Counting the Spoils – a #FlashFriday story

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

“I don’t get it.” Fred dipped his pen in the inkwell, made a note of the jewel-encrusted sword. It glowed even in the shadows, one more magical trinket in Europe’s strangest treasure trove. “Why didn’t Napoleon take all this with him? Or hide it and send someone back later? I know he’s a prisoner, but he’s got a whole island to keep it in.”

“Simple, mon ami.” Jean-Luc set the sword back on its shelf and picked up the next item, a simple jar covered in Arabic writing. He blew dust from the top and then frowned as it settled on his tailcoat. “The Emperor expected to win. Who could have foreseen Waterloo, eh?”

Fred set aside his pen, shook out the cramp from his wrist. Logging all the treasures in this isolated hunting lodge was tedious work. He’d rather be outside taking in the fine weather and the French countryside.

Jean-Luc twisted the lid from the pot. There was a crack of breaking wax seals, previously hidden by the dust. The two clerks glanced at one another nervously. Even the lowliest item here was worth a fortune. That was why there were soldiers outside, and why an inventory was needed – so that the heads of Europe could share out the emperor’s magical hoard. If he and Jean-Luc broke something they’d be in a world of trouble.

“It’s alright,” Fred said. “No-one need ever-“

The lid shot off the pot and a stream of fire burst out, coalescing into a glowing figure half the height of a man.

Jean-Luc yelped in pain as the pot glowed red hot. He dropped it and it shattered on the floor.

The creature giggled and dashed off down the room, leaving a trail of smoking footprints on the floorboards.

“A djinn!” Jean-Luc exclaimed in pain and wonder.

“Quick, catch it!” Fred rushed after the creature. He grabbed it as it made for the door, then jerked back in pain as flaming flesh seared his hands. As he stumbled back he knocked a head-shaped mirror and it crashed to the floor, ghostly figures of noblemen emerging from the shattered remains.

“We need something to trap it,” Jean-Luc said as he emerged from between the shelves, catching the djinn between them in a corner.

Fred glanced around. To his right was a crate, its side branded in French and Russian.

“Here.” He grabbed it, relieved to find it much lighter than expected. It must already be empty. “I’ll just open-“

“No!” Jean-Luc’s eyes went wide as he saw the writing.

It was too late. Fred had cracked open the lid, which now burst off. An icy wind blasted forth, frost forming on everything it touched. It rushed up the chimney and blew open the window shutters as it kept coming, an endless stream of cold.

Fred dropped the box as ice started to cover his hands.

“Russian winter!” Jean-Luc shouted over the howling wind. “Napoleon’s sorcerers must have captured it, a souvenir of his greatest failure.”

Outside the windows the sky was darkening, snow fluttering out of what had been a beautiful spring day.

“We are in so much trouble,” Fred said, staring dumbfounded as winter fell both indoors and out.

“I can help,” a tiny voice said.

They turned to see the djinn looking at them from its corner.

“Let me go and I’ll burn this place down,” it said.

“How’s that helping?” Fred snapped in frustration.

“You think you’ll be in trouble for breaking a few treasures?” the djinn said. “Think how much worse it will be if they find out you broke summer for everyone.”  It kicked at the fallen box. “I can burn all the evidence faster than anyone can put the flames out. You say some coals fell from the fire, the place burnt down, everything was lost – mirrors, boxes, the lot. Not your fault.”

Fred looked at Jean-Luc, could see his colleague making the same calculation. Could they get away with this? Could it get any worse?

Probably not.

Two minutes later they ran out of the building, smoke trailing behind them.

“Fire!” Fred screamed at the red-coated sentries huddling against the sudden cold.

“Fire!” Jean-Luc echoed, as the roof creaked and fell inward in a shower of sparks.

Just for a moment, a tiny figured danced in the flames, then disappeared on the freezing wind.

The djinn was gone, along with the evidence of their failure. Fred could only hope people believed it was an accident.

The soldiers grabbed buckets of water in a futile attempt to quench the magically-powered flames. Fred turned to Jean-Luc.

“Was this a good idea?” he asked.

Jean-Luc shrugged.

“Did you have a better one?”

Fred shook his head and pulled his collar up around his ears, as around him the snow fell.

 

*

This story was suggested by Russell Phillips after I told him about the Year Without a Summer. I hope I’ve done it justice.

If you liked this then you might also want to check out my collection of fantasy short stories, By Sword, Stave or Stylus, and you can also read my other flash Friday stories here. Fell free to come back next week for more of the same, and to leave ideas for stories in the comments below.

 

Photo by Sarah Stierch via Flickr creative commons.

Collaborative writing – my experience so far

Working with my usual colleague His Majesty King Glove Puppet is not as rewarding as working with real people
Working with my usual colleague His Majesty King Glove Puppet is not as rewarding as working with real people

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’m currently working pretty much full time on a work-for-hire fiction project, ghost writing science fiction. The process involved is an interesting one, and having got permission from the guy running the show I’m going to share a little about it here, and about why I think it’s so good.

How it works

There are five people working on this project – there’s me as the writer and the last addition to the team. B is the mastermind behind the process, the guy who brought us all together, he manages the virtual team, works out schedules and marketing and all that business side of things. C seems to mostly do developmental editing work, helping work out story, setting, etc. D wrote the plot for the books, and as part of that did a lot of work developing the characters and setting, together with B, C and E. E mostly does line editing.

From my point of view, I’ve been given a plot and extensive briefings on characters and setting. I’m the one turning this into prose, adding my own ideas and flourishes to fill gaps and flesh things out. For example I took some characters from book two and brought them into book one, to save me inventing extras and set them up for later.

C’s provided a few editorial comments on my work, but most of that comes from E. Once she’s read through my work I go back and accept or respond to her changes. I have the most contact with B, who’s doing a good job of dealing with any practical issues I stumble across and keeping me in the loop.

What I like so far

I love working with a team in this way, especially because they seem like a nice, lively, creative bunch. While I like writing my own stories, collaborating with others makes creativity even more fun, and I’m enjoying taking D’s plot and fleshing it out. Getting to work with editors is also good.

What I particularly like about the process, which B has developed and is continuing to adapt, is that it seems less wasteful than the traditional publishing approach. Instead of a writer providing a completed story, only to have to re-write large chunks when a developmental editor points out problems with character and plot, those problems have mostly been smoothed out beforehand. To put it in terms of my old process improvement job, we are avoiding the waste of re-work.

The end-to-end story production process is also being speeded up by working together via Google docs.  So even before I finished writing book one, E was reading and making editorial comments on the early chapters. It’s a good thing I naturally write in chronological order, or this could get messy.

Having other people literally leaning over my shoulder as I write freaks me out and stops me working – Laura can attest to this. But having collaborators perusing my work in a virtual environment, providing both critique and enthusiastic positive feedback as we go along, is really helpful. It’s sharpening the writing and keeping my spirits up, if occasionally stressing me out too – let’s face it, being edited always has its stresses, whether from disagreeing with the editor or agreeing and seeing what was wrong with your own beautiful words. Of course the reality is that I’m facing both.

This kind of collaboration is akin to what I imagine modern TV writers’ rooms to be like, allowing people to share and refine ideas, then go away and specialise in what they do best.

And because of this efficient, collaborative process, together with the joys of digital publishing, the first book will have been through editors, beta readers, refinement and publication, all within maybe four months of them developing the plot, and maybe two months after I started writing book one. That is staggeringly efficient. I approve.

Letting go of the artistic ego

I know that there are people who will view this as somehow detracting from the art of writing, from the purity of the author working away at their own ideas and craft. But I don’t agree with that view. Writing is already a collaborative process, involving editors and publishers. This is making that collaboration more effective and enjoyable. It’s not what we expect, and that will create a negative reaction in some people, but I like it.

I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you guys have on this, or similar experiences you’ve been through. You know where the comments go, please feel free to leave one.

NaNoWriMo update

I’m only writing this a few hours after yesterday’s post, and I’ve been busy with the freelance work so nothing’s changed. I think I’ll get around to NaNo this evening. Fingers crossed. Just blogging a day ahead now will relieve some pressure and make it easier to juggle tasks tomorrow.

I notice that JH Mae and Everwalker are tearing ahead at 21k and 15k respectively, while I haven’t quite reached 12k. And I also have to mention Russell Phillips, who’s normally a non-fiction writer and went into this knowing he didn’t have time to manage 50k, but is still getting plenty of words down.

How are you guys doing?

A Pinch of Sorrow – a Flash Friday story

The funeral left Steve feeling hollow. Not grief stricken and lonely like his father. Not laughing at happy memories like his mother had wanted. Just empty, like his heart had been eaten away by her cancer. He longed to cry or laugh or do anything that made this feel real, that made it seem like this moment would pass. But there was nothing.

As soon as he could he ducked out of the church hall, past the trays of limp sandwiches and his cousins smoking by the door. He nodded acceptance of their condolences, climbed into his four-by-four and drove.

He travelled in silence. No radio. No CDs. Just the rumble of the engine. He wasn’t going to the office – his mother had always said he spent too much time there. And he couldn’t face his own house, still half-empty a year after Jen left.

Instead he found himself in front of his parents’ house. He parked and walked inside on autopilot, found himself standing in the kitchen, kettle in hand, halfway through making a cup of tea he didn’t want. His eyes were caught by the cookery books beneath the window. The largest and most battered was an old hardback notebook, the one his mother had inherited from his grandmother and that she had kept adding to over the years. The one she had said should be passed down to him.

He pulled out the notebook, fingered its brown-edged pages that smelled of flour and spices, hoping it might stir up his feelings. The recipes were full of his mother’s little jokes.

‘Add a teaspoon of joy.’

‘Mix with two measures of love.’

‘Just a pinch of sorrow.’

But though every recipe contained an emotion, still nothing stirred in Steve’s heart.

He stopped at a fruit cake, one she had made every Easter. She only went to church at Christmas, but something about Easter had mattered to her. When he left home Steve had copied out that recipe so that he wouldn’t miss his mother’s Easter cake. Though it never tasted quite right it was a reminder of her love.

He needed that reminder now.

7128243591_c9ec9bb338_zHe rummaged through the cupboards for sultanas and flour, beat eggs, stirred it all together.

But the dough still didn’t taste right.

He ran down the ingredients again. One line caught his eye.

‘A pinch of sorrow.’

She had always treated those parts so seriously, and he had always ignored them as a strange little joke. But today of all days he wanted to respect her. So he felt inside himself, found the small pinch of sorrow that was all he could feel, and imagined adding it to the mix as he stirred.

Still nothing. He knew it even before he dipped his finger in the thick batter. The whole thing was just another hollow gesture, like the party at the church, like watching her coffin go into the ground.

He suddenly felt foolish, stood here with a bowl of cake mix when he should be mourning. Why couldn’t he even cry?

Filled with frustration he flung the bowl at the wall. It shattered, spattering the paintwork with sticky blobs, shards of glass tumbling to the floor. He sank down onto cold tiles, staring at the mess.

As if released from the ruins of the bowl, a memory came back to him. Squatting on this same floor when he was young, made to sit quietly after fighting with his sister, he had watched every movement his mother made. As his own anger passed he somehow knew that, even when she told him off, his mother still loved him. He watched her as she made that cake. Weighing out sugar, sifting flour, adding raisins. Even the gesture she had made when she came to the pinch of sorrow, like twisting a dial in the air. The same sign his grandma made for good luck or to curse the neighbour’s cat.

He hadn’t thought of that movement in years, but something stirred inside him. Perhaps it was the memory of his mother’s smile. Perhaps it was the way that cat had disappeared, or his grandma’s runs of luck on the bingo. It might just be superstition and desperation, but today the little things mattered.

Steve took a fresh bowl from the cupboard, set to making the cake once more. Weighing, sifting, stirring.

When he came to that instruction, ‘Add a pinch of sorrow’, he twisted the air in that old gesture and thought of what he had lost. Of his mother growing frail in a hospice bed, her flesh fading with her spirit, but the light still bright in her eyes.

Sorrow sprinkled from his fingers, glittering as it fell through a shaft of sunlight and settled in the bowl. With a sense of wonder Steve stirred it in, then dipped his finger and tasted the mix.

He trembled at the perfection of its flavour. Tears poured down his cheeks as grief shook him, grief and gratitude for the woman who had brought him into the world, who had raised him for all those years, and who had left one last lesson in her parting.

Steve tasted sorrow, and knew it would pass.

* * *

 

For more Flash Friday fiction, as instigated by Lisa Walker England, check out the #FlashFriday hashtag over on Twitter, or read some of my previous efforts.

If you liked this story then you might also enjoy my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, available now on Amazon and Smashwords and only 99c until the end of this weekend.

 

Picture by Michelle Schrank via Flickr Creative Commons.

A Flash of Power

Today marks the first in what will hopefully become a regular fixture on this blog – Flash Fiction Friday.

Last Friday, Lisa Walker England declared her intention to post a piece of flash fiction on her blog each Friday, because it seems odd for fiction writers not to put fiction on their blogs. That made a lot of sense to me, and I’ve decided to join in.

So here, hastily written but hopefully still entertaining, is my first Flash Friday piece. Enjoy!

A Flash of Power

The factory rushed up and down the Lancashire hillsides, a vast mass of red bricks and frantically clattering looms, its wheels gouging up fields, ripping chunks from roads, smashing aside drystone walls. Dirk Dynamo clung to the roof like a trooper to his gun as the building continued in its unstoppable course, straight ahead, no distraction or diversion.

‘Tell me again,’ he bellowed over the roar of the engine and the rumble of constant thunder. ‘Why was this a good idea?’

Timothy Blaze-Simms had braced himself against the base of the lightning conductor. With one hand he held his top hat in place, while the other hand held up a rod covered in glass tubes, strange dials and long curling wires.

‘Mobility allows it to travel to the best power source,’ he said. ‘And there’s been some splendid work in Europe on tapping into the power of storms.’

‘But adding the lightning generator?’ Dirk jerked an angry finger upwards. Above the copper globes and sparking wires with which much of the factory was topped, black clouds filled the otherwise clear sky. Every couple of seconds a lightning bolt burst out of the roiling mass, usually hitting the conductor but occasionally lashing the rooftop around them.

‘How else would I know how they worked together?’ Blaze-Simms said.

‘I’m telling you now,’ Dirk said. ‘They work together badly.’

4924919778_56b921cd81_z

He pointed past the conductor and down the latest hill. The outer slums of Manchester sprawled before them, a teeming mass of humanity about to be hit with a crushing weight of bricks.

‘Ah.’ Blaze-Simms looked almost as alarmed as Dirk felt. ‘But I’m almost there. The transverse static sensor says-‘

A flicker of electricity leapt off the conductor and hit the device in Blaze-Simms’s hand. The glass tubes exploded. The dials smoked. The wires burst into flames. He flung the whole thing aside as it started to melt his thick rubber glove.

‘Bother.’

‘Guess we’ll do this the old-fashioned way.’ Dirk scrambled across the rooftop to where long cables ran from the lightning conductor down into the factory and its engines. He pulled the bowie knife from his boot and glanced up at the clouds. Metal knife, metal wires, lightning. This could go very wrong.

He watched the pattern of the lightning strikes, waited for a lull and heaved with his knife at the thick cable. Muscles bulged so hard the seams popped in his shirt. Lightning lashed down again. Just as it hit the tower the cable split and Dirk went flying backwards.

‘Yes!’ he yelled in triumph.

‘No!’ he shouted in frustration as the lightning jumped the gap between cables.

‘We could try earthing it.’ Blaze-Simms’s tailcoat flapped behind him as he stared shamefaced towards the fast approaching city.

‘How?’ Dirk asked.

‘There’s some spare cable in the upper parts room.’ Blaze-Simms pointed down the side of the building to a balcony with a winch and double doors flapping in the storm wind. ‘We can run it from here down to the ground and then-‘

‘On it.’

A drainpipe ran from the roof down past the balcony. Dirk swung himself over the edge and clambered down the cold metal of the pipe.

He’d barely gone six feet down when a flash of lightning struck the top of the drainpipe. Sudden juddering pain ran through his whole body and he was flung from the pipe, hurtling into the empty air.

He shot out his hand, just managed to grab the balcony as he flew past. He gripped as tight as he could with fingers jolted by lightning and the impact of the steel rail.

Thirty feet below, sharply tracked wheels tore the grassy green skin from the countryside.

Dirk swung his other arm up, desperately trying to get a grip as lightning lashed down, now joined by rain.

‘Goddamit Tim,’ he bellowed as the factory smashed into the first slum dwellings, ‘do something!’

‘I am.’ Blaze-Simms appeared grinning above him, the severed end of the conductor cable in his hand. ‘The drainpipe runs all the way down you see, and-‘

He stuck the end of the cable into the steel opening of the drainpipe. A flash lit him up like the New York skyline and he tumbled back onto the rooftop.

Along the wall from Dirk, the drainpipe hummed with power. The factory’s wheels were coated in a bright blaze of electricity as the lightning ran down the pipe, across the wheel-rims and down into the ground.

Robbed of power the wheels slowed and ground to a halt. Inside the factory looms clattered to a standstill. Lightning still lashed around their heads, but it now ran safely away into the ground. Bewildered Mancunians emerged from their houses to stare at the new building in their midst.

Dirk heaved himself up onto the balcony and climbed up the building as fast as his aching body would allow, avoiding metal along the way. Reaching the rooftop he rushed over to Blaze-Simms’s smoking body.

‘Tim? Tim, you alive?’ He grabbed the Englishman by his lapels and shook him hard.

Blaze-Simms’s eyes fluttered open.

‘No more moving factories,’ he mumbled.

‘No more factories,’ Dirk agreed, grinning with relief.

‘Maybe a museum,’ Blaze-Simms said.

 

* * *

If you enjoyed this then you can read other adventures from Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, of the ever-adventurous Epiphany Club, in my collection Riding the Mainspring, available as an e-book through Amazon and Smashwords.

 

Picture by Dustin Ginetz via Flickr creative commons.

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

I love to see and hear about the process of creating art. Whether it’s writing, painting, acting, sculpting or any of the other limitless expressions of human creativity, understanding how it is achieved fascinates me.

During our recent trip to Cornwall, Laura and I got to see inside an artist’s studio. We saw paintings in progress, tools of the trade, learned a little about how she developed her work. I was enraptured.

That feeling of living inside art, of seeing how it works and how it moves people, is something that Guy Gavriel Kay has captured beautifully in Sailing to Sarantium.

Sailing to Sarantium

 

Art and artisans

Sailing to Sarantium is the story of Caius Crispus, an expert mosaic maker. He lives in a world based on the eastern Mediterranean in the period a century or so after the fall of Rome. Following his artistic partner’s summons to go east and decorate the great dome of a temple being built in Sarantium, Crispin travels a rough road to a city of wonder and intrigue.

I loved how much we got into Crispin’s head as an artist. He sees the colours and contrasts in the world around him. He is overwhelmed by art when it is beautiful and he is thoughtful about its potential and flaws. He is an expert artisan, and the details of his knowledge and world view make him completely convincing in that role. They also helped me, as a reader, to understand the world as he saw it and to be drawn into his emotional world.

Other characters demonstrate similar levels of expertise – a grey-haired alchemist who has created unique wonders; a ruthless and wily political schemer turned emperor; the finest dancer in the city of Sarantium. Characters are often judged for their expertise and dedication to their field, and that dedication seems to be held up by the book as a good thing. But it is Crispin who carries us through the story.

Religion as construct

As with The Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay explores religion as a social construct. We are given little clear indication as to the truth of the characters’ beliefs, but those beliefs are central to the story. From the forced converts continuing pagan sacrifices in the woods to the religious schisms restricting and enabling art, religion is a complicated matter, one that people shape.

Religion does not just happen to people in this book. There are moments of startling emotion that could be considered divine revelation, but it is up to the characters how to respond and what to believe. Religion is a choice, and this human, social representation of religion is one that I really enjoyed.

The sublime

For all that he peers behind the scenes of art and shows the human side of religious experience, Kay stills creates a sense of wonder. That wonder lies in how we are moved by art, by passion, by moments of human contact. That feeling left me utterly enthralled.

And though Kay lets us peer into the workings of the mosaic maker’s craft, he still left me bewildered and in awe at his own craft. This is a big book, and a slow paced one. Yet I remained passionately engaged throughout, fascinated by every moment, rushing towards each new page.

And I don’t know why.

Seriously, I spend hours every week listening to podcasts about writing, reading about writing, practising my own craft. And I still don’t know how, in technical detail and technique, he kept me so engaged in a book whose size and pacing would normally put me off.

As I read more of his books – next up is the sequel, Lord of Emperors – I hope to work at least some of this out. But for now I have experienced the pleasure both of learning a little more about an artist’s craft and of remaining in awe at the wonders that art can achieve.

That is some damn fine reading.

Other opinions are available

So, who else has read this? I know some of you have. What did you think? Did you enjoy it? Why? Or why not? What were your favourite elements? There’s space here for comments and discussion, please feel free to use it.

The magic circle – stories and immersion

Immersion is vital to enjoying a story on its own terms. That sense of surrendering to the imaginary world, living within its confines, accepting its rules, buying into what’s at stake. And one concept that’s crucial to this is the magic circle.

The magic of immersion

The magic circle is the idea of a special space, a set of circumstances that supports an audience in setting aside the real world and immersing themselves in a story. It’s the pool of light around a campfire, the darkness of the cinema, the moment when the curtains are pulled back revealing the stage. Here’s the folks at Extra Credits explaining it in more detail:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZ-EY9gTsgU&w=560&h=315]
The magic of writing

Readers may have their own space to help with their immersion, whether it’s curled up on a corner of the sofa, sitting with headphones on in a crowded tube train, or lying in bed with just the light a small lamp.

But as writers we have no control over that space. We have to create the magic circle through the words that we set down on the page. Any time we break the flow of the story, that we remind readers that they’re reading a story rather than living it, we break the circle. And the loss of immersion that creates can lead to dissatisfied readers.

But its not just about avoiding breaking the circle – it’s about building it in the first place. We have to create a virtual space that draws the reader in, that replaces their thoughts with story thoughts, their emotions with story emotions. We have to make a circle so compelling that they won’t drift out of it and back to the ordinary world.

Too clever by half

I think this is part of why I’ve not been immersed in some of the books I’ve read recently, ones that relied on particular intellectual conceits. Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery is a prime example of this, being as it was a stitching together of fragmented history. But Samuel R. Delaney’s The Einstein Intersection also suffered from it. For readers already immersed in the mythology Delaney was using, the work tapped right into their thoughts, making it all the more immersive. They filled in gaps and connections that Delaney didn’t make, and the fact that they were doing some of the work for themselves added to the immersion. This wasn’t somebody trying to lure them into the circle – it was them stepping forwards to create their own.

But I had to step back to make those connections, and that disrupted my immersion in the story just as surely as the fragments from Delaney’s journal did. This wasn’t my sort of circle, and I wasn’t immersed.

Yes, but…

My thoughts on this are still half formed. After all, I found some of Pratchett’s early work compelling despite the flow-breaking footnotes, and I love the intellectual playfulness of Tom Stoppard’s plays even when they break out of the traditional circle. How does such fourth wall breaking work fit into the model of the magic circle? Is it making a different sort of circle, or embracing audiences in another way?

Odds are I’ll be coming back to this one in a week or two. In the meantime I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on the subject – just leave a comment below.

Scotland the Bravehearted – historical accuracy in fiction

It’s been nearly 20 years, but I think I might finally be ready to forgive Braveheart. As a history graduate who specialised in that era, this is a big step for me. I used to rant at great length about the dreadful historical errors that riddle that film. But recently I’ve been doing some freelance work writing historical narratives, and it’s made me re-evaluate my own perspective on this.

Why all the anger?

I used to hate Braveheart with a fiery passion. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was missing the vital bridge. Mel Gibson impregnates a seven year old girl who’s living in another country. The kilts. And so on and so on. When Lee and Herring did their ‘freedom’ sketch, they could have been speaking for me.

 

Why should I let go?

But writing about the Middle Ages again, trying to create an exciting non-fiction narrative from the limited events of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, has forced me to change my tune. It’s not that I’ve accepted inaccuracy – I am sticking to the truth as we know it – but turning that truth into a story involves making subjective choices about emphasis and interpretation. Even as a trained historian writing about real history, I’m projecting my own perspective, my own agenda, onto the past.

Was Robert the Bruce an inspired national hero or a calculating opportunist? Was Julius Caesar a power-grabbing ego-maniac or a realist who saw that the republic couldn’t govern an empire? The minute we start exploring questions like these, we’re no longer in factual territory. But we can’t turn history into stories without making a decision on which way to show it.

My friend Clare2043 actually called me on this six months ago. She’s studied historical film from a film-making perspective, so views it rather differently from me. As she pointed out, historical films are something we create, rather than flashes of reality. They represent us interacting with the past, using it to explore modern concerns – in Braveheart, questions of freedom, oppression and national consciousness. The aim isn’t to present factual truth, it’s to create a great film that encourages us to take an interest in the past. If that leads us to explore the truth afterwards, then great. While Braveheart led to a massive worldwide delusion on the subject of William Wallace, by fostering interest in him it also vastly increased the number of people who were well informed about the era.

Why does it still matter?

This isn’t to say that this doesn’t matter. Marina Oliver, in Writing Historical Fiction, points out that an inaccuracy can destroy the credibility of your story for a well informed reader. And those well informed readers, the ones who know history, are the ones most likely to pick up a work of historical fiction or historically set fantasy. They’re also the best advocates, enthusiastic about material that deals with their favourite subject, connected to others who will be interested. You want them on board.

And using real history can strengthen your fiction. Look at some of the tips everwalker picked up in a recent workshop with Tim Powers. That man knows how to use history in fantasy.

Drawing the line

I still think that Braveheart went far further than it needed to in messing with reality. The truth of that period was far more exciting, there was no need to piss Hollywood nonsense all over it. But at least it was an enjoyable film, so while I’ll still criticise it, I no longer hate it. The Patriot, on the other hand? Urgh.

So if you’re writing or reading fiction set in the past, think about where the inaccuracies go. What do they contribute to the story? And in factual terms, do they really matter?

Striking Black Silence

Striking Black Silence crouched in the dusty shadows, clothed from head to toe in the slate-grey folds of her shinobu. Only the twinkling pits of her eyes showed through the surrounding darkness. The Emerald Dragon Palace towered above her, a gleaming bastion amid the markets and slums, its green walls rising to curved roofs of yellow timber.

A civil servant paused in the street, tidying himself before approaching the high barred gate. His long crimson robes cast a tapered shadow in front of Striking Black Silence’s hiding place. She pulled a pale, thin ninjaken from her belt, a blade as sharp as a jilted lover’s hate and light as moonbeams. Leaning forwards she slashed through the base of the man’s shadow. Snatching the patch of darkness away with long, thin fingers, she stepped nimbly into its place. The civil servant never even looked around as she willed herself to become insubstantial, a dark layer draped across the world, and when he walked past the guards and through the high obsidian gates he did so with a darker shadow, one that did not wear his robes.

#

Inside the Palace, the civil servant crossed a mosaic floor and ascended a wide staircase with a handrail of carved mahogany. His footsteps joined those of other red-robed figures shuffling wordlessly from room to room, their way lit by delicately scented candles that cast flickering patches of light across tiled walls. At the top of the stairs he entered a tall antechamber, lined with darkened niches and shelves full of scrolls. As he paused, reaching for one of the high shelves, he felt a moment of distraction, like a thread tugging at the corner of his mind. In a flash it passed and, lighter of heart, he plucked a wide leather-bound tome down from its place and passed on into the next room.

Striking Black Silence crouched in the darkness between the shelves, watching the shadowless man depart. A lowly clerk of tepid spirit, it had been easy to break away from him. She waited motionless as four more of his grade came and went, never even glancing into her dark niche. Then came a man in purple robes with silver trim. As he stood with his back to her, Striking Black Silence drew her blade and cut away his shadow, stepping lightly into its place, her toes brushing his heals as she joined to him and willed her body into shreds of gloom. Oblivious, the mandarin selected a scroll from the shelf and left the room, leading them both upwards into the refined halls of the Highest Tower.

Traversing the corridor to the Third Expectant Chamber they passed a guard. He bowed his head to the mandarin, the brass plates of his armour clicking together. His close features broke into a frown as he gazed at the floor beneath the mandarin’s feet and the short, trouser-clad shadow behind the tall robed man.

Before the guard could part his lips to speak, Striking Black Silence was pulling free, trying to become solid. But the mandarin’s spirit was stronger than that of her last carrier, unwilling to relinquish its dark partner. For a long moment she was caught in place, unable to break loose, her will straining against his. Then the bond of shadow to shadowed broke and she was free, a veil of darkness coalescing into the coiled body of a killer. She lunged forward, one arm wrapping around the mandarin’s neck. It twisted with a snap that echoed through the silent room. Then she was past, her blade darting up beneath the guard’s arm. It slipped between armoured plates, piercing muscle and sliding past ribs into his heart. Hot blood spurted across the marble as he fell to the floor.

Eyes peeled for signs of movement, Striking Black Silence rushed down twisting corridors and up a stairwell. Seeing the backs of two guards ahead she sprang into the air, grabbing a roof beam and swinging herself into the rafters. She stepped carefully from beam to beam, arms outstretched, hunched in the low roof space. The guards turned and marched down the stairway beneath her, their helmets close enough to touch, shadows crumpled across the steps.

For the next hour she roamed the rafters, creeping from room to room above oblivious guards and servants. She knew when the bodies were found. Gangs of armoured guards began roaming the corridors, staring fiercely through doorways, scouring every room. But few had the sense to look up, and the ceiling space was filled with concealing shadows.

At last she found herself emerging onto a balcony above the great gates, on which four figures stood with their backs to her. Most striking was a tall man in yellow robes. He held himself straight and still as he surveyed the sprawling shacks below. Beside him stood a scribe, stylus poised over a wax tablet, and flanking them were a pair of guards, their gaze fixed on the ground below, eyes prowling the sprawling streets for any sign of archers.

‘Write this down,’ the tall man said without looking at his scribe. ‘To the Daimyo of the Ninth Province, from Fierce Dragon Wind, Shogun of the Rising Sun…’

Beneath her mask, Striking Black Silence gave a tiny smile at the mention of her daimyo. Without even the faintest his of steel on silk, she drew her ninjaken and reached out of the doorway’s sheltering darkness, towards the shogun’s shadow.

‘…I am aware of your plans against me. Only today, I captured another of your ninjas trying to infiltrate my palace…’

Striking Black Silence stiffened, but no-one turned around. The guards continued their downward vigil, the scribe etched at his tablet and Fierce Dragon Wind stood contemplating his domain. She reached forward once more and, with the utmost care, severed the shogun’s shadow.

‘…As you know, the duties of government keep me here. I therefore leave it to you to ensure your own punishment, safe in the knowledge that any I am forced to inflict shall be as the death of paper cuts, gentle, slow and endlessly painful…’

Striking Black Silence pulled the shadow to her and hid it in the deeper dark of the doorway. Then she stepped forward, holding her breath so as not to breathe on the shogun’s neck.

‘…To this end, you will build yourself a prison, with a bare cell no wider than you are tall. You shall set your own men to guard it, and to feed you water and rice. Make sure they know that, should you escape, their corpses will be left for the vultures, never to find rest with their ancestors…’

Listening to his words strengthened Striking Black Silence’s resolve. She willed herself to become a shadow once more, thinner than air, lighter than fire.

‘…Write it out in your finest hand and bring it to me to sign…’

The scribe nodded and turned, heading into the palace. He paused for a moment, glancing at the ground behind his lord, and Striking Black Silence readied herself to pounce. But he stooped, picked up a button form the floor, and moved on.

‘…I shall be in my chambers,’ the Shogun said, passing in turn through the doorway, taking his shadow with him.

#

Fierce Dragon Wind strode into his private chamber. Outside, two guards pulled the ornately carved door closed, leaving their master alone. Paper lanterns cast a fierce orange glow, lighting the room like the heart of a bonfire. Everything in the room, from the ivory inlaid writing desk to the black-glazed sake cups, cast a multitude of fragmented shadows, faint patches of shade cast by the different lamps. Everything except the shogun himself. Behind him lay a deep pool of darkness.

Striking Black Silence’s time had come. She took a moment to plan the blow, the dance of the blade through the air, the surrender of his flesh to that fine, gleaming edge, the exact angle at which his head would fall. Then, remembering the fate planned for her daimyo, she focussed her spirit to a sharp point, one moment of swift certainty, and willed herself solid.

Nothing happened.

She tried again, straining to pull a foot away from the shogun. But she could not move, her leg refusing to leave his body. She reached for her ninjaken, realised her arm was held in place, posed as the shogun’s own limb.

Fierce Dragon Wind turned and looked down at the shadow. The corner of his mouth twitched as he raised his sake cup in a wry salute.

‘Well done, little ninja,’ he said. ‘You have come far. Your will is strong. But I rule a whole kingdom without leaving this tower. What sort of will must that take?’

He stared down at Striking Black Silence. She felt her thoughts flung down a dozen different paths, her body wrenched and shaken. The deep pool of darkness became a collection of faint, flickering shadows cast by the paper lanterns, scattered puddles of shade where once there had been a striking black silence.

 

First published in EMG-zine, October 2007

The Bomb

Shoppers shuffled to market beneath the tall concrete buildings of Century Square. The towers reached to the dizzying light of heaven, blocking out the sun. Each one was a masterpiece of functionalist architecture, cold, dismal and empty. Companies needing office space looked outwards instead to the redbrick suburbs, and the Ministry of Appropriations, forced to occupy one of the grey blocks, was notorious for inefficiency. But from the rooftops the air-raid sirens could be heard for miles, a distorted melody backed by the percussion of distant artillery.

In the square figures shuffled from stall to stall, huddling round products even the war had not consumed. Old ladies in shawls prodded vigorously at wrinkled apples then complained that they were bruised. A mother berated a penniless stallholder, demanding a refund for cleaning fluids that left greasy smears across her windows. Another fretted around her screeching daughter, offering dollies and candy canes if she would be quiet. Outside the Ministry of Appropriations a street sweeping van belched black exhaust soot. All of them ignored the siren’s wail, made indifferent to its warning by countless practices and false alarms.

A bomber buzzed low and angry over the rooftops, onlookers gawping upwards as it hurled its load into the heart of the square. A thought bomb burst open, showering the place with lettered casing and infectious memes. Concepts hurtled through the air, embedding themselves in shoppers and stallholders. There was panic as the victims found their minds invaded by new and outrageous ideas, confusing and contradicting the reality to which they held. Raw, unexpected perspectives overwhelmed a decade’s dogged resistance, stubborn habits receding in the face of reality’s shifting front line. Some victims, startled into panic by their own discordant thoughts, ran off through the monotone grid of streets, spreading the word in their wake. The rest simply sat down, stunned into surrender by the unending, bloodthirsty futility of violence. The bomb had riddled them with doubts, shown its victims the self-defeating horror of war, the pointlessness of resistance.

The idea spread through town like a contagion, carrying its symptom of silence. Homes, offices, schools, all fell quiet. The handles of sirens ceased to turn, radios hissed with static as local stations gave up educating the indifferent masses. Cars sat dormant in the street, their drivers gazing at each other in stillness. By dusk the distant guns of the front line had ceased their brutal barking. For the first time in years, an owl could be heard.

* * *

Two days later the tanks rolled into town, a grime-streaked victory parade as the opposition sealed their success. Scouts ran ahead of them, darting from one doorway to the next as they watched warily for signs of resistance. Not a finger was lifted against them, citizens watching passively as gunmen stormed their homes and stole their food.

The whole town had an eerie, ghostlike feel, draped in a quiet made not of calm or comfort but of hopelessness and inertia. The invaders initially prowled the streets with a wary determination, rifles at the ready, eyes darting back and forth as they swept through silent buildings or patrolled the deserted, wind-swept roads. The locals went wordlessly about their work, heads bowed, shoulders hunched, as though bent low by a great weight. They went outside only when necessary, and talked in hushed whispers when it became necessary to buy their bread and milk. The soldiers watched them nervously, at first afraid that they might rise into armed revolt, then wary of the unnerving, lifeless silence. But fed, sheltered and safe from any sign of resistance, the war-weary troopers began to relax.

The soldiers’ orders were clear – no fraternising. But set a rule and you set someone a challenge.

‘It’s not fraternising if we don’t talk, right?’ a private said, watching a pretty blonde walk by, long green dress swaying enticingly with each step. His comrades smirked knowingly to each other as he followed the girl down an alley and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Doesn’t seem safe,’ he said, ‘pretty thing like you out on your own.’

He leaned in close, stubble rasping at her cheek, hands reaching round her unresisting waist, fingertips caressing her curves. She reached up, tilted his helmet aside and began to whisper in his ear. He ceased his fumbling. Arms fell slack by his sides. At last she fell silent, gazing into his eyes. He nodded, turned, and walked numbly back towards his companions, rifle trailing in the gutter. The squad huddled around him, eyes flitting back and forth, glancing warily at their friend then nervously over their shoulders. He spoke, and one by one the camouflaged huddle ceased to twitch their heads, sinking into apathy or setting off in determination, spreading the word through their unit and beyond.

Silence crept along the war’s front line. The sharp chatter of small-arms gave way to crickets chirping on the breeze. Bombers idled on disused runways and tanks gathered dust. All across the continent owls could be heard.

This story was originally published in Atomjack magazine, November 2007.

The Magpie Dance

There were Morris dancers in the town square. Not in the classic costumes of green dungarees and big white hankies, but black tailcoats with ragged strips of cloth hanging from the sleeves. Their clothes were liberally dotted with tiny mirrors and silver beads that glittered as they caught the sun. They stood with sticks raised, pointed caps facing inwards in a circle like the beaks of conspiratorial magpies.

‘Creepy birds,’ Alex said.

I smiled down at him and squeezed his hand. He in turn kept glancing between the static dancers and the fifty pence coin clutched in his tiny fingers, a special treat for the market fair. It was the first time he’d had spending money of his own, and he was treating the occasion with an infant’s practised gravity.

With a crack of wood on wood, the Morris dancers started their set, staves beating a steady rhythm. They twirled and skipped, following each other in a circle. Then they formed two rows, prancing in to meet each other with a whirl of black limbs and a cry like the call of ravens. Their mirrors and beads sketched shining arcs of light, drawing my eye along with their back-and-forth flow.

I stood entranced. In the moment of the dance, these scruffy men and women became something more, something ancient and majestic that I had yearned to be a part of without ever knowing it.

The dance became faster, more exuberant. Each line in turn would bound forward, leaping into the air as they reached their partners, rag-coats flapping like wide feathered wings. On the third approach, the dancers leapt not just into the air, but over the heads of those opposite, fluttering to the far side of the circle. I felt a gasp run through me, heard it rise from others in the audience. No-one applauded, too afraid off breaking the moment, the perfect rhythm playing out before us.

The other line of dancers leapt, and it seemed to me that they didn’t land, but soared into the air, stretching out to catch the breeze, white shirts becoming the breasts of magpies. They circled above our heads, still glittering from a thousand shining points, then darted down into the crowd, rushing past and round each person in turn, feathers brushing against us in the tight twirl of flight. No-one stood in the circle any more, but I could hear the clattering chorus of wood on wood, an ancient rhythm that made my head sway. Glittering wings spiralled before my eyes. The world faded around me, became a sea of shining points against the black of an ancient night sky.

And then the rhythm stopped.

I stood, blinking in the midday sun of a modern market town, my son’s hand squeezing my own. The crowd looked around in bewildered silence, melancholy flitting through their eyes as they saw the empty space where the dancers had been.

‘Lost fifty pee,’ Alex said, staring mournfully at his empty hand. Tears welled in his eyes.

‘That’s alright,’ I said, preparing to head off a tantrum. ‘You can have a new one.’

I reached into my pocket and found it empty. No wallet, no cash, no keys. I patted my other pockets in growing alarm, and looking up saw the rest of the crowd going through the same routine. As we stared at each other in anger and confusion, I heard the mocking cry of a distant magpie, vanishing on the breeze.

 

This story was originally published in Flash Me magazine, October 2008.