It’s Nearly October!

I love this time of year. I love the crisp air and the changes in the leaves. I love hot chocolate and pumpkin spice and gingerbread. The nights are drawing in and it’s time for snuggling down. I stock up with as many candles as I can get away with, drag out all the blankets, and enjoy the feeling of being safe and snug away from the weather. All the spooky stuff that comes with Halloween is a wonderful bonus.

I can never keep away from the supernatural when writing, and this time of year I embrace it with enthusiasm. In the last few years I’ve made a thing about posting loads of stories in October and I want to continue. And of course I’ve also signed up to the amazing October Frights again, which is always good fun.

This year I’ve decided to go ghostly. One of my favourite characters is Kane, the quiet, unassuming, somewhat shy lad who can talk to ghosts. Well, it’s more like the ghosts insist on talking to him whether he wants to listen or not. He’s such a sweetheart. I thought I would spend some time with him this October and I’ve made some provisional plans. I’ll be the first to confess that my ability to stick to plans is spectacularly bad, but I’m quietly confident on this one.

I’ve decided to share six new stories about Kane during the October Frights. I’ve had these ideas rattling around for a while and I thought it would be a good time to take him in a slightly new direction. The poor lad doesn’t know what’s coming for him. As a way of celebrating the spectral season, I’ll be republishing one of Kane’s old stories every day in October outside of the October Frights for a trip down memory lane. I really enjoyed revisiting them as I was reminding myself of his journey, so I thought I would share. The first story featuring Kane was back in March 2019, and as all his stories had been scattered around with months in between, I thought it would be nice to have a reminder.

While I’m talking about Kane, please send me all encouragement and I hope to finally get a novel with Kane as the hero out before the end of January. He deserves a little bit of the spotlight and possibly a chance of romance. I can’t see it being a series, and I’m sure that I’ll write the occasional short story afterwards, but I think he deserves to be a hero for at least a little while.

October won’t be only about Kane, though. I still plan to keep up the instalments of ‘Invitation Accepted’ and the guest posts for #HazardousToYourSanity and perhaps a post or two on research as I’ve had a few ideas about that. Mind you, I’ve mentioned how abysmally awful I am at plans.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and if you have the same soft spot for Kane. Let me know what you think of the plans – and the chances of me managing them!  

Reading Can Be Tricky

I read in weird ways. I suppose it partly comes from too much screen time and partly because of the way my reading has evolved. I have the Kindle app on my phone and it has been a blessing when I’ve been waiting for my darling son. But my elderly phone gets drained by the kindle app so I often read on the kindle app on my laptop instead. As I don’t seem to sync them up right, I’m usually reading one book on my phone and a different book on my laptop.

But sometimes I review books and I’ll be dipping into that book at the same time as I’m dipping into the sort of stories that I don’t want to admit to reading – at least not in front of my teenage son. Not only is Romance not dead but it’s available in large quantities if you know the right apps. Of course, sometimes I dip into places like Royal Road as well, and I’ve rummaged through quite a few old books via the Gutenberg project which I usually download and then read on the Calibre app (which is also pretty good for formatting my self published stuff).

That’s just the ebooks. I usually have a non-fiction physical book around to dip into as well. I’ve been looking into a lot of the superstitions as research for my series on #HazardousToYourSanity so I’ve got a small hardback reference on local superstitions by my chair and another paperback book of fables in my knitting bag.

This isn’t something to be proud of. I’m surprised that I can mostly keep straight with the different plots, especially if you add in all the extra plots that are happening in my own writing. However I’m not so much ashamed of it. What is making me uncomfortable is the typos.

Neil Gaiman said that no matter how much you proofread a story, the first thing you would see when you opened a physical copy would be a typo. And it’s true – only God is perfect. I’ve heard that there are rug makers hand knotting expensive rugs who deliberately put an error into their pattern because they don’t want to be disrespectful. I know that there are typos in my work. I know that I’ve messed up grammar, clarity and punctuation. I know that I have no room to talk. However I can’t stop spotting typos. And as you can tell from my reading practices, I have a lot of opportunities to see them.

The trouble is, when you are rattling away with a great streak of inspiration, you miss stuff. Spell checkers can only do so much. One story (which I adored and have re-read a few times) had someone who ‘titled’ their head. I suspect that it should have been that they ’tilted’ their head. Both words are correctly spelled without context, but I would be intrigued at someone who ‘titled’ their head in confusion. I’m not blaming the author – it’s exactly the sort of mistake I would make. Once upon a time I wouldn’t have noticed but a few experiences of proofreading and I’m picking up misplaced commas.

Mind you, I may think that the commas are misplaced but I’ll be the first to admit that my punctuation is far from perfect. I know that when I went back and re-edited The Forgotten Village I felt almost like I was translating into English. There were so many mistakes and I have no room to complain about any author.

I’m spotting all these tiny mistakes, feeling a pang of sympathy with the author and moving on. I am in no place to criticise at all. And I’m not in a place to criticise facts either. I may have written articles on research, but I know that I still get things wrong. After all, sometimes you don’t know enough to know how wrong you’re being. A lot of the time, it doesn’t matter one tiny bit. I was very much enjoying a cozy mystery (which I’m not detailing here because I absolutely do not want to throw shade on someone who’s a far better writer than me) and they had a brief throwaway description of someone threshing hay. You don’t thresh hay.

My actual real life knowledge of farming is limited to driving past some fields. However I’ve read a lot about medieval farming and I’m great if we’re talking about out of date practices. Threshing is beating a crop until the seed separates from the stem. Hay isn’t harvested for seed. It’s grass that is preserved to feed livestock over winter. You make hay or you can put hay in bales but you don’t thresh the dratted stuff. Do you know how much impact this had on the story? Zero, zilch, nothing, nada. The author did nothing wrong, but the reader, that is, me, needs to get a sense of proportion. I just can’t help noticing them.

Today, when I caught another tiny typo, I thought I would get this off my chest and send sympathetic vibes to all the authors out there. I also want to beg, plead and beseech that if you spot a typo or a mistake of fact in anything I’ve written – please tell me. I’d be grateful if you were kind, but I’ll take it on the chin if you just pointed out what I got wrong with honesty.

I also feel confident that as I’ve written an article on mistakes there are going to be a few in here. Please be kind.

Characters Who Go Their Own Way

After a comment by Ruth (who is awesome and I’m incredibly grateful for their encouragement), I thought I’d talk a little about Darren, Jasmine and the problems of being a writer.

Darren is one of the first characters I ever wrote about. He was the irascible, no-nonsense, straightforward vicar in The Forgotten Village and went on to be a main character in Digging up the Past, and the three books in the Tales from the White Hart series. I never thought that he would have a romantic interest. I imagined him as having the looks and body of a Greek god and the emotional bandwidth of a shipping container.

Jasmine was introduced as a character in More Tales from the White Hart and was a ‘stray’, that is, a werewolf without a pack. She’d been chased out because she didn’t fit in with the expectations of the pack and didn’t want to marry where she was told. I had an idea that she would perhaps be part of the LGBTQ+ community and was excluded for that. She was beautiful, shy, defensive and prickly. I wasn’t planning on matching her up to anyone else.

Of course the characters took one look at each other and fell in love – hard!

When I’m working out characters, I’ll sometimes write conversations between characters to get a sense of them. It’s like a small studio where the characters come out and talk, move around and generally work things out. This isn’t the first time I had characters do something unexpected and once again I was trailing after them going, ‘wait, what?’ I was not impressed. Apart from anything else, Darren is far too old for Jasmine. The characters took no notice of me whatsoever.

I can see why they fell for each other. Darren absolutely adores Jasmine. She’s sweet, honest, straightforward and kind. She’ll get involved with trouble to defend someone who needs support. She never thinks about her looks or figure but just carries on being her. He loves that he can feel a little bit protective of her while trusting her completely. She has all the warmth that Darren struggles to show and she very much lights up his life.

Jasmine had a huge crush on Darren almost from the start. He’s old enough to be an authority figure while still being young enough and single enough to be attractive. There is something reassuringly stable about Darren. He may be a neat freak with no ability to demonstrate affection, but he’ll always be there for the one he loves. Darren is unwaveringly loyal, considerate and devoted. He is a rock who will never play games but will always be straightforward and clear. That is something that would call to Jasmine after the disruption and hardship she knew before they met.

I was a little worried about the age gap. To be fair, so was Darren. Jasmine didn’t have the confidence to say anything so was pining away for Darren while Darren was even grumpier than ever. However there was an unfortunate mix up with a love potion which meant that Jasmine and Darren became passionate lovers while under the influence and the rest is happy history.

I’ve known a few couples with significant age gaps. Some have been incredibly happy but one or two have been less than healthy. I think that as Darren is not likely to try and manipulate Jasmine, and Jasmine is certainly only after emotional security, this could be a good relationship. That doesn’t make for good stories, but I can see a few ideas in the distant future, if I ever get some proper writing done!

As for trying to show how people can suffer because of how they love, I thought I’d hold onto the idea that Jasmine was under pressure from many in the werewolf community for not conforming to what was expected. And at least she found happiness.

And I have had a fun time skimming through some of the older stories and enjoying the memories that have come back. It’s been a reminder of how much I enjoyed writing and perhaps I ought to get going again!

And a little news – I’ve been accepted on #HazardousToYourSanity for regular posts, so keep your eyes out for my series on British Folklore and Superstitions (some posts by other authors are a little spicier than I write, so you may like to use your judgement). And I have also signed up to October Frights again, run by the amazingly wonderful AF Steward, so while I won’t be posting every day in October as I have in the past, I hope that there will be some pleasantly spooky goings on. I’ve also had a few ideas about the next set of articles about Research and the Author and I hope to have them ready for you soon.

I’d love to hear requests, ideas or thoughts so please feel free to leave a comment.

Hugs and good health to all.

Research and the Author: Fantasy Clothes

Research for fantasy clothing isn’t really a thing. After all, you could put elves in spandex and goblins in pink tutus because it’s your world. But to make the notes on clothing a little more complete, I thought I’d add some thoughts on research, clothing in fantasy and where I would take a little extra care.

Remember, the reason for research is to stop the author looking like an idiot. There is another point, which is, research should be to make the writer’s life easier. So the time that research comes up when writing a fantasy novel is if you are using a real world society at a point in time as a basis for your writing. And even then you have wiggle room. But let’s think about Kurt the Barbarian and Gwendolyn the Healer – what can they wear?

When we talked about fantasy locations, I had the brave duo in three separate settings based on Samarkand, Oxford and Havana. A quick internet search for clothing at the date of 1200CE, the date I picked at random last time, will throw up all sorts of information. You can pick and choose among the offerings. A word of warning, though. If your story is heavily based on a particular society, for example, fifteenth century Japan, there will be people on the internet who live for that time period. They will know the exact authentic hem stitch on every garment and the dyes used to produce the colours of every piece. If you are not that obsessive then skate quickly over vague details and concentrate on the assassin’s route into the closely guarded home of the hero. If you are that obsessive then you have a fan base. Ask questions on their forums, be clear about why you’re asking and then make sure to share a link to your novel when it comes out.

I use research to make it easier for myself. If I want to write a story set in a fantasy world, I’m likely to use Medieval Europe as a starting point before tweaking things to the way I like them. As I’m familiar with that, I’ll use that as an example. Let’s start with Kurt the Barbarian, mighty and manly.

One of the garments common in Medieval Europe was hose. It was a covering for the leg that also covered the foot, like the equivalent of pantyhose or tights. I had a quick look at ‘hose’ on Wikipedia and was somewhat surprised at the different fashions. And I think of a cloth legging that covered the foot would be perfect under boots and breeches if you were striding across the frozen tundra. It would certainly help to keep your assets warm. I can’t see me describing Kurt the Barbarian wearing tights, though, so I’ll stick to things like furs and tunics. Just because I find something in research doesn’t mean that I’m going to either use it or describe it. That goes double for codpieces. If you don’t know what a codpiece is then it’s probably not a good idea to look it up on a shared computer or at work. I’m going to stick to vague descriptions of clothing that doesn’t sound ridiculous in our era.

Kurt and Gwendolyn both obviously have cloaks. There are all sorts of cloaks for the time and place on the internet. As it’s still 10th of November, they need something nice and warm. I’m not a fan of fur in the modern world. My view is that if you have to defend yourself in an unexpected life or death situation with a fur bearing animal, and you win, then you can have a fur coat. Otherwise modern textiles will cover all of your needs. The medieval world, however, was lacking in microfibres and Kurt the Barbarian was much more likely to have fought off bears, wolves, polecats and possibly bunny rabbits with his bare hands so I’ll allow him the fur. However if you are using real world analogies and Kurt is brooding on the city wall of the equivalent of Oxford, then you should have an extremely good reason for giving him a cloak lined with jaguar fur. It’s worth having a quick look around to see what animals were being used for fur in that area, give or take, and what the story needs.

Gwendolyn’s cloak is more likely to be wool. In our day, the main source of wool are sheep, and there were plenty in the countryside near Oxford at that time. Obviously there are different qualities of yarn, spinning and weaving, but it all works with the plot. Perhaps Gwendolyn’s cloak is old and stained after difficult times and travel or perhaps she has a wonderfully warm new cloak lined with lambswool from a grateful patient. If, however, Gwendolyn is standing at the gates of Samarkand then her cloak could be sheep’s wool but it could also be cashmere or angora – or even yak. I have yarn in my stash that is labelled 40% yak and it feels lovely and warm. In the unlikely even that she needs a warm cloak in Havana, though, it’s more likely to be made of imported alpaca yarn. Wool bearing animals appear in all sorts of places, although as its original purpose is to keep the animal warm you are not likely to find many decent sources of wool in the jungle. Again, it’s worth looking around and seeing what the local equivalent in our world is, or even inventing an animal.

It may be that you need to talk about underwear. Practically all underwear in the north of Medieval Europe was linen of some type. Silk in Europe was horrifically expensive, so if you are giving Kurt the Barbarian a silk shirt then you need to know that it probably cost as much as a horse – the equivalent of a fancy car! Gwendolyn may have crazily expensive silk underwear but if she has the money then she’s more likely to have fine quality, easily washed linen and spent any extra money on ribbons or braid. There are plenty of resources on the internet about medieval underwear but remember that people like to be comfortable and the basics have been the same for many years. Don’t get too carried away.

Cotton is tricky. It’s one of the oldest fibres known and has been found in archaeological sites in both the old world and the new. Obviously some cotton could have reached Oxford, but it would have been unusual and comparatively expensive. An enterprising merchant could have brought cotton material from, for example, Egypt, but I doubt that they would have made much money. If you imagine holding some silk fabric in one hand and some cotton fabric in another, it’s likely that the silk is going to feel like it’s worth paying a premium to import at stupidly high costs to cover transport while cotton may not feel as good as top quality linen. It may be a staple in your world, but it’s more likely to be hiding under outer clothes in Samarkand or Havanna than it is in Oxford. Besides, if you’re concentrating on what the underwear is made of, you’re describing the wrong things.

I’ve talked about using research to keep consistency. After all, if I’m using Oxford as a sort of analogy and wonder if velvet was available there in 1200CE, I can just look it up and keep things consistent. I have to wonder, though, if that is overrated in fantasy novels. Tolkien, who really knew his stuff, had Bilbo run out of Bag End without a pocket handkerchief. While a hobbit may find these important, however, I can’t imagine Denethor worrying about a handkerchief or Elrond checking his pockets to make sure his handkerchief was in place. And, after all, clothes that were worn by nobility in London or Paris would be subtly different from those worn in Stockholm or Naples and incredibly different from the clothing available to a poor shepherd in Northern Scotland or a peasant in the Caucasian mountains.

And if you are running short of world building inspiration, it’s okay to look at what people wore in places in our world that are similar to your setting. You can get a feel of how people managed the heat/cold/damp/sun/resources to keep themselves comfortably clothed and extend that to your characters. As long as the focus is on the character and the stories then don’t worry about whether the hastily grabbed blanket is llama, alpaca, yak, angora, goat, camel or even muskox. It’s much more interesting to write about the feverish stranger shivering underneath it after a daring rescue than fibre content. After all, it’s all about the story.

If you have any topics you would like me to rummage through, please let me know. I can’t promise that I’ll know anything about a topic, but I can share how I look around and find out.

You can find more in this series here – Research and the Author Collected Posts

Research and the Author: The Bother with Bustles

I don’t know much about Victorian clothing, so I suppose it’s important for me to be clear. I’m not trying to pass on information in these articles. I’m sharing the way I look for information and some pitfalls I’ve found over the years in the hope that it will help others. So I’m starting with the hope that when I get stuff wrong, a kind reader will let me know (hopefully with gentle tact) and a reminder that the reason for research is to stop the author looking like an idiot.

From my point of view, skating over finer details sounds like a good start. If we are talking about Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn racing around the foggy streets of nineteenth century London, we can probably skip quite a few clothing descriptions. A reader is hopefully too wrapped up in the mystery of where the bloodthirsty vampire Count Dominic has his lair to worry about whether Miss Gwendolyn is wearing a cape or a jacket. There may come a point in a story, however, where you need to know a detail or two. Unfortunately for me, a lot of people are interested in nineteenth century clothing so if I get details wrong, they’ll know. They may laugh and point. So I need to have a rummage around and research clothing.

I’m going to start with some basics that I do know. If we stick to the date of 1875 then there were no artificial fibres in general use. I’ve had a look around and ideas of making fake silk from mulberry bark and nitrocellulose were around, but in the main and by and large all clothes were made from natural fibres. When Miss Gwendolyn rips up her petticoats to stem the blood flowing from injuries to the valiant Lord Kurt, those petticoats are made from lovely, absorbent, well-washed cotton or linen and not the slick rayon and nylon that came later. The warm cape that Lord Kurt slips from his shoulders to put around the shivering Miss Gwendolyn as they are trapped in a chill cellar is almost certainly heavy wool, possibly lined with fur. Fine ladies wore silk, much of it woven in England (I found this article, which I found interesting) and housemaids wore cheap cotton prints.

The other thing that I remember is that chemical dyes became widespread during the nineteenth century. I got it wrong in that I thought Prussian Blue was invented in the nineteenth century and I was out by more than a century. It was invented around 1706, according to Wikipedia. Mauveine, a purple dye based on coal tar, was discovered in 1856, however, and all sorts of wonderful colours were available by the time that Miss Gwendolyn went shopping for a new dress.

While I was wandering around the wonders of the internet, I found an article about green dyes in England in the nineteenth century here By the time that Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn were picking out their clothes, green dye produced with arsenic was known to be toxic and green dresses were associated with poison. Perhaps the dastardly Count Dominic surrounds himself with young women in green dresses – an instance of research bringing in ideas for the plot.

You can find a lot of information around concerning fashions and who wore what and when. Fashions changed then as much as they do now, although people used fashion magazines rather than TikTok. As a general rule of thumb, people can wear clothes that belong to fashions from before the date, in this case 1875, but they’re unlikely to follow fashion from years afterwards without a very good reason. When I researched the first post in this series, I found that if I had set the date a year later, the more fashionable dress would have been a slim princess line instead of a bulkier bustle. However, not everyone follows fashion all the time. People will be wearing out of date clothes just like you find people wearing older clothes that date them. Miss Gwendolyn may not have time to find a dress in the new fashion as she is too busy battling vampiric threats. Or perhaps someone will be coming from abroad and have a dated set of clothes. My personal preference is to keep things loosely in keeping with the time and only mention anything to do with fashion if it’s to do with the plot. Mentioning that someone is wearing an old-fashioned waistcoat or an outdated hat is a way of conveying information about a character.

Speaking of abroad, London was in the centre of a vast commercial empire. An expensive and rare Kashmir shawl would be an indication that someone with money had just come back from British India. Perhaps a character was coming back from China with Chinese brocades and exquisite silks. Was a dress decorated with particularly fine lace from France and does it tell more about the characters and story? But while Britain had made contact with Japan twenty years earlier in the wake of the Perry expedition, I doubt that there was much from Japan reaching the general public. If you are using a roughly historical setting then it’s probably easier to look up when, for example, gabardine was invented (1879 in its modern form) than making something up. Although gabardine could always be invented earlier and worn by Lord Kurt in your world. It’s not that much difference and as long as you keep things consistent then I can’t see how it matters too much.

I started thinking about Count Dominic’s clothing. Knowing that Vlad the Impaler fought the Turks, I’ll make a decision that Count Dominic would not adopt the Turkish dress but perhaps that of a Hungarian nobleman. I did a quick google and found this fascinating page which confirmed what I suspected. Most of the upper classes of Europe followed a similar fashion set by Paris with perhaps local trends. However Count Dominic may follow slightly older fashions that could give clues, or comment on the difference of the machine woven woollen cloth compared to the stuff woven by hand in the villages of the Carpathian mountains. Or perhaps he has made contact with some other evil monster elsewhere and imported fabric or fashion could give a clue. I wondered about imported alpaca fabric giving links to South America and dark forces there, but then I found that it was produced in Britain from the 1830s.

Let’s go back to those green dresses. I have found a few references to Paris Green – a dye containing arsenic and so toxic that it was used to poison the rats in the Paris sewers. I can’t find a date for that, but it was named Paris Green in 1867, so I’ll say that the poor rats were getting poisoned around then in my world. This means that there is an excuse to link Count Dominic and the green dresses of his young ladies and the sewers of Paris.

But that can wait. Next time I’ll be looking at fashion, clothing and fantasy.

You can find links to the rest of the articles in this series here

Research and the Author – Clothes Maketh Man

Why would anyone with any shred of sanity worry about researching clothes for a romantic novel set in the present day? Everyone knows what jeans look like. Everyone has a clue about the difference between polyester and wool. You can use adjectives to get the effect without fussing around the internet. After all, describing someone sliding sensuously out of an expensive silk blouse conveys plenty without having to study Vogue back issues for the last thirty years. I do not need to know the life cycle of the silkworm, the difference between chemical and plant dyes or pattern cutting techniques from 1932.

This is particularly important when you remember the point of research. The reason for research is to stop an author looking like an idiot. Surely the best thing from this point of view is to describe someone wearing a well cut warm woollen coat and not worry if it’s Hermes or Dolce & Gabbana. Okay, I did a little research on that last sentence. I buy my clothes from the supermarket and I have no idea what brands are good for coats. I was thinking about Kurt looking manly in a warm coat over his sweater, t-shirt and jeans, striding in his work boots, so I looked on eBay (other online auction sites are available), sorted by most expensive and picked two names. Looking at some of the fancy coats on there, I can’t see Kurt picking many of them, especially if he’s a motor mechanic. There would be too much of a risk of getting them dirty.  

The only reason I can think of to research clothing is if it’s important to the plot. Sane people would say that you don’t start a plot without knowing the background information. However there are far too many authors like me who get ambushed by plots with no idea about the detail and suddenly I’m trying to work out what an accountant does. Besides, I write about werewolves and vampires and I have no personal experience with either of them. If a story is knocking at your attention, you have to write it and research as you go. So let’s think about clothes in a modern day plot. The last time we saw Kurt and Gwendolyn in Machias, Maine, they were bumping into each other as she went to the post office while he was visiting the grave of his ancestor. Why would clothes matter?

Okay, let’s float some ideas. Kurt was visiting the grave of his great-great-grandfather. After Pearl Harbour, Kurt’s grandfather visited that grave before going off to Europe. Kurt’s grandfather had told his grandmother that he had just discovered the secret to a treasure, and that he would share everything when he came back. Perhaps something was hidden on the grave? I’m not sure about that. What would last in a grave? Wonderful things have been dug up on archaeological sites, but they’re the exception. As this article is about researching fashion – what clothing would last on a grave for eighty years?

I thought about belt buckles. Perhaps old Grandpa Kurt scratched some information into a distinctive belt buckle. I had a look on and lost a few hours of time. This sent my imagination off in several directions – a benefit of research when writing an actual story but sort of inconvenient here. After a strong cup of tea, I got back on track (more or less).

I had gone with the idea of designer clothes being useful in a plot, but the quick rummage I had showed me that there were far more uses of clothing than that. To my surprise, I found listings for some civil war belts on US A belt buckle would have a chance if it was hidden in a grave, especially if it was buried in a tin or well wrapped in oiled leather. My mind raced – how about… During the Civil War, a ship smuggling gold from the Confederate States to Canada to pay for war materials was shipwrecked on the coast of Maine. I’ve only seen the coast of Maine on Google Maps but it looks like a tricky place to sail. The gold was brought ashore and hidden, but the Confederate sailors died of fevers and injuries before they could retrieve it and take it to their contacts on Nova Scotia. Grandpa Kurt found it, years later, but had to leave for Europe before he could do anything with it. He scratched information on the back of a belt buckle that he found with the gold and left it in the grave, well wrapped up. That sounds like a great adventure.

Meanwhile, Gwendolyn can’t be left out. She’s unpacking a box of books left to the library by an elderly widow. There are some valuable first editions, some trashy novels and a small box. Inside there is a beautiful silk scarf wrapped around a scrimshaw broach. Grandpa Kurt sent back a fancy scarf when he made it to Paris in 1944. It couldn’t be Dolce & Gabbana because, according to their website, they weren’t founded until 1985 and Chanel closed during World War II, apart from perfumes and accessories (which could include scarves, I suppose). Hermes started producing scarves in 1937 which would make the scarf perfect for a soldier to send back to his loved ones in 1944 after the liberation of Paris. And the scrimshaw broach, also thrown up on eBay during the same search, could be a picture of the ship that smuggled the gold, scratched into a walrus tusk and set into a broach. She’d have to return something as expensive as that and, by coincidence, it came from the house that Kurt recently inherited. Little does Gwendolyn know that she’s about to meet up with that handsome hunk she bumped into on the way to the post office – the one she can’t get out of her mind…

And all of that came from looking up some stuff about clothes.

I should add, this shows my bias towards adventure and older things. But there are other ways that clothes can add to the plot. For example, who is the love rival who left the expensive Chanel scarf in Kurt’s pickup truck for Gwendolyn to find? Does Kurt’s Gucci belt mean that he came from wealth and is suddenly poor? Or is he hiding his money? And does the Versace dress that Gwendolyn found in a thrift shop lead to a mystery about a disappearing woman? These examples show that sometimes it’s worth worrying about the details as they can really boost the plot. For now, I think that I’ll stick with the Confederate gold, but who knows what may come up next?

Next time I’m going to talk about the sort of clothes and clothing that could affect the story as Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn chase the dastardly vampire Count Dominic through London and beyond.  

You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts

Research and the Author – Fantasy Locations

In the previous articles, I’ve looked at researching locations for the modern world and in the nineteenth century. That should be fairly straightforward – you can look things up and find things out. Perhaps you can even get inspiration. You can’t do that for fantasy, at least not in the same way. I mean, if you’re making up a world with dwarves, elves, dragons and goblins, surely you can’t research a location? You underestimate the madness of this research junkie.

Image from Unsplash, taken by Dan Dimmock as I’m not ready to share the sad pile of scraps of paper that are my research

Why Do Research for Fantasy?

I am incredibly lazy. If I’m working with a fantasy location, I don’t want to work too hard trying to remember what I’ve set up. And that is why I use a little research to pin things down. My fantasy novel, King’s Silver isn’t currently in print, but while I may have sketched out a rough idea of what was where on the back of an envelope, I used ideas from modern locations if I was trying to work out things like weather, sunset times, landscapes, food etc. I have never had a lesson in geography in any classroom (there were a few issues with my education) so I don’t feel able to use ‘proper’ geography. However I can look at places in our world and take ideas from that. And if I get it wrong, I can say that it’s meant to be like that in my world

If I use a location from our world as a benchmark, I don’t need to worry about inventing too much. If I want a world with mighty quests from frozen tundra to steamy jungles I need to look at a place perhaps like Samarkand. It was one of the great cities on the Silk Road and so you could go north to the Russian steppe, south over the mountains to the jungles of India, east to the ancient and isolated civilisation of China or you could go west to the green and busy lands of Europe. You don’t have to use those particular routes. What you can do is have a quick check to see the sort of weather that Samarkand has, the seasons, sunset times, local wildlife and even local food. That can be imported wholesale into the fantasy city of Tarsh or could be used as a starting point. You don’t have to worry about building something from scratch.

For example, it’s 10th November (or the fantasy equivalent – there’s a calendar creator on so Kurt the Barbarian knows that the days are getting shorter and the longest night will soon be here. As the sun sets at 5.21pm (or the fantasy equivalent), Kurt the Barbarian pulls his cloak around him. It’s made of the fur of a Himalayan brown bear he hunted nearby and killed with his own hands. The weather is cool and dry, with a light wind ruffling his long hair and he is glad that Gwendolyn the Healer has a new cloak made from Angora wool from the local goats. She is back in their dwelling preparing a meal of rice with beef, mutton or goat and dried fruit, seasoned with exotic spices (I checked Samarkand cookery and the food looks amazing. I also checked on the wildlife in the area, Uzbekistan, and found a site that included mountain goats, ravens and ceratopsian dinosaurs. The dinosaurs caused some concern but perhaps it could be a plot hook).

Perhaps you want something a little more intimate. It could be a mystery set in a small town, perhaps with a feel of Tolkien’s Shire. Tolkien was an Oxford Professor, so let’s look at that. Sunset on 10th November in Oxford, England is at 4.22pm, and the rain is falling steadily in the chilly air. Kurt the Barbarian’s fur cloak is made from the pelts of wolves that he hunted alone in the wildlands but Gwendolyn the Healer has a cloak made of good local wool from the many sheep on the mountains to the west. She’s preparing a meal from bacon, barley and split peas.

On the other hand, you could consider something more maritime. I’ve randomly picked a date of 1200CE for the time to keep things consistent. There’s no reason why you can’t use the knowledge and inventions of, say, Oxford at 1200CE but the climate and general geography (altered to fit your plot) of the Caribbean. Kurt the Seafaring Barbarian has sailed into the harbour of the equivalent of Havana, grateful to be home as the storm season is ending. The sun sets slowly at the fantasy equivalent of 5.46pm and as the weather is warm, Kurt the Seafaring Barbarian has no need for more than his cotton tunic as he strides through the narrow streets to where Gwendolyn the Healer is preparing a pork stew, spicy with chillies and served with cornbread. As an aside, I thought cotton wasn’t indigenous to the Americas, but I checked just in case and the earliest fragment known comes from Mexico, closely followed by Pakistan. I love learning new things.

All of this information has been freely available and instead of trying to remember what I decided about the food or local animals, I can just refer back. I’m not doing this as a research project and I’m not getting marked for accuracy. If I say that there are tomatoes in a Medieval European setting in my world, then let there be swathes of tomatoes, because this is a fantasy world and as long as I keep things consistent, it doesn’t matter. In my flawed view, consistency helps the reader settle down into the plot and enjoy things. If Kurt the Barbarian hands Gwendolyn the Healer some chillies as a rare and exotic spice, then they shouldn’t be sold by the bucket in every small marketplace in the next chapter – unless it’s part of the plot.

And if you enjoy creating worlds with all the fun of plotting rivers and mountains and telling the story of why things as they are – go for it! If the setting is based on Ancient Rome but you have potatoes (introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century and long after the fall of Rome), then let them have fries by the bucketful! It’s your world and your story and the heck with anything else. I’d love you to share your world with me. And I’d love to hear any comments on thoughts of my ramblings on this matter – all are welcome.

You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts

Research and the Author: Location and the Lost City

This is another part of my series about Research and the Author. I’ve talked about time and variable sunsets, finding information about an unfamiliar location 3000 miles away and some of the pitfalls around places in Victorian London. This week, I’m taking Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn out of Victorian London as they chase the vampiric Count Dominic.

For convenience, the date is the same 10th November 1875. It’s still useful to keep this in mind as a date can make all the difference. For example, if Count Dominic is preying on the people of the East Coast of the United States then it’s good to have the detail. Railways were being built, towns were being founded and the Mississippi River changed course dramatically at Vicksburg in April 1876. And while it will be obvious to any Americans reading that not all of the states in the USA came into being at the same time, it’s good for the rest of us to remember that in 1875 while Nebraska was a state, Colorado wasn’t quite there yet and became a state 1st August 1876.

And it’s also good to put in a reminder that this is fiction. The story is about two valiant vampire hunters and a vampire. It’s not about real things. If the research gets in the way of a good story, junk the research.

Let’s start with Count Dominic. He’s leaving London for places abroad – but where? There were a lot of options from London which was at the heart of a huge communications network at the time. If he was heading to Canada or the United States he could sail from Liverpool. The main train line to Liverpool from London has its terminus at Euston Station, London. If the dastardly count was headed to Europe, he would head for either Charing Cross or Victoria to get one of the boat trains that are organised to take passengers from London to places like Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris. Paris would be the perfect place to catch the luxurious Orient Express, but it didn’t start until 1883.

The real problem with research is that it can take you to strange places. I can’t even remember what I was looking for, but I found that for most of the nineteenth century, maps of Africa included a mountain range called The Mountains of Kong. It’s a wonderful name, deep in the jungles and forests of West Africa, near the source of the Niger River and close to the relatively well known Ivory Coast and Gold Coast. I have an atlas that I inherited from my great great aunt

which she dated 1898 but which I suspect was printed earlier. It has this map.

And if you zoom in, you can see the mountains – very faintly.

A comment from OneVikingGirl, who has a Baedeker, has left me deeply envious as I would love something so informative about travel at the time. I purchased a Times Gazetteer of the World 1899 edition a few years back. I bought it from eBay when under the influence of alcohol and it cost a fortune in postage.

I checked if it had a reference to the Mountains of Kong, and it did – it reported that it was a mistake, that someone had once believed that the mountains were there but in 1899 people knew the Mountains of Kong didn’t exist. At least, those with up to date maps. And those who thought that the new maps were just hiding a great lost city stuffed with gold. Or those who had heard travellers’ tales about these Mountains.

People love strange travellers’ tales. Back in the Middle Ages, stories of Prester John told tales about lands with dog headed men and people without souls. The conquistadors and adventurers who sailed to Central and South America came back with stories of El Dorado and Pirate Islands. The nineteenth century was no exception, and as more and more people became literate and had access to books and libraries, those tales were in desperate demand. Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1872, was incredibly popular and there are five separate versions in Project Gutenberg. Later books in the same adventuring flavour are King Solomon’s Mines (1885) by H Rider Haggard, The Lost World (1912) by Arthur Conan Doyle and Tarzan of the Apes (also 1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read Tarzan of the Apes when I was far too young to deal with the racism, misogyny and dubious interpretation of the Theory of Evolution. I loved the adventure, though, and wondered about lost cities, forgotten kingdoms and strange worlds. If you are taking the flavour of an adventure, perhaps it’s good to remember that while everyone loves an adventure story, some ideas need to stay firmly in the past.

Now that I know that there is a reference to fabled and non-existent mountains, I have to send Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn there. How could I resist? I know that boats sail from Southampton to South Africa at the time, where diamonds were discovered in 1867 (gold was discovered later) so there would be ships along the West Coast of Africa. Some may have called in to supply missionaries, traders and forts along the coast. Looking at a grossly inappropriately named map which you can find here, but I feel uncomfortable sharing, even if it was normal to use those terms back in 1736

The mountains shown at the top appear to be the fabled Mountains of Kong. They aren’t labelled but there are no mountains in that area on the current Google Maps. Looking at the combination of this elderly map and current Google maps, the best course of action, from my point of view, is to get a ship to St Louis in Senegal which was a French colony at the time. Then Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn could sail along the Senegal River to where it joins the Niger River, and then, at the right moment, head north to the mountains, no doubt silhouetted against the tropical evening sky.

Image from WikiCommons in the public domain and a wonderful pic of the actual Senegal River near St-Louis

St-Louis is near the Tropic of Cancer and going back to the old variable sunset, the sunset on 10th November is 6.33pm, no doubt hauntingly beautiful and strange to the English lord and his awestruck companion. Looking at weather averages for St-Louis, it is going to be hot but dry. Rain rarely falls during November and the temperature range is from 21C to 34C but is most likely around 28C or 82F. It isn’t exactly the depths of the Sahara Desert, but it’s an arid, hot area. It’s hard to imagine a vampire heading to a desert. Apart from anything else, prey would be scarce for the bloodthirsty Count Dominic. My research has led me down a dead end street. I love those mountains, but I can’t imagine sending a vampire there. Perhaps they may go back later for a different adventure. As it is, this is a great example of too much research leading the story astray. It won’t work.

For now, Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn arrive at Southampton only to find that the dastardly count has misled them. He’s not heading to those fabled, deserted mountains. He’s headed somewhere else. That mission can wait. Next week I’ll share some ideas of locations for Kurt the Barbarian and Gwendolyn the Healer in the fantasy city of Tarsh.

You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts

Research and the Author – Ye Olde Location: Victorian London

In the first of this series on research, I wrote about the manly Kurt and the sweet Gwendolyn in three different settings. The first was a modern day romance, the second was Victorian vampire hunters and the third was a fantasy adventure and I talked about how timings like sunset could vary and why keeping it consistent could support the plot. After all, if Kurt is escorting Gwendolyn through autumnal fallen leaves on Monday, it needs a very good reason for him to be meeting her under spring blossom on Tuesday.

In the second of this series, I had a quick browse around an unfamiliar location where Kurt and Gwendolyn could enjoy a gentle romance in a current setting. It’s unnervingly easy to find out menus for restaurants that are around 3000 miles away.

This time I want to write about the issues an author can have if they’re writing alternative history, such as steampunk. If you are an author writing an historically accurate work then you already know far more about research than I do. In those settings, details matter. However, in alternative history, it’s not quite as important to be immaculately correct. Instead, the author can insist that the detail may not apply to our world, but it’s like that in his work of fiction. There are pitfalls, however, when writing about the past, and it’s worth being aware.

In the first article, our heroes were chasing vampires in the foggy heart of London in 1875, and I’ll keep to that. And the first important note is that modern maps can’t be completely trusted. If you look at an online map of London today, you can see all sorts of details about roads and houses and features. It’s a great resource if you are going to visit, and a lot of London is exactly the same as it always was. The Tower of London is in the same place that William the Conqueror left it, and Buckingham Palace is still suffering bad feng sui at the end of the Mall. However a lot has happened to the city between 1875 and now. London was badly affected by bombing between 1940 and 1945, but it was even more damaged by the reconstruction, urban renewal and modern architecture that followed. If a detail of a road or building is important to the story, it’s best to check that things were the same back in 1875.

Let’s set the scene. It’s 10th November 1875. The fog is falling heavily and the streets are shrouded in a typical London Peasouper. Our valiant vampire hunters are stalking the bloodthirsty Count Dominic through the lamplit streets. Count Dominic sweeps his way out of a theatre where he has been charming the lords and ladies of high society and heads for the sordid slums of the East End of London. There are a number of contemporary maps around for London online but I’m going to use current Google Maps (other online maps are available) for ease of reference and to avoid getting sucked down my usual rabbit holes of research. I don’t know London well in real life, but I’m not letting that stop me.

Embarrassingly, I wasn’t sure where exactly the West End of London was in relation to the East End, so I put ‘West End, London’ into the search bar and found it. According to the map, it’s near the Ritz, the Savoy and the Embankment and includes Covent Garden and Soho. As this is not an exam under test conditions, I’m not going to stick rigidly to the area shown by the map, but it’s a start. I zoomed in and looked for theatres. The Garrick Theatre looked promising, but according to its website, it wasn’t opened until 1889. As this is fiction with vampires, I don’t have to stick to that. However, the reason I stick to things like dates is so that if I go back to theatres later on in the story, I don’t need to remember which ones I’ve made up, which ones I’ve opened ‘early’ and where I’ve put the dratted things. I can just quickly check online on the sites and move on. It’s laziness, but it’s also efficient.

I scrolled around a little more and found the Lyceum Theatre. This was a little better, as it had been on or near that spot since 1765. I had a quick look at the website, then went on to Wikipedia. That’s when I realised that I had been lucky. Not only did it talk about the famous Victorian actor, Henry Irving, being resident at the theatre, but Bram Stoker was a business manager there. The author of Dracula worked at that theatre! Now that I know that snippet, I have to use the Lyceum Theatre. According to Wikipedia, Bram Stoker started work there in 1878, three years after Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn are creeping through dark places, but perhaps he heard stories. Or I can fudge the dates as long as I remember what I’ve done. Looking around for locations has helped with plot and story ideas and that’s the useful side of research.

Back to the locations – how far is it from the Lyceum Theatre to, say, Whitechapel? It’s around three miles, which isn’t very far, certainly not for the vampiric Count Dominic. But if it’s a dark, foggy night with the cold creeping in, it’s quite a way for the intrepid Lord Kurt and the dauntless Miss Gwendolyn. They could get a hansom cab, but would a cab driver be willing to take them down Whitechapel Road at that time of night? If it’s useful for the story, then Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn can absolutely rattle through the dark streets behind a horse and driver. But perhaps they take the Underground with trains running underneath London?

Trains are tricky. Lots of people are really keen on trains and are willing to share their knowledge with the flimsiest of excuses. If you get details about trains wrong without a good reason in the plot, there may be complaints. The nearest underground station to the Lyceum Theatre is the Temple, and Lord Kurt could stride in and purchase tickets there without any problem as it opened in 1870. If he wanted to go to Whitechapel Station, however, he would have something of a wait as it didn’t open until 1884. It’s going to have to be a chase by hansom cab.

The slums of the East End of London were notoriously cramped, crowded and difficult to navigate, full of alleys and small yards. I personally wouldn’t try and use the exact streets of the East End in fiction. The chances of getting things wrong are a little too high for me even if I could find a decent map of the correct date, and it would take far too long to be completely accurate. Instead, I would focus on the things that I know that I could get wrong and that people would easily notice. That includes things like – is Whitechapel north or south of the River Thames? If Miss Gwendolyn is searching through documents in the British Museum (Reading Room opened in 1857), is it easy for Lord Kurt to hurry back to her from a meeting with a German professor, Dr Ernst Baum, at the Reform Club (the starting point of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, published in 1872).

And taking inspiration from Jules Verne, perhaps Dr Baum has news that Count Dominic has left London and travelled abroad for his own dark reasons. In the next article, I’ll discuss the pitfalls of charting Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn’s journey away from the well-trodden paths of Victorian London and into the wider world.

I’d love to hear what you think, and if I’ve made any mistakes I would seriously love to know as it will help me learn. Thank you for reading and I hope that you enjoyed this

You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts

Websites used for this article


List of London Underground Stations

Google Maps

Lyceum Theatre, London

The History of London

List of German Baby Names of the 1890s which I thought was near enough

Research and the Author – Location, Location, Location

In the last post, I talked about Gwendolyn, our soft and sweet heroine, and Kurt, our strong jawed hero, meeting at a very variable sunset. You can read about it here, as I discussed the effect time could have on their meetings. Now let’s talk about place.

I feel more comfortable describing places that I know or are close to what I know. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m going to push outside my comfort zone and show how I pursue research in unfamiliar places. But let’s keep to the sweet Gwendolyn and the manly Kurt.

Starting with the modern day romance, let’s head to the United States. I’ve never been and I don’t expect I’ll be lucky enough to travel there in the near future, so I’m almost going in blind. I’ve picked up bits from films, tv, social media and books, so I have a place to start and it could be worse. This is a great point to find all the bits that I’ve got wrong and point them out in a kindly way.

I thought I’d pick a place in Maine and randomly chose Machias as a reference point. Because I’m unfamiliar with the area and don’t want to get into trouble, I’m going to give a fake name but use the town as a starting point to look up climate, sunset times, seasons, languages and all that fun stuff. I’ll use Morley as the name of the town, picked at random after a quick check on the internet to make sure that there isn’t actually a place called Morley, Maine, USA. As in the last article, we’ll use 10th November as a starting point as Gwendolyn first meets Kurt at sunset. Sunset at East Machias (just down the road from Machias, and a point on the Time and Date website but with far fewer houses) on 10th November is 4.06pm so Gwendolyn has just popped out from her work at the local library as it starts to get dark.

The local library has been in existence since the early 1800s according to its website, with the first catalogue printed in 1843. As an author who breaks out in supernatural unless I’m very careful, having old and possibly haunted things around is useful. There doesn’t seem to be many staff according to the website but I’m writing fiction so Gwendolyn has left her good friend Becky in charge as she leaves to do something – but what? I’ve checked the map on Google (other internet maps are available) and there is a USPS post office right across the street. Gwendolyn is obviously picking up a parcel for the library. By checking the map I’ve given Gwendolyn a reason to be crossing the road around the time of sunset to bump into the manly Kurt, and the delay of their first encounter means that she misses the pick up time at the post office (closes at 4pm according to their website). This gives me conflict and interactions to play with straight away.

Kurt has just bought a local auto repair shop and has called into town. Checking on the map, there is a cemetery a little further down the road. Perhaps he was on his way there to visit the grave of an ancestor when he bumped into Gwendolyn for the first time and was dazzled by her loveliness. He may wonder if he could see her again and if so, where could he take her on a date? According to the local Chamber of Commerce, there are no festivals on in November (the Wine and Beer Tasting Festival in October looks fun, though) but there is a local Chinese restaurant that does Shrimp Lo Mein for $13 which may be good.

Just by picking a location, having a rummage around and playing with ideas I have found all sorts of possible starts to a story. What is more, I’ve found out all this information without leaving my very comfortable chair at my home in Leeds. You should never put the research and detail before the story. If you feel that Kurt would like to take Gwendolyn to an Italian restaurant but can’t find one on the map – invent it! You are telling a story, not swearing an oath in court. The story always comes first. However, if you take time to look around a location, it can be a wonderful boost to the start of a story and a great store of inspiration.

I’ll go into historical locations in the next article.

You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts

Sites that I used for research

Google Maps

Machais Post Office

Porter Memorial Library

Machias Chamber of Commerce

Time and Date

Hing Garden Restaurant