Monday, February 28, 2011

The long haul. How many words...

The long haul. How many words...

Well now, it's monday evening, and i'm still frantically chasing the end of this book. It's an elusive beast. I'm getting tired of chasing it, and might have to wait until it comes to me, at this rate (I'm somewhere between 10 and 15 K off. Given that i can write 5K a day on a good day, and have been doing between 3-4 most days for the last 2 weeks, that really is getting close. I am, unfortunately, a very slow writer. 5K is a long day, around 14 hours of work, typically - as I get stuck, rewrite bits. I am also quite a 'dense'(well, it's a kinder worder than 'thick' don't you think) writer and typically a 'scene' runs to around 1.5K -2K, which makes me something like twice as terse as Eric, and about fifteen times as terse as your bodice-ripper paranormal vampire tale. I've tried not to be, but failed, so I've given up. That aspect of my style is consistant. So they're long complicated days, not leaving much room for life around them. It's why, if I had to finally give up chasing the writing dream, my output will drop a lot. I'd be lucky to do a book a year.

So about how much do you write a day, and just how do you keep going for the long haul?

Oh By the way - must apologise about CRAWLSPACE AND OTHER STORIES. I have no idea what is going on and no time to follow it up right now.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Some Random Thoughts and Links

Well, it's Sunday morning and I'm find myself in a quandary. I didn't write the blog early yesterday because, well, I was hoping to find something that wasn't related to Borders or publishers-doing-stupid-things. So, here I am on Sunday morning trying to get enough coffee into me to function and figure out what to blog about at the same time.

Let's start with the obligatory Borders report. Mark Evans has an interesting list of six reasons why Borders went bankrupt. While I don't necessarily agree with what he has to say, he makes some interesting points. Author Melanie Benjamin talks about where she was and how it affected her when she first learned about the Borders filing. The bankruptcy trustee has named the unsecured creditors committee. Included on the committee are publishers and landlords. This article points out that one of the issues Borders will have to deal with is making sure it is closing the right number of stores AND the right stores under the circumstances. Also, this committee will have something to say about it. Add that to this article that seems to confirm my suspicions that there will be more closures in the very near future.

In other news around the publishing world, Random House announced it is offering early retirement to employees over 50 who have been with the company at least 5 years. This offer expires April 15th. Of course, they are also quick to say that this is NOT an indication that RH is going to downsize. I really wished I believed them. But, in my experience, when companies start offering this sort of a deal, particularly with employees who have not been there for long, it is a sure sign of downsizing in the future.

Barnes & Noble released its third quarter figures for 2010. It doesn't surprise me to see that their sales were pushed by digital downloads and tech. Barnes & Noble has done a lot of things wrong, in my opinion -- most importantly having played a large role in driving out the independent booksellers. But they did two things very right, things Borders should have done. They embraced the internet and have had a strong online presence for years and they have a branded e-reader that is associated with their name.

On the ongoing front of will we ever get an industry standard in e-book formats, Japan has made a step in that direction. It was announced last week that their publishers and electronics companies had adopted EPUB 3.0 as their standard. Unless I am completely wrong -- very possible, of course -- it isn't going to be long before we see two main formats: EPUB and MOBI. The other formats will drop by the wayside. Whether we will see EPUB become the industry standard or if it remains split between the two will be something to be seen over the next 5 years or so.

In other EPUB news, and this does fall under the heading of publishers-doing-stupid-things, comes this. Harper Collins once again proves, at least to me, that it doesn't support e-books nor does it support public libraries. To start, there aren't that many e-titles available for download from libraries. Now there will be even fewer. Why, because of this idiotic decision by HC. A decision that flies in the face of mainstream publishers' very frequent cry that e-books aren't real books. It is this argument that publishers use to justify DRM, saying that when we pay for an e-book we are only buying a license for it. But, with the decision to limit the number of times an e-book can be checked out, they are saying it should be treated as if it has the same lifespan as a "real" book. Can you say, have your cake and eat it too?

Finally there's this article about the increase in piracy of e-books, specific to this article Kindle e-books. I think what frustrates me the most about articles like this is the fact that it completely ignores the fact that piracy happens to ALL books, not just those released in digital format. How quickly they forget about how the last Harry Potter book hit the internet in PDF before it was released in stores. When's the last time they brought up the brouhaha that surrounded Stephenie Myer when one of her manuscripts was leaked on the internet AND SHE THREW IT AWAY. But what really bothers me is how so many of the publishers who rant about e-piracy use the argument about how it is stealing from their authors and yet these same publishers do not give accurate accountings of e-book sales, nor do they give authors a reasonable royalty on e-book sales.

Finally, on a personal note, I want to thank everyone who has supported Naked Reader Press and our authors. It dawned on me today that we put our first books up for sale just about 6 months ago. It's been 6 months of hard work but it has been worth it. So thanks to everyone who made it possible.

(Cross-posted to The Naked Truth)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

As you've probably noticed over the last month and a half, Saturdays have become promotion days for MGC. Sometimes it will be self-promotion. Others will be guest blogs by authors who have new books coming out. Sometimes, we'll even throw in an open floor. Today, I'm going to step in and do a bit of promotion for the MGCers who have titles coming out from Naked Reader Press this month and nexzt.


In a land with a weak king, in a time when murder was often disregarded, four men made sure justice was served.


First up -- and I'm really excited about this -- is Death of a Musketeer by Sarah D'Almeida.

This is the first in the series and it has never before been released in digital format. Now, I see some of you scratching your heads and wondering who this D'Almeida chick is. Well, if you take a look at her Amazon author page, you'll see that she looks pretty familiar. Actually, it's no secret that Sarah D'Almeida is one of several pseudonyms our own Sarah A. Hoyt writes under.



Computer hackers are nothing compared to Legion. Its source is unknown and it continues to baffle programmers and defeat firewalls and antivirus programs. Nothing seems able to stop it. Could Legion possibly be intelligent? Or is it something else, something totally unexpected?

Up next is a wonderful short story written by Dave Freer and Kate Paulk. Legion: The Enemy Within came out earlier this month and, as with all NRP titles, it is DRM-free and available not only at the NRP site but also from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.





A boy's search for the truth sends him on a journey to find his grandfather's downed plane. Suddenly trapped in an alternate South Africa, faced with pirates and worse, he refuses to give up. His quest to clear his grandfather's name turns into a desperate race against time. It's a race he can't afford to lose.

Our next title is Dave Freer's middle school/early YA novella, Without a Trace. It is currently available for early purchase as an uncorrected e-arc (advanced readers copy). The edited version will be available for purchase the second half of March. If you like a rip-roaring adventure, or know someone who does, Without a Trace is for you.



The day she died Mackenzie Santos's life and her perception of the world changed forever. Everyone else thought her return to the living was a miracle. She knew better. How else could she explain away the dreams she knew were symptoms she was losing her mind? And if that weren't enough, she's now in charge of the investigation into the most brutal murder she can remember in her time with the Dallas Police Department.

Nocturnal Origins is by, well, me. Yes, me. The blogger currently hiding under the bed because self-promotion isn't something I'm comfortable with. It will be available from NRP the first half of March.



And don't forget that Kate Paulk's unique take on the Dracula legend, Impaler, comes out in March as well. For more information on Impaler, as well as a snippet or two, check out Kate's website. You can also find more information on Impaler at The Naked Truth and here on MGC. One word of warning, do not expect any sparkling vampires or emo werewolves in this novel. As far as Kate's concerned, the only time vampires should sparkle are when they've stepped into the sunlight and are bursting into flame.




With the exception of Legion: The Enemy Within, each of these titles will also be breaking new ground for NRP. Each of these titles will also be released in print as well as in digital formats.

(Full disclosure here -- for those who don't know, I'm the senior executive editor for Naked Reader Press.)



Thursday, February 24, 2011

Who Needs a Tragedy?

I have been re-reading some David Gemmell recently, in particular the two books he set in ancient Greece - Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince. Brilliant stuff - but by now you would have figured out I am a die-hard Gemmell fan. Even so these two books represent some of his best work (and a great place to start if you have never read any. You have to like fantasy action though!).

One very strong element that weaves through the books (not surprisingly since they are set in Greece) is tragedy, especially on a personal level. The way Gemmell sets up the story has created a tremendous emotional driving force in his characters. He has conflict on many levels - from the classic Dark Vs Light and the threatened birth of a Dark God, to the never-ending chessboard of conflicts between Greek nations - to the struggle within the characters themselves.

The conflict within characters is classic Gemmell territory.

In the background is the seer Tamis fighting to prevent the Dark Birth, yet also fighting her own pride, which blinds her into using the weapons of the enemy and almost dooming them all. Her protege Derae, after being torn from the arms of her lover the Spartan general Parmenion (the main character), is first manipulated, then witness to Tamis' deathbed despair. Even so, she is forced to follow in her footsteps, treading a perilous path between defending the Light and using her formidable powers for destruction.

Parmenion himself is a noble character, yet like all Gemmell's heroes, struggles against the dark side of his own nature. In his case his burning desire for revenge against the Sparta that saw him beaten and humiliated as young man. This later moderates, yet by then the love of his life (Derae) has been sacrificed to Cassandra and is gone from his life (although she survives).

There is a strong element of unrequited love - the two lovers Derae and Parmenion are major players, each yearning for the other yet separated by fate. So beautifully woven into the storyline along with other side plots of a similar nature, each exploring an element of human nature and relationships.

Yet it's so hard on the characters! Seeing them in pain is like being in pain yourself. This dynamic both draws you on and yet makes you suffer with them.

Is it too much?Is that emotional driving force worth the punishment on you and the characters?

Do we need tragedy?

Heinleining the Just in Time Research


While I was writing Impaler, I did a lot of research (no surprises here - Australian, never been to Europe, only seen snow a few times (courtesy Pennsylvania winters), and I'm writing a book set over six hundred years ago, in Eastern Europe, in winter, involving cultures I had never experienced except through reading books). The funny thing was, most of the research happened rather like modern inventory management - "just in time".

I'd been absorbing general books about the area and the time period for years, but that's not enough for the kind of specifics I was looking for. Things like "Okay, it's mid-winter. Snow - quite a lot of it for the most part - on the ground. Danube River frozen over to the extent that you can march an army across it. How far is that army going to get in a day?" (Not very, especially if they're dealing with unbroken snow). I learned a lot about logistics just dealing with that question.

Then there's the more interesting bits: Vlad is trying to get his army south without Sultan Mehmed II realizing what he's up to - preferably before Mehmed realizes the Wallachian crown has changed hands (again). He needs stealth. Moving several thousand men and horses doesn't correlate terribly well with "stealth" when you're marching them through the countryside - so Vlad comes up with the idea of taking out the enemy garrisons, and sharing the loot with the locals to buy their favor so they don't say anything.

To us, that's not a big issue - but in his time, it was unheard of. Similarly Vlad's decision to buy food rather than loot - despite the high cost (he makes the observation at one point that at this time of year food is worth more than gold) - was a total departure from the norms of the time. Knowing the norms of the time is general research, but the specifics, down to nuts and bolts sometimes, were things that typically I didn't realize I needed until I got to that part of the book.

So, just before the battle for Varna, I spent quite some time trying to find out what Varna's defenses looked like in 1477, as well as the likely impact of the 1444 battle (minimal, since the town itself wasn't directly involved), the architecture of the town, the layout of the governor's palace and where it was in relation to everything else, likely local culture, and so forth. This is not something that is readily available even to the best Google-fu. Google maps helps, interestingly enough. You get a good sense of terrain from that.

Ultimately, I ended up with guesses seeded with the very few pieces of hard data I managed to unearth - things like the old Roman baths still working and converted to Turkish-style, Roman ruins by the palace (which undoubtedly provided their own defensive layer, just by existing), and tried to give the impression of knowing a lot about the place when there was actually buggerall that I could find. Smoke and mirrors, the greatest art of the writer. Mostly I used a blend of known trends in better documented regions as close by as I could get them.

There were quite a few smaller research binges - working out what trees would be growing where, for instance, given that except in the more inaccessible parts of mountain ranges it's pretty unlikely the vegetation now is going to be much like the vegetation then. Phases of the moon in early 1477 was another critical aspect of the story - and that included the extra fun of figuring out whether the lunar calendars I was working from had made the conversion back to the Julian calendar, which was the only one being used in that region at the time (the Gregorian calendar wasn't devised until quite some time later). When various religious festivals occurred, Orthodox and Roman (at that stage, they were in synch - the combination of the Gregorian calendar and a revised method of calculating Easter shifted the Roman religious calendar relative to the Orthodox). I also needed to check and keep track of what, if any, major Jewish and Islamic festivals would be happening, and figure out the local forms of said festivals for the time frame I was working with.

It's much easier if you're writing fantasy - you can just make this stuff up. On the flip side, when you do make it up from the whole cloth, it tends not to be as richly detailed as something that's already got hundreds of years of history behind it. I suspect that's why PTerry uses Earth history and legend and twists it for the Discworld: he gets that richness without having to get all the fiddly little details right.

The big research binge - which took me a few weeks, to get everything I needed and build the right images in my head - was for Constantinople, of course. There, I was reading contemporary accounts of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (eye openers all by themselves), whatever references I could find about repairs and new building in the nearly 25 years since the siege - including tidbits like the northern section of the walls hadn't been rebuilt, but the Golden Gate had been bricked up possibly due to a legend that stated a Christian savior would enter the city in triumph through the Golden Gate (Vlad's entrance isn't exactly "triumphal", but one suspects that little detail won't matter terribly much).

I even found not-quite-period maps, which were close enough to give me an idea of what the city looked like, detailed information about the walls (I was bringing them down, so I needed to know what that was going to take), as well as all the things a pyromaniac could do with a large supply of black powder.

The results of that deserve their own post, about medieval-style battle tactics - which I also learned way too much about. Of course, none of this (I hope) is lectured in the book. Hopefully it's all part of the background, so everything fits without being obtrusive.

Which leads of course to the question: aside from PTerry, who else does a really good job of Heinleining background information like this into their books?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Club, The Wheel, The Mind


When I’m sick – yeah, let’s just say that my respiratory system is a walking liability – I can’t read fiction. This is part of the reason I’ve fallen so far behind on my fiction reading. It doesn’t seem to be a rare affliction. When you’re sick you can’t handle emotion and, of course, all good fiction is emotion.

However, I can’t stop reading. Reading is what gets me through the stupid stuff that must happen in life, like washing dishes, cooking, cleaning. I have yet to figure out how to read in the shower. Someone must make a better, water-proof ereader.

So, instead of fiction I read non-fiction. The more tired/sick I am, the dryer my reading material. Years ago, when pneumonia put me in the hospital (ICU for eleven days) I read a collection of nineteenth century biology manuals. No, you probably don’t want to ask.

And I know I’m at least becoming somewhat more human because I either start having story ideas, or I start figuring out how what I’m reading applies to some aspect of writing.

This last month and a half, as I’ve been spiraling deeper and deeper into illness (And no, I don’t even know if it’s the same illness or a succession of respiratory bugs) I’ve been reading about the pursuit of the Indo-European language and culture.

Yes, this morning I finally decided enough was enough and this afternoon I dragged self to doctor and I’m now medicated. While I’m still not substantially better – except the fever must be down because my head is clearer – in the “up” points of this er... bug sequence I’ve been able to realize what I’m reading is both a wonderful seed for stories, possibly a setting for a series of novels which has deviled me (my last run at it was ... fifteen years ago, when I was definitely not ready) and, more importantly, a world building tool.

What I’ve been reading, particularly, which attempts the reconstruction of an ancient culture that might have been homogenetic, but was almost certainly heterogenetic (same or different genetic heritage), might have been located over a region or another, and might have worked out one way or another, has made me realize how things are connected, things we don’t tend to think about.

No, I don’t know how much their guesses are true, but I do know that there are certain “rules” that tend to apply and that these archeologists use them to reconstruct a culture just like a paleontologist reconstructs a dead animal from a loose tooth. Will they sometimes be wrong? Oh, yeah, heck, yeah. Remember the dinosaurs that have changed name or shape as more has been found out about them? But still, there are certain things that apply. If you find a certain shape of tooth, you know you’re dealing with an herbivore, for instance. And if you find human craniums with largely cavity-free teeth, you know you’re dealing with a culture whose diet was low on carbohydrates. Oh, there might be some genetic freak that keeps them from getting cavities, but, more than likely, you’re dealing with a diet based on protein.

The same goes for population replacement, for instance. One population disappears, another comes in. Was it war? Maybe. Sometimes you do find a population where the graves show women of the previous population and men of the new one. You could be dealing with a Rape of The Sabines situation. Alternately, you could be dealing with some elaborate treaty and bride price, and perhaps the men of the tribe moved elsewhere to marry women from the other tribe. Yeah, that wouldn’t be total, but these graves never represent everyone, just the powerful families.

And then there’s that too – what was powerful at the time? What was “wealthy”. A man is buried in a grave that would require immense labor with only a few shards of pottery and a dagger. Was it because the culture was terribly poor, or were the gifts symbolic. You only know by comparing to smaller graves of the same culture.

I’m not going to go into details, but it is important, not just for historical fiction but for science fiction and even for fantasy to think through these details. “What does my culture use for transport?” for instance, limits how far your character can travel. That much is obvious. But it will also limit the ideas of the world; how far her parents’ married; how many languages there are in the immediate vicinity; what they eat and possibly how they pray. “What do they eat?” again limits or shapes what the culture is like. If they are mostly agriculturalists, their culture will be different from if they are pastoralists. And if they are pastoralists with frequent cattle raiding (which also correlates to weapons) the culture is yet different. (And if they eat mostly stew, you’re caught in The Tough Guide To Fantasyland.)

I confess that even with as much as I know about history and how cultures evolve, and how economics influences daily life, I’ve caught at least a couple of mistakes I’ve made in one of my cultures – where they could not possibly be settled agriculturalists with those habits.

We live in a time where the world is our backyard, where food of all seasons and all continents is available to us and transport is cheaper and easier than it’s ever been. This divorces source from event in our minds, so that we have trouble creating even complex, future cultures.

Of course, the classic work with everything integrated is Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness. I’m not saying I don’t have problems with some of her extrapolations. I do. She and I come from widely different philosophical traditions and that always shows. Also, though I liked it originally, the presentation itself now seems incredibly dated to me. BUT at least she tried to show a culture integrated in all facets of myth and daily living and its natural environment. And managed to hint at a full fledged society, which of course never fits in a book.

What is your favorite such example? Do you have one? What would you like to see? How do you think archeology can help us learn world building?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Crawlspace and other stories.

Oh dearie me. Time is pressing on me with wing├ęd feeties. I am rushing to finish this book, and while it is going well, there is quite a lot of it left... so I leave you with the news that Eric Flint and I have put all our joint shorts, a novella and a Novelette set in the RATS BATS AND VATS universe up on kindle. Well, would have, except it isn't showing up yet.

The cover for Crawlspace and other stories is just stunning - a high gloss platinum blonde with vast... tracts of land. Really. Go and look, would I lie to you (ans: yes. I write fiction. I am a professional liar, sometimes even almost believable).

And here is an excercise in character building from the WIP... it's raw, first draft stuff.

_______

"What are you planning to help us with? " asked Meb.
"Food and shelter were what you sought, I thought," said the Spriggan. "Shelter is easy enough. Food is a bit more difficult. Not food for the likes of you, anyway. Simple fare is also easy enough. But the noble ladies of Lyonesse wouldn't want to eat that."
"Given a choice, I would," said Meb. "I've had enough of fancy food that tasted of stale bread for my lifetime. Give me stale bread that tastes like stale bread and I'll be happy."
"Ah. Stale bread is a challenge. We've got fresh, but it'd take a few days to make it stale. But if that's what you want..."
"No, fresh is even better."
"Well, it'll make you sick, I shouldn't wonder," said the Spriggan.
"They're dangerous, M'lady, said Neve timidly. "Spirits of old giants, so they do say."
"Spirits of the rocks and tors actually," said the spriggan. "And we're dangerous all right, but not to you. Sadly."
"The knockers and piskies did us no harm, Neve," said Meb, reasonably. You even had Knocker babies on you lap."
"Probably piddled on you," said the Spriggan with a kind of glum satifaction. "They do."
"They were good little things," said Neve defensively. "Nice to me and M'lady."
"Ah, should have been suspicious then," said the spriggan. "I daresay they gave you food which turned your insides to wax or something."
"You're a grumpy so-and-so," said Meb.
"We have that reputation, yes. Now if you'll follow me I think we've got a few rabbits and some wild onions in the pot. Won't agree with you of course."
Meb shouldered the axe, stepped forward and took the rather surprised-looking spriggan by the arm. Gray-skinned and touched with lichens he was still warm, she noticed. "Lead on. Come on Neve. He won't eat us, or he could have, because there is another one at the start of the lane. We're between them.
The Spriggan blinked. "My brother will give you a hand with the bags, if you like," he said, escorting her in as courtly a manner as any of the Haerthmen of the Prince's retinue.
They walked up the hill, to where the abandoned walled fields gave way to grazing lands and to the rocky tor at the top. Meb recognise it from her day's hunting, and realised just how close to Dun Tagoll they still were. "It was you that I saw, watching me, wasn't it?"
The Spriggan nodded. "We weren't too sure how to talk to you in all that press around you. Too much cold iron. It won't kill us straight off, but we don't like it."
He tapped a rock and it slid aside to reveal a passage down. "An old tomb, he said. "Gloomy but clean and dry."
Meb suppressed a shudder. "Just don't mention the tomb part to Neve. She's... she's live a bit of sheltered life, compared to me. Can we leave it open?"
"It'll let spiders in I daresay."
"For now." A glance showed Neve was pretty well white with terror. She winked at her, to tell her it would be all right. And Neve managed a smile, and appeared to relax slightly.
They walked down stone steps and into what should have been the cold tomb. The Spriggans plainly didn't have much regard for these ideas, as it was pleasantly warm, and scented with... not dust and decay, but the smell of onions, garlic, and wild thyme, and cooking meat. It might once have been a tomb, but the current occupants had scant resepect for funerary furniture or the dead that might have lain there, having used the central scarophagus to make a table, on which they had laid a cloth, and around which they'd placed several three legged stools. A fire burned in a grate in the corner, with a pot hanging from a hob, from which the smells were plainly coming.
"Welcome to our lair," said the spriggan, rather formally.
Meb wasn't sure how one answered that, but she had a feeling that formally would be best. "Our thanks to you. May it remain dry and warm and safe," she said.
"What... what are you cooking?" aske Neve, warily.
"Rabbits, I told you. We have to make do. We can't get enough unwary travellers these days," said the Spriggan tending the pot.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Writers need to keep on their toes ...

Here in Australia the REDgroup Retail, owners of Angus and Robertson and Borders Australia has filed for bankruptcy. We live in interesting times.

I belong to Science Fiction Writers of America and the latest issue has an article on digital books and publishing. (He basically said you were crazy if you didn't make your out of print back-list work for you). The author makes a good point about the writer as a business person. If you don't keep up, you'll be left behind.

As a writer you are madly juggling work, family and writing and you are expected to promote your books as well. Even if you have an agent, you need to be watching your genre to see who is publishing what and what the trends are. You can track your sales on Amazon, that's new. But I only found out that copies of book 3 of my first trilogy are selling for anything up to $200 from a reader who didn't want to pay this much.

I really should teach myself to do podcasts. I know I should, but with work and renovating and writing I just don't have the mental space for it right now. With so much to keep track of it's a wonder writers get any writing done.

Now, if you have managed to finish writing your book and you're looking for somewhere to send it, consider sending it to Angry Robot. They're opening their doors to submission in March. They say:

'All our books are “genre” fiction in one way or another — specifically fantasy, science fiction, horror, and that new catch-all urban or modern fantasy. Those are quite wide-ranging in themselves; we’re looking for all types of sub-genre, so for example, hard SF, space opera, cyberpunk, military SF, alternate future history, future crime, time travel, and more. We have no problem if your book mashes together two or more of these genres, but they must have that genre foundation – no thrillers with the merest touch of SF, for example.

Our books will be published in all English-language territories — notably the UK, US and Australia — so we’ll be buying rights to cover all those. If you are only offering rights in one territory, we will not be able to deal with you. We will be able to offer e-book and audio versions as standard too, plus limited edition and multiple physical formats where appropriate. We are not contracting any work-for-hire titles; we offer advances and royalties.

Beyond all of this, what we’re really looking for in your writing is this:
• A “voice”, that comes from…
• Confident writing
• Pacy writing
• Characters that live, have real relationships and emotions, even in extreme situations
• A sense of vision, a rounded universe that lives and breathes
• Clever construction, good plotting, a couple of surprises even for us jaded old read-it-alls
• Heightened experience – an intensity, extremity or just a way of treating plot or situation in a way we’ve not come across before. “Goes up to 11″, if you know what that means.

Do all those, and it will be almost irrelevant that your story is one or other sub-set of SF, fantasy or horror!'

There's a list of FAQs and some tips on presentation. Best of luck.

Tell me, are you also scrambling to keep your head above water, or is it just me?


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Open Floor

Sorry, guys, but I've been sick all weekend and don't have a post to go up today. So I'm throwing the door open and letting you play. You know the rules -- no politics, play nice and have fun.

If you haven't had your fill of the Borders debacle, you can check out what I had to say about it all week at The Naked Truth.

I'll be back later. Right now, I'm going back to bed. Have fun!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Hit From the Past


*About eight years ago I was asked to send three proposals for historical mysteries. This was the year I often tell you about -- with much storied drama -- "the year of the seventeen proposals." Speed was of the essence, so I came up with three concepts: A musketeer's mystery series, a Leonardo Da Vinci mystery series, and a Merlin mystery series. The first was sort of nebulous, just historical and using a form of the Dumas musketeers (not THE Dumas musketeers as such, because they'd make terrible characters for a modern day mystery -- they're not particularly deep or all that concerned with death, their own or others -- but still recognizably the same people from another perspective.) The second was... well, CSI Renaissance, and the third was supposed to make Merlin a Sherlock like figure.

But I realize I started telling it wrong. FIRST I was asked to send in concepts, and these are the only three I remember (I think I sent in a dozen, because it was a round number.) These three were approved, and I found to my chagrin that to do the third -- the Merlin one -- would require not only a lot of study but a strong stomach. Like Shakespeare or sports or military history, the round table obsesses people. As a non obsessive -- on this subject -- I'd essentially be performing to professional critics. Again, time was of the essence, so I didn't even attempt it.

I did attempt a Leonard Da Vinci murder mystery -- I think I'll post the first chapter in the diner! -- and the musketeers' mystery. Unfortunately for me, in the middle of all this (remember, I live under a rock, with my word processor) Dan Brown made it big and it was decided that Da Vinci mysteries were insufficiently like the Code to sell (apparently missing that plagiarism law thing. I joke. Actually, this is a well known publisher -- and general gatekeeper -- syndrome called "give me more of the same."

Anyway, I did five musketeer mysteries and, without going into detail, the company decided to stop publishing them. The blame was mixed. Covers were either too similar of had absolutely no relationship to each other -- two failings when it comes to selling a series -- but mostly, I think in an effort to promote it, the publishers brought them out (I THINK) three months apart, which back then was a novel strategy. So novel that when the second came out the bookstores must have gone "oh, ooops, I guess we have had these unsold for a year", and sent half the print run back on the first. And then ordered it again, when people requested it, but I guess it must have been pulped, because the first book was impossible to get for six months... while the second and third hit the shelves. Thereby leaving the series without a "head". (BTW this is something electronic books avoid.) The corollary is that I was writing these every three months, and by the last one I simply didn't want to. (I suspect the last one shows it too.)

At any rate, the rights to the first has reverted to me -- the others... the least said the better. And if I'm not required to write one every three months (with other books in between to keep up my other series, remember?) I would very much like to go on with the series which was lots of fun to write. Not only did I get to hang out with four archetypal heros, but I got to tell a mystery in four voices, which ... well, if you're a writer you'll understand the challenge and the fun of four different povs in crime solving.

The first one has never been available in ebook format, but Naked Reader Press is bringing it out in... two weeks? If it does well, I will continue the series with book six next year and then one a year from then on. Does well translates into being worth the publisher's time/space as well as my time. It has to pay at least as well as the mysteries I'm now bringing out with Prime Crime.

(When the four middle mysteries will revert is something else. By contract and technically, they already have, but... in what I suspect will be the norm in the future, they're simply refusing to give the rights back. No, I don't what will happen with that yet and right now for various reasons, it's not a battle worth fighting. Depending on how this book does, it may well become so.)


Of course, if these pay enough, in the fullness of time (possibly after the boys leave for college and I have -- ah! -- time on my hands) I might get around to doing the DaVinci mysteries and even my Kit Marlowe mysteries.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the first chapter fo the musketeers.*



Prologue

Or

How I came by the other Diaries Of Monsieur D’Artagnan

My first encounter with the gentlemen known to all the world as Athos, Porthos, Aramis–and, of course, D’Artagnan–came at a young age when, searching through the shelves of my grandfather’s library, I was called by several leather-bound volumes bearing the name Dumas on the spine.

I hardly need tell anyone who had the good fortune of reading Monsieur Dumas’s works at an early age with what rapt attention I followed the actions of the brash young man from Gascony and his three daring companions.

Over the years, I’ve returned to the same book — and its companions Twenty Years After, and Viscount de Bragelone — every winter, when the snow first fell. I re-read the adventures of the four charming rogues, again and again, by my cozy fireside. But I knew I’d never encounter them in any other writing.

I was wrong. This winter, when snowflakes first danced on the thin mountain air of Colorado and while my slippers and my hot chocolate waited with a leather-bound book by my comfortable chair, a delivery service dropped an unpromising battered cardboard box on my front porch.

Inside it was a brief note from my father-in-law, some of whose ancestors immigrated to the New World at the end of the seventeenth century.

Not a French speaker, he said he thought it best if I were given these papers, found in the estate of an elderly relation.

I confess I perused them, at first, with some distaste. The pages had mildewed to an unappetizing shade of greyish yellow and I had to turn them with the greatest care to prevent their falling apart. I picked a word here and a word there, amid decay and mildew. The spelling was quite the oddest I’d ever encountered.

However, on page two I encountered the name D’Artagnan, on page five the name Athos and on page ten the names Porthos and Aramis together. By page fifteen I realized these diaries referred to murders investigated, solved and often avenged by the three musketeers plus one. I was hooked.

After that, I devoured the twenty mildewed diaries with the eagerness of one too long separated from a childhood friend. Woven around the events that Dumas told the world of in his books, the diaries started with the fateful duel at the Barefoot Carmelites. However, they very quickly turned into a series of murder mysteries often involving the highest nobility of France.

The bulk of it was written in ink that had faded to brown, and in an angular handwriting that marched across the pages with the certainty of a military officer on campaign.

However, over it all, there were notes in other hands, squeezed in the margins and scribbled between the lines. I soon learned to identify the small, sharp, inclined hand with Athos, the round, well formed ecclesiastical one — still with a hint of violet to its tints — with Aramis and the laborious printing with Porthos. The notes gave details that the writer of the main diaries — certainly D’Artagnan — couldn’t have known at the time he wrote them.

I do not know how his friends came to editorialize D’Artagnan’s diaries. And I have no idea how or by what crooked lines of descent and inheritance or happenstance and luck those diaries passed into the hands of my family.

The only thing certain is that those diaries, which I edited for coherence and adapted to our modern storytelling mode, reveal murders as intricate and fiendish as any writer could dream, and that these crimes could only be solved by Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan.

To whose spirit, nobility and courage I hope my retelling will do justice.

Sarah D’Almeida
January 2004
Colorado Springs

The Duel that Wasn’t;
Where the Cardinal’s Guards are Taught a Lesson;
A Handy Guide to the Taverns of Paris


D’Artagnan knew he was going to die.

It was April 1625 and the spring sun, fierce and blazing, shone like an unblinking eye over the bustling city of Paris. Henri D’Artagnan, aged seventeen, a slim, muscular young man with olive skin, dark hair and piercing black eyes, had arrived in town just the day before.

Now, under the noon sun, he stood outside the convent of the Barefoot Carmelites, a religious house situated in a conveniently deserted spot on the outskirts of town.

Around him spread fields of green wheat. The wind being still and no breeze stirring the sheaves, the only sound was the drowsy droning of insects, drunk with midday languor and heat.

And D’Artagnan thought this was the last day of his life.

If he weren’t himself, if he were not the only son of nobleman Francois D’Artagnan, a hardened veteran soldier, D’Artagnan could have turned and taken off running through those fields, relying on his young, agile legs to get him away from death.

His mind cringed at such an unworthy thought.

His opponent, with whom his sword was crossed, scraped the sword lightly along the length of D’Artagnan’s. Just enough to gain the young man’s attention.

And D’Artagnan turned towards him, at the same time that his opponent’s second, who served as their judge in this case, dropped the white handkerchief signaling the beginning of combat.

His opponent came at D’Artagnan like a tiger, his sword pressing D’Artagnan close and demanding all of the young man’s concentration.

The man was called Athos, and he fought like a veteran duelist. Which he was, being one of the older and more experienced and — as far as D’Artagnan could determine — one of the most feared members of his majesty Louis XIII’s corps of musketeers. Other things D’Artagnan had heard, once he’d given himself the trouble of checking: That the man had the personal friendship of Monsieur de Treville. That he was of noble birth. That Athos was a nom-de-guerre, picked up to hide disgrace or guilt.

Athos attacked, driving the young man back and back and back, till D’Artagnan’s shoulders were solidly against the white-washed wall of the convent and only his quick wit and quicker reflexes permitted him to step sideways and avoid being skewered.

D’Artagnan flitted and skipped, danced away from trouble and contorted away from tight spots, but his mind became oddly detached.

His body moved and seemed to think with a reasoning of its own, while it parried and thrust, and made Athos back away. Meanwhile D’Artagnan’s mind — what his mother used to call his quick and lively mind — had gone away, to some place at the back of himself. Some place away from the battlefield, where it could do its thinking.

When Henri D’Artagnan had left the paternal abode, his father had given him only one substantive piece of advice. And that was that he fight often, that he fight well and that he never tolerate any insult from anyone but the king or the Cardinal who was, truth be told, as powerful as any king.

Henri had tried to follow his father’s advice and, on the road to Paris, in the small town of Meung, had challenged a nobleman who laughed at his attire and horse. This had cost him dearly, as his opponent had his servants hit Henri from behind. While Henri was unconscious, the stranger had stolen Henri’s letter of recommendation to Monsieur de Treville. The letter that would have got him into the musketeers this very day.

But I don’t learn, do I? D’Artagnan thought to himself, as he pushed hard with his sword arm, forcing Athos’s sword away, shoving the musketeer back at the same time.

Athos fell away and tripped and bent down upon his knee.

I had to challenge three musketeers for a duel today. Three. Musketeers. Today, D’Artagnan thought, as he jumped nimbly back, ready to parry Athos’s next thrust.

No, he didn’t learn. He’d continued following his father’s advice, until he’d managed to challenge the three men that the rest of the corps called the three inseparables: Athos, Porthos and Aramis. One of whom would kill him today.

D’Artagnan’s mind was so preoccupied with its gloomy thoughts that he didn’t at first realize that Athos hadn’t got up from his position, half-bent over his knee.

“Monsieur,” he said, when he did notice it. “Monsieur, if it would suit you to adjourn our appointment to another time….”

He noticed Athos’s hand pressed hard at his right side, and he remembered the scene, that very morning, in Monsieur de Treville’s office, where an obviously wounded and ill Athos had come in to present himself to his captain and to deflect Monsieur de Treville’s anger at all of the three musketeers who’d been bested in a skirmish with the Cardinal’s guards.

“Monsieur, if you are in too great a pain…,” D’Artagnan said. He’d got in this duel with Athos by careening against the musketeer and making him bleed. And failing to apologize sufficiently for the injury he’d caused.

But Athos only shook his head. He took a deep breath, audible in the midday stillness, and he rose slowly from his knee. “It’s nothing,” he said, his face ashen. “It is nothing. I didn’t want to distress you with the sight of blood you haven’t drawn.” A red stain showed on the side of his doublet. He changed his sword to his left hand. “If you don’t mind, I will fight with my left hand, though. It will not put me at a disadvantage, as I can use either hand to equal effect. But it might be harder for you to defend yourself.”

D’Artagnan nodded. He knew he would die anyway. And if he was going to die, perhaps it would be best if it was at Athos’s hands. Of his three potential opponents, he liked and admired Athos more than the other two. It was no dishonor to be killed by such a man.

Athos straightened and pulled back a stray lock of pitch black hair, which contrasted glaringly with his alabaster-pale complexion.

D’Artagnan had heard that Athos was considered handsome by many men and even more women in Paris. This opinion baffled D’Artagnan.

Athos’s face was spare, with high cheekbones and intense, eyes burning with zeal. The rest of his features, precisely drawn and finely sculpted, made the man look less like a living being and more like those caryatides of Greece and Rome — columns given human form and forever holding aloft the white marble roof of a temple or palace.

Athos’s character, like his appearance, seemed as spare, as certain, as controlled as those columns. Rightly or not, he gave the impression of a man who served a cause greater than his own whims, purer than his own advancement.

And this, D’Artagnan thought as Athos raised his sword, was what D’Artagnan would have liked to be — if he ever got to live beyond his present seventeen years.

Aramis, Athos’s second and D’Artagnan’s next arranged opponent, stepped up. He was a blonde man, so dainty-looking that one might fail to notice he was almost as tall as Athos and as muscular. Accounted a gallant by all who knew him, he was said to be popular with the ladies and rumored to be entertaining duchesses and princesses by the score.

D’Artagnan, who had challenged him to a duel over an argument started on a point of honor, had at first thought him just a dandy and nothing more. But Aramis’s bright green eyes showed such a keen appreciation for the irony of D’Artagnan’s situation, that perhaps there was more to him.

As he stepped up, picking up his white handkerchief from the ground where it had lain, he said, “You must restart the duel.”

D’Artagnan noticed that Athos was very pale still, his skin tinged with the grey of a man fighting extreme pain, and realized that Athos’s old fashioned Spanish-style doublet was laced tightly over his musketeer’s tunic. “I would not object if you undo the ties on your doublet, since the sun is so devilishly hot.”

But Athos shook his head. “I thank you for your courtesy,” he said, “but really, I’m afraid if I do it will restart the bleeding. The wound is bothering me.”

“Do not misunderstand me; I am eager to cross swords with you,” D’Artagnan said. “But if you wish to wait and perhaps drink something for your present comfort…”

Athos smiled, a flash of genuine amusement. “Your sentiment does you credit, but I believe in collecting my debts promptly and drinking afterwards. And then, it is not the first time I’ve fought while wounded.” He shifted his feet and tilted the upper half of his body forward, baring his teeth slightly, as if allowing the animal to peer out of his noble features.

“Come, come,” Porthos spoke, from where he stood by the white wall of the convent, hands the size of hams folded over the guard of a very substantial sword. A redheaded giant, he dwarfed other men with the size of his lean, muscular body. Each of his arms looked to be the size of D’Artagnan’s thigh, each of his legs like an oak tree trunk. And yet he gave the impression of suppleness, of not a wasted ounce on his huge frame. “You are all talk. Less talk and more fighting. Remember, Athos, he owes me satisfaction after you and Aramis have your turns. He offended me most horribly on a matter of fashion.”

Did D’Artagnan fancy that a smile crossed Aramis’s and Athos’s lips, when Porthos spoke?

Aramis raised his eyebrows and, still holding his handkerchief aloft, turned towards Porthos. “When you wish to be so rude, you should speak for yourself only, Porthos. I have no objection to the noble and proper sentiments these gentlemen express. Indeed, I will gladly listen to them for as long as necessary, before they feel it fit to cross swords.”

And now another flinch of remorse came to join D’Artagnan’s regret that he would die so early, leaving so much untasted of life’s joys: that he would never get to know these men better. There was such an easy camaraderie between the three of them, so devoid of the formality of most friendships, that he imagined they could have been his friends.

“Only,” Porthos said, pulling a large red handkerchief from his sleeve and mopping at his forehead with it, “it’s too blazing hot.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Athos said, and leaned forward, displaying his teeth, again, in that expression that was more animal threat than human smile, “for we are ready.” He pushed his sword against D’Artagnan’s and said, “En garde,” between clenched teeth.

Aramis dropped the scarf.

A throat was cleared, nearby, neither by Aramis nor by Porthos.

Their swords still crossed, D’Artagnan and Athos turned to look. Five men stood near them — so near that they could only have approached unnoticed while the musketeers and D’Artagnan were distracted with talk and worry for Athos’s wound. All of them wore uniforms similar to those of the musketeers, but where the musketeers wore blue, their knee breeches, tunics and plumed hats were bright red, like freshly spilled blood.

They were guards of the Cardinal, sworn rivals of the Musketeers, their enemies in a thousand brawls, a million street skirmishes.

“Well, well,” said the leading guard, who had a suntanned face and a Roman nose. “What have we here? Dueling Musketeers? What? In open and defiant contravention of all the edicts against dueling?” He smiled unpleasantly, revealing a wealth of very large, yellowed teeth. “I’m afraid we’ll have to arrest the lot of you.”

“Leave us alone, Jussac,” Athos said, without turning to look, his sword still crossed with D’Artagnan’s. “I promise you if we found you in the like amusement we’d sit back and let you proceed. Enjoy and amuse yourselves, have the profit of our injuries with none of the pain.”

Jussac smiled wider. “That’s as it may be, Monsieur Athos. But the thing is there is an edict against dueling and our master, the Cardinal, wants laws obeyed.”

Athos lowered his sword. He turned to Jussac and, with an air of strained patience, said, “Nothing would please me more than to oblige you. But, you see, our captain, Monsieur de Treville, has forbidden us from being arrested.”

Jussac sighed, in turn. He lifted his hat and scratched under it at his sweat-soaked hair. “Think about it,” he said. “There are only three of you, one of you wounded. Three of you and a child who was dueling you. If you force us to fight you, they will say it’s murder.”

The three musketeers formed a circle, from within which their worried voices reached D’Artagnan’s ears.

“I’m afraid he’s right, you know,” Aramis said. “There are only three of us, one of us wounded. And there are five of them: Jussac, Brisac and Cahusac, the three fiercest fighters in the Guards, and two of their companions. They will slaughter us.”

Athos paled yet further and glared, his zealous blue eyes seeming to flame. His features hardened into a harsher pose of dignity. “I would rather die than appear before Monsieur de Treville defeated again.”

“Me too,” Porthos said.

D’Artagnan remembered the scorching reproach that Monsieur de Treville had inflicted on the three musketeers that morning. Everyone waiting in the captain’s antechamber had heard it. He didn’t blame the three for not wishing to face such humiliation again.

“Very well, then,” Aramis said. He straightened a little and squared his shoulders. “We’ll die here.”

“You, the child,” Jussac said, pointing at D’Artagnan. “Save yourself. We’ll allow you to go.”

D’Artagnan looked at the three musketeers who were so calm, so resigned, gallantly preparing themselves for death rather than facing dishonor. He looked over at Jussac, who smiled benevolently at him, showing long yellow teeth.

He pushed himself into the musketeers’ circle, shoving his sweaty face between Aramis’s and Porthos’s shoulders. “You are wrong,” he said. “When you say there are only three of you. I count four of us.”

They looked back at him, and for a moment it looked as though Porthos were on the verge of asking who the fourth one might be. But, before he could, Athos smiled. “You’re a child,” he said. “And someday you’ll be a man I’d be proud to call a friend. But right now you’re a boy. And this is suicide. Our chosen death. Save yourself.”

“No,” D’Artagnan said, his certainty growing with the rebuff. “No. I’ll stay and fight by your side.”

“But, you’re not a musketeer,” Aramis said. “Why would you want to die with us?”

“Though I don’t wear a musketeer uniform,” D’Artagnan said. “In my heart I am a musketeer. And though I might only be able to give you very little help, if I leave and save my life, I’ll never be able to live with myself.”

For a moment Aramis stared at him, Porthos frowned at him, and Athos furrowed his brow as if in deep thought.

And then Athos smiled. “You’re right,” he said. “There are indeed four of us. Athos, Porthos, Aramis and–your name, my friend?”

“D’Artagnan,” D’Artagnan answered, as his heart hammered faster and faster in his chest, and once more he was sure he was going to die.

This time he knew he was going to die at the end of the guards’ swords. But he would die next to musketeers. He would die almost a musketeer. His father would be proud.

“Well, then, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan. One for all and all for one. If death is to come for us, let us not keep her waiting. Let us go out and meet her halfway, like gallants, and receive her kiss proudly.”

“We grow impatient,” Jussac thundered, outside their circle. “Will you save yourself or not, boy? Because if not, we’re coming to get you.”

The circle broke apart as though they had rehearsed, and the four of them faced the five guards.

“We’ve made a decision,” Athos said, his voice steady and calm.

“Oh,” Jussac said. “I hope it’s a sensible decision.”

“Very,” Athos said, and removed his hat, and bowed with a deep flourish. “We’re going to have the pleasure of charging you.”

Before the guard could snap shut the mouth that he’d let drop open in his astonishment, Athos’s hat was back on his head, and Porthos and Aramis had unsheathed their swords.

“One for all and all for one,” they shouted, as they fell on the guards.

By the rational odds of combat and war, they should have lost. There were but four of them, one of whom was severely wounded, and the other little more than a child.

D’Artagnan’s only experience of dueling had been his mock duels with his father, in the field behind their house, in the calm Gascon countryside.

If that duel had been decided on body count, or on experience, or even on the relative size of the opponents, surely the guards of the Cardinal would have won.

But wars and duels are fought with the mind, the heart, and that other thing – that thing that is neither loyalty nor camaraderie, but which has hints of both.

That thing allowed D’Artagnan to know and come to the rescue when Athos’s breathing grew too labored. That thing allowed him to go away when Athos had recovered enough to resume his own battle.

And duels are also fought with pride and fear. The three musketeers were too proud to surrender, too fearful of Monsieur de Treville’s wrath to allow themselves to be arrested. They fought like fury unleashed.

Porthos fought and defeated two enemies at once.

And so, fifteen minutes later, the only one left standing of the small army of Cardinal Guards was de Brissac – like D’Artagnan, a Gascon, and like D’Artagnan, ill-suited to surrender. Surrounded by all the musketeers, he broke his own sword upon his knee to avoid losing it.

But then he gave up. He helped the musketeers and D’Artagnan take the wounded and dead to the convent’s door. And stayed behind with them, while the musketeers and D’Artagnan rang the bell and walked away.

Years later, D’Artagnan would try to recall the rest of the afternoon. All he would remember was Athos’s promising that he would show D’Artagnan the best taverns in Paris.

And then they’d gone to the Louis, where there were ten musketeers and where, when Porthos had told their story, people had rushed to buy them strong, sweet, fiery liquor. From there, they’d walked a block to The Maiden’s Head, where the seven musketeers present had listened to their story with awe. And then to The Head and Bucket, where, at the telling of their tale, musketeers and sympathizers had bought them a sparkling white wine.

D’Artagnan remembered there had been a pause between The Grinning Corpse and The Coup de Grace, while he leaned against a wall in an alley and lost most of the wine he’d drunk in the preceding hours.

But then they’d taken him to the Drinking Fish for a few mugs of house special, and from there to The Drunken Lord for something that tasted like liquid fire.

Night had fallen when D’Artagnan found himself stumbling along the back alleys and narrow staircases of the working-class neighborhoods of Paris, one arm thrown over Aramis’s shoulder, Porthos’s huge hand on his other shoulder, singing softly a song about the queen, the king and the musketeers that would surely be treason if they weren’t all drunk and all so loyal that they’d just risked their lives to ensure the king’s own musketeers suffered no defeat.

“We should take the boy home first,” Athos said. He had to be drunk. He’d drunk more of all the various liquors than all of them combined. He had to be dead drunk. But he walked steadily and his voice sounded, if anything, a little slower and calmer and more controlled.

Porthos giggled. “‘s right,” he said. “It is past the time schoolboys should be asleep.”

“Where do you live, D’Artagnan?” Aramis asked.

“Rue des Fossoyers,” D’Artagnan said, glad he’d rented lodgings before going in search of his fate outside the Barefoot Carmelites. Looking back it had been presumptuous to think he’d survive three duels. But, at least, he’d have a place to sleep tonight.

“Good,” Athos said. “That’s just around–”

He turned, as if to get his bearings, and as he turned, and they with him, they all saw a figure in the uniform of a musketeer cross the alley right in front of them.

“Oh, I say, wait,” Athos said. “Wait, friend. King’s Musketeer, hold. Have you heard that we defeated Jussac outside the Barefoot–”

The musketeer jumped, as if touched with hot iron, and took off running, the sound of his steps echoing and reverberating through the maze of narrow streets.

The musketeers stopped and frowned at the space where the unknown musketeer had been.

“That’s abominably rude,” Aramis said.

“Musketeer or no, someone should teach him some manners,” Porthos said.

“He should buy us a drink to make up for it,” Athos said. “After all, there must be a place still open.”

As one man, they ran, pursuing the fugitive. D’Artagnan followed the sound of their steps.

They ran down so many blind alleys, careened precipitously down so many worn staircases, that D’Artagnan was sure they’d never find the runaway musketeer. He’d be lucky if he didn’t get separated from his friends.

But at last, they all surged into an alley. And there, on the ground, the musketeer lay.

The three musketeers had been calling and jeering and laughing, but now all their noises stopped.

It was suddenly very quiet, in that alley. Far away, an owl hooted, chasing prey in some attic. D’Artagnan drew a deep breath that sounded too loud in the silence.

“It can’t be,” Aramis said, under his breath.

But though D’Artagnan had never seen a dead body, he knew the musketeer lying on the muddy, smelly ground of the alley was dead.

If asked, he could have given no more justification than a certain angle of the arm protruding from under the body and the stillness, the eerie stillness of whole body.

“He’s dead,” he said.

Aramis crossed himself and Athos stepped forward, towards the corpse.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reading Lists and the Little Man

At various times I have compiled reading lists, things that I ‘really should read’. These would vary from either literary classics that my science-based education and subsequent busy life have never given me the time to read, to the latest shortlisted books and stories from local and international awards . Now, I’ve compiled plenty of these lists over the years, and dutifully filed away the occasional emails that came my way that listed the ‘100 top reads’ or ‘List of all time genre classics.’

I’m not sure if I have ever read a single book on these lists. In fact I have just about given up on making them. I was wondering about this recently and I happened to remember an article by John W Campbell (famous for the group of writers he fostered while editor of Astounding that included many of the future greats of SF) about the ‘little man’. I could not find the actual article, which I was given at a writers workshop aeons ago (and which I remember as a yellowed old photocopy shoved somewhere in my bookshelves). I do remember the gist of the article however.

Campbell was talking about his early years as I writer and how he had often found himself having a passionate need to read things that were in no way related to anything he was currently working on. What he noticed over time was that all of these strange books and interests he felt compelled to research and read up on always came into his work at a later date – fitting almost perfectly into context like some mystical jigsaw puzzle.

He evolved the concept of the ‘little man’ inside that urges you to take a little departure, or to read a book or take a direction that may not seem to make sense at the time. He put forward the notion that writers develop a special sort of intuition, and urged writers to follow the voice of the ‘little man’ and not to be proscriptive about what they themselves delve into.

When I read this article it made perfect sense to me. I have basically been doing this for as long as I can remember, and I’m sure I’m not alone!

I guess that was when I realised I had been doing this exact thing with my reading lists. I am always reading something – just not what the powers that be or literati tell me I should be:)

So I am going to happily let myself follow my nose.

Have you come across the quiet voice of the ‘little man’ (or ‘little woman’, Campbell’s article reflects the period in which it was written)? Do you follow your instinct with your interests and research, or do you follow a Game Plan?

Making the Foreign Familiar


One of the more interesting challenges I faced when I was writing Impaler is something that tends to happen to anyone writing historical fiction - although fantasy and science fiction suffer from it to a lesser extent. Basically, people have a tendency to assume that other times and places, real or imagined, are pretty much like they are now but with different clothes, magic, spaceships, or swords.

Heck, this is something that gets people into trouble now, with cultures as apparently similar as different regions in the USA, the USA and Australia, Canada and the USA, or New Zealand and Australia. It gets worse the more differences there are between where you're writing from (or reading from) and where/when the book is set.

Let's face it, fifteenth century Eastern Europe might as well be a different universe.

I know Sarah rants periodically about authors who'll have a servant buying baby-blue blankies in a medieval marketplace, and I really did not want to be on the receiving end of that rant. And that's really just the start.

Dave and Sarah know this, because I hammered them with all manner of weird questions early on, mostly about "stuff" - 15th century Wallachia wasn't a wealthy principality, and it had armies looting their way through the place on a pretty regular basis, so I needed to have a clear idea what kind of furniture there'd be, what the everyday plates and things would be made of compared to the best quality, what people of different ranks wore (fabrics and colors as well as styles), what would be considered the height of luxury at the time, and what kinds of food would be served at a regular meal compared to a feast. Not to mention what would be a treat for small children, and a whole host of other details.

Google got a heavy workout for a lot of this, and Dave and Sarah fielded more questions than any sane person should (thanks, by the way). There are no "Everyday life in 15th Century Wallachia" books out there, or I'd have bought them.

Mostly what I found were tidbits. Comments by bemused travelers of the period that even though Bucharest was ransacked and burned to the ground every few years the survivors rebuilt in wood (the place was in the middle of a huge forest at the time - wood was presumably the most accessible building material). The main streets 'paved' with wooden slabs where side roads were packed dirt. Somewhere else I found a mention that in winter everyone from the highest rank to the lowest wore sheepskin coats and boots for warmth. Information about what plants were native and what was introduced when. Domesticated animals (mostly sheep and pigs) and wild animals. When forks were introduced.

All the information went into a kind of mental map of what Vlad Dracula's world looked like, even though he's only in it for maybe a third of the book - and spends most of that time planning his southern campaign and carefully manipulating his boyars (the ones I mentioned in my blog spree - was it only 2 weeks ago? - as unscrupulous backstabbers with a well-known propensity for unseating princes and often murdering them as well) so that they're both afraid of finding themselves 'enjoying' the view from a stake and grateful for his generosity.

Then there's the culture. At that time, the culture was predominantly an honor-shame culture where appearances mattered. Vlad couldn't just be a fair, generous ruler - he had to show it as well. That meant calculated gestures of mercy, as well as placing himself at risk by not eliminating those he knows are traitors: instead, Vlad tries to arrange for those men to die in battle, which was considered an honorable death, and meant that he didn't need to make new enemies by executing the dead man's family as well - and gave him a chance of winning the loyalty of the dead man's heirs. Similarly, he had to show courage in battle despite the risk of getting himself killed (This doesn't seem to have been an issue: Vlad is reported to have led charges and taken the most dangerous role in more than a few of the battles he was in).

It was also a very male culture. Women fell mostly into the traditional roles - maiden, mother, whore and crone. In noble culture, women were effectively invisible: while they weren't sequestered the way they were in the Ottoman Empire, they had their part of the palace or manor where they and their servants did what was considered the female work.

To Vlad, the women's lives are an alien world - his last real encounter with female roles was when he left the nursery at the age of five and started training as a warrior and nobleman. Apart from his wife and his young sons' nurse, the women in the palace are irrelevant to him. It certainly never occurs to him to question this segregation - it's simply how things are. His decision to leave young Vlad in the nursery for longer than usual is one of his few unusual 'domestic' choices (He wants to protect his two young sons, and doesn't want to leave his sickly youngest boy with no company).

It's all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that women in that time would respond as a modern woman would to that environment when for them it was how things worked. As often as not the wife was independent in her domain, as well as managing the entire estate when her husband was away at war - a situation that was far from rare. Since most noble marriages were arranged and usually political as well, love wasn't common (and it was very common for the husband to keep one or more mistresses - and to some extent it was expected that a virile man would need a mistress or two). Try portraying that sympathetically in today's world!

I hope I got a good balance with the way I portrayed Vlad in Impaler, but I guess March will be when I find out.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Myth of Humanity

*I am not actually late with this post. Okay, I am, but the reason is that, being rather sick, by nighttime I'm stumbling around in a fog, which means that I posted this not on MGC but on an OLD abandonned blog of mine on blogspot. ARGH*

Lately, partly because I’ve been trying to kick off whatever bug has got me since November – it keeps coming back – and because when I’m tired or sick I can’t read fiction, I’ve been reading books on the proto- Indo-European culture.

Now, you go back long enough and it’s like reading tea leaves. Oh, okay, not tea leaves. Horse’s teeth and grave sculptures. However, through all this, it is possible to get a picture – vague and confusing though it is – of our most distant ancestors.

I’m not going to play psychologist, but themes emerge from what we can salvage of the very oldest tales: sacrifice and loss, love – often not eros, but agape or family love – blood and death.

Pratchett in a lot of his books says if you go back far enough you find that almost all the old stories are about the blood. I’ll add to that. The oldest stories are about blood, death and rebirth.

I think this is part of the reason that vampires are so popular, but that’s a side line I cannot pursue right now.

One of the things that surprised me is how the themes that echoed through the oldest fragments of legends we can find are the same themes we find again and again in science fiction and fantasy: twins; quests; bringing something magical/healing back; finding who you are.

Part of this, I think, is that humans are not like other animals creatures that live in a certain way because of instinct. Humans are domesticated creatures, as much as our dogs or our cats, but we domesticate ourselves. We are at the same time Fluffy who wants to pee on the sofa and the human who stands over her and tells her no. Only the human is often embodied in a myth.

Of course a lot of us believers get a lot of our morality from religion. But that’s an overt morality. It declares itself. It says “this you shall do” and “this you shall not do” and “here you shall go” and “here you shall not.”

Useful, of course, but it’s rather like the choke chain or the owner literally standing over you to prevent you from going on the sofa. The other part is more important – you don’t go on the sofa because you know you shouldn’t. You know you shouldn’t, because you’ve internalized the experience.

I was thinking about this and it all got tied up with different generations of science fiction and fantasy. Our myths are very much part of what we think the world should be. And what we think the world should be is both fed by and feeds the myth in our head that keeps us acting the way we think humans should act.

As I said, you find a lot of the themes of our oldest myths in fantastic literature... Until, that is fantastic literature decided its more important part was not dreaming of the future – or fantastic lands – but the last part of its name “literature”. It decided its most important function was to astonish the world. In doing so, it lost track of that “what humanity should be” and of reaching back into the sense of what humanity – or our branch of it – was and has been since we’ve had words and long before we had writing.

And so the self sacrifice was lost, and the discovery, and the sense of wonder. Instead we got either purposeless rambles, or people telling us life was brutish and nasty and then you die.

This is I think, an attempt to “count coup”, i.e. to claim to be superior to the vast uncounted multitude of our ancestors who first clawed their way to civilization and to an idea that there might be something better hereafter. And I think in that attempt we – as writers and as a civilization – only make ourselves mental and moral midgets.

Do you ever get to the end of a short story – or worse, a novel – and go “and your point was?” Worse, do you ever get to the end of a short story – or worse a novel – and go “Uh... I followed these characters around for this long for you to either twist them beyond recognition and/or kill them? Do you ever get the impression the author veered away from the ending that could and should have been to go in search of a glitter in the weeds of disappointment and bitterness?
No, I’m not saying that happy endings or happy-go-lucky stories are the only ones worth telling. Why in heck would I? If you’ve read me, you know well that’s not my attitude. But even in the nastiest of settings it is possible to be caring, to be a hero, to fight on. Even in difficult – particularly in difficult situations – it is important to remind others of what it means to be human.
Why would a bad ending be considered more mature or deeper than a happy one, or one where the character acted honorably?