I know, you want to write the next Lord of the Rings, or possibly the next Game of Thrones. So do I, to be honest. But I also want to read as many more epic fantasies as can be brought to the bookshop table, and sometimes I go looking for them in the Kindle shop. Frequently, you can download the first episode of an epic fantasy series for no cost at all, and decide from what you read whether you want to buy the rest of it for real money.
So far, I have to say, I’ve not yet found one I felt moved to spend money on. I’ve seen lots of books where the hero(ine) discovers they’re special, finds a magic weapon and goes off to rid the world of the evil overlord, and in lots of them I’ve felt completely unable to suspend my disbelief. Not because the magic was too outre, or the hero(ine)’s superpowers were too odd, or the secondary non-human race was too strange – sadly. I would have been delighted if they were, tbh. But because the author displayed a complete ignorance about the mundane things of their pseudo-medieval world that I actually know something about.
When you’re trying to sell your readers on the possibility of a world with fantastical elements, the reader needs to know that you are a reliable source of information and have thought about how this works. That is instantly undercut if you get your real-world details wrong. So, here are three very vital things you need to do to prevent your reader from throwing the book at the wall before you’ve even got the story going.
- Understand how your technology works.
And I don’t just mean your gravity defying steam dirigibles. If you’re writing a pseudo-medieval fantasy and your characters are lighting a camp fire, Google “how to light a fire without matches.” Never just make it up, because it is a thing that somebody out there knows how to do, and they will know if you get it wrong. And they will go “Oh, bloody hell, Author! Those are ashes. Ashes don’t burn! If I can’t trust you to get that right, what can I trust you with?”
In the same way, decide on the technical underpinnings of your habitations. Things like plumbing. (Is water brought in to your houses by wooden pipes? Are there fountains or wells in the centre of the village? Does everyone have to walk to the stream every morning? Engineering – how were the heavy blocks that form the temple of doom transported onto site/raised onto the sacrificial platform? (By treadwheel crane? By teams of oxen? By teams of neutered trolls?) Exactly how far is the range of that arbalest? Can I really gallop from Dover to Sherwood Forest in a day? Etc etc.
The more you get right, the more convinced your reader will be that you know what you’re talking about, and the more solid, the more reliably real your world will seem.
- Understand how your economy works.
Doesn’t that sound dull?! This is something you can paint in broad brush strokes, so it doesn’t have to be as tedious as it sounds. However, I have thrown a book at the wall because it was set in a small community where every single person went to their shop at the beginning of the day, sold unspecified goods, and then went home. The community was surrounded by a wall and isolated from the rest of the world. This made me wonder several things, specifically – if no one is making things, and no one is bringing things in from outside, what on earth have they got to sell in their shops? If no one is farming and growing food, why don’t they starve? Does the author even know the basic facts of existence, such as ‘food has to come from somewhere’, and ‘clothes don’t weave themselves’?
This economy did not work, because nobody was producing anything. You need to ask yourself “What do they eat?” “Where do they get the food from?” “Who produces it?” “Where do they get clothes?” “Who produces those?” “How long does it take them, and who feeds them while they’re doing it?” “Where do they live?” “Who builds those places?” Etc.
In order for your character to have leisure time to go off and become a warrior/magician/assassin/whatever there needs to be a large social infrastructure in place to create enough surplus so that not everybody is occupied at simply trying to survive. As the author, you need an understanding of how that infrastructure hangs together. Even if you lift it wholesale out of medieval Europe, like 99% of other Fantasy writers, you really need to know how it works, or people will ask themselves why your populations are not too busy starving to worry about the return of the Old Ones.
Plus, once you have a basic idea of how your economy functions, it may turn out to be a surprising source of story ideas. If all your country’s food has to travel up river through that bottle-neck between the Fangs of Fear, that’s a prime site for a bandit queen to capture so she can starve the city into compliance.
- Understand how your society works.
This will tie in with how your economy works, because everyone needs to eat. Once you’ve established who’s producing the food and necessities, ask yourself who’s profiting from the surplus, and how.
Is your society a traditional medieval one in which the food producers were barely free, the merchants had a little money and therefore influence, and the top of the food chain were the heavily armoured blokes running a protection racket on top (aka knights and kings)? It’s reliable and so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible, and you can get right on to your story about the Chosen One confident that the readers are thinking ‘oh, it’s another one of those things.’
But perhaps you want to do something different? Maybe the arable land is scarce and everyone relies on a small powerful clique of farmers to provide food to a starving manufacturing class? How would that affect the things that were respected and valued in your world? Would you have people rebelling by raising their own crops in window boxes? Would seed-peddlers be daring heroes of the proletariat? If you developed that, all kinds of weird things could happen. Your heroes would probably not be warriors, they might be gardeners, but I can’t help but feel that we’ve already had too many warrior heroes. Time for something else, maybe.
Perhaps your society is run by nuns who genuinely do collect from all what they can give and give to all what they need? In our world, Communism has slipped rapidly into corruption, but what would it be like living in a society where everyone genuinely was treated as equal to everyone else? Owned no more than anyone else, and had no more power than anyone else? What would that be like, really? I’d be interested to find out.
Or perhaps your civilisation is an actual democracy and there are branches of magic dedicated to getting the votes of every person in a society that doesn’t have the tech level to do long distance communication otherwise? It’s up to you to say, and so it’s also up to you to know.
These three things may not be as glamorous to think about as that spectacular battle scene you have in your head, but they are the foundations on which your world rests. If your readers catch you making elementary mistakes in these things, you’ll be very very lucky if they (a) ever get to your spectacular battle scene at all and (b) ever read something of yours again. So pay at least enough attention to these so that your foundations won’t crumble and let the whole edifice down. You might even find out you’re writing something much more unique and interesting if you do.
Scribd is entirely new to me, to the extent that I only found out about it today. But look, it turns out that you can try several of my books on there:
I hear the deal is that it’s a subscription run service, so readers get to read as many books as they like for a flat fee? Authors get paid full royalties on any book that a reader keeps reading after the first 20%. That sounds like a good thing for everyone. Now as soon as I can convince them that both their Alex Beecrofts are the same person, we’ll be laughing!
1. If you’re not having fun, it’s not worth doing.
Just as nobody dons their baldrics and bellpads and capers in the street for strangers to sneer at because they think they’ll gain great glory or wealth from it, so you probably won’t gain great glory or riches from writing. You dance because it’s fun, you write because it’s fun, and any other health, social or financial benefits are secondary. Do it anyway, because you love to, and when it gets hard and you’re tempted to grumble remember that nobody is making you do this, you’re doing it because it’s what you want.
2. If you’re not having fun, people can tell.
I won’t name any names, but there are some morris dancing sides I’ve seen where the moves are perfect, the dances are done with enormous attention to detail, getting all the tricky footwork right. Excellent hanky-work, good looking uniforms, perfect teamwork etc. And yet it’s so damn dull to watch. You stand there and you watch these people take it all terribly seriously, with frowns of concentration and a font of judgement for anyone who does it a smidgen less traditionally, and you can’t help but think how ridiculous it all is.
You can get away with a bit more poe-facedness as a writer, but it will eventually come through – the fact that you think very highly of yourself, and nobody is allowed to simply enjoy your books. And then, well, I guess you’ll get the poe-faced followers you deserve. If that’s your goal, go for it, but it sounds like an awful grind.
3. If you are having fun, people can tell.
One of the first things we tell the new dancers is “If you forget what you’re supposed to do next, just lift your head, put on a big smile, and get back to place when you can. As long as you look like you’re having a great time, most people won’t notice the mistakes, and if they do, they’ll share a laugh with you and enjoy those too.” I think that applies to writing too. If you’re having so much fun with the exploding zombies and the big misunderstandings and the triple adultery and the cavalry charges, people aren’t going to notice the occasional plot hole or clunky sentence. If they’re being breathlessly swept away by your enthusiasm and big smile, they’ll forgive all sorts of technical faults.
4. If your audience aren’t having fun, don’t even bother.
Like morris dancing, writing is a spectator sport. You may dance out because it entertains you, but if it doesn’t entertain your audience too you come away feeling dispirited, let down, and despondent, because what’s the point? Plus, you’ll soon find that even the semi-interested, curious onlookers you had at the start begin to drift away. However much you have a message to get across, or a mission to pursue in your writing, if it doesn’t entertain the reader they won’t stick around for anything else. Bear your readers in mind, and if you’re fairly sure they won’t enjoy that hundred page digression detailing the history of tin mining beginning in the stone age, maybe take it out of the story and put it in an appendix.
5. You are your own master.
Morris and its accompanying music are folk arts. That means that anyone can do them. With a half hour’s practice every day, I learned to play the pennywhistle well enough for people to dance to, well enough to attend sessions with other musicians, well enough for a new art to have entered and enriched my life. Just the same way, if you put in an hour’s writing practice every day, you will soon get good enough at that to entertain yourself. Then you’ll progress to being able to entertain others, and before long you’ll find yourself making art.
At that point, you can get yourself a publisher, or you can choose to publish yourself, learning all the skills an indie publisher needs to know. But the truth is that you are the producer of the content, you are the provider, the artist, the entertainer, and if you don’t like the way you’re being treated, you get to take that content elsewhere. Unwelcome morris dancers go to drink at another pub. Mistreated writers find a new publisher, or make their own cover art and publish themselves, but neither of us need approval or permission, we will do what is in our hearts to do, and if everyone is having fun in the process, everyone benefits.
The summer holidays have thankfully come to an end, edits on the Trowchester books can only last so long, and that leaves me with the rest of the year to write something new. So, what should it be?
I’m currently writing a fantasy about three sets of people from diverse cultures who get stranded together on a floating island due to shipwreck/the death of the gods. That’s slow going as I gradually work out the world building, but very entertaining. But after that, I have a choice of:
1. Another 3 Trowchester books – small British city contemporaries featuring the occasional murder and a bit of morris dancing.
2. A follow up of The Reluctant Berserker where Brid the slave gets a story of his own. (For which I need to do some research on Celtic Britain in the 6th Century.)
3. Kind of tempted to do a sort of action/adventury jewel thief m/f romance with an option of turning it m/m/f later on.
4. A follow up to The Wages of Sin.
5. A follow up to The Crimson Outlaw.
6. Something else of your suggestion?
I’d welcome anyone’s advice, as I really don’t have a preference at all.
I keep thinking I ought to leave Tumblr because it’s such a time sink, but I find so many interesting things there. For example, this post about a multi-racial casting for founders of the Hogwarts houses
particularly the erudite response of supernatasha to the claim that everyone was white in Europe during the middle-ages. I feel sure this is going to be of particular relevance to me once Blue Eyed Stranger comes out and people discover that one of my main characters is a black Viking reenactor. As a matter of fact, the knowledge that people of colour have probably always been in Britain is a fact that Martin himself is passionate about passing on to his own pupils. It’s nice for me not to have had to assemble the research on that myself. I can just refer anyone who objects to go to the excellent Medieval POC.
And since I appear to be doing a bit of a tombola – pick three tickets at random and see what you get – kind of blog post, I’m going to end with something that made me happy this week:
I just wish I could buy it somewhere!
Finally I have evidence that I wasn’t just making it all up when I said I had written three new contemporary novels, all set in my fictional city of Trowchester. Here is such strong independent proof that you can even pre-order them already for a 29% discount if you get all three
Plus, I have cover art to show off for all of them! Excitingly, although you can’t see the spine and back cover on the ebook versions, on the paperbacks the design wraps all the way around. It’s awesome
Trowchester: it’s the fourth smallest city in Britain, and visitors sometimes think it hasn’t left the Middle Ages yet. There’s a Bronze Age barrow, a wide network of ley lines, the best tea shop in the county, and more morris dancers than you can shake a stick at. Trowchester attracts those who have been hurt and those who are looking for sanctuary from the modern world. But scratch the surface and there’s murder and mayhem aplenty. People come here to find love, but they’re forced to learn bravery first.
Michael May is losing it. Long ago, he joined the Metropolitan Police to escape his father’s tyranny and protect people like himself. Now his father is dead, and he’s been fired for punching a suspect. Afraid of his own rage, he returns to Trowchester—and to his childhood home, with all its old fears and memories. When he meets a charming, bohemian bookshop owner who seems to like him, he clings tight.
Fintan Hulme is an honest man now. Five years ago, he retired from his work as a high class London fence and opened a bookshop. Then an old client brings him a stolen book too precious to turn away, and suddenly he’s dealing with arson and kidnapping, to say nothing of all the lies he has to tell his friends. Falling in love with an ex-cop with anger management issues is the last thing he should be doing.
Finn thinks Michael is incredibly sexy. Michael knows Finn is the only thing that still makes him smile. But in a relationship where cops and robbers are natural enemies, that might not be enough to save them.
– See more at: http://www.riptidepublishing.com/titles/trowchester-blues#sthash.FEIaYMTJ.dpuf
Billy Wright has a problem: he’s only visible when he’s wearing a mask. That’s fine when he’s performing at country fairs with the rest of his morris dancing troupe. But when he takes the paint off, his life is lonely and empty, and he struggles with crippling depression.
Martin Deng stands out from the crowd. After all, there aren’t that many black Vikings on the living history circuit. But as the founder of a fledgling historical re-enactment society, he’s lonely and harried. His boss doesn’t like his weekend activities, his warriors seem to expect him to run everything single-handedly, and it’s stressful enough being one minority without telling the hard men of his group he’s also gay.
When Billy’s and Martin’s societies are double-booked at a packed county show, they know at once they are kindred spirits, united by a deep feeling of connectedness to their history and culture. But they’re also both hiding in their different ways, and they need each other to be brave enough to take their masks off and still be seen.
– See more at: http://www.riptidepublishing.com/titles/blue-eyed-stranger#sthash.clKUFNb9.dpuf
At sixteen, Aidan Swift was swept off his feet by a rich older man who promised to take care of him for the rest of his life. But eight years later, his sugar daddy has turned from a prince into a beast. Trapped and terrified, Aidan snatches an hour’s respite at the Trowchester Museum.
Local archaeologist James Summers is in a failing long distance relationship with a rock star, and Aidan—nervous, bruised, and clearly in need of a champion—brings out all his white knight tendencies. When everything falls apart for Aidan, James saves him from certain death . . . and discovers a skeleton of another boy who wasn’t so lucky.
As Aidan recovers, James falls desperately in love. But though Aidan acts like an adoring boyfriend, he doesn’t seem to feel any sexual attraction at all. Meanwhile there are two angry exes on the horizon, one coming after them with the press and the other with a butcher’s knife. To be together, Aidan and James must conquer death, sex, and everyone’s preconceptions about the right way to love—even their own.
– See more at: http://www.riptidepublishing.com/titles/blue-steel-chain#sthash.c1RpzRBt.dpuf
I know a lot of people have been interested when I said I was writing a romance with an asexual character. So if it’s not plain from the blurb, Blue Steel Chain is that novel
They’re not actually due out until next year. Trowchester Blues, the first one, is due to be released on the 9th of February 2015, and then Blue Eyed Stranger on 6th of April and Blue Steel Chain on 27th of July. But here’s definitive proof that they are on their way!
Can anyone help me out here with an opinion? I’ve been thinking about indie-publishing The Glass Floor, because I can’t stand having it lying around any more, and The Witch’s Boy is none the worse for being self-pubbed. (What finally swung my decision was a series of graphs on Diane Duane’s blog indicating that indie-publishing is probably better for authors of Fantasy than pro-publishing is.)
Anyway, I’m going to try a method I saw in one of my numerous books on how to self-publish, and publish The Glass Floor in three novella sized installments, with a separate option to buy the whole book at a slight discount if you want to. That way people who don’t know whether they like my stuff can try the first third out for hardly any money at all, and only buy the other episodes if they want them. Whereas people who do know they like it can go for the whole thing at once at a bargain price.
With a miniscule amount of tweaking – literally a matter of altering a couple of lines, it neatly fell into three self-contained parts anyway, so it is as if it was preordained
Now I begin to approach my point…
When I was thinking of titles for each part, I fell back on my old love, alliteration. Currently I have
The Glass Floor
Divided into 3 volumes:
The Glass Floor: Horror at Home
The Glass Floor: Corruption at Court
The Glass Floor: Terror at Topkapi
But when I got to Terror at Topkapi I thought OMG, that’s actually a good title! Maybe I should use that title for the whole series? I could call part 3 ‘Plague at the Palace’ instead, and have the whole series/whole novel called
Terror at Topkapi
Too B-Movie? Too cheesy? Or would it snag your eye and make you want to know more. I think the second. What do you think?
Well, it’s been an interesting couple of months in the Beecroft household, starting in April when my aged father decided he could not cope with living alone hundreds of miles away from the rest of the family any more. Since then it’s been a full soap-opera worth of just about every ridiculous plot thread you can think of other than the surprise baby. But he is now settled in a new home, and the pressure has reduced to the point that this week I started to write again. I can’t tell you what a relief that is.
So here I am, claiming that I’m still alive, surviving and turning my thoughts back towards my writing. So much to do that I’ve let lapse! I must update my website. I must resubmit The Glass Floor to as many publishers as I can think of. I must learn to use CreateSpace to make a print version of The Witch’s Boy with the new cover, because I’m not satisfied with the quality of the Lulu books. (The cover tends to peel in no time flat.)
And I must stick with my new regime of writing between 8.30 – 12.00 every day. Carefully calculated so that I can take advantage of the time my teenagers are in bed on their summer holidays to write during what always used to be an unproductive time of year. Then I can do mum things, and visit my Dad, in the afternoons.
I hate changes of routine, but I hate much more not having a routine at all. So it’s very good indeed to feel the beginnings of a manageable working routine rise out of the ashes of my former life.
I don’t want to jinx it, but I feel it’s time to say with a certain sense of surprise that I am still here. Fatter, tenser and angrier than before, but writing again, which is the main thing.
And now for some happier news – look at this amazing t-shirt that my fantastic daughter bought for me for Mothering Sunday (Slightly delayed by inefficient shipping so that it arrived today.) I loved it so much that even though it’s too cold to wear it, I put two thermal vests on underneath and did so anyway.
Well, a day off turned into a week. A week during which I enthusiastically tried other, new things. I did, however, make a plot plan for the Fantasy I meant to start tomorrow – so, progress there.
I also began to learn the melodeon:
Which is harder than it seems. Both hands have to work independently, and the scale goes “push, pull, push, pull, push, pull, pull, push” which is confusing.
After extensive practice, I can now play The Winster Gallop, and I’m starting on the Winster Processional.
Or I was…
Yesterday I went on a blacksmithing course and made this hook:
I had finished it, it was lying on the anvil and all I had to do was give it a coat of beeswax to blacken it. I was very tired, as it had been heavy work, drawing out the iron and tapering it by heating and hammering it. So I picked up the beeswax, held the hook down with my other hand, completely forgetting that it was still hot, burnt my first two fingertips and thumb to the point where the skin turned white.
Spent yesterday evening in A&E, with hideous pain. They dosed me up on morphine and sent me home with my hand looking like this:
So how I’m going to start writing the next thing tomorrow, I don’t know. Longhand, probably.