Karen Bayly

Copywriter, Author of Fantasy, Sci-fi, Horror 

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Yule Lads and Christmas Cats

It will soon be Christmas. I find it difficult to feel Christmassy these days. It’s so hot in Australia in summer with temperatures up 40 °C (104 °F) and beyond. Most houses and apartments do not have air conditioning, and celebrating in sweltering heat is not my idea of fun. Indeed, it’s not most people’s idea of fun.

I’ve always envied those who live in snowy climes. A white Christmas seems so romantic to me and experiencing one is on my bucket list. The place I’d most like to spend Christmas in Iceland. You’re almost guaranteed a white Christmas. December is the darkest time of the year in Iceland so there’s also the strong possibility you’ll be able to see the glorious Northern Lights.

Photo from Regent Holidays UK

Not only is it a fascinating place, but they have incredible Christmas traditions. The ‘official’ Christmas celebration takes place at 6:00 pm on Christmas Eve when Icelanders eat a huge home-cooked dinner then open their gifts.

Every Icelander typically receives at least one book as a gift each year.  In fact, we could rename Iceland “Bookland” as it publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world. The bulk of book sales happen in the two months leading up to Christmas.

And then there are these guys...

The thirteen Yule Lads

Christmas in Iceland lasts for 26 days, and during this time a troupe of trolls visit Icelanders. These are the thirteen Yule Lads, each with their own definitive mischief-making character. They live in a cave in a secret location in the mountains with their mother, the terrifying Grýla, her do-nothing husband, Leppalúði, and the Christmas Cat, Jólakötturinn.

Photo by ????. I couldn’t find a credit for this image but I love how the lads
are having fun, plus the ptarmigan in the bottom right corner is a bonus.

The lads are:

  1. Stekkjarstaur, or Sheep-Cote Clod, breaks into the sheep pens and tries to steal milk from the ewes. However, his two peg legs make it difficult for him to get into the pens.
  2. Giljagaur, also known as Gully Gawk, hides and waits for the chance to steal milk from cowsheds.
  3. Stúfur is short and stubby. He loves to eat burnt bits of food that get stuck to pans.
  4. Þvörusleikir is tall and skinny. His name means “Spoon licker”, and that is what he does when no-one is looking.
  5. Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper) steals leftovers by knocking at the door, then stealing food from the pots when the inhabitants rush to see who it is.
  6. Askasleikir (Bowl Licker) licks bowls.
  7. Hurðaskellir (Door Slammer) likes to slam doors. He thinks this is amusing.
  8. Skyrgámur loves eating skyr, a yummy Icelandic yoghurt. We get skyr in Australia but I’m not sure how authentic it is.
  9. Bjúgnakrækir, or Sausage Swiper, crawls through soot and smoke to steal salty, smoked Icelandic sausages.
  10. Gluggagægir, the Window-Peeper, peers through windows looking for food to steal.
  11. Gáttaþefur has a large nose and a good sense of smell. He stands at doorways and sniffs out bread, especially laufabrauð (see image below).
  12. Ketkrókur, or Meat-Hook, uses with a long stick with a hook at the end, which he sticks down chimneys to steal meat.
  13. Kertasníkir name means Candle-Stealer. He likes stealing candles from children.


Jólakötturinn — the Christmas Cat

According to Icelandic tradition, anyone who finished their chores before Christmas would get an item of clothing as a reward. Meanwhile, lazy children (and adults) who didn’t get their work done would have to face Jólakötturinn. It’s an enormous black cat that prowls Iceland on Christmas Eve.

Original image by Peter Francis Fahy

It peers into windows to see if there are clothes among the presents for each child (or adult). If so, it moves on. If not, it eats the child (or adult). So be grateful for socks, underpants, ugly Christmas jumpers or kitschy t-shirts.


News Booth: Saving Children

I introduced the idea of a steampunk style News Booth in my novel, “Fortitude”. This is the blog version.  So what’s on today?

The Good News: Children are being saved!

More than a quarter of a billion children have a better chance to grow up healthy, educated and safe than in the past two decades. Save the Children’s 2019 Global Childhood Report shows that the world has made remarkable progress in protecting the lives of children, thanks to strong political leadership and social investment.

Photo by Branden Harvey on Unsplash

Circumstances for children have improved in 173 out of 176 countries since 2000. They based the evaluation on children’s access to health care, education, nutrition and protection from harmful practices like child labour and child marriage. This means today there are:

  • 4.4 million fewer child deaths per year
  • 49 million fewer stunted children
  • 130 million more children in school
  • 94 million fewer child labourers
  • 11 million fewer girls forced into marriage or married early
  • 3 million fewer teen births per year
  • 12,000 fewer child homicides per year

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The Bad News: Media reporting? What media reporting?

Admittedly, everything is not 100%  as one in four children still don’t have the right to a safe and healthy childhood. Children living in or fleeing conflict zones are among the most disadvantaged.

However, the overall result is amazing. Recall seeing it reported on any media outlets? No? Me neither. Even a Google search came up with nothing from any news website.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Media has always focused on sensationalist stories to some extent - that’s what sells. Even the Romans were prone to news reports that encouraged biased impressions of events rather than neutrality. However, this editorial tactic has become increasingly prevalent over the years, and now we no longer trust what they report.

An unfortunate side effect is that genuinely good news, stories that make us feel good about ourselves as humans, go unreported. No sensational enough, not ‘sexy’ enough, not divisive enough. I think that's sad.

If you want to keep up with the good news (and there is plenty of it out there), I suggest subscribing to sites like Future Crunch or OZY.


On Awards and Gratitude

On Awards and Art

I received a newsletter recently from Jonathan Fields of The Good Life Project where he wrote:

“I just know when something moves me. Increasingly, I wonder if that’s the true measure of art. In any form. To push us beyond aesthetic appreciation. Past rational examination and interpretation. Past fascination, or education. And deliver us back into the simpler, reflexive realm of emotion. That transcendent place where we stand helpless, eyes welling, throat-lumping, breath catching, mind dizzying, knees softening.”

I can’t agree more. I realised ages ago that as a fiction writer I would probably never win any awards. My style and the things I write about are not beloved of judges and critics. It hurt initially – but after a while I ceased to care. I wrote because I wanted to move someone, anyone - just one person would do, but more was better.

Although many of my favourite authors are award winners, quite a few have yet to win anything. However, I don't love their work for their literary credentials. I love their work because it moves me, because it inspires me, because for those few moments I am caught in their words, the world is pure magic.

Most of all, they make me feel I am not alone. And for that they earn my eternal gratitude.

Some of my favourite authors - the ones with cats (others are dog people)

7 other things I’m grateful for (in no particular order):

My cats

Murray and George keep me sane and give me something to look forward to when I come home. I’d spend every day at home with them if I could!

Murray and George


Dancing is my preferred form of exercise. I go to a tribal style dance class once a week and it makes me happy. Plus thinking about dancing is something I can do on a bus or train. I’ve choreographed whole routines in my head, but I’m not so good at transferring my creations to the world of real bodies! I love my dance classes and sorely wish I could get back to my week day jazz and tap classes.


I don’t need to play music or listen to music as I tend to hear songs in my head any time of day. However, while I don’t need to play music or listen to music, it makes my soul sing to do so.

Yes, that’s me playing classical guitar

Fiction - be it books, movies or TV shows

Fiction gives me hope even when it is sad or dystopian. It binds me to the rest of humanity in a way real life stories never do.

The stars at night

From my backyard, and depending on the month and hour of night, I can see the Southern Cross, Orion, the Pleiades, or Scorpius to name but a few constellations. Looking up at the stars at night makes me feel small and inconsequential. Somehow, I find that extremely comforting. No matter what is going on in my life, or in the world, in the time of stars it is nothing.

ABC Starhunt

My house

I love my house. It's getting on in years and a bit run down - like me. We’ve been through some rough times but I’ve always felt that it is here to protect me. And I do the same for it. I’d like to lavish money on it with some major renovations, but that’s not currently an option. I hope it knows and understands.

The way I look at the world

My thinking processes changed when I did my PhD. It wasn’t just a matter of being more logical or skeptical, but one of being more curious and questioning. It taught me that no-one can know all the answers and that it is okay to say “I don’t know”.

I learned to see the big picture and the detail. I'm enchanted by the minutiae of life as much as I am by it’s wild, broad sweep. Yet I take everything I see, read and hear, and hold it up to scrutiny.

This means I sometimes am accused of being negative but I don’t see it that way. I think I see things for what they are, not how I want them to be. Wishing doesn’t make your desires happen. Doing your best to change your life doesn’t mean it will change. Sometimes you will fail. Sometimes all you can do is give up. None of that stops me being grateful for what I have.

Book Recommendation: The Time Travel Handbook by James Wyllie

This is an odd yet intriguing book based on the premise that it is a handbook for a time travel tour company, so each of the 18 chapters is about a tour package. You will be given a summary of the historical event you are about to witness, told what clothes you will wear and why, where you will be staying, what to expect in the way of food and drink, and the best vantage points to observe the proceedings. I certainly have a whole new understanding of the Women’s March on Versailles and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

The People of “Fortitude”

Much of my writing inspiration comes from free writing. Free writing is a technique in which you write continuously for a set period (say ten to fifteen minutes) without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic.

I especially love free writing to prompts. I’ve done many writing prompt courses online over the years and have amassed a lot of useful ideas and character beginnings. I’ve also written some complete rubbish and stuff that is downright embarrassing, but that’s free writing for you.

Over the past few years, I've been writing to prompts created by Cynthia Morris as part of her Original Impulse course “The Devoted Writer”. These have inspired the novel I’m writing now (working title: “The Witch Who Wasn’t”). However, the first draft of “Fortitude” was written over five years ago and many of its characters were inspired by Jill Badonsky’s “The Muse Is In” Writing Club. Here’s how.

Corazon Paget

The prompt that inspired the scene where Corazon is staring out over the forsaken garden asked the writer to take two lines from a book you like and use them to write at least three paragraphs. In the original piece, the first line of the first paragraph and first line of the third paragraph were both from the first page of the first chapter of “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Much of this original draft made it into the novel verbatim, although the lines from “The Difference Engine” are no longer there.

Oh, and the forsaken garden? Inspired by the poem of the same name by Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The Lady Paget?

Parthena Ripley and Artemis Devereaux

The two sisters began life from a prompt that suggested creating several character names and writing a single line to describe each one. From the outset, Parthena knew exactly who she was...

“Parthena Ripley was as brilliant as she was beautiful, and males mourned that her interests did not include men.”

The Scientist by Costurero Real

One thing writing has taught me is that characters, like children, have personalities and wills of their own. They often insist on doing things I’d rather they didn’t. This brings me to Artemis.

When I first created Artemis, she wasn’t even Artemis. She was Alicia.

“Alicia Devereaux knew her way around the world... and back again.”

Once I changed her name to Artemis, all the things I’d planned for Alicia suddenly became irrelevant. I wrote words and scenes that took Artemis’s arc in a different trajectory from the one I’d planned for Alicia. She grew from a slightly insipid character to a woman with a huge heart and courage to spare. I’m glad I listened to her.

Pilot Girl by Johanny de Wet

Titus Johannes

Titus began life as Titus Jones and stepped onto the page thanks to a prompt about popping and bubbling. This is the first paragraph of that free write:

“Titus Jones was a man who knew when to stop; it was starting that so often eluded him.  It wasn’t that he was devoid of ideas, rather the opposite really. His mind was always popping and bubbling with plans for machines, blueprints of inventions which defied the confines of scientific thought, and incredible adventures of wonder and discovery.”

Like the original draft for Corazon, much of what I wrote for this prompt made the final cut.

Steampunk Inventor

And the rest?

Like all writers, some times it's a mystery where my characters or story lines originate. I suspect they are a distillation of everything I’ve ever seen, read, or experienced. As a result, the origins of Viola Winslow, Luther Winslow, Silas Begby, and others remain hidden from me. However, I based some of Nathanial Devereaux’s looks and manner on Tom Mison’s portrayal of Ichabod Crane in the “Sleepy Hollow” TV series.

Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane

Quote from "Fortitude"...



Will the real Hansel and Gretel please standup?

First of all…

It’s now two months since “Fortitude” was released. If you’d like to learn about some of books, music, actors and artists that inspired me as I wrote and edited, check out my Pinterest Board “Fortitude”.

Now for fairy tale history and some fake (literary) news ...

Hansel and Gretel: The Fairy Tale

“Hansel and Gretel” is a fairy tale with elements common to a group of European tales about children outwitting ogres and other monsters (so sayeth Wikipedia).

The most well-known version is that found in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, heard the story from Wilhelm’s friend and future wife, Dortchen Wild. However, there have been various versions of the tale with significant differences in certain details. For example, in the original story he woodcutter’s wife is the children’s biological mother whereas in later versions, she is a stepmother, or is dead, or has abandoned the family.

The story has gruesome origins (or course it does - otherwise I wouldn't be writing about it): It is believed to have originated after the Great Famine in the 14th century Europe, a time in which millions of people and animals died from starvation and disease. During that period, desperate parents felt forced to abandon young children to fend for themselves and some folks resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Famine From the Wittenberg Bible.

And as if the story already wasn’t dark enough, comic artist Lorenzo Mattotti and author Neil Gaiman have retold the fable. Mattotti’s visually arresting scenes are eerie and shadowy, hinting at violence and despair. Gaiman has added his own unique touches by creating a more subtly evil witch as well as parents who wouldn’t attract the attention of the local social worker (if they'd existed on those days). He's also given it a happier ending.

Toon Books: Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters

A movie that murders witches, fairy tales and good storytelling (IMHO).

Hansel and Gretel: The Fake News

In 1963,  Hans Traxler cause an uproar with a book titled Die Wahrheit über Hänsel und Gretel (The Truth About Hansel and Gretel).  It told the story of one Georg Ossegg, a teacher and an amateur archeologist, who was convinced that “Hansel and Gretel” was not a fairy tale but a thinly disguised factual account of a real murder. The book follows Ossegg’s trail as he searches for, and discovers, the house belonging to the witch in the fairy tale.

Hans Traxler, with brush in hand, poses as Georg Ossegg

According to Ossegg, the two siblings were not children but an adult brother and sister called Hans and Grete Metzler. They lived in mid-17th century Germany and worked as bakers.

The witch was Katharina Schraderin, a baker and confectioner who created a wonderful lebkuchen, a traditional  gingerbread-like treat.

Hans first tried to marry Katharina to get hold of her secret recipe for lebkuchen. However, she turned him down, so he accused her of witchcraft. When she was acquitted, he and Grete murdered her but were unable to locate her recipe.

The book published sensational photos of archeological evidence including partially charred remains of the witch, burned baking tools, and a scrap of paper with the gingerbread recipe in the dialect of the area where the remains were found.

Not one word of this 120 page book was true and it is regarded as one of the most elaborate hoaxes in literary history. Yet the book has been reprinted numerous times over the years and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It has even spawned a film adaptation of the same name. So it seems we've always been beguiled by fake news.

You can read a more in depth account at "Is Hansel and Gretel real?"

News Booth … and a thought

I introduced the idea of a steampunk style News Booth in my novel, “Fortitude”.  So what’s on today?

The Bad News: Plastic … not fantastic

Unless you’ve been living somewhere cut off from all communications and the rest of humanity, you would have heard about plastics pollution. It is having a dreadful effect on our oceans and all that dwell within those watery realms.

Photo from University of Tasmania

So we all know that we have to reduce our use of plastic. No mean feat given the following words from Professor Andrew Holmes, polymer chemist and emeritus professor at the University of Melbourne:

“No-one in their daily life within a period of 10 minutes isn’t touching something that is made of plastic.”

I mainly brought this up so I could tell you about ...

The Good News: Edible beer can rings!

In an effort to remove one source of plastic from the inedible food chain, a craft beer company from Florida, USA, has created 100 percent biodegradable and compostable six-pack rings. Theses are made from by-products of the brewing process such as wheat and barley.

Photo by We Believers (see here)

Saltwater Brewery say their six-pack rings are edible by both humans and fish. While processed wheat and barley may not be the best food for our ocean friends, anything is better than plastic. Plus it’s fantastic that the company is turning their waste into something useful.

Hmm ...

It’s been on my mind that while there is a push for the average person to reduce their plastics footprint, we aren’t adequately addressing how it gets into our waterways and oceans in the first place.

Some plastic reaches the ocean because certain people are careless and/or lazy. They leave their rubbish lying around where it is washed down stormwater drains into waterways. Other plastics are flushed down the toilet and synthetic fabrics can shed fibres when washed.

However, some of it is down to a lack of good waste management systems. Even when transported to a landfill, there is still the possibility of some plastic blowing away. Likewise, in many industries, the waste control processes implemented in the production and transportation of plastics are inadequate.

So while the average Joe and Jane can certainly make a difference, the corporate world and governments need to take greater responsibility. So far it seems the onus is on everyone but them.

See more from Greenpeace.

Fee Fi Fo Fum

One of my favourite sources of weird and wonderful information is Atlas Obscura. Recently I stumbled upon a happy little article titled “In 1590, Starving Parisians Ground Human Bones Into Bread” concerning a somewhat nasty situation during the tumultuous French Wars of Religion.

Henri III of Navarre was the legitimate heir to the French throne (as Henry IV of France), but he was a Protestant. As result, he’d been embroiled in a four-year civil war against a powerful anti-Protestant group, the Catholic League. In 1590, he made a move towards Paris causing many peasants in the surrounding towns to flee to the city where they believed they would be safe.

Unfortunately for them, Henri laid seige to Paris. He took control of the surrounding lands and burned their windmills. This endangered the Parisian food supply. It only took a few months before the poorer Parisians were starving. In their desperation, they ate horses, mules, then pet dogs and cats, then moved on to grazing on grass in parks.

A charnel house at the Saints Innocents Cemetery, Paris. Public Domain.

Finally, they resorted to making bread from the bones of the dead. They disinterred skeletons from the mass graves of the Holy Innocents Cemetery, ground the bones into flour, and baked it into bread.

Sadly, eating this bread did little to prolong the life of these poor souls. Instead, they all died and no-one is quite sure why. There are many hypotheses ranging from psychogenic (guilt about cannibalism), to disease or prions in the bones, to the high mineral content of bone bread causing abdominal obstruction (read this essay by Jennifer Monroe Franson). But that is all we have - hypotheses.

Overall, the death toll from starvation was between 40,000 and 50,000. Finally, King Henri relented and allowed his army to provide Parisians with food.

Death waits. Image: zummolo/

If you're like me, all this talk of grinding bones you probably reminds you of the words uttered by the giant in the fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk:

Fee fi fo fum
I smell the blood of an Englishman
Be he alive or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread

I wondered whether this rhyme came about after the events of 1590. My research suggested that the first two lines appeared in 1596, in the pamphlet Haue with You to Saffron-Walden, written by Thomas Nashe. Even then, Nashe mentions that the rhyme was already old and its origins obscure. However, the last two lines did not appear until later, with the earliest known printed version appearing in 1711.

So I’m none the wiser as to whether this sad and gruesome chapter in French history inspired a threatening rhyme from a fairy tale giant. Though one thing seems clear - fairy tale giants are blessed with stronger digestive systems than those poor suffering Parisians.

Jack and the Beanstalk Giant. Public Domain.



My novel, “Fortitude”, came out last week in both paperback and digital forms. I’m quite chuffed as it is over six years since I completed the first draft.

“Fortitude” has been described by several readers as an eclectic blend of science fiction, fantasy, and steampunk. This means that no major publishers would even read it! In fact, most major publishers don’t read anything that isn’t presented to them by an agent, and getting an agent is difficult, especially for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and steampunk. I did try several times to procure an agent and received some very encouraging rejections.

Image by Nokuro/

I also sent the manuscript to several boutique publishers. One replied with a very encouraging rejection. Most of the rest didn’t bother answering even when I followed up. Finally, my novel found a home at Mary Celeste Press with Matthew Glenn Ward at the helm.  Matthew had published several short stories of mine in the highly regarded “Skive Magazine”. The beginning of my relationship with Skive Magazine was in the 2005 issue “You Are Going Away” where my short story “Daphne’s Dance” was first published.

Skive Magazine

Getting back to how my novel has been described - I think of “Fortitude” as science fantasy that is steampunk-based, rather than pure steampunk.  I’ve taken the idea that steam has been favoured over other types of energy in this world, and refined to power something more elegant than the usually clunky machines portrayed in most steampunk stories.

The last thing I want to do is present myself as a steampunk aficionado. There are people out there who live and breathe steampunk (as seen at Oamaru, home of the annual NZ Steampunk Festival) and although I love what they do, I’m not one of them. However, the idea of steampunk has interested me since “The Wild Wild West” (the old TV show, not the movie). In fact, the name of one of the main characters in my book - Artemis Devereaux - is a nod to my favourite character of the TV series, Artemus Gordon.

Scene from The Wild Wild West which ran on CBS 1965-1969. Artemus Gordon is on the left.

The novel isn’t set in the steam era nor the Victorian era. I constructed a whole new universe with a different political, scientific, religious and ecological background. There are some aspects of life reminiscent of Victorian London as well as 1920s Europe. I did a huge amount of research on ancient gods, history, and steam technology as well as dirigible aerodynamics and how to fly a dirigible. Sadly, I couldn’t find any dirigible pilots to interview - I would have loved to ask questions instead of relying totally on You Tube videos and text.

I also had the fun of creating a whole lot of inventions, mainly because four of the characters are scientists / inventors, and the whole plot revolves around the misuse of one of these inventions. I’ve no doubt I've pushed the laws of physics to their max - but great inventions are built on great ideas, and who really knows for certain what will work until you begin to build it.

One could say that about a novel as well.

Image by Magergram/

Where to buy “Fortitude”




Barnes and Noble
Kobo (use the flag at the top of the website page to switch stores)
Angus & Robertson

Also in the Apple Books store


Writing and Me

I don’t really like talking about my writing process as I’m not sure it’s the slightest bit interesting. Yet I do understand that other people seem to want to know the hows and whys of why authors write. For me, it is straightforward - I sit down, put my fingers on the keyboard, and type.

Of course, it’s taken some time to get to the point where that works for me. I used to wait for inspiration before I started writing. As a result, I wrote in short and inconsistent bursts. I decided that the occasional short story was all I could manage and put any thoughts of writing a novel out of my head.

That changed when I did my PhD. I remember holding my somewhat hefty thesis in my hand and thinking - if I can write this, then I can write a novel.

Murray and George ignoring my thesis

I’d like to say that crafting my first novel came easily but the truth is it was still a slog - and I didn’t do it alone. I enlisted the help of various creative coaches over a couple of years, but the one who helped most was Cynthia Morris at Original Impulse.

From Cynthia, I learned the value in writing for just fifteen minutes a day. I learned to switch off my editor's brain and ignore my internal critic. In doing so, the stories bubbling and brewing inside me could come to the surface and flow onto the page.

As I practiced these new skills, I discovered that I could write at my desk, or in a café, or on my iPhone on the train. In fact, I wrote my first novel, "Fortitude", using a text editor on my iPhone on my morning commute. Every evening, I would cut and paste what I’d written into Scrivener.

Looking out of my "office" window

Given I travel around three hours a day (to the day job and back again), I still use my commute to write. I still use my phone as well as the train is often so crowded, pulling out a laptop is not really a comfortable option. So the bulk of my second novel has also been written on my iPhone, only nowadays I have the Scrivener mobile app, so I can sync rather than copy and paste.

From "Fortitude" on Scrivener Mobile

I’ve also learned the importance of plotting, even though I’m a pantser at heart. Nowadays, I do plot an outline before I start writing but then I pants it within that framework. Quite a few unplanned plot points and character quirks have ended up on the page in my both my soon-to-be-published novel and my current work-in-progress. I do feel a sense of gratitude and wonder when I reflect on this process and see that somehow I’d set up these twists and turns in previous chapters without truly realising what I was doing at the time.

The thing is, so much of our storytelling happens away from the keyboard or pen. It happens in our dreams and quiet moments. It happens in the deep dark recesses of our brains when we aren’t thinking about our creative work at all. Often, all we do when we write is let that story escape.


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