Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Timing is everything

I've just finished checking the galleys for my Avalon Western The Treasure of Saint Woody. In doing so I learnt the good news that it'll be published in August. As it was also the first time I'd read the book in over a year I suddenly realized it features pigs, a lot of pigs. Now this could be bad news, or then again it might be good news… it's all a question of timing.

Perfect timing in book writing is a difficult thing to achieve. Start writing a book now about corrupt bankers fiddling the books while Rome burns and by the time it's published it'll feel old-fashioned. If you wanted to write that kind of book you needed to have started writing it several years ago, except who would have known then what we know now? But if someone did, then they'll have achieved a perfect piece of timing and deserve their bit of luck.

On the other hand, it can go badly wrong. An attempt to write about, say, a natural disaster or an act of terrorism runs the risk of coming out several years later just when there's an earthquake or an atrocity. People might then have mixed views as to whether the book is topical, or whether it's a cheap attempt to cash in. Either way there's a strong chance many readers won’t have the stomach for a piece of fiction when there's a similar real-life tragedy in the news.

My piece of good timing, or bad, in St Woody isn’t as important as those examples as my book is a light-hearted western, but when I wrote it in 2007 I didn’t know what 2009's big story might be.

I had the idea that eventually started me writing while watching an episode of King of the Hill, the only US cartoon sitcom series I like. One episode featured the Texan characters getting overprotective about their pigs. "We take our pigs seriously around these parts," Hank Hill opined, and that got me thinking that the role of the pig in the founding of the American West was greatly underrated compared to the role of the mobile beefsteaks. I decided to make a case for improving the lot of the snuffling pork chops wrapped in crispy crackling with an epic tale of pig-rustling. Frankly, I thought pig-rustling sounded a cute idea for a story and luckily the publisher did too.

Two years on from that cute idea the book is due to come out right in the middle of the time when swine flu may, or may not, be affecting 99.9% of the world's population. That is if we're to believe the politicians and their: "there's a crisis and this time it's one of those good ones that can’t be blamed on us, so we'll make a big thing of it and nobody will notice that Gordon Brown got defeated in the Commons today, and they'll stop paying attention to the mess we made of everything else" attitude.

Either way I'm left to wonder if readers will be sick of hearing about pigs come August. Will they find the idea of a frontier town having a wanted poster of a pig in bad taste, or will they not equate reality and fiction? I don't know to be honest.

Now of course I'm not overstating the worry of my book mildly irritating a few people when compared to the possible deaths of millions in a global pandemic, but I had to have a wry smile to myself about the timing!

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 2

After last week's return to the grittier style of Life of Mars, this week the show maintains the style with another murky and messy episode. I don't think it quite scaled the heights of the first episode though as it makes several dramatic choices that felt wrong to me, although subsequent episodes may prove them to have been wise choices.

The success of the show comes from the way it merges three formats. It is a cop procedural in which crimes are committed and bad guys must be caught. It is also a character battle between people who use different policing methods. In Life on Mars that battle was between ends and means, between heart and head, and although Alex doesn't so obviously represent an interest in means and thinking with your head as Sam Tyler did, the conflict is still there. Finally, it is a psychological drama in which Alex suffers angst in her dream world while her body lies injured.

The show's best episodes are those in which those three elements blend seamlessly. Last week did this well. It had a crime mystery that ran for the whole show. It toughened up the relationship between the characters after the introduction of bent cop MacKintosh. And it had an interesting addition to the coma mystery in the form of a new pyscho-killer, who may be the man in a coma in the hospital bed, or then again maybe both of them could be someone else… This week the cop and the psychological element are downplayed and the main thrust of the show is the character battle.

Firstly, the cop tale: Hunt chases after a fast-driving gypsy and runs him off the road. The gypsy dies in what is seemingly a clear case of death by dangerous driving. MacKintosh covers everything up while Alex works to prove that Hunt wasn't at fault with a proper police investigation. This enrages the gypsies, but it also quickly identifies that the friendly doctor who has befriended the gypsy camp is up to no good.

As police investigation stories go, this wasn't particularly interesting. It wasn't helped that I've been watching early Dalziel & Pascoe recently, which featured episodes involving a death at a gypsy camp where the dead man's clothes get burnt up, and another in which Dalziel causes a death by dangerous driving. I like blunt cop Dalziel and I like blunt cop Hunt, but as this episode also featured jokes about scratching yourself in a manly way I hope the writers won’t go down the road of borrowing from another show.

The psychological element is also secondary and doesn't move the story on much. This is fine as the franchise thrives on apparently moving forward while not actually doing much at all. So Alex gets more messages from the real world medics, all bad. She meets the weird character who knows about her world, but she learns nothing new. So it appears that this man will now replace the scary clown by cropping up in weird sequences involving weird camera work with weird music playing, but he won’t actually do anything.

The only advancement in the psychological story is that Alex is starting to become vague about Molly, forgetting her name and being unable to summon an image of her. This is a moving idea, slightly tempered by the pedant in me that wonders if this development is down to the kid who played Molly in series 1 having grown about two feet and having had that worrying mole removed.

With the cop and psychological element being minor the success of the show rides on the character conflict, which boils down to one question: will Gene Hunt join the freemasons? The doctor who is really behind the gypsy death is a funny handshake man and the moment he reveals this, MacKintosh tells Hunt to release him, which Hunt does. Then he begins to work on Hunt to roll up his trouser leg and kiss the chicken's bum, or whatever it is they do in the masons. Alex doesn’t like this and if Hunt joins it'll destroy any relationship, working or otherwise, they may have. Hunt therefore has a clear choice in which becoming a freemason will be the moment he turns to the dark side (forgot to mention last week that Star Wars references have replaced last season's Alice in Wonderland references).

Ultimately after drinking his body weight in whisky, from the same Edinburgh Crystal glass I had in hand while watching, he joins up. We then learn that Ray, rather improbably, is also a freemason and so Hunt seemingly is lost to the dark side. At that stage the show had worked perfectly and I was looking forward to several weeks of being unsure what Hunt was doing, in the same way as I was when the show started and he took bribes off gangsters. But then, just when it looks as if the show will get even murkier, Hunt confides in Alex that he only bared his breast to destroy MacKintosh. He's still the Gene Genie and everything is fine with the world.

I wish he hadn't done that. It would have been a solid dramatic storyline if Alex through good police work had uncovered the truth. But having him just tell her everything felt dramatically weak and was just there to provide another one of those 'kiss me, you fool' moments where Alex and Gene stare into each other's eyes. This was followed by a poor ending in which MacKintosh caves in and accepts that the freemason doctor should be sentenced anyhow, thus ignoring the whole dramatic point of the story because it was too difficult to solve properly. Even season 1 Hunt would have fitted up the doctor for some other crime in a clever way using an element from a secondary plotline, such as the laughing gnomes in episode 3.

Ultimately though the point of this episode is to draw up the battle-lines for the series. Alex and Hunt have now put aside their differences and they will work together to bring down their boss, knowing that he can send them packing to Margate, like Hunt's predecessor, if they put a foot wrong. I hope they can make that format work as it feels less intriguing than the tension-packed Hunt toying with dark side story-line.

In lesser matters Chris and Shaz are getting married in a fun story line that sits oddly with the murkier stuff. And Ray gets worked up about the Falklands war and takes it out on the gypsies, this being a clumsy idea that is less interesting than why he's in the freemasons in the first place. The good news though is that Ray continues to be the nasty little snit he was at the start of Life on Mars rather than being one half of the Little and Large comedy act from the first season. Perhaps the writers have been watching the US version where Ray had more to do, so I'm intrigued to see where they go with him.

I can't finish without mentioning the big disappointment this week. Hunt has his fortune told in which a mysterious gypsy mysteriously foretells that the Tyler will sap his strength. Having Hunt murmur 'Tyler?' was a bombshell moment for fans of the franchise, especially following on from last week's mentioning of Hyde and Garibaldi biscuits. Where could this be heading? What could it mean? But just at the moment when I was looking forward to several weeks of trying to drag every last ounce of meaning out of those few words, we get the answer. She meant Tiler, as in the freemason who guards the door of the Masonic Lodge.

Perhaps I'll later look back at that revelation as being a clever joke, playing on fan's desperate need for Sam Tyler to somehow fit into this spin-off series. But right now that felt cheap and corny and it diminished last week's hints that events in Hyde would have a significance rather than them being just a bit of fun. What next? Strange messages about seeking the man from Hyde that turn out to someone playing a game of Hide and Seek?

So despite a soft ending I'm looking forward to next week and seeing how Hunt and Alex will take on MacKintosh. This is despite having missed the clip of next week's show after pressing the red button to enjoy the Ashes to Ashes sing-a-long for Come on, Eileen, a song that will now in my mind always have Gene Hunt singing along to the chorus!

Saturday, 25 April 2009

The Nun with a gun

I finished The Miracle of Santa Maria a few weeks ago and have now turned my attention back to the previously stalled Cassidy Yates adventure, which is now going well. I'd thought the problem with the stalled story was that I'd written about a quarter of the book and Cassidy had yet to appear, a slight problem usually when he's supposed to be the hero. But the problem was something more fundamental than that.

Most of my stories come about through combining several ideas, usually three. I've always believed in the maxim that writing fiction is the art of making connections. So The Miracle of Santa Maria was a combination of the Pike's Peak Eclipse, Sleeping Beauty, and the miracle of the title. It didn't become obvious while I was writing how those three elements would tie up, but I was sure when I did get them to meet I'd have a story, and luckily that's what happened in the end.

The untitled Cassidy story was the combination of just two ideas rather than three, perhaps explaining the stalling. The first was an idea that had been knocking around in my mind for a while and is essentially the genie in the bottle idea. A man saves the life of someone unsavoury and that unsavoury person resolves to repay the debt by saving his life in return. This is something that happens frequently in westerns and usually involves an initially savage but ultimately noble Native American who tags along with the hero after the hero saves him.

This never feels quite right to me and is often a bit too convenient, as the noble savage keeps on turning up unexpectedly and saving the hero's life when things become tricky. So I wanted to do it in a way that made the hero tarnish himself by accepting help from the unsavoury one. The idea never got anywhere though until I thought of inverted the idea and making it that an unsavoury person saves the life of a good man. Now the good man feels he has to repay the debt, no matter how much trouble that causes him.

That felt like an idea for a western and when a second idea came along a story suggested itself. The second idea came when I was wondering when frog spawn might start appearing in my pond. A google enquiry about frogs made me happen across the term Frog War. This term was only referenced on wikipedia so there's a strong chance it's not a real one, but apparently it describes a situation where rival railroads battle to be the first to build a track through a narrow pass. This happened frequently during the expansion across the American West; one famous incident even got Bat Masterson involved.

This captured my imagination, so combining the two ideas instantly got me a story of a good man working for one railroad having his life saved by a bad man working on the other railroad. He then helps him no matter that it ruins his own life. Those two ideas got me about ten thousand words, but then my enthusiasm petered out and I went to work on Santa Maria instead.

I should have realized that I usually need three ideas to get a story up and running. When I’d finished Santa Maria the third came along in the form of the nun with a gun. I'd started writing the female lead in Santa Maria with the intention she would be a guntoting nun, except she went through the whole novel without picking up a gun. When I got to the end, she hadn't acted like a nun either so I let her do what she wanted to do. That left the guntoting nun free to wander off and join the Cassidy Yates tale. Once I'd let her do that, I had my three ideas: an inverted genie being let out of a bottle, a Frog War, and a nun with a gun. So now the story is surging along.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 1

Television these days presents an unremitting diet of reality shows, programs with celebrity in the title featuring people nobody has ever heard of, and 'talent' shows designed to encourage people to humiliate themselves in the name of improving Simon Cowell's bank balance. So when a program comes along that actually provides some intelligent, adult entertainment it should be celebrated. Therefore I'll attempt over the next 8 weeks to post timely reviews of season 2 of Ashes to Ashes. I'll also offer some speculation as it goes along as to where I think the series is heading (and I'll try to resist the temptation to go back and edit any thoughts that turn out to be completely wrong!)

Season 1 set up the scenario for the series. Alex Drake is a cop in 2008. She is called out to a hostage situation in which greasy odd-ball Layton shoots her in the head after making a mysterious phone-call to someone to say: "I have someone with me from your past." Alex collapses and when she awakes it's 1981. She's a female cop in a macho world ruled by her boss Gene Hunt. As Alex knows that Sam Tyler (from Life on Mars) also fell into a coma and invented a past world where his boss was Gene Hunt, she is convinced she's in a coma and that she has invented this world in her mind while she lies dying.

The series had mixed reactions. Some thought the light, fun approach was enjoyable. Others thought the approach didn't work as well as the darker earlier series. The makers listened to the criticism and before the series aired they claimed they'd attempt to address the issues that concerned viewers and that this time they'd make the series darker. On the evidence of the first show, they succeeded. The program is as dark as anything Life on Mars produced and could easily have fit into that series.

The first story delved into the murky world of police corruption. A body is found in a compromising position usually reserved for politicians in a seedy part of the red-light district. Hunt and co are amused but when new character Mackintosh, Gene's boss, tells everyone the dead man was a vice cop sent in to clean-up the area, it sheds a different light on the situation. Of course you don’t need to be an expert in tv detective work to know all is not as it seems…

This is a story that is grittier than anything in season 1. It is also filmed in a grittier style. In Life on Mars everything was dark, nicotine-stained and dirty. Season 1 turned away from that with a world that was bright, large and colourful. Now everything is claustrophobic again. The sets are the same, but now not all the lights are on, characters are not filmed in full brightness. Cameras are put in odd places such as filming from the floor up someone's leg and close-ups are uncomfortably close. The outside sequences too move away from the bright warehouses of season 1 to a sordid litter-strewn part of town. One shot where Hunt cradles a dying woman is beautifully composed and could have been Victorian London. This all creates an oppressive atmosphere, but the characters are grittier too.

Ray takes a bribe within the first five minutes turning his character back to way he was at the start of Life on Mars. Chris is still an idiot, but he makes the choice not to take the bribe. Hunt is back to the man we weren't sure about at the start too, shouting abuse at grieving widows and with hints he may be involved in the corruption. He does less one-liners than before (thankfully, as in season 1 nearly every line was a barked attempt to utter a classic line) and there's no shots of him just standing there looking heroic. And thankfully Alex has gone for a more sober hairstyle, and she's no longer made-up like a cosmetic model in a tv advert and is instead allowed to look her age.

So, I'll rate this is a great start and I hope it continues. Best moment for me, from a short list of several dozen classic moments, was Ray's 'fire up the photocopier' line and all the nostalgia that hideous copier generates. The short clip of next week's show even has a shot of what looks like Gene Hunt joining the masons so things continue to look promising. But where is the series going? As ever with the shows made by this writing team (and I did see Bonekickers!), you're never quite sure whether they are utter geniuses or people who had one good idea and are repeating it endlessly.

Hence Mackintosh, who presents a public face of being keen to clean up the police force, and yet appears to be behind all the corruption is strikingly similar to Harry Woolf from Life on Mars, who was Hunt's hero and confidant. As that man turned out to be corrupt, I don’t think they'll repeat the same trick, so I'll speculate that Mackintosh will turn out to be a good guy. The secret meetings he's conducting with Hunt are all about flushing out the real corrupt cops. Hunt will toy with the dark side, apparently, but it's all smoke and mirrors. Maybe even Mackintosh is using Hunt as the fall guy in the same way that Hunt used Sam Tyler as the fall guy when a prisoner died in a cell.

The other speculative area is what has been referred to as the bigger mystery. In Life on Mars the answer was that Sam was in a coma. Here we know Alex is in a coma, so what can the solution to the bigger mystery be? Speculation has veered into many areas, picking up on the Alice in Wonderland references, the hint that Hunt helped Alex as a child and is therefore real. Some viewers even reckon everything we see is Hunt's dream-world...

Well, nothing yet has changed my mind that the ultimate answer to the big mystery is… Alex is in a coma. I realize this is not an exciting solution, but so far based on what we've seen and know, any other solution would require a slight-of-hand by the writers. Concluding anything else would be akin to suddenly deciding that they're all astronauts in the 21st century playing a virtual reality game, or some equally bizarre idea.

This episode advances the mystery slightly by doing exactly what Life on Mars did in episode 1 season 2. It opens with a scene in a hospital room in the real world where two nurses are helping out a patient who may be important or a red-herring. I opt for the latter. Alex gets her first messages from the real world and all in odd ways, like Sam did, from minor characters and even a dog. She gets visions from the real world where she's been found and is in the care of medics, like Sam. And her tv is talking to her, like Sam. And she gets a psycho-killer seemingly from the real world torturing her in her dream world, like Sam.

None of this hints to me that there's any other solution than she's in a coma. When Sam was tortured by a man in the hospital, he fabricated a dream explanation for it. There's no reason to suppose what is happening here is any different. The psycho-killer is sending Alex roses and he kidnaps and tortures her, but this all happens while Alex in the real world is being treated by an ambulance crew. If everything she imagines is a construction to keep her brain active while the body is repaired, then it's likely she'd construct a traumatic imagined situation. She may have an antagonist who knows that Lady Di will die, but that means nothing.

The whole conceit I think the writers are trying to create here is to sell us the idea that the psycho-killer was the man in the hospital at the start. He has entered Alex's world and therefore the solution to the bigger mystery is not that she's in a coma. But as Alex is inventing everything she sees, she also knows Lady Di died. She could create an antagonist who knows that and that imagining is a stepping stone to let her return to the real world, in the same way that Sam created Frank Morgan to help him return.

So for now I'll stick with the theory that she's in a coma and this a dream. It may be a dream that people who are near to death have as Hunt did describe himself as being Saint Peter, but still it's not an alternate reality, time-travel, a virtual reality game, Sam's dream, Hunt's dream... She's in a coma. She'll wake up when she's ready and in the mean time she'll continue to imagine some great cop storylines, some great characters, some great music, and hopefully Gene Hunt shouting at members of the royal family again. Fire up episode 2!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The first book I ever read

I was today's blogger with this article on the Avalon Authors blog

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Wild West's finest lawman: Gene Hunt

With the long-awaited return of British tv series Ashes to Ashes imminent, it's a good time to remember the greatest modern Wild West sheriff Gene Hunt. And by Gene Hunt I mean the character portrayed by Philip Glenister in the UK tv series Life on Mars and most definitely not Harvey Keitel in the just ended (in poor fashion IMO) US remake of the same title.

Admittedly Gene Hunt is a cop in 1970s Manchester, but he is still at heart a Wild West sheriff. In fact it's pleasing to note that Philip Glenister also sees him as a sheriff, so that's what he is. Aside of course from being an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding.

Gene shows his love of westerns with the posters on his office wall of the Man with no name films along with Gary Cooper in High Noon. When the lads are playing football in the office he's more concerned that they might dirty Gary Cooper than that they're playing football in the office. But aside from a clear interest in westerns he acts like a sheriff too.

1970s Manchester is a frontier town where everyone trusts their lawman and he knows everyone. If a crime is committed, he doesn't waste time on pointless activities like detection, as he knows who did it. It was the bad guys. It's just a matter of strapping on a gun, racing round to the bad guys' hideout then ordering them to give up as they're surrounded by armed bastards. Then after a punch up all that's left to be done is to beat a confession out of them in the cells before moseying on down to the saloon to drink his body weight in whiskey. It was a simpler time.

Gene's finest western moment for me comes in episode 8 of season 1. Here the escalating body count doesn't concern him as much as that the gangsters have been polluting the glorious genre of the American Western by making mucky versions of his favourite films, including Once Upon a Time in her Vest.

Sadly, when the inevitable spin-off sequel Ashes to Ashes came along the Gene Genie is no longer a sheriff. The times, the need to respect a criminal's rights as much as the victim's, and Keeley Hawes's perm have worn him down and he can no longer stitch up whoever he fancies for the crime. But he still wears the cowboy boots and he also got in episode 3 to wear a poncho and dress up as Clint Eastwood.

For season 2 of Ashes to Ashes we have been promised a return to the darker side of Gene that was shown in Life on Mars. So here's hoping that when the Gene Genie returns, he does so in top form and he remembers he's a sheriff again.

Youtube seems to have taken a lot of Gene Hunt clips and classic one-liners away but here's a couple of good moments. Firstly Gene's legendary non-pc speech where he manages to insult every minority group on the planet in about ten seconds. And then from Ashes to Ashes, his classic meeting with Lord Scarman explaining where it all went wrong.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

An interview with Nik Morton

Nik Morton's third Black Horse Western (written as Ross Morton) The $300 Man is published in May and the Linford Western reprint of Last Chance Saloon is published in August. Nik is also the principal editor for Express Westerns' second anthology.

Nik, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’d written two spy novels by age 16 (still unpublished but in my possession), which probably explains why I didn’t do well with my GCE O levels! At that time I’d have liked to pursue a career in illustration but didn’t have the required number of GCEs – though my artwork was apparently very good. So I took an office job and eventually gravitated to joining the Royal Navy. Saw the world, in more ways than one, and took a writing correspondence course and started getting a few successes with articles and short stories. This prompted the course organisers to offer me a job as a writing tutor, but my naval career got in the way – I needed to be on the end of a phone, which wasn’t possible in those days.

I sold my first story in 1971. I prefer fiction and read almost all genres – espionage, horror, ghost, western, romance, saga, crime, thriller and fantasy – and have sold stories in all of them, including a confessional ‘I deceived my husband’... As a writer I cannot neglect non-fiction and do enjoy reading a broad variety; I have a large library that covers true adventure, travel, biography, the sciences and notably the Old West. I advocate that to be a writer you have to read – widely.

I’ve ‘retired’ to southern Spain with my wife Jennifer and nearby lives our daughter Hannah, son-in-law Farhad (when he isn’t working in UK) and grandson Darius. I’ve sold cartoons and comic strips and over 70 short stories and many more articles, have edited in house magazines, a sci-fi magazine for 18 issues, and a number of books. I have seven books published or about to be published – two psychic spy thrillers, a crime thriller, three westerns, and a fantasy quest.

You worked as Matthew Mayo's assistant editor on the first Express Westerns anthology Where Legends Ride, how was that experience?

Matthew P. Mayo is a professional through and through. He has a keen eye and ear for writing. Virtually all the proposed changes/edits I advocated went through on his nod; I was particularly pleased that a major amount of improvement on one story was accepted by both the author and Matthew.

Editing isn’t an ego trip and, after all, editors are there to ensure that any writers they present look as good as possible. That, I feel, is Matthew in a nutshell. He gives of himself so other writers can benefit. As I said, like Matthew, I’d had experience at editing over many years – and, let’s be honest, any writer has to be a stern self-editor if the finished manuscript is going to work.

You wrote a rather unusual and original story for the anthology entitled Bubbles. How did that come about?

This story came about long before the anthology was mooted. At the local writers’ circle we were given a theme or word that was intended to inspire us to write for the following week. The word was ‘bubbles’. Where the core idea came from, I don’t recall, but I wanted to echo the word ‘bubbles’ throughout the story in a number of different meanings – and managed it for its 1,700 words. It was well received when I read it out. But by then the characters I’d created seemed to have potential way beyond that paltry wordcount. So I studied the period timeline and within their tale is interwoven a number of significant milestones in the Old West mythos. One reviewer said the story was more of a synopsis for a longer piece. While I don’t agree, believing that the story works as written – including name references to some BHW authors! – I do agree that there is great potential for a longer saga, bigger than a BHW even, though it will entail more research than given so far; one day, maybe.

For Express Westerns' second anthology Matthew stepped aside as principal editor. Did you have to think twice before taking up the offer to be editor this time?

Stepping into Matthew’s shoes… think twice? No, I was honoured to be asked. I know that Matthew has a busy and very rewarding writing schedule which precluded his taking the reins this time. I’ve been editing for a long time, so I feel confident. I appreciate that writing and reading are subjective pursuits, but I’m fairly sure that any suggestions for amendment or rewrite I may make will be taken in the manner intended – that is, to improve the offered piece.

What type of stories are you planning to feature?

More of the same, really. The first anthology hit all the right buttons as far as I was concerned as co-editor. Some writers like to be constrained, given a target theme or whatever, and that can be done, I guess. The period covered is already shown in the guidelines. Type of stories – stories about characters, about people you get to know and feel for, people who may even live with you after the story has been read.

Stephen Vincent Benet said, ‘A short story is something that can be read in an hour and remembered for a lifetime.’ While few short stories may fall into that category, I’d be surprised if most readers/writers can’t recall some memorable short story – other than O Henry’s brilliant sentimental tale The Gift of the Magi. That’s the goal; no harm in aiming for it. Always aim high but be true to yourself. No pressure, then.

Clarity of understanding and reader visualisation are important factors, but not the most crucial. Character and place have to figure highly – so we can feel and breathe the western.

Finally what other writing projects are you currently involved in?

I'm writing the final 10,000 words of my Tenerife romantic thriller, then I'll go back to my fourth BHW western whose characters are clamouring to move forward, then I'll be completing the final two-thirds of my psychic spy thriller set in Afghanistan. I’m halfway through a crime thriller set in a fictitious town on the south coast of England.

And I have to firm up the plot of my second Sister Rose crime thriller. I've got about four short stories outlined, to add to a published series of twenty tales about a half Spanish, half English private eye, Leon Cazador. And I've also started a private eye story set in Charleston, South Carolina. Among other things.

Thanks, Nik, and good luck with The $300 Man.

You can join Nik at his blog Write-a-lot and learn more about Express westerns at

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Gunmen of the Apocalypse

With British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf set to make a welcome return to our tv screens on April 10, it's a timely moment to revisit the Dwarfer's western episode The Gunmen of the Apocalypse.

The episode was the third episode of season 6, the last of the great seasons. Afterwards the series went downhill as it tried to set itself up for the planned film version by upping production values, adding in the unneeded Kochanski, and generally forgetting about good writing when the writing team fell out. Prior to its demise, the show had presented several different takes on the central premise of a group of not very bright blokes arseing about in space.

The first two seasons were essentially the standard British sitcom idea that had been perfected in series such as Porridge and Steptoe and Son in which two people are trapped in a room and get on each others' nerves. By season 3 the budgets had grown and so the series became a science fiction comedy in which genuine science fiction ideas such as aliens and time-travel were incorporated into plots. When the writers ran out of their own science fiction ideas, they turned to parodying science fiction and finally, by season 6 they turned to parodying Star Trek.

This was a good idea as essentially the initial premise for the show had been to take the idea that having pompous, smug and generally all-round superior officers in space was dull. It was more fun to think what would happen if you put people in space who'd never become officers. The people who never had a formal education as they failed all their exams then went to art college and are now technicians 3rd class cleaning the gunk out of chicken soup dispensers.

The Trek parodies in season 6 led to some of their best jokes. My favourite being the response to the order to go on blue alert of: 'but we'll have to change the light-bulb.' But for the western episode they almost went too far. The plot is a direct lift, cough, a homage to the episode A Fistful of Datas from season 6 of Star Trek, The Next Generation in which Data's holodeck western fantasy gets out of hand (more on this episode in a later article).

In fact they even used the exact same composition for the final shot of the Starbug sailing off into the sunset as they did for the Enterprise sailing off into the sunset. This homage was so obvious that Patrick Stewart appeared on the Red Dwarf's 10 year celebration night to tell the story of how when he accidentally caught this episode one night he got so irate he phoned his lawyer. Then he suddenly realized it was funny and put the phone down.

The plot for Gunmen of the Apocalypse is that Kryten, the robot character, enters a Wild West artificial reality computer game to try to eliminate a virus that has taken over the ship's computer and which will destroy the ship in 30 minutes. The rest of the cast join him in the game to help and each takes on a standard western character role.

The stylish Cat becomes the Riveria Kid, gunslinger (cue dance every time he says his name). The slobby Lister becomes Brett Riverboat, knife thrower, and the cowardly Rimmer becomes Dangerous Dan McGrew, bareknuckle fighter.

On entering the game they find themselves in the frontier town of Existence. Kryten has become a drunken sheriff who, Rio Bravo style, is too busy selling his own mule for a bottle of mind-rotting whiskey to take on the Apocalypse Brothers who have just ridden into town…

There are several good western jokes, all of which are better than the ones in the Trek episode, including the perennial favourite of walking into the roughest saloon in town and ordering a dry white wine and Perrier water.

Here's a youtube clip to keep you going until the boys from the Dwarf return.

Friday, 3 April 2009

The Gallows Gang goes to Large Print

I received the welcome news this morning that The Gallows Gang will be getting a reprint as a Linford Western, probably around Easter 2010.