A Great Convergence

Original rood painting/relief at St Mary's, Breamore

I love this stage of a book so much, when isolated ideas start to attract each other like magnets, and the space between them gets churned up with the movement and exposes new and unexpected ideas. Tuesday was almost a perfect day for me. It started with peanut butter on toast and hot tea for breakfast (okay, that’s what I have every day, but still…), then we drove out to West Kennet long barrow and went inside a neolithic tomb, then we went to Avebury and wandered around standing stones, then just as we pulled up back at our cottage it started snowing (zomg!). This was all followed by an afternoon reading, celebrating my son losing his front tooth, and finally a long writing session where a whole bunch of ideas came together beautifully and I surprised myself by completely changing the direction of my narrative with one small detail and oh oh oh I can’t tell you any more than that save to say I’m pretty bloody excited.


The 10th-century Exeter Book, open to the first lines of the poem Widsith

Being here in England has been incredibly inspiring. I have been chasing Anglo-Saxon sites all over the south of England, because that’s roughly the time period my story is drawing ideas from. After the British Museum and Sutton Hoo, I went to the recreated Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow and sat in a little wooden hut with an open hearth pit and no chimney and realised just how smoky life was. On the way down to Rye to meet friends, we detoured to Maldon and sneaked down a muddy side road on somebody’s farm to see the site where the famous battle took place in 991. To see the causeway at low tide, and imagine the vikings just over there on Northey Island while Byrthnot and his army waited, blew my mind. Then I heard about a pre-conquest church at Breamore, just south of Salisbury, so we stopped there on the way up to Wiltshire. It was incredible, with original long-and-short brickwork, splayed windows, an original relief of Christ on his rood, and an Old English inscription above the door. Today, we stopped off in Exeter to view the Exeter Book at the cathedral library (“The Wanderer”, my favourite Old English poem, is in it; along with many other very famous works). We found our way into the bowels of the building and some lovely volunteers got out the keys, with all due gravitas, and unlocked what looked like some kind of nuclear-holocaust-resistant cabinet. Under glass, there it was, open to the front page of “Widsith”.

Can you see how hard I'm working? By the picture window in our cottage in Wiltshire.

And all of it, all of it, seeping into my imagination and making things grow madly like they grow in jungles. Vines. Monkeys. The lot. (Note: the monkeys are metaphorical; there are no monkeys in my book).

Thyrsland isn’t England. I know that now. I am writing fantasy, not historical fiction. I’m not researching for facts, I’m researching for inspiration. Many people have drawn inspiration from medieval things for their fantasy, so my ethics of medieval inspiration is as follows: I promise to use Anglo-Saxon ideas carefully, coherently, and lovingly; while always remembering that a story does not exist to keep finnicky purists from writing letters of complaint. A story exists because a writer got passionate-and-crazy-mad for some wild shit and just couldn’t stop herself from writing about it.

Sutton Woo-Hoo!

I’m still trying to get my head around the idea that I am all the way across the other side of the world. England is damp and green, with layers and layers of history crammed into tiny spaces. It is also hilariously small. Every time I plug an address into the GPS and it tells me I’ll be there in less than an hour, I actually laugh.

This week, I went to Sutton Hoo, the Anglo-Saxon burial ground where, 70 years ago, an untouched 7th century ship burial was discovered. The burial ground is covered in grave mounds, and I walked among them trying to feel something. I don’t know what I was trying to feel. I had so much riding on this visit, I was bound to be disappointed. My kids were being noisy, there was a loud tractor hedging nearby, and a big guided tour seemed to get in every photo I took. And then… Mirko took the kids off (there was much talk of impending wees on the video footage when I watched it again this evening), and the tractor faded into the distance, and the guided tour moved away, and there were a few quiet moments: the wind rose off the estuary and shivered across the long grass, and a gull squealed, and my blood sped as if a door had opened and the past was right there with me. Just for a moment. Then the door shut again and the tractor noise was back and I had a family to find, but it was enough.

Now I’m sitting here in a warm little cottage on a wet Suffolk evening, drinking a glass of wine and listening to Hammock and working on my story. A thousand words came out without my really intending to write anything, so that’s a good sign. I’ve been stuck with this story for a while. Expectations too high. But there’s something about paying thousands of dollars for a research trip that galvanises you. That and the occasional door opening somewhere, and letting a little bit of mystery through. Hu seo þrag gewat, agenap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.

I love my boss

My boss is so cool. She sent me on this all-expenses paid trip to England to come up with ideas for my new fantasy series. I love her so much. Look where she sent me today! “Go see the Staffordshire hoard,” she insisted. “Get some ideas.” Sure, she’s a slave driver the rest of the year, demanding I meet deadlines, expecting way too much of me, always being overly picky. Nothing’s ever quite perfect enough for her, and she gets me to work at all hours of the day and night. But when you’re in lovely, rainy, Christmassy London looking at Anglo-Saxon treasures, it’s easy to forgive her.