Lists and Woods

1) Free Books, 2) Habits, 3) Travel Blogging, 4) Cover reveals, and more…

Moving through a natural woodland is different from passing through any other environment. You cannot rush, you cannot allow yourself to miss the little details. The more time you spend amongst the trees, the more you realise this and the quicker your pace alters: slow, slower, pause, repeat. Essentially, you return to a more natural state, a rhythm as old as our species itself.

You listen, you look, these senses you already know well pulling in huge amounts of data. For most people, the vast majority of their information comes from sight and sound, but spend time in the woods and you learn to touch things — that tree bark, that rock or leaf, for example, you learn to inhale in a different way, deliberately sampling the air and all the varied perfumes it brings. You can even learn to taste that same air, or pick a leaf or fruit and chew.

Then there are the senses we don’t always realise exist, let alone consciously utilise. Some of these can be a little unnerving when you first start to actively use and acknowledge them — some people call them a sixth sense which, quite frankly, is silly. We have far more than five senses, after all. Learning to listen to that little voice in your head, the one which tells you something is watching you, or that there’s something ahead on the trail, these things take time, but it is time which is well spent indeed. 

Of course, this isn’t supernatural at all, but simply your brain processing different information and picking up on tiny details you have consciously missed. Perhaps a change in the air brought a tendril of scent? We often fail to use our noses as we can — try it, now, sitting reading this, open your nostrils wide and inhale slowly and deliberately, you may be surprised what you can sample. Similarly, learning to snuffle like a dog at a scent trail is possible too, involving faster inhalation and sampling, your sense of smell actually being worked properly. Both these things can seem like strange magic, but also seek to remind us how civilisation can dull our own bodily functions. 

The woodland is a complex machine of many parts. It exists on different scales and even across time. I have walked across Scottish hillsides, devoid of any tree cover, but have known from the wide flourishes of native bluebells and anemones that I was walking through the ghost of a wood. If you look closely at the ground around you, you can often see small depressions, pockmarks from where trees were once blown over, tearing the ground and leaving their mark, long after they have rotted into the soil, eaten by large mouths and small. 

Last rays before night.

There exists a special light in woods, it filters through seasons and sun and rain, drifting through lifetimes, whether that of the tiny flowers carpeting the forest floor, your own, or that of the grandest oak. 

Wooded mountain valleys can maintain microclimates of their own, entirely different to that a stone’s throw away. Each area attracting a differing clientele, a question of scale within scales, Matryoshka-style.

One side of a wooded valley is entirely different to the other. Different species of trees allow different understoreys, different flora and fauna, all within a tiny area. You can even teach yourself to know what species of trees are present by listening to the wind — different leaves make different sounds, watch, listen, learn: one rustle for oak and another for ash.

To learn about the wood is to learn about life itself. It can teach us as much about ourselves as it does about this tree or that, or who that caterpillar becomes, what chewed those holes, why is this leaf patterned like that, which friend left those tracks? 

To learn about the wood is to be reminded of what matters, to be rejuvenated, to be healed of those myriad invisible wounds we receive within the urban environment. 

This process can be difficult for some people, taking a step back, revisiting atrophied senses, sometimes feeling enclosed and claustrophobic, primal and imagined fears rearing their head — but the results are worth it. Once, a friend of mine was concerned about my leaving my job to spend time in the woods on my own, worried about the dangerous lone men in the woods, with their knives and axes. I gently pointed out these men are nearly always fictional, that they simply don’t exist and I would be fine out there. With my knives and axe. Alone. It’s not hard to see how these stories and fears appear — if hikers or kayakers had met me at my wildest, with a long beard, woodsmoke-scented, wearing my axe on my belt, a knife at the other side and another around my neck, then I wonder what they would have thought. In the UK, certainly, these things are no longer common, nor always legal.

(As a counterpoint, I remember one long, rambling conversation with my sadly now dead dissertation tutor, Marek Zvelebil. We were talking about woodlands, and life in woods, and he explained about Finnish settlers to the mid-west US, and how they would often plant trees all around their homestead, close, blocking extensive views, the wide-open prairie deeply unsettling for them, having come from a place where the woods were deep and all-pervasive.)

To me, to walk in a woodland, especially one less-managed, less tamed, is to hear the voices of our ancestors, to understand how we are but a blink in time, connected to something vast and essentially, reassuringly, incompressible. They are our ancestral home and to sit beneath the spreading branches of ancient friends is to step back in time, become something we are perhaps meant to be.

Windthrown.
Hello

There is a lot happening in my world. As, I suspect, there is in yours. 

Sometimes, it helps to make a list, or even a list of lists, all those things dumped from the brain onto paper (or digitised, but I think paper works well for this), removing pressure and giving a structure, an outline, a way ahead.

There is an art to the perfect list, it meanders, each noted line, each bullet point a coordinate in a mental map, a trackway to how your brain works. One thing sparks another, which in turn ignites more. I miss my early journals and diaries — they are currently stored in Scotland (thanks Lydia and Euan!), I cannot reread these, but I know there are lists. Lots of lists. Each is an episode in my life, each is a partial ‘Previously, on Alex’ and, simultaneously, ‘Next time, on Alex’. They are miniature guidebooks of their own.

Then comes the next step, the filtering, the tidying, sorting, the threading and reordering. Take the next path and find your way. Lists offer clarity and decision, as long as they are carefully considered and acted upon. 

I find list-making a similar process to tracking habits and behaviours, keeping notes and recording observations. As I am sure I’ve mentioned before, I keep a simple two-page tracker every month, which currently details 20 different things on a daily basis, as well as recording my location, what books I’ve read, and sundry other details of day-to-day life. This gives a surprising amount of data in a small package, and helps me to focus my mind and see what is going on behind the scenes, all those little things we can easily miss unless they are right there in front of us.

Lists are the same for me — the way the process of list-making aids my concentration and direction. It works even better if I run things past someone else too, giving me more clarity and focus, and also adding a layer of responsibility and obligation that would not be there otherwise.

An image which is scented. Lavender fields, Gard.
Free Books!
For July, I’m taking part in two rather exciting free book group promotions. Both are at StoryOrigin.

The first (by date) such giveaway is entitled The Fantastic Collection, where you can find over forty free and varied books to choose from. This group promotion runs until the end of July. 

The second is called Epic Fantasy and also features over forty free books. This one runs until the 2nd of August and, as the name suggests (!), is full of epic fantasy to read.

I do hope you have time to look through both of these and download anything you like the look of. There’s certainly a lot to choose from, including Only One Death, by yours truly.
Taking photos of rapidly-moving long-tailed tits is tough… Still, bokeh-tastic.
Lists. And listicles.

I have a piece/essay/post in progress, all about the differences between travel writing and travel blogging — and how they affect the world. This essay has had a long gestation, ever since I realised I could not, in good conscious, follow my original plan of making money from travel blogging.

Instead, the more I travelled, the more I saw places which had been utterly altered by tourism and the negative changes it can bring. The crucial point for me was when I found the places which had NOT been changed, which still captured the soul of a place and a people, whether tiny restaurants run by a husband and wife, using local ingredients for a bare handful of local recipes, used only by locals, or beaches, hikes, or temples unknown to the masses. I realised then that I could either promote those places on a blog, knowing they would change if others followed in my footsteps, or I could remain silent about them, instead promoting the bigger attractions, the ones everyone talks about. Neither option made any sense to me.

However, this section is not about this essay, as interesting as I think it is. Instead, it is about the world of The Lesser Evil, and a cunning plan I developed a little while ago, to be enacted once my revamped, long-delayed website is up and running (VERY SOON). I do not think it is anything any other fantasy writer has thus far done, either, but I could be wrong in that — I did search for examples, but found nothing similar to the ideas I have, which seems promising.

The gorge of the Ardèche. Stunning – can’t wait to canoe/kayak this.
By now, I suspect, you should know that the Tales of the Lesser Evil are introductions to places, characters, and themes, all of which will return in the longer work I have planned. As I have been writing these pieces, whether shorter novelettes or full sized novels, I’ve kept thinking how I could continue to share extra material, bonus layers of detail, without the heavy time investment needed to write more Tales. 

Then a relatively simple solution presented itself, as these things so often do — my brain making a strange connection:

Why not write travel blogging pieces for a place which only exists in my mind?

This neatly solves the issue of wanting to keep fresh, extra material available, along with the fact I do not have to worry about ruining a locale. I started brainstorming post ideas — you know the sort: listicles, clickbait titles, keyword-heavy, SEO-friendly. But for a fantasy world. My fantasy world. I very quickly had a substantial list. 

For example, here are a few of the titles from that brainstorm:

7 Ruined Cities You Must Explore

9 Rumours Concerning the Seafolk (that are actually true)

11 Monsters to Run From, and 2 You Can’t

5 Astounding Underground Labyrinths

11 Cities which are Far Older Than You Think

13 Dishes You Must Try on a Visit to Youlmouth

Of course, the numbers can (and probably will) change, but this brief list shows the sort of information and worldbuilding background I can add, using this format. You get the idea!

In theory, ensuring these will be clickbait/SEO/keyword friendly means they will bring people to my website, hopefully luring them into buying and reading the stories themselves. And, most importantly, it is fun. 

At some point in the future, I may even run a competition for the best titles you, the readers, can come up with. Maybe you want to know more about the shadowy librarian-assassins, or learn what happened to the Ninth Tower in Eastsea? The winning ideas would be crafted and shared by me, which would also be a fun thing to do. I’m all for cross-pollination, and reader-engagement.
And, speaking of reader-engagement, I have a further idea which involves you — if you have a favourite passage or sentence from my stories, give me a shout (email) with the details and I will incorporate it into a forthcoming cunning marketing idea. Watch this space (or, actually, my Instagram and Twitter spaces — and if anyone can recommend an alternative to Instagram, I would love that [I’m hopeful the Android version of Hive Social may fill that gap], especially since their CEO has now gone public with their plan to more-or-less drop photographs in favour of video, in order to compete with TikTok [and more on TikTok soon…]).
Not a bad spot to work.
Past Issues

If you’ve had a look at my Revue page in the last week, you might have noticed the exciting development which is the imported content from all my past newsletters. I wonder if they heard my plea in the last newsletter, about this exact feature? Of course, this was seemingly delayed until just after I had also copied them to my own website, but that is not really a problem — probably best to have copies in more than one place. 

Now that this has been done, I still have to update the internal links for these previously-published newsletters, so that they no longer point to Substack, but to Revue or NotATravelWriter.com — and this will take a bit of time. Then I can delete my Substack account. If you are interested in why I left Substack for Revue, there’s a newsletter for that, here, the last one published to Substack (to be honest, I’m tempted to delete everything BUT that piece, but I suspect the numbers of accounts is more important than my explanation of where they lost me).

I am rather pleased that all my past newsletters are now in one place, (or three places, technically) and it makes me feel a little better that this is Issue Number 34, rather than 5. I will keep posting each newsletter on my website too. I suspect this newsletter may become a bit shorter once I can share more on my site — each email often gets longer than I intend, and I STILL never seem to be able to tell all I wish.

I do love a good storm, and clouds are magical things.
Reading

Very briefly, as I am aware this newsletter is growing rather unwieldy and large, I’d like to mention a couple of recent fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed (or am currently enjoying in the case of the latter). I wish I had more time to talk about these.

  • The Blacktongue Thief, by Christopher Buehlman, is certainly worth a read. It is an interesting take on the genre, not for the faint-hearted, a bit dark in places (which, as you know, I like), and with fascinating grey characters — no one is a shiny hero. To me, in parts it was reminiscent of 1970s Sword and Sorcery novels, or even those of earlier decades, Robert E. Howard, for example. It also sometimes felt a little like a novelisation of a roleplaying campaign, which I thought worked surprisingly well.
  • The Shadow of the Gods, by John Gwynne is the novel I have (literally, just) finished. I would go so far to say it’s probably my favourite fantasy read of the year, thus far. There are three POV characters, each different in voice and character, and each feels real, as though the author is simply recording their saga. This is not easy to do, and the overall craft involved in this novel is quite simply astounding. The titular Gods and related cosmology, along with the human interaction with these and their followers feels both fresh and new, but also ancient and real. With a strong Norse theme (always a winner for me, thanks to my Orcadian upbringing), this story pulls you along at a fair pace — it has been a while since I’ve struggled with putting a book to one side to sleep. Definitely one I’d heartily recommend, and I can’t wait for the sequel.
Gard was joyously covered in butterflies.
Writing

Look at this shiny new cover! Coming VERY VERY VERY SOON!

Each cover contains hidden clues for the later works…
Here’s a rough blurb, not the final version, but it should give you a taste of the story (it is fear-flavoured):

Flin knows it is always best to run, but sometimes you have to fight, defend the innocent: and no one will take her child.

Flin knows stories. She knows songs. Give her an instrument and she’ll play it. She can lead dances slow and dances fast, make grown men and women weep, make them laugh. Her teacher told her she was the best he had ever seen. But all Flin wants is to find the home she lost.

She certainly did not mean to have a baby.

Now alone in the world but for Kadan, Flin knows almost constant fear, but she will never give up. Somewhere, in a high village deep in the woods, far away from the big cities, her family — and safety — await. Nothing will stop her finding them, not the ghosts in the mountains, not wolves or lions, not magic, man, or death itself.

And nothing will take her baby. Not again.

Set at two pivotal points, Death In Harmony weaves together strands of Flin’s life, connected by her powerful determination, her will to survive, and the need to protect Kadan, no matter the cost — and the cost can be very high indeed.
And then there’s this, also coming VERY VERY VERY SOON!
Slightly different format for this first anthology.

Expect more details of both of these books within the month.

Finally

Today is the 14th of July which, as you probably know, carries weight here in France. There will no doubt be fireworks (or more fireworks, seeing as there were some last night too). 

Since my last newsletter, I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time in Gard, which included visiting nearby Ardèche and the magnificent gorge and outrageously good Chauvet 2 cave replica. This is somewhere I’ve longed to see since it was first announced, having studied the cave art many years ago. The replica itself was even better than I had hoped, and to see the art in 3D is completely different to studying photo or video. I was a little disappointed with the attached museum, The Aurignacian Gallery, but I later understood why this was a little bare-bones, as the Cité de la Préhistoire (a museum of prehistory), which is relatively close by, is simply astounding. The displays and layout are perfectly toned, and are interesting for people with little or no knowledge whilst still engaging for those who have studied this period in depth. We allowed a couple of hours to go around it, and only just cleared the Palaeolithic — and will, therefore, have to return. There was also an exhibition about anthropological work in Western New Guinea, which was remarkable. I could talk a LOT more about these visits.

I also had a scorpion sharing my shower.

Little friend. Gently removed and placed outside.
And then we went up to the mountains in Isère, where I had to remove a tiny dragon from beside the toilet.
Another little friend. Also carefully placed outside.

Now I’m wondering what I will find in the bathroom when I visit Gruissan, in Aude, later this week… I can’t wait to see the sea and feel the salted wind once more.

In other news, I now have my Carte de Séjour, or residence permit — this is truly excellent news and, as an excellent bonus, means I should now be able to get vaccinated here. I also now have a French bank account (both of these things thanks to the ceaseless work of Aurélie). I still have a lot of bureaucracy to complete, forms to fill and documents to secure, more of which in the next newsletter.

As you probably know, I like to finish these newsletters with something positive, some way of tying the whole together. This time, however, I just want to say I hope you are all well. Look out for each other, won’t you? We are all connected, after all.

I honestly felt that the anti-Covid protection added a certain something to this.

This newsletter has been brought to you by the power of parentheses (of which there seem to be more than usual…).

Photographs, as ever, are all mine, and are from my recent travels in Isère, Ardèche, and Gard, here in France.