Archives for January 2016

The Steampunk Excerpt

Yesterday, I said I would post the first scene from my Russian steampunk novel complete with my editorial notes. Alas the fickle finger of fate has intervened. Scrivener has crashed seven times on me since yesterday, which is more than it has crashed during the whole period since I started using it back in 2007.

Since the only file that crashes is the one for this particular story, I am tempted to conclude that this might have something to do with Scapple importing. That might be jumping to conclusions prematurely though. Something else may have corrupted the file.

The net result is that I did not have the time or the energy to work out how to include my editorial comments from the salvaged file. Rather than just post this excuse I thought I would add the actual scene and I’ll put up the commented version another day.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the excerpt in all its rawness:

THE ARMOURED TRAIN rattled through the winter gloom. I stopped looking out the compartment window and turned my attention to my companions, trying for the thousandsth time to answer the vexed question of which of them was the spy.

I knew there had to be one. I was a wizard and the Office of State Security monitors all wizards. Even if you work for it like I do. Especially if you work for it like I do.

Ivan looked up from the cheap periodical he had been reading. I could tell from the cover that it contained adventure stories set on the Siberian Frontier. Ink from the dark woodpulp paper smudged his fingertips.

Ivan had been to the frontier and he knew it was nothing like those stories but that did not stop him from devouring the magazines. He loved reading about the bold trappers and the monsters and the Nephilim.

When he smiled he looked like an innocent boy but he had killed at least a dozen men and several supernatural beings during his tenure as my bodyguard. Was it him, I wondered? He was the most likely candidate.

I did not want it to be him. He had taken a bullet for me once but that might have been nothing personal. Ivan was loyal to the Czar. And I was the Emperor’s representative. Perhaps that was the reason he had tackled the would-be assassin. Not friendship. Not loyalty.

The carriage door slid open and Sophia, candidate number two for the position of state informer, walked in, her smile halfway between concerned and shy. She was carrying a leather document wallet bearing the two-headed eagle seal. It contained papers, important ones but not as important as those in the briefcase handcuffed to my wrist.

She looked at it then caught me rubbing the wardstone on my jacket cufflink with the fingers of my left hand. She knew that gesture well. She said, “nervous, Colonel Roth?”

I did not want the spy to be her either. I liked her too.

I shook my head. “What is there to be nervous about, captain?”

She exchanged a knowing look with Ivan. They didn’t believe me. And they were right not to.

This whole business smelled poisonous. An imperial war hero murdered by dark magic. And not just any imperial war hero, a wizard and a cousin of the Czar. It was my job to bring the killer to justice. That much had been explained to me in painful detail by the Minister for State Security.

The slaying of Oleg Zacharov was tantamount to treason. Killing a wizard of his power was like poisoning an entire division of hussars. It was not something that could be allowed to go unpunished.

If I failed, there would be unpleasant consequences, for me, for my family, for those close to me. Given the political situation, there were plenty of powerful people who would like to see me fail. A more sensible man have found a way not to take this case.

I had often considered killing Zacharov myself. Now I would never get the chance. I pushed that particularly treasonous thought to one side and stared out of the window again.

It was getting dark. Deep snow glimmered white as bone. Leafless trees leaned over the railway line. The outline of the land looked vaguely familiar.

I was going home. That was another thought to be pushed to one side. I had not been home in 17 years. I wondered if they were all still alive. They had been the last time I checked but that had been months ago. Now it was winter, the season when the poor die in droves in the city of Katrinaburg.

I realised to my horror that I did recognise the landscape. I knew the curve of the river and the bulge of the hills. I had swum here as a youth. I had walked all the way out of the city a full five leagues on hot summer days. We had come to look at the beauty spot, Me and Carl and the other youngsters from the Cheap Street slums. It had all changed now and not for the better.

“There used to be trees here,” I said.

“There still are,” said Sophia. “Open your eyes!” She added sir as an afterthought.

“I mean they used to be a forest so thick that you could hardly see your hand under the eaves of the trees. It’s all gone now.”

“Probably to feed the new factories, sir,” said Ivan cheerfully. “They use a lot of wood. Fuel, pulp, kindling for the poor.”

He pulled his service revolver out of the holster and began to check it. He flipped out the rotating drum that held the truesilver cartridges and spun it.

“The bullets are still in there,” I said. “Put it away before you frighten the poor conductor. He’s already nervous enough about us being on board.”

“As you say, sir,” Ivan said. He clicked the weapon closed and put it back in its holster. “I like to be prepared. You never know when trouble might find you.”

“I think it’s unlikely that it will find us at three thirty on a Sunday afternoon on the Moscow to Katrinaburg express,” I said.

Day One, Scene One, Chapter One

So I started work on the first scene of the first chapter of my Russian steampunk novel. I got eight hundred words or so done. It was initially a disappointing read. It lacked the the richness, power and drama I thought it would contain when I conceived the scene.

This is normal. For me, it’s how the transition from imagination to prose often works. In my mind, I had a picture of a landscape somewhere between Dore’s illustrations of 19th century London slums and Miyazaki’s villages from Laputa the Flying Island. Dark satanic factories belched forth smoke and flame. Things did not turn out quite this way. There was little of the sense of place I had imagined. I assume I will manage to shoehorn it in later. At least I know it’s missing.

I had envisioned writing the book in third person, but somehow when it came to it, I was in first person. I blame the influence of Jim Butcher. My elevator pitch to myself for the book was Harry Dresden meets Maxim Gorky meets Full Metal Alchemist. Seems my subconscious took that seriously.

The setting was bare. There was no physical description of the characters. These are things I know I will get around to fixing at some point. Right now, I am just pressing ahead to get some feel for the book. There was a sense of the character’s personalities and there were bits that were striking. We’ll get to those in a moment.

The scene did not start where I thought it would when I outlined it. I imagined an armoured train arriving in the aforementioned Miyazaka/Dore Czarist metropolis. But when the hero looked out the train’s window he did not see streets of soot-smudged snow, he saw a bare, frozen landscape, stripped of the trees he remembered once being there.

I am not sure why, but this happens often. I think I am going to sit down and write some specific thing but my brain decides I am going to write something else. Sometimes it’s just the characters getting up to their monkey tricks, doing what they want, not what I want. It’s frustrating but, over the years, I have found that it’s best to just to go with it. I’ll get to my destination through these detours. They are often the most interesting part of the journey anyway.

Details which were not in my outline emerged. One of the hero’s companions was reading a dime novel set on the Siberian Frontier. He liked reading them despite the fact he had been to Siberia and knew it was nothing like the pulps. He had black ink smudged on his finger tips from the cheap paper. Nice detail. No idea where it suddenly came from.

Our hero mentioned the missing forests in conversation. Turns out they were missing because they had been devoured by the factories during the recent mass industrialisation– they were fuel and wood pulp and kindling for the stoves of the masses.

Of course, they were. Clearly my underbrain had been giving this matter some thought even if my conscious mind had not.

And so it went on. Lots of surprising details, a vague connection to my outline. I’ll probably post this scene tomorrow along with my notes for revision. (Hey, I am currently on the lookout for easy daily posts.) We can compare it to the final version at some future date.


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RIP David Bowie

I was looking at Flipboard this morning and came across an article saying David Bowie was dead. Hoping it was one of those cruel internet hoaxes I paged through a couple of news sites. Turns out, sadly, that it wasn’t. I am stunned.

Bowie’s music was part of the soundtrack of my teenage life, perhaps the largest part of it. I can remember lying on my bed in the council house in Fairhurst Rd listening to The Man Who Sold the World and Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs. Brilliant stuff; great rock, weirdly intelligent, with heavy SF undertones. It spoke to me as it spoke to millions of others of my age and alienation.

One thing that set Bowie apart from many of the rock stars of his generation was the sense of strange intelligence at work. I remember an interview with him made about the time of The Man Who Fell to Earth. He was obviously drugged out of his gourd and the interviewer asked him what he thought of America.

“It’s like a fly drowning in milk,” Bowie replied. It sounded like as total stoner non sequitur but Bowie proceeded to riff brilliantly on the subject of media overload, affluenza and the dark side of the good life. By the time he finished he had demonstrated exactly how apt the simile was. The contrast between the slow stoned voice and the articulacy and lucidity of what was being said was striking.

As I have been writing this Starman has been running on a continuous loop in my head. It’s been in there for over 40 years along with a whole lot of other good stuff, mostly with Mick Ronson on guitar. Screw this. I don’t really want to write about this any more. I am off to listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.


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Scapple for Plotting

I am currently working on a murder mystery. I started with an interesting central character (a wizard detective),a setting that excites me (a magical steampunk version of nineteenth century Russia) and a strong idea (our hero has to investigate the murder of a rival he hated, one suspect being the woman he once loved). I was happily writing my outline until I came to the point where the body was discovered. At that point a red flag went up.

I had no idea who committed the crime.

This sort of thing happens to me a lot. I start with an image, or a character or an idea that excites me and I build on it. I assume I will fill in the details as I go along.

Now I needed to know more than who committed the crime and why. I needed to have lots of plausible suspects too. The nature of the suspects would allow me to explore elements of the world.

In a mystery novel there needs to be a web of relationships between victim and suspects. It needs to be complex enough to obscure the nature of the murderer. It’s not the sort of thing my usual linear outline process lends itself to. It usually leads to lots of false trails, redundancies and even large sections dropped from the finished book.

I had recently been reading Storyteller Tools, M Harold Page’s excellent book about plotting. He uses mind maps for his plots. It struck me that this time it might be an good time to do the same.

I’ve owned Scapple for quite some time. It’s by the same people as do Scrivener. I’ve never used it much but figured that if I was going to do a mind map, this was the software to do it with. It’s simple, I owned it already and it integrates well with Scrivener.

So I sat down nervously and drew my first box in the middle of the screen. I put the victim’s name and what had happened to him in the box. I then drew a line between him and the box representing the detective. This was to show that there was a relationship there of some sort.

I already knew this to tell the truth. The detective had gone to the same magical Academy as the victim and they hated each other. There was rivalry there between them over a woman. I wrote this in the detective’s box.

As it happened this woman was also a student at the same school for magic. She was now one of the primary suspects for the murder. In went another box with the woman’s name and lines linking a both the detective and the victim. So far so good.

That was the three basic relationships that I already knew about. Now I needed some more suspects. One by one more boxes appeared. More links sprang up between the different characters. A large number of different people started to take shape.

Here was the anarchist syndicate and it’s surprisingly suave leader. There was the corrupt secret police chief and his brutish minion. Oh look, there are the socialist revolutionaries stirring trouble in the massive armaments factories.

I put in more lines that indicated connections between the people and the factions.

Soon I had a large intricate diagram showing the relationships between all the characters. They were colour-coded. Green represented the hero and the characters connected to him. Red represented the suspects. Blue represented the various political factions that might or might not be involved. All the human players in the story got a box with rounded edges. Factions got boxes with jagged edges.

In the space of a couple of hours I added an enormous amount of detail to the world. I also found that the large number of connections suggested elements of the plot that I had not thought about myself.

The leader of the revolutionaries turned out to be a childhood friend of the detective. The wife of the millionaire industrialist had also been having an affair with the murdered man. There were links between the Lovecraftian Other God cult and the Nihilists– who knew?

The story began to grow in depth and richness because I had done this mind map. I was impressed by how clear it made everything.

Of course, this merely gave me an intricate web of relationships that the detective would need to investigate. I knew roughly who the detective needed to talk to and from that I could work out an order which would be both dramatic and interesting.

For this I decided to use another tool, Aeon Timeline, I’ll talk about that in a future post.


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When You Need to Block Out the Internet Just Focus

Over the past few years I’ve used a program called Freedom to cut myself off from the internet when I’ve needed to be more productive. It works well but it’s a bit brute force– it blocks all access to the net. Recently the makers of Freedom have started moving towards a subscription model. This leads me to believe that the standalone app might not be long for this world. I like Freedom but I am not a big fan of the subscription model so I started looking around for alternatives.

I had a half-price coupon for a program called Focus so I thought I would give it a try. I’m glad I did. It’s a bit more subtle than Freedom, at least to begin with. Over a time period of your choice, it stops you from accessing specific sites. Instead of getting Facebook, you get a motivational quote, which I thought was a nice touch. The program can be set up to block both websites and apps on your computer.

You can choose to use a white list. The program prevents you from accessing everything except approved sites. Or you can use a blacklist which blocks only specific sites like Facebook or Twitter. There is a default list populated with all the usual suspects and it’s easy to add your own personal banes to it.

The blacklist method lets you cut off all your primary timewasters yet still have access to the net for research.

Normally you can over-ride the program so it functions more as a nudge in the right direction that an absolute cut off. There is also a hardcore mode which prevents all access and cannot be over-ridden for those times when a gentle push is not enough. So far I have not had to use it but it’s nice to know it’s there.

The program can be set up to come on automatically on a schedule such as between 9 am and 12 am or 2pm and 4pm. (This is what I use.) Schedules can be as complex or simple as you like. Its a useful way of blocking out a work day. It let’s me know there are times when I absolutely should be working and still leaves me times to check email, social networks etc.

You can also set it up to run scripts during focus periods but this is beyond my level of competence.

So far the program has worked perfectly and been a pleasure to use. If you find willpower alone is not quite enough to cut yourself off from the lure of the Interwebz, you’ll find Focus useful. It costs $19.99 for a single computer license and is available here.
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Dungeon World +2 Bundle of Holding

Just a quick post this morning. I got an email from the good people at Bundle of Holding. They have a new Dungeon World Bundle available.

There’s some extraordinarily good stuff. Not only Dungeon World itself but dark magical Grim World. (I backed the kickstarter). It does exactly what it says on the tin.

There’s Iron Edda where the riders of mecha-ish magical machines fight against the coming of Ragnarok in a world of Norse-ish mythology.

There’s the dying earth of Last Days of Anglekite. There’s steampunk adventure with The Green Scar and Inverse World. And there’s a whole lot more. I’m just mentioning the ones that really push my hot buttons.

One of the things I love about the new generation of OSR/Creative Commons/Open Systems gaming is how much unique and interesting stuff is available. I don’t even have to learn a new ruleset to play too which is a bonus given my lack of time and failing memory.

At the moment you can get the base package for $6.95 and the the complete bundle for around $18 bucks. These prices will rise as more people buy. You can grab it here.


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