One of the most frequent questions I am asked regarding writing historical fiction is how I get my research together. How much time. Where from, etc. While there are of course numerous channels, the most prevalent and the most reliable, is literature itself. No matter what time period or what people your writing concerns, there is always a book, ballad, a poem, a song, something you can dig up and get the very best representation of a time and place as there is in the world.

Archaeology might tell us that Greece really did sack Ilium. But only poetry can tell us why.

Nothing in this world captures a time and a place and a people like the writing they produced. This is why I am adamantly against censorship in this time – we need to leave an accurate record of ourselves in art as well. And as sweet an idea as it may be that everyone gets along, that everyone thinks and acts in a socially progressive and fiscally sensible manner, it just isn’t true. There is homophobia, bigotry, racism, religious extremism for every faith, misogyny, transphobia, Nationalism, speciesism, Conservatism, and every other kind of hatred and irrationality in the world today. Alive and well. Rife, in fact, in a lot of circles and places. And as much as we may hate that – as ashamed as we may be that we haven’t accomplished this or that yet as a species and a society, we need it to be represented in literature.

Just like we need Mark Twain’s excessive use of the n-word, Shakespeare and Dickens’ anti-Semitism, and Ian Fleming’s misogyny to remind us how far we’ve come, we need the regressive ideas of contemporary writers to remind us how far we still have to go and for future generations to know where we were in the struggle for liberte, fraternite, et egalite.

That time of year again…

Dear All,

While Tamarind Hill Press is working hard on coming up with a cover and final edit for Spirits of the Ice Forest, my take on the Vikings’ attempt to colonize Newfoundland, Canada – still due for release in March 2021 – and dreaming up new adventures to write about in the coming year, I want to take a minute to wish you all a happy and safe festive season.

Merry Christmas, if that’s your thing.

I also want to take a minute as a Victorian volunteer firefighter to say please be careful on the roads. You see, wherever you are in the world, the holiday season is both a festive time of year for your local emergency services and a hard one. As time of work approaches, the car accidents stack up. That means ambulance workers, police, and firefighters, who instead of spending time with their families, will be spending time with the families of the victims or the victims themselves. Seeing them on what should have been a happy time, now the worst day of their lives. All because someone made a stupid decision. To prioritize between keeping up with the Joneses on the holidays or making that family lunch or dinner on time above making it there alive, or the safety of the countless lives of people when they take needless risks on the roads.

I’ll never forget leaving the scene of an accident during a holiday season – we won’t go into how nasty it was – only to be screamed at and flipped off by a motorist on the road for driving too slow on the way home. Well, sorry. I wish I could have shown that guy what I’d just seen.

2020 has taken so much from us. All over the world. Two families dear to me lost their daughters this year – both were the same age. It’s enough. Nobody needs the usual spike in road casualties on top of everything else.

So, whether this is your Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Yulefest, or Midwinter – please, for my own peace and quiet and for the well-deserved benefit of emergency services volunteers and professionals all over the world, take it easy. Be late. Don’t stress.

Be good to each other.

End of 2020

Remember when we all thought it would be so cool that we’re soon going to live in the Roaring 20s again? We’ve started off much the same way the 1920s did: a global rise in misinformation, political insurgencies, and a surge of racially-focused nationalistic fascism. Conspiracy theories are the new news, just like 1920. A world we thought was unstoppable is being held to ransom by a pandemic we just can’t seem to get on top of. The NAACP were marching in cities from 1917, just like BLM are doing now – we’ve had any number of Doctor Ossian Sweets. The Ku Klux Klan became a major political power – although I don’t think the President called them “very fine people.” We’re not recovering from a World War – that’s one departure we can be thankful for – but World War One didn’t go on for nineteen years either, unlike the Middle Eastern conflicts our beloved leaders keep us involved in.

If we’re going to remain consistent, I have a few notes for the Powers That Be.

  1. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is gone, but somewhere very soon there should be a Carrie Chapman Catt about to put in an appearance. Please don’t delay this any further.
  2. There’s a Virginia Woolf composing A Womb of One’s Own right now as we speak, right?
  3. We mentioned Doctor Ossian Sweet. How about a few Clarence Darrow’s?
  4. The Australian Government set up a response to the Kimberley Massacre in 1928 and acknowledged that maybe Indigenous Australians weren’t quite being treated fairly, given it was legal to murder them and all. We’ve since moved to protect their lives (1960s, by the way) can we maybe see a move to protect their dignity and at least not actively destroy things that are important to their culture, such as the sacred Djab Wurrung trees we bulldozed last weekend? And not take forty years to actually do something about it this time round?
  5. The United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia managed not to get involved in any major wars the whole decade – although we’ll strike three from the US for their colonialist occupations of Hawai’i, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic in the 1920’s – let’s do that again! Without the colonialism though. We’re not off to a good start at this.
  6. Cole Porter, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway, Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Albert Einstein – we’ll have all them again, please.

We can do without the Volstead Act, but maybe the US can make something like that for animal vivisection and live export trading?

Let’s talk, Roaring 20s.

Release Date Announcement

Dear All,

After many challenges and difficulties attributable to the virus-which-must-not-be-named, I am super happy and relieved to announce that my upcoming novel Spirits of the Ice Forest now has a tentative release date: March 31, 2021.

Between now and then, I’ll be working with Tamarind Hill Press to finalize the prose and to conjure up a cover, which I will share with you all first.

2020 has been a tough year for humanity. I’ve had it pretty easy. Where I live – Victoria, Australia – we had hard lockdowns for two waves, which were not easy for people but they’ve kept our numbers low. Nobody can bring back the lost time, nor can they bring back the loved ones lost to the pandemic. Lockdown is temporary. Death is permanent.

One city that didn’t escape a serious outbreak was London, where publisher Tamarind Hill Press – of Mighty Mary and now of Spirits of the Ice Forest – is based. Life is rough on an upstart business, especially an independent publisher, at the best of times, when Tamarind Hill was still very new on the scene when Mighty Mary was released. For a pandemic to have hit when the company was less than three years old, I can’t even imagine. It is because of the perseverance and hard work of the Tamarind Hill team that I’m able to make this announcement to you all now.

My deepest thanks are in order, and our congratulations to them for weathering the storm. Stay strong, ladies and gentlemen. It isn’t over yet.

Stay safe and sane out there folks.

Best Wishes,


You’re swimming with sharks

For the past few months, I’ve been blogging about my creative process, which I don’t feel would be complete without a rundown of how one becomes a writer. Obviously, by writing. But the going isn’t easy – getting your work recognized, read and published or filmed is wrought with peril. So this month, it’s about the business side of things and the traps that so very many people fall into. If nothing else, it might be entertaining –

When I went to LA in 2008, aged 18, I was incredible lucky with the people I met and the opportunities and advice they gave me. Of course, I didn’t see it at the time. I saw my bank account depleting and my chances of staying there and carving a living out of screenwriting evaporating rapidly. But Karuna Eberl of Black Bay Entertainment and a few others – two are dead now – who gave up their time and lent their knowledge out because I was young and eager and asked, were a rarer breed than I could have imagined.

The good people you meet in arts and entertainment industries are like little pearls hidden in the depths of abysmal grottos patrolled by all manner of charming, attractive and powerful looking predators. And in some cases, I do mean predators – see, Weinstein, Harvey, et al.

In my first year back in Melbourne and back in the outer rim of the creative industries, I met;

  1. a “film producer” who strangely had no credits and who also hung out with the Carlton Crew – the mob who were at the time spasmodically killing each other off in a massive North Melbourne gang war;
  2. an American-born “film producer” who had one credit to his name – a truly godawful horror film shot in the Outback – who claimed to have written Flatliners (hint: he wasn’t Peter Filardi). He has ever since been working on a phantasmic 50-million dollar movie that literally every wannabe actor in Australia has claimed to “be in talks about casting” and which every screenwriter in Australia has been in some way “involved” with, and;
  3. a festival director who in his spare time ran “exposés” online about a globalist paedophile cabal trying to turn everyone into gay communists and how black people in America were systematically using white liberals to exterminate Judaeo-Christian white society. He is still out there, and quite serious.

That was year one.

But the painful thing about these three and the hundred-odd others I’ve met since is not that they exist – of course any industry where there’s fame and money is going to attract an encircling horde of conmen – it’s the wannabes who flock around them. And you can’t blame the wannabes – it’s a tough gig. The likelihood of getting your novel published, your screenplay made into a film, or getting that big role as an actor are slim-to-none. It’s a despairing situation. So when along comes a slick “producer” in an Armani suit, or an American hot-shot who claims to have all the connections and a 50-mil movie on the way, or a festival director with a ton of (unknown) awards under his belt, of course there’s going to be a compromise on street-smarts among those who have worked hard and got nowhere.

Numbers 1 and 2 made their money by charging aspiring screenwriters and/or actors fees for regular sessions in which they’d sit with them and coach them in their craft – whatever that craft was. Often it veered towards starting your own publisher/production company and publishing or shooting your own work. They say they’re always on the lookout for their next film script, but instead of reading the plethora of scripts out there, they send writers enrolment details for their mentorship program and claim this is sorting “wheat from chafe.”

An aside – the number of scripts bought and books published from mentorship programs is the same as the number of actors who get gigs or good advice from casting workshops: ZERO.

The irony is, if they spent as much time reading scripts as they did mentoring writers to produce and publish their own work, they’d be successful publishers and producers.

Then you have the “big-shots” – the wannabes. There’s a filmmaker from country Victoria who has won an international award from a horror film he made some years back (yeah, another one) and the crowds flock around them and the conmen use them to get to the crowds. By working for this filmmaker, you’ll find yourself tied up (literally) in a shack somewhere, probably assaulted and told that you’re doing this because you’re “dedicated” and you’ll be a big star one day because he will. There was an Australian actor of some little note(riety) – whom Tarantino had a brief affection for – who’d charge an arm and leg for actor’s retreats where he’d teach (mostly young women) all about “acting.”

And meanwhile you’re writing, you’re meeting other writers or actors who wax lyrical about positive vibes and good energy who flock around these men who flaunt their despicable natures online, and you’re getting frustrated because – maybe because your bullshit radar is sharper than everyone else – not trying to schmooze the “big timers” gets you ostracised from the group. You wind up an outsider. And why? Because that big film conman 2 is working on sounds like a dream? Because you didn’t like that number 1 spoke to you with his hand on your thigh?

I’ll make you a promise – it doesn’t feel good to be an outsider, but the outsiders are the ones who do actually make it. IF they do. The ones who didn’t waste their time pursuing the approval of life coaches, career mentors, the ones who were working on their WRITING or whatever their craft is instead of schmoozing conmen. They’re the ones who break through. And it shows.

Steven Spielberg will slip in and out of a room without you ever knowing he was there. I spent two weeks working on set with Robert de Niro and I hardly saw the guy. Real success does not go around announcing itself. And it certainly doesn’t want to charge you money.

But what if you do want a mentorship? There’s a lot to be gained from seeing a mentor or teacher regularly – for actors especially, it’s a must. Look out for the good people –

Real mentors don’t claim to be anything but mentors. Peter Kalos doesn’t tell you he was a big film executive at Paramount (which he wasn’t) he’ll tell you the truth that he used to read scripts for them. He won’t allude to making your film. In fact he’ll tell you flat that he couldn’t if he wanted to. He’ll offer you advice. Good advice – REAL advice. And I can tell you that advice is going to be to work damn hard and probably maybe you might get somewhere. There’s no “you will” – no magic bullet. Billy Stoneking was the same – he told you to work, and then he showed you how. No grand standing. No pretence of being a bigshot.

Billy is no longer with us, unfortunately.

Look for the quiet ones. Be the quiet one. Don’t cavort with the crowd – in the arts and entertainment business, the crowd really are the lost souls.

Raising the Stakes

The first piece of writing advice I ever got was when I was about 10. Andy Griffiths came to my school to talk to us about his books – the Australian children’s author, not Andy Griffith the actor. He said, when writing his gross-out humour, he always thinks “What’s the worst thing that can happen now?” I was more interested in adult books at 10, but I clearly remember him saying that. Ten or eleven years later, Melbourne acting teacher, Peter Kalos, told me to “put your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” Then Billy Stoneking asked – whenever a new idea for a book or film was mentioned in front of him – “Where’s the drama?” They were talking about raising the stakes – and it was all fantastic, life-affirming, career-changing advice.

Raising the stakes does not mean you drag your protagonists through one emotionally, physically, or psychologically perilous torture to the next. It means you establish the threat early – the “threat” being what happens if your protagonist fails. And if you can’t say it in one sentence, change it. The worst threats are simple and basic. There’s a reason fear is called a base instinct and it’s that fear you want to tap into. Even in a romantic comedy, the fear is rejection and lifelong loneliness. And you don’t tap into something primal in your reader or viewer by simply telling them there is a great threat out there – you show them and give them hints that it’s going to get worse.

Let’s talk about Jaws – for the sake of ease, we’ll make it the film. In the first few minutes, we see a young woman get attacked and killed by something in the water. The images fade to a shot of water outside a bedroom window and pulls back to Ellen Brody in bed. It’s like the water is watching her sleep. Martin Brody gets up, goes to the kitchen where his two kids are messing around. The next scene shows when a kid gets taken by the shark.

See what’s being done here? Spielberg is showing us – without telling us but hinting to us – what will happen if Martin Brody can’t stop this thing in the water. His wife, his kids.

In The Shining’s first few pages, we know the last caretaker cut up his family with an axe. It’s less subtle but no less simple and immediate. Jack Torrance has a kid and a wife with him.

Sometimes the threat isn’t so simple as a haunted hotel or giant shark. In Mighty Mary, the threat is the world itself – the inhabitants are agents of mercy or cruelty – so I showed the baby elephant first, then a dead elephant killed with a gun. I didn’t have that in the first draft and I had to ask myself, hang on – why are we reading after page five? All we’ve seen is a baby elephant born and start to grow up…

When thinking about a story, you’re thinking about a stake. You’ve got to be a little bit of a bully and a psychopath. I suppose, in that, you’ve got to drop hints and taunt your protagonists while the threat mounts and their attempts to surmount it fail.

A dialogue

Part four in my series about the writing process is about dialogue. We knew this was coming. It’s always the last thing any writer in any medium masters. It shouldn’t be – we use conversation every day, so you’d think it would be the easiest thing to replicate in writing. But it just isn’t. Phillip K. Dick never mastered it. Before Hemingway, writers didn’t even try. Every spoken word in books, theatre and films was written in excessive flower and as much used to tell the story to the reader as the text or imagery. We all know people don’t go around speaking like Shakespeare’s characters, but we don’t go on quite like Dickens’ or Melville’s either. In their respective times, dialogue was written in the style. Polite. Eloquent. Strangely congruent with whatever style of writing the narrator had.

Nowadays we seek realism.

And it’s where every writer falls down at some stage or another and for some, their entire careers. This is because we have an instinct to tell a story. We want to convey information to the reader. While the idea – as we all know – is to show them a series of events that tells our story, dialogue has the foil of being the spoken word. It is a direct channel between our characters and the readers. The trap we fall into is filling that channel with information.

Take for example, Robert Heinlein. Dick’s dialogue was problematic but we love him anyway. Heinlein was an out and out fascist, so I don’t mind kicking him around a bit – namely Starship Troopers. There are extraordinarily long scenes in that book, wherein the students and later the recruits, talk with their teachers or superior officers on philosophical points from the perspective of the universe Heinlein has created. Classroom scenes are a catch-all way of unloading the exposition. The student is being taught about this world and for having witnessed the lesson, so is the reader. But a common mishap occurs in Heinlein’s classroom – the student and the teacher end up speaking in exactly the same voice. Heinlein has dropped the dramatic story about a human-arachnid war (if there actually was one) and taken up his soapbox in order to fill our heads with his fascist philosophies. The problem is, nobody – not even in a philosophy classroom – talks the way Heinlein or any other writer writes.

Another killer can be found commonly on television – you might notice the Marvel films sort-of parodying this – dialogue like this:

Cop I: Do you remember the Walker murder?

Cop II: The one found near the greengrocers on sixth street in 1972? Yeah…

So… great. The audience knows that the Walker murder is the one that happened near a greengrocer in 1972. The problem there is both cops already knew it. Cop II, when asked about it, would have answered yes and nothing more. The fact that it is relevant to what they’re currently talking about only makes this dialogue worse – there was a reason Cop I asked whether Cop II remembered it – all the more reason why neither one needs to be filled in about the greengrocers or the year it happened.

Another killer is the character breakdown. The Australian film “Chopper” has a scene right at the start where we get this little nugget of insight from one character to another:

George: You’re sick, Reed. You’re insane. You bash people just to make a name for yourself.

Yay, we know all about Reed in the first few minutes of the film. We’re also not hearing a word that any flesh and blood human speak aloud to another flesh and blood human. And it completely detracts from the story. Of course, the way we could have got to know Reed and his motivations for bashing people would have been to actually see them – which he does in the same scene. Except we expected it because someone was nice enough to warn us.

How enthralling.

Of course, great dialogue is everywhere. We read it and we hear it all the time in any number of bestsellers, films, televisions and theatre. For outstanding examples – Stephen King, Angela Carter, Larry Niven, Jeanette Winterson, David Mamet, Diablo Cody, Murray Schisgal, Zoe Kazan, and any or all of the writers who brought us Mad Men, Masters of Sex and Orange Is the New Black. We know what great dialogue sounds and looks like. We just have to train ourselves out of the impulse that compels us to use dialogue as a storytelling device it was never meant to be.

Dialogue is a costume, a set piece or the wind or rain. It tells us a lot about setting – time, location, and character all influence how we write dialogue, and, in turn, our dialogue then informs the reader about these things simply by being.

Someone who says, “Goddammit, I burned the muffins” gives you a different picture than someone who says “Oh, phooey, I burned the muffins” or “I burned the fucking muffins” or “Whoopsie, there go the muffins.”

“I think I have overdone the wittles.”

Oftentimes I see siblings in books, films or television referring to each other as sister or brother. Episode One of Game of Thrones –

Jame Lannister: As your brother, I feel it is important…

I’ve never once felt a need to introduce myself to my sister. It’s not dialogue – it’s information for the viewer and it would have been far better conveyed with something like:

Jame Lannister: Have you heard from Father?

We know from that they’re siblings and it’s something a brother would actually say to a sister.

The only way to get dialogue right is to get it wrong. I’ve dished out some criticism here today, but I know for a fact my work isn’t free of the above mistakes here and there – especially my earlier novels. It’s trial and error. Dialogue, like our command of language, is something we’re always working on as writers and it’s something we can always improve on.

Welcome to the world

Hi everyone!

This is the third blog post in my series about writing – last month we looked at character and the month before just general advice on approaching the task of writing. We’ve been making starting blocks here and while I am eager to get into the deeper aspects of creating fiction such as dialogue, pacing and editing, there is another broader aspect which often gets overlooked or – in a lot of cases – not given due respect, and that is place.

Have you ever read a novel where every single room or space the narrator or character enters is described completely and immediately in a massive info-dump? Not interesting. Not truthful.

After tribe – which we touched on last month – the most important thing to a character is place. It’s also another discipline that crosses over into acting. Actors slave over place. The reason for this is place influences everything about the character. The late acting teacher, Stella Adler, used to make a huge point of place, and this was further emphasized in the example set by the also late Uta Hagen:


Picture a woman on her way home. What’s she wearing? What does this tell you about where she’s coming home from? The place she’s been has influenced how she’s dressed. Let’s say it was work. Where was work? A child care centre? What tells us it was a child care centre? Is there finger paint under her fingernails? Or was it a hospital? Has she been lifting sick people from wheelchair to bed and back again all day? How does that show in her person? Crossed arms? Hunched back?

Now we’ll go one further – it’s snowing.

Now she’s walking differently. Head tucked in low, collar up. Remember the famous photograph of James Dean at Times Square? You can’t see the rain, so how do you know it’s raining? James Dean is hunched, hands in pockets, slight smile at being caught in this situation. When it snows, we walk faster. We wear gloves. We shove our hands in our pockets. It’s cold as well, so most of her face might be obscured by the hat, the collar or the scarf.

It’s snowing and it’s dark.

You’re building a picture now. Answer yourself – what is she doing while she’s hurrying home in the snow? The fact that it’s dark adds more elements – her eyes are wider. What kind of neighbourhood is this? She’s looking around. Maybe her keys are clenched in her fist as a type of weapon.

She gets to the door.

How long has she lived here? Can she find the key right away or does it take a few goes?

Door opens – she’s inside. How does she close the door? Turn and slam it shut? Flick it behind her with the strength of one wrist? What does that tell us about the neighbourhood? Does she lock it and deadbolt it right away?

Okay, now she’s in. This is where it gets complicated and you, as the person creating this world, have to make a lot of informed choices.

Does she slump her shoulders and hurry to take her coat and hat off because it’s a lot warmer in than out? Does she leave it all on because she has to stoke the fire or turn the steam on first? Is there someone there for her to greet? Did they warm the place up? Is there someone there she wants to avoid? Are there kids?

There are flow-on effects to every scenario.

She’s alone – sigh, grunt, smile contently as she goes to stoke the fire or turn the steam on? Or is there only a pot belied stove to warm her up? If she escaped a financially comfortable but abusive marriage and now lives alone, then that won’t bother her much. If her husband up and left and took everything, that will bother her a lot. If it happened last month it will be painful. If it happened ten years ago, why is she still alone? Does she hate this place or love it? Is it a sanctuary or does it remind her of something she had but lost or missed but gained? All of this has an immediate effect on her body. We don’t notice it in life, but when we walk through a door or pick up a phone, our whole countenance changes. Our faces, our voices, our centre of gravity – all shift. This also depends on where we’ve been.

Let’s make a choice – she’s been working at a hospital, she’s a doctor, the place is warm, there’s a husband and kids.

How does she transform from work to home? Is she a happy mother? Is she smiling excitedly as she pushes the door open because there are two little darlings who are going to come running toward her as soon as she’s in, or are there two ungrateful teenagers upstairs playing videogames who won’t notice her until dinner time? She’s been telling people they have cancer, they’re dying, or that their relative is going to die. Maybe she treated a child today… she might want to grab her own kids up in her arms and hold them forever because she told a mother just like her that her baby didn’t make it today.

If home sucks but work was exciting, how does that show itself? Is this woman openly contemptful of home or does she hide it and maybe smile too much? Is there a moment between closing the door and hanging up her outside garments where she needs to take a breath before it all hits her? Or does she transition smoothly, straight out of one role, into the other? Does she leave her gloves on to greet the children or does she want to feel their hair with her bare hands because she missed them all day? Is it a quick scramble to get the gloves and coat off because the kids besiege her? Or can she take her time? Can she slump? Is the antechamber or vestibule the one place between work and family where she can take a second to relax? How does she do it? Lean against the wall? Dust the snow off her coat (inside)?

Don’t forget the little details along the way – does she hang up the coat or throw it over a sofa? Hang up the gloves on hooks? What does that say about her? What sort of person hangs up their door key? All choices – all part of character and place. Is there a place to hang things or does she just have to carry them over her arm to the nearest table or couch? How far away is that? How does she compensate, if it’s far to walk and the kids will get her before she reaches it? Does she have a stand or something nearer to dispense of the extras quickly?

This is just two banal actions – walking home and stepping through the door – and yet how many opportunities to introduce place and character have we come across? Place is everything.

There are places loud people have to be quiet, where angry people go to relax, where tough people feel intimidated and where chaste people feel sexual. Nobody has nowhere they can let their guard down.

Remember George Orwell’s 1984? That place in the woods where Winston goes to hide from all the surveillance… He found that place. When he’s there, it’s a different world for him and his body changes in a way it doesn’t anywhere else. Desperation creates necessity – if home is unbearable, people find a place. Some children hide in their closet. Places change us.

Marlon Brando used to say everyone is an actor. Everyone gets up and starts preparing a character – you go through a ritual to prepare for going out, for going to work or for having in-laws over. That’s getting into character. The only difference is an actor is aware of the process they are undergoing.


A writer has to be as well.


And behind all this preparation is place. It’s not the boss that we prepare for when we’re going to a job interview, it’s the place the interview is being conducted in. An office? A workshop? The break room of a production line factory? Maybe you’d wear a three-piece suit if you were meeting with an investment banker, but would you still if they wanted to meet in the park to feed the ducks while you talk? You’d be uncomfortable. Or, maybe not – that’s a choice too, but place plays its part. We can visualise these things and prepare for them. It gives us confidence and gives us the right character to hold ourselves well during the interview.

Places have smells, they have rules, they have atmospheres and other occupants that have a nigh unseen but fundamental impact on character.

Let’s say the woman is living alone because her husband left her. Is there a lamp that he gave her as a gift? Is there a table they had sex on? What anchors hold these memories and how drawn to them is she? Did she throw everything he touched out and now has nothing? Or is she replacing things slowly? Or quickly? Places are filled with objects and these objects – especially in the home – have memories and meanings attached to them that we revisit when we interact with them.

By answering these questions, you give yourself (and the reader) an indication of how long it’s been and how determined or hurt or angry or heartbroken she is without ever once having to tell us about it.

We are told constantly when we’re learning to write – “show don’t tell.” But what does that mean? It means to invest in place. You’ve invested in character, you’ve built this person and lived their life. Now give them a stage. And like Elia Kazan said, a character moves through the scenery, not in front of it. By navigating place with your character you are automatically showing us rather than telling us a huge amount of information about them.

Go back and answer every question I asked about the woman quickly and without thinking about it. By the end, you know her because of how she interacts with her place and you know her place because of how it influences her. All without ever “telling” a thing.

And this is only real-world! When it comes to fantasy, place plays an even more pivotal role. Remember when Luke Skywalker first looked at the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars? “What a piece of junk.” A spaceship! Here we are seeing something unheard of to us and this kid is calling it junk. That tells us so much already – this is not the future, this is an old, lived-in world that is futuristic. Nobody is in awe and wonder like Star Trek, where the future is still new to the humans.

The place you set your scene in is a character in itself and it tells us a huge amount without announcing itself, so to speak. It’s a tool to create a world and welcome your readers in.

Use it.








Finding characters

Like life on earth, characters are found – not created. Even in cases where you’re going into deep sci-fi or fantasy and you’ve got characters that aren’t remotely human of appearance, you still need them to reflect human traits back at anyone who explores them in your writing. We’ll get back to that.

Writers, like all storytellers, have one major thing in common – we’re observant. We take in everything around us. We might forget someone’s name, but we’ll remember the way they carried their centre of gravity, if they didn’t swing their arms as they walked or they had some idiosyncrasy, like talking out of the side of their mouth. These are things that people don’t generally notice unless it’s pointed out to them. When your character does it, they’ll see traits that they’ve seen out and about but maybe can’t quite place and that’s when you know you’ve got an endearing character. There is a whisper of humanity in there that makes it fictional but familiar.

Peter Sellers always looked at real people for his characters. Inspector Clouseau was a waiter somewhere in Paris – the slight squint, the narrowed lips and the tone of voice all came from someone Sellers met in a restaurant. As absurd as Clouseau is, he still reminds us of someone. He is real. Just not in the material sense.

You find these little quirks and traits as you go through life – people’s lip placement as they speak, the amount of times they touch their face during a conversation, the way they pick something up – and you infuse them where they make sense with characters. But do not make it obvious! One of Marlon Brando’s few admitted self-criticisms was his performance in The Wild One. He’d decided Johnny was apelike and infused ape like traits and idiosyncrasies into his performance, but didn’t cover it as well as he’d have liked (it’s still an amazing performance) – never make it obvious. Remember – most people don’t notice these things. If you mention in passing just once, that’s enough. The reader will pick it up.

Mannerisms are different to idiosyncrasies. They’re more obvious and are influenced by outside forces. For example, a tradesperson carries their hands and wrists differently to an office worker. They might be slightly curled inward. Slightly less dexterous. They’ll definitely be harder and more calloused. But an office worker stands differently. How’s their back, after years of poor ergonomics?

Then there’s how recently they worked. A tradesperson’s hands feel differently of a Sunday evening to a Friday afternoon. Maybe they like to nurse a cold beer for a while after a week of work because the cool surface is soothing on their palms?

Another important factor is tribe. The late Billy Stoneking used to go on and on about tribe when it comes to character development and he was absolutely right. It’s not just our cultures that influence our idiosyncrasies and our mannerisms, it’s the people we roll with – if any. Being a loner has an effect on someone’s behaviour as surely as anything, but life is never so simple as say, Mexico’s a predominantly Catholic country so my Mexican character is a Catholic… are they? Really? There are atheists and Satanists and indigenous beliefs and customs in Mexico as well, and in addition to characters who belong to these groups there’s people who grew up around them, people who adopt certain behaviours because they hated their parents… a kid from a happy household will adopt customs and culture native to their tribe, but a kid who was beaten up by their father isn’t going to be so willing. If a father was at church on Sunday after being at the brothel all night Saturday, then his daughter or son might not be so fond of a church that, ‘forgives all this behaviour, as long as you’ve brought your tithe with you.’ It’s not just culture and country, it’s tribe. In a big way.

Laurence Olivier made an amazing point about character when he admitted to finding the kinds of shoes they would have worn and walking around in them. Of course – they have to walk in these shoes. You can’t just think all of the above and hope it manifests somehow in your manuscript – you have to get it out of your head and find it in your body. If your tradesperson’s hands hurt, what do they do about it? What do you do about it? Run a rope through your palms a few hundred times and figure it out – don’t just think it. Characters behave subconsciously. You have to understand that. OUT OF YOUR HEAD. Walking with a limp changes your posture, your physiology – everything. Don’t just think “limp” – get out and walk with a limp for a month. How does it feel? What behaviours do you discover? And remember, nobody goes around showing off their oddities. How do you try to disguise your limp from other people? How do you hide your sore hands?

It’s like emotion. None of us go around trying to show people our emotions – we are conditioned to hide them. Same goes with idiosyncrasies and mannerisms; the second you point out to someone that you’ve notice something they do; they try to hide it. Your characters are the same.

If you want to know if an inhuman character can do that, look at animals. Animals, of course, do have a heretofore unexplored spectrum of emotions and personality traits that change drastically from being to being. And like the Enigma, every time you change species, the rules reset, and you have to start again; but humans seek what reminds us of ourselves in an animal. That might be parental instincts, it might be the need to connect with others of the species, and it might be hunger or the need to survive. Even Great White Sharks experience that. Once you establish the primal instinct, work your way out. How does is this need helped or hampered by the creature’s physiology?

You can get physiology from how you imagine their home environment. What is the composition of the world they’re from? The environment? Earth has existed in almost any form you can imagine a planet sustaining life – you can research the various animals of the various geological epochs to get a sense of what a creature looks like under such conditions as hyper-oxygenated air (big insects) or huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the air, stable climates, unstable climates… life on earth has been as weird as anything you can imagine. The pre and post Mesozoic eras were especially tumultuous and there are a wealth of strange animals with strange lifestyles to be found there to serve as composites or inspiration, but they all have those same things in common. They need to live, and there are things that get in the way of that and things that help them do that.

That’s where your drama comes from.

Then there’s the social aspect. Triceratops had three horns on its face and we assume that they were for self-defence because triceratops lived in an extremely harsh and dangerous environment, BUT you can’t forget that such an impressive display serves a social purpose amongst many animals as well.

When I was working on Mary, I had it pretty easy because elephants are extraordinarily intelligent in the human sense. Their intellect is such that certain behaviours parallel humans – we bow or shake hands as a sign of respect, they blow air on each other’s faces through their trunks. It’s different, but not more different than some human customs are from each other. When you’re discovering a fictional species, you add credibility and improve relatability but understanding how customs and behaviours are influence by intellect among animals, as well as physiology (if it has a trunk or a crest or a horn, does it serve some social custom?). It’s enlightening. You realize how animal we humans really are!

Writing Process

Some subscribers contacted me about my writing process, so I thought I’d make it a blog.

2019 was a super-productive year for me. Maybe it was because I spent so much time between the release of Dino Hunt in 2015 and the release of Mighty Mary in 2018, studying, earning my philosophy degrees and trying to build myself into a better writer. So, given the freedom of (a very little bit) more time, I churned out four first drafts and finalized Spirits of the Ice Forest for submission. When I say time, I don’t really mean I had much. In 2019, I completed two teaching degrees while working full time in Holmesglen, my Trade School.

But when you’ve got to get it out, it’s all about regimentation. Set time for writing. I have four hours out of every day between when I get home from work in which writing is done. Or sitting there staring at the screen. Both are acceptable. I will sit there for that time whether I have anything to work on or not – if there’s a total blank in my mind, I’ll read but I make time to read every day as well, between dinner and sleep.

So that gets me through the slate of projects. But what about when it’s done? First of all, it’s never done. There are four other first drafts I put down last year that now need to be rewritten and there’s still my great epic that’s now fourteen years old that I have to get back to and finalize. I know it’s time to finalize because it fits into a traditional story structure without feeling forced, it’s original and it fulfills the expectations of my initial vision. I know the four others aren’t there yet because they’re only first drafts: they’re nothing but vision. They need to be tightened and put through the framework.

But it’s not time to do that yet. I need to distance myself from a first draft if I’m to pummel it into a second and third. I need another year. So what in that time? That’s time for more first drafts… but what does one do when there are no ideas?

It’s extremely daunting. What does my head in is when people say, “I wish I had time to write” because having time is the death of inspiration to me. If hell existed, there’d be a special one for writers and it would be nothing but a clean schedule and the mocking stare of a featureless blank page for all eternity. You’ve got to go out and get those ideas. I read history, obviously, as well as a lot of fiction, but I also absorb the news with voracious enthusiasm. There is literally no waking time of day when my brain is not engaged in some kind of learning, especially not when I’m teaching.

Then I let what I take in form itself into images. I use a lot of imagery in my books and that’s because stories communicate to me through images – I used to be a screenwriter and I guess that’s where that comes from. For me crafting a first draft is about collating a series of images into a coherent order. The second draft is working a story through them. And it’s not just landscape. Amanda, my partner, is also a writer and she quizzes me about where my characters come from – it’s life. People I meet in life or see on the news. NEVER other fictional characters.

I’ll do one on character next week.

Hope everyone is doing okay in the ongoing madness and that it all ends soon and we can start to rebuild. At the moment, I’m reading The Lord of the Rings again. I love it. My review will be posted soon on Goodreads.

Stay safe everyone.