Eight years old again

Sunrise on the Exmoor coast.

Sunrise on the Exmoor coast.

About a year ago, I had a dream that I found an old notebook with outlines and ideas for a story I was writing when I was eight. On the cover was a yellow-and-gold-toned photograph of the sea at sunset, and inside was lots of my loopy, girlish writing. Finding this notebook filled me with impossible bliss. I’d found it! That thing that made me happier beyond all other happinesses! When I woke in the grey dawn, I almost wept. That pleasure of putting stories together as a child was what had driven me to write for most of my life. But becoming a published author (or, in my case, two published authors) and having deadlines to manage, not to mention a job to hold down and children to raise, had more recently made writing a task to be scheduled into a busy life. Often, I would sit down feeling distracted and despondent, and take a good half hour to get any momentum. I was still writing, still enjoying my stories, but it wasn’t like in the dream, where it was the most perfect joy of them all.

That dream made me revisit my priorities. It’s taken some time and some tough calls, but right now I am writing the sequel to Daughters of the Storm (tentatively called “A Sea of Wings” and yes, it is mostly set by the seaside, just like the photograph on the cover of my dream-notebook), and the feeling is back! I wake up itching to write. The story is playing in my head like a movie the whole time. The solution all along was to make time and space in my mind all throughout the day, rather than forcing myself only to think about the story in the small windows of time I had to write. I’m writing reams and reams and it’s massaging my soul; I’m so happy. I’m even getting great ideas for the next book (a Kimberley Freeman) so I’m hoping to continue riding this wave for a long time to come.

Remember, kids: know the difference between what is urgent and what is important. Writing is the most important thing that I do. Everything else can wait a little while.

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.

The Fetid Nightie*

It’s important, while writing novels, to make sure you’ve slipped into something more comfortable while you work. I do a great deal of my writing in the early morning, when I first wake up, and this means that I tend to work a lot in my pyjamas. I’ve spent the last few days finishing book number 23 (yes, let’s all pause a minute in due reverence), and I was struck by just how unglamorous this writing gig is.

A glamorous nightie, unlike mine

If you’re squeamish, stop reading now.

The last few mornings I’ve set my alarm for 4.30 a.m. I’ve been wearing a light cotton nightdress because it has been so hot here in Brisbane. Humid, sweaty, violently hot. Even sleeping with the aircon on has been a little sticky. So there I was in my nightie and breakfast would come and I’d eat it and I’d keep working. Eleven o’clock would come and I’d think, “I really should shower.” Then I’d step out of the shower and look about for something cool and comfortable to wear and… well, it was right there, folks, so I put the nightie back on and wore it all day, then to bed again, and so on. On the second to last morning I spilled an entire cup of tea all over self and floor and notebook (not computer, thank God). I sponged the nightie out and let it air dry. In my crazy-artist paranoia, I had begun to believe that the nightie was the thing that kept me writing. If I took it off to wash it, I might lose my powers; like Samson when he gets his hair cut. I wore the nightie for almost 72 hours straight in one the hottest weeks of Brisbane summer. It was foul. When I finished, I finally peeled it off and showered. Free of the fetid nightie, free of the deadline.

So next time you think writing is a glamour career, please remember the story of the fetid nightie. And when the book comes out (go check out Kimberley Freeman’s blog for more details), stay in bed with your own stinky pyjamas on, just to keep in the spirit of things.

*This blog is so named to honour my Sistah Sal, whose birthday was on finishing day, and who thought it would be a good title for something.

The Year of Ancient Ghosts

I am very very VERY excited to announce that I have just signed up with Ticonderoga Publications to release a collection of novellas in early 2013. The collection will be titled The Year of Ancient Ghosts and will feature a mix of existing and new publications. All of the works are in some way based on or inspired by medieval literature and history. The draft table of contents includes “The Death of Pamela”, first published in 2000 (based on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur); “Crown of Rowan”, first published in 2010 (based on my ongoing OBSESSION with all things Anglo-Saxon); “Wild Dreams of Blood”, forthcoming in an e-journal in 2012 (which does funky things with the Eddas and cage fighting), and two as-yet unwritten novellas tentatively titled “The Year of Ancient Ghosts” and “The Lark and the River”. There will also be a nonfiction essay in the back about researching and writing the medieval.

The Ring of Brodgar: one of the locations in "The Year of Ancient Ghosts"

Kimberley Freeman, my more-popular alter-ego, has kept me very busy the last few years, so it has been a while since I’ve conceptuatlised and written a speculative fiction novel. Working on these novellas is giving me a chance to drink from that well again, and I’m very grateful that Ticonderoga sees value in the project. I love the novella form: it has a similar structure and weight to the novel, but is a quicker and easier write and read. Part of my research trip to the UK next year will be taken up in researching, developing, and writing these works, including a week in a lonely cottage near Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. I feel very blessed to have such great support around me, and that I can spend the next six months or so (once Kimberley Freeman #4 is off in the River Publish) indulging these creative ideas that mean so much to me.

Wheel of Fortune

I have been sitting on some pretty big news for the last few months, and I’m only just now at liberty to talk about it. It seems that my alter ego, Kimberley Freeman, has attracted some serious attention internationally. Wildflower Hill, my twenty-first novel, has done some very big things. Back in May, I was offered a very very VERY significant deal by a German publisher. There was bidding, offers, counter-offers. It felt as though I was living somebody else’s life for a little while. When the final offer came in via email I just sat there looking at it, speechless, for a full twenty minutes. Then I went out and bought a new car.

I thought that might be it for me, all the staggering news my modest career could support. But then I had word that Wildflower Hill had been selected in the United States as the Target Book Club Pick, and in Canada for the Walmart Book Club. The number of books ordered to meet the projected demand probably amounts to more than I’ve ever sold of all my books in all territories combined (and did I mention there’d been 20 of the mofos?).

But this post isn’t just a shameless brag (thought it is, absolutely, a brag). These wonderful successes have really got me thinking about the wheel of fortune. Not the game show (which, I might add, I was very very good at), but the tarot card that symbolises a radical shift in fortune. You’ll see from the picture that when somebody’s at the top, somebody else is at the bottom. The message is that those positions aren’t firm, can shift any time, in your favour, or against you. I have had times when I’ve felt as though the bottom is the only aspect of the wheel I’ll see. I tend to keep my career disappointments to myself–after all, I am published and established so mustn’t complain–but I assure you there have been many. The wonderful thing is that now, while I’m sitting smugly at the top, I am very much aware that it can’t last, not forever. I’ll enjoy the view while I’m up here, for sure. But my real successes are measurable in the relationships I have built, the love that I have given and received, the good will that I have enjoyed in every facet of my life. And, as the song goes, they can’t take that away from me.

All shall love me and despair!!!!!!!!!

When it’s all working, writing a book is the Best. Fun. Ever.

You know that feeling when you’re in the middle of reading a really good book, and you’re thinking you’re going to diiiiiiiiiiie when it finishes but at the same time you can’t stop flipping the pages? It’s that times a gazillion.

You know that feeling when you’re at a dinner party or some such and you’re cracking one-liners and dropping intelligent witticisms like fucking Oscar Wilde but with better hair? It’s that to the power of infinity.

You know that feeling when you’re thinking about somebody you know who is teh awesome and you’re half in love with and then you realise that person is a fictional character and the lines just got a little blurred? It’s that turned up to eleven.

You remember that feeling when you were a kid? All of it? It’s that, but without the bad stuff where they called you Bucky Beaver and said Rick Springfield would never lerve you.

It’s sunshine on rain. I fucking love it.

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.

A most satisfying weekend

First of all, WTF has happened to my blog roll? It’s disappeared. Seems to be some kind of WordPress issue… please don’t be offended if your link is missing. I am working to restore normal transmission.

My husband pushed me out the door with my laptop on Saturday, and sent me to a hotel in the city to write. There is something amazingly motivating about paying that much money for a night’s accommodation: to make it worth my while, I racked up nearly 9000 words, taking me to the 90 000 all together or roughly 3/4 of the book. I wanted to keep going today, but the book has changed gears just here, so I need to rest and regroup a day or two. I had hoped to join the QWC writers race Tuesday night this week, but don’t think I’ll be ready to go. (For those who are members of the QWC and have an AWM online subscription [worth it!], they run writing races every Tuesday night between 8 and 9: fabulously motivating). But the story is nearly d0ne; I can feel the pull of the end.

Then, this morning, I heard the wonderful news that I’d won the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review at the Ditmar Award ceremony last night. Woohoo.

So all in all, a most satisfying weekend. Now, where’s my champagne?

Half a book

I’ve been too busy writing (my book) to write (my blog). Some days there are just no words left, especially seeing as how I’m working on an academic paper at the same time. Still, that’s no excuse. I guess I’ve been waiting for something interesting to blog about. Sometimes interesting stuff happens but it’s not interesting enough for a whole blog topic.

Today, something interesting happened. Hurrah! I crossed the 60K threshold. Given I am planning for the book to run to 120K, that means I’m officially halfway. Some of the writing is horrendous, I must confess, but just yesterday as I was telling my mum about the story, I got a real sense of what the book is all about. I can’t wait to get to the end, so I can go back in and tweak all the things that need tweaking, make it all sit straight and work. Put simply, it’s a story about a girl who thought her grandmother was a nice old lady, and discovers–when she inherits her grandmother’s old house in Tasmania–that Gran was a lot more complex than originally thought. It has a bit of mystery, a bit of romance, and a lot of sheep. Lol!

The only downside to my recent output has been that I need to get to bed by 9.30 every night in order to get up early and write. And I’m still tired and cranky the whole time. In any case, it has seriously cramped my gaming time.

I’ve also been working hard on an application for arts funding for a fantasy project, and gloating hard over the shortlisting of my paper about Australian fantasy fiction to the Ditmar list. It’s up for the William Atheling Jr award for SF criticism. If you’d like to read it, it will be at this address for a brief time. All praise be to Sean Williams for hosting this for his technically-unsavvy friend.