Today is the UK release day for my first X-men novel, First Team (it came out in the US and elsewhere in March). Those aren’t words I ever particularly imagined saying, but they’re certainly a delight. Writing for one of your favourite franchises is the goal of many IP authors, and I count myself very fortunate to have been allowed to play in so many amazing settings.
First Team follows the adventures of a number of lesser-known young mutant heroes – Anole, Cipher and Graymalkin – as they clash with the fanatical threat of the Purifiers, and the even darker forces controlling them. In some ways it’s a coming of age novel, seeing the protagonists learning about themselves and about the often-hostile world that awaits them beyond the doors of the Xavier Institute. All three characters were a joy to write for their own reasons, and I hope I’ve done them justice in the eyes of their long-term fans.
As is always the case, writing a novel is no solo event, and I’d like to pay brief tribute to the teams at both Aconyte and Marvel for making this book possible. Special mention has to be made of my editor, Lottie, whose refinements and improvements bear the story up.
A last word goes to the person whom the book is dedicated to. Grace Gaskell was a young lady who lost her battle with cancer last year. I can only hope that she would enjoy having her name included at the start of an X-Men adventure, and that such a small tribute goes some to inspiring her family, and others, in their struggle.
Yesterday marked the release of my second work of non-fiction, in the form of Battle Tactics of the American Revolution, a short-ish treatise on, well, the battle tactics commonly employed by the British, French, German and colonial forces during the American Revolutionary War. It follows on quite neatly from my first work of non-fiction, British Light Infantry in the American Revolution, which came out in March.
Both books are part of Osprey Publishing’s “Elite” series (numbers 237 and 238). Consequently, they’re something of a dream come true for me. As an avowed history buff, I grew up reading Osprey’s line of titles, a spread that covers every conceivable conflict and military force, from before the coming of the Pharaohs to the present day. The Osprey brand is probably the most famous military history publisher in the world, thanks to the combination of easy-to-digest information and the liberal use of maps and artwork (vital aids too often left out of more academically-focused publications).
I approached Osprey last year with my pitches, and was delighted when they took me on board. The process of writing history, rather than fiction, was certainly a learning curve – it’s safe to say that a great deal of work goes into not just the research and actual writing of the body of text, but also into the sourcing of relevant artwork, the procuring of the rights to use said artwork, the writing of captions and popup text and the briefing of the artist tasked with producing the pieces specifically commissioned for the book. Regarding the latter I was fortunate to work alongside two supremely talented individuals, Stephen Walsh and Adam Hook, both Osprey veterans. As a kid, the publisher’s depictions of soldiers, equipment and battles was engrossing, so getting to essentially commission, for free, my own high-end art depicting what I considered to be important or relevant historical scenes was exciting. I was also assisted by a number of re-enactment groups – all rigorous practitioners of historical accuracy – who provided photographic additions covering uniforms and kit.
The process was extremely gratifying, even more so now that I get to see the books taking their place on the famous Osprey bookstore turning racks. I certainly have plans for future non-fiction pieces, both with Osprey and with publishers further afield. Time will tell if they play out.
This year needs no general introduction. It won’t be soon forgotten, but the purpose of this post isn’t to belabour everyone with yet more tales of struggle. There’s perhaps something to be said for separating work from the plethora of difficulties that have otherwise beset the world in 2020, and that’s what I intend to do here.
Novels remain my primary focus, and January 2020 saw me rounding off final edits on my first book for 18 months, written for tie-in fiction publishers Aconyte Books. Entitled The Doom of Fallowhearth, it went on sale in the US in October and in the UK a few weeks ago (and if you fancy a copy, a plethora of links to different shops and sites can be found here). Set in the high fantasy world of the Descent: Journeys in the Dark game, it represents my first non-Black Library novel, and one that I’m quite proud of.
The second half of the year was dedicated to a very different novel project, albeit still for Aconyte Books. I’m delighted to say that I have written a novel for Marvel’s iconic X-Men series, First Team, that’s due out in February or early March 2021. To say that this is a privilege is, of course, an understatement, and I’m hugely excited for the release dates, not to mention an up-and-coming cover reveal.
Besides prose fiction, 2020 saw me delve into my first graphic novels with not one, but two scripts for Osprey Publishing. The first, The Battle of Kursk: Hitler’s last gamble in the East, is a retelling of the desperate World War 2 clash between Nazi Germany and the USSR. Featuring both fictional characters and historical personages, it retells what went on to become one of the most brutal and infamous battles of, arguably, the world’s most brutal and infamous war.
The second graphic novel was a particular honour to be involved in. Andrew Wiest, a Professor of History at the University of Southern Mississippi, wrote a compelling nonfiction account of a single US Army company – Charlie Company of the 47th Battalion, 9th Infantry Brigade – during their service in the Vietnam War. The book, published in 2021, provides a startlingly intimate and often heart-wrenching look at the experiences of the young soldiers caught up in the deltas and jungles of southern Vietnam in the year 1967.
Osprey Publishing decided to commission a graphic novelisation of the original book, and I was lucky enough to be asked to write the script for it. For someone who’d never written in the comic book format before this year it felt like a mammoth undertaking (the final book promises to be just shy of 500 pages), but it was great to work with Professor Wiest and the Osprey team throughout. Hopefully I have done the excellent source material justice.
Speaking of Osprey and military writing, the non-fiction front has been busy this year as well. Over the course of 2020 I finished my first short military history work, British Light Infantry in the American Revolution, and then went and followed it up with a second on a closely related (albeit more general) topic, Battle Tactics of the American Revolution. Both are set for release in the first half of 2021.
I grew up reading Osprey books, and getting to write for Osprey’s Elite military history series has been a life goal. Even better, the books are accompanied by gorgeous artwork. The artist who worked with me on the light infantry volume, Stephen Walsh, was even kind enough to slip me into a depiction of the night action at Paoli in 1777.
Lastly, digital gaming. Fairly early in 2020 I was contacted by a friend at Gasket Games, who are currently in the process of developing the first ever Warhammer: Age of Sigmar digital game, Storm Ground. I was asked to help out on the writing front. Work continues apace, with much of it under wraps, so I’ll say only that it’s been great fun to be involved in, and that the Gasket team really are exemplary. Storm Ground is expected to be released before the midpoint of 2021.
In summary then, 2020 has included; 1 novel 2 graphic novel scripts 2 short non-fiction books 1 digital game script
In all I’m happy with the year’s work output, and glad to be heading into 2021 with more projects lined up. I’ll sign off for 2020 by thanking everyone who has supported me yet again this year, whether in a professional capacity, by buying books or just being awesome online. I quite literally couldn’t keep doing it without you.
Last weekend my partner and I went for a drive. Our destination was Plodda Falls, a rather spectacular water feature about 15 miles west of Loch Ness, buried in the very heart of the Scottish highlands. The location was chosen partly because it was my partner’s birthday, and partly because it was on the interminable “bucket list” that all young couples seem to possess, in some form or another.
I had been to the falls once previously, a little over a decade before. I remembered nothing of the journey there, so when my partner – driving – asked if the track she’d just taken was the right one, my only recourse was to my iPhone and Google Maps.
It was the end of October, and the roadway beneath us was thick with gold and yellow and brown leaf mulch, heaped thick enough to disguise what turned out to be dozens and dozens of potholes. Our car, a silver Volve S80 borrowed from my parents, took a beating as it bounced from one gap to another – the only positive was that, though we were on a single track road, we didn’t meet any traffic coming in the opposite direction.
The online map seemed to confirm that yes, we were on the right road to the falls. To our joint surprise, the rugged track lead us to a small hamlet, a dozen or so late nineteenth and early twentieth century houses straddling the road beyond a boulder upon which had been engraved the word “Tomich.” The only sign of life were two particularly large and brute-looking bulls in one of the neighbouring fields, who raised their heads up to watch us imperiously as we drove by.
I rechecked the map. Even in the highlands, badly-maintained single-track lanes usually only lead to a single farmstead, not a village, no matter how small. But yes, the slowly pulsing blue dot on my screen reassured me. This was the way to Plodda Falls.
‘Did you see the dog?’ my partner asked. I looked up in time to catch a glimpse of what she meant. Not a living dog, but a statue, standing tall at the side of the road. I saw it only for a second, and didn’t have time to ponder it, for I was still struggling to reconcile the route chosen for us with the one I’d anticipated.
On the track led us, Tomich’s small cluster of silent dwellings giving way once more to fallow fields forests and, eventually, something else. Looming at us at the end of the track, flanked left and right by orange-dappled trees, was a ruin. It had quite clearly once been a grand house of some sort or other – its walls were stout stone, its windows tall and regular. Pillars flanked its front entrance, and two blocks of chimneys still stood overlooking the remnants of its north face. It was, however, beyond repair. Its roof and many of its interior walls were gone, rendering those dozens of windows gaunt and cyclopean as they glared down upon our approach.
Needless to say, at this point I re-checked Google Maps. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’m taken us on a wrong turn. My defence was ready-made, however, for there was the road, and the blue line reassuring us that we were on the right route. I looked back up. The track lead us to the ruin, or more specifically to a great log that had been felled across it. There was no road beyond it, not even a path or muddy tyre markings in the soil. Only tree-dotted grassland.
Feeling dismayed and, perhaps, a little apprehensive, we parked up and climbed out to catch our bearings. After a quick tyre check we approached the dilapidated house – how could we not? There it stood, silent in the autumnal damp, watching over this lonely track to nowhere.
As I approached I looked around, and was struck by further realisation. I had thought the land around the house consisted merely of overgrown fields and scattered woodland, but I now realised my mistake. The gentle undulation of the ground, the semi-regular spacing of large, individual maples and oaks – these were not abandoned farmer’s acers. We were standing in the middle of a country estate. Yes, it was overgrown with weeds, and the trees and hedges stood untended, but its shape was now obvious to me. The existence of the hamlet, Tomich, now also made sense. It was not some strangely-placed little village, but rather the small conglomeration of dwellings that so often attached themselves to grand country homes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, acting as stables and homes for the staff and servants who ran the estate.
We had, unwittingly, driven into a grand domain, now long abandoned. And there at the heart of it stood the manse.
Up close I could discern more of its ruination. Many of the foundations stood exposed, like the roots of craggy old teeth in gums that had rotted away. The inside had been almost entirely reclaimed by nature, weeds and short, hardy bushes covering what little remained. How grand had that interior once been? Drawing rooms, a dining hall, lounges, grand bedrooms, all managed by an attentive staff. What had brought about this monstrous decay? Did any now live who remembered this place before it was given over as a home for roosting crows and burrowing rabbits? And why on Earth had my map lead us right to the crumbling, open arch of its empty front door?
It was not a question we took time to ponder. We withdrew to our car, turned it around, and rode the rugged track back past Tomich and out of the estate.
We found Plodda and, in truth, enjoyed a splendid day at the falls. Only on our return did I pause to consider our strange discovery. The whole encounter had a surreal, almost dream-like quality to it. I was half afraid that if I started to dig for information, I’d find that no such house or hamlet had ever stood at the spot where we encountered them.
Yet dig I did [Nb; this is the part where, having initially unearthed and triggered the haunting, the unwitting protagonists does their research and discovers something horrifying that explains the nature of the horror]. A hunt on Google Maps unearthed both Tomich and the bleak mansion it served. The place’s name, apparently, was Guisachan Estate. It didn’t take long to find old photos of the place in its prime, and I couldn’t help but succumb to the disturbing sensation that follows when viewing black-and-white images of places and people that are all long dead and ruined. The headline that accompanied the first picture I pulled up wasn’t exactly reassuring either.
At this point I must come straight with you, dear reader – there is no particular haunting or horror to attend the ending of this tale, though I’m glad to say there is a twist in it. According to my research, Guisachan was built in the mid nineteenth century by Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, 1st Baron Tweedmouth, a Scottish businessman and Liberal MP. It was designed as a country retreat, but its construction included the eviction of, probably, over 200 local farmers (the “dark side” mentioned in the article). At some point in the twentieth century it was abandoned and fell into dilapidation, and there it might have stayed, a forgotten relic of the Victorian aristocracy, left to becoming just a few mounds of earth and broken stone in the centuries to come. Yet that was not to be, for the place and its founder still have one great claim to fame – and here comes the twist. It was Majoribanks who first bred Golden Retrievers.
It was indeed a statue of the Golden Retriever that my partner had spotted on the path into the estate. Guisachan is rightfully considered the home of one of the most beloved of all dog breeds, and every year the decrepit ruins play host to a convention that sees hundreds of the lovable animals congregate with their owners. Though ruined, the estate is watched over by the Friends of Guisachan, a large club “dedicated to the ancestral home of the Golden Retriever.”
It was certainly not the ending that I expected but, given the breed is probably our favourite, it was a welcome one all the same.
My only remaining advice would be, if you ever visit Plodda Falls, be wary of Google Maps.
Seagull sex. There was loads of it going on as winter turned to spring. I can’t really claim to have ever given much thought to the existence of birds – certainly not Britain’s most ubiquitous coastal avian – but the sheer amount of “activity” occurring right outside my window demanded attention.
Last September I moved into a new flat with my partner. It happens to be four stories high, which means we look out over the river and much of the town. It also means we’re high enough to see a lot of bird goings-on. Gulls, crows and pigeons rule the roosts around these parts, existing in relative harmony. And spring, of course, is mating season. Sure enough, a few rudimentary nests began appearing on the rooftops surrounding us. My office afforded a prime view of three just across the street.
Now, I have to admit that when it comes to animals I’m a bit of a sap.* I don’t claim to have liked seagulls previously, but I also couldn’t help but become intrigued as I watched prospective mother and father gulls taking turns to sit upon their nests. And sure enough, by April those nests were filled with chicks. Tiny little fluffballs, their cheeps barely audible.
Now, I’m not writing this as some sort of gull evangelist. I could pile on fact like –
Seagulls are one of the few animals capable of drinking salt water.
Seagull parents mate for life.
Seagulls can live for 20 or more years.
The chicks first cheep from inside their eggs, the tiny calls audible to their parents.
Moromons revere seagulls for eating up the locusts that once plagued them (an event they call “the miracle of the gulls.”)
Gulls have a complex and highly developed repertoire for communication which includes a range of vocalisations and body movements.
I could bore you with all that, but the purpose of this is less of an RSPCA advertisement more to pay tribute to those fluffy little fighters. For the last three months I’ve watched four different groups of chicks endure all manner of struggles. From west to north there a pair we call “The Chicks”, one on a church steeple dubbed Tower Chick, one on the street corner called Corner Chick or Shy Chick (it hid a lot in the roof weeds) and one particularly big specimen named Big Chick. At first, occupying small ledges on the roofs around about, they were so small it looked as though a gust of wind might blow them to their deaths far below. Their parents took turns guarding and feeding them. They huddled together during a thunderstorm and endured rain followed by May and June heat, unprotected and exposed on their promontories.
After a month or so they acquired a more gangly, teenage-esq appearance, with long skinny legs and hunched shoulders. They began to mob their parents whenever they appeared, demanding food with faint, high cries and furious head-bobbing motions.
They also began to move around alot. That’s when the danger of perishing from exposure was replaced by the danger of perishing from mishaps. Seemingly without fear, they started traversing the sloping, somewhat unstable rooftops around them, exploring. There were repeated falls, saved only by the fact that most of the roofs have wooden boards above their guttering to stop snow cascading down onto the street during winter. These same boards caught at least one of The Chicks over a dozen times in one day. It would try to traverse the slope, invariably slip, and slide all the way to the bottom with its small wings splayed.
How they survived I have no idea – beyond, of course, the attentiveness of their parents in feeding and protecting them. At one point a number of crows mobbed The Chicks (crows, clever beasts that they are, nest inside the abandoned chimneys, rather than out on the ledges), but were swiftly put to flight.
About three months have passed since the first hatchings. The chicks, now as big as the adults and with their wings almost fully developed, recently started beating them excitedly, clearly eager to emulate their parents. Now they can fly, a fact actually celebrated by their parents with whooping shrieks. They come and go from the ledges where they were born, periodically joining a nursery flock of about 20 hatchlings that congregate down at the riverside. With this larger group, overlooked by a few of the parents, they are beginning to learn how to hunt and swim. They have quite literally flown the nest.
One thing’s for sure – I think we’ll have moved out of this flat by next spring. I’m not sure I can watch another generation of rooftop endurance games.
Below: some terribly grainy photos of the Progress of The Chicks.
*In order to catch a mouse in my uni flat I once sat up in the dark with an upturned bin, a pole normally used for window-shutter opening, and a half-eaten pot of Dominos garlic dipping sauce (the bait). I duly caught the little creature, but then became so distraught at its own apparent distress that I named it Percy and let it go.