Cultures in Fantasy Worlds

Dragons are people too.

And so are unicorns, gryphons, and snail sharks.

Why do I love fantasy? I enjoy the glimpse well-written fantasy books give into alternative worlds. After a long day at work, organising a conference or patiently answering emails, it’s wonderful to be able to pick up the Kindle and lose myself in a world where women take up swords in battle, the castles are magnificent, and the dragons are--

Oh, dear, the dragons. And the unicorns, gryphons, snail sharks…

But first let’s talk about the humans in fantasy books. Writers often seem to offer us a medieval society, set in a form of England which never existed. Kings and Queens, knights and cooks, stable hands and pig herders, all of which can seem like a quick shorthand so the book can focus on the characters and the action.

But a book which has a well considered social backdrop is all the better for it. How has this kingdom come into existence, and how does that history affect the way its citizens interact with each other and with other communities? Are people fixed into the social strata into which they’re born, or can they move between them? How does this affect the characters and the choices they might make?  

The same cultural considerations can be applied to the non humans which feature in the story. What sort of culture do dragons come from? Do they live in groups, or are they solitary? Were they driven from the nest or did they never know their parents? Or what about unicorns? Do they live in herds, like horses, or do they have a very different social structure? Do gryphons take after eagles or lions?

Snail sharks, by the way, are my own invention, and the group noun is ‘a rabble’. You do not want to encounter a rabble of snail sharks. They have very sharp teeth and they can move very quickly. And they grow to be the size of a large dog.

When I started to write my ‘Penny White’ urban fantasy series, I wanted to offer something new to the genre. The main character, Penny, is a Church of England minister for a village in England which, strangely enough, isn’t that far from my own home. In the first book, ‘The Temptation of Dragons’, she stumbles across a dragon dying at the side of the road. To her amazement, he asks her for the last rites. And so she is made aware of the existence of Daear, a magical world which exists in parallel to our own. Lloegyr is the equivalent of England and Wales in this sister world, and it’s to this country that Penny often travels.

As Penny comes to know the non human characters, their own social structures become clear. And their cultures affect them, even as our own societies affect each one of us. For example, Raven, the dragon who has romantic intentions towards Penny, is a search dragon. Search dragons are rare, and hated by their own families for their abilities to find out treasure and secrets. Raven had to flee from his mother, or she would have eaten him. Perhaps this explains why Raven is a loner, and why he demands independence from others. ‘I’ll fight alongside Penny,’ he states, ‘but I won’t fight for her.’

Lloegyr is undergoing an industrial revolution, which is bringing all the different races (dragons, unicorns, gryphons, harpies) to live side by side in cities and towns. Cultural differences are causing tensions, particularly when cross-species romances develop. A group who are against this mixing, called Cadw ar Wahân, will attack those who dare to marry outside of their own type.

Morey, the cat sized gryphon who becomes Penny’s Associate, was once an ordained priest in Lloegyr’s Christian church. He left the Church, and his gryphon clan, when he insisted on marrying a were-fox. The loss of his two communities, church and clan, helps to explain why he has suffers from sarcasm management issues and always tries to be the cleverest person in the room.

Unicorns are viewed as fair and just, and are trusted to act as judges in the cities and towns. But unicorns derive their power from the land, and it is land which is threatened when cities and towns want to spread roads and buildings across countryside. How far are they willing to go to defend their ancient way of life? Particularly when a corporation from our world stumbles across Lloegyr, and wants to claim the lands for human use?

As for snail sharks, the fourth novel delves into their background. Let’s just say that it’s not only humans who can come up with totalitarian societies.

I gave thought to matters such as transportation (tacsi dragons provide lifts for a price) and communication (flying rats who are sent by their telepathic rat kings, and who deliver their messages in verse). What would the buildings be like, and what sort of religion would citizens of Lloegyr follow? Would they avoid the terrible practices of human industrial development, or would they use children in their factories? And would some of the species, who find it hard to cope with these changes, try to migrate to Earth?

Above all, I like fantasy novels which make me look at my own world in a new way. As one Amazon reviewer of the third Penny White novel stated, ‘The characters deal with serious world issues such as the cost of industrialization, political corruption, inter-racial marriage, homosexuality and growing pains of a religion that either needs to adapt or risk becoming extinct. And it does all of that with DRAGONS AND SNAIL SHARKS!!’

Dragons are people too. Let’s have more fantasy books which explore how culture influences both human and non human characters. 

Two Dragons Meet

Dragons. They’re as individual as their tastes in meat—and women.

Two dragons from very different worlds meet on a windy mountaintop, and the results are fiery.

Setting: A mountain plateau. A green-black dragon landed a few minutes ago, and a thirty-something woman slid down from his neck. She is wearing a black shirt with a dog collar--clearly a Christian minister. Another dragon is coming in to land. He is twice the size of the earlier dragon, and the scales on his back are so black as to seem to absorb light, while his underbelly gleams pearlescent white. 

Penny: Hello both. I’m Penny White, and Raven asked me to come with him for today’s meeting. Perhaps you could both tell me, and each other, a bit more about yourselves?

A’a’shanto: My name is A’a’shanto. I am the master dragon. My function is to protect dragonkind at all costs. I am bonded to the very stones of Dragonheart itself and it is from those stones that I take my power. 

My mate is T’i’asharath and together we uphold draconic law. We are shifters, having both human and dragon form and we are newly mated. Sometimes my mate finds the necessary betrayal of other species in the service of dragonkind hard to take, but every betrayal makes the next a little easier.

Until I was mated I was as much of a sexual predator as any other male dragon. Now I do not dare. T’i’asharath would kill me.

As Raven is a dragon, although not of my world, I will not lie to him. Unless I swear an oath, other species should not trust my words.

The smaller dragon snorts. 

Raven: Well, that’s comfort. A dragon who won’t lie to another dragon. You wouldn't think much of my family, though I don’t think much of them either.

My name is Hrafn Eydisson, I only call myself Raven for those who can’t cope with my name. I have the tendency to flame those who can’t pronounce Welsh properly, which leads to very short conversations. 

I’m an out and out dragon. I have no desire to be a were, which is what we would call a shifter. I am also a search dragon, which means I can find, and find out, anything. Makes us search dragons rather unpopular with our families, which is why our mothers try to eat us upon birth. I managed to escape and joined a colony of other search dragons on a volcanic island.

I’ve had various dalliances during my life. Female dragons eat their mates after several clutches of eggs, which has rather put me off my own kind. Whereas human females, well, there’s something rather alluring about a powerful woman.

But she has to be able to defend herself. I will stand at her side, but I won’t fight her battles for her. 

A’a’shanto laughs and bulks his muscles, showing off his much larger size. 

A’a’shanto: Little dragon. You have courage at least. If you would not shift I can understand that. Though that ability brought me my mate, who is the other half of my soul. But if you have such contempt for us why the interest in the lady priest? Would you discuss theology with her? I myself have often wondered about the followers of the White Christ. Do they really believe they eat and drink the body and blood of their mashiach? Perhaps your lady love will explain.

Raven: Size has little to do with the ability to tear out your enemy’s heart. Grotesque dragon.

Penny: And we’re trying to keep things civil. Raven, please shut off your flame chamber. A’a’shanto, Raven and I are just friends. 

Raven: And I have no interest in her Christ. Although I do respect a religion which has their followers eat their God. At least that gives a deity some purpose.

Penny: It’s symbolic, Raven, and you know that. A’a’shanto, do you follow any kind of spiritual practice? You mentioned something about ‘Dragonheart’? 

A’a’shanto: Dragonheart is a place, and a symbol. In my world all dragons are bonded to Dragonheart but only the master dragon and his mate draw power from the stones. We commune daily with the stones in an attempt to understand the wisdom of being unchanging. The stones have seen and understood more that any mortal creature can comprehend. They saw the One God make all that lives and moves. They spoke with your maschiach and with the prophets of all the other faiths that rule your world. And they sent the dragon to the Mont of Olives to rescue Maryam and the child of Yesua. 

Raven is laughing, and A’a’shanto snaps his jaws shut. Then the larger dragon turns to Penny.

A’a’shanto: But I would know more of the lady priest of the White Christ. How does it come that one so young and so charming is married to your church? Or is it that your priests are no longer celibate?

Penny: That’s all very interesting, A’a’shanto. Thank you for sharing that with us. Your belief that stones saw the creation of everything is fascinating. I don’t quite recognise your story of about the Mount of Olives, but I also know there are many interpretations of stories about Jesus. 

Raven: For one who so fears his wife, you do seem overly interested in another female.

Penny: It’s called flirting, Raven. Don’t worry about it. 

Raven: It’s called something else in my family.

Penny: A’a’shanto, I’m in the Church of England. Our priests don’t have to be celibate. I happen to have a very nice boyfriend. A human boyfriend. Anyway, you said you uphold draconic law. What does that mean? 

Silence for a moment as A’a’shanto looks at Raven for a long moment. It is as if he is weighing something up in his mind.

A’a’shanto: Hrafn Eydisson I wish you would tell me more of being a search dragon. I think in my world we would call you a seeker, and you would be respected for your talent. I have sorrow when you say your mother would have eaten you. That is a great wrong. Draconic law is very clear that the protection of hatchlings is incumbent on all adult dragons. 

A’a’shanto turns his attention back to Penny.

A’a’shanto: This is strange to me. It seems our society is more simple. I will tell you both our laws. The first law is that all dragons are subservient to Dragonheart and to the master dragon and his family. The second law is that golden queens and their hatchlings are sacred and all dragons must protect them. The third law is that no dragon may lie to another dragon. And that is the whole of the law.

Raven is laughing again.

Raven: Protection of all hatchlings? Even the weak? This from a dragon who enjoys looking down at me. Our clans have secrets, and we guard those closely, even from our own kind. We protect those secrets by lying, and sometimes even killing our own. Why should the unworthy be protected? 

Penny: Different cultures, Raven. Their society obviously values individual draconic life. Your laws are interesting, A’a’shanto, as it seems these only apply to dragons? What about other beings? 

A’a’shanto looks at Raven for a long moment.

A’a’shanto: Why do you say I look down at you? Is it because you are a bitter creature? I wonder why that is. Perhaps because your society does not value hatchlings as ours does. You should understand one thing. Protecting dragonets is not a matter of looking out for the unworthy. It is a matter of accepting that every dragon has the right to become what he or she is to become.

A’a’shanto smiles at Penny, but it’s the smile of a cat watching a mouse.

A’a’shanto: Our laws do indeed only apply to dragons. Other species, my dear, must look out for themselves. Dragons look after dragons. And that is something you need to remember.

Raven: Yes, indeed, all creatures must look out for themselves. I value Penny for her courage, but ultimately she must fight for herself. We dragons demand the same of our pufflings. If a young dragon cannot defend himself, why should he join our society? There is no right to a life which cannot be fully lived. Do you allow weaklings to survive? For what reason? Aren’t they a burden on your society? 

A’a’shanto: It isn't that simple, young dragon. When an egg hatches nobody knows what the hatchling has the potential to become. I, myself, was the smallest hatchling from the smallest egg in my clutch. But I grew to be the biggest and the strongest and the most ruthless. Besides which, Dragonets who have no potential fade and die anyway, that is the will of the stones. You speak of what you call pufflings as if there are too many of them to be sustainable in your world. If that is a truth, then Dragonheart dragons differ from you in that way as well, we do not have an unlimited supply of hatchlings. Only golden queens are fertile. And to fly a queen in her mating flight is both difficult and dangerous. Therefore, only the bravest and strongest males may fertilise the eggs. In my generation we have three adult queens. And thus far only one golden hatchling. Does that explain?

Raven: If a youngster with no potential is going to die anyway, much better than someone at least gets a meal out of him. And I have no idea how many dragons live in Lloegyr. Our clans live in longhouses and we keep separate from one another. What happens in another clan is no concern of ours. And it’s not safe to be chosen as a mate by a matriarch. When a matriarch tires of her consort, she hunts and eats him before choosing another. You don’t fear your queens in the same way? Are male dragons safe in your world?

A’a’shanto laughs and stretches.

A’a’shanto: No, Hrafn Eydisson, our queens are not necessarily safe, although actually eating another dragon is frowned on in our society. 

But I grow weary of questions, and I hunger. I will hunt now, I think. Before I go there are two things I would have you ponder. Ask yourself if you only lust after the woman because she will not eat you. And you may also want to reconsider your contempt for shifters if you give some thought to just how many more possibilities for pleasure there are when mating in human form.

A’a’shanto leers at Penny for a moment and gives her a glimpse of his human form. Seven feet of sex on legs. Then he unfurls his wings, which are night black and wholly without the iridescence one thinks of as dragonish. As he is tensing the muscles of his huge hindquarters preparatory to leaping into the sky he turns his head to look into Raven’s eyes.

A’a’shanto: Would you hunt with me, Hrafn Eydisson? I know a place where the meat animals run free on the rich grasslands. and where there is warm sweet water in which to wash the blood from one’s snout and talons. 

A’a’shanto leaps into the sky. Penny turns uncertainly towards the remaining dragon. 

Penny: Raven?

Raven: A hunt with A’a’shanto. That, my dear Penny, is the first of his invitations I plan to consider.

Then Raven launches himself after the larger dragon. They spiral away into the dark blue sky, leaving the human woman to stand on her own. 

To read further about A’a’shanto:

A First Attempt at Marketing

‘I’m a writer, not a marketeer!’

Yes, well, marketing is a fact of life for authors. And not only those of us who are self-published. Many writers who have been picked up by a professional publisher find that the publisher still expects the writer to do a lot of the publicity. 

In the last two years, I’ve worked on getting a website up, establishing myself on social media (even Twitter!), and learning all that I can from successful writers. And I’ve concentrated on writing a book series, as that’s said to be the best way to get people hooked on your writing. 

Now that I have three books published in my ‘Penny White’ urban fantasy series, I felt it was time that focused on helping my books to find new readers. I had followed the advice of getting good covers done, offering an enticing blurb, and obtaining reviews. 

All of the books are enrolled with KDP Select, which allows a digital book to be offered free for five days out of every 90 day enrolment period. I decided to offer the first book, ‘The Temptation of Dragons.’

The first publicity company I booked was Books Go Social, on 23 May. This cost me US$99.00 for a three month enrolment. The company sends out tweets across their subscriber base at regular intervals, and I had to pick a sentence which would draw people to the link for my book. Upon reflection, I should have chosen something other than ‘A gryphon with sarcasm management issues. I need red wine.’ Dragons are probably more of a pull than gryphons, after all. I did see a few sales, but nothing major. 

On 26 May, The Temptation of Dragons’ was featured on the LitRing weekly newsletter, along with two other books, as free for signing up to a newsletter list. I had over 150 people contact me to ask for a free copy. 

On 9 June, I spent a morning recording video of me reading from the book, with inference from my parrot, Tilly. I edited this and released it across social media and YouTube. I had a couple of people join my newsletter list as a result, but couldn’t really see an increase in sales or Kindle pages read on Kindle Unlimited, despite over 1300 views on Facebook. 

The five day free period ran from 12 to 16 June. I booked Books Go Social to include the book in their email on 13 June, and this time I chose the sentence, ‘Giving a dragon the last rites changed my life forever…’ I also paid  US$55.00 to Booksends to access the 26,000 fantasy readers which they claim are on their mailing list. I also put out an advert across my social media, and friends who liked my work shared it across their own sites.

Here are the statistics for each day of that five day period:

Date                                   Free Downloads                      Sold                               KU pages read

12/06                                301                                         0                                      0

13/06                                1033                                       3                                     118

14/06                                245                                         1                                     1533

15/06                                118                                         4                                     697

16/06                                125                                         2                                     1173

Book sales and Kindle Unlimited pages read have continued since the promotion. I have dropped the price of the book to 99p, and people are still buying/reading it. 

The jump on the day the book was included in the two marketing emails is obvious. But it’s also interesting to note the number of downloads on the Monday. Who knows whether Books Go Social, the LitRing email, and/or the video had already whet people’s appetites? In addition, at the height of the downloads, the book went to number 10 in its category and 147 in free Kindle books overall.

Books sold and analysis of Kindle pages read proves that people are going on to the second and third book as hoped. I’ve also had new people join the newsletter list, and a few more reviews have been left on Amazon.

Of course, there’s much more I could have done. Paid for more advertising, picked a better marketing sentence, run the two email promotions on separate days, or let the parrot do the reading whilst I interfered. I’ll think all this through before whatever I decide will be the next marketing push. But I am happy with the results bearing in mind what I’ve spent and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. And Im grateful to all the friends who helped to get the word out!

From Traditional to Self Published

I still have my first short story, written in large letters when I was seven years old. From that moment on, I was always writing, first by hand and later on a manual typewriter. The keys would jam as the machine struggled to keep up with my imagination.

When I was seventeen years old, my short story, ‘Dragons Can Only Rust,’ was one of the winners chosen in a competition run by a science fiction radio programme (‘Hour 25’). I was invited to the studio to hear it read out loud, and one of the judges, an agent, invited me to contact him when I’d expanded this first chapter into a novel.

University and marriage held matters up a bit, but in 1995 the novel was split into two (‘Dragons Can Only Rust’ and ‘Dragon Reforged’) and published by TSR (of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ fame). The initial payment wasn’t huge, but when the paperback copies were delivered to my house, I had high hopes that this would be the start of my professional writing career.

The innocence of youth…

There were all sorts of things I didn’t know about the publishing world. That bookstores stock books on ‘sale or return.’ That publishers can go bankrupt (as TSR did a few months later) and bookstores will ship back the books so they can’t be treated as a debtor. That agents can decide you aren’t worth keeping on as a client if your books only sold 10,000 copies, and they decline to look at any else you’ve written.

I wrote a few more novels during that heady year, and then became so discouraged that I actually stopped. I had a career and a faltering marriage to worry about. My agent did ensure that the rights to my books reverted to me, and I kept that piece of paper safely tucked away in my files.

Fast forward nearly twenty years. Career change and divorce transformed my life. And I found that characters were bouncing around in my head, refusing to leave until I wrote their stories. Initially I thought I’d try to find a new agent, since previous one still didn’t want to renew our relationship. But so many agents warn you ‘If you have not heard from us within a month, assume we’re not interested.’ It’s very discouraging to spend so much time on a query letter and a synopsis, only to hear nothing at all.

Then I discovered the world of self-publishing. No longer do you need to pay a vanity press to print hundreds of copies, which then slowly decay in your garage. Many books are now read on ebook devices. If you do want to also offer a paperback copy, Amazon offer Print on Demand, which does what it says on the tin.

I used Amazon Createspace and Kindle on Demand to reissue my earlier books, and some others I’d written along the way. More recently, I’ve been adding to my urban fantasy series ‘Penny White.’

So, having been both professionally and self published, what are my thoughts?

Being professionally published does lessen the strain on you, the writer. The publisher provides the editor who looks at your overall book and offers suggestions. I still have my notes from ‘Dragons Can Only Rust’, and I made additions as suggested by the editor which improved the book. There was also a copyeditor who spotted those nasty little typos which crawl into any work.

The publisher commissions and pays for the cover art. I found this to be a mixed blessing. I liked the first cover, for ‘Dragons Can Only Rust’, but the second cover, for ‘Dragon Reforged’, shows a scene which simply does not exist in the book.

I was perhaps fortunate that the editor didn’t insist on any major changes to my book. Sometimes writers are put under pressure to make alterations which they don’t agree with.

Self publishing gives both responsibility and freedom. I am responsible for the work which a professional publisher would do on my behalf. There are people who will edit for a fee, but I’m fortunate in that I have several fellow writers who look through my book before I publish (I do the same for them).  Some typos and continuity errors still creep through, which are usually spotted and commented upon by reviewers (opps!).

I also have to spend my own money on cover art. After much research, I found an artist whom I could afford and I like the work she’s doing on my ‘Penny White’ series. It is important to have a good cover, as an amateur one is often a warning sign about the quality of the contents inside.

‘But what about the marketing?’ I can hear someone ask. Yes, it’s down to you to somehow make your book stand out in the sea of published work. But it’s not much different for those who are professionally published. Publishers expect writers to do much of their own marketing these days.

Note that I’ve not said anything about money. If you are professionally published, you do get an advance against royalties. If you’re self published, no such advance, but the royalties are much higher as these go directly to you. Either way, don’t expect to get rich quick. Very few writers do. Remember that my two professionally published books ‘only’ sold 10,000 copies, which wasn’t enough for my agent to keep me on.

One final positive regarding self publishing—the people you meet along the way! I’ve become friends with a number of other indie writers, and I enjoy the interactions we have by email and social media. And that’s the best part of being an indie writer. You get to meet some terrific people along the way.

A Tale of Two Parrots

The story of a second chance at love--and inspiration

If the smoke detector hadn’t gone faulty, Xander would not have died on Christmas Eve.

23 December 2015. A malfunction in my house’s alarm system had meant that every thirty minutes, for around ten minutes, an ear-splitting noise would spiral throughout the building. The alarm company, after trying to talk me through a fix over the phone, finally sent someone out. He cut the wires, advising me that the fault was irreparable and the unit would have to be replaced.

The four hours of aural hell had left me with a splitting headache. I let my green cheek conure out of her cage and started to get ready to cook my dinner. I popped into the next room to collect a magazine, and when I tried to shut the door, it caught on something. 

It only took a moment for me to realise that the ‘something’ had been my bird’s head. Xander flew onto a kitchen cabinet, and made a noise of such distress that the air was sucked from my lungs. I could see that her head pained her. Only the next morning did I notice that the lower mandible of her beak had been shoved sideways. She couldn’t eat, and even drinking was difficult.

Finding a vet open on Christmas Eve was a challenge. The specialist avian practice was shut for the holidays. The general vet sent me home with a syringe and liquid hamster food (!). However, even when I managed to pin Xander down and squirt food into her beak, she coughed and gasped. The physical damage was just too great. So I arranged for a friend to drive me back to the vet. And I held my little bird while the vet gave my beloved bird the injection which would end her life.

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Xander had been with me through so much. My divorce, a change in career, more house moves than any creature should have to face. She had given me a reason to smile on the darkest days. And now she was gone. 

This should have been a good time for me. After many years of writing fantasy novels, I had finally come up with a new series which beta readers loved. Xander had been the inspiration behind Morey, the small gryphon who accompanies the main character, Penny White. When I published the book, ‘The Temptation of Dragons’, I dedicated the novel to her. 

My life seemed empty. I was now living totally alone. There seemed no reason to return home from work. I knew that I had to share my life with a new companion, for my own sanity’s sake.

Since there are so many parrots looking for second chances, I started looking for a rescue bird. Through searching the web I found Tilly, a year old green cheek conure looking for a new home, and in March I collected her.

I was very nervous. I felt I had the experience to deal with whatever issues a rescue bird might have, but on the other hand, Xander had been so tame and trusting. And I’d had Xander from the age of three months old. Would this new bird and I be able to form a bond?

Things were a bit rocky to start with. I’d make assumptions which Tilly didn’t share! But I read up and employed clicker and target training, and taught her a number of tricks (including flighted recall). Our relationship grew from strength to strength. 

There were some adjustments to be made. I’d gone from a mature bird to a youngster! I spent a small fortune on toys--Tilly becomes bored far more easily than Xander ever did. I bought a bigger cage and transitioned her to a different type of pellet diet. Unlike Xander, Tilly doesn’t really care for dried chilli pods, but she would sell her grandmother’s egg for a Nutriberry.

My new companion also influenced my next novel, 'The Cult of Unicorns'. Tilly is much cheekier than Xander, and her antics fed into the character of Clyde, the small snail shark who lives with Penny. 

A few days before Christmas, ‘Your memories on Facebook’ offered me a video I’d made of Xander. Watching her dance to my rendition of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ brought tears to my eyes. But then I lifted Tilly to the computer screen, and let her see the video. ‘That’s your sister,’ I told her. ‘And I love you both very much.’

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Character Arc!

One way for a writer to obtain reviews for a book is to agree to do reviews for other writers.  The advice is that you need reviews in order to entice someone to buy your book, and also that very few readers will take the time to leave a review (no matter how nicely you ask!).

I’ve been involved in ‘review rounds’ organised by a group on Goodreads. Ten authors sign up, and the moderator ensures that there are no reciprocal reviews. You agree to read/review four books in return for four other people reading/reviewing yours. 

Some of the review rounds have been in a specific genre. Others have been ‘open.’ So I’ve found myself reading historicals, romances, and even a children’s book along the way. 

What I’ve discovered, now that I’ve been forced to read outside my preferred genres, is I don’t mind what the book is, so long as there is a character arc. Let the setting be in an alternative Japanese history, or an 18th century melodrama, or a small town in the 1970’s. If I find the characters engaging, if I can see (rather than be told) them change during the course of the tale, then I can take pleasure in a wide variety of settings.

Conversely, if the characters remain static for the course of the book, it doesn’t matter if the novel fits into my preferred reading material. I want to go on a (sometimes metaphorical) journey with the person I’m reading about. If I finish the last page and what s/he has been through hasn’t changed her/him in some way, then I find myself wondering why I’d bothered.


When I wrote my first two novels, my inspiration for character change was the singer/songwriter Dan Fogelberg. I had many of his CDs, and I was intrigued as to how his voice had changed during his career. My thought was, ‘I want Gonard’s voice to change during the course of his travels.’ Not literally, actually, but in the way he would go from cowering in front of humans to a willingness to challenge them. 

For my next two novels, ‘The Dragon Throne’ and ‘The Unicorn Throne,’ I knew the beginning and the end point for the characters, so writing their arcs seemed to come easily. Forgiveness features across the story of both Fianna and the Prancer. Both of them act in foolish ways, because they’re young. Part of growing up is to realise that your parents make choices which they feel were for the best, even if you didn’t think so at the time. Both of the main characters learn from making their own mistakes that they can forgive their fathers for those mistakes which their fathers had made.

Penny-White-and-the-Temptation-of-Dragons 2

But those novels, and ‘The Judas Disciple’, were written to be more self contained than my new series. The first ‘Penny White’ has been published, I’m reaching finishing line on the second book, ‘The Cult of Unicorns’, and I have ideas for at least another three. So it’s a challenge to both provide some character development in each book, yet leave matters open ended for the next one. That might be why I loaded so much on Penny’s plate! For example, jer parents dying when she was a teenager, her husband drowning just a short while before the first book starts, an annoying younger brother for whom she is and yet is not a mother. And the traditional romantic triangle, although perhaps not entirely traditional as the sexy ‘bad boy’ is a dragon. 

The other challenge is to seed things into earlier novels which can then become important later on. The main idea for the fourth novel, ‘The Vengeance of Snails’, came to me while I was just about to publish ‘The Temptation of Dragons.’ So I was able to add an important point to the description of Clyde’s parent before I released the book. 

Perhaps part of the challenge for me, personally, is that I haven’t read too many book series. The ‘Harry Potter’ books, of course, but those were able to develop the characters because the series followed them growing up. As a teenager I loved ‘The Dragonriders of Pern’ series, but the author’s attitudes towards women and gays now disturb me. I liked the first few books of the ‘Temeraire’ series by Naomi Novik, but these have become less interesting as the series has progressed. 

So I’ve been making notes, and plotting story arcs, and trying to leave clues in earlier books which will make sense later on. But there’s only so much I can think of in advance. Or as my favourite Doctor once said, ‘Even I can’t play this many games at once!’ (Ghostlight, 1989)

Show don’t Tell

I’m still getting used to the life of a self-published author, particularly in this age of Amazon and customer reviews. Authors are advised that books need to have reviews, the more reviews the better, even those which are not entirely positive. 

In order to obtain those reviews, I’ve been involved in various ‘review exchanges.’ I read one writer’s book and post a review, and s/he does the same with one of mine. Better yet are the non-reciprocal reviews set up by groups on Goodreads, in which people sign up for a review round and the moderator ensures that you are not reviewing the work of someone who is reading your book. This is to ensure complete honesty.

So I’ve been reading a lot of self-published work. Some of the books have been real finds, and I’ve enjoyed them. Others... Sadly I’ve had to leave some less than complimentary reviews, for various reasons.

One of the greatest failings of these books, which have not been screened by any professional publishing process, is the emphasis on telling the reader. In great detail. The advice to writers is always, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ But many writers seem to ignore this. There are long paragraphs telling us exactly how the character is feeling, rather than finding some way to show us these emotions by means of what the characters does and says.

There are several levels to telling versus showing. For example, one could write, ‘Sarah glared at John, annoyed at his interruptions.’ There may be no need to state that she’s annoyed, if the dialogue earlier showed his multiple interruptions, and ‘glared’ already indicates this. Better yet might be indication her feelings by dialogue. ‘Sarah glared at John. “Maybe you could let me finish a sentence once in awhile?”’ 

Perhaps writers fear to trust that the reader can fill in the gaps. If a piece of dialogue ends in an exclamation mark, I don’t think there’s any need to add, ‘he shouted’, never mind, ‘he shouted angrily.’ If we have the line of dialogue, ‘Look out!’ I don’t think there’s any need to add, ‘she shouted in warning.’ Again, surely that’s obvious?

It’s made me more aware of showing versus telling in my own writing. In my most recent novel, ‘Penny White and the Temptation of Dragons’ (to be released in April), I was very conscious of trying to show rather than tell emotion. For example, Morey, the small gryphon who has come into Penny’s life, is proving to be very annoying. In a scene in Morey’s room, I originally wrote this:

       We were in the room he had decided to adopt as his own. The guest bedroom, of course, the second largest in the house. He was striding along one of the many bookshelves. ‘I read a lot,’ he said, tail whipping past the leather-bound volumes. ‘I left most back home.’ 

       ‘Even what you’ve brought is more than I own.’

        ‘Only because you fill your shelves with science fiction DVDs.’ 

        His snobbery was beginning to eat away at my patience. ‘They’re easier to lift than your books.’

       ‘Have you read Summa Theologica? Simply magnificent.’

        ‘Don’t tell me. You have the whole set.’

        ‘Back home. I had expected any well read priest to have the Summa in her own library.’ He cocked his head. ‘You didn't offer me any wine.’

I worked with this scene because I felt there was no need to tell the reader that Morey was being a snob. The conversation made this very clear, I felt. Nor did I want to tell the reader that this was annoying Penny, at least not directly. So after some work, this is how the exchange now appears in the book:

        We were in the room he had decided to adopt as his own. The guest bedroom, of course, the second largest in the house. He was striding along one of the many bookshelves. ‘I read a lot,’ he said, tail whipping past the leather-bound volumes. ‘I left most back home.’ 

         ‘Even what you’ve brought is more than I own.’

         ‘Only because you fill your shelves with science fiction DVDs.’ 

         ‘They’re easier to lift than your books,’ I pointed out.

         ‘Have you read Summa Theologica? Simply magnificent.’

         ‘Don’t tell me. You have the whole set.’

         ‘Back home. I had expected any well read priest to have the Summa in her own library.’ 

          I was tempted to find out how many volumes of the Summa it took to squash a small gryphon. ‘I can always look it up on-line.’

          Morey cocked his head. ‘You didn't offer me any wine.’

I like this so much better. Not only have I shown Penny’s annoyance, there’s a reference back to the books in question. And she gets in a retort of her own.

But that doesn’t mean I always get it right.  In ‘The Dragon Throne,’ I tried to give early clues that the setting wasn’t on Earth. There are references to two moons, for example. Above all, the length of the year is different than on Earth. So although the main female character, Fianna, is referred to as being eleven years old at the start of the book, in Earth terms she is actually nearly fourteen. As I tried to indicate in what Fianna’s father says to her outside her mother’s rooms.


       ‘Take one last look.’ Her father’s soft voice startled Fianna. She glanced at him, but Stannard was studying the room. ‘Fourteen months have passed since I placed my seal on wet plaster outside this door. But the seasons turn on, and the year is soon over. This is the last time we will see this place as she left it. Tomorrow, all must change. Will you want these rooms?’

From the summaries given by some reviewers, however, I think I might have been too subtle. People seem to take it for granted that she’s the age stated as in Earth terms, not taking into account that a year on this other world is actually fourteen months long. *sigh* Maybe I needed to find a way to tell that more directly. 

There are times when sensitively handled telling is required. I remember my confusion the first time I read Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ I was a fifteen year old living in California. I had no idea what a ‘zebra crossing’ was or why the name ‘Ford Prefect’ would be a good disguise (there was never a Ford model by that name in the USA). So after a beta reader for ‘The Temptation of Dragons’ asked what a ‘chemist’ was, I went through the book and tried to ensure that there was explanation for English cultural references. For ‘chemist,’ all I needed to add was, ‘to pick up some medicine’ to make that clear. Simple.

I’m continuing my review exchanges, and I’ve decided to smile at the worst instances of telling rather than showing. To date, my ‘winner’ in the telling stakes is probably this line, from a book and writer I shall not identify:

‘The stars were out in the dark sky. He so enjoyed taking his nocturnal strolls every night.’

Well, quite. Wouldn’t work during the daytime, would it?

‘Where do you get your ideas?'

‘Where do you get your ideas?’


When a writer was asked this, at a science fiction convention I was attending, he said, ‘Well, there’s this company we authors write to. We send a cheque, and then about two weeks later the idea arrives in the post.’

If only…

Where do writers get their ideas from?

A month ago I was looking through an old school notebook, and I found the first draft of ‘Dragons Can Only Rust.’ I wrote it when I was fifteen years old, and the whole point of it was The Great Reveal. The story seemed to be about a flesh and blood fantasy creature, but when his Master opened him up, Gonard was revealed to be a robot. In the original story, the dragon was dismantled at the end. It took a friend of mine to ask, ‘Oh, why can’t the dragon live?’ for the short story to become the first chapter of the novel of the same name.

I can’t remember how all of the novel came to me. The green crystalline City emerged in my imagination when, as I was driving through the Peak District (England), I heard the Starship rock anthem  ‘We Built this City.’ The combination of the song and the rocky peaks around me gave me the vision of green crystals growing in response to song.

‘The Dragon Throne’ and ‘The Unicorn Throne’ grew out of my reaction to the fantasy novels I was reading at the time. My feminist hackles were rising because, novel after novel, the men got to be knights and go on adventures, whereas the women ran the home and had to preserve their virginity for marriage. So I deliberately created a world in which both men and women could serve as knights, rule kingdoms, and it didn’t matter if you weren’t a virgin on your wedding day. Bringing in a unicorn as one of the major characters was originally meant as a way of emphasising that a Queen could still associate with a unicorn even if she were bedding her squire. That the Prancer would then develop his own character arc wasn’t something that I had foreseen.

My one off move into Christian fiction came from a friend’s fascination with Judas, the disciple who had betrayed Jesus. ‘How could he do that?’ she would ask. And so I explored how it feels to be betrayed, how one can betray with the best of intentions, and set the story of Jesus into our modern day world.

I only had the idea for my latest novel, ‘The Temptation of Dragons,’ on 10 September. I was driving to visit a family to talk about the baptism of their baby in my church. On the way, I was pondering a conversation I’d had with a senior clergyman some years ago. ‘Holy water is a protection against vampires,’ I had told him. ‘But what if a woman priest has blessed the water, and the vampire doesn’t accept the ordination of women?’ ‘Only you would ask that question, Chrys,’ had been his response. But what, I wondered, if he had responded differently? What if he had said, ‘Of course vampires aren’t injured by holy water. How could they be baptised if they were?’ And I pulled the car over and sketched out notes for what became the second scene of the novel.

It can be hard, though, to work out where ideas come from. I’ve sometimes taken a break from writing, wondering what on earth to put down next, when the scene suddenly appears in my head. Other times I can sit and stare at the computer screen and absolutely nothing comes.

Maybe I should have asked that professional writer for the name and address of where he sends off for his ideas…



On Writing Quickly: NaNoWriMo 2015

Am I the only writer who faces this problem?

It’s a day off work. I sit at the computer, determined to get a good few thousand words written on my novel. I write a paragraph. Then I check Facebook. And the news headlines. I write another paragraph. Then I wonder what reviewers made of the last ‘Doctor Who’ episode. Oh, look, there’s an email, I should check that out! And another paragraph…

Sometimes the words just zing out of the fingers and onto that blank page. And other times it’s so tedious that I’ll do anything to avoid grinding out yet another sentence.

Which is why I thought I’d try the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. I’d never heard of National Novel Writing Month before. This now international scheme encourages you to commit to writing a novel in November--well, 50,000 words. You sign up on-line, provide a title and blurb for your novel, and you update your word count every day. I decided to work on ‘The Temptation of Dragons.’ I was 10,000 words in, but I didn’t include those in the word count for the contest. 

The pressure was on. I already faced the difficulty of catching up from a four day break in the middle (to visit friends in Wales), as well how to find writing time in some rather full days. But I managed to complete my 50,000 words a day early and I got my certificate!

I thought I’d wait a few weeks to reflect on the experience before writing about it. So, what are the pros and cons?


With the pressure to hit my daily word target, I was able to keep far more focussed. Less wandering onto social media sites.

My imagination seemed to rise to the occasion. New scenes emerged as I needed them.

I discovered another community of writers out there!


I seem to have concentrated mostly on dialogue. At the editing stage I’ll need to go back and add more description into scenes.

It worked for ‘The Temptation of Dragons’ because the novel is meant to be light and funny. I'm not certain whether a serious novel could be written under those pressures. Well, not by me, anyway.

I’m certain there will be a larger number of typos along the way.

I have decided that it was a useful experience. And I plan to try to participate again next year. Anyone want to join me? 

Help for writers… 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway

‘Everyone has a book inside them…’

Many thanks to you who enjoy my books and that’s the reason why you venture out into the internet to read my blog. But I also know that a number of you are aspiring (or even successful) writers yourselves. 

When my first two novels, ‘Dragons Can Only Rust’ and ‘Dragon Reforged’ were published, this was by a professional publishing house. I didn’t have to worry about editing, formatting, or book cover. All that was taken care of for me. 

When I decided to self-publish those two books, and others I’ve written since, of course all this fell to me. And I felt rather inadequate to the task! How was I to go about getting a cover which would appeal to readers, how could I find an audience for my books when I don’t have the marketing muscle of a publisher behind me?

I searched the internet, and one of the most informative websites I’ve found is at Derek Murphy has filled his website with tutorials and thoughts on how to put together and to market your book. 

At the moment he’s running a ‘12 Days of Christmas Giveaways for Writers and Authors.’ There are fun things like book pillows and an Edgar Allan Poe lunchbox. More importantly, for writers, he’s offering the chance to win his expertise for your ebook or physical book design, and even an author platform review and marketing plan. And, finally, you could win a month’s free stay in a castle to write your next book!

For his assistance on book design, go to and to

Have a look, and good luck! Just click on the logo below to go to his website.