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Friday, 20 December 2013

INTERVIEW: Len Webster

Library of Dreams

PSG Publishing

Well, for those of you not in the know (for shame!!) the charity anthology Library of Dreams is now on sale at Amazon UK, Amazon US, Createspace and Smashwords. Check out the Goodreads Giveaway too! You have to be in it to win it!

I have been looking at the styles and voices of some of the authors featured in the anthology, and I have more for you to come.

Today, however, I've got an exclusive interview with Len Webster, author of THE RIBBON CHASERS, another story featured in the anthology. 



Len Webster is a romance author and Melburnian, dreaming of her own romantic adventure. I caught up with her to chat about her writing, and what inspired her to support the charity Litworld in this way.

CMR: So, Len, it's lovely to catch up with you! Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you get up to when you're not writing?

LW: No problem, this is fun for me! I just turned twenty-one. I lived and grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and I can watch sports like I can watch any TV show. But get me in front of my team, Sunderland AFC, and you'll discover my short fuse!

CMR: Melbourne sounds like a great place to live. Did you find a lot of support for your writing? When did you start?

LW: I've been writing since 2012. I wrote secretly in the later half of the year because I didn't think writing was 'cool'. Where I'm from no one is a writer - it's very unusual. January 2013 I stepped out of my little insecure shadow and decided to start writing online. 

CMR: How did writing online help you?

LW: That decision changed my life. I've met so many wonderful people, and I've really grown in my writing. I mean, I'm still a little clueless, but I'm finding my way. 

CMR: And now you're in print! Is this the first time you've been published?

LW: Yes! Library of Dreams is my first time. I'd love my other pieces to be published one day, too. Who knows what might happen!

CMR: You said that you started writing last year. What influenced you to begin, and what are your influences now? 

LW: I'd say the same as Taylor Swift with her music - personal love, romances, boys, heartbreak and all those things that come with growing up, especially when I was a teenager. I often take my own experiences and use them in my writing - taking something that happened to me or something I've felt, and use it for a chapter or storyline. 

CMR: Writing what you know!

LW: Right. 

CMR: Tell us more about the story you contributed, RIBBON CHASERS. I loved the teaser [above] on the website! What inspired you to write it? 

LW: Two things inspired my story. One was a ribbon necklace I was given by my parents when I was nineteen. Secondly, I wanted to write something that was different to my usual romances. The anthology gave me the perfect reason to try something new, and I decided why not. Oh! And thirdly... Hugh Jackman. 

CMR: I'm liking the sound of the third one, Len...! It sounds like a bit of a departure from your preferred genre. How did you find that? 

LW: Oh, definitely, it was a huge departure for me. I was taking a step away from love and romance, and exploring thriller and action. I had more of a focus on friendships rather than on love and intimacy. It certainly has me wanting to write more stories in different genres, although I think I will always primarily be a romance author. But RIBBON CHASERS was a new step and one I enjoyed taking. 

CMR: So when did you get involved with the PSG Publishing anthology? What was your role?

LW: I got involved from the very start of the anthology, from the moment the idea sparked. My role, aside from being a contributor, was to assist in the marketing of the anthology and contact the charity, Litworld, to whom all the proceeds will be going. I set up a Skype meeting with them, and they were really excited about the project. 

CMR: What prompted you to support Litworld in this way, and what is your favourite thing about this charity? 

LW: It came down to researching charities, and as a writing group, we thought something education-based would be appropriate. There are so many terrific charities to choose from, but we could only pick one! We looked into several projects, and Litworld's Stand Up For Girls was voted the winner. My personal favourite thing about Litworld (having Skyped and directly spoken to them) is their passion when it comes to helping the community. They are so enthusiastic about helping those who cannot have access to education and literacy, and that's so inspiring. Their work makes me realize how fortunate I am to have been able to go to school and have access to books, a privilege I've taken so lightly. 

CMR: That's really amazing. It's such a worthy cause, and it's so great to be able to promote a non-profit anthology like this. Thank you so much for agreeing to chat, Len, it's been great to catch up with you! Just before you go, can you possibly give us a sneak peek at what else we can expect from the anthology?

LW: I sure can! It's been great to chat to you too. I've got a few favourite bits from the other contributors' stories, but I'll just share one or two now. You'll have to buy the book if you want the rest! 

CMR: You know I will be!

Len Webster's Sneak Peeks Inside The Library of Dreams

Finding Marty - Katherine A. Ganzel

Walking back into the parlor, he saw his boot prints in the dust covering the floor. It was clear he was the first person who’d been in there in years. Marty’s heart sped up as a bold thought filled his mind. If no one was using the cabin, then why couldn’t he? It almost seemed like a dream come true. 

The Typewriter - J. C. McDowell
“You know, typewriters can tell a lot of stories, much like the photographs that I took.” Her eyes grew with wonder as her grandfather grabbed a photo from the table and continued. “A picture is worth a thousand words, but a typewriter is worth millions.”

Dead Girl Walking - Kim Fry

Climbing the steps to her apartment, she felt relieved to have made it home. She unlocked the door and wandered through the darkened rooms. In her bedroom, she flicked a light on and let out a heavy sigh. Myra looked down at the sleeping form lying on top of the bedspread. The body lying in the bed was the true, living version of herself.

Buy Library of Dreams today!

The lovely JC McDowell poses with her copy of Library of Dreams.
Author J. C. McDowell and her copy

Friday, 13 December 2013

Crafty Voices - JC McDowell

JC McDowell

JC McDowell is a romance and non-fiction writer, and although she is best known for her Love Bug series on wattpad. You may remember McDowell from her guest post "Writing the Romantic Hero" back in August. Well - here she is again, with a sample from Dragonfly Redemption.

Firstly, I should point out that she is not contributing a romantic story to the anthology, LIBRARY OF DREAMS. McDowell is also writing her grandfather's memoirs, an experience which is deepening her skills and appreciation for her writing, and the story that opens the anthology is The Typewriter.

In a way, The Typewriter is the perfect story for this series. McDowell's tale of a little girl and her grandfather, who helps her to discover the medium through which her story-telling adventures will begin, is heartwarming and delightful. It brings to life the idea that dreams are given life and voice by the written word, and the tools of the writer's trade are treated reverently and reflected upon with a sense of sensitive nostalgia. 

I can't think of a better opening for an anthology with the theme of 'dreams'. 

You'll notice that McDowell's style is very different to Petrik's (see this post for a sample of his writing), whose story Dream Job is also in the anthology. 

I love anthologies with different contributors, because it's very much like an exhibition by different artists, as opposed to rifling through a portfolio of one artist's work. I do like to do that, too, as it happens - Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is one of my favourite short story collections. However, my taste is so eclectic that I love to discover new authors and check out new styles, to see what I would like to read more of. It also helps me to think about my own voice and style, and shows me where I can improve and what is good or unique about my own work. 

Here's a sample of McDowell's writing, taken from her novel Dragonfly Redemption:

The waterless beach surrounded me for endless miles only ending with the pitching Afghan mountains in the distance. The lush, green mountains of home were a distant memory as I stood at attention inside the command tent with the sand swirling outside in the ensuing dust storm. My platoon and I wore the matching uniforms of the desert as we awaited our orders from Lieutenant Colonel Sharpe. While feeling the anxious hum from my spotter, I tried to remain focused and remember who I was. I was a Marine, but not just any Marine. I was Teague Harris.

I wonder what images this conjures up for you?

How do you find writing in the first person, and what difficulties have you encountered when trying to differentiate between your narrative voice, and the character's voice? Who is successful at this, and who isn't? How successful have you been, and what is the story of your journey? 

I'd love to know the answers to this! 

If you're interested in McDowell's writing, check her out on twitter, facebook, wattpad and tumblr.
She now also has a separate facebook page for her alterego, Jaycee Ford, under which pseudonym she intends to write Harlequin style romances.

I'm looking forward to reading her very different opener in LIBRARY OF DREAMS... McDowell is more than just a one-genre pony!

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Crafty Voices - Miloš Petrik

Miloš Petrik

I intended to kick off with my favourite example of 'beautiful writing', which, of course, is only my opinion. I think, though, that it would be good to save that for a little bit... and look at the voices of a few other writers who are more contemporary! 

For those of you who don't yet know, a new anthology is coming out on the 15th Dec 2013, all proceeds of which are going to charity - LitWorld. The anthology, Library of Dreams, brings together a varied range of stories from vastly different authors with vastly different styles. The stories cover an array of genres, tied together by the theme of 'dreams', and I can't think of a better thing to promote than this! 

The money raised from the sale of Library of Dreams is going to Stand Up For Girls, one of LitWorld's projects. You can read more about it here

One of the contributors to the anthology is Serbian author, Miloš Petrik. His story is intriguing speculative fiction, Dream Job

I love the urgency of the present tense teaser, although present tense is not my favourite! I would love to experiment with these kinds of things, but the past tense is my comfort zone. 

I asked Petrik and other contributors to give me an example of their writing for this series, as a prelude to the anthology being published. 

The following paragraph is what he provided, unrelated to his story, but telling a story in itself. I've been privileged to get to know these writers over the past year or so, and what I really admire about Petrik's style and talent is that he is so able to construct a short narrative from minimal prompts, and to make a complete image or scene from a few well chosen words. It's a skill that I need to develop, because it doesn't come naturally to me in the way that it does to Petrik. At least, I assume it does. He makes it look effortless.  

Knives never knew another of her kind. Years passed, and she learned how to be shadow, invisible to all, and listen in on whispered conversations in secret languages of birds and bugs and foxes and cats. She learned of things, dark and bright, that lived in the canal when it had been a river, and on the estate when it had been a forest, and knew that they were like her, but also not like her. She fed on the humour of the fear of the night and grew, until she was bigger than any of the foxes that lived in the dark recesses of the estate. It wasn’t long before Mr Tiddles was found in a pool of piss and cat blood, between two skips, gutted and with paws cut off and mangled. A child poked him with a pencil and went off to call her mother, but the other cats ate him while she was gone, and took his power.

I liked this. 

I liked the contrast between the childhood innocence and fascination with the grotesque, and the human world side by side with the kill-or-be-killed savagery of the animal kingdom all around them. I love the way you see Knives and don't see her, at the same time. I love the way the child's activity bridges the gap between barbarism and civility, and makes me feel inexplicably uncomfortable. 

I'm not going to critique it - that's an editor's job, and I'm neither an editor nor a critic. I'm just interested in looking at it on its own merit, not in trying to change anything. When something isn't the way the reader would like it to be, I wonder whether that's just saying, "it's not how I would write it". Maybe that would be better. Maybe it would divide opinion. Maybe it would make it worse. But "better", "worse" and "about the same" are subjective concepts, too. 

So, I'm just offering up teasers with a few of my own random thoughts, and leaving you to make your own minds up. 

Petrik has published works in his native Serbian, but if you would like to read more of his style and unique twisted take on the world, check out Dream Job in the forthcoming Library of Dreams

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Christmas Crafts (I)

The Craft of Writing (Part I)

Following on from my last post, which you can read here, I'm starting a new series which is sort of experimental... I'm going to be looking at the actual craft of writing, not as a teacher or from a "how to" perspective, but as an aspiring writer on their own journey.

Along the way I will be picking up with other writers on similar journeys, and pondering various questions.

Firstly, I want to make it clear that I'm not advocating one "style" or "voice" over another. I'm not going to use this as a platform to push complex sentences, or no adverbs allowed, or that dialogue tags are an unforgivable sin. I've seen it bantered about often in writing forums and elsewhere that the 'rules of writing' should be applied "except when [the things we shouldn't do] work".

I would advise you check out some books on writing craft for that kind of thing!

Show, don't tell - except when telling works better than showing.

Don't use adverbs - except when they create the emphasis you want, or when they help rather than hinder the flow or the feel of the scene.

Everyone has their own style, their own voice, and their own techniques. They may use them consciously or unconsciously, and bad habits can creep in as well as recognisable motifs.

What I want to do is to explore a gallery of writing samples, like an art gallery, and try to look at them from different perspectives. It's going to be a chance for me to look at my favourite authors in a new light, and take you on that journey too; to look at my own work in a critical way and give you updates on how that's going; and to showcase other writers' work as well.

I'd love to see how my work compares, not necessarily in a negative way, just in a ... different way.

The artists in Sky Arts 1's Portrait Artist of the Year (yes, we're back to that) were advised by the judges to check out the work of different artists while they were on their assignment in Paris. They each had their own style and their own portfolios, which were vastly different and fresh. Yet their styles got compared to different French artists throughout history, and they spent some time checking out the paintings they had been advised to study while there. They then went on to paint Sophie Dahl over two days, in six hours, and they each produced a strikingly different portrait of her.

Sophie Dahl said she loved them all and couldn't choose her favourite, because they were all so completely different - from the techniques to the colour palette.

The artists themselves were not 100% happy with their finished products - they only had six hours - and they weren't sure if they had done all that the judges had advised them to do / not do. But one of the judges admitted freely that the advice they had given was entirely subjective, and they trusted the artists' judgement to take or ignore parts of it, depending on what made the most sense in terms of what they wanted to do.

You could see why the artists were not all happy about their work, but you could also see what was good and what was not so good about the finished pieces... as could the judges. The really interesting thing was the fact that by this point, it was much clearer that the pieces were not being judged comparatively by the styles of the others - they were being judged against the quality of the artist's own work, and the potential for growth that the experts could see within that work.

When we write, we are also just judging our work against the limitations of our own potential.

Yes; we are all limited.

Charles Dickens could never write War and Peace and have it come out the way it has. It would have come out as if Charles Dickens had written it, not Leo Tolstoy.

George R. R. Martin could never write The Chronicles of Narnia and have them come out word for word the same.

J. K. Rowling could not have written The Name of the Rose, and Umberto Eco could not have written Harry Potter.

Would those books be better or worse for their change in author? Would The Canterbury Tales have been improved if Shakespeare had written it instead, and would Romeo and Juliet still be an enduring classic if it had been written by Chaucer?

Whatever you think about this - and that might be a really fun experiment for some literary enthusiast who can mimic the styles of other authors, or develop some programme that can identify vocabulary and syntax and switch the plots over - the fact is the end results would never be the same.

So - - - on this journey to discover my voice and style, and how I can make it better, I hope blogging about my random thoughts and discoveries and all sorts will be of some interest or help to someone else!

I also hope that in and through the future posts, you'll discover new authors or rediscover ones you already like.

Stay tuned!

C. M. Rosens

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Getting Arty for Christmas

Seasonal Inspiration

It's December, and in case you hadn't noticed, it's nearly Christmas time! 

That means the Christmas movies are on 24/7, the Christmas specials of all the soaps and long-running series are being aired, and Sky Arts is bringing us yet more cultured goodness. 

I am currently enthralled by Sky Arts' drama, A YOUNG DOCTOR'S NOTEBOOK AND OTHER STORIES. I got into the first series last year, and was really impressed by the development of actor Daniel Radcliffe. His character grabbed me with the perfect blend of naivety and black humour, and I was hooked. 

If you have not seen it, and don't want to be spoiled, look away now. 

The first series charts the experiences of the Young Doctor (played by Daniel Radcliffe) and his first job at a Siberian hospital in 1917. Fresh out of medical school and still very proud of his scores, the Young Doctor quickly realizes that life in the Siberian wilderness is as far removed from his old life in Moscow as the moon is from the sun. Meanwhile, his older self, played by Jon Hamm, is paying for the choices that the Young Doctor made. While undergoing treatment and morphine withdrawals, he revisits his memories of being the Young Doctor through the discovery of his old journal. 

Based on the autobiographical and semi-autobiographical short stories of Mikhail Bulgakov, author of THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, the tone of the series is darkly humourous and filled with a twisted poignancy that stops the physical comedy of some scenes from devolving into jarring slapstick.

Mikhail Bulgakov, c.1930

The idea of being able to physically interact with your own memories, unseen by any of the other characters but physically present and able to communicate and physically fight with your younger self is an intriguing idea. 

I think what fascinated me most about this series was not just the concept but the construction. Stories within stories have always fascinated me as a writer. I like to experiment with narrative techniques and story construction, but my novels and novellas are really not ready for anything other than free viewing. When I do have something publishable, I will let you know..
I've been watching Sky Arts' Portrait Artist of the Year, too. The composition of the portraits and the vastly different styles of the artists have really inspired me to think about my own work - with words - in the same way as the artists use their medium to capture moments and create art from life and life from art. 

Watching the artists work, some sketching first, others applying paint straight onto canvas. The strokes and techniques and colour palette differed dramatically, and the end results were so varied, but I loved the images and portraiture they created. 


I think writing is a lot like that. Everyone composes their piece differently, everyone has their own ways of putting things down, whether you plot or pants, or do a bit of both. And sometimes you get a brilliant idea, and sometimes your layers drown out the central themes. Sometimes it all works out, and sometimes it doesn't. 

But inspiration is everywhere, and when you find something that really excites you, channel it and figure out why you like it so much and what makes it so good. That's how growth happens! 

Christmas is a pretty great time for inspiration, and this is what I want for Christmas: 

I'd love to write something like a portrait. Something with the depth and psychology and composition of one crystallized moment, layers of carefully chosen strokes of the pen building up to make a complete picture which surprizes me when I take a step back. 

I want to write something conceptually interesting, that engages the reader with few characters and a well-crafted situations that read like they all 'just happened'. 

I want to learn how to write. And I never want to stop learning. 

So here's to Christmas telly, and all the inspiration of the season!

Merry Christmas,
Happy Hannukah,
Season's Greetings!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Not Doing a George R. R. Martin, Honest

Write Like the Wind

Well, I've ducked out yet again on my responsibilities this month, and I am horrified to find that I haven't posted a new blog post since last month, and my last update for anything was probably September. 

Here's what's going on...

Real Life

In my day job, as some of you may know, I'm writing a doctoral thesis. It's pretty epic - I have to get it down to 80K words with 10% allowance either side of the word limit. My amazing friends in my writing group contributed to my fees, and I've been working flat out to pay off my tuition. I am now ALL PAID UP! Yay! And I have something written for every chapter of the thesis. 

The title is: 

Family Power and Strategy in the Welsh March c.1199-c.1300
[A Comparative Study of the Cantilupes and the Corbets]

I know... not exactly snappy or sexy. But the etymology of their names let me get the ravens and wolves in there to dress it up a bit. 

I've completed Chapter One: Personal Networks of Power and am nearly done with Chapter Two: Territorial Networks, then I have the Power & Piety and Visual Representations of Power chapters to revise and complete, the Historiography to finish and the Conclusion to write. Not to mention all the stuff going into my Appendices. 

I've been doing my fictional writing around my archive work and drafting all these chapters, but now sadly the time has come for me to focus solely on this and get my career kick-started. I am hoping to publish two academic articles this year based on my research, one of which needs to be done and ready for publication by Christmas/January as it's been accepted.The other article is going into a volume of conference transactions which I am co-editing, and I'm also co-organizing our second international conference to be held in June 2014. 

The Worlds in My Head

Meanwhile, I have three writing projects on the go: 


... And I have written at least a paragraph for each new chapter of these. So, ooh, a whole 800 words right there. 

For the reasons why BOOK OF CHANCE is taking me the longest to get anything done, see my post on the difficulties of world-building here: Welcome To My World Part I. I'm really having to think about it.

To be honest, in view of working stupid numbers of shifts to keep myself financially afloat and finishing the PhD and teaching Undergraduates and doing the Heritage and Community projects I'm involved with, the LAST THING I want to do when I get home is tap away on my laptop. Again. 

So I'm writing some bits 'n' pieces longhand on the train to work, or when I desperately need to. 

In the meantime, I'm still writing very below-par Horror stories for the Horror Smackdown, just to keep my creative juices flowing until I can finally get some time to my damn self and write something half decent!! 

I solemnly swear, dear readers, I will not make you guys wait for six damn years for the next installment. 

Not impatient for my next #GoT fix at all. ;)


Sunday, 27 October 2013

Not World Building: Welcome to my World (Part III)

After a brief hiatus, the blog is back! And, after a short time away, I have returned with another follow-on to Laura Perry's guest post on writing the real world - click here to read her post!

I am joined this week by Ken Magee, author of Dark Tidings and its sequel, Black Conspiracy, both available to buy on Amazon! The third in the series, A Darker Shade of Black, is coming soon. 

While this technomacy time-travelling comedy is partially set in the medieval period, it's not troubled by the issues of historical accuracy - this is not a Historical Fiction series, it's a Pratchett-esque romp through space and time. I will be looking into building a "fantistorical" world later, and perhaps also tracking down a Historical Fiction author to discuss the aspects of research and recreation of the zeitgeist of another time. However, Magee has taken great pains to create the 'illusion of the medieval world' through the smaller aspects of his research as well as broad-brushing. 

[I suffer from one of the worst afflictions as a reader of novels with medieval settings - I'm a social historian in the last year of my PhD, focusing on thirteenth century England. Even so, I still enjoyed the books and laughed out loud! After all... would socio-economic accuracy really add anything to the plot or the humour? Honestly?]

 Not Building a World

Some fantasy writers have to work incredibly hard to build a mystical world for their characters to inhabit. There are so many questions to answer. What colour is the sky? How many moons are visible? Is there vegetation and what about gravity and air? There is so much detail we take for granted in our ‘normal’ world. We know about night and day, and how long a day lasts. We know about history and how our world came to be the way it is. We understand descriptions of architecture, culture, fashion, religion, crime and punishment, weapons and war, currency, food, how long people live and, naturally, language.

Of course, not all of this needs to be considered when building a new world, but the author needs to know enough about his imagined habitat to ensure everything around his characters remains consistent. And indeed, his characters personalities, aims and ambitions will all be shaped by the environment in which they live.

Authors of contemporary, historical or urban fantasy have a much easier time, or do they? I thought it might be interesting to jot down a few of the things I do to draw the reader into the story and make them believe that magic is real and it’s all around them. And, by the way, it is.

Before I look at my world building, I want to mention one of the unbreakable rules in fantasy… if there’s magic, there has to be a magic system. I wanted mine to be simple and readily understandable… and it is. I won’t go into the system here, but I will stress how vital it is that all spells and enchantments adhere to the rules otherwise the belief in the story is broken. As far as weaving magic into the twenty-first century way of life goes, I was determined to make it believable and consistent. First, I needed to explain, in a logical and believable way, how the magic came to exist in our modern world. Then I wanted to challenge the reader’s perception of the world… maybe there’s more to this magic malarkey than meets the eye. That actually required me to work my imagination muscle pretty hard.

One technique I used was to interlace little sub-plots which suggested that some of the phenomena we think we can explain with science are in fact a result of magic or the action of supernatural powers e.g. global warming, the expanding universe, weather forecasting and evolution. I think this helps blur the line between fact and fiction. So much so, that I now believe half the things I made up… which isn’t going to help me in my science exams.

Okay, where does the magic happen? My ‘ancient magic meets the Internet’ trilogy mainly takes place in the twenty-first century. What’s that world like? Well, just look out the window! That’s that sorted. A bit too easy maybe, so let’s have a glimpse at a thousand years ago.

Dark Tidings, the first book in the trilogy, began in medieval times, an age when magic dominated society. Let’s have a quick look at just a couple of the ways I built the illusion of the medieval world. This time I couldn’t just look out the window, but looking at the Internet was nearly as easy. I researched the relevant years and made sure the buildings, customs, clothes, foods etc pretty much reflected the period… that really wasn’t too difficult.

I have plenty of scenes which reflect life a thousand years ago. There is poverty, most food is rubbish, ordinary people suffer arbitrary imprisonment, torture is commonplace and rich folk (like the barons and earls) have all the power. Actually, not much has changed if you think about it.

On top of that, the story is peppered with real events, like the battle of Hastings or the problem with the Vikings. I think introducing things, with which people are familiar, adds to the believability and once again helps blur the reader’s perception of what’s real and what isn’t. The blurrier the line between fact and fiction, the more credible the whole story becomes.

The characters’ names are important too. I want them to either sound right or be right for the period. And if I can use the name to build a little amusing anecdote, that’s a bonus. Let me take Courtney as the example. I was surprised to discover it was a popular medieval name. It’s derived from the nickname for a person with a snub nose, from the old French ‘court nez’… court (short) and nez (nose). It was also the nickname of a hero from a medieval story… an axe took off the tip of his nose in a battle. Now’s there’s a little story which needed to be told. Interesting, true and fun.

As a side note, I have a particular dislike of difficult to say names, they slow my reading each time I encounter them. Some Sci-Fi authors are particularly prone to this. Come on guys, I don’t need to learn how to pronounce Xyegraroxivert to believe he’s from another planet.

One thing I decided not to do in my thousand year old world was make my characters use medieval language. A few reviewers commented about that, but I’m happy with my decision. The vocabulary was extremely limited back then and I felt that restricting myself would detract from the storytelling without really adding to the authenticity of the setting. For example, how many people know that the word ‘money’ wasn’t used until about 1250? Does using that word really destroy the image I’m building? I don’t think so.
Once my characters arrive in the twenty-first century they do get confused by modern terminology, customs and of course, technology. I think that’s enough to keep the reader believing they’ve travelled a thousand years across time. And, of course, some of the misunderstandings are very funny.

Oh, my computer’s reminding me about my next appointment. The magic of technology!

KM Photo.JPGBefore I go, I guess I should try and summarise this little snapshot of my world building. 

How about, ‘be consistent and blur the line’?

- Ken Magee

Like the sound of this? Follow Ken on facebook, twitter, amazon and wattpad!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

What's Really Real? - Welcome to My World (Part II)

This week's guest blog is by Laura Perry, published author of several non-fiction books, here to talk about her new novel, JAGUAR SKY.

Without further ado...

Here she is, ladies and gentlemen!

Building a World: What’s Really Real?

Building a city or even a planet in a SIMS game is one thing; creating a fictional world in which your novel’s characters live and breathe is another. And setting your fictional world in the present day adds all sorts of entanglements you must pick through before you can safely write your story. If you think the word ‘safely’ implies some sort of danger you must avoid, you’re right.

First, let’s look at one particular type of world-building that turns out to be a little less difficult. Historical fiction has long been one of my favorite genres. I have often admired the way writers from Alexandre Dumas and Umberto Eco to Mary Renault and Jean Auel provide an intimate view of a world that no longer exists. They researched the history (or prehistory) as accurately as possible, but as writers of fiction they were allowed to fill in the blanks however they cared to. You may agree or disagree with their choices for tying together the threads of ‘official history’ with the strands of a fictional story, but these writers have a great deal of freedom. As long as the made-up part of their story fits in with what the historians tell us, they’re good to go. No one is going to sue them for defamation; their readers will sink into the novel’s half-real, half-made-up world without a fight.

But what if you’re writing a work set in the present day? I’m not talking about fantasy or science fiction here, but stories that depict fictional characters in real-world settings. How do you dovetail the made-up parts with the factual ones? How much reality can you insert into your story without treading on the toes of real-world people and institutions? How much can you make up and still have your reader believe in your world? That’s a fine balance.

Let me give you an example. When I began writing Jaguar Sky, I knew I wanted the main character to attend an existing university and explore an actual archaeological site in Central America. But as I began writing, I realized I was going to have some problems if I got ‘too real’ with my story.

The main character in Jaguar Sky, Maddie Phoenix, is a sophomore at the University of Florida majoring in anthropology/archaeology. She attends a real university, lives in a dorm that actually exists and takes classes from a department whose offices I have visited. Though I was already familiar with the university campus from childhood as well as from my time with a college boyfriend who attended UF, I made a special trip to Gainesville to take photos and note details of the places where Maddie lived, worked and hung out.

I wanted to get even the small things right so my readers who had never been there would feel like they were walking across campus right alongside Maddie and those who were already familiar with the university would still buy in to my story. To me, there are few things as disconcerting as reading a novel set in a location I know well and coming upon inaccurate descriptions of the setting. This tells me the writer wasn’t willing to put forth the effort to get it right. If we’re collecting up a set of rules about world-building, the first one is this: Do your research. Don’t guess. Don’t make it up. At the very least, check out your story’s location online or at the library. Explore it through Google Maps and Google Earth. Talk to people who have been there. If you can, go there yourself. Having your feet on the ground in the places your characters will walk gives you a unique perspective and a powerful set of information from which to build your story.

During the process of writing Jaguar Sky I hit the first roadblock when some of my characters, professors from the Anthropology Department, turned out to be a bit unsavory. Though they weren’t really ‘bad guys’ in the traditional sense, they definitely wouldn’t add to the reputation of any university and no real academic would want to be associated with them (and I refuse to comment on whether my own experiences in academia inspired any of them). I didn’t want to publish the book and end up with the UF legal department sending me nasty letters, so I chose not to include any living people from the university in my novel. The buildings are real; the department offices look exactly the way I describe them in the book. But every single one of the professors in the novel is a fictional construct. That way, I could have them act however I wanted without stepping on anyone’s toes. Add World-Building Rule Number Two to our list: Don’t include living people in your work without their permission. And even if you have their permission, proceed very carefully. People have been known to change their mind and become offended, even enraged, later on.

I continued following these two rules as I moved the action in my story from Gainesville, Florida to Belize, Central America. The locations the characters visit are all real – the Hotel Belmopan, the Fort Street Guest House and El Centro restaurants, the ancient Maya site of Lamanai and its surrounding environs. I have visited these places myself; in fact, it was a trip to Belize to view the Maya ruins that inspired the novel. I even experienced the same boat ride from Orange Walk to Lamanai that my characters undertake. I used my photos and notes from the trip to reconstruct the details of the places Maddie and her companions visit and I looked up bits I couldn’t remember clearly. No matter where your story is set, you’re taking the reader on a trip there, so make it real.

The High Temple at Lamanai Belize

Your characters’ activities and skills need to be real, too. Maddie and her department’s team spent more than a week working at an archaeological dig site in Belize. I’ve never done any archaeology work (one college course more years ago than I care to admit doesn’t count) so I had to turn to experts for details about how that sort of thing works. Sure, I could have picked up a book or two about archaeological methods, but I have found that talking with people who do these things themselves is a far more fruitful use of my time. Most people are happy to chat with you about how they do their jobs, what kind of skills and equipment are involved and what pitfalls a person in their field will likely run into. This is another way to make your fictional world real: research the activities as well as the location. Check with an expert and don’t believe what you have read in other works of fiction, no matter how popular they may be.

Sea Almond Tree in front of St John's Anglican Church in Belize City

The one part of Jaguar Sky I chose not to make real, however, was the people. While I did describe employees at real hotels and restaurants as well as archaeological site officials and local law enforcement, I was careful not to use any names associated with those places in real life, especially since some of the characters were not particularly pleasant. It’s amazing how easy it is to accidentally give a character a name that coincides with that of a living individual, especially if you’re aiming to provide a certain flavor or meaning through the names. Some of the character names in Jaguar Sky needed to be Central American Hispanic or Maya, and since I was unfamiliar with the variety of names of those types, for practical purposes I had a limited pool to choose from.

So before I completed the novel I looked up the names of business owners and various officials to make sure I didn’t accidentally call a character a name that could be misconstrued. I was lucky; I only had to change one name to be safe. But I went to some effort to make sure the characters all had names that were believable for their background and geographic region. Another world-building rule: Include names in your research. Just as readers are not likely to believe in a character named John Smith (unless you’ve chosen that name for humorous purposes) they’re not likely to believe in characters whose names don’t match up with the individual’s back story.

El Castillo temple at Xunantunich Belize

I ran into the character-naming issue with my next novel, which is not yet published. It is set in the north Georgia mountains so the characters had to have names appropriate to that subculture. But I didn’t want to anger or offend any of the people who live in that area; I’m hoping many of them will read the novel, and I do love those mountains and their culture. After some debate, I ended up taking two steps to ensure that the world I created for this novel was realistic while still safeguarding myself.

First, I got in touch with someone I knew who lived in my story’s location and tossed some first and last names around with him. I wanted to be sure the characters were believable as locals, given their names. But I also wanted to make sure I didn’t use any last names that coincided with prominent families in the area. It only took one conversation to collect a list of safe-but-flavorful names for my story.

My second step came after some deliberation. One of the difficulties with creating a realistic world in fiction is that it must feel genuine to the reader while still serving your purposes in the story. For instance, if the layout of Baton Rouge works well for the action in your story, then use it. If it doesn’t fit, you may need to invent a fictional city that gives your characters the freedom to follow your chosen plotline. That’s what I ended up doing. I created a fictional county in north Georgia and inserted it between two existing counties. Yes, I stretched the map and warped the fabric of space/time, but Mathis County is exactly what I needed. It has farms, towns and mountains in the right locations; it is the correct distance from Atlanta; its Sheriff’s Department  has exactly the staff and the interpersonal issues necessary to move my story forward.

Ultimately, the process of world-building is one of compromise and balance. If you take the time to research the details, your fictional setting will be believable. If you make the effort to avoid catching up living people in your plot, your fictional world will wend its way safely into print (or pixels). The question to ask yourself, then, is this: If I were the reader, would I believe it?

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Welcome To My World (Part I)

World building is a really important part of story construction. So - how d'you do it? 

In the next few blog posts, I'll be looking at this question from a few different perspectives. I have TWO - yes, people, TWO - published authors guest blogging about their personal experiences of constructing worlds, starting with Laura Perry next week, talking about her new book, JAGUAR SKY

Perry is a non-fiction author, but JAGUAR SKY is fictional novel set in Belize. Perry will be discussing how to world-build in real life, and the research involved in using a contemporary setting. 

Later, Ken Magee, author of DARK TIDINGS, where magic meets the internet, will be talking about building fantasy worlds that merge with the modern day. 

         I've got a mix of worlds in my stories. The world of the Faustine Chronicles is high fantasy, but uses a mix of cultures and mythologies to create the setting and shape the characters. 


"Cantium" is, of course, the Roman name for Kent, England. It was originally called the kingdoms of Cantium, and I fell in love with the name. I quickly realised, as I sculpted the world of Cantium and its capital, Brising, that I wanted it to be a mixture of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. It's a fusion of the two, and I drew upon my own experiences of Athens and Rome (mainly Athens!) to create the atmosphere of the city. 

The problem is, when you start borrowing from cultures and their mythos, you are also limiting yourself by establishing parameters of behaviour, social convention and mentalities, all of which are shaped by environment, political systems, history and the evolution of that culture. When you start saying, "They believe this," and "they have this attitude towards that", you have to then create a reason for this to have happened. The reader doesn't need to know why, but you do. That's the only way to keep things consistent. 

Cantium has temples, villas, a caste system based on hair colour (I don't know why I decided this) and the people think that they are superior to most other nations because they used to have an Empire. That allows them to live in denial about the current state of their economy, which is pretty poor. Because of the way their proud history is presented, they still think they are more or less untouchable. This is not true. Having a king who is somewhat in denial and not of very sound mind does not help, either. 

For example, the crux of the novel is the raid on Brising where Elsa, the main character, is taken as a slave. 

How were the warships able to enter the harbour?
Why did this not provoke a war between Cantium and Jamtland?

The answer to this is that Cantium has a joke of a navy, and its army is terrible. They used to be a formidable power, but they are now very weak. That is going to have a knock-on effect on the economy. So therefore, my main character is (a) dirt poor and (b) works her butt off. It also means that she can be taken in the raid, and no one really cares very much. 

How can the Jamtish be sure of Cantium's financial state?

They must have sent someone to find out. Presumably an ambassador, and they must also have a spy network. This means that the political systems and processes of international diplomacy are taking shape. The reader doesn't need to know this, either. But you do - even if it's just a throwaway line to set the scene for the reader. 

          I have a whole intricate political system and web of factions and alliances figured out for both courts, but the reader will never ever need to know any of it. But it all started with the above three questions, and my very brief brainstorms and sketching out of ideas. 

However, for some unknown reason, traces of Dickensian London crept into Brising, and I ended up with a place with Pratchett-esque universities that had started to gradually admit women, and I'm still not even sure if that works or not. Even in fantasy, there's only so much messing about you can do with cultures and societies and keep it believable


Jamtland is the name of a real place - it's a Swedish region. The Jamtish, of course, are almost completely based on Viking and Goth culture. One of my huge problems with modern fantasy set in these sorts of cultures is that the status of women in these societies tend to be confused with "equality" in a Twenty-First Century sense, which is also applied to gender and sexuality, race, and all sorts of inappropriate things. I started reading a book about werewolves set in a Viking world, where the warleader of a raiding band reflected on the pain of childbirth and thought how much stronger women were than men. 

I stopped reading.

That's not the story I'm interested in telling. Very few people in fantasy, except for the obvious exception of George R R Martin, and even then I've heard people (genuinely) call his books "the sanitised version" of a Medieval setting - give a voice to the ones who, throughout history, faded from memory because they just got on with it, and played the hand they were dealt. 

There were (and are) millions of people in the world without voices, all with their own individual hopes and dreams and feelings and traumas and joys and experiences, some forced into situations, some accepting them, and most of them just getting the hell on with it. These include countless women and young girls, never feeling anything for their spouse other than revulsion, popping out legitimate children for a whole plethora of reasons. 

In my actual work I study Thirteenth Century gentry families, and I do wonder about some of the wives and daughters my research covers. I'm not actually writing about any of them other than their strategical benefits and how advantageous their dowries were to their in-laws. But I do wonder, when I find them a little later on married to someone else with a teenage son by their first (now dead) husband, whether anyone even cared what they thought about it, or whether they were attracted to their husbands (or even to men at all) and the fact that we will never actually know anything about them. They left no personal records, and government records do not show you much, other than what gifts or grants they received, or where they travelled, or which part of the country they lived in. 

I'm not a gender historian, for the simple fact that I really don't care about the "plight" of Medieval women, to be honest. But I do know some really good historians who do, and who have produced some excellent studies. However, I'm very interested in fictionalising the voices who will never be heard, and see what happens when they get onto a page. 

The problem is, as distasteful and horrific as that is to modern-day sensibilities, if you've chosen to write about a culture that acts in a certain way, then you have to be prepared to tackle its mentalities, too. If you're going to develop your fantasy society and get it moving along the path to something better and more enlightened, it's going to take a hell of a lot more than a freedom fighter armed with some impressive rhetoric. 

Remember your political systems? 

Just because the good guy with the sword kills the bad guy with a sword doesn't mean a damn thing. 

The good hero is walking into a maze of courtly factions, heirs to the throne with their own agendas, and various skilled politicians and master-manipulators who have stayed afloat throughout the regime by being excellent middle-men. It really doesn't matter how bad the antagonist is... look at the parameters you have created by establishing the society. Now look at a comparable situation in any given time period. Why? Because people are people, and fiction has to make sense. Real life hardly ever does, but readers won't buy into the randomness of life if it's written down as a novel. So, take a look at how people really react in certain situations, and how events really happened following big, dramatic events! Then make sure it follows the rules of cause and effect, and give it some kind of narrative that ties into your story. 

You may find that the only logical option is for the hero to cut his losses and change sides, or to be executed as a traitor, or to be exiled, or to become a Machiavellian figure with finely-honed survival skills s/he would have balked at using at the start of the story. This is a case of the environment that you have constructed shaping the character and having a hand in the story's outcome. 

That's why all my characters evolved so dramatically from one version of my story to another. It's also why I realised very quickly when writing the very first draft of the plot that killing the antagonist would not make any difference. It couldn't be your standard classic sword-and-sorcery where the good guy gets rid of the bad guy and everyone cheers. Fortunately, most fantasies have moved away from the cut-and-dried endings and are playing about with consequences. It's the consequences that make things interesting. 

           On the other hand, if the characters and story arc has come first, then your world has to take shape within those  parameters, and not the other way around... As you edit and revise your story, however, they will start to inform each other. 

Jamtland became Jamtland purely because I based Kristof on Vlad the Impaler, the real life Wallachian (not Transylvanian!!) prince. This meant that it had to be a little like Romania, and I wanted him to berserk in battle, which led me to a Viking warrior culture. However, the Impaler's psychology had to develop too, and I needed a lot of strong environmental factors to help shape that. Of course, if these factors shaped Kristof, they had to have had a similar effect on others, too. So what about the other characters who were native to this country? What about their experiences? How and why did they turn out differently to Kristof, and to what extent is that nature or nurture? 

... The hardest thing I ever had to write was Kristof's back story. I tried to cut it. I tried to turn him into the Impaler a different way. It didn't work. Kristof, like Vlad, has an obsession with that particular form of execution because of what happened to him as a child. And that meant that I had to borrow the "bad bits" of the cultures I was stealing from, as well as the "cool" bits. And that had a knock-on effect that impacted all the other characters, too, because they had either (in the case of Hardrada/Oléta) had a hand in creating that society and perpetuating that culture, or had been immersed in it since birth. 

I guess that's one of the keys to world building, though. 

You have to be brave and follow through, or be prepared to change everything because of the addition/omission of small details. 

You have to put a lot of effort into the research, and then do something original and creative with what you find. 

You have to keep in mind cause and effect at all times, and try to create a realistic sense of the society WITHOUT succumbing to the dreaded info-dump. I fail with this all the time. :(

I'm looking forward to Laura and Ken's posts in the next few weeks, to see what the pros make of this topic! 

Excited? Yeah you are. ;)

I'm going to leave you on that note, with a bit more of possibly the best Viking Metal band ever. 

**Amon Amarth**

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Show Time!

Well, the time has come to look at the world-building aspect of story construction. Without a world - even a modern setting and fictionalising of a real place - your story cannot be constructed at all. Just as your story requires a plot, and the plot requires three-dimensional characters, the story will not stand unless you have a sense of where they are.

And this brings us to a major problem for a lot of authors.

The Info-Dump

The info-dump is a trap all authors will fall into at some stage of the process. You have so much information on your characters, your world and your concepts that you feel the need to tell the reader everything, all at once. 

Does this only apply to Fantasy authors who fancy themselves as the next Tolkein, itemizing every race, creed, species and geographical inch for the first fifteen pages without ever getting to the action?

What about SciFi/Dystopian authors who feel the need to explain every formula, every equation, and every way in which their post-apocalyptic setting is different to now without even telling us their protagonist's name?

And don't think the rest of you can get away with describing your characters in minute detail over the course of several paragraphs, ripping us out of the story to 'tell' not 'show'... And no, we don't care what colour the curtains are, or how many grey feathers are in the wing of the African parrot climbing his way up the outside of the large, plastic birdcage in the corner that Great-Aunt Josie bought for her sister for her fiftieth birthday. 

Yeah, you know what I mean...

Show Time!

So - here to talk about Showing not (always) Telling is Maya Starling, a writer who is dedicated to improving her craft. Maya is relatively new to writing, and English is not even her first language, but her talents have been recognised by the online community of wattpad. She was peer-voted the winner of the Non-Teen Fiction 'On the Rise' category in the 2012 Watty Awards, and her Dragon series has quite rightly attracted a number of fans. 

Dragon's Treasure (Book 1)Dragon's Prize (Book 2; Sequel to Dragon's Treasure)

Dragon's Treasure is the first novel and Dragon's Prize is the sequel; Dragon's Queen and Dragon's Quest are the third and fourth in the series, and coming soon.

Show, Don't (Only) Tell

Maya Starling

When I first started writing, I knew nothing about it. Since I write in a language that is not my native, and since I come from a very small country, creative writing classes were not something at my disposal, whether in English or my native language. I did read a lot, and at that point, it was a best way to learn for me. But not all the minutiae of writing can be grasped when you get pulled into the story and distracted by the characters. I barely knew how to properly paragraph my story, but I had to start somewhere.

So start I did. The first story I wrote was Dragon’s Treasure, I guess I did well since it won Watty Awards 2012, but now, when I look back, I see so many things that need to be fixed. I learned that the best way to learn how to write is to actually do the writing, to just practice and explore.

Once I started writing, I also started researching writing terms, styles, formats, rules, etc. But the biggest thing I learned was the ever famous Show, Don’t Tell, one of the most important rules to follow when writing. It also seems to be the most difficult thing to grasp for beginner writers, and for me it changed my whole out view on writing. 

What Does 'Show, Don't Tell' Mean?

The Definition

Show, don't Tell is a technique often employed by writers to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to experience the author's ideas by interpreting significant, well-chosen details in the text. (Wikipedia: Show, Don’t Tell – 12.08.2013)


The Why:
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” — Ernest Hemingway

The Balance:
"Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted." —James Scott Bell

The Warning:
“Needless to say, many great novelists combine "dramatic" showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out ... when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language." — Francine Prose

But, What Does It Really Mean?

Before explaining what the term means and demonstrating its use in writing, the distinction between Show and Tell needs to be made first.

Telling means stating the facts using simple exposition: Lilith was furious.

Showing means using engaging and evocative description: “He pushed me out!” Lilith screamed as she grabbed hold of the basin filled with water she had been using for her scrying. She closed her eyes, and inhaled through clenched teeth before flinging the bowl across the room.

Why is Showing better? Well, as you can see, it helps us envision the scene, and it plays out in our minds as if were watching it happen before our eyes, giving it a cinematic quality.

Showing forces the reader to become involved in the story, it allows them to see, feel, hear and experience what the character is experiencing. Of course, a proper balance between Showing and Telling needs to be implemented, which will, in the end, make the writing richer and more effective.

You need to be careful not to overdo the Showing though. When the goal is simply to inform, not to persuade or engage Telling does the job quite well.

Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress. A story that is filled with detailed descriptions could become tiresome, so just as you mix long sentences with short sentences to create variety and keep your readers interested, it’s often wise to mix sections that show with sections that tell to keep your story moving.

For example, if the weather is secondary information to the story, it’s okay to say “It was snowing.” But if you use it to set the mood or it will influence your characters and plot, and you want to give it more attention, then you might want to show it.

How To Do It

1. Use dialogue

Dialogue allows the reader to experience a scene as if they were there. Instead of telling the reader that a character is angry and annoyed, or describing it, let the reader hear it for themselves.

“Delilah, you’re daydreaming again!” Lilith snapped at her daughter.

As you can see, dialogue shows the reader a lot about the character, emotion and mood.

2. Use sensory language

In order to help the reader fully immerse themselves into your story, they need to not only see, but taste, smell, and touch the world around them.

Close your eyes and enter your scene.

What sounds do you hear? What smells are in the air? Is it hot or cold?  Can you feel the sun on your face or the grass beneath your feet? What expression does the character have on his/her face?

Adding such specifics will transport the reader to the scene you have envisioned in your mind. 

3. Be descriptive

Remember the earlier example of describing an angry character:

“He pushed me out!” Lilith screamed as she grabbed hold of the basin filled with water she had been using for her scrying. She closed her eyes, and inhaled through clenched teeth before flinging the bowl across the room.

Being descriptive takes us back to the elementary use of adjective and adverbs (no, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs, unless you’re a weak writer and don’t know how to use them, but that’s a whole new topic for discussion). Describing is more than just inserting descriptive words though; it’s about choosing the right words and using them the right way, and you don’t have to use only literal descriptions, because metaphors and similes can show your ideas as well.  Also, be specific and not vague, especially when describing how your character feels.

Here’s an example of using descriptions by Mignon Fogarty:

“Mr. Bobweave was a fat, ungrateful old man.”

That gets the information across, but it’s boring. It simply tells the reader the basics about Mr. Bobweave.
Here’s a way to create an image of Mr. Bobweave in the reader’s mind:

“Mr. Bobweave heaved himself out of the chair. As his feet spread under his apple-like frame and his arthritic knees popped and cracked in objection, he pounded the floor with his cane while cursing that dreadful girl who was late again with his coffee.”

Umm, I Guess I Get It

If you’re still not sure how to distinguish whether you’re Telling instead of Showing, you can spot Telling by looking for simple declarative sentences which often have the verb “is/was”, and Showing is using behavior (action, speech, thoughts) to illustrate what the character is feeling/doing.

Telling is dispensing information.

Showing is evoking experience.


In the end, you don’t want to report to the reader what is going on, but you want them to experience the story’s reality, and that’s what Show, Don’t Tell is all about.

Go and check out Maya's work! You can read drafts of her novels and short stories for free on wattpad, follow Maya on twitter @MayaStarling, follow her on facebook and tumblr, or check out her web and blog,!