About Lee McAulay

I'm a writer, a woman and a Scot.

Kicking Myself

How many weeks till the end of the year? How many possible writing days, if we only write during the week?

How many words, if we write a relatively-placid 500 words a day?

Since I last reviewed my output so far this year, in a late mid-year review, I’ve gone over my works-in-progress to see what’s possible.

Not going to continue typing up the long-lost Project Albatross, not right now.

Not going to revive the abandoned Project RC, a novel only two-thirds finished when I announced the death of a novel in 2014.

But I have a short novel – possibly a novella or novelette – forming out of Project NEVADA, which I was motoring on at the start of the year and which disappeared under a wheen of procrastination. I can see where the story goes from here, and I know the ending. Another twenty thousand words and I will call it done. And begin editing.

A near-complete non-fiction work of craft instructions needs some decent photos and some hard editing. It’s almost within reach. When this is ready I can try selling PDFs on Etsy as well as the usual ebook/book sites, which will be a new venture for me.

And I have a bundle of new poems and short stories to market, if I can be bothered.

All summer I’ve been busy offline. There’s been excuses and ponderings and wild crazy dreams of writing more, but right now my hands are tingling from RSI (too much woodwork) and the last of summer’s garden crops still need watering, even now we’re beyond the Autumn Equinox.

So, in reply to my questions above:

14 weeks until the end of the year. That’s 14 more posts on here – some of which are already planned, some already written.

70 possible writing days, leaving weekends free for jollies.

Five hundred words a day = 35,000 words. (A nice neat thousand a day, with weekends off, is 70K words, just the right amount for a complete novel).

If – and it’s a prominent If – I kick myself hard enough to get my act together, I will be able to finish both the nonfiction project and Project NEVADA by Christmas.

It’s a goal worth setting, don’t you think?

Tedious and predictable

Tedious and predictable. No, not just me, nor the UK government’s response to the current level of the pandemic, the flooding crisis in Pakistan, the rising cost of living, and anything else you might mention.

What if that’s my writing?

Do I still write? Do I have to stop, and look at it objectively, and decide it’s not worth improving?

Do I let other voices speak and hold mine silent?

If I don’t have anything worth saying, why should that stop me? It doesn’t stop those with an overblown sense of entitlement filling paid – in some cases very highly paid – slots in national publications.

Or is this just a sense of not having written anything productive over the last few months/years and not submitting for publication, and feeling like I’m going to waste my time trying?

Not asking for a pat on the head and telling me it’s all right, my writing is good honest, just keep at it. Not wanting a pile-on of positive vibes.

Just asking, am I wrong to keep writing? Should I drop it and focus on something else, or give up creativity forever and slouch on the couch watching others with more talent and ambition take the glory?

Is there glory to be taken?

Life gets us down. All of us, all of the time. It can seem hard to keep going at times, when the world seems to have turned away from addressing the real life-threatening issues facing us all right now, from global warming to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

What’s the price of my silence? Or do I need to speak out differently, not in fiction or poetry but in essays, analysis, journalism?

It’s not about having an audience.
It’s about having a voice in the world.

Luann Udell

Loose Dirt and Leaf-Tracks

After the summer’s drought, and the heatwave that surprised us all, there’s been a week of magnificent rain.

On my morning walk up the hill behind my house I see the paths of surplus water written on the ground.

Loose dirt, scuffed up by footfall over months of dry weather, carried into drifts and flows as artistic as any abstract painter. Tiny landscapes form around larger stones and other debris firmly anchored.

The water flows on.

Down the wooded path from the high ridge, below the trees. Amongst the false autumn’s leaf-fall, the water takes these unfamiliar shapes and piles them against those tiny landscapes formed of dust and gravel, sweeps onwards.

These leaves, still green but discarded by the trees in an attempt to reduce water loss during the dry spell, behave differently from autumn’s curled brown husks. These leaves were made to shed water, to channel rain and the catch-water of fog into – or away from – the tree’s trunk, onto the ground.

We’re back in Dune territory, the gardens of Arrakis.

Many gardens in Britain have well-established palm trees of the sort you find in the Canary Islands, northern Australia, the Caribbean. Brought here by Victorian adventurers or just bought at a garden centre, these trees are adapted for whip-fast winds and torrential rain in intermittent phases, their slender leaves made to capture water and resist the shredding effect of hurricanes.

These trees have no place in the wild copse on the hill.

Gnarled hawthorns with their small dog-footprint leaves cling to the field edges. Soft-barked elders, bright berries dropping mauve on the path and trunks coiled round with ivy like the fallen tree which came down in my garden over winter. Oaks, one with a hollow that wild honeybees have colonised.

Much of the recent rain has run off the baked ground towards the river at the foot of the hill. Drains choked with the same leaves that pattern the hillside path, drifts of loose dirt on pavements where puddles have formed and retreated.

Under the low conifers in the graveyard, the ground’s still dry.

Over the river valley hangs a pall of mist so thick I can barely see the outskirts on the far side of town. My walks through the past – the Mesolithic, and the Middle Ages – talk of landmarks invisible from the hilltop on days like this. If it wasn’t for the traffic I’d barely see the arterial road cutting through the suburbs, north-south as it follows the line of the canal.

After the first rainy night, the morning was clean and bright like a high summer’s day after showers.

Too late for arable crops now, the summer wheat crunchy and short, farmers hoping the earth will be soft enough to plough for winter barley. Harvests are already in, save pears and apples which will swell nicely in time for a proper autumn. Brambles hang in sodden clumps on browned briars; windfall plums, having dried like prunes on the ground, are grown plump again, busy with wasps.

My waterbutts are full, just when I don’t really need them.

And it’s raining, again. Feels like… normal.


The header image for this post is the sleeve art for the album Umbra by ARC, a collaboration between two of the most influential and prolific of the UK’s electronic music scene, Ian Boddy and the late Mark Shreeve (cf. redshift), who died on August 31st.

Painting by Wilfried Weihrauch. Favourite track – the bouncy, upbeat Cherry Bomb (starts at 9:17).

Samples of each track – Cherry Bomb at the last couple of minutes

Petticoat Katie: The Story So Far

More as a reminder to myself than anything else, here’s a list of the Petticoat Katie posts so far.

Would you believe the very first post was back in 2011?

Setting the scene: “This is a new venture, a set of fun stories that are ridiculous and frivolous and great fun to write. I’m trying to channel Wodehouse and Wells and Conan Doyle into an utterly silly couple of characters. Hope it works!”

Here’s one from the archives back in 2015 when I began struggling with the fourth novel in the Petticoat Katie trilogy (shades of Robert Rankin there:)

Earlier this year I posed the question:

Following that, I started to introduce the characters.

I also posed an Ethical Speculation about one of Katie’s suffragette acquaintances, a wealthy Spanish countess who flies under the radar as plain Mrs De Vega.


So, what’s left?

I still have to tell you about Otto’s darling little airship, The Sibyl. Bonsai Ben and the Guerrilla Gardeners. The Goatsuckers, the Cabinet of Curiosities, Ethel Fitch and the glorious gadgets.

Gordon Drooko. Dr Timpani. And the nefarious Ditto Sloth, original owner of Petticoat Katie’s 100 Monkeys.

And then there’s the third housemate, Darius Fitzgerald, and his inventive sister Nellie, creator of the world-famous Very Thin Mints:

Fitzgerald's Very Thin Mints

Well, I think that’s my work cut out for the rest of the year, don’t you?

Broke My Duck

A couple of weeks ago, I broke my pandemic duck – in a manner of speaking.

I went to a supermarket.

Yes, I was the only one wearing a face mask. I was also wearing shades and headphones because: supermarkets.

It’s been a while since I breezed through the sliding doors and picked up a basket, or shoved a trolley. It’s rarely been a pleasure. At one point I had a sticker above my workstation reminding me never to visit a certain supermarket – NEVER – since one memorably noisy occasion left me unable to concentrate once I got back to the office.

On my walk home from the recent excursion, as I glanced at the civic blue plaques on the walls of my route – telling me this building was a brewery in 1760, this a warehouse in 1812 – I began to ponder the history of shops and shopping back in the days before supermarkets.

It’s a much bigger subject than I intend to cover in this post. The ruins of Pompeii show us shops and pubs (and brothels); enough places in Britain have shops dating back to the Middle Ages to know shopping didn’t disappear with the Roman exit. It’s practically the entire draw for some tourists to York’s famous Shambles.

Carole Deppe writes, in The Resilient Gardener:

Humans have been trading for millennia. Here in the Pacific Northwest there were regular trade bazaars held at certain times of year. Coastal and Columbia River tribes traded dried salmon to inland tribes for dried camas-root cakes, dried elk meat, and other goods.
Lewis and Clark passed over the mountains on a road made by Indian traders.

Carol Deppe, The resilient Gardener (read the first chapter here)

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Deppe maintains that trade is one of humanity’s most enduring characteristics.

I can’t fault her there.

When archaeologists turn up statuettes carved from materials sourced thousands of miles away; when standing stones mysteriously appear on the landscape far from their point of origin; when stone tools are traded across deserts and seas which we can’t imagine our ancestors having the skills to traverse: it’s all trade.

It’s a sort of shopping.

Of course, modern supermarkets – where hours go to die as we hesitate between one or another perfectly-shaped fruit with more air miles than Bono’s hat – are designed to stun us like fish. It’s best to have some sort of coping strategy.

  • Take a rucksack and pretend you’re prepping for a week bagging Munros.
  • Wear shades and stealthy footwear and try to suss the mystery shoppers and store detectives.
  • Or whip in and out like a beach-bound teenager stocking up on snacks to share between waves.

Like the lead character in Deutschland 83, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer range of goods available in even the tiniest chain store. We wonder why the nation’s getting fatter – it’s the shops, packed with food and open all hours. You can’t evade it.

Jonas Nay as Kolibri in Deutschland 83

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Different in Shakespeare’s time, but even then Mistress Quickly sold food and lodgings to Pistol & Nym.

Even when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, with Scrooge sending out for a goose on Christmas Day (i.e. there was at least one goose vendor open for trade on what’s now a sacrosanct public holiday) – shopping.

That’s one way we could try to limit our energy bills as a nation this winter – from here it starts to look like the early 1970s, power cuts and shortages. Why not turn back the clock on our shopping habits too? Half-day closing on Wednesdays and Saturdays (in time for the footie, if that’s your bag). Pubs only open at night-time, a rare few on market-traders’ hours running breakfasts.

Nothing on Sundays.

That’s right – shops were shut, and we made our own entertainment.

We were terribly, terribly bored.

Seemingly bored enough that Sunday morning shopping’s worth queueing up for.

Petticoat Katie’s Oddballs

One of the delights in writing the Petticoat Katie series was the invention of helpful characters to support the story in one way or another.

Sometimes these characters proved so delicious, they kept coming back. Here’s a few of the regulars.


Mr Sutin

Petticoat Katie’s favourite bookshop, where she buys all her Penny Dreadfuls, is owned by Mr Sutin. He’s the sort of character that provides witty retorts and helpful advice, moves the story on by connecting other characters, then retreats back into the bookshop and lets Katie and the others get on with it.

Mr Sutin removed an Everton mint from a paper bag in one of his waistcoat pockets, a small tuft of wool lint stuck to the seams, and popped it into his mouth.

He removed another Everton mint from his pocket, stared at it, then returned it to the paper bag whence it had come. He removed the whole bag and offered it to Katie, who politely declined.

There’s a touch of Gary Oldman about him, especially as he appears in TV’s Slow Horses. A baggy shade of John Hurt, still with that touch of mischief.

But he’s the sort of man who’s been a bookshop owner all his life, and I suspect he’s had that waistcoat since he was young.

He had a twinkle in his eye of the sort usually ascribed to rakish characters in Penny Dreadfuls, especially the ones Katie liked to read, and on Mr Sutin the effect was rather odd. He could not by any stretch of the imagination be called “rakish”, even on a good night with a following shadow, nor might one imagine he had ever been so in his youth.

He was the most un-rakish man ever to sport a rakish twinkle.

Without Mr Sutin’s business advice when she found herself in charge of a hundred monkeys, Petticoat Katie would have been lost. Because through him, she met Mrs Perceval…


Mrs Delphine Perceval

Vogue: not enough scarves…

Now, I’ve already mentioned Mrs Perceval – amongst other things, she’s the custodian of Hell’s most fastidious princes.

Once upon a time, at a crop circle festival, I met a woman much like this character; I recall thinking “hmm” while her companion was awestruck.

Mrs Perceval is Katie’s accountant, a practicing occultist and a bit of a busybody. Visually, she’s like a cross between Stevie Nicks and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?.

A long scarf – one of many, Katie noted, draped around the woman’s neck – provided a toy for the Siamese cats. Another scarf of a different pattern was wrapped around the woman’s head, her hair braided with more scarves into two thick pigtails. On her wrists, a scarf held back beaded bracelets and thin silver bangles, and a small silk square was tied tight around her throat.

How to dress like Mrs Perceval: a lesson (not sure of what sort)

Scipio Jones

Oh, Mr Jones. The stylish object of Petticoat Katie’s most unrequited advances, Mr Jones is an old-school adventurer and a sophisticated raconteur.

Mr Jones was dressed in a corduroy safari suit which matched perfectly the colour of his skin, the cut accenting his athletic figure to best effect without being in the slightest way distracting. And that fine tailoring was all that stood between him and Petticoat Katie – all, that is, except his polite reserve and apparent disinterest in her attentions.

I’m sorry, I don’t have a name for this chap

While Mr Jones had a lean and athletic physique, beside Otto’s bear-sized bulk the dark-skinned man seemed wiry

Scipio Jones first appears in The Missing Mermaid – the absence of said mermaid kicking off the story with a noticeable gap in Mr Jones’s collection of obscure and Fortean ephemera.

“He’s got a lot of stuff,” Victoria whispered, glancing around the room at the ornaments and paintings and vases and stuffed animals in various poses.

The Missing Mermaid

Mr Jones is an international man of mystery. Always off on some adventure, between which he greets the main characters with affection and wisdom.

His cravat – silk, of course – was secured around his throat with a golden tie-pin in the shape of an elephant. Petticoat Katie reached out one gloved hand and framed the item with her fingers. “Mr Jones, is this -?”

“A souvenir of my last trip to Lokoja,” he said with an easy smile.

The pair entered the museum’s revolving door arm-in-arm. It was a tight fit. She snuggled up to Mr Jones and struggled to keep her hands to herself. “Is it your family home?”

“I have certain business contacts in that part of the world, and as you know I undertake expeditions of exploration on behalf of my clients – and the Royal Geographic Society – which take me abroad very often. Lokoja happens to be a particularly fascinating location.”

Katie bit her lip. She paused on the threshold of asking him whether he had a wife and children there, but decided she’d rather not know.

The Mammoth Hunters
Young black man in flying jacket
Image from the Ralph Lauren Polo collection, Fall-Winter 2020

Picture him with the athleticism of Sugar Ray Leonard, the elegance and poise of Sidney Poitier or a clean-shaven Malcolm X. His house is grand, his manservant (Chekhov) discreet, his manners impeccable.

Yes, he’s one of my favourites. Find more images of Mr Jones’s particular style on Pinterest.


That’s all for this week – there are more minor characters to discover, and I still haven’t told you about the Sibyl

Late mid-year review

It’s long past time I reviewed my writing goals from the start of the year, and look at how far I’ve managed to achieve them. Hiding behind my fingers, I peep out…

  1. Write more.

Umm. I’ve written a blog post every week so far this year, with more planned. I have a short story I really ought to start submitting, as it’s Yule-related and I know magazines line articles up ahead of publication. Novels? Nah.

  1. Publish.

One tick for the Book Of The Year 2021, published in February. Nothing else yet. There’s still time.

  1. Poetry.

Hmm. Not written much – I used to make short notes on my old phone when out walking the hills behind the house and type them up later. I’m still stuck on the cover of the first chapbook in the series, wanting to make it perfect instead of just getting on with it. Sounds like procrastination, no?

What I have learned so far this year is this:

As long as writing is not the No.1 priority in your life, there will always be some diversion that will tug you away from writing

How I might adapt to this:

Raise the priority of writing in my life

Doesn’t have to be a lot. Just an hour every morning after coffee, before the first of the day’s chores.

Steal that time from other tasks.

The internet will wait. The world’s conflicts and conceits will still be there after that one precious hour. The dishes will sit in the sink, unwashed, undemanding, until the words are on the page for that day. Dust needs not be disturbed, cobwebs still stick, crumbs will stay crunchy underfoot for that one hour of writing you need to make time for.

There are other benefits, too.

That feeling when you’ve completed a work of fiction, or poetry, or craft? It’s waiting, behind the gathered hours of writing, a gentle satisfaction of something complete.

Similar to those knitters who make a scarf using different-coloured yarn for each day according to the temperature. You can find plenty on social media in the first few days of every January. Here’s an example by Josie George (author of A Still Life) and a link to her thread on Twitter:

Weather scarf by @porridgebrain

So far I have resisted any yarn-based hobby in my life – ditto baking, apart from helping make a loaf every week. The jewelled biscuits of Dr Ella Hawkins are an art form. Ephemeral, and no doubt tasty.

Thread of more biscuit art here: @EllaMcHawk

None of these things can take precedence over writing – if I want to call myself a writer.

If you want to be a rock star, you have to get up and sing.

Back to the word mines to carve out the hours. I want to have more than apologies to share with you at the end of the year.

Creativity in challenging times

Writing is hard at the best of times. When personal or family issues kick in, or the world looks like it’s on fire, it becomes harder. It’s easier to give up, to turn away from the work that makes us buzz, saying to ourselves we’re doing something more important.

More important than writing?

Yes, say those who do not write. Or make music, or art, or craft.

No, say writers.

Being unable to write isn’t the same as being unable to write (bear with me here).

Distraction engines are everywhere. Look here for inspiration! Look over here for guidance! Look over here for cute puppy pictures, or kittens, or children doing funny things, or the latest in attention-grabbing emu antics!

We tell ourselves it’s because of a crisis. Something external – something bigger than ourselves – knocks us off our path and into the weeds. We have to find the path again (just after we pick the seeds out of our hair and brush pollen off our boots).

We also like to think the crisis will be over soon, and we’ll go back to Normal (TM).

Nothing – NOTHING – is further from the truth.

This is the new normal. For most of us, same as the old normal, only with face masks.

For some of us, it’s vastly different. Some of our fellow global residents have been blasted out of their country by invasion, death on a massive scale, pandemic cruelties and ignobility, hardship and grief and pain we are terrified of, here in our safe havens.

We are saturated with stories from dark places where the world has turned nasty. They rise on every media, every forum, every telly and radio and internet space. Misery loves company and advertisers love unsettled customers.


When will we realise the pandemic has turned the world on its head? And the war in Ukraine, another twist to reality that threatens the world order we used to take for granted?

In the UK we are soaked in Blitz spirit. At some points of the year, more than normal, but there’s always a background of Blighty-mania bubbling under national events and memorials. We’re told to keep calm and carry on, even though that never happened in the Second World War.

We forget – or are not reminded of – spivs and corruption and rapacious landlords, poor working conditions that led to strikes and workplace accidents, ordinary murderers and crimes.

Don’t forget, either, that for much of the last twenty years the UK has been at war in not one but two foreign nations – Afghanistan, and Iraq. Sundry smaller military commitments barely make the headlines. In the 1990s, Europe’s wars came in the Balkans. Part of the difference is the economy still in a peacetime format; look to Ukraine for conscription and similar war-footing directives.

Britain isn’t running a wartime economy. It’s hard to see any sort of guiding hand on the wheel, never mind one pushing for us all to beat an enemy, whether that be plague or drought or famine. But it bears repeating: the UK is not currently At War in the way we’ve been taught to recognise.


War in Europe is such a distant part of British history it’s swathed in jingoism and nostalgia, while those who actually remember the Second World War are becoming fewer every day. WW2 is held over our heads like a sort of fetish, a form to be worshipped and never questioned, unlike the discourse that actually took place during the war years.

But creativity didn’t end during either of the World Wars, when nobody knew how the war would end. Maybe for some of us it’s the only spur we’ll ever have. Built to shape beauty in the teeth of chaos and destruction, or wrest it from fear and despair.

Not just the Great War poets in the trenches, or the music-hall composers, or Charlie Chaplin making films in Hollywood as if holding off conscription by sheer willpower.

People wrote novels by lamplight in bomb shelters as if their lives depended on it – as though, like Robert Jackson Bennett says, writing a novel was “was one of the few stable things I had… throughout the whole of that strange, dreadful period”.

Musicians composed songs and composers wrote symphonies. Vaughn Williams wrote his Symphony No.5, first performed in 1943. Shostakovitch wrote his Symphony No.7: “the music that stopped time” during the siege of Leningrad in 1942.

BBC Proms 2020 – the first summer of COVID

Films such as the magnificent Casablanca were made, and Pimpernel Smith, and all matter of garish propaganda from all sides and viewpoints. Scripts, screenplays, musical scores written and performed and enjoyed by millions.

There was dancing and drinking and merriment, and people made the most of it because the world could end in a flash.

Maybe that’s what’s missing. We’re so used to being told that it will soon be over – that the worst is yet to come, we just have to endure the fight and then it will all be sunlit uplands and thick yellow butter and jam – that we don’t see the creeping dread come upon us, freezing our creativity.

Not everyone is affected this way. Is it more personal, or is there something else at work?

We need to see the future with clear eyes and a level head. Climate change – global warming – is going to shape our world into new forms, destroying some parts of society and generating others. Some of these will be dark, and many of us will be forced to play a role for which we haven’t been trained, for which there is no training.

We’ll be reliant on our imaginations to bend the shape of the future to human will, not for profit but for survival. So far the indications are that this will be hard. Yet, we’re brilliant and resilient as a species.

While the party goes on, some of us working in the background will choose to play a supporting role for everything else that makes the world turn. People will continue to make music, and art, and crocheted postbox bunnets, simply because that’s part of what makes us human.

We can look into the future with all the apocalyptic zeal of late-20th-century creatives who gave us fiction of a world ending in fire and plague and robot wars.

Or, we can choose to be like Carter and Carnarvon peering into a tiny gap in the thick walls of a tomb in the Egyptian desert in 1922; we can try to see “wonderful things”.

Burton Anubis p1113-2, (c) Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

Pandora Re-boxed

Last night, I finished reading Locklands. It’s the third and final book in the Founders Trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett, and the final few pages made me cry (in a good way).

Then, because the words were there and I hadn’t quite quenched my thirst for reading, I made my way through the Acknowledgements.

And there, before the thank-yous and name-checks, I found a reminder of just how remarkable are the world events we’ve all been living through in the last three years.

…there is arguably no event, no struggle, no abrupt shift in reality that has ever been shared on a scale like the 2020 pandemic, which is still ongoing… To discuss it now feels as interesting and insightful as remarking that the sky still hangs above us.

Robert Jackson Bennett

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It’s quite breathtaking to be reminded – in print – that the world has shaken underneath us, and nothing will ever be quite the same again.

I suppose that’s the enduring nature of the pandemic. It still hasn’t gone away no matter how much our politicians and influencers would like us to forget.

There is no “back to normal.”

This is The New Normal, however much we might hate it.

We have new worries too, in a way that didn’t happen before the world shook. Monkeypox might only be a problem for some sectors of the population right now, but the rest of us are primed to be alert in a way that didn’t happen before COVID. Winter flu seasons are monitored globally; new outbreaks of previously-obscure diseases are given headline status.

And that’s another facet of the pandemic experience that is often overlooked: we look for those patterns now. People weren’t aware of how exponential growth occurs, didn’t understand mRNA technology, overlooked those of us with disabling symptoms of general malaise.

That’s different now.

This is the curious tension of a pandemic: nothing about your experience is unique or exceptional, for it is shared by so many; and yet, you feel utterly alone.

Robert Jackson Bennett, on lockdown life

As a writer who has struggled with procrastination and a failure to write anything consistent for years, I also found this paragraph especially inspiring:

this book… was one of the few stable things I had to return to throughout the whole of that strange, dreadful period, stealing a few precious moments from my family to add a few words here and there.

Valuable, I hope, for writers who, like me, have found countless excuses for not writing:

I used this novel to measure those curious days.

I know I’m not alone in struggling to write when there’s so much more going on in the world.

I have real difficulty writing fiction during periods when the Wrong Sort of History is Happening.

Charles Stross, Behind the Ukraine war

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Personal or global, or both at once in unutterable bad luck, events beyond fiction have the power to block your ability to write. Especially when the story calls for the characters to face the sort of hardships you might be dealing with in your own life, or worse.

It’s just hard and weird to make stuff, to write stories, right now.

Chuck Wendig, Sometimes Writing Is Finding A Place To Put All Your Rage, Sorrow, And Even Joy

Wendig and Stross have both been writing professionally for over thirty years. If they have problems writing, those of us for whom writing is not our day job can cut ourselves a little slack.

Terri Windling – another fictioneer with decades of professional work in her handbasket – writes:

We are living through a time when dark, violent forces have been released, encouraged, and amplified, on both sides of the Atlantic. In the face of such ugliness we need the beacon of light that is beauty more than ever… It is because of the scars I carry that I know that beauty, and art, and story, are not luxuries. They are bread. They are water. They sustain us.

Terri Windling, “Dark Beauty”

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I’ll leave the last words of this post to those other creatives, as a reminder to myself (and you, if you need them):

there’s value … in viewing your fiction as … a reverse Pandora’s Box. Instead of opening it to let All The Evil out, you’re opening it to put stuff inside.

And readers may find what you put there useful. They too have things to unpack and unravel and examine. And sometimes they just don’t want to feel alone.

The story is a signal to them, an echo they hear that reminds them that they are not the only ones feeling this way.

Chuck Wendig

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So please, fellow artists and art lovers, keep seeking out, spreading, and making beauty.
Don’t stop. We all need you.

Terri Windling
Love leading the Pilgrim (1909) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
Love leading the Pilgrim (1909) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Meet the Characters: Otto Bazalgette

Now that the heatwave’s been and gone, I thought it was time to introduce Petticoat Katie’s very own Weather Thief.

Otto Bazalgette first appeared in The Weather Thief, a short story written just before I started the novel that became Maiden Flight.

The novel would have been impossible without him.

As first impressions go, Otto striding across an empty airfield brandishing a shotgun at his unexpected visitors as they attempted to break into his airship hangar made quite the wrong sort of impact on everyone involved.

“What are you up to over there?” he said, hugging the weapon to his chest. His dark hair flopped over his eyes in dank strings, as if he’d been running hard, or swimming.

Otto quickly became a friend of the little group. It was only reasonable. He’s an inventor of note.

He withdrew a small silver teaspoon from one pocket – its business end mostly flat and pierced in an unusual pattern – and stirred his tea with an elaborate swirling motion, no doubt the result of hours of study to devise the most efficient manner of dispersing the sugar into the liquid.

Sledgehammer Girl and the third housemate (Darius – you’ve not met him yet) are both inventors as well, and it won’t be giving too much away to say they were only too happy to help Otto out when his weather engine went wonky.

“It isn’t a weather machine, is it?” asked Victoria.
Bazalgette gave a cry of despair and sagged against his machine, sobbing. “It is, Miss Templeman, indeed it is. And I can’t turn it off.”

wimshurst machine
A Wimshurst Machine, nothing to do with the weather.

Now this, of course, made me write lots of fancy fiction about gadgets and tinkering and fiddly bits’n’bobs.

Darius, for his part, was already tinkering with the machine. He had one of the little tappets off with a tiny spanner and was inspecting a delicate dip-stick.

So I couldn’t let Otto disappear into the depths of the forest surrounding his workshop never to be seen again after that one short story. He had an airship, for goodness sake. And you can’t write steampunk without airships.

[More about that in a later post – because the little airship in question is very definitely a character in its own right.]


But what of Otto Bazalgette, semi-famous surname notwithstanding?

I chose the name quite deliberately to reflect both facets of the character’s special, umm, characteristics. Joseph Bazalgette was an engineer who designed London’s Hammersmith Bridge and its much-beloved-of-fiction-writers Victorian-era sewer system; his great-grandson was an RAF pilot in World War Two.

Otto, more than anything else, is the first name of Otto Octavius a.k.a. Dr Octopus, crazed inventor and arch-enemy of Spiderman in the Marvel universe.

Played by Alfred Molina, who looks reasonably close to how I see Otto, especially with a beard. Here he is in Silk (2007).

Alfred Molina. The man rocks a fine beard.

Otto Bazalgette, inventor and owner of a remarkable little airship, lumbered like a slender bear in out-of-town tweeds. He shrugged, and the seams of his tweed jacket screamed.

He wore a brown canvas dustcoat on top of his tweeds and smelled of soap, as if he’d been working on something that involved grease and spanners and had to scrub up before he came out to greet his visitors. “Do you like dogs much?”
Katie smiled. “No,” she said. “I prefer peppermint creams.”

His cheeks flushed with round pink spots and he drew in such a deep breath his collar threatened to pop out of its studs. The rings under his eyes creased deeper, as dark as engine-oil, his gaze motionless as an owl’s.

I wanted the reader to understand how large Otto is compared to the other characters. He has to be larger than Sledgehammer Girl, for a start. And she’s – umm, statuesque. It’s the little things that give it away, though.

His fingers curled around the edge of the saucer that rested in his palm.

He smiled down at her, his eyes dark and hooded and still ringed with the impression of his flying-goggles.

Katie succumbed to the urge to peck him on the cheek, if only to irk Victoria. He being a full head-and-a-half taller than she, this peck on the cheek required a fierce tug on his jacket lapel and a stretch on tiptoe.

His intelligence fascinated Victoria, his enthusiasm for the Sibyl quite disarming, his movements around the airship’s cabin so light-footed and graceful that even though he was larger than she by a good margin, she felt quite the clumsy oaf.

He lives in the middle of nowhere, in a dark and ancient forest. Mysterious, no?

The house was large and rambling and its gardens even more so, only kept under control by the judicious application by the gardener of copious amounts of aviation fuel, ignited, from a home-made flame-thrower that Otto had designed and built especially for the purpose.

Sshh – it’s where he keeps his top-secret airship.

Otto returned from the airship hangar that evening with a new oil stain down one side of his brown canvas dustcoat from the top pocket almost to his waist, as if he’d put a dipstick in there and forgot about it.
His eyes were ringed with indentations from his safety-goggles, and his moustache was singed on one side.


As if Otto Bazalgette wasn’t enough for you, here’s some Fortean background material of the sort that pulses through the Petticoat Katie stories, a distillation of generic weirdness into cosy steampunk.

The original weather engine was built by Wilhelm Reich, a controversial figure also known for constructing other scientific devices – see this Thought.co article on Wilhelm Reich and the Orgone Accumulator.

This idea came back into fashion with hippies and the alternative scene. Here’s Hawkwind: “Orgone Accumulator” (YouTube link) for starters.

And of course you can buy orgone accumulators off Etsy… somewhat smaller and more glittery than the original.

pyramid of plastic resin filled with glitter
A particularly juicy ‘orgone accumulator’ from QuartzologyLtd

Weather engines are nothing new. Here’s a snippet from the website of the Edwards Aquifer in the USA:

During an intense drought in the early 1890s, interest in rainmaking around San Antonio was high. Rainmaking practitioners had developed secret concoctions and were using artillery, ballons, kites, and towers to blast or expel particles and gaseous emissions into the heavens.

cloudseeding, edwardsaquifer.net
two men looking into a clear box with vapour inside
Vincent J Shaefer – Rainmaker

Vincent J Shaefer was one of those inventors who played with the heavens. Atmospheric scientists seemed ten-a-penny a hundred years ago. Maybe we need them back.


If there’s more than a hint of deja vu about Otto Bazalgette, perhaps we’ve all seen him somewhere before:

He straightened up and put the tiny hammer on the workbench, running his other hand over his hair and pushing back his lank fringe which had flopped over his eyes. “Ah,” he said, “It’s you.”