Saturday, 31 January 2009


Şencan proposed to me on February 29th last year in Bath (not in the bath, alas, that may have provoked a very different answer...). Since then we have been looking for a venue and date that would suit both of us. At least, that was our excuse.

We had been looking at some places in Derbyshire; the Izaak Walton Hotel in Dovedale was our favourite (it was where my sister had her reception), but very expensive as we'd probably have to book the entire hotel. Ideally, we want to keep the do small and cosy, yet distinctive and relatively individual. It was also a pain trying to organise something so far away from where we're based.

Last weekend we drove up to Aldershot to attend a wedding fair. Whilst there, we talked to a photographer who told us that you can actually get married on board HMS Warrior, the first iron-hulled warship, at the Royal Navy museum in Portsmouth. Şencan seemed interested, and so was I, so we started looking into it.

The long and the short of it is that we now have a date; the 22nd August, and a venue. Now the hard work begins...

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Brunel's steamships and the explosion of the Great Eastern.

One of the great things about the Internet is the amount and quality of the resources available. Many of these are of doubtful quality, but others are superb.

As readers may have guessed, I am fascinated by engineering, from the tiny (chip design) to the massive (ships, planes, etc). This means that a resource such as the archives of 'The Engineer' are so superb. The journal started in 1856, and is still being published.

In an 1859 issue a commentator goes into the steam explosion that killed six men on the first voyage of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's flawed masterpiece, the Great Eastern. The Great Eastern was the largest ship ever built when launched in 1858, and her size was only surpassed in 1899. I used to live on the Isle of Dogs in London, and near to my flat were massive hunks of timber that had once formed part of the slipway of this gigantic ship.

I had heard of this explosion, but had never read a first-hand account of it. Some of the language used in the report is fascinating. For example, the following description describes the design flaw that was the main cause of the disaster. Imagine it being read by an irate Victorian man; there is a certain magic to it that is rarely present in reports nowadays.
But we were told there was a safety-valve to this heater, and that the cock leading to it was shut. A cock leading to a safety-valve! an instrument which being ignorantly turned by a man could defeat the functions of the very device intended to circumvent the forgetfulness and unreliability of man! The very existence of such an arrangement was barbarous.
It continues, stating that there were other flaws:
Even had the most extraordinary vigilance been exercised, an ignorant stoker had it in his power, by the simple turning of a cock, to blow up the ship.
Basically, the explosion occurred because steam pressure built up in an enclosed space. That space had a safety valve, but before that there was also a stop-cock. Close the stop-cock, and the safety valve would not work, allowing pressure to build up. Other failures meant that even if the safety valve cock had been open, an explosion could have occurred at any time. It is strange that after 150 years reports on engineering failures often have the same tone: disbelief that the engineers had not thought of something that is obvious with hindsight.

Six men died in the accident. Brunel himself died from the effects of a stroke a few days later. The Great Eastern itself was a failure; it really only achieved success as a transatlantic cable layer. It was too grand a vision; it pushed the limits of engineering too far. Yet for those very reasons I will always have a soft spot for her.

Brunel had built two earlier great ships; the Great Western (1837) and the Great Britain (1843). All three ships were innovative; The Great Western was the first purpose-built transatlantic steamship; the Great Britain was the first ocean-going ship to have an iron hull and a screw propeller, it was also the largest vessel afloat when launched; and the Great Eastern was simply gigantic.

By a fantastic quirk of fate the Great Britain is still in existence. It spent 84 years as a hulk in the Falkland Islands before being brought back to the UK on a barge in 1970. It has now been cosmetically repaired, and sits magnificently in her original dry dock in Bristol. The award-winning museum is excellent, and is well worth a visit. The picture to the left shows her in her dry dock; it is difficult to get an image that adequately conveys her scale.

One of the fascinating things about the Great Britain is the way she was on the cusp of change; the change from wooden-hulled to iron-hulled ships; from sail to steam; and from paddle wheels to screw propeller. It took a visionary like Brunel to fit all of these together into one ship.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Who won the Second World War?

In their latest article, has an interesting section on who really won the Second World War. This is well worth a read, and is a question that I have been giving much though to over the last few months. This debate is also covered in a Times article from 2006.

The conclusion is simple:
But in the final analysis, it is perhaps undeniable that the Western Allies could not have won the war without Stalin, and the price was to be paid for millions of people long after the end of World War II.
On a basic level, I have little problem with this. The Russians spent a massive amount of blood and treasure beating the Germans into submission, and the Western Allies' attacks in North Africa, Italy, Normandy and elsewhere were, in comparison, minor troubles for the Germans. As the Figures in the Times article states, 75-80% of all German losses were inflicted on the eastern front. It was the eastern front that broke the back of the German army, not the western.

As they say in a previous posting ( about the battle of Kursk in 1943:
Realising that Allied Forces would not move to liberate France, Hitler had moved a large reserve from Europe to help prosecute the campaign on the Eastern Front.
This points out that Hitler saw the Russians as much more of an immediate threat.

But such thoughts are just as simple (and in my opinion wrong) as the earlier Churchillian line that Britain and the US won the war in the name of democracy, or the viewpoint of many Americans (and I have actually heard this said on more than one occasion) that 'they won the war'. Such a conclusion neglects less visible roles that the various countries played.

Before this is discussed further, a question needs to be asked: What do we actually mean by 'who won the war'? Is it the country who defied Germany for longest, the one who lost the most troops against them, or the one who conquered Berlin first? Or perhaps the one who spent the most in order to gain victory?

For the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming that Germany was the major axis power that needed defeating. Although Italy and Japan were also major players, the place that the war needed to be won was Europe. Japan pretty much knew that if America chose to prosecute the war after Pearl Harbour then they would lose. Their hope was that Pearl Harbour would give the US a sucker punch that would stop them from wanting to fight. Given the isolationist views of many in the US at that time, it was certainly possible. Thankfully, it turned out to be a vain hope.

Additionally, I am not taking into account the aid given by other allies on both sides - the Romanians, Italians and others for the Axis; the Canadians, Australians, Chinese and others for the Allies. Whilst these countries made valuable contributions, it was not in their power to win the war.

Firstly, I would like to discuss what would have happened if Britain had fallen (or capitulated without a fight) in 1940. The simplistic view is the that Germany would simply have had to keep less troops in France. However, there would have been many other knock-on effects, all of which could have proved vital in Germany's fight against Russia:
  • Russia would not have received war materials from Britain; these played a small but significant part in the Russian effort. They may still have received some from the US, however, although this transfer may have become much more difficult with Britain out of the war.
  • Many divisions (56?) had to be kept in France to counter a western invasion. This kept them from the Russian front. Although 56 is not much in the grand scale of things, the battle on the eastern front was on such a knife-edge that the extra German troops may well have made a significant difference. In addition, the majority of the Luftwaffe fighters and bombers sent against Britain would have been available to be used against Russia.
  • The minds of the German military leaders would have been able to concentrate solely on the Russian threat.
  • The US would have found it very difficult to do anything about Germany; in 1944/5 Britain essentially acted as a massive aircraft carrier and ship, allowing US troops to organise before going over to France. It is much easier to fight over 20 miles of water than 2,000. If Britain was not in the war, how would they have been able to liberate France and invade Germany?
  • Japan would have rolled through the southern Pacific with even more ease; they would have had far less resistance in Burma, China and other places. This probably would not have stopped Japan's defeat, but it may have helped. Also, many German U-Boats have been freed up from the Atlantic to go and help the Japanese.
So, what would have happened if the US had not joined the war after Pearl Harbour?
  • Britain would have been massively weakened. The food and war materials sent over from the US was a major factor in keeping Britain's fighting power at strength. However, that does not mean that a German invasion later than 1940 would have been attempted, or indeed have worked if it had been tried.
  • There is a possibility that without US help Britain might have been starved into submission, as they tried (and nearly succeeded) to do in the First World War. However, the U-boats in the Atlantic would have had to be careful not to attack American ships for fear of bringing the US into the war, and that would have severely limited their operations.
  • The Japanese would have been able to claim far more resources on the Pacific rim, improving their power.
  • The weakened position of Britain and the greater power and influence of Japan would have made it much harder for them to do anything later.
What would have happened if Russia had been knocked out of the war in 1941/2?
  • The Germans would have had access to many more materials, particularly oil.
  • Many German troops would have been tied up trying to manage the Russian populations.
  • Many of the German troops on the Eastern front would have been available to be redeployed against an invasion through France.
  • Perhaps Japan would have tried to invade Russia.
  • Britain would probably have lost control of North Africa, Gibraltar and many other outposts.
  • However, Germany would still have found an invasion of Britain difficult if the US sided with Britain.
All of this leads me to ask and answer the following questions. Each one of these is arguable and could easily be the topic of many theses, but these are my opinions:
  • Could Britain and the US have defeated Germany without Russia - no, certainly not in the short term.
  • Could the US and Russia have defeated Germany if Britain capitulated in 1940 - doubtful.
  • Could Russia have defeated Germany alone - no.
  • Could Britain and Russia have defeated Germany without the US - perhaps, but Britain would have been left much weaker than it was, and all of mainland Europe would have been left under the Soviet sphere of influence.
So who won the Second World War? In my opinion, all of the Allies did. Although I do not claim to be an expert, it is my contention that it is difficult to remove any one of the three main players - Russia, the US and Britain, and still see an automatic defeat of Germany and Japan.

However, the only way you can guarantee victory is to have Britain in the game. For many awful months in 1940/1, from the fall of France to the launch of Operation Barbarossa, Britain stood alone, the only major power against Germany. It was during this period that the seeds of victory were sown. And that occurred because Britain refused to give in to immense pressure.

By that defiance, Britain did win the war.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

God rest their souls.

Three men died yesterday in an Avalanche on Buchaille Etive Mor in Scotland.

Although I do not go climbing, and do not even possess any crampons, I can fully understand what the men were doing up there. The joys of being outdoors, battling against both the landscape and the weather, can be the ultimate high. Yet sometimes a price is paid.

Buchaille Etive Mor was the first 'real' mountain I climbed, on a long walk with my school back in '91. At the time I was still suffering from my long-term ankle injury, and was in the middle of an all-to-brief respite from the pain. I was a shy, nervous 18-year old, yet to fully emerge from his shell. Little did I know where my life would take me, how many other hills and mountains I would climb in later years.

I would like to express my thanks to the members of the mountain rescue teams and helicopter crews who helped in the awful conditions on the mountain. When you read a story like this please remember: the mountain rescue teams are manned by volunteers. They, like the great men and women of the RNLI, are willing to go out into terrible conditions to help others for no money. One minute you could be working in a shop or office; the next you might be making your way up a track in a blizzard. Wherever you may be, in Derbyshire, the Lake District, Wales or Scotland, they are there to help.

If you want to know the sorts of things these heroes do, see the incident log at Edale Mountain Rescue. I just pray that I shall never need your services.

To the poor men who died: I shall raise a glass this evening in your memory.

Three new walks on website

Three new walks are up on my website:
  • Walk 823 (Newbury to Hungerford)
  • Walk 824 (Havant to Petersfield)
  • Walk 825 (A circular walk along the Itchen Way from Cheriton)
There have also been some updates to various other pages.
I have completed two other walks, 826 and 827, which have yet to be fully written up.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Book review: "Teacher, Teacher!" by Jack Sheffield

"Teacher, Teacher!" is the first book in a series by Jack Sheffield, recounting in fictional form the life and work of a new headmaster in a Yorkshire school in 1977. It is a light-hearted, compassionate book that frequently made me laugh out loud.

The characters are all very well observed, from Ming, the Vietnamese boat girl who spends a few weeks at the school, to Ruby, the large yet infinitely caring school caretaker. There is a lightness to the writing, which means that some of the villains (for instance Stan Coe) can appear slightly one-dimensional. However, more complex characters may have been to the detriment of this wonderful book.

The format of the book is interesting - each chapter describes a particular event (e.g. 'The Governer's Meeting', and has an extract from the school logbook at the start giving potted details of the event. As such, the book can be seen as a collection of anecdotal chapters with a loose theme (of love and the passing school year) running though it.

There are a few magical scenes in this book, foremost of which was the description of the headmaster's visit to a special school. This scene, and particularly the ending, actually had me in tears.

What fascinates me are how real some of these anecdotes feel. Mister Sheffield was for many years a headmaster, and I can easily imagine most, if not all, of these anecdotes having occurred at one time or another. I can only hope that the school and village of Ragley-on-the-Forest are firmly rooted in fiction.

There are some downsides to this book. For one thing, the author tries too hard to root this book in its period, and to make it easy for people to remember back to how things were thirty years before. For this reason, he mentions brands and prices frequently, in a way that becomes all too intrusive after a while. This frequently seems like unnecessary detail. For instance:
Ruby put on her cotton winceyette nightdress, which her daughters had bought her from Boyes in Ousebridge for £5.50...
However, this is a minor foible in what is otherwise an excellent book.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Operation Kiebitz

Occasionally you come across a real-life story that you have never heard of before, and which would form the basis of a superb novel or book.

Last night Şencan and I watched the superb Wolfgang Petersen film, 'Das Boot', a frankly brilliant film about the experience of the submariners on board the U-96 U-Boat in the Second World War.

This film is one of the few that really seems to capture the terror of war; much more so than, say 'Saving Private Ryan', and it was rightly nominated for six Oscars. If this had been a film about American or British submariners I believe that it would be much better known; as it is, the subject matter (Germans during the war) and the need for subtitles for non-German speaking audiences probably puts many people off.

After it had finished, I went upstairs to do a little background research into the historical accuracy of the film. As is often the case, I got sidetracked into looking at other matters, and soon settled on the German U-Boats aces of the Second World War and, particularly, of Operation Kiebitz.

Having been brought up on a diet of classic war films from the British perspective - 'Ice Cold in Alex' being a particular favourite - it is sometimes hard to remember that the Germans also have a wealth of tales about their wartime exploits. Whilst the evils of the concentration camps and other horrors should not be forgotten, neither should be the fact that many Germans fought honourably, even if the cause in which they were fighting was morally repugnant.

During the Second World War, many Kriegsmarine sailors were kept in prisoner-of-war camps, some of which were in Canada. One camp, Camp 30, situated near Toronto, held several U-Boat Aces, including Otto Kretschmer, the most successful Ace of the Deep.

The Kriegsmarine decided to attempt to gain a propaganda coup by bringing the men home to Germany. The plan was set to go in September 1943; the men would escape from the camp and make their way to Chaleur Bay in New Brunswick, where they would be picked up by a U-Boat. Wikipedia claims the distance is 870 miles, whilst other sources say it was an easy three or four days walking.

The plan was sent to them in Red Cross packages, and the men started digging tunnels out of the camp. Three tunnels were started, then two were abandoned. If this sounds familiar, then it probably is. There were three tunnels in the Great Escape; Tom, Dick and Harry.

Their plan is foiled when two unfortunate incidents occur in one night; they had been piling the earth from the tunnels in the ceilings of the huts, and one of the ceilings collapses, prompting the guards to search for the tunnels. Secondly, a prisoner digging earth for flower boxes accidentally uncovers the third tunnel.

Unbeknownst to them, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were well aware of the plot. They had been alerted by a message in a Red Cross package, and knew full details of the escape. Instead of stopping it immediately, they decided to let it continue, hoping to capture, or at least sink, the U-Boat sent out to recapture the men. Unfortunately, they cannot ignore such blatant tunnelling, and the four officers were placed under firm arrest.

However, one officer Kapitänleutnant Wolfgang Heyda, decides to make his own escape. From:
Though it uses a less scientific approach, Heyda's plan makes up for it by its audacity and recklessness. He is provided with false national registration papers as well as a false document signed by the Naval Chief-of-Staff, Admiral Percy Nelles. In addition, he is given civilian clothing, a boatswain's chair, which is a rope chair that can be attached to cables, and nails are hammered into his boots to make crampons.

After donning his civilian clothing and hiding the mate's chair beneath his clothes, Heyda hides in a hut used for sports while a dummy takes his place for the evening prisoner count. At nightfall, taking advantage of a diversion orchestrated by the other prisoners, Heyda leaves his hiding place and scales a fence pole with the help of his crampons. At the top of the fence he gets into his mate's chair, attaches himself to the ropes and vaults himself over. He manages to land on the other side without mishap and without being intercepted by the camp guards. After his escape from Bowmanville, Heyda makes his way to Bathurst, New Brunswick, on September 26, 1943. He then continues on foot until he reaches the rendezvous point of Pointe Maisonnette. En route, he is intercepted by a military patrol, but his false papers and his civilian clothing save him. At the end of the evening, he finally arrives at the rendezvous site.
Heyda was picked up by the RCMP at Pointe Masonette and returned to the camp. It had been an amazing escape attempt. The RCMP used a signal light to signal to the waiting U-Boat, U-536, hoping to lure it in towards the waiting Destroyers. The plot failed. The U-Boat captain, suspicious of noises on his hydrophones, remains submerged, and despite being depth-charged made his escape.

For more details on the plot, read the superb

By rights, Operation Kiebitz should have been made into a film before now - it has a combination of attributes from many classic war films - the heroism of 'The Great Escape' and intelligence services plotting of 'The Man Who Never Was'. It also displays the incredible bravery of several men, most notably Wolfgang Heyda. It is an astounding story, and one that fully deserves to be more widely known.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

My reading list

I thought that I'd create a list of all the books that are sitting on my shelves waiting to be read:
  1. Ian Rankin: Fleshmarket Close
  2. Jack Sheffield: Teacher, Teacher
  3. Bernard Cornwell: Sharpe's Rifles
  4. James P. Stevenson: The $5 billion misunderstanding, the collapse of the Navy's A-12 Bomber Program
  5. Stella Rimmington: At Risk
  6. Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South
The list above is the order that I think I'll read them in. Then there are, in no particular order:
  • James P. Stevenson: The Pentagon Paradox
  • Simon Brett: Murder in the Museum
  • Janathan Stroud: The Amulet of Samarkand
  • Alan Clark: Barabarosa
  • Peter Vaux: Bengal Engineer
  • Joanne Harris: The lollipop Shoes
  • Ian Rankin: The Naming of the Dead
  • Ian Rankin: Exit Music
  • Bill Drummond: 17
  • Sheppard Frere: Britannia
  • Edwina Currie: A Parliamentary Affair
  • KJ Parker: Devices and Desires
  • Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years
  • E. Violet-le-Duc: Annals of a Fortress
And finally, a bunch by Iain M. Banks and Iain Banks:
  • The Approach to Garbadale
  • The Crow Road
  • Matter
  • Look to Windward
  • The Algebraist
  • Consider Philebas
  • Against a Dark Background
  • The Player of Games
  • Inversions
That should keep me busy for a few months...

Book review: "The Torso in the Town", by Simon Brett

At the end of last year Hampshire libraries held a series of writing-related talks and courses. One of these was a talk by Simon Brett at Petersfield Library.

Simon Brett is well known as a writer of murder-mysteries (he is currently president of the Detection Club), but I better knew him as the producer of the first radio episode of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. As he said during his talk, he was perhaps the only person ever to get a script from Douglas Adams on time. This connection with one of my literary heroes was more than enough reason for me to make the long drive to Petersfield.

My recent detective-story reading has been dominated by Ian Rankin and Colin Dexter. It was therefore interesting to read 'The Torso in the Town'. It is a story that, although covering a murder, is much lighter in terms of writing and humour. In particular, Simon Brett captures perfectly the atmosphere of a small English town, and the petty rivalries and jealousies that dominate the social circle. This book is worth reading for these descriptions alone.

It starts with the discovery of a partly-mummified body, sans limbs, in a cellar, during the middle of a thoroughly middle-class dinner party. Jude, a guest at the party, decides to investigate the case, and this leads to an examination of the relationship between the victim and virtually everyone who sat around that dinner table.

The characters are very well drawn; the relationship between Jude and her neighbour and friend, the staid Carole, is excellent. These two women set out to solve the case without the help (or as they see it the interference) of the police.

The other characters are also superb; particularly Debbie, the artist, and the series of drunkards that the couple meet. The imagery is rich, yet at no time does it become ponderous. The town of Fedborough is described in such charming detail that it could itself be described as a character.

Jude and carole have a pleasant way of worming information out of all the important characters, which leads them to reach the solution of the crime. The way they do this is subtle and pleasant, as the locals feel able to talk to these two middle-aged women in ways they would never do to the police. It allows the reader to see beneath the respectable veneer of the characters that they encounter.

As can be expected from the President of the Detection Club, all the clues to solve the case are held within the book, and the final unveiling of the truth is logical; all the characters behaved in all-too-believable ways. Naturally enough, my two guesses about the identity of the criminal were both wrong, but that is half the fun of such books.

It does stretch credulity in places; particularly in the way that the body ends up where it is found is overly (and perhaps unnecesarily) complex. If you were asked to move a box and keep things tidy, wuld you wall it up with a piece of plyboard?

There is a pleasant twist near the end of the book, but this is where, for me, the most disappointing aspect of the book occurs.

I would give this book 3.5 out of 5. It would have been 4.5 out of 5, except for the ending (see spoiler below).

*** Spoiler alert ***
Do not read below here if you do not want the ending of the book spoilt.

When reading crime stories, it is always nice to have closure. Ideally, the perpetrators of the crimes will be seen to have got their just deserts. The exception to this is when the criminals are detected, but escape justice (usually so they can be mentioned in further books of a series). Even then, they are usually shown to have been thwarted or suffered in some way.

The 'just deserts' is not necessarily imprisonment, it could be loss of money, influence, social standing, death, anything; but the criminals have to suffer in some way. In this book, the two main protagonists solve the crime, then let the criminal(s) get away with what they have done. It is unlikely that they will play a part in any future books by Mr Brett.

To make matters worse, the locals are all left believing that the criminal is an innocent man who dies. Jude and Carole assume that the man's death was suicide (taking only another suspect's word for it), and then, when they uncover who the real murderer is, they do not even try to correct that impression around the town. Instead, they leave it to the police to sort out. Fair enough, the man was dead, but that doesn't make it right - or honourable - to let such a slur lie on his name.

This left a really bad taste in my mouth. True, it might be an example of how gossip in small towns can lead to injustices, but the fact is the main characters let it be an injustice. I really, really, did not like this aspect of the book.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

My attitude to walking

For years, I have had a saying:
"The fear of walking in the rain is worse then the actuality of walking in the rain."
That is, when I look out of the window in the mornings and see heavy cloud cover or light drizzle, I can either choose to cancel a planned walk or continue. Generally, when I do choose to go on the walk, things go well and I have an enjoyable day. For that reason, unless it is heavy rain, I would still go for the walk.

However, that has not been the case for the last year. For various reasons, my heart was not as much in walking, so I would look out of the window, see frankly poor weather, and cancel a walk.
I have decided to change this. rather poor attitude.

One complicating factor is that, in 2006, I managed to average over twenty miles per day's walking. This was something I had always wanted to achieve, and I rather stumbled into it, unplanned. In 2007 I achieved it again, and also in 2008, despite having completed under 400 miles. As time has gone on I have found myself only walking if I could guarantee a twenty-mile day. This is sometimes difficult, especially if the terrain is difficult or the length of the day is short. This is a significant factor (along with moving house and illness) that I did such a short number of miles last year.

This year, I will not let the weather stop me from doing a planned walk unless the weather is absolutely awful - heavy rain. Likewise, I am not aiming to average twenty-mile days. Indeed, I intend to do some shorter, more enjoyable and exploratory walks in order to firmly put that target beyond reach.

These two concessions are about the only way that I will manage to complete my target of walking 1,500 miles this year.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Tools for authors

There is one thing that all writers do (as opposed to would-be writers), and that is write. Whilst there may be some people who still write with pen and paper, I would guess the vast majority use computers. Therefore, it is somewhat strange that such a vital tool is rarely discussed.

I would guess that the majority of writers use Microsoft Word, either on the PC or Apple Mac. MS Word is a highly capable piece of software, which in many ways suffers from the sheer size and functionality that it contains. For instance, it has the capability to draw diagrams within the document, something most writers probably do not require. Having said this, it is undoubtedly a massive achievement, and (despite what many people say), one of the major reasons that it is so popular is that it is very, very good. However, it is not flawless, and the claims of it being 'bloatware' (large, unwieldy software) are accurate. For many purposes, it is simple overkill.

There are, of course, other rival general-purpose writing software that can be used, from the humble Notepad or the word processors in Apple Works and OpenOffice. All of these have the same basic features, and the major differences for writers can, for most purposes, be summed up in usability terms. How easy is it to create a dictionary in the spellchecker? How easy is it to convert the document into a manuscript? How easily can I see my current word count?

However, such general-purpose software rarely has the exact features that many authors require. For instance, before I write a word of a novel, I plan the characters and locations out in (sometimes exhausting) detail. For locations, this can include textual descriptions, pictures, maps and even diagrams of room layouts. All minor inconsequential stuff, but (for me at least) this worldbuilding is an enjoyable part of writing. There are various ways that this information can be stored; in separate word-processor documents, or loose files in a folder. These can then be printed out, and are kept on the desk beside me as I write. However, there are alternatives.

There are various packages that are specifically for authors, and which allow them to keep all of their data on a novel together - the character and location descriptions, scene data and various other items. There are many of these packages, such as YWriter5, Scrivener (on the Mac), Write Your Own Novel, Page4 and others. These all have various capabilities that are directed towards authors, such as the creation of time lines and storyboards. Some of these packages are free, whilst others are expensive; some are available only on PCs, and others only run on Apple Macs. However, all the ones that I have tried have various problems that do not make them suitable for my personal use. For some of my writing I have created my own package that allows me to keep track of the progress of my story. This is written in Visual Basic, and, although good enough for my purposes, will never be released publicly. for this reason, I am probably in a good position to review such software.

So what features do I look for in writing software? The list below is a good start, although note that no one package has them all:

1) The ability to split a story into scenes, allocate characters and locations to a scene, and then put multiple scenes into a chapter. This is, in my honest opinion, the biggest advantage that specialist authoring software gives you. Instead of treating a novel as a gargantuan whole, it splits the book down into more manageable chunks. The chunks can then be re-ordered with ease. Think a scene in the third chapter may work out better in the fifth? In a word processor, you have to work out the beginning and end of the scene, then cut and paste. In a specialist package, this may take one mouse click. This is of definite use to writers who do not plan their work in advance.
This confers other advantages. Breaking a large work into smaller sections can make it seem more manageable. When editing, you can read scene-by-scene, or read all scenes that include a certain character or location.
It is also useful to have a full-view mode, where the scenes can be found in their correct order. What is really nice is if any alterations done to the story in this mode can be put into the relevant scenes, making editing of the whole story easier.
One note of caution, though: I would always proofread using a large file, which is representative of how the reader will view the story.

2) A spellchecker is important. True, a spellchecker should never be relied upon, and all text should be proofread before release, but a spellchecker can help. Additionally, I look for the ability to have multiple, user-specified dictionaries. For instance, I have a character that I am working on in my current book whose given name is 'Ennor'. Fed up with having this come up as an incorrect spelling, I put it into a dictionary that will be used just for that book. The name 'Ennor' will not pollute the main dictionary, so it will still show up as a mistake in other writing.

3) Likewise, autocorrection is useful. I am a fairly poor typist, and my fingers suffer from dyslexia - for instance, I type 'teh' instead of 'the'. I know very well how to spell 'the', but I frequently mistype it. Many packages have the ability to put in lists of words that you commonly mistype, to allow them to be automatically corrected. This saves a surprising amount of time.

4) I am not too fussed about grammar checkers - the one in MS Word does not do a terrible good job, although it can be indicative of problems such as passive voice. Again, such automated tools should never replace proofreading. Having said that, they can be useful.

5) Output is also important - if you are a published author, with books accepted by publishers, then, for convenience's sake, the publishers may well want that book sent to them in their preferred format. This is likely to be MS Word. Although other applications can convert or save to to MS Word format, there may potentially be problems. Do you want to take that risk? The more complex the document, the more likely it is that there will be conversion problems. On the other hand, as MS embraces a more open document format (ODF), this situation will undoubtedly improve.

6) When submitting a manuscript, most publishers and agents require a standard format - usually double-line spacing, one side per sheet of paper, large left-right margins, etc. Some specialist packages automate this, and have a manuscript-output option. However, as the rules mentioned above vary from publisher to publisher, you will probably have to set options to get the correct format. And if you have to do that, why not just do it in a Word Processor?

7) Another feature that may be of use to some authors is collaborative writing software. If more than one person is writing a book, then some packages will aid the process. This is one thing that Word is very good at (although I have only used it for collaborative technical documents, rather than novels), it does work remarkably well.

8) Automated backup of files can be useful. This could be regular autosave (supported by most packages), or copying the file to other locations (even on the Internet). Again, this could be useful.

9) Word count features can also be useful, from the basic wordcounts of entire files and selected text, to more complex daily wordcount targets. The usefulness of these is highly dependent on the way you work, or whether the way you work can be moulded to them.

10) Time lines. With a complex, non-linear story, it can be useful to have a timeline showing how the plot evolves over time. These can show you where a character is at any one time, and how often they appear in the story; or how locations are used in the plot. For simple, linear plots these are of limited usage, but for complex plots they are massively useful. Do you have two scenes with the same character in New York to London? If so, you'd better not have the two scenes (London and New York) set an hour apart, unless some pseudoscience or magic is involved. Likewise, a hut in the middle of a forest in Canada may look radically different in the depths of winter than in summer. A time line can help see that a new description detailing the changes might be necessary.

11) To-do lists or notes. This can be a list of items that remain to be done, or notes for reference later. As I write, I tend not to go back and edit; instead, I get a first draft out of the door before going back. However, as I write that first draft, I come across things that do need altering. Instead of breaking my flow, I jot them down in a list that will be referred to during the first heavy edit.

As an aside, another interesting tool is Sonar3 from SpaceJock software, a free package that allows writers to keep track of submissions. I have yet to try this, but it seems like an interesting idea.

As Jerry Pournelle says, at the end of the day which tool you use is totally down to personal preference - if you find that your writing is improved by use of quill and parchment, do so. If you wish to use all the writing-specific features of Scrivener; again, do so. Likewise, with Word and OpenOffice.

But, and here I must be quite forceful, do not mindlessly rely on the same tool. Give different packages a try. If you have a Mac, download a demo of Scrivener. Likewise OpenOffice. Who knows, it may be better than you think, and may just help you work more productively.

I intend to do mini-reviews of some of these packages over the next few weeks.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Developing locations for a novel.

I am currently in the process of doing some in-depth planning of a crime novel set in the Southampton area. As part of the planning, I need to know the locations that will feature in the story. We only moved to this area fifteen months ago, and I do not know the city as well as I would like. For this reason, I spent a couple of mornings in mid-December travelling around the city looking at the locations that I will be describing. Notes were scribbled down in a notebook, and then when I got back home they were converted into descriptions from the viewpoint of characters within the story.

In the process I visited the place where the protagonist will live, the gym/swimming pool complex that he will exercise in (a major part of his character), and the cafe where an important scene will take place. None were quite as I expected, and all had something that surprised me, even if I had been there before. Unsurprisingly, I seem to notice more when visiting an area 'as a writer'.

At each location I noted down my first impressions, including the sights, smells and general atmosphere. Not all of this - indeed, very little - will be directly used within the novel, but little pieces will. The remainder will not be wasted, it all goes towards creating a background impression of the location, and that will subconsciously set the tone for the writing. Does the reader need to know that there is a corner shop a few yards away from the protagonist's front door? No, but the knowledge allows me to have the protagonist nip out for a pint of milk, knowing that he could be back in five minutes.

In many ways this is more important for myself, the writer, than it will be for the reader; the majority of readers will not care, but those familiar with the local area will readily spot mistakes. As a writer, I care for these people - I do not want to make obvious mistakes. For this reason, such research is paramount. It also gives me a reason, as if I needed one, to go for a walk.

When doing this, I have to take into account the style and tone of the book. If I were to write my own description of a beautiful Scottish hillside, I may detail the flora and fauna, or the names of the nearby mountain peaks. A fifteen-year old describing the same scene may use the words 'bleak, boring', and see little of interest. In fact, they may scarcely observe it at all.

Therefore the perspective of the characters has to alter the way the scene is observed. Here is an example:

A scene from a countrywoman's perspective:
Mounds of rough, hummocky grass stretched away from the black ribbon of tarmac. The road was the only mark civilisation had left on the otherwise glorious landscape. In the distance, snow-capped peaks pierced the grey skies. Enchanting, virgin snow, fresh and white. A solitary path led towards the peaks, weaving around to avoid the roughest, most impenetrable land. The scenery was almost calling her to stop the car, put on her boots, and climb; climb and never come back. After all she had come here to get lost, and there could scarcely be a better place for that.

The same scene from the perspective of a 15-year old:
Mel tried to concentrate on the low background drone of the engine, using it to block out the other voices. For the first three hours of the journey she had listened to her iPod; that was now discarded, the battery dead. Radio 4 blared out of the car's radio; the afternoon play being interrupted by occasional comments from her parents. The view out of the car window was bland, grey-green grass, grey rocks and grey sky. Only the snow that covered the distant mountains offered any variety in the palette. There was no real colour. If there was anywhere that needed some graffiti, this was it. Some reds, blues or yellows to fight the unbearable greyness. Back home, the grey concrete of the tower blocks would be enlivened with riotous walls of colour. Not here. Here she had the biggest canvas of her life.
But it was not to be. They had taken her spray-cans away.

The same scene in action:
Tim fled up the path, paying little heed to the wet, slippery rocks that threatened to send him off-balance at any moment. The mountain in the distance seemed to taunt him; "why didn't you set off earlier?"; "You'll never make it..."; "You should never have come out here."
His heart pounded as he reached the first incline, a slow, lingering climb that led towards the base of the mountain. There, sheltered in a small bothy, lay his goal. Other men were following, struggling along the boggy stretch of path by the road, but he was a few minutes ahead, a few, precious minutes. A mountain hare, fur shock-white, bounded across the path, startled from its hiding place by his approach. It was a glorious sight of life amidst the desolate scenery, and the vision helped him drag the last vestiges of energy out of his tired, cramped muscles. if he did not deliver the medical kit in time there would be two less lives in the valley. His wife and their unborn child would die. Such was the timing of fate: a few minutes late, and they would die. Two lives would drift off into nothingness. Get there in time, and both might - would - survive.

As can be seen, these three scenes describe the same location from the perspective of three different characters. As they are read, the reader will hopefully get an image of the location in their heads, one that has been filtered by each character's viewpoint. Additionally the reader has learnt something about the characters through their reactions to the scenery. The first character takes joy in her surroundings, and the second can see nothing of interest, causing her to want to mould it to her liking. In the final (and, in my opinion, weakest) scene, the location is almost a character, one that challenges the protagonist.

I had absolutely no idea where I was going with any of these when I started writing them; the stories and characters developed as I wrote them. All I had in mind was the location, somewhere I have visited twice. I had it firmly in my mind as I wrote.

Incidentally, I really enjoyed writing them. Sometimes free writing in this manner can be quite fun.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Ten years of walking

Today is the tenth anniversary of my first walk, which was only seven miles out of the 14,000 that I have completed since. That walk was a short stroll from the Cat and Fiddle pub over Shining Tor, the highest point in Cheshire. To celebrate, Şencan and I are going to do another short walk, ten years to the day after my first.

I look back on the last ten years, and I wonder how that 25-year old man would have felt if he had known what the next ten years would bring - the walk around the coastline of Britain; the knowledge that my decade-long injury would be healed enough for me to be able to walk such vast distances; the fact that I have taken my career off on a strange and risky tangent.

Perhaps he would never have walked again. Or perhaps he would have smiled, seen a hill, and thought, "I must climb that".

Walking plans for 2009.

Over the last ten years I have walked over 14,000 miles, as can be seen at my website at Every year I set myself a target - the mileage that I wish to complete, the long distance trails that I wish to walk, and many other items. Unfortunately, due to illness, injury and a house move, 2008 proved to be a very disappointing year. Since 2002 I have managed to walk at least 1,000 miles a year, but in 2008 that figure was under 400.

Upset at this decline in form, I am setting myself some fresh targets for 2009. These, in no particular order, are:
  • To walk at least 1,500 miles;
  • To walk the Southern Upland Way.
  • To walk around the Isle of Wight.
  • To complete the Wessex Ridgeway.
  • To walk the Wolds Way.
  • To walk the Cleveland Way.
  • To reach ten more county tops (the highest points in each county)
This is going to be difficult to achieve, but I need to strive for them, if only to stop my waistline from expanding.