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Changing Yesterday – Guest blog by Sean McMullen

I am delighted to welcome guest blogger and award winning SF and fantasy author Sean McMullen to my blog. Sean shares some of  his historical research techniques, as well as the challenges when weaving plot with the limits of the times and technology of 1901.

My latest novel, Changing Yesterday is set in 1901, and concerns a plot to start a war between Britain and Germany to unify the British Empire. In an alternate history, the conspirators (the Lionhearts), succeed too well, and the war lasts over a hundred years. With the entire world on the brink of destruction, two military cadets, Liore and Fox, travel back through time to stop the bombing and prevent the war from ever happening.

As a novelist this gave me lots of challenges. For a start, not many novels have been written about the everyday life of teenagers in Melbourne in 1901, so I had to do a lot of research in a lot of scattered sources. I also had to get some pretty obscure details right, like were the first motorbikes available in Melbourne in 1901, was there an overnight train to Adelaide, and just what did people do to kill time during the six week voyage from Melbourne to England?

I started with Google, as one does, but the internet’s limitations soon became clear. Not everything is online, and not everything that is online is accurate. You have to check three or four sites to make sure that the content of the first hit is not just wishful thinking on the part of author. Another problem was that some questions were just too general for the average website. What was life like on a passenger liner traveling to England in 1901? You have to look in autobiographies to find that sort of thing, and that takes days of work in real libraries.

Changing Yesterday continues the adventure begun in Before the Storm. The bombing of parliament has been foiled by the time traveling cadets, aided by the Melbourne teenagers Daniel, Emily, Barry and Muriel. These characters needed backgrounds. Daniel and Emily are from a rich family, so they were not hard. Tour some of the National Trust houses and you get a pretty good idea of how people with money lived back then. Barry is a school dropout who works at the local railway station, and is learning to be a petty thief in his spare time. He was also easy. Muriel was originally going to be a shopkeeper’s daughter, somewhere in the social middle ground. Then I realised that Melbourne was an important artistic centre in 1901, and was called the Paris of the South. Suddenly Muriel could be an exotic young artist, who hangs out in coffee houses, knows Norman Lindsay, plans to have a career, and even poses nude for art classes. When she starts dating Daniel, it causes a scandal. This is the great thing about research: you keep finding the answers to questions you have not even asked.

By the beginning of Changing Yesterday the alliance of teenagers that saved the world is falling apart, but the Lionhearts are still trying to start a war between Britain and Germany. When Muriel dumps Daniel and runs off with Fox, Daniel has a nervous breakdown. His parents put him on a ship to England, so he can have some sense thrashed into him in an English boarding school. Meantime the Barry steals a deadly plasma rifle that Liore brought with her from the future. He steals some money and respectable clothes, then flees for England on Daniel’s ship, intending to sell Liore’s weapon to the king, and hopefully get knighted as well. Liore chases after Barry on another ship. So do the Lionhearts, who now know about the weapon. They think they can use it to start a war with Germany, and they are right. Liore catches up with the ship at Colombo, then the Lionhearts sneak aboard. At this point the story has been described as the Terminator on the Titanic, but by the end the book the world has been saved – and I didn’t even sink the ship.

So, most of the action happens aboard ships going to England, and that is a six week voyage. What did people do on six week voyages in 1901? The internet was no help, and although the movie Titanic was very well researched and gave a great feel for life aboard big passenger liners in this period, the Atlantic crossing took only a few days – icebergs permitting – while the trip from Australia took six weeks or more. A couple of days of reading biographies in the State Library answered enough questions to let me keep writing. The main differences involved a greater need to keep the passengers entertained for weeks at a time. There were concerts, singalongs, dances, fancy dress balls and deck games, in addition to reading books from the ship’s library and listening to lectures and readings by important passengers. Quite a lot of flirting went on between passengers as well. Daniel finds this out as the only eligible boy available to the couple of dozen teenage girls traveling first class (Barry is definitely not available, having been thrown into the brig very early for petty theft, creating a nuisance, and appalling manners).

“I LOVED this book! Great characters plus sizzling action equals a ‘Terminator on the Titanic’ epic story!”
Claudia Christian (Star of Babylon 5 television series)

At this stage I went back to the web, looking for the popular songs and dances of 1901. This time I found more detail than I needed. This was an interesting lesson. Check the web about 1901 songs, dances, fashions, art, pistols or radios, and you will find answers really quickly. Try to work out what the people of 1901 did when they were in the middle of the Indian Ocean and bored senseless, and things go really quiet. The web was also great for technical detail. There were plenty of pictures and diagrams of 1901 ships, and more data on triple and quadruple expansion steam engines than I ever wanted to know. There were also contemporary photographs of Colombo and Port Said, where ships called to fill up with coal. This helped me put in a lot more detail, which I would have to have guessed about otherwise.

One unexpected side effect of all the technical detail on the web was the way it steered the plot. The early radios had a very limited range, but they had such a cool, steampunk look that I actually changed the plot to work one in. Because I was learning so much about ships’ engines, I decided to have Daniel spend a lot of time down in the engine hall, and by the end of the book he has decided to forget becoming a lawyer and run away to sea and become a ship’s engineer. Interestingly, the artist did a steam powered broken heart for the cover, which is pretty symbolic of Daniel’s condition for most of the book.

Originally, I thought that by using retro science fiction and alternate history, I would be taking a pretty boring setting and making it really exciting. Instead, I discovered that life aboard the early passenger liners could be a lot of fun, that you could stay in Melbourne and still have a great Bohemian lifestyle, and that in spite of all the social restrictions of 1901 society, in many ways they were more liberated than we are. As for research, use the web to get an overview and avoid dead-ends, but don’t give up just because what you want is not there. Books and libraries are really good value for finding great details that are not online. Too many people give up if it’s not on the web. As an author, that can give you a real edge.

Changing Yesterday was released by Ford Street Publishing on 1 July 2011

Visit Sean’s website:


Guest Author Paul Collins – On Writing (and publishing) Mole Hunt

Today, I welcome award winning YA author, Paul Collins, as my first guest blogger here to tell us about the release of the first book in his latest series The Maximus Black Files – Mole Hunt. Together with Michael Pryor, Paul is the co-editor of the highly successful fantasy series, The Quentaris Chronicles; he has also contributed seven titles to the series as an author. Paul’s other works include The Jelindel Chronicles, The Earthborn Wars trilogy and The World of Grrym trilogy written in collaboration with Danny Willis.

Welcome and over to you, Paul.

Although I suspect the time of the anti-hero is nigh, I was a little worried about Maximus Black. He’s obviously a sociopath, and demonstrates this propensity by killing two people in the first chapter. But just today I started reading Scorpio Rising by Anthony Horowitz. His baddies make Maximus look like an apprentice sociopath. Scorpio agents manage to kill a truckload of people in the first hundred or so pages. So that’s one piece of doubt off my mind – perhaps killing in comic-book fashion in YA fiction isn’t so prohibited after all. Further doubt has been eroded by various reviews that are appearing. Bookseller and Publisher said it was “bitingly clever” (I don’t usually get quotes like that!) and a cross between The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Dexter and Total Recall. Now if the book lives up to that description I suspect I’ll have an enthusiastic readership. One reviewer refers to it as being so fast-paced it would give Matthew Reilly a nosebleed, while another said she couldn’t put the book down (must be that magnetic cover!).

It’s a rather harrowing time, though, having a book appearing on the shelves. Will it sell? Will reviewers pan it? Are there plot holes? Typos? Does it all hang together? Myriad thoughts – mostly doubt in my case – rush through your mind when a book is launched.

Writing novels can be tortuous. Authors can spend a year plus writing something and there’s absolutely no guarantee that it will ever be published. So imagine working for someone for a year – maybe as a carpenter, plumber, whatever, and getting told after a year that your work isn’t up to standard and sorry, we’re not paying you.

More authors than not go through this scenario. Mole Hunt was submitted to most of Australia’s major publishers and some via an agent in the UK and the US. Many replied saying how good it was,
but . . .

Penguin UK praised it to the hilt saying if they didn’t already have Artemis Fowl, the young James Bond, etc, they’d be keen. Another prominent Australian publisher told me Mole Hunt reminded her of what she used to love in science fiction . . . but it wasn’t for her imprint, which was more contemporary literature. But of course, rejection is rejection.

After many such near misses, I decided it would be a Ford Street title. After all, I’ve been through the above scenario before. One example (and I have many!) is Dragonlinks. It was rejected by every publisher in Australia back in 1998/99 – a year or two before the big fantasy craze in Australia (ahead of my time as usual!). The publisher at Penguin left so I resubmitted it without telling her replacement that Penguin had already rejected it. It was finally accepted. That was 2001. It was published in 2002 and is still selling now.

(A tip for aspiring writers – persistence is the key word!)

But I digress. Why dystopian fiction? Well, I’ve written it in the past with The Earthborn Wars published by Tor in the US (The Earthborn, The Skyborn and The Hiveborn). Fifteen years before The Hunger Games, I also wrote a virtual reality dystopian novel with a remarkably similar plot called Cyberskin. People dying from a terminal illness can sign their lives over to a legal “snuff” movie company and get killed live for the audience (for payment, of course – a life insurance policy that goes to their grieving family). They’re pitted against a superior fighter who is an enhanced fighting machine.

So it’s a genre that I feel comfortable with. I think dystopian fiction also lends itself to fast-paced filmic action, which is usually attributed to my writing. Sometimes it’s best to stay with what we know and love. My own favourite authors are Ioin Colfer (Artemis Fowl) and Philip Reeve (Mortal Engines). I can just as easily see these books as films, as I can my own Mole Hunt.

Here’s a run down of the plot. I hope you enjoy the book.

Special Agent Maximus Black excels at everything he attempts. The problem is, most of what he attempts is highly illegal. Recruited by the Regis Imperium Mentatis when he was just fifteen, he is the youngest cadet ever to become a RIM agent. Of course, being a certified sociopath helps. He rises quickly through the ranks, doing whatever it takes to gain promotion. This includes murdering the doctor who has certified him, as well as a RIM colonel who Black deems to be more useful dead than alive. Now seventeen, he is a valuable member of a highly secret task force whose assignment is to unearth a traitorous mole. Unfortunately for RIM he is the mole, a delightful irony that never ceases to amuse him.

In the two years he has been with RIM he has only met his match once. Anneke Longshadow, another RIM agent, who nearly succeeded in exposing him. But nearly wasn’t enough. Now she is dead and he is very much alive to pursue his criminal activities.

Right now, Black has a new problem; one that will challenge him to the max. He has a lot of work to do and little time to do it but as with every facet of his life, he plans each step with meticulous precision.

Maximus needs to find three sets of lost coordinates to rediscover the power of the dreadnoughts – a powerful armada of unbeatable power, long since put into mothballs by the sentinels whose job it is to keep peace and harmony in the ever expanding universe.

Sadly for Black, complications arise. It seems Anneke Longshadow isn’t dead after all. Every bit his match, Anneke eludes the traps Black sets for her. Born on Normansk, a planet with 1.9 gravity, Anneke is more than capable of defending herself against Black’s hired help, the insectoid Envoy, and his professional mercenary and hitman, Kilroy.

Power-hungry, Black usurps the throne of Quesada, a powerful crime syndicate. His ultimate aim is to replace the Galaxy gate-keepers, RIM, with his own organisation. Matching him step by step, Anneke collects as her allies all those who Maximus has deposed in his march to becoming ruler of the universe.

Paul Collins
Melbourne June 2011

Coming Soon: Guest blogger – Paul Collins introducing “The Maximus Black Files – Mole Hunt”

To celebrate the release of his latest sci-fi YA novel, and new series, The Maximus Black Files – Mole Hunt, award winning author Paul Collins will be visiting me at From Hook to Book as my very first guest blogger.

As a taster, and because I’m too excited to wait, I asked Paul a few questions about his exciting new series and writing process.

Q: Mole Hunt has been reviewed as having a pace frantic enough to give Matthew Reilly nosebleeds. How do you go about achieving that type of pace and maintaining it over 365 pages? Does the pace change?

A: I grew up reading Marvel Group comics such as The Hulk, Captain America and Spiderman. So my work is often referred to as “visual” and fast-paced”. I suspect those who teach writing will say there are peaks and troughs, that writers should have arcs, etc. I’m not so sure. It’s all an instinctive process to me — obviously I’ve never studied writing. I think planning your writing must be hard. There are slower moments in Mole Hunt, but they’re few and far between!

Q: Can you give budding sci-fi writers your three top tips for creating an effective and memorable dystopian world? What sets Maximus Black’s world apart?

A: Dystopian fiction is by its very nature rather bleak. It doesn’t show a bright future. Think Bladerunner, for example. One can easily see poverty everywhere, and life not being worth more than a bottle of Earth water. I doubt there are three specific tips, but more a compilation of must-haves. One of the latter is surely to set the book in the future after some apocalyptic-style event, such as the collapse of order, or as in the case with my SF book, The Earthborn, after some major war that knocks out most technology. Roaming bands of bad guys are always good fodder for dystopian fiction.

Q:How many files, I mean, books can we look forward to in the series? And for avid readers, how soon can they get excited to buy the next one?

A: I wrote all three books over a four-year period. So I have the first drafts of books two and three in rough form. So book #2, Dyson’s Drop, should be out next year some time. I’m working on it now.

Q: I love the striking cover image. Is the glimpse of the galaxy beyond indicative of Maximus breaking out, moving beyond or that he’s heading out into the galaxy on his missions?

 A: It is. Although the main plot is Maximus looking for three sets of lost coordinates that are the key to an armada of dreadnoughts. Whoever has these will rule the universe. 

Q:You’ve worked in some very varied jobs, Paul, such as pub bouncer, and serving time in the commandos. I see you’re also a black belt in ju jitsu and tae kwon do. How have these influenced your plotlines and have you passed on any of your skills to Maximus Black?

A: My martial arts skills find their way into many of my books, notably specific characters. Maximus is like most major villains — he gets others to do the fighting. His main hitman with Kilroy, who has more skill than I ever had in martial arts — don’t all martial artists in films perform the impossible?! But he’s equally matched by Anneke Longshadow. Anneke also squares off against a slew of baddies. She’s based on my all-time favourite heroine, Modesty Blaise.

Now for a couple of quick writerly questions:

Q: From an author’s curiosity, have you planned out the entire series or is each a book stand alone?

A: With this series I did write the trilogy in one hit. When I wrote The Jelindel Chronicles, Penguin only wanted the first book to test the waters. It went really well, so they requested the second book, which I then had to write. So the four books were written as separate entities, but that’s not really the best way to do it, I don’t think.

Q:How do you physically plan/plot your books i.e. whiteboard, charts etc?

A: On many pages! Sometimes I write outlines for each chapter. Or I write a very long book and separate it into three books. This is what Danny Willis and I did with The World of Grrym (Allira’s Gift, Lords of Quibbitt and Morgassa’s Folly). This trilogy was originally one thick manuscript, but The Five Mile Press wanted it as a trilogy.

Thanks, Paul. I can’t wait until next week for visitors to meet you and Maximus Black too. Pop back then to read Paul’s exclusive post. 

The Maximus Black Files – Mole Hunt  Ford Street Publishing

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