Writing

Work In Progress – Section: The House of Grain – an extract

Grain in a basket

Here’s the latest from the strange pagan novel I’m writing:

The sun is already climbing by the time we set out along the rough track from the fields. It is not long before heat combines with beer and my head is a hot ball of discomfort, jostled and jolted on rutted roads. I sit up to peek out over the raised sides of the cart, my head swimming. Broad fields in strips, those already furrowed are lines of bare wounds open to sky. Between each strip earth baulks strewn with weeds and low hedges. And the ox teams work on.

The alewife sees me looking out – a sharp admonition – back down, blanket pulled over face.

I think I must doze. Awake again, sweat is soaking rough cloth. I uncover to gulp air, head aspin, staring up. Not a cloud, clear blue. The oppressive air makes my is head flush with heat, and my skull develops a steady throb like the slow grinding of a quern on oats. Spots of rain fall. Surprised, I look up and around. Still no clouds. Am I drunk, then? Wherever the rain is from, I am grateful for its washing over the cart. It builds to a sudden squall, clearing my head and soothing its pain. A rainbow arches across the clear sky. The alewife huddles against the rain and stares down at me a moment, thoughtful.

The squall passes as quickly as it came, followed by the fresh nose of persichor, deep pungency of clean green: scent of spirits imbuing every bush and watching from every plant. I feel them huddling around me, growing living things. I know they sense me.

I sit up again. Ahead, in the middle distance on a low flat plain by a winding river, a low settlement squatting behind an encircling moat and palisade. Others dotted away into the distance behind it. The track we are on skirts its edge. At four points around the circumference, a tall white pole, each adorned with its own emblems. Passing the first, I see animals carved along its full length – wolf chases bull chases dog chases cat chases mouse. The next is populous with carved insect life – bee, fly, moth, wasp, ant, beetle in thousands of iterations. The third is luxuriant with carvings of wheat and barley, the fourth with sheep, cattle, goats, swine, oxen and horses. From the tops of each, blue and white cloth streamers – aflutter in the wind.

The alewife turns to me and tells me once more: “Cover up, girl”. We enter beneath a high gateway. Inside, through a crack in the cart’s side I slice the village into stolen glances: low thatched cruck houses made with arching beams rising from the ground. A woman stooping over a sheep pinned helpless between her knees beside a pile of yellow fleeces brandishes shears in sunlight. Elsewhere, a group of women gently drawing wool onto drop spindles, another leaning over a large barrel filled with red dye, holding a bolt of cloth under the water..

As we grind through, the air is thick with greetings to the alewife. Neighbours call and hail, the women asking after their menfolk in the fields and for news from other steads. It is a bright and cheery scene, far different from the sombre village of my distant boyhood that seems now only to come to me in flashes and feels as if it were never mine.

At one moment, a shadow falls and we travel in a silent place at the heart of the village. I am cold and I pull in under my blanket. A presence here, dark, brooding. Something vibrating in the air that my gossamer sense can read. Rage and repression waiting to break and destroy if it can. I quiver in my skin until the shadow that falls over me passes, and the cart continues on its way. But even though the malevolent presence dies away, the air around me vibrates my nails and hair, teeth and skin with the residue of anger.

I steal another glance. At the farther edge of the village stands a place unlike the low cruck houses we have passed. A two-storey building, dun-coloured daub over wattle walls hung between thick oak uprights, some of the ground floor panels infilled with rough clay brick. A tall lean-to barn built onto one side. Painted in black on the brown daub above the oak door: a sheaf of barley.

“Here it is then,” the alewife says cheerily under her breath. “The House of Grain. You just stay tucked away, and you’ll see.”

She drives the cart through the barn door. Here, the air is rich with the smell of malt and the dry presence of grain that sits high in the nose and at the back of the throat. She closes the door and comes to me.

“Come,” she says, helping me climb down from the cart with a gentle hand on my arms, then guiding me through the grain store loaded with sacks and guarded by three black cats who stare down at me with green, unblinking eyes. We step through a low door to another room, where a copper vat as wide as my outstretched arms is set in a rough brick block, a blackened opening below revealing its purpose for heating the copper. In the vat, a sweet-smelling liquid with a thick foamy crust and the acid smell of fermentation. I resist a strong desire to plunge my hands into that creamy surface.

The vat room is tall stretching up through both storeys. On a network of beams sits a a life-size doll, resting in a place of honour high on one beam, where it presides over the room. She is a woman of corn, braided hair winding over her head in long plaits that give the illusion of a glow like the rising sun. Her arms are outstretched towards me, palms upward, in a gesture of welcome. She is enthroned on a seat carved with ears of corn and overlooks a raised vegetable kingdom: the beams across the ceiling hung with green nature – herbs and leaves, dried or quick, some still curling and drawing sap through their stalks that wind around upright beams, growing up from where they are rooted beneath the earthen floor. Other plants are cut and hung to dry – a vista of living and once-living things: broad leaved and narrow, thick-stalked and slender. One plant has roots in the shape of a man, arms and legs splayed, head set back as if ready to shriek. Among this hanging garden, pairs of eyes of mice tremble, docile, wide eyed. Throughout all, the strong nose of grainy sweetness, and a coolness here that raises goosebumps on my arms.

Then I see her. In the shadows at one side of the room frozen in the act of cutting herb stalks is a frail young woman of the most startling beauty. White as the snow of my home, she has platinum hair and the most piercing blue eyes that settle on me with an unreadable expression…

Thirty Year Copyright? Come off it.

There has been some nonsense written about reducing the length of time of copyright for authors, down to, say, 30 years.

Many have already written about what this would mean for authors and other creators who produced something in their youth which was a steady seller, and then later in life struggled – thus relying on older work to carry them through a difficult patch. Beyond the fortunate few who have made millions from their work, there are many writers who work every day in a jobbing role, producing a body of work that they hope will see them through the leaner years.

The argument comes from a right wing Libertarian idea about State regulation. But this disruption of the conception of property would lead to results the Right would not be happy with.

The main argument those who want to drop copyright offer is a simple one: since it is now easy to reproduce works of art digitally, there’s no point trying to enforce against or discourage copying of work – and indeed, there would be a bonanza for other creators wishing to use the work of another writer and pay no fee.

Counter-arguments have included the idea that “a landlord of an apartment building wouldn’t expect to have his ownership curtailed after 30 years, nor should a writer.”

The reply is that a building and a book are different things. A building only has one owner.

And this is where that argument falls down. Because of course there is only one owner of the idea behind the written work, and that is the author.

“Ah,” comes the reply. “But the legal structures needed to support the idea of intellectual property amounts to a handout from the State.”

Let’s look at that. If one is opposed to State intervention when it comes to ownership of intellectual property, why stop there? Surely ALL State intervention in property matters is essentially supporting a legal fiction.

If you take the Libertarian argument to its logical conclusion, anyone who has acquired property through their labour is in the same position as the writer:

A house or a car can equally be said only to be in someone’s possession because the State upholds property laws.

If you can take away from the owner an idea they worked for, why can you not take away a physical object they have also worked for? Is it only because you can hold it in your hands or touch it? Surely, the point of principle about ownership is that the owner asserts the moral right to have earned it, whatever that property may consist of?

If we suddenly have a State intervening to strip people’s property rights, right wing Libertarians might consider whether this sits comfortably with their intellectual tradition. It is in fact half way towards socialism.

But it is only half way, because the State is only intervening to take away the property rights people now enjoy, yet providing no support for them after having done so.

As we saw with the massive handouts to business in the US during the pandemic, right wingers as ever support socialism when they see their own group will make a buck from it.

The fact is: intellectual property is property.

If right-wingers are going to ask people to hand theirs over, they’ll need to provide a fully socialised society to support those people they make destitute just because they happen to want to exploit a resource they neither wish to pay for nor want to put in the work to create themselves.

And as many a right winger will tell you: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Not even a publisher’s one.

A Pagan Story – an early hero myth – experimental novel

Mountain with rainbow for a pagan story

I have been working on a pagan story, an experimental novel, and reached a section that required a myth cycle. This is the starting point of that cycle. It just fell out of the fingers, and this is how it appears in first draft with minor corrections. I have no idea where it will take me…

How do they get here, these night visitors? I remember as if peering through a crack in a wall, seeing only a limited scene, how I asked my mother this once. As a woman and thus a keeper of the Old Lore, she told me the story with a smile on her face that told me she was telling me this for entertainment. But later when I asked about it, she was deadly serious that every word was true. She said:

Sjemantuk the brave one found the Old Gods were real by firing an arrow into the sky. This is how it happened.

Sjemantuk was a mighty warrior who had been told the Old Gods lived in the cloudland, upside down above the neathland. So, he decided to see if the sky was flat, as he had been told.

He tried once, making a mighty bow from the rib of a whale that he found sleeping in the earth waiting to wake up. But the arrow fell to earth, burying its stone tip deep in the ground and leaving a deep hole, and this is how the first sea was made. The whales sleeping in the ground awoke and swam in the waters that poured into the New Deep.

Sjemantuk made another bow from the trunk of the One Mighty Tree, Hjemfang. He flexed his muscles in a stupendous effort and after drawing this massive bow with his powerful grip, sent a great shaft with a brass tip into the sky. It glanced from the sky but did not stick, and fell to earth. Where it hit, water began to leak from the sky, and this is when the rains began. The bow also broke under the great strain, and the shattering wood of bow and arrow made all the forests in the world.

Still Sjemantuk wondered how he might best travel to the land of the sky.

One day, as he was walking, he caught the Sun and Rain in discussion over a mountain top. Watching closely, he saw their child, the Rainbow, had wandered away from them to the next mountain. Sjemantuk the hunter sneaked upon Lusjak Rainchild and tried to catch him-her. But Lusjak was too clever for him, and every time he pounced upon her, he-she was elsewhere. And so he chased him-her up the mountainside while she laughed at his bumbling efforts.

But then, high on the mountain, Sjemantuk found the magic stone that is both cold and clear, and trapped Lusjak within it as he-she taunted Sjemantuk. Now, when light shone through the magic stone, Lusjak appeared. Lusjak was frozen solid in the ice. Sjemantuk took hold of her-him and tied a string made from the hair of rainfall shedding on the mountain. In this way, he fashioned a bow that was both subtle and powerful. To this he added a lightning shaft made from the the old serpent Manark, and drawing Lusfang, the greatest bow the world has ever seen, he sent it flying to the sky. The arrow caught fast in the sky. And then Sjemantuk, having tied a rope to its tail, climbed upward to the sky.

Experimental novel extract: A Pagan Story

Man in green mask

I have been writing a novel with an experimental feel, the opening rough of which is here. I think some of the loneliness within it echoes things that are going on in life around many of us at the moment. Disassociation and alienation, bewilderment and hallucination are central to this short scene.

So, I thought I would try it out on a wider world. This is exactly as it was written with no corrections:

My father’s dreams come in powders and grow from the sacred mycelium each year. They offer renewal, a doorway into the otherworld that is one of the places where the gods, the Others, wait and plan and scheme.

In this dream I am walking through a woodland with paths that branch and branch outward and seem to go somewhere, but I follow them and they load only to more paths that branch. And one of those again leads to more branches. After days of walking in this way, I begin to sense there is someone nearby, just out of reach. The breathghost comes into being beside me with each step I take and every breath I take, but when I look to it, it is not there, though sometimes I catch fleeting visions of eyes disappearing into nothingness.

I become more agitated and can feel the shock of fear in my limbs, a rising anxiety that makes my limbs sting as if they somehow have honey running inside them, and not the blood which is the life of the world and is half sea, half earth and somehow, half spirit. The honey feeling rises, and it is not quite fear, and more like uncomfortable excitement.

I feel a rising sensation in my stomach that is like laughter and sickness at once, and around me in the shadows between the trees I see more eyes. Eyes everywhere. In the knots of wood, on the ends of the tiny tongues of needles in the branches, the raised eyes on stalks of snails. The stars are eyes that I catch between the gaps in the trees, and when I see the blackness above me, I wonder if there is the firmament there or infinite loneliness that stretches on far and far beyond the bounds of life into eternity.

I see a figure now in the woods, leaping and crouching, making strange twisted shapes with his body. He is wearing a mask of green leaves that covers his face, and he is green from head to foot. There are living oak leaves in his hair that flutter in an unfelt wind, and his clothing is a long green robe woven with the shapes of pine, and holly, and ivy, and the brown seeds of the trees, and the acorns. I am afraid of him as he approaches me, but his eyes watch me as afraid and confounded as I am.

I fall on to my knees, and scream, for he is a nightmarish figure, and he says in a voice I seem to know, “don’t be afraid, it is me.” I look up, aware that around us there are other eyes watching from every tree and every life and every needle and I realise this is why I am afraid. He reaches up and pulls of his mask to reveal another mask made of wood that he can’t pull from his face, though he tries. And so I watch him struggle with trying to take his face off.

I hear another voice as he pulls himself into the strangest shapes, and as I do I know new knowledge that rises in voice like a roaring wind through the trees:

“The gods also live in shadows and in the forest, in the sap of branches,” the voice says as the man in green convulses himself, in a crazed frenzy trying to pull the mask free. “And the great aerial-rooted trees that reach long fingers down into the world below from the cloudlands, from where they send the rain to fall on the neathland.” Fingers reach up from the soil, breaking the surface, the hands of men who have trodden here before, I know. And the voice goes on: “Trees, too, are the silent houses of watchful gods, for each tree is born out of spirit as much as earth, for earth is also spirit, and the soul of the heartwood is sealed in to it by the Earth herself, who shares her power in turn with the half-spirit sea (for it is spirit that continually moves the sea), and over all arches the Great Sky swarming with creatures made of the First Breath.”

And the trees sway and sway more, and begin to uproot themselves and walk in a circular dance around me. And still the voice rises, the sound now of a hurricane:

“All of this signifies the mystery of sorrow for us in the neathland. Our earthly paradise, digging in the soil, the mud and dirt is held together only by the rituals with which we implore, beg and petition the Others. The mystery of sorrow, the sorrow of pain, the pain of ending, the ending of life, the life of mystery, the mystery of sorrow. These are the gifts from the gods, for life is sorrow and life is sometimes joy – and everything in between is praise for the gods!”

And the trees clear a path and a patch of earth where corn begins to rise from the musty loam. And the voice cries out: “Childbirth, the ecstasy of the hunt, the reaching to the sky of the corn, the death of the BarleyGod, the teaching stories that are the legends of the Others. So much sorrow, but amongst it all, the glimmer of transformation. Transformation of life to new life, and an escape to something higher. What the Archimandrite himself tells us of – the chance to rise above Earthly pain. And so we serve the Others. We all serve the Others!!”

The Corridor of Selves

alex iby mirror picture provided via unsplash

Listening to old music from my teens, all alone, and I realise how many people we are in our life. Perhaps this is the karmic wheel: we are reborn into each minute as the child of our actions in a former moment just a few seconds before. This, then might be reincarnation.

A vast corridor of selves through which we walk, with each of them looking out at us, as if through a mirror. How can we live like this? With all these strangers in our heads that we hold together with a gossamer narrative?

Is it possible to find a single narrative to fit all those errant, wayward people that we are? And what do we have to sacrifice and suppress in order to maintain integrity of personality?

A gossamer narrative. Gossamer. Spider’s strand. Sometimes we are caught in the unreality of our own being, it seems.

And yet perhaps so. The spider builds a structure to serve its purpose. What do we catch with the story we tell ourselves? Dignity? Denial? Another day we might not have reached were it not for the lies we pretend? Is this, too, reincarnation? How often are we close to death?

Sometimes I wish I could start it all again. “This tangled web we weave”. But we are here only once, and soon are dust. And to start again now is an impossibility. What is life. An ‘F in lie’?

A Christmas Story – experimental opening to a new novel

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story – draft 1 – opening.

The night sky is poked through with the inverted peaks of the mountains hanging from the firmament above our world. That upside-down land, among blue cloud mountains is where the Others live. Tonight they will come and it will be for the first time – at least for me, for this is the first Yuletide I will remember.

Shadows and light, these are my memories from before this time – though I remember my mother telling me we must prepare the way, prepare for Him to come. We call him the Lord of Years, the God of the Axle-wheel.

The tribe is happy to prepare for his coming as they have done, they say, for generations. This I learn later. This first year I it is my job to create objects of remembrance; for now it is all new to me.

“First things first, little one,” my mother smiles. She of the brown locks, long, braided. Winter flowers in that hair from the winter hedgerow by the fields and iron trees; the freezing water her laugh pealing in the winter light. She wears winter; the traditional dress of the season, long gown, blues and whites, shade of nightbound glacier, frozen air, night shadows, and white the teeth of the forest wolves, the shivering of the field creatures: iridescence.

So we prepare. There will be a procession, so first there is the making of the torches. The binding of precious oil-soaked cloth around the haft, the putting in place of the tray to catch the drips. “Like this,” she shows me how to bind the cloth. “Like this, too,” and we put the guard there for small hands, my tiny hands. Fire. The golden energy that eats the Gods of the Night, that sends away the shadow wolves stealing behind walls waiting to pounce yet never willing to leap so long as the brand is held high. Only the light that keeps them from attack, as it has always been from the beginning, light our only defence.

The wrapping of the cloth has a song that goes with it, to bind the power of the light.

‘Of The Light’, a title that speaks of honour: the goddess Syumak Of The Light, who also creates the heat for the oven where bread rises, new life imparting homoeopathically to all who eat the same life. From the belly of the oven, life is given to the bellies of the family so the old saying goes. My mother speaks: “The bread grows and takes shape in the oven as a baby does in the womb, and this is how life and bread are one and the same. We worship bread and the cutting down of the corn, an act of sacrifice that gives new life to all.”

Cycles, the world is circles. Just so with the wrapping of the cloths and the incantation that goes with all ritual work:

Syumak says round the brand once
And light will come as the sun shall shine
Syumak cries round the brand twice
And the rain shall feed the corn and vine
Syumak laughs round the brand thrice
And Barley green turns barley brown to cut and grind
Syumak shouts four times round and more
And we feel the heat of the oven’s roar
And light shall raise the dead to life
and shadows run from shining knife

We strike the brands into light once the cloth is wrapped. The shining knife is the brand we lift above our heads as we step out, myself, my mother and father into the frozen night, and we proceed down the steps to join the river of villagers ahead of us, each with brands held high, and we mingle in sound and light and heat and air, the slow chanting and murmur of hymns rising up to the sky with a cloud of vapour voices hanging and echoing until the sound dissipates, to be replaced by the next cloud of sound, rich, intense, earnest.

“Sing, my son, sing – louder, so the Lord of the Years can hear us and the great Axle-wheel will turn, with our world upon it.”

Child of the years
Father of time
Two faced god
See the world
Through your eyes
Round the circle of darkness and light
Make the world afresh in your sight
Sleep and rise again
A world beyond our pain

So we make the procession to the House of Divided Paths – the Wishmaker’s Hut, low in the glade – a building made of all that is good and all that is bad. Its smell is of spice and sweetness in some moments, but not for long. It is never stable. I pull back at what I see, a growing sense of fear at this vision that plays before my eyes; the brand shakes in my hand.

My father lays his palm on my shoulder and explains in amused voice.

“Isn’t it a wonder, son? This Wishmaker’s House is one of the Winter Mysteries – existing through difference, unstable, shifting between possibilities.”

– He is right, it is a wonder. One moment a lowly hovel, the next a castle the next a ruin, a cottage prim and proper surrounded by apple trees and moss and gold and light. In this later version it settles as we approach – a line of apprehensive children, our eyes popping out in excitement and fear. The younger ones in the line ahead of me look as afraid as I am, the older children almost embarrassed at wanting to come back here, as if the secret it offers is for a younger version of themselves, or as if they are in on a secret they know they cannot share.

I step forward under the torch light as one child after another disappears through the doorway. For those who wait, our blazing brands fill the air with black smoke that sits heavily in our lungs causing a lazy cough in us, and it seems, a stupor sometimes – lethargy falling through limbs, weighing them down as if they are made of lead or gold. I see my arms shining, reflecting, metallic and see the metal of the knife in the brand I hold above me – the gold that is the source of the sun, forever, unchanging. The catechisms and wisdoms of my very earliest memories the chants of the elders in exactly this way. Yet, tonight most of my past is behind me beyond a dense cloud as if I am new born here.

And the singing goes on, and the stars that are the ice-bound peaks of the inverted Otherworld above twinkle in reflection of our brandlight, and the night becomes a whirl of shadows and faces and light and stars and the breathghosts of life and the dark creatures in the wood, the chill deathghosts of the children before us. The spirits of the woods have gathered here, those of the tribe who haunt the barrows and towers of death, and who a few times a year venture forth to see their children’s children are performing the rites correctly.

One after another, the children are consumed by the Wishmakers Hut, it seeming now to be the mouth of a great worm breathing reeking fumes into the air. And the fumes lay heavy on my lungs.

At the entrance, my parents push me forward and tell me “Just go. Go forward. You will see.” And so I go inside.

I am not sure what the building was when I entered the doorway. Inside it is a lowly hut, and there is someone sitting, I see it, a shape in the darkness that beckons me forward.

“Come to the mirror” she says, an old crone with lines on her face. In the next instant a red-headed girl who smiles at me and says, “Look and I shall know your wish.”

I look at her a moment longer, and perhaps it is the smoke, perhaps it is something else , but I wait and know the world to be different from what I have always imagined, less safe than my parents told me, and colder, and stranger, and crueller.

I feel lonely then, as I look into the mirror and see the swirling darkness of the Old Gods take shape in its depths. A movement there in its shadows, the first fumblings of matter, into shape, directed by my awareness – though I can not know that, not now, for I am a child and do not understand how we make our worlds.

She smiles and pulls the mirror away, and laughs. A woman in her prime, beautiful, blue eyes with black, black hair the colour of the darkest night, of forest sighs, of the deep web of growth that lives below the tree roots.

“And there it is. The Christmas Child!” she shouts with delight. She twists a piece of gold into a shape between her glowing white fingers and says:

“You are a rare one. Here is your wish – ” and hands it to me, now a silver-bearded man in a green cape.

It is shaped in a twisted loop – uroboros – the elders call it. It means a circle. I look at it and do not understand.

“How can this be a wish?”

I glance a challenge at her, for she is now back to the old crone.

“You will see.”

Why Conan Doyle’s Southsea Life Should Inspire Writers

Writers looking for reasons to keep going when times are tough, should look no further than Arthur Conan Doyle’s early life in Southsea. His story of struggle, finding his way and eventual success is one for every writer to learn from.

In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Doyle talks about those early years after his arrival in Southsea.

I made £154 the first year, and £250 the second, rising slowly to £800, which in eight years I never passed, so far as the medical practice went. In the first year the Income Tax paper arrived and I filled it up to show that I was not liable. They returned the paper with “Most unsatisfactory” scrawled across it. I wrote “I entirely agree” under the words, and returned it once more. For this little bit of cheek I was had up before the assessors, and duly appeared with my ledger under my arm. They could make nothing, however, out of me or my ledger, and we parted with mutual laughter and compliments.”

So, what changed? Doyle confesses that he never imagined he’d be able to make a living from writing. In the early days, he was so poor he had no staff at his surgery on Elm Grove and cooked bacon over the gas lamp in the back room. But, he adds:

In many ways my marriage marked a turning-point in my life. A bachelor, especially one who had been a wanderer like myself, drifts easily into Bohemian habits, and I was no exception… with the more regular life and the greater sense of responsibility, coupled with the natural development of brain-power, the literary side of me began slowly to spread until it was destined to push the other entirely aside.

Though Doyle did write before he married, he was paid an average of £4 per story and made around £10 or £15 a year from his work, which works out at between £1000 to £1500 a year.

A great insight into his creative life follows:

But though I was not putting out I was taking in. I still have notebooks full of all sorts of knowledge which I acquired during that time. It is a great mistake to start putting out cargo when you have hardly stowed any on board. My own slow methods and natural limitations made me escape this danger.

A Study In Scarlet in the famously rare 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, of which only 11 complete copies are known to exist.

After he married, he wrote most of the stories that appeared in his book, The Captain of the Polestar. He progressed steadily, until he appeared in the prestigious Cornhill magazine, with his short story Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.

Doyle had to deal with hostile reviews and keep on, even then. One reviewer stated: “Cornhill opens its new number with a story which would have made Thackeray turn in his grave.”

Doyle was also willing to take on any writing job that came his way:

I was still in the days of very small things—so small that when a paper sent me a woodcut and offered me four guineas if I would write a story to correspond I was not too proud to accept. It was a very bad woodcut and I think that the story corresponded all right. I remember writing a New Zealand story, though why I should have written about a place of which I knew nothing I cannot imagine. Some New Zealand critic pointed out that I had given the exact bearings of the farm mentioned as 90 miles to the east or west of the town of Nelson, and that in that case it was situated 20 miles out on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. These little things will happen. There are times when accuracy is necessary and others where the idea is everything and the place quite immaterial.

Doyle’s next realisation about his writing is a useful one for any writer.

It was about a year after my marriage that I realized that I could go on doing short stories for ever and never make headway. What is necessary is that your name should be on the back of a volume. Only so do you assert your individuality, and get the full credit or discredit of your achievement.

His first venture was The Firm of Girdlestone, which he acknowledges as a “worthless book”. He adds:

When I sent it to publishers and they scorned it I quite acquiesced in their decision and finally let it settle, after its periodical flights to town, a dishevelled mass of manuscript at the back of a drawer.

Then came his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes:

Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes. But could I bring an addition of my own? I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. I would try if I could get this effect. It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction?

Doyle adds: “It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it—such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards…” Next came the choice of the name. something not too obvious for a clever man, such as Mr Sharps or Mr Ferrets, but something else.

First it was Sherringford Holmes; then it was Sherlock Holmes. He could not tell his own exploits, so he must have a commonplace comrade as a foil—an educated man of action who could both join in the exploits and narrate them. A drab, quiet name for this unostentatious man. Watson would do. And so I had my puppets and wrote my “Study in Scarlet.”

In fact, Doyle wrote the book over a period of 3 weeks in 1886. It was a novella rather than a novel – but he was rightly proud of his achievement.

For the writer, the question then, is how to deal with publishers who just don’t “get” your work? To push on and hope, appears to be the answer. And a matter of luck is always part of the equation, it seems:

I knew that the book was as good as I could make it, and I had high hopes. When “Girdlestone” used to come circling back with the precision of a homing pigeon, I was grieved but not surprised, for I acquiesced in the decision. But when my little Holmes book began also to do the circular tour I was hurt, for I knew that it deserved a better fate. James Payn applauded but found it both too short and too long, which was true enough. Arrowsmith received it in May, 1886, and returned it unread in July. Two or three others sniffed and turned away. Finally, as Ward, Lock & Co. made a speciality of cheap and often sensational literature, I sent it to them.

“Dear Sir,” they said,—”We have read your story and are pleased with it. We could not publish it this year as the market is flooded at present with cheap fiction, but if you do not object to its being held over till next year, we will give you £25 for the copyright.

“Yours faithfully,
“WARD, LOCK & Co.”
“Oct. 30, 1886.”

The story famously appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. Doyle never received another penny for it.

Doyle did not wait for publication the next year, but wrote a historical romance, Micah Clarke. For which pains, he was asked by publishers how he could waste his wits and time writing historical novels. Other comments from publishers were in a similar vein.

I was on the point of putting the worn manuscript into hospital with its mangled brother “Girdle-stone” when as a last resource I sent it to Longmans, whose reader, Andrew Lang, liked it and advised its acceptance. It was to “Andrew of the brindled hair,” as Stevenson called him, that I owe my first real opening, and I have never forgotten it. The book duly appeared in February, 1889, and though it was not a boom book it had extraordinarily good reviews, including one special one all to itself by Mr. Protheroe in the “Nineteenth Century,” and it has sold without intermission from that day to this. It was the first solid corner-stone laid for some sort of literary reputation.

As for Sherlock Holmes, British literature was fashionable in the United States at the time, and it was a Mr Stoddart, an American agent for Lippincott’s who asked to meet up with him in London in 1889. He thus had dinner with Stoddart and Oscar Wilde, the latter of whom had read Micah Clarke, and liked it very much.

The result of the evening was that both Wilde and I promised to write books for “Lippincott’s Magazine”—Wilde’s contribution was “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” a book which is surely upon a high moral plane, while I wrote “The Sign of Four,” in which Holmes made his second appearance.

Doyle now went on to write The White Company, feeling once again the urge to write historical romance. When he finished, he writes:

I felt a wave of exultation and with a cry of “That’s done it!” I hurled my inky pen across the room, where it left a black smudge upon the duck’s-egg wall-paper. I knew in my heart that the book would live and that it would illuminate our national traditions. Now that it has passed through fifty editions I suppose I may say with all modesty that my forecast has proved to be correct.

He goes on:

This was the last book which I wrote in my days of doctoring at Southsea, and marks an epoch in my life, so I can now hark back to some other phases of my last years at Bush Villa before I broke away into a new existence. I will only add that “The White Company” was accepted by “Cornhill,” in spite of James Payn’s opinion of historical novels, and that I fulfilled another ambition by having a serial in that famous magazine.

These remembrances should act as inspirations for writers in Portsmouth, and indeed, everywhere. It’s one reason I decided to celebrate him and his greatest creation Sherlock Holmes by bringing out a facsimile reprint of the first appearance of A Study In Scarlet through my publishing company, Life Is Amazing. The truth is, the most famous writers come from somewhere. One of those places could be where you are right now. In fact, one of those writers could be you.

[NB: This article was updated on 12th February 2019]

Writers, Are There Royalties Waiting For You To Claim Them?

I woke up this morning and checked my bank account to see that I’d just received a couple of hundred quid come in from the ALCS, or Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, and thought I’d write about it, in case fellow writers haven’t yet heard of it.

I first encountered the ALCS in the 1990s when I was working for the tv show The Bill. I got a letter through the post telling me that my work might be seen in other countries, and there were all sorts of rights that as an author I might be eligible for. This was in the earlier days of sorting out copyright arrangements across countries in the EU. There was, I remember, some talk about libraries and universities across Europe, and other institutions who relied on work that had in some way been written. To be honest, I didn’t think my work qualified, since my stuff was on telly, but I joined up and thought well, let’s see what happens.

I think I got a few cheques come through – you know – enough to buy the odd pint. It wasn’t to be sniffed at, though, and I was doing “nothing” for it (except of course from producing works of genius for tv! [I jest]).

Then, one day I got a larger cheque – not huge – but you know, around £100. The accompanying letter told me that the ALCS had finalised payments for photocopying rights from academic libraries across the EU, and I was being sent my cut. This surprised me. I couldn’t imagine that anyone had photocopied my scripts for The Bill – but basically, the money had to be divvied up somehow, and I was eligible! Great. It’s then I realised they really are on our side and are looking to protect our interests.

The way it works is this. The ALCS actively identifies books, scripts and articles – both fiction and non-fiction – that may be eligible for one of the many copyright payments that are agreed nationally and internationally between countries. They compile a database, take payment, and then actively seek to find the authors who haven’t already joined. That’s how come I got my letter from them.

Of course, there are times when they can’t locate an author. So it’s quite possible that an article, book or script you have written has already amassed payment, and you need to let them know where you are. There is even a search option on the website to check out whether you’ve got money waiting for you.

As for fees, they are a not-for-profit organisation and they charge a small commission to keep the office running. Back in the early days they had two schedules: the first meant you weren’t a full member of the ALCS and paid a slightly higher percentage of the money they sent you. The second schedule meant you paid a membership fee (really low – something like £7 per annum) and you then received a lower commission fee. Either way, you are receiving money you otherwise would never get, so the fees are really not an issue.

These days, there’s a one-off fee of £36, which gets you signed up for life. The money comes out of your first royalties. The commission rate is 9.5%.

It’s all very straightforward. And who knows? You may be sitting on some cash already.

So, have a look – and spread the love! Share this with as many writers as you can. After all, we all need a helping hand from time to time, right?

Stream of life – a piece of spontaneous writing

Stream of life:

This is the great stream of life, we are in. Wait. Stop. Listen. Notice the movement on your skin, the slightest of shifts as the sensory cells activate and fire off, reporting all that is going on in your life. It washes over you, washes through and drags you along in its current. There is nothing you can do but submit to it. It loves you, it is you, it is the whole universe, and it knows everything and nothing about you and your thoughts and your hopes and your fears. The stream of life is intimately you, and abstractly both uninterested and disinterested in your life, you future, your past, your pains, your joys, your woes, your smiles and your tears. It is greater than you and you are so much greater than the you that you think you are. The stream washes on. Wait! Stop! Do you hear that sound? It is the laughter of the water, washing all around you.

Review: Black Earth, A Field Guide To The Slavic Otherworld

Andrew L Paciorek’s Black Earth, A Field Guide To The Slavic Otherworld is two wonderful things at once.

Firstly, it is an entry point into a mythology largely unknown in Western Europe. Secondly, it is beautiful.

On the first point, Paciorek’s one-page descriptions of specific gods, spirits and folk horror entities found in the Slavic pantheon are concise, intriguing and well researched.

Perun, the king of the gods, is a thunder deity we are told, who can transform into an eagle and hurl exploding apples. Veles, the serpentine god of the underworld is a deity of sickness and also, interestingly, of cattle. These two gods, Perun and Veles are in eternal warfare – thus symbolising the seasonal cycle…

The mythological stories are laid out without labouring the point, but with enough to reveal the logic behind the myths. In this way we begin our journey into the mysterious Slavic otherworld.

But wait a minute. What constitutes the Slavic world? Paciorek culturally and geographically orients us in the introduction, pointing to Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and those living in former Yugoslvia, among others. This means Paciorek’s Black Earth draws on the rich and strange folk world that produced, on the one hand, Baba Yaga with her house on chicken legs, and Stravinsky’s Firebird on the other.

Along the way we meet spirits of water, forest, mountain and field, sorcerers, witches and hags, shape-shifters and demons, and entirely new classes of vampire, of which there are surprisingly many. Through Dhampirs, Lampirs, Upior, Nelapsi, Nachzeherer and Eretiks (the last being undead heretics) one enters into a whole other world full of possibilities and potentials.

As a writer, these creatures and entities are invaluable. I am sure some of them will surface in my storytelling at some point in the future. For providing a valuable entry point into an alien mythology, Paciorek should be commended.

There is also another aspect to this book that gives real delight. The artwork in these pages is just wonderful. The line art style, bold and exquisitely executed, gives an earthy life to the text. They powerfully boost the overall effect. Pictures of gods grappling with dragons, and three-headed, five-headed and six-headed forest gods, spirits and superhumans fill the book with a sense of otherworldliness that fires the imagination.

In all, this book is a recommend for anyone interested in the strange and the beautiful, in mythology and in folk horror. Great stuff!

Black Earth is available from: http://www.blurb.com/user/andypaciorek, £10 for paperback, £20 for hardback with either printed cover or dustjacket.