Jacqueline Watts, author, reviewer, and blogger (click here to read her blog) sent me some questions about characters and characterisation, which I’m delighted to post below. By way of introduction, Jacquie read English at Somerville College, Oxford, and has had poetry, short stories and book reviews published in Acumen, Envoi, Hand + Star, Mslexia and Orbis, and broadcast on BBC and independent Radio. Her novel, “A Darker Moon”, a dark literary fantasy, is published by Vagabondage Press.
1. What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or historical? There’s a guy called Fergus Sheppard in Saxon’s Bane, and as I wrote the book he became so real that I have to remind myself he’s just a figment of my imagination.
2. When and where is the story set? Saxon’s Bane is set in the present day in a remote English village called Allingley, during the excavation of a Saxon grave. There are also flashbacks to Allingley’s Dark Ages origins as Aegl ingas leigh, the clearing of Aegl’s people.
3. What should we know about him? In the first pages of the book Fergus is involved in a car crash near Allingley, when his friend and colleague Kate swerves to avoid a stag. Kate dies, and Fergus hears himself left for dead. Before that life-changing moment, he’d been a high-achieving, flash salesman, but in the book he’s on a journey towards physical and mental healing. He’s stubborn, vulnerable, and emotionally incontinent, but he’s a fighter. He’s had to fight his way back from a place mapped more by faiths than by science.
4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life? Fergus isn’t sure any more about the boundaries between reality and mystery, or past and present, and those boundaries become more blurred as the story progresses. There’s the tramp with the stag tattoo, for example, that appeared by the wreck just as archaeologists were uncovering a peat-preserved, Saxon body nearby with uncannily similar markings.
Fergus is a damaged innocent blundering through a rural community that hides some seriously nasty secrets. Tor.com summed it up as ‘Wicker Man by way of John Fowles’.
5. What is the personal goal of the character? Fergus starts out needing to sort out his own mental turmoil. As can happen with people with Post-Traumatic Stress, his behaviour is not always appealing. His insecurity, for example, shows in a bit of a roving eye, but the young archaeologist who’s the object of his attentions is facing her own challenges; a preternatural understanding of the Saxon graves that she can’t reconcile with her academic discipline. The two of them become drawn into a very old, sinister conflict. Fergus stays to fight not because he’s particularly courageous, but because he’s too bloody-minded to run the other way. Plus, of course, there’s the girl…
6. How’s the book doing? I’m eagerly awaiting the first royalty statement since just after the launch! The feedback is gratifyingly good, though, with an average of 4.4 ex 34 reviews on Amazon. I was over the moon when Ross Warren, reviewing for ‘This is Horror’, described it as ‘A supremely well-written novel… Saxon’s Bane is the book to thrust into the hands of any know-it-all who claims that genre fiction cannot be literary.’
7. Great! So what’s coming next? I’ve just finished another time-slip historical with a supernatural twist and have posted an overview and extracts here. Now I’m sketching out two alternative scenarios for the third book. This summer I’ll finish my (part time) job and focus wholly on writing, which is wonderfully exciting.
…and the tour carries on Watch this space for the next writers to introduce their characters.
Cindy 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.
“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?”
In the last week, there have been a lot of threads on Facebook and writers’ sites about genre, and the challenges of classifying books. Back in August, the Hugo Award-winning SF & Fantasy site, SF Signal, asked me to write a guest blog on the subject. Here are my thoughts; click the image for the original article.
Literature, Genre, and Geeks
Tag me with a genre label and I’ll probably wince. They’re like that childhood game of pinning the tail on the donkey, blindfold, except I’m the donkey. Every now and then there’s a pinprick and I find another useless appendage dangling from my ear or nostril. HF, UF, Fantasy, Dark Fantasy…I’ve been stuck with them all.
My irritation with labels began with the slight sneer of superiority about genre; that sense, on my journey to publication, that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. I had this bizarre vision of being greeted by a marketing executive at a great but imaginary literary establishment. “Literary Fiction? Over there, sir, the smart chaps in suits and cufflinks. Historical? Down the passage, mate, look for the swords, sandals, and bodices. Fantasy? Downstairs, guv. We don’t let no geeks up ‘ere.”
Literary snobbishness aside, the real problem with genre labels is that this convenient, box-ticking marketing machine has little room for grey areas. It seems to be designed for publishers’, distributors’, and retailers’ convenience. By superimposing structure onto a craft that is inherently qualitative, it primarily benefits the publishing machine, not the author or the reader. It thinks in lists; the SF list, the HF list, the Chic Lit list (and I couldn’t say that after a glass of wine), whereas writers create word pictures that should be art rather than paint-by-numbers. We need the freedom to stray across boundaries.
I like ambiguity, you see. I inhabit the hinterland where history becomes fantasy, and both cross the border into literature. I enjoy ghost stories where a plausible explanation still lingers in the background, or the kind of fantasy where the real world is touched by magic the way sunlight glints on water. Blink and the light may have gone, but the scent of an otherness remains.
I suppose I should blame the world I live in. The real one, that is, not the caverns of half-constructed mental space called ‘Works In Progress’. My real world has history written across its landscape; place names that tell of Saxon settlements, winding lanes that an English drunkard made as he lurched home from the mead hall. The past lives around us in the present, but what if those distant ancestors could speak to us? What stories would come alive?
So much of writing, I find, starts with that question “what if…” Take the village of Allingley, for example, a dreamy place on the banks of the Swanbourne. Allingley would have been Aegl-ingas-leah in Anglo-Saxon, the clearing of the folk of Aegl. What if this was the Aegl of Saxon legend, the mighty archer whose love was Olrun, the Swan Maiden?
I like joining the dots, even if the dots sit in different boxes of the marketing machine. When Saxon’s Bane was still a vague idea, I saw an article about the millennia-old bodies that are occasionally found in peat bogs, with their features sometimes so well preserved that they seem simply to be sleeping. Many of them were ritually slaughtered. Now, what if a peat-preserved Saxon grave was discovered on the outskirts of Allingley? What if an archaeologist developed a preternatural understanding of her project? What if the present day started to mirror the ancient, bloody past?
I’m back with the marketing exec. “Bit historical, are we?” he asks in a tone of voice that suggests ‘historical’ is a nervous condition. “But set in the present day? That won’t do, then…” Much sucking of teeth as he looks down his lists. “And a ghost, you say? That’ll be fantasy, then. Mind the steps; it’s a bit dark down there.”
I know, I know; genre labels help to point readers towards books they might like. Labels become banners under which people of similar interests can congregate, for example in forums like this one. But sticking a genre label on a book is not an indicator of quality. A bad book doesn’t become an Iain M Banks classic just by labeling it ‘SF’. A good publisher, on the other hand, is highly selective, invests in its authors, and won’t touch cr@p. First division authors such as the late and much loved Iain B are sufficiently established to have a brand of their own, but for the rest of us, being associated with a publisher’s brand helps us towards stardom. Maybe there’s a case for publishers to promote their brand values a little more? More branding, less tagging?
And in the mean time, I’m writing fantasy. With more than a dash of history. It’s quite literary, I’m told, but reads like a thriller. Oh, and there’s a dash of romance thrown in.
Hell, it’s a ghost story.
After Niall Alexander kindly reviewed Saxon’s Bane on his brilliant site ‘The Speculative Scotsman’, (click the image to read it) he kindly invited me to write a guest post. He even gave me the subject of ‘History in Fiction’ to link in to previous posts.
The subject started me thinking. Here, with Niall’s permission, are the results:
“Ee, when I were a lad…”
Elderly relatives used to start their reminiscences like that when, er, I was a lad. I remember folding my face into an attitude of dutiful attention as I wondered how long I’d have to endure some fragment of ‘ancient’ history. After a while, I’d squirm and find an excuse to slip away. After all, I was force-fed enough history at school, fact by repetitive fact.
“Kings of England, William the Conqueror onwards!” a master would bark. The Norman Conquest was, after all, the date when all history started, as every English schoolboy knows. “Who can tell me?”
“Sir, sir, me sir! William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John…”
I don’t think I differentiated between taught history and living history, as a boy. History was all about facts to be regurgitated, not experiences to be felt. What could those relatives tell me? First hand accounts of battles would have been interesting. In my childhood, there were still old folks alive who’d fought in the First World War. One relative had even survived both Flanders trenches and the Russian Revolution. My father fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa. Frustratingly, none of them wanted to talk about their battles, at least not in the heroic language a schoolboy craves. They’d flinch away from a direct question, but as I grew older, fragments of their memories sometimes fell in softly spoken words, and the mood would go still, tightening into itself. In that silence I glimpsed the stuttering terror of close-range tracer fire in the night, or felt the anguish of a survivor of atrocity. But by the time I was mature enough to listen, many of the stories would never be told again.
I think those fragments roused my interest not in ‘what happened’, but in what it felt like to be there while it happened. The perspective of the peasant, not the lord, the common soldier rather than the general. I also came to understand the impact on people, who seem with hindsight rather like trees that have survived the crushing weight of a boulder; take away the stone and the tree may thrive again, but not always in the pure shape that nature intended.
When I were a lad… we were taught the sequence of history. It might only have started in 1066, but that rote learning gave us a framework on which to hang deeper study. It might have been an overwhelmingly English framework, but I feel no need to apologise for my schoolmasters of old. They in turn had grown up in a place and an era of Imperial hubris, a time when God was an Englishman and had commissioned the British to civilise the world in their image. My offspring react with understandable horror to the mores of Empire, since in today’s era of the educational project or module, they have little understanding of trajectory or context. If I try to explain the attitudes of British society in my childhood, during that brief era between the end of Empire and the advent of mass immigration, they react as if I’d tried to deny the holocaust. They can describe immensely important subjects like the slave trade, but have no knowledge of the origins of their own people.
So what has all this to do with writing fiction?
At the risk of sounding grandiose, history is the backstory we all share. Villages in my part of England can often be traced to a Saxon warlord who chose the spot to ground his spear and plant his generations. That winding country lane has probably been there since an ox cart found the easiest route through the woods. Those invaders, settlers, and opportunists were storytellers, not writers, and they told their stories in the West Saxon tongue that would become the first global language, Ænglisc. They kept their own history alive in legends, some of which yet survive. Beowulf, Weyland the Smith, and Weyland’s brother Egil or Ægl who married the swan-maiden Olrun. Historical fiction was a dominant cultural force millennia before publishers called it ‘genre’ and eased it into the literary sidelines.
Personally, I like to write stories that have an echo of the past; not so much historical fiction as history in fiction. So I set Saxon’s Bane in a village called Allingley, which would have been Ægl-ingas-leah or ‘the clearing of Ægl’s folk’ in Anglo Saxon, a sleepy village on the banks of the Swanbourne. It was fun to reach back to the origins of the Ænglisc and to bring a legend to life in the present day. They’d have been just like us, those distant ancestors. Their fear would have been the same, even though the aggressor carried an axe rather than a machine pistol. All it takes to go back there and to make history come alive is a framework of facts and a little imagination. The imagination that sees an old veteran, perhaps, who sits by a fire and stares dewy-eyed into his mead, and says to the youth in the rushes at his feet, ‘now, when I were a lad…’
“Nú, hwonne ic waes cnap…”
Today is the UK release date for Saxon’s Bane. To mark the occasion, Jonathan Oliver of Solaris sat me in front of a video camera and asked me loads of questions, ranging from my thoughts on genre, to the background to key characters in the book, and my writing journey. We even touched on the healing power of horses! The interview has been posted on YouTube at:
A wonderful crowd of friends and family swelled the shoppers at The Forbidden Planet in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, on Wednesday night, for the launch of Saxon’s Bane.
My agent Ian Drury of Sheil Land Associates kindly kicked off the proceedings before I was persuaded to read the first chapter. A Q&A followed, in which the questions were mercifully uncontroversial but lively enough to swell the numbers queuing to buy the book.
I’d found a very suitable wine, so perhaps it was inevitable that a little frivolity would creep into the occasion, in which a Saxon replica helmet (gratifyingly close to the book’s cover image) featured heavily!
I was humbled by the number of friends who came along in support, some of whom had traveled a long way to be there. The Forbidden Planet team were stunned that I was still signing books when they were preparing to close the shop, which I gather is almost unknown for a debut launch.
It was great to share a glass with friends and the guys from Solaris afterwards in De Hems. A great evening, with brilliant company.
Saxon’s Bane is now available in print form (Mass Market Paperback) in the United States and Canada, and will be released in Trade Paperback format in the United Kingdom on 12th September. It is also available worldwide in all standard eBook formats.
This fabulous replica helmet was a gift from a friend. Something tells me it is going to spice up many book signing sessions. And for those coming to the launch at Forbidden Planet, London at 6pm on 4th September, there may be a little extra surprise…