Clifford Beal

historical fiction with a twist of lime

Tag: writing

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.

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.

 

Getting Medieval: all over again

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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.

 

 

 

“We have to lighten the balloon. Who volunteers?”

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The call for more diverse authors is laudable—but excluding others is not

A lot of commotion in the last few weeks on social media about book publishing and
authors. Specifically, there has been a rising call for more diversity in publishing, an initiative to encourage more books being published by authors other than straight white males who apparently account for the lion’s share of book deals. That is, more books that represent the views of people of colour, varied ethnicity, women, and the LGBT community. And why not? The literary world can only be enriched by encouraging and fostering those voices. But some proponents are going further. Some are calling specifically for readers to stop buying or reading books by white male authors in an effort to force publishers to listen to their demands for diversity. That privileged elite has been at the top long enough so the logic goes. Time to sweep them aside. That, my friends, is where I must part company.

I’ll admit, my situation is akin to the chicken and pig’s involvement in a ham & eggs breakfast: the chicken has an interest but the pig is committed. Yes, I’m a straight white male and published author. I’m all for more diversity but according to these folks I have to be the one for the chop.

I think I get the reasoning. It’s about changing the publishing world by grabbing it by the balls. Change what is moving off those bookshop shelves and they’ll have to commission more of it, right? Maybe. I don’t know for sure. But it shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. The big publishing houses are out to make money. If they see an audience for something they will publish it—no matter who the author is or what they look like. I do realize that a small handful of writers (probably white male) eat up the majority of major advances in the literary world (Disclaimer: I am not one of them). But publishing itself has shifted now as book economics continue to change and morph. The ever-burgeoning world of indie publishing has provided alternate paths for authors, putting new books and new voices in front of readers. Surely there are more ways to broaden diversity in books without consigning others to reader oblivion. I’m sure the arguments are heartfelt. And I agree with the goal of broadening the chorus of voices that reflect our society.

But. No one has the right to tell you to stop reading an author based on gender, skin colour or ethnicity.

Just read. As much and as widely as you possibly can.

SF Chronicles interview

chronicles-logo-3Last week, Brian Turner over at SF Chronicles kindly asked me for an interview about writing historical fiction and he’s graciously allowed me to share it with you here. So, read on, or better yet, go check out the SF Chronicles site itself: http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/548768-interview-with-clifford-beal.html

 

Many thanks for talking with chronicles. 🙂

Very happy for the opportunity!

First things first – The Raven’s Banquet is a cracking book, but only appears as an eBook on Amazon at present. Are there any plans for Solaris to launch a paperback as yet?

Actually, Solaris has published a special limited edition paperback, initially available only through ForbiddenPlanet.com so readers can grab a copy via their shops or the internet. Solaris may offer it on their website at some point and there will be copies at upcoming cons this summer and autumn. It’s a beautiful edition with an exciting cover and endpaper illustrations.Raven's Banquet

One immediate problem I can see with the novel is where to place it, in terms of genre – on the one hand, it’s potentially ‘historical fiction’, but on the other, could be ‘flintlock fantasy’. I think I’ve seen you describe yourself as an “historical fantasy writer”. Do you see yourself as a cross-over writer, or do you prefer one pigeonhole over another? And did you have any problems getting Gideon’s Angel accepted for publishing because of that?

I do see myself as a historical fantasy writer but I hate to have my work pigeon-holed into neat little categories. Genre fiction has exploded in the last 20 years into so many sub-categories that it’s all become a bit muddled if you feel the compulsion to put fantasy into neat little boxes. Historical fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, alternate history, all of these could describe Raven’s Banquet and Gideon’s Angel but my aim was to just write historical adventure with a fantastical twist. Certainly, with “crossover” works you run the risk of falling between two stools. With marketeers running the major publishing houses these days at the expense of editors, if you can’t shove a book into a clearly definable category (and a ready existing market) it risks rejection. Shame really.  I’m pleased that Solaris champions works that are chimeras and I think genre readers benefit from it.

 

One of the more interesting things about your writing is the use of inflected language to create something of a period feel. Did you ever worry that this might be a risk, and alienate some potential readers? Or did you always see it as an essential part of the setting and atmosphere itself?

This is always a tough call when you write historical fiction. Too much modern slang and you can destroy the spell you’re trying to create. And on the other side, if you strive to accurately recreate period language and cadence you run the risk of readers not having a clue what your characters are saying. But I agree that some form of period speech is essential in creating that realistic setting and conveying the atmosphere of a time gone by. I sought to achieve a balance in the language by providing enough cues and archaic phrasing to make the reader understand this is set in the 17th century but not to make it obscure and a turn-off. I’d like to think I got this balance right and luckily most readers seem to agree.

 

Historical research obviously plays a role in your writing, and there’s a long debate on how much fact can be dispensed with by fiction in fantasy writing. How do you personally balance the demands of the story vs the demands of the historical record, and do you find it difficult?

To paraphrase an expression, “History: you really could not make this s**t up.” So many amazing and interesting things have happened in any given time period that for me it’s more a case of grafting on the fantastical to what really transpired. I’d like to think I was fairly meticulous in researching time and place in both the Treadwell novels. But I included only what was absolutely necessary for the reader to know about the politics or intrigues at the time to build the plot and atmosphere and one certainly doesn’t have to understand the English Civil War or the court of young Louis XIV to follow the story in my novels. It’s all about the characters and the plotlines and I have avoided throwing in lumps of exposition to set the scenes. Hard to do that anyway when you write first-person narrative. And I’ve never intentionally changed events, customs or places to fit a storyline which is something often seen in cinematic treatments of history. I find Braveheart toe-curlingly awful. Speaking for myself, I haven’t had trouble squaring the circle between accuracy and storytelling. I just try and let the reader absorb the atmosphere of the 17th century without giving an overt history lesson and let the plot drive things along.

 

FC-BC (GIDEON'S ANGEL) US smallYou now have two Richard Treadwell stories out, but what plans do you have for the future? Do you plan to keep with him as a serial character, or do you have different projects bursting to get out that you hope to share with us son?

I absolutely love Colonel Treadwell in all his shades of moral greyness. I have an outline for another Treadwell adventure, this time set in Massachusetts in the 1650s. Think Puritan ayatollahs, unhappy Indians, and a Lovecraftian horror based on an actual native legend. But that’s on hold for the moment as I’ve begun an epic fantasy series for Solaris set in a secondary world very much like renaissance Europe—only with mermen. And manticores.  I suppose you’d call it a traditional epic fantasy but I see it as historical too. Sort of as if someone from 1490 was penning a  “contemporary” fantasy using the mythological.  It’s called Valdur and should be out next summer.

 

One of the problems with writing about war is that inevitably its unpleasant nature will have to be described. You give us a glimpse of the horrors in The Raven’s Banquet, but you don’t flood the reader with it. Do you find it a challenge to determine how much violence to show, and how concerned are you about pushing a reader’s boundaries of comfort?

For me, the subliminal is usually preferable to an outright gore-fest. Not because it is necessarily bloody but because it can get very boring.  Having severed limbs and spilled entrails every few pages quickly desensitises you—or puts you to sleep.  The build-up and suspense leading to the violence of murder or battle can lend itself to providing character insight while the brutality itself becomes a graphic depiction of those drives and motives. If writing fiction is painting in words, sometimes not showing something allows the reader’s own imagination to take over. That said, I haven’t shied away from bloodletting in my novels and it’s difficult to write about a soldier’s life without describing violence. Again, it’s a question of balance. I found it difficult to write a scene in Raven’s where torture is inflicted on a hapless merchant. But it had to be described to show the immensity of what was happening to the main character and his slow slide into depravity.

 

Now that you’re establishing yourself as a fiction writer, which other books would you cite as particular influences? And are there any fantasy authors currently being published that you especially keep an eye out for?

Michael Moorcock has always been a great influence on me as a writer and I’ve been reading him since the early 70s. He seamlessly blends good history and high fantasy in many of his works and as a storyteller he is second to none. The Warhound and the World’s Pain is a particular favourite of mine, as it’s set in the 17th century. But all of his novels have brought me immense pleasure over the years. I’m looking forward to his “White Friars” series which is out in November. And although it’s not fantasy,  I have greatly admired the scope and prose of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin books. Now that is true literary historical fiction. Readers today are spoilt for choice in fantasy with so many great voices out there. I’ve got a copy of Mark Alder’s Son of the Morning on my desk and I’m looking forward to diving in soon. If you haven’t heard, it’s the Hundred Years War but this time God and Lucifer pick sides to actively support!

 

The inevitable writer’s advice question! Are there any particular tips or recommendations you would pass on to aspiring writers, to help them on their journey?

It may sound trite, but nevertheless it’s as true today as it has always been: Don’t give up. Keep scribbling, keep reading others, and never be afraid to rip up your prose and rewrite it. I’ve never regretted a single rewrite I’ve done and invariably your work will always benefit.

 

Many thanks for speaking with us – it’s been a pleasure, Cliff. 🙂

 

 

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.

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.

51 Shades of Grey: Has traditional good vs. evil had its day?

Over at Mythic Scribes, Codey Amprim has posted a thoughtful blog about the trend imagestowards “grey” fantasy in the last few years and how traditional black hats vs. white hats storylines seemed to have waned in genre fiction. http://mythicscribes.com/miscellaneous/is-black-and-white-fantasy-dead/

A lot of this trend is down to RR Martin of course, but there are others as well that are creating characters that embody both good and bad qualities—just like a lot of real life people. Westeros isn’t the only place where it’s difficult to tell who’s your friend and who’s not. I remember reading the Thomas Covenant books back in the 70s and being shocked by Donaldson’s handling of his “hero”. Many of Michael Moorcock’s characters such as Elric also come in shades of grey bordering on black. Even my own hapless protagonist in Gideon’s Angel has done quite a few things that are nothing to be proud of. As Codey points out in his post, grey can really help by throwing unpredictability into the plot and spicing things up.

It’s a bit of a red herring to debate whether this reflects a hardening of the society we live in today as some have done. People have been writing characters like this since—well, since they started writing stories. And I don’t think that writers will ever abandon good vs. evil storylines. The power of archetypes appeals to all of us in an almost unconscious way as both Jung and Campbell expounded years ago.

Injecting moral ambiguity into characters can be a great writer’s tool but Codey also notes there are significant drawbacks as well. Unpredictability can lead to a plot becoming directionless with  too many twists, dead ends, and dead characters. The result can be, as he puts it,  “endless repetitive soap opera” and waning reader loyalty and interest. Words of wisdom there and a warning to those who think grey is the new white.

Summoning Gideon’s Angel

I recently wrote a guest blog for Upcoming4.me which they’ve kindly allowed me to reproduce here. But wander on over to their website as they will shortly be running a giveaway with a copy of Gideon’s Angel to the lucky winner. http://upcoming4.me/demon trumpet

I’ve been living in the past for some time—the 17th century to be exact. I had immersed myself in the period for a number of years, first for historical re-enactment (armoured combat on foot and rapier fighting), and later, for researching a non-fiction book called “Quelch’s Gold” that was published in 2007.

I even did a fair amount of digging into family history, taking me to dusty stacks at the Public Records Office at Kew in London and the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston, further deepening my interest in the day-to-day life of the 17th and 18th centuries. But I had for some time been yearning to get back to writing fiction, something that had gone out the window with the arrival of kids and the demands of being a journalist. And I had many years before started a novel with a protagonist I really believed in, a novel that was somewhat flawed because I had tried writing it in an archaic tone, sprinkled with seventeenth century lingo. Accurate, yes. Readable? Well, maybe if you were from 1650.

And so, a couple of years ago, it was time to start fresh. Gideon’s Angel was the result. I resurrected my main character, Richard Treadwell, a conflicted middle-aged war veteran who has a knack for choosing the losing side. When the story opens it’s 1653 and Treadwell is living the life of an exile in France, working as a mercenary and agent for hire. He might still be a competent swordsman but he’s getting on a bit and old wounds have taken their toll. He has a mistress in Paris, a wife left in England, stacks of money, but an even bigger stash of bitterness and regret. It’s time for perhaps one last “big job”—a plot to kill the man he considers the chief architect of his misfortunes, Oliver Cromwell.

I could have written the work as straight down-the-line historical fiction. And I almost did. However, my imagination got in the way. The first short stories I had written in high school and university were fantasy and horror. And though long dormant, those seeds were still there when I started plotting the novel in my head. A few conversations with a good friend encouraged me to take a sharp left-hand turn and venture down that road once again.

So, why inject the supernatural into a political thriller set in Cromwellian England? I suppose because I knew it would ratchet up the tension and the thrills. But also, because I knew that what I had in mind for the horror elements would work rather nicely alongside everything else. The time period lends itself to fantasy and the supernatural. The mid-17th century was the twilight of the medieval mindset but old beliefs and superstitions die hard. It was also a time of incredible religious ferment and “end of days” mutterings. Bizarre religious sects had sprung up, predicting the imminent Second Coming but not before a time of evil incarnate and great strife. Turning Gideon’s Angel into a horror adventure was not a big stretch when you read the actual history!

imagesThe macabre elements, including my demons, are if anything, classical in nature. I was influenced by medieval manuscripts, paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, and the drawings of William Blake. Those and a little made-for-TV gem from 1972 called “Gargoyles” starring Cornel Wilde. Many years before the wonders of CGI special effects, Stan Winston’s monsters may have been only stunt men in green latex suits, but they scared me witless as a kid. All these images, ancient and modern, get mixed and described in the pages of the novel, successfully I’d like to think.GargoylesFilm

Taking the fantasy road allowed me to have Treadwell see things that others cannot, to build tension as he tries to convince others that these things are real and not imagined, and to raise the dramatic stakes from a mundane assassination plot to the very realm of England under mortal threat by the opening of the gates of hell. What fun.

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