So, fellow writers of contemporary fantasy, what are we doing about Covid-19 in our fiction?

As I get The Green Man’s Silence ready for publication, this is very much on my mind. One of the central elements of these books is showing recognisable, everyday normality alongside the supernatural that’s so close even if most folk can’t see it. That’s a key part of their appeal. I’ve been careful not to date these stories so far too precisely, but they have essentially reflected the years when they’ve been written. I researched and wrote this forthcoming book through the winter of 2019-2020 and that’s what you’ll see on the page.

What do I do now? If I show Dan’s life as it would be without the current pandemic, then the next book becomes a fantasy that’s far more distinct from the new abnormality that we now realise will be with us for an ongoing and indeterminate time. Will readers want that added escape, or will the disconnect with their current lives be too jarring amid the ongoing everything?

But is the alternative even worse? Not going to lie, I have been thinking about the ways that the UK lockdown, and the dire economic consequences we’re now looking at, will affect Dan and Blithehurst where he works, as well as the people he knows – and yes, how the dryads and others will react. I have quite a fun short story idea…

Except none of this is remotely fun. My family are so far unscathed, but the total of people I know personally and professionally, who’ve suffered a family death due to Covid-19, is now into double figures. This is serious for us all, and heart-breaking for tens, if not hundreds of thousands, in the UK alone. Won’t putting that grim reality on the page alongside myth-based puzzles and perils simply wreck reader suspension of disbelief?

I am reminded of the rewrites to the end of Western Shore, the novel I had finished writing just before the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. A tidal wave formed a large part of the backdrop to the conclusion. My editor and I agreed that had to be changed, no question about it. Readers seeing awful news footage in their mind’s eye as they read would ruin the book for them. Add to that, as happened to at least one writer whose book with an incidental tidal wave was just about to hit the shops, there was the risk of being accused of callously cashing in.

So I am pondering these questions, and thus far, not finding any answers. Your perspectives and observations are welcome.

A brief update about a great many words

If I was to post one of those side-by-side photo memes of ‘my plans for 2020’ and ‘me in 2020’, the images wouldn’t be one of happy optimism and one of everything gone wrong. Both pictures would probably be of a cat typing. The first half of this year was always going to be intense for me, well before we had a global health emergency.

Towards the end of 2019, Agent Max and I had a rescue plan in place for the Ancient Greek murder mysteries – of which, more in due course – and that meant writing the third Philocles book by 30th June 2020. That was going to have to happen alongside writing the third of the Green Man books, if Wizard’s Tower Press and I were going to get that out in August, a year after the last one. Which is to say, I would have to write one straight after the other, as I cannot work on two projects at the same time. So, a 100k word novel written January-March, followed by another one April-June. Okay… Since I had already done the research and outlining for both stories, that should be doable. Tight, but doable with my head down to concentrate.

Then I got an invitation to write a novella for a shared world project – of which, more in due course. The source material was great fun, some excellent other writers are involved – and professionally speaking, it definitely couldn’t do any harm to remind readers that I do write epic fantasy as well. The big question was, could I find the time…? Okay… if I stepped everything up a gear, it should be doable. So I said yes.

Then in January, I learned that family matters would require a week of my time away from home in March. Nothing drastic, thankfully, and I can work on my laptop, but oh, the timing… Okay, better find another gear.

By way of incentives, if I got this all done, I could take things easy for a fortnight and watch all the Wimbledon tennis I wanted. After the edits were done over Jul/Aug, we could have a nice holiday in Greece when the weather’s cooler in September. Oh… well… that was the plan back in January…

So now you know why I have been doing very little blogging or indeed, much of anything else. I have been working flat out – and yes, I have got it all done. To be precise, as of today, my word count for the year thus far stands at 222,323 words. I rarely post such numbers because every writer is very different, but for context, my highest previous annual word count is 246k.

So what now? Well, all three of these projects have to be edited for a start. Thankfully that is far less intensive work than the actual wordsmithing, certainly for me. The Green Man’s Silence is coming together very nicely, as I work on that with Editor Toby, and the cover art by Ben Baldwin is fantastic. Yes, you’ve guessed it, more on that in due course – but not so very long to wait now. We hope to reveal the cover and other details at this summer’s online Worldcon.

What next for me after that? Well, the book trade is still trying to find a new normal amid the ongoing everything, so that’s honestly very hard to say. I can at least confirm that I will be writing a story for one of this year’s ZNB Kickstarter anthologies – The Modern Deity’s Guide to Surviving Humanity. Watch this space for full details for all three anthologies. As always, these offer exciting opportunities for new writers.

So that’s the latest from here. We are all keeping fine, and I hope all is well with you and yours.

Rocks and Shoals – the third free story from the Aldabreshin Archipelago

Dyal has become a valued confidant of the Daish domain’s warlord and his family. That means he can be trusted to carry information so vital and so dangerous that it cannot be committed to paper.

Ensuring this message reaches the man who must hear it, and no one else, may yet prove to be Dyal’s most challenging mission for his master so far, and mot only his life is at stake.

Click here for the free download from Wizard’s Tower Press in the format of your choice.

For the moment, this is the last of these stories, though as readers who’ve followed Dyal’s adventures will be well aware, this cannot be the end of his story. I know what happens next, and aim to find time to write that tale later this year.

At the moment, my Work diary is full! As of close of play yesterday, I’ve written 194231 words of original fiction since 2nd January this year, spread over one novel, completed in draft and with its editor, one novella ditto, and a second novel that’s due for delivery at the end of June and is currently about three quarters of the way to a finished draft.

I hope to take a few days off at the start of July, before I tackle the editor’s feedback on The Green Man’s Silence…

A lockdown reading report – of varied results

I’m making a concerted effort to have less news and more fiction in my non-work time, for overall morale reasons.

So I spent some time this morning reading a rural contemporary crime novel I will not name because it is so poorly written. By page three it was already an exercise in noting ‘what not to do’. E.g. slang from my mother’s era from contemporary teens, data dump on every page, and DO NOT get me started on the detective protagonist’s alleged martial arts skills. (Yes, drink problem, wrecked home life and ‘maverick’ attitude to authority forgiven on account of results.)

Zero evidence of research was evident throughout the quarter I managed to read before giving up. Knowledge of current police procedures appeared to come from assiduously viewing Midsomer Murders. Swearing added for grittiness had all the subtlety and ultimate pointlessness of a half brick lobbed into a garden pond.

Why am I mentioning this? Because perversely, it should be a encouragement to aspiring writers. Just about every student I’ve ever taught has been better than this! And yet, this saw print and numerous sequels for the very easily pleased. This author sells by the shedload in the US apparently. As an astute publisher realised would likely be the case.

No I’m really not going to say. That would be unprofessional as well as unkind. This author clearly gets a great deal of pleasure from writing as well as interacting with their readership. Horses for courses and all that.

Instead I will wholeheartedly recommend Alex Grey’s ‘William Lorimer’ crime novels set in Scotland. Read one of those yesterday. Very readable indeed. Well constructed and fast paced, solid characterisation and the right balance with contemporary true crime in the news.

Fire in the Night – a free story from the Aldabreshin Archipelago

Revisiting your own work is a curious experience for a writer, in my experience at least. When you’re working on a book, from first outline to final page proofs, that’s pretty much all you think about. You have every detail at your fingertips. You know the story inside out. You’ve been living with these characters for however long the work’s been in progress. Then quite suddenly, that’s done, and you move on to the next thing. This new story may or may not involve the same characters, but regardless, it’s a new adventure full of fresh challenges for you as a writer. As it fills your thoughts, it’s surprising how quickly the fine detail of earlier books fades from your memory. You’ll recall the broad strokes, obviously, but not the line-by-line. By the time I was on the third, fourth and fifth book of The Tales of Einarinn, my reference copies of the earlier volumes bristled with Post-It tags so I could find descriptions and incidents I needed to refer back to. Thank goodness for electronic versions and search boxes these days.

I revisited The Aldabreshin Compass books in 2015, when I was proof-reading the text we’d prepared for the new digital editions from Wizard’s Tower Press. This was the first time I’d really engaged with these stories and characters since Eastern Tide was published in 2006. I’m pleased to say I thoroughly enjoyed the process. The books held up well for me as an author, and as a reader, I found the story really exciting! At a couple of points, I genuinely caught myself wondering what’s going to happen next?! I knew the situation, whatever it was, would be resolved, but I had honestly forgotten exactly how?

Perhaps it’s because I was engaging with these books at least as much as a reader this time around that I began to see other things. There’s a young soldier who falls off a battlement in the first book, Southern Fire. As the writer, I hadn’t given him a second thought, because my focus was on Daish Kheda, the warlord whose personal journey drives the narrative of this whole series. As a reader though, now I kept wondering what had happened to that young man who had disappeared into the darkness…?

As I read the following books, I found I had other questions. Kheda goes on his journey, but life at the home he has left goes on without him. Some of the consequences of this become apparent, as other people’s paths cross his own, but as a writer, my focus always stayed with his story. As a reader though, I found I wanted to know more of what had gone on without him. What lay behind the choices and decisions made by the people he had left behind…?

I am a writer first and foremost. That said, I’ve always found inspiration in the questions keen readers have asked me. Now that I was the curious reader, these questions just wouldn’t go away. Ideas stirred. In between other projects, I began writing a series of linked short stories that sit between the volumes of The Aldabreshin Compass. These can be read on their own, as well as offering added depth and insights for those who’ve read the Compass sequence.

So I started with that fateful night when Daish Kheda was so treacherously attacked, and his faithful retainers risked their lives to defend him. You can find the free ebook here, along with other free reading from Wizard’s Tower Press, and the ‘Colinthology’ which raises money to support Bristol hospitals.

Artwork by Ben Baldwin

A Sunday Lockdown Update

So, we’ve watched The Witcher, and found it entertaining, in a ‘Dungeons and Dragons for the telly’ kind of way. Which probably says a fair bit about our family approach to tabletop and LARP gaming. It was uneven at times – the range of accents was occasionally distracting for me. The dialogue lurching from ‘verily, we must make haste to yonder castle’ to ‘bollocks to that, pal’ could do with smoothing out. Some more obvious cues about the different timelines wouldn’t have gone amiss. That said, the perspectives on magic and politics, and the continental setting were interesting and did some testing of cliches. Other cliches were embraced, alas, at least for the moment. I’ll be interested to see where those particular story elements go. Overall, I’m sufficiently engaged to look forward to Season 2.

In other news, Husband and I were both overdue a haircut when all this started. I have now resorted to a hairband to keep my fringe out of my eyes. He’s developing an unexpectedly Tintinesque look. No, there will not be pictures.

The recent special offers for The Green Man’s Heir and The Green Man’s Foe have prompted a very nice flurry of positive reviews and ratings by satisfied readers on Amazon and Goodreads. That’s very much appreciated and a boost for morale. I’ve also been making an effort to sit in the garden or the lounge and read a bit each day, for destressing purposes.

However my subconscious is still finding lightning rods for the nebulous anxiety that surrounds us all, sending my thoughts down unproductive pathways. This gets me about as far as a hamster running on a wheel. The latest has been seeing other authors busy doing readings and panels and chatting online by video. Should I be doing that ?! Why am I not doing that?!

Well, I am honestly too busy – my next deadline is still in place and it’s a tight one. True, but that doesn’t get the hamster-brain off the squeaky wheel.

But I don’t know how to do this stuff. I’ve done plenty of video interviews, but that’s always been with someone else doing the tech. Yes, I’m sure I could work it out, but that would take time I don’t have to spare – see above. All true, but once again, that doesn’t get the hamster off the wheel .

But I simply don’t want to do it – and it’s not only because my hair’s a ragged mess at the moment, though that is a part of it, because I prefer to present myself professionally. It’s the thought of the total demand of prepping material, being on time for something remotely organised, coordinating with other people, doing the tech stuff at my end etc etc etc – when I am so busy and life is still so odd and uncertain. I do not need more stuff to do.

Thankfully admitting that to myself gets the hamster to stop scampering. I am under no obligation to do this stuff. Time I can spare from work is at least as well, if not better spent on self-care just at present. If I decide I want to, that’s fine, and I can ask for tech help then. When I’m ready. If I want to.

So I will continue to write the next Ancient Athens murder mystery and focus on that – which is proving very enjoyable. So far I have encountered another of those things they don’t tell you about being a writer – that you will need to look up the history of fruit. No, Philocles can’t have peaches for breakfast. If he does, someone somewhere will know that’s wrong, and a) be thrown out of reading this book, and b) will say so online these days. So – and apologies for spoilers – Philocles is eating cherries instead.

Sunday thoughts on manifestations of stress.

It’s all still very odd, isn’t it? And at the same time, such a lot hasn’t changed so very much for households like ours – those of us without kids out of school and with jobs we can still do. Believe me, I appreciate that good fortune. Even so, the possibilities… the uncertainties… It doesn’t do to dwell on these things, but it can be hard not to.

As a novelist, I can’t help observing what’s going on around me as people react to all this – and realising that I am in no sense immune. I found doing the supermarket run peculiarly stressful. There was the oddity of having to queue to get in, though I didn’t have to wait particularly long. There was seeing the anxiety on so many faces, and the awkwardness of social distancing when all you want to do is get some frozen peas and there’s someone in your way. Will there be any peas?! Such questions assume an importance out of all proportion at the moment. Rationally, I know the supermarkets are getting their supply chains sorted out – and honestly, the world won’t end if we eat green beans instead this week. But the part of my brain that’s chasing possibilities and uncertainties like a hamster running on its wheel doesn’t want to hear that.

I’m seeing other manifestations of stress on social media. There are a lot of spats and bickering around that I could well do without. Personally I’m trying to focus on posting useful and/or mildly amusing things. People need to curate their own level of exposure to distressing news at the moment, so I’m leaving that up to them. But I have had some responses which have struck me as unhelpfully abrupt and even confrontational. People saying their individual experience is different, or that they simply don’t agree based on nothing more than personal opinion. Or going off on a tangent, wanting to discuss another topic entirely – something that I don’t want to be drawn into. These responses are very much the exception, thankfully, but hamster-brain and writer-brain can’t help being drawn to them. Are people more inclined to sense of humour failure at the moment? Am I being unduly sensitive? Are both sides reading more into casual posts than is really there? I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle, at some ever-shifting point.

We’re all going to need to find our own ways of managing stress – all the more so, the longer this weirdness goes on. Books, films, TV and my own work are what I am using to get that bloody hamster off its squeaky wheel. Successfully, for the most part, thankfully.

Sunday thoughts – things learned this week.

Something this past fortnight has shown me is just how many people I know and work with have a close connection to the NHS. Another thing I’ve learned this past week, reading reports from Spain and Italy, is how appalling the impact of all this will be on all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, I’m not (just) talking about the risks of serious illness that they all face, but the effect of being far closer to mass deaths than any of the rest of us. So staying home when we can, and keeping our distance when we can’t takes on an added personal dimension, as well as being essential for the greater good.

So I’m doing what I can, for the GP my friend T is married to, and for my friend B’s partner the ICU nurse, for my friend S’s brother the nurse-manager, for young L and my long-standing friend K who work in hospital admin, and for my friend G’s in-law the hospital pharmacist. Those are merely the ones that come immediately to mind.

Something else I have learned is how good it is for morale to actually see someone’s face and hear their voice when we’re catching up with more than just work stuff. Keeping in touch by messages, email and texts is great, but the added impact of that personal connection, when my day to day contacts are now just the family really surprised me. I foresee a lot more Skype and Zoom in my future.

In other news, we are both still working so won’t be tackling any new/overdue exciting projects or taking up a musical instrument or learning a new language in some wealth of unexpected down time. The usual chores remain, and yesterday I caught up with the ironing. So far, so routine – except I keep finding the new surreality intruding into such mundane things. I ironed the last shirt and stopped in my tracks to wonder how long it will be before I’m doing that again. I have no idea and nor does anyone else. (Yes, I iron my husband’s work shirts. No, that does not make me a bad feminist. How we apportion tasks is up to us.)

We have done some sorting out of the Son in the North’s erstwhile bedroom to give the Husband a better workspace for the duration. Now, I freely admit I am not a tidy person and I am inclined to hold on to stuff, as friends and family will attest. The final thing I learned this week is, compared to my younger son, I am Marie bloody Kondo…

Free reading for the cooped-up, from me and other writers

There’s been a flurry of SF&F authors having a look in the back cupboards of their hard drives this week, to see what stories they could make available for free. We know a lot of readers have time on their hands just at the moment, but we are also well aware that they may be finding themselves uncertain as to prospects for their bank balance and bills for the next however-long.

With the always invaluable assistance of Cheryl at Wizard’s Tower Press, and artist Ben Baldwin, I’m offering up The Wizard’s Coming, a short story that stands alone, and as such, should give a good introduction to my style and my approach to epic fantasy. In the overall chronology of my successive epic fantasy series, it sits between The Lescari Revolution trilogy and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, so there’s added interest if you’ve read those books.

You can download the ebook in your preferred format from Wizard’s Tower Press here – worldwide.

You should also check out the BSFA page where a whole lot of interesting things are on offer.

Looking forward, Cheryl and I are also working on making some Aldabreshin Compass short fiction available as ebook singles. Details to follow in due course.

Meantime, happy reading, and hoping you and yours are well.

Welcome to the new normal – abnormal…

It’s all very odd, isn’t it? Not to say unsettling. And there is so little we can do about any of this – apart from staying home, washing our hands and keeping our distance when we have to go out for essentials and shopping responsibly when we do that.

So what am I blogging about? Well, not everyone I know is on Twitter or Facebook, so I thought a few updates here wouldn’t go amiss. I’m happy to say me and mine are fine. Mum and Stepdad are in Hampshire and my elder brother lives locally there, so he’s shopping etc for them. My dad and stepmother are down in South Wales and they have a whole lot of support already in place as they are now both registered blind. The Son in the North is now working from home up there and if Resident Son ends up out of work, he’s okay here with us.

Husband is working from home now – which is a bit distracting as there are a lot of conference calls going on, but that’s a minor consideration. We don’t have school age kids which must be a whole other nightmare. The social distancing message seems to have got through hereabouts and people are being polite and considerate overall. While there are minor hassles with what is or isn’t available in the supermarkets, we routinely keep a well-stocked freezer and store cupboard – as we have the funds, space and car to do that. I am very well aware that a lot of folk are facing far more difficulties.

So I can get on with my own work much as usual. And at the moment that means working flat out on the third Green Man book, a rescue plan for the Ancient Greek murder mysteries that I’m writing under a pseudonym, and another project that hasn’t been announced yet. Unless of course someone here or one of the assorted parents/my brother falls ill, in which case all bets are off. But at the moment, all we can do is take things day to day, don’t you think?

With aikido suspended for the duration and not wanting to risk the gym since before they were closed, I have started doing some yoga in the lounge first thing in the mornings. Sooty settles down to watch, paws tucked up and ears pricked. Curious cat meets downward dog.

So that’s about it for now. Take care of yourselves and stay home!