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Friday, 18 September 2015

NaNoWriMo 2015 - Story Ideas

It's September and I'm starting to think about Nanowrimo 2015, that exciting and crazy month in November, where every year I attempt to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel.  I think September is the earliest I've thought of my Nanowrimo novel, normally it's some time in October I start to think of it.  But I'd really like to give myself a good go of it this year.  Perhaps this year will be the first one I actually win Nanowrimo?

Beckie / Flickr Creative Commons License

Feeling inspired by my Art Challenge earlier this year, where I created a fantasy image based on an idea of a British secret service covertly fighting alien threats in the Victorian era.  How would Victorian technology fare against alien technology?  Aliens, alien abduction, experimentation on humans, shapeshifting aliens, alien robots and monsters attacking Earth and it's inhabitants would all seem very alien and very strange to 19th century humans.  

My Artwork: 'Ancient vs Futuristic' - Colour Pencil on A5 Sketchbook paper

Although they could use Victorian guns, probably flintlock pistols and rifles, and gunpowder (most enemies don't fare too well against large explosions), I think they would still struggle against alien enemies.  Perhaps they could make use of the occult knowledge that was so popular in Victorian times.  Consulting psychics to determine when and where any alien encounters or threats had or would happen.  They could also seek out witches and mages to do battle against alien enemies, summoning spirits and werewolves to do their bidding.  This may make the battleground a more even one.

The Ouija Board
Lemurian Grove / Flickr Creative Commons License

Their communication abilities would be very archaic compared to today, before telephones of any kind were invented, not even radio communication existed.  Letters would have been posted, and if something could not wait 24 hours for first class post, messengers could be sent, like errand boys (or grown men if they could not trust them) to deliver paper messages that were urgent.  Members of the secret service could turn up at an agent's house, or meet them at a pre-arranged time, such as at a park.  They could pass paper messages that would need burning after reading.  Or they could have some sort of code.  Perhaps Braille? They could have secretly invented before it was released to the public to be used by the blind, it could have been used as a discreet code around the edge of postcards or greeting cards to be sent through the post to secret service agents.

Bible inside cover
lokarta / Flickr Creative Commons License

Steampunk technology could have been invented in a similar way, to look like Edwardian technology, that was secretly invented earlier than was released to the general public.  What kind of Steampunk technology could they have had?  Electricity hadn't been invented, so it would have to be something running from a steam engine, or cogs like a wind-up clock mechanism, which could be very small like a pocket watch, or something very large like Big Ben.

Compass Study
Calsidyrose / Flickr Creative Commons license

Perhaps I can spend these 2 months leading up to Nanowrimo researching Victorian technology and what occult and superstitious beliefs they had, to give me plenty of ideas to go through in November.  I find I struggle when I don't know what is going to happen next in my novel, I've tried winging it with absolutely no prep at all, and I've tried with lots of ideas seemingly carefully planned, and then run out of steam.  

This year I hope to be more prepared with ideas I can pick at random, and make use of the Mythic Game Master Emulator, originally designed to emulate the Game Master (or Dungeon Master, if playing Dungeons & Dragons), and allow a group of friends to roleplay without a GM (or DM), or to play a roleplaying game solo, without any other players (which is what I originally bought it for).  But when you read into the Mythic Game Master Emulator ebook, you learn that it can actually be used for writing a novel, ideal if you up against a deadline (such as Nanowrimo), and don't know what to throw at your characters next.  I'm hoping it will help me keep pressing on with my novel, when I'm stuck and feel I don't know where to go next.  It should also help it feel like a game too, making it more fun!  I might even try having a list of ideas or events, up to 100, that I can then throw a 100 sided dice (1d100 or 2d10's), to pick something at random to put my characters through.  I love challenging my characters, and seeing what they can survive through!

Anyone else thinking of their Nanowrimo 2015 novel?  I'd love to hear what you're working on and any tips you have for ploughing on through 50,000 words in 30 days!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Ancient Woodland Flora & Fauna

I’ve always loved anything miniature and small.  As a child, I loved reading The Borrowers by Mary Norton.  I was intrigued by Arrietty, the young daughter of a family of Borrowers, tiny people who lived under the floor.  When they emigrated in The Borrowers Afield I loved exploring the great outdoors through her eyes, discovering giant grass and hedges to climb, beautiful flowers, giant buzzing bees, mice and frogs.  And so began my love of nature.  I used to imagine my miniature self, running barefoot across the moss in my garden.  This glossy green carpet is perhaps one of the most ancient of plants, having no roots or stems, nor true leaves.  Many varieties of moss thrive in the ancient woodland of the British Isles.  It grows over rocks and soil, tree bark and stone walls. 

Lichens also grow on the bark of trees, and are similar in that they have no roots, and absorb water all over their surface.  They need moist humid air within which to grow, and the best place to spot them is in damp ancient woodland.  Because they absorb water from the air around them, many varieties of lichens cannot survive near motorways or human habitation due to the pollutants in the air, such as sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide, which dissolve in the water in the air that they drink.  In these areas only Pleurococcus, a microscopic alga that turns tree trunks a dirty green colour, seem able to survive.  In ancient woodland you see a much more varied and exciting variety of lichens, including Tree Lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria), one of the largest lichens with large light green leaf shapes growing over tree trunks, whose presence is often an indicator of ancient woodland.

Ancient woodland is rare in that it has undisturbed, and very rich soil.  It has not been ploughed or turned over by man for centuries, if at all.  It often dates back to the last Ice Age, and in deciduous woodland, has been fed every year with the falling leaves in autumn.  Deciduous trees also enable the prolific growth of another key ancient woodland indicator species – the English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).  They flower and leaf early in the growing season, making the most of the available light before the tree canopy closes in late spring, giving a beautiful carpet of colour so typical of British woodland, and much loved pollen and nectar for our humble Bumblebees. 

Ferns are also well adapted to woodland, these shade loving group of plants are one of my favourite.  I love how each leaf gradually uncurls from the centre, extending out into beautiful light green fronds, it’s like unwrapping a present.  Large ancient trees in Britain harbour many beautiful little rare treasures, like the Golden Hoverfly (Callicera spinolae), large furry hoverflies that more closely resemble a honeybee, except that they have long black antennae that are white at the tips.  The adults are active in September and October, often feeding on nectar rich ivy as it is one plant which offers nectar and pollen at this time of the year.  Golden Hoverfly tend to lay their eggs in ancient trees that have been pollarded, where wet rot holes have often formed, or in the snags and complex branch structures of these old trees.

Perhaps the most elegant and beautiful creature of ancient woodland, is the Purple Emperor Butterfly (Apatura iris).  This Butterfly can appear black and white from some angles, but when the sunlight strikes the wings at just the right angle, a magnificent purple sheen is revealed.  This Butterfly spends most of its time up in the tree canopy feeding on aphid honeydew, although it’s rather unusual diet does bring it down in the early morning and again in the late afternoon, when it will feed on animal droppings, carrion, moisture from damp mud, and have even happily landed on human observers to feed on their sweat!

Another beautiful butterfly is the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia), a bright orange butterfly named after the silver streaks found underneath its wings.  This Fritillary is most often found in woodland where it’s larval food plant, the Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana), grows.  As adults, they feed on aphid honeydew in the woodland canopy, but also their favourite nectar sources, the flowers of Bramble and Thistle.    The Silver-washed Fritillary is a strong flyer, hurtling along through the tree canopy searching for anything that might be food, and investigating anything remotely orange coloured in case it might be a potential mate.  Their courtship flight is the most spectacular of all though, with the paler orange female flying in a straight line, whilst the male continuously flies in loops all around her, before eventually landing on a convenient spot where the male showers her in scent scales.  How romantic!

Wood Ant

Important managers of ancient woodland are the rare and often overlooked are the Narrow Headed Ants (Formica exsecta), recognised by a deep notch at the back of their head.  Even though they are only 10mm long, they play an important role in helping to regenerate forests.  Certain plants are dependent on ants for distribution of their seeds.  For example, Small Cow Wheat (Melampyrum sylvaticum), produces seeds with a small sweet attachment which attracts the ants.  The ants carry the seeds to their nest, where they will consume the yummy food, before taking the seeds out of the nest and disposing of them somewhere new where they will germinate into new plants the following year.  Ants must have a sweet tooth too!

Narrow Headed Ants are also surprisingly green in their way of living.  Masters of eco architecture, they build large dome-shaped nests around a tussock of grass or some similar plant, which provides not only the foundation of the nest, but also heat as the vegetation decays within their nest.  They also build their nests asymmetrically, with the larger and flatter side facing south, so as to get the maximum heat from the sun on their nests.  The worker ants also go out sunbathing, before returning to the nest and using their now heated bodies to warm and help incubate the eggs.  They also thatch their roof with a covering of grass, heather and pine needles, insulating their home from the cold.  I guess when you’ve gone to so much trouble to make your home so nice, you can understand how wood ants can be very territorial, and Narrow Headed Ants are no exception.  They have been known to climb onto the backs of other ant species, and decapitate them from behind, literally biting their heads off!  Perhaps they’ve watched one too many zombie movies?

Wood Ant

If you’re looking for more scary creatures of the forest, there are a couple of rare bats, the Barbastelle Bat (Barbastella barbastellus) and Bechstein’s Bat (Myotis bechsteinii).  I think the Barbastelle Bat is probably the scarier looking of the two, being mostly black and pictured here in caves.  It’s kind of ironic to think that humans used to live in caves, and these days most of us tend to have a fear of Bats flapping around us, how did we ever manage to live in caves with them?  Surely we must have come across them in the past, or is that where our fear of them first came from?  Did we inadvertently spook them with a noise, or was it just their time to fly out, and we happened to be in the way when they went?

Barbastella barbastellus

Apparently, Bats roost in different locations at different times, depending on whether they just want somewhere to sleep for the day, a breeding roost, or a hibernation roost.  For breeding, they prefer higher treetops, just under the canopy, where the sun will keep the females and their babies warm.  Non-breeding adult females, and males, prefer hollows and damaged spots in older or dead trees to keep cool in for sleeping during the day.  But in winter, they need somewhere cooler, to allow their body temperatures to drop, preferably quiet where they won’t be disturbed, and somewhere with a consistent temperature.  Perhaps in the base of an old tree, but Bats would also find caves ideal for this.  Perhaps they would hibernate deep in caves, whereas prehistoric man would be nearer a cave’s entrance making small fires to keep warm.  Then come springtime, a whole swarm of Bats could come flying out, surprising and terrifying humans, who would have had no idea they were there!

I think the cutest creature of the UK’s forests has to be the Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), a quick search on GoogleImages brings up many gorgeous pictures to melt your heart.  Dormice are so sweet, with tiny human-like hands, cute faces, golden brown fur, and a fluffy tail.  They spend most of their time sleeping, they sleep all day long, and hibernate up to seven months a year.  They wake up in April, and spend their nocturnal lives searching for food amongst the branches in the trees, often taking long detours and leaping from branch to branch rather than having to risk the danger of predators on the ground.  They tend to feed on flowers and pollen in the spring, fruit during the summer, and nuts in the autumn.  Their favourite food is hazelnuts and bramble, whose flowers and berries can sustain them for quite some time, but they can also eat aphids and caterpillars.  The trees really do hold all they need, even giving them nesting material, and hollows within which to build their nests close to the ground for winter hibernation.    

Over recent years, Dormice are in decline.  Because of their specialised diet, and because of their fear of crossing open ground, dormice are restricted to ancient woodland sites, they cannot cross open ground to colonise other sites when their woodland habitat is destroyed.  All the species I have mentioned today are especially adapted to ancient woodland, many are rare and threatened.  Amazingly, only 2% of the British Isles is covered in ancient woodland, and only half of it is in a semi-natural condition.  The other half has been planted with exotic and invasive species, such as conifers and rhododendron, spoiling the biodiversity and making it difficult or impossible for our native species to survive there.  These woodlands need careful management, with the maintenance of native species of flora and fauna, to bring the woods back to what was originally here in these woodlands.  We cannot bring back the species that are already extinct, but we can use what we’ve learned to protect the threatened species barely hanging on to our British countryside. 

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is meant to protect special sites like these, to protect the ancient forests of Britain and its inhabitants from extinction.  But their wording has provided a huge loophole allowing any potential developers to bulldoze straight through the land.  This is what it says:

“Planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.

How can any benefit of development outweigh the loss of such a beautiful habitat and the amazing species within it, which could be lost forever?

The Woodland Trust believe this wording is as much use as a chocolate teapot.  The wording should be changed to ancient woodland loss being “wholly exceptional.”  The UK government disagrees, they believe there is adequate protection, despite there being absolutely no evidence to back that claim up.  What do you believe?  Do you want to protect our amazing and precious species?

As much use as a Chocolate Teapot Youtube video

Photo Credits:  Image 1 & 4 – WT/ML (Woodland Trust Media Library), Image 2, 3, 5, 10 & 11 – Getty Images, Image 6 & 8 – Nic Relton (Flickr Creative Commons license), Image 7 – Jim Champion / Geograph (Creative Commons license), Image 9 – Jan Svetlik (Flickr Creative Commons license)

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Book Review - The Edge Chronicles - Doombringer - Book 2 Of The Cade Saga

The Edge Chronicles - Doombringer
Book 2 Of The Cade Saga
By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

I stumbled across this book in the recently returned section of my local library.  I was drawn to it by the beautifully illustrated cover by Jeff Nentrup, this magically floating ship with it’s starry lights along the hull, and a delicate plume of smoke coming from a giant metal-plated ball, which I later learn is it’s phraxchamber, and this is in fact, a skytavern! 

This is the first book in The Edge Chronicles I have read (even though it is book twelve in the series), and it is the second book in The Cade Saga, a trilogy of books focusing on the main character, Cade Quarter.  But it doesn’t matter where you join in, as the authors (writer, Paul Stewart, and illustrator, Chris Riddell) do an excellent job of introducing you to the series, gradually filling you in on the character’s history as you go along.  There are no lengthy sections of backstory, just gentle titbits fed to you as and when needed.  The language used just lightly challenges you too, I only had to reach for my dictionary a couple of times, having not come across a ‘coracle’ before, for example. 

I had no preconceptions of this series so I had no idea what to expect.  From the cover I assumed this might be a steampunk novel, and there are steampunk elements, but I think this book really excels at creating a fantasy world in the Farrow Ridges, a beautiful idyllic wild land surrounded by woods.  The novel starts off slow and safe feeling, it kind of reminded me of my days reading The Borrowers by Mary Norton, when they first venture afield, the lazy summer days admiring the natural beauty of nature around them.  The descriptions in this novel are amazing, you never forget you are in a fantasy setting, with materials such as ‘ironwood’ and ‘snailskin’, creatures like ‘Glitterwings’ and ‘Tilder’, give an otherworldly feel to it, yet somehow they seem relatable too.  The attention to detail, the different settlements built by the different races of goblins, they all have different cultures and ways of building their homes that sets them apart, they are unique and I loved discovering so much.  You feel fully immersed in this beautiful world. 

The illustrations by Chris Riddell are brilliant, with such great descriptions in this novel, it feels vivid and real to you anyway, and you could argue you don’t need them, but Chris Riddell captures the feeling of the scenes perfectly.  You feel the excitement, the joy, the calm before the storm, and the immediacy of the action, not to mention all the details in costumes and scenery.  The illustrations help to bring the story to life. 

My only gripe, and it’s really only a small one, is at least at one point, Cade Quarter’s dialogue sounded just like the narrator, describing the beautiful scenery in exactly the same style as the author.  It’s almost like he lost his personality and became the narrator.  It’s only one brief moment of only a few lines, it soon passes allowing you to get back on with the story.

There is so much to enjoy in this novel, there is danger, excitement, joy, halcyon days when the characters relax and enjoy their life, and you have to see and experience the good, to realise what they potentially have to lose.  You really get to know their characters, the land they live on, and the dangers they face.  There are some amazing creatures too, and the writer cleverly ups the ante as you progress through the novel, and often surprises you.  This novel has been described as original and unique, and I completely agree.  It is refreshing, awe-inspiring, and exhilarating; as a really good adventure should be.  You think you know what’s going to happen next, and you are surprised at every turn.  Fresh, fun, and you just have to know more. 

I love the ending of the novel too, without giving anything away, the novel has a fully rounded up ending.  But just like any great movie, there was a scene saved right to the end, like a teaser for the next instalment, and it just left you dying to read the next one!  This was handled beautifully in this novel.  I also want to check out the first book in The Cade Saga, The Nameless One.  But I’m not sure I can resist the pull to see what happens next, and where the authors are going to take me next.

If you crave adventure, excitement, beauty and wonder in a book, with characters you really get to know and care for, then this book is for you. 

Oh, and there’s monsters!

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Ancient Britain - What was it like?

Great BritainDo we appreciate the country of our birth?  The place we are born and grow up in?  When we think of going on holiday, we often think of visiting other countries; perhaps a road trip discovering America, or a safari in Africa to discover the amazing wildlife out there.  But we often forget to explore and discover the wonders and beauty of the country we live in.

I live in England, part of Great Britain.  Great Britain is an island that consists of England, Scotland and Wales; with Ireland to our west and Europe to our east.  It’s funny, I don’t think of my country as an island, I think of it as a large solid piece of land, a large country.  I imagine islands to be small tropical patches of sand, a few palm trees in the middle, in a hot climate surrounded by the ocean.  That isn’t anything like Britain. 

Britain is traditionally a cold, wet and windy place.  We think of business people rushing down the rain-soaked city streets with umbrellas, everything cold, wet, and grey.  But if you go back in time, Britain was a very different place.

Prehistoric Plants and Animals
Caveman hunting a Brown Bear
During the last Ice Age, some 20,000 years ago, Britain was connected to both Ireland and Europe by small strips of land, allowing prehistoric man and beast to migrate in and out of the country.  Early humans had to be hardy, living in caves and making flint tools by hand, they hunted brown bears, antelopes and wild horses across the frozen plains of Britain.

The Ice Age eventually came to an end, with the ice thawing, rising sea levels cut Britain off, first from Ireland, then from Europe too.  The once arctic climate now reached a warm 17 degrees Celsius in summer, allowing birch trees to spread, with shrubs and grasses appearing too.  The green and pleasant land that we know today was beginning to take shape.  The main hunted animal species were horses and red deer, although hares, mammoth, rhino and hyena were also hunted.  How amazing that we had these creatures in our country?

Animals of the Ice Age

As the greenery spread and began to develop into forests, humans struggled to hunt the herds of wild horses and reindeer they were used to across the flat plains.  They had to find new ways to hunt, and turned to the pigs, deer, wild boar and aurochs (wild cattle) flourishing in the new pine, birch and alder forests now covering our land. 

Around 5,000 years ago, as temperatures continued to rise, the pine forests were replaced by woodland, nature was blooming, with so much vegetation and wild animals, there seemed to be plenty to go around.  But humans were also blooming, our population was increasing, and so were our hunting and gathering skills.  So much so, we were beginning to exhaust our natural resources.  (Sound familiar?). 

So around 4,500 years ago, we began growing our own plants and domesticating wild animals as food.  Forests were cleared to make room for crops and animal enclosures.  They farmed native pigs and cattle at first, then sheep and goats were imported from the continent, along with wheat and barley, for which Britons later became renowned wheat farmers in the eyes of the incoming Romans.  Britain gradually became a country of arable land, pastureland, and managed woodland. 
Humans relied on woodland for just about everything: food, heat, animal enclosures, even shelter (once they ventured out of their caves).  Britons learned coppicing, the art of cutting young tree stems down close to the ground, where new shoots will grow back and can be harvested again.  They also discovered pollarding, similar to coppicing, only they cut the branches to just above head height to prevent animals from grazing on the new shoots.  Both brilliant ways to manage trees for timber, without killing the tree.  

This now makes sense of something I remember doing in Runescape, a medieval fantasy online roleplaying game set in a fictional world, where you performed a lot of the skills and tasks of medieval English people.  I remember we chopped the trees down to stump height, and the whole tree would reappear within a few moments.  Obviously time is speeded up in video games, but the concept remains the same, we were coppicing the trees so that they could grow back and be harvested again.

Personally, I would love to travel back in time, see the country as it was, covered in woodland full of strange and beautiful creatures.  I think it would seem almost like visiting an alien planet today, a bit like in the movie Avatar when they explore the forest and see alien animals for the first time.  Everything is wondrous and exciting.

Photo Credits:  Images 1, 2 and 3 - Wikipedia Creative Commons license.  Image 4 - WT/ML Woodland Trust Media Library.