to active duty if the need arises) the company provides a modest pension, somewhere to live and continuing implant maintenance.
Sanctuary Psi-techs who reebel against their megacorps are dealt with severely, but there are rumours of a place called Sanctuary where runaway psi-techs are helped onwards to new and independent lives. Does it exist? The megacorporations would like to think it doesn’t. In fact, they’ve gone to considerable lengths to make sure it doesn’t, but you can’t keep a good idea down…
Next time… Space exploration in the Psi-Tech Universe.
All the reviews said: ‘Good, but not as good as Curse of Chalion,’ so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. On the whole I would agree, but to my mind it will be a very exceptional book that is as good as Curse of Chalion, so what to we have here? While not Bujold’s absolute best, it’s still very good indeed. A fantasy, but also more of a romance in that apart from a few monsters (inhuman and human) the plot is fairly well kept inside within a boy-meets-girl scenario, even though neither the ‘boy’ nor the ‘girl’ are exactly typical.
Lakewalker patroller Dag rescues, and falls for, young Fawn Bluefeld, a young woman from a farming family who is much less than half his age. He has to slay a monster first, but that’s his job. Scarier than the monster is Fawn’s family because Lakewalkers and farmers don’t mix and there’s much cultural misunderstanding. I have a soft spot for Bujold’s damaged heroes and there is a comparison between Dag and Cas (the hero in Chalion) in that Dag has that same lack of awareness of his own heroic qualities while at the same time having certain knowledge of his own abilities which inspires the reader’s utter confidence in the fact that if he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it or go down trying. Cas is still my favourite hero, but Dag is up there in the top ten list and that’s saying an awful lot.
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.