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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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.

Creating Fantastical Creatures

The most amount of fun you’ll have being a fantasy and science fiction writer is making up your own creatures and supernatural attributes. You get to take your idea and turn it into a living monster that will haunt your pages and make your story magical for everyone that reads it. Creating them can be pretty hard though, especially when it comes to originality, so here’s a few tips on how to get started.

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Base them on others

Don’t be scared to base your new creature on one that already exists. If you were really into Greek mythology as a child, it’s perfectly okay to start your creation off with the image of a minotaur at it’s heart. Starting with something that you already have a strong idea of means you’ve got something to build on and make your own. It’s not copying or unoriginality, it’s having the courage to build on what other great writers have started. You don’t have to start with an already fictional creature; using an animal as your base works just fine too.

Make it fun

One of my favourite ways of making a new creature is by picking attributes out of bowls and mushing them together to shape something new. What I do is create multiple lists. One would be of powers, another colours, another of body shapes and another of weaknesses (you can add more if you like, but this is generally enough to get me started). I then cut each individual item from each list up, fold them into tiny pieces and put them in bowls that match the category. After that, it’s just down to picking one piece of paper from each bowl until I’ve created a creature I’m really happy with. It’s a fun way of creating something new, and also gives you some writing prompt material for other stories.

How do they get around?

How your creature moves from A to B can really make a difference when it comes to writing your story. If they’re just going to walk you’re going to need to make sure they have bodies suited for walking. This is the same for flying or driving, for everything really. Alternatively, you could give them an ability like teleportation or super speed that helps them move from place to place in a less conventional way. Doing this means you don’t have to shape the creature’s look around their travel. Whatever you do with it though, make it suit the character. If your character is someone that wows crowds and has an air of power about them, make their form of transportation quite showy. Similarly, if they’re a character that goes bump in the night, make them move in a way that will put your readers on edge.

What do they eat?

It’s a bit of a daft question really, and it’s something that might not even come up in your story, but knowing what your creature eats can change who they are or how you portray them. It can also be great for adding humour to your story, or horror if you’d prefer. For example, a small, fluffy kitten with teleportation abilities and big eyes would be cute to a reader, until on one page it’s seen to eat the souls out of baby elephants. Doing something like this gives another dimension to an otherwise flat character and can help to shape your story.

How do they fit into their world?

This won’t apply to all of you, but for those of you setting your fantasy story in the world we live in you need to decide how you can get your creature to fit in. If you’re writing in this reality, we’d surely notice if huge, hairy ogres are walking around Liverpool on a Friday lunchtime. To counter this you would need to think of a way for these creatures to fit in, whether it’s a visual camouflage device, invisibility or shape shifting abilities. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer here. What made it truly terrifying was that the vampires looked just like humans until they came to feed, then their shapes would contort back into their natural form. It worked great to scare watchers as it was realistic and terrifying.

 

There’s just a few tips for when you’re creating your fantasy character. Most of all though, just enjoy doing it. Creating your own monster is so, so fun and can really help your imagination strengthen. And when you’ve decided on what your creature will look like and do, try drawing or painting them. Sure, you might not be a top artist, but making the character into something you can look at will help you to write them better and develop them into something you’re truly proud of.

Book Review: The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2, edited by Teika Bellamy

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 is a collection of short stories written by various writers on the theme of mythology and fairy tales. Published by Mother’s Milk Books, a Nottingham based publishing company, it’s a creative triumph that really shows off the talent of emerging and established writers.

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The collection is a great read, I think especially for fans of mythology and fantasy. Unfortunately though, it’s the weakest story in the collection that serves as our first taste. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent story, but to me it lacked the originality and flair that the other stories are brimming with. It seemed to fall flat at the end, with no clear conclusion or resolution, resulting in the feeling that the story has just been cut off. I imagine if this story were in the middle of the collection I wouldn’t have noticed these small flaws, but I always hold the first story of an anthology to a very high standard as it’s that piece that will make me decide whether to read on or not. It’s a shame that this one didn’t quite hit the mark, but nonetheless I read on and the rest more than made up for it.

My favourite story in the collection is The Jungle Goddess, written by Anuradha Gupta. I love the exotic setting that stands out amongst the dull English background of the other stories. It’s vibrant and refreshing, with a spark of energy that brings the tale to life. Gupta has written the story in the present tense, and whilst it’s very unusual it’s done so well that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

The drummers drop their sticks and a silence falls over the crowd. Men and women, all turn to stare at the vision before them. Gungun, with her dark untamed locks tumbling down over her bare shoulders and breasts, adorned in nothing but a silver anklet, stares back absently at the blazing fire and the grey shadows that stand all around it.

The story is new and the writing is truly excellent. This extract is just a small example of the imagery and innovative writing that Gupta uses in the story. It’s a fantastic story that really shines out in the collection.

Little Lost Soul, written by Marija Smits, is very different to the other stories in the collection, mainly because of the writing style. I find Smits’ writing to be very literary and of a high quality that could easily produce the next Penguin Classic. It’s hard to find the right words to describe it. I guess the closest I can think of is to compare it to the writing of Philip K. Dick. For me, it resembled his writing very much, with its industrial, futuristic setting and amazing writing. I look forward to reading more of Smits’ work in the future.

Lilasette is a story that for me really embodies the spirit of the publishing company, whilst giving us a true fairy tale. It has a great evil queen that steals her servant’s newborn baby so that she can have a daughter to shape into her own image. Despite not being a main character, it’s the servant who really stands out in this story. Her empowerment is to be admired and she really helps to shape the story into something that reminds you of why mothers are so important.

It’s also worth giving Ana Salote’s story a quick mention. Her fairy tale twists what we know and gives us a refreshing take on a fairy. I think it is great writing and I really enjoyed the 21st Century, slightly gritty realism of the story. The title Grimm Reality is very well chosen, and embodies Salote’s writing style.

On the whole the book is very well put together. It’s a good collection of varying stories and has been edited and produced very professionally. I was a bit disappointed to see that the same fairy tale has been used twice in the book. Up until the very last story I was really impressed that I hadn’t come across any obvious repetitions, but the last one was a little too similar to the first for me. However, the editor clearly recognised the similarity as they’ve started and ended the collection with these two pieces. If you can’t avoid a repeat, embracing it like this is the best way to do it.

The real highlight of the book is the illustrations. I don’t know where Teika Bellamy found Emma Howitt but she’s the silent shining star in the book. Howitt’s illustrations are beautiful and intricate and really help to bring each story to life. I hope more people take notice of her work, because it’s so beautiful that it deserves to be scattered across books everywhere.

 

Overall this book really is worth a read. I loved the stories, especially the modernised ones, and felt that they all slotted in well with each other. Having not read The Forgotten and the Fantastical 1 I can’t really compare the two, but if that one is anything like this one it’s most definitely worth a read. Full of fairy tales for adults brimming with truly fantastical characters, this collection belongs on everyone’s bookshelves.