Midwinter (or midsummer) is almost here
In the north, this is the point on the turning of the yearly wheel where all begins to be laid bare. The leaves are mostly scattered in sudden fall and rapid squall, only to regather in corners and dips in the woods to whisper together of the passing of the year, rest before being recycled. The plant cover has disappeared, leaving the occasional skeletal reminder of once vibrant verdancy. The birds have dropped their feathers and grown winter plumage, the animals likewise and stores have been laid down, fat added and safe spaces weatherproofed. All very Brambly Hedge.
When they can, creatures small and large hide away from the cold, whether to dream in snug dens and burrows, or to head to warmer climes and enjoy their northern winter south of the equator. Conversely, it can also be the best time of the year for our civilised and oft-urbanised eyes to learn more about our wilder friends; as layers are stripped from the view, so too does the hidden appear with increasing ease.
Those leaves have left the branches, for so many months hidden from view, bare. We can see the birds and other tree dwelling creatures, watch for movement, or discover nests left from spring, the bundled dreys of the squirrels, or cracks, crevices and holes used by other small friends. Feeding signs are easier to spot on ground laid bare by the slumber of the flowers and plant cover. Sound travels further without the cushion of leaves, until the snow arrives and muffles all — and snow itself is a blank canvas for only a moment, before it is decorated and remade through tracks and trails.
Winter is a good time to learn to track, snow and frost make the ground easier to read than at other times of the year. Animals are creatures of habit and a fox will continue to use the same pathway in spring and summer that it does in winter — if you remember where he treads, then you will find yourself able to track him in tougher conditions, with surprising ease. Those whispers of an animal’s passing become chains of blinking lights when you already know exactly where to look; the thrill of finding a scuffed print, a bent stem of grass, or small twig impressed into soft earth is not to be sniffed at. It is remarkable how it makes you feel. The landscape is suddenly crossed with pathways, lines across a land weaving and entangling past to the present — follow in the right direction quick and far enough, and you’ll find the artist at the other end.
This ability, to see where creatures tread, also gives you the ability to think like an animal. If you already know the deer path, or the badger road, then you begin to question why — why does it head that way, at times seemingly meandering through thicker woods, or straight across a field, whether hugging the edge, or cutting across at an angle. Sometimes, in some places, you see ghosts of the past — a fox trail which, fox-generations ago, once followed the line of a long grubbed-out hedgerow, now seemingly brazen in the open.
The land itself whispers its secrets in winter, low light and shadowed bumps can tell of our own passing, our own generations ago. To be able to read a landscape like this is a powerful tool, one which I find strangely comforting — this land will remain, our marks and scuffs, scratches, hollows, walls, and boundaries all dissolved over the decades, some leaving a marker longer than others, as the world is remade once again. Like any trail, ours eventually erodes to nothing.
It is not ‘our’ world; we are merely passing through, bundles and strings of atoms and molecules which will be recycled over and over, long after we have gone. You and I are not really very much different from that fox, or the squirrel asleep in the tree. We leave our own footprints, leave our own scars on the world, our stories remembered for a generation or two, before themselves dissolving back into the vastness of a whole beyond reckoning.
Words are our legacy, our magic, and our ability to record them for others to read at some point in the future would be utterly alien to that fox. We are remarkable, and our lives are full of wonderful opportunity and happenstance. If only we remembered that more often.
I am still playing catch-up, and I suspect this game will continue for some time.
The new Mesolithic/nature/bushcraft project has moved forward a little since I mentioned it in the last newsletter. It won’t be released until I have a firm head start on the content, however. The last thing I need right now is to release something prematurely — I want to plan this carefully, and have several sections of the story already crafted before I send it out into the world. I don’t want to be caught out, having to rush this, nor push myself into troublesome deadlines I will struggle to meet. After all, this should be fun for me too!
This time of the year is always busy and full and, every year, a small part of me looks forward to the deep inhalation after all the festivities, that time to pause and begin to fit things into something of a more reasonable schedule once more. Which is not to say I do not enjoy Christmas or New Year, I really do! It is simply an acknowledgement that I also enjoy the rest of the year too. To be able to fit in training sessions and longer periods in which to write, for example, is something which can be lost at this season — even without a two month old to further absorb time (in the best possible way. Ailsa is full of smiles at the moment and her current favourite thing for Papa to do is to ‘sing’ the theme to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, or to howl like a wolf. She likes to duet, and to return her own small howls, which seems rather wonderful every time I change her.).
I have a question. As I edit this piece to send it to you, I wondered if it would be better to send in smaller chunks, perhaps make two newsletters from this one, for example? If you think that would work better, or if you prefer to get a long read, do let me know!
I shall move on here, as this newsletter might already be shaping up to be a little long…
Only One Death is a part of a group promotion entitled Epic Fantasy III. This giveaway features many books which, as the name suggests, are all epic fantasy, all for free, all with their author’s blessing. Have a look, get yourself a free tale or two (or forty), all for the simple price of an email address.
I want to add how much I enjoy finding new readers in this manner. When I receive the email addresses of those who have signed up for this newsletter in exchange for my free story, it is always fun to see them stay, month after month, open each letter, and sometimes even say hello. Each time that happens makes me very happy indeed. Thank you.
Don’t forget the Kindle Unlimited group, The Fantastic Kindle Universe, is still current, until the end of December, and features my novel, Death In Harmony.
Similarly, Only One Death is still enrolled in Sci-fi Fantastic, until the 3rd of January.
Do have a peek at all three of these, there’s a lot to see, and many books to choose from.
The Wheel Turns
(but also about words, bushcraft and legacy)
I could write considerable reams about this, so I will attempt to keep my observations and thoughts limited, for sake of brevity and time.
If you like reading fantasy tales, you will already know about the Wheel of Time (WOT), Robert Jordan’s vast, sprawling epic, finished by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death, even if you never read it. I was just the right age for WOT to capture me in its clutches, and not really let go for many years.
When I was young, my parents gave me a £10 a month book allowance, and I would spend a LOT of time hiding away in Stromness Books and Prints (do take some time to read this if you can, it is a good introduction to a remarkable place, one which makes life better simply by existing). It is still my favourite bookshop in the entire world, and I’ve been in a few. At that time, when carefully spending my book allowance, I was watched over by the remarkable bookseller Tam*, who very quickly understood exactly what I wanted to read — vast, huge and thick doorstops of fantasy, the longer, the better, preferably in trilogies or series of five or more. Basically, I was a wordaholic, and I devoured epic after epic. Not all have stayed in my memory, but some played a very important role in my development as a reader and a writer.
I can’t now recall if he pointed out The Eye of the World, the first WOT novel, or whether I spotted it on the shelf myself (it’s easy to spot, being a wedge of paper eminently suitable for holding doors open), but that doesn’t really matter. I bought it and read both it and the sequel, The Great Hunt, very, very quickly. Then began the wait for the third novel (still my favourite of the series): The Dragon Reborn. I didn’t have to wait long, months, rather than the years some readers wait for certain novels. But it felt like a VERY long time indeed.
But this section is not about the books. That is a story and series of thoughts for another day. This section is about the TV series.
I, like many others, have worried about the adaptation Amazon have pumped considerable cash into. Would the writing be up to scratch, what about casting, or special effects? How exactly will they deal with an epic of nearly four and a half million words? Or the 2782 distinct, named characters (many with more than one name)?
At the time of writing, I have watched the first six episodes and I am happy with what I have seen. There are flaws (more on this shortly), and things missing (which I suspect will be fleshed out in flashback scenes, so as to not spoil things for those who haven’t read the books) but, on balance, it gets a big thumbs up from me.
The diversity is excellent (a pet hate of mine is those who complain about diversity in fantasy, I mean, come on, you argue about that but the magic, dragons and monsters, or general FANTASY nature of it are fine?). The casting perfect. I love that the darkness of the books is present and that they’ve shifted the ages of the main characters from being in their late teens to their early twenties — it feels better this way. The costumes, the acting, and the music also deserve a mention.
Above all, however, I appreciate the writing. The showrunner, Rafe Judkins, has done a strong job of taking something loved by millions and making it something slightly different, more fitting for our times, whilst keeping the principal story. That is not an easy task, not at all, and some people will always feel this version is not for them.
For those of us who know the story in and out, it still feels fresh and new, with certain little details appearing and often not yet being explained (which is a great tactic to keep everyone engaged — it rewards both those new to the series and those who have grown up with it). Yes, there have been parts missed out or altered, characters I would have loved to have seen missing entirely (so far?), but that doesn’t matter — and this is the crucial point — the books are still there, after all. This is something different, but familiar. A brand-new well-worn coat, or an old friend you’ve just met.
I am hopeful this will continue, building on this strong foundation and, I suspect, it will.
It is not perfect, some details seem to be missing, such as where are the smaller towns and villages? Some are mentioned by name, admittedly, but not shown. The landscape seems too empty, compared to the world Jordan created — I hope this will change as the story progresses.
The thing which has irritated most, however, is a common complaint for me. When a show has a budget of millions, why, or why, can’t they hire someone to check the bushcraft details? Who, for example, would ever leave a bow strung, bent and susceptible to the weather? Especially when care is taken in the books to mention the fear of a damp bowstring.
Making fires is another example. Many of the characters are supposed to be seasoned travellers or country people and they’d know how to make fires economically, quickly, and well. (It should be mentioned, however, that The Wheel of Time is not the only show or movie to irritate me in such a fashion; I could name many more.) I was half tempted to tweet them, offer my services as a consultant (reasonable rates, would bring my own knife, flint and steel).
This train of thought led directly to a reappraisal of my own knowledge and love of bushcraft and, crucially, how I could share this with more people. In other words, the bushcraft inaccuracies and irritations in The Wheel of Time show have brought me to that point I mentioned last newsletter — where I have finally worked out the right path to take to share bushcraft knowledge and love both, in an entertaining, informative manner.
I could write considerably more about The Wheel of Time, of how it grew alongside the internet for example, or how (in my opinion, through age and experience) it could have done with a far more ruthless editor. There have been all manner of hot takes on WOT, recently and over the last few decades, but I will leave this section with one final thought — if you think that the women characters in WOT have suddenly taken on far too much of a prevalent role, that they merely existed as background characters in the books, that the story was just about the boys, then I have suspect you did not read the same books I did. Could Jordan have done it better, made that clearer? Yes, of course, but working with what he had, at the time he did (remember much of the earlier books were crafted in the 1980s), I’d argue he did a pretty good job of creating memorable and powerful characters, whether male or female.
One day I may get chance and time to write more about the books, but for now, I think I’ve said all I needed to share.
*That the father of one of the principal characters was also called Tam was a fact I cherished. It felt like a strange secret — and I never knew if Tam himself knew his namesake even existed. I like to think that if I had ever had the chance to talk to him about literature later in my life, about how my tastes grew and explored, how I came to love George Mackay Brown, for example, Tam would have been happy. I do not think he judged teenage me, however, not at all — I think he knew that the key to the love of reading is to read, and read what you love. A simple statement, but one which is often forgotten. If you are forced to read a book and do not enjoy it, it can taint your love of reading. Better to simply suck in those words you enjoy, until the craving becomes too great and your tastes expand naturally. Tam died last year, but he lives on in the memory and libraries of tens of thousands of people. That is a real legacy.
Thoughts on Scrivener and Process
This newsletter is the last one I will be crafting on Scrivener, having purchased Scrivener 3 (they skipped number 2 for Windows to bring it in line with the Mac version). As such, all my projects are slowly being moved over to the new software, and I am learning the differences and improvements as I go.
A common complaint about Scrivener is the steep learning curve for the software and, in some aspects, that is true — it is feature-rich, full of worth and value, and deeply compatible with individual tastes and styles of writing. As such, it can be intimidating. However, I view it in a slightly different way. I like complexity, just as much as love simplicity, both have a time and a place and, often, I find what is seemingly simple can become complex and vice versa. Scrivener, to me, is what you want it to be, it offers options and choices in personal style which is lacking in other software.
Process in writing is something which will forever be interesting to me — I can read piece after piece about how other writers work, and nod at parts and shake my head at others. All the time remembering how everyone is different. I think this is the key point I am trying to make here: how one person’s essentials are another’s useful additions, or even ignored entirely — and there is NOTHING wrong with that. Too often writers, especially young writers, can harbour a fear they are somehow doing something wrong. They — you — are not. If you can put one word after another and repeat, then you are a writer. It might take years to reach your a point where you are comfortable with your own style, with your voice, or your process, or your method, but it will come, as long as you keep working at it.
And working at something can be difficult in this age of instant gratification. For this reason, I see the shift to Scrivener 3 as worth it. I know I will have to think, put my mind to work, and I like that.
The next newsletter will be drafted in Scrivener 3 — it is a year-end piece and may arrive either late this year or early next. It seemed a sensible place to shift the newsletter project over. I’ve already shifted or started other projects in the software, but this one seems somehow like a milestone. This newsletter is the 42nd I have sent, which is a lot of words I’ve shared with you, and I like that too. There are still plenty more where they came from.
And, finally for this section, if you are also interested in different writing processes, I wrote this a while ago about my own. My drafting process has only slightly altered since then, so it seems relevant to share; have a read if you too enjoy the wiring beneath the board.
The Value of Words and Writing
(but also about my own self-worth)
At one point in my life, I began to associate writing with not working. Crafting words was an escape, I was told, it was not a proper and decent use of my time. Better to simply put childlike dreams away in a box and grow up.
I have always written things, ever since I was very, very small and my writing has always been valued by others, even when I was that tiny child. My imagination often outstripped my abilities with language, which led to a lot of experimentation in how to put together a story. By the time I went to university (the first, unsuccessful time), I had that ridiculous confidence of the young. (I thought I was much better than I actually was.)
There are moments in life where crossroads appear — glaringly obvious crossroads, not the subtle options of pausing to tie a shoelace, or running for one bus instead of sauntering for the next. No, those huge, great neon-lit ‘go this way and your life will go in one direction, go that, and another’ crossroads. Going to university that first time was one of those. I was worried that my first choice of destination was not going to offer me a place and, to cut a long story short, I didn’t wait to find out, instead accepting a place elsewhere, on a course I thought might be okay but wasn’t really what I wanted. Again, to cut another tale into the briefest of snippets — it wasn’t what I wanted and I should have waited, as my first option offered me an unconditional offer.
The course tutor, at least one of them, was not much older than I was at the time, which felt odd. They also did not really know how to teach and I quickly lost interest and gained irritation. I was also distracted by a number of other things glittering and shiny, and eventually I left university (to return elsewhere, a few years later, to study archaeology instead).
A part of that abandoned degree was a creative writing course. I think one of the only things I took away from it was the simple (not really simple) ability to accept criticism of my work. Accept it, yes, but also be prepared to constructively argue where I thought it was wrong. Not all criticism is the wisest, after all. I gained that ability, yes, but I lost my love of creative writing. After all, I was told, fantasy fiction was frowned upon as not real writing, not really worth the pen on the paper. Better to learn to write something literary (which to me at the time seemed very much like code for ‘ridiculously boring’). Since then, genre fiction has rightfully begun to be explored in a more academic fashion. About time too.
I made a decision then, before I was even twenty, to live life to the fullest and gain in as many experiences as I could; to look and listen and watch; to ensure that I had something to write about, something I knew, something which would add depth to those oh-so-boring novels I thought I should concentrate on when I finally regained my love of writing.
But there were no surprises there, dear reader — when I did find myself sneakily scribbling words, they were not based on the sensibilities of literary fiction, but appeared to be some form of fantasy, after all. (Incidentally, if anyone ever tells you that literary fiction=literature, kindly do your best to explain that, no, that is clearly not the case. I could scribble reams about this nonsense, perpetuated by a certain section of the press and a certain section of society, but I have no time to do so. Which is probably a good thing, as it might prove very boring itself.)
However, to return to the first paragraph in this section, even after I regained a love of crafting words, other things conspired to ensure that I began to feel as though my writing was not just unworthy, but that it would have been far better to spend that time on other things, such as watching television, for example. Again, long story short, I slowed writing once more and essentially spiralled down and down into a dark and sad place.
Fast forward some years, and I have learned a number of things. That deep-set aversion to the writer is not a universal thing — in many countries I have visited or lived, they simply get it. People appreciate writers and writing. They understand how writing is valuable art, how reading is crucial to development, and how writers are not to be pitied or scorned. I wonder when and what it was that encouraged those in the UK/US to associate writing with laziness, with writers not really contributing to society as much as, say, a banker, or lawyer does (in their eyes). I feel sad that this is the case — ask yourself, for example, why is it that actors in the latest superhero movie can be lauded, but the writer of the story itself often gets little to no extra money at all. $5000 and a ticket to the premier of a movie which makes $1 billion?
Words are our species’ oldest and most enduring magic. I can pick up a book and hear the voice of someone dead for many years, sometimes long after their name has been forgotten (number one on this list, for example). How wonderful is that? To be able to share stories and ideas, implant characters into your head, listen to them speak, hear their thoughts, watch their deeds, over a time scale far outside our own lifetimes — this is a true marvel.
I sometimes still struggle. I still sometimes find myself convinced that I should be doing something else, anything else, other than actually writing. This is a difficult thing, something which is taking a long time to rid myself of and can rear its ugly head in the form of procrastination or aversion to working on what I should be working on.
When I realise this is the case, I tell myself how it is better to get even than mad, and the best way to do that is to keep knocking out those words, but it can be hard. Years of circumstance and my own lingering and ridiculous lack of self-worth combine to try and trip me up, set me back, but I keep plodding on, keep kicking against the pricks and sneaking those serious messages into something that is fun, engaging, and designed to keep you up late at night reading, until you simply can’t read any more.
And, above all, I think it is important I (and you) remember that we are all works in progress. Who would want to be a finished version, after all? Better to give myself a break, cut myself some slack (and a host of other clichés), and pick up where I left off, and carry on regardless.
This is likely to be the last newsletter before the solstice and midwinter (or midsummer for those of you in the south). I may get another sent out before Christmas, but it is unlikely, if I am to be honest!
As such, I’m going to leave this here by saying I hope you all have as wonderful festive time as circumstances allow. The world is a complicated, difficult place at the moment, and it is important we all continue to find the little joys, which can amount to so much more.
Photos are all mine, from a rather extensive collection of tracks, trails, signs and scuffs in the ground. It can be very difficult to photograph the tiny signs or, more accurately, often there’s little to be picked up from a photograph. Tracking requires four dimensions, not just two. Hopefully I selected some images which are relatively clear and some which are a bit (or a lot) tougher to identify. Do you know what mammals left these signs? I’ll give you the answers next time!