This weekend I went to a historical reenactors’ market with Laura and her aunt. While the ladies were perusing hats and finding bargain fabric for costumes, I instead took the opportunity for some ad hoc writing research. Among the interesting things I saw and discovered were…

Take two weapons into the fight? Not me, I just shoot and hack with this handy axe pistol!

Take two weapons into the fight? Not me, I just shoot and hack with this handy axe pistol!

Sometimes real weapons are even crazier than those in steampunk and fantasy. Take this combination axe/pistol from Radbourn Designs. It was used in boarding actions by 17th century Italian sailors, so that they could shoot someone out of the way as they swung onto the enemy boat and then immediately start hacking people up. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of high seas brutality, and the next pirate I write is having one.

The blunderbuss, designed for your shooting convenience

The blunderbuss, designed for your shooting convenience

According to the chap running Derbyshire Arms, blunderbusses have those wide mouths to make it easier to load them on a moving ship or carriage. It’s those sort of practical details most of us don’t know, and that can make a story more convincing.

And these are meant to make you feel better...

And these are meant to make you feel better…

This horrifying looking surgeons’ kit includes hooks, second from right, which may have been intended to hold the wound open, allowing the surgeon to finish their work as quickly as possible in the days before anaesthetics and blood transfusions, when speed was of the essence. Though to my modern eye it looks more like a torture device.

I was shown this by Mark Annable, UK Team Captain for Battle of the Nations, the sport where people engage in full-on full-armoured combat. I can’t find the fantastic trailer he showed me, but this should give you an idea of what’s involved:

 

That is so not for me with my terrible fear of pain, but Mark and his friends clearly love it.

Viking knives!

Viking knives!

These knives were made by Andy Colley of Aarg Armouries, a third generation blacksmith whose grandfather started the business after serving as a farrier in World War One. Apparently these knife designs are mostly found in coastal areas, and those strangely shaped metal handles are probably designed to make it easier to keep your grip if the knife gets wet. Andy’s theory about the chunky blades is that this was a fashion that arose because metal was expensive, and so having lots of it in your knife, sword or whatever was a way of showing off your wealth.

I also got some great insights into metal working from Steve of Reddog Forge and on the technology and culture of bow production from Nick Winter of Arbalist Armoury.

I learnt so many fascinating details from the day, and have several pages of notes that I’ll be using later. But the main thing that I learnt was how willing people were to talk about their craft. I’ve come away from the day with business cards for half a dozen passionate, excited experts in their fields, people who said that they’d be happy to help me with research questions further down the line. A nice day out with family proved to be a really useful one for me as a writer, and a fascinating one for me as a history geek. So writers, get out there, go to events related to your genre, pick people’s brains – odds are you’ll get some great results.

This weekend is Stockport Viking Market – more research here I come!

Today I have the honour of hosting another guest post from indie author Russell Phillips. Russell combines an insider’s knowledge of the challenges of indie publishing with a computer programmer’s awareness of how to get the most out of the tools available to us, and this post brings those things together to offer a technological solution to many of your editing needs.

Over to you Russell…

Using Regular Expressions To Find Common Errors

I have a great editor, but I understand that she is human, and therefore she makes mistakes, and misses things, just like I do. Therefore, I like to try and make my manuscript as good as I can before I hand it over to her. The trouble with editing your own work, of course, is that all too often, your brain sees what is supposed to be there, not what is actually there.

6924714676_c2ded5b976_z

One tool I use for finding errors is regular expressions. Regular expressions are like search and replace on steroids. Instead of finding simple strings of text, regular expressions provide a way to find patterns within the text. This makes them ideal for finding certain types of error that can occur all too easily when writing a long piece of text. The use of copy & paste, deleting, etc, can mean that even simple grammatical mistakes or typos can slip in and not be noticed.

Below I have listed some regular expression searches that I currently use on my manuscripts before sending them to my editor. To use one of them, simply copy it into the “Find” box in your word processor, just as you would type in a word you wanted to search for in the text. Note that they are formatted with a different background colour because spaces at the start or end can be important. It is possible to use regular expressions to replace text, but I haven’t included replacement expressions because I prefer to be cautious and make corrections manually. I’ve tried to order them in increasing complexity, and I’ve included some explanatory text for each one.

The expressions given below should work in LibreOffice and Scrivener version 2.4 or later (earlier versions don’t support regular expressions). Microsoft Word also supports regular expressions, although the syntax is rather unusual, so you’ll need to check the documentation for help. Whichever software you use, you will have to tell it that you’re doing a regular expression search, rather than a normal text search. In LibreOffice Writer, use the “Find and Replace” function (not “Find”). Click “Other Options” in the dialogue box, and tick the “Regular expressions” tickbox. In Scrivener project search, select “RegEx” from the operator section of the magnifying glass icon menu. In Scrivener document find, select “Regular Expressions (RegEx)” from the “Find Options” drop-down menu.

Note that, when copying and pasting from your browser into the search box, make sure that the quotation marks are correct – they sometimes get mangled.

Punctuation And Quotation Marks

This is a simple expression, but there are two versions. In British English, the convention is to have commas and full stops outside quotation marks, whereas in US English, commas and full stops are placed inside the quotation marks.

Expression to find commas and full stops inside quotation marks (use this if you write in British English):

[.,]“

Expression to find commas and full stops outside quotation marks (use this if you write in US English):

“[.,]

These simple expressions match a quotation mark followed or preceded by a full stop or a comma. Square brackets are used to group characters, so that if any character in the square brackets is present, a match is found. In this case, the square brackets are used to match a full stop or comma, but nothing else.

“a” instead of “an”

This expression will find words that begin with a vowel immediately preceded by “a”, instead of “an”:

a [aeiou]

The first three characters are simple: space, lower case “a”, space. Then square brackets are used to group all five vowels. Note that the “Match case” option must be selected in LibreOffice for it to work correctly.

Oxford Commas

At school, I was taught not to use Oxford commas, but I use them in my books because they can avoid ambiguity. Unfortunately, because I didn’t use them for so long, I frequently forget to add them. Consequently, one of the first regular expressions I wrote to check for errors in my writing was to spot missing Oxford commas. Note that this won’t find every sentence that is missing an Oxford comma, but that’s why you have a human editor :)

\w+, \w+ and 

If you have the opposite problem, and you don’t want Oxford commas, the following expression should find them:

\w+, \w+, and 

“\w” matches a word character, ie any character that can be part of a word (letters, numbers, etc). The “+” means at least one of the preceding characters must be present, so “\w+” matches a word.

Missing Capital After Full Stop

I started using this expression after seeing this error in a book published by HarperCollins. If the big publishers can miss such basic mistakes, so can the rest of us.

Note that the “Match case” option must be selected in LibreOffice for it to work correctly. Acronyms followed by lower case letters, eg “The N.C.O. said” will not be matched.

[^.][^A-Z]\. [a-z]

This expression introduces a new twist on the use of square brackets: if the first character in the square brackets is a “^”, it matches anything NOT in the group. So, “[^.][A-Z]” matches anything that is not a full stop, followed by anything that is not an uppercase letter. The next term is “.”, which matches a full stop. When not in square brackets, a full stop is a wildcard, but placing a backslash before it tells the regular expression engine to treat it as a full stop, not as a wildcard. Finally, it matches a space followed by a lowercase letter.

Missing Brackets

It’s far too easy to forget to close brackets, or to accidentally delete the closing bracket. This expression will find an opening bracket that doesn’t have a matching closing bracket.

\([^)]*$

Since parentheses have a special meaning in regular expressions, the opening bracket is prefixed with a backslash. This tells the regular expression engine to treat it as a simple opening bracket. The “[^)]” matches any character that is not a closing bracket, and the “*” means “match this zero or more times”. Finally, the “$” indicates the end of the line/paragraph.

Repeated Word

Repeated words crop up sometimes, and often aren’t noticed if the word happens to appear at the end of one line and the start of the next line.

\b(\w+)\b \b\1\b

This one may look rather odd, but is simple once you understand it. As above, “\w+” is used to match a word. The parentheses are used to group the characters that are matched, so that they can be referred to later in the expression. The “\1” matches the group in the parentheses. “\b” denotes a word boundary. In this case, it is used to ensure that only complete words are matched. Without the word boundaries, it would match a term like “anderson song” as the “son” would be matched in both words.

Putting all that together, this expression matches a complete word, followed by at least one space, followed by the same complete word.

Want To Learn More?

If you want to learn to write regular expressions to find the mistakes that you find yourself making, www.regular-expressions.info is an excellent learning resource, and regex101.com has a regular expression tester, which will also explain the elements of the regular expression. Finally, feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I will try to help.

 

About the blogger

Russell Phillips is an author of books on military history and technology. Born and brought up in a mining village in South Yorkshire, Russell has lived and worked in South Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Cumbria and Staffordshire. His articles have been published in Miniature Wargames, Wargames Illustrated, and the Society of Twentieth Century WargamersJournal. He has been interviewed for the American edition of The Voice of Russia. He currently lives in Stoke-on-Trent with his wife and two children.

 

Picture by Joanna Penn via Flickr Creative Commons.

I love it when a story does darkness well. Watching the first episode of Gotham, the new sort-of-prequel-to-Batman TV show, I was struck by how well executed that darkness was. It shows a city of dark alleys, grey skies, smoking factories and police corruption. A take on Batman where even the usually civilised Alfred has the grim air of an ex-army sergeant. In both look and content, this is a dark show, and one of the darkest facets is its morality.

 

James Gordon – I’d look grumpy too if I lived in Gotham

It’s hardly surprising that the guy running the show, Bruno Heller, is showing a city where institutions are corrupt and decisions are pragmatic rather than idealistic. This is the man who gave us Rome, a show all about the fall of that city’s republic and its transformation through war and murder into an empire. His characters can embody principles – James Gordon, the central character in Gotham, certainly does – but institutions do not embody principles, their functions are not ideal or eternal. The roles of police, politicians, even criminals are negotiated out of power relationships, the people changed by the institutions and the institutions by the people. It’s realistic, in a cynical sort of way.

I love this exploration of social institutions through story telling. We take so many of the organisations and power structures around us for granted, and TV shows in particular tend to present them in an unquestioned, unchanging light. But everything change over time, that’s how history happens, that’s what I like to see.

The ridiculously names, and yet ridiculously cool, Fish Mooney

This doesn’t mean that there’s no right or wrong, but it encourages us to challenge our assumptions about how society works.

If this cynical take on society sets the show adrift on a sea of moral uncertainty, then this is nicely matched by its aesthetics. Not just because Gotham is a visually grim place, but because its style doesn’t fit any particular point in time. It’s an ambiguity that fits the original comics, in which most of the characters have aged little if at all through over 70 years in print. That means that Batman’s timeline makes little sense, and we’re still expected to read stories from the 1960s as a near-contemporary part of his life, despite al the changes in technology, style and social expectations.

The Gotham city of Gotham, instead of ducking that problem by picking a timeframe, plays with it with relish. There’s hardly any digital technology on display, and the computer monitors in the police precinct appear to be bulky monochrome affairs, yet characters carry cellphones. I don’t know much about fashion, but I’d have been hard pressed to pin down a decade from what I saw. The cars, the diners, the booze bottles and performers in the nightclubs, they all contribute to an air of uncertainty over when this is taking place.

So we’re in when, exactly?

And yet that creates a distinctive sense of place and time in itself. Like steampunk and other retro-futurist genres, it mashes real and imagined period elements together to create its own aesthetic, one in which the city’s issues with powerful, institutionalised crime make perfect sense. One that you might expect to corrupt characters or to drive them mad.

Gotham holds out promise to become something fascinating. On the basis of one episode I can’t tell whether it will achieve that, but I am really intrigued.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionFor Ubu, the gladiator life is short and brutal, but in the shadow of the arena there is a chance for something more.

I know that a lot of people like to listen to their books rather than read. And as it happens the first story in By Sword, Stave or Stylus is already available to listen to. When Wily Writers originally published ‘Live by the Sword’ they included an audio version. So if you’d like a chance to listen to the first short story in my new collection, or just to read a bit of the collection before you buy, then you can check it out over on Wily Writers.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus is still only 99c for the next week, and the Wily Writers recording is free, so why not give them a go?

 

And while I’m pointing you towards other reading, I’ve had a couple of guest posts this week on other blogs. Over at the Steampunk Journal I’ve written about moving buildings in steampunk stories, while at Alt Hist I’ve written some more about the challenges of world building for alternate history. If you have time please check them out.

‘Lying is an art,’ Falling Leaf said, pouring from the small earthenware teapot. ‘I do not go to such lengths for those I despise.’

Aoandon’s clawed blue fingers reached across the low table and closed around her teacup. Her lips parted, revealing a flash of teeth as sharp as her horns. Falling Leaf shuddered and fought down the instinct to flee. After all the pains and preparations to reach this point, she could not give up now.

‘Lying is as much my realm as any other story,’ Aoandon said. ‘It would help you little today.’

Falling Leaf straightened the folds of her second best kimono.

‘Is something wrong with the tea?’ she asked, noticing that the oni had not yet taken a drink.

‘Lying is one thing,’ Aoandon said. ‘Poisoning another. A matriarch will do much to rid her village of a menace.’

Falling Leaf inclined her head.

‘You are wise,’ she said. ‘My tea is just the same as yours.’

6122637004_a4aa714592_zShe took a sip from her own small cup. This was the finest tea she had, the freshest young leaves from the tip of the bush, harvested and dried under moonlight. But today even this tasted bitter.

She drained her cup and poured another. The oni smiled, drank, and held her cup out for another serving.

‘What does it benefit you to haunt us?’ Falling Leaf asked. ‘To traumatise children, frighten old people to death, make men so scared that they will not go into the fields for the harvest?’

Aoandon smiled. In any other face that smile would have been a thing of grace and beauty, but it sent a shiver through Falling Leaf.

‘Your people’s fear is to me as rice or fish or fine tea,’ Aoandon said. ‘It sustains me. It invigorates me. It makes my life worthwhile.’

‘You lived in the shadows for so long,’ Falling Leaf said. ‘Showing yourself in only in the moments after ghost stories had ended, feeding off the fear of those moments. Is that not enough?’

‘Barely.’ Aoandon held out her empty cup again. ‘And one can never have too much. Your people told so many stories, so many lies, I no longer needed to hide from the light. Would you stay in others’ shadows, given the choice?’

‘I raised seven children.’ Falling Leaf filled her own cup too, enjoyed the soft scent of the steam. ‘One of them is head man, as his father was before him.’

‘Half truths are still truths, but I am the devourer of stories, I see through the gaps. You are trapped, just as you have always been. You come here reluctantly, the village’s pet story teller sent to bargain with a demon. But all you really want is out. Please, deny any of it – I will know if you are lying.’

Falling Leaf looked down at her own trembling hands. The creature knew her better than her husband had, better than her children did, better than she had even known herself for many years. All that time forcing herself to be good and diligent, until it was too late to follow the craving for freedom she finally recognised. Until she was as scared of her own broken heart as of the oni that plagued her people.

She looked up, tears running from her eyes.

‘This is good tea,’ Aoandon said, reaching out and pouring for herself. ‘But you cannot have hoped to persuade me with just tea. So tell me, why should I seek out the life that you yourself cannot accept? What words can possibly persuade me?’

‘None,’ Falling Leaf whispered.

‘And what lies could possibly trick me?’

‘None.’

‘So you see, I am going nowhere.’ Aoandon tilted back her head, raised the teapot and poured its contents straight down her throat. The finest tea in the village, gone in five long gulps. She slammed it down on the table so hard that the pot cracked. ‘Delicious.’

With a click and a small thud the teapot fell in two, spilling damp green leaves onto the pale wood of the table. Tiny black berries stood out amidst the debris. Aoandon stared at them, her face crumpling in outrage and then fear.

‘The fruit of the drifting tree,’ Falling Leaf said. The trembling had spread to her whole body now. ‘I traded my best kimono for them.’

‘These will kill me,’ Aoandon said. She jerked to her feet, staggered and fell shaking to one knee. Her terror finally made that blue face beautiful. ‘But you… It will kill you too.’

‘Yes.’ The tears had turned to blood now, and Falling Leaf’s vision was fading.

‘Your people asked you to do this?’ Aoandon’s words were turning into a rasping wheeze. ‘Yet you would die for them?’

‘They did not ask me,’ Falling Leaf said. ‘They never would.’ The world was black now. She lay down. The floor was soft and warm. ‘I told them I had come to make peace.’

 

* * *

This story is part of Flash Friday, as started by Lisa Walker England. It was inspired by a writing prompt suggested by Paige Reiring, and I learned about the antagonist from this cool post.

If you liked this story then you might also enjoy my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, available now on Amazon and Smashwords.

 

Picture by David Offf via Flickr Creative Commons.

Yes, I’m still thinking about NaNoWriMo

As I start planning for NaNoWriMo, I face the crucial question of what to write.

This might sound like an easy decision – I should write what I’m interested in, right?

Well yes, except that loads of things interest me. Steampunk adventures, speculation about bleak or hopeful futures, fantasy worlds of wild magic and stranger creatures, history and alternate history…

When I was focused on short fiction that was fine. I could write a new story every week, pander to all those different interests. But while short fiction’s a great calling card it’s not a great way to make money off fiction, and it’s obviously no good for a 50,000+ word novel. So I need to pick something to focus on.

I have two options I’m seriously considering, and that I need to pick between so that I can start planning.

On the one hand I’m taken with the idea of writing a historical novel around the Battle of Agincourt. It’s a period I know well, so the research I don’t have completed already would be fairly straightforward. I’m really interested in the Middle Ages. I think it could make an interesting story on what it means to become an adult and on the darkness of war. And next year is the 600th anniversary of the battle, which should make such a novel quite marketable in about six months time.

On the other hand there’s a steampunk detective story I’ve been contemplating writing for about a year. I’ve got a notebook half filled with the background of the world. It explores ideas of class, religion and what it means to be human, all of which interest me just as much as strange machines, curious inventors and sprawling industrial cities. And as I have some other steampunk stuff at the editing stage for release early next year, this is more in keeping with the brand I’ve been building.

As you can see, there are both artistic and writing-as-business reasons to go each way. I can write both books eventually, unless something more exciting drags my attention away, but the question is what should I write now? And with so many factors to consider, and so much enthusiasm for both projects, I’m struggling to decide.

So as the core of my small current readership is centred around this blog I thought I’d ask – which do you think I should write? Which book would you be more excited to read?

And how do you decide what to write? Maybe that’ll help me too.

Oh, and for any of you doing NaNoWriMo, I’ve now signed up to their website as gibbondemon – come find me as a writing buddy!

NaNoWriMo?

Posted: October 15, 2014 in writing
Tags: , ,

How cool is that NaNoWriMo logo? And does this mean I ought to write while wearing a Viking helmet?

Valued readers, are any of you planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year?

For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a challenge whereby thousands of people across the world try to write a 50,000 word story, or at least the first 50,000 words of a story, in November. It’s a motivational exercise and an opportunity to discuss what you’re up to with other writers, and it’s gone way beyond its ‘National’ American origins.

I had a go at NaNoWriMo three years ago. I managed the wordcount, though I did it without joining in the online or local discussions, which in retrospect was a wasted opportunity. The following two years I was in no state to put that pressure on myself, but this year I’ve decided that I’m up for it, spurred on by Russell Phillips who is also joining in for the first time, and who has an interesting guest post coming up here next week.

NaNoWriMo isn’t really about hitting that 50,000 word target. Plenty of people get a lot out of it without even coming close. It’s about finding the focus and the determination to take the most important step in writing, putting lots of words down on the page. It’s about helping each other get motivate, and that’s a great objective.

November’s coming up fast, so I figure that I’ve got two weeks to plan my novel beforehand. I’m very much a planning sort of writer, and having that plan ready to go will make it easier for me to churn out the daily word count.

So, are any of the rest of you planning to do NaNoWriMo this year? What are you planning to write? Have you done it in the past, and do you have any advice based on that experience? And if you’ve never even considered it before, why not give it a go? We can work together to stay motivated and get those words written.

To the writing cave! I have chapters to plan.