Monday, 31 October 2011

Historical Pitfalls

When doing history, as with almost anything else, there is a specialised body of theory that goes with it at higher levels. This is a body of thought that can be overlooked by people looking for a simple historical setting for their novel, or just looking to include a few bits and pieces here and there. That’s fine, but there are still certain theoretical pitfalls to watch out for. Things that will, in historical terms at least, be the equivalent of a big neon sign saying ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’. Politicians are particularly prone to them, being particularly fond of the now extremely out-dated Whig view of history. Here are a few of my favourites, to avoid where you can:

Historical Inevitability. Please understand, the past did not inevitably lead to this point. It was not a neat progression along an arc defined by your philosophy, whether that is the Marxist view of a defined series of stages towards a communist state, or the Whig view of an inevitable progression towards parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, the whole notion of progress can be a bit iffy, because progress implies progression towards a defined point. What point? Also, we must remember that things can be, and have been, forgotten. China, for example, largely forgot about the mechanical clock for several centuries. Don’t assume an inevitable rise of civilization/technology/little fluffy bunnies.

The notion of a single, big, easily finished off history. Thank Lord Acton for this one. In the nineteenth century, he and his fellows mostly did big history of the kings and dates kind (or History, as people tend to call it). Working from that, he came to the not unreasonable conclusion that, since there was only so much History to go around, and since the job of the historian was to get to the truth, eventually, they would. Probably by the end of his century, as it happened, leaving the remainder of the millennium off for golf so long as you kept up as you went along. Postmodernist thought about a multiplicity of histories put paid to that one, I’m afraid. Also I don’t like golf.

That rather peculiar reading of said postmodernist thought that effectively renders all history no more than mere opinion, and suggests that we might as well all go home. Yes, every historian is interpreting, and occupying a point of view. They might even be creating any sense of meaning for themselves, but that doesn’t render everything impossible. Nor does it render every interpretation of the evidence equally valid.

The idea that big history doesn’t matter. I made fun of Acton above, but there’s a danger in going to the other extreme, as some cultural historians do, and ignoring History of that type in favour of very small things that just happen to interest them. First, without an understanding of major events going on around them, it is impossible to understand those smaller points. Secondly, I happen to take quite a narrative approach to history, and I believe that it only becomes relevant as an act of communication. So if you’re doing something no one will ever want to listen to, it defeats some of the object. Worse, it can create a distorted picture of the past, where the deliberate examination of the less important can appear to reduce the place of a more important aspect (of course, there’s a whole argument about the notion of importance there).

So what does all this theory mean for writers? Possibly not a huge amount. As I said before, you can go a long way without ever touching on this stuff. There are some broad lessons to draw from it, though. My hatred of the notion of destiny in novels stems from the problems with inevitability, for example. Perhaps you will, at least be better placed now to spot one of these ideas if it should crop up in your writing.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

History for Writers

It’s always fun seeing the number of things people write with a vaguely historical basis. It’s not just the overtly historical fiction stuff either. Quite a lot of fantasy does alternate history. What I’d like to do, therefore, is provide two or three quick posts on the art of history for writers, drawing on the lessons I’ve learnt from my PhD in the stuff. We’ll start with a few options for doing historical research if you need some for your next project, then go on from there.

So you want to write something historical? Where do you start? The first stage is to probably pin down an era and location. That means some loose background reading until you find something that catches your eye. Here’s a clue: if you find that hard work, go into a different genre. You don’t have to like reading history, but if you don’t, why are you thinking about writing historical fiction? Look for what really grabs you. If you aren’t passionate about it, your readers won’t be.

Don’t just dive in. That’s a sure way to get yourself confused, put off, or trapped in highly technical arguments about herring renders in Domesday Book (for which, see J. Cambell, “Domesday Herrings” in C. Harper-Bill (ed) East-Anglia’s History (Boydell, Woodbridge, 2002).) First, work out what you need to know. Do you need to know specialised details of a particular area, or are you looking for more general information? Do you know which books or articles you should be looking for? It is often worth starting with the most recent general textbook you can find, and then working through the stuff it mentions in the footnotes as appropriate.

Curiously, that isn’t necessarily a question of interest. Yes, by all means read whatever catches your eye, but you will need some bits more than others. Use the general book to work out what you are going to need in detail, whether it’s more about societal structures, particular battles, or simply articles of dress. Make a checklist and tick things off as you go.

Don’t rely on purely online information. Online history can be all right, but it often isn’t. At best, much of it isn’t well referenced, so you’re only getting part of an argument. At worst, it’s out of date, incorrect, or deliberately lying. Wikipedia should never, never be anything more than a very rough outline. Even with paper sources, there are often significant arguments going on (historians are naturally argumentative) so you need to make sure you’re getting both sides. Try to be up to date.
Ideally, you want to get access to either your local university library or a specialist academic library, which isn’t actually that hard in most cases. Local libraries are good for most things, but the moment you need to do in depth research on a very specific period, they often simply don’t have the resources available.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask. You’ll be amazed how eager some academics are to bore you with their latest theories (sorry, help you to understand things better) if you only send them a nice email. The worst that can happen is that they delete it. Many universities even offer handy academic finding search engines to let people find exactly what they need. Oh, and if anyone wants to know more about my little corner of the middle ages, I’ll probably be happy to help, if I can still remember it all.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

In the event of a Last Battle

Things to remember for the Last Battle between the forces of good and the evil overlord’s Horde of Doom:

1. Arrive early. Finding parking space can be difficult once all the goblins show up. Also both sides tend to operate a ‘last one there gets beheaded’ approach to timekeeping.
2. Remember to take a packed lunch. Oh, the forces of good say that it will be fully catered, but remember that those halflings, hobbits and gnomes of theirs can eat five times their own bodyweight at a sitting. As for eating anything the forces of evil have dished up…
3. All participants must report to the armourer’s tent for an equipment check before the start of the battle. Remember that it takes time to measure armour spikes and test their pointiness, not to mention establishing whether that vorpal sword of yours fits in with the latest health and safety regulations.
4. Standing at the front is not generally ideal. Especially not if you are right next to a hero. Remember that it is always the people next to heroes who are hit by the fateful arrow intended for them.
5. Standing at the back, however, means that when the evil overlord springs his vile ambush (or the heroes execute their inventive and virtuous surprise assault) you are suddenly at the front. Avoid standing there too.
6. Oh, and the middle. The middle tends to be where giant boulders and dragonfire hit. In fact, avoid standing generally.
7. Remember that unless you are one of the designated Major Characters, you are not to do anything to significantly turn the tide of the battle. All battles are to be sorted out by duels between those major characters. You and the other ten thousand assorted creatures are just there to stop them feeling lonely. Failure to comply might mean the entire battle having to be re-run.
8. Remember to check the ultimateness of the battle and act accordingly. Remember that those on the side of evil must turn and run half way through any battle designated ‘properly ultimate, we mean it, honest’ by the referees, while those on the side of good must not succeed in any battle designated a major reverse.
9. Avoid taking a book to read. You will only get mud on it.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sport Martial Arts

A lot of martial arts people profess to have no love for the sporting versions of their arts, but I am not one of them. There are arguments against them, raised from time to time either by traditionalists looking to preserve a pure form of an art, or by modern self-defence practitioners looking to highlight how well their own systems fill a particular gap. The arguments against sport arts usually run something like this:

1. They ban many moves on the grounds of safety that would be core components of a self defence system. Those moves dramatically change the game (for example, biting makes BJJs triangle choke much harder to pull off, while the rear choke is somewhat less perfect against someone who eye gouges).
2. They do little or nothing to preserve the traditions and respect of an art.
3. They narrow the scope of an art to only those aspects covered by the sport, so that Taekwondo has gone from an art with lots of kicks to an almost purely kicking art, Judo has lost touch with the strikes that used to be part of its kata, and so forth.
4. A sporting competition neither starts nor ends in the same way as a real fight.

To a certain extent, all of these observations are valid ones. Most sport arts do not cover the use of or defence against potentially very dangerous techniques. They are not a perfect recreation of a real fight. They do have comparatively narrow scopes. And it is certainly true that some sports types can be very unpleasant. However, having done some work with traditional arts, sporting arts, and more modern systems, I think there are also some advantages to the sport ones that need to be taken into account.

1. Because they work within relatively safe parameters, most sport arts allow for actual interactive, competitive practise between participants. You have to learn to do the moves on someone who is trying to stop you, in other words. I have felt the difference this makes, and it is huge.
2. While there are some singularly over-competitive and unpleasant people in sport arts, there are plenty in traditional and modern arts too. Most people you meet in sport arts, meanwhile, are genuinely lovely people. I believe it’s called being ‘sporting’.
3. Sport arts often attract younger, fitter people, who are therefore more of a challenge. I found this in my one foray into historical fencing. I’ll say now that I liked the idea of historical fencing, I could see that there was a lot in the moves being used, and the practise was genuinely interactive (plus there were longswords, which is just cool). Sadly, the club I went to was under-populated, and the students there simply did not provide the kind of challenge I could find in most fencing clubs.

Saturday, 22 October 2011


Do your characters have destinies? It seems to be fairly common in fantasy fiction, and indeed almost anything where someone has taken the Hero’s Journey a bit literally. Characters come complete with the lingering sense that they are special, the chosen one, the one true pizza delivery boy. Whatever. Is it something worth doing, though? Well, there are arguments both ways, which I will now horribly mangle.

In favour is that it lends a sense of epic scope to the adventure. It tells us quite clearly that this is being played for high stakes, and that not just anybody could do it. It’s a classic trope of fantasy, so you can put in a nod to that by including it, or make fun of it marvellously. It also gives the character the chance to run away from that destiny, only to be led back to it in the classic HJ structure style.

For me, the issue with it is that a grand destiny destroys the idea of the character succeeding through their own efforts. They succeed because they can’t really do otherwise. And because they can’t really fail, there is less of a real feeling of peril that they might. Yes, I know this is fiction, and the promise of a happy ending already does that, but this does it on a level that includes the character rather than just the author and reader. I’ve also blogged before about the kind of message that ‘special’ characters put out, and why I’m not such a fan.

One final worry is what I feel it does to character motivation. A great destiny works fine as a motivation for some characters (everymen out of their depth trying to avoid it and heroes struggling to live up to it both) but what if that isn’t the story you’re telling? Isn’t there a danger that too much destiny will get in the way by telling us who the character ought to be before we know who they are?

Thursday, 20 October 2011


Things someone might find in a chest, cabinet, or other container (based loosely on the contents of any old chest of drawers, kitchen cabinet, etc.):

1. A selection of old and out of date maps and A-Zs, which might or might not be to a lost city (begging the question of what restaurant recommendations for lost restaurants would look like. Could there be such things as lost restaurants? Presumably, they are sought by intrepid parties of critics)
2. Assorted batteries and other power sources that might conceivably include the only working perpetual motion machine anywhere. Or a tiny sun.
3. String. It is a well-known fact that such places generate string, so a particularly magical drawer might spawn a whole string farming industry, or indeed some interesting theories about the stuff.
4. Assorted healing supplies (which depending on the location might be sticking plasters, regeneration rays, or ritual toads)
5. Chutney, fruit cake, and all those other things that people always seem to give other people for no good reason, and which do not go off, thus meaning that they will be present even in kitchen cupboards that have been abandoned for a thousand years. Will they be edible? That rather depends on whether you think they are now.
6. Christmas cards from people you’re sure you don’t know (who may possibly know you only because they are staring in from another dimension)
7. Since everyone seems to keep a torch in a drawer somewhere, why not other handy adventuring supplies, though some rearrangement of the laws of physics may be needed to deal with the ten foot poles.
8. An entire pocket universe, which will make things very awkward if you need to move.

Monday, 17 October 2011

What do you do?

So, I’ve missed the whole of the Beverley Literature Festival again. It’s getting to be something of a habit with me, based on the twin points of not having the time, and not particularly being a ‘sitting in a room listening to other people talk about their writing’ sort of person. Also, it may have something to do with that word ‘literature’. I’ve never been sure what it means, but I am fairly sure I don’t produce it. I just write stories.

Specifically, I write them in novel and short story form, though I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t expand the range of forms I work in. I used to do poetry, while I’d quite like to try my hand at a script at some point, though I have yet to do so. I suspect that reluctance has something to do with the thought that, if there is one approach that is working for you, then it seems strange to jump ship into a completely different form. Yet obviously, there are many writers I like whom it has worked for, from Neil Gaiman to Oscar Wilde. There isn’t just one thing that they ‘do’ unless that thing is, again, telling stories.

Have you ever stopped as a writer to analyse what you habitually do? I’d guess that the majority of us only really do a small number of basic stories, forms and characters. I’d guess that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find the same ideas and concerns cropping up again and again, while you write in a fairly consistent style. I know I’m saying this as someone who has hopped genres, but I think it’s true, and I don’t think it has to be a bad thing. Recognising what you do consistently is probably a strong step on the road to having a voice that is definitely your own.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Pay it Forward Bloghop

This is for the pay it forward bloghop, run by Alex and Matthew I must admit to not normally doing bloghops, and if you find yourself here, please don't feel you have to jump straight for the follow button. Have a look around. Hopefully, there will be things you genuinely want on your blog feed. If not, I won't be offended.

The idea here is to link to three blogs I enjoy reading, and which I think you will like too. I've picked three that offer something a bit different, so here they are:

Estella's Revenge
The Standing Invitation
Rachel Green's excerpts blog.

Exit, Pursued by an Author

When we write, the scenes and chapters we produce have different combinations of characters in them that work to advance the plot. Those characters might start a scene already grouped together, but it is also often the case that they do not, and one or more has to enter. Others might need to leave later on. The entries and exits of characters need to be tightly controlled by you as an author if you are to avoid potential problems. Here are some of the things I think you absolutely have to consider:

1. Who is going to be needed in the chapter? If you can work it out ahead of time, then it becomes much easier to have all the characters around, rather than trying to introduce them at odd points. Are particular characters needed to perform particular actions? Could they conceivably be done by others?
2. Have a good reason for arriving/leaving. People do not go to see one another without a reason (and ‘seeing someone socially’ counts as a reason) so make sure that your characters do. They might need to talk urgently, or might be visiting, or might even genuinely need a cup of sugar. The point is that they need to show up for a better reason than ‘I’m the author and I need them there’ and leave for another reason, even if it’s just that they’re bored with talking.
3. Make sure that they can get there. I once heard that British soap opera Eastenders times journeys across its square so that characters don’t just jump from location to location. If true, it’s certainly fun, and highlights an important point. Unless you’re writing sci fi, your characters probably aren’t teleporting everywhere, so the character who was in Scotland one minute should not show up in Wales the next.
4. Asides should be rare. In fiction of a certain kind, people always seem to be pulling one another to one side. Now, I’d like you to imagine what you would do if someone butted into the middle of a conversation you were having with someone and took them away so you could not hear what was being said. Unless it was in a context where secrets were normal, you would be curious, wouldn’t you? You might even be a little offended at being excluded like that. So shouldn’t your characters be? Again, this is a device for the author rather than something coming out of the character’s behaviour.
5. How do they know where they are? A variation on point three. If your main character has wandered into the middle of a safari park a hundred miles from home and their next door neighbour just happens to show up to chat, well, how did they know? Did they have a tracking device? Had they been told? Was it all a coincidence (which then needs to be written up as something surprising, not ignored)?

With all these points, the same principle applies. Even though characters are acting in the ways you decide to further the needs of the story, they should not appear to be doing so. They should appear to be acting in natural, or at least explicable ways. Ways that make sense to them, and to your audience. And remember, if you’re stuck for a way to get them out of a scene, you can always do what Shakespeare did, and reach for an enraged bear.

Monday, 10 October 2011


Sidekicks interest me. They’re such a staple of fiction, whether it’s the companion who’s cleverer than the hero, some mild comic relief or an excuse for someone to get beaten up and kidnapped on a regular basis. Where would the Lord of the Rings be without Sam? Blackadder without Baldric? Granny Weatherwax without Nanny Ogg? The right sidekick in the right place can totally transform a character.

I think there are probably a few things to remember. The first is who your hero is. The thing with sidekicks is that they seem funny and brilliant right up to the point where you decide to give them real attention, whereupon it usually turns out that they don’t have enough to sustain the novel. Or they steal so much of the scene from the main character that we all stop caring.

One big question is ‘what does this secondary character tell us about the main one?’ More specifically, what does the way the main one behaves in the relationship tell us about that main character? Going back to Pratchett’s Esme Weatherwax, we learn quite a lot about her from her constant bickering with Nanny Ogg, not least because Gytha Ogg is the one who sees through her best, having known her for years.

In a lot of ways, the sidekick is a lens through which we see an otherwise difficult character. Think of what Watson did for Holmes, serving as a device to let us into a mind that might otherwise have seemed too alien in its brilliance. Or the way Doctor Who’s companions provide a human insight into situations, allowing the Doctor to work in his own odd ways.

The real trick with a sidekick is to do that without sacrificing their own identity as a character. One easy way to achieve that is to give them either a fractionally different take on a central issue, or to have them less totally absorbed. Let them be the one who has family, and normal hobbies, and friends, while the hero is the totally obsessed one. It’s just one way of doing things, but it has possibilities.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

York Open

I fenced the York University open today, and I always feel when mentioning this sort of thing that I should be announcing great victories to the world rather than a mid-low table finish that probably won’t accrue any ranking points. Though whether they matter is an open question. I mostly fence competitions for those moments of getting to play against people I don’t know well. It’s kind of the sporting version of blogging, if you like, because you aren’t just talking to the same few people.

It’s the Beverley Literature Festival next week and as usual, I haven’t quite gotten around to signing up for anything. I imagine one of the workshops might be useful, or even that going to one of the readings might be interesting. It just tends to be one of those things I think I ought to do rather than just doing.

I have a galley proof copy of Court of Dreams, sent over from my publisher just the other day. It’s nice to see it so real. Paperback just feels so different to an e-book in that respect, and it’s great how thorough everyone is being with this. It certainly puts some of my other publishing experiences into perspective.

I’m currently reading both Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (which I’ve been slowly plugging through for a while) and Wodehouse’s Psmith in the City, which starts with a wonderful cricketing moment that is perfectly, quintessentially English, and also nicely funny. It’s well worth reading if you get a moment.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

A quick list of lists that might conceivably show up anywhere, given the tendency of shopping lists to wander off. Perhaps even at the bottom of that treasure chest your heroes are opening:

  1. A list of instructions for using the dungeon the heroes have just conquered, warning that catastropic failure (i.e. the place falling down) is likely to result if the things on it aren't followed very carefully. Which they haven't been.
  2. A list of warranty provisions for a magic sword, that your hero then has to follow, making fight scenes that much harder. No use against class 2 Things. No use more than twice per cycle of the moon.
  3. A list of evil overlords invited to a gala ball, which must be recovered at all costs so that someone can work out a seating plan that doesn't involve them all killing one another.
  4. A recipe or list of ingredients for the Big Red Eye's eye drops, essential for currying favour with that most despicable of villains.
  5. A list of wizardly nicknames, so that a new wizard can find a hue that hasn't been taken already.
  6. A list of monsters for heroes, arranged like those lists birdwatchers have of rare birds, only slightly more than spotting will probably be involved.
  7. A list of the contents of a magical library, which must be found if the hero doesn't want to spend the next three centuries cataloguing.
  8. A list of people to be eliminated by a gnomish hit man (what, you didn't think they were standing in your garden for no reason, did you?) 

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


If you write fantasy, then the odds are you have castles in there at some point. They seem to be an inevitability; the one part of the medieval flavour no one can avoid. Yet castles are both older and more complex than that. The romans had square walled wood and turf forts, for example, while even iron age peoples probably had a certain amount of defence in mind with their hill fort enclosures. So here are some things to bear in mind:

1. What kind of castle are you writing? As far as I can tell, writers generally either write the Disney castle, or a classic concentric arrangement with successive walls. Yet there were so many other options, from motte and bailey stuff to simple keeps.
2. Is it dragon proof? Remember that castles evolved as an efficient way to keep out enemy armies. If said enemy army can fly, or reduce your wooden walls to ashes, there isn’t much point. If you create a fantasy universe where that sort of thing is common, you have to expect that people will have come up with answers.
3. Black spikes with everything. Castles were as much about show as function. That’s why you find castle-y stuff on relatively minor houses in parts of the UK. They were about a claim to status, and about extending power. So make sure yours shows off.
4. Castles need peasants. Castles were full miniature economies, needing a lot of people. More importantly, one of their functions was to extend power over an area, which needs to include people for them to serve a useful purpose. They aren’t just somewhere for knights to live.