Striking Fear

A Random Research Note

File:Slingers on Trajan's Column.JPG
Slingers portrayed on Trajan’s Column.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smooth stones shot with a sling…are more dangerous than any arrows, since while leaving the limb intact they inflict a wound that is still lethal, and the enemy dies from the blow of the stone without loss of blood…This weapon should be learned by all recruits with frequent exercise, because it is no effort to carry a sling. It often happens too that warfare is carried on in stony places, that some mountain or hill has to be defended…

Vegetius: De Re Militari

Druisius, one of the main characters in my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, is a new recruit facing his first battle, defending a mountain pass. In the vanguard of the troops facing the enemy are the slingers. (No, this isn’t historically correct: what I write isn’t. It’s a created world that looks a lot like ours, but I’m not bound by absolute accuracy.)

Slings are an ancient weapon, most likely in use long before any written record. The first written record in the western world is the story of David and Goliath in the Old Testament of the Bible (1st Samuel), thought to have been written about the 6th century BCE. Used across the world, the oldest-known slings are from coastal Peru, radio-carbon dated to c. 2500 BCE.

Roman slingers, which I am using as my model, used lead sling-bullets: the density of lead means that the mass of a sling-bullet made from the metal is much greater than one of stone. Lead sling-bullets could therefore be small, able to travel further than a stone of the same mass due to less resistance in the air, and difficult to see in flight. A painful projectile, with larger ones capable of speeds up to 160 kph.  As archaeologist John Reid of the Trimontium Trust told Scientific American, it could take the top of a head off. Romans (and Greeks) literally added insult to injury: bullets were sometimes inscribed with images of snakes or scorpions, or inscriptions such as ‘catch!’.

File:Romans used also small sling bullets of lead.jpg
Peter van der Sluijs, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most interesting of all the sling bullets found from the Roman period are those from Burnswark, or Birrenswark, Hill in southwestern Scotland. In the second century CE, troops under the command of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman governor of Britannia (himself following orders from Antonius Pius, the Roman Emperor) attacked the hillfort of the Caledonian people here. Archaeological investigations at the site discovered about twenty percent of the sling bullets were smaller than average, and had holes drilled into them. These bullets whistle as they fly. Their assumed purpose is to terrify the enemy: small, stinging, whistling projectiles, almost like a swarm of biting insects.

Druisius isn’t a slinger; he’s infantry, a foot soldier using shield and sword. But he sees the value of the sling in his first battle.  Will he ever use it?  You may have to read Empress & Soldier to find out!

References:

Translated Texts for Historians Volume 16: Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science. N.P. Milner, Translator. Liverpool University Press, 1996. pp 16-17  

Whistling Sling Bullets Were Roman Troops’ Secret Weapon. Tom Metcalfe, LiveScience on June 14, 2016: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whistling-sling-bullets-were-roman-troops-secret-weapon/

Burnswark Hill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnswark_Hill#Battle_details

From Concept to Finished Novel(s): Part I: The Very Beginning.

Never before have I had two books in my head at once, competing to be written. One is the last book that directly belongs to my series, working title Empire’s Passing.  The other – Empress & Soldier – is a side novel, the story of the Empress Eudekia and of the soldier Druisius, growing up at the same time but in very different environments in Casil, the Rome-like city of my books. It will intersect at its ending with Empire’s Exile, providing a different entry point to my series, but also further deepening and exploring the increasingly complex character of Druisius.

For the sake of the series (and my readers) I should write Empire’s Passing first. But here’s the dilemma: prior to that, I need to write at least a draft of Druisius’s half of Empress & Soldier. I can’t learn things about Druise that might be important in Passing after it’s out. And character sheets don’t work for me. Within an overarching structure, I’m a discovery writer, and that’s not going to change.  

I’m going to document this process of two overlapping books, because it’s new. A challenge, and my brain likes challenges, and I want to see how I do it. What I plan, what appears serendipitously, what the struggles are.

Here’s where I am today, June 20, 2021.

Empress & Soldier (hereafter E&S):

It will have, I believe, a three act structure, each act a period of 4 – 5 years. Druisius is 16 at the start; Eudekia 12. He is the son of a trader; she is the treasured daughter of the equivalent of a Roman senator. Other than brief, unknowing glimpses, their lives will not intersect until he becomes a palace guard at the same time she marries the young Emperor, at the end of the 2nd act.

I have a good but incomplete idea of what I need to learn about Druisius, both in his personal life and his military and guard positions. I have less idea about Eudekia, except to more fully understand how she became such a skilled diplomat and leader, and her marriage to the Emperor. However, this will reveal itself.

On my study wall there is now a timeline chart. On my bookshelf is a pile of books for research into private lives of both plebeians and the senatorial class in Rome; the Roman army; daily life in ancient Rome, and travel. Those I need to read for Druisius as well as Eudekia. I have other books specific to Eudekia, but they can wait.

Empire’s Passing (hereafter Passing):

Two narrators:  Cillian and Lena’s son Colm, and Lena. Colm is somewhere to the east of Casil, in a war zone, serving as a battlefield physician. Lena and the rest of her family are at Wall’s End, in Ésparias. This is about ten years after the end of Empire’s Heir. (I’ll try really hard in this diary not to give too much away.) The war in the east is affecting the governance and stability of Ésparias…and that’s just about all I know at this point. (Except its end: I’ve known that for at least a year, but I won’t ever reveal that.)

On my bookshelf are the books related to this, with more on order: books on Roman medicine, on Roman military conquests; on Viking travels to Kiev and Byzantium; on slavery in ancient Rome; on daily life on Hadrian’s Wall.  I have a whiteboard and a notebook where I jot down ideas.

This really is the very beginning of the creative process – and in a day or three I’ll have to stop to do the final revisions, and then the proofing, on Empire’s Heir. This will be a sporadic diary, updated when I have something to say, or I remember. It’s not meant to be a guidebook to writing a novel, or advice – simply a record. Follow along if you like!

Readjusting

Last night, after a day or so of feeling under the weather from my second vaccine, I realized that in three weeks, when my antibody count should be firmly up, that life will change.

For eighteen months, pretty much all I’ve done is write and exercise (and, yes, shower and eat and sleep, etc.) It started in our winter retreat to England in 2020 – that’s pretty much our lives there: long walks, the occasional movie, and writing time. Then the pandemic arrived, we came home, and since March 2020, with no lunches out, weekly writers’ meet-ups, movies, game nights with friends, visits to family….I write. And read and research. But mostly, I write.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

Blogs, guest blogs, newsletters, non-fiction pieces, verse.  And the current novel, of course. I’ve been hugely productive. But I can’t keep this pace up in a closer-to-normal world, and I have two more books to write in the current series, with ideas beyond that. Something is going to have to give.

At this moment, I’m not sure what. I value my friends and family, and I’ve missed them. Creativity needs the breaks movies and game nights give. Books already written need the exposure the guest blogs and interviews provide. It’s likely a matter of reducing, not eliminating. I write ‘smarter’ these days – more planning, more thought before hands-on-keyboard; not necessarily faster, but less tiring to my aging muscles, joints, and eyes, and my writing is cleaner, needing less rewriting and revision.

But the first step will be reacquainting myself with the bookstore I haven’t been in since December of 2019. After that, we’ll see.

Featured Image: by TaniaRose from Pixabay 

From First Draft to Finished Book: An Editing Journey (Part 1)

Empire’s Heir is my sixth book, and my revision process has evolved along with my writing. I’ve always been an edit-as-you-go writer, but with increasing age comes increasing difficulty to be at the computer for long hours. So I decided this time not to do that, guessing that the revision process would be faster than constant rewrites. So with very few exceptions, I just kept going with the book, making notes if I added a plot thread or changed something that affected earlier scenes. I also planned the scenes more, knowing – usually – what points needed to be made before beginning them, although, as usual, my characters sometimes had different ideas.

So: now I have this 130K manuscript in front of me. One file. What do I do first? Back to that increasing age problem: my eyesight isn’t what it was. Computer screens are difficult after a while. So my first step was to print it, with a very wide margin on one side for notes.

Then I analyzed it paragraph by paragraph: what purpose(s) did each paragraph serve? Did it build character, describe setting, cause conflict, advance the plot? (Preferably more than one of those, in most.) If they don’t, mark as OMIT, or CONDENSE.

In this pass, I also identified the main plots, and the subplots, keeping track in a notebook of the page numbers. Turned out there were 26 plot threads to be woven into the story: four large ones, 22 small conflicts that needed resolving before the end.

Then I divided the book into its three acts, which for this particular book is its defining overall structure, and analysed how much page time each conflict got.

This was interesting, because it showed me some significant gaps in two of the major plot threads.  So I made a list of those.

Then I went back to revise.  First, I fixed the paragraphs marked OMIT or CONDENSE.  Then I took out a few of the 22 minor plot threads that really didn’t add to the story.  After that, I went back to balance the plots better, making sure they contributed to each of the three acts.

You’ll note I haven’t worried about conciseness or cadence, clarity or flow, or anything to do with the quality of the prose at this point. That comes later, after I know the book’s bones are solid, and connected: the skeleton on which the flesh of the story lives. It’s still far from the final version, but it needs now to be seen by other eyes and minds than mine.

So it’s gone to my critique team: three readers who know my world and my characters well, and, equally importantly, won’t be hesitant in telling me what works and what doesn’t; what’s still extraneous; where I’ve missed a plot thread; which character is still two-dimensional; which one needs introducing earlier – that sort of thing. When I have their feedback, I’ll incorporate it.

I’ll write about that, and the next step: pruning it down from 130K – in another post. But not until I’ve done that work!

Featured image: Image by Wokingham Libraries from Pixabay 

Balancing

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word…

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Like almost everyone a year into the pandemic, I find myself thinking ‘I want my life back.”

I’ve slowly realized, though, that for me this isn’t only about the restrictions of the pandemic. Sure, I miss eating out, and movies, and meeting friends and family. But being a fairly introverted sort, happy with my own company most of the time, those aren’t a huge part of my life. What I’m missing more are the things I used to do, until writing took over my life.

I’ve written four books and a novella in the last five years. (Plus eighty thousand words of a first draft I tossed out completely.) Good books, by their reviews and awards, and not short (except the novella). Plus innumerable blog posts, my own and as a guest; book reviews, articles…sometimes it feels like all I do is write.

I used to have another life.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is final-print-feb-6-ver-2.jpg

A life where I could spend four hours birding, and not feel guilty. A life where I didn’t just watch birds, I drew them, turning my work into cards for friends and family.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is map.png

A life where I could spend hours with Ordnance Survey maps and Google Earth, studying field boundaries and the position of Roman villas, or bronze age barrows, or the remnants of ecclesiastical sites along a river. (And then go out and walk these sites, but that is a pandemic loss, at least this winter.)

A life where I read for pleasure, not for research or review.

This is no one’s doing but my own. I’ve always been immersed in my work, regardless of which of my several careers we’re talking about. I thought, in the first couple of years after I stopped working, I’d found a better balance. Then I slipped back into old habits, in part for the sheer joy of doing what I had always wanted to do, a need and desire that had taken a back seat to work and travel and the other demands and pleasures of life.

I took a day off to go birding this week, down to the shores of Lake Erie to look at waterfowl and early songbird migrants, and when I got home, my fingers itched to draw that flotilla of redhead and scaup dotting the Inner Bay, or the tundra swans passing overhead. I read a book for pleasure, too – Kazuo Ishiguro’s newest, Klara and the Sun. And I thought – why isn’t this my life? No one’s forcing me to write a book a year, to not draw, or not take another landscape history course – no one but myself.

Hindsight tells me why. I’ve wanted to be a writer – a published author – since childhood. The reality of that happening – and happening to critical acclaim, too – was exciting. (It still is.) It’s been exhilarating. But I’m starting to see the cost. Ironically, the things I’ve mostly stopped doing: birding, studying landscape history, reading about deep ecology – are the things that have helped inform the worldbuilding of my books, an aspect of them which is almost universally singled out for praise.

Am I going to stop writing?  Of course not. Writing brings me joy and challenge, and I have my characters’ stories to tell. But after Empire’s Heir comes out later this year, will the next one follow close on its heels?  Maybe not. Perhaps, loyal readers, you’re just going to have to wait a little longer for Druisius’s novella, and the last book in the series, and whatever else appears, asking to be told. But they’ll be better books for it.

Framing and Finishing: Of Housebuilding and Writing.

Saturday morning at a few minutes past midnight, I completed my work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir. Or at least, the first draft. The first draft of a book is like a house under construction: the foundation is poured, the framing’s done, the walls and windows and doors are in, and the roof. (And you hope it doesn’t leak.)

But inside, it’s a mess. The detritus left by the workers is scattered all over. The floors are plywood; the walls not yet wallboarded, the wiring and plumbing roughed in.  There is a lot of work left to do.

And so it is with a manuscript. It’s as messy and incomplete as the house. The garbage needs removing: the scenes that don’t add to the story, the plot line that complicates or goes nowhere, the characters who add nothing.

Walk through the house with a critical eye. Maybe a framed wall is in the wrong place; maybe you want a window where there isn’t one. Changes can still be made, although they’ll add time and take work. Better now than later, though. Later is much harder (ask anyone who’s renovated: a house or a book.)

Then it’s time to complete the plumbing and wiring, the connectors that link themes and plot and story together, often mostly unseen, and get the wallboard up.  Inspectors – or structural editors – are a good idea at this point. (Actually, the inspectors are almost certainly legally required, the structural editor isn’t – the analogy’s not perfect. But you get my drift.)

And then it’s time for the finishing. The painters and carpet layers, the cabinet makers, the tile installers, making sure the colours blend or contrast, the fine carpentry is precise, the transitions from room to room, carpet to hardwood to tile, are smooth. Another place a designer, or friends with good eyes and aesthetic sense, can help. Maybe your first choices are too trendy, too minimalist, too overblown. Is every space used well, not too crowded, not too empty? In the manuscript, I – or my beta readers, or my editor, or all of the above – are checking description, dialogue, and the cadence and flow of language, looking for monotony, purple prose, repetition, and a host of other things that affect the story.

Now the finishers are gone. Time for a thorough cleaning: they’ve been careful, but they can’t help leaving some mess. Sawdust in a corner; carpet threads; a dropped finishing nail or two. Time to sweep, to vacuum, to wash all the counters and floors. Time for the proof reading, and like sweeping and vacuuming and washing, use more than one technique: hire someone, listen to your book, change fonts. (There will still be one or two nails on the floor, or a drop of paint somewhere: it’s inevitable, just like the typos that slip through.)

And now the house – and the book – are done. While the finishing’s been happening, so has the exterior. You know your neighbourhood: what works?  Brick? Siding? Shingle? Stucco?  Same with the cover. Neighbourhoods and genres have their conventions, and you probably want to fit in without looking identical to every house on the street, or book on the bookstore shelf.

Right now, what I have is that mess: something that looks like a book, but inside is an unfinished jumble. There’s a lot of work to do before Empire’s Heir is a book someone will want to live inside. I’m letting it settle, and then I’ll start.

A Changed World

A year plus 10 days ago, I was in Rome, experiencing the feel of the city and visiting locations that would be settings in Empire’s Heir: the Imperial Palace, the Baths of Caracalla, others. The virus was a problem further north in Italy, but I had no worries about going to Rome. The world changed rapidly after that – we flew home to Canada from England a month later from an eerily empty airport, on a half-full flight, to restrictions that have fluctuated in gravity, but never gone away.

I hadn’t started Empire’s Heir yet: I had a general idea of the story, but little else. After I started writing it, it became quickly evident there were themes of loss and uncertainty I hadn’t planned, of separation and restrictions, and the meaning of space as something both necessary and isolating.

In my first trilogy, Empire’s Legacy, we were introduced to my protagonist Lena. Eighteen, facing war and hardships, she remains remarkably resilient – although not unscarred – throughout the three books. At the beginning of Empire’s Heir, she is forty. Mourning the sudden death of her third, unexpected child, she’s trying to make sense of her life.  Events set in motion at the birth of her oldest child, Gwenna, are shaping affairs both political and personal. She’s floundering, trying to reclaim some control of her own destiny – and she’s lost some of the resilience she had as a younger woman.

Cillian, thirty-three when we first meet him in Empire’s Hostage, is fifty-three. In a 7th century world, he’s far from young, and he’s coming to terms with the restrictions and losses of age.

I was growing old, and age brought loss, of things small and great: the acuity of hearing, the rapidity of thought… I had thought I accepted this decline; that my injuries had taught me to live with things lost.

The subplot of trying to live with loss, to rebuild lives shaken by uncertainty and unexpected change and its aftershocks, runs through the story, shaping it as I write. I can immerse myself in history and my faux-7th-century world. But the real world intrudes, influences, insists on inclusion, if in subtle and hidden ways; some, I may not even realize. Is this the book I would have written had there been no pandemic?  I doubt it.

Featured Image: The Aurelian Walls, Rome: Lalupa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Switching Brains

In last week’s post about the key lessons I’ve learned from years of project-based work, one raised questions in several readers’ minds:

Don’t wait for inspiration. Do whatever rituals you need to get yourself out of one space and back into the new one (for me it’s a 10 minute break to do a chore or two, then coffee and a read-through of the last thing I did on the project) and get to work. It may not be the best work you’ve done, but it will be a foundation, and, as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.

People were curious about the concept of rituals to prepare the mind for a new task. There are two ideas from educational theory and psychology embedded here, so let’s look at them one at a time.

In a 2017 article, Alison Wood Brooks, the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, studied the effect of a series of planned behaviours (a ritual) on the performance of people facing a stressful task. Her findings indicated ‘performing a ritual before entering a stressful situation can reduce feelings of anxiety and improve performance.’ Add to that the idea of giving your mind a bit of time to move from one area of focus to another, plus the benefits of movement on creativity (for more detail, read this paper by Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz), and you have some of the science behind the idea of the planned transition from one task to the other. (If you think back to your high school days, this is pretty much what the break between classes was for: move a bit, go to you locker, switch textbooks/notebooks – telling your brain that chemistry is done, now it’s time for history.)

The second part of this is ‘activating prior knowledge’. There are a lot of ways for a writer to use this concept of building on what you already know, but in this specific example, it’s again part of the transition. Once the transition activities (the ritual) are done, you bring yourself back into the work by reading the last 500 words you wrote, or your notes, or your outline. This is pretty much the writing equivalent of the recap scenes at the beginning of some television series. (Those of us who don’t binge watch are very appreciative of these. After a week away from a show, I need those reminders!)  

In my house, we use the shorthand ‘switching brains’. Time to write the weekly grocery list just after I’ve finished an editing session? ‘Wait till I switch brains’, I’ll say to my husband. Then I walk around a bit, stretch, water plants, pick up the cat – that sort of thing – before I look at the menu board, and the whiteboard that has all the things we’ve scrawled down that we need during the week (activating prior knowledge again), find paper and pen, and begin the list with a mind ready to focus on it, and not wondering if that last paragraph still needs refining.

These are some of the things that keep my ADHD brain, which is easily overwhelmed by cognitive load, productive. They won’t work for everyone, and like all habits, they take time and commitment to develop. What techniques do you use to help with balance and focus when juggling a multitude of tasks?

Coffee Cup image by Pexels from Pixabay 

Featured image:  Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

10 Things I Learned from Project-Based Work

A writing friend, who will remain unnamed (but he knows who he is) suggested the idea of an anthology of novellas the other day, an idea which immediately intrigued me. But I have a book to finish, and a lot of other projects and responsibilities: editing for a client, reading for blog tours and a review site, marketing (my own books plus our press’s), research, the community newsletter for which I’m the chair, a local writers’ group, and then all those things that are not work but life. How do I fit in a novella?

Most of the work I did in my previous professional lives, which spanned roughly thirty-five years, was project based. As a research associate, I juggled lab and field research for several professors and graduate students. As a special education consultant for our school district, I was responsible for special education services to 15 schools, K – 12; two teams of itinerant teachers, and the entire design and implementation of assistive technology services and training for the whole district, as well as many other required responsibilities. I had to visit my schools regularly, consult with and train teachers and educational assistants, liaise with parents….the list was endless. And yet, somehow, it all got done.

Reflecting on all those years of project-based work, what did I learn that now helps me? 

  1. Taking time to plan is a necessity. Not only that, plan backwards from hard deadlines. If I must have X ready on Feb 28th, what do I need to do to be there?  How much time do I need to do it? Schedule that time plus 10%. Plan yearly, monthly and weekly, and revisit your plans every morning to tweak as necessary.
  2. Be firm with yourself. If you schedule 2 hours to work on something, give it the two hours. At 1 hr 45, stop. Write the notes you need to pick up on it again, but that’s it. Move on to the next thing.
  3. Have a system for notes, so when an idea for project X pops into your head when you’re working on Y, record it, in whatever way works for you, and go back to project X.
  4. Don’t wait for inspiration. Do whatever rituals you need to get yourself out of one space and back into the new one (for me it’s a 10 minute break to do a chore or two, then coffee and a read-through of the last thing I did on the project) and get to work. It may not be the best work you’ve done, but it will be a foundation, and, as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.
  5. Schedule down time, when your brain can just ponder on things. In my scientist days, that was either the walk between home and the university, which took about forty minutes each way, or the time spent driving out to research plots.  In my special ed days, the schools I was responsible for were anywhere from a half hour to an hour’s drive from my office. (I drove a lot.) Good mulling-over time.  Now it’s my daily walk, or my weekly get-out-of-the-city drive, or just my armchair in the late evening with a whisky and music.
  6. Do what’s most important first. I write between 8 and 10 in the morning: I may write more, but I get those two hours in at least 5 days a week. Then I work on other things scheduled by deadlines and importance. And don’t forget to schedule exercise and meals!!! (For a more detailed look at this, see this earlier post.)
  7. Be realistic, and do not spread yourself too thin – that way lies burnout. Say no to things, both to things your own writer’s brain offers you, and external things. Do they fit right now?  If marketing and branding matter to you, do they increase your exposure and promote your brand to the right market?  If they fit, but you don’t have time for them, take an hour, write some notes, and file it for when you’re finished what you’re doing now.
  8. Know when you need a break. For those of us who work full time from home, either as a result of COVID or because that’s what you always did, it’s really easy for the days to just blur and to work every single one of them. I mentioned my get-out-of-the city drives; I do these alone, with a packed lunch and a thermos of coffee in these COVID days, and I’m gone for 4 – 6 hours. Just me, the road, and music. If I don’t do this, I get very, very grumpy.
  9. Ask for help. No one else can write for you, but can they take something else off your plate to give you a little more time? Or give you feedback on a plot point or structure?  I’m blessed with a husband who’ll do all these things. If the project is externally driven, ask for extensions, or submit drafts for feedback before you get too far into it.
  10. Build in time for emergencies. This was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me. They will happen, whether it’s as simple as a jammed printer or as serious as a visit to the emergency room. Nothing ever goes as planned. Equipment breaks, someone phones, a child or pet is sick, you’re unwell. Effectively, this means I leave one full day in my week unscheduled (separate from my driving day) – a catch up day if I need it, a day to do what I want if I don’t.

Gods, you may be thinking, I just like to write. What I’m reading here feels like a JOB. I write when I can, or when inspiration strikes, and I’m happy with that. If you are, that is wonderful, and I mean that wholeheartedly. I know my situation – my time is my own, without pressing family responsibilities just now – isn’t everyone’s. But if you’re struggling a bit with getting everything done, perhaps what I gleaned from decades in project-based work can help.

The Birth of a World

Yesterday, I was tidying shelves in my study. I found a spiral-bound notebook, a multiple-subject one with interior dividers, rather old and battered. For some reason, I leafed through it, checking to see if it was unused, I think.

Most of it was. But in the third section, there were a few pages of notes. The date on the top of the page was December 22, 1997. Twenty-three years ago, plus a few days. The first part of the entry was banal, comments on the weather (cold). But then:

The idea of an alternate world, a separate reality, similar to those of LeGuin in the EarthSea trilogy or Lynn, in the Dancers of Arun trilogy, is appealing. Into this world I could fit not only Lena, but Widowmaker, and, in a different form than first envisaged, even the story of my Norfolk family – all but the murder mystery, which is an entirely different genre.

Sometime over the holiday I hope to sketch the world, clearly Europe but modified – and perhaps do a rough timeline.

I just stared at it for a minute. I was 39 when I wrote those words; I’m 62 now. In that brief paragraph is the genesis of the world and characters that have lived in my mind for over two decades, and an acknowledgment of the two major influences in my world-building, Ursula LaGuin and Elizabeth A. Lynn. I felt like a historian of my own mind.

Several reactions occurred. (One of which was ‘good gods, my handwriting was nearly legible back then’.) Surprise was dominant: surprise that Lena – my MC of the Empire’s Legacy trilogy – had a name, a presence, as early as 1997. There must have been some work done, some notes or early paragraphs, because I’d treated Lena as a title, underlining it as academia taught me to (a habit I’ve never broken.) Another surprise was that my decision to create an alternate world, my analogue post-Roman northern Europe, was a conscious choice: I thought it had just emerged as I’d written.

And then there was the mystery: what was Widowmaker? Again, underlined, so a title. Of what? I had no memory at all of it…but as the afternoon progressed, and I thought about the word’s connotations for me (not the gun, nor the video-game character): a storm and fishing fleets, I remembered. At the time of Kenneth McAlpine, king of the Scots in the mid 9th century, the Picts ‘disappear’ from history. A theory proposed was the loss of most of their men in a ‘widowmaking’ storm while they were out fishing, leaving the women to be subsumed into the Gaelic culture. Clearly, I’d meant to do something with this concept.

Which, I believe, I did, because Empire’s Daughter opens with Lena, in her fishing boat, returning to a village devoid of men. For very different reasons…but was that seed of the idea that grew into my gender-divided world? I can’t know, so many years later. But I suspect so.

Then, of course, I spent some time leafing through other partly-filled notebooks, looking for more entries like this one, but without success. They must have existed, but in one bout of tidying up or another, they’ve been lost. Not that it matters: none would hold the wonder for me this one did, this glimpse into the birth of the alternate reality that I live in for at least part of each and every day.