Saturday, 31 March 2012

A is for Antiquarians

Right then, how to start our A to Z of blogging this fine month? With a look back at hundred year old historians, of course. Better known as antiquarians. That’s what modern historians tend to call historians and archaeologists who popped up before the arrival of the modern professional historian. They are seen in much the same way as the modern professional cricketer might view Douglas Jardine, or we writers might see some fine Victorian chap dabbling in a bit of literature.

Except of course that’s a reasonable description of Charles Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle. We wouldn’t be that patronising as writers, yet it is common in historical circles. The antiquarians didn’t have the benefit of modern historical theory, the argument goes. They didn’t have our archaeological technology. They were, famously, more interested in kings, battles and grand institutions than the things we’re interested in today. They also had an unfortunate tendency to rip holes in the ground to take out any interesting looking artefacts without necessarily recording the context as well as we might like.

Yet they were often, in their ways, quite brilliant. Remember that these are people who often did what they did out of a pure love for it, rather than because it happens to be the career they trained for. They often had much better Latin and Greek than most academics today (me included) and if some of them were awful… well, I can point you at more than a few modern ‘historians’ who pass off anecdote as fact and build cases on webs of conjecture. My own personal favourite is Arthur Francis Leach, who wrote on grammar schools and minster churches, and whose 1880s-1890s works on Beverley, Ripon and Southwell I so often found preceding me in my arguments.

My point is simply this: we believe so strongly in progress that we assume that we must be better than those who went before, yet when did you last take the time to really look?

Monday, 26 March 2012

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words Blogfest



This is for the blogfest. I hope you enjoy it.

(Edit: I forgot to put the picture in.)



Eric had learnt many things in his last couple of years as an apprentice to the sea wizard “Thermals” John A’hab. How to fish the great cracks between the planes using lines forged from the finest dwarven steel and a reinforced winch whose magic could lift almost anything. How to use the magic of the wind and waves to steer their vessel, the Cutting Snark, close enough to throw said line over. And never, under any circumstances, to ask what kind of wizard wanted a biscuit obsessed parrot as a familiar. He had yet to learn the answer to one vital question, however.

“Why is it always me who has to lean over the side of the boat with the line?” he asked aloud, face down at the prow of the boat with his ankles strapped to the plank on which he lay. From there, he could stare down into the endless abyss at the edge of the Plane of Water, watching the silver fish that swam their way improbably up the torrents of water that fell down that jarring gap until it reached the flaming seas of the plane of fire below and came back up as steam.

“I must concentrate on the ethereal matters of mage craft” A’hab pointed out from behind the ship’s wheel. He threw an anchoring incantation over the side and then walked over to join Eric. “I must ponder impossible charts, and fathom the unfathomable. Plus, it’s my boat, and you’ll jolly well do what you’re told or you’ll be walking that plank, not squirming along it.”

“Want cookie,” his parrot said from his shoulder. It was a most curious shade of blue, and the master mage had occasionally intimated that his familiar had not always been that shape. Mostly at times when Eric had argued with his choice of course setting.

“Shut up, Polly,” A’hab snapped. “Unless you want to be an ex-parrot. And you, Eric, concentrate on the fishing. You know that with the new League of Ultimate Evil quotas coming in we need to get as much caught as we can now.”

Eric nodded. Exactly what they’d catch was still to be determined, but that was always the way. You cast a line of hardened metal links over the side (or Eric did, while his mentor looked on) and you strapped yourself to the deck, and you hoped that once the master mage started to cast the fishing spells they wouldn’t come up with anything too difficult to reel in.

“Don’t you ever wish we were back having proper adventures rather than just fishing?” Eric asked, staring down into the abyss. Down below, an assortment of eyes stared back. Eric didn’t mind too much about that kind of thing now. It was just one of those things that happened, with abysses.

“Proper adventures?” A’hab laughed. “Why, I’ve had more adventure on the high seas than in the rest of my life put together.”

Eric, as the one on the board, didn’t want to speculate about exactly how high the seas were in those parts, but he wasn’t going to give up that easily. “Adventure? Name one we’ve done recently that was properly adventurous.”

“Do you forget so easily?” A’hab demanded. “Didn’t we chase down that terror of the sea, the White Snail?”

“Briefly,” Eric admitted. “But it’s not like it was going that fast, and it wasn’t exactly terrorising people, just leaving those slimy trails on their floors.”

“Well, didn’t we spend our time recovering the lost jewels of Gnahh?”

Eric looked back. “We went to the pub. We talked to an old sea captain named Dave.”

“But we still had to persuade old Jones-y to remember the combination to his lock up on the docks. Seventeen pints of lager is an adventure in anyone’s book. And we tracked down the treasure of the secret island.”

“You let the cabin boy do most of the work on that one.”

“Look,” A’hab snapped, “just get on with the damn fishing would you? The fact is that it pays more than adventure ever would. I’ll tell you what, if you want, you can cast the fishing spells this time. It would be good for you to get the practise.”

It wasn’t exactly adventure, but it was better than nothing. By now, Eric knew the magic that would send their hook through the gaps found at the edges of planes and off into the many worlds very well, but where the hook ended up was all in the nuances of how you said those few simple words and made the required mystical passes.

“You know,” Eric said by rote, calling up the magic, “you should have seen the one that got away. It was this big.”

The line twitched, and Eric hauled it up.

“Anything good?” A’hab asked.

“Just another of those wire baskets on wheels,” Eric said. “I wish I knew where they came from.”

“Throw it back. We’ve got plenty.”

Eric did so and cast the line out again. This time, he got an old pair of boots.

“I suppose they might turn out to be seven league boots,” A’hab said when Eric threw them onto the deck. “Maybe you’d better let me try.”

“Just give me one more go,” Eric said, and hastily uttered the mystic formula again. This time, he put everything he could into it, and he knew he’d done better just by the way the chain stretched and groaned under the weight of whatever it was on the other end. He started to haul, and after a minute A’hab hauled with him, working the big winch together until something came into sight. Something huge, and ship shaped, and gleaming with metal. Eric could just about make out the words USS Cyclops on the side.

It seemed that fishing was about to get interesting after all.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

On Music

One of the things I find with writing is that I’m often as likely to have read things on the theory of writing music and song craft as I am on writing. That’s simply because I’ve been playing music far longer than I’ve been writing, and I did my phase of wanting people to tell me how to do it on the guitar, not on the page. There are loads of lessons from that I might go into later, but here are a few general ones. Apply them to your writing however you wish:

1. The importance of the hard to measure aspects. With the guitar, speed is measurable. You can say that you can play an exercise at x beats per minute, and if it’s faster than last week, it feels like progress. Yet focussing too much on that can lead to a loss of focus on the quality of each note, with things like phrasing, timing and tone taking a back seat.
2. Voice is key. There are guitarists who are identifiable almost instantly, whether you love them or loath them. From Eddie Van Halen to BB King to Michael Schenker, they all sound like themselves and no one else. The way to get a voice is to think about the things you like, not the things you think you ought to.
3. The sound in your head takes precedence. Otherwise known as ‘if it sounds right, it is right’. I spent so long learning scale shapes, and they’re useful, but not as useful as scale sounds, or the ear training to transfer what I hear in my brain onto the fret board.
4. No one can tell you the next note. All the theory in the world is great, but none of it tells you, here and now, which note to play next. And it never will. That’s down to you.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Blogfest

Click for more Info

I just signed up to do this one. It looks like fun.

The Hero's Checklist

Before going out on adventures to overthrow evil warlords and steal their stuff, heroes must be properly prepared. That’s why I’ve come up with this handy checklist:

1. Have you locked the doors at home? Remember, while you’re out invading someone else’s castle, there isn’t anyone to defend yours, and some heroes aren’t as scrupulous about the evilness of their targets as you. In fact, why not protect your castle with some big spikes, a few dozen traps, and some monsters. It won’t actually keep any true hero out, but it should at least make the insurance company happy.
2. Do you have a sufficiently diverse party of friends? No, this is not something to do with political correctness. Instead, it has rather more to do with the point that parties of adventurers only ever seem to succeed when they have a balance of unlikely, but apparently friendly, magical beings. Whoever heard of an all elf party succeeding? So start recruiting for that hobbit, dwarf and token human.
3. Have you packed your ten foot poles? No, it doesn’t matter that you don’t know what they’re for. They’re still obligatory.
4. Have you checked the inn wall for interesting maps? You never know when you’ll need a backup day out on the way.
5. Transport. It’s all very well saying that you’ll fall in with a convenient trade caravan or pirate band, but they’re quite busy these days, so you may have to book in advance.
6. Know your hermits. The quality of information given by a strange hermit can vary widely, so be sure to check your AA guide to hermits before you set off, so that you run out of ideas in just the right spot.
7. Have you arranged a haulage company to bring the treasure back yet? Be sure to negotiate a rate while your battle axe is still nice and sharp.
8. Have you checked the evilness of your target? Remember that robbing non-evil targets and beating up their employees may render you liable to prosecution and/or parties of heroes showing up on your doorstep. Only villains with an evilness modifier of plus three or greater are permitted out of season.
9. Have you considered giving it all up and becoming an accountant instead?

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Medieval Jurisdiction

You know how in cop shows the characters always seem to have episodes where they’re arguing over jurisdiction? “I’m not letting the Feds take this away from me, this is my case!” and all that. Curiously, it’s an idea that isn’t just relevant to writers of detective fiction. It should also crop up with depressing regularity in your historical fiction and vaguely medieval fantasy too.

You see, for England at least (and for lots of other places, but this is the bit I know best) there wasn’t a simple, neat chain of authority and law in the way people might expect, given ideas about the feudal system (I believe I may have made my feelings on that one clear already). Instead, there was a kind of real life Venn diagram of laws, ranging from the laws of the land, to church laws, and the many effects of custom and grants, which only served to make things even more complicated.

As for which court or other authority was the right one to hear disputes… that’s where it gets really awkward. You see, people of particular areas could be subject to particular courts thanks to charters such as the one giving the canons of Beverley the right to hear cases arising in their prebendal lands, or they might come under the roving ecclesiastical courts of the various archdeacons (who sometimes worked out of minsters like Beverley, as it happens). They could be brought before the court of a particular lord, or be up before the local magistrate, or any one of many other power figures.

They could also be exempt from particular courts. Monks, canons and other clerics were often exempt from trial in lay law courts, though the extent of that exemption could vary. Some charters relating to Cistercian monasteries set out a general exemption for everyone even remotely connected with them (down to villagers in ‘their’ villages), while extended powers of sanctuary relating to whole towns could further complicate the issue in the case of minsters.

Then there was the case of the highest courts (royal, archiepiscopal, papal, and so on). The figures behind these courts were often in a certain amount of on-going competition to extend influence over as wide an area as possible, and did so partly by accepting legal cases, thus saying ‘yes, I have legal authority there.’ The other side of this is that they could get remarkably stroppy about people taking cases to their rivals in ‘their’ areas (Archbishop Wickwaine actually excommunicated a lot of the men of Beverley when they took a case to Canterbury during the thirteenth century, when York was still trying to claim primacy in England)

The result of this was a legal system where people could almost shop around for the courts they wanted. How does that affect your story? Well, you could have a character trying to do just that, or simply mired in the complexities of a legal dispute. You could have characters showing up trying to run to a favourable jurisdiction, or complicating a situation by bringing in another power by claiming its protection. You could even have a suitably monastic detective (Cadfael anyone?) complaining about how “Canterbury is not going to use jurisdiction to take over here! This is my case, damn it! Sorry, Brother Augustine. I don’t know what came over me.”

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Ash Krafton: Bleeding Hearts

Bleeding Hearts

This is just a quick plug for fellow Pink Narcissus author Ash Krafton's novel Bleeding Hearts, which is out today. Vampires, egyptian references and agony aunts, what's not to love? Ash is also dropping by on the fifth of April for an interview.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Robert Twigger: Being a Man

Robert Twigger is an author whose work I first read back in 1999, in Coventry, starting with Angry White Pyjamas and moving on from there. I found myself quite liking his mix of real life adventure, to the point but still literary prose, and tendency to find things to think about in even the most mundane events (which is actually an ability to find the right mundane details to illustrate what he’s writing about, when you think about it)

I bought several more of his books, covering such subjects as hunting for giant pythons in South East Asia, navigating Canada’s longest river in a birch bark canoe, and looking for lost oases in the Egyptian desert. Occasionally, I found myself wondering why, because I found a few things about his writing that I just didn’t get on with, from his presentation of sometimes quite odd opinions as straightforward and normal to his tendency to make every book about him rather than what he was writing about. It didn’t help that the version of himself he presented in the books wasn’t one I could easily imagine liking face to face, which sounds like a small thing, but as I’ve said, I feel he’s the centre point of his books much more than many of his subjects.

So you can imagine that I picked up Being a Man (in a Lousy Modern World) with some trepidation. It’s one of his shorter books, and like his other shorter offering The Extinction Club, it’s less in the Do-Something-Stupid-And-Write-About-It school than the exploration of a core worldview (often through the medium of doing brave/foolhardy/stupid things and then writing about them). In theory, I should have hated it.

There are indeed points that I don’t like. I think his approach to the notion of masculinity is quite limited in its usefulness, while his thinking on rites of passage wears thin after a bit, and he still doesn’t come across that well. Yet it works. It definitely works. There’s the sharp edged prose (and perhaps the lack of niceness coupled with the endless self-examination helps to make it what it is). There’s a collection of adventures that is undoubtedly impressive, and there are a couple of other things.

The first is the useful device of interweaving all these ideas with an account of the day his wife gives birth, which both grounds the work and in some way makes sense of it. I had the sense of him trying to be ‘enough of a man’ to be somehow worthy of that moment, while at the same time, there’s the sense of the birth being the most important transformational experience of all.

The second is that Twigger is quite open and honest about his failings. He picks apart assorted shortcomings, such as the constant need for more rites of passage to somehow be enough, and the need for more and more proving experiences. So at the same time as these big adventures, there’s a sense of how strange and perhaps lacking it is to be going around having adventures. Those things help elevate this to something really worth reading.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Other Places

Incidentally, did I mention that I'm on Goodreads? If anyone wants to connect to me there, I'm slightly doing the whole author thing, but I'm mostly just there as a reader.

Stuff

It’s been quite an exhausting week, on a purely physical level. Last Sunday I fenced the Nottingham Open (and now I’ve heard that Leeds are doing another one in April, so I’m signed up for that), then there were the two BJJ sessions and a fencing training session. I’ll either be very fit at the end of all this or keel over.

My current work in progress is now officially into uncharted territory. I’m past the spot where I kept deleting it as awful and unworkable, primarily because I’ve been very focussed about the start and refused to let it meander the way it did (okay, just a little, but this is me). Of course the danger is that I’ll leave out some of the things that make it such an important idea for me, but right now I just want to get a version of it down. If I have to expand that, that’s fine.

I’m reading Robert Twigger’s Being A Man (In A Lousy Modern World) which I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy. I’ve always had a bit of a hit and miss relationship with his work (I still haven’t finished the Last Oasis, but I enjoyed Angry White Pyjamas and Big Snake). So far, this one feels quite readable, though like The Extinction Club, it’s much shorter and more ideas focussed than his big non-fiction ones.

The body for a guitar I’m building is in the post. I’ve found this project both quite satisfying and deeply frustrating at the same time so far. There’s something profoundly satisfying about putting something together with your hands, especially when it’s not just the equivalent of flat pack building (I had to file out the headstock tuner holes to fit even vintage sized tuning pegs.) Yet there’s also a lot of waiting around for parts. I suppose I could have gotten round it by taking a lump of wood and doing things the hard way (the very hard way, since I don’t have a jigsaw or a router) but that’s probably a bit too much work even for me right now.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Medieval Battles

Medieval warfare is important for fantasy writers, at least up to a point, because they’re writing things that are often medieval in tone, and great wars are par for the course. Of course, there are some unique issues to consider (dragons, wizards, strange magical artefacts that can win the whole thing but have been left with curiously few guards at the bottom of a hole in the ground) but the basics are pure medieval warfare.

Or are they? I’d like to suggest that a lot of the things people see as intrinsic to medieval war, such as big battles, knights charging with lances, kingly generals, and so on aren’t always accurate representations of what happened in the past. They used to be seen as them. I remember reading some older books on medieval warfare (1950s) that had taken some of the more ‘literary’ accounts at face value, with the result that they were talking about million strong armies made purely of knights clashing on the open field. Things change though, and there are elements you need to be aware of if you’re writing fantasy warfare.

First, you need to understand that big battles were actually quite rare. They’re memorable, but they didn’t come along too often. The campaign to take England in 1066 had just three main battles (Fulford, Stamford Bridge, Hastings), and that was in an early period where castle based warfare wasn’t as prevalent, meaning that open battles were more likely. Longer term, a lot of the game for a medieval general was to avoid battle through retreat into fortified centres until they could be sure of victory.

That meant that the primary action of a lot of central medieval warfare was the chevauchee (which I have almost certainly mis-spelled there) or armed raid designed to spread terror in another’s lands. The goal was twofold. First, it drove villagers towards major population centres, increasing pressure on them in terms of food. Second, it made rulers want to come out to defend their lands, in theory at least. It was a way of avoiding the trouble of a siege, because many sieges in the central middle ages weren’t that successful.

When you did get a battle, it wasn’t just about the knights. Medieval writers tended to leave out the archers, for example, because they weren’t of the same class, while foot soldiers tended not to get a look in. Yet if they were so insignificant and ineffective, why did some cheats take whole units of footmen with them to the tournament field? Why did they bring them to the battle at all? Even knights quite often dismounted when they arrived at a battle that seemed to require it.

As for the ways armies were run, well, the notion of a clear command structure was a bit fanciful in most cases. It happened where there was a clear chain of homage from major figures down to underlings, but so many times, armies were pieced together from bits given over by supporters, who each took charge of their own bits. One of the major challenges for the medieval leader was getting everyone to show up on time and do what they were supposed to.

So there we are. There aren’t many things above, but hopefully, it’s enough to ignite your interest in the real way battles went in the period.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Nottingham Open

I fenced in the Nottingham Open today (a last 32 finish, which is a marginal improvement on last year, and might even net me a few ranking points). Several things occurred to me in the course of the day, and I’d like to put them down here.

Firstly, people will go a long way for things they enjoy. I’m sure those of you who live in larger countries will laugh at the pitiful distances involved, but at the time, going ninety miles for a competition feels like a long way. A couple of hours in a car just to go and hit strangers with a sword. It must be madness. Or enjoyment. We do a lot of strange things when it comes to enjoyment.

We also occasionally take ourselves far too seriously. Just one look at the rows and rows of hyper fit young people warming up made that one obvious (I warmed up a bit, just to get into the spirit of the thing. I generally don’t believe in such things beyond the bare minimum needed to avoid injury). Also listening to some of the shouting as the day progressed, either in celebration or annoyance with decisions.

Fencing’s rules are weird, and probably need tweaking. There is a perfectly sensible rule in sabre about ‘right of way’ which lets you work out who gets the hit if both people hit one another. The idea is that one of them (the one who started his attack second) should probably have been defending, and would have been had it been a sharp sword. The issue with this rule at the moment is the very broad scope it allows for the term ‘attack’. People wandering forward vaguely waving a sword in circles are apparently attacking. People wandering forward not doing anything with the sword are apparently attacking. Likewise people making ‘attacks’ over the course of several steps. A more limited and rigorous approach would, in my opinion, vastly improve sabre.

Of course, I’m not all that good at sabre, by any objective standard. One thing I found today is that does not necessarily matter. I imagine that applies to many things. Having the courage to be bad at them is a vital part of our enjoyment. Also shouting and hitting people with swords, of course, but mostly the first bit.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Some Novels You Might Like

I thought I'd just take a moment to point you in the direction of a quartet of ebooks I was involved with (all four of these are Arran Gimba, Edited By Stuart Sharp). They are:

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This one's a grand sci fi adventure wandering across the galaxy, making a mess of things as it goes. Plenty of references to star wars and probably my favourite of the four.

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This one is, rather bizarrely, sci-fi rom-com. And if I need to write anything more than that to catch your interest, there is something very wrong with you.

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Comedy cyberpunk this time (well, in as much as it features AIs and evil corporations, cyberware and groups dedicated to smashing the system, sort of). A really fun near future romp.

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The short story collection of the quartet. A collection of stories obsessed with beginnings, middles and endings (mostly because we heard that was what stories were supposed to have. Now if only all three had gone into one story.)

Arran has released these together in the hope of making a bigger splash with them, and there should be a nice spread of (funny sci fi) things there for people. They're all nice and cheap at the moment, and if you fancy a laugh in quite a similar vein to my novel, you might enjoy them. Arran's a lovely bloke, and deserves to do well with these.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

I've been offline for a few days, thanks to an accident with the phone cables around my house this time last week. I thought, as a way of showing up again, I'd mention a few thoughts that occurred to me about the relationship between writing and the internet:
  1. You don't realise how big an impact the internet has until you aren't on it. Suddenly, I wasn't able to connect with people as a writer, or indeed in any other way than face to face. I can see now just why the internet is such a massive tool for us. When you think about it, I have a US based publisher, using primarily online distribution methods for sales, and I'm marketing mostly online. Even if my books are paper and ink ones as well as ebooks, I'm very much an online author.
  2. I actually wouldn't be able to do my job without the internet. Oh, ghostwriters existed long before it, but really, getting in touch with potential clients must have been hard. Now, I can do work for people all over the world. It's worth being grateful for.
  3. It showed me just how important a tool it is for connecting to people normally. Without it, I was in danger for a bit there of doing the whole writing in a garret thing, given that I work from home. No facebook. No blogging. None of those strange little conversations in the middle of the day. Not even the opportunity to post random lists of things. In case I don't make it clear, online support is very useful.
  4. There was one upside, though, in the form of no distractions. It's amazing how those brief breaks to check your emails can add up when you're writing, and how much you get done when there isn't the opportunity.