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Sparks: Dan Abnett

Dan Abnett is an amazing writer. He writes action scenes that play out before your eyes like a movie. He’s funny, clever and he’s my son’s favourite author. Here, he discusses where his sparks come from. I’m exactly the same; so many of my ideas come when I’m sitting in that stasis of public transport.

“My ideas come by train. And bus. Mostly train. Public mass transport, basically. I presume they buy their own tickets.

When I first started writing, even in a vaguely professional capacity, I was commuting in and out of London for work. Daily journeys on trains, on the Tube. It was the only time I got to think, the only enforced free time between a full day at work and a full night of writing. This was, of course, during the Punic Wars, before the advent of laptops or smartphones. Yes, we had pencils. Yes, we did. But there wasn’t much opportunity to sit and write on a crowded South Eastern commuter train. So I’d sit and think instead.

Ideas do come from other places. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and find them on the pillow, and sometimes, sometimes, I actually deliberately think them up. With my brain.  After twenty-five years, I have honed the requisite professional skills to actually be able to sit down and, at will, during regular business hours, come up with fit-for-purpose ideas ready to be used in commissions. It’s a learned skill. Like riding a bike. Or cutting keys. Or cobbling.

But some of the best ideas are the ones that come out of nowhere and mug you. Or the ones you find at the back of the drawer (before you look, it’s a metaphorical drawer). Or the ones that apport into the middle of your kitchen floor during an otherwise ordinary afternoon.

Or the ones that arrive by train.

What do I do with them? I seize them! I seize them, I say, and I clap them in chains! …Well, I write them down for later use. I think you know when a spontaneous, unbidden ideas is a corkingly good one, just as you know that if you don’t record its finer points fast, before it fades like a waking dream,  it will just be a memory shaped like a good idea, the moulded space in which a good idea once fitted, rather than a working good idea that you can use because all the plugs and adaptors, and the instructions, are still in the box.  Before I learned to write things down, to recover them and prepare them for a later use, I lost many because of the foolish notion that I would remember them when I got home or needed to use them. Sometimes I remembered the idea, but not the point, the one tiny detail that made the idea usable and good. Sometimes, all I remembered was that I’d had an idea. I am still haunted by the memory of forgotten ideas from years ago, by the empty shaped spaces. And I have a good memory.

Why trains? I’d say because the world goes by. It’s not a specific and focused inspiration, like a good book or a newspaper feature, it’s just a series of views, a moving panorama of nonspecific life, none of it intended for, or prepared for, observation. It just goes by. There are either subliminal hooks buried in it, or it’s simply enough to have a moving, non-static visual feed to get my brain firing. Like ambient visuals.

I must learn to get on trains more often, to deliberately seek out the resource rather than accidentally use it because I happen to be going somewhere. The endorsements speak for themselves. This summer, I had, at one point, three big jobs that needed to have ideas developed for them so I could submit and pitch. I wasn’t exactly struggling, but the ideas were not coming out cleanly. I had to go up to London for a signing, and on the train ride home – a journey of just fifty-five minutes – I ‘received’, without trying, without effort, all three, one after another.

I wasn’t even thinking about the pending jobs.

From my house, if the wind’s in the right direction, I can sometimes hear trains passing through the local station. Buses grumble by the retaining wall at the end of my quiet street.

I think they’re trying to tell me something.”

Dan Abnett is a New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning comic book writer. He has written over forty novels, including the acclaimed Gaunt’s Ghosts series, the Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies,  The Silent Stars Go By (the 2011 Christmas Doctor Who novel), Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero, and Embedded. He lives and works in Maidstone, Kent. Dan’s blog and website can be found at www.danabnett.com

and you can follow him on Twitter @VincentAbnett

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Sparks: Kirstyn McDermott

I chose Kirstyn McDermott’s “She Said”, from Scenes From the Second Storey, as the best horror fiction published in Australia last year and gave it an Australian Shadows Award. She has an incredibly liquid way of writing about nightmarish things. She’s one of the best writers of tactile fiction I know. Here, she talks about another brilliant story, “Frostbitten”.

“It’s hard for me to pinpoint the first sparks from which any particular story took light. I tend to view the conception part of my creative process as something akin to walking through a junkyard. I pick up odd and interesting bits and pieces along the way and shove them into my pockets for later use. Sometimes I lose them. Sometimes I never do figure out what to do with a particular piece. But sometimes I’ll reach into my pocket and realise that two or three bits of junk that I’ve been carrying around for ages actually fit together. And then I still have to sit down and try to figure out the rest of their story as I write it.

Occasionally, though, there is a distinct spark to which I can point and say, “Look. That thing, there. That’s where this came from.”

“Frostbitten” (published by Ticonderoga Publications in More Scary Kisses) was one such story. The central image came from the tail end of a dream, what little I could snatch into consciousness when I awoke one morning. Two naked women, stuck together and pulling slowly away from each other, their skin tearing red and raw as they did so. It was such a striking image, but not one that came bundled with any particular feelings of horror or revulsion. The women, I knew, loved each other and were in that situation because they loved each other. The rest of the dream was lost but the image, and the sense of love and sacrifice that accompanied it, remained with me for the rest of the day. By late afternoon, I knew who the women were and had their story almost entire in my head. Two days later, it was finished – the fastest I have ever written a story from conception to completion.

If only they all came that easily . . .”

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Sparks: Allyson Bird

Allyson Bird is one of those writers who see things in many layers. She has a sharp vision and a dark, dark turn of words.  She has an almost filmic way of writing, I think, so that a story plays itself out very visually.

“Three sparks that started some of my stories off…

The idea for In a Pig’s Ear from Bull running for Girls came from a real project where scientists were able to grow pig’s wings. In the story Stella Kiefer explains what she is doing.

‘I was now working on three projects. My main line of research was concerned with residual DNA. I experimented with pig DNA and there was also my little fertility programme. It was old hat to grow a pig’s ear. I was a little more adventurous and wanted to see if I could grow a wing from bone marrow stem cells on to bioabsorbable polymers. I never got tired of trying to grow them into different shapes and coming up with ever more complex designs. Last time they came out like bat’s wings and this time I was aiming for a structure of wing like the extinct gliding reptile, the pterosaur. That would take more time. Some experts said that birds evolved from little feathered dinosaurs but I had always quite liked the hypothesis that birds diverged from reptiles before dinosaurs, and that mammals had evolved from reptiles with the propensity for genetic change that could lead to flight. A whole new take on pigs can fly—perhaps they could, given the right wings, hollow bones and a more developed muscle structure.’

Then I thought of H.G. Wells Dr Moreau and realised that what would happen next would end in a similar location….

‘The Amazon canopy was heaven with these tiny winged angels that looked like Sistine Chapel cherubs with their ruddy complexions and winning ways. I adored them all. They were perfect. Each generation grew their wings earlier and earlier, and the wing structure became stronger as they glided from branch to branch. It was not me that gave them the name Homo angelus—but it stuck.’

Vulkodlak in Wine and Rank Poison was my response to internet trolls, sock puppets and to malicious people who use anonymous, pseudonymous reviews or even their real names to achieve their goal.

‘Vesna wrote. “I’m here to talk about werewolves.”

I’ll show her what I know, thought Stefan. And if she couldn’t play the game he’d sort her. For a few minutes they chatted amiably and then he decided to bait her a little to see if she was good enough to even think of putting pen to paper on his favourite subject. He could see Susiewolf skulking in the background coming forward with the occasional contribution then backing off quickly when he turned on her and gave her a warning snap. Alpha male. He thought of himself as alpha male. He would come back later after he had finished with Vesna to see if he could get a rise out of her. She was always fair game. This new one, Vesna, he’d get her…bring her down, make her look small. He might keep to being anonymous. He liked to hide behind a different name now and again, too.

From a new story The Beat Hotel. This one is hopefully going to be in the Joe Pulver R. W. Chambers homage anthology A Season in Carcosa. Spent a few weeks engrossing myself in The King in Yellow and other stories. Thought about decadence and looked at the lives of the beat generation. The King in Yellow and the latter seemed a perfect combination. A man from a strange relationship I was in once makes an appearance, too…inevitably.

‎’What happened to Kaja and her book of Human Songs? Had there been anything sweet in them? Human. Returned to dust. Or be black and white. So white. Thousands of doves flying together against the snow and one black rock in the way. Obsidian. Pearl. Sand…and finally glass. Dozens of thick, dark green glass panes in a window with the reflection of one gone now within each.’

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Sparks: Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard, another Angry Robot author, has an almost magical ability to bring history alive on the page and make the unreal real. Here, she talks about her series Obsidian and Blood, and the process she went through to develop the storyline.

“One of the advantages of having a series with a historical backdrop is that this provides ready-made inspiration in the form of various events: my Obsidian and Blood trilogy is set in the Aztec Empire in 1480, a fraught time when the Empire was nearing its maximum extension, but already showing the political weaknesses that would eventually doom it at the conquistadores’ hands. 1480 happens to be the date when the long-lived Emperor Axayacatl died–and the inevitable tussle for power that follows a monarch’s death formed much of the background for book 2 in the series, Harbinger of the Storm.
When I tackled the sequel, Master of the House of Darts–which would also be the last book in the trilogy–I naturally hunted for what had happened after the designation of a new Aztec Emperor. It turns out that the new ruler was meant to go on a coronation war, the success of which would prove his fitness to rule. It also turns out that the 1481 coronation war was a major disaster, quite possibly the only coronation war in Aztec history to have finished into an ignominious retreat. The Aztecs, a warrior culture, naturally interpreted this as the displeasure of the gods; and the new Emperor was made much weaker by this initial setback.
“This was perfect for Master of the House of Darts: its predecessor had ended with the selection of the new ruler; this book would open with the ruler’s utter failure to manage the Aztec Empire–a neat way to keep the stakes high, and to tie in with the previous book in the series.
“Unfortunately, I had few details of  that time period: I completed this inciting event by as much as I could, by researching the personalities of the various people in presence. For instance, the young commander of the army, Teomitl (a major player in my series), was known for his hot temper, and his preference for war over political intrigues (he is recorded as marching with his soldiers and sharing their life on the rough). Many of those traits ended in the plot: Teomitl is beloved by his soldiers, but impatient, and utterly inept at peace-time court life. Having all this information helped me narrow down my plot options, by having the fictional characters compose with the reactions of the historical ones.
“However, something still wasn’t quite clicking. Though I could work forward from my inciting event and open up the plot, it all felt too mechanical, and I had the feeling that I was painting Aztec murder by the dots–something I absolutely wanted to avoid, as writing the same book over and over would have been a disaster for the series.
“It took me a while to realise that I had fallen into another series pitfall: because the cast and universe were already well in place, I had locked myself into a mindset where I wanted to keep the status quo rather than move the story forward. I didn’t want my characters to fall out, to attack each other, or even to have competing agendas–and this just wouldn’t work as a book: people getting on well together is marvellous, but as a source of plot it is a rather dry business.
In the end, I gave myself permission to work out the consequences with no holds barred. That was I realised that my characters would have fundamentally different responses to the opening events of the novel, and that the logical conclusion was the opening of rifts between them–not small quarrels, but deeper animosities that wouldn’t be solved so easily.
“Those rifts that open, not only within the Empire, but also within allies, ended up driving most of the plot: Master of the House of Darts is, first and foremost, a book about consequences spiralling out of control, and I borrowed many of its arcs from tragedy: it’s obvious that disaster looms, but many of the characters cling to their convictions, until everything hangs in the balance.
“The only thing I did not borrow from tragedy was the ending, because I had no intention of killing off my entire cast just for the sake of narrative fittingness (and I have always found the Greek tragedy endings a tad unrealistic, the other side of the coin compared to the “happy endings for everyone”, and equally unbalanced)
“But the ending is nevertheless harrowing, and painful; and it is clear when the last page turns that things have altered fundamentally, and that there will be no coming back to more carefree times.
“Quite possibly, this is why I hated the book while I was writing it, because I put myself as much through the wringer as my characters. But, in the end, I think it’s definitely a stronger book because I burrowed deeper; and it’s most definitely a lesson I’ll remember for future books.”

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Sparks: Jason Nahrung

I loved Jason Nahrung’s story in ‘Dreaming Again’, and to me this spark explains why it has such heart.
‘Smoking, Waiting for the Dawn’ (Dreaming Again) is set in an askew Wyandra, an outback town reduced now to little more than a pub, a post office/store/cafe and a few houses. The idea for the story arose out of a road trip that I took with my father, who spent his formative years in the region. He was hoping to catch up with old mates from that time, but as we asked around, a couple had moved on, but most had died. It was a sad return and a very emotional sign that an era had passed. I added roo shooters, now government contractors hunting undead, because vampires can be wonderfully melancholic symbols of the past still haunting the present.

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Sparks: Chesya Burke

Chesya Burke is a deceptively kindly writer. She draws you gently into the personal world of her stories, then hits you with harsh realities, vicious imagery and heart-breaking endings.

I met Chesya Burke this year at Readercon, having heard of her through Laird Barron’s rave review of her short story collection “Let’s Play White“.  You can read an excerpt of the story she discusses by clicking on the link.

“The story idea for The Teaching and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason has dual meaning for me.  I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, called Hopkinsville. Doubtless, just as many of the classic stereotypes of typical small towns are true about Hopkinsville, as are wrong.

But it does have a rich history of ghost and supernatural happens. The well-known Edgar Cayce was from Hopkinsville and I grew up with my family telling stories about experiences with other worldly things, both dead and mystical.

I’ve always been intrigued by Edgar Cayce’s supposed ability.  I’m also fascinated by the idea of twins.  Binary beings, whose every thought and action are understood wholly by another person. But I thought: what if that very connection made it possible for them to reach out to others in the same way?

Although I don’t talk about it much, a few years ago, my 16 year old sister died from congestive heart failure while running track at her high school. (LINK: http://www.horsegroomingsupplies.com/horse-forums/r-i-p-shadvina-iona-leavell-loved-105312.html)  Of course it was devastating and we started a campaign to put respirators in all schools in the state.  She was a twin. She shared a connection with her twin (my sister) that is difficult for me to explain, even as a writer.

I decided instead to explore the idea in fiction.  The Teaching and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason was the result.

The story is about twin girls in the early 20th century who share the dual roles of supporting their community; just as Cayce did those many years ago.  For me, whether Edgar Cayce could predict the future was irrelevant once I understood that he gave an entire community (and in many ways, the country) hope.

The same is true, I think, for my twins in the story.  Sure, their community is in jeopardy, but in the end, they offered hope and release to a broken town and people.

I’d like to think the same can one day be said for my sisters, the twins.”

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Sparks: Nicola Abnett

I first came across Nicola Abnett when I read the first chapters of her novel ‘Naming Names’. I was struck by the intensity of her words, and by how far she was willing to go to tell the story. She doesn’t hold back; there’s no letting go for the reader. She wants you to know exactly what horrors occur, and she describes them from a point of view of acceptance, which makes the horror all the more extreme. She’s very, very good.

“Myra Hindley made me a cup of tea today.”

I was a teenager when my father told me that the most notorious female sex offender and child killer in British history had made him a cup of tea. He worked for the Home Office in the penal system, and this sort of thing happened to him, from time to time. He didn’t talk about it much, or often.

I wonder if my interest in gross criminal psychology came from the very fact that the Official Secrets Act, which he took very seriously, meant that my father didn’t talk about his work. I had to get my information from other sources: magazine articles, books, television documentaries, but the research was always based in fact. This was not the stuff of novels.

When I decided to write fiction for real, this was what I wanted to write about. In the end, I wrote something else first, and this was my second novel; I call it “Naming Names”. It is about a young woman who suffers maternal sexual abuse, abuse that has been institutionalised in a family over generations. When she eventually ends up in the system, it is up to her and Trevor to work out who she is, her name and her age. She records events from her life in long monologues, and Trevor recounts the classical tales, myths and historical events informed by the various names given to her during her childhood.

For most of my almost-thirty-year relationship with novelist and comic-book writer Dan Abnett I have been Nik Vincent: occasional co-writer, editor, first-reader, sometime muse. Now that I am a respectable married woman, it only remains for me to wonder who will publish the other Abnett.

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Sparks: Anne Ostby

I’m thrilled to present a Spark from my dear friend, Norwegian writer Anne Ostby. Anne is an award-winning, best selling author and I’m hoping before very long her work will be translated into English and available.

I heard Anne read part of ‘Town of Love’ when we presented a literary evening together in Suva, Fiji. Here’s a pic of us afterwards; you can tell what fun we had. The reading was wonderful; so beautifully written, such a deeply upsetting subject presented with such respect and passion.

“The idea for Town of Love was sparked in a garden in Tehran in 2007. I was talking with my friend Ruchira Gupta, the anti-trafficking activist, Emmy-award winner, recipient of the Clinton Global Citizen Award, and so much more, about her NGO in India when she suddenly suggested: ”Why don’t you come visit me and see what we do? Then you can write a book about it!” I thought ”Why not?”, and the seed for the opening chapter had been planted.

That conversation became the start of a long journey for me. Not just a geographical one, to a small town in northern India on the Nepali border, but also one of understanding and acknowledging responsibility. Understanding what the buying and selling of human beings really entails, and recognizing that I couldn’t simply turn my back on that knowledge. That is why I had to write the book. That is why I had to go back to Bihar again and again, get to know these women, hear their stories, and carry them forward in the shape of a novel.

The story of the Nat women in Town of Love begins and ends under a mango tree in Bihar. It is told through many voices in many places – some real, some fictional. But everything that is important in the book is true. That young girls are kidnapped and hidden away; that children are assaulted, abused, and raped. That those who reap the benefits of the human flesh trade, with all its violence and brutality, mostly walk free.

But the story also finds a glimmer of hope for the women who walk the streets of the Town of Love, the girls on display in door openings and on balconies. A hope brought by those who care. Those who enter the tiny rooms, push back the curtains, share in Rupa and Salma’s pain. Like Tamanna and Fawzia, there are those who reclaim the governance of their own lives and their own bodies. The hope of Town of Love is that there will be more of them. So that the spark ignited in a garden in Tehran will become the roaring fire I dreamed of.

Anne Ch. Ostby”

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Sparks: Paul Haines

Paul Haines writes stories that get under your skin. He’s an arsehole in print, he really is. A couple of times, I’ve physically thrown a book away from me, wanting to distance myself from the words. That’s how good he is. Bastard.

“Sparks: The Devil In Mr Pussy

I was still in the throes of Clarion South burnout from the year before. I’d only started reading for pleasure again a few months ago, but was struggling to get near the keyboard to write, let alone have a brain that held any idea at all for me to write upon. Writer’s block? I just felt stifled. Stuck. Nowhere. There were a lot of things going in my life at the time, the biggest of which was IVF – the most essential and natural form of creation of all. And that wasn’t working either.

We were living in our new house and nothing seemed to be going right at all. We weren’t falling pregnant, I couldn’t write a thing, our cat was on anti-depressants (and clawing the hell out us when we tried to administer them and then he’d sit on my desk staring at me with what looked like hatred). Our house had also supposedly been built guided by the hand of St Joseph, Patron Saint of Carpenters (I kid you not) and I had had fun taking the piss out of the whole house buying situation. I then started to wonder, in those dark lonely moments of paranoia deep in the night, that perhaps I had scorned St Joseph and we were being punished for it. Again, I kid you not.

Write what you know, they say. I also remember Cat Sparks telling me if you only write what you know you become very limited and boring. So I started thinking about mind-altering drugs (again), this time for research not pleasure. I wondered what those antidepressants did to my cat because they really fucked him up, turned him into a completely different animal.

So I started writing what I knew. Creativity – in all its form – stifled and withered; a house haunted by St Joseph, a cat angry and addicted, fatherhood no longer in my control, and living quietly in suburbia. For the record, I never tried the cat’s anti-depressants, and I never ate his cat biscuits. Though I got close to nibbling on those biscuits.

What came out was weird and wonderful. A blurring of all genres and none that it clearly relates to. It’s also laugh out loud in places and was probably one of the pieces that really helped define the “Paul Haines” voice and the length of short story that really suited me - the novelette. Lessons learned: write it if it is me, and that it is real, and it’s all happening, baby! I was lucky enough to win a Ditmar for the story.

We had to put Mr Pussy down later that year. My wife was now pregnant and he just wasted away to fur and bone.”

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Sparks: Margo Lanagan

Margo Lanagan. Here’s a woman after my own heart. She can look in the dictionary and find a horror story.

“What sparked ‘The Goosle’

Goodness knows what I was looking up in The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary in the second half of 2005, when my eyes wandered from their task and found this:

gunsel n. US slang. E20 [Yiddish gendzel = G Gändslein gosling, little goose; in sense 2 infl. by GUN n.] 1 A naïve youth; a homosexual youth, esp. a passive one kept by a tramp. E20. 2 An informer; a criminal, a gunman. M20.

That first definition, ‘A naïve youth…’ etc., made me sit up: In what kind of time and place and culture would tramps be sufficiently powerful, motivated and invisible to keep boys as sex slaves—and so commonly that such boys would attract a term of their own? Clearly, from the definition, they could do so in early twentieth-century North America—but my mind went flying further back into the past, to a Europe depopulated and rendered lawless by the Black Plague.

I wrote in my notebook: ‘Hansel the Gunsel’ and I copied down the first definition. You can see that the word itself straight away set off the idea of using ‘Hansel and Gretel’ somehow. So once Hansel escaped the witch, how had he ended up falling in with this sneaky, criminally minded, self-interested wanderer—see how definition 2 snuck into the mix too? I decided that Hansel wasn’t in fact homosexual, but that he’d been naïve enough, and hungry enough for affection, to be beguiled by Grinnan. And then couldn’t extricate himself from their arrangement, just as he hadn’t been able to get out of the cage in the witch’s house. Gretel had had to free him—and the witch had eaten her as punishment.

So the sound of the word gunsel itself sent me off to ‘Hansel and Gretel’, where I found all the necessary background to build against; definition 1 gave me the central character and his problem; definitions 1 (with ‘tramp’) and 2 (with ‘informer’ and ‘criminal’) gave me Hansel’s antagonist; and the Yiddish and German origins of the word, ‘gosling, little goose’, gave me some pet-names that Grinnan might use on poor Hansel, helping define their relationship.

These last, ‘gosling’ and ‘little goose’, I ended up mashing together with gunsel to make the word ‘goosle’, and this malformed word marks the strongest point of my revulsion from Grinnan’s exploitation of Hansel. That endearment, whispered by Grinnan as he strokes Hanny’s back to relax him prior to another rape, makes my throat close off and the back of my neck prickle; it has the added strength of suggesting goose-flesh, which is pretty much what I want Grinnan’s personality and actions to provoke in readers. In the end, after all I’d put poor Hansel through, it was the only word that would stand as the story’s title.

‘The Goosle’ was first published in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow, in 2008 (Del Rey). It was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2009); The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt (MirrorDanse, 2010); and Award Winning Australian Writing 2009, edited by Marleena Forward and Adlolfo Aranjuez (Melbourne Books, 2009). In the Ditmar Awards for 2008, ‘The Goosle’ won the Best Short Story Award.

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