Collaborating Across Genres

Cover image from The Bear's Claws

Co-authoring a book is relatively unusual, and for our military thriller The Bear’s Claws, we wanted to do something even more unusual – a collaboration between a novelist and a non-fiction author. For both of us, it’s been a very successful project. So why did we do it?  And how did the collaboration work when we normally write such different things

I have a new blog post up on the Alliance of Independent Authors blog, written together with my co-author on The Bear’s Claws, Russell Phillips. There, we talk about how the collaboration worked and what we gained from it. If that’s something that interests you, you can check it out over here.

The Bear’s Claws – Writing a Different War

The Bear’s Claws is an unusual book for me. I guess it’s an unusual book full stop, a story of a war that never happened, concerned as much with the politics and traumas of that war as with its action. It’s picking up the “what if World War Three comes?” genre that was popular during the Cold War and running with it, even though we know that war never came.

So where did this book come from? And what did we do to make it stand out as something different?

The Origins of the Story

This story starts out in the real world, with my friendship with co-author Russell Phillips. Russell and I have known each other for over twenty years now, ever since they came to Durham to visit their partner, who was part of the same live roleplay club as me. We got to know each other through games and student socialising, then went off our separate way, as often happens.

Years later we reconnected over writing and became accountability partners, meeting online once a month to check in on progress, celebrate our achievements, and push each other to write more. Russell has done a lot to keep me motivated over recent years, and I like to think that I’ve done the same for them.

Russell and I write in very different genres. While I’m away in my imagination creating worlds of fantasy, steampunk, or science fiction, they’re grounded in reality, writing non-fiction about military history and technology. But we were keen to collaborate on a book and so Russell came up with an idea.

We would write a story set during the Cold War, using the technology and tactics he was familiar with, but altering history, creating something that headed away from reality. We’d both enjoyed Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, the best-known story about a Cold War turned hot, and it was the sort of story we were both interested to tell. Between Russell’s technical knowledge and my creative writing, we felt we could create something cool.

The seeds of the story came from Russell. While there’s a whole sub-genre of books telling Cold War turned hot stories, they wanted to do something different from the rest. They wanted to tell the story from the Soviet point of view instead of the Western one. It would give us a different angle and a unique hook with which to entice our target audience.

And so a story was born.

Writing Differently About War

Both Russell and I have an unusual perspective for people writing war stories. We’re lefty, liberal, pacifistic types who would rather everybody just stopped shooting each other, but we were also raised on war stories and feel the thrill of those tales. Personally, I’ve never been near war but I know plenty of people who’ve served in the military, and respecting their perspective and experiences is important to me.

This creates a difficult balancing act. Writing a war story that will show the skill and courage of individual combatants while trying not to glorify the war itself, trying to get away from narratives of good guys versus bad guys, is difficult, especially in a conflict as ideologically charged as this one.

To that end, The Bear’s Claws tries to show different sides of its characters’ experiences. There are moments of skill and daring, but there are also more troubling ones. There’s sudden and arbitrary death, soldiers struggling with the trauma of war, problems of discipline and corruption. Most of all, there’s the experience of war as an ideological challenge.

As Vladislav Rakovich and his men head west, they find that neither the world nor the war they’re fighting in is as they were promised. While the outcome of the war is a central question of the book, so is the outcome for Rakovich. Can he hold true to his beliefs as his world is shaken? Should he?

The Other Side of the War

When Russell sent me their first draft for the start of The Bear’s Claws, I found something surprising – a scene away from the war. Following Rakovich’s sister Anna, this showed reactions to the war back home in Leningrad.

When I started expanding out a plot from those starting scenes, the strand around Anna grew. She provided an interesting contrast with her brother, as well as a different perspective on the war. After all, wars transform nations, even away from the fighting front. Politics, industry, culture, it’s all affected. The history of a war isn’t just military history.

Anna’s strand is about rebellion and resistance. Looking back, we know that the Soviet system was on its last legs in the 1980s, but at the time that wasn’t clear. Speaking out against the government was dangerous, and that’s the risk that Anna eventually takes.

Writing this section let me get into one of the great issues about how societies respond to war. There are many examples that show nations pulling together, with an external threat used to distract people from internal dissent. But other examples also exist, most notably in the latter half of the First World War, when the strains of war encouraged revolution. So do wars inherently pull people together, with only defeat undermining this effect, or can they go the other way? Can war become an opportunity for dissent?

We decided to go with the path of revolt. This was partly a storytelling choice, to create drama in the home front chapters. But it’s also a reasonable speculation based on the state of the Soviet Union in 1982. The strains of a broken system were starting to show. It’s not impossible that people would have taken a great disruption as an opportunity to push for change.

A Different Take on World War Three

The Bear’s Claws is an unusual war story in a lot of ways. It’s co-authored. It’s about a war that never happened. It walks a delicate line in its treatment of war. It’s a war story that’s also about the civilian side.

It’s not a book that’s going to be for everyone, but if any of this has intrigued you then you can find it as an e-book in all the usual stores or as a print book from Amazon.

Out Now – Splashdown in the Pacific

You know what’s good? Pictures. You know what’s even better? Words. You know what’s best of all? Shoving them together to make comics.

Which is my way of saying that I have a new comic out – an issue of Commando titled Splashdown in the Pacific, it’s the story of an American reconnaissance pilot who’s enjoying the quiet of the early Pacific campaign until he meets an Australian officer with a taste for adventure. When they set out on a mission to look for the Japanese fleet, things go downhill fast. There’s a dogfight, a shark attack, a jungle trek, and more.

This story was originally inspired by a photo Commando shared on their Twitter feed, showing the crew escaping from a plane that had been shot down over the ocean. That got me thinking about what that crew might encounter and especially what could make the situation worse. Pretty much everything that crossed my mind is thrown in here, from the aforementioned sharks to Japanese patrols and deadly snakes.

The early stages of the Pacific war were a tense time. After Pearl Harbor and the Japanese seizure of European colonies in the Pacific, it was clear that they were going to head south for an invasion of Australia. The Allies knew that they were coming, but not when and where.

There, as elsewhere in the war, aerial reconnaissance was vital. As Ralph Bennett explains in his book Behind the Battle, there had been a mad scramble to rebuild military intelligence services internationally due to their neglect between the wars. Aerial reconnaissance was a vital part of this work, especially in the wide expanse of the Pacific. A story about two guys taking photos wouldn’t be very exciting, but by putting them in peril, I’ve found a way to make the action centre on them.

As is often the case in war stories, the conflict doesn’t just come from facing the enemy. Being on the same side can trap people together and exacerbate their differences, creating huge tensions. It’s why Richard Sharpe is constantly arguing with the officers on his own side. Stories get dull if everybody’s working well together.

Which is where Mike Anderson comes in. Mike is one of the characters I’ve most enjoyed writing over the past year, and not just because I had fun throwing in Australian dialect. He’s confident, entertaining, and outspoken, which comes across as annoying and abrasive to someone who’s stressed out and just wants a chance to think. Can you see where this is going?

Like most Commando comics, Splashdown in the Pacific is a pulpy action adventure. But like all the best pulp adventures, it’s not the sharks and the snakes and the crashes that make it – it’s the characters and how they relate.

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If you like Splashdown in the Pacific then you might also enjoy my collection of history and alternate history stories…

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

About “Communication Breakdown”, My New Short Story

Individualism. Communication. Responsibility. There are some big themes underlying Communication Breakdown, my new story in Metaphorosis. So how did I end up writing about them?

The answer lies in part with the character of Julian Atticus. As a character, Atticus is over a decade old. He sprang onto the page, world weary and sometimes drunk, back in 2006, when I wrote the first draft of Our Man in Herrje. That story, which eventually saw publication in Jupiter, was all about communication. Atticus, a professional liar, had to deal with an alien culture that despised untruth. It was a story about a cynical man dealing with more idealistic people and about the value of untruths, from entertainment to conspiracies.

Since then, Atticus has become a go-to character when I want to write stories centred on communication or personal responsibility. Being responsible really isn’t his thing, but he will reluctantly rise to the occasion when forced, or when his conscience takes over, as happens more often than he would like.

This time though, the voice in the back of his head isn’t Atticus’s conscience, it’s an alien that’s sharing his body for a diplomatic encounter. We get very protective of our sense of individual identity and how it ties to our bodies. We see a clear cut distinction between ourselves and the outside world, even though the boundary is actually very hazy. Ideas drift in and out of our heads. We can receive other people’s organs and still be ourselves. And of course, the question of when we become people is a fraught one that blurs the temporal edge of our existence.

Atticus was the perfect choice to face a further breakdown in that distinction. With a parasite in his body, he loses some of his control, some of his self. How will this encounter shape his life? And will he get to go back to his “true” self at the end?

You can judge for yourself in Communication Breakdown, out now in Metaphorosis. And you can read more about Atticus in Diplomatic Baggage, a series of connected flash pieces, or in my short story collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

Out Now – Zhai Chengda’s Wife

It’s story time again!

My steampunk short “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” is out now in the latest edition of Electric Spec. A spy story set in an alternate history Song Dynasty China, “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” follows Tao Wan, a covert agent for the Kingdom of Xia. As the Song Empire threatens Xia, its politicians are forced to the negotiating table, expecting to be crushed by their more powerful neighbour. But when Tao Wan meets with the wife of the Chinese ambassador, an opportunity arises to level the playing field. Will she take it? And what will this meeting cost Zhai Chengda’s wife?

This story was inspired by a desire to write steampunk in an unusual setting. My friend Jon suggested Song China as a time and place full of industrial growth. It was a chance to go beyond the western settings that dominate steampunk and show something new.

Along the way, I stumbled across a theme I hadn’t been expecting – imbalances of power. The story is all about these uneven dynamics, from the bullying diplomacy of the Song Chinese to the ambassador’s abusive marriage. Even the relationship Tao Wan builds with Lady Zhai, a relationship that offers hope for an escape, is built on the power imbalance between a confident, educated woman and her disheartened peer. Is it possible to bring justice when only one side knows how to be heard?

“Zhai Chengda’s Wife” is out now in Electric Spec.

Commentary on The Astrolabe

This month sees my story “The Astrolabe” published in Bards and Sages Quarterly, a magazine that’s played host to several of my efforts. It’s great to see this fantasy tale see the light of day.

Like “The Well of Vengeance”, which I wrote about last week, “The Astrolabe” took a while to find its home. Unless you’re a really high profile writer, this is a common experience. Stories face a string of rejections before they’re eventually accepted, so that the experience can be as much about relief as excitement. “Thank goodness,” thinks the poor author, “someone loves my word baby!”

In this case, the word baby is about an admiral on a sailing ship. She’s a somewhat unusual admiral, in that she’s also a bird, as are her crew. That image of birds sailing a ship was one that had appeared in my head and I found immensely appealing, turning it into a story about mutiny, duty, and trying to stay the course.

Because the idea of bird sailors was so appealing to me, it wasn’t until I asked friends to read the story that they pointed out the obvious flaw – why would birds even need to sail? After all, they can fly.

It was a question I had to think over and then make a nod to in the story, so that it didn’t draw the same reaction from paying readers. My answer is to do with war and transporting cannons, which tied in nicely to the story’s main conflict.

That conflict is around a gift. It’s not been uncommon throughout history for military leaders on opposite sides to admire and even like each other, to maintain relationships across the battle lines. Sometimes it ends in tragedy, sometimes reconciliation. It made for an unusual focus for a war story, one I was keen to explore. But as in so many relationships, for Admiral Concesa, not everything is as it seems. And there a story is born…

I hope you enjoy reading “The Astrolabe“, whatever your reasons for thinking that birds might sail. And if you already read and enjoyed it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

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By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’



The Well of Vengeance – What’s This All About Then?

This month, one of my fantasy stories, “The Well of Vengeance”, sees light of day in Swords and Sorcery Magazine. It’s a dramatic tale of suffering, endurance, and justice set amid the sands of the Middle East, during the Roman Empire. But where did this story come from?

Monsters

I wrote the original version of this story years ago, in response to a call for stories featuring gigantic monsters. I was looking for something different from the usual apes, lizards, and dinosaurs, and thought that a massive scorpion might be interesting. There’s something sinister about a scorpion of any size, but pair its poison with vast claws and you’ve got something really deadly.

Plus what child of the ’80s didn’t think Scorponok was kind of cool?

While a giant scorpion made for a neat image, it wasn’t going to be much use as a protagonist, or give me emotional substance to work with. For that, I needed a protagonist, and a setting for them to emerge from.

Wells

This story’s title comes from the place it’s all heading towards, a source of water amid the harsh desert sands, an oasis that brings the hope of survival, but also the threat of bloody revenge.

This was inspired by something from the Bible. I don’t remember quite how I stumbled across it, but there was a section talking about wells with symbolic names. The wells were so important for surviving in an arid climate that they gained special associations and a mystique around them. They represented ideas.

One of the most common tricks of fantasy writing is to make the symbolic literal. In the world of this story, wells have significance and meaning not just because of the water, but because of the spirits they embody. The Well of Hope might be a place that brings up bright thoughts. The Well of Vengeance, on the other hand, will stir visitors to examine their grudges and indulge in dark deeds.

That gave me a setting, an antagonist, a title, even a motive for the protagonist – get to vengeance, both the well and the action. But who could that protagonist be?

A Woman on a Mission

Here’s where I get to my limitations as a writer.

A decade ago (blimey, that time has flown past!), when I first started on this story, I’d just become concerned with showing more women in my stories. My then-partner had pointed out that I habitually wrote about men, and I wanted to balance that out. So I created Esther, the protagonist of this story, a young woman on a mission to right old wrongs.

That’s not a bad thing in itself, but there is a problem with it. In trying to show women as empowered, it’s not uncommon to show women who have been hurt by men and are now out for revenge. It centres their motivation on male characters and emphasises men’s effect on women. That’s not bad in itself, but doing it too often – which is arguably a thing – doesn’t help in better representing truly empowered and independent female characters.

This story is part of a pattern that I’m not entirely comfortable with. An attempt at empowerment becomes undermining and more than a little cliched. If I could change anything about the story, it would be that.

Sticking With It

That being the case, why didn’t I rewrite the story?

Honestly, because I’m better off writing new ones. It’s great that someone liked this enough to publish it, but I’d rather create something new than keep recreating my old work. I’m full of ideas and skills I didn’t have a decade ago. I’m moving forward.

I hope you enjoy reading “The Well of Vengeance“, limitations and all. No story is perfect, and I’m pleased with a lot of what I did on this one.

And if you already read and enjoyed it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Out Now – Lady Death

War has come to the Ukraine, German tanks driving back the Red Army in a brutal mechanical tide. Faced with the prospect of losing everything she holds dear, Svetlana Ivanovna Korzh takes up the gun, ready to defend her homeland. Turned from a teacher into a sniper, she heads into the streets of Odessa in a desperate attempt to stop the onslaught. But as her friends start to fall, a far more personal struggle begins…

Lady Death is my latest story from Commando Comics, brought to life by the art of Manuel Benet. It was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary history book The Unwomanly Face of War, which explores the role of women in the Red Army in World War Two, their experiences both in action and in transitioning to and from civilian lives. It’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, and I can’t recommend it enough for the way it brings forgotten stories to light and personalises a vast historical narrative.

While an action comic could never do justice to the complex and difficult lives these women led, I wanted to at least draw attention to their experiences, from the harrowing losses to the touching moments of friendship amid the horror of war. In doing so, I’ve taken fragments of reality and stitched them together into a fictional whole. Many elements of the story are taken from real life. The recruiting officer who doesn’t want to accept women. The troop trains strafed on the way to war. The wedding dress made from parachute silk. The partisans fighting in the catacombs. And most importantly, the thousands of female snipers who risked their lives, only to be forgotten in the aftermath.

Historical storytelling is a strange thing, a delicate balance of truth and fiction. I hope that I’ve included enough truth here to make the story worthwhile, and enough fiction to keep you entertained.



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From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

You can read more about From a Foreign Shore, including what other readers thought here. It’s available on Kindle through Amazon.



The Epiphany Club – What Was That All About Then?

After years of hard work, distractions, and delays (some self-inflicted), I’ve finally got my Epiphany Club series out in print. So it’s time to talk a bit about this book – what it is, why I wrote it, and what it means to me.

The Epiphany Club started out as a throw-away line in a short story. I was writing about Victorian adventurers heading into the sewers beneath Venice to face the mechanised head of Leonardo da Vinci. To flesh out their background, I made them part of a scholarly club with a history of such escapades. That story became “The Secret in the Sewers”, published in issue four of a magazine called Fiction, and later republished in my collection Riding the Mainspring. And out of that story, Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms were born.

I liked Dirk and Tim, so I ended up writing more short stories about them, some of which saw publication. In fact, I liked them so much that, when I wanted to write something longer, I decided to make it about them.

This was a decade ago, a time when I knew much less about writing, but when I went at everything with gusto. Any fragment of steampunk or Victoriana I came up with was shoved into my Epiphany Club planning. From Parisian sewer maintenance to the aftermath of slavery, in it all went, with little thought to theme, audience, or consistency. By the time I got onto part two of however many, it was a bit of a mess.

But it was a mess that I loved and one that could be broken up into novella-sized chunks. So when I decided to try self-publishing, and that the best way to do that was a novella series, it was a perfect fit.

In the meantime, I’d learnt more about writing and representation. This led to some big changes in the book, particularly around character arcs and the roles of men and women. The results are something far better and far more coherent than my original vision. It’s far from perfect, as is everything in this world. But for my first serious attempt at putting something this substantial out, I’m still pleased with it, and more fond of my characters than ever before.

The me who started this project so messily, creating much more work down the line? Him I’m not so fond of, but it’s a little late for recrimination.

Despite the eclectic nature of its birth, there is a coherence to The Epiphany Club. It’s a story that tries to mix pulp adventure with the things we often ignore in steampunk and Victorian adventure stories. Gender inequality, colonialism, and the toxic effects of nationalistic politics are all there. But to stop that dragging it down, there are also strange machines, hideous monsters, and action galore. It’s the sort of adventure story I’d like to read, and so I’m proud I’ve written it.

If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, then you can get The Epiphany Club now. And if you enjoy it, please let me know. It’s always good to hear when your story works.

Harriet’s War

This week, I have a new comic out from Commando – Harriet’s War.

Harriet’s War is part of a series from Commando marking the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. Called The Weekes’ War, the series follows several members of a single family, all serving in British forces.

As I’ve written about before, World War One is an important part of history. It was a war of unprecedented destruction in which people were reduced to cogs in industrial-scale killing machines. Because of the way soldiers were recruited, entire communities sometimes lost a generation of young men. Seeing how the war could touch the many members of a single family is particularly fitting, as well as a smart way to show different sides of the war.

Showing different sides is why I’m particularly proud to have written Harriet’s War. It’s only right and proper that we talk about the millions of young men who fought and died in the Allied armies, but it’s also important to remember other people and places, and that’s what Harriet’s War does.

The central characters, Harriet and Vera, are both women. Though very few women fought in the war, many were involved in it. Filling roles such as factory workers and nurses, they did hard, sometimes dangerous work. Though it was driven by men, this wasn’t just a men’s war.

This story focuses on medicine in a time of war. Harriet and Vera are an ambulance crew, risking death in no man’s land to save injured soldiers. We don’t often see the work of medical staff in war, but from frontline combat medics to the surgeons rebuilding broken bodies, theirs is tough, vital, life-saving, heart-breaking work. Without them, countless more lives would be lost, and it’s good to see them get the recognition they deserve.

Once Harriet gets out between the trenches, the story shows yet another side of the war – the experience of the Germans. In Britain, we mostly focus on the Allied experience, whether intentionally or by default. But a generation of German youths went through the same hardship the Allies did, the same losses, the same horrors. By the late war, they were battered, demoralised, struggling to survive. When Harriet encounters a German unit, the story takes a dramatic turn, one that reveals the humanity of the other side.

Of course, there are still many other sides to the war, ones that aren’t included here. From the struggle on the Eastern Front to the fighting in Africa to the war at sea, they are too easily forgotten when discussing the war. We can’t deal with them all at once, but we can at least make a start. If there’s a part of the war you think is under-represented, leave a comment about it and I’ll try to write about it in the future.

Art for this issue is by an artist who’s new to Commando – Khato of Creaciones Editoriales. As I write this, I haven’t yet seen the finished issue, but based on the pages you can see here I think it’s going to be great, full of vivid action and character. I love the collaborative element of comics, the way an artist gives the story life in ways the writer never even imagined. This is no exception.

On a personal note, this issue features a small tribute to my Great Aunt Vera, who died earlier this year. Vera was born during the war and lost her father to the fighting in the trenches. She went on to become an extraordinary person in her own right, lively, outspoken, and insightful until the end. Harriet’s friend and colleague is named after her.

Harriet’s War will be out in newsagents and on Comixology this Thursday, the 29th. Other issues of The Weekes’ War are already out there for you to buy. I hope that you enjoy this journey into some of the less remembered parts of the First World War.

 

All art © DC Thomson and Co. Ltd  2018