On the art of writing what you know

Stars in Orion's beltI guess you guys all know I write mainly space opera. So you might be forgiven for raising an incredulous eyebrow (maybe even two) when I talk about writing what I know. And sure, I take out the space opera tool kit for the space bits. FTL travel, artificial gravity, shields to divert radiation (and attacks) etc etc. But not everything happens out there in the wide black. I usually have some goings-on planetside. And the WIP is no exception.

Senior Commander Thad Butcher was Grand Admiral Saahren’s adjutant in the Iron Admiral series, but this time, he’s getting his own story. Newly promoted to captain after the events chronicled in the Iron Admiral, he’s gone home to Validor for a brief holiday before he takes up his new command – a battle cruiser. It’s a boyhood dream come true. But he arrives on planet just in time to become embroiled in an attack on the Ruling family, where he’s reunited with Tarlyn, who had been the unattainable love of his life before he left Validor, aged seventeen, to attend the Fleet Academy.

I’ve had a vague plot floating in my head for several years now, but distilling that ephemeral essence into a working story takes time. Although we’ll get back up into space later down the track, at the moment Thad and Tarlyn are on a boat, heading for a meeting with the Ptorix.

And this gives the opportunity to write what I know.

Several months ago I was privileged to go on a three-day sail in the Whitsunday Islands off Queensland. It was a memorable experience, and one of those appears in the WIP. Thad and Tarlyn take a boat out of a bay between two headlands. That’s based on my experience when we sailed through the Solway Passage, with its churning waters and whirlpools, all overlooked by a stormy sky and the towering red cliffs of a distant island. My scene isn’t exactly the same, but I’ve drawn on that journey to lend some colour.IMG_8524_HDR

But that’s not the end of the sea adventure, and here I dragged out another recent experience, when I went to horizontal Falls two years ago (gosh, is that really so long ago)? I wrote about it here. I’ll be using that image, of a tide roaring through a narrow gap, in another exciting scene.

See? You can write what you know, using places not too many people on this planet have seen.

Falls approaching gap


Stay tuned, everybody. It should be a fun read, my usual combination of action, with a slurp of romance. No I haven’t thought of a name yet.

You can find out more about my Ptorix Empire books here.

The Desolation of Smaug extended edition – just a better movie

Movie poster for the Desolation of SmaugAt long last, I finally got my chance to watch the extended edition of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Having discussed the picture with some Facebook friends, I thought I’d write down a few spoilerless thoughts. If you’ve seen it, too, I’d love to know what you thought.

First things first. The Hobbit trilogy is not, I repeat not, a dramatisation of the kids book. I said a few things about this in an earlier post. In fact, I said a few things about the extended edition of the first movie, An Unexpected Journey. In the Hobbit trilogy I think Peter Jackson is trying to show the history of the One Ring from the time it was found in the Goblin tunnels leading up to the events in LOTR. He uses a great deal of material chronicled by Tolkien in the appendices to LOTR, which explains why Gandalf disappeared, leaving the dwarves to face Mirkwood alone. Even in the children’s book, allusions were made to greater things on the move.

I’ve always felt, from the first time I read it, that the book The Hobbit has two parts. Up until the moment the dwarves reach the doorstep, it’s a kids book and written in that way, skating over the violence and using language like ‘poor little hobbit’. But after that the story becomes much darker, leading into the Battle of Five Armies. It’s as if Tolkien forgot who his audience was. And the next movie, the Battle of Five Armies, is that final chapter.

I also appreciate that a book cannot always be translated into a film because film is shorter, visual and needs to be fast moving. So I understand (to an extent) Jackson’s decisions in adding characters and situations. Azog the white Orc is a case in point. According to Tolkien, he died in the battle at the gates of Moria. Using that same logic – what moves the film forward – Jackson introduced Tauriel, the female elf captain. Like many, I could have done without the ‘romance’ factor between her and Kili. However, I like the fact that Jackson has shown the woodelves as much more than Tolkien’s depiction of them in the Hobbit the book. I also like that Legolas is in it, because it shows how he changes from his father’s isolationist stance to seeing that everything in the world is interconnected, thus lending depth to his appearance as a member of the nine companions in LOTR. I also like the way he shows the One Ring working its evil, both on Bilbo and the wider world

Back to the extended version. To me, the film is more complete. Parts of the story which were over in a flash in the original film, such as the journey through Mirkwood, are expanded, and if you know the book well, you’ll recognise the scenes. Of course, there are a few short edits which have been recovered, such as a little more of Steven Fry as the Master. But the big – huge- gain for me was the additional detail of the bigger picture, the lead-in to the next book, and ultimately LOTR. There were scenes which I had expected to see in the original movie, and did not. With those scenes added back, I believe the film is more true to Tolkien’s vision.

I’m not a movie fan, but I have to tell you, I’m hangin’ out for the Battle of Five Armies. Bring it on!

How to put together a boxed set #amwriting

picture of Nebula Nights anthology cover

11Sci-fi romances that’ll sweep you away

Have you seen the number of boxed sets out there in the market place? Six or eight or ten or eleven complete books in one document, that you can buy for $0.99. Have you thought you’d like to do that, too?

Several months ago a group of authors in the Science Fiction Romance Brigade decided to put together a boxed set. Here’s how we did it.

Nebula Nights – the Making of a Boxed Set

Have a look. You might find it helpful.



Why I don’t finish every book I start to read

Bookshelf full of booksI recently read an article that claimed you really should finish every book you start to read.

I’m not the only one who shouted RUBBISH. Life’s too short to waste your time on reading a book that has become boring, tedious, odious, eye-wateringly bad or eye-rollingly obvious.

But then I thought about it.

Sure, there are some books I would never touch again, not in a moment. Some of them were written by top authors. I remember ploughing through a Ruth Rendell novel while on the Indian Pacific train trip. (You need books for that – lots of them). I enjoyed her murder mysteries and this one seemed to be along those lines, although not her usual detective. Boy, was I wrong. This was about two mixed up kids from horrible homes, a psychological study, if you will. None of the characters were likeable, and the plot lurched from one unpleasant scenario to the next, and ended up with a Romeo and Juliet ending. I know this because I skim-read through most of it, hoping to find something I’d think worth reading. Believe me, if I hadn’t been stuck on a train, I would have given up long before. But I’d made an assumption about what to expect, and I was wrong. I did something very similar with an Elizabeth Moon novel, which turned out not to be the science fiction I expected. Mea Culpa.

I kind of read Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code. People said it was good, and I liked the premise, with the little mysteries scattered around. But two-thirds of the way through I couldn’t take the over the top inanity anymore and skimmed to the end. My husband is more forgiving than I am (sounds a bit like Return of the Jedi, doesn’t it? That scene where Darth Vader arrives to hurry up completion of Death Star II) and he’d bought Angels and Demons, so I took a look. That got two chapters and a skim to the ending, which earned a resounding ‘what a load of bollocks’.

Sometimes I’ll buy a book – or download a free copy – of something outside my usual choice of reading. If it doesn’t suit, it doesn’t, and I don’t force myself to finish it. No book will appeal to everybody, and at least I tried. Again, that’s my choice. And no, I won’t be rushing off to Amazon to write a ‘meh’ review.

What does throw me out? Normally, if a book hasn’t grabbed me in the first few chapters, it’s an unapologetic DNF. I’m not against slow openings, in fact I rather like a bit of scene-setting so I can ease into a different world, but quite soon I want to be taken on a journey with interesting characters. So I’m not a great believer in the latest fiction-writing rule that thou shalt open in the middle of an action scene. However, I need to meet characters I like, doing things that I find plausible, and interesting. Action that immediately incites feelings of how is that possible, or why would she do that, will have my finger hovering over the ‘off’ button. The writing’s important, too. I can ignore typos in moderation, but if the author’s voice gets up my nose, that’s it. Terry Brookes comes to mind. Yeah, okay, I bought the novelisation of Star Wars I after much hesitation, even though he wrote it. I’d given up on him years before. I soon found my opinion hadn’t changed, and the book was off to the second hand bookshop. Once again, Mea Culpa.

However, sometimes I will return to a book I have given up on. Take, for instance, Jack McDevitt’s Slow Lightning. After a prologue, it winds up slowly, setting the scene. I’ll admit to starting it twice, both times ignoring the prologue because I don’t like them, and I found the prologue in the only other McDevitt book I’d read up to then (A Talent for War) a crashing waste of brain power. The third time, I soldiered on and was so glad I did. The novel soon became a clever page-turner. And I had to go back and read the prologue, because it was vital to understanding the book.  I wrote an article about it here.

But sometimes, you know, it’s just that I’m not in the mood for that sort of book today. Maybe I’ll finish it some other time, maybe it will remain unopened.

What about you? Do you finish everything you start reading? What throws you out? Have you ever been like me, and gone back to a book you’d given up?

Will we see Empires in space?

Augustus_Aureus_infobox_versionEmpires are something of a staple in science fiction, and they’re often evil empires. Or at least evil emperors. Asimov’s famous ‘Foundation’ series starts off with an empire in the first throes of disintegration, Linnea Sinclair’s Dock Five series has a weak emperor whose power is usurped by a ‘trusted adviser’ (think Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII) and then there’s the most famous galactic empire of them all – Star Wars.

It’s a tempting concept, having one powerful ruler in charge of everything. Earth’s history includes a number of powerful, very well run empires. The foremost was Rome, but others include the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the British Empire, the Napoleonic Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Based on these terrestrial examples, an empire is defined as “a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign or government: usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom.” As the power of one particular political entity grows, it expands, gobbling up its neighbours. One of the best examples in relatively recent history was the expansion of Prussia, amalgamating a collection of autonomous small kingdoms into the modern political entity called Germany. Even more recently, after the end of WWII, Russia extended its influence over much of Eastern Europe to become the USSR, an empire in all but name. Stalin may not have worn a crown, but an emperor is just another form of dictator.

Are we ever likely to see an empire comprised of a collection of planets, though? It’s hard to imagine. We’re talking vast distances between the planets, which will probably be in different star systems. Perhaps if we reach the point in our technology where travel between star systems is achieved in weeks or days, then the concept of an all-powerful central entity might be feasible. After all, the Rome Empire encompassed such far-flung regions as Britain and Egypt. However, it would also depend upon strong government at a local level, with an allegiance to the central body.

Eva Caye has come up with a new version of a galactic empire in her nine-book series, “To be Sinclair”. In the first book, Dignity, we receive enough backstory to understand that the Sinclair family led a mission from Earth to colonize a planet. Since the Sinclairs provided most of the money to finance the trip, they became kings. Others who contributed large sums became dukes, with their own lands. Because the Sinclairs controlled the wormhole technology enabling space travel, they expanded their influence to other planets, and became Imperial.

Unlike stories like Dock Five and Star Wars, which concentrate on the rebel efforts to defeat the empire, Caye’s books are about the imperial family, and the constraints and responsibilities they must contend with as part of their daily lives. I’ve always felt a bit sorry for members of the British Royal family, especially in these days of insta-media. Privacy is virtually impossible. Everything they say, everything they do, is subject to scrutiny. But the British Royal family has no real power. Eva Caye’s Emperor has power. And with that comes enemies, assassination attempts, sycophants and hangers-on.

I’ve written a review for Dignity. You’ll find it over on the Science Fiction Romance Brigade blog. Do take a look.

Meanwhile, what do you think about Galactic Empires? Do you see if happening? Please share your thoughts.

Another day, another dawn #photo

Some of you will know I’m a keen photographer. Of late a new influx of crows has disrupted our sleep. I was awake before dawn, listening to these noisy bloody birds, so I thought I might as well get up and head for the beach to catch the sunrise. The days have been calm, and I was hoping for dead flat water and beautiful reflections. But the northerly wind, forecast to strengthen later in the day, had already whispered across the water. The tide was a little higher, too.

IMG_8900Still, there’s always a picture opportunity. I was delighted to see my old mates the Brahmani kites back on the sand bar at the creek. The light was low, and the bird wasn’t in a chatty mood. Seems he didn’t want to share breakfast.



Sunrise, when it happened, was through a bank of thin cloud.

sunrise photo

And there’s always somebody trying to hog the spotlight.


Beware of Greeks bearing gifts – or – is it really free?

Trojan horseA few days ago we finally bit the bullet and bought a new PC for my husband’s home office, one of those computer onesies with all the kit in the display screen. It’s a what-you-see-is-what-you-get configuration, so you can’t add cards, but the huge advantage is that there isn’t a mini-tower sitting in a cupboard in the desk. This

  • keeps the machine cooler
  • avoids the hassle of having to move the very f***ing heavy desk anytime anything hardware related happens. Picture a 60+ female person kneeling on the floor, trying to see around dark corners with a torch, while swearing enough to make a sailor blush.

Anyway, I’ve digressed.

Unfortunately, the system was loaded with Windows 8.1. No options there, but we didn’t much like the idea of upgrading to the latest Microsoft Office. We’d stopped at Office 2003. We like it. We BOTH like it. And with every new version, they change the user interface so you have to re-learn how it works, which causes a great deal of angst, bad language and violence. So we decided to use Libre Office. It’s free, opens and saves in MS formats, and is functionally pretty much the same as the Office equivalents. There was just one problem. The OH likes the Bookman Oldstyle font. It comes with MS Office, but not Libre Office. I’m a good wife/IT manager. I could do that small thing for him.

I had a look on a reputable font site on the net which I’ve used several times before. No Bookman Oldstyle. However, a Google search came up with lists of entries, all for free fonts. I had a look at a couple, selecting the ones the Avast online security app said were safe, then hit the ‘download’ button. A screen appeared, listing a bunch of wonderful free extras which would also be downloaded. All of those were checked. I unchecked them.

When the install package started, I noticed a few things that bothered me, files that didn’t seem legit. A font file is tiny. What was all this other stuff? So I cancelled the process. But I was too late. Avast had detected malware and moved it to the vault, where it was isolated from the rest of the system. Good news. However, every single time I opened a browser window on the machine, a female voice informed me a potential threat had been detected. Even after I had deleted the entries in the vault. A visit to Avast’s forums showed this had happened to other people. I should purchase a PC cleaner product to remove the malware. I bought the recommended product, which didn’t work. In the end, I rolled the machine’s operating system back to an earlier time. Fortunately, that did the trick.

If you’re not sure what malware is and what it does, here’s a good explanation.

So, dear reader, if a metaphorical wooden horse appears in your Google search, offering free downloads, take care, even if the site is deemed safe by the virus protection software of your choice. You do have virus protection software, don’t you? Unfortunately, not everyone in the world is as honest as you and me. You need to know about malware and viruses, and what to do about them. Here’s a link for Avast users. And by the way, you know that story about how Macs are not affected by viruses and such? That belongs in the same basket as believing the earth is six thousand years old. If you’ve got a Mac – or an Android tablet, for that matter, and you’re not protected, get yourself Avast. It’s free.

Frequently, even legitimate sites offering free software (or books or music) attach extras which will be installed unless you deliberately opt out. Read that screen BEFORE you click ‘install’. That goes for reputable concerns like AVG and Adobe. Otherwise, you’ll find something on your system you didn’t expect. (‘Ask’ toolbar, anyone? Or a free trial version of an anti-virus app?)


Bye bye Apple. Wish I could say it’s been nice

canstockphoto16214523You know, I was working on PCs before the IBM PC was released. Yeah, programming, that sort of geeky stuff. So I’ve seen machines come and go. For the record, the first IBM PC was a heap of rubbish. Four colour graphics? 360Kb floppy drive? It was horrible – but it was IBM, so many much better built, better performing computers, went extinct.

But IBM improved. The 286 was a leap ahead of the 186, then the 386, 486… But they all had that clutzy press-the-keys-in-the-right-order interface, and the operating system restrictions on memory.

And then Apple released the very first Macintosh.

Its operating system was the forerunner of what we now call Windows, albeit with a dinky little black and white screen. What it did so much better than Microsoft was graphics. And that has remained its major strength. There was a reason why most advertising agencies used Macs.

But Apple nearly went bust. Why? Because they insisted on the integrity of their product. You couldn’t buy a cheapy printer to output your wonderful diagrams. It had to be an (expensive) Apple printer, which didn’t work with your non-Apple machines. And if you wanted to share your great Mac spreadsheet with the rest of the Microsoft users in the office? Um…

It has always seemed deliciously ironic to me that Microsoft ended up rescuing Apple. There’s no doubt the MS users gained a great deal from the exchange, but Apple was also forced to recognise that forcing their ‘standards’ on folk isn’t a great marketing ploy; not when you’re competing with a company that will interface with anything.

I’ve always admired the Apple operating system. Easy, intuitive, no background tweaking necessary. Not like MS with its constant updates to its operating systems. Remember Vista? And Windows 4? Not to mention its non-standard program interfaces. You’d expect the programs in the MS Office suite to work in the same way. That was a silly expectation, wasn’t it?

So after my last desktop computer died, I took the plunge and went Mac. This will be my last Mac, and I will never buy another iPhone.

  • Apple does not seem to have learned that restricting peoples’ use of their devices is a major turn-off. To use iTunes for music, you have to have one library on a computer. From there, you synch to your mobile devices. But you can’t copy from the ipod to the computer. You can only do a backup, which isn’t the same thing. My hard drive failed, I didn’t have a backup of my iTunes library, so I wanted to restore from the ipod to the new hard drive. Nope.

  • Apple seems to have picked up a few bad habits from Microsoft. I updated the Mac’s OS from Snow Leopard (who makes up these stupid names? Still, it’s better than Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich) to Mavericks. I’ve already blogged about that. Why do they fix things that aren’t broken?

  • A few days ago my iPhone’s battery died. I couldn’t get a new battery (phone is too old), so I bought a new phone – a Samsung. I wanted to retain the contacts from my iPhone so (with the phone plugged in via the charger) I looked for the control to save my contacts on the SIM card. Uh-uh. Can’t be done (yes, I know I could have downloaded a third party app – I shouldn’t f***ing have to). It’s possible on other phones, like Android.

The fiasco with the phone was the final straw.

I’m sick of jumping through hoops to make the Mac talk to the various MS machines in my home. Yes, I know Microsoft has its own three ring circus – but it’s a circus I know, where I know what I can tweak, where I can lift up the hood and fiddle with the carburettor. (How’s that for mixing metaphors?)

So… goodbye, Apple. Good luck with your projects. I wish I could say it’s been nice.

At last there’s a work-in-progress

canstockphoto19778842It has been far too long since I last published a book, although it was this year. For anyone waiting for a new story about Morgan’s Misfits – sorry, but it will be a little while yet. Those of you who know me would be aware that I believe in the Muse as much as I do the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas (that is, when it suits me) But I do believe that when the writing just won’t come, it’s because there’s something wrong. Frankly, I couldn’t see where the story was going. The characters wouldn’t talk to me – wouldn’t even look at me. So I abandoned the Morgan’s Misfits story. I’ll get back to it when the characters come to find me. And they will. Oh, they will.

Meanwhile, I’ve embarked on a new Ptorix Empire story. Someone once suggested they’d like to hear a bit more about Senior Commander Butcher, who is Admiral, then Grand Admiral Saahren’s aide de camp in the Iron Admiral books. And why not?  So I had a quiet word with him, asking what happened after the decisive battle between the Ptorix and Confederacy Fleets off Qerra.

It seems he finally got that promotion, the chance to captain a Confederacy battle cruiser. He’d been in command of ships before, of course. Patrol ships, a cruiser. But this had been his life long ambition: captain a battle cruiser. While his new ship is in refit, Butcher takes leave on his home planet of Validor. He hasn’t been back for twelve years, hasn’t lived there for twenty. Six months ago, after ten years of marriage, his wife divorced him. He’s at a loose end, looking to pick up the pieces of his life. One piece he’s kept an eye on is his first love, Tarlyn. She’s a member of the ruling clan in this matriarchal society, related, if not directly, to the current queen. She suffered a bereavement not too long ago. Her husband died in a boating accident. She’s way out of his league in the social hierarchy on Validor, but he’s never forgotten her, and lately she has been haunting his dreams. So first day back on his home planet, Butcher turns up at a public festival celebrating the arrival of Humans on Validor. The queen and her court will be there. He might get a glimpse of Tarlyn…

That’s where the story starts. Validor has a large Ptorix population – as much as sixty percent. And as we’ve seen on our own planet, winning a war doesn’t necessarily build bridges. There are old scores to be settled, and new hatreds can blossom. On both sides.

I have an idea where Butcher and Tarlyn will lead me, and I think I know what the ending will be. But it’s all subject to change without notice. Hang in there. I’m hoping to get it out there in a few months. And no, I haven’t thought of a title yet.

In praise of five star reviews

picture of five starsReviews. It’s one of the buzz words in the author world – especially if you’re self published or small press. Many articles have been written about how to handle negative reviews, how to get reviews, how to write reviews and whether reviews actually matter.

One thing that constantly comes up, in comments or in the article itself, is the sparkling, five star review. We all love those, of course, but so often potential readers say they ignore them. Why? Because:

  • they may have been paid for – Amazon’s rotten core (well worth reading, that article)
  • they may have been swaps with another author, therefore not entirely truthful – but Amazon has tried to limit those cases by removing some author reviews from books
  • they may have been written by your mum, dad, husband, cat. No, not the cat. The dog.

Sure, all of these things have happened. We’ve all read glowing reviews which didn’t exactly align with the book for which it was written. I recall one book which boasted half a dozen reviews along the lines of “wonderful book”. And then there was the other review, which pointed out the grammar problems evident in the first few pages, and even in the book’s title. Something like The Smith’s. This might mean the glowing reviews were the result of some of the issues mentioned above. I checked. The grammar issues were certainly there. As was the error in the title.

But then, maybe that’s uncharitable. A lot of people leave five star reviews because (er) they loved the book. I certainly have. Who’s to say the people leaving a review on The Smith’s didn’t love the book? Not everyone is a grammar Nazi. We do a lot of chest-thumping about one star reviews, how everybody is entitled to an opinion and after all, that’s all a review is. The same is true of five star reviews, especially if they’re considered and thoughtful.

So I like my five star reviews. I haven’t paid for them, haven’t touted for them, haven’t swapped for them. I love the fact that people enjoy my writing enough to say so.

What do you think?


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