Reading for Better Writing

Occasionally, I get asked by students who want to write fiction what they should read to become better writers. My immediate answer to this question is always the same- On Writing by Stephen King. It’s THE book by one of the greatest literary craftsmen of the last hundred years, and in itself almost functions as a perfect introduction to the art of writing fiction.

However, what about once you’re ready for something a little more advanced than King’s essential starter?

Until recently, my answer was to recommend people read Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, it’s a book on scriptwriting, but much of what’s in that book applies to writers of fiction just as well. Snyder’s unique Genres are a great tool for focusing your story, and his master plot outline can bring a story into clear (if formulaic) shape. However, it’s a book of structure and tips, not so much about the nuts and bolts of writing fiction, and that always left a bit of a gap.

Well, now I have something to fill that gap- advice that will take an author’s writing to the next level, or at least give them piles of tips from the hands of another master writer.

36 Writing Essays by Chuck Palahniuk

As the name suggests, this is a collection of writing essays by Chuck Palahniuk originally done for the writing site Litreactor.com. They were done between 2005 and 2007 on a monthly basis. Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, is the writing teacher you wish you had, and the advice he gives as he pulls back the curtain in those essays is invaluable to anyone who wants to write fiction. He’s the graduate class to Stephen King’s undergraduate class, and I cannot overstate what an effect reading those essays had on my own approach to writing.

I highly recommend anyone who has started writing, and perhaps finished a few stories, to go and find a copy of that essay collection. The official collection is only available on Litreactor.com as part of a paid membership, which I recommend you go for, however if you’re lacking in cash there are a number of bootleg collections floating around if you do a simple search. These essays will be most helpful to people who have written a bit already, and are meant for people who are serious about writing, but if you are they’re worth every second you spend reading them.

Palahniuk also starting writing occasional new essays for Litreactor.com, such as this gem about thought verbs, and it will give you an idea of what to expect. It was the reason I sought out more of his writing advice in the first place.

Happy Writing!

Rob

 

Crocodile Princess Excerpt 3/3- The Happy Ox Inn

For these three days, I’ll be posting three chapters as an excerpt from my newly released novel Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess, available now wherever eBooks are sold!

Crocodile Princess  Front-med

——-

Chapter 18- The Happy Ox Inn

It was late afternoon when it happened.

Baking under the mid-day sun, most of the crew had retreated under the shade offered by the sail and superstructure as the ship cut through the green waters of the canal. Meiyu had let herself doze in the heat, but the Lin clan members were still up and awake around her, watching for trouble. They were an extremely careful lot. With only a few exceptions she had noticed that they ate only their own dried rations to make sure no-one could poison them, and there were always two of them awake at any given time.

At the moment, Madam Lin was the one sleeping, while Dancing Blade watched Meiyu and Dancing Cloud ate. The dried meat and pickled vegetables had a strong, pungent odor to them that made most of the people around her move far away.

Then, without warning, one of the four horses tied in the center suddenly let out a cry and started thrashing around. Everyone who had been asleep was instantly awake, and the crew erupted into worried shouts as the animal began to kick and try to pull itself free. This also upset the other horses, who began to react by pulling away and trying to escape from their panicked brother.

Four large, upset animals anywhere is a problem, but on a boat only five arm-spans wide it could be a disaster. So, the Lin clan members leapt into immediate action, with Dancing Blade rushing for the horse which had started the problem, while Dancing Cloud and Madam Lin rushed into try and separate the other three horses from their disturbed brother.

As this happened, Meiyu was watching in fascination, but then felt a hand on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw one of the boatmen, who laid a finger in front of his lips.

“You have a beautiful voice songbird, but moreso, you have a clever way with verses. Child of the great Crocodile of White Fox Town, is it? We have great respect for him, and would do anything to help his child stuck in a time of need.” He produced a small knife that he used to cut her bonds. “Fly, little songbird. While you have the chance.”

In an instant, she was free, and she did the first thing that came to mind- she jumped up, ran to the edge of the boat and jumped off.

Hitting the cool water, she took a moment to kick off her shoes, and then swam up to the surface. The boat had already sailed past her, but there was no sign any of the Lins had noticed she was gone- yet. Seizing the moment, she began to swim as fast as she could for a clump of bushes near the shore. Once there, she used the plants as cover while she crept out of the murky canal and headed into the forest beyond.

Being Northerners from the dry plains, she considered it likely that her former captors couldn’t swim, which meant they would have to get the boat to shore to follow her. That would buy her time, but even more importantly, they wouldn’t know which side of the canal she was on. With just three of them, it would be hard for them to pursue her on both sides, and that gave her odds she could work with.

They would have horses, but they were also strangers to the central plains, which meant that the locals wouldn’t be as inclined to help them as they would her. If she could just find a large enough town, she could get help from some of her family’s allies.

For now, Meiyu just focused on running as fast as her bare feet could carry her.

***

Last Brother Shou had seen everything.

Sitting atop a horse on a nearby hilltop that looked down on the canal, he and his two companions had watched as the girl jumped from the boat and fled into the forest beyond.

They had tracked the Lin clan members to the place where they’d gotten passage on the riverboat, and spent most of the day following the boat’s slow passage along the canal. It wasn’t hard for their horses to overtake the boat, and they’d been content with pacing it and waiting for it to make landfall so they could make their move.

Now that was in the past, and their quarry was again escaping them on the other side of the canal.

Shou frowned. “Is there a crossing near here?”

He looked at Xiao, and Xiao looked at Mah.

Mah said nothing.

“Then we find one.” Shou said, bringing his horse around and gesturing ahead of them along the road. “She’ll head for the nearest town, we’ll catch her there.”

***

“This’ll do. Thank you.”

Meiyu hopped from the cart and bowed a more formal thank you to the old farmer who’d been kind enough to give her a ride into town. Then she turned and looked about. It wasn’t a large town, perhaps fifty or sixty families, but Willow Garden was on the caravan routes, so there was a chance she might find some of her family’s allies here.

The market square was mostly empty, with the majority of the businesses having closed for the day. All that remained open were a few lantern-lit outdoor wine gardens and a couple street food sellers. A scattering of people wandered about- people strolling to enjoy the cooling early evening breeze as the sun set in the west.

Picking an older couple, Meiyu approached them cautiously and politely, brushing her hair back and arranging herself to try to make up for her disheveled, barefoot appearance. While the husband recoiled at her approach, the wife seemed more sympathetic, and after a brief conversation Meiyu learned what she needed to know. There were three large inns in the town, each of them just off the market square a short distance. The roughest was a place called the Happy Ox Inn, and it was also the largest of the three, which made it her best choice.

Making her way down the side street, she located the Happy Ox fairly easily by following the sounds of laughter and singing. It had an extensive wine garden patio, and as Meiyu passed she could see it was filled with tough looking drunken travelers and overly painted women enjoying themselves under newly lit lanterns.

To most, that sight alone would have been enough to turn them around and send them in another direction, lest the revelers took notice of them. But Mao Meiyu was a resident of White Fox Town, and the daughter of an armed escort agency headman. To her, this wasn’t dangerous, it was a small touch of home.

Meiyu wandered into the inn’s central hall and looked around. It was a typically laid-out country Inn, with a two level central hall and little in the way of decoration. A bit stuffy from the lanterns and back ovens, it was not as full as outside, and the smells of food that filled the place pulled hard at her empty stomach.

As the Lins had taken her money purse, there was little she could do about that. So, she steeled herself and hoped for the best as she headed straight for the bar along the wall to her right.

A soot and cobweb encrusted placard reading “The Happy Ox” hung above the bar along with a small mounted box containing the customary shrine to the Seven Lucky Gods. She tossed a silent prayer to them herself as she eased up to the bar and caught the innkeeper’s attention.

He gave a yellow-toothed smile, looking her up and down, and letting his gaze linger on her chest for just a bit too long.

“Yes? Can I help you?”

“I’m trying to find someone from the Mao Family Armed Escort Agency, or someone who knows them. Is there anyone like that around here?”

The innkeeper’s smile faded to almost a frown, then he indicated the stairs at the back with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Go the second floor, blue trimmed door on your right.” He said, and then wandered off to tend to another customer.

Meiyu blinked. She hadn’t hoped, but now she was so close! Her heart leapt as she turned around to head for the stairs.

And, that’s when she saw Dancing Cloud.

The unhappy looking Lin clan fighter was coming around the tables to her right, between her and the stairs. And a quick look showed Dancing Blade was there as well, coming at her from the main entrance to her left.

She was surrounded!

What could she do? She was so close! She just had to find a way to get across the room to the staircase and up to her father’s people on the second floor. If she got there, they could help her fend off these her pursuers- but how?

Then it occurred to her- the people upstairs weren’t her only source of help.

Her eyes darted around the room, and she spotted the person she was looking for. Across the hall was the biggest, toughest looking man in the room- a hairy mountain of muscle clad in animal furs and surrounded by other rough looking fighters. They looked like a bunch of bandits in to spend their ill-gotten gains.

Perfect.

Snatching a half-empty wine flask from the top of the bar, Meiyu wound up and threw it with all her might at the lead bandit’s bald head.

Out of the corner of her eye, Meiyu caught a flash of panic on Dancing Cloud’s face, and the Lin girl started to move to intercept the bottle, but it was much too late. There was a resounding “crack!” as the bottle hit, and then the crash of ceramic shattering as it hit the floor.

In an instant, the whole inn was filled with the sound of chairs flying as a whole table of bandits leapt to their feet, weapons at the ready. They scanned the room, looking about for whoever had just signed their grave marker, and their eyes all fell on Mao Meiyu.

At first, they seemed a bit confused, but then at a barked order from their still cursing, wine-soaked leader they rapidly began to advance at her, throwing tables and people out of the way as they charged across the room like an advancing horde.

Meiyu looked at Dancing Cloud.

Dancing Cloud looked at Meiyu.

“I hate you.” Said the Lin girl’s eyes.

Then she and her brother both leapt to put themselves between Meiyu and the bandits, their jian swords drawn as both took up a side-by-side battle stance.

The appearance of the green and black clad Twin Dancers of the Nine Trees Armed Escort Agency may have caused a hesitation in the bandits, but it was nothing significant. No-one here knew who they were, and all they saw was a pair of finely dressed young adults with swords. Nothing to be concerned about.

As a result, the charge continued, and in seconds the first of the bandits reached the Lin fighters, axe held high and wailing from the top of his lungs. At least, until Dancing Blade’s swordtip carved out most of his throat. He hit the ground in a gurgling mess.

But, even though he was down, the rest of them already had momentum, and so where he fell, five more took his place to surround the pair.

Meiyu watched as the twin combatants, clearly experienced at dealing with situations such as these, fell into a series of practiced moves. At first, one would defend while the other attacked, and then at an unknown signal, they would switch positions without losing a beat. This created an almost unbreachable wall of death that the bandits threw themselves against, and as a result, the second wave went down mere moments after the first bandit had hit the floor.

Meiyu had known the pair were good, but she hadn’t realized how good, and she now knew that this distraction wasn’t going to last much longer. So, leaving them to fight off the remaining bandits, Meiyu dashed around the fight and made an arc right for the back stairs- almost reaching them when something in the back of her head told her to duck.

Instinctively, she dropped and rolled, hearing the whoosh of the hand axe pass over her head and the deep “thunk!” of it burying itself into the wooden pillar beside her.

Spinning around, she saw the bandit leader coming at her, a second larger axe in his grip. Screaming obscenities, he brought the axe down at her head, forcing her to roll out of the way and dive beneath a nearby table in an effort to stay away from him.

On and on he came, flipping the tables as she scrambled this way and that, trying to avoid the axe that just kept coming. In the back of her head, it occurred to her that perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all, and she cursed herself for underestimating the potential downside of her strategy.

Spotting a saber lying on the floor nearby, she seriously considered fighting back, but that idea died a quick death when she realized that it wouldn’t be much use against the power of the axe that she was facing. She was out-classed, out-powered, and- as she dove to avoid another attack- quickly running out of places to hide.

Then she saw her opening.

The axe had become stuck in the floor after that last strike, and the bandit leader was having trouble freeing it. In that fraction of a second, she dove past the bandit in a roll and came up on the other side running. With all her effort, she bolted to the stairs and bounded up them three steps at a time.

Behind her, Meiyu could hear the thunderous steps as the bandit leader followed, and as she hit the corner on the stairs she saw him charging up the steps right after her. There was blood on his face and murder in his eyes.

But she was faster, and she continued up the stairs and out into the hall balcony. It was filled with inn girls and their clients leaning over the railing to watch the fight. Seeing the bandit come up behind her, they began to scream and scatter, which suited her fine since she needed the way clear.

Sprinting forward, she searched frantically for the blue trimmed door- finally seeing it just ahead at the end of the corridor. With her chest heaving, she prayed that there would be some of her father’s fighters inside, or at least someone who could help her escape from the giant looming up at her rear.

However, just as she was about to reach the door there was a whistling sound and pain screamed from her back as something hard and heavy struck her. She was thrown forward, slamming into the floor and everything went black for a brief moment as the world became a spinning mess.

As soon as she could even try to think, she was moving again, forcing herself to try and get up. Twisting around, she saw the bandit leader’s oversized hand lift up the heavy axe from where it had struck her and stride forward. He had thrown the blunt end to bring her down, but now the gleaming blade was hanging above her as she scrambled backwards as fast as she could- her body screaming when she slammed against the door.

“You little witch.” He growled. “I’m going to skin you alive.”

“W-wait,” she said, raising hand in feeble defense and yelling as loudly as she could. “If you harm me, you’ll regret it, my father is Crocodile Mao!”

But the giant shook his bloody head, “Don’t know him, but if he wants your skin he can pay me for it.”

The axe went up, preparing for a killing blow.

But, just as it did, Meiyu felt the door behind her open, and she fell onto her back, looking up at the ceiling.

From the room with the blue trimmed door, a man Meiyu had never seen before ducked and stepped into the corridor. A handsome face with sad eyes looked down at her, framed by a flowing mass of long black hair that ran down over the shoulders of red armor. Almost as big as the bandit leader, he was clad in the dress of a military man and carried a halberd.

“Crocodile Mao’s daughter?” He said, looking down at her.

“Y-yes!” She gasped. “Help me!”

He nodded once, and shifted his gaze to the bandit leader. The barbarian had been so shocked by this soldier’s appearance that he’d not only stopped his attack, but stared at the new arrival in wonder.

“Leave her,” said the armored man.

Not quite willing to give up, the bandit leader brought his axe to the ready. “This one owes me. Are you going to pay her debt?”

But, just as he finished those words, his eyes went wide with shock, and he looked down to see the blade of the soldier’s halberd embedded deep in his chest. It had happened so fast he hadn’t even seen the man move, it was like it had just appeared there on its own.

Just as quickly, the halberd was gone, and the bandit leader collapsed to the floor- his huge body a twitching lifeless mass.

Meiyu stared at the dead bandit, shocked by the sudden violence. Even she, who had been right there, hadn’t seen the attack until it was finished.

Who was this soldier?

She had never seen anyone like him before, and certainly would have known if her father employed such an incredibly skilled fighter.

The soldier leaned down, offering his hand to help her up.

“Come.”

Hesitating, Meiyu began to reach out to take it, but then another voice called out.

“Stop!”

Both Meiyu and the soldier turned to see the battered pair of Dancing Blade and Dancing Cloud rushing along the corridor at them. It was Dancing Blade who had shouted, and both had their bloodied weapons at the ready.

“She’s ours!” The Lin brother called out as the pair drew close. “Leave her be if you value your life!”

———————

What to know what happens next? Check out Amazon, Smashwords, or your favorite eBook seller. (Printed copies coming soon!)

Alternatively, if you’re interested in a free Review Copy, then email me at rob_paterson@hotmail.com and I’d be happy to give you one in the format of your choice in trade for a review if you like it.

Crocodile Princess Excerpt 2/3- The Lin Family

For these three days, I’ll be posting three chapters as an excerpt from my newly released novel Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess, available now wherever eBooks are sold!

Crocodile Princess  Front-med

——-

Chapter 17- The Lin Family

“…His daughter’s life for the box.”

Meiyu stared at the scene in shock- her maid, her closest friend, Little Jing was only a thin silver blade away from death. She couldn’t believe that the Lin family could be so ruthless or underhanded as to do something like this. Didn’t they know what this would do their family reputation?

And what was this box she was talking about? What could be so important?

But Meiyu pushed aside such questions as she heard her uncle finally begin to speak below.

“Madam Lin!” Gan gasped. “This is outrageous!”

The prune faced old woman merely looked at him curiously. “Clearly you are unaware of the stakes involved. Nothing is too outrageous in times such as these.”

At this, the assembled Mao family escorts wanted to lunge forward and attack, but Gan held them back with a gesture.

“Madam Lin…” He said, his voice showing the great effort it was taking to remain calm. “Whatever grievances you have with our master, the girl is no part of this. Don’t sully the names of your family or shame your ancestors by engaging in such low acts as kidnapping.”

“She is a member of your clan, that is enough.” Said the elder. “Now, lay down your blades.”

Meiyu watched as her Uncle Gan gave a deep sigh and shrugged. “Fine, if you wish there to be blood, then that’s how it will be.” Then at a whistle from their leader, the nine warriors of the Mao Armed Escort Agency who stood with Gan moved in a flash to surround the old woman and her grandson with their blades.

“Even with your skill, madam.” Gan said in an intimidating voice that Meiyu had never heard before, “You and your grandson will not escape us alive.” Then he looked up menacingly at Dancing Cloud. “The girl will not escape us either, when we are done with you. So I offer you a trade, your lives for those of your hostage.”

It was a standoff. And, Meiyu watched in rapt fascination as each side faced down the other, neither saying a word as a war of wills took place. She knew her uncle was the veteran of over a hundred caravans, and had no doubts had been in this situation many times before. However, she also knew that Madam Lin was long experienced in these manoeuvers of deceit and treachery that often took place within the martial underworld.

Against another opponent, each would likely win, but against such fearsome opposition, who would be victorious was anyone’s guess. Either way, the outcome was likely to be short, fast and brutal if one did not back away from the challenge…

And then it happened.

One of her uncle’s fighters gave a loud groan, and doubled over.

Everyone looked at the man in shock, but then, another man did the same!

Gan gave Madam Lin a sharp look, “We checked the food for poison.”

The crone smiled. “Do you know why my grandchildren are called the Twin Dancers? Because two things which are good when apart can be most deadly when they are brought together.”

“No!” Gan shouted, and lunged at her with his sword, but the poison was already starting to affect him as well, and she easily avoided his clumsy attack. Then she counterattacked with her small hands in a burst of moves that left Gan, and the two nearest Mao men lying crumpled on the floor. Her grandson finished the others with equal speed, not leaving a single member of the Mao escorts standing.

Meiyu then watched as Madam Lin stood over the barely conscious Gan.

“I apologize for the methods, but we cannot have you following us. The poison is not lethal, and you will recover…in a few weeks.”

Then she turned and stabbed a finger at the innkeeper.

“You.”

The short, chubby man bowed nervously. “Yes, my lady?”

“Their servants, fetch them.”

While the innkeeper sent a boy to do so, Meiyu considered her options. There wasn’t much she was going to be able to do against this old witch, and it sounded like if she kept still these devils would be gone soon. On the other hand, if they left they would take Little Jing, and when they learned she wasn’t Meiyu they would likely kill her.

There had to be a way out of this, and Meiyu struggled to think what it was as she watched Dancing Cloud escort Jing down the stairs to join the others below. What would Little Gou do in a situation like this, she found herself thinking. If only she’d paid more attention to those ridiculous stories he always told while trying to impress her. Perhaps there would have been something there she could use.

But no, she wasn’t Little Gou, she was Mao Meiyu, her father’s daughter.

And she knew what had to be done.

Meiyu waited until the lead servants appeared, and then made her move.

While Madam Lin instructed the servants to take the poisoned men to their master and pass along the message of her hostage, Meiyu got from her seat and walked down the stairs.

Dancing Blade saw her coming, and perhaps concerned she might be fighter or escort he let his hand fall on his sword hilt as he fixed her with his sharp gaze.

“Begone,” he said, watching her approach.

His need to speak caused the others to turn and look at her, and Meiyu saw the shock in Little Jing’s eyes as her friend saw her approach. She could see the pleading look in Jing’s expression, not for help, but for Meiyu to leave her be! But, this attempt at sacrifice only made Meiyu’s determination to carry through even stronger.

“You have the wrong girl,” Meiyu said, pulling off her black cap to let her long hair flow free. “I’m the one you want.”

For the first time in the evening, even Madam Lin looked confused.

“What is this?”

“I’m Mao Meiyu,” she said, standing before them. “That girl is my servant who was taking my place while I ate out here.”

The elder Lin looked her over with care, then had Dancing Cloud bring Jing closer so she could be examined. Finally, the old fighter looked at the servants from the caravan she had summoned.

“Is that one,” she said, pointing at Meiyu. “Your master’s daughter?”

No, the three servants assured her, Jing was in fact their master’s daughter, not this stranger.

Satisfied, the old woman made her decision, and at a nod from her, Jing was released and Dancing Sword grabbed Meiyu’s arm.

“You resemble your mother,” Madam Lin commented. “But, I needed their lies to be sure.”

***

“Hold.”

When Last Brother Shou raised his hand, his two companions brought their horses to a stop. It had been almost a full day and a half since they had stolen these mounts after setting the barge on fire and fleeing from Green Rapids Town. Now, they were searching from inn to inn, looking for any sign or trace of the Mao bridal caravan.

Having stopped for dinner, their questions had borne fruit- some merchants had seen the very caravan they were looking for to the west earlier in the day. They didn’t even stay to finish their meals before they were on their hard-worn mounts again and riding, following directions to the most likely place where such a caravan would spend the night.

Now, just before midnight, they had found the Inn in question.

The three dismounted, and Shou sent Xiao to look in the stable yard.

He came back a few minutes later to indicate that there was indeed a large caravan here, including a bridal palanquin.
They had found the right place, at last.

Forming up with Shou at the lead, the three headed straight for the front gate of the Inn. It was quiet inside, but that wasn’t unusual for this hour. Only a few lanterns were lit, which meant most of the people would probably be asleep.

All the better for them. [Author's Note: Shou, Xiao and Mah are not the good guys. ]

Pushing open the gate, they walked inside. The main hall of the inn was quiet, as expected, and the only occupants of the many tables were a chubby, balding man and what looked to be two servants sitting and talking over wine. The chubby man, who Shou took to be the innkeeper, jumped up and scurried to greet them.

“Gracious guests,” he said, bowing slightly, “Welcome. Welcome. Do you need a room for the night?”

Shou kept his voice low, glancing about.

“I’m looking for a bridal caravan owned by the Mao family. Are they staying here?”

The innkeeper froze, his smile fading.

“Ahh…Yes…” He finally said, and something about his tone and odd expression made Shou pause.
“Have they not all come?”

The Innkeeper hesitated, and then explained…

***

The sun had just crested the horizon to the east and the air was still filled with the light mists of morning when the horse Meiyu was riding came to an abrupt stop and jolted her out of the half-sleep fatigue had pushed her into.

Looking up, she saw they were now on the bank of what looked to be a long but extremely straight river. Dancing Cloud was beside her, looking as tired as Meiyu felt, and the elder Lin had gone forward with the girl’s brother to a very small port along the waterway. There, she could see them bargaining with some dark-skinned merchant from the South who was using his hands a lot.

“Where are we?” Meiyu asked, hoping the sister was feeling talkative.

The girl gave her a sharp look for talking, but then her face softened. She was too tired to play the captor. “It’s a canal,” she said in her thick Northern accent. “We’re going to travel by boat to prevent them from finding us.”

Meiyu nodded, but didn’t say anything. Weary as she was, even she knew that wasn’t correct. Maybe to Northerners, who lived in a dryer climate, water and river travel represented a way to lose their pursuers, but here in central China travel on the canals was anything but private. Not only would everyone in this village know the way they had gone, but everyone along the canal who they passed (and there would be many) would also take note of them.

Her father, Crocodile Mao, had earned his nickname because of his fondness for escorting people and goods on the rivers and canals of the central plains. The Empire was built on its ancient canals, and there was always trade passing along these busy networks of waterways. While it was not the majority of his business anymore, many of the tales Meiyu had grown up on were of jobs done on the water.

She knew the tricks of the trade here, but wondered if the Lin family did.

After a time, Madam Lin returned to the horses and ordered the girls to dismount. They untied Meiyu’s hands from the saddle horn, but kept her hands tied together and Dancing Cloud led her along like a horse. The whole group and their horses were escorted to the dock, which at the moment was empty of boats, barges, or anything else resembling transportation.

Dancing Cloud put her on a stone bench and told her to sit quietly, trying the end of the rope to nearby post, and then left Meiyu alone while she walked a short distance away to see to the horses. Not that this gave Meiyu a chance to escape, for Dancing Sword was still near her, seeing to his grandmother’s needs.

It seemed they were going to have to wait for the next barge. This suited Meiyu fine, as it meant she wouldn’t be on a moving animal. After the night before, even the bruises on her backside had bruises, and she enjoyed sitting on something flat and stable. She leaned back against the wall behind her and closed her eyes to enjoy the moment.

She must have dozed, because the next thing she was aware of was Dancing Cloud talking to her and shoving a steamed bun into her hands. As she accepted it, the other girl sat down beside her and began to eat. Meiyu watched as the desperately hungry girl, who wasn’t much older than herself, tried to find a way to eat the still too hot bun by blowing on it and taking small bites. It was all very childlike, and she began to feel that Dancing Cloud was actually a bit immature for her age, despite her stern manner.

Maybe, she thought, under other circumstances she and this girl might have been friends. They really weren’t so different, not at all. Well, except for this girl having the manners of a wolf cub.

Then the Lin girl, perhaps realizing that she was being watched, looked at her crossly and gestured toward Meiyu’s own bun.

“Eat.”

Meiyu nodded and began to nibble, then she said. “Can I ask you something?”

The Lin girl looked at her suspiciously, but didn’t say no, so Meiyu continued. “Your grandmother said she wanted to trade me to my father for a box. What kind of box?”

“It is important, that is all I know.” The girl said. “Grandmother says we need it to get justice for my grandfather.”

Meiyu leaned in. “Master Lin was murdered?”

Dancing Cloud gave a sad nod of her head.

“Who did it?”

“We do not know. We sent letters to the council, but they refused to help us. If we have the box, grandmother says they will listen.”

“Wuyun,” Meiyu pleased. “This is wrong. Kidnapping me isn’t going to help bring justice for your grandfather.”

“You are the one who is wrong, child.” Came a voice, and Meiyu turned to look up into the angry eyes of Madam Lin. “The only thing those ***** sons of the council care about is power, so we will take their precious box from them and use it to make them help us. My late husband’s spirit will not rest until the blood of his enemy is poured on his grave.”

A fire burned brightly in the old woman’s eyes, one that Meiyu had seen many times in her short life as a member of the Jianghu martial arts underworld. It was the flame of vengeance, and it made a person sacrifice anyone and anything in order to achieve their bloody dreams. Seeing it in Madam Lin, Meiyu realized at that moment that there would be no reasoning with this woman or her grandchildren.

Talking her way out of this situation would be useless.

She was going to have to find another way.

***

It was well into the morning when the boat they were waiting for finally came. Manned by thin, bronze skinned men wearing broad-rimmed straw hats, the flat bottomed riverboat coasted up to the dock. Almost as soon as it was tied up, the men were scampering to take down the single white sail and transfer the wide boat’s cargo to the merchant’s men. Busy as ants, the bags of grain and boxes of vegetables they carried were unloaded onto carts that were driven up, and then left once they were full.

Once that was done, the dark-skinned merchant she had seen Madam Lin talk to earlier motioned for them to approach, and Meiyu saw him take Madam Lin’s money. The horses were taken aboard first, carefully tied in the middle of the boat, and then Meiyu and the family boarded and were given seats near the front.

The boatmen eyed Meiyu curiously as she was led aboard, but were smart enough to keep their questions to themselves in light of her armed escorts. She was again placed on a bench with Dancing Cloud as her guard, and after the boatmen loaded some other smaller cargo the ship cast off, heading south along the busy canal.

Meiyu drifted back to sleep for a time, the rocking of the boat soothing her, and was only awakened when she became conscious of the singing. Craning her neck around, she saw it was the boatman at the rudder. He had a strong, hearty voice for so thin a man, and the song was a familiar tune in one of the Southern dialects that Meiyu had heard many times. It wasn’t long before the other boatmen joined in as well, and soon the whole ship was filled with harmony.

Dancing Cloud looked around at them in wonder.

“Do you want to know what they’re singing?” Meiyu asked.

The Northern girl nodded.

“It’s a homecoming song,” Meiyu said, and then began to translate. “A husband has traveled far to make money for his family and braved many storms and bandits. Now he’s coming home, and they’re listing off the things he’s bringing for his wife and children. The chorus is the list of things he’s bringing back for them. ‘A jade for my wife, pure as the sky. A dress for my daughter, to bring a tear to her eye. A peach for my mother, as round as can be. A pole for my son, to be strong like me.'”

Dancing Cloud listened for a time, then said. “The caravan men of the North sing something like that when we travel with them. But, the lyrics are different.”

“There are many different versions of this song too, it changes depending on the singer and what they can come up with. Each singer will take his turn singing the chorus and add his own words to suit his song.”

As they listened, one of the men at the prow sang his version of the chorus, changing it to say what he’d be bringing back for each of his three sons while the others listened and laughed at his bawdy humor.

The verse done, the rest of the crew joined in the Chorus again, and this time Meiyu joined them. Her high soprano rose up to counterpoint their baritones in a way that made everyone sit up and listen.

When it came around to her turn for a verse, her voice raised into a beautiful tremolo, the words woven with imagery steeped in an archaic dialect from her ancestors.

The boatmen hummed quietly to her melody, smiling languidly as if this were a daily occurrence, and carried on with poling the barge. They were happy to have new voice in their old song, and listened with great intent. Despite themselves, the Lin family had to admire this beautiful melody echoing like a flock of songbirds hidden the surrounding trees.

Finally, her verse done, her voice drifted off and the crew once again picked up the rhythmic bass tones of the chorus.

“You sing very well.” Said an appreciative Dancing Cloud and Meiyu nodded her thanks. The Mao girl felt more relaxed now, much of her stress having been drained away by the effort of singing. She couldn’t help but smile that she’d finally put her hated singing coach’s long efforts to use.

The cicadas ringing in the distance, the afternoon wore on.

 

—————————————

Continued tomorrow!

Or, if you want to read the whole book you can find it for Kindle right now for 99 cents for this month only! A deal so good even a cheapskate like Gou wouldn’t pass it up!

Alternatively, if you’re interested in a free Review Copy, then email me at rob_paterson@hotmail.com and I’d be happy to give you one in the format of your choice in trade for a review if you like it.

Crocodile Princess Excerpt 1/3- Meiyu

For the next three days, I’ll be posting three chapters as an excerpt from my newly released novel Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess, available now wherever eBooks are sold!

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Chapter 16- Meiyu

In a bridal caravan, there are few people more uncomfortable than the bride, especially when her father insists that she ride in a proper palanquin the whole way. While such a conveyance might offer luxurious comfort to some, to Mao Meiyu, the palanquin was a hot boring box that offered neither enough light to read by, nor enough comfort to sleep in. If there had been a method of torture more certain to drive one mad than this, she hadn’t heard of it.

As she gave up trying to read for the umpteenth time in a week, Meiyu cried out for her bearers to stop. The men carrying her did as she ordered, and she whipped back the green door curtain and hopped out as quickly as she could.

“My lady, what seems to be the problem?”

Meiyu turned as her “Uncle” Gan came riding back on his horse. The burly old swordsman was one of her father’s most trusted lieutenants, and had long cared for Meiyu much like a real uncle would, even following her to the imperial capital to take over operations there when she had been sent there to be educated by her father. He had claimed it was all a coincidence when he’d come to pay his respects shortly after she’d settled in, but she knew better- he was there to keep an eye on her.

“Uncle, please. Please. Please. Please! Let me ride a horse!”

The old man shook his head. “Tradition states…”

“You know damn well that this isn’t tradition! I’m not going to my husband’s home- I’m returning to my own!” She glared up at him, challenging him to tell her she was wrong.

“That may be,” Gan said, not backing down. “But a young lady, and especially a young bride to be, cannot risk the dangers of a horse when her wedding night is so close.”

He emphasized those last words to drive his point home. He had been perfectly fine with Meiyu riding a horse all these years, and in fact had overseen her being taught to do so when she’d been barely six. However, that had all ended when an old meddler of a nurse had taken him aside and whispered in his ear the potential riding a horse carried for a loss of maidenhood, and thus a ruined first night that might also be the quick end of a marriage.

Not being willing to risk being blamed for such an event, Meiyu’s riding days had come to an abrupt halt, and Gan clearly had no intention of changing that rule under any circumstances.

“If my lady is feeling cramped, she is most welcome to walk.” He told her, then wheeled around his horse and gestured for the caravan to begin moving. There were over fifty people in the wedding caravan, which brought not only Meiyu from the center of the empire, but also an abundance of gifts, foodstuffs and other items. Six carts and twenty pack horses worth of goods to be precise, in addition to what the servants carried on their backs.

Meiyu watched some of them pass her by, and then fell in step with the procession, her own personal maids appearing around her with an umbrella to shield her from the summer heat as the caravan threaded its way down south through the central plain towards Zhejiang and White Fox Town.

“Where are we now?” Meiyu asked one of her maids, Little Jing, who was also one of her closest friends.

“Near Xuzhou,” the small, sharp eyed woman answered. “We’ll be crossing the Feihuang River soon, and entering Tongshan.”

Meiyu nodded. “Over halfway then,” she said thoughtfully. “I wonder how he’ll look?”

“I am told the second son of the Yun family is not unattractive.”

Meiyu looked at her maid, and her eyes sparkled with laughter. “Oh yes. Him. I suppose he’ll be good looking enough, although his younger brother has the nose of a monkey, so it does make one wonder…”

The maids laughed at that, and Meiyu grinned.

***

With the coming of dusk, the caravan found and settled at a large country inn of the kind that specialized in trade caravans between north and south. While the carriers settled and unpacked, Meiyu took the time to ready herself to be presentable for dinner. However, when she went to leave her room, her uncle appeared and barred her way.

“You will be dining in your room tonight,” he informed her in a serious tone.

When she pressed for details, he finally relented and explained that several disreputable characters had been seen around the busy inn and he was concerned for her safety.

Of course, telling this to a young lady with Meiyu’s temperament just made her want to attend the communal dinner even more!
She waited until he’d left, then quickly switched to some boy’s clothes she’d brought for just such an occasion.

“How do I look?” She asked Little Jing as she struck a serious and thoughtful pose. She was now a handsome looking young man in blue pants, a grey longcoat with white sequins, and a black cap atop her head to hide her hair.

“Kind sir, will you marry me?” Asked the maid, looking at her with big, adoring eyes.

“Sorry, my dear.” Meiyu replied in the deepest voice she could manage. “The world is filled with too many beauties for a man such as myself to settle down.”

“Oh dear sir! You’re so cruel!” Cried the maid in mock despair, and then they both laughed.

“Wear my dress,” she told her friend. “If anyone comes to serve food, pretend to be me but don’t let them in. Have them leave it just inside the door.”

The maid agreed, and then after her maids distracted the guards her uncle left, Meiyu slipped out the door and down the hallway into the communal dining room.

The inn’s great hall was a large noisy affair, filled with the sights, sounds and smells of over a hundred travelers taking their evening rice. Dishes of all kinds flowed around the room on trays, while wine was toasted and men and women of all shapes and sizes laughed, yelled and chattered like birds. Trays of seasoned beef in soy sauce, barbecued pork and drunken chicken made Meiyu’s mouth water as their smells wafted up, and flowed in the smoky lantern light that kept the hall lit as summer evening descended.

Unable to resist, Meiyu quickly found a spot near the railing where she could look down upon the diners, and ordered up several dishes. Then she sat back with her tea and began to observe the people below her, feeling a little thrill at the power anonymity afforded her. She could see without being seen, and observe freely in ways that her school’s headmistress would most definitely disapprove of.
It made her lips curl into a smile as she watched the bustle below.

Her uncle, and the rest of the guards and caravan leaders were gathered at a long table just underneath her, with the carriers and other staff consigned to eat in the servant’s quarters behind the inn. Her own maids would eat in their rooms, as had been decided by her overprotective uncle.

The other tables were mostly occupied by people she judged as merchants and their companions, as one would expect at a trade crossing like this. Among them she also spotted a few swordsmen, obvious bodyguards and escorts, although none were people she knew, or who looked especially interesting or famous. In fact, as she surveyed the room more closely, she became less and less impressed with its contents. Her uncle had promised danger, but she saw none here, just boringly normal people stained with mud and wine.

Still, the night was young and there was always hope. So she tucked into her dinner and enjoyed her meal, keeping an ear and eye open for whatever might pop up below.

It was as she was finishing the chicken she’d ordered that her eye caught motion on the other balcony across from where she sat. Glancing over, she saw three people standing solemnly at the rail, looking down at where her uncle and the others sat below.

There were two women- one prune faced, one around her own age- and a young man who had the build and bearing of a swordsman. All three were clad in black, with each also having an article of bright green to offset their plain attire. The ugly older woman had her black hair piled up into a topknot with a bright green ribbon, the slender and attractive young woman had a bright green sash around her waist, and the swordsman wore a bright green vest with a golden slash on the lapel. All three carried long, slender Jian swords in ornately gilded sheaths.

So distinctive were they that Meiyu was positive she knew these strangers, but couldn’t quite put her finger on their names. What was clear, however, was that these three were focused on her uncle, and from them she could feel a strong air of menace and malevolent intent. As she watched, the girl stepped back and left, while the older woman and the young man headed for the stairs.

Her pulse quickened as the old prune led the young man down the side staircase and through the assembled until she reached the table where the members of the Mao Family Armed Escort Agency sat enjoying their meal. She approached from behind Uncle Gan, and for a moment Meiyu wanted to yell out a warning before the old witch tried something, but just as the words started to form in her mouth the conversation at the table died and she saw hands lay on swords. Her uncle casually rose from his seat and turned to face the new arrivals while the men behind him stood up.

Meiyu now wished she’d thought to bring a sword. While she was no master of the blade, she knew how to use it better than many of her father’s men and could make herself useful in the right moments. This looked to be one of those moments, and she unconsciously leaned in, expecting to see metal flash like it often did when members of the Jianghu martial underworld met.

Instead, what she saw was her uncle clasp his hands together and bow deeply to the old woman, and many of the other men do the same!

“Madam Lin!” Exclaimed the old swordsman. “This is a most unexpected pleasure!”

Meiyu’s memory clicked the pieces into place. The old woman was Madam Lin, head of the Nine Trees Armed Escort Agency, a group that guarded caravans from the Mongol raiders up in the Northeast around Ningyuan. That meant her companions were her granddaughter, Wuyun (also known as Dancing Cloud) and her grandson Wudao (called the Dancing Blade) who had both made a name for themselves in the martial world for their refined paired style of swordsmanship. Their techniques were handed down from their grandparents, and with their parents lost to a fever they had taken a lead in the clan’s activities after the recent death of their grandfather.

Even without the grandfather, the elder madam of the Lin clan was still a force to be reckoned with, and there had long been rumors that when Mongol tribes bent on raiding saw the Nine Trees flag they quickly retreated rather than risk her wrath. She was the force that made her clan a power in the escort trade, and now she was facing Meiyu’s uncle with unknown intent.

“Master Gan,” the old woman said with only a slight nod of her head to return the bow. “It is fortunate that we might meet here. You know my grandson, I presume?”

“Dancing Blade?” Gan said cordially. “I should hope so. The name of the Twin Dancers has carried far and wide. It is a pleasure to meet you, lad!” He greeted the young warrior, who returned his courtesy, then looked at Madam Lin with some curiosity. “I am surprised to see you here. If I may be so presumptuous, is there a special reason for this honor?”

“There is,” agreed the Madam. “We are on our way to an event near Suzhou.”

“Ah,” Gan answered as if he understood. “Yes, you would be, wouldn’t you? When I think of it, this meeting was most expected after all! Excuse this old man and his ignorance.”

“Yes,” the old woman said simply. “In relation to that meeting, I wish you convey a message to your master.”

“Yes?” Old Gan said, surprised. “And what might that be?”

It was as she said this that Meiyu noticed something that made her look up and gasp! Standing at the balcony near the entrance to the rear rooms was Dancing Cloud, and with her was a young woman dressed in wedding finery with her hair over her face- Little Jing!

She heard gasps from below as well, and her uncle stammering in shock.

“I believe,” said Madam Lin. “The message is clear enough. Tell him we wish an exchange- his daughter’s life for the box.”

—————————————

Continued tomorrow!

Or, if you want to read the whole book you can find it for Kindle right now for 99 cents for this month only! A deal so good even a cheapskate like Gou wouldn’t pass it up!

Alternatively, if you’re interested in a free Review Copy, then email me at rob_paterson@hotmail.com and I’d be happy to give you one in the format of your choice in trade for a review if you like it.

Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess New Release Sale!

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Little Gou’s first novel-length adventure is now available on Kindle for just 99 cents for the month of September. Grab it now while you can!

The story:

“Every last member of the Mao family will die by the Hour of the Rat a fortnight from now.” 

With these words begins a race against time, as the roguish martial artist called Little Gou hunts across the back roads and waterways of Old China to find a young bride-to-be who has become a pawn of the mysterious Lady Moonlight. He must outwit friends and foes alike, all of whom are dancing to the Lady’s song, and unravel a scheme that could see thousands dead or enslaved and the Middle Kingdom aflame with rebellion if he fails. But, worst of all, he has to face the woman who abandoned him in the name of family duty- the love he can never be with, or forget. 

Influenced by Legendary Wuxia novel writers Gu Long and Jin Yong; and in the spirit of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess is a martial arts action & adventure thriller set in the Jianghu martial underworld of Old China. Through a combination of wits, swordplay and kung fu, the martial artist Little Gou, and his companion the warrior nun Sister Cat, must uncover the truth behind a deadly plot to bring the martial underworld to its knees, or die trying.

 

Five Nights at Freddy’s

While I’m not a gamer, I do enjoy watching play-throughs by other people from time to time because a good game really is a work of art. Case in point is Five Nights at Freddy’s, which is a jump-scare independent horror game that manages to be really good at what it does. The short version is that you’re a night-watchman at an animatronic-filled restaurant where the robotic entertainers get a little…mobile…at night, and if they reach you then well…Why not watch this playthrough by Youtube gamer Markiplier and find out?

Not safe for work language, and if you can’t handle jump-scares you might want to pass as well.

Rob

 

Batman: Assault on Arkham

I just finished watched the new DC animated “movie” Assault on Arkham, and I have to say that to date it’s probably the best of the direct to video animated films DC has done. This might be because the main character, despite the title, is actually Deadshot (who is leading the Suicide Squad) not Batman. Batman is more of a presence/antagonist to the main characters, and this provides a nice change-up of the usual roles that makes the story kind’ve refreshing.

This is also the most “adult” of the movies they’ve done, which is probably meant to be in line with the “New 52″ dark and dirty philosophy, and there’s a fair amount of sex and graphic violence in this one as well. (Perfectly in keeping with “villains” being the lead characters.) I’m generally not a fan of this new “darker” DC approach, but in this case it actually works for the story, so I’ll give it a pass. The story itself is full of odd holes and logic gaps, but that’s par for the course for these DC movies, and they’re not as bad as some of the other movies they’ve done. (Batman: Son of the Demon was so stupid I had to turn it off halfway through because I couldn’t take it anymore.) In fact, the only real complaint(s) I have about this movie are Batman’s costume (which is this weird half-armored thing) and the fact Batman has pupils, which bugged me a lot every time they showed them.

And hey, Kevin Conroy is back as Batman! C.C. Pounder is Amanda Waller (who is the real Waller, not an anemic model like the New 52 version) and hearing the two of them spar off against each other really is like old times. That alone made the watch worth it for a Batman:TAS series fan like me!

Rob