Real Water – a fantasy short story

The cover of the novella Ashes of the Ancestors

Kyva rode across the ridge and stared in amazement at the view beyond. Three days out from the warband, and this was the first real green she’d seen. Not just withered scrub clinging to the banks of a dried out stream, or the tops of a few diminished turnips growing from cracked dirt, but fields of new crops divided by irrigation ditches. She could smell sap and spring water, could feel a cool breeze on her cheek.

One hand resting on her sword, she nudged Thunderer into a trot, down toward those fields. A place like this ought to belong to one of the warlords, or at least be controlled by local bandits, but none of the villagers working those miraculous fields carried a weapon better than a shovel. Duke Lorkas would be pleased.

When they reached one of the channels, Thunderer lowered his head to drink. Kyva didn’t urge him on. Instead, she waited in the saddle while the locals laid down their tools and came to her, their expressions a mix of fearful, curious, and determined.

“I’ve come from the army of Duke Lorkas,” she declared before anyone could ask. “Your village is subject to him.”

Not that there was much of a village; a few ramshackle shelters amid ground darkened by old ashes. Someone had raided this place, but not recently or those crops would be gone.

“My lord will protect you, in exchange for certain tithes.”

“We can’t afford to pay,” said a skinny man with a skinny dog at his heel. “All our homes burned down, we’re still rebuilding.”

“You can afford more than most around here.” Kyva pointed at the channel. “How come you have water? The deepest wells in these parts barely draw mud.”

“Please.” The man sank to his knees and the others did the same. “We don’t know what miracle made the water happen. If your lord forces us to give up our food and we have to grow more, maybe it will dry up like the rest of the empire.”

“You have no idea how the world works, do you?” Kyva shook her head. “My lord has reunited this part of the empire. You owe him.”

“We were told that this land belonged to Duchess Eras. We were told the same about Duke Vashi.”

“Eras is dead and Vashi will join her soon enough.” Kyva tapped the pommel of her sword. “This tells you where your fealty is due.”

The skinny man stared at the weapon, then got to his feet.

“If might makes right, prove your strength,” he said. “I’ll fight you, and if you win, then the others will do as you say, but if I win, then, then, then…”

The others whispered to each other in alarm. Someone tried to pull him back down to his knees, but he stood staring at Kyva, proud despite his rags and his sunken cheeks.

Kyva took a deep breath. No dust or dryness scratched at her throat. This place really was a miracle, and this idiot thought that the best thing he could do for it was die.

“Don’t be a fool.” She tightened her grip on her sword, just in case. She’d been hardened by years of bitter war, while he was some skinny peasant. She’d make it quick and merciful, but she would damn well defend herself.

“I will, I’ll fight you.”

He grabbed a spade and raised it like a spear. Everything about him, from his shaking voice to his trembling arms, said that he knew he would lose, but still he was trying to stop her. The mangy dog had stepped up next to him, growling through bared teeth. Kyva couldn’t help admiring them and the others rising to their feet, a desperate community grabbing tools to take her on. She almost wanted them to catch her before she galloped away, to overwhelm her with sheer numbers. But Thunderer was fast and Kyva was deadly. It wouldn’t happen.

Should she pretend she never saw them? It wouldn’t be the first time she’d lied to Duke Lorkas, and these people deserved a chance.


“I’m sorry,” she said. “If you don’t accept Duke Lorkas, it’ll just be someone else. Vashi, maybe. Some other thug fighting over scraps of empire. You’re better accepting Lorkas now than having them bring the fight here.”

“You could protect us.”

Did he know how desperate that idea was? She’d have to hide the trails to this place, distract foragers who came close, pick off any scout who somehow found them. It would be as impossible as hiding the sun in a clear sky.

As a skinny farmer standing up to her.

As water in this parched place.

Chainmail jingling, Kyva dismounted and dipped a hand in the irrigation channel. Real water washed her hand. Flowing water, here in the borderlands, where everything was meant to be dead. Would Duke Lorkas appreciate the miracle, or would he just think about how it could power his conquests? She didn’t have to think about the answer.

Kyva sighed. Sooner or later, these wars were going to kill her. Might as well make that death worthwhile.

“Go back to the army,” she said to Thunderer, patting him on the flank. “You shouldn’t stay to die here with me.”

The horse just snorted, then dipped his nose back into the water. Nothing was going to drive him from this place.


This is the third and final story in a short series. You can find the first, “Picking the Bones of Hope”, over here, and the second, “What Miracles Remain”, over here.

If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, which is set in the same world and explores our troubled relationship with history and tradition. You can buy it at these links:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

When the Antagonist Isn’t the Villain

Moody black and white photograph of a smartly dressed man smoking and holding a gun.
Image by Sam Williams from Pixabay

A lot of the time, when we talk about stories, we use the terms “villain” and “antagonist” interchangeably. But while they’re often embodied in the same character, they’re not the same thing, and lumping them together doesn’t just have an aesthetic impact on the story, it also has an impact on how we view the world.

Antagonist Vs Villain

What is an antagonist and what is a villain?

Simply put, a villain is a morally bad person, while an antagonist is someone who stands in opposition to the protagonist.

The villain’s moral harm doesn’t need to be huge. It could be as small as selfishly trying to trick the romantic lead out of a healthy relationship, or as vast as trying to wipe out half the life in the universe. But by the moral standards of the story, and its implied perspective, that character is in the wrong.

An antagonist doesn’t have to be this. A well-intentioned character can stand in a protagonist’s way because their aims don’t match, they have different information, or someone’s been tricked. People can disagree without one of them being in the wrong.

Or can they?

Before we get into that question, I want to point out one more thing about this distinction. Being an antagonist means fulfilling a specific role within the mechanics of the story, obstructing the protagonist’s desires and creating tension. Being a villain doesn’t necessarily mean that. It’s a feature of the character, probably an important one, but it’s one they can have while filling all kinds of different roles in the story machine, from background colour to ally to, yes, antagonist.

You could think of villainy as an aesthetic, from a storytelling point of view (not a real world one! I’m not that guy), but as mechanically neutral. Antagonism, on the other hand, is aesthetically neutral—any style of character could be an antagonist—but has a mechanic.

Now, back to that question of disagreement…

Why Are Antagonists Often Villains?

Why bundle these concepts together?

Because protagonists are usually in the right, morally, and that works well when their opponents are in the wrong. This makes the protagonist more sympathetic, the conflict more satisfying, and the story’s moral outcome clearer. The good person was opposed by the bad person and the bad person lost. Order is restored. Reader is happy.

This is how things work in every single ghostwritten novel I’ve worked on. Those books aren’t meant to be challenging, so they use a familiar, comfortable dynamic. Readers follow and empathise with the protagonist, so that’s the hero. They want to see the hero focused on their conflict with the villain, so the villain is the antagonist. And of course, they want to see good beat evil, so this all fits nicely together.

It’s satisfying.

Separating Antagonists and Villains

But the two don’t have to line up.

My new novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, features several characters who could be labelled as villains. The warlord Lorkas robs a temple and threatens its innocent priests. The ghost of his former opponent, Eras, prizes old feuds over the good of society. They are both, to borrow a technical term from moral philosophy, murderous arseholes. But while they are the antagonists of certain scenes, neither is the antagonist of the book.

The antagonist of the book is Adrana, a newly arrived priest who wants to smash the Eternal Abbey in order to destroy Eras. That wish puts her in opposition to the protagonist, Magdalisa, who wants to look after her people as best she can—people who rely on the abbey and its ghosts for guidance. Throughout the story, the two are in conflict over this, even as they work together. That conflict creates tension and expresses the central question of the book—how do you relate to tradition and the past?

Adrana isn’t a villain. Her “aesthetic” isn’t one of moral wrong. She and Magdalisa are both sympathetic in their own ways, both right about certain things, and there’s value in what both of them believe. But they’re opposed to each other, and the resolution of the story, the place where the satisfaction kicks in, comes from resolving that tension, not beating the villains.

So far, so good. Villains and antagonists don’t have to be the same thing. But why does that matter?

Accepting Opposition

Stories express and shape how we see the world.

If all of our stories tell us that the people we disagree with—our antagonists—are also morally wrong—villains—then we’ll see the world that way. We’ll find it hard to accept that the person on the other side of a disagreement could be wrong. That’s problematic, to say the least, because none of us are right all the time, and sometimes it’s important to shift with what others say.

Stories where the antagonists are villains teach us the importance of struggling for what’s right, and that’s a good thing to learn.

Stories where the antagonists aren’t villains teach us that not everyone we struggle against is in the wrong, and that’s also a good thing to learn.

Especially right now, when there’s a lot of talk of polarisation within society, it’s important to recognise these two separate lessons, not to run our brains along the same tracks over and over again until we see every person with a different viewpoint as one who is wrong and must be opposed. We need varied stories to help us with that.

Mixing up the relationship between villains and antagonists isn’t just aesthetically satisfying. It’s also morally important.

Trust me, I’m the protagonist here.


If you’ve got thoughts on this, or you’ve got you own experiences of writing villains and antagonists to share, then why not find me on Mastodon or Twitter and tell me about them.

And if what you’ve read above has got you intrigued, or you want to help a poor struggling author so he can break out of ghostwriting and focus on more nuanced books, then you can buy Ashes of the Ancestors here:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Starting a Story Wrong: The Abandoned Start of Ashes of the Ancestors

The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

As I mentioned in a blog post earlier in the week, I had several false starts in writing the opening to my novella Ashes of the Ancestors. In fact, one of them got all the way to 1600 words before I realised that it didn’t work. So, for anyone who’s interested, here are those 1600 words – half a chapter that I completely abandoned, and two whole characters who got lost along the way…


“What’s taking you so long, girl? If I had a body, I could have had both those vents cleared an hour ago.”

“I’m sorry, Holy Father.”

My words came out louder than was needed. The spirits could reach me anywhere in the Eternal Abbey, all I needed to offer was a whisper, but I couldn’t help myself, I needed to make sure that I was heard. “The draft plate mechanism is caked with ash. I’m almost done cleaning, but it’s hard to get it all out from between the gear teeth, and that’s what really matters because when it gets compressed—”

“Do you think that your predecessors took this long about their tasks?”

I took a deep breath, forgetting that I had lowered my mask so that I could blow dust from the gears. Floating ash caught in my throat. I gasped, wheezed, rocked back against the wall of the chimney as I fought for breath. One foot slipped down the brickwork and I flung my hands against the walls, knocking ash into a billowing cloud, which made the rasping in my throat even worse. At least I had my goggles on, so could keep my eyes open while I found my footing again. By the time I steadied myself and pulled my mask up, I was coated in grey dust form the top of my headscarf down to the tips of my sandals, and it formed a grey slick of mud in the sweat running down my face.

Vetreas sighed, and the ash swirled.

“We will have to find someone more experienced, to teach you proper care of this place.”

“Yes please, Holy Father.”

I wished that he would, but it seemed unlikely. Even when I had first been led up to the Abbey, neither of the remaining attendants had understood its ancient mechanisms. Fifteen years later, what were the chances that anyone was left in the whole Empire who understood these machines?

“Visitors are coming, they need to be able to see me,” Vetreas said.

“Yes, Holy Father.” I returned to cleaning the mechanism.

“It is particularly important that they can see me in my own chambers, so that we can consult alone.”

“Surely visitors want an audience with all of the Holies?”

“There are many ignorant people in this fallen age, weak and frightened. They find it less intimidating to see the greatest of the Holies alone.”

I focused on brushing the last dust free, making my every movement busy, but Vetreas was the sort of man who could hear hesitation.

“Out with it, girl.”

I knew better than to hold back my answer, even though I wasn’t sure he would like it.

“Surely pilgrims seeking wisdom would want to see the Empress Chryssania.”

Now it was Vetreas who hesitated, while I untied the tools fastened by strings to my wrists, tied them back around my belt, and started climbing down the chimney.

“The Empress is the most venerable of us, but hers is a more worldly insight. Those coming to the Abbey for spiritual guidance will find more comfort in a priest.”

“Of course, Holy Father.”

I emerged from the vent in the ceiling of Vetreas’s chamber and scrambled down the knotted rope hanging there. The ladder from his chimney had broken decades ago, but one of my predecessors had bent its stub into a hook, allowing for the rope. I reached the floor, my sandals slapping against the wide grille, shook the rope loose, and caught it as it fell. Then I pulled a worn iron lever protruding from the wall, and gears rattled somewhere behind the ancient stones. A breeze blew from tubes into the fire pit beneath the grille, then up the chimney.

I tugged the goggles and mask from my face, concealing them in the folds of my headscarf, then bowed to the sandstone throne that sat against the back wall. Vetreas’s outline was just visible there, sketched in the light drift of ash the breeze had shaken loose.

“Might I put these away first, then return to light your fire?” I asked, gesturing to my tools. “I don’t want to risk misplacing any of them.”

“Very well, but be quick.” A movement in the dust showed that Vetreas was waving his hand. “And send Ilippa to me. I need her to take messages to the others.”

“Of course, Holy Father.” It wasn’t my place to send one of the Holies anywhere, but Ilippa was often in the servants’ halls, and if I told her that Archbishop Vetreas wanted to see her, she would surely come. I hoped that when I died I would continue in service as diligently as she did, though I doubted that I would be worthy of a place amid the Holies. Like most spirits, I would probably fade into forgetfulness.

I bowed once more, then hurried out of the room. My footsteps echoed ahead of me down corridors and stairwells, past windows that revealed a dizzying view of the plains hundreds of feet below. Sometimes, my footsteps would bounce back unexpectedly around twists of the corridor or turns of the ash vents, and for a moment I would think that I heard someone else. I would smile, even as the knot in my chest tightened, but then I would remember that it was an illusion. There were many other people in the Abbey, but none whose footsteps made a sound.

Sure enough, Ilippa was in the kitchen, standing in the chimney breast by the small corner of the room that I lived in. The previous night had been a cold one, and I’d stoked the fire high, leaving enough ash for her to make herself almost solid. I could make out the folds of simple robes just like mine, and the kindly smile on her wrinkled face.

“You’ve done a good job sharpening the knives,” she said, leaving a trail of ash across the blades as she ran her fingers over them.

“Thank you,” I said, bowing to her. “Your advice was helpful.”

“You pick up a few tricks, my dear, in seventy years of service and six centuries of watching.” She patted my arm, and I could almost feel her touch. “Now, the Empress sent me to tell you to prepare the grand hall. Our new companion is on her way.”

It was a thousand years since the first empress had sat on the Talaian throne, dozens of monarchs had followed in her wake, and now three candidates all laid claim to her fractured empire, yet we both still knew who Ilippa was talking about. Within the walls of the Eternal Abbey, Chrysannia was the only Empress.

“Vetreas is expecting me to light his fire.”

I wouldn’t have spoken so bluntly to any of the other Holies, but it was hard to maintain a tone of veneration around Ilippa. In my heart, I knew that she was as sacred as any of them, the monastic servant who had worked herself to death so that holy women and men could dedicate themselves to their faith, but her appearance was so like my grandmother and her demeanour so like my mother that it was hard to treat her like I did the rest. She didn’t seem to mind, but I cursed myself every time I forgot to bow in her presence or spoke to her as if she really was the other servant in this place.

“I can explain to Vetreas,” she said. “You go preparing the hall.”

“Are they really here so soon?” I took a handcart from an alcove, hurriedly loaded it with firewood, kindling, lamp oil, and incense. A smell of blood and perfume in that corner of the room made me realise that we weren’t alone, but I kept on as if I hadn’t noticed. I didn’t have time for distractions. “I thought the procession wasn’t due for three more days. I haven’t revised the rites of welcoming or prepared the funeral feast. I don’t know if we even have hangings that haven’t been eaten by moths.”

“Don’t worry, dear, we have everything we need.”

“But the funeral shroud…”

“She’s a powerful woman, she’ll come in one of her own.”

“And the ceremonies…”

“Zenovini can help with those.”

“I haven’t swept the corridors or checked the ropes on the cage or told the townspeople or anything. Oh gods, the townspeople, they’ll be expected to put on a parade, and Yiorgi doesn’t even know about it!”

My voice rose and my cheeks flushed with heat. I grabbed a cloth to wipe the ash and sweat from my face, then froze with it halfway to my forehead. What if I needed this cloth for the ceremonies?

“Zenovini will enjoy explaining the rituals, and I can talk you through the rest. As for a parade from the townspeople, expectations are lower than they used to be. No one will notice if they don’t do the full traditional welcome. This is a warlord, not an archbishop or an empress.”

Her tone seemed as even as ever, but her words hooked at my mind like a briar on a goat’s fleece.

“Do you not approve?” I asked.

“It’s not my place to approve or disapprove, my dear. General Eras is revered by her people. She has brought peace to her provinces, or parts of them at least, and her people revere her name. If she doesn’t deserve a place in the Eternal Abbey, then the flames won’t welcome her.”

“Has that happened before?” The thought that anyone unworthy might be brought for burial was so shocking that I’d never considered it, but now I couldn’t stop myself imagining what might happen. “Did they not burn, or did the spirit simply vanish?”

“Now, dear, you should focus on what’s in front of you. We have guests coming, remember.”

“Of course.” I added a flint and steel to my heaped handcart, then hurried for the door. “Thank you, Holy Ilippa.”

“Happy to help, my dear.” The ashes scattered as she released them and left the room.


There we go, the beginning that could have been. It’s far more blunt in its world building than the one I used in the end, and not as good at showing Magdalisa as a character. Even if I’d had space for Ilippa and Vetreas in the book, this would have needed some serious reworking.

Bu if you’d like to see how the story eventually started, and where all this talk of ashes and funerals is heading, you can buy my novella Ashes of the Ancestors here:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Starting a Story Right

The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

A fragment of soap slipped between my fingers as I whispered the words of the dawn prayer. Flecks of ash broke away into the water, not the ashes of a funeral pyre, or the fine ash that drifted through the monastery’s air, but ash from a wood fire, which I had not ground finely enough when making the soap. At least none of the monastery’s other inhabitants had to suffer from my inadequate work. The Holies were already pure in spirit, and they had long ago passed the need to make their bodies clean.

That’s how my novella Ashes of the Ancestors starts. But getting a good start is difficult, and this novel went through several. So in case it’s interesting or helpful to anyone, here’s how I considered beginning the book, and why each one didn’t happen.

Version 1

In a sense, I never entered the monastery, though I went into it every day. Forgive me if that sounds obtuse or needlessly cryptic, but I was alive, and only the dead “entered” that divine institution, in a formal sense.

This one was designed to directly and immediately set up the scenario with the ghosts and Magdalisa’s presence among them, to create some tension and intrigue about what’s happening. But the voice wasn’t at all right for Magdalisa, or for the book.

Version 2

My story doesn’t start with Adrana, but it pivots around her.

I still hadn’t worked out that this direct, talking to the audience voice was the wrong tone. I was also trying to set up the key antagonist from the start. (Adrana might not be the villain, but she’s definitely the antagonist of Magdalisa’s story.) The problem is, this actually puts too much emphasis on Adrana, while failing to set up the really important thing, a monastery full of ghosts. I instinctively gave up after one line.

Version 3

The bracelet of my brother’s bones rattled against my wrist, shaking with the voice of the Empress Chryssania.

“Is all well in there, Magdalisa?”

This one’s closer to where we need to be. It’s about Magdalisa and the ghosts. Characters and their names are being established, as well as the first hint of the power dynamics that create the plot’s tensions. And some of the novelty is there, with the bones and the empress. I can’t remember why I abandoned that one, but it feels like it’s rushing to its goal, not taking the time to set stuff up.

Version 4

“What’s taking you so long, girl? If I had a body, I could have had both those vents cleared an hour ago.”

“I’m sorry, Holy Father.”

My words came out louder than was needed. The spirits could reach me anywhere in the Eternal Abbey, all I needed to offer was a whisper, but I couldn’t help myself, I needed to make sure that I was heard. “The draft plate mechanism is caked with ash. I’m almost done cleaning, but it’s hard to get it all out from between the gear teeth, and that’s what really matters because when it gets compressed—”

This starts with characters, and a little conflict for tension. The character without a body will grab attention, and then we start setting up things about the abbey and how it works. From this start, I reached 1600 words, things were flowing.

But if you’ve read the book, you’ll have noticed something – the phrase Holy Father. There is no ghost priest in the story, and this scene is why.

My original outline had significantly more characters than the story I eventually wrote, a lot of ghosts and others representing different relationships with history, including an antagonist bishop ghost named Vetreas. Just writing those 1600 words showed me that I was trying to cram too much in. I went back, rewrote the whole outline, and started again. Which got me to where we started this blog post and the book…

Version 5

A fragment of soap slipped between my fingers as I whispered the words of the dawn prayer. Flecks of ash broke away into the water, not the ashes of a funeral pyre, or the fine ash that drifted through the monastery’s air, but ash from a wood fire, which I had not ground finely enough when making the soap. At least none of the monastery’s other inhabitants had to suffer from my inadequate work. The Holies were already pure in spirit, and they had long ago passed the need to make their bodies clean.

This is the polished version after various edits – sadly, I haven’t kept the rougher version. It introduces Magdalisa as a character, a dedicated servant who lacks confidence in herself. It introduces the Holies, these dead characters still with us. It introduces the abbey with all its smoke and hints at the funeral pyres to come. Even the soap will come up again later. The conflicts aren’t quite there yet, but there’s time for that.

I’m pleased with it. I think there’s enough here to intrigue a reader. I’d grown confident enough in the story to take my time and let things build. I think it’s the sort of story that needs that, and I think it pays off well.

Even if you think of a really arresting start to a book, the one you first write will seldom be the best option. That’s just how writing goes. Thinking it through, trying out different options, is part of how you write a story that works.

If you’ve gotten something from this, or you’ve got you own experiences with different starts to share, then why not find me on Mastodon or Twitter and tell me about them.

And if these openings have got you intrigued, you can buy Ashes of the Ancestors here:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Some Unsubtle Symbolism: The Character of Ashes of the Ancestors

The cover of the novella Ashes of the Ancestors

Ashes of the Ancestors is all about the different ways we relate to the past, and I created the characters to reflect that. If you’ve read the book, then you’ve probably worked all of this out by now, but for the curious, here’s a guide to what the different characters represented to me.

And because this includes some characters I had to cut at an early stage, it’s also a chance to meet more of the ghosts, to see what could have been…


As the story’s protagonist, Magdalisa has the most complex relationship with the past. At the start, she’s trying to preserve it out of a sense of duty, but by the end, she learns not to be held back by it. She’s what I wish we could all ultimately be: learning from the past but not beholden to it.


Adrana wants to wipe away the past, in the most true and literal sense, demolishing a place where the past is preserved and wiping out a ghost living there. That’s understandable, because her past is a place of deep hurt. She represents a lot of people for whom the history we tell doesn’t contain much good, and who see history used to oppress them and hold them in place.


Olweth wants to profit from the past. She’s Victorian adventurer archaeologists. She’s trashy historical theme parks. She’s bad Hollywood movies that don’t give a shit about historical truth. The past for her is only as important as the money it can bring in.


Our friendly neighbourhood warlord wants to learn from the past, but not in a good way. He doesn’t care about questions like “who got hurt?” or “what were the consequences?” He just wants to know how to fight a better battle.


Chryssania represents the romanticisation of history. She’s a glamorous, saintly ruler, the sort who’s often held up in real life as a grand source of inspiration. She’s history with the grubby bits rubbed off, all the dirt and misery wiped away so that we can focus on something shiny. That makes her dangerous, because her glamour blinds people to the rest of the truth. She discourages Magdalisa from embracing change, just like these glamorous pasts can discourage us from exploring new possibilities for the future.


Serafios represents a desire to make up for the past. The ghost of a former crusader, he now recognises the terrible nature of the things he did, and he wants to make amends. Unfortunately, he’s powerless to do so, except by refusing to cooperate with the jackasses of the current age.

Is Serafios the noblest ghost, because he’s trying to fix things? No, because he’s still the guy who did those dreadful things. But at least he acknowledges them, at least he allows for regret and for justice.


Eras, the new ghost on the block, represents resentment of the past and of those who came before, in particular resenting the burdens they pass down. She resents the older ghosts, because she thinks they didn’t have as hard a time as her earning their fame and immortality. She’s resented in turn by Adrana, for the things that Eras did.

Sometimes resentment is justified. Sometimes not so much.


Ah, poor Fotio, the ghost of a whore who somehow wound up as my favourite character. Fotio represents ignoring the past, as shown by how the other ghosts, especially Chryssania, ignore him. He’s the messy, unfortunate parts that many people would rather not think about, but he’s also people not caring about the past at all. Poor Fotio.

And now for the ones who didn’t make the cut…


The ghost of a self-important bishop, Vetreas was meant to embody people being held back by history and the past. An arch traditionalist, even more consciously wedded to history than Chryssania, Vetreas would have discouraged Magdalisa from asking questions, expressing herself, or embracing change. He was the worst ghost, and the one Magdalisa would have most struggled with.

Vetreas made it into an early version of the start of the story, but writing that scene made me realise that a large cast was slowing things down. I took what he represented and rolled it up in the romanticisation of the past that was Chryssania, because those two things aren’t the same, but they were close enough for a novella.


The ghost of a poor woman now serving the other ghosts for eternity, Ilippa symbolised the need to interrogate history. As well as raising questions about the past through her very existence, she would have talked to Magdalisa at key points and encouraged her to question her assumptions about the past.

In the end, there wasn’t space to explore this thread, and I think that the story is stronger for her absence. The existence of a ghostly servant would have undermined the significance of the living priests, and the inclusion of a second low status ghost would have made Fotio’s position less distinctive and powerful in the narrative.

How we interrogate history is a whole theme of its own that I should probably write a story about sometime.


The ghost of a scholar, Zenovini would have shared her knowledge of the past with the others, symbolising the way that we learn from history. But looking at how the story panned out, she was clearly redundant. The whole of the Eternal Abbey was there for people to learn from the past, it didn’t need another ghost for that.

Of course, these aren’t the only ways of relating to the past, or the only aspects of that relationship you can read into my characters (death of the author, and all that). Maybe you found something else in one of the characters, or thought I missed an important angle on all of this. Let me know over on one of the social spaces.

And if you enjoyed Ashes of the Ancestors enough that you want more like it, you can sign up to my mailing list for monthly stories and updates on future releases.

Ashes of the Ancestors: How I Almost Wrote Too Much Story

The cover of the novella Ashes of the Ancestors

Ashes of the Ancestors had a slightly unusual beginning, and a writing process that didn’t go the way it normally does.

Back in June 2021, I submitted a novel to Luna Press. In her rejection email, Francesca said that there was a lot to like about it, but that it wouldn’t fit with Luna’s novel line. She asked if I’d be able to trim it down to novella length, for a submission window coming up in 2022.

It’s great when editors and publishers give you an encouraging sort of rejection, and I like to seize those opportunities. After all, when someone asks to see a revised version of a story, you know that they’re interested in something about it. But that novel was too unwieldy to trim down below 40,000 words, so instead I decided to treat this encouragement as motivation to write something new. An editor liked how I wrote a story, so I’d write something specifically for her call.

I went diving into my big Evernote file of writing ideas, a rich mulch of snippets and concepts that’s been slowly composting into inspiration for years, and pulled out the idea of writing something about history and tradition, themes close to my heart. Of course, I needed something more concrete to hang the story on, but there was also a note about a monastery full of ghosts. Nothing speaks to the past like ghosts, so it seemed a perfect fit.

I tend to go heavy on my planning when I write. I find that stories flow best for me if I’ve got a sturdy structure to work with. Sometimes that planning gets very intricate, as I weave in all the ideas that have been floating around over years of considering a story.

For Ashes, I started with the characters. Having different characters to represent different approaches to history and tradition seemed a good way of expressing my theme. The different approaches could directly conflict through those characters. So I created a bunch of characters with different history-related agendas, from casting off the past to wallowing in it. Then I worked out what plots would arise from their interactions, mapped out the highs and lows of those plotlines, and spaced those beats out into a sensible number of chapters for a novella of up to 40,000 words. So far, so good.

Normally, my next step would be to write the whole story, but this time I hit a snag. It very quickly became clear that I wasn’t used to novella length stories. I had too much going on, and within a couple of thousand words, I could see that it wouldn’t fit.

I went back and worked out which characters, with their own plot arcs and story strands, I could lose while still keeping the core of the story. That hurt. I was pleased with my outline and proud of how clever I’d been in making these lovely symbolic characters. But I forced myself to ditch or combine a bunch of them and rewrite the outline around their absence.

This time it worked. Based on that outline, I hammered through the first draft of Ashes of the Ancestors in less than a month.

By the end of that, I already had some ideas of things I could do better, what I wanted to emphasise or add more of. So I went back through for an edit, tidying up prose and reinforcing characters, then sent it out to some lovely beta readers, all of whom had previously given me useful feedback on my work.

The beta readers came back to me with comments on the book’s strengths and weaknesses, and some general ideas for changes to make it stronger, most of which I used and a few of which I decided didn’t fit what I was after. Other people can give you a more objective perspective on your work, but that doesn’t mean that everything they suggest will fit your aims. This isn’t improv, and knowing when to say no is as important as mostly saying yes. Before editing, I compiled the comments from different readers together, grouping them by chapter where relevant, or by some other connecting thread, for example stylistic stuff or comments on a particular character. That meant that I could compare comments, see the recurring themes, and not end up revising the same thing multiple times.

After I’d done those edits, I read the book once more to look for any mistakes I’d added during the editing, before setting it aside. It waited on my hard drive until Luna Press opened their submission window for novellas, and then it was out of my hands.

Writing this book was immensely satisfying. I learned some valuable things about my craft, including what’s too much plot for a novella. And I’ve produced something good enough to get published.

Here’s hoping I can pull that trick off again.

If you’ve gotten something from this, or you’ve got you own experiences of the writing process to share, then why not find me on Mastodon or Twitter and tell me about them.

And if what you’ve read so far has got you intrigued, you can buy Ashes of the Ancestors here:

Luna Press for physical books

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Amazon ebook

Out Now: Ashes of the Ancestors

The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.

But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.

As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.

My novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, is out today from Luna Press Publishing. A fantasy story about tradition and our relationship with the past, Ashes of the Ancestors is far and away the best thing I’ve produced so far, and you should obviously go grab a copy. It comes out alongside five other novellas from fantastic speculative fiction authors, which you can read about here, and there’s a launch video with all of us talking about our books on the Luna Press YouTube channel.

Early sales and ratings really help a book reach its audience, so don’t hold back. If stories about ghosts and history sound at all like your thing, or if you’ve enjoyed my other work, then go grab a copy right now…

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

What Miracles Remain – a fantasy short story

The cover of the novella Ashes of the Ancestors

The first warning Dareios heard of the fire came from a dog.

He was lying on the miraculous grass beneath the village’s one tree, that trunk which had sprung overnight from the earth, restoring life to the parched ground around it. He lay exhausted from a long morning trying to coax crops from the dirt, while also trying to ignore Yianna’s mindless talk of hope and the future. Dareios worked as hard as anyone because this was his home and that was what you did, but any fool could see that the land was dying, and he was sick of suffering through Yianna’s delusions.

A howl ripped through the air. He bolted to his feet, caught the hint of smoke, and hurtled into the village.

“Fire!” he bellowed, sprinting toward a crackling sound. From the fields, others took up his cry.

However the fire started, it had spread fast. Four houses were ablaze and flames were advancing into neighbouring homes.

Dareios tore a curtain from a doorway and battered at the flames. Sparks flew and ashes whirled while hot air scratched his throat. Neighbours appeared, some with blankets to batter at the flames, others buckets of dirt. No water. There wasn’t enough in their world for this.

Dareios beat at the flames until his muscles ached and he grew dizzy with the effort. Others were wearying too, but not the flames. They ate their way through the village, swallowing homes and hope.

“My house!” Yianna dashed past Dareios and through her front door, despite the smoke spewing forth.

“Don’t be an idiot!” Dareios shouted. “It’s too late for yours.”

“Never too late.” Yiana flung bedding out the door while the smoke billowed thicker and darker past her. “I’ll want these in my new home.”

“What new home?” Dareios flung the curtain down. “There’s nothing left.”

The flames had devoured half the village, were approaching the last few houses and the tree beyond, one green thing in all the parched hills.

“There might be.” Yiana flung pants and tunics out the door. “You’ve got to have hope.”

“Hope?” In his fury, Dareios flung one of the tunics back through her window, into the flames. “I’ll give you hope.”

“Stop that!”

“No.” He flung shirts after the tunic, then grabbed a stack of wooden cups. “You don’t get to tell me to hope any more.”

He pulled the cups back, ready to fling them into the flames, but Yianna flung herself at him. They went tumbling in the dry dirt and falling ashes, punching and kicking, clawing at each other. Dareios poured all his misery and frustration into those blows, and Yianna, ever the hopeful, ever the fighter, hit him just as hard.

“Stop it!” someone shouted. “Stop, both of you!”

His heart burned with a furious heat, fuelled by the pain where the dry dirt of misery had rubbed at his raw soul. He kicked and clawed and pressed Yianna into the earth, even as he choked on ashes.

Hands grabbed Dareios. No one was strong any more, but they hauled him and Yianna apart, dragged them to their feet and made them face the end.


The tree, their beautiful miracle, was in flames. Branches charred. Leaves blackened, curled, flew away. The grass at its roots twisted and crumbled.

Yianna sobbed. Dareios sneered.

“So much for hope,” he said, trying not to remember how that grass had felt beneath him, how the wind had seemed gentler in the tree’s shade.

The tree groaned and fell, hit the ground in an explosion of charcoal. Nothing living should burn so fast. Dareios forced himself to watch, even as the others turned away in tears, watched the stump of the tree collapse inward, nothing but black dust.

“No hope,” Yianna whispered.

Then it happened. Water sprang from the hole where the tree had stood. Dareios rubbed his eyes, unable to believe what he saw. A second miracle born from the death of the first. Then he was running again, out to the fields and the tools abandoned there.

“Quick!” he shouted. “Dig ditches, carve channels, get the water to the crops.”

“What about the houses?” someone shouted, waving toward the raging flames.

“Forget the houses.” Dareios pointed at the water flowing across the ash-mottled ground, turning the ghosts of lost homes into grey mud. “This is life. This is hope.” He stared wide-eyed at Yianna. “Who knows how long this will last? So dig!”


This is the second story in a short series. You can find the first, “Picking the Bones of Hope”, over here.

If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, which is set in the same world and explores our troubled relationship with history and tradition. It comes out on the 7th of February – that’s just four days time! – and can be pre-ordered here:

Luna Press for physical books

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Amazon ebook

Grappling With History and Tradition

The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

Ashes of the Ancestors  is a rare thing for me, a story that arose out of its theme. Normally, I’m there for a character or a setting or a plot idea, but this one was all about the theme, because it’s a theme that matters a lot to me. That theme is how we relate to history and tradition.

I’ve spent a lot of my life pondering history. I caught a fascination with the past off my dad, and went on to do two degrees in history, as well as two years research towards a PhD I never finished, all about military and political prisoners in medieval Britain. When I got into freelance writing, I used that background to get gigs, and I’ve written hundreds of articles making history accessible. I write comics with historical settings for Commando. I’m known by some people at SFF conventions as the history guy, thanks to my ranting on panels about the sins of Braveheart and William Gibson’s magical time travelling penis.

Even when I’m making up imaginary worlds, I draw a lot of my inspiration from the real past. My writing notes are full of concepts drawn from history books. But history itself is seldom the thing I’m tackling.

This time is different.

For me, there’s a tension in how I relate to the past. History and tradition get used to justify a lot of conservative politics, while my knowledge of the past has made me ever more left leaning. Some people look at the past and want to cling to it. I look to it as an object lesson out of which we can learn what not to do, so that we can build something new, something better.

All of that was already swirling around in my head, and then I came across a couple of quotes that crystalised my thoughts. One was from Haruki Murakami, who said:

“History is the shared narrative that binds us together or tears us apart.”

The other came from Jeannette Ng in an award acceptance speech:

“Let us be better than the legacies that have been left us, let them not be prophecies.”

Those two sentences say a lot to me about how we relate to history and the sense of tradition with which it is connected.

History can be used as something we share, something we bond over, something that gives us collective purpose. When its meaning and its use are inclusive, that’s wonderful and powerful. But it can also be something that’s used to justify exclusion and violence, to draw a line between us and them, to say to people that they can’t be themselves because that’s not how things were in the past, even though that’s often untrue.

That’s a powerful lesson, but it’s useless if it doesn’t give us direction. That’s why I think Ng’s comment is so important. While Murakami helps us understand how the past affects us, Ng provides a way to relate to it as we go forward with our lives. Legacies are valuable things, but that doesn’t mean we should repeat them. We can always strive to do better, to build on what came before and make something new.

Ashes of the Ancestors is all about the different ways we relate to history. Some of the characters in the story want to cling to it, others to reject it. But in my opinion, neither of those is healthy or helpful. What works best for us as individuals and as a society is to see history, to learn from it, and then to step out from under its shadow.

It’s a theme that’s so embedded in Ashes that individual characters represent different approaches to the past. Maybe I’ll talk about that another day. For now, Ashes of the Ancestors is coming out next Tuesday, 7 February. You can pre-order the book through the Luna Press website and many good booksellers. And if you want more of my thoughts or to hear about upcoming stories, you can sign up to my mailing list.

It’s Almost Time! Ashes of the Ancestors Pre-Release Stuff

Ashes of the Ancestors, my novella about ghosts, history, and tradition is almost ready to hit the shelves. There’s still time to pre-order the book and get it as soon as it comes out on 7 February. And if you’re wondering whether it might be for you, or if you want to find out a bit more, here are a few things you might enjoy…

  • Runalong the Shelves has a great review of Ashes, digging into the themes the novella explores. Matt’s recommendations have never steered me wrong in the past, so I was really pleased to see how much he enjoyed my book.
  • Over on The Fine-toothed Comb, expert editor Dion gave me space to talk about history as editing and how that connects to Ashes.
  • And last night, the book launch video for this set of Luna Press Publishing novellas went live. You can watch me and five other fabulous authors talk about our books and read scenes from them, to give you a taste of what you’re getting into. The other books are so good, I’d be recommending this even if I wasn’t part of it.

Only eleven more days! I’m very excited. Ashes of the Ancestors is the best thing I’ve had out so far, a fantasy story about an imagined past that I think speaks to our present, a story about tradition, choices, and how we move forward with history’s hand on our shoulder. If that sounds like your thing, then you can pre-order it at all these links:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook