And Yet More Beginnings

Now that I think of it, even the stories started when I was thirteen.

“This is going to be the last piece of fiction you’re going to write in your school career,” our teacher said. It was Grade 7; creative writing classes did not exist in the academic type of school that I attended where we were trained for university. So this one last piece of narrative writing we got to do was an assignment to first create a “narrative core” – a fake newspaper account – and then turn it into a 2-page story.

I wrote a tale of a raccoon stolen from a circus who escapes his captors by sheer raccoonish cleverness (he chews his way out of the cage). That piece, too, I still have, in an extremely tattered blue binder. My teacher’s comment on the bottom of the second page says that it “flawlessly fulfils the requirements”. Not a single red mark on the whole two pages other than that comment.

The binder holds a number of other stories, some handwritten in my schoolgirl’s script and some typed on my mother’s typewriter, more or less hunt-and-peck style. On my own time, of course; the “writing for grades in school” train had, as mentioned, left the station.

I quit writing partway into a tale about a fifteen-year-old cowboy in the American West whose horse steps into a prairie dog hole and throws him; he gets picked up by a young man of twenty (which seemed quite old and grown-up at the time) whose fifteen-year-old sister nurses our hero back to health. The story fizzles out after some ten pages on account of lack of direction; I only had a vague idea of where I was going with it and nobody to tell me how to take that idea and turn it into a novel.

Life, the Universe, and the Beginnings of the Stories.

Chess, and Some Very Special Pieces

So, you know that Checkmate just came out, right? Of course you do, and you’ve already downloaded your ebook copy. And because you have, you know that it prominently features a chess game.

Oh, you mean you hadn’t got that far in reading the book yet? Sorry, didn’t mean to give any spoilers! But honestly, I’m not giving anything away by telling you that. I’m sure that even without getting to the part  about the game, you’ve figured out that the story has something to do with chess – because you’re brilliant like that, and put 2 and 2 together, i.e. deduced that the title Checkmate and the chess piece on the cover picture mean there’s some significance to chess here.

Checkmate_CVR_XSML

However, the chess knight on the cover is actually a tiny bit misleading – it’s the wrong style. If I’d had my druthers, the image that would have been on the cover is that of the Lewis Chessmen, a 12th-century ivory chess set that was discovered on the Isle of Lewis somewhere around 1831 and is on display in the British Museum now. The chess set in the book is modelled on them. But I couldn’t find any royalty-free images of the Lewis Chessmen, so we just went with a vaguely antique-looking ordinary chess piece for the cover.

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The Lewis Chessmen © Trustees of the British Museum

One cool & nerdy thing about the Lewis Chessmen is that they were used as the model for the chess set that Harry and Ron play at Christmas in the first Harry Potter movie, where the pieces clobber each other over the head instead of being tamely taken off the game board. I’d like to get me one of those sets…

But it would only be for display. You see, the funny thing about me writing about a chess game is that I don’t really know much about chess, myself – I know how the pieces move, and that’s about it. But fortunately, I’m married to someone who makes up for my deficiency, and so my Man alpha-read Checkmate and then set about fixing all my chess-related bloopers. He sat down and designed a chunk of game that worked with the plot as I had it, step by step. Here’s one of the configurations of the model game:

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You can see his notations in the background. This is from where I rebuilt the game while I was editing, so I could get an actual image in my head of what was going on. And yes, I learned to read chess notations – who says writing fantasy fiction isn’t educational?

So that’s a little background piece on Checkmate, how it came to be written, and some of its imagery.

Life, the Universe, and – Checkmate! Have you got your copy yet?

Wordy Wednesday

It seems time is just slipping through my grasp these days. Time, and the ability to generate words. It’s not that I don’t have things to say, but somehow, sitting down at the computer, opening a document, and putting those things into actual words and coherent sentences seems to not be happening.

There’s just been too much other stuff occupying my time and, more importantly, my headspace. For one, there’s a new project I’ve got in the offing which I will tell you about soon. [By the way, did you know that the word “offing” means “the horizon on a sea shore”? So if something is “in the offing”, it’s just showing up on the horizon and about to sail into harbour. I learned that from the annotations the last time I had to read Heart of Darkness in lit class. Anyway…] There’s stories to edit and get ready to publish – yes, they’re still coming. Soon! I promise! And then there’s ordinary life – you know, dust bunnies, family meals, laundry, emails… Between all of that, somehow, elaborate erudition on this blog has been elusive.

Hence the “Wordless Wednesday” posts; one picture being worth etc. etc. And it’s true – sometimes you can say so much with just an image. Why bother spoiling the impact with excessive verbiage? That’s even true for the writer’s craft: sometimes one single verbal image is worth more than pages of exposition (it’s what’s known as the “Show, don’t tell!” rule).

And even right here – I’ve run out of things to say that actually make sense. But I just didn’t want to leave you hanging in cyberspace, thinking that I’ve abandoned you all and gone off to party with the cyber fairies (they throw mean parties, those little critters). I hope that my thoughts will, soon, gel into sense again, so I can once more drop my pearls of wisdom (or witless waffling?) into your path.

Meanwhile, let me leave you with a picture worth of Wordy Wednesday – another act of random refrigerator poetry:

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And that, today, was Life, the Universe, and a Wordy Wednesday.

Happy Birthday, SEVENTH SON!

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Happy Book Birthday, SEVENTH SON!

That’s right – it’s been a year since the publication of Seventh Son! I know, it’s hard to believe, isn’t it? But it’s true. And to celebrate, here’s two great things on offer [Drrrrrrum Rrrrrrrroll…]:

1.) In honour of its birthday, Seventh Son is on sale! Yes, the ebook is available for just 99 cents, for just one week! [flashes of fireworks, trumpet noises] If you haven’t got a copy yet, toddle on over to Amazon or your favourite other ebook vendor (such as Smashwords) and get yourself one.

2.) If you prefer reading the old-fashioned way, with a real-life paper-and-ink copy, here’s your chance to own one! I’m giving away one paper copy of Seventh Son, for FREE (as opposed to, you know, giving it away for large sums of money). All you have to do to enter the draw is sign up for getting my blog posts by email – at the top right of this window, just above the cover image of the book and below the picture of my bookshelf – and then enter the Rafflecopter draw, either here: Rafflecopter Draw for Free Copy of Seventh Son or on my Facebook page, here. Incidentally, if you win the draw and already have a copy (or don’t want one), I’ll send you an Amazon gift certificate for the value of the book, instead. And other incidentally, if you’ve previously signed up to follow this blog by email, go straight to the Rafflecopter Draw, and in the pertinent field tell me when you signed up so you can be in the draw. So go do that thing! The winner will be announced on October 26th!

And now we break out the birthday cake and light the candle. All together now:

Happy Birthday to yoooooou….

Life, the Universe, and a First Book Birthday! Pass the ice cream.

Cross-Gender Writing Part II: Eleanor Harding Bold

IMG_20150415_133204You know how last time, I was saying that I hadn’t ever run across a well-written fictional woman from the pen of a male Victorian writer? Well, now I have! The lady in question is Eleanor Harding Bold, from Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers.

Actually, I had alrady met her several years ago during a course in Victorian lit.; I just forgot. But then last week, I took the DVD of the miniseries out of the library because I wanted to watch Alan Rickman play the marvellously slimy Mr Slope (or marvellously play the slimy Mr Slope, either way. It was his breakout role, from 1982; he’s so young there! Actually, he is what he should have been as Snape; I read somewhere that J. K. Rowling envisioned Rickman when she was writing Snape, and I’m sure if that’s true, it was him as Obadiah Slope she had in mind. The name alone suggests it – Slope/Snape). Anyway, so I was watching The Barchester Chronicles, and found myself thoroughly enjoying the characters, especially Eleanor.

From what I remember of the books, the film adaptation is reasonably close to Trollope’s original, definitely in plot line – so this is not the case of a late-20th-century feminist rewriting of the character, but comes straight from Trollope’s own imagination, ca. 1853. In both the books that make up the plot of the miniseries, The Warden and Barchester Towers, Eleanor features prominently as a key character around whom much of the action revolves, but it is in Barchester Towers (episodes 3-7 of the series) that she really takes on depth.

Very briefly, Eleanor Harding is the 20-something daughter of Mr Septimus Harding, a clergyman around whom the action of The Warden and quite a lot of Barchester Towers revolves. At the end of TW she marries Dr John Bold, only to have him die on her in the space between TW and BT, thus freeing her up to be the motivating love interest in yet another book (Trollope can get away with that – it’s totally believeable that a doctor in Victorian times would catch a fever from one of his patients and die before he is even thirty). So there she is, dripping, as they say, black lace and bombazine, and looking oh-so-desirable in her charming widow’s cap (one I enjoy about the miniseries is the accuracy of the costuming – lovely. That cap clearly demonstrates where the term “widow’s peak” for a particular hairline comes from). Slimy Mr Slope is all over her, sucking up to her very oiliy – not only is she pretty, she’s got money. Then there is the very amusing but shallow Bertie Stanhope, who is also after her money (but at least admits it freely), and last but not at all least the serious, steady and studious Mr Arabin, another clergyman, who isn’t sucking up to Eleanor at all because he doesn’t think she could ever be interested in him “in that way”, pretty and charming as she is. Trollope being a comedic writer, not a tragedian, you can probably figure out how it ends.

One of the interesting things about Trollope is that in these stories, he writes several characters of great depth – and they come in either gender. Mr Harding, Eleanor’s father, is the key figure, and he is a thoroughly good man, caught up in trials and tribulations of circumstance – but also of his own making: it is his innate honesty and integrity that cause him the greatest difficulties. If he was only willing to take a bit, to exploit some people and enjoy a little ill-gotten gains, he would have no troubles at all, and The Warden would have no plot. In Barchester Towers, it is in part Eleanor’s character which causes some of her own problems. In her case, it’s not so much her integrity and unwillingness to compromise her principles which cause her troubles, but like her father, in her sweet and gentle way she is unwilling to let others boss her around, tell her what to think, and dictate her life to her.

Mr Slope, as I mentioned before, sucks up to Eleanor, but he is a man who is thoroughly disliked by her family, for good reasons. Eleanor can’t really stand Mr Slope herself, but she is willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and when her brother-in-law tries to interfere and tells her to stop associating with Mr Slope, she gets absolutely furious and refuses to promise any such thing – not because she has any intention of marrying Mr Slope (eew!) but because she hates being bossed around. She almost messes up her relationship with Mr Arabin because she thinks he’s on her brother-in-law’s side, telling him off in no uncertain terms for his supposed impertinence in trying to tell her what to do (which gives him an admirable opportunity to prove himself a good guy by admitting that she is right). However, when Mr Slope tries to propose to her and won’t take “no” for an answer (shades of Austen’s Mr Collins!) she resorts to a resounding “box on the ear” (slap across the face), which finally gets rid of him. Eleanor is capable of giggling with girlfriends over people’s silliness, of a deeply loving relationship with her father without falling into Dickens-style saccharine tones, and of being thoroughly conflicted about how to deal with what life throws at her (a conflict which, in fact, makes up a great lot of the plot of the story). Eleanor Harding Bold, in other words, comes across as real.

And that, folks, is my discovery of a well-written female character by a male Victorian writer’s hand. They do, apparently, exist – I’m glad.

Life, the Universe, and Cross-Gender Writing. Check out Eleanor Bold – I think you’d like her.

Enough!

Enough already. Enough with the Facebook posts, the rants, the forwards; enough with the anti-anti-vaxxer posts, anti-Fifty-Shades, anti-Muslim, anti-everything. Enough with the hating.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I’m necessarily for any of the ideologies those posts are against. I’ve had my kids vaccinated; I haven’t read Fifty Shades; I’m not Muslim; and I don’t intend to change any of those practices.

But I’m so very, very tired to hear the harping, the incessant banging, clanging, beating of the drums, the tapping of the hammer that keeps driving home the message that YOU are right, and [insert opposing position on issue du jour] is wrong, evil, and to be resisted with every fibre of our beings.

Telling me of your opinion once is fine – please, I really do want to hear what my friends have to say. But not over, and over, and over. Because, you see: all that energy you’re using to be AGAINST, that is energy that is no longer available to be FOR. It’s negative energy, energy that takes away. And it’s sucking the life out of me.

Darkness, someone once said, isn’t an active force – it’s simply the absence of light. Contrary to what Star Wars would have you believe, The Dark isn’t a power in its own right – bring one single candle into a dark room, and you no longer have darkness. Light is the overpowering force. I don’t have to push back against the dark bits underneath my couch, build barriers to keep the darkness from flowing out into the room and overwhelming the light that is coming in the big picture window. I don’t have to relentlessly draw attention to the fact that there is darkness under the furniture, hold my book beneath the sofa to demonstrate just how dim and impossible to read it is under there. All I have to do is draw back the curtains.

Candle cropI let off a plea for the antidote yesterday, on Facebook. I asked my friends – rather with a tongue-in-cheek attitude at that moment, not expecting to be taken seriously – to post some cute pictures of their kids, or pets, or what-have-you, because I was just so very fed up with all the controversy. And within minutes, I had responses. Picture after picture of smiling children, furry critters, funny captions – it was wonderful. Because trivial as those images might seem, they testify to what really matters. They put the attention back on the light.

And that, people, is what it’s about. Don’t bewail the darkness, light a candle. Or throw the electric light switch, as it were; draw back the curtains; step outside into the sunshine.

If you’re concerned about unvaccinated children, show me how you are keeping yours strong and healthy. If you are worried about extremist Muslims, show me that your religion does not inspire you to similar self-righteous hating – and let me see the potency of your faith in engendering life-giving love. If you despise Fifty Shades, show me what powerful romantic love is really about – or even better yet, write a heart-gripping novel that lets me experience it for myself when I identify with your heroine, and leaves me feeling empowered and inspired, ready to take on the world – because that is what love can do.

Don’t show me everything that’s bad – let me see what is good. I’m tired of being asked to stare into black holes. Show me the light, instead.

Blank Brain and Winter Birds

birds (1) I’ve got a serious case of blank brain right now. I just haven’t come up with anything wise, witty or weird to say on here – or at least haven’t been able to remember it long enough to put on screen (I had one or two really great blog posts plotted out – at 3:00 AM when I was lying awake with insomnia. Alas, they have vanished into the abyss of post-insomnia early morning sleep). So that’s why there’s been a bit of a dearth of postings here lately.

Of course, what’s in the forefront of my otherwise blank mind right now is my stories. The sequel to Seventh Son is actively in the works, and coming really soon! It’s largely a winter story, and was much easier to write at this time of year than Book #3, which is set around Summer Solstice. Maybe I should take a quick trip Down Under, and just live in summer for a while to keep that story moving forward. Any New Zealanders want to send me a plane ticket and put me up for a few weeks?

birds (3)Speaking of winter, I’ve been watching the birds bickering over seeds on my balcony bird feeder. And I got to wondering: how can they even survive the winter? At the beginning of December for several days in a row we had a cold snap where it was -15° C (in °F, that’s, umm, really really cold). How can those tiny little bodies make it through those temperatures without turning into little frozen lumps? But from what I could tell, they weren’t particularly bothered; they just puffed up their feathers a bit more than normal and became birdie puffballs instead of birdcicles. And then there were the ducks on the lake: the water was forming a rime of ice, and the ducks were still merrily paddling around in the unfrozen bits. That’s crazy – hasn’t anybody told them that warm-blooded creatures should have their feet freeze off in ice water?

Maybe it’s because they don’t know that that they can survive it. That was the theory I heard a little boy proclaim once, when I wasn’t all that big myself, about how birds can survive sitting on power lines. He was wondering aloud why they didn’t get killed by the electric power surge, and then he came to the conclusion that maybe it was because they didn’t know that by rights they should. From my superior vantage point of the ripe old age of seven or eight I was feeling vastly amused at his infantile theories (although I didn’t have anything better to offer, I figured that probably wasn’t it). But now I’m starting to wonder if he didn’t have something after all. How do birds survive the winter? It’s quite a miracle. And yes, I know there are wise explanations which are only a click of a Google button away – but really, when you think about it, it’s just simply astounding. Quite wonder-full, in fact.

Life, the Universe, Blank Brains and Winter Birds. Wishing you (and the birds) a good move into the New Year!

winter sunset
Midwinter Sunset