• The Sun Still Rises – a historical flash story

    As he ran through the grey pre-dawn light, Ozcollo was grateful for the civilising influence of the empire. Thanks to the great Inca, there were well-kept roads between the cities, their beaten paths smooth beneath his sandals. It made the life of a messenger far easier, and the roads endured even as the empire fell.

    He picked up his pace. Soon, he felt a pain in his side, but he kept going. If he didn’t reach his destination before dawn, the recipients of his message might have moved on. They might never receive the information recorded in the knots of the quipu strings he carried.

    As the sun started to peek out from between the hills, he rounded a bend in the road and almost ran straight into two men. Both were Spaniards, with their ugly, tangled beards and their deadly blades. Both drew their swords as they saw him.

    “What are you doing here, then?” one of the men asked.

    Ozcollo considered just turning and running away. But he had been running for a long time. If these men were healthy then they might well catch him. Even if not, his message would not get through. Too many people depended upon him to let that happen.

    “You don’t understand us, do you?” The man came closer, blade raised, and his companion joined him. The leading Spaniard’s faced was wrinkled, his skinned weathered but his eyes still bright. “Ignorant little bastard. Should I just run him through, do you think?”

    Ozcollo had only a moment to act. He could run. He could fight. He could cower. Or he could try something smart.

    “I understand,” he said. “I learn your words.”

    The Spaniards stared at him in surprise.

    “Well, fuck me,” the weathered man said. “A smart savage. How do you come to know Spanish?”

    “Messenger,” Ozcollo said, pointing at himself and hoping he’d got the right word. “Better messenger if know your words.”

    “A messenger, eh?” The Spaniard stepped closer. The tip of his blade rested against Ozcollo’s chest. “Or a spy?”

    Ozcollo froze. Had they sensed where his loyalties lay? Or had he just chosen the wrong word, something that had put them on edge?

    He thought of the strings in his hand, of the importance of his message. He tried desperately to think of a way out.

    “Got to be up to no good,” the Spaniard said. “Why else would you be running through the dark?”

    “For cold,” Ozcollo said. “Easier run.”

    “Hm.” The Spaniard looked uncertain. He had to know that only important people could give orders to imperial messengers and that if he killed one on official business he would be in trouble. But if he let a rebel go free, that put all the Spaniards at risk. “Reckon we’ll take you back to Cuzco, see what the boss says.”

    Ozcollo gripped the quipu strings tight. The sun’s rays burst out between the hills, warming his face. He might be too late already. But if he let these men take him, he would definitely be too late.

    “After all,” the Spaniard said, narrowing his eyes, “why would any of you be on our side?”

    “My father says thing,” Ozcollo said, painfully aware of how limited his Spanish really was. “He says, ‘when bad happens, sun still rises’.”

    The other Spaniard laughed.

    “I like that,” he said. “It’s like, whoever’s in charge, life goes on. You keep doing your thing.”

    “Yes,” Ozcollo said, nodding and smiling a hollow smile.

    The older Spaniard lowered his sword.

    “Can’t argue with that,” he said. “How else would we end up working for a bunch of shitbags like the Pizarro brothers?”

    All three of them laughed, but there was still a glint in the older Spaniard’s eyes.

    “Don’t you go repeating that,” he said, raising his sword again. “Else I’ll gut you after all.”

    “I not say,” Ozcollo said, nodding again. “Our secret, yes?”

    “That’s right.” The Spaniard lowered his sword. “Go on, then.”

    He gestured down the road.

    Ozcollo ran. The sun was rising as the Spaniards’ voices faded into the distance.

    Half a mile later, Ozcollo headed off the main road. He ran as fast as he could up a track to a hillside village, a place of rough stone huts with reed roofs.

    A group of men were just leaving the village. To his relief, Ozcollo saw his father among them, wearing the feathered head dress of an Incan lord. Ozcollo ran up to him, bowed, and handed over the quipu strings.

    “Tallies of the troops gathering in the north,” he said. “Men ready to throw off the invaders.”

    The Lord Atoc smiled as he took the message from his son.

    “See?” he said to the men around him. “Darkness has fallen across our land, but the lord sun is never defeated, and neither is our spirit. The Spaniards may seek to plunge us into darkness, but the sun still rises.”

    The men raised axes, clubs, and spears above their heads.

    “The sun still rises,” they called out.

    As the rebels headed out of the village, Ozcollo sat with his back against one of the houses. He had seen much of the Spaniards. He didn’t know if his father could win. But win or lose, this felt like a victory. They had not simply lain down and given in. They still had their gods, their dreams, their quipu strings. The spirit of the Incas lived on.

    Golden light spilled between the hills and warmed his face.

    “What are you grinning about?” a woman asked as she emerged from the house.

    “The sun still rises,” Ozcollo said.

    * * *

     

    That’s it for Shadows of the Golden Sun, my foray into the fall of the Incan Empire. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you want to read more from me covering these momentous events, Inca: The Golden Sun is out now from Peachill Publishing. It’s a tale of ambition, greed, envy, and desperation, as two very different worlds collide.

    You can find links to all these stories, and others I’ve written over the years, here. And you can read more of my historical fiction in From a Foreign Shore.

    Next week, it’s time for some steampunk.


  • Editing: The Hard Emotional Work of Accepting When You’re Wrong

    For me, editing is the hardest part of writing.

    I mean sure, it looks like less work than the writing itself. You don’t need to invent the plot or craft whole chapters from scratch. The material’s there on the page and someone else has given you feedback on what to do with it. This should be easy, right?

    Wrong.

    For two reasons.

    The first, and probably the smaller point, is that there’s no flow. When you’re first writing a story, you get into the rhythm of it. One thing naturally leads to another, one piece of action or emotion to the next. Sure, there are scene and chapter breaks, but as long as the ideas keep coming, you can keep going.

    Not so with editing. It’s a stop-start process where you keep having to start again on a new comment, a new change, and different piece of the text. It’s bitty work in which you constantly have to will yourself to tackle the next new thing. That’s emotionally draining and it exaggerates the impact of the second issue – the acceptance of criticism.

    Editing is about accepting that you were wrong. Every little mark the editor leaves is a sign that they think there’s a better way to do what you’ve done. Every time you change something, you’re conceding what a corner of your mind feels as an error.

    That’s hard to do. Our first reaction to any disagreement is to get defensive. It’s the most natural human reaction. Whether it’s in politics or relationship or just opinions on books, we’ll tend to double down and justify ourselves when challenged. Conceding the point to somebody else is tough.

    It’s especially tough when it’s about something you’ve created. Even when I’m working collaboratively, ghostwriting somebody else’s plot, I’ll get defensive. My brain sees criticism of me when the editor’s intent is constructive comments to make a story better. I’m not saying it’s healthy. I’m not saying it’s right. But it’s what the brain tends to do. Somebody is attacking your precious creation and by extension you!

    Except that they aren’t. It’s not an attack, even though you feel it that way. And so, after the emotional battering of reading the comments there comes the emotional work of changing your perspective, seeing how their way might be better than yours, undoing your own work.

    If that doesn’t make some small corner of your mind scream in horror, then you’re a better person than me.

    I cope with it all by giving in to that scream before I do anything else. I read through the notes. I yell at the screen about how they’re wrong. I run through my defense of what was there before. I let the defensiveness out.

    And then I let it go. Because an editor has a perspective on my writing that I don’t. 99% of the time they’re going to be right. So once I’ve got my raging out of the way, I take a deep breath, come back with a cleansed emotional pallet, and try to see why they might be right. It’s still not easy, but at least I’m no longer fighting myself every step of the way.

    Editing, especially responding to the editorial comments of others, is damn hard work. But at least when we acknowledge that we can make it a little easier.


  • Making Horror and Inspiring Emotion – Ian Thomas’s Nine Worlds Panel

    Learning from disciplines and genres other than your own is one of the best ways to expand your writing. It helps you look at the craft from different angles and come up with ideas you would never normally encounter. This is especially true when there’s someone smart and insightful talking on the subject. So while I don’t often write horror or games, Ian Thomas’s talk at Nine Worlds on making horror in games gave me some great food for thought.

    Looking through my notes, there was plenty of stuff I’ll save for if I ever run live roleplay again. Things like using all your senses, knocking players off balance emotionally so that they stop and watch, or providing a pile of in character documents instead of a character description so that players would fill the gaps and imagine themselves into the character’s life. It’s thinking outside the default approach to games, which is how you make something that stands out.

    But there were some lessons that clearly apply to writing as well.

    Scare the player/reader, not the character. After all, it’s the reader’s emotions that will keep them engaged. And to a large extent, this applies to other emotions. Whether it’s leading readers into a crush on a romantic lead or making them really angry at the villain, those feelings are the real power in a story. So consider the readers’ emotions.

    Put yourself in the player/reader’s shoes. What will they be thinking about at any given point, given the gap between what they know and what you know?

    Leave gaps. Our human survival instinct means that we are constantly looking for patterns and jumping at shadows. So create a few bright, clear points where everything is specified, and then leave players/readers to find their way between them. Let their imaginations make it real.

    Be careful not to break the player/reader’s mental model of what’s going on. That can wreck their immersion, and so the emotional momentum you’ve built. If you’re going to pull the rug out from under their feet, make sure it’s in a way that adjusts that mental model, not shatters it.

    And if you want to read more on how Ian applies this stuff, check out the write up on the game God Rest Ye Merry, which friends of mine have been raving about ever since.


  • The Spaniards’ Table – a historical flash story

    Uchu trudged into the square outside the temple. He couldn’t bring himself to look up, to see the bare stones that had once gleamed with intricately crafted gold. His grandfather had made many of those panels. He had repaired and improved upon them, adding his own artistic flourish to an already impressive work. And now…

    Now he wasn’t even receiving commissions from noblemen. What use was a goldsmith when any gold would be snatched away? Who needed art when the empire was falling into ruin?

    The Spaniards had set up a table in front of the temple stood. A queue of local people trudged past. From what Uchu had heard, anybody who wasn’t a simple peasant was being summoned, so that the conquerors could decide what to do with them. At least he knew that they liked gold. Maybe he wouldn’t just be left to rot.

    Ahead of him, a local official reached the front of the queue. As the Spaniards asked him questions, he began raising his voice, indignantly pointing out what a powerful and influential man he was, how smart he was, how helpful he could be if they would just-

    The Spaniard’s fist knocked the man from his feet. Before the official could get up, the Spaniard leapt over the table and started kicking him. By the time the Spaniard grew bored and returned to his seat, the man’s face was a bloody ruin, his teeth decorating the flagstones.

    Terror knotted Uchu’s insides. He wasn’t tough. He couldn’t take such a beating. What if they didn’t like what he had to say? What if they didn’t want anyone else touching gold? What if he just said something wrong by accident?

    He forced himself to look up as he reached the table. Two Spaniards sat there, chests wrapped in gleaming metal. A youth stood beside them, acting as translator.

    “They ask who you are,” the translator said.

    “I am Uchu the goldsmith,” Uchu said.

    He saw the disdain in the Spaniards’ eyes as the youth translated his words.

    “Please,” Uchu said, sinking to his knees. “I can be useful. I can make ornaments for you, as I do for our lords and priests. Jewellery, statues, decorations like we had on the temple…”

    He gestured toward the bare stones behind them.

    One of the Spaniards rose to his feet and strode around the table. He was saying something. He grinned, but it was a fierce smile, not a warm one. There was a spot of blood on his cheek.

    “He does not like our statues,” the translator said. “He says he should kill you for making images of false gods.”

    The Spaniard drew his sword.

    Uchu sank to his knees. A damp patch spread across the front of his tunic. The Spaniard laughed and raised his blade.

    “Please,” Uchu said, hands clasped together. “I will make whatever you want. I could make a statue of your god.”

    The Spaniard’s expression only worsened.

    “Or of your wife,” Uchu said.

    The Spaniard’s face creased deeper into bitterness.

    “Or of you!” It was a wild idea, a ludicrous idea. Gold was sacred, it was a gift. What sort of man would want it turned into a statue of himself?

    Uchu bowed his head, tears streaming from his eyes, and waited for the worst.

    The Spaniard said something. His voice had changed.

    “He says yes,” the translator said. “He will bring gold and you will do this. But if you take any of his gold-”

    “Of course not!” Uchu exclaimed. “Whatever you want!”

    Relief turned back to fear as he stared up at the Spaniard. All he had ever wanted was to honour the gods with his art, to capture what was noble in the world. But there was nothing noble here. Nothing divine or uplifting to portray. And if he failed, it could only mean a terrible end.

    His breath became swift and shallow. He was sure that the Spaniard could see through his deceit. These men had strange powers. They could kill a man just by pointing a stick. They rode thunderstorms made flesh. They could destroy a man by thinking. Uchu shook as he had never shaken before.

    And then he imagined capturing this feeling in gold. The awful sensation of doom that had settled over him and his city. The monstrous angularity of this man’s face. The horrors of defeat and of loss.

    He would make something new. Something that reflected what they had been through. Something he could make in gold for the Spaniard but that he could also carve from wood for his people. A reminder of who they were. A remnant of divine art in the darkness.

    As Uchu rose, the Spaniard laughed and pointed at the stain on his crotch. He didn’t care. A vision was unfolding in his mind. Shapes it had never occurred to him to make before. Designs out of nightmares, but that filled him with a passion he had thought lost.

    Uchu bowed, then turned and walked away, his heart hammering with excitement.

    The next man stepped up to the table.

    * * *

     

     

    Coming soon from Peachill Publishing…

    Inca: The Golden Sun

    1532.

    A desperate Spaniard has escaped a life of miserable poverty and fled to the wild unknown. They called it The New World. It was hot, and it was hostile. After watching his countryman seize Mexico and Panama, however, Francisco Pizarro knew if he could just find another empire to conquer, it would mean riches, power, and fame. And it would all be his, so long as it didn’t kill him and his 200 men first.

    * * *

    The moment the Emperor expired, war erupted for the throne atop the Inca Empire. By killing his brother, the great warrior Atahualpa didn’t just claim the throne, he earned it. He was the God King, a direct descendant of the Sun God Inti. Nothing would stop him or his empire of 10 million souls from leaving their mark in this world, for themselves becoming the greatest the Gods have ever seen.

    * * *

    INCA: THE GOLDEN SUN is the riveting story of two men on a violent collision course. From the ancient cauldron of jealousy, greed, and fury erupted a war that changed the fate of mankind.

    Welcome to The New World.

    Take what’s yours before it takes you.

     

    Order it now on Amazon.


  • The Criminal Ship as Crucible in Dark Run

    In his book Solutions for Writers, Sol Stein discusses the importance of the crucible – the situation in which characters are trapped together and which turns up the heat on them until something has to give. A well-designed crucible can create the most exciting stories. It traps characters together despite their disdain or hatred of each other, providing plenty of conflict.

    It’s a technique that’s pushed to wonderful extremes in Mike Brooks’s sci-fi novels Dark Run and Dark Sky.

    A Ship of Outcasts

    Dark Run, the first of these books, introduces us to Captain Ichabod Drift and the crew of the Keiko. Theirs is a ship full of smugglers, hackers, and guns for hire. When a figure from Drift’s past offers them a lucrative and clearly illegal job, they take it. But Drift’s past is a dark place and that darkness is about to catch up with them.

    The bickering criminal space crew isn’t a new model for a story. Since Farscape and Firefly, it’s been a model many storytellers play with. The internal conflicts of the crew keep things entertaining, their betrayals add twists and tension, and when they work together it’s all the more satisfying because of the differences they’ve overcome.

    Dark Run has all that, with the darkness and tension cranked up even further. That isn’t to say that this is a grim book – far from it, it’s an exciting adventure story. But the dark side of the characters and the potential for the crew to just explode keeps you closer to the edge of the seat than ever. It’s a good addition to the cluster of stories that is the criminal spaceship crew.

    A Physical and Social Crucible

    Why does the criminal spaceship work so well as a crucible for a story?

    The reason is that there are really two crucibles at work here – one physical and one social.

    Physically, the crew are stuck together in the ship. Even when they have a chance to leave, their ability to find shelter and sustenance is so tied to their beloved rust bucket that it would be hard to get away. Close quarters lead to cabin fever and the revelation of secrets. It’s a great way to turn up the heat.

    There’s also a social crucible, one hinted at by the background of Brooks’s character Apirana Wahawaha. Apirana grew up in a criminal gang. Leaving that wasn’t easy and if people from his past see him, including members of enemy gangs who might recognise his tattoos, then it could cause huge problems.

    A criminal gang is a crucible in itself. The shared secrets and achievements, the promises kept and threats made bind the members together as deeply as any physical environment. One of the reasons gangs can be so destructive to the lives of their members is the difficulty of leaving.

    And the crew of a criminal spaceship are a gang. They are bound together by many of the same social bonds that affect young men and women on the streets. The crew of the Keiko might not share gang tats, but in a sense Apirana has swapped one gang for another.

    This is part of why criminal spaceship stories work so well. Physically and socially, they bind together people who may hate each other but can’t escape. You can drive up the conflict without them going their separate ways and the story falling apart.

     

    Dark Sky – Let’s Have Another Crucible!

    And then there’s Dark Sky, the sequel to Dark Run. Here, Brooks really piles on the pressure, as the crew of the Keiko become trapped on a mining world as it bubbles over into revolution. It’s a whole new crucible in which two competing crews are combined with both sides of a lethal political conflict. The setting may have changed but the approach is the same – trap conflicting people together in a place and an event, then crank up the tension and see what breaks.

    Brooks’s smart use of story crucibles makes for some exciting and entertaining novels. And it highlights a wider point – that the best stories don’t just rely on one factor to trap characters together, but on the physical, social, and historical circumstances that bind them despite who they are.


  • Rocket Man! Nick Bradbeer on Spaceship Design for Writers

    Of all the people I’ve ever met, no-one is as qualified to talk about designing sci-fi spaceships as Nick Bradbeer. He’s a naval architect, a sci-fi geek, and a charismatic public speaker. So when he gave a talk on Space Design Considerations for Writers at Nine Worlds, it was bound to be good.

    How History Shapes Our Writing

    The reasons we imagine the world the way we do are always fascinating. Nick started out by delving into this territory, talking about the history of how authors have depicted spaceships.

    Before the 1950s, space could be whatever the writer wanted it to be. No-one had been there and the reading public had few preconceptions about how space flight should work.

    In the 1950s, writers started depicting spaceships in a style similar to airplanes. Rocketry was the hot new thing, jet planes were in the skies, it was natural to see this advanced new technology as the future of space. This led to the Star Wars style winged fighter ships, but also to some more realistic designs based on real rocketry.

    Then came Star Trek and with it all the trappings of a navy. The bridge as command point. Crew structures based on those of warships. Bulkheads and metal beams.

    It’s a model that’s continued to the present day because it’s familiar. It’s something we recognise from the real world and so can easily wrap our heads around.

    But space isn’t really an ocean and that model isn’t inevitable.

    Maturing Technology

    To understand how technology will be shaped, we need to know who’s shaping it.  This was the next part of Nick’s talk.

    Borrowing from the Rocketpunk Manifesto blog, he discussed how technology goes through four stages of maturity:

    1. Experimental – It’s unusual, sometimes unreliable, and almost no-one has it. Like space flight in the modern world.
    2. Government / megacorp – The technology is mature enough to be replicated and used, but so expensive that only the largest organisations in the world can have it. Like submarines or a weaponised Boris Johnson. (I’m kidding. We all know there’s nothing mature about Boris Johnson.)
    3. Commercial / rich – The technology is common but ownership of it isn’t widespread. It’s owned by large organisations and the rich. Like airliners, or maybe access to Boris Johnson. (Just because it’s costly doesn’t mean it’s worth having)
    4. Personal / ubiquitous – The technology is cheap enough to be widely available to individual people. Like smartphones or a platform from which to make cheap jokes about Boris Johnson.

    Technology generally moves down this list as it matures. Look at how portable communication devices have gone from the toys of the wealthy to something most people rely upon in the western world. To understand how space travel fits into your setting, it’s important to think about where it is on this scale.

    Design Fundamentals

    The further down the tech scale something is, the more freedom people have in designing it. They aren’t just bound by function anymore. Aesthetics can play a larger part.

    Which brings us to the fundamental factors to consider in ship and so spaceship design:

    1. Role – What is the spaceship meant to do? What features does it need to do that?
    2. Sizing – How big is this spaceship? How big does it need to be to fulfil its role? How much space do you have for all the people and gadgets you want?
    3. Layout – How do the parts fit together? What’s the most efficient way to do this? For example, should the stores be near the galley? Do you want ammunition easily accessible from the big damn gun on the front, or do you want it mostly stored further away to avoid destructive accidents?

    Having taken that into account, you get into issues of structure. What is it built from? Is it a skin of some material over reinforced beams, like in real life ships and planes? Does that structure show?

    And then there’s your near-inevitable faster than light drive. It’s the big damn lie powering any sci-fi spaceship. But hey, this is speculative fiction, you need a few of those lies.

    The People Side

    And then there’s the people side. As Nick said, “Technology miniaturises but people don’t.” People need somewhere to sleep, to eat, to work, to rest. They need to exercise. They need meals. They need air. They need to be protected from the heat created by engines and from the icy void of space.

    Odds are, people and their needs will take up a lot of space on your ship. Are they given lots of space because it’s a luxurious cruise liner, or crammed in together in a dystopian manufacturing fleet? How does this affect the ship’s size and other requirements?

    And something that wasn’t touched on in the talk, but that fascinates me – how does that affect the behaviour of those people? What dynamics arise depending on how a ship is laid out?

    Questions About Space

    This talk didn’t provide answers to the question “what should my spaceship be like?” Instead, it provided something far more valuable – a host of questions for writers to consider when designing their ships. It was a great talk with lots of food for thought.

    Here’s hoping Nick can be persuaded to do one on airships next year.


  • We Will Need Leaders – a flash historical story

    Kunak raised his war club above his head and joined in the battle cry. Across the plain, the enemies of the Incan empire were emerging from the jungle. Foreigners from across the ocean. The so-called Emperor Manco, who had accepted the crown from their hands. The men who followed him.

    Here, outside the capital of Cuzco, the true Incas would rain death upon them.

    Kunak and his comrades were old friends, veterans of the fighting in the north. The stone heads of their war clubs were well polished, their wooden shields scarred by past fights. They stood proudly behind their commander, Quehuar. He had only recently inherited his father’s place, but he had the bearing of a great man.

    Drums and flutes sounded the advance.

    The warriors began a marching chant, voices raised in unison. As they advanced across the field they sped up, rushing to catch the smaller enemy force while it was still unprepared. Everyone had heard about the strange beasts and magical weapons these Spaniards wielded. They would grant them no other advantage.

    They crashed into the first of the enemy, a line of Manco’s men. Kunak smashed a warrior in the head and slammed another with his shield. Already, the enemy were in retreat.

    The veterans cheered and advanced again.

    Then came a sound like thunder. From the left, monsters tore into the Incan line. They had four legs, wild eyes, and maws that foamed with fury. From their backs, Spaniards lashed out with spears three times a man’s height.

    Some men were crushed beneath the feet of the beasts. Others were run through by the spears, their cotton armour no protection against those deadly sharp points. Others turn and fled, only to be hacked down as the Spaniards drew weapons that glittered like silver in the sunlight.

    All around Kunak, men ran. The line collapsed. He wavered, caught between duty and terror.

    “With me!” Quehuar shouted, placing a hand on Kunak’s shoulder.

    The sight of his commander, of the fire in his eyes, that was enough to lend him strength. Kunak gripped his club tighter and followed.

    At a signal from Quehuar, men closed in around one of the beasts. Kunak stood directly in front of it. Its feet hammered at his shield and he felt as if his arm might break at any moment, but he stood firm. The circle of shields tightened, trapping the beast.

    Quehuar leapt, landing on the creature’s back. He flung its rider to the ground. The man screamed. Warriors closed in, smashing him with their clubs.

    The beast leapt, soaring over Kunak’s head, and for a moment he thought it must kill him. But it kept going, galloping away from the fight, a thing of beauty and of horror that vanished into the jungle.

    Quehar lifted up the helmet he had taken from the Spaniard, blood dripping from its strap. Their whole warband whooped with the thrill of victory. Kunak’s pulse raced and he grinned with wild excitement.

    Then came another thundering sound, different from the one that had come before. The man to Kunak’s left fell to the ground, blood pouring from the ruined side of his face. Another man spun and fell, his arm torn away as if by an invisible hand.

    Kunak’s mind went blank with shock. He stared down at friends suddenly slain, struck down by some incomprehensible force. He watched a man’s grip loosen on the handle of his club and the weapon slowly role out of limp, dead fingers.

    Chaos swept over him. Screaming. Shouting. Crashing. He saw Manco’s men coming and old instincts kicked in, letting him parry an attack and break his attacker’s leg with a blow from his club, even as the world approached him through a distant haze.

    Then his senses snapped back, bringing a terrible clarity. Amid the smells of blood and smoke he wheeled and twisted, lunged and parried, desperately fighting for his life.

    Somewhere along the way he found Quehuar, one arm hanging limp by his side. Together they fought their way toward the edge of the plain.

    The whole army had collapsed. Clusters of men fought on but more were fleeing as the enemy, these traitors and invaders, pursued them with wild glee. There could be no victory, only survival.

    “Run!” he shouted, pushing Quehuar toward the tree line. “I’ll cover your back.”

    “What about you?” Quehuar asked, and Kunak knew that he had made the right decision.

    “After this, we will need leaders,” Kunak said. “Men like you. Go. Run. Save the empire.”

    For a moment, he thought Quehuar might resist. But the fight had been beaten out of him. He turned and ran.

    The tree line was three hundred yards away. Quehuar was halfway there when a rumble approached Kunak.

    A monster was galloping toward him, the rider carrying one of those terrible spears. Kunak raised his shield, ready to sell himself dearly for his leader’s life.

    The beast swerved and ran past him. He lashed out with his club, but it bounced off the armour on the rider’s leg. He watched in horror as it headed straight for Quehuar.

    Quehuar turned. With a determined expression, he raised his club.

    The spear struck him in the chest, skewering him in a spray of blood.

    Kunak’s legs gave way beneath him. He sank to the ground, watching in horror as the Spaniard lowered his spear and let the remains of a bold leader slide to the floor. The sense of loss was overwhelming, a weight that pinned Kunak to the earth.

    He had thought that something could be saved from this horror. But all he had left was loss.

    At the jungle’s edge, the Spaniard raised his fist and let out a battle cry.

    * * *

     

    At last, I can announce the reason why I chose the Incas as the subject for these stories.

    Coming later this month from Peachill Publishing, Inca: The Golden Sun is a novella all about the conquest of the Incas by Spanish conquistadors. It’s a tale of ambition, greed, envy, and desperation, as two very different worlds collide. It’s a collaborative writing project on which I was one of the writers, turning someone else’s plot into the prose you see on the page. So if you’re enjoying these stories, please consider pre-ordering a copy now.


  • A C Macklin on Narrative Techniques – a Nine Worlds Talk

    One of my highlights from Nine Worlds was seeing my friend A C Macklin talk about narrative techniques. She did an excellent job of getting into the technical nitty gritty of things I’ve seldom even considered, but that are important in shaping a story.

    You can read the slides and Macklin’s commentary on the talk here and I heartily recommend reading it. But here are a few things I picked out during the talk, useful points to consider as a writer.

    Firstly, storytelling is about getting a particular reaction. You can get different reactions by varying:

    • narrative structure
    • level of emotional engagement
    • level of self-awareness
    • level of deceit.

    Building an emotional bond between the narrator and the audience is important. People instinctively want to bond with other people and things, and this is a powerful tool.

    Some types of narrator to consider:

    • Dramatized narrator – they’re deep in the action.
    • Reflector narrator – the sort who speculates on the perspectives of other characters instead of just showing their own.
    • Observer/frame narrator – someone entirely outside the story.
    • Self-conscious narrator – someone telling you the story with a reason or agenda.

    Each of these will draw different emotional reactions from readers and give you different narrative tools.

    Unreliable narrators should generally be reserved for when you want to feature a particular twist. They can be unreliable for a bunch of different reasons:

    • amnesiac
    • naive
    • misled
    • blinkered
    • delusional
    • in denial
    • speaking with an agenda
    • outright lying.

    I never realised there were so many options for unreliability until this talk. Now I half want to invent a bunch of stories just to try them all.

    And perhaps the most useful overall lesson I took from this – consider the balance between the audience’s bond with the narrator and the space they need to reflect on what’s happening. The bond is useful and powerful, but that doesn’t mean it should always dominate. It depends upon the sort of story you want to tell.


  • Out Now – Words of Wisdom

    Rahiq wove her way through the crowd, squeezing between bellowing camels and city walls that trembled in their brass tracks, vast blocks of stone rotating around Baghdad’s perimeter. Today was the day. Today she would change her life…

    My story “Words of Wisdom” is out now in issue #105 of On Spec magazine. Set in a clockwork version of medieval Baghdad, it’s the story of a young engineer trying to find her place in the world and an aging master trying to preserve what he has built.


  • Embers of the Shining City – a flash historical story

    Picture by Ben Grantham via Flickr creative commons

    As he approached the shining city of Cuzco, Samin slowed his pace. The roads here were better, paved with stone and neatly laid, but he was not eager to reach the end of his journey. The masses of men gathered outside the city spoke to the turmoil he had heard of inside – an army mustering to face traitors and invaders, while great lords argued over the fate of a nation whose emperor had been murdered by strangers from across the sea. Samin was a simple government inspector. He liked order. He didn’t want to be a part of this.

    Behind him, a train of peasants and llamas, weighed down by the supplies he had been ordered to bring, also slowed their pace.

    On the outskirts of the city he met Poma, one of the great lords. Poma was not as grandly dressed as when in court, only a single gold plug in each of his ears. Around him were men with clubs and cotton armour.

    Samin spread his hands and bowed deeply.

    “Good, you’re here,” Poma said. “Some of the others went to Manco.”

    Samin carefully said nothing. He had not considered joining the Emperor Manco, the man raised up by the outsiders, these infamously vicious Spaniards. But if the old order was being overthrown, perhaps he would be better off joining the new one. And if he brought supplies with him…

    “I’ll take these,” Poma said, gesturing to the column of supplies.

    Perhaps it was just coincidence. Perhaps he had seen the doubt in Samin’s eyes.

    Better not to be here to find out.

    “I should go up to the palace,” Samin said. “They may have orders for me.”

    “Fine.” Poma dismissed him with the merest of waves, concerned only with his new supplies.

    Walking up into Cuzco, Samin faced the unfamiliarity of a place he had been a hundred times. There were clusters of frantic activity, people making weapons or plans. But for the most part, everyone kept off the streets. All the gold had been stripped from the temples. Few of the nobles wore their jewellery. Cuzco had become a desolate place.

    If this was the way of things then Samin wanted out. He would take his chances with Manco and his Spaniards.

    Just not while anyone was looking.

    He waited until dark, visiting a friend at the edge of the city to fill time. Then he slid out into the night.

    The plains outside Cuzco were still busy. Men sat in clusters around fires, talking and tending to their weapons. The roads were under guard. He would have to be careful.

    A servant of the Incan crown learnt to walk softly, so as not to intrude upon his betters. It was easy for Samin to apply that skill here, sliding from shadow to shadow through the armed encampment. He overheard snatches of conversation, some angry, some bitter, some bewildered. The world had been turned upside down. Men were determined to fight to set it right, but they were far from confident.

    All the more reason not to be on this side.

    As Samin crept past the dying embers of an abandoned fire, a voice called out to him.

    “Samin?”

    He looked around. A lone figure sat on the ground a few feet from the fire. As he turned his head, there was a brief glint from a gold ear plug.

    “Lord Poma.” Samin turned to bow, rigid with tension.

    “What are you doing here?” Poma asked. His voice wasn’t loud or demanding, but it was firm.

    “I…” Samin struggled for words. He had never been imaginative enough to make a good liar and now his life depended upon it. The fate of a man going to join the traitors could only be terrible.

    “Let me guess.” Poma rose, brushing dirt off his white tunic. “You believe that Manco is the rightful heir. You fear the Spaniards. You are just curious and will be back soon. Any of a dozen excuses will do.”

    As he spoke, he walked closer to Samin, until there was only a hand’s breadth between their faces.

    “I understand,” Poma said softly. “I’m a better man than you and I considered it.”

    Samin still trembled with fear, but the slightest of hope was starting to emerge. Maybe he wouldn’t die. Maybe they would just beat him and set him back to work.

    “I’m not even going to stop you,” Poma said. “But consider this. You used to work for a great and civilised empire. You used to bring your reports and your tithes to the most magnificent city in the world. These foreigners tore the beauty from our temples and turned civilisation into strife. Is it better to live in fear and let that corruption spread or to take a risk and have somewhere worth living?”

    He stepped back and gestured out across the plains.

    “Your choice,” he said.

    Then he sat back down.

    #

    Samin ushered the grain bearers up the slope into the fort above Cuzco. The other administrators had agreed with him, better to hope for victory and plan for defeat.

    He looked out across the city, no longer shining as it once had, to the plains beyond. There was movement at the edge of the jungle, perhaps the enemy finally arriving. Outside Cuzco, the army prepared to meet them.

    Samin had seldom felt more afraid. But never before had he felt proud.