Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 - A Year in Writing

So farewell, 2014.  Another year has passed, and I want to do a quick rundown of where things are.

I made a couple of plans for myself at the start of the year, and with one notable exception, I haven't really made much progress.  I'd decided that if I was going to write about South Africa, I should go to South Africa, and I'm afraid that I'm no closer to having a ticket today than I was a year ago.  Part of this is cowardice on my part, I'll make clear now.  I hear different stories about Johannesburg, the city close to where my story is set - some say it's an excellent place to visit, some say unsafe - but I'm still very keen to go.  I'm now planning Japan for 2015 so it's likely that I'll get to Jo'burg after the book is complete.  Not ideal, but hopefully my research and my beta readers will see me through.

So what went well in 2014?  Lots of things!  My partner Melissa Brown completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund costs related to her first YA book, 'Becoming Death'.  My friend Lesley Smith completed her first full novel, 'The Changing of the Sun' and my twitter friends were enjoying their own successes too.  Jennie Davenport completed her novel, 'Hemlock Veils' and Rena Olsen got herself an agent, so hopefully that three book deal will be just around the corner.  Thrillingly, I also got to meet Ivan Vladislavic and my favourite author, JM Coetzee (I may have stuttered like a fool at the signing...)

For me, there was of course the great pleasure of winning the SMHAFF writing award, and giving one of the most excruciating radio interviews in history (thanks to all the lovely and very patient people at Future Radio in Norwich, who stayed with me despite high winds and my phone cutting off on no less than four separate occasions.)  I was also longlisted for the Nottingham Writer's Club award, which I'll be entering again in 2015.


Here are a few 2015 writing goals:

1)    Finish the novel!  The first draft of 'What Comes from the Earth' is now complete, so some structural revisions and then a secondary edit process should sort that.  2015 is the year that it begins, y'all.

2)    I'm working to a March/April deadline on a contribution to a forthcoming anthology called 'The Z Chronicles.'  Expect a strong, character-driven story about a woman searching for her lost child in a complex fraught with the undead.  If you're interested in other anthologies by the same creators, including one where Hugh Howey is a contributor, please click here.

3)    I've been discussing the possibility of adapting 'Crowning Kings' to the screen in the form of a short film.  It's very early stages just, but I'm in discussion with Eduard Micu about a possible collaboration.  If we can agree on a process and can arrange any necessary funding, I'll be working on a screenplay.  Please check out Eduard's work - his short films look fantastic.

4)    More regular blog updates.  Because you deserve it.

What are your writing goals for 2015?

Friday, 26 December 2014

The Holiday Writer


We writers are a funny lot.  Give us a break, five minutes to call our own away from the responsibilities of work and family, and you'll generally find us spending time that could otherwise be used for relaxation huddled behind a laptop screen or poring over a well-thumbed manuscript, looking angry/puzzled/desperate (or sometimes all three at once.  That's a facial expression that has to be seen to be believed.)


In today's crazy world, there are precious few opportunities to step back from our duties and simply be ourselves.  Holidays are a precious resource, being few and far between, and non-writers see this as a chance for families to spend time together, share thoughts and feelings, or just gather to watch the Christmas episode of 'Doctor Who'.

Writers are a special case.  An hour with no responsibilities is an hour that can be dedicated to polishing a novel, or researching the most grisly way for a villain to die.  While others are sipping wine and going to holiday parties, the self-respecting writer ignores all distractions and has the discipline to apply themselves to their craft.  After all, that Macallan Silver Dagger or prized Nebula Award isn't going to win itself.

But why am I telling you this, oh partners of the damned?  You know better than anyone what it's like to live with a writer.  You understand the true meaning of sacrifice.  In the past, we had golf and football widows.  Nowadays we have manuscript widows.  You poor souls spend your waking hours lingering hopefully by closed study doors, all the while knowing that your partner won't come out until they've finished redrafting their hero's redemption scene for the tenth time that weekend.



Non-writers, you should understand that we envy you, we really do.  You'll never know the anguish of finding yourself totally awake at 4am with sudden inspiration for how you can close that glaring plothole in chapter 14, knowing that if you don't write the scene now, THIS INSTANT, the inspiration will be gone forever by morning.  We wish that we had normal hobbies.  No gardener ever had to tolerate a plethora of well-meaning relatives asking continuously if the flowers have grown yet.



So be kind to the writers in your lives this holiday season.  If we take five minutes away from the in-laws to outline a new chapter or jot down some dialogue, cover for us.  It may just be the best present you can give to us, and we will appreciate you forever.  For while we must suffer from one of life's most debilitating conditions, we remain your loyal friends, dedicated partners and loving children.

Perhaps, in the end, the best thing to do is accept that if you can't beat us, you should join us.  It's said that there's a book in everyone, so why not pick up a pen, charge your laptop, and join us in the study?

Sunday, 14 December 2014

She is Ray



When he found her, she was standing atop Notre Dame's tallest tower, looking out across Île de la Cité.  Here, so late into the night, she blended in perfectly with the shadows.  Had Armand not known that this was where the young woman went to reflect, he might not have seen her at all.

'He's here,' Armand said.  'Zombie Bin Laden is here.'


High above the city of Paris, the air was chill.  Armand shivered in his simple clothes, but he would not have dared to approach her.  It wasn't that he was scared of her, not exactly.  But interrupting Ray's repose was something that simply wasn't done.

For a moment, he wasn't sure that she had heard him at all.  The shadows were unmoved and the moon remained hidden behind the clouds above.  At the very limits of his hearing, the breeze was carrying words to him.  At first, Armand thought she was praying.  He strained to hear, and then realised that she was swearing to herself.

Armand licked his cracked lips and took a deep breath.  'Mademoiselle...I'm sorry to interrupt you.  I know this is your time.  But the world needs you.  Zombie Bin Laden is here.'

'Of course he is,' the girl said in English, her voice perfectly clear.  'I'm here, so where else would he be?'

Ray was fluent in several languages, Armand knew.  He had heard it said that she could quote the classics, understood the principles of particle physics and was a world-renowned munitions expert.  It was a skill set that would make every spy head in every country in the world sit up and take notice.  She was rumoured to have taken the decorated French war hero LeBoyf as her lover.  Glamorous, artistic, academically gifted, Armand could not fathom the speed at which Ray's mind worked, and he did not try.

And yet, there was a sadness about her, as though the weight of her responsibilities was a burden that might some day overwhelm her.  Armand tried to imagine her in a happier world, one where she could knit, chat to her online friends and surround herself with her books.  Instead, she carried the fate of the free world on her shoulders.  All the world's most prominent figures knew of Ray.  The politicians watched her carefully.  The billionaire playboys wanted to date her.  The super-villains wanted her dead.

'What does Zombie Bin Laden want?' Ray said.

'He seeks...an audience,' Armand said.

'Then he should go to the Moulin Rouge.'

Armand felt wretched.  This girl was maybe half his age, and certainly no more than half his weight.  Still, he could not summon the courage to stand between her and the twisted undead villain waiting below.

'He says that he has placed bombs along the Champs-Élysées, and he will detonate them unless you go to him now.'

For the first time, Armand saw a movement, as though she had inclined her head towards him.  He could not summon the words to say more, and as the night grew colder still and the silence lengthened uncomfortably, he heard her say, 'Okay, I'll go down.'

Armand's eyes moistened, but he told himself it was just the breeze.  'Mademoiselle...maybe you shouldn't go.'

'You heard what he said, Armand.'

'Of course.  But maybe the responsibility for dealing with him and his nefarious scheme should fall to government.  This is what the army are for, after all.'

'Since when do governments ever act in the interests of the people?'

'Mademoiselle...'

She turned to him as the moon came out.  She was just a young woman then, sitting on a concrete step atop the world.  Armand was struck by how small she seemed.  Her hair was trimmed short around her ears, giving her an elfin appearance.  Her eyes, like her long leather catsuit, were midnight blue.  Ray's gaze was gentle, knowing, accepting.

Armand took off his hat and held it across his chest.  He could not say more, for fear of bursting into tears.  That she could accept the responsibility and her likely doom so easily humbled him more than mere words could express.

'But first things first,' she said.  As he watched, Ray reached down to her stiletto heels and pulled the zips along the side.  Having kicked her feet out of the shoes, she reached into her pocket and produced a thick pair of socks which she then proceeded to put on.  Armand's forehead creased in confusion.  The socks had a little panda face across the toes.

'What?' she said, seeing his expression.  'It's a cold night!'

Then Ray stepped back into her heels, zipped them up and moved swiftly past him to the staircase.  As she disappeared, he heard her say, 'Once more into the merde, Armand...'

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Four Thousand Words reviews 'Doomsday Book', by Connie Willis

Please note that this review contains spoilers.

The path of genre fiction is so well-worn, that sometimes you are left wondering how it's possible to spin it out in a way that is fresh and original. Then, sometimes you are reminded that fresh and original are irrelevant when you can build a story so well that it really doesn't matter.

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards following release in 1992, the story of 'Doomsday Book' is set between a future Oxford some fifty or so years hence, and the same location some seven hundred years previously.

Historian Kivrin Engle utilises time travel to explore and research Oxford seven centuries ago, but unwittingly suffers a fever and is taken in by a local noble family. As a consequence of her illness, she cannot fully recall the place where she is due to find the gateway back to her own time. To make matters worse, the same illness ravages the university that is supporting her study and Kivrin is cut off, effectively stranding her in the past.  It then becomes apparent to her that she has not arrived in the past at the expected time, but has in fact arrived in Oxford at the same time as the Black Death.

With the two diseases rampaging through the respective populations, Kivrin is forced to watch her adoptive family and friends die horribly, one-by-one, without knowing if there is anything she can do. At the same time, her instructor, James Dunworthy, must breach all protocols, risk exposure to the deadly virus and still do whatever it takes to find a way to bring Kivrin back home.

With the narrative split between Kivrin and Dunworthy, Doomsday Book is a slow-burning example of technical mastery that ultimately takes the breath away. It is heartbreaking for me, as a fan of such an immense novel, to read it described on other blogs and on Goodreads as boring; in fact, the tension rises by degree with each twist and fresh disaster to the point where it is practically unbearable. Despite being nearly 600 pages long, I finished the book in only a couple of days and was left physically drained by the effort. You can feel Kivrin's despair at her utter helplessness as each of her new companions slowly succumbs to the plague. It is not a happy story, make no mistake, but it is stunningly observed. Hopes are raised and then brutally cut down; each new victim feels like a wound inflicted upon the reader.

Building tension to a sufficient climax takes time, and you can feel the frustration oozing from Dunworthy as he has to deal with the repetitive minutiae of his job while his protege is subject to any number of imagined horrors. Doomsday Book is a study in plot development for new authors, with each new event building crisis-upon-crisis. As a further example of Willis' brilliance as a storyteller, nothing at all from the buildup is wasted - Dunworthy's student with Lothario tendencies distracts the nurse, allowing him to flee the infirmary, and as he finally completes the tasks he needs to mount a long-overdue rescue mission, the choir who have distracted him throughout the book with their constant trivial demands are singing, 'Now At Last Our Savior Cometh'.

There is little more to say than this - if you are a fan of science fiction, or of carefully constructed fiction of any genre, you should read Doomsday Book. Much like Marmite, it splits readers down the middle, with most people either loving or hating it. Be willing to stick with it for the duration, rather than giving up early as so many seem to do, and I promise that you'll be rewarded.  This is a colossus of a novel, and one that deservedly bestrides the genre.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

'Becoming Death', by Melissa Brown

My name is Madison Clark and I am the Undead.  FEAR ME.

Okay...so I'm not really that scary.  I weigh about a hundred pounds soaking wet and I'm more likely to crash my car through your gate than eat your brain.  My life is crazy complicated, though.  My mother has this weird Stepford thing going on, my oh-so-perfect sister is already doing all the things I should be doing, including paying her own rent, and my boss just froze herself solid in her own walk-in freezer.  I really, really miss my dad.

And of course, I'm dead.  Did I mention that already?

Not that people seem to cut me any slack or anything.  I already finished school once, and now I have to go back a second time and learn how to run the family business.  It turns out that the whole accountancy thing is just a cover, and now I have to learn how to take souls and show them to the next world.  There's an app with a life of its own, a uniform that is really (I mean REALLY) unflattering, and a Queen Bee who seems determined to make my afterlife a misery.

Fortunately, I'm not alone in the crazy.  There's a whole family of professional mourners who've taken me under their wing.  There's a love interest, a social climber in the funeral business who seems to be going out of his way to spend time with me.  And last but not least, there's my best friend Aaron, the one person I can tell anything to - if telling anyone was allowed.

So yeah - that's me...and you can hear my story soon.

*beep beep*

Sorry, that's my phone.  Wait just a second...what?  I have to kill WHO?!

(Make 'Becoming Death' a reality!  Contribute to the Kickstarter here!)

Melissa's facebook page is here and you can add her on Twitter: @MRBrown_author
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Sunday, 23 November 2014

Crowning Glory

A few weeks back, I was proud to win the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival 2014 International Writing Award.  The trophy has pride of place on my bookshelf, and I'm very pleased to be able to reproduce the story, 'Crowning Glory' for you in full here.


It's Saturday night, half past nine, and the lights are out again.  I get the front door closed with a kick and drag the carrier bags into the lounge where they finally split completely, dumping the groceries all over the floor. 

I wasn't sure if he'd be here.  Sometimes in the evenings, he goes to the pub or to visit his friends, but not tonight.  Instead Michael sits at the table, reading one of his scraggy paperbacks by candlelight.  His fingertips protrude from his gloves as he picks at the pages.  He doesn't look up to greet me.

'You were ages.'

'I stopped off in the library,' I say.  'More research for my project.'

'What did you get at the shop?'

'I bought bread.'

'Anything to put in it?'

Michael isn't the kind of man to bother with smalltalk.  None of this 'how was your day, how are you feeling' nonsense.  He ignores me as I grope around in the shadows, searching for apples that I remember running through the checkout.

'It's cold in here,' I tell him.

'So put on a jumper.'

'You could help,' I say, fishing under the sofa for a can of tuna.

'I could,' he replies, turning a page.

Even doing something so simple, Michael's movements are nimble.  Perhaps it's because he's so thin.  It makes his limbs and his fingers seem longer than other people's.  By rights, he should feel the cold more than me, but it never seems to work that way.  He has a large polo-neck sweater that he wears pretty much straight through the winter, though it's not a nice one like you see sometimes in magazines.  This is proper army surplus, complete with patches on the elbows.  His trainers are so old that his feet practically poke out the front of them.  His hair is sandy, thick for the most part, though sometimes when I run my fingers through it, I can feel it thinning at the crown.

He doesn't like it if I mention his thinning hair.  It reminds him of his age, of his mortality.  Or maybe it's a man thing, his vanity.  In his mind, Michael still wants to believe he's twenty, though I know for a fact he's double that and more.  When it suits him, he can ignore the twinges in his joints and still act like a young man.  It lets him pretend that his potential is still resting just under the surface, waiting to be tapped.

'So, anyway,' he says.

'There's jam,' I reply.

'Strawberry?'

'I think so.'

He takes the jar from my hand, scrutinises it under the wavering candlelight.  'This is raspberry.'

'Is that a problem?'

'No, I just prefer strawberry.'

It's one implied criticism too much.  I've worked twelve hours today, and I ache.  I checked my till at the end of the day and I was so tired I nearly fell asleep while doing it. 

'If it's not good enough,' I say, 'maybe you should buy your own jam.'

Instantly, he's on the defensive.  He turns one of those long, wiry shoulders to me and sulks behind his book.

'I didn't say it wasn't good enough.'

'You didn't have to.' 

It's not the money that bothers me really, though there are days when I wish that handsome millionaires weren't in such short supply in Gowrie.  It's that I'm never the first thought he has.  There's always a baccy tin that needs topping up, or a mobile short of credit.  A while ago, I thought that I'd like to get a dog.  It would have been nice, a chance to go for walks together, rediscover ourselves a bit.  Just now, I don't think we'd cope with the expense, much less the rediscovery.

Michael lights one of his reed-thin roll-ups, eyes me warily.  I sense that he knew this was coming, has probably been rehearsing the argument in his head while he was waiting for me to get home.

'I'm a bit short of cash at the moment,' he says.

'Aye, I bet,' I say.  I don't have any reason to say it, except that he never has cash, and I'm fed up with coming home to find the meter empty and the house in darkness.

'What does that mean?'

I open the kitchen cupboard and am assaulted by the twin smells of damp and mould.  I stack the baked beans next to a tin of pressed ham.  There's a v-shaped dent in the top of the tin that I'm sure wasn't there when I picked it out.  'Nothing.'

'Nothing is something.'

I'm annoyed then, just wanting the right to be irritated without having to list the reasons.  I lean around the doorway.   'I told you.  It's nothing.'

He turns another page, avoids my eye.  The candlelight flickers.  'Jess, you know your problem has always been that you bottle up your feelings.'

There it is, the charge he has laid at my door for four of the five years we've been together.  I ferment the anger inside me, immediately proving him right.  I feel like a port barrel, my insides burning with the whiskey touch.  For four long years, I've been uptight.  If I told him what I really think, he tells me, I'd feel better.  Twelve hundred days and more spent searching for the words.  In the beginning, my mind whirled with the search while he just cupped my breasts and fucked me so hard that my eyes watered.

'I have a job coming up,' he says.

'Really?'  I'm surprised, and my voice betrays me. 

'Don't sound so shocked.'

For a moment, I'm contrite, and I want to say something nice, tell him I'm pleased for him.  But the feeling is coming back into my hands from where I was carrying the bags, and the knotted plastic has left painful red marks around my wrists.

'Does it pay?' I say.

I imagine his frown.  'It's an exhibition.  It'll be good publicity and it might lead to other things.  But I'm never going to be Damian bloody Hirst, right?  This isn't London.  I can't cut cows in half or sell our dirty bedsheets to some wealthy twat.  I'm never going to be rich.  You need to accept that and move on.'

Michael is a poet and performance artist.  He mostly does readings at festivals and occasionally shows photographs that he takes around the city.  A few years ago, he was commissioned by the tourist board to write about the new village of Scone.  He wrote about kings and the weight of their crowns, intending it as satire, but they missed the point and published it anyway.  It's the most successful thing he's ever done, and to this day he's still sore about it.

I finish stacking tins and try to let the anger go.  It isn't easy.  My insides are twisted and tearing at me like the handles of the carrier bags.  I feel more relaxed when there's a wall between us, when I can't see Michael's lips narrowed in that way they get when he argues – or worse still, when he demonstrates his superiority by refusing to argue.  The kitchen window is small and thin, and the band of light that seeps into my space is granite grey.

'Will you make me something?' he calls.

My mind is halfway to telling him to take a running jump out of the large lounge window, but I'm already next to the worktop and I don't have the energy left to argue.  I pull at the bread bag, tearing it open, and grab the cleanest looking knife from the grimy drawer under the sink.  For a moment, I test its weight in my hand.

'I don't want the jam,' he says.  'Did you get beans?  You could make beans on toast.  You're good at that.'

Even when he compliments me, Michael has a way of turning the words, exposing their edges.  We can't make toast without topping up the meter, and he knows it.  I reach out with my empty hand and stroke the spot on the wall where the ashen light falls.  For a moment, I watch the shadows dancing like puppets.  It's the smallest thing but for a moment, I'm just pleased that there's something I can actually control.
 
'I know it's a pain now but it won't be like this forever,' he says.  'I'll make it up to you when I have some money.'

I bite back every sarcastic reply that I think of and take a deep breath.  I just want something from him, some acknowledgement.  It was his work that inspired me to study local history, but he's long since lost interest himself.  I wonder if I worked harder, would he notice me then?  If I was smarter, if I could match his quick wits, would he respect me?  If it wasn't always easier to go along with what he asked, if I said “no” from time-to-time, where might we be now?

'Jess?  Are you listening?'  His voice, so sulky, petulant.  'The shop closes in a few minutes.' 

I want to see him then, this slender man I loved once.  When I step through the doorway he is studying his wristwatch in the candlelight.  The flame burnishes the links, making them glow, golden brilliance reflected in his eyes.  I stare at him as he stares at them, each of us locked into our movements as though everything set out before us is pre-ordained.

I turn back to my stone-coloured shadow in the kitchen and imagine a crown atop its head.  Michael thinks only of men-made-kings, but I'm interested in the women who became queens at Scone.  They're my project.  I'm studying them, learning about their pains and the indignities they suffered.  I know that expectation weighs more than any band of gold.

I am the epitome of calm as I take the ten pound note out of my pocket, unfold it, and place it down in front of Michael.  He looks embarrassed then, his skinny shoulders hunching down inside his rancid jumper.  'Do you mind going?  I've been getting the aches in my knees again today.  I wouldn't make it there before it closes.'

There's a strange pressure in my head, as though something is trying to escape but can't find a way out.  I should feel bitter or resentful, but I think of those queens and their steely resolve.  I channel their regal serenity as I take the electric card and the ten pounds, pausing only to think about how strange these simple items suddenly feel in my calloused palm.  A minute later, I am walking down the dingy stairwell, out of the front door and across the street.

A hundred yards past the shop, I reach Smeaton's Bridge.  The river below me runs thick and fast, like arterial blood.  I watch it for a few moments, and then I take the card out of my pocket and drop it over the side.  It bobs momentarily, a shrill square of white in the darkness, and then it rushes away forever.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Combatting Bullying in the Workplace - a guide for Younger Workers


It's anti-bullying week here in the UK!  With this in mind, the lovely folks at Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust asked me to pen a few thoughts on bullying in the workplace, with particular emphasis on younger workers.  This is a handy guide that you may wish to share with someone who you suspect may be being bullied at work.


Other resources: Anti-bullying.co.uk.

Trade Unions Congress website: www.tuc.org.uk.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Nanowrimo, and a General Update

I'd just like to begin this post by apologising, as it's been a couple of weeks since I last did an update.  There's not really too much of an excuse, seeing as I've been doing a lot of reading and a lot of writing.  Of course, there's been Nanowrimo, but some of my compatriots are not only successfully heading for 50,000 words, but they're managing to blog every day about their experiences.

In terms of writing, I've managed to meet my pre-Nano target of 25,000 words, and I'm confident that if I'd been able to stay with the project, I would have finished comfortably with days to spare.  Plus, it's been really nice to work on something other than my novel, and feel the excitement of a new project taking shape.  Before November, I'd been reading Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories and watching 'Vikings' on The History Channel, so I was really in historical fiction mode.  You might have read my own three-part starter from my own work, starting here.

While we're on the subject of historical fiction, why not check out the awesome theme music from the show?



While details about the first Viking Age are sufficiently rich and vague enough to throw up ideas for any interested writer, one thing that struck me is how the stories are very focused on male heroes and villains, and for that reason, I was keen to mix it up a bit.  Hence, my Nano project focuses on Runnmidr Sigurdsdohtor, a shieldmaiden from the eighth century.  She is the first daughter of a Jarl (the closest Viking equivalent to an aristocracy) and a tough, flighty teenage girl.

Married off at sixteen to the son of a nobleman from Norway whose father wants him sent far away from war, she is left at home when the rest of her tribe heads south to honour the obligations of their allegiance.  Her new husband, who is no older than her, is similarly frustrated by having been sent away.  He encourages the headstrong Runnmidr to steal one of her father's spare ships by exploiting her relationship with her oldest friend, who is apprenticed to the Jarl's shipwright.  Runnmidr and her husband ride with his retinue to England, determined to be raiders and bring home treasure from Christian lands.

Their initial sorties are successful, but a lack of judgement on Runnmidr's part sees her marching against a mercenary band with more resources than at first there seems.  She is captured, and despite several attempts to escape, is dragged into the life of the mercenary band.  She also meets their leader, Oswine of Rocdaele, and he gives her instruction in fighting skirmish battles rather than the regimented battles she was taught to expect as part of the shield wall.

As the pair learn more about one another, she realises that she has more in common with Oswine than she ever had with her husband, despite the fact that he is twice her age and more.  She admires his quick tactical brain and gregarious ways, while he is an admirer of her strength and determination, and is keen to persuade her to fight alongside him as he attempts to gain control of his family's former lands on the isle to the west.  However, when she receives word from a countryman that her brother has been killed and the Jotun father she loves so much has been sorely wounded, will she seek to return home to protect her family's legacy?

Hopefully that whets your appetite a bit - it was certainly fun and pretty easy to write, even if it does tend towards YA a bit much for my liking (note to self: add more pillaging.)  I'll update you once I've had a chance to review it, and maybe post an edited section here once I've organised my work under headings.
 
In terms of my reading, as well as having been through Bernard Cornwell, I had a chance to revisit George RR Martin's second 'Song of Ice and Fire' novel with my reading group, and I also finished Emmi Itäranta's 'Memory of Water'.  I'll publish a full review of that one soon, but it was a novel that bucked the trend for me.  I'm used to reading books that tail off as the author gets close to the finish and clearly tires of their subject matter, but everything good in that novel is composed into a powerful third act that subsumes the first two like no other book I've read since '1984'.  For the record, that's high praise indeed.


Finally, I've decided to spend some time concentrating on other authors I know based in Norwich who have been busy publishing their novels while I talk about mine in vague distant terms.  I have recently bought myself a Kindle and added Lucian Poll's tale of bloodsoaked horror, 'The Floors' to my collection.  I also have high hopes for Simon Poore's 'An End of Poppies' and 'The Last Englishman and the Bubble', which interests me for no lesser reason than that the main character bears my name.  Hey, there's a good marketing strategy - name your characters after people with giant egos, and let them do all the advertising for you!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Petty Kings, Part 3

I'll have to admit to a bit of a cop-out in the third installment of my Saxon chronicle, because this is a flashback in the life of a character we've already met.  In this format, I can play around a bit with presentation and pacing in a way that I maybe couldn't in a novel - but hopefully the writing will be good enough that people don't mind.  Oh, and on that subject...it's in the unedited, Nano format, so please don't be too critical at this stage...

Simon

'Times was hard back then. The harvests were forever being washed out by the rains, and near everyone went hungry. Incurable diseases of a hundred different types stalked the land. Orphans like you were many, children of lost parents, and it was said by some that the ghosts of those who passed still walk the broadland marshes at night, seeking those they knew in life.'

A couple of the girls screamed as Mrs Faber reached out for them with chubby fingers, and the sound broke the spell of the story she was telling. One of the youngest boys, a long-haired urchin with eyes that gleamed like jewels in the half-light, moved closer rather than further away.

'Tell us about the Mercians,' he said.

'The Mercians?' Mrs Faber replied. 'Simon a'Hawthorne, only you could want to hear about the Mercians when at any moment, the fearful fen denizens could sweep out of the meres and drag us all back to the peat bogs to have us for supper.'

The orphans of Ely gathered here in the late afternoons and the baker's wife told them stories. Almost all of the stories involved times of hardship and hunger, though Mrs Faber herself didn't seem to have been too badly afflicted by the world. A jovially rotund woman, she leaned down towards them from her place on the hearthside stool, her hearty features dusted liberally with flour.

As well as her stories and a spot in the warmest place in town, Mrs Faber was also good for crusts that had stayed too long in the oven. The orphans didn't mind. They knew that if they chewed long enough, almost anything would eventually become soft enough to swallow.

'The Mercian kings had ruled here for a generation, but a hundred years before, the Angles had ruled themselves. The Mercians had their own kings, sure, but they were little men, and we don't care to remember their names. The Angles...now, we had our own royal family stretching back five hundred years. Can you imagine that? They were called the Wuffingas.'

One of the girls raised her hand. 'Do their ghosts stalk the fens, Mrs Faber?'

'They probably have better things to do, being kings and all,' Mrs Faber said, adjusting her apron. 'Of course, they never had all the luxuries that we have now. Your spot by the fire here was probably better than all the houses they had back then.'

'What happened to the Mercians?' Simon asked, keen to hear more before Mrs Faber lost her way or her gruff, ill-tempered husband came through and dumped them back out onto the streets.

'The stories about the real kings had spread, and we weren't going to take it any more, were we? So the Angle men rose up, killed the little kings and we took back control of our own destiny once again.'


The time of the Wuffingas had ended. All family lines rise and fall, and Simon's had been no different. The unremarkable sixth of eight children, only half of whom eventually survived to adulthood, he had been barely eight years old when his mother succumbed to pneumonia during a harsh winter. His father, always a sickly man, had collapsed and died working the fields two years before.

'Who decided who the new king was?' Simon asked.


The baker's wife fixed him with a steely stare. 'Kings are ordained by God, aren't they?'

'But how does God know which man to choose?'

'Simon a'Hawthorne, don't you go getting any silly ideas about kings, now, or I shan't be talking about them any more. Of course God knows which man to choose, and he always picks the best, doesn't he?'

Mr Faber's voice boomed from a back room, making several of the less-hardy children jump.

'That King Eadwald was a bloody silly bugger,' he said. 'Taxes and more taxes. I'm glad Coenwulf had his hands cut off.'

'Enough, you,' his wife said, her voice becoming suddenly venomous.

'Who was Eadwald?' A number of small voices chorused. 'And who was Coenwulf?'

'Eadwald was an Angle king before you lot was born,' the baker's wife said, 'and the Mercians treated him terribly. Just be thankful that you din't have to see what they did to him when they came here.'

'They poked his eyes out and stuck them on the walls,' the baker said cheerfully, 'so he could always watch where you were going.'

The girls shuddered; the boys laughed nervously. Simon only listened.

'Those bloody kids are in here every day,' the baker boomed, pouring water on the fire to cool the oven so it could be cleaned before morning.

'They're just leaving.  Out, out now,' the baker's wife chided, slipping a crust into every pair of hands.

Simon was the last to leave. He remained in the doorway long after the footsteps of the other children had died away.

'Did they really poke the king's eyes out and put them on the wall?' he asked.

'Not just his eyes,' Mrs Faber said, busying herself with tidying the tiny space that the orphans had all been sitting in. When she looked back at Simon, he hadn't moved. His eyes glowed against his tiny silhouette.

'Why would they do that to a king?'

Mrs Faber shrugged. 'One man's king isn't necessarily the same as another's, is it?'

'So eventually they all end up stalking the marshes, then?'

Mrs Faber watched him carefully. 'Nothing scares you, Simon, does it?'

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Petty Kings, Part 2



The arrow came from a shadow between buildings on his right hand side and pierced the skin between the king's chest and shoulder. Æthelstan's yell of pain and the shift in his weight caused his horse to rear and dance. The heavy longsword slipped from the king's grasp, clattering to the floor, and only sheer willpower kept him in his saddle. Weaponless, his arm hanging limply by his side, the king clung on with his one usable hand and forced his horse in the direction of the second archer, who was frantically trying to pull a shortsword from a leather scabbard.



In desperation, Æthelstan dived off his horse, hitting his assailant in the midriff and knocking him to the ground. Before the Mercian could react, the king smashed the gloved fist from his good arm again and again into the man's face. Æthelstan waited until two full blows after the man had gone limp before he finally rolled away and stood upright. As the anger and excitement subsided, the pain in his shoulder spread rapidly through his body, settling eventually in his knees and shins. He began to shake violently, and only remained on his feet at all because he was able to lean against a nearby hovel. He cursed Leoric with his next ragged breath, knowing as he did so that he was actually cursing his own failure to notice the second archer. When he was done swearing, the King reached down to the arrow still protruding from his flesh and snapped it off halfway down the shaft.

When the darkness left his vision, the king stepped back out into the square, where his horse stood quietly, awaiting his return. He glanced around, fearful of further ambush, but when he saw no-one else, he quickly retrieved his sword and pulled at his horse's saddle to bring it back towards him. The beast looked huge from below, and the leather loop attached to the saddle to help him mount sat as high as his chest. With no small difficulty, Æthelstan eventually managed to regain his seat and fell exhausted across the beast's back.

The king had no way of knowing whether his bannermen had entered the village, or stayed upon the ridge to await his return. They would have seen Leoric head off into the smoke before him and perhaps assumed that they were intending to scout ahead and return – though Simon was unheralded for his sharp mind, being more clever than many would suspect, and Æthelstan felt sure that his most cautious captain would have at least sent some troops to provide support. If only he could know for sure.

In the distance, the smoke was drifting, like heavy curtains opening and closing upon the sky. The screams he had heard while travelling had died away. The burning smell that he had found so prevalent atop the ridge he barely noticed now. The wind seemed to be carrying him, rather than fighting against him. Even the pain seemed to be lessening, and the king felt his mind wandering, as if all of this were happening to someone else, far away. He resisted the desire to close his eyes, even for a moment, knowing that to do so might very well mean the end for him. When the desire got too great, he tapped the remains of the wooden splinter in his chest, and the pain woke him up again instantly.

The stallion trotted through the village, and without the presence of mind to direct him in any way, Æthelstan allowed him to dictate the route. He glanced around as he went, hoping for a glimpse of Leoric or one of his bannermen, but there was no-one in sight. To his right, there was a deep drainage ditch filled with reeds. Their willowy heads bowed in the breeze, reminding the king of the monks from Elmham, who came out in the winter snows to offer alms to the poor. The king fully embraced the idea of a Holy Father, but the bishops themselves troubled him; their silence was deathly, their eyes always watching, and no man escaped the all-seeing gaze of heaven.

Thoughts of heaven raised Æthelstan again. He may have been wounded, but he was not ready for the grave yet. He gritted his teeth and rode onward, and as he did so, he began to see shapes forming in the mist. Men on horses, carrying banners. Men with swords. Other men, falling before them. He recognised the banners. They were his own sigil, the red lion atop a shield split twixt yellow and black. The sounds of war came to him again, and then his heart leapt as he saw Simon, leading the column, stabbing at a fleeing Mercian soldier with his longsword. The battle was surely won.

Reinvigorated, the king kicked at the sides of his horse, wrenched at the reins and galloped towards his troops. When he was within range, he opened his mouth and called for his captain, only for his mouth to suddenly fill with blood.

He felt as if an arm had reached down and plucked him from the saddle at the same time as a great crushing weight fell upon his chest. He was thrown from his horse, tumbling end over end until he came to rest in the water at the bottom of the ditch, only the upper half of his torso protruding from the reeds. Æthelstan tried to look down, but his eyes weren't able to focus, and so he reached down with his left hand, and found the broken shaft of the pike that pierced him cleanly through the chest.

The king's head rested on the mossy turf next to the water, and his fading vision registered a man looking down into the dyke. His eyes were dark, and he was wearing black quilted armour that stretched as far as his knees. The two exchanged gazes briefly, and then the man tossed the remains of the broken pike down into the ditch. He turned as if to walk away, but then his eyes rested on something by his feet, and he knelt down, seeming to stop briefly and study something. He laughed, and kicked the object, which also ended up in the ditch with Æthelstan, though behind his head, where he couldn't see it. Then the man turned away, took the reins of the king's own horse, vaulted into the saddle in a single easy movement and made his escape along the path to the west.

The king lay there for a while, waiting for a friendly face to call down or for death to take him. Instead, time passed and left nothing in its stead. The ditch muffled all sounds and Æthelstan had no voice to call out or strength in his arms to pull himself clear. He knew better than most that a king was just a man, albeit one who oft grew stronger in order to carry the burden of his responsibilities. He did not fear death, but to lie here unheralded, to eventually be finished off by cold or wild animals or to drown in the dirty water running off the fields was more than he could bear. Tears collected in the corners of his eyes, and to stave them off, he thought of his magnificent wife, already too many years gone from the world, lost bringing the final boy into it. He thought of his daughter, Beca, who had acquired her mother's soft features and womanly figure, and how he had hoped to see her married soon. Finally, he thought of his eldest son Feralaed, and whether he would have the strength to be a king.

'Well,' a familiar voice said out of nowhere. 'Well, well.'

'Who's there?' called the king, though his voice barely registered.

 'Father, you seem to have lost something.' The crown of reeds from Æthelstan's head dropped in front of his eyes, and the king realised that this had been what the black-armoured stranger had kicked into the ditch after he had fallen.

'Leoric,' the king croaked, 'is that you?'

'Ironic,' Leoric said, sitting down on the bank next to the king with his knees pulled up to his chest. 'You wait behind so you can avoid the fight, and still end up lying in a ditch with a pike through your chest.'

The king tried to look up at Leoric. His son took off his helmet and the flaxen coils of his hair spilled out beneath, the colour of burnished copper. That, Æthelstan thought, was definitely a gift from his mother. He wondered if his long-dead wife would come to collect him when his time was done, and whether he would have to wait long. When he breathed, his chest rattled horribly, and he had to spit out another mouthful of blood.

'That does look like a nasty wound,' Leoric observed.

'Listen to me, Leoric,' the king said. 'You must... Feralaed...you must return home. Take the crown to him...swear fealty...hold the kingdom together.'

 'Ah yes, gentle Feralaed,' Leoric said, picking a flower that was growing nearby and holding it up close to his face for inspection. 'Feralaed, who is the answer to all our problems, and who will rule us magnanimously from his bedchamber at the top of our tallest tower.'

'Boy, you must do this. It's important. The men...need someone to follow. Blood is blood.'

'And blood will out,' Leoric said, echoing the phrase the king had used a hundred times before. He crushed the flower between his fingers and cast it aside.

'You can still...play a part,' the king wheezed, his strength failing. 'You are still a prince. Lead his armies...be his general.'

'But my ways are unbecoming of a prince, are they not?'

The king gritted his teeth as a wave of pain swept over him. 'Be the dagger at his side. Do the things that he cannot.'

'There are many things sweet Feralaed can't do,' Leoric observed. 'Have the courage to follow his convictions, for one.'

'What...do you mean?'

'Feralaed will learn to respect power,' Leoric spat. 'You know that power can never truly be given, it has to be taken. His blood is no more righteous than mine, and I will rule this land in his stead.'

'The Mercians are clever,' the king cried despairingly. 'They will exploit you...your weaknesses, if you turn on one another like dogs.'

'Don't worry,' Leoric said. 'My brother has never had the balls for a fight. I'm sure he'll see reason quickly, and I'll make sure that his dungeon is suitably accommodating.'

'Beca...' the king said.

'Will have her husband,' Leoric retorted. 'Someone of little influence, far away, who will never darken my door with his shadow. And as for 'Weard, if I ever see him again, I'll hang the little shit from my ramparts. I know that that at least will make you happy.'

The king's eyes closed, and he lay his head upon the ground, defeated.

'And now, father, I must away. There is much to be established, in my new kingdom. You'll forgive me for this, but if the men find you they'll take you to the druids, and the druids can do some very strange things. You should be a grave man, but your strength is true, and I can't take any chances.'

The king looked past Leoric as his son placed a hand on his head, pushing him down and holding him under the water. Æthelstan forgave him, even as the filthy water seeped into his weakened lungs. As the bubbles ceased, the last thing he saw was the eyes of his faithful captain, Simon, as he reached the edge of the ditch high above.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

International Award Winner!

 
I'm thrilled to announce that I've won the SMHAFF International Writing Award 2014! All of the shortlisted entries can be found in the festival's excellent e-book, which can be downloaded for free here.

Find out more about the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival here.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Petty Kings, Part 1

I've been a bit lacking in inspiration lately, but I recently dredged up and edited the start to an old Nano project from a year or two ago and thought I would share it with you. I'm fascinated by the time of the Heptarchy - the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that eventually joined together to form England - and I've always wanted to write historical fiction, though it would most likely end up being historical fiction with a few supernatural elements, because it's more fun that way! If people are interested, there's a lot more of it written, so I could always post more of it for your enjoyment. 

Æthelstan 

Twin plumes of smoke rose over the ridge in the sodden countryside, and the smell of burning thatch filled the air. Two pairs of horses' hooves thudded to the top of the ridge and surveyed the burning village in the distance.

'Bandits,' Æthelstan said.

'This should be sport,' his younger companion replied.

The older man gripped the reins tightly and patted his horse's flank. 'We should hold for Simon and the others.'

The younger man raised a quizzical eyebrow and snorted, sounding not unlike his horse as he did so. 'If we're lucky, the fires will still be burning when they arrive.'

'Your urge to fight without numbers at your side disturbs me, Leoric. The place for a bandit is at the end of a noose. Fight them in the open and even the lowliest man may score a lucky strike.' Æthelstan reached up to his head, righting a thin crown of twisted reeds that was knotted through his thick dark hair. 'If you cannot pick your battles, the crows will come for you soonest.'

'The crows come for everyone in time, father. I find it hardest to know numbers when I'm not close enough to count my enemies.'

'Watch your tongue, boy,' Æthelstan replied. 'I was young once, and I know that rush of blood. But for now, stay your strike if you would win your fight.'

'As you say,' Leoric shrugged. His son's indifference infuriated Æthelstan. So arbitrary were Leoric's ways that he could just as easily slay a fallen enemy or cuff him around the ears and walk away laughing. It wasn't just that that frustrated him, though. Æthelstan was sweating from a hard ride, but Leoric looked as though he was taking his horse out for a morning trot.

'Your ways are unbecoming of a prince,' Æthelstan warned.

'But becoming of a king-to-be.' Leoric turned his horse and looked his father directly in the eye. The boy pulled his sword from his scabbard with a whisper, and assumed a fighting stance. Despite himself, the king smiled. Now, his son looked every inch a man. His limbs were long, and his balance was more sure than any other man in Æthelstan's personal guard.



'Remember, you're still not too old for me to give you a thrashing,' Æthelstan said.

'A foolish thing to say to a man with a sword,' Leoric grinned.

'Aye,' Æthelstan agreed. 'But you are not a man yet, much less a king. Your brother is first in line.'



Æthelstan watched the flush of anger spread across his son's face, as he had known it would. 'My brother,' Leoric said, laughing bitterly. 'Feralaed is a coward and a queer. You're so willing to defend his place in the line, but where is he while his kingdom burns? Why does he not put aside his chains and his finery and ride alongside us?'

'A king uses more than a sword to defend his kingdom,' the older man said. 'And while you know a lot about war, you would do well to learn about tactics, stewardship, and diplomacy.'

The prince sneered, and the heavy longsword in his hand sliced the air before him. 'Show me the words that can stop a blade.'

'Whether you like it or not, boy, blood is blood, and blood will out. One day, Feralaed will rule the Angles, and your knee will bend to him as an example to every other man in the kingdom.'  Hoofbeats sounded in the far distance behind them, and Æthelstan added, 'That assumes you're still alive to see his coronation.'

The younger man glanced at the column of men in the distance, their family crest leading at the front, and muttered something that Æthelstan did not hear. Then he turned his horse in the direction of the village and said loudly, 'Enough of this. I'll not stand idle while you watch bandits raze our land.'

'Stop, you damned fool,' Æthelstan said, but Leoric would not be deterred. Sword still in his fist, the prince let out a war cry and began galloping towards the village. After a few seconds, he became lost in the smoke and mist below.

It was the king's turn to curse under his breath. Simon and the rest of his militia were less than a mile away and they were approaching swiftly, but Leoric would reach the village in less time than it took them to get to the ridge. Against any lone enemy, Æthelstan knew that Leoric could hold his own, but inexperience might see him ride against multiple enemies at once, and he could not allow his son to die so ignobly. He pulled at the reins, kicked his horse forward and raced downwards into the billowing clouds.

As he made his way across the boggy marsh, the king realised quickly that sprinting the entire distance to the village would be impossible even for a master horseman. At any moment and without warning, the ground gave way to knee-high banks or sudden dips where rainwater had collected deep enough to drown a man who fell from his steed. There was no way to identify the route that Leoric had taken; the ground was far too wet to hold footprints. The mud sucked at the hooves of his horse and with every step they took, they seemed to sink deeper into the mire. Æthelstan wished again and again that he had waited for his retinue before advancing. If he turned back now, they might pass within ten arm lengths of him without ever knowing he was here. An image of Leoric lying somewhere on the field, too badly injured to cry out, spurred him onward.

After a minute or two, the stubbornness of the terrain gave way to a winding trail that moved ahead and to the right. Æthelstan followed it, hoping that his son had found it and done likewise. He thundered onwards, until a shadow reared up out of the smoke ahead.

'Father!' Leoric called.

'You bloody idiot,' the king said, pulling up alongside him. 'If it wasn't for the memory of your late mother, I'd damn well kill you myself!'

Leoric ignored him. 'Father! These aren't bandits! They're Mercians!'

'What?' Æthelstan roared. Leoric pointed to a house framed with fire in the distance. A man lay on the floor in front of the open doorway, dead from a blow to the head. The attackers had clearly encountered resistance. True enough, the king saw the dead soldier's tabard, a yellow cross on a sky-blue background; the bannermark of his rival and enemy, Coenwulf of Mercia.

'This is not a raid,' Æthelstan said. 'It's a declaration of war.'

Leoric looked at him grimly. 'War or no war, nooses will still serve them.'

'The noose is too good for these bastards.'

The king drew his sword and moved round the side of the house where the smoke was thickest. He heard a rumble over his shoulder and then Leoric was past him, his black mare heading for the inn to the west. Æthelstan spurred his horse onward.

The king broke through into clean air in enough time to see Leoric hurtling towards a small group of Mercians backed against the wall of the inn. The one closest to him reacted most swiftly and readied an arrow, but Leoric was quicker still, hacking a wide hole into the man's chest. Æthelstan followed up, but before he could get close enough to join the fight, Leoric had already cut the other two down.

'Not bad,' Leoric said, after a brief pause to catch his breath.

'A good start,' the king said. 'My bannermen will be here soon. We should try to meet up with them.'

'More waiting, father? I thought the battle might stir that old blood of yours a bit. But you disappoint me, yet again.'

Æthelstan looked at his son, and his anger grew. 'Enough then. I've chased you halfway across the kingdom so you get the joy of horsewhipping a few bandits, and a chance to hone your skills in relative safety in preparation for the day you lead an army. If you want to waste that chance, let it rest on your own neck. I'll not throw my life away for you.'

Leoric circled his horse, then growled and disappeared into the smoke once again.

The king shook his head and started back the way that he had come. If his bannermen had travelled the same path that he had, they would advance on the village at any time. The land sloped downhill, so he decided to move around the other side of the inn, hoping that it would give him a better view of the scene before him. A number of pitch-soaked hay bales were smouldering against the side of the building, raindrops hissing around them. The king moved carefully around them and out into a square with the stone walls of a small well in the centre.

A gust of chill wind lanced the king as his horse moved slowly into the square. A number of bodies lay on the path that led beyond to the hovels in the distance. Blue-clad soldiers made up only a handful of their number. The villagers had paid a far greater toll. Women and children, the elderly, all had been served equally in this bloody melee. Some people had been cut down from behind, their backs and legs slashed. More still lay face down beyond them, their bodies raked with arrows. Only the fletchings stirred, moving slowly with the breeze.

So complete had been the stillness that even the smallest movement in the most peripheral of vision drew the eye. That, and the fact that Æthelstan had not survived a dozen battles in his lifetime by not following his instincts. It was indeed the smallest movement, but he leaned to one side nonetheless and the arrow which would have struck him in the chest glanced off the leather padding on his shoulder.

Æthelstan's horse wasn't the swiftest in his stable, but it made up in sheer vigour what it lacked in speed. A single leap carried it three-quarters of the distance across the square, and the king's longsword did the rest. The archer was cleaved from right shoulder to left hip with a single swing, and both halves of him fell away, soaking the ground with cruor.

So gratified was he with the ferocity of his strike that the king never saw the second arrow coming.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

On Worldbuilding - Guest Post by Lesley Smith, author of 'The Changing of the Sun'



In my previous post, some of you may recall me making reference to my friend and fellow author Lesley Smith, who publishes her debut novel, 'The Changing of the Sun' on 7 October 2014.  I'm thrilled to announce that Lesley has agreed to give away a paperback copy of her novel to one lucky reader of this blog, so if you'd like a copy, please send a message containing your email address to my Facebook page or my Twitter (a DM is fine in this instance) by the end of September.  One entry will be drawn at random from those received and the winner will be notified shortly after.


On Worldbuilding

My inner architect loves world building, it’s an ordered, logical process which pays off if you do it well.  If the foundations are strong, are balanced, it pays off later on.

The starting point for my whole trilogy was a solar storm.  Here on Earth we’ve had a few over the last couple of years and we know what they are and the damage they can do.  But how would an alien planet with a technologically-inferior society survive?  How would they even know what was coming … what if someone remembered seeing the event during a future time? What if someone the locals might think of as a deity decided to walk in a mortal skin to lend a hand?
 
I did my degree in theology and religious studies, with a year doing Classics as well.  I learned about other people’s faith even as I was finding my own and, I think, had my gender been different or I was born somewhere else, I would have become a child of the cloisters or a priest.  I went to Japan and was bowled away by the beauty of Shinto but also by the balancing of religions within their society, there’s a saying which says you’re Shinto when you’re born, Christian when you marry and Buddhist at death.  I’ve always liked that idea that you can be whatever you want to be without needing to hedge your bets or support one faith or another, each has its place within society and life.

My roots of Kashinai culture came from Japan: I visited temples in Kyoto, Shinto jinja in Sendai and Tokyo, a church in Takatsuki and the holy city of Tenri, founding place of a New Religious Movement called Tenrikyo. 

My first sight of the real Japan actually was on the bus from Narita. It was a simple torii gate and the melting pot of religions left an indelible mark on my soul: I went further into Kamigamo Shrine than even the Emperor of Japan, I listened to the yamatonokotoba, the ancient ritual words, walked in the womb of the earth under Kiyomizudera and, after a spontaneous invitation by a kindly young priest, watched a small child being named and presented to the tutelary kami.

Religion, faith and ritual, they will always find their way into my fiction.

So why did I make my seers, and my main protagonist, blind?  There are lots of blind seers in Classical mythology, characters like Tiresias or Odin, who lose their vision (either partially or completely) but gain supernatural knowledge.  It’s a trade off, in some ways, and while in Japan I discovered native shamanesses called itako (巫子): young women, usually blind, who could speak with spirits, who could act as barriers between the world we live in and the ones beyond.  They learned scriptures by rote, they led aestic lives and had positions of respect in their communities.  Now, the vestiges are left by miko, who still do sacred dances, the last shadows of their original roles as powerful religious leaders.

When I started writing Changing, I knew I wanted to make this idea of blind female seers, the Oracles of Aia, an important part of the story.  I knew the basics of the mythology and, while it’s briefly mentioned in Changing and the prequel, once upon an age before there were dozens of oracles, living amongst their own communities and guiding them independently. 

By the time of the novel, however, the Aian Order has become strictly institutionalised.  Validity means being tested, meant living with others in a tower away from those who they served, appearing only on the holy days at new year when the sisterhood would walk a prescribed route through the city.  The last oracle to refuse to come to the capital, to the city of the Disembodied Goddess, met an unpleasant fate because the current High Oracle can’t face the idea that, one day, she must pass the mantle on.

Changing is about stepping up when you want to run away, about speaking when everyone wants you to be silent.  The role of an oracle is never an easy path, there will always be people who either want to doubt or can’t face the truth, but if enough people work together and have faith, then they might just be able to save themselves from extinction.  The Kashinai made a leap of faith, most of them anyway, and it’s going to ripple down through their history and the second and third books in the trilogy.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Location, Location, Location

Picture two people having a conversation.  In this theoretical situation, you can see their lips move, but not hear what they are saying.  What are they talking about?  Is their mood upbeat, sombre, reflective?  How do you know?


Picture them at the top of a penthouse suite above a vast metropolis.  Not just anyone can afford to travel to big cities, and access to penthouse suites is generally reserved for those with the deepest pockets.  So, we immediately know something about our characters before we have heard them speak a word - possibly they are relatively wealthy, are here by accident, or are here as a result of nefarious design.


Now picture them walking through a tribal village on the fringes of a desert.  How are their mannerisms, their appearance, different in your mind from those in the first example?  Immediately we can see that the topic of their conversation is likely to be different from the characters in the first example, even though we can't hear what they are saying.

This example teaches us that setting in stories can be a powerful tool for a skilled author.  Want to write a romance?  You need a setting where romance is feasible to your readers.  There's a reason why Mills and Boon tend not to set their stories in dank catacombs or sewer systems.  If you are writing a noir detective novel, your gumshoe's office had better be a dingy office with heavy blinds (intense sunlight doesn't help capture the mood.)


So in much the same way that the first impression of a character can be defined by their appearance, their name or their actions (often all three), the first impression of the mood of your story is defined by the setting.  This gives you the chance to employ the reader's senses to pull them into your narrative.  A good writer can capture the autumnal shades of New England, stand besides you as you listen to the bond traders calling to one another on Wall Street, or make you wrinkle your nose at the smell of Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market.

Of course, many authors embrace their setting, creating entirely new worlds from scratch with a quick shift in their imagination.  Many readers will be familiar with the geography of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, or know that Rivendell is an Elven outpost in Tolkien's legendarium.  My friend Lesley Smith is set to shortly release the first book in a new fantasy series, 'The Changing of the Sun'.  The new worlds from her imagination feature their own unique calendar system complementary to Earth's, and necessitate a small band of heroes setting out across a desert in order to secure their survival from a forthcoming cataclysm.  In her novella, 'The Whispers in the Desert', the rawness of the desert bursts forth into lush cities built around water, and the characters feel natural in their environments.

Just setting an alien story on a alien world isn't enough to guarantee a devoted reader base.  The worlds we create must have their own logical consistency to be believable - unless the intention is to make them deliberately nonsensical, as is done to great effect in Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'.  Assuming that we wish readers to believe our setup, we must understand a few of the basic tenets of world building.  People unite into countries and develop their own shared sense of values.  Cities form for reasons - those of necessity, trade, religion or geopolitics.  This isn't to say that new authors should be afraid to create, but readers will be more inclined towards places that are logically consistent.  World building is a topic that deserves a longer post in its own right, and I may decide to explore this in more depth in future.

Writers who prefer to focus on characters may find it easier to use existing locations, and with good reason.  Modern romantic fiction (particularly that within the 'chick-lit' subgenre) tends to focus on character, and for that reason it makes sense to use an existing location that readers know or aspire to visit.  Popular locations for such books include Paris, city of light and love, London, with its long cultural history and New York, with the perpetual glitz and glamour that comes with being a regular fixture in Hollywood movies.  One need only mention the names of these cities and shopping, cocktails, high fashion and classy debauchery all spring instantly to mind.  For readers looking for a path less wandered, there are many exotic joys in writing set in Asia, Africa or South America.

You may not be from exotic locales or well-known places but you may still wish to set your story in a location that you know and love.  Literature has many examples of books that have made otherwise anonymous locations into world-famous destinations - probably the most famous is Victor Hugo's 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', which turned the humble cathedral on Île de la Cité into one of the most famous religious buildings in the world.  One of the central themes of the novel is that way that mankind passes ideas down the centuries through art and architecture, and in doing so, Hugo makes Notre Dame a character within the novel.

Setting, as the Hunchback makes clear to us, is about far more than the building, country or world your novel is set in.  Setting also gives us our sense of time, and can be used as a lens through which to view societal and cultural norms.  Much of the conflict in classic novels comes from characters with minority backgrounds who generate conflict simply by existing within these spaces - think Tom Robinson from 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.

We've seen ways to use locations to drive your stories, and even how you can you can use your stories to make somewhere close to your heart known to your readers.  We've also seen that setting isn't just a backdrop, it's a powerful tool for anchoring your characters in a particular place and time, simultaneously allowing us to explore their motivations and create the conflicts that drive the narrative.

Where will your next story be set?

Monday, 25 August 2014

Secret Cinema, Digital Revolution, City of Stories and much more...

I hope those of you who've been used to getting regular updates recently will forgive me for taking a couple of weeks to update.  It's been a busy time and I've taken the chance to get some R & R in while I've been away from work.

So what have I been up to?  For starters, I've been spending time in London, and I've been to see both the Secret Cinema's live action screening of 'Back to the Future' and the Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican.

Digital Revolution was something of a box of tricks - it began with a trip through the history of gaming, the exploration of electronics and electronic interaction as art and an organ keyboard hooked up to play the relevant note from any one of dozens of live-streaming radio stations. A specially recorded Will.i.Am track was captured in a visual medium as programmed instruments played the track.  There were also games you could control with your mind and even a sneak peek at Lady Gaga's levitating dress.

It's tremendous fun, and good value compared to many similar London exhibits.  There's still a fortnight left, so go and see it if you can.

The Secret Cinema event turned out to be good fun too, given that the lead up to it was something of a fiasco for a variety of reasons.  The venue turned out to very close to the Olympic Park at Stratford, a part of the city I know well.  Hill Valley was faithfully and attractively reproduced , the live action parts of the event were well presented and even the rain held off as the night progressed.  Sadly, organisers did miss out on a bit of a trick with merchandising, and the comic book shop, record store and clothes store were all small and understocked.  Next time, they would d better to form partnerships with specialist stockists to the benefit of all parties.

One of the success stories of the night was the synth band 'Avec Sans', who were playing in one of the bars attached to the event.  Their video 'Hold On' is below - I can recommend them as great artists and visual entertainers.




I also had the chance to attend the first of twelve weekly 'Norwich - City of Stories' events entitled 'Through the Eye of the Beholder'.  Part sponsored by Norwich Writer's Centre, this was an evening of music, fine food, poetry readings and stories from noted local writers, including several alumni of the University of East Anglia's illustrious creative writing program.  Best of all, my partner Melissa Brown performed a reading of her poem, 'The Library.'


In other news, my Twitter buddies Wordnerd, Melindrea82 and I will be working to complete Steampunk submissions for 'The Lost Worlds', a forthcoming anthology for Eldritch Press.  We've given ourselves until October 1, and I'll provide an update on our progress ahead of news about Nanowrimo 2014, as well as a forthcoming review of the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel, 'The Doomsday Book' by Connie Willis.