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Karen Bayly

Author and Copywriter

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Author Question: What bugs you as a writer?

The thing that bugs me most the is competing views of editors and readers (especially beta readers). It’s a balancing act that I’m still learning. Writing so that one satisfies the needs of both editors and readers is a skill.

For example, some editors have criticised me for “too much exposition” and told me to “work it unto the story.” Then, without changing a word, another set of readers will say the story doesn’t make sense. They want more backstory or description.

Ultimately, I base what I write on what I like to read. I like it when an author spends a few pages painting a picture of how their world works or its history, especially as a prologue. I followed this template in Fortitude, given I set it in a parallel world with a different but recognisable history. My publisher believed it was good to get the basics laid down, so the story could flow more easily. And I agreed!

I would like to look this good when writing.

Boredom, Dreams, and Happiness

I’ve been a teensy bit jaded with life lately. Okay, make that a big chunk bored. It’s not just me either. I hear this sentiment echoed by friends and acquaintances around the world. Isolation highlights where our lives aren’t functioning so well, but it also underscores something more insidious. Suddenly, we’re confronted with the notion that maybe things weren’t so great before the pandemic struck. It strips us of any illusion that our schemes and strategies were working for us. We’re challenged to find alternative ways of handling what is lacking - and it isn’t easy to find solutions.

In fact, it’s frustrating. I could list all my poor choices and all the things I didn’t do - or even did do - but none of it gets me anywhere. And ultimately, my messy past is the well-spring of my creativity. That’s not a bad thing.

However, I now face a life where I’m fresh out of grand visions for the future. Also, I no longer accept that dreams come true for most people. There. I’ve said it. This probably makes me a positivity pariah, but I don’t care.

The curse of this modern world is that we’ve been told we deserve our bliss, and that if we follow our dreams, amazing things will happen. Our ancestors rarely entertained such ideas. Yet they did their best with what they had, and there is no reason to believe that none of them had fulfilling lives. Maybe they didn’t achieve fame, or neglected to write a book, or failed to travel the globe. But could it be that they were content, if not happy, despite living an ordinary life?

I find it interesting that my fictional characters hardly ever express their dreams, hopes and expectations. If they do, these are passing mentions. They do not define the person. For me, a character’s purpose is to tell their story through their actions and words. These beings live moment by moment, dealing with whatever comes their way, rising above their shortcomings, and discovering their true selves.

Could it be there’s a message here? Perhaps the trick is to learn to make the best of what life gives us, no matter how little or inconsequential it seems. Acceptance of what is, with no expectation of change, may be the most difficult lesson anyone can master. Maybe dreams are trivial, and our current focus on our bliss is primarily a marketing ploy. To quote the inimitable William Goldman via the Dread Pirate Roberts aka Wesley in The Princess Bride (whew!):

I’m not suggesting that a shift for the better never happens nor that we have should no goals whatsoever. Far from it. It’s important to our wellbeing to aim for something we think will be gratifying. So you wish to travel through Europe? Excellent. Find the means to do so, if you can. Want to be a working actor? Go for it. Acting is a tough business, but you won’t know what you can do unless you try.

But resist the tendency to make your happiness dependent on whether or not you achieve your ambitions. To lose a dream is cause for grief. To realise a dream is a bonus. Yet neither are the endgame. And gratitude for the small things is a gift.

A wise person once said to keep moving forward one step at a time, and at each stop, see what the next best step is. That’s what I plan to do, even though it feels like I’m wearing lead boots at times!

GOOD NEWS!

Black Beacon Books have accepted my short story “Foul Beasts” for their Murder and Machinery Anthology, slated for publication in 2021. It’s set in the world of Fortitude, but not in The Republic of Brittania and with a new principal character. However, you may recognise the bad guys.

 

Author Question: Who inspired you to write?

There are so many writers whose work I love, but the first to inspire me were Anne McCaffrey and Ursula Le Guin. When I started writing, science fiction and fantasy was the providence of male writers, and these two broke that mould.

I adored McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” series with its strong female characters and, of course, the many wonderful dragons.

Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed” blew my mind. I loved “The Lathe of Heaven” and the “Wizard of Earthsea”. The woman was an amazing writer and a visionary to the end.

I’m sad that both are dead. I would have loved to have met them. As it is, their work still drives me to become a better writer. Small as I am, I follow in the footsteps of giants.

Words Into The World

I’ve been in editing mode for the past month. Editing a short story, editing a novelette, and editing my second novel. This week I felt the need to write something new, so I wrote a drabble* and a short story set in the world of “Fortitude”. However, as both were for submission into anthologies, I ended up back in editing mode.

I don’t find it difficult to generate ideas for fiction, as even a random word or real-life scene can spark my imagination. However, I struggle to think of things to write for my blog. I’ve plotted out my themes a la Dan Blank (who I wholeheartedly recommend), but I still struggle. I’m not a chatty person in everyday life - well, I am when I haven’t seen someone for ages and there’s a lot to catch up on, but when I’m in regular communication I run out of steam quickly. I prefer to be doing things with people rather than talking with them. I prefer it when conversation arises naturally out of shared activity rather than making it happen. Sitting down and offering an opinion on something without being asked is uncomfortable.

I don’t lead a very exciting life, I’m afraid, and that’s not only because of the current pandemic. I work part-time testing software, and the rest of the time I hustle for freelance writing gigs or other work. I used to work full time as a software tester, but since 2019, I haven’t been able to secure a full-time contract (a common problem) so I juggle jobs. Most weeks I just make enough to get by and for that I am grateful. But it doesn’t leave a lot of spare cash for travel, holidays, entertainment, or any other ‘exciting’ ventures. Reading and writing are my escape.


I’ve long given up on any dream of making money from writing. For every book or ebook sold, the hosting platform gets about 80% of what the reader pays, my publisher gets 20%, and I get 10% of that 20%. This is why good reviews matter so much to authors - it is often the only "payment" we get.

It’s a good thing, then, that I write for love. I write because a story wants to be told and characters have things they want to say. I’m happy to be a mouthpiece for these fictional beings. It’s being a mouthpiece for myself that I sometimes find difficult to do.

Still, I want to maintain some connection with my readers, and blogs and newsletters are the only way I can do this. It would be lovely if people would tell me what they want to read, but I realise that people rarely know what they want to know until they read it. I completely understand. If you were to ask me what I want to hear from my favourite authors, I would struggle to put my finger on what that might be. But then, they’ll write a post or blog and I’ll go 'Ah, good to know. I’m glad I read that'.

So it’s hit and miss, this blogging thing. I have to resist tying myself in knots about what to write. It’s best to let the words come as they will, then send them into the world to do whatever they can. Isn’t that all any writer can do?


* Drabble - a short work of fiction of around one hundred words. The purpose of the drabble is brevity, testing the author’s ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in a confined space.

Author Question: How do you deal with rejection?

Good question! I used to find it so disheartening. Now I just sigh, maybe grumble a bit, and look for somewhere else to send my work.

One thing I’ve learned is that there are many reasons an editor will reject your work. For short stories, maybe it doesn’t quite fit in with their vision for the publication in question. Or maybe it doesn’t appeal to them or they don’t think it will appeal to their readers. This doesn’t mean the piece isn’t good - it just means that this journal probably isn’t one your audience or potential audience would read. I’ve had a piece rejected by several publications, then finally accepted and well-received by the journal's regular readers.

It’s much the same for novels as well, but the market is much tougher. “Fortitude” was rejected by several agents and publishers then was finally accepted by two publishers, making me the one who had to choose!

Rejection is part of being a published writer. And what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Going batty

It’s been a year for going batty. We all seem to be at a tipping point in some area of our lives. Many people have been going batty because they don’t enjoy staying at home. Others are going batty by being around family 24/7. I’m going batty with uncertainty.

Every day that I log in to work, I expect to be told my services are no longer required. Or I expect to be told that they’ve cancelled working from home and I will be back to the two-hour each way commute. Only this time I will wear an N95 mask. Or worse, now that they are restricting how many people can travel on public transport, they may not allow me onto the buses and trains I normally catch and my daily commute might increase to 5 or even 6 hours. That possibility really drives me batty.

Not that being batty is a bad thing. I like bats. They're amazing creatures. I see fruit bats flying over my house every evening. We call them flying-foxes here, possibly something to do with their size, but more likely to do with their fox-like faces.


Image: Little Aussie Bat

Flying-foxes are the largest flying mammals in the world, acting as long-range seed dispersers and pollinators for many native trees. They are vital to the health of the ecosystem. Read more about them here.

However, human land needs means chopping down trees and this impacts natural habitat for flying foxes. The gaps between forested areas have become wider so to avoid flying further, flying-foxes have established new roost sites in urban areas. They now also forage for food in urban backyards and orchards.

This means that people see them as a nuisance, but honestly, who is the nuisance here? The humans taking the land for their own use, or the awesome flying mammal making do with what we’ve left for it? Now with the climate becoming increasingly hotter, fruit bats are suffering from heat stress, with huge numbers dying in the heatwaves - upwards of 45000 in 2014, and thousands more in 2019 and 2020 .


Flying foxes dip their bellies in water to keep cool
Image:  Nick Edards, CC BY-NC-ND

It doesn’t help that bats have a bad rap as carriers of the types of diseases that can result in human pandemics (but really, we’re not supposed to be in close proximity to bats, we only are because we’ve made it so). They’re also noisy and their roost areas are smelly. Actually, you could say that about many humans!

I think they’re incredible animals and with such cute faces, but I get that they’re not everyone’s cup of loveliness. Except for this baby fruit bat. Look at that expression! Video here.


Flying fox baby

I’m not sure why people use the term ‘batty’ to mean ‘crazy’. I’ve read a few explanations ranging from being a patient of 18th century psychiatrist, William Battie, to the behaviour of bats in a belfry when disturbed by church bells. Here’s a different take on the origin of bat related words.

DISCLAIMER:  Except for eavesdrop, the origin of all other words and phases is completely made up.

A Mostly Not Very True Story

An old storyteller and his granddaughter were talking one night, while warming themselves in front of the fire. ‘I wonder where the word “eavesdrop” originated,’ said the young woman.

‘I can tell you that,’ said the old man. ‘It’s a little known story but a fascinating one.’

The young woman wrinkled her nose. Her grandfather was known to have been a larrikin in his youth and none the better in his dotage. It had made his stories fascinating if not at all factual.

‘Hit me with your best shot,’ she replied.

‘Well, it started back many, many years ago in medieval times. The law then stated that the water dripping off the eaves of a building should not fall on and damage the land of the neighbouring building. This “eavesdrop” regulated how close the buildings could be.

‘How it came to mean someone who listens to conversations that don’t concern them is a bit contentious. The popular view is that a person who stood outside a building within the eavesdrop and listened to what was being said inside was an eavesdropper.

‘However, I know this is not the case. It is a little known fact that an ancient secret society once used bats to carry secret messages. This is quite logical of course. Secrets by their very nature must be kept in the dark. A bat flies by night so by its very nature keeps things in the dark.

‘These messenger bats would hang off the eaves of buildings. When a message needed to be sent, the message writer would give a soft high pitched whistle and a bat would drop off the eaves and glide down in readiness for receiving the message. The message was inserted into a small gold or silver cylinder called a “tery” attached to the bat's leg.

‘Now it is another little known fact that bats are highly sensitive to silver and gold. It gives them great amounts of energy so they are able to fly faster for longer. So a “bat tery” was not only a receptacle for holding a message – it also aided the bat on its journey. I think you will note that the word is now used for a similar type of powering device.

‘The bat would then fly off to its intended destination. Once it arrived, it would first fly through the nearest belfry and cause the bell to issue one sharp ring. Most people assumed the sound was caused by the wind or by some accidental disturbance; however, to those who knew of the secret message system of bats, this sound caused by “bats in the belfry” was recognised as an alert to an incoming message.

‘The intended recipient would watch out their window for the arrival of the bat on the eaves. Once sighted, the recipient would give a soft high pitched whistle and the bat would drop off the eaves and glide down in readiness for delivering the message. And so our little eavesdropper would have passed on the contents of a secret conversation between two people.

‘As time went by, enemies of this ancient secret society found ways to confuse and intercept the messenger bats by using trained moths. These moths would learn to fly in a large spherical formation which so enticed the bat (moths being a favourite repast) that it would veer off course to follow it. These “moth balls” were immensely effective and heralded the end of the messenger bat.

‘However, many phrases from that era have filtered down to our modern day language. For example, when a secret message was sent to a comrade in need, the sender was said to “go to bat for someone”. The recipient of a secret bat message was said to receive the missive “right off the bat”. When a bat was interfered with and the secret message delivered to an enemy instead of its intended recipient, it was said to “bat for the other team” (although the meaning of this has somewhat changed over the years). These terms have all been attributed to the game of cricket, but their history is far older.

‘I see,’ said the young woman, ‘so let me guess. “Like a bat out of hell” refers to how fast a messenger bat flew when being chased, and “blind as a bat” refers to the fact that the bat couldn't see the message.’

The old man looked at her sternly.

‘Of course not,’ he retorted. ‘I think you are making fun of me.’

‘Well, you are a little batty,’ she said with a sly grin,

He threw back his head and laughed uproariously.

‘You have me there,’ he conceded. ‘Indeed, you have me there.’


Image: tomertu / shutterstock.com

 

Book Recommendation: The Bobcat by Katherine Forbes Riley

I finished this book before I went to sleep one night. I woke up the next day still thinking about it and cocooned in literary happiness. In many ways, this is a romance, and I’m not a huge fan of the genre. Romance is fine when it’s a small part of a bigger story, but as the focus, it usually leaves me cold.

However, I love “The Bobcat”. The characters are unusual, beautiful, and completely relatable. The love between the protagonist and her love interest is intense yet gentle, drifting off the pages like a sweet fragrance. I’m sure many people won’t like the story - the fact that the male love interest’s name isn’t revealed until the last page will irk those who like everything explained upfront. However, I thought it was a wonderful device for catapulting the dreaminess of the previous pages into the real world. The writing is luscious, deep, and meant to be savoured. A great debut.

I feel the need for clean (sorry, Top Gun)

Recently, I did an author spot at a virtual book club meeting. Not only was it exciting to have my book featured as "Book of the Month", it gave me a wonderful opportunity to talk about why I created a "clean" steampunk world.

Steampunk worlds are thrilling and wondrous, but are often grubby and polluted from a reliance on coal-based steam. This saddens me, as we already know in our world that the air pollution from fossil fuels is a killer.


The Streets of Lantern City. Concept Art by Section Studios.

This week, I read that China’s ban on the movement of traffic from February 10 to March 14 prevented over 12,000 premature deaths from air pollution. That’s three times the number of lives lost from the pandemic in the same period.

Shockingly, 91% of the world’s population live in areas with air pollution above World Health Organization limits. Just over a year ago, researchers reported that outdoor air pollution caused a minimum of 7 million early deaths per year worldwide. Around 800,000 of these deaths occurred in Europe.


London - Nick Ansell/PA - The Guardian

In adults, air pollution is killing more people than tobacco smoking, primarily through heart disease. It even affects unborn babies - a study done in Greater London found there was a 15% increase in risk of low birth weight for every additional 5 micrograms per cubic metre of fine particle pollution.

London is no stranger to the problem of air pollution. In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth 1 complained about the coal smoke around the Palace of Westminster. In 1661, the diarist John Evelyn noted in his book “Fumifugium” that London was:

“so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly can one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one would scarcely breathe”.


John Evelyn’s Fumifugium

By Victorian times, the problem was immense. London’s skies were murky with smoke and “pea-souper” fogs. Those too poor to avoid the worst of it paid with their health, particularly during two major pollution events - the Great Stink and The Great Smog.

The Great Stink occurred in 1858 when unusually hot weather hit London. Human waste, dead animals, rotting food, and toxic raw materials from the riverside factories turned the River Thames into a reeking sewer. Cholera and typhoid fever ran rampant, and people hid indoors to avoid both the smell and the disease. The Houses of Parliament had to be closed as nothing could keep the stink out of the building.


The 'Silent Highway-Man', Punch, July 1858.

It took time to fix. Joseph Bazalgette designed then built 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of additional street sewers. His plans meant that human waste was no longer dumped on the shores of the Thames. The city also began a co-ordinated waste disposal system that reduced swarms of disease-spreading flies.

However,  the fumes of London’s industry remained and the infamous “pea-soupers” regularly blanketed the city. These only worsened as more motor vehicles clogged the roads.

In December 1952, Londoners faced their second deadly challenge - The Great Smog. This was a visible, poisonous fog that crept into people’s homes through cracks and under doors. Visibility outside was virtually zero. It killed around 4,000 people in five days.

Over the ensuing months, another 8,000 more died from respiratory tract infections, from suffocation by pus arising from those infections, and from hypoxia.


The Great Smog - N T Stobbs, CC BY-SA 2.0

At first, the government denied any connection between the smog and the premature death of thousands of Londoners. They blamed influenza or extreme weather conditions. (Although, in retrospect, we now know that the weather played a part in the smog being so bad). However, the ongoing death toll lead to an investigation which eventually led to the Clean Air Act of 1956.


'We Want Clean Air' protest banner at Paddington, 1956
© Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London

Yet, London still suffers from pollution, which is one reason I decided that New Londinium in Fortitude would be a cleaner city. I wanted my characters to inhabit a world that had solved its pollution problems, one that was constantly striving toward a better future for all its inhabitants. If I ever have a reason to write a sequel, the cities I have in mind will also reflect this brave new world.

I also knew that the world I created couldn’t be perfect - nothing ever is. After all, we are merely human, and by definition imperfect. We are always learning, although not always putting what we learn into practice! We choose what suits us, not what is best. We are still overly reliant on fossil fuels and are slow to develop cheaper alternatives. We need the Parthena Ripleys and Corazon Pagets of our world to take the lead.

Author Question: What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been catching up on finishing and polishing a few short stories.  Black Hare Press has already accepted one piece for publication in one of their LOCKDOWN Sci-Fi Anthologies.

I’m editing a sci-fi story about an assassin (female) and writing a ghost story inspired by a bus stop I used to see on my way home from dance class. It was a bright yet deserted space in a sea of inky blackness - which in daylight was a stretch of vacant land, overgrown with weeds and shrubs. Even in the day, that place gave me the creeps. I swear there’s a body buried there!

Once these two are finished then it is on to editing the YA novel, “The Witch Who Wasn’t”.

Winged Warriors

Last Saturday was my Mum’s birthday. She would have been 100 years old and eligible to receive a telegram from the Queen. It would have thrilled her had she lived that long. I can never forget my Mum’s birthday as it falls on Anzac Day.

Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that originally commemorated those who fought at Gallipoli in 1915. This was a terrible battle which dragged on for months. Many Aussies and Kiwis - and many Turks - died. However, the fighting spirit of the Australian and New Zealand troops lived on long after the battle and created a powerful legacy. So much so that the Turkish people also celebrate Anzac Day with us, and regard those that lost their lives on this land their sons as well.

Nowadays, we commemorate Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. We also remember the contribution and suffering of all those who have served - and for me, this always includes the animals used in warfare.

Many animals served, suffered, and died alongside soldiers. Horses, donkeys, camels, mules and even elephants were used to transport soldiers, weapons, ammunition and food. Dogs were used to track the enemy and locate injured soldiers. And then there were pigeons.

There are those today only too willing to deride pigeons as "rats of the air". They are seen as dirty, smelly, disease spreading vermin. Yet these amazing birds have been through many wars with us, often being injured by artillery fire or dying from exhaustion after delivering their messages.

Their ability to find their way home is legendary and they have multiple navigational aids to help them. Researchers still argue about which ones are used, and whether some are relevant at all, but basically, this is the list:

  • An internal compass that senses the Earth’s magnetic field
  • An internal compass that uses the position of the Sun.
  • Ultrasonic hearing
  • Ultraviolet vision
  • Ability to create an odour map. (For years, people thought all birds had a poor sense of smell but it turns out they were wrong. Some birds have incredible olfactory abilities.)

You can set a racing pigeon free 965 km (600 miles) from a place they’ve never been before, yet it will find its way home. They fly through uncharted territory and average 97 km (60 miles) an hour. And they won’t stop for food, rest, or water until they arrive at their destination. It was this steadfastness that made carrier pigeons so vital to the war effort.

One famous winged warrior was Cher Ami. British pigeon fanciers donated her to the U.S. Army - although at this stage she had been mistakenly registered as a cock, not a hen. For those who know French, her name means "Dear friend" in the masculine. On October 3, 1918, there were over 550 men trapped behind enemy lines without food or ammunition. The men attempted to get help but the Germans shot all the human and feathered messengers they sent. To make matters worse, the trapped men were being hammered by friendly fire as well as by enemy fire. Finally, they dispatched Cher Ami with a note, written on onion paper, in a canister on her left leg. The note said:

We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it!

As Cher Ami tried to fly back home, the Germans saw her rising out of the brush and opened fire. After several seconds they shot her down, but she bravely took flight again. She arrived back at her loft at division headquarters 40 km (25 miles) to the rear in just 25 minutes, helping to save the lives of the 194 survivors. Her injuries were extensive - shot through the breast, blinded in her left eye, right leg hanging by a tendon.

Cher Ami became a hero for saving the men of the 77th Infantry Division. Army medics worked to save her life but could not save her leg, so they carved a small wooden one for her (which didn’t work, but it’s the thought that counts). When she recovered enough to travel, they put the now one-legged bird on a boat to the United States. However, in 1919, she died from the wounds she had received. In her short life, she delivered 12 important messages during battle and was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal for heroic service.

A taxidermist hired to mount her body discovered that he was actually she, although some dispute this. Cher Ami will undergo some conservation and testing to determine sex in 2021. (Really, I think a qualified taxidermist has seen enough of bird organs to correctly identify ovaries from testes.)


Cher Ami

There are many stories extolling the bravery of these winged warriors and the many lives they saved (more here and here). I cry reading about their exploits and injuries, and not only because I hate what war does to this wonderful planet of ours. It saddens me that they these animals suffered serving us, even though I am grateful of the role they played. With pigeons though, I am even sadder that their beauty and resilience seems lost on people today. Horses and dogs are adored, pigeons are reviled.

Last November, a Canberra newspaper ran a story about a pigeon who stole poppies from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She then made a nest in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial.


Image: Ian Roach. Published in The Canberra Times, 2019.

I like to think it is Cher Ami come back to live out her life as she should have done, but knowing the legacy she has left. The one thing these winged warriors have taught me is that unlikely heroes are the most engaging and heartbreaking. Something I try to remember in my writing.

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