Monday, 31 December 2012

A Quick Review of the Writing Year

First, let me wish a happy new year to everyone reading this. I suppose it's that time of year when everyone looks back at what they've done and tries to work out what they're doing next year. I'm going to save the thoughts for next year for another post, but it's probably worth thinking about some of the writing things for a bit.

By my calculations, assuming I've added it up right and not including various smaller bits and pieces, I was a ghostwriter on around fifteen novel length pieces of work this year. That's quite a lot, I think. There were times when it even seemed like a little too many. Although since I've added some new sources for jobs, I think that number might come down a little next year.

This year is also the year that my comic fantasy novel Court of Dreams came out. Thank you everyone who bought a copy, and also to some of the reviewers who have said often very nice things about it. If you would like one here are the details of my page, while this is the publisher's site.

Things completed for myself? Well, there's another novel, which is out with publishers at the moment. I think I managed a grand total of about one short story though (which will be coming out in Wendy Tyler Ryan's Second Avenue Second Hand anthology), and probably about as many poems.

Did I learn anything as a writer this year? Probably, I learned something about the business of being a writer, and the difficulty of promoting yourself. I think I learned that honestly, people don't want to hear you just promoting yourself endlessly, that being part of a trend can help a lot, and that otherwise, it's better just to say whatever's on your mind. Writing wise, I think that possibly, I've learned just to tell the story a little more.

Saturday, 22 December 2012


Things I've been doing today include buying a Christmas tree, learning some old music, and playing around with bits for a novel I'm working on.

The Christmas tree came when it became clear that our usual artificial one wasn't going to stand up any longer (or indeed at all) without help, so it brought a trip to the local supermarket for what has to be the shortest tree we've had at 3'. Also one of the few real ones. I'm used to trees being this looming presence at the back of the room, not a small one off to the side. Getting it was surprisingly easy, given how close we are to the big day. Actually being able to park somewhere on the 22nd? There's something wrong with that. Although it did take me half an hour to push my way around the supermarket and locate some cheese. What is it about little old ladies that they think I'm not going to elbow them out of the way?

The old music came in the form of O'Carolan's music for harp, which works very well on acoustic guitar. Or any guitar, because I'm increasingly finding that the electric/acoustic division is an artifical one. If you haven't heard any of O'Carolan's pieces and don't know about him, he was a blind harpist from the 17th/18th centuries, who composed many of the most beautiful folk melodies of the time. I can take or leave classical music, but older folk songs often have a simple purity to them. So does a lot of pre-classical early music.

The writing is on yet another piece I've had two or three goes at. The tone I'm aiming for with this one is kind of that of a mad fairytale, just writing any old thing and seeing how it comes out. It's chaotic, but in some ways that's perfect. I remember watching the penultimate episode of Merlin earlier, and I found myself seeing just how easily the standard structures can overwhelm imagination in the writing of these things. If you're writing fantasy, but you're doing the same thing as everyone else in the same ways, in what sense is it truly fantastical?

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

History for Writers: Making Sense of Charters

Getting back to the idea of writers using historical research, what if you want to go the whole hog at your local archives and research some old charters, grants or other documents relating to a specific event? How do you get the most out of them? What possible use are they? Shouldn't you just be reading a general history of the time and making up the details instead?

Well you could, but sometimes single documents can give you real insight into tiny moments of history. I've been playing around with a short story based on historical events, and the documentary evidence is crucial to it. In fact, without my primary source research, I wouldn't know about it at all. I'm going to use that experience to suggest ways of going about this.

First, the task generally isn't as daunting as people think. Charters, wills, grants, legal procedings and other documents, even back to the Anglo-Saxon period in the UK (please don't call them the Dark Ages) are frequently collected together, and generally translated for those without much Latin. Even when they aren't, charters in particular tend to follow standard forms, making them relatively easy to translate. Specific institutions tend to have collections of all their various documents, often published, while governmental ones are usually available in suitable libraries (usually university ones).

What can you get from them? You'll be looking for a description of a key event as a starting point, probably. Generally, if it's recorded, it will have been done either as a 'history' of events, or as part of a legal proceeding. The one I've been playing with shows up in an account of legal proceedings kept by Ripon's canons.

What can it tell you? Well, first, it can give you a rough idea of what happened. Usually only a rough one though, because either it will be perfunctory and legalistic or it will be skewed by the writer's prose in the histories. It just seems to be the way these things work. But it can give you a rough outline of events, where they took place, and crucially, who was there. Look at the witness list at the bottom to see who was present at the signing. You now have at least a potential cast of characters.

Now look for other documents around it. Look for continuations of the same problem, or precursors to it. Look at the documents relied on by the one you're researching. In my case, the story only gets interesting when you realise that the canons relied on one of a pair of matching charters to prove their claim (the other being held by Beverley) and that those charters were forged. They did that rather than relying on previous grants by the Archbishop. So suddenly we have a story. We have the canons wanting to push away from the control of their boss, and using any means to get it.

But that isn't the whole story, because we haven't gone out to look at the wider context. The context of a charter is crucial and can often come down to looking at the lives of the people in the witness lists in more detail (where it is available, it often won't be). Looking for other documents with their names can tell you a lot (or just look in a big book of prosopography for the relevant period, like biography, only much more limited). For example, looking at other charters featuring Geoffrey de Lardare, the hero of my tale, tells me that he must have been around in 1216, and that he was still there a whopping seventy years later in 1286. It tells me that he was pretty active between those points too, to the point where we get the sense of him being the dominant personality in the place.

We know that the King was there in 1228, too. So what do we know about Henry III at that time? Well, he wasn't married by then, despite being around 30, and his general concern in life seems to have been the way the barons and others took power away from King John, his predecessor. So we can see that his involvement in all this was probably to get back a measure of control from the Archbishop of York. Because he was king, we have descriptions of him and his actions through his reign. We have some pretty good descriptions of the things Archbishop Walter Gray did too, among them plenty of grants to Ripon in the past and a general programme of rebuilding churches.

So suddenly, behind this one event, we have these two big characters. A king trying to build his powers, and an archbishop trying to exercise his for what he sees as the good of the Church. In the middle, we have this community of priests prepared to use forgery to gain a little autonomy, and a single figure among them sufficiently memorable to show up in the sources. We have the beginnings of a story, in other words.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Working on a short story.

Finally, after a couple of years, I'm putting my PhD to some use. No, I'm not lecturing, I'm having a go at a historical fiction short story. That's proving interesting, because one of the things with it seems to be getting the detail, without letting it become just a list of details. It's an intriguing balancing act, and also one that shows how much isn't there in terms of the historical record.

I'm focussing on my favourite piece of thirteenth century forgery, and on an event that involved both Henry III and the Archbishop of York, so there are some fairly major figures involved, but how much do we know about them? I can tell you, thanks to the PhD, things about their probable intentions over the course of the period, and the interesting conflict for power that was going on at the time. Yet I can't tell you with any certainty what they looked like (because even tomb effigies like Henry IIIs were as much about projecting an image as the reality). I can tell you the names of some of the canons of the churches involved, but certainly not all, and definitely not those of their vicars. Even with my MC, who is one historical figure I know more about than most, I can't tell you for sure what age he was, or what prebend he held, or much else. I have just enough information to get a sense of his probable intentions, and I can take a guess as to his rough age, because I know the earliest and latest charters that show him as alive, but that's it.

Hopefully, it's enough.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012


The thing that's intriguing me this month is the thought of crossing media. I think it comes from having picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman's Death (deluxe edition), and being reminded that there are people out there who do novels, and short stories, and poems, graphic novels, film scripts, episodes of Doctor Who...

And here I am, drifting along doing mostly just novels. Which I enjoy doing, obviously, but wouldn't it be fun to do a bit of everything. Except that each new form is... well, a whole new form to learn. With all the usual bumps in the road along the way. So why step away from the stuff I do well for one of them? It's a risk. Maybe one worth taking, but still a risk.

And just for a moment, I'd like to talk about the opposite of risk, because earlier today, for the first time since I started writing, I realised that I had enough writing work for next year to make a living already kind of lined up. That's a good place to have got to.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Key Text

Let's start with a brief thought about history, and it's the notion of finding the key text on a subject. For most time periods and topics, there is one. It's the one that's going to give you enough of an overview to get you through whatever you're researching/writing, while also pointing you in the direction of everything else you need to know. How do you spot it?

  1. It should probably be reasonably recent. Historical thinking, like everything else, moves on. I might still read George Duby's work as that of a very influential historian, but I would not look to him for an up to date view of the middle ages.
  2. It should be broad reaching, covering the whole of your subject/interest, rather than a specialised look at one tiny sub-set of it.
  3. It should have plenty of references to other things. You're looking for the hub of a wheel, or a starting point on a map, but you still need somewhere else to go.
  4. It should ideally represent a dominant view of the subject. This can be hard to judge, except through other books, but in general, you don't want the one book on the subject that takes a view that other historians have torn apart.
  5. It should be readable, because otherwise, how will it keep your interest long enough for you to learn?
After those thoughts, some others relating to life in general. I'm nearing the end of a couple of ghostwriting projects, and somehow it seems that I always arrange my life so that I have great swathes of writing, followed by tranches of editing. Never a nice balance of the two. Maybe it's because they're such different mindsets.

On the guitar front, mine is still not quite perfect. I have contacted the one guitar tech in Hull I have not spoken to so far, but if he can't help, I'm honestly going to either sell it as a whole (which is probably not the most efficient way to go about it) or sell off individual parts and replace them to get closer to what I'm looking for. Listening to some MSG earlier, I got the sense of the one tone that I'm really missing, which is that big, thick rock one.

I'm still working away at the new project, and have achieved the most difficult part, which is to get the hero into as much trouble as possible at the start. The main thing is just to have fun with it.