Spotlight on Imagining the Future with Ralph Kern and Stephen Palmer

‘What comes next’ is a big deal if you happen to live on Earth. Trying to predict the future is the basis for pretty much everything on this planet, from governmental policy-making to next year’s spring fashion line. We live in the present, but a good chunk of our energy is invested in tomorrow’s outcome.

So why should fiction be any different? From current trendy post apocalyptic YA, like the Hunger Games or Maze Runner series, to classic dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, readers and writers alike have long shared a fascination for the future.

Granted, it’s probably much easier to imagine the Earth in 2235 than to create a ten-year governmental plan with actual consequences, but it’s still a major challenge for any writer to create a believable future that makes sense, culturally, politically, and socially. I’ve invited two talented authors to join me here and tell us how they pulled it off.

Author of nine novels and countless short stories, Stephen Palmer is an old hand at painting the future. In Muezzinland (Wildside, 2003), for instance, we travel through twenty-second century Africa, and Memory Seed (Orbit, 1997) explores a dying human civilization on Earth. In the recently released thriller Beautiful Intelligence (Infinity Plus Press, 2015), Stephen gives us a frantic, fast-paced futurescape. This is a place where western civilization has all but collapsed, leaving great expanses of Europe and the USA an economic wasteland. In Stephen’s world, where everyone is virtually connected via the nexus, and eyes are everywhere, two scientists and their teams race to be the first to create true artificial intelligence while staying a step ahead of the Japanese corporation hunting them down.

Police officer Ralph Kern released his first novel Endeavor in February 2014. Originally self-published, Endeavor was picked up by Tickety Boo Press and the second volume in his Sleeping Gods series comes out in November. The novel, which is in process of being adapted for the big screen, tells the story of the Starship Endeavor on a daring mission to solve the Fermi Paradox. Due to their manner of star travel, each time the ship and crew return home the planet has moved on and evolved. This means that, in practice, Ralph has had to create multiple future Earths: the 2118 Earth the explorers first depart from, and the different future Earths they encounter each time they return.

Juliana: Thanks for joining me on the blog, Ralph and Stephen. Have you always enjoyed reading and writing science fiction? What is it about stories dealing with humanity’s tomorrow that you find appealing?

Ralph: And thank you for hosting us, Juliana. For as long as I can remember, my genre of choice has been science fiction, especially the harder end. I love the hypothesizing of what will happen in our future. What will society look like? How would we deal with a discovery which changes everything? What will our children and children’s children be like? The possibilities are endless, and so often make for fascinating stories.

Stephen: I discovered SF and Fantasy when I was a teenager, and, having a vivid imagination, it was instantly attractive. These days however I don’t read a vast amount of SF, very little in fact – for me the compelling SFnal factor is wanting to know how everything pans out… a hundred years from now, a thousand, a million, or (if I can manage it) 800 million. I’m one of those people who wants to find out everything to satisfy a thirst for knowledge; it really bugs me that everything after my allotted three score years and ten is going to be beyond my grasp. So I write imagined versions instead. The books that inspire me these days are things like

The Life & Death Of Planet Earth by Don Brownlee and Peter Ward, a book that describes how the planet will change as geological time progresses. Much of what I read these days is about the past and future history of something or other…

Juliana: Continuing from the previous question, is imagining the future something that comes easily to you?

Stephen: Well, I suppose I’d have to answer yes to that. Of course, “easy” doesn’t necessarily mean accurate, or even interesting, as some of my fans would tell you. As somebody though who loves nature and is particularly keen to support Green agendas, imagining the relationship between humanity, and individual people, and the natural environment is very high on my list. A lot of my work has this at its heart, most obviously in novels like Memory Seed and Glass, and Urbis Morpheos. I’m truly interested in how it will all turn out for humanity on planet Earth, and that fascination I think comes out in some of my work.

Ralph: Imagining the future I’d like to see is very easy. Imagining a future which I think is realistic is more difficult. Without the benefit of a crystal ball, there are many things you have to take a best guess on but you know what? That’s the fun part.

Juliana: I imagine one of the difficulties of writing about the future is creating technology that is recognizable enough to be believable, yet won’t become outdated after a few years of publication. How do you tackle this?

Stephen: It depends. In Urbis Morpheos I was writing about people on the Earth a million years hence, so there was no point talking about modems and hypertext transfer protocols. Mind you, that was a deliberately “mysterious” work clothed in hints and metaphors. In Muezzinland I did make a stab at deciding what aspect of computer technology might be around in 2130. Beautiful Intelligence was similar: I tried to extrapolate certain things I see now, such as the shocking influence virtual technology has on young people, and the lack of privacy people have these days (if they allow the internet to strip them of their privacy, that is – I don’t). No author however should expect to get it right, or even want to get it right – it’s more about the characters and the narrative. But I do think imagined veracity is important, and at the very least you have to be consistent. Part of the fun of writing Beautiful Intelligence was contrasting the different approaches of the two teams, then messing up their plans for them in a way consistent with the economic and social milieu.

Ralph: Oh I’m very sure that in 10 or 20 years, my work will seem incredibly dated, after all, think how much culture has changed with the advent of the internet and then smart phones to bring it into the palm of your hand! Who knows what paradigm shift is just over the horizon of a similar scale? I can take a good guess – augmented reality would be what I would put my money on and which forms a part of the Sleeping Gods universe. Still, there are many developments which could happen and I say with conviction there will be new inventions we haven’t even thought of which might revolutionize the world as much or even more so – who would have predicted social media even up to a couple of years before it stormed into modern culture? But as writers who want to create a plausible world, extrapolation of existing technology combined with a healthy dose of imagination helps. I apply the Iphone test. We all can probably envisage what the Iphone 7. 8 or 9 will roughly look like. But, assuming Apple is still around in a hundred years, what about the Iphone 100?

Juliana: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to creating tomorrow’s society, with its own distinct culture and linguistic terms?

Ralph: One has to balance readability against plausibility. Let’s take the augmented reality I mentioned. What would a society look and act like where everyone sees the world through that lens? Or has implants wired into them so they can talk to anyone they want just by thinking at them? Would their communication be in terms we can understand? I’d suggest it would be something on par with how we would describe telepathy. But does that necessarily make for an interesting narrative that a present day reader can truly buy into? It would be difficult for us to sympathize with a character who doesn’t speak but thinks at people. An aside, part of Endeavour involves a scene set in the 16th century. Jennifer, my editor, and I did a lot of research into how people spoke back then. It would be comprehensible… just, but not exactly easily readable by any stretch of the imagination so we had to tone it down a touch. Extrapolate that 400 years into the future and it is likely our descendants would think the same of our speech and writing. I don’t know whether the term has an official name, but I often think fiction set in the future, distant past or a fantasy world has the benefit of the story being told by a narrative interpreter who helps us poor present day readers understand and that’s okay – Especially in the realms of hard SF, readers are quite understanding of that fact.

Stephen: I have to admit, I don’t really think of it in terms of challenges. I just imagine it however I like. Even when I was a naïve and dim writer editing the third version of my debut novel I realized there was no point in worrying about such things. As long as the characters were “right” in their setting, and as long as the plot felt good, I was happy. Still am. A few readers of Beautiful Intelligence have remarked that they don’t believe America and Europe will suffer massive economic depressions around Peak Oil, but I think that will happen, so I included it in the setting. Anyway, it doesn’t matter how accurate people see that as – if they should be reading Beautiful Intelligence in 2092 – what matters is whether or not they enjoy the story. I’m afraid I have a bit of a “Kate Bush tendency” when it comes to my work – I hope my fans follow me wherever I lead. I’m not the kind of author who is known for one genre of work, which means alas I will lose fans over the years. Hopefully I’ll gain a few though. That’s the problem with having a muse – you have to follow it regardless of direction.

Juliana: What are some of the common pitfalls that you tend to see in portrayals of humanity’s future?

Stephen: Mostly just being exceedingly dull. My early unpublished work was about the milieu, not the people in the milieu; too many writers take that mistake into their published novels. (I imagine self-published work is full of it.) The good stuff is vivid and different and iconoclastic, like Gwyneth Jones, or Jack Vance. The bad stuff… well, I won’t name names, but endless expositions on future Chinese societies or Martian futures with diagrams does not a good book make in my opinion.

Ralph: What one sees a lot of in fiction is selective adoption of current technology when extrapolating progress into the future. To use a simple example, one of the tropes of science fiction is fighters and warships slugging it out in space. But hold on, what about unmanned aerial vehicles which are fairly mature even now? Or how can some technology be a step down from what we currently use? I’m okay with it as long as there is a reason, even an implied one. But too often authors simply forget or ignore contemporary developments in order to create a plot device to serve their story. That moves things into the realms of science fantasy for me or at best an alternative reality story where whatever that thing was they are ignoring has not been invented.

Juliana: Could you share some tips for science fiction writers attempting to create their own world-to-be?

Ralph: Completeness. A well-realized future world gives the impression of actually being able to function and has the weight of a future history behind it. Think that little bit wider when creating your world. Okay, every aspect may not make it onto the page, nor should it as it doesn’t necessarily have a place in the story, but if you do take that view, I firmly believe it transfers into the writing. One of my favorite bits of writing is the working out of context. Take Endeavour. Some time prior to the main story being set, there was a nano-tech revolution which is on par with the industrial revolution of the 18th century. Do I need to delve deeply into that for the story I wanted to tell? No – but the wider thinking of the profound changes that brought, or brings more accurately, to society helps give context for other elements of the tale. That also may help with the pitfall I mentioned. If you need to have space fighters rather than drones? Well maybe there is some kind of technology which stops drones from being used.

Stephen: Cultivate your imagination. If you’re copying other genres, authors or series because you idolize them, give up now – you’re not destined to be an author. Be a total one-off even if that means you never get anywhere. If you are persistent – by which I mean over years, possibly decades – and if you increase your luck by never giving up and following every lead, you might get somewhere. Or you might not. But the change from writer to author happens because imagining is an inseparable part of your psychological make-up, so questions of writing success don’t enter into the equation.

Juliana: Who are some of the authors you admire for their ability to weave convincing visions of our future?

Stephen: In addition to those mentioned above: William Gibson, Brian Aldiss, Bruce Sterling. Alastair Reynolds’ space opera novels were particularly good; reading the Revelation Space trio was a great experience.

Ralph: While many writers invent future societies, there is one who stands out as truly creating convincing worlds – Peter F Hamilton. I’m very sure an editor who is purely plot focused could easily cut down his weighty tomes to half the length or less, but that’s not what his writing is about. Two of his major works, The Nights Dawn Trilogy and the Commonwealth Saga explore every nuance of those universes, from the lowest end of the social spectrum to the highest offices, from slums to palaces. What he comes out with is a universe that can function which he then sets stories within. The Commonwealth Saga is especially interesting as he balances the inevitable stagnation which immortality would bring with the sense that humanity exists in a universe which is evolving – forcing change on people who don’t necessarily want it. Like or loath the hedonistic worlds he creates, they are among the most complete visions of near to far future societies.

Juliana: Thank you, Stephen and Ralph, for a fascinating glimpse into what writing about humanity’s future involves. I’m looking forward to all those new words and new worlds I know you have planned for us!

New work by Stephen Palmer includes the novella Monochrome, in Space Trek (Tickety Boo Press, November 2015), and a new novella coming later in the autumn: No Grave For A Fox (Infinity Plus Press) is set eighteen years after the events of Beautiful Intelligence, in the same world. Also, keep an eye out for the release of an alternate-history trilogy set in Edwardian times, opening with The Girl With Two Souls. For news and updates, as well as information on all Stephen’s work, visit www.stephenpalmersf.wordpress.com or check out his Facebook page and Twitter updates @libermorpheos.

The second volume in Ralph Kern’s Sleeping Gods series, Erebus, will be released in November 2015 (Tickety Boo Press). He also has a short story, Steel Eye, in the upcoming anthology Space: Houston, we have a problem (Tickety Boo Press). You can find Ralph’s updates and news on his Facebook page.

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Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out August’s Spotlight on Small Press Publishing with Gary Compton. Next up in October: Spotlight on Cover Art.

Spotlight on Small Press Publishing with Gary Compton

Tickety Boo Press is on fire! Well, not literally, since that would be tragic and not something to celebrate here on the blog. Launched on 30th January 2014, the UK-based publishing house is quickly becoming a busy, busy hive of all things speculative. Do you like science fiction? Try Ralph Kern’s Endeavor. Maybe a little space opera? Have a peek at Jo Zebedee’s Abendau’s Heir. Prefer fantasy? No problem. Teresa Edgerton can tickle your taste buds with Goblin Moon and its sequel, Hobgoblin Night. How about a dash of romance, or even gaslight? Give Indigo Heartfire by Jo Marryat or Oracle by Susan Boulton a try. And if you’re looking for darkly delightful, then the Biblia Longcrofta by Simon Marshall-Jones may be your cup of tea. TBP isn’t afraid to tackle any sub-genre.

The brave and motivated guy behind Tickety Boo Press is Northumberland native and proud basset owner Gary Compton, who juggles the roles of acquiring editor and graphic designer far more skill and aplomb than I could ever dream of. And Gary, himself a speculative fiction writer, is getting ready to add author to that list of achievements. Tickety Boo is very much a family business, with Gary’s daughter Emma taking charge of author royalties and the selection of US and UK-based editors, among other tasks.

I’ve followed Tickety Boo’s journey from the very start, and have always thoroughly admired Gary’s openness in discussing his ideas and plans, his sensitivity toward his authors, and his willingness to consider suggestions and constructive criticism. So when I decided to tackle small press publishing in my Spotlight series, my thoughts naturally turned his way. With 12 published novels and anthologies in 18 months, Tickety Boo is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Juliana: You’re probably tired of answering this by now, but why start your own press? What were your personal motivations?

Gary: I have always run my own businesses since 1983 and feel I am virtually unemployable in the real world. I could not just be satisfied being a kitchen fitter. I had to have my own kitchen company. Once I had that, I wasn’t satisfied just buying the cabinets, I had to make them – hence a fully operational, innovative cabinetworks where we machined the rawest of materials into beautiful bespoke cabinets. I am very much hands on, so that’s the reason I do as much as I do.

Juliana: In this world of big corporate publishing, where do you feel that small presses like Tickety Boo fit in? What is the role of the independent publisher among all the big fish?

Gary: Good question. I think publishing is changing and I think Tickety Boo has some ideas that if successful will shake it up a little. But to answer your question – quality of the words/books and sales are the only things that matter. There is no point in creating activity just to massage mine and the author’s ego. So every book is taken on with the goal of selling a lot and making the press and the author some hard-earned cash

Juliana: TBP has chosen so far to stake out a spot in a particular market niche, that of speculative fiction. Do you feel it’s important for the smaller independent publisher to specialize, or do you have plans to eventually branch out into other genres?

Gary: We will be branching out. We have an imprint planned for crime and thrillers. You heard it here first. It will be called Homicidium. That’s Latin for murder. So watch for an announcement on that. Also Romance is being discussed between the team.

Juliana: Are there rivalries among smaller independent publishers?

Gary: I haven’t come across any rivalries. Ian Whates helped me immeasurably in the early days, and Simon Marshall-Jones at Spectral and Graeme Reynolds at Horrific Tales have also helped a lot.

Juliana: And following on from the last question, how important are partnerships and networking?

Gary: Massively important! You are building a brand and you need friends and acquaintances to buy the books and hopefully share your news as well.

Juliana: Starting out from scratch must have meant a pretty steep learning curve. What do you feel have been your biggest hurdles so far?

Gary: Yes for sure. I could write a book on my mistakes. I think getting the systems in place so authors have access to their sales data and to make sure royalties are paid on time. My daughter takes care of that but I watch over it on behalf of the authors who can message me at any time with queries or requests for updates. You have to remember, I am doing a lot – covers – formatting, editing – marketing etc. It’s a lot of work so if I have forgotten to do something I prefer it if the authors give me a nudge rather than festering on my incompetence. So lots of mistakes, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Juliana: What are the best things about running a publishing company? The stuff that makes it all worthwhile?

Gary: My most favorite job is doing the covers. I love that. It satisfies my natural desire to be creative. I also like finding new talent.

Juliana: Would you like to tell us about some of Tickety Boo’s upcoming projects?

Gary: Well, in October we have Erebus, which is the second of the Sleeping Gods novels. Endeavour, the first, has been our most successful title in terms of revenue. Ralph is great to work with. He’s tough but honest. We also have the second book from Ian Sales: his first book, A Prospect of War, has done very well too so I am looking forward to that. Also a previously unannounced Space Opera: coming out in October/December is Uncommon Purpose by P.J. Strebor. There are ten books in this series and so far the editorial team have waxed lyrical about it. There was a virtual fight between the editors to get the job. Thankfully, it has just been edited by J. Scott-Marryat so it’s in great condition, and Teresa starts on it 1st September, so hopefully she will add value.

Juliana: Who are some of your own personal favorite authors? Not Tickety Boo authors; I’m not that cruel to make you choose among your ‘children’!!

Dan Brown is my favorite and Martina Cole not far behind.

Juliana: Thank you, Gary, for giving us a tiny peek behind the curtain. I look forward to all the new releases, and to continuing to see Tickety Boo Press grow and expand.

You can find more information on Tickety Boo Press books on their website, Ticketyboopress.co.uk, as well as submission guidelines for both novels and anthologies. Follow Tickety Boo Press on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/GSCompton) and Twitter (@GarySCompton) for launch and submission updates and sales promotions.

oracle hob nightgoblin malevolence ralphbiblia

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out July’s Spotlight on Writing Local Flavor with Jo Zebedee and Anna Dickinson. Next up in September: Spotlight on Imagining the Future.

Spotlight on Writing Local Flavor with Jo Zebedee and Anna Dickinson

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that you’re sitting there with your laptop, or notebook and pencil, brainstorming ideas for your next novel or short story. Perhaps you’ve already got a rough idea of the characters, or the plot. But now you have to decide where your story takes place.

Maybe creating fantasy worlds or off-planet skyscapes is not for you. And you really like the idea of basing your story in your own small corner of the real world. How great would it be to include the pub down the road, or that funny-shaped hill in the neighboring state park? But how far can you go with your local descriptions and dialogue before you cross a line between authenticity and pure cheese? (Unless you’re purposefully writing cheese, which is awesome and I say: go for it!)

I’ve invited two talented writers to help me figure this out. From Ireland we have Jo Zebedee, author of the dark space opera Abendau’s Heir, first in the Inheritance Trilogy (Tickety Boo Press). Jo has a soon-to-be-released science fiction novel set in her local stomping ground, Belfast. Inish Carraig is a grim, futuristic thriller lightened by that dash of Northern Irish humor. “In post-alien invasion Belfast, humanity has been defeated. Pity no one told the locals.”

Anna Dickinson lives in Scotland, which trickles its way into most of her work. She is represented by Gina Panettieri of Talcott Notch Literary, and writes fast-paced and hauntingly beautiful fantasy YA about witches, and cursed princes, and things that don’t go bump in the night because they’re too busy creeping silently across your bedroom floor, licking their pointy teeth.

Juliana: What are the advantages to working around real-life settings, whether they’re actual places like Belfast, or fictitious places based on existing locations? 

Jo: I think there are a couple of advantages – the topography is already in place and it’s easy for people to visualise the scene. Also, if you’re comfortable with the environment and lay out, that translates to a certain amount of confidence in the writing.

From a sensory angle, you know how the place feels. You know the sounds, the smells, the rituals. That makes it easier to translate and add some richness to the scene.

Lastly, the world is already built. There’s no need to plan out all sorts of political systems and make up whole cultures. That makes storytelling somewhat more straightforward.

Anna: For me, the main advantage is that you have a whole place laid out for you, with as much reality as you choose to include — that funny-shaped hill, and ice cream stall at the bottom and the factory chimneys in the background. Real life is usually mixed up and not wholly one thing or the other (or it is where I come from), and I like that contradiction.

A secondary advantage is that you borrow the rules of the place you’re writing about. If I write a story about a fifteen year old based in Glasgow, I already have lots of constraints set up for her life: she needs to go to school, she needs to have a guardian or parent (or, if not, to hide from the authorities), she needs money for food/ clothes. All the familiar things we already know about, or, if these rules don’t work any more, it’s potentially more shocking against the backdrop of somewhere real and familiar.

Another advantage, of course, is that the lazy among us can visualise things very easily without needing to make them up, and, best of all, can draw on existing legends, history and rumours, and mix them with our own. It’s a bit like telling a lie — good lies contain some of the truth (though I love stories that are based in completely fantastic places, I don’t have the concentration span necessary to develop a whole world and its geography. If I tried to build a world, I’m afraid I’d end up with rivers flowing uphill and cacti growing in the marshes).

Juliana: How about the limitations?

Jo: The topography already being in place. In my made up world, Abendau, if I need a mountain, I can stick it in. Sadly, if you’re remaining true to a real place, you can’t add features willy-nilly. And there’ll always be someone who catches you out if you do.

Also, point of view discipline. I write very close to my characters and they don’t walk past familiar features and stop to describe them to themselves. So finding a way to fit features you need the reader to recognise into the story, whilst not awkwardly shoving it in, can be challenging.

Also, in choosing somewhere like Belfast, with so much challenging history and differing views, there’s a sense of knowing you can’t please anyone.

One intention, when I wrote Inish Carraig, was to write a book about Belfast not about the Troubles or religion. To have it as just another great setting for a rip-roaring story. However, if someone chooses to read hidden meanings into the story – and it’s rare for a book based in Belfast not to be seen as making some kind of analogy – it will change the meaning of the book significantly. I have no control over that, and I am aware it may be reflected in some reviews.

Added to that, my pov character is a young lad scavenging after an alien invasion. The people he’s had to turn to for help hold strong political opinions, some of which he will have heard and, in a vacuum, absorbed. That needs to be reflected, even if they’re not my views. It will be difficult if people attribute those character opinions as my own.

Anna: I’m not especially worried by strict accuracy (mostly! See below for ranting) — if you want an extra street or hill or underground train station, go for it. Personally, I think the main limitation of using real places is the risk of overdoing it and coming over like a tour guide.

Of course, it’s very tempting: if you’ve researched somewhere thoroughly you want to put in lots of information, but sometimes it distracts from the story.

If your characters are pelting down a street, trying desperately to escape from a tentacle-flailing monster straight from the bowels of Hell, I don’t care what the street is called. I care that it’s long and straight and there’s no way to turn off it, for example. But I think this is a personal thing. I’m hopeless at remembering street names and locations — I can get lost anywhere (it’s my superpower) — so my intolerance for detail is probably a reflection of what interests me.

Books that are love songs to particular places rarely appeal to me. I remember skipping the first third of The Return of the Native because it was all a description of Egdon Heath. I got a bit sick of heathery romantic moorland in the work of the Brontes as well.

Juliana: How far is too far? How do you avoid falling into clichés and still give your work that authentic local feel?

Jo: It is a balancing act. There are certain things about Belfast people associate with it that are cliches – bonfires, and marches, flags, riots and petrol bombs. But those things do still happen. Cliches come from somewhere, even if we preferred they didn’t. So, it’s showing those things and trying to enact how they really feel, as opposed to some sort of distant pastiche.

I think the other thing that is a fine line is how far you go with dialect: ‘Ach, ye oul eejit, yer head’s a balloon’ doesn’t translate well, and gets wearisome. But if you keep key words like eejit and wee (I really do use it all the time) and make the rest comprehensible, it’s generally okay.

Anna: This is a really personal one and I think judging it probably comes down to the individual reader. As soon as a character says “Och” (or “Hoots!”), I put the book down, but I don’t think that’s a typical response.

However, since we can’t write for each person individually, maybe an authentic local feel is about avoiding the obvious things, and instead using flavour, not detail. You have to see your location through your story and your own eyes. It’s something Iain Banks (writing without the M) did brilliantly — he took familiar places or landmarks like the Forth Road Bridge, and turned them into something strange and new.

Picking too many of the big touristy bits, or the things everyone else thinks of, can make your story feel like a postcard. I think that’s when you risk cliché.

Juliana: Leading on from the previous question, what are, in your opinion, the most common mistakes writers make when dealing with real-life settings?

Jo: Either going into so much detail it reads like a travelogue, or so little you wonder why the writer even decided to use a specific setting at all. A sense of place is what I aim for, not a slavish description of everything and anything.

Anna: This is where I contradict myself. Shameless, I know. I think if you’re going to use a real location, it’s important to get it right (or, at least know when you’re taking liberties with reality). Recently, I’ve had an obsession with Regency Romance but I don’t know enough about the Regency to worry if someone gets their research wrong, so it doesn’t worry me. However, a few of the stories I read were based in Scotland. The errors in some of those make me wince. A random selection:

  • Clotted cream cannot be poured. It’s solid (one might even say, “clotted”).
  • Peat is cut to be burned, but you don’t send someone out to “cut some peat for the fire”. It’s stacked and dried before you can burn it.
  • Nowhere in the history of Scotland, ever ever, has a man been called “Tammy”. Yes, there are Robbies and Jamies and Charlies, but Tam is just Tam.

These are little things, and in most cases I managed to read the book anyway, but once I’d encountered an error like that, I knew I couldn’t trust the author to know what she was writing about. It made me feel like the Scottish Highlands were being used as a pretty backdrop by someone who saw them as, well, a pretty backdrop.

Juliana: Are there any writers who you consider do ‘local flavor’ particularly well? Who would you recommend as prime reading material?

Jo: Colin Bateman is excellent. Anyone who uses the immortal line of ‘up your hole with a big jam roll’ knows the Northern Irish. Also, there are a raft of detective writers coming through specialising in Belfast Noir – Adrian McKinty and Steve Cavanagh are two good examples.

Anna: I mentioned Iain Banks above; he did Scotland brilliantly.

In general, I prefer reading about places I don’t know very well. I love William Faulkner’s writing about the American South — especially Absalom Absalom! — and of course Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which has also got that hot and dusty thing going on.

I liked Sarah Rees Brennan’s portrayal of London in the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy — it made the stories feel situated in reality, but with a light touch so the emphasis was on the characters and the story, not the place. The same is true of Holly Black’s Valiant, which is set in New York but doesn’t feel like a guide book.

For me, the ultimate example is Susan Cooper. Her Dark is Rising series — written after she’d left the UK for the US — was a love song to the south of England and to Wales, but not in a way that got between the reader and the story.

Juliana: Moving off topic, could you share some of your own favorite authors?

Jo: Lois McMaster Bujold – I love Miles Vorkosigan. Neil Gaiman. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I like a lot. Also, some of the classics – Heinlein, Clarke. Marian Keyes. I read widely, across many genres, and I think that’s a good thing, mostly.

Anna: One of my favourite authors is Diana Wynne Jones and one of my favourite books by her is Fire and Hemlock, which is a brilliant re-telling of one of the Scottish Border Ballads, Tam Lin, about a girl who falls in love with a man who has been captured by the Queen of Elfland (although my absolute favourite of hers is Hexwood, which is wholly original and fabulous).

I’m sure I’m forgetting hundreds of authors I ought to mention but, apart from those I talked about above, I’ve always loved Patricia Mckillip and Robin Mckinley. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed work by Melina Marchetta (her Lumatere Chronicles series, specifically. Froi has to be one of the best characters ever written), Cinda Williams Chima (the sexiest, most intense character interactions I’ve read for years), and Sara Raasch (her world, and the reversal of conventions of heat and cold, is wonderful).

Juliana: Thank you Jo and Anna for being such great guests and sharing such excellent pointers. Anna, I promise not to go pouring any clotted cream over my keyboard!

Jo’s newest novel, Belfast-based Inish Carraig, will be out August 21st; keep an eye on her Facebook page and website (jozebedee.com) for updates on the launch, or follow her tweets at @joz1812. If you’d like a sneak peek, there’s a sample up on her blog, jozebwrites.blogspot.co.uk. Those of you in Northern Ireland can catch Jo at TitanCon in September, where she’ll be making a guest appearance.

Anna has published short stories in On the Premises and the anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land (Crossed Genres Publications). In her own words, she reads voraciously and randomly generates opinions based on whatever she read last. She confesses her hapless parenting decisions, ranks romantic heroes from most to least evil, and records recipes for toasted puffin at annawrites.net.

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out June’s Spotlight on Speculative Romance with Emma Jane and Jo Marryat. Next up in August: Spotlight on Small Press Publishing.

Spotlight on Short Story Writing with Nathan Hystad

Canadian speculative fiction writer Nathan Hystad isn’t afraid to dip his toe in any waters, however deep they may be. His preferred genres are horror, paranormal and science fiction, but he’s been known to write fantasy on occasion, along with a whole line-up of strange and mysterious sub-genres.

Nathan has published stories in four anthologies so far, with another four submissions already accepted into anthologies this year alone. His work has also appeared in a growing list of online magazines. And I haven’t even mentioned his flash fiction yet!

Although Nathan is currently working on a novel, he has focused mainly on writing short stories, which is a whole art form in itself. To squeeze worldbuilding, character background and an entire story arc into anything between 300 and 10,000 words takes a lot of skill, as those struggling to edit their 250,000-word epic fantasies will agree. So I was pleased as anything when Nathan agreed to answer a few questions on short story writing.

Juliana: I’ve tried my hand at a few short stories and they’re surprisingly hard to write. What is it about short stories that appeals to you?

Nathan: When I started writing, I jumped into a novel. I quickly realized I had no idea how to write well, so I started to write shorter pieces to work on the basics. Then I found I had a lot of ideas creeping out of my head and the only way to get them all out was to write. I really like shorts because you can start a world, and have a cool story in a few days, and move on to the next thing. I also like the ability to write so many types of stories and genres. There is something nice about being able to do a complete story in a short time, as opposed to writing a book. I find my writing time is sporadic, so shorts have worked well for me.

Juliana: What do you find is the hardest part in the process?

Nathan: I think the wow factor is the hardest part. It’s also hard to pack a full story into so few words, with no ‘telling’ so you have to show and hint at things properly. Short stories aren’t for everyone, and a lot of readers never buy or think of anthologies. I think they are a great way to see a variety of ideas on any particular subject. So you have to have something special in them, whether it’s a theme, character, or zinger of an ending.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing a few tips for short story writing?

Nathan: Sure. In my stories, I like to start with an intro that sets the mood. Mine are usually a little strange or dark, so I sometimes have a scene introducing the ‘monster’ with some tension. To sell a story, you need to have a good start. Some publishers get so many submissions that regardless of the payoff, the start has to grab them instantly. It’s the old ‘Hit the ground’ running idea we hear about as writers. It is very important. The next scene tends to slow down and builds until the climax. There is nothing better than reading something and knowing something will happen, but not knowing how or when. I also love to do a doozy of a last scene. One thing I am working at doing is focusing on one character for the most part. The stories where I’ve had too many POV’s (Point of views) tend to not be received as well. So keep it simple, and don’t jump around too much. The more stories I write, and the more beta feedback and publisher feedback I get, the better I’m getting at knowing what is being looked for. I adapt quickly and I think it’s because of this that I’ve been able to place a decent amount of stories in a short time.

Juliana: Do you write a story to fit a certain theme, say for an anthology? Or do you write the stories as they come to you and then try to find them a home?

Nathan: I have done both. I started by writing for a few calls and then just kept writing an assortment of stories. There are a lot of places to place a Ghost story, or horror in general. It’s the more specific that are harder to place if they aren’t accepted to the specific submission call. So it varies, and I like that. I guess the more specific ones would be much harder to place if they are rejected, and rejection is a big part of the game. So at this time I haven’t written a lot of stories for the very specific ie. Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada.

Juliana: Leading on from the last question, what are your top sources of inspiration?

Nathan: I loved the serial TV shows growing up. Are You Afraid of the Dark, Goosebumps, when I was a kid…then Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone. Also X-Files, Star Trek, Star Wars…all of those influence the way my brain thinks of ideas. I also read a lot. There is never a time when I don’t have a book on the go, so my imagination is always being spurred on by something new and exciting.

Juliana: You’ve been having a lot of success with publishing your stories. What are your publishing tips? Is it simply a case of perseverance or is there more to it?

Nathan: I think that some of it was luck. Kraxon Magazine gave me my first ‘Yes’ with Central Park in the Dark, and I will forever be thankful for that. He has given a lot of great people’s stories a home on his site. Then Tickety Boo Press took ‘A Haunting Past’. I think getting over the initial hump of getting published was all I needed. With that I got some confidence, and I also have had amazing people at my side. With people like you, Juliana, helping me with Beta reading, and improving my stories, I have been able to have polished pieces that might stand out for that reason. So it is imperative that you send as polished of a piece as possible. Don’t write a first draft, and fire if off into the world. Get it beta read, and take the advice of your colleagues. An outside perspective is very important in making sure your pieces are always improving.

I remember talking with Em (E.J.Tett) about it, and she said that it can be like a snowball. Once you get a yes, the momentum keeps going. That being said, you have to work your butt off to get those yeses. You have to keep writing, subbing, writing, and subbing. Not every story needs to be put out there to the world, but as an author, we know which ones we really want to find a home. Then you can get to know some of the publishers, and maybe next time you can get in with them because they enjoyed your work, and you were nice to work with etc. I have also made a habit of trying to spread myself out there. I think getting stories into multiple publisher’s anthologies is a good way to make contacts and network.

If I can give one piece of advice, it’s this. Never give up. Even though I’ve started to see a lot more acceptances, my spreadsheet of submissions has much more Red (rejection) than Yellow (acceptance). So when you start out and get the rejections, and they were kind enough to give you any criticism, use that to better your story, or your next story. Don’t get upset, and dejected, just keep working at it and keep writing and subbing. It will all eventually come together.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing some of your favorite authors with us?

Nathan: I have always been a huge fan of reading fantasy. I don’t write it often (though I do have a fantasy short being published this year) but I love to read it. Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, and Stephen King probably top my list. I read a lot of authors and they all bring something different to the table for me, whether it’s me learning from them or just getting lost in their stories.

Juliana: Thank you very much, Nathan, for taking part in the blog’s first Spotlight, and sharing such great advice. And… is it weird that now I really want to read some Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada?

Nathan Hystad can be found blogging on his website, http://nathanhystad.com, and his work is in the anthologies Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil, Whispers from the Past: Fright and Fear, Tales Told in the Dark 4, and Beyond Science Fiction May 2015. Some of his magazine work includes Kraxon and Saturday Night Magazine (for the last, type Nathan Hystad in the search box on the stories page to find his three shorts).