Tuesday, 30 April 2013


Every year the Royal Welsh Showground at Builth Wells is host to a celebration of all things yarn related - Wonderwool was on last weekend, and I was able to get a lift with some other ladies from the local Stitch and Bitch group to make a day of it.
And you do need a day. I'm very organised, and start at one end of the vast hall, and walk up and down the aisles until I reach the other end - and it takes around an hour if you're only glancing at the stalls for a quick recce to start with. When I know roughly what's there, I go back to the ones that caught my eye to have a closer look.
This year I was looking for things I could use for re-enactment. I'm going to my first medieval show of the year next weekend, at Droitwich, and I wanted to have a good display of medieval dyes to show people. I already have madder (which makes red) and weld (which makes yellow). I managed to get St John's Wort (a versatile plant that can make brown, maroon, yellow and green, depending on what mordant* you use), walnut husks (brown), Dyer's Greenweed (yellow, but when used with woad it's half of Lincoln green), cutch grass (yellow), and dyer's chamomile (yellow again). I got all those from the Mulberry Dyer and Fiery Felts. All I'm missing now is some woad for the blues.
One of the reasons I do this is to demonstrate that medieval people didn't go round in mud-coloured clothes all the time. Dye plants were free to pick - all it took was time and a lot of boiling in a cauldron. In fact, peasants were more likely to be wearing pastel shades (because those were cheaper), while richer people wore stronger colours. The word "migraine" originally meant a bright scarlet dye - strong enough to give you a headache!
I was also after lucets, so I can use them to teach the basics of cord making. I got some nice ones from Hedgehog Equipment, and I found a book on more advanced techniques for myself (always stay one step ahead of your students!).

*a mordant fixes the dye so it doesn't run when the cloth is washed. Common medieval mordants included salt and urine!

Friday, 26 April 2013

Writing Magazine - "It must be magic"

The Writing Magazine does a regular column about writing different sorts of fiction, and this month the "Fiction Focus", by Margaret James, was on Fantasy writing.
Now, fantasy writing is something I think I know a bit about. I've been reading it since childhood, and trying to write it for about ten years. The article is a beginner's guide - but so disappointing, even when that is taken into account.

She starts off gradually, for those people who are not fantasy readers at all, with some examples of alternate history. Robert Harris's Fatherland is very well known, of course - but where's Harry Turtledove? He's written a lot more excellent alternative history than Robert Harris ever did.

Then Margaret James gets into the meat of the article. "There are at least three gradations of fantasy writing," she says, "from reality-based fiction, through to fiction which links our world to an alternative reality, to heroic fantasy set in an invented world in which not even the laws of classroom physics need apply."

For reality-based fiction, she mentions The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, which is based on a Russian fairy tale. All very fine - but where is Charles de Lint's Newford, for example?
She goes on to talk about time-slip fiction, with no examples of that sub-genre at all, so how about Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, a children's story set at a girls' boarding school? That story was so good it got onto Jackanory, the children's BBC series that read a book a week for many years. In fact, when I look at Goodreads, there is a list of 617 time travel stories, and just among the children's examples there is Moondial by Helen Cresswell, The Children of Green Knowe by LM Boston, and Johnny and the Bomb by Terry Pratchett, all of them made into TV serials. Or for adults, how about Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, or Tim Powers' Anubis Gates?

"As for stories set in both our own world and in a fantasy world, linking the two, the Harry Potter and Twilight series are the obvious contenders here," Margaret James says. But surely Twilight should go into her first category of reality based fiction set in this world only? And what about Narnia and the most famous wardrobe in all fiction, or Alice in Wonderland? Or for adults, Neil Gaiman's London Below in Neverwhere, or Guy Gavriel Kay, or Barbara Hambly's Darwath series?

And for heroic fantasy, she chooses Lord of the Rings. She says herself it's the "obvious role model" - but heroic fantasy has come on a long way since all those sub-Tolkien quests with Halflings, elves and dwarfs, and if a writer wants to start writing heroic fantasy now, they'd be better advised to read some of the more recent work. What about Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea, or even Robert Jordan's immensely long Wheel of Time series, or Raymond E Feist, or Tad Williams, or Robin Hobb, or George RR Martin...?

Some of the advice she gives is good, however - but it doesn't just apply to fantasy. The reader has to be able to identify with the characters, even if they're in love with a sparkly vampire or three feet tall with hairy feet. "[We need] to believe we're reading about beings which share our human traits, both the good and the bad, and with whom we can empathise," she says, and later, "We need these stories because they explain us to ourselves."

If someone who has never written fantasy, but would rather like to try, takes this article as their guide, I'm not at all sure that what they produce would be publishable.

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Importance of a Good Book Cover

One of the pieces of advice often given to self published authors is to get a good book cover. There are now artists out there who will produce a cover for that work of genius for quite reasonable rates. They can avoid the pitfalls, such as making sure that the images used are not copyrighted to someone else (there are websites of royalty free pictures, too, or images for which the license can be bought very cheaply).
Of course, I discovered this after I'd made the attempt to produce my own book cover - I did know about copyright, which is why Raven's Heirs and Ice Magic have a royalty free picture (of a raven and an ice cliff respectively), and Like Father, Like Daughter has my own photograph of an archway at the ruined monastic buildings just off Widemarsh Street in Hereford.

My skills are extremely basic, and a professional could have done a much better job - but are book covers really so important?
I started to wonder about this when I found two different blogs. One is called Good Show, Sir, and the other is Caustic Cover Critic, and they both deal with images of book covers which they proceed to ridicule - usually with good cause! The thing is, these covers were produced by professionals who were paid for their efforts, and some of them are hilariously bad - yet the books were still bought in at least modest numbers. Some of them were even by quite famous authors - like Michael Moorcock, for instance. A collection of his book covers from the 1970s look like psychedelia gone mad.

So I'm happy to accept that a good cover is an asset to a book's sales, but ultimately I think it's the story that counts, and if an author can get word of mouth recommendations, the cover doesn't matter too much (as long as it doesn't completely suck!)

Sunday, 21 April 2013


I came to graphic novels in a strange and roundabout way. I love the work of Neil Gaiman, who started in comics and moved on to novels - I'm aware of his Sandman stories, but I don't think I've ever sat down and read one all the way through. However, he came back to comics with his friend Dave McKean to do a re-imagining of the Marvel universe in a story called 1602.
In this parallel universe, the year is 1602, and many superheroes familiar to comic readers are being born early - so the story includes the X-men and Fantastic Four and Nick Fury and lots of others. One of the characters is a blind Irish minstrel called Matt Murdoch, who had a devil-may-care attitude that I rather liked. I discovered that he was based on Daredevil (who I'd never heard of) so I went off and found a Daredevil story to see what he was like in the present day.
The graphic novel that I found was by Mark Waid, and deals with Matt Murdoch's return to his lawyer's practice in New York, where he is also a costumed vigilante. Fortunately, enjoyment of the story doesn't depend on knowing too much back story! I found the depiction of Daredevil's echo location skills and his super sensitive hearing fascinating, and I liked the way other superheroes made guest appearances. Captain America turns up, and the Fantastic Four are mentioned - and so are Latveria and various super villain organisations. I also liked the way that Daredevil can talk his way out of a difficult situation because he is clever, rather than just hitting people very hard (though he can do that too).
I think I'll be looking out for more Daredevil stories.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Writing and Real Life Experiences

I do quite a bit of browsing round blogs, and recently I found an interesting interview between two authors. Samantha Holt of samanthaholtauthor.blogspot.co.uk was interviewing Kim Rendfield of kimrendfield.com (for anyone who wants to go and look at their blogs) about her historical romance The Cross and the Dragon, set in 8thC Francia.
The interview was on 18th March, and I hope she won't mind, but I found one of her questions so interesting that I'd like to answer it here.

"Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?"

When I wanted to start writing again, after a long gap where I hadn't had the time or the energy, I started thinking about one of the characters I'd created in my teenage years. Mal Petroc had a few "beginner's flaws" - anyone familiar with Diana Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasyland will know the one about magic users and fire ("Magelight or magefire is so common among MAGIC USERS that it is probably what an APPRENTICE Wizard learns to do on his first day.") And he was a Harper - but he had a backstory I thought I could do something with.
So I started to think about what he would be doing if he was now middle aged. At the time, I was trying to get a small business off the ground selling secondhand SF books in Hay-on-Wye, so I thought I might like to see him doing that. It was, after all, something I knew quite a lot about.
So how could I get him from the fantasy land where he grew up to Hay? That was relatively easy - I've always thought that Hay has this feeling of being slightly skew to real life, as if you're almost on the edge of a fantasy world already (I think it's the combined influence of all those books - all those stories - crammed into a small space), and Portals are common in fantasy literature, so obviously he came through a Portal.
But, why would he leave his own world? That was more difficult. At first I thought it would be because of a book, probably a magical book, but as I thought more about the sort of magic used in Ytir, I realised that they haven't got a lot of use for magical books - their magic is an innate talent, and they don't use spells.
So, not a book (a pity, because a magical book hidden in the depths of Richard Booth's famously chaotic bookshop would have been quite fun). It had to be a person - and they had come to Hay because they were on the run from - well, some sort of Dark Lord or something.
That was how it started, and that's why Mal has a bookshop in the middle of Hay, and drinks in the Rose and Crown. By that time he'd become more of an individual character and less of a stereotype - and a single dad, as the person he came through the Portal with was a little girl....

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Welcome to Sherwood!

It's one of the great foundation myths of England (the other is King Arthur, the just king) - the Outlaw of Sherwood Forest, bold Robin Hood, robbing from the rich to give to the poor. He's one of my favourite fictional characters - I grew up loving Errol Flynn and Richard Greene in the role, and I enjoyed the addition of paganism in the 1980s Robin of Sherwood (Richard Carpenter, the creator of Robin of Sherwood, is probably also responsible for all those Muslim characters who have cropped up in films ever since, with his inclusion of Nazir in the band). I was delighted to see Captain Picard as Errol Flynn in the Next Generation episode Qpid (though the best line in that episode went to Worf, and his "Sir, I protest. I am not a Merry Man.")

The point is that there is a strong undercurrent in the British psyche about fairness, and standing up to tyranny and unfair taxes.

That's why I was delighted to stumble across the blog of Damh the Bard, at www.paganmusic.co.uk/blog - it's called The Bardic Blog, and on 2nd April, he posted a free download of a song called The Sons and Daughters of Robin Hood. It's a protest song against our present Sheriffs of Nottingham and Prince Johns, and I think I've found a new favourite folk musician.
His blog is well worth a read, too, for anyone interested in Paganism.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Serenity's Shepherd

I may not have a brown coat in my wardrobe, but I loved Firefly - and I was always intrigued by the mystery surrounding Shepherd Book.
When I went into Waterstones in Hereford yesterday, I found that the graphic novel section had got bigger - and they had The Shepherd's Tale.
I had to treat myself.
It's always nice to see a character in fiction, especially SF, who takes religion seriously, but is not a caricature. Book has a real faith and takes it seriously in the series (and it's not often you see the St Francis prayer "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace" in a comic book).
The story has an odd structure. It starts with what we know, from the film Serenity, right at the end of Book's life, and gradually works backwards, scene by scene. Of course, he lived through the war - and he wasn't always a priest (was he ever actually a priest at all? Devoutly Christian, certainly, and he'd come from a monastery when Kaylee persuaded him to travel with the Serenity crew), but what had he done with the rest of his life?
Well, this story tells all - everything that led up to the appearance of Book in the series, anyway.
Zack Whedon tells the story, from an outline by Joss Whedon, and Chris Samnee is the artist - and I shall be looking out for more of their work.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Ladylike Behaviour

I found this image on the Sharon Kay Penman Fan Club Facebook page (I'm a great fan of her books, particularly the Welsh trilogy and the Queen's Man mysteries - and anything else with Eleanor of Aquitaine, for that matter).
It's from the Smithfield Decretals, held in the British Library, a work of canon law with lots of pretty pictures like this - and the person who posted it on Facebook found it on a blog called Interesting Pretties.
Every lady should be able to defend her own castle.

I have a hand-and-a-half sword myself, and though I'm not very good at using it (lacking anyone to practice with locally) I still get to go out on the battlefield at re-enactment shows.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Page 3 Girls and SF Book Covers

The Girl Guides Association was on the Today programme this morning (BBC Radio 4) talking about their opposition to Page 3 of the Sun. For anyone not in the UK, one of our national newspapers has printed a photo of a nearly nude young lady on their page 3 every day since - well, pretty much forever, actually. Which is a lot of naked young ladies.
Every now and then, a few women get together to say they don't like it, but the Sun carries on regardless.
There are lots of other good reasons for not buying the Sun - this is just one of them.

The campaign reminded me of the excellent blog by Jim C Hines, though.
Occasionally, he pokes fun at the improbable poses of young ladies on SF book covers by attempting to re-create them with himself as the model. It's very funny, and it also makes the serious point that the covers are sexist and stupid.
A little while ago, he got a group of SF writers together to pose together. The event was ConFusion, and the group pose has raised over $15,000 for the Aicardi Syndrome Foundation. Details are here:


(Sorry I can't manage links, but copy and paste will get you there!)

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Spitalfields Life

I've just added a link to Spitalfields Life to my side bar.
It's not because I have any special connection to Spitalfields - I've been there once or twice, but I've never lived there, and wouldn't say I knew it very well - but the "gentle author" of this blog makes it seem such a fascinating place. He finds all sorts of interesting and unusual people, of all races and nationalities, doing all sorts of different jobs, all getting along together in a small area of London.
There's Barn the Spoon, who makes a living by carving wooden spoons, and has just been along to the Museum of London to look at medieval spoons that he can copy.
There are portraits of elderly boxers, and clowns at the annual Grimaldi Clown service. There are historic buildings and snippets of local history, and artists of all sorts, and greasy spoon takeaways, ethnic restaurants, and people who make small amounts of artisan marmalade.
There are Jews and Somalis and Huguenots and all sorts of other people who call the East End home, all telling their stories to the gentle author.
It's a fascinating mixture - and it's useful to remember this vast variety for all sorts of reasons, from creating a believable and richly textured city population for a fantasy novel to more serious thoughts about immigration and how that affects life in our cities.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Planning Ahead - WorldCon 2014

It may seem to be a long time in advance, but I've just booked my tickets for LonCon - the World SF Convention 2014. (I'm very excited).

The reasons for my excitement go back a long way. In 1979, I read an article in the Manchester Evening News about the SF convention that had just been held in Brighton. I was just about old enough to have thought about going to it on my own (I even had savings, so I could have afforded it!). I read it and thought: "Why didn't I know about this?"
Not long after that, I started going to Star Trek Conventions - but in the back of my mind there was the thought that there was something bigger and better out there. Mostly in the US, of course, which put it right out of my reach.
Then in 1987, WorldCon came back to Brighton.

I went, of course. By that time, I was part of a Star Trek club, and all of us managed to get down for at least one day together (I still have a photo of us all in our club Tshirts somewhere).* I went to my first (and only) rock concert - Hawkwind were doing their Elric of Melnibone music. Elsewhere in Brighton, there was a Philip Glass opera going on.
I discovered filk music (and still have some of the cassette tapes I bought there), and saw Michael Moorcock across the hall signing autographs, and went to a writer's workshop run by Harry Harrison (who was wearing a Tshirt saying "I love the Stainless Steel Rat").
We saw Doris Lessing in the audience of the talk that Gerry Anderson gave, and somehow I managed to get the job of room steward for a showing of Doctor Who The War Games (which was on a very bad tape where the picture kept sliding across the screen, but we still watched it all and enjoyed it!).
I met members of the SCA for the first time, and that started me thinking about historical re-enactment.
I bought a phaser and was then advised to hide it until I got back to the hotel, because there was a very strict no weapons policy for the convention (which rather cramped the style of one of the ladies I recognised from Trek Cons, who usually went around festooned with weapons as an assassin. She had long blonde hair, and also did a very good Alice in Wonderland!)
It was fantastic!

There was a half-hour TV programme made about the Con. Brian Aldiss, the Toastmaster, was interviewed, and several of the people who had made elaborate costumes. My mum and dad watched it, and about halfway through, dad said: "This is just the sort of rubbish our Lesley would go to." Mum knew that I'd been there, so she was on pins for the rest of the programme, in case I turned up in the background of one of the shots!

Another thing that happened during the Convention was that one of the authors attending got himself arrested! Iain Banks was found climbing up the outside of the hotel he was staying in to get to his room, after a rather convivial evening! (I'm sure it was Iain Banks, though I can't find any record of it now. It was in the local paper, and the article was stuck up on the information boards around the Con).

Next year, Iain Banks was going to be one of the Guests of Honour of the convention - but he probably won't be around to see it. The news about his cancer is very sad, and I hope he and his partner do wonderful things in the time that's left to him.

One of the other Guests of Honour is Bryan Talbot, author of the Grandville graphic novels, among many others. My Young Man is already planning an Inspector LeBrock costume, and if he's LeBrock, I'll have to take his arm as the Divine Sarah! All we need are the badger masks.

The other Guests of Honour are Chris Foss the artist, and John Clute, who co-edited the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction and the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy (I have them both, but they're each about four inches thick, so I won't be taking them along to have them autographed!).
Malcolm Edwards is a publisher, who launched the SF Masterworks series of books and now works for Orion Publishing. He started off with Victor Gollancz, and went on to Grafton and HarperCollins, so he has a long and distinguished SF pedigree.
Jeanne Gomoll is this Con's Famous Fan - she's been active on the committee of Wiscon (the world's leading feminist SF convention, apparently - so much goes on in the US that I don't know about!) for 37 years, and she's written fan fiction and produced artworks that have had Hugo nominations.
The last guest of honour is Robin Hobb, prolific fantasy author - and of course there will be many other famous names wandering round the halls.
I wonder if I'll recognise anyone from 1980s Star Trek fandom?

*The name of the club was incredibly obscure - Ne'a'driar, which had appeared in a fan story that my friend, and founder of the club, Pat Keen, had written, and which was supposed to mean Little Brother in Vulcan - or even more precisely, Brother who is Seven Years Younger, taking the mechanics of pon farr as we understood them into account! We ran a couple of conventions in Shepperton in the 1980s, which were great fun.

Friday, 5 April 2013

The Black Orchid

What a pity this only ever ran to three issues!
It's a complete story in itself, of course, but I don't think there's ever been a sequel featuring purple plant ladies from the Amazon jungle!
In 1988, Neil Gaiman took the character of Black Orchid, a costumed super hero, and made her into something rich and strange, as only he can.
Back in 1988, I was almost as innocent of the Gotham City universe as Black Orchid's recently woken sister, though that didn't spoil my enjoyment of the story. Reading it now, I find that the story has a lot more depth to it that I didn't appreciate the first time round - because now I know about Arkham Asylum, and Swamp Thing, and some of the other little touches that were put into the story.
And now I'm wondering about reading some of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing stories....

Monday, 1 April 2013

Archaeology in TV and Film

"I'm a time traveller. I point and laugh at archaeologists."
So said David Tennant in Silence in the Library, as River Song and her team of archaeologists introduced themselves. And I trained as an archaeologist, so I point and laugh at the 'archaeologists' portrayed in TV and films.

Truthfully, though, it would be more accurate to call them "tomb robbers".

Take the Tomb of the Cybermen as an example. Having just seen and enjoyed The Bells of Saint John, I felt the need to revisit some classic Who, and you don't get much more classic than this Pat Troughton story. A team of archaeologists are opening up the ancient city of the Cybermen (in a quarry near Gerrard's Cross) - by blowing up the mountainside to reveal the doors! Even Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings didn't use explosives, and that was back in 1922!
Then, after carelessly losing the first member of their party to the electrified doors, they mention that everything must be carefully measured and recorded, but they're soon cheerfully pulling every lever in sight to see what happens! And thereby lose another member of the party. The party itself isn't composed only of academics, either - there's the wealthy couple who financed the expedition, and their tall black servant (let's just not mention the racist and sexist parts of the story just now....that would be a whole different post). Unsurprisingly, the wealthy couple are up to no good - and it was revealed in the DVD extras that the actor who played the wealthy man was already well known from Hammer Films, mostly as the baddy searching for a mummy's tomb.

Those 'archaeologists' paid lip service to the recording of the site by writing a few things down in a note book and taking a few photographs (at least before the Cybermen were re-activated, being not as dead as they were supposed to be).
Some screen archaeologists don't even do that (I'm looking at you, Doctor Henry Jones, Jr.). Indy's very first scene was an act of tomb robbing - going for the golden statue in the booby trapped tomb/temple/whatever it was. A properly archaeological expedition would have been far more interested in finding out how those booby traps worked as they explored the complex - the statue would have been mildly interesting (okay - it was gold, and archaeologists are human too) but it would have been only one thing in a whole wealth of information that they could have brought back about the skills and technology of the local tribal peoples.
Perhaps strangely, Belloc's excavations, with all the local people digging away in the sand, was much more like actual excavations of the period - Egypt is easy from one point of view, because there's no stratigraphy in sand to speak of. It gets far more difficult in Europe, because you can see the differences between the different layers of soil, and it's also possible to date them by the finds in each layer, or at the very least, relative to each other (and more recently there's pollen analysis and lots of other fun scientific stuff).

Then there was the episode of Murder, She Wrote, when Jessica was a volunteer on a dig which was laid out in a way that hadn't been used by real archaeologists since the 1950s. Once again, there was no recording to speak of, and when Jessica found something exciting, she picked it up and waved it in the air!!!
I winced. I still wince now, just thinking about it. You don't move anything until it's been recorded in situ, which includes being photographed, and getting the people with the theodolite to plot its position and height/depth from a base line, as well as someone with a planning board coming round to draw the thing onto a plan. (When I was digging, computer planning was just about coming into use, but mostly we used tracing paper and pencils, and meter square frames threaded with string at 10cm intervals to form a grid we could lay over the bit we wanted to plan.).
I once spent a whole day uncovering a Saxon pot in a rubbish pit, gradually realising that it was the only complete Saxon pot we had found on a site that was so thickly littered with Thetford ware potsherds that some of the girls took a few home to use in the bottom of their plantpots! Though it had no intrinsic value, being pot rather than gold, it was treated very carefully indeed - and certainly not waved about in the air! It was planned, in situ, and had levels taken on it, and it was given a finds number, before we even thought of moving it. (But the thrill when it finally came loose from the earth, after all that time! That was something special.)

You'd think that, with Time Team being on TV for years, modern TV series would be a bit better about the details of a dig.
What a pity about Bonekickers, then.
I wanted to like this series. I really did! It had a real archaeological consultant, and up until about half way through the first episode they even looked as if they were trying to look like a real dig. I could forgive them the chainmail that came out of the ground after 800 years and wasn't rusted into a solid lump - viewers had to understand quickly that it was chainmail, after all.
But then one of the students invited a member of the public to jump into the trench with her, and then the same student lifted up a chunk of wood from the ground in much the same way as Jessica had done in Murder, She Wrote, and waved it around. She even tucked it under her arm and took it to show the director of the dig - and she didn't get thrown off her course! Or the dig. And this lump of wood turned out to be a piece of the True Cross - the member of the public got a splinter and started performing miracles, and the archaeologists ended up in a huge cavern under the dovecote at Garway, their only reaction to leaving a dead body behind them being "Let's go to the pub!"