Advance booking

A short story that came to me – first I imagined the problem, and then worked out the solution

© 2020, Hugh Ashton

You get all sorts in this business. You get the ones who come in all dressed in black because they think it’s expected of them. You can tell pretty quickly what their interest in the dear departed is as soon as you start to discuss the cost of the funeral with them.

“Oh, I don’t think he’d have wanted anything fancy. Just plain and simple would be more appropriate.” Well, when you translate that and quietly dig down to the truth, you can often be sure that they’re looking to get everything they can out of the estate and not spend the money on the funeral. However, sometimes you can tell they really can’t afford anything better – there just isn’t the money. So in those cases I generally manage to either cut a bit off the price or upgrade them a bit for free. There’s some in this business who really gouge their customers, but there’s no way I’m going to do that.  Maybe these poor souls get a slightly better coffin than the one they paid for, or I accidentally on purpose leave the cost of the dry ice off the final invoice. Why not, after all?

And then there’s the ones who breeze in, and order things as though they really couldn’t be bothered with little details like price and what the whole thing is going to come to at the end of the day. I won’t say “more money than sense”, but it does seem that way sometimes, especially when they obviously don’t actually have a lot of money to spend. Believe it or not, I try to talk them into the less expensive options, but no, “nothing but the best for her/him” is the phrase I hear most of the time. Guilt, I reckon. They’ve neglected Nan or Granddad in her or his lifetime, and now they think that a big shiny coffin with brass handles, and heaps of expensive flowers are ways they can make up for all the affection that they failed to show when he or she was alive.

And the worst is when the whole family turns up – Uncle Tom Cobbley and all – and they find that they can’t agree on anything. “She always loved roses.” “No she didn’t, she liked carnations better.” “I always thought she liked lilies of the valley”. And then we have the endless arguments about what was their favourite music or song that’s going to be played at the funeral. They go on for ever. Spare me.

But those are everyday customers – you get used to them. Let me tell you about the really weird one I had recently. Small, elderly man. Fringe of white hair, mild-looking face. He was wearing an overcoat and a scarf wrapped around his neck, and when he took it off, I saw the dog-collar.

Well, priests are usually some of the easiest to deal with. They’ve got the experience, and they’ve got faith. They can cope with things rationally, but they’re not unemotional about it.

“I want to book a funeral,” he said.

Well, that’s a funny way to put it, but yes, we do operate a pre-paid plan so that there are no nasty surprises for those left behind when the sad day comes. So I get out the leaflets to explain how much and when and how it all works, and he waved them away.

“No, no,” he told me. “That’s not what I mean at all. I want to book a funeral for a particular date.”

“Oh, I see. And when is this to be?”

He pulled a little black notebook out of a small briefcase he had with him, and turned to a page that he’d marked by turning down a corner. “October 28.”

“But that’s only two days away.”

“No, no,” he said again, shaking his head. “October 28 next year. It’s a Thursday. Not one of my busy days. You are able to do it then, aren’t you?”

I didn’t have to look in my diary to check. No one, but no one, books their funeral a year in advance. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “Yes, we are free, but…”

“It’s my wife, you see,” he told me, as if that explained everything. “I think it should be a cremation rather than a burial,” taking it for granted that ordering your wife’s funeral over a year in advance was a perfectly usual way of going on. “Quite a simple affair. I am guessing that I will be the only one attending.”

At this point, I felt I was dealing with someone who wasn’t all there. Some clergymen are a bit like that. My mother used to tell the story of her vicar who always removed his trousers when he put on his cassock, and occasionally forgot to replace them when he took off the cassock and joined his parishioners after the service. Either I was dealing with one of those, or perhaps there was something more sinister. In any case, I thought it was a good idea to get his name and address so that I could pass it on to the relevant authorities; police, hospital or whatever seemed appropriate.

So I went through the procedure of starting to fill out our standard form, which gave me all of that, plus telephone numbers and an email address.

“And when would you like us to collect her from this address on the form?” I asked. “That’s where she is?”

“No, no, no. Not at all. I’ll have her delivered here, if it’s all the same to you.”

Now that’s weird. Hospitals don’t deliver the departed to us. We always have to go and fetch them. And in any case, what was all this about having the funeral in a year’s time? I changed the subject a little.

“Can you tell me the cause of her death?”

He caught, shuffled his feet, and turned a little red, clearly embarrassed. “Well, she’s not really what you might call dead,” he muttered.

By now I was sure that I had either a lunatic or a potential murderer on my hands. “I’m just going to have to check a few details,” I told him. “Please take a seat there. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

In the back room, I dialled the police station. “Yes, it’s Harrisons, the undertaker’s. Look, I’ve got a man here, the Reverend Edmund Philpotts, says he wants to book his wife’s funeral a year from now, and she’s not even dead. Can you send someone round to talk to him and find out what he’s on about? There’s something really odd going on. Thanks. Five minutes? That’s good of you. Ta.”

I put the phone down and went back to the Reverend Philpotts, who seemed to be engrossed in a florist’s catalogue.

“Everything all right?” he asked, looking up from a page of gaudy chrysanthemums.

Well, no, it bloody well wasn’t all right, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “I’m just waiting for someone,” I said.

He didn’t seem particularly bothered, but kept looking, tutting and shaking his head at some of the more flamboyant and tasteless (in my opinion, as well as his, anyway) offerings in the catalogue. Perhaps he shared my feelings about human vanity when it comes to this sort of thing.

Sergeant Timmins pushed open the door and came in. Decent sort of man, known around the place as someone who gets on with everyone, as long as they’re on the right side of the law. If they weren’t, that’s a slightly different matter. There were stories. Anyway, we’d played in the same cricket team when we were both younger, and still kept up a sort of friendship.

“Morning, Mike. Problems?” he asked me. “They didn’t tell me that much about it over the radio when they sent me here.”

“Not really problems as such, Ted, but I’d like the Reverend here to tell you what he wants and why.”

Philpotts looked up from his study of floral arrangements, seemingly surprised at seeing a police officer in uniform standing in front of him. “Why, are the police interested in what I am doing?” He frowned a little, seemingly in thought, and then a broad smile spread across his face. “Oh my goodness! You thought… Oh my Lord!” He started to laugh.

“Perhaps you’d like to share the joke, sir?” Timmins said.

“Well, let me tell you what I think you are thinking. I come in here, I want to reserve a time for a funeral for my wife a year from now, I tell you that you won’t be picking up my wife, but she’ll be delivered here. And then I tell you that she’s not really dead. So you,” and he pointed a finger at me, “think that I have plans to murder my wife a year from now somewhere secret and that I will arrange for persons unknown to drop off her body to you. Correct?” He looked up at us, smiling innocently.

“Thoughts like that had crossed my mind,” I admitted.

Sergeant Timmins looked bemused. “Perhaps you’d be good enough to tell us why this isn’t the case.”

Philpotts’ smile disappeared, and his face became serious. “My wife suffered from a rather rare form of bone cancer. There was no cure at the time, and still isn’t, though there have been some promising developments. Ten years ago, she fell into a coma, and after a few tragic months, she was pronounced dead. She and I had discussed her future before she slipped into oblivion. She wanted to be placed in what she called a “frozen sleep” in the hope that she could be awakened and cured in the future. As a Christian priest, I have faith that the dead shall be raised, but this went a little against my principles. However… this was her wish, and I had made all the necessary arrangements before she was pronounced dead.” He stopped, took a large handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. “She now lies in what they call a ‘storage facility’ on the other side of Birmingham. It costs a considerable amount of money for her to be there, and next year will be the last year I can afford to pay the fees. The contract ends on the 24th of October next year. After that time, they have informed me that they can no longer keep her there. I assumed four days would be sufficient time to make the preparation for a funeral when she can finally be committed to rest, so I chose the 28th as the date for her cremation. I trust that makes things clear?” He looked at Timmins and me hopefully. “I have all the paperwork, certificates, everything, here in this bag,” patting his small briefcase.

Sergeant Timmins and I looked at each other. We shrugged. In unison.

“I don’t think I’m needed here,” said Timmins, turning towards the door. “I’ll be seeing you in the Bull some evening soon, I hope, Mike,” he said to me. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss, Reverend. I hope someone takes as good care of me when it’s my turn.”

“Thank you, sergeant,” Philpotts replied.

“So,” I said to my customer when the door had closed behind Timmins. “A cremation next year on 28 October. Let’s fill in a few more details. What time do you want the service?”

-oOo-

Comments welcome…

The Other Side of the Sky

Having delivered La Lucia for production and pre-order, I am now busily engaged on something quite a bit longer.

This book, provisionally entitled The Other Side of the Sky, is set in the Midlands (largely in Lichfield) in the 1770s. It is a time of great discoveries in many fields: what we now call chemistry, physics, geology, anatomy and medicine, zoology and botany. 

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Joseph Wright of Derby captures a moment of “philosophical discovery” and the reactions of various observers to a bird’s being deprived of air by means of an air-pump. The seated figure at right may represent Erasmus Darwin.

In addition, Birmingham and the surrounding villages were becoming industrialised, with such “manufactories” as Matthew Boulton’s employing many hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. In the north of Staffordshire, Josiah Wedgwood was transforming the traditional pottery business of the Stoke area.

And alongside this, in the liberal freethinking (often outright republican) world of the Lunar Society (so called because the members met at each others’ houses on the nights of the full moon – not for any esoteric or occult reasons, but because it was safer to travel at night when it was lighter) there lay some hidden beliefs – Doctor Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), pictured above, believed in alchemy as a method of attaining wisdom, and it is more than likely that the members of the Society were interested in what we would now term the paranormal, as being part of the world in which they lived.

My story is looking at the interaction between the inhabitants of the land “on the other side of the sky”, home to a non-human race, and these people of the Enlightenment. I confess that my writing is at least partly inspired by Susanna Clark’s wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it is not the same universe as hers. There is no Raven King in my history, and the laws of nature are closer to ours than in her world.

I am now about 10,000 words into what I hope will be a satisfying 70,000+ words. Wish me luck.

La Lucia

As all fans of E.F.Benson know, Mrs Emmeline Lucas, by a process of Italianisation, was universally known as “la Lucia” or simply “Lucia”.

I’ve previously written two short novellas featuring Lucia and her rival, Elizabeth Mapp, for the social leadership of Tilling, but I decided that it was time that some of her earlier adventures made their way into print.

Herewith, I present to you the introduction of La Lucia, which will be available in print and ebook formats from November 1 (make a note in your diaries).

Continue reading “La Lucia”

Signed copies now available

I now have a few paperback copies of Mapp at Fifty.  If anyone would like a signed copy, this can be arranged easily. Simply click the button here, and fill in the form, including the “Dedication”. In other words, how do you want me to sign the book?

The price of a signed copy from here is £5.99, as opposed to the recommended price of £7.49. Pay with PayPal or credit card.

But wait, there’s more…

If you would also like a copy of my collection of slightly weird tales, Unknown Quantities (more details on the Amazon page), I have a few copies here. They are going for £3.99 (Amazon £5.99).

Postage is calculated as a Large Letter (non-trackable) and may (depending on where you live) end up being as much as the book(s). Sorry. I have no control over postage rates. With the current Covid-19 pandemic, shipping times will be longer than usual. I would estimate (and this is only an estimate) that UK delivery will be about a week from posting, and European and North American about two weeks. Australia and NZ, perhaps a little longer. So please have patience. I will try to get the package in the mail the same day that I receive an order.

The postage for your order is automatically calculated for the following countries:

  • Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, UK, USA

However, if you live in a country which is not on this list, don’t order just yet. Check on the map here or use this link to check your zone. If you are in World Zone 2, then there is a default “worldwide” setting. Otherwise, please let me know through the contact form before you order, I’ll add your country to the automated pricing system and then let you know.

Screenshot_2020-04-20 Country sending guides Royal Mail

A new book! (well, not that new, really)

As my regular readers (both of you!) will know, I am working with Steve Emecz of MX publishing, and Steve White to produce audiobook versions of some of my stories.

I’ve taken one of my favourites – The Hand of Glory – and turned it into a radio/audio script, which has now been narrated by Steve White. Before it can go onto Amazon, though, apparently the text must be made available on Amazon as a book or an ebook (I don’t pretend to understand the details, or the reasoning behind them).

So, here is the script of Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Hand of Glory as a Kindle title, priced as low as possible.

Mary Devereux tells Sherlock Holmes that her stepfather has obtained the corpses of two executed criminals, and is storing them in an outbuilding of the family seat in Warwickshire. Unknown men visit the house on Friday nights, and depart mysteriously in the family carriage, driven by her stepfather, who also appears to be making significant inroads into the family fortune.
She implores Holmes to investigate, and as he and Watson explore the sleepy market town of Luckworth, they encounter dark and macabre secrets that shock them to their core. Along the way, Holmes loses his left canine tooth in the waiting-room at Charing-cross station, as mentioned in “The Adventure of the Empty House”.

For a very short taster of what is in store in the audiobook, try this:

By the way, you can look up the Hand of Glory on Wikipedia, but it might spoil the story somewhat if you don’t know it already. If you have read the story, and you want to know more, then by all means look it up – it is definitely a macabre and dark subject.

A new story – FREE download

This has been kicking around in my head for some time and to a large extent it wrote itself. I am not sure whether I’ve got it right, or whether it is depressing or uplifting – it might be seen as either.

It’s 500 words – just under – and it’s a story for these times which are currently wrenched out of joint.

In any case, it’s not going up as a page on this site, but if you want a free copy (Word DOCX format), click here. I would simply ask you to leave your thoughts and reactions as a comment here if the piece makes any impression on you.

I’ve entitled it “The Other Side of the Mirror” – which was the title of a song I once wrote and recorded with a couple of friends. It seems that the world(s) on the other side of the mirror, as in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Through the Looking-Glass, and a story by Borges, has a continued fascination for me. The cobbled-together Photoshop illustration comes close to my mental image of the story.

Bonus point (no Googling!): Where does the last sentence come from?

“Dimensions Unknown 2020: Warriors of Olympia” – John Paul Catton – Interview

John Paul Catton is a recognised force to be reckoned with in the field of Japan-based urban fantasy. I first came into contact with him some years back as a fellow-member of SWET, the Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators in Japan, and I helped produce an early edition of his alternative history, Moonlight, Murder & Machinery.

Since then, he and his imprint, Excalibur Books, have gone from strength to strength, with the next major planned release being a collection of Olympics-themed stories by a number of authors. The series was originally entitled Tales from the Unknown (as in the earlier version of a cover from the series here), but has been retitled as Dimensions Unknown.

The idea of an Olympics-themed anthology, to be published in a year when Tokyo is preparing to host the world’s athletes (though at the time of writing, this remains in some doubt) is an intriguing one, so I decided to ask a few questions about it:

Q: What’s the working title for your new Olympics anthology? How many stories and how many authors do you expect it will end up being?

A: The official title is Dimensions Unknown 2020: Warriors of Olympia. This is Volume 3 of the Dimensions Unknown series, and it will have twenty stories from eighteen talented authors, both veteran and new.

Q: How Japan-centric do you expect the collection to be?

A: About half and half. There are some stories focusing on Japan the host country, and its society and culture. Settings include both the samurai and swordplay of the Edo period, and the bizarre technology of the nation’s near future. The other stories are Alternative History stories set in previous Olympic years, such as Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984, Sydney 2000, and of course the first Tokyo Games in 1964.

Q: Do you expect the stories to have any links with each other than Olympics (characters in common, or from your other books)?

A: This is a kind of Excalibur Books Crossover event, so there will be links to other stories and characters in the “Dimensions Unknown” series and the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy. Simon Grey from Charles Kowalski’s novel “Simon Grey and the March of a Hundred Ghosts” and Hina Takamachi from Cody L Martin’s “Zero Sum Game” will be reappearing. I must stress, however, that this is designed as a stand-alone volume of short stories and novelettes that can be enjoyed without having read any other releases from Excalibur Books.

Q: Since Japan has been in Olympic hysteria mode for about six years now, there’s no need to ask about the inspiration for an Olympic anthology. But what about some “alternative Olympics”? Will there be a Yōkai Olympics, for example?

A: Not an Olympics exclusively for Yōkai, but Japan’s supernatural critters do make an appearance in Reiko Furukawa Bergman’s story. The “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy features a huge number of Yōkai as both protagonists and antagonists.

Q: Japan’s had bad luck with Olympics – the 1940 games which never were, and now there are serious doubts about the 2020 games. Almost a story in itself?

A: I wouldn’t say Japan has had bad luck, because the Tokyo 1964 Olympics was a tremendous success. It announced Japan’s return to the world as a modern, high-tech nation with an invigorated pop culture. In a wider sense, it encapsulated the “Golden Age of Modernist Science Fact and Fiction” optimism that, a few years later, was to transform into a Post-Modern pessimistic dread of approaching Apocalypse. That’s not a reflection on the Tokyo Games; it was a result of the inevitable gravitational pull of global technology and culture.

Q: And how do people submit their stories? Or are they all picked already? If any have been picked, would you like to say something about them, and a teaser about their story?

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A: We promoted the anthology guidelines for two years on social media, and the deadline closed at the end of 2019. The content is now finalized, and includes Alternative History versions of the previous Olympics mentioned. For example, there’s a Steampunk story where the modern Olympics started not in Athens 1896, but London 1860; there’s a Low-Gravity Olympics set on the Moon, in 1966; and we have a story set in 1964 Japan, which is a blend of two of the nation’s greatest film franchises – a kind of “Tora-san meets Godzilla”. Last and not least, there’s a non-fiction account of the original 1964 games, in an excerpt of J-Boys, by Shogo Oketani.

Excalibur Books has set up a Patreon to attract interest and to help pay for formatting and book cover costs. There are stories, both excerpts and full, going up on the Patreon on a weekly basis along with all kinds of bonus content, so if anyone likes the sound of this anthology then I ask them to join us on the Patreon. Let’s be positive! Whatever happens to the real-time Olympic games, we promise that this collection will be an awesome souvenir of 2020! Who wants to be part of it?

 

Lend me your ears…

There’s a very interesting development coming up soon. One of my Sherlock Holmes stories for the MX Collections, “The Holloway Ghosts” was written not in my usual first-person Watson narrative style, but as an audio play.

Steve Emecz, the publisher behind MX, had been quietly asking for some time for me to make my works available as audiobooks, a field in which MX Publishing has quietly been making significant progress.

Accordingly, the Holloway Ghosts made their way over to MX, where they have been recorded and produced by another Steve (White), and Steve W and I worked out some of the production issues (including some of my stupid errors in the script) by email until we were both happy with it.

Audio is more than just the words

As we processed the script, I discovered that there is much more to making a successful audio drama than merely the right words. It helps to have a little atmosphere in there – a ticking clock and a crackling fire summon up the atmosphere of the rooms in 221B Baker Street. The clip-clop of horses’ hoofs brings us outside into a Victorian street, and a little reverberation added to the effects and dialogue places us with Holmes and Watson in a deserted empty room.

And then there’s the voice in which the accents are spoken. Steve, without going into a ludicrous falsetto, can portray the female characters in my story. However, I had envisaged one of my characters as being much more strident, and probably not a Londoner, than Steve made her. So we changed her to be a Midlander with an attitude, and I think we’re much happier with her now.

Steve surprised me with his Lestrade, who seemed to be from Norfolk. However, once I had got over the surprise, it worked, and made a great foil to the stolid Cockney PCs who play a role in the story.

And we also had fun with Otto Sussbinder – a German character who is not all that he appears.

And next…

This is one of the problems I encountered with regard to a voice play – transitions. I could have taken the easy way out, and had Watson do a voice-over.

We left Baker Street and made our way to Holloway by cab. During the journey, Holmes informed Lestrade of his conclusions regarding the recent theft from Westmereland House.

But I felt that was cheating. Accordingly, I wrote these scenes either as dialogue, or as a spoken cue by one of the characters:

Come, let us take a cab to Holloway, and we may usefully pass the time by my informing you, Lestrade, of the conclusions I have reached regarding the Westmereland rubies.

I also found, in scenes where more than one character is present, that I needed to throw in names in order to indicate who is being addressed:

Lestrade, if you would be good enough to call one of your constables, and Watson, follow me to the rear of the house.

All very technical, but necessary to the ultimate success of the production.

So… Keep a lookout for the Holloway Ghosts – appearing soon in a little over 30 minutes of glorious  audio. And at least two more of my longer stories are on the stocks, being adapted in the same way – no descriptions – simply dialogue. It’s an exciting venture.

I’ll be writing more later, when these hit the “shelves”.

 

I’ve been away from here for a while…

The reason is that some pesky person down in London went and called a General Election, and my writing skills, such as they are, together with a reasonable amount of my time, have been harnessed to a political cart.

It’s been quite an adventure – the first General Election in which I have known “my” candidate (and one of the other candidates) personally – and I’m seeing many of the aspects of an election from the inside.

It’s been educational standing on street corners, handing out leaflets, and engaging with people whose political views differ from mine. Very little in the way of actual arguments, and most of my conversations have ended with a handshake and a “take care” from both sides.

But… it has eaten into my writing time. I make no apologies. The future of the country in which I live and hold citizenship is more important to me than my scribblings. Normal service will be resumed soon after December 12.

 

 

Halloween is coming

Unknown Quantities is now available for pre-order and will be on sale from Halloween (the paperback will also be available on that date ). However, I will be happy to send a free ebook copy (EPUB or MOBI) to the first ten people to contact me, in exchange for a review somewhere.Unknownback@1.5x

  • Bee-bee – a rag doll who helps her owner cope with life’s ups and downs
  • What you find in a skip – it can be surprising
  • Babysitter – something nasty in the Coopers’ woodshed
  • Time thieves – they steal time and dreams and energy
  • Ships in the night – “as night turned to day, he started to understand the truth”
  • Carnacki at Bunscombe Abbey – a sincere tribute to William Hope Hodgson’s classic ghost-finder
  • The story that wrote itself – sometimes an author gets help from an unexpected source
  • Gianni Two-Pricks – be careful what you take from others – even when they’re dead
  • Lady of the Dance – movement as message
  • Me and my Shadow – or is it really my shadow?
  • What Happens Afterwards? – when you die on the operating table, what’s next?

Another day, another genre…

I’ve written books in a variety of genres, but one I’ve shied away from, for no good reason, is the horror/weird genre.

However, in the Lichfield Writers, I found that quite a few of my pieces actually were at least moving in the direction of that genre, and could be put together to make a small collection. I was encouraged in this by John Linwood Grant, who has much more experience in this field, and am going ahead with the project.

UnknownbackI’ve picked out ten stories, and the 96-page book will be on sale soon. I’ve produced it as the same pocket size (4″ x 6″ or 101mm x 152mm) as the Untime paperback. It’s cute and it’s rather friendly.

The cover is still a little provisional, but I’m pretty certain that Unknown Quantities will end up looking a little like this.

The price it will go for on Amazon is £5.99 (US $6.99). I should be able to do it for much less (including p&p). If you are interested in a signed copy, please let me know, and I’ll be able to order copies for resale.

How politically correct should you be?

When writing fiction, typically I try not to offend, but I also try not to go overboard on the politically correct side. If the situation calls for it, then I use the word or phrase that the character in question would use. Likewise, “my” characters take on their own personality as I write about them, and they surprise me sometimes with what they tell me about themselves. So if a character is a “minority” – that’s just the way they are, and it was almost certainly not a conscious decision on my part.

So, as far as offensive and non-PC language is concerned, in my Balance of Powers, I have an African-American protagonist (former USMC officer). At one point, he gets called out by a white bigot, who uses the N___ word (spelled out in full in the book) and calls him “boy”. You will be happy to know that she learns her lesson. He, by the way, isn’t shy about using obscentities when he feels the situation calls for it.  For example, in another scene:

He went out of the office, and as he was about to close the door, his frustration boiled over. “And f___ you too, you cold-hearted b_____! F___ you up the a__!” he shouted at her in his loudest Marine parade-ground tones, before slamming the door shut as hard as he could. The other workers in the open-plan office leading to Allenby’s private office appeared above their cubicle dividers, like gophers popping out of their holes, with what looked like smirks on their faces. He heard a few giggles. [all obscenities spelled out in full in the book]

In Beneath Gray Skies, I had a similar problem when referring to people of colour. US Senators and Congressmen from the southern states, right up to the middle of the 20th century, used the N____ word, even when speaking on the floor of Congress. How was the Congressional Record going to record this racism? It got round it by recording the word as “Nigra”, and that’s what I ended up doing. The word is used a lot by the Southerners in the story, the Brits use the term “colored chappie” or similar (this book was written using US spelling, hence the British using “color” rather than “colour”).

Moriarty grabs hat
Moriarty Magpie snatches his hat back from Watson Mouse.

The problems can be even more subtle. When Andy Boerger and I were developing the children’s series of Sherlock Ferret books, we had to come up with a villain. Someone who was smart, and pretty nasty. Our first thoughts were of ravens and crows, and then we started to pull back a bit. These birds are all black – by creating an all-black villain here, are we demonising black people? Possibly… But then Moriarty Magpie swum into our consciousness, and we had a black and white villain, who had an alliterative name, and magpies are, after all, renowned as thieves.

PiggybackSloth
Here’s Lestrade, who is a rhinoceros (though not a very big one) giving a piggy-back ride to Doctor Solomon Sloth,

Once more in Sherlock Ferret, we had a character called Doctor Solomon Sloth. All our characters wear hats, and with the name Solomon, we seriously considered giving the good doctor a hat of the type often worn by Hasidic Jews. However, Solomon is a sloth, and spends much of his time asleep.

“It’s been a very long and exhausting day. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I will leave you and take a nap before I turn in for the night.”

If we made him obviously Jewish, would we be giving the impression that we thought Jews were lazy? Quite possibly, we thought, and changed the hat to something a little less identifiable.

But it’s not just racial PC that an author must consider – there are sexual and gender-preferential matters to be considered. Again, in Beneath Gray Skies, I use the term “queer” to describe homosexuality, that term being period-authentic. However, Balance of Powers has one (female) protagonist who is gay, and my Untime series, although related by a man, features a female character who is stronger and more intelligent than any of the male characters. But these weren’t conscious decisions – these were just the way that the characters presented themselves to me.

And as far as “bad” language is concerned, some of my characters, like some people in real life, use it a lot, and others, like others in real life, don’t.

And in the end, this is what you as an author must do, I feel – be true to the characters that you create, whether or not you like what they are or what they represent to you.