Making Stories from the Past

How do we turn the past into stories?

It might sound like a simple question, but the relationship between stories and real events is complex and messy.

The Nature of History

Last week, I received editorial comments on a history article I’m writing. High on the to-do list was making the article into more of a story. As soon as I read that, I knew what they meant, and I knew that they were right. I also knew why I hadn’t done it the first time around.

The past isn’t a neat narrative. It’s a jumple of people, places, and events. At one time these were facts, and what we’re left with is the evidence of what those facts might have been. It’s jumbled and disjointed, but also complex and confusing. Nothing about it is simple. Nothing happens for one reason.

One step removed from the past lies history. This is an attempt to establish facts from the evidence, to put those facts in order, and to squeeze meaning from them. It narrows the focus of what we’re looking at, asserts cause and effect, and prioritises some patterns over others. To do this, it draws boundaries about what’s included in any particular account of history, from the infinite variety of options available.

And then there are stories set in the past, whether told as fiction or non-fiction. These narrow the focus further, to individual people and what happened to them. It turns patterns into narratives, the mechanical procession of events into human experiences. It simplifies some things and exaggerates others so that they come to life for us.

In writing my article, I’d taken the jumble of facts and turned them into history, but I’d missed the next step. I had something that showed patterns in the past, but that didn’t engage well with our humanity.

Framing the Narrative

Whether you’re writing history or a story, there’s also another element to how this works, and that’s framing.

Take the First World War. It’s a messy business. It began and ended at different times in different parts of the world. It was fought in different ways on different fronts, in land and sea and air, was tangled in with events on the home front, and its effects linger with us a century on. Parts of France and Belgium are still inaccessible due to munitions from that war.

Last month, I saw Field Music perform their album Making a New World. Composed for the centenary of the armistice, it’s all about the knock-on effects of that war, from tanks to plastic surgery to sanitary towels. The album tells the story of the First World War not as a self-contained event from 1914 to 1918 but as the epicentre from which vast tremors of change erupted.

My upcoming Commando comic Out of the Woods tells the First World War from a very different perspective. To look at the introduction of chemical weapons, it follows two fictional Canadians from before they signed up through to the aftermath of the Second Battle of Ypres. There are many other ways I could have told that story – from the point of view of the Germans, of civilians, of communities affected for generations by the chemicals. I could have followed a medic, a general, even a gas cannister or a patch of ground. I chose the perspective that suited my purposes, but whichever one I chose, I would have had to cut down and rearrange the history, which itself cuts down and rearranges the facts, in each case forming a different pattern.

Telling Your Story from History

So remember, when telling a story from history, you’re never going to fit in all the facts. You’re already missing some of them and you don’t need them all for your goal. Explore the different ways you could look at the topic, pick a story that will bring the past to life in an engaging way, and let the rest fall by the wayside. You’re not here to tell history. You’re here to tell one story against its background.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

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

Deciding What History To Write

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

For me, there are several factors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that makes it part of the fun.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

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

Drawing the Desert – a historical short story

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

Desert sand dunes

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

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

If he lived through this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need these,” Schmatlock said.

The rider drew his leg back and frowned.

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

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

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

The man rubbed his thumb and forefingers together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

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

Out Today – Stealing Stukas

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

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

Stealing Stukas

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

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

Stumbling Into Inspiration

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

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

Bowman and Rozier’s Desert Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting History to Story

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

Why?

To tell a better story.

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

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

The Challenge of Historical Fiction

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

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

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

The Whale Yard – a historical short story

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

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

Then he stepped into the yard.

Whale sculpture, Pannett Park, Whitby

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

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

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

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

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

John shook his head. “Just this.”

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eh?” Matthew looked up, confused.

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

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

John hesitated a long time before he answered.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

It was all he could imagine.

It was enough.

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

***

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

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

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

Out Now – Maps of Broken Places

Maps of Broken Places book cover

A clockwork city winding down into entropy. A forest where moving statues stand sentry over the dead. A post-apocalyptic garbage heap. Visit all these places and more in fifty-two short stories set in worlds beyond our own.

Maps of Broken Places is my annual e-book collection of flash fiction, bringing together every story I published on this blog last year. If you missed out on some of the stories or would like them together in one handy place then please consider picking up a copy. It’s a chance to lose yourself in some strange and amazing places and the people who inhabit them.

Little Foot – a flash historical story

Sharru and Little Foot, his trusty mule, had just emerged from the river when the bag fell with a crack against the rocks. Perhaps the current had somehow loosened the straps. Perhaps Sharru hadn’t bound them properly. Whatever the cause, he felt a sense of horror at the sound.

That bag was the most precious thing he carried. More valuable than the supplies for their journey or the token that would see him served at relay stations along Assyria’s great roads. That bag held his duty.

He opened it with trembling hands and looked inside. Sure enough, the clay envelope was cracked. He had broken the message he carried between the Great Ones.

Unable to bear the sight, he closed the bag. In twenty years of service as a courier, he had never once broken a message. What would they do to him?

He tied the bag back into place, pulling each knot so tight that he felt the rope scraping on his hands. Then he climbed onto Little Foot’s back and they continued along the road.

Sharru imagined Tukulti, the man who ran the next relay station, a man with a belly big enough to match the importance of his job. He would be fuming when he found out what had happened. Would he beat Sharru himself, or would he call for soldiers and have him dragged away? The Great Ones’ messages were a sacred trust, a thread holding civilisation together, now broken by Sharru.

“What will we do?” he asked.

Little Foot snorted and shook his head. It seemed to Sharru that the mule understood his distress and was comforting him with the gentle rhythm of his walk. But then, it always seemed to Sharru that Little Foot understood him.

Despite Little Foot’s reassuring snorts and steady pace, Sharru couldn’t keep his mind on the mule or the road ahead. His eyes kept falling to his message bag. It was like a scab over a painful wound – he knew that he should leave it alone, and yet he couldn’t help wanting to pick at it.

He should leave it as it was, get to the relay station and hope for the best.

And yet he found himself opening the bag and drawing out its contents.

The envelope was cracked along one side but had not yet split in two. The tablet within remained concealed.

Sharru had never seen one of the actual tablets, though he had carried thousands back and forth along this road, all wrapped in that outer layer of clay. What might it say? Orders for soldiers at the frontier perhaps, a request for supplies to the capital, maybe even something about how the messengers were to be run. Could it be announcing a royal tour or the start of a war?

His fingertips ran across the surface, nails digging into the crack in the wounded clay. The damage was done already, his career over. Why not go all the way, break the seal on the envelope and see what was inside? After all these years, didn’t he deserve a look?

Little Foot snorted and shook his head. A fly buzzed away.

Sharru sighed and slid the tablet back into his bag.

“You’re right, old friend. I shouldn’t make things worse.”

He leaned forward and rubbed the mule’s head, just behind the ears. Being parted from Little Foot was the worst thing he could imagine. Never hearing that familiar snort again, never knowing the rhythm of those hooves. The mule was getting on now, just as he was. Maybe, if he was very lucky, they would get rid of Little Foot when they sacked him, and the two of them could leave together, go to his brother’s farm and live out their days in peace.

More likely they would be torn apart and he would be beaten for failing the Great Ones.

The relay station was up ahead, a clay brick building by a fork in the road. Sharru wanted to slow down, to put off the inevitable, but he didn’t want to spoil Little Foot’s pace.

As they reached the building, Tukulti came out to greet them.

“Got something for me?” he asked, holding out a hand.

Sharru sighed, took the clay envelope from the bag, and handed it over.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, hanging his head. “I have failed. I dropped it and-”

“Feh.” Tukulti waved a hand dismissively. “It’s just a crack. Happens to everyone from time to time. As long as it’s in one piece, we’ll be fine.”

“But my sacred burden, my duty to the Great Ones…”

“The letter’s in one piece, right? That’s all that counts. Now come on in, we’ll pass this to the next rider and you can put your feet up.”

Sharru felt like he was floating in the air. He turned to Little Foot with a grin.

“Did you hear that? It’s going to be alright.” He patted the mule’s nose. “Let’s go find you some food.”

***

Not for the first time, the inspiration for this week’s story comes from Ben of the Crudely Drawn Swords podcast, who told me about the ancient Assyrian mule mail service. You can check out Crudely Drawn Swords on your favourite podcatcher and find Ben’s tweetings over here.

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

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

Story’s Story – a historical short story

William Parker led the way up the gangplank and onto the ship sitting at Antwerp dock. She wasn’t a big vessel, but she was what his small band of men could afford, and it wasn’t as if they needed much cargo space.

“This way, Master Story,” he said.

The man who followed was dressed in a better tunic than he was. His hair was better kept, as was his beard, which was going to grey. John Story was many things – scholar, Catholic, servant of the Spanish crown – but he was not scruffy.

“Why aren’t the crew here?” Story asked, peering suspiciously around.

“Taking on their last supplies,” Parker said, the lie tumbling casually off his tongue. “I offered to keep watch for them.”

“And you’re sure there are Protestant books on board?”

“Oh yes.”

Story’s narrowed gaze roamed the boat.

Parker swallowed. If Story grew too suspicious, this could all go horribly wrong. The Spanish owned the Netherlands and they were unlikely to show mercy on an English agent here.

“Does it pay well?” he asked, looking to occupy Story as he led him towards a hatch. “Searching out illegal books, I mean?”

“I don’t do it for the money,” Story said stiffly. “I do it to save souls from heresy. It’s bad enough that our own country has fallen to Protestantism, but now it’s being exported?”

Parker nodded. He might not share Story’s faith, but he liked the man’s conviction. He was up front about his views. It would have been hard to put up with his company the past week, if he hadn’t liked something about him.

Parker opened the hatch and walked down a set of steps into the gloom of the hold. Story hesitated, looking down after him.

“Are you sure there’s no-one else here?” he asked.

“We’re perfectly safe.” Parker took a hooded lantern he’d hung from a hook, slipped back the shutter, and illuminated the path towards the back of the boat. “Just as we were safe under Queen Mary. Weren’t you a man of influence then?”

“That I was.” Story followed him into the darkness, stairs creaking beneath his weight. “A lecturer at Oxford. A servant of the crown. I helped try that heretic Cranmer. Then our glorious monarch died and her bastard sister took the throne.”

“Couldn’t you have stayed in England? Argued for the true faith?”

“How do you think I ended up in prison?”

That made Parker wince. He’d never been locked up himself, but he knew men who had been, whether waiting for trial or struggling to pay off debts. He pitied anyone who went through that.

They approached the door to a private chamber at the back of the ship. Parker produced a heavy key from within his tunic, unfastened a hefty padlock, and slid back the bolt. The door creaked open, revealing a dark room with a set of chests at the back.

“The books are in the chests,” Parker said.

Around them, the ship swayed and its timbers let out the ghost of a groan.

“This place has too much the reek of the cell.” Story peered in but didn’t step through the doorway.

“True,” Parker said. “But you escaped a cell once before, didn’t you?”

“True.” Story grinned. “They couldn’t keep me. I was out of their prison and out of the country before the axe could fall. They called me a heretic and traitor, you know, because I wouldn’t accept Elizabeth and her faith.”

“You’ll show them now,” Parker said, smiling at the man’s bravado. “Imagine the looks on their faces when they hear that you caught more of their books.”

“Ha!” Story walked into the windowless cabin and crouched by one of the chests. “I’ll teach them all a lesson.”

He lifted the lid on the chest.

“You’re sure it’s these boxes?” he asked, a note of suspicion in his voice.

“Oh yes.”

Parker followed Story inside. He was just opening another of the boxes when he heard a creak behind him.

Story whirled around, a moment too late to stop the door being slammed shut and the bolt flung into place.

“Damnation!” Story flung himself against the door, but it was no use. The timbers held solid. “It was a trap.”

“No!” Parker sank to the ground, doing his best imitation of a broken man. “But that means…”

The ship creaked more loudly as it cast off from the docks.

Story turned a steely gaze on Parker.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I escaped them once. I’ll do it again, and take you with me. The executioner won’t have you.”

That he won’t, Parker thought. I’ll be held long enough to keep my cover, then I’ll be let out. You, on the other hand…

He blew out the lantern.

“Best to conserve our light,” he said.

In the darkness, he smiled. He’d enjoyed hearing Story’s life’s tale, and he would enjoy ensuring it had a dramatic ending.

***

The kidnapping of John Story was a real operation by British agents in 1570. Story ended up imprisoned, questioned, and executed. Parker spent some time in prison to maintain his cover, had a bit of a breakdown, and then went back to spying.

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

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

Clodius’ Pyre – a historical short story

People were swarming around the steps of the Curia Hostilia. Not the patricians usually seen here for senate meetings but a mixed mob, men and woman with swords and clubs on their belts, some glaring with hostility out across the streets of Rome, others bringing in heaps of firewood and jars of oil. I recognised a few of the faces, people I had seen in Clodius’ entourage as he travelled around the city, but many more were unknown to me. I had tried to keep my distance from the mob he used to wield his will, and now that I was forced into proximity with them I found myself an outsider.

I pushed my way up the steps, leaving my servants to deal with the trail of indignation, and hurried into the Curia. There stood the shrine of Vulcan, the viewing gallery, the statues of gods and paintings of battles.

And there lay Clodius, master of half the Roman mob, pale, cold, and empty eyed, laid out on the marble altar.

Fulvia stood by her husband’s corpse and watched as firewood was heaped up around him. Her eyes were red, her makeup smeared, her lips pressed together as she suppressed her fury.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, taking hold of her hand. My own grief welled up inside me – grief for a lost friend and for lost opportunities. “If I had been there I would have-”

“You weren’t,” she said. “Nor was I. But what we can’t undo, we can brand upon the memory of Rome.”

The heap of wood was growing higher around Clodius. Other piles were being made around the hall. I could smell the lamp oil that had been poured over them.

I took a step back.

“You… you can’t be serious. You would burn down the heart of our government?”

Fulvia glared at me.

“They emboldened Milo, and now his party have killed Clodius. You think a government like that deserves to stand?”

A servant appeared with a burning brand in his hand.

“This place is more than just government.” I waved a hand towards the statues and paintings, then pointed at the altar on which Clodius lay. “This is our heritage.”

Fulvia reached for the brand but I snatched it away.

“Give me that,” she snarled.

Other leaders of Clodius’ faction emerged from the throng. Some gathered around Fulvia. Others stood at my back. As we had once faced off against Milo and his men, now we faced off against each other.

“I won’t let you destroy all this in a fit of fury” I said.

“So instead we sit aside and let them win? Let his memory fade with the bloodstains on their hands?”

“If the alternative is casting aside our history, then yes!”

“What use is history if it holds us back? If it makes us weaker?”

I frowned. She wasn’t right, was she? Looking around the building, at centuries of tributes to gods and men, I couldn’t believe that it was right to cast them away.

“There will be other statues,” Fulvia said. “Other paintings. Other buildings.”

“Not like these.”

“And there will not be another man like him. We should remember that.”

I looked at the corpse laid out upon the pail marble, his tunic stained with crusted blood and fresh lamp oil. My ally. My friend. Killed because he opposed men who had sat with me here, deciding the fate of our city. They revelled in their power even as they held back the will of the people, and now it had come to this.

Fulvia was right. Better to let it burn.

I flung the torch on the pyre. The oil ignited and flames shot through the heaps of wood.

“We should go,” I said as fire flared around the hall.

Fulvia took my arm and together we walked out into the dusk.

Behind us, the senate burned.

***

Crazy as it sounds, the Curia Hostilia, home to the Roman senate, really was burned down as a funeral pyre in 52 BC. Clodius, one of many Roman politicians who was as much gang leader as he was statesman, had been killed in a conflict with his opponent Milo. Clodius’ faction decided to make a point by going big on the funeral.

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

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