Sunday, February 27, 2011

Imaginative Research and Styling in Fantasy

My work in progress, Shadow Puppet, represents a new challenge for me.  My previous novels have all been set in worlds recognisably drawn from the European Renaissance (Dragonchaser, The Dog of the North, The Last Free City) or the far future (The Zael Inheritance).  Shadow Puppet creates a world much closer to our own, with trams, aircraft, high explosives--and kedgeree.  This throws up a different, if enjoyable, set of problems in styling the novel.
Not on Beauceron's breakfast plate
It's relatively easy for me to kick off a traditional fantasy story, with swords, chain-mail and castles.  The reader knows what to expect, and that's largely conditioned by what they've read or seen on TV.  Few, if any, of my readers will have direct personal recollections of the Renaissance.

Shadow Puppet, on the other hand, draws much of its styling from 1930/40s Europe, where readers will have much firmer ideas.  They are likely to have more detailed expectations about the technologies and fashions such a story will have, and while I might want to confound those expectations, I'd rather do so deliberately than by incompetence.  It doesn't mean, for example, that I can't give a character a mobile phone--but I would need to find some way of making it convincing. 

What I'm trying to achieve is for the reader to flesh out the narrative from their own imaginative experience of the period, without it looking like I'm writing a novel set in the 1940s.

Let's look at a concrete example.  The backdrop to the novel is a war between two enemy powers, Lauchenland and Beruzil, and our protagonist is a bomber pilot.  The opening scene is a bombing raid.  Already the reader will have filled in some of the gaps - you'll have a mental picture of the aircraft, the cockpit, the tracer bullets maybe.  So far, so good, but I need to write it up in a way that implies all of these things without suggesting that this is just World War II retold (which isn't the point of the book at all). 

Language is key here: I'll need to describe anti-aircraft fire, but I can't call it "ack ack", which is far too culturally specific, and even "flak" is probably too precise.  I'll need instead to devise a term of my own, which is at once intelligible and evocative.
Aiming for the right word
And that's before we even get on to writing about the aircraft.  In Dragonchaser I had extensive descriptions of galley-racing, which was much easier than it sounds. 

Aerial warfare is much more difficult, because the technology involved is more complicated.  There are things you can make an aircraft do, and things you can't, and the relatively realistic style of fantasy I'm writing here requires me to understand that. 

What does "feathering" a propeller mean?  When would you do it?  Is that term too specific to use in what I'm writing?  (I now know the answer to all three questions, but I didn't a week ago).

This is setting me a series of problems I've never had to tackle before.  If it's daunting--and it is--it's energising at the same time.

Friday, February 25, 2011

'Five in Five' Blueberries

The ever-accommodating Bluepootle is kind enough to devote space on her blog to my recipe for 'Five in Five' Blueberries, despite disliking the two main ingredients, blueberries (how did you guess?) and ice-cream.

Nip over there, if only to see how quickly the conversation turns to Midsomer Murders.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Midsomer Murdered

TV crime drama covers a range of styles

A few weeks ago, a Midsomer Murders landmark occurred when John Nettles' final episode as DCI Tom Barnaby was broadcast, after 81 episodes spread over 14 years.  In that time, Barnaby has solved several hundred murders in a lavish and popular series which has featured just about every character actor in Equity. 

Fans of the show need not fear that Barnaby's departure signals the end of their pleasures, though: a relative, DCI John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) has arrived to take his place.  Good news for everyone!

Err, not quite.  Thirty years of formal and informal study of the narrative art-forms have equipped me with a formidable critical vocabulary and so I am able to arrive at the mot juste for Midsomer Murders: shite. 

For those of a more elevated sensibility, I can expand: Midsomer Murders is simply egregious--smug, unengaging, patronising.  The murders have all the emotional impact of a visit to Waitrose (the natural habitat of the MM-watcher).  Lazy, vapid and repetitious, the show could with dignity have ended with Nettles' retirement.  Instead, a new cash-cow is sent to the farm.
Self-Satisfied Buffoonery
Midsomer Murders works within a "cosy crime" tradition which, to declare a prejudice, I don't find very interesting.  But it can be done much better than this; I'd love to see a TV adaptation of LC Tyler's Ethelred and Elsie novels, and David Suchet plays the preposterous Poirot with such brio that the viewer is charmed. 

Midsomer Murders has little of Suchet's straight-faced conviction and none of Tyler's sardonic wit.  It smacks of Thursday afternoon amateur dramatics at the village hall, an environment which no doubt has provided at least one interminable plot for the great detective.

It's bad karma to thunder ex cathedra from my blog pulpit (to mangle my religions a touch) without doling out some more approbatory sentiments, and with this in mind I can recommend, in the strongest terms, BBC Four's outstanding crime drama The Killing.  Stuck away in the middle of the night on a channel nobody watches, this Danish exploration of a young woman's murder has everything Midsomer Murders lacks. 
Subtle, nuanced and good as The Wire?

The emotional impact of the crime is truly harrowing, and the performances of Bjarne Henriksen and Ann Eleonora Jorgensen as the bereaved parents are heartbreaking.  The programme's one cliche is the mismatched detective duo (Sofie Grabol and and Soren Malling) and even this is done with some charm.  Grabol, in particular, is extraordinary.  The way the show weaves in contemporary political themes draws comparison with The Wire--a comparison which does not embarrass the Danish show.

Embarrassment should more properly be directed at the thought that Midsomer Murders is broadcast in 38 countries--including, humiliatingly, Denmark.  If you've overlooked The Killing (which, unless you're an insomniac, is very likely), it's out on DVD in April.  Don't miss it!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

As One Door Closes, Another Opens...

I have to announce that, with regret, work on The Fall of the Fireduke is halted indefinitely.  I hate canning a novel 20,000 words in, but more than one agent has advised me that, given the disappointing sales performance of The Dog of the North, no publisher in their right mind will take on further works in the series.  In the current risk-averse climate, that is clearly a realistic understanding of how commissioning editors are thinking.  While I don't write primarily for publication, and have had a lot of satisfaction--and good feedback--on novels which have been self-published, I don't have the fortitude to write a novel which I know from the outset has no chance of  attracting a commercial publisher.  So to those of you who were looking forward to more Mondia books, I can only apologise.  Unless there is commercial interest in these books, the series is at an end.  (All the more reason to buy The Last Free City when it comes out).

That's the bad news out of the way.  The good news is that I am actively working on a new project, with a grand total of 122 words of first draft written.  That, admittedly, is some way short of a complete novel, but a lot of the thinking and outlining (if that's not overdignifying the process) is already done.  What can I share about this new work?  At such an early stage, much will change.  Nonetheless, I can give certain hints.  First we have a title: Shadow Puppet.  Then--of course--we have a map:

Shadow Puppet is closer to science-fiction than anything I've written since The Zael Inheritance, although it has elements of urban and dieselpunk fantasy too.  Overt influences are Jack Vance--of course--Len Deighton's Bomber, Battlestar Galactica (although the main points of similarity were already fleshed out before I started watching it, so this is parellel evolution rather than influence), Budapest, Phillip Kerr, Fatherland, Bladerunner, 1984 and Raymond Chandler.  As this list suggests, it's not a romantic comedy...

I think progress may be slow on this one--I'd got very used to reaching for the tropes of Renaissance fantasy--but I've been carrying the idea around since September, so there's every chance it's got legs.  Keep dropping by for progress reports.
Cover Design, Part 4

The cover for the forthcoming edition of The Last Free City was in some ways the easiest I've ever made, and in others the most difficult.  To my eyes it's certainly the best.  Here is the cover, slightly altered from the earlier version:

I had been fairly clear that I wanted a cityscape as the cover image, and I had a number of pictures of Dubrovnik that I'd been working from for topography and atmosphere when writing the book.  I liked this one because it had an expanse of flat colour which would have been perfect for the lettering.

Again, though, too photorealistic and too static.  I tried superimposing another image--crossed swords--but it soon became apparent that this was the domain of trained graphic designers; the scheme was soon abandoned.

Then I had the idea of using an actual painting of a historical picture.  The constraint here was to find a copyright-free image in high enough resolution to print out clearly.  This representation of Venice from Bellini soon presented itself:

In some ways it's excellent - it captures the feel of a Renaissance city and there's plenty going on.  Too much, in fact.  It's hard to see how it would work as a cover without being impossibly cramped and busy.  But Venice put me in mind of my old friend Canaletto.  And there were several fine Canelettos out there, but the research reminded me that in many ways I preferred the work of his nephew Bellotto.  And so, after some more Googling, I came across this: not Venice at all, but Dresden, where Bellotto spent much of his career.

On finding this, naturally I wanted to use it immediately.  It has enough life to avoid being a static picture of buildings, a magnificent austere chill light, and the v-shaped patch of sky on the left of the picture is ideal for text.  No need to faff about with recolouring and artistic effects here - Bellotto's choices are already the optimum.  Is that cheating?  Maybe, but if so, just about all Penguin Classics are cheats too.

So there we have the cover of The Last Free City, with a little help from Bernado Bellotto...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Cover Design, Part 3

The Dog of the North was conceived and executed as a fantasy more epic in scope than Dragonchaser.  I could easily have come up with a cover design which followed on from the earlier model (indeed, I used a Braun and Hogenberg map of Venice to work out the topography of Mettingloom, and one of Blois for Croad).

I felt for the new novel, though, that I should try for something closer to mainstream fantasy.  This time I ransacked iStockphoto for pictures of swords and castles that I could cannibalise.  A few images presented themselves:

None of these was quite satisfactory.  The first two didn't work in the practical sense of getting text on the page, however I cropped them; the third was a beautiful image, but not for this book; and the final one had the right elements but the woman did not correspond to my image of any of the characters.

I also found this one in my files--and with hindsight, prefer it to the one I finally chose:

The image that I finally chose probably won out because it was easier to manipulate away from photo-realism:

Although it is a photograph, it doesn't really look like one.  With some relatively straightforward image manipulation and overlaying wash of colour, I ended up with something which didn't seem too far away from the feel of the book:

Which looks just fine until you see the job the professionals made of it when Macmillan New Writing picked it up...

Next: the Bellotto cover for The Last Free City.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cover Design, Part 2

Dragonchaser was my first fantasy novel, and it was clear that a different style of cover would be needed from that employed for The Zael Inheritance.  For fantasy, the emphasis is on low-tech, so the kind of glossy image I had used before was clearly inappropriate.  Nonetheless, I wanted to avoid the traditional kind of fantasy cover, partly because square-jawed heroes and winsome damsels aren't really my thing; but also because the chances of finding a high-resolution, copyright-free image of human figures were not high.  Subsequently I've discovered a number of professional fantasy artists who do work in a way that I admire, although even then I suspect that their services would be out of my reach.  Check out Andreas Rocha, for example:

For Dragonchaser, then, I was led towards images from antiquity.  I'd long had an interest in historic maps, and particularly the pioneering 16th century work of Braun and Hogenberg.  Fortunately much of this is available in hi-res, and soon I found this image of Marseille, which topographically was all but identical to Paladria, the city at the heart of the novel (as shown in my original map).

Again some cropping was necessary, the image being both the wrong shape and adorned with the legend 'MARSEILLE',  which was not entirely helpful.

As well as cropping the image, I flipped it over to correspond more closely to the map in my head, and ended up with this:

This is close but clearly not satisfactory.  The text is far too indistinct.  A change of colour is called for, so I darken the text and lighten the background:

And that's what I would have gone with, but my daughter was adamant that the colours were muddy and indistinct, a view that wider canvassing confirmed.  You have to know when to listen to advice, and so a final version with altered colour values sprang forth:

And here are the ones that didn't make it:

None of these need be regretted, although they do all reflect elements of the novel.  The real problem is that they're all photographs, and they simply don't work as covers for fantasy novels.  The photo-cover smacks--with no disrespect to the authors--of self-help "How God Changed My Life" books; a respectable and popular genre, but not one a fantasy novelist is pitching at.

Next - the self-published edition of The Dog of the North, including another bout with the curse of photo-realism.
On Cover Design

My last post, displaying a draft cover for The Last Free City, occasioned the nearest thing to see hysteria we see over on ::Acquired Taste.  I fondly imagine that this is at least in part the result of fevered anticipation for the book, but it's an undeniable fact that pictures are always popular too.  With that in mind, I thought I'd set out some worked examples on cover design.  The fact that they are the work of a rank amateur, a dilettante with no concept of how to use Photoshop or Illustrator, may perhaps make them more interesting: all the examples discussed are attainable with basic IT skills and a willingness to hunt around.

The first book I ever published was The Zael Inheritance.  It was also, therefore, my first attempt at cover design.  Unlike my more recent work, Zael is science-fiction rather than fantasy, which in hindsight made the cover rather easier to design.  My cover designs can have a wearying literalism, and since the plot turns on DNA, what could be more appropriate for the cover than a double-helix?  I was lucky enough to find this image on the excellent, and instantly I knew this would fit the bill.  This is virtually ready-made as a cover.

Some basic cropping ensued to make the correct proportions for a book cover:

And from there it was simply a question of finding a suitable typeface.

Looking back through my files, I can see that I modelled several other variations on the same theme.  These were rejected for being too cluttered:

This one, on the other hand, very nearly made the cut:

Probably not quite zappy enough for an SF cover, although pleasantly retro.  The DNA image was again hoovered up from Istockphoto.

The key learning from this first attempt: 
  • don't try anything too complicated.  It's much easier to adapt something which already exists than it is to create from scratch
  • use very large graphics files. Anything below about 3000x2000 pixels will not have the resolution you need for a cover
  • use images with plenty of space.  You need room for the title and your name
  • simple software will do.  I did all my graphics manipulation in Powerpoint and Irfanview.
Next - a first fantasy cover for Dragonchaser.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Joy of Sets

How do you like your stories? Settling down to engage with a novel, maybe.  Your regular fix of Eastenders?  Or--I know you're reading this, Alis and Frances--a daily hit of The Archers on the radio?  Perhaps you relish the structural perfection of a 90-minute movie.

In recent years there are more ways than ever to tell stories.  You can read them written as apps for your iPhone, or take in Shakespeare on Twitter.  But few, if any developments can have been as welcome as the box-set.  A series which might have evolved over months or even years on TV can be in your living room, one episode the push of a button away from the last.  Some stories only reveal their full glory when watched this way - stripped of commercials, characters growing and developing before your eyes.  Rome, 22 50-minute episodes, needs time to unfold, and it's hard to imagine a conventional movie delivering anything like the same punch.  The Wire shows a depth of ambition and accomplishment that's revealed only across the arc of the five series.  (Not all box sets are as felicitous: 24 watched back-to-back is  exposed as meretricious buffoonery).

Now I've found my way to Battlestar Galactica, perhaps the first grown-up space opera.  (In the halcyon days of Star Trek, it probably never occurred to anyone that space opera might want to be).  I haven't finished all the seasons yet, so I'll reserve final judgement--but this is shaping up as hugely impressive drama.  And from such tawdry inspiration--an unutterably feeble late-70s Star Wars rip-off.  The four TV series, on the other hand, really do with hindsight seem  amazingly ambitious.  Airing from 2003-2008, an old-fashioned story of the last remnants of humanity fleeing killer robots manages to address issues of authoritarianism for the perceived greater good, racism, xenophobia, suicide bombing and torture in a way almost wholly absent from mainstream US drama.  If you wanted a nuanced exploration of America in the Iraq years, you had to watch a science-fiction show--at least until Generation Kill came along, and even that lacked Battlestar Galactica's thematic range.  Even the cliches are given a bit of life: the standard insubordinate pilot, Starbuck, is a woman (the mesmeric Katee Sackhoff).  Grizzled Admiral Adama, played with grim weariness by Edward James Olmos, has flaws so significant we frequently lose sympathy with him.  His counterpart, the reluctant President Roslin (Mary McDonnell and her shampoo-ad hair) is half noble war-leader, half tyrant.  And those killer robots? They end up commandeering our sympathies.

The episodes are fleeting by so quickly I doubt I can make them last until Game of Thrones launches.  I may have to find another classic series. I hear The Sopranos is pretty good...