…laugh??? … nearly passed me blogs round… #TBSU…

Seumas Gallacher

… shooting stars often appear in bursts across the night sky, sometimes after prolonged periods of no sightings at all … equally, after no mention for months, certain subjects appear in herds of blog postings … some of the excellent blogs that I see on a daily basis have recently posed one such question … ‘is it wise for an author to write in more than one genre?’(by the way, ye get a prize if ye can pronounce ‘genre’ without sounding like Inspectors Maigret or Clouseau)… being devoid of any common sense of my own, I’ll aver that it IS efficacious, and even HEALTHY for a quill-scraper to indulge in more than one ‘JONRRR’... my crime thrillers have been a delight in terms of Amazon Kindle downloads (thanks Mabel),… but lately, my wee collection of tongue-in-many-cheeks blog posts, THE BLOGGER’S GUIDE TO ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, is attracting some *blush-blush*…

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Languedoc & Albi, a hilltop treasure & a mighty Cathedral, all built on woad.

A blog-full of lovely pictures of a picturesque part of France.

Arran Q Henderson

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Just back from a 9-10 day break, mostly spent in extraordinary, dazzling, dramatic Languedoc.

Languedoc, means (Land of) the tongue or Language of Oc -Occitan being the ancient language of the area.   It is a region that has long exercised the medieval-obsessive imagination of your correspondent, your writer-blogger-chappie.

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As a land of huge Cathar castles, at places like Montsegur; Lastours and Saissac, (pictures above)  all perched on their craggy, towering cliff top peaks; of mighty monasteries and cathedrals; of battles and crusades, of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her troubadour poets, singing of knights and of courtly love; of stunning tapestries and religious sculptures.

Indeed as a crucible for almost everything that fires the mind about our sometimes cruel, yet often vivid and glorious medieval past.  Because most of our images and ideas of that time either originate from, or found their highest expression in this region.  And it still…

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Can a person be a brand?

Marketing and promotion are not supposed to be the same thing. But for those of us who hide behind the sofa when anyone mentions platforms, social media, metadata, or author branding there is no real difference. Both involve vast amounts of time spent waving our virtual hands in the air, in the same way we would try to attract the attention of teacher, team selector, or that elusive waiter in a restaurant. Blogging counts as promotion, I suppose. It should do anyway, because it falls into the category of things that I do that are book related, but are in no way helping me to get one finished.

Some people seem to take to flogging their book like a duck to water. Some people couldn’t get War and Peace noticed. I suppose it boils down to confidence: confidence in both your book and yourself. And there’s the rub, for me at any rate. As far as my work goes, if the people whose opinions I value tell me it’s good, I believe them. I can look at my books with a detached eye, and say, comparing like with like (not with War and Peace) I don’t feel embarrassed to see my name on the cover. However, me, the author, a brand? Don’t make me laugh.

My books are my books, they are not me. I am just a quiet, retiring person who had to do herself almost physical violence to set up a Facebook account. I am not the heroine of one of my stories, I am not the kind of person who would willingly sit down behind a pile of my books in a bookshop and pressgang customers into buying a copy. I find it difficult to talk about why I wrote the story the way I did, what it means, or what I think of particular characters. Once the story is written that becomes the way it was meant to be. The characters are themselves whether I like them or not. I, the author don’t come into it anymore.

So how does a person get to be a brand? Why should it matter what I look like, how much I weigh, what I do in my leisure time? In fact, often the less I know of some authors the better. There’s nothing worse than finding out that the author of your favourite book had a signed portrait of Adolf Hitler over his bed, wrote racist and anti-semitic articles for a crypto-fascist rag, and liked nothing better than drowning newborn kittens for kicks. I exaggerate, but learning unpleasant facts about writers can seriously detracted from the enjoyment of their books.

I can see that a brand can be a fantasy world, if an author writes a series of books set in the same world, or around the same character. But that ties the writer to a particular set of books, and that isn’t what author branding is about. As I understand it, branding is about putting yourself out there, giving customers the idea that they know you, giving them email addresses so they can contact you and talk to you about people who don’t exist. It’s about illusion. I’m certain nobody really wants to know about me, and I’m even more certain I don’t want to tell complete strangers about the things that are important to me. The other stuff, what I look like, where I was born, what’s my favourite colour are really not particularly riveting.

So, does it mean acting? Creating a persona? Building up an image of a larger than life person who can successfully con people into buying her book on the strength of her magnetic personality? I hope not, because if it does, I’m sunk before I’ve even got in the water.

Portrait of the artist as a young man
Portrait of the artist as a young man

What’s in a name?

I have been reading a lot lately about names. Which are acceptable, and which names are confusing. To be honest, I’m confused. A publisher’s reader once told me he found the names of my characters confusing because they were taken from the Bible and mythology. What I never understood was how a real name can be confusing. There are some very strange assortments of letters that are stuck on real live babies and called a name, but mine did not fall into this category. Would he have been confused by Jayden or Beyoncé, I wonder?

Names are important, for real as well as fictional characters, and I have always been of the opinion that a name should mean something. I have terrible problems taking seriously names that don’t mean anything, other than a random assembly of vowels and consonants that somebody’s parents thought sounded cute, or original.

There was a time when boys would quite often be given their mother’s family name. Now girls are given them too. Fine. But when the surname you give your child isn’t anything to you at all? We had a child stay with us a couple of years ago who went by the name of Liberty. Her brother was called Tillerman. Apparently Tillerman was not the family name of anyone they were related to, and Libo (for as such she was known in our household) had no idea in which catalogue her parents discovered her brother’s name. Same for the Kellys and Rileys and Ryans. Why? Why not Gilhooly or Higgins or Slattery? It isn’t the fact of using family names as given names that bemuses me; it’s the giving of somebody else’s family name.

Perhaps it is because we have got used to playing fast and loose with the names we give to our children, that naming of fictional characters has reached dizzying heights of daftness. Since some parents seem prepared to go to extreme lengths in the search for originality, fantasy names often share the same apparently random effect, but with the addition of replacing most of the vowels with apostrophes. But should we assume that in our fantasy worlds, the same custom of naming children by anything you fancy prevails, especially when so many fantasy worlds have very strict rules about most things, rules which have often not changed for thousands of years? Is it not much more likely that the naming of children follows a logical pattern, and the names have a meaning in the fantasy language?

Is it likely that the mother of our fantasy hero, Queen K’thel’knth would call her child Jade? Or Dane or Jace or Jim? It might simplify things for the reader to have the hero called Jim, but isn’t it much more logical that she would call him or her K’thel’pnth, or P’thn’knth, or some other unpronounceable monstrosity? Also, is it likely that Jace would have a sister called Killyuggoneonia, or a brother called Ashgabushkash? Would they not make a more likely family called Jace, Dane, and Jade, children of Queen Jenna and King Drake? Consistency is the key. Consistency and pronounceability.

Meet K'ht'phlip otherwies known as Flip
Meet K’ht’phlip otherwies known as Flip

Book review: Land of Midnight Days by Katrina Jack

Land of Midnight Days is a story without the usual fantasy tropes, and the familiar elements (elves, ogres) are altered in such a way as to appear completely original creations. The hero is a lonely, mute boy, whose sole possession and tenuous link with an unknown past is a silver flute. The setting is out of the ordinary too. There are no orderly Hobbit-type Shires, desolate howling deserts or leafy, elf-filled forests; this is a mucky, violent, industrial city.

These are perhaps the story’s greatest strengths. The city is a character in its own right, ever-present and menacing. The underbelly of our large cities with their gang violence and underground economies becomes in this story the reality for everyone. There seems to be no escape from the street gangs, the despair, and dirt for the apathetic population. Into this grim, monochrome setting is introduced Jeremiah Tully, an engaging, intelligent waif-like boy who, as a half-breed, is an object of revulsion even in this city where nobody seems to give a damn about anything. Katrina Jack doesn’t clutter the storyline with explanations about the history behind her world. She doesn’t need to; we can all understand prejudice, and know it doesn’t need a reason.

This was my favourite aspect of the book, the atmosphere of indifference and menace, in which Jeremiah’s blundering search to find out who he really is seems doomed to failure. Circumstances push Jeremiah out of his fragile nest and into the maw of the city, and as he searches for clues that might lead him to a link with his lost family, the reasons for his very existence start to appear. The clues lead to real people and the action takes off into surprising realms.

If I were to make a criticism of this magical story, it would be that the introduction of the other characters in the second half occasionally seems rushed. Zebediah takes form gradually (and very surprisingly!), but the others appear already made; credible and original, but for that very reason I would have liked a bit more background about them. The action moves into a higher gear, and the intimacy of Jeremiah’s perspective has to take a back seat. But this is YA, there is a limit to the amount of introspection a younger readership will tolerate, and the action is very well done, ending with a fabulous, demonic tableau.

Land of Midnight Days is the kind of story that stays with you, and I am looking forward to reading the next instalment. From what we know of Katrina Jack’s world, we can be certain it isn’t going to be all beer and skittles.

See Katrina’s blog for details of where you can buy this wonderful book

Copy of midnightdayscover

Fear of the unknown

Last night we had a storm. Storms don’t frighten me, never have. I have always loved watching the lightning and listening to thunder growling. Jumping at a crash right overhead is the nearest I ever get to enjoying the thrill of fear. My dad was like that too, though my mother was terrified of storms and if ever we were out when one broke she would insist that we hide somewhere until it was over. Only now, forty years later, can I begin to understand her terror when our flight home from a childhood holiday in Rome was delayed because of a terrific electric storm.
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The storm last night was a pretty feeble affair, and no doubt wouldn’t have even stirred me from my deep four in the morning sleep. What did wake me though was a very large, very frightened dog bursting into our bedroom looking for reassurance and somewhere to hide.
My husband started humming ‘My favourite things’ from The Sound of Music and joked about the possibility of the children appearing one after the other in the doorway. No chance. An earthquake wouldn’t wake any of them. Dog though was terrified and had to be hugged very tight for the duration. During a storm the cats disappear into their hiding places, as cats do, but Finbar needs physical contact to reassure him that the world isn’t coming to an end.

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As I lay awake playing mother to a trembling hound, I thought about the relationship of early people with the power of nature, and whether what was going on in Finbar’s head was in any way similar: with the proviso that human fear was modified by reverence and awe, which I don’t think play much of a part in Finbar’s psyche.
In my current WIP veneration of the forces of nature, especially the destructive ones, is central to the antagonists’ mindset. The Scyldings are based on early northern European people; they don’t have our scientific knowledge, or our modern scepticism. Most of their reactions are pretty basic and brutal, but they fear what they don’t understand and seek guidance, albeit grudgingly, from an adept of the occult.

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Sometimes an intelligent animal’s reaction to a phenomenon can be taken as an indication that early people may have interpreted it the same way. The need to hole up somewhere at night, the relief when the light comes back in the morning, the reluctance to go out in the cold or great heat, the fear of thunder, hail and torrential rain, heaving seas and strong winds, all of these seem credible reactions for my Scyldings as well as my fearful dog.
The ancient Celts, if the Romans are to be believed, feared only one thing: the sky falling on their heads. Is that what Finbar fears too? And don’t even we, modern, sophisticated sceptics, feel something similar when we hear about asteroids, or another rogue state installing nuclear missiles?
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Flash fiction: Harbingers

Here’s a taste of the next series, Angel Haven. Also YA fantasy it follows on from The Green Woman. It’s jumping the gun a bit (a lot) but it’s what I’m reading and writing at the moment.

Harbingers

The last rays skimmed the oak grove while shadows swallowed up the forest paths. Scyld stared down the mountain, across the treetops, his gaze unfocused. Deep in thought he did not hear the creaking of the ropes, the sighing of the branches beneath the dead weights. He did not hear the noise of his feasting thegns or the raucous cry of the birds.
Scyld was reliving his blood dream. His fists clenched and his lips parted as he watched himself splash across the ford, a war cry in his throat. His thegns were about him, axes and swords swirling, throwing up great fountains of river water. In the dream the river ran red, red blood splashed and fountained, and the warcry in his throat was the death knell for the fools in the unguarded settlement.
The dull thunk of a heavy blade slicing through human flesh, the screams and shrieks of the villagers taken by surprise filled his dream ears. The river ran red, and the earth was black with blood. His parted lips curled into a smile. Donar was with them; the god sang in the sweep of the axe stroke, laughed in the whistle of arrows, and roared in the sacking of the wattle huts.
At his back the bodies twisted in the breeze. Sacrifices to Donar. He stepped closer, and peered with cold curiosity at the swollen tongues and bulging eyes, his nostrils flaring in distaste at the smell from the soiled breeches. A price well worth paying, he thought as he pushed the redheaded corpse, setting it twisting slowly.
The sound of feasting reached him at last, and a sudden thirst dried his throat, a desire to be with company to celebrate the sacrifice that would bring certain victory in the coming raid. He licked his lips and turned towards the fort. Deep in the grove yellow eyes stared, unblinking. Scyld looked from the yellow eyes to the twisting redhead.
The god comes for you, Hrothgar. He grinned, almost laughed, but that would have been unseemly in the holy place, and left the wolves to their own feast.
Feasting, he heard, and the raucous sound of birds. Scyld raised his head. Against the fire-streaked sky above the fort two black birds flapped with ragged wings.
More guests for the feast, Osmund.
This time he laughed out loud. The blood dream had shown him war and slaughter, he had made two sacrifices from among his finest warriors. Donar would be pleased with his offering; he would be in Scyld’s right arm on the morrow.
The raucous cry of carrion birds broke into his thoughts of massacres and bloodletting. Scyld paused at the gates of his fort and frowned. Two ravens. Flapping with their steady, powerful wing strokes they flew over the fort, then turned and back they came again. Scyld followed them with his eyes, waiting for them to reach the sacred grove. Suddenly uneasy, he started back; anxious to see them settle on the god’s feast. Before he could move they turned about, not reaching the grove, ignoring the enticing smell of dead men. Against the fiery sky they turned about, gracelessly, flying low, back through the open gates of the fort.
Fear gripped Scyld as the harbingers circled the houses, passed over the huts of wattles, and the finer halls of the wealthy thegns, circled once and settled on the roof of the big hall. Scyld’s hall. Cold settled in Scyld’s stomach. Harbingers.
The blood dream came rushing back. In consternation he saw the fording of the river, the bloody water splashing before his face, heard the war cries, the screams and shrieks as blades sliced through flesh. He heard the whistling of arrows. Cold turned to ice. He heard the whistling of arrows growing to a whine. The whine grew to a shriek, and he heard at last the death song the air crooned in his ears. Silhouetted against the blood red sky, two birds waited. Harbingers.

Flash

Revising the first part of Angel Haven I got the urge to write a flash. You could call it a flash of inspiration, or you could call it going off on a tangent.

Anyway, I wrote 750 words of flash fiction centred on one of the more unpleasant characters (don’t you just love a good baddie?), which might serve as an appetiser for the series. I’ll probably post it tomorrow. Too tired now, and it’s probably full of mistakes.

The lull before the summer

Summer is in the air. Not so much in the temperature, as it is still quite brisk in the early morning, but as the sun rises, the air warms and the earth begins to smell of summer.

In town, summer smells are not always the most enticing. Pools of human dejections of one kind or another are part of the scenery, and not every citizen has learned what rubbish bins are for. But away from the streets, the smell of damp earth getting hot predominates, mown grass and the scent of spring flowers.

Viola odorata by Fritz Geller-Grimm
Viola odorata by Fritz Geller-Grimm

The sounds I associate with spring, the song of the robin and the wagtail, have given way to the screeching of the swifts that finally arrived last week.

Chimney swift overhead by Jim McCulloch
Chimney swift overhead by Jim McCulloch

Trixie caught her second lizard of the season—must have been a pretty geriatric specimen since she isn’t the most agile of felines—which we were able to rescue before she damaged it too much.

Common lizard on boardwalk by Babelstone
Common lizard on boardwalk by Babelstone

This season is too short for me. Plants flower and fade too early and the season of baking heat is too long. I intend to profit from these next weeks of green growth, because by June the garden will look like a jungle.