Explaining The Everyday

I recently visited Beamish, a ‘living museum’ in the north of England. Set in rural land, it has different areas depicting life at certain times in history‌—‌a 1940s wartime farm, an 1900s town and pit village, and so on). Many of the buildings are genuine period properties, transported to Beamish and rebuilt brick by brick. Staff all wear period costumes, and play the parts of everyday people in these different areas‌—‌in the bakery, they make the bread and cakes using 1900s methods (and then sell them to visitors), and the guard at the wartime farm asked our children for their ID cards (and happened to have a couple they could take). Transport between the different areas is either by walking, or on restored buses and trams, complete with uniformed staff playing their parts.

BeamishRather than giving loads of information, it goes for an immersive experience. This approach allows visitors to experience these times and places, giving a more ‘real’ understanding of day-to-day life as it once was.

But, as we explored the place, one thought kept on coming back to me‌—‌it could never be totally realistic, because I was seeing all this through modern-day sensibilities. I couldn’t forget the ‘real world’, with all its tech and modern societal issues and so on. No matter how accurate the costumes and the settings and the acting, it was not my own reality.

And that got me thinking about fiction, especially any story that is not based in the here and now. It reminded me of the difficulties involved in making a story-world realistic in a genuine way.

vintage-1060202_1280Take historical fiction. The characters in the story should be used to the time period they are in, but as readers we might not be familiar with, for example, some of the social ‘rules’. So when, for example, a character removes their hat, this might mean nothing to us, but to the characters in the story it could be a sign of disrespect, and will colour their actions toward this character.

Then there is science fiction. We might take mobile phone technology for granted, and think nothing of texting or Tweeting or updating a profile, but these simple actions would be alien to someone from a hundred years ago. Now imagine how things might change in another century’s time‌—‌what will people then do that is normal to them, but unheard of to us?

So what’s the problem? Why not give us a bit of background info in the story so that we understand?

But that’s where the problem lies. How does a writer do this, without it coming across as a clunky explanation? How does a writer get this information across without shooting off on a tangent, or interrupting the flow of the story?

Surely, if the story concerns the characters, we need to remain with them as much as possible. We need to see both the story events and the story-world through their eyes, and experience it through their senses.

There are a few ways to solve this issue.

One that is possibly the easiest to pull off (and, unsurprisingly, one that is used a great deal, especially in fantasy stories) is to make the main character an outsider, someone who doesn’t initially know about the world.

The Harry Potter books are a great example of this. Yes, Harry is a wizard, but at the start of the series he doesn’t know this. He discovers this whole other reality, and has to learn how it works‌—‌and that allows us to learn through his story. It’s even pointed out in the books, most often by a frustrated Hermionie bemoaning Harry’s lack of knowledge.

LordOfTheRings_JRRTolkienThe Lord Of The Rings does something similar, through having hobbits as the central viewpoint characters. Although they are different to us, their world is similar to a kind of rural idyll we can relate to. This allows Tolkien to teach us, the reader, about the world beyond the Shire as the hobbits experience it.

Another example is Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose. By having one of the main characters as an apprentice, Eco is able to have the master giving information in a natural way, helping us, the reader, make sense of what is happening. Similarly, in Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes has to explain himself to the less quick Watson, allowing us (the even slower readers?) to keep up too.

But what if there are no characters close to ‘us’? What if there is no in-story novice who requires explanation?

There’s a thing called ‘maid and butler’, from stage-plays. Two servants appear, cleaning or whatever, and they talk about the current situation of the main characters‌—‌but often, it comes over extremely false. “As you know, Ethel, the master is due to return from his recent sojourn to the south of France, where he has been wooing young Miss Forester.” Yes, it gives us information, but it sounds unnatural‌—‌both characters know these facts, so why are they talking in this manner?

So, how do authors avoid this?

One way is simply through good writing craft.

ConsiderPhlebas_IainMBanksAn example of this is in Iain M Banks’ Culture books. The main characters are not human, and so they have alien (to us) ways of doing things. There are many references to characters glanding various compounds, but I don’t believe this is ever overtly explained, but context makes it clear that Culture residents can artificially introduce various drugs into their bodies by manipulating internal reservoirs. In a short phrase like ‘she glanded Bliss’, Banks leads us to understand that this character is giving herself some kind of euphoric ‘high’ as a way of coping with her situation.

Sometimes, an author will throw the reader in at the deep end, and force the reader to think. Michael John Grist does this in his Ruins War trilogy (beginning with Mr Ruin). Right from the start, we’re diving minds, and fighting the Lag in sublavic ships. There’s very little to explain these terms, but as a reader it is clear that these things all mean something, so we go along with it, trusting that things will become clear eventually.

Books like this aren’t necessarily light reads, but good ones (like Mr Ruin) are worth the effort, because our perseverance is rewarded. Also, we are in the characters’ world from the start, totally immersed.

But sometimes there is need for explanation. There are books where a little up-front understanding will help the reader appreciate the story far more. And there are a few ways an author can do this.

Isaac Asimov uses one common method in his Foundation books. He starts each chapter with an excerpt from a fictional encyclopeida, giving some background information while still leaving questions, and all without disrupting the flow of the story. Other authors include extracts from ‘historical’ documents.

DreamingVoid_PeterFHamiltonSome authors delve into the details, but turn a possible distraction into an effective part of their writing. I’ve recently read The Dreaming Void by Peter F Hamilton, and there are long passages of explanation, far more than the story actually needs. But it adds to the whole world, and in a genre like hard sci-fi, many readers actively want these details. Similarly, Neal Stephenson, in Seveneves, provides so much technical information that at times it reads like a manual‌—‌but that is one aspect of his writing that his readers like. In the wide realm of science-fiction, some readers are drawn to the ‘fiction’ side, while others thrive on the ‘science’.

Of course, JRR Tolkien did this too, but on a far larger scale. The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings are the ‘stories’, but the details of the world he created fill up not only a lengthy appendix, but also many more books. And this is another way of doing things‌—‌write the stories so that the average reader can appreciate the story, even if they don’t quite get all the references, but provide additional writings for those who want to dive deeper.

Ultimately, though, the method used is not as important as the end results‌—‌to allow the reader to experience as fully as possible the characters’ world. Maybe, as with the Beamish museum, total immersion is not possible, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. It’s one of the joys of reading fiction set in different places and different times, filled with characters who are different to us‌—‌it gives us an experience we cannot get in our normal lives. It helps us see a world, be it real or imaginary, in a new way.

I don’t know who said it, but this quote is perfect:

I read books not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many.

New short story – ‘Paradise’

Enduring solitude for the greater good, or something else?

I wanted to write a new story, but had no idea for plot or character or anything else. But I had an image in my head‌—‌someone on a planet, wearing a space-suit, bounding over rocks.

I started writing, and ideas developed and came together, resulting in this new short story, Paradise.

You can read it by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it.

E-books – unrealised potential or just right?

Last year, it was reported that someone high up in Barnes and Noble had railed against e-books, calling them something like a wasted opportunity. Apparently (and I can’t find any links to this, so I may be wrong) he said they were a failure, because they didn’t do anything different to physical books.

In a way, he has a point. There is a great deal of potential in the technology behind e-books. They are based on html, and if you imagine how much is possible through web pages, you can start to see the potential for e-books.

maze-1804499_1280When I learnt about using in-file links in e-books (where clicking on a word or passage takes the reader to another section of the book), I immediately recalled the choose-your-own-adventure books I used to play/read as a teenager (I’ve still got a collection of the Fighting Fantasy books somewhere). But with e-books, there is no need to physically turn the pages‌—‌simply click, and you’re at the next section. And you’re not limited to a book you can hold comfortably‌—‌with e-books, there’s scope for longer adventures, with far more choices.

And there are e-book choose-your-own-adventures‌—‌a quick browse on Amazon brings up quite a few (and they seem to be either aimed at children or at the erotica market). But they haven’t caught on.

x-ray-1704855_1280Amazon have a feature called X-Ray. They pushed this a few months ago, but it’s actually been around since 2011. When this is turned on, the reader can highlight a word or a passage to gain more information‌—‌similar to the dictionary functionality, but with far more detail. With X-Ray, it could be possible to call up information on a town mentioned in the text, or a character summary when clicking on a name. Readers can use this to gain more insight into the story, or to read ‘footnote material’ that may interest them.

But it hasn’t caught on.

Then there are the multi-media potentialities of e-books.

hands-3236059_1280Amazon have their WhisperSync system, synchronising text and audiobook versions‌—‌if a reader stops at a certain point and goes over to the audiobook, it will pick up where they left off with the text, and visa versa. But there is far more potential here. There is a company called Booktrack that provides what they refer to as ‘movie-style soundtracks’ to books. From what I understand, the reader uses a dedicated app, where the soundtrack is linked to locations within the text, and includes things like gunshots and door slams in the appropriate places.

But this hybrid reading/listening model is nowhere near as popular as either reading or listening to audiobooks as separate activities. And even with audiobooks, many listeners say they prefer the words alone rather than words enhanced with music and sound effects. There are some dramatised audiobooks, but the vast majority are still well-narrated versions of the text book.

It is interesting that Booktrack, on their website, put more emphasis on ‘audiobooks with movie-style soundtracks’ than audio as an accompaniment to reading.

But what about visuals? Imagine having the ability to stop the text and watch certain sections as video. Or how about a page that ‘comes to life’, with characters moving and interacting with the reader.

It could be good, but I haven’t heard of any major developments combining e-books with video.

So it appears that, beyond certain niche markets, there is little call for e-books to be anything more than text.I think there’s one very good reason for this, and it goes back to why people love books.

reading-1249273_1280When most people read, that is what they want to do‌—‌read. They want to absorb the text. They want to be immersed in the story through the medium of words alone.

It is sometimes said that pictures are better in books, and that imagination is better than special effects. A well-written book, to many readers, is the best way to experience a story. Becoming absorbed in the text can be more immersive, with a greater emotional resonance, than staring at a screen. Allowing the writer to lead you can be more satisfying than making your own choices about what the characters do. Allowing the author to feed you information when it is relevant (and leaving you in the dark about certain things) gives more mystery than if you could learn everything about a story world instantly.

Just as a great painting doesn’t need a soundtrack to absorb us, or a fantastic piece of music doesn’t need a magnificent video to touch us, so a well-written book only needs the words to draw us in.

And this is why e-books, far from being a failure, are a success‌—‌they give us the reading experience we want, without demanding the use of gimmicks. They transfer words from printed page to screen. Yes, they allow us to alter certain factors (font, size, page layout), but that is formatting‌—‌it doesn’t alter the simplicity of reading words.

Is there room for improvement? Of course there is. Maybe voice control will change the way readers search their device libraries for a particular book (‘Kobo, I want to read Neal Stephenson’s new book.’) Maybe there should be ways to have two or more e-books open at the same time, so that researchers can compare and contrast different sources. And maybe scrolling text, combined with eye tracking technology, would assist those with physical issues (or those doing something else with their hands) to read with greater ease.

But these ideas don’t change the simplicity of the e-book idea‌—‌electronic versions of physical books. And that simplicity of concept, far from making e-books a lost potential, makes them a great success.

New short story – ‘Predictable’

I feel like this story needs a warning. The main character is not pleasant. She is not the kind of person you would want to meet, or have anything to do with.

I’ll give you a bit of background. I’ve recently finished writing the first draft of Shadowstrike, the third Shadows novel, and there are a number of new characters in it. One of these is Siren, a woman with a very dark background. I don’t go into too much of that in the novel, but to help me understand her character, I wrote this short story.

It made me dislike her more (although I still find her interesting), and as I edit Shadowstrike she may well change. But, for the moment, she’s the horrible person as portrayed in this short story.

So if you want something pleasant and light-hearted, don’t read this.

And if I haven’t put you off, you can read Predictable by clicking here.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this one.

How physical bookstores can survive

For me, book stores pose a dilemma.

I love e-books‌—‌the compactness of the devices, the wide range of titles available, the ease with which I can access a whole library of books. I find them easier to read than physical books. Some people say e-books signal ‘the end of books’, but my experience is far different‌—‌since getting my first e-reader (an old Sony thing), I’ve read more and more, discovered loads of new authors, and caught up on classics that I’ve been meaning to read for years.

And I still like bookstores. There’s something special about those places, especially the quirky independent ones. There’s an atmosphere to a good bookstore that you simply don’t get anywhere else. I’ll go into a bookstore simply to relax by browsing the shelves.

But I don’t buy books in these stores, because I buy e-books. I can’t recall the last time I even read a physical book.

Bookstores are disappearing, and it’s behaviours like mine that are part of the problem. Through the way I shop, I’m destroying something special.

It’s not me alone, obviously. It’s all of us who buy digital, or who order physical books online.

So is this the end of bookstores?

flea-market-237460_1280Long-term, this is a possibility. Already, some big-name stores have disappeared from our streets, and others are struggling. Yet some still persist, and are even flourishing. There are stores that have found cracks in the on-line onslaught.

How do they do this? In the post-Amazon shopping environment, how can bookstores survive?

They can’t compete on price. Yes, they can run offers, but they don’t have the margins Amazon have. They can’t afford to be as aggressive with loss leaders. And they can’t stock as many titles as Amazon‌—‌they are limited by their size, whereas Amazon has huge warehouses and (for e-books) seemingly endless storage.

But bookstores can compete on specific stock.

When I was a teenager, my home town had a place called the Castle Bookshop. It was only a small place, but I much preferred it to WH Smiths just down the street. It didn’t have as many books, but it did have a large selection of sci-fi, fantasy and horror. It didn’t push as many of the big-name chart books, but it had the books that I was interested in.

The atmosphere was different, too. In WH Smiths, I always felt that the staff were ‘just doing their jobs’. They weren’t grumpy, or mean, or particularly unhelpful. I’m sure many of them were readers. But the guy who ran the Castle came across as a real book fan. I could picture him enjoying days when he only had a few customers, because that would give him the opportunity to get some serious reading done. And if he offered advice on what book a particular customer might enjoy, it would be a personal recommendation, rather than a suggestion based on what was selling well.

Something else I remember about that place‌—‌they had their own bookmarks. They were only coloured card, with the store’s name and logo, and a few other details (address and phone number only‌—‌this was pre-internet, after all.) If you bought a few books, or if he liked the look of you, or for whatever other reason, the man behind the counter would slip one of these bookmarks into whatever you were buying. Yes, it was a way of advertising his place, a way of enticing the reader/shopper back in. But it was also something unique, something special.

I had a collection of these bookmarks, and I’d always use them. On the few occasions when I had to use something else as a bookmark, things would feel off.

Thinking back to this place makes me feel good. It’s not so much the books themselves, but the atmosphere and the experience.

And that is another area where small, independent bookstores, can make their stand. Buying online is easy and convenient, but it is not personal. Even though companies like Amazon use all kinds of algorithms to push the products they believe we will like, based on our previous behaviour (and whatever other data they have), it still feels impersonal. Even if the recommendations are curated by a real person, the connection just isn’t the same.

There are many bookstores already carving out their niches, across the world. There are ones that include cafes and restaurants (in a far more integrated way than some big-name stores, where it always feels like the cafe franchise was simply renting space inside the bookstore). The Spotty Dog Books & Ale goes further, combining a bookstore with a bar, where you can browse with a beer. There’s The Book Barge, a narrowboat that travels canals selling books. There’s The Ripped Bodice, a Californian store that specialises in romance books. There’s La Libreira del Mare  in Milan, Italy, where all the books are about the sea (the name translates as ‘The Sea Library.) There are stores in old churches, in out-of-the way corners of cities, in the middle of nowhere. There are bookstores for food-lovers, sci-fi and fantasy fans, and mystery readers. In fact, whatever type of book you prefer, there’s probably an ideal store for you somewhere.

These stores all complete with the likes of Amazon, not by trying to be better, but by being different. They know their potential customers, and they give them exactly what they want. And the people who run these places do so, I am certain, because they wanted bookstores like these, but couldn’t find them. They are bibliophiles above everything else, just like their customers.

New short story ‘The Illusion Of Control’

Another short story for you.

The Illusion Of Control started of as an attempt to write in second person (because one of the great things about writing short stories is the opportunity to explore different things). However, it soon changed, and became something else (read it to find out what).

The ending kind of echoes the thoughts in Calum Chace’s book Surviving AI: The promise and peril of Artificial Intelligence (well worth checking out if you’re at all interested in where AI might be taking us), although I wrote the first draft of this story before reading Chace’s book.

Anyway, you can read The Illusion Of Control here. And, as usual, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

Why Amazon bookstores are not traditional bookstores

It seems like every month another retail outlet closes down. The big one recently has been Toys R Us, but there have been so many over the past few years. Initially, people blamed out-of-town shopping centres for the demise of the high street, but now even those places are no longer secure.

Things change. It is more convenient to buy over the internet, in the comfort of our own homes. With mobile devices, we can now shop wherever we are, and get things delivered to our doors, or even elsewhere. If we want to buy a gift for someone, we can have it sent directly to them. And on-line stores have limitless shelf-space, so there’s far less chance of hearing ‘sorry, we don’t have that at the moment’.

The major player in this is, of course, Amazon. Love them or loathe them, they have changed our shopping behavious, and in doing so have changed both high streets and out-of-town shopping areas.

And yet, back in 2015, Amazon opened a physical bookstore, with more following over the next couple of years. On the face of it, this makes no sense‌—‌the bricks-and-mortar stores of their competitors have been struggling (Barnes & Noble), or have gone under (Borders).

Yet Amazon doesn’t do anything unless the company is likely to gain. And I believe their intention with these physical bookstores is different to their competitors. I don’t believe they see the primary goal of these stores to be selling physical books.

A book store that doesn’t want to shift its stock? That appears to make even less sense‌—‌until you take a step back and look at things in a different light.


Consider, to start with, how the books are displayed in these Amazon stores.

bookstore-1315560_1280Your average bookstore will have tables filled with displays of books on promotion, or new titles. These are to tempt potential customers in. There will probably be a chart rack somewhere, clearly displaying which books are popular‌—‌because people like to read what others are reading. And then there are the other shelves, the ones further back that are only browsed by the die-hard readers, or those seeking something particular. Here, most of the books are presented spine-out, with only the occasional book face-out. Why? Because more different titles can be shown that way. The only problem is, covers catch the eye far better than book spines.

Amazon stores have the display tables, and popular titles are clearly displayed. There are also racks of other books, only no book is spine-out. Every single book shows its cover.

This means that an Amazon store will probably have less stock on the shop floor than a traditional bookstore of the same size. And from Amazon’s perspective, there is a very good reason for this.

The main purpose of an Amazon bookstore is to display books.

It wants to draw in browsers. The Amazon bookstores are less interested in someone seeking a particular book, and more interested in pulling in new potential customers. In effect, the whole of an Amazon bookstore is a store-front.


So does this mean that Amazon are losing those bookworms who scour the shelves for something different, or those who have already read the popular titles, and are looking for more by the same authors?

In the physical world, yes. But think again about people’s shopping habits.

reading-1249273_1280

You’ve probably heard about this behaviour, even if you don’t do it yourself. A reader goes into a book stores and browses the displays and the shelves. A title catches their eye, and they look further‌—‌read the back cover, maybe flick through a few pages. They check out the price. Then they pull out their phone and see if it’s cheaper elsewhere. Maybe, even while they’re in one store, they order the book from somewhere else, to be delivered.

It’s not good for the store they’re in, but it’s understandable. They get the book they want, for the best price they can find, and they don’t have to carry it home.

Of course, if they want the book there and then, they would have to buy it. Or get a digital copy, and start reading on their phone.

Chances are, these behaviours will involve Amazon, at least in the UK and USA.

Buying books on-line, both physical and digital copies, has become the norm for a lot of people. So Amazon’s bookstores don’t need to cater to people who read a lot. Instead, these stores are advertising, a marketing strategy to tempt more customers to join Amazon. Even if their physical stores don’t make any profit, the company overall makes enough sales to cover this loss.

If the whole store is advertising, the staff have to play a part in this, and everything has to work together. And, from what I understand (living in the UK, I have not been inside an Amazon store yet), Amazon have this cracked. The store staff all have tablets, and can call up information on any book in Amazon’s catalogue (which is close to any book available). They can assist customers in making choices, and if the title is not in the store itself, the staff can order it, even set it up to be delivered to the customer, and all without the customer having to wait at a till. So the customer gets great service, which tempts them back to Amazon the next time they want a book. They might go to the store, or they might go on-line, but Amazon wins either way.

man-2140606_1280


There’s one more thing that needs noting about Amazon’s book stores, and that’s to do with Amazon Prime.

For those of you who are not familiar with Prime, it’s a subscription service that gives loads of benefits to the customer‌—‌video and music streaming, unlimited access to various books through Prime Reading, free two-day delivery on items ordered, and more. Amazon are constantly expanding the benefits, and one benefit is cheaper prices in their physical bookstores.

Maybe that seems unfair to non-Prime members, but look at it from Amazon’s perspective. Prime members generally spend more on Amazon than non-Prime members. They’re Amazon’s super-customers. They make more money for the company, and so Amazon want to encourage more people to join the scheme — through better deals. If a reader learns about cheaper prices through Amazon Prime, maybe they will sign up in the store.

It also encourages loyalty. Imagine you’re a Prime member, and you want a particular book. You could get it at any other book store, but you know you can get a discount at the Amazon store. Where are you going to shop? The answer’s obvious.

This is why Amazon’s move into physical bookstores is not a straight competition with existing stores. Their stores are giant displays, with helpful staff, and are designed to make money for the business as a whole rather than as a single store. And they are designed to increase customers’ loyalty and reliance on Amazon.


So where does this leave existing stores? We’ve seen Borders disappear, and Barnes & Noble are struggling. Supermarkets in the UK now stock chart titles at low prices in an attempt to have a slice of the pie for themselves, but Amazon are the largest book-seller in the world. How can others compete with that? Is there any space for the independent high-street bookstore?

I’ve got a few thoughts on this, but I’ll save them for next time.