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.

Kim of the Island

I am in the Orkneys, a little group of islands off the top of Scotland. There are only a few places in the world that I’ve long dreamed of going (Milford Sound was another: saw it last February. Iceland is still on the list) and the Orkneys is one of them.

Me at the Ring of Broadgar

To get here, though, necessitated me getting on a really really tiny plane with propellers. Propellers! In fact, it was so old there were still ashtrays in the arm rests. There was a string quintet on the plane too, with their cellos strapped into the seats next to them. I thought that at least, if we went down, they could play us some music, Titanic-style.

Flying off the edge of mainland Scotland and catching the first glimpse of the islands made me cry with excitement. Some of the islands are completely bare except for a lighthouse. I was expecting grey water, but it was clear and turquoise. Orkney is very sparsely populated, there are few trees, but the roads are good and it has incredible views. I’m staying at a cottage with a heavenly view across Scapa Flow to Hoy.

Today I’ve been to the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Broadgar, and Skara Brae. That’s right, it was neolithic sight-seeing day. Viking sight-seeing day is coming up on Friday, but it’s hard to escape the Viking influence here. Just reading the names of places should give you some indication of that.

Best things about today: talking to my kids on Skype, writing the prologue to my novella, blogging with my feet up and Sigur Ros on the stereo and drinking a fine Australian shiraz by the fireplace. Worst things about today: NOTHING.
And here, for your edification, is the (very short) prologue to the novella “The Year of Ancient Ghosts”, as written on a tiny propeller plane over the Scottish highlands.

 

Shards of bright pain and bright light speared into the cloying vacuum of unconsciousness. He struggled upwards; he had something important to remember.

“Try to be still. You’ve had an accident.”

His tongue swelled against his teeth.

“Don’t talk and don’t move. We’re taking you into surgery.”

The darkness yanked him towards it. Surrender. Beyond this threshold was an end to the pain. But there was something else. Something waiting, as it had waited for nearly thirty years, tangled in seaweed and teeth and veins.

His voice broke from his throat, a blood-soaked gargle. “Jenny! Mary!”

The light blinked out.

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.

Phew.

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.

An uneasy traveller

I have a love hate relationship with travel. On the one hand, I love seeing new things and soaking up new places. I love the way travelling makes you think and feel differently, if only for a little while. But I also hate travelling. I hate the organisation, the packing, the remembering of a billion little things and knowing I’ll inevitably forget something, the rushing to airports worrying about traffic and the sitting around waiting for delayed flights. I’m writing this from the departure lounge of Melbourne airport (I’ve been down here for a medievalism conference), waiting for a delayed flight, and contemplating the preparations for my trip to the UK in a couple of days. I do believe it’s my particular curse to experience excitement as a form of dread. As my friend Charlotte said, it’s like the blue wire gets hooked up to the red wire.

Thing is, I haven’t done a research trip since 2001, when I went to Germany, Norway, and Russia to research for my Europa suite (ie. The Autumn Castle, Giants of the Frost, Rosa and the Veil of Gold). Then I had children, and they kind of cramp your travel style unless you’re super-bold (which I am not). But my mad love for Anglo-Saxon stuff has a hold on me, and we’re off to see Sutton Hoo with our very own eyes. Kids love ancient burial grounds that look like big empty fields! Honest! They’re mad keen for them! And they’ll totally love that Santa won’t come to Oxford and will leave their presents at home instead. Kids and delayed gratification are practically synonymous!

But I need this fuel for my creative fire (sorry, should have issued a wankery alert before that sentence). I’m both dying to be in England and also dying from the anxiety of going to England. Either way I die, so I may as well go and take this damned book seriously.

Winter wonderland

P1050480Just back today from Tasmania, where I finalised my research for “Field of Clouds”. I’ve been to Tassie half a dozen times now, but have never seen it so green (and so cold! sub-zero nights and mornings!) I must confess to having developed a much greater appreciation of the Australian landscape through writing this book. I am ordinarily such a Europhile. But the contrast of the rolling English-style countryside with the eucalypts and lomandra is so unique and so beautiful. I wrote a whole page of notes describing mist, cold, trees, fields, and shadows. I also did a complete read-through of the MS and marked up all the things that need fixing (there are many). I had a long chat, too, with the owner of the farm we stayed on, and that was invaluable. A few ideas in the book that were ad hoc and a bit random came together beautifully. When that happens, writing feels like a kind of alchemy: elements transformed. I really like this book. Really, really.