Monday 22 December 2014

Season's Greetings

With the holiday season almost upon us, I'd like to wish all of my readers [both of you] the very best for Christmas and the New Year. 2014 has been a very good year in the Latham household, and with lots of projects in the pipeline and at least one book out next year, here's hoping 2015 is even better!

Cheers everyone!

Card designed by Dom Murray, from his Sinister Snowmen range.

Thursday 18 December 2014

The Other Fright Before Christmas

Delighted that Titan Books used another of my offerings for their festive Advent calendar on Twitter yesterday:

I also got included in their Advent window #10, as part of a collection of pictures of author's desks. ( from top) Kim Newman, Adam Christopher, Rachel Howzell, me, and Freda Warrington. Illustrious company, I'm sure you'll agree.

You can't really see the whole workspace clearly, but I've added a proper photo below. The reason I draw attention to my office isn't just because I'm proud of my decorating skills (and those of Mrs Lost Victorian, of course), but because I think it's vital to productivity to have a proper workspace. Finally, I have a tidy(ish) area to work in, surrounded by all my reference material in easy reach, and with the inspiring figure of Horatio, Lord Nelson gazing down at me, judging me harshly when I'm being lazy. Might need to write a bit about that in a proper blog in the future.

Monday 15 December 2014

Monday 8 December 2014

The Lazarus Gate

Today, the cover of the Lazarus Gate, my début novel of Victorian science fiction and mystery, has been revealed (many thanks to Titan Books)! The book hits the shelves next Autumn (September in the US and October in the UK, most likely).

From the press release:

This is the tale of a secret war between universes, between reality and the supernatural; a war waged relentlessly by an elite group of agents; unsung heroes, whose efforts can never be acknowledged, but by whose sacrifice we are all kept safe.

So what exactly is The Lazarus Gate? Well, that'd be telling. But suffice to say that its very existence will change the world forever. Stay tuned for more!

Friday 5 December 2014

The Very Thing for the Discerning Lady...

It struck me recently that I haven't posted much in the way of Victoriana recently. Considering I frequently pine for my own era, before that deuced time machine incident stranded me here, this is a poor state of affairs indeed.

I was going through my collection of Victorian cuttings the other day (as you do), and was struck once again by how great the old 1800s advertisements were. It was a boom period for typeography, design and headlines, giving rise to a massive variety of adverts in publications, on billboards, playbills, the sides of omnibuses... essentially any black space in Victorian London became prime real estate for an advertisement. The results, however, varied from the beautiful to the surreal, and the downright terrifying ("Toothache sir? Try some cocaine." "Bad posture, madam? You'll need an electric corset.")

Not all Victorians were enamoured by the glut of advertising, as this Punch cartoon from 1886 illustrates:


Punch, Almanack, 1886

I'll leave you with some of my favourites:

Yes, as we all know, there are but two infallible powers in this world!
An instantaneous cure, suitable for your... children? Argh!

Need one of these for the pesky squirrel that eats my strawberries...

Monday 10 November 2014

A Day in the Life...

One thing I’ve been keen to do since setting up the blog is to write a series of posts about the writing process generally. This stems from the fact that whenever I tell people I’m a writer, I generally get asked the same questions, so I figured that people must be interested in this stuff, right?

I plan to address a bunch of these questions in future blogs – the tricky ones like ‘Where do you get your ideas?’, the more complex ones like ‘How did you go about getting published?’ and the personal ones like ‘Don’t you get lonely?’ (There’s a whole series of blogs in those questions. Watch this space).

First up, a simple one: ‘What do you do in an average day?’

This is an interesting question, because it’s often laden with meaning. It’s people wondering whether or not writing is a proper job (I often joke that it’s not, but it really is), and how someone can be motivated to stare at a screen for eight hours a day. The answer to the question varies from writer to writer, too.

Bromley House Subscription Library, Nottingham.
A safe haven for a lost Victorian writer.
I try as best as I can to keep to office hours. That’s not always possible in a purely creative process, because really you have to write, research and plan when the mood takes you. Chaining yourself to a desk 9-5 can be counter-productive in that respect. However, I try my best to do this, simply because I’m a married man with a wife who really does have a ‘proper job’, and so it’s only fair that I’m available for family time at the end of a working day. To that end, I’m at my computer at 9:00 a.m. on the dot every day, and down tools some time around 6:00 p.m. the first few hours of every day are almost always spent answering correspondence, doing the social media rounds (which is actually a real thing these days), and getting all planning and paperwork out of the way. The rest of the day is the real job of work, punctuated with frequent coffees. A couple of days a month I work at the library (I pay a subscription to a wonderful olde worlde library for just this purpose), and at least once a week I work at a coffee lounge, just so I can see some real human faces. I have a fully equipped office at home, complete with whiteboard, wall calender and many bookshelves, because only by having everything to hand can I guarantee that I won't wander off and get distracted.

I do two types of writing – there’s the creative fiction (novels, novellas and short stories), and there’s also commission work (copywriting, games design, and, to a lesser degree, editing and proofreading). The former does not respect office hours. The latter absolutely does. When I’m not doing something else with my brain, I’m thinking about books. I have approximately seven series and novel pitches on the go right now, in no concrete state, along with four ‘going concerns’ (projects that are started or almost done, and in the hands of an agent or editor). On top of that there are always side projects – those pesky things that I’ll do one day if I ever have free time. That basically means that my head is always buzzing with something.

That brings me around to the related question of motivation. The creative process is what drives me. Like many writers, I think the start and end of projects are really exciting, while the middle bits – the actual job of work – can become more of a grind. The motivation comes from the almost pathological need to create ‘new stuff’, and the knowledge that I won’t be able to do that until I finish the current project and earn some cash. The crux of it is that writing is a proper job, because it pays the bills. Much as I’d love to sit in my pants all day reading internet clickbait, or playing Skyrim, I’d very quickly discover that the mortgage lenders don’t take kindly to those sort of shenanigans. Yes, it is hard to get motivated when you’re left to your own devices, and I’m really not the most organized and process-driven chap in the world; but I’d ask the question: how does anyone get motivated to work? It helps that I love what I do, of course – that someone is willing to pay me for it never ceases to amaze me.

The old cliché of ‘Do a job you love and never work a day in your life’ is almost true of the writing life. Almost.

Friday 22 August 2014

This Wargaming Life...

The cover of 'Waterloo', by my old pal Alex Boyd, the talented devil.

A long time ago, I had a hand in designing several historical wargames, which were published by the now-defunct historical gaming arm of Games Workshop. These games still have ongoing communities, and even though official support hasn't been forthcoming for donkeys' years, people still play them, which is a comforting thought for me. It seems almost like a past life, but 'Legends of the Old west' will probably be what a lot of people remember me for (if anything!).

I was going through some old discs recently, having a good old clearout, and I found some of the support files that I produced for those games years ago - the Frequently Asked Questions, Errata, and a few free bits of rules and so on. It occurred to me that some of these files haven't existed on t'internet for a long time indeed, and there may be still folk out there who want 'em. So, without further ado, here's everything I ever did for those old games, post-publication, in one handy place. Enjoy!

Legends of the Old West: the Card Sharp & Hangin' Judge Hired Guns

Waterloo: FAQ and Errata

Waterloo: Russia army list

Trafalgar: FAQ and Errata

Trafalgar: Fleet List for Turkey

Just for good measure, I should point out that these files are in no way affiliated with Games Workshop, can't be considered 'official' (except that it 'was me what wrote em guv'nor'), and no payment was requested or given for the work herein. Bearing all that in mind, enjoy!

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Hooray and Huzzah!

Yesterday, in a flurry of tweets, the news finally broke that I have secured a three-book deal with Titan Books in the UK, which will include my début novel and two further books in the same series. More details here:

Time to shout it from the rooftops!

This news comes as something of a massive weight off my shoulders. Firstly, it means I can carry on doing this writing game a bit longer. Secondly, it means I don't have to keep this monumental secret any more. Huzzah indeed!

The first book in my series of Victorian science fiction, horror and mystery will be available in the UK, USA and Australia in Autumn next year.

In the meantime, I expect this blog to take a rather more productive turn as the editing and publication process kicks in. I've already started thinking about my path to publication, and how it differed from the various stories and 'advice to writers' articles I found online in the early days. I'm thinking a series of blogs about my experiences in this regard may be of interest to other new writers trying to break into trad publishing.

Thinking cap on  more to follow!

Friday 23 May 2014

Me, Myself and I

One of the things about becoming a writer that doesn’t agree with everyone is the isolation. If you look at various writing blogs (and indeed any sort of creative freelance role, from illustration to graphic design) you’ll notice this as a common theme. It can be a lonely business. My friends sometimes rib me that I spend too much time in coffee shops, tapping away at the laptop like some kind of hipster blogger, supping mochaccinos all day. It’s not quite true of course. the reason I go to coffee shops at all these days is so I can see another human being; recharge the batteries; change the scenery.

But this post isn’t about coping with loneliness. I generally do okay with that to be honest, and my significant other gets home each evening from a ‘proper job’, so it’s not like I’m the last man on the international space station or anything. No – this blog is about the benefits of extended periods of isolation. It’s something that has only recently hit me, as it’s started to help me figure out a few things about characterisation in my work. Sounds like a leap? Read on.

Write What You Know
It’s an old cliché isn’t it? Write what you know. It’s a very limiting mantra if taken literally, but I tend not to take anything literally, which is why I do what I do. ‘Write what you know’ doesn’t mean you have to write a kitchen-sink drama set on an estate in 1980s Stoke-on-Trent (that’s a personal example, I’m sure yours will be different) – it means you can take the relationships that you had, or observed, and the feelings that you felt, and transplant them to outer space, a fantasy world, Victorian England (my favourite), or wherever/whenever.

But the point where the old cliché really helps is with characters. And this is where I start to make an actual point – isolation has helped me to understand myself, and understanding myself has helped me to write better characters.

I’ve always reacted to the world with gut feeling, rather than intellectualised, rationalised viewpoints. That’s often left me grappling for the right words to express my views on politics, religion, society, art, education – whatever. But lately I’ve been giving these things and more some serious thought, drilling down to my core beliefs and really analysing what makes me tick. This allows me to do three very important things in fiction (and in life, to an extent):

1. I can be absolutely sure that not all of my characters are me by extension. They can all contain facets of my personality, share some of my beliefs, if I want them to. But characters need to portray myriad viewpoints, and be complex individuals butting up against ideological conflict. Otherwise, I may as well write essays rather than stories – inform rather than entertain.
2. I can observe people with a writer’s eye. It sounds pretentious, but really it’s just me paying attention to my interactions with other humans, and their interactions with each other. People come from all walks of life, and believe all sorts of things – when you meet someone whose views conflict with your own, how do you react? How do they make you feel? Only by absolutely understanding myself do I gain a point of reference by which to measure others.
3. I can write situations to create conflict. By understanding my personality type (and there are lots of esoteric tests you can do if you want to get really technical), I know what situations cause me stress, or pleasure, or intellectual stimulation, or tiredness, etc. And I can rationalise how those situations would affect different types of people. This means I can put my characters in situations that elicit a particular response from them (usually stressful ones in my work, if I’m honest).

I read an article yesterday about world-building in sci-fi and fantasy. You can find it here. The bit that struck me the most was point 4 – that a common mistake in sci-fi is that every denizen of every world thinks, believes and acts the same. It’s almost as though the aliens that live on Rigel VI would never go down the pub and argue about UKIP’s political agenda – they just all vote the same way. But humans, of course, are as diverse as they come.

Another thing all this introspective navel-gazing has taught me is that it’s actually dangerous to be an author with controversial beliefs and put those beliefs into your fiction. L Ron Hubbard, for example, ended up seeding his religious ideology into his sci-fi novels (some people call that sort of thing ‘subversive’, you know. Watch out for that). I read some old Richard Laymon stories recently, and because the treatment of his female characters is pretty much universal across his books (and hard to read), it starts to raise questions about the man’s beliefs – ‘Is he accidentally expressing his core beliefs about women, or is he doing it deliberately to make a point?’ As soon as you start asking that question, suspension of disbelief is broken, and you start to wonder about the author’s agenda. Art and ideology should be considered separately to an extent – I reserve the right to write a Catholic character despite not being terribly religious, or even a well-rounded racist character, without being labelled a racist myself (though if he goes on to become a hero without learning his lesson, the work may well be labelled 'problematic', and rightly so). Then again, some writers come from the opposite angle, and make it really difficult to justify buying their books, however hard they try to hide their agenda. I digress. Let's keep it light...

Hopefully, amid that waffling and sidetracking, there’s some useful musings, based entirely off my own experience over the last 12 months. A lot of this stuff boils down to empathy – understand yourself, and empathise with others. That way, simply through day-to-day interactions, you’ll end up with an infinite bank of characters and character types that you can draw on when writing your characters.

Of course, that means you actually have to get out of the house. Ah, the writer’s curse.

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Get to the Point!

A short(ish) post today, taking my own advice about getting to the point…

A few nights ago my dear lady wife and I sat down to watch the BBC’s new adaptation of Jamaica Inn. I’ll confess, despite it being right up my street I haven’t read the book, so I came to the series cold. The trailer looked great, though!

Now, I’ll set aside all criticisms of the show that have been covered elsewhere. You can’t type ‘Jamaica Inn’ into Google without finding some mention of the mumbling, poor-quality sound and historical inaccuracies present in the show. I forgave it, for the most part anyhow.

The show featured lots of walking around in 
thick mud whilst wearing long skirts.
Which kind of counts as conflict, I suppose.
What I couldn’t forgive quite so easily was the seemingly aimless meandering of that first episode. Half an hour in and I had no idea what the story was meant to be about. What was the conflict that ultimately would have to be resolved? What was there to the story, other than the fact that our heroine, Mary, has fallen on hard times and has had to relocate to Jamaica Inn? By the end of the episode, I kind of worked out where it was going and why, but the opening 30 minutes just sort of drifted by, which is a bit odd for a TV drama. No questions were asked, beyond ‘how will Mary cope with life at Jamaica Inn?’ Is that enough to sustain three hours of screen drama?

The point of this blog, then (ironically coming halfway through), is about getting to the point. This TV show made me evaluate my own writing. It made me think about how important it is to set up conflict nice and early. While spelling out the overarching narrative isn’t recommended (it robs the text of real immersiveness if everything is there on a plate), it’s really important to establish plot and character as quickly as possible, and give the reader some genuine questions to answer, and reasons to carry on to the next chapter. In the TV show, I simply needed some cue to tell me ‘this is about Mary’s struggle to rise above criminality’, or ‘this is about Mary trying to stay true to herself through really hard times’; maybe just 'this is another Regency love story about Mary falling in love with a wrong 'un'. Or even ‘this is about pirates and smugglers, being all piratey and smuggly’. Sadly, none of the above points were very forthcoming; although it was all very broody and moody, which is something I suppose.

I intend to give the book a read now, just to see if it’s more gripping than the TV drama. Maybe it’s a sign of the times – those Regency heroines used to just drift between balls and dashing beaus, after all, whereas these days the reader requires pace, action and quicker gratification. 

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Casting Calls, or The Fantasy Fiction League

Today’s blog was inspired by two separate trains of thought, that converged like iron behemoths becoming derailed in the dark tunnels of the mind. An analogy too far, perhaps.

Firstly, I was writing my latest book, and I started to imagine each of my characters as an actor – asking myself the question ‘Who would play this character in the TV drama version, or the Hollywood blockbuster version’? I can dream, right? But it helped me a surprising amount with the characterisation. Suddenly I could picture them in my head – their expressions, their accents, the timbre of their voices. Like a virtual director, I was imagining them saying the key parts of the dialogue, and bouncing of each other’s performances, to the point where I could visualise their bits of ad-lib so clearly that the dialogue and interactions almost wrote themselves. A cool trick, I thought, and one that I’ll definitely use again. I can almost see the ITV drama adaptation of my latest in my mind's eye...

The second element of this blog came about recently as I was watching the movie version of one of my favourite books: The Hound of the Baskervilles. There are lots of film and TV versions, and as this particular version unfolded before my eyes (it was the old Peter Cushing one – great stuff!), I started to think about the cast of the movie, and how they differed from my reading of the characters in the book, or even exceeded my expectations. This got me thinking so much that, over the next few days, I actually re-watched all of the film versions of the Hound of the Baskervilles. Yes, I know… a bit obsessive! This in turn made me compare and contrast the various character portrayals, weigh up their pros and cons, and consider my favourites. Of course, in some versions the characters are completely different from the book, or even made up (the alteration of Beryl Stapleton to the very different Cecille in the 1959 version, for example), but they usually have a comparator somewhere in the other versions regardless.

So all of this set me up to think about my ultimate Baskervilles cast. If I had to choose my favourite member of the cast for each role, who would I pick? Well, that wasn’t an easy process, because so many of the actors are really good, and you kind of wonder if their performance was in part due to the chemistry they shared with their co-stars… but then you’re just over-thinking it. So here’s my list – my favourite actors for each key role in the Hound of the Baskervilles. Think of it as kind of a Fantasy Football League, but for literature-to-film adaptations. Do you agree with my picks?

Sherlock: Basil Rathbone
Watson: Edward Hardwicke
Sir Henry Baskerville: Martin Shaw
Stapleton: Richard E Grant
Beryl Stapleton: Marla Landi (as ‘Cecille Stapleton’)
Dr Mortimer: John Nettles
Barrymore: John Le Mesurier
Mrs Barrymore: Eily Malyon (as Mrs. Barryman)
Selden (Convict): William Ilkley
Honourable Mentions: Spike Milligan and Roy Kinnear (as the policeman and Selden respectively, from the 1978 spoof), and the hideously miscast William Shatner from the 1972 TV movie. Brilliant!

A quick point to explain – it’s no great secret that my favourite Sherlock Holmes (in any guise or setting) is the wonderful, late, Jeremy Brett. However, in the Hound of the Baskervilles, Rathbone puts in a particularly stellar performance, and he has the ‘look’ down exactly right. In this one movie adaptation of any Holmes story, Rathbone is my favourite, and Brett a close second.

One final note: this exercise benefits from the fact that there are at least a dozen versions to draw from. It’s a very different poser from ‘If you could cast ANYONE in the roles from your favourite book, who would it be?’ That’s a question I may return to in a future blog – the ultimate fantasy character list!

Monday 17 February 2014

My Name’s Mark, and I’m a Book Addict…

This past week, as I ordered yet another book off the internet, and settled down to re-read one of my old favourites, I realised that I’m a genuine book addict. I hold my hand up: I own a silly number of books – traditional ones, not digital ones – and it’s long past the point where I have the room to physically store them in my house, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife.

The shelves of antiquarian books at
Bromley House are a sight to behold.
While I was thinking about the degrees to which my book addiction has taken hold of my life, I knew at once that I wasn’t alone. A quick browse around Twitter or Facebook will find hordes of self-confessed bibliophiles all sharing their passion for the printed word. So I had a think about the traits that define my addiction, and – in true internet style – I came up with a top ten. Let’s see how many of these you recognise in yourself…

1. You belong to more than one library
I’ve joined a local library everywhere I’ve lived (and never technically left any of them). These days, living in Nottingham
I also belong to a private subscription library – the wonderful Bromley House – which is a trove of treasures.

This is my reading chair.
There are many like it,
but this one is mine.
2. You own a ‘reading chair’, or have a designated ‘reading space’.
A special place for reading just helps you switch off from the rest of the world and enjoy the written word for what it is. It's like working at a desk rather than on the sofa.

3. You’ve developed a taste for the finer things
If I read in the day, I like to drink fresh filter coffee. If I read in the evening, I like a smoky single malt, or a nice ruby port. Mmm, port.

4. You’ve bought books you already own by mistake
Sometimes because it’s in a different format, or with a different cover – sometimes the same edition. It matters not. I’ve done it more than once!

5. You’ve bought books you already own on purpose!
Because a special edition of an old favourite, or a single binding of a story from an anthology, is just too good a chance to miss.

6. You can’t pick a favourite
Books are my babies. You can’t have a favourite baby, can you?

7. You’ve read your favourite novels more than once.
Remember, you can’t have just one favourite, so that’s a lot of re-reading. Christopher Lee apparently reads The Lord of the Rings every year. Even the bits in italics. He deserves a medal!
An eclectic mix, representing
approximately 0.5% of my collection...

8. You own more books than you’ve read.
A sad, sad confession. My compulsion to amass books outstrips my reading pace by a fair margin. I’ll get round to them all one day. Probably.

I mean, just look at this one!
If you can walk past this shop
without looking, you have
no soul. NO SOUL!
9. You find it impossible to walk past a second-hand bookshop.
Unless it’s closed, of course. But even then, you can window-shop, right? And there’s always treasure to be found, especially if it’s a really disorganised, sprawling old shop (see right)!

10. You don’t even own an e-reader.
The only controversial point on my list, I think. I can’t bring myself to buy a Kindle, because it means I might have to replace my beloved books with… well, with nothing, really. My love of books goes well beyond the words on the page; e-readers are great for some people, and the effect they’ve had on the reading public is fantastic – but they’re just not for me. I’m print and I’m proud!

Wednesday 15 January 2014

The Game's Afoot

With Sherlock Holmes being all the rage at present, it seems rather fortuitous timing to release an anthology of Holmesian short stories; and that's exactly what Titan Books is doing. And what's more, I'm in it!

The Further Encounters of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of short stories by a variety of genre writers, including Guy Adams, Lou Anders, and a certain Mark A. Latham. The stories range from the traditional to the steampunk, the supernatural to the comedic - in short, there's something for everyone contained within these pages. Compiled by George Mann, seasoned steampunk writer and author of Sherlock: The Will of the Dead, there's lots to entertain the avid Sherlockian.

My own story is an attempt at blending the canonical text with elements of Conan Doyle's supernatural fiction. In 'Sherlock Holmes and the Popish Relic', Holmes and Watson take up a case that is ostensibly not of this Earth; but Holmes, of course, doesn't believe that for an instant. Set shortly after Holmes's return from the dead, and just a few short years after the Baskerville case, the case takes them to an isolated, tumbledown estate and the ruins of a Catholic abbey to investigate the disappearance of an elderly peer of the realm. It seems that John H. Watson is far more inclined to trust his first instincts, and wonder if the things that go bump in the night aren't entirely of flesh and blood...

The Further Encounters of Sherlock Holmes is available to pre-order online now, and is available from all good book shops come February 28th.