Penguins in the Minefield – Fitting Animals into Stories

“This land has learnt kill humans. Now it will be ours. Forward for the Penguin Empire!” – “135 – Cap Virgenes – Manchot de Magellan – Janvier 2010” by Martin St-Amant (S23678) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –


The Falklands War wasn’t good for many people, but it turned out to be excellent for the penguins.

I recently read A Damn Close Run Thing, Russell Phillips’ short history of the Falklands War. During the conflict, Argentine troops seeded minefields across the islands. Clearing mines is hard, dangerous and expensive, so most of these areas remain impassable to human beings, whose weight can trigger a devastating anti-personnel explosion.

Penguins are a lot lighter. Light enough not to trigger mines.

So now there are parts of the Falklands where people can’t go, and the penguins have reclaimed them. These undisturbed nesting grounds have proved a huge boost to the local penguin population. The Falklands War was brutal and arguably pretty dumb, but at least it had an up side.

Apart from Russ’s book, I mean. It’s a good book.

By coincidence, I’ve also been reading about medieval warhorses. I say by coincidence, but I’m freelancing for a military history website, so it’s no coincidence I’ve got a heap of books about old wars on the go.

Horses have featured in war since around 1800 BC, when some Asian nomad tied a wheeled platform to his pony and forced the poor beast to drag him into battle. They’ve featured in fantasy stories at least since Homer described another dumb, brutal conflict.

Because seriously, if you’re fighting for honour you’re probably an arsehole,* if you’re fighting for a woman then you should let her make up her own mind, and if her face is comparable with a dry dock then maybe you don’t have the best taste.

Despite featuring so regularly, horses are usually just props in fantasy stories – a way to get from A to B, or to run someone down. I’m as guilty as the next author in this – what I know about horses could fill that one article I was paid to write last week. But like the penguins, horses have their own desires, fears, longings, and quirks of personality. Acknowledging that could add some depth to stories from time to time.

After all of this thinking about animals, and how we neglect them in history and fantasy, I got to pondering something completely unrelated. Just some casual world building for a fantasy project I want to start next year. As I was mulling over how to make a nation distinctive, and how to make its economy work, I got kind of stuck. I want it to be evocative of late medieval to renaissance England, but more covered in trees. England in that era was very reliant on wool for export – could my imagined farmers keep sheep in the forests and still have a functioning economy? I had doubts.

Then it struck me. I’d done it again. I’d forgotten that animals can be treated as more than just dumb props.

If I got stuck for how to fit in the characters I wanted in a fantasy setting, I’d probably change the rules of the world. Why not for animals? If my fantasy can have alchemists, wizards and heroic arseholes** then why not add a fantastical animal too? Something that’s wool bearing and lives in the woods. Or provides some other product to fix this broken forest economy.

There is a point to all this. Aside from how amazing penguins are – you knew that already, right? That point is not to forget the poor animals. From now on I’ll try to think about how the human parts of my stories affect them. Are my characters messing up the local ecosystem, or inadvertently saving it by making it safe for penguins? Have I remembered that war is horrible for horses, and how this will affect them? Am I including the animal equivalent of elves and goblins?

And throughout writing this, one other animal has been playing on my mind. Elmo the kitten is nibbling at my feet. I should go pay him attention.



* Many of my characters are arseholes. There is something perversely appealing about honour.

** One of this story’s lead characters is pig-headedly patriotic as well as obsessed with honour. He’s all the things I don’t admire in reality, but find fun to write.

An interview with Russell Phillips

Here’s the second in my series of interviews with book people. This time I’m very pleased to present an interview with Russell Phillips. Russell’s a self-published non-fiction writer who’s been a huge help to me in finding my own way into self-publishing.


Tell us a bit about yourself and your books.

I’m originally from South Yorkshire, though I currently live in Stoke on Trent, and I’ve had an interest in military history for as long as I can remember. I started writing articles for magazines in my early 20s, but never thought about writing a book until a few years ago. Once I’d written that first one, I realised that I wanted to write more.

Why did you pick military history, and in particular modern military history, as a subject to write about?

Initially, I chose the Falklands War. I’ve long thought that a lot of British people think the outcome was never in doubt, and the book gave me a chance to show at least some people that it could easily have gone completely wrong. The title (“A Damn Close-Run Thing“) is a direct quote from the commander of the British land forces, and was chosen to reinforce that point. All my subsequent books have been about modern military history because it’s what I’m interested in, and it seemed to make sense to stay within a similar time period. That said, I have vague plans to write books about other periods (particularly the Napoleonic Wars) at some point. So many ideas, so little time … 🙂

What led you to self-publish your books?

When I started writing A Damn Close-Run Thing, I wasn’t sure if I’d finish it, but I started reading about publishing options. Initially, I was thinking that I’d ask the History In An Hour publishers if they were interested, then look into self-publishing if they weren’t. By the time it was written, self-publishing had become my preferred option. I’m something of a control freak, and so having complete control appeals to me. I’m also a techie, so the technical challenges weren’t a barrier.

What have the biggest challenges been for you as a self-published author?

Initially, marketing was a major challenge, but resources like The Creative Penn and The Sell More Books Show have helped a lot with that. Self-doubt has been a constant challenge, though. I generally try to ignore reviews, because the bad ones bother me more than the good ones please me.

And what have been your biggest triumphs?

I’ve been interviewed by The Voice of Russia, which was a great, but odd, experience. Earlier today, I posted a copy of A Damn Close-Run Thing to the Argentinian Army Central Library. I was amazed that they’d even heard of it, but also very proud that had, and that they wanted a copy.

If you could give one piece of advice to other writers out there, what would it be?

If you want your books to sell, you will have to do some marketing, so look for ways to market that you’re comfortable with.

Last question – what book have you enjoyed recently, and what was so good about it?

The Blue Effect by Harvey Black. It’s the final part of a trilogy, and finished the story nicely. The trilogy is based on a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe in 1984. The author served with the British army during the 1980s, and it shows. Much of the focus on the NATO side is on British forces, which frankly makes a pleasant change, and it’s well researched, which is important to me. If I notice a technical mistake, it drops me out of the story, and if it happens too often, it spoils my enjoyment enough that I stop reading.


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Thank you to Russell for taking the time for the interview. You can find out more about him and his books on his website, which includes some handy tools for self-published authors.