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.

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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Must be something in the air…

This weekend is Crimefest 2015. I’ll be there. Crimefest 2015

It would be daft not to. International crime fiction festival in your local city, a bare half-hour bus ride from home? Certainly, madam, don’t bother wrapping it.

Hot on the heels of the General Election last week, crime fiction writer Val McDermid exhorts the Guardian to help bombard England with Scottish books to help save the UK. I’ve lived in England now for more than 25 years and still have my accent, but I don’t think that counts.

McDermid is calling on a cultural assault on England, and a little vice versa.As she says in the article:

“What struck me again and again during the [2014] referendum campaign was the staggering depth of ignorance on the part of most English people about the state of Scotland.”

She’s got a point. I wouldn’t have stayed in England all these years if it didn’t suit me, but I still find it remarkable how little the people of England realise that Scotland is different. Maybe that’s what peeves Scots so much about their neighbours.

Same language, sure, but different nuances. Different laws. Different education system. I spent the first five years of my time in England explaining the subtleties of Highers versus A-levels.

Then there’s the food.

Haggis, deep-fried in batter. Italian ice-cream, commonplace due to the immigrants of the early 20th century. High Tea. Cullen Skink. Porridge (with salt).

Don’t get me started on bagpipe music.

I once encountered a young bagpipe player busking in the shopping centre of a major town in the south of England and wondered whether his parents had given him enough money for a single fare only, with the instruction to busk for his fare home. I also wondered whether anyone else in the town realised he wasn’t only not very good, but almost criminally bad.

At least I don’t have to busk my bus fare home from Crimefest.

Published in: on May 13, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Get out and vote

Only two events in my life make me feel like I’m a proper grown-up:Votes for Women poster, 1920

One is filling in my tax return.

The other is when I cast my vote.

I’m a fervent believer in representation. One of the highlights of turning 18, for me, wasn’t being able to buy alcohol or get a mortgage, but being eligible to go into the polling booth and choose which party I favoured to run the country.

And you can bet I’m going to cast my vote tomorrow*.

I’ll suffer, on Friday morning, when I have to present myself at the Day Job having bailed out of the election coverage at three or four in the wee small hours, hopefully after learning that the people of the UK have elected a party with a clear enough majority to form a new government (instead of the dreadful shambles we had in 2010, when the business dragged on for weeks).

I do not care that my fellow voters might place their cross against a party at odds with my own beliefs once they are in the privacy of the polling booth, or even if they choose to spoil their ballot paper. I only care that people vote. The Scottish Referendum in 2014 was a high point in voter engagement, for example, that I don’t expect to be repeated across the country on May 7, more’s the pity.

But I happen to disagree with the great Alan Moore, when he said that

Governments should be afraid of their peopleV for Vendetta

although I know what he means. If governments truly represented their populace, there would be no need for fear on either side. Alas, I can’t see many shop workers or call centre assistants on the ballot paper.

My current work in progress – the latest Petticoat Katie story – is set in a fictional 1910, on the edge between steampunk and dieselpunk and goodness knows what else. In all of these stories and novels, in amongst the riotous adventures with airships and monkeys and sonic attacks, the characters are itching for the right to vote.

I’m currently reading a rash of non-fiction books on the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, researching one or two novels I plan to write in the next couple of years. Democracy – the right of all adult citizens to vote – was its battleground as much as the landscape and cities of Spain.

Voting for the “wrong” party, in so much of democracy’s brief history, was often fatal.

Across the world of 2015, people agitate for the right to choose their representatives, and even when we don’t see it on our TV screens or read it in our newspapers the struggle still goes on. We take this for granted, especially those of us who are female, or own no property, or are under 21.

We’ve had the right to vote for less than a century.

And if we don’t exercise that right, sooner or later someone might decide we don’t really want it.

So as I go to the polling booth tomorrow morning, behind the curtain when it’s just me and a ballot paper and a pencil on a bit of string, I’ll raise my hand and strike a blow for all those who fought and died for this.

X marks the spot.


*For those who don’t know, the UK goes to the polls in a General Election on May 7 2015.

Why do I always end up chasing the news?

Why do I always end up chasing news items?

Halfway through writing SHADOWBOX the papers were full of the story of Cornelius Gurlitt, an eccentric Austrian in his late 70s who not only hoarded over 1200 artworks in his Munich flat, but also hinted he knew the whereabouts of the famed Amber Room of Peter the Great.

The amber carvers who created the Amber Room featured in the background of my novel.

I wondered whether I was missing the boat.

Would the Amber Room be discovered before I published SHADOWBOX, and all that news puff which might have been an easy link to my story would blow away like dust beneath the flicking of a conservator’s brush?

Was I just being daft?

After all, news headlines come and go. Great treasures of the past live on in the imagination, and it seems the Amber Room has proved even more elusive than the Loch Ness Monster.

But now, halfway through writing the next Petticoat Katie novel, the news headlines rise up to taunt me once again.

According to this article in the Guardian, the production of argan oil in Morocco, traditionally a pursuit of Berber women operating as family-run co-operatives, is under threat from exploitation by big cosmetics companies.

And goats.

Did I not promise you goats when I first mentioned the next Petticoat Katie novel? I certainly did.

There are goats. Many, many goats.

Tree-climbing goats on an argan tree. (c) Aleksasfi (via Wikimedia Commons)

Tree-climbing goats on an argan tree. (c) Aleksasfi (via Wikimedia Commons)

So yet again, I find myself at the mercy of the Evil Press Barons hell-bent on ruining the surprise of my current Work In Progress for its potential readers.

Maybe I ought to stop reading the papers.

Published in: on April 29, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Why do I always end up chasing the news?  
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Why The Word Count’s Low

This is a long, long story. There’s no point skipping to the end, because the length of the story is part of the journey.

About a year ago, about the time when I was finishing the final chapters of SHADOWBOX and preparing for Crimefest, I took a good hard look at how I spent my time.

Now where did I put my wossname? Painting by Adolf von Menzel, although this is not its title.

Most of my time wasn’t spent writing.

This was not what I wanted.

So I decided to reduce the amount of time I spend pottering in the garden and hire someone in to pave over the grassy half. There were a couple of other requirements in the work, but nothing I thought was too onerous. I started early, asking for quotes in June.

“That’s more than enough time to have the work done before winter,” I thought.

Wrong.

The festive period came and went, with no firm decision on the scope of the work and no progress. Winter came, gently and without snow, but still no work took place.

Spring began, very slowly. Green stuff began to sprout in places where I’d expected to see paving by that point in the year.

Still no final agreement.

This project block was worse than writer’s block. I asked around and others told me I’d regret hiring someone who wasn’t interested in sticking to the schedule, or the requirements, or the scope. Like I’ve done with writing projects in the past, I decided to call a halt to the proceedings – and just do the work myself.

Since the start of the recent good weather I’ve been shifting earth and digging up small rocks and disturbing ants and discovering more muscles than my deskbound self thought existed. It will take me months to finish at this pace, in the time I have to spare.

I wanted this work done before winter.

I want more time to spend writing, adding to my body of work, learning how to tell more entertaining stories. Creating new characters, spending time with old ones, going to this year’s Crimefest to meet up with other writers.

But in an odd way, spending time outside doing manual work has freed up the creative side of my brain, and I’ve been writing more than I did when I was waiting for the work to start.

Isn’t there some sort of lesson in there?

Published in: on April 22, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Why The Word Count’s Low  
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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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