Articles from November 2013



Albedo One – Issue 44 – now in ebook formats

The latest Albedo One magazine is now out – and is the first issue to be available in a comprehensive range of ebook formats.

My review column in this issue is ‘Tales from the Unexpected’, where I’m looking at writers doing something different to the books they’re best known for. Specifically, Ian McDonald – Planesrunner (YA SF), Charlie Stross – Merchant Princes series (parallel worlds more fantasy than sfnal), Patricia Briggs – Aralorn (epic fantasy) and Stella Gemmel’s The City – not the Gemmell you were expecting to write this epic fantasy.

Click here to check it out.

What’s in a Name?

Something about names is on just about every writer’s FAQ, regardless of genre. It never fails to surprise me at a convention or literary festival, when someone sticks up their hand and asks the ‘where do you get character names from?’ clearly thinking they’ve just asked something unexpected and original.

The thing is though, as with so much about writing, no writer works in exactly the same way, or thinks the same about something, and names are no exception. As with much else, there are broad similarities across the spectrum but even two writers taking much the same approach can come up with some different and interesting observations or thought provoking comments.

So the “Names: A New Perspective” blogposts gathered together by Abhinav Jain promise some fascinating reading. He’s garnered posts from a goodly number of writers – my own contribution will come along in a few weeks. Meantime, let’s see what other folk have to say, shall we?

You can find the first post by Patty Jansen here

Identity Theft – a short story I wrote ages ago and the tweet that reminded me of it

At some point over World Fantasy Con weekend, someone, I think it was @gavreads, tweeted something along the lines of ‘do authors realise they own a little bit of our souls?’ I knew that reminded me of something I once wrote but I couldn’t think what… Aha, rummaging around in the back cupboards of the hard drive yesterday, I came across this! Which flips the idea completely, and isn’t really my usual style of thing. Still, you may find it amusing/creepy, according to taste. And no, I’m really not at all sure what I had in mind when I wrote it.

        Identity Theft

     Dear Miss Enstone,
    You are my favourite writer. I am sick in hospital and read your books a lot. My favourite character is Delly. I hope she finds her grandfather. Mummy says she will by me a signed copy of your next book when my chematherapy is over.
    Love
     Amy

    Rubbing his knuckles, he set the sparkly gel pen down beside his card-index box. This immature rounded script made his hand ache. The spelling mistakes were a good touch but was he really thinking himself into the mind of a terminal ten year old girl?
    He slid the pink notepaper with frolicking puppies, their fluffy ears askew, into the matching envelope. A sponge dampened the flap to avoid leaving saliva. Stamps were handily self-adhesive. A second class stamp. Amy’s mother would save every penny. Copying the address from his file card for Annie Enstone, he tossed the envelope onto the pink pile.
    He glanced at the scarred oak door, securely bolted top and bottom. He’d slept late and hadn’t heard the other students bickering over the bathroom or accusing each other of using up the milk. But everyone should have left by now, for their lectures or their labs. They probably thought he was already in the library, dissecting English Literature.
     He shoved the insecure office chair with its fraying seat backwards over blotched carpet originally the colour of cold tea. Reaching down, he fetched out his portable typewriter, and set it on the mug rings marring the varnish of the once elegant table. He threaded a sheet of paper deftly through the rollers and stripped latex gloves off with relief. Typing didn’t leave fingerprints.
     Tossing the flaccid gloves over to the printer, for the next time the paper tray needed refilling, he sighed. Writing the letters was so much quicker with the computer’s mail merge slotting in names and addresses. He smiled. The appeal from the school librarian keen to inspire reluctant readers and gifted and talented students alike was a good piece of work. Her plan to display signed photographs of famous writers was certain to flatter Mandy Oldsworth’s vanity, and those other media darlings.
    But the typewriter was better for these next letters. He picked up another selection of index cards. Let’s see how Edmund Crawley and other reclusive, eccentric writers would respond.

    Dear Mr Crawley,
    I have long wished to tell you how much pleasure your books have given me over the years. Latterly I have been re-reading your earlier works and find them as much a delight as ever.
    Recent publications are unfortunately beyond my means as I currently reside in a home for retired priests in North Yorkshire. I am writing therefore to ask if you might donate signed copies of ‘Angel’s Breath’ and ‘The Baldock Brewer’ to our small library—

    An angry fist hammered on the door. ‘It was your turn to put the bins out, wanker!’
    ‘Dick.’ A second voice sniggered. ‘Sorry, Richard.’
    He sat silently, shoulders hunched, heart pounding.
    ‘What the fuck’s he doing in there?’
    The voices retreated, boots heavy on the stairs.
    ‘Maybe those fucking books have finally fallen on his head.’
    As the front door slammed, he looked around. The faded, dated wallpaper was invisible behind the countless volumes salvaged from boot sales and charity shops to be ordered by genre, author and date of publication on the shelves he had made from scavenged bricks and plundered planks.
    He returned to his work. By the time he’d typed the final envelope the ribbon was fading to illegibility. He scowled. They weren’t that easy to get. Then he smiled. It gave an authenticity to the penurious priest’s plea. Yawning, he swept all the stamped letters into a stack. Should he go and post them now?
    No. He’d worked hard enough, this morning and last night, making his rounds of the derelict houses and tenantless offices that served as his return addresses. It was time for some reward, and the hardest work of all.
    He dragged a battered rucksack out from under the table. As he upended it, board-backed envelopes and jiffy bags tumbled onto the floor. He sat cross-legged, tearing them open. Photographs made one pile, books another. Virgin compliments slips and polite PA’s responses were tossed into the bin with the envelopes. Notes from authors more generous with their time went with the photographs. He ripped signed front pages from the books, desecrated remnants discarded.     By the time he had dealt with everything, his heart was racing.
Kneeling, he reached for a wooden box in the darkness under the bed. Opening it revealed a small book bound in creased cream calf-skin, two knives, one white-handled, one black, and an empty crystal inkwell. In their midst an octagonal blue candle squatted, part-burnt, in a shallow silver platter. Runes and sigils were carved deep into its facets.
    He gathered up the photographs, autographs and notes before lighting the candle with steel and flint. It burned with a greenish flame, oily smoke curling upwards. No problem. He’d long since taken the battery out of the smoke alarm.
    The book fell readily open at the right page. He barely had to look at the cramped mediaeval script any more. Slow and precise, he recited the arcane Latin as he sliced the inside of his wrist with the black knife’s razor edge. His blood dripped onto the first author’s signature. The candle flared, vapours rising, gouged runes glowing eerily bright as if illuminated from deep within.
    The whole room darkened, though the sun beyond the threadbare curtains shone as bright as ever. Shadows under the table and in the corners thickened and spread. The blackness edged closer, overwhelming the stains on the carpet. Harsh breath rasped, not merely his own. Something was crawling out of the darkness behind him. Its cold presence raised gooseflesh on the back of his neck. Look and all would be lost. He focused on the signed photograph, still reciting. Slowly the writing dissolved, sliding viscous down the blandly smiling portrait. He held a corner carefully over the open mouth of the inkwell. The darkness dripped sullenly down. A satisfied sigh behind him sent a curl of cold breath like smoke over his shoulder. He reached for a friendly note. Blood obliterated the kindly thoughts wishing little Amy well. Magic washed black malice into the inkwell.
    By the time he had finished, the unseen presence behind him was breathing slowly, sated. Drenched with pungent sweat, he felt light-headed. The scars on his arm burned where he’d re-opened successive cuts to keep the sorcery flowing. Hands shaking, he laid down the knife and snapped the silver top of the inkwell shut. Reciting the final verses in a hoarse whisper, he snuffed out the candle. The darkness retreated with a faint hiss of disappointment. Alone again, he drew a trembling breath of heartfelt relief.
    But he’d made the mistake of leaving the ink once before, only to find it dried to a useless sludge. He forced himself to his feet, crystal vial in one hand, scrabbling in the box for an old fashioned steel-nibbed pen in the other. Sitting at the table, he reached for a spiral-bound notebook. The place where he’d stopped before marked with a plaited lock of his own long hair. He opened the inkwell and a hint of shadow swirled inside the neck. Dipping his pen, he sat and waited for the words to come.
    They would come. This time there’d be no rejection slips.

What Those ‘Richly Embroidered Wall-hangings’ In Your Fantasy Novel Really Mean.

(March 2016 – this post has been updated with new links to press articles on the discovery of some original Jacobean bed hangings in a Scottish castle – scroll to the bottom if you’re checking back)

As regular readers know, I like to embroider. I do canvas work and cross-stitch and thanks to an inspired idea by my sister, I’ve been learning Jacobean crewel work, courtesy of family and friends clubbing together to buy me birthday-gift-certificates for Royal School of Needlework courses at Hampton Court Palace. I’d like to show you what I was working on last weekend, not by way of an ego-trip* but to show you what nine hours of such stitchery looks like.

Jacobean rabbit

Yes, nine hours and as you will see, even this smallish design isn’t complete as yet. Granted, I’m still relatively new to this style of work. On the other hand, the tutor did remark I was making good progress.

Now let’s look at this. It’s a printed fabric but in very much the sort of design that crewel work was used for – embroidering with wool on linen twill – making curtains, wall-hangings, fire-screens and other decorative furnishings to brighten up – and insulate – homes in days of yore.

birds-curtain

For scale, those humming birds are about the same size as the flower in that first picture. If they’re too small to make out, click on the picture for a larger view. So just imagine how many woman-hours of stitching would be involved in say, making a set of bed curtains, canopy and valances decorated like that. Even assuming a practised needlewoman could work say, twice as fast as me. Even if that flower represented five hours’ effort, the labour involved is considerable.

This is what wealth meant, in the days before Ferraris and Rolexes. A significant measure of wealth was the ability to buy other people’s time and endeavour. You can see this in other day-to-day things historically. Dark fabrics with rich colours required multiple dye processes, so they were more expensive. High-status food like jelly/jello took a lot of time-consuming preparation and skill, starting with boiling up calves’ feet for hours at a time. This premium on personal labour has some consequences we might not expect today. When clockwork roasting spits came in, they were convenient but they weren’t a must-have item for the wealthy. It was more of a mark of status that you could employ a servant to manually turn your spit and roast your meat with personal care and attention.

And let’s not forget that you need good light for doing work like this embroidery; either natural daylight, which means whoever’s doing it needs decent glass windows which are costly, or expensive beeswax candles.

I know I’ll be looking at embroidered textiles in National Trust stately homes and castles with a whole new level of insight now. I’ll also be thinking carefully before blithely decorating any fantasy homes with those richly embroidered wall hangings.

*As a general rule, I am averse posting ‘look at me, aren’t I cool?’ stuff. ‘Read my books, they are cool,’ is an entirely different matter.

March 2016 – I’m updating this post with links to articles on the fantastic discovery of a set of Jacobean bed hangings found tucked away in a linen store in Dunollie House, Oban, during the restoration of a derelict Scottish castle. Yes, really!

The story from The Scotsman and some fantastic pictures

From the Oban Times, with close up photos and information on restoration and display plans

‘Broads with Swords’ – a stupid title for what proved to be an excellent panel at World Fantasy Con

You may – or may not – be aware of the damn silly title given to the ‘Women in Fantasy’ panel at the World Fantasy Convention, held at the start of this month in Brighton. The full brief read as follows

Once upon a time the heroic fantasy genre was—with a few notable exceptions such as C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett—the sole domain of male writers like Robert E. Howard, John Jakes and Michael Moorcock. Those days are long gone, and it seems that more and more women writers are having their heroines suit up in chain-mail and wield a broadsword. Who are these new writers embracing a once male-dominated field, and how are their books any different from those of their literary predecessors?

Now, advance reactions to that varied. Most were variations on ‘Good grief, whoever wrote this really doesn’t read epic fantasy AT ALL, do they?’ Some, looking at other similarly potentially provocative descriptions in the programme, decided to give the benefit of the doubt and read these as tongue-in-cheeky, looking to provoke lively discussion. Others were to a greater or lesser extent offended by apparent lack of professional courtesy, and not just with regard to this particular panel. Some were sufficiently offended to boycott ‘Broads with Swords’, and indeed I’ve seen some express an opinion that authors should have refused to take part in this panel.

Well, I cannot speak for my fellow panellists but for myself, I agreed to do this panel expressly to give the lie to any notion that strong female characters in fantasy are anything new, or that the only way for a woman to be a strong character is to take up armour and blade and essentially pretend to be a man. I’ve written 15 epic fantasy novels exploring those particular ideas (among a good few others), and was reading books with a far more intelligent and nuanced view of women in high heroic settings for decades before that. I’m also not about to give an inch of ground to the tedious misconception which still persists in rearing its hydra-heads that epic fantasy is only written by blokes for blokes.

As it turned out, my fellow panellists, Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Gaie Sebold, and our indefatigable moderator Laura Anne Gilman thought much the same. All of them excellent writers in their own right, I should add, and well worth checking out if you haven’t come across their work thus far.

Happily, a packed room full of people had decided they could trust us to tackle this subject, irrespective of the panel title. I’m not going to recap the discussion here, because The Writers’ Greenhouse, has done an excellent job of noting the key points and most especially the many, many fine authors whose work was recommended. Do click through to read the whole post.

Indeed, I think the only thing that could have possibly improved that panel was having at least one male perspective on these questions – but WFC sees no need to avail itself of the benefits which panel parity brings to programming, alas.

Oh, and Robin Hobb signed my advance proof of Royal Assassin which I have treasured since my bookselling days in 1995… (my convention fangirl moment)

As to the rest of WFC2013, newcomers went away very, very happy, full of joy about talking to real authors! So many free books! So many interesting and famous people to hear talk, including but by no means limited to Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Joanne Harris, Susan Cooper etc etc. So that’s excellent, and hopefully bringing new folk into UK fandom. There were also considerable numbers of European fans there, and it was lovely to meet them too.

I had enjoyable dinners with various friends, and also a lovely lunch with a generous fan. I got to see many of my lovely American pals, and to make some new ones – it is great to be able to put a face to an email/twitter/fbook friend. I made time to schedule meetings with a couple of key folk I wanted to talk to, and had an impromptu and potentially very useful encounter with someone else, so that’s my professional writer boxes ticked.

The David Gemmell Legend Awards went with a swing, hopefully making even more people aware of the Awards, and the ‘Legends’ anthology was launched afterwards amid much good cheer and celebration. Through the weekend, publishers did a stellar job with parties and launches, so those were great fun, er, apart from the ones crammed into the low-ceilinged and painfully loud night-club-bar space. I couldn’t hear myself think in there, let alone speak, which was a shame because I’m pretty sure that’s where I missed some folk I wanted to talk to. There were soooo many people…

Like most established con-goers and/or authors I spoke to, I do have a few ‘however’s…

I came home with not only tired feet – to be expected – but tired thighs and knees. I can’t recall when I was last in a convention hotel with so many flights of stairs between where you were and where you wanted to be – and that’s over and above the ‘official’ accessibility problems with the venue which were considerable, and frankly in this day and age, inexcusable. And yes, having chaired an Eastercon, I know exactly how difficult it is to find a UK venue to host such a large event. Still no excuse. Also, signposting and information about facilities needed to be a lot more prominent. The two other seating and drinking spaces other than the eye-wateringly expensive and noisily crowded hotel bar were largely empty any time I went into them and that’s not good.

The mass signing was fairly shambolic, with lots of empty author seats. I learned later that hotel security around the official start time were insisting that authors trying get in to take a seat, must join the line of con-goers waiting to come in, and since there was no way for said authors to prove that they were actually, y’know, authors, a good few just gave up and went away. Authors who’d turned up a little bit early, or a little bit later, had no such problems though. So a bit more forethought and planning on the organisation there could have made a significant, positive difference.

I have no clue how well attended, or otherwise, the whole stream of programming devoted to Arthur Machen was. Though I did find myself chatting to a chap who turned out to be a major Machen fan, involved in the official society, and he was asking me, genuinely puzzled, why there were so many panels dedicated to Machen, were fantasy fans really that interested…? I couldn’t possibly comment – genuinely. Personally I know very little about Machen and have less interest.

So that, in brief, was my World Fantasy Convention. Just one last note. If you’re ever heading for Brighton yourself, and want to stay in a delightful, comfortable and quiet little hotel, check out Brighton Wave. That’s where I stayed, and it was brilliant.

Weekend reading recommendation – The Falconer, Elizabeth May

Lady Aileana Kameron, youthful and pretty, tries to combine her life in polite society with her determination to rid her world of murderous fae. The setting’s an agreeably atmospheric steam-punkish alternate Edinburgh in the 1840s. The author nevertheless remains clear-eyed on historical inequalities perpetuated by class and gender, not heavy-handedly moralising but simply weaving such elements into the pacy and entertaining story. Some will see echoes of a certain Slayer here but don’t let that put you off – and let’s remember the tradition of Scots lasses taking on faery foes goes back to the tale of Tam Lin. I’ve seen this labelled as a YA book and it’s a ‘safe’ read as far as graphic sex or violence goes while still offering plenty of action, tense and humorous by turns, and thoroughly convincing villainy. The exploration of love, loss and duty makes it a thoughtful read for all ages. Minor caveats; it’s the first of a series and has a markedly ‘to be continued…’ ending. Also it’s written in first person, continuous present tense which I’m really not a fan of – but here, I was able to get past that within the first few pages as the story engaged me.

click here for Elizabeth May’s website

Serial Thriller – How Writing “The Ties That Bind” Has Been A Whole New Experience

About a year ago, SF author Tony Ballantyne sounded me out, explaining his plans for an ebook serial magazine for SF&Fantasy. He’d be committing to a year-long run of 12 monthly instalments, though individual stories could and should vary in length, so the mix for each issue would vary. Was I interested in being involved?

Yes, I was. ‘Always take the chance to try something new’ is a piece of advice from a famous author which I took to heart early on in my writing career. That said, I know very well that serial fiction is nothing new. Many of our greatest novelists’ works were originally published in magazines and newspapers; Dickens, Dumas, Conan Doyle, Scott. That’s how publishing popular fiction worked in their day. SF&F magazines continued that tradition through their heyday. Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang” is merely one genre novel arising from linked, collected short stories. Even now, Alexander McCall Smith first publishes his ‘Scotland Street’ novels as daily serials in The Scotsman newspaper. Since the best way of learning about something is always to give it a go, I was interested to learn first-hand what the idiosyncrasies of this particular writing style might be.

Once I’d agreed to be involved, I had a few decisions to make. I considered some of the story ideas I have jotted down in notebooks and found one that seemed well suited to episodic telling. Looking in more detail at that particular tale’s structure and arc, I found it fell nicely into eight instalments. Looking at the other commitments in my diary for 2013, I was confident I could deliver the equivalent of a short story a month, which is to say, five to six thousand words. So I drew up a more detailed outline and began work. Though only on the first few episodes. One thing I recalled from A level Eng.Lit. days is that Dickens in particular took a flexible approach to his writing, taking note of reader feedback as his stories developed. Would I get such feedback, especially in this Internet age? I had absolutely no clue but I wanted to be open to that possibility. I also had a vague sense that if I was writing a story to be read in instalments, that’s how I should work. (more…)