Category Archives: Reflections on Writing

The Year ahead in Writing

The past year has been a busy one in terms of writing and publications, with two novelettes and four novellas having seen the light of day, as well as an anthology of near 80,000 words containing five of these tales. That said, I’ve not published anything ‘new’ since February. ‘What has this slugabed been up to since then?’ you may justifiably ask yourself, taking note of this creative hiatus. Well, quite a bit, as it turns out, although nothing which has allowed me to issue anything new thus far.

Two further tales have been planned and plotted in some depth, and a third has been outlined. One of these, a mystery with occult elements, this time set in Yorkshire, is progressing well, with several thousand words already having been written. Its action plays out over three years – 1949, 1906 and 1537 – and incorporates an unexplained and unpleasant discovery made in the vicinity of Barden Tower. Another, a mystery set on Dartmoor in the early 1920s, draws upon a famously peculiar piece of period folklore that attracted the attention of the national press at the time. I take the raw bones of this legend, clothe them in a little fictional flesh, and add a suitable twist or two. The third, which is currently in a rather more embryonic state, is a contemporary tale of the supernatural and psychological horror that focuses upon the unforeseen consequences attendant upon the restoration of a church monument.

Which of the three tales outlined in the above paragraph sees the light of day first remains to be seen, for most of my time is being consumed by my other long-term project – the completion of my novel, ‘Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return’. It may therefore be the case that either this longer piece is published later this year, or I once again put it on the backburner to release one of the novellas/novelettes in the interim. Hopefully, you’ll find each of these tales to your taste.

If you should be curious as to what is already available, click here to begin unravelling the mystery.

Novel Progress

More than two years into its writing, and I’m making good headway with the penultimate draft of my novel. It would have been finished sooner, but I got sidetracked into writing, and publishing, half a dozen shorter pieces in the interim. I hope to have it finished and published before the year is out, but this should be seen as an aspiration, rather than as a definite plan, for I have a terrible habit of revising, and then revising the revisions. The first chapters have been reworked so many times that few of the words remain from the original, although the structure has altered little as I had the plot clearly mapped out from the outset. Despite this fact, the first five words that open the story remain unchanged. As to what they are, you’ll have to wait and see.

What is this book about? There is, as in most of what I have written thus far, a liberal dose of humour, much of it black, but as for its primary themes, they are rather different: superstition, greed, jealousy, slavery, piracy and religious fanaticism; nothing that wouldn’t have been familiar to an ordinary resident of a seventeenth-century Cornish fishing village, but much which would, perhaps, be a surprise to the reader today, for the slavery and piracy outlined in these pages was real enough, but is now largely forgotten. The case could even be made for saying that the form of slavery dealt with in this tale has been airbrushed out of history, because it jars with the simplistic, and simplified, ‘Black’ victim/ ‘White’ oppressor narrative that dominates historical and popular discourse today. The evil of slavery, in its many forms, has never been a simple matter of black and white, irrespective of what some may claim in support of manufactured racial ‘grievances’ and political agendas in the present.

If we are to take the dictum that it is the victors who write history, what does it tell us about the state of the world that we live in today, when the enslavement of somewhere in the region of 1 to 1.25 million Europeans by North Africans, between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, goes unmentioned? Moreover, when considering that this form of raiding and slavery was justified, and legitimised, through reference to religious texts and traditions – specifically Islamic ones, citing the example of the ‘Prophet’ himself – does this form and practise of human bondage not have something to tell us about the worldview of a certain religious tradition? I have omitted from these figures the even greater number of men, women and children taken by Islamic slavers in the territories that now comprise Ukraine, Russia and the Balkans.

There is, quite rightly, much written about the evils of the Transatlantic slave trade, and this should not be forgotten, but at the same time, we should not let this skew our historical perspective so that we fall into the error of forgetting ‘inconvenient’ facts because their existence happens to upset some people. We should not let the old racist hierarchy of White = good/superior and Black = bad/inferior simply be replaced by an inverted racism where Whites are seen as innately bad and evil, and Blacks as essentially good and virtuous. Human stupidity, vice and cruelty are the monopoly of no portion of humanity, and neither are its virtues. The novel does not position itself as some crude anti-Islamic tirade, but as a critique of the stupidity of dogmatism and superstition in its many forms, both religious, and political: there are bigots of many stripes, and they can exist on the Left, just as readily as on the Right.

I’d better shut up now, and add that the book’s primary aim is to entertain. Those who delight in finger-wagging will be disappointed.

A Stained Glass Mystery

Whilst writing Agnes of Grimstone Peverell, a festive ghost story with ecclesiastical connections, I was searching around for an authentic late-nineteenth-century stained glass artist whom I could cite as being the creator of a particular window featured in the story. Having carried out a Google image search, I happened upon a picture of window that greatly appealed to me, and so clicked on the link to discover more about it (the image can be accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/47859152@N05/5187150203). Before doing so, I had already decided that providing the name of the artist in question could been ascertained, then he or she would be the one that I chose as the creator of my fictional window. The name was provided – Christopher Whall.  

The window, situated in St Oswald’s Parish Church, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, was – like the one in my story – a commemorative piece, but what struck me, given that I had already fixed upon the name of my fictitious minster as ‘Grimstone Peverell,’  was the double-barrelled surname of the family which had donated the window to the church: Peveril Turnbull. A far from common surname. It commemorates the death of their two daughters who died in a fire in 1901.  

I then moved on to reading a little more about Christopher Whall and his works, and discovered that only one commission was listed as having been carried out by him in the county of Dorset. This was a window that he created for the new church in the parish of Bothenhampton, a building constructed in accordance with the principles of the English Arts and Crafts Movement in 1890, although the date of the window itself was 1895. What struck me about the year was that this was the same one that I had designated for the commissioning and installation of my fictitious ‘Beke Window.’ How convenient that my chosen artist should actually have been active in Dorset in that very year!  

It seemed rather appropriate that my research for a ghost story should result in such unusual coincidences. As for the identity of the windows portrayed on the cover of Agnes of Grimstone Peverell, and their artist, I shall leave that for readers to puzzle over.

Capturing Voices from the Past

One thorny challenge for the writer of historical fiction is how to capture and convey the language of a particular time and place in history, or indeed, whether to bother at all. To what extent should an author seek to reproduce past patterns and modes of speech, bearing in mind that they should be comprehensible and engaging for the modern reader? 

This has prompted much discussion over the years, particularly with respect to the language of Shakespearian English, for it is striking to any speaker of English today that many of his sonnets do not rhyme, and his comedy is often desperately short on laughs. Why should this be so? It would seem that this is largely down to shifts in the spoken form of the language, and the following discussion of how it has changed – featuring examples of lines from Shakespeare rendered in both Received Pronunciation and ‘Original Pronunciation’ – is both illuminating and entertaining. There is an earthy rusticity to Shakespeare’s language in its originally accented form that is missing from its contemporary delivery which greatly enhances its comprehensibility, restoring missing rhymes and puns. It’s well worth listening to: http://www.realmofhistory.com/2016/10/31/listen-shakespeare-sounded-original-pronunciation/

 On Rewriting: the case of ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’

There are few authors who do not extol the virtues of rewriting your manuscript, usually recommending that you should do so several times over, but how much is enough, and how should you approach it? For a lucky handful of souls, the words may spring ready formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, but I have not encountered anyone for whom this is the norm. The occasional sentence or paragraph may present itself in such a fashion, but not, surely, anything longer.

One piece of advice frequently given, and followed, is that a writer should hammer out a rough draft before going back and tearing the whole thing to pieces, restructuring its plot, characters and prose, and then going back and repeating the process. Others, such as myself, prefer to adopt a more organic approach to composition, revising as they go along, constantly tweaking and moulding to ensure that the tale emerges in a pleasing shape and style, to which so drastic an act of violence need not be necessary. It may well be the case that ideas relating to its enhancement later suggest themselves, but as I tend to plan my pieces in considerable depth before writing the first line, drastic revision is seldom necessary.

Those who write for a publisher have deadlines to meet, but for those of us who are able to dictate our own writing timetable, we possess the luxury of being able to impose or revoke them at will. Personally, I do find self-imposed deadlines useful, as they help to keep me on track and stop me from drifting too far from the daily discipline of writing. Although I can take as long as I wish, once I have come up with a story I am generally impatient to get it typed, knocked into shape and made available for all to read. That said, I do not allow deadlines to prompt me into releasing anything before I am fully satisfied that it has taken its final form, or more accurately, I should say that this will be the case from hereon, for there has been one instance in which I released a novella where I was not entirely happy with its ending. This, however, has now since been remedied and ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’ has been republished, but why did I initially release it in less than its fully realised state?

 To answer this question, it is necessary to return to the matter of deadlines. As a rule, I tend to be constantly generating ideas, and at any given time will have a number of projects under development. Thus, at present for example, I am nearing completion of a novella – ‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’ – am a third of the way through a novelette (although it may yet morph into a novella) entitled ‘The Cleft Owl’, and half way through writing the novel ‘Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return.’ In addition, there are half a dozen or so embryonic plots floating around for further novelettes/novellas, and three novels. Having a timetabled plan with projected completion dates and release schedules thus comes in useful, ensuring that at any one time I prioritise a particular work. Problems only really arise if this schedule is interrupted by the intrusion of something unexpected, as was the case this past July when I awoke from a vivid nightmare and immediately scrawled down five pages of notes that became ‘3:05 am’. This story was the closest that I have ever come to experiencing an Athena springing from the head of Zeus moment. So striking was the effect of this dream, that I felt impelled to drop writing ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’ until ‘3:05 am’ was completed and published. This, naturally, threw me off track. So, why should this be a problem? As my deadlines are self-imposed rather than external, why would I wish to stick to such a deadline?

I stuck to my initial declared deadline for one straightforward reason: I had, rather blithely and naively, declared on my website, blog and Amazon author page, as well as in the supplementary matter to ‘Old Crotchet’, that ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’ would be released before the end of July 2016. As I had announced this, I felt that I had to stick to the deadline, and thus the novella came to be uploaded on 31 July with an ending which was a little rushed and compressed, that made for a less satisfying read than the preceding portions of the story. This, however, was a state of affairs that I could not let stand, so I returned to the manuscript late last month and fleshed out that which I had seen in my mind’s eye, but was left obscured from the reader in its initial abridged form. It now possesses the ending that it should have done all along.

What have I learned from this experience of self-imposed deadlines? Do not make rash and specific statements with respect to release dates; it is better to keep them vague. It is, moreover, better to break a deadline, than to break the flow of your story. As for ‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’, I hope to publish this before October is out, but do not be surprised if it should not appear until early November. ‘The Cleft Owl, will be released before Christmas, hopefully during the latter part of next month.