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.

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.

Let’s Talk Success – Again

I spent half an hour yesterday consoling? advising? a new indie writer about ‘success’.  They have one book out, another on its way. They’re worried about sales, about marketing, about making a name for themselves. Here’s what I, the ‘seasoned indie author’ told them.

We live in a world where the popular measure of success is celebrity; fifteen minutes of fame and making the big bucks. But the chances that you can make a living from writing novels, and only writing novels, is miniscule. Look around you, I said. In this very bookish town in which we live, we had three nominees for the Governor General’s Award (Canada’s major literary fiction award) this year. All but one have other careers, and the one who doesn’t is a retired professor. In the ‘before days’, when there was an open writing space freely available to all on Monday mornings, I’ve shared table space with yet another Governor General’s Award short-listed author (who also has another career) and an Edgar-nominated mystery author (who also has another career) and a Stephen Leacock award short-listed writer (who also, etc….). I’ve read at literary festivals with some pretty big names, too – and almost all these writers do something else other than write novels: teach, practice law or work in warehouses, are system analysts or build houses.  And these examples, I will note, are all (except two) traditionally published authors.

This doesn’t mean your writing is a hobby. It doesn’t mean it isn’t viable. It doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people who can make a living at it. And maybe you’re one of them.

And maybe you’re not. But if you’re not, you’re in very good company in the literary world. You shouldn’t think less of yourself, or that you’re a failure. I consider myself a successful writer, but the actual profit from my books isn’t a major part of my yearly income.

But:

  • ‘your books got me back into reading’
  • ‘your books are my go-to when I need to escape this world for a while’
  • ‘I dread the day when you stop writing this series’
  • ‘I’m waiting for your new release more than any other book in 2022’

and many other similar expressions of what some people find in my books is my measure of success. If your stories resonate with a few readers; if they bring smiles to their faces or make them ask themselves hard questions; if they read until 3 a.m. because they can’t put them down, or leave the light on to sleep because you terrified them – isn’t that success?

Did the new author take this in? I don’t know. But I hope so. Because they are talented, and have stories to offer to the world that some readers will fall deeply into. I’d hate them to waste their time and energy and talent worrying about only one definition of a successful writer.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

On Restless Pinions

Imagine, if you will, a child at a table, pen in hand. He, or possibly she, is learning to write a legible hand. But not on paper: on a thin sheet of wood, with ink made from carbon and gum Arabic and a pen with a metal nib.  One side of this sheet has been used, a letter begun and discarded, but the other side is fine for a child to use for practice.

Outside, the soldiers and officers of a Roman fort are going about their business. There are patrols to ride, to keep an eye on the Brittunculi, the soldiers’ derogatory nickname for the native inhabitants. Drills to practice, swords and armour to clean, cooking to be done, board games or dice to be played.

Would the child prefer to be out watching the soldiers drill on the practice field? Or perhaps hang around the stables, breathing in the scent of horse?  No such luck: not when you are the child of an officer. Restless or not, your education comes first.

So you write. Perhaps you are copying, perhaps you are writing from dictation. But here, in this northern fort at the edge of Empire, in the year 100, you are writing a line from Virgil:  interea pauidam uolitans pinnata perurbem (Aeneid 9:473). A line we know, can still read, can still write today. (On restless pinions to the trembling town had voiceful Rumour hied…)1

Fájl:Philo mediev.jpg
 Cours de philosophy du Paris; Grande Chroniques de France.  Public Domain

This fragment from Virgil, copied nearly two thousand years ago, is tablet 118 of the Vindolanda letters. From this brief glance into the (probable) life of a child, perhaps one of the children of the Prefect Flavius Cerialis, I have extrapolated: my characters Perras and Cillian use the ‘classics’ in this way as they teach; the children of my books, of the right rank, learn to write a fine hand, and know the words of my world’s equivalent of Virgil and others. Even at a northern fort at the edge of an Empire that never, quite, existed.

Bjørn Larssen’s Storytellers in Audiobook Format

From Tantor Media September 7th.

If you don’t know this marvellous book, here’s my review from its release day in 2019.

Storytellers-cover

Set against Iceland’s harsh but beautiful landscape in the late 19th and  early 20th century, Bjørn Larssen’s debut novel Storytellers explores the multi-generational effect of the evasions, embellishments and outright lies told in a small village. The book begins slowly, almost lyrically, pulling the reader into what seems like situation borrowed from folktale: a reclusive blacksmith, Gunnar, rescues an injured stranger, Sigurd. In exchange for his care, Sigurd offers Gunnar a lot of money, and a story.

But as Sigurd’s story progresses, and the book moves between the past and the present, darker elements begin to appear. Gunnar’s reclusiveness hides his own secrets, and the unresolved stories of his past. As other characters are introduced and their lives interweave, it becomes clear that at the heart of this small village there are things untold, things left out of the stories, purposely re-imagined. Both individual and collective histories – and memories – cannot be trusted.

The book was reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, in both theme and mood. Both books deal with the unreliability of memory; both are largely melancholy books. And perhaps there is allegory in them both, too. Storytellers is a book to be read when there is time for contemplation, maybe of an evening with a glass of wine. It isn’t always the easiest read, but it’s not a book I’m going to forget easily, either.

Release Day Reality

My sixth book is out today.

The cat just loudly deposited a hairball on the rug. Her retching woke me.

The dishwasher needs emptying; the birdbath filling.

My day planner tells me I have a guest post due today, reading to do for a book review, and various tasks related to my volunteer job as editor of our community newsletter, as well as feedback notes to write for a first-time author I’m mentoring.

In other words, the world hasn’t stopped because I have a new book out, and, you know, that’s ok.

Brian and I will go out for ice cream at our favourite place by the river a little later today, to celebrate. (Normally, we go out for a meal, but as it’s also our 40th wedding anniversary this week, we’ll do that on Friday.) Friends are sending congratulations. I am suffused with the sense of accomplishment and pleased with the book’s reception so far. It’s the sixth book in a series; there will be a small spike in sales this week, and then it will trail off, to be purchased as people work their way through the first five. Six years and six books into the life of an indie author, I know it’s a long game.

Next week I’m taking a holiday, travelling a couple of hours north to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, for a few days walking and birding, leisurely brunches on outdoor patios, some pleasure reading, and whatever else catches my fancy. After this short break. Heir will take up some of my time – guest blogs, interviews, a blog tour, perhaps some readings, but it’s out in the world, no longer mine alone but belonging too to its readers, to make what they will of it. Both the next two books – Empress & Soldier and Empire’s Passing – are nudging me: work needs to start in earnest there.

As it will. Alongside dishwashers to empty, and meals to cook, and community work…and hairballs.

From Concept to Finished Novel(s): Part II: Beginning with the End

With Empire’s Heir coming out in just over a week, my mind has inevitably moved on to the next book. While still set in my fictional work, and with familiar characters, Empress & Soldier will be something a little different.

As the title suggests, it focuses on two characters: the Empress Eudekia, and the soldier Druisius. In my third book, Empire’s Exile, we are introduced to both characters in the last half of the story.  Empress & Soldier will overlap with those chapters from Exile, although it will begin much earlier in the lives of both Eudekia and Druisius.

Empress & Soldier will – or can – serve as a second entry point into my world, so it creates some structural and conceptual challenges. In the overlapping part of the story, I will be writing scenes from either Eudekia or Druisius’s point of view. Sometimes these are scenes that are in Exile; sometimes they are scenes that happened ‘off page’ in that book, and are only referred to. 

I can’t skimp on this by assuming the reader has read Exile.  Nor should I just reverse the POV. What happens –  what either Druisius or Eudekia think, want, act on – is what matters. And that may be the opposite of what the main or supporting characters in Exile think, want, or act on. In fact, I already know it is, in some cases. A friend who has read some of the early draft scenes said, “I thought I knew Druisius. I was wrong.”

I’ve created a planning document, with the entire section from Exile on half the page, and blank space on the other. Now I’ll start going through each scene, thinking about the purpose of a parallel or supporting scene from the viewpoints of my two new main characters – but still conveying the important parts of the arcs of the other characters, those whose actions and reactions we saw in Exile.

I expect to spend a good chunk of time on this. Planning now will save a lot of energy and words later. I also intend to write this last section of Empress & Soldier first, because what happens here tells me what I need to show in the character development as Eudekia and Druisius grow up in much different ways in Casil, my Rome-analogue city. The plot, which will include some antagonists familiar to readers of my other books, has a framework, with details to be worked out which also depend on these last chapters.

There’s also an enormous amount of research to be done, and another advantage of writing these last chapters first is that I can juggle writing and research, because this section will require the least – I did most of what’s needed when I was writing Exile.

My last challenge – or I should say the last challenge I know about now! – is how Druisius wants to tell his story. Unlike my previous protagonists, for whom the written word either is or becomes their preferred mode of expression in journals or histories, song or poetry, Druisius is an oral storyteller with a distinctive voice – and a desire to tell his story in present tense.

“Druisius!”  My captain’s voice. What does he want? I am off duty. Friends are waiting to dice.  I turn.

“I’m reassigning you. A ship arrived this afternoon from the west. One of the passengers might be a queen, or something. They’ve asked for an audience with the Empress. The harbourmaster says they look like barbarians to him, but,” he shrugs, “they’ve been assigned a house, and guards, and you’re one of them.”

“Why me? And who’s the other?”

He snorts. “As if we don’t all know how bored you are.” He drops his voice. “Anyhow, it was the Magistere Quintus who suggested you. You know what that means.”

Can I/he maintain this?  I don’t know yet. (Nor do I know Eudekia’s voice at all, right now.) But this is a new adventure, in more ways than one!

Featured Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Moving On

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.

Witch (Freya Snow Book 5) by L.C. Mawson: A Review

Witch is the fifth book in the Freya Snow series, following the experiences of autistic, bi-witchsexual, non-human Freya as she learns to navigate both the human world and the world of magic, discovering the complexities of both.

In the human world, Freya has a job as a barista; in the non-human world, she is mostly concerned with finding a way to lift a curse that has placed a friend into a coma-like state. As she solves this problem – with noticeably more skill in negotiation and communication than in earlier books – she also learns more about herself, her non-human family and her place in the hierarchy of magic. Freya’s friends play a larger part in this book; her human family is barely seen, and this is appropriate given Freya is older and more independent.

Freya’s developing maturity is paralleled by author L.C. Mawson’s development as a writer. Witch is perhaps a more thoughtful book than earlier installments, with less physical action and more development of, and insight into, Freya’s character and personality. The ending of Witch is indicative of Freya’s ability to accept responsibility, moving her from adolescent to adult.

Four stars to a pivotal installment in the series. For an overview of all the Freya Snow books, I suggest the author’s site here.

Xan and Ink, by Zak Zyz: A Review

Many fantasy books start out well but lose their way somewhere in the middle. Xan and Ink does the opposite: I found the first third of thxanandinkcovere book fairly rocky going, but once the author had his characters where he wanted them – trying to stay alive in the insect jungle of Kalparcimex, caught up in the feud between the Ranger Xan and the sorceress Ink – the story found its feet.

Banished brothers Sandros and Gregary, and their companions Brakkar and Osolin, are on a quest, to find a way to rid Joymont of the insectine creatures that are destroying it. Chance takes them in search of the legendary Xan, scholar and ranger of the Kalparcimex, to ask for his help. Both the world and the characters the author has created are complex and multi-layered, and we are given only glimpses of the back-story and motivations of the four sworn to find help for Joymont. We learn the most about Osolin, the escaped, condemned slave. Nor do we learn much more about Xan or Ink, except hints and little tastes of what made them who they are, and the past history between them. I found this intriguing; others may find it disappointing. We are only beginning to understand the complexity of the characters when the book ends, but as the ending demands a sequel, more may be revealed if that sequel is forthcoming.

The insect jungle, the Kalpa, is one of the most unusual and creative ways to pit the environment against the protagonists that I’ve come across. The insects – ranging from annoying to fatal, from mindless to sentient – are antagonists that most of us can easily imagine – anyone who’s hiked in a mosquito-laden wetland, or fought off blackflies or sand-fleas or leeches (or the black wasp of Uganda that stings just for the love of it) – can extend that experience to the horror of the Kalpa. It had me shuddering more than once.

Sexually explicit, this is a book for adults, not younger readers. Xan and Ink was far from the usual fantasy that crosses my desk, and I appreciated it more for that. Four stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.