Wednesday, 1 October 2014

You Do Have Something to Say

This is for the IWSG for October, which we've reached quicker than I expected.

For this month, I'd like to offer all those writers feeling a bit insecure about stuff a piece of encouragement: you have something worthwhile to say.

It's something I know I've worried about as a writer from time to time. It's something I know friends of mine have worried about too. That feeling that we're not really doing anything important as a writer. That we're not saying anything other people haven't said.

But they aren't you. They haven't lived your life. You are unique, even at the same time as you're similar to many, many people. You have ways of looking at things, ways of feeling about things, that other people don't.

So put them in your writing. Put in the things that are important to you. Put in the things you care about. I'm writing what should be a fairly standard fantasy thing off and on, but I'm putting in a lot of stuff about history and the way we interact with it. Why? Because that's the stuff that interests me, and that I care about enough for it to make for a different book. And it is making for a different book. Big, out of control and far from easy to write, but definitely no one else's but mine.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Out of control

This is for the IWSG for September, although I notice I haven't really posted since August. Honestly, I've been thinking a little about shutting the blog down.

Currently, my writing is a little out of control. I don't mean that I'm producing huge amounts on some runaway rollercoaster of writing. I mean more that I'm not sure what I'm producing with any of my pieces, or when. I'm writing, and writing, and I'm sure the number of words on everything is growing, but I'm not sure at what point I'll be ready. I have like five beginnings for one novel, all clustered together.

But maybe it's okay, things being out of control. I finished a novel early this year, so I've got something big of my own done this year. I have the stuff in the day job where everything is rigidly ordered. Maybe it's just about being honest and saying that for me, my own writing is play. I'm writing because I like making things up and writing them down, and it's okay for that to be a little out of control.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A quick excerpt from the start of my comic fantasy novel The Glass:

Mad Thomas ran. He ran as fast as he could, which still wasn’t even close to the speeds that his brain remembered. Once he had been so fast that light had been hard pressed to keep up. Once, he had swooped and soared, so that the wind became something solid with the speed of it. Now though he could barely do more than sprint, and hop, and occasionally jump hopefully before coming back to earth in dejection, looking back all the time for the one who followed him. The one who had come to him with her lies...


One of the more curious things about… well, things, is the number of said things that begin in pubs. Not the big things, obviously. Universes only do so, for example, if they happen to be both 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. Presumably, Mark Ezekiel Tilesbury reflected, the landlord found it quite a profitable place to be, since he looked like the kind of man who generally 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.

            Mark was contemplating that fact primarily because he had just been sent to the bar for the next round of drinks. It was quite a strange bar, half mirrored and half tiled, but that just went with the rest of the place. The room appeared to have been decorated by a succession of drunken set designers and architects, with the result that no two of the tables matched and there were oddments around the walls that included everything from the traditional horse brasses to top hats worn in musical theatre half a century before. Oh and the centre of the floor was dominated by a stuffed flamingo for no good reason Mark could see.

            Flamingos weren’t a problem. Nor was the fact that it had been Mark’s round for the past three rounds. He was used to it by now. It had been his round at pretty much every stop of the tour so far. He tried using the mirrored half of the bar to divine exactly what it was about him that made that the case, some sort of inherent ‘the drinks are on me’-ness, but all that showed him was the usual: a blond haired man in his late twenties, with slightly more stubble than was strictly fashionable and a rather worn leather jacket that never had been.

            The contrast with the others was obvious. ‘The others’ in this case consisted of two people, wedged into a corner booth. The man with the dark hair and the elegantly cut suit was Greg Rambler, celebrity psychic, one man supporter of the male grooming industry and officially Mark’s best friend from school. His touring show was the reason they were in New Wrexford in the first place. Thanks to a mixture of cold reading, hot reading and several of the temperatures in between, the show had done pretty well so far. Apparently, people liked to be told that the dead were getting on very nicely, thank you, and that they were enjoying things on the Other Side very much.

            Deirdre sat across from Greg. At first glance, she looked exactly like the kind of pretty young woman Greg frequently spent the evening seducing with whatever level of mysterious powers he could pretend to have. She had a delicately upturned button nose, the widest eyes to be found anywhere outside of a cartoon, deep red hair and a petite figure that tended to put people in mind of the babysitter they wished they had left their kids with when they came to the show. What most of those people would think if they could hear her soft Irish lilt working its way through the joke she was currently telling Greg about the three nuns and the bishop, Mark didn’t know. He did know that the one time Greg had tried his luck with her, he’d walked with a limp for several days afterwards.

            Thankfully, Mark seemed to be mostly safe from the wrath of Deirdre, if only because there seemed to be no conceivable universe in which she could even remotely think of him as anything more than an irritating younger brother figure. That broadly meant that she looked out for him, so long as it wasn’t too inconvenient, and Mark continued to do exactly what he was told. In theory, they both had equal roles as assistants to the star of the show, but Mark had never dared to suggest it.

            ‘Assistant’ seemed to translate to very different things for the two of them. Deirdre did front of house work. Mark, meanwhile, found that the term translated somewhere around ‘helper, sounding board, blame taker and general gofer.’


Somewhere behind Mad Thomas, there was the sound of a car. Was it her? Was it one of Them? Mad Thomas could barely remember. In the haze of fear and adrenaline, he could barely even remember the flying, and that filled his every waking thought. Memories of what he had been. What he’d lost. What they’d all lost. They stacked up around him like accusations. He had lost what he was, and so he must have been at fault. That was how things worked. How they had always worked. Yet he still could not remember why. No matter how hard he tried, he didn’t know that. He only knew that he needed to run.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

IWSG August

This is for the IWSG for August. I've been reading some stuff on different ways of working with stories, and I feel like there's one thing that consistently shows up as a problem for me with mine: my beginnings. With both of my last two novels, I've had reviews that have said "I was a bit worried at the start, but I kept reading and it turned out well". There are some obvious reasons for this:

  • I often try too hard at the start, trying to hit a particular style that fades as I go along.
  • I often have quite slow starts, designed to show a character problem.
  • Occasionally, my starts are written a long time before the rest, and no longer fit.
Mostly though, it feels like the big question is one of where I choose to start. There are so many possible starting points for any story. The ones we pick can make such a difference to the way the thing unfolds. Now I just have to find the one that works best for my current work in progress.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Rant About Tai Chi

In which I probably dive in feet first into an on going argument, because I found an article the other day saying many of the things I'm about to say. But I think they're important things. I've practiced tai chi for years, as well as bagua and xing yi (not to mention plenty of other things, BJJ being the most prominent at the moment), and every so often I go through a phase of looking up tai chi on Youtube. Specifically, I tend to look up things like "tai chi fighting" "tai chi sparring" or even "tai chi MMA". Why? Because I'm of the opinion that tai chi is a martial art, that it should be taught that way, and that people should train it in a way that allows it to function as such.

Yet ninety percent of what I find has nothing to do with combative skill. Most people just don't train that way. Tai chi has become just the practice of the form. Just very elderly people moving very slowly as a kind of exercise. And I've had enough. I have no problem with the idea that tai chi brings health benefits, but classically that has never been its primary aim. The translation of the full name (grand ultimate boxing, or great pole boxing) makes it clear what its practitioners were aiming for. I firmly believe that if you aren't doing a martial art, then you aren't doing real tai chi. You're doing some sort of gentle, arm waving yoga (and you should do yoga, because it's more specifically designed for the health benefits you're looking for).

There are plenty of tai chi classes around me. Of those, perhaps one or two do anything with the applications of the form or with push hands, and most of those see them as advanced things to be gotten to after the completion of the form. Genuine interactive practice is right out of the window, while I suspect that if I had to give you a pound for every time they talked about hitting someone and you had to give me one for every time they made an exaggerated claim about chi or medical benefits, I would end up quite well off. Even at the one "good" club, I felt like we were doing only drilling, with no live practise. Not even push hands.

So I'm going to say what I'm sure a number of people have said over the years. If you're doing tai chi, look at the way you're doing it. I firmly believe that it can be a useful art, if you train it that way. So if you practice tai chi, ask yourself the following things:

Am I just going through the form every session? No one learns to protect themselves by doing forms. No one. Forms are a good way to get repetitions of movements in correctly, but they teach nothing about distance or timing. Nothing about yielding or following. Worse, doing it this way turns tai chi into an external art. It becomes solely about the way things look, rather than about what things really are.

Am I doing my form blindly, or do I understand at least a basic application for every movement? There are plenty of potential applications for every move. Knowing at least one will change the way you do the form, and probably increase its benefits to you. One of my old karate instructors suggested that it should be possible to take at least five different applications from every kata move in that art, including taking the whole thing to the ground, throwing, joint locking, striking and defending. Tai chi is at least that sophisticated.

Are you relying on chi to solve all your problems? There is no good evidence for the existence of chi that I have seen. There is certainly no evidence that it will make you a better fighter. It is not a short cut to easy success. It's a medical model that belongs to the past, and is also far too general to help us understand different nuances. I know, I know, without chi, how can we be an internal art? Yet it is possible to be "internal" without focusing on chi, by thinking about things like the moment of interaction, understanding an opponent, understanding yourself and your structure, the feelings and reactions you bring to an engagement and more. I think that being internal is about letting things flow out from principles of good movement and understanding rather than focussing on the form of the movements. But these things only really develop working with someone else, so it's easier to just talk about chi.

Are you doing some sort of genuinely interactive practice in every session? Push hands is a starting point. I don't think it's the end. I don't think it's an adequate analogue for fighting. But it's a good in between ground, and the bare minimum that you should be doing.

Are you working from principles? There's a tendency for people to look at those who actually fight with soft/internal arts and say "That's not tai chi/aikido/whatever". Actually, it's just not what you're doing. Whatever that is. The movements adapt to whatever the other person is doing, ideally. So long as the core principles of the art are in place, that's fine.

So if you practice tai chi, take a moment to think about what you're doing. If you don't like what you see, change it. Talk to your teacher. Find another teacher. Find a friend who is willing to do some work with you outside of your usual classes. I firmly believe that if enough people work at it, we should be able to put the chuan back into tai chi chuan. I think that it's important that we do.

Anyway, that's my martial arts related rant over for now.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Medieval Monday: Equipment

It's another Medieval Monday, and today, I'm looking at the most important activity for any heroic figure in a medieval setting- shopping. It's a weird thing, but in medieval stories, epic poems and so on, often we hear more about the hero's equipment than about their personal characteristics. Indeed, in many cases, we get the impression that the biggest difference between them and anyone else is the stuff they're carrying about. In many ways, the RPG thing of spending hours poring over equipment lists and digging out that plus one sword of general light entertainment is a more accurate representation than people think.

Swords are an obvious one. Arthur had Excalibur, but his wasn't the only sword of note in stories from the middle ages. El Cid had Tizona. Roland had Durendal. Even the swords that didn't have names of their own were typically described in terms of their quality and makers. Raoul de Cambrai's sword is described as being the next best sword in existence to Durendal, pointing to a kind of shared awareness of this process of talking about the quality of the weapons. There was also a tendency to talk about the swords being forged by particularly famous or even mythical smiths, from the "Galant" who forged de Cambrai's blade to Wayland Smith, who gets cited in all sorts of places.

It wasn't just swords though. That focus is a modern one. The stanza after we hear about Raoul's special sword, we hear about a golden shield. The stanza before, we hear about a helmet proof against every blow. Armour was a big deal for writers in the middle ages, and indeed, the way fight scenes are written in the literature, it is often the big thing. Modern movie fight scenes are about grace and skill and movement. Written medieval ones are mostly about personal strength set against the strength of the opponent's armour. Often, we find detailed descriptions of armour giving out beneath the strength of particular blows. I'm not saying that's an accurate description of how fighting happened, but it is how it was portrayed in fiction.

Perhaps a part of that is because there was an element of reality to it. The simple fact was that the people who could afford thick armour and good weapons had an advantage over those who couldn't. It wasn't an unfair advantage in their eyes so much as a symbol of their greater nobility and higher birth, which of course made it right that they should be able to beat up all those poorly armoured peasants. Indeed, a big part of the whole issue of becoming a knight was not nobility per se (barons, earls etc would have been insulted if you'd called them a knight in the early part of the period) but simply the ability to afford the armour.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014


I'm worrying this month about the notion of not writing well enough. Two things have sparked this. One is reading through the 2014 Best SFF as part of some reviewing I'm doing. Another is working through some re-writes on a piece. The one is about the idea of all this incredible writing right in front of me, while the other is about being told outright that something needs work. Which is an occasional occupational hazard.

But there's the other half of that, which is about other people's standards. At what point does wanting to write to the standard of something else spill over into not wanting to write like yourself? Not wanting to be yourself. I know I have a particular voice, so at what point does that become a problem? How much is it worth changing things, and at what point should you push back and say that doing so isn't going to work.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Belief in the Middle Ages

Another Medieval Monday, and this time its disbelief, or complexity of belief, or some combination of the two. Because it's often hard to tell. The Middle Ages are often portrayed as the great Christian era in Europe, more religious than any time before or since. The Early Middle Ages included the spread of Christianity through much of Europe, the Central phase a defined Christendom able and willing to start to conduct Crusades while locally new monastic orders sprang up. And then there was a lot of business with putting down Heresy, the rise of the Inquisition in the Later Middle Ages and so on.

So it sounds like it wasn't the best of times to believe anything that wasn't orthodox, wasn't Christian, or just wasn't... well, believing. And yet, like anything when you're talking about more than a thousand years of history across a whole continent, it's a bit more complex than that.

For a start, the expansion of Christianity took time. Time, and its slow acceptance by more and more kings, who made it a criminal offence not to be. But that wasn't the same thing as making sure everyone believed. Bede notes plenty of "pagans" in his histories, although it's hard to pinpoint exactly what any of them believed. Later Chansons de Geste also seem to include them pretty regularly, suggesting that they were something people might have been familiar with. Certainly, there was the survival of non-Christian beliefs around the edges of places like Scandinavia and the north of Scotland. Then there was what we could think of as the Irish option, which was actually the everywhere option: the incorporation of pagan elements into local level Christianity. St Brigid (who used to be a Celtic goddess of that name) is an obvious one.

Then there's the point that Christianity was not some big, fixed thing through the period. It was a time, not of religious orthodoxy, but of experimentation and argument. The very fact that there were so many "heresies" suggests that. But so does the amount of tinkering that went on within the main church. It was only within the Middle Ages that the notion of purgatory really got settled in the Catholic Church, and the notion of the Pope as being in charge. A glance into the religious history of the times reveals a kind of constant argument, over everything from the right date for Easter (St Wilfred of Ripon got quite angry about that one) to Simony, Nicholaitism, the interaction of church and state...

And it wasn't like the results of these arguments filtered down to a local level quickly. This was not an era of mass communications. Many remoter areas had never seen a bible, and their priests certainly weren't up to complex questions on the finer details of faith, with the result that even nominally Christian areas could deviate considerably from the supposed norms.

So the Middle Ages weren't this big, fixed, ultra-religious monolith. They were something more complex, sometimes more dangerous, but where there were people who believed all kinds of things, or none.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The ICC funding deal

I was going to write a nice little review of the second Test match between England and Sri-Lanka today, talking about whether Moeen Ali's hundred complicated the question of the spinner's job, the agony of a second to last ball defeat, and so on.

But actually, there's a much bigger issue in cricket today, one that has implications, not just for the sport as a whole, but also when it comes to the way we see sporting bodies in general. Today, the International Cricket Council has ratified an agreement it has been working towards, which changes the way funds generated from cricket are distributed. They also accepted a new head of the ICC in N. Srinivasan.

These sound like small things, don't they? Except for two points. First, the new agreement gives 62% of all funds generated to the national boards of England, Australia and India. The seven other test playing nations get 5% each. It is astonishing to think that they agreed to this, but essentially at this point, India has so much power that the threat of them refusing to tour a country with their many millions of supporters is enough. And if it isn't, as it wasn't for the West Indies, the ICC can always advance a loan to develop cricket there. $4 million in this case.

Secondly, N. Srinivasan is currently under investigation thanks to allegations of corruption. Now, I have no knowledge of the details of these allegations, and so I can't comment on them. But I do think that it sends out entirely the wrong message about the ICC and how it feels about such matters that they would appoint him anyway.

It's a combination that points to, at the very least, the ICC being a money-grubbing organisation more interested in its bottom line than in the well being of the game. Suggest to it tomorrow that you could have everyone in the world playing cricket, but the price of that is that they would all be doing it on a purely amateur basis with no TV revenue, and it seems fairly obvious what their response would be.

By saying yes to this frankly wrong deal, the ICC has institutionalised a culture of haves and have nots in a game I enjoy. It has made it essentially impossible for the sport to gain new nations at the highest levels, and thus destroyed all the efforts that have been made in the last few decades to spread the game. It has surrendered control of the game to a clique of chief executives who need the game to run as a big business, when that has nothing to do with the spirit that cricket is supposed to foster.

Which probably sounds like it isn't relevant to anyone else, but I actually want to make a broader point about the way large sporting organisations are run. These days, the larger ones are effectively multi-national corporations, out for their own profit. That is true of the supposedly non-profit FIFA, which has no profits but massive reserves. It seems to be true for motor racing and athletics. In all of these spheres, we have had allegations of corruption. At the very least, their processes and decisions seem to have nothing to do with the ordinary people in the sport.

There must be something that can be done about organisations with such reprehensible practices. At the very least, I would expect greater accountability to governments. The mantra that sport has nothing to do with politics has merely served to produce organisations behaving in ways that we would not allow if they were not involved in sport. England, in particular, should have learned better than to just go chasing after the money by now. Unfortunately though, the lesson in cricket of things like the Packer revolution and the IPL is that the people who throw the most money at the sport tend to come out on top in the end.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

First Test Review

So, I thought I'd do the obvious thing in the middle of the Football World Cup, and talk about the cricket. England have drawn with Sri-Lanka in the first test at Lords. It looked like the most likely outcome from about day three on, when Sri-Lanka batted well in response to England's massive first innings score. But this was anything other than a boring draw, as England almost, almost managed to press the victory. In fact, they thought they'd won with a ball to spare, Broad pinning the last batsman LBW only to find out on review that he'd hit it. Even the last ball of the match fell just short of slip.

So, it was an exciting match at times, but what have we learned, and where should England go from here? My opinion is that we've learned a bit about England on flat pitches, about their tactics, and about ways the balance of the side still isn't quite there.

England are good on flat pitches without any particular demons in them. There's no doubt about that. Some of the younger players like Joe Root and Gary Ballance have really shown that they have the application to bat for long periods. I'm not quite so sure about opener Sam Robson, who seemed to scratch around too long for too little reward. Do we really need yet another blocker in the top three?

Of the new seamers, Chris Jordan was a revelation for me, while Liam Plunkett probably wasn't quite as good. Jordan has the makings of a good all rounder, bowling in the mid-high eighties and hitting the ball hard. Plunkett does those things too, but I feel like it didn't go as well for him. I think the problem here is one of billing. Chris Jordan was billed as that kind of fast but not quite express all rounder. Plunkett, we were told, was the first or second quickest bowler in the country, but I didn't see a significant difference between his speeds and those of, for example, James Anderson (who was bowling towards the quicker end of his range, admittedly). I feel like Plunkett as a 90mph + fast bowler is more than worth it, but as a mid-high 80s bowler, we might as well pick Ben Stokes, since Stokes has already done well with the bat previously.

The question of the spinner is a tricky one. I think England picked Moeen Ali in the knowledge that Lords can be a little unhelpful to the spinner, in the expectation that the Sri Lankans would play spin well, and with the thought that no out and out spinner had done so well in the domestic season as to demand inclusion. Essentially, he was picked with the expectation that he wouldn't bowl much, and he didn't. He was another batting option. Oh, and he "has the doosra" as it's now obligatory to mention whenever talking about him. England can get very over excited about bowlers with mystery balls. Just look at that phase where they picked every wrist spinner they could find in the 90s, or when they picked Alex Loudon on the basis of a carom ball that didn't land well.

Moeen Ali did exactly what he was meant to do. He got a few runs, he bowled a small number of overs, and he got one wicket. I have no problems with his performance. I just feel that if we want someone to do that, we already have Joe Root. Root's presence as a useful part timer and nailed on batsman should, in theory, free England up to pick a riskier prospect as the spinner. Maybe Borthwick, whose leg spinners look threatening but not particularly accurate.

Of course, there's the Cook factor to consider with that. Alistair Cook strikes me as still being quite defensive in his instincts. Yes, his field settings were more interesting, but the rest of it still suggests a primary ambition of trying not to lose rather than trying to win. England batted too long in both innings. There can be no argument with that when the Sri Lankans fell well short of our score, while we simply didn't have enough time to get them out. His new plans were interesting, but he seemed to stick to only one at a time, rather than allowing the bowlers to hit the batters with combinations of deliveries. And he has long under utilised his spinners, preferring to go back to Broad and Anderson again and again even when Monty Panesar and Graham Swann were available.

For the next test, I have little doubt that England will stick with much the same team. Yet I feel that going forward, they need a full time spinner, a slightly more attacking opener, and they probably need Stokes back in the side.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Medieval Travel

It's another Medieval Monday and today, in response to a question on countries, I wanted to look at travel, passports and other related things. We know that some medieval people travelled, either alone or as part of groups. Knights like William Marshall travelled around bits of Europe following the tournament scene. Senior Cistercian monks travelled around to one another's monasteries and to general chapter meetings to ensure that their monasteries kept up their standards. Kings, Archbishops and nobles never seemed to stay in one place for long, keeping up a constant procession around their holdings. Foreign travel was not the day to day occurrence it is today, but it did happen. So it's worth asking a few basic questions about how they did it.

How did they do it? This is fairly straightforward. They walked. They took horses. They took boats. There are quite good records for the Third Crusade paying for seaborne passage to the Holy Land with Genoese merchants, for example. It was something that took time, and could often be dangerous, as the disaster of losing Henry the Younger in the White Ship suggests, but there weren't many other options. It seems to have been generally a case of either finding a boat going in the right direction for individual passengers, or more commonly for groups, chartering one outright.

Did they need passports? This is complex. There weren't the careful border controls that we know in most places (and frankly, not so many clear borders), but we do know that letters of introduction and mandates to be a place to do a particular thing grew into things we can identify as sort of passports. We have surviving ones from about the early fifteenth century.

Did they camp outside towns? Yes. We have evidence for the practice in a number of places. Yet we also have evidence for people finding hospitality within towns, in noble residences, and in monasteries. Hospitality was a big deal, because there often wasn't the comprehensive system of hotels and coaching inns that fantasy assures us we find our quests in. The exact level of strictness about who they let in and when would probably come down to circumstances. It depended how important you were, and it depended how much of a threat there was to the safety of the town locally.

Were they welcome? This is the big one in a lot of ways. We kind of want to think of the middle ages as quite xenophobic and mistrustful of outsiders. There's some evidence of particular groups and places having their own laws, so in that sense where you were from was important. It's likely that when they weren't subject to the justice of the local magistrates, people working for the Cistercians just down the road would have seemed a bit more different than they were. If you were very poor as a traveller, there would have also have been the suspicion that you might have been a vagrant, an outlaw or an escaped serf running from the land they were tied to. There were moments of mass murder on the grounds of religious or ethnic difference that point to a clear fear of anything different in some quarters.

There were also very sharp linguistic and cultural differences across often quite small areas. France didn't speak one language through this period. Nor did what is now Germany. England only became one kingdom in 1054, and the United Kingdom was another six hundred and fifty years away.

Yet a lot of the time, there was also the sense of a lack of a lot of the formal controls to keep people out that exist today. There was the element of hospitality, a certain amount of share language (Latin), and plenty of evidence for travellers from other lands getting along fine, particularly if they were noble. That, I think, is probably one of the key points. Nobility transcended borders in a sense of shared identity (and given the amount of intermarriage probably shared family) that could sometimes push aside other risks.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014


It's time for another Insecure Writers Support Group post, and this month, I wanted to talk about ideas. We all have them as writers, and sometimes I think we have too many of them, buzzing around and distracting. Sometimes I think we make too much of them too, going on about the perfect idea that's going to make a great book, when it's actually your writing that will do that.

The part I find tricky sometimes is the step after the original idea: pinning it down, finding the right angle from which to write it, working out the way it fits into story form the best. Quite often, I find that planning doesn't help with this, because I can come up with a plan for almost anything. Yet often, it takes the first draft, and some of a second, just to learn how to write that particular novel. To learn which bits work, and which bits don't. Just to learn what it's really about.

I've been working on something about the aftermath of the traditional sort of fantasy. It's taken a few tens of thousands of words to work out exactly where this is going. My worry is that in the time it takes to do all this, I could be actually finishing something.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Google and the Memory of the Web

You may have heard something about an EU ruling recently stating that Google has control over what it shows in its search results, and that therefore, it has a responsibility to not link to content about individuals that is irrelevant, outdated or no longer applicable. I wanted to look at this, for a couple of reasons:

The first is to do with a friend of mine, who was severely misquoted by a hack in a student magazine some time ago, to the extent that it represented effectively the opposite of her opinion. She couldn't prove that, and so the article is there online for academics wanting to find out more about her as she goes about her research. I won't go into details, but the upshot is that the friend still gets negative comments from time to time. Someone else has just suggested that she might make use of this ruling, and possibly, that might prove to be a useful thing for her to do.

The other reason is that, about a year ago, I managed to upset large portions of the Sci-Fi Romance community, by writing an article quite badly, so that it didn't really get across what I wanted it to. I wanted to make a point about the things Sci-fi and SFR could learn from one another, and about how the cross fertilisation between sci-fi and Romance could do new and interesting things when done well, but how it was important to take the best from both genres, and looking at some of the potential pitfalls to avoid. I wanted to perhaps suggest that the more literary and original end of both genres was where we should be aiming. Then I made the mistake of trying to get clever and funny, by trying to parody the sort of stereotypical response I imagined from the more traditionalist sci-fi geek.

Because I wrote the whole thing so badly, I buried the bit that was meant to be the big turn around of "actually, this is nonsense, and we could learn something original from these people" at the end, in far too short a space to make it sound like my real point. The end result was that a lot of people, quite understandably, assumed that I was seriously ranting about SFR, right at the moment when the big argument about sexism in Sci-Fi was at its height, and made the jump (although as well as not intending that, I never actually said that part) that I was talking about female SF writers. Obviously, I apologise unreservedly. I'd also like to thank the writer who contacted me on Goodreads to thank me for the apology I made at the time.

The fact that I still feel the need to keep apologising a year on should give you some clue as to how important this is to me, so you might think I'm considering an application to Google under this new ruling. After all, it's something that's quite old in terms of the internet, that was originally meant to be a here today, gone tomorrow article, and that continues to crop up whenever you search for me as a writer. Which my ghost-writing clients probably do.

And I'll admit that I did consider it for about ten seconds. But there are obvious differences between this case and my friend's, and I'm not going to. First, there's the point that I did actually say this, even if it was only in the course of making a complete mess of what I wanted to say. Second, the ruling applies to links that are irrelevant or out of date, and I'm not sure the issues involved here are either. I think the question we all have to ask ourselves with this ruling is whether we're tidying away bits of the internet that belong to a previous version of ourselves, or whether we're trying to control bits of our current image that just aren't what we want people to see.

Monday, 26 May 2014


Another Medieval Monday, and something about national borders, since those seem to be quite relevant in Europe and the UK at the moment. The Middle Ages were the time when several of the nations that we know today coalesced in Europe. England came into being as a kingdom in 1055 (when they finally added York to the rest of it. The kingdom of Northumbria, meaning everything north of the Humber in the east, was one of the last bits to be added), even if it and Wales had already been under Roman occupation. France became something approaching a coherent state under Philip Augustus in the 13th/14th centuries. Germany and Italy...

That's where this breaks down a bit. Germany was still playing at being the Holy Roman Empire (although Charlemagne's legacy had at least as much to do with France). Italy was a series of city states, nominally within the HRE, but really not unless people like Frederick Barbarossa nipped down with an army  to tell them that they were. Most of the countries in the East of Europe had to put up with the Golden Horde Mongols putting any ambitions they had for statehood on hold.

Even for places that sort of were in existence, their borders weren't what we're used to. England and Wales only came together in the late 13th century, and wouldn't be joined to Scotland for another four hundred years. Scandinavia seems to have been somewhat closer to its future boundaries, but places like Spain were still a mess of separate kingdoms with their own languages. They weren't the modern nation states, because the idea was only just starting to come together. At the start of the period, there were kings "of the Franks" rather than "of France", because the idea of the place didn't exist. Borders could shift as lords gave their allegiances to different people, but also as their power shifted. In France again, Normandy was all but a separate country, with stronger connections to England's rulers thanks to William I, until Philip Augustus stole it while King Richard was out on crusade. Aquitaine could easily have been a part of that larger Angevin Empire had Eleanor of there not divorced the English king only to end up marrying the French one.

I suppose this is a message to two lots of people. The first is to any politician who tries to lean on history for the "natural" shape or size of a country. They've been practically every shape and size you can imagine through history, I can promise you. The second is to writers who make up countries (fantasy writers like me do this a lot). There's a tendency in novels to see those as essentially static, or just to reference some kind of great empire in the past that ruled everything, and since then, it's broken up into... well, modern nation states in all but name. In fact, the picture was probably far more complex, and always shifting.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Euro Elections

A very brief political post (which is therefore of no interest to anyone outside of the UK, and probably very little to those in it). No, I'm not about to talk you into voting for my favourite party, but I did want to make two points about the European elections on Thursday:

First- vote in them. If you don't make the effort to exercise your controls over the European Parliament, then you really don't get to whinge about it later. I'm talking to you, the huge numbers of people who didn't bother voting last time. And no, it is not voting for an anti-democratic institution. The clue's in the voting. If Europe is un-democratic, then frankly, so is the UK. All the key complaints, about having appointed figures and indirectly elected ministers intervening in law making, apply to us too.

Secondly, I'm a little annoyed by the tone most of the parties have taken in their campaigning. Not because it's negative or jingoistic (although hats off to "An Independence From Europe" for their badly animated monster eating Westminster. I couldn't stop laughing) but because most of it has nothing to do with the European Parliament. Pamphlets I've received have talked about the various UK parties' records on domestic issues, or about independence from Europe.

The trouble is, neither of these is really a European issue. No, the second one isn't, despite the name. Because whether we decide to hold a referendum on independence, decide to pull out, or decide to stay in without any further discussion, is a matter for the UK parliament, not the European one. Westminster makes that decision for the UK. So talking about it in European elections is just another way of saying that you don't want to talk about what you'll actually do for the UK's interests in the European parliament if elected. That's the part that matters. Now, to try to find a party that is actually talking about that.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Knightly Qualities

Another medieval Monday, and today I wanted to talk about two books that convinced me that knights weren't very nice, regardless of what the average Ren Faire might believe. One was the Morte de Arthur, by Thomas Mallory. The other, rather earlier story of Raoul de Cambrai, by... well, a couple of different people at least, none of whom we're entirely sure about. I'm sure you know the basic story of the Morte de Arthur. Knights running around having adventures, forgetting where they've placed the grail, fighting evil and generally doing good, right?


You see, there are some bits of it that sort of fit that pattern. Where someone is described as evil, the knights of Camelot typically come around and kill them at some point. But they also kill a good number of one another in mindless contests of arms, and a good number of their spouses/lovers/intendeds in the wake of believing them to be sleeping with someone else. Arthur, it should be pointed out, condemns Guinevere to burn at the stake for the whole thing with Lancelot, who rescues her and conveys her to a nunnery in time for the Pope to sort everything out, in what probably seemed like a slightly more obvious plot move at the time. There are plenty of instances in the book of knights or kings sleeping with women by force or trickery, taking whatever they wanted from those around them, and generally behaving in ways we would condemn as evil if it weren't the knights of the round table doing it.

Which brings us to the monster that was Raoul de Cambrai. In a lot of ways, he's not the hero of his book. That's Bernier, his vassal/eventual killer. Yet he's described in heroic terms by the writers of the chanson de geste, as the greatest knight that ever drew breath. Assuming that they weren't being very sarcastic indeed (and it really doesn't look like it), that's a bit odd. Because Raoul de Cambrai is a monster. He slaughters towns, he burns down nunneries with his best mate's mother in them. He kills people at the drop of a hat.

And yet, when Bernier turns against him, it's not for the aforementioned murder of his mother and everyone around her. No, it's because Raoul hit him. Now, I'm going to be generous and suggest that the writers were pointing out the absurdity of this, where Raoul could do so many evil things, but it's only that direct harm to Bernier that allows him to be freed from the obligations of vassalage. Yet even with that, it still says a lot that Raoul continues to be referred to as a good knight.

The thing here is that being a good knight, even a knight good enough for the Round Table, had little to do with notions of chivalry superimposed on it. There were essentially just four qualities required of a real knight:

The ability to afford the armour

The ability to get on with large groups of well armed and often slightly drunk people without getting their head cut off

Loyalty to whoever was paying their wages


Frankly, the first three fade into insignificance next to the last one. Prowess with weaponry was everything. You could borrow armour (William Marshal did at the start of his tournament career). You could get away with being grumpy or rude around the castle, up to a point. Loyalty generally only lasted until you started to lose. But you had to be able to swing a sword. Do that well, and you were a great knight, seemingly regardless of anything else.

Monday, 12 May 2014


It's another medieval Monday, and I feel like discussing the Cistercians today. Cistercian monks were a part of the new wave of monasticism that swept Western Europe from the start of the 12th century. Their premise was essentially that existing forms of monasticism following the rule of St Benedict weren't really being austere or holy enough. They, and a lot of noble backers, felt that other monasteries had relaxed their standards somewhat when it came to things like the accumulation of wealth.

So, starting with Robert of Molseme and the Abbey of Citeaux, they set out to follow the rule of St Benedict a lot more closely. And it worked, in two separate ways. First, in the way they originally seem to have wanted. They adopted a simpler, more austere sort of life. They wore white, undyed robes to symbolise that. Their monasteries worked as a network, with each house checking the next to keep them in line.

It also worked in a way that they probably didn't anticipate, because they became suddenly, massively popular. Partly, that was because medieval nobles wanted newer, holier monastic orders in which to invest. The prevailing feeling was that doing so was better for the soul than giving money to moderately holy orders to which other nobles had already given plenty of money. Archbishop Thurstan of York in particular seemed to love them, allowing them to found Rievaux and Fountains, while Meaux was founded at around the same time, in 1137.

Partly, it was because Bernard of Clairvaux, their second leader, was unfathomably charismatic. Or incredibly annoying and inclined towards writing letters at people until they gave up and did what he wanted. I'm not entirely sure which, although it does explain a lot about the Second Crusade, which he talked quite a lot of France into.

Oh, and it may also have had something to do with extending papal authority, since the Cistercians quickly acquired exemptions from all sorts of controls, whether by royal authority or archiepiscopal.

Whatever the reason, they found themselves with new monastery after new monastery. Whole sections of monastic houses defected. They acquired lay brothers to do a lot of the labour. Nobles gave them land, and money, and... well, you can see where this is going. They got rich. Particularly through the wool trade. They slowly became everything they'd been trying to avoid. They even started speculating on the wool market, accepting up front payments for next year's crop.

Which is how they came down a few notches. Parasites hit their sheep, with the result that they ended up owing quite a lot of money, and several of them had to get the medieval equivalent of the administrators in to run things for a bit. The order survived, but they were never quite the same again.

Which, of course, paved the way for all sorts of other orders to grow up...

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Kung fu and self defence

When I'm not writing or looking into history, I'm generally to be found doing something vaguely violent to other people. Over the years, I've practised a lot of different martial arts, including quite a lot that many people would consider a bit non-functional as actual fighting systems. It's something I have strong opinions on, mostly because I feel that if you're teaching a martial art in ways that don't work well, then you're potentially putting your students in danger. But I think the point here is more about the ways in which people choose to train, rather than the label they stick on it.

To illustrate this, I'd like to talk about kung fu and some modern day "combatives" or "Reality Based Self Defence" systems.

Kung fu is quite often derided in modern martial arts or self-defence circles. Start talking about straight blasts, or trapping, or doing "monkey presents peaches" in response to an attack, and you'll get some suspicious looks. There are reasons for it. In far too many classes, the students will spend far more time doing forms or two person set pieces than anything else. Or they'll talk a bunch of nonsense about chi and dim mak. Or they'll never do any fighting on the ground. Or my personal favourite, it being "too dangerous" to spar with. There's also traditionally a sense of harking back to mythical or legendary practitioners of the past, whether it's Yip Man, Chang Sang Feng, or just a general sense of Shaolin monks somewhere in the past. It's not true of every class, but it's certainly the prevailing image of the art.

I don't want to talk about my problems with this today (although I plan on coming back to it, because people still don't seem to be getting the message). What I would like to talk about is the extent to which some "self defence" classes have become everything they make fun of in Kung Fu. Some, not all. I want to make it clear that there are plenty of combatives and modern martial arts classes out there that do train hard. But...

But there are plenty of RBSD classes out there that talk about pressure points, or say that if you hit someone with their supremely vicious techniques, you will win any fight. And of course, the violence of those techniques means that it's too dangerous to spar with, so that you can only work on pads, or with a partner throwing set techniques and then freezing in place while you throw a dozen strikes back and feel good about how much you're progressing. These classes have gone from saying a perfectly sensible "get off the ground as quickly as you can" to "we're not going to train there because you don't want to be there. They don't hark back to Shaolin monks, but they are quick to talk about the special forces people who have used their techniques...

What I'm saying here is that it's not down to what you call your art when it comes to martial arts. It's not about what tradition you're from. It's how you train. Kung fu can be as effective as anything else if you train the right way. Self defence can become an absolute joke if it isn't. If you practice a martial art, ask yourself how you're training.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014


A few years ago, back before I actually did write a novel, my father told me that I probably should, but that I should "put jokes in because people don't want to read serious stuff". The thing is, I'm not entirely sure that's true anymore. My experience of trying to sell humorous fantasy to the world is that quite often, the world doesn't want to laugh quite as much as it thinks it does. I remember the publisher's weekly review of my novel Court of Dreams, which essentially said "Ok but too many jokes." I've toned things down just a touch for The Glass, but I still worry sometimes that people see that tag of "funny fantasy" and run the other way.

Apparently, I'm not alone in that thought. Sir Terry Pratchett rightly continues to sell well, but other great comic fantasy authors like Tom Holt can't get shelf space for more than their most recent book in my local bookshop. There was a Wodehouse revival a few years ago, but Toby Frost seems to have had to fight to find a home for his excellent Space Captain Smith books. Is this the lack of a distinct comic fantasy community, or is it just that no one is interested?

It's usually at about this point that someone points out that they liked the funny bits in one of their favourite books. Which invariably turns out to be a straight ahead fantasy book with humorous bits. Jim Butcher's work is often mentioned, or Kim Harrison's, or I've even heard people reference Joe Abercrombie's books in this conversation. Yes, there's some gallows humour in the First Law trilogy, but no one in the world could describe it as comic fantasy.

So what does this say for the prospects of the urban fantasy series I've had in the back of my mind for years now, about a chap who just happens to supply all the bits for those fantasy dungeons that people keep building to attract barbarian tourists just the other side of reality? Possibly that I should leave it there.

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Middle Ages

It's Monday, I feel like writing about something to do with the Middle Ages, so let's dub these 'medieval Mondays'. I thought I'd start out with one simple question: when exactly were the Middle Ages?

Except that it's not particularly simple, because of two things. The first is that it varied a bit from place to place. If we suggest that the Middle Ages were between the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance... well, the Romans withdrew from different places at different times, while different countries had their own renaissances at different points too. And frankly, those are all European concepts anyway, that wouldn't be applicable to places like Japan (which officially ended feudalism in 1868) or the USA.

The second problem is that no one at the time thought "Oh, we're in the Middle Ages now". It's just a label we've put on afterwards. Or rather, that the people in the Renaissance put on afterwards to emphasise that they really had more to do with those elegant Romans than with their more immediate forebears.

Yet roughly, we can say that the Middle Ages probably lasted in some form from the late fourth century to about 1500 or so. Meaning for about a thousand years. People sometimes forget about how long it was. They talk about it as one homogenous thing for a whole millennium, when it can't have been, realistically. Are we saying that we're basically the same as Edward the Confessor? Because we're closer to him than the people at the end of the period were to people at the start. It's worth thinking about.

Sunday, 4 May 2014


The other night, Louis Chapman, who is one of the main pros at the MMA gym where I practise grappling, was entered in an eight man tournament with, wait for it, a £15000 prize. I and everyone else in Hull saw how much effort he put into training for it, and I can only guess that all the other fighters did the same. Louis is an exceptional fighter. Then last night... as well as he fought, Louis didn't win, losing to BJJ black belt Stephen Martin in his first match. Martin didn't win either, losing to the eventual winner Andre Winner in the semi-finals. Indeed, because of the format of the tournament, seven of the eight people involved received no pay day for their weeks (and months, and years) of effort. Presumably, the tournament organisers' pay wasn't conditional on anything other than selling tickets.

I'm bringing this up because I'm sure most of the writers out there can see the fundamental problem with this, but a lot of them would still be happy to enter a writing contest. One freelancing site I know of even seems to be using contests as a major component of its approach. Here's the thing though: if you're only paying your "prize" to the winner, that means that the majority of writers there end up doing unpaid work, no matter how good that work is.

The traditional counter to this is that they choose to and that no one is making them. Yet we can only choose from the options that are available. If we live in a world where it is considered normal to run contests to get content, then who is going to pay a writer fairly for his or her time? Eventually, we end up with a world where the only option available to choose is the life of an amateur writer who occasionally wins contests, and who doesn't have the time to devote to it full time. Even an unpaid anthology or token payment is more honest than this, because it doesn't pretend to be anything it's not. So the next time you have an anthology to fill, please, don't run a contest.

Friday, 2 May 2014

A-Z aftermath

So, that's the A-Z over. It was hard work, I'll admit, although at least I made things a bit easier for myself by pre-writing my posts. It was interesting to see how many people said the same things in the comments with this: that they'd always found medieval history interesting, but they could never write a historical novel.

That was the one thing I wasn't sure I was getting across through the month. I firmly believe that about half the time when you're writing fantasy, you are writing history. Half-remembered bits of history, perhaps, but history nonetheless. Basically, if you're writing about knights and nobles and castles you're 'doing' the middle ages in some reflected form. Hopefully, after this month, you've got a few more details to play with.

And I'll try to keep that going. I'm going to try to provide some semi-regular things on fantasy, history, and the relationship between the two.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Z is for Zoroastrianism

This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be relevant to writers, and to finish, I wanted to look at a what if scenario, to see how that kind of alternate history might work. Also because it gives me an interesting Z word. Zoroastrianism, for those who don’t know, is an ancient (and still continuing, obviously) Persian religion focused on a division of the universe into positive and evil aspects, each represented by divine beings (which is obviously a massive oversimplification, and apologies to any Zoroastrians out there). Is there a scenario in which it could ever have been the religion of Medieval Europe, instead of Christianity?

It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. Why was medieval Europe Christian? Partly because of the influence of the late Roman Empire, and partly because of missionary efforts at the back end of what people call the Dark Ages. When the Emperor Constantine won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. If he had lost the battle, one of the Empire’s other religions might have gotten the gig. And one of the most popular cults in the later Roman Empire was a kind of offshoot of Zoroastrianism that was particularly popular with its military. Even in the Middle Ages, ideas that link to Zoroastrianism were around. The Cathars put down in one of the more brutal crusades against heresy believed in a kind of equal positioning between good and evil, with a figure for evil given almost equal billing as the only real solution to the theological problem of suffering. So it’s easy to see how things could have gone another way while remaining very similar.

Of course, this alternate history game is one that has been played in many forms by many writers. Mary Gentle does it brilliantly in Ash. Jacqueline Carey does it in large parts of her world building. It’s great fun as a writer to take something small but fundamental, twist it, and see where the world you’re working with ends up.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Y is for Youth

This A-Z I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful to writers. If you’re writing about young people in a medieval type setting, what might they have expected? We can say that there was some concept of children as something separate from adults, but that any childhood didn’t last nearly as long. By twelve or so, many young people would have been working, apprenticed, possibly married.

Childhood, such as it was, seems to have been a weird mixture of child appropriate things such as games and learning, with more adult appropriate things. Even those still deemed children would have been made to work with their parents before they matured enough to work alone. All of them would have drunk beer or wine (because the water was not safe. There was “small beer” specifically for this kind of day to day consumption).

Youth could also be a violent time. Parents generally didn’t hesitate to beat children. Indeed, it was considered a desirable thing by many, so that one key way of getting a young person to remember something was to give them a whack as you told them it, on the basis that pain was an aid to remembering. They were subject to adult courts, with any account for their age based on the personal feelings of the lord or priest judging them. There was only the most basic provision for orphans in many places.

The extent to which you want to reflect that is obviously down to you. Yet it always feels just a little odd when characters in fantasy novels with medieval settings have essentially modern childhoods, so it’s worth at least thinking about the balance there.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

X is for signing with one

This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history useful for writers (and cheating just a little today). How literate were medieval people? We used to think of them as largely illiterate, yet the answer is probably more complex than that. It seems to have varied by period, with the introduction of schools allowing for a lot of basic literacy by the end of the period.

We also need to think about the evidence for illiteracy. Often it is making a cross for a name, but we know that a number of otherwise literate people did that, sometimes while writing their full name elsewhere. Then there is the evidence of secular writing, such as chansons de geste and other stories. Who do we think was reading them? I’m not saying that the average peasant would have been an Oxford professor (particularly when Oxford hadn’t become a university in the early bit of the period. Bologna beat you to it, people), but I’d suggest that nobles would generally be able to write. Chroniclers tended to mock those who couldn’t.

Or at least, they used to mock those they considered illiterate, but it doesn’t always seem to have meant the same thing. Literacy for much of the Middle Ages meant “literate in Latin”. So I’m semi-literate by those standards, and many of those reading this perfectly easily… Oh, and that’s another thing. There’s a difference between reading and writing. We often find that concept weird today, but in the Middle Ages, it was perfectly possible to be able to read with only the vaguest idea of the skill of writing. Writing well was sufficiently uncommon that it actually makes the identification of documents easier, since there were distinct local and regional variations in handwriting.

So the next time you have a knight walk into a bar, can he read the menu? That’s down to what fits best, but I’d like to suggest that neither having every character able to read nor assuming that they all can’t is entirely the right way to go.

Friday, 25 April 2014

W is for Women

This month, I’m going through aspects of medieval history that are relevant to writers. It feels a bit weird having “women” as one of my categories here, since I don't want to create the impression that all the other categories didn't apply to them. I’ve been envisioning both men and women with almost every other category with the possible exception of knights (and if there were female knights, I’d love to hear about it). All the issues I’ve been talking about affected everyone’s lives.

Yet there are some separate things we need to consider in addition to all the things that applied to everyone. Every medieval society I’ve studied was extremely male dominated, while history was kept by largely male religious orders, writing about battles full of men. That tends to mean that direct evidence for women in the historical record is even rarer than the already limited records for men.

It also meant often quite restrained lives for many women. It is hard for us to underestimate just how oppressed many women of the period would have been. They were often tightly controlled by male relatives, or by their lords in the absence of such. Their opportunities for education and personal freedom were often very limited. Most could not own land in their own right (unless they were widows, for which see below). Marriages among the nobility were often arranged, and a noble daughter was to many noble families essentially an asset to sell off to the highest bidder. Even though the witch trials hadn’t come around yet, ecclesiastical courts tended to round on women who spoke up as heretics, particularly if they ever dared to preach. They also roundly condemned any women found having sex outside of marriage, while doing relatively little about the levels of violence and sexual violence they faced from day to day from men.

Yet having reminded everyone of just how bleak life could be for women in the period, I would also quickly like to remember that there were women who achieved considerable recognition/notoriety in the period. A few I’ve already mentioned include Eleanor of Acquitaine, who married two kings and kept her own court that promoted most of the arts we take for granted. There was the Empress Matilda, who challenged for the English throne for many years. There was St Hilda, who founded Whitby Abbey and taught many respected figures. And there were the countless unnamed widows who found that in that one situation, they suddenly had control of their own lands, and made full use of them. Women could, and did, play a full role in medieval life, and they certainly should in your stories.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

V is for Visions

This month, I’m looking at elements of medieval history that might be of use to writers. Now obviously, visions show up in a lot of fantasy literature, but they were also a major thing in the Middle Ages. They showed up in literature (Dante being only the tip of the iceberg), in apparent “histories” such as Bede’s work, and in numerous documents attached to religious houses.

In some ways, visions can be seen as a way that the people of the time claimed control of a religion that still wasn’t quite as centralised as it would come to be, and in which systematic teaching of the “correct” thing to believe wasn’t always very efficiently conducted. Visions represented a way for groups who would otherwise not have had power within the Church, notably women but also lay figures and the poor, to comment on the highly religious society around them. In some ways, they were also a product of that society, where having visions was considered normal.

Well, up to a point. There has been a lot of work done on medieval visions of the afterlife (including mine. I did my initial MA on them), and some of that work shows that even in the Middle Ages, there was a range of reactions to them. Some were seen as genuine visions, while others were treated as heresy. Some were seen as tricks by the devil, some as simple entertainment, and some as symptoms of mental illness. It might be interesting to build in that kind of range of responses the next time one of your characters has the obligatory fantasy prophetic vision.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

U is for Unknown Lands

This month, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful for writers. The idea of Unknown Lands has been with us for millennia, and while the great ages of exploration weren’t quite on the European world, there was still a fascination with the lands outside Christendom in Europe. There were half remembered memories from Roman conquests, stories brought back by travellers like Marco Polo, and of course, plenty of places that were still wild.

Not everywhere outside a city counted as wild. The Middle Ages were a great period for human transformation of land. The city of Hull, for example, only exists because a bunch of Cistercian monks from Meaux were able to drain the swamp it stood on. Yet there were many wild and untamed places. The claims of many kingdoms over their less hospitable parts were often only theoretical.

It was also in this period that a fascination with great voyages of discovery started to come in, both actually and in literature. We have Marco Polo’s journey, the many Viking voyages of which Lief Erikson’s expedition to Greenland was only the best known, but also the literary journey of St Brendan in his coracle, and the mysterious journeys into strange lands that Arthur’s knights undertook. There was also a sense of Western Europe as one of the unknown lands, occasionally, as Islamic invaders from the south and Mongol ones from the East pushed into this strange, unexplored world.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

T is for Travel and Transport

This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful for writers. Travel in the Middle Ages is an intriguing one, because I think sometimes writers can be a bit inconsistent with it. They treat individual villages as entirely cut off, and journeys to foreign lands as huge adventures to be undertaken only with care, yet at the same time the heroes have no qualms about wandering around the place and messages seem to get through okay whenever the story demands.

Actually though, that’s probably a reasonable enough reflection of the reality. A lot of people wouldn’t have travelled that far (and would have been considered fugitives if they did in the case of serfs). Travel was also quite difficult at times, with walking, horses, and boats the only real options. There were bandits, animals, areas of poor roads, swamps, and more. There was also frequently a lack of convenient little inns along the way, meaning that people had to seek hospitality with nobles, in monasteries, or in villages.

Yet people did travel. Pilgrims, messengers, itinerant nobles… they all wandered around England regularly. The Canterbury tales were about a group of travellers and pilgrims, remember. Ship travel was dangerous, as with the disasters of the White Ship and the Second Crusade, but it could also cover large distances. People did end up in all kinds of places.

S is for Swordplay

This month, I’m looking at elements of medieval history that might be of use to writers. Swordplay shows up in most fantasy novels somewhere, and while obviously the main things about writing it are that it should fit your story and read well, understanding medieval swordplay can help.

For a full look at it, I’d recommend some of the historical texts accessible through but we can cover some basics here. First is that a wide variety of weapons and tactics were used. It was not all about sword against sword. Secondly, most people would have done something with both hands when they were using a sword, whether it was using a shield, using a second weapon, or holding a long sword with both hands.

Third, some common tactics to try including: attacking and defending in one movement, rather than parrying and riposting. Wrestling at close range, having crashed into the opponent’s sword with yours. Reversing your sword to hit them with the blunt end as a hammer (people really did all of these). Resting your sword against your shoulder baseball bat style in the basic stance, because it’s a waste of energy not to. Try writing in all of these, for that extra bit of authenticity.

Monday, 21 April 2014

R is for Royalty

This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful for writers. Today, I want to look at the different ways some medieval societies thought about royalty. Writers tend to portray fantasy rulers one of two ways: either as an absolute ruler whose word is law, or as a failed absolute ruler whose word is still law but who is controlled by his or her advisors.

Yet absolute rulership wasn’t really the case for much of the Middle Ages. Kings were bound by convention and precedent, and had to take oaths to abide by pre-existing laws. Most routinely renewed the charters of their ancestors. They were frequently great landholders, but they did not own all land in some neat “feudal” pyramid. Nor were they seen as divinely chosen in the early part of the period. Abbot Suger of St Denis is credited for introducing that notion to France, but it was far from universal.

The fact is that practically nothing was. There were Kings and there were Emperors. There were principalities and city states. There were areas where the nominal authority of kings was ignored by their barons (as in much of France or as with the lords who owned Yorkshire during the Anarchy), and kingdoms where there were regents or councils of regents. Even our most accepted ideas about royalty, with automatic succession by the eldest son/child, weren’t the case in England before the Norman invasion. Prior to that, a successor was chosen by key barons from a group of “Aethlings” qualified by blood. So be prepared to do what you want with your royalty. You can bet that the medieval period did.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Q is for Quests

This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that are relevant to writers. Today, I want to make a simple point: medieval people went on quests. Well, sort of, at least if we define a quest as “going on a journey to do a special thing”. They certainly went on plenty of pilgrimages, with there being a kind of regular circuit of saints’ relics to get around. People even set out on long journeys with the explicit aim of acquiring as many such relics as they could. The most extreme version of this kind of pilgrimage was going on crusade, with people taking the cross for all kinds of reasons before heading off often years later. Not always to the Holy Land, incidentally. Quite a lot of later "crusades" (there has been some argument over what counts) were focussed things against heresies in Europe.

But even aspects of everyday life could fulfil some of the requirements. Travel to more remote areas was always something of an adventure, and there were such things as bandits and dangerous animals around, as well as more mundane concerns such as being treated with suspicion whenever travelling somewhere strange. Messages moved at the pace of a horse or running man, but they could still cover the length of England in a few days. An urgent message really could be an adventure, and often a terrifying one.

Princesses and Princes

I’m looking at topics in medieval history this A-Z that might be of use to writers. Today, I’m looking at those heirs to the throne who keep showing up in so much fantasy. Princesses show up either as objects to be rescued in the more depressingly blinkered traditional sort of fantasy, or as the MCs of large portions of more modern stuff. Princes are often handsome or devious. Both seem to be there as love interests quite often.

 Of course, in the Middle Ages, being the love interest was more or less their lot in life. Both princes and princesses were mostly valuable to their parents and the barons around them for their potential, rather than who they were. Barons typically out ranked princes. Their usefulness came in their potential to carry on the line, and to make useful alliances. Many of them found themselves betrothed far younger than those around them, although the marriages weren’t completed until they came of age.

In the meantime though, their main role seemed to be to get into trouble. Henry the Younger spent his time following the tournament, before dying on the White Ship and drastically changing the succession. Several rebelled against their parents (the classic way of getting your inheritance a bit early being to conquer the kingdom from under them) and found themselves exiled for a while. Even when the time came to do their job and become a ruler, things didn’t always go to plan. The Empress Matilda, for example, was told by Henry I that she would succeed him, but the barons’ refusal to accept that and the Anarchy that followed meant she never truly ruled England.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

O is for Old Age

This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of the Middle Ages that are relevant for writers. Old Age is an important one here, because it’s easy to forget that life expectancy was much lower then. Exactly how much lower probably varies by time and location, and in any case the lack of consistent public records means that it’s impossible to be accurate about, but we can make some general points.

First, there was very high infant mortality. There was also a higher than now risk to women in childbirth. There were the additional factors of common violence and disease. The end result was that even for those nobles we know about, making it to fifty (only three countries in the world today have life expectancies lower than that) was not common. Peasants would probably have had even lower life expectancies.

Yet there were older people than that. People could occasionally survive well into their seventies or eighties, typically within monastic institutions or royal houses. What does this mean for your writing? For one thing, it means that YA characters will find themselves pushed into adult roles and that will be normal. For another, it means that the contrast with the long lived creatures of fantasy will be all the greater. And those few wizards with long white beards who have clearly been around for longer than anyone else alive? Well, if you’re authentically medieval, that might only be sixty or seventy years.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

N is for Northmen

This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might add some flavour to your fantasy or historical fiction. Today, I’m talking about Vikings. No, wait, that doesn’t work, does it? Northmen, then, which is a corruption of Norse men, and allows me to make the first point here, which is that your basic Vikings weren’t all one thing. “Viking” just meant the act of raiding, as in “we Northmen are going Viking”. Those who did it came from a variety of countries and attacked different places in different waves, with different tactics. North Men tended to refer to those from what is now Norway, but the Anglo Saxon Chronicle also says a lot about Danes, and the Swedes also did a lot. Generalising massively, we can say that in England at least, the Northmen raided, while the Danes conquered and the Swedes were too busy either in Ireland or off exploring elsewhere. One of the Byzantine empresses had an honour guard composed almost entirely of Swedish Vikings, because at least she could trust that they weren’t caught up in all the politics.

And then there are the Vikings who succeeded in conquering England. There are actually two lots involved here, because for many years, it did have what was called the Danelaw in the north of the country, while several English kings were Danish or Norwegian. Cnut is the obvious example. For a long time, then, it was essentially the southernmost point of a Viking empire. Ironically, it was another lot of Northmen, who had raided even further south and eventually become the Normans, who changed that.

Monday, 14 April 2014

M is for Monastic Orders

This A-Z I’m looking at aspects of the Middle Ages that might help writers looking to set writing in something like a medieval Western European setting.

Monks and nuns were an important part of the period. Today, that doesn’t seem obvious. Even if we think of a religious society, we tend to think in terms of priests. Yet monks and nuns were critically involved in all kinds of episodes in the Middle Ages. We have St Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, persuading Louis VII to promote the disastrous Second Crusade in 1147. We have someone like St Hilda setting up her school in the early middle ages. We have the staff of the newly developing universities, and many of the clerics who accompanied nobles.

It was a period of new monastic orders, often fuelled by the nobles’ desire to give money to a cause designed to both save their souls and show their status. The Cistercians were one of the most successful (at least until they invested too heavily in sheep futures and lost everything), but it’s important to recognise that monasticism wasn’t all one thing. There were many different orders, following many different rules. There were orders such as the Gilbertines that had men and women living side by side, and others like the various friars who weren’t bound by the requirement to stay in one place. There were also orders of canons, who were somewhere between monks and priests, and who frequently filled administrative roles both in cathedrals and for kings. Remember that in an authentically medieval setting, any favourite of a royal who doesn’t have a lot of lands to hand out is likely to be given a benefice or prebend in a religious order instead. Probably while only occasionally showing up and leaving his junior vicar to do the job.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

L is for Love and Ladies

I’m looking at bits of medieval history that might be useful for writers this month. Today, I’m looking at the notion of love, and more specifically, courtly love. It’s strange, in a time when the Catholic church was asserting its primacy, and when sex outside of marriage was deeply stigmatised, that a kind of cult following should have grown up almost simultaneously. The idea of courtly love idolised love in its slightly over the top romantic form, emphasising praise for the beauty of great ladies, romantic poetry (or lays in the old French), and a kind of institutionalised idea that all the young men and women of the court should be at least a little in love. The idea of ‘favours’ or scarves/flowers from ladies being worn in the joust is probably the key intersection of this idea with that of chivalry.

Like chivalry it was obviously a much larger than life idea, and like a lot of the ideas we have about the Middle Ages, including chivalry, it probably didn’t represent reality so much as a fantasy promoted at the time. The ecclesiastical court records showed just how much trouble young men and women got into when they actually acted on these romantic ideals.

We can’t finish here without mentioning Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was in many ways the heart of the courtly love idea in the Central Middle Ages. She was a great noblewoman who was married to two kings, who managed a great deal of power for herself in a largely male dominated society, and whose court was seen as a key centre for musicians, troubadours, poets and romance. If there was a romantic ideal of the medieval noble lady, then a large portion of that ideal was built on her.

K is for Knights

This A-Z, I’m using my PhD in medieval history to look at aspects of the Middle Ages that might be useful to writers, trying to show how the history can make for a slightly different world. Today, it’s the turn of knights. We all know them in the stories. Noble men, bound by codes of chivalry, wearing nothing but the heaviest plate armour and going around righting wrongs.

Well, let’s knock those four things off the list, shall we? Certainly in the earlier part of the period, knights wouldn’t have been very noble. If you were being called a knight, it was because you weren’t noble enough to call yourself a baron or a lord. You were just a fighter with the money to afford a horse and armour. Later lords and kings affected some of the styles of knights, but not as often as you’d think. Codes of chivalry were mostly a later imposition, or an attempt by the clergy to get those borderline psychopaths in armour to behave themselves for once. “Chivalry” when it is used in earlier sources is not a reference to a code of honour. Instead, they say “the chivalry” in exactly the same way we would say “the cavalry”. It’s where we get the word, and it’s the people on the horses, not their behaviour. As for the armour, until the later Middle Ages, you only have to look at sources like the Bayeux Tapestry. Chain mail, not heavy plate, was the order of the day.

Then there’s righting wrongs. Read La Morte de Arthur. Even Arthur’s fictional, flower of chivalry round table knights spend their time fighting random strangers over petty arguments, sleeping with whoever they liked (often through trickery or force) and killing people for little reason. Believe me, the real ones were worse.

Friday, 11 April 2014

J is for Jousting

For the A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of the middle ages that might be useful to writers in constructing their worlds. People who like the middle ages tend to be a little in love with jousting. Two heavily armoured figures, charging down the lists at one another…

Certainly in the earlier part of the Middle Ages, the tournament wasn’t much like that. It wasn’t nearly so controlled. It was more like a battle, with numerous sides, no requirement to focus on the use of the lance, and occasionally even units of foot soldiers employed. Knights would ride in and try to capture one another for ransoms or forfeits, using blunted but still frankly dangerous weapons. The playing area was often loosely defined in terms of the space between two villages, and cheating was common. At least one “side” made a habit of hanging around on the edges, pretending that they weren’t playing, and then charging in at the end to capture people.

It’s certain from the historical sources that knights did joust with one another, but the formal affair of jousting as we know it is probably a later medieval thing, and those who try to push it earlier tend to conflate it with the more chaotic tournament I’ve just described.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

I is for Intinerant Nobles

I Itinerant Nobles

This year, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful to writers in lending flavour to their fantasy or historical worlds. Today, I’m looking at one crucial fact about kings, nobles, bishops and just about anyone else who was important: they rarely stayed in one place.

I only really got this into my head while looking at the itineraries of successive Archbishops of York. In general, if they spent more than a week at a time in York, it was a rarity. Instead, they travelled between a succession of archiepiscopal palaces and minster churches, bouncing around like an ecclesiastical pinball. The same is true of kings and more important nobles.

Why? Partly as a way of imposing their power and reminding their further flung tenants that they owed them loyalty (and cash). Mostly, because all these figures were surrounded by large courts or retinues that would quickly have eaten any one place out of all resources if they had stayed still for long. The royal court in particular wasn’t some room down in London, but an army, moving about the countryside at the pace of its carts, setting up camp or demanding hospitality along the way. It’s worth remembering the next time you have a king sitting in a castle somewhere.