Mud and Brass - High Resolution - Version 2The mirror was buried deep, and Fred had to pull hard to drag it out of the mud. His fingertips throbbed as he grasped its edge and pulled it up against the resistance of riverside silt.

“Come on!” Polly’s scarred face was wide with alarm. “Smog’s comin’ in, we’ve got to go.”

“Not yet.” The mirror came free with a sucking sound. He slid it in among the dials, gears and cables in his sack.

“Smog’ll kill you!” The ribs of her chest showed beneath her ragged dress.

“So will hunger.”

She didn’t reply, just turned and ran after the rest of the mudlarks.

Fred reached back down, pulled out a flywheel, a strip of canvas, a handful of smaller gears. The hard edges hurt hands swollen and made soft by damp, but he kept going until his sack was full. At last he stood and swung the weight of his findings over his shoulder.

Around him, the Mercers’ factories towered above dense grey-green fog. As he strode from the riverbank up toward the streets, his eyes watered and his throat stung.

The cobbled streets were deserted, doors locked against the smog or anyone desperate enough to be out in it. Fred’s footsteps echoed off grey stone and red brick as he walked away from the factory district and its gear-strewn mud, toward the slums around the edge of the city. He’d waited longer than he should have done, and the smog was becoming dangerously thick, the chemicals from factory fumes stinging his exposed skin. Coughing and spluttering, he had to pause and catch his breath.

Desperation took hold. If the smog grew any denser it would kill him. The sack was slowing him down, but without it what would he have to sell, how would he eat tonight?

He swung the sack around, feeling the burden of its weight. But he had known whole weeks without food, curled over with the cramps of hunger, and could not bear that again.

In desperation he started hammering on doors, but each time angry voices yelled at him to go away. Swinging the bag over his shoulder, eyes watering with fear as well as pain, he stumbled on.

The fog congealed around him like tar. His skin was burning, and when he coughed he tasted blood. Doorways were invisible, the end of the street a distant dream. Only the vague shapes of aristocratic homes were visible, towering through the haze high above his head.

Stumbling to his knees, weak from lack of air, he looked up into that grey sky, where sunlight and clean air hung far beyond his desperate reach. A distant, forbidden realm of the rich and powerful. For him to go there was to face imprisonment or worse.

But what could be worse than death?

With trembling hands he pulled a cable from his sack and tied a loop in the end. Something protruded from the side of a building four floors above, and he flung the loop at that. It fell back useless to the ground. Blood misting his breath, he flung it again and again, until finally it caught.

His face felt like it was being pressed into a fire, and he could barely see through the blurring of his eyes. But he tied his sack to the end of the cable and climbed.

The top of the cable was hooked around a protruding drainpipe. He paused there, pulled the sack up behind him, then flung the cable up again and continued his ascent. Each time he stopped the air was a little clearer, his breathing a little easier, the pain a little less. At last he emerged into sunshine and lay back on a tiled roof thirty storeys above the smog-clogged streets.

Opening the sack to stow away the cable, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mud-smeared mirror. His face was burned all over, skin peeling away.

Fred smiled at the scarred vision. He could make it home with the wealth he had found. He would survive.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago Scott A. Butler wrote a glowing review of my story ‘Mud and Brass’, in which he said he’d like to read more set in that world. Ever keen to give readers what they want, I wrote this story. While it doesn’t revisit the characters, it does take us back to that setting. If you enjoy this then you might want to check out ‘Mud and Brass’, which is free on Amazon and Smashwords.

Write it big enough and your plot template can also provide a handy hat.

Write it big enough and your plot template can also provide a handy hat.

I’m a big believer in templates and structures. For me, they enhance my creativity by giving me a structure to bounce off and a reminder of all the things it’s good to consider. When I put up my character template a few weeks back some people found it useful, so here’s another one, this time for writing plots.

I’ve taken elements of this template from all over the place, but most importantly from Dan Wells’s seven point story structure. When I’m writing a short story I often just use this template, alongside a character template if I’m developing a new character. For longer works I use this sort of format for each plot strand, and then combine them using another template.

Like I said, I love templates.

So here’s my list of things to consider when planning a plot. If you find it useful, or can think of other things you’d add, or even have your own template to share, please let me know in the comments.

My Plot Template v1

Title

Concept

Theme

Why is this series of events happening and important?

What is the main char arc here? – yes, this might also be on the character template, but it’s important to tie it to the plot – who’s going to change, and how, as part of this.

What’s the conflict, including its type – person vs person; person vs themselves; or person vs environment.

What suspense keeps the audience engaged?

What emotional exploration goes deeper?

What are the pauses for reflection? (I skip this when writing flash fiction)

MICE – is it a Milieu, Idea, Character or Event plot? This is a really useful thing to understand, and the linked Writing Excuses episode explains it
– Beginning, as fitting its MICE nature
– End, as fitting its MICE nature

Foreshadowing

The Seven Key Plot Points

Hook
– Questions raised
– Need created in readers

Turn 1

Pinch 1

Midpoint

Pinch 2
– Unexpected but logical direction
– Time pressure for solution

Turn 2

Resolution
– Answers to questions
– Emotional impact

I don’t often write about my depression. It’s a big part of my life, but it’s not what people read me for. That said, discussing this illness helps to raise awareness, and so to help those struggling with depression, which includes quite a few people I care about. So today, briefly, I’m going to talk about depression and my writing.

When it strikes hard, depression gets in the way of my writing. I can’t put words on the page if just facing the keyboard makes my heart race like a steamtrain, or the thought of getting out of bed leaves me in tears. These are real things that happen to me, though fortunately less often than they used to, and just working through it is never the answer – that sets me back even more.

There’s also a difficult balancing act. It can be near impossible for me to tell the difference between anxiety that I can resolve by working through it and depressive periods where the best thing is to rest. Learning to distinguish between them is a huge part of the struggle.

But facing my depression is the whole reason I write for a living. It forced me to face the reality of what makes me happy and sad, what satisfies me or frustrates me. Doing jobs I didn’t really want to do, but had persuaded myself I could live with, was part of what made me sick. Following my dream of writing for a living has caused struggles, not least financially, but I’m a hell of a lot healthier for it.

Depression is the most wretched experience I’ve ever had, and it can hit anyone. So be kind to yourselves and focus on what really matters to you. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I think it’s what we all need, depressive or not.

bookdesign346Writing Excuses continue to provide excellent writing advice and interesting exercises through their podcasts. And so I keep beavering away at the exercises, and where possible using them for work in progress. This week, I’m working on book three of the Epiphany Club series, Aristocrats and Artillery, using the exercise from episode 10.19:

Write dialog in which each of the speakers has a different subtext and motive. Without explicitly stating those, try and make them clear to the reader.

This dialogue is between Isabelle McNair, adventurer and scholar with the Epiphany Club, and Louis, the King Under Paris. Prussian forces are invading France, Napoleon III has been overthrown, and the war is approaching Paris…

The Dialogue

“Your Majesty.” Isabelle curtsied before the King. “So good of you to see us again at this difficult time.”

“Indeed.” There was a secretive little smile at the corner of Louis’s mouth. “The Prussians draw ever closer, and we both know that a republican government cannot stop them.”

“A situation which only makes my plea more urgent.” She rose and looked him in the eye. “Paris is full of priceless artefacts, sources of knowledge that might be endangered by the war.”

“Or by the ignorance of the Prussians.” Louis nodded. “Take this for example.”

He drew back the cloth on the table next to him, revealing a stone tablet. A tablet like the two in Isabelle’s room back at the hotel, packed and ready to depart. This time he favoured them all with his knowing smile.

“To some it just looks like a rock.” The King ran a finger across the engraved surface. “But to persons of learning it could be a source of great knowledge.”

“Indeed.” Isabelle’s voice remained remarkably calm. “We should ensure that it is safe.”

“We should ensure that the whole city is safe from the invaders. And for that I need all the support I can muster.”

“You will need supporters abroad.” Isabelle made a small gesture with her hand, taking in all three members of the Epiphany Club. “People with influence in foreign governments. Respected organisations that can quickly win diplomatic support for your regime.”

“And I would reward such friends greatly.” The King smiled and pulled the cloth back across the stone. “Once my city and my country are secure.”

Did It Work?

So, readers, what did you think the characters’ motives and subtexts were in that conversation? Is it clear, incomprehensible, actually a little too obvious? Please let me know how I’ve got on.

A someone focussed on words, I’m normally drawn to comics by their writers. But there three exceptions, artists whose work is so distinctive and brilliant that I’ll pick up a book just for them – Jamie McKelvie, Frank Quitely, and Bryan Talbot. Fortunately for me, Talbot is also a fan of stemapunk, as shown in one of his worlds that I’ve returned to this week, the strange place that is Grandville.

Wind in the Willows But With Murder

Grandville and its sequel, Grandville Mon Amour, are the sort of strange, idea-packed stories that the comics industry is particularly friendly towards. It’s a steampunk that combines an alternate history in which Napoleon won with a world of anthropomorphic animal people. Into this mix are thrown murder mystery plots which must be solved by the hero, Detective Inspector LeBrock.

One of the reasons this setting works so well as a comic is that the visuals provide a constant reminder of the setting, without getting in the way of the plot. Every moment your eye is on the page acts as a reminder of the odd world Talbot has created. This means he doesn’t have to stop to describe a strange gadget or the hamster landlady – they’re just there on the page, the story flowing through them.

Tying the Strands Together

As detective stories, LeBrock’s adventures aren’t particularly innovative in their rhythm or labyrinthine in their twists. But that doesn’t matter because they’re so strongly told. The central character, the setting and the crime are all neatly connected, meaning that each one helps to inform the readers about the other parts. The alternate history background is not incidental. The Socialist Republic of Britain’s recent separation from the French Empire is intrinsic to the mysteries LeBrock faces, the obstacles standing in his way, and his own life.

Story, character and setting all inform each other in fascinating and efficiently executed ways.

Beautifully Illustrated

The art too is tied to the story telling. Talbot uses interesting layouts to tell sequences without words, uses his amazing skill to bring the characters and setting to life. Everything is clear, vivid and wonderful to look at. His subjects are sometimes ugly – the scarred, dog-faced serial killer; the hippopotamus brothel madam – but the beauty of his illustration makes me want to keep staring at them.

Grandville is a strange, wonderful place, and one I’d heartily recommend visiting.

Daredevil has shown that the combination of superheroes and gritty noire drama can work on TV as well as in comics. If that’s a new idea to you, or one you want to explore further, then I recommend one of the all time great overlooked comics – Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

Sleeper is the story of Holden Carver, a secret agent under cover in an organisation of supercriminals. Except that he’s been cut adrift, without a handler or support, and being undercover means acting like the people he’s pretending to be. As loyalties tangle and motives blur, Holden is faced with the terrible question of whether he’s really a hero or just another villain. And worse yet, which does he want to be?

I’m not going to provide a detailed review. There’s so much to love about this comic that I could spend weeks picking over the details. Sean Phillips’s art is the perfect choice for a noire story, full of shadows and worn down looking characters. The supercriminal underworld is well thought out. The characters have both novel hooks and hidden depths. The plot is twisted but always coherent. The page layouts play with the comic book medium in ways that will delight long time comic fans without getting in the way of casual readers.

This book only ran for twenty-four issues, collected in four volumes. That means you can enjoy the whole story without getting lost in the endless web of superhero connectivity or decades long arcs. If you don’t have a comic shop nearby you can download the free Comixology app and buy the e-reader version through there. And you should. Because Sleeper is amazing.

Content warning though – Sleeper is full of violence, sex, bad language and unpleasant characters, sometimes all at once. It takes a dark palette to enjoy it.

rosesEvery day for a month, as she walked through the palace gardens, Lady Elana looked up at the high balcony where Prince Novak sat, his handsome face as pale and sorrowful as old bones. She had read the books of poetry he wrote before his mother’s death, and so knew that there was joy and beauty in him, such joy and beauty that it had captured her own heart. But she had come to court too late to meet the man with whose words she had fallen in love. Now he sat alone behind locked doors and his father’s guards, slumped in sorrow.

Elana was determined to change that.

It took her weeks to identify the brief moment each day when the guards did not watch the wall below the balcony. She waited another month for the perfect blue rose to emerge in the garden, just as it had in Novak’s poetry. At last her moment came.

She plucked the rose, grasped it between her teeth and scrambled up the ivy. Stone scraped her knuckles red raw, and thorns drew blood from her lips, but at last she reached the top and held out the flower to Prince Novak.

“I found beauty amid brambles.” She recited the first line of her favourite verse, and the smallest of smiles flickered at his mouth.

“What is this?” The King was furious as he stomped out onto the balcony. “I keep my son here to protect him from harlots like you, preying upon his weakness as you scrabble to become queen. I will have none of it!”

“Please.” Elana trembled as she bowed low before the King. “Please, I just want to make him happy. The flower made him smile. Surely that is worth something?”

The King looked at his son, and for a moment his expression softened.

It was only a moment.

“Any courtly lady can make a young man smile,” he growled. “It is what you are trained for. Make me smile, and then I will let you see him again.”

#

Every day for a month, Elena was allowed into the King’s presence and given one chance to make him smile. At first she sang songs and told jokes, but his expression remained stern. Then she tried stories of glory and heroism, which she had been told he loved in his youth, but still no smile. She brought bouquets of flowers, fine artworks, beautiful and exotic birds, but not a hint of happiness touched the King’s lips.

Determined to succeed, Elena learnt new skills. Every month for a year she would dedicate herself to a new entertainment, perfecting some display before bringing it before the King. She became an acrobat, an illusionist, a high wire ballerina. Courtiers were dazzled by the spectacle of her displays, but the King continued to glare.

At last came the day when Elena could do nothing more. Every muscle ached from endless training. All her money was gone, spent on experts and tutors. So many crafts filled her mind, ideas and information cramming up against each other, that she could barely sleep at night from keeping them all in.

She bowed low before the King, her last threadbare gown sweeping the floor.

“I have failed, your majesty,” she said. “I am penniless, and must now leave court. But if my example inspires another, and one day they make Novak happy, then every moment of this has been worthwhile.”

With all the dignity she could muster, she turned to walk away.

“Wait.” The King’s voice was soft.

Elena turned to see a tear rolling from the corner of his eye.

“It amazes me,” he said. “That you could care for my son so much that after all this you are happy just knowing that he is too.”

He waved to one of his guards.

“Take her to Prince Novak.” At last a smile appeared on the King’s face.

#

Every day for a month, Elena visited Prince Novak on his balcony. They read stories, admired the garden, and wrote poetry together. Slowly but surely, the Prince’s smile returned. It became fixed forever when, the very next year, they were wed.

* * *

After enjoying my fantasy story ‘The Wizard’s Tower’, Joanna challenged me to write a story in which a female suitor must prove her worthiness for a sheltered man, the reversal of the usual roles. This is the result. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’d like to receive a story each week directly to your inbox then please sign up for my mailing list.

As an added bonus, fellow writer Steve Cook has recorded an audio version of one of my previous stories, steampunk adventure ‘A Flash of Power’. He’s done a great job, full of sound effects and enthusiasm, and you can listen to that here.