Guest Post – E.C. Ambrose on the challenges of getting the words right in a historical novel


When she graciously invited me to visit on her blog, Juliet expressed some frustration over the problem of words—specifically, genuine, specific and appropriate words that we’re just not allowed to use, or must work in very carefully. She invited me to comment on the problem of words. Not long ago, working my way through my editor’s notes on Elisha Mancer, this month’s release in The Dark Apostle series, I encountered first hand the difficulty of words. Words are, in a novel, the primary tool for delivering the story. In a historical novel, they take on a special significance because selecting an appropriate word for the historical context can really make the sentence spark and the work feel right. And selecting the wrong word will annoy readers in tune with the history.

Which brings me to the problem of plagues. The Biblical plagues of Egypt, for instance. In modern parlance, “plague” retains a similar sense: a plague is, as the OED puts it, “an affliction, calamity, evil, scourge” (a plague of locusts, a plague of survey callers, etc.) But many readers of medievally set historical fiction immediately leap to a single meaning of the word, which came into use around 1382 to refer to a pestilence affecting man and beast. And “the plague” wasn’t conceived as a specific entity until the 1540’s. But basically, I can’t use the word in its historically accurate sense.

My difficulty with language then versus now doesn’t end with the plague. There is also the problem of things being lost in translation. Saints, that is. While we now use the word “translate” to refer exclusively to taking words or ideas from one language into another (sometimes metaphorically), the origin of the term is actually the transfer of a religious figure from one location to another, as a bishop who moves to a different see, or, more frequently, a saint or saint’s remains taken to a different church. It is this idea of holiness being moved or removed which brought the word to its present meaning, because the most work common work translated was the Bible itself.

“Broadcast” is another interesting example. Nowadays, we are used to “broadcast” news, a television or radio phenomenon by which information is shared. It’s actually a farming term, referring to the sowing of seeds by hand over a large area–the literal casting of the seed in a wide dispersal. But most readers, finding the word in a medieval historical context would leap to entirely the wrong impression, thinking I am using an anachronism. And so, rather than submit to a plague of criticism, I had to use something less historically appropriate, but more suitable to a contemporary audience.

This problem of words first arose in Elisha Barber, volume one of the series, when I referred to someone as a “blackguard,” a useage which can’t be traced to before the 16th century (my editor has an OED also, which is both blessing and curse). I ended up changing the insult to “chattering churl,” which not only employs a 14th century jibe, but adds to it the tendency to use alliterative insults from the same time period. Stretching for the historically appropriate choice actually resulted in an even more historical put-down.

As you can see, there are multiple layers to this dilemma. Is the word historically accurate? Will my readers understand it? Does it have contemporary implications that were not present in the period, but will complicate or undermine my intended meaning?

My series is based around medieval medicine, and surgery in particular, requiring some amount of period jargon appropriate to the profession. In this case, I rely strongly on context to invest the reader in the words. Sometimes, I can use the reaction of another character—their horror or confusion providing an innocent to whom the word can be explained. Sometimes, the meaning becomes clear as the action proceeds, and sometimes, the specific meaning is less important than that the new word becomes part of the framework of history on which the tale is woven.

Elaine Isaac
In book 3, Elisha Rex, one of my characters undergoes trepanation, an infamous medieval operation to ease a compressed skull fracture. Success rates were actually quite good, but most people rightly view with dread the idea that someone will cut a hole in their head. When that someone is a 14th century surgeon without recourse to anasthesia or antiseptic, the horror increases. The patient in the book is asked if he understands what will happen during the operation, and he replies, “Shave the scalp, make a cruciform incision, perforate, reginate, elevate.” My editor didn’t know what “reginate” means—I expect most readers don’t either–but the fact that it follows cutting open someone’s scalp, then the word “perforate” makes that unknown word all the more sinister.

In this case, I didn’t explain all of the unfamiliar terms surrounding the operation. Part of our fear of doctors stems from the fact that we don’t always understand what they say, yet we also know we need to trust them. We submit ourselves in part because of their professional demeanor, and jargon in this case is both symbolic of the doctor’s training, and of our own helplessness beneath the blade. Those mixed emotions of trust and dread link the reader’s experience with that of the character and, I hope, create a compelling scene—because of the right word, in the right place and time.

Want to know more? For sample chapters, historical research and some nifty extras, like a scroll-over image describing the medical tools on the cover of Elisha Barber, visit www.TheDarkApostle.com

E. C. Ambrose blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at http://ecambrose.wordpress.com/
See also –
https://twitter.com/ecambrose
https://www.facebook.com/ECAmbroseauthor

Buy Links for volume one, Elisha Barber:
Indiebound
Barnes & Noble
Amazon

Desert Island Books – Terry Pratchett – Men at Arms


If picking a single Edith Nesbit title was tough, choosing which Terry Pratchett book I’d want for this particular list was nigh on impossible. But there had to be at least one. As I’ve observed before, the Discworld series is my main ‘refuge reading’ these days, which is to say, the books I reach for when I need some respite from reality, a breathing space before I return to the everyday fray.

So why ‘Men at Arms’? For me, this is where Pratchett really hits his stride with the City Watch strand of books, especially with regard to the social and political commentary underpinning his exploration of Ankh Morpork. Dwarfish culture and society are expanded upon, as are the racial tensions between the dwarfs and the trolls. There’s the uses and abuses of technology discussed and so more besides. All this really deepens and enriches the Discworld hinterland.

In particular, we see the challenges and contradictions of democracy, set against the ‘enlightened’ autocracy of Lord Vetinari. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to let someone as intelligent and cunning as he is take care of running everyday life for us all? But that relies on having someone like Vetinari willing and able to take on the job. How do we feel about having our lives run according to a very different set of rules operating under the fig leaf of monarchy? What about the destructive nostalgia of Edward d’Eath putting grubby commoners in their place? Or the self-serving machinations of Dr Cruces ensuring the elite stay rich and powerful? Or come to that, the ruthless expediency which Sam Vimes would like to apply to maintaining law and order?

The Watchmen and women themselves are very much still a work-in-progress at this point in Pratchett’s writing, making this book all the more interesting to re-read. Vimes can still believably relapse into his old drunkard ways and the differences between him and Lady Sybil remain pronounced. Is their marriage really going to happen? If it does, can it possibly work out? Carrot’s naivety is still self-evident in his creatively spelled letters home but now we see new and intriguing facets to his straight-forward approach to life. Minor characters are fleshed out, developing the ensemble. Detritus has far more than a walk-on role, particularly in his partnership with Lance Constable Cuddy.

At this point in the series though, Detritus’ character development could take any one of several paths. The same is true of Angua, and of her relationship with Carrot. Most of all, there’s uncertainty, even danger, stalking these characters in a way that’s absent in later books. At this point, no one has plot immunity and that gives this particular story a definite edge.

There are also genuine ‘whodunnit’ puzzles to solve, with regard to the murders and what really happened to poor Brother Beano. Plus, of course, the book is deftly, wickedly funny, not least thanks to the reappearance of Gaspode the talking dog, who’s evidently made his way back to the city after his experiences in ‘Talking Pictures’. And as with all the Discworld books, the bright flashes of Pratchett’s lightning wit illuminate the threats lurking in the shadows all the more clearly.

I put this particular list of books together back in September and October 2016, when the world was a very different place. We’d had the self-destructive folly of the UK Brexit vote but the US election still lay ahead. Looking at this book in early 2017? With the self-deluding Hard Brexiteers persisting in their arrogant belief that they can dictate the best of all possible deals to the rest of the EU? When every passing day gives European states less reason to do the UK any favours, let alone respect Theresa May or Boris Johnson? With President Trump in the White House and heading an administration convinced they can peddle whatever lies they like while enforcing a racist, extremist agenda and dismantling or ignoring as many checks and balances as they can?

Reading Men At Arms in these circumstances, it’s tempting to think we really could use a Lord Vetinari or a Captain Carrot about now. We seem to have slipped into a world like the Discworld era ruled by Lord Snapcase, as seen in the later novel Nightwatch. But that sort of thinking is as much of a fantasy as anything Terry Pratchett wrote. The lesson we really should take from his writing right now is that it’s no good waiting for someone else to deal with such problems. Everyone has a responsibility to act.

Desert Island Books continued – Melanie Rawn – Dragon Prince

I promised I’d carry on with this blog series from my Novacon talk. Okay then.

This book was a revelation when I first read it in 1988 and it has stood up to re-reading since. Dragon Prince epitomises the game-changing mid-to-late 80s shift in epic fantasy from straight-forward Tolkien-alike tales to more challenging and ‘grown-up’ fiction drawing on and informed by history and human nature. There’s dragons and magic but not just for the ‘oh, wow, cool, cool’ factor. These classic elements of epic adventure become tools in the multi-faceted and believable power struggles between those princes who want to rule in the best interests of their people and those who think being born into the nobility means they can do whatever they want, indulging every desire and vice. All this is set in a vividly-realised and convincingly coherent, original world.

Every character in this book is complex, and in the case of the ‘good guys’ Prince Rohan and his Sunrunner-sorceress wife Sioned, conflicted. How can you counter someone utterly ruthless and completely without scruples without ending up compromised yourself? Because the main villain, High Prince Roelstra, is absolutely not some cardboard-cut-out Dark Lord driven by motiveless malignity. Rawn doesn’t flinch as she portrays just how absolutely absolute power can corrupt, in the hands of vengeful, spiteful man. Anyone who thinks that epic fantasy is all consolatory conservatism saying, ‘hey, patriarchal feudalism really isn’t so bad’, really needs to read this book and those that follow it.

Though not everyone’s dedicated to these power struggles, and that’s another important element. As well as the loyal princes backing Rohan, we see women whose main desire in life is to be a devoted and dedicated wife and mother, like Princess Tobin. Not because she’s forced into that role but because that’s what she chooses. There’s value in these women’s lives and in their contribution to the greater good and that’s important. There’s no hint that the only route to real merit for a female is to be faux-male. Indeed, we see the sacrifices that a forceful women must make.

Then there’s the impact of just plain bad luck, from small-scale misfortune to the utterly devastating. Heroes and villains alike have to cope with the consequences of uncaring nature and no one gets ‘plot-immunity’ to anything. All of which really challenges the reader. This is a book that demands engagement rather than merely offering entertainment to be passively absorbed.

What wasn’t revelatory about this book was seeing it written by a woman in the 80s. There were a whole host of female authors writing intelligent, challenging epic fantasy around that time – such as Elizabeth Moon, Katherine Kerr, Barbara Hambly to name merely my personal favourites. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series deserves mention too, even if she always insisted those books were Science Fiction rather than fantasy. They were all writing work to equal the finest male authors of the day, such as David Gemmell and Tad Williams, and they were equally visible back then. They’re all still writing but at times, you’d be hard pressed to know it, when all we see promoted is macho grimdarkery. Such women’s contribution to the epic fantasy genre is repeatedly and far too easily erased by all those ‘Best of’ ‘Must Read’ retrospective lists that only even mention male writers with ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ as the sole nod to female authors.

Did all these books shape my own writing? Absolutely. Do I owe any specific debt to Melanie Rawn’s work? I think so, when it comes to dragons. Much as I love the telepathic dragons of Pern and characters like Morkeleb in Hambly’s ‘Dragonsbane’, I reckon dragons should be as dangerous and unpredictable as the one that kills Prince Rohan’s father. Top predator, like the ones in my own Aldabreshin Compass series.

It may be nearly 30 years old now but Dragon Prince still deserves to be widely mentioned – and read. It was a significant book in epic fantasy’s development. So I was very pleased to be asked to write a piece on it for SFX magazine’s bookclub some while back. You can find that here.

You may also be interested in Tor.com’s Re-Reading Melanie Rawn blog series by Judith Tarr – who is herself another superb fantasy author who should go on your To Be Read list if you’re not already aware of her work.

If you’re going to tell lies, what’s your justification?

We all get used to the idea of little white lies; of resorting to minor dishonesty to smooth over social difficulties. Saying ‘I’m so sorry we can’t come to the party, I’m coming down with some sort of cold and I wouldn’t want to spread it around’. When actually, it’s just been an exhausting week at work and we’d much rather spend Saturday night on our own sofa with a movie on Netflix. Okay, it’s fudging the truth but surely that’s better than causing needless offence?

But where do we draw the line? How far will we go, insisting that the ends will justify the means? I first recall this debate during the ‘Operation Countryman’ investigations into the UK’s Metropolitan Police in the late 1970s. Among the allegations made was the police fabricating evidence, justifying this on the grounds that the crook in question might not be guilty of this particular charge but he had got away with so many other crimes that fitting him up for this one was serving justice regardless. Or that these people were so obviously guilty, even if no one could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, that the police just gave the prosecution a helping hand by burying something that undermined their case. Wrongdoing for the greater good is excusable, surely? It’s even got a special name now; ‘noble cause corruption’. Just try that phrase on for size a few times. Noble cause corruption. Isn’t it seductive? We all want to think we’re doing something noble. Except, as so many cases have shown, the consequences can be appalling miscarriages of justice. Who’s left feeling so noble once those truths come out?

What has this got to do with storytelling? Well, as the writing cliché goes, conflict is the essence of drama. Writing epic fantasy across four series of novels, I’ve set up my heroes and heroines with all manner of conflicts; murderous sneak-thieves, brutal invaders, arrogant nobles waging war to serve selfish ambitions, and renegade wizards threatening everyone’s peace. In all these stories, a broad array of characters are all serving the greater good with courage, guile and their quick wits. Granted, there’s deception and misdirection involved but that’s understandable and excusable. Noble, even.

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin
Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

But what if we take this one step further? What if the truth about something is so dangerous, if the consequences of it being revealed are so horribly dangerous, that bare-faced lies must be told to conceal it? Where’s the heroism in deliberately upholding something you know to be calculatedly false? What if those who discover this truth must be silenced by whatever means prove necessary? Where’s the heroism in using violence and threats to coerce innocent bystanders who’ve accidentally stumbled onto a secret? How does someone convince themselves that this sort of behaviour is in any sense noble? If they can’t, but they still have no choice but to act this way, what will that crisis of conscience mean for them? How corrosive will those lies be for their soul? This is the tension that underpins the Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom.

Not that I consciously realised this, when I started writing these stories back in 2008. But that’s the thing about fantasy fiction. It has an uncanny knack of reflecting the world we live in right back at us.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where the celebrity-obsessed rolling-news media are so seduced by ideas of ‘narrative’ that they persist in fitting ‘breaking news’ events into a pre-existing framework before even half the facts are known. When inconvenient facts emerge later, proving something significantly different happened, the truth will struggle to catch the lies which have already gone round the world.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where ‘reality’ TV no longer means documentaries bringing harsh truths into the light but ‘scripted’ and ‘constructed’ entertainments masquerading as real life. Somehow all this has become normalised, even acceptable, even as it colours attitudes and reinforces dangerous prejudices about religion, unemployment, poverty and black and minority ethnic issues.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where massively significant political victories are currently being won by people who tell deliberate and calculated lies. People who just shrug and carry on lying when the truth is waved in their face. Why are they doing this? Because those liars are getting their reward when those desperate and disadvantaged people who desperately want to believe those lies are voting for the lies not the truth. Because, to take just one example currently applicable to the UK and US, the lie of ‘vote for me/my plan and I’ll bring those old jobs back’ is quicker to tell and easier to swallow than a detailed explanation of decades of economic and industrial change which means those jobs are gone beyond recall and creating alternatives requires focused investment, hard work and new thinking.

What’s our excuse for letting such lies go unchallenged? We’re not trying to keep out the monsters from a shadow realm. In our world, allowing these lies to take over means the monsters get a hold over us all.

A Desert Island musical interlude – ‘Time’ by ELO

time-elo

Flipping the Desert Island Discs format for Novacon still meant including some music, by way of equivalent to the Castaway’s choice of books. My first selection is the 1981 album ‘Time’ by the Electric Light Orchestra. And honestly the Birmingham connection is entirely fortuitous. I’ve been a fan of ELO and Jeff Lynne’s work for decades. Anyway, we couldn’t play the whole thing that Friday evening so I picked ‘Here is the News’ as the track epitomising this album’s appeal for me.

For those of you not familiar with the song, here’s the official video. Which does look as if it was made for a tenner in about half an hour one Friday afternoon. So, please, just listen to those lyrics and try not to be too distracted by the cutting edge 1980s technology, not to mention the hair and makeup.

The words are the thing for me. Because I listen to lyrics above all else. I always knew that, sort of, but in recent years long car journeys with just the Music Student Son has really driven that home for me. Whether we’ve been heading for a SF convention, a University open day, or latterly, trekking up and down the M1 to Huddersfield where he’s studying, we alternate choice of CDs. When whoever’s not driving is swapping the music over, we’ve exchanged a few thoughts on the other’s choice. My observations are always about the words – “did you see what they did there with those references?” While his responses are always about the intricacies (or not) of the sound – “but they used a standard drum track!” Or alternatively from me – “it was a good tune but the lyrics barely avoided rhyming June with Spoon” versus him “but didn’t you catch what they did with the bass line?” Er… no…

Which is one reason why I cannot listen to music while I’m writing. Certainly not music with lyrics. At worst, I get horribly distracted. At best, the words end up in whatever I’m writing. This is the reason there’s a brothel in one of my books called ‘The Rising Sun’.

And which explains why I love this album so much. The whole thing’s a story, and one that prompts as many questions as it offers answers. Is the narrator dreaming? Is this a real time travel experience? What do these songs have to say about how we live now, about the future, about humanity, about relationships? While offering everything from fast-paced rock to heart-breaking ballads. Where do writers get their ideas from? If you’re like me, it’s from things like this.

As a single track, ‘Here is the News’ has intriguing questions in just about every line. Why ‘good old’ rocket lag? What does a cure for that mean anyway? Someone left their life behind in a plastic bag? How does that happen? Someone’s escaped from Satellite Two? So what happens there that means everyone must now ‘look very carefully, it might be you’? The Justice Computer… let’s think about that one for a while… And so on and so forth. I reckon I could get back from this Desert Island with an anthology of stories based on this one song alone, never mind the entire album.

Desert Island Books – Larry Niven – Tales of Known Space

tales_of_known_space_old_cover

As a student, I discovered Larry Niven’s writing in the extensive and eclectic paperback library maintained by the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Society – OUSFG. Which had been forbidden, on its foundation by CS Lewis and Brian Aldiss, to call itself a Science Fiction society, lest any unwary undergraduates were deceived into thinking it had anything to do with actual, proper and respectable science. Whatever.

Niven’s writing showed me still more facets of science fiction. Far more challenging aspects than I than I had encountered thus far, reading the likes of John Wyndham’s cosy catastrophes or the more cerebral musings of Arthur C Clarke. Niven’s books were full of hard edges, often sardonic, even sarcastic. His stories turned on sharp injustices or implacable forces of nature where, sorry, nobody cares. He relished drawing out ideas to logical yet appalling conclusions such as transplant technology leading to organ legging. Along with feeding my appetite for that sensawunda that underpins the best SF – transfer booths, stage trees, Mount Lookitthat, the Bandersnatchi, the Ringworld. Plus his work featured a whole lot of the stuff I already loved; psi powers in the Gil Hamilton stories, solar system adventures with the Belters, so on and so forth. And whatever the Oxford University Proctors might think, I actually picked up a fair bit of science, even if that was in a fairly haphazard fashion, from books like The Integral Trees.

Why this particular collection, of all Niven’s books? It has some of my favourite stories in it, such as Eye of an Octopus for a start. It’s also an interesting collection for a writer since it charts the evolution of his Known Space writing and includes a timeline as well as some author’s notes reflecting on the haphazard creation of a milieu through a varied body of work, written over many years. Unsurprisingly, this is of particular interest to me, as I continue exploring the River Kingdom world which I’m developing. I also want to take a new and closer look at Niven’s skills and techniques, in the peace and quiet that I hope to find on this notional Desert Island. The advent of ebooks is seeing a resurgence in shorter form fiction and I reckon we can all learn a lot from looking back to the previous heyday of SF as published in weekly and monthly magazines.

What? I’m calling for a return to the past? Advocating a reactionary, old-fashioned view of SF? Not at all. Don’t be daft. I’m talking about craft, not content here. Mind you, if you want to argue with the content, you’ll need to come prepared. Niven is an eloquent and persuasive advocate for his particular world view. Do I always agree with him? No. But that’s something else I’ve always valued about reading science fiction: getting insights into attitudes that might challenge me to justify my own. All the more so in our current world, now that it’s fatally easy to end up in our own personal echo chambers, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Reading stories from people who in operate in different spheres can definitely broaden our perspective.

And this series of posts is a personal retrospective on my lifetime of reading SF and fantasy. I wouldn’t hand my own student son my dog-eared copy of Tales of Known Space and expect it to have anything like the same impact on him, or the same resonance. Context is everything, in reading as in writing. Thirty-odd years ago, my SF universe was underpinned by Star Trek, Star Wars, Asimov et al. He’s grown up with Battlestar Galactica (the reboot), Firefly, the Halo games, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Martian and so much, much more.

As far as I am concerned, this is the fatal flaw in insisting that today’s newcomers to SF&F must go back and start their reading with the classics of the genre which meant so much to the likes of me, in the way back when. Some may take to these stories as readily as I did and that’s great, but I really wouldn’t necessarily expect it. That was then and this is now. I’m far more inclined to offer the newly curious current work that’s been written in the same context as their own lives and experiences. After all, there’s no shortage of excellent writing available at the moment, from doorstop novels to short stories. There’s time enough for those readers who become dedicated fans, or who decide to turn their own hand to writing, to go on to explore the origins and antecedents of the genre. Where I’d hope they’d find reading Larry Niven as much fun as I always have.

Desert Island Books – Robert A Heinlein – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I started reading Robert A Heinlein when I found his ‘juveniles’ in our local branch library’s Junior section. Farmer in the Sky, Tunnel in the Sky, Red Planet and so on. There were also a couple of books by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke in there, ideal reading now that my appetite for SF had been whetted by Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO and other 70s television offerings. But there weren’t that many of them. In fact, about a year before I went to secondary school, it was apparent to me and the nice lady librarians that I’d read pretty much everything in the Junior section, many of the books multiple times. This posed a problem because I wouldn’t be issued tickets for the Adult section until I went to secondary school, according to the rules.

A good librarian knows when a rule is more of a guideline. We came to a gentlewoman’s agreement that I would be allowed into the Adult section to read SF. After all, if books by Heinlein et al were in the Juniors, that would be perfectly safe, wouldn’t it? Clearly none of them had ever read I Will Fear No Evil… Well, I certainly found that an eye-opening introduction to just how different the world could look from inside someone else’s head.

But of all the Heinlein I read, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the book that’s stayed with me. It was my first introduction to a writer using historical events as a basis for a science fiction novel. I soon spotted the parallels with the American Revolution/War of Independence and the Russian Revolution. The mentions of a radically different political situation on Earth fascinated me. I liked the depth and substance added by the digressions and discussions about self-determination, passive resistance and how to organise a subversive network in secure cells. All of which took place in a world where everything has be to paid for; air, water, food. Where people dig their homes out of the moonrock and live in all manner of family structures which weren’t happening in Dorset in the 70s. Or at least, if they were, I didn’t know about it. A dangerous world and not just because vacuum and radiation can kill you. It’s a world where blinkered thinking and selfish greed driving those in unearned authority prompts brutal opposition that leaves no room for compromise. Even the language this story was told in had its intriguing peculiarities. So much of what I’ve loved about recent SF reads, from Ian McDonald’s Luna, to Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden books, can be traced back to this story.

Forty or so years later, I realise this was where I first encountered all sorts of things that were solidly SF back then and are now part of real life. Virtual reality, as fake personalities are constructed from pixels within a computer to further the revolution and protect those really behind it. Think how close to such realism our computer games have become. Surrogacy. The notion of Wyoh, the professional host mother was astonishing to me as a teenager. Now? That would hardly raise an eyebrow, though there might be some medical concerns.

Which prompts further thoughts on Heinlein’s attitudes to women and their roles in society in this particular novel. He’s so often accused of being a reactionary, right-wing writer these days. Really? I’m not convinced there’s over-much evidence here. Yes, in many ways, it’s a book of its time, but not in the way that those who want to excuse old-fashioned misogyny use that phrase so often. This moon is also a racially integrated society, let’s not forget. Which isn’t to say that elsewhere in Heinlein’s books, his attitudes and ideas can be problematic, all the more so where his writing disappears down the rabbit hole of his personal obsessions. All of which leads me to conclude that it’s both difficult and dangerous to make sweeping statements about one author’s entire body of writing, especially when that work extends over decades. (And sees me extremely keen to read Farah Mendlesohn’s forthcoming work on Heinlein)

Then there’s Mike, the dinkum thinkum. The AI by accident. The computer who becomes self aware as more and more processing power is added on to his mainframe in haphazard fashion. Who decides what he really wants to know is what makes something funny. Who wants a friend. A benign artificial intelligence. So different from the eerie menace of HAL or the impersonal functionality of Star Trek’s computer. I loved Mike. I still long for some such discovery in a computer lab somewhere…

Desert Island Books for Novacon – Rosemary Harris – The Moon in the Cloud

Last weekend I was having a splendid time at Novacon, where I was most royally treated as this year’s Guest of Honour. After the opening ceremony I settled down to chat with Eve Harvey about a selection of Desert Island books. Given this is a SF convention, I decided to select books I recalled as having a particular impact on me and my love of science fiction and fantasy writing, first as a reader and latterly as an author. It was great fun and I’ve been asked to share some thoughts online for the benefit of those who weren’t there.

Naturally, I am currently madly busy with all sorts of authorly and non-authorly calls on my time… so I’ve signally failed to find any leeway this week to write them all up. So I’ve decided to do one at a time instead 🙂 Here’s my first pick.

moon-in-the-cloud

Rosemary Harris – The Moon in the Cloud

This is the first of a trilogy set in the ancient world, when Noah has just been told by God that there’s going to be a flood. So he needs to build an ark, and to stock it with two of every kind of animal. Noah sets his ne’er-do-well son Ham the task of finding two lions and two sacred Egyptian cats for the collection. Idle and feckless Ham contracts this work out to Reuben, a poor musician and entertainer, promising him and his wife Thamar that they will have places on the ark. Reuben resolutely sets out for Egypt with his cat, his dog and his camel – who can all communicate with him. Complications ensue… Oh, and it’s also very funny.

This book – the whole trilogy – have stayed with me for decades, every since primary school. I reckon this was the first time I encountered an author taking an established story like Noah’s flood as a starting point and making something new that was wholly their own. There is real peril and genuine villainy and the pressing question: will virtue really be rewarded? All things which children should be encouraged to think through. All things which still inform my own writing.

How did I come across this book? Mrs Beauchamp, the teacher with responsibility for the school library (I think) would regularly pass me new purchases to read first and this was one of those. I really do feel it’s impossible to overstate the importance of libraries – at school and in the community – for children. Reading expands horizons and offers refuge and so much else, especially when guided by expert and experienced educators and librarians. Closing and downgrading libraries is one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism ongoing in our time.

What else did this book mean to me? I think my interest in Egypt and the ancient world generally predated my reading this series, but these books definitely helped to focus that fascination. Not least because I read and re-read this trilogy. Eventually I managed to buy my own set – which I still have – and every time I see them on the shelves I remember the Christmas money from Great Auntie Ivy which paid for them. That’s something that gave me pause, when I was choosing this selection. Remembering how precious books were back then, and how expensive they seemed. It’s worlds away from this day and age when I can pick up any paperback I might fancy (okay, within reason) or snag a bargain ebook for 99p if something interesting catches my eye.

Oh, and there’s a footnote about Jean Beauchamp, that wonderful teacher. She was long since retired when I became a published author myself, but the local teachers’ network passed word back to my Mum, also a primary teacher for many years, to say how delighted she had been to see a book written by one of the children whose love of reading she had nurtured.

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

A #HoldOnToTheLight post

copy-of-holdontothelight-fb-banner

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 http://www.HoldOnToTheLight.com and join us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/WeHoldOnToTheLight

So epublishing’s great for short stories – but how exactly do you do an anthology…?

The advent of ebooks has made all sorts of differences to the publishing landscape. The resurgence of shorter form fiction is merely one example. Now we’re seeing standalone stories about our favourite characters. We’re seeing writers gathering up short stories they’ve written for widely scattered publications and issuing them as collections (like my River Kingdom stories). We’re seeing authors getting together to write stories around a common theme – with some uncommonly good results, as seen in ‘Alien Artifacts’. Readers can now enjoy all these different approaches via their phones and tablets, as they travel to and from work and/or in other bits and pieces of downtime which don’t necessarily suit the next chapter of a novel.

But as with so much in epublishing, just throwing something together and throwing it out there isn’t going to win success. There’s just as much hard work involved, requiring the application of specific skills, involved in making an anthology which people will read, enjoy and recommend, as there is in epublishing a novel. One key difference is – there’s all manner of useful advice out there on how to write a good book. How to put together a decent anthology? Not so much.

Realising this has thankfully prompted Joshua Palmatier to embark on a detailed and illuminating series of posts, drawn from his own experience editing anthologies first for DAW and more recently for ZNBLLC. If you’re thinking of doing any sort of collection, this is essential reading. Even if you’re not, I’ll bet you’ll learn something new and useful.

And since we’re here, let’s check on the latest ZNB Kickstarter – for three intriguing anthologies so far. At the time of writing? $16,899 pledged of the $20,000 goal with 8 days to go.

Close enough to be thrilling. Far enough away to be challenging. I really do want to see these anthologies funded, so if you haven’t already checked them out, do go and take a look!

ZNB-alien artefacts