Non-fiction faves

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever seen was to read as much as you can, in as many different genres as you can find. It teaches you more about style, structuring, and characterisation than you can learn any other way – what to do, what not to do, what works for your story and what doesn’t.

Reading non-fiction can help with this as well, but I’ve found that it’s most useful for other things – ideas, worldbuilding, and backstory, for example. Reading non-fiction leads me on trains of thought that end up taking my fiction in directions I hadn’t expected. Here are some of the non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed most this year:

 

Brain on Fire by Susannah Calahan

Brain on Fire is Susannah Calahan’s account of what she describes as her ‘month of madness’ – a time when she suffered from an autoimmune brain disease that was initially misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder, then schizophrenia, then psychosis. Calahan’s in-depth, personal account of her illness is a fascinating and frightening read, reminding us just how complex the brain is and how drastically it can change in the face of an illness.

 

Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert K. Ressler

Thanks to the podcast My Favorite Murder, I’ve been on a true crime binge this year, and Whoever Fights Monsters has been the most interesting book I’ve read in a long time. Written by one of the FBI agents who set up their serial-killer profiling unit, it goes into great (and often gruesome) detail about the ways killers’ minds work, and what might be going on in the heads of the people who commit the horrific crimes Ressler describes.

 

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Another true crime read, this book is about the case of H. H. Holmes, the serial killer who built his ‘murder castle’ in Chicago in the 19th century – but it’s also an amazing account of the building and success of the Chicago World’s Fair. The positive, creative forces of the World’s Fair designers and architects are pitched perfectly against the equal but opposite ingenuity H. H. Holmes applied in his carefully-planned murders.

 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

I think I’ve written about this book before (I have nearly 150 posts on this blog, leave me alone), but The Radium Girls is a horrific, terrifying, but ultimately hopeful account of the young dial painters who suffered from radiation poisoning after ingesting large amounts of radioactive paint that their employers had told them was good for them. The women’s legal battle to get decent compensation is heartbreaking and frustrating, but their stories deserve to be heard and remembered.

 

I’ve got a load more non-fiction books lined up on my Kindle, and I can’t wait to get through them. Which non-fiction books would you recommend?

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Thought Bubble 2017

Last weekend, Team Footloose went to one of our favourite comic cons, Thought Bubble. We’ve been there a few times before, but this year was different – for one thing, the entire con had moved. Instead of being at the Royal Armouries (which is a brilliant museum, that’s well worth a visit even when it’s not full of comic fans). This year, it was in the centre of town, over a much larger area – like comics were taking over the city itself.

 

These pictures make it look like it wasn’t busy at all. Trust me, it was.

Thought Bubble is indie comics heaven, and it’s clearly going from strength to strength. It always has the best guests, and this year, one of the people invited was someone I’ve been wanting to meet for ages – Spike Trotman of Iron Circus, who’s also one of the co-hosts of the fantastic comics podcast Dirty Old Ladies. (Note to everyone who’s as silly as me – don’t google that without adding ‘podcast’ afterwards).

Spike is one of my comics heroes – she’s an amazing storyteller, artist and publisher, and she also does brilliant Twitter threads (I’ve learned so many historical facts, and lived vicariously through some playthroughs of Real Lives and Dream Dads). I got to chat to her – while nerding out completely – and she was even more awesome in real life.

As well as meeting Spike, we got to catch up with loads of the indie-comic-scene friends we’ve made over the years, and got some comicky and arty loot to take home. I’d spent most of my money on an issue of Smut Peddler, but I also got myself some stickers for my laptop, and a fantastic political zine by a fifteen-year-old author from Team Ketchup.

I absolutely love this comic. It’s yet more evidence for my ever-growing file of “kids have got it sorted and they should probably be in charge instead of us”.

The comics weren’t the only fantastic part of the convention, thought. There was also this little guy:

Yes, one of the attendees brought her skunk along. His name was Pongo, he was five months old, and he was very interested in sniffing things. He was an extremely good skunk.

Thought Bubble was exhausting, as cons always are, but we had an amazing weekend. If you’re in Leeds next autumn, go along. I can’t promise a skunk, but I know you’ll have a great time.

I saw this on the way home, so this is how I’m signing off on everything from now on.

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My Favourite Zombies

I never used to be interested in zombies. When it came to Gothic horror, I’ve always been a werewolf girl first, with vampires coming a pale second. Zombies, though? They shuffled around (or sometimes ran), and they had no strategy, no personality, and no brains – except the ones they nicked from other people.

Things changed when I read The Walking Dead comics, and it hit me – zombie stories weren’t about shuffling corpses at all. They were about how terrifying the living could be – your friends, your neighbours, even your family. You know, like every other Gothic story ever. It only took me several years to figure that one out.

Lately, I’ve been bingeing zombie stories with the same fervour that I did detective stories (and if anyone knows of a zombie detective story – apart from the one I’m about to mention – then let me know). Here are some of my favourites:

 

iZombie

So, I love detective stories and cop shows – and iZombie is a great combination of this and the zombie subgenre. It’s silly, fun fluff with compelling characters and a good, pacey mystery. It subverts the usual ‘shuffling, groaning corpse’ trope; these zombies, as long as they get a good supply of  fresh brains, are as intelligent as ordinary humans – just much more resilient, much colder, and with much slower heartbeats. And, despite its silliness, the show explores some interesting ideas about marginalisation and discrimination – summed up in a brilliant scene where a group of zombies are set upon by a crowd of angry humans.

 

Zombies Run

I love podcasts, and (much to my surprise) I love running – and I will freely admit that I got a new phone in large part to be able to play Zombies Run. And it was even better than I expected. Zombies Run has a brilliant postapocalyptic (yet strangely hopeful) story, with diverse characters and fantastic worldbuilding, and it’s helped me keep my running spark alive as I try to outpace the dead. I don’t run much faster than a zombie myself, but at least I’m saving Abel Township as I go.

 

Shaun of the Dead

I can’t believe this film now falls into the category of ‘an oldie but a goodie’ (and that I’m now older than Shaun and his mates were supposed to be and yet I somehow feel even less grown-up). Still, it doesn’t feel remotely dated, and it’s got one (or rather, two) of my favourite scenes of all time:

Shaun of the Dead is one of those films that everyone needs to see – it’s got silliness, dark humour, and heartbreaking moments in equal parts, and more references than you can shake a cricket bat at.

 

Train to Busan

I’m not sure if fast, screamy contorted people-eaters actually count as zombies, but who cares? This film is deliciously terrifying, with a claustrophobic feel that doesn’t let up for the entire duration of the story. The pace is so intense that watching it pretty much wore me out, and it did convince me that the best strategy for a zombie outbreak on a train is “hide in the toilet”.

 

The Girl With All The Gifts

I wasn’t such a fan of the film version of this story, because it skipped out so much of the interesting worldbuilding that made me love the book so much – especially the exact origins of the zombie children. The characters were fantastic in both, but the book is one of those stories that makes you want to dive in and learn as much as possible about the world (or at least, its shattered remains). I love the idea of zombieism as a weird fungal infection (which, instead of making your feet stink, turns you into a ravening monster), and, like Zombies Run, I really enjoyed the human society desperately trying to cling on to a past that they’ll never get back.

 

The zombie seems to be a monster – or a hero – that a writer can make their own, and tell in whatever way they see fit. There’s a lot of life in this genre of the dead, and I can’t wait to work through the rest of the zombie stories on my list. If anyone’s got any recommendations, post them in the comments!

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Why writers should play D&D

I suppose it was always going to happen. I love making up stories and characters, I love fantasy, and my ideal night has always been less ‘go out and dance till dawn’ and more ‘stay in with friends and a big bag of crisps’. So it was probably inevitable that I would start playing Dungeons and Dragons.

I’d done a bit of role-playing before. I was an anti-robot terrorist in a game of Paranoia (where I got killed), and a biker granny in a Mad Max Fury Road game (where I got extremely killed). But those were both short, one-shot games. I’d heard that D&D campaigns could last for years, and involved a heavy dose of both maths and homework.

When my best friend (and co-creator of Footloose) Emily Brady recommended (read: pretty much put me in a headlock until I agreed to listen to) the podcast The Adventure Zone, I was a little sceptical. All right, I knew the McElroys were funny, but again – maths and homework. How could you make a compelling podcast out of that?

As it turned out – brilliantly. The Adventure Zone is amazing, and you should listen to it right now. I binged the whole thing – three years’ worth – in a couple of months, and by the end of it, I was determined that I too would start playing D&D.

So, I put out a call to my nerdiest friends, and soon I and Emily were part of a D&D group with five other friends. We put together our characters, and I came up with one of my favourite fictional people who’s ever popped into my head – Piper Wren, a dwarven bard who’s a cheerful, innocent, happy little hipster.

 

Since said group of friends is scattered a little bit far and wide (we’re mostly within 30mins of each other, but SOMEONE – our DM – had to happen to live way up North), we play via Discord and do all of the actual game mechanics online – which has solved the maths problem brilliantly, as we use D&D Beyond and Roll20. Thanks to this, all the calculations are done by the websites, and the only homework we need to do is the fun stuff – writing character diary entries, picking new spells and new equipment, coming up with backstories, all that.

Playing D&D isn’t just fun – it’s a great hobby to have if you’re a writer. Even as you’re having fun and laughing with your friends about just how badly your party’s cunning plan has backfired, you’re training your writing muscles. It’s storytelling improv, where you have to keep your character consistent and make sure your decisions make sense in the context of the story you’re all putting together.

It also gives you the opportunity to exercise a lot of other different forms of creativity (which can often help you build back the reserves in your writing brain). Playing D&D has got me drawing again:

I’m also planning to knit a floppy, schlubby hat that my character is now canonically wearing. And perhaps a beard, too. (Yes, you can knit a beard if you’re not able to grow one yourself).

Most importantly – being creative in a team with other people is a necessary break, or respite, or something, from being creative on your own. Writing can be really solitary work, and, like drawing or knitting, putting a story together with a group of people can help you get out of a rut, build those idea reserves back up, and then go back to whatever you’re working on feeling fresher and more excited than before.

D&D has been even more fun than I thought it’d be, and I can’t wait to play my next round. I think that, next, we’re off on the trail of some dragons…

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In Troubled Times

It’s been another while since I’ve blogged – partly because I’ve been moving house and that takes All The Time, and partly because the world is nothing but emotionally draining at the moment. The horrific events in Charlottesville and Barcelona are only the latest in the wave of terrible WTFery that 2016-17 have brought the world.

It has been hard to keep pushing forward, and I don’t have any solutions right now. But I do have a few reading suggestions that might help you gather your strength and wade back into the fight.

 

Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide

The excellent anti-hate group Southern Poverty Law Centre published a guide to ways to help in the face of actual Nazis marching the streets. If you’re feeling powerless, this is an important and inspiring read.

 

The Hate U Give

It is not even a small exaggeration to say that this is one of the most important books published so far in the 21st century. Angie Thomas’ Black Lives Matter-inspired story is essential reading.

 

The Good Immigrant

An anthology by some absolutely fantastic writers, this book explores racism, Othering, and other issues that have played an enormous role in the world going to hell.

 

Things are exhausting at the moment, but whether your actions are big or small, whether you’re marching or lobbying or just listening to marginalised people who are being harmed by far-right bigotry, they count. Don’t give up.

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My Fave Female Villains

Sorry for the radio silence throughout July – a combination of work and moving house (more on that later) has kicked my arse, and I’ve spent most of the past month too exhausted to focus on anything beyond “carry box from here to there”. It hasn’t left much time or energy for blogging.

Hopefully, though, the busy period is out of the way – and at least I’ve had a chance to catch up on my books, TV shows and podcasts over the past month. I’ve also been thinking (although no more than usual) about female characters, and particularly female villains.

Female villains often get the short straw, at least compared to their male counterparts. Like the ‘strong female character’ (which I guess they are, although from a different direction to the one you’d expect), they often have to fit a very restrictive and specific set of roles. Female villains get to be either dangerously sexy, or repulsively grotesque; either lonely and outcast (and therefore vulnerable to affection) or prettily popular (and therefore in need of knocking off their pedestals). If the protagonist is a man, he must either be attracted to or despise the female villain; if the protagonist is a woman, she must prove that she’s a “better” woman than her nemesis, usually by being more modest and chaste. (Of course, this is assuming the protagonist is straight – but then, LGB protagonists usually crop up in better-written stories).

Some female villains, though, get to break this mould, escaping from the restrictions of the ‘(bad) strong female character’ and becoming interesting and nuanced people in their own right. Here are a few of my favourite bad women.

 

Pearl from MST3K

Who would have thought that a show where three guys (well, one guy and two guy-coded robots) sit around making silly jokes about bad films would have such good female rep? Okay, Pearl is a pantomime villain, but in exactly the same way as her male predecessor. I’ve never caught a single joke from the boys about the fact that she’s a woman – and a woman who doesn’t fit conventional American TV beauty standards, at that. Pearl’s behaviour comes under fire much more than her appearance, and she follows the rather male-orientated tradition of “bumbling inept evil scientist” without her failures being put down to her gender.

 

Dr Caldwell from The Girl With All The Gifts

A far more serious (and far more competent) evil scientist than Pearl, Dr Caldwell brings one of my favourite narrative dilemmas into the zombie-apocalypse novel The Girl With All The Gifts – she’s cold, she’s merciless, but she’s right. Dr Caldwell is neither a femme fatale nor a grotesque monster; instead, she’s a single-minded scientist with a strong sense of her own self-importance who may actually be humanity’s last hope – and the fact that she has to kill children to get there doesn’t faze her one bit.

 

Ursula from The Little Mermaid

I know what you’re thinking – a Disney villain?! Surely the female Disney villains are the go-to examples for the ‘lonely, ugly and bitter’ stereotype?

Well, not Ursula. Yes, her character design was intended to fit the Disney trope of “ugly = bad” – but Ursula laughs in the face of that “ugly” label. She knows she’s fabulous, and makes it clear to everyone around her that she’s entirely comfortable in her own skin. (In fact, it’s only when she forces herself to conform to Disney beauty standards that she starts to lose her grip). Ursula doesn’t want to be young, popular, or the fairest of them all – her ambitions are far grander, and far more political. Her Machiavellian manipulation of the other merpeople mean that she comes within a tentacle’s reach of ruling the seas, and Disney cannot give her her own solo film soon enough.

 

The Raven from The Adventure Zone

No picture of The Raven, because she’s from a podcast and I don’t want to nick someone’s fanart, but trust me when I say that she’s a brilliant character (as are all the characters in that show, to be honest). The Raven is like the inverse of Dr Caldwell, filling another character role that I love – a good person who’s doing bad things, for what even they would have to admit are bad reasons. She holds a city hostage to the power she’s gained through the use of a horrifying magical artefact – and she’s also one hell of a chariot racer.

 

I know I’ve missed out so many good female villains (if that’s not a contradiction) – if you have any favourites of your own, share them in the comments!

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Survive and Thrive: The #YASurvivalGuide event

On Tuesday, I braved sunshine, sweat and the Oxford Tube to head down to Waterstones in Kensington for an event I’d been looking forward to for ages – A Young Adult’s Survival Guide, with the four fantastic authors Non Pratt, Holly Bourne, Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen (who is too cool for Twitter). I’d been looking forward to the evening for ages – especially as I’d been lucky enough to be selected as a winner in the Walker’s Books giveaway, and had brought my shiny new Truth or Dare book and necklace along with me.ya01The city outside was sweltering, but the shop itself was cool and air-conditioned. I grabbed a glass of water, found a seat, and watched the authors (and a visiting Barry Cunningham) gather at the front.

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I couldn’t wait to hear from the authors – I’m already a big fan of Holly Bourne and Non Pratt’s work, and while I haven’t yet read any of Lucy Ivison or Tom Ellen’s books, their new novel Freshers is now on its way to my reservation shelf in the library. (It was so hard not to just buy everyone’s book on the night, but I’m moving house soon, and I already have more books than I know what to do with. No matter how beautiful they look…)

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The talk was set up as a panel discussion, but it felt more like a chat between friends at the pub. The authors talked about their books, then moved on to their uni experiences (which involved swapping some stories that I’m not sure I should share, but let’s just say that kissing can be a risky business).

It wasn’t just talking, though – a first for any book event I’ve been to, there were also games, which were amazing. The first was a round where the audience read out real or made-up university societies, and the authors had to guess which. The last one in particular made me giggle, as they discussed whether the ‘Viking Society’ was real or fake – as a former member of Oxford’s equivalent re-enactment group, I knew full well that yes, there are some people who like to spend their weekends dressed up like it’s 800AD and hitting other like-minded people with blunt swords.

The society discussion turned to the presence (or absence) of feminism societies, and Holly Bourne passed around one of her resources that she uses for school visits – the Feminism Bingo card.

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I got all but one of them, which would be great if it wasn’t actually completely terrible.

The final game – and my favourite – was Truth or Dare, involving pre-written truths and dares. As many of them had been written by seven-year-olds, they were largely quite adorable – one of the best being “What’s the hardest maths you can do?” The recurring “What do you think of Non Pratt?” also raised a lot of laughs, as did the dare ‘Become an egg’, which Non carried out with aplomb.

The evening ended with a signing, and with me gushing over Non Pratt and Holly Bourne in probably an extremely cringey way. I left the shop with the high that I always get when I’ve been to a really good story-focused event – and enough inspiration to write a good 700 words of Sigyn on the bus journey.

Truth or Dare is next on my to-read list, with Freshers following after. I can’t wait to get stuck in.

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