Thursday, 11 December 2014

Responsible, and not yet Twenty

I've got hooked on writing stories with protagonists under sixteen.  My ideas machine just hopped from one to the next.  My tales tend to be high-stakes, world- or life- changing yarns.  Then I started thinking, how often do young people find themselves in those situations?  Stories are all well and good, but how close to reality is it?

I often read fiction for young people where they get rid of the adults one way or another, but in the real world, we're all mixed together.  I've been writing historical stuff and in my research its clear an under sixteens could be thrust right into the middle of extraordinary events and expected to do something about them.

Here are some examples that may give you ideas...


Unlike democracies where you have to grow up to be selected and elected, a royal is born to the job.  In the past when the Ruling Families, er...ruled, from the moment a royal was born to the moment they died they were in the game, often a deadly one.

In 1554 Lady Jane Grey of England was 17 when she was beheaded having been queen for around 9 days.

Elizabeth the First of England took the crown in 1558 at 25, when she was younger her life hung in the balance and whim of her half-sister Queen Mary.

Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby (1443 to 1509), was married at 12, widowed at 13 while pregnant with the future Henry VII of England.

Were these women pawns in power games or player themselves?  A bit of both really, but age didn't matter.

More obvious young people with a role.

Alexander the Great was notional regent at 16 leading forces into battle.

The Black Prince was in the field and fighting at the Battle of Crecy (1346) when also 16.

In the same conflict, the 100 years war, but on the French side, were Joan D'Arc, who only reached 19 and the boy Charles, who would become Charles VII of France was in the thick of it from the age of 15.

Look across every nation and you will find young men and women from ruling families fighting for their status, position, survival and sometimes their nation.  I can't resist one more.

Genghis Khan, he was only 10 when violence and danger was in his face and it never stopped for his whole life.  Admittedly he died in his 80s and for much of it he was dishing it out, but responsibility was there first for his tribe and then the whole Mongol people.

Enough of toffs.

Sailors and Soldiers

Boys have sailed with their fathers since time immemorial, first in fishing boats, then in trading vessels.  Imagine the dangers and responsibilities that could ensue.

More formally, in the Georgian British Royal Navy, a young man could join as a Midshipman; for example:  Horatio Nelson started his career at 13.  In a few years a boy seaman or midshipmen could be in charge of a gun section, a boat or some other position of responsibility.  In action senior men could be lost and instant promotion come a young man's way.

Imagine a small vessel with a couple of officers and midshipmen under fire, very quickly a 15 or 16 year old might be the only one able to command.  Would the old sea-dogs of the crew obey? Perhaps he's the only one in an open ocean who can navigate. There's a story in itself.

Then there were powder monkeys running ammunition to the guns.  Young boy seamen, probably younger than 13 running through a ship in the heat of action.  Were they all boys?  I doubt it.  When you're starving and choices are bleak, the reliability - relatively speaking - of life at sea might encourage a young girl to pretend to be a boy and see the carnage and horror of battle.

The army was no different.  There were drummer boys and those who lied about their age.  My Grandfather did to join the navy, using his dead brother's birth certificate.  One of my heroes Audie Murphy was probably 15 when he joined to fight in World War Two.  Many under-age soldiers fought in both world wars.  Until recently 16 year-olds could fight on the front line for the British Army.

I was told an anecdote about some World War Two British Army truck drivers who came under attack in Northern France.  The youngest, 16, broke down in tears as the enemy came at them.  The rest of the soldiers - only a few years older - had no anger or contempt for his nerve breaking.  They told him to hide as best he could until the fighting was done.  Later in the action a bullet pinging a little too close and he then went the other way, all fury and fight.

Around the world children still fight, some are forced and some volunteer.  The charity War Child estimate there are 250,000 child soldiers and almost half maybe girls.

Other Jobs

Apprentices started in their teenage years and were expected to master an 'adult' job as quickly as possible.  In a world with no government support, if their master or father - usually the main breadwinner - became ill or died, a young person could become critical to avoiding poverty not just for them, but their whole family or even a whole business.

I already mentioned Audie Murphy, another heroine of mine Annie Oakley was around 8 when she started hunting to keep her family fed when her father died.  At 15 she earned enough from her labours to pay off her mother's mortgage.  Imagine a 15-year-old doing that today - who isn't a pop or movie star, that is.

I saw a TV programme recently about John 'Jack' Bamford GC.  At 15 he saved his two brothers from a house fire showing extraordinary fortitude and bravery.  He was awarded the George Cross, the highest gallantry medal that can be awarded to by Britain for courage not in the face of the 'enemy'.

His courage was amazing, but what made me think, is that he had spent the day before working down the local coal mine.  At 15 in the 1950s he was considered a man and was expected to earn.

It reminded me of the boys who worked in mines hundreds of years before, 7 and 8-year-olds who had to work flaps to keep the air fresh for the older men - who might have only been a handful of years older - toiling away.

Today the are still child labourers, obvious ones are the actors you see on TV, but in poor areas everywhere young people are taking on responsibilities way beyond their years.

If you're thinking of a story about younger people, you don't need a virus to wipe out all the adults or maroon them in a strange place, look back to history.  You'll find people taking on burdens or seizing opportunities of great responsibility below an age when their allow to vote in most countries today.

Useful Links

Friday, 14 November 2014

Four Jobs to Stop Adults Asking: 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'

'What do you want to be when you grow up?'

I hated that question.  Along with:  'How are you doing at  school?' and 'Got a girlfriend yet?' these are the most intrusive and embarrassing questions an adult can ask of a young person and yet they ask away.  It's like they feel they have a right to be so nosey.  If you have a large family, like I do, every time you meet an older relative they ask like no one has asked before.

I swore as an adult I would never ask that trio of trouble and so far, I never have. If I get a positive response from this blog I may supply tips on dealing with questions two and three.

My Childhood Pain

When I was young I had no idea what I wanted to be.  No career idea, no job thoughts, no plan to achieve what I was expected to achieve.  That's part of the pain, when you're a child your mind should be open to every possible opportunity, yet every adult seems to think you should have a career plan mapped out.  Well, that's how it felt to me.  I always felt like a failure because I didn't have a plan, then there was sense of judgement if you don't give the 'right' answer.

For me the world was and always is huge.  It is brimming over with all kinds of jobs, vocations and livelihoods.  Children start off with teacher, doctor, nurse, policeman etc. because that's all they see plus their relatives' jobs, then things get complicated when maybe their eyes are opened to some of the opportunities and those opportunities don't match the expectations of others.

I hate expectations. They should be banned.  Enough.  Back to the point.  I learnt how to stop adults in their tracks.  Give them a job that jams their brains leaving you to carry on with your life.

They are all sound and good jobs, if you fancy one, or it is your chosen career, excellent, they just puzzle adults when a young person comes out with one as an answer.  Now choose your weapon.


The job is counting tree-rings to date wood.  It's a bit more complicated than that because it's often used to date very old wooden things.  Check out the links below for how it works.  It is often used in archaeological and environmental research.

It's an excellent adult-stopper because most people have never heard of it.  Say 'dendrochronologist' and their mouths will go slack.   It sounds incredibly technical, meaning the young person saying it must be far cleverer than the adult asking the questions.  Important thing to note:  adults like to think they're cleverer than children - stupid I know - just because you've been on the planet longer than others doesn't make you smarter.  Learning, not age brings wisdom.


This is a trip-trap.  The adult will immediate think airline or fighter pilot and say so.  You can then tell them they're wrong.  You mean harbour or river pilot.  This is the expert in the local conditions of a river, port or channel who takes over the navigation of ships whose masters don't know the area.

This was the one I used to bring adults up short.  I live by the sea and see the pilot-boats going to large vessels to guide them into the tricky harbours near my home, that's where I came up with the idea.  If it was good enough for Mark Twain, it was good enough for me.

If you really want to turn the screw pick some exotic place to ply your trade, like the Suez Canal or Panama.  Since the Internet is international you may be from those wonderful places.  Where I live has challenging double tides, in Canada they have some very high tides with strong currents.  If you live in a land-locked city or country all the better to confuse.

A Middle Manager

This one is another mind games answer.  There is nothing wrong with being a middle manager.  It's a person who has risen to a position of responsibility over others with more layers of management above.  It is not Managing Director or CEO, but it's getting there.  That's the key to confuse.  Most people will achieve middle management with the intention of rising further perhaps in the same company or as a stepping stone to greater responsibility elsewhere.

If you tell an questioning adult that's your ambition, to achieve middle management and no more it will floor them.  It may lead to more questions about why you don't want to aim higher.  Mention 'work-life-balance' and 'achievable goals' and they'll probably run, especially if you're about ten.

Below is a link to the Dilbert website.  Look for the pointy haired boss.  He's a manager with all the worst traits.  Jargon from him will melt the most persistent questioner.


This is a person who investigates mythical creatures often with the aim of discovering whether they are real or not.  It's a cross between a researcher and an adventurer.  Image investigating the Loch Ness Monster, that's cryptozoology.  Now some cryptozoologists are hype-generating publicity hounds others are professional scientists discovering real creatures that are so hard to find in the wild the only clues are in myths of local people.

It's a good one if you want to travel the world, or, like spending time reading books in libraries.  Like the tree-ring counter it's a big word and few people know the job exists - very useful.


I hope this has helped.  If you actually want to be a hair stylist, pop star, reality celebrity, pro-gamer, YouTube Millionaire, post man, sewage expert, tea-taster, or whatever, go for your dream.  Me, I'm an engineer who dreams of being a writer.

Don't let the judgement of others get you down.

When I once admitted my dream to a teacher he laughed at me and made fun of me in front of the whole class - I've never viewed teachers the same since that day.  Yep, maybe he was right, I'm an engineer who still dreams, but no one has the right to do that.

If you're an adult, don't ask these questions, try: 'How's it going?'  Listen a bit more, or if you're me, overwhelm them with a collection of facts, it at least saves them from being asked those dreaded questions.  Ultimately respect the answer you get.

Useful Links

The University of Arizona Explanation of Dendrochronology - An excellent summary of the job with some tech bits to learn to scare adults even more. - Office life, nearer the truth than it should be.

Found a site about Cryptozoology - It's a bit overloaded with banner ads so you can see the worse side of it too.
13 extinct animals rediscovered - This is the science side of cryptozoology.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Infection: the Car Crash Killer of the Past

One of the aspects of writing historical fiction is showing how things have changed and how some things never do.  This month I planned to write purely about infection in a world without antibiotics and a full understanding of how infection spreads; i.e. the past.  As I composed this blog it expanded as I thought more about what was the biggest killer in the past and how it affected people.

I try to get things right when writing historical fiction, though I always focus on story first.  Clothes, tools and the environment are a starting point.  I'll admit, I tend to abandon the language because if the reader was experiencing the time and place like a native, it wouldn't feel strange or out of place, though I do try to avoid modern idioms.  Attitudes I keep, and that had me thinking:  what was the common killer and how does it affect people's thinking?

Antibiotics have been around for approximately a century.  That's almost three generations where infections, on the whole, have gone from stalking death to something a handful of pills can deal with - most of the time.

Today in the UK about 37,000 people a year die of sepsis.  That's in a population of roughly 60 million.  In the USA it's 700,000 infected with up to half dying in a population of approximately 300 million.  Until antibiotics came along the proportion of deaths was much larger.  Infection, coupled with diseases like cholera, was the biggest killer unlike today, where in the 'West' it is cancer and heart disease.

Until World War Two and the arrival of antibiotics, in almost all conflicts, more soldiers died of infection than from direct action.  There is a lot of concern about the reduction in antibiotic effectiveness and what would happen in our modern world without them; however, it mustn't be forgotten today there is a much better understanding of what infections are.  It gives us possible methods to beat them if this powerful tool is lost.  And of course, there is a massive pharmaceutical industry busying itself on solving the problem, for profit, but solving the problem all the same.

Our ancestors chance of surviving what we arrogantly call simple infections was much reduced.  Their understanding was limited, their weapons against the danger even more so.

I wanted to flag up death through infection as an effect on people and their attitudes.  Common causes of death over time change. Today the motor car kills more than war and terrorists combined, yet international murder gets the headlines.  Throw in all gun-crime and the car is still ahead in the life-ending.  Before the car, it was infection, grinding away at our numbers.

Think about infection and then think about your attitude toward cancer, heart attacks and road accidents.

Infection and Disease

Antibiotics are fantastic, they have saved millions of lives, but before them a simple scratch, a throat infection or an insect bite could kill  and people knew it.  Here's two famous people who died that way:

In 1799 George Washington had a sore throat aggravated by cold weather and getting soaked while out working.  That's another historical thing to note:  poor wet weather gear.  The infection, with no effective treatment, grew worse until taking the life of the great man.

In 1923 The Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, sponsor of the expedition that discovered Tutankhamen's Tomb, died from an infected insect bite.  Forget about the curse cobblers, with nothing to halt an infected wound,  he hadn't a hope.

What killed them we would hardly worry about in the modern world.

There used to be sepsis wards where the infected were kept isolated, tended to as best the medical staff could, but it was up to the poor sufferer's body to win or lose the battle for life.


When you think of King Henry VIII of England, which wife do you think of?  Is it Jane Seymour?  She was dead at twenty-eight years old, not by her husband's hand, but weeks after her first child was born.

It fits with the misconception that childbirth was the biggest killer of women until modern medicine started to turn the tide.  It's not that simple.  It's obvious many of the crises and traumas of childbirth were beyond the medicos of history; however, statistically it wasn't the biggest killer, infection was, but it played on the mind of every woman, probably many fathers-to-be too.

In The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sim there is an extract of a letter from a Lady Cornwallis to a friend.  She is expecting a baby and is terrified.  It's her fourth child; so it's no new mother-to-be's fear.  She's like a soldier going back to the front line.  She knows the risks and there is nothing she can do, but face them.  If you're writing a story of a happy couple expecting their first child it should be twinged with more anxiety than today.

Infection and diseases were big killers and even poor Jane Seymour probably died from an infection than the giving birth itself.  Childbirth made the mother more vulnerable to the risks about at the time.  Compared with everything else that could kill, childbirth was relatively rare even in the past - or there wouldn't be so many of us about now - though it was at the forefront of women's minds.  Ms Sim has a good theory, that since all the women of a household would attend a woman in labour it meant one terrible death would be witnessed by many.  This plays out for infection in general, there were few hospitals, at least that the ordinary soul could afford, and so death would be in the home, witnessed by all.

I like to think about attitudes, a good example is the midwife.  Sometimes a professional, sometimes a woman with a reputation for success.  In most past cultures where women received little respect or power, a midwife would be different.  Imagine a pompous male physician, with little time for folk remedies or amateur meddlers, especially women.  When it's his wife that is expecting, no matter what her social status, the best midwife in the area will be with her when the time comes.  Imagine the irony of a supposedly educated man deferring to Old Mother whoever, who can barely make her mark.

One of my great grandmothers was such a woman.  Without a medical certificate to her name,  her reputation was all she needed.  She turned down an offer of employment from the local doctor because of a fear she would have to charge for her services and thus price the poor out of the help they needed.

In middle ages Europe midwives were allowed to baptise children if they thought they wouldn't survive, so as not to suffer a death outside the Church.  Now there's power to the notionally powerless especially if you think about how many organised religions of the time liked to keep its power in male hands.

Flesh Wounds

There is no such thing as a 'flesh wound'.  Think about this the next time you get a paper cut and how much it hurts.  Then imagine the savage slash of a blade opening muscle or a bullet doing the same.

I love action movies, especially the 1980's and 1990's ones.  The heroes getting progressively cut, battered and bruised as he - and it is nearly always a he - battles apparently insurmountable odds.  Trouble is, I've seen historical versions and there's the catch.  One scratch could kill you, a bit of fabric trapped in a wound would go septic.  Your square-jawed hero could save the day, only to die a week later in a fever with puss pouring from what had been a simple cut.

If you are writing a historical tale, it's worth studying a bit of medicine and the medical theory of the time.  for poor George Washington, the physicians thought bleeding would remove the poison, where of course it weakened him further.


Our ancestors didn't die with every paper cut, wood splinter or sword blow.  Alexander the Great received eight notable injuries.  Lapham's Quarterly has a good diagram here of the locations of the wounds.  These didn't kill him.  I once read (sorry, can't remember the book) about a soldier from the War of the Roses who took a sword blow to the face.  He survived and someone rebuilt his features as best they could.  That is re-constructive surgery from five hundred years ago.  

Folk remedies too,  based on generations of experience saved lives; for example:  the importance of a clean wound and the efficacy of salt, were well known.

In Ian Mortimer's book The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, he reminds us that as time travellers we'd meet many people with limps, deformed arms or other disfigurements.  People did get injured, but they got better too.  Elizabeth the First of England was scared with smallpox.  That was a big killer of the time, but she survived, as many did.

When writing about the past remember the car crash killer is infection grinding away, poorly understood, but battled all the same.  It would be thought about like cancer and heart attacks are today and finally the power to heal can give rights to those who often have none.

Useful Books
The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sim.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer

Useful Links

Eye Witness to the Death of George Washington - An eye witness account of the First US Presidents final days.

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon's Death - A letter in the Lancet giving the details of the Earl's infection and death.

Sepsis: Antibiotics 'not working'  - A recent article about the current state of sepsis in health care.

A Historical Perspective on Sepsis - this paper says over 700,000 people in the USA get sepsis annually, up to half die.

Monday, 11 August 2014

‘You Write On’ Online Review Exchange Site

Getting unbiased reviews of your writing is vital to improve as a writer.  Local writers' groups are a good option.  If you are holding down a day-job like mine, evenings are for recovering for the next round of bread-winning not for nipping out to the local school or library.  I looked for something where I could use the time (and energy) I had, when I had it.

I like to think of myself as a SF writer and there are dedicated review sites like available.  I’m also a member of the +British Science Fiction Association  and they have the brilliant Orbiter group; however, I am utterly off-genre at the moment and I didn’t want to trouble the SF community.

I found and decided to investigate.

Reviewing the Review Site is a community criticism website, where members review each other's work.  It is non-genre specific, and whereas the main aim is the same for all these groups; that is: to improve members' writing, it runs this process as a rolling competition with Top Ten Charts and the carrot of high achievers having their work presented to professional editors.

Its home page mentions top performing authors and pushes the possibility of six figure book deals.  This created a sense of unease for me.  Another concern is that the site owners offer publishing services.  This smelt a bit like vanity publishing.

Despite the concerns, I decided to give it a go.  I joined in late 2012 to judge the site before submitting my own work in January 2013.

The site works on Reading Credits earned by reviewing other members' submissions through Reading Assignments.  Asking for an assignment leads to a randomly allocated piece of work (short story or novel extract) to review.  An assignment must be completed within four days to earn a credit.  Up to six assignments a day can be requested.

Once earned, Reading Credits are then attached to the writing to be reviewed. A member can have several pieces of work under review if they wish.  If a Reading Assignment is completed within two days it increases the rate at which your writing is reviewed, thus rewarding more active members.

Users can only see their reviews after four have been completed and after eight the work enters the charts.  If you end up in the top ten for that month you get the professional critique.

If you are in the top ten, then you have to keep earning a credit every week to stay there.  There are limits to prevent the same work hogging all the professional reviews, which are explained in detail on the site.
If a submission gets into the top ten and stays there for more than 25 days it is then listed in the best-seller chart where it gets more attention.

Apart from the overall Top Ten, there are ones broken down by genre whether this increases professional access or simply helps genre-fans pick out their own niche more easily is unclear.

Initially, I reviewed other people’s samples without submitting my own.  This is probably as close as any non-professional gets to dealing with the slush pile.  The standard of work is variable.  Out of the twenty or so pieces reviewed two thirds were readable, the remaining third felt like first drafts with only two being truly unreadable.  There have been chick ‘lit’ entries, a few psychological thrillers, some YA work, a couple of supernatural fantasies and one hard science fiction tale.  Assignments can be turned down without penalty.  You can turn down an assignment.  The only one I have was a Fifty Shades of Grey clone.

Reviewing has been the most difficult part.  It is hard to be constructive rather than critical and avoiding the pat advice, although ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘read it aloud’ is sometimes all that can be said.

What others have said on the same submission is hidden from view while you are reviewing it.  You can look at them afterwards.  Usually reviewers spot the same weaknesses and strengths.  Only once have I given a poor review to discover everyone else loved it.

Reviews must be 100 words or more.  To prevent users maximising reading credits by accepting everything and not reviewing the work, there is a reading test before a review can be submitted.
Once I was comfortable with the process I uploaded the first 5,000 words of my novel.  The limits are 5,000 to 7,000 words for novels and 2,000 to 5,000 words for short stories.

Reviews appeared roughly every two to three days.  All were honest and helpful leading me to rewrite my submission and achieve more positive reviews.  I have also worked through my novel and dumped 10,000 unnecessary words.

I did watch my chart position – fairly steady in the low twenties – and I did get twinges as it rose and fell, but the reviews mattered to me more.  I am still concerned about the competitive element because human nature tends to make people play the competition instead of the objective.  Every five reviews a one can be deleted.  The system automatically highlights the lowest rating review and the temptation is to zap it and rise a little higher in the charts.

Chart position appears to be very sensitive.  After a two week break caused by life in general, my position plummeted to 60th position from 25.  It returned to the teens once a new review had been earned.  I could imagine people watching their chart position and getting emotional about slipping down the order, loathing anyone who dared score them low.  I wonder what the top-ten-achiever thought of my negative comments of their popular prose.

Am I aiming to achieve a top ten spot?  No. I feel whatever the pros will tell me, I have already heard from dozens of ordinary readers, though I never turned down advice (listening to it is another matter).

Would I recommend it?  

Yes, with the proviso that you ignore the competition element.  Accept the reviews, don’t take them personally and do not look at your chart position.

The reviews were helpful and I was free to review and submit when I had time and didn’t feel like I letting anyone down if I couldn't.

Use it as a review site, be open, be honest and it will help you improve your writing.

Useful Links – the review site I’ve been talking about. – the science fiction/fantasy and Horror Workshop/critique group.  If you're thoroughly genre, it’s worth taking a look. – British Science Fiction Association.  If you're a SF fan join this and you won't regret it.  If you do regret it, I'm sorry, I must have been talking to someone else.

Update December 2014

You Write is changing their approach slightly.  I received an email explaining this, which I have reproduced the relevant parts below.

 YouWriteOn changes 2015: Apart from January 1st 2015, in which the top ten revealed that day will receive professional critiques as normal, the site will change as outlined below to have Development Periods and Competition Periods. Development Periods, as outlined below, are where members are not competing for professional critiques, with an aim of members exchanging peer reviews to develop their writing in a non-competitive environment. Competition Periods, as outlined below, are where the highest rated stories receive feedback from leading publishers such as Random House and Orion. The aim is to alternate development periods where members concentrate solely on developing their writing with competition periods.

How YouWriteOn works 2015 - Development Periods and Competition Periods

Development Months: During January to March each year and July to September all members provide feedback to each other so that collective feedback helps story development. The results for each month are displayed on the 1st of the month that follows, e.g. January’s results are displayed on 1st February. The development months above are solely feedback by members to members without feedback from Random House or Orion or other publishers on the 1st of the month that follows them.

Editorial Critique Competition Months April to June inclusive, and October to December inclusive, are competition months with the Top Ten from May 1st, June 1st, July 1st read by Random House, Orion or other editors who will provide Editor critiques to the ten authors from the thirty they consider have the most promise. Similarly, the Top Ten from November 1st, December 1st, January 1st are read by Random House or Orion who will provide Editor critiques to the ten authors from the thirty they consider have the most promise. For each ten that receive critiques, the top three from each ten will receive a longer critique, and the remaining seven mini-reviews, from editors from publishers such as Random House and Orion.

The aim is to alternate development periods where members concentrate solely on developing their writing with competition periods as outlined above.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Meet My Main Character

+Grace Buchanan (Weaver Grace)  tagged me to continue a tradition of bloggers on the Meet My Main Character Blog Tours.  This tour asks the author of works-in-progress to answer questions about their main character and then tag another author to do the same.

Grace's character is a real historical figure, her grandmother's grandmother.  She lived in a fascinating part of American history, when the USA and the people coming to it, start to truly found a nation.  Funny thing is, history books are stuffed with rulers and power brokers, yet Nations are formed, changed and protected by the millions who never get a mention.  I'm a history nut so I'm biased and her character was interesting.

Here's my go at answering the same questions...

1. What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

Jeptha of Nonewharl, everyone calls him Jep.  He's a fictional character based on the many young men who did, and still do, go to sea in search of adventure.

2. When and where is the story set?

It's set in the early seventeenth century, at first on the fictional islands of Nonewharl, which are much like the Faroe Islands, set in the stormy North Atlantic Ocean.  Jep and his people are descendants of Nose settlers and shipwrecked 'strays'.  Then he ventures into the Atlantic and then the North Sea on his first, fateful voyage as a professional sailor.

3. What should we know about him/her?

He's a strong, tough lad from a hard land that breeds strong, tough folk.  He's a skilled sailor growing up in and around boats, mastering the harsh conditions of coastal sailing.  He tends to act without thinking and that, coupled with a strong sense of what's right, gets him into trouble.  Like all his people will look a King or an enemy straight in the eye and not bend before either.  That tends to get him into a lot of trouble.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

He joins the wrong ship.  At the equivalent of an apprentice fair he signs on with the crew of a galleon called Cornucopia.  Far from being full of good things, it is an evil ship, engaged in an evil trade.  His challenge is whether to set aside what he thinks is right and join wholeheartedly with the bad that they do or stand alone and confront them.  It comes to head when he is ordered to kill a helpless prisoner.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

He dreams of becoming a ship's master and sailing the world.  In the story, it boils down to simply surviving and not being drawn into doing evil.

6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

I'm rubbish at titles.  Currently its call Voyage or Blood and Seawater, both I feel are rather lame.  The first three chapters are available at

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

The book is complete and I'm going through the usual, agonising agent/publisher rejection mill.  I wish I could give you a date of publication.  I'm examining other options, if I manage to get it out there in a sensible form, this blog will be the second place you'll hear about it.  First place, probably be the news as: 'Man jumps over own house in excitement at receiving an acceptance letter.'

The Tour Continues...

A bit of a twist on history:  Alternative history.  Graeme Shimmin has just published an action/spy story set in a different kind of Europe.  He takes a twist on the Meet My Main Character theme too.
Meet Graeme Shimmin's main character 

Friday, 30 May 2014

Geek Post: Getting Kubuntu 14.04 to Work for Me

An Apology:  This is a Geek Post

I have both an inner and outer geek, the result is this post.  Normal service shall be resumed next time, unless I see some really cool code.

I'm not here to praise Linux or bury Microsoft.  I use Linux on my laptops.  I have for years, I up-date rarely, wanting to get on with work, not fuss over the OS (Take note MS: XP to Vista to 7 to 8 to 8.1).  Recently I up-dated to the  latest version of Ubuntu (the most popular version of desktop linux) with the 'K' Desktop Environment or KDE, hence Kubuntu 14.04 (released in April 2014).

This is a record of my installation and what I needed to do to get it working how I like it.  It's a mix of a record of my experience and an aide memoir for me.  To those you can still cope with reading this entry I hope you'll find it useful.

A Very Brief Discussion about Linux

Kubuntu: Linux looking like Windows

Linux is the less well known of the major operating systems out there after Microsoft and Apple's offering.  You may not even have heard of it, if you're using and Android phone, you're using it, may be to read this on it.  It works on laptops and desktops too.  Linux is also big in the world of servers and some games consoles too.

Linux has a few powerful advantages over Microsoft's operating systems and even those of Apple and a few weaknesses, which can set one's teeth on edge.

I won't knock Microsoft Operating Systems too hard.   For the most part they work on almost any hardware, straight out of the box and are ubiquitous, so much so, everyone can work out how to use a computer running it.  If you're a PC gamer it has been the foundation and driver of hardware for decades.  I have been using them for years and will continue to do so.

I use Linux because:
  1. It's free meaning OS money can be spent on hardware (oooh, hardware) instead.
  2. It's utterly configurable, both visually and operating system wise, to be exactly what I want, how I want it, and that includes making it very lightweight so my average power laptop runs very fast.
  3. The BIG ONE:  It doesn't need a reboot for an up-date.
That last one is critical.  I do creative stuff.  I write, I draw and paint, I stare at the screen and think a lot.  Nothing breaks the creative thought like the computer demanding I reboot or it simply doing it.  On more than one occasion I have left a piece of prose or a half-complete picture to come back later to discover my PC had rebooted.  End of creativity for the day.

Why Linux can be painful:
  1. It doesn't always work 'straight out of the box' especially on cutting edge hardware.  Finding the right driver can be a long, long search.  Some drivers have been reverse engineered by enthusiasts and don't work as solidly. 
  2. Sometimes you have to brave the command line to get some things done.
  3. The BIG ONE:  Not all of the the software you're used in the Microsoft Universe works in Linux.
That's very true for games, or Office Products (alternatives are available see Am I cheap? - Free software I use.) or things I use heavily like, Adobe Photoshop, Evernote and Netflix

There is a huge amount of support out there from really knowledgeable people so if you want to learn more about Linux there are links below that will help you.

Back to the point of this Blog

My previous OS Kubuntu 12.04 can do an install to 14.04 as if it was a general software up-date; however, I like a fresh install so I burnt an installation disc and used to it to wipe my computer and install the latest OS version.  I use a wired Internet connection, but it will work with WiFi, to up-date things that weren't on the disc.

The basic stuff works, I had my Word Processor Libre Office and Firefox web browser that were installed by default, but I have particular needs and not everything works, so here, finally are the problems and how I solved them.

Programs Installed

Not everything comes on the installation disc so here are the ones I added.
On many linux distributions there is a software centre where you can find useful stuff and download it knowing it is compatible for your operating system.  For the current Kubuntu version it's known as the 'Muon Discovery Centre'.  Set it going, type in what you're looking for and install - that's a feature I'd love in MS products.

Muon Discovery Software Centre - pick a category or type in the search box.

  1. Opera Web Browser - download the appropriate '.deb' file opera's site and let the installer do the rest.  Signed in so it would sync with all my other devices.
  2. Dropbox - downloaded directly from Muon Discovery centre, entered my details and it works fine. 
  3. Inkscape Vector Drawing Software - downloaded from Muon Discovery centre.
  4. Skype - Visited their download page picked linux and then the Ubuntu 12.04 (multiarch) version.  Downloaded the '.deb' file and installed.  Entered my details and I'm connected again.
  5. VLC - downloaded what I think is the best Video/Music player there is (I use it on my Microsoft machines too).
  6. Wine - Downloaded the latest version of Wine (1.7.1) from Wine HQ.  This is the tool that will help you run MS Windows programs on Linux.
  7. Photoshop 7.0 - installed via Wine. It has worked for the last two months without fault.  Yes, it is a very old version, newer versions work too, but I am cheap and it does what I need.
  8. Evernote - installed, a bit hit and miss, then there was an up-date to Wine and it's worked very nicely since.  There is a native linux version called 'Everpad' that can be downloaded, but I like the Window's version.  Details of alternatives here
  9. Netflix had to follow the guide provided by +Nixie Pixel on her YouTube Channel.  View it here
  10. KeePass - A powerful password manager, Windows-based, setting it to work via Wine as if it is on XP means it works fine.  That sounds complicated, but its a couple of pull-downs in the Wine Configuration settings for the software.  I use the free portable version available from  Keepass website.
  11. GIMP installed via Muon Discovery Centre.  Then I added the GIMP Paint Studio 'expansion'.  Take a look at their code home to learn more here.

Photoshop V7.0 Running on Linux via Win 1.7


DVDs wouldn't play.

Usually you have to download some third party stuff to get DVDs to work in Ubuntu.  It does this during the install, but the DVDs still didn't play.  Turns out I was missing a reference in the /dev directory.  I said you had to brave the command line.  I had to enter the following command after navigating to /dev.

sudo ln -s sr0 dvd

I found this fix on the why-does-dvd-playback-still-not-work-after-installing-libdvdcss2 page of 

Wacom Tablet Pressure Sensitivity Not Functioning

Wacom Tablet was recognised and was moving the cursor around, but pressure sensitivity wasn't working in either GIMP or Photoshop.  Discovered, I need to activate it in the GIMP preferences then it worked for both programs.

No Driver For My Epson XP-750 Printer

I use an EPSON XP-750 networked to my router via an Ethernet cable.  It's driver did not appear on the list for installation.  Found the driver 'epson-201209w' and downloaded/installed the 32-bit .deb version.  Printer works a treat.

WiFi Slow

I have a fast Broadband Connection that Laptops running Windows access blisteringly fast.  My Linux laptop crawls.  It is all about finding the right driver.

I found help here: and here:

There's no getting away from it, the WiFi bit is tech heavy, but it is what I had to fiddle about with to solve my issues.

I followed the guide here.  It is still not as good as I think it can be and so I'll be tinkering for awhile.

Prettifying KDE is one of the really wonderful things about it and can be done from all sorts of settings menus including downloading of new icon sets and window decoration.  If you want to check out what can be done, take a look at

I hope you found this useful, if only as a new way to cure insomnia.

Update 14th June 2014

Evernote was a bit flakey after a few weeks, not sure why, but then I up-dated the kernel (the core of the operating system) and it has been a lot more stable.
How to do this can be found here.

For completeness, I changed from 3.13.0-29-generic to 3.15.

Useful Links

DistroWatch - Every Linux distribution, what they're like and where to get them. - Home of Kubuntu, the Ubuntu Linx version with the KDE front end. - Home of the Opera Web Browser, a nice alternative to the 'Big Three'
Wine HQ - You want to run Microsoft Programs on Linux, start here.  Their forums are very good.
It's FOSS - A great Open Source/Linux resource.
Ask Ubuntu - Great problem solving Forum for all things Ubuntu.
KDE Look - As they claim, eye-candy for your Desktop.
Nixie Pixel's You Tube Channel -er...the YouTube channel of  +Nixie Pixel

Monday, 21 April 2014

Where do your ideas come from? A Bit of a Mutiny

As soon as I say I write stories, people ask, 'Where do you get your ideas from?' or they say, 'I've got an idea for a really great story you should write.'  I can't deal with the second point here, but I can have a go at telling you where the ideas come from.

Some just pop into my head at random, which is no help to anyone.  Others start with a stray piece of information that sticks and after lots of thought the concept comes together.

Every time an editor accepts a story I shall describe where the idea came from and how it develops.  I thought it might help with the answer to the ideas question.

In April 2014 my SF short A Bit of a Mutiny was published by Jupiter SF in issue XLIV.

It took two years to write despite being around only 4,000 words long.  

The Idea

It started with me discovering the largest human creation on the Earth is the Pacific Trash Vortex, also known as Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  It is where the currents of the North Pacific sweep rubbish into one massive area of plastic pollution.  It is nominally the size of Texas and estimated to be millions of tonnes of rubbish.  Some of it is large like plastic buckets, toothbrushes and packaging, particularly carrier bags; however, the majority, and worst of all, is the stuff that has partly degraded into microscopic particles the size of plankton.

This stuff washes up on beaches, gets eaten by mistake thus poisoning or choking unlucky creatures and slowly, but surely, permeates the sea at every level.  Hey, if you've eaten some Pacific tuna you too may be ingesting some plastic from the Great Trash vortex - now that's a thought. 

There are similar collections of pollution in other oceans, but this is the biggest.  I live near the sea and see the junk that turns up on the shoreline dumped off ships or pumped out of sewage outlets.  I hate waste and that is how the story started:  how do we clean up this mess?

This lead to the idea of a titanic machine slowly struggling with a lifetimes' work of purging our ocean.  Even if the governments of the world argue over who's at fault and who should clean it up, it is still our ocean.  Everyone of us, every human living and breathing has a stake in it and I say that living as far from the Pacific as it is possible to live.

Any way, I wrestled with the 'what's the stroy?' problem.  Cleaning the ocean could be a whole novel, it could be a very boring one too.  I mentioned my vision of this huge ship filtering the sea, gathering junk at all levels to friends and family members.  They said, apart from idealists, who would ever bother with cleaning it up and idealists rarely have the money to do it.

Money, that was the key, governments suffer when they build ambitious and expensive projects because there are always people who think it's a waste; for example: pacifists paying for the defence of their nation, childless people paying for schools.  No government would pay for cleaning up the sea that wasn't 'their problem'.  Then I saw my government were announcing their latest budget, giving tax breaks for this or that to encourage less selfish behaviour of the rich.

What if investors in a cleaning-the-ocean machine received massive tax-breaks.  What happens when those tax breaks are taken away?  Suddenly the story came: idealists running ship, having dedicated their lives to healing the sea, facing off assert strippers keen to max their profits.  The prize being the largest ship in the world.  Hey, this is science fiction, it had to be didn't it?

So the story is a battle, a clash of two different sorts of people, using all the weapons - some surprising - in their arsenals to win.  What's at stake?  Nothing bigger than the health of the largest ocean.

So that's how the idea for A Bit of a Mutiny developed.

Useful Links

Jupiter SF

National Geographic's Web Page on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Lies You've Been Told About the Pacific Garbage Patch

Why is the world's biggest landfill in the Pacific Ocean?

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Tenderness is declining, but so is Impatience, the Power of Online Dictionaries

I write and I love words, actually nearly everyone writes, whether its texts, emails, birthday cards and I think everyone should love words.  They can be the killer ammunition to your getting your point across.  Chose a duff one and you're firing blanks.  When I'm tapping away into a word processor, as good as their internal dictionaries are, sometimes they'll disagree with your spelling.  You'll be sure, you're right, but the wavy red line is under your carefully chosen word and doubt creeps into your mind.  My last word that fell in to that trap was 'manufactory', it's where the word 'factory' came from, so I know it was real.  As a back up I check with on-line sources.

I recommend using dedicated sites rather than simply typing into the search engine of your choice, or checking out a wiki.  Both are good, but the professional lexicographers and their sites offer far more than just giving you a meaning.  My preferred two are:  Oxford Dictionaries and Collins Dictionaries.

OK, most provide thesauruses, grammar tips and some translation and these do too.  However, I have found nice little extras.

Oxford Dictionaries has sections on quotes, phase meanings, word origins, I find myself exploring the site for ages after the original word meaning has been fully understood and probably forgotten.  Hey, I used - OK, I still do - word surf paper dictionaries, it's a weakness.

So what about my title to this blog?  I discovered on the Collins's site a 'Word Usage Trend' indicator for every word you look up (it's near the bottom of the page).  It shows the trend over 10 years; however, there is a pull down so you can look at the frequency of use over 300 years.  Tenderness, the word, peaked in frequency around 1828 then has been on a gradual slide ever since.  If you put in 'impatience' you'll see it peaks a little earlier then declines.

Is this a laziness in word usage?  I don't know.  Have there been new, better words superseding old ones?  Maybe.  I don't know the reason, I do know that over 300 years there have been a lot more words created and a lot more things written, much thanks to the Internet, which might dilute frequency of word usage.  It doesn't really matter its just a cool feature.  When you next look up a meaning or spelling, check out how it is trending, not over the last five seconds on Twitter, but over three centuries.

By the way, I then tried to think of a word where its usage was rising, my best so far was 'mobile' for obvious reasons.

Useful Links

Oxford Dictionaries

Collins Dictionaries

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Inspiration from all directions

Everyone should look for all kinds of inspiration (this will eventually lead to chickens, honestly).   I reckon its the best exercise for the mind, even if you don't want to create something.   +Scott Robertson is a brilliant concept artist and his books are full of ideas and how to develop ones of your own.  He also has a great YouTube channel where he shares his advice and experience.    It's well worth reading his books or simply visiting his channel.  Recently he produced a video about Chris Ayres.  He is another artist of great skill with an inspiring story.  Search for him and his 'Daily Zoo' books, or find the video.

Anyway it lead me to sketch a silly picture about my neighbour's cockerel.  In my very urban life I like to here it crowing, I thought the hens might not.  Here's the picture, I hope you like it.  Inspiration is a wonderful thing.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Where's the Ship's Wheel?

I nearly called this: 'Steer?  I can't see where we're going?'  I shall explain.

A while back I wrote a blog about where the galley was on 16th/17th century ships.  The accursed thing could be almost anywhere, or the crew might settle for a barbecue on the top deck - yep, no kidding, it was a possibility.  As a child I was taught of sailors' fear of fire, yes, they were very careful about it, and yet their definition of health and safety was very different to modern 21st person's view of the matter.

I thought I was on safer ground with the ship's wheel.  Big galleon in danger,  my young heroine sees no one is at the wheel, she steps forward to wrestle the mighty vessel to safety.  Hah ha!  No wheel!

I thought as soon as ships grew so large that the rudder would be too heavy to control directly, the ship's wheel would be an obvious invention.  I thought wrong.  The ship's wheel is a rather late invention coming in around the turn of the 18th century.  My early seventeenth century vessel would definitely not have one.  It would use a whipstaff.  In fact, ship's wheels weren't quickly adopted, with many vessels still using a whipstaff well into the 18th century.

Below is a model in Dorchester Museum of the Mary and John circa 1630.  I used it as proof of the moving galley.  Now I can show off what a whipstaff is.

The Mary and John 1630

The Whipstaff
This vertical shaft gave the helmsman a bit of mechanical advantage to steer a big vessel.  It has loads of disadvantages over a wheel; for example:  its hard to get lots of hands on it when in heavy weather; so control goes down as the wind picks up.  Unlike a wheel the movement of the whipstaff, and therefore the tiller, is limited by the size of the slot the whipstaff moves in.  That means big steering motions are out.

It also has a major disadvantage shared with early ship's wheels - placement.  You can't see where you're going.  You can see from the model, it's in a room below the quarterdeck.  Even if the forward wall wasn't there the helmsman's view would be appalling.  Look at the first picture.  Notice that the mainmast, foremast, forecastle and bulwarks all block the view of the sailor on the whipstaff.

No one alone can steer a big ship without the risk of hitting something.

This leads on to ship's operation.  The helmsman would never be expected to see where he was going.  The sailor would obey the orders of his officers, men standing on the quarterdeck above him, who could see beyond the limits of the hull.  He would steer to a compass bearing and though he wouldn't watching where he was going, he would be watching the ship intently.  His best view would be of the sails and rigging.  He would be ensuring they held the wind.  He would be watching for when men were aloft, because bad steering on his part could cause the yards to jerk or buck and his crewmates to fall to their deaths. 

Helmsmen needed great concentration and skill to do their job well, and there is an old adage that helmsmen steer by their fingers and toes: they feel the ship and control with a delicate touch.  They also need to be strong.

While writing my story, I realised my heroine wouldn't have the muscle to hold the ship, so two of her friends came to help.  Research is important.

Useful Links

Replica Ship Half Moon - a great resource on a historical vessel from 1603.  See if you can find the whipstaff.  Try here: I like to make things easy for people:)

Useful Books

Tudor Sea Power by David Childs
The Galleon by Peter Kirsch