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A View From Outside at Christmas

This year I am working over Christmas, and not the writing kind of work (although I may sneak a few words in here and there as ever). In my day job, I have been relatively fortunate to have avoided Christmas Day working over the last few years but this time around it’s my turn, and fair enough. This has necessitated the observance of the festival (man, that’s so formal sounding) a few days early so we can celebrate as a family. The upshot of this is that the rest of the family get two Christmas Days and I get a quiet house once I come off shift.


Being a shift worker, at this and other times of the year, has allowed me to see how everyone’s reality is different. For some, life is lived away from those they love with only brief visits home to look forward to. Others have a mechanical nine to five routine that seems to be rarely upset. For myself, working an eight day cycle into a seven day week, things are always fluid. Noone has the same life, work is often different, family is never the same and our own abilities vary vastly.


At this time of year, when we are meant to think about peace and understanding, it occurs to me how quick we are to judge someone else when we have no idea of their circumstances, rather assessing them as if their position was our own. As a writer it helps fuel conflict in stories, but in real life it leads to misunderstanding, anger and so often hate. If we are to live up to the Christmas ideal, we need to try and put ourselves in others shoes. But if we can’t then we need to simply accept other peoples’ struggles as the struggles they see them for, not as we see them.


In the Christmas nativity story, understanding the shock, fear and fortitude of a young mum to be requires an understanding of not just circumstance but also of the make up of the woman herself. To have gotten to know Mary would have allowed a better understanding, but from our dim view, it’s easy to misread the difficulty of the situation and turn the story into a simple fairy tale.


So this Christmas, try to look deep. But where we cannot see, then let’s make sure we are not filling the blanks up with soil from our own field.

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My First Detective Thriller

One of the joys of living in a place for a long period of time is that you get to see it in its fullness, good and bad, different and passionate. Couple this with a desire to write a different genre of fiction than I previously had and you begin to understand the genesis of my new novel “Water’s Edge”. But little did I know where the writing process would take me.


I live on a conservative island where changes that cut against both traditional and religious views can dominate the debate. Yes, there are extremes in this, but there is also a vast number of people who simply want to get on with life and learn how to get by with everyday necessities. But often the extremes of the argument do not allow this to happen. And it was this effect that was to dominate my main character.


Seoras Macleod, born and raised on the Isle of Lewis returns after a long time away, forced by his job to make a return to the scene of the worst moment of his life. The death of his wife years before has dominated his personality, and left in him a conflict with his God and his view of life. Through the resultant clash, I was able to throw the newer way of seeing things against the older conservatism and hopefully find the good and bad in both.


In societies the unspoken, lying beneath the veneer of normal life, shows where things are really at and I use the murder of a young woman to drive my detectives through this layer, exposing the lies beneath. This caused my murder mystery to become more of a thriller, events becoming less of a conundrum and more an act of social discovery. But still some have said they didn’t see the perpetrator coming.


Ultimately the book explores how wholly different characters can find support in extreme circumstances to drive through their mission when the house of cards around them starts to kick when toppled.


“Water’s Edge” my first Highlands and Islands detective thriller is available in paperback right now in my own store, or at Amazon (UK / US / AUS / CAN). If the eBook is your preference then you can pre-order here until the 1st Dec 2019 when it goes on full release. Check the 3 chapter sample out here. And let me know what you think. Book 2 is underway because all things come to the surface eventually.

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Beware the Brandished Torches!

One of the hardest things in writing is telling a story about a place everyone knows, The fact is they live there…, with you…, and like you they know everything about the locale. Except they don’t. And neither do you, the writer. This is because everyone views any place they interact with and contribute to through their own experiences. This is what makes stone-walling seem like honourable defence, one person’s bigotry seem like justified anger and one person’s paradise another folk’s hell.


As a writer taking on the challenge of story telling about the area around you, even if the characters are fictional, though based on various people one knows or has had experience of, you have to be careful. Not in case they come for you in the night, pitch forks at the ready and dipped flaming branches giving the night sky an eerie glow and your feet a hot toasting. Not in case some people don’t speak to you, offend by who they believe themselves to be in your story. No, the part to be careful of is to say what the story wants to say.


Stories are generated from thoughts and deeply held observations or beliefs and therefore deserve to be written in their entirety, not altered for passable consumption. And should the writer fear having caused offense if they are actually describing what is? Surely worse happens. They could simply put the book down in boredom. Now that would be devastation. So write to your observations, your revelations, your take on this life.


And so remember me, when you see the brandished torches, or the small boat with the man, hands tied behind his back and walking a modern day plank into the sea. They will say, he wrote to his convictions, he called it as it was. Short career though!

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A Change will do you Good!

One of the ruts to fall into with writing is to simply write the same thing over and over again. I’m not talking about when you have a good series and you need to keep churning out the books for the readers who are keen to read more and more. Rather, when times get tough and you stay put on your favourite genre and keep doing the same thing. Terry Pratchett spoke of reading other genres to keep the writing of your own material fresh and I think it’s productive and refreshing to try another type of writing, even if your love for a particular genre still burns strong.

The book purchased from Jonathan Green


I used to love the Fighting Fantasy books back in the eighties and I was lucky enough at the UK Games Expo, to meet a man named Jonathan Green, author and one of the biggest names behind that type of book. I bought a copy of his latest book, based on the wizard of Oz, and as much as I enjoyed playing it, it actually got me thinking, maybe I could write this kind of book

If you’re not familiar, these books allow you to make different choices in the story and this directly affects your hero journey. Decisions come back to haunt you and often there are a number of endings. They also tend to be highly varied in topic, from fantasy adventures to star ship captains, ninja warriors to explorers and wild west cowboys.

Cover art for the new novel by J Caleb Clarke


I decided to write a spy story but based in the second world war when many female spies were sent by the allies to France. It’s a classic set-up as you make decisions that could cost you your life, based on scanty information and guesswork.


And so I set about mapping out the adventure, writing the paragraphs for each option and winding various paths back into each other, desperately trying to hold the whole thing together. I don’t need to tell you, it was a lot of fun, a lot of work and an education in seeing things from all angles.

The cover for the book


Now I have a first book in what will hopefully become a series of books, suitable for teens and young adults but perfectly enjoyable for any age above. Testing so far seems good, not just in the number of errors but in the enthusiastic responses of the players.


In order to fund the book I have also begun a kickstarter, a place where fans and interested parties or people can put up funds in return for rewards. These funds will ensure the book will be launched successfully, and with a little advertising revenue to go with it. You can check the action out at the Kickstarter website. Please do and support this new venture of mine, it’s a right good ripping read and a lot of fun as you replay situations you initially made a mess of.


I’m already thinking of book 2 and the nautical theme it’s going to have. But only if we float this first book. But then that’s what it’s all about. Branching out, learning more, so that when I turn to my traditional fantasy writing, I’ll be a better story teller and a more accomplished writer.

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The Changing Face of Evil

Don’t panic, you’re not about to get a lecture on the current terrible state of the world, rather a bit of an observation on the dark characters we seem to be getting on the screen and in our books.

Nice Tie

I think it all started when we started taking what would have been traditionally evil characters and creatures, and made them a bit more friendly, more human (if indeed we are friendly). Suddenly werewolves were simply shape shifters following a social change agenda, wronged and mistreated. Vampires were just unlucky people who didn’t want a break in the summer sun. And ghosts were actually helpful, misunderstood souls who were in the wrong place due to some supernatural accident.

Noone knew his years on the dole


I remember growing up and evil was evil. Often there was no understanding of why the bad stuff was happening, why these dark things of the night wanted to do these horrible actions to us. They were simply evil. It seems with changing times and the acceptance that old ideas about different lifestyles, race and social classes are erroneous, our characters seem to reflect that. In fairness I remember it starting in “Cabal” by Clive Barker, a super novel I thoroughly enjoyed but one that invoked sympathy for the dark things, even if they were all far from perfect.

“Don’t you just love him and his lights!”


Maybe it is a good thing that art mirrors the times we are in, but forgive me if I crave that unfathomable entity that simply wants to destroy because that’s what it is. It has no understandable social make-up, no difficult back story, no sad tale of its own – it is simply evil. And it is distinctly un – human, bearing nothing of our qualities, unfathomable. I guess it’s because against such a thing we can throw the full weight of our aggression and defence, knowing there is nothing to understand, nothing to rectify in its past. Today’s depictions don’t allow us that luxury and in truth, neither does real life, and it really should not.


But this is fantasy so give me one more malevolent, undeniably evil being to pit my fragile heroes against. You know you want to.

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Need a Creative Holiday?

I’ve not long finished running a course in writing your own novel and amongst all the advice about planning, writing and editing a novel, I also spoke a bit about when things go pear shaped and then adapting. Currently I have quite a number of projects on the go, including making a zombie card game, oddly enough, and this week our plans were thrown to the wind by the unfortunate illness of a family member.

Without going into any personal details, it has caused me to take on board the words of advice I gave out during the course, namely that writing is there to support life and not the other way round. Not my original words either but a paraphrase of Stephen King. One of the difficult issues when you take on a love of your own such as writing, crafting or even zombie card games, and make it into a business, it is easy to find things becoming a slog or taking such importance that you can end up hating them for how they dominate your life.


I told my writing course that one of the most important processes to master is to separate your business self and your creative self, maintaining a tension between them. Your business head will always look for the money but it’s too easy for the writer to get forced out, become less creative, or to get stressed at producing stories they never wanted to in the first place.


From normal work we always take a holiday during the year to let ourselves recharge and wander off to new things. Sometimes I think we need to do this with our creative selves, let our imaginative processes just happen with no goals in mind for a while. While it might not produce something we can sell or market, it gives the creative a holiday when they can simply indulge in the joy of creating. For a writer, this can be the short story that’s been kicking at you over the weeks, or that character you wish to create that you don’t know if anyone will like, and frankly you don’t care!


Take a creative holiday when it all gets too much and let your art support life before it crushes it.

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Write Apocalyse Now!

I’m just starting out on writing an “end of the world “ thriller and have been thinking about how these will compare to my dark fantasy adventure novels. The term apocalypse for me has always brought up great heavenly battles, four horsemen (updated to persons these days of course) racing across the sky, the world gathering at Megiddo and such like. So are the apocalyptic tales in the pandemic / zombie / EMP / natural disaster genres really any different.


One thing that comes straight to mind is that the old magical / fantastical element is gone. The days of a learned genius waving his hands and opening portals or creating hellfire will have to go and more pragmatic solutions will have to be found. This causes a greater emphasis on tactical or mechanical solutions, or simple butchering in the case of zombies. Transformations of people may have to be kept to a low variety instead of the many magical forms that characters take.


Another point spotted while reading these genres is the technical detail, sometimes far and beyond the grasp of many characters: you need to be an expert to survive. How far this is the case and how far the human spirit and determination will get you is another question but certainly the science (or at times pseudo-science) needs to be to the fore and loaded with the best bullets.


But overall this one thing remains although it has been lost in a few tales from the genre I have read. The character remains the thing. The human conflicts, the dreams hopes and aspirations and then the devices that thwart these goals, must not be simply there but must drive the tale. As I read across many genres, the best stories always resonate around the person whether it’s a woman stuck at a train station in the middle of nowhere (Absent in the Spring, Agatha Christie written as Mary Westmacott), a captain of the guard holding together a magical and manic city (Feet of Clay, Terry Pratchett) or a woman fighting to reunite her family after a nuclear holocaust (Point of Impact, Kyla Stone).


So whatever I come up with, it will certainly take my characters and break them as ever, only to have them claw their way back. But this time it will be in the midst of a pandemic, lawlessness and a country falling apart. It almost feels like home! My writing home that is, the Outer Hebrides hasn’t got to that stage yet!

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A Spielberg Masterclass

This week I have been hit by the cold and was forced to actually take Sunday as a proper day of rest. Therefore I was found on Sunday morning at about 9am watching “Bridge of Spies” , huddled on my sofa, fighting to breathe properly through my nose (yes, those are violins you are hearing).

Bridge of Spies DVD cover


Now I have to say I am a fan of the spy genre, Len Deighton and John le Carre being authors I love but this was a rather unknown story to me. However it was more than a spy movie, rather it was a masterclass in telling a story.


What struck me about this film was not Tom Hanks’ acting (although as the main character he was superb) or that of anyone else in the film (Alan Alda was sublime). It wasn’t the terrific locations, especially Berlin in its coldness, snow on the ground and lawlessness breaking out. Rather it was the way Stephen Spielberg can hit your emotions from the blindside.


At one point Hanks character is crossing from East berlin to West Berlin after successful negotiations and looks out of the train to see the recently built wall. So far all has been fairly pleasant in the film but at this point you see the hopeful escapees brutally shot down off the wall and it hits you hard. The shot is brought back to mind as Hanks is back in the USA having completed the mission successfully and is somewhat warmed by the response he receives on a train. But looking out the window he sees a backyard wall with kids jumping over it and you are immediately taken back to that sucker punch.


A story would not be true to itself if it didn’t show that uneasiness we all have with finished results, knowing that despite success there is more evil or unfairness left in the world. Unless it’s a child’s movie the platitude does not really sit well with us.


Having watched the film, I found myself thinking about how Spielberg sets his audience up, rolling them through those confusing sides of life, of every person, so we end up with a rounded picture of what is happening whether we like it or not. And seeing it on film only makes me want to do it on paper. In a world where characters are often one dimensional or simply purporting one side, depth of writing that can enhance our world view with all its complications can only be a good thing.


Watching this film made me remember why I love films to be begin and why I love reading. The challenge made to ourselves as viewer and reader is surely what makes it all worthwhile.

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Is Everything Better with a Mythological Beast! Why yes!

My wife was recently reading the tales of Greek mythology to our children and as we talked about the wonder the kids had over some of the stories, I desperately tried to remember the names of the various heroes and heroines. I also tried to bring to mind the origin tales of the mythical beasts that are a core part to these stories. Generally I failed but in my defence I have too many mythologies in my head and too many creatures of various shapes and sizes – one of the dangers of being an urban fantasy writer.

It seems that in our mythologies there are always creatures that are built on, but have surpassed, those that inhabit our planet. Why have simply a horse when you can stick a pair of wings on it and let it fly through the sky. Why have whales or sharks when you can have a creature that has tentacles to smash ships and drag them to the deep. We seem to need to that difference, that strangeness.

As a writer of fantasy I have to confess to making my own beasts up and delving into the mythologies of the cultures of the world for my next great beast. Indeed, HP Lovecraft decided that this earth’s horrors were not enough and those from a foreign planet were required. Tolkien wasn’t content with elephants and produced his oliphaunts. We thrive on the unusual and superlative.

But I have found one thing to be true in my reading and writing of fantasy. All the wonder of these beasts and their vivid and incredible backgrounds only ever highlight the one creature that is imminently more complex and interesting than these giants of fantasy – ourselves. Humans, or their derivatives (dwarves, elves, halflings, and more recently vampires and werewolves), are the truly strange creatures with their shades of emotion and actions, some dark, some heroic and some just foolish. But to highlight this complexity of character, we writers have to place alongside them that which is beyond the norm we are used to.

So, is everything better with a mythological beast? Well as far as fantasy writing goes, yes, absolutely but only to highlight that most complex and strange creature we call a human.

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Why I find it hard to be a woman

writing as the opposite gender

Have you ever wondered what your better is thinking or why? Maybe you just got to know someone you find attractive and you’re wondering what makes them tick. Understanding and writing as the opposite gender (and sometimes our own) is no mean feat. We are only armoured with our own experience. Usually some stereotypes do not do justice to the other half of the species.

Writing as the opposite gender

As a writer, I often find my female characters hard to drop into the mind-set of. In today’s PC world, there is always the temptation to hold back on certain observations about a character lest these be offensive or damaging to the self-esteem of a generation. We feel that we must portray characters as empowered and uplifting. Few interesting stories consist only of uplifted, empowered men or women.

I find it best to approach these difficult lines by simply writing how I see a character initially. Then the joy of trusted beta readers comes in, as they pick away at your misconceptions. Sometimes it’s just mere misunderstanding but occasionally our ignorance will show through. But surely it’s better to put your thoughts out there and receive correction than to harbour a misconception through this life.

Furthermore some women are not self-reliant, some men are not gentlemen and some children are wicked. For every desirable character in this world we have many more broken and battered ones, leaving them predisposed to horrible traits. One must guard against how our gender sees itself. It is better for a writer to observe and then commit to paper than try to assimilate perfect traits into what are after all, imperfect beings.

My main female character so far has been Cally, an 800 year old vamp. Guess I gave myself extra challenges there to portray a character I certainly have no personal experience of. She appears in the Austerley and Kirkgordon series, which in itself contains situations I’ve never been in. You can let me know how I did by leaving a comment.