Posts belonging to Category creative writing

Guest Post! Laura Anne Gilman on the origins of ‘Silver on the Road’.

Since I’m going to be madly busy this next week with VATstuff, I’m extremely grateful to Laura Anne Gilman for offering to entertain and intrigue you all with these insights into her new book, Silver on the Road which is already attracting enthusiastic reviews.

For those of you yet to discover and enjoy her work, check out Laura Anne’s website. Not only is she a talented and inventive author, her background in publishing means she also talks a great deal of good sense about all aspects of the book trade.

So, without further ado, over to Laura Anne!

After the Writing, the Classification (and the Understanding)

A few years ago, I might have been the last person you expected to write a Western. The genre wasn’t one I particularly favored, despite having personal experience with horses, guns, and sleeping outdoors. Or perhaps because of all that, who knows? But Westerns as a genre didn’t draw me in. And Weird West? I’d read it, liked it, but most of the tropes left me cold.

But…. There’s a reason we never say “never.”

In 2011, I wrote a story called “Crossroads,” followed the next year by “The Devil’s Jack.” They were strange little stories, in a vaguely historical, vaguely high prairie setting. But I quickly realized that the next story – originally called “A Town Named Flood,” wanted to expand into a novel – a novel set in a mostly-recognizable west-of-the-Mississippi North America, circa 1801.

“I’m writing a Western?” I asked my agent, somewhat bemused.

“Nope. You’re writing an American fantasy,” he responded. “Like American Gods, only … not.”

I backed away quickly from the comparison to American Gods, because, well, who the hell needs that kind of pressure? But his comment made me think. SILVER ON THE ROAD is set in the American west, yes. And there are horses, and guns, and conflict between native residents and immigrants, and all the tropes that we recognize as “Western.”

And magic, so that by default tips it into the “Weird West” category.

So… I was writing a Western?

Yes … and no. For most of us, the “Old West” calls up images of cowboys and sixguns, of stagecoaches and saloon girls, gold prospectors and cattle ranchers. But those images come from 1820 and later. In 1801… well, I’ll spare you the historical neepery, but the territory west of the Mississippi didn’t look anything like that.

But the Western story isn’t only that. It’s the story of our histories, our cultures, and our myths… and I use the plural of those words intentionally. Because America’s history isn’t simply the United States – it’s Canada and Mexico as well, started long before the first European immigrants landed on the eastern (or southern) shores, and our shared identity is not simple one, the pot only half melted together, and half clumped together stubbornly, parts overbaked and the others still painfully raw.

SILVER ON THE ROAD is a fantasy of that North America. Not the quest of empires, or the clash of armies, but the movement of people, and the ever-shifting thing we call a frontier, where one person’s home becomes another person’s hope – and conflict. About dividers and demarcations – and the human urge, and need, to cross over them.

And a Western – and yes, Weird West, invoking and involving the tropes of the restless frontier, and twisting it – was, for me, the only way to tell this particular story.

So it looks like my agent and I were both right.


Bristolcon, and the Universal Monster Template Theory Reprised

This weekend saw this year’s Bristolcon, and it was another excellent event, thanks to the hardworking team behind what’s now established as an outstanding regional convention in the UK calendar.

I heartily recommend it; both for long-time fans and also for those more recently come to SF&F who’re wondering about investigating the convention circuit. It’ll offer the former an interesting and entertaining programme that’s very much not the usual suspects and subjects, as you’ll see from this year’s website. At the same time, it’s a compact, friendly and very accessible event that’s not going to be overwhelming for a first-timer in the way that, potentially, a big convention like an Eastercon can be.

Next year’s event is on October 29th, with Guests of Honour Fangorn (artist), Ken McLeod and Sarah Pinborough (authors). Mark your diaries and make your plans accordingly.

Anyway, back to this year’s convention, I thoroughly enjoyed contributing to discussions on censorship and to a wide-ranging exploration of alternate history within speculative fiction. It was also great to catch up with friends as well as to meet new, interesting and enthusiastic readers and writers – not least to remind me that my life really isn’t going to be all about EU digital VAT for ever and a day. It was also fabulous to find so many people sharing my enthusiasm for the new Southern Fire ebook cover.

The last panel I sat in on, in the audience, was ‘Here be dragons’, discussing mythological creatures in fantasy and going far beyond dragons to discuss ones that have been overused and those which deserve more exposure. On a personal level I was pleased to see heads in the audience nodding as the panel pretty much agreed that today’s friendly, conversational, telepathic and pet dragons have gone as far as anyone needs to in denaturing the original scary beast. Because if anyone’s looking for devasting dragons, The Aldabreshin Compass ebooks should be just what they’re wanting…

There was also some discussion about humanity’s enduring fascination with and relationships with monsters, but as is invariably the case, there were so many interesting threads to the conversation that not all could be fully explored. I immediately thought of The Universal Monster Template Theory – but with time at a premium and since an audience member expanding at length on something tangential to the panel’s main discussion is bad convention manners, I held off sticking a hand up. That’s what blogs are for, after all.

So for those of you who didn’t come across this when I blogged about it before – because checking back, I discover that was in 2007! – here’s the Universal Monster Template Theory Bearing in mind that I’m summarising from a talk I went to given by cryptozoologist Richard Freeman who was in turn summarising the presumably considerable quantities of thought and argument that went into developing this.

Cryptozoologists are always interested in myths, since they seek out mythical creatures, and it has become apparent to them that wherever one goes in the world, there are common themes in monster myths. The six universals are giant hairy humanoids, little people (often magical), big mysterious dogs, big dangerous cats, giant snakes and flying predators – which are variously expressed as birds or dragons which also encroach on the giant snake theme.

One puzzle about this is while fear of enormous lizards or predatory cats may be perfectly reasonable in areas where crocodiles or tigers are part of the local fauna, these six archetypal monsters crop up everywhere, including in places that have never had even faintly relevant animals. And anyway having myths developed from local animals still doesn’t explain the persistence of giants and little people in folk lore.

At which point, we move to Madagascar, a place of considerable interest to cryptozoologists on account of its unique wildlife, its extinctions (or not) and its rich mythical culture. One puzzle there for zoologists, crypto and otherwise, is a particular behaviour of lemurs, which are, please note, a primitive primate, and as such, creatures whose overall behaviour is primarily instinctual rather than learned.

As I discovered recently visiting ‘Monkey World’ primate rescue centre in Dorset, lemurs and tamarinds can still successfully parent offspring even if their own prior treatment has been appalling and they were captured or separated from their own parents too young to have observed their own kind raising infants. Unlike the higher primates like chimps, orang-utans and gorillas; those seized as infants and separated from their own kind prove incapable of successfully mothering their own offspring.

Bear that in mind as we focus on the specific lemur behaviours which fascinate cryptozoologists. If something blots out the sun, be it a cloud or a plane or anything, lemurs will freeze and exhibit classic prey-animal-not-wanting-to-be-eaten reactions. But there’s nothing flying around Madagascar that is remotely big enough to carry off a lemur, and certainly not one of the largest species, but even the biggest animals exhibit exactly the same response.

But recent fossils discoveries have shown a truly massive eagle once lived there, umpty-thousand years ago. So it’s suggested that this prey-animal behaviour in lemurs is a very ancient instinct, carried over from the days when something could indeed swoop out of the sky and eat them.

So we return to the persistence of the six universal monsters in human myth. The theory goes that all these stories have grown out of humanity’s common subconscious because Homo Sapiens still has primitive instincts lurking in the most basic bits of the brain.

When we were Australopithecines living in the African savannah there were indeed other hominids/primates bigger and smaller, who didn’t make the evolutionary cut. There were creatures akin to Gigantopithecus as well as little hominids like Homo Florensis. Those Indonesian discoveries happened since I heard this talk, and I imagine had cryptozoologists hopping up and down with excitement.

At about 4’6″, our remote ancestors were certainly preyed upon by big dogs, big cats, giant snakes and big eagles all quite capable of carrying us off – these megafauna are in the fossil record along with the humanoid variants that similarly died out, and together with plain evidence of Australopithecines being eaten by such things.

That’s the theory anyway. Make of it what you will. I certainly find myself wondering what role this might be playing in the ongoing mythmaking about monsters which still goes on around us today. Does this lie behind the enduring belief in the Beast of Bodmin and other such creatures? Has Gigantopithecus morphed into Bigfoot in the popular imagination while instinctive fear of small hominids has evolved into tales of alien greys?

And have a rather wonderful picture of a lemur from our visit to Monkey World.


Links to three things well worth checking out thanks to my fellow writers

Well, my plans for the week were comprehensively revised when a Treasury meeting came up at short notice. So that was Monday afternoon and Tuesday claimed by VATMOSS and EU digital VAT issues. Story of my life at the moment…

Thankfully the Internet is full of fascinating things courtesy of my fellow writers.

Like this fabulous cover reveal from Stephanie Burgis for her first adult historical fantasy novel. It looks intriguing – that’s both the book and the cover.

Meantime C.E.Murphy is thinking about writerly advice and procrastination and suchlike. Do go and find out what she means by ‘just putting the handles on cups’.

Catie’s also hosting a great guest post from Chaz Brenchley about his new Patreon project. Find out what’s happened since he had this thought…

“Y’know, if Mars were a province of the British Empire, the Chalet School would so have a sister foundation there…”

It’s already established in the canon that boys are sent home to the great boarding-shools of England; but aethership journeys are expensive, and space is at a premium. Of course they’d want to educate their girls locally, oh yes…

(And if the notion of Mars as part of the British Empire, and’Chalet School’ means nothing to you, that’s explained as well).

So that’s enough to be going on with, until later this week when I will finally make good on all those long-held promises of new material about the Aldabreshin Archipelago! Honest!

Hugo and Puppy thoughts

I’ve not blogged about the whole mess that’s been made of the Hugo Awards this year by overlapping cabals of the narrow-minded and entitled along with a clique of politically motivated, spiteful wreckers. I am extremely busy and besides, I’d largely be repeating the main points from this post on the Great SFWA Uproar of 2014.Why the SFWA Shoutback Matters

Also, a great many other thoughtful and engaged writers continue to explore the issues here. Two recent posts that I found particularly worth reading are

What’s the Point? Human Minds and Sad Puppies by Matthew M Foster, who shows remarkable level-headedness, considering this ego-driven exercise in malice and pique has effectively destroyed any chance of a posthumous Hugo for his late wife, Eugie More on that here.

BREAKFAST OF BULLSHIT: FUTUREPHOBIA, THE HUGOS AND THE INVENTION OF SF’S PAST by M D Lachlan – an emphatic deconstruction of the bogus arguments underpinning this nonsense – which have left so many of us utterly bemused and wondering just what SF these Puppy people have been reading and watching because their experience is light-years away from our own.

And now, back to my own work.

Musing on the Half-life of Humour

I’ve been reading ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’, a collection of non-fiction by the late and so very much lamented Sir Terry Pratchett. It’s an interesting read on many levels. There’s one trainee journalist I know who definitely should read it. But that’s not what this is about.

There’s reference made in passing to ‘Spem in Alium’, a famous piece of English choral music by Thomas Tallis, composed in 1570. I am incidentally a great fan of such choral music and sang in a very highly regarded church choir in my teens, got my Royal School of Church Music medals and we once sang in Salisbury Cathedral. But that’s not what this is about either.

The thing is, as an erstwhile Classicist, I can’t read ‘Spem in Alium’ without mentally translating it into ‘Hope in Garlic’ and inwardly giggling, as an inveterate fan of puns. It’s actually ‘Hope in Another’, for those of you who don’t have the Latin, as the late Peter Cook would say. (And how old do you have to be, for that reference to make any sense?)

Given I’m reading Terry Pratchett, I immediately think what a great Discworldian motto ‘Spem in Allium’ would make for a family of vampire hunters! Until they met the Count de Magpyr – but that’s a different story. ‘Carpe Jugulum’ to be precise. Which is another Latin based joke, of course, riffing on Carpe Diem.

So now I’m wondering, how long will these jokes be funny now that Latin is no longer taught in any widespread sense? Satirists like Flanders and Swann in the 60’s could get a roar of laughter in a packed theatre when they’re talking about newspapers on the ‘At the Drop of a Hat’ recording, and translate ‘O Tempora! O Mores!’ as ‘Oh, Times! Oh Daily Mirror!’ Could that happen today?

And this goes beyond Latin and indeed goes beyond humour. Just as Classics courses at universities now offer places to those with no Latin or Greek and include intensive language study from the start, so English Literature faculties are now including texts like the Bible in their first year courses because they can no longer assume that students will arrive with sufficient ‘cultural Christianity’ to engage as fully as possible with Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example. Is that a good thing, or a bad one? Or is it simply a thing to adapt to and move on?

What does all this mean for popular or indeed, high-brow culture? Who knows? But we can definitely see this shift taking place.

Not that this is a recent phenomenon, as evidenced by a conversation I had a few months ago with a Son. Son was passing through the lounge, where I was reading and there was a concert playing on the telly.

He halted, his attention caught by the music. ‘Oh, I know this – what’s it called?’
Me, not looking up. ‘Elgar, Nimrod.’
Son, affronted. ‘I only asked.’
Me, glancing up, slightly surprised. ‘And I only answered.’
Son, still indignant. ‘You didn’t have to call me a Nimrod.’
Me, putting book down. ‘What are you talking about? It’s the name of the piece – Nimrod, the mighty hunter. It’s by the composer Elgar.’
Son, baffled ‘How did that end up meaning a stupid person?’
Me, now equally baffled. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

Well, it turns out that for the sons’ generation, ‘Nimrod’ is indeed an insult and they have no knowledge of the Biblical reference to contradict it.

For that, believe it or not, we can thank Bugs Bunny. Back in the 1940s, he would refer mockingly to Elmer Fudd as ‘poor little Nimrod’, ‘what a Nimrod’ and so on. US cinema audiences began using it as an insult for buffoons like Elmer. With any knowledge of the Biblical origin? Who can say – but the mocking term was soon standing alone without any need for explanation, certainly in American English.

Given the exponential proliferation of pop culture these days, I am wondering where future writers, humorous and otherwise, will find sufficiently common references to draw on? What will they do, when there’s a distinct possibility that only a handful of people will get a particular joke? Use it or lose it?

What about the people who don’t get the joke? How will they feel? For instance, in the first Avengers movie, the use of a quotation from Ezekiel instantly identified those few of us who laughed out loud as the ones in the cinema who’d also seen Pulp Fiction. How distracting was that for the rest of the audience? Realising they’d missed something but having no idea what it might be. I still wonder.

I don’t have any answers. Anyone got any observations or thoughts?

Light and Shade in Epic Fantasy Fiction versus Grimdark

The ebook of The Assassin’s Edge sees The Tales of Einarinn series finally completed for e-readers. Preparing these editions has been interesting for many reasons. It’s been fascinating to revisit what I was writing a decade and more ago. I honestly had forgotten quite how gruesome, violent and downright spine-chilling some of the events in Assassin are. But even then, and even though the term wasn’t in general usage in those days, I don’t think the book can ever be labelled Grimdark. That’s true of the other epic fantasies I was reading at the time. Because there’s so much else in the Tales and other such series.

More than that, when I compare Assassin and its contemporaries to the epic fantasy novels I’ve been reading recently for review, the more convinced I’m becoming that Grimdark is devolving into a narrowing focus that’s stifling creativity in our genre. The more the current visibility bias in bookshops drives sales towards downbeat stories dominated by moody blokes in cloaks, the worse this will get.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating fluffy feel-good tales where everyone gets a happy ending and even the villains are redeemed with hugs and kisses. I’m all for hard edges in epic fantasy. Those were definitely a feature of books such as Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane and The Darwath Trilogy, Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarion and Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, all of which enthralled me as I turned to writing seriously myself. I vividly recall the visceral impact of reading David Gemmell’s Legend for the first time, swiftly followed by The King Beyond the Gate and Waylander.

These writers were absolutely what epic fantasy needed to stop the genre trundling down an equally stultifying path towards naive, consolatory fiction. I can assuredly see the value and appeal of tales where characters learn in the hardest possible way that life isn’t fair, virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded and you just have to get through hard luck as best you can. These are all aspects of real life and as I’ve said so often, realism is essential to give fantasy fiction a solid foundation.

That’s my first problem with Grimdark. Unrelenting and universal misery in a story is so often as unrealistic as non-stop rainbows and kittens. Unless there’s sufficient context within the world-building to explain why brutes behave as they do, all this violence becomes merely nasty set-dressing. Without some degree of exploration of what underpins it, Grimdark slides far too easily into tacky exploitation.

Yes, we can readily point to historical and contemporary real-world examples of innocent people living utterly wretched lives, but whole societies based on such brutality have always been an exception and rarely endure. More than that, even amid such horrors, individuals emerge time and again in whom the human spirit strives towards hope, altruism and defiance.

There will always be those who fight to light a candle instead of yielding to curse the darkness. It’s exactly that light and shade which makes for a far more realistic reading experience as far as I am concerned. Take a look at the works of Robin Hobb or Kate Elliott, among many others. They don’t shy away from the worst that humanity can do but they aren’t labelled Grimdark, even when their work includes toe-curlingly shocking events. Indeed, the impact of such brutality is heightened by the contrast of such darkness with the glimmers of hope and warm light of happiness elsewhere in their characters’ lives.

Which brings me to my next problem when books have an endless supply of shit, literal and metaphorical, for everyone to wade through. Pain and poo have their place among trials and tribulations which test and reveal character but the story overall must sustain and justify that. If there’s no narrative progression – and I don’t just mean some simplistic triumph over adversity, but some sense that events shape and drive the story – what’s the point? Grimdark too easily becomes a series of increasing misfortunes bombarding passive or at best reactive individuals who never take any initiative to change their own fate.

Why should a reader bother engaging with such a character or investing emotion in their fate when the unfolding narrative so clearly indicates that everything is going to go horribly wrong time and again? If any hint of light at the end of the tunnel is only ever an oncoming train, I find myself progressively distanced from the characters and their predicaments. This becomes even more pronounced when the central characters themselves are grim and brutal. When a reader can’t identify with, or simply doesn’t much care about, such people, the impact of their suffering is drastically reduced, further lessening engagement.

And incidentally, just in case anyone thinks I’m making a gendered argument here, the most recent striking example for me of all that I personally dislike in Grimdark is Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair. But this debate really isn’t about any one book or any single writer.

Epic fantasy needs light and shade to give it three dimensions. Detail and colour get lost in unremitting gloom. Thankfully there are plenty of current epic fantasy writers who understand this; Sam Sykes, Helen Lowe, Aidan Harte and Elspeth Cooper are just a few such authors whose books I can see on my shelves as I write this. Please feel free to flag up more in comments.

And equally, do feel free to speak up in favour of those authors who are most often labelled Grimdark; to explore different perspectives on such reading. I’m curious to know if, how and why you’re getting something rewarding that I’m missing.

But I’m still concerned about the artificial skewing of the market towards the Grimdark tendency, when a narrowing selection of books increasingly gets the bulk of promotion and front-of-bookstore presence. Not bad books by any means; I have found undoubted merits in novels that have exemplified the worst of Grimdark for me personally, yes, including Smiler’s Fair where I see plenty that’s positive in the book with regard to diversity, inclusivity and pacing. Even when the grimdarkery still kills that particular title for me. Though I have no problem with other folk reading and enjoying such books if they wish. Tastes vary after all.

But if disproportionate visibility means Grimdark increasingly dominates sales then retailers and publishers alike will look first and foremost for more of the same. That’s how the book business works. Then those of us with other tastes in reading will lose out if the authors we enjoy simply can’t sustain a writing career. If competition for that remaining market then sees Grimdark authors striving to outdo each other with ever increasing nastiness, ultimately those fans will lose out too, as epic fantasy hurtles towards that creative dead end. Just look at the way the serial killer narrative has devolved so far towards unredeemed ghastliness in a lot of recent crime fiction.

Thankfully we’re not there yet. So let’s do all we can to avoid taking that particular path by celebrating and promoting the full breadth and depth of epic fantasy fiction, past and present.

Welcoming Omenana – Africa’s New Speculative Fiction Magazine

This looks really, really interesting! Wole Talabi tells us –

As someone who has been reading stories from foreign spec-fic mags since I was a young teenager, I’m very pleased to have my own story Crocodile Ark published in the first issue of this new African Spec-Fic Zine – Omenana – edited by Mazi Nwonwu and Chinelo Onwualu.

I know many Africans who have been trying to write spec-fic without any clear sense of the genre and its forms (I also tried to do it with my now defunct The Alchemists Corner column on TNC but I was undirected and the audience wasn’t quite right). Mazi and Chinelo have now taken a small but supremely significant step with creating Omenana; giving a place for all the scattered, isolated pockets of African writers that venture into spec-fic in their blogs, skirt it in their books, and occasionally publish it in other magazines, to converge on and call home.

Click through to his blog to read the full article

Initiatives like this are absolutely central to enriching the SF&Fantasy genre with new voices and new perspectives. How often have you heard someone who’s drifted away from SF&F saying, ‘well, yeah, it got to be just the same old stuff coming round again…’ Honestly, it’s not about ticking political correctness and salving our liberal ‘Western’ consciences (yes, I do know Europe is to the north of the continent). It’s about finding genuinely new, different, exciting and thought provoking things to read. And along the way, learning that the view of Africa we see through the mass media is woefully simplistic, even when it’s not downright wrong (and often insultingly so).

So let’s get behind this! Click here for the pdf of Issue One! Trust me, you want to see that cover art…!

And look! A post that’s not about European VAT!

Oh, hang on…

This digital age is wonderful for giving a voice to writers like this – especially as new technology is enabling Africa to leap forward straight into online reading and distribution, which is so vital given the lack of infrastructure on that continent for transporting hardcopy reading material, from magazines to vital textbooks.

Digital… er, hang on, does that mean African writers are going to get caught up in all this awful VAT mess, if they’re going to try to sell digital downloads into Europe. Y’know, where most of their customers will be, especially for the Francophone countries…?

Shutupshutupshutup! Not everything is about bloody VAT, Jules, even if it’s taken over your life!

No, hang on. This really is a thing. So far we’ve been talking about how it might affect UK and US sellers and those from other more developed countries across Europe. It’s time we started talking about the impact on initiatives like this. It really matters.

So if you have any way to flag up this to organisations who can help us make a noise about the far reaching and damaging implications of these new EU VAT rules on initiatives in the developing world, please, do so.

The Classics, Science Fiction and Fantasy

It’s not only the fantasy end of the speculative fiction genre that owes an awful lot to history. So does science fiction – something recognised by the Science Fiction Foundation when they put together their 2013 conference “Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World”. The most recent issue of the SFF journal ‘Foundation’ includes a selection of papers from the event. As you can imagine, being a Classics graduate myself, these are of considerable interest to me.

What can looking backwards contribute to our understanding and enjoyment of the literature of the future and of imagined, secondary worlds? Granted, all contemporary writing ultimately has its roots in the Classics but surely the arrow of time should be pointing us in the other direction, to see where creative developments will take us? Not so. As far as I am concerned, a Janus-headed approach offers far more benefits.

Authors of prose fiction, graphic novels and those writing for the screen, large and small, continue to draw on the Classical myths and motifs that can so often provide points of contact and a common frame of reference for readers and viewers widely separated by geography, educational systems and life experience. This alone is argument enough for the continued teaching of Classical literature in our schools and not merely the works of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Where readers (of all faiths and none) can pick up an author’s subtle references and allusions, thanks to a working knowledge of writing from the Bible to the Epic of Gilgamesh, this significantly enhances their depth of understanding and thus their enjoyment.

Then there are two ways of looking the use of such myths and allusions. Firstly we can see how a writer adopts and adapts Classical motifs and find insights into their creative process and its evolution throughout an individual career. We can also trace their contribution to the development of archetypes such as the hero and the villain, both within SF and Fantasy and in wider literature.

Secondly we can analyse a writer’s choice and use of Classical elements in the light of their own life and times. Academic or amateur, every historian learns how interpretation of sources, from potsherds to plays, says at least as much about the onlooker’s where and when as it does about the material in hand. For instance, for more than a century, authors have used the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to explore problematic aspects of cultural and political hegemony from the heyday of British Imperialism to the Cold War and beyond. Of course, Science Fiction and Fantasy have always done this; using somewhere far, far away and long ago or far ahead, to stand outside the world we live in and thus gain a clearer perspective.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. That much is true. However studying the Classics and Speculative Fiction alike shows us time and again, that however different externals like hemlines and hairdos might be, humanity’s concerns remain constant and eternal. Love of family. Longing for security. Fear of the Other and of the Unknown. Tensions as to when the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few.

In the midst of our current uncertainties, with so many selfishly seeking to exploit political, cultural and religious differences for short-term gain, we can all benefit from the seeing how much more unites us than divides us, through the storyteller’s eye.

Historical Fantasy Event at Foyles Cabot Circus, Bristol on 12th November.

A quick update for those of you who prefer to keep in touch through the blog rather than Facebook or Twitter, I’ll be over in Bristol on 12th November for an evening event discussing the fun and frustrations of writing historically based fantasy fiction, and doubtless we’ll get onto actual historical fiction as well. It’ll be from 6.00 to 7.30 pm and it’s free, though booking is essential so they know what numbers they’re expecting. I’ll be chatting with Helen Hollick, Jack Wolf and Lucienne Boyce. You can find full details on booking here

Earlier that same day, I’ll be on Ujima Radio talking about the event and the subject.

I’m really looking forward to it all!

Creativity Within Constraints

Over the weekend, I read Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. This is one of The Austen Project books, wherein half a dozen very fine writers are (re)writing contemporary versions of Jane Austen’s novels.

I don’t mind saying my first reaction on hearing this was ‘but why?’ What could possibly be the point? The original books are there, readily available for reading, and by general consensus, are some of the finest writing in the English language.

Well, okay, not according to my stepfather. As a schoolboy in the steel and coal communities of South Yorkshire in the 1950s, being made to study Pride & Prejudice for O Level left him with a lifelong loathing of Jane Austen, the Regency, Bath – pretty much anything tangentially linked to a fiction that was so far removed from anything in his own daily life to that point and his primary interests in science. No, he’s not dumb – he went on to get a doctorate in Chemistry and more besides. The book just wasn’t for him.

So is that the point? Would a modern version be more relevant to him – or his current equivalent – and somehow get Jane Austen’s genius for unpicking human relationships in under the radar? Maybe so, but what’s in it for the likes of me, who’ve known and loved the originals for decades? I simply couldn’t see it, and honestly, only picked up Northanger Abbey because I’m such a great admirer of Val McDermid’s work. I started reading mostly in hopes of finding out what could possibly have convinced her to do this.

Wouldn’t it be just like one of those pointless shot-by-shot remakes of a popular TV show? For instance, I cannot see what’s to be gained by remaking Broadchurch as Gracepoint, even up to the point of using David Tennant with an American accent? Where’s the creativity in that? Though I’m equally down on remakes that diverge from their source material. I watched the first dozen episodes of The Killing and the further it diverged from the original which had held me so enthralled, the crosser I became. If they wanted to tell a completely different story, why not do something properly new?

On the other hand… I’ve watched both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish and English, and enjoyed them very much in different ways, while being very familiar with the book as well. Each production followed the source material closely, adapting it intelligently for visual rather than written story-telling, while the variations in performances did bring out different nuances and explore different aspects of that original. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s the world that got the ideal version with Daniel Craig and Noomi Rapace…

Besides that, I know for myself that finding the room for creativity within constraints can be great fun, as well as a worthwhile test of a writer’s skills. I’ve written a couple of short stories for licensed properties; Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. Those projects come with huge amounts of established detail and guidelines which you absolutely cannot break as an author. The challenge of doing something genuinely, satisfyingly new within those boundaries of characterisation, tone, background etc, is considerable – and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

The fun of working within the constraints of a theme is one reason why I’ve been involved in anthologies from Tales of the Ur-Bar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, Legends – just to name a few. It’s why I’m really hoping Temporally Out of Order reaches the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, so I can write up my idea… I’m also really pleased that open-submission slots are available for that anthology, because working within these sorts of boundaries can often be a valuable learning experience for new writers.

Well, I won’t spoil this new version of Northanger Abbey for potential readers. I will just say that my reading time was emphatically very well spent. This retelling is great fun and so well crafted on many levels. A reader won’t need the least acquaintance with Miss Austen to thoroughly enjoy an excellent contemporary story. Most impressive of all for me, there are twists to surprise even those of us familiar with all the ins and outs of the original.