Medieval Alternate History

Medieval Europe is all the rage in the fantasy genre. Though settings inspired by different places and times are becoming more popular, the main flavour of heroic and epic fantasy is knights, kings and feudal oppression. Even when settings aren’t medieval European-looking, they still pick up that era’s traits by default.

The doorstep evangelists got a real shock at Tod’s house

But in the other genre spinning unreal worlds from the real past, that of alternate history, medieval settings are fairly rare. The different way of combining the familiar and unfamiliar used in that genre leads to a lot of setting rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular the overwhelming volume of variant Second World Wars.

Redressing the balance, I wrote a piece for Alternate History Weekly Update looking at three possible alternate medieval pasts. So if this stuff interests you at all please check it out.


Photo by Ed Alkema via Flickr creative commons

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.

From a Foreign Shore – out now

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?


My new short story collection, From a Foreign Shore, is out today. Containing five short stories set in the past, or an alternate past, or something vaguely related to the past, it includes Arthurian knights, Vikings, surly peasants and a statue found guilty of homicide – man, those medieval folks sure knew how to do law.

This collection dips into my fascination with history and with twisting that history around. It features real historic incidents as well as stuff I’ve just made up, and the characters range from the historical to the mythological to the clearly invented.

From a Foreign Shore is available on Kindle through Amazon and in all other formats via Smashwords, all for less than a pound/dollar/euro/other currency without too many zeroes, so please go check it out.


The free copy of From a Foreign Shore that I offered for reviewing my previous books goes to Dylan Hearn, who not only left me an Amazon review but wrote a whole blog post about how much he enjoyed my book – thanks Dylan, your book will be in the email shortly.


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On a completely unrelated note, I attended Fantasy Con in York over the weekend. I had a great time and have a lot of notes from panels and other events, which I’ll write up and post here over the next month. So stay tuned for authorial insights on sword fighting, publicising your work, politics in sf+f and how to sound like a radio using only a pint glass.

Look, I’ve got another book coming!

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?

I bet you’ve thought about exactly none of these questions – not unreasonably, all things considered. But I have, and they’re among the stories in my next e-book, From a Foreign Shore, which will be out next Monday, 8 September.

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

From a Foreign Shore is a very small collection – five short stories, two of them flash pieces of only a few hundred words. Appropriately enough it also has a small price tag – 99c or your local equivalent, whether that’s 77 English pennies or 53 Venusian bdumric (OK, even Amazon probably aren’t selling books on Venus yet, but I don’t want to miss the purple-skinned market when the time comes).

After I posted the cover on Saturday a couple of people asked for more information. This collection has a loosely historic theme, and I mean very loosely. Here’s a little bit on the stories…

Holy Water – a pair of medieval servants are given the frustrating task of executing a statue, in a story based on a couple of local Cheshire legends.

Farewell to a Foreign Shore – a flash fiction piece about a Viking heading out to sea.

Odin’s Mirror – a Viking chief faces what appears to be his god in an alternative version of dark age Europe.

From the Sea – a messenger is plagued by visions as he runs from the Battle of Marathon.

Sir Cai, the Shining Knight – an oddity of a story involving Arthurian nobles and a mysterious stranger.

This collection is part of my on-going effort to gather lots of my previously published stories into themed collections. I’ve already published Riding the Mainspring, the steampunk collection, and there are currently untitled science fiction and fantasy collections coming over the next couple of months. That left me with a handful of stories with a loosely historic connection, which I’ve bundled together in this mini anthology. Hence its brevity and the presence of the slightly less historic Sir Cai, which I’m very fond of but just didn’t fit with the other collections.

Think of this is a bite-sized release to tide you over until I get the fantasy anthology ready. There’s plenty to look forward to from me over the next few months, and I hope you’ll all be there to read it. In the meantime mark your calendars for next Monday, because there are Viking, peasants, knights and some other oddities coming, all in the space of five short stories.


Competition results!

When I first released Riding the Mainspring and Mud and Brass I said that I’d give away a free copy of the next collection to someone who posted me a link to their Amazon review by the end of August. Two people posted their links in the comments, and so I’m going to declare them both winners – congratulations to Malwen and Sue Archer, I’ll email you about your advanced copies of From a Foreign Shore.

Because those reviews are incredibly useful to me, and because I only had the books on Amazon at the time, I’m going to declare a round two to this competition. So, post a link to your review below, wherever that review is, and I’ll enter you in a draw to receive a free copy of From a Foreign Shore. Deadline is Sunday night, so that I can send you the e-book when it comes out on Monday.

Whether it’s for the sake of the free book or from the goodness of your heart, if you have a chance then please get reviewing!

Not In Kansas Any More

Today I have a guest post from writer, scholar and occasional saviour of my sanity everwalker. She has an excellent blog on writing, and today she’s sharing some of her wisdom with us. So without further ado…


When I chose my degree, many many moons ago, I knew perfectly well that Classics would never be of any practical use. As it turns out, however, that’s proven to be incorrect. To date, I’ve built six different cultures off the back of it, as well as a language based on Akkadian (Ancient Mesopotamian) and the gods alone know how many poems.

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

For me, world-building begins with real life. It may be a fantasy setting but that’s no reason to do all the heavy lifting yourself. History – especially ancient history – has more in the way of weird cultural birthmarks, ridiculous wars and religious madness than you could ever come up with yourself. Use it. Glory in it. And then edit out the stuff that’s too ridiculous to be believable in fiction. Seriously.

1832: Alexandre Dumas visited the Alps, and attended a trial at which two live bears were summoned as witnesses.  ~  History Without the Boring Bits, Ian Crofton

I tend to start by working out what basic flavour my fantasy culture should be. Is it European or something more exotic? What era is it, and therefore what level of technology? What’s the environment like, both in terms of terrain and weather? Is there a class/caste system? That gives me some parameters to work with and an idea of where to start borrowing.

As an example, I’m currently building a culture which I want to make slightly exotic and highly decadent. The terrain varies from desert to steppes, and there is a strict caste system in place. Looking at a map of our world, the culture that fits those parameters best is the Persian Empire in the days of Alexander the Great. I have a place and time to start investigating.

Next Stop: Research

Now I need to find some cool bits and pieces to flesh out the history and culture of my fantasy empire. I’m not talking about taking whole centuries of events and transplanting them wholescale. Just the highlights that are both interesting and make the culture feel real. Because I live in London and am therefore ridiculously fortunate in the matter of resources, my first stop is usually the British Museum. Libraries, art galleries, anything like that – it’s all good.

Iranian battle mask, C18th. Or, in my world, the face of a golem.

Sticking with this example, I take a look at some friezes and artefacts recovered from various dig sites. I don’t restrict myself to JUST the era of Alex the G. Anything that strikes me as shiny gets noted down. Early Persian kings liked to hunt lions, as a symbol of their authority protecting the people from chaos. They also held lying to be the worst possible sin and went all-out on protecting doors with divine symbols as they considered doorways to be key locations through which good and evil influences could enter.

That doesn’t really cover the truly decadent palace approach that I’m looking for, though. For that I turned to the excellent The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski – a first-hand account of the reign and fall of Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, etc etc etc. That tells me the relative importance of the second doorman in the Imperial audience chamber and how, during the Hour of Informants, the Emperor fed his exotic animals whilst listening to reports from the Intelligence Bureau.

Make Like Dr. Moreau

Finally, I put it all together by combining real and fantastical elements, and then working out the consequences.

For example, elsewhere in my world setting it’s been established that elves are naturally the best at creative imagination. In other cultures this has led to them excelling as priests, storytellers, artists and so on. In a Persian-like culture, where lying and deceit is the most abhorrent crime, it results in elves being persecuted, declared unclean, and worse.

Another example – I have decided the ruling caste are fae. Again already established elsewhere, they are immortal. What does that mean for a society? The people in charge never change, which contributes massively to political and cultural stagnation. New generations, if politically ambitious, have to resort to literally cut-throat methods of advancement. That sets the tone of the ruling elite.

As far as resources go, there will be constant pressure due to an immortal and increasing population. So that leads to an aggressive expansionist model. The army becomes very important, and operates in the way that the Persian armies did (about which we have plenty of information). It also means that the frontier becomes a place of possibility for the new generations who don’t want to engage in vicious politics. They can set up new settlements in the newly conquered lands, and make a space for themselves that way. So we have an atmosphere for frontier life, and an overview of the country where generations are effectively set up like tree-trunk rings out from the centre.

Ta-da! One fantasy culture based on historical evidence.

Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

Why bother with all that research, I hear you cry? (Well, I don’t because the internet doesn’t work that way and, last time I checked, I wasn’t psychic, but you know what I mean.) Why can’t we just make it all up, using our powerful imaginations and writerly know-how? The answer, of course, is that you can. Of course you can. But there are a few reasons why you might want to consider this kind of approach.

  1. Using a known culture gives your readers an automatic way in. They can see, from a few choice details, what you’re emulating and instantly populate it much more richly. That makes your story rich in their minds, which can only be a good thing. Guy Gavriel Kaye – a writer that both Andy and I have gone on about in the past – is an expert at doing this. There’s a reason we keep going on about him.
  2. As previously mentioned, it saves you some heavy lifting. If you want to focus all your writing energies on character and plot development, rather than filling in the details of the cultural background, this is an excellent way to help build up a rich setting without spending massive amounts of time working out a palace protocol that your reader will see one small part of, once.
  3. Inspiration! By all means make 99.9% of your fantasy culture up wholesale, but looking at existing things can give you some great inspiration. Did you know, for example, that Spartans gave women who died in childbirth a warrior’s funeral? Or that the labyrinth from the Minotaur myth actually comes from the labrys – the name of the ceremonial double-headed axe used in Cretan ceremonies, combined with a tendency to decorate the palace floors in mosaic spirals? That’s cool stuff which can inspire whole new avenues of make-believe you never would have thought of otherwise.
  4. People care about the strangest, most insignificant things. The less you get it wrong, the less upset they’ll be. Terry Pratchett once said that a fan drew a map of the Discworld according to descriptions given in various books, and worked out that the apparent wettest place in the continent was actually sitting in a rain shadow. Distracting people from the story is a bad thing, m’kay? Research – and borrowing from reality – helps avoid it.
  5. It’s fun? Well, I think it is.



Necromancy: different angles on a fantasy mainstay

Sometimes the same familiar concept looks completely different from different angles.

Take necromancy, a pillar of fantasy storytelling, usually defined as something involving manipulating the bodies or spirits of the dead. There are so many different ways of exploring and defining this idea, yet we each tend to default to one particular definition. So even though I have half a notebook full of ideas for a novel involving Frankensteinesque science and resurrection medicine, it wasn’t until I found a couple of interesting blog posts this morning that I thought of that as necromancy.

If I'm coming back from the dead, I'm coming back drunk
If I’m coming back from the dead, I’m coming back drunk

The first post, from Michal Wojcik’s One Last Sketch blog, looks at necromancy from a historical perspective – where did this idea come from? what were medieval people talking about when they talked about this? was there some secret criminal cult of priests peddling dark powers for money (probably not, but great idea)?

The second post, from H. Anthe Davis’s The War of Memory Project, looks at necromancy as a fantasy trope, how it’s usually used and how H. uses it in his work. A brief comment conversation with H. got me thinking more about this subject, about why necromancy fascinates us so much, why it works so well as a symbol of darkness.

My current thought is that it’s about taboos. As human beings we have lots of taboos around the disruption of bodies, living or dead. These mostly started as perfectly sensible practices – sticking spikey things in your flesh can lead to infections, as can keeping corpses around. But over time they evolved into customs, then subconscious squirming, then taboos of varying degrees of rationality. It means that stories that prod at dead bodies are likely to hit a very live nerve.

But this is really just a first thought on the subject, and it’s a subject that I’m interested in, on which I’d be fascinated to read your thoughts. What do you think are the great examples of necromancy in fiction? Why is it so appealing, or so repeatedly awful, in our eyes? Care to expand on any of the points Michal and H. have raised? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.


Picture by Diego Torres Silvestre via Flickr creative commons

To sleep

As I sit here awake at four in the morning, faced with a choice not between writing and sleep but between writing and fretting about not sleeping, I’m reminded that there are even less absolutes in life than we think.

Logan Ingalls

An uninterrupted  night’s sleep is not a universal human need. There’s evidence that in days gone by people used to get up in the middle of the night, potter around at other tasks, and then go back to bed. Today we tend to sleep straight through – a pattern that probably always held true for the exhausted rural peasantry – but it’s interesting to think that, like our eating patterns of breakfast, lunch and dinner, that’s as much a cultural norm as a biological necessity.

So next time you’re looking for an obscure detail to build into your fantasy world, or something that might change for your astronauts in deep space, consider messing with their sleep patterns and working out the implications.


Picture by Logan Ingalls via Flickr creative commons

Why peasants miss the rapture

Last night the Northern Lights cast their spectacular glow across the night sky above Britain. Thousands of people went out to see it, photograph it, revel in the spectacle and the beauty.

Me, I didn’t even bother stepping out the back door. I live in one of the largest urban sprawls in Britain, on the side of the country that catches all that lovely grey weather drifting in off the north Atlantic. Between the clouds and the light pollution not much shows up in the sky around here. So I stayed warm indoors instead.

I imagine the same thing happened before the Battle of Hastings. Sure, some people saw an omen of change tearing through the night sky in the form Halley’s Comet. But plenty more missed it because the weather was rubbish, or they were short-sighted, or they just didn’t have much time to stare up into the sky.

It’s something that’s easily forgotten when you’re writing a story of epic fantasy, that for one reason or another big events will always pass somebody by. There’ll be peasants who don’t know about the dragon in the next valley over, seers who miss the signs, knights who don’t know the latest sword swinging techniques. In sci-fi as well there will be people who miss the meteor strike or don’t realise that Evilcorp owns everyone’s digitised souls.

However many people gaze in awe at the arrival of the rapture, there’ll still be some folks asleep in bed.

Speaking of which I’m pretty sleepy myself and need to meet some deadlines before I head to bed for a long, satisfying nap. Have a great weekend, and try not to miss its great spectacular features, whatever they are.

The autumn smell of the past

One of my best ever reading experiences – possibly the single best ever – was going to the National Archives in Kew. The recent fire there, and Russell Phillips discussing his latest trip into the archives, got me all nostalgic for that great experience.

Doing the Doctorate

In my wild and crazy youth I wanted to be a historian. I got funding to do a PhD in medieval history at Durham, the place where I’d done my undergrad and MA, as well as a department with some pretty big names in that field.

Some pretty big beards too. The fantastic Robin Frame would not have looked out of place in an American Civil War command staff.

PhDs are all about the original research, which in my case meant reading through piles of published primary sources and, once they’d run out of fresh revelations, going to the documents that weren’t in print – the archives at Kew.

So I took a trip down to London, borrowed a friend’s sofa for the week, and settled down to work.

A very modern place for very old documents
A very modern place for very old documents

Into Narnia

Entering the National Archives was a lot like entering any old office building. There was some security – it’s a high profile place full of unique treasures – but at first glimpse it was mostly a cafe, some lockers and a small visitors’ display. I went upstairs to the reading rooms, searched the catalogue for what I was after, and handed my order in at the desk. All those precious documents weren’t just out on show.

Then I waited.

The smell of history

At last out it came. A roll recording lands held and confiscated following the revolt against Edward II in 1321-2. This huge parchment roll, which I had to hold open with special weights, was completely unique. Nearly seven hundred years old, never copied and certainly never published. I could smell the past rising up to meet me, rich and warm and fading as an autumn afternoon. I imagined a medieval scribe scratching away at those very pages to set these details on the record.

Terribly dull details.

Because that’s the thing. The interesting stuff had been published. This document was of value to historians poking into specific corners of history, willing to spend hours reading for just a few new details, but…

Well, lets just say that I never finished that PhD.

Our glorious past

I’m glad I tried the PhD. I’m very glad I went down to Kew and got to spend time pouring over those wonderful old documents in their reading room. There’s a thrill to touching history that you can’t get from other things.

While I’m a big advocate for going digital on reading in general, I’m glad we still have space for the older ways. And if you ever have reason to go to an archive like that one then seize the opportunity. It’s worth every moment.


Photo by Jim Linwood via Flickr creative commons