At journey’s end

This time tomorrow, I will be on a plane somewhere between London and Singapore, on my way home to my babies (whom I’ve started to dream about in vivid detail every night) and my house, car, and cats. My usual response to impending travel, especially long-haul, is to curl in a foetal ball all day and worry about everything that can go wrong. But today is the first fine day in a while, so I said to myself: imagine that you have been given one day here in the Cotswolds in spring; you wouldn’t spend it in bed watching television.

So I went walking up the road and through the mud to Stow-on-the-wold (nearest village: Anglo-Saxon for “place on the wood”), and then I sat in the garden with a cup of tea and gazed out over the rapeseed flowers shining brilliantly yellow in the sun, and tonight I intend to head up to The Fox for a pint of Marston’s Pedigree and a pub meal and YES I will eat the sticky toffee pudding because it’s my last day in England.

But the best part of the day was returning to the churchyard and sitting under that centuries-old yew tree, and listening for voices. Travelling Companion snapped this picture of me, authentically working. The story is called “The Lark and the River” and it’s all about an old yew tree and the building of a new church in a pagan place in the Anglo-Norman period. I don’t know what I was waiting to hear, but I closed my eyes and listened hard. I heard the wind in the trees, birdsong, traffic far away. The wind was cold and I came out in goosebumps. And I heard it: the first line of the story, and with it came a whole avalanche of other ideas. I scribbled them all down.

And for all that I bang on about hard work and craft and sticking at it, sometimes writing really IS magic like that. When that kind of magic happens, I think I’m the luckiest woman alive.

I’ll be home within 48 hours. Get the place tidy for me, will you?

Heathens 2 – Christians 0

Today I went in search of a Thor stone, an ancient monument thought to be one of Thor’s thunderbolts, just kind of leaning on somebody’s fence in the tiny village of Taston (which was known as Thorstan, or Thor stone until about the 13th century). You can see from the photograph, that it’s pretty tall (I’m 171cm, for reference). Thor didn’t seem to mind me leaning on it.

 

 

Directly across the road is what’s left of an old stone cross. Local legend has it that the cross was built strictly for the purpose of offsetting the evil heathen energy of the Thor stone. But the cross has fallen off and the Thor stone, which is much much older, is still there.

So. Heathens 1, Christians 0.

Then, later this afternoon, I went for a walk through the village I’m staying in and ended up at the little Norman church at the top of the hill. I was delighted to see some Saxon carvings in the porch. It’s likely that a church of some kind has stood on this spot since late 11th century, because the 1085 Domesday survey of the area records 48 inhabitants, including a priest.

But the real star of this church is the ancient yew tree in the graveyard. The Conservation Foundation has confirmed that it’s around 1300 years old. As you can see from the pictures, it’s an impressive, living monument. Yew trees are often in graveyards because they are symbols of eternal life, and they were very important to heathens. You do the maths. The tree is 1300 years old, the church not quite 1000 years old. That means the tree was already a very old tree when the church was built: it was probably the reason the church was built on the site in the first place. Much easier to convert heathens if you put their prospective new place of worship where the old one is. So, Heathens 2 – Christians 0.*

The old yew tree, wide view

And close up, taken from down near the roots


And then I had an AMAZING idea for the last novella in my collection, “The Lark and the River”. I’m going to go sit under that yew tree with my notebook some time before I leave and write all my ideas down. It’s going to rock.

*Yes, I know that Christians actually won in the long term. Well played, Christianity. Not bad for a woman-hating death cult.

Vikings in Sherwood Forest (or, my walk with Thor)

No, it’s not some kind of geeky medievalist’s wish-fulfillment fantasy; there really is a Thynghowe (important Danelaw meeting spot) in Sherwood Forest. And so, intrepid researcher that I am, I went in search of it.

Where fields meet forest

Not quite so easy as it sounds. First, Travelling Companion (hereafter shortened to TC) and I, had to find the start of the walk. It was somewhere near two roundabouts, very close together, with much traffic screaming past at 50 mph. Round and round those roundabouts we drove, til we finally pulled over on a muddy shoulder and hoped our stuff wouldn’t get stolen while we were gone. We had just spent a lot of money at a York sweet shop, so were keen to protect our jelly babies, clotted cream fudge, sour snakes, and dolly mixture.

Into the deep green unknown

We found a muddy path and set off down it. Did I mention the path was muddy? Oh, and by the way, it was muddy. Muddy grooves filled with muddy water, muddy leaves mashed muddily into the muddy sides of the path. I squelched and slipped along it intrepidly, doubting I could actually manage 2 miles of this (miles, people MILES, not cute little kilometres). Then it started to rain. Not your usual English soft rain; it pelted frozen rainballs at us.

I, for one, welcome our new tree overlordsTC and I conferred about whether to continue, when a mighty CRASH-BOOM-SHUDDER of thunder sounded overhead. Who could it be but Thor himself, whacking Mjollnir about, sending us a signal? Unfortunately, because neither of us speak hammer, we weren’t sure what the signal was. “Oh, Thor,” said I, “should we keep going?” CRASH-BOOM-SHUDDER he answered, when a simple yes-or-no would have sufficed.

 

 

The "scary-as-fuck" tree

But we pushed on, despite thunder and hail and mud and, frankly, not being sure if we were on the right path at all because my map had got all soggy and unreadable and because I don’t really have a good sense of direction anyway. The rain eased, and we saw some incredibly old, old oaks in among the conifers, some of which looked like aliens or monsters or alien monsters.

Finally, though, we found the Thynghowe. It is a smallish site in the forest, slightly raised and grassy. It was kind of whelming to be honest, but I’d been to Stamford Bridge that day and imagined Viking warriors fighting with Saxons; so I did my best to imagine Viking elders talking about… stuff. It was a little dull. Maybe that’s what Thor was trying to tell us.

The Thynghowe

What writers do

There were a few funny pictures circulating around Facebook recently, about what people think writers do. Bathing in money, sitting on the couch eating cheese balls, and banging one’s head on the computer were all included. Today, I am writing the final few scenes of the novella “The Year of Ancient Ghosts”, which I have been working on (among other things) for about 4 weeks. I like novellas: for 10% of the word count , they give you about 40% of the joy of writing a novel. I’m frazzled and obsessed and unable to leave it alone in its finishing stages.

In fact, as I was trying to nut out the closing scenes, I had to get out of my apartment, where I have been holed up all day. It’s a rainy day here in York: English rain, which means it’s just a kind of persistent dampness that can’t be arsed to form proper droplets. I wanted to sit with my notebook and conceptualise my ending in my fancy notebook with my fancy coloured pens, so I decided to head up to the pub I’ve loved the most since arriving here, The Hole in the Wall on High Petergate (pictured) and order a bag of chips (crisps) and a glass of wine.

Rain outside. A crackling fire inside. A historic pub in a medieval town, writing up research done on a remote misty island off the tip of Scotland. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, right? At least the kind of dreams I have, and so I thought, “I’ll blog this” because people do seem to like it when I blog this kind of stuff, this aspirational ideal of what being a writer is. Of what writers do.

But while it’s certainly a highlight of the job, it isn’t the whole picture. The other part I’m not telling you is this. I’ve been writing since nine o’clock this morning. I can’t stay off Facebook because I’m procrastinating. I feel a bit sick from the wine and all the tea I’ve drunk, and my arse is sore from sitting all day. I will not watch any television or do any relaxing tonight, because the story is coming and I have to get it down. I will both love myself and hate myself through this process, and then when I’m done I’ll be too wired to sleep and my wrists will feel like jelly. Tomorrow I will wake up feeling as though my body doesn’t fit me properly, and I’ll read it back and decide it’s utter shit.

So yes: today I lived the writing dream. But I also lived the writing life, in the writer’s body. I still love it–love it with the big fat saddlebags of my soul–but it’s not all wine and fireplaces. It’s hard, hard work.

Solvitur Ambulando

Milton used to say this, apparently. You’d know that if you read my novel Angel of Ruin but hardly anyone did so I’m assuming you didn’t know that solvitur ambulando means “it is solved by walking”.
Walking is my exercise of choice. Not just for keeping fit, but because it seems to elevate my mood and make my brain work properly. I have a number of projects on the go here on my research trip, and sometimes while sitting here working on my netbook they become impossible. So I go walking.

Back home, my walk of choice is Mt Coot-tha, but here in York I’ve discovered a brilliant one-hour walk around the city’s medieval walls (see picture). There are stairs and slopes and uneven flagstones and places where there is no handrail, and whole sections of the wall are missing and I have to walk through suburbia (but that’s how I discovered Waitrose!), but it has been keeping my brain ticking over and I love love love it. I’ve finally finished the edit of “Garden of the Mad King” so I’ll send that to my agent when I get home and hope she can find a publisher; I’ve written the first quarter of the novella “The Year of Ancient Ghosts”; I’ve done all the reading and written an abstract for a symposium paper on medievalist internet memes; and I’m writing a paper on medievalism, gender, and World of Warcraft that is coming out in a collection with Routledge next year. I just know that, if i wasn’t walking for an hour every day, I’d just sit here on the couch all day, mouth breathing, playing Bejewelled on Facebook, and the circle of self-loathing would start.

Solvitur ambulando: my prescription for increased cognitive and creative productivity. Trust me: I’m a doctor.

The bells, the bells

I’m writing this in bed, with the window open to let in a chilly morning breeze and the gorgeous ringing of the bells on York Minster at the end of the Sunday service. I am agnostic. I certainly don’t believe in the Christian idea of god (I mean, who calls their god “God”? It’s like calling your cat “Cat”. What’s wrong with a cool, stirring name like Thor or Athena?). No disrespect intended. I should stress, I’m not an atheist either. I do believe in… something. On some days. Just not all that palaver about devils and angels and saints and so on, nor in a man in the sky who gets cranky if you put your genitals where you shouldn’t. I mean, like he’d care, right? And like he’d be a he anyway. If there is a god, I’m sure gender wouldn’t be involved: what would be the point?

Having said all this, I’m still glad that people spent a lot of time and money in the past building awesome places like York Minster so I can enjoy them because I do love old churches and I do love church bells.

I have now settled in York for an extended stay, and have an incredible apartment just behind the minster. You can see the view from my sitting room window above. Between the view and missing my children, it’s a wonder I’m getting any work done at all, but I am reading and writing up a storm. I have several projects on the go, and the difficulty is deciding which to work on in any given day. I’m feeling like fiction today, so as soon as I’m done with this post I’ll get into my novella. If I’m quiet, it’s because I’m working. Or listening to bells.