Visiting Minster Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire, England

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


Minster Lovell Hall with St. Kenelm’s Church to the left

As usual in the summer, my family and I are in Oxford, where I ensconce myself in the Bodleian Library and research my books. It’s been a rainy summer, in stark contrast to last month’s frying heat of Lanzarote, and so we haven’t been able to get out and about much. Good for my wordcount, bad for my travel addiction.

So when the clouds finally broke last weekend we rushed out onto an easy six-mile country ramble along the River Windrush to visit Minster Lovell Hall, a 15th century manor house set in the lovely English countryside.

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How to Make Your Academic History Book Approachable to the Educated Lay Reader

Thursday, August 10th, 2017 | Posted by M Harold Page


A good proportion of exponents of German longsword might have bought this.

Greetings academic editors, writers and publishers! I am an educated lay reader of academic history books.

I hear academic publishing is… differently profitable at the moment, so perhaps you want to have a think about how to engage more people like me.

Really there must be a lot of us — people who want to get at the detail, the evidence, the debate, and so find ourselves buying weighty academic tomes.

We’re military history buffs who want to get into not just of equipment and tactics, but logistics and administration and sooner or later get dragged into context.  You can’t, for example, be fascinated by Count Belisarius without wanting to know more about Byzantine History. Take a look at Osprey, an entire publisher devoted to satisfying that need !

We’re architectural history hobbyists — people who tick off castles and great houses the way twitchers do rare birds — who want to put flesh on the crumbling bones of some corners of history not covered by reliable mass market books. And we’re local historians trying to make sense of musty documents, mounds in fields, and half forgotten traditions.

We’re also Historical Reenactors looking for very specific information on how things were or might have been. We’re Historical European Martial Artists (yes, HEMA is a thing! Modern people do study Medieval Martial Arts!),  looking to contextualise the original martial arts manuals around which our lives revolve.

And we’re writers, looking for inspiration, or just building a storyworld for our characters to inhabit.

Many Black Gate readers must fall into at least one of these categories, and we sometimes get a million hits a month…

I am, of course, all of the above with the exception of “local historian” (since all of western history is my backyard). I’m also a former technical author — conveying technical information to novices used to be my trade — and an author who thinks about writing. So it might be worth your while — O mighty academic editor, writer or publisher! — to hear what I have to say.

Upfront, you don’t need to dumb down or jazz up. The whole point of academic books is that they are academic! Rather you need to stop shooting yourself in the collective feet. Working from the outside in, here’s how…

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Why isn’t Conan a Mary Sue?

Thursday, July 13th, 2017 | Posted by M Harold Page

Conan Rogues in the House-smallHow is Conan not a Mary Sue?

The barbarian is pretty obviously Robert E Howard’s authorial self-projection into the Hyborian Age. Big, bellicose and amoral, but honourable and never mean. He’s mighty-thewed death on two legs, women fall into his arms, kingdoms fall at his feet. He male bonds when he falls into good company, and despite being a barbarian fish out of civilised water, he commands the loyalty of his men and the respect of those nobles worthy of respect.

He’s everything Robert E Howard was and wasn’t and might have been had the big Texan lived long enough to fight in WWII. (Imagine Howard as a veteran of Iwo Jima, and the great literature he would have written…)

Really, how is he not a Mary Sue? (He certainly fails a Mary Sue test)

And yet, Conan survived the oh-so-ironic later 20th century. One whiff of Thrud should consigned him to the company of Captain Future and Doc Savage: The emperor barbarian has no clothes on! He even weathered Terry Pratchett’s slash and burn through the genre.

Was it just that Howard invented Sword and Sorcery?

No. Conan’s literary longevity is more than just about being first with sandals on the ground.

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The Piracy Museum in Lanzarote, Canary Islands

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


Last summer I went to visit some of my in-laws and the World’s Coolest Nephew in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, and disappointed our dear editor John O’Neill by missing the Piracy Museum.

Well, I just got back from another trip to Lanzarote, and this time I made it there! The Piracy Museum is housed in the 15th century Castillo de Santa Barbara and is a delightfully cheesy tourist trap. You get cardboard cutouts of pirates, a mock up of a ship complete with a cabin boy taking a dump, televisions playing old pirate movies, and of course a big Jolly Roger. You even get a bit of history.

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When Fantasy and Theology Collide: Some Thoughts on Satan

Monday, June 19th, 2017 | Posted by Nick Ozment

Lord_of_DarknessI recently met a woman whose father-in-law had been a federal prison guard at a medical prison that held the “Blind Sheikh” back around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attack. The Blind Sheikh (Omar Abdel-Rahman) was an associate of Osama bin Laden and the planner behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — one of the early “masterminds” of Al Qaeda. In other words, a real life counterpart to the nastiest, most nefarious villains in our fictional thriller novels and cinema fare.

She told me that her dad-in-law spoke to the Sheikh a couple times, as could be expected: casual banter will occasionally happen between guards and the imprisoned criminals they are guarding. She said the Sheikh seemed friendly enough to her father-in-law, but she added, “The Sheikh told him that we worship three gods. That was a big issue he had with us, that we worship three gods. So much of it was cultural misunderstanding.”

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The 33% Mark: When it’s OK to Stop Drafting Go Back and Edit

Friday, June 9th, 2017 | Posted by M Harold Page

"Ticket to the last station!"

“Ticket to the last station!”

When you’re writing that first draft, standard advice is: Don’t go back to edit!

Make like Omar Khayyám:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Or if you prefer, Guderian:

Ticket to the last station.

Yes, the ideal first draft is a blitzkrieg: rampage onward with the story, ignore pockets of resistance, you can catch them on the second draft.

However, you are neither a medieval Persian ruminating on life, nor a Panzer general.  For all we like to skin it with the aesthetic or the macho, writing is its own activity. The truth, so I’ve learned, is more complex.

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Worldbuilding a “Star Punk” Future #2: Post-Certainty Society in Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s Peace

Friday, May 5th, 2017 | Posted by M Harold Page

Vatta Cold Welcome

…could be a superior Traveller campaign

Go on a Traveller RPG forum and ask for book recommendations, and somebody will suggest Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series — a series that has just spawned a rather good sequel, Vatta’s Peace.

The Vatta books are, of course, a really good read. They’re gritty and realistic — it helps that Moon’s ex-military. They’re also fast-paced and well-written, they have vivid characters you enjoy hanging out with, and a strong female protagonist (or two). The same can be said of her other big SF series, affectionately known among my friends as “Scary Horse Aunts In Space” (*) but it’s the Vatta books that come up because they feel a lot like Traveller, meaning they fit my definition of Star Punk:

Set in [a] spacefaring civilization… where… technology has somehow failed to eliminate the human element, where you still need a human to pull the trigger or pilot the scout ship, and where nanotechnology, 3D-printing and vertical farms have neither eliminated trade, nor ushered in a crime-free post scarcity society. They all involve individuals or companions — adventurers, traders, investigators, contractors — pursuing goals of only local significance. (*)

Except for not being an ensemble piece, the series really could be a superior Traveller campaign! It even kicks off with Ky operating as a free trader having left Naval Academy due to a scandal — did somebody fail her survival roll during character generation? It expands to encompass family corporations, commercial espionage, romance, family drama, conspiracy, politics, atrocity, piracy and ultimately set-piece space battles.

However, it rarely loses sight of the business of space travel. Our intrepid hero must deal with crew, repairs, finance, quirky local custom, in addition to the issues around using a civilian ship in armed conflict against pirates and other enemies… this is like a story from the 1970s, but with a tighter plot, modern diversity and values, and much better writing.

The setting — the worldbuilding — is also very Traveller-like in that the technology is limited in such a manner as to create a near-future-but in spaaace feel. Moon achieves this mostly by deploying the third of the options identified in the my last article: she turns the technology against itself.

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The Queens’ Pyramids at Giza

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The pyramid of Menkaure (2532-2504 BC) and
its three Queens’ Pyramids, looking east

We’ve all seen the pictures. Tucked beside the massive pyramids at Giza are a few little pyramids. They are generally described in one line as the “Queens’ Pyramids” or “satellite pyramids” and not mentioned any further. They seem like such an afterthought to the awe-inspiring pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, not to mention the Sphinx, that they get all but forgotten. But why were these monuments built? And who were they for?

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Worldbuilding a “Star Punk” Future

Friday, April 28th, 2017 | Posted by M Harold Page

Star Punk?

Star Punk?

You know the genre I mean. It’s the one that takes in Firefly, Dumarest… it’s Space Opera’s Sword & Sorcery. It’s Han Solo: The Early Years or Indiana Jones does Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, or Almost Any Clint Eastwood Movie Ever But In Space. It’s what Traveller RPG supports in all its incarnations

It doesn’t have a name, so I’ve taken to calling it “Star Punk.” Here’s how I  tried to define it in my guest post for uber SF meister Charles Stross:

They are all set in spacefaring civilizations where technology has somehow — with an authorial handwave — and my handwave is particularly cunning and internally consistent — failed to eliminate the human element, where you still need a human to pull the trigger or pilot the scout ship, and where nanotechnology, 3D-printing and vertical farms have neither eliminated trade, nor ushered in a crime-free post scarcity society. They all involve individuals or companions — adventurers, traders, investigators, contractors — pursuing goals of only local significance.

In other words, they could all be transcripts of particularly good Traveller campaigns.

Writing Star Punk, as I discovered when I started planning The Wreck of the Marissa, poses certain worldbuilding problems. (And, yes in this case, I really mean “universe building” but worldbuilding now has a specific technical meaning for writers and other creatives.)

The issue is this bit: where you still need a human to pull the trigger or pilot the scout ship, and where nanotechnology, 3D-printing and vertical farms have neither eliminated trade, nor ushered in a crime-free post scarcity society.

In a nutshell, any realistic starfaring future is unlikely to be like this. In fact, our technology is already breaking the Star Punk future.

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My Favorite Game: Mount and Blade/Warband – Part One

Sunday, April 9th, 2017 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Mount and Blade banner

I have spent a lot of hours on a lot of different PC/video games over the years – mostly of the fantasy/RPG variety (though Out of the Park Baseball is my favorite simulation game). And from Temple of Apshai to Dungeon Master to Baldur’s Gate to Age of Conan, I’ve quite enjoyed them. But Mount and Blade (and the stand alone expansion, Mount and Blade: Warband) holds a unique spot for me and several years after last playing it, I’m in up to my elbows again.

I spent my first round playing the original, Mount and Blade (M&B). Now, I’m playing Warband. There are some gameplay differences, the most prominent being that the latter includes multiplayer. However, I have never tried that option and don’t plan on doing so. Mount and Blade and Warband are overall, quite similar and I’ll be using the phrases interchangeably, distinguishing between versions when relevant.

The Game

M&B is a combination first person combat and strategy wargame, with some role playing elements. It is a sandbox, without a storyline. The latter is both a strength and a weakness. You create a character, form a band of troops and roam around the land, solving unrelated quests, fighting enemies and either serving a liege or carving out your own kingdom (creating your own Faction was a Warband addition). You won’t survive long if you don’t build a strong war band, and recruiting, commanding and building up your troops is really the heart of the game.

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