Things I don’t want to be doing by torchlight on a freezing night at 11pm

Examining my car to see what damage might have been done by Snr Son hitting a badger while driving Jnr Son’s girlfriend home.

He is adamant there was a thud, but none of that ghastly crunch you get when a wheel goes over something. We think it must have been a glancing blow. There doesn’t seem to be visible damage to the car and he couldn’t see an injured beast at the side of the road when he stopped.

This is good on both counts, because many years ago, a pal did substantial and expensive damage to his car in such a collision. Badgers are solid beasts – so hopefully that means Brock will survive as well.

I am now going to bed. Most likely to dream of blizzards wrecking Eastercon if last night’s anything to go by.

I have a haircut booked on Wednesday. I am expecting the hairdresser to remark how much faster I’m going white of late.

A week to go to Eastercon and I’m thinking a decade ahead.

Those of you with any experience of con-running won’t be in the least surprised by my lack of posts here lately. For those of you who haven’t ever been involved in a convention committee, I can tell you that these past few weeks have been like trying to play a game of 3D chess while the Enterprise is under fire and taking evasive manoeuvres. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not complaining. But busy doesn’t begin to describe it – since Christmas – for me and for the rest of the EightSquared Committee and Staff whose endeavours are absolutely heroic.

However I have just posted a very long piece on the EightSquaredCon blog. Because this past year has drawn my attention to the things which quite a few fans simply don’t know about conrunning. That’s no criticism, of conrunners or of fans. It’s just a fact I’ve become aware of. I’ve also realised some of these things could do with discussing, on the one hand before a real problem arises and on the other hand, to see UK fandom well-placed to move forward as next year’s Loncon 3 World SF Convention in London prompts a influx of new, enthusiastic people.

And yes, I am well aware that in some quarters, doing this is pretty much lighting a blue touchpaper and risking fireworks. It’s still worth doing. Because conventions are important to us all, readers, writers and fans of all aspects of the genre.

You can find my post on TheoretiCon 2023 here.

Disability and fantasy fiction – more questions than answers

Here’s an interesting question posed on Twitter by Sally Hyder – why are there no disabled female heroes in books? Is this because readers won’t accept it? Or is that the publishing fear, not the reality?

I’m indebted to Kate Elliott for flagging up Oree in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms as an example of such a female – while acknowledging they are extremely rare.

Why is this? I don’t have any answers – but I am now pondering on my own, related experience. I have a crippled male hero in The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution – in modern terms, he has cerebral palsy and is closely modelled on a friend of my teenage years with CP in what he can and cannot do, his attitudes, frustrations etc.

Neither editors nor readers have had any problem with him as a character – indeed, he’s been seen as an interesting twist on Alpha-Male heroes. But when we were discussing cover art, one major US book chain’s representative was very, very anti the notion of a man on crutches on a book jacket – he reckoned that would be the commercial kiss of death.

Well, we’ll never know. Subsequent reader reaction would indicate that was an unrealistic fear. But I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. I’ve had too many well-informed Americans conclude that the (superb) cover art contributed to Southern Fire’s failure to find a US audience.

That’s a male disabled hero. What about a female one? I would be much more cautious about writing one of those – especially following some hostile reader reaction to Lady Zurenne in the Hadrumal Crisis books. More women than I would have expected have been infuriated by her inability to cope – in the first instance – with being widowed and subject to male domination in a patriarchal society. They have found her thoroughly dislikeable – without, thankfully, condemning me as a betrayer of the sisterhood. That would be difficult given the presence of a very empowered magewoman, Jilseth, in these books.

The thing is, I can understand that reaction to some extent. I have read far too many books in the past couple of years where a woman’s role is still to be marginalised, patronised, passive and victim – apart from the minority of instances where she’s a menacing and/or vengeful bitch.

So I personally would be very wary indeed of including a disabled female character in a book without her condition being absolutely central and necessary to the plot. And then I would have to work very hard indeed to make her absolutely not a passive victim – and that would be very difficult indeed, in a narrative set in any kind of pre-modern society where reader expectations would be set by their own assumed knowledge of the historical disempowerment and invisibility of such individuals.

Now, having friends and family who’ve lived and worked abroad, often in developing countries, I know for a fact that viewpoint is more than a little skewed. When my parents lived in West Africa, we would see men and women who’d lost limbs to accident or disease out and about, making a living. Because otherwise they’d starve. We would see the mentally impaired and infirm being cared for by their families. A society needs to attain a certain level of wealth before they can warehouse the disabled out of sight.

But how to convey to the reader that their assumed knowledge is wrong without the benefit of out-of-story footnotes? It would be a very interesting writerly challenge – and if I had the right story, it would definitely be worth trying. But it would have to be for the right story, not just trying something for the sake of it.

Oh and by the way, any writer wanting to tackle this challenge should start by reading books like Sally Hyder’s own memoir, Finding Harmony. Sally has Multiple Sclerosis, not that you’d ever know it from her online conversation, unless she’s in the middle of plotting something like getting to the top of Ben Nevis in a motorised wheelchair.

As I say, it’s interesting question – and I don’t have any answers. Anyone else got any comments or observations?

“It’s a Literary Festival but not as we know it, Jim!”

I’ve just posted a piece on the EightSquared Blog thinking about the distinctive depth and breadth of programming at SF conventions, compared to the more typical lit fest.

You can find it by clicking here.

Incidentally, I hope to blog as usual here rather than just posting links, but as I’m sure you appreciate, between now and Eastercon, I am going to be pretty busy. In a good way.

If you want to offer your own perspectives, you can do that here or on the EightSquared blog as you prefer.

Right back to the To Do List. This morning? An updated introduction for the ebook of The Swordsman’s Oath…

Christmas knitting, cooking and some reflections on family history

You might want to settle down with a cup of tea and a mince pie, since this does run rather long, even though these are only the briefest of the stories I could tell…

I’ve been knitting for my new nephew this year. I like to knit and sorting out needles and wool always makes me think of my Great Aunty Ivy, eldest of my maternal grandmother’s sisters, who taught me to knit and crochet when I was about nine. When she died, all her needles, hooks and the Singer sewing machine that had been a wedding present to her in 1919 came to me. It still has the instructions including notes on the correct needles to use for whalebone and an attachment for goffering the frills for maids’ caps.

Ivy hadn’t been expected to live to be married, having had a life-threatening goitre requiring a drastic operation in 1917. Gynae complications meant she could never have children and then she was widowed in the early 1950s, when her husband had a brain haemorrhage. But you just have to get on with life, she told me. So she did, robust in her opinions and in her vegetarianism, a staunch advocate of that since the 1920s. Woe betide anyone foolish enough to dismiss a meat-free diet as hippy faddishness in her hearing.

Born in 1900, she was, as she liked to tell us when she visited my grandparents at Christmas, the last Victorian in the family. Not that she had much time for ‘Victorian values’. I remember, one summer visit in my early teens, as we sat knitting together, her making some remarkably forthright enquiries as to what I knew about the facts of life. Once she was satisfied that I was properly informed, she told me about the day she and Betty, her other sister, had needed to reassure my startled grandmother returning from a bike ride with a bloodstained skirt. Ivy had only recently learned the full facts herself, on her wedding night when her husband had found himself patiently explaining what he was trying to do with and to her. None of the women of that generation had any objection to me, my siblings and cousins co-habiting before marriage. Very sensible, they called it, out of their husbands’ hearing.

The last conversation I had with Aunty Ivy, not long before her death, included her asking me all about the boyfriend I was living with, since he had been invited to my grandparents’ 80th birthday party, mostly so my Grandmother could meet/inspect him. Ivy, at 88, had been too frail to attend. Apparently the report was sufficiently favourable that they had decided between them he would make an excellent husband. They weren’t wrong. We’ve been married since 1989.

I’ve been thinking on my Grandmother today as I do some Christmas baking. A recent newspaper article agonising about how to bake a decent chocolate cake baffled me. I was taught to make a sponge mix with one quarter of the flour by weight replaced with cocoa powder. Job done. I’ve also made mince pies today, using the pastry recipe my Grandma taught me; half fat to flour, fat consisting of half butter* and half lard*. They always come out beautifully.

(*goat butter since I can’t eat cow’s milk and Cookeen if vegetarians are expected)

Grandma worked in ladies’ fashions at Bourne & Hollingsworth, Selfridges and lastly at Harrods in London before the Second World War. She was there during the Abdication Crisis, when the shop girls regularly overheard the Countess of Wherever discussing the scandalous details of Edward’s infatuation with Wallis Simpson with Lady Whosit in the changing rooms. When the first reports appeared in the foreign press, all the staff were summoned to a meeting where they were told if anything appeared in the British newspapers, they would all be sacked, regardless of whether or not such tale-telling could be traced back to the shop. My Grandmother was quietly unimpressed by bombastic male authority, I realised, even when Grandpa was laying down the law as he tended to on a fairly regular basis.

Though Grandma and her neighbour did listen to the ARP warden who told them off for going out and stamping on incendiaries in WWII, to put them out before the flames took hold. Air raids were a constant threat as she lived on the South Coast with twin baby girls and a husband away doing air traffic control for the USAAF. One particularly bad night, she couldn’t face going down to the shelter for the third or fourth time so she simply got under the bed with both babies and the dog. That’s where she discovered my Grandfather’s tobacco ration from the Americans, which he was drawing even though he didn’t smoke. Remembering cigarettes were supposed to calm the nerves, she broke open a packet of Lucky Strike and lit up. Because you just had to get on with things. There was no point in making a fuss.

When I make my mince pies, I used the pressed steel tins we got from my husband’s grandmother. Well greased, things never stick to them and the pastry is never soggy on the bottom. Steel, not stainless steel, mark you. So they need to be washed promptly and then put in the cooling oven to dry.

I met Nan when I was living here during a year’s medical leave from university. That was a tough year for all sorts of reasons and I used to go and see her when I needed some company. She was calm and quiet and welcoming and we talked about days gone by in the Cotswolds and her life in service as a daily cook to a local wealthy family and what was on the telly and oh, all sorts of things. She and my husband and his brother were all very close since she had helped see them through the tragically early death of their mother from cancer. In one of his last conversations with her, she told my husband ‘you should marry that girl’. He told her that he would, even before he’d asked me. Like my Aunty Ivy, Nan could see we were right for each other long before we were certain.

I have had to replace the basin for the Christmas pudding this year. Nan’s has developed an ominous crack so we’ll use it for fruit from now on. When I was younger, family Christmas puddings always came from my step-father’s mother. Granny was the eldest of nine born on a Lincolnshire farm just before the First World War. Her mother died young so she pretty much raised her brothers and sisters. She still found time to help out her neighbours though, particularly the ‘city girl’ a local gamekeeper married. Other locals were inclined to look on with disapproval. Granny called round to see how the new bride was getting on – and found her in tears, trying to pluck a hare. So Granny helped her skin and cook it, and kept an eye on her thereafter. Right into her latter years, Granny was quite capable of stopping to wring a pheasant’s neck when she saw a car clip one and leave it injured by the side of the road. And take it home for Sunday lunch.

She trained as a nurse and worked ‘on the District’ all her professional life, with that same blend of compassion and practicality, driving her Morris Minor all round South Yorkshire. She spent the Second World War nursing the wounded as well as raising her young son with her husband away serving as a radio operator on Lancaster bombers. Just getting on with it.

Meantime, my Granny McKenna was getting on with things in Plymouth, all through the air raids while her husband worked as a fitter in the Royal Dockyards and she raised three children including one hospitalised with osteomyelitis after breaking his leg. The doctors wanted to amputate but Granny wouldn’t let them, insisting that she would nurse my uncle through the bone infection and she succeeded. She did all this while wearing a fearsome back brace of leather and steel which fascinated me and my brother as young children. As a young woman just over from Ireland, she’d been hit by a brewery dray and when she’d recovered consciousness, she walked to the hospital with a broken ankle and several fractured vertebrae.

She’d come over to England to be as a priest’s housekeeper, initially working at the De La Salle teacher training college in London. An orphan from the Magdalene Laundries, that’s what she’d been trained up to do with her life. Except she met my grandfather who was working as a groundsman at the college and that was that. In her sixties, when she applied for her first passport, Granny McKenna discovered that the details the nuns had supplied about her original name, age and birth date were all incorrect. So she simply celebrated two birthdays for the rest of her life. There was no point making a fuss. Incidentally, she needed a passport to go on a parish trip to Lourdes. Not on her own account, you understand. She was going as a helper for those unfortunate souls who needed such a blessing.

These are my foremothers and I always find myself remembering them with admiration and affection at Christmas.

Epic fantasy and Women. Girls and Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks

There’s clearly something in the air again. This past week has seen some excellent posts challenging those hide-bound readers who want their epic fantasy to stick to outdated straight, white, male-driven narratives, arguing in their ignorance that this is historically accurate whereas narratives including women with autonomy and agency are political correctness gone mad.

In case you missed one or more of these, here are some links – and if you’ve seen one I missed, please flag it up.

Scott Lynch responds to a critical reader – “God, yes! If there’s one thing fantasy is just crawling with these days it’s widowed black middle-aged pirate moms.” You’re picking up the sarcasm there? Good. Read the whole thing, it’s awesome.

Foz Meadows offers “PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical”

prompted by –

Tansy Rayner Roberts “Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.”

Cheryl Morgan rounds up those same links and adds a few pertinent thoughts of her own.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll also link back to my own piece for Bad Reputation on the problematic representation of women in fantasy

Mind you, does anyone else find it tiresome that we still – men and women alike – have to keep pointing out these self-evident truths to the wilfully blinkered?

So let’s work on making it impossible for those types to deny women’s interest in and involvement with epic fantasy fiction and gaming without physically shutting their eyes and sticking their fingers in their ears while chanting “la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you”.

Here’s a good place to start. Jonathan Green is running a Kickstarter “You are the Hero” to fund writing a history, indeed a celebration of, 30 Years of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. As you’ll see from the page, he plans on interviewing a broad range of chaps to ensure a comprehensive exploration of these ground-breaking gaming books.

Um, yes. Chaps. Everyone man jack of the writers, artists and other creative types listed. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have genially queried this – and I’m sure you’ll be as pleased as me to learn that Jonathan is extremely keen to find more of the likes of me, who played through these books just as avidly as our brothers back in the day. I’m just as interested to find out how many of us there might be.

So if you are a fighting fantasy fan of the female persuasion, do let me know. If you’re happy for me to pass on your detail to Jonathan, do say so. Clearly whether or not he contacts you will be up to him; it’s his project and I can’t speak for what material he might need. But we can at least ensure he has such resources to hand.

Today – an in-depth interview with SFX Magazine

I thoroughly enjoyed doing this interview with SFX’s Alasdair Stuart, discussing all sorts of things from the early days of my writing career to the way my books have developed and how I arrived at The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. He asked some really interesting questions so hopefully you’ll find the answers offer you something new to think about too.

Click here to read the full interview

“Turns & Chances” and the twists that brought everything together…

As of next week, I’m delighted to say that you will have the opportunity to read my novella “Turns & Chances” as an ebook, available for all formats and through Amazon, B&N and Kobo. Like A Few Further Tales of Einarinn, this will be published by Wizard’s Tower Press and as before, I am indebted to Antimatter ePress for turning the original text into such a high quality electronic version. So to whet your appetite, here’s the cover for you to admire, with Edward Miller’s splendid artwork.

Turns & Chances - cover art by Edward Miller

People often ask authors where they get their ideas. Like many of my friends and colleagues, I explain that getting the ideas isn’t the problem. Writers find them everywhere. They turn up even when you’re not looking for them; plot hooks, what-if questions, intriguing characters, an atmospheric place, an unnerving thought. There are times, especially when you’re in the throes of writing an entirely different book, when you virtually have to beat off such distractions with a stick.

Besides, one idea is not enough. Any one of those things I’ve just mentioned can be the start of a new story but only if the other essential elements are readily to hand. A place needs characters to people it. Characters need a plot to prompt action and reaction. Both plot and people must be solidly rooted in and naturally arising from the places that have made them. It’s a complex alchemy.

So every writer I know has inert story elements hanging around in the back of their mind or in some notebook or a file on their hard drive, waiting for the catalyst which will turn them into story-telling gold. The country of Lescar was just one such idea for me. When I was writing the Tales of Einarinn, I had mercenary characters like Halice, Sorgrad and Gren. To give them that necessary depth of background, I sketched in this divided and fractious realm, Lescar, plagued by intermittent warfare thanks to six rival dukes all seeking the High King’s crown. So mercenaries had somewhere to learn their skills and earn their money and as far as the Tales was concerned, that’s all I or anyone else needed to know.

Only I couldn’t help thinking about Lescar, while I was writing about the Aldabreshin Archipelago. What was life really like for the ordinary people stuck there; the ones who weren’t rival nobles or mercenaries? It must be pretty grim… Was there a story in that…? No, not according to my husband, always an invaluable sounding board for ideas, and as necessarily blunt as only a writer’s beloved must be. His precise words were ‘It’ll be a boring story about peasants covered in mud.’

He was right. I couldn’t do anything more with this idea until I had those other elements which would make it more than a story boring peasants covered in mud. So I set it aside. Then, some while later, I found myself wondering what those peasants might do, if some of them decided they were as mad as hell and not about to take being covered in mud any longer? What could they actually do, to protect their own people and look after their own interests? After all, they would still be subject to these warring dukes who have these murderous mercenaries to call on to crush dissent? Perhaps they could find some way to take advantage of their overlords and those hirelings dismissing them as just peasants covered in mud…?

Now I had the start of a story but another thing a writer soon learns is that stories come in different lengths. Some ideas are short story ideas. Some are novel-length. I knew this was more than a short story but equally clearly, it wasn’t a novel. So what could I do with it? In 2004 PS Publishing kindly provided the answer, by inviting me to write a novella for them. Turns & Chances was the result, published in both hardcover and paperback with Edward Miller’s fantastic cover art, which he’s generously given us permission to use for the ebook as well.

Though of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. PS Publishing invite other authors to write introductions to their novellas and so Chaz Brenchley offered his insights into this story. As so often, a fresh pair of eyes showed me things which I would never otherwise have seen about my own work. That final and essential ingredient is what turned Turns & Chances into the source of The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution. Chaz has also been kind enough to allow us to include his Introduction in the ebook, so you’ll be able to discover that final twist for yourself.

Chicks Unravel Time – and I’m one of them!

(And this is possibly the only circumstance in which I will be pleased, nay, delighted, to be called a ‘chick’.)

The sister book to the 2011 Hugo Award-winning Chicks Dig Time Lords has now been announced, to be published November 2012. Editors Deborah Stanish (Whedonistas) and L.M. Myles have gathered a host of award-winning female writers, media professionals and scientists to examine each season of new and classic Doctor Who, each from our own perspective.

Diana Gabaldon discusses how Jamie McCrimmon inspired her best-selling Outlander series, and Barbara Hambly (Benjamin January Mysteries) examines the delicate balance of rebooting a TV show. Seanan McGuire (Toby Daye series) reveals the power and pain of waiting in Series 5, and Una McCormack (The King’s Dragon) argues that Sylvester McCoy’s final year of Doctor Who is the show’s best season ever.

Other contributors include Tansy Rayner Roberts (Power and Majesty), Sarah Lotz (The Mall), Martha Wells (The Cloud Roads), Joan Frances Turner (Dust), Rachel Swirsky (“Fields of Gold”) and Aliette de Bodard (Obsidian and Blood series). Personally I can’t wait to see the full line-up – and to read all the other essays.

My piece is on Season 9 of classic Doctor Who, in which the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) tackle the Day of the Daleks, The Curse of Peladon, The Sea Devils, the Mutants and The Time Monster. Rewatching these stories made for fascinating viewing for me as this is pretty much the first season I really remember. I have those ‘snapshot’ type memories of Patrick Troughton (in black and white) but Jon Pertwee was (and always will be) my Doctor.

I’m not going to recap my essay here, obviously. Suffice it to say I looked at these stories through the twin lenses of ‘then’ and ‘now’ and found doing so rewarding and thought-provoking.

While doing so, I also had a great deal of fun, particularly noticing things which have no place in my piece for the book. For instance, who would have thought, forty years ago, that I would be cheering out loud today when the Doctor refers to his skills with Venusian Aikido and even demonstrates a recognisable technique? Who had even heard of aikido in the UK back then? Not that little girl in front of the telly, who’s now a second dan aikidoka – traditional style though, not Venusian.

That reference also reminded me of the SF I read as a kid, exploring the hot steamy jungles of Venus and skating along the cold frozen canals of Mars. It’s a shame in some ways that modern science has done away with such ‘scientifiction’. On the other hand, I often think that it’s not just my own generation of writers who were inspired by such reading. Isn’t current astronomy and extra-solar space exploration these days driven by a longing to find such places for real, inspired by that same ‘sensawunda’ which we all first encountered reading Asimov, Heinlein et al as kids and watching Doctor Who and Star Trek? If we can’t find strange new worlds, new life and new civilizations in our own solar system any more, let’s go looking elsewhere!

And that’s still at the core of the genre’s appeal for the modern generation – as well as the eternal appeal of good story-telling. It was very interesting discussing these particular stories with my own teenage sons, when they passed through the lounge and sat down to watch an episode or two with me. They appreciated the plot and the characters, especially the interplay between The Doctor and The Master, even if the production values were rather lacking to those accustomed to the revamped Battlestar Galactica. And here and there, harsher edges to the narrative did surprise them…

Mind you, there was one moment when I did wonder if they had been exposed to too much SF at an impressionable age.
Watching The Curse of Peladon, one son said, surprised, ‘Oh, it’s him!’
‘Him who?’ I asked.
‘Him off Robin Hood. You know, the one who played Much.’
‘You mean Sam Troughton?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘You do know this was filmed in 1972? So how could that actor look exactly the same when I was a kid as he did just a few years ago? You do know that the TARDIS isn’t real, don’t you…?’
After a very long moment indeed of them looking at me in baffled incomprehension, I relented and explained that the young King is in fact played by David Troughton father of Sam. (And the resemblance, especially in their voices, is remarkable.)

And of course, those two actors are respectively the son and grandson of the aforementioned Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Which if you think about it, is just one more of the many things that are so cool about Doctor Who.

Out Next Week – A Few Further Tales of Einarinn

The date’s fixed – 27th March 2012 will see ‘A Few Further Tales of Einarinn’ published by Wizard’s Tower Press, with the invaluable assistance of Antimatter ePress.

A short story collection

Isn’t that a great cover? The artwork’s by Jock and the colouring’s by Matt Brooker. The original black and white illustration of Livak is one of six pieces of art commissioned to go with The Wedding Gift chapbook and portfolio back in 2003. The others are Halice, by Staz Johnson, Ryshad by James Hodgkins, Sorgrad and Sorgren by Mike Collins, Shiv and Livak by Andy Hepworth and Planir by Steve White.

It’s really great to be able to use digital technology to bring these fabulous pieces of work to a wider audience. Better yet, they work splendidly as character illustrations between these particular short stories.

Win Some, Lose Some tells the story of that first encounter with Arle Cordainer which Livak mentions from time to time in the Tales. Find out why she’s intent on revenge.
A Spark in the Darkness sees Halice, Livak, Sorgrad and Gren coping with Halice’s injury between The Thief’s Gamble and The Swordsman’s Oath – tricky, when someone wants them all dead.
Absent Friends details Livak’s first introduction to Ryshad’s family, and what followed.
Why the Pied Crow Always Sounds Disappointed explains why Sorgrad and Gren were in Solura before The Assassin’s Edge – and why leaving them to their own devices is seldom a good idea.
The Wedding Gift sees Livak and Halice looking forward to the future, just as long as they can tidy up a few loose ends from their old lives.

The ebook will be available in epub and mobi formats, through Amazon and Barnes & Noble (and elsewhere in due course), worldwide and without DRM, for £2.99/$4.49.

How does that all sound?