Free Fiction: Reply To All

As is usual (by now) for the last Wednesday of the month, here’s a short piece of flash fiction for free. It will come down at the end of the week, so enjoy it while it lasts.


REPLY TO ALL

Cain’s laptop beeped at him. Damn thing! Why does it always do this when I’m in a hurry?

He glanced at the screen. The mouse pointer, frozen, the little hourglass stuck mid-twirl.

He banged the keyboard with the palm of his hand. Useless. Not even a clatter on the soft rubberised keys.

Damn thing.

Footsteps in the corridor outside. Mr Gillman’s – coming to check up on him.

No – conversation. Dana with Mr Gillman. The office manager’s slinky voice soothed through the drywall partition, words not needed to raise the hairs on the back of Cain’s hands.

Keep ‘im talking, Dana. Good girl.

Cain’s phone blasted out the first bars of Rihanna’s Milkshake. He shoved the chair back and fumbled in the pocket of his jacket on the coat-rack behind him, damp hands rustling in the nylon. The ringtone, again, bouncing off the walls of the office.

Shut up shut up shut up!

Dana, out in the corridor, laughing now, maybe at something Mr Gillman said.

Mr Gillman? Making Dana laugh? He’s not the type. Come to think of it, Mr Gillman wasn’t too loud either. Maybe he’d seen the tape.

The phone jingled again just as Cain got his hands around it. Not now!

He clicked the battery out, dropped both parts into the rustling pocket, wheeled back across the carpet to the laptop.

Still frozen.

Damn damn damn!

Soft voices in the corridor, Dana and Mr Gillman, moving away from his door into the general buzz of the open-plan office beyond, the clacket of printers and faxes and drinks machines and casual conversation that the file on his laptop – when the damn thing woke up – was going to bring to cold silence.

The fan on the laptop whirred, and the footage loaded.

YouTube.

Full colour.

An email, Reply To All.

Cain hit “Send”.


And one final plug for the Goodreads Giveaway of SHADOWBOX, which ends on July 31. There are five copies of the paperback to be won.

Published in: on July 30, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Heatwave Hiatus

Yep, there’s a heatwave in the UK at the moment. I blame that for my lack of progress editing my next novel.Far away in a book

Wait, I hear you say. Haven’t you just finished editing – and publishing – a novel?

Yes, yes. SHADOWBOX and all that. Drove me temporarily 1832-nuts, and it’s still not over as the Goodreads Giveaway ends on 31 July.

However, last year was the year I wrote three novels.

I published one last year (the Vita Tugwell authored Boom Town) and so far this year I’ve edited and published Shadowbox.

That leaves the third one I wrote last year.

Ideally I’d have published it before I even began writing Shadowbox but, d’you know what? I just wanted to get on with the writing.

Now I’ve had a look – a proper, in-depth look – at the remaining work to be done on this third one, I reckon I might just get it finished and published before the Autumnal Equinox.

If I get my skates on.

And like the procrastination that delayed the publication of Shadowbox, I only have myself to blame if it’s late.

Heatwave or not.

Published in: on July 23, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Procrastination II

I don’t know if he has a specific name for the phenomenon, but Jasper fforde at Crimefest 2014 mentioned something about the possibilities of time travel to muck about with the present. I’ll get to details in a minute, but I think he’s onto something.

His premise, if I remember correctly, is that something – anything – you might imagine, will be invented some time in the future, along with the aforementioned time travel.Why must edits be so easy to put off?

And all you have to do is imagine using the thing you’ve imagined, knowing that someone in the future will invent it, and will go back in time to share this invention with history.

It’s a peculiar sort of logic that only works within Mr fforde’s particular Universe.

But I think many of us who write novels have a similar sort of logic going on with a Work In Progress…

We can imagine the finished work, shining/matte cover and gilded spine (or perfectly-formatted ebook). And because we can imagine what the novel will be like, we forget that there’s a lot of work involved before we get to that hold-it-in-your-hand moment.

I am having something of an episode of this phenomenon at the moment…

I blame the macaroons.

Published in: on July 16, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (4)  
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There was a wee bit of chaos

Ladies & Gentlemen, an allegory from the Day Job…

When I took up my first job in the corporate world, I was involved in a disastrous recruitment campaign that lasted nearly a year. At the end of the process, the whole team agreed on a number of things:

1. The campaign had not gone professionally.Spot the cow! Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), antiquary Engraving by James Sayers, published in 1803 Gallery: National Portrait Gallery, London

2. It happened, but it wasn’t managed.

3. Only through hard work and overtime had we grabbed back the initiative and completed the campaign, loose ends and all.

4. There was a wee bit of chaos.

Not what one expects from a major high-street company with billions of spondulicks on its balance sheet and a household name recognised across the nation.

So my boss and I, we sat down and analysed the whole process:

  • Volume of work.
  • Time to do it.
  • An IT system before Windows.
  • Only me, too, while everyone else was on the road.

We sat down and I typed a completed application form into the non-Windows system, stopwatch ticking. Worked out how many I could do in an hour before I had to take a break. Worked out how many hours I’d need at that pace to enter 2,000 applications.

Even worked out how long it would take me to print off, sign and fold 1,800 rejection letters and stuff them into envelopes. (I wore a groove in my thumbnail folding the flippin’ things.)

We worked out when we needed to start each phase of the process, and how long it would take.

Where we could start early, to free up contingency time for those things most likely to overrun, because they would, and leave room in the timetable for catching up. Space for dealing with circumstances beyond anyone’s control.Letter opener and hand

When we needed to have 2,000 envelopes on order for those rejection letters, and how many we might lose to someone else “borrowing” a few dozen. A couple of boxes of paper, too, with the embossed header and the HR Director’s name and the company logo because these things matter.

And how we would cope if things went horribly wrong, maybe with the pre-Windows IT system or something beyond our control.

Did I mention this campaign’s deadline was 31 December?

That’s right, just when the rest of the world was painting the town red at the office Xmas party, me and my boss were frantically typing application forms into an ancient computer system before the holiday season shut down the building.

But we did it, and had a few days off, and then the application forms were sifted and the rejection letters sent out and the interviews scheduled.An ice-skating scene, as seen in a print titled

In late January.

I ended up fielding phone calls from Senior Managers stranded in snowbound airports, needing a hotel and a cancelled flight and a whole host of rescheduled interviews. Usually at five o’clock, just as I was going home.

Did I panic?

No.

Not me in the snowbound airport, was it? And I had contingencies built into the process from start to end.

(Did I mention we won an award for this?)

Because we’d done the process analysis, and had productivity data from the Campaign Gone Wrong, I could forecast – anticipate – how long I needed to catch up, how many people I needed to help me, and what I could delay doing until I’d dealt with the emergency.

Estimate, with accuracy, the best use of my time and resources.

Do you have to muck up to learn that?

No, you can do it while working successfully.

It’s the best way, BTW. Less panic at snowbound airports.

Fewer sackings, too.

But you have to do the process at least once before you understand – really, deeply understand – everything involved.

A bit like writing a novel.

Published in: on July 9, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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4 Things I Learned Last Month

Phew! I’m glad that’s over. Back in April I made the decision to publish my latest novel, SHADOWBOX, at the end of June.Reading plenty of books

I also declared, quite publicly in the comments over on The Business Rusch: Blogs, Guest Blogs, and Blog Interviews (Discoverability Part 9), that I was going to ‘promote’ the novel by blogging about it for a month, every day.

Once I made those commitments I had to follow through (or risk disappointing myself). The novel was written, the next story was begging to be written, and I wanted to add content to the blog.

Of course, there was the usual flim-flam to go with publishing a book – cover art, interior design, copy edits, formatting, uploading it to the various vendor sites, checking it, doing it again, back and forth. Adherence to a strict-ish schedule helped.

And then I had to write the blimmin’ blog posts, didn’t I?

So, what have I learned by doing the month-long series of blog posts on Shadowbox?

First: consistent, daily, thematic blogging is hard work. I take my hat off to those who manage this on a regular basis, such as Terri Windling over on Myth and Moor with her fantastic Into The Woods series.

Second: I can do it. Of course, I’d rather be writing new fiction, but by doing this (just the once!) I’ve proved to myself that I have the wherewithal to come up with lengthy blog posts on a specific subject, akin to a regular journalism schedule.

My first job interview when I left school was for a trainee reporter job on the local newspaper, and I wasn’t sure back then I’d be able to consistently produce words on deadline. Now, of course, I know I can.

Third: writing thematic posts in a series is actually a lot of fun. I enjoyed looking up the snippets embedded in each post – the images, the quotes, the often-obscure websites I could link to where others take the subject deeper than I wanted to express in my post.

I particularly loved the discovery of the Howard Carter Archive at the Griffith Institute of the University of Oxford, and Shelley at the Bodleian Library.

Fourth: I’d rather be writing novels.

And on that note, I’m off to begin the first draft of a new novel.

Last year I wrote three novels. Can I do it this year? I have a humungous amount of catching-up to do…

P.S. Normal posting schedule – once a week, on a Wednesday – will be resumed until I have another novel to push.

Shadowbox: Launch Party!

Shadowbox, a novel: Every man has an enemy within him...As this series of posts draws to an end, I’m happy to announce that SHADOWBOX is available in ebook and paperback. The Shadowbox page has links to all the major ebook retailers.

SHADOWBOX is now available online as an ebook from Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords.

In due course you’ll be able to find it on Nook, iPhone and other online retailers in countries around the world. SHADOWBOX is also available as a paperback through Amazon and direct from CreateSpace.

To celebrate what is, in effect, a virtual launch, I treated myself to a virtual launch party. As the novel is set in both Paris and London, I thought it only fitting that I celebrate with a tasty bit of both:

Meantime London Porter and French macaroons to celebrate the launch of my latest novel, SHADOWBOX!

Meantime London Porter and French macaroons to celebrate the launch of my latest novel, SHADOWBOX!

Before I go back to my writing den, however, there are a few things I’d like to say.

First off, thank you for coming with me on this journey. It’s been exhilarating. I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of 1832 as much as I enjoyed discovering the many fascinating sites I used for source material, links and artwork.

Second, here’s a couple of bonus items for you:

1. Over on Smashwords, there’s a free offer on the ebook of SHADOWBOX for the entire month of July 2014. Use the voucher number: QQ52K when prompted. Reviews would be appreciated, but not expected.

2. I’m running a GoodReads Giveaway of SHADOWBOX in paperback. This giveaway ends on 31 July 2014 with the books sent out ASAP after that date. Again, reviews would be gratefully received if you’re one of the lucky ones. There are five sets to be won.

3. If you’d like a paperback for a 50% discount off the usual price of USD17.99, go to CreateSpace and use the code ZFEHUZVG when prompted. (I don’t know how this will affect the price for those of us outside the USA – sorry!) You may have to set up an account to access this offer. The discount code will expire on 31 July 2014.

Now, I’ll go back to my normal posting schedule of once a week, on a Wednesday, while I concentrate on writing the next novel. This one’s going to be fun.


This is the last post in the SHADOWBOX series. A full index of the posts can be found on the SHADOWBOX page.

Those of you who want to find out at least some of what Louis did next are recommended to pick up ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE RIVER and THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. In due course I’ll combine these as an omnibus edition and you’ll be able to read the whole life of Louis Beauregard from start to finish.

P.S. There is no doubt that Louis Beauregard returns to England: he’s there as an old man in 1888, in THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. But the adventures he may have after SHADOWBOX are yet to be told…

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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Shadowbox: Adieu

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin; his control
Stops with the shore; upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths…
– Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

-

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees…
…for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the paths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
– Tennyson, Ulysses

Jim Morrison's Grave, (c) Patti Smith

Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris; photograph by Patti Smith.

The end of laughter and soft lies
Jim Morrison, one more poet in Paris

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Shadowbox: All Roads Lead To The River

The Great Sphinx (and) Pyramids of Girzeh (Giza) July 17, 1839, by David Roberts.

The Great Sphinx (and) Pyramids of Girzeh (Giza) July 17, 1839, by David Roberts.

This short story was written after I published THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, but a couple of years before I began to write SHADOWBOX.

An additional episode in the life of Louis Beauregard, this fits somewhere in between both novels, and I haven’t changed any details within the short story since I wrote it.

I do wonder whether it still makes sense in light of what I know about Louis now.

However, as one of the first short stories I wrote in the Cuckoo Club series, it’s one of my favourites and one I’m still pleased with. Let me know what you think.

The sample below should give you a flavour of the story. Details of how to get the whole story for free are at the bottom of the post, after the sample.

P.S. AUTHOR’S NOTES

Louis encounters two real-life 19th Century explorers within the short story:

     John PETHERICK: (1813 – 15 July 1882), Welsh traveller, trader and consul in East Central Africa. In 1845 he entered the service of Mehemet Ali, and was employed in examining Upper Egypt, Nubia, the Red Sea coast and Kordofan.

AND

     Charles Piazzi SMYTH: (3 January 1819 – 21 February 1900), was Astronomer Royal for Scotland from 1846 to 1888, well known for many innovations in astronomy and his pyramidological and metrological studies of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Both characters are used fictitiously for the purpose of the story. Their real lives were so much more interesting than anything I imagined.


 

ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE RIVER

The night before he first beheld the Nile, Louis Beauregard slept in the Libyan desert on the plateau above Giza, tense with anticipation, listening to dogs whining far off in the darkness under the crackling stars.

The climb was slow, fascinating and dangerous. Now and then one of the couriers would cry out a warning as a tiny black serpent skated across the stone and wriggled like a cut limb into the safety of some dark crevice.

Winged beetles erupted from the cracks between the stones and hustled into the hot air in front of them, their iridescent wing-cases blinking like the spirits of the dead. Scorpions came out from under overhanging ledges with the onset of shade to bask in the heat pouring from the surface of the blocks, and they scurried off at the men’s approach, or froze in combat pose, eyes hard as garnets.

Louis felt as if the whole edifice was crawling with poisonous life.

The group stopped to rest and Louis sat carefully on the edge of a stone block to gaze out across the river. He actually shivered.

The higher they climbed, the more exposed he felt. A mile away the great Nile crept, lazy as a glutted crocodile. It frightened him.

It showed him his insignificance on the face of the world and it frightened him. He shook his head, speculating on the strength of the Pharaohs who had stamped their feet on this nation for so long. He felt awe for the god-men of old.

The man whose tomb lay behind him was a giant to have conquered such a place.

(c) Lee McAulay 2011

Hoskins MSS 1.139, © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford. Pyramid-field of Gîza, George Alexander Hoskins

Hoskins MSS 1.139, © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford. Pyramid-field of Gîza, George Alexander Hoskins


ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE RIVER is available for free on Smashwords by using the discount code: ZY43B. It’s also available on Amazon, Kobo and Nook, but you’ll have to fork out for it there.


Next: the last post in the SHADOWBOX series: Adieu.

Journey’s End.

Published in: on June 29, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (4)  
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Shadowbox: Anubis Awaits

The Questioner of the Sphinx (1863) by Elihu Vedder

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies…
Shelley, Ozymandias

For centuries, the lure of Egypt on the European imagination has been strong.

Giovanni Belzoni had excavated the tomb of Seti I and broke his way into the Great Pyramid of Khufu to leave his name in foot-high letters on the wall of the Great Chamber.

Lord Elgin had moved on from looting Greece to bring back the treasures of the Acropolis of Athens, and persuaded the government (of which he was part) to build the British Museum in which to display his ill-gotten gains.

Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon frieze, east pediment (British Museum). Image at wikipedia commonsPart of this was the direct result of the Napoleonic Wars, still resonating across the French Empire almost twenty years later in 1832.

Bonaparte may have ended his rule in ignominy after the Retreat From Moscow, but he took the French Armies across north Africa before he over-reached himself. The prize in his cross-hairs was Egypt.

The greatest prize in all history.

Inside the temple of Aboo-simbel by David Roberts (1848)

Inside the temple of Aboo-simbel by David Roberts (1848)

Egypt remained semi-autonomous [within the Ottoman Empire] under the Mamluks until it was invaded by the French forces of Napoleon I in 1798. After the French were defeated by the British, a power vacuum [led to] a three-way power struggle that ended in 1805 when Muhammad Ali Pasha siezed control. – Wikipedia

But Europeans had already gone crazy for the place (much like we did in 1922, when Howard Carter announced the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun).

The extent of the extinct Egyptian civilisation was one attraction.

The mystery of its fall was another.

How could an nation, so great that it split the Roman Empire into civil war, just… disappear?

The key to unlocking this mystery lay in the untranslatable hieroglyphics which festooned every surface of the ancient Egyptian landscape.

Jean-Francois Champollion, by Leon Cogniet (1831). Champollion is buried in Paris, in the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery

Jean-Francois Champollion, by Leon Cogniet (1831)

Untranslatable, that is, until the arrival of Jean-Francois Champollion, polymath, genius and Frenchman.

Using classic code-breaking technique, Champollion took the Ptolemaic Greek texts on the Rosetta Stone and applied those translations to the hieroglyphics.

Genius.

Other Egyptologists followed. Soon, the entire fascinating history of Ancient Egypt began to emerge from the pictures. History was rewritten.

Mythology, too.

The kings of Ancient Egypt strode out from the statues and tomb carvings and into popular culture with the same pervasive assurance as quack medicines and elixirs with exotic-sounding names and ground-up mummies listed in the ingredients.

And the gods of Ancient Egypt found new life breathed into their stories, like the new life breathed into Osiris in his voyage through the underworld.

Rebirth.

So sacred to the Ancient Egyptians it became the keystone of the Osiris Myth, their earliest and most primitive gospel.

From the watercolours and drawings by George Alexander Hoskins (1832) in the Archive of the Griffith Institute, University of OxfordSo sacred that each pharaoh became the living embodiment of Osiris, guaranteeing the return of the Nile floods to feed the population in a re-enactment of the deity’s sacrifice and regeneration, risking the wrath of the goddess if he should fail.

The sacred king.

Le Roi Sacré.

Just like Louis Beauregard, Consort to the Last Rhinemaiden.

“The boat of the dying sun god Ra, tacking down the western sky to the dark river that runs through the underworld from west to east… will tomorrow reappear, bearing a once again youthful, newly reignited sun. Or, …a vast motionless globe of burning gas, around which this planet rolls like a pellet of dung propelled by a kephera beetle. Take your pick… but be willing to die for your choice.” – Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates

Watercolour drawing from Hypostile Hall (1895) by Howard Carter (c) Griffith Institute, Oxford University


Next: the penultimate post in the SHADOWBOX series: All Roads Lead To The River.

And journey’s end draws nigh.

Shadowbox: Men of Steam

At the time I set SHADOWBOX, the lines between science, industry and other disciplines were less rigid than now.George Stephenson, father of the railway

Perhaps because the people whose names have come down through history attached to new discoveries came from a limited set of the population, it seems that specialisation back then was uncommon.

Probably a wrong assumption on my part.

My school education (this being in Scotland) focused heavily on the great men of the Industrial Revolution, such as:

Robert Stephenson Trust - an early railway train

  • and, most peculiarly to my upbringing, Henry Bell (who built the first steam-boat and also designed the town nearest my childhood home  – you can’t walk along the sea front without passing the Henry Bell monument, a conceit based on Cleopatra’s Needle).

But the 19th century had a whiff of change in the air which was nothing to do with factories and steam engines.

Charles Lyell, in real life rather than the character I borrow for my novel, was deeply involved with geology. He never wavered to other pursuits, unlike his good friend Roderick Impey Murchison, who only took up geology on the instigation of the aforementioned Humphry Davy.

Lyell’s geology, like that of Murchison and James Hutton, began to provide hard evidence that the planet was far, far older than Biblical suggestions. In 1832 there was yet no outright declaration, but the idea of evolution was on its way.

HMS Beagle, plans thereof. Links to the HMS Beagle project, raising funds to build a replica of Darwin's HMS BeagleHis great On The Origins Of Species a mere spark in his imagination, the young Charles Darwin set off on HMS Beagle with a copy of Lyell’s treatise in his hand luggage (and made copious notes in the text during his voyage).

In 1832, the main proponent of natural selection was a dead Frenchman: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His Histoire naturelle had broken the ground that Darwin so thoroughly exploited.Lamarck's collection - Liasse n°6 CISTINEAE - VIOLACEAE - CANELLACEAE - BIXACEAE

This defloration of Old Testament dogma didn’t go unchallenged. Men of the cloth explored their parish artefacts with vigour, discovering to their dismay that their little corner of Christendom had been the home of many prehistoric Europeans.

Avebury, Stonehenge, Silbury Hill and every other prehistoric bump in the grass had its bones dug up and examined. Aubrey Burl and William Stukely had already seen to that.

The menhirs of France had long been Christianised, and in Brittany where the serried ranks of Carnac stretch over the boggy hills you can pray in the church built over the stones. (You can also kip in the long barrow if you can find it in the dark – but it’s near the road, and a bit noisy, and the roof leaks. [Yes, I did.])

St Just menhirs, Brittany, France - at Megalithia.comFuelling this desire to explore the past and explain both sides of the evolution argument was a new freedom: travel.

Giovanni Belzoni headed for Egypt and the banks of the Nile, while Mungo Park roamed south to seek the source of the Niger.

Garibaldi, who makes a brief and unhistoric appearance in my novel, captained a ship trading at Taganrog on the Black Sea by the mouth of the Volga.

St Mikhail Church, Taganrog. A handsome-looking city. No, I've never been.Men sought the source of the Nile; the course of the Mississippi; the ghost rivers of the Australian interior, such as the Todd River, which flow into nothingness and die.

Other men sought the mystical truth about great rivers, not just their geological basis, sparring in the spiritual struggle for the soul of the 19th century.

And in SHADOWBOX, one of those men is Louis Beauregard.


Next post in the series: Anubis Awaits.

Because this journey draws near to its end…

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