The original DRACA: a classic sailing boat

Research and inspiration behind the book

Draca, the novel, is now sailing towards its pre-orders target with publisher Unbound. The eponymous Draca is a classic sailing boat, central to the plot. Those who know me well have asked how a landlubber like me could write the maritime passages. After all, ten years ago the only thing I could remember about sailing was a bushy-bearded instructor bellowing at me. I think he was saying “when you see the seagulls walking, it’s time to go about.”

Confession time. In a previous post I described how the idea for the book was born, anchored in a natural harbour on England’s South coast. The next time I sailed, with the same friend, the concepts for the book had formed to the point where we’d divert our course, on entering a harbour, to take a closer look at any classic sailing boats nearby. Old boats seem to have more personality, and I needed to find a type that was probably pre-war, and of a size that could just about be sailed single-handed if the skipper was fit and knew his stuff. Yet it was online research led me to Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters, the model for Draca. 

Pilot Cutters – hard working, classic sailing boats

Pilot cutters were built to wait for ships to arrive off a port; pilots earned good money guiding vessels into harbour. With the pilot there’d be a mate, a seaman, and perhaps a boy. Cutters were robust enough to wait offshore in all weathers, perhaps for weeks. They had neither the belly of a fisherman nor the sleek lines of a racing yacht, but they needed speed. The first cutter to hail and offer their services would get the job. The cutter would follow the ship into harbour, recover their pilot, and go back to sea until the next ship. Sailing cutters fell out of use after telegraphy meant a ship could signal ahead. By then a steam powered launch could rendezvous faster, and against the wind.

A Yachtsman’s Log

Then I discovered ‘A Yachtsman’s Log’, written by Frank Carr for a readership with salt water in their veins. It’s a fascinating insight into sailing his cutter, the Cariad, in a technologically simpler time. No radar, no echo sounders, not even simple mechanical tools like winches to hoist sails. It was a time when fog at sea meant true blindness, navigating by dead reckoning among the tides and rocks, with the unseen bells of buoys to guide you if you were lucky. There are passages that are quaint by today’s standards; picture four men, after a sailing trip, taking the cutter’s dinghy up the Thames to work in the City, all shielding their starched collars from the wilting spray with their bowler hats.

But one of those men also wrote about life-threatening crises at sea with self-deprecating charm. Frank Carr was very much a certain type of Englishman from that age of sea power and Empire.

So if anyone questions how a pilot cutter handles in a storm, I have it, chapter and verse. And if anyone says it’s impossible for a boat to even survive a particular situation, then I beg to differ. A plucky chap called Frank Carr left me his log. And he’s certainly not one to boast.

Links and further reading

A Yachtsman’s Log by Frank G G Carr was published by Lovat Dickins and Thompson in 1935. You can see his boat the Cariad, now restored, at http://www.cariad.org 

Draca is a novel about a war-damaged Royal Marine who rebuilds his life by restoring an old sailing boat. For a synopsis, click here and for an extract, click here . It will be published by Unbound when the level of pre-orders passes their threshold. We’re already over 70% there. After publication, half the royalties will go to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.

Please support Draca here. Pre-orders are £10 for an ebook and from £15 for a paperback, and all supporters’ names appear in every edition.

Thank you. You’ll be helping me to help those whose wounds are more than physical.

The Angel in the Marble

Like all writers, I’m often asked where I find the ideas for my books. 

“Sainsbury’s,” I usually reply.

Others have a less flippant answer. I once heard an author quote Michelangelo; ‘I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free’. I snorted at his pretension, even though I had a sneaking admiration for anyone who can claim to see the finished work at the outset. I’d love to have an Epiphany where a complete novel bursts into my head. My stories have small beginnings. I pick at one idea, and in time may encounter another that multiplies the first; a kind of writerly serendipity. Sometimes I can’t even remember the sequence.

The birth of a book

But, unusually, I can remember the exact moment when Draca was born. A friend had asked me to crew for him in his sailing boat, and one evening we’d anchored in one of the great natural harbours that open into the English Channel.

It was a wild, ethereal  place, filled with the sunset screaming of gulls, and we sat in his cockpit, sipping whisky and telling stories with the comfortable ease of long friendship. The only sign of life was the squat tower of a Saxon church, far away over the water. Around us the long summer evening faded from pink to peach to grey, and the ebbing tide exposed the bones of dead ships, poking through the mud. It was a twilight so atmospheric that it had to become the setting for a story, and the story would have to feature boats and people who lived at the sea’s edge.

A boat as a character?

I’ve learned that boats have characters. That may sound fanciful, but several more experienced sailors have told me that at first, a boat simply has characteristics, such as her best points of sailing, or the way she lifts and slews to a wave. In time, this basic understanding grows until you recognise her moods; the boat becomes a friend who talks to you, and her language is the feel of the tiller in your hand and the singing of the wind through her rigging. When the ship is sailing well, she feels happy, and when she’s shoulder-charging the waves into a storm, she can be belligerent. Treat her badly, and she can be as angry as a wronged lover. I sense that the older the boat, the more her idiosyncrasies, so why not have a boat as a character? 

2 x 2 = 5. Multiplied ideas acquire a momentum. The next time we anchored, in an equally desolate place, I stared at the ribs of another rotted ship and wondered what human stories they could tell; heroism at Dunkirk or the Normandy beaches? Exotic trading voyages in the days of Empire? Those bones might lay on other bones, in ever deeper layers of history, back to a time even before that Saxon church was built. After all, Vikings raided this coast in the 9th Century, exploiting their sea power in their war against Alfred. 

All those ‘what if’s’…

That took me off at a tangent. So much of plotting a novel is asking endless ‘what if’ questions. What if an artefact exposed by the mud could be evil? An object that has been central to atrocity, perhaps? People are rarely wholly good or wholly bad; most heroes are flawed, many villains have some redeeming aspect. Humanity implies imperfection. But an object? Europe’s equivalent of a blood-soaked Aztec god? I began to see my angel in the marble.

Except that it was a gargoyle. Or a dragon. Very ugly. With a story to tell. 

Draca.

Read the full story

Draca will be published by Unbound when their threshold of pre-orders has been reached. Today we’re at 65% and rising.

Half the royalties go to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress. Click here for a synopsis and here for an extract. For the full story, you can order your copy at https://unbound.com/books/draca/


Meet George!

A great launch

The response to the launch of DRACA’s crowdfunding with publishers Unbound has been brilliant. Humbling, in fact. Sponsors range from old friends, to enthusiastic readers of Saxon’s Bane, to those who simply want to help our veterans. Half the royalties, after all, will go to the charity Combat Stress. Together, these sponsors have given DRACA a great start; Unbound say projects which reach 30% of target in the first month tend to succeed. DRACA reached 38% in two weeks.

We’re missing a character

But looking over DRACA’s project pages at Unbound, someone is missing. Jack is there, in quite a long extract. And here. Jack’s the book’s flawed hero who’s haunted by his past. But there’s not a glimpse of George, the pint-sized yachtswoman who’s made her own way from foster homes to be manager of the local boatyard. It’s George who comes to believe that there’s something more sinister even than post-traumatic stress shaping Jack; to her, his obsession with the old sailing boat, the DRACA, becomes possession; the boat owns the man.

Here’s George

So to redress the balance, I’ve posted another extract from the book. Here’s George, getting her first glimpse of Jack’s family at his grandfather’s funeral, and showing the feisty attitude that defines her character.

You can help

Please support DRACA at Unbound now. Think of it as a pre-order. Pledges range from a single ebook to a book group bundle, and every sponsor’s name will appear in every edition of the book. Help me to help those, like Jack, whose wounds are more than physical.

Thank you for making a difference.

Conversation with friends this weekend:

I’ve been enthusing to friends about Thursday’s crowdfunding launch of my novel DRACA with publisher Unbound, in support of the veterans’ charity Combat Stress. Not everyone ‘gets’ it. Typical conversation:

FRIEND: “Great! Sounds fantastic. I’ll buy a copy. In fact, put me down for four. Presents for the family.”

[MEANINGFUL PAUSE BY AUTHOR]

FRIEND: “Oh, you mean I need to buy them now?

AUTHOR, OPENING IPHONE: “Yup. Let me show you. Click here

So here’s how crowdfunding publishing works:

Logo for crowdfunding publisher Unbound

Unbound select a manuscript (and with a Man Booker longlister to their credit they’re VERY selective!) but like all publishers they can never be sure which books will succeed. We live and write in an age of huge publishing ‘noise’; about 500,000 English language titles a year hit the market.

So Unbound make the author build support before they publish. In my case, that means ‘pre-selling’ about 500 books. With that lower risk, they pay high royalties, which is excellent news for the veterans charity Combat Stress, who get 50%. (The rest is the budget for fees, taxes and promotion.) The bad news is that I don’t even know 500 people, and I’m staring at Pledge Mountain.

What you can do:

  1. Click on Unbound here
  2. Pledge your support. Think of it as a pre-order.
  3. Spread the word.

Simples!

Thank you for helping me to help those whose wounds are more than physical

In case you missed the announcement:

DRACA is the story of a war-damaged veteran of Afghanistan who struggles to rebuild his life by restoring an old sailing boat, while his dysfunctional family push him ever closer to the edge. It is a subtle, ambiguous ghost story in that the reader must decide whether he is haunted by his past, or just haunted. Half the royalties to to Combat Stress. I’m crowdfunding so that contribution is financially meaningful. See full post here.

Join a publishing revolution – and support Combat Stress

Publishers Unbound have accepted DRACA. I’m sharing royalties with veterans’ charity Combat Stress. You can help make it happen.

Unbound are a new and fast-growing force in publishing. They won the Bookseller Book of the Year Award in 2015, and their recent successes include the Sunday Times Bestselling ‘Letters of Note’ and the Man Booker long listed ‘The Wake’. Unbound have a revolutionary publishing concept; they team with an author to build support before publication, which lets readers decide what is published. You can join the DRACA community – and see your name inside the cover.

Draca: supporting Combat Stress

DRACA is a novel about conflict and its aftermath. Its hero, Jack, is a war-damaged Royal Marine, struggling with the after-effects of combat. You can read a synopsis here and an extract here.

Combat Stress help former servicemen and women deal with issues like post-traumatic stress, providing specialist treatment and support to give veterans hope and a future.

Early endorsement has come from Vice Admiral Charles Style, a former Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, who says Draca is ‘a powerful and gripping story, wonderfully told. It’s brilliant that a book of this calibre is offered in support of Combat Stress.’

Building the DRACA community

You can subscribe to the publishing of the book, secure your own copies and other privileges by clicking here:

https://unbound.com/books/draca/

You’ll find a synopsis, an extract, and a video. There’s a Q&A, so go on… challenge me! Naturally, there’s also a chance to pledge your support. This can be as little as one ebook, or as much as a bundle of signed copies for a book group. All supporters will see their names inside every edition of the book.

So please help me to help the heroes like Jack whose wounds are more than physical.

AND! Share this post, reblog, tweet… let’s get the word out.

Thank you for making a difference.

Geoff

Short Bursts

At this time of Remembrance, let me share a short story:

—–

“Art’ar?”

The legs standing beside Arthur were clad in blue, uniform slacks above a feminine pair of ankles.  They disrupted his thoughts the way the dawn chorus interrupts a nightmare. 

“Wha’ are you doing down there, Art’ar?”  She spoke in a sing-song, Oriental accent, surprise lifting her voice.  Arthur twisted in his corner, trapped in a foetal crouch between sensible shoes and an unyielding wall.  The legs folded gracefully onto their knees, and a face peered into his.  Flat, Chinese features, almond eyes wide and questioning.  Arthur felt his fists unclench where his knuckles had pushed into his temples, but the pounding of a pneumatic drill outside the window made him flinch and squirm again.  She reached forward and rested her fingertips on the back of his hand in a cool, butterfly touch of calm.

“I will shu’ the window.”

The noise outside plummeted from close combat gunfire to an un-silenced motorbike.  

“They are mending the road.  Shall I take you to the dayroom?  It is much quieter.”  She pushed his wheelchair in front of him.  Arthur began to feel foolish.  Thank God it was this girl that found him, not that muscle-bound bastard Grice.

“Come on, Art’ar,” she squatted in front of him again, legs demurely together, reaching under his arms, “let me help you.”  

The body inside the white, starched tunic seemed delicate, but the upwards pressure was strong.  The movement pushed a plastic name badge towards his face; Mei Li, Care Assistant, it reminded him, in white letters cut into clinical blue.  Arthur wondered how he could recover his dignity.  The hint of a breast behind the badge called to him like a forgotten melody, and he scrambled to find his feet.

“It will be lunchtime, soon.  Steak and kidney pie today.  Good?”  She tucked his feet onto the footrests.  Arthur liked this girl.  She showed respect, and at least she spoke English.  He wondered if he’d faced any of her ancestors in Korea.  They’d been plucky fighters, the Chinese.  Stopping a charge with a bolt action Lee Enfield was like trying to stop a swarm of ants with a pin.  Had Mei Li ever been taught about how seven hundred faced seven thousand on the Imjin?  

“There.  A nice place by the window.”  Sunlight streamed into the dayroom.  Blossom the colour of Mei Li’s lipstick cascaded over the lawn, and Arthur struggled to remember the name of the shrub.  No matter.  They all had names like social diseases, anyway.

“I’ve got a nasty dose of wisteria down my left side.”  He chuckled until he saw the looks around him.  He hadn’t realised he’d spoken out loud.  In the sudden silence he heard Mei Li telling the dayroom nurse about how she’d found him.  

“I’m not deaf,” he shouted over his shoulder, hearing the betrayal in his voice, then slumped back in his chair when he saw she was talking to Grice.  Arthur’s next words were muttered at the garden.  “And I’m not mad, neither.”

He’d just had a bad turn.  Strange how things came back to you, every ball-tightening moment, even after nearly seventy years.  Nowadays he forgot most stuff in as many seconds.

Arthur jolted out of a doze, arms flailing, as the lunchtime gong rumbled its summons to the deaf.  His hand connected with a cup and saucer, sending thick, institutional china rolling over the carpet at the end of a splashed parabola of tea.

Every attack started with gongs.  Gongs and bugles, to break your nerve, so that it was a relief when they broke cover and came at you, yelling and screaming in their quilted jackets.

“For fuck’s sake, Arthur.”  Grice knelt with a roll of paper towel, mopping the tea.  “If you’re gonna drop things, I’ll give you a plastic beaker.”  Arthur pulled a face at Grice’s back.  Grice was all mouth.  Dangerous.  Especially when he braced himself over you with one hand on each arm of the wheelchair, pushing his face intimidatingly close.

“How’dya like that, granddad?  Shall I give oo an ickle baby mug?  Wiv a nice ickle spout to drink froo?” 

“Don’t talk to me like that.”  Arthur’s bombast sounded querulous, but the memory of youth was strong in his mind.  “You’re supposed to be a ‘Care Assistant’, but we get bugger all care and not much assistance.”

Arthur was proud of that.  He’d been practising those words in his head, but hadn’t been brave enough to say them.  Around him several residents cackled with delight, and for a moment Arthur felt a hero.  A drip of cold tea fell onto his forearm as Grice gripped the paper towel more tightly.

“I think you’d better cool off a bit before I take you into lunch.  If I’m feeling kind I might remember you.  But there again, I might not.”

Stupid bloody gesture.  He’d done something even sillier that day in Korea, and got away with it.  He’d heard a Bren gunner hosing his fire across the field, wasting ammunition, so he’d walked up behind him, in full view of the enemy, and kicked him in the arse.

“Short bursts, you wanker,” he’d shouted, then dropped into cover as bullets smacked the air past his head.  The man was pale and sweating like stale cheese, his fear almost disintegrating into panic.

“Move over, I’ll show you.  Magazine.”  The reassuring weight of the butt nestled into his shoulder, the wood hard against his cheek.  Oh, that glorious smell of hot, oiled metal and cordite.  “Target, aim off, squeeze.”  Tattap.  “Target, aim off, squeeze.”  Tattap.  Tattap.  Tattattap.  The gun chattered to him like a lover.  He counted twelve bursts out of a thirty round magazine, and eight of them knocked over a Chinaman.  “Now you do it.”  Smart Arse Sergeant.  God, if only they knew.  He’d grabbed that Bren to stave off his own funk.  Now he just remembered how the bodies lay, humped in the killing ground. 

Lunch was finished.  Grice hadn’t come back for him.  Outside a blackbird started singing; liquid gold in the shrubbery.  A bird had sung that day, too, warbling peace over a hillside of huddled dead and bleating wounded.  He’d shut his eyes then, as now, to savour the sound, to isolate it.  If you concentrated, you could ignore the metallic scrape of magazines being reloaded, and the dry sound of boots on rock as their dead were lifted to the rear.  It had flown away when the gongs started again.  Sensible bird.

Visiting time.  Relatives were spending an awkward hour with the inconveniently old.  In the corner a middle-aged woman was holding the hand of, of…  Names.  He couldn’t remember them any more, not unless they were in your face like the badge on Mei Li’s tit.  

“Wake up Arthur, Pete’s here.”  Grice spoke in the gentle, caring tones he put on for visitors.  “He’s been a bit strange today,” he added to the grey-haired man fetching an armchair.  “Didn’t want his lunch.”

The vaguely-familiar man stretched to squeeze Arthur’s hand, smiling, but his greeting froze on his lips as Arthur spoke.

“Pete’s dead.” 

He’d never forget that name.  Peter Brooks.  Brooksie.  Best mates.  Pete died after the third wave.  Arthur had found him thrashing on the ground, mumbling like a spastic with half his face shot away and his brains trickling into his hair.  Arthur took one look at that wrecked head and slammed in the morphine, over and over again, then held his hand and forced himself to look into Pete’s remaining eye until the light went out.

“Pete’s dead,” he repeated, less confidently now because the man was staring at him as if he’d been struck.  

“Dad, it’s Peter.  Your son, Peter.”

Arthur felt his face dissolve.

“Don’t cry, Dad.  It’s all right.”  A hand gripped his arm, squeezing reassurance.  

“I killed him.”  The pressure to unburden rose like a balloon of gas in his gut.

“Dad, please.”  

“With morphine.”  Shouting now. 

“Calm down, Dad.  You’ll make yourself ill.”

“Getting a bit upset, are we?”  Grice appeared beside them, releasing the brakes on Arthur’s wheelchair.  “You’re disturbing everyone, Arthur.  I think you should go back to your room for a nice, quiet rest.  Gimme five to settle him, Pete, then come through.”  The words were spoken over Arthur’s head as the grey-haired, sad-eyed Peter rotated out of sight.

“Bloody hell, it stinks in here.”  Grice strode to Arthur’s window and opened it, just as the pneumatic drill opened up in a sustained judder of noise, shaking photo frames into motion along a shelf.  Even Grice changed his mind and shut the window before turning back into the room.

“What’s that, Granddad?  Short bursts?  Whadya mean, short bursts?  Oh, for fuck’s sake, you’ve pissed yourself.  That wasn’t a short burst, was it, you senile git?  You’ve fucking sprayed it everywhere.”

Mei Li cleaned him up.  Arthur gripped her hands as she helped him into clean trousers.

“Forgive me.”

“Art’ar, there is nothing to forgive.”

Arthur shut his eyes.  He didn’t have the words to explain.

The Waterloo Rap

My wife and I were invited to a gloriously extravagant party recently, when we were invited to turn up dressed in the style of  ‘the French Revolution or Les Miserables’. We were also invited to submit a ‘limerick or clerihew’ on a relevant theme. My limerick grew, acquired a West Indian accent, and became a rap. So here, for your gentle amusement, is

The Waterloo Rap

In eighteen hundred and then fifteen

That’s way before young Vic was Queen

We Brits marched South, tooled up to fight

The Grand Armée in all its might.

See, we love French cheese, we love French wine,

We’d even love their Josephine,

But killing a king, now that ain’t right,

And égalité gave our toffs a fright.

So Wellington, yes, he De Man

Who’d stop the Frogs if anyone can,

Led me an’ Fred an’ all our crew

Along the road to Waterloo,

And dissed that Boney

Saying “Honi                                                                                                                 

Soit qui mal y pense,”

Which sounded good, but don’t make sense.

They came on hard, they came on tough

Till Boney finally cried “Enough!”

And after a hell of guts and gore

There weren’t many left from the day before

So I shared a pipe with a French Old Guard

And told him “Man, you tried us hard

But killing a king, see, that’s a crime, and

You can’t kill George, ‘coz that sod’s mine.”

Bone Jack by Sara Crowe

Bone JackPerhaps it’s something to do with my grey hair, but I don’t often read Young Adult books. I started Bone Jack out of curiosity, intrigued by a tale about ancient, rural traditions that have their roots in a pagan past. Within a page I was reading for pleasure. The opening is masterful; a boy willingly teetering on a cliff edge, held from falling only by the uncertain push of the wind. From that point on you know you’re in the hands of a great storyteller.

Central to the book is an annual ‘stag run’ in wild, mountainous country, a slice of local folklore which pits a young man, the ‘stag’, to outrun the pursuing ‘hounds’. The protagonist, 15-year old Ash, is to be the stag, and Crowe builds the tension steadily so you know he’s going to be running for his life. The setting of a drought- and disease-ravaged countryside is well crafted, and even the supporting characters are finely drawn. Ash has to contend with plausible human relationship issues such as a war-damaged father and a best friend who goes off the rails in the aftermath of tragedy. He also has to face Bone Jack, a shadowy figure who may be a hermit, or perhaps something much more sinister. Such supernatural elements are introduced progressively and subtly, and in a way that tightens the pace towards a climax that is as fulfils the promise of the first pages.

Above all, Bone Jack is extremely well written. Some passages I found myself re-reading purely for the pleasure of the prose. A stunning debut and highly recommended.

 

The Venal and the Divine

It was a weekend of contrasts. On Friday, I thought the traffic was even more intense, more impatient than usual. The evening news showed shoppers in feeding frenzies, coming to blows as the stores opened their doors on Black Friday. Christmas cometh, grab your wallets and fight. There were images of men rolling on a floor, grasping at the same package of some massively-discounted item, and of shoppers pushing away stacked trolleys, their faces alight with greed.

On Sunday evening, our local church had its Advent carol service. In candle-lit peace, twenty-eight choristers sang anthems in four-part harmony. Gentle at first, as sweet as the carols and readings they framed, the pace grew until the choir let rip with the 14th century Resonemus Laudibus. It was fast, it was loud, it was triumphant. And at least for one hour the poorest of the congregation, or the choir, was richer than any retailer. The faces that spilled out into the night afterwards shone with a different kind of joy.

Christmas cometh.

 

“I never knew you were like that…”

Draumr KopaCindy Callens, on the Belgian book review site Draumr Kopa, kindly asked me to do a guest blog. I shared some of the more amusing comments people have made since Saxon’s Bane was launched. Click here for Draumr Kopa.

Here’s what I had to say:

People have said some strange things to me since Saxon’s Bane was published.

“I never knew you were like that,” an elderly lady from my local church said one Sunday.

“Like what?” I asked. The question made me stop in my tracks, and the departing congregation flowed around us.

She shuffled, making that eyes-lowered squirm with which Christian ladies of a certain age simultaneously mention and avoid mentioning delicate subjects. “Well, you know…”

“No, I don’t know. What’s the matter?” I sensed that the subject causing her such embarrassment was of a reprehensible and possibly sexual nature, and my mind raced in a frantic ‘Oh-God-what-have-I-got-to-be-guilty-about’ way. I drew a blank, but the worry remained.

“I read your book.”

Ah. Huge sigh of relief. Saxon’s Bane includes pagan practices and probably isn’t a book that the vicar would read from the pulpit.

“And?”

“Your character, he, err, notices women.”

Oh, that. Perhaps she had an innocent understanding of the male psyche. I explained that the main character was a single, heterosexual man in his thirties who has been cooped up in hospital for four months, when his only female company had arrived carrying a hypodermic needle. He may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, and is certainly a little insecure. He’s courageous but stubborn, emotionally incontinent, and flawed. Yes, he notices women. Is that a problem?

The elderly lady made a slight flutter with her hands, vaguely indicative of an area below the waist, before she repeated herself. “I never knew you were like that.”

It was an early lesson for me in being a published author. The autobiographical element is assumed, but assumed selectively. Female characters may be “well drawn” but the male protagonist can only be me. His strengths are my aspirations, and his weaknesses are mine. I wonder what reaction Sebastian Faulks had after writing his brilliant novel Engleby in the ‘voice’ of a man you’d want to scrape off the bottom of your shoe. Perhaps after you’ve written Birdsong and Charlotte Gray your readers take a more balanced view. For those of us still establishing our literary credibility, it’s worth remembering that although good stories match flawed good against complex evil, the trick is to make the flaws appealing.

The reality, of course, is that there is inevitably some autobiographical content. As I wrote Saxon’s Bane the characters became so well known to me that I was able to become the individual I had created, even the female ones, and as I set them loose they’d tell me how each scene must develop. The boundary between self and artifice became so blurry that I sometimes had to stand back and unpick myself from this world of my own creation.

I’ve found I can also write from a female point of view, with a little help and critiquing from my wife and from women at my writers’ group. Over half of my next book is written in a female ‘voice’, and I’m told it sounds totally authentic. I shall be fascinated to hear readers’ feedback, if and when it is published. Will the few, lyrically-crafted moments of female sexuality be dismissed as ‘pure male fantasy’? Will someone again say “I never knew…”?

It is a strange and delightful thing, this ability and willingness to craft a female persona from within a male brain. I think that by the time I finished Saxon’s Bane I may even have been a little in love with one of the female protagonists.

“Great character, that Eadlin,” a man said about her after Saxon’s Bane was book of the month at his book club. “Wonderfully fleshed out.”

“Excuse me?” I looked in vain for signs that the double-entendre was intentional. Eadlin’s character, I should explain, has an earthy, girl-next-door sexuality. She has curves.

“No, I mean she’s well rounded.”

It’s great to watch someone else dig themselves into a pit of their own making. I wish, eight months after the book was released, that I’d made notes of the best remarks that have come my way. Some have been amusing, like the ones I’ve shared. Some have been gloriously, ego-boostingly flattering, while some have been crushing, like the local independent bookseller who declined to stock because she was “inundated with local authors”.

But the prize for the funniest has to go to my wife’s mother, who held on for some time to the view that her son-in-law should be out earning a salary rather than indulging in all this writing stuff. My wife rang her up when Solaris bought the English language rights to Saxon’s Bane.

“Wonderful news, Mummy! Geoffrey’s got a publishing contract!”

“Oh.” A pause. “But has he got work?”