The Bones of a City

What makes us know a city inside out?

Paris, with its catacombs, the Bastille, the sexy Metro.

London: Big Ben, the Tube, Carnaby Street in the ’60s.

Vienna, high architecture and Spanish horses, the big wheel in the Prater turning slowly, forever.

All three of them underpinned by big modern sewer systems you can track The Third Man through, or a Spoonsize Boy.

The Spoonsize Boys - Illustration for Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (c) Dirk Berger at The Art of Light and Storm
The Spoonsize BoysIllustration for Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (c) Dirk Berger at The Art of Light and Storm

What makes a city so memorable – and what makes it like nothing else on earth?

I’m intrigued by this for a number of reasons. I may not be about to list them all…

First, the sheer amount of stories set in particular cities which dominate all other locations. I’ve mentioned this before.

Second, I’d like to work out how that influence is constructed. Does the foggy London of Sherlock Holmes arise from the pages of Conan Doyle, or early-morning film productions in the misty hills of 1930s Hollywood? Or even weirder, from the smogs of Edinburgh’s Old Town where Robert Louis Stevenson set Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde?

Third, once I’ve worked this out, how do I produce it in my own writing?

How do I build a city magnificent enough to carry and hold its own myths?


The question first pushed itself to the forefront of my mind in 2019, after reading Glasgow belongs to us – a Guardian article on the Alasdair Gray novel, “Lanark”.

Now, I loathed the book. I only read it after Gray died, and I finished it in much the same way I persevered with Moby Dick – read it once, so I’ll never have to read it again, and can own my loathing as a gift of that perseverance.

But in the words of Janice Galloway, who wrote the article I came across after Gray’s death, quoting from the novel itself:

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”
“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw… “Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

– from Janice Galloway’s introduction to the 2002 edition of “Lanark” [my bold]

So… I know it’s easier to set a novel in Paris, or London, or even Moscow. We have shorthand for those places already.

As a novelist, you can lift the bones of a city into your story far easier if those bones have been sorted through already by earlier novelists.

But building a new city of your own? Even one based on a real city, with added magic and mystery and myth, takes a lot of heavy lifting.

Like building a cathedral, one stone at a time, if we want those cities to exist we have to create them. On foot, from maps, from history and our bold imaginations.

Who’s up for the journey?

Market 17th Century by Apollinary Vasnetsov, painting of a busy street market in a Russian town
Market 17th Century by Apollinary Vasnetsov

This week’s links:

Capitalism by Gaslight – The Shadow Economies of 19th- Century America* (another example of a common shorthand, in this case referring to the USA, not all or any other of the Americas)

The Official Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – SPFBO – hosted by author Mark Lawrence.

Dark Roasted Blend. In case I haven’t linked here before (but maybe I have).

Published in: on May 16, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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When You Need A Little Motivation

We all need a little motivation sometimes.

When I’m stuck (okay, procrastinating), I’ll take a saunter round the blogs of the people I find most inspirational.

Even if I don’t get round to writing that day, I’ll usually find something to ponder on while I do my daily tasks, and that occasionally leads to something new – a poem, a haiku, a story idea. Here’s a few of my favourites.

Luann Udell. Way back in the mists of time, I found Luann’s blog on another platform and devoured her every post. Her little prehistoric horses drew me in. Her writing persuaded me that I had to be serious about my craft and take opportunities to develop my skills. She continues to inspire.

Luann Udell’s fabulous art!

Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A multi-award winning editor and writer in almost every genre, Kris writes with authority on the situation in both traditional publishing and self-publishing. I always find something useful in her posts, including how taking care of yourself is essential to creativity.

Terri Windling. An award-winning editor with decades in traditional publishing, and a small press published writer, Terri produces a daily blog post (Myth & Moor) with sumptuous illustrations. I’m in awe of her ability to pull together blog series (I suspect it’s the professional experience that does it) and her archived posts go back to 2008, filled with inspiration.

Don’s Maps. Resources for the study of Palaeolithic European, Russian and Australian Archaeology. I’ve linked to Don’s Maps site numerous times before – if you’re into the Palaeolithic, you’ll find hours of articles to keep you busy. There’s even a section on maps from Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series of novels.

Charles Stross. Okay, so this is one of those diversionary blogs that end up becoming a regular deep-read through the multifarious and often tricksterish comments. Stross is traditionally published and his updates on book progress serve as a reminder of how much dedication and hard graft is required to maintain a career as a successful writer, in his case near-future dystopian SF.

Who’s your favourite inspiring blogger?


And because it’s now traditional, here’s this week’s links:

The Postmen of the Peaks – postal delivery on foot across the mountainous French region of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean.

A blast from the past on Wait But Why – Why procrastinators procrastinate. Yes, reading that article also counts as procrastination, as much as me watching a horse-drawn wagon plod up the hill outside my window and wonder whether I have time to take a photograph before it’s gone (nope – procrastinated too long).

And here, Algal the Bard performs a bardcore version of Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name”. It’s (apparently) what the lute was made for…

Published in: on May 9, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Alice and the Theft Of Stonehenge

A few weeks ago I sat down to watch Professor Alice Roberts discuss the theft of Stonehenge from Wales.

You can find the programme on the BBC here.

Over the years, many theories have been put forward to explain Stonehenge. What it’s for. How it was built. Who may have built it, and with what assistance (ranging from a seafaring ancient Egyptian prince to aliens).

The programme provides evidence that the earliest part of the monument was first built in Wales, and covers some of the work to identify how the stones came to the place they are now.

There’s plenty of evidence from the archaeological record that trade existed between Wales and Salisbury Plain, so we suspect that the communities knew each other. But there must have been significant valuables to transfer from one area to the other. It isn’t as if the places are first in line to connect.

It’s a sensitive question, but: In prehistoric Britain, did the trade between the coast and the plain include the trade in stolen people?

We have the notion that the pre-Bronze Age Britons lived a reasonably peaceful life. No evidence survives that wars happened between tribes in the Stone Age. Why would it, we ask, when the land was near-empty?

Maybe the near-empty land hides a secret that the nomads of our prehistoric forests wanted to keep to themselves.

We’ve seen this in modern times, in the deserts of the Kalahari, where the San people withdrew from the advance of pastoral newcomers until the life they lived was scraped bare of superfluous possessions, yet still their culture persisted.

cave painting of human figures and animal figures by san bushmen
“The oldest peoples in the world, going back to perhaps 60,000 years… [the San] have genetic traces that no one else in the world has, that put them at the root of the human tree – we are related to them, but they are not as closely related to us” – The Bradshaw Foundation

Maybe this is what happened in early Britain. It wasn’t as if there were no forests left in 2500BC.

Some people withdrew into the forests, and others took their place, with picks and hoes and bags of grain to sow in newly-dug fields.

And once the land was settled, ownership steps in. You build big monuments to say you own the place. If you don’t have building materials, you beg, steal or borrow them from somewhere else.

So the most urgent question about the bluestones of Stonehenge is not “How?” but “Why?”

Why move a stone circle – the bluestone megaliths, each weighing between 2 and 3 tons – 195 miles from West Wales to Salisbury Plain?

There’s plenty of stone in the Salisbury area. The massive sarsen trilithons are local. So there wasn’t a need to import stone to build the monument.

And nearby you have Woodhenge, and the henged settlement of Durrington Walls.

So why do you need Stonehenge?

There’s a theory in our house that Stonehenge is a place for the dead, and Woodhenge a place for the living.

At the time both monuments were constructed, that part of Britain was undergoing rapid deforestation. The Neolithic advance meant more fertile cropland was needed to support the settled population. Britain’s post-glaciation ancient woodland was being felled, burned down and uprooted to make way for the first of the fertile fields of modern Wiltshire.

We revere trees in modern times, when we live amongst concrete and glass. For a population who’d lived amongst the forests all their lives, and as long as their folk memories endured, this must have been devastating.

How do you deal with such an upheaval?

You build a memorial.

Woodhenge, a monument to the trees long gone, in homage and supplication to the forests destroyed. A sacred grove in which to practice the rites and ceremonies you used to perform in the forest, when all the forests are gone.

photo of a recreation of woodhenge, standing tree trunks in a circular pattern on moorland
Recreation of Woodhenge built for Time Team TV show.
©Rog Frost under Creative Commons Licence.

Perhaps it wasn’t just human activity that flattened the prehistoric forest.

There is a plausible connection to climate change, as the “African Humid Period” ended around 3500BC, when the first phase of Stonehenge was constructed – and those bluestones were erected in Wales.

If the effects of the change in climate took a while to filter into the climate of West Wales, as the location became less than ideal for the population, would the people move elsewhere? It’s likely. Happens today, when the world is crowded.

Take that one as a given, then. What else?

If you take the second half of our household hypothesis, Stonehenge and other stone circles represent the dead – the physical embodiment of the ancestors, like the long barrow on the brow of the hill where you can point to your ancestors being “on and of the land” since “time immemorial”.

A declaration of settlement – of ownership.

We. Belong. Here.

If the environment in which you’d settled became less attractive, or less able to support your population – and perhaps your population suffered from some disaster, so you had fewer families and fewer children and a lot of empty old houses falling down – you’d want to move somewhere better.

But you couldn’t move without your ancestors. You invested a lot of time and spiritual energy staking your claim to this particular piece of land.

You can’t just walk away from it.

AND… if your society is matrilinear – a huge preconception – your ownership of the land runs through the female line.

It’s not just grandad in the long barrow, it’s grandma and great-grandma too.

If you have established trade between Preseli and Salisbury Plain, then you have a connection between the two places. And it must be a strong one for the next step to make sense.

Because, you are moving your entire tribe and its ancestors from a peachy – or previously peachy – spot near some bostin’ resources, to the middle of sodding nowhere.

Which just happens to have some of the best grain-growing arable land around in 3500BC.

You move because Salisbury Plain can feed your people.

And you bring your ancestors with you, to join them with the earthworks already there.

Why?

Why not as a dowry?

Oo, now there’s a story…


Links for this week:

Some really rather fantastic prehistoric illustrations – Gabriel Ugueto

Into the forest dark – An Exploration Of Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, & Myth

The Boghouse – “finding historic treasure in a 250-year-old toilet”, which is also available as a podcast if you like that sort of thing.

The Comfort Zone

How many times are we exhorted to “get out of our comfort zone”?

I appreciate it might be useful for a writer to apply to their characters, but in real life?

Begs two questions:

  1. What’s wrong with comfort? The entirety of human existence has been based on the pursuit of comfort. It’s why the planet’s broken.
  2. What makes you think THIS is our comfort zone?

That’s all for this week. I have grass to mow.


Heyyy, happy links:

Activists buy Belize rainforest to stop logging in perpetuity

Sunset on the British Empire – a humorous what-if from XKCD.

Jane Yolen on 400 books at John Scalzi’s site.

Published in: on April 25, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Can’t Sleep – Earth Day 2021

What if we on Earth are truly unique and alone, amongst all those uncountable worlds out there?

Can’t sleep? Lying awake all night, brain racing, turning the same thing over and over?

Me too.

It was worse as I passed through the gates of menopause. So far, I’ve discovered, there’s no end to it.

There is no “going through”.

It’s “going into”.

A bit like climate change. One of the subjects that often keeps me awake at night.

The world won’t stop changing until we do. There is no “going through” climate change, only “going into”.

I imagine watching its progress will be similar to gangrene, or leprosy. You can see the disease eating away at you, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it. The opportunity to stop it was lost before you were born, before you were aware there was a problem, or before you had a choice which wasn’t worse.

We keep on living. Life is what this planet is good for.

What if there is NO OTHER PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE where life exists?

This era of mankind is yet just a blip.

There’s more time between T. Rex and Stegosaurus* than there is between T. rex and house sparrows.

Humans of any sort have only been around for a few million years.

Earth will correct our damage. In its own time.

None of us alive today will see more than the first horrifying wave of destruction.

At some point in the future, there will be no choice over whether we do anything to change our situation, and stop polluting further. It will just stop. Because the structures of our civilisation will cease to function, and some previous level of sophistication will take its place.

John Michael Greer calls this The Long Descent.


Like the move to home working made imperative by coronavirus, the change to our ways of travel and trade will come all at once, abrupt and sudden.

Everyone on the hamster wheel keeps running alongside each other, giving the side-eye to the heap of wood shavings off to one side, wondering how to get there without losing their space on the wheel.

When the hamster wheel is stopped by an unseen hand, everyone stops running.

Some step off, burrow deep into the wood shavings, and wonder why they didn’t make the jump sooner. Some peer over the edge, indecisive, unsure of their options. Some chafe at the wheel, trying to turn it again with fewer feet to power it up.

We’ll do this when climate change reaches out a hand and stops the wheel.

Until then, what can we do, one little voice amongst seven billion?

I don’t have an answer. I’m just as reliant on the hamster wheel as everyone else on the planet.

Even remote populations in Brazilian rainforests and on the Andaman Islands, whose lifestyle may be in harmony with nature as it developed since the start of the Holocene, are going to be mightily disrupted soon, and forever after. Those populations adapted to their current homelands over thousands of years when the climate had little wobbles, but nothing on the scale of what we’re doing to the world right now.

Will we adapt? Will they? Who has the better chance at a stable future, survivable, on a planet so poisoned?

Life has a remarkable energy within it, a power to survive and persist. It may only be microbial, or ratlike, or horseshoe crabs or magnolia.

Staring at the end of all this beauty and creativity must be like having your children die before you. And yet, people keep on having children. And those children will have children of their own, into the deserts and monster storms of climate change, at levels of existence we can only imagine.

Like every brush with death, breath comes a little faster, a shallow catch in the throat. Awake at night, unable to remove this from my mind, I try to concentrate on sleep.

The night is dark; the city silent. The owls have been and gone, over the house with a hoot and a swoop, and the foxes won’t pass through the garden until dawn.

I cannot change the climate by myself.

I must accept the fate the planet gives me. This is my planet; I was bred for this. And at night, by Nature, this means sleep.

Tomorrow, when I awake, I will plant trees.


This week’s links:

*follow the article author, Riley Black, on Twitter for cool/hilarious dinosaur stuff at @laelaps

Learn more about early human prehistory at The Cradle Of Human Culture, South Africa

Give up the fight with evolution. It wins.  The story about a human misstep in history, the imaginary point at which we could have taken a different route, is a pointless mental exercise. Our evolution is based on quintillions of earth motions, incremental biological adaptations, survival necessities, and human desires. We are right where we were headed all along.”

Catherine Ingram, Facing Extinction

Published in: on April 22, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Project updates and links

Just a short post this week, ahead of Earth Day on the 22nd, for which I have a meaty post already written and scheduled.

Progress notes on my three writing goals for this year:

1. Non-fiction project. I’ve made progress, but publication is still some way off. It took a while to find the right ‘look’. Now I’m trying to work out the best way to make a print-ready file for a hardback, juggling the format between various software programs. Seems like work. Without the psychopaths and fluorescent lights.

2. Write more. Ah, this is going well. Here’s a progress chart for Project NEVADA:

More than 10% – yay!

More than 10% on the first draft of a story with no magic in it. Although I hope it will have its own charm, when it’s finished. Long way to go.

3. Submit poetry. Done. Also written a couple of new poems – and compiled a bundle of chapbooks/collections which I’m currently editing (going hmm… a lot as I review work from when I was younger – almost forty years ago, OMG).


And so to this week’s links. It’s been sunny and cool all week, and the UK’s latest coronavirus wave seems to be on the wane (hold tight ahead of the next one though), and I am watching for the emergence of tips in my asparagus patch.

The Genius of The Caribbean – “What can the British Museum’s collection tell us about the Caribbean as a cauldron of human genius, survival and profound legacy?” A long broadcast discussion, somewhat academic, exploring food, culture and stories; featuring, amongst others, playwright & author Bonnie Greer.

Terri Windling on Rituals of Beginning – “What rituals do you use to start your workday, or to help you cross over from the everyday world into the time-bending realm of creativity?”

Luann Udell on Problem-Solving For Creatives – Part 2 of a series. QUOTE:

It’s not about having an audience.
It’s about having a voice.

The good old days are a trap

A dangerous place, when memories turn into nostalgia. You forget what was wrong or bad about a place, or a time, and wish away your future.

I write historical fiction. I also write about events in my past, sometimes decades ago, when the world was different and we were all much younger (or – eek! – didn’t yet exist).

It’s a trap.

I’ve written in glowing terms about the time I travelled through Germany with my fellow students. A fleeting moment, paused in time, sparkling with youth and promise.

I didn’t write about the scorpions in our accommodation on a hill above the local slaughterhouse, or the cold showers, or the stifling, cramped three days’ drive across Europe in a minibus that never smelled the same afterwards. I didn’t write about the hardship that came later, when I needed the cash I could have made by working that summer.

Painting - Alma-Tadema, Unconscious Rivals (1893). Two women in classical robes under an arched ceiling

How we see ourselves?

Looking back through old photographs for something to illustrate another post, I saw younger versions of my friends and family smiling at me at weddings and garden parties.

Some of those friends I haven’t seen for more than 18 months, thanks to coronavirus. Some of them I’ll never see again, passed away in the intervening years.

Some of them I’m glad to see the back of, if I’m honest.

Growing up, I’d hear my parents talking about life before I was born. Everything was cheaper, in a different currency; there was a lot less variety of “everything” too. Smogs were bad; unimaginable to me as a child of the woods and fields.

My parents spoke of their youth, of their childhood, and although there was nostalgia for some aspects, there was always a level of realism that I didn’t fully respect. Now I’m older than they were back then, I can see how nostalgia works.

We have more memories than when we were teenagers, or in our twenties. More water has flown under the bridge, more of those bridges have been burned. The gloomy sense that we have more Past than Future also hangs over us.

That’s another thing coronavirus has gifted many of us – an indication of our own fragility.

“Old age ain’t no place for sissies”

And so to age, and ageing, and the end of days. An exploitable sense of the world going to hell in a handcart, which has been with us since before time began and seems only to have accelerated as the world spins faster.

Dangerous, looking back.

We see the sunlit uplands, and not the dark satanic mills crammed into the valleys below.

How we actually are?

You’re told you’ve never had it so good, and yet you’re unhappy and fearful of change beyond your control.

Words change meaning.

Behaviour which we took to be harmless becomes a source of conflict, or uproar, or stigma.

People we’ve never taken notice of start to make a fuss over stuff which impacts their lives, which we never gave a second thought. The same folk appear in places we believe belonged to us, claiming their space, asking us to make amends.

And you wish time went back to the Good Old Days.

It’s a trap.

Writing historical fiction – even speculative fiction – even steampunk – you can’t make those mistakes again without running the risk of being misunderstood. Whole tracts of literary analysis have been compiled on the prejudices of the past. University courses run on the absence of representation.

University campuses reorganised and renamed.

Even when I was studying prehistory, we learned that interpretation of the past changes as new ideas bring focus or a different viewpoint.

The feminist archaeologists of the 1970s literally turned artefacts on their head to show a different aspect of what had been accepted as a fact.

two stylised carvings said to be female figurines

Go figure.

Marxist archaeologists sought to reinterpret the past and reclaim history from old-school Classics scholars besotted with kings and empires.

The current fuss over the National Trust re-telling the stories of stately homes through a lens of slavery and cultural theft is only part of the process of disengaging from a Golden Age, seeing it more completely.

It’s painful. There’s a whole world of hardship and unfairness to unravel, cruel and criminal and unrelenting.

Do we risk the same when we create fiction? Are my characters forcing their views on the reader, even when those views aren’t mine? Have I structured my city, my society, my alternative universe, along the same exploitative and prejudiced lines of the one we’ve inherited in real life?

If so, what are my characters going to do about it?

It’s not enough to say “things were different then” and shrug, turn away, pass over the problem.

This is FICTION, dammit! Let’s make it better than life.


This week’s links:

The Black Country Living History Museum – grimy, gritty and underground. Tales of ordinary folk? Try: Hush Now.

The National Trust’s report into colonialism and historic slavery All that wealth has to come from somewhere…

The Good Old Days on Nostalgia Central – BBC TV series, not available on iPlayer for some reason. I was always more interested in the audience’s costumes than the acts themselves…

Published in: on April 11, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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100% Writer’s Block

Now, having set out a dozen posts on The Last Rhinemaiden and how it came about, I’ll tell you how it ended.

For a while it seemed like every novel I read was based in London. And I noticed that I was also writing stories set in London, which bothered me somewhat.

The Cuckoo Club series is set in London, and Paris (so far). After two books I paused, and switched to Petticoat Katie.

The characters live in a shared house and go to work every day like ordinary people. Their adventures began in short stories, but their lives expanded in the first trilogy to include job loss, urban violence and unexpected pregnancy (and airships, betrayal, Turkish delight, guerrilla gardening, far too much cake, a whole cabinet of outrageous gadgets and a hundred monkeys).

a street corner in a Victorian city - Steep Street, Bristol, 1866
Steep Street, Bristol, 1866

But… still based in London.

And it got a little tiresome. Long before COVID, long before lockdown, I began to look further afield – looking for more interesting places to visit, and explore, and conjure up in my imagination for my characters to inhabit.

We think of certain cities in very limited terms – sometimes the place itself hasn’t gathered much history, but also because of choices and the perceptions forced upon us by marketing.

Why do we focus on Viking York, for example, and not so much on Roman York? When do we ever hear about Tudor York? How about glorious York during the Danelaw, when it was no longer Eboracum and halfway through Jorvik?

Great places within which to set novels and tell stories are available. Using London (or New York, or Vienna) as a setting is just laziness.

So I started thinking about place, in a very specific way, and how to change my writing to express more of this variety.

Why have steampunk always in London? Why not those other great cities of the British Empire – Birmingham, Belfast, Bombay?

Why not steampunk Havana? Steampunk Shanghai, or Lagos, or Djibouti?

And why Empire? Why British? Where’s the steampunk set in Bougainville, or Brazzaville, or Bogotá?

Probably I haven’t cast my nets widely enough to find those stories. Maybe I overlook them because of blurb or cover art or sub-genre.

Are they out there, waiting for me, if only I can lift my eyes from a limited set of map co-ordinates, and explore?

There are plenty of novels set in alternative cities, some of those contemporary with the steampunk timeframe like the stories of Jack London (another real-life adventurer).

Some are set in entirely imaginary cities, places upon which we can paint our home towns to add familiarity, but which are otherwise entirely fabricated out of magic and ink.

Ankh-Morpork.

Arkham.

Foundryside.

Later stories in the Petticoat Katie series take place outside of London, but I haven’t got round to writing them yet. The fourth novel in the series is 70% complete and has been since – och! – 2015.

It’s sat like a lump of 100% writer’s block on my desktop and I can’t shift it, even though I can see beyond it to other stories, other locations, other characters.

Places where there are statues on rooftops, locksmiths in narrow alleys, and a mist rising from the river at sunrise.

Now doesn’t that make you want to visit?

a cobbled street lined with shops with bright clothing hanging outside -
Calle Caldereria Nueva, Granada

In search of locations and art and gadgets, here’s this week’s links:

The anthem of Ankh-Morpork performed by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra (YouTube link)

Forsyth’s Compendium of Curious Contraptions – curious railways, steam engines, Edinburgh and elsewhere.

Glorious art and design posted regularly on Twitter at @NouveauDeco


Also this week – an update on this year’s writing goals:

  1. Non-fiction project has moved from the design phase to writing and formatting.
  2. Project NEVADA – added 1000 words – yes, it’s slow, I’m pacing myself.
  3. Poetry submissions came back unplaced; more submissions required.
Published in: on April 4, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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History within history

Watching The Deer Hunter recently, I was struck with a few thoughts, not related to the storyline of the film.

The characters tell their stories through time, working forward to show how their experiences shape them, and change their lives.

At one point Meryl Streep’s character is in the back of a shop labelling grocery items with the sort of handheld sticky-label machine familiar in the 1980s. Very few places have those now. Electronic tills and laser barcode readers make them almost redundant.

As I mused on this, shortly after watching the film, I wondered how much contemporary life is reflected in films and books and TV.

And, being a writer of historical fiction – even though it’s speculative and alternative and a little bit steampunk – how do I use the details of contemporary life to paint a picture of my characters, and the world they live in, and the mechanics that make the world turn?

While writing my recent thread of posts on The Last Rhinemaiden, I was surprised to find myself skipping over aspects of the period – 1888 – which I hadn’t done when I wrote a series of posts to celebrate the publication of SHADOWBOX, set in 1832.

There’s just so much more we know about 1888, compared to 1832.

So much of what we take for granted about modern life was in existence in 1888, such as the telephone, daily newspapers, railways, office work, commuting. None of those existed in 1832.

Life in 1832 was noticeably different in other ways. The known universe was smaller. Germ theory, climate patterns, hygiene, even history itself was either unknown or barely recognised.

Old book - The Descent Of Man by Charles Darwin

Darwin had yet to return from the voyage that would spur him to write On The Origin Of Species, changing the shape of philosophy and science. He published The Descent of Man in 1871, by which time his theory of evolution had entered popular culture.

By 1888, his ideas had been in the public sphere for almost thirty years. Still controversial, but still very much there.

Literacy and education changed in those intervening years. So too crime and punishment. In 1832 the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to the British colony in Australia; by 1888, the crime which sent them there was no longer a crime, and transportation had been a practice outdated for twenty years.

But while there’s a lot familiar about 1888 and the rest of the late Victorian period, much is lost.

For a few months as a student I volunteered at a living history museum, writing pamphlets for exhibitions. Researching the exhibits was fascinating work, but also frustrating. For every crate of original vellum Certificates of Indenture from the 1860s, every illustrated brochure from the 1930s, there was a gap of knowledge that was often more interesting than the details which survived.

How did the forge set up by one man in 1840, and handed down through generations of his sons, become part of a larger firm by the outbreak of the Great War? – and then disappear from the almanacs and the physical landscape by 1960?

What’s the story? Oral history – when historians go out from their dusty stacks and ask real people about life – can fill in many of the gaps. But so often we can’t capture that knowledge, because everyone who knows it is dead, or moved away, or just don’t want to remember.

Occasionally you’ll see memes posted with a photo of an old gadget – like the handheld sticky-label machine wielded by Meryl Streep – asking people to respond if they know what the gadget was used for. Good examples are plastics washed up on the beach – see @LegoLostAtSea.

It’s hard to imagine life without plastics now. But in 1888, they didn’t exist. Och, even in the 1970s of my childhood they weren’t anywhere near as prevalent.

Items now made of plastic either didn’t exist as an item, or serve a function which didn’t exist. Other materials were used instead – wood, metal, fabric. Materials which would be recognisable to folk in 1888, or 1832, or even 300AD.

So when writing historical fiction, the amount of material goods you have to shed from your inventory is massive, or you end up with anachronisms that jar a reader out of the story.

Even more so is the amount of knowledge, and thinking, and popular fiction you have to erase from history to fit your particular time period.

I wrote about this in Shadowbox: What’s Missing In 1832?, but it also applies to modern fiction.

When Meryl Streep was sticking labels onto grocery items in the back of that shop in The Deer Hunter, she hadn’t seen Star Wars, or Jaws, or ET. She couldn’t read Harry Potter for a couple of decades. She wasn’t listening to Depeche Mode on the radio, or watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV.

I often think about this when writing. What did the characters live through, to make their lives part of that time?

And I wonder where, and how, my readers will make connections to the story.


This week’s three Happy Links (maybe more interesting than happy):

More on the Tolpuddle Martyrs and how their lives still have an impact today.

Try some retro from the Scarfolk Council instead.

Modern classic – Beano art from Laura Howell

Published in: on March 28, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

…and now for something completely usual

After yesterday’s block of 12 posts (linked to The Last Rhinemaiden, in case you missed it) it’s back to the usual weekly schedule for me.

As an exercise in its own right, it proved useful.

I wanted to post these all in one day for a number of reasons:

  • it’s a small writing project I had to plan, schedule, compose and post, something I haven’t done for ages;
  • it’s a dozen posts that link to my first Cuckoo Club novel in the same way I have a month’s worth of posts on the second one (SHADOWBOX); and
  • it gets them up on the blog so I can refer back to them in future.

It’s too much like a Day Job to do it again in the near future, though. I uploaded all twelve on Friday and it was a tad tiring. Don’t know how I managed when I was working full time…

Illustration by Waltrich - a human figure reading a book
Published in: on March 21, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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