Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Research Corner #1: Grossness

I haven't ever talked much here about research.  In fact, it's perfectly possible I've never talked about it before.  The main reasons for that fact, in ascending order of relevance, are a) that it never really occurred to me as a viable subject until I read Laura Lam's frequent, always interesting posts on the topic, b) that I never had anything particularly exciting to talk about on that front and c) that I tend to do bugger all in the way of research.

Wow, there's a confession.  I mean, don't get me wrong, if I see the need, I do it.  I use google images a lot to get a taste for locations.  I spent a fair amount of time trying to make sure I was getting my terminology regarding fortifications more or less right.  But as a general rule, I suspect I do less than a lot of writers.  And I have a stone-cold excellent excuse, too.

Two words: Easie Damasco. Best defence for being a lazy researcher ever.

Because Damasco is self-absorbed, bad-mannered, solipsistic, frequently ignorant and generally great at ignoring anything that isn't relevant to what he's going through at any particular moment in time.  I mean, some writers, their protagonist meets somebody and they have to worry about intricate details of what that other character does and how they do it.  Not a problem with Damasco!  He'll never ask.  If they try to tell him, he won't listen.  If they try really hard, he'll probably run away.  Or rob them. Or fall off a cliff.

Fortunately, for me at least, this tends to mean that when I do need to research something, it's pretty intriguing.  Because after all, it's either caught Damasco's all-too-fickle attention or else it's so damn important that he hasn't managed to ignore it.  Some serious investigation went into the lock picking sequence towards the start of Giant Thief, for example; I stopped short of actually teaching myself - though, I admit, it was tempting, and hey, it's not like you can't buy the relevant equipment on Amazon - but I did pick up a few interesting odds and sods.  For instance, that any film in which you see someone picking a lock with a single pick is patently wrong.

This post, however, is here solely because of a subject I recently read more about than I probably wanted or needed to, and felt the need to share, if only so that I wasn't the only one having to think about it.

You can't exactly tell from his expression, but this man lives in HELL.
I had a vague idea from somewhere that tanning wasn't a particular pleasant process in ye olden days, and tended to get relegated to bits of town that no one much wanted to go into.  So, needing an unpleasant location to cram a few characters into in Prince Thief, a tannery seemed like a sound bet.  And that inevitably led to the question of just what it was that made tanneries so gross that no one wanted to live next to them.

So here's how my (very wikipedia-heavy) research went:
"In ancient history, tanning was considered a noxious or "odiferous trade" and relegated to the outskirts of town..."
Aha!  Along the right lines here...
"Skins typically arrived at the tannery dried stiff and dirty with soil and gore."
Well ... that's gross, but understandable.
"Next, the tanner needed to remove the hair fibers from the skin. This was done by either soaking the skin in urine, painting it with an alkaline lime mixture, or simply allowing the skin to putrefy for several months then dipping it in a salt solution."
Wait, what?  In urine?  Allowing to putrefy?
"Once the hair was removed, the tanners would bate the material by pounding dung into the skin or soaking the skin in a solution of animal brains. Among the kinds of dung commonly used were that of dogs or pigeons. Sometimes the dung was mixed with water in a large vat, and the prepared skins were kneaded in the dung water until they became supple."
Did you just use the phrase dung water?  Just before solution of animal brains?  In reference to the already half-rotted, peed on, dead animal skin?  Oh, you did, didn't you. You know what, Wikipedia, you could have just answered my question without quite so much graphic detail!  A brief and only slightly repellent summary would have done the job just fine.
"It was this combination of urine, animal feces and decaying flesh that made ancient tanneries so odiferous."
 Yeah.  Little late now.

So, next time someone tells me it could be worse, I'm going to believe them without hesitation.  Even if I'm being attacked by zombie monkeys and my feet are on fire.  Even if my house is being burgled by trained velociraptors.  I'll clasp them by the hand and thank them for their wisely platitudinous observation.

Because sure, those things would suck.  But at least I wouldn't be a medieval tanner.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Way of the Leaves Goes Spectral

It's safe to say that I don't win things on a very regular basis.  In fact, the only things I can specifically remember winning anything in were a drawing contest when I was about seven (prize: a copy of Born Free - the book, not the film) and a raffle I went to with my gran at around the same age (prize: a bottle of shampoo, which she was nice enough to swap for her own slightly less rubbish prize.)

So it was a bit of a surprise to find out I'd taken first place in the recent competition run by Spectral Press and This is Horror - prize: every book Spectral puts out between now and the heat death of the universe and my competition-entering novelette, The Way of the Leaves, becoming one of those future releases.

Neat, right?  Leaves is another a product of the (very long) phase where I was drawing a lot of influence from early twentieth century authors like Lovecraft and Conan Doyle.  Only in this case, the reference points are more like Machen and Dunsany ... which is funny, thinking about it, because I don't think I actually read either author until after I'd written it.  Still, at least I got to the latter in time for The King of Elfland's Daughter to give me a title, so I figure that's good enough reason to claim him as a retroactive influence.

 The funny thing is, I'd been hoping for a long time to place Leaves with Spectral, ever since they started up and I read their mandate, really.  The trouble was that submissions were invite only, and since I didn't quite have the gall to ask owner / editor Simon Marshall-Jones for an invitation, matters had more or less stalled while I weighed up the odds of breaking into his house and discreetly planting torn pages from Giant Thief in the most unlikely of places.  Probably a good thing for both of us that this competition came along when it did, then!

The Way of the Leaves is booked to come out this December, making it, astonishingly, my third single-author release of this year.  Huge thanks both to Simon and to Michael Wilson of This is Horror for both coming up with the competition and then picking Leaves as the winning entry.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

New Fiction Out

Or should that be Old Fiction Out?

After all, The Door Beyond the Water, just out in the Dark Tales of Lost Civilisations anthology from Dark Moon Books, is a complete and utter overhaul of a story written maybe ten years ago, previously published (and read by exactly no one) in a magazine called The Willows.

I'm not going to talk about it too much about that one, though, since I'm holding out for my contributor copy and a proper look inside.  I've had a good vibe with this one from the beginning though, mainly because editor Eric Guignard's been such a treat to work with, so hey, finger's crossed.

Also out this week, though, and even older in its original version, is a story called Hand That Feeds, podcast last Sunday by Nil Desperandum.  I've gone on before about the genesis of this one, how I originally wrote it a zillion or so years ago as some kind of wacky, polemical  pit-fight of art versus the state, with art winning by a clear knockout, and then chipped and chipped away over the intervening millennia, until it was hard to say just who was right, the artist who can't help but point out how much he doesn't fit in or the bureaucrat who has to deal with him, regardless of his own feelings on the matter.  At which point I fell back in love with it a little and started sending it out - because if there's one thing I enjoy, it's writing stories that thrust big questions at the reader and then completely fail to come down on either side.

Listening to it, as wonderfully read by Scott Danielson of A Good Story is Hard to Find - who, by the way, captures the character of LeGris to a rather scary degree - I can't help but wonder at how things would have worked out if I hadn't walked away from struggling to write so-called literary fiction, abandoned the befuddling lessons of my English degrees and my weird desire to write like some impossible combination of Kafka, Dostoevsky and Conrad.  Would I be a better writer today?  Or would I be drinking absinth and eating cockroaches in a garrett flat somewhere, struggling to nail that impossible first word of that impossible first novel?  Would I be sitting here blogging about a story I wrote ten or more years ago about a misunderstood (or maybe, too-well understood) artist or would I be in some Soho coffee shop bitching about how nobody understands my art?  Are Soho coffee shops even open this late?  I mean, who drinks coffee at this time on a Sunday night?

Like the characters in Hand That Feeds, I have no answers.  But for a story I wrote whole aeons ago, I'm pretty pleased with how this one's turned out.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Tales of Damasco: Update 3

I was vaguely hoping to talk about something other than the Damasco books this week ... there must be other stuff happening! ... but then a load more Giant Thief-related news came in, so here we are.  And, I dunno, maybe I'm being a little unrealistic.  Probably I shouldn't be suprised that my first novel and it's upcoming sequel are about the only thing I have to discuss, right?  Kind of a big deal, that.

Still, I was determined to dig up something else to witter about, before my interview with Mur Lafferty on the Angry Robot podcast went live.  My first proper talking interview!  I was actually dreading this one about as much as I was looking forward to it, if not a little more; I had vague memories of umming and arring a lot and talking way too much about Endangered Weapon B and then going off on a mad tangent where I basically declared the bricks-and-mortar publishing industry dead.  And, hey, all of those things are exactly what I did.  But it's all worth it for the sheer existential oddness of listening to myself talking like some proper author type and sounding like I have a vague idea of what I'm on about.  Ah, the reality-bending effects of podcasting!

Speaking of which, I got a lovely e-mail midweek from Lisa at Brilliance Audio to say how enthusiastic she and Brit actor James Langton are about recording Giant Thief, and to check over the pronunciations of all those wacky Spanglish character and place names.  As a result, I'm even more excited about the audiobook edition than I already was, and I was pretty damn excited about it to begin with.  The only problem is that given how little time I have, I'm going to have to contrive some really, really long journey that I can listen to it in when it comes out in April.  Maybe it's time for that hotair balloon journey to Tibet I keep putting off and putting off?

In other news, the last of my initial splurge of guest blog posts are up.  At, I talk about Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, unreliable narration and how they relate to Giant Thief - you'd think that one would be a really short post but somehow it isn't! - and at My Favourite Books, I sort of explain what was going through my head when I was coming up with Damasco, a little of why he's such an irrepresable ratbag, and how it's not really my fault, honest.

Last up we have a couple more Giant Thief reviews ... and in a slight break from tradition, no one really hated it this time around.  Okay, Luke at Seeking the New Earth didn't much enjoy the bits that weren't focused on Damasco and felt that "Easie is such a nuanced character that everyone else simply pales in comparison" ... but since Damasco rarely butts of the story, that's still seems like a thumbs up to me.  Elsewhere, My Awful Reviews fail to live up to their site name (for shame!) with a snappy, cogent review that begins, "Giant Thief was a fun roller coaster. I dug into it, thought it was predictable, and then the author hit me with something unexpected. I read on. The story felt predictable again, and whack!, another unexpected turn. Clever, ain't he?"  Perhaps confusing cleverness with being crap at planning there, but hey, I'll take a compliment wherever I can get it.  Lastly, Liz at My Favourite Books (again) opens with the brilliant assertion that, "I had such fun reading Giant Thief. It is the equivalent of a Sunday Matinee movie, it's a popcorn book, the kind of fantasy you give a friend who has never read fantasy and wants to give it a try", goes on to describe GT as "cinematic and cool" and concludes that "Tallerman gives us a fun, fast debut where old fantasy tropes are dusted off and given a newer sheen for a new audience" ... which is sort of exactly what I'd have had in mind if I'd really thought things through that much.

Oh ... since this is a Tales of Damasco update rather than just a Giant Thief update, it's probably worth mentioning that Crown Thief went off to Angry Robot and Zeno yesterday.  And I'm about half way through the chapter plan of Prince Thief, with a week or so to go before the real legwork begins.  Yeah ... bring it on, Prince Thief.