Saturday, 5 January 2019

End of the Holiday

So, Christmas and New Year have come and gone.  It has been a bit lazy.  We seem to adjust to a new time clock over very quickly:  up late, bed very late.  But I'm on annual leave until this coming Monday (7th Jan) so don't care overtly.  It has given me some space to write...and research.

To tidy up a few things, I finished the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  This was, in part, driven by the fact that my wife had bought me the next in the series: Girl who Played with Fire.

To close the book, so to speak, on GwtDT, like other crime thriller books I have read recently, the heroine of the title - said tattooed girl, Lisbeth Salander - only really gets involved with the hero 300 pages in.  For a book that's only just over 500 pages,  that's still over halfway.  She is in it early on but the threads of the story are only loosely linked.  Perhaps, it's my expectations that need to adjust.  Maybe it is a thing of this genre to wait for the real story to get going.  I don't know.  All I know is that I enjoyed the book and the accolades given to Larsson's writing are my opinion.

Off to one side, slightly, I convinced my wife to watch the Swedish subtitled version of the book because I remembered nothing about the Daniel Craig edition other than the girl getting on a motorbike at one point.  It was interesting inasmuch as whilst in places it had lines that were verbatim from the book, two whole romances for the hero were completely ignored, the timeline got distorted, the old detective on the case was instrumental in the solution where in the book he wasn't and one character was declared dead when she was very much alive.  It worked as a film but this is a case of:  read the book first.

In other news, my wife and I went to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition at the British Library.  For me, this was a fabulous two hours of gazing at the beauty of manuscripts over 1000 years old.  Some looked like they could have been written yesterday.  Others were so finely detailed you wondered how they did that with a quill.  Fabulous.

To give you an idea of what's on display until 19th February, there was:  the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Beowulf, the Lacnunga, Bald's Leechbook, Codex Amiantinus, the Utrecht Psalter, the Harley Psalter, the Domesday Book along with the Alfred Jewel (aestel), a largely complete digital recreation of the Ruthwell Cross, the stunning buckle from Sutton Hoo Mound 1 and lovely seax (a large, single-edged dagger alleged by some to be the source of the name Saxon) engraved with runes.

If you can get a ticket, go!

Moving on to my personal writing, I have struggled with the latest novella - still 'unnamed' although I am considering the rather unusual title of Lásabrójtur - you'll find out why if I ever publish it.  As for the writing itself, I know what the ending is, I know what the story is;  I just don't seem to be able to get it down in one coherent stream.  It has frustrated me to a degree.  What has surprised me, though, is that although I have struggled to write, I have already put more words down in this work than in the whole of the Stone Dead.  Inevitably, there will be a cut but I am still surprised and am wondering whether this will end up being closer to 40k words by the time it's complete - that's pretty much the upper limit for novellas.  Something else that has come out of writing this criminal tale is that I have had to do research into police and forensic procedures to reflect true Police practice rather than allow some of the more ludicrous efforts that appear on TV to cloud my writing.  They make a fascinating read and really are not that televisual in terms of excitement.

Right, it is time to go.  I have two items on my agenda for the next couple of hours: focus on getting my novella straightened out and eat food.

Until next time.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

The Annual Gift Exchange has arrived...

The face of our Annual Gift Exchange card this year. (C) Philip McDonnell 2018
The term 'Annual Gift Exchange' is not me trying to be politically correct or just a sheer bloody-minded atheist.  It is just a fact and I doubt many realise that our medieval ancestors operated on a gift exchange system the whole year around.  Many of us know of bartering but that's different.  Before and after the rise of money as an exchange mechanism, gift-giving was accepted and expected practice by cultures all around the world and still is in some regions.  In the West, the medieval Church and monarchies used this practice to forge alliances or sweeten treaties.  It is a subject of significant historical importance...but it's Christmas Day and I can't be bothered;  I still stuffed from lunchtime.

The photo above is obviously a composite created in Photoshop.  The Roman is an English Heritage product from the Mini-Me range that I bought at Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall back in September.  The snow and beard are edits.  The angel was a gift from my Mother-in-Law to my wife and the background photo is Vindolanda in September with an edit overlay of snow.

I did variations on a theme too:  Happy Yuletide, Happy Saturnalia and Buon Natale (for a friend in Italy) but you don't need those.

I could go on about writing, reading, etc., but I won't.  Enjoy your holiday and if I get the urge to post whilst I'm on leave or if I get to finish my second novella, I'll let you know.

Have fun!

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Where did the day...fortnight...go?

It's been a busy couple of weeks, clearly.  Three weeks, I think.  I suppose most of my absence can be put down to the gathering bank raid that is called Christmas.  Not that I am the least bit religious.  I am more interested in the Winter Solstice because it means the long daylight hours of Summer are on their way once more.  I'm not a fan of getting up in the cold dark, getting to work just before sun-rise, spending all day in an artificially-lit, over-heated office and then coming home in the dark squashed into a seat on the tube among a host of plague carriers.  I am not a Winter person.

Last time I wrote I was part way through The Sea Detective, a novel ostensibly about solving the mystery of two disarticulated feet found washed up on either side of a fictional Scottish Island.  At the time I was 108 pages in and only one foot had been found.  Well, the whole disarticulated foot thread came across as incidental to the actual story about the 'hero' finding out how his grandfather died during World War II and why he wasn't recorded on the island's memorial.  In fact, the foot crime struck me as being something of a footnote.  It also prompted a deeper thought:  is this a fairly standard ruse of crime fiction:  put the most outrageous part of the story on the cover jacket to snag a purchase and then tell a totally different story for the next 300 pages?  I had read two novels using that sort of approach on the trot so I needed a third to see if the premise was false.  My mother-in-law came to the rescue by lending me a crime novel by a far better known (deceased) author:  Stieg Larsson.  Yes, I am reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Having just read Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft who was hailed a the new Stieg Larsson on the jacket by his publishers, there was only one way to determine the truth or hype of the claim.  I'll go with hype.  I'm only about a quarter the way through Larsson's book but from the start there is a gulf of difference in the writing style, narrative, dialogue and story.  To me, Kallentoft's work read as if was intended for TV and the crime was slotted into the personal lives of the characters.  Larsson's novel is so much more and it is easy to see how this became an 'international sensation' made into movies.

It may be Christmas before I finish it.

Moving on, I am still writing my second crime novella set in Cumbria.  It's darker than Stone Dead and I continue to have no idea where it's heading...but I'm going with the flow.  I also continue to have no idea what to call it:  Novella McNovellaFace is not an option even as a working title.  It's getting sidelined a bit with all the pre-Christmas activity...and work, obviously, but I will finish it.  If it runs to a similar word count as Stone Dead, I'm about halfway through at just over 10,000.  And that brings me neatly to the grand opening of the envelope containing that 1st draft.

If you remember, six weeks ago I took Stephen King's advice and put the 1st draft of Stone Dead into an envelope and wrote 6th December on the front of it.  I then went and did something else.  This evening, I opened that envelope.  Now, if I follow Mr King's advice, I should take a red pen to the said draft and edit it before handing it to my Ideal Reader.  I thought to bypass that exercise as my wife is a much better editor than I am.  But she agrees with Mr King.

If I'm honest, I don't actually like reading my own work.  It's almost entirely because I see a betters way of writing a section and that mushrooms into major reworking which is where I get bogged down in detail.  I think I will revert to using a pen on the printed page to curb my editing zeal.

I'll keep you posted...

Saturday, 24 November 2018

He's at it again...reading!

"Yes, it's true:  I've been reading.  I know it's a shock to many people but sometimes I just have to open a book and look at the words as well as the pictures.  That's when there are pictures because I've recently read one history non-fiction text, one Swedish Nordic Noir novel and am currently about halfway through yet another novel, this time set in the Scottish Isles and North Atlantic.  And as if to add 'awe' to the shock of me reading, I am a few thousand words into my next novella set in Cumbria.

Being less expected than the Spanish Inquisition, let's start with the non-fiction history book:  The Origins of the Anglo-Saxons by the late Jean Manco.

This is a fascinating book about the continental genesis of the people we know as the Anglo-Saxons both in terms of linguistically and genetically.  Having had a career as a Building Historian, Manco switched to writing about prehistory and archaeogenetics.

This text follows the Blood of the Celts and is a well-written tome but not one for people who have absolutely no idea about the Anglo-Saxons or Y-DNA analysis of (male) Haplogoups.  It seems to flip from being an erudite history of the people that later became the 'Anglo-Saxons' to complex scientific explanation of languages and the mixings of blood groups.  I found some of the dates of origins given by Manco surprising but cannot argue from my inadequate knowledge.  In some ways, it's almost like reading Tolkien where he hurls his characters headlong into utterly impossible and non-survivable battles only then to knock them out and find the giant eagles have saved them such are the changes of subject matter.

Manco actually references Tolkien, Pratchett and Cornwell for different reasons but notes how they all draw on the writings, storytelling skill and chronicles of the Norse to create they own worlds.

I enjoyed this book immensely because it was so broad in spectrum and actually read it from cover to cover; something I almost never do with academic works.  It is just a shame that Jean Manco is not longer with us to write another.

The next book is one I picked up in the Eden Charity shop in Brampton, Cumbria.  It's a Swedish crime drama called Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft.

Published in 2011, it was the first of a series centring around a single mother detective with a 13yr old daughter and everything that implies for the future.  It probably grabbed my attention because of the word sacrifice.  I ignored the comparisons to Larsson and Nesbo as that's the expected publisher hype.

As for a a crime drama, it struck me as if it was intended to be transferred straight to screen.  There is an enormous amount of print space spent describing the various characters as if they are to be seen not imagined and the story itself drifts alongside.  The murder of a local special needs male found hanging from a tree on the edge of a forest in the style of the Viking ritual of the Midwinter sacrifice starts off okay but doesn't really twist or turn as much as I would expect.  The subsequent investigation and denouement are satisfactory but do seem to be incidental to the lives of the various characters involved.  Then there is the constant portrayal of the location of the action - Linköping - as a dreary town in the middle of the Swedish plain south of Stockholm. Yet for all my lack of enthusiasm for this book, I did read it from cover to cover and never considered giving up on it.  It would not, however, induce me to become a 'fan'.  I may get the rest of the series from my local library (I know there's at least two) but won't buy them.

Finally, I am just about a third the way through The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home.   I didn't buy this book, my wife did as it is for a book group she's a member of.  I just asked if I could read it because I had just finished Midwinter Sacrifice and found the idea of reading one of the two historical fiction novels I have at hand unappealing.

Anyway, this book was published in 2015, it tells is about an investigation into the discover of two severed feet from the same person washed up on either side of a fictional Scottish island.  Well, I say that.  I'm 108 pages in and so far there has only been one severed foot and the investigation hasn't actually got underway.  It's all been about Indian child prostitution and guerrilla flower planting in Scotland so far!  Still, the bits with the eco-activist have amused me when intended and the premise is promising.

I will, with any luck, finish this book this coming week.

And finally, I have been writing again.  It's another crime story set in Cumbria with the same Police personnel (bar one, so far) and covers a more regular sort of crime story.  I say that because there are echoes of a crime that happened on one of my refurbishment projects back in 1991.  I remember it because it was around the time Freddie Mercury died - the 27th anniversary of which, by chance, is today (24th).

That crime did not involve a corpse as my story does but it was just as sinister in it's own way in that  it was not far from the old BBC building in Wood Lane and was, I suppose, a foreshadowing of the whole Jimmy Saville affair.  I'll say no more on that but to round off, my novella is currently just over 5,000 words and, staying true to Stephen King's belief that plots are for dullards, I have only the vaguest idea where it will end up...and an even vaguer idea of the title.  It has a working title but I'm not publishing that.  Absolutely not.  It's way too weird.

Have a great weekend and see you soon.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Glow Festival 2018

The Fire Garden:  this year hinting at the manor's alleged connection with the Gunpowder Plot.
The London Borough of Barking & Dagenham is very keen on upping the profile of the area and has been for some time.  There are echoes of gentrification in the various redevelopment schemes in the Barking town centre and with that has come a fair focus on the arts.  Funding, of course, is always a dilemma but it doesn't deter the enthusiasm and one such event returning for its second time in three years is the Glow Festival.

Held over two evenings in the gardens of Eastbury Manor House, an Elizabethan period property owned by the National Trust but run by the Council, it hosts illuminated art installations that literally glow in the dark - or burn as in the photo above.

I'm not going to write too much as the photos and captions speak for themselves.

The west side of Eastbury Manor, an Elizabethan building that is today used by the local community for all manner of societies and events and very much a part of the Borough's heritage.  We got married there in 2011!
A paper fish that went through a whole rainbow of colours.
One of the many installations.
Standing guard by the main entrance (out of shot to the right).
Paper Polar Bears
One of several horse sculptures in the small rear courtyard on the south side of the house.
A dormouse and its nest.
One final note is that the staff and volunteers were all very enthusiastic and this year had quite a spread of food options including vegetarian, halal as well as standard British bonfire night food.  Personally, of course, I just went for the apple and berry crumble with custard.  Oh yes.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

St Mary & All Saints, Lambourne, Essex

St Mary & All Saints, Lambourne, Essex.  (c) Philip McDonnell, 2018
We took advantage of the recent October sunshine and went for another of our little jaunts into the Essex countryside.  Lambourne isn't actually that far from us but we have never turned down Church Lane (off the Ongar Road) to take a look.  And it's quite a meander to get to the church...but definitely worth it.

The first thing you notice as you approach is that the church has been rendered at some point in its past but, unusually, has been painted and is kept in good condition.  So many rendered churches are literally rendered ugly because they just look like concrete blocks.  Lambourne Church, I said to my wife as we approached, reminded me of a German kirche.

Anglo-Norman door arch in the North wall.
(c)Philip McDonnell, 2018

The second thing you see as you pull up on the verge - if you're something of an architecture nerd like me - is a blocked up Norman door arch (above).  That, own its own merit, was definitely a reason to park and investigate further and to our joy - or mine, at least - the church was open and it is quite a gem.

As you walk into the churchyard, one of the things you notice is that it is manicured.  Where once stood mature conifers, they have been cut down almost to cylinder hedging - and it is very attractive.

Entering in through the nave, the first sight to greet you is the enormous chancel arch.  But this is no Romanesque or Gothic arch that you would normally expect.  No, this is what architects call a basket handle arch (anse de panier in French) and it is quite fabulous with its monstrous faux corbels (see below).

The chancel arch. (c) Philip McDonnell, 2018
A decorative nave beam with a somewhat skewed
 and decorated kingpost.  (c) Philip McDonnell, 2018

Of course, the arch is just a boxing and plaster moulding.  The structural element is probably just a beam concealed by a fabulous piece of Georgian decoration.  You can see less decorative beams bridging the chancel further toward the altar.

Elsewhere, there are features that have been exposed during restoration such as the image of St Christopher on the south wall.  This is a glimpse of how the pre-Dissolution/pre-Puritan church would have looked throughout.

St Christopher wall painting. (c) Philip McDonnell, 2018
There are other frescos from later periods that another visitor who was evidently well-versed in the church's past said changed from wall to wall.

One feature exposed recently (that I didn't photograph) was the exposure of what was most likely the piscina for holy water in the pre-Dissolution church or possibly a confessio where there may have been relics.  It was only exposed when the metalwork in a wall-mounted memorial started to self-destruct from rust and needed to be removed.  Whether it will be left exposed or covered again once the memorial is restored, I don't know.

Finally, here is the window above the altar in the east end of the chancel and one of the restored stained glass panels in the south wall of the chancel.

If you get a chance, make a visit.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Stone Dead: Cooling Off

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Lakeland, Cumbria. (c) Philip McDonnell, 2018

A couple of weeks ago (On Writing: New Ideas, New Story. 12th October), I said I was writing again.  Not "that book".  Not my magnum albatross of historic fiction.  No, I was writing a new story.  A short(ish) story with the working title of Stone Dead.  Well, the first draft is complete!  Yes, you don't need to go to Specsavers: the first draft is complete!

If you recall, Stone Dead was kickstarted whilst on holiday in Cumbria.  I had just finished Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and this story popped into my head.  A disarticulated skeleton found at a megalith in Westmorland that turns into a murder enquiry.  It was fresh in my mind and I wrote over 6,000 words of it in the last three days we were in Lanercost.  That impetus continued and the word-count had reached 13,000 by 12th October.  Since then, it's taken me until today (25th October) to complete it whilst only adding 9,000 more words.  Such is writing when you work and commute...and have dental issues.  Still, I am pleased that I've finished the first draft and pleased that it is a total departure from anything I have written before.

This is a pure and simple crime story.  That's a first just knowing what genre I've written in!  It's also set in this year which made writing from what I know a whole lot easier.  To make Mr. King proud, I let the story evolve as I wrote.  I didn't plot:  that's for dullards, remember?  Initially, I wrote as fast and as furiously as I could so as not to lose that energy.  It got slowed by having to work and the (ongoing) dental issues when I came home but I still wanted to write more than watch TV dramas or YouTube videos on programming MS Excel.

I also let the characters evolve as I wrote.  I have two female detectives which wasn't planned.  Their back-stories came out of nowhere, too.  I did a bit of research into the organisation of Cumbria Constabulary, various relevant Acts of Parliament and medical approaches and roved the streets of Westmorland like some stalker using Google Streetview.  I also did cursory checks of LIDAR results, RAF reconnaissance photos from the inter-war years and the OS historical maps.  But I didn't get bogged down in detail like I have in the past.  I looked, I found what I wanted and I worked my way around that information if what I found didn't quite fit what was happening in my head.  In some instances, the information forced a change that was even more exciting.  It wasn't difficult.

If I found anything difficult, it was detaching myself from the real countryside to create a fictional one.  I also found it a bit difficult to write prose.  Dialogue came easily.  It conveyed the minds of the characters.  But if I remember the first draft of "that book", that too was heavy on dialogue.  I only created greater prose on the second draft.  What will happen when I start editing for the second draft of Stone Dead is anyone's guess.  It's a novella; the rules are a little different.  Which brings me to the 'cooling off period'.

Mr King advocates that I should put my 1st draft away for at least 6 weeks before looking to review it.  At that point, I should read it through myself, make all the grammatical, spelling and other no-brainer corrections I can find as well as look to remove 10% of what I've written.  (Remember:  he was once advised that 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%.)  Once that's done, then I can let my Ideal Reader loose on my work.

Well, 6 weeks takes me up to 6th December.  I will set a reminder on my calendar and see what I think then.

In the meantime, Mr King advocates having a celebration of some kind.  Not being a drinker, it won't involve alcohol.  I would order pizza but it's off my agenda after the stomach upset I had last night and my continuing dental issues.  Maybe I'll just have a Jaffa Cake...or twelve.

As a parting thought, maybe I'll get to start my 2nd draft whilst having my tooth extracted.  Won't that be fun?