The Perils of Online Research

How many of us do what more successful authors, or wealthier authors, do when it comes to research?  Ignoring any other considerations, I know that I certainly can’t afford to dash about the world in search of the authentic facts I may need.  I also can’t afford to buy tome after tome of scholarly works on subjects of relevance.  So, I’m left with two options: make it up as I go along and hope it sounds authentic, or use that remarkable resource – the internet!

Now, the internet ought to be an unparalleled source of information.  Sadly, there are very serious dangers in using it.  I have discovered that even something as fundamental as an online dictionary is unreliable.  I had cause to want to check that I had correctly spelt the word “weregild”.  Naturally, I checked my usual online dictionary – and found absolutely nothing!  However, a Google search discovered that the word does exist, and I had spelt it correctly.  Lesson learnt!  Don’t trust a single source to be comprehensive.

In other matters, more complex than simply checking the existence and spelling of a word, there is usually plenty of information to be found on just about any subject imaginable.  Unfortunately, some of this information is often inaccurate, incomplete or just downright false.  I have had a few occasions over the last eight months where I’ve looked for information and found that I end up totally confused by a mass of conflicting results.  It’s taught me that no subject is free of being influenced by the scholar’s personal opinions or interpretations.  Certainly, it seems that matters of mythology are particularly prone to this, where scholars are often trying to fit archaeological evidence to their own guesses.  But even science, which ought to be definitive, isn’t free of such problems, as scientists strive to apply apparently solid facts into their own theories, which may in turn make those facts less solid than had previously been assumed.

So, we’re left with the simple fact that, at the end of the day, we must make our own judgement calls on what we believe of the various sources, and then fit that into what we write.  All I can say is that I’m glad that I write fiction!  At least most people expect a degree of latitude in the interpretation of the “facts” to sit well with the story!

~ Steve

Weather & Illness: Influences

We often talk about the influence of other writers, movies, and events in life on how, and what, we write.  I’d like to take a look at different influences.Right now, here in England, the summer is almost forgotten as autumn sinks its teeth into us.  I used to love autumn, with its rich earth colours and unmistakable odours.  Now, sadly, it is a season that I enjoy far less.  Temperatures dropping  often at an alarming rate, and more rain, or worse.  These impact heavily on me.  Suffering from permanent chronic pain, cold and damp just make matters worse.  There’s never any hope of getting out into the sun, to let its heat gently ease the pains.  As a consequence, I write less,  The only positive I can draw from it is that if I ever need to write about pain that just grinds you away with its unrelenting presence, I’ll have a wealth of experience to call upon!  In some respects, the worst of it is the steady reduction in how much I can go out.  The house becomes smaller, the walls closer, the ceiling lower.  And there’s the knowledge that, in time, I’ll reach a point of being anxiety-laden at the mere prospect of leaving the house!

Ignoring the season, for now, let’s look at the weather.  A long, warm, sunny period is a wonderful time for my creativity!  When the summer is a good summer, even the worst weather can be drawn upon.  A storm pounding the world while I write is hugely energising.  A gale moaning and shrieking all around, the same.  Of course, if the temperature rises too much, and humidity with it, then lethargy sets in and the only writing I do is in my head!  That doesn’t happen often any more.  Memories of unusual or awesome weather conditions will frequently creep into my writing.

On the question of illness, things are less happy.  Remembered illness is, of course, no problem.  It can often contribute to a story.  Current illness, however, can be far less helpful!  A short term illness is one thing, being recognised as something that will end.  Still, even that can be damaging.  A migraine, for example, will stop all writing, or even thinking, dead!  But a long term illness, where there is no hope of it ending, drains the soul.  You have to be prepared to work at a feverish rate when the “good days” prevail, just as you have to accept that the worst days will prevent you from doing anything, even if your mind is still racing with ideas, or pursuing the story despite your inability to write any of it down.  You may be able to draw some inspiration from illness, but it’s a very high cost if the illness is serious or permanent.

Finally, returning to the question of seasons, there’s the shorter days.  Many of us suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and will find ourselves spiraling down because the days are so short. Again, that will impact on writing, curtailing it severely, or robbing us of inspiration.  And again, it’s something which may have an influence on how we write about the emotions experienced by our characters.  Any form of depression causes a high degree of introspection, which gives us an insight into our own emotions, often painfully.  That will then find its way out in words eventually.

To conclude, what I’m saying is that there are many influences on how and what we write!  There are certainly major influences, which we may have to do battle with, but every little thing in our lives is our food and drink!  If we experience it, then we can, and probably will, use it.

~ Steve

Books and Movies

I’ve often encountered the dreadful moment of watching a movie of a book I love.  So far, I have to say that the vast majority have been disappointing at the very least, and in some cases I can only regard the movies as abominations!  The most notable successes have been the latest Narnia movies.  The worst?  Well, for me that is the triplet of movies that allegedly give a “faithful rendition” of The Lord of The Rings.  I cannot abide those movies, where events are changed in such a cavalier fashion.

The flipside is, of course, reading the “book of the movie”.  In this case, I’ve found greater satisfaction, because the book is loyal to the film while adding detail that movies are simply unable to communicate.  I will admit, however, that I haven’t actually read many such books, mainly because my taste in movies is far broader in genre terms than my reading preferences.

Now that brings up an interesting point.  Why do our tastes often differ radically across different media?  I can, of course, only speak for myself with any certainty.

I never read newspapers and rarely read magazines.  I avoid watching television news programmes, other than on sports news channels.  In general TV viewing, I tend to choose crime dramas, though I am a fan of Stargate SG-1 and Babylon 5.  I tend to go for action and adventure movies, but avoid most of the ultra violent ones.  I also enjoy historical epics, such as Lawrence of Arabia, and war movies, from Zulu to Black Hawk Down, plus some science fiction and fantasy movies.  I don’t like horror and usually avoid modern “comedies” of the “madcap” type.  I will watch romcoms and some other “chick flicks”, though normally I watch those only with my wife.  With books, I narrow down considerably, to science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, non-fiction war books, and general history non-fiction.  I have read books outside of these genres, but only rarely.

I can’t actually answer the question.  I suspect that I watch things that do one of two things: require no thought effort or test my ability to think using enigmas.   Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy reading detective books though.  I think, on the whole, that I am disinclined to read what amounts to anything contemporary.  Possibly for the same reason that I have a strong aversion to TV “soap operas”.  I have enough of “real” life, day in, day out.  Ultimately, I suppose I’m mostly looking for escapism.

~ Steve

Languishing In The Sargasso Sea

I don’t know any writer, novelist, poet or any other, who doesn’t dread discovering that they have unwittingly navigated their way into that great Sargasso Sea known as Writer’s Block.  It isn’t just finding yourself there that is frightening, either.  The mere spectre of it makes the writer shudder, or maybe laugh nervously.  What a dread, drear place it is!

It’s difficult to describe it to anybody who has never entered it.  It isn’t, however, unique to writers.  Anybody creative has either encountered it or inevitably will.  It torments the soul and can lead to such deep depression that the becalmed has to be feared for – seriously!  It’s like nothing else.

Years ago, when I used to write virtually non-stop, if I did hit that awful place, I would suffer excruciating migraines until I was free of it again.  Happily, that no longer happens.  It just becomes a seemingly endless period of languishing in a limbo, unable to put anything down in words, on paper or on computer.  Worse, some people, living safely without any danger from it, find it amusing!  It most assuredly isn’t funny.

I’ve read all sorts of things that claim to be a cure, a sure way of navigating one’s way clear of the Sea.  One thing I am convinced of is that there isn’t any such certain method.  It is as personal a Hell as any, and escape is found by different people in different ways.  Often, it’s just a matter of time.  You drift free of it with no power to speed the process.  Sometimes, doing something radically different helps, or seems to.  Then, too, you may find that defying it, and simply learning to relax, appears to work. I’m sure of the fact that some, if not most, “systems” work only because they eat up the time you’d be stuck for anyway.

I suspect that, as you get older, the greatest fear is that you will hit that awful place in your twilight years, with some great opus in construction, and that maybe you won’t escape it in time to complete the work.  The idea of not seeing the fulfillment of such a piece is  terrible indeed.

So, because you can never know when you will be becalmed, it behoves us to make as much of the rest of our time as we possibly can.  Not easy, especially if you can’t afford to write full time, or you have other duties and responsibilities.  I certainly lost many years of serious writing effort to working and raising a family.  That said, I have no regrets about the latter!  I take my writing seriously enough, but it doesn’t compare to the pleasure and rewards of being a part of that greatest act of any life.  It does mean that every opportunity for writing is more precious now, and needs to be given due attention and effort.

~ Steve

Covers, Titles and Blurb

I’m sure that most of us would like to consider ourselves to be open-minded.  We’d probably be rather upset if we were accused of judging others by their appearance alone.  In the world of books, however, three things operate to determine the initial success of works: the cover, the title and the blurb.  Of course, in-store placement helps a little, by making sure that a book appears in the correct genre display area, so that it has an outside chance of being noticed.  But, ultimately, most people are drawn in initially by the cover first, if it’s visible, then the title, and by the blurb once it’s in our hands.  If only the spine is visible, then the title takes on primary importance.

So an author has to be lucky, or skillful, enough to be able to get the title of their work dead right.  That’s not as easy as it sounds, though.  Most books have a “working title” during the writing process, but a few actually start life as a title which will be the only definite thing about it.  I know that I’ve had a title pop into my head and simply wait for a story to attach itself to it.  In fact, I’ve several titles like that, and they’re currently still waiting!

The cover is something else.  In traditional publishing, the author might have some idea of the kind of imagery they want, and a few might even create covers themselves, but generally the cover is produced via the publisher.  With self-publishing, the author takes on the additional burden of finding the right cover, or creating it if they have the talent.  Considering the importance of the cover, that’s a huge deal!  A mistake here, and the potential reader’s eye will simply pass over it without even registering it.

Of the thousands of books that I’ve read, over many years, one thing has been noticeable.  Blurb written by authors has declined.  More and more have the blurb written by somebody working for the publisher.  I would caution all authors against this practice!  More and more blurb is written, evidently, by people who have either not read the book at all or have only scanned it without taking much of it in.  I’ve too often encountered misleading or just downright inaccurate blurb.  It doesn’t exactly say much for a book if the blurb writer didn’t even bother to read it.  I admit that I hate writing blurb for one of my works.  I sometimes put a lot of work into not making things obvious at the outset.  Blurb, designed to finish the job started by the cover and title, can all too often be too revealing, giving away things that should be left to be discovered inside the book.

It would be wonderful if books could be judged purely on the contents, with no regard for title or cover, or blurb in some cases.  After all, that’s where the real work has been done.  If you buy a filled roll at a shop, you do so because you know that you like its contents.  You’d never buy a roll from a shop again if the contents were everything you hate eating, even if the packaging suggested otherwise.  You’d go back to a shop that sold honestly.  Books, sadly, rely on the packaging because we’re not confident that genre is enough.  We may describe ourselves as avid readers of, for example, fantasy novels, but we aren’t trusting enough to buy books purely because they are in that genre.  Of course, there’s good reasons for that.  Some books are placed incorrectly in genres that really don’t apply, or only do so in the loosest sense.  A “fantasy” book that turns out to be erotic horror may be exactly what you don’t want to buy.  The fact that the book should be under “erotic horror” and not “fantasy” is small compensation, once the money’s been spent.

Is there an easy solution to getting a book noticed for the author’s work, rather than that of some cover artist:?   Can we persuade people to see beyond a title?  Can we keep the suspense by not telling too much in the blurb?  It’s difficult to see how.  In fact, it’s harder now than it has ever been!  In the modern world, it seems, packaging has become more important than content.  There may come a time in a book’s life when the packaging isn’t so vital, because the book’s reputation is enough, but it has to be get to that point first.

It saddens me to say it, but the boldest, brashest, loudest packaging will always tend to sell better than the simple, honest, undemonstrative.  There’s a feeling similar to that which attaches to differences in price.  Two electronic gadgets displayed side by side.  One is twice the price of the other.  You’d be amazed at how often the more expensive product outsells the less, because people believe “you get what you pay for” means “the higher the price, the better the quality”.  With books it becomes “the better the cover and title, the better the writing”.  Both concepts are all too often false, but they seem to have become ingrained in our thinking.

Hopefully, the next time you’re browsing for books, you’ll be prepared to at least give as much prepurchase consideration to the apparently bland title and cover as you do the visually stunning.

~ Steve

New Release!

Following on from the last post, the short story that Steve was working on has now been released, through  This ebook, In Night’s Shadows, is definitely a departure from his normal genres of science fiction and fantasy!  To quote:

One night of passion was all it took to change everything for Alex Wheland. Still, it took a long time for his stubbornness to be destroyed, in an act of depravity that shook him to the core. He woke up, at last, to the fact that everything was different. He was no longer alive.

Driven by rage and shame, he pursues the girl who brought him to this, and so enters night’s shadows.

The ebook is currently available for free from Smashwords.

In Nights Shadows - Smashwords Cover

In Nights Shadows

Now also available as a free ePub download from!

Looking Beyond…

Yesterday, an idea popped into my head.  It was probably a consequence of discussions I’ve read online over recent weeks.  Essentially, it involved the question of whether I could break out of my normal two genres, science fiction and fantasy, and write something entirely different.  More, could I do it in a different style.  It was certainly a challenging idea.

I should say that I have attempted this before, but for entirely different reasons.  In one instance, I was writing during a lunch hour at my then place of work.  It was akin to “automatic writing” in that I was simply setting down on paper a vision that was passing through my mind, with no voluntary control of it whatsoever.  When I read what I had written, it was like reading something written by a stranger.  On the second occasion, however, I had set out to prove a point, following something of a religious debate.  I had asserted that any reasonably competent writer could produce a considerable body of writings, each in a significantly different style.  I was, unfortunately, prevented from completing that by a bout of migraines, but the few pieces I had finished did prove my point.

Yesterday, however, the idea was a challenge to myself!  It insisted that I should attempt to step out of my comfort zone.  Now, I’m not about to write a novel to accomplish this!  I am, though, a fair way through a short story that may be sufficient to achieve the result the idea demands.  If I’m reasonably happy with the result, I’ll be publishing it as an ebook.  I’ve already established that it is refreshing. I may even do similar exercises in future, when the mood strikes.


Author Interviews

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Story or Mission?

This is a kind of double question.  I’m asking it of both writers and readers, as the simple fact is that they may not share the same views.

Some writers are utterly egocentric, and write as they do without even giving a nod to what readers might actually want.  Some only write according to what readers want.  Most try to keep true to themselves but acknowledge that they desire at least a reasonable amount of success and so endeavour to satisfy reader wants too.

Readers are generally driven only by a desire to be entertained or informed, according to genre read.  A few, however, are looking for more – some great purpose or illumination.  Fewer still are searching for the literary masterpiece, in which they find a writer who satisfies their ideas of perfect writing.

So, why do I write?  That’s easy to answer.  I enjoy writing, and I write stories that I would, as a reader, like to read. I do not write with some purpose beyond the telling of what I hope is a good tale!  Sometimes, something of my own morals might creep in, but I hope that such instances never intrude too severely.  I don’t want to change the world.  I’m not so presumptuous to think that I could make that kind of difference.  I’m not a teacher of ethics or spirituality!  I like a good story, simple as that.

The question is, though, whether a tale has to have some purpose beyond itself, some mission.  Do readers want to read something more than just a story?  Do they suspect that reading is a waste of time and effort if they don’t find some message hidden within a tale?  Or, are they perfectly happy to have a few books that ask no more of them than that they read them and gain simple pleasure from doing so?

If a story must have a purpose beyond the obvious one, then I’m wasting my time,and the reader’s time.  That would sadden me.  I would still write, but only for myself.

So, what are your thoughts?

So What’s The Problem With Punctuation?

I’m curious.  I recently had a review written about one of my ebooks which has left me wondering.  When being taught the use of punctuation, we were introduced to all of the punctuation characters.  One of these was the exclamation point (!).  Now, this reviewer suggested removing this character from my keyboard, asserting that it was frowned upon by publishers.

What is the problem with this humble character?  Has it committed some unpardonable sin?  I was taught that it was an ’emphatic’, adding weight to a sentence.  I would, perhaps, accept it was superfluous if it didn’t occur in ordinary spoken English, but it does.  I, certainly, have heard people speak emphatically.  I haven’t heard them being taken to task for doing so.  Are we looking, then, at an artificial situation?  Is it a target because it may be overused?  Does it represent a lack of skill in writing, somehow?

Personally, I can’t say I’m fond of the extra words necessary to replace it.  For example: “I won’t help you,” he exclaimed instead of “I won’t help you!”.  The use of the emphatic in the latter hasn’t stolen anything from the dialog.  Is it that the former option helps the writer meet a word count requirement?  In the former, it seems that the dialog lacks true emphasis, while the latter leaves no doubt about the passion behind the statement.

Apparently,  and I can’t corroborate this, publishers refer to this humble character as a screamer.  Why?  Is it, perhaps, some historic difficulty from the old typesetting days, when it was perhaps confused with other characters?  If so, then there’s no excuse for it these days.

I’m afraid that this aversion to the emphatic is truly artificial and smacks of making an “unbreakable rule”.  I don’t believe that any rule is unbreakable.  I also believe that how we write should be both personal and reflect how the majority of the modern world views language.  If rules were cast in stone, then we’d probably all be writing in Shakespearean English!  The simple fact is that language changes, and the method of expression changes.

I’m sure that there are people who are vehemently opposed to the use of the emphatic.  People who will be horrified, scandalised, at the suggestion that we should be able to use any means of expression at our disposal, including using the emphatic.  I’m hoping, however, that there are at least some writers who might actually agree with me.  It would be pleasant to know that I’m not isolated.