Clifford Beal

historical fiction with a twist of lime

Free short story: War is Grimm

There’s a chill in the air again, it’s getting dark earlier, and Halloween is just around the corner.  So to prepare you for winter’s icy embrace here is a fractured fairy tale of sorts–a  reboot of the classic German folk tale The Blue Light (also done by Hans Christian Andersen as “The Soldier and the Tinderbox”). This time, the story is set in Germany in January 1946.  Then, as now, the old adage applies: Be careful what you wish for.  “War is Grimm” was originally published in the American quarterly Weirdbook (Number 37).


War is Grimm

Writing Historical Fiction

Dan Beazley is an author and the originator of the groundbreaking “Remastered Words” short story competition that offers new writers of fantasy and horror the opportunity to have their story turned into a proper audio work. This is the competition’s second year running and I was honoured to have been asked to serve as a judge in last year’s.  Dan has put together a great competition with some wonderful published authors on board to help discover the best rising talent in genre fiction. It’s worth checking out his site here .

Dan recently interviewed me about my experiences of writing historical fiction and how I dipped a toe into “historical fantasy”.  It’s over on his website but he’s allowed me to reproduce here on my blog. 


Writing Historical Fiction with Clifford Beal

Prior to writing novels what did you do for a living and has it helped your author career in any way?

I worked as a journalist for around 20 years, writing and editing for aviation and military publications. Apart from teaching one how to string together a few words, the real value of this was learning the craft of editing and more importantly, of being edited. For a writer, finding a good editor is like finding buried treasure and taking good criticism from one pays dividends in the long term.


Tell us about your second novel (a particular favourite of mine), Gideon’s Angel, where did the idea come from and what is the general premise?

I love writing historical fiction and the 17th century is a fascinating period for me. I was always struck by how that century sits on the cusp of the medieval world and the modern one. Science and rationality were making huge strides while at the same time witches were being hanged or burned and people believed in goblins and faeries. It was an age of transition. My original thought was to write a Cromwellian spy thriller but knowing how magic was still surviving in a new age science and discovery I thought, what about making that magic real? So a royalist plot to assassinate Oliver Cromwell finds itself trumped by a plot to kill Cromwell by the deluded followers of a prophet guided by very real demons.


Your following novel, The Raven’s Banquet, featured the hero from Gideon’s Angel again, why did you want to delve deeper into Treadwell’s past?

I really fell in love with the character of Richard Treadwell and all is conflicted personal baggage. Gideon’s Angel shows how he has always had a “second sight” so I wanted to explore how that began. The story is set 20 years before the action of Gideon’s Angel and in Germany where he first began his career as a soldier. His high hopes for fame and military fortune are dashed by the reality of the war he finds himself in and the horrible things he bears witness to. The supernatural aspect comes to the fore as he has an unfortunate knack for running into people he has recently killed, among other scares. As a prequel, it is a retelling by Treadwell in his own words and ends directly where Gideon’s Angel begins. For that reason people might want to pick up Raven’s first and ride the roller coaster into Gideon’s. Between the two books the reader discovers a brash and callous youth who grows into a jaded but wiser man for all his fantastical experiences.


 Although fictional, there is also a lot of historical truth to the tales, how tough can it be to balance the two and what methods did you employ to assist you?

I consider my Treadwell adventures not to be “alternate history” but rather “secret history”. There is a difference. The events as depicted in the books could have actually happened and been recorded– had people then known about them. Real-life characters such as Cromwell and John Milton essentially keep the “truth” to themselves. In so doing the reader becomes complicit in the intrigue along with Treadwell and just a handful of characters while the rest of London in 1656 is oblivious to the infernal dangers that are bubbling up around them. Real life events inform the plot and the characters but I infuse the fantastical and weave this into the mix. It’s important to get the history correct to add authenticity and indeed some characters doubt while others come to believe. Like many things it’s a question of balance but I strive for a believable suspension of disbelief (if that makes sense!)


There are some legendary characters in the stories, like Cromwell and d’Artagnan, what sort of things do you need to be wary of when writing already well-established characters?

Not to make them cardboard cut-outs from the pages of a history book. I try to instill humanity into the real-life characters by giving them emotions, motives, weaknesses and strengths as they appear alongside the fictional characters. My d’Artagnan is nothing like Dumas’s version. I based him on the real person, Charles de Batz Castelmore, who was a master spy and military commander who worked for Cardinal Mazarin. Dumas placed him in the 1620s when d’Artagnan would have been a teenager at most, and made him an implacable enemy of Cardinal Richelieu instead.


Do you think that writing about locations and people that are real can make the author’s job easier and why?

That all depends on the writer I think. Having written epic fantasy as well as historical fiction and non-fiction, I can say that it helps to be able to borrow a historical framework to hang plot and character on. It can be daunting when one has to encompass world building on top of that too when writing fantasy. But even though you have to make everything up, it is your world and one doesn’t have to worry about getting the real history right, only about being consistent within the world you’ve created.


As a writer of historical fiction do you believe that it’s important to read plenty of the same and why?

It is important to see what’s been done before and how themes and plots have been tackled by authors. This applies to any genre that you’re writing in. If you are going to reinvent the wheel it had better be a far better one than what’s out there. From a purely commercial standpoint, it’s also good to know what has done well and what hasn’t.


How much research is there to do when writing historical fiction, how do you collate and quickly refer to it, and at what point do you say enough is enough and begin writing?

I think many historical novelists live in fear of the great anachronistic cock-up they’ve missed, the one always spotted by an eager reader. I have a notebook for very critical items and I also highlight text in some of my sources for highly relevant things like currency, medicine, social mores, and so forth. One does have to put the time into research and make notes that can be referred to but this should not hold one back from delving into the writing. I find it a constant (and sometimes repetitive) process of researching, digesting, and writing the novel. You can never do enough period research but equally you can’t hold yourself hostage to it either. Don’t ruin your creative flow agonizing over whether nails were square or round in 1622 when you can fact-check once you’re into your second draft.


How tempting is it to start trying to cram bits of that research into your story and why can this be dangerous?

You can kill your prose by trying to show you’re a good historian: “By God,” he said as he watched the blood pour from where the rapier pierced his arm, “I heard Doctor Harvey who lives down the lane has just discovered that blood circulates inside the body. Fetch him to me!” Or maybe not. I try and use what research can be integrated into the storyline to improve it, not just to prove I did my homework. For instance, It’s a fact that stone towers on either side of a narrow harbor mouth were used to prevent attacking ships from entering. A huge iron chain suspended between them along the sea bottom could then be winched up to the surface. I’ve even seen their remains in Fowey down in Cornwall. In The Guns of Ivrea, I used that knowledge for a dramatic fight scene as a ship tries to escape a harbour before the chain can be raised to stop it.


What other historical fiction authors have been an inspiration to you and why?

Patrick O’Brian for his beautiful prose and period empathy. Bernard Cornwell for his compelling plotlines, narrative, and depictions of battle. So many others including Robert Graves but those spring first to mind.


Please give us three top tips for writing historical fiction?

Good plot and characters will always trump period and setting, no matter how imaginatively described. Balance any “authentic” voice and dialogue with an appreciation for readability. Be diligent in your research but not a slave to it.


Finally can you give us an insight into your current WIP or what you have planned for the future? 

 The Witch of Torinia, the sequel to Guns of Ivrea, is just out by Solaris Books and I’m now working on a novel which is not fantasy but instead straight-up historical fiction. It’s set in 1485 in the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth and the death of Richard III. Those familiar with my Treadwell adventures will know I like writing about life’s losers and this new work follows three of Richard’s less noble knights who make common cause as fugitives from the victorious Henry Tudor. Fleeing abroad, each carries a secret that could spell ruin for the Tudors and cost them their lives. But do they even trust one another? On the short story front—and returning to a fantasy vibe—I have one coming out later this year in Weirdbook magazine in the US (issue #37). Weirdbook is the successor to Weird Tales that published Lovecraft, Howard, and Bloch, among others. It’s called “War is Grimm” and reboots a classic tale about a soldier and a tinderbox but is set in early 1946 in the ruins of Germany. Sometimes even I need a break from the Middle Ages!


Talking Tolkien

Met an elderly friend of my in-laws last week who, just by chance and not knowing that I was a novelist, related an anecdote about when he was an undergraduate at Oxford in the late-1950s.  He had recently read  JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings having bought the first published editions. He had a couple of chums who had also read and loved the books and so, just for a lark, they decided to write a letter to Tolkien and ask him to tea. They were amazed when he accepted the invitation. He told me that Tolkien was a very amiable and quiet man, pleased that he had enjoyed the books, but irritated with the publicity he was beginning to get as well as with the opprobrium of some who denigrated fantasy writing. He also told the little group of students (all studying English literature) that his true reason for writing the epic was because he was a philologist and that he wanted to create his own languages. But because language is born and forged through culture, he told them he first had to create a world and its peoples so that he could design the languages to go into it. Middle Earth became the means to that end. Sipping his tea, he related his bemusement with all the fuss as word of LOTR spread across America. And despite his distaste for publicity and promotion, he offered to sign my friend’s first editions. Tolkien subsequently met with them a few more times and my friend treasured his signed books. Many years later, he sold the set to a family friend who was also a Tolkien fan, for two thousand pounds. Then along came Peter Jackson and those films. By the time The Return of the King hit the silver screen the price of a set of signed first editions of LOTR had rocketed to some £35000. The recipient of my elderly friend’s signed set felt a little guilty when he learned about all this. He did send him a case of vintage cognac to help make amends though. I suppose with enough time the cognac might– like those books –appreciate as well.

Finding a Voice that works


Well, have gotten off to a good start on the next novel, an historical adventure, which if I can pull it off, will sprawl across late-15th century Europe and involve three knaves looking for gainful employment.

Problem is, I’m still in two minds about making the narrative first-person or third-person. I’ve written and published both and as readers and writers know, each has its advantages and disadvantages. First person can pull you in by giving a heightened sense of involvement and immediacy but at the price of a narrow focus and constrained viewpoint (and story-telling). Third-person narrative opens up the scope considerably but can take more work to develop engaging characters and intimacy. I’ve started the new WIP in first-person, as that worked to good effect with my first novel, Gideon’s Angel.  I still remember being bowled over by the voice of an emperor in I Claudius or feeling like I was sipping a single malt at my London club while listening to Harry Flashman regale me with adventures when reading George MacDonald Fraser’s series. However, I’m beginning to have second thoughts about this new WIP so I’ve decided to write the first chapter both ways and see what sits best with me. It has to be an instinctive decision for an author, listening to heart and head to find what will work most effectively for a particular piece. Like most things in the creative space of the mind, it has a lot to do with how one feels at the time. If nothing else, it should prove an interesting exercise in writing craft!

What are your preferences when it comes to reading a novel? First-person or third? Present tense or past?

Witch of Torinia: draft completed (now comes the fun bit)


My three finalists in The Witch of Torinia auditions

Happy to report the delivery of a bouncing, boisterous new novel, weighing in at 136,000 words. The sequel to The Guns of Ivrea is tentatively titled The Witch of Torinia and I’m hopeful that Solaris Books will launch it shortly after the New Year. Yet it wasn’t an easy birth by any means. Apart from the self-imposed pressure of avoiding dreaded “sequelitis”, writing a follow-on book (whether for a duology or a longer series) contains some particular pitfalls for authors. First, you’ve created a range of characters and like wayward teenage children, they stopped listening to you probably before Book One ended and now do what they like. With umpteen plot threads spraying out like a spider on crystal meth, the chief danger is a sequel that begins to run away from the author. Character arcs need to be tended to and assessed, plots and sub-plots prioritized and deconflicted, and with just the right narrative voice for  each scene. All the while never losing sight of the bigger picture for the secondary world you’ve created.

So, after a few bottles of wine and a couple of cigars, now comes the really important part: the edit. It requires a different part of your brain from the bit that gushed out the words to begin with. The more calculating, ruthless part of the grey matter to be exact. And it’s indispensable to the final product as is the work-over my editor at Solaris will be giving it in a few weeks. As a former journalist, I’m used to having my work ripped apart by editors and as an editor myself I learned how to dish it out too. Invariably, an honest copy-edit always means a better book. And that usually means rewrites.

Without giving too much away, this second book in the Valdur world dealsMorning_of_the_Battle_of_Agincourt,_25th_October_1415 with the consequences of actions taken by the major characters: a religious schism and the launch of a war among the duchies. Whereas Guns of Ivrea dealt primarily with actions on the high seas, for Witch of Torinia, the focus moves to war on land with the scope for some tremendous set-piece medieval battles. To be sure, Captain Danamis will have his fair share of naval derring-do as well as some important secret-squirrel work for the Queen, but this novel really centres on Strykar, my jaded, slightly creaking mercenary and the tough choices he is forced to make. And of course, Brother Acquel’s personal burdens continue to grow as he faces the looming threat posed by Lucinda della Rovera, the titular witch. But an unlikely ally is on the way….

Hmm…better get out my blue editing pen…again.


A Fantastic Legacy: SF, Fantasy and London’s Savile Club

savile talk Apr16Many thanks to those who came to hear my talk last week on a few past members of The Savile Club in London, members who just happen to be among the most famous authors of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature.

The Savile Club, which was founded in 1868, quickly established itself as a meeting place and convivial watering hole for authors, artists, musicians, and scientists in the Victorian world and it is still going strong as it approaches its 150th anniversary.  With the help of my editor at Rebellion Publishing,  the talented and knowledgeable Jonathan Oliver, I had the pleasure of addressing a cross-section of the current membership last week in the ballroom where I attempted to put “speculative fiction” into perspective. My message: it’s not all about spaceships, ray guns, and bogeymen. Genre fiction actually often puts contemporary society and its concerns into sharper focus by injecting elements of the fantastic. In other words, the future is now.

The Savile boasted writers from every subject, but in what is now termed speculative fiction the club was particularly fortunate. Members here included HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, H Rider-Haggard, MR James, Rudyard Kipling (yes, he did write some SF and fantasy),  and Algernon Blackwood.

Can a club take credit for their genius? No, but as a meeting place it had a definite role to play as a point for the free exchange of ideas and conversation. One member, a newspaper editor who had one leg and a fondness for rum, once insulted Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson turned him into Long John Silver. And in a case of what you might call “cross-fertilization”, Algernon Blackwood wrote a story that was adapted for a West End musical that Savile member Sir Edward Elgar wrote the music for. A few decades later, in 1936, HG Wells’s “The Shape of Things to Come” was turned into a film with a score by his fellow Savilian, Sir Arthur Bliss and starring yet another Savilian, Sir Ralph Richardson. Ah, serendipity indeed.

photo: Markus Lind



The Merfolk finally surface!

My mermen look better than this guy

My mermen look better than this guy

It’s publication week for The Guns of Ivrea, my first secondary-world fantasy which combines traditional epic swashbuckling with a slightly contemporary edge. Set in a renaissance-like Mediterranean world, the story revolves around a set of characters that couldn’t be more different yet find themselves implacably drawn together. It has
mermen and mermaids, monks and mantichora, pirates and princes, ship battles and tavern brawls, and some inter-species romance to boot.
Guns of Ivrea You see, I had a conceit to pen a novel that evoked a 15th century-style fantasy, something that might not have been out of place on a table in Milan, Pisa or Venice when the Borgias were throwing their weight around and daVinci was sketching, painting and experimenting. I don’t know if I succeeded but it was a hell of a lot of fun to write it anyway.

It was also a bit of a challenge. The mechanics of writing an adventure novel with an aquatic species of humanoid needed some thinking. People have been writing about merfolk for centuries, but to sustain a mermaid character at book-length, in particular one that has a huge amount of interaction with the world of land-dwelling men, meant I had to consider some new ways of imagining what merfolk would look like. I took a cue from dolphins so my merfolk are actually air-breathing (with great diving abilities like marine mammals), blue-grey skin, and can survive out of the water (for a time). The big difference is that they have two legs. Sorry to disappoint those who have a thing for scales and tails but a woman who is a fish from the waist down tends to put a limit on the scope of a fulfilling romance.


Being an epic fantasy the book naturally has a variety of villains and villainesses, both major and minor. And with a few notable exceptions, most of the inhabitants could be considered to fall in the category of self-interested “grey” rather than white hats. Which, let’s face it, is the way of the world in much of real life. When I first started writing the novel my intention had been to be much more retro and binary: clear good-guys and clear baddies. But very quickly I realised that the possibilities and nuances of the “grey” character  would be much more interesting for readers—and the writer. You will find magic in The Guns of Ivrea but no duelling wizards with staffs. It is a much more subtle kind of magic that is supernatural and religious-based, rather than lightning bolts from the fingertips. I found this allowed more scope for building menace and dread around the leading dark character, Lady Lucinda della Rovera.

I’m currently in the final stages on a sequel entitled The Witch of Torinia, which will be published next year. That’s the thing with world-building in fantasy: once those people and places come to life, that world expands and those living in it take the ship’s wheel right out of your hands.

Mancunicon 2016 is coming

bee-no-text-header“Mancunicon”, otherwise known as Eastercon, is the great annual conference of the British Science Fiction Association. And beginning this 16th of April it will be the 67th such gathering. And as the organizers say, it wouldn’t be Easter without Eastercon.  The convention, which you’ve no doubt guessed will be held in Manchester, has four outstanding Guests of Honour: Aliette de Bodard, David L. Clements, Ian McDonald, and Sarah Pinborough. I’ve been asked to appear on a panel this year to talk about the changing world of horror fiction which to those of you not overly familiar with my work might be cause for a bit of head scratching. Historical fiction and horror?

But if my first novel, Gideon’s Angel, doesn’t evoke a bit of that old House of Hammer spirit, I’ll eat my cavalier hat and the ostrich plume too. I’m looking forward to talking about how the horror genre has morphed into so many others, following a similar path to fantasy in general– a continual re-invention of the familiar with the new– as genre fiction continues to explore virgin territory while also cultivating well-trodden paths.

“Them’s fighting words!”


British Fantasy Con is almost upon us (23-25 October) and the organizers have just released this year’s programme which looks exciting, jam-packed, and wonderfully eclectic with a cast of thousands (well nearly).  This year we’re in Nottingham and I’ll be participating on a panel session looking at crafting the perfect fight scene and hopefully later that weekend also reading from my forthcoming novel, The Guns of Ivrea, launching next February. Here’s the skinny:

British Fantasy Society



Blades, Wands & Lasers: Fighting the Good Fight-Scene

Whether melee, missile or magic, combat scenes can make for some of the most compelling in genre fiction or film. But what are the essentials for creating telling your story through action?

  • the mechanics of fighting: how much do you need to know?
  • from one vs. one to massive scale battles
  • making sense of mayhem: choreography, pacing, tension, tone & sensory overload
  • tips for showing character through action
  • weapons of mass destruction: when is too powerful, too much?

There’s only one way to settle it…FIIIIIGHT!!!

Moderator: James Barclay
Panelists: Clifford Beal, Juliet E. McKenna, Brandon Sanderson, Jo Thomas, Danie Ware

I’ll be in some great company and though I believe most of us are leaving our swords at home this time, should still be informative and fun if slightly less physical than Fantasy Con 2014.

Getting Medieval: all over again


Sometimes you have to prove to yourself you can still do things you did when you were younger, less wise, and with less to worry about. Put it down to male mid-life crisis (but I think I’m past the cut-off date now) or just a longing for a leisure activity that once I devoted inordinate amounts of time to. At any rate, I embarked on a rediscovery of something I last did some 18 years ago. The big question was: am I too old to give it another go?

The “sport” I’m talking about is armoured combat in the SCA. The SCA is the Society raglan1
of Creative Anachronism, a medieval re-enactment group started up at the University of California at Berkeley in 1966 and that has now gone global. Combat in the SCA (the whole spectrum of medieval arts and sciences is also catered to) involves attempting to recreate medieval tournament combat, on foot, using wooden weapons. While it may not be entire
ly historically accurate, at least it doesn’t involve silly choreography nor is it another  “Battle of the Nations” style bloodbath which uses blunted steel swords (you can check out the latter on You Tube to get a flavour). It’s generally low-risk with high levels of armour and weapons regulations. It’s also physically gruelling: imagine wearing full armour with a wooden shield and sword and then running around like a madman trying to “kill” your opponent—or opponents. It takes bags of stamina. Although there are referees, it’s all based on an honour system where the recipient judges the power of the opponent’s blow and whether or not it is a “kill”. This should not necessarily dent 14- or 16-gauge steel but it does happen.

Me second from right: the little guy in silver armour with the big sword

Me second from right: the little guy in silver armour with the big sword

I had missed armoured combat these past two decades. I first took it up at 17 when armour standards were low and the look was faintly ridiculous. Think cut-down and padded refrigerant canisters for helms and ice hockey gloves for gauntlets and you can form a mental image. But as the 80s roared ahead and life becoming more complicated and with babies arriving in the 90s, the demands of daily life took over. My SCA participation tended to wax and wane. A final burst of SCA once I relocated to the UK petered-out about 1998 after a tournament held at Hever Castle. Now, in 2015, part of me very much wanted one last dash into the breach. Before I was too old to lift a sword again.

I finally convinced myself to get back into fighting again for the purpose of “research”. I reasoned that a refresher in fighting in armour and regaining that unique viewpoint through a narrow eye-slit in a helmet would lend even more accuracy to my fighting and battle scenes in my novels. Well, that was the excuse anyway. Not entirely dishonest either. Even SCA combat can give you an idea of the rigours of medieval fighting: heat exhaustion, muscle fatigue, poor visibility, thirst, etc. Not to mention the role that luck plays on a battlefield.  Very good fighters can get beaten by overwhelming numbers or by a boot slipping in muddied grass. You get the idea. Despite that, the thrill keeps you coming back. I do think my experiences have improved my writing of action scenes. I have vivid memories of battle in the United States at the “Pennsic War” where we had over a thousand combatants on each side. I can tell you, the vantage from the field is nothing short of awe-inspiring when you look across to the opposite shield wall, waiting for the cannon to go off.

The bridge between outer tower and inner keep

The bridge between outer tower and inner keep

For the past few months I have been preparing from scratch. New armour and weapons, training with free-weights. However, attending practice sessions was difficult given the distance to the nearest group. That was going to be problematic: my past experience would never be enough to carry me through without some current practice sessions. This past weekend, and continuing all week, the SCA in the UK has held a magnificent event at Raglan Castle in Wales. We actually get to use the castle (or what’s left of it). This was the place where I was to get into harness once again, from a cold start. I suffered some humiliation at the “reauthorisation” where I had to undergo practice combat and armour inspections by the presiding knight marshal to make sure I was competent and not a threat to myself or others. After just two minutes I began to feel like superman after he’s inhaled a kilo of kryptonite dust: my shield arm began sinking lower, my legs felt like lead, my breathing became laboured. It was a worrying start that had me suddenly questioning the entire enterprise.

Skirmish in the fountain court

Skirmish in the fountain court

I passed the tests. The second day we “fought” inside the castle walls with groups of eight fighters on each side attempting to storm or defend the main gate, just a fraction of the forty or so fighters expected to arrive by mid-week. It was frenetic, violent, loud, chaotic—all rather good fun. I had wisely ditched the round shield and armed myself with a two-handed sword. This energy-saving measure plus the mega-surge of adrenalin allowed me to more than hold my own. As a matter of fact, given my age and the length of time out of action, I was damned pleased with my performance. Sure I got “killed” more than a few times. But I gave as good as I got, racking up several “kills” of my own. One against a very seasoned knight and not bad going for a knackered old man-at-arms.

But, O my brothers, the piper had to be paid. After about 90 minutes of bridge fights, courtyard fights and gatehouse fights, I was exhausted. Totally. Even after sitting one of them out. Then the muscle aches set in through arms and legs. I was anachronistically popping ibuprofen for the next 48 hours. Yellow-purple bruise on outer left thigh and what looks like third-degree razor burn on my chin from an ill-fitting gorget fix I had to do. I walked in feeling like Lancelot but walked out looking like Quasimodo. Could have been worse though. I could have just as easily convinced myself I was too old, talked myself out of it, and not even tried.

There’s life yet in the old war dog it seems.




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