Friday, January 24, 2014


We fell upon Moscow like hungry dogs.

So begins 4500 words I wasn't expecting to write this month. Cleaning out my inbox last week, I stumbled across an invitation to submit to an anthology of alternative history stories that I'd been sent in November. The word length was reasonable, the pay was excellent, I'm looking for extra money to help fund a holiday at the end of the year, I still had 2 weeks to write the story....

I've worked with tighter deadlines.

My good friend Stephen Dedman imparted a piece of advice to me in my younger days that I've always remembered: when time is tight and you're short of plot ideas, pick a Shakespeare play and pull out a plot thread. Shakespeare's work is so rich, so redolent with possibility, and so infinitely interpretable that it's almost impossible to recreate his tone, style and intent, even if you wanted to. No matter what you take away from one of his plays, it'll be utterly your own work by the time you've finished writing it.

It's excellent advice, and over the years I've come back to it on more than one occasion. I've found, though, that Shakespeare doesn't work for me as much as history books and science magazines. It's not the source, of course, that's the important thing: it's the practice. If I'm short of time or plot ideas, I'll find a scientific concept and ask the question "What if humans could do that?" or pick up a book of history and turn an event or concept through 90 degrees and see where it takes me.

What if humans could dehydrate their bodies into a form of natural cryogenic suspension and wait until rehydrated to begin the natural life cycle, as some plants in the Arctic circle have been discovered to do? gave me my early story Carrying the God, which took me to the Writers of the Future and launched my career. What if the bombing of Dresden exposed ancient Jewish alchemical practices to the German soldiers defending the town? was the basis of Europe After the Rain. And so on.

So I had two weeks. And, you know, alternative history. I'd just written a story-- Disciple of the Torrent-- about the Batavia massacre, so that research was fresh in my head. I still have all my research papers from The Claws of Native Ghosts, an alternative history set around the Pinjarra massacre. And there's always Napoleon. I'm fascinated by Napoleon. I've written a whole novel about Napoleon.

Yeah. Let's do Napoleon.

Somewhere in my future plans there's a twinned set of novels about Napoleon's march on Moscow: one set in the world where he loses, instead of winning the Pyrrhic victory he actually wins, and one in the world where his victory is genuine, and he conquers Russia.

Let's test that one out. Let's have a proof of concept. But: I don't want to wet the powder here. I don't want to write the version I have in mind for the novel. So let's take that idea and move it in a different direction. An alternative alternative history.

So The Emperor of Moscow has been written. 4500 words in five days of writing. I haven't written a short story at that speed in years. It feels good to be blatting words out, feeling the hot rush of creation with the eyes of a deadline upon me. It feels like that start of my carer, twelve years ago, when I was selling, never mind writing, ten or twelve short stories a year, and was ploughing through ideas like I was farming Shangri-La. I haven't worked at that level of ferocity in a long time, not since marriage and family and a job I actually like gave me more in life to enjoy.

And now I have a long weekend in front of me, 4 1/2 days from lunchtime this afternoon, to edit and polish and send it off, before I go back to the long drudgery of editing the latest novel while my Agent taps his watch and raises his eyebrows at me.

They say you can't go home again. But this was a fun visit. I'll have to do it again some time.

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