Posts Tagged ‘writing’

I’ve enthused before about the joys of world-building games like Microscope and Watching the World Die. I love the way that random chance and the structure of a rule set can lead to rich, surprising places that feel organic, coherent, and interesting.

I recently needed to develop the setting for a new story, and as it was set in a city I decided to try out a game designed for this very purpose – Ex Novo by Martin Nerurkar and Konstantinos Dimopoulos.

Ex Novo is simple to play and takes only a few hours. Most importantly given recent circumstances, you can play it solo.  I was creating my city during lockdown, and while my cat does like to play with dice, he’s not so great at urban planning.

Play turned out to be pretty simple. You decide a few basic parameters, including the size and age of your settlement. Then you roll dice and check a couple of tables to determine the terrain it’s founded in and why it’s there. After that, you play a series of rounds in which you roll more dice, look up the results on tables, and add features to the map depending upon those results.

Those randomised additions might sound like a recipe for something disjointed, but that’s not how the game works. Every random choice is both specific and open to interpretation, accompanied by questions that invite you to flesh out the details. Role 325 and you’re adding a new trade route, represented by a resource on the map, but what the resource is, where it goes, who it’s traded with and how, these are all open to interpretation. Just adding that resource to the map creates a relationship between it and other parts of the city, which encourages answers that built on what came before.

It helps that the example game plays a little loose with the rules, in the interests of a better narrative. This encourages flexibility, adding extra details while benefiting from the structure the rules bring.

I’d expected this game to just create a map, but it’s more than that. It creates a history for the city, a history tied to that map. It also creates political factions and develops the conflicts between them, showing the politics and society of your city. As a writer building a setting, that’s incredibly useful for me. It means that my characters have a past to talk about and other people to interact with, enriching my writing.

But the map,  that’s the most useful thing. I don’t normally bother with a map while writing. I might sketch out where named places are compared with each other, for the sake of consistency. But this game has given me districts,  public buildings, surrounding terrain, roads, walls, and ruins. Any time my characters travel from place to place, I can look at that map and get instant, surprising inspiration about what they’ll see.

This sort of game isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you like making up stories and imagining places then it can be a great tool, and with the designers currently letting you name your own price, Ex Novo is a bargain.

Sometimes, keeping writing is a struggle. I know all the arguments for keeping going. The ones based in passion, in professionalism, in the need to pay my bills. I know that once I start writing the words will eventually flow. I know that sometimes you’ve got to write crap and refine it into something sophisticated later. All of that is there in my head whenever I sit down at the keyboard. But some days it’s a struggle to keep going. When you’ve been locked up in the house for days without direct human contact. When your understanding and that of a client are wildly at odds. When there’s too much work or too little work or just the sort of work that’s frustrating to deal with. When you don’t want to write the thing you’re getting paid for, but the alternative is not being paid to write at all. There are more days like that at the moment. The covid-19 crisis has made the world a tougher place to deal with and that makes everything feel like a struggle. Sadly, this isn’t letting up any time soon. So acknowledge those frustrations. Recognise them. Own them. Accept that the feelings they bring are valid. Then find a way to burn off the worst of that frustration, whether it’s by blogging about it, going for a walk, or killing a hundred orcs in a computer game. And once your mental health can take it, get back into the seat and find a way to keep writing, because all the reasons to keep writing still stand.

Berlin, April 1945. Sergeant Nikolai Kulikov is part of the Russian army advancing into the city. When his unit is sent to clear out an apparently abandoned orphanage, they discover that the children have been left behind. Faced with enemy aggression and his own men’s indifference, can Nikolai get the children out alive?

This week sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Rats in the Rubble. It’s a story about the devastation of war, about struggling to survive, and about the power of stories. And of course, it’s also a reflection of the bits of history and culture that fascinate me.

The Battle of Berlin

This spring marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Berlin, one of the last and most destructive battles of the Second World War.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

By April 1945, Germany was on the brink of defeat. The Allies were storming across the country from both east and west. The armies of the Reich lay shattered. Its European allies, such as Italy and Finland, had long since fallen away. On the 16th of April, Berlin, which had so briefly been the capital of a huge and cruel empire, finally came under attack.

The Battle of Berlin was a vital moment, for both symbolic and practical reasons. As the capital of Germany, it held the remains of a collapsing government, its genocidal leader, and much of the grandeur of the Reich. Taking out this city would behead what remained of the German war machine while signalling the nation’s defeat.

For Germans still dedicated to the fight, this was a last stand. Children, old men, and the walking wounded took up arms. If Berlin fell then all was lost. While many in the city just wanted the war to be over, others would fight on to the end.

Desperate Germans weren’t the only reason why the fighting was so terrible. Mid-20th-century warfare was a colossally destructive business fought on an industrial scale, with high explosive bombs and shells shattering entire cities. That destruction now rained down on Berlin.

And then there were the attackers. For reasons of politics and geography, the task of capturing Berlin fell upon the Soviet Union. Its people had suffered particularly badly at the hands of Nazi-led armies. Millions had died, soldiers and civilians alike, and the great cities of the Soviet heartland had been left as shattered shells. Many in the Red Army were out for revenge and felt that the Germans deserved every awful thing that could happen.

Writing Heroism into Horror

Even at a distance of 75 years, it’s hard to write an action story set amid that destruction, given the risk of romanticising a battle in which thousands of innocent civilians were robbed, assaulted, and killed. But even in the darkest moments, there are acts of heroism, and I wanted to reflect that.

This is where Nikolai Kulikov comes in. The hero of Rats in the Rubble is an idealist. He might fight with all his strength and brutality, but he still believes in protecting the innocent, and when we realises that there are children at risk he becomes committed to looking after them.

In some ways, his heroism shines more brightly against the darkness. Rats in the Rubble shows the destruction of Berlin, from the falling bombs to the callous disregard of many in the Red Army. It’s story about surviving a moment of horror, morally as well as physically.

My Raid Story

This is one of the more compact stories I’ve told for Commando. Rather than taking place across days, weeks, or even months, the action is contained to just a few hours and a single military action – one infantry squad assaulting an old orphanage.

In terms of story structure, this is my military history take on Dredd and The Raid, two of the most tightly contained action stories on film. Just like in those movies, the protagonists have to fight their way up through a single building, confronting dangers on each floor, as they try to defeat a deadly enemy who uses the building to their advantage. It’s a style that’s well suited to the Battle of Berlin, an intense, claustrophobic conflict fought amid the buildings of a shattered city.

Parallel Stories

This is also a story I’ve used to play with comic-writing techniques.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the different ways that words and pictures can interact. One can dominate over the other, they can work together to provide meaning they couldn’t on their own, and sometimes they even duplicate each other or tell separate stories. It’s something I’ve been wanting to play with for a while, and in this story I got to do that.

There’s a section in Rats in the Rubble where the pictures and the words part ways. While a character tells a fairytale story, the images show a dark moment in his past. In a sense, it’s what McCloud would call a parallel relationship, but in another sense it’s interdependence. These apparently parallel stories together show how Kulikov views himself, how the war has touched him emotionally, and what he is trying to achieve.

It’s one of my favourite bits of script I’ve ever written, and a technique I’m hoping to play with more in the future.

The End

Because of its subject and timing, Rats in the Rubble is also about the end of the war. It’s coming out around the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when the war in Europe ended, and that’s reflected in the end of the comic itself. As I said before, this is a story about survival, and that means it gets to celebrate being alive.

That seems a suitable point to end this. Rats in the Rubble comes out on the 30th of April, when you can get it through Comixology or direct from the publishers. If you enjoy claustrophobic action thrillers then check out The Raid and Dredd, and if you’re interested in reading more about how words and pictures work together than I really recommend McCloud’s Understanding Comics – it’s an accessible and insightful discussion of how comics work.

Happy reading!

How do we turn the past into stories?

It might sound like a simple question, but the relationship between stories and real events is complex and messy.

The Nature of History

Last week, I received editorial comments on a history article I’m writing. High on the to-do list was making the article into more of a story. As soon as I read that, I knew what they meant, and I knew that they were right. I also knew why I hadn’t done it the first time around.

The past isn’t a neat narrative. It’s a jumple of people, places, and events. At one time these were facts, and what we’re left with is the evidence of what those facts might have been. It’s jumbled and disjointed, but also complex and confusing. Nothing about it is simple. Nothing happens for one reason.

One step removed from the past lies history. This is an attempt to establish facts from the evidence, to put those facts in order, and to squeeze meaning from them. It narrows the focus of what we’re looking at, asserts cause and effect, and prioritises some patterns over others. To do this, it draws boundaries about what’s included in any particular account of history, from the infinite variety of options available.

And then there are stories set in the past, whether told as fiction or non-fiction. These narrow the focus further, to individual people and what happened to them. It turns patterns into narratives, the mechanical procession of events into human experiences. It simplifies some things and exaggerates others so that they come to life for us.

In writing my article, I’d taken the jumble of facts and turned them into history, but I’d missed the next step. I had something that showed patterns in the past, but that didn’t engage well with our humanity.

Framing the Narrative

Whether you’re writing history or a story, there’s also another element to how this works, and that’s framing.

Take the First World War. It’s a messy business. It began and ended at different times in different parts of the world. It was fought in different ways on different fronts, in land and sea and air, was tangled in with events on the home front, and its effects linger with us a century on. Parts of France and Belgium are still inaccessible due to munitions from that war.

Last month, I saw Field Music perform their album Making a New World. Composed for the centenary of the armistice, it’s all about the knock-on effects of that war, from tanks to plastic surgery to sanitary towels. The album tells the story of the First World War not as a self-contained event from 1914 to 1918 but as the epicentre from which vast tremors of change erupted.

My upcoming Commando comic Out of the Woods tells the First World War from a very different perspective. To look at the introduction of chemical weapons, it follows two fictional Canadians from before they signed up through to the aftermath of the Second Battle of Ypres. There are many other ways I could have told that story – from the point of view of the Germans, of civilians, of communities affected for generations by the chemicals. I could have followed a medic, a general, even a gas cannister or a patch of ground. I chose the perspective that suited my purposes, but whichever one I chose, I would have had to cut down and rearrange the history, which itself cuts down and rearranges the facts, in each case forming a different pattern.

Telling Your Story from History

So remember, when telling a story from history, you’re never going to fit in all the facts. You’re already missing some of them and you don’t need them all for your goal. Explore the different ways you could look at the topic, pick a story that will bring the past to life in an engaging way, and let the rest fall by the wayside. You’re not here to tell history. You’re here to tell one story against its background.

 

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

I’ve been making my friends fight each other.

It’s OK though, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Someone writing outdoors.

I quite often pick the names of characters based on people I know. The names have to come from somewhere, and scanning my social media feeds is a good way to get them quickly. Usually, I mix and match first names and surnames, rather than use one person’s full name.

Recently, I’ve taken a different approach. I put up a message on Facebook asking my friends if any of them would like characters named after them in my Commando comics. I got a lot of positive responses and started using those people in my story pitches. Some became protagonists, others villains, and many got bit parts in the stories I was developing.

This was all fine and theoretical while I was writing pitches, but now Commando have commissioned some of those stories, so I’m writing the scripts. When characters have the names of people I know, it’s hard not to picture them as those people, even if they’re very different in character. In my head, I’m making people I know fight, chase, and argue with each other.

It’s a little weird for me. I imagine it’ll be even more so for my friends when these stories are published.

Sometimes, this can work out really nicely. Years ago, I wrote a flash story featuring a character named Mantaj, after one of my friends. She never saw characters with her name in stories, and so was delighted with it. That made my day.

A lot of people get excited at having characters named after them, and as a writer that gives me an extra bit of fun. Still, it’s never going to stop being weird when I make them fight each other.

I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction lately, both on this blog and for Commando Comics. I’ve also been writing articles for places like History.com. That raises an interesting question – how to decide what to write. For me, there are several factors. One is what I know about. With a few exceptions, I focus on topics I have plenty of sources for or already know a lot about. This narrows the field and helps avoid misrepresenting history I don’t understand. Then there’s what’s interesting – both what I’m excited about and what I think other people will be intrigued by. That means finding novelty in the subject matter. For fiction, it also means finding an engaging character. The audience I’m writing for comes into it. Commando readers mostly want stories about 20th-century warfare, especially World War Two, and they want them action-packed. While I try to make my Commando stories more diverse and varied than they’ve traditionally been, that has to come within the limits of what their readers will go for. The format matters. What makes an interesting article is very different from what makes a visually exciting comic story, and both are very different from prose fiction, where you get inside a character’s head. Then there’s the desire for variety. Editors want stories that haven’t been told, and I want to help show diverse stories and perspectives. That means I’ll sometimes pick a piece of history I don’t know quite so well because I think it should be seen. Picking what history to write about is never as simple as just picking up a book and going with that. It’s a big challenge even before I set my fingers to the keyboard. And that makes it part of the fun.   ***
From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution
What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods? What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior? What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work? These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants. From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

2901955081_8d6f4cb45f_zA good magic system or weird technology can really make a fantasy or steampunk setting. To try to do this better in my future writing, I’ve come up with five points to consider when creating such a system:

My Five Point Magic System Template

  1. Theme: What am I trying to do or express with this magic? Am I after something exciting, horrifying, humorous? Do I want to use it to explore love, art, vengeance, greed or some other issue? Whatever I pick, that will become prominent in any story using this system.
  2. Cost: All magic and technology has to have a cost. If it doesn’t then it becomes a limitless resource that lets users do whatever they want. So what’s the cost? Do users become corrupted? Do they have limited magical reserves they use up? Must they spill blood or dig up ghost rock to power their machines?
  3. Limitations: What can this magic do, and what can’t it do? Being clear on this stops it becoming a deus ex machina that resolves every story situation in unsatisfying fashion. Knowing the limits means you can set them up early in your story.
  4. Who can do it? Usually, only a select group of people can access the magic of a setting. So who are these people? Is it everyone who trained at the University of Making Things Go Bang? Is it all ginger people? Do you have to be blessed by the Empress to have magical power?
  5. Rules: Points 2-4 are the most important rules for a magic system, but there will be others. Circumstances in which it does and doesn’t work. Taboos around its use. How it looks when it happens. Knowing the rules gives you limitations to explore, boundaries to encourage creativity, and are what separate a system from just hand waving away your characters’ problems.

How About You?

Can you think of other things I should consider when creating magic and technology systems for fiction? Do you have your own list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

One of the biggest mistakes I made writing the early drafts of Guns and Guano was being vague. When I started out I wasn’t confident in getting an American protagonist right, so I fudged his accent and was vague about his background. But such evasion is not getting it right, as became clear the minute I got the book near beta readers. Specificity is what makes characters real, because real people and places are specific and detailed.

You can write something in a vague way from the start and then fix it later. But if you’re doing that then why not write something specific, which you might stick to later? You’ll be no worse off. Pick a name for that random bodyguard, decide which town the action happens in, know which side of the war your character fought on (yes I tried to fudge that, no it did not work). Even with accents, pick one, do a few minutes’ research and then go with it. You’ll still be doing better than my original cowboy-impressionist generic American.

Better to take a risk on a detail and maybe get it right than to be vague and be sure of going wrong.

Terry Pratchett once wrote that rules are there so that you think before you break them. I think the same holds true to any plan or scheme, including my intention to do the Writing Excuses exercises every week this year. This week is very busy with other things, including talking at the Nerd East convention, sorting out website hosting and making preparations to move house in a couple of weeks’ time. So I’m letting myself off and not doing my homework.

Like writing templates, working routines are there to help us, not to follow for their own sake. If a routine isn’t working, maybe it’s time to change it up, or just to take a break. Hopefully I’ll be back from this one next week.

Just one of many images of the apocalypse.

Postapocalyptic fiction is pretty big at the moment. And by ‘pretty big’ I mean among the best-selling books and movies out there in the form of The Hunger Games. Of course there’s grittier stuff as well, scavengers looking to get by in the devastated future of Mad Max or prepper fiction.

Harry Manners, author of the postapocalyptic Ruin Saga, made a good point about this when he said on Twitter that postapocalyptic fiction is a great arena to discuss the underlying fragility of civilisation. In a world where we have become so detached from the basics of survival, it can be terrifying to consider how easily our comfortable lives could be undermined. Postapocalyptic fiction is a way of addressing that terror, of venting and exploring modern fears. Perhaps it also lets us get a taste of the barbaric, as we increasingly come to understand that the rest of the world isn’t populated by backwards primitives, as everyone from the Romans to the Victorians believed.

I find it fascinating that we can see the same themes – the fragility of civilisation, difficult choices between morals and pragmatism – in stories about the rise of civilisation. Rome and Deadwood both brought this to our TV screens, deliberately exploring how civilisation emerges while showing that as a difficult struggle of faltering steps. In both, the path to safety and security was spattered with blood, and the survival of something that might be called civilised always seemed under threat.

As writers, it gives us two ways to explore these themes – with the birth and the death of civilisations. And as readers it provides something familiar and intriguing in wildly different settings.

What do you think? What’s the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction? Are we really so fascinated by civilisation’s rise and fall?

And if you want to see me grapple some more with what it means to be civilised, you can download my novella Guns and Guano for free from Amazon or Smashwords.