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I Hoped That In London… – a flash historical story

The noise and smell of London’s streets were overwhelming. Carters and traders, street preachers and half-drunk apprentices shouted at each other across roads that ran with rotting refuse. A pamphleteer waved a sheet of printed paper in my face and talked excitedly about how God and Drake had saved England from the King of Spain’s armada. I was about to tell him that I couldn’t read, never mind spare a penny for his wares, but he had already cast an eye over my tattered clothes, drawn his own conclusions, and moved on.

I walked along the street, stopping at every shop and tavern I passed. At each one my question was the same:

“Do you have work?”

And always the same answer – a swift no, often with a look of disdain or with eyes that would not meet mine.

“Please, I’ll do anything,” I said to a stable master. “I work hard.”

“Then why don’t you have work already?” he asked.

“Things are tough on the south coast,” I explained. “Jobs are scarce. I hoped that in London…”

He shook his head.

“Everyone has high hopes for London. But we’ve all got our business to be about, and I don’t have time to spare for vagrants.”

I slipped away, shoulders slumped, and sat at a street corner while I tried to find the will to continue. As wealthy men passed I held out a hopeful hand, but buying fine doublets had left them all without a penny to spare.

As dusk fell, a group of young men in matching blue livery came striding down the street. One of them pointed and they stopped.

“No money, old man?” they stopped said. I couldn’t have been ten years his senior, by I knew I wore those years like coarse and crumpled cloth.

“No,” I said, head hanging. “And no roof to shelter me.”

“Come with us.”

My heart lifted as they helped me to my feet and led me down the narrow alley between two houses. Then they stopped, surrounded me, and pulled out wooden cudgels.

“Another filthy, lazy vagrant trying to live off others’ work,” the leader said. “Time to teach you a lesson.”

*

“You alright there?”

A man loomed over me. He wore a simple tunic and had a mass of wild hair, but it was hard to make out more in the thin lantern light that crept down the alley.

I pushed myself up on one elbow and wiped the blood from under my nose. Even that much movement hurt.

“Why’d they do that?” I asked, bewildered.

“Apprentices, was it? The authorities encourage ‘em. They’ve got more love for those stuck-up pricks than for the gutter-born like us.”

“I was born in a barn.”

“Ah, a country lad. New to the city?”

I nodded, which made my head spin.

“Then let me offer you a lesson,” he said as he helped me to my feet. “No-one with power here gives a fig whether you live or die. God’s harsh truth. But the likes of you and me, we look after our own. Head down to the brick kilns in Islington and ask for big hands Davey. Tell him little Bill sent you. He’ll sort you out.”

“Thank you,” I said, so grateful for kindness that I almost cried. “How can I pay you back?”

Little Bill chuckled.

“Don’t worry about that. It’s between Davey and me.”

*

“You look like a strong lad,” Davey said in a lilting voice. “Done lots of heavy lifting, have you?”

“Used to bring in the grain,” I said. “But there wasn’t enough work the last few years.”

“Well, we’re after a different sort of harvest.”

There was laughter from the half dozen men and women he’d gathered between a pair of brick kilns. They were a friendly bunch, plainly dressed, many of them visibly scarred. A woman handed me a hefty stick like the ones they were all carrying.

“We’re going to visit a dyer by the name of Roberts,” Davey said. “He’s been making a pretty penny lately, and it’s time to share the wealth. Lizzy and the new lad, once we get in, you head straight to the bedroom and grab his wife – surest way to get his cooperation. The rest of you, see what looks shiny.”

I tried to hide my horror from my new friends. Without them, I was alone in the city.

“We’re robbing him?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, boyo,” Davey said. “We don’t rob anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Think of how they looked at you, what they let those apprentices do to the likes of you and me. This is justice, so it is.”

I took a deep breath and tried to gather my thoughts, but I was hungry and tired and full of pain, altogether too distracted to do anything but agree.

*

As we crept towards the darkened house, Davey stopped us one last time.

“This Roberts is a strong one,” he said. “So swing clubs first and ask questions later.”

I remembered the apprentices clubs swinging at me, the thud of their boots against my flesh. The stick felt heavy in my hand.

Davey kicked the door open and the gang raced in past him. He turned to look at me, the only man to give me aide or shelter.

The man who wanted me to make me a robber.

I dropped the stick, turned, and ran.

*

The noise and smell of London’s streets receded as I trudged south. Maybe I’d find harvest work, maybe I wouldn’t. But I would rather starve back home than give in to those streets.


Elizabethan England wasn’t often kind to people who were down on their luck, who flocked to London in growing numbers as economic and social changes caused difficulties elsewhere. And while our protagonist heading home makes for a satisfying ending, it wasn’t a realistic option for many. There’s a reason historians write so much about crime and vagrancy in this era.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like 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.

***

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.

Improvising and Rough Edges

Typewriters on a wall in a pub

I recently started attending an improvised comedy course – because apparently I don’t have enough wacky hobbies and creative outlets already. A lot of the fun of improv comes from jamming together things that don’t quite match, for example picking sentences out of a hat and then fitting them into whatever scenario you’re acting out, which for me led to a cave diving expedition turning into a misguided attempt to spark romance.

This reminded me of something I used to do with my writing years ago. When looking for story inspiration, I’d scour my notebooks for fragments of ideas and description, jam a bunch of them together, and then work out what sort of story they could make. It didn’t always go smoothly, but it led to some of my more successful stories, like the mutant whale hunting adventure Distant Rain, which made its way into an issue of Murky Depths.

Dion Winton-Patrick is currently running a similar exercise as a series of challenges for writers on his blog The Fine-Toothed Comb. Each challenge involves incorporating specific words and an image to create a story – words and an image that might not go together in obvious ways. The results are some intriguing and imaginative flash stories.

Why do I mention all this? Mostly because I’d gotten out of the habit of using this approach. These days, I’ll come up with one idea and work out from there. It tends to make my ideas more coherent, but you can go too far with that. A little randomness and eclecticism in the inspiration can give a story rough edges, pieces that are at odds or create interesting contrasts, just like in real life. This can make stories richer and more convincing.

I’m not saying it’s the cure to all writing ills, but I’m planning on picking up some of that approach again, taking a deep dive into a decade of notebooks and finding whatever fragments grab my attention. If I have time, I’ll also be rising to Dion’s challenge. Because right now, I think my writing could do with a few more rough edges. And hey, maybe it’ll be good for my improv skills too.

The Lovelorn Lawn – a flash scifi story

I loved my house. It had the perfect combination of rustic chic and high tech gadgets, like the wood burning stove that I could light remotely during my commute. Anti-static surfaces meant I never had to dust and the front garden was host to a parasite that kept the lawn neat. Low effort, high style, and total comfort. Go me!

Then came Valentine’s Day, when I walked out the front door to find a heart-shaped bald patch on the lawn. I pulled out my phone and called my most recent ex.

“What the hell have you done, Matt?” I yelled into the receiver.

“What?” he mumbled sleepily.

“My lawn, you dickhead. What have you done?”

“Whatever you’re screaming about, save it for someone who cares.”

The line went dead.

I was about to dial again when the lawn started moving. Blades of grass writhed and twitched, turning the heart shape into a number four, then the letter U. Finally, a cluster of buttercups came squirming across the grass then dropped at my feet like a tiny bouquet.

I rubbed my eyes as I tried to work out if I was even awake.

“Lawn?” I asked. “Did you just bring me flowers?”

The grass shifted and the bald patch became a smiling face.

“Thanks, I guess.”

I picked up the flowers. I could talk to the parasite’s manufacturers later and check if it was meant to act like this. For now, it would be nice to arrive at the office with flowers on Valentines Day.

*

At first, I didn’t mind that the company wouldn’t replace the parasite. It was sweet watching my lawn rearrange itself into smiley faces and delivering tiny clusters of flowers, all while keeping itself neatly trimmed. The night it delivered a pile of worms to my doorstep was a messy one, but what boy really understands romantic gifts?

Then I started seeing Jamie and things got weird. Every time he came over, a clump of the lawn died. He caught me out there in the morning talking to the grass, stroking its leaves and trying to reassure it that it still had a place in my life. One night we came home to find a pile of earth in the shape of Jamie’s face, the top caved in with a dirt axe.

“Either that lawn goes or I go,” he said.

I sighed. For all his flaws, Jamie was passable in bed and responded well to suggestions. But…

“The lawn completes my garden.”

“It’s a parasite!”

“Says the twenty-eight-year-old still living in his mum’s spare room.”

“You bitch.”

And that was that.

*

The next morning, I sat down with the lawn.

“You’re an important part of my life,” I said. “But this has to stop.”

A sad face appeared in the grass.

“I’m a woman, you’re a dirt-based parasite,” I explained. “It would never work out.”

The sad face turned into a Disney logo.

“Yes, I know about Beauty and the Beast,” I said. “But that’s different.”

Now a question mark and then, just as I was about to lose my temper, a winky face.

“Fine,” I said with a laugh. “One date. And if it doesn’t work out, you drop this. Agreed?”

The smiley face came back. That would have to count for a yes.

*

After a decade of dating men, I wasn’t surprised that my lawn arranged a better first date than most. It greeted me with roses from the flower bed, escorted me to a cushioned patch of moss under a tree, and used its own cold dirt to chill the bottle of wine I’d brought to see me through this. Even communicating in pictograms, it was a better conversationalist than Jamie or Trevor, the scrum-half I’d dated during my rugby fan phase. I laughed, I sighed, I brushed my fingers across the impeccably trimmed grass. It was as close to perfect as a date with a parasitic swarm intelligence could be.

“This has been lovely,” I said at last. “I have to go now.”

“WAIT.” The letters appeared amid the grass.

“Sorry, but it’s getting late.”

A sad face with a single tear.

“Really, this has been nice, but I have work tomorrow.”

The response was a series of images – the letter “I”, a heart shape, then a “U”.

“Seriously, you’re making this weird,” I said. “It’s only been one date.”

It was the first time I’d seen grass form animated images of a calendar counting away the months. Perhaps I should have been impressed, but instead I was getting annoyed.

“Look, it’s not you, it’s me. I’m a human and that’s not what a lawn parasite needs.”

The Disney logo appeared again.

“Enough with the Beauty and the Beast crap! This is real life.”

Frowny face.

I took a deep breath and forced a smile as Mrs Copperwheat from number twenty-two walked by with her dog.

“We’ve had the date,” I said once the coast was clear. “And I’m sorry, but there’s not going to be another. You said you would drop this if that happened, so are we OK?”

A sad face again, then a slowly emerging thumbs up.

“Alright,” I said. “Thank you for a lovely evening. Goodnight.”

*

I loved my house, but the company who provided the lawn parasite wouldn’t get rid of it. They didn’t care that it made inappropriate messages for months – first passive aggressive pleas for another date, then angry signs and images, then just patches of dead grass to punish me when I didn’t respond. According to them, it wasn’t their fault that I was living with an angry ex on the doorstep. After all, what sort of woman dates a parasite? Never mind that they’d made it what it was.

Reluctantly, I put my perfect house on the market. Someone else could deal with the lawn. I was going to find a new one, and this time I would buy a mower.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now as a Kindle ebook via Amazon.

Ghostwriting – How It Is For Me

I recently got to see the cover for a novel I had ghostwritten. This landed in my mailbox around the same time a big controversy broke over an indie author combining ghostwriters and plagiarism to churn out books, leading to lawsuits, scandal, and some not unreasonable outrage. It got me thinking about the strangeness of being a ghostwriter, how ghostwriters fit into modern publishing, and why I do this job.

First up, let’s talk definitions. Ghostwriting is when I get hired to write a book or article that will be published in someone else’s name, on the understanding that I can’t lay claim to it. Plagiarism would be me copying other people’s work without permission. The two are different, but can be combined.

Ghostwriting of novels – my main concern here – happens when someone with an established brand or a head for the business side of writing wants to put books out quicker. It’s a way of keeping the attention of readers and so making both the new and the existing books more profitable. At the moment, this is appealling to indie authors because it lets them game the Kindle algorithms and so increase their sales.

Some people see this as dishonest. Of course there’s some truth in that, but the same could be said of politicians and celebrities getting help with their autobiographies, and we’re OK with that. I suspect that what’s really upsetting some people isn’t the dishonesty so much as the breaking of their expectations. We’re socialised to see authorship as a work of solitary creation, when in reality that’s never true. Every book is a collaboration with editors, but their names don’t appear on the cover. We want a name to latch onto, so credit for books is a solo thing. Even when authors collaborate they sometimes adopt a pen name, as with James S. A. Corey, the author of The Expanse – actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. A single author name makes it easier to sell the books, so that’s what they do.

If an indie author wants to create a successful publishing brand, they build it around an author name, because that’s how people identify the fiction they want to consume, not by publisher but by a named author personality, whether that person exists or not. Yes, I’m sure some of these indie book mills are churning out crap, but that can also happen in traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that everything produced this way is garbage.

From my point of view, the process of ghostwriting works something like this. I see a ghostwriting job advertised on a freelancing site or am approached through one of those sites. I apply for the job like I would any other, demonstrating my skills and experience. We agree terms and set up a contract through the site. Then the person hiring me provides me with details of the book they want written – usually a plot outline and character descriptions, sometimes with a style guide. And then I write, producing X thousand words per week for Y dollars a time, providing the best work I can given the timescales and the pay.

That last part is important. Someone who gives me longer to work with and pays for more of my time will get a better result, because I’m not in a rush. But a lot of this work is done for a marketing strategy that relies on speedy releases, and that affects quality no matter who’s writing.

So why would I do work like this? Wouldn’t I rather be writing my own stories with my own name on? Isn’t it weird seeing stories I’ve written and not being able to tell people about it?

Well, yes to both of those last two questions. And in answer to the first one, because it’s a job I enjoy. This doesn’t take the place of my own writing. It takes the place of my day job, meaning that my working hours are more satisfying, more fun, and help me practise my craft. The feedback from clients is useful in sharpening my skills, and believe me, when things aren’t right a ghostwriter definitely gets that feedback.

In the best cases, ghostwriting fiction has let me take part in some marvellous collaborations, producing books that I’m genuinely proud of and would happily stick my name on given half a chance. In the worst cases, I’ve worked to outlines and themes I wasn’t entirely happy with but that the client was determined to have. It got frustrating, but it was still more satisfying than any other job I’ve had. And at the end of the day, I wasn’t the one putting my name to those books, deciding they were good enough to be associated with me. Maybe I was wrong about those plots, themes, and ideas. Maybe readers would love them and they’d become bestsellers. And if not, that’s on the person who hired and briefed me, the one whose business will depend upon these books succeeding.

Where does that leave me, as the interent gets up in arms about ghostwriting? It leaves me with a job I love, despite its lack of security. It leaves me developing my writing skills on a daily basis. It leaves me producing the best work I can in the conditions I’m given. Yes, there are problems with the way that some people use ghostwriters, and the current state of publishing is exaggerating that. But that doesn’t mean that ghostwriters as a group are the problem. Ghostwriting is a logical result of how we currently produce and consume novels. Until those structures change, it’s here to stay. For those of us who get a creative job out of it, and for the readers who get more of the stories they enjoy, that’s surely a good thing.

Fleeting Thoughts – a flash fantasy story

I make my way to the back room of the library, a place of dust and shadows, of leather bindings and musty pages. The cold and the quiet should be soothing after weeks in the summer city heat, but what should and what is stand apart, separated by the finest of hairs. Instead of calm, I feel tension, my mind stretched out like the skin of a drum. The clatter of a chair down the room is like a drummer beating an irregular rhythm on my soul.

I set my bag down on a table and make for the folklore shelves. Near to them, that chair shifts again, its weary wood creaking beneath the weight of the room’s other occupant. His face is hidden beneath the hood of a Nike sweatshirt, but I can see jagged, broken fingernails tapping against an old biography of Descartes.

Even with company, I can always lose myself in books. I scan the spines, torn between researching animal myths and wanting to crack open a volume of local ghost stories. If I think about it, I’m sure I can wind the two together. After all, that’s what I do – follow the paths of logic and imagination, turning separate facts into links in a chain.

I catch a glimpse of movement just too soon to avoid human contact. The hooded man reaches out for a book on the shelf in front of me. I flinch and as I do so my hand brushes against his.

The touch of those ill-kept, twisted fingers sends a shudder through me, followed a moment later by something else. A rush of thoughts – incidents, facts, and connections, knowledge I didn’t have before. I let out a childish laugh and take a step back, pondering one of the strange creatures I’ve seen, like an old engraving of Black Shuck and yet not. I can use that. It’s perfect for… for… for something.

Now the image is gone. I shake my head, as though I might somehow shake the thought loose. There was a dog, wasn’t there? Some dark creature? Something I felt excited for?

I look at the man in the hooded. He looks back with soft, empty eyes.

“I saw…” I frown, almost cursing myself out loud. “Did you put something in my head?”

He takes a step back, arms held wide, face a picture of innocence.

“What are you?” I stare at him. There’s a smoothness to his face that isn’t quite right, like an oversized glossy cover hiding the stained bindings of a hardback. The musty smell of old books turns sour in the air.

Why am I looking at this man? I thought I knew, but that knowledge drifts away like a dust mote through a sunbeam, vanishing into shadow. I look him up and down, trying to make sense of it all. He’s wearing trainers, jeans, a hoody. His face is unsettling, unfamiliar, ghostly pale. And what are those soft shoes that he’s wearing?

He reaches out and again there comes a wave of insight. Thoughts of who he is, where he has been, what he has seen. I try to catch them as they pass but they slip through me and are gone.
I’ve spent years pursuing the supernatural, but if I’ve read of something like him then I can’t remember it. I spool through memories, long lines of ghosts, fey beasts, and urban legends. None quite fits, but which is closest?

As I try to recall them again, there’s nothing there. My own memories have been carried away with his.

“Know me,” he whispers, reaching out again.

I step back, hit a chair, and fall across it, landing with a thud on worn floorboards.

My mind burns for lost knowledge like a drowning man yearns for air. I try to find the thoughts I still have, to connect the links in the chain, to hold them together. I cling to anything I can. The logo on his sweatshirt, that symbol of victory, of sportsmanship, of an ancient god, of a brand contorting conformity and defiance as if the two could be one, of…

Why am I staring at a white tick on red cloth? It’s just a swoosh. A nothing.

He leans over. I still remember enough to make my heart race and the breath catch in my throat. The harder I struggle to focus, the more thoughts flee me, like sand trickling through my hands.

I force myself to close my eyes. To find shelter in simplicity. To follow the path of the Buddha, of the ancient ascetics, of…

Then comes the end of the chain. There’s nothing here. Just an emptiness where the things that matter to me were.

I look up into dark eyes set amid a pale face.

For one last moment, I think.

And then…

* * *

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

Filling the Gaps in the Past

I’ve been working on a comic script for Commando. Unusually for me, it involves real historical figures, not just fictional characters thrust into real events. During the course of the story, several of these real people die in battle. It’s important to the story that those deaths happen, and that’s going to work best if it happens on the page, as dramatic turns in the course of battle scenes.

So far so straightforward.

Here’s the catch – in every case, we don’t know how these people died. We know which battles they died in, but not who killed them or how. One has been the source of much debate, but for the other two, there’s just no evidence of the details.

That creates an opportunity, and with it a dilemma. Because of the uncertainty about these deaths, I could depict one of the characters doing the deed. It would add to the drama, and that’s a large part of what storytelling is about.

But that feels presumptuous to me. One thing I know is that my characters didn’t kill these people, because my characters didn’t exist. If I put the blood on their hands then I’m giving them a weight of historical significance, and I’m not sure they can stand beneath it. Maybe if the story was all about the man who killed such-and-such, then I could do it. But as a passing moment of drama in some other story? It feels like a stretch.

Do I give those deaths more emotional consequence in the story by involving my fictional creations, or do I acknowledge their real significance by keeping my characters out of it? I haven’t decided yet, but as a writer and someone passionate about history, it’s a really interesting question.

The Clockwork Cat – a flash steampunk story

13th March 1887

Never trust a salesman. I was explicitly told, when I subscribed to Professor Turnberg’s Cabinet of Wonders, that they would substitute other mechanicals for those in a likeness of animals, as per my directions. After all, if I wanted a pet I would have bought a pet. What I wanted was mechanical art, but when I opened this month’s box, I found inside a life size clockwork cat.

I spoke to the delivery man, of course, as he was departing with last month’s miniature train, ready to take it to the next subscriber. He promised that he would raise the issue with his superiors. I fully expect a response by the end of the week.

16th March

No reply from Turnberg’s. I wager the delivery man never even passed on my message. I shall write to his superiors to complain.

In the absence of another mechanical piece to adorn the drawing room, I have reluctantly unboxed and wound the cat. It stalks the floor as my mother’s dreaded Mister Snubbles once did, rubbing itself against the furniture and purring in its strange, mechanical voice. I will admit that the work is uncannily convincing, but in a model of a cat, I find that far from appealing.

18th March

During a visit for tea, Lady Kirby insisted that I name the cat, saying that I could not spend a whole month calling it “the beast”. After some consideration, I have settled for Bella – if I cannot have the beast I will have beauty, however unfitting that name is.

19th March

Bella is becoming almost as much trouble as a real cat. It roams the house and protests before any closed door, of which there are many, given its propensity for scratching antique furniture. The things is an infernal nuisance, but I cannot simply let it wind down and stop – what sort of house does not have a mechanical on display in this day and age?

21st March

Today, Bella brought me a dead rat it had caught in the kitchen.

A dead rat. On my writing desk. Disgusting.

I must admit, the sophistication of this feline mechanical is truly admirable. Between the hunting, the playing, and the rubbing against my legs, it is unsettlingly close to the real thing. I will be glad when it is gone.

25th March

Bella has taken to sleeping on my desk while I work. It is inconvenient, but allows me to better show her off when business associates come calling. Having such a fine mechanical can do my reputation no harm.

30th March

Today, Bella did not come to sleep on my desk. I should have been more productive, but instead found myself worrying that my prize mechanical might have come to harm. I eventually found her sleeping in a box in a spare room. Her little chest was rising and falling as she purred in her sleep. Truly a remarkable piece of art.

1st April

No Bella at my desk for the third day running. I was eventually able to lure her into the study with a mouse-shaped toy on a string, but then she caught the mouse, chewed it up, and tried to swallow it. Only swift intervention on my part saved her from with shredded cotton tangling her gears. I would not want to have to pay for damages when she is returned to Turnberg’s.

Now she is sleeping in a sunbeam on the rug. I have drawn a sketch of her there, just to keep my hand in with the old pencils.

6th April

Three nights ago, I forgot to close the bedroom door and Bella came in to sleep with me. Since then, she has become my companion every night, curled up by my feet, sometimes rising in the darkness to go and chase mice in the kitchen. After years on my own, it is strangely comforting to share a bed, even with a mechanical beast.

8th April

At last, a letter from Turnberg’s acknowledging their mistake. They have promised that, from now on, my monthly subscription will match my request for no animals. As compensation for their mistake, this month they will be sending me an intricate clockwork village from their elite subscribers list. I greatly look forward to impressing Lady Kirby with it when she comes for tea.

9th April

Bella is back on the desk, in a box I placed there for her.

I find myself having second thoughts about the clockwork village. Where will I even display something so fine with the house in its current state? Perhaps I should save it for another month.

10th April

Bella is due to be taken away in three days. Perhaps she can take her box with her.

11th April

I don’t think I have time to make space for the village. I will send a telegram to Turnberg’s asking them not to change my mechanicals this month. Just while I make some changes in the decor.

I have given Bella her own blanket at the bottom of the bed, to keep her off the other sheets when I’ve oiled her joints.

13th May

The delivery man came today with the second cat. I will be calling this one Bete. He and Bella have been watching each other warily across the study, but I am sure they will soon be firm friends.

Along with Bete came the first item in my altered subscription – a set of mechanical mice for my cats to chase. Next month there will be birds.

I do not like pets, but my heart skips at the sight of a truly great mechanical.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like 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.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

The End?

Endings are funny things to write.

I’ve started getting feedback on a big work in progress and one of the interesting questions raised has been about the ending. It closes off the plot arcs that I’d built the story around, but it also leaves a lot of questions open. One beta reader’s initial feedback was full of these questions – what happens next? what about character x? is this setup for a sequel?

Leaving such questions open is one of two ways to deal with ending a story.

On the one hand, you can deliver closure, providing neat endings for story arcs. This is satisfying for readers, in part because it’s so different from the uncomfortably open-ended nature of reality.

On the other hand, there’s ending with questions open. This leaves readers thinking about the novel, considering what they think happens next, potentially yearning for more. It’s more real, but lacks the catharsis of a closed arc.

Of course, most stories don’t just do one or the other. They’ll close some arcs and leave others open. The question isn’t which to do but which to do more of.

The answer isn’t going to be easy. It depends upon your taste, your audience, the nature of the story, the message you’re trying to convey, and a hundred other considerations of craft, inspiration, and business. But it’s not an answer you can avoid providing.

Every story finishes, but not every one has a neat “The End”. For the one I’m working on, I want a high degree of audience satisfaction, while still leaving some questions open. That probably means I need to provide more closure than I’m doing right now. For you, the balance might be very different.

And for now, I’ll just stop there.

The Power Plant Paradox – a flash scifi story

By the light of a small torch, Claudine set her explosives against the base of the generator. She glanced around but there was no sign of the power plant’s guards, only Philippe staring vacantly at the machines.

She shook her head and pulled out a fuse. If they relied on Philippe, then France would be occupied by the Nazis forever. But the British agents who supplied their explosives expected to talk to a man, and so…

A light flickered and she looked up in alarm. A man in denim trousers and a t-shirt stood beside her, behind him a bearded figure wearing chainmail and carrying an axe. The one in the t-shirt touched her shoulder, there was a flash, and the world spun away.

Suddenly, it was daylight. The three of them were in a jungle clearing, the air thick with the smell of flowers and the calls of birds. Claudine dropped her fuse and leapt to her feet.

“What the hell?” she asked, staring at the two men.

“Hi.” The one in the t-shirt waved a hand. “My name’s Joel. I’m from the future. This is Durwin. I borrowed him from Kent in 1064.”

Durwin’s mouth hung open as he watched a pair of parrots fly past.

“Take me back,” Claudine demanded. “I have a mission.”

“It’s OK,” Joel said. He looked down at a gadget in his hand and started playing with its dials. “I just need you for a few hours for my art installation. Once I’m done, I’ll take you back to the moment I borrowed you from. You won’t even remember any of this.”

“My country has been occupied by the Nazis.” Claudine grabbed Joel by the scruff of his neck. “I don’t have time for your damned art project.”

“It’s OK.” Joel smiled and put on a calming voice, like he was trying to sooth a toddler. “I couldn’t have picked you out of the time stream if your actions mattered. All the records show that Philippe Blanc destroys the power plant at Grandville.”

“The only thing that pretty boy could destroy is a baguette. Now take me back!”

“I just need to pick up one more-”

Durwin tapped Joel on the shoulder and said something Claudine couldn’t understand.

“Seriously,” Joel said, looking back and forth between them. “Neither of you matters to history. This is your chance to contribute to the world of art.”

“To hell with art.”

Claudine snatched the device out of Joel’s hands. It had clearly been adapted, with electronic components spilling out of its original casing. Joel stared at her aghast.

“Give that back.” He grabbed the device but Claudine wouldn’t let go. They tussled over it while Durwin’s protests grew in volume. Joel twisted, jerked, and wrenched the device from Claudine’s grip, leaving her with a handful of loose components.

“Oh fu-” Joel began, staring in horror at the dangling wires.

The world seemed to ripple around them. One minute they were standing in the jungle, the next on a snowy mountainside overlooking a herd of mammoths. More ripples and they were in a city of glass and chrome, a sandstone fortress, a cluster of tents in a desert oasis. Claudine’s stomach churned. Durwin stared, mouth hanging open again.

“Shit shit shit.” Joel worked frantically at the device, twisting wires together, clipping components onto each other, prodding at buttons. At last the world went still, leaving them on a hillside at night, listening to the rumble of traffic on a multi-lane road below.

Claudine wanted to scream for a dozen different reasons. Instead, she held her wonder and her frustration inside, as she always had to.

“Send me home,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady.

“Fine.” Joel rolled his eyes. “But you could have been part of something special.”

“I already am.”

Durwin spoke, the sounds low and guttural.

“Yes yes, you’re part of something special too,” Joel said, patting the baffled looking warrior on his shoulder.

Joel pulled a card from his pocket, slid it into the side of the device, and turned a dial. Suddenly they were back in the factory, right where Claudine had been planting her bomb.

She glanced around. Still no guards or soldiers. Down the machine hall, Philippe was frowning as he pushed too many wires into his bomb.

“Happy now?” Joel whispered.

“Piss of now,” Claudine replied. “I have work to do.”

“Your loss,” Joel said. “Not that you’ll remember.”

The world rippled and Joel and Durwin were gone.

Claudine looked down at the bomb she had been planting. Why was she standing up? And why hadn’t she put the fuse in yet? Time was of the essence. If the Nazis caught them it would mean disaster.

She opened her hand, revealing a fistful of electrical components she didn’t recognise. No fuse.

Well, she would just have to improvise. With a few of these wires, her watch, and the batteries from the torch, she could make something work. There was still time before the guards came round again. Just enough time.

* * *

Over on Twitter, I often talk about what I’m writing today. Sometimes this leads to weird combinations that leave you wondering what sort of story they’d make, and sometimes friends challenge me to write that story. Which is how I ended up with a time travel story involving a Saxon warrior, a 20th-century saboteur, and a jungle trek (alright, I left out most of the trekking, but I think this still counts). I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please share it with friends and maybe sign up to my mailing list to receive weekly bursts of fiction.

It’s OK to Ask

One of the toughest things for me as a freelancer is convincing myself that it’s OK to ask for stuff. For advice from other professionals. For support from friends. For more work from past clients. For feedback from current ones.

The thing is, asking does no harm, and it can lead to good things. It took me months to build up the courage to ask clients for testimonials, which I wanted to put on my freelance website. I felt like I was intruding, felt afraid of how people would respond. But these were people who valued my skills enough to pay for them, so of course when I asked they were willing to spare a couple of sentences recommending me.

When you work for yourself, whether it’s full time freelancing or doing a creative side gig, you’re the one who has the power, the motivation, and the opportunity to push your work further. People aren’t always going to think of you or to know what you want. So it’s OK to ask. More than just OK. It’s what you need.