Friday, December 21, 2012

Snowfall - a story for Christmas

I haven't posted any fiction on this blog before, but I thought I'd give you a brief story for Christmas.  It isn't actually a Christmas story, although it's vaguely seasonal.  I hope you enjoy it.

It was his fevered, dying delusion, of course.  How could it be otherwise, after days stumbling through the burning sands of the desert?  Maybe death was kind, after all, and came as a cold, beautiful snow-fall.

He rolled onto his back, opening a parched mouth to catch the flakes, but they swirled too wildly in the wind – still the burning winds of the desert – and settled on his body instead.  Weak hands scrunched up suddenly wet clothes, so that he could bend and suck their moisture.

It was scarcely enough to dampen his mouth, but he felt at once refreshed and stronger.  Sitting up, he tried to peer through the snow, but it was falling heavily now, whiting out his surroundings as effectively as a sandstorm.

He got to his feet like a newborn foal, staggering on weak legs but gradually regaining balance.  Taking an experimental step, he realised that he was still walking on sand, even though the blizzard was now heavy enough for a complete carpet of white.

It didn’t matter.  Nothing mattered, except that he was strong again and happy.

“Will you play with me?”

He whirled around at the voice, and saw her standing where no-one had been a moment before.  She looked about ten: a pretty girl with a sparkling, impudent face, dressed in a thin summer frock, her feet bare.

When he didn’t reply – he tried, but no voice would come – she put her head on one side and asked, “Do you like the snow?  I thought you would.”

“Did you make the snow?”  His voice sounded harsh and unnatural in his own ears.  “Are you a goddess?”

She considered that.  “I suppose I am, in a way.  I’m not a scary goddess, though.  I just like to play.  Do you like snowballs?”

“Yes.”  It was a strange conversation, though entirely natural.  “But there’s no snow on the ground.”

The girl hit her forehead dramatically, pulling a playful face.  “I knew I’d forgotten something.  There is now.”

Looking down, he saw thick snow carpeting the ground for as far as he could see.  The girl bent down, gathering snow up into a tight ball, and threw it at him.  It didn’t sting at all, merely refreshed him, and he stooped to make his own snowball.

“Can’t catch me,” the girl called out, running away, but not fast enough to avoid being hit by his creation.  She squealed in delight, and they began a running, screaming snowball-fight that seemed to last for hours.  When they finally tired of that, they built a snowman together, and then lay exhausted, making snow-angels.

Finally, the girl reached over and kissed him lightly on the cheek.  “It’s time to go now,” she said.  “It’s all right, though.  You don’t have to go back to the desert.  I told you, I’m not a scary goddess.”

His body was lighter, less substantial than he’d ever known it, but that was all right.  The snow still fell, playing in the wind in and out of him, and his body and consciousness mingled with it, playing and swirling in all directions, until it was indistinguishable from the rest of the snow.

“Goodbye,” said the girl softly.  “Have fun.”

Thursday, December 13, 2012

But I'm Not a Comedy Writer

I’ve never considered comedy to be high among my abilities, but I’m coming to the conclusion that other people don’t agree with this.

Back in the 80s and 90s, when I was doing performance poetry around London venues, I had plenty of serious subjects to write poems about: political and social issues, ecology, exploration of mystical states.  I performed many of these with musical backing, and they generally went down well, but my biggest “hit” by far was a doggerel piece about a woman who tries to slim too much and turns into a black hole.  It always got a lot of laughs, and people used to tell me I should concentrate on that style.

Trouble was, that wasn’t what I wanted or needed to write, and similar ideas very rarely occurred to me.  I simply wasn’t cut out to be a comic writer.

Fiction’s the same.  I’ve certainly tried to avoid being dry as dust or over-solemn, and there are many humorous moments in my stories, but those are just lines or incidents that rise from the situation and fall back into it as quickly.  It wasn’t till I started writing flash fiction that I began sometimes to write completely comic stories.

Flash fiction (stories shorter than a thousand words) was something else I didn’t expect to be good at, since even my short stories tended to the long side.  I only really got into it when an online writers’ group I belong to started to do one-hour writing challenges.  Some of the pieces I’ve written in an hour to a theme are throwaway, and others are the beginnings of longer stories — including my recent publication from Musa Publishing, The Treason of Memory — but some are complete short pieces.  Often, as it turned out, comic.

The advantage of writing comedy at that length is that a story can be based around a single joke, and can often be therapeutic.  When my washing-machine leaked and flooded the kitchen, I wrote about a wizard having to call in a water-witch to fix his magic well.  When I missed an appointment due to relying on technology to direct me, I wrote a tale of a heroic quest gone wrong called The Sat-Nav of Doom.  It felt good, especially when the latter was published by Every Day Fiction.  But it was still just a flash story.

Then I met Sam Nemesis.  He began, too, as a one-hour writing challenge.  The challenge, as far as I remember, was to write a story that was, at least partially, in an unfamiliar genre, and I chose a fantasy version of the hard-boiled noir detective – Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade etc. – which I’d never written before. 

Not just a fantasy detective, though: specifically, a P.I. who operates in the world of Greek mythology.  The familiar doings of gods and heroes are seen as mysteries to be unravelled, in exactly the same way as discovering the whereabouts of the Maltese Falcon.

The idea was received enthusiastically by the people who read them, and before I knew, I had two stories about Sam – substantial stories, not just flash – waiting for publication, in Penumbra and Wily Writers, and I've just completed another.  What's going on?  And what are the secrets of writing good comedy, which I appear to have somehow managed to learn?

It seems to me that writing successful comedy fiction needs four main things (besides the obvious requirement of being able to think of good one-line jokes).  One is to have a really good basic idea to start with, and run with it.  When Douglas Adams decided to follow what happened to a very ordinary man who’d survived the destruction of Earth, he had a situation where – quite literally – the universe was the limit.  When Terry Pratchett created a world that swam through space on the back of a giant turtle, which could potentially contain not only every cliché of fantasy, but also anything he chose from the contemporary world too, he gave himself ammunition for countless dozens of books.

While I’m not saying my idea is on that scale of brilliance, I think I’ve hit on something that can run and run.  Greek mythology is full of violent death, theft and abduction, and having a P.I. investigating it all makes a lot of comic sense.

Another important factor, I think, is an element of juxtaposition.  I recall a well-known comedian (I forget who it was, but I remember it was a well-known comedian) suggesting that one key to Monty Python’s success is their habit of taking two familiar situations and shoe-horning them together in a way that makes the situation completely surreal.  Most of us have experienced a pet dying, and most have us have suffered frustration from poor customer service.  Few of us, I suspect, have experienced that frustration while trying to return a dead parrot, and the absurdity of the juxtaposition makes the sketch funny.

Pratchett, too, is a master of juxtaposition.  Discworld is full of all the things we expect from the most clichéd of fantasy tale – wizards, assassins, barbarian warriors and the like – but alongside all this, he gives us a police force, a post office and even (the gods help us) tourists.  It’s all completely logical, but, put together with other elements, deliciously absurd as well.

Greek mythology and the hard-boiled detective are, I’d say, two of the more familiar fictional elements in modern western culture.  Even people who know little of them will instinctively recognise the archetypes.  I think it’s fair to say, though, that they aren’t the most obvious elements to put together.  To filter stories regarded as the highest of high culture through the eyes of someone who regards goddesses as “dames” and heroes as “punks” achieves, I think, that level of juxtaposition.

Good characters are vital.  That might not seem so important when the object is to be silly, but it isn't really funny when absurd things happening to cardboard cut-outs.  Even if the characters are exaggerated or in unreal situations, we can only really laugh at them if they’re people we can relate to.

I’ve tried to make Sam a character, not just a cypher of clichés from noir fiction, even though that’s how his situation and experiences are made up.  I’ve also tried to surround him with people who are interesting and vivid in their own right, whether they’re gods, monsters or heroes.  In general, readers seem to like the people in my straight fiction, and I’ve applied the same level of characterisation for comedy as for an epic or an adventure story.

If the need for good characters in comedy isn’t obvious, then it might seem even stranger to emphasise the need for accuracy and authenticity, but this is especially vital in parody.  If we’re laughing at a specific target, then it’s only funny if we’re laughing at that target, not at something vaguely like it.  It’s no accident that the best parodies tend to get the strongest results from fans of what’s being parodied.  You probably could, for instance, laugh at the wonderful film Galaxy Quest without having watched Star Trek, but it takes a true Trekkie to get all the jokes and really appreciate how funny it is.

I’ve lost count of the comedy treatments of mythology I’ve read – usually Greek or Norse mythology, or else stories of angels and archangels in heaven.  Some are done excellently, but in far too many cases, they seem as if the author has spent ten minutes reading a Wikipedia article on the subject and then taken a few random characters that sound fun, regardless of whether or not they’re being used in the right way.

I studied Greek mythology as part of Classics at university, and I’ve read a great deal about the subject, both before that and since.  The characters I’ve used are those who belong in the stories, and their functions and characters are (suitably adapted for noir and comedy, of course) those the mythology gave to them.

Sam’s investigation of Herakles carrying off Cerberus from the Underworld, for instance, features the minor goddess Hekate in a fairly important role.  This might seem rather random but, in fact, Hekate has a small part in that myth.  It makes complete sense that she’s around, especially since she also belongs in the Underworld, where the story starts.

So: a great set-up, juxtaposition, strong characters, authenticity.  With the possible exception of the second, that doesn’t seem so very different from what’s needed to write a straight story well.  And that, I think, is the real key: to write a good story, rather than to write comedy.  The requirements are much the same; it’s just that the outcome needs to be funny, rather than exciting, moving, thought-provoking or scary.  Not that it can’t be all those, too.  But in a funny way.

It seems, then, that maybe I am a comedy writer as well as a serious one.  You never know: I might even end up as a stand-up comic.  What’s certain, though, is that I’ll be trawling Greek mythology in search of more cases for Sam Nemesis, Private Investigator to gods, heroes and monsters.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Treason of Memory out from Musa Publishing

The Treason of Memory
Nyki Blatchley
Cover by David Efaw
Published by Musa Publishing (Urania imprint)
Young aristocrat Estent n’Ashne has been arrested for assassinating the king he’s always loved. He remembers the deed, though not why he did it, but the enigmatic spy Sharru seems convinced of his innocence. Together, the unlikely pair must search through the slums and palaces of the city of Jalkiya to uncover both political intrigue and an ancient evil. But how can Estent find the truth when he can’t even trust his own memory?
Combining the sordid world of espionage with dark magic, The Treason of Memory is an action-packed adventure story set in a fantasy world of flintlocks and rapiers. 

The House of Dreams in Lore

Lore Vol.2 No.2 (November 2012)
Edited by Rod Heather & Sean O'Leary
Cover by Christopher Allen
The latest edition of Lore is out, featuring my story The House of Dreams. Featuring my recurring character the Traveller, the main character of my novel At An Uncertain Hour, the story was inspired by Walter De La Mare's haunting poem The Listeners, whose character is referred to as "the Traveller". Well, I couldn't resist, could I? The story gives my answers to the mysteries and enigmas in the poem.
The issue also features stories by Bridget Coila, Keith P. Graham, Steve Rasnic Tem, Colin Heintze, Stephen Mark Rainey, J.P. Boyd, Jeremy Harper, Nickolas Furr, Jeff Samson, Corey Mariani and Denise Dumars.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Broadsword, Flintlock or Fireball?

When I first started writing stories set in fantasy worlds, during childhood and my teens, they were pretty much mediaeval.  At least, the very first ones, when I was around seven or eight, had knights on horseback together with modern-style cities, because... well, why not?  By my teens, it had turned into very much the kind of mediaeval romance style of world that's been popular in fantasy at least since William Morris  ̶  bold knights, maidens in distress (though sometimes getting out of it themselves) and mysterious towers.

That's all very well, but by the time I was into my twenties, the model had changed to "good" countries full of turbulent politics and new ideas flying around and "evil" countries ruled by autocratic tyrants.  By now, I was heavily influenced by classical Greece, though with a fair amount of input from the Renaissance.

To some extent, that's remained my comfort-zone ever since, although there's a good deal more shades of grey now between the good and evil.  I don't follow my models in everything, of course.  I reserve the right to let my favourite societies manage without slavery, and I've allowed them to invent the printing-press before guns.  Still, these are the kind of cultures I enjoy writing about.

In the past few years, though, I've been branching out.  The stories set in my main world, about the Traveller and others, cover a very long period and, although I've perhaps been a little guilty of extending the pre-gunpowder iron age to the limit of credulity, it can't stretch forever  ̶  either way.

I've dabbled a little in neolithic and bronze-age stories, though I need to explore those more, but I've done more about bringing my world up to date.  Various stories have been set in the age of steam, an equivalent of the mid-20th century, and even in this world's own computer age, with one story (due to be published next year) managing to cover the ten thousand years between flint technology and computers.  Musa Publishing has just issued my long story, The Treason of Memory, set in the age of flintlocks and rapiers.  I have been known to describe it as flintlockpunk, but that's just a joke.

It's been huge fun to watch my world growing up, letting it parallel our own but keeping it sufficiently different not to be a straightforward copy.  Some of their
"modern" technology has taken a slightly different course  ̶  electric cars, VTOL planes, phones you wear on your wrist and the like  ̶  but it's essentially a similar world.

This isn't the only possible approach, of course.  I've also written a few stories set in a separate world where all modern-style technology is powered by magical principles, rather than scientific ones.  You set a spell in motion to start your car or your communication device, and the weapon of choice  ̶ roughly equivalent to anything ranging from a rifle to a machine-gun  ̶  is the fireball-thrower.

Nevertheless, my main interest is to examine one particular what-if  ̶  what if the world were essentially as it is (give or take the odd sorcerer or immortal, to create a bit of fantasy) but with all the details different.  Different landmasses, different cultures, different nations, different solutions.  How would it evolve?

I want to explore this further, although I'm not going to give writing in my "comfort-zone", but the options aren't limitless in either direction.  If we go far enough back that the characters know little more of their world than "the forest" or "the grasslands", how is that different from a story set in an equivalent period of our own world?  I have actually written something of the kind, about a group of palaeolithic hunter-gatherers.  It pleases me to define it as being set in my own world, but without anything clearly distinguishable (three moon, a blue sun or whatever) it could just as well be about the prehistory of this world.

On the other hand, there's only far I can go into the "future" without running into a similar problem.  There's some leeway, and it might be interesting to show them encountering issues we haven't yet, but by the time they've developed FTL travel, sought out new life and new civilisations and started their own Federation, I might just as well write straight SF.

Still, that leaves me with anything from urban neolithic to early space exploration, giving me room for a lot more exploration.  Pick a level of civilisation  ̶  there's something to be written about it.
Click here for The Treason of Memory in any ebook format.