Landscape and Memory

Dawn at Wood Buffalo National Park comes at about 4:30 am in mid-July, and with birdsong resounding through the trees, sleep is over. “Pure sweet Canada-Canada-Canada,” the white-throated sparrows sing, over and over.

It’s 1993, and we’re two weeks into the longest road trip we’ll ever do: 71 days across Canada in a Ford Escort, with a tent, a portable barbecue, and not much else. I love road trips: of all the things I couldn’t do because of the pandemic, this is probably the one I felt the most. We’ve done endless trips – all 50 states, many several times (we drove to California from Ontario three times); all Canadian provinces and two of the three territories (Nunavut didn’t exist when we did the big cross-Canada trip.) Most of Australia. All of New Zealand. England, Scotland, Wales. Costa Rica, Belize, Japan, Taiwan, too many Caribbean islands to count. Mostly the two of us together, but I’ve gone on my own, too.

The mosquitoes are horrendous, which is why we’re the only people in the campsite at Wood Buffalo, maybe the only people camping in a park the size of Switzerland. We run from the tent to the lake to swim (it’s COLD) and back to the tent to dry off. Later this day we’ll walk for hours, plagued by flies, following wolf tracks and buffalo hoofprints in the dried mud of the trail.

But this isn’t a travel memoir. I wasn’t writing my series yet: that would begin a few years later. But so much of this trip is in my books, even though I was traveling in North America in the last decade of the 20th century, and my characters are in a fictional 7th century analogue European world. The memory of that plunge, naked (there was no one around, after all) into the lake at Wood Buffalo became a lake in a plain in Empire’s Exile. The flies are in the same book. So, too, is the experience of standing on a ridge in the Richardson Mountains in Yukon, and looking east, and seeing nothing but endless peaks and valleys, snowcapped even in July, hearing the whistles of marmots and the cries of golden eagles. If we’d travelled east through that wilderness, were it possible, the first significant population centre we would have come to would be Trondheim, Norway.

Dempsterhighway.jpg
Richardson Mountains from the Dempster Highway. Wikipedia, public domain.

That memory became the Durrains, the mountain range thought uncrossable that divides Lena’s land from whatever lies east, and that she and Cillian must attempt to cross, or die trying. But not just the physical geography, but the sense of a vast expanse of unknown territory, unknown people, unknown dangers…and somewhere, very far to the east, perhaps civilization.

The books are full of these landscape and place memories: someday perhaps I’ll go through and annotate them, just for fun. I have a strong suspicion that almost nothing in the landscape of my world is invented; I think they’re all just taken from one trip or another; in mountains or on coasts, the sounds of fishing villages, the crowds of a city, the ice on the wash water in the morning at a campsite.

Write what you know. So I write what I’ve experienced; weaving together memories from a thousand times and places; remembering the smells, the feel of the breeze, the flies and the birdsong – and how I felt: joy, exhaustion, irritation, fear. The blisters, the aching shoulders; thirst, hunger, desire. I give all those to my characters: my experiences become theirs.

But there is something I think is key to this: I was in those moments. I wasn’t photographing, or texting, or videoing; I wasn’t digitizing them or filtering them for someone’s consumption. I was there, fully. I was paying attention. Not because I knew I wanted them for a book, later – because that too is a filter. I was – on that trip and many others – simply experiencing the world I was in at that moment, creating memories that transfer themselves to words thirty years or more later almost effortlessly. So I guess that’s the answer – or one of them – to the question I’m asked most frequently: how do I build a world that feels so real?  By remembering it.

(With apologies to Simon Schama for borrowing the title of his marvellous 1996 book.)

Featured image: White Throated Sparrow by Becky Matsubara: Flickr. CC 2.0 licenses

The Dreaded Author Interview

Being interviewed as an author is one of those love/hate situations. We’d probably all be happy to talk about our books and characters – but not about ourselves! But we also know we shouldn’t turn down the chance to promote our work.

Here’s my latest author interview, from A Muse Bouche, an Ottawa-based writing site:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUFOo1wpNOZVKbvHfXdJdmg

Camera image by StockSnap from Pixabay; Frightened girl by Pezibear from Pixabay

Children: Out and Proud (A Re-post).

This isn’t exactly a guest post, but Bjørn Larssen’s newest post on his blog is the best (and funniest) description of how it feels to have a new book published and out in the world to be read (or not read) and reviewed I’ve ever seen. So follow this link! You won’t be disappointed.

Writing, Full Time…a Day in the Life.

6:30:  Wake up, hoping the plot problem’s solved itself overnight. It hasn’t.

6:45:  Make coffee.  Nothing happens without coffee. Feed the cat.

7:00:  Sit at desk. Remove cat from keyboard.

7:15:  Check social media. Attempt to refrain from checking sales stats. Fail. Sigh today. (Cheered yesterday.)

7:45:  Stop procrastinating. Check e-mail for business-related items. Answer 5 emails. Remove cat from in front of computer screen.

8:30:  Look at whiteboard. Realize with horror there are three deadlines looming.

8:45:  Finish community newsletter column.

9:15:  Finish drafting the promotional ‘blurb’ for another author’s book.  More coffee.

9:30: Write and schedule social media promos for the next week.

10:15: Becoming one with desk chair. Go for a walk and think about (a) the book review due and (b) the knotty plot point. Apologize to neighbours whom you’ve ignored because you’re deep in thought.

11:30: Shouldn’t I have a shower today?

12:00:  Food might help. And more coffee.

12:30: Check social media. Type one-handed because cat is insisting on cuddles.

1:00:  Solve some problems for the community newsletter. Apologize to a contributor whose article had a typo.

1:30: Begin the book review.

1:35: Clean up cat’s hairball. Return to book review.

2:30:  Ask writer friends via DMs about the plot point. Much discussion….not all on topic.

3:30:  Break time. Discuss plot point with husband…or whoever this man I live with is.

4:00: Dear gods, is that the time?  Open WIP document.

5:30:  Cat is being very loud. Oh. She’s hungry. Oh. Dinner. Good: it’s husband’s turn to cook. Pour wine.

6:00:  Eat. 

6:30: Clean up. Write a grocery list. Return to desk. Read what I wrote in the WIP. Sigh.

7:30: Couch and tv time. Watch with half an eye. Make hopefully relevant comments to husband about what’s happening on-screen. Write ideas in notebook with the other eye-and-a-half.

10:00: Return to keyboard. Write for a bit.

11:00: Pour scotch. Look at whiteboard of writing/marketing/editorial tasks. Swear. Feed cat.  Pour more scotch to counteract too much coffee. Go to bed, plot point still unsolved.

Adaptation

Adaptation: Noun

  1. the action or process of adapting or being adapted.
  2. a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.

I’ve been thinking a lot about adaptation recently, from three viewpoints: that of one of my characters; that of our lives under COVID, and that of the lives of all living beings on this planet in the face of ecological change. (The latter came about from my last birding column – I write one monthly for a small community publication- where I looked at the spread of turkey vultures into Canada in the last 50 years, and the reasons for it.)

My character, who is physically disabled as a result of war wounds, is also aging. His eyesight is beginning to fail, and he’s a teacher, a reader and a writer. As my books are set in early medieval times, there are a limited number of solutions. A long follower of Stoic philosophy, he’ll approach this with the same calm exterior as he has his physical limitations, although interior frustrations exist.

Write what you know. I’ve experienced a period in my life where medical treatments made a few things in my life physically impossible or limited my ability to be active. I’m pulling on how that felt; I’m also conscious of my own poorer eyesight, and the limits it’s already forcing. I use an big external screen, and my magnification in Word is set at 140%.  But right now, what I use the most in thinking about his frustrations are my frustrations at the changes COVID has imposed on my writing life.

Full disclosure : what I’m whining about here is incredibly minor. It’s ridiculous to even complain. But we feel what we feel, sometimes, regardless of what Stoic philosophy or any other belief system tells us. I miss, sometimes horribly, the ability to write outside my home. I used to write, for part of my day, in coffee shops and the university library. Coffee shops when I needed the buzz of conversation, the supply of good coffee, and the occasional cookie – and almost always a writing friend to chat to about our respective work for a few minutes. The university library when I needed silence and access to books for research. (There was also our Monday morning writing group, three hours of coffee-and-tea fueled silent writing in a bar space above our town’s indie bookstore, followed by a two-hour writing-and-book-discussion lunch at the adjoining café.)

Plus I’d bike or walk downtown, and back, unless the weather was really horrible. So my days had their exercise built in. There’s a big hill between me and downtown, so walking was only an 8 km round trip, but biking needed an extended trip that gave me about 15 km of riding. I’m 62: I have arthritis in both my upper and lower spine; I have Dupuytren’s contracture in both hands, which makes my fingers ache after a while (thanks, Viking ancestor.) Posterior vitreous detachment has left me with more floaters than clarity in my left eye, and the right one’s not great either. All these aggravations of aging mean that taking lots of breaks, and changing my writing position during the day, are beneficial. Writing downtown meant that happened more or less naturally.   

But this is all at a standstill. Now I write for two hours at my desk (and get up frequently to make coffee, eat breakfast, feed the cat, during that time) and then I go biking or walking for 90 minutes, come home, shower, and it’s just about time for lunch. That’s the morning taken care of.  Afternoons – when I’m still on the computer, but doing other tasks – editing, beta reading, writing articles or blog posts, marketing – are not so well disciplined. I miss my in-the-flesh writing friends, but I’ve made several good virtual friends via Twitter, and we spend time chatting back and forth. A much needed and appreciated interaction, but I’m still at the computer. My phone timer goes off every 45 minutes, reminding me to get up. I clean the house 15 minutes at a time, to make myself move. I do floor exercises. I do laundry. I water our pots of tomatoes and peppers. I walk to the mailbox. I’m adapting my behaviour, because changes in our ecology – the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – has forced me to.

I consider myself lucky that I have somewhere to channel these feelings, into the frustrations felt by my characters as their own lives are constrained by circumstance. Not just the one character’s physical limitations, but others, too: my characters all regret, for various reasons, their distance from family; the inability to hug or kiss many of those they love; the constraints on travel. They too are privileged, within their society; they too have adapted. But I’m guessing the book I’m writing, and the books still to be written, will be subtly different than they would have been if COVID hadn’t come. Adapted, you might say.

Music’s Memory

Why is music so important in my books?  I’m not a musician; I can’t play an instrument, carry a tune, or even keep time.  Write what you know, right? You wouldn’t think I’d write about music.

But one of the themes of my books is language, and what it can and can’t do: in my protagonist Lena’s words, they are in part

about language, and meaning, and if all concepts were universal, and could be translated. About the gap between intent and comprehension, between what was meant and what was understood, and the assumptions and shared experience encompassed—or not—in any exchange.

Empire’s Exile

Music, in my books, is another form of language, a way to communicate that goes beyond words to invoke memory and emotion. I introduce this in the very first book, Empire’s Daughter, when the character Tice teaches Lena a song about exile and lost love (introducing another major theme of the series).  In book 2, Empire’s Hostage, Lena learns that in Linrathe, the country north of the Wall, song is used to teach history – and more than history, in truth – a sense of national identity.

Song weaves its way through the next book, Empire’s Exile, too: its role in entertainment, in ritual, in status among a group of warriors. It communicates regret, love, loss – and is a vehicle to bring two people together.

But it’s in the two books that the musician Sorley narrates: Oraiáphon and Empire’s Reckoning, that music takes centre stage. Its role in Oraiáphon is pivotal to the story – without giving away the plot, I’ll just say that Oraiáphon is my world’s equivalent of classical mythology’s Orpheus.  

Music is central to Sorley’s identity, and as the author I take advantage of that. Music highlights the differences between him and the two men in his life: with pragmatic Druisius, the instruments they play are similar, but the tunings are different, and to Druisius, all Sorley’s songs are sad. With Cillian, whose use of language is precise and subtle, honed by his years as a diplomat, Sorley’s contrasting use of song to influence through emotion reflects their characters:

“Stories told by you, with all your scáeli’s skills?” Cillian asked. “A tale spun to coerce and convince, my lord Sorley?”

Empire’s Reckoning

Of all the books in the series, Empire’s Reckoning focuses most on the influence and limitations of language: of oaths made and broken, of the power of words spoken and unspoken – and the role of music in conveying what words cannot. That’s why I, a weaver of words, write about music.

You can hear Sorley sing his beautiful Paths Untrodden here.

Purchase links for all my books here.

Want to know more about the world of my books, the real history that informs them, or read vignettes and updates on the work in progress, Empire’s Heir? Sign up for my monthly News from the Empire.

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Release Day for the book that almost wasn’t.

I had begun to write Empire’s Heir, the book I thought would be the next in my series, set about 18 years after the end of Empire’s Exile. The narrator was Gwenna, daughter to two of the main characters in the previous series. Early on, she was mentally describing another character, Sorley, and in that unfiltered flow that happens sometimes, from subconscious brain to keyboard, she told me something about him that made me stop and say “What? How? When?”

So then I had to tell his story, because it was important.

But because I hadn’t known I was going to, so I hadn’t thought about this story at all, it took a long time to take shape. I scrapped the first draft at 80,000 words and started again. At 130,000 words, I excised 40K to become the novella Oraiáphon. I wrote a bunch more, revised, cut, trimmed….and it still wasn’t right. Then one day I wrote one paragraph…and suddenly it WAS right.

It went out to beta readers and my developmental editor. Beta readers loved it, with some wise suggestions. The developmental editor did not, for both structural and story reasons. I listened, accepted some structural revisions, ignored the story reasons – because what he hated was the thing I hadn’t known, the thing the character Gwenna had told me way back when. (He still doesn’t like it, but we’re agreeing to disagree.)

So today the book that nearly wasn’t is out in the world, and some people will agree with my beta readers, and some with my developmental editor, and some will be in-between. That’s ok, because no book is right for everyone.

A deep breath, a few weeks to relax, and I’ll start (again) on Empire’s Heir.

You can read the first chapter of Empire’s Reckoning  here…and hear Paths Untrodden, Sorley’s song for Cillian.

Available from Amazon in both Kindle and paperback formats.

Also available in e-pub format for Kobo, Nook, and other e-readers

Using Colour-Coding in Editing: #authortoolboxbloghop

“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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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.

No End of Things in the Heart

…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 Empire’s Exile and the upcoming Empire’s Passing. 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 2020 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 release this book into a world forced into involuntary separation and distance, ravaged by political differences, challenged by climate change. We all became 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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12285747