Friday, October 31, 2014

The Good Witches

31st October 2014

All Hallow's Eve (Halloween) is one of those pagan holidays that the church took over and tried to make holy (in the sense of people filing down the aisle to drink blood at the altar! Mmmm)  In my country, Halloween is called Samhain (pronounced Sah-voon) in the old Gaelic language, and my book Veil Of Time starts on Halloween when my protagonist arrives at the ancient fort of Dunadd in Scotland.  There are plenty of Christians these days who won't celebrate Halloween because it is supposed to be the devil's birthday, but whether you do or you don't, Samhain keeps shining through the veil: there is just no escaping the holiday's pagan roots.
What our ancestors were celebrating on this day of Samhain was not the devil, for god's sake, since they hadn't yet divided the world into "good" and "evil," but the fact that our everyday world is only a thin veil drawn across the great totality beyond space and time (which is why we dress up as the dead, the ghosts and ghoulies.) Once the church took over the holiday, witches appeared in this Halloween pot, too. But "witches" were just the wise women of pagan times, the ones the church didn't want leading their disciples off the Christian straight and narrow. You can't conceive of Halloween without witches -  those hundreds of thousands of "witches" the church took out and burned to death.

On this Halloween day, let's take a moment to remember the wise women, as they are remembered by a small sconce with pink flowers set in the wall of the esplanade at Edinburgh castle. This is one of the spots the "witches" were taken. Sometimes these innocent women were garroted first, often they went to the flames fully conscious. It is a horrendous and not much acknowledged part of church history. In 1727, Janet Horne was the last woman to be burned at the stake in Scotland on the charge of consorting with the devil. This was the same year Handel was composing St. Matthew's Passion. The plaque next to the sconce allows that "some" of the witches were actually good witches. Small recompense, I say.

I was going to talk today about dialogue -  a fun but crucial aspect of writing stories - but let's leave that until next week. On this day of Halloween, I am feeling the weight of this fear of the wise woman and of the pagan in general. I'm thinking of the untold damage it has done to human consciousness. It is not a literary point and I apologise for this time out of my blog's main function. But it inspired me to take a stand in a book series and write about what was lost to our religious sensibility when the monks took over. It's about time someone did. It's about time.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Rewrites and Conjuring Tricks

25th October 2014

When you write a book of fiction, when, like God, you create this world populated by projections of your own psyche, it takes over your life. That seventh day of rest doesn't come for you, though, because you're too absorbed with your fictional world and too disengaged from your real one: the days just keep on passing, from five pages on this day to ten on the next, to a day when you are forced to go out and attend to other aspects of your life but keep chewing over what you have written and what you are going to write next. It's a socially sanctioned obsessive compulsive disorder.

I have to say this is where I am right now, recreating this book that I created once before but so long ago now the initial impulse has become hazy. So I get to be god all over again, and it is a heady business, a piece of psychotherapy, if truth be told. The craft of the writer is to make this journey of self-discovery compelling also to the reader.  Funny thing - I thought I knew these characters of old (Lord knows I have been carrying them around for long enough!) but they are surprising me all over again.  They are saying different things and are reacting in different ways, and my main character, Hazel, has much more of an internal struggle going on. Sometimes I wonder from where in the dark pool of my own soul I am pulling this stuff. I thought her attraction to the love-interest was obvious, a
fait accompli, but now I don't know if he isn't just too aggravating, that in the end she might not, as she did before, end up with him.
Stephen King says in his fantastic little book "On Writing," that stories consist of 3 things: Narration, Description and Dialogue.  Where is plot in this? - nowhere, and that's the way it should be (he says, and I agree!)
So re-writing becomes a new voyage of discovery. You have the same characters, but this time around you're not in the same place you were the last time around. This time the story begins to list in different directions, because the characters have come out of their sleep and are not the same.
If the writer of "The Three Bears," had picked it up a few decades later and messed with it again, it might have come out differently: Goldilocks might look up at the three bears crowding her bed and, instead of fleeing, might begin to explain her predicament. The bears, being reasonable bears, might probe more deeply and find out that this little girl is truly lost, and not just in the forest. In this version, they might adopt her, and then the point of the story would be entirely different.

So don't carve characters out of stone. As you do your own children, let your characters blossom into their own persons. Stephen King says, "I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it something I never expected."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ye Of Little Faith

17th October 2014

There are people, some of them my friends, who balk at the idea of being seen with a time travel book like mine in their hands. They think it reflects badly on them: REAL literature is not taken to such flights of fancy - it deals, if somewhat poetically, with REAL life or with Quirky life or with an Aberration of life, but always with tangible life, thank you very much.  The REAL reader of fiction is a no-nonsense sort of reader, and time travel, they think, is precisely that: nonsense.
I was giving a reading earlier this year and found myself saying, "Time travel isn't as far-fetched as it used to be." This caused a wave of titters to move across the room. But I am right, you know. Our whole notion of both space and time is dissolving about our ears, and neither one is that solid entity we once mistook it for. Reality, science is beginning to concede, is what you make it. Reality, as it turns out, might be the best case of mass hallucination there is.
At another reading, I came to the conclusion (with the audience) that my book really falls into the genre of Magical Realism. Why does Gabriel Garcia Marquez get to put the tail of a pig on babies and have people floating about, while when I have people floating about, it is deemed low brow supermarket nonsense? I take umbrage at this. All books ask the reader to take a leap of faith. It's just that I am asking them to jump a bit further. So is Marquez.

Jump, and you will be vindicated when the first contraption makes it possible to send your collection of atoms through space and time to another spot. Scientists are already teleporting photons, for god's sake. So, don't go scoffing at my time travel book! If you want reality as Newton saw it, I have a whole backlog of unpublished books with people up to their ears in the quagmire of hard reality.  Maggie, the protagonist of "Veil Of Time," is actually doing the same, trying to find her life, and in the process digging up some questions about what we lost when the pagans were ousted.

These ancestors of ours would have had less of a hard time with the idea of time travel. It was the Christians who made time look like a long line because they needed to put God at the beginning and heaven at the end. The pagans knew that time doesn't really exist. They were masters of magical realism, and not only Marquez but McDougall would have been up there on their bronze-age shelves. Right next to Hawking's A Brief History of Time. You see, they wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Unlocking the Story

10th October 2014

This last week I turned the final (for now) rewrite of the sequel to my published book over to my agent who is currently in Frankfurt for the international book fair. Unfortunately, he will not be able to flog my published book, because in the initial contract with the publisher we gave up all rights but the motion picture rights. This is fairly common - when you are an unknown writer trying to find a buyer in that great unknown sea of big publishing, you would practically sell your body, and don't think twice about foreign rights. Brazil did step forward early on and bought the rights for translation into Brazilian Portugese (what they will do with the Gaelic is anybody's guess!)
I've been wondering how the various translations of the title might look: Le Voile du Temps? Der Schleier der Zeit? El Velo del Tiempo? Den Sloja av Tid? My vote goes for the French, which lends it a certain mystique. But only the languages with an archaic indigenous precursor are going to be able to handle the Gaelic. Spanish could use Latin, I suppose, though that might conjure pictures of Roman legions marching through Scotland in squads - a little different from the druidesses and stone circles the early Gaelic suggests.

So, with my sequel out of the way and with no immediate plans for Book 3 in the series, I am more than excited to be beginning a new book. This isn't exactly new, but one of my first. This is "Hazel and the Chessmen," about a young American woman who gets caught up in the plan of a Scottish nationalist (a surly but attractive Scottish nationalist!) to steal back the Lewis Chess pieces from the British Museum in London. It has long been in my plans to rewrite this story in the first person, because I think readers were having a hard time getting into my protagonist Hazel's head as long as the narration was in the third person.
But now I am back from Scotland after the failed referendum for independence, with all this disappointment and even anger.  All that energy has to go somewhere, and now I see I can recast the story in the times of the referendum, giving the plot a whole new level of intensity. I am fired up and working long hours (for me.)

That's what writing is all about anyway - not about politics in the first instance, but about harnessing those rivers that are moving and move you. I wouldn't have set out to write a book around the referendum, but since I had already written the story, it's just about angling it differently. Paul Harding said at the seminar I took from him, that sometimes just the addition of one word or one sentence can alter the cast of the whole story, so that you unlock something you hadn't seen before and you can literally hear the tumblers turning and everything just falling into place. Here's the writer with a Kaleidoscope of words, just turning the instrument round one more notch.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Twisted Sister

3rd October 2014

I had never actually gone off by myself on a research trip until this last month when in Scotland for the referendum I drove my miniscule rental car far up the A9 to a very small town called Portmahomack on the edges of the Moray Firth. This was an ancient stronghold of the Picts, and I am toying with the idea of setting my third book in the Time series here. I checked into a B&B right on the shore and was the only guest, sitting there each morning for my breakfast of "jugged kipper," and "brose porridge," reading the table mat which happened to contain quite a bit of information about times past in Portmahomack, for instance that the early Picts here lived right on the shore in their wattle round houses and ran a kind of trade market, presumably served by travellers along the eastern sea board.

The Picts left a few of these amazingly intricately carved stones around Portmahomack erected by master Pictish stonemasons. This one, the Hilton of Cadboll stone, is my favourite, although as so often happens, it got wheeked away to the National Museum in Edinburgh (not before making a detour to the British Museum in London, of course!)  At the top of the stone is a crescent and V-rod Pictish symbol (which I happen to have tattooed on my arm and which I learned on this trip might have connoted woman - cf. the crescent moon, and the broken arrow, which let's hope will be woman's final contribution to our race's story!) Below is a hunting scene featuring a woman riding side-saddle, drawing one to the conclusion that the status of women in this pagan culture was significantly higher than it was to become under Christendom.

This building is what I found on the site of a Pictish settlement just up the hill from the shore. A church, of course, because I have come across this endlessly now in my research: The monks would come in and plonk a church right on an ancient pagan site. By a nice twist of fate, this church has now been turned into a museum to house some of the Pictish finds from the area. One thing the monks didn't count on was that bones speak and have their own dark energy (which is what I plan to call Book 3, Dark Energy.) Now the pagans are speaking to us through the ages in a place where hymns were once sung and misguided monks fought with that other kind of dark energy that lurks beneath the cassock. Oh, I love the irony of it! Perhaps it's just my twisted mind and perhaps the reason I am a writer in the first place.