Goal for 2016: Sabbatical

I have one – and only one – goal for 2016: taking a sabbatical.

I might post if I publish something, but for now, I’m off.

Have a good year!

Published in: on January 1, 2016 at 12:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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2015 in review

Here’s a summary of 2015. Not as productive as I’d hoped on the writing front, but there’s a time for filling the well, isn’t there?


BOOKS READ IN 2015

Stonemouth by Iain Banks – disappointingly similar to The Crow Road and Espedair Street, with a dash of Wasp Factory.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley – twenty pages into this, I knew I wanted to read it again. The clockwork gadgets and charming characters drew me into a sense of place so genteel and stifling, yet plagued by violence; and there’s snow (always happy to read stories with snow).

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky – like reading through a subject on Wikipedia as if it were a travelogue. Not very deep but enjoyable while it lasted. Is it true, perhaps, that many of the non-federal roads between small towns in the USA originally followed animal trails between salt licks?

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore – interesting historical research written engagingly, but TBH I thought both characters in the marriage sounded pretty ghastly and felt sorry for their various kids.

Concrete Island by J G Ballard – strange to imagine how anyone could write this story now, thirty years or so later, with the rise of CCTV and near-ubiquitous smartphone ownership. Can’t you hear the SatNav berating the lead character for taking a wrong turn?

Lanark by Alasdair Gray – tortuous and bitty and self-indulgent. Can’t see why it was worth waiting for. Filed with 2666 and Moby Dick under “hours of my life I’ll never get back”, but at least I finished it.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell – seminal work that claims to have laid the foundation arguments for the nationalisations of the 1945-50 Labour government. Left me with a sickly notion that the lead characters might find our current world of zero-hours contracts and crushing urban rents somewhat familiar.

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There by Sinclair Mackay – an easy read which nonetheless makes the intricate and crucial work at Bletchley sound as dull and repetitive as office work everywhere. There’s a possibility I might cite this as research for a future Cuckoo Club story, as one of my characters in Dogger, Forties, German Bight has a hinted Bletchley past.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch – having heard the author talk about this series at CrimeFest 2014 I was keen to read the novels, of which this is the first. Now, not so likely to go out of  my way. Well constructed story skilfully written but didn’t hold my interest enough (too contemporary, not enough clever gadgets or magic weirdness).

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – worth reading if you are interested in the historical groundswell that also gave us Brave New World, Metropolis and 1984. Has hints of Logan’s Run in places too. A slender tome.


I’m hoping that next year will prove a little more expansive on the reading front. Limiting my time online will help. Don’t expect much.

 

Published in: on December 31, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on 2015 in review  
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Plumber’s Muse required, must bring own grommets

There’s a meme, a theory, call it what you will, that writer’s block is a poor excuse for laziness.

This is based on the premise that there’s no such thing as – for example – plumber’s block. That is, someone who makes their living as a plumber doesn’t spend days lying on a chaise longue wafting a scarf over their fevered brow while waiting for their Muse to turn up with a sink plunger and a set of tap grommets.Joseph Bazalgette (c) Science Museum London

I agree.

There is no such thing as plumber’s block.

Because, you see, when a plumber has had enough of plumbing, be it for the day, the week or for life, he hangs up his kneepads and overalls and goes out to the pub – or the beach, or nightschool, or whatever takes his fancy.

Without feeling guilty about Not Plumbing.

If he’s been successful, he will likely have a bunch of other plumbers working for him in the pipework technician equivalent of James Patterson blockbusters.

If he hasn’t been successful, one might ask why the blazes he bothered becoming a plumber in the first place if he hated the work so much (the usual answer is either money, or self-determination).

Nobody becomes a plumber in the hope they’ll become the next Joseph Bazalgette.


Plumbers, on the whole, are practical fellows. If plumbing isn’t floating their boat, the resourceful amongst them will look to start another line of work.

Often, the less resourceful are quite happy being told by someone else when to turn up, what to fit and how much they are going to be paid for the work.

Sounds like my day job.

But here’s the difference between plumbing and writing (if you haven’t already thought of at least one).

Writing novels is not my day job. I’d be surprised if it was yours (if it is, can I have the email addresses of your readers?).

Once the first twelve hours of the working day are over (prep and commutes and aftercare included), who has the energy to commit to creative works month after month, without respite?

That way lies burnout.

Those of us with office jobs know only too well how that feels. Even if you haven’t endured your own, you will know someone who has broken, or is currently resisting collapse.

If you work a day job where this is rife, you’ll know how the fracture lines spread from person to person like a flaw in a cut diamond – invisible to the naked eye, until the wrong knock in the wrong place and suddenly the world is just… splinters.

I’m not broken.

I’m not even close. But I’ve seen it too often, been close in the past when tight deadlines and project goals combine with the satisfaction of doing an enjoyable job, and you spend more time than is healthy on completing a task which doesn’t bring you much personal kudos and takes you away from family, friends and fun.

Maybe that’s the problem I’ve had this year, with the fourth Petticoat Katie story in the trilogy. This novel was never meant to be written right now.

Like the novel I killed in 2012, I’ve spent so much time making excuses to myself for not finishing it, I’d have been better off ditching it and splurging on short stories and poems.


Novels are great fun to write.

But they aren’t the only outlet for my creative energies, and while there is no such thing as plumber’s block there is also a contingent activity known as filling the well.

The phrase is attributed to Julia Cameron, she of The Artist’s Way, and she also says this:

During a sustained period of work, artists require special care. We must be vigilant to not abuse our health and well-being. We must actively nurture ourselves.

While it sounds like the plumber’s chaise longue and floaty scarf again, I’m also thinking of Dean Wesley Smith’s insistence that his perfect chair is ergonomically-fitted. Or, to take a different elemental allegory, there’s Terri Windling’s timely reminder that re-kindling the fire within is feasible, even when the spark seems damped.

So where does this take me?

I’m still ahead of the goals I set when I asked where will I be in ten years time? back in early 2012.

And I promised myself a “leisurely pace of production”.  This does not involve NaNoWriMo, nor does it involve thrashing myself into a tizzy because I haven’t spawned a set word count in any particular time frame, nor does it involve me using those creative energies to come up with elaborate reasons why.

I’ve done my words for this year. The current story’s limp, a steaming pile of spaghetti I don’t have energy to pick through, and my chopsticks are broken.

Other worlds are calling me, worlds where my imagination is happily designing people and cities and a very Scottish mythology underlying stories more graphic, more elaborate, more Gothic than anything I’ve ever written.

Would you rather explore them with me, or laze around while I kick holes in the pipework?

Reclining male nude, Bristol Art Gallery

Published in: on October 28, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Still Here

I’m still here. Fitzgerald's Very Thin Mints

I’m still working on the next Petticoat Katie novel, and I think I’m almost finished the first draft.

Unfortunately I have more goats than I can handle right now.

Not real goats, obviously.

Why the long gap between posts, when I’d hit such a good streak of posting every Wednesday?

Probably something to do with minor health issues, Extreme Gardening, and an overall lack of direction over where my writing goes from here.

I’m not about to run out of ideas – no sirree. But the Petticoat Katie series has another three novels waiting, there’s still life in Louis Beauregard yet, and I have at least two other sets of stories on my Explore Further kanban list.

Spoilt for choice.

There were books to be read, too. Stories from other people to be explored, and new art to discover. Friends to meet, focus to re-sharpen, batteries to recharge – a mini sabbatical, in effect.

And perhaps the chance to revisit the reasons why I write, especially on here, and to reduce the flow of unnecessary words that add little to the overall sum of human knowledge but still suck energy from the planet.

Nonetheless, I’m still here.

More later.

Published in: on August 19, 2015 at 9:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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Wild crazy drama, anyone?

With the announcement by Pope Francis that climate change is upon us, I wondered whether it might be time to dust off the post-Apocalyptic novel I wrote back in 1990.

Climate change isn’t the point of the novel. It’s an unusual mixture of WW1, religious upheaval and forbidden love.

OR (if you want the Hollywood version – you’ll have to imagine the accent however):

“One woman’s struggle against the forces of a world in crisis.”

It was hand-written, longhand, and I can’t remember if I even typed it up or just filed it away with my (two) previous unusual novels.

It was also the last novel I wrote without a structured plan. Chances are the storyline is all over the place.Judy Collins: wildflowers (1967) That usually means a lot of work – far more than I’m inclined to take on.

My heroine set off through the story with a map which came straight out of “Albatross” by Judy Collins, a haunting song brimming with imagery both rich and powerful.

Somewhere in the middle was a scene of intense barbarism.

Somewhere parallel to my heroine was an anti-hero she was destined to meet.

Somewhere in my world-building, climate change had ruined the global economy and turned Britain into a poisoned, depopulated, pseudo-feudal state.

And the ending, that I spent (IIRC) 60,000 words charging headlong towards across a blasted near-prehistoric landscape, owed more than a little to Leonard Cohen‘s “Joan of Arc”.

Wild crazy drama and big scenes of bloodshed not dissimilar to (what I’ve heard about) Game Of Thrones.

But I’m not sure where I’ve put the flippin’ thing.

Published in: on June 24, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Wild crazy drama, anyone?  
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One Down, Many More To Follow

A couple of months ago I wrote a post justifying why the wordcount’s low on my current work-in-progress.

Basically, my creative time is limited – as is my creative energy. And I’ve been busy paving over my garden so I can free up more of my creative time and energy to write, instead of controlling parts of the garden that aren’t productive.

This work is now over, thankfully.

Summer is heading full-tilt towards us, less than a week before the solstice. The grass has gone, the paving is laid, and the remainder of the work falls under the heading of general pottering about – in other words, no heavy lifting.

Like finishing a novel, it’s been a long task, enjoyable, stretching, with a few false starts and moments of trepidation. Now it’s done, I can sit back and admire it look at all the bits I’d do differently if I had to do it again.

Bee on white oregano flower

My imagination hasn’t been idle, though.

I’ve sketched out a few short stories on rainy days when working outside was impossible, and pondered the work still to be done on the fourth Petticoat Katie novel with a view to finishing it as soon as I can.

More stories await. Characters clamour to say their piece, to have their lives imagined into being, to take me on their travels as if I were their own personal Boswell.

And now, of course, I have a neat and tidy garden space within which to imagine new tales while watching the bees amongst the oregano.

Published in: on June 17, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on One Down, Many More To Follow  
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Why Print Will Never Die

While I’ve embraced the technology to publish my own stories as ebooks, I’m still firmly in the dead-tree camp when it comes to reading. I’ve also published my own paperbacks through CreateSpace, a neat little library so far, and plan to publish more. I haven’t branched out into hardbacks – yet.

The subtle interplay of communion between writers and readers demands I do so, some time soon, because hardback books have an enduring appeal that honours the work within (and makes it easier to stack them around the home when you run out of bookshelves).

Take a look at this.

Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard

In itself, not an especially nice hardback (not any more). Cheap, in fact. And the story – Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard – not one of the classics.

I picked up this book from a second-hand sale at my local Red Cross hall almost thirty years ago. It’s a hundred years old.

The story’s even older.

But I can read the book as easily now as its first owner did back in 1914. It might still be readable a hundred years from now, if I look after the artefact that carries the story within.

Who was that first reader?

I’ll never know. The label on the inner flyleaf says:

R Harris & Son, Booksellers, Printers & Stationers, Northampton

Booksellers' label, R Harris & Son, Northampton

(click to visit the Seven Roads Gallery of Book Trade Labels)

 

– but there’s no indication of the buyer: no bookplate, no inscription, nothing. The only hand-written mark inside the front cover is a pencilled price, which isn’t original – it’s £2, and the book itself says it’s part of Hodder & Stoughton’s Sevenpenny Library.

Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard, 1914 edition

Maybe the person who bought this book was a worker in one of the nation’s munitions factories. Maybe a scholar keen for a dose of exciting adventure between Latin and Scripture classes, or a soldier on his way to the Western Front hoping to snatch a quick read while he waited to go up the line to Ypres.

Whoever that first reader might have been, I can’t imagine the book stayed with them until I discovered it in the Red Cross hall in the mid-1980s. So where did this book lie between being printed and my finding it seventy years later in a second-hand sale?

Perhaps in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, or close by.

Someone – not me – spilled a cup of tea over the cover, and left it long enough to soak in and leave a stain on the pressed board.

The spine is faded to a much paler shade than the front and back covers, which says the novel was shelved for some time.

Is there part of previous owners in the pages of second-hand books? Even those which have been spared the casual underline, the scribbled notes in the margins, the corner of a page folded down?

Mostly forensics would pick up traces of me in this Nada The Lily, I’ve had the book so long. It’s travelled with me all over Scotland, to university in Birmingham and working life elsewhere in England.

Some of my books, like the copy of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception/Heaven And Hell I bought in the same Red Cross hall, have tiny flakes of rolling tobacco in the crease. (The link is to the 1959 Penguin paperback, just like mine.)

Others, like the Marija Gimbutas I bought recently, arrived in the post with old bookmarks – a photograph of a train in India, and a sketch of a girl’s face.

Nada The Lily had a surprise for me too, when I opened the book to re-read it after a number of years.

Tucked near the end, the top folded down against the pages and hidden by the surrounding hardback cover, was a bookmark I’d used the last time I read the book.

Cadbury Schweppes visitor pass, 1990s

Yes, that’s a visitor’s pass from Cadbury Schweppes (as they were then), back in the mid-1990s. I worked there briefly in my first-ever corporate job, what would now be an unofficial internship, and 2015 Me has deduced that I was reading Nada The Lily in my lunchbreak.

So this book’s like an old friend, rediscovered.

Now I know that I can’t have bought it any later than 1994. I didn’t have access to the Red Cross hall any more, and I don’t know if they still held second-hand book sales. (When I think of all the amazing books I got from the Red Cross book sale, all cheap, I’m glad I was in that place and time.)

If I’d been able to download all those amazing books into an e-reader, would I feel the same way?

Galazi, King of the Grey People

No, I don’t think so.

Who amongst us had a Windows PC or a smartphone in 1994? The technology of Then would be obsolete Now.

Not so my hardback of Nada The Lily, still going strong like a frail old lady a hundred years on.

This is the lure of writing historical fiction: technology doesn’t change. Dave Wake pointed this out in a post on electric cars, and Charles Stross writes about the frustrations of writing near-future fiction when the pace of technological change is so flippin’ fast.

Books written with contemporary settings age so. Michael Scott Rohan’s fab Spiral trilogy, set partly in an international freight handling office in the late 1980s, has all the awful feel of that era laid down in black and white so evocatively I have to force myself to read through those sections so I can get to the parts with less tech (and more adventure).

The modern world changes; this Nada, still frozen in time, no less fixed than when I bought it some time before ’94. And the story inside?

Nada The Lily tells the story of the rise to power in southern Africa of the Zulu nation under Shaka kaSenzangakhona. (Much of Haggard’s tale is lurid and sensationalist and no doubt insulting to local sensibilities. The Victorians were big on their Noble Savages – including Scots, Welsh and Yorkshiremen – while ignoring the sufferings under Empire.)

The story is written as a memoir, in 1891, of events which are known to have taken place before 1828. Even back then the novel was historical fiction which avoided the snag of age-defining elements or real-time sociopolitical change.

(By the time of the events of my novel SHADOWBOX, set in 1832, Haggard’s story had already finished. And he was writing three years after the events in my novel THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. Time travel, eh?)

H Rider Haggard falls into the same category as another of my favourite writers, Alexandre Dumas. Their stories have the same enduring appeal and have stood the test of time for over a hundred years. Characters who come alive in their circumstances, in vivid settings, facing choices many of us can’t imagine – and surviving to tell the tale.

Much like my copy of Nada The Lily survived in my travels to tell the tale, to me, of where I found it and where I last read it. If I’d opened up an electronic copy – even if I’d been able to read it in all its typeset beauty – would I have been able to learn as much from the file as I have from this hardback?

I doubt it. While ebooks might be here to stay (points over there) as long as the internet survives, print will never die.

Oh, and one more thing: the publisher. This hardback was published in 1914. The publisher was Hodder & Stoughton.

Hodder & Stoughton, MCMXIV

And they’re still very much in business.

Just A Bit Of Fun

Just for fun, I tried my name in the Time Lord Name Generator.

It told me:

Your Time Lord name is: The Intimidator

Back on Gallifrey, you led a dull and uninteresting life, working as an Archivist, First Class – but now, you travel Time and Space in search of adventure!

Your Type 86 TARDIS is currently stuck in disguise as a filing cabinet, and your latest travelling companion is a genetically enhanced, talking dog, on the run from the evil time-travelling scientist who created him.

Well that’s a relief.

Published in: on May 20, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Spring!

Something’s definitely in the air…

Over on Terri Windling’s blog, she has a wonderful post absolutely jam-packed with wild daffodils. Here’s a poem about Spring, written by me almost hmnhmnhmn-ahem! years ago.

Spring! (c) Lee McAulay 2015


(The artwork is Fruhling by Franz Stuck – click on the image to see a larger version)

The model also reminds me of Patti Smith, as photographed by her friend Robert Mapplethorpe for her album covers.

Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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The Road To The Herzwesten Brewery

Come back through time with me, to Vienna in 1529.

We’ll take a table at the Zimmerman Inn and wait for Brian Duffy to turn up, sword in hand, looking for a wizard with a burning snake in his mouth and the promise of the best beer in the Western world.

But first, we’ll stop off just a few years back.

My partner loaned me his copy of The Drawing Of The Dark by Tim Powers. I’d finished The Anubis Gates and we were waiting for The Stress Of Her Regard to come out in paperback in the UK, but I had to have more.

The Drawing of The Dark, by Tim Powers (Grafton Edition, 1987)Enter Brian Duffy, the lead character of the novel, being mugged in a side street somewhere in Venice.

Middle-aged, bruised, already on the wrong end of the story, he takes a job protecting the Herzwesten beer until the time comes to tap the barrel.

Lovely touches amongst the story add to the warmth I always feel when I pick up the book. It’s one of my favourite Tim Powers novels, and I re-read it every couple of years.

It starts in Venice.

“All night the hot wind had swept up the Adriatic, and from the crowded docks down by the arsenale to the… western mouth of the Grand Canal, the old city creaked on its pilings like a vast, weary ship” – Chapter One, The Drawing Of The Dark by Tim Powers

Only a few years before I read the book I’d visited Venice with my fellow archaeologists on our day off from a dig in the foothills of the Alps. We stuck to the back streets and watched tourists jostle along the crowded bridges one street over, following the route on the map from the tourist office at the railway station, cheap souvenirs poking out of their backpacks.

When Brian Duffy wobbles along the darkened alleys, I can picture the houses above him, mellow plaster in sandy tones and green water lapping at the walls. Since there’s little vehicular traffic amongst the canals, you can hear voices from high windows, arguments in staccato or snatches of song, people bustling on foot amongst the cloisters and over the little bridges.

Then comes the brewery.

The head brewer, Gambrinus, shares his name with one of the most popular beers in the Czech Republic. (It would be another few years before I’d get round to visiting Prague, but the pilsner travels well.)

The story quickly blossoms into a ripping yarn peopled with Vikings and swordplay, strange beasts in the Alpine sunlight, magic, wizards, imposters and lost loves, thundering along with nary a halt for a refreshing snifter.

And what a snifter that might be.

The Beaker People brewed it.

A Bronze Age culture of Western Europe, which I’d studied at the same university that took me to Venice:

“they spread the art of brewing with a missionary zeal – you can find their decorated beakers in graves from Sicily to the northern tip of Scotland” (Tim Powers, ibid.)

We have their pots and their grain and once on a summer’s day by the shores of a Swiss lake I tasted a modern replication of the beer they might have brewed, yeasty and spicy and just what you need as you rest your tired limbs by the waterside.

Pots survive because they’re durable. Very few wooden items survive, even beer vats, unless they’re waterlogged (or kept in continuous use).

In the cellar of the Zimmerman Inn is a vat half as high again as Brian Duffy, green with moss, with three spigots. The source of the Herzwesten Dark. Bronze Age beer, and then some.

And recently I came across another story which suggested the Zimmerman Inn wasn’t the only old brewery around in 1529 (and I don’t mean the Weihenstephan).

In the Spring 2015 issue of BEER, the quarterly magazine of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), is an article on Britain’s oldest (official) brewery:

Shepherd Neame, based in Kent.

The traditional starting age of Shep’s is celebrated as 1698. Almost two centuries after the fictional brew is supped by Brian Duffy in Vienna.

But the article in BEER (by Mark Dredge of pencilandspoon) goes on to explore the brewery’s early history, investigated by its very own historian, which reveals a brewer on the site in Faversham back in 1596.

We’re now only a few decades after the siege of Vienna which forms the backdrop to the story of The Drawing of The Dark.

Further back in time, then, the story goes.

Shepherd Neame’s historian can prove there was a brewery on the site in 1573. There’s a link to the abbey of Faversham, the abbot’s brother importing beer in 1525 and his son running the abbey brewhouse by 1550.

Beer and monasteries.

Just like the Zimmerman Inn, previously known as the St Joseph Monastery before Aurelianus took over and hired Brian Duffy to guard it.

So with a small huge stretch of the imagination you can see how the road to the Herzwesten Brewery leads not to Vienna, after all, but to the garden of England. And, not surprisingly, Shepherd Neame brew a dark beer.

The Drawing of The Dark isn’t a complicated story. It’s a good old-fashioned romp of an adventure with some typical Tim Powers touches – the effortless references to real places and events, the evocative depth in his descriptions of the weather and the surroundings, and his lively characters.

And it’s flawed.

I particularly like the story because it’s flawed – there’s a point where I always expect the plot to sway on a particular hinge (a missing spell book) and… it veers off on an entirely different direction, breathtaking in its simplicity.

Once you’ve read a number of Tim Powers novels you can see how this links into the others with the underlying Arthurian theme, especially Last Call, and the system of magic/iron/blood he explores in greater detail in The Stress Of Her Regard.

But sometimes all I want to read is a ripping yarn. Especially one so steeped in beer.

Pilsen Cellars

Published in: on April 8, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on The Road To The Herzwesten Brewery  
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