Universities have lots of potential as settings and sources of characters for stories. Anybody who’s spent time in one and seen the range of fascinating people in academia will vouch for that point. And this week I wrote a guest post for fellow writer JH Mae on this subject…

Terry Pratchett, creator of my favourite fictional university

Terry Pratchett, creator of my favourite fictional university

All Good Wizards Go To College

Given how many authors have been through university, and how many geeky interests are fostered by social networks there, it’s hardly surprising that universities turn up in science fiction and fantasy. They’re a great source of characters, who then provide the drive for plot, but could we be doing more with them?

The Faculty

Let’s start with university staff, in particular the academics. I could write a whole other post on the staff who are missing from fiction but keep a university running – the cleaners, administrators, technicians, etc. But let’s focus on what we’ve got, and that’s academics.

Fictional academics seem to fall into two types, which are sometimes combined.

First there are the wild exaggerations, as seen in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Who doesn’t love the PE-teacher-esque hunting and shooting stereotype of Unseen University’s Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully? Or the quietly erratic Bursar? Or the over-enthusiastic Ponder Stibbons? These caricatures of scholarship and of attitudes to learning provide humour and conflict.

Then there are academics as experts. Where the exaggerated academics are prone to causing the problems, the expert academics provide solutions, and sometimes info-dumps. Between lectures and answering questions, they can give heroes and audiences the answers they need to face the big bad. And when the academics are the protagonists, as in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, their competence in their field makes them likeable, interesting and able to make a difference…

 

For the full article please hop over to JH Mae’s blog. If you come back on Tuesday then you can read a post from JH, on the subject of fiction and the weird. And if you’re after some academically inclined fantasy then my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus features an academic hunting knowledge in a most unusual library and is available through Amazon and Smashwords, still just 99c until the end of this weekend.

The funeral left Steve feeling hollow. Not grief stricken and lonely like his father. Not laughing at happy memories like his mother had wanted. Just empty, like his heart had been eaten away by her cancer. He longed to cry or laugh or do anything that made this feel real, that made it seem like this moment would pass. But there was nothing.

As soon as he could he ducked out of the church hall, past the trays of limp sandwiches and his cousins smoking by the door. He nodded acceptance of their condolences, climbed into his four-by-four and drove.

He travelled in silence. No radio. No CDs. Just the rumble of the engine. He wasn’t going to the office – his mother had always said he spent too much time there. And he couldn’t face his own house, still half-empty a year after Jen left.

Instead he found himself in front of his parents’ house. He parked and walked inside on autopilot, found himself standing in the kitchen, kettle in hand, halfway through making a cup of tea he didn’t want. His eyes were caught by the cookery books beneath the window. The largest and most battered was an old hardback notebook, the one his mother had inherited from his grandmother and that she had kept adding to over the years. The one she had said should be passed down to him.

He pulled out the notebook, fingered its brown-edged pages that smelled of flour and spices, hoping it might stir up his feelings. The recipes were full of his mother’s little jokes.

‘Add a teaspoon of joy.’

‘Mix with two measures of love.’

‘Just a pinch of sorrow.’

But though every recipe contained an emotion, still nothing stirred in Steve’s heart.

He stopped at a fruit cake, one she had made every Easter. She only went to church at Christmas, but something about Easter had mattered to her. When he left home Steve had copied out that recipe so that he wouldn’t miss his mother’s Easter cake. Though it never tasted quite right it was a reminder of her love.

He needed that reminder now.

7128243591_c9ec9bb338_zHe rummaged through the cupboards for sultanas and flour, beat eggs, stirred it all together.

But the dough still didn’t taste right.

He ran down the ingredients again. One line caught his eye.

‘A pinch of sorrow.’

She had always treated those parts so seriously, and he had always ignored them as a strange little joke. But today of all days he wanted to respect her. So he felt inside himself, found the small pinch of sorrow that was all he could feel, and imagined adding it to the mix as he stirred.

Still nothing. He knew it even before he dipped his finger in the thick batter. The whole thing was just another hollow gesture, like the party at the church, like watching her coffin go into the ground.

He suddenly felt foolish, stood here with a bowl of cake mix when he should be mourning. Why couldn’t he even cry?

Filled with frustration he flung the bowl at the wall. It shattered, spattering the paintwork with sticky blobs, shards of glass tumbling to the floor. He sank down onto cold tiles, staring at the mess.

As if released from the ruins of the bowl, a memory came back to him. Squatting on this same floor when he was young, made to sit quietly after fighting with his sister, he had watched every movement his mother made. As his own anger passed he somehow knew that, even when she told him off, his mother still loved him. He watched her as she made that cake. Weighing out sugar, sifting flour, adding raisins. Even the gesture she had made when she came to the pinch of sorrow, like twisting a dial in the air. The same sign his grandma made for good luck or to curse the neighbour’s cat.

He hadn’t thought of that movement in years, but something stirred inside him. Perhaps it was the memory of his mother’s smile. Perhaps it was the way that cat had disappeared, or his grandma’s runs of luck on the bingo. It might just be superstition and desperation, but today the little things mattered.

Steve took a fresh bowl from the cupboard, set to making the cake once more. Weighing, sifting, stirring.

When he came to that instruction, ‘Add a pinch of sorrow’, he twisted the air in that old gesture and thought of what he had lost. Of his mother growing frail in a hospice bed, her flesh fading with her spirit, but the light still bright in her eyes.

Sorrow sprinkled from his fingers, glittering as it fell through a shaft of sunlight and settled in the bowl. With a sense of wonder Steve stirred it in, then dipped his finger and tasted the mix.

He trembled at the perfection of its flavour. Tears poured down his cheeks as grief shook him, grief and gratitude for the woman who had brought him into the world, who had raised him for all those years, and who had left one last lesson in her parting.

Steve tasted sorrow, and knew it would pass.

* * *

 

For more Flash Friday fiction, as instigated by Lisa Walker England, check out the #FlashFriday hashtag over on Twitter, or read some of my previous efforts.

If you liked this story then you might also enjoy my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, available now on Amazon and Smashwords and only 99c until the end of this weekend.

 

Picture by Michelle Schrank via Flickr Creative Commons.

You see this face? This is my happy face!

You see this face? This is my happy face!

It’s not that long since I last wrote about what I’m enjoying about freelance writing, but recent developments are exciting enough to justify another post.

I now have a paid project writing genre fiction. As long as the clients remain happy with my writing – and so far they’re very happy – I will effectively be a full time paid fiction writer for the next two months. This is incredibly exciting. I would go so far as to call this living the dream. The only upgrade would be if I was writing fiction with my name on the cover, but right now that would be icing rather than the cake.

I can’t go into details because it’s a ghost writing gig, but I’ve met two of the people I’m working with and they seem pretty awesome. The plot has already been worked out by someone else, and my job is to turn that into novels. Their approach to collaboration, creativity and business processes is absolutely spot on. If they’ll let me then I’ll write about it in another post, because I think it’s a great example of experimenting with the process of producing a book.

But for now, let’s just stick with yay, writing is awesome!

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.