Friday, 31 October 2014

Women Warriors - French Resistance Fighter

This is Simone Segouin, in a photo from 1944. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her actions during the Second World War. She was eighteen when this photo was taken, during the Liberation of Paris, and had previously been involved in the fall of Chartres, where she was interviewed by a journalist for Life magazine.

Happy Hallowe'en

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Grandville and Luther Arkwright

When we were at WorldCon this August, my Young Man and I dressed up as Inspector LeBrock, of Bryan Talbot's Grandville novels, and his girlfriend the Divine Sarah (who are, of course, both badgers). We were delighted that Bryan Talbot himself took a photo of us, and that photo is now on his website at

This picture was taken by our friend Becky - Bryan Talbot took our photo in the main concourse of the Excel centre, just outside the hall where he was about to give a talk.

The latest in the Grandville series, Grandville:Noel, is being launched on 27th November, and Bryan and Mary Talbot will be at Forbidden Planet in London doing a book signing on the evening of the 26th November.
Also out now is the re-issue of the Luther Arkwright stories, also by Bryan Talbot, called Arkwright Integral, which is an enormous tome, comprising the Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Heart of Empire!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Travelling in Costume

When I was eleven, my family went to the Peel Viking Festival on the Isle of Man. To get there, we went on the bus from Douglas across the island - and sitting in front of me, so close I could touch the fur on his collar, was one of the Viking re-enactors in full kit.
It was very exciting - and I wanted to be able to do that.
Thinking back on it, his kit was not all that authentic, but it didn't matter. I was sitting on a bus with a real, live Viking!
So ever since then, I've made a point of travelling in costume whenever I can.
As a student, I travelled from Lancaster to London dressed as a Lord of the Rings elf, to the fascination of a little girl sitting across the carriage from me, who plucked up the courage to ask me if I was real as we were pulling into London. "Yes, I am," I said, and she looked so delighted she could burst!
I've also, as a dare, worn my Star Trek original series miniskirt uniform on a train from Liverpool (where the convention was being held) to London. I was also being an Andorian that weekend, so I was painted blue with a white wig and antennae, too. I was with a group of friends, also in costume, for most of the journey, but not when we were crossing London on the tube on the final leg of the journey home.
It was also the weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival, and my clearest memory is of a tube train stopping at the platform, too cram packed with people for us to get on. The doors opened, people saw me and screamed, and the doors closed again.
And now I'm a historical re-enactor. The first time I wore my wimple in public, I was mistaken for a nun.
On another occasion, I was dropped off in Hereford to go home from a show, while the rest of the group went on somewhere else (I had to get home, unfortunately). I had an hour or so to wait for the bus home, so I went into the cathedral, just as a service was about to start. The chap giving hymnbooks out didn't turn a hair, even though I was lugging a suitcase with a longbow tied to it. I was very impressed.
More recently, I've been attending Hereford History Day (it's been running for three or four years now). I travel by bus locally often enough to recognise the drivers, and they recognise me, so I explained as I paid the fare where I was going, in my full medievals with a big wicker basket full of spinning and weaving supplies. "I wasn't going to say a word," he said.
This year, the emphasis was more on the First World War, so the medieval group I belong to wasn't there, and I went in dressed in a long linen skirt, Laura Ashley blouse and a solar topee - obviously just back from the Raj in time to wave goodbye to Our Brave Boys as they went to the Front. And because I wasn't part of a group that day, I could also go to the Beer on the Wye Beer Festival.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Divination with Sheep's Ankle Bones

I'm coming to the end of my first draft for my medieval fantasy (the dragon is slain, so it's all over bar the shouting), so I've been keeping an eye open for ideas to incorporate into my next story, which will be a Steampunk adventure set in China and Mongolia. I know the basic shape of that story, too - Miss Amelia Harper and her friend Li Bic are sent to discover the whereabouts of an expedition lost in Mongolia, and they come across a group of bandits who ambush pack trains loaded with romantic novels! This was a real thing - Chinese novels translated into Mongolian were fantastically popular, and the pack trains really did get raided by bandits. I read about it in a blog about Victorian life beyond London and the Empire, where most Steampunk stories seem to be set, and thought it was too good an idea to let go (possibly by Ayleen the Peace-Maker? I forget now). My bandits, though, are all going to be women, who want to read the romantic novels for themselves before they sell them on.
All of which is a pre-amble to a lovely snippet of information I found in a blog called woolwinding. The writer of the blog has been looking at the long co-existence of humans and sheep, and mentioned a method of divination using sheep's ankle bones which I must find a place for in my story. The bones are roughly cuboid, like dice, but with convex and concave sides, which stand for lucky and unlucky things (the horse is the most lucky roll). It's called shagai, and it all adds a bit of local colour to the narrative.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Designing a Magical System

Too many rules? Not enough rules? How should it work in the world you've designed?

Jamie Schulz said this on io9 recently:

"Good magic systems have a framework, a set of limitations that is fairly clear to the reader, such that magic doesn't run the risk of blowing the internal logic of the story to Hell."

which I thought summed it up quite nicely.

I don't have too many rules - for one thing, I'd never remember them - but on the other hand I don't want a character to have a "get out of jail free" card whenever they need one. So I have five sorts of magic users, roughly speaking - they can manipulate one of the four Elements of Earth, Fire, Water or Air, or they can influence human (or animal) minds. So they can be powerful, but only in restricted ways - a Fire user can't float in mid-air like an Air user, for instance. I use bastardised Welsh terms for them, because I'm not a Welsh speaker but I wanted a Welsh flavour to it, so my family of fire users are called tanwch - tan for fire, and -wch is a suffix which makes a word into a command, like when Arafwch is written on the roads, meaning Slow!
I purposely didn't have any healing magic in my world, because I really think it's a cheat. If a character is wounded or sick, they shouldn't be able to leap up and do important stuff immediately - they should lie down and suffer for as long as it takes.
But then I added unicorns to my world, and unicorn horns in the Middle Ages were traditionally used for neutralising poison, and healing. They're pretty rare - but it is a "get out of jail free" card, as long as the user of the unicorn horn is a virgin, of course.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Women Warriors - Ancient China

I found a book today called Iron and Silk, about the experiences of a Western martial arts teacher in China. His name is Mark Salzman, and he chose an extract of a poem to start the book off. It's called "On Seeing a Pupil of Lady Kuan-sun Dance with the Sword" and it's by Tu Fu, who lived between 712 - 70AD. This is Mark Salzman's own translation:

"Her swordplay moved the world
Those who beheld her, numerous as the hills,
lost themselves in wonder.
Heaven and Earth swayed in resonance....
Swift as the Archer shooting the nine suns
She was exquisite, like a sky-god
behind a team of dragons, soaring...."

Monday, 20 October 2014

Formative Images of a "Writer"

Kameron Hurley has written an excellent article over at Fantasy Magazine, at
She's talking mostly about women writers and epic fantasy, but she also talks about how people form images of "cheese" or "police officer" or "nurse" from their earliest exposures to those things, and thereafter, everything cheese-like has to be measured against that first experience of cheese to see if it fits.
So, her first experiences of writers were of white men, and this affected how she thought about writers for a long time.
Which got me thinking.
I never had the thought that I couldn't be a proper writer because I was female, because most of the writers I became aware of as a child were female. Enid Blyton was a massive influence - as a child, I desperately wanted to be George from the Famous Five, and go camping in the woods with my faithful dog. I didn't have a faithful dog until much later in life, but George's dog Timmy was the reason I always wanted one.
Later, I discovered historical fiction through the medium of Rosemary Sutcliff, and to a lesser extent through Henry Treece and Geoffrey Trease - so I was aware that men wrote books, but I wasn't excluded because women wrote books too. The other great favourites of my early teenage years were Mary Renault and Mary Stewart.
As a Star Trek fan, I was aware early on that DC Fontana's first name was Dorothy, and that she had written two of my favourite episodes, Friday's Child and Journey to Babel. So women could clearly write good science fiction. Among all the Asimov and Clarke and Zelazny and Silverberg, there was also Ursula Le Guin and Marion Zimmer Bradley and CJ Cherryh and Anne McCaffrey. And fantasy didn't just mean Tolkein and his many imitators, it meant Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain, too, and Gillian Bradshaw and Mary Gentle and Andre Norton.
Which makes it strange to me that a new generation of readers seem to be unaware of the women writers who have always been there in SF and fantasy, and who inspired me to write.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The American Civil War and Britain

I met a chap today who was browsing the American Civil War books in the shop where I work. He was a re-enactor, but he said that English Heritage no longer hire American Civil War groups for events.
So what's the American Civil War got to do with English history?
Quite a lot, as it turns out, and this chap knew an enormous amount about it. There were the 179 ships built in Scotland for use as blockade runners to provision the South, for instance. Meanwhile, (something that I knew) Lancashire cotton mill workers were refusing to handle cotton from the American South in solidarity with the slaves. "Liverpool grew rich while Lancashire starved," the chap said. There was even an incident where a British ship was captured by the Union navy - which should have been an act of war, but Britain didn't have enough troops, and couldn't get troops to Canada quickly enough, so it was all smoothed over. If Canada had joined in the war, there could have been a very different outcome - Britain might even have got some of the Colonies back! (Or the Union could have conquered Canada!)
The French got involved - Napoleon III sent troops over to Mexico, though in the end it didn't help France, as the Mexican Civil War started just after the American Civil War ended.
So the American Civil War had serious repercussions in the British Isles - it's not just a foreign conflict that had nothing to do with us, so it seems quite reasonable to have societies re-enacting it.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Dysprosium EasterCon

Dysprosium is the 66th element in the Periodic Table, and 2015 is the 66th EasterCon.
It's also going to be the first EasterCon I've ever attended - I had such a brilliant time at LonCon3 that I want to experience more of the same, and EasterCon seems to be the nearest thing on British soil.
It's going to be held over the Easter weekend of 3 - 6 April at the Park Inn at Heathrow (I've already checked the buses from Hereford, and I can get right to the front door!).
There are four guests of honour - Jim Butcher, who is best known for the Dresden Files and is now writing a steampunk series; Seanan McGuire, who has been nominated for Hugo awards several times over the last couple of years (why have I never heard of her? I must find out more!); Herr Doktor, who was involved in the recent Longitude Punk'd exhibition at the Greenwich Observatory along with the lovely Dr Geof - my Young Man knows his work; and Caroline Mullan, who is Famous in Fandom, and was the guest liason for Robin Hobb at LonCon this year. And of course there will be panels and all sorts of other good things and this time we're going to be in the hotel so we don't have to go home early (we may possibly forget to sleep!).
We met some lovely gentlemen with a small steampunk Dalek at LonCon, who were advertising EasterCon - their efforts certainly paid off with us. I might not have known about EasterCon otherwise.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Death of Prince Dafydd

Poor Dafydd. It can be argued that he brought some of his bad fortune on himself, because he was notoriously disloyal to just about everybody in power - but he must also have had considerable personal charm, because he was always forgiven. Until that last time.
I hadn't realised it when I planned a day trip to Shrewsbury last week, but I chose 3rd October, which was the date when Dafydd was executed there in 1283, by Edward I of England. Dafydd was the last independent Prince of Wales, after his older brother Llewelyn was killed in a skirmish near Builth Wells the previous December. Dafydd held out against Edward until June, when he was captured near Rhuddlan after several weeks on the run. He was condemned to death for high treason on 30th September, and finally executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered, the first prominent person to be executed in that manner.
There are two excellent fictionalised re-tellings of the story, one being Edith Pargeter's Princes of Gwynnedd series, and the other being Sharon K Penman's The Reckoning, the third of her Welsh trilogy, and a book that I spent the entire last 200 pages weeping through because I knew how it was going to end for the Welsh!
When Caergwrle castle, near Wrexham, was being excavated by Powys Archaeological Service, I was the archaeologist who led the guided tours daily, so I knew the history very well indeed. It was from Caergwrle that Dafydd launched his Easter Day attack on nearby English-held Hawarden Castle, that started the last rebellion of an independent Wales against England. His brother Llewelyn was still attempting to keep the peace by diplomatic means.
The castle suffered a fire shortly after Edward I decided to make it a holiday cottage for himself and his wife - which amused us greatly at the time, because we were digging at about the same time as Welsh Nationalists were burning down English holiday cottages locally. (We weren't amused that people were having their property torched - it was just the historical irony of the same thing happening to Edward).
Next time I go to Shrewsbury, I will look out for the commemorative plaque about the execution, which is on the wall of Barclay's Bank at the top of Pride Hill.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Dic Penderyn

When I was in Cardiff earlier this week, I went into the Indoor Market, and noticed a blue plaque by the door:

(Click to make bigger)

The Merthyr Rising was more than just a riot - the coal miners who were protesting about low wages, high unemployment and the price of bread took over the town for about eight days, setting up road blocks and forming their own paramilitary organisation. They even managed to ambush the baggage train of the 93rd and beat off a hundred cavalry, while the coal mine owners and other members of the ruling elite were trapped in Penydarren House, guarded by members of the 93rd Highland Regiment, who had been forced to retreat there, leaving the rest of the town to the rioters. The authorities must have been having nightmares about the French Revolution starting again in Wales.

It seems that poor Dic was a scapegoat - the authorities wanted to hang someone after the riots in Merthyr Tydfil, and it didn't matter who. 11,000 people signed a petition pleading for his release, and there were appeals for clemency from members of the Welsh establishment, all of which was ignored by Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary. He was hanged outside the gaol on St Mary's Street in Cardiff, not far from the plaque. He was only 23. Thousands turned out for his funeral, and he was widely regarded as a martyr.