Science for Fiction by Liz Williams

Imperial CollegeImperial College has been running an annual event, Science for Fiction, for the last few years and many members of Milford have not only attended, but have found this to be an invaluable resource in terms of inspiration and information for their fiction. Run by Professor David Clements, himself a Milford regular, the event runs over 2 days and consists of a series of lectures and discussions on cutting-edge science. In the past, attendees have learned about epigenetics, ethical issues in AI, and tried out a VR device simulating the Mars rover.

Huxley bldg signImperial is one of the top scientific institutions on this planet, a world-leader in physics, astrophysics and AI. It’s fundamentally an engineering college, but some researchers (for instance, Marek Sergot in the AI department) are involved in exploring ethical issues within their fields. Robotics is a major focus and Imperial is involved with the European Space Agency; an Imperial professor, David Southwood, was appointed to the role of Chair of the Steering Committee of the UK Space Agency in 2016. The college also houses the Data Science Institute which acts as a focal point for coordinating data science research at Imperial College. Its research focuses on cross-cutting foundations of data science, including statistics, big data, machine learning, modelling, simulation, visualisation and cloud computing.

Milford in the bar 1

Milfordites in the bar

This year there was an emphasis on space exploration, with a history of space programmes and how they are conceived and funded by Dave Clements, plus an account of the development of spacecraft by Leah-Nani Alconcel, who is working on the JUICE mission for payload instruments for spacecraft, and a lecture on the search for dark matter and dark energy by Dr Pat Scott. This was followed by a visit to the Imperial students’ union bar and a rather outstanding Indian meal on Gloucester Road.

Thursday saw us sitting down to an intense lecture on mathematics and prime numbers by Jim Anderson of Southampton University (also a Milford regular). “People sometimes say to me,” said Jim, “’so do you just sit in your office multiplying bigger and bigger numbers?’ Sometimes, I reply, ‘Yes.’”


Subu Mohanty

This was followed by a talk from Subu Mohanty of Imperial on the habitability of planets which orbit red dwarf stars – crucial for any SF writer wanting to get some cosmological accuracy into their hard science fiction. In the afternoon, we had a talk by Sanjeev Gupta on the history of Curiosity, the Mars rover: its ‘sister’ Opportunity is currently AWOL in a massive Martian sandstorm (who needs fiction when this sort of thing is unfolding in the physical world?). We learned about how the rover was driven, and about problems with its performance in this challenging environment, and we marveled over shots of the Martian landscape: over ancient river valleys and impact craters. The event ended with James Murray lecturing on synthetic biology.

So within the course of a day, we had learned about prime numbers and why they are so important in cryptography, life in the infra-red range of the spectrum, why the composition of a vehicle’s wheels can make or break an interplanetary mission, and where the creation of synthetic life is likely to lead.

IMG_20180704_164417740I brought a friend along, Canadian-based SF writer Ceallaigh MacCath Moran, who commented that as writers, it’s the people behind the science who are as interesting to us as the science itself, and I would agree with this remark, having appreciated

Mars Rover driver

Mars Rover Driver

the enthusiasm with which every speaker approached their subject. We were all amused by Sanjeev’s account of his daughter, at the eye-rolling stage of development, complaining about how boring his job was and how she couldn’t understand why her classmates all thought it was really cool.

Writers will always find something to talk about, so as well as scientific matters, several of us exchanged notes over research into magical practice – the Fantasy side of the genre spectrum. And there was a lot of discussion about ideas, concepts, dreams of the future, and concerns about the present.

I think all of us who attended would like to thank Dave Clements and Imperial for making this possible. If you are interested, the event is planned for 2019, and costs around £30 for 2 days.


Liz WilliamsLiz Williams is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Glastonbury, England, where she is co-director of a witchcraft supply business. She has been published by Bantam Spectra (US) and Tor Macmillan (UK), also Night Shade Press and appears regularly in Asimov’s and other magazines. She has been involved with the Milford SF Writers’ Workshop for 20 years, and also teaches creative writing at a local college for Further Education.

Novels are: THE GHOST SISTER (Bantam Spectra), EMPIRE OF BONES, THE POISON MASTER, NINE LAYERS OF SKY, BANNER OF SOULS (Bantam Spectra – US, Tor Macmillan – UK), DARKLAND, BLOODMIND (Tor Macmillan UK), SNAKE AGENT, THE DEMON AND THE CITY, PRECIOUS DRAGON, THE SHADOW PAVILION (Night Shade Press) WINTERSTRIKE (Tor Macmillan) and THE IRON KHAN (Morrigan Press) and WORLDSOUL (Prime). The Chen series is currently being published by Open Road.

Her first short story collection THE BANQUET OF THE LORDS OF NIGHT was also published by Night Shade Press, and her second and third, A GLASS OF SHADOW and THE LIGHT WARDEN, are published by New Con Press as is her recent novella, PHOSPHORUS.

The Witchcraft Shop Diaries (1 and 2) are published by New Con Press.

Her novel BANNER OF SOULS has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Memorial Award, along with 3 previous novels, and the Arthur C Clarke Award.

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You don’t have to be Luddite to work here… by Alastair Reynolds

There’s an understandable assumption that someone who thinks about coming technologies must also be something of a gadget-head. I’ve certainly done my share of near-future speculation, trying to imagine plausible extensions of current advances in AI, robotics, virtual reality, telepresence and so on. While I’m fascinated by these topics in an abstract sense, I couldn’t be less interested in terms of my own working environment.

I write in a wooden shed in Wales. I have a kettle in there, and a record player, and not much else. There’s certainly no wifi, and I struggle to get a good telephone signal. Most of my writing (including this blog post) is done on a Dell desktop computer that will soon be old enough to begin driving lessons. Technically it’s on borrowed time – I was assured that the hard-drive is already many years over “MTBF” – “mean time between failures” – yet it keeps working, boots up before I’ve had time to boil the kettle, and only ever crashes in really hot weather. Given that I live in the aforementioned Wales, that’s rarely a concern. That said, I’m very diligent about backing up. And for those of you who care about such things, it’s running Windows XP with Word 97. It’s never been connected to the internet.

I’m not a technophobe but if a piece of equipment does the work required, I see no reason to discard it. Whenever I have to write on the road, using a succession of unreliable and clunky laptops – none of which is has yet outlasted the Dell – it’s always a relief to come back home and find that I can work freely, without the machine interposing itself, impeding the creative process rather than helping it flow.

OlympiaSG158In truth, I needed persuasion to switch to computers in the first place. I’m possibly one of the last wave of writers who had any tangible contact with manual typewriters. I began with a very heavy Olympia typewriter and later switched to a lighter, portable model, and I wrote the first draft of Revelation Space on the latter machine. I taught myself using a rudimentary hunt-and-peck approach which is still about all I can manage. I was still submitting typewritten stories to Interzone into the middle nineties.

Revelation spaceThis education served me well in one sense, in that it encouraged me to keep going. My working method was to type three new pages of fiction an evening. I would allow myself three Tip-Ex corrections per page – more than that, and I retyped the whole sheet.

What I tried not to do was to go back and fiddle with what I’d produced the night before. Revision and polishing are absolutely essential aspects of the craft, but they can also be dangerous substitutions for actual creative slog. The writer who spends all their time trying to write the perfect opening line, the perfect opening page, will likely never finish anything.

When I’m sitting at my PC, I try to treat it as a typewriter during the first draft, accepting that it’s better to be moving forward, even with imperfections, than get sucked into that spiral of fiddling and polishing. That part (which I enjoy much more then slog of the first draft) can wait until later.

I am death to keyboards, though.

I bought a swanky new one a couple of years ago, and after finishing only one novel half a dozen of the keys were blank. I ordered some stickers but they lasted even less time than the original markings. Having learned to type on stiff manual typewriters, the force needed to work them is irrevocably hard-wired into my brain and muscle memory. When I worked in science, colleagues used to complain about the racket coming from my office, as I hammered yet another keyboard into bloody submission. Being an amateur musician, as well, I have sharp nails on my right hand. The right side of my keyboard wears out appreciably faster than the left.

That’s fine, though. I’ll gladly accept the cost of a new keyboard every couple of novels for the discipline of moving forward, producing rather than revising. Meanwhile, I suppose I can always buy some more stickers.

Alastair ReynoldsALASTAIR REYNOLDS is one of Britain’s leading science fiction authors. His first novel, Revelation Space, was a critical success, shortlisted for the BSFA and Clarke Awards. He was born in Barry, South Wales, in 1966. He studied at Newcastle and St Andrews Universities and has a Ph.D. in astronomy. He gave up working as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency to become a full-time writer. Revelation space and Pushing Ice were shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award; Revelation space, Absolution Gape, Diamond Dogs and Century Rain were shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award and Chasm City won the British Science Fiction Award. His most recent book is Elysium Fire, featuring Inspector Dreyfus. It’s a fast paced SF crime story, combining a futuristic setting with a gripping tale of technology, revolution and revenge.

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Northwrite SF Writers Group by Jacey Bedford

Inspired by our enjoyment and appreciation of Milford’s annual conference and unable to sign up to a specialised SF critique group in our own area, a few writers based in the north of England decided to form a small critique group. Since our founder members were stretched from coast to coast from Lancashire to Yorkshire it made sense to meet in the middle. Since I’m more or less in the middle (on the edge of the Pennines) and have a rambling old house with spare bedrooms and a decent-sized living room to meet in, Northwrite’s inaugural meeting happened here in June 2012, and it has happened quarterly ever since.

The views here aren’t so bad…


We meet on a Sunday for a full day, and since I don’t have to travel I cook lunch for anything up to ten of us, eleven if I count my longsuffering husband who very kindly helps with the washing up and otherwise keeps a low profile.

We have ten members, and though a few people have dropped out over the years we’ve always been able to fill the places. Of course not everyone attends every meeting and we find that we average out at seven members per session, which works out quite nicely as it’s a nice full meeting with a decent workload. A couple of weeks before the meeting, each attendee sends a single piece for critique, either a short story or part of a novel, up to a maximum of 10,000 words.

We start as close to eleven as possible to allow time for the long distance travellers to get here, and we usually manage to crit a couple of pieces before lunch and the rest in the afternoon, finishing around five or six p.m.

We use the Milford method of critiquing which is outlined in full on the Milford web site:

  • Each participant, in rotation, spends up to four minutes (timed) giving their critique of the work at hand. Everyone gets the opportunity to open the critting, to crit and be critted.
  • No interruption, whether by the author or anyone else, is allowed during this stage of the proceedings.
  • After everyone has spoken the author gets an uninterrupted right of reply.
  • This is often followed by a more general discussion.
  • The critter normally gives the crittee a written version of their crit or maybe their original MS with notes, or emails it afterwards.

Most of our Northwrite members have attended Milford so they already know the cardinal rule of delivering constructive rather than destructive critique. However critique is thorough and robust. When we first began Northwrite we didn’t impose a membership bar (To attend Milford you have to have sold a minimum of one piece of fiction to a recognised market) however we quickly realised that though this bar is low it is effective and we’ve since adopted it.

All of our members are either founder members, or they’ve become members by invitation. On the rare occasion we’ve invited someone unpublished or self-published for a trial session we’ve found/they’ve found that our critique was too robust and detailed for their sensibilities. One young lady said afterwards that it was like attending ‘a masterclass’. While we don’t think of ourselves as being elevated, and we certainly don’t intend to be cliquey, we are all writing for publication and we take our craft seriously. We all have experience of being edited by professional editors, and being critiqued by professional writers. Anyone who wants to be patted on the back and told how wonderful their story is, is not going to like Northwrite (or Milford either). No matter how good a story, someone can always find something, however small, to change for the better.

And that’s the whole point of critique sessions. When you critique someone’s story or novel extract, you are always trying to offer critique that will help to improve it, to drive it a little closer to being publication-ready.

Everybody’s critique style is different. I tend to critique on first impressions, because a reader might not give your writing a second chance if the first impressions don’t hold attention. One of our members is really good at dissecting the logic of a plot, another is spot-on when it comes to philosophical and moral arguments. One is brilliant at picking out typos, another is a historian and great at exposing holes in historically-based fantasy plots. We all have something different to bring to a critique session. The one thing that unites us is our desire to help the writer to make their piece better.

Having started out as a group for writers from Lancashire and Yorkshire, we found that a few of our founder members dropped out and by word of mouth writers with further to travel asked to join. One comes down from the Isle of Arran, others from Gloucestershire, London and Cambridge, while we still have a core of northern writers. It means that some arrive on the Saturday and depart on Monday morning, but so far we’ve never had more overnight people than we can find a bed for, and the social side of things is great.

You can find out more at the Northwrite web site:

Jacey 2018Jacey Bedford is the secretary of Milford SF Writers and the mother hen of Northwrite. She’s had close to forty short stories published on both sides of the Atlantic and has novels published by DAW in the USA. Her Psi-Tech Trilogy (space opera) is complete and her Rowanlind Trilogy (historical fantasy) completes in December 2018. She maintains this blog and one of her own at:

Catch up with her:
Twitter @jaceybedford

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Get Yourself Collected by Rosanne Rabinowitz

So you’ve had a bunch of stories of stories published over the years. Perhaps they were written for themed anthologies – Cthulhu psychogeographical whodunits, alien babysitters, werebuildings and psychic waterfalls? Maybe you can already see patterns emerging from this scattershot back catalogue, or maybe not. In any case, those stories have been adding up to a substantial body of work.

Then one of your publishers stops its operations or the limited-edition anthologies where some of your favourite stories reside have sold out. The tales that absorbed so much thought and time are going out of print and likely to fade from the public eye. And perhaps you’re also thinking it would be good to see them gathered in one place.

Resonance spread

Yes, it could be time for that first collection. I’ve just completed mine, Resonance & Revolt. While I don’t claim to be an expert after my first outing, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned so far.

I initially thought that producing a collection would be more straightforward than writing a whole new book, but the process has its own complexities. First thing I learned – don’t delay! It was a good few years ago when friends urged me to put a collection together. “But I don’t have enough stories!” I protested. I was assured I had plenty, but it didn’t seem like a lot to me.

And then I had a busy spell of short fiction-writing over 2013-15. When rights to the published stories reverted to me, I thought ah-ha… now it’s time for that collection. I took on board advice to look at themes rather than chucking things into some ‘this is what I’ve done’ assortment. So I found ‘resonance’ in many senses of the word – emotional, musical and even in an extremely debased quantum physics sort of way. And there’s a lot of rebellion and connections between moments of revolt in the past, present and future.

I also thought about placement: a lighter, seemingly less substantial piece can be just what you need between two intense historical 10,000-word novelettes. And yes, that 2000-word vignette could have a job to do too.

I made a provisional selection and experienced a heart-stopping moment after I added up the word counts… almost 150,000 words, and that didn’t include any new stories. At least two collection’s worth – perhaps three. Decisions had to be made.

For example, I had a sequence of three stories that shared common characters; I considered these among my best. But when I discussed the collection with members of my writers group, they suggested that this group of stories needed more space if they appear together and more than one new piece to plug in some gaps. Would it be an idea to hold these back for my next collection?

At the same time, one of those stories felt like a key to Resonance, and I realised that Resonance just wouldn’t resonate without “In the Pines”. Perhaps that story could go into Resonance and a very altered version will appear within a sequence in my next collection. I discussed these questions with my editor, the intrepid David Rix. We made a list of pros and cons and decided that holding the other two pieces back made the most sense.

At the same time, I can’t deny that I felt a certain twinge when several people asked after ‘that 7/7 story from Conflicts‘ that I brought to Milford in 2009.

 This brings us to the question of how stories age… or shall we say ‘mature’? Most of the stories in Resonance appeared between 2005 to 2016. Since I arranged my stories by theme rather than date, I had old pieces and newer ones side by side. So the eternal question raised its head: shall I leave the stories be or tweak the shit out of them some more?

Well, there’s that ‘near-future’ segment that’s now near-past…  Something’s got to be done to that. But even in less overt cases I always see ways to improve a piece even if it’s been published.

At the same time, I want to avoid the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’. This phrase comes from EP Thompson, who was discussing the way historians approach movements of the past – for example, the Luddites, or the free-loving medieval dissidents or the student occupiers of 2010 that appear in my book. I try to ask myself: what was going on when I wrote this? What was I thinking when I made those writerly decisions? Here my editor was able to provide a fresher perspective than my somewhat jaded outlook.

When I was immersed in these considerations along with a mountain of proofreading, one thing put it all in perspective: the fantastic and moving introduction written by Linda E Rucker – friend, fellow writer, critic and editor. After reading the intro I was able to look up from all the nitpicking details and remember why I set out to do this collection in the first place.

Though introductions are not compulsory, I’d recommend one for any collection. Find another writer, an editor or a critic or a friend who has appreciated your work. A perceptive preface will introduce new readers to your writing, and it will also be a great boost for you as you begin to bring your first collection into the world.


RosanneRosanne Rabinowitz’s collection Resonance & Revolt is published by Eibonvale Press  and her novella Helen’s Story , nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in 2013, is available from Aqueduct Press. She lives in South London, where she engages in a variety of occupations including care work, copywriting and freelance editing. She spends a lot of time drinking coffee – sometimes whisky – and listening to loud music while looking out her tenth-floor window.

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Traps of World Building by David Gullen

It occurred to me that the one great challenge of world-building is that you are, in fact, building a world. What to put in? What to leave out?

I’ve recently been reading The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby. In it he writes:

“Good storytelling doesn’t just tell audience what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but it is conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience’s essential life too.”

That extrapolates well to world building. World-building is not a thing in itself, it is there to support your storytelling. You are creating the semblance of a world not the actuality. All that is required are the specifics that will support the story you are telling in all its aspects. Not so detailed that the narrative and characters disappear, not so flimsy you feel you could walk up to the scenery and bang your hand on the canvas backdrop.

One way to think about your world building is to treat it like the photographs, souvenirs, and memories of a trip to a place only you have visited – the striking moments, places, items, inhabitants, ways of life, creatures and landscapes, and sensations that stay with you when you have left. The things you absolutely have to tell everyone about when you return home. The things that will fire their imaginations and make them want to go there too.


I recently stalled myself writing a connecting scene between two places – Knights Hall, where my alien city guardians live, and High House, the home of the ruling elite deep in my underground city. How was I going to get my characters from the first place to the second? Which route would they take? What would they see, do, say, and feel?

With this particular story I have needed to imagine an entire world: a planet and ecology,  cities and technology, a cultural history and a way of life that has stretched unbroken for thousands of years. With this scene it all became too much. There was so much to think about I didn’t know where to begin.  And for a while I actually couldn’t.

Which was no good at all.

I’ve learned to trust my subconscious when it stalls me. I now take it as a message that I am heading in the wrong direction. Invariably it (or rather that other, and in some ways smarter, part of me) is right. So I did what I usually do and think about whether or not I needed this scene at all and, if so, how big it needed to be.

In the end this is what I wrote:

“Vioneth led the way to High House along a secret way behind the upper warren. Lumens blinked into life as they went. The footing was level and paved, the curved walls whitewashed, yet everywhere there were signs of disuse and neglect. Paint peeled, water pooled in shallows and corners.”

Just what I thought where the essential details. And I have now hopefully co-opted the imaginations of the reader to build on that description in their own minds. Readers usually have excellent imaginations.

With world building, as with so many things, less is usually more.


gullen-dkg1-2012David Gullen was born in South Africa and baptised by King Neptune at the equator. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including New Scientist’s ARC, Albedo 1, and the Sensorama anthology from Eibonvale. He is a winner of the Aeon Award and been shortlisted for the James White Award. His novel, Shopocalypse, was published by Clarion (2013) and will be re-issued by NewCon Press later this year. He is also one of the judges for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. David lives in Surrey, England, with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold and too many tree ferns.

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Listening to Your Characters by Karen Brenchley

When I was a kid, my favorite toy was a set of tiny wooden figures called Little People, made by the Fisher Price company. These were very crude, with solid bodies and minimal markings to distinguish hair and faces, but I gave each of the thirteen or so I had individual names and personalities. I would pour out the set of wooden blocks I’d had since babyhood, and use those to create structures around which I would play — tell stories about — these people. Some were related, some were enemies, a couple of them were adults, hence authority figures. I had hours of fun with these over the years, but I didn’t change the games much, and the personalities were always the same, so I lost interest. I grew up.

Little People

The first couple of stories I sold, I identified closely with the main characters. To some extent, I felt like she or he was in fact me. Then one day I started a story where I knew the main character was an older woman in a near, post-climate change future, who I named Mother Mary Eulalia, Bishop of the Diocese of Deseret. She was definitely not like me in personality. I was envisioning her as older and thoughtful, and as the story opened she was walking on an overpass over a train station. I also knew that someone in the story was a terrorist, who was setting bombs on trains. I noodled over the plot, but just couldn’t get the story going, until very nice, proper Mother Mary Eulalia told me that she was the terrorist bomber.

I felt betrayed. My stomach churned. I felt like a friend had confided a horrible secret to me, as if my best friend had admitted to robbing banks or poisoning children. I put the story down and couldn’t touch it for weeks, but deadlines being what they are I picked it up again, and the story worked a lot better thanks to Mary Eulalia’s tip. (You can read “Songs of Innocence”, which I brought to Milford in 2010, in Tales From the House Band vol 2.)

I have a historical universe I’d been playing with that I picked up again recently. I already know who the main set of characters are, and have been working on getting to know them, and how the plot will affect them, and how they will affect the plot. And then one of the very minor characters started talking to me. He’s a teenager, about fourteen years old, and besides that all I knew was that his name was David and he wrestled. Until one day he said to me, “Hey, did you know I’m Jewish? And I think I’m going to get along well with the Christian friar. We might even discuss philosophy.” No, I did not know that. That couldn’t be. In this time period the Jews had been expelled. Except, apparently, this one. And his family. And did I know he was gay?

So that story has been completely sent off the rails into a new direction, one that I think is going to be much more interesting. My characters seem to be a lot smarter than I am, if I’m just smart enough to listen to them.


Karen in living roomKaren Brenchley has had science fiction, steampunk, and fantasy stories appear in various anthologies both alone and with her husband, Chaz Brenchley. She founded the SF in SF reading series with Terry Bisson, and edited her husband’s Lambda Award-winning collection “Bitter Waters”. She designs analytics tools for large, unstructured data sets, is a defunct black belt in aikido, and lives in Sunnyvale with her husband, two squabbling cats, and a long-suffering turtle. See more at her website .

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Tinkering with First Person Point of View by Brenda Clough

Most dangerius woman 1My latest novel, A MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN (SerialBox , May 2018), is a sort of sequel to a much greater work: THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins. Like many Victorian novels, this work was told in various first-person voices. And so anyone following along behind has to duplicate that format.

So, doing this I have become pretty good at handling first person POV. And the first thing I did was to split out my two narrators. People do not sound alike; consider the people you yourself know. You instantly can identify your spouse’s voice, and you never confuse it with that of your boss, or your Aunt Linda The great and invincible advantage of using a first person narrator is that you get to ‘hear’ that person perfectly, without the filter of the omniscient narrator. So exploit that advantage to the hilt. Let that person be utterly distinctive, with a voice that you could recognize anywhere.

The allied point, of course, is that both the author and the reader are going to be spending a lot of time with that narrator An entire book, maybe a hundred thousand words, listening to this guy – can you do it? Can your reader? There are people in this world (many of them in politics — turn on your TV if you don’t believe me) whose voices are intolerable. You could not listen to them for a hundred seconds; an entire novel’s worth of channelling that voice would drive you to heavy drug use.  Narrators can lie to themselves and thus to the reader. They can be fools, even outright villains. But they had better have charm, otherwise the book will be unreadable.


Wilkie Collins 1874 by Napoleon Sarony, (1821-1896)


In this novel I have two narrators. Wilkie Collins, no fool, was careful to choose magnetic voices, a woman and a man. And so I have had a lot of fun putting work into differentiation. Marian and Walter notice different things, have slightly variant vocabularies (but not too different!), care about different things. The gender thing is particularly useful in a work set in 1860, because roles were highly differentiated at that period. There were lots of things that women were not allowed to do, say, or be. And, on the other side, there were lots of things that men had to do, some of them fun (only men could swim in outdoor ponds!) and some of them pretty depressing. It’s like having two cameras, or two pairs of glasses. I, and therefore you, can look through two sets of eyes and see the alien landscape of Victorian Britain with two perspectives.

The other angle involves the plot. Who sees what? And who tells it, when? This is the great limitation of first person POV – you are stuck, more or less, inside your character’s head. What if something happens at which neither of my POV characters can be present? Then some fancier footwork is called for so that I can get the necessary information into the hands of the viewpoint characters.  People don’t have to tell each other everything, either. Marian can simply not tell poor Walter things, which can lead to vast difficulty and complication. The two viewpoint characters do not have to have the same goals, can misunderstand each other hugely, and in fact be at daggers drawn. Although I don’t do it in this book, you could also cheat by loosening the first person a little.  Some occasional omniscient narration, and the problem is solved.

The flow of time is another consideration. A first person viewpoint implies time, because the character is necessarily either living the events, from moment to moment, or looking back upon them from a greater or lesser distance. There are advantages to both ways of managing it, and since I have two viewpoints, it’s easy to work it for maximal fun. Marian keeps a journal, which she makes an entry in nearly every day so that she can puzzle over or be alarmed at current happenings. Walter, at a remove of some years, can be more analytical and portentously note when things are going off the rails.

The final and truly irreparable difficulty in first person narrative is the way it undercuts suspense. You can be certain the character isn’t going to die. Because otherwise how could she be sitting there, telling you about her adventures? This is where I have found having two viewpoint characters useful. If Walter really does believe Marian has died, and tells us all about it, all the misery and grief required can be there. And I have seen inventive writers cheat this one entirely. In HER SOLDIERS WE, a novel about WW1 battle in the trenches, the first-person narrator does indeed die, blown to glory by the Germans. The last entry in his journal is by his best friend, sadly recording his demise. This was a little unfair – the best friend had contributed nothing to the narrative until that point — but there was no other way out of the situation for the author – the hero had to die.

The author who plans her novel will mull over the choice of person carefully. Not every work is suited to first person narration. I am not a planner in the least. I put no thought into it at all. I went with the first point I mention, above: an attractive voice. Once I could ‘hear’ Marian’s voice I just let her talk, and away we go!


brendaclough-brenda1bw1Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest.

Her novel How Like a God, now available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires.

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