Posts belonging to Category Unexpected things about Juliet

Mental health in fantasy fiction – where to draw the lines and how to do the colouring in?

A #HoldOnToTheLight post


The best fantasy is always rooted in reality and often it’s exploring harsh reality. A hundred years ago, a young officer invalided home from World War One began writing the poems and myths that would lead on to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote from his own experiences amid predominately male colleagues, struggling against brutal forces threatening to end the way of life that he cherished. His work reflects that – among other things. In the decades that have followed, the best fantasy fiction has continued such exploration and has expanded to encompass so much more.

Successive writers have considered the challenges faced by those marginalised through prejudice towards gender or race, and by those struggling with physical infirmity without sympathy or support – alongside eternal battles between Dark and Light and other classic themes. Where these stories are most readable and most memorable, their authors have avoided the pitfalls of worthy moralizing by making these challenges intrinsic to the narrative they’re creating. Nowadays increasing numbers of diverse voices across SF&F draw on their personal experience to give such stories ever more realistic depth and complexity.

So what about mental health? Because that’s part of our reality. Not just for writers by the way, or artists or musicians or anyone else creative. This idea that we must ‘suffer for our art’ or that there’s some mystical inspiration to be found in depression or anything else is one of the biggest myths out there. Along with all the authors I know, I’m at my most creative and inspired when I’m relaxed and content with my life. Just like everyone else.

Challenges to everybody’s peace of mind are constant and recurrent and surely that’s going to be same for fully rounded characters in fantasy fiction? How does a writer tackle this? By drawing on our own experience? This is where it gets tricky and not just because there’s still such stigma attached to admitting to depression or some other mental health condition, not least for fear that will be wholly and only how people will define you ever afterwards.

I’ve had two significant episodes of clinical depression in my life, requiring medication, therapy and support from qualified professionals. Thankfully that’s decades behind me now but from a writerly point of view, drawing on that experience would be problematic. Not for fear of giving away too much about myself, but because I clearly remember how being depressed is so horribly tedious. It’s dull, it’s monotonous, it’s never-ending (or so it seems at the time). It’s such wretchedly hard work to just get through a day and the only reward is another unutterably wearisome day exactly like it. All those metaphors about being weighed down with burdens, about struggling through a morass? Bunyan’s Slough of Despond? They’re classics because they’re so true.

None of which will make for fun reading, certainly in a major point of view character. Spending an entire morning summoning up the mental fortitude to leave the house to buy a pint of milk isn’t really the stuff of high heroics and thrilling adventure. So how do we square this circle of accurately reflecting life in all its aspects, good and bad, without writing a dismal story that sinks under waves of gloom?

Well, there’s including a significant character in the overall ensemble who’s got through depression and come out the other side. I have travelled that road twice after all, thanks to the help I received. That enabled me to identify the causes of my depression, both those specific to, and different for, each episode and the more deep-rooted, underlying issues common to both. More than that, I learned to spot early warning signs; to realise when I might be going down those same paths again. The mental wellness toolkit I’ve assembled as a result has enabled me to steer clear of the worst ever since.

That’s all well and good from a writing point of view and could potentially make for an interesting character arc, as long as it was unobtrusively integrated into the story. Done badly, it could be clumsy tokenism. It would also be horribly easy for writing that character to tip over into seemingly saying ‘See? If you can just pull yourself together, everything will be fine!’ Hearing that advice, however honestly well-meant, is one of the few things that can goad a depressed person to exhausted fury. That’s just not how it works. I remember that vividly too.

So what do we do, as writers? Give up, because it’s too difficult? But isn’t being a writer all about tackling the difficult stuff through fiction, in order to make sense of real life’s challenges? And representation matters, as we see proved time and time again, as SF&F moves however slowly and imperfectly towards a more genuine reflection of modern life, with all our variations of gender, race and physical capability. Don’t those facing the unseen challenges of mental health issues deserve to see their reality reflected too?

So let’s take a second look at those ways in which SF&F has developed beyond the “great deeds of great white men” point of view. Let’s look at successful examples of representation in fiction for women, for people of colour and so many more. These are invariably the characters for whom those issues are merely one facet of their lives and personalities. Yes, these things inform their choices, their relationships and thus, influence their role in a story, but these characters are never solely or wholly defined by that one overarching trait. Just like, y’know, real people.

So let’s write characters experiencing ups and downs in their mental health as honestly as we can. Let’s have them alongside people with chronic physical conditions, or recurrently disastrous love-lives, or dealing with something else entirely, not as tick-box tokens but as part of the gamut of believable people playing their part in our stories. Let’s write these characters with friends and support that can help them with their struggles, because that’s how things happen in real life. Let’s not sugar-coat their difficulties or underplay those challenges, because that’s real life as well. Progress towards mental wellness is so often very hard-won, and with setbacks along the way. Let’s never forget to do our due diligence and research, where we’re writing outside our own experience.

Then just maybe someone trying to understand the plight of a friend with depression will gain some helpful understanding. Maybe someone in the midst of those throes will see a glimmer of unforeseen light in that particular reflection of the darkness they know so well.

Is this the answer? Well, it’s one answer. I’m working my way through such questions and this is where I’ve got to thus far. No, it’s not easy to find constructive ways forward but I intend to keep trying, as well staying open to other people’s comments and suggestions. Because I know that’s what will make me a better writer.

About the campaign:

#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to and join us on Facebook

Where do we get our ideas from? Let me tell you about last night’s dream…

Seriously. This is what my head was full of when I woke up at 5.30 this morning.

In the near future, sports organisers have given up trying to stop the abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Not least because global media corporations have become dissatisfied by falling audiences, and the attendant loss of advertising revenue, as it’s become harder and harder for athletes to break records and win or lose is now determined by fractions of a second. So designer drugs to increase strength, speed, agility etc are now really big business.

Except it all goes wrong. A laboratory in Oxford genetically engineers a virus to take this sort of therapy to a whole new level. Alas, funding cutbacks and outsourcing vital services mean that things like bio-security are increasingly lax. The virus gets loose and spreads like, well, norovirus. The effects are hyper-aggression, driving violence in every unpleasant manifestation you can imagine. To the exclusion of all else. People forget to eat, only sleep when they collapse from sheer exhaustion, drink only when thirst overwhelms their other urges. So victims end up dead in about three weeks – if someone hasn’t already killed them first.

Survivors head for the hills – in this case, the Cotswolds. This is very much a middle-class disaster. The chapter where our heroes (male and female) are looting the Waitrose on the Botley Road, while trying not to fall victim to the howling mob outside is particularly Wyndham-esque. Which isn’t to say the deaths weren’t unpleasantly graphic. I dream in full colour, full-sensory imagery with added emotional content.

Now the whole thing becomes a post-apocalypse scenario rather than a zombie-variant movie. Our protagonists end up in a remote manor house, among other things, breeding horses, as they fight to keep the infected out and to drive off other groups of survivors. When the virus has burned itself out, they venture back into the city. Finding supplies is a secondary consideration to finding vital knowledge. So they head for the Bodleian libraries.

Since I dream in full colour, full-sensory imagery, the final scene was particularly effective: two people riding horses down Broad Street in the morning sun, the road strewn with decaying corpses, all the modern shops destroyed, while Oxford’s ancient, enduring architecture rises above it all. Hence the waking up completely and absolutely at 5.30 this morning.

So will I be writing this novel? No, not a chance. I have pretty much zero interest in zombie stories as a reader or viewer and have still less interest in writing them myself.

Besides, this isn’t overly original. I amused myself over breakfast by identifying the things my subconscious had knitted together. Including but by no means limited to:

28 Days Later – screenplay Alex Garland, director Danny Boyle
The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
Achilles’ Choice – Larry Niven/Steven Barnes
Nod – Adrian Barnes
Survivors – the original BBC TV series

See also – Jurassic Park, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and any number of other ‘Stuff Gets Out of Labs and It All Goes Horribly Wrong’ movies. Plus the upcoming Rio Olympics. Plus discussions on BBC Radio 4 last autumn, following England’s early exit from the last rugby world cup, about what that might mean for ITV’s advertising revenue and the wider loss of income for those towns and venues hosting subsequent matches etc.

So why am I writing this up? Because it really is a good example of how stories come together in a writer’s head. Or at least, in this writer’s head.

Most of all, I want this out of my head. Otherwise I will spend the rest of today getting distracted by new thoughts on tweaking details of the plot, expanding the back story of the various characters, visualising locations with ever more precision.

Do I often have dreams like this? Pretty frequently, especially when I’m not actively working on writing fiction. It’s absolutely no coincidence that I wrapped up the third of the Aldabreshin Compass short stories yesterday – which I will let sit over the weekend before giving it a final polishing pass next week and making it available.

Right, having cleared the mental decks, I will get on with some other work now. 🙂

Throwback Thursday – Junior Son and Star Wars Cosplay 2000-2015

Digging around in the hard drive for something else entirely, I found some photographs which prove the now-Student Son’s interest in Star Wars cosplay really is nothing new…

(posted with his permission)

Mummy’s little Sith, at the Art of Star Wars exhibition, the Barbican, London. August 2000.



Return to the Light Side, fancy dress birthday party, June 2002
(Light saber blade courtesy of Dad and some photoshop-type software…)


ComicCon 2015 All grown up… and yes, that’s now a ‘real’ light saber…
I never imagined I’d have so much in common with Leia Organa



Darth Gibson

Under pressure, I read Pratchett. What’s your refuge reading?

It’s been a bit of a week. Not directly for me and mine – we’re all fine and well, and believe me, I am profoundly grateful. Because around us, folk whom I like and value are having a hell of a time.

Earlier this week I went to the funeral of a local writerly friend, whose unforeseen, terminal cancer diagnosis in January was followed with shocking swiftness by her death. Meantime, another pal who lives hundreds of miles away has been coping with a parent’s emergency hospitalisation while said parent was on a trip to Oxford. So we’ve been offering what support we can by way of local knowledge and resources.

In between times, in bits of down time, I’ve been re-reading Night Watch, and have just picked up The Fifth Elephant. Not for the first time, I’ve noted that the Discworld is where I head these days when I need to press ‘pause’ on things going on around me, to regroup before I re-enter the fray. Not exclusively; glancing along the bookshelves, I note the Kate Brannigan, and the Lindsey Gordon books by Val McDermid also fall into this category of ‘refuge reading’, along with the Elvis Cole novels by Robert Crais. This is by no means the only time I reread these books, and I reread plenty of others. But when the going gets tough? These are the particular books I head for.

I’ve noticed something else recently. While I’ve always had these refuge reads, they’ve varied through the decades and through the different phases of my life. When I was a student, I’d reach for P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L Sayers or Dick Francis. When the kids were small, it was Georgette Heyer, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael stories or the ‘Fairacre’ books by ‘Miss Read’. All of which I’ve reread since, but not in quite the same way.

So over to you. Where do you go when you need to find a breathing space, some respite, between the covers of a book?

What do you suppose other supermarket customers make of my reusable bags?

I was out and about this morning, doing domestic administrivia – when it occurred to me to wonder just what other customers might make of the bags I routinely take shopping…


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?

Well, if BBC Radio 4 says I’m a fantasy novelist, it must be true!

Did anyone get the memo saying this was going to be the week for folk listening to me talk? I must have missed it…

Today sees the broadcast of an episode in the BBC Radio Four ‘A History of Ideas’ series where I was invited to contribute.

Philosopher Jules Evans is exploring Jung and the shadow inside all of us. Including archive contributions from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud; plus Mark Vernon, author of Carl Jung: How to Believe – and me.

(another nice reminder that life isn’t all EU VAT!)

Why that Facebook ‘Ten Book Challenge’ was impossible for me…

I’m sure you’ve seen it, and mostly likely been tagged – and unsurprisingly it turns out that was in service of Facebook generating a ‘news’ story. Which is harmless enough, as far as it goes. I didn’t not respond by way of any principled stand against being manipulated or exploited or anything. I just didn’t get round to writing a list because every time I tried, my brain just stalled. Hung. Locked up. Needed a firm ctrl-alt-delete.

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. They do not have to be the ‘right’ books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.”

I don’t have to take a minute to come up with twenty or thirty titles. A couple of minutes? Then I’ll have a hundred and then I’ll realise that I’ve still left out a vast chunk of my lifetime’s reading experience. There’ll be crime and SFF and historical – but no literary fiction, no comedy… And what about non-fiction? Biography? Memoir and diaries? Some of those have made a great impression.

Looking at the bookcases here was no help. Seeing one title would instantly remind me of five others just as memorable in their own and differing ways. I simply could not dash off a superficial selection without instantly regretting it.

On the other hand, I have found reading other people’s lists very interesting, by way of insight into them and their work, offering some surprises along the way. And being tagged by people doing that, it does seem a little rude not to respond in kind.

So I have come up with a list of books that have stayed with me – not any sort of definitive list, not the most memorable books in my life or even the most significant. For a start, I’ve limited myself to fiction. But these are ten books which have a significance for me and my own reading and writing, where each one is an exemplar for any number of similar works.

(and yes, this is consciously gender balanced list because what possible justification could there be for it not being so, given the thousands of books I’ve read in my life thus far?)

The Horse and his Boy – CS Lewis – the first Narnia book I read on my own with themes of being true to one’s own self that will still draw me into a book today.

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – for an introduction to epic grandeur which never loses sight of the human (or halfling or dwarven) costs of heroism.

The Ogre Downstairs – Diana Wynne Jones – for child-centered drama acknowledging that life isn’t fair, that everyone, old and young, makes mistakes and the only thing to do is tackle all that and move on. Also magical chemistry set!

Something Fresh – PG Wodehouse – for an introduction to the insights into the human condition that can be so very effectively conveyed through comedy.

Warrior Scarlet – Rosemary Sutcliffe – showing me that the past is a different country and they do things differently there, thus inspiring me to learn more about history while exploring how far the essentials of life and love stay the same.

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – introducing me to the popular fiction of decades gone by. Reading needs depth as well as breadth.

Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey – an introduction to just how much a crime/mystery novel can offer beyond the puzzle of Whodunnit.

Dragon Prince – Melanie Rawn – my personal favourite of the game changers writing epic fantasy in the 80’s, showing just what the genre could now address.

Vanishing Point – Val McDermid – showing how a genre novel can equal the very best of so-called ‘literary fiction’ and then go far beyond it in commenting on contemporary society.

Intrusion – Ken Macleod – informed, engaged, political, thought-provoking, giving the lie to any notion of SFF as ‘mere escapism’.

And now I’m going to hit ‘post’ before I start arguing with myself again about ones I’ve left off, but how am I supposed to choose which of these ten to chuck over the side…?


A quick Fantasycon update

I’ll be heading up to York tomorrow for the UK Fantasycon, where I’m really keen to hear Guests of Honour Kate Elliott and Charlaine Harris talking about their lives and writing. Not to forget Toby Whithouse who’s written fine genre TV drama notably but not limited to Being Human, and artist Larry Rostant whose artwork brings fresh vision to classic fantasy book cover themes. I look forward to learning more about their creative process and inspiration and its similarities and differences to my own.

There’ll be lots of other writers there, working across the spectrum of speculative fantasy, from epic to horror and every variation in between. So there’ll be plenty of chances to sit and listen to them on panels and in readings and generally chat and socialise with like-minded folk.

My own programme is discussing Doctor Who, Classic and New, at 3pm on Friday afternoon, along with Joanne Harris, Guy Adams, Mark Morris and Jon Oliver. I’ll also be available to sign books at 5pm on Friday, so if you’d like a signature on a book, in your programme or simply want to say hello, stop by.

On Saturday morning at 11am I’ll be on a panel discussing the Pen vs the Sword, specifically the realities of sword fighting compared to what we read on the page or see on the screen. That’ll be me, Marc Aplin, Fran Terminiello, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Clifford Beale. Between us we have a range of skills and experience in different styles of sword fighting.

After that, I’ll spend the rest of the day between time with pals and the excellent convention programme, full details here.

After the convention, Husband and I will be staying on in Yorkshire for the rest of the week, since this month sees our 25th wedding anniversary and we spent our honeymoon in the county so we plan on revisiting a few places and seeing some new sights. It’ll be interesting to see how clean and tidy (or otherwise) the house is when we get home, after the sons spend the week here fending for themselves…

After that, I have assorted short stories to write and some longer term projects to plan.

A memorable meal – my guest post for Lawrence M Schoen’s blog

It’s time for something fun. So here’s my guest post for Lawrence M Schoen’s blog, specifically his ‘Eating Authors’ series.

In which I recall an Easter Sunday lunch in France when I was around nine years old, visiting a family whose European ties and history were so very different to anything I’d ever encountered in 1970s UK.