Category Archives: Whole Article

Writing the High-Functioning Sociopath

 

I’ve just finished Aliette de Bodard’s Tea Master and the Detective, a science fiction novella set in a spacefaring civilisation with technology bordering on the magical (if there was such a thing, I’d call it ‘High Sci Fi’). The novella was, as de Bodard herself freely admits, a meditation on the qualities of great fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes (with deliberate and direct allegories to Holmes and Watson in the persons of the protagonists Long Chau and The Shadow’s Child).

I very much enjoyed Tea Master, but it made me think of something that has made me put more than one book down – antisocial, atypical prodigies, and the hinterland between what makes them a draw, rather than an irritation.

So, I thought it might be interesting, and hopefully useful to someone somewhere, if I put a few thoughts down on the phenomenon of writing the sociopathic genius. Continue reading

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Increasing Your Writing Output

Image result for head on typewriterI’m always uncomfortable writing about writing: when it comes to history I can say, “This is material that I researched, you could possibly have researched it too, but you didn’t, so here it is…”

When I’m writing about writing, I’m acutely aware of the fact that while I’ve got books out I’m not that much of a big deal. I’ve got a lot more coming out later this year, and I think I’ve got “game”, as we middle aged historians call it, but I’m not a hugely successful writer.

Still, there’s one thing I have that other people can be objectively proved not to have: output.

It may be shite, but at least I wrote it. In 2017, despite one of the worst depressive slumps of my life, I managed an output of ~220k words. I once wrote a 100,000 word novel in a week. There are people who have produced more, but I’m also aware that there are a number of people who produced less, and have expressed interest in knowing how I did it.

I’ll also be entirely honest that I’m a bit harsh in places here, but excuses are something that annoys me, particularly since I was once quite good at making them myself.

So, here it is… Continue reading

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Blackness and the Demon in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

This is very much a work in progress and all input is gratefully received. I have deliberately steered away from making any analogy with modern society simply because I don’t have the expertise to do it in an informed way. If any reader has greater knowledge or capacity than me, they’re very welcome to use my work as they see fit.

In 1612, as a part of the infamous trial of the Pendle and Samlesbury witches, a young girl named Grace Sowerbutts gave evidence of her seduction to witchcraft:

“This Examinate did go with the said Jennet Bierly her grandmother, and Ellen Bierley, her aunt, to the house of Walshman, in the night time, to murder a child in a strange manner… after they had eaten [the child] the said three women and this Examinate danced every one of them with the black things: and after, the black things abused the said women. She describes four black things to go upright, but not like men in the face.”

This was far from the first time that blackness – not only the colour as we see here, but black bodies described as being racially African – had been associated with devilishness in Christianity. Continue reading

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What I Learned from the Novel I Wrote in a Week (Part Two)

Everything is for a Reason (Like Dialogue Tags and Sentence Construction)

You might think this part will be a watery parable about how all my failures and triumphs made me a better person. They might or might not have, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. I don’t usually like to write about craft: there are enough craft articles out there, and I have no desire to contribute to the heap.

However, craft was a part of what brought Dark Neon from being a thing that sat on my hard disk to being a novel that people could buy.

I wrote Dark Neon in a blur of desperation. Afterewards, I had it stuck in my head that the manuscript was worthy for the simple reason of just being a certain length: it was book-length, therefore it was a publishable book.

In the event that I did learn a new writing rule, I would go through the manuscript with a scythe, mercilessly and masochistically applying it without fear of favour. If I was going to ruin my work with all these artificial rules, I was going to ruin it totally!

 

Let’s Enter a Dialogue

However, all writing rules are for a reason. A sad number of drafts of my novel were full of adverb-riddled dialogue scenes. People didn’t say or ask, they explained, elucidated, threatened, growled, groaned, laughed, shouted, and whispered. Continue reading

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What I Learned from the Novel I Wrote in a Week (Part One)

Hello everyone. I’ve been quiet on here, despite promising that I’d blog monthly. On the upside, I presented a paper on The Curse in Early Modern Life at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle. I would put it up here, but it’s going to be part of a fantastic book of conference proceedings published by the Museum itself, so watch this space!

Another reason I’ve been quiet is because I’ve been in the process of getting my first full length novel out in association with The Other Side Books. It’s called A Dark Neon Dying: Continue reading

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Did the North Berwick Witches Actually Do Any Magic?

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Blog readers have my apologies for the lateness of this, the first post of my monthly blogging — February has seen me contract Vestibular Neuronitis, a condition affecting my balance. As such February 2017 has been both surreal and hugely unpleasant, and I’m not fully on my feet yet.

Anyway, as some of my readers might know, one case that I often return to is the North Berwick trials of 1590-91. My personal judgement is that the North Berwick trials are interesting to study from a number of perspectives, but that ultimately, I don’t believe for a moment that the events of the North Berwick Sabbats occurred. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that there wasn’t a magical conspiracy to kill of control James VI.

In fact, there could well have been. Continue reading

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I’m talking about Fairies and the Witch Trials on the Folklore Podcast!

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Hello everyone. Today’s blog post isn’t quite like my usual ones: it’s not an article in its own right, but instead a digest of things that I mentioned in the interview I did for the Folklore Podcast episode that went live today, but didn’t have time/the memory to develop on. If you want to listen to the cast, you can do it at the address below:

http://www.thefolklorepodcast.com/

You can find my episode (“Fairy Belief and the Witch Trials”) in Season Two. Continue reading

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Filed under English Folklore, Irish Folklore, Learned Magic, Religion and the Occult, Scottish Folklore, Sorcerers, Strange History, The Devil, Whole Article

Sceptics in the Witch Trials

woman_teaching_geometryI’m in the latest issue of The Skeptic at the moment, writing about standards of proof when looking at medieval and Early Modern sources (largely medieval in that article) who present the supernatural as fact. For me, critical thinking is an indispensably important part of what I do – although I wouldn’t say I identify as ‘a S(c/k)eptic’ in the sense that it’s arisen as a social group. There are sceptic pub nights, there are sceptic podcasts and magazines. That’s not me.

I’m not an anti-sceptic either. My personal beliefs are my own, and they’re not part of my historical work. If I’m honest with myself, perhaps the reason my work is about social history instead of being more phenomenological is because it’s a debate that I’d rather keep out of, in part because even if we can say (and we often can) that a certain thing didn’t happen, we can’t actually say what did. Continue reading

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Biblical Curses During the Era of the Witch Trials

Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden - stained glassFor this blog, spring is probably going to have a lot of articles about either cursing and diaries. I’ve got a paper coming up at a very exciting conference just as (hopefully) the weather is picking up (and by that, I mean ‘the temperature should be above 10°C’.) Therefore, the lion’s share of my writing will be taken up with research on cursing from the medieval era to the Early Modern.

Today’s will be the first of the cursing posts: curses and execrations were all around for the medieval and Early Modern citizen. It’s little wonder that, with the growing belief in providentialism that accompanied the Reformation, the English more and more believed that witches could lay lethally effective curses. Even the grave of William Shakespeare, a resolutely mainstream figure, is decorated with the words, “Good Friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

A significant part of the draw of the curse, as it existed in a licit context, was the idea of appeal to a higher power. Even in a modern society, with supposedly reliable access to the machinery of justice, a significant gap exists between law and practise. In medieval and Early Modern England, with courts convened cyclically, laws poorly understood, and where justice could be put on hiatus by anything from heavy rains to plague, an extra supernatural deterrent would have been reassuring. Continue reading

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Ebenezer and the Witches: Charity Refused in the Witch Trials

6Welcome to this week’s instalment of Jon and the Magic Shoehorn, where I try and make this blog post in some way Christmassy.

So, in a gesture designed to produce the highest quotient of relevance per minute of effort, let’s talk about Ebenezer Scrooge. While Dickens’ story makes clear that he is a genuinely money-hungry, greedy man with little or no empathy, there is another to Scrooge’s character that is very relevant to one of the driving forces behind the witch trials: the idea of Charity Refused. Continue reading

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