Bards, Skalds, Scops, and Scáeli’en

Scáeli’en are the memory-keepers of their people, just are bards were.

Sorley, the narrator of my most recent two titles, the novella Oraiáphon and the upcoming Empire’s Reckoning, dreams of being a scáeli. In the language of my country of Linrathe and the province of Sorham, a scáeli has much the same role as a bard.


Scáeli’en are the memory-keepers of their people, just are bards were. They know the genealogies and the history; they write songs and poems to add to that knowledge, and they may be attached to a noble house or a school. In this, they mirror the traditional Gaelic bard. These roles are shared with the Scandinavian skald, but the skald also recorded laws and the deliberations of councils and rulers, another task I assigned to the scaeli’en.

Scops – a very closely related word – appear in the courts of the medieval Anglo-Saxon rulers. While they served a similar role, it is believed there was more emphasis on creating poetry to highlight the deeds of the ruler: a PR man, if you will.  This role is not one I gave to the scaeli’en. (Some scholars doubt scops truly existed: the idea of them being seen as a link to a heroic past.)

The word skald is closely related to scold, and scop to scoff, and to be jeering or rebuking was part of the tradition of their poetry. Again, this isn’t a characteristic of the poetry of scáeli’en, although their works can be amusing, especially those written primarily for children.

In The Music and ‘Scopic’ (Bardic/Skaldic) Elements of our Anglo-Saxon Ancestors, Andrew Glover describes the role: “the “scop”… bard/skald, who acted not just as story teller and song smith but also as the societies’ history keeper in a time of little literacy amongst the common folk, where did they fit in to the warrior farmer society? They were not seen as outcasts, scroungers, weirdo’s or nuisances and freeloaders as much of society sees musicians today, but were exalted as an integral part of the society, as story telling entertainers, comedians, singers of songs, makers of songs, keepers of the societies histories, laws, ways and lore of the people amongst whom they had grown up and lived.”

The website of the National Museum of Ireland indicates “At the Bardic Schools students spent three or more years as they studied each level of poetry prior to their progression to the next level.” I’ve mirrored this: Sorley spends five years learning to be a scáeli, and he then is required to travel and song-gather – literally as a journeyman – before he can sit his examination.  Scáeli’en are revered in my world, much as they were historically: they travel unarmed, because to kill or injure one is forbidden, and every landowner welcomes them.

Scáeli’en in my world must also always tell the truth, unless the truth is not theirs to tell and they have been forbidden to speak it. I can’t find any documentation that supports this: whether I remember it from nearly 60 years of reading, or if I actually made this bit up, I’m not sure.

As with most of my ‘invented’ languages, scáeli is a modified word, adapted from scéalaí, Irish for ‘storyteller’ (at least according to Google Translate, although I admit to being more familiar with seanchaí), but its plural follows a Germanic format – the addition of ‘en’.  (We see this ending rarely in plural English words such as brethren: brother-en).

Sorley has only two things he truly wants, and one of them is to be a scáeli. Is he successful? Find out in Empire’s Reckoning!

Empire’s Reckoning is available for pre-order from Amazon and other e-book publishers. It releases May 30th.

Interested in more bits of real history in my fictional world? Sign up for my newsletter, News from the Empire, for subscriber-only content that won’t be on this blog!

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Using Colour-Coding in Editing: #authortoolboxbloghop

Colour-coding can help a writer identify weaknesses in their manuscript in an analytic, non-threatening manner.

“Show, don’t tell.”  Every writer has heard this axiom. But there are times when telling is appropriate, briefly – and times when too much definitely gets in the way of a compelling story.  In my work with developing writers, I ask them to analyze their manuscripts for two types of telling: exposition, and telling within conversation. Both can be problematic, when they occur in large clumps.

In this screenshot of part of a manuscript, red is expositional telling, and blue is conversational telling. By looking at his work in this way, the author could see two problematic areas: first, the large section of red (exposition) in the first eight pages of the story, and then the three-and-a half pages of conversational telling in the last row. (A closer look also shows us that in the first 10 pages, there’s a lot of conversational telling too, especially when considered alongside the exposition.  This is the classic mistake of a huge info-dump in the first pages of a book.)

I find that by having a writer identify this on their own, it’s less threatening, less of a style critique and more of an impersonal analysis. We’d had some solid discussions about what telling looks like, and what are alternatives, before he began this. He’s learned to recognize both forms of telling, and is better placed to judge his own use.

Colour-coding has other applications, too. Right now this same author and I are working through his stories to see if he’s included all the 12 steps of the hero’s journey.  (Do you have to include them all?  That’s a discussion for another day.)

Another version of colour-coding is using the Find & Replace function to colour words. (Instructions below.)  Here’s an example. Using the Advanced feature of Find & Replace, I asked Word to make every ‘was’ in my most recent manuscript red.

It’s a quick visual to show me which pages to analyze, without having to read the entire book again. (Plus, I tend to get lost in my own story when I do that, and miss what I’m there to edit!)

How do you use colour-coding? I’d love to hear your ideas!


Here are the screenshots showing you how to use Find & Replace to colour words:

From the pulldown menu, choose Advanced Find.

Then, enter ‘was’ in both the find and replace boxes. Click in the Replace box, and then go to the Format button on the lower left. Choose the settings illustrated, and then choose Replace All in the first dialogue box.

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“I’m only a kid.”

In an early medieval setting, is it reasonable, historically, that a 14-year old boy would be chosen to lead a country?

“Welcome, Prince,” said Aslan. “Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?”
“I – I don’t think I do, Sir,” said Caspian. “I’m only a kid.”
“Good,” said Aslan. “If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not.”

~ C. S. Lewis

In my new book, Empire’s Reckoning, Ruar, the heir to Linrathe, the land north of the Wall, is proclaimed its leader when he is fourteen. While I call what I write ‘historical fiction of another world’, most of it is firmly grounded in actual history. Ruar isn’t automatically the leader (Teannasach) of his country; he’s chosen by a council of nobles, a process based on both the Witan of the Anglo-Saxon kings and the methods of choosing a king in early-medieval Scotland.

While Linrathe is based on Scotland, very few reliable records exist about very early Scottish monarchs. More is known of those who ruled in England. So it is reasonable, historically, that Ruar would have been chosen to lead? He has a couple of things going for him: he’s a son of the traditional ruling house, and, he’s fought in battle, so his nobles respect him. If we look at the kings of England (which wasn’t really all of England, but that’s another story) in the 10th C, here’s who we have:

Edmund I (ruled 949 – 946) was 17 or 18 when he was crowned, and like Ruar had fought for his country in a very bloody battle two years earlier. He died young, and was succeeded by his older half-brother, who ruled for nine years. But after his death, Edmund’s oldest son, Eadwig, succeeded: he was somewhere between 14 and 16.   Three or four years later, his brother Edgar succeeded him, also at about 16. Two even younger monarchs followed: Edward the Martyr, who was about 13 when he was crowned, and Aethelred, who was about 10.  They were all related; like Ruar, born into the ruling house. So, based on what we know about early-medieval kingship in Britain, it’s entirely likely Ruar would, indeed, be chosen leader.

Ethelred the Unready.jpg
Æthelred in an early thirteenth-century copy of the Abingdon Chronicle, a 12th C monastic history.

How much these young men ruled without regents or a council is a matter of debate, but then, neither does Ruar. Nor is this limited to pre-conquest Britain: Edward III of England was 14 when he was crowned, although his infamous mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer were regents for him until Edward’s successful coup d’etat at 17 – the same year Edward’s first child was born to his slightly younger wife.

Which brings me to another subject – and a thorny one in historical fiction: the ages at which people were considered adult, whether it was for marriage or kingship or the inheritance of land. I’ll address this in another post; it’s a subject of discussion among my characters, too, but what happens in my world reflects what happened in Britain and Rome in the equivalent time period.

But, returning to my original subject, young leaders are not restricted to the far-distant path. Alfonso XIII of Spain, who had been king from birth due to his father’s death, took on all the rights and responsibilities of kingship on his 16th birthday in 1902. So perhaps, in a parallel world 1200 years previously, it’s not that unlikely that 14-year-old Ruar assumes the leadership of his land!

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Uncharted Ways

Courage comes in many forms: a hero’s weapon is not always a sword.

Yesterday I had a discussion with someone regarding what my new book, Empire’s Reckoning, is really about: not its plot, but its theme. Its deeper story, if you will.  (There are no spoilers here; you can keep reading.) “Courage comes in many forms: a hero’s weapon is not always a sword,” I have written in the pre-publication advertising. But that could say: “Courage is seeing a life past betrayal,” because that is closer to the heart of the book.

By betrayal, I do not necessarily mean duplicity, or disloyalty (or not only), but also the tiny betrayals of expectation: expectations of others, of our governments, of our cultures and friends and loves, and, importantly, of ourselves. Of our own best intentions, of our belief in our own abilities and motives and actions. All my main characters but one– and there are five now, in one of the two timelines in the book – face this loss, this realization of imperfection in ourselves and those we love.

My characters react to those betrayals, large and small, external or internal, in different ways, and to say more would be spoiling the story. I began Empire’s Reckoning two summers ago, long before COVID, but I can’t help thinking about its theme now in the face of our collective confusion and sense of betrayal. I’ve written before about how the overall theme of the series is about the power and limits of love to provide shelter and sanctuary in a turbulent world. In Reckoning, I ask that question again, but this time the turbulence is mostly from within, from the breaking of implicit contracts and the shattering of beliefs.

We too have had beliefs shattered, implicit contracts broken as the world grapples with COVID. We too are facing loss, bewildered by the change in our lives. We are afraid, angry, confused, exhausted, but also compassionate, generous, altruistic. We focus on ourselves, and we worry for others. I’m not saying Reckoning is a guidebook to navigating the changed world we find ourselves in. But as I emerge from the cocoon of creating a book, and am thinking more about what the post-COVID world might be, I wonder. Can I be as brave as my characters, and find in this upheaval the guideposts to uncharted ways, to a different way of living in this world?

Moving On

“Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving”

In Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing, the one that has always resonated with me is this one: “Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

The tendency to keep refining my work is there. I can agonize over ever word, moving them around, adding, subtracting, to see if my intent is better expressed, if the emotion is stronger, the scene more intense. But if I do that, my books will never see the light of day. And I have more writing to do.

Empire’s Reckoning is done. It’s been structurally-edited, line-edited, revised, copy-edited, beta-read, sensitivity read, revised again, and the first ARCs are out. Twenty-two months of the most difficult writing I’ve done. I threw out the first draft almost completely and began again after 80,000 words. I excised 45K to become the novella Oraiáphon. I had difficulty finding my protagonist’s voice; I had difficulty with the two-timeline structure. And I had difficulty telling the story, because to tell my characters’ stories honestly and authentically, I challenge perceptions and presumptions about them. Not all my readers will be comfortable with how the story unfolds, I think, and that too was another difficulty.

“Move on, and write the next thing,” Mr. Gaiman says, but I can’t, not yet. I need time to let these characters who have lived so intensely in my mind for up to twenty years step back. They’re not disappearing, but they are giving way to the next generation; they will become secondary characters over the next two books in the series. I need time to get to know my new protagonist as an adult, to hear her voice clearly. I know the major story arcs of the next book, political and personal – or at least I think I do – but she needs to be living those conflicts, not being a puppet I move around within them.

I’ve lived, over the past almost-two years, a period of about eighteen months in my characters’ lives, a period for them of intense emotion, political intrigue, and personal growth. When I see them again, they’ll all be four years older, my original main characters feeling the aches – physical and spiritual – of middle age; the young ones the challenges and frustrations that come with taking their places in the world. It’ll be a bit like visiting friends or family you only see once or twice a decade, and get holiday and birthday cards from, but not much else: there will be a lot of catching up to do.

Sometime in the next week or two, I’ll clean up my study. I’ll take down the pictures of the actors that represent my characters at the stage of life they were at in Reckoning, and the pictures of northern Scotland and Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall and the Caledonian Forest that have kept me in the landscape of my book. The mindmaps and charts and even the song lyrics that line my study wall will go in a banker’s box and be relegated to the basement. I’ll back up all the files.

And then, in a few weeks, I’ll start replacing them: I’ll find pictures of my new protagonist as a young woman, not the girl she is in Reckoning. I’ll find the pictures of Rome that will inform the streets of Casil, its analogue city in my series and where most of the story of Empire’s Heir will take place. Empire’s Reckoning will be out in the world, for better or worse, and it will really be time to move on. Knowing that, following one more of Neil Gaiman’s rules, I’ve written my story as it needed to be written, honestly, and as best I can.

Empire’s Reckoning releases May 30.

Success & Failure as a Writer

Every so often, usually on Twitter, someone asks the question, “As an author, what do you consider success?”  The answers range from thousands of sales to those who just want to sell a book to someone who isn’t family or a friend.

Pondering the question as I was walking this morning, I realized what success is for me: I no longer feel like a fraud. Writing is my third career. I spent a decade in research; for a short while I was doing cutting-edge research into plant enzymes. I was good at it. I felt like a fraud.

Then I moved to education, and into special education specifically, and for almost twenty-five years that’s what I did. I liked teaching, and I liked (most) of what I did as a special education consultant. I was good at it. I felt like a fraud.

Looking back, I know why. My heart was never in any of it, not truly. I wanted to write. I always wanted to write. I did write, but fear of failure and fear of what – condescension? pity? – kept me from submitting anything. Until somewhere in my late 30’s, when I was mature enough to say, ‘I’m doing this.’

My first small successes came as a poet, with acceptances to little journals. Then the first novel, accepted by a small publisher. My fifth title comes out at the end of May. The books have a niche audience and moderate sales. That doesn’t matter: that’s not how I measure success. Failure was ignoring what my heart told me I should be doing.

And I haven’t felt like a fraud since Empire’s Daughter went out to the world in 2015.

No End of Things in the Heart

I’ve been thinking, perhaps not surprisingly in a life where we are all estranged from normalcy just now, about the concept of exile.

…And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.

And all this comes to an end,
And is not again to be met with…

Exile’s Letter, by Li Po ( c.760 AD), translation by Ezra Pound

I’ve been thinking, perhaps not surprisingly in a life where we are all estranged from normalcy just now, about the concept of exile.  It is the dominant theme in my series Empire’s Legacy, although it is explored most strongly in the last book, Empire’s Exile. I read a number of poems and stories about exile while I was writing Empire’s Exile; about physical banishment, but also about spiritual and psychological exile, because the book isn’t just about being physically outcast. Some of those expressions of exile stayed with me more than others, no more so than a small excerpt from the Chinese poet Li Po’s greatest poem: the idea of a random wind, a random act, (a random virus?) interrupting an idea or a life, ending joy. Very close to the end of my book, I echoed his thoughts in these lines:

A gust of wind rattled the grasses. If he replied, I did not hear the words. I raised my head for one last, long kiss, and then he stood, holding out his hand.

“Time does not stop,” he said, “for all we wish it might.”

Homage to a great poet, but also a purposeful echo. Not one I expect one reader in a thousand to hear, but that’s all right. Sometimes the influences are more obvious; sometimes they’re subtle.

In my upcoming release, Empire’s Reckoning, there is a stronger echo of a classic tale of exile, purposely done. I was acknowledging the importance of a certain – what? – story, mythology, archetype? – in my soul, when I chose to do this. In this case – and I’m not going to tell you what it is – it influenced both how the plot develops and a specific setting in the story. Some readers will see it. Some with recognize a familiarity but won’t quite identify its source. Some may do neither. All of this is, again, all right. Books speak to us on different levels, and writers write on different levels, too, and sometimes we don’t fully know what those are. But it too is about exile.

Edward Said, in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, wrote

“exile is…the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.” 

“Homesickness swept through me, a wave of longing: cianalas, in my tongue,” my narrator Sorley tells us in Empire’s Reckoning. The crippling sorrow of estrangement; the unhealable rift that only compromise and perhaps a reluctant acceptance can even begin to bridge.

I didn’t know I’d be releasing this book into a world forced into involuntary separation and distance. We are all homesick now, longing for the world we had.  In Li Po’s translated words, again:

If you ask how I regret that parting?

It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,

Confused, whirled in a tangle.

What is the use of talking? And there is no end of talking—

There is no end of things in the heart.

Featured Image: Marram Grass & Heather: By Peter Standing, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Time & Project Management: #authortoolboxbloghop

I have ADHD, which has both its own challenges and its own rewards. At some point in grad school, I recognized my lack of organizational skills.

I used to work in a job so multi-faceted and complex that when I left, I was replaced by two people. I had dozens of projects on the go, several teams of people to oversee, and a huge budget to manage. There is no doubt I worked too hard and too long, and I left burnt out, but I also learned some very valuable lessons in managing time and projects that I still use today in my third career as a writer, editor and the coordinator of a small indie collective press.

I’ll throw in my usual caveats here: I’m in my 60s; no children, and this is what I do full time. I’m not balancing another job, children, elderly parents, house renovations, commuting…life. (I did, though, minus the children, and that’s why my first book took 12 years to write.)

I recognized my lack of organizational skills somewhere in grad school. I have ADHD, which has both its own challenges and its own rewards, the ability to hyperfocus for long periods of time on certain things being the most obvious positive feature (for me). But I needed processes to replace my poor executive function, because without them, it was and is all too easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of work in front of me. And if I get overwhelmed, I simply do nothing.

I won’t bore you with a list of the books I read and the methods I tried. Most didn’t work; they required too much time and focus. But I took bits from most of them, and now I have a system that works fairly well. It’s quick and it’s visual, both requirements for me.

As you can see, I use a series of checklists, and a forward-projection of the dates on which each project needs to be completed. This allows me to then subdivide the project into chunks, and schedule those, as well, working backwards from the completion date.

Then I use a daily planner. I know I’m most productive in the mornings, so between 8:30 and 11:30 is my intensive work time. That’s my time to work on my own book, when I have one in progress – and when I am actively writing, it’s nearly every day. I don’t wait for creativity to strike: most of the time, once I start, the words will flow. Perhaps not as well as I’d like, but as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.  

When I’m not actively writing, this is the time I use to learn something new or do in-depth research: whatever the big tasks are that the board shows me I need to complete.  I take a couple of breaks, for movement and coffee, usually sneaking in a load of laundry or some other household chore.

After lunch I’ll generally check emails & social media, deal with anything important (or amusing) and then work on non-writing projects (that includes editing other people’s work or doing video meetings with other writers) for an hour or two. Exercise next, a walk or cycling for at least an hour and then another hour or so on ‘little’ things, tasks that don’t take a lot of creativity, such as updating websites, checking analytics, filling out forms, sending information out. But even most of those – barring an urgent response – have been scheduled, again to prevent me from feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. Then I settle down with a cup of tea and read – books for review and/or pleasure – for 15 minutes to half an hour.

A few nights a week I work between about 10 and midnight: that’s a different sort of creative time for me, the time I write scenes that never make it into the book, but teach me about my characters and their responses; the time I do mindmaps of the major themes and conflicts of the story, the free-flowing ‘right brain’ associations and lateral thinking taking over. I’m about half-way between the poles of pantser and plotter, and this time is completely necessary to my writing process, and very different from the task-oriented approach I use the rest of the time. I’ll likely have music on, songs that relate to my work-in-progress in some manner. I might read poetry, looking for epigraphs or just for the expression of emotion I too am looking to convey.

Of course, life gets in the way of any schedule. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read was to not overschedule your day, so that there is room for the interruptions and minor ‘emergencies’. Friday afternoons are unscheduled, for catch-up, and my weekends look different from Monday to Friday: I may work for myself, but I still get weekends! Groceries and cleaning and movie matinees and dinners with friends (well, not the two last ones just now, in the middle of COVID-19 social distancing) are all part of the week too.

Does it work perfectly? Of course not. I have days when I’m just too scattered, and that’s likely a day I choose to do something that I know I will hyperfocus on – designing ads, doing layout, or very detailed editing on my own work  –  and sometimes I just need to walk away from everything. But when I come back, the structure is there to guide me as to priorities: I don’t have to reinvent them. It keeps my mind calmer, and when my mind is calm, I’m productive.

Oh, and I have one other necessary ingredient in all this: coffee!

Escape: A Short Story

So many people! In the fifteen years and more since the Marai had taken me and Niav, Eluf had kept me on his farmstead, several days inland and many hours’ ride from the next settlement.

This vignette was my response to a challenge from one of my writers’ groups: write a piece about hope. For those of you who have read the Empire’s Legacy trilogy, this narrator will be familiar: Jordis, who was at the Ti’ach when Lena was sent there in Empire’s Hostage. If you haven’t read Book III, Empire’s Exile, this will give away some of the plot, and it also hints at events in the upcoming release, Empire’s Reckoning. But if you’ve read the trilogy, or you don’t mind knowing a little of what happens, read on!


By Marian L Thorpe

© 2020

So many people!  In the fifteen years and more since the Marai had taken me and Niav, Eluf had kept me on his farmstead, several days inland and many hours’ ride from the next settlement. Once Niav had died, her babe with her, there was no-one to speak to, not in my language. And Eluf forbade me teach it to Elsë, the daughter I bore him.

But now Elsë was adult, by the Marai way of reckoning, and betrothed to a fish merchant’s son, and we were here at the coastal steading for the celebration. I had a new dress, just the one, and new shoes and a new light shawl. Elsë had several dresses, and fine silver bracelets and a brooch, part of her bride-price. With the ceremony done, the drinking had begun, and Eluf had not noticed – or not cared – when I left his side to wander around the hall.

One or two women spoke to me: captive I may be, but I was also Elsë’s mother, and Eluf’s wife. That I was – or had been – the lady Jordis of Eganstorp – mattered not at all to them. Likely they didn’t know. I made polite conversation, talking of the lavishness of the feast and the decoration of the hall, and the advantageous marriage my daughter was making. I was fluent in their language: had been, even before the Marai had come, and so some, perhaps, had no idea I was Linrathan-born.

I inclined my head to the last group of women, making my excuses. “My throat is dry,” I told them, turning toward the long table where the ale jugs were. As I accepted a cup from the serving girl, a snatch of a tune floated above the voices: not from the musicians, but from the man close by. He was humming.

The words came to me unsought: War in winter brings sorrow soaring…I knew the poem, and I knew the tune. The poem was Halmar’s, but the tune—the tune was Sorley’s. My classmate, my friend, all those long years ago under Dagney’s tutelage. A Linrathan tune.

I took a step sideways. The man – he was young, eighteen, perhaps – glanced at me. “War in winter,” I murmured, in Linrathan. “I know the tune.”

His eyes widened, momentarily, surprise quickly mastered. He turned, bowed, took my arm. “The hall is warm,” he said. “Would you like an escort, my lady?” Loud enough for the serving girl to hear, and in her language: a polite exchange, and a courtesy offered to an older woman.

“I would,” I said.  Others walked in the cool evening air, the salt smell of the sea sharpening the air, and the slap of waves muffling words spoken low. When he judged we could not be overheard, he stopped.

“How do you know the tune?”  

“It’s Sorley’s. Sorley of Gundarstorp’s. We were learning together, before the Marai. Why do you know it?”

“He was my tutor for a winter. I am Dugi, heir to Dugarstorp. But who are you?”

I told him. In the light of the long summer evening I saw his jaw tighten. “We thought you dead,” he said.

“As you can see, I am not. It is my daughter who has been betrothed tonight. Why are you here?”

“We trade in fish with the merchants here. I arrived yesterday and was invited to the celebration.” The northern landholders had always traded with the Marai, and many had sided with them in the war. I had no idea which side this man’s father had supported.

“When was Sorley your tutor?” I asked, as casually as I could.

“A decade past, now.” He grinned. “That song was one of the first he taught us.”

I bit back the impulse to ask what Sorley was doing now; if he knew who at my school had lived or died. “Were you pleased when Ruar married Helvi?” I asked. That piece of news had reached our remote farm, the marriage of the Earl Olavi’s daughter to the leader of Linrathe. The bride-price she had taken south half a dozen years past was the return of Sorham, the northern province, to Linrathe: the dowry and the alliance not popular among a faction of Marai men.

“I was,” he said evenly. “My father, too.” It was the answer I’d needed. Or was it? He traded with this steading…but I would never have this chance again. I took a breath.

“Can you take us home, Lord Dugar?”

He chewed his lip. “Us?” he said. “Both of you?”

“Yes. I will not leave Elsë.”

He shook his head. “She is Marai. It’s a good marriage. I can’t risk the trading.”

I closed my eyes. Part of my heart knew he was right: Elsë had no objection to this marriage, not that she had voiced to me. She would be gone from my life, either way. But still…

Dugi glanced up at the first stars. “The night is fair,” he said. “About midnight, I’m going to worry if my boat is tied well enough and go to the jetty to check. And I might take her out, to clear my head. I do that, sometimes.” Louder, and not in our common language, he added, “Shall we return to the hall, my lady?”

Eluf hadn’t noticed I’d gone; he was too far into the ale. I filled his cup, just to be seen and perhaps remembered, before going to my daughter. Tonight had been only the start of the celebrations: the wedding was in three days. I fussed over Elsë, tucking her hair into its pins. “I will miss you,” I whispered to her. Tears stung my eyes.

“Who were you with?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I was feeling a little faint, from the crowds, I suppose, and he offered to take me out into the air. I didn’t ask his name.” She nodded and turned back to her new sisters. I wandered away to join another group of women, to talk of trade and fabrics and jewelry, and who would marry whom, this year.

When I judged the time had passed I excused myself, wandering out to the latrines and then beyond, circling down to the water. I took off the new shoes: my feet were used to being bare, and it was quieter. I pulled my shawl up over my light hair, and slipped onto the jetty. I could just see Dugi on his boat.  Eganstorp, where I’d grown up, was a coastal holding. I knew boats. I slid over the gunwales, barely rocking the little craft.

Dugi didn’t look at me. He was humming, the same tune, casually undoing knots and readying the boat to sail. I sat low, hugging my knees. He’d just reached for the oars when I heard running feet. I sat up. Dugi swore, reaching for the jetty with one oar. Elsë ran along the boards, scrambling into the boat.

“I asked who he was,” she gasped, “and I worked it out, when you didn’t come back into the hall. I’m coming too.”

I pulled her to me. There wasn’t time for questions. Dugi swore again. “I’ll pay for this,” he muttered, and pushed the boat away from the jetty. He rowed in silence until we were free of the breakwalls. Then he set the sails, and under the stars and a risen moon he steered us south, to Sorham, to home, to hope.

Writing in a Time of Uncertainty

Our world has been turned upside down; many of the things we took for granted are on hiatus; some of us are losing jobs; some of us are losing family or friends. We’re frightened and confused.

Like many of us (all if us?) I’m having trouble concentrating right now. There’s nothing surprising in this: our world has been turned upside down; many of the things we took for granted are on hiatus; some of us are losing jobs; some of us are losing family or friends. We’re frightened and confused.

What I’m going to talk about in this blog post is what worked for me in a similar situation before. It won’t work for everyone, so let me say that right at the beginning. I have no experience in dealing with the added stresses of having kids at home, or not being able to pay the bills. I’m not pretending these ideas will work for everyone – I’m not even sure they’ll work for me this time. But for what it’s worth, these were (and are) my coping mechanisms.

Six years ago I was diagnosed with a stage 3, high grade cancer. A terrifying diagnosis, and a shattered world. I had a 50% chance of survival. But: in the first year of treatment  – major surgery, chemo, and radiation – I retrieved my first book from its bankrupt publishers, got it out to the world, began the second book.  How?

  1. Accept that your mind is not working at its full capacity. Don’t expect it to,  but help it out. In my case, and to this day, this means starting each day with a set of goals. Not just for writing, I will add, but with all the things I both want to do, and need to do. (In that first year of anxiety and chemo brain, it included things like ‘shower’ and ‘get dressed’.)
  2. Be gentle with your writing goals. Don’t overschedule. Give yourself time to relax, too, however you can: watch half an hour of tv; play a video game; read, draw, bake, play music – and schedule that in as often as you need it. Schedule exercise too; outdoors if you can, indoors if you can’t. Even if you only write for half-an-hour a day, you’re still writing.
  3. Accept that things will take longer, and you will find yourself scattered and losing your train of thought. This is normal. Don’t beat yourself up over it.
  4. Accept you may not produce your best work. (Or maybe you will, through channeling your emotions into your writing.)
  5. Consider exploring other forms of writing: poetry, creative non-fiction, short stories: the challenge distracts the mind. I wrote a creative non-fiction blog for about two years, which was really about finding gratitude in little things, like baking bread. I may go back to it. It helped ground me, and everything we write hones our craft.
  6. Share. That was partly what my creative non-fiction blog was about, too. Talk about your writing to someone who cares, if you can; it solidifies it as important, and helps you with perspective.

I lived with uncertainty for the five years for ‘official’ survival, and I continue to live with uncertainty, because cancer could well still be lurking somewhere in my cells, waiting. I am at a higher risk with COVID-19 because of my medical history and my age. But as my character Casyn tells the young Lena in the first book of my series: “We cannot shape the circumstances to fit our lives, only our lives to fit the circumstances. What defines us, as men and women, is how we respond to those circumstances.” There’s no one right response, but for me, it is taking control of those factors in my life I can, but being gentle with my expectations of myself, both as a writer and a human being. We’re all in this together. Hang in there.