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Deciding What History To Write

I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction lately, both on this blog and for Commando Comics. I’ve also been writing articles for places like History.com. That raises an interesting question – how to decide what to write.

For me, there are several factors.

One is what I know about. With a few exceptions, I focus on topics I have plenty of sources for or already know a lot about. This narrows the field and helps avoid misrepresenting history I don’t understand.

Then there’s what’s interesting – both what I’m excited about and what I think other people will be intrigued by. That means finding novelty in the subject matter. For fiction, it also means finding an engaging character.

The audience I’m writing for comes into it. Commando readers mostly want stories about 20th-century warfare, especially World War Two, and they want them action-packed. While I try to make my Commando stories more diverse and varied than they’ve traditionally been, that has to come within the limits of what their readers will go for.

The format matters. What makes an interesting article is very different from what makes a visually exciting comic story, and both are very different from prose fiction, where you get inside a character’s head.

Then there’s the desire for variety. Editors want stories that haven’t been told, and I want to help show diverse stories and perspectives. That means I’ll sometimes pick a piece of history I don’t know quite so well because I think it should be seen.

Picking what history to write about is never as simple as just picking up a book and going with that. It’s a big challenge even before I set my fingers to the keyboard.

And that makes it part of the fun.

***

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.

Drawing the Desert – a historical short story

Ernst Schmatlock cursed as his plane swept down towards the Egyptian desert. The Luftwaffe had been sure this area was still in Axis hands, that the squadron would make it safely back. But here he was, out of fuel behind Allied lines.

Desert sand dunes

He wrenched at the yoke, pulling up the nose of the plane moments before it hit the ground. Wheels tore through the sand, the Stuka tipped, and for a terrible moment he thought that the whole thing would flip over, trapping him. But then the tail sank back, there was a jolt, and the plane came to rest against a sand dune.

Schmatlock grabbed what supplies he had – a few biscuits, a half-empty canteen of water, his service pistol. He hadn’t been prepared for this. Next time he would do better.

If he lived through this time.

Before he climbed out, he took one last small bundle from the back of the plane. That package of pencils and paper was his lifeline, a connection to the artist he had been before the war. Food and water would keep him alive, but drawing would keep him sane.

Schmatlock had no idea where the nearest people were, or any source of water. All he knew was that friendly troops lay somewhere to the west, and so that was the way he walked.

Sand sucked at his boots, making every step a strain. By nightfall he was exhausted, his food and water used up. As the blazing heat of the day gave way to the bitter chill of a cloudless night, he took a few minutes to draw the desert, to tame it with his art. Then he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When he woke, the sun was well up and he could feel his face starting to burn. He took off his jacket, draped it over his head, and followed his shadow west.

By the middle of the day, his strength was fading. The dry heat sucked the water straight out of his body, leaving him with a parched throat and a spinning head. When he stopped to rest, he drew wine bottles and waterfalls, but they only threw his thirst into starker relief.

Somewhere along the line, he started losing things. A pair of binoculars. The empty water bottle. Even his pistol, abandoned during a delirious, desperate attempt to lighten his load. But he clung tight to the pencils and paper. Those he needed. Those were part of him.

He was on the verge of giving up when he saw movement between the dunes ahead. He staggered up a slope and looked down at a town below.

At last, somewhere he could find water! A chance to survive and to make it home.

A truck was driving into the town, a long dust cloud snaking out behind it. A British truck, driven by British soldiers.

Schmatlock cursed his luck. If the British spotted him in that town, he would be sent straight to a prison camp. But he was so thirsty, so exhausted, what choice did he have?

A sound made him look back. A camel was approaching with a man on its back, laden with saddle bags. The man looked like a local.

Better to risk exposing himself now than to face the British unprepared. Schmatlock waved and called out a greeting.

The camel rider approached. He looked down and said something Schmatlock couldn’t understand.

“Thirsty.” Schmatlock pointed at his mouth. “Water, please.”

Perhaps the rider understood, or perhaps he just saw Schmatlock’s desperate state. Regardless, he threw him a water skin and Schmatlock gulped the contents gratefully down. His guts gurgled at the sudden change, but he felt some sense returning, his mind emerging from the fog of dehydration.

He handed the water skin back, then tugged at the edge of the rider’s robes.

“I need these,” Schmatlock said.

The rider drew his leg back and frowned.

“Please.” Schmatlock pointed at the robes, then at himself. “Please, I need different clothes.”

Again, the rider said something, then he laughed. He pointed at Schmatlock, then over the ridge, and finally plucked at the hem of his robes.

“Yes, exactly!” Schmatlock said. “I can’t go there looking like this. Will you help?”

The man rubbed his thumb and forefingers together.

“You want paying.” Schmatlock sighed. “Of course. But I don’t have any money.”

He opened each of his pockets, turning them inside out or holding them open for the rider to see. The only thing that came out was the bundle of papers and pencils.

The rider frowned, shrugged, then pulled a worn robe and a headscarf from his saddle bags. He held up the clothes, then pointed at Schmatlock’s papers and pencils.

“You want these?” Schmatlock stared at the proffered bundle of cloth, then at his precious art supplies, the one thing he had clung to all this way.

The rider said something, then made as if to put the robes back in the bag.

“No, wait!” Reluctantly, Schmatlock held out his art supplies. True, he could sneak on past the town now he had had a drink. But what were the odds of finding somewhere else out here?

Better to go a little crazy staying alive than to let the desert take him.

He took a single sheet from the bundle – his sketch of the desert at night, a reminder of what he had been through. Then he handed the rest to the rider and took the robes in return.

The man said something and his camel started walking, heading over the dunes and away. Schmatlock pulled the robes on over his uniform, hiding him from the sun and from scrutiny. As he stepped over the ridge and down towards the town, his fingers tightened around his one remaining piece of paper.

He hadn’t given his art up for nothing. He would find a way home.

***

This story is a prequel of sorts to my latest Commando comic, “Stealing Stukas”. If you want to find out what happens to Schmatlock next, you can find that comic in newsagents or on Comixology.

And if you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories 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.

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

Out Today – Stealing Stukas

The Western Desert, 1941. When they find information about an abandoned squadron of German planes, RAF intelligence officer Captain Ian Thompson and daring Squadron Leader Samuel Westwell head out into the desert to steal a Stuka. But rising tempers and enemy action threaten to keep them from their coup…

My latest Commando comic, “Stealing Stukas”, is out today! You can buy it electronically through Comixology, or get a paper copy through newsagents in the UK.

Stealing Stukas

The Western Desert, 1941. When they find information about an abandoned squadron of German planes, RAF intelligence officer Captain Ian Thompson and daring Squadron Leader Samuel Westwell head out into the desert to steal a Stuka. But rising tempers and enemy action threaten to keep them from their coup…

My latest Commando Comics story, “Stealing Stukas”, is out this week. It’s a story of action and adventure set during World War Two. What’s most remarkable, given the story it tells, is that it’s inspired by true events.

Stumbling Into Inspiration

I’ve always had a soft spot for second-hand book shops. The smell of old paper. The unexpected books you stumble over. The certainty that you’re getting a bargain.

When I was writing for War History Online, I kept an eye out for second-hand books I could use as sources. Among them was Freedom’s Battle Volume 2: The War in the Air. This is a collection of first-hand accounts of the RAF’s role in the Second World War, edited by Gavin Lyall. It’s not a recent book, nor one that digs deep into historical cause and effect, but it’s full of interesting anecdotes about real experiences.

Bowman and Rozier’s Desert Adventure

Among the remarkable stories in Freedom’s Battle is one involving Wing Commander Bowman and Squadron Leader Rozier of the RAF, recorded by Squadron Leader George W Houghton.

Three Stukas in flight
Image by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J16050 / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

In September 1941, Allied troops in North Africa found several crashed Stukas. These dive bombers were a widely feared weapon central to German Blitzkrieg tactics. The crashed planes indicated that a squadron had run out of fuel and been forced to land. Retrieving one of these Stukas intact would be a coup for the Allies.

Bowman and Rozier were given permission to hunt for the planes. They searched by land and air, with the help of a South African armoured car unit and some Italian prisoners.

After several days, they found one of the Stukas and got it working, only for it to crash land. The two men were stuck in the desert without supplies. It took a long trek and help from another South African unit to get them safely home.

Not to be defeated, they retrieved a technician, fuel, and spare parts, returned to the Stuka, and got it working again. At last, they flew the captured plane back to base.

Adapting History to Story

Bowman and Rozier’s adventure was intriguing, and I could see that it had potential for a war comic. But rather than stick with the real story, I took its basic parts and turned it into something else, with different protagonists and incidents that never really happened.

Why?

To tell a better story.

The real events had a lot of novelty, but not enough to fill a full-length issue of Commando. It’s a cool war story, but it’s not a complete narrative. Houghton’s account says almost nothing about Bowman and Rozier as people, so I couldn’t accurately portray them as characters. They faced some difficulties, but not the escalating challenges that make for a complete World War Two comic book. On top of all this, there was no antagonist.

Instead of misrepresenting real people for the sake of a story, I decided to create a new story inspired by them. Captain Thompson and Squadron Leader Westwell are fictional creations who I could shape as I needed. Ernst Schmatlock, a German pilot, takes the place of the Italian POWs, and in the process provides an antagonist. The nameless South Africans of the real account are now led by Lieutenant van der Walt and given more prominence. Bad situations are made far worse than they were, moments of tension and trouble more dramatic. Imagined personal conflicts add to the real challenge of retrieving a broken plane from the desert.

The Challenge of Historical Fiction

There is no perfect way to fictionalise a real historical story. In “1066“, I stuck with reality but added an extra character. There, the real story is important and well-known. The whole point was to tie into it.

For this story, I don’t think I could accurately depict the real people involved, who may still have living relatives. Nor could I tell the story I wanted while sticking to the truth. So I wrote my own version.

Even when we make up historical stories, it’s important to remember the reality behind them. Two RAF officers achieved something remarkable, far from home and in difficult circumstances. Thanks to Gavin Lyall, Bowman and Rozier’s names are still remembered. And thanks to a trip to a charity shop, they’ve found a new place, as the inspiration for a comic book.

Real Food – a flash science fiction story

It was the gun that got Liz’s attention. She hadn’t seen many guns in her life, had seen none at all in the protein plant before, and this was very definitely the first one to be pointed at her. The darkness of the barrel had a hypnotic draw that almost made her ignore the man behind it.

She raised her hands and stepped back, legs trembling, sweat breaking out across her brow. Her back pressed against the guard rail, hard and cold even through her overalls, and she found herself trapped, caught between the three terrorists and the vats below.

“We are the Real Food Front!” the leader of the terrorists bellowed. “We demand that you switch off these machines.”

When she looked back on it later, Liz realised that she should have just said, “yes, of course, right this way…”, but in the moment, her brain was lagging somewhere behind the dangers of reality.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because people should be people,” he said. “They should eat real animals and plants, not some synthetic protein pooped out by bacteria.”

“That’s not really how this-”

“Silence!”

He waved the gun. Liz clamped her mouth shut, terrified that he might accidentally pull the trigger. It would be bad enough to get shot over this goop, never mind dying because some idiot’s finger slipped.

They stood staring at each other, both waiting, while his comrades peered down into the gently bubbling vats.

“I said switch it off,” the terrorist said.

“Oh!” Liz blinked, then laughed uncomfortably. “Sorry, I can’t. I don’t have that level of control.”

“Then you’re no use to us.”

He shoved her hard and she fell over the guard rail with a shriek. For a moment, the air rushed past, then she landed with a splat in the vat below.

Liz flailed wildly, trying to swim through a morass of bacteria, water, and the proteins they were making. Each breath was a desperate gasp as she felt herself sinking.

Then she remembered how shallow the vat was. Blushing with embarrassment, she got her feet underneath her and stood, chest-deep in goop.

“You will provide a warning to the world of the danger this place has unleashed!” the terrorist shouted, his voice echoing through the factory. One of his comrades held up a phone to film Liz. “As genetically modified bacteria dissolve your body, the world will see how deadly their food is, why they should return to the good old ways of real food.”

Liz raised her hand.

“What?” the terrorist asked.

“You know this won’t work, right?” Liz said. “These bacteria don’t eat anything but hydrogen. Even the ones that dissolve plastic can’t-”

“Of course I knew that! This was, um, a test, to show that you’re a real employee here. And now the world will see your face as we poison your precious artificial protein. No-one will be able to eat your barbaric products, as they bring the same death to the body they bring to the soul.”

One of the others had taken off a bulky backpack and pulled out a plastic sack. He ripped it open and poured white powder into the vat.

Liz raised her hand.

“What?” the lead terrorist snapped.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but that won’t work either. There are so many filters in this system that whatever you’ve put in, it’ll probably be taken out. And if not, it won’t make it past quality testing. Regulations are even tighter for us than for other food.”

The terrorist leaned forward, one hand gripping the guard rail. His face was red.

“I didn’t want to do this,” he said. “But you people have pushed us to it. For the sake of future generations, we must return to real food.”

He unzipped his jacket, revealing a mass of plasticine-like blocks and trailing wires. One of those wires let to the switch he pulled from his pocket.

“I may die,” he declared, chest thrust out as his comrade stepped back to film him, “but by sacrificing myself to destroy the very vats that poison our people, I bring this place to a halt and prove to the world that life is worth more than this.”

Liz raised her hand, but it was too late. The terrorist ran along the gantry, vaulted the guard rail, and landed with a splat in the next vat over, out of sight from her.

There was a muted thump. A fountain of bacteria-infused goo blasted into the air, then pattered down like a thick, pink rain. Liz, already coated from her fall, watched with a smile as the remaining terrorists tried to shake off the slime.

Then the doors burst open and the police ran in.

An hour later, Liz was sitting under a blanket beside the vats while a woman from HR failed to comfort her.

“This is going to be a disaster,” the woman said, shaking her head. “Never mind cleaning the vats, the publicity from it all-”

“We sell food powders with all the taste and glamour of plasticine,” Liz said. “Until today, we were as cool and edgy as a children’s TV presenter. Now our food has survived a terrorist attack.”

She got up and started looking around for new overalls.

“Unlike the Real Food Front, I think we’ll survive.”

***

A story inspired by real attempts to make food using gas and microorganisms. Because the world is a wild and wonderful place.

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.

***

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 from all major ebook stores.

Book Collection as Biography

I work in the room where most of my books live, and so see them every day. I see them when I walk in, when I glance up from my desk, when I get up to go make a cuppa. There’s a whole wall lined with bookshelves, and like everything else about these books, that tells you something about my life.

Our book collections are a form of biography, a life story laid out in pulped wood and print. Or perhaps more accurately an archaeology, the physical evidence of our past. I have books from my childhood, like a beloved copy of Winnie the Pooh. Books with messages from friends I’ve met down the years. Books signed by authors I’ve met. Books full of rules for games I’ve played, instructions for crafts I’ve picked up and abandoned, books bought for work. Each bookshelf shows something different, from my taste in stories to my work in history. Together, they tell a complex tale.

Even the books to read are a reflection of my personality, though I haven’t taken them in yet. They show my enthusiasm for second-hand shops, as well as my deluded conviction that I’ll someday read a big pile of worthy factual tomes.

Some of these books are particularly precious to me. There’s my single signed Pratchett, a memento of my favourite author. Next to that is a battered copy of On the Road, a gift from a best friend in sixth form. Two shelves up is a poetry book inherited from my great uncle, originally gifted to a more distant ancestor in 1904. My books represent family and friendship, work and leisure, down through different stages of my life. Not every one is a treasured memento, but most have a memory attached.

This is an incomplete biography. I’ve lost many books along the way, lent out and never returned or deliberately discarded when I moved to a smaller house. If they were all here then there would be books by the meter, books by the ton, books enough to fill shelves on every wall of this room. Their absence makes this biography incomplete, but then that’s the state of any biography. They’re dependent on bias, memory, and the uncertainties of what reaches the historical record.

My collection keeps changing, and with it my story. I’ll add books coming out this year to the stack. There are books on my kindle to consider – a reflection of the changing technological times I’ve lived through. Whenever I’m published, I add something to that corner of the collection, and of my story.

Our book collections are our biographies. So what does your collection say about you?

Three Little Pigs – a fairy tale retold

The wolf prowled into town on paws as soft as mist and as deadly as winter. Her every breath made the leaves trembled in the trees.

Close up of a wolf's face

Three pigs fled before her. The first, skinny and clad in rags, ran into a house of straw. The second, in his simple, sturdy tunic and tool belt, ran into a house of wood. The third, decked out in a bowler hat and waistcoat, ran into a house of bricks.

The wolf grinned, drool dripping between saw-blade teeth. She would eat well today.

She stopped at the first house.

“You think this can protect you?” she called out with a sneer.

“It’s all I have,” the first pig replied, his voice high with fear. “But there’s no meat on me. Am I even worth eating?”

He wasn’t worth answering. The wolf took a deep breath, her lungs swelling with all the power of the east wind, pursed her lips, and blew.

The house exploded beneath the force of the gale, straw bursting apart and billowing through the air.

The pig cowered in the ruins, frozen by fear. The wolf snapped her jaws shut around his throat and tasted hot, delicious flesh. She gave in to her hunger, rending, tearing, chewing, until all that remained was bones and blood-spattered chaff.

She brushed a straw from her nose and frowned. The pig had been right – he wasn’t nearly enough to sate her appetite.

She stalked over to the house of wood. It was carefully constructed, timbers linked with dovetail joints and wooden pins, an apple carved into the frame above the front door. The windows were shuttered and bolted.

“You think this can protect you?” the wolf called out as she admired the handiwork.

“I built it with all my skill,” the second pig replied, his words sharply edged, the voice of a creature failing to hide his fear. “I have faith that it will stand.”

“Let’s put that faith to the test.”

The wolf stepped back and took a deep breath. The wind was a great power within her, a living, surging, seething thing. Then she blew.

The house shook. Shutters rattled in their frames. Joints creaked under the strain. The wolf kept blowing determinedly, her breath the full force of the elements.

“I told you,” the pig shouted over the howling wind. “I said that it-”

With a splintering crash, the front door flew in, wrenching away half the doorframe. Timbers around it buckled and broke. Splinters whirled. Walls fell. The roof went tumbling across the street.

The pig tried to run but the wolf was faster. Paws pinned him in the mud. She smelled the blood seeping from a hundred splinter wounds.

“I don’t want to die,” the pig whimpered.

“And I don’t want to be hungry,” the wolf said, a moment before she sank her teeth in.

When she was done, she wiped the blood from her muzzle with the back of her paw. That had been good. The carpenter had more flesh on him. But still she hungered for something more.

She approached the brick house, standing tall amid the scattered straw and pulverised planks. The third pig looked down at her from a crenellated turret on the northeast corner.

“You think this can protect you?” the wolf asked, licking her lips.

“I bloody well hope so” the pig replied. “I spent half my fortune on it.”

The wolf took a deep breath, her chest expanding, her body flooding with the wind’s power. Then she blew.

The wolf’s breath battered at the brickwork, blowing dust from the mortar and whistling through the roof tiles.

The house stood firm.

The wolf frowned, took another deep breath, and blew gain.

The wind was a vast force pounding at the house. The turret trembled and the pig clung on with gritted teeth. A chimney pot shattered in the street.

But still the house stood.

The wolf growled in frustration. This wasn’t how it was meant to work. She blew, houses fell, pigs got eaten. That was the way of the world.

She took another breath, the deepest she had ever known, sucking in air until she felt she would explode. And then she blew.

The tower wavered. The pig crouched in terror behind the battlements. The front door rattled in its frame like the battering of hail on a frozen pond. The wolf blew and blew until there was nothing left in her and she lay panting in the dirt.

Still the house stood.

The pig peered down from his tower, drew out a cigar and lit it with a gold-plated lighter. He grinned and blew a smoke ring.

The wolf forced herself up onto her paws. Her head hung in shame and her belly rumbled.

“You win,” she growled. “I’ll go.”

“Why the rush?” the pig said. “I know a way you can stay here and still be well fed.”

“Stop taunting me,” the wolf snapped. “We both know you’re not coming out to be eaten.”

“True,” the third pig said. “But you see those windmills I had built on the hill? They could feed quite a community. Lots of hard workers for my new factory. Lots of succulent little piggies for you. Offer them bread and jobs and not too much death and they’ll come from miles around. All I need to make those mills work is a little gust of wind…”

***

This story started out with a simple writing exercise and ended up going all Animal Farm. Who would have thought it from an old lefty like me?

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.

***

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 Future of Food Gets Weirder

Our relationship with food is changing fast. As new technologies and ethical considerations take hold, it’s becoming rich territory for speculative fiction.

I wrote about food a couple of times last year – one an article about how food isn’t explored much in sci-fi and the other a flash story about the effect of changing diets. Only a few months later, the news has leapt ahead from my ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, Finnish scientists announced that they had found a way to make protein out of air. It involves soil bacteria and splitting water, and the end result is a tasteless, textureless powder with all the culinary appeal of sawdust, but still, if it works then this is huge.

If you’re going to pick out a single nutrient to synthesise, then protein is surely the most important. It’s what our bodies use to build, grow, and repair themselves. In the absence of fat and carbohydrates, it provides a source of energy. It’s why meat, fish, and dairy are so valuable in a diet, and why you have to be careful to get a good balance of simpler proteins if you go vegan.

Traditional protein is also relatively land- and resource-intensive to produce. Feeding an animal up to provide meat, eggs, or milk takes a lot more space, energy, and resources than growing vegetables or grain.

As the middle class grows around the world, wealthier people seek out more protein in their diets, and those who’ve got it aren’t giving it up. Some in the west are moving over to plant protein to reduce their environmental impact, but the pressure farming puts on the ecosystem is still huge.

That’s why George Monbiot, one of Britain’s most famous commentators on green issues, thinks that the Finnish technology could save the environment. Even if it’s not all that tasty, protein flour could provide millions of people with nutrients they need and that many lack. And because it takes far less space and energy, it could be a blessing for the environment, especially if it’s powered by solar energy. Just imagine vast vats on the edges of the Sahara, turning sunlight into precious food.

Compared with what I was writing about in No More Milk, this is a radical change, both in its practical potential and in its aesthetics. Protein flour grown in bacterial vats is some real sci-fi weirdness by current food standards, far more so than just eating beetles. The transformation this could bring is staggering, and it lends itself to some weird people, places, and events, from obsessive bacteriologists to vast food-processing vats to new organisms growing from the food sludge. The possibility that this might take off makes some previously wild speculation seem more real and will encourage sci-fi writers to move away from food as we know it.

The future of food is vital to society. Now it could be dramatic too.

The Whale Yard – a historical short story

John approached the whale yard at dawn, like he did every day. The sun was rising over Whitby, a golden disk emerging from the grey of the North Sea, silhouetting the fishing boats and casting the houses in a rich and warming light.

John felt that warmth too, soaking through him, giving him a moment of happiness despite the smell of whale oil heavy all around. For that moment he smiled.

Then he stepped into the yard.

Whale sculpture, Pannett Park, Whitby

A whaling ship had come in yesterday, the Venerable Sue, with a whale’s jaw tied high on the mast to signal a successful hunt. The crew had brought out heaps of blubber, bones, and meat, and carried it all to the yard for processing. Somewhere along the line money must have changed hands, because the Sue’s crew had made merry in the taverns after dark. John’s pay would come at the end of the week, after he’d cleaned those bones and boiled the blubber, enough to keep him fed and warm and sheltered. A decent living for a humble man.

Matthew was in the boiling house already, lighting fires. John helped him stoke the flames then slide slices of blubber into the great iron pots where the oil was rendered. Soon, the building was thick with the smell of it, a smell that clung to John’s clothes just as it clung to the yard long after the fires went out.

“Do you ever wonder what else you could have done?” Matthew asked as they stirred the pots.

“This is what I do,” John said. “A good job for good pay.”

“Didn’t you ever want to be a sailor or a preacher or something like that?”

John shook his head. “Just this.”

More men had arrived and were helping with the rendering. John stepped out into the yard, to help scrape the bones. It was messy work, but satisfying somehow, making things clean and ready for sale.

The sun was at its peak. Soon it would sink towards the sea and another day would end, another few pennies earned amid the smell of rendering oil.

*

John approached the whale yard at dawn. The sun was somewhere behind the clouds, the houses and fishing boats cast in a soft, pale light. It soothed his spirit, for better or for worse. Hard to feel excited on such a day.

They were still working through the haul from the Venerable Sue. John and Matthew lit the fires and put the pans on while they waited for the others to arrive. Soon the smell was there, familiar and grotesque, as inescapable as breathing. John gagged as a thick cloud of it clawed at his throat.

He sighed in relief as they stepped out of the boiling house and headed for the bones. Soon, his hands would be sticky with fat and half-dried blood, but at least the bones would be clean.

“You alright?” Matthew asked, peering at him.

“Fine,” John said, and it almost felt true. But there was a hollowness inside him, something that even cleaning bones couldn’t mend. A feeling he couldn’t describe or explain, but that made him feel as though he was falling into himself, tumbling forever into nothing.

He looked over at Matthew, who had pulled out a scraping knife and set to work.

“I don’t know what I’d be,” John said.

“Eh?” Matthew looked up, confused.

“If I wasn’t here, I don’t know what I’d be. Don’t know if I can be anything else.”

“Good thing you like it here then, eh?” Matthew gestured at the heaps of bones and the boiling house, dark and greasy smoke trickling from its door.

John hesitated a long time before he answered.

“Does it matter if I like it?” he asked. “It’s what I’ve got.”

The sun peered through a thin patch in the clouds, white and washed out, a cold and uncaring eye. They cleaned the bones and the day dragged on.

*

John approached the whale yard at dawn. White clouds were drifting through a blue sky, casting patches of shadow across the town. Moments of warmth and coolness passed over John as he stood at the gate of the yard, stuck in the moment before going in.

This was what he did, a good job for good pay. But even that thought couldn’t fill the hollow inside, or stop the bile rising in his throat at the thought of stepping once more into the boiling house. He could still smell its stench on him from yesterday. No matter how hard he tried, he never got clean.

He looked out across the town. A merchant ship was loading at the docks. Fishermen were heading to sea. In the shipyard, carpenters repaired a coal barge. He couldn’t imagine doing any of those things.

He didn’t have to imagine working in the whale yard. He knew what it was like, knew how it had been for all these years, knew what it would be like today and tomorrow and for the rest of his life, a clinging stink of oil and hands sticky with gore and an emptiness inside him.

He imagined himself walking, not towards anything, just away from the yard. It was like letting go of one those great lumps of blubber, dropping it into the pan and feeling himself step lightly away.

It was all he could imagine.

It was enough.

The sun came out from behind a cloud as John turned and walked away into a cool fresh breeze.

***

I don’t often associate Britain with whaling, but it was big business in the 18th and 19th centuries, providing everything from oil to parts for corsets. Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, became a significant whaling centre, with yards processing the dead whales as they were brought in and it sounds like ghastly work. I hope some of the people there really did get to walk away from it.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories 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.

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

1066 from Commando

“So you want to hear the story of Hastings, eh? The saga of the Fighting Man and the fall of a nation. Well, all stories start far from their endings…”

1066 is an iconic year in English history. It was the year that William the Conqueror seized the throne, changing the royal line. The year that brought in French customs and language, transforming English culture. A year that every English school kid learns about.

And it’s the year I’ve brought to life in my latest Commando comic.

I wanted to show a different perspective on the Norman invasion. Thanks to the Bayeux Tapestry, we’re used to hearing the Norman side. It’s the story of the victors and the story of powerful people.

Instead of focusing on William, I decided to tell the story from the English point of view, through the fictional character of Durwin. He’s not one of the great lords vying for control of the country, but a warrior in the household of Harold Godwinson, claimant to the English throne. This let me do a few things that I think make for a more interesting story.

First, it adds a personal conflict. Sure, Duke William and Earl Harold had met each other, and Tostig Godwinson’s alliance with the Norwegians hints at acrimony between him and his brother. But for these men, the conflict was principally about power.

Durwin’s motivations, on the other hand, are purely personal. He’s looked up to Harold as a hero his whole life, so the chance to fight for him is a great honour. When Harold breaks his oath, that’s also personal, a moment of terrible disappointment as Durwin sees the flaws in his hero, a moment that propels him into danger.

Focusing on Durwin also let me show all three battles of the 1066 campaign – Fulford, Stamford Bridge, and Hastings. None of the leading figures in this political struggle were at all three battles, but it’s likely that some English warriors were, and so Durwin became a vehicle for me to show the full action.

There’s a hierarchy to the way these battles are remembered. If you know anything about English history, you know about Hastings, where the Normans beat the English and conquered the country. If you’ve taken an interest in English history, then you probably know that the English defeated another invasion first, this one by the Norwegians, at Stamford Bridge. But few people know that, before that, the Norwegians beat the English at Fulford. For several days, it looked like the Vikings might be the ones to take over.

Together, these three battles tell a fuller and more satisfying story than they do on their own. We see the English struggle, recover, and taste the sweet relief of victory, only to have it snatched away on the south coast. The forgotten Battle of Fulford makes the story stronger.

This comic has one other unusual touch for an issue of Commando – it’s told in the first person. Commando’s text boxes are normally in the third person, telling the story from the outside. But I wanted to make these events both more personal and more epic. To do this, I switched to having Durwin tell the story, bringing us closer to his perspective while reminding us that the story of that year is one that’s been told and retold, becoming the stuff of legend and of national pride. It’s history that’s grown in status through the retelling, from the Bayeux Tapestry to childhood recountings in a thousand schoolrooms up and down the land.

So after all of that you want to hear the story of Hastings, eh? The saga of the Fighting Man and the fall of a nation. Then you can get Commando 5301 through newsagents or Comixology now.