September

Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay 

Even after years of retirement, I still plot the rhythms of the year by the start of school here in Ontario. The first week of September starts a new year, as it has since I was five and beginning kindergarten. New clothes, new shoes, new pencils and erasers, new teachers.

I left home for the first time, to attend university 500 km away, in this week in 1976.  44 years ago, I met the man who would become my husband in this week, and 41 years ago in early September, I married him.

For another 33 years, it was the start of the academic year, first studying, then teaching. Even when I was out of grad school and was doing research, no longer a teaching assistant, the university campus changed. Students arrived for the fall semester, and the summer quiet gave way to the buzz of autumn energy.

Eight years ago, I started the chemotherapy that saved my life in this week, too. The year after, when the calendar clicked over to September and neither I nor my husband went to work, it was the real start of retirement.

In the past eight years, I’ve written six books, every one between September and a date 6 to 12 months later. I finished the latest (finished the story; there’s still a lot of work to do) in the last week of August; I began the book in early September a year before. September is still for beginnings: new notebooks, fresh pencils, new courses, new students, new patterns, new books.

It’s new patterns I’m looking for this year. The next book might wait until the calendar’s new year, January. Complicated by the restrictions of the pandemic, I’ve spent far too much time in the last two years at my desk, writing, blogging, doing marketing and promotion, in Zoom meetings, on social media. I need a breather, and I intend to take one.

Across the road in the university’s arboretum, and along the river trails, September brings fall warblers, migrating south. Kettles of turkey vultures will circle above; great egrets and sandhill cranes will move from marsh to marsh; blue jays will gather in flocks, calling raucously. The hedgerows are laden with berries, and the crabapples hang heavy on the trees this year. Thrushes and waxwings and blackbirds gather. September is a new start for many birds, too, the beginning of their long journey to wintering grounds.

I expect I’m wintering here in Ontario again this year, and when it’s cold and the snow is deep and the paths icy underfoot, I’ll be glad of the work to keep me engaged and the computer to keep me connected. But for the next couple of months, I’m putting life away from both first.

A Dialogue on Writing for Effect: Submissions Wanted

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay 

In planning this blog for the next year(?) or so, I’d like to do a series of author spotlights with a difference – a dialogue rather than a guest post or interview.  This is how I envision it working.

Part One

You tell me (via a Word document) about all or some of your work (not plot, but in terms of genre, themes, setting, mood), then identify three things you care passionately about in your writing. (Examples could be evoking setting, witty dialogue, thought-provoking themes, raising awareness of social issues, complex plot….whatever it is YOU care about most.)

Then you choose an excerpt (up to 100 words or so) that illustrates each of those three topics (so three separate pieces, from any of your works)  and discuss how this excerpt meets the goals you had for it.

Send those to me  (along with all the usual links). You don’t need to be published.

Part Two.

I will describe my own reactions to those excerpts and ask questions about them. I won’t be negative, but I might ask about your reasons to choose tense, POV, specific words, etc. 

I’ll send those questions (and others that occur to me as I read your submission) back to you; you answer them to create a blog post which is a dialogue about your writing. The idea is not only to spotlight your work, but illustrate the variety of ways the techniques of writing can be used, and how styles differ.

Scheduling will be likely first come/first served, unless there is a specific date you want for promo purposes. Frequency will depend on the number of submissions I get! 

Let me know if you’re interested via an email to marianlthorpe at gmail dot com. I’m happy to have both submissions from you for ‘How Writing Changed My Life’ and this one. I reserve the right to choose whose submissions I decide to use.

Research, Imagination, Empathy

Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In both my next two novels, the work in progress, Empress & Soldier, and the planned last book of my series, Empire’s Passing, death and grief play an important role. In Empress & Soldier deaths transform my central characters in different ways. For both, deaths are the pivots that change the directions of their lives. One grieves in ways he cannot articulate (he may not even realize he is grieving); one is forced by circumstance to pick up the pieces of a shattered life far too soon.

The personal relationships of the characters of my Empire’s Legacy series have always been a metaphor, or a reflection, of the political relationships among their countries, their creation of an unusual ‘found family’ and the depth and expression of love among them echoes their work towards understanding and cooperation among their nations. The loss, in Empire’s Passing,  of two of these central characters, deeply loved, deeply grieved, will also reflect the fragility of the political alliance; both families and political unions can be strengthened or destroyed by catastrophic events.

I am 64 years old. In my life death has, of course, touched mine. But not yet the deep, life-changing grief of losing life partners that my characters will experience. My parents died at 93 and 99: I mourned them, miss them still, but life didn’t change in any significant way. My brother’s too-early death came closer, hit harder, but I wasn’t left to find a way forward alone.

So I turned to others accounts: CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Personal accounts, too: friends, family – not interviews, but remembering what they said or described. Listening, squirreling away words and concepts, as writers do.

I know what my characters do, in response to their losses. The challenge is entwining the feelings, the mental response, the confusion and darkness and irrationality with their actions in a way that is plausible and to some extent explanatory. Grief is universal but intensely personal, and in what I am attempting I am conscious I am not writing from lived experience,  but from research, imagination, and empathy.  Will my characters, who live only on the page and in a world that has never existed, express their pain and grief and love in ways that speak to readers? I will find out in time, I suppose.

Featured Image: Stele of Titus Fuficius in Split Archaeological Museum, Split, Croatia

Where The Gulls Fall Silent, by Lelita Baldock: A Review

In a Cornish coastal village in the 19th century, the sea is both a source of livelihood and a source of fear, the ever-present power that can give or take. When the fish are abundant, life, although laborious,  is good; when they are few, life is hard. Superstition is never abandoned in a community so tied to the rhythms and vagaries of nature.

Kerensa and her mother live, physically and socially, at the edge of the village, never quite part of the community. The reasons for this slowly unfold in this beautifully described novel, revealed both as understood through a child’s eyes and then, as she grows to maturity, through a deeper comprehension. Not all is what Kerensa has thought, nor is it as one-sided as she believed. As she matures, she overcomes both the village’s concerns and her own sense of not belonging, finding love and acceptance – only to have the tides of time and change threaten the village and their way of life.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay 

Author Lelita Baldock’s writing is evocative of place and time, the details of life in fishing village brought into being by a deft hand and an eye for what matters: the sound of the sea, the smells of fish and blood and sweat, the rock of a small boat on the waves. Where the Gulls Fall Silent has no events of national importance, no battles with sword or guns, but the story told is one of both defeat and victory on a small scale, a human scale; social history revealed through the lives of ordinary men and women. Men and women who both dream and are pragmatic; who have strict precepts for living but also a deep capacity for forgiveness; who can ride the peaks and troughs of a life tied to the sea and the land.

Where the Gulls Fall Silent is not a romanticized view of life in a fishing village: life is hard, death always close, moments of peace and security rare and fleeting. A difficult life, one that leaves its mark on people, as Kerensa learns – but one not easy to leave behind. The beating of waves can merge permanently with the beating of a heart, the sea always calling.

If I had any quibble with Where the Gulls Fall Silent, it was in its last few chapters, which are perhaps an unnecessary epilogue to the true story. Leaving the future after a certain point to the reader’s imagination would have been my preference, but regardless, the book is one that will stay with me for some time.

Recommended. No star rating, because I don’t give stars in most cases. Wondering why? My reasoning is here.

Inspiration and Memory

Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay 

I had an aunt (well, my father’s first cousin, but as she was of his generation we called her aunt) who lived a life that seemed to me both exotic and exciting. Born an estate-worker’s daughter on a large rural farming and shooting estate in Norfolk, England, her mother died in a death pact with her lover when my aunt (I’ll call her Polly) was very small. Her father remarried, and sent the girls (Polly and her older sister) away to a boarding school which was a female equivalent of Dotheboys Hall, from what I can tell. Perhaps his new wife didn’t want them around. Perhaps he wondered if they were his at all.  But away they went.

But my family was and is full of strong women, so as soon as she could, my grandmother rescued Polly from the boarding school and basically employed her as an au pair, helping take care of my father and his sister while my grandmother cared for her dying father. (Older sister had left by then, found employment, soon married and disappeared from the family.)  And probably because of connections through the family who owned this large estate, Polly found herself taken on by a very wealthy industrialist’s family as a nursemaid, and then by another as a companion/secretary….and somewhere along the way she met a very eligible, well-placed Danish man and married him. Just as World War II broke out.

He and she were part of the Danish resistance: he spoke fluent and impeccable German and had connections in Germany, so he was thought to be a collaborator. She was his English wife, and beautiful, and ferried gun parts and more around Copenhagen strapped under her skirt. When dementia was taking its toll on her mind in her last years, she’d tell these stories over and over again: how she learned to take the guns apart and put them back together again in the dark; about flirting with German officers while carrying false documents, remembering the danger.

They survived, the war ended. The business he worked for flourished, and when they came to North America (via Cunard steamers – she hated flying) to mix business and pleasure, hobnobbing with the Kennedys at Hyannis Port (she didn’t like Jack), they took time to visit her cousins – my family, and that of my actual aunt in Alabama. Then her husband died, suddenly, and she was left well off and well connected.

She took herself of on an around the world cruise, had an affair, thoroughly enjoyed herself. For the next twenty-five years or so she travelled, entertained, mixed with people who were the equals of that family who owned the big estate in Norfolk. And then age and dementia took its toll. She died at 95, well taken care of in a private nursing home in England.

Why am I thinking about her?  Because today I introduced a new character to my work-in-progress, my MC Eudekia’s grandmother. And when she says to her granddaughter ‘My dear, how lovely to see you,’ and offers her cheek for a kiss, I heard that—unexpectedly—in  Polly’s voice. And I thought what a perfect inspiration for this character, who is ambitious for this granddaughter of hers, who knows the power of sexuality and how to use it, who won’t listen to those who say that the man Eudekia loves is socially beyond her grasp.

I’ve written before how my mother’s and my aunts’ service during WWII inspired the first book of the Empire series, Empire’s Daughter. This inspiration is a bit more direct.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out; how many of those stories find their way into a book set in a fictional world 1500 years earlier.

Of Birding and Writing

May is the month when my two avocations – writing and birding – compete for my time and attention. For most of the year (or at least my Canadian year – our English months had a different rhythm), I write in the mornings, and do everything else in my life in the afternoons. But birds – especially songbirds, migrate primarily at night, dropping down into woodland, hedgerow and grassland to feed in the early mornings. So morning, during migration, is when to be out.

I’ve been birding at some level for over fifty years. I’ve been writing for at least as long. Birding keeps me in touch with the rhythms of the earth, and the non-human lives that we share it with: I may be primarily looking for birds, but I’m also seeing and paying attention to reptiles, amphibians, mammals, insect life – and plants. Honing skills of observation, layering experiences of sight and sound and smell – and even feel and taste – into my day and my memory, often to reappear in my writing.

I’m always birding. If there’s light in the sky, whether outside or near a window, if a bird moves, I look at it. Reflexively. (Not always the best reflex, when you’re having a serious conversation with your boss in the parking lot, but, there it is. They were all remarkably forgiving.) I’m always writing, too. Words move in and out of my conscious mind: description, conversation, mood. Sometimes I even write about birding.

Regardless of my respectable list of birds seen, garnered over seven continents, I’m not a world-class birder, and I never was nor will be. I have no ear for song, a requirement to be really good, and, at sixty-four, my eyesight isn’t what it once was. The details are harder to distinguish now. But I was at my best a solidly good birder. But I didn’t get there overnight. It took a lot of work, birding with people who knew far more than I, studying books, making mistakes, learning from them: hours and hours in the field and analyzing that field work afterwards. A lot of work for a ‘hobby’? But a discipline that overlaps with that of writing. I’m not a world-class writer, either. I’m probably a solidly good one. But I didn’t get there overnight. It took all the same steps, the same discipline, the same willingness and drive to learn, and keep learning.

As I walked the familiar paths of my birding patch this morning, I thought about how these two parts of my life complement each other. Birding taught, and continues to teach, lessons far beyond that of identification: patience, for one. But more subtle ones, too: yesterday I watched a bluebird hunting insects. Except I didn’t have my binoculars, and the position of the sun meant the bluebird was only a silhouette. How did I know it was a bluebird, then? From all the things it showed me: its size and shape, how it flew, how it returned to the same branch over and over – all these things said ‘bluebird’, without me having to be told, by an in-your-face, look-at-me view, that it was a bluebird.

Birding taught me, too, about glimpses, how to construct a whole from pieces. Tapaculos are small birds of the undergrowth of central America. They are, most of them, very hard to see, because they skulk under thickets. But if you see enough pieces of a tapaculo: an eye, a beak, the tail feathers – they add up to a whole bird in your mind. Just like worlds and characters are best built in the mind of the reader from pieces, hints, brief views.  

I could keep drawing parallels; I won’t. But this morning, as I left the coffee shop downtown where I’d had breakfast, still early, and stepped into St George’s Square, a raven flew low over the space, calling. Unexpected, delightful, (and perhaps portentous for some). I’m still thinking about it.  A plot twist, if you like.

The Landscape of a Dream

I love road trips, and over the years Brian and I have driven thousands upon thousands of kilometers across all North America and Great Britain, much of Australia and most of New Zealand, plus bits of more other countries than I can count. But I never stopped wanting to do one on my own.

I like my own company, and I like, perhaps need, space and silence to think. So when, in the summer of 2013, Brian went birding in Papua New Guinea – a place I had no interest in, having had enough of hills and humidity – I left the cats in the care of their usual sitter and drove west, out to the silence and space of the Great Plains and the Canadian prairies. A two week trip.

I’d originally planned to follow Highway 2, a non-interstate that runs not too far under the Canada/US border, but I soon learned it didn’t suit my needs: too many trucks, too few safe opportunities to pull of to look at birds. So I took myself up to the parallel county roads, where there was almost no traffic, and many opportunities to stop.

I’ve written before of the recurring dreams I’ve had since childhood: dreams of roads and paths, in cities but more often out of them. Some of these dreams involve water, paths crossing wetlands on causeways. They stay in my mind, holding their own authenticity overlaid on the real world. And on a county road in North Dakota, just west of the tiny hamlet of Whitman, I drove into one of those dreams. The road became a causeway, crossing a lake filled with birds. I pulled over, stopped, got out. Wonder coursed through me. I know I laughed aloud in recognition and delight.

Black terns hunted insects over the water; ducks of a half-dozen species swam and dabbled. I stayed maybe half an hour, the occasional pickup truck passing, but nothing else to interrupt, interfere. I got out the scope, looked at the birds, but it was almost an excuse to linger.

What has this got to do with my books? Just two lines. In Empire’s Exile, not too long after Lena and Cillian reach Casil, she asks:

“What did you think? It must be strange, to see these buildings you have read about.”
“Like finding the landscape of a dream is real,” he answered.

The First Casualty

Image by Darkmoon_Art from Pixabay 

“History is lies agreed upon.” A sentiment attributed to both Voltaire and Napoleon Bonaparte, but likely first used by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle in 1724. As I write Empress & Soldier, the 7th book in my fictional early-medieval world, this idea is never far from my mind. But not for the big events of the world, but for my characters’ personal histories, and the small events that shape their lives.

History is a matter of interpretation and memory. Oh, we know Bonaparte lost the Battle of Waterloo, but if you asked a dozen people who fought in that battle, they’d all have different memories. Not only would those memories conflict, they’d change over time. Even what we remember immediately after an event isn’t necessarily what actually happened, and memory is malleable, easily reshaped.

Some of what happens in Empress & Soldier has been told before, in Empire’s Exile, although from different points of view, and some of character Druisius’s past history has been told in bits and pieces in all the books after Exile. There are discrepancies. They are, largely, purposeful on my, the author’s, part. Are the characters also purposely misleading? (Bear with me. I know I create these characters, and their thoughts. I will explain.)

Often, yes. My characters lie for all the reasons humans do: to protect another from hurt; to protect themselves from judgement, to hide their wrongdoing, or the actions of someone they care about, to avoid an argument. They lie for diplomatic purposes, for reasons of state security; they lie from love and fear and by the order of their superiors. Their lies are both of omission and commission, things left unsaid, things said.

In the latest-published book of my series, Empire’s Heir, my four main characters have been together for twenty years, give or take, as lovers, friends, parents. That’s a lot of shared history, and a lot of stories told. But in Empress & Soldier, which takes place in the decade before that foursome becomes a foursome, the history that unfolded for Druisius didn’t quite match his later stories.

I could, of course, have changed the unfolding story to match, or simply blamed it on faulty memories.  But that would have been far too neat, too fictional, really. Life’s not like that. And then I began to think about the other stories told, and how they reflected a truth, but perhaps not all the truth.

The challenge is to find plausible reasons for the discrepancies in the stories, true to my characters but perhaps also revealing (or at least hinting at) things about them we didn’t know. Why would they have lied, whether directly or by never mentioning something? What purpose did it serve at the time – and will it come back to haunt them?

In the book after Empress & Soldier, when my foursome has had nearly thirty years together, events will lead to questions. What do we know about the people we love? How do we react when we learn they withheld things from us for all that time? Do we know them, or only the person they have let us see?  I’m setting up a lot of those withheld things now, in the current work.

It’s not a new theme for me: the idea of the mutability of history, both political and personal, is entwined in the stories, as well as the things left untold.

That the complex bonds among my parents and Druise and Sorley needed both deep trust and deeper love, I had understood. But I hadn’t thought then about the ways their lives were also delineated… Spaces in what they spoke of, too, even behind closed doors.

A price to be paid, for the love and the vision they shared.

Empire’s Heir

Truth is the first casualty of war, it is said. Is it also a casualty of love?

Siege

by Alistair Tosh
Edge of Empire: Book I

Edge of Empire – and the edge of my seat. I had the privilege of reading Siege during its development, and I loved every page – and that’s saying something, because books that focus on battles don’t usually hold my interest. Yet this one did, because of the humanity of the characters that are involved in the fighting.  Here’s its author, to tell us more about the history behind this spectacular debut novel.

 
The ancient battle of Burnswark
A guest post by Alistair Tosh


 Walter Baxter. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Burnswark Iron Age hillfort, near Lockerbie in the southwest of Scotland, is a unique site.

In part because of its isolated location and suitability only as pastureland, the archaeology below its turf has remained largely intact. It is a beautiful place, overlooking the silver waters of the Solway Firth and the fells of the English Lake District beyond and the heather-covered mountain of Criffel dominating the Scottish side.

It is a changeable location. When standing on its distinct flat-top summit, one moment you can be in brilliant sunshine with a cooling breeze, enjoying the 360 degree views. The next instant a hard wind blows in off the Irish Sea, cloudcover lowers, shrouding all before you. It is then that the hill takes on a more forbidding character.

I visited it many times in my childhood, often cycling there with friends during the long summer holidays. I saw the mounds of the Three Brethren, that my school history teacher told me had been platforms for Roman ballistas. But it was not until I started research for my first book ‘Siege’ that I truly began to understand the site and the ferocious battle that had taken place on its ramparts between the legions and the local tribe. 

The hill is held in a vice-like grip by two siege forts. The one to the north is unusually elongated, clearly designed to prevent the escape of the defenders as final defeat beckoned. To the south the true siege fort, or more accurately assault fort, lies hard against the hill’s base, only a mere 130 metres from the hillfort’s main entrances. Three huge gateways, ten men wide, cut through its deep north facing ditches to enable rapid deployment of troops.

The three ballista platforms sit to the fore of each of the gateways. Fist sized, carved stone balls have been found on the hillforts summit. This ammunition was not designed to shatter walls, but rather to shatter bodies. Metal detectors identified and aided recovery of hundreds of lead sling ‘bullets’, lemon shaped and heavy. Under test conditions it was established that they had roughly the same kinetic energy as a modern handgun.

A second and unique type of sling ball was uncovered. This one was smaller and capable of being slung in groups of 3 or 4, like an early form of grapeshot. But what was most startling was the 5mm holes drilled in its side. When ‘fired’ it emitted a sound like an angry wasp. You can imagine the racket that a barrage of these, shot by experts, would make. Certainly an early form of psychological warfare akin to the terrifying effect inspired by the screaming of diving Ju-87 Stukas during the Blitzkrieg in early World War II.

Additionally multiple arrowheads were located, of the type used by the renowned archers of the Hamian auxiliary regiments, from modern day Syria. This topped off by the finding of several scorpion bolts. A century of a legion had one or two allocated to them and  when fired by practised hands were both accurate and devastating, especially on unarmoured bodies.

It is hard not to pity the warriors of the local tribe, possibly the Novantae, who had gathered on its summit. Exposed and forced to take cover, faces pressed into the earth as they were assailed by wave after wave of thousands of missiles, their screams of fear and agony filling the air, accompanied by the sound of a swarm of angry wasps.

Finally, when the Roman commander, possibly the veteran Quintus Lollius Urbicus fresh from the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea, was satisfied, he would have sent in his legions, through the three 10-man wide gates, in testudo formation. In the battle’s aftermath, it is hard to imagine there were any survivors left for the slave markets.

                                                                         
 
 Alistair grew up in the Dumfriesshire countryside for most of his childhood. A region of southern Scotland filled with ancient place names such as Thorthorwald and Caerlaverock. But it was his visits as a boy to the site of Burnswark hill and hearing the tale of the Roman siege of the Iron Age fort that fired his love of Roman and Dark Ages history. From there the kernel of the stories for the Edge of Empire took root.

On leaving school he began a 35-year communications career. Firstly with the Royal Navy, that included covert riverine and seaborne operations during the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, before moving into the corporate world. Military life is unique, and Alistair aims to reflect an authentic view of that experience and its language in his stories. When not writing or spending time with family, Alistair, his wife Jenny and Hurley the cockerpoo love to walk in the hills of both the UK and Andalucia.

Show, Tell, Hint

Working with one of my editorial clients a few weeks ago, I pointed out to him that he had several dropped story threads in his novel.  “But,” he said, “the entire action takes place over only a few days. Not everything can be resolved in that time.”

My response?  There’s a difference for the reader in leaving a story thread in a place where the reader can speculate about it, and just dropping it.  In one case in my client’s novel, the protagonist had expressed (to himself) his interest a woman he worked with. And that was it. The brief scene was there for a number of reasons, but mostly to show that, regardless of personal grief and a building complex political situation, the protagonist wasn’t entirely wrapped up in those two things. But it went nowhere, leaving the reader unsatisfied.

I made a few suggestions, and in the next draft there were a two more brief scenes of interaction between the two which fit smoothly into the narrative, and leave the reader with the hint that this relationship’s going somewhere. We don’t know it, but we can sense it, and that’s enough. Readers don’t need every thread tied up neatly; in fact, it’s good to leave a few minor open-ended questions for them to speculate about, a technique that helps keep a book in their minds.

In my own work, I have a few of these, the most prominent being a question of what happened to two of my characters. No one really knows, but suggestions are made, the search for them has a role, but in the end, I leave it to the reader to decide whether they’ve survived or not.

There’s another way to use ‘hints’ instead of showing or telling, again to leave questions in the reader’s mind, and that’s to be ambiguous. Not often, but this is the classic ‘is Deckard a replicant or not?’ question from Blade Runner. But the ambiguity doesn’t need to be that central; it can be about a characters’ motivation, or the nuances of a relationship.

Here’s an example from one of my books:

“Cannot we both just be content with what we have, at least for a little while?” I said, straightening. “You are alive, and recovering, and you have Lena, and the baby very soon.”

His hand was still on my arm. “And you, mo duíne gràhadh?”

My beloved man. A sudden restriction in my throat made my voice hoarse. “I have enough,” I managed to say, “being here. With you.”

The first-person narrator here interprets the question ‘And you?’ to mean ‘can you be content?’ – a reasonable response to the first statement he makes to the second character.  But there’s a second interpretation: he has gone on to say ‘you have Lena, and the baby…’  The question ‘And you?’ can also mean: ‘Do I have you, too?’ 

In this case, I know which of these two questions was really being asked (and no, I’m not telling.) But occasionally, I don’t know the answer, or not at the time I write it. And sometimes these ambiguous hints get clarified later in the story, and sometimes they don’t – allowing, again, for speculation.

I believe that for a reader to be fully immersed in a story, there needs to be these unanswered questions that involve them in the world, not just show it to them. What did happen to the Entwives in The Lord of the Rings?  What was it Ada Doom saw in the woodshed? Does Shane ever return?

(By the way, I think Deckard is a replicant. Your thoughts?)