Cover reveal: Draca

Draca cover image

Cover reveal! Unbound’s wonderful production team have created stunning artwork for Draca, which will be released on 14th May. I think it captures the mood of the book perfectly. They’ve also created a very accurate picture of a Bristol Channel pilot cutter, which plays such an important part in the book that the boat becomes a character.

Cover image for Draca, the novel by Geoffrey Gudgion

And the all-important back-cover description? Read on…

DRACA WAS A VINTAGE SAILING CUTTER, OLD EDDIE’S PRIDE AND JOY. BUT NOW SHE’S BEACHED, HER VARNISH PEELING. SHE’S DYING, JUST LIKE EDDIE.

Eddie leaves Draca to his grandson Jack, a legacy that’s the final wedge between Jack and his father. Yet for Jack, the old boat is a lifeline. Medically discharged from the Marines, with his marriage on the rocks, the damaged veteran finds new purpose; Draca will sail again. Wonderful therapy for a wounded hero, people say.

Young Georgia ‘George’ Fenton, who runs the boatyard, has doubts. She saw changes in Old Eddie that were more sinister even than cancer. And by the time Draca tastes the sea again, the man she dares to love is going the same way. To George, Jack’s ‘purpose’ has become ‘possession’; the boat owns the man and her flawed hero is on a mission to self-destruct. As his controlling and disinherited father pushes him closer to the edge, she gives all she has to hold him back.

And between them all, there’s an old boat with dark secrets, and perhaps a mind of its own.

Intrigued? If you’d like a longer synopsis, you’ll find it here. There are extracts here and here, and lots more about the book at Unbound. And I’d love to point you towards a url where you can place pre-orders, but for now, let me simply share the joy of a brief well executed by the publisher.

Roll of drums…. Draca has a publication date

Good news. Draca’s publication date will be 14th May 2020, hopefully in time for everyone’s summer holiday reading.

As publisher Unbound moves into the production phase, they will close the supporters’ list at midnight on Monday 27th January. So if you’d like your name inside the cover, now’s a good time to pre-order your copy, here.

For those who haven’t seen previous posts, Draca is the story of a war-damaged veteran who struggles to rebuild his life restoring vintage sailing boat. Is he haunted by his past, or just haunted? He’s on a mission to self-destruct and his controlling father is pushing him ever closer to the edge, while his yachtswoman friend gives all she has to pull him back. Half the royalties go to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.

Logo: in support of Combat Stress

For a synopsis of the book, go here. For an extract, click here. If you’d like to know more about Combat Stress and their work, click the Combat Stress logo.

Next stage; the cover. I’ve already seen the first draft, and it’s going to be good. Then come the launch events, both before and after publication date. Exciting times.

Happy Yule, God Jul, from the dragon

Viking longship dragonhead

There’s a dragon in Draca; a restored figurehead with a dark history. The Vikings who carved and venerated that fearsome head would have celebrated not Christmas but Yule, the midwinter solstice and the birth of the new year. So Happy Yule, God Jul, or, in Old Norse, Gleðileg jól.

About Draca & Unbound

Draft cover for Draca

If you’d like to know more about Draca’s dragon figurehead, there’s a synopsis of the book here and extracts here and here. It’s my second novel (Saxon’s Bane actually reached #1 in its genre) and I took an unusual route to publication so that I could share financially meaningful royalties with the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress. The book’s hero is a PTSD-afflicted survivor of Afghanistan. Is he haunted by his past, or just haunted?

Unbound are highly selective, like any publisher, but wait until pre-orders have passed a threshold before committing to publication. They are new but making an impact, with a Man Booker long-lister to their credit and, this year, a Rathbones Folio finalist. And Draca? With the help of over 250 supporters, many of them committing to multiple copies, Unbound’s threshold for publication was reached three months ago.

Publication is coming closer…

Since then there has been lots of editing, all now complete, and Unbound are moving towards final cover design and launch scheduling. They plan to despatch supporters’ copies in mid May, in time for the first of the launch events; I’m speaking at a literary festival on 21st. Unbound say general release is likely to be in July. That’s when we can all start helping veterans whose wounds are more than physical. Combat Stress will receive half the royalties.

Last chance for your name inside!

Unbound will close the supporters’ list soon, before typesetting. All supporters names appear in every edition of the book, so if you’re lost for gift ideas, how about pre-ordering a paperback and putting the recipient’s name inside the covers? Or your own? Click here for all you need to know.

And meanwhile, God Jul. Gleðileg jól.

Happy Christmas.

Geoff

Crowdfunding success for Draca!

Thanks to the support of around 250 enthusiasts, Draca has achieved crowdfunding success. We’ve reached the threshold of pre-orders when Unbound starts the publishing cycle. Each of those 250 believed in the project enough to pledge money towards a book that didn’t exist, and which would never have existed without them.

Draca will now enter the long cycle of editing, copy editing, cover design, and typesetting. The current forecast is for general release in June 2020.

However I have been invited to speak at the Chalfont St Giles Literary Festival on 21 May 2020. It’s too good an opportunity not to factor into launch plans, so Unbound will try to ensure that pre-release copies are available ready for that date.

Meanwhile the supporters’ list will remain open during the initial editing phases. Anyone wishing to pre-order a copy can do so here. As from now, the royalties will be mounting up for the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.

Huge thanks to all those who’ve carried Draca to this crucial stage. You have truly earned your place inside the covers.

[For a synopsis of Draca, click here. For extracts, go here or here.]

Geoff

Draca: Sailing towards a Literary Festival launch

Draca is now at 93% of the threshold of pre-orders for the publisher, Unbound, to start the publication cycle. Once published, 50% of author royalties will go to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.

I’ve acquired an unexpected but very welcome deadline, in the shape of an invitation to speak at the Chalfont St Giles literary festival on 21st May 2020. To have printed books ready by then, Unbound need Draca to reach 100% by mid September. No pressure, then. I’m told I’ll share that day’s billing with a “household TV name”. Previous speakers at this biennial festival have included John Carey, Dan Cruikshank, Katie Hickman, Lord Winston and Ffion Hague.

This is too good an opportunity not to factor into launch plans for Draca. So if anyone would like to place a pre-order, any time between now and 17th September, I’d be delighted to send you a book of five short stories as a ‘thank you’. Just follow this link to Draca’s page at Unbound, place your order, and email me at geoffreygudgion@icloud.com to let me know whether you’d like the short stories in .epub (Apple) or .mobi (Kindle) or pdf format. There are lots more details about the book here and extracts here and here.

Thank you! And it would be great to see you & to sign your copy at the festival.

Bone Lines by Stephanie Bretherton; a review

It’s easier to write qualitative statements about Bone Lines (‘brilliant’ and ‘beautiful’ come to mind) than it is to define it. Yes, it’s a time-slip, weaving the stories of two strong women; the courageous survivor of an extreme natural disaster, and the scientist who analyses her newly-discovered bones more than 70,000 years later. Yet there are several other labels I could add, such as literary, since it is beautifully written, even lyrical at times. I struggled for a while with the question ‘what’s it all about?’ before I realised that in some ways, that question was the answer. Eloise, the introspective, present-day scientist, has a search for meaning running through her mind like a philosophical playlist, and her self-reflection is an intriguing thread that drew me forwards. 

The other protagonist, that the present day calls ‘Sarah’, is a true heroine; resourceful, courageous, indomitable in the face of seemingly impossible situations. The reader wills her to succeed and I for one would like to have read more of her. The way in which Bretherton has imagined and written the mindset of a woman from the archaeological past is stunning. Sarah is at one with nature and respectful of it; a hungry woman who would spare an antelope for the sake of its unweaned faun, yet rip the throat from a human aggressor to protect her own infant.

Eloise is complex, fascinating, and perhaps too given to introspection; the kind of person I’d love to find across the table at a dinner party. Both women yearn for company; Sarah as the sole survivor of disaster in an almost empty world, nurturing the baby that is born on her epic journey, and Eloise who is alone, sometimes by choice, in our crowded modern world.

Bone Lines is a very intelligent book, straying at times into the science of genetics but remaining readable to the layman. It is also thoughtful, perhaps a bit philosophical, yet repaying any effort and earning its five stars for the quality of the writing and the appeal of the main characters. If my bookshelves had labels it would go on one called ‘Undiscovered Gems’. Recommended.

Stephanie Bretherton’s web site is here. You can find Bone Lines on Amazon here, or here on Hive (as of today, the lowest price), or at Waterstones here.

A talk on the Wilde side

I recently reviewed Obsidian by Suzie Wilde, which is pitched as ‘A gripping Viking tale of one woman’s courage, fighting old and new gods amid the savage beauty of Ice Island’. I love historical fantasy novels and especially books with a strong female protagonist, and was intrigued enough ask Suzie some questions. Here’s what she said.

GG: Suzie, you write very believable characters; they are all flawed, and all have some redeeming aspect. Your protagonist Bera is complex; powerful yet insecure, tender yet sometimes spiteful. What was your inspiration for her? 

SW: All characters are a mix of an author’s experience, personality and imagination. You begin with a short acquaintance with the first sketchy drafts, then get to know them better as the plot develops and then in later drafts they make decisions and do stuff. I love the ‘Oh there you are’ moment when, as Kate Mosse puts it, the characters pass from behind to walk in front of you. They can be guided of course but can clearly be seen, like real people, and that’s often when the author gets out of the way so the reader can see them clearly too.

GG: You write beautifully about the landscape of Iceland, or Ice Island as it becomes in Obsidian, and the climactic scenes during a volcanic eruption are masterful. Have you ever seen an eruption, up close and personal? 

SW: That’s why we have YouTube! I was a maritime researcher and read many accounts written by people who have experienced these events. There are a few groups I follow on Twitter and Instagram, who post stunning images (#volcano or #iceland will pull up loads).

GG: Bera’s world seems very Viking at first, yet it rapidly diverges from Norse culture, particularly in their belief system; Bera is a seeress rather like a Nordic Völva, yet there is little mention of the Norse pantheon of gods. The dead don’t go to Hel or Niflheim but might lurk as ‘drorghers’ to plague the living. Did you set out to create a whole new world view, or did it evolve as you wrote? 

SW: I wanted readers to feel they had fallen through a trapdoor into a world only slightly strange. It’s a carefully researched Norse world, as far as it goes, except I’m not keen on having gods involved. They don’t infest the everyday now, so perhaps they didn’t then. The book is written in English, dialogue included, so I didn’t want sudden Old Norse words. Instead I’ve based these fantasy elements on what we know of their beliefs, so drorgher comes from draugr, the walking dead. By a similar process, as you note, Iceland becomes Ice Island. It’s to suggest to readers a slight ‘otherness’.

Anyone who likes Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis might enjoy spotting a similar ‘Norseness’ with their daemons, the Valar and Eldila, respectively. Tolkien  was famously a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford. I studied it at UCL, where I fell in love with Beowulf, as so many others have over the years. I envy W.H. Auden, who wrote, years later, to his former professor, ‘I don’t think that I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.’ 

GG: You write very evocatively about boatbuilding and the sea. Is that drawn from personal experience? 

SW: I grew up beside the sea and my father built boats as a hobby. I love the smell of marine ply. I used to play among the rotting hulks while he worked on converting an old lifeboat. Named the Freya, she went out with the ice after only one summer afloat, when I was nine. Loss is a powerful theme in the trilogy.

GG: Sea Paths and Obsidian are stand-alone books, but they are the first two parts of a trilogy. That’s a huge sweep of a story and an impressive undertaking. Did you have the whole series in your mind when you started? 

SE: Bera stormed into my life while I was trying to write a crime thriller. Book 1 was intended to be the whole story – but once I had finished it Bera wouldn’t let go. I was even dreaming about her, and other characters too, even the dog! Luckily, enough readers kept asking me what happens next that I had an excuse to work that out. Each book explores what ‘Home’ means and where do you belong if you always keep moving? I don’t like narrative weighed down with backstory: Sea Paths starts on Day One and always moves forward – why Lee Child loved it  – so if you read Obsidian it’s the same, except readers of the first will know more backstory. If you’re someone who wants more detail about a character’s past, then you might like to read them in order. At their most basic, Sea Paths is a revenge thriller and Obsidian a quest, though both have a thriller structure.

GG: Any sneak previews of Book 3?

SW: My editor is the brilliant Liz Garner, whose father Alan has been a hero of mine for years. They both hug a story while it’s forming, as if its magic will vanish if spoken. I’m staying silent about Book 3 until it’s done, except to say that the themes of Home and Belonging are resolved, and that this will be the last in the series. It’s quite a challenge to satisfyingly have new story and characters each time, but not leave anything unresolved across the whole series.

GG: I share your respect for Alan Garner. I learned a lot from ‘The Voice That Thunders’. Suzie, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us. I’m looking forward to the next, and last instalment of Bera’s adventures.

Obsidian is published by Unbound. Click here for my review on Amazon.

When worlds collide

As anyone who has read Saxon’s Bane knows, I like to write stories where worlds collide. Not, I hasten to add, in the astronomical sense; I don’t write Science Fiction, but I do like the past to echo in the present. Even better, to play on it in a way that has the reader wondering if there is more in today’s world than can be explained by science.

Weaving the past into the present

In a previous post I described how the initial idea for Draca came at anchor in a friend’s boat, watching the ebbing tide reveal the bones of dead ships. What else did the silt’s ancient layers conceal? After all, Guthrum’s Viking army wreaked bloody havoc in that very harbour during their war with Alfred. There’s a contemporary, 9th Century poem by Torbjøn Hornklov which evokes the moment when the dragon ships surged out of the mist:

Ships came from east-way,
All eager for battle,
With grim gaping heads
And rich carved prows.
They carried a host of warriors,
With white shields
And spears from the Westlands
And Celt-wrought swords.
The berserks were roaring
(For this was their battle),
The wolf-coated warriors howling,
And the irons clattering.

But how might such a moment impact the present? Weaving history into a contemporary novel is tricky. In Saxon’s Bane I set whole chapters in the Saxon era. In Draca I took a more subtle approach, revealing the past through the contents of an old man’s bookshelf; his diaries, his obsessive research into his own Danish heritage, and his copies of the ancient sagas. If the tidal scour revealed a Viking artefact, he’d probably keep it. His diaries could reveal his mental disintegration, until he dies raving that he ‘tried to give it back’.

The joys of research

Researching a book can be wonderfully diverting. It sucks time as you wade through bogs of facts. Whole days sink without trace. That old man dies in the first chapter and it’s his legacy that triggers events. Still, just populating his bookshelf mired me very happily in perhaps a month of reading ancient history. I could use almost none of it. All for a book set in the present day.

There are a few exceptions. A dictionary of Old Norse taught me obscure words that became chapter titles; (Chapter 1: Arfræningr, one stripped of his inheritance). Snorri Sturluson’s 13th Century Heimskringla taught me the lilt and vocabulary of Old Norse, even in translation. It taught me enough to ‘book-end’ chapters with short extracts from a Viking saga.

So readers of Draca will find slices of history framing a modern tale; slices that tighten the tension as the ancient and brutal past starts to resonate ever more loudly in the present. Next year, after publication, you’ll be able to tell me if it worked. For now, here’s how that back story begins.

Enjoy!

From the saga of King Guthrum, c.875AD

That winter King Guthrum laid down a mighty dragonhead ship for his son Jarl Harald, whom he loved and honoured most of all. Of oak did he build it, cut finely that it might bend with the sea, with benches of pine for twenty oars on the one hand and twenty on the other. The fittings were splendid, as befits a great jarl, and a richly carved strake rose to a wondrous dragonhead at the prow. As was the custom, this could be taken down, like the helm of a warrior, lest it offend the landvættir, the land spirits.

Then Guthrum and Harald made sacrifice in this wise: Harald took a stallion that he loved, and calmed the beast, covering its eyes that it might not see whence the blow would come. Then they took their axes and struck; Harald between the stallion’s eyes, and Guthrum at its neck such that the sound of the blows was one, and none could tell who made the killing wound. So mightily did Guthrum wield his axe that the stallion’s head was wholly struck off, and the wise ones said that the fall of the blood was good, for the dragonhead tasted blood before ever a bowl was brought to its mouth.

Then Harald knew that the gods would sail with them, and would find them even in the furthest reaches of the sea, for the dragonhead was truly consecrated to the Æsir. 

Draca is available to pre-order through Unbound here. It’s £10 for an ebook and from £15 for a paperback. The names of all supporters at this pre-publication phase will be included in the book. Half of all royalties will be donated to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.

Go here for a synopsis of Draca and here for an extract.

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/