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Such stuff as dreams are made on…

What? I just like this image.

Dreams sometimes give me ideas, but not all that often. Fictional dreams are rarely believable, because (a) they are there to serve a purpose and (b) they come from a waking mind and are therefore too logical.

My dreams at the moment seem to be obsessed with the idea of me going back to university and doing another degree— and strangely, not the art degree I should have done in the first place, but re-doing law to get a better one than I did get— with fighting, both literally and metaphorically; and with travel, both impulsive and interminable. There is an entire rail network in my unconscious: it has underground trains… a route map… precarious trains like white-knuckle rides, but slower… abandoned stations… neglected backwoods trains that only I seem to know about.

I have quest dreams like puzzles, which I learn from and which then fall into place (I am not a computer gamer. My best attempt got Lara Croft eaten by a tiger). I run up mountains and along familiar routes. I dream of places I love, but in unfamiliar guises. My New York City is suburbia and my dream Maldives are less than paradise. Yet I feel at home in the former and edged out by the latter, even though I spent a dozen or so perfect vacations there.

So I rarely use my own dreams in my fiction, although this one formed the basis of an entire story (Hunting the Wren) back in 1991:

“Jack Scar was another dream. A little, lithe figure, just about four foot high, and covered with the softest and shortest of black fur. His eyes were bright and kind, and he delighted children with his wicked, charming wit, and the way he mischievously but gently nipped their noses with his long scarlet beak which looked as if it were made of felt. An imp, perhaps, but a kindly one. Someone told him that he wasn’t a performer in a costume, but an automaton: he was vaguely disappointed. They showed him yellowing, tattered programmes of Jack Scar’s show, the red inks softened into the paper like an old comic; and he remembered, then, that the beaked imp had charmed him, too, in childhood. Leafing through the brittle memorabilia he seemed to remember other fragments of the shows: a many-armed machine which convulsed the young audience with laughter — remembered, as he looked at the programmes, many, many times that Jack Scar had woven magic round him…

“How could he have forgotten him?”

Yes, quite often I can work out why I dream something, but never did with that one.

Where do they all come from?

You’ve probably seen this image before, but doesn’t Harris make a handsome wolf?

Most, if not all, the characters in the DaSilva-verse arrived unannounced. I knew from his first appearance that the Captain was married, but not that his wife’s name was Emilia. She made herself known in the second short story, as did Father Pereira. It’s difficult to explain just how this happens. Because I don’t plan what I write, other than knowing more or less how I want the story to end, characters tend to pop up when they are needed.

I didn’t know, for instance, that when John Yeoh first appeared in Demon Weather, what he could do and why. I didn’t know that the ghost Isaac Zacuto was going to play such an important part, or how the witch Paciência’s daughter Luzia would grow. I certainly had no idea that Teresa Batista would do what she ended up doing. There’s more to everyone’s story than I’ve either written down or yet discovered. I find out about my characters mainly by writing them, but sometimes a fact pops into my head at other times. If I need a good think about something, I go for a run.

Most of the advice that is given to authors doesn’t really work for the way I write. I can’t for the life of me sit down and plan a chapter, let alone an entire book. (Writing a synopsis is the task from hell.) “Write about what you know” is a rubbish piece of advice, not to say a lazy one. If every author adhered to that one, there’d be no fantasy or science fiction.

Raymond Chandler once said that if the action flagged a bit, he’d make a man enter with a gun. I’ve been known to introduce a demon for the same reason. A lot of my demons come from Collin de Plancy’s 1863 Dictionnaire Infernal, but I put my own spin on them. That’s the trick with using supernatural nasties, unless they’re completely original: take your basic vampire or zombie, and give it a twist.

There’s nothing particularly original about Harris the werewolf (at least not in the first novel)— good wereguys have been around for some time, and Oz in Buffy was a member of the Scooby Gang— but John Yeoh is, I believe, an entirely original kind of supernatural. Zacuto is a ghost, but a very useful one. When it comes to vampires, in the third novel, I’ve made my own vamp lore by the pick’n’mix method.

For me, writing fiction is fun. I lost that for some years before the Captain saved me from the dreadful affliction that is writer’s block. The feeling of sitting in front of a screen with words coming out like sludge rather than quicksilver, is profoundly horrible. Fingers crossed, though, the muse is now here to stay.

Subverting the Tropes

This is the Captain with his son, Zé.

I don’t know the secret of creating a long-running character, because I didn’t set out to create one. Writing the Captain is like painting in watercolor: always unpredictable, sometimes risky, with happy accidents and sometimes startling effects— knowing broadly what the outcome will be but not precisely how I’m going to get there. The “DaSilva-verse” evolved something like that, too. I’m pretty sure I’ve kept it consistent with its internal laws, even if I have to engage in a bit of reverse-engineering from time to time. Playing with supernatural tropes is fun; giving them a new twist it what makes the colors sparkle.

Though when I think about it, it isn’t just the supernatural tropes I try to subvert. I’m very fed up with protagonists who can’t cope with their problems. My flawed alter ego is not battling with the demons of booze or tobacco (he indulges in both with gusto) but with real, terrifying, dangerous demons; his marriage is not on the rocks; he is not black-dogged by depression. He regrets his somewhat shady past but doesn’t agonize over it, even when it comes back to haunt him — sometimes literally. In fact he uses everything he’s learned from that past without a second thought, be it fighting dirty, going around armed , shooting first and answering questions later. Having a background as quite a bad guy comes in handy when you’re battling the real bad guys.

But since his world, in John Crowley’s useful phrase, has this sun and these stars, events in it resonate. The long rule of the seas by the sailing ship is nearing the end of its steep decline; revolutions are on the boil; the specter of war is on the horizon. Some things impinge through all realities, leaving scars on the multiverse. When the Captain’s ship passes through the very visceral ghosts of Trafalgar, the ruination they see reduces men to tears.

“A pall of smoke hung over the ghost ships. It looked as solid and real as they did. Not the smoke from wood alone. It came from pitch and tar and human bodies. Thick and greasy and blackish-brown. The smoke from the battle, all those broadsides, roundshot, grapeshot, seemed to separate out from it like vinegar and oil. Less meaty, and lighter in color.

“The smoke blotted out the sky as we drew nearer. The sea, too, was invisible, hidden by a debris of broken spars and shattered masts, half-floating shredded canvas, and corpses. Surrounding this, all around for fifty yards and more, the water was red, flecked with soot, and ringed with a fatty scum. There’s no sign of the land that should be there. Only this empty sea filled with an enormous horrible specter of burned and broken ships and men.

“Beside me, a grim-faced Ashley was keeping tally. I believe the British lost no ships at all, and of men a fraction of the thousands of French and Spanish dead. But this sight would chill any sailor’s blood. And the ghostly bodies bobbing in the sea were unrecognizable as either Spaniards, French or British. Only a few had simply drowned. Most were shot to pieces, or burned to overcooked meat. Dismembered limbs floated among the debris.

“There was no going round the carnage. No avoiding the sight.

“Everyone on board was silent now. No-one spoke. Caps came off. Rosaries clicked. Ashley, always formal, saluted. I felt the wind in my hair, and it was suddenly deathly cold. The back of my neck prickled. We passed another hulk, like a floating heap of broken wood, trailing the tattered remnants of a Spanish flag. Hardly recognizable as a ship at all.

“Behind me I heard Benjamin’s mellow tenor start to sing, “Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm doth bind the restless wave.” It’s an English hymn. I don’t know the words, but apparently quite a lot of the men did. Including Pierce, who was standing on my left. I hadn’t even sensed him arrive, but I turned now and saw his face was wet with tears.

“By the time they got to the last For those in peril on the sea even Harris was singing, and that’s not something you want to hear sober.

“And then we were past the last poor shattered vessel, and the whole horror was behind us. Not a man looked back. The crowd dispersed in silence. I found a cheroot, and lit it with a sense of relief. Ashley walked away, stiff-backed.

“Poor buggers,” said Pierce. His voice shook. “You don’t ever need to ask me why I’m a pacifist.”

That scene was the first thing I wrote after 9/11: it was my catharsis.

Confessions of a Bookworm

Someone posted this on Facebook. I don’t know where it came from, but I want one!

As you might expect, my house is full of books. It’s like L-space in the Library of Unseen University— it contains more volumes than you’d think was possible. They are not all my books. My other half collects books because he collects stuff, not to read. But I’ve read every single one of my books, apart from some I use for reference only.

I’ve used libraries all my life, at first because I couldn’t afford to buy books. When I started getting pocket-money I spent most of it on books. Paperbacks were affordable back then, about two shillings and sixpence in old money. Note for non-antique readers: about twelve and a half pence, or 30 cents since a penny was worth one cent in those days. Of course inflation happened, but if I could buy a book with a week’s pocket-money when I was ten it means that today’s ten-year-olds must be averaging about ten quid a week. I have no idea if that’s true, but I’m pretty sure most of them don’t buy books with it.

There’s not really a system to my shelving of books, except that I keep SF and fantasy all in one place, and other fiction (mostly thrillers) in another, and non-fiction is in various bookshelves all around the house.

My shelves are groaning with books by Terry Pratchett, Tolkien, Elizabeth Moon, Ursula Le Guin, Charlaine Harris, David Weber, Vonda McIntyre, Douglas Adams, Robin McKinley, Sherri Tepper, Barbara Hambly, Roger Macbride Allen, H Beam Piper, Frances Hardinge, David Brin, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Tim Powers, Bill Bryson, Raymond Chandler, John Connolly, Sue Grafton, Donna Leon, Sara Paretsky, Kathy Reichs, Janet Evanovich and Laurie King. Apart from Pterry (sorry, fanboy nickname!) who deserves to be first on anyone’s list, they’re not in any particular order.

But I don’t buy books much anymore, except second-hand and from Amazon. Gone are the days when I didn’t mind shelling out a fiver for a speculative volume which would go to charity if I didn’t like it. So I’m back at the library… and I’ve acquired a Kindle. I’ll never stop putting books on my shelves, but thanks to the wonders of the e-book I can once again read books by authors I don’t know!

Something impossible before breakfast?

“While science fiction is the literature of the possible, no matter how extreme, fantasy is the literature of the impossible, which means it’s pretty extreme to start with.”

—Mike Ashley, in the intro to The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy

I must admit I hadn’t thought of it quite like that. But it’s similar what I said in an earlier post about spaceships vs. dragons. (Which would be a really interesting contest!) Except…

“The literature of the possible, no matter how extreme”. No, really? Star Trek, Babylon 5, Dr Who, Firefly? If we’re calling Klingons, Shadows, the Tardis and Reavers possible, then we might as well say that in some universe somewhere there are dragons, vampires and unicorns. I don’t think one is any more likely than the other; I do think Ashley is exaggerating in order to make a point.

Now I am a writer of fantasy, but I’ve also written a few SF stories. I read a lot of SF, and enjoy it. But my preference is for stories that lean more towards fantasy… stories that could (almost) be in either genre. Ursula Le Guin does this so well; she is also a wise and subtle writer, who peoples her many worlds with folk who have human dilemmas and to whom, often, the fact of space travel is entirely irrelevant.

Stories do not always fit entirely into one genre or the other. But neither are they interchangeable. Theoretically, I could have made Captain da Silva the skipper of a spaceship; he would then most likely be Mal Reynolds, and the stories would have been different because the milieu in which they were set was different. Places have always informed my writing, and voyages are important. While the novels, mostly, are based in the captain’s home port of Lisbon, the majority of the short stories concern what happened when the Isabella was in a certain place.

With fantasy, I can play with the legends of Earth, and part of the fun is coming up with a new twist on an old theme. With SF, a big part of the fun is world-building, and I tend to get really deep into minutiae when I do that. Which doesn’t exactly bog me down, but has a tendency to take over. When you’re spending more time drawing maps than writing the story, it’s time to come up for air.

Random ramblings of a writer

Time goes by so fast! I haven’t posted here for a while as I am suddenly busy with writing tasks. I’ve got the second Da Silva novel, The Werewolf of Lisbon, to go through before I send it to my editor. I’ve landed a ghostwriting job for a 25,000 word piece. And then, of course, a story idea pops into my mind and demands to be set down on paper.

But I haven’t been entirely neglecting topics to write about here. Just never expanded any of them into something long enough to occupy a single post. So here, in no particular order, are my random thoughts from the past couple of weeks.

Eyepatches are cool

When I had my short sight fixed I was very disappointed that I didn’t get a black eyepatch. There’s no denying that it it gives a character panache and a certain louche charm, whether it’s Long John Silver or Nick Fury. The late Marie Colvin, whom I admired tremendously, knew that perfectly well when she adopted one after losing one eye!  It wasn’t until a few pages after Captain da Silva had hijacked the story Cats & Architecture that a demon deprived him of an eye… but at that point I didn’t realize that he was going to want a lot more stories told. Seriously, if I’d deliberately set out to write a series about a sea-captain, I probably wouldn’t have gone for that cliché!

The Captain rules

The captain is more in control of his/her own destiny than any other person. When you are the captain of a ship, all decisions are yours: you have no-one to appeal to or to blame. Whether the shop sails the oceans or the depths of space, the captain is “Master under God”. That’s why it’s the captain who has the adventures, not the admiral, and that’s why the captain makes one of the best dramatic protagonists. He can be as eccentric as you like, he can be a goodie or a baddie, but he’s the one in control.

Characters have a life outside of their novels

I always wonder about how involved other writers of series get with their characters. It was said of Dorothy Sayers that she was in love with her detective Lord Peter Wimsey, and I’m pretty sure that Thomas Harris was in love with Hannibal Lecter by the time he wrote the third novel about him. I’m more inclined to “be” Captain da Silva, and as such, there’s a lot more going on with him than ever appears in print. It’s not just back-story, it’s things that happen day by day. Sometimes I do write them down, mostly I don’t. If they are vignettes that could be part of a larger narrative, yes. But largely, they are just a part of the character and his memories.