Research for writers: The UK Medical Heritage Library Project

For a wonderful eighteen months, I worked on the UK Medical Heritage Library Project (UK-MHL). A few years ago a number of universities in the US came together to digitise their medical textbooks from the long 19th century (1780-1914). These items were free for researchers to access and use in their projects. It was extended in the UK thanks to the Wellcome Library and JISC. Eight organisations submitted books to be digitised and made available via, the Wellcome Library and Jisc Historical Texts, as well as through the individual libraries. Over 110,000 books went through this process, and are  an absolutely treasure trove for researchers and writers.


The UK-MHL via the Wellcome Library

Research for non-academics can be quite tricky. If you are not affiliated with a university so many books are inaccessible. Private collections and libraries are really expensive and public libraries are being squeezed of resources or closed down. Able-bodied London residents may have access to the big research libraries but what do the rest of us do? Thank Seshat for online free services like these. Now all writers need is an internet connection and an electronic device, and they can access high quality sources from research libraries with no membership or subscription requirements.

I am fascinated by the long 19th century. It was such a dynamic time in history with so much science, technology, protest and debate to learn about. Women burst through to the fore becoming major players unlike any other era before*. So when I decided to write a fantasy novel about a powerful working class girl who breaks the establishment it seemed like the perfect era in which to base my world upon. Thanks to resources like the UK-MHL I have access contemporary sources from home. If I need to find out Mrs Beeton I can do that. If I need information about A friendly address to the poor I can also find that out. If I want to find out The training of girls for work : an expression of opinions, that information is just a click away.

The book of household management

‘The book of household management; comprising information for the mistress … Also, sanitary, medical, & legal memoranda; with a history of the origin, properties, and uses of all things connected with home life and comfort’ (1861) by Isabella Beeton via (UK-MHL Leeds University)

So writers what are you waiting for? There’s a lot of inspiration in those 110,000 books.

Do you have a favourite online library? If so let me know in the comments below

* Yes Elizabeth, Mary etc. but give me a match stick girl over a monarch every time.


Joining a critique group, a critque

So you have a piece of writing, it could be a novel, a short story or a poem. You have brought it as far as you can, any further tinkering with it would not add any quality. What is the next step? Some people go straight to submitting the pieces for publication or go the self-publishing route. Others, like me, join a critique group in order to get some feedback. It can be a nerve wracking thing to do, but I have really found the experience beneficial for the following reasons.

Nic McPhee via Flickr

Nic McPhee via Flickr

You gain valuable feedback in terms of continuity and story arc:

Science fiction and fantasy novels usually surpass the 90,000 word mark and it can be hard to keep track of everything that happened in the story, even if you wrote the thing. It’s great to have a fresh pair of eyes go over your manuscript to ask such questions as, “I though this happened in the kitchen,” “I though he had green eyes,” “Who the heck is Alice?” I know when I’m reading for fun I will spot things like this a mile-off, so it is great to have someone catching my own slip-ups. Email critique groups are fantastic for this in particular as you have the previous chapters in your inbox. If there is any doubt you can just pop back and look it up.

It beats the pattern recognition powers of your brain:

Our brains are wonderful organic machines. However they have developed some shortcuts to help us deal with life and they can get in the way when we are trying to proof read. See exhibit A, pattern recognition. Sometimes when reading a sentence your brain will fill in missing words, or show words as being spelled correctly when the opposite is true. This happens often if you have read, and re-read the text numerous times. It’s fantastic to have people take a fresh look at your writing, they are likely to catch something that you have missed.

Practicing feedback makes your own proof reading better:

Writing is a muscle, use it everyday and it will get stronger. I think skills like proofreading are the same. From reading the work of others, and the critiques of others, I can definitely say that it has strengthened my own technique. Repetition, missed words, lack of commas, I am coming for you!*

Keeps you on track time wise:

I have been working on my novel since NaNoWriMo 2012. 2012 people! I also only work part-time, so you would be justified in wondering why I haven’t finished the thing yet. However since signing up for this critique group, where it is preferred that you send something monthly, I am flying through my edits. I am fully confident of getting it finished before NaNoWriMo 2016. Having that monthly deadline keeps me from slacking off and has gotten me in the habit of sitting down to write.

It is easier to take criticism from strangers than from family and friends

I don’t know about other people, but I find it very hard not to take criticism from family and friends personally. I also embarrass easy and tend to talk myself down. This problem seems to disappear however with strangers. I care what they have to say about my writing but the degree of separation almost adds a layer of professionalism, which is much easier to handle. It is also much easier if you are not used to giving an opinion, you can tell the truth and not worry about bumping into them at the shops later.

That is not to say that friendships can’t develop, see the next point!

You don’t have to face people but can still make friends

So if reading  something out loud in public in front of living, breathing, sentient humans fills you terror, email critique groups could work for you. You get to know people and learn about them and their lives. You encourage each other heaping more praise than corrections, and I have really started to look forward to reading their submissions each month. Which leads me to the last point of praise…

You get to read other people’s stories

This is by far the best perk of joining a group. I get to read the stories of some very talented people and I can learn from them. It is hard sometimes not to get swept up in the stories, enjoying the intrigues of the plots. I am certain in a few years I will see some of their books on bookshop shelves.

A point to note

Among all that praise I will sound a note of caution. Try, if you can, to join a group that has some knowledge of the style that you are writing in. While it is useful to get an outside perspective, initially it is really helpful to hear from specialists who know about the genre and the publishing environment.

I am a member of the British Science Fiction Association Orbit critique groups.

*Now that I have said this I will have undoubtably missed something in this piece. Forgive me and my over-confident ways.


Review: After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

Superheroes are everywhere in our cultural landscape at the moment. Movie and TV battles between Marvel and DC are heating up, and the are so popular that they are scheduled in advance for the next five years minimum. If you like these stories but are tiring of the same type of storylines being shown all the time, I highly recommend picking up a copy of After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn. It is entertaining, thought provoking and you will absolutely devour it.


Why? Striking cover aside, the story has a great concept. Imagine your parents are superheroes, the saviours and top celebrities of the city that you live in. Now, imagine that you are perfectly ordinary, that you have not inherited a single power at all. That is the reality for Celia West the main character in After The Golden Age. All her life she has been overshadowed by Captain Olympus and Spark (her Dad and Mam) and book explores how her life has been impacted by their greatness.

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Celia is adult age for the most part in this novel, but Vaughan did describe what life was like for her as a teenager. I thought she did a great job, showing that no matter how revered people are the odds for their teenage children rebelling and acting out. Vaughn created a household where Celia was put under to manifest superpowers and how disappointed her father was when she turned out to be “normal.” As an adult Celia qualifies as an accountant. The family issues in this book may be super-sized but their reactions were unmistakably human.

One aspect of Celia’s life I was glad that Vaughan included was the danger that her saviour parents put her in. Their heroism painted a huge target on her back. As a result Celia endured multiple abduction attempts where she was ransomed and rescued. Celia’s struggle to live a regular life and maintain independence was really compelling to read. She was really brave attempting to do so, despite the risks posed by the abductions to her job, friends and personal safety. It was all a lot more stressful than the mainstream superheroes stories make it out to be.

*Some spoilers in the next paragraph discussing Celia’s love life*

The story was also interesting in the day it dealt with romance. At the end Ceila chooses Arthur, who is a telepath. It has all the ingredients of a creepy relationship; he could read her thoughts, he could inject ones of this own, he could make people fall asleep at will and he knew Celia since she was a child. Rather than ignoring these they were addressed explicitly with mArthur and Celia discussing their concerns about the relationship. Celia’s parent’s also had a chance to voice their concerns. The point is also made that Celia was a grown woman and could make her own decisions. Too often stories skip over these dodgy bits which leaves readers with an unsettled feeling, but Vaughn tackles them head on.

Those were just some of the elements of the book that I enjoyed. The story is also packed with political and criminal intrigue, a fierce propaganda machine and a mystery as to the origins of the superheroes, and supervillians. So if you are looking for a fun read that looks at superheroes from a different angle, give After the Golden Age a try.

After the Golden Age is available in paperback.

Please note that some links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links. When you buy something through these links, I receive a commission that helps support this site. Thank you!



Life imitating literature: Second Arabesque, Very Slowly in Beginners Ballet

New year means new years resolutions. I am not very imaginative when it comes to choosing some goals, it is usually eat less rubbish, exercise more, lose weight, get organised, etc. This year however I think I have chosen a goal I will stick to, all because of an idea implanted in my head thanks to a short story. Second Arabesque, Very Slowly by Nancy Kress is featured in a collection of short stories called Dangerous Women Part 1, and it has brought me back to a old childhood favourite pastime, ballet.

Kress’ story takes place in a post-apocalypic world. Everything is bleak, gangs lead by patriarchs roam city landscapes searching for resources to stay alive. Hyper-masculine pecking orders, child concubines and violent rival gangs all exist in this world. But among the chaos two young people discover tapes of ballet performances in an abandoned theatre. They eagerly learn the steps, putting on private performances for just themselves. The dance moves the characters and changes them, that fleck of beauty and grace changing their futures forever.

After reading the story I often thought back to it. What would happen to art, music, literature and dance if such a bleak world came to pass? I like to think people would hold on to them, they would need to do something to help pass the time. Then I started thinking about my own life. I needed to do more exercise, so when the offer came into my inbox offering trial ballet classes I jumped (no pun intended) at the chance. Would I have done so without having read Kress’ story in the past 12 months? Perhaps, but maybe not. The stories we read and tell do shape how we see the world. So every Wednesday I am now learning to arabesque, very slowly. This couch potato reader is now dancing thanks to one of those books which kept her sitting to the sofa!

Review: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Go hard or go home is usually the mantra of those who party and go on adventures. I am neither but feel that I can still apply it to my life, in particular to my reading habits and my first book pick of 2016. The Three-Body-Problem by Liu Cixin is hard sci-fi novel which has won awards left, right and centre, including a Chinese Science Fiction Galaxy Award and a Hugo Award for Best Novel. I started the book without having read the blurb or knowing much about it at all but that it did not matter. It was a fantastic read (listen really as I had it on audiobook) which held my attention and made me want to keep reading it compulsively, despite it being full of maths and physics, two things I know little about.

The Three-Body Problem

I am not going to sum-up the plot as honestly, I think knowing nothing made it all the more enjoyable. The story is full of twists and turns, every last element was plotted out and delivered wonderfully. Each detail mattered; every now and then I would think back on an event or character and wondered why they were portrayed in those particular ways. Liu answered each one of my questions in time, slotting the reveals into the story effortlessly. The story was also full of surprises; there were honestly times when I wanted to cheer,  having seen the story careening down a path which would have lessened my enjoyment, only to have it snapped back and down a different, more exciting, path.

Liu Cixin

Liu Cixin

The title of the book references a problem in orbital mechanics also called the three body problem. So as expected, this book is packed with maths, physics (both theoretical and applied) and computer science. However I did not find the explanations grating, despite having such little knowledge of the fields (I didn’t even know the three body problem was an actual thing). Some of the science went over my head but a lot did not, and I really enjoyed listening to the descriptions of the concepts. Could I repeat anything back now? Maybe not, but if I were to meet the the concepts again I would definitely take more.

The Three-Body Problem is a translated work, it was originally published in China. The story is set in China and pretty much all of the characters are Chinese. It discusses cultural revolution, the status of scientists and ideas of class and status which was absolutely fascinating and reminded me that I need to get out of the UK/US sci-fi scene for book picks more often. There are so many stories out there outside of the usual “knights of the round table/mining company in space” stories and this book is a great way to kick off a year of diverse reading.

One criticism that I have seen is that the characters are one dimension and robotic. I can see where these readers are coming from but this was not a problem for me. A lot of traumatic things happened to these people and the way many of them dealt with it was by withdrawing into themselves. The cold, calculating, methodical nature of some of the characters I think came as they were at work for the most part. Outside of that there were plenty of breakdowns, drinking, freaking out and despair. It was light on joy though, this is not a book to read for laughs.

So start the year with some hard sci-fi set in the Sinosphere, you will not regret it!

The Three-Body Problem is available on kindle, paperback, hardback, and audiobook.

Please note that some links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links. When you buy something through these links, I receive a commission that helps support this site. Thank you!

New Year’s Resolutions: My Own Reading Challenge 2016

A new year means new reading goals. Last year for me that involved the Goodreads Reading Challenge; where you set the number of books that you would like to read and track your progress through Goodreads. I took part in the challenge previously as a way to force myself to get back into the habit of reading, making books my go-to source of entertainment. This year, 2016, I am going for a different challenge – tackling my to-read list.

My house currently, full of books!

Books on the floor, books stored horizontally on top of other books on shelves, books hidden in handbags and on kindles, this is my life right now. My love for book shopping and visiting the local library has resulted in a collection of dust traps and trip hazards. Well no more, this year I have declared a book borrowing, buying and swapping moratorium. If I want to read I have to pick up a book from those already lurking on my shelves.

This has meant not continuing with the Goodreads Challenge. As good as it is for ensuring you keep on the reading straight and narrow, it is terrible when you need to tackle larger or more complex tomes. I will also be abandoning my usual pattern of balancing reading fiction and non-fiction works and balancing the gender breakdown. I will fill in the gaps once my the shelves are cleared.

One exception to this rule will be continuing to borrow and buy books related to my job and CPD. I also cannot promise that I will not purchase new cookbooks…

So wish me luck and to those also tackling their book-backlogs, happy reading!

Review: The Care of Fine Books by Jane Greenfield

If like Ron Burgundy and you “have many leather-bound books” or just many books in general you should, as a rule, learn how to take care of them. For those charged with taking care of a collection be it librarians, collectors or accumulators, this can be a daunting task. Books such as The Care of Fine Books (2nd Ed.) by Jane Greenfield seek to do just that. It is a manual, a practical guide for all of us who wish to take care of our books in the best way possible. In this review I will highlight why I think Care of Fine Books is as Nicholas A. Basbanes calls it “indispensable”.


Readers of this book are in the very capable hands of Jane Greenfield. Greenfield was the conservator at the Yale University Library and an Honorary Member of the Guild of Book Workers. One may assume that with these lofty credentials would come a level of complexity of instruction that would be beyond non-experts, but this is not the case. Each chapter is well defined and the language is accessible and all terminology and jargon is explained.

I particularly enjoyed chapter one on The Nature of Books. Greenfield does not assume any level of prior knowledge of book production so dives right into the development of book materials. From papyrus to parchment to paper, plastic and metals, she lays out their history and how and when they came to be used in the construction of books. She discusses different styles of binding and storage throughout history, and importantly how to recognise them. This all should interest anyone who is thinking of learning more about the history of the book. But this is a book with an emphasis on practicality so Greenfield makes sure to detail factors which affect the materials that we need to be on the look out for.

Examples of historical bindings from The Nature of Books

Examples of historical bindings from The Nature of Books

Sometimes practical manuals turn out not to be particularly practical at all, but this is not the case with The Care of Fine Books. The next chapter discusses book storage. Greenfield includes an environmental survey which can be used as is or easily adapted, perfect for collectors or librarians alike. She also discusses in detailed, clear language the risks posed by light, temperature, humidity, biological attack, insects and pollution. She also tackles theft, a contentious issue, and gives recommendations about what to do if such a thing happens. There is even a section on bookshelves, really Greenfield leaves no aspect of book storage to chance.

Wall of shame from The Storage of Books

Wall of shame from The Storage of Books

The main reason I purchased this book was for the handling of books chapter. In my job I handle rare books many of which are very delicate. I process hundreds of books a month and while I do have handling training and experience I figure you can always learn something new. Greenfield breaks down how to handle a book into it’s smallest components, from where to, and where not to, touch books, how to read them, how to carry them and how to open them. Believe me, these are things people do need to be reminded of I’ve seen some terrible things in my time! This chapter also includes instructions for cutting pages, making protective structures for books and damage treatment options.

The Care of Fine Books also contains a detailed section about protecting books when travelling or putting them on display. A huge list of materials and suppliers just reinforces how practical this publication actually is. There is also a sizeable bibliography for those of you who can’t get enough book advice. The only downside of this book was that many of the pencil drawings depicting the various types of bindings etc. were not particularly clear. I can understand why drawings were used but photographs would have been preferable in my opinion. 

For anyone who works with books, or has a collection at home that they would like to take care of, I definitely recommend The Care of Fine Books as in inexpensive book of instructions which can get you started. But do still seek professional advice if the issue with the book is more serious, some repairs can cause more harm than good.

The Care of Fine Books is available through Amazon in kindle or paperback formats.

Please note that some links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links. When you buy something through these links, I receive a commission that helps support this site. Thank you!