A long while back, I highlighted the lovely film A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout by Gary Yost in a Moving Pictures on a Friday post. You never know who’s watching when you do internet stuff, of course, but in this case it turned out the film-maker himself was. So recently he dropped me a line to point me at a new film of his, which I’m happy to offer up for your consideration. It’s a collaboration between Yost and various other folks, including the actor Peter Coyote (whose fine voice you might recognise doing the narration).

Why am I happy to put it up here? Well, it’s a nice film, with some of the gorgeous and rather clever time-lapse stuff going on that made A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout so pleasing to the eye. It’s got an environmental slant, which pleases me since that’s the kind of stuff I’ve spent much of my life involved with for both career and pleasure. It’s got a history and culture angle, too, which also pleases me since what happens when the natural world and human history and culture rub up against one another is one of my more lasting interests.

And it’s just plain interesting, if you ask me. The world is so complicated, so full of stories, that you could pick any piece of it, any time slice, any angle, and unravel a story encompassing huge bits of history, Nature, human experience. This is just one of those stories, I guess. And the views are gorgeous. Never been to Marin County (or California at all, for that matter), but it does look nice.

The Invisible Peak from Gary Yost on Vimeo.

More on Mount Tamalpais here, and more on Gary Yost here (give it a moment to load, and you’ll be rewarded with some nice phosots and films).

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A good while back, I did a post here pontificating about how the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ was not a particularly good query to fire at a writer.

This is the sequel to that post, in which I answer the question in question. Just thought it’d be fun. Might also help to illustrate my case that ideas are the easy bit, coming as they do from everywhere, all the time, unpredictably.

So, here’s where the idea for every piece of fiction I’ve sold came from, in chronological order of publication.

Farm Animal, my first published story, appeared in the UK’s venerable sf magazine Interzone a long, long time ago. It has a unique, and unusually simple, origin in the context of my fiction output: it’s loosely based on a dream I had. It was a kind of creepy, not very nice, dream so we won’t go into any more details except to say it involved a human-pig hybrid. The hard bit, as ever, was turning that seed into a narrative of some sort, and in the process the story became about the transformation of a human into a pig. (Sidenote: I remember being quite pleased with myself, at that presumptuous age, for coming up with a title that reverses Animal Farm, in which pigs transform into humans, just as my story reverses that transformation. Doesn’t seem quite so clever now.)

Gibbons, my second published story, appeared in another UK magazine: The Third Alternative – still going, under the new title Black Static. Its origin is also unique in this list, in that it comes from my own direct, personal experience. In my early twenties I spent three months in Borneo, finding, following and sound-recording gibbons in a remote part of the rainforest. In hindsight, as you might expect, it was a powerful, rather formative experience in various ways (including career-wise, since it would later result in me getting a job that sent me to many other unusual, out of the way bits of the world), though at the time – as with many such experiences – I didn’t fully appreciate its significance. What did imprint itself on my mind even then, though, was the potent atmosphere and character of the place. It took years for the story that gave voice to my impressions of the Bornean rainforest to take shape, but Gibbons was the eventual result.

Winterbirth, and the Godless World trilogy of which it is the first part, has a messy kind of idea-origin. I knew I wanted to try writing novels, and I was instinctively interested in the possibility of a fantasy trilogy. I needed an imaginative nudge of some sort to get the process of world, character and story development going, and it came from the TV, in a way. This was way back when the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia in particular, were in post-Communist meltdown and filling our TV screens and newspapers with stories and images of horrendous and cruel violence. Because I was even then a history nerd, I knew a lot of what was happening was the indirect fruit of bitter rivalries, enmities and events that went back many, many hundreds of years, and I was struck by the thought that it might be interesting to write about a fantasy world similarly torn apart by long-suppressed, half-hidden enmities that were somehow allowed to re-emerge.

Now, that initial idea got considerably complicated and diluted by the aforementioned process of world, character and story development. It provided the impetus for the process, but was itself changed and elaborated by it. Such things happen, once you get into the flow of turning a small spark into a fully fledged fire. But that’s what ideas are for really: they start the process, but unlike a chemical catalyst, they don’t have to survive that process unchanged.

Beyond the Reach of His Gods is a short story that appeared in the anthology Rage of the Behemoth, from Rogue Blades Entertainment. Much to my delight, it’s since been reprinted in the excellent online magazine Lightspeed, so you can read the whole thing for free over there if you like. This was the first time I’d been invited/commissioned to write a story for an anthology, and the brief was highly specific: heroic fantasy involving a giant monster set in one of several specific environments. I had no pre-existing ideas that fitted the bill (hardly surprising!), so the idea for this story had to be kind of ‘forced’. Except it came to me very easily, very quickly and very completely. I’ve no idea how that happens, but now and again it does: I just looked at the brief, thought about it for a bit, and the setting, characters, monster and the basic skeleton of the plot just turned up in my head. Very nice, and forunate really, since I would probably have turned down the invitation had things not bubbled up so easily, and had the story they suggested not struck me as being fun to write.

Flint was another short story for an anthology – Speculative Horizons, from Subterranean Press, edited by Patrick St-Denis. Again, I was asked if I would contribute, but this time there were no prescriptions regarding subject matter or even specific genre. So I pulled out a partially developed idea I’d been keeping on a mental shelf for ages, and used this as the opportunity to turn it into an actual story. That idea had its roots in my non-fiction reading: books like The Golden Bough, After The Ice and Shamanism. In learning and thinking about early magical beliefs, hunter-gatherer societies and the deep, deep past of human society and imagination, it struck me that a Stone-Age shaman would make an interesting central character for some kind of story. I knew very early on that his name would be Flint, but much of the detail of his adventures only got filled in when Patrick asked me if I fancied writing a story for his anthology …

The Edinburgh Dead has a very clear and fairly simple idea-origin. Having grown up in Edinburgh, and living there again now after a good few years away, I know a lot about its history and geography. Mind you, even people who’ve never been here have heard of Burke & Hare, the infamous baddies who murdered a lot of people so that they could sell their corpses to lecturers for dissection in anatomy classes in the early 19th century. For whatever reason, one day while musing on Edinburgh’s rich and complicated history, I just asked myself: ‘What if there were other people around back then, who wanted corpses for a different kind of experiment?’. From that question, after a good deal of research and the addition of a good many other influences, the whole novel emerged. And, inevitably, Burke and Hare stayed in the mix as characters in the story.

Rogue Trooper, the comic I’m writing for IDW (first issue in comic shops and on Comixology on Feb 26th!), is a different kettle of fish, idea-wise. This is a pre-existing character and milieu that I was asked to re-imagine. So the ideas required are of a different kind: what games can I play, what details can I add or subtract, what themes can I develop, with this already-established character? Those kind of ideas just come from looking at what’s there already, thinking back or re-visiting all the previous Rogue Trooper stories I read as a youth, applying my personal instincts as a writer to the property. To be honest, lots and lots of possibilities presented themselves to me as soon as I became aware of the opportunity, so it wasn’t too difficult. When someone else has done the hard work of creating a strong character, setting and framework, riffing on it is pretty straightforward (at least in terms of ideas, if not execution; believe me, I can now say from personal experience that writing comics is not straightforward or effortless!).

The Free will be published this October by Orbit, and it’s kind of fitting that it comes last on this list because in one sense it’s an extreme example on the original idea front. This book, alone of all the fictions on this list, has shed its originating idea like a snake shedding a skin. Literally no trace of the idea to which it can trace its roots remains in the novel that will be published. Weird, huh? Anyway, one day – or night, I think perhaps I was trying to go to sleep – a scene just popped into my head. In an underground cavern, someone discovers a prisoner, trapped in a huge cage. That was it. This was way back when I was still writing the Godless World trilogy. I had half a notion I might try writing another trilogy after I was finished with that one (a notion I soon thought better of!), and that single, unformed scene became the seed from which I gradually grew the outline of a whole plot, world, magic system, characters – I didn’t have a full trilogy worked out in detail, but I had a lot of stuff churning around in my head.

Except, I wrote The Edinburgh Dead instead. But the story-stuff that had sprung from that single imagined scene kept stewing in my thinking parts, and kept changing. In the plot I’d loosely imagined, there were a set of secondary characters – mercenaries – who struck me as interesting. To cut a long story short, I ended up pitching an idea focused upon them to the publisher as a stand-alone novel. The Free. The world in which they operate is not the one I dreamed up for that trilogy; the magic system is utterly different; there’s not a single character who has survived from my earlier musings into the text of the The Free; at no point does anyone even go underground, let alone discover a subterranean chamber with a caged prisoner in it. (But who’s to say what might happen, should I ever write any more stories about The Free?)

So there you are. I get my ideas from dreams, from personal experiences, from current affairs, from history, from commissions, from non-fiction books, from other people’s creations, from random scenes popping into my head. And I could add, in respect of fictions I’ve thought about or am currently pondering, which may or may not ever see the light of day: I also get them from idle reflections on the under-use of particular mythical creatures in fiction, consciously setting myself the challenge of coming up with an idea for a TV/radio series, writing tasks based on a single word set by tutors on a short course I did many years ago, looking at maps, etc. etc.

All seems clear enough. Question answered.

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A smart chap called Valerio Amaro combined his two passions – Lord of the Rings and advertising – into a nice little tumblr in which phrases from LotR are used as advertising slogans. I like them all, and you should check them all out here, but here’s a couple of favourites:

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… recent developments in Edinburgh connect to stuff that happens in that book.

Someone who gets quite a bit of mention in The Edinburgh Dead – even though he’s long dead at the time of the story – is Major Weir, Edinburgh’s most infamous, notorious warlock. The book’s hero, Adam Quire, even ventures into Weir’s derelict, haunted former residence. I had to improvise a bit for that scene, since Weir’s actual house isn’t there any more. People who tried to stay there after his execution reported all manner of distressing manifestations and supernatural goings-on, and it was eventually demolished.

Or was it? Someone thinks it survived, and they reckon they’ve identified it. So perhaps Edinburgh’s most famously haunted and creepily-historied building is, in fact, still here. Amongst us. Watching us. It was apparently absorbed into the building pictured on the right.

I’m instinctively a bit sceptical, to be honest, but who knows? Anyway, if true, it amuses me that Weir’s house was apparently incorporated into a chapel building, which is now the Quaker Meeting House. I confess, that building’s not quite where I chose to put Weir’s house for The Edinburgh Dead, but I was only off by about fifty yards, which isn’t too bad I reckon.

The tale of Major Thomas Weir is, by the way, crazy and creepy – worth a read if you’ve not heard of him – and also perhaps kind of sad, since it seems more than a little likely he was, like many people in the past, unpleasantly executed basically for being mad.

Slightly more tenuously connected to The Edinburgh Dead, but included here because it’s pretty: there’s been an exhibition of Chinese lanterns in the University’s Old College this week.

The Edinburgh Dead‘s based on the true history of grave-robbing and the illicit trade in corpses for medical dissection, and quite a few of those corpses ended up in Old College. Indeed, in one of fate’s most wry and satisfying twists, William Burke – who was one half of the Burke & Hare duo who murdered to meet the demand for corpses, and who appears in The Edinburgh Dead – ended up on a dissection slab in Old College. After he was hung, his corpse was publicly dissected there. There was such demand to witness the butchering of his body that there was a near-riot when audience space proved inadequate.

Anyway, nice lanterns don’t you think? Based on the famous terracotta army, of course.

Check out the Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer for lots more visuals and history that connect to the book.

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Aaaand I’m back on the blog treadmill after a festive break that ended up being a bit longer than intended. Busy, you know. Holidaying, working, thinking up new stuff. Got plans and hopes for 2014 – as I hope you all do, too! – but more on that another time.

Holidays mean holidaying, of course, but they also mean reading and watching, especially over Xmas/New Year. So here’s a quick summary of how some of my time got itself occupied while I’ve been keeping a low profile round here.

Reading first.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, is something I got to later than most other folks with an interest in this kind of stuff, but courtesy of a well-judged Christmas present, I read it in the last week of December. Fascinating, for those of you with a longing to see what was wriggling under the rock of all those superhero comics that overtook the medium in the US in the second half of the last century. The lasting impression I’ll take away is of a company, and to some extent an industry, that was winging it most of the time, populated by big, often abrasive personalities, riding momentum without the time or inclination to pay much attention to what – or who – got trampled along the way. It’s kind of a feverish vision, but I’m glad to report it hasn’t put me off the idea of dipping my own toes into the comics waters.

Then, Stealing Light, by Gary Gibson. Got this on kind of an impulse, because the e-book happened to be (and still is) ‘competitively’ priced one day when I was browsing for an impulse buy. No regrets: a fun, accessible space opera, the first of a series, featuring engaging alien masterminds, bonkers human cultures, an interesting and sympathetic heroine, and a narrative that increases the scale of the action and concepts as it goes along. I’ll be giving part 2 a try at some point (which I guess = job done, competitive pricing).

And here’s an oddity, which I include to illustrate the randomness of some of my interests. River Monsters, by Jeremy Wade. The book of the TV series, in which Mr. Wade goes to remote places and catches large, dangerous freshwater fish. I’m a long-standing fan of the TV version. It combines lots of my interests – wildlife, unusual travel, fishing (yes, believe it or not I used to go fishing now and again in my youth, but no longer) – and I find both the TV and the book refreshingly different and novel, compared to most natural history stuff.

Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I’ve heard of a lot more animals than most folks (being a naturalist/conservationist by inclination, education and past employment) but even I’d never heard of a Goliath tigerfish until Mr. Wade introduced me to it; and if you’ve not seen it’s teeth, well … check them out. Most surprisingly interesting bit of the River Monsters book, in a way, is the stuff about Jeremy Wade himself. Guy has issues – it’s not only aquatic monsters he has to deal with – and he’s pretty frank about discussing them.

On to the watching.

We’re experimenting with Netflix UK in the Ruckley household. As far as I can tell, the selection of stuff available on Netflix UK kind of sucks compared to what’s evidently available on the US service. But it’s easy and convenient and efficient and there’s still quite a lot of stuff on there. It’s meant I’ve watched more movies in the last month or so than in the preceding three or four at least.

For example: I re-watched Thor (the first one) and Captain America. That firmed up my initial impression: I much prefer Thor as a movie and a spectacle. Did reinvigorate my interest in seeing the imminent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though. Hot tip here, if you haven’t already heard: there’s rumours floating around the internet, from people who should know roughly what they’re talking about, that Winter Soldier is going to be something a little bit special. As in, seriously good film. Wouldn’t surprise me, because I really, really liked the trailer.

I also re-watched, after years, Funeral in Berlin, the second Harry Palmer film. Michael Caine doing much darker, grimier, more realistic version of James Bond. They made three of these films back in the 60s (and crappy sequels much later, which are best ignored), and I like them all. Caine does tremendously under-stated yet magically charismatic and kind of sexy stuff here, working with a nice script. They just don’t make films like they used to, do they? You should check them out, if the idea of the young Michael Caine doing this kind of thing appeals:

And I watched, for the first time, Battle Royale. Holy cow. That, let me tell you, is … different. Difficult to explain just how fascinating I find it, beyond saying that just as I’m captivated by the strange things manga offers that Western comics don’t, so Battle Royale is not quite like anything I’ve ever seen in any US/European production. The sensibility, the preoccupations, the humour, the hyper-acting. The wonderful composition of some of the images. The bonkers violence. It’s kind of unique, and feels very, very Japanese. Extraordinary. Not sure what else I can say about it, really.

Oh, I know what else I could say: It’s crying out to be watched in a double bill with Lord of the Flies.

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This Friday, there’s only one thing I could put up as a Moving Pictures on a Friday post really:

1961, the fighter:

1994, the president:

2005, the smile, the twinkling eyes, the pervasive, subliminal generosity of spirit:

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Big public art is cool when it’s good, and Scotland’s newest example is pretty good, if you ask me.  Very good, in fact.

The Kelpies at Falkirk – close enough to Edinburgh for a quick visit at the weekend – are huge, spectacular and very, very cleverly conceived.  They’re memorials and icons, reflecting Scotland’s industrial heritage and folkloric traditions.  Above all, though, I think they’re kind of beautiful.  And eloquent.  And enormous.

Cue photo-fest.

More info on what they are, why they are and how they are over here.

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I’ve brought the curtain down on my Words & Pictures column over at SF Signal, where I’ve been talking about comics I like – on a slightly irregular schedule – for close to two years now.  (Two years!  That thing they say about time flying isn’t just a thing they say).

So anyway, that particular adventure is done for now.  Might resurrect it one day, but for now it’s in semi-permanent retirement.  The full collection of my comics-related ramblings over those two years is right here, including a final column on the subject of Conan. And if anyone isn’t already keeping track of the whole SF Signal site, I’d highly recommend doing so.  Not just because they were kind enough to give me a platform, but because there’s something there for pretty much anyone who likes sf, fantasy, horror.

And as that comics-related thing draws to a close, I’m gearing up for the next: writing a Rogue Trooper comic for IDW.  The series launches early next year, but there’s already a lengthy and detailed interview with me up at the excellent Forbidden Planet International blog.  Go there if you’re curious about what I’m doing, how and why.  It may not have all the answers, but it’s got quite a few (plus some truly gorgeous covers by some very fine artists, which are going to be adorning my first issue).

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It’s a neat trick, to still be able to spring little surprises upon fans in this age of social media saturation and secret leakage. Not a total surprise, mind you – I’d seen speculation nailing various bits, basically all the bits in fact, of this over the last few months – but still, plenty of folks seem to have been taken a bit off guard.

The Night of the Doctor, the prequel minisode that leads into the imminentish tsunami of Dr. Who revelations, nostalgia and celebration, arrives and it’s a pleasing little stitching together of hints and threads that, above all else I think, makes me really hope we’re going to get a properly generous helping of John Hurt as the Doctor in our near futures, not just a scene or two. But the thing that made me smile most is right there near the start: ‘Not the one you were expecting’. Kind of contrived line, maybe, but let them have their fun.  They earned it.

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The weather’s given us an occasional glorious Edinburgh day in the last week or so.  If, at least, there’s a certain kind of weather you like (as I do).

Pristine blue skies, still air that’s clear and sharp enough to make you feel you might see forever.

These are the small gifts Nature gives us hereabouts to compensate for the less than delightful weather that often also shows up at this time of year (rain, gales, cloud, that kind of Autumnal thing). That’s my theory anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

The days are beautiful, but their mornings are made more so by the magic that Nature weaves at night. I’ve been seeing stars of late, more often than is usually the case, and that means clear, cold nights. And those nights mean morning frost, of course, which delivers tiny, tiny wonders. Little paintings and sculptures that are things of beauty when you get close. Cue an outing at the weekend, getting close.

When the frost gets to the grass, it does pretty things:

But when it gets something more basic to work with, in a nicely sheltered and shaded corner, it drapes whole coats of frost hair over surfaces:

Or encrusts fallen trees with thousands of ramifying crystals:

It’s all free, this stuff. The most delicate and infinitely varied of shows put on for us. All we have to do is wrap up warm and go look for it. Which I’m more than happy to do, but maybe not again for a few days. It’s c-c-c-cold out there …

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