Book Review: The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan

This month I didn’t choose a book to review, it chose me. The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan was given to me by someone who thought I might enjoy it, and they weren’t wrong. It’s a beautifully written novel that proves itself to be my favourite fantasy/steampunk book of the year, with plot twists and complicated characters that kept me on edge until the very end.

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As the genre suggests, this novel (the first in a series) is set in an alternative 1973 England. From the very start we’re thrown into this world, with an eloquent writing style reminiscent of Thomas Hardy and a character attire that screams of old England. The story starts in Leicester, and within a few pages the history of this reality is introduced. England is split in two; there’s the aristocratic Kingdom and the Anglo-Scottish Republic. The difference between the two halves is highlighted most prominently by the clothing worn in them. Bright, bold colours are always worn in the Kingdom (even with skirts hitched a little above the ankle), whereas dark, dull colours are worn in the Republic. Whether this stark colour difference is to highlight the rich/poor divide or the desires of the protagonist is up to you to decide.

Had I been a man, I could have strolled into that dark warren of narrow streets, blind alleys and iniquity…but the Back is no place for a lady…thus I strolled along Churchgate attired and disguised as a young gentleman.

An opening to be remembered for sure. Introducing Elizabeth Barnabus, our happily unmarried heroine who turns her back on the expectations of women and does what she wants. A feminist lead to be reckoned with, she refuses to get married, despite the many disapproving conversations she gets for it. And yet she’s smart enough to accept this sexism and manipulate it to her advantage.

Her income comes from being a private detective. Knowing that she can’t work this as a woman, she dresses up very convincingly as Mr Barnabus, her brother. Not only does she go to work herself, but she changes between her natural female form and her male disguise frequently, using the fact that she’s a woman to get the best results.

My most prominent memory of Elizabeth is when we first see her transformation.

I ripped the false hair from my cheeks and upper lip then snatched the hat from my head, revealing the lacy head-covering beneath.

Within seconds she removes her disguise and sits looking just like the woman she is, in all the correct attire. It’s a beautiful picture that Rod Duncan has artfully painted, showing off Elizabeth’s knowledge and skill so we know exactly what she’s about from the start.

Courageous, smart and witty, Elizabeth proves to be a proud woman. She’s proud of her gypsy heritage and of her beloved boat. And, she’s such a kick-ass ball of sass that she barely bats an eye at John Farthing, a man who repeatedly shows interest in her.

 

Julia Swain, a young girl Elizabeth is tutoring, develops the most over the course of the novel. She starts out as a young lady led firmly by the law and quick to fall in love. She’s idealistic, naive, but has the potential to become so much more. And she does. By the end she’s breaking rules and shows a fierce loyalty to Elizabeth that can only be admired.

One of the scenes I remember the most is in the second half of the novel, and is a moment where Julia really rapidly matures. Elizabeth is trapped by the Duke of Northampton’s men, but comes up with a brilliant plan to escape them. She leaves her hiding place without her travelling case, using her skills of disguise to alter her appearance. Then she sends Julia to collect her belongings and hide them in a larger case for her.

It’s a truly wonderfully written bit of prose, with tension rising throughout at the risk of Julia being caught. It proves to be a brilliant plan too, showing Elizabeth’s intelligence and skills. More than anything though, it shows how far Julia is willing to go out of her comfort zone for her friend, a quality to be admired above all else.

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The story proves to be a mystery at heart, a true detective story with a real problem to solve. There were moments when I truly feared for Elizabeth’s life, and others where I thought the mystery was about to be solved when in fact the truth was further away. Duncan has a real knack for storytelling, writing a fast paced tale full of twists that I couldn’t have predicted.

He cleverly puts Elizabeth in a situation that should be safe and comforting but that instead is full of danger and doubt, tricking us into a false sense of security. She grew up in a circus, and to solve the mystery she must once again join one. The man in charge, Harry Timpson, knew her father well and seems to appreciate her heritage. You’d think this safe, familiar setting with family connections would be comforting, and it is for a while, but just as I began to relax into it Duncan put me back on edge.

He has a great skill for putting in backstory without making it seem forced. By the end of the book I felt like I knew just as much about Elizabeth’s history as I did the adventure I’d just read about, and it’s an exciting one too. It’s written in naturally, and just rolls off the page.

The ending though is truly magnificent. There’s a M A S S I V E twist that I did not see coming, and I really don’t want to say more about it because I’ll give away the ending, but I really enjoyed it and it’s just the perfect end to the book. Not very informative for you, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me once you’ve read it yourself.

 

My favourite scene encapsulates all of my favourite things in the story; Elizabeth’s courage and intelligence, her magical transformation, the tricks of the circus and the unforgiving, bitter bad guy. They’re blended together in a way that reminds me what I love so much about Rod Duncan’s writing.

Elizabeth is being taken to her death in the back of a horse-drawn carriage. Fumbling through the boxes around her, she leaves a trail that looks like an escape then hides in one of the crates. While her executioner follows the red heron she makes her escape, transforming quickly into her brother and walking confidently down the road. It’s clever, it’s cheeky, and it’s most definitely the scene from the book that sticks with me the most.

 

I’m going to stop now before I give anything away. I could so easily write another thousand words on this book, but instead I’ll just leave you with this. The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is a unique and immaculately crafted novel that everyone should read, whether they’re a fantasy novice or expert. Angry Robot have found and nurtured a magnificent writer in Rod Duncan, and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.

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Writing Prompt Tuesday

Here’s a writing prompt for today. Using an unusual setting for your story can really help to develop your characters.

Happy writing!

7 Great Gifts for Writers

Everyone has a writer friend, right? That person in their life who’s never without a notebook and pen, whose head is forever in the clouds. So what do you get them for their birthday or for their graduation present? Don’t worry, we’ve got a few ideas to keep you covered.

 

A Book of Writing Prompts

Every writer uses writing prompts to help get their creativity going, so what better present to get them than a book choc full of them? There’s plenty in The Write-Brain Workbook, with great variety for different moods. Go on, have a look…

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A Magazine Subscription

Not just to any magazine, to the magazine; The Writing Magazine. It’s a must-have for all writers, full of writing tips and competitions to enter. It doesn’t have to be to this particular magazine, there are plenty of others out there, but I find that this one is cracking.

 

Story Cubes

These are amazing! They’re dice that you role to give you ideas for stories. I know many writers that use and collect them, and I’m sure your writer friends will find them super useful too. You can have lots of fun with them, in a group and by yourself. And, when you get bored of using the same set of dice, there are plenty of Story Cube expansion packs that you can buy.

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A Poetry Card

You might remember that a few weeks ago we reviewed a poetry pamphlet by the wonderful Candlestick Press. They make great substitutes for birthday cards, and with the variety of topics available there’s something for every writer. You can take a look at them here…

 

An Editing Gift Card

For a writer to submit their work to competitions and literary agents, and even publishing companies, they need to have their work edited. We offer gift cards that you can give to them to help pay towards their editing services. Take a look at them here. They’re available in different designs and at different prices.

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A Novel Writing Book

Writing a novel is hard, but this book here, Ready, Set, Novel!, is great for helping to plan the plot along with the characters. It’s a must-have for every writer, and your friend will love you forever for getting it for them. Don’t believe me? Take a look at it and see what you think…

 

A Novel Poster

These make A M A Z I N G presents! If you know your friend’s favourite classic novel, buy them a poster of it. These posters have the entire novel written on them, really small, shaped in an image relating to the book. I love this one of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea! You can read every word on it, so it’s like buying them a book that they can frame and put on their wall.

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Hopefully we’ve given you an idea or two on what to get your writer friend for their special event. Tell us in the comments below the best present you’ve ever been given as a writer to give us more ideas!

Writing A Romance

Towards the start, when we first started writing our blog, we wrote a post on how to structure your novel. This novel plan works perfectly fine for every genre, whether that’s fantasy, crime or erotica, but if you’re writing a romance there are a few other things you might want to add…

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The First Sight

When and where do your love interests meet? Do they talk on this first meeting, or do they just see each other? What are their first impressions of each other? These are all things you’ll need to cover when talking about your soon-to-be couple meeting for the first time. I think one of my favourite examples of this type of scene is in Bridget Jones, when Bridget meets Mark Darcy for the first time. Humour is used well in this scene, through the use of dialogue and Mark’s ridiculous Christmas jumper.

The First Kiss

When do they have their first kiss, and what sort of kiss is it? Are they angry, drunk, was it accidental, or part of a game? The first kiss can help to shape how their relationship forms over the course of the novel, and you can even use it as foreshadowing for their big finale snog, or something like that.

The First Date

This scene is sort of optional, although I imagine it will pop up in your novel. What is their first date? This could be anything, from a romantic dinner to a sports game to a night in. Make it suit the characters, and choose your setting based on how the date is going to go. If you want the date to go wrong, pick a setting that will help enable the bad things to happen. Similarly, if you want this first date to be funny to the reader, pick a scene that will help add to the humour.

The OMG THEY’VE BROKEN UP Moment

This is the moment where it appears all is lost and your reader’s new favourite couple weren’t meant to be. There’s no love there anymore (for at least one of them), and it looks like there will never be love there again. Your protagonist starts to move on with their life, because the conflict that instigated the breakup seems unsolvable.

The Resolution

Would you believe it? They’ve found a way through their problems! This is your big finale, the moment your two lovers realise that they can and will be together. They’ve sorted out the conflict and they’ve declared their love for each other. There’s a commitment between them, whether that’s an engagement, a promise to be monogamous or just a lot of sex. This. Is. It.

 

So there they are, the super important extra scenes you should be including in your romance novel. Happy writing!

 

Jargon Buster 2

Whenever talking about writing here at The Writers’ Den we tend to use a lot of jargon. These specialist, writing specific words help us to explain what we mean in the best way possible, and without them our posts wouldn’t make much sense. A lot of you are beginner writers though, and might not know some of these words, so here’s a list of some writing terminology and their definitions.

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Archetype: A typical example of something.

Audience: The intended readers of a writer’s work.

Backstory: The story of what happens before your novel begins.

Cliché: An expression that has been overused.

Exposition: A direct way of giving readers information that is needed for the story to make sense.

Denouement: The final part of a story, in which everything is pulled together and explained/resolved.

Dystopian Fiction: This genre is often categorised within fantasy and science fiction, and explores social and political constructs in a darker world similar to our own.

Foreshadowing: Hints that are left early on in a story to give clues to an important event that will occur later on.

Head-Hopping: This is where numerous points of views are told in one scene. This can be very hard to achieve well.

Hyperbole: A deliberate exaggeration.

Imagery: The use of language to create an image that appeals to the senses.

Indie Author: A writer who has chosen to to have complete control over the production of their books.

Premise: A one sentence story of what your novel is about.

Proofreader: Someone who checks a manuscript for spelling and grammatical mistakes.

Show Don’t Tell: A way of giving readers information that is needed for the story in an indirect way, by showing things through actions, senses or feelings rather than just saying it.

Tone: The writer’s attitude that comes across through their writing.

Has this post helped you to expand your writing vocab? If there’s any other writing jargon you can’t quite get your head around, let us know in the comments below and we’ll include it in our next jargon busting post.

Writing For Young Children

There’s a common idea amongst many people that writing for children is easy. This isn’t true. In some ways writing for young children can be harder than writing for adults, as things like word choice require a lot more thought. Still, there are always tips to give for all types of writing, so here are ours for writing for young children.

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Decide on a reading age

As children work their way through primary school they very rapidly expand on their reading knowledge. One year they’ll be stuck on simple sentence and the next they’ll be more than happy to use compound sentences. This means you’ll really need to know your target audience before you write. If you’re not 100% sure on what words are best for your audience, buy a literacy teaching exercise book for your age group and have a look at what words are suggested in those.

Make it a challenge

Books should challenge children, as it’s this slight difficulty that helps them to expand their vocabulary. Use a few words in the book that are a little above their reading age but that can still be sounded out. This way they’ll either be able to guess what the word means by the context or they’ll ask a parent or teacher. Don’t make these few extra words too advanced or too frequent though; you don’t want to put them off reading.

Make it aspirational

For children, a lot of their time is spent thinking about what it’s like to be older, whether that’s being year six and sitting on the benches in assembly or year three and being in a different section of the playground. Similarly, your books for six year olds shouldn’t have children of that age as the protagonist. The protagonist should always be a couple of years older so your readers can aspire to be like them.

Think in threes

This is best for books written for really young children, but in theory it works well for all readerships. Think of fairy tales; there are the three little pigs, the three billy goats gruff, the three wishes, everything is in threes. This is because they provide a pattern for the children without dragging the story out too much.

Use repetition

Repetition is a great way to make children’s books interactive. I remember We’re Going on a Bear Hunt was my favourite book as a child because I loved joining in with the repeated bits. Not only does this repetition make the reading fun (and so encouraging children to read more), it also helps children to recognise and learn the words on the page.

 

These seem like pretty simple tips, I know, but follow them and you’ve got the makings of a great children’s story. If you’re ever stuck just think back to when you were younger and take a good look at your favourite book then. What made you love it so much? Chances are, the reason you loved that book will be the reason your readers love yours.

A Short Guide To Dialogue

Every novel requires dialogue, and wouldn’t be as exciting to read without it. Used well, it can bring tension and action to a story, as well as helping to let readers know what different characters are thinking and feeling. Getting it right can be pretty tricky, so here’s a few tips to help you out.

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It’s never perfect

…so don’t try to make it so. People never have a conversation where every question is answered and every word is heard and reacted to; it just doesn’t happen. Often, people will answer a question with another question, or they will complete ignore it and talk about something else. Not doing this and instead making everything perfect is unrealistic and won’t sit well with your readers. I feel that this is especially important when it comes to police interviews. The interviewee will most definitely not answer every question, and will often change the subject to talk about something or someone else. They might even just ask for a drink.

Think of people’s feelings

The undertones of text are just as important, if not more important, than what is being explicitly said. You want your character to let her friend now she loves her. That’s great, we all love a good romantic confession. However, you don’t have to outright say that. Do you really think a girl is going to just stand there and say ‘hey, I love you’ to her best friend? No. It’s much more difficult, and you have to capture that. Instead she’d probably go on about the little things that made her fall in love, and from these we can guess, and so can her friend, what she’s getting at.

People exaggerate

People exaggerate things, so even if your reader knows that the tiger your protagonist fought was just out of its mother’s womb, the protagonist is much more likely to describe it to their friends as the biggest tiger they’ve ever seen. It may seem silly including little things like this in your work, but it’s something that will make your dialogue more realistic and will bring your characters to life. And your exaggerations don’t have to be this wild. It could be something as simple as elaborating on how happy or angry someone was to them.

Don’t overuse punctuation!

See? Seriously, just don’t. The more you use an exclamation mark, the less impact it has when it really matters. And anyway, I doubt your characters really do shout that much, so why make it look like they are? The only punctuation marks that should show up really often are full stops, commas and question marks. Everything else, save for special occasions. Similarly, make sure you use ellipses (…) and hyphens (-) correctly. Use ellipses to show where someone is trailing off at the end of a sentence, and use a hyphen to show that they have been interrupted.

Don’t cram

There’s a lot of information crucial to your story that you want to get across during speech, we get that, but is it realistic that your character would sit and say all of this to someone in one monologue? If not, find another way to get the information across, whether it’s two different people taking it in turns telling bits or just that part of it is written on paper for people to see instead. Make sure you only get the essentials across in the actual dialogue, and tell us the rest in a different way.

 

If you follow these five simple tips, your dialogue could improve massively. The main thing though is to read back through any dialogue you’ve written with a friend. If anything feels unnatural to you, or it sounds forced or unlikely, change it so it feels right. Dialogue can be a very useful tool to a writer if used correctly, so make sure you get it spot on.