Born in the Year of the Dragon, Vonnie Winslow Crist is author of Dragon Rain, Beneath Raven’s Wing , The Enchanted Dagger, Owl Light, The Greener Forest, and other award-winning books. Her speculative fiction appears in publications in Japan, India, Australia, Spain, Germany, Canada, the UK and USA. She also has more than 200 poems and 1,000 illustrations published. Believing the world is still filled with magic, mystery, and miracles, Vonnie strives to celebrate the power of myth in her writing and art.
Welcome, Vonnie! Can you tell us what you find inspiring?
Vonnie: First, thank you, Clare, for inviting me to contribute to your blog.
As for inspiration, I find everything inspiring! Believing stories help us learn from the past, embrace the present, and prepare for the future, I write lots of stories. So I need lots of inspiration. Myths, legends, folklore, and fairy tales are important to understanding people and their fears, familiar networks, societal structures, and core values, so I use them for inspiration. To be honest, they are the beginning place for most of my fiction.
How about some examples from your new book, Dragon Rain?
Vonnie: In the story, “Veil,” I used the song, “Long Black Veil,” and Appalachian folklore as the inspiration. My favourite version is performed by The Chieftains with Mick Jagger singing lead. Here’s the link if you’d like to take a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4F-4rY4g4Do
In my story, the woman who said nothing and let an innocent man hang travels back in time to change the past with the help of a dragon. But there’s a terrible price she must pay.
Another example is my inspiration for “Bloodguiltless.” First, I stumbled across the word, bloodguiltless, which means someone who is not guilty of murder. Not long afterwards at my doctor’s office, I read a magazine article about some of the folkways and superstitions of the nest gatherers who collect swallow nests to make bird nest soup. When I got home, I added in a pinch of Native American folklore, set the story on a distant planet in the far future, and began writing. In my story, instead of collecting birds’ nests, the nest gatherers are collecting the nests of tiny dragons. Unfortunately, the nest gatherers become greedy and break a taboo.
Then, like all rule-breaking in legends and myths, there are consequences.
Speaking of swallows (which are a favorite dragon snack), my inspiration for the first story in Dragon Rain, “Weathermaker,” is Chinese lore about dragons. I included not only their weather-making abilities and growth from snake to dragon, but also milk as a means to lure a dragon. Since the story is set in modern times, I decided rather than just milk, the main character would honour and lure the dragon with yogurt and mozzarella cheese sticks. May, the protagonist, happens to be an artist and mentions some of her art materials. With my art background, this was an easy way to connect with May and add richer details.
Though each of the 18 stories has an unique inspiration, I’ll only mention one more tale. The final story in the book, “Dragon Rain,” was inspired by not only the legend of a dragon living beneath the city of Krakow, but also by the tale of St. George and the Dragon. I’d noticed in paintings, and again when I gazed at the statues on the front of a cathedral in Basel, Switzerland,
The dragon St. George killed was a baby!
That small detail certainly diminishes the dragon threat. So I told the story from the point of view of the mother of a brood of wyrmlings. Her mate was slain in a cave beneath a city so his family could escape. Since George wasn’t the only saintly dragon-slayer, I added in Theodore Tiro, Demetrius of Thessaloniki, and a group of soldiers in pursuit of the dragon family. I also had the mother dragon entertain her brood with stories of their great ancestors (dinosaurs to us) as she does her best to save her children. Alas, not all of the wyrmlings make it safely to the Seihan River. Which is when the reader learns what dragon rain really is.
Every story in my 4 collections and my fantasy novel, The Enchanted Dagger, began with folklore, fairy tales, legends, and myths. I also use those same things as inspiration for much of my poetry and illustrations. Speaking of illustrations, I’m sharing a couple for your readers to enjoy.
Thank you so much Vonnie. That’s so fascinating.
Now enjoy a free extract from Vonnie’s collection Dragon Rain
Trees had spirits. As did waterfalls, fjords, and even the land itself.
Which was why Oddvar was told to be careful when selecting wood for carving the dragon heads and tails to be mounted on the stems and sterns of his village’s longboats. One had to be careful. Humans weren’t the only beings living in the forests, waterways, and caverns.
Tomorrow, he’d be going into the wilds alone to find the wood for the next dragon head to be carved. His thoughts jumped from one otherworld creature to the next, wondering if he’d encounter any of them on his wanderings.
“Where are you, Oddvar?” asked Farfar Tor as he nudged his grandson with his elbow.
“I’m here,” answered Oddvar with a smile. He paused a second to clear the cobwebs from his mind before continuing. “I was thinking about the soul of the ship we’re working on. Wondering where the gnome who guards this longboat hides when we’re onboard.”
“One doesn’t need to see the otherworld folk to know they’re here,” replied his grandfather. “When the tree used for the keel was cut, the ship-spirit emerged from the tree. Then, he came with the timber to the shipyard. Now, he’s somewhere on the boat keeping the timbers clear of rot and woodworms. But if we should fail to properly construct and attach the figurehead, I dare say he’ll make an angry appearance.”
Farfar Tor raised his bushy brows, pulled his lips down, and glanced sideways at Oddvar.
Oddvar laughed at his grandfather’s grimace before rubbing the last of the oil into the carving of a fearsome drake which graced the bow of the boat. When whittled from a blessed tree and well-shaped, the carving would scare away enemies and ward off evil spirits on both land and sea.
No other local woodcarvers could guarantee this protection. Only Oddvar’s family, because Farfar Tor, like his father and grandfather before him, knew how to imbue timber with the magic of dragons. The trick, which their family kept secret, was to boil a dragon scale in the oil used for polishing figureheads.
“I think the iron curls we inserted into the wood add a regalness to the drake,” said Farfar Tor as he caressed the arched neck of the dragon.
“And they provide protection for ship and crew from sea serpents, merrow, and kraken when they journey across the waters,” added Oddvar. “Just like our trollkors.” He touched the iron troll cross hanging from a leather cord around his neck.
“Iron works most of the time,” agreed his grandfather, “but be cautious nevertheless when wandering in the forest. Some creatures of the otherworld won’t be deterred by a trollkor alone.”
“You don’t have to worry, Farfar Tor,” he boasted as they climbed off the longboat, “I’m always careful.”
His grandfather answered him with a shake of his head as they hiked back to their house.
After feeding and watering the livestock, Oddvar and Farfar Tor locked the barn, then entered their stone, wood, and wattle-and-daub home. The fire crackling in the central hearth took the bite off the evening air. Though the days were still bright, the nighttime chill indicated autumn’s first frost was near.
Oddvar sighed. It was always comforting to return home at the end of the day. He felt the tension in his shoulders vanish when he saw his grandmother’s loomwork hanging at one end of the room and her preparing a meal at the other.
I’m lucky to live with Farfar Tor and Farmor Britt, he thought as the aromas of one of his grandmother’s savoury stews bubbling in a pot and fresh bread made his mouth water. When his mother died in childbirth and his father was killed in a raid across the sea a year later, Oddvar could have been given to another family, sold into servitude, or even left out for trolls to find. Instead, he was cherished by his grandparents.
“Another boat outfitted with a dragon head and tail,” announced his grandfather as he stretched his arms above his head, yawned, then sat on one of the wooden beds running the length of each side of their home.
“I’m sure it looks fearsome indeed,” said Farmor Britt before handing her husband a bowl of stew and a hunk of bread.
Oddvar’s grandmother smiled at him. “Are you ready to whittle and mount the carvings by yourself yet?” she asked as she gave him his supper.
“I think so,” he answered. “I’m going out tomorrow morning to look for a piece of wood from which to carve the next dreki.”
“But not alone!” exclaimed Farmor Britt.
“Yes, alone. If Oddvar is to someday run the business, he must do more on his own,” insisted Farfar Tor. “Now, sit, woman. You need to eat, too.”
The sun had not yet risen when Oddvar woke. His grandmother was already up preparing porridge, while his grandfather was carefully placing items into Oddvar’s travel bag.
“I can do that,” he said as he pulled on his boots.
“I know,” replied his grandfather. “But now that packing is done except for the ax, you’ll have time to help me with the animals before you depart.”
Oddvar grinned, slipped on his outerwear, and followed Farfar Tor to the barn. They filled the hay bins, milked the goats, collected a few eggs, then turned the livestock out in their pen—except for their horse, Stig. They left Stig in his stall with extra feed. Then, they attached the harness to the cart. By the time they returned to the house, Farmor Britt had sliced what remained of last night’s bread and ladled steaming porridge into three bowls.
“You’re wearing your trollkor and carrying a knife?” his grandmother asked after breakfast when Oddvar slipped his leather travel bag over his shoulder.
“Yes, Farmor Britt.” He kissed his grandmother on the cheek. “We even tied a small trollkor onto Stig’s halter.”
“Remember, mark your path as you hike…”
Thanks so much for sharing with us, Vonnie! More dragons to you.
Want to know what happens next? Here are Vonnie’s links:
Donna Bottomley is a psychotherapist and writer, based in Wales (ah, Wales! Will I ever see you again?). As part of her psychotherapy practice, Donna runs an online Expressive Writing group, which sounds just perfect. Expressive writing can be effective in reducing anxiety, apprehension, worry and insomnia.
Donna’s book, released in May, has the intriguing title Do I Need to See a Therapist? In these pandemical (yes, I just invented that word) times, I know most of us have been touched in one way or another by worry, sadness, uncertainty and doubt.
Add feelings of fear and isolation, and it’s no wonder we think about seeking help. Read on for Donna’s comments on why she wrote this book, plus a free excerpt.
I can *almost* guarantee (*because nothing is certain, right?) that you’ll find this chapter very helpful.
Welcome to last Word of the Week, Donna!
I’m so pleased to speak with you. Can you tell us about your book?
DONNA: The idea for this book was to pass on my insights from being a therapist and to also mention a particularly helpful technique for managing emotions that has been a game-changer in my practice over the past year.
Making connections and discoveries is what inspires me. I LOVE research and am on a constant quest to understand what makes us feel and behave as we do. Therapy as a field is increasingly looking beyond merely talking about thoughts and instead bringing more of our physical bodily sensations and events happening beneath the ‘hood’ of the brain into therapy. This includes our sensory worlds. These are an important part of our feeling states.
I recharge using the sensory stimulation of listening to music whilst moving; preferably in my car but walking in nature can have a similar effect. I also love the physical act of handwriting and use expressive writing both for myself and in my therapy practice.
Oh and I also have a habit of getting lost for hours playing around on Canva!
DO I NEED TO SEE A THERAPIST?
Free Book Extract: Chapter 5
Will Talking about My Feelings Make Them Worse?
And if So, What Can I Do to Make It Easier?
I often hear new clients say that they are worried they will feel worse if they talk about their feelings. This belief that emotions are made worse by talking about them keeps people silent. When we are silent, we cannot process our experiences. If we do not process our felt experiences, then we cannot truly learn enough about our own emotions in order to manage them. You wouldn’t manage a sports team by having no idea of the individual skills and abilities in your players. You’d have no control over how a game would play out if this was the case, and it would feel unpredictable and uncertain. It’s the same with our emotions. By suppressing them and pushing them away, we never get to learn enough about our own processes in order to manage them better. Because we don’t know enough about them, we find them unpredictable and we feel out of control if they become triggered. We don’t want to lose control, so we push them away. This avoidance keeps us fearing them, and the cycle continues.
As humans we have a natural ability to be able to suppress, repress or express. Sometimes we knowingly suppress, sometimes we unknowingly repress. An example of repression is not knowing that something has bothered you until you later talk about it and feel upset, perhaps saying something like ‘I had no idea that bothered me so much’. This is normal, but do we balance out our natural tendencies to suppress, with setting aside time to process? In day-to-day life I don’t believe we do, because we desperately do not want to get upset. But this emotional suppression has a cost. It can make us feel even less in control of our emotions, and it also has an impact on our physical health.
A study by Gross and Levenson, published in 1997 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, found that when participants were asked to suppress either a positive (amusement) or negative (sadness) emotion, the act of suppressing the emotion produced increased activation in the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ (SNS). The SNS is the part of our nervous system that sets off the ‘fight or flight’ response and gets us ready for action. Along with the release of stress hormones, it increases our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing in order to tackle the task at hand. If this type of activity is prolonged it takes us into a state of chronic stress. So if we suppress either positive or negative emotions this has an effect on our body similar to that that occurs when we are dealing with something stressful.
Somehow, we have been given the message that it’s wrong, weak or crazy to notice and express our sensations and our feeling-states. But the research is clear that suppression as a strategy for managing our emotional health is not helpful. Peter Levine, in his book In an Unspoken Voice, discusses a study in which emotional suppression was correlated with higher rates of heart disease in men. James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth’s research into expressive writing and emotional disclosure found a link between poor immune system functioning and emotional suppression (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2019). All of this tells us that if we stop trying to avoid our feelings, we might feel better. But how do we actually do this?
THE ALTERNATIVE TO SUPPRESSION: PROCESSING EMOTIONS
This is the first step. It might sound obvious, but it is central to being able to gain mastery over what is happening for you. There is a part of the brain that is involved in ‘noticing’ and in becoming aware of what you experience. You can enhance it, and some scientists would say that you can increase the size of this area through long-term mindfulness practice.
The next thing I’m going to ask you to do is to set an intention to be curious about the sensations in your body that you notice. Maybe you are used to immediately doing something to distract yourself from the fluttery feeling of anxiety, or that quick whoosh of adrenalin. Whatever it is that you notice, how about seeing where the sensation goes if you let it be? Yes, you can distract yourself if you want to, but that isn’t your only option. Could you allow yourself to be like a scientist and be curious about what you notice? Could you try to embrace the uncertainty rather than push it away? The sensations in your body are not going to harm you. You do not need to fear them. If you let them be, they will come and they will go. Like waves on a beach.
When or if you feel angry or anxious, you might also notice lots of thoughts or maybe images flashing up, wanting attention. Your brain will be trying to figure out what’s going on and what to do. That’s OK. Notice what is happening in your body. You do not have to answer the thoughts right now, let them be there. They will come, and they will go.
Observe without judgement
Try it now. Check in with your body. What posture are you holding? What position is your spine in? Is it slumped, or twisting to the side? Imagine straightening it a little bit, and actually let your spine move to where it wants to. Then notice your stomach: are you holding it in? Let it go, let it flop out. Adjust yourself if you notice any twists or tenseness anywhere else. Notice with curiosity and without judgement.
Take a breath in and slowly breathe out, trying to make that out- breath last for a count of six. Do this again, then once more, and now take a big breath in and let it flop out like a big sigh.
Oh, thank you so much for that, Donna.
Great advice there. I’m sure we all appreciate this. Now for the entire book – here are the links!
Today I’m excited to host Veronica Strachan and Darren Kasenkow as they tell us all about their inspiring project. Veronica and Darren are the co-founders of Australian Book Lovers and the co-hosts of the popular podcast of the same name. They’ve created a site that’s brilliant for readers and writers.
Love Australian books? Go straight to their site, sign up for the newsletter, subscribe to the fabulous chatty, engaging, informative podcast. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.
What is Australian Book Lovers?
Australian Book Lovers is a platform for Australian and Indigenous authors to list their books, and for readers from across the globe to find them.
About the ABL team:
In between listing books, promoting authors, and recording podcasts, Veronica and Darren are editing their collaborative novel Family Secrets. Book 1 of a new series, ‘Beneath a Burning Heart’, Family Secrets features adventure, romance, and a supernatural twist.
Veronica spent most of her life in the health industry as a nurse, midwife, project manager, CEO, coach, and facilitator. Once she switched her attention to creative writing, she published six books in five years. A memoir, a workbook/journal, and two books in a children’s picture book series, illustrated by her daughter, Cassi. As V.E. Patton, she’s written Book 1 of a fantasy series and a novelette. Soul Staff: Book 2 of her ‘Opal Dreaming Chronicles’, and Chickabella Shapes Up: Book 3 of The Adventures of Chickabella are due for release later in 2021.
Darren appeared on Last Word of the Week earlier this month. He’s an author whose work dances across the boundaries of literary fiction, with thematic elements from dystopian horror, apocalyptic science fiction and existential suspense. His books include The Apocalypse Show, Dust and Devils, See the City Red and The Hallucigenia Project Book One. He’s currently working on the highly anticipated sequel titled Godless, with an expected release date of late 2021.
I’m very excited to talk to Veronica and Darren today about their work and their mission to promote Australian books.
Welcome to 2021 Inspirations
Veronica: Thank you for the chance to post our inspirations to your blog.
What inspired me to get Australian Book Lovers going? Well, if you chat with Darren Kasenkow for more than a few minutes, you are guaranteed to be inspired by his enthusiasm and imagination. We’re co-authoring a book and have chatted regularly over Zoom over the last couple of years. I was getting to know lots of Aussie writers through the Twitter #AusWrites hashtag started by Rebecca Langham (and now assisted by Kevin Klehr) and the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge (Reading more works by Australian women writers).
Both DK and I were doing everything we could as Indie authors to promote our books in the crowded marketplace, and in the midst of COVID-19!!! I can’t help coaching – looking for potential and nurturing it forth, it’s in the blood – and wanting to support other people in reaching for their dreams, in this case Aussie authors! The conversation got around to … wouldn’t it be good if all the Australian authors were in one place… and easy to find and promote. I’m pretty sure it was DK who said,
“We should start a website”
and he came up with the name Australian Book Lovers. As a serial small business entrepreneur, it was the green light to get started.
The continuing inspiration comes from the authors themselves. The podcast is my favourite. It is an absolute honour to chat with so many creative imaginative people and to hear about what inspires them. And then to spend time chatting with my friend Darren about anything and everything writing and reading that takes our fancy. If one of us is feeling a bit flat, it only takes a minute or two to be uplifted by the other person’s energy and enthusiasm.
Darren: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be a part of your amazing blog!! And an extra huge thank you for shining a light on great people and artists of all passions – in a world that’s continuously turning upside down it’s a beautiful thing to know beautiful conversations are happening 🙂
As for inspirations behind the Australian Book Lovers website and podcast, my writing, and of course my insatiable appetite for all things that ignite the imagination, I guess I have to say it probably has to do with those truly magical moments of discovery as a kid that held a recipe for transcending time.
The promise of wonder in a new book
is just the same today as it was when my bedtime was out of my hands and a new tale to read was a whole new world to discover and learn from. I love all art and forms of expression, yet books continue to be portals that I just don’t think other mediums can beat (and I say that as someone who loves to explore the technology of virtual reality!).
I write with the hope my story might inspire the same love of literary portals that I’ve been lucky enough to carry with me throughout life’s trials and tribulations, and I love working on Australian Book Lovers with Veronica because it represents the chance of sharing great works with readers who also hold the soul of an inner child filled with wonder and the desire to push their imaginations to the limit! Oh, and I love to peek behind the curtains in life, so interviewing authors and industry specialists is an absolute blast!!!!!
Tell us more about Australian Book Lovers, please!
Each listing allows a cover, blurb, bio, and author pic as well as a buy link of the author’s choice. We have hundreds of books from hundreds of authors listed under 12 separate genres/ages. Each page has its mascot – an Australian animal or bird, usually wearing a quirky piece of clothing or a prop instantly recognisable to lovers of those books. You can see two of our favourites in this blog. We’ve just commenced competitions to name all the mascots. The hundreds of people who subscribe to our newsletter get updates on the latest additions to the website, special features and access to author giveaways. Authors get their books shared with our subscribers and all the website visitors. The website changes almost daily, both in terms of books added and functionality. Very soon we’ll have to add multiple pages for our most popular genres. We’ll be offering listings for short fiction in the near future.
which currently has seventeen episodes and over 25 hours of writing news, reading news, author interviews, cameos, book readings, chats with industry experts and expert panels.
It is so inspiring to chat with authors and industry people about their love for writing and publishing. We were blown away by the support of authors for the podcast and amazed at having 1000+ downloads by our listeners in only three months.
There are times when it’s hard to keep up with demand, as we both have our own creative work and careers, but it is a gift to be connecting Australian and Indigenous authors to new readers, and we love it.
Thank you so much to Veronica and Darren for bringing together Australian Book Lovers through their energy and passion for reading, writing, readers and writers. If you are an Australian author yet to take advantage of the free listing service for your book, do it now! If you love reading books by Australian authors, wherever you happen to be in the world, go straight to ABL for a feast of books!
Born in 1969, Phil was one of the last children born before man walked on the moon. Working at Australia’s National Dinosaur Museum since 2000 and as an educator at the Australian War Memorial since 2006, he has previously worked at Questacon Science centre and could be seen haunting the halls of London’s Natural History Museum and The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Here he even played famed palaeontologist O. C. Marsh during the Smithsonian’s centenary celebrations. When asked why the 19th century palaeontologist was speaking with an Australian accent, Phil blithely stated that everyone on the 19th century spoke with an Australian accent.
Published in newspapers and magazines across the globe, Phil is the paleo-author for the world’s longest running dinosaur magazine, The Prehistoric Times. He has also been a comic shop manager, a cinema projectionist, a theatre technician and gutted chickens for a deli. All of these influences seem to make an appearance in his writing, especially the chicken guts bit.
Congratulations on the publication of Golgotha.
What inspired you to write this story?
PHIL: Thanks, I’m so pleased how this story came out. I have worked for museums all over the world for the last three decades and was lucky enough to work as an educator at the Australian War Memorial for a decade. I was always looking for interesting stories to pass on to the AWM visitors. During my research I found several stories, and further research led me to even more oddities. Many of these I used in my tours, but some I filed away for later use.
The story of a crucified soldier was the first of these, but I do have a few more that will hopefully make an appearance with my international team of investigators in the near future.
Golgotha is set during the First World War.
Why are you interested in the war, over a hundred years later?
PHIL: OK, this may get deep. Working in places like the London Natural History Museum made me confront the lack of history I feel connected to. Not only am I am Australian – so part of one of the youngest nations on the planet – but I’m also from Canberra – arguably the world’s youngest city/capital. Certainly, our country is old, and the indigenous have some serious history, but in many ways, I feel that’s not my story to tell.
I collect stories, and many of these I find in strange locations, meaning they are often unreported. This has led me to creating a new history for Australia for a podcast I’m about to release … and it will all be bizarre Australian history that I’m certain many have never heard about, and all real. A samurai invasion of Australia decades before Cook arrived, the Fall of the Roman Empire leading to the Dutch landing in Western Australia … Napoleon sending an invasion fleet to Botany Bay … all true.
All of this has led me to understand – as many of us do – that our identity as Australians really did begin with Gallipoli. It’s when we first started to think of US and not THEM. The First World War is our American and French Revolution, our Civil War – it’s the conflict that forged us into the nation we know today, I mean, even the word ANZAC has become something for more than its original meaning, its something sacred.
Do you think that WWI still has lessons for us today?
PHIL: HELL yes. I believe statics show that, by population, no Allied nation lost more in the Great War than Australia. Similarly, no nation (that wasn’t physically part of the battle – like France) is still as affected by these losses as Australia.
Drive through many rural towns today in Australia and you’ll see a large monument in the town square noting their losses. The monument is often full of men with the same last name. Entire generations from these towns joined up and were often buried together in some field overseas.
These towns never truly recovered from their losses and rural Australia still feels underpopulated.
I feel this has all left something of an emotional national scar. One way we have been dealing with the great loss is the way we reverently look on those who served.
I feel what other nations can learn by this is perhaps the way we use the past, but we are not tied to it. Mateship is part of our national identity, but rather than let us restrict who we include into this circle, we try tp be inclusive.
I think our natural outlook towards others, which is usually friendly, is why Australians worldwide are beloved.
Very interesting reflections, thanks Phil.
Now a bit about you! If you were stuck on a desert island
– or maybe in lockdown LOL –
what five books would you want with you?
PHIL: Ouch … only five … actually, challenge accepted.
The Black Company by Glen Cook. I love this series and it’s been a massive influence on me. The way Cook uses a bare-bones way of writing his stories is something I really have taken form heart. Don’t waste your time getting your characters from A to B – just get them there and move on with your story. I also just love his characters and the entire story line … this leads me to
Old Tin Sorrows by Glen Cook. This book and this entire series is da’ bomb. It’s also part of the inspiration for my first novel, Brotherhood of the Dragon. The books are about a fantasy hard-boiled detective called Garrett. I recall reading ‘Old Tin Sorrows’ when it suddenly struck me that many of the plot points were from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In fact, the entire series is also heavily influenced by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, so I decided I wanted to join in the fun and also use these mechanics in Brotherhood.See if you can spot them? Golgotha also has similar influences – most notably the Third Man with Orson Welles.
Cetaganda/A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold Ok, I may be cheating here, but let me explain. The Vorkosigan saga is one of the greatest novel series ever put to paper (and not just Sci-fi, but all series). Each one takes on a different theme. Cetagandais pure political/detective thriller. There are plots within plots and action and intrigue and red herrings and Mile Vorkosigan mentally pulling it all apart and finding the truth. Great stuff. The next book though is a romance/political thriller with plots within plots and intrigue and red herrings and Miles fumbling his way to asking the lady he loves to marry him. It’s the funniest book I have ever read and pure genius. I’ll also cheat here and suggest you get the audiobooks. Both of these I listen to at least once a year.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis Possibly the most influential book on this list. Moneyball is about baseball statistics…and yet it’s so much more. The lesson it teaches is anything can be interesting if you find the right angle. Moneyball is about how to win when you’re losing, how to change tac when you realise you are going in the wrong direction, how to create something from nothing, how to make a weakness a strength and how to tell just a great freakin story. You can watch the movie – its great too – but honestly, read the book – especially if you are interested in facts more than fiction – you simply won’t regret it!
The Gilded Dinosaur by Mark JaffeThe history of palaeontology bookended by the greatest battle in science – the intellectual war between ED Cope and O C Marsh. Dinosaurs, palaeontology, cowboys, train robberies, explorers, nation building, the Smithsonian, political intrigue … and did I mention dinosaurs? What’s not to love?
You write across genres and have a wide range of amazing interests.
How do you juggle all of these with work and writing?
Do you have some time management or focus tips for us?
PHIL: Well, for one thing you will never suffer from writer’s block … you can always move onto another subject for a while and get refreshed/re-inspired.
That’s the cheat answer. To be helpful, I guess I would say work smart.
Research is fun but can create a serious freeze on your brain as you find yourself swamped by too much info. You will take notes – so many notes – well put them in Word! DO NOT USE A NOTEBOOK! Trust me, I’m a researcher and I love carrying around a notebook. The problem is, you end up with lots of notebooks – but do you ever look in them? And do you find what you’re looking for? So, work smart – put them in Word and then you can word search later for what you’re looking for.
Keep folders. You will be astonished how often you will be looking for some info, and you’ll find something that links into something you are working on. Don’t stop what you’re doing, cut/paste/save– take a screen shot or a photo – but save that info in the folder you have for that project and then get on with what you’re doing.
And this brings me to my most important point.
Finish your projects. Don’t get distracted, and I mean distracted by outside as well as internal influences. If you are working on a crime story, don’t start watching documentaries about the First World War, even if that’s something you are also going to work on. You’ll get distracted/inspired and lose your train of thought.
Stay on point – stay on theme – and you’ll get an astounding amount of work done.
Wow, Phil, thank you so much for your insightful answers. Wonderful!
And thanks in advance for sharing a chapter from Golgotha, which I know is wonderful.
Just one more to join our happy band of adventurers, Fitzhugh thought as they entered the Australian lines. They were immediately joined by several large men wearing the quintessential slouch hats the antipodean troopers favoured.
These men referred to themselves as ‘six-bob-a-day tourists’, referencing their daily wage, and their service meant the Australian government and senior commanders treated them with more respect than other nations treated their own men. The most obvious example was that no Digger could face a firing squad for any offence without the permission of the Australian government, and that permission was never forthcoming, despite the pleas of generals like Douglas Haig.
Soldiers being soldiers, the Australian servicemen took full advantage of this leniency by rarely saluting their officers and hardly ever answering with the proper use of rank. Instead, the Aussies called their commanders by their first name, never wore their uniforms in the ‘correct’ by-the-book-way, nor took part in much of the silliness that soldiers from other nations had to endure.
Fitzhugh knew full well the reputation of these men, both on and — in this case — importantly off the battlefield.
At one point, the unruly Diggers had found themselves located in the lines near the 10th Royal Fusiliers, and here they became concerned for their fellow soldiers when the Fusiliers commander ordered them to parade every morning. The very English and newly minted colonel had decided he would have his men march a full-dress parade, with spit-and-polish uniforms, during their morning mounting of the guard. This was all done as the unit’s brass band played a merry ditty for the Fusiliers to march back and forth under the braying vigilance of Sergeant-Major Thomas Rowbotham. A lifelong military NCO, Rowbotham agreed with his colonel that strict discipline within the ranks was the only way to go.
Amid the mud, carnage, and death on the Western Front, the Diggers watched these parades with growing incredulity. Stationed next to each other, the two units inevitably began mixing and the Aussies eventually had to ask their British comrades if they enjoyed all that marching and dressing up.
‘Not on your life!’ replied one of the Fusiliers.
Another jumped in. ‘We have to do the parade during our downtime. Even at rest, we’re busy polishing buttons and boots, all so our bloody officers can feel like they’re leading proper soldiers.’
One burly Australian grinned an evil grin at his new friends and, slapping the much smaller man on the back warmly, said, ‘Right-o, cobber, we’ll fix that for you.’
The next day, Sergeant-Major Rowbotham called his men into parade. The Fusiliers all dutifully filed in and the regimental band lifted their instruments, awaiting the Sergeant-Major’s signal. As Rowbotham lifted then dropped his arm to signal them to play, he was greeted by a cacophony of what some would later recount fondly as noise.
Marching up and down behind Rowbotham were the Australians, playing what could be kindly described as instruments. Most were rusty and showed the signs of a hard life, but none of this mattered as the Aussies couldn’t play them anyway. Instead, they just blew and banged as hard and loud as they could, to drown out Rowbotham’s orders. Each time the makeshift orchestra began to wane, and the Sergeant-Major tried to regain control of the situation, the Australians began playing again with even greater vigour. After nearly half an hour of this, the Sergeant-Major, in utter defeat, finally strode away in a huff and the Fusiliers were never called to parade again. The Australian trench band was always watching and ready to start up their battlefield symphony if they did.
‘Can I help you, gentlemen?’ one of the Australian soldiers asked.
‘No, thank you, just passing through,’ Fitzhugh answered as Andrews manoeuvred to place himself between the two men.
‘What have we here? It seems the officer is taking his dog out for a walk,’ another Aussie said. ‘Down there, Fido. Sit!’
Another of the soldiers asked, ‘Does your dog do any tricks?’
‘Sergeant,’ Fitzhugh cautioned, as Andrews took a threatening step toward the jokester.
‘Nice leash, puppy,’ the Australian said, indicating Fitzhugh with a nod of his hat.
‘Actually, perhaps you men can help me?’ the captain asked, his tone remaining warm.
‘What’re you after? A German flag? A helmet? We got lots of souvenirs to impress the folks at home. You can even say you collected them yourself, you big brave British soldier you.’
‘Even have an officer’s uniform. It’s still a little bloody from where Barney here gutted the bloke.’
Ignoring the clear threat, and taking the statement as a joke, thus passing the test the Australians had laid out, Fitzhugh replied sincerely, ‘No, no, do not offer me any of your baubles. I was hoping for some information. Do any of you men know Sergeant Hank Ash?’
‘Now what would a proper British officer like you want with Mr Ash?’ the soldier called Barney asked with a heavy Irish accent.
Both Fitzhugh and Andrews caught the sudden change in attitude. All had gone from casual, fun-loving jokesters to rigid and aggressively hard.
‘I’m here to try to save his neck!’
The newly demoted Private Hank Ash sat in his cell, his sleeves sporting discoloured sections where his sergeant chevrons used to be. Two armed English guards stood directly outside his cell, situated in a small outbuilding of the farm that was being used as a temporary prison behind the Australian lines. Outside stood more guards, while the farmhouse itself had been converted into a makeshift barracks.
Through a small field that should have been full of feeding chickens and a garden, but now housed a small latrine on one side and a smouldering fire on the other, Fitzhugh, Andrews, and their Australian retinue marched. Approaching the farmhouse door, Fitzhugh took off his cap and stepped inside, returning the salute of the guards as he did. His retinue moved on to the barn, calling out to their mates inside.
Walking into the prison’s makeshift office, Fitzhugh found an English major with a Douglas Fairbanks moustache taking a cup of tea from a brawny NCO.
‘No milk in mine, Corporal,’ he said, inviting himself to sit down at the major’s desk.
The corporal looked from one officer to the other, not sure if he should be turfing the intruder out and hoping for a cue from his commander as to what to do. The major flicked a look at the door and the man left.
‘Perhaps a little sugar if you have it, Corporal,’ Fitzhugh called after the departing man, ‘and a bikkie.’
‘How can I help you, Captain…?’
‘Fitzhugh, Major Preston.’
‘It would seem you have me at a disadvantage, Captain Fitzhugh.’
‘So it would seem, Major,’ Fitzhugh replied, mirroring the senior officer’s reference to his rank to let the man know he knew that trick and wasn’t about to be cowed by an officer just because he had a little more brass on his shoulders.
‘How can I help you?’
‘Well, sir, I’m here to take Sergeant Ash off your hands.’
‘Very funny, Captain. Now, why are you really here?’
Rather than repeat himself, Fitzhugh removed a letter from his breast pocket, unfolded it, then slowly and deliberately smoothed its creases before handing the paper over. As the officer read the letter, Fitzhugh could tell when he read the name scrawled on the bottom of the page, as his eyes suddenly grew very wide.
‘This is signed by Haig.’
‘General Haig.’ Fitzhugh smiled warmly, continuing their game a little longer.
‘Are you sure it’s Ash you want?’
‘I have been hearing that question a lot recently. Absolutely it is Ash I want.’
‘And you know what he did?’
‘Let me see, he was wounded at Gallipoli after showing enormous courage, and has been serving very bravely here since….’
‘Since he broke a lieutenant’s jaw–’
‘From what I heard, the lieutenant deserved a broken jaw.’
‘He was still a superior officer,’ Preston said.
‘Senior officer, Major. I’m not too sure how “superior” the man was. Let’s not be conjuring facts we have no actual evidence. Personally, I refuse to condemn a man standing against a practice more in tune with the brutality of the inquisition. Now, I believe Sergeant Ash is yet to be convicted of this crime?’
‘May I ask why it’s taken so long to court-martial a man who struck an officer? The official report is frustratingly vague on why he has missed his last three court appearances. For that matter, how are you still in charge, having failed to get your prisoner to his hearing…if I may be so bold as to ask?’
‘Very simple.’ The major opened his hands, as though displaying something on the table before them. ‘My predecessor was a total and utter moron.’
Biting off a laugh from the unexpected comment, Fitzhugh regained control of himself. ‘Care to elaborate, sir?’
‘The buffoon arrested Ash and placed him in this stockade, a stockade, I’d like to point out, that is surrounded by the entire 1st Australian Division.’
‘Gotcha,’ Fitzhugh said, realisation striking.
‘Every time we have tried to move ‘Private’ Ash, those bloody Australians have intercepted us. It seems they are determined to make sure he never sees the inside of a courtroom, and their own officers are uninterested in doing anything to help clear our path.’
‘How are they stopping you?’
‘Well, you may have noticed the Aussies have men posted along every route into and out of this place, and they seem to be ready to move on a moment’s notice if they sense we are up to something. The first time we tried to take Ash to his court appearance, we found nearly a thousand men choking the road, doing the finest parade drill I have ever seen. Every time we tried to cut through them, some unseen voice would order a platoon to move into our way, and they would begin vigorously marching.’
No longer interested in hiding his mirth, Fitzhugh asked, ‘And the next time?’
‘We tried to sneak him out after making sure the time of his hearing was never announced. Somehow, when we went to move him, we suddenly had hundreds of Australian soldiers pushing into the little courtyard out there. They managed to never disobey an order, as the ones who could hear us became hopelessly trapped by the men at the rear continuously pushing forward. It took hours to disentangle everyone, and by then the court had dispersed for the day.’
‘So, I assume you next tried to bring the court here?’
‘We did, and here’s why I really hate those fucking antipodeans.’ The major almost spat. ‘Clearly, they have either befriended or bribed some of my guards, as no sooner did I have it planned for the court to visit us, the Australians struck again.’
‘Well, of course, I have no proof of this, but I find it suspicious that the horses the court were going to use to get here disappeared, and of course, they refused to walk all the way, and vehicles would never have made the journey through the trenches.’
‘The Australians stole the horses?’ Fitzhugh asked, grinning.
‘They steal everything not tied down, bloody convicts.’ Sensing he may have said too much, the warden backpedalled. ‘Well, as I said, there’s no proof. Though the Aussies did seem to eat well for the next few days. They had themselves a grand barbeque. They even invited us for a meal.’
Fitzhugh gasped and looked toward the heavens. ‘Thank God!’
‘Captain?’ the major asked, a little confused.
‘Sorry, sir, I was just thanking the Almighty that they’re on our side, because I wouldn’t want to be facing the bastards if they ever got really angry at us.’
‘I hadn’t thought about that,’ the warden said. ‘Thank God!’
Also, don’t forget that as a special for July, Golgotha is included in the Fromelles Anniversary Book Bundle from Odyssey Books – along with my novel The Stars in the Night, and Jim Ditchfield’s Nursing Fox. Something for everyone!
Darren Kasenkow is an Australian author whose work dances across the boundaries of literary fiction to bring together thematic elements ranging from dystopian horror, apocalyptic science fiction and existential suspense.
Darren’s also recently finished a collaboration with bestselling author V.E. Patton on a new adventure series ‘Beneath A Burning Heart’.
I’m excited to host Darren on my blog today. Welcome!
Tell us a bit about what inspires you.
Darren: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be a part of your amazing blog!! (You’re welcome and flattery will get you everywhere.)
Ever since I can remember, books have been important tools that have helped me to explore my place in this strange, mystifying universe. When I started writing, I instantly found it to be a magical way of feeling a greater connection with both my imagination and the world around me, and I haven’t looked back since!
I love exploring themes that are centred around the eternal battle between good and evil, whether that battle exists deep in our own heart or across the four corners of the Earth, and I really do believe that with every page I write (as dark as those pages might be!) I learn a little more about who I am.
Ah, the everlasting contest between good and evil – a never-ending inspiration for stories. That’s what makes your books so good!
We are very fortunate – Darren is sharing a sneak preview of
Godless–The Hallucigenia Project Book 2)
Let’s dive in!
The Hallucigenia Project
Book Two: Godless
The crystal walls of the cave beckoned with an electric blue promise of eternity just beyond the glistening frozen surface. A single floodlight was the only pitiful source of warmth beneath the machine carved dome, while beyond the shadows there came from the ice soft symphonies of gentle crazing and cracking.
It wasn’t a big cave. About the size of large bedroom, it held a small wooden desk with a rusted bar stool for a chair, a large chest locked tight with two padlocks, and a scattering of makeshift weightlifting equipment slapped together with wood, various discarded engine parts and buckets of frozen water. With an endless night and harrowing, heart breaking Antarctic winds howling back on the surface, it was a treasured place of retreat. At least, it was for Leon Bzovsky.
The Quantum Physicist wasn’t interested in working out for the moment though. No, for amid the dark and crushing events that had descended upon the remote South Pole it was time for the little ritual that kept his haunting urges at bay. They would rise eventually, but to do so now would be unwise.
“Come now friend,” he whispered softly with his rolling accent, “this is much fresher than the last.”
The Emperor penguin wobbled a little closer to the floodlight where Leon was perched on his knees with a small piece of meat resting in his open hand. It pecked at a corner of the offering and then stared up at the host through tiny black eyes.
“What’s the matter?” Leon asked with a hint of frustration. “It’s only a little ink. Nothing there that can hurt you, but beneath the colours there awaits life.”
The penguin pecked one last time but seemed decided on skipping this particular meal. To assure his friend no disrespect was intended it nestled against Leon’s thigh and gently closed its eyes, content for now in the knowledge there would come another offering in the near future. So, with a shrug of his solid shoulders and a soft tsk tsk tsk, Leon brought the flesh to his mouth and bit down hard. Certainly this was a little fresher than the last, but as the tissue and fat warmed against his tongue there was a distinct bitterness that bordered on being unpleasant.
“Yes,” he mumbled while stroking the penguin’s head, “I see what you mean.”
The silent, vacuum-like ambience of the cavern was suddenly violated by three loud thumps against the makeshift entrance door. Leon quickly swallowed the barely chewed lump and turned his head in frustration. His moment of treasured solitude, it seemed, had come to an end.
With a sharp scraping sound accompanied with falling chunks of ice, the door pushed open and in an instant the harrowing screams of the winds rushed the cave walls. A tall, hulking figure stepped through and then pulled back his hood with thick, snow covered gloves. Leon wasn’t surprised to see that it was Salvador, one half of the remaining security division and a seasoned survivalist from Finland. He was, however, suddenly curious at expression the towering man brought with him, for it was one he hadn’t seen before.
It was an expression of fear.
Leon patted his special friend one last time and rose tall. Already the winds were turning the conditions in his retreat dangerous, and yet the door remained open.
“It seems even at a time like this I cannot enjoy a little time alone,” he remarked while zipping up his jacket.
“We come to the remote edge of the world and still you want more?” Salvador asked with a hint of pity. “Walk one mile in any direction and you’ll have your peace soon enough.”
“Perhaps, but it’s not peace I seek.”
Salvador studied the physicist for a moment, then pushed back thick blonde hair when a wind gust threw it across his eyes.
“You’re wanted back inside,” he announced. “There’s something you need to see.”
Leon nodded his understanding then slipped the thermal hood over his head, lifted cold wool across his face until only his eyes were visible, and mounted a headlamp that was fastened tight around his ears. Behind him the penguin scurried to the nest that had been chipped into the far wall as if performing a ballet for the visitor, and then Leon pushed on thick gloves, reached down, and returned the cave to a state of darkness.
Together they stepped into the endless night. By the glow of the headlamps the relentless hurricane winds seemed truly alive, with glittering tendrils forming shapes like flecked serpent tails that whipped and thrashed in the pursuit of pure destruction. It felt like a barrage of hammers punching hard into their bodies and pressing tight against their bones, making each step in the thick snow a battle of physical tenacity and determination.
In the distance the lights of the station were barely visible, but it was all that was needed to guide them through the frozen nightmare and promise enough that their flesh would be warmed again soon. They would need to move quickly though. With conditions as bad as they could get, it wouldn’t take long for their eyes to become glass marbles ready to shatter at the slightest stumble.
A vague shape emerged from the darkness on the left, and with it the distinct sound of hard clanging metal that joined the symphony of screams and wails of the unseen and unknowable. Instinctively they both pierced through the night with headlamps to illuminate the rusted outline of two large shipping containers that had been welded together. Leon cursed beneath his thermal protection at the shadowed sight of one of the doors lashing to and fro as if it were a metal wing of a broken beast determined to fly, the groaning hinges shaking and rattling in preparation of defeat, and diverted a heavy step towards it.
“Leave it!” Salvador shouted against the wind. “The dead are immune to the cold and besides, there’s no time.”
Oh my goodness! Penguins, blizzard conditions and something (someone?) dead in a shipping container?! Please hurry with the rest of the story, Darren!
Tim Mendees is a horror writer from Macclesfield in the North-West of England. He specialises in cosmic horror and weird fiction. He has published over 80 stories in anthologies and magazines with publishers all over the world, as well as with three novellas.
When he is not arguing with the spellchecker, Tim is a goth DJ, crustacean and cephalopod enthusiast, and the presenter of a popular web series of live video readings of his material and interviews with fellow authors. He currently lives in Brighton & Hove with his pet crab, Gerald, and an army of stuffed octopods.
I’m excited to talk with Tim today … and a little bit wary LOL.
Here’s what he says!
TIM: So, where do you get your ridiculous ideas from?
This is probably the singularly most asked question I have ever received. I have thought long and hard on this over the years and I confess that I don’t have a clue. Some come to me when I see a specific call, but the simple fact is that there is no secret key to open the doors of inspiration. Most of my ideas come from the most mundane of places. I have often found a trip to the local supermarket or standing in the queue at the Post Office is often enough to get the juices flowing.
One of the things I like to do the most is turn the everyday murderous. It could be something to do with being a lifelong fan of Doctor Who where everything from plastic daffodils and shop window dummies to maggots and giant talking slugs can be a galactic threat, but I like to find the sinister in the commonplace.
I’m never happier than when I’m killing people with seaweed and oysters.
This also ties into my main influences. I’m something of an obsessive reader of H.P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror in general. The original Weird Tales alumni are literary gods to me. I’ve never found vampires and werewolves the least bit unnerving, but a tentacle-faced god infiltrating your dreams gets the hairs on the back of my neck prickling. The fact that evil can be lurking on the fringes of reality, influencing nature and turning a toilet roll into a psychotic killer, is far more terrifying to me than some bloke with a machete in a fright mask.
You have a chance against flesh and blood, what chance do you have against a carnivorous cosmos?
When I started writing, I had only one goal… to create the sort of stories that creeped the hell out of me as a kid. Raised on pulp paperbacks, I devoured everything from Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen to Ramsey Campbell and the weirder end of Stephen King. If I have made one person feel the way I felt when I first read The Willowsor The Shadow over Innsmouth, then I have succeeded.
It’s not all cosmic indifference and nihilism though.
I was also raised on a steady diet of P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, and Carry On… movies. I spent a great deal of time as a child with my grandparents so I ended up assimilating their taste and mingling it with the weird. I think the best description of my output that I have ever heard is someone called it the lovechild of Lovecraft and Wodehouse.
My new novella, Spiffing, is a great example of this. When I set out writing it, I wanted to get the feel of a Christie whodunnit or a Jeeves story and give it some cosmic horror goodness. It will be up to the reader to judge whether or not I’ve succeeded.
In short, my ideas come from my past and my present. The things that have inspired, shaped, and disturbed me. Everyone has these things in them… it’s just a question of bringing them to the surface.
Thank you so much Tim for this entertaining and enlightening discussion.
Sylvia Lexington-Brown now lay in an undignified heap on the top of the grand staircase at Chycoose Manor. Her elegantly sequinned cocktail dress had ridden up, showing her lacy stocking-tops. After screaming her lungs out, she had fallen into a dead-faint. The trio of drunken men had jumped up unsteadily from where they lounged and rushed to the woman’s aid.
Doctor Sullivan had placed a cushion from a chaise-lounge under Sylvia’s immaculately styled head of blonde hair and removed the choker from her neck, Potter had hold of one of her scarlet painted hands and patted it gently while Slater fanned her with a ragged newspaper.
While the three men fussed, the three women ran back to the library and hurriedly removed the masks and put their clothes back on. The sudden shock had jolted them back to reality and a deep feeling of shame. Meanwhile, the band were faffing with their instruments and looking bewildered. Each one of them was three sheets to the wind and oblivious to everything around them.
Professor Penrose was the first of the women to re-emerge from the library, she bounded up the stairs and questioned her fiancée. “What the devil is going on Frank?” Her strong yet attractive face was flushed from exertion.
“No idea darling,” Doctor Sullivan replied. “She started shrieking and saying something about Bertie being ghastly.”
“Well, that’s hardly news,” Penrose replied, rolling her blue eyes. She had never been a fan of Bertie. Quite rightly, she thought the man a fool and a bounder, she only tolerated him because her betrothed was one of his closest friends.
“That’s not what she said you deaf old bugger,” Potter mocked. “She said that something ghastly had happened to Bertie.”
“Well… has anyone checked on our host?” asked the professor.
The three inept men looked at each other then, almost in complete unison, answered… “No.”
“Don’t you think one of you ought to?” she asked pointedly as she fixed them with the kind of stare that headmistresses give to foolish six-year-olds.
Before one of the men could reply, their mouths gaping like beached trout, Sylvia began to stir. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright and wailed, “Oh God… Bertie!”
“What the hell is going on, Sylvia dear?” Penrose asked gently. While she had no time for Bertie, she was terribly fond of Sylvia.
“Oh, it’s terrible… simply terrible! I had been powdering my nose and when I finally returned to the study, he was dead!”
“Dead? … Surely not?” said Slater with a look of disbelief.
“He was lying on his back with a terrible look on his face, and he was smoking!”
“How could he be smoking if he was dead?” Slater stupidly replied.
“Not smoking a cigarette, you blithering imbecile,” Sylvia snapped. “He was smoking! There was smoke coming off of him… His body was smoking!”
An ensemble muttering of “Good Lord!” spread around the room and the guests exchanged horrified expressions.
The two other ladies, now fully clothed, joined the huddle on the stair landing and helped Sylvia to her feet. Nobody mentioned the dancing, but the sheepish expressions they wore announced that it was a rather large elephant in the room. Once Sylvia had regained her equilibrium somewhat, Professor Penrose took charge of the group and led the party towards Bertie’s study.
The east wing of Chycoose Manor had fallen into a state of disrepair of late. A cruel winter, coupled with the unwillingness of the owner to lift a finger when it came to maintenance, meant that it had seen much better days.
Reaching the end of the corridor and the double doors leading to Bertie’s inner sanctum, the scent of damp was joined by an even more pungent aroma. “Crikey! What’s that smell?” Stanley Slater inquired, placing a vomit-stained hankie over his mouth and nose. “It smells like someone forgot to pluck the turkey before putting it in to roast.”
“Oh, God! … Bertie!” Sylvia exclaimed and wobbled as though she was on the brink of another swoon. Potter and Sullivan deftly steadied the distraught woman.
“Tactless moron!” Penrose hissed at Stan.
“What? … Oh! … Awfully sorry, Sylvia dear. I’m sure Bertie will be alright. He’s probably mucking about, that’s all.” Slater turned beetroot red with embarrassment.
Susan Slater tutted at her husband’s idiocy then pushed her way to the front of the group. Together with Penrose, they pushed open the study door.
A blanket of smoke hung low over the cluttered room like a mist. A large desk stood at one end of the room, with a portrait of the first of the Lexington-Browns to make Chycoose Manor his home peering down imperiously from the wall above. The desk was buried beneath a vast collection of scribbled notes, maps and charts.
The antique mahogany shelved walls were adorned with relics and artefacts from the combined travels of generations of Lexington-Browns. Everything from nests of Russian dolls to Spanish bull statuettes jostled for space on the shelves. On the wall, a large collection of menacing wooden masks from darkest Africa leered down at the concerned guests.
As they filed into the room, Sylvia pointed beyond the desk. “He was over there, behind the chair.”
Penrose and Sullivan carefully picked their way over a pile of books and dislodged papers to the corner of the study.
“Well, he’s not here now,” Sullivan shrugged, running his hand through his short greying hair. On the floor where the corpse should have been, a viscous black liquid, similar in colour and consistency to tar, smoked and smouldered. Where the allegedly deceased host had gone was a complete mystery.
“Everybody, look for clues!” Sullivan boomed.
“Clues?” Slater asked, wobbling slightly. He looked like one good blow could knock him on his bony backside.
“Yeah,” Sullivan looked at him pointedly. “You know? … Clues.”
“Ah,” Slater gave him a knowing look. “Clues, got it.”
Sullivan wasn’t entirely sure that he had. Stan was far from the sharpest knife in the drawer. In fact, he had seen brighter eclipses.
Suddenly, another piercing scream assaulted the eardrums of the guests. This time it was Virginia Tailforth who had become startled. She had been edging away from the desk as the others had approached it and backed straight into a towering object. As she spun around to steady the teetering bulk, she came face to face with a particularly terrifying sarcophagus.
What larks! That sounds like delicious cosmic fun.
Thank you so much, Tim, and more power to your pen.
An Australian a writer of dark fantasy and dark fiction, Leanbh Pearson is the pen name of Alannah K. Pearson.
You will find some earlier fiction published under Alannah K Pearson. So look out for that too! It’s excellent, as I know from reading quite a bit of it.
I asked Leanbh to comment on what inspires her writing.
Leanbh: When writing dark fantasy, whether retelling fairytales or creating original works, the themes and inspiration are often found in folklore and legends.
My dark fiction writing follows a similar approach, delving into gothic horror themes, finding inspiration in how and why, we fear the dark, or the unknown monsters in our midst.
Inspiration also comes from my surroundings, often the natural world and landscapes, whether the stark beauty of bare tree branches against a thunderstorm or the press of crowds going about their day. Both of these reflect a sense of cyclical time to our world.
As my alter-ego Alannah, an interest in history became tertiary qualifications in human prehistory and archaeology. Now, when I look at my surroundings, I find inspiration there from the human past, present and imagined futures. Ultimately, my inspiration comes from how people throughout time and across cultures have understood the world around them, the mythology, folklore and legends, woven into fairytales and fables, and even used to warn why to fear the dark and the unknown.
To answer what inspires the core of my writing, it is probably the fabric of human experience, how we strive to understand our world.
Oh, I completely agree. Storytelling is founded on attempts to make sense of our lives.
Leanbh has gifted us with an extract.
Leanbh: This is an extract is from a short story “The Golden Lion-Monkey” published in Leo (Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Zodiac, #8) by Deadset Press, 2020. This is one in a series of Gaslamp fantasies exploring alternate history and LGBTQI+ characters challenging scientific and societal boundaries at the time of the European Enlightenment.
The following scene is a discussion between Lady Rosanna Corrano and her maid Delia, hinting at societal constraints. Rosanna’s alternate persona, Doctor Leo, is able to achieve as a man what Rosanna as a woman cannot.
Extract from “The Golden Lion-Monkey”
The view of the city beyond the carriage window was obscured by mist or pollution and, clutching at my parasol, I considered how I was about to be paraded through the gallery as if I were an item on show like the paintings. This event felt like a charade contrived so London society might see Lord James Amsworth and Lady Rosanna Corrano in each other’s company and intense speculation could begin about our prospects. The helplessness of my situation made me grind my teeth in frustration.
“My lady?” I met Delia’s concerned gaze. A few rebellious red curls had escaped their bondage again, threatening to incite more.
“Delia,” I said, smoothing the edges of my fingerless lace gloves. “How do you manage to control my hair so skilfully when your own looks like a viper’s nest?”
“Some parts of us are easier controlled than others, my lady.”
“Well said.” I smiled. “You remind me that though I wear the accoutrements of a noble woman today, my spirit will always be that of Leo.”
“Maybe one day you can be whole, my lady,” she said, glancing at me. “There are many areas of this city where one such as yourself could live openly.”
“Disreputable areas?” I asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“Maybe,” she said with a grin. “But ones where life has more freedom.”
“Albeit also shorter,” I sighed. “No, Delia. I am as much Rosanna as I am Leo. Perhaps you could run some errands today for Doctor Leo?”
“And leave you and Lord Amsworth unaccompanied? Such a thing is scandalous, and I would likely lose my position for it, my lady.”
“Lord Amsworth assures me his elderly aunt is accompanying us.” I squeezed her hand. “This horrid gallery is her idea apparently.”
“You believe him?” Delia asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Unfortunately, yes,” I sighed as the carriage pulled sharply to a halt before the museum steps. “I imagine he is as thoughtless as everything has previously indicated.”
Delia frowned. “Are you certain you don’t judge him unfairly? Perhaps even against rationality, my lady?”
I ignored her accusation as the mech-work iron steps rolled into place. The footmen opened the door and, placing my embroidered slipper on a step, I held my hand out to the footman for assistance. Once on the footpath, I turned to Delia as she climbed more easily from the carriage, the simple servant’s attire less cumbersome.
“What could be better to inspire a woman’s fragile mind than an entire gallery of still-life paintings?” I asked.
Delia grimaced. “My errands suddenly sound much more appealing,” she waved the note I had given her in the air. “You need these collected for the auction Doctor Leo is attending tonight?”
Scanning the crowd gathered on the wide front steps of the building, I nodded in agreement to Delia, watching her quick bow of acknowledgment before she joined the flow of servants and merchants on their daily errands.
I turned to the wide front steps of the building behind me, the classical-style colonnades replicating Greco-Roman architecture. Staring up at the leaden grey sky and the soot-covered stonework, I longed to disappear into the crowd and follow Delia.
From “The Golden Lion-Monkey”, Leo (Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Zodiac, #8) published by Deadset Press, 2020.
I’ve read that anthology and I loved every story in it. Do give it a go! Thanks Leanbh for sharing.
Drawing on her days as a divorce and professional indemnity lawyer, Caroline creates ordinary, relatable characters caught up in extraordinary situations, pressures, dilemmas or crime. She admits to a slight obsession with the human psyche, what goes on behind closed doors and beneath people’s façades. She also enjoys performing a literary sleight of hand in her novels and hopefully surprising her readers!
Caroline has also written Convictions and Confessions, a legal drama under the pen name Caro Land.
Let’s find out what inspires Caroline’s work
Caroline: My Secret Inspiration!
Everybody has a secret.
Yes you do! A study revealed that the average person keeps thirteen secrets, five of which he or she has never shared with anyone. Go on, count them. They can range from the little things that some people don’t feel are too bad, such as not mentioning too much change at the supermarket or exaggerating mileage at work. Or they might be major crimes such as a hit and run, robbery or even murder! Then there are affairs, betrayals and hidden relationships which can have devastating consequences, to easy small lies to cover looking for another job or concealing the early weeks of pregnancy. Or perhaps a person’s secret is simply unhappiness. Don’t we all do it at times? Put on our bright facade for the Facebook posts and Instagram photos to hide the the sorrow inside?
What about family secrets? Ones which only come out when Grandma has a few too many sherries on Christmas Eve: your great uncle was a bigamist; your parents married when you were two; your aunty was arrested for shoplifting a Rampant Rabbit.
Then there are the deadly secrets in my domestic suspense novels… Those which are so dark and deeply hidden that they’ve almost been forgotten. Almost…
My fourth psychological thriller, TRUTH GAMES, revolves around Ellie Wilson. Outwardly her life seems good – she has friends, her partner Cam and three boys. But when Sean Walsh, Cam’s old university friend, comes back into their lives, she becomes tormented by fragments of the past, and deep shame, which come back to haunt her. It’s time for Ellie to confront the layers of secrets and lies to reveal the devastating and destructive truth…
OK, I admit it; I’m a tad obsessed with secrets and lies and the human condition. Indeed, one reviewer described me as a ‘specialist in stories of secrets, lies and revelations.’ So I guess I am an amateur psychologist who drives my family bonkers with my interpretations of people’s behaviour, what they tell us and what they don’t. But isn’t it fascinating to find out what goes on behind closed doors – or indeed, inside the pages of a gripping crime suspense novel? Do secrets burrow into our psyche and poison us? Or are they sexy, powerful and make us strong?
I probably have thirteen secrets; maybe there are five I haven’t told anyone. Come on, spill the beans – what are yours?
Well, there’s a challenge for us all. Now here’s an intriguing extract from Caroline’s novel for you.
An extract from Truth Games
‘It has to be the truth, the honest truth. Everyone agree?’
‘But what is truth?’
‘It’s only a game, man. Besides, another slug and we’ll know.’
Six young adults in the high-ceilinged room, two cuddled on the sofa and four on the floor. A girl and two guys sit around a candlelit coffee table. Though late, it’s still balmy, the leaded windows ajar. They’re drinking Jack Daniel’s from shot glasses.
The girl snaps open the second bottle and pours. Her nails are bitten, her nose pierced, her short hair dyed black. Her attention is focused on the man stretched out on the floor.
Lifting his dark head, he glances at her. ‘Isn’t there anything other than that American shit?’ he asks, his accent distinct. He goes back to his spliff and takes a deep drag. ‘OK. Then we’ll use the correspondence theory of truth,’ he says. ‘A belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity – a fact – to which it corresponds. If there’s no such entity, the belief is false.’
The fair-haired boy laughs. ‘OK, genius, I’ll start.’ Blue-eyed and neat featured, he looks younger than his twenty-years. ‘A secret. A true secret . . . ’ He knocks back the whiskey. ‘I’m in love with somebody in this room.’
The girl whips up her head, her stark make-up barely hiding her shock.
‘Tell us something we don’t already know!’ This man is huge, his voice booms Home Counties. ‘Come on, old chap. What did you say? The honest truth. Something you haven’t told anyone before.’
‘Right; here’s one. My mum tried to snog me once,’ he says.
Everyone but the girl laughs.
‘No, it’s true, I’m not joking. Dad had buggered off, so she spent all the time drinking and crying—’
‘And snogging you?’
‘Yes, Your Honour.’ He guffaws. ‘The truth and the whole fucking truth, eh? Only the once, thank God, when she got close enough. I can’t do needy. Fucking disgusting.’
A silence of drunk embarrassment, then the eloquent voice again: ‘Are you two lovebirds playing?’
They turn to the couple on the sofa. The young woman is asleep. ‘We’re living our secret,’ her boyfriend says. ‘But one you don’t know . . . Let me think. My brother and me, we used to spit in the take-outs. Special treat for the racists we knew from school.’
‘Nah. Good try, but it won’t put me off your delicious—’
‘I saw my father beat up my mum.’ The man on the floor looks fixedly at the ceiling. ‘Badly. Watched the blood spurt from her nose. Did nothing to stop him.’
The Goth girl stares, but doesn’t speak.
The blond boy leans over. ‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘How old were you?’
‘Still a kid. But I blamed her. Probably still do.’ He sits up and throws back his shot. Then he squints through the smoke at the girl, still sitting cross-legged and silent. ‘What about you, nice middle-class miss? You’re not saying much. What’s your secret?’
Everyone is watching, all eyes are on her. ‘A secret truth?’ she asks, turning to him. ‘With an actual fact to which it corresponds?’
The man snorts. ‘Yeah. Come on, then; try me.’
She opens her inky lips—
What a place to finish! Thank you so much Caroline for sharing your inspirations, and especially for the enthralling extract!
Alice McVeigh uses the pen name Spaulding Taylor when she writes science fiction. She may have two names, but she has many more roles than that. She’s a ghostwriter, an editor, a performer , and a musician.
Alice is with me today to talk about what inspires her creative output. She is also sharing an extract from her book Last Star Standing (I love that title!) which is a dystopian sci-fi thriller!
What Inspires Alice
ALICE: I’ve been very open about my triumphs and disasters, perhaps particularly here:
Basically, I was lucky enough to get a Booker-prize-winning agent when I was still pretty young, along with a two-book contract with Orion (now part of Hachette). These novels sold very well, but not well enough for Orion, who rejected my third.
I then entered a period of real depression, retreating into ghost writing and cello-playing (my only degree is in cello performance, oddly enough!)… But fiction, eventually, pulled me back, and Unbound released my Kirkus-starred speculative thriller only a couple of months ago.
What inspired me? A meditation, which I mention in the interview. It was a crazy experience, having a character come and tap me on the shoulder! – But I’m very grateful all the same…
Thanks Alice, that’s so interesting. It’s not often a character accosts a writer, but it’s worth following up when it does happen.
Ravene, the alien King’s heir, was Aiden’s lover a decade earlier.
Aiden, along with Bully and the gromeline, is in the King’s encampment, on the mission to assassinate the King. Aiden is telling the story.
But Aiden is currently in the body of a hideous Tester, a bull-like humanoid alien. He’s taken aback when Ravene notices him in this guise and insists that he accompany her, alone, to her quarters.
Excerpt from Last Star Standing
Ravene shifted into a sitting position and flinched. She spoke almost to herself, as if I was too stupid to understand. ‘You’re ugly, of course, but then, you’re all ugly. But there’s something different about you. You remind me of someone I first knew years ago.’
Might not have been me, of course. Always sought-after, Ravene. The legs, mostly. She turned her head, reminding me that her profile was tops, as well.
She continued, ‘He was human. Good-looking – not stunningly good-looking, but still handsome – well-built, clever, amusing. Tenten was his name, you might have heard of him? He was only recently executed.’
So the King had lied even to Ravene, his favourite child and acknowledged heir.
As some answer seemed expected, I rasped, ‘A known rebel. A known traitor, lady.’
‘A traitor to us, perhaps, but utterly true to his own people. You must realise, hircht, that I am part-human? My siblings constantly remind creatures of this, in hopes that I might be discounted in the succession.’
I knew all this, of course. Whether most testers would have, I hadn’t a clue. I stood in the approved tester pose: staunch, wooden, dull.
Ugly too, I bet.
‘Perhaps that’s why I remember him so warmly. Of course, he was impulsive, stubborn, in some ways difficult, but his humanness somehow spoke to me. I’ve never since—’ She lapsed back into thoughtfulness, while I kept wondering why the hell she was telling me this.
‘He had such feeling! Everything with Aiden was always so wonderfully in the moment! There was a time, I remember, we were on a balcony—’
Oh God, I remembered that too. Almost fell off the bloody thing.
I shifted uneasily as she said, almost dreamily, ‘And then, and then, another time – we were on a picnic with other students. It was autumn in the overland and somehow one could still sense it, even deep below – perhaps some movement in the air, some atmosphere, some sense of leaves being trodden, decaying, into the dark earth… The picnic was in one of those kycnm fields with false-rainbowed skies and grass that never smells right. Aiden and I drifted away from the others. We had been dancing – did I mention the music? – but why on earth am I telling you this?’
But beneath both my hammering hearts I was still bewitched. That rainbow-textured sky, that music, that day… Sternly, I attempted to think of Bully, of Pavlina, of any bloody thing, just to break the spell.
This didn’t work. Instead, I was also caught up in remembering.
Ravene, casting her gaze backwards in the Academy corridor. Ravene waiting in the disabled loo, hair already rapturously dishevelled. Ravene winning the badminton tournament, with that perfected eye. Ravene sliding her palm into my pocket in the refectory… I tried to remember Petra, but she lacked vitality, in comparison. It was as if Ravene had tossed diaphanous silks over everything that wasn’t ourselves – young and handsome, young and full of hope, young and full of glory, the way the young are.
She sighed, stirred, and continued. ‘We left the others, just the two of us. We – oh, I don’t suppose you understand for one single second what I’m talking about! – but luckily, you’re far too stupid to understand. At any rate, we left the others under that great canopy of false sky. And above it there was a crack, and through it – like a gift – a slice of real sky. And he took me, just there, under that—’
She had been gazing into the distance. She glanced over at me and wriggled discontentedly. ‘What an apish expression you all have!’
As for me, I was still trying to look like the dimmest tester going. As much as I was feeling glad about anything, I was glad that I had shoved Bully out with the gromeline.
‘Lady, just tell me what to do,’ I growled, as politely as I was able. ‘Command me. A drink, a pundling, an attendant—’
She half-rose on her elbow, staring at me. Both of my hearts stopped.
BOTH MY HEARTS STOPPED!
What a place to finish. If you’d like to read more, you can find Alice’s work at the following links. Thank you so much Alice for speaking with me today on Last Word of the Week: 2021 Inspirations Edition.