Tag Archives: raptor

The Poetics of Topography: How to Describe Places


I’d like to start by saying that literary criticism has a tendency to be – in terms of vocabulary, at least – up its own backside. The first bit of critical analysis I had to read took me three goes and a dictionary to get through. I submit Exhibit A for your consideration:

The over-arching imperatives of socioecological critique can detract from fiction’s own aesthetic distinction, enlisting novelists tangentially in correspondence with activist affairs. ~ David James, Contemporary British fiction and the artistry of space

Anyway, let’s move on to the ‘poetics of topography’, or (in normal language) how to describe places. There’s the obvious: physical description. Next to the pub is a post office, next to the post office is a supermarket, and so on. But that’s pretty boring to read and doesn’t actually give the reader much of a clue about what each one really looks like. It’s certainly not a story.

There’s two main tricks to describing a place in a way that will make it real to the reader: history and emotion.


Think about how your characters interact with the place. When they look at the pub, they don’t just see a building with booze in it. They see Friday night with friends, the day they went in for a meal and got caught in hail on the way home, the time some drunken idiot spilled a full pint all down their leg. You can take it bigger – encompassing a town, for example – or smaller, down to a room. If it helps (which it did for me), don’t think of it as describing the place. Think of it as using the place to describe aspects of your character.

One thing to be aware of with this approach is bias. It’s very difficult to describe something entirely without bias. Even maps suffer from this – think of the relative size of Africa and the UK on British world maps, for example. When you’re describing a place, beware of your own bias as a writer. Try to keep your assumptions and history from bleeding in. More productively, you can use it to show the reader something about your character’s bias. It can even be a subtle plot hook – if the character’s history contains a bad experience of hospitals, for example, that can be hinted at early on by how they see a hospital or doctor’s surgery.

Guy Gavriel Kaye and Kate Griffen are both great examples of authors who use history to describe places.

That's a story of imperial attitude right there.

That’s a story of imperial attitude right there.


It’s not just about how a place looks, or even smells and sounds. It’s about atmosphere. What does a place feel like? The key to all stories is to hook a reader’s emotions, and that shouldn’t stop with characterisation and plot.

My tutor gave me two passages to read. One described the setting very well, with clear topography. The other barely gave any physical description but the way it felt to the characters was extremely powerful. After reading them both, it was the atmosphere that stayed with me most strongly. This approach is all about ‘show not tell’. You can’t just tell  reader somewhere is oppressive – you have to make them feel it by showing why it’s oppressive.

I found the challenge with this is to strike a balance between the physical and the emotional. The piece I wrote for the exercise focused so much on the emotional that the readers were confused as to the physical location. There needs to be an anchor of some kind that the reader can navigate by.

Mary Stewart and Erin Morgenstern would be my recommendations for good examples of emotional places.


The idea of describing a place by emotion changed my style a bit. I think it can be too much if used all the time, but very powerful if used at the right time. Anyway, this is what I came up with. It needs some more work – the aforementioned physical anchor’s still lacking – but I was quite pleased with it. Any feedback welcomed!


The letter, hand-written on Savoy Hotel notepaper, was brief.

  Your son’s alive. You need to come home.

Trojan had to read three times before it stopped being ink and became meaning. The page fell from strangely numb fingers and slip-slid through still air to the floorboards. He raised his head, seeking comfort from the sun lancing through the wall of skylights. The sun was real. The letter could not be.

  You need to come home.

Home meant London, grey air clogged with politics he couldn’t breathe through. It meant his father’s cold house, full of closed doors and memories that could still stab through the decade to his heart. It meant an end to this exile in a foreign land.

Mr. Bloch was singing on the balcony below, a fine old voice fond of opera. Trojan had left a punnet of tomatoes outside his door last autumn in return for the music. It was the closest he’d got to a friendship in ten years. He’d never been good at making friends; never been given the opportunity to learn how.

  Your son’s alive.

That could not be real. His son came cold into the world and went straight to soil, without Trojan even knowing until after. His father had sent word, one crack in the silence that stretched like an iceberg between them. Unless his father had lied.

  Trojan swallowed, rubbing roughly at his throat. “I am alright,” he told the narrow room, answering silent concern. “Do not worry.”

The tiers of green settled a little, reassured. These were his friends, his adopted children. The palms and the succulents, the ferns and the cacti, the orchids and the jasmine. They depended on him for water and love. They listened to Mr. Bloch’s singing with him, and told him their simple dreams as he watched the stars through curtainless windows. His garret was an Eden of figs and lemons offered up for praise, gifts of blooms unfurling in purple and gold. The wealth of a king, he told them often, and no exiled prince could ask for more.

  Your son’s alive.

His son. All he had left of Sophie,  with her smile like the coming of Spring and skin the lilies openly envied. Her ghost followed him from London and, though the quiet of this place kept her gentle, he could feel the hollowness of his narrow bed. She would have talked to Mr. Bloch, coaxed her favourite tunes from him and made him laugh. She had always been good at making people laugh. Even Trojan, who had never heard such a miracle before.

  Your son’s alive.

The Kentia Palm by the window unfurled a frond as the strains of Tosca’s Recondita armonia floated past. The palm was particularly fond of Tosca.

  Your son’s alive.

He nearly didn’t go.

Dialogue vs Speech: the difference in the spoken word


anchors_away_diagramLast Saturday, for the first time ever, I had the privilege of seeing some of my writing performed on stage alongside that of some professional authors. It was a humbling experience. There’s an elusive quality about truly good work that, when set alongside that of an enthusiastic amateur, really comes to light. Particularly when spoken aloud. Now, as the raptor has pointed out, script-writing is a different medium to novels. There are inevitably going to be necessary changes in style, and the expertise learned in one doesn’t always transfer seamlessly to the other. When it comes to scripts, the required change in dialogue technique is thrown into rather harsh light.

You might not have thought (I certainly didn’t) that there’d be any difference between colloquial-style dialogue and the spoken word. It wasn’t until I heard the actors speaking my lines that I realised the difference. It isn’t just about making the words sound natural in their mouths, rather than stiff. There’s something a bit more to it – something meatier, for want of a better word, that’s needed. A weight of personality, of meaning and substance, behind every line that the actor can orient on. To use a nautical metaphor, the meaning is the anchor, the actor is the buoy, and the sentences are whatever boat happens to be moored there at that point. Even filler words, like ‘Er, what?’ need to be considered. You can’t get away with throw-away lines in spoken word, the way you can (but shouldn’t) in written. The moment they’re released into the air, you know that they have no substance.  Oh, sure, the actor can cover for you up to a point, but they shouldn’t have to. If you want to be good – and I do – then your words should be able to stand up for themselves.

I don’t mean, by the way, that it should all be terribly serious and meaningful. You can write comedy which has substance. The point is that you have to make it feel real – that’s what escapism is about, after all. Regardless of the subject matter, your words should be made of stone. If they’re only paper then no-one will believe them. Worse, they’ll detract from the stone that went before.

Because this tends to be how I work, I turned to my current craft book for advice. Sol Stein, author of Solutions for Novelists, had this to say:

The aim of dialogue is to create an emotional effect in the reader… Dialogue sounds artificial when it’s coherent and logical. In life we try to avoid shouting. It shows we are out of control… Dialogue is at its best when it is confrontational and adversarial… not an exchange of information but a kind of game in which the opponents try to gain an advantage over each other.

Here’s a hint. If in a verbal duel you find yourself wedded to the beliefs of one of the characters, try your damnedest to make the other character win the argument. Try to subvert your prejudices. It will make your exchanges far more interesting.

What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant.

The only really practical suggestion I’ve got is to have someone read your dialogue aloud to you. Don’t do it yourself – you’re too familiar with it and will fill in the meaning mentally. In someone else’s voice, though, you can hear where there’s only paper on the page. The worlds and people are real inside the writer’s mind. Just make sure you get that reality all the way across.

For those who are interested, the piece that was performed is here. I’d love to know what you think of it and, most importantly, how it might be improved.

Blog Hopping – I Do It My Way


I hope you heard the title in Frank Sinatra’s dulcet tones?

Blog hopping is apparently a thing. I hadn’t heard of it until earlier this week, when the inestimable Andrew Knighton invited me to participate on a blog hop about individual writing processes. Given ShortList.com’s recent release of the daily routines of the famously creative, this seems pretty apropos. The idea is that everyone answers the same four questions, and then invites another three people to do the same.

What am I currently working on?

I’ve got three projects on the go at the moment. The first, and biggest, is Corpus. This is the first book in my Trinity Theory series, although the second one I’ve written. My brain’s helpful like that. Currently I’m editing the third draft with the help of the raptor’s input. Once that’s done (hopefully by the beginning of August), I’ll send it out for beta readers to beat up some more.

The second project is Animus, book three of Trinity Theory, which is still very much in its infancy. As in, less than 5,000 words. It’s nice to take a break from editing occasionally, though, and go back to original creation.

The final project is something very different – a second event for my LARP setting London Under. Yes, this is definitely happening although the date isn’t settled yet. Or the plot. Or much, really. Yeah, I should probably do some more work on this.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Mercy Adler, by Andrea Cradduck

Mercy Adler, by Andrea Cradduck

Argh. This is an important but difficult question. We hates it, precious, not least because I find it very hard to assess my own work.

I think that my work differs from the majority in a couple of respects, none of which are unique but which are an unusual combination. The first is that it draws very heavily on classical cultures, due to my own love of the subject. The second is that I have a tendency to make sure it doesn’t all come out okay. I’ve tried writing happy endings and, well, the nearest I’ve got is that not EVERYBODY dies. I appreciate that George RR has made this de rigeur, however, so I can’t really wave that flag too highly.

I think (hope) that my character relationships are slightly out of the ordinary. There’s no traditional romance – the love stories are between siblings, or from worshipper to deity, or from lieutenant to captain. We make the word ‘love’ do an awful lot of work in the English language. The Greeks split it up into five different types and I prefer to play with some of the more ignored versions.

Oh, and my protagonist is a goblin in uniform. I don’t think that’s particularly common.

Why do I write what I write?

Honestly? Because I can’t help it. The stories fill my head and I can’t think straight until I’ve written them down. I feel the passions that drive my protagonists, sometimes very intensely. I see or experience moments whilst LARPing that are too cool not to replicate, and which have the bonus of personal experience (in a slightly odd way). I can write with a bit of authority on what it feels like to be in the middle of a line battle, or the experience of being kidnapped, or of being hunted through a forest. Hopefully that personal reality makes it onto the page.

Plus, on the more cerebral side, there are ideas – such as what faith does to people and societies – which I find interesting and enjoy exploring. But these take a definite back seat to the story arc.

How does my writing process work?

Generally it starts with a sentence, or a character, or a feeling. Then I do a rough chapter outline in Excel, knowing full-well that it will change radically, and a couple of character outlines for the main protagonists. Then I start writing the first draft. I used to just write the scenes that excited me but I’ve made myself behave and write chronologically now. That helps ensure that all the scenes excite me.

I also use a wiki fairly extensively, both as a reminder of details and as somewhere to save my research. All my draft documents are saved in Google Docs so they’re available from any computer provided I have internet access, and because Google Docs automatically saves at very regular intervals. I’ve had bad experiences in the past.

Once the first draft is done, I go through and make all the changes that have already occurred to me. Then I give it to the raptor to critique, which he’s extremely good at. Then to beta readers and then, finally, apply to agents. Gulp.

A recent addition to the process is an informal writing group. Three of us meet in a cafe once every fortnight or so, and write for a couple of hours. It’s great for a couple of reasons – first, because we usually set a goal for each session which focuses the mind; second, because we’re there to write and so can’t be distracted by other things; and third, because we can occasionally sanity-check a sentence or idea with another writer.

Nominate three other writers to blog hop

Charlotte Bond – a friend who moves in far more exalted literary company than I do! She primarily writes horror, with the occasional dip into scifi/fantasy. She’s published by both Dark Horizon and Screaming Dreams Press. Go check out her stuff.

Rachel Knightley – I met Rachel on the writing course I did last year and she’s kept me on the creative straight-and-narrow ever since. She’s responsible for starting and maintaining that informal fortnightly writing club, as well as introducing me to other fantasy writers and making me think. She teaches writing, runs a sponsored writing day for Macmillan every year, and directs a theatre company. She’s awesome.

Victoria Grefer – This is a slightly cheeky one, as I don’t actually know Ms. Grefer personally. I have been following her blog on writing tips for some time, however, and would strongly encourage you to do the same. I’m nominating her here because I’m really interested in her process and it’d be awesome if she blog hopped this. 🙂

From JRR to LOTRO: the Descent of Creative Ownership


I’ve talked plenty in the past about writing being a collaborative effort – how I wake the raptor at 1am to check a story idea with him, borrow character traits from my friends, use roleplay for inspiration, etc. All well and good on the amateur scene (although I obviously try and get permission from the people I’m borrowing from), but when it comes to publication there are these things called ‘copyrights’ that come into play.

Which Middle Earth?

Peter Jackson’s films of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit necessarily required copyright permission to retell those stories on the silver screen. Unfortunately the Tolkien Estate had already sold the copyrights to some of the lesser known works, so anything that was covered in those works could not be referenced in the films. Rumour has it that’s why, in the film of The Hobbit, the Necromancer is never referred to by his original name. Now, I’m a huge fan of what Jackson has done with those stories and, for the most part, he’s stayed fairly faithful to the original plot. Changes, however, have been made. It’s an interpretation rather than a pure retelling.

Then it starts getting really interesting. Off the back of the films came Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) – an online multi-player game. The Tolkien Estate promptly sued Jackson and New Line Cinema for copyright infringement in 2012. The response? That the content of the games was based purely on Jackson’s films, which were themselves covered by copyright. In effect, the Middle Earth of LOTRO was no longer Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Cover Versions

There’s a strong argument for saying that reinterpretation gives the audience a chance to learn something different about the story, and that that development creatively belongs to the cover artist rather than the original. That a radical repackaging essentially creates something new – or at least as new as we get in a world where, according to Andre Gide, ‘everything that needs to be said has already been said’. As an example, I’d like to share one of my favourite covers ever which – despite keeping the same words and essentially the same tune – is nonetheless a very different song to the original:

When Fanfic Goes Bad

Fanfic,  for the uninitiated, is ‘original’ fiction based on published settings and characters as written by the fans. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad and some of it’s really, really ugly. Don’t google Harry Potter fanfic unless you’re absolutely sure you can take the fallout. I mean it.

Anyway, 50 Shades of Grey is famously fanfic that made it big – stories based on the world and characters of Twilight, with a few tweaks to disguise the fact. E.L. James is now as big as Stephanie Meyer, complete with upcoming films. It’s the kind of success that every budding author dreams of. To my knowledge, however, there were no copyright purchases involved. Meyer’s story was simply repapered, repackaged and retold.

Community buy-in to a story is key to its success and, as Charles Caleb Cotton said, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ But at what point does building on the original become a form of creative theft, in the moral sense if not the legal one?

Three LARP Writing Lessons


Today Andrew Knighton is kindly joining me again and, in complement to my last post, he’s sharing the things he takes away from our mutual hobby. This man has a gift for creating memorable characters – his Stoneburgher mentioned below is still remembered more than 6 years on, and he’s the person the raptor goes to for brainstorming. Listen up, kids!

For many years one of my biggest creative outlets has been live roleplay (LRP), a hobby I’ve heard described as a type of free-form theatre, Dungeons and Dragons with costumes, and even cross-country pantomime. With such a creative hobby it’s hardly surprising that I, like Everwalker, have taken some lessons from it over into writing.

So here, in no particular order, are the three most important of those lessons.

Set your own agenda

A lot of my LRP has been at large festival systems involving thousands of players. Within those systems, people create their own groups representing communities or organisations. It’s a fun exercise in shared world-building, leading to such grand institutions as knightly orders, wizards’ covens and noble families.

The first time my friends and I created our own group it was called Stoneburgh, and it was a reaction against serious groups where everybody had a grand title and their father’s ancestral sword. We became, for a weekend at a time, the inhabitants of a small, inbred mountain community who believed their town to be as big and important as the rest of the world put together, and who approached every situation with the question of ‘how can we fix this with mining?’

Of course I can cure your plague! Just let me fetch my pickaxe.

Of course I can cure your plague! Just let me fetch my pickaxe.

We instantly had a reason to meddle in any situation. We weren’t achieving the same noble ends as the dozens of heroes fighting the golem menace, but we were the only ones who knew it was made from granite. Our skewed perspective brought the ridiculous to any situation. We gave lip to kings and princes if they couldn’t recognise quartz. We played combat croquet through great centres of government. We ‘mined’ anything with a rock on it.

We had enormous fun.

And the lesson for writing? Actually, this is two lessons in one.

As a writer, setting your own agenda will be far more satisfying than writing like others do. And if what you write is good then setting your own agenda, your own style of story, will help you to stand out from the pack.

And for your characters, make them look at the world differently from everybody else. Part of the appeal of Crispin, the protagonist of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, is that he sees the world through the eyes of a mosaicist. This affects his understanding of, and interest in, the politics around him. It makes his agenda far more interesting than if he were one more noble jockeying for power.

Combine humour and tragedy

LRP isn’t all wizards and warriors. I used to play in a small Victorian fantasy / steampunk system called the Crimson League, in which I was Jackson, the valet to Viscount Buffington. Jackson was a dedicated servant capable of providing tea at any opportunity. Any opportunity including the middle of a firefight, when I walked around calmly with a tray full of cake and bullets.


But this absurd figure had a serious side, as his employers found out on the dark night when, having met an old acquaintance from a mental asylum, Jackson had a breakdown. Because of course no sane man carries a tea tray calmly through a gunfight. Jackson had seen terrible things in his past and he was not a well man.

The tragedy of Jackson was all the stronger for coming from the same place as his calm and his absurdity. It was a lesson we’d learned in Stoneburgh too – anger and tears are all the more powerful when they come unexpectedly from a comedic character, comedy all the sharper when it emerges from darkness.

Give all your characters light and dark sides, serious and silly ones, and try to make them come from the same place. It will make them more interesting.

Turning up is winning

One summer we played a group of chivalric knights called the Chevaliers D’Or. We joined an established nation in a huge game, and we only played those characters for two events, but years later people were still asking about them because we stood out. We ran headlong into every opportunity for death or glory. We got in people’s faces. We drank a lot of wine, ate a lot of cheese, killed a small number of monsters.

We were just one more knightly order in a nation full of swords and swanky tabards, but we got noticed.


Sir Jacques thought he looked like a dapper man around town. Everyone else thought he looked like star-spangled tit.

Here’s the dirty little secret, both for you as a writer and for your characters. Most people don’t turn up. Most people don’t make the effort. Just by committing to what you’re doing, by following through no matter how people react, you will stand out.

To the writer I say this – make the effort, write the book, publish it, tell people about it. That puts you ahead of most folks who want to be writers.

To your characters I say – if you just turn up and do something different you will stand out. Turning up and acting up is a form of winning. Committing gets you somewhere, even if that somewhere is in trouble.

And now to the drinking

Live roleplayers risk turning into terrible bores, droning on and on about how great their own characters are, what brilliant things they’ve done. It’s only natural given how fun the hobby is, but it’s also somewhat annoying, so we invented a drinking game to shame people into shutting up and giving others a turn to talk.

After an article like this I am duty bound to go drink my own body weight in scotch.

I hope my liver’s sacrifice has been worth it, that I’ve at least provided some food for thought. But now it’s your turn. What writing lessons have you learned from your hobbies, whether live roleplay or something else? Share your thoughts, let’s all learn from each other’s experiences.