My guest author is....Tom Williams
Tom Williams writes about adventure set during the Napoleonic era. His books are vastly popular and are being republished in the New Year by Endeavour Press. Today he talks about writing Historical Adventure.
In January Endeavour Press will be republishing the first three of my stories about James Burke. To mark this, Carol has asked me for some thoughts on writing action adventure.
My books are all historical novels. They start slowly to establish the time and place before the fighting and the killing starts. A quiet start makes the death and mayhem, once it comes, all the more effective.
My books have a good guy (although, to be interesting, your hero should be flawed) and a bad guy. I like my bad guys to have at least one redeeming characteristic, but you can have a bad guy who is simply nasty. Then your good guy has to hunt down the bad guy and defeat him.
A lot of writers nowadays use what I think of as "weapons porn" to drive their action sequences. You know the sort of thing:
I lined up the sights on my Heckler & Koch HK PSG1. I'd replaced the standard infrared scope with the laser assisted ZS 254 made in the Czech Republic – an old favourite of Soviet assassins.
My stories are set in an era of rather less sophisticated weaponry, so I don't have much scope for this approach. Even so, I've had a lot of fun with the details of the Napoleonic era carbine or exactly how you would load and fire a cannon. In the end, though, my heroes are going to get up close and personal.
Fight scenes are tricky. A (literally) blow by blow account can be tedious, but there are problems, too, with a pacier approach:
Regan rushed at the six ninjas, his arms whirling feverishly. The sword in his right hand sliced into one black clad body after another, the knife in his left stabbing the entrails of any who moved inside the arc of steel that brought death to all his enemies.
One answer is to make most of the fight a blur of action but then concentrate on one particular element of the conflict. So five of six assailants are killed a couple of sentences, but the last puts up a fight that lasts for three or four paragraphs.
Be careful with the odds in fights. It’s fine for the hero to start with a few easy kills, but the main fight has to pose a real challenge. But not too much of a challenge. Taking on six men, as Burke seems to be doing all the time, is fine providing they are six raw recruits armed with knives. When a hero takes on twenty men armed with machine guns and beats them with his bare hands, it can get a little silly.
Then there is the final destruction of the villain. Sometimes it’s enough for the hero to humiliate and defeat him, but if there is a climactic fight, it’s important that the bad guy dies very unpleasantly. Twice I have had editors come back with demands for more blood. One insisted on a rewrite so unpleasant that I felt quite ill after I wrote it, but there is no doubt that the climax of the story was much improved.
Welcome Carolyn Hughes who is a medievalist to August's Writer's Hub. She is speaking about approaching writing via a PhD course.
What is the benefit of a Creative Writing PhD?
Why would any writer put themselves through the strain and struggle of doing a PhD?
The Creative Writing PhD is a rather curious animal. It’s what is called “practice-led”, the practice being the writing of the creative piece – whether that’s a full-length novel, a short story collection, poetry, or whatever – which is considered part of the research process. But, as well as the creative piece, you have to write a thesis or a critical commentary. What this “research” element is called, and its nature, is different at different universities, some requiring an analytical commentary on your creative work, others wanting more of a theory-based thesis, or some amalgam of the two. My “commentary” was a bit of both: it explored a topic that interested me (how to achieve authenticity in historical fiction), but the exploration both fed into and drew from my writing of the novel.
So was it worth all the effort I put into it? I can only say a resounding “yes”! In no particular order, I perceive the benefits to me as:
The privilege of working with both an experienced novelist and a renowned academic, who together gave me both immense encouragement and valuable insights.
The opportunity to experiment with my novel, with no need to be constrained by commercial considerations (although I do hope one day to publish it). In truth, my experimentation was not wildly radical, but the structure and voices in particular were different from anything I’d written before, and I welcomed the chance to try out new ideas in a “research” environment.
The opportunity too to explore a topic that had been on my mind ever since I started writing historical fiction. I wanted to explore the so-called “problems” of writing historical fiction: my original concern about how to achieve a sense of “authenticity”, but also looking at the criticisms levelled at the genre (for example, by Henry James and, later, various literary critics).
The simple joy of discovery, allowing myself time to explore the riches of the university library’s wonderful collection of history and literature.
I didn’t have to do a PhD – I did it because I wanted to. The academic aspect of the exercise, for example, making sure that you’ve gathered together all your sources, and properly footnoted and referenced them all, can be trying, but it’s a small part of the whole.
Of course, I could have written the novel without doing the PhD, or any of the research into authenticity. But I can honestly say that the research assisted the writing of the novel, and I gained insights that I would not have had if I hadn’t done the research. It was a valuable two-way process. In the end, I felt that the two elements of the PhD came together as a useful whole, which I hope other historical novelists, or aspiring ones, might find provides a few insights into the process of writing historical fiction.
If you are interested in reading my commentary, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, you can find it here: University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/383484/>). The novel, The Nature of Things, will, I hope, be published in due course.
Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After a first degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. It was fun for a few years, but she left to become a school careers officer in Dorset. But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation. She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the Government. She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest, several years ago, that creative writing and, especially, writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton.
Fortune’s Wheel (SilverWood Books) is her first published novel, and a sequel is under way.
Summer Reads by Brenda Brittan, member of The Mani Writers' Group
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee
This delightful sequel to Cider With Rosie, is an ideal summer read when one wants to escape the restrictions of everyday life and visit somewhere different. This is a captivating tale of a curious young man who does this when he decides to leave the security of his village and see more of the world.
Leaving rural Gloucestershire Laurie Lee begins his ‘walk’ taking the road to Southampton supporting himself by playing his violin. Encouraged by this ability he heads for London managing to pay rent for a room by working as a wheelbarrow pusher’ on a building site and by playing his violin. When he has to leave his room due to his landlord letting it out to a prostitute and realising the building he is working on is nearing completion he knows he needs to move on and on the basis of knowing the Spanish for ‘Will you please give me a glass of water’ he decides to go to Spain landing in Galicia on the north west coast in July 1935.
His wanderings with only his violin to pay his way and the optimism and freshness of an idealistic young man take him from Vigo in the north down to the southern coast crossing a county where signs of an impending civil war were in evidence. He befriended locals who more often than not gave him shelter and food.
His travels were stopped at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War however in 1937 he returned to Spain to enlist for the International Brigade to fight against Franco. Despite suffering epileptic fits his officer described his conduct as ‘excellent’.
The Glassblower of Murano – Marina Fiorato
‘Murano is a series of islands in the Venetian Lagoon linked by bridges and is famous for its glass making. It was once an independent commune, but is now a frazione of the comune of Venice.’
The story begins in 1681 with thirty-year-old Corradinio Manin looking on the lights of San Marco, Venice for the last time. He is being hunted but there is one last thing he has to do before his hunters catch up with him. He hears footsteps behind him, at last he reaches the Calle della Morte – appropriately named the street of death – he stops, as do the footsteps. His last words are ‘Will Leonora be safe?’ The last words he hears are ‘Yes, you have the word of The Ten’.
In Venice in 1681, glassblowing is the lifeblood of the Republic and Venetian mirrors are more treasured than gold. The Council of Ten will go to any lengths to protect the glassblowers of Murano and their methods, virtually imprisoning them on the island. Corradinio Manin has sold his methods to a person. In their eyes he has betrayed them.
In the present day, Nora Manin, a teacher in ceramics and sculpture wakes at 4am. Her marriage to a doctor is over, shattered. Today is the day she is going to leave England and begin a new life in Venice as a glassblower
And thus the scene is set for a combination of mystery, historical intrigue and love, written by an English/Venetian author, telling a story of passion, genius and betrayal linking the present and the past.
Lion – A Long Way Back - Saroo Brierley
‘As a five-year old in India, I got lost on a train. Twenty-five years later, I crossed the world to find my way back home.’
In the early 1980’s an Indian man walked out on his family leaving his wife and children in a state of poverty. The wife found work in construction whilst five-year-old Saroo and his older brothers begged at railway stations. One evening Saroo went with his older brother Guddu on a train from Kwanda to Burhanpur. Saroo collapsed with tiredness and fell asleep on a train. When he woke Guddu was not there. Panic set in, he tried to remember which train he should take to get home but without success and eventually he ended up on the streets of Calcutta (Kolkata).
The story follows his life on the streets, an inner sixth sense helping him to survive including escaping from a railway worker who befriended him and then showed him to a friend. Saroo felt something was not right and he ran from the house where he had been ‘invited’ to stay. Eventually a teenager took him to a police station and he was taken in by the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption. The Society tried unsucessfully to locate his family. What Saroo did not know was that he had been unable to give them enough information for them to trace his hometown and he was officially declared as a lost child.
There was an adoption scheme between the Indian and Australian governments and Saroo was adopted by a family in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, the Brierley family. His new life began in Hobart.
During the relatively short passage of time from the late 1980’s to the present day, the world wide web became part of everyday lives and following a lead, Saroo realises he may be able to trace his family in India by using the Social Media sites.
The Messenger of Athens – Anne Zaroudi
A light-hearted summer murder mystery read set in Greece. It is set on the fictional island of Thinimos and is the first book in a series based on the Seven Deadly Sins. This being based on ‘Lust’ and features a rather strange detective, Hermes Diaktoros of whom little is known, other than he appears when what is seemingly a straightforward death has occurred.
Mystery surrounds him. Could he be an ‘avenging angel’ only reporting to a ‘higher authority’ and there to ensure justice is carried out?
His methods of investigation are unorthodox, his trademark a pair of immaculately kept white plimsolls, possibly a modern version of the winged sandals worn by his namesake Hermes, messenger of the Gods. The reader is never told how he gets his information thus adding to his mystique.
In this first book based on ‘Lust’, a young girl’s body has been discovered lying at the bottom of a mountainside. Her death is shrugged off by the local police as an accident or suicide until Hermes appears on the scene. He is determined that the truth of her death will be told and his investigations depict a darker side of Greek life in a protective community where myths, lies, corruption and tragedy along with a touching love story are revealed.
Despite the fantasy element it is a good mystery story and a must for anyone who loves to read about Greek culture other than the sun, sea and sand holiday aspect.
Why Vampires Never Die...by Theresa Stoker
Have you ever wondered why we’re so drawn to vampire stories? Of course there is the intoxicating terror we get to experience without ever actually leaving the safety of our armchair. But is there something more? Vampire stories first entered print in the English-speaking world in the nineteenth century, when the idea of a man entering a maiden’s bedroom was both more shocking and more thrilling to a contemporary audience than we can imagine today. So the element of sexual fantasy or transgressive behaviour was always present. Le Fanu’s female vampire Carmilla notwithstanding, our abiding image of the Victorian/Edwardian vampire is of a male aristocrat preying on virgins. Whilst this fantasy remains popular – after all the Byronic hero is a staple of Regency Romance – twenty-first century vampires have adapted to social change.
It is sometimes said that our interest in vampires reflects a society in which aristocrats prey on the poor. This might seem to fit one the earliest vampire stories printed in English, Polidori’s The Vampyre. John Polidiri was Byron’s doctor and travelled with him to Switzerland, Italy and Greece. In his introduction to the tale he claims that vampire legends originated in Turkey. When his story was published in 1819 the vampire, Ruthven, was widely believed to be a thinly veiled portrait of Byron, already cast in the role of predatory aristocrat by English society. In The Vampyre as in Regency England, ‘society’ means the fashionable, leisured classes as opposed to ‘the folk’. So the characters Ruthven and his companion Aubrey can be seen as representing an elite society which is contrasted with the innocence of the representative of the folk, the Greek girl Ianthe who is Ruthven’s victim. Ianthe is sometimes described as a peasant, but her social status is not that clear cut. Her father is described as a Greek of Athens. Aubrey considers the folly of marrying ‘an uneducated Greek girl’, and yet we know that Ianthe has had a nurse. From such scant evidence we can’t assume that Ianthe belongs to the wealthy merchant class, but this seems to be at least as likely as that she is of peasant origin. It is her innocence, ‘so contrasted with all the affected virtues of the women among whom he had sought for his vision of romance’, that marks her as of ‘the people’ rather than of ‘society’. Of course the people, creators and carriers of folklore, are the source of vampire superstitions which circulated long before they were picked up by the educated classes and put into print.
It’s interesting to compare Stoker’s Dracula with the real life sadistic serial killer Elizabeth Bathory. Each held domains in a part Europe that was contested by the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Both were able to prey unchallenged on the surrounding peasantry because of their aristocratic status. The question of the innocence or otherwise of the vampires’ prey in Stoker’s Dracula is far from straightforward. Lucy has been described as ‘outwardly rather dull and acquiescent’ whilst ‘her desire for three husbands suggests a degree of latent sensuality.’ It could be argued that by virtue of her sleepwalking, Lucy makes herself available to Dracula. In fact it is Lucy who goes on to prey on the most innocent and powerless members of society, the children of the poor. Her bourgeois/aristocratic champions show little care whether a child rescued by them is in turn vampirised, Van Helsing merely urging that ‘when you are sending the child home you will caution its parents to keep strict watch over it.’ Within the hierarchy of the novel, had Dracula chosen to prey only on the numberless poor he might have gone unchallenged. History furnishes plenty of evidence that the socially powerful are free to abuse the socially powerless. It has been said of Bathory that ‘her actions were in part an expression of tremendous sadism, and in part no more than an extension of the contemporary attitude towards the value of human life - especially that of people with no social standing; it was after all only when she began killing noble girls that Elizabeth's crimes caught up with her.’ Similarly, Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party’s frequent violent attacks on immigrants failed to generate a strong political response. Only the murder of an ethnic Greek in September 2013 and the ensuing public outcry finally led to investigations and prosecutions.
In Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson’s late twentieth century novel, we are offered an imagined post-Capitalist world; the centre having collapsed, ‘investors, commerce, and government withdrew [. . .] leaving the rotten core to decay’. In the ‘doughnut hole’ left behind ‘the people’ remaining in the city are by definition powerless. They struggle to survive, recreating a life out of the residue of a society that has abandoned them. They reinvent a system of trade involving exchanges of goods and favours, farming the city’s parks and hunting. (Interestingly, some cities have recently established community farming in park areas. See, for example http://cityfruit.org.) The other remaining group are those who ‘saw the decline of authority as an opportunity’. Rudy, firmly in the opportunistic category, has seized the chance to set up his own fiefdom. Like a caricature of an evil medieval overlord, he rules through violence and fear. With his bloodlettings and flayings, his enjoyment of cruelty for its own sake, he rivals Bathory in sadism. On the one hand, we could compare Rudy with the aristocratic, fashionable, leisured class of early vampire fiction, but he is not so far removed from the source of his wealth. He is perhaps more closely akin to a Wallachian Boyard who maximises the corvée he can extract from the serf. Melba has been turned into a zombie as a punishment for ‘holding back some of she earnings from me.’ He seems to exemplify the ‘boundless thirst for surplus-labour’ and ‘compulsory working to death’ that Marx associates with slavery and that Hopkinson perhaps encourages us to associate with contemporary people trafficking and sex slavery. (A young woman forced into heroin addiction and sex work on the streets of Athens has a life expectancy of just twelve months.)
Ti-Jeanne of course does not have the sexual innocence of Polidori’s Ianthe, and unlike Ianthe, she is somewhat resistant to folklore and belief in the supernatural. Doubting the efficacy of Gros-Jeanne’s traditional remedies, she ‘slipped some vitamin B tablets and a tube of anti-inflammatory cream into Mr. Reed’s package.’ She feels fear ‘like ice in her chest’ when she experiences visions, ‘the gears slipping between the two worlds.’ Gros-Jeanne is the guardian of old knowledge, both medicinal and magical. Like Ianthe’s nurse, she is the carrier of folk culture and she warns Ti-Jeanne: ‘if you don’t learn how to use it [her visionary power], it will use you.’ In Brown Girl we might see the politician Uttley as the ‘aristocratic’ element. She manipulates from afar, never getting her hands dirty or committing a crime. There is a kind of cascading down of vampiric exploitation through the social structure. Uttley gets a nice clean heart in a sterile environment. She sends Baines to Rudy, Rudy instructs Crack to find Tony, and Tony commits murder, preying on ‘the folk’ as represented by Gros-Jeanne.
Twilight notwithstanding, it is surely a given that vampires should be predatory. Looking at a selection of contemporary vampire fiction, it seems that the classic stereotype of a mature, aristocratic male in an opera cloak is open to every form of subversion and reinterpretation. Fangs and garlic are no longer obligatory elements. In Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures, vampires seem to be just one of many coexisting subcultures, albeit one whose members demonstrate some anti-social vices. Rather than having elite status, they are portrayed as an oppressed minority group. In Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite, we meet vampires who are hedonistic wannabe rock stars, a more contemporary form of predatory ‘aristocracy’ perhaps. Fashionable and leisured, their cultish appeal engages with our cultural obsession with celebrity, amongst many other things. Brown Girl, with its layered society, is perhaps atypical of contemporary vampire worlds. Hamilton and Brite foreground communities that comprise various interest groups and subcultures in which ‘society’ and ‘the people’ are less easily differentiated. Brown Girl and Stoker’s Dracula both explore communities that are more obviously stratified, though still complex. I am not aware of any fiction where the vampire predates upwards. The disenfranchised politically aware vampire who preys on the powerful is perhaps an intriguing character in search of an author.
There is no sign of a waning in our fascination with the vampire as a protagonist, but in today’s post-Freudian, post-feminist, post-truth world she or he has travelled a long way from the soil of the Ottoman Empire. The vampire is a persistent cultural meme, following the Darwinian imperative to adapt and survive.
Selected Vampire Texts
Brite, Poppy Z., Lost Souls (Penguin, 2010)
Hamilton, Laurell K., Guilty Pleasures (London: Headline, 1993)
Hopkinson, Nalo, Brown Girl in the Ring (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1998)
Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan, ‘Carmilla’ in In a Glass Darkly (Wordsworth Editions, 2007),
Meyer, Stephenie, Twilight, (London: Atom, 2006)
Polidori, John William, The Vampyre: A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely and Jones, 1819, Kindle Edition)
Stoker, Bram, Dracula: A Mystery Story (London: 1897, Kindle Edition
Brabon, Benjamin A., and Genz, Stéphanie, eds, ‘Introduction: Postfeminist Gothic’, in Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions In Contemporary Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)
Gelder, Ken, Reading the Vampire (London: Routledge, 1994)
Theresa Stoker is an aspiring writer based in Lancashire and the Peloponnese. She writes stage comedies, short stories and is currently working on a novel set in a Greek village. She won first prize in Blackpool Grand Theatre’s Grand Words competition for short comedy plays, and for the RAC’s Driving in Europe short story competition.
Thank you, Theresa, for contributing to The Hub
'WORD SPRINTS' ...by Kirsten McKenzie
Last week I purchased the book 5,000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox. I’d heard a podcast he’d recorded with Joanna Penn, where he talks about getting those 5,000 words down, and fast. Fast and dirty, up to 5,000 words a day. A day!
As an author who aims for 1,000 words a day, but gets distracted by all the bright and shiny things on the internet, and who more usually manages 500-700 words a day, this sounded too good to be true.
But as I near the end of my current novel, PAINTED, my first horror book, I thought I’d delve deeper. So I bought the book*. I read the book, did the exercises, and now I’m raving to everyone about the book.
On the first day I tried the word sprints, I wrote 1,780 words, during seven sprints of five minutes each. So I wrote 1780 words in thirty-five minutes. Unheard of. And they were good words. Words that moved the plot along quickly. Some were misspelt, or had been autocorrected into weird and wonderful words, but the essence of what I’d meant to write was there to see. There were no redundant words.
The second day I sat down to do my five minute word sprints, I wrote 893 words during three five minute sprints. I wrote nearly 900 words in fifteen minutes. And again, they were great fast paced words, uninterrupted by pesky adverbs, or redundant filler.
Then my daughter unexpectedly had her appendix out... so, even taking into account that small blip in my normal writing time, I managed 3,853 words, during a period where I spent two nights sleeping on the floor of the hospital, which wouldn’t normally be conducive to writing anything!
Those 3,853 words were done in fifteen different word sprints, of five minutes each. Taking a grand total of an hour and a quarter to write what would normally take me four or five days of dragging and pulling and heaving the words from my brain and stabbing them onto the page. The 3,853 words written during the word sprints flowed like a Nordic mountain stream after a heavy rain.
I will admit to deviating slightly from Chris’s advice in the book. After each word sprint, I use the Hemingway App to tidy my prose, before I paste it into my master document. Chris’s advice in his book is to finish your book fast and then edit it fast. So I’m apologising in advance for not completely following his instructions, but I am equally in love with the Hemingway App as I am with the concept of word sprints! And for me, it was a natural marriage between sprints and editing which is working for me.
So there we go, advice or feedback for others to consider, should you also find yourself writing about made up people living in make believe houses, running from things that go bump in the night. Word sprints changed my life.
*There is also an app which you can use to track your progress. I use this as well.
For many years Kirsten McKenzie worked in her family's antique store, where she went from being allowed to sell the 50c postcards in the corner of Antique Alley as a child, to selling $5,000 Worcester vases and seventeenth century silverware, providing a unique insight into the world of antiques which touches every aspect of her writing.
Now a full time author, her historical fiction novel, Fifteen Postcards, was published in May 2015, with its sequel The Last Letter released in November 2016. Her books have been described as Time Travellers Wife meets The Far Pavilions with a dash of Antiques Roadshow.
Her horror novel, Painted, is scheduled for release in June 2017.
She lives in New Zealand with her husband, daughters, and her SPCA rescue cat, and can be found procrastinating on Twitter under the handle @Kiwimrsmac.
Thank you Kirsten for contributing to 'The Hub'
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