A visit to Medieval Ordsall Hall – Reflecting on authentic world building

Ordsall Hall 2 - 29.09.13

Ordsall Hall in Salford is a 13th century Mansion estate that has been on the site continuously for seven centuries in one form or another. It’s a strange ambience as you drive up to the estate; surrounded by modern hotels, flat complexes and a newly completed mega supermarket to the left of the dual carriageway and Salford quays to the right, Ordsall Hall is tucked away in a side street off this main modern complex. In a moment you are away from the frenetic pace of modern urbanity and thrown 700 years back in history, with a very direct link to the past that goes back past the Tudors, past the War of the Roses to a medieval time of our ancestral past. Of Course once upon a time the house would have been embraced by forest and the estate surrounded by a moat, much has changed in seven hundred years both socially, politically and economically so how do we write with authenticity about the past or for that matter the future? So much changes within a generation, let alone in a decade, so how do we write about centuries gone by or centuries to come without our modernity breaking the suspension of disbelief?

Ordsall Hall 3 - 29.09.13

A simple approach is that any time that a reader’s experience is broken and the hand of the writer interferes in the world that has been created it signals the need for an overhaul by the writer. Good writers should submerge and loose the reader in the narrative experience. If a medieval peasant is drinking wine and dining on Roast Pheasant – unless it is a parallel universe – it signals a carelessness on the part of the writer in creating a world that is inconsistent with itself and the readers expectations after all how many peasants can afford to eat and drink so well. Now, before you all jump up and down in a frantic attempt to sway me that writers can successfully challenge readers expectations let me say that I agree with that statement. However I do so on the proviso that such circumstances are still consistent within the world that has been created. By that I mean that it is fine to cross the expectation of the reader but it must be explained and slid into the narrative, dialogue and plot as consistent. Readers will accept that you have screwed with their expectations, sometimes that you have flown in the face of historical evidence as long as the world that you have built makes sense within the context of the social, political, economic and religious elements of the world you have built.

There is much that can create a break in the audiences suspense of belief and these will ring true whether you are writing about 8th Century England, Modern day India or a futuristic world.

1. Are there technological inconsistencies? Is your 16th Century Bavarian serving wench talking to her friend on her mobile phone? Or is your 20th Century heroine flying around on her solar-powered jet pack? It could be as simple as a misplaced technology like a zip being undone as your Tudor Lady gets undressed. The technology has to be consistent with the time unless you have carefully created an alternative universe where your world building allows these things to be consistent with the time period.

2. Make the speech and language in tune with the world you have built. It’s unlikely a 25th century space adventurer would still be calling people dude and saying things are ‘cool’ unless you are referring to an object or person’s heat. Even then language changes over time and usage and meaning changes. Gay use to mean an event or scene that is pretty or joyful, but now of course it has taken on a different connotation to the audience.

3. Attitudes should be in keeping with the world you have created. Social, religious and political views from back in the day may seem alien to us now – we wouldn’t dream of thinking of women and slaves as property or the monarch being so all – powerful that it can execute dissenters or deprive people of their land – but if you are writing about Tudor England those attitudes were common and modern sensibilities have no place in the attitudes of characters within that setting. In a similar ilk even if you are writing with a modern-day world setting attitudes between and within countries and continents will differ with cultural and national expectations that are normalised within that area. In short don’t appropriate Western values and expectations to all societies not every one shares our ideology and morals.

4. Be careful how you explain your social structure. One of the great tightropes that fantasy writers have to walk when their world involves a magical class is explaining how that use is restricted and controlled so that it can not be used to ‘rule the world’. Does your social structure make sense within the world you have built and does it explain the rights and restrictions placed on your protagonists, antagonists and secondary characters?

5. Don’t cop-out when you are world building by reducing your characters to stereotypes and your writing to genre tropes.

6. If your writing science fiction make the world you build scientifically accurate. If the world has two suns or three moons, or it has been ravaged by a nuclear holocaust ensure that the consequences of the world you have built are accurate. If a reader smells a scientific rat they’ll be turned off by your writing. You have to keep the reader believing that the world makes sense within itself.

In many ways the above are all variations of a theme, that consistency in the world, the logic, morals, attitudes, power structure and reality of your novel are of paramount importance to ensure that your reader can suspend their disbelief.

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What motivates your heroes?

What motivates your heroes?

I should start with a short confession.

‘My name is V.C.Willow and I’m a whovian’.


I’ve loved Dr Who for as long as I can remember, when I was younger my love for that ‘madman in a box’ was settled deep in my subconscious, it lay there in a dormant state for a long time and then along came the regeneration of the show that has captured the hearts and minds of millions across the world including mine. The ‘Next Generation’ of Dr Who has become a distinct and formidable presence in the way I capture the motivation and ideals of the heroes in my writing and here’s why.

Commonly among the ‘hero’ genre, the go to solution for any situation is to shoot, bomb, kick, punch or hammer the other into oblivion. The hero takes on an adversarial role, but not the Doctor. Although he always stands up to oppression and tyrants it’s his cool calm intellect, ingenuity and humanity that saves the day. In the end it’s the Doctor’s and his companion’s humanity that saves him from being the war doctor fired with rage and vengeance to one that resolves conflict through compassion and by using his great intellect.

That to me is a great message because that is what makes him a true hero. It sends out the message to people that you don’t need to be ‘special’ or ‘the chosen one’ to be a hero. Anyone can be a hero, any one of you could be a hero and that redemption of yourself and others occurs through acts of kindness. That making the world better, saving the day, starts with the everyday acts that everyone can carry out, all it takes is a little courage and the will to be the change you wish to see in the world.

I work with a guy called John, he’s a great guy. A little while ago he was telling me about an article that ran in the Times titled ‘What’s wrong with the world?’.  Of course the letter pages were littered with long, verbose responses blaming everything from politicians to economics. But the shortest and most pragmatic response was:

Dear Times, What is wrong with the world?


Heroes change the world through changing themselves and by making the world better by their thoughts, words and deeds. Now isn’t that a fantastic motivation for your hero? I’ve worked hard, and continue to work hard in my writing to make sure that the change within the novel that my heroes want to see start with themselves and doesn’t fall into the trope of bashing it or obliterating it to survive and overcome the conflict they face.

I’ve also always been fascinated by the concept of what motivates heroes and tired quickly of the Buffy, Harry Potter, Judi Canavan and The wheel of Time series trope that the hero is ‘chosen’ by destiny or some other such nonsense to fulfil a destiny or save the world. I’m more interested in writing about everyday heroes that pop into existence by their courage, beliefs or dumb luck at falling into the situation. What is it about these few that become heroes that differs them from the masses who appease or ignore the threat or danger around them? In truth history is littered with examples of people who have turned their head and ran, or bowed their heads and acquiesced in the face of danger and oppression. We have heard numerous times ‘I was just doing as I was ordered to’, but a few brave souls will not, so what is it about them that makes them willing to sacrifice and endanger themselves and sometimes their loved ones in the face of the ‘conflict’ within a novel? This key question, is an ongoing theme in my writing, especially my two latest works in progress that I am currently working on.

Both Athena (in the novel of the same name) and Carys in (Beyond the Mist) are headstrong, moral characters that will not give in to the forces within the novels that are at the centre of the conflict. But, I think for the characters to be fully rounded I need to understand what it is that differs them from the masses. Perhaps it is because they have always been slightly outside of the ‘norms’ of the societies that they live in, so they have less stake in maintaining the status quo? Perhaps it is that they have been disadvantage and therefore they have a personal interest in changing and challenging the situation? One thing is for sure, it is a question that I want to be able to answer and imbue through the writing before I publish either of the novels.

In Dr Who, The Doctor,  doesn’t have a tank or a super power, he doesn’t have special weapons (I not sure a sonic screwdriver and a T.A.R.D.I.S count as weapons) or armoury, he has no cape or ability to do superhuman acts. When people need the Doctor he has a call box that travels through all of time and space to help others and he does it with nothing more than his ingenuity, intellect, his sonic screwdriver and a plucky companion.  Stephen Moffat wrote that the  amazing thing is that the Doctor has two hearts, two hearts that (although he’s Gallifreyan so technically he’s a alien) direct him to reach out and help others – it’s his humanity that drives him. Now it doesn’t hurt that there’s an adventure or two in the mix to keep things interesting, but he reaches out to others. His motivations are complex, numerous sunk in both the desire to save himself from the War Doctor that he was and to run away from the horrors of what he has seen in his many lives. But, the critical thing that draws me to the Doctor’s character is that he is fully rounded, that without knowing all of his back story, there is enough woven into the narrative that his complex and sometimes conflicting reasons for his actions make him seem real and not the victim of another writing trope the cardboard cut out character.

Although I have always been a keen reader and have been heavily influenced in the many good books that I have been fortunate to read over the last 30 plus years, Dr Who represents for me a good example of drawing your audience in to understand the motivations of what makes him be more than just a day tripper bumming around the universe for his own amusement.

So what will motivate Athena and Carys to go from ordinary citizens to heroes? What motivates your characters to be heroes?


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The Autumnal majesty of Mabon

The Wise Magpie


The season of the wheel keeps turning. As I put out my washing this morning the true sign that Autumn was upon us was clear, not marked by the date on the calender or the celebration of a sabbat, but by the chill in the air even at midday. The myriad of spiders webs between the rows of the washing line, the hint of the leaves fading from their vibrant shades of greens to the autumnal rainbow of colour of yellow, orange and brown. What beauty, what majesty as we commune with nature, at one with her changing embrace. The wise words of our elders ring in our ears as we see this display, as we accept that once more the cycle of life and death plays out and we enjoy the bounty of beauty that the season brings while anticipating that the flowers and the warmth of the sun…

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Staving off madness

byron writing

One of the many reasons I write.

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Write Hot, edit cold

I normally write hot and edit cold, allowing my imagination to drive the plot. Character development just seems to unfold for me as I write. But I feel that with Athena, I’m in danger of either writing myself into a corner by creating plot inconsistencies, or making the book too speech heavy without enough plot to drive the pace of the novel.

For the first time in a long time I’m actually considering creating chapter breakdowns to guide the way I craft the story. Perhaps, dare I say it, I’m growing as an author allowing me to stop seeing chapter planning as restrictive and instead embrace it as being instructive in the planning and structuring of the novel.

I wrote the above a day ago and since then I’ve been working hard to create a comprehensive Chapter breakdown and overview spreadsheet. First I went for the detailed chapter/plot breakdown.

Athena plot plan 3 140914The above is the Alpha template of my current chapter breakdown sheet. Using an Excel spreadsheet, the plot elements are found down the vertical cells and the chapters along the horizontal cells. I’m hoping this will allow me to capture each element of the plot and where it fits into each chapter.

As a simpler high level overview I’ve also created a bullet point Chapter synopsis within another tab on the spreadsheet.

Athena high level plot plan 140914

The writing is going well and these plot spreadsheets can only help keep me focused on the key points while allowing my creative mind to run wild as I write.

All this change, I guess this week is all about new changes, about new beginnings. Embracing change to be a better writer and a sharper story teller. Not only am I embracing filling out the chapter breakdown and synopsis in full, but a new (well old, but lapsed) routine is going to be put in place. Starting Monday, I’ll be getting up an hour earlier than usual to get an hour’s writing in, I’ll be going to a coffee shop at lunch times so I’m not being constantly interrupted on my lunch hour while I’m trying to get some writing done and making sure I’m in bed for 10 pm at the latest each night.

This week is all about the new, about working to constantly improve my practise and consistently learn the art and craft of writing, but doing so in a way that the most efficient and effective manner for me.

I hope you’ll wish me the best of luck as I put these changes in place, I’m a stubborn soul and change doesn’t come easily to me. I am sure that once I can see the full benefit of the changes I’m putting in place, I’ll embrace this change whole heartedly and not simply because I understand it may be an improvement on the current way I write.

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Dear Willow

child 120914

Dear Willow

I imagine sometimes in the comfort of my day dreams that you are lost, waiting for the time when you can arrive unexpectedly in my life and be the joy that I have always desired more than I care to admit to myself, let alone to anyone else. As I put on my public mask I revel in telling people when they ask, that ‘I’m so glad to be an aunt. You get all the fun, without any of the responsibilities.’ I tell them that I can’t wait to take my nephew Mr T, out to the park, on bike rides, on long explorations in forests and caves. I tell them I can’t wait to show him the wonder and magic of the world and hear him squeal with laughter when we splash in the swimming pool or share a joke. I can hardly wait to take him to concerts and to the pub, to talk and laugh at adult things, to see the man that he will become. And this is all true, but it is my public façade, the comedy mask that hides my sorrow and longing for that which I will never hold, the ‘mama’ I will never hear, the long days of summer that we will not share. Then my arms feel empty.

Sometimes when the wind blows softly across my cheeks I can imagine for a second that it is you blowing me kisses, but it’s just the wicked wind playing tricks and I scold the emptiness and not your naughtiness as a mama should. Perhaps if I was more patient, more amiable or personable then you would be one of three or four tugging my jeans and asking me to read one more story before bed. Perhaps right now we would be building a fort out of the upturned sofa and banks of cushions. Perhaps I would be scolding you for not picking up your clothes, or eating your greens. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Life doesn’t always give you what you want, or what you deserve, nor should it.  But it is full of beauty and wonder that I will never show you. So I do not dream any more of the day when you will come into my life and change it forever in ways that I can not imagine. It is too late for me to dally with such foolish dreams. Without you though, there is a part of me that is and always will be unfulfilled.

But for now Willow, I tuck you away in the depths of the secret world that I go to sometimes when I open this fallible heart to my deepest secret and sigh when I must wake from my reverie to go and live in this reality.

My foolish heart does not dream any more of the day that you will be born, of the world that we would share, yet it still waits for you, now and forever.


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You can never have too many books or cats

books and cats

Do you think this is true, and if so how can we make sure that the books that we are writing make it from our screen to the bookshelves and kindles of our potential audience?

We have a highly competitive market at the moment, so if you want a potential reader to pick up your book before they look at the other thousands of books that are being published how will you get noticed?

There are many different schools of thought about how writers should write and how they can make sure they market their book successfully, but so far I’ve come up with the following and would use a combination of all of them . 

Stand above the crowd:

– Build your audience using blogs, social media, advertising, interviews, non fiction articles that have an author description at the bottom of the article (where you can talk about being an author of xxx book(s), hangouts/e video interviews (like You tube, or Google plus hangouts) and panel chats.

– Don’t just talk and interact with other writers. Writers tend to be voracious readers but they, like you are trying to build an audience for their book(s), not find new authors.

– Get your book edited professionally. This is a show stopper for me. If you want people to read your book it should be presented professionally and without spelling, punctuation, usage and grammar (SPUG) errors. 

– Get a professional cover artist to create the cover art for your book, even if it is an e-book, the cover will be used on online sites when people go to look at and potentially buy your book. A bad, unprofessional looking cover could turn off your customer in that vital first few seconds and loose you sales 

 – Use many markets to sell your book. There are various online sales venues for books, including but not exclusively, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, bookbaby, smashwords and createspace. There may also be limited opportunities to promote and sell print on demand books in your local bookshop, stock in your local library or promote at a local event or store. I think the most important thing here is to not put all your eggs in one basket and to be creative, making new opportunities to promote and sell your book.

– Consider advertising,. This can be expensive and if you don’t correctly identify your market segment and effective marketing channels then it can be an unproductive use of time and resources. However a limited use of pay per click advertising is something that I am considering once I’ve precisely identified the market segment I want to target.

– Make sure that you are ready to release your book! There is nothing more exciting for an author than that feeling when their book is completed and it is all too tempting to want to get your book out onto the (virtual) shelves ready for the reading public to buy. But like in home improvements where the advise is to measure twice and cut once, so in writing you should edit twice and publish once. You don’t get a second chance at a first impression and word of mouth can be a valuable tool for increasing sales, it is therefore worth taking the time to edit and beta test your book before you publish it so any SPUG errors, continuity issues, plotting difficulties and pacing malfunctions can be addressed and corrected.

– Consider the Season. Yes, this may seem like a mad thing to say, but Christmas and Summer are the two periods (in the western world at least) when you will find people are most likely to spend money buying a book either for themselves or as a present for their nearest and dearest. If you are going to release your book, what ever the method you choose, you should give yourself six months from the time the book is going to be released to advertise and promote your book (end to end marketing campaign including all the planning and strategising time you will need). So plan ahead if you want to release your book during these peak buying times.

What do you think of my suggestions? Have you got other suggestions either to create an eclectic or single path approach?

If everyone in the world shared my view that you really can’t have too many books or cats, then as authors we would feel confident that our books had a good chance at getting noticed and bought by enough people that we could make a comfortable living from our writing alone. As it stands most authors also have a day job. The volume of books being produced and the difficulty of getting noticed in a crowded market make it feel sometime nigh on impossible to be an author in the current market. But, despite all the difficulties that we face as authors in the modern world, I am sure that if writers come together to share advise and knowledge we can learn the best way to promote and market our books.

The usual provisos of course must be tagged onto the end of this piece, there is no one right way to be successful in advertising your book, all you have to do is find the right way for you and your book. And finally (yes I started a sentence with a conjunction) ,the most important thing above all other things is to write. So, go, go on. Stop loitering here and go get writing.

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