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I found an old notebook on the shelf.

It’s not dated, but judging from the handwriting and some of the things that are referenced, I’d say it starts around sixth form (that’s age 17) and goes up to some time after I went to university.

It’s a fun read – it begins with what I think was my first real attempt at properly planning a story – character maps and notes on the world government and all.  There are even some notes on architecture and little drawings – to scale – of some of the physics involved.

The story plan concerns the (highly probable) situation in which the moon’s orbit has started to decay.  Scientists managed to find a way to prop it up on giant struts, but clearly in the process some damage was done to the Earth’s atmosphere.  Now, everyone has to live in the shadow of the moon, otherwise they die of radiation poisoning.

Shadowland plot

The radiation has caused strange mutations in the twilight lands, where people get a reduced dose of the sun’s rays.  They don’t die outright, but they have mutations in the genes which cause features such as white fur to reflect the rays, dampeners in their eyes to reduce glare, etc.  These twilight people feel bitter because they are thought of as freaks, when in fact they are better suited to life now.  They grow crops which have also mutated, and try to sell them to the shadowlanders.

My main character was called Tim, and he was an “ordinary person” in his late teens/early twenties, who was claustrophobic – a problem since the moon hangs so low in the sky and everyone lives in a tightly packed space with lots of tunnels.  Apparently his parents were accountants!

For entertainment’s sake, I thought it would be interesting to take some of what I wrote then and compare it with what I would do now.  I reproduce it complete with spelling errors, amendments and so on.

Then:

Tim stepped out into the clear night air.  A slight breeze stirred his short brown hair.  Involuntarily, he glanced upwards, and shuddered.  His sad blue eyes closed, and he swallowed.  He could see the moon’s craters with his naked eyes.  It was too close, too close.

He looked out across the city, taking in the skyscrapers which rose tall as far as he could see.  Some of them were so tall you could almost reach out and touch the moon from the top of them.

Walking briskly down through the concrete jungle, Tim wrinkled his nose at the all-pervading stench of moon dust.

I bet they first men on the moon didn’t realise how bad it smells when the first put man on the moon, 2 centuaries ago, he thought bitterly.

And now:

Tim stepped out of the airlock and listened to the door swish closed behind him.  Within moments he was covered in a fine layer of moon-dust.  He cast a glance over his shoulder to check that the green ‘ready’ light had come on, confirming that he could re-enter the complex whenever he wanted.  It shone brightly, cutting through the gloom like a beacon welcoming him home.  With a slight pang he thought of his sister, left behind for now.  I will come back for her, he vowed, once I’ve found them.  We will be together again.

He settled his dust-mask more firmly on his face and squinted at the world.  Around him, towers rose high into the sky, packed tightly together.  Windows were few and far between, especially at ground level.  There was nothing to look at, after all, apart from dust and more towers.  He deliberately didn’t look up.  Tim had heard that from the highest towers you could see amazing views, even as far as the edge of the Shadow.  He’d heard that from the very tallest towers you could reach out and touch the moon.  He’d never been that high, of course.  Only the richest citizens were able to afford to live above the dust.

The gully he was in now was one of several that ran throughout the complex.  They were designed to give access to the outside of the massive building, for the maintenance crews.  In reality they were hardly used.  The complex was given the minimum maintenance possible to keep it standing.  There was no money for anything else, and no spare materials to do it with.  All of the dwindling resources of the planet were focused on one thing: the Struts.

He moved forward to the first cross-gully and looked to the left.  In the distance he could just make out Strut Three.  There were eight Struts in all, spaced evenly around the edge of the complex.  Each one was a couple of miles wide at the base, able to support massive weights on its own.  It still took eight of them to hold up the moon.  He shuddered as he considered what would happen if (when!) the Struts failed.  With the ozone layer and most of the upper atmosphere stripped away when the moon descended, the entire human race was packed tightly in the shadow lands.  If even one Strut gave way they would all be destroyed.

Tim smiled grimly.  Not all, not if the stories were true.  He hoped, needed the stories to be true.

Making sure his rucksack was firmly settled on his back, he set out towards the distant structure.  Soon he was breathing heavily.  Each breath in caused more dust to settle on his mask, clogging the filter.  Every time he breathed out he tried to dislodge some of it, only to have it settle again moments later.  He forced himself to carry on.  There would be less dust further out.  Everyone said so.  He tried not to think about how “everyone” knew such a fact when “no-one” went outside.

He wished he could have made this part of the journey inside.  The complex was interconnected all the way to the twilight lands, and even the broken-down air conditioning units and recycled oxygen would be better than this.  Ever since the corn riots last year the towers had been segregated, though, and coming up with good enough reasons to cross further and further from his home would be difficult.  He did not want to get arrested for travelling without permits or whatever made-up crime the government had come up with this month.

He plodded on, trying not to think.  After what seemed like hours he was jolted out of his half-doze by a sudden increase in the light.  He flinched, cowering towards the walls.  How had they found him so quickly?  He thought he had hidden his departure well enough that nobody would even be looking yet.

When nothing happened he looked around and laughed.  Along the walls of the gully lights were flickering on, illuminating everything.  It was night, and the lights were on a timer.  Almost every other bulb had blown, but the light was still brighter than the dust-filtered sunlight available during the day.  Why the outside lights were on when nobody worked out here he didn’t know.

Now that he had stopped he realised how tired he was.  Sinking down against the side wall he leant his arms on his knees and rested his head on them.  The movement knocked his dust mask sideways, and he breathed in a face full of moon-dust.

So there we go!  Leaving aside the totally plausible science behind the situation, I think my writing has improved. What do you think?

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton, has been described as “Pride and Prejudice of the dragon world”, but I think this does the book a disservice.

Pride and Prejudice, in my opinion, dragged a little.  Tooth and Claw does not.  At all.  From the very first scene, I was dying to find out what happened next, and how the various intricacies of the plots would work themselves out.

The book does share some similarity of style with the classics, but it lacks the thing that irritates me most about those books.  Jane Austen, along with most of the other famous authors of the period, writes assuming a level of basic knowledge about the society in which the characters live.  That’s fair enough – and modern authors do it too – but now that society has changed, I can’t help but feel there are little nuances of meaning which escape me.  Little jokes, which, if only I knew more about the society they lived in, I would find hilarious.

Tooth and Claw is set in another world.  Jo Walton goes through the world-building process that readers of fantasy and science fiction will be familiar with.  Her dragon society is not just human society with dragon characters, but involves new rules for what is “normal” – such as eating the remains of your parents after they die, culling the weak, and so on.  Sure, there are some things which stay the same – like the distinction between the gentry and the poor folk – but it’s all explained.

One of the interesting things was the effect that biology has on their marriage practices.  Maiden dragons are gold.  If they get too close to an unmarried male dragon who loves them, then they blush pink (later to turn red when they’ve laid their first clutch of eggs).  This means that everyone can tell if you’ve been alone with a male.  A maiden who blushes before she has become betrothed is considered spoiled.  It leads to some fine predicaments for two of the characters.  If you wanted to, you could read all sorts of political messages into that.

Tooth and Claw doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It has a kind of dry wit spread throughout which made it very good reading.  For example, the scenes have headings, and throughout the book there are a great number which are called “A confession”, “A proposal”, “A second confession”, “Two deaths and a third proposal” and so on.  Near the end there is one which is titled “The narrator is forced to confess to having lost count of both proposals and confessions”.

I would recommend this book for people who like the style of classic novels, people who like dry wit, people who like dragons, and people who are any combination of the above.

Today’s fiction is in honour of this

*

Emily stood at the top of the abseiling tower and peered over the edge.  She clutched at the rope running from her harness to the attachments in the roof and swallowed.  The ground seemed a long way down.  Why had she agreed to this?

She looked over at Susan.  The seven year old was grinning like a maniac, practically bouncing on her toes as she looked down at all of her friends.  Her harness, as tight and secure as Emily’s own, she was sure, was carefully arranged so that you could see her uniform beneath. 

“Are you ready?”

Emily and Susan looked at the instructors and then at each other.

“As I’ll ever be,” replied Emily.  She patted her pocket and winced as she pricked her finger on the open end of Susan’s new badge.  “Are you ready, Susan?”

“Yes!”

Together, they backed up to the edge of the tower, leaned back, and let the ropes take their weight.  Emily swallowed again, suddenly aware of how thin the rope looked.  She began to shuffle her feet, walking backwards down the side of the tower.  Beside her, Susan was bouncing, bending her legs and jumping in giant steps.  Emily shuddered.  Half way down, they stopped.

Emily glanced up at the instructors and saw that they were tieing off the ropes.  Satisfied that they wouldn’t be plummeting to their doom in the middle of a sentence, she turned her attention to the girl beside her.

“Susan,” she began, “you’ve been coming to Brownies for a while now, and you’ve decided that you’re ready to make your Promise.  Do you understand that once you’ve made this Promise, you must do your best to keep it, everywhere, every day, for the rest of your life?”

As she spoke the familiar words, she felt herself calming.  As long as she focused on what they were doing, and not where they were, she thought she could do this.

Susan nodded.

“Ok, then please make the Brownie sign, and make your Promise.  Nice and loud,” she added, “so everyone can hear you!”

Emily pried her right hand from the rope and held it by her head, three fingers raised towards the sky.  Susan did the same.  The child took a deep breath, and then recited loudly.

“I Promise that I will do my best,
To be true to myself and develop my beliefs,
To serve the Queen and my community,
To help other people,
And to keep the Brownie Guide Law.”

Emily smiled widely.  “Well done!”  She carefully switched her hands on the rope and held out her left hand to her newest Brownie.  Susan grabbed her hand and dragged herself closer, then held on to Emily’s harness while she fished out the Promise badge and pinned it on to her uniform.

Once they were done, they separated again and Emily shouted up at the instructors to let them down.

As the ropes began flowing again, Emily started to lower herself down the tower.  She glanced down at Susan, bouncing again and now far below her.  Feeling slightly silly, she took a deep breath and bent her knees before jumping out into space.  Just a little.

At the bottom, she placed her feet on solid ground and took a moment to enjoy the feeling.  Unscrewing her carabiner with trembling fingers she left the rope to dangle and helped Susan with hers.  Susan grinned up at her.

“You’re the best, Brown Owl.  I’m going to remember this for ever!

Oh right, thought Emily, that’s why.

 

Burble, verb.
Flow in an irregular current with a bubbling noise.

*

The brook burbled over the smooth stones, splitting and rejoining as it meandered towards the larger creek.  Anthony followed it with a heavy heart.  Occasionally he glanced back, hoping against hope that the sight would have changed, but each time he was disappointed.

The woman stood by the house, a shotgun in her hands.  A shotgun pointed directly at him.  Every time he paused to look, the figure scowled and gestured with the metal tube.  Behind her stood a small group: her neighbours and friends, come to support her in her time of need.

He wondered how it had come to this.  How had it gone so far, so that everyone had turned against him?  Would not a one of them help him?

Apparently not.

He turned back to the stream and trudged onwards.  It sounded so merry, running along without a care in the world.  Anthony envied that stream.  It knew where it was from, and it knew where it was going, and if something got in the way it just flowed on around it, not worrying.

He approached the edge of the property, where the brook entered the woods.  Turning back, he took one last look at the house he had grown up in, at the people he had known all his life.

At his mother.

He entered the woods, never to return.

Today’s word of the day was nemesis.  Just a little snippet of real life.

*

Nemesis, noun.  A source of harm or ruin.

*

“And now, my fuzzy nemesis, your time has come!”

Jasper looked up at the human looming over him.  She was going away again, he could tell.  He stretched slightly and snuggled deeper into her lap, starting to purr.  She sighed and stroked his head.

“Really, Jasper, I need to go to bed.  You’re going to have to get up.”

He lifted his chin and she obediently started to stroke his throat.  She was so easy to manipulate it was ridiculous.  On a good evening he could hold her in place for half an hour or more past the time she first started trying to leave.

“I mean it,” she said.  “I’m going to bed.”

She stroked his head and sides for a few more minutes and then sighed.

Gently she started to insinuate her hands under his body.  Rebelliously, he went as limp as possible, almost sinking into her legs as she struggled to remove him.  Eventually, though, she managed to get enough of a grip to lift him, and then he knew it was over.

He shook himself slightly and stalked a few paces away before sitting down and looking reproachfully back at her.

She laughed and stroked his head again.

“Sorry, darling, but you should be used to this by now.”

Recently, I’ve been using the “word of the day” feature on my phone’s dictionary as a fiction prompt.  Today’s “word” was give-and-take, which I personally view as three words, but that’s beside the point.

*

Give-and-take, noun.  An exchange of views on some topic.

*

The sudden appearance of the German master had Jackson and Anders hastily straightening up from their half-crouches and brushing ineffectually at their trousers.

“And just what is going on here?”

His voice was soft like silk, with a hidden iron core.  Mr Sanderson never raised his voice to get the attention of the students – in or out of class.  There was no need; his very presence caused everyone to stand in silence.  Jackson gulped.

“Nothing, Sir.  Just a friendly debate, a little give-and-take.”

Mr Sanderson raked his eyes over the pair.  They fought the urge to fidget, both uncomfortably aware that their shirts were not perfectly tucked in, their ties slightly skewed.

“It seems to me,” he said, “that there was a little more take than there was give.  I note that Mr Anders has misplaced his lunch in the excitement, and that you have found it, Mr Jackson.  I will assume that you were merely returning it to him?”  Somehow he managed to make the statement sound like both a question and an order.  Frantically Jackson nodded, and held out the plastic box to the younger boy.

Anders glanced at Mr Sanderson before hesitantly taking it and clutching it to him.  Mr Sanderson gave him the slightest of nods, so small that he was almost sure he had imagined it.

“Mr Anders, I fear you must find other companionship for now; Mr Jackson and I are going to have a conversation about the quality of his latest essay.  Come,” he added sharply, looking at Jackson, and swept off towards his classroom.  Jackson’s shoulders slumped as soon as the teacher’s back was turned, and he made a rude gesture.

“I saw that.”

His eyes widened comically, and he scuttled down the corridor after his teacher.

Anders smiled, and went to eat his lunch.

Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days is unashamedly and firmly in the category of Christian Fiction.  

The book begins with the sudden, unexplainable disappearance of hundreds of thousands of seemingly random people across the globe.  People disappear from their beds, from their cars (moving or otherwise), from planes flying at 40,000 feet.  They leave behind only their clothes.

Everyone has a theory.  Space aliens, technological problems, nuclear accident, sun spots.  As time goes by it becomes clear that the correct answer, though most refuse to accept it, is the Rapture.  God has come and taken his people away, and everyone else has been Left Behind.

Since all of the “proper” Christians have been taken, the characters are all atheist, agnostic, or “Sunday” Christians.  During the course of the book they move through various stages of their spiritual journey – some end up accepting God into their lives and some don’t.  I won’t tell you which are which.  I felt that the non-Christian portions of their personalities could have been developed a little more.

The book is, if you can read past the blatant attempts to convert people, an entertaining read.  The Antichrist makes an appearance and the stage is set for many disasters on the world stage.

However, it is very obvious that it was written as the first in a series, rather than the series coming later when the first book was successful.  The story ends quite abruptly, leaving me with a vague sense of disquiet and a lot of loose ends.

Despite the unfinished nature of the tale, I don’t feel any great rush to read the next one.

I went to see the film adaptation of The Host, by Stephanie Meyer, at the weekend.

All in all, it was a remarkably accurate adaptation, considering what the film industry normally do to books.  I did spot a few places where the action was subtly different to the way it was described in the book, but the main plot items were all there, and all in the right order.  There were no characters missing, or extra characters, as sometimes happens.

For those who don’t know, the Earth has been invaded by body-snatching alien “Souls”, who have turned it into a paradise with no war, hunger, disease, or rude people.  The down side, of course, is that you lose control of your body, causing most people to just give up and fade away.  Melanie, one of a small group of human survivors, is captured and infested, but she resists, causing her alien companion no end of problems.  And, incidentally, being involved in a complex love-polygon in which the Soul and the Host are in love with different people.

It must be tricky to make a film adaptation of something where a large portion of the action occurs inside someone’s head, but they did very well.  The person in control of Melanie’s body always speaks out loud, with the passenger doing voice over, so you can tell who is speaking.  Their arguments are some of the best things about the film.

The characterisation worked well in both book and film, although in the film the relationship between some of the humans was not as clear as it could have been, and you don’t get to know some of the supporting characters as well.  There’s only so much you can do within a sensible film time-limit, I suppose.

I enjoyed the book more than the film; whether this is because of how the action translated to the screen or because I already knew what was going to happen when I watched the film I don’t know.  However, while I would happily read the book again (in a few years time), I’m not sure that I would bother watching the film again.

 

The mirror swirled with green and yellow, a confusing vortex of colour whirling around a central point.  Slowly, a face emerged from the chaos.  It was the face of a young man, exotic looking but not what any would call handsome.  There was just something slightly off about the way his eyes sat, the angle of his nose, the tilt of his chin.  Nothing that you could put your finger on, but it all added up to something less than pleasing.

He tilted his head and considered the woman before him.  Her question was the same as it had always been, but there was something tugging at his mind.  He cast his thoughts out across the land until he found the source of his troubles.

‘Thou, queen, art fair, and beauteous to see,
But Snow White is lovelier far than thee!’

“What?  It cannot be!  Why, just last week you declared me to be the prettiest in the land.”  The Queen paced back and forth in front of her mirror, frowning.  This would never do.  She was queen, so she should be the fairest!  What if the King’s eyes started to stray?  Or worse, he saw through her trickeries and potions, and realised that he didn’t love her at all?

“I shall send the huntsman to kill her,” she thought.  “He could take her into the woods and do the deed away from prying eyes.  But he might be seen leaving with her, and he might tell someone what he has been asked to do.  He has a softness about him which I do not like.  No, the huntsman will not do.  Far better to arrange for some slight… accident to befall my stepdaughter.”

So thinking, the Queen summoned Snow White to her chambers.  When the girl arrived she stood and smiled.

“My dear, I feel I have not had the chance to really know you since I married your father.  Would you take a walk with me?”

She smirked inwardly as the confusion and hope showed plainly on Snow White’s face.  The silly chit probably thought she wanted to be friends.  Ugh.  It was sickening, how much trust this girl had.

Fighting the urge to sweep majestically out of the room, she consciously slowed her pace to give the impression of an afternoon stroll.  She started a conversation about some trivial matter of palace politics, and paid only enough attention to the girl’s reply to know when it was appropriate to nod and smile.  Fortunately, given a prompt, the girl seemed able to witter on without stopping.

Slowly, they wound their way through the gardens.  After stopping to smell the roses and admire the size of the fruit developing on the apple trees, the Queen suggested they look out upon the city.  They climbed the outer stair to the walls, and there the Queen’s plan had an unexpected boost.  Snow White herself suggested that the view might be better from the top of one of the towers. The Queen was careful not to sound too eager in her agreement, but inwardly was gloating.  There was even a guard close enough to have heard who made the suggestion!

At the top of the very tallest tower, it was a simple matter to manoeuver the girl close to the edge.  A slight distraction, a sharp push, and the matter was concluded.

The Queen was sure to sound suitably shocked when she screamed for help.

 

Epilogue: The Mirror Swirls

The mirror swirled with green and yellow, a confusing vortex of colour whirling around a central point.  Slowly, a face emerged from the chaos.  It was the face of a young man, exotic looking but not what any would call handsome.

It was the same face that the Queen had looked at many times since she acquired the mirror, of that she was certain.  And yet, there was something different.  Was the skin perhaps paler?  The hair darker?  The lips a touch redder?  There was nothing she could put her finger on, but the face was not quite as off as it had been.

She shook her head irritably and asked her question.

The Daily Prompt on Monday challenged everyone to pick a letter of the alphabet and write a blog entry without it.  I picked the letter between R and T, and even up to now I have needed to re-word a lot!  I think the current writing will not be very long.

In a vain effort to write about an intriguing topic, I want to examine the employ of new grammar in fiction.

I have before tried to write a piece in which the main character was of a third gender – neither male nor female.  The third gender appeared a third of the time in that world, rather than only once in a while, and I had to build a new grammar to account for it.  I needed a new pronoun.  I found it hard to remember to utilize it where needed.

Have you ever changed language to better tell a tale?  How did you find it?

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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