Grappling With History and Tradition

The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

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

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

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

This time is different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Writing About Writing

Author wielding a pile of his books and grinning.

It’s a busy week by my standards, as two articles about my work have sprung up in the past few days.

First, there’s an interview about my upcoming novella Ashes of the Ancestors over at the Scifi and Fantasy Network. I had a fun time talking about writing life, history, & the literary importance of Winnie the Pooh.

Second, I’ve written an article about ghostwriting for Canadian genre magazine On Spec. This is the article that my previous Q&A was leading to, and provides a more detailed and coherent dive into what it means to be a ghostwriter in the modern market. It covers the nature of the work and how to get into it, so if that’s something you’re curious about, then check it out.

And if, after all of that, you’d like to see more from me, Ashes of the Ancestors is out in just a few weeks. It’s a fantasy story about memory, empire, and grappling with the past, and you can find links to preorder it over here.

A Ghostwriting Q&A

A ghost reading ghost stories.

After a decade working as a ghostwriter, I take a lot of what I do for granted. So when I was asked to write an article about this work, I realised that I didn’t know what to say. I needed to find out what outsiders find interesting about this strange craft.

Fortunately, that’s easy research. I took to Mastodon and Twitter looking for questions, and quickly got them. The article will be up soon on another site, and I’ll link to it. But in the meantime, for the sake of posterity, here’s the ghostwriting QA I did along the way. A few questions have been edited together for brevity, and this isn’t my slickest work, but if you’ve ever wondered how ghostwriting works, then hopefully you’ll find this of interest…

Q:
How do you find “the voice”? Be it a brand, or another writer, what’s the process in learning their style? Also, how do you lose that voice to write something different

A:
I mostly find the voice through reading the client’s work, looking for patterns in their writing and distinctive features. The ticks I hate most are often the ones their readers love, & that I should imitate.

Sometimes for business writing it’s about reading competitors too. I’m crafting the voice the client wants, not the one they have.

And the real dirty secret of this, some people don’t have very distinctive styles. They follow familiar patterns for their genre/industry. That makes matching the style very easy, because there isn’t much of one.

Q:
I’d be interested to know how much of yourself (your own personality, interests, opinions) you find yourself drawing upon, and whether doing so seems OK or something to suppress. Also, how do you “let go”?

A:
This depends on the project. I’m more likely to get a job if it’s relevant to my existing knowledge & experience, & then drawing on my interests is part of the job. Both for that & for other projects, using things I’m interested in can lead to more passionate & informed writing.

But sometimes I just have to ignore my own tastes. I have clients whose books hold no interest for me, but their readers love them. At that point, my job is to set myself aside & write what those readers want, even if I think they have terrible taste!

As for letting go, take a deep breath and think of the money. It helps that this is a substitute for my day job, not my own creative writing, which I still have time for. Bitter experience has taught me to detach myself better from the work, because I’m the writer not the author, & the client has the right to use the text how they want. I’ve still sometimes winced at edits I don’t like, but then I let go & move on to the next page.

Q:
If you have ideas, victories, strokes of genius, unique and cunning plot devices, how do you stay dispassionate about someone else consistently getting the by-line?

A:
I’ve got no shortage of ideas, the problem is finding time to write them. So I save the best ones for myself, & that’s enough. Most of the time, the ideas I like best are ones that wouldn’t suit my clients & their readers anyway, & the stories they’re after aren’t ones I want my name on.

Q:
I guess mostly if you regret that you can’t tell people about certain lines or characters you’ve created that you adore and are proud of, but can’t claim as your own.

A:
Mostly I’m OK with that, because I keep my favourite ideas for myself. It helps that my clients often want the sorts of protagonists that I don’t like, so I don’t get attached. But I’ve had one or two side characters that I’ve got fond of, where it would be nice to tell people about them.

Q:
I’m interested in the how and where? Like how did you end up doing ghost writing? Where do you find the jobs? Are the schedules tighter than with other writing jobs? Do you deal with an editor directly or just hand in a MS that’s unedited to the middle person?

A:
I got into it through a mix of experience & bloody mindedness. I’d done a lot of business writing in another job, & sold some short stories in my spare time, so I knew I could write, but not whether I could make a living off it. I started bidding on small, poorly paid projects on hiring sites like Upwork, got ratings & reviews for those jobs, which let me get slightly better gigs, which over the months & years turned into things that pay well. Bidding on projects where I could use my existing experience & education was crucial, as it let me write with authority, stand out from the crowd, & do good work from the start.

I mostly find work through freelance hiring sites, though sometimes clients recommend me to others. Professional networking helps. I also got work once from someone who found my business website, but only once – this internet thing is overrated.

The schedules can be very tight. I sometimes write a draft of a novel each month for six to eight month stretches, with articles on the side.

Usually I just hand the draft to the client when it’s done, & they edit or hand it to their editor. I have occasionally worked directly with the client’s editor, & once worked on a project where the editor was editing a book I hadn’t finished yet, creeping up on me chapter by chapter through Google docs.

Q:
OK, here’s a question: what do you do when the person for whom you are ghost writing is clearly spinning you a pack of lies?

A:
I’ve never helped write an autobiography, so I don’t know how I’d handle it there.

The closest I’ve come to this was working for a cryptocurrency startup, before I learned about what a toxic garbage fire crypto is (I wouldn’t take that work now). As the job went along, it slowly dawned on me how much of what they were saying was hype & bullshit. I trod a careful line to stay honest while trying to stick to their narrative, & fortunately they ran out of real money to pay me before I had to say “too far, I won’t write this”.

Q:
Apart from that, what comes to mind is whether clients are hands-off after picking a ghostwriter or get more involved in needing to approve the text and/for asking for revisions.

A:
Depends on the client and my relationship with them. Some just leave me to it, some give regular feedback & direction as the chapters roll in. I often don’t see the final version, so I couldn’t say how many just accept what I give them without a few tweaks, but I don’t think many make big changes.

The oddest one (not in a bad way) was when I was part of the team producing stories for a non-existent author. We worked in Google docs, & I had notifications coming in when the editor made changes or comments to what I’d written. I could see them creeping up a few chapters behind me even as I wrote.

Q:
How did you get into it? Are the courses and classes I constantly see advertised worth it?

A:
I can’t advise on the courses and classes, as I’ve never taken them.

As for how I got into it, see above.

Q:
How does the pressure weigh up against your own writings?

A:
There’s more pressure time-wise, which means I get stuff done. That’s been good for improving my discipline as a writer.

There’s less pressure to write something bold, new, & exciting, because that’s seldom what my clients want, & because I’m not competing with other fiction writers for the attention of editors & agents.

Q:
Is there a minimum/maximum amount of input from the client you require/prefer?

A:
I prefer more input, as it means I’m more likely to write what they actually want, which avoids disputes later. But I’ve spun a whole novel out of a three-line brief, so actual requirements are low.

Q:
Is the connection to the story/world/characters as intimate as your own stuff? How do you prevent/manage bleed over inyour own work?

A:
The connection’s seldom as intimate – these aren’t my characters, even if I created them, they’re not designed to appeal to me, so it’s easier to let go.

As for bleed over, the sorts of stories my clients want are different enough from mine that I don’t think anything’s slipped form one into another. I approach them with a different mindset. I expect I’ve repeated a few notable phrases, because I forgot I’d already used a cool collection of words that pops into my brain, but at the macro scale, they’re very separate.

Q:
My question would be how one works with someone who has disagreeable views or problematic ones? Is one able to pick and choose, or are contracts flexible enough to avoid this?

A:
To some extenet, I pick and choose. For example, I don’t write for cryptocurrency people anymore, because of what I’ve learned about that tech.

Aside from that, I had a client once where hints of unpleasant views peeked around the edges of the project brief. I wrote the document within the boundaries of what I was comfortable with, submitted & got paid, & braced myself to say I was too busy next time he approached me. Never heard from him again.

That aside, I couldn’t ghostwrite fiction without sometimes having to write tropes I dislike, especially when it comes to the implications of gender roles. Unfortunately, that’s what some audiences & subgenres expect. I have lines I won’t cross, & I write these stories as progressively as I can get away with, drawing attention to the bullshit where I can. And the less problematic the client’s stories, the more likely I’ll work for them again.

Q:
How do you structure your rates? Did it take you a long time to be able to accurately estimate a project? What training did you receive? Do you only ghostwrite or do you offer other services too?

A:
My training is a mix of business writing experience from a past job & fiction writing experience I got in my spare time. No formal fiction qualifications, just a lot of time listening to Writing Excuses. The most relevant non-fiction training was the English element in my primary teacher training & on-the-job advice by a manager in a complaints team I worked in.

My rates depend on the structuring of the job. I have an hourly rate for research, planning and revision work, a per-word rate for fiction writing, & a different per-word rate for non-fiction writing. I put the rates up regularly, when I can get away with it, but sometimes accept lower rates when I need the work. If I have to provide an estimate for a whole project, it’s based on projected wordcount & the extent of planning, research, & revisions. Plus the inevitable sprinkling of guesswork.

I mostly only do writing for hire, which includes ghostwriting. Very occasionally I do editing or revisions, but I prefer writing when I can get it.

Q:
What do you like about ghostwriting, what kind of writers would you recommend it for?

A:
The best question!

I love writing as an activity, & ghostwriting lets me do that for a day job, instead of sitting in an office or a shop or something like that. The craft is the joy, & it’s made me better at my own writing.

I’ve also learned, from doing this, that I love working freelance. In an office, I had to tolerate the bullshit of people higher up the hierarchy. Now, if I don’t like working with someone, I just say I’m too busy for their work. Or if I need the money too much to say that, then the fact that I’ve made that choice makes the bullshit bearable.

I’d recommend it for writers who can sit down and force themselves to write when they need to. If you’re the sort of writer who can do that, then it’s a great way to develop your writing muscles. But if your writing comes to you in bursts of inspiration or brief flashes after which you need to go let your mind rest & the subconscious do its thing, then this isn’t for you.

Writing is exercise for the brain. It’s strengthening, but it’s also tiring. The merits of this work depend upon how you balance those two things.

#

So there we go, a bunch of Qs and some rough As. I’ve written a more polished and insightful article based partly on this, which I’ll link to when it goes live. And if you’ve got a question that I haven’t answered here, feel free to ask me on Mastodon or Twitter, I’m always happy to talk about my work.

How I Write a Commando Comic

My latest issue of Commando is out today, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about how I create a script. Buckle in, this is going to be one of my longer posts…

Inspiration

Desert Vultures cover art by Neil Roberts

My inspiration for Commando comics can come from a bunch of different places. TV shows, larp events, conversations on Twitter, things I studied at university, these have all fed into issues. Most come from plugging together more than one source.

The immediate inspiration for Desert Vultures was the 80th anniversary of Operation Compass, the first big Allied push of the Western Desert Campaign. Anniversaries are handy things for Commando, as they’re a good way to hook people into an issue. Sometimes my editor at Commando will send me a list of anniversaries they’d like to cover, and I pitch to those. Sometimes I spot an opportunity and suggest it myself.

My biggest source of inspiration, as I recently discussed in a video interview, is history books. I read a lot of them, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for other writing projects. Back when I was writing for War History Online, I read a lot about the Second World War, which meant that I already had ideas for how to look at the Western Desert campaign.

When looking for a Commando story, I’m often looking for a conflict between people on the same side, not just a fight against the enemy. In-group conflicts often lead to more interesting stories, as characters argue and compete with each other – think about all the twists and tensions in Game of Thrones. I also like to cover the international nature of the Allied war effort. Fortunately, bringing people from different backgrounds together often causes conflict, so that became the hook for Desert Vultures – French and British officers forced to work together despite their differences, one of them rigidly rule-bound, the other relaxed and improvisational. Could they achieve a shared goal?

Pitching

Once I’ve got my inspiration, I write a pitch. This sets out the story in two ways – first as a three-sentence synopsis, giving the setting, the main character, and the hook for their story. Then a page-by-page breakdown of what will happen.

When I’m writing the pitch, my thinking is shaped by two things – the characters and the plot. As Robert McKee points out in his excellent book Story, these two aren’t separate, but it can still be useful to talk about them that way.

The character is the core of a Commando story. Readers have to care about the people they’re spending time with. That means making someone who’s interesting to Commando readers, and who will drive the story forward. There are dozens of different ways to achieve this, and I always consider the balance of competence, proactivity, and likability, as recommended by the team at Writing Excuses. Most importantly, the protagonist has to want something, to keep them motivated.

The nature of Commando does a lot to define the comic’s protagonists. They have to be involved in military activity, usually during the world wars. They need to have a mission or objective, something that propels the story forward, whether it’s saving lives, sinking a submarine, or perhaps escaping occupied territory. For Desert Vultures, it’s a specific military mission – finding and destroying a hidden Italian base.

The story is then driven by this mission. What does the protagonist have to do to achieve their objective? Who stands in the way? What setbacks do they face? I structure the broad strokes of the story around this, then flesh it out with cool details, often found in those books I mentioned. Give the plot a few twists, and I’ve soon got 63 bullet points, one for every page.

I send my pitch to my editor at Commando, then wait. After an editorial meeting, they come back to me with one of three responses:

  • Yes, write it!  My favourite response, for obvious reasons.
  • No, this isn’t suitable. This one doesn’t happen often, as I have a good idea of what Commando are after, but just occasionally an idea isn’t right for them, or has already been used.
  • Yes, but… The most common response. I’ve got a good idea, but it needs refinement. This might lead to a revised pitch, or just to me making some changes as I write the script.

Writing

Once the pitch has been approved and the outline adjusted, it’s time to write. My deadline is usually two or three months ahead, but I seldom wait that long, as I love writing comic scripts. As a fulltime freelance writer, I have the flexibility to make space in my schedule, but other projects sometimes have first dibs, especially if they’re on a deadline or offering a big payment. Within a few weeks of approval, I set aside some days when my focus will be on writing my script.

Having a detailed outline makes the writing relatively quick. I don’t have to think about the broad strokes of what’s on each page, just the details. How many pictures will there be? How will one lead to another, telling a clear and coherent story? What will everyone say?

For the flow of the images, a lot of my inspiration and guidance comes from comics guru Scott McCloud. His writing on comics is phenomenal and taught me about such critical topics as transitions. A comic isn’t just a bunch of pictures, it’s what’s implied by the way you move from one to the next, and thinking about that adds a lot of complexity.

I’ve recently changed my approached to scripting. At the time I wrote Desert Vultures, I wrote everything for one page, then moved on to the next, and so on, writing the descriptions and dialogue together. I’ve recently changed to writing all the descriptions first, then going back to the start and adding the dialogue. I find that works better for getting character voices right.

I’m no artist, but I do occasionally draw at the writing stage, to help me plan out the action. The things I draw are normally seen only by me and my waste paper bin, because I’m a terrible artist. But drawing can help me work out the flow of the panels, breaking a page down into a series of distinct images, each one with its own unique elements that together tell a story. Many stick men have died brutal deaths on scrap paper battlefields to improve my Commando scripts.

Writing dialogue is a funny thing. It’s never about being realistic, but it is about sounding realistic. In real life, people um and ah, they let sentences trail off and leave things half-said. They don’t deliver snappy dialogue while they’re busy fighting for their lives. But a story requires dialogue that flows while creating the illusion of people really talking. In the case of a comic like Commando, it means dreaming up things people could say while bullets whip past their heads or they punch each other in the face. It’s a fun challenge to create that sort of dialogue without it coming out stilted.

Creating distinct voices is important too. I’m the first to admit that I don’t always manage this, but if a character’s verbal ticks and preoccupations stand out, that makes them seem more real.

But the most important thing about writing isn’t any of these technical details. It’s sitting your arse down in the chair and having the discipline to keep going, even when you’re bored or distracted. Discipline, more than anything else, is how I get a script done.

Editing

Before I send a script off, I read it over a couple more times and make edits. This is usually just proofreading, as I’ve done my story edits at the pitching stage. Sometimes it’s adding more detail to the action of an image or sharpening up a piece of dialogue. Mostly, it’s finding my typos and grammatical errors.

If I have time, I leave a day or two between writing and editing. That way I can look at the script with fresh eyes. But the brutal truth is, often I need to be moving on to my next project. Then the script just gets left until after lunch, then given that polish and sent on its way.

Out of My Hands

From that point on, my work is done. The script vanishes into the ether for months on end, only to re-emerge some time later as a fully formed comic. To me, it’s magic, but this is where the hard work happens. I could never create the amazing images that Commando’s artists come up with. You’d have to ask one of them if you want to know how that part works.

Sometimes I’ll see the cover or snippets of art as Commando HQ build buzz for a release, but I don’t see the interiors until the issue comes out. This is also the point at which I get to read editorial changes to the story – how the team at Commando have sharpened up my dialogue, expanded on descriptive panels, or adjusted the plot beats to make the story even more exciting. The thrill of seeing a new Commando is as real for me the writer as for anyone reading it.

With a script finished, it’s time to go back to the beginning. Seek inspiration. Invent a character. Craft a pitch. Sit my arse down in my chair and start work on the next issue.

The circle of writing starts again.

Building a Better Fantasy City with Ex Novo

I’ve enthused before about the joys of world-building games like Microscope and Watching the World Die. I love the way that random chance and the structure of a rule set can lead to rich, surprising places that feel organic, coherent, and interesting.

I recently needed to develop the setting for a new story, and as it was set in a city I decided to try out a game designed for this very purpose – Ex Novo by Martin Nerurkar and Konstantinos Dimopoulos.

Ex Novo is simple to play and takes only a few hours. Most importantly given recent circumstances, you can play it solo.  I was creating my city during lockdown, and while my cat does like to play with dice, he’s not so great at urban planning.

Play turned out to be pretty simple. You decide a few basic parameters, including the size and age of your settlement. Then you roll dice and check a couple of tables to determine the terrain it’s founded in and why it’s there. After that, you play a series of rounds in which you roll more dice, look up the results on tables, and add features to the map depending upon those results.

Those randomised additions might sound like a recipe for something disjointed, but that’s not how the game works. Every random choice is both specific and open to interpretation, accompanied by questions that invite you to flesh out the details. Role 325 and you’re adding a new trade route, represented by a resource on the map, but what the resource is, where it goes, who it’s traded with and how, these are all open to interpretation. Just adding that resource to the map creates a relationship between it and other parts of the city, which encourages answers that built on what came before.

It helps that the example game plays a little loose with the rules, in the interests of a better narrative. This encourages flexibility, adding extra details while benefiting from the structure the rules bring.

I’d expected this game to just create a map, but it’s more than that. It creates a history for the city, a history tied to that map. It also creates political factions and develops the conflicts between them, showing the politics and society of your city. As a writer building a setting, that’s incredibly useful for me. It means that my characters have a past to talk about and other people to interact with, enriching my writing.

But the map,  that’s the most useful thing. I don’t normally bother with a map while writing. I might sketch out where named places are compared with each other, for the sake of consistency. But this game has given me districts,  public buildings, surrounding terrain, roads, walls, and ruins. Any time my characters travel from place to place, I can look at that map and get instant, surprising inspiration about what they’ll see.

This sort of game isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you like making up stories and imagining places then it can be a great tool, and with the designers currently letting you name your own price, Ex Novo is a bargain.

The Struggle to Keep Writing

Sometimes, keeping writing is a struggle. I know all the arguments for keeping going. The ones based in passion, in professionalism, in the need to pay my bills. I know that once I start writing the words will eventually flow. I know that sometimes you’ve got to write crap and refine it into something sophisticated later. All of that is there in my head whenever I sit down at the keyboard. But some days it’s a struggle to keep going. When you’ve been locked up in the house for days without direct human contact. When your understanding and that of a client are wildly at odds. When there’s too much work or too little work or just the sort of work that’s frustrating to deal with. When you don’t want to write the thing you’re getting paid for, but the alternative is not being paid to write at all. There are more days like that at the moment. The covid-19 crisis has made the world a tougher place to deal with and that makes everything feel like a struggle. Sadly, this isn’t letting up any time soon. So acknowledge those frustrations. Recognise them. Own them. Accept that the feelings they bring are valid. Then find a way to burn off the worst of that frustration, whether it’s by blogging about it, going for a walk, or killing a hundred orcs in a computer game. And once your mental health can take it, get back into the seat and find a way to keep writing, because all the reasons to keep writing still stand.

Rats in the Rubble

Berlin, April 1945. Sergeant Nikolai Kulikov is part of the Russian army advancing into the city. When his unit is sent to clear out an apparently abandoned orphanage, they discover that the children have been left behind. Faced with enemy aggression and his own men’s indifference, can Nikolai get the children out alive?

This week sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Rats in the Rubble. It’s a story about the devastation of war, about struggling to survive, and about the power of stories. And of course, it’s also a reflection of the bits of history and culture that fascinate me.

The Battle of Berlin

This spring marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Berlin, one of the last and most destructive battles of the Second World War.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

By April 1945, Germany was on the brink of defeat. The Allies were storming across the country from both east and west. The armies of the Reich lay shattered. Its European allies, such as Italy and Finland, had long since fallen away. On the 16th of April, Berlin, which had so briefly been the capital of a huge and cruel empire, finally came under attack.

The Battle of Berlin was a vital moment, for both symbolic and practical reasons. As the capital of Germany, it held the remains of a collapsing government, its genocidal leader, and much of the grandeur of the Reich. Taking out this city would behead what remained of the German war machine while signalling the nation’s defeat.

For Germans still dedicated to the fight, this was a last stand. Children, old men, and the walking wounded took up arms. If Berlin fell then all was lost. While many in the city just wanted the war to be over, others would fight on to the end.

Desperate Germans weren’t the only reason why the fighting was so terrible. Mid-20th-century warfare was a colossally destructive business fought on an industrial scale, with high explosive bombs and shells shattering entire cities. That destruction now rained down on Berlin.

And then there were the attackers. For reasons of politics and geography, the task of capturing Berlin fell upon the Soviet Union. Its people had suffered particularly badly at the hands of Nazi-led armies. Millions had died, soldiers and civilians alike, and the great cities of the Soviet heartland had been left as shattered shells. Many in the Red Army were out for revenge and felt that the Germans deserved every awful thing that could happen.

Writing Heroism into Horror

Even at a distance of 75 years, it’s hard to write an action story set amid that destruction, given the risk of romanticising a battle in which thousands of innocent civilians were robbed, assaulted, and killed. But even in the darkest moments, there are acts of heroism, and I wanted to reflect that.

This is where Nikolai Kulikov comes in. The hero of Rats in the Rubble is an idealist. He might fight with all his strength and brutality, but he still believes in protecting the innocent, and when we realises that there are children at risk he becomes committed to looking after them.

In some ways, his heroism shines more brightly against the darkness. Rats in the Rubble shows the destruction of Berlin, from the falling bombs to the callous disregard of many in the Red Army. It’s story about surviving a moment of horror, morally as well as physically.

My Raid Story

This is one of the more compact stories I’ve told for Commando. Rather than taking place across days, weeks, or even months, the action is contained to just a few hours and a single military action – one infantry squad assaulting an old orphanage.

In terms of story structure, this is my military history take on Dredd and The Raid, two of the most tightly contained action stories on film. Just like in those movies, the protagonists have to fight their way up through a single building, confronting dangers on each floor, as they try to defeat a deadly enemy who uses the building to their advantage. It’s a style that’s well suited to the Battle of Berlin, an intense, claustrophobic conflict fought amid the buildings of a shattered city.

Parallel Stories

This is also a story I’ve used to play with comic-writing techniques.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the different ways that words and pictures can interact. One can dominate over the other, they can work together to provide meaning they couldn’t on their own, and sometimes they even duplicate each other or tell separate stories. It’s something I’ve been wanting to play with for a while, and in this story I got to do that.

There’s a section in Rats in the Rubble where the pictures and the words part ways. While a character tells a fairytale story, the images show a dark moment in his past. In a sense, it’s what McCloud would call a parallel relationship, but in another sense it’s interdependence. These apparently parallel stories together show how Kulikov views himself, how the war has touched him emotionally, and what he is trying to achieve.

It’s one of my favourite bits of script I’ve ever written, and a technique I’m hoping to play with more in the future.

The End

Because of its subject and timing, Rats in the Rubble is also about the end of the war. It’s coming out around the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when the war in Europe ended, and that’s reflected in the end of the comic itself. As I said before, this is a story about survival, and that means it gets to celebrate being alive.

That seems a suitable point to end this. Rats in the Rubble comes out on the 30th of April, when you can get it through Comixology or direct from the publishers. If you enjoy claustrophobic action thrillers then check out The Raid and Dredd, and if you’re interested in reading more about how words and pictures work together than I really recommend McCloud’s Understanding Comics – it’s an accessible and insightful discussion of how comics work.

Happy reading!

Putting Real People Into Unreal Stories

I’ve been making my friends fight each other.

It’s OK though, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Someone writing outdoors.

I quite often pick the names of characters based on people I know. The names have to come from somewhere, and scanning my social media feeds is a good way to get them quickly. Usually, I mix and match first names and surnames, rather than use one person’s full name.

Recently, I’ve taken a different approach. I put up a message on Facebook asking my friends if any of them would like characters named after them in my Commando comics. I got a lot of positive responses and started using those people in my story pitches. Some became protagonists, others villains, and many got bit parts in the stories I was developing.

This was all fine and theoretical while I was writing pitches, but now Commando have commissioned some of those stories, so I’m writing the scripts. When characters have the names of people I know, it’s hard not to picture them as those people, even if they’re very different in character. In my head, I’m making people I know fight, chase, and argue with each other.

It’s a little weird for me. I imagine it’ll be even more so for my friends when these stories are published.

Sometimes, this can work out really nicely. Years ago, I wrote a flash story featuring a character named Mantaj, after one of my friends. She never saw characters with her name in stories, and so was delighted with it. That made my day.

A lot of people get excited at having characters named after them, and as a writer that gives me an extra bit of fun. Still, it’s never going to stop being weird when I make them fight each other.

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.

Live Fast and Leave a Beautiful Story

There’s something of futility in a writer’s work.

We’re always trying to capture a moment, real or imagined, to pin it permanently into place.

But nothing lasts. Your favourite blogging site might close down. Your book might go out of print. Google could refuse access to the ideas you’ve set down in a document because they claim it breaches their terms. And in the end, the terms of all our lives are impermanent. The words we set down will turn to dust, like all of us.

That’s not an argument against trying. Taking those words to a new site, saving your notes where Google can’t steal them, laying down a novel that gives joy long after you’re gone, these are all ways of asserting our own existence, of forcing meaning on the universe, of making ourselves just a little bigger and the world just a little better. You can’t escape death, but everything else is up for grabs.

Stories told around a campfire are as valid as those etched in marble a hundred feet high. It doesn’t have to be permanent to matter, because nothing is forever.

Live fast and leave a beautiful story.