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The story behind Waking Hell by Al Robertson

When I sat down to start thinking about ‘Waking Hell’, I knew three things about it. First of all, I wanted it to be a science fiction story that also worked as a horror novel, just as my first book, ‘Crashing Heaven’, is fantasy as much as SF. Secondly, I wanted to balance ‘Crashing Heaven’s two lead male characters with a female double act. And thirdly, I wanted it to tell a stand-alone story, albeit one suffused with both revelations about old mysteries and hints of new ones.

Oh, and of course it’s an SF book so it needed to be powerfully futuristic as well. Most of that was already in my head, partially as an evolution from ‘Crashing Heaven’, partially from spending time with tech folk over the last couple of years. Amongst other things, ‘Waking Hell’ talks about augmented reality, virtual worlds, digitised selves, the internet of things, the importance of data integrity and when to fork personalities. And it’s set on Station, a giant inhabited asteroid orbiting an abandoned post-apocalypse Earth. That’s all great from an SF point of view, but looked at as horror fodder there’s one problem with it all – none of it’s very spooky. So, I started watching lots of horror movies. Inspiration hit me hard from two very different directions.

First of all, British horror movies from the forties and fifties – films like ‘Night of the Demon’, ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, ‘The Innocents’ and ‘Dead of Night’ – raced into my mind. Watching them, I felt an odd combination of terror and nostalgia. On the one hand, these are authentically disturbing films, majestic classics that both demand and reward repeated, terrified re-watching. On the other, they come to us out of a simpler past that, when compared with the fearsome complexities of the present, can seem deeply attractive. I made a note of both emotions. Station is inhabited by digital ghosts called Fetches. I knew that I’d be writing about them, about how their society had developed since the end of ‘Crashing Heaven’. The sense of haunted longing that these aging classics evoked in me helped set the mood for their dead lives.

Secondly, I found myself sucked deep into some of the 70s’ more lurid horror flicks – surreal oddities like ‘Le Frisson Des Vampires’, anything Dario Argento ever made, ‘Daughters of Darkness’, ‘To the Devil A Daughter’, and so on. As I watched them, I found fascinated by their bad guys. So many of them were – to my 21st century eyes – ludicrous 70s fops, impressively hairdressed men doing their best to look villainous as their flared trousers and massively over-collared shirts and jackets expanded around them in some weird singularity of tastelessness.

And yet I found them profoundly unsettling. Almost every single one of them had an unshakeable authority that I couldn’t ignore. I realised that, the last time I’d been around people dressed like that, I was tiny and they were grown-ups. I was struck by just how strongly I still felt that elemental adult power. So I lifted it up, moved it over and built it into the book’s antagonists – the Pressure Men. They too are archaic, with all the out-of-time absurdity that that can bring, but like grown-ups to a child they’re also a very powerful, overwhelming presence.

And then there was ‘Waking Hell’s heroine, the fetch Leila Fenech, and her sometime sparring partner, sometime sidekick, fraud investigator Cassiel. Crashing Heaven’s hero, Jack Forster, was in his way quite posh; he’s an accountant-turned-space-warrior who’s spent most of his life at the upper end of the greasy pole that is Station society. So Leila begins the book right down at the bottom. She’s an estate agent, barely hanging on to a job she hates. And through her, we see a whole different side to Station life, understanding what life’s like for the other 98%. We also get an oblique critique of the characters of the first book, as we’re shown just how privileged they really are.

Cassiel works in a different way. She’s a Totality mind, an AI running within a human-shaped blob of nanogel. The Totality are a rebel society of humans and AIs who live on the outer edges of the Solar System. ‘Crashing Heaven’ is set just after the Totality comprehensively defeat the Pantheon, the corporate gods of Station, in a Solar System-wide space war. We hear about it but we don’t really get to see much of it. I wanted to explore exactly how fearsome you’d have to be to win that kind of battle. Cassiel became a vehicle for that, bringing a certain elegant lethality into ‘Waking Hell’. Through her we also get to learn a little more about Totality society, understanding what it values and how it’s developing.

I also had to think about how Waking Hell would interact with ‘Crashing Heaven’ in broader terms. Waking Hell has two female leads to balance ‘Crashing Heaven’s two male ones; an at-first penniless heroine to balance a wealthy one; a sister with a loving brother to contrast with a son whose parents were lost to him; a fiercely moral Totality mind to balance Jack’s sidekick, psychotic virtual ventriloquist’s dummy Hugo Fist; and so on. But these were all just individual points of detail. I started to think about how the book as a whole could contrast with Crashing Heaven.

It struck me that ‘Crashing Heaven’ is quite a forward looking book. It’s all about what happens next; what happens after a space war, what happens when a crime is revealed, what happens when Jack and Hugo find themselves in an intolerable situation and can only push forwards to get out of it. The simplest, most effective way of balancing that seemed to be to look backwards – to have a plot defined by the dangers of yesterday rather than the possibilities of tomorrow. And so, as I wrote ‘Waking Hell’, I thought a lot about how memory, power and the self interact. All of us are made of yesterday; all of us guard and curate our pasts very carefully, because they define us. All of us move forwards while actually looking backwards. But what if someone else can take control of all that history? The book explores what that might mean.

Oh, and there was one last bit of the past in there. It came to me from Paul Koudounaris’ wonderful book ‘Heavenly Bodies’, which explores how the skeletons of ancient Roman religious martyrs were taken up by the Catholic church and ended up as beautifully decorated icons all round Europe. It was profoundly inspiring – but telling you why would be a bit of a spoiler, so all I’m going to do is encourage you to google the book and check out some of the astonishing images in it.

And finally, there’s ‘Waking Hell’ as a stand-alone novel. It is very definitely that – it tells a story that’s complete in itself and that absolutely doesn’t need any knowledge of ‘Crashing Heaven’ to understand. But I did seed it with details referencing the earlier book. We find out more about the Solar System’s main cultures, we check in with some of ‘Crashing Heaven’s key characters and we learn more about Station itself. And I looked forward too – as I wrote, I was toying with ideas about what might happen next, so I dropped some hints into ‘Waking Hell’. There’s a larger, deeper story going on behind both books, and ‘Waking Hell’ in particular holds several clues that begin to reveal it.

So that, in very broad summary, is how ‘Waking Hell’ came together. On the one hand, it’s a very pure science fiction book, suffused with all sorts of SF craziness. But on the other, it draws on quite a wide set of definitely strange and hopefully interesting non-SF inspirations. So it really is both a science fiction and a horror novel – and I hope it’s equally enjoyable as both.

Rod Reynolds
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The story behind Black Night Falling by Rod Reynolds

What makes a sequel interesting?

What do readers look for in a second book?

How does an author make a series compelling?

These are the questions I was wrestling with when I started writing my second Charlie Yates novel, BLACK NIGHT FALLING. Set six months after THE DARK INSIDE, the story sees Charlie return to the south, to Hot Springs, Arkansas - a small town rife with corruption and violence, and just a stone's throw from the place of his nightmares: Texarkana.

I hadn't initially planned to write a series - at least not in the sense of having a recurring protagonist. Inspired by the work of James Ellroy and David Peace, my intention was to write books set in the same universe, where some characters would recur and stories would overlap, but without each book being a direct sequel. However, once my publisher suggested one based around Charlie, the idea quickly grew on me.

The strength of some series lies in the unchanging nature of the hero; readers respond to the reassurance of an unbending, unbreakable superman; think Bond, Reacher, et al. But Charlie was never that kind of character, and it was important to me that the reader saw his evolution. He's a damaged individual at the start of THE DARK INSIDE, but he draws strength from believing he's hit rock bottom - only to discover that there are greater horrors waiting for him than he could ever have imagined. What effect would that have in the long run? In real life, no one could just shrug off a trauma like that. And then, how will he respond when, in Black Night Falling, he begins to realise that even after everything he endured, everything he risked, maybe the job was left unfinished - and the consequences are now being felt?

It's said that readers of series want the same book as before, but done differently. It's a paradoxical line that serves to illustrate the challenge writers face. In my case, I wanted to meet that desire but without retreading the same story. I also wanted to stretch myself - and from those requirements came the character of Ella Borland. A former prostitute with links to both Texarkana and to the murders Charlie comes to investigate, Ella was the character I was keenest to introduce. I'm fascinated by characters who are morally ambiguous - who exist in shades of grey - and Ella typifies that. While some might see her a villain, I wanted to show how she was, in many ways, a victim of circumstance; of an environment where women like her were, at best, playthings for powerful men - and at worst, disposable. In some ways, Ella became the counterpoint to Charlie; he's a man guilty of cowardice but also capable of acts of great courage. Ella, on the other hand, is a strong woman who sometimes lets her worst instincts guide her actions. Ultimately, it's up to the reader to decide if those actions are justifiable or not - and I wanted that to be part of the intrigue.

Introducing new characters is one way to make each book feel new and different, but the challenge still remains to keep the core of the series alive and interesting and fresh. In trying to tackle this, I eventually came back to my influences, to what I have enjoyed most as a reader, and started to think about what made Peace's Red Riding Quartet and Ellroy's LA Quartet so compelling. I came to realise that it was the continuity - in terms of style and atmosphere, but mostly in the sense that they all formed part of a single story arc - that propelled me so dizzyingly through each. Cause and effect were the watchwords. Unlike in many series, in those two examples we see how the events of one book set off reverberations of their own, and how that feeds into the next. Above all, we see how events have consequences.

That became my focus. My first novel was ostensibly about a washed up reporter chasing a serial killer - but it was also a story of redemption; of Charlie seeking to atone for his past mistakes, no matter the personal and psychological cost. In BLACK NIGHT FALLING, that bill comes due.

Rod Reynolds
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I don’t write the same story twice. Obviously, it’d be easier for me if I did: same characters, bigger bad guy, ramp up the peril, final showdown, victory, and onwards! It works for some. It works very well for some. For all I know, my publishers past and present would love me to do this – find a winning formula and stick to it. It’s not me, though. I have to do things the hard way, apparently.

So having chased a disparate bunch of people through the Underground and into Down by making them believe that London has been incinerated in a huge, unprecedented catastrophe, and then doing several unspeakable things to them before finally getting them to the end of Down Station, slightly ahead of the game – I’m not going to do the same thing this time, am I?

Hell no. Part of the reason why I don’t write the same book twice is because I’m not the same person writing the book. I’m older, for a start. I’ve absorbed new experiences, met new people, read new books, learnt new facts and been exposed to new ideas. Some people don’t want to change: they want to stay the same. Not me. If I’m not growing and learning and moving forward, then I suppose I’d have to say I’m shrinking and becoming more ignorant and I’m heading backwards. That’s not a good place to be, surely?

In the months between finishing Down Station and starting The White City, something incredibly significant happened: my father died. We knew throughout 2014 that he was ill, and he wasn’t going to get better. I managed to hand in the manuscript for Down Station before I went to help my mother look after him. Four weeks later, he was gone.

It took a long time to start writing again, and one of the reasons I finally forced myself to sit down in front of a blank page was simply because I was contractually obliged to do so. It was … incredibly hard work. Those first few chapters became as bleak as anything I’d written before. And slowly, I started to construct a story based around the themes of sacrifice and safety, and how much of one you’re prepared to do in order to get the other.

This isn’t to say that Down Station is a light-hearted romp, and The White City is a terrible, dark, soul-crushing tale. Neither of those is true. Down Station pitches the survivors from London into a world of slavery, barbarism and betrayal. The White City shows them beginning to not only survive, but if not quite thrive, certainly come to terms with their predicament and go some way to becoming agents of their own destinies once more.

The other part of the reason of not writing the same book twice is because it’s not just me who’s a different person: it’s the characters themselves. Mary is becoming more confident in her abilities. Dalip is getting used to having to make decisions for himself. And Mama stops trying to boss everyone around and learns to trust people, Dalip especially. That has enormous ramifications for the plot – there’s less of things that happen to them, and more things they actively do, to try and bend Down to their will. Of course, Down being a character in its own right, isn’t going to be bent so easily, and has plenty of surprises hidden away in the folds of the landscape.

In the end, The White City ended up one of the quickest books I’d ever written. The words just poured out of me. It didn’t stop there, either. 2015 saw me write somewhere in the region of a quarter of a million words. It was, I suppose, catharsis. But it was lots of other things too. Because you can never go back.

Simon Morden
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The story behind Truth and Fear by Peter Higgins


Originally Truth and Fear wasn’t meant to exist. I hadn’t thought of it. It wasn’t part of the plan.

When I’m working on ideas for what to write, I think first of all in terms of genre and atmosphere and setting: the characters come later and their stories come last (last but most of all, that’s where ninety per cent of the writing gets done). I get to know the characters and their stories as I’m writing, and they change and develop, often in unexpected ways, but basically, a new book starts off as a feeling for the kind of book I want to read, and that initial idea – what kind of book is this? – stays with me throughout. It’s what I hold onto.

A few years ago now, I had the idea for what became Wolfhound Century. I love fantasy, and I love thrillers (detective stories, noirs, police procedurals, spy novels, murder mysteries, call them what you will) so, I thought, why not write a book that’s both at once? Why not a full-on fantasy, set in a world different from ours, with hard journeys, a dark lord, a war for the future, the possibility of magic, extraordinary non-human creatures, and the future at stake, but one where the story would move with the pace and danger of a thriller? One that would be set in a world somewhat like Soviet Russia in the first half of the 20th century: a totalitarian state at war, with secret police and marching crowds, revolutionary terrorists and dissident intellectuals. At a human level, it would let in something of the darkness and cruelty, and also the huge sense of possibility and change of that period in our world’s history: only, because it was also a fantasy, this world would have giants and endless forests and living, sentient rain.

And so I wrote Wolfhound Century.

My first version was a single, stand-alone book. That was the original plan. It was only when I’d finished the first draft that I realized a single book wasn’t going to be enough.

I discovered in the course of writing Wolfhound Century that combining fantasy and thriller works in all sorts of ways. Each genre strengthens and helps the other. Both kinds of book start with a question: something strange is happening, something serious is wrong with the world, and has to be put right. The characters have to work out what’s causing the wrongness and try to do something about it (at great risk and cost to themselves) and the reader experiences that with them. The reader learns about the world as the characters do, and the characters grow and change, becoming more interesting and complex and powerful, as they confront the terrible threat.

But one big difference between the thriller and the fantasy as genres is time-frame. Thrillers have tight, fast-moving plots. The action starts near the point of crisis, and races along. The clock ticks fast and loud. Every day, every hour, every minute counts. Time is always running out. Fantasies, on the other hand, can take their time. You can follow characters for years: kingdoms rise and fall, wars are lost and won, dragons grow from eggs to adults, and magic-workers struggle to learn their craft. Above all, with fantasies you build a whole world, with its own geography and population and a history that matters.

When I’d finished that first draft of Wolfhound Century, I realised the work wasn’t done. The story wasn’t over, and the fantasy was still at work; the characters wanted to grow and become stronger; the world I’d built needed to be explored more, there were other places around the next corner and beyond the horizon; the tensions and conflicts that threatened to destroy this huge world were still there.

And so I took a deep breath and changed the plan. Instead of a single, stand-alone book it needed to be a trilogy. After all, there’s something about trilogies that works for fantasy, and has done at least since Lord of the Rings: the three-book structure feels somehow right, as a way of doing justice to a whole new world. Three books let it breathe. But I wanted to hang onto the thriller approach – that pace, that excitement, that danger shouldn’t be diluted. That’s what drove me to come up with the concept of a fantasy told in three thrillers: three books, each of which would cover a short period of time (that thriller clock still ticking loud) but together they’d build up to tell a bigger story, the story of a continent and a world.

Which gave me a whole new challenge.

When I started working on Truth and Fear, I knew that it was going to be Book II out of three, and I knew that the middle books of trilogies can be difficult. The risk is that they’re all middle: not filler, exactly, but transitional stories between a beginning and an ending that take place elsewhere and at another time. I was determined that Truth and Fear wouldn’t be like that: I wanted it to work as a thriller, I wanted it to be a great book in its own right, I wanted it to be surprising, and (excited though I was with Wolfhound Century) I wanted Truth and Fear to be better.

So before I started writing Truth and Fear I read as many middle books of trilogies as I could. I thought about which ones worked, and which ones seemed to fall a bit flat, and why. I watched movie sequels, and season two of great TV series. I looked for interviews with other writers who’d tackled the problem before me, though for some reason there doesn’t seem to be much out there about this topic. (I did find two fantastic gold mines: the bonus features on the DVD of the Extended Edition of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, the second in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; and a talk at a convention by Juliet McKenna about the challenges and pitfalls of returning to a world you’ve made and writing more.

And out of all this ‘research’ (which was hugely more fun than that word implies) I made myself a set of ‘ground rules’ – principles for making a Book II that really works – which I held onto throughout the process of writing Truth and Fear. I wanted to take the first book as a starting point, but widen it out and raise the stakes. I wanted the world to get bigger – new places, new characters, new journeys – and I wanted the main characters’ relationships to deepen: in the first book they got acquainted, but now they’d learn more about each other and themselves, now they’d change and grow.

For the record, these are my personal ground rules, my ‘five principles for writing a Book II’:

  • as the characters get stronger, so does the opposition: the battles get bigger and harder;
  • open the cupboards and look inside: go back to things that were hints and peripherals in Book I, and see what they really meant;
  • overturn expectations – what you thought you knew may be just the start – but don’t play mind-games with the reader;
  • mourn the dead: people who didn’t make it past the first book live on in memory, and still influence action and emotions;
  • don’t hold on to everything: some things, even if they were important in Book I, have to fall and crash and burn.

And finally, and most importantly for me, although the overarching three-book story has to keep moving, Book II has to be a new story in its own right, with a new challenge, a new and harder struggle, and an ending that’s satisfying but also catapults you forward to the final conclusion in Book III.

Of course, there’s nothing definitive about these principles, and somebody else might come up with different ones, but these turned out to be mine: they’re what I tried to live by when I was writing Truth and Fear, and I thought they might be worth sharing.  

Peter Higgins
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The story behind Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Eleven years in the making – or, how I got started on Revenger.

I can’t speak for other writers, but for me the act of commencing a novel is often the culmination of a period of creative gestation, a slow accretion of ideas and impulses over at the very least several years, and sometimes rather more than that. The feeling is of an itch that becomes more and more insistent, to the point where it’s no longer ignorable and must be scratched.

I’d finished a large, sprawling trilogy – the Poseidon’s Children sequence – and Stephen Baxter and I had just completed our collaborative tribute to Arthur C Clarke, The Medusa Chronicles. Both of those works were set in complex, detailed near-term futures with a strong emphasis on speculative plausibility. Now it felt time for something different. But what, exactly?

Revenger turned out to be the intersection of two unfulfilled ideas which had been bubbling away at the back of my mind for a long time. But seeing the connection between these ideas was anything but straightforward.

The first was the idea of a tense adventure story involving a kind of futuristic heist scenario, with a squad of experts breaking into a sealed-off alien worlds to recover valuable technology and information from within. The catch was that they only had a limited time in which to do so, before the world sealed itself up again. I thought that this scenario could be potentially quite tense and interesting, even more so if there were rival teams and many such artefacts available to be cracked.

My story notes for this go back to October 2005. Here’s a short excerpt from those notes:

Caverns are open for at least a specified time, long enough to enable normal teams to get in and extract some stuff, but not long enough to make a return trip to the far end and back. The high-pay teams therefore specialise in staying inside longer than the maximum safe time. There is a sliding scale of pay for those teams prepared to remain inside for the longest time: the rate of pay is constantly ticking upwards, as decided by the contract firms under the main combine. Teams are constantly arguing and breaking up, with members defecting to other partnerships.

I tried writing this story several times. Each time I got a certain way into the narrative before the momentum died and I didn’t know how to carry on. The heist scenario was fun up a point, but something more was lacking. I tried bolting it into the Carrie Clay universe (as featured in a couple of short pieces of mine) but the story died on me. That’s where I left it – but that itch was still present.

Fast forward half a decade to 2011.

I had another itch. I’d long been a fan of the Known Space stories of Larry Niven, and I loved the idea of a scenario in which humans used and adapted alien technologies for their own ends. In the Known Space books, human spacecraft are made up of all sorts of foreign technology, carefully integrated. I liked that concept, as well as the freewheeling, adventurous spirit of those early stories, but obviously I didn’t want to do a straight re-hash of Larry Niven.

Instead, I was homing in on a different scenario, but which would allow a similar action and adventure feel. My plan at the time – which I cunningly called “Project X” – was as follows:

Three stories of 7000 words each, establishing world and characters for an open-ended series.

Very far future, space-based setting. Locale must contain numerous worlds and venues – it should feel capable of containing many stories. Main protagonists would be human, but there would also be many secondary characters who are possibly posthuman, artificial intelligences, or aliens.

The intention was to write and polish the stories, establishing the cross-links between them, before attempting to publish them. I wanted to make a definite splash, introducing a new, fully-developed universe as if a curtain had just been pulled back on a magnificent stage-set.

Obviously those three stories didn’t happen. But the notes show the sketchy outline of what would eventually become the Revenger universe:

Our own solar system, transformed into a Dyson swarm, a billion years in the future. Countless posthuman civilisations have come and gone. Now a relatively small population of baseline humans has begun to spread out, explore and colonise the ruins. Throughout the stories, there could be the gradual peeling back of the larger mystery of what happened to the last posthuman civilisation. This would allow for an endless variety of worlds and societies, yet all within a few light hours of each other. Travel between parts of the swarm need not take longer than weeks at the most.

Tellingly, there’s also this throwaway remark about a putative character:

She would have a particular set of skills which involve some risky activity that varies from story to story – say, extracting artefacts or data from alien puzzle boxes.

So – the idea from 2005 is reiterated here, in slightly different form. You would think it would be straightforward then: the 2005 idea meets the 2011 idea and there’s a fully-realised set of stories waiting to be written, or perhaps a novel. There’s a world, a character, a challenging thing for that character to be getting on with. Enough, surely?

But none of that stuff is obvious to me.

These two sets of notes sat on my hard-drive, barely a mouse click apart, for another four years (into 2015) before it occurred to me that all I had to do was splice them together and I had enough material for a book. It wasn’t quite a Eureka moment, because I’m well used to this sort of tardy mental association by now – more a Homer-esque “doh!” that the answer was there all along, if only I’d had the wit to see it. I’d already been through a similar head-slapping process of belated realisation with Slow Bullets, which also only caught fire when I mated two different sets of story notes, both of which were years old.

So that’s the genesis of Revenger, in essence. There was a lot still to be done, needless to say – like actually writing the damned thing, and finding my way into a barely-imagined world, discovering the characters and their voices, and gradually stripping back the “tech” of my human society until, for better or for worse, we arrive at a kind of steampunk/valvepunk/age-of-fighting-sail mashup, with space-going ships with actual sails and rigging, pirate crews with crossbows, and all the nautical atmosphere I could summon from years of reading Forester, O’Brian and so on. I had tremendous fun with it, anyway, and I do think there’s a room for a few more stories in that setting. It’s take eleven years to get here, after all.

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds is out now, published by Gollancz in hardback

Alastair Reynolds
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The story behind Night Without Stars by Peter F. Hamilton

More of the same, only different.  It’s a perpetual problem for those of us writing long-running series; not just in fantasy or science fiction, which these days trends toward the multi-book format, but also for writers with much-loved detectives or secret agents.   The Commonwealth Universe, that I’ve been writing about since 2004 when Pandora’s Star was first published, is one that readers are now as familiar with as I am myself.   Paradoxically, although I have an entire universe to play with and explore, that tends to be quite limiting.  There are only so many ‘fresh’ worlds that the expanding Intersolar Commonwealth can encounter only to discover yet another deadly threat to civilization.  How quickly the familiar can become repetitive, a position from which the fall to boredom is a short one.  In the case of Night Without Stars this problem was particularly acute.  It’s the seventh book in the series, everybody knows the parameters, and I cannot mess with the continuity.

To carry the story forward, I had to rely heavily on the characters.  Fortunately, the previous six books have provided quite an extensive cast list to choose from.  But once again I didn’t want to fall back on the old reliables –with one major exception that allowed me a degree of continuity.

By focusing on the newer characters, I was able to return to the fundamentals of science fiction which is exploring ideas and how they impact on the individual for better or worse.  Today’s world is science fiction to someone from the fifties.  Yet for all its shiny gadgets and fast pace, so many old problems persist -we have simply adapted to them.  So how will people adapt to new problems progress will create?

This is where the author in me takes over, observing the world today and extrapolating mundane situations.  For Night Without Stars this all came together from a trip to Leipzig.  I was a guest at a convention there a few years ago, and my hosts very kindly arranged for several trips into the city.  One of the main attractions for the visiting authors was the Stasi museum, which by quirk of fate was actually the old Stasi headquarters.  

Looking round, for the first time I really started to appreciate just how intrusive the East European state had been into the lives of its citizens.   The extensive underground vaults built purely to accommodate the incredible numbers of files the Stasi had on everybody, all studiously cross indexed in rolodexes.  I could barely grasp the paranoia driving it, the amount of effort that the state put into monitoring people was phenomenal.  It represented an institutional level of behaviour I found deeply disturbing, as if a particular strain of insanity had become infectious.  This was an entire country gripped by fear and suspicion, with everyone content to inform on their neighbour.

On top of that was the spy technology on display, the jewel in the crown to captivate every ten-year-old.  The jacket with inbuilt (film) camera, where the collar button was a lens.  Micro-tape recorders –not cassettes, these had actual spools.  Microphone bugs.  Now bear in mind the Berlin wall came down in 1989, which is the time from which everything in the museum is preserved.  These gadgets were the best technology available.  Really?   I had the advantage of looking back across twenty years of digital development, however even taking that into account, everything was so primitive.  Yet because of that basic nature, it still worked.  It was less fragile, more reliable than today’s electronics where we upgrade everything every two years.

And there it all was, in context, sitting in glass cases in the very building where it had been used in anger.  So I started to look at it all through author eyes.  If something happened, if our smartphones and laptops failed, all the equipment around me could be started up again without much trouble.  All that was left to complete the nightmare was the return of paranoia, something would have to come along to justify the obsession and mistrust.

That was the key to creating the world in Night Without Stars; a civilization which had fallen from its technological and democratic peak. It was easy to picture a world under threat, allowing the political class to convince everyone that overwhelming state security was essential for their own protection.  It gave me the book’s character theme; those working tirelessly to do what they believe is their duty, encounter something new and strange, forcing them examine their world from a new and uncomfortable viewpoint.  Exactly what Science Fiction should be.

Night Without Stars by Peter F Hamilton is out now, published by Macmillan price £20.00 in hardback

The Story Behind Night Without Stars
Peter F. Hamilton
September, 2016
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The story behind Blood and Bone by V.M. Giambanco

BLOOD AND BONE is the third book in the Alice Madison series and one thing I knew for sure when I started writing it was that this was going to be a serial killer story – and then I proceeded to change the rules of the game, because that’s when the fun begins.

The Madison series in set in Seattle, a city in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, and the main character is a homicide detective who in the first book had just joined the unit.

One of the great joys of writing a series is that you can develop characters and relationships in a way that is simply impossible with a one-off novel, and this has always been the main attraction for me. In BLOOD AND BONE things have definitely moved on for Madison and her relationships with the other characters have grown and changed – some in predictable ways and some in surprising ones. The core of the story – and of all the books in the series – is how the case that is investigated reveals and defines these relationships and, more often than not, puts pressure on them. I like my characters very much indeed but I’m happy to give them as much trouble as I can reasonably conceive.

I have always wanted to write a serial killer novel because one of my influences when I started writing was Thomas Harris and the Hannibal Lecter books, especially ‘Red Dragon’; and the challenge was how to make something fresh and interesting when it has been written about so brilliantly in the past. How do you take something familiar and turn it into a new experience that is going to be gripping from page one? Well, I started with the character: I needed a memorable villain, someone who would draw in the reader – almost making them complicit in their plans; someone who is dangerous and keeps the clock in the story ticking on; someone who has motive and a set of beliefs that make him more than a random killer; and, finally, someone who still had the spark of humanity that comes from a real person and not the bogeyman of our nightmares.  

As always with the Madison books, the locations become one of the characters in the story and I am very keen to use the wonderful Washington State wilderness as much as I can. I have traveled in the area quite a bit and every time I discover new spots that will be used in future stories. In BLOOD AND BONE I have at last set a particularly critical scene on one the local ferries – I have been wanting to do that for a very long time but was just waiting for the right situation.

In the end though BLOOD AND BONE is about Alice Madison and in this instalment I wanted her professional and her private life to be tangled up to the point where the whole structure might just collapse and she has to make some decision that will have repercussions on the rest of her life. It took three books to get her where she is now and I’m already wondering what trouble to throw her way next.  

V.M. Giambanco
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The story behind The Long Count by JM Gulvin

It might sound obvious but the hardest thing about writing any kind of novel is actually “writing” it. Coming up with the idea isn’t as difficult as it might sound, ideas have a way of presenting themselves to the author and then it’s a question of evolution. What’s much more challenging is to comprehend then apply the creative process.

Sound complicated? It helps if you’ve had the benefit of some mentoring in the early stages of your career. I was fortunate enough to have had just that, so I thought I’d share some of my experience with you.

The finished novel that is THE LONG COUNT featuring old school Texas Ranger John Quarrie, didn’t start out as that but a whole other story altogether, one that was based on real events. It was set in Wyoming not Texas and took place ten years later than THE LONG COUNT , in 1977.

I tried to get that book published but to no avail. The narrative, largely because I’d stuck so closely to the real events, didn’t quite have the consistency of drama it needed. What the publishers did like, however, was this old school lawman called John Quarrie. He wasn’t a Texas Ranger then he was a local sheriff. He was 46 years old not 36 and he was far from the finished article. He did, however, fit the mould for the character I’d been looking to create after twenty years in the business.

Prior to Faber & Faber taking THE LONG COUNT, I’d written three hard boiled crime novels featuring a London cop called Vanner. I’d written four big picture thrillers about an undercover FBI agent called Harrison, and I’d also written five other novels under a pseudonym which featured a whole array of characters. Looking back over those twenty years I can see how those who came before have morphed into the John Quarrie of THE LONG COUNT.

Twenty years to create the right character, that’s a hell of a long time I hear you say. Well, you’re right, it is, but that’s been my experience. I doubt it’s like that for everyone. Every novelist’s journey is personal and specific and some find their true voice right from the off. That’s not how it’s been for me. My voice has come about through travel, experience and age. To share that with you would take an eternity, better I try and pass on some of the principles I apply to the actual writing process itself, so you’ll understand a little better how this book came into being.

All right then we’ve established that the hardest part of writing the novel is writing the novel. The plan you start out with is a moveable feast. It’s flexible, subject to change. There has to be a plan, and for me that’s a set of unequivocal guidelines I employ every time a fresh idea sparks into a full blown story.

Not all ideas become a full blown story. I’ve written countless pages down the years only to put them aside. I’ve written countless storylines and put those aside too, in favour of something else that occurred to me as I was working. Ernest Hemingway suggested that all writers need a built in s*** detector, both in terms of the story itself and the manner of the writing. It’s a vital tool and the best writers are their own worst critics.

In terms of the plan, I believe there are four specific maxims that, if applied, allow one’s work to take shape in a way that will ultimately be most satisfying to the reader. I learned these principles from a playwright called WG Stanton. He taught me the art of “re-write” and it’s only in re-writing your work that it ever gets finished. The principles Mr Stanton employed were simple yet profound and one can spot them in other people’s work.

Some years ago I watched a superb TV drama called “The Princes in the Tower”. It was good because it was so well written and I could see specific techniques employed by the writer. As I was watching I realised I could see WG Stanton’s influence and when the credits rolled, I discovered the writer was Tina Pepler, one of Stanton’s most accomplished students.

So, then to those maxims:-


Most editors will tell you that the VIEWPOINT in any novel is paramount. There are many interpretations of what this actually means, but for me it’s the fact that, although in a third person drama you will have scenes that don’t involve the main character, the reader should discover what those secondary characters are thinking, not by access to their thoughts, but by what they do and say. This mirrors life and it’s an area (head jumping) where so many would-be writers fall down. There’s a skill in the delivery. The author has to see the scene and understand how to portray it as it might be portrayed in real life. In life we cannot access the mind of anyone else so why should we do it in fiction?

When you read THE LONG COUNT you’ll see that the only person’s thoughts you’re party to are John Quarrie’s. Everyone else is involved only in terms of what they do and say. Adopting this paradigm enables the VIEWPOINT to couple perfectly with the second principle I want to talk about, and that is SHOW ME – DON’T TELL ME.

Every scene has to be dramatized rather than delivered. We don’t want some omnipotent author telling us what’s going on or what somebody’s personality is like, we want the story to unfold before our eyes just as it would on the screen or stage. By dramatizing every moment a certain level of atmosphere is evoked, a sense of reality takes shape because the scenes are being fully developed both in terms of landscape and character. It’s the way I’ve always come at my books and I think it helps to create the sense of “immediacy” that readers say comes across in the stories.

The third principle is TELL IT HOW IT IS. What I mean here is - Don’t embellish when you don’t have to. Use description sparingly and try to avoid adjectives altogether. Show the reader that your character is angry or hurt or upset by their reaction and manner, rather than tacking on “he said, angrily” (for example) to a line of speech. Simple but effective, it makes for a story that lives and breathes and it demonstrates to the reader that the writer really knows what they’re doing. Keeping the prose clean and sharp is a skill one keeps honing over a lifetime of work, but there is nothing more satisfying than instinctively applying the principle. It means you have to work much harder as an author of course, but the result is a far more satisfying read.

Finally we come to WRITE FAT - RE-WRITE LEAN: the last great principle and every bit as important as the others. When you write the first draft you can write as much as you want. When it comes to the second, third, fourth; the myriad drafts that follow, a scalpel is the tool that’s needed.

Elmore Leonard the great American crime writer, used to tell students not to bother writing the bits the reader will skip. What he meant was that every paragraph and sentence, every word has to matter. If something is not vital to the plot in terms of storyline, atmosphere, etc, it should not be there. When I wrote THE LONG COUNT one of my favourite passages was a piece where Quarrie was at the burned out asylum. It sat there and sat there and I liked it more and more every time I read it. It remained where it was until the final draft when I realised it really wasn’t relevant at all. Pleasing as it might be to my sensibilities, I knew my editor would tell me to cut it so I might as well save him the bother.

A simple summation of my personal creative process which I thought I’d impart rather than tell you about the agonies and ecstasies all writers invariably go though. Something a little more tangible to accompany the review, I hope it’s enlightening, even useful perhaps to those of you who have literary aspirations of your own.

THE LONG COUNT, by JM Gulvin, is published in May by Faber & Faber (£12.99)

JM Gulvin
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The story behind Long Time Lost by Chris Ewan

There are a couple of themes I keep circling back to in my thrillers. One is families: their capacity to nurture, their power to destroy; the terrible potential of the secrets we keep from our loved ones, often with the best yet most misguided of intentions. Another is why and how people go missing. Who do they run to when they’re in trouble? How might they return?

In writing Long Time Lost, I revisit both these themes, though the book really developed as a response to my first standalone thriller, SAFE HOUSE, which in turn was inspired by rumours I had heard of the Isle of Man being used to rehome people involved in UK witness protection schemes. In SAFE HOUSE, I talked about protection schemes run by government agencies and how their powers might be open to abuse. After the book was finished, I began to wonder: if government witness protection schemes are potentially flawed, where else might an individual turn if they needed to disappear?

I came up with my own answer — a privately funded, highly bespoke, highly illegal service offering the best levels of protection to those most at risk. But who would establish such an operation and why?

I came up with the character of Nick Miller, a jaded police detective who has dedicated his life to running the witness protection unit of the Greater Manchester police force only to see the system fail his own wife and daughter, and worse, to find himself suspected of their murders and forced into a life on the run. Hiding in the shadows under an assumed name, Nick vows never to allow the same failures to repeat themselves and so he offers help to people in extreme danger, working with his own team to relocate his clients throughout Europe with new identities and fresh beginnings.

But Nick is an emotional wreck and the guilt he feels at the loss of his family compels him to try and avenge their deaths. As the book opens, he seems to have found his opportunity, yet by stepping in to prevent the attempted murder of witness-in-hiding Kate Sutherland on the Isle of Man, he triggers a chain of events with devastating consequences for everyone he protects  — because Nick and Kate share a common enemy in Connor Lane, a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it means tearing Nick’s network apart.

Like SAFE HOUSE, the action begins on the Isle of Man, though this time I wanted to stretch the boundaries of my story, resulting in a globetrotting thriller that hops between Manchester, Lake Windermere, Weston-super-Mare, Hamburg, Rome, Arles, Prague, central Switzerland, Dubrovnik and a few other places besides. In my mind, I had an image of a series of dominoes toppling, and by the end of the book, each of these locations becomes a domino of one kind or another.

In my previous novels, I’ve been superstitious about visiting every place I’ve written about — often more than once. The scope of Long Time Lost made that impossible this time round, although many of the places Nick and Kate find themselves racing through are ones I’ve visited in the past. My one exception was Brienz in Switzerland, where I rented a lakeside apartment with my family for five weeks two summers ago (tough, I know). The football World Cup was on at the time, and since the owners of the chalet were Brazilian and lived in the apartment below the one we’d rented, we’d often hear raucous goal celebrations as they jumped into their swimming pool. During those rare moments when the football wasn’t on television, I sat by a window in the apartment and wrote the Swiss sections of the book, pausing every now and again to stare across the green Alpine waters at the jagged peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, sometimes watching for the yellow storm lights blinking on distant village shores.

Not long afterwards, I had a completed rough draft of the novel. Then we drove home and the real work on the book began.

Long Time Lost, by Chris Ewan, is published in May by Faber & Faber (£12.99)

Chris Ewan
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The story behind The Ex by Alafair Burke

Everyone has “The Ex,” emphasis on the. 

            Not just an ex, the one we might still see at work or around the neighborhood, or forget about entirely until he or she pops up on a mutual friend’s Facebook wall.  The ex is the one you still find yourself thinking about at the most unexpected moments.

            I thought I saw mine in the audience at one of my book events a few years ago.  A man in the very back row, smiling at me. Was the smile a friendly one or contemptuous?  I couldn’t tell. He left when the questions began, and I’m still not sure whether it was even him.

            Probably not, but as I delivered my spiel about the latest book, I was imagining what I would say to him if he assumed a spot in the signing line.  Nice to see you?  Are you still a doctor?  Sorry?  I came up with nothing.

            Because, here’s the thing: When I think about my ex, it is with regret and a sense of shame.  Regret for things I did and didn’t do, said and didn’t say.  Shame because I was the bad guy in that relationship, no question.

            I know from a mutual friend that the ex, like me, went on to marry someone better suited for him. (Case in point: He has, I have heard, four, maybe five, children with her. My husband and I have two dogs.) But that hasn’t cleansed the guilt. Ten years into my own happy marriage, part of me feels like I owe an explanation to someone I haven’t seen since I flat-ironed my hair and thought rollerblading was cool.

            For some, the ex is the great love who got away. Or the one who made it hard to trust again. In my case, he was the one I disappointed. 

            Or at least that’s how I remembered it, nearly twenty years later. 

            For Olivia Randall, the ex is her former fiancé, Jack Harris.  A tragic decision she made twenty years earlier didn’t just break their engagement; it led to disastrous consequences she tries–unsuccessfully–not to think about. But Jack re-enters her life in a big, surprising way when his teenaged daughter calls her for help. Jack has been arrested for a triple homicide.  Olivia is one of the best criminal defense attorneys in New York City and knows that sweet, naïve Jack could not have committed the terrible acts he’s accused of.

            For Olivia, helping Jack is a way to turn back the clock and try to absolve herself of two decades of guilt.  But then the evidence against her client mounts.  One of the victims Jack is accused of killing was a man he blamed for his own wife’s death.  There’s also the inconvenient fact of gunshot residue on Jack’s clothing, not to mention Jack’s unlikely alibi. 

            She wonders whether her memories of Jack and their relationship have been distorted by her own remorse.  Maybe Jack was neither sweet nor naïve.  How well did she ever really know him?

            As I wrote about Olivia and Jack, I thought about my own ex.  Was I truly the bad guy? Was he really so devastated? Am I remembering what we were actually like or only what I’ve been telling myself over the years? I don’t know and probably never will. Some relationships belong in the past. 

            For Olivia and Jack, the events that reconnect their paths are life changing.

Alafair Burke
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