Of Edgelands and Imagination
We live around 12 kilometres, or 7.5 miles, from the ocean. Here, as I have mentioned, the ground begins to fold and hills rise around us, stretching above crinkled, complicated valleys, all the way down to the Serra de Monchique.
Hills to the south, rolling cork oak pastureland and fields to the east, plains all the way north, and the vast, rolling waters of the Atlantic to the west.
There are mornings where a fresh wind from the west brings the scent of the sea; hike to the crest of the first hills in that direction and you can see the haze of the salt spray spreading out below you, all the way to the coast. It is barely a stretch of the imagination to imagine a 16th century farmer watching as Barbary Corsairs destroyed the village of Vila Nova de Milfontes, taking away the inhabitants, condemned to a life of slavery. There is a reason there are so few old settlements along this coast, and that reason was piracy.
When I look at a landscape, I tie it to my imagination and what I know from history, archaeology, and reading. Sometimes, this is unconscious thought, ideas and ghosts of stories flickering across my mind; at other times I deliberately wonder what the young Alex would see if transplanted to this place and time. He would undoubtedly have read the tales of the pirates and made up fables of his own. There are deep caves here, tunnels from the mines which date back many centuries. Now, they are important for the local bats but, perhaps, young Alex would have been convinced some contained pirate treasure. He would definitely have climbed up and down the crumbling cliffs, leaping across fissures here, ignoring the drop and possibility of injury, flush with the fearlessness of the young and invincible.
When I inhale the scent of the early morning, watering the plants on the small balcony, catching the familiar salty tendrils on the breeze, I am reminded of other early mornings near the sea. I still recall the first time I awoke in Stromness, the way the air tasted utterly different from what was then called South Humberside. It left a deep sense of magic, which has not faded with time.
The sea is within me, in a way almost impossible to describe for those who did not grow beside her, have never sampled her moods and tasted her fury, and this creeps into my writing.
Eventually, everything does.
This has been a month of more communication than usual. I hope you have found my messages interesting. This particular one is an eclectic mixture.
As you know, I’ve been taking part in a free book group promotion on Bookcave, still available until the end of the month of May, here. If you haven’t already, do check it out — there’s also a chance to win a $20 voucher for your favourite ebook seller.
I am new to marketing. It is not something that comes naturally to me. I am slowly learning I need to move along from a rather quiet whisper of ‘Err, hey, I have written a few stories, each of which has a bonus tale, and the first novella is also entirely free. Maybe you’d like them. Sorry for bothering you.’
I can’t help this. BUT, I am beginning to realise that these stories are actually really, really good and I should be telling people. If you like fantasy tales, if you like complex characters, if you like imagery which will stick with you, then you will like them. They are well-crafted and it has taken me a long time to be able to say this out-loud but, you know what? I’m really a rather good writer. (I can write this now, but that doesn’t mean it comes naturally — I’m currently resisting the urge to cut this paragraph.)
I think my experience as Reddit’s Fantasy Writer of the Day went well. As Aurélie pointed out, this type of engagement — the digital AMA (Ask Me Anything) — is perfect for me. I really hate talking on the phone, for example, and the idea of doing a face-to-face book tour makes me want to run away to the wilderness again. However, get a bunch of people firing text queries at me on a forum, and I’m in my element. If you want to know how I came up with the geography of the world of The Lesser Evil, or what my favourite piece of Orkney mythology is, for example, you can find the thread here.
In the coming months, I shall be marketing more, especially once the next tale is released. Then I’ll have two products to sell, along with the permafree Only One Death. As mentioned in April, I intend to talk more about numbers, statistics, percentages, etcetera. I told you how I had no new subscribers to this newsletter in over two months (February the 21st until the 1st of May) but, now, as we near the end of May, I’ve almost tripled that readership and I’m very pleased with this.
In my last ‘normal’ missive, back at the end of April, I mentioned how I had hoped to release the third novella in my series during May. This has not happened. Regular readers, and those who actually know me, will not find this surprising.
The principal reason for this is that this novella is now firmly outwith the wordcount which would enable it to be called so. In short, it’s a novel. A short novel, yes, but a novel, nevertheless.
This story is about a woman named Flin. She is a singer, a storyteller, she leads dances and plays instruments. The novel weaves two threads from Flin’s life, separated by time and place and joined by motherhood. It is a tale of loss, a tale of hope, a tale of a constant journey to find something, a journey and search Flin has never given up on. It is also a study in fear.
I think, out of Only One Death, Death and Taxes, and this novel, this is my favourite.
A third thread is explored in the bonus story, a thread which also introduces another character who will return in the longer planned work. A character who is also a favourite of mine. This bonus story is, essentially, a monster hunt, set on an island city hugging the flanks of an active volcano.
Both the novel and the bonus read fast. This fits Flin’s tale well, the sense of constant movement, the underlying feeling of loss and almost-submerged dread that she will never find what she looks for.
I’m going to say that this will be released in June, and I’m going to try very hard to stick to this statement. Let’s see, shall we?
I have failed to catch you up with the things I have recently seen. Sorry.
Currently, Dispatches from Elsewhere is the evening watch. So far, I’m up to episode seven and I love it. I really hope it keeps being this good, keeps asking questions of our human condition, and answering them by showing what a wonder life actually can be. I want to talk more about this, but I shall wait until I’ve finished the series.
Before this, we watched the final season of Le Bureau des Legendes. Oomph. The whole showed spies and spying in a far closer fashion to what I imagine to be the truth. It is a tough watch at times, but it feels real. Well worth a watch.
La Casa de Papel (AKA Money Heist) is something I’d definitely recommend. It is superbly refreshing to see a heist narrated by a woman, and to see a show picked up and internationally successful when it exhibits such a strong Spanish identity. As with Le Bureau, it is want-to-watch-the-next-episode-immediately good.
One other thing I would like to mention is that I recently watched The Godfather for the very first time (yeah, I know, shush). I enjoyed it. I knew much of the story from popular culture, and the following evening we watched the second in the series, You’ve Got Mail (note: this is not REALLY the second, in case you are confused…).
Nora Ephron was an amazing, multi-talented writer, and the way she weaves The Godfather into this film is a prime example of this.
Recently, I’ve been listening to more music. I’m now more-or-less permanently standing to work, which means I am alone in the bedroom, able to play music using a small bluetooth speaker without bothering Aurélie, who prefers silence to work.
I alternate between wildly differing styles of music, as I have for most of my life. To draft and to edit, I find it best to either listen to something I know incredibly well, or something which fits certain moods, long, flowing mixes rather than individual, differing tracks. These mixes are nearly always high tempo, bass, drum, repetitive beats. Some days it is early 90s techno or acid, others dark forest psytrance, or afro tribal deep minimal tech house. Sometimes I want to listen to something a little more sinister, and seek out industrial aggrotech dark techno cyberpunk.
That these sub-genres exist is not surprising to me, people love to define, to split things into precisely the right category and, after being irritated by this in my youth, I made my peace with this years ago. What is surprising, however, is that I can match writing mood to genre quickly, finding a mix with just the right bpm or the right level of minimal interference with my brain. I have actually, somehow, begun to understand what these tiny subdivisions mean and actually appreciate them.
I find I move more with this music, sometimes essentially dancing whilst typing. It is meditative, hypnotic, fluid. Ideas and connections flow better when I am in this mindstate, things appear clearer, move obvious. The same can be said for playing albums I know excessively well, the rhythms and melodies guide and lead me to where I need to be. Sometimes, it is easy to know what music demands to be heard on one day, others, it can be a difficult, drawn-out process and, even when I think I’ve settled on a mix or an album, I then change my mind.
I used to think this type of music listening was somehow wrong but then I realised this was due to others describing it as “music in the background”. This, for me, is incorrect. It is not in the background, but in the fore, the beats pull and my consciousness glides, words tip-tapped faster and faster, the subconscious playing with my thinking brain, guided by rhythm, all those ideas I’ve thought about before committing to a written piece, all those notes I’ve taken — literally and mentally — they all slot together, just where they need to be.
At this precise moment, I am listening to one of my favourite albums, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left (note: all three of his albums are favourites, it’s impossible to choose just one). If you do not know his music, you really should have a listen.
The storks have not reared any young. This is not for a lack of trying. Recently, we went for a drive, out along the coast and back, passing several stork nests with small storklings poking out the top. Interestingly, the pair are still mating and still return to guard their nest, especially at lunchtime, when the skies fill with silent gliding competitors and the sound of the pair clattering an aural defence, beaks moving swiftly, wings arranged and bodies bent.
The landscape’s coat of flowers has been changed, several times, the principal base colour moving from a rich dark green, through lighter shades, to the greenish-brown she currently wears. I am determined to start to learn all these new friends. I’m doing well with birds, adding several new-to-me species (Iberian grey shrike! Montagu’s harrier! Bonelli’s eagle [today, at lunchtime!] Azure-winged magpie! Black-winged kite!), learning their names (first in French and their Linnaean classification, then English. Sometimes also Portuguese), their habits, why they are here. Next, I should add the flowers.
The richness of this area, the sheer variety and abundance, is something I doubt I will ever take for granted. Yes, there are relatively dead areas, as in most places — in this case, the plantations of Eucalyptus but, on the whole, these are more than made up for by the other places.
Our walks always invariably show something new. Here, a rich stand of wild apple-mint, there feral nasturtium showing where a garden once was tended. Pausing and looking closely always brings rewards.
Insect life flourishes. It a bedrock of a food pyramid stretching high above me, all those tiny tiny thunderflies (or Thrips or, ultra-locally from the Isle of Axholme, Men of Wroot), all those minute spiderlings on silken threads — these are all snatched up and eaten in their millions. Then the eaters are eaten, and so on, and so forth.
I could — and want to — write reams about the nature here. And I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. Sometimes, I wish I had more hours in the day.
I am aware that this newsletter has crept upward in word-count and shall keep this part brief. I always have so much to share and find myself enjoying the process. At various times, I have kept a journal or a blog and, I think, this serves exactly that purpose for this moment. These words are a distillation of thought, they are notes and ideas turned into paragraphs. Sketches transformed into paintings. I still keep notes, many of them, but this process — of transformation — is different, engaging a different side of my brain.
Thank you for reading — and welcome, new people! I hope you like what you see.
I should also add this — many algorithms on book selling sites rely on reviews to boost visibility. This is something all writers know, but it can come as a surprise to learn that many readers do not. In short, if you downloaded Only One Death, or Death and Taxes, and enjoyed it/them, if you can, please take a few minutes to leave a review. It doesn’t need to be epic literature, even a star rating helps, but the more reviews, the better — not just so others can see my book, but so they know what they are getting. If you are a member of Goodreads, a review there is also very much appreciated — I am extremely grateful when someone takes the time to do this, and I want to take this opportunity to say thank you.
In relation to the opening paragraph, here is an excerpt — set in Stromness, Orkney — from The Care Industry, the first novel of The Greater Good. This poor book has been worked on, shelved, edited, shelved, rewritten, shelved, over and over, for several years now. However, once I have finished and published the fourth tale of The Lesser Evil, it will get the treatment it deserves. As such, consider this a draft. There will be considerable editing — I know I am a much better writer than when I crafted this:
John opened the window by the kitchen, while he waited for the grill to warm so he could make cheese on toast for his breakfast. He moved from window to window, mug of tea in hand, watching the town waking from its slumber. He could still smell the sea.
The salt of the ocean is a powerful thing. It serves as a metaphor. If you are child by the sea, it is forever in your blood. The longer you are away, the less potent the magic of the salt. The cravings for the ocean become greater and greater, malady with no known cause grows and you are drawn back to the coastline, to replenish the salt, transfuse and infuse your blood. John knew this.
The example he had discussed with Sally, when he had tried to explain the concept, had been of a beach pebble. He had patiently explained how someone walks along the tide-line, moving up and down the beach with the waves, their eyes drawn to the water, then the land, then the sky. Looking down they see a pebble, freshly cleaned by the ocean and shining. It holds mystery, beauty, magic. Where did it originate? How many years has it taken to wear? How long to arrive at this particular geographical point? Why is it different from all the other stones?
The beachcomber picks up the stone and places it in their pocket. It is only later they realise the magic has gone, as they themselves left the beach behind. The pebble, once bright, glistening and shiny, is now dull, the bands and colours muted, a sad reflection of the stone which originally arrested such attention. It looks drab on its own, with no other rocks it is out of place, no background to focus the gaze, no waves to polish.
Only by returning the pebble to the beach, to the caress of the waves, can the magic return, the touch of the sea restoring the life which captured the beachcomber’s original interest.
It had taken several attempts to explain this to Sally, but he had finally made her understand why he missed the sea and felt a return to Orkney would help him recover his own magic. She had laughed at his explanations and he smiled at the memory, finished his tea, and put the bread under the grill.