Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Where does the treasure go?

Heroes, as we know, require treasure, yet there are obvious problems with that. They receive it by the bucket load, yet there they are at the start of the next adventure needing more. What is happening to it in the meantime? Some possibilities:

1. They’ve been paying it into a pension scheme that hasn’t been doing well, what with the economic problems caused when the dragons started just sitting on their wealth again rather than investing it.
2. They put it all on red in the kingdom’s largest casino, which seemed like a good bet until they realised that was not ‘mindlessly bloody slaughter’ night after all.
3. Since traditional barbarian skills don’t include much in the way of tax accountancy, they might be paying it all straight to the treasury as a way of making up for past defaults (and robberies).
4. It might have been turned into small cupcakes by passing leprechauns eager to ensure that the value of the gold at the end of their rainbows keeps appreciating.
5. A very large team of pickpockets might have been very busy for about half an hour.
6. They might be statutorily obliged to spend ninety percent or more on wine, women and song. Which could be a problem for your tea-total and tone deaf barbarian.
7. Large queues of charitable organisations might form the moment a quest is successfully undertaken. After all, without someone paying for a new temple roof, how will the priests of Xxllzgl ever get back to their traditional pastimes of sacrificing people, bringing reigns of terror, and winning scrabble competitions?

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Middle Ages. Things People Forget.

If you’re writing fantasy set in a fantasy world rather than a modern setting, more than half the time, you’re writing about the middle ages. By that, I mean that people’s default setting for fantasy is knights and castles, peasants and women with those hats that look like ice cream cones. It’s chainmail and plate armour. It’s long swords and long bows. Even when they’re not specifically trying to be historical, they’re using historical elements. If you do, then here are a few random things worth remembering about the Middle Ages. There are many more, but I've forgotten them.

1. There’s no such thing as the Middle Ages. The term is a renaissance one designed to demonstrate their link to classical antiquity. It’s a way of saying ‘there’s us, there’s the Romans, and then there’s all this stuff in the middle that isn’t important.’
2. There’s really no such thing as the Middle Ages. Remember that what happened in eighth century Ireland is not what happened in fourteenth century Tuscany. What we think of as the Middle Ages is firstly a designation covering some serious geography, but also some major amounts of time (roughly 400-1500 in England, so Edward the Confessor is closer to us than those at the very start were to those at the end).
3. Knights were not initially all that noble. Knights were relatively minor blokes on horseback, a step or five up from peasants, certainly, but not automatically in the league of the barons. Those only adopted knightly habits over time.
4. ‘Chivalry’ is complicated and possibly illusory. In the early years, ‘the chivalry’ meant the blokes who rode horses (knights) rather than any code of behaviour. In fact, what was considered standard behaviour for knights generally wasn’t that nice.
5. The Church was only connected and monolithic in theory. In practice, local clergy may not have had that good an idea of what they were doing in many cases. Heresy often wasn’t just an opposition to the established church. Sometimes, it was just that people genuinely didn’t know what they were ‘meant’ to believe.
6. That said, there were plenty of international connections around, and the Church was a major part of that. If we take my beloved (ish) minster churches, even in the twelfth century, they had a great many foreign canons holding prebends. Of course, how many of them actually showed up is more debateable.
7. Kings did not sit in castles waiting for people to show up. Mostly, they processed around their domains, demanding hospitality and reminding people that they were in charge. The same is true of bishops, barons, and many others.
8. Things did not run according to a neat feudal system. Instead, they ran according to a complex series of relationships, scraps of authority, and moments of beating people over the head with swords.

Sunday, 27 November 2011


One of the biggest things we need to do as writers is evaluate ideas. We all have ideas, whether good, bad or indifferent. Many of us have too many. The key thing is sorting them out into some kind of order, and working out which are worth giving up days, or in the case of novels months, of our time to. I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to this, but I think I do have a few of the right questions.

Question one- What is the idea? Often, we are distracted not by ideas, but by the ghosts of ideas. Faint flickerings of possible ideas work to grab our attention, but when we look at them head on, they aren’t really there. To find out if they actually are, try writing them down clearly and succinctly. It separates the real ideas from the general feelings.

Question two- Has it been done? Yes, obviously all ideas have been done, but some have been done more than others. What you need to ask yourself is whether you are exploring vampires, angels, or whatever solely because there have been a lot of books about it recently, or because you genuinely feel you can contribute something.

Question three- Can you see where it might go? Good ideas will help you to generate other ideas. They will serve as starting points, not things complete unto themselves. If half an hour after having your idea you still have one line rather than a whole page of brainstorming, you obviously aren’t that inspired by it. Which brings us to…

Quest four- Are you excited? You only have so much time, which means that you can only write so many things. Committing time to one thing means not committing it to others, so you have to be sure that the ones you decide to work on are the ones that really excite you. Trust me, that excitement will come through in your writing.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Beginning

I've known how my next novel starts for some time, because I've had three goes at it so far. Here's to number four. It starts like this:

One of the more curious things about… well, things, is the number of those things that begin in pubs. Not the biggest things, obviously. Universes only do so, for example, if they happen to be quite small, and exceptionally alcoholic, ones. For things more generally, however, pubs are traditional.
This pub, in the middle of the small town of New Wrexford was called the Frog and Spigot. It sat sandwiched between the town’s theatre, which appeared from the outside to suffer from a typically theatrical excess of architecture, and a small firm of architects, which didn’t. The landlord generally found it quite a profitable place to be, so long as he remembered not to offer any credit to anyone about to wander off on an extended tour of the Scottish Play in Madagascar. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Incidentally, I have a short story coming out sometime at the beginning of next week, in the new magazine The Empress of Mars, which is run by the ever busy Alex Wolfe. It's called 'The Green Planet' and features the words 'Martian tourist industry'. Hopefully, I don't need to say much more than that.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

One thing you find a lot in fantasy literature is that the heroes have to stop off for information. This usually involves a wizard, but there are plenty of other options:

  1. The traditional hermit. Hermits are surprisingly easy to find in medieval literature, showing up all the time to help people out with tricky quests, circuit diagrams and so forth. So why not have one show up to help your heroes out? They're in somewhere unsuitable, such as a modern supermarket, you say? Well, even hermits have to do their shopping sometime.
  2. Have a conveniently located citizens' advice bureau in the middle of that magic forest. Why? Typical government thinking, that's why (no, I don't know what sort of typical government thinking either).
  3. Ask a rather uncooperative magic mirror. I do this a lot in stories. In fact, one shows up as a rather amusing minor character in Court of Dreams.
  4. Demand it from a particularly legalistic group of baddies under the rules of full disclosure.
  5. Overhear it in an inn. Or better yet, find the bloke whose job it is to whisper such things in inns and make him tell you.
  6. Defeat dread powers in an unfathomable contest (or Scrabble, though this is only doable if the proper names of ancient Things are not allowed)
  7. Ask a wizard's apprentice, who is the one who has actually been out to get the information.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Things to Deal With

When writing, there are, inevitably, things that we have to come to terms with. At least if we want to stay remotely sane. Some of these things (like the part where we don’t have the talent of our favourite writer) will be big. Some of these things (like the universe’s ability to spontaneously generate paperclips) will be small. Here are just a few:

1. We don’t create in a vacuum. At least not without a spacesuit. Very few ideas are massively, hugely original, and waiting around for one that is unlike any other idea ever can cause significant delays. Better to get started and trust to your talents to make it unique.
2. Someone will hate your novel. Novels I have ghostwritten have received five star reviews. Novels I have ghostwritten have received one star reviews. Often, the same novel is involved. You cannot control how people will react to a piece. You can only put out the best work you can and hope that it is enough, then try to honestly assess what happened afterwards.
3. You will not always meet your writing word count goals. This is okay.
4. Your novel will not be perfect when you send it out, despite your efforts. There will always, always be some niggling little thing. If you wait for it to be perfect, you will wait a long time.
5. There will be things you dislike as you write them, but which you will like later. The reverse is also true.
6. You will never be able to prevent yourself from justifying a raid on the house’s biscuit supplies mid chapter.
7.  The novel will never look quite the same on paper as in your head.
8.  People will get the names and looks of your characters wrong, then insist that you have gotten them wrong.
9.  Big ideas written down after dreams will never make sense in the morning light.
10.  Any word learned from a word a day thing will find a way to show up at least five times in one paragraph.

Friday, 18 November 2011

I should just sleep to ease the shadows’ ache
Surrender flesh to sweet embrace of night
But yet I sit, meandering here awake
As tiredness brings a different sort of sight

That sees the world through eyes too tired to care
And skips across the stumbling blocks of day
As though the universe were never there
And life, unlike my thoughts, will never stray

Too tired to sleep, I sit, and stare and wait
As everything around me fades to clear
In dreams half caught by my unsleeping bait
That will, by morning light, have disappeared.
Made into a thing of silence
Of stillness, wrapped against you
Filling up less space, and less
With every movement in the dark

Every indraw of your breath
Claiming this quiet room as yours
My spaces yielding as I do
Fading to a happy second place

A spot from which to watch
The rhythmic rise and fall
Of crisp while sheets
Staying as close as me

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

It's not easy being small

Have you noticed how fantasy quests always seem to be aimed at big people? Oh, you get the odd hobbit and dwarf roped into quests to mount something or other, but frankly, they're not that far off normal size. Big enough to swing a battleaxe in either hand, in the case of most dwarves. What about quests for the really little people, like gnomes, pixies, and so on? Here are a few ideas, taking into account a few of the differences in scale:
  1. An epic journey to the other end of a garden to retrieve something from the fabled Patio of Doom.
  2. A quest to slay the great armoured beast (a tortoise. Note to tortoise lovers, it doesn't have to be a successful quest).
  3. A cunning theft, which works for the simple reason that our heroes fit into the evil wizard's pockets as he goes back into his home.
  4. An even more cunning theft, infiltrating somewhere through a mighty labyrinth that might or might not be a collection of mouse holes.
  5. A traditional quest for someone hobbit sized, involving a magical ring (which is about the size of a hula hoop on a very small fairy)
  6. Fighting a giant, troll, or other creature that would seem very big even to the rest of us. The first stage is to get its attention and convince it that yes, you do really want to fight.
  7. Protesting against the clearance of your ancient ancestral lands (someone's allotment)

Monday, 14 November 2011

My Process Writing Court of Dreams

A post about re-using, or combining, ideas that probably also gives you a few insights into my process as a writer (if anyone in their right mind should want such a thing). Specifically, this is a post about the rather strange process by which my novel Court of Dreams came into existence and became the version of the story now trapped in between covers by Pink Narcissus Press and awaiting release.

The basic process, as far as I’m aware, should go something like “plot the story, write the story, edit the story into shape”. That is at least vaguely what happened with the final version (although even there, plotting took place part way through). The thing is, it’s not how the story as a whole came into being.

Court of Dreams is in fact a bit of a mash up of ideas. Way back when, before I had even completed my urban fantasy novels Searching and Witch hunt, I had a go at a novel which did not get far enough to acquire a name. I knew I wanted it to have fairy folk, and the real world, and possibly something about finding out that you’re something you aren’t. In fact, without ever having read any urban faerie, that was what I wanted to do. So I started to write a story about a young woman targeted by fairy assassins for being something special. It had an evil fairy princess, accompanied by a big, thuggish henchman. It started off in a university, largely because I started writing it in a university library. It ran into problems, and I did what I always do at times like this. I deleted it.

I had another two goes at it. Many of the same elements reappeared each time, but some differences cropped up. The MC went from being a young woman, to a young man, to a young woman again. I picked up a couple of jokes about things like architecture. I started to think about themes of family and duty. I still deleted it.

We still aren’t up to Searching and Witch Hunt, incidentally. They came afterwards, and grew partly out of a second project I worked on, called Grey Knight. This was urban fantasy, with a faerie theme again, doing the typical thing of a supernatural detective type solving a strange case. The detective in this case was meant to be a human taken by the fey hundreds of years back and kept alive by their whim. That doesn’t matter so much as the fact that it introduced me to my vaguely Celtic sounding fairy queen of choice, as well as revisiting notions of the greater good and duty in a plot that was remarkably similar to my first one. I also came up with the idea of having lots and lots of supernatural Courts rather than just the usual ones (many other people beat me to it, but I didn’t know). I actually got to the end of that one. I may even have touted it around. I forget. It certainly didn’t get any interest, for the simple reason that it wasn’t very good.

Then I wrote the urban fantasy series that can be found through my sidebar, if you really want to. I wrote it essentially because it seemed like what everybody ought to be writing at the time, which is why it’s not a true reflection of what I do. I sold it, and got on with other things. More to the point, I finally decided that I wanted to be funny.

But what to be funny on? I didn’t have a plot. I didn’t have characters. I briefly considered doing a funny urban fantasy of the same type as Searching, but with gags. I’m glad I didn’t, but that idea got me thinking about whether I could rework Grey Knight with jokes, and that in turn got me thinking about that old, discarded idea I wanted another go at. It was at about that point that I realised they both used essentially the same idea.

So I stripped it back and rebuilt it, using favourite parts where it seemed like fun. I kept my fairy queen. I kept the idea of her having a favourite advisor, though I changed her considerably. I kept my evil princess and my thug, though he grew into just about my favourite character ever. I took my old, defunct idea, redid it in a completely new way, and came up with a book I really love.

So what's my point? Maybe it's that ideas we love stick with us. Maybe it's that the way you choose to tell a story is what really matters. Or maybe it's just the power of recycling, even when it comes to stories. Which begs the question of what old ideas you have lying around, really.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Alternatives to Spellbooks.

  1. Spell scrolls, spell tablets, spell e-books. These are just the spell book in a slightly different technology. Though I'm sure some wizards will still go on about the smell of the virgins blood on the pages and the lovely feel of the vellum, plus weight and space considerations aren't such a big deal when you have apprentices around to carry things.
  2. Have frogs that turn into the relevant spell forms with the right spell, which will presumably be stored on another frog and... well, you'll need a lot of frogs.
  3. Have some spelling bees. Yes, that's right, specially trained bees that fly in formation to make mystic runes. Effects of eating their honey may vary.
  4. Have all the reminders for your spells written on the back of your hand. Possibly one for wizards finding themselves under sudden exam conditions.
  5. Spell words attached to a mechanical manservant by way of fridge magnets. Some elements of this may be hard to get hold of. Oh, and mechanical manservants aren't that common either.
  6. For maximum permanency, carve them into a big stone wall that definitely isn't going anywhere ever, except when the Council of Mages points out that you forgot to get planning permission.
  7. For mages with castles in the clouds, balloons, or other flying machines, cut them into chalk cliffs to be viewed from above, or grow stands of trees in the right shapes.
  8. Have a single long piece of cloth on which every spell is written. Of course, it will need to be unwound every time you need to check an invocation.
  9. Find a creature with a famously good memory (such as an... no it's gone again) and get it to remember things, then communicate with it through a magical device which is perfectly safe, because you put it down just... um...
  10. Use small pieces of jewellery as physical reminders, though more powerful mages may end up clanking a little as they move.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Spell Books

Why do wizards always have spell books? It’s something that has just struck me as slightly odd. They always seem to have the same kind of big, leather bound tomes, which raises some fairly obvious thoughts (to me. I’m resigned to the fact that what I consider obvious strikes other people as slightly odd).

First, where do they get them? The decline of the independent book shop (and yes, it is a phenomenon that has spread to fantasy kingdoms) surely means that it is becoming harder by the day. All right, so maybe they send off for them, but really, we’re talking about some quite specialised bookbinding skills here. Particularly when you consider the effort involved in preserving these things. Speaking as a man who has had to sit on hard chairs in archives while the books got cushions, I know what I’m talking about.

Second, are they available as ebooks? Possibly not so applicable to medieval fantasy (though watch out for those magic mirror readers) but surely perfectly all right for anything urban fantasy related. Though I should point out that my urban fantasy series featured a witch who not only had the obligatory big leather bound books, but actually lived in an independent bookshop.

Third, with these books written by Things from Beyond, and various other capitalisations, do said things acquire their book deals in the normal ways? Does Xlarglpop the Destroyer have an agent, and if so, does that mean it will be postponing the destruction of the universe until after its next book signing?

Also, isn’t it worth experimenting with other approaches to aiding your memory for these things? Post it notes, for example, or carefully trained talking birds (I sense a list coming on). Why is it always the big, leather bound book?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Fantasy Priests

A quick post for anyone writing anything vaguely medieval. Please get your priests right. Perhaps this is just something I notice, having written a comparative history of three medieval religious institutions as part of my PhD, but in a lot of historical fiction, historical fantasy and so forth, people don’t always seem to use their priests in ways that are remotely historically accurate. Here are just a few things to watch for:

Calling every religious figure a ‘priest’. Yes, I did it above, but there were canons and vicars, chantry priests and monks and friars and… you get the idea. Some will only be appropriate for particular time periods (no Dominican Friars in the early middle ages) while each one had a specialised and slightly different role to play in medieval life.

Not making your religious figures important enough. If you have a major lord, then why would he be hanging around with a very minor priest and treating him as an equal? For that, bring in a bishop, or even an archbishop. Remember too that for monasteries, the abbot often connected with the world much more than individual monks.

Remember that the landscape changed. Very broadly speaking Anglo Saxon England featured many more general purpose religious institutions than post-Conquest England. There was a focus on what are now termed minsters, and the system of parishes was not well defined for several hundred years. Post Conquest, we have the rise of new monastic orders, the birth of the friars, and enough other stuff to make it clear you can’t treat the whole thing as one big lump.

Remember that clerics had a role to play. They weren’t just shut up in churches. Noblemen retained minor clerics to do the medieval equivalent of desk jobs. Canons often found themselves seconded to their archbishops. Archdeacons had a constant job wandering around broad rural areas dispensing canon law. Don’t ignore them.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


The thing with magical worlds is that they can show up almost anywhere. Here are just a few of the places they might, if you aren’t careful:

1. Let’s start with the classic. At the back of wardrobes. This can be a problem for anyone involved in removals and/or the antiques trade. In fact, certain antiques dealers might well take steps to deal with anything that came out.
2. Under the bed. There’s a reason there are monsters there, and it’s mostly because some bloody idiot has stuck a piece of bedroom furniture right over their back garden.
3. A crack in the wall. As I believe I illustrated perfectly well in this old blogfest.
4. Just on the other side of a locked gate, to which the key has recently been found, in preparation for the renovations of the ‘vacant’ area on the other side.
5. Just down the road that your Sat Nav tells you really is the perfect short cut. After all, these things are never actually short cuts.
6. In someone’s pocket, under a selection of sweet wrappers.
7. In a book, accessible by reading it, and possibly very dangerous if the same principle applies to the very hungry caterpillar (I was watching a wildlife thing that happened to feature fluffy bear caterpillars earlier. I can’t remember the book mentioning anything about a fourteen year lifecycle)
8. Overlayered with our world, and accessed just by some ordinary action that is far too easy to be really safe. Getting back might be harder.