Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Reading

I nearly managed to achieve one of my ambitions and receive no Christmas presents other than books (two pesky DVDs, including the glorious Spartacus) broke the run. Here are the bookshelf-busters Santa delivered:

Sharon Penman When Christ and His Saints Slept and Here Be Dragons
Sebastian Sebag Montefiore Stalin--The Court of the Red Tzar
Dan Simmons Drood
Marc Morris A Great and Terrible King (biography of Edward I)
Ian Mortimer The Greatest Traitor (biography of Roger Mortimer)

So far I've read a couple of hundred pages of When Christ and His Saints Slept, the first of a saga addressing Britain in the 11th century. It's serviceable enough, but not on the same level as The Sunne in Splendour. It also contains the notorious Ranulf I mentioned in this piece last year. I have to admit to finding Ranulf somewhat irritating: not because he is a fictional character thrust into a purportedly historical situation, but because he has no discernible flaws. Perhaps he'll get roughened up as the book progresses, but so far he's managed to switch sides in a civil war and still everyone in both camps loves him. He's handsome, charming, witty, constant in his affections and brave to boot. On that basis I doubt I'd like him in real life so I'm damned if I'm going to like him in fiction either.

I think next we'll move on to Drood; set in the 19th century it's quite contemporary for me. I admire Simmons' imaginative force but his last novel, The Terror, failed to capture the voice of 19th century British English--a sort of literary Dick van Dyke. I'm interested to see if he can pull it off here.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pared to the Bone
Brief observations on the stylistic development of Jack Vance

Ryan David Jahn linked to a fascinating piece over at Guns and Verbs which hypothesised that Agatha Christie was suffering from Alzheimers in her later years, based on clues from her later published work. In her late 70s, Christie's work showed a marked reduction in vocabulary, use of specific language and sentence complexity. (A similar analysis reached the same conclusions on Iris Murdoch's work).

It occcured to me that Christie was an ideal subject for this kind of exercise. Over the main body of her career she exhibits almost no stylistic development, so any changes to her work are more likely to arise from "organic" variation.

If one were to carry out the same analysis on Jack Vance the results would not be reliable because of his considerable stylistic evolution. For a writer whose reputation is for the baroque, his mature work shows considerable restraint: his language over time becomes, like late Christie, simpler, his syntax more pared.

We can see this by looking at the novella 'Guyal of Sfere,' originally published in 1950 (though probably written in the mid-40s) and then materially revised for anthology publication in 1968. The scope of the revision is enormous.

Detailed comparison of the 1950 and 1968 texts reveals in full contrast the differences between the lush, almost hypnotic early style and the more measured, detached control of the middle period. ‘Revision’ is too restrained a word for the way in which Vance has modified ‘Guyal of Sfere’. The later version is nearly one-sixth shorter, and the emotional tone of the piece markedly cooler.

Some of the changes are simply tightening up on perceived verbosity, as in the first sentence:

Guyal of Sfere had been born one apart from his fellows and early proved a source of vexation for his sire.

…the trivial and useless had been discarded, leaving a residue which was all that was necessary to a sound man. (1950)

…the trivial and useless had been discarded, leaving only that residue necessary to a sound man. (1968)

In other cases, supporting detail judged unnecessary to the story is suppressed. Perhaps most often, metaphorical imagery is judged unnecessary and struck from the record.

The sun, old and red as an autumn pomegranate, wallowed in the south-west; the light across the plain was dim and watery; the mountains presented a curiously artificial aspect, like a tableau planned for the effect of eery desolation. (1950)

The sun wallowed in the southwest; the light across the plain was dim and watery. (1968)

The reader may ask the question: “Have these revisions improved the story?” It’s perhaps not as straightforward as that: the later version of the story is not so much better or worse, as different. The revision is lean, spare, the work of a writer who has ruthlessly pared down his method, leaving behind the excesses of youth. The seasoned reader, who will find the middle period Vance every bit as evocative as his earlier work, will marvel at how he achieves the same effects with so much greater economy.
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Monday, December 14, 2009

The Essential Fantasy List

As requested by David Isaak, the fantasy books you must read. Don't worry if you haven't read them all--neither have I! And in some cases I've not been able to finish them; but I don't need to eat my vegetables to tell you to eat yours...

The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie is the LC Tyler of fantasy fiction (with added gore). In the First Law series he takes the tropes of Tolkienesque fantasy and turns them around to produce a cycle of wit, drama and a grimly appropriate conclusion. Add in his deft control of voice and point of view, and you have probably the best writer working in the field today. At once affectionate towards and utterly deconstructive of the history of the genre.

Inversions, Iain M. Banks
Technically science-fiction, one of the things that appeals about Banks is the way that he manages to blur the lines between "sf" and "f". This novel influenced me hugely; with his trademark mixture of sassiness, wit and liberal outlook, Banks is a major figure in the field.

The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison
OK, so I never managed to get past about page 30 of this, but don't let that stop you trying. Alongside Lord Dunsany--another I struggle to finish--he illustrates that fantasy existed before Tolkien.

Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner
Less than 30 years old, Swordspoint is already almost forgotten. Such is often the fate of excellence. This is fantasy for grown-ups; no pyrotechnics, no flash worldbuilding, no magic, no elves or dwarves. Swordspoint is just a human story with quiet intrigues and plenty of swordfights. It's influenced me more than I realised, which probably doesn't say much for my commercial prospects.

The Earthsea cycle, Ursula K. LeGuin
LeGuin is sometimes a little "in your face" for my tastes, her politics often undigested in her fiction. But I can forgive her most things for Earthsea, perhaps the best of the "boy wizard grows up" genre. There's never been a better evocation of the cost of magical powers.

A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
This is the novel that rescued epic fantasy from the cosy cliches of Tolkien-lite. Subsequent volumes have never matched the shock value of the gritty, bloody opener. His readiness to kill off viewpoint characters still astounds today. Martin launched fantasy noir with this one book.

Fevre Dream, George R.R. Martin
Long before the current vogue for vampires, Martin's tale of the undead in the 19th century Deep South showcased his ability to revitalise tired genre tropes. Altogether less epic in scope than his latest work, Fevre Dream nonetheless repays close attention.

The War Hound and the World's Pain, Michael Moorcock
I find Moorcock's output desperately uneven, but at his best he's hard to match. When I first read this tale of heaven and hell in my late teens, I thought it the most extraordinary book I had ever read, and even a quarter of a century later it remains a powerful presence. If fantasy has a Paradise Lost, this is it.

Gloriana, Michael Moorcock
Considering that I'm no great Moorcock fan, I find myself recommending him again. One of the most delicious historical fantasies, Gloriana shows us a sorcerous John Dee at large in an Elizabethan court unlike any representation of it you've ever seen. Strange but glorious.

The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
Another historical fantasy, Powers' romp through Egyptian mythology, werewolves, time-travel and the Romantic poets defies ready description. You really have to read it to understand, but that's no hardship.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The novel that launched modern commercial fantasy. Tolkien is often criticised for not doing things he never set out to do in the first place, but this book is so influential that even if it were crap (it isn't), it would demand to be read. Tolkien is often unfairly maligned for the feeble imitators he has spawned--as if that's his fault.

The Lyonesse trilogy, Jack Vance
Vance's attempt to write a Big Commercial Fantasy succeeded on every level except the commercial one. It's been relegated to the role of neglected classic rather than the household name it should be. Vance answers all the lazy criticisms that he can't plot and that his series run out of energy as they unfold. The best of the best, but because so much of the charm lies in the voice, very difficult to imitate.

The Dying Earth cycle, Jack Vance
Written over 35 years, these four books are only loosely connected. The Dying Earth itself, while not sui generis (it owes a lot to Clark Ashton Smith) deserves better than to be remembered for its influence on Dungeons and Dragons; the two Cugel books are masterpieces of black comedic picaresque, and Rhialto the Marvelous is what fantasy would be like if P.G. Wodehouse had joined the field. Vance misses the mark with many readers but if you've not tried him you owe it to yourself to test him out

The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, Gene Wolfe
I have to be honest and say that I find Wolfe an easier writer to admire than enjoy. No-one does unreliable narrator games better, and if he wrote outside the genre he'd be much better known and respected. His work is has too many intellectual puzzles and not enough emotional engagement for my taste (but then I never got on with James Joyce either), but he's a major figure in the field.

The Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny
This ten-volume cycle steadily wanes in interest, but the first few are gold dust. Stylistically innovative, this saga of family feuding, magical powers and parallel universes always reads to me like the ultimate 60s acid trip.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

A Fantasy-Writer's Reading List

I am always suspicious of the credentials of those aspiring writers who say they are too busy writing to read. No doubt their word-count is impressive, but I'm not sure I'd want to read what comes out of the sausage machine. Reading is a hugely important part of the writer's life, for a host of reasons: edification, market research, breadth of mind, simple enjoyment.

The genre writer has an additional pitfall to negotiate, for there is a strong temptation to confine reading to the genre in question. This must always be a mistake. While it's helpful to know what's going on in your field, if you never read beyond it, your chances of producing genuinely original work are limited.

With this in mind, I've set a score or so of books that I think are excellent primers for the writing of fantasy:

Fantasy genre

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
Even if you don't like it, this is the book that created commercial fantasy. You need to know how it works

Lyonesse, Jack Vance
To show just how good the field can be. Genre writing should aspire to more than functional.

The Eyes of the Overworld, Jack Vance
You can mix fantasy with very dark humour

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie
You can also subvert the original model


History is very close to fantasy. Understanding the history of our world will help you create a plausible history for yours

Byzantium, John Julius Norwich
All human life is here, including a full measure of absurdity. You'll never have a more genial guide than Norwich

1812, Adam Zamoyski
If you want to understand hubris and military logistics (and why wouldn't you?), start with this account of Napoleon's Russian campaign


Augustus, Allan Massie
Times may change but power-politics never does.

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier
If someone tells you not to write a first-person narrative, give 'em this. It couldn't work any other way, and it's perfect.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
While we're on the subject of perfection. You'll never want (or be able) to emulate this, but it's a corrective to the prevailing fantasy wisdom that you need to write long.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens
If, on the other hand, you want to write a really long novel, sit and learn at the feet of the master. Dickens' understanding of structuring a long book has never been surpassed.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
I assume you want believable and engaging relationships in your fantasy? Austen shows you how it's done (humour, precise observation and a dash of lemon).

L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy
Fantasy needs a sense of place to draw the reader in. It's unlikely your place will be much like Ellroy's Los Angeles, but the lessons he teaches are worth learning

Aubrey-Maturin series, Patrick O'Brian
O'Brian's richly detailed evocation of the early 19th century is at once tender, vigorous, dramatic and heartbreaking - and that's before we touch on the beauty of his prose. Fantasy world-building should aspire to be this good.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare
The reverence in which we rightly hold the Bard's language often obscures the brilliance of his dramatic pacing and structure.

Read that lot and we're up and running!
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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The best thing about being a published writer...

It's got to be the money, right? OK, maybe not. It's communing with the muse to nail that perfect sentence, then? Perhaps - I'll let you know when I've managed it.

I can only speak from my own experience. The thing that's suprised and delighted me the most is the occasional email I've received from a reader previously unknown to me, saying how much they enjoyed the book. Writers are highly visible in these days of blogs and the internet, and it's the work of seconds in most case to find out how to contact a writer who's prepared to be contacted. It's still a thrill to get an email from a stranger with whom your book has made a connection. I've seen online and in print reviews from readers of The Dog of the North who found the book unsatisfactory; these people have, from delicacy, trepidation or indifference, refrained from contacting me directly. As a result, the emails I've received have been uniformly positive.

The Dog of the North may not have sold enough to make the series commercially viable, but it's always a thrill to find that someone who picked up one of the few thousand copies to make it out of the bookshop thought enough of it to track down the author and say so. Your good wishes--as well as your good taste--are much appreciated.

Monday, November 23, 2009


When I was growing up, I remember taking out from the library various "Nebula Award Stories" compilations. The Nebula Awards are voted on by the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America as it was then, now Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), which seemed an impossibly august body. The Nebula Awards chose some great stories (including Jack Vance's greatly underrated "The Last Castle") and the prestige of the SFWA was surely unmatched.

I could hardly have imagined then, as I read these stories 25 or 30 years ago, that one day I myself would be a member of the SFWA. Considering that I am not American, do not live in America and have never had a professional sale in America, it's not an immediately obvious outcome. But the SFWA's lofty eligibity criteria allows a writer with a professional novel sale in English to join.

So I'm delighted to announce that I'm now a member of the SFWA. Cool.
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Problem with Wolf Hall

I mentioned last week that Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall had polarised opinion among my writing acquaintance. Ever the temperate figure, I can see both sides of this. In the end, my reaction was one of disappointment, not because the book was bad, but because it was so nearly good. Inevitably, this is a subjective view: many good judges--and not just the Booker Prize ones--loved it. Sadly I am not among their number.

First the good, though--and there's plenty. The prose is beautiful, capturing at once the alienness and the familiarity of the Tudor period. Every page is rich with sensory description, often illuminating some deeper theme of the novel. The opening chapter, dealing with the abused childhood of the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, is just about perfect: indeed, it raises expectations the rest of the novel can't fully realise. The decision to write the novel in the present tense, which could seem a gimmick, works well: it gives an immediacy to Cromwell's thoughts more often associated with first-person.

Mantel also excels at the political intrigues of the time. In the early chapter Cardinal Wolsey dominates, before Cromwell's own rise to power. The ascent of the blacksmith's son to be the power behind the throne is fascinating--how could it fail to be? Mantel's Cromwell sometimes seem to me too decent, insufficiently Machiavellian, but it's a welcome corrective to the standard view of him as an unredeemed opportunist.

I enjoyed too her portrayal of Sir Thomas More as a chilly fanatic, as unlikeable on the page as men of principle so often are in life. More and Wolsey for me both rang true. Less successful was Anne Boleyn: a cold and manipulative schemer we've all seen many times before, and heresy though it is to say it, Philippa Gregory nailed the type better in The Other Boleyn Girl. I was also unconvinced by King Henry: too much bonhomie and not enough of the psychotic.

By the end of the book, though, I was desperate to finish it and move on to something else (although the last couple of pages are again beautifully judged). For me there were problems wider than the odd questionable characterisation. The most obvious of these was Mantel's decision to refer to the protagonist as 'he' rather than 'Cromwell' throughout. On almost every page I'd be wondering whether 'he' referred to Cromwell or the last named character: unbelievably distracting, for no real benefit to the reader. I like to think my editor wouldn't have let me get away with it. Here's just one example of literally hundreds.

On the evening before Fisher is to die, he visits More.

But it's not Fisher who visits More, of course: it's Cromwell. It's an affectation, and one whose cumulative effect materially weakens the book.

Even that isn't the worst, though. Who am to tell a Booker Prize-winner how to structure a novel? I'm going to anyway. Wolf Hall operates in an astonishingly narrow register. The tone is unvarying, almost the entire narrative taking place either through conversation or 'his' thoughts. For me, at least, such a long book cries out for tonal variety. When we do see some 'real' action, it makes me wonder why we didn't get more of it. An early scene where the young Cromwell witness the burning of a heretic is moving and dramatic, but the book needed to give the reader this more often. You could take any page at random and see wonderful, effective prose, subtle and nuanced, but lay 650 such pages together and the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

It's not that I don't like 'quiet' books. Ann Weisgarber's recent Orange Prize nominee, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, has if anything less action: but it's played out at less indulgent length, with much greater economy and, for me, a richer connection with the reader.

Wolf Hall is a hugely ambitious book. It takes one of our best-known stories, adopts some risky narrative devices and gives us, uninterrupted, one character for perhaps 200,000 words. In the end, she doesn't quite pull it off. I'm delighted to see a historical novel win the Booker Prize, but I can think of better examples.
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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Coming soon - Wolf Hall

Things have been quiet on ::Acquired Taste recently. Partly this is because I've been laid up with a heavy cold, and partly because I've been reading a Very Long Book - Hilary Mantel's Booker Prixe-winning Wolf Hall.

Rarely has a book polarised my literary acquaintance more than this tale of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in Tudor England. Alis Hawkins, an accomplished historical novelist herself, cannot contain her enthusiasm. Other writers are less enamoured, including Aliya Whiteley and Helen Beal.

I've got under 100 pages to go, so I've got a fairly good idea of where I'm going to pitch my own response. But am I going to tell ya? Not yet...
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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Review - Acts of Violence by Ryan David Jahn

I don't keep up with all the Macmillan New Writing releases but I was determined not to miss out on this month's publication by the American writer Ryan David Jahn. Acts of Violence recounts the events of a single night in early 1960s New York. Inspired by a true story, the spare narrative unfolds as young woman is murdered outside her apartment block; her death, drawn out over several hours, is watched by her neighbours, all of whom have their own reasons for not calling the emergency services. Jahn shows us the lives of doomed Kat Marino and her neighbours, while at the same time painting a portrait of a time and place. He shows us racism, child abuse, infidelity, homosexuality; but never telling the reader what to think. His background as a screenwriter is apparent in the economy of the prose, the details freighted with significance. Nothing is spelled out; everything is implied.

An American writer of bleak, visceral crime fiction will inevitably make the reader think of James Ellroy, and the similarities are certainly there. He has more in common, though, with RJ Ellory, in that while the story is superficially a crime novel, that's simply the vehicle it chooses for a wider examination of its themes. The author has already been signed up on a longer deal by Macmillan and its easy to see why. Ryan David Jahn is a real talent and it wouldn't surprise me if he was soon a household name.
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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Also reads books

Having wearied my readers' patience with maps, maps and more maps over the past couple of weeks, it's with some relief that ::Acquired Taste returns to the business of books today. I've read a couple of crackers over the past week, and I like to share...

The first was the recent Macmillan New Writing title The Incendiary's Trail, by James McCreet. This Victorian melodrama owes much to Poe and Holmes, but also to Dickens in its depiction of the seedy underside of London life. The plot is lively and enjoyably lurid, with vividly-drawn characters. Reviews I've read of the book have not been especially favourable--many comment on the overly intrusive authorial voice with dismay. In this, though, McCreet is merely being true to 19th century sensation novels he clearly admires, and the device allows him to play some interesting games with the reader. Modern readers have become used to unobstrusive third person narratives, but done well, the engaged third person can be a treat. There is a second novel in the works and I look forward to reading it.

Even better was A Quiet Flame, the fifth in Philip Kerr's series of novels about the career of Bernie Gunther, the German private detective we first met in 1930s Berlin. Gunther now finds himself, courtesy of an unwilling spell in the SS, in post-war Argentina under an assumed name. Co-opted into the Argentine secret police, he finds his new home all too similar to the one he fled. Kerr handles the dark themes of the period with skill, and the Marloweque Gunther makes enough of a connection with the reader to avoid charges of stereotyping. Kerr has a problem in extending the series in that, for a tough guy, Gunther is now getting old (internal evidence suggests he's in his mid-50s). Much of A Quiet Flame is told in flashback to 1930s Berlin, and the sixth novel in the series seems to employ the same device. Much as I enjoy these novels, I do hope that Kerr remembers to quit while he's ahead. Regular readers will expect me to mention Patricia Cornwell here, and I like to oblige my readership...

Meanwhile, I have had an Amazon splurge and treated myself to two eagerly-anticipated works: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (always a sucker for the Tudors) and the latest Macmillan New Writing release, Ryan David Jahn's Acts of Violence. Mantel has a bestseller by virtue of winning the Booker Prize, but the buzz around Acts of Violence gives us hope that this could be the first MNW title to join it.

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Friday, October 30, 2009


If you believe that playing around with maps is a displacement activity from the reality of writing, then I haven't put the past couple of weeks to good use. If you think they're a good way of developing a fantasy world, which is not a five-minute job, then the conclusions are more hopeful.

Yesterday I expanded my map a little further by adding some names, as well as getting to grips with some software techniques to make the map more attractive.

I've narrowed down my field of operations to a single portion of the larger Azundel map (the top right corner of the original) and put in some drop-shading on the landmass to give a three-dimensional feel (this looks even better with the map blown up to full size). But the real development is place-names. Adding these moves us from a doodle to a real map. Next we may add some cities to populate our fictional "commonwealth".
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Thursday, October 29, 2009

On maps and worldbuilding

Once again I have been thinking about, and making, maps. Matt commented last week on the photorealistic quality of the map of 'Azundel', and clearly the style of the map influences to a large extent the way in which the observer responds to it.

I find a photorealistic map is very useful in determining 'what goes where' but it is not the kind of thing you would reproduce in a fantasy novel. I've done some work, instead, in making the same terrain into a more inviting style of map. The blues and yellows of a traditional atlas can be a good starting point, as in this version:

On a practical level, the colour scheme of this map lends itself to lettering, but it feels too modern to be a true fantasy map. To give a more antique feel, I often fall back on browns, and a grained paper surface, as in this version:

This produces a striking and decorative map, although not one which lends itself to easy lettering (imagine trying to show the names of cities against this background). Different maps, even of the same terrain, have different uses.

The next stage is to start to put cities on the map. This is where a world starts to find its feet; if you call a city "Z'Gnarth" (writer's hint: don't), it creates a different resonance in the reader's mind to "Azundel" or "Xhendelesse". At the moment I am enjoying the sound and feel of Dutch place names, so these are likely to influence the next version of the map. Who can fail savour real names like Medemblik, Zwaartsluis, Coeverden? I've always liked the look of Dutch names (who, except the Dutch, can actually pronounce them?) and the Emmenrule in my Mondia stories comes directly from the Dutch football team BV Emmen.

My next iterations of the map, therefore, are likely to place and name some cities: the point at which a map starts to become a world.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

More on Maps

I've been playing some more with maps this week (that's why they give me a lunch hour). The first is a refinement of one we saw last week.

This is created with a lovely piece of software called Fractal Terrains Pro. I've enhanced it from last week's by taking a bit more care over the colours and textures--plus, of course, giving it a name. It's easy to produce high-resolution images which means I can zoom in on smaller sections of the map. A map like this can be sweated to yield a lot more detail and hence imaginative stimulation. My Mondia series was kicked off with a map generated by FT Pro.

The second map is perhaps not as impressive, but took only seconds to generate with an application called Greenfish Relief Map. Once output it's not quite so versatile, but it cleverly decides where the towns go, even naming them using parameters you've supplied. I fed in some French, Greek and Arabic sounds to get the ones shown on this map.

Clicking on either map should produce a larger image.

None of this counts as real writing but it does start to provide some raw material.
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Friday, October 16, 2009


One of the things I always like about fantasy--and I acknowledge charges of nerdy geekishness here--is the maps. They can't redeem a bad book, but a fantasy map can be a thing of beauty. I'm sure most readers of The Lord of the Rings have pored over the iconic maps of Middle Earth at some time or other.

Creating maps can be a fine way of stimulating my imagination if I'm trying to think of a new story. They can act as a kind of Rorschach inkblot: the shapes, and particularly their inter-relationship, present all kinds of intriguing possibilities.

Take the two maps below, from a number I've dreamed up this week:
Each map presents a different set of possibilities. The first has many small land masses, peppered with even smaller islands. The inhabitants of these places might find their cultures more distinct from their neighbours because they present a series of discrete environments; and they would be less amenable to central control. This is a place of vibrant, individual cultures which would surely clash when they came into contact. Seafaring could form a major part of a story set here.

The second map has fewer, larger, landmasses. While there would no doubt be regional variations, it's easy to imagine a more homogeneous culture and a stronger, more authoritarian rule. The conflict inherent in such a place would be more likely to be internal: palace intrigues or dynastic struggles. There are also large internal lakes or seas on two of the islands; unusual topographical which again provide story-telling opportunities.

These maps, which exist in much more detail on my computer, are not in themselves stories: they contain neither plot nor character. But nonetheless they provide a hint of a framework (study the more detailed ones closely and you can work out where the cities might be).

There are stories in both of these places. Maybe one day I'll tell them.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Recent Reading

A couple of weeks ago it was my birthday, a subject generally of even less interest to you than it is to me. What's good about birthdays, though, is that I normally get some new reading material (I really am very easy to buy for).

I haven't yet read Philip Kerr's The One from the Other, a continuation of his dark exploration of mid-century Berlin (although my dip into the prologue looks very promising). I have, however, read Bernard Cornwell's Azincourt, a fictional recreation of Henry IV's finest hour.

I find Cornwell immensely frustrating. He has all the gifts of a first-rate historical action novelist, but equally a series of vices which only become worse over the time. No-one does the carnage and chaos of the battlefield better (and Agincourt sees him at his best), and his research is impeccable. Less enjoyable is his characterisation, where not for the first time he falls back on some hoary stereotypes: the chippy young maverick, the foul-mouthed hard-but-fair commander, the quiet but strong heroine, the charismatic but cruel villain. All this is perfectly serviceable, but because Cornwell is capable of better (I have good memories of his King Arthur trilogy which I don't want to spoil by re-reading) my irascibility is roused. Bernard joins his namesake Patricia on the list of writers who have exhausted both their muse and my patience.

Luckily I have plenty (far too much, in fact) to read. Time to treat myself to something fresher!
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Monday, October 05, 2009

Why Do I Write?

Generally we try to avoid this kind of metaphysical head-scratching on ::Acquired Taste. It's normally enough to accept that I do write and leave it at that. I've been prompted to ask myself the question on the back of my last post, where it became clear that I had not exhausted my interest in writing fantasy. But yet I'm setting off down the road of historical fiction instead, for any number of good reasons.

At the moment my interest in historical fiction feels like going to a dating agency which has set me up with the perfect partner. Do you read historical fiction? Yes. Do you read history? Yes. Does your fantasy fiction read more like historical fiction? Yes. Do you want more people to read your work? Yes. Then your best genre is... historical fiction.

And that's all very logical. If I want to maximise my chances of being published commercially again, then histfic (is that a word?) is the way to go. But is that point of spending a year of my life in front of a keyboard? Before The Dog of the North was accepted for publication, I'd already made the decision to carry on writing regardless of whether I ever got published. The reason I write is primarily my own amusement, an amusement that derives more from creating my own worlds than anything else. Migration to histfic, therefore, is motivated at least partly by commercial considerations. There's nothing wrong with this, but for something that's essentially a hobby (albeit a serious one), is the best option? If I like writing fantasy best, and I'm doing this for fun, why wouldn't I carry on?

These are very much open questions. But I have the luxury of not writing for a living. That means I spend the day doing something that I do because I'm paid to. I'm not sure that I want writing to go the same way.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part IX

A Taxonomy of Historical Fiction

I am more relaxed than some writers about genre labels. While they can be reductive, they also serve a purpose. I'd argue, though, that genre is a continuum rather than a box, and this is where some of the problems lie (particularly for a writer, like me, whose fiction has characteristics of both fantasy and history). The two are more closely allied than marketers (or indeed readers) like to acknowledge. Identifying the different admixtures of history and fantasy is therefore very helpful when putting together an outline. Using the example from earlier posts of The Inheritance Powders, my outline for a story of witchcraft and poison in the court of Louis XIV, we can see the different routes these choices give us.

1. Conventional history

What actually happened

This approach attempts to recreate for the reader the experience of living in a given historical period. The emphasis is on getting the historical details right to immerse the reader in the fictional world. This kind of fiction is often anchored by using real historical characters: Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels, Allan Massie's Imperial Rome stories. Recently Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has joined the gang (to unfortunate effect for a couple of my writer friends).

This kind of fiction can equally well employ fabricated characters (as in the historical section of Alis Hawkins' Testament) but the focus remains on telling a story within a historically plausible background.

There are many gradations within the field and some writers have more regard for historical authenticity than others, but writers working in this tradition will generally fail to convince if they 'get the history wrong'. The best writers will know what they can get away with (after all, they are writing fiction, not history): Patrick O'Brian's 'Aubrey-Maturin' novels are meticulously researched but the timelines are deliberately blurred. The books span the period 1800-15 but cram in far more than could actually have happened: to quote Wikipedia the period June-November 1813 is stretched out to accommodate events (including marriages, the birth and growing up of children, legal battles, terms in French and British prisons, two long voyages to the Pacific, the second eventually becoming a circumnavigation of the globe, terms of blockade duty, periods on shore, shipwreck etc etc) that ought to occupy five or six years.

I doubt that many readers mind.

Using this model, The Inheritance Powders would be an attempt to recreate what happened in the Affair of the Poisons with reference to the historical record. Success or failure would largely depend on the extent to which I manage to recreate the milieu.

2. Alternate history

What didn't happen but might have done

Alternate history has a long and honourable tradition and its own awards (the Sidewise Awards). They start from the agreed historical record but build in a departure point before the start of the novel. The world thus created is at once familiar and different to the one we know. The departure point is often centred around Nazi success in World War II. Robert Harris' best novel, Fatherland, adopts this premise, as does Len Deighton's SS-GB (to which Harris owes a great deal). These books are marketed as mainstream fiction, perhaps because of their authors, but alternate history is more likely to be lumped in with the science-fiction/fantasy crowd: Keith Roberts' excellent Pavane (in which Elizabeth I's assassination prevents the Reformation); Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (another 'Hitler wins' story but not Dick's best work); or Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, which reverses the result of the American Civil War.

The best examples of alternate history not only play with the reader's expectations and knowledge of actual history, but invariably background the pivotal event and let the story unfold through character. Alternate history is difficult to write effectively (it has more pitfalls than other species of historical fiction including a very high smartass quotient) but its best it can present the reader with an extraordinarily vivid experience.

If we were writing The Inheritance Powders in this tradition, we might imagine "what would happen if the plot succeeded?" - say Madame de Montespan managed to poison Louis XIV? Would the Huguenots, repressed under Louis, become a powerful force in the country? Would the War of the Spanish Succession take place?

3. Historical Fantasy

What didn't happen and never could have

Historical fantasy uses the real world as its starting point but then deploys, to greater or lesser extent, the trappings of fantasy on top. The Arthurian period is popular for such tales (even with 'conventional' historical novelists like Bernard Cornwell), as is the 19th century. In the latter period, Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series and M.F.W. Curran's Secret War novels are all notable examples. Historical fantasy is likely to appeal to readers with a disdain for fantasy when it's not filed on the fantasy shelves (as with Cornwell) because the reader has to invest less intellectual energy in immersing themselves in the fictional world.

Historical fantasy often utilises elements of the supernatural or horror fiction, as in Dan Simmons' Terror.

Given the role of alleged witchcraft in the Affair of the Poisons, we could easily imagine writing a version of The Inheritance Powders in which the witchcraft was real rather than imagined. This would lend a very different cast to the sordid women concocting poisons in their kitchens for bored aristocrats wanting rid of their husbands. Instead they would be actual sorceresses casting their spells behind the scenes to change the course of the kingdom.

4. Historically-flavoured fantasy

History buried under the surface

Many writers of fantasy use their fascination with real-world history in creating their stories. Joe Abercrombie clearly draws heavily on Renaissance Italy in his latest novel, Best Served Cold, while George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire cycle acknowledges the influence of the Wars of the Roses. My own fantasy novels also draw more from the Renaissance than traditional fantasy models.

Writing stories of this nature gives the writer greater latitude (not, primarily, over getting the details 'right' although that's element of it) in playing with the reader's expectations. If you're writing a novel with Richard III as the protagonist, you can be pretty sure the reader knows he's going to end up dead (sorry if that comes as a spoiler to anyone...); but if you're creating your own world and characters, you can play a higher-stakes game with the reader. (Martin, in particular, uses this to immense advantage because of his willingness to kill off major characters). Both the writer and the reader need to invest more in engaging with the world, but the reward is a wider range of potential narrative outcomes.

In this context, The Inheritance Powders would take the flavours of Louis XIV's court which interested me - the Sun King mythology, the literally poisonous intrigues - and stitch them into a different narrative framework in which the outcome would always remain in doubt (and indeed in which the King could be presented as in real jeopardy).

All of which is to say, I suppose, that I'm no nearer knowing where I'm going with this. And also - and this is something of a surprise to me - that I'm finding it hard to leave fantasy behind than I'd thought.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Down in the Hole

The BBC has shown all five series of The Wire, the amazing US crime drama, back to back. Sadly, the experience has now ended, leaving a void for those looking for intelligent and challenging television. In terms of thematic scope, narrative complexity and unwinking bleakness, both its ambition and its achievement were extraordinary. (No wonder its viewing figures were so disappointing). It's overly reductive, in fact, to categorise it as a crime drama - it's equally a compelling social documentary and an incisive study of the political process.

The Wire, from the outset, was an angry show, but the targets were never the obvious ones. The young black kids selling drugs on Baltimore's street corners, even the gang leaders, were portrayed with remarkable sympathy. Their worst actions were never condoned, but the environment which produced them was realised with unsparing intensity. The fourth series--for my money the best of the lot--focused on the schools' system and showed how it set the kids up to fail. The heartbreaking descent over the last two series of bright, articulate but alienated children into petty criminals and drug abusers did not pull any punches. The show's ire was not aimed at an underclass which never had a chance, but at a venal political class, more concerned with outmanoeuvring rivals and extorting kickbacks. Even the best of the politicians, like Mayor Carcetti, were ground down, forced into grubby and expedient compromise--and ultimately shown to be more concerned with career advancement than solving the city's problems. Sobering stuff, but never less than gripping.

The show wasn't without its faults. The second series, about the decline of the city's shipping industry, was never really integrated with the wider narrative. And while the characterisation was almost uniformly subtle, fresh and nuanced, there was one exception (heresy follows). McNulty, the nominal star of the ensemble show, the only actor to be billed out of alphabetical order on the credits, never fully departed from the maverick cop stereotype. A hard drinker, a womaniser, a lone wolf who breaks the rules with impunity (to a barely credible extent in the last series), he's a figure we've all seen before. Dominic West plays the role with brio, but he's not given enough to work with. Clarke Peters as Detective Freamon is a quieter and more plausible maverick.

These are minor quibbles. The Wire is uncompromising, and while at the end it delivers hope for some of the characters (and to avoid spoilers I won't say which ones), it's not at the expense of soft-soaping its wider message. A powerful, intelligent critique which never patronises its audience, we may never see its like again.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Sunne in Splendour
Sharon Kay Penman, 1982

They say there is no creature in nature, however seemingly malign, which doesn't have a benign impact somewhere (the ichneumon wasp would seem to come close). Even Ken Follett, whose truly appalling novel World Without End befouled my mind for a fortnight, can been seen to have a positive effect; when I was reading some reviews to see if anyone else thought it as bad as I did, I came across a couple of approbatory references to Sharon Kay Penman, along the lines of "this is how it should be done".

So it was that I tracked down her best-known work, The Sunne in Splendour, a vast saga covering the Wars of the Roses from 1459 to the Battle of Bosworth a quarter of a century later. Although it deploys, very skilfully, multiple viewpoints, it is really the story of Richard, Duke of Gloucester--later Richard III. Penman takes the increasingly fashionable view that Richard's reputation was the result of propaganda designed to obscure the Tudors' tenuous right to the throne, and instead presents him in a highly positive (but still nuanced) light.

All but one of the main characters are drawn from history, so anyone familiar with the period or Shakespeare's history plays will have their own sense of who they are - which can only make Penman's task more difficult, but they are all realised with crispness, freshness and vigour: Edward IV, a man for a crisis but rudderless without one; Elizabeth Woodville, his calculating and ambitious parvenu Queen; John Neville, destroyed by his split loyalties; his brother Richard, 'the Kingmaker', at once charming, manipulative and egostistical. Penman is accomplished in drawing subtle characters, and while she is clearly sympathetic to the Yorkist cause, the Lancastrians are not uniformly reviled.

I'm not giving anything away in saying there is no happy ending, and Penman is at her best when she touches on grief and loss. This is a book with real emotional power, and doesn't attempt to sugar-coat just how grim the period really was.

The book is not faultless: the extended courtship between Richard and Anne Neville is far too long, and the dialogue occasionally jars in its archaism (although at least the reader never cringes at excess modernity). Taken as a whole, though, it's magnificent, capturing the otherness of the 15th century in a world peopled with rich and believable characters. This is just about as good as historical fiction gets.

How will it influence me?

The first influence, strangely, is a negative one. Any thoughts I might have had of writing a Shakespearan wide-screen epic on the Wars of Roses are effectively scuppered, since The Sunne in Splendour does it so well. While I remain keen to tackle the Wars of the Roses, I'll need to find a different approach.

Nonetheless The Sunne in Splendour does show that the period lends itself to the epic tale. In that sense, it is more inspiration than encouragement.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • Historical fiction is set in the past (doh!), so don't try to modernise the diction or the mindset
  • You can write a successful historical novel using primarily historical figures
  • Just because Shakespeare's already done it doesn't mean you can't
  • There are better choices than the Tudors for your historical novel
  • You don't have to give 'em a happy ending
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Friday, September 11, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part VIII

Feasibility Study

One of way of thinking about preparing an outline is to think of it as a feasibility study. The outlining process forces a focus and concision upon what is originally a nebulous idea. By refining the original idea it's possible to see what works and what doesn't and–perhaps more pertinently–whether what's coming out fits in with your interests and strengths as a writer.

This is perhaps more the case with historical fiction than fantasy: in the latter, if a key ingredient is missing, you can make it up, but in a historical there are those pesky facts... these can be either a framework, or a constraint, depending on how you view it.

Let's look at this in terms of my own outline-in-progress, The Inheritance Powders, which as you'll remember treats a poisoning scandal at the court of Louis XIV. After a couple of months of research I feel well-informed on the events and the wider period, although perhaps not well enough to start writing yet (this may be a displacement mechanism, of course).

The main elements of what such a story would look like are clear: we have the political intrigue between the various court figures, a claustrophobic thriller/mystery, filtered through the etiquette and manners of the period. Even without knowing whose story this is, the bare bones of the outline are visible at this point. They're all things which interest me and which, with some more research, I can turn into fiction. What is even more helpful about "outlining the outline" in this way, though, is that it shows what's not there. This gives me the opportunity either to shoe-horn it in at this relatively early stage, or acknowledge that the outline simply doesn't work for what the purpose I'm intending it–hence its value as a feasibility study.

What's missing from The Inheritance Powders (not in any objective sense, but in terms of what I do and don't want to do in fiction) is the sense of the epic. This was one of the aspects of The Dog of the North I thought worked best, and its absence weakened The Last Free City. The court of Louis XIV simply doesn't have this–a long and stable reign, with life at Versailles dominated by triviality. Warfare is largely an afterthought–Louis took his mistresses on most of his campaigns, which suggests that we are not in total warfare territory here. The Affair of the Poisons itself is claustrophobic, overheated–essentially small-scale magnified by hysteria. Those are the constraints that I need to accept if I want to write about those events. (In fantasy, it would be less of a problem, because I could more easily create a contrasting environment to sit alongside it).

There are many strands of historical fiction, and not all of them can be explored in a single novel. The Inheritance Powders does not readily lend itself to what we might call the 'Bernard Cornwell' slice of the market - the grand sweep of battle, the thunder of nation-changing affairs. If I want to write that kind of novel, then I'm drawn more towards one of my earlier ideas - the Wars of the Roses.

Luckily I'm now off on holiday for a week (with a couple of Sun King books stashed in my luggage) so I've got plenty of time to mull this over without too much self-imposed pressure. A novel is for life (or at any rate, a couple of years), not just for Christmas; so it pays to make the right choice.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Serendipitous Discovery

...or why Amazon needs the High Street bookshop

I spent some time browsing round Waterstones in Guildford yesterday, knowing I had a couple of hours or so to kill. It's an entirely different experience to trying to cram a visit into a lunch hour you didn't really have time to take in the first place. Mooching around the shelves gives the kind of opportunity to discover new writers in a way that Amazon, for all its "customers who shopped for Seven Habits of Highly Effective People also bought Who Moved My Cheese?" can never fully replicate.

So let's say you were writing a noir detective novel, you know the kind of thing - a former cop with battered integrity, a beautiful but dangerous woman, the police as corrupt as the criminals. Where would you set something like that? First answer, because you know the cliches and you read Chandler, Hammett, Ellroy, is Los Angeles. Unless you love to be derivative, you'll probably move beyond that. How about, instead, 1930s Berlin? Perfect, no? That's where Philip Kerr has set March Violets, the first of a series of novels about Bernhard Gunther, a private investigator trying to make a living as the Nazis consolidate their grip on Germany. As Gunther wryly observes, there's no shortage of missing persons cases, as long as you take commissions from Jews.

As the subject matter suggests, this may tread a well-worn thriller path but the setting means it's hardly light entertainment. In the 60 pages I've read so far, Kerr has got inside the mind of the Reich, and particularly the ordinary Germans, in that peculiarly intimate way which novels can do better than straight history books. He has a nice way with the one-liner and brings the tawdriness of the period into sharp focus. This is a writer whose stories I want to read.

But here's my morally grubby compromise, my own noir moment. Having spent an hour reading the book on the soft seats at Waterstones, I didn't buy it. Seventeen quid for a paperback! (Admittedly a trilogy). Instead, I went home and bought it on Amazon for a tenner. (In my defence I should say I did buy three other books, rather more reasonably priced, in the shop instead). In this instance, Waterstones did OK - if every browser bought three books they'd be laughing - Amazon prospered too, as did four writers. And Penguin, the publisher, badged the trilogy as "Berlin Noir", an obvious title but one that got me take it off the shelf, so full marks to their marketing people.

If I were Waterstones I'd be worried that price-sensitive customers will always buy their books elsewhere (hence the ubiquity of the 3-f0r-2 table) but Amazon, equally, will surely realise that without bookshops acting as their physical showroom, their own commercial prospects will be damaged. Shoppers in Waterstones will buy books they didn't know they wanted, but on Amazon most purchases will still be consumers looking for a particular title. They may be in competition, but their markets are subtly different.

Meanwhile, as a I wait the "2 to 3 business days" for SuperSaver shipping (you didn't think I'd pay postage, did you?), I can reflect on my ethics as an "Amazon Tart".
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Monday, August 24, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part VII

Water Sculptures

Every day you probably pour yourself a glass of water without even thinking about it. What could be more prosaic? It's unlikely that you'd describe it as art.

In the right hands, though, water clearly is art: look at these two amazing images from liquidsculpture.com

All three pictures are essentially the same thing: H2O in different contexts. What makes the latter two art is the craft and the creativity the artist has applied.

There are analogies here to outlining a historical novel. I've spent the past fortnight doing some pretty immersive research into the life and times of Louis XIV and the specifics of the Affair of the Poisons. I'd now say that I'm fairly well-informed on the subject, but I'm still a huge leap away from having a story. What I've been doing so far is filling the glass with water: a necessary step in creating anything more ambitious, but not in itself art.

I need now to arrange the water in a way which gives it pattern and meaning, rather than simply presence. However much I know about the Affair of the Poisons, I don't have a novel--and knowing more won't put me any closer to it. I could write down now a detailed timeline (indeed, I've already done so and no, Aliya, it isn't on a spreadsheet...) of sudden deaths, interrogations and executions, but if I used that to construct a prose narrative I'd do nothing but confuse the reader.

The most difficult part of the writing process for me--and this seems even more the case for historical fiction than fantasy--is moving from the mass of background information to a dramatically satisfying organisation of the material. In other words, the part where we find a story. How many viewpoints will I have? Who will they be - La Reynie, the dogged detective who is investigator, judge and jury? Louvois, his boss, motivated more by a desire to outflank his hated rival Colbert than a quest for justice? Lesage, alchemist, conman, fantasist who finds himself in more trouble than he realises? Madame de Montespan, fading mistress of the king; her life would be so much easier if the beautiful young Mademoiselle de Fontanges was off the scene? Primo Visconti, waspish Italian observer of the court scene who enjoys playing the fortune-teller? The Marquis de Termes, his fortune lost in an earlier scandal who kidnaps an alchemist to make him a new one? Or characters entirely of my own devising?

These are the decisions which will make our story: when our glass of water will take on the outline of sculpture.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part VI

A Sense of Entitlement

At some stage in the outlining process you will want to think about titles. This can come at any point. The Dog of the North as a title existed long before the story it told; The Last Free City lagged some way behind; ; Dragonchaser was cropped from Dragonchaser and Lady Iseult's Delight at a late stage.

Ryan David Jahn blogs about this very question over at Guns and Verbs. In general I don't feel happy starting a story without having a title, even if that remains provisional until the book is finished. A title gives a reassuring solidity, a sense of something concrete behind it. It also, as Will Atkins pointed out to me this week, focuses the writer on what the story is about: Betrayal in the Boudoir would be a rather different take on the court of Louis XIV than Colbert's Conspiracy. (Neither sounds much cop: The Man in the Iron Mask is much better but I'm 150 years too late on that one).

For the time being, my story remains The Inheritance Powders: allusive without being obvious, with the focus on the central mystery, the poisonings. I stumbled across it in my reading, the internet supplying me with a link to the introduction to Strange Revelations by Lynn Mollenauer. This included the marvellous summary:

...magical remedies, love charms, and poisons known as “inheritance powders.” The inheritance powders, usually made from powdered toads steeped in arsenic, lent the Affair of the Poisons its name...
Naturally I filed this away for future use.

The obvious title would have been The Affair of the Poisons, but this risked confusion with Anne Somerset's factual account of the same name - and is any event more suitable for history than a novel.

My initial choice settled upon Hall of Mirrors, a perfectly serviceable choice. Ostensibly it refers to the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, but of course there are overtones of illusion, chicanery and deceit, all of which are likely to feature in the novel. There are counter-arguments, though. The phrase "hall of mirrors" is perhaps too much of a commonplace to be an ideal title for a novel; and the Hall at Versailles was not completed and opened for court functions until 1684 - after the conclusion of the Affair of the Poisons. There are ways around this latter point, but it's probably not a good idea to try to fit the story around the title at such an early stage.

So The Inheritance Powders it is, for now at least.