Saturday, December 29, 2018

Weekend Writing Warriors December 30

Weekend Writing Warriors is a weekly blog hop where participants post eight to ten sentences of their writing. You can find out more about it by clicking on the image.

Continuing a chapter from Ghosts of Innocence, Shayla has stolen the identity of a new Palace appointee, Brynwyn bin Covin, and has just been met by soldier from the Imperial Palace Guard. She’s revealed Brynwyn’s status to the staff at the inn she’d been staying, who didn’t realize they had such a high-ranking guest. I’ve skipped a paragraph where Corporal Kurt Weiler explains the travel arrangements ...


She glanced down at the fawning concierge. "Have my baggage loaded into the car."

"At once, Magister Summis." He scuttled away.

While they waited, Shayla and Kurt stepped out into the crisp morning air.

"You know," said Shayla, "I think that odious little man thought you were here to arrest me or something."

"I was wondering. He seemed rather keen for me to find you."


Special offer for December and January
All ebooks are now on sale at $0.99 through into the new year

And until January 1 ebooks can be downloaded 
for free from the Smashwords site only

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Weekend Writing Warriors December 23

Weekend Writing Warriors is a weekly blog hop where participants post eight to ten sentences of their writing. You can find out more about it by clicking on the image.

Continuing a chapter from Ghosts of Innocence, Shayla is on her tortuous path into the Palace under cover. She has stolen the identity of a new Palace appointee, Brynwyn bin Covin and has just been met by an escort from the Imperial Palace Guard.


The concierge's face fell as he took in the cut of Shayla's robes, the insignia, and the Imperial crest. "B-b-beg pardon for my inattention, Magister Summis." He hurried round from behind the desk and bowed, hands wringing.

With sudden insight, Shayla realized that this man and his staff must have been making Brynwyn's stay here miserable. Her profile reported an unassuming humility, in keeping with her strict attention to duty. And her religious observances would have allowed her no latitude to assert her status.

She ignored him and spoke to the soldier. "Corporal Weiler, I assume you've brought transport?"


Special offer for December and January
All ebooks are now on sale at $0.99 through into the new year

And between Christmas and New Year ebooks can be downloaded 
for free from the Smashwords site only

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Weekend Writing Warriors December 16

Weekend Writing Warriors is a weekly blog hop where participants post eight to ten sentences of their writing. You can find out more about it by clicking on the image.

Continuing a chapter from Ghosts of Innocence, Shayla is on her tortuous path into the Palace under cover. She has stolen the identity of a new Palace appointee, Brynwyn bin Covin.


As Shayla walked down the stairs and rounded the corner to the entrance hallway, she saw the same haughty concierge who had been on duty last night. In front of the desk, a soldier stood, at ease but alert. He wore the formal traveling uniform of a corporal of the Imperial Palace Guard.

"Here she comes now," said the concierge, glancing up from the desk. His face held a trace of barely suppressed glee, and Shayla had to fight back the knotting of her stomach as she reminded herself that she was supposed to be meeting an escort here.

The soldier turned and came to attention. "Magister Brynwyn bin Covin?"

Shayla nodded.

"Corporal Kurt Weiler, at your service, Magister Summis."


Special offer for December and January 
all ebooks are now on sale at $0.99 through into the new year

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Long Dark - more about life on the surface

It’s been a while since I talked about the worldbuilding for The Long Dark.

Last time, I delved a bit into the single superorganism covering a large part of the planet’s surface, and I mentioned something about the internal structure. Given the extremes of temperature through the seasons, thanks to the planet’s 90 degree tilt, any life has an obvious major problem to contend with - temperature control.

Much of Sponge’s structure is related to solving this problem. Its enormous thickness provides natural insulation, but the surface layers are still in danger of baking during summer, and intense frostbite during the long spells of darkness. To solve this, Sponge moves water around to shunt heat from where it’s overabundant to where it’s needed. Short term local movements between the surface and reservoirs in the depths help to even out the day/night cycle, while vast subsurface rivers shunt heat back and forth across the equator.

These mechanisms protect the plant tissue from thermal damage, and also help moderate the climate extremes in the atmosphere. And, as well as photosynthesis like Earthly plants, Sponge makes good use of the temperature gradients to generate chemical energy from thermosynthesis.

Finally, as an aside, what does the sun look like from the surface?

I had no idea what a red giant star might look like from an orbit in the habitable zone, so I did a rough mental calculation. A star similar to the sun that evolves to the red giant stage will swell up to swallow the orbits of the inner planets. It may or may not reach as far as Earth’s orbit, but that’s a moot point. At best, Earth would be grazing the surface of the star, so you can bet things would be somewhat toasty.

Anyhooo ... that makes a “typical” red giant anything up to 200 times the diameter of our sun. And orbiting somewhere out near Saturn, say 10 times the distance away, that means the star would appear anything up to 20 times the size in the sky.

That’s one whopping big sun! No wonder the colonists call it “Big Red”!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Weekend Writing Warriors December 2

Weekend Writing Warriors is a weekly blog hop where participants post eight to ten sentences of their writing. You can find out more about it by clicking on the image.

Continuing a chapter from Ghosts of Innocence, Shayla is on her tortuous path into the Palace under cover. She has stolen the identity of a new Palace appointee, Brynwyn bin Covin. The previous snippet ended: It looked like Brynwyn had intended to make a dramatic exit after the anonymity of her Meditation.


She must have been proud of her new position.

The thought left Shayla with a bitter taste, but she would have to play the part to the full. She took a few minutes to clear her mind and review her notes. The facts had long ago been committed to memory and rehearsed endlessly. But the time had now come for more than mere recollection.

She had to become Brynwyn bin Covin.

She took another deep breath and finished packing Brynwyn's belongings. During the night, Shayla had unpacked everything in the small pile of trunks in the room, familiarizing herself with every item.

This was her life now. For a short while, at least.


Friday, November 23, 2018

Doin’ that writerly thang!

Has anyone taken their laptop to a coffee shop to sit down and write? I’ve always viewed this as a bit of a cliche, something non-writers assume writers spend much of their time doing ... in between signing contracts and practicing their award acceptance speeches, of course.

Whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal of writing life, it certainly sounds like a pleasant way to spend an hour or two.

This week I took a couple of days off work. No particular reason, just have some vacation time that I need to take this year and a couple of days free in my calendar, so an opportunity for a bit of down time. This morning I had a handful of errands to run, and I decided to round it off with a visit to a nearby coffee shop, laptop in hand. Just out of curiosity.

  • Yes, it was a pleasant way to spend an hour.
  • The place was fairly busy, and I had wondered if that would be a distraction. As it turned out, that wasn’t an issue. I guess I pay more attention to noises around the house than when I’m elsewhere.
  • It was a productive hour, but no more so than when I put on my headphones and am on a roll.
  • By the end of an hour, I was more than ready to leave. I’m not the sort of person who’ll sit there for hours on end.
  • It was good to get a change of scenery. I sometimes find that valuable in itself ... taking my laptop to the library, or to a picnic table in a park or by a beach.

OK, I can’t pretend that was a bucket list item, but at least I can say ... writer writing in coffee shop? Yep, done that  :)

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Weekend Writing Warriors November 18

Weekend Writing Warriors is a weekly blog hop where participants post eight to ten sentences of their writing. You can find out more about it by clicking on the image.

I’m back for another stretch. This time I’m picking up the start of an earlier chapter in Ghosts of Innocence, where Shayla is on her tortuous path into the Palace under cover. Here, she has to get into character for the next leg of her journey.


Shayla Carver - Imperial lackey! She smiled at the incongruity of it as she checked her appearance in the wall mirror.

Her ruddy skin tone had grayed slightly overnight, and her plump cheeks sagged. She squeezed her eyes shut and willed her implants to correct the signs of fatigue. After a few minutes, Shayla opened her eyes and staggered back to sit on the edge of her bed. She took deep breaths and wiped a sheen of sweat from her face, but the face that gazed back now radiated calm and confidence befitting her station.

Brynwyn had left a clean set of traveling robes hanging, ready to wear. The Imperial crest and official insignia announced her status in the higher echelons of the Palace staff, someone of high standing indeed in this provincial backwater. It looked like Brynwyn had intended to make a dramatic exit after the anonymity of her Meditation.


I hope everyone is keeping well. When I was last here, I had recently published The Ashes of Home. Since then I’ve been keeping busy on the first draft of a new novel, The Long Dark.

I’ve also posted a lot more background material from Shayla’s world to my author website.
Ships, buildings, maps etc. Some drawn up in full detail, and a whole collection of original hand-drawn sketches that guided me through the writing process.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Is it safe to come out yet?

Now the mid-terms are over - finally! - I guess it was too much to hope that any kind of normality would take hold. On reflection, that was only ever a naive hope. No matter who won or lost, Trump was always going to:
(a) proclaim victory anyway,
and/or (b) claim conspiracies and witch hunts,
always with a dose of (c) blame someone else,
and (d) mock and insult anyone he doesn’t like.

The only difference would be the relative proportions of the above. So it’s basically business as usual in the kindergarten playground of American politics, and two more years of campaigning to look forward to before the next election.


What I’ve learned over the past two weeks of unplugging from the online world is how toxic the world has become, and how badly that toxicity affects me. I should probably make a more permanent effort to ignore all news from south of the border, because it’s way too depressing and there’s nothing I can do about it.

So, turning to more positive thoughts ...

Writing is going well - steadily ahead of the target I set myself at the end of July. I’m just at the 50% mark for the first draft. I have a rough outline of the rest of the story, but still murky on some of the plot details. However that is normal for my writing process so it’s not a problem. Yet :)

I took part in a writers’ panel last week on the publishing process, which was a lively 90 minutes of questions and answers.

Several people at work bought The Ashes of Home (the workplace remains my main source of paperback sales) and I’m getting positive comments back.

I plan to reduce the e-book price of both Ghosts and Ashes next month for a Christmas promotion, so if anyone was thinking of picking up a copy it’s worth waiting a little while.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

What happened to humanity?

I was planning on lining up more posts on worldbuilding, but the last week has left me feeling like normal rational life has taken its leave of this continent.

We have a spate of bombs through the mail, and then Pittsburgh - to add to all the other mass shootings this year. But what is most sickening is that, rather than genuine calls for strength and unity and compassion, the loudest voices on both sides of the divide are racing each other to the bottom of the sewer dredging the depths for any political capital they can gain.

I think I’m going to unplug from the Internet until after November 6, because right now a large slice of humanity has lost its humanity.

BTW - comments are off, 'nuff said

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Long Dark - plant life

A peculiar world is likely to support some peculiar life. What I’ve settled on is by no means original, but I’m trying to develop the basic idea into something unique to this story.

I’m entering new worldbuilding territory here, because up until now I’ve not dealt with any form of alien life. Even in Shayla’s world, they never encountered another inhabited planet. Everything there has its origins on Earth (even though they’ve long ago forgotten that Earth even existed.)

In The Long Dark, the planet Elysium is girdled by a single plant-like superorganism. The locals call it Sponge.

Like Earthly life, Sponge is based on carbon chemistry, with water as the medium, and an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere. During the summer season, Sponge photosynthesizes for energy.

But similarities end there. Sponge is not based on cellular structures like our plants and animals, and it has no DNA. I don’t get into these kinds of details in the story, but my basis is that there are other mechanisms possible for self-organization and replication.

Something I am fleshing out, though, is some insight into the inner structure of Sponge as that is important to the story. The plant mass forms a carpet hundreds of meters thick - kilometers in places - that covers the equatorial to mid latitudes, ending about 40 degrees north and south. Given the extreme conditions at the poles, I figured this was a reasonable extent for life to persist.

Map of Elysium, showing the active growth zones north and south, 
and the main north-south systems of veins

The name “Sponge” conjures images of a fairly amorphous uniform spongy mass. In the story I try to dispel that with images of specific and detailed structure at all kinds of scales from the microscopic to the gargantuan. There are vast structural ribs holding the plant’s shape, and complex networks of veins, aquifers, and chambers to convey liquid, nutrients, and air to where it’s needed. The mass is riddled with chambers, deep chasms, and vast hollows that would easily swallow a town, along with a variety of specialized structures that make up the living portions of the plant. It is these depths that the colonists harvest for a living.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Rock on, Taylor!

Some bizarre and contradictory scenes played out in the media last week.

We have Taylor Swift posting a political message to Instagram - something she rarely does:

And then we have Kanye West in the Oval Office - transcript here:

What first struck me was the blatant double standards at work in the highly-charged world today

When Taylor Swift posted her thoughts on Instagram, an angry hornet swarm of indignation buzzed into being.
“Why should the world care what a singer thinks?”
“What does she know about politics?”
“What gives her the right to voice an opinion?”
The implication is - you have no right to post this, shut up!

Let’s step past the obvious absurdity of these comments in the first place. Instagram is a social media site, along with many others. Millions of people post their thoughts to these sites every day. Who cares what you ate for breakfast? Nobody? Fair enough, but nobody castigates you for posting it. If you don’t care, shrug shoulders and move on.

The subtext seems to be, becoming a successful musician somehow cancels your right to a voice like the rest of the population.

The double standard comes into play with the sub-subtext - you’re not allowed to post something I disagree with. That same furious horde was strangely silent when Kanye West monologued in praise of Donald Trump.
Who’s he? A rapper.
Political qualifications? Zilch.
Equivalent condemnation on publicly voicing an opinion just because he’s an entertainment celebrity?

Then we come to the content of their respective messages

Kanye West expressed outright and unequivocal support for Donald Trump. The message was exclusively partisan. That is his right.

In comparison, Taylor Swift did express her values and who she would be supporting in her state in the mid-terms, and she articulated her reasons clearly and succinctly. That is her right.

But beyond that, she didn’t exhort her followers to support Democrat candidates or to share her political beliefs. This was simply the lead-in to the real thrust of her post, which was an entirely non-partisan exhortation to educate yourself and vote accordingly. And, importantly, to make sure you actually do register and vote.

Why that message should attract such vitriolic condemnation escapes me.

To put it bluntly, if you have a problem with Taylor Swift’s post, then you appear to have a problem with the very foundation of democratic elections

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Long Dark - surface conditions

I’ve talked about the peculiar day/night cycle on a world with a 90 degree axial tilt. That much is straightforward observation of how the sun would look at various points on the planet’s surface. But the next part of worldbuilding is a lot more speculative.

Most of a planet’s weather is driven by convection currents caused by temperature differences in its atmosphere and oceans. With that in mind, think about a planet where the sun hovers directly overhead at the pole, baking it remorselessly for months, then disappears for a whole half of the year plunging that same pole into darkness. To me, that adds up to massive temperature fluctuations across the globe during the course of a year.

I know the same thing happens on Earth at the poles, with six months day and six of night, but the sun stays low in the sky and the days stay cold. The poles don’t turn into the tropics at midsummer, and most of the Earth’s surface sees a reasonable day/night cycle all year round. On this planet, by contrast, periods of light and darkness are taken to extremes across most of its surface, and everywhere gets a dose of tropical heat at some point in the year.

One thing I think we can safely assume - there will be some pretty violent weather going on. Beyond that, I certainly have no way of knowing how it would look, so the rest is pure invention.

Earth has many stable circulation patterns, but its axis only wobbles 23 degrees back and forth relative to the sun during the course of a year. My world does a complete 180 and then back again, so any circulation patterns would completely reverse, which suggests a lot of turbulence to cope with.

In this world, a ‘year’ lasts about thirteen Earth years, so that gives a lengthy season. My worldbuilding has global weather patterns switching through a series of states as the seasons change. Each state is reasonably stable - though not necessarily benign - for a long stretch of time as the planet slowly turns new latitudes to the sun, then the pattern becomes unstable and flips in a rapid and violent transition to the next season.

The height of summer is the calmest time, and this is when most of the outdoor work is done. Meanwhile, in the winter hemisphere, temperatures bottom out at minus two hundred Celcius, lashing the winter pole with storms of nitrogen rain.

The most violent conditions arrive some time after midsummer, as the winter pole starts thawing and the summer pole plunges into darkness. Through the mid-seasons, convection currents in the atmosphere undergo dramatic shifts powered from the poles. I’m expecting storms and winds that would put an Earthly hurricane to shame.

On top of this, a red giant star itself is pretty active compared to our tranquil sun. Outbursts of solar flares make nearby space inhospitable to orbiting craft much of the time, and the colonists long ago gave up trying to keep satellites working. I’ve given the planet a powerful magnetic field to shield the surface from the worst of the solar storms, but it’s still a dangerous place to be. And all this electrical activity makes communications tricky at best. The colonists rely on land lines laid between permanent settlements, and short wave radio when conditions allow.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Long Dark - building a habitable planet

Almost a year ago, I talked about the unusual world setting of The Long Dark. This is a world with a roughly 90 degree axial tilt - so it’s effectively spinning on its side compared to the plane of its orbit.

The most obvious characteristic of such a world is its extreme seasons. Other than a narrow strip around the equator, everywhere will experience midnight sun and some day-long darkness. The closer you get to the poles, the longer those periods of perpetual day and night become.

The strangest points on the surface are the poles themselves. At midsummer, the sun will be stationary, directly overhead. Expect it to get very hot! As the days proceed, the sun will start to move in small circles, gradually getting wider and wider and closer to the horizon. When you reach the equinox, the sun will hug the horizon, then dip below, and you then have half a year of complete darkness. This is “the Long Dark” of the book’s title.

This extreme light/dark cycle was really the foundation for the story, but there are other important features I wanted to bring together, which meant some research to build a credible and consistent world.

When I first came up with the idea, I pictured the world circling a white dwarf. I don’t know why, but that was my mental image. As I developed the setting, though, I realized I wanted this world to have a very long year. I wanted my colonists to have several Earth years of “summer” in one hemisphere, before they had to migrate across the equator and set up camp in the other hemisphere.

This meant it had to be orbiting far out compared to Earth’s orbit, yet still warm enough at that distance to support liquid water and life. A white dwarf was not going to give me the conditions I needed.

I had an idea for how to resolve this, but no idea whether it was workable. I was delighted when some reading from a number of sources suggested I was on the right track.

In a few billion years, our own sun is expected to go through a red giant phase. It will expand to swallow the orbits of the inner planets, maybe even Earth’s. This led me to two very important realizations:

First, in this phase the “Goldilocks zone” will push outwards to cover the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. The “Goldilocks zone” is what astronomers refer to as the habitable zone, where liquid water should be able to exist on a planet’s surface. Right now, anywhere beyond Mars is too cold, but when the sun expands, the frozen outer reaches of the solar system will get a lot more toasty.

The second note is that if this is the evolution of our sun, then a red giant like this must be roughly the same mass. This means planets’ orbital periods will be comparable to those of our own solar system for a given distance out. And somewhere around the orbit of Saturn gave me the length of year that I was aiming for!

Right there, I had a long orbit that lay in the habitable zone. My white dwarf became a red giant.

I’m sure there are other scenarios that would give me the right combination of conditions, but this one simply resonated with me. It also provided other useful features that I’ll talk about in future posts.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Worldbuilding The Long Dark

One of the guilty pleasures of speculative fiction is the opportunity to imagine whole other worlds, and then bring them to life on the page.

There are some aspects of worldbuilding that I like to treat as a pastime in their own right in parallel to the actual writing. I wrote a whole series of posts about the massive drawing project for Admiral George Leonard, from The Ashes of Home.

That project was self-indulgent relaxation for me. It goes light years beyond the handful of rough sketches that I actually needed for the purposes of the story. In fact, the novels I’ve written so far have been fairly light on true worldbuilding.

The Shayla stories are set thousands of years in the future. There’s space travel and advanced tech, ships and planets for story settings, but strip out those elements and the world she inhabits is firmly rooted in current and past Earthly cultures. Worldbuilding largely consisted of placing a filter over the world we know, and deciding which features to amplify and which to fade out.

When it came to Tiamat’s Nest, I was starting even closer to home. Earth, later this century, but changed by a shifting climate and the ravages of conflicts and migrations as a vastly diminished population makes a new life in the new habitable zones.

Writing The Long Dark is presenting an entirely new challenge for me. Here, I’m starting out with a planet similar in size and temperature to Earth, but vastly different in most other respects. It supports non-Earthly life - a first for me - but humans can’t survive unprotected out in the open. In fact, their entire way of life is different from anything we know.

So, I’m having to go back to the drawing board and question just about every aspect of life that we take for granted. Of course, for simplicity and sanity, there has to be an undercurrent of familiarity, but I still have to look for hidden assumptions and bring them out into the open to see if the environment might drive a different set of norms that will play into the story somehow. I can’t simply transplant “small town England” onto alien soil and hope for it to make sense.

As a result, I’m expecting the first draft to take longer than usual, to leave me more time to mull over worldbuilding aspects as I go. Having said that, the last couple of months have been more productive than I expected and, for now at least, the words are flowing well.

Ha! I’ve probably jinxed it now!

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The mundane life of a British spy

Any time I set off for the shops, I wonder what kind of experience it’s going to be this time. It seems usually to be either everything’s a breeze, or what seems like a simple task turns into an exercise in frustration. Not much in between. I bet James Bond never had to put up with such mundane nonsense  :)

The latter seems especially to apply when I’m looking for parts to repair or replace something around the house. This morning I had an unusually long list of stops to make. The usual groceries to get, plus a trip to the bank and the liquor store ... all routine and mundane ... but on top of that, a replacement light fitting and a collar to finish off where the stove pipe from our wood stove goes through the wall. Should be routine, but my spidey senses start tingling in anticipation of frustrations ahead!

In the end, this morning was a bizarre rollercoaster of plusses and minuses. Not the usual all-or-nothing.

First stop, liquor store. An essential component of grocery shopping, though admittedly neither of us drink a fraction of what we used to. This is more or less a once-a-month trip and easy-peasy.

Then on to a large hardware store. Light fittings ... not much of a selection, but all I need is functional. Find a ceiling fitting the right size. Success.

Look for a collar for the stove pipe. All sorts of pipes, angles, adapters ... everything but a collar. Ask one of the staff who confirms they don’t stock them. He was good enough to concede that this is an odd omission, and directed me to a store downtown. Frustration.

Never mind, that was just a chance addition to my list anyway, not the most important item. But just on the off-chance I stop off at a smaller hardware store on my way. Find the right aisle ... look on the shelf ... Yes! That looks like what I want. A couple of flat packages on the shelf. Success!

Oops! Spoke too soon. I realize what I’ve picked up is a cover plate to blank off an unused flue hole, not a collar with a hole for the pipe to run through. Frustration.

Ask a storeman just on the off-chance, and he checks the shelf. The second bag, that I’d assumed was identical to what I’d examined, turned out to be what I wanted after all. Success!

On to groceries. Boy, was the store busy today. And they’ve clogged many of the aisles with stacks of extra merchandise making it even more difficult to navigate. This is normally an easy mission, but today was a real slog. And, despite the obvious crowding, some people seemed to make it their mission to see how awkwardly they could place their carts for maximum obstruction. One woman managed to single-handedly block the entire aisle with cart alongside her while she perused the shelf like she had all the time in the world, utterly oblivious to the people either side trying to get past. Frustration!

But at the checkout, I was pleasantly surprised by an unusually low bill this week. Success.

I even managed to fit the collar onto the stovepipe without too much difficulty. I think I’ll leave the light fitting for another day  :)

I guess, as long as the frustrations get balanced by positives, so I finish on a good note, I can declare “mission accomplished” for one day.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Writing insecurities

I know a lot of bloggers who take part in the monthly Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which sparks some fabulous discussions because
(a) writers as a whole seem to be beset by loads of insecurities,
and (b) writers are incredibly supportive of each other.

Although I lurk on the fringes of these monthly discussions, I’ve never actually joined in the bloghop because, on the whole, I don’t feel a lot of insecurity as a writer. Frustration, yes. Longing for steadier sales, yes. Blockages when the ideas aren’t there and the words won’t flow, yes. Insecurity? Not so much.

I guess I’m either lucky or just plain weird.

But there is one kind of insecurity that hits me hard from time to time while I’m in the thick of drafting a new novel: Is this boring? Will it hold anyone’s interest?

I find this kind of angst strikes when I’m on a good streak, when I’ve spent some time hammering out words. I suspect it’s some kind of word fatigue, because usually, when I set the chapter aside for a while and come back to it later, I take renewed interest in it.  

It’s not just chapters, either. This can happen with the whole novel. When I first started work on Tiamat’s Nest, I got some way in then hit this slump big time. I had to set it to one side for two-and-a-half years before I could pick it up again.

This kinda makes sense because I do fatigue easily. I work best in brief sprints of maybe half an hour at a time, regardless of how many or how few words I write in that time. I then need to take a breather, and usually need to do something unrelated for a while. If I spend too much time in a day writing, then my energy and productivity often drops off drastically and the anxiety sets in.

That’s OK while my writing time is restricted to a few brief opportunities around work and family, but can get frustrating when I have whole days with no other significant commitments - ideal writing time, you’d think. But making productive use of it can be a challenge.

So, now I’m in the early stages of a new novel and progress is good - ahead of the target I set myself back in July, and words are mostly flowing well. I’m currently following one major thread of the story through a series of scenes, but there are times when I come to it and think are we still here? I’ve been at this so long, surely events have moved on by now? This easily slides into - this must be moving too slowly. People aren’t going to read this.

I have to remind myself that time is misleading. A scene that took hours to write might only take a few minutes to read. And I’ve spent so many waking hours envisaging what’s going on before setting it down on paper, I’m already familiar with it and know what happens next. A reader will be coming at it fresh. It will all be new.

It will hold their attention.

Won’t it?

Saturday, August 25, 2018

My daughter thinks I’m a British spy

And apparently all her friends are also convinced I’m a spy.

Seems it stemmed from her being consistently unable to tell her friends what I do for a living. And I can understand her difficulty because, apart from my job title (Director of Application Management) I find it hard to describe what I actually do.

This has always been a problem, when we used to have more regular family dinners and rounds of “what did you do today”. Trying to describe what I did today in a way that would make sense to anyone is nigh-on impossible without sending everyone to sleep. I blogged about this a few years ago here.

That was a typical day back then. Things are not often as hectic now, but still hard to wrap your head around unless you understand the IT world, so my stock answer to that dinnertime question has always been “meetings”.

As a result, this sense of mystery evolved into speculation that I must be involved in something clandestine for the government, and speculation that we moved from England to Canada because we had to flee the country in secret.

I guess it doesn’t help that all her friends also know I write stories about undercover agents, assassins, and plots and intrigues. How would I know all that stuff unless I was a spy? Hint: I don’t, it’s all a big bluff!

Still, it came as a bit of a shock to think that she honestly thought her balding, middle-aged daddy, cultivating a food baby, might have a dark secret life.

And I almost think she was serious, too!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Agile thinking in writing

Last week I took a one-day introduction to Agile. As an approach to writing software, Agile has been around for years, but it seems to be becoming the norm now that more tools are out there to support the approach with automated testing and deployment.

Our division is running full tilt into this new world, hence the introductory training.

The software world grew from an esoteric art form and, in an effort to mature its practices, has traditionally treated itself like an engineering discipline - hence “software engineering”. It borrowed practices from the engineering world, where things like bridges and buildings can be planned out to the Nth degree before a single concrete piling is poured.

This works very well for buildings and bridges. People have been building them for millennia, and the principles and materials in use are well understood. It is perfectly practical to design a structure on paper, and be confident that the end result will be built according to plan.

The trouble with applying that thinking to software, is that the world is still young, and the principles are poorly understood, and new ideas (new building materials) are being constantly invented.

Worse, people have lived with buildings and bridges for thousands of years and pretty much know what they do and what they want from them. Software, on the other hand, is constantly opening up new horizons and new ways for people to interact. And that world is expanding at an exponential rate.

So, the engineering approach to software suffers from two fatal assumptions. That it’s reasonable to expect people to know in advance what they want, and that the world won’t change beyond recognition while you’re in the middle of delivering the product. These assumptions work well for bridges and buildings. Software blows them both out the water.

Agile sidesteps these assumptions by using an exploratory approach to software development. The overall goal should be understood, but how you get there will evolve as you start building, start showing some results, and get feedback to guide you. Rather than everything being planned out up front, what you do now ... what avenues you explore ... will educate you better on what works and what doesn’t and will guide what you do next.

As I sat through the day, I realized that this closely mirrors my own approach to writing. I do start with a goal in mind, but with no idea how I’m going to get there.

I start writing.

What I learn from what I write (or where I get stuck) will inform where I go next. I don’t start at the beginning and plow through to the end, I find the story structure emerges as I try out scenes and get to understand the story better. I hop around picking the next section to attack, and priorities will change as things get fleshed out. The whole writing process for me is an exploration and a learning activity.

It shares a lot of characteristics with this Agile approach to software that I have to learn to manage. Maybe there’s hope for this old dinosaur yet.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Infinity War

We finally purchased Avengers Infinity War and sat down to watch it this weekend. The outcome left me feeling deeply dissatisfied, despite the stellar settings and special effects.

Doing some research now, I see it was originally titled Infinity War - Part 1, but sometime during production of the movie they decided to shorten the title. The former would have been more honest and would have set reasonable expectations, because as it is I was expecting a complete story with a satisfying ending like all the other Marvel movies so far.

On its own, which is the only way I knew to view it at the time, the movie does indeed conclude on a natural ending point, but in doing so it kinda breaks an essential contract of trust with the viewer.

Yes, I’m upset that some (actually a lot of) good characters die. It finished on a serious down note with the bad guy winning when you expect the good guys to win somehow. On its own, that is not a problem.

When I analyzed things after the fact from a writer’s perspective, I realized that the lack of satisfaction for me was that I spent two hours watching something that, in the end, was not a story!

I felt misled.

To me, a story involves someone reaching a goal after overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It involves people facing impossible choices with no good outcome, that have you biting your nails wondering which way they’ll go. It involves twists that take your breath away, wondering where the heck that came from.

The overwhelming odds were against the Avengers, not Thanos, as you would expect. He had it easy, and he succeeded. If the baddie is going to win then they need to face significant obstacles too. Yes, Thanos faced a painful choice when it came to the soul stone, but given his single-minded obsession with his quest there was never even a shadow of doubt about what he would do. And various sub-plots like dealing with the mind stone in Vision’s head were hardly obstacles or twists, they felt like artificial padding to ramp up suspense with no emotional payback at the end. The stone is exceedingly difficult to extract safely. They fail to extract it. In the real world that is all ... well, duh! But stories are supposed to take us out of the real world and deliver a satisfying emotional experience.

To summarize: The party with all the power and all the advantages methodically achieves a series of objectives and successfully reaches his final goal. That is not a story, it’s a project report.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Rattus Evicticus

It’s only 6:30 on a Sunday morning, a time I’m not usually around to see, but already it’s been a hectic two hours.

Winding back the clock a bit, we’ve recently returned from our usual summer camping trip. Except it wasn’t quite the usual as for the first time Megan wasn’t with us. She’s started work and decided to stay behind at home this year. Cue excuse for a party in our absence. Consider ourselves lucky to still have a house to come back to ...

While we were away she called to say she was sure Loki (an aptly named cat) had brought in a rat.


She’d seen it that evening scuttling across the living room.

OK. Not a lot we can do about that, and we heard nothing more about it.

Yesterday morning I got up to find droppings on the countertop and around the sink. Yes, Watson, we do have a rodent problem. Yesterday evening, about to get ready for bed, Luna (another cat, and just as dippy as Loki) was very interested in something behind the television stand. Ali spotted a pair of eyes peering out at her. Sighting confirmed, the rat zipped out from behind the stand and along the fireplace.

After lots of moving furniture and pictures around, but no further sightings, we retire.

Four o’clock.

A cat is stalking across the bed, waking me up. I hear nothing, but on a hunch switch on the light to find Luna peering down behind my nightstand. Pull nightstand away to see rat huddling down in the gap.

Let the fun begin!

Quick search for rat-trapping implements ... sticks, pokers, fishing nets, wellington boot ... OK, never tried that with a rat before, but we’ve had repeated success putting a wellington boot on its side for mice to scuttle into when we flush them out of hiding.

But ratty was having none of the boot. Despite my best efforts to coax him in that direction he squeezed the other way and under the bed. A second later there was a scrabbling streak of grey along the ledge that runs the far side of the room towards the back slider.

There followed a fruitless half hour search around the furniture and curtains at that end of the room, but he’d gone to ground again.

Back to restless sleep, then cue a repeat performance. Cats going mental by my nightstand. Lights on. Yes, he’s there again. Out from the nightstand, under Ali’s dresser. Flush out from there, under the couch. We open the slider wide hoping to chase him out the house. The cats are not helping at this point, scaring him back into the room rather than out, so they get shut away. Couch to nightstand to dresser again, then into the far corner by my chest of drawers via Ali’s foot and the front of my dressing gown. Damn, but he’s fast!

A lot of shifting things around and removing clutter from the floor, we try to give him a clear run to the door. Flush him out again and he runs to the open door ... and up the curtains! He’s now on top of the curtain pole at one end. I grab a stick and twice head him off from running along the pole back to the ledge, while Ali tries to knock him off his perch. Finally he jumps down and out the back door!


Way too late to go back to bed. Time for a cup of tea, and hope he doesn’t find his way back in!

Friday, July 20, 2018

Building a battleship - administration

This will be my last post about the process of designing the Firenzi battleship, Admiral George Leonard, which Shayla infiltrates in The Ashes of Home.

Previous posts talked about the general design, the arrangement of weaponry, machinery spaces, and crew accommodation, as well as some of the practicalities of such a large drawing project. We wrap up with a quick look at how a ship like this is run.

As with any large ship, the analogy of a good-sized town joins forces with that of a fair-sized corporation. And organizations of any size do love their bureaucracy. And Shayla is ready to exploit any loophole that such cumbersome machinery inevitably reveals, after some preparation to seed minds and systems with her newly adopted identity ...

      She reached the ship’s administration office and paused a moment to bring her mind back to the task in hand, and to the persona she’d adopted. She asked for the admin clerk the CPO recommended.
      Petty Officer Isobel Mullin spun her tale of woe.
      The clerk looked up her record, asked questions. Shayla had answers to match the records. Those records also confirmed that tales of woe followed Petty Officer Isobel Mullin everywhere.
      He shook his head and helped Shayla access her account. Rolled his eyes when she promptly managed to lock herself out of the system again, though buggered if he knew how she’d managed that under his watchful eye. The system really did hate her. They started again, this time with idiot-proof instructions to keep her account safe.
      Petty Officer Isobel Mullin blessed him with a smile to light the darkest night, and Shayla left with a spring in her step that needed no feigning. She’d just completed a paper trail of authenticity that she couldn’t achieve with any of her fictitious identities. She’d created personnel records, training records, disciplinary records, transfer papers, all the administrative details within reach of a payroll clerk, but it took someone with specialized security clearance to activate her system account. She was now officially legit.

The administration office is part of a sprawling suite that includes stores and supply, procurement, finance, payroll, HR, as well as a mail room and the ship’s own internal news room.

The deck below that, right in the heart of the ship, is the command center, or bridge.
I’ve never understood why sci-fi depictions of spaceships so often place their bridges in the most exposed positions imaginable. On a sea-going warship it makes sense to give the captain and command crew as good a view of their surroundings as possible, but in a space battle I expect speeds and distances to be too great for that to make any sense. Plus, you are working in three dimensions, so no matter where you place yourself the ship itself will obscure at least half your field of view. So in my world, all command decisions are fed into tactical displays fed from arrays of sensors covering the whole sphere. It follows that the last thing they need is access to windows, so the command center is placed in the most protected location possible.

      The command center of Shayla’s old Martha Sandover had been strictly off limits to lowly grunts like her. A shiver of excitement ran up her spine as she crossed the threshold into this holy of holies.
      The noise struck her first, or rather the lack of it. She remembered her first experience of an Imperial capital ship’s command deck and the cacophony of sound that pervaded the space. Here, the air was heavy with a hundred murmured conversations that seemed muted and distant in comparison.
      The captain stood, feet apart and hands clasped in the small of his back, behind a ten-foot-wide tactical display set into a central well in the floor. His white uniform jacket seemed to glow in the twilight world, lit by rank on rank of screens. In front and around him control stations radiated away into multi-hued corridors. A quick survey of insignia confirmed Shayla’s assumption that the most senior officers manned the inner circle of stations, with their underlings seated in decreasing order of rank towards the outer reaches of the wide, low-ceilinged room.

The end result looks nothing like a ship’s bridge, but should closely resemble a modern warship’s Combat Information Center.

If you want to see more, remember that the full completed plans are posted to my website here.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Building a battleship - living spaces

Continuing my tour of the large and ancient battleship, Admiral George Leonard.

Most of the ship’s crew of roughly 6,000 bunk down in the three main mess decks occupying the forward lower section of the ship. Here is the plan of the “G” deck mess where Shayla stows away.
Most of it is given over to rows of bunks and lockers, a cramped labyrinth with occasional more open spaces for mess tables. The bunks are in sets of three, much like this shot from a real battleship.

Knowing your way around a maze like this helps in an emergency, like when Shayla realizes she’s being ambushed ...
       As she diverted away from her bunk and towards the locker area, the undercover agent once more, hairs on her neck prickled. In her fatigued state, focused on her bunk and sleep, she’d missed small signals that should have put her on high alert. It was near the end of the night watch, the mess areas were normally quiet but there was always someone, a few small knots of people, eating, playing cards, gossiping in low murmurs. The mess tables around here were suspiciously empty. Instead, a few unfamiliar figures lurked at corners between bulkheads and lockers, feigning innocence. The stake out was obvious. Casual onlookers had been warned away. Casting back through her memory, Shayla pictured who was stationed where as she’d entered the labyrinth of the mess deck. In her mind’s eye she mapped the outline of the quarantined area, aware of a slow drift of people closing in behind her. The epicenter lay ahead, where her locker was.

Each of these decks includes shower and washroom facilities, laundry drop-off and pickup points, and a servery linked to the kitchens a couple of decks above by a hoist. While many crew members might choose to eat down in the mess decks, they also have access to a large canteen, open all hours, in the middle of the main recreation area.

As well as the main crew messes, there are at least another two dozen smaller mess areas for the roughly 1,000 officers and petty officers. To help plan these out, I researched navy ranks to get an idea of a realistic proportion of different ranks in a ship’s population.

A ship like this might be away from civilization for months at a time. It’s not enough to provide basic eating and sleeping accommodation, the ship is a fair-sized self-contained town with essential amenities to keep everyone mentally and physically healthy. The recreation deck includes a coffee shop, library and study rooms, and a chapel. The deck above houses a comprehensive suite of fitness facilities including a running track circling the core of the deck. Along in the next section, there are stores for civilian items, and tailor, cobbler, and barber shops.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Building a battleship - fighting capability

The whole point of a battleship is to be able to fight. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I gave the Admiral George Leonard several docking bays to mount weapons or other payloads, giving the ship class tremendous flexibility during the course of their long service lives.

One of the most common weapons in Shayla’s world is the particle beam. This class of weapon shoots a tightly-focused bolt of charged particles - essentially controlled lightning - and the technology is scalable from hand-held to gargantuan.

In George Leonard, the primary weapons are mounted in pairs as shown in this cross section. This view also shows a lower pod of torpedo launch tubes attached to the ship’s ventral docking points.

     The hatch popped open and Shayla slipped inside the weapon bay. How to board a ship without boarding the ship, that was the trick. Although she was now technically on board, safely enclosed at last within the ship’s armored walls and shielding and subject once more to gravity, this cavernous hold was unpressurized and still technically open to space.
     Shayla examined her surroundings with a pang of nostalgia. Life had been so much simpler back then in her days as a lowly marine. A wash of red light barely dispelled the darkness. Suspended overhead, the barrels of two particle beams—warehouse-sized siblings of the hand-held weapons she heartily despised—each dwarfed the scout she’d recently abandoned.
     Pale green striplights marked a maze of companionways and catwalks that weaved between the inert bulk of machinery clinging to the bay walls. She craned her neck, eyes tracing the lines of cables and conduits high above.

Of course, this kind of offense needs a comparable defense, which Shayla later uses to her advantage ...

     The maintenance corridor ran near the outer skin of the ship. In compartments alongside, electromagnetic shield generators lay dormant ready to protect this flank of the ship in combat. Thick doors at intervals down the narrow passage gave access to the shield machinery. Vivid signs on each door warned of deadly levels of radiation and electrical discharges.
     Shayla cracked open the nearest door and slipped inside. She stopped a few minutes to study the layout of cables and machinery. The shields may be dormant but the circuits would still be hot, ready to come to life at a moment’s notice. She might not be an engineer, but she knew engineering, especially anything to do with weapons and defense systems—how to use the former, and how to disable the latter.
     A ship’s shields worked by deflecting the energy from charged particle weapons—beams and plasma. Most incoming offense was deflected straight back out into space, but the shields caught and channeled a significant amount of run-off. Shield machinery also contained a large quantity of delicate electronics. The two were not meant to mix.
     Shayla stood between two green-painted electrical cabinets. Massive bus bars along the far wall linked the shield coils to banks of cells, reservoirs to contain the leakage. Florescent hazard lines on the floor warned against straying too far into the room. She eyed a run of white-painted pipes along the ceiling, picking her target.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A blustery Canada Day

No, this is not a metaphor for the tariffs on maple syrup and toilet paper that went into effect today, adding to the brewing storms surrounding North American relationships. It’s simply a literal observation.

While much of the country seems to be baking, we’ve had precious few opportunities to enjoy the outdoors this Spring. Even when the rains ease off and the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, like it did today, the wind picks up so much that anything not nailed down is likely to end up on the back lawn.

Like it did today.

Which is kinda weird for this neighborhood.

I’ve grown up used to incessant wind. Living on a small island, with nothing but Atlantic ocean off our west coast, the movement of air rarely fell below a moderate breeze. When we moved out to the west coast of BC, one constant we remarked on time and again over the years was how still it was here.

It was the exact polar opposite to what I’d grown up with. There was now nothing unusual in sitting on the deck with nary a breath to rustle the trees. A noticeable breeze has become the exception. For many summers we strung up a badminton net on the front lawn and happily played with indoor shuttlecocks, not the heavy outdoor variety.

This afternoon, I braved the gusts making my laptop screen quiver, but I sadly abandoned my seat at the table outside when I had to leap up to stop the parasol lifting off like a dandelion seed.

What’s weird is - this seems to have become the norm this year.

Our weather is right royally screwed up.

Ah well, Happy Canada Day, eh!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Building a battleship - filling in the details

Continuing my posts about drawing up plans for the ancient battleship, Admiral George Leonard.

Once I had the main structure in place and identified the broad layout, it was time to fill in the details. This is what took most of the time on this project.

There was one aspect of the design that helped here - not planned, it’s just the way it worked out. The deck areas were sharply divided up into distinct zones by the keels and structural frame. This suggested that it would make sense to designate zones to specific purposes, and focus my efforts on one zone at a time.

Here, for example, are close-ups of the main medical center and ship’s administration offices.

Once I got going, I quickly realized something that I hadn’t fully thought through yet. Faced with all those empty boxes, repeated deck after deck, I had a lot of space to fill! In the book, despite the overall enormous size of the ship, I do my best to give the impression of cramped and crowded living and working conditions. But in practice I seemed to be faced with a positively embarrassing surfeit of real estate.

Of course, there’s also a lot of stuff needing to go into that space, but I had to start getting pretty inventive thinking through all the possibilities that might be required in a fighting ship with a crew of six thousand, isolated from planets and bases for months at a time. I had to be fairly generous in my use of space, without making it look too generous. So I carved the deck up into lots of small compartments, and assigned functions to them as creatively as possible while making it sound and look credible.

One of the upsides of taking on a large project over a long period of time, new thoughts would pop into my head from time to time. I can tell you, I was always happy when a new idea cropped up, and I thought ... yes, that is going to need a lot of room! And it was a big relief when I neared the end and found I was now having to look for odd corners to squeeze things in.

BTW - the full set of completed plans are posted to my website here.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

This is how to earn respect

By doing what is hard for you to do, rather than what comes most easily

Being motivated by selfless actions rather than personal gain

By seeking to inspire others, rather than seeking praise for yourself and your own accomplishments

Friday, June 15, 2018

I wanna be like yoo-oo-oo

It's a sad day when the leader of the world's second largest democracy envies a brutal dictator

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Building a battleship - drawing practicalities

One thing that most distinguished this drawing project from others, is the sheer scale of the drawing.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s the kind of window I am usually working in ...
... it looks small as an image here but this is a snapshot of the drawing window in iDraw that takes up most of my screen. This kind of scale is comfortable to work at, close enough to handle small details but not too close to give me tunnel vision.

And here is the view zoomed out to the whole page, with the previous portion highlighted. You can see that at any one moment I am only working on a tiny fraction of the whole plan.
And this is just page one of three!

A task of this size poses a series of challenges.

The big picture

For fine positioning, iDraw has a grid feature. Helpfully, it lets you set up a two-tier grid, with large and small units. In this case I worked with a 0.5mm fine grid, with heavier grid lines every 5mm. My scale is 0.5mm to 1ft. Yes, I’ve always been weird that way - measuring in metric but thinking in feet, but the latter makes sense in Shayla’s world because I have them talk in terms of Imperial units (miles etc.) to give a sense of tradition and antiquity.

This grid is great when it comes to drawing the detail of rooms and corridors, but to help with overall orientation I add in a broader grid of lines to give me a large scale framework.

You can see that the plan is actually a series of plans - mostly decks, but also profile and section. Laying these out on the page needs some forward planning. I decided on the overall dimensions for the different elements and then worked out how much room each one needed on the page - not so close that they overlap, but not too far apart either. I then laid out my own large scale grid lines to mark out the boundaries. I put these in their own drawing layer behind everything else so they are visible but don’t interfere.

Here is that same view of the page with the grid lines emphasized.

Keeping it together

The next challenge, which applies to any plan but is made trickier working on such a large scale, is vertical integrity. Decks don’t exist in isolation of each other, there are elements that link them together and which therefore have to be positioned correctly from one to the next. I’m talking here about obvious things like elevators and vertical service shafts, stairs, and inner and outer structural members.

Again, this benefits from some forward thinking. I started off with the main structural framework of the ship - keels and horizontal and vertical plates. Again, I put these into a drawing layer of their own for easier handling. Making this ship a fairly boxy shape helped, because there was a lot of repetition from one deck to the next. Once I had worked out the parts of the framework that pierced one of the main decks, it was a matter of copying and pasting to the others.

Even that simple exercise was a bit of a headache until I developed a technique to handle positioning. With such a large drawing, when you zoom out far enough to see the whole deck you are too far out for accurate positioning. And at that distance I also found it next to impossible to “grab” a set of lines I’ve just pasted to drag them into position. My solution was to add some temporary drawing elements to help move and position. You can see one or two red triangles nestling in the corners of my grid. I select the items I want to copy, along with one of these triangles. When I paste into the next deck, the large triangle is easier to grab while zoomed out, so I can get things roughly into position. I then zoom in on the triangle and nudge it until it is precisely positioned against the grid lines and I know everything else - out of sight because I’m zoomed in - is also moving with it into correct alignment.

With the structural framework laid out, I moved on to the outer hull, and then internal elements such as shafts and stairs. This was a game of patience, and checking and double-checking everything before I started filling out the details.

Keeping track

The last major challenge was simply keeping track of the overall plan, and keeping motivated by seeing progress as I fleshed out the enormous amount of detail.

Here I set up a spreadsheet to mark out zones along the length of the ship, and decks down the page.

This became my master plan for what went where. On a copy of this master plan I used traffic-light shading to show which sections were complete, in progress, or still to do. At first this served to emphasize what a daunting task I had embarked on, but it was satisfying to see the steady spread of green as time went by.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Building a battleship - machinery spaces

Armed with a general idea of the overall layout, it’s time to start piecing the main parts of the jigsaw together.

As I said last time, with a seagoing warship you are pretty much constrained by the realities of marine engineering. The general shape and proportions of the hull follow a common pattern and everything fits into that. But with a space craft you have a freer hand to invent your own body plan.

Even so, it helps to pay a bit of attention to basic physics and structural mechanics. It helps to have something that at least looks like it would hang together.

In the case of the Enforcer battleships, my starting point was the structural frame of the ship. I settled on a box frame arrangement. Typical sea ships have a single keel running along the bottom of the hull, to which everything else is attached. Admiral George Leonard has four keels arranged in pairs, upper and lower. Large horizontal and vertical plates link the keels together, forming a series of boxes down the length of the ship.
I placed most of the ship’s tanked storage (water and fuel) and services (e.g. waste processing) in the upper and lower spaces between the keels (click on image for a closer look).

     Down ladders once more to the lowest level, Shayla found the laundry and clothing store. Each deck on a ship like this had its own distinctive look, smell, and sound. The similarities to her old Martha Sandover were uncanny, and brought back sharp pangs of nostalgia. Down here, in a space nestling between the massive frames of the lower longitudinal keels, it felt subterranean. Yellow light glistened off cream walls. Pipes twisted thick overhead. Steam and chemicals tainted the air.

The framework between upper and lower keels extends all the way through the decks in between. Everything else has to work around these immovable structural members.

In this view, you can see that most of the ship is taken up by the two main machinery spaces.

In Shayla’s universe, there is one important design constraint that I don’t have to worry when it comes to the ship’s drive. Most ship designs have to accommodate large rocket (or other) exhausts at the rear. Interstellar technology in this world, however, uses fields that manipulate space and gravity. No opening to the outside world required, so critical machinery can stay safely tucked away behind shields and armor.

     Industrial ear muffs barely deadened the noise echoing back and forth in the cathedral space that rose through most of the height of the hull. She’d grown used to near silence in Blazer’s machinery space, but here the quintuplet of hulking, pot-bellied power units was anything but quiet. The curving shells that filled most of the compartment hummed an almost subsonic note that tingled her bones. Accustomed as she was to technology from the microscopic to the gargantuan, she had never been this up close and personal with the living heart of a capital ship. Despite herself, her skin crawled in awe at the unimaginable power contained a few feet away. Behind layers of armor and magnetic containment fields, humans dared subvert the power of suns.
     She shivered, and returned her attention to the job at hand and the instructions in her earpiece fighting to be heard. From her vantage point high above the deck, the shrieking din of ancillary equipment that clustered at floor level was lessened, but only just.
     A narrow slice of unencumbered air ran the length of the power plant on either side, giving minimally-adequate working room. Canary yellow gantries spanned the engineering space and hoisted the two ton dead weight of the fuel injector high into the air, but it took sweat and muscle, and a constant stream of commands mingled with colorful invective to line the cylinder up with its housing forty feet above the deck.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Paid promotions

Last month, I mentioned that I was trying out one or two paid promotions, a new approach for me. Now I’m coming to the end of my planned stint I thought I’d give an update on my experience.

General strategy

For the last couple of years I’ve priced e-books at $3.99. With the release of The Ashes of Home, I decided to drop the price of Ghosts of Innocence to $0.99 for two months. My hope is that people who are tempted to buy the first book at a reduced price might be enticed to move on to the second.

Note: All prices here are given in US $

During these two months I ran several paid promotions on Ghosts to reach a wider audience.


In each case, Ghosts of Innocence was advertised in an email to subscribers on the specified day. There was an immediate spike in sales on that day, with a small number the following day, then zero. Any further sales after that I’ve regarded as normal business rather than a direct result of the promotion.

Promotion #1: Bargain Booksy, April 22, cost $35.
Sales of Ghosts: 22
Sales of other titles: 2

Promotion #2: Book Gorilla, May 6, cost $50.
Sales of Ghosts: 13
Sales of other titles:  1

Promotion #3: Bargain Booksy, May 27, cost $35.
Sales of Ghosts: 17
Sales of other titles: 0

I also submitted twice to Ereader News Today but was rejected both times.


These kinds of sales come nowhere near to paying for the promotion, but at this stage of the game that isn’t the point. I’m happy to be getting my books into more hands, and even a few sales now and again helps lift my author rank in the arcane Amazon algorithm. This is a long game of patience and persistence.

BTW - Ghosts of Innocence is still at the reduced price for another couple of weeks. After that, I will likely try a slightly higher price point of $4.99 for Ghosts and Ashes.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Building a battleship - general arrangements

When you design a seagoing warship, especially a WWI/WWII battleship, you pretty much have to start off with the general arrangement of big chunks of machinery. Main and secondary armament with their associated shell rooms and magazines demand large unbroken slices of real estate, as do the propulsion units. Together, these largely dictate the overall profile of the ship.

With a traditional ship, you are always working within the constraints of a hull, along with rules of buoyancy and center of gravity.

When it comes to a spaceship, two obvious differences spring to mind immediately.

First, you can abandon the need for streamlining. Depending on how things work in your story world you may have other unique constraints to think about, but spacecraft generally don’t have a dense medium like water to plow through, or depend on aerodynamics for lift. So you can think beyond the ship’s hull or aircraft’s fuselage and go for different shapes - blocky and angular, spindly and fragile - and you essentially have complete freedom over basic body plan. Who else remembers the shock of the first appearance of the starship Enterprise, making a break from sleek Buck Rogers-style rocket ships?

To me, that freedom actually makes it all the more important to start off with some overall concept to work within, otherwise you risk ending up with a mess (unless, of course, a disordered mess is what you actually want)

Second, a seagoing warship is typically designed to afford its main armament as broad an arc of fire as possible. With superimposed turrets fore and aft, the entire main armament can usually be brought to bear on a target broadside on (and for maybe 15 degrees either side of perpendicular.)

Classic big gun broadside

Outside of that arc, you can bring no more than half your guns to bear, either the forward or aft batteries. But you only have to think about coverage over a two-dimensional surface. In space, this problem extends to three dimensions, posing new challenges and compromises.

In the case of my Imperial Swords, I chose to compromise. The ships are designed to attack ground targets, to terrorize rebelling planets into submission, so the primary weapon doesn’t need a broad arc of fire.

     With almost leisurely movements, Hammer rolled away from George Leonard. With a sick feeling in her gut Shayla knew this was no act of submission. The Sword’s primary weapon, her city-wrecking plasma cannon, occupied the full two-thousand-foot height of the battleship from the bulbous upper pod containing hangars and the main battle platform down through the height of the hull to project from her underbelly. She was taking up an attack posture, lining up a kill shot.

Their secondary armament forms a ring around a broad pod spreading above the main hull. This gives almost complete field of view, but there are gaps ...

     Icy fury flooded Shayla. She blinked her eyes clear and brought herself even closer in. From past experience she knew these ships had many blind spots up close, the most extensive being right on top of that upper pod.
     Hammer maneuvered away. Her captain was also aware of those blind spots and determined to bring his weapons to bear.

Unlike the ground-assault Swords, battleship Admiral George Leonard is intended for general ship-to-ship combat so all-round cover is vital.

I started with an image in mind of a fairly slender body, with paired pods of weapons down either side. The pods jut out from the sides and give relatively clear all-round cover, with roughly half the main weapons able to target any given point of space. The feel I was going for was of a narrow and cramped interior surrounded by machinery. As it happens, some of that thinking went by the wayside as I’ll explain in a later post, but this gave me the conceptual framework to build from. What you can see here is a plan view of the frame.

The weapons are mounted in separate modules that dock in the bays on either side.

     Once aboard, the going should be easier. Enforcer-class ships were huge, second only to Imperial Swords, and the mainstay of the Firenzi navy for the last five millennia. A bulky hull contained machinery and accommodation, but farsighted architects had designed them with pairs of vast docking points to mount weapons or more specialized payloads. This flexibility, and the ability to upgrade weapon systems over the years without a massive overhaul, was the secret of the ancient ships’ longevity.
     If Admiral George Leonard was typical of her class, she’d be packing six batteries of beam weapons at those docking points. Shayla hoped to identify the source of the blinding shot that had vaporized the scout. From her stint aboard a similar ship, she had the glimmer of a plan to avoid arousing suspicion.

The main engineering spaces lie between the pairs of docking points, with main crew accommodation forward, and hangars aft.

More of that in future posts ...

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