Fifty Shades of Ankle

or  “Writing Edwardian Female Detectives – Do You Feel Lucky, Common Person?”

I’m a guilty fan of the Murdoch Mysteries. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. It’s a Canadian TV detective programme, set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Very inventive, often amusing, and packed with guest appearances by real historical figures, including Tesla, Edison, Conan Doyle, Houdini and H G Wells. Based (rather loosely) on Maureen Jennings’ Murdoch novels, it’s up to at least Series Seven by now.

Its relevance to this blog entry is the fact that it has female police pathologists, two intelligent women determined to make their mark. The first one eventually goes off to become a psychiatrist (I like the early term alienist better). Her successor is just as thorough and talented, though a bit more of a laugh. And they have aspects to their lives which do not involve husbands/boyfriends, including their work on female suffrage. I quite like them.

So many of my favourite collections, late Victorian and Edwardian detective stories, have no women in them in any meaningful role. Plenty of background wronged wives, jilted fiancees and unfortunate female victims, but the brainwork is almost always done by men. Boring.

There are exceptions. Andrew Forester’s Mrs Gladden, a police agent, for one, but not all of the late Victorian stuff is easy to read nowadays. The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (Catherine Pirkis) is also worth a look.


Quite readable, for the most part, is the Edwardian Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, by Baroness Orczy. Not only did the Baroness produce a whole book of Lady Molly stories in about 1910, but she also wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel a few years earlier. But you knew that.

I won’t mention any more of them because this is a blog entry, not a study group. However, they had an impact on me, and when I first began to pastiche, and then build on, the casework of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder, I knew that I had to bite the bullet.

In the original stories, WHH’s psychic detective has four regular male friends who come to his house on the Embankment and listen to his adventures. He has no known contact with the other sex. Or women. So that had to be explored. It may have suited the readership at the time, but I don’t believe that he knew no women. And he must have had feelings, be they secret longings, a failed love affair, or at least a rumpus in the trousers now and again…

I didn’t want to contrive it so that Carnacki was a Uranian, suppressing his urge to date his chums, although a gay psychic detective in 1908 might have been a change. I wanted to move on from the past and explore it at the same time. As most of my stories are set after the Ghost Finder’s death, I wanted a rounded set of female characters to be included, even to be pivotal, with maybe a few retrospective revelations about the “real” Thomas Merton Carnacki.

(Uranians, if you haven’t tripped over them, was a term adopted by some homosexuals of the period in question, supposedly named after Aphrodite Urania who sprang from Uranus’ testicles without an icky girl being involved. I think I prefer the traditional method.)

And as I built up my female characters, I found myself enjoying two particular aspects of writing fiction set in Victorian and Edwardian times:

Whipping away the cloak of invisibility. So many women in history were enablers, catalysts, and quiet movers, not to mention those who finally gave up because men kept shoving them to one side, and those who never had their work noticed at the time. If you open things up to these women, you can fill the stage easily, and even find yourself with new lead actors.

Indulging in the delight of firsts. This was a period, with the odd historical liberty, which saw the first recognised female doctors, psychologists, lawyers, engineers and more. Some of these women graduated with first class degrees but had to wait years to be allowed to practice. For the writer, this allows exploration of the impact women had when they entered the professions.

So it’s fun, if hard work at times. I like writing interesting characters. Some of them are women, and most of those women are resourceful, with a working brain and real feelings. If they don’t have one or more of those attributes, there has to be a point to why they don’t. I have to able to justify it in the story– and live with it.

Finally, a question I hear at conventions and see regularly on the net. How do you write a female character when you’ve been a man all your life?

Well, you do your best. There are guides that inform men how to write good female characters, but there’s something going wrong there already. Surely this isn’t a paint-by-numbers thing? I’ve actually seen “guides” which tell you how to add a character flaw that a woman might have, put in a bit of vulnerability, remember women bear children and so on. Gosh.

I’m a guy who can’t stand football, has no interest in cars, can multi-task, likes shopping and gossip and is interested in soft furnishings etc. I even want to talk to my friends about relationships and real feelings. According to a lot of checklists I should at least be a gay man in someone’s novel. But I’m just a person. Male, and a mess. Many of my own characters are female and a mess. That shouldn’t make us weak or stereotypes.

My suggestion to male writers is to get to know (and read about) some real women, find out what they feel, think and do, and then write. That would be a good start.

Coming soon to A free short story to download, set in the story cycle The Last Edwardian. Mr Dry encounters some strangers…

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The Long View and the Long Dog

A break from fiction this time, due to recent headlines about artificial intelligences taking over. Yes, I’m easily distracted.

Apparently (I read too many media summaries) AIs will replace the human race in the near future, and we should all be very worried. Even “normal” newspapers have been printing this sort of stuff.

Why? We can already produce kids who want to ruin us and make us feel irrelevant (if you’re reading this, nothing personal, dear). Shouldn’t The Times be running articles on how our children will take over from us and destroy our culture, instead of all this panic about android antics? Work on artificial intelligence might be our one chance for a legacy which has some real value. I imagine that the apes banged their heads against trees when they worked out what they had produced.

FIRST APE: I’m a bit worried about this artificial intelligence idea, and these robot brain things taking over the planet… ooh, look, a tick <scrunch>.
SECOND APE: Hey, I was saving that! Anyway, what difference would it make?
FIRST APE: Dunno. I suppose these AIs might hunt us and destroy our homes, enslave us, dissect us, just not care about our survival at all… oh. I see.
SECOND APE: Welcome to evolution, mate.

If humanity’s one lasting achievement was to create soaring intellects who were self-conscious and fit to meet the Mind of God, I think I’d be quite pleased.

As to why they would want to destroy us, I’m not sure. They might find us annoying, I’ll grant you, but would they really be that interested in us, once they got going? There are much larger cosmological questions than why people follow the Kardashians (a form of artificial life which turned out to be an evolutionary dead end, I believe). If I was an AI, the only worry I’d have would be someone turning me off, and I think I’d have made contingency plans by then.

Isn’t it more likely that they’ll take us on as a pet project? You know, the way you’d teach your cat to avoid being run over, lock the cat-flap after it and that sort of thing. That might be quite helpful.

But of course we don’t know, so just to help you out in the meantime, here is my easy guide to:


Pick one or more of the following. Do not turn over the page.

The Religious – God made human beings to be the next best thing after aberrant angels, and to have dominion over things. He didn’t make AIdam and Eve 2.1, so there.
The Scientist – Hey, someone’s going to do it eventually so we might as well crack on. These AIs could turn out to be really cool.
The Religious Scientist – God created us so that we could create artificial intelligences, but it was a bit too complicated to explain to the tribes at the time.
The Atheist – It’ll happen if it it happens,  and I’ll be dead then anyway.
The Optimist – Hurrah, we’re going to give birth to something new and wonderful which will enhance our experiences and give us someone else to talk to.
The Pessimist – The planet’s buggered and we keep killing each other, so why not let the AIs have the lot?
The Newspaper Editor – Watch out as AIs increase mortgage rates and encourage unwanted immigrants, putting your house at risk.
The Magazine Editor – Would you look good in a hardened ceramic shell with ninety terabyte/second access ports this summer? See our fashion guide on Page Twenty Seven.

And finally…

The Pessimistic Religious Scientist – The concept of AIs was introduced into our minds by a vengeful God who wants us all to be shot to pieces by Skynet. Frankly, we deserve everything we get.

(Incidentally, I began the draft of this entry by abbreviating the term “artificial intelligence”, but every time I typed AI, my computer changed it to Ai and then highlighted it as a mistake. That worried me for a while…)

I do have one candidate who won’t be taking over the world any time soon. Django, our male longdog.

Thousand of years of evolution, and the purposeful, scientific breeding programmes of humanity, have produced a dog who runs into trees. And wheelbarrows. And me.

I can’t speak for the trees, but I can tell you that 35 kilos of muscle moving at 40 miles an hour really hurts when it hits a human bean. He has the target-identification ability of a state-of-the art missile, but the navigational skills of Sub-Lieutenant Philips in the Navy Lark (you have to be old for that one). He can see what he’s after from about five miles (sighthound crossbreed, after all) but not, apparently, the obstacles in between.

Django has ADD – Accidental Damage Disorder. He’s twice been bitten by our alpha female after jumping on her by mistake, dead-legged me in the middle of an empty playing field, got a lamb-bone stuck on his canine so that he walked round looking like a dentally-challenged walrus… the list is quite long.  One of our most urgent action items, in order for us to reach pensionable age, is not to protect ourselves from artificial intelligences.

It’s to insure the bloody dog.

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In the Year of the Blue Heron…

“Mummy, I’ve done my first blog!”
“Yes, dear. Now clean it up.”

Although I do intend to write widely (and inaccurately) about literature, lurchers and life, as it says somewhere on this site, my main reason for setting up greydogtales was to promote, and often apologise for, my writing. So I’m going to start with a piece about my largest and least useable body of work – Os Penitens.

What happens when you lose control of your creation? I’ve always been a bit suspicious of authors who go to conventions and talk about how the characters “wrote themselves”. Clearly they didn’t. Fictional folk can’t use word-processors. I’d prefer it if they did could. Then, when an agent says that a particular one didn’t work, I could turn round and shout at the character. It wouldn’t be me that got it wrong, after all.

But all of your writing comes from you, somehow, and it’s your fault. And that brings us back to losing control. One of my greatest frustrations as a writer, apart from rarely being paid for it, is the existence of Os Penitens.

In the eighties (probably before you were born, best beloved), I wrote an extensive outline, and many short pieces, concerning Isaine’s Sorrow, the Tower of Falling and the dissolution which overcomes a mandragore when its twice-born body finally fails.
These were stories of Os Penitens, that vast metropolis once known as The Mouth of War, ruled in part, and in its own peculiar way, by a Gynarch who may not even exist. If the city owes anything to anyone in literary terms (I can’t tell anymore), I would probably credit Gene Wolfe and Lord Dunsany. I do know that Os Penitens would have Minas Tirith for supper and still be hungry. It might have to roll its sleeves up to take on New Crobuzon, but the Ossine have some serious players. The Red Whore could probably slaughter a district or two on her own, after all.

It is said that Os Penitens was once entered and occupied briefly by a people from the north. Their language is lost, their name forgotten. They were consumed, utterly. If that is not true, it should be. This is what my city does…

I wrote and wrote. I produced a 350,000 word novel about the struggles of the Procurator Malyse anBaralte and the failed suicide Carfanel (he had been failing to commit suicide with any success for centuries, so don’t worry, there was no urgency). I was working full time, but being rather obsessed I followed on with half another Ossine novel on the nature of being alive. That itself was followed by details of the sexual proclivities of Angrale, the sarcomancer usually called the Red Whore. In the nineties came “The Wavedancer’s Daughter”, where the Shroud must question their role in a world where steam and merchant banking were becoming more important than loyalty to their Gynarch. After that, “The Cooper’s Child”, on how one insignificant person might accidentally alter thousands of lives. And there was more, naturally. The whole story cycle of To Hear Leviathan in fact – sorrow, malignancy and mortality.

He is only a messenger, a small mind, and changed. He hovers, a nail-paring against the huge and cloudless sky, a pale crescent of tight-bound feather and breath, and then he is falling. Down, down across the plains, the empty land which is alive with rock mouse and lizard, the dark banded snake and the fledgling.

None of which he can take, because he is changed.

Reading the hot winds, he banks and swoops, gains a hundred feet and is away from the red iron taste of the flesh under the fur, the soft gut beneath the scale. His cry would be frustration, if he understood such a thing. Farmlands now, and irrigation ditches which croak with a thousand fat frogs…


And now the walls, great sand-scoured things like sudden cliffs, thermals which catch him and toss him higher. The city crumbles away in layers, from the great bastions of the Black to the old Imperial curtain wall. The twist in the air which is all the river means to him, and then the Sprawl, a shanty-town, the stink of tanneries and dye-works, of running sewage and the plump, slow rats which have learned nothing from their kin on the plains beyond.

That place is Sarvis Est, where the Thunderers walk. The last Ossine territory in the east, where they remember the Fields of Garesine and plan betrayal on a genocidal scale…

I knew the city and the lands of Os Penitens so well. I still do. And that’s what went wrong. It became impossible to pin down one particular story which would make up the plot of a novel. The creation had become too large, and I found myself becoming its historian, not its controller. Once the concept of The Historian entered my head, things got worse. My writing became more fragmented if anything, as chunks of Os Penitens “wrote themselves”, regardless of what I consciously intended to produce for publication. Let this happen, lose professional focus, and you have Os Penitens. A creation out of control.

When something reaches this size, it becomes almost impossible to step back far enough to see it. If I were a much beloved fantasy author, I think I’d just franchise the lot and take a cut. “More strange and twisted stories set in John Linwood Grant’s Os Penitens. With an introduction by Neil Gaiman.” Yeah, that’ll happen.

Last month I wrote a short horror story for a US project. It concerned the repercussions of the slave-trade in Bristol, set around 1910. It made a nice change, and in time, that sort of writing may cure me. I can’t be sure.

Of course, it’s still true that Nemors once discovered a rare mirific made of ironwood and the finger bones of drole. It is said that when stroked, the device played a tune that only the blind could hear, yet the blind were so moved by it that they could never describe the sound…

Doesn’t make a good story, though.

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Literature, lurchers and life