This was my first ever trip to Bristolcon, a convention in the city of Bristol that has been running for six years.

I sat on three panels, the first one at 10 o’clock after the opening speech by the redoubtable Joanne Hall, who has been running Bristolcon since its inception. I was moderating a panel with Joanne, Emma Newman (one of the GOHs), Del Lakin-Smith and Rob Haines.

We were discussing discoverability and representation, though we focussed on the former, a hot topic for writers whether indie, published, or hybrid (like me). The problem was identified (and indeed located) in how to discover good writing in circumstances where some booksellers seem to unconsciously privilege male writers by putting their books out face-up on tables; and how to deal with the rather more imponderable problem of the Amazon algorithms.

The panel discussed how we might tackle these problems as writers, publishers and fans. A key idea was that of curating the work of other writers, whether by podcast, such as Emma Newman’s Tea and Jeopardy, or through blogs, such as Joanne’s http://hierath.wordpress.com/ and of course the Speculative Fiction Showcase. Del Lakin-Smith is joint owner of publisher Spacewitch, and talked about their aim of linking and creating relationships between books that have similarities.

There was some discussion of the idea of filtering and “gatekeepers” – an idea especially current in the indie world with regard to mainstream publishers such as the “Big Five”. It was mentioned that it is difficult to find good stuff on Amazon because browsing is impossible. There may be a positive role for “gatekeepers” in enabling good stuff to be found, though as Rob Haines pointed out, there is also a (negative) effect since anything off the beaten track may be filtered out.

Panel number two was entitled Influences on Authors and was admirably moderated by Paul Cornell. My fellow panellists were Joanne Hall, John Baverstock and Piotr Swietlik, who was doing his first ever panel and spoke perfect English. This was a fascinating panel as Paul Cornell and John Baverstock testified to the influence of the King James version of the Bible on their writing (and as the original lexicon of the English language). Joanne Hall mentioned the influence of the late, great David Gemmell and Piotr discussed Raymond Chandler.

The writers also talked about originating events, what had started them writing or what had inspired their stories (and worlds). Paul Cornell talked about the way in which his writing had begun as a means of defeating the bullies at school. I described to the workcamp I attended with the Christian Movement for Peace in 1980, which took place in the village of Charols in Drome and provided me with a number of themes (and characters) for my subsequent writing. The writers also talked about the influence of film and television.

My final panel was at 5 o’clock, when Ben Jeapes chaired a discussion on the topic “What can SF writers learn from history?” with Janet Edwards, Dev Agarwal and Justin Newland. The theme of this panel was more recondite; the original description reads: “What events lurk in the past that we don’t realise have happened or don’t think about – are we recreating the past when we envision the future?” Janet Edwards talked about the future of her Science Fiction novels, where people born on earth – ordinary humans – are disadvantaged and in the minority. Ben Jeapes talked about the way in which SoE and the traditional secret services conspired to unintentionally undermine each other during World War II, and Dev Agarwal related the predicament of a female spy who was first in one of Stalin’s gulags and then interned in Buchenwald.

All of these stories could be elaborated or extrapolated from the past, but could also be seen as elements of history that are not traditionally taught or discussed. There were references to both history and the history of science as fruitful sources for the writer. There were interesting and pertinent questions from the audience, especially about the role of archaeology in creating and changing history (and of the part played by archaeological artefacts).

I learned an awful lot and it need hardly be observed, though I think that Joanne Hall said it rather well, that writers can get inspiration from almost anything, including friends and family. Writers are like magpies (or bower birds) and most things can be material, whether from history or the present.

(A longer version of this post appears on my blog Living in the Maniototo).

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