Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Geography of Words - Guest Post by Jacey Bedford

Writing science fiction and fantasy often involves worldbuilding. Sometimes we take a concept, strip it right down to basics and invent a planet where the sea is pink, the sky is upside down and the dominant life form has seven tentacles and inhabits arid polar regions which have daytime temperatures of 60 Centigrade. Our hero is a brave tardigrade with a serious Walter Mitty complex and its love interest is a tri-gendered cephalopod with stunning bioluminescence that screams, 'Come and get me, baby!'

Other times we base our world on something closer to home. Our characters are human, living (maybe) five hundred years in our future or two hundred years in our past, but they are recognisably like us and they come from places that we might easily recognise.

We might set our fantasy on this earth, in this century (much urban fantasy occupied this niche) or we might use a medievaloid setting which is recognisably British or European, or—increasingly popular—a non-European setting in Africa, Asia or the Far East.

Even when writing a second-world fantasy like (say) A Wizard of Earthsea, the laws of physics are recognisable as our own and the land—mountains, rivers, lakes, valleys, deserts, oceans--looks as though it was formed in much the same way as our mountains, rivers lakes etc. were formed. That means it's a world with wind and weather, continental drift, vulcanicity, recurring ice ages etc. All of that may be completely incidental to the actual story, of course, but it gives us a setting we can grok, deep inside.

But how do we decide on a setting, and how do we build a world?

If we're going to base it on part of this world that we know, it helps to have a jumping off point Though you might never need to explain this in your book, you should know it. My Rowankind trilogy opens in 1800, in a world like ours but with an undertow of magic. Some things are the same. King George is bonkers, Britain is at war with Napoleonic France. America has won its freedom. The industrial revolution is in its early years with steam engines used for pumping water out of mines, but not yet used to power locomotives.

But where does the magic come from? Has it always been there? Yes, it has, but for the last two hundred years it's been strictly controlled by the Mysterium. Why? It all stems from the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Something happened to bring knowledge of magic and its possibilities to Good Queen Bess, and her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. If I told you exactly what you wouldn't need to read the first book of the Rowankind, Winterwood, and I hope you do.

Two hundred years after the formation of the Mysterium, only licensed witches are allowed to perform small magics from carefully controlled spell books. Enter Ross (Rossalinde) Tremayne, my cross-dressing female privateer captain. Ross would gladly have registered as a witch when she turned eighteen, as the law said, but she was busy eloping instead. Now, seven years later, she's a widow, and she's captain of the Heart of Oak, accompanied by the jealous ghost of her late husband and a crew of barely-reformed pirates. When she pays a deathbed visit to her estranged mother she receives a task she doesn't want and a half brother she didn't know she had. And then there's that damned annoying wolf shapechanger, Corwen. (Don't call him a werewolf, he gets very annoyed, because he's NOT moon-called!)

Ross and Corwen's story moves forward in Silverwolf and the worldbuilding widens. A race of magical people, the Rowankind, have been freed from bondage and their talents for wind and weather magic have the potential to change Britain's developing industrial revolution. Why would we need steam engines, when the Rowankind can lift water from the depths of a mine by magic? That's almost incidental to Ross and Corwen's personal story, but I have to consider how something like that could change future history. It echoes through Silverwolf and the final book in the trilogy, Rowankind, due from DAW in November 2018.

My Psi-Tech trilogy, Empire of Dust, Crossways and Nimbus, all published by DAW, is set five hundred years in the future when megacorporations more powerful than any single planet have raced across the galaaxy to gobble up planets suitable for colonisation. Their agents are psi-techs, humans implanted with telepath technology. These elites are looked after from cradle to grave, until—that is—they step out of line. Cara is a rogue telepath fleeing Alphacorp, Ben is a Trust company man through and through, until the Trust tries to kill him. Why? It's all about money and resources. Cara takes refuge with Ben on his colony mission, thinking she can keep her head down for a few years until Alphacorp has stopped hunting her, but trouble comes looking for both of them.

Travel across the galaxy is only possible via jump gates, but jump-gate technology has one flaw. With every jump through foldspace a small but significant amount of platinum (a vital catalyst) is lost. To keep the jump gate system open more and more platinum is needed. Platinum isn't uncommon in the galaxy, but it's found in tiny quantities and the refining process is slow. Fact: all the platinum refined so far on earth would not fill an Olympic swimming pool to more than the depth of twelve inches. So when a colony that Ben is setting up happens to be on a planet discovered to be rich in platinum, the Trust will stop at nothing to get its grasping hands on the bounty. And if that means destroying the colony and all of Ben's psi-tech team, so be it.

So in my psi-tech universe, I'm not so much worldbuilding as building multiple worlds linked by a network of jump gates. I'm also building enhanced humans who might, on the whim of their company, be sent for neural reconditioning to adjust their attitude—and that's not good. But despite the wetware implants, they're still human, gloriously, awkwardly so.

So what am I working on right now? The Amber Crown is a standalone fantasy set in the mid 1600s in a place not unlike the Baltic States with a few significant differences. There's magic and political intrigue, a cast of diverse characters and a missing queen. Worldbuilding for this has been interesting. I've done a lot of research on costume, food and customs. I've discovered some delightfully bonkers facts like the existence of the Polish Winged Hussars, who rode into battle with huge wings strapped on to their backs, and for more than a century were the best cavalry in all of Europe. Three thousand Polish Winged Hussars broke the might of the Ottoman army at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. That's a gift to a writer. Thank you, history.

Jacey Bedford is a British writer, published by DAW in the USA. She writes both science fiction and fantasy and her novels are published by DAW in the USA. Her short stories have been published on both sides of the Atlantic in anthologies and magazines, and some have been translated into an odd assortment of languages including Estonian, Galician and Polish.

Jacey's a great advocate of critique groups and is the secretary of the Milford SF Writers' Conference, an intensive peer-to-peer week of critique and discussion held every September in North Wales. (

She lives in an old stone house on the edge of Yorkshire's Pennine Hills with her songwriter husband and a long-haired, black German Shepherd (a dog not an actual shepherd from Germany). She's been a librarian, a postmistress, a rag-doll maker and a folk singer with the vocal harmony trio, Artisan. Her claim to fame is that she once sang live on BBC Radio 4 accompanied by the Doctor (Who?) playing spoons.

You can keep up with Jacey in several different ways:

Friday, 30 March 2018

Debbie Young Celebrates the Unintended Consequences of a Writing Life

Debbie Young in Hawkesbury churchyard (Photo: Angela Fitch)
In 2010, realising that no matter how hard I worked in my day job, it was leaving me unfulfilled, I made the radical decision to walk away from it without a job to go to. I intended to refocus my life on my writing ambitions.

Reading Between the Lines

It felt like a miracle when I almost immediately landed a part-time job with a wonderful children's reading charity, Read for Good, which served two purposes for me (apart from giving me an income, that is):

  • It reinforced the importance of books and reading not only for children but for all ages, which in turn validated my ambition to write books myself. 
  • It gave me space to explore different ways in which I could write what I wanted to write - and indeed to discover exactly what that was. 

Using commissioned non-fiction projects and experimental short stories as stepping stones, I gradually gained the confidence and competence needed to achieve my long-term goal to write a novel.

Now I'm hooked, with three novels published in the last year, the fourth due out next month, and my planned series of seven, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, now starting to morph into a series of ten.

Planning for Success

But as in all of life, the things that you don't plan are often some of the most exciting. 

Here are five serendipitous things that have happened to me over the last few years while I was making other plans. Not only is my writing life is the richer for them, but it turns out they've helped other people too.

1) Being invited to join a regular monthly spot on BBC Radio Gloucestershire's lunchtime show, in its Book Club slot, alongside its delightful presenters, initially Clare Carter and now Dominic Cotter, and The Bookseller's Caroline Sanderson, to talk about our chosen book of the month and any other book-related topics that take our fancy - and I've discovered I love doing radio.

Enjoying the BBC Radio Gloucestershire's Studio Christmas party with Caroline Sanderson

2) Launching a free local literature festival to bring indie authors, poets and illustrators to my community at the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest, with no admission charges so that visitors could save their money to buy the speakers' books instead. This started out as a simple plan to spend a few hours in one of the village pubs with a few writer friends - four years on, it's somehow morphed into 50+ authors in a packed day-long programme, this year with an art exhibition running in tandem.

Now in its fourth glorious year - everyone welcome, so come and join us!

3) Being the inadvertent catalyst for a new book by other authors - the panel of authors I'd introduced to each other for the second Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest to discuss writing about difference (that's politically-correct-speak for disability, to be clear) got together afterwards to collaborate on Silent Voices, an anthology by carers and the cared-for, venting their feelings.

A joint project by authors who met on a panel at the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest

4) Encouraging other writers to grow from nervous debutant to confident published author, either through their participation in the authors' groups I run in Cheltenham and Bristol or through their participation in the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest. (I've observed a direct relationship between the most nerves and the biggest post-performance smile at every event.)

Some members of our Cheltenham Authors' Alliance, at the Anthology Bookshop
5) Helping other people achieve their publishing ambitions through what I've learned on my own journey as an indie author, such as enabling a 95-year-old, terminally ill refugee to turn his memoirs into a book before he died, or helping a retired neighbour revive children's stories she'd written decades ago. Not only was I able to publish them as books, I also sent her into the village school as guest author on World Book Day, where she was very well received.

Just one of a series of delightful children's books I've helped my friend Betty publish

Is It Karma?

Some author friends swear there is such a thing as book karma: if you're helpful to others, that helpfulness will come back to you in some other form at a later date.

So is it karma that this week that I spotted the first book in my Sophie Sayers series rising up the cosy mystery charts?

If so, I'm fine with that. When I started self-publishing my books (I'd written stories all my life but hadn't seriously pursued publication), I though just writing the books would be satisfying enough for me. And if anyone else benefited along the way from anything I did, I'd jokingly tell myself that virtue was its own reward, or I'd get my reward in heaven, and that would be enough for me.

And if there aren't any books in heaven? Then I'm not going. 

If you're within reach of the Cotswolds, come along and join in the fun at this year's Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival this month, on Saturday 21st April. Download the full programme from its website,, to help you plan your day in advance - but there's no advance booking required, and no admission charge. Just turn up on the day and enjoy! 

I'll be launching the fourth in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Murder by the Book, at the Festival, but you can pre-order an ebook copy here in the meantime at the special launch price of 99p/99c, and the paperback from 21st April, at

If you'd like to know more about my writing life, please visit my website:

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Still addicted: N M Browne

I have a lot to do. I mean I have a ‘to do’ list as long as my arm. We are moving flats tomorrow and instead of packing I just
read a novel. Please don’t judge me. It is my vice, that is both addiction and coping method. Like some kind of biblioholic, I read when I’m happy, I read   when I am sad, I read when I’m anxious and I read when I have so much to do that the only way to deal with it is with a lage dose of fantasy. Preferably in another world or a version of this one which has nothing to do with the reality of packing boxes, papers, shoes and glassware to be individually wrapped in paper. 
 Juliet Mckenna’s new book, ‘The Green Man’s Heir’  published by Wizard’s Tower Press is perfect anxiety busting escapism somewhere between urban fantasy of the Jim Butcher variety and Charles de Lint’s more mythical approach. It’s good to see such publishers republishing great books that were never made digitally available and have gone out of print and of course, publishing new books by well known authors like Juliet. 
  It is an exciting time to be a reader, even if it is a somewhat trickier proposition to be an author. I love the fact that I can see a book reviewed and be reading it on my kindle moment later. Of course, like all addicts, I need to be careful. Sometimes, as a heavy book user, I do wonder if I need some kind of safety feature to stop me using all my PLR money on my out of control habit, but for today I am just grateful that my escapist urges could be so quickly and satisfactorarily dealt with. 
 So there we are: I saw, I downloaded, I read and now I will get on with the rest of my chores refreshed and re invigorated: compulsive reading is so much healthier than the alternatives - honestly. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Back burner work, feisty princesses and Easter dragons, by Enid Richemont

I have written in previous blogs about my personal problems with Spring, and so here I am, in London (the UK one), facing, yet again, the horrors of a daylight which, like a fractious toddler, will be less and less inclined to sleep, plus the weather which can, as the mood takes it, veer from idyllic sunshine and pretty blossoms to icy wetness, and indeed, as has been recently forecast, even snow. I would choose, instead, to live in a perpetual Autumn - days full of dazzling colours followed by the quiet and introverted comfort blanket of early evening. I'm still, reluctantly, impressed, though, by all those amazing things coming out of the ground in my garden, and love the sleepy bumble bees - so strokeable (if you dare) but I welcome not the return of the house flies.

I spent a profitable hour late this afternoon in conversation with author (and friend) Rosalie Warren, who also regularly blogs here. Ros is the author of a futuristic novel: LENA'S NEST, with its hypnotic cover image. She's also published two Young Adult novels: CHARITY'S CHILD and COPING WITH CHLOE. ALEXA'S SONG, another of her adult novels,  I absolutely loved, and will re-read some time soon. I mentioned Vikram Seth's THE GOLDEN GATE, of which she'd never heard. It is one of the most joyful novels I've ever read, and one which Ros might choose to read when she flies to Canada in a few weeks to stay with her daughter. What impressed me most about it was the fact that it's written in verse - so challenging, and yet it reads so smoothly and beautifully. Verse and song precede prose, of course, and Homer must have been first heard in this way, but a contemporary novel set in San Francisco would be a challenge for any writer. If you don't know it, seek it out.

Today I was sent three artist's roughs for the cover of DOUBLE DRAGONS, my new children's book, and was asked for my order of preference which happily coincided with my editor's. This is a story which was first published in an anthology quite a few years ago, with the rights reverting to the contributors. We did send it out again from time to time, but nobody picked it up until this year, when the story re-surfaces as part of the Reading schemes Franklin Watts at Hachette specialises in, and which are such fun to do. It's a story featuring a very feisty princess who defies all the princess rules (the theme of the original anthology was one of feisty princesses and rather useless princes). My princess tames a fire-breathing, knight-gobbling dragon (there's nothing quite as tasty as barbequed knight) into setting up a local airline called DRAGON AIR - much better than Ryanair, and also free, but a trifle slower and warmer. He'd be perfect for either London or New York in the winter. It's going to be interesting to see how two very different illustrators deal with the story - I'll keep you posted.

Another of my back burner stories which has had a strange publishing history is MORE, which at one point was adopted for a starter animation company based in the States, no advance involved, and the company folded, but such a fascinating project, with sound (rain and goat bells) and movement. It will now be coming out, again with Hachette, but as a book. There's a moral in this somewhere, which is always to keep that back burner work on the simmer, because you never know who might one day fall in love with it.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Absolutely Fabulous Snobbery in the Writing World- Andrew Crofts

This month I read a couple of books about very different aspects of the writing business. Both deal in very different kinds of snobbery and both are highly entertaining.

The first was “The Booker and the Best: Discrimination in the Book World” by Nicholas Clee.

Nick is one of those connected individuals of the book world who gets asked to judge book prizes. He is also an author and believes that by classifying some literature as being “better” than others we are doing the publishing industry a great disservice. It is a short book – both provocative and funny, and available at the moment only as a Kindle Single.

The second book was “The Vanity Fair Diaries” by Tina Brown, which covers her time re-launching the magazine between 1983 and 1992. Here we find an altogether more glitzy level of snobbery; somewhere between F.R. Leavis and “The Devil Wears Prada”, (I am exaggerating for effect, obviously).

What is most fascinating about this book is that we now know the outcome of some of the events which she catalogues in her daily diary entries. Many of the super-wealthy folk who she hangs out with, (and who were so aptly skewered at the time by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Dominick Dunne), have since crashed and burned.

She talks about socialite Donald Trump publishing “The Art of the Deal” – and we know what that led to. Upon reading it for possible extracts she writes that it “has a crassness I like”.

She also mentions the million dollar advance that super-agent, Swifty Lazar, extracted from Hutchinson for an unwritten novel by Joan Collins. Miss Collins later ended up in court suing her publishers for rejecting the eventual manuscript, dabbing a tear from her eye for the cameras. She won the case because her contract had required her to hand in a “finished manuscript” not an “acceptable one”. If only we all had agents like Mr Lazar.

Best of all she ends an encounter with the young Boris Johnson with the words _ “But Boris Johnson is an epic shit. I hope he ends badly”. We are all still waiting to see how that one turns out. 

Monday, 26 March 2018

Centrum is my Literary Rx, by Dipika Mukherjee

The Centrum Office

 I first came to a Centrum Writers Residency in 2003 – yes, 15 years ago! – and left with the first draft of my debut novel. This year, partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, I am back to work on my third novel, a sequel to Ode To Broken Things.

Third novel, third Centrum residency...I know this will be a good one!

Morning view
Centrum sounds like a medical prescription, doesn’t it? Writers look at me quizzically when I mention the name; this is not ranked with the more famous American literary residencies, but the paucity of literary rock stars makes this a gem of a place to write in complete solitude.

I am here for only 10 days this time, and I feel the time passing too quickly. In 2003, Centrum gave me the gift of six weeks of uninterrupted writing, which prompted me to give up a well-paid academic job in Singapore to pursue my literary dreams. I’ll always be grateful to the Centrum Foundation for that validation of my unpublished work.

This residency is in a stunning location, at the center at Fort Worden Historical State Park in Washington State. Constructed between 1898 and 1917, Fort Worden features a historical military fort nestled within more than two miles of beachfront. The high bluffs, where military cannons once stood, overlook the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

This is a locale so picturesque that An Officer and A Gentleman was filmed here, as well as the horror classic The Ring. 

Taps at the Guardhouse
Taps at the Guardhouse is now a cozy bar converted from a military jailhouse. Part of the room retains the jailhouse bars and it is delicious that a place that once detained uniformed men who drank too much now welcomes drinkers of all stripes.  A large poster of Richard Gere romancing Deborah Winger graces the wall.

Cameron is my barman; when he hears that I am a resident writer at Centrum and am writing a novel on Malaysia, he tells me about his college in Thailand and his travels through Southeast Asia. We talk about tropical Penang, the artistic alleys of Georgetown, the heat of the authentic Indian cuisine at nasi kandar stalls...while the misty rains of the Olympic Peninsula patter outside.

My cabin
When I take the bus downtown, the driver tells me he is writing a memoir based on sailing around the world with his father for 35 weeks in the 70’s.

Everyone has a story here. This is a coastal town with a hippie vibe that seems a throwback to an earlier time. Port Townsend’s most famous (and controversial) couple live and dress as if the Victorian age has not ended

Old Letter Press at Copper Canyon 
In 2003, Fort Worden was a very different place. There were the old barracks, the Centrum Foundation, and the fabulous Copper Canyon Press. Now this area has mushroomed to colleges and academic buildings, two restaurants, and even a lively yoga and dance center.

The Point Wilson Light 
What hasn’t changed is the wonderful silence and solitude, the walks to the lighthouse at the edge of the bay with the incessant waves crashing on the shore.

Inspiring indeed.

Dipika Mukherjee has a home in Chicago but trawls the world for fabulous stories and smelly food (the durian is a favourite). You can read about her work here.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

"The Lost Words" -- a review by Susan Price

This book really doesn't need any help from me. It's already a classic. But I wanted to review it because I love it.

I wanted to read it from the moment I first heard how it was inspired:-- during one of the regular revisions of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, it was decided to exclude certain words, which modern children no longer looked up or needed-- words such as 'bluebell', 'heron,' and 'conker'-- in order to make room for words such as 'broadband' and 'wi'fi'.

The book's wonderful artist, Jackie Morris, was incensed by this. She tells about how the book came about here. (The beautiful picture at the top of this blog is from Jackie's site.)

Many other writers and artists were aghast when they heard about these words being dropped. There is a theory of language that says that when you lose the word for something, you also lose the ability to think about it or consider it important. It becomes something nameless-- and if people haven't even bothered to name something, it can't be important, can it?

Theory apart, how the hell can you dispense with the word 'bluebell'? Every year I go to view the miles of bluebells in the woods on the Clent hills. Somehow, it wouldn't be the same if I walked there thinking, "What a lot of blue flowers."

Rather, when I look down a slope covered with blue and see the blue spreading and filtering through the trees, it adds a lot to know that these are bluebells, wild hyacinths and that such masses of them indicate 'undisturbed ancient woodland.'

But how can  'heron' ever  be considered a word that isn't  necessary in  a children's dictionary? Or dandelion? Dandelion, for god's sake. Dandelion piss-the-bed: dandelion clocks-- how do you even be a child without knowing the word dandelion and what it represents? As well get rid of 'daisy' or 'buttercup.'

I had been trying to work out how to get my paws on a copy of the book, since its beautiful production makes it expensive... While I was still wondering, I saw a tweet from Jackie Morris herself, commenting in surprise that the third Sterkarm book, A Sterkarm Tryst, was in print.

I have a slight aquaintance with Ms. Morris-- I wouldn't presume to claim it to be anything more. So I tweeted back with a suggestion that we do swapsies. I would send her a copy of Tryst (wot I wrote) if she would send me one of The Lost Words.
A Sterkarm Tryst

I think I got the better end of the deal. The book arrived in the post some weeks ago and I have kept it to hand and dipped into it frequently ever since.

It's a much larger book than you might guess from the picture above. And it isn't a book of poems with illustrations. The artist and poet are equals here-- the initial idea came from Jackie Morris and she tells us how writer and artist influenced each other.

Robert Macfarlane, a prize winning poet and writer, has written 'a book of spells'-- the intention being to spell the lost words back into our memories and useage.

Each spell is introduced by a double-page spread where letters blow and tumble among grasses or fern or trees-- as if the lost words were being broken and scattered. Or, perhaps are being called back, spelled back together.

The poems are acrostics, so the word in danger of being lost is spelled, not only in the title, but in the reading and writing of the spell. And the poems are beautiful. The more often you read them--spelling back those lost words-- the more beauty you find in them.

Facing each poem is one of Jackie Morris' rightly celebrated paintings. And then, over the page, a double spread painting-- paintings of acorns, brambles, owls, bluebells, magpies...

 I love the whole book, but I think my favourite part is Bluebell. The beautiful poem is followed by a breathtaking double page showing an owl fleeting and a fox slinking through the dusk of a bluebell wood.

But otters, ravens, newts, willow, adders-- you'll find them all here. Magpies too. I love the magpies who 'gossip, bicker, yak and snicker' in my garden. Love their flying dinosaur shapes, their long tails and petrol blue sheen. Currently they are pulling my hedge to bits for nesting material and flying off towing long streamers of dried grass behind them.

"A proportion of the royalties from each copy of The Lost Words will be donated to Action for Conservation, a charity dedicated to inspiring young people to take action for the natural world...."

In Scotland, Jane Beaton has raised £25,000 to give the book to all 2,681 schools in Scotland-- for more about this story, follow this link.


Susan Price is the author not only of A Sterkarm Tryst, but also of The Sterkarm Handshake and A Sterkarm Kiss-- as well as about 60 other books. You can find out more about them on her website, here.