Navigate / search

Web presence 101.8 – Pinterest

Pinterest in the new kid on the social media block that debuted in 2010. Taking a leaf out of Tumblr’s book, it’s a social media scrapbook, encouraging you to share pictures with your friends. Each image is called a “pin”, and you can organise them into “boards”, or categories. As with other social media, you can follow other people and they can follow you; images pinned by you and your followees appear on your homepage. You can then pin them to your own boards, so that your followers get to see them, or just comment or like them, as on Facebook.

Today’s random selection of images!
Today’s random selection of images!

At first, Pinterest was invitation-only—I picked up an invitation earlier this year through fellow author Jody Hedlund, whose blog I follow (somewhat erratically)—but it’s now open for everyone to sign up. So why would you want to? What use is a virtual pinboard to a writer? We deal in words, not pictures, right?

Well, they do say that a picture paints a thousand words, and visual material can really help to spark your imagination. Sure, you could spend hours on Google image search, but Pinterest feeds you a constant stream of material chosen by real people rather than a computer algorithm. I do find I have to be selective, though; some of the people I follow have quite a diversity of boards (image categories), and whilst I might be interested in some, others just clog my feed with irrelevance. Thankfully you can follow individual boards rather than a member’s whole collection.

This all sounds very jolly—and it is!—but there’s a catch. Whereas other social media revolve around words and informal images (e.g. photos of your cat that you took with your phone camera), Pinterest’s focus is on sharing professional-quality images. Most people cannot easily create this kind of content, which means that most members’ chosen images are predominantly or wholly created by other people. I think you can see where this is going…

What it boils down to is that it’s against Pinterest’s T&C to distribute images without permission from the copyright owner. Whilst I totally sympathise with artists whose work is being distributed for free, I don’t see how this can be squared with social media. The whole point of Pinterest is to share interesting images, and if you can’t rely on other users to obey the rules and only pin images they have the rights to (which you obviously can’t), that means you are breaking the rules unless you follow every image back to its source.

Personally I feel there’s a big moral difference between redistributing high-resolution artwork that’s intended for sale (especially if you remove any link or attribution) and linking to pictures that have been used for illustrative purposes only, but legally there is no difference at all. At any rate, I try to restrict myself to pinning book covers (which is generally considered fair use since you’re helping to promote the product), public domain artwork, and small photo-illustrations – and I always ensure I link back to the originating site.

Because of these problems, I find it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend Pinterest. Yes, it’s fun to browse the beautiful images your friends have found online, and liking/commenting is harmless enough, but you’ll have to decide for yourself how comfortable you are with breaking the law…

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

Research trip: Hampton Court Palace

One of the fun things about writing historical fantasy is that it’s a great excuse to visit (or revisit) historic locations. Sadly, most of the Tudor palaces that appear in the Night’s Masque trilogy are long gone, but one of the best—Hampton Court—survives, albeit with some 18th-century modifications. Hampton Court Palace makes only a brief appearance in The Merchant of Dreams but I wanted to make it as authentic as possible, and since I hadn’t been in at least fifteen years I thought another visit was in order.

The anteroom to Henry VIII's Great Hall, where food was brought up from the nearby kitchens
The anteroom to Henry VIII's Great Hall, where food was brought up from the nearby kitchens

Rather than do the tourist thing of following itineraries, my main aim was to orient myself within the sprawling palace complex and try to imagine where my characters might have found themselves. I therefore wandered around taking lots of not-very-artistic photos, designed more to jog my memory than to show off the palaces’s finer features. Unfortunately my camera battery, which had appeared to be half-charged when I left home, decided to conk out after a handful of photos, so I had to take the rest with my phone.

 

A Tudor rose garden
A Tudor rose garden

Although a fair amount of Henry VIII’s palace remains intact, particularly the public places, most of the private apartments were pulled down and rebuilt by William III and Mary II, and the gardens were extensively remodelled. However the Tudor gardens have been recreated in miniature in Chapel Court, complete with heraldic beasts on striped poles. Old-fashioned red and white roses fill half the garden, whilst the other half is given over to herbs: mint, thyme, marigolds and a number of others I had trouble identifying. All the beds were edged round with heirloom strawberry plants, and the temptation to pick and eat one of the tiny fruits was almost overwhelming!

 

No visit to a historic location would be complete without souvenirs, but so much of what is sold is cheap tat aimed at tourists. I searched the kitchen shop for a book on Tudor cooking to no avail, which seems a dreadful oversight given that Henry VIII’s kitchens are a major exhibit. In the end I selected a more general book—the heavily-illustrated official history of the palace, in the same series as the Tower of London history I bought last year—and a rather handsome pewter cup (right). The latter is pleasingly plain, with just a simple inscription around the base: “Make goode cheere who wyshes: Faicte bonne chere quy vouldra”. I look forward to drinking wine from it whilst working on the final book in the trilogy!

Action? Figures!

One of my favourite bits of writing fantasy is the action scenes. I rarely bother to plan them in advance – one sword-fighting scene in The Alchemist of Souls was described as “Big fight!” in my outline – as I find they’re more fun, and more fluid, if I just make things up as I go along. However occasionally I want to write something that involves more than a single pair of combatants, and it’s at that point I have to plan the logistics a bit more carefully. Writers have various techniques for doing this, but one I’m trying out during the writing of The Merchant of Dreams is to use Playmobil figures. They’re a handy size, come with lots of different weapons – and of course they’re fun to collect!

Note: After taking photos* of the various stages of the fight scene, I realised they were potentially massive spoilers for the ending of the book, so for the purpose of this blog I mocked up a generic fight scene as an illustration, using the same figures for my protagonists and some random pirates. I might post the real photos after the book comes out…

From left to right: Kiiren, Sandy, Ned, Coby, Gabriel and Mal take on some pirates!
From left to right: Kiiren, Sandy, Ned, Coby, Gabriel and Mal take on some pirates!

The setting for this scene is a square in Venice, hence the cardboard “palazzo” in the background and the terracotta “well” in the centre. In the above photo we see a nice street-level view of all the separate combats, and having chosen the figures carefully (and swapped hair, hats, etc around as needed) it’s easy to tell who’s who. However it can be hard to get an accurate idea of distance from this angle, so you might want to take a top-down photo as well:

Birds-eye view of the same scene
Birds-eye view of the same scene

Now we can see exactly who is fighting whom, lines of fire, that kind of thing, so this kind of shot is great for logistical planning.

Finally, you can use close-up shots to get an “over-the-shoulder” perspective from a single character’s viewpoint:

Close-up on Coby, looking towards Mal's fight
Close-up on Coby, looking towards Mal's fight

Not only is this rather cute, it can give you ideas for the next move in the combat. That pirate in the red bandana is looking like a good candidate for a head shot!

That’s really all there is to it – I moved the characters through the combat, taking photos at each stage, then when I came to write the scene, I used the photos as reference material. I didn’t always stick exactly to the original plan, and I dare say it may change again in the next draft, but it gets the creative juices flowing :)

Do you have any favourite outside-the-box techniques to share for handling the trickier aspects of writing?

Technical note: I used a Panasonic Lumix FX-55 with no flash (it tends to create too much over-exposure) and manipulated the light levels in The GIMP.

Research trip: Venice

The Grand Canal at sunset
The Grand Canal at sunset

This year my focus has been on the second book in the Night’s Masque trilogy, The Merchant of Dreams. As the title hints at, this installment is set (partially) in Venice, a favourite city of mine. However I haven’t been there since 2003, so I was very keen on making another visit to do some research – and of course enjoy some fabulous Italian food whilst there!

We flew out the evening after FantasyCon, which was perhaps a mistake – I soon discovered that I had a dose of “con crud”, and the flight over the Alps was rather painful with bunged-up sinuses. However I kept my cold under control with regular doses of echinacea and paracetamol, and overall the trip was wonderful. The city was as beautiful and atmospheric as I remembered, the perfect setting for a historical fantasy novel.

Ca' Malcanton, a medieval Venetian house
Ca' Malcanton, a medieval Venetian house

First up: our accommodation. I found this place online, and the idea of staying in a real Venetian house rather than a hotel was irresistible. I haven’t decided yet whether this exact house will appear in the book or whether I will just use some of the details, but either way, it was a useful part of my research as well as a brilliant place to stay.

My main research consisted of visiting a few locations I intend to use in the book, as well as just soaking up the atmosphere for inspiration. First up was a visit to the Doge’s Palace, where we took the Secret Itineraries tour: a look behind the scenes at the offices, torture chamber and “the Leads” (i Piombi), the attic cells where Giacomo Casanova was imprisoned in the eighteenth century. The torture chamber was surprisingly civilised in appearance, just a high, narrow wood-paneled room, with a heavy rope hanging from the ceiling above a set of wooden steps. The Venetians’ approach to torture was very simple: suspects were placed in adjacent cells where they could see and hear everything that went on, then one victim was subjected to the strapado, i.e. hauled up on the rope by his hands, which had been tied behind his back. Very, very painful, and thus very effective at loosening the tongues of both victim and observers. (Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photos inside the palace or even make written notes, so I will have to rely on my memory for any details I might use in the book.)

Fondaco dei Turchi
Fondaco dei Turchi

We also visited the Fondaco dei Turchi (now the Natural History Museum), for reasons that will become clearer when the book is published! I was more interested in the building than the museum exhibits, which range from the fascinating (dinosaur footprints) to the macabre (a collection of stuffed animals formerly belonging to a big game hunter), It wasn’t all dead things, however; in the garden area outside we spotted a hummingbird hawkmoth, though sadly he moved far too fast to be photographed.

Whilst not exactly research, I did make the most of our trips to various restaurants, including trying out local specialities like sarde in saor (sardines in a “sweet-and-sour” marinade). I can particularly recommend Ai Assassini, tucked away in a side street near La Fenice, where I enjoyed some amazing prosciutto crudo, as rich and soft as butter; and Poste Vecie, said to be the oldest restaurant in Venice. At the latter I had another delicious Venetian speciality, seppie in nero (cuttlefish cooked in its own ink) – the restaurant is right next door to the Rialto fishmarket – followed by a glass of grappa di prosecco in lieu of dessert. Poste Vecie was founded around 1500, so don’t be surprised if it makes a guest appearance in The Merchant of Dreams :)

Lace parasol and fan, brocade slippers, leather mask and Murano glass jewellery
Lace parasol and fan, brocade slippers, leather mask and Murano glass jewellery

Of course the reason Venice became so rich was that it was the nexus of a vast trading network transporting luxuries from the East into Europe. No trip to Venice would be complete without buying a few luxuries of my own, including some that you may see me wearing at a future convention! (see photo)

I also bought a gorgeous leather-bound journal – almost too nice to use! – and some comestibles: a small packet of chocolate-covered ginger, a jar of enormous olives, and a bottle of Prosecco to toast the handover of the manuscript of The Merchant of Dreams. I guess it’ll be a while before I get to that one…

Drafting, Phase 2

Over the past couple of weeks I have been preparing to get back into writing the second draft of The Merchant of Dreams. This involved a bunch of research (mainly into 16th-century Venice, the main location I’m using) as well as a whole heap of plot-brainstorming and outlining. I think one of the reasons I stalled last month was lack of adequate preparation – well, not this time!

I now have 36 index cards (roughly one per chapter), each its own Scrivener document, and around 24k of draft: the first four chapters that I wrote back in April, plus a bunch of scenes from draft one that I think I can recycle. The latter will need extensive editing, but having them in the appropriate place in the story means I can stitch it all together more easily.

I’m also trying out a new technique this time. Rather than slogging through in chronological order and getting bogged down on scenes that haven’t had time to percolate through my brain yet, I’m writing each one as it comes to me and slotting it into the 36-card structure in its approximate chronological position. Hopefully this more organic process will avoid blocks and stalling!

Researching Historical Fantasy

I had planned to do a classic movie review today, but I got so caught up in planning Book Two of my Elizabethan fantasy series yesterday, I didn’t get around to watching any. So instead I’m stealing a leaf out of Mark Chadbourn’s blog and talking about how I research my novels, since that’s a topic uppermost in my mind at the moment.

Non-fantasy readers tend to think that the genre has an “anything goes” attitude, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. All good fantasy writers set limitations on what’s possible in their made-up world. What can magic do, and what can’t it do? Which fantastical creatures (if any) are real, and what are their characteristics/powers? Without limits, anything is possible and thus tension and suspense are deflated.

Historical fantasy is even more constrained, in that we have to take the real events of history into account and decide how closely we are going to follow them. You can’t fudge the facts entirely, or your setting will come across as a cheap Hollywoodesque pastiche of the period. Indeed, a careful adherence to fact will set off your fantasy elements far better, by anchoring the strangeness in a reality as solid as our familiar 21st-century world. On the other hand, you could spend a lifetime researching a well-documented era, just as a creator of a secondary world could spend all their time world-building, and never get around to writing the book. So what do you do?

I approach research in layers. To begin with, I know an awful lot of basic information about sixteenth-century Europe, and Tudor/Elizabethan England in particular. We studied the period in primary school (aged about 11) and again in grammar school (aged about 14), and ever since then I’ve read countless non-fiction and fiction books on the subject, watched numerous films, TV series and documentaries, seen eight or nine of Shakespeare’s plays performed live, and visited a great many historic buildings, from Hever Castle in Kent to Plas Mawr in North Wales. None of this was research for a specific book, just a general interest in the period. And yet it all builds up into an almost instinctive feel for place and character that you can’t get by doing six months or even a year’s intensive research.

Still, you do need specific research on top of that base layer. There are bound to be real locations you want to use but are unfamiliar with; before revising my first novel, I hadn’t set foot in the Tower of London since I was ten years old, an omission that I was quick to remedy! I ended up doing an awful lot of additional reading in order to nail the details for that book, because I wanted it to feel real. The two pubs mentioned in the first scene of my book? Both real – and the one favoured by the actors was one of Edward Alleyn’s known haunts. Admittedly I had to make up the descriptions of each place, because the buildings no longer exist, but the writer’s aim should be to merge fact and fiction so that the reader is never aware of the seams.

A lot of writers seem to be unable to resist the temptation to put every last bit of their research on show. Look how hard I worked! their book shouts. I always remind myself that the story comes first. If a historical detail is relevant to the story, or helps to set a scene without bogging down the action, then fine. I needed names for the two pubs, and authentic ones are no more intrusive than made-up ones. But if one reader in a thousand really wants to know all the different types of wood that go into making a lute, they’re going to have to read about it somewhere else, because I’m not going to bore the other nine hundred and ninety-nine.

At the moment I’m embarking on a fresh draft of a novel set at least partially in Venice. I visited the city back in 2003, before I ever conceived of writing Elizabethan fantasy, and fell in love with the place, so I drew on those memories when planning the first draft, which I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2007. At that time I also did some general research into Venetian history and politics, to get a feel for the kind of story that would be plausible in that setting. To me, a plot should grow out of the unique characteristics of a culture, not be imposed from outside. Otherwise, why bother to set it there in the first place?

For this next phase, I’m going to be doing some more reading and googling, but again, not so much that I put off writing the actual story. After the next draft, then it will be time for detailed research: accurate descriptions of buildings, fashions and artifacts, authentic names and titles. In other words, the set-dressing that will bring the city  to life. Of course this is a great excuse to visit Venice again (and claim the expense against taxes this time!), but until I have the story sketched out, I won’t know which places I really need to visit when I get there, so I won’t make efficient use of my limited time.

You’re probably thinking this is a heck of a lot of work – and expense – for a fantasy novel. Perhaps it is. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.