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10 Things I Learned from Project-Based Work

How does my project-based work experience help me as a writer?

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.

Epiphany

A world opens up, a world beyond the commonplace, a wild world.

I am ten years old, or maybe eleven. No older. I am wearing green shorts and a yellow shirt. I am alone; I often am: this is another time, another world, southern Ontario in the late 1960s. I can smell the dust of a July afternoon, feel the heat of the sun, see the purple of the vetch that lines the farm lane: the moment is fixed in my memory.

I’ve been out in the fields and woods, exploring, pretending, observing. The woodlot lies a quarter mile directly south of our house, twenty acres or so of field between the Norway spruce that line the southern edge of our yard and the woods. This is my world, and I share it with animals and birds I know: rabbits, groundhogs, the occasional skunk; crows, sparrows, robins.

I have – or rather my brother has, because this is meant to be a boy’s pursuit – a bird book written for young people. I look at it often; I like knowing the names of things: trees, birds, flowers, rocks. Even then I find my place in the world through its landscape – or, more precisely, although the word is not widely in use yet – the ecosystem that surrounds me.

It’s midafternoon, and I’m hungry. I’m heading home for a snack. Am I running? I think I might be. A bird flies up from beside the lane. I stop, in a moment of recognition and delight: a bright yellow breast, a distinct black V. A meadowlark, I tell myself. I’ve seen a meadowlark. Wonder suffuses me. They live here. They are real. A world opens up, a world beyond the commonplace, a wild world.

I will go on to see hundreds, if not thousands, of meadowlarks across the Americas, to recognize their whistled, flute-like song as a harbinger of spring, to mourn their decline as a grassland bird. As agriculture in southern Ontario changed, fields that were once pasture now grow corn and soybeans; hayfields are cut earlier, destroying nests; old fields on the edges of towns become housing developments. I have to look for meadowlarks now.  But every first meadowlark of spring takes me back, just for a moment, to that ten-year-old realizing a world of wild beauty lay both beyond and within the familiar one, if I had the eyes to see.

Featured image: By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62440

Entertainment to Our Mind

Reluctantly, he handed me the paper. I scanned the first line and stopped.

This vignette was written for my newsletter, but I thought I’d share its conceit with a wider audience. And since no one knows who wrote the 9th century poem  Pangur Bán, why not my character Cillian?

“Lord Sorley?”  Mhairi called to me as I crossed the hall, returning from a morning’s ride. A rest day, nominally, but without teaching responsibilities I’d used the time to inspect fields and ditches, looking for winter damage. “Could you take the Comiádh his tea?”
“As long as you add a mug for me,” I said.
She brought me the tray, the scent of rosehips rising from the pot. “Thank you. I have milk heating, and I should not leave it.” 
I pushed open the door to the annex with my foot, carrying the tray along the hall. The door to Cillian’s library stood ajar, and I could see he was writing. He looked up at my footsteps, smiling a welcome. Curled up on pile of papers on his right, his white cat slept.
The kitten had been presented to Druise, the year Gwenna left for cadet school at the White Fort. ‘A kitten so you miss your Kitten less,’ Lena had said. He’d taken the little thing in his big hands, smiling at its loud purr, but in the end it had been Cillian it had adopted, not Druise. Privately, I’d been glad: over the years, we’d amassed a collection of Casilani glass: bowls and jugs. The havoc a kitten could have wreaked didn’t bear thinking about.
Cillian put his pen down and stretched. I poured us both tea and sat in the other chair. “You’ve been out,” he said. “I can smell the fresh air and sunshine on you.”
“More likely the mud on my boots,” I said. “A fair bit of ditching to do this spring.” I glanced at the paper in front of him. “What are you writing?” It didn’t look like a lesson, or the history he’d been working on for years. “A poem? Who are you translating now?”
“Not a translation,” he said. He looked, I thought, nearly embarrassed. I grinned at his discomfiture.
“Original verse? Isn’t that my job?” I held out a hand. “Shall I judge your scáeli’s skills?”
He hesitated, reaching for the paper as if to move it away from my grasp. I raised an eyebrow. “I can’t read it? Are you writing love poetry to Lena now, after all these years?”
His startled look made me laugh. “You wouldn’t even think of it, would you?” I wrote the songs of love in this household, and they weren’t to Lena. Reluctantly, he handed me the paper. I scanned the first line and stopped. He’d picked up his cup and was sipping the tea, watching me. “You wrote a poem to the cat?” I asked.
“Not to the cat,” he said. “A comparison, of how his skills parallel mine: we are both hunters, in a way. An analysis, you might say. Read on, my lord Sorley.”
A few minutes later I handed him back his poem. “Better far than praise of men, it is to sit with book and pen”, I said, quoting his own words back to him. “You know yourself well, mo duíne gràhadh. But has Pangur here ever actually killed a mouse? I thought him too well fed for that.”
He stroked the cat. It raised its head, blinking, mewed, and settled back into sleep. “Nightly,” Cillian said. “He has a rather unfortunate tendency to bring them to me, dead or alive. Watching him hunt the ones he brings in alive was the source of the comparison.”
“Shall I write music for it?”
He chuckled. “No. It was only to see if I could make the argument stand, and in verse. An exercise, nothing more. It is not worth your time, nor likely mine. A diversion from the history that is my real work.”

The 9th C Reichenau Primer, written by an Irish monk, likely at Reichenau Abbey in Germany. It includes the poem Pangur Bán. 

*****

But eleven centuries later, the poem Pangur Bán is still known; is, in fact, often called the best-known Irish poem. Written (in Irish) by an unknown monk in the 9th Century, I have taken the liberty of giving its authorship to Cillian. Here is its best known translation, by the Irish scholar Robin Flowers (although I prefer this one by Seamus Heaney, and somehow think it is closer to what Cillian might have written).


I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
 
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
 
‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
 
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
 
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
 
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
 
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
 
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Reichenau Primer photo: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

White Cat photo: by Yera Castelán from Pixabay 

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The Birth of a World

Reading the brief note, I felt like a historian of my own mind.

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.

The Drove Dogs

“Nell. Go home.” She stood, the breeze ruffling her black and white coat. “Home,” I said again.

We halted at mid-day for a little food. The pony, which carried my shearer’s tools and our other supplies, browsed for grass. We sat on stones that marked the meeting place of the track from the torp we had left this morning and a broad valley running roughly north to south. We’d come up this valley, a week or so earlier.

I unwrapped the offal I’d boiled the night before and tipped it onto the ground, giving the dog permission to eat. She swallowed the meal before looking up at me for its next command. “Down,” I told her. “It’s time,” I said to Bjørn.

He nodded, and crouched to hug the dog, his arms circling its throat. He would miss her, I knew, but we couldn’t take her with us.

When he had let the dog go, I spoke. “Nell. Go home.” She stood, the breeze ruffling her black and white coat. “Home,” I said again. She turned and began to trot north, along the valley floor and the ancient droveway, the wide paths along which sheep and cattle had been moved for generations beyond count.

Bjørn watched her for a minute, his eyes dry. “Will she really find her way home?” he asked. “It’s a long way.”

“She’s done it several times,” I told him. “That’s why Harr Dugar chose her to accompany us. The torps will feed her, don’t worry.” I pulled up the pony’s head. “Do you want to ride?”

Empire’s Reckoning

Many years ago, long before I envisioned the world I write about in my Empire series – an analogue of Britain and northern Europe after the decline of Rome – I read a book called The Drove Roads of Scotland, by A.R.B. Haldane. (Landscape history, if you’re new to my blog, is an avocation of mine.)  I don’t remember a lot of it, but in a footnote, he made this observation:

‘Some years ago the late Miss Stewart Mackenzie of Brahan, Ross-shire, informed a friend that in the course of journeys by coach in the late autumn from Brahan to the South during her childhood about the year 1840 she used frequently to see collie dogs making their way north unaccompanied. On inquiring of her parents why these dogs were alone, [she] was informed that these were dogs belonging to drovers who had taken cattle to England and that when the droving was finished the drovers returned by boat to Scotland. To save the trouble and expense of their transport, the dogs were turned loose to find their own way north. It was explained that the dogs followed the route taken on the southward journey being fed at Inns or farms where the drove had ‘stanced’ and that in the following year when the drovers were again on the way south, they paid for the food given to the dogs…’

That passage stayed in my mind, in part because I immediately associated it with a classic book of my childhood, Lassie Come-Home, by Erik Knight, in which a collie, sold from necessity and taken to a remote part of Scotland, still finds her way home. Written in 1940, it predates Haldane’s book. Had Knight heard stories of the drove collies?  Perhaps; I can’t prove it: in fact, I can’t prove this story of the drove dogs sent home by themselves at all. Every source I’ve found simply links back to Haldane’s footnote.

But it’s a good story, one that fit into Empire’s Reckoning (even though it’s set a thousand or so years earlier), because my main character was travelling south with a sheepdog in the role of an itinerant sheep-shearer. But that’s not what he really is, and so the borrowed dog will need to be sent home. Does she make it?  Here’s a tiny excerpt from the work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir, set four years later.

Bjørn’s gaze swept the room, stopping at Druise. “Bjørn,” Sorley said, as the two men regarded each other, “if you for a moment doubt Druisius’s loyalty, I’ll regret having sent the dog back north, and not you.”

A bark of laughter. “I was pleased when you wrote to tell me she was safely home,” he said. “It still surprises me that a sheepdog can do that journey across all that wild land on its own.”

Empire’s Heir

And if you know of any reliable sources other than Haldane for this practice, please let me know!

The Well of Creativity

How do you find your well of creativity?

I used to work with a man who had all his best ideas in the shower. Others find running sparks creativity. For me, it’s driving. Not city driving, or bumper-to-bumper freeway driving, but long, mostly empty back roads (Blue highways, William Least-Heat Moon called them in his book about travel and place and belonging).

I was stuck, in my current work-in-progress, with a plot not complex enough for characters who are diplomats, subtle and devious. I needed a central conflict to have more layers to disguise a character’s behaviour. Pacing around the house didn’t help. So this morning, I went driving.

I’d gone perhaps 10 kilometers when something began to take shape, an idea rooted in a past book in the series and paralleling another subplot. Hmmm, I thought, this has potential. So what if…?  By 30 km from the house, I had the outline. At about 50 km, I pulled over into a church parking lot in a tiny village, took my notebook out of my bag, and wrote notes for twenty minutes.

What is it about easy driving (or showering, or running)? I think it’s the repetitious, known activity that frees part of your mind to wander; the motor function taking its needed neurons, and leaving the rest to be creative. (And for me, at least, I can talk aloud to myself when driving, and that seems to help.)

This has, I think, roots in my childhood, when we’d drive to see an aunt a few hours away, or even into the city to shop, a shorter trip. I couldn’t read in the car; it made me carsick, so I’d look out the windows and make up things about what I saw: if this were my farm, I’d paint the fences white, and have ponies. Maybe that road leads to an abandoned village, the houses still standing. I’ll bet owls live in that old barn. Daydreams, but also stories.

I wish cleaning shook loose creativity in the same way; then I’d be doing something else useful at the same time. But sadly it doesn’t. I need a passing landscape: flying doesn’t have the same effect, nor does night driving. Trains are wonderful, but I haven’t much call to take trains in Canada. And the car does need to be taken out occasionally.

The results of today’s drive will keep my work-in-progress focused for some time. But sooner or later I’ll bump up against another problem that will need solving, and off I’ll go.

How do you find your well of creativity?

The Archive, by Dan Fitzgerald: The Maer Cycle (#2)

Feathered dragons!

Published: December 4, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Age Group: Adult

Pages: 306


In Hollow Road (book 1), three companions discovered the monsters of legend were all too real…

Rumors among the Maer tell of an underground library called the Archive, which houses a wealth of knowledge and terrible magics that could be used to start the biggest war seen since the Great Betrayal. A mixed group of humans and Maer set off on an historic quest to find the Archive and protect it from those who would use it to destroy everything they hold dear. As the cold of winter bears down upon them, they trek through forbidding mountains beset by dangers they could have never imagined. They follow a set of ancient clues deep into the Silver Hills, forging surprising alliances and making new enemies.

The humans and Maer are linked by more than their quest to find the Archive and stop an insidious war. A mystical surrogacy may bridge the gap between two peoples, and many hearts entwine as their adventure hurtles toward its bloody conclusion.


In The Archive, Dan Fitzgerald returns to some of the same themes as in Hollow Road, Book I of The Maer Cycle: the building of alliances through communication and a defense against a mutual enemy; the importance of shared language and history; the understanding that arises from seeing past external differences to find common humanity.

The human protagonists from Hollow Road: Sinnie, Finn, and Carl, along with Maer companions, including Finn’s lover Fabaris, are seeking The Archive, a legendary repository of the written history of the Maer. Believed to lie deep in the mountains, finding it entails more than one danger. Among those dangers are the Wild, or Free, Maer: clans who have remained living outside of the settled Maer community. Enemies of both the Maer and humans, they will need to be convinced – by diplomacy or a show of force – that these strangers are not there to destroy or assimilate them, but for a greater cause, one that is as important to the Free Maer, too.

The world Fitzgerald has created is expanded in The Archive; the reader learns more about its history, its geography, and its cultures, while still leaving us with tantalizingly unanswered questions to draw us into the next book. It, like its predecessor, is a quiet book, primarily character-driven. There is plenty of conflict, but not often the sort that needs weapons to solve, although battle will play an important role.

Relationships develop further in this book, both friendships and sexual relationships (of many kinds, all seamlessly fitting into the story and the world), and with those relationships characters too are deepened and developed, increasing the stakes and the emotional impact of events. One of my small niggles with the story came here: in furthering Finn and Carl’s relationships, Sinnie seemed to be neglected – or perhaps my sense of her as a little on the sidelines is purposeful.

Once or twice specific word choices jarred me out of the pre-industrial world Fitzgerald’s characters inhabit, but overall the writing is smooth and effective; the plot and action well-paced, and the characters compelling. Oh, and did I say there are dragons? Feathered dragons! Strongly recommended for readers who want more from a fantasy world than battles, blood and beer.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08M68H1HQ

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55780840-the-archive

Giveaway!

http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/e832e98855/?

About the Author

Dan Fitzgerald is a fantasy writer living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When he is not writing, he might be gardening, doing yoga, cooking, or listening to French music. 

His debut fantasy novel Hollow Road, the first book in The Maer Cycle trilogy, was published in September by Shadow Spark Publishing. The Archive comes out on December 4, and the trilogy concludes with The Place Below in March 2021.

Books and merchandise are available at https://shadowsparkpub.com/dan-fitzgerald.

Find out more about Dan and his books at http://www.danfitzwrites.com, or find him on Twitter or Instagram, with the handle danfitzwrites in both places.  

Author Links

Website: http://www.danfitzwrites.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/danfitzwrites

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/danfitzwrites

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/danfitzwrites

Landscape and Memory

Almost nothing in the landscape of my world is invented.

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 can’t do because of the pandemic, this is probably the one I’m feeling 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

A Slain Darling, Resurrected

Kill your darlings is shorthand to ‘remove scenes that don’t feed your story’ – and this was one.

This scene didn’t make it into the final version of Empire’s Reckoning, mostly because the book was already long, and while this added to character- and world-building, it didn’t feed the plot. But I awoke to snow today, and was reminded of it, so here it is. If you’re in the middle of the Empire’s Legacy trilogy, there are spoilers here.


Teannasach, may I go?” I asked formally. He stepped forward, offering an arm and the kiss of farewell. Our lips brushed for the briefest of moments. I wondered if knowing what I was made him uncomfortable, but if it did, he did not show it.

“Go safely, Lord Sorley,” he said. I swung up onto my horse and turned its head south.

I’d woken with a scratchy throat, but we’d talked and sung into the small hours, so I thought little of it. But as I rode through the morning, I reluctantly admitted to a cold. My throat was painfully sore now, and my nose alternately running and blocked.

Ingoldstorp was some distance away yet, but they would give me soup and fuisce, and a warm bed, and perhaps a night’s sleep would chase the illness away. I found my hat in the saddlebags and wrapped my scarf a little tighter around my neck. The day was getting colder, I was sure.

An hour later the snow began. Big flakes, wet and heavy, at first: then, when the wind picked up, smaller and denser. The world around me turned white, and still the snow fell, thick and fast and rapidly shrinking the visible world to no more than a few arms’ lengths in front of me. I started to shiver. I couldn’t see the road now; all I could do was trust my horse to seek shelter.

I let the reins lie slack. The gelding plodded steadily forward, its head low against the wind. My fingers were numb, and my toes. The snow stung the exposed skin of my face. I closed my eyes. 

Random thoughts: lambs would die in this. Had I wrapped my ladhar properly? Druise would be so angry with me. I drifted into a daze, time and the white world passing without sense or recognition.

My horse roused me, swinging his head and snorting. I looked around me, slowly realizing we stood in the lee of a building. I pushed myself up in the stirrups, my right leg dragging over the saddle as I dismounted, feet sinking into snow well over my ankles.

I fumbled along the wall of the building, looking for a door. I found one, but its latch resisted my stiff fingers. Swearing loudly, I pulled a glove off with my teeth and tried again. The horse pushed up against me, wanting cover.

On the fourth try I got the latch and the door open. I stumbled in, the horse following. A cattle byre, I could tell, from the smell and the heat, although almost no light found its way into the building. A cow lowed, and another. Probably the torp’s milk cows, I thought muzzily. I hoped so.

My hands were too cold to remove my horse’s bridle, or its saddle, even with both hands bare. He stood placidly enough, so I left him, moving towards the cattle. A warm, heavy body loomed in front of me. I put a hand on its side; it didn’t flinch. Slowly I moved around it until I was among the cows. I leaned up against one, almost hugging it. Apart from a flick of her tail, she didn’t object. Milk cows, as I had hoped, accustomed to being handled.

The heat radiating off the animals warmed me, even though the strong smell of urine in the byre made my eyes water. I would stink of cow, I thought, but I didn’t care. The cattle chewed and belched and shuffled, and one nosed me, its hot breath scented with hay. I’d never liked cattle much, before.

Warmed, I went back to my horse, removing his tack. He’d find hay and water, although the cows might kick him. By feel I found the bread and cheese in one saddlebag. Then I sat down to eat and wait.

The food tore at my sore throat, but I made myself swallow it, in small mouthfuls. I sat as close to the cattle as I safely could, and at some point, exhausted, I fell asleep.

A man’s voice woke me. Concerned, not angry: no torp or house would turn away a traveller in this weather. He knelt. “Are you well?”

I tried to speak, coughed instead. “Well enough,” I managed. “My horse brought me here. Where am I?”

“Ingoldstorp. Who are you?”

“Sorley.” A bout of coughing racked me. “Toscaire to the young Teannasach. I was riding south from Dun Ceànnar.”

“Well, sit quiet while I give hay to the kyne and your horse. I’ll take you up to the house, after.”

He was quick with the feeding. Then he piled the water trough high with snow, the byre door letting in blasts of cold as he went back and forth. It would melt soon enough from the animals’ body heat. Then he gave me a hand up, threw my saddlebags over his own shoulder, and took me to the house.

Winter Sheep Herd: Scott Payne, Pixabay

The snow and my cold ran their course together. Ingold—or rather his Konë—distractedly welcomed me, found me a bath and a bed, fed me, and sat me by the fire when I coughed. I had been lucky: I could well have died, had my horse not brought me to the cattle-byre. But my cold remained only a cold, preventing me from singing to repay my hosts’ hospitality, nothing more.

Not that the Eirën was often present. Ingold, a handful of years older than I, spent all the daylight hours out with his men and the sheepdogs, digging ewes and lambs out of drifts. I offered to help, but he refused. “I don’t doubt your skill with sheep, Sorley,” he said. “But you’ve work to do for the young Teannasach, and that can’t be risked.” So instead I fed the penned and stabled animals, and warmed half-dead lambs by the hearth of the house, with the Konë and the torpari women.

The weather changed on the fifth day, the wind shifting south, warm on the skin. Snow melted rapidly, turning the yard and the track to muck. “I’ll turn the sheep out in the morning,” Ingold told me, as we shared fuisce that night. I had played for them earlier; I couldn’t sing, but music of any sort was always welcomed. “You’ll be on your way, no doubt?”

“I will. If this weather reached south, the Casilani ships will have been delayed, but if not, they could be in harbour already. I have letters to go to Casil, from Ruar and the Raséair, and I must stop at the Ti’ach na Perras on the way.”

I had been gone well over two weeks. Ingold sipped his fuisce. “What are they like, these Casilani?” he asked.

“Wily. Sophisticated, and skilled with words and subtlety. At least the officials. The soldiers,” I shrugged, thinking of Druise, “are not so different from any men.”

“You’ll need all your wits about you, if you’re to ensure they treat us fairly,” he commented. “But the same was needed with the Marai. I suppose it’s no different. But we’ll be hard-pressed to pay tribute this year.”  The talk drifted to the effect of this unseasonal snow, and how many lambs had been lost. “We’ll have been better off than most,” Ingold said. “I had enough men to rescue most of them. Some of the torps will have lost almost all, I’d think.”

“Why did the Marai leave you alone?” Had he supported them?

He snorted. “I’m a practical man, Sorley. I sent my wife and children to Dun Ceànnar, and then I went too, but later. I told the torpari I’d gone south to fight at the Wall, for the Marai, and I left them orders to cooperate. We lost a lot of animals to feed the raiders. There’s some pale-haired babies born this year, and they took a few girls, and a boy or two, as slaves, but they didn’t burn the byres, or the cottages. A small price to pay for our lives, I’d say.”

I couldn’t argue. I toasted him silently, and he grinned and drank his fuisce down. “Bedtime,” he said. “I’ll be out at dawn tomorrow, so I’ll say goodbye now. Safe travels, Sorley.”

(c) 2020 Marian L Thorpe

Featured Image: Beneath The Snow Encumbered Branches, Joseph Farquharson. Public Domain

Ode to the Cat

She looks so innocent.

The cat, at darkest nighttime hour

Woke me from my deepest sleep

Clawing windows, screaming mee-owr!

Threatening glass with forceful leaps.

What beastie caused this early ruckus?

Fox or cat or something else?

But whate’re it was, there is no justice,

For this human, sleep has left,

But cat is snoring on the loveseat,

Unperturbed by nighttime fun.

While I wonder, eating chocolate,

Where it is my words have gone.