World building fantasy mirrorAt a recent conference I discovered that Georgette Heyer has had a considerable influence on science fiction and fantasy authors.


Restrained, witty, convention-conscious Georgette and the Trekkies? Really? How? Above all, why?

Because of her world-building.

Hang about, I thought. But isn’t that what all novelists do, build a world? Many create a world that is bigger than just one book. Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Nancy Mitford, Ian Rankin, Lesley Cookman…

The best (Insert Name Here) build a world that is bigger than all their books put together. Readers walk around in these worlds. Other authors inhabit and explore them. They live.

Georgette Heyer’s World-building

World-building Georgette Heyer's Regency WorldHeyer was definitely one of the latter. From Regency Buck (1932) onwards she was building a mirror of the world we have come to call Regency Romance.  Really, though, it is an Age of Enlightenment world, embracing the Georgian as well as the Regency.

She was an avid researcher and revelled in details of manners, clothes, slang, gambling and other entertainment, even furnishing and fabrics. She culled them from contemporaneous sources: letters, diaries and magazines as well as printed books such as Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

And, of course, there were the novels, of which Jane Austen’s work was paramount.

Jane Austen’s World-building

World-building Austen PersuasionIndebted though she was to Austen, Heyer cast her net more widely. Servants, virtually invisible in Austen, are a vivid presence. Sometimes they even contribute materially to the plot.

Aristocrats abound, in contrast to Austen who tends to use them chiefly as a source of anxiety or a challenge for her main characters. Lady Dalrymple swishes through Persuasion and we heave a sigh of relief when she’s gone.

We always assume that Austen was reflecting the world she knew. But I bet it was pretty damn different from that of many, probably most, of her own contemporaries, including those who read her with pleasure.

Princess Charlotte's wedding, world-buildingConsider Byron, who was lionised, hotly pursued by Caroline Lamb, driven abroad by marital scandals and died as a Greek revolutionary. Or poor young Princess Charlotte, with her publicly warring parents? How politically and sexually unsettled must her personal world have been in comparison with Jane’s? ( Jane pitied the Princess’s mother and wrote, “I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman and because I hate her Husband.” Didn’t show in her books, though.)

Charlotte herself identified completely with Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. “You feel quite one of the company,” she wrote. “I feel Maryanne & me are very alike in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c., however remain very like.”

So Heyer’s Regency world embraces Jane Austen’s but takes in London High Society, aristocracy, masquerades, battles, balloon ascensions and even the Prince Regent as well.

Science Fiction World-Building

I read Science Fiction in spurts. I started with H G Wells and Jules Verne, both of whom had a heavy concentration of boys’ toys. But then came the poets, the philosophers, the what-if merchants and the what-next worriers: Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Philip K. Dick.

World Building in Fahrenheit 451Bradbury, I think, comes closest to building a whole and believable world in his seminal Fahrenheit 451. Written in the McCarthy era, it confronts censorship, brain-washing-by-soap-opera, disillusion, betrayal and personal rebellion in a dystopian future where the job of the Fire Department is to burn books.

This is as much about the urgent issues of Bradbury’s day, as it is about a complex world with its own principles and habits. Guy Montag, the protagonist fireman, goes on a journey of philosophical development. But the other characters? Not so much. At least in my view.

Science Fiction [Fantasy*] World-Building

cover, Left Hand of Darkness, first edition, Ursula Le GuinAnd then there came Ursula Le Guin. Her Left Hand of Darkness was the first science fiction/fantasy novel that I read which showed me a profoundly different society. The outsider-ambassador Genly Ai, through whose eyes we see this strange gender-fluid world, has become one of my favourite characters in any genre.

He starts detached, as observers must. The ambisexual population regard him, as they do all consistently single-gender individuals, as perverted. He keeps reminding himself of this, as he struggles both to understand the extreme formalities of Karhdish society and to learn to trust individuals. Once he does, his resulting relationship with Estraven is profoundly moving.

Lois McMaster Bujold is a new recommendation from the conference under reference. A fan of Georgette Heyer’s, she called her Miles-in-love story in the Vorkosigan Saga A Civil Campaign as a compliment to Heyer’s A Civil Contract.

cover of flowers of vashnoi, vorkosigan, by Lois McMaster BujoldSo far I have only read six of the Saga – and they are wonderful. This is not just a world. This is a three-planet empire in a universe of planets, some of them the Imperium’s past or potential enemies. All of them have  highly politicised societies. At least one of them is borderline criminal. And that’s just the planets.

The characters, the families, the politics are a positive explosion of alien culture detail. Completely believable and completely absorbing. The boys’ toys aren’t bad either.  Nobody is all good and all bad.

And this complex world seems to have freed up the author somehow. The books are wondrously civilised. No major character lacks a sense of humour. (I always remember marvellous L M Montgomery describing a sense of humour as “a sense of the fitness of things”. In the truest sense of the word “fitness” I think she was spot on.) Within the Vsrkosian Saga there are spy stories, adventure stories, moral dilemma stories, romantic comedies – and she touches on life, death, prejudice and cruelty as well!

Characters and World-Building

When you have a complex and conflicted world, you start off with a three dimensional arena which has already formed your characters and which they must negotiate, along with any other challenges the plot and characters throw in their way. Damerel needs Heyer’s Regency manners and restrictions in order to overcome them and achieve a true friendship with his love. Captain Wentworth needs to recognise the depth of true feeling in Anne, which can only be expressed as a restrained philosophical proposition, expressed to a third party. And she has to overcome her well-mannered reticence and assert her opinion, based on profound experience when she claims that women “love longest when existence or when hope is gone.” Breathtaking.

Miles Vorkosigan is a super hero with an eccentric approach to responsibility, very shaky grasp of the law and the intellect of a genius. He is also an absolute plonker when it comes to romance. I adore him.

Georgette Heyer, who described herself as relying on “a certain gift for the farcical” – which she finessed into near tragedy more times than I can count, as does Bujold, who has already twice had me in tears – has achieved a worthy successor.

And I’m not even half way through the Vorkosigan list. I’m in Heaven.


* To be clear, I’ve always thought of Le Guin’s adult novels as a science fiction and fantasy writing as peopled with sword, sorcery and spirits. Earthsea would qualify. But I am informed that stories which posit intelligent alien life may be so classified. So you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Sophie Weston Author


Female images : the message on romance covers?

Historical Covers : what do they say to readers?

I usually write Regency romances. So I have to keep an eye on developments in the market. And covers are a vital part of getting readers to pick up a book.

female images to match the story

What prompted a modern woman to pick up a Regency romance?

If I were to generalise from the many Regency covers I’m seeing these days, I’d say that quite a lot of them look too modern. They don’t say “Regency” to me.

I’m not sure whether it’s the heavy make-up, or the hairstyles, or the clothes, or just the knowingness that 21st century models seem to display. Whatever it is, very few of the females on today’s Regency covers look (to me) anything other than a modern woman playing at being in the Regency. Continue reading

Writer’s Pet? Sort of — Guest blog by Catherine Jones

Catherine Jones, AuthorOur latest guest blog comes from multi-published author Catherine Jones, who also writes as Kate Lace and Fiona Field. Like many writers, she has domestic pets but she’s writing about something different here. Catherine’s “pets” are wild and wacky. Not as wacky as Joanna’s pet troll.
But nearly.

Catherine’s excuse is that she’s always been interested in wildlife. Even when she was in the army (a long time ago) she would spend her time on battlefield tours searching for the local flora and fauna rather than paying attention to the details of the tactics used to give Johnny-Foreigner “a damn good thrashing”. [Her words, not ours!]
Catherine’s “pets”, as she explains below, are… Continue reading

Georgette Heyer Study Day

Georgette HeyerThis week I spent a day with Georgette Heyer. Billed as The Nonesuch Conference, this was at a hybrid gathering at London University, offering a selection of papers from accredited academics together with reader/writer participation from people labelled in the programme as independent scholars.

Clearly, and heartwarmingly, most of the speakers I heard were also fans.

Georgette Heyer regency invitationIt was preceded by a writing workshop the day before. And there was a Regency Soirée in the evening after the conference, which sounds like a lot of fun.

Sadly, I couldn’t make either of these events. For one thing I’m still convalescent. (My energy gives out unexpectedly, so I didn’t want to push it.) For another, the programme was really full. Academics seemed to be supercharged, cheerily steaming from session to session, enthusiasm still at white heat.

When I read my notes I was astonished at the sheer volume of ideas I had noted down for further consideration. Continue reading

The mental image of a character : the influence of covers

A Mental Image from Voice alone

a blank face so we create our own mental imagesHave you ever met someone on the phone — a business colleague, perhaps — and created a mental image of them from voice and conversation alone? If you later met them face to face, how did the reality measure up to your mental picture?

I vividly remember doing just that with a woman who subsequently became a close colleague when I was working in London. From her voice on the phone, from her senior position in the organisation and from what she said to me, I pictured a middle-aged, rather motherly figure with mid-brown hair in a beautifully-coiffed jaw-length bob. It was a pretty strong mental picture, though I have no idea where it came from. Continue reading

Writer On Holiday

Writer on holiday is  not a natural role for me. I admit it. I’m not good at holidays. We never had them when I was a child and somehow I’ve never really got the knack of it. But sometimes I accompany The Birdwatcher on one of his birding trips. It is a delight.

Well, for me it is a delight. And The Birdwatcher is kind enough to say he enjoys it too, in spite of my not knowing much about either ornithology or birdwatching etiquette.

Holiday Reading

I probably won’t read much but I get uneasy if I haven’t got a book to hand. So I like to take one non-fiction and one novel, both chosen wholly for fun.

Holiday readingThis time my non-fiction was a memoir by Lev ParikianWhy Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? The author’s situation is the reverse of mine. Basically he knows what he is doing in the matter of puffin-bothering and just fell out of the habit when he grew up. Whereas I have been going along with it for a while, without ever getting much better. He decided that he would take it up again for a year.

His book is a thoughtful and very entertaining saunter through his bird pursuits, memories, music, encounters with experts and much else. It’s a charming journey with delicious laugh-out-loud moments and life-enhancing digressions. Continue reading

Right word : wrong place? Pedantique-Ryter rants

stars with text Even Illustrious Organs can get words wrong

Even the most illustrious organs get word usage wrong some of the time

Torturous or Tortuous? Right word, wrong place?

Earlier this month, the Guardian included this quote in a piece on the Cambridge Analytica data enquiry:

Ravi Naik, a human rights lawyer with Irvine Thanvi Natas, the British solicitor who is leading the case, said the decision “totally vindicates David’s long battle to try and reclaim his data”. He added: “The company put him through such a torturous process over what should have been a very simple subject access request … “

question mark : which of a word pair to use?A torturous process? Is it really being suggested that Cambridge Analytica tortured David Carroll? Or was it a process full of twists and turns, excessively lengthy and complex?
In fact, a tortuous process?

Lots of writers confuse the two words, possibly because, in speech, it can be difficult to tell them apart. If the Guardian‘s quote was taken over the phone, it could be a mis-transcription. Or maybe it’s not wrong? Maybe the speaker did in fact mean that it was a process involving or causing torture?

Or perhaps — subversive thought — some of the increasingly common misuse of torturous arises because writers don’t know that two different words exist? Continue reading

Writer in Control

writer in control?A writer in control?

I hear hollow laughter from my friends and fellow authors.

And yet only a couple of days ago someone was telling me a story which appeared to demonstrate the exact reverse.

Writer in Control While Lecturing?

The story is this: some time ago a Very Distinguished Author was holding one of those literary Events in an overseas capital. I detect a faint whiff of the British Council. But possibly it was just a simple commercial book tour. At some point the Very Distinguished One invited questions. As they do.

Writer in control - inviting questions

In control? I don’t think so.

Anyway, my interlocutor, a kindly soul, recognised her civic duty. She bit on the bullet, braced up and did, indeed, ask a question of the Very Distinguished Party. Did his characters ever get away from him? Continue reading

Veronica the crafty companion : Guest blog by Judy Astley

Judy Astley authorThis month, we welcome another Libertà friend and much-loved author, Judy Astley, to the blog.

Like so many of our guest bloggers, Judy has a fascinating portfolio of skills. She spent several years as a dressmaker, painter and illustrator before writing her first book, Just For The Summer. She’s since written nineteen more. Phew! And now, after a two-year rest to refill the creative well, she’s working on book number twenty-one. Her many fans will be delighted.

Like many other writers, Judy has a furry friend — Veronica. And Veronica sounds to be quite a character, as Judy explains…

Veronica has her own ideas about what to wear…

Veronica the crafty Burmese cat (+ friend)


My cat’s collar was starting to look like a charm bracelet. From it dangled her metal tag with her address and phone number, a magnetic gadget that opened her catflap and then this new addition: a soft blue disc that held a new device — a tracker.

“I’m sorry, but you’ve brought it on yourself,” I told Veronica (a blue Burmese, sweet but crafty).

She gave me a look that clearly said, “You expect me to go out in this?” Continue reading

Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

demon long distance writerFirst, I don’t know if the loneliness of the long distance Writer is any different from the horrors that come with any other profession. When we close our eyes at night, we are all alone with our demons, after all, from Accountant to Zoo Keeper.

long distance writer despairs


But I do wonder if there is something peculiar to the occupation of writing which attracts this shadow companion.

And then chains it to us, hip and thigh, when the going gets tough and the carpet disappears under discarded drafts.

So I thought I would share some thoughts on it. Just in case they may be useful to some writer who thinks he or she is alone in the cold and dark. Continue reading