Clifford Beal

historical fiction with a twist of lime

Tag: fiction writing (page 1 of 2)

Finding a Voice that works

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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)

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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.

 

Memento Mori

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It’s not your ordinary run-of-the-mill holiday snapshot I’ll admit, but to see it was both moving and slightly disturbing. We were in the Languedoc region in southern France last week and visited a medieval abbey in the hamlet of St. Guilhem le Dessert which lies tucked into a verdant hillside fed by mountain streams. The abbey crypt  contains the bones of Saint Guilhem, an advisor to Charlemagne and the the founder of the abbey who brought back three pieces of the True Cross from Rome. The abbey eventually became a major stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Spain and Santiago de Compostela. The crypt also contains this bit of installation art entitled “Memento Mori”. It’s actually a giant rosary comprised of  fetters and human skulls and is, depending on your point of view, very devotional or just plain macabre. I sort of liked it (which probably tells you a lot about me). The bottom of the rosary chain (which is out of frame) extends beyond the iron bars that seal off the crypt and terminates in two leg irons that lay unlocked and open upon the floor. Symbolic of the release to a better world, I suppose. At any rate, for the kids running around me it was probably as good as any ride in the Fun House at the amusement park.

But something else resonated for me. The opening chapter of my current work in progress, The Guns of Ivrea, is set in an underground crypt and involves a terrible discovery made there by the monks. It was more than a little spooky to see the place you had built in your mind’s eye now laid out for real before you. From the worn sandstone slabs and stones, eroded capitals on the ancient pillars, and the dust of ages on the dirt floor, if a writer ever needed raw material for his imagination, then here it was. We ended up visiting several medieval towns and their Romanesque churches and abbeys on our trip in the Herault region and each offered something unique in detail, evoking more images and scenes I have already written as well as some I have yet to scribble down. They say that travel broadens the mind, but for a writer, it can also supply the spark to bring fiction and the characters that inhabit it, to life.

Robert E Howard’s “Solomon Kane” revisited

Wrote a retro review for the July issue of SFX Magazine which the editors have graciously allowed me to reproduce here. It was a very different experience reading R.E. Howard again after so many years–and not an altogether pleasant one. Have a read and let me know what you think.

 

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
Robert E Howard, (Del Rey, 1998)
Writer Clifford Beal considers Conan’s Puritan stablemate

Robert E Howard, who took his own life at the age of 30, was the father of kane
that
 subgenre of fantasy that would become known as “sword and sorcery”. Best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Howard’s writings influenced a generation of fantasy authors, including Fritz Leiber and David Gemmell.

But before Conan, Howard had created a very different character in Solomon Kane, a mysterious Puritan loner who roams the darker corners of the world, fighting ancient and nameless evil in the early 17th century. Bursting from the pages of Weird Tales in 1928, Solomon Kane fought Lovecraft-inspired deities, demons, pirates and scores of hostile natives to rescue the helpless and right wrong wherever he saw it. Kane is far more conflicted and layered a character than Conan, and Howard portrays him as driven, if not downright psychopathic. In “The Blue Flame Of Vengeance” Kane remarks to a man he is helping: “It hath been my duty in times past to ease various evil men of their lives…” Which is an understatement.

To be sure, this is pulp fiction. You won’t find subplots or shades of grey here, and since these are largely short stories there is a definite headlong rush to get down to the business at hand, usually involving a good amount of swordplay and spilt blood. Anachronisms and cod “olde world” dialogue sometimes sound a sour note, but at its best, Howard’s writing is dazzlingly energetic, vivid and not without poetry. His descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting are compelling as they are brutal but even here there is a mastery of mood and intensity. In one scene, Howard’s imagery is chilling: an avenging Kane overpowers a murderous pirate in a knife fight and intentionally kills him by degrees, plunging in the tip of his dagger, one inch at a time.

kane2Yet there’s a darker side to the swashbuckling. Racial stereotyping was always present in pulp fiction and Asian or African physical features were often used as shorthand for moral turpitude and inferiority. Sadly, much of the writing in Solomon Kane follows this path. A few of the better-known tales such as “The Moon Of Skulls” are set in central Africa, where Kane encounters the remnants of an ancient civilisation ruled over by brutish savages. And here, black skin colour is equated with degenerate evil, with Kane portrayed as a white saviour intent on toppling the evil African queen Nekari. Even the last survivor of Atlantis, whom Kane tries to free from bondage, is worried about his ethnic purity: “I, the last son of Atlantis, bear in my veins the taint of Negro blood.”

But Howard and his characters are full of contradictions. Solomon Kane’s self-professed “blood brother” is a black African wizard and the only real friend that Kane has in any of the stories. And in “The Footfalls Within” Kane risks his life to free African villagers from Arab slavers and then guides them to safety. Solomon Kane’s tales are, like those of Conan, rousing epics, and as part of our pulp-era inheritance they deserve to be read. But like much of our past, it’s not all good. Today Howard’s writing, imaginative as it is, leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste.

 

 

The Raven has Landed…well almost

We’re one week away from the launch of The Raven’s Banquet, the prequel to Gideon’s Angel. Published by Solaris Books on 13 May as an ebook, there will also be an exclusive first-edition paperback on sale through Forbidden Planet megastores beginning on 17 May. Forbidden Planet London will also be hosting a signing on Saturday 17 May from 1-2pm at Shaftesbury Avenue so if you’re in the Big Smoke come on down and pick up an autographed limited edition while the ink is still wet. And for those fans of the genus Corvus out there, here is a look at the magnificent cover.

Raven's Banquet

The Raven’s Banquet is coming

on camera

 

 

I’m excited to announce that Solaris Books is publishing the next Richard Treadwell adventure, called The Raven’s Banquet, on 13 May. It’s actually a prequel and will tell the story of how Treadwell got into the soldiering business to begin with. Set on two timelines, 1645 and 1626,  the novel delves into dark places and the past actions of a youthful mercenary. These will intrude into the hero’s present predicament as he awaits trial for treason in the Tower. And readers will also learn more about his predilection for finding trouble of the supernatural sort. Think Platoon meets The Wicker Man. I’ve just completed some video interviews and readings at Solaris HQ and these will be posted on the Solaris website in the coming weeks along with the knockout cover that the team is putting together.

Raven’s Banquet will be available from the Rebellion Publishing store and from Amazon and other online retailers.

Here’s a taster of things:

Germany 1626: A War, a Witch, a Reckoning….

Richard Treadwell is a young man who dreams of glory and honour on the battlefield—and the plunder and riches that would follow. With the help of his father, he journeys to Hamburg to seek his fortune as a mercenary in the Danish army when it intervenes in the vast war that rages in northern Germany between the Catholic Hapsburg empire and the Protestant princes of the north.

But he brings with him an old secret—and the potential seed of his own destruction—as he descends into a horrific maelstrom of conflict and slaughter that quickly destroys his illusions of adventure, of right and wrong, and of good and evil.

When his fate is foreshadowed by a young gypsy woman, he discovers that he cannot outrun what he left behind in England and he soon finds himself thrown headlong into a series of bloody skirmishes alongside the Danes that strip him of conscience and harden his heart. The opposing armies close for a battle that will be the turning point in the struggle for the kingdom—and in the war for his soul. But even as Treadwell steels himself for the final contest against the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, an unseen enemy stalks him within his own camp.

Fleeing the battlefield, his life takes an even darker turn when he stumbles upon a coven of peasant women dwelling deep in the forest of the Harz Mountains, women that have their own terrible secrets to protect—and a burning hatred to avenge.

The hero of Gideon’s Angel returns to tell how his journey into the supernatural began.

“They are attracted to you as salt attracts the beast in the field….”

Chatting with Solaris Editor Jonathan Oliver (left) and publicist Mike Molcher after we wrap the interview.

Chatting with Solaris Editor Jonathan Oliver (left) and publicist Mike Molcher after we wrap the interview.

Noel Coward: On writing

N CowardWent to see one of Noel Coward’s earlier plays, Fallen Angels, last week in Brighton. A very enjoyable light romp he penned back in 1925. It was well-acted and hugely entertaining. We stumped up a few quid for the programme book too and this was particularly good in that it contained a short biography of Coward and some quotable quotes. This one particularly caught my attention:

“When I’m writing I’m at my desk and hope that by lunchtime something will have happened. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until about ten to one. Sometimes it flows from the word go. You can’t tell. But you can only do it by doing it regularly. My advice to aspiring actors is to write, and try where possible in doing so to use a little critical faculty. Sit down at the desk and wait until something happens. Write. Work, and above all read everything you can lay your hands on. All of Shakespeare, all of Shaw, all Dickens. It’s quite enough to feed the brain and I find when reading a great classic I nearly always come away with knowledge and a penny.”

In popular memory, Coward comes across as a brilliant and witty dilettante, perfectly at home in the high society of his era, a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other. We think of him arising at midday to dash off a three-act play before running out for a dinner with visiting Hollywood A-listers. But this was a studied persona he cultivated carefully. After all, he was an actor himself. In fact, Coward was a hard worker who often drove himself relentlessly in achieving what he wanted out of his craft. He may have affected an air of witty aloofness but behind this image was a writer who laboured long and hard, often insecure about how his work, and he himself, would be perceived by others. And his words of advice above appear sound wisdom based on experience. Don’t stop writing. Read everything you can.

OK, that’s weird

Coincidence or higher guidance?

When I had just begun to write Gideon’s Angel I was living in a perfectly positioned but somewhat tatty flat in London just opposite the Law Courts where the Strand turns into Fleet Street. And as I stood up there on the top floor looking down at the double-deckers and pedestrians coming and going, I tried puzzling out various plot angles for the 17th century historical novel that was forming in my head. I quickly realized that if the main character was bent on assassination of a major leader, he would at some point have to run into some of the famous of the time and not just his intended target. And if there was going to be a supernatural element to all this in the form of a parallel plot run by some deluded extremists, then that might require some other heavy-hitters known during Cromwell’s era.

I knew that Oliver Cromwell’s chief of intelligence and master spy was a man named John chancery laneThurloe, a London-trained lawyer. If my protagonist was also going to be a spy and rogue assassin, I would have to have him cross paths—or swords—with Mr. Thurloe. And it was just about this time that a rather sublime thing happened to me in London. I was walking up Chancery Lane, about two minutes away from my flat, when I looked up at a blue plaque on one of the buildings leading to Lincoln’s Inn. It was to honour John Thurloe, secretary of state, who had lived on the site.

Thurloe plaqueThat was enough of a coincidence to make me stop in my tracks and smile. But not long after, I was walking up the Strand, again no more than two minutes from home, when another plaque caught my eye. This was a green one very high up the wall outside the old disused Aldwych tube station near King’s aldwych tubeCollege. It was in honour of William Lilly, “master astrologer” 1602-1681 who had lived at a house on the site of the tube station. The proverbial light bulb blinked on and I remembered that King Charles had an astrologer who also ended up working for Cromwell. It was him. Once back at the flat, a bit of googling brought the information I needed and another character for Gideon’s Angel had been found. That’s the interesting thing about living in London. You just never know who your neighbours are going to be.

Lilly plaque

I love it when a plan comes together….

Writing historical fiction, even historical fantasy, places certain demands on an author that are different from those in writing science fiction or epic fantasy (with the possible exception The Cockpitof steampunk). Capturing the feel of a bygone era requires careful research in order to gain that fidelity of time and place. OK, not all readers might know the difference or spot anachronisms unless they’re obvious—like a Mongol warrior burning down a village with his Zippo—but many do. And there’s nothing that will kill reader interest faster than a clunker in the setting that breaks the spell.

Some of the crucial scenes in Gideon’s Angel are set in the palace of Whitehall in London in the year 1653. Today, the only remaining portion of that once huge and sprawling complex is the Banqueting House. Most of Whitehall burned to the ground back in 1698, never to be rebuilt. My challenge was to describe the palace through the eyes of my characters, a place I could never visit (unlike Hampton Court). Luckily, I had some help. There were a few architectural plans done of the palace in the mid to late 17th century and they still exist. Also, a couple of paintings show the palace from the same time period. This one by Hendrick Danckerts in 1675 was particularly key. It pictures the west side of the complex from St. James’s Park. By studying the floor plan and the painting, I was able to whitehallwrite a vivid climax that not just described accurately that part of Whitehall including a rickety external staircase and Oliver Cromwell’s apartments, but also used key buildings, such as the Cockpit theatre (the domed part of the palace to the right of the painting) to set an otherworldly showdown between good and evil. Probably the most amazing performance ever witnessed in the Cockpit!

Was this level of verisimilitude really necessary? True, I could have made up the whole layout and floor plan and many readers would have been none the wiser. But there was a reason for doing this other than for the sake of historical accuracy. The real incentive of using the surviving sources, these echoes in time, was that these gave me enhanced clarity and detail to fire my imagination all the more.  And I honestly believe I’ve written a far better scene because of it.

Authors reviewing authors

Is it an “ethics alert” or “just business”?

I was never really a committed book reviewer. Sure, I’ve got a shelf on Goodreads, albeit rather sparse compared to some folks on that site (just keep forgetting to add all of my books), and I have in the past given out stars and comments on some of the books there. Just had too much fun reading books, lots of them, and not writing about them after I’d done so. But since joining the ranks of published novelists, I’ve begun feeling somewhat queasy about the idea of authors reviewing authors. And I’m not sure why.scratch

All authors started out as readers you might say, so why can’t they continue to write as readers and review the works of others? Well, they can and do. Some rather well. But with the rise of the internet, there are now channels other than the Sunday papers and book sections with which to post book reviews from both professional literary critics and the proverbial man-in-the-street. Reviews are an important fact of publishing life now that Amazon rules the roost. Some authors are even developing a whole new form of OCD in which they incessantly Google their work daily to check their reviews (what! moi?). This leads to “coping behaviours” in psych parlance—like writing your own reviews of your novel under clever pseudonyms. Or how about “reviewing circles” where author A promises to review author B’s book in return for similar treatment?

I think part of the reason I’m uneasy about this is because for people reading my reviews, it might call into question my motives for writing them. If I pen a good one, some might say I was looking to curry favour, like fishing for that next cover blurb from Stephen King. Slam a fellow scribe’s lifework and I’m just a jealous hack settling scores. Scratch my back I’ll scratch yours is a powerful driver, especially for authors who are insecure and fretting at the best of times. Wanting to be liked and having one’s work liked is also a basic emotion. Would writing a review—good or bad—affect how my novel is reviewed in future?

I don’t have a definitive view on this, rather a vague sense of disquiet. Like that unidentified noise in the cellar. At night. When you’re all alone. I suppose there are exceptions to everything but how often do you see artists writing as art critics? Or chefs blogging as restaurant reviewers? Perhaps something to be considered (and I might try it if I can get motivated enough to start writing reviews again) is for authors not to review in their own genres. That would at least remove most of the suspicion from readers’ minds. I first published non-fiction history before moving over to historical fiction and fantasy. I’d feel more confident reviewing non-fiction if I was no longer writing it for publication myself. Just a thought. What are your views on authors reviewing authors? I’d be happy to post some responses to this blog once I get a chance after checking my Amazon rankings. Again.

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