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Welcome To The World Of Dexter & Sinister : Detecting Agents

John Sinister gaped at the tortoiseshell tabby.

“You can talk,” he managed.

“That’s right, I can talk.”

“But… You can talk.”

“Evidently. As can you, just about.”

“You’re a talking cat?”

“I feel like we’ve been over this. Yes, I’m a talking cat.”

“Yes, but… You can talk?”

The cat sighed. He walked forward a little. “Look, if it helps, I’m not a real cat.”

“You look real.”

“Well of course I look real. I’m meant to look real. And in the purely existential sense, I am real. I’m just not a real cat.”

“So what are you then?”

“I’m a self-regulating automaton running an experimental analysis engine. I’m capable of independent motion, independent thought, and I may well be the smartest creature in this house. At the very least I’m the smartest half of this conversation. Got it?”


John Sinister is not having a good week. Hired to look into some shady going on at the airship factory, his investigation has barely begun before people start dying. Pretty soon he finds himself on the wrong side of some fairly unpleasant people, and that’s before he meets the worlds one and only autonomous automaton, Dexter the cat. That’s when things get complicated.


Welcome to the world of Dexter & Sinister : Detecting Agents.

Dexter & Sinister is a steampunk murder mystery set in 1800s Hammersmyth, a city in the grip of the Great Steam Revolution. The first in a planned series of novels, it is what I like to call Emerging Steampunk, in that the world our main characters inhabit is not so different from how you might expect Victorian England to be. Yes, they have radiophones and transatlantic airships, but no mechanical horses (yet).

I wrote Dexter & Sinister to be accessible to all, from those familiar with the genre, to those who’ve never dipped their toe in the steampunk waters before. A light, enjoyable read, it steers clear of the whole dark dystopia thing, and instead concentrates on the fun and imaginative side of storytelling. As far as I’m concerned reading should be an escape, so wallowing in misery is just not my cup of tea.

I’ve always been a big fan of Terry Pratchett, and how he was able to tackle important topics whilst at the same time begin fun and entertaining to read. It’s something I have tried to emulate in my writing, and if I’ve been able to distill even an ounce of his genius into my work then as far as I’m concerned I’ll have done good job.

Being a murder mystery I can’t give too much away, it’s up to you to figure out whodunnit, but if all that sounds like your kind of thing you can buy Dexter & Sinister as either a paperback or e-book through Amazon.

And if you’re still not convinced then do have a read of the short story, Dexter vs Mr Nibbles, available now for free on this very website.

The Stoic Writer

The thing with being a self published author is it can feel like the success of your book rests entirely in your own hands. You write, edit, format, design, market, and publicise all by your lonesome, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that any sales, or lack thereof, are a result of you and you alone. This is not true, and I’ll tell you why.

I’ve been reading Derren Brown’s book Happy recently. In it he talks about the ‘lost’ art of Stoicism.

Kindle with the cover of Derren Brown's Happy on it. Cover is a sky blue background with the word Happy floating on it, the letters made out of golden mylar balloons.

Tagline for the book is, Why more or less everything is absolutely fine.

At its most basic stoic philosophy is about recognising that there are two things in this world; that which we can control and that which we can’t, and how the things we can’t control aren’t worth worrying about so why bother (although most of us inevitably do which is where a lot of our daily frustration comes from).

But it goes even deeper than that. The things we can control can be divided into two things as well; what we think and what we do. So when you get right down to it all any of us has any real control over are what goes on in our own heads, and what we do about it.

NB: I know it may seem like we have no control over our thoughts sometimes, that they just bubble up unbidden from our subconscious, but we do have control over how much attention we give them when they do appear. We can either feed them, keeping them alive, or we can ignore them, allowing them to rise and fall like miscellaneous waves on the ocean of our mind.

So what’s all this got to do with writing you ask? Simple.

You can put all the effort you like into creating something. You can dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. You can make it look as beautiful as it’s possible for it to be, truly breath-taking to behold. You can shout about it from the rooftops, extolling its virtues until the whole world has heard of your work. But once you send it out into the world that’s it, its success is no longer in your hands. People will either buy it or they won’t, and if it’s just not their kind of thing there’s absolutely nothing you can do about that.

Now I know some of you may disagree with me about this. I know some of you will still believe that if you just try hard enough success is guaranteed, and that’s fine. There’s nothing I can do about what goes on inside your head, which I’m afraid is exactly the point. Because just as I can do nothing about what goes on inside your head, so you can do nothing about what goes on inside someone else’s (no matter what the Big Bumper Book of Marketing tells you).

It is fair to say that if you don’t put the effort in you won’t get anything back in return. The sales of most self published novels die due to neglect more than anything else. But if you do the best you can, if you put your best foot forward, if you give the people every opportunity to engage with you and your work and still your sales are fair to mediocre, so be it. It is what it is.

Simply put, there are so many factors outside of your control within this whole process that to suggest the end result is entirely in your hands is absolutely ludicrous.

What Are The Three Types Of Writing?

Three types of writing? What on earth are you on about, Keith. Surely there are more than that. Hell, I can think of half a dozen genres off the top of my head. How can there be just three? Have you gone you crazy or something!

Okay, this is going to get a little fuzzy, because what I’m going to talk about doesn’t have any defined terms. This is just something I’ve come up with to help me understand what I’m doing with my writing as I’m doing it. It’s not a steadfast rule, and like all rules sometimes it has to be broken, but it goes a long way to help make my writing easier to read and hence more enjoyable.

Let me explain…

1. What is that? (Non-Action)

I have noticed, whilst reading some of my favourite authors, that the ones whose work is easiest to read have a trick they do whereby they are very specific about what they are trying to achieve. If they are describing something – a building, a person, a piece of history – they will often stop telling their story to describe that one thing, before then carrying on with their story again.

Now you can intermingle your descriptions in with your story, and often will have to for clarity, but if you have something big that you want to set solidly in the reader’s mind, just describing that one thing is the way to go.

Here’s an example from Dexter & Sinister:


John had always liked Chard Manor, even if it did creep him out a little. He liked the higgledy-piggledy nature of the place. Years of revamps and renovations had turned a once average country house into a haphazardly stacked pile of architecture, held together by a ridiculous amount of pipework. A convoluted web of copper crawled all over the house, like out of control metal ivy, delivering the glory of steam to every room in the place. It was this that John didn’t like. Not the piping as such, but the way it would vent unexpectedly, hissing water vapour from every orifice in one big disgruntled sigh. It gave the impression not only that the building was alive, but that it was rather annoyed about the fact, too.

The local kids used to climb the walls of the estate to get a look at ‘Mr Chard’s Steam Castle’. Convinced it was haunted, they would dare each other to go and tap three times on the brickwork to see if they could wake the demons within. Few would, of course. Why risk being dragged to hell when you had your whole life ahead of you? But for those with guts enough to go for it, a lifetime of bragging rights awaited, and many an argument had been settled with the words, ‘Yeah? Well I tapped the castle when I were a kid. Has you?’ before now.


See how nothing changes in the story, but you now have a clear idea of what the manor looks like and what is feels like to be there. By doing this I never had to describe the manor again. I gave the reader a simple, solid description for them to hang their hat on, and then moved on to other, more exciting things.

NB: This is where most of your world building will happen.

2. What’s going on? (Passive Action)

Yes, I know “passive action” is a bit of a contradiction, but hear me out. It’s not the action that is passive but rather the main character.

When something is happening that maybe isn’t all that interesting, but which has to happen for the story to work, or if something is happening out of view from my main character, and hence it’s not something they have any control over, that to me is passive action. It’s not something you want to use a lot of, because passive story telling is not the most satisfying, but it has its uses.

NB: It’s also useful if you need to say a lot in a short space of time, giving an overview of what’s happening without doing too much of a deep dive.

Again, here’s an example:


Outside, John checked his watch. He had time to swing by Gravesend Bridge on the way to the airship factory. He wanted another look at the scene of the crime, to see if there was anything he’d missed. He wasn’t expecting to discover a hidden suicide note or anything like that, but he hadn’t been all that thorough the first time he was there so who could say what he might find. He would go by the bridge, go pick up Dexter, drop him off at home, then go have a word with Spencer Shelby the Third. He lived not far from Chard Manor. It was about time he answered a few questions. Arrogance and ignorance only bought you so much leeway. It was time to turn the screws a bit.

With his collar turned up and his coat pulled tight around him, John headed through the fog towards Gravesend Bridge.

Over the road from the Scion Club, two men stepped from the shadows of a shop doorway. After a brief yet animated discussion – involving lots of agitated hand gestures and some obvious protestations – one of the men was dispatched at a jog down a side street, whilst the other sauntered off up the road after John.


You know John is being followed, but you don’t yet know by whom or why. In this instance, passive action is being used as foreshadowing for what’s about to come next.

3. What are they up to? (Active Action)

This is likely going to make up the bulk of your story. This is where your main character is doing whatever it is they do to make the story happen. It is action, but it is also dialogue. It is any time your main character is doing something to change the world around them, rather than the world around them changing of its own accord.

This is the most satisfying for people to read, which is why it’s where you want to spend most of your time as a writer. It’s where things are ‘happening’, not where they ‘happened’. It’s exciting, and fun, and interesting, and if done well it’s the reason your readers will describe your book as unputdownable.

For the sake of clarity I’m going to give you two examples of this. They may seem different, but they affect the reader experience in the same way.


The man spotted John staring. He looked around, trying to work out what he was staring at, until he realised it was him. Crushing out his cigarette the man made a show of standing and stretching, giving John one last look before wandering off down the road, his hands in his pockets, his pace leisurely. He whistled to himself as he walked, kicking at the pavement as he tried to appear as nonchalant as possible.

John crossed the road. Passing the omnibus stop he followed the man, taking his time so as not to spook him, but still walking fast enough to start gaining ground. The man looked over his shoulder. He saw John and sped up. John sped up, the man sped up – both still walking, but only just. They looked like two men trying to maintain their dignity as they rushed to catch the last train home.

The road ran alongside a six-foot high brick wall that belonged to the house opposite Chard Manor. It ended at a corner a hundred yards up the road. Reaching the corner the man cut right, disappearing from view. John jogged to catch up, but when he turned the corner the man was already well away, hurtling full pelt down the road, arms and legs pumping hard.

John gave chase.


Notice how that one needed a little bit of description at the start of the third paragraph to give it some extra clarity. The scene occurs within an area that is already established in the reader’s mind, but as it moves elsewhere I had to throw in extra description to keep it going, with some actual Non Action in the ensuing paragraphs when it moves somewhere completely new.

This second one may be a lot of standing around talking, but I class it as Action because it changes the story, advancing the plot (whilst also giving is a greater sense of who these two characters are).


“You see! I told you that man wasn’t to be trusted. And now we have proof. So, when do we get him? When do we go to the police?”

“Whoa. Hold your horses. We haven’t got anything yet. We’re going to need a lot more evidence before we can go to the police.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake! So what now then? What do you want to do?”

“I want to go talk to Peter Chard, tell him what we know. Y’know, shake the tree a little, see what falls out.”

Dexter looked at him funny. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well, you’re not the biggest guy in the world. I’m not sure you could take him.”

“What do you mean? I… I’m not going to strong-arm him or anything. I’m going to talk to the man, to rattle his cage, see if he lets something slip. Shake the tree is just an expression.”

“Oh. I see,” said Dexter. If mechanical cats could blush Dexter would have been a beetroot. “Well… as long as we get him I don’t care how we do it. I just hope you’re up to the job is all.”


But why have these definitions in the first place?

Simple. When it comes to writing, or at least when it comes to my writing, clarity is key. The easier a story is to read the better. Note that I’m not saying the subject matter needs to be easy, you can have as in depth or as complex a storyline as you like, but the act of getting that story across should be as simple as a meerkat.

When I’m writing anything I try to know what each paragraph/section is doing, and then I only do that thing. If I need a lot of description I just describe. If I need to get some information across I just do that. If I’m telling the story, which is most of the time, I try to only do that (although there are, as always, exceptions to the rule).

To give you an idea of why this kind of separation is important, here’s a deliberately mixed up piece of writing, along with how it should read.


Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.

The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean.

If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain.

Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”

Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.

John tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there. “I’ll say.”

“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”

John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.


Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.

If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain. He tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there.

Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”

“I’ll say.”

“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”

John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.

The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean. Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.


See how much less satisfying the first one is compared to the second. I mean it’s fine, it has all the same information presented in roughly the same order, but the flow is all wrong. It feels clunky and unfocused. The description doesn’t give a solid, single image for the reader to enjoy, and the character interaction has lost some of its charm. It leaps around too much, with a clumsy transition from corridor to morgue. In short, it lacks clarity.

So what does this all mean?

For me, understanding what each paragraph is doing makes my life a whole lot simpler. Not only does it make my story easier to read, but when it comes time to edit my story I can move paragraphs around without fear, knowing full well that moving a piece of description, or some Passive Action, to somewhere else in the book won’t affect the story. Or I can rewrite parts entirely, coming at it from a different angle (as I did with the Chard Manor description), again knowing that my main storyline will remain intact.

And, as I’ve said many times already, if you are clear in your mind about what you are doing, your reader will be clear in their mind about what is going on, which can only lead to a more pleasurable reading experience all round.

It also allows you to mess with their expectations, slipping in important information without them realising, but that is a topic for another post altogether.

Addendum

I’ve been trying to think of percentages, of how much I do each of these things. Now, I’m not about to go through an entire novel to check, but for the most part I reckon you’re looking at roughly 5, 10, 85. That’s 5% just description, 10% passive storytelling (side action & world building), and 85% actual story.

These are not hard and fast amounts, and much of the active storytelling will contain elements of the other two, but as a general rule that’s the mix of styles I go for.

Hope that helps.

Committee On The Bounty

With the release of animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks on Amazon I thought I’d share with you this short story of mine, called Committee On The Bounty. It’s about what would happen if the Red Shirts in the Star Trek Universe were to unionise. After all, no one ever asks if they want to risk life and limb for one of the command crew every week, now do they? Maybe they would have something to say on the matter, if anyone was to ever ask.

It’s not my usual steampunk affair, but it is a lot of fun, so I thought it was worth sharing. Don’t take it too seriously and you’ll be just fine.

Enjoy!


Oooooo-WEEE-ooooh! — ‘Attention, crew of the USC Bounty. This is the captain speaking. As you know, in our recent encounter with the Volgons your ship-mate, Specialist Cantour, was captured and taken aboard a Volgon StarCruiser. That ship, as we speak, is heading deep into Volgon territory never to be seen again. Star Command have ordered us not to pursue, for fear of starting a war with the Volgons. This, I’m sure you’ll agree, is unacceptable.

‘It is my intention to pursue the Volgons and retrieve Specialist Cantour by any means necessary. Specialist Cantour is one of us, one of our own. We are a family aboard this ship, we take care of each other, and being part of a family means no one gets left behind.

‘Prepare yourselves. This could get messy. Grey, out.’

In engineering, Engineer Polk frowned up at the speaker in the corner of the room. ‘Seriously? Again?’

‘What’s that?’ asked the engineer next to him.

‘Captain Grey. He’s disobeying direct orders again.’

‘So?’

‘So what about last week, when he brought that alien on board and it killed those two techs in the science lab? Or the week before that when he warped the ship through an asteroid belt and bounced too close to that black hole? Duncan and Foss still have nightmares about nearly getting sucked out into space when the cargo bay seals went. If they hadn’t hung on until the pressure shield kicked in they would have too.’

‘So?’

‘So! Now he’s going up against the Volgons? And for Specialist Cantour, of all people! I mean, if it was a one off, maybe, but that woman is a liability. She’s always getting herself into trouble. And every time she does we all have to go in and rescue her. It’s not fair I tell you. Something needs to be done.’

‘Well, you’re with the union, aren’t you? How about, instead of just standing there moaning to me about it all day, you actually go up there do something about it, eh?’

Engineer Polk stuck out his chin and gave a decisive, if slightly hesitant, nod. ‘Alright then. I will.’


On the bridge of the USC Bounty, handsome-haired Captain Damian Grey sat placidly amidst the industrious hubbub, as his Command Crew prepared for the jump to warp. ‘Are we ready Mr Kalarr?’

The captain’s fish-headed first officer nodded inside his water-filled helmet. ‘Ready on your mark, Captain.’

‘Good. Then, make it go, Number One.’

‘Aye sir. Ensign Sully, if you please.’

The ship’s pilot tapped her control screen. Nothing happened. She tried again. Still nothing. A third attempt had the same result. ‘I’m sorry sir, but we’re not getting any power to the engines. There seems to be a problem in Engineering. The hyper-core appears to be offline.’

Captain Grey hit his communicator. ‘Engineering? This is the captain. What’s going on down there? Is there a problem with the hyper-core?’

‘Um, hello captain. Engineer Polk here. I’ve, uh, taken the hyper-core offline I’m afraid.’

‘What? Why? Is it broken? How long before it can be up and running?’

‘I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that, Captain.’

‘Not as simple? What do you mean?’

‘I’m sorry about this Captain, but as the official representative of the Union of Non-Command Personnel aboard the Bounty, I have to officially inform you that all non-command personnel are now officially on strike… sir.’

Captain Grey and Kalarr exchanged a bemused look. ‘Come again?’ said the captain.


The atmosphere is Captain Grey’s ready room was tense to say the least. The captain sat behind his desk, glaring at the pale and visibly sweaty engineer in the chair opposite him. Kalarr stood off to the side, the liquid in his breather helmet bubbling ominously.

‘Run that by me again,’ said the captain.

‘Well, sir, it’s like this. We at UNCPER feel that you – and the rest of the Bridge crew – often fail to take non-command personnel into consideration when making critical decisions.’

‘But that’s the job Mr Poke. I give the orders and you carry them out.’

‘It’s, uh, Polk sir. Engineer Polk. And as a rule sir, yes. For the most part our members are happy to carry out your orders as given. But, let’s be honest, you are in the habit of putting this ship and its entire crew at risk in a manner that some might consider to be… a little reckless.’

‘For the good of the mission,’ said Captain Grey, sitting forward. ‘Everything I do is for the good of the mission.’

Engineer Polk paled even further. ‘I understand sir. And your dedication to duty is commendable. It’s just… not what most of us signed up for.’

‘Not what you signed up for? Not what you signed up for?!’ The captain leapt to his feet. Leaning on his desk, he looming over Engineer Polk. ‘You signed up for three square meals a day and to do what you’re bloody well told, that’s what you signed up for! This isn’t a democracy, for crying out loud, this is Star Command! We follow orders. We follow orders or people die. Do you understand?’

Engineer Polk swallowed loudly. ‘Yes sir. I understand sir, But – forgive me sir – but why should we adhere to the chain of command when our captain does not?’

‘I…’ Captain Grey stared at Engineer Polk. He glanced at Kalarr who very wisely said nothing. Adjusting his tunic Captain Grey sat back down again. ‘The Volgons will most likely kill Specialist Cantour, you realise that don’t you? In fact they’re probably torturing her for information as we speak.’

‘I do sir, yes. And believe me, this is not a decision I take lightly. But many more would die in a battle with the Volgons, I’m sure.’

‘And what about the fact the Specialist Cantour would gladly risk her life to save yours? Doesn’t that give you pause for thought at all?’

‘Sir, I have met Specialist Cantour exactly once during my time on this ship. She called me a Teryllian snot-monger for taking the last piece of birthday cake at a party we were having in Engineering.’

‘Well who takes the last piece of cake, Mr Polk?’

‘It was my birthday, Captain. And it was the first piece I’d had. I was late to my own party because I was busy fixing your ship, sir.’

The captain shifted in his seat. ‘Yes, well… Specialist Cantour does like her cake,’ he mumbled.

‘I’m sorry sir, but appealing to my compassion will not work. It lies firmly with my union brothers and sisters I’m afraid.’

The captain yanked open his desk drawer and grabbed the phase pistol he kept there. ‘And what if I was to shoot you for disobeying a direct order Mr Polk? How about that? Would that help change your mind at all?’

Polk’s stomach did an unwelcome back-flip as he fought to hold down his lunch. ‘Captain, please. Killing me won’t get you what you want. And besides,’ he added quickly, ‘the engineering computers are locked out, and only I know how to unlock them.’

Engineer Polk did his best to stay calm, and stay conscious, even though fainting and wetting himself were two very tempting options right now (he was ambivalent about which he would like to do first). He’d been warned there would be moments like this when he’d been elected UNCPER union rep. It was well known as a difficult and challenging position to hold. He hadn’t been warned there would be weaponry involved however. That was proving to be a most unwelcome development.

Captain Grey’s jaw worked overtime as he ground his teeth together, his pistol pointed directly at Engineer Polk’s chest. ‘If I may,’ said Mr Kalarr, stepping forward. ‘Perhaps if Engineer Polk was to tell us what he wants, we could resolve this matter sooner rather than later. Let us not forget, the more time we waste the further away Specialist Cantour becomes.’

‘Very well,’ said Captain Grey reluctantly, putting his gun away. ‘What is it the Red Shirts want? What do I have to do to make you go away?’

Engineer Polk bristled. ‘Please don’t call us that, Captain. Red Shirts is a derogatory term, and we are an officially recognised union after all.’

Squeezing his eyes shut, Captain Grey pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘What do you want, Mr Polk?’

‘Well, Captain, all UNCPER wants is to have a say in some of the more “non-standard” decision making that goes on around here. I suggest a small committee, to be consulted whenever activities that fall outside the bounds of normal operating procedure are being considered. We are not unreasonable people, but when our lives are being put at risk it would be nice to know we’ve had a say in the decision making process. I think that’s fair, don’t you?’

Captain Grey considered Engineer Polk for a very long time. He drummed his hand on the desk top, right over the drawer where he kept his pistol. He didn’t look all that inclined to agree, which was a problem, because Engineer Polk had no idea what he was meant to do if management said no? The union manual had been quite vague about that possibility. It always seemed to assume that success was inevitable.

Captain Grey let out a deep sigh. ‘Very well. I will accept having a committee of three people – no more! – to represent the non-command personnel in some decision making. But their input will be limited and their opinion will be non-binding, is that understood?’

Engineer Polk almost sighed with relief. ‘Yes sir. Of course sir.’

‘You will want to have elections no doubt, but since time is of the essence I suggest you find two colleagues willing to speak on behalf of the crew until they can be arranged. Is that acceptable, Mr Polk?’

‘Yes sir. Indeed it is sir. A very good idea sir.’

‘Good. Now, perhaps you would be so kind as to unlock the computers in Engineering so that we can continue our pursuit of Specialist Cantour? If that’s alright with you, that is?’


USC Bounty dropped out of hyper-warp above the Volgon home world. The Volgons dispatched a StarCruiser to intercept. Coming face to face with the Bounty the Volgon ship locked on all its weapons and powered up, ready to fire.

The Volgon captain opened a channel to the Bounty. ‘This is Tellos Mech, of the Volgon High Command. You are trespassing in Volgon territory. Depart at once or prepare to be boarded. Any other action will be seen as hostile and will bring about your complete annihilation. The choice is yours. You have ten of your Earth seconds to comply.’

Shutting off the communicator he awaited their response. The Bounty didn’t move, didn’t raise its shields, didn’t arm its weapons. It just sat there silently, doing nothing. After twenty seconds of this Tellos Mech opened communications again. ‘Well? Which is it to be? Will you run like cowards, or will you die like dogs?’

The Bounty opened a communication channel of its own. A lot of talking could be heard going on in the background. ‘Um, can you give us a minute,’ said Captain Grey. ‘We’re just discussing our options.’ The line went dead.

Tellos Mech turned to his First Officer, who did what passed for a shrug on Volgon. <What do we do now sir?> he said.

<I don’t know, First Of Many. Open fire, I guess?>


On the bridge of the Bounty they were still deciding what the Volgons meant by “complete” annihilation – ‘But surely they can’t mean everyone on board, can they? I mean, even the clean-up crew? It’s like, what did they do to deserve getting all annihilated and that, eh?’ – when a plasma torpedo ripped through their hyper-core, clearing the matter up for them once and for all.

Author, Promote Thyself!

I was about to start this post with “Sadly, these days, it’s not enough for an author to write an awesome book to become successful, you have to be an awesome self promoter as well,” but then I realised that self promotion and writing have always gone hand in hand.

One of the reasons Charles Dickens became so famous was his flair for self promotion. He would go on tours and do stage readings, both here and in America, his novels would be serialised in newspapers and magazines, and he was all about the author branding in everything that he did (ever heard the term ‘Dickensian’ before?)

None of this is surprising since Charles Dickens was very much the original self-published author.

I’m not a big fan of the self promotion side of things, it does not come naturally to me, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s there, and it needs to be dealt with. Luckily, I have a variety of skills, an array of half remembered techniques that I can draw upon to make things that will (hopefully) get people’s attention.

Here are just a few of the things I’ve done, along with a few others I have in the works. Maybe they will inspire you to a few ideas of your own.

The Basics

An author needs their own website, and they need to be on social media.

Now, before everyone gets up in arms about that statement, let me explain. You don’t need a massive social media following to be a successful author. You don’t need any kind of social media presence at all in fact. BUT, if you’re going to promote yourself you damn sure need a platform on which to put all that self promotion, and in general social media is the place to do it.

I have a website (this one), Twitter, and Instagram, the three of which I use on a regular basis. I also have a Facebook account, but its sole purpose is to funnel people to my other accounts. I don’t use Facebook, and I’m not about to start now, but it’s where people go to find people, so you need to have some kind of presence there.

Concentrate on the sites you will actually use, and then do them well. Engage, interact, make friends and gather followers. Be genuine and honest, and don’t make it all about you. It’s called “social” media after all.

The only people who can afford to ignore social media are the already rich and famous, and that’s because their marketing departments do it all for them. They may not be into social media, but you can be damn sure their brand manager is.

Except, of course, most of them are on social media. Do you think Neil Gaiman tweets because he needs the sales? No. But he does it anyway, because he likes to share, and he enjoys engaging with the fans. He just happens to take the time to promote his work while he’s there too, no doubt leading to more book sales along the way.

Be Different

A tweet saying “Buy my Book!” with a link will get you zero sales, pretty much. Why should I buy your book? What’s in it for me? What is it even about?

I made some promotional images when my book came out, with a few different quotes that I thought would appeal to different readers in different ways. Whenever I promote my book I try and use one of them to give people a taste of what they might find inside, and to get them hooked, if possible, on wanting to read more.

  • gallery of book quotes that are rather long

These were originally a teaser campaign, but I repurposed them as general promotional items.

Anything you can do to make yourself stand out, to differentiate yourself from everybody else, can only work in your favour.

People Will Always Take Two Minutes To Watch A Video

There’s a reason Tik Tok is doing so well. People will watch and share a short video much more readily than they will a piece of text. The same goes from images. They’ll share a picture (like the ones above) before they’ll share just the words by themselves. It’s annoying, but that’s the way it is.

Due to the pandemic, the launch of my debut novel had to be a lot more virtual than I would have like. Thankfully, I had a few video editing skills that I could fall back on to at least make something memorable to mark the occasion.

I made those two videos for the Asylum (Sanctuary) Steampunk Festival, who very graciously agreed to allow my book launch to be part of their festival. I used my little pocket-sized digital camera that also records video, I recorded the audio on my phone using the headset mic I got free with my Playstation 4, and I edited it on a free piece of software called OpenShot, with images and audio I got from royalty free websites and and the Youtube audio library (since that was where it would be hosted).

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a decent video, you just have to know what you want, then come up with a way to get it. The more you do it the better you’ll become. Just practise and see what happens. You can always change it again if it doesn’t look how you want it to.

My launch video took three days to shoot because the fireworks looked pathetic. I had to reshoot a bunch of stuff around me setting them off, then insert all the library footage, then record extra audio to fill in the gaps I had in the footage I had shot. NB: My top tip for making good video is have good audio! Seriously, people will watch a blank screen if the audio is good (radio plays), but if they can’t hear what people are saying they’ll tune out fairly quickly and go watch something else. Good audio is like spell checking your novel, no one will notice if you get it right, but if you mess it up they’ll lose interest faster than you can say, “How many l’s are there in parallellolellolellogram?”

Also, your videos don’t have to be one shot, single use, promotional items either. I’ve posted these on my own Youtube channel as a sort of video archive. Maybe they’ll catch someone’s attention, and maybe they won’t. Who knows. It cost me nothing to put them up there, so why not find out.

Think Outside The Box

You’re swiping through Tik Tok, and it’s all talking head after talking head after talking head. Then someone appears on screen in a full skull make-up and you pause, wondering what’s going on? At that point the make-up has done its job.

Anything you can do to make yourself stand out from the crowd is a good thing. Anything you can do to build on your brand, and pull in more potential readers, also good.

At the time of writing this post I’m working on a few things that aren’t novels, but will hopefully expand the world of Dexter & Sinister beyond the page to a wider audience.

I’m looking into doing a video version of Dexter vs. Mr Nibbles, as a precursor to possibly doing the whole book as a series of ten minute videos on Youtube (something which my friend Matt has started doing to great effect). I also might turn the audio into an audio book, but that’s something I have yet to delve into seriously.

I’ve started work as well on a board game, the details of which I can’t go into yet. It’d be steampunk themed, and set (as much possible) in the world of Hammersmyth, expanding its “universe” a little and hopefully drawing in fans who might not have tried the books otherwise.

Like I said before, anything you can do to make your creation larger and more inviting, the better.

Do What you Gotta Do

Really, there are no rules about all this. You should do whatever you can to get eyeballs on your work. I’ve been featured on people’s blogs, done giveaways, been a guest speaker on podcasts and online events. I tweet, I put up photos, and I write blog posts like this, all to make connections with people.

And I do my newsletter, which to me is the most valuable tool of all. Not only does it all me to connect with people, giving them an insight into my personal life, but it also makes me do more writing, because if I don’t write, I don’t have anything to write about at the end of the month (which for an author would be a pretty poor show, let me tell you).

Do what you gotta do. Get out there. Get seen. Make connections, make friends, make progress in your work. And don’t worry about whether you are where you think you “need” to be. All such goals are an illusion. So long as you have more in the artistic bank tomorrow than you had yesterday, then you’re doing alright as far as I’m concerned.

My Top Writing Tips

I’m not a writing expert, but I have been at it since I was eight years old, I study the art of writing constantly, I’ve completed three novels (one published), and I’ve tried more ways to plan and write than you can shake a stick at, so I flatter myself that I know a thing or two about it.

I want to tell you about some of the things that work for me, how I go about planning a book, my own personal dos and don’ts. This won’t be a post about structure, development, editing, or where to get your ideas. This is about finishing what you start, and about making it interesting the whole way through.

It’s also highly personal to me, so if you disagree with any of it, or you’ve heard contradicting advice somewhere else, so be it. I can’t help you with that.

I Am What I Am

You hear a lot about Plotters and Pantsers, Gardeners and Architects, those who plan out their work versus those who just wing it. Within these very narrow definitions I am, what you would call, a Plotter.

NB: I actually don’t think anyone is either one or the other. I doubt there’s a single Pantser who doesn’t plot a little, even in their head. And I think that most Plotters, when a truly interesting possibility bubbles up during the writing process, are willing to investigate that possibility, even if it means restructuring their plot just a little.

But anyway, as a Plotter, I need details before I can start writing, which brings me to…

When Is It?

I’ve discovered, over the years, that I need to know what time of year it is. Seriously, until I know what the weather is like (Warm? Mild? Blowing a gale!), and what time it gets dark (Dark by 6pm? Light until 10pm?), I’m not happy.

Knowing what time of years it is informs so much for me. From what my characters are wearing, to how much time they have in the day to do a given thing. I hate those moments when characters do something impossible because it has to happen for the story to work, like teleporting around the map as if their destination isn’t three days ride away. It takes me right out of whatever I’m reading. Making sure a book’s timeline is grounded in reality is extremely important as far as I’m concerned.

Which bring me to my next point…

Make A Timeline

I’ve tried putting Post-It notes on the walls. I’ve tried writing and re-writing outlines from beginning to end. I’ve even tried detailed longhand descriptions for each chapter. But you know what works best for me? A proper timeline.

A tantalising photo of the many sheets of my timeline, all partially obscured, noted as Day One to Four, with the times down the side, and some bits of events next to them.

If I don’t have a timeline when I start a book, you can be damn sure I’ll have one by the end, which is why these days I’ll always start out with one. Knowing where people are, when, and how long it will take them to get where they’re going just works for me. I need to know my storyline is at least plausible, so that I can better sell it to the reader along the way. The more I am convinced, the more I can convince them

For example, in the book I’m writing now, The Dragonfly Delivery Company, I had to decide on an average airship speed, so that I could work out how long it takes the crew of the Dragonfly to fly from Hammersmyth, to Iron Bridge, to Helvellyn, to the very tip of Scotland. It’s not something I’m ever going to share with the audience, it’s just something I needed to know, for my own sake.

Timelines are especially handy when it comes to writing crime stories, to help you keep track of who was where, when, and how much they know at any one time. A murder mystery might be a “closed” story, in that the reader doesn’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but the writer needs to know (especially when the investigation impacts on the crimes being committed, as it does in Dexter & Sinister).

I do an A4 sheet for each day, with the time down one side, and columns for each thread I want to include. I usually do three threads – the Investigation (Main), the Crime (Secondary), and Other – listing all the moments I want to show and when they might occur. I then draw arrows from one to the next, showing in which order I want those moments to happen.

I’ve basically taken a leaf out of Terry Pratchett’s book in doing this. He writes multiple threads, switching between them as he sees fit, arriving when the story gets interesting, then jumping to the next one when the story gets dull. It’s a great way to keep your reader, and yourself, engaged, being a very cinematic approach to storytelling (editing between scenes to keep things interesting).

It also helps cut out the boring stuff in between, the three day rides from one place to another where nothing happens; which brings me to…

Compression

I try and make everything happen in as little time as possible. If it can all happen in the same day, great. If it takes two days, so be it. If it takes a week there needs to be a damn good reason for that.

I know this may sound contradictory, considering what I talked about above regarding realistic timings, but it’s not. It’s more about having your characters turn up at someone’s house at midnight, instead of waiting until the next morning to be polite. It’s about injecting a sense of urgency and progress, about keeping the story moving no matter what, because letting things linger is the death of a good story as far as I’m concerned.

And no, I’m not talking about sticking some artificial ‘ticking clock’ in there, as you so often see in the movies these days. I’m saying that if your main characters don’t care enough to put in a little effort, then why should anyone else?

Story waffle is a particular bugbear of mine, which brings me to…

Too Much Description

*sigh*

One of the things I love about steampunk is the aesthetic. I love how beautiful everything looks, the outfits people wear, and the ancient equivalents of modern inventions that you get.

(To prove my point, here’s me in a hat and goggles.)

My lovely head wearing a black newsboy's cap, like in Peaky Blinders and a pair of brass coloured goggles with black lenses that completely obscure my eyes.

What I hate is when you read a story and the author stops everything to tell you in great detail what someone is wearing. Hat, gloves, waistcoat, jacket, pince-nez, cane, engraved pocket-watch, these are all things I don’t need to know about, especially if they’re not relevant to the story.

Now I know I may be in the minority here, but too much description kills a story for me. Not only does it stop the reader from using their own imagination, but it slows everything down to a crawl whilst the author burdens you with all the pretty/clever things they have in their head. I once read an entire paragraph on the history of a sofa that I knew would never feature in the story again. I mean, why?

Of course, if you have a major character, or what they are wearing is of great importance, then by all means describe them, but no more than you have to and not all at once. It’s Info Dumping, as far as I’m concerned, one of the cardinal sins of writing. I’ve no time for it, and neither does your reader.

NB: A timeline is a great way to avoid info dumps (burdening your reader with too information all at once, especially at the beginning of a story). If you know that you are coming back to a character or location later in the story, for an extended period, you can move that bit of exposition until then, leaving you free to get on with whatever it is your main character is meant to be doing right now. This to me is one of the main benefits of a timeline. It removes the need to say too much up front, because you know it’ll get said later on.

As an author, you don’t need to tell your reader everything. They’re generally pretty smart, and can fill in the gaps. Give them broad strokes and move on. As long as they know who someone is, they don’t need to know the intricate history of every little thing they are wearing.

But of course, just to contradict myself…

Go Nuts!

I like to describe writing a book as being like baking a cake, except that you throw in all the ingredients you have, then slowly take them out until you figure out what kind of cake you were making in the first place.

When I do a first draft I try not to self edit. I throw in everything I can think of, knowing full well that I can take it out later on. And yes, sometimes that does include unnecessary description and detail.

Quite often I’ll write something knowing full well it’ll get deleted at some point. To me it’s the same as needing to know how fast an airship flies. I need to write it for me, to get it out of my head. But I also have no compunction about getting rid of it when the time comes. Some description enhances a story, and some of it enhances a story by not being there anymore. It is the way.

I can go nuts when I’m writing because I have a timeline. Oddly enough, having a framework gives me something to explore within. If I was just making it all up off the top of my head I could end up anywhere, and indeed often have.

I once deleted three whole chapters of my second book because it had wandered too far from where I wanted it to go. I didn’t have a proper timeline then, although I did by the time it came to do the edit. Like I say, I always end up with a timeline, it’s just these days the timeline comes first.

Having a timeline doesn’t just help you understand What you should be writing, it helps you understand Why you are writing it. Or, more to the point, it gives each part of your book…

Purpose

This is something I have stolen from screenwriting.

In a movie there’s no time to mess about. You can’t just have a scene do one thing. I scene should do two, or even three things, in order to be successful. It should provide us with either information we need, tell us something about the characters, or advance the plot in one way or another. And in an ideal world it would do all three.

Watch this scene from Apollo 13.

In that one scene we learn about what’s going to happen in the movie (or rather, what’s meant to happen – landing on the moon). We learn about what kind of a man Tom Hanks’s character is. We learn about his family life, what a good father he is, how he cares for those around him. We also learn about how dangerous going to outer space can be, that you could lose your life doing it, but also that he is confident that everyone at Nasa will do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen (Notice how he says “We fixed it”, not “They fixed it”, like they’re all in this together.)

We get all of that in one two minute scene. It’s masterful, and a great lesson in making sure that every scene you have in your writing serves a purpose.

I’ve cut entire characters before now, because they did nothing to effect the plot. I’ve cut out whole sections of story to visit locations once, rather than twice, to save time. The more you can do to tell your story as efficiently as possible, the better.

Word counts are for #nanowrimo. Tell your story as efficiently as possible and then walk away.

With that in mind, a final word on two things that many writers seem to obsess over…

Adverbs, And ‘Show Don’t Tell’

First of all, let me say up front that I hate the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It drives me up the wall, because whilst it can be helpful at times, it can also turn your writing into a waffley mess.

The big quote is, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Now, this is all well and good, but sometimes you can get all twisted up trying to be clever, and that doesn’t help anybody.

I once had an editor try and get me to describe the action of sighing, instead of just saying, “he sighed.” It was cumbersome and unnecessary, and I chose not to work with that editor.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making things interesting. But if all that’s needed is the line, “It was a ratty old sofa held together by an array of rusty nails and hope,” don’t waste my time telling me about all the backsides it has entertained over the years.

And as for adverbs, they get a lot of hate in the writing community; unjustly so in my opinion.

Adverbs have their place. Yes, you’re probably better off not using one, they can get a bit cumbersome at times, but if they do the job then why not have one. They exist for a reason after all.

In the example mentioned previously, “he sighed heavily” was used, which the editor wanted me to change to something like”he sighed, his head falling, his shoulders slumped with the weight of the world.”

Now that’s all well and good, but imagine a story full of that, paragraph after paragraph of flowery description, the literary equivalent of wading through mud. It just doesn’t work for me. A little, yes. A lot, no. Which is why, if I want to put an adverb in, I will. (Although, that is very much a first draft thing for me.)

I will always look to remove as many adverbs as I can when editing. They aren’t as necessary as you might think. But if they do the job, or if taking them out would make the writing demonstrably worse, then in they stay.

Never throw a tool out of your toolbox. They all have their uses.

In Conclusion

As I mentioned at the beginning of this, this is how I write. It won’t be for everyone, and some people will no doubt disagree with some, if not all, of what I’ve said.

If you take something away from all this then fantastic. If not, then I hope you at least found it of interest. There are many ways to climb the mountain that is writing a book, some more perilous than others. This is the way that works for me, and who knows, maybe it’ll work for you too.

Dexter & Sinister Deleted Scenes

Whenever you read something it seems obvious that that was the only way to tell that story, but of course there are a dozen ways to take a reader from A to B, and in trying to decide which is the “best” way you often end up with a lot of extra material you no longer have use for.

Whilst editing Dexter & Sinister it became clear that I needed to tighten up the start as much as possible, and the easiest way to do that was to get rid of side characters. First drafts often generate threads that don’t end up going anywhere, and Dexter & Sinister was no different.

I found two characters who made it as far as draft six, who I could do without – Becky Bates and Old Jimmy. Becky was a coat-check girl at the Scion Club, primarily there to provide John with information, and Old Jimmy was the former nightwatchman at the airship factory.

I was very fond of them both, but when I realised that everything Becky did could be achieved by two lines of text, and Old Jimmy could be cut out altogether and it not affect the story whatsoever, they had to go.

Still, it made me sad. They were good characters, with some nice writing around them. I didn’t want them to go. But that’s what they mean by “Kill all your darlings.” You don’t keep something because it’s good, it’s meant to be good, but if it doesn’t advance the plot then, bye bye.

Anyway, long story short, I thought it would be amusing to share Old Jimmy’s two appearances, since I like his moments very much indeed. See if you agree with me.


Part 1 – The original opening to the book:

Some people don’t know how lucky they are.

When Old Jimmy lost his job as night watchman down the airship factory he certainly didn’t feel all that lucky. It’d been a good job for a man like him. You didn’t need much skill or education to wander about making sure nothing happened, two things which Jimmy had never had an abundance of. It also helped to have a lack of imagination, as the factory at night was full of strange shadows and odd noises which would put the willies up a more creative man. Old Jimmy had no problem in that department either. Upon discovering there were two Jimmies at the factory he’d come up with his own nickname, Old Jimmy, and even that had taken him a while.

When they let him go a few weeks ago they hadn’t given him much of a reason. Cutbacks, that’s what the boss had said. Cutbacks, and changes. And re-or-gan-eye-zay-shun, or some-such. He wasn’t really sure. He’d stopped listening after the words “let you go.” Their reasons didn’t matter. He had a job, and then he didn’t. That was all that mattered.

What he missed most about the job was the peace and quiet. He missed the money of course, what little there was of it, but he missed the silence even more. He was home all the time now, and though he loved his wife dearly, she could talk the hind legs off a donkey. And her sister, who always seemed to be round, was even worse. She’d been there for over an hour already tonight, going on about how next-door’s dog was always trying to hump Trixie, her Teacup Pomeranian. ‘And you know how delicate little Trixie is, poor thing. Shaking all afternoon she was, after what that Great Dane did to her!’ It was enough to drive a man mad. He may not have had much of an imagination, but all Old Jimmy could think about as she banged on was what would happen if he turned round and told her to ‘Shut yer pie hole!’ Y’know, just this once, just to see the look on her face.

But he didn’t of course. No one ever does. Instead he simply sat there in the lumpy armchair, eating two day old stew, ignoring his sister-in-law as he looked forward to his bedtime and the sweet refuge of sleep.

Yes indeed, Old Jimmy had no idea how lucky he was. If he’d been at work that night the only thing he could have looked forward to was a slender blade in the rib cage, followed by a cold and lonely death on the factory floor.


Part 2 – After John’s first visit to Gravesend Bridge he goes to the sewer outlet pipes, where the body was found:

John spotted an old man over the road, sitting on a squat little stool outside his squat little house – a small, fluffy white dog at his feet – openly watching him as he drank his beer. He went over to him.

Half way across the road the little dog started yapping. ‘Shut up,’ growled the man. He took a swing at the dog but it dodged the blow, jumping around like this was a new game or something. The old man fished a small wooden ball out from under his seat and tossed it into the street. ‘Here. Go get it, you little bugger you.’ The dog shot past John, falling over its own feet as it chased the ball into the gutter.

‘Nice dog you got there,’ John said, smiling. ‘What’s he called?’

She’s called Trixie,’ said the man. ‘And she’s a pain in the arse.’

‘Right. I see. Um, listen. I was wondering if you could help me? There was a body washed up here a few days ago, and I was wondering if you knew anything about it?’

‘Oh, aye. I do at that. It were the wife’s sister that found it y’know.’

‘Really?’

‘Yup. Found ‘im on her way over Saturday morning. She usually comes round early on the weekend so she and the wife can get to the market when it opens. Turned up pitching a fit this time she did, wailin’ and sobbin’ and being all dramatic. Took us ages before we got any sense out of her. Then I was dispatched to go get the bloody coppers wan’I?’ He didn’t sound too amused about that.

‘And what time was this?’

‘Some time around six I reckon. Or maybe nearer seven. I dunno. It was too damn early for all that racket though, that’s for sure.’

‘Right. Um… I don’t suppose your sister-in-law is here is she? I’d like a quick word with her if I could.’

The little dog came trotting back – a Teacup Pomeranian by the looks of her – and dropped the slobbery ball at the man’s feet. ‘No, she’s away,’ said the man, reaching for the ball. ‘The shock were a bit much for her, so she and the missus have gone off to their mother’s for a few days to get over it, like.’ He tossed the ball down the street, and the little dog shot off after it. ‘I wouldn’t mind so much, but they could have taken the bloody dog with ’em. Damn thing won’t sit still. I gets no peace at all.’

‘Sounds rough,’ said John. ‘Say, I don’t suppose she said anything about the body did she? What state it was in and that?’

‘She didn’t say much of anything mate. Just a lot of Lordy Lord!s and Oh my days!es. Besides, what was there to say. I’ve seen a few bodies in the river before now, living here, and they all look the same in the end; dead. Beyond that, what does it matter? Nowt to them, I can promise you that.’

‘Right. I see. Well, nice chatting to you. I’ll see you around.’

‘Aye, right enough,’ said the man.

John wandered off down the road. The dog passed him in the opposite direction, the ball in its mouth, looking very pleased with itself. Behind him John heard, ‘I swear to God I’m gonna make you into a stew one of these days. Here, gimme that.’ followed by the pock-pock-pock of the ball bouncing off down the road again, and the flappy slap of the dog’s feet as she gave chase.


Can you see why I didn’t want to get rid of them, but at the same time how they advance the plot in no way whatsoever? Weird, eh.

Still, it’s not the end of the line for either Old Jimmy or Becky Bates. They’re good characters, so they may yet make an appearance in future novels. And when they do you can say you heard of them here first! Now that’s the kind of insider knowledge you normally pay good money for.

Anatomy of a Cover Design

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. You know why they say that? Because everybody does it. That’s why getting your cover right is so important. Without a good cover people may never pick up you book. And if they don’t pick up your book, how will they discover the many delights that lay within.

Front cover of Dexter & Sinister

Some writers relish the idea of working on a cover for their book. Hell, some writers will start designing a book’s cover before they’ve even started writing the book itself. Others though will approach the prospect with a little more trepidation. There’s a lot goes into designing a book cover, and it can be a daunting task if you’ve never done it before.

What follows is a rough overview of how I ended up with the design for my debut novel, Dexter & Sinister: Detecting Agents. I’ll tell you what I did, describe what it was like working with a designer, give you hints and tips, and hopefully demystify the process a little bit, so that even those with no design experience can get a handle on what to expect.

Animated gif of the cover developing

As with pretty much everything else in life, it all starts with…

Research

There’s a certain amount of expectation in book cover design. The cover for a thriller looks different to the cover for a romance novel which looks different to the cover for a YA coming-of-age story.

Whichever genre you are writing in you need to know what people expect. I’m not saying you have to adhere to the norms, but you need to know what those norms are before you can subvert them.

For Dexter & Sinister I found two main threads in the steampunk novels that I looked at; fantastical machinery, and a hint of gritty dystopia. Not always both (or indeed, either) and not always to any extreme, but more often than not.

I also looked beyond the genre. I looked at fantasy and crime and comics, anything that contained the same type of story I was telling. If I thought my potential readers might be interested in it, I gave it a look.

I went into bookshops and photographed covers that stood out to me. I tried to work out why they stood out? What made them work? Why did I like them? I looked for common themes, themes that I could incorporate into my own cover design. In short, I thought about it A LOT.

And what monumental conclusions did I come to? I like the colour red because of how it draws the eye, and I needed a character on the cover. Abstract wasn’t going to work for me. I needed for people to know what they were getting from the very beginning.

I also needed a cover that was instantly recognisable as a Hammersmyth novel, one that stood out at a distance. I was going to be selling a lot of books at conventions, so I needed something that would draw people in from ten feet away.

And I needed a layout that was repeatable. This was the first in a series, so I needed a layout that could work for multiple stories.

Clearly there was a lot going on in my head by the end of all this, so for clarity I decide to create a…

Design Brief

Simply put, a brief is you telling your designer exactly what you want, and when it comes to writing briefs, clarity is your friend. Be clear, be concise, and don’t hold anything back. The person you are sending the brief to is coming at this fresh, with no preconceptions, so the more precise you can be in your brief the better.

Now that’s great if you know what you want, but what if you don’t? I am fortunate enough to have a bit of a design background, so I was able to sketch out my ideas first. That gave me a head start in knowing what would and wouldn’t work for me.

But if that’s not you don’t worry about it. You’re not expected to know about design. You’re a writer. So instead, focus on what you want to achieve.

Here is the original brief that I wrote. Note how I discuss the type of reader I hope to attract, and that I need it to work as a series. I know that I also mentioned in my e-mail the fact that I needed it to be eye-catching at a distance, for conventions. This sounds like something that might be obvious, but again, assume nothing!

Original design brief

Notice how the cover described in the brief differs to the one at the start of the article. We’ll get into that later.

Once I had a brief I needed to find a…

Cover Designer

Unless you really know what you are doing, you need a cover designer. People can spot a poorly designed cover a mile away, and if the cover looks disorganised and slap-dash they’re going to assume what’s inside is disorganised and slap-dash as well.

That’s not to say you have to spend a lot of money. There are a lot of cheap options out there. But making your own cover to save yourself £20-30 isn’t doing anyone any favours (and yes, if you go on Fiverr.com you can get a cover done for that much).

I knew I would need an original illustration for my book cover, since it features one of the characters. I looked on Fiverr for designers, as well as Twitter, Deviant Art, Instagram, all over the place. I even messaged a publisher to ask who had done the design for one of their covers that I liked.

It’s a special kind of frustrating to find an illutsrator you like only to discover they are not open to commission, but then I was fortunate enough to come across Jasmin Garcia-Verdin, a very talented artist who was doing the kind of thing I was after and was available.

After agreeing terms and a fee, I sent Jasmin the brief, along with a ridiculous amount on supporting material. I’m talking design sketches, cat photos, maps, anything I thought might help. As previously stated, when it comes to getting your ideas across, clarity is key.

Jasmin then took my brief, came up with some initial designs, and together we started…

Developing The Idea

Based off my initial brief, Jasmin came up with this.

Initial design sketches by designer

You may think you know what you want, but that’s like saying you know how your story is going to end. Ultimately it’s best to keep an open mind, especially when working with someone else.

Two things leap out at me looking at these initial designs. First, that designs A and B, which fit my original brief, weren’t as good as design C, the wraparound cover suggested by Jasmin. And second, that we were going to have to change the colour of Dexter, as he just did not stand out enough against the background.

We then had a period of back and forth where we discussed changes, I sent further supporting material – pictures of ships, block and tackle rigs, lop-sided celebrity grins, even more cats – until eventually we agreed upon this as the final design.

Second round of design sketches

Note the airship with the number in it. That was Jasmin’s idea. An illustration to use as chapter headings, which I was very much on board with.

At this point I’d like to underline the need for you, as the client, to be decisive. It’s not for your designer to tell you what you want (and if they try, then by all means tell them to get stuffed). It’s the designer’s job to offer up possibilities, and the client’s job to consider those possibilities and either go with them, or turn them down. Be polite, be respectful, but if something doesn’t work for you then say so and move on. No one’s feelings will get hurt, this is all part of the process, and it’s a part that your designer will be all too familiar with. At the end of the day it’s your cover, so you need to get it how you want.

I’m quite visual in my thinking sometimes, so I couldn’t resist taking her design and adding a little text, so I could get my head around what the final thing would look like.

Design sketch with very rough blocks of text added

Once the design was finalised we then went into…

Production

From the author’s point of view, this is the easy part. Just sit back and wait for it to be done, right? Wrong.

Whilst the general direction has been agreed, there are still going to be a number of decision that have to be made along the way to help keep things on track.

For me, these decisions came in two parts. First, because Jasmin was also doing the layout for my cover as well as the illustration, we had to discuss text placement and title design. And second, because I was self-publishing, we had to figure out how to make it work on Kindle Direct Publishing (aka Amazon).

KDP upload test

As you can see, my first upload test into the KDP cover creator (I had to use the cover creator because the manuscript was still being edited – which is a whole other thing I need to go into) did not go well.

Now, I wish I could tell you why this was, but I can’t. We thought we’d done everything right, but KDP can be a law unto itself sometimes. You can do everything right and still get it wrong.

Thankfully it was something that we could fix simply by zooming in on the image a little bit, losing some of the edges but enlarging Dexter along the way, so swings and roundabouts in the end. It could have been a lot worse.

For most of you, you won’t run into this kind of problem. It’s only because I went with a wraparound cover that I experienced issues with width and height. If you just do the front cover, as long you get the ratio right, it won’t be an issue.

But if your cover is going to bleed over onto the spine or back, you need to get your starting calculations right. And my best advice is for doing that is finish your edit first, because how many pages you end up with is going to affect the width of the spine, and that’s going to affect the entire design.

Once we had the image the right size it was all a question of text placement and title design.

As you can see, we went through a number of iterations, moving the text around, and even changing the colour of the original image, to better make it work with the final title design.

Once again, as the client, decision making is key. You have to know whether something works for you or not, and you must communicate that to your designer. I know that can be awkward for some people, but it’s a necessary part of the process. And if your designer is in any way worth their salt, they will want you to be happy with your final design, so they will welcome clear, honest feedback.

I am lucky in that I know a little about Photoshop and image editing, so rather than just telling Jasmin what I thought was wrong, I could do a little cut and paste (image three above with the clumsily cut out text) and colour correction, to show what I wanted. If this is an option for you I heartily recommend it, but if not don’t worry about it, designers are used to interpreting verbal feedback. So long as you are clear you’ll get there eventually.

After all that, we ended up with our final image.

Finished cover design

Job done, right? Nope. Wrong again, because now we had to deal with the joys of…

Uploading To KDP

As I mentioned before, KDP has its own little foibles. Take a look at the image below.

Uploaded design with print marks

See all those dotted lines. The white one around the edge is the trim line. That’s the part of the image you can expect to lose during the printing process. But it’s not exact, you might lose a bit more, so the red line is the safe area. So long as the text and image you want to keep are within the red lines you should be fine. I say “should” because, you guessed it, there are no guarantees (to quote Dirty Harry, “If you want guarantees, buy a toaster.”)

Getting the text and the title in right right place, in the centre of the front cover, in the centre of the spine, in the centre of the back page, took over two weeks of work and six proof copies. Again, because it was a wrap around cover, changing one thing affected something else, so there was a major amount of tweaking going on.

One of the main problems, and not something they tell you about, is the helpful soul at Amazon who would move the image around to get the title in the centre. Now, whilst that seems like a good idea, it pushed the back page text, the spine text, and Dexter, to the left. And getting it so that didn’t happen took a lot of work.

I mean, we got there in the end, but it involved multiple versions of the cover with the title shifted by increments, to get it right. The final proof arrived the day after launch day, so you can see what a long, drawn-out process it was.

NB: I bought a font to use on the cover. You don’t have to, but I had something very specific in mind, and I wasn’t going to settle for what comes packaged with any design software. It was easy to do and only cost me about £25/$30. You can learn how to install fonts online.

So You’ve Got Your Cover. Now What?

Did you know that you don’t have to settle for the same, boring, flat book cover that everyone else has? With a little effort you can make your cover a bit more eye-catching, and hold people’s attention a little longer. And the longer you can hold their attention, the more likely they are to buy your book.

The two main things I did for mine were a 3D mock up that I could use in advertising, and getting an animation done.

3D mock up

I used a free website called DIY Book Design to do the design above. Pretty neat, huh? What’s great about it is that it gets across the fact that Dexter & Sinister is available as both an e-book and a hard copy without me having to say that, and, because you can also download a transparent version of the mock-up, I was able to use it in advertising as well.

Advert with 3D mock up inserted

NB: If you’re getting an illustration done for your book cover, make sure you get a clean version which you can use as a background in adverts and the like. It’s extremely useful. I was lucky in that Jasmin very generously provided me with a number of separate elements that I could use not only now, but in the future as reference for any future book designs (like a clean background plate for the title).

I also had an animation done, as I had seen a few of them on Twitter, and they are very eye-catching. Let’s be honest, a moving image will draw people’s attention more than a static one will.

Cover animation

This one was done by Morgan Wright, who was a pleasure to deal with and who is also very affordable indeed. I consider it money well spent. In fact, anything you can do that will allow you to tweet/ blog/talk about your book cover in a slightly different way, is money well spent in my book.

In Conclusion

And there you have it. That’s how I went about getting my book cover designed.

From this, to this.

It’s not the only way, and it’s not the easiest way, but I had the time, the money, and I wanted to publish Dexter & Sinister like it was the only book I ever will (you could get run over by a bus tomorrow) so I jumped in with both feet.

Don’t fear the process. It seems like a lot, but really it’s just a lot of little decisions that lead you from where you are to where you want to be. If you don’t know something research it, and if you need to ask, ask. No one expects you to know everything, and people are always willing to lend a hand and will give you the benefit of the doubt if your inquiry is humble and earnest.

There is a path to a great cover for everyone, regardless of budget, experience, or time restraints. It might take a little more work on your part, but I guarantee you will end up with something you’re happy with if you just put in the effort.

Inspector Lassiter and the Vanishing Child

Inspector Lassiter eyed the steps up to the main house as one would regard an old yet familiar foe. She had been assured that her new chair could handle such a short flight of stairs – a mere half dozen steps at a low, steady rake – but she had yet to put the theory into practise, and she didn’t think a possible kidnapping was the right time for such experimentation. Who would trust a detective if the first thing they did upon arrival was go arse over tit on your front porch?

The inspector’s new chair had been the toast of the Great Exhibition of 1851. A new era in wheelchair design, it didn’t have any wheels for a start. Steam-driven and gyroscopically balanced, it had a dozen legs fore and aft to carry it forward, like the fingers of a hand clawing its way along the ground. Both fascinating and disconcerting in equal measure, the ride was remarkably smooth, especially over rough terrain. And whilst it did bounce around a little if you had to turn on the spot, the spring-loaded seat meant it was more amusing than anything else (although certainly not terribly dignified). All told it was turning out to be quite a decent bit of kit. So long as it didn’t explode any time soon, the inspector was prepared to give it her tacit approval.

A young constable – impressively tall, and thinner than an after-dinner mint – appeared by the inspector’s side. “The search is under way ma’am. We’ve got four men at the front of the house, and six in the grounds round the back, with two checking the house for any sign of a break in.”

“Thank you, Constable. I don’t suppose you happened to notice if there was a ramp at the rear of the house?”

The constable screwed up his face in concentration. “No, ma’am, I didn’t. But I do believe there’s a slight rise in the land back there, so I think you’ll find the rear entrance to be at ground level, or as near as makes no difference.”

“Excellent, O’Hara. Perceptive as always.” The constable blushed, but said nothing.

Constable O’Hara had only been with Inspector Lassiter for a short while, but so far she had been pleased with his performance. He did what he was told, kept his mouth shut and his ears open, and he’d never once tried to patronise or condescend to the inspector, a commodity that was in short supply in the Force these days. She liked to think it was out of deference for her age and wisdom, but she suspected it had a lot to do with the five sisters he had back home.

“Right, let’s get to it then shall we? If you would be so kind.”

“Certainly, ma’am,” said Constable O’Hara, hopping up the front steps to yank on the door’s bell-pull.

He stepped to one side as the door swung open. A portly butler with an unconvincing comb-over appeared in the doorway. “Can I help you, sir?” Constable O’Hara looked to Inspector Lassiter. The butler, following his gaze, managed to hide his confusion well.

“Good morning. I am Inspector Lassiter of Wainwright’s Yard. Would you be so good as to inform the master of the house that I am here.”

“Certainly, madam. At once. I, er…” He glanced from the inspector’s chair, to the steps, and back to the chair again.

“Constable O’Hara will accompany you to the rear door of the house. I shall meet you there.”

The butler was visibly relieved. “Of course, madam,” he said, with a slight bend at the waist. “At once.”

The reception room of the manor was exactly as you would expect in such a grand country house. From the expansive fire surrounded by an elegant marble fireplace, to the plush sofas so deep they threatened to swallow you whole, it all served to remind the inspector that if these were the Haves, then she was most definitely a Have Not.

The inspector positioned her chair facing the two sofas either side of the fire, ready for when the family arrived, with Constable O’Hara stood behind her, notebook in hand, ready to do his bit.

The main door opened and in strode Charles Whitcombe-Hayes, the master of the house. A captain of industry, and a close personal friend to the royal family, he was known as a man who did not suffer fools gladly. He was already scowling when he entered the room, and the tableau he was presented with did little to improve his mood.

Striding up to the inspector, she saw him briefly consider addressing the constable first, although whether that was because he was a man, or because he had full use of his legs, she couldn’t say for certain.

“Good morning. Thank you for coming, Miss…”

“Lassiter. Inspector Lassiter. How do you do Mr Whitcombe-Hayes?” The inspector thrust out her hand which the gentleman shook reluctantly. “I am sorry that we have to meet under such circumstances, but I can assure you that we at Wainwright’s Yard will do everything in our power to find your son.”

“Thank you. I’m sure you will.” He said the words, but the look in his eye said he didn’t believe it. “Tell me, what have you done so far?”

The inspector gestured towards the nearest sofa. “Why don’t you have a seat sir.”

“I prefer to stand, thank you. Have you begun a search of the grounds?”

“We have sir, yes.”

“How many men?”

“A dozen men, sir.”

“A dozen men! Is that all? Why so few? Are you afraid you’ll run out?”

“A dozen men is more than enough for an estate of this size, believe me, sir. Although more will be brought in should the need arise.”

“Yes, well, I wouldn’t worry about that. I’ve instructed the boys to prepare themselves for a search. They should be heading out shortly.

The inspector gripped the arms of her chair. Damn these rich folks. Why could they never leave well enough alone. “There’s no need for that, sir. Our constables are very good at what they do. If your son is within the house grounds they will find him, I assure you. And they will do so without destroying any evidence, should foul play be involved.” She hoped he would catch the hint, but he didn’t seem in the mood to listen.

“Evidence be damned. We need to find my boy, and the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.”

The inspector took a deep breath. “To that end, sir, perhaps you can tell me about your son. Name, age, height, hair colour, that sort of thing?”

Mr Whitcombe-Hayes hesitated. “Oh, er, well he’s about six or seven, probably yay high.” He held his hand level with the inspector’s chin. “Brown hair, average size for a child. Not very serious. Prone to flights of fancy.”

“Flights of fancy, sir?”

“Yes. Frightened of the dark, that sort of thing. Keeps thinking there’s monsters under the bed. As I say, not a serious child at all.”

Nor should any child be, at that age, thought the inspector. “And his name, sir?”

“Thomas. His name is Thomas.”

“And when was the last time anyone saw Thomas?”

“I… I can’t say for certain. I was away last night. Came back early this morning to find the whole place in an uproar. My wife would know better.”

“May we speak with her please?”

Mr Whitcombe-Hayes pulled a velvet cord hanging by the fireplace. A bell rang somewhere below stairs.

“And where were you last night, sir, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Mr Whitcombe-Hayes avoided the inspector’s gaze. “Oh, I was, er… in town, over night, taking care of some business. It’s a long ride back to the house so I often stay at the club if I, er, finish late.”

The inspector remained impassive. “Of course, sir.”

The door opened and the butler entered. “Ah, Frobisher. Would you ask Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes to come in here a moment? The Inspector would like a word with her.”

“As you wish, sir.”

“And if it’s not too much trouble, could you show Constable O’Hara here young Thomas’s room?” added the inspector. She turned to Mr Whitcombe-Hayes. “I’d take a look myself but I assume, considering the lack of ramp at the front of the house, that you haven’t had a chance to have a lift fitted yet?” Mr Whitcombe-Hayes at least had the decency to look embarrassed. The Ingress and Egress Act of 1849 was a landmark piece of legislation that required all building owners to make their properties accessible to all. It had taken decades to get it through the House, and even though it had passed with a comfortable majority, many still took umbrage at its existence, refusing to comply unless absolutely necessary.

Mr Whitcombe-Hayes avoided the inspector’s gaze. “Old house… No room… Architecturally difficult…” he harrumphed quietly to no one in particular.

There was a knock at the door. A young woman in a pale blue dress, her eyes red from crying, came into the room. “Is everything alright, Charles? Frobisher said you needed help with something?”

“Ah, Amelia. Do come in. Inspector, this is Amelia, my wife. Amelia, this is Inspector…?”

“Lassiter,” the inspector finished. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

“And I you, Inspector. Is there any news of Thomas?”

“I’m afraid not, Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes. It’s too soon for any news yet.” Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes slumped visibly.

“Amelia, the inspector has a number of questions about Thomas that I think you would be best suited to answer. That’s alright, isn’t it? I need to get outside and see to the boys anyway. That rabble isn’t going to organise itself you know.”

Mr Whitcombe-Hayes didn’t wait for an answer. He was half way to the door before his wife could mumble a weary, “I suppose so.”

“Mr Whitcombe-Hayes,” called the inspector. “I think it would be best if–” The slamming of the door cut off her protestations. She turned to Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes, who offered up an apologetic smile.

“Don’t take it personally, Inspector. My husband keeps his own council in all things.”

The inspector smiled at the poor, exhausted woman stood before her. “Have a seat, Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes.”

“Thank you, Inspector. And please, do call me Amelia. Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes can be such a mouthful sometimes.” She lowered herself down to perch on the edge of the sofa, her hands clasped in front of her.

“Thank you, Amelia, that is most kind. Now, please, if you would, tell me about Thomas. When he was last seen? When he was discovered missing? That sort of thing.”

“Of course. Well, I guess I was the last person to see Thomas. I put him to bed at around seven. He didn’t want to go, he never wants to go, but one must be firm about these things.” The inspector heard her husband’s voice in what she said.

“Why didn’t he want to go to bed?”

“Thomas is afraid of the dark. Terrified of it really. I have to read to him until he falls asleep, then I have to leave the door open so that some light comes in from the hallway. He screams the place down if he wakes up and he cannot see anything.”

“You don’t leave a night light on in his room?”

“No. My husband is scared he’ll knock it over and start a fire. Leaving the door open is our compromise.”

“And apart from the door is anything else left open?”

Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes shook her head. “No. Never. All windows must be firmly shut, the curtains closed, as well as all cupboards and drawers. Thomas has such a vivid imagination. He can’t abide places where anything could… get out.”

The inspector smiled. “I have a niece who’s just the same. Has to be tucked in tight as anything, and won’t go to sleep until someone’s checked under the bed.” Smiling in return, Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes seemed to relax a little. She stopped fiddling with her wedding ring and deliberately placed her hands flat on her lap. “And when was Thomas discovered missing, Amelia?”

“This morning, at around six. Nanny went in to get him ready for his bath and she found his bedclothes thrown aside and his room empty. She raised the alarm right away. That was when my husband came home.”

“And there were no signs of foul play anywhere in the house?”

“No, none. We’ve checked everywhere.”

“I see. And, if I may, do you or your husband have any enemies? Someone who might wish to do you harm? A disgruntled servant perhaps, who might have access to the house?”

“No. Nothing like that. We are a happy house, Inspector. Everyone who works here has been with us for many years.”

“And what about your husband’s business dealings? Any trouble there I should be made aware of?”

Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes looked away for a moment. “That is something you will have to discuss with him, Inspector. I’m afraid I don’t know about such things.” No, I’m sure you don’t, the inspector thought, watching Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes.

Constable O’Hara re-entered the room. Inspector Lassiter turned around to face him. “Well, Constable? What did you find?”

“Everything was as you’d expect, Inspector. No sign of a forced entry around the windows, no mud on the sill, or on the carpet, and the furniture was undisturbed. The bedclothes were pushed to one side, but that’s about it. It’s like the little lad got up to fetch a glass of water and simply never got back into bed again.”

“And the whole house has been searched? You’re sure of it?”

“I am, Inspector. Once by our lot, and at least once by the staff before we got here.”

“Very well,” said the inspector, turning back to Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes. She took a deep breath. This was where things could get unpleasant. “Amelia, forgive me for asking, but how are things between you and your husband?” Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes looked genuinely confused.

“Everything is fine Inspector. Why, what makes you think they wouldn’t be?”

“Oh, no reason. No reason in particular. It’s just that in my experience, when a husband makes a habit of being away from home over night, it’s not always for the reason he claims it to be, if you catch my drift.”

Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes’s confusion turned to surprise. “An affair do you mean?”

“That is most often the case, yes.”

Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes gave a wan smile. “Inspector, my husband has many faults, but philandering is not one of them. What he told you about being up in town on business is true, although probably not in the way that you understand.” She glanced at the door, then leant forward slightly, the inspector leaning in to meet her, as Constable O’Hara found something fascinating on the ceiling to look at. “In truth, all is not well at my husband’s mill. The recent downturn in airship manufacture has meant a drop in demand for canvas that he is finding hard to bear. He’s been working day and night to find new business – often sleeping on the couch in his office, not at the club as he likes to tell everyone – so that he won’t miss an opportunity should it come knocking. I would not say that he is in dire straits just yet, but another six months of this and he may need to start taking more drastic action.”

“I see. And who else knows about all this, may I ask?” People about to get laid off would have a powerful motive to take matters into their own hands. There could be a ransom demand on the way.

“Oh, no one Inspector. No one at all. Only my husband and his accountant, as far as I know. Even I do not know, officially that is. But I consider it a wife’s duty to know all that goes on in her husband’s life, don’t you agree?”

“A wise position to take,” the inspector agreed, nodding. Turning her chair towards the constable she beckoned him closer. “O’Hara, you’ve been through the house, was there nothing out of the ordinary that you saw? Nothing at all?”

“No ma’am, nothing. It’s very much your average country house, if somewhere like this could ever be called average.”

“And you’re sure nothing was out of place in the boy’s room?”

“No ma’am. Apart from an inordinate amount of toys I found nothing untoward there either.”

“What’s that you say?”

“Well, the young lad has quite a large toy chest at the foot of his bed, but still there were toys all over the floor. I didn’t count how many, but he’s got more toys than I’ve had hot dinners, I reckon.”

The inspector seemed to smile briefly. “Do me a favour, Constable. Go and look in the boys toy chest. I’m intrigued to know just how many toys the young lad actually has?”

Bizarre though the request was, Constable O-Hara knew better then to argue. Back up the stairs he went.

Inspector Lassiter turned back to Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes. “Tell me Amelia, what kind of a boy is Thomas? You say he has quite an imagination. Does he like playing games?”

Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes’s face lit up. “Oh, indeed he does. He’s always coming up with something fun for everyone to do. And he loves drawing, making things, playing out in the garden. He’s never at a loss for ways to amuse himself.”

“And I bet he enjoys all the usual games children play? Tag, hopscotch, ring-a-ring-a roses?” There was a commotion somewhere upstairs. “Hide and seek, perhaps?”

“Yes. All of those,” said Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes, glancing at the door. “I’m sorry, but is something going on up there?” They heard footsteps on the stairs, and voices shouting, although what they were saying was hard to make out. The door to the room opened, and in walked Constable O’Hara carrying a small boy still in his bedclothes.

“You’ve caused quite a kerfuffle you know. Your mum and dad were worried sick about you.” The lad’s head hung in shame.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“Thomas!” Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes leapt up and ran to her son, scooped him up in her arms. “Thomas, where have you been? We’ve been looking everywhere for you? Are you alright?” Behind her, a gaggle of maids and footmen had appeared in the doorway, smiles and tears all over their faces. Stepping out of the way Constable O’Hara grinned at the inspector, throwing her an ill-advised cheeky wink at the same time. The inspector was so happy to see mother and child reunited she decided to let it slide, for now.

“I’m sorry mummy,” the boy mumbled, his chin glued to his chest. “I heard a noise and got scared. I didn’t mean to do it.” Tears welled up in his eyes.

“Oh, it’s alright Thomas, really it is. So long as you’re safe that’s all that matters.”

At the back of the house a door slammed. The staff scattered. “Where is he?” Mr Whitcombe-Hayes yelled. He appeared in the doorway, his face like thunder, but one look at his wife and child and his expression softened – or, at least, softened as much as a face such as his could. He embraced his family briefly before turning to the inspector. “Where was he?” he demanded.

“Asleep in his toy chest,” the inspector replied. “The poor lad heard a noise in the middle of the night and hid. Then I’m guessing he simply fell asleep, and had no idea what was going on around him.” Mr Whitcombe-Hayes gave a confounded harrumph.

“His toy chest you say? Unbelievable. How did no one find him before? Did no one check?”

The inspector shrugged. “It seems that no one thought to look there. I’m guessing they assumed his room to be empty, and that is why the boy was not found. Not during our initial search, or indeed your own, sir.”

Mr Whitcombe-Hayes harrumphed a little more. “Yes, well, all’s well that ends well eh? Sorry to have dragged you out here and all that. Still, can’t be helped, eh? If there’s anything I can do, anything at all, please let me know. One good deed deserves another, what?”

“Well, since you mention it, sir, there is one thing you can do for me.”

“Oh yes? And what is that?”

“Get a lift fitted.”

Dexter vs. Mr Nibbles

Dexter, the mechanical cat, peered over the edge of the sideboard at the mouse hole far below.

“Come on out you little sod you,” he whispered. “Uncle Dexter’s got a surprise for you.”

He flicked his tail over the book beside him, feeling how delicate the balance was. Half on and half off the wooden table, all it would take was a little nudge, and Dexter would be rid of his arch nemesis once and for all.

The cat grinned. It was the perfect plan. Mr Nibbles didn’t stand a chance.

Dexter may not have been a real cat – although you’d never know it to look at him – but he took his duties as a cat very seriously indeed. He set aside time each day to tangle himself up in people’s legs (he liked to get them when they were walking, for maximum effect), to stare at them until they became uncomfortable (preferably when they were on the toilet), and to scratch at things that really oughtn’t to be scratched at (with his metal claws, Dexter could make short work of even the strongest table leg), but the most important duty on his List Of Things That All Cats Do, the real numero uno as far as he was concerned, was keeping the manor’s mice at bay.

The thing is, catching mice did not come easily to Dexter. They were just so small, and so fast, always diving under furniture or disappearing into little holes. He could never get anywhere near them. No, for Dexter to become an effective mouser he realised early on that he would have to get creative.

He’d tried lying in wait, sitting very still somewhere hidden, hoping a mouse would come by. But somehow they always knew he was there. He’d see them appear and disappear on the other side of the room, close enough to taunt him, but never close enough for him to pounce.

Then he’d tried laying a trap, placing a piece of cheese in the middle of the floor hoping one of them would go for it. But all that had done was keep him busy whilst the mice raided the kitchen pantry, nicking all the biscuits, most of the cheese, and half a dozen saveloy that his master had been really looking forward to. That had been an especially tough day for Dexter.

In the end he’d had to stalk all over the house, watching where the mice went until he was able to find the place that they called home – under a drain in the corner of the basement. That was when things got really tricky.

He couldn’t just dive on in there, you see. The mice would simply run away, go find somewhere else to hide. Dexter needed a way to persuade them to leave and never come back, something so unpleasant that even the bravest of mice would think twice about making Chard Manor their home again. In the end he’d stolen one of the gardener’s manky old socks, the ones he never used to wash, filled it with a hefty dollop of horse dung – which isn’t fun to do when you don’t have hands, let me tell you – dipped that in some rotten eggs that he’d been fermenting in the airing cupboard for a month, and dropped the whole lot down the drain on top of them, covering the hole with a big sack of spuds so that they couldn’t get away.

Oh the noises they made! Mice must have pretty sensitive noses, because they yelped and squealed and scurried about, desperate to escape the foul stench that was suddenly all around them. Dexter almost felt bad for them then. Almost. But still, only when he thought they’d had enough, did he finally let them out.

The little blighters ran for the hills, never to be seen again. The whole thing couldn’t have gone any better. In one fell swoop the manor was mouse free. Or, at least, almost mouse free that is.

Dexter called him Mr Nibbles, because he liked to nibble on things – bread, cake, nasty old bits of cheese any self respecting person wouldn’t touch with a barge pole (which probably explained why Dexter’s stink bomb hadn’t worked on him.) No matter what Dexter did, Mr Nibbles would not be deterred. He had a good thing going at Chard Manor, and he clearly wasn’t about to let some cat with a stinky old sock get in his way. If Dexter was going to get rid of Mr Nibbles, he was going to have to come up with another plan.

He’d tried setting a trap, digging a hole in the cellar floor, covering it over with a sheet of newspaper, and placing a stinky bit of cheese on top. The idea was that Mr Nibbles would run onto the paper to get the cheese, fall in the hole, and that would be the end of that. But somehow Mr Nibbles found a way around that, stealing the cheese without springing the trap, so Dexter had been forced to quickly moved on to Plan B.

Plan B had been the classic ‘box and a stick’ scenario. You prop a box up at an angle with a stick, place a piece of cheese underneath, wait for your prey to run under the box, pull away the stick, et voila, mouse in a box. How could it go wrong?

Dexter sat for hours on the cellar floor with a piece of string in his mouth, waiting for that damn mouse to show up. But when Mr Nibbles finally did arrive, the trap had worked a treat. As soon as he went under the box to get the cheese Dexter had whipped away the stick, trapping Mr Nibbles underneath. It couldn’t have gone any better, right up until Dexter lifted the box to grab his prize and Mr Nibbles ran away, darting in between Dexter’s legs as fast as his little feet would carry him. That was when Dexter had decided enough was enough.

Dexter didn’t want to kill Mr Nibbles, not really. He wasn’t that kind of a cat. But he didn’t see that he had any choice. He hoped being squished by a large book would be quick and painless. He at least hoped it would be terminal. He didn’t fancy the idea of having to finish the job off himself. That sounded like the kind of thing that could get stuck in your teeth.

Down below, Dexter heard a faint squeak. A little pink nose appeared at the mouse hole and sniffed the air. It disappeared back inside. It appeared again and sniffed some more, Mr Nibbles sticking his head out of the hole to scan the room for danger.

Come on, thought Dexter. Just a little further.

Mr Nibbles crept out of the hole, sniffing all the while. He advanced towards the piece of cheese that sat suspiciously about a book’s length away from his hole. As his back end cleared the skirting board Dexter reached out and tapped the book next to him, sending it tipping over the edge.

The book tumbled through the air, silently rushing to deliver an untimely end to the unfortunate Mr Nibbles. But as its shadow fell across the poor, defenceless little mouse, Mr Nibbles grabbed the piece of cheese and shot back into the hole, his tail disappearing just as the book slammed into the ground with a loud, resounding, teeth-rattling thump.

Dexter couldn’t believe it. How did he know? How did he always know?

Mr Nibbles appeared at the mouse hole and sniffed the book (no doubt wondering whether he could eat it or not.) Then he looked up at Dexter and smiled – or at least that’s how it seemed to Dexter – offering up a cheeky wink before disappearing from view once and for all.

“Oh, it’s on now!” said Dexter, leaping to the ground. “Just you wait. Next time you won’t be so lucky.”

Taking the top of the book’s spine between his teeth, Dexter began the long journey across the floor, up the chair, through the potted plant, and up onto the sideboard, to reset his deadly trap.

He’d get him next time. Oh yes, next time he’d get him for sure!