Saturday, 31 December 2011

Smart Advice from the Smart Bitches


Santa in the silver haired, elfin form of my big sister Nin brought me a stellar present: “Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels” by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan.

You might know the Smart Bitches.  If you don’t, jump on over to their blog, Smart Bitches Trashy Books and laugh yourself silly.  It’s brilliant.  Smartly brilliant.  Very, very funny and serves as both a cheerleader and a critical friend to the romance genre as whole.  Dimly remember a book but can’t remember the title?  The Smart Bitches community can identify it in a heartbeat.  Want to read some stomach-achingly spot on and laugh-your-socks-off funny reviews?  Smart Bitches is your friend.

I knew the book would be funny.  It’s also eye-opening.  As I’m flicking through the pages, laughing out loud and feeling that nice, warm fuzzy feeling a person gets from feeling part of a humungous worldwide fan-girl community, I keep having KERPLUNK penny dropping moments. 

I finished my first full length manuscript in 2011 – Merely Players.   But I know it’s problematic.  Writing the sequel, Boundless as the Sea (working title, highly likely to change), I know I’m going to go back to the drawing board with Merely PlayersBoundless as the Sea is easier to write.  It jumps from the pen onto the page. I’m enjoying it more.  But why?

Is it because I like the characters?  Well yes...

It is because their conflict is clearly defined?  Well yes...

But that’s not just it.  Then on page 75 a quote from Laura Kinsale (and if you haven’t noticed how much I LOVE Laura Kinsale, hop over to my Keeper’s Shelf AKA The Library.  She is the single best romance writer around today):

 “The man carries the book.”

The man carries the book.

Even when the heroine is too stupid to live, we can still stomach her if the hero is compelling.  And in Merely Players he isn’t.

Curse it, damn it.  It’s all about the hero.  I’m a voracious romance reader – why didn’t I know that?  Well the truth is, I did.  It was buried in there somewhere, but the iron curtain that sits between writer-me and reader-me somehow manages to place scales on my eyes.

The books I love the most are the ones with the most memorable heroes.  Of course they are (see below 'the evolution of the hero from Beyond Heaving Bosoms - love it!).



And knowing that, helps me to hone my focus. 

In Boundless as the Sea, Richard is much easier hero than Ghis in Merely Players.  He’s strong and pissed off, but he’s honourable and loyal and protective.  Ghis, on the other hand, is more difficult because he’s stroppy and self obsessed.  He needs a bigger redemption to make him palatable and a GREAT sense of humour to engage the reader from the offset.  Less drama, more laughs.

Ok, I have my marching orders.

Thank you Smart Bitches, you rock.

And Nin, you elf haired (see gratuitous picture of an elf) kindle obsessive, you rock too.  

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Inn Keeper's Wife: Seasonal Flash Fiction

This post is inspired by two stubborn, independent women who I love very much: my mum (age 77) and my daughter. My daughter is four. This week she had her first ever nativity play in she played the role of the Inn Keeper's wife. This was not without controversy. My baby had been convinced she was going to be Mary. No, she had been told she was going to be Mary. But the rehearsals had taken place whilst she was not there and on the Big Day she was the Inn Keeper's wife.

Cue major PR job. Did she know just how important the Inn Keeper's wife was? Without the Inn Keeper's wife Mary and Joseph would have been out on their ear. 

Later, I was recounting this to my Mum. "Funny," she said. "I was just talking about this with my sister today. I was wondering who delivered the baby? They never talk about that, do they? I mean, she didn't have any women with her. It must have been the Inn Keeper's wife."

 Faced with choruses of angels and gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, Mary's birth experience does tend to be rather glossed over. Well no longer. This flash fiction is for all women who have given birth - and more than anyone, for the Inn Keeper's wife.





The Inn Keeper's Wife 

I had always liked the smell of the stables, the dusty sweet smell of fresh straw, and the warm bodies of the cows. It was my favourite part of the day, that pre-dawn hour when I crept out of the inn and fumbled in the darkness to milk the cow. It was a time of rich, velvety silence, bar the soft shuffles and lowing of the cows, a time for thoughts and prayers, a time to reckon up the accounts and then dream of the fields of my childhood, before I wed Jacob and the Inn.

Just before dawn it was my place, the stable. Not at night when the Jacob bustled about, helping travellers and brushing down hard-mouthed, over laden mules. Not when the stables were crowded with people shucking off their burdens and rinsing the dust from their feet.

I didn’t want to share it, not really. If she hadn’t looked so tired, if he hadn’t looked so worried. I remember that time myself. Feeling sore and huge, ankles swollen in the heat and face puffy, the baby weighing like a rock between your legs, ready to drop. No maternal exhilaration at that stage. No delicate flush of anticipation. Just heaviness and fatigue, aching hips and sore feet. I couldn’t turn her away, not in that state. So I let them rest, just for the night. Not in the rooms; Jacob was clear on that.  The rooms were for them that had money, had booked. Not for stray couples in threadbare cloaks with barely coin between them.

It was sometime in the night that I heard her cry, the gut-deep wail that told me her time had come. Jacob stirred, turning over, pummeling the straw-stuffed pillow beneath his head. I sat up. Listened.

 No woman should have her time alone.

 Wrapping my cloak around me, I inched my way through the dark rooms. I could hear the heavy breathing of wine-soaked men, the rustling of the hens.

She was in the darkness on her hands and knees. Moonlight streamed through the stable door, painting a stark portrait in black and silver. I could see her tunic was soaked with blood. Her husband knelt beside her, hands on her back. I could see his lips move, in prayer. Prayer! When what she needed was water.  Hissing, I shooed him away and knelt beside her, feeling for the baby’s head.

 “It’s soon,” I whispered. “Your babe will be here soon.”

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Blood Witch: A Dreadful Distraction and Other Temptations

There is an evil murky bog that lurks in the middle of a novel. Reminiscent of the Swamp of Sadness in the wonderful Neverending Story, it sucks you down, dripping with despair. It's a dangerous time. A time when you can be Turned From The Path and distracted by the delightful curse of new ideas.

Particularly when indulging in the odd flash fiction challenge like the recent, wonderful, Divine Hell Blog Challenge. One such distraction came upon me after I wrote my 150 word flash fiction on Heresy. A kind of Medieval Inquisition meets Misfits type tale, whose main characters, like Athena, sprang fully formed from my head some time in the middle of a shower.

Instead of pursuing my novel (currently sitting at its NaNoWriMo Goal of just over 50,000 words) I wrote the first page of this other story. Working title: Blood Witch. This is it.

anime medieval Pictures, Images and Photos

BLOOD WITCH

It was stifling hot, full of jagged shadows and darkness. Smelt like dust and droppings, dead things. Caetlen gripped herself, pinching her thin arms between fingers and thumbs. Holding herself together. She had always liked the darkness, the quiet times of the night. No one to stare if she drifted into one of her dream-talks. Just Hallie cuddled up against her, her warm body solid as a block, hair like spring grass; a tangle of chubby arms and soft snores. Hallie! Terror clutched at her then, as real as a vulture’s claws. She had lost Hallie. They had taken her away, somewhere within this black-stone labyrinth. Her rounded face had been blank with shock, not even tearful. She hadn’t understood that she was being taken, hadn’t understood what it meant being Caetlen’s sister. She would have been better off left a foundling on some convent doorstep than in Caetlen’s care.

Caetlen the witch-girl, Caetlen the heretic.

She knew what they did to witches’ families, even the little ones. They’d trick her into saying she had seen incubi rollicking in Caetlen’s virgin bed, watched Caetlen cast spells and summon demons. They’d find a way to do that. And if they didn’t, they’d torture her. Five years old. They’d torture her until she bore witness.

God, let her confess straightaway. Let her think it a story, a good joke. Let her think it a game. But she remembered the confusion in Hallie’s face, round circle of horror that her mouth made before she began to cry, and despair scraped at her, trapped her in a black pit that was worse, almost worse than the chamber.

“Think Caetlen, think,” she tried to whisper. A little whisper, a noise to drown out the rustling in the shadows, the drawn out silence of apprehension. “Think.”

But she had never been much of a thinker. Not a clever girl, not wise or savvy. No solutions presented themselves. She sat down on the floor, on an old piece of sacking and stared at the smoke-stained walls.

She was deep below the monastery hemmed in by four foot stone walls. Thick walls that would dampen sound, silence screaming. She had seen them before in one of her drifting, inconstant waking-dreams. Stepped into them, close enough to touch. Felt their heat, saw the machines. Heard screaming. It had been her own voice. She realised that when she came to and found herself outside the baker’s, clutching her throat. People stared at her in the street, crossed themselves. They thought she was possessed, and maybe she was. It had been just one week ago. She should’ve known that They would come.

And They did.

She looked up at the machinery. It was a cacophony of cogs, ropes and wheels, wood and metal, black-stained. Blood she supposed. Machinery to stretch and tear, machinery to cut and slice. Machinery to hurt, but not to kill. Not yet. Killings were public fare, entertainment. She’d watched them herself, betimes. Acrid smells, like burnt beef. Black smoke. Crowds stiff with anticipation, hungry to see devils exposed.

Oh God.

She heard them then; footsteps on the corridor growing nearer. Huddling, she gathered herself together. Knees pressed close against her thin chest, arms wrapped tight around her knees, the rough wool of her skirt scratchy against her skin. Chin lowered, hair tumbled, tangled across her shoulders. Invisible, that’s what she wanted to be. To disappear into the shadows, melting away like a moonbeam. If she was a witch, that’s what she’d do. If she was a witch, not just a stupid girl plagued by dream visions, shifting pictures of the future. But she wasn’t a witch, not so far as she knew. Didn’t know a demon from a damson. Could barely read, never mind write incantations. Not a witch. But she’d be burned as one anyway. No one was taken and then released. The Brotherhood didn’t do that.

Friday, 9 December 2011

#DivineHell: Roll of Honour



Having been guided through several circles of hell thanks to the redoubtable Lady Antimony's #DivineHell blog challenge, I thought it would be timely to highlight a few of my fellow travellers.

All of these people took up the challenge to write a 150 word story inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. The Circles of Hell we were given as a prompt were as follows:

Limbo
Heresy
Fraud
Violence
Treachery

You can read more about it on milady's blog.

The Challengers

Timony Souler: new pen name for a classy lady of enormous versatility. She regularly provides fellow writers with the opportunity to challenge themselves and to share their work. My favourite of her stories was Limbo - a laugh out loud take on the place. @TimonySouler

Rebecca Clare Smith: I really look forward to reading Rebecca's stories. Each one is like an amuse-bouche to a nocturne bite, only better written. Check out her treachery story for an example of perfect description. @jocastalizzbeth

David Ludwig: Besides being one of the most generous and thoughtful commenters around, David also uses Blog Challenges to build delicate, thoughtful fantasy worlds. You can read his stories over at his blog. @DavidALudwig

Jeffrey Hollar: Often dark and twisty, Jeffrey's stories are marked out by a strong voice and a bold style of telling. My favourite of his #DivineHell stories was Only Following Orders, a take on violence which is utterly convincing. @Klingorengi

Emilia Quill: Ok a little "squee" here because I found Emilia's work through earlier blog challenges and loved her whimsical fantasy writing BUT her work for #DivineHell is completely different and EVEN BETTER. It's sharp, funny and modern. I'm hoping it turns into a book. My favourite is Heresy - laugh out loud funny. @Emilia_Quill

Zombie Cowboy: New to me this this time round, I'm pleased to have stumbled across ZC. His stories are really versatile in tone and range - I'm torn between the domestic humour and description in Treachery and the sheer rage in Heresy. You decide. @RalphRudd

Stevie McCoy: Empress of the #TuesdayTales and flash fictioner extraordinaire, glittering Stevie McCoy chose to do a longer take on the #DivineHell prompt. Check out the sinister, conversational tone her anonymous narrator takes... @theglitterlady

Hugo Van Zijl: I'd never come across Hugo's work before this challenge but I love the slant he put on #DivineHell. His daily stories link, building a picture of a hard-bitten cop with a thankless task and a pointless murder to deal with. Brilliantly done. Read them here. @HugovanZijl

Magependragon: Magependragon brings poetry even into her prose. Her work is evocative and luminous. I think my favourite of her stories is Limbo - she brings the place starkly to life for me. @magependragon

Craig Smith: Craig's #DivineHell stories are full of winks and wry humour. There are combusting sale goers, horror pigeons and bad friends. I think my favourite is Treachery for its slam dunk ending. See if you agree. @craigwfsmith

#DivineHell: Treachery

It's Friday and that means we've made it to the last day of Lady Antimony's Dante's Inferno inspired blog challenge.

For the grand finale, her ladyship has chosen none other than the ninth circle of hell, home to the treacherous - the most famous of which is Lucifer himself. Check out the description of Lucifer in the 9th Circle here.

After the strung out abstraction of Thursday's story about Violence (Suicide) I felt a lighter touch was in order.





TREACHERY


“Don’t believe me then.” His face was the colour of lemon tart, lickable almost. One of his faces. Barry shrugged.

“Well I don’t. You don’t look like the Devil. The Devil has pointy horns and goat feet.” They both looked down at the thick layer of ice which circled the monster’s navel, turning his ragged skin black with cold.

A tear rolled down his blood-red cheek. It reminded Barry of ice-cream dribbled with raspberry sauce.

“I might have goat-feet, under here,” the Devil said. “For all you know.”

“Why are you stuck here then? This is hell. You’re supposed to be in charge. I want to sell my soul to the boss man, the big kahuna. You’re stuck in ice. And you’re ugly. The Devil’s meant to be hot. Handsome devil and all that.”

The Devil looked at him calmly. “Fuck off Gabriel.”

Barry grinned, wings sprouting. “How d’ya guess?”


#DivineHell: Violence

Having fallen asleep at 8pm due to my lingering wannabe consumption, I completely missed posting yesterday's Dante-inspired flash fiction. To see the origins of this pop on over to Lady Antimony's blog.

Thursday's flash fiction was to be inspired by Dante's seventh circle of hell: VIOLENCE.




VIOLENCE


Bone-white twisted.

The scent of nothing in the air.

Bodiless, but not formless.

I have form.

Spectral branches, a lacework of knuckles and bones. Dog-chewed, sun-bleached. Thorns like stiletto-blades. Untouchable.

No soft, sighing flesh. No solid sunshine. No smiles. No humanity.

But it always felt like this, inside.

Bare, broken, twisted. Burned away by ferocity, husk-scorched by tears.

Different.

Apart.

If I had known would I have dragged the whipcord around my neck? Would I?

Of course.

I never believed in blue skies and fat angels. Not me.

Air-ripped. Screeching. Terror.

Thorn-thick, paper-thin my arms spread, quivering in protection. The sky turns black, thunderous with wing beats.

Terror should have been left behind trapped in the noose. I wanted nothingness, an absence from pain. Not this. Not torture. Not punishment for discarding the body I loathed.

Not a harpy, tearing at my branches. Licking blood from my broken limbs.



One of the things that shocked me a bit when reading about the seventh circle of hell was the inclusion of suicide. Suicide has long been considered a sin by the Church, but I hadn't really put much thought into how that could be manifested. Dante's depiction shows the cruelty of their fate: eternally denied bodies (because they threw their bodies away), transformed into thorn bushes and feasted on by harpies.

There is something particularly cruel about the concept of someone trying to escape pain and finding an eternity of it.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

#DivineHell: Fraud

So... I've finally caught up! And for Lady Antimony's Dante inspired #divinehell challenge we have 150 words on the 8th circle of hell: FRAUD.



MEDEA

“I like Christianity,” Medea leaned over the blazing edge of the sun-chariot. To touch it was death to a human. She was no longer human. Far below, deep beneath the mountains, the dark chasm of hell yawned. She smiled.

Helios glanced back, his brow furious with sunlight, bright gold. “Heresy!”

“Pooh!” She slipped her arms around his burnished neck. “Grandfather, really. You should see what they do to him there.”

“Him?”

“Jason,” she whispered into his ear. “Marching like the ant he is. Back and forth, whipped by demons.”

He snorted, trailing vapours in the bright light. Sun God, sun glorious. It hurt to look at him sometimes. “Do you imagine Hades couldn’t have done better? Think of Tantalus! Sisyphus! Or better still, Prometheus. Imagine an eagle tearing at his unfaithful guts, child. You’d like that wouldn’t you?”

“No,” she said. “He’s a nonentity in Hell. I like it.”




The last two circles of Dante's Hell punish sins that involve conscious fraud or treachery. These circles can be reached only by descending a vast cliff. The fraudulent—those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil—are located in a circle named Malebolge ("Evil Pockets"), divided into ten Bolgie, or ditches of stone, with bridges spanning the ditches.

In the first, panderers and seducers march up and down whipped by demons. One of these is JASON, as in "of the Argonauts." Jason is the unfaithful husband of the glorious MEDEA, the subject of my all time favorite Greek tragedy by Euripides (you can read it here). Amongst other things, Medea is the granddaughter of Helios, the sun.

One of the all time greatest productions of the Medea featured the amazing Fiona Shaw (below). I have never in all my born days seen anyone with her raw power. Phenomenal.

#DivineHell: heresy

Still catching up, I've only just made it to heresy, which all of Lady Antimony's writerly heretics nailed yesterday. For background to this #divinehell December flash fiction challenge, check out the rules Lady Antimony's blog.



HERESY

The room was heavy with silence, tomb-cold. He could be quiet though, he was good at that; a child of the shadows, creeping and watching. Winter sunlight kissed the worn tiles of the chamber, lit the stark faces of the tribune. Hungry, the boy thought. They look like they want to eat her.

Faded tapestries hung on the walls. Funny faces, saints had. Two black holes and a line for a mouth.

The inquisitor stood. “Tell us what you see.”

The woman looked up, thin-faced, wide-eyed. “He comes at night and his breath is sweet, so sweet.” Her eyes filled with tears and she held out her hands, red-stained. Bloody holes. “He loves me. He says he loves me.”

He saw them shift in their seats, murmuring. It was like excitement, the boy thought. Like a party. A party for maman.

“Witch!” Hungry eyes. They had hungry eyes.




"Anyone who attempts to construe a personal view of God which conflicts with Church dogma must be burned without pity."
- Pope Innocent III


There were a number of inquisitions over the centuries, possibly the most famous being the Spanish inquisition in which 3000 - 5000 people are estimated to have been put to death for the crime of heresy. Today the inquisitions are generally viewed as dark periods in the history of the Church. For the sake of balance, here's one view: The Horrors of the Church and its Holy Inquisition and another: Inquisition from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

What it undoubtedly true was that many men, women and children were tortured and died as a consequence of the Church's zeal for hunting out heretics. Families were torn apart and children of the accused suffered greatly and were sometimes accused themselves.

This story is inspired by the witch-hunts that followed two papal bulls, Summis desiderantes affectibus and the notorious Malleus Maleficarum or "Hammer of the Witches".

Omnia per carnalem concupiscentiam, quae quia in eis est insatiabilis - All [Witchcraft] comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.


- Malleus Maleficarum

#DivineHell: Limbo

I'm playing catch up! Still suffering from my pseudo consumption (Balzac eat your heart out) and lurking in London, I completely missed the start of fabulous Lady Antimony's exciting Dante-inspired December flash fiction challenge. But better late than never sayeth I.

So here you go. Inspired by Limbo, the first ring of hell is my 150 word piece:




The ground is rough now, thick with wild grass. No crosses, no mounds. I kneel down and spread my hands upon the dew-soaked ground. It feels wet against my hot palms, as though the earth is weeping. Is this the place? Oh God, is it?

Panic. Fist clenched, I thrust my hand against my belly. I want to crunch it, crush it. My eyes close. Gone. She’s gone. I can’t find her, even here. She’s lost, floating. Unsanctified.

They say fairies come to this place, dance across the unmarked graves. I wish she was a fairy, my Bridgeen. She looked like that. Pointed chin, silvery pale. A wee angel. No, not an angel, she’ll never be that.

She was so light in my arms, barely there at all. Such a fragile babe. They took her from me almost at once, still bloodied from my womb. Took her to Limbo.


My story is inspired by the cillín - the unconsecrated infant burial grounds. Years ago I went to a heartbreaking exhibition about the cillín which highlighted the distress and folklore around the places where unbaptized babies were buried. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like for the mothers of those babies, the double grief of losing that child and then believing they would never see it again in the afterlife.

My mum is a catholic and this was a very real fear for her, the idea that child lost in miscarriage would never go to heaven. The Catholic Church as now changed its ruling on Limbo, but generations of catholics had to live with the distressing concept that their stillborn infant would rest forever in Limbo.

Seamus Heaney wrote an amazing poem on the subject which haunts me still. You can read it here.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Travelling to 19th Century Paris


My recent NaNoWriMo effort, Boundless as the Sea, is set in Paris of 1816. As mentioned in my previous post, this posed me with endless questions that required authentic answers.

I needed to know where my hero (an English Earl of wealth and status) would stay. I needed to know where he might go to gamble for high stakes; what venues might be deemed scandalous; what currency was used; and what might constitute a fortune. I needed to know where a lady might shop and which parks were open to the public. I needed to know STUFF.

Thankfully, due to the awesome cornucopia that is Google Books, I found a huge swathe of primary source material at my finger tips. For free. For NOTHING. Here are some of the best (click on the title to read book):

A new picture of Paris; or, The stranger's guide to the French metropolis By Edward Planta (1827)

This book is the 19th century equivalent of the Rough Guide to Paris. It covers everything. Currency, travel, accommodation... it was reprinted many times, with each edition expanded. It's a time capsule for the English traveller to 19th century Paris.

Extract:

At the furnished hotels ('hotelsgarnisJ, near the Palais Royal, the most splendid apartments may be hired; but at others, in the quarter of the university, and in the suburbs, the accommodation is more simple and less expensive. L'Hotel d'Angleterie, Rue des filles St. Thomas; L'Hotel du Prince de Galles, Rue du Faubourg St. Honore; and L'Hotel de Boston, Rue Vivienne, are commodious and reasonable.


"Wood is universally burnt in Paris, and few even of the most elegant apartments are furnished with the luxury of a carpet."




A visit to Paris in 1814: being a review of the moral, political, intellectual and social condition of the French Capital By John Scott
Extract:

The crowds of the Palais Royal are thus formed, and it puts on its air of bustling dissipation, and lounging sensuality, at an early hour of the morning. The chairs that are placed out under the trees, are to be hired, with a newspaper, for a couple of sous a piece — they are soon occupied. The crowd of sitters and standers gradually increases, the buzz of conversation swells to a noise, the cafes fill, the piazzas become crowded, the place assumes the look of intense and earnest avocation,—yet the whirl and the rush are of those who float and drift in the vortex of pleasure, dissipation, and vice. The shops of the Palais Royal are brilliant: they are all devoted to toys, ornaments, or luxuries of some sort.




Paris as it was and as it is: or, A sketch of the French capital illustrative of the event of the French Revolution by Francis Blagdon (1801-1802)

Extract:

...there is not, at the present day, one tenth part of the number of carriages which were in use here in 1789-90.... However, if private equipages are scarce, thence ensues more than one advantage; the public are indemnified by an increased number of good hackney coaches, chariots, and cabriolets...




The New monthly magazine, Volume 4 (1815)

Extract:

The Rue Vivienne is the sanctuary of fashion ; a visit to the first-rate vutrclumdes des modes and to the mop asms de nouvcautes is one of the most inviolable laws of the petites-waitresses of tbe Chaussie d'Antin, who by an extraordinary freak of chance meet at the hour of their visit to these temples of supreme ban ton which etiquette has fixed at 3 or 4 o'clock, with young elegants of their acquaintance whose taste they consult in tbe choice of their purchases.




Observations made at Paris during the peace By Edmund John Eyre (1803)

Extract:

...we engaged two inside places in the Paris diligence, which sets out every morning and evening from the Golden-Cross, CharingCross. The proprietors engage to provide a conveyance from London to Paris (the passage across the channel included) for 4l. 13s.; luggage above fifteen pounds weight, is charged at the rate of threepence per pound, and each passenger pays the port-duties, and every other incidental expence upon the road.