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.
My E-book of short stories has now been published by Solaris, and is available for free download in both Kindle (.mobi) and iBook (.epub) formats.
MUSE: A powerful, emotionally charged story where old lady teaches a young pianist the true, evocative power of music. Winner of the ‘Get Writing’ Prize 2011.
THE OTHER WOMAN: In this light-hearted and amusing tale, a sailor becomes obsessed with restoring a vintage sailboat, which seems to have a character and a mind of its own.
SHORT BURSTS: The poignant story of an elderly veteran confronting his demons in an old people’s home.
Click the links to download. Enjoy!
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:
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…
Let me share a little happiness; my author copies of Saxon’s Bane have arrived from the wonderful people at Solaris. It is almost exactly six years since I stepped off a corporate ladder and went freelance, specifically to release time to write. Six years from ‘I’m going to do this’ to publication, and I tell you this moment feels better than any business deal I ever landed. My thanks to those who’ve helped along the way, many of whom will find their names inside the cover. It seemed appropriate to record the moment in the arbour, where much of Saxon’s Bane was written.
Saxon’s Bane will be released in the USA on 27th August and in the UK on 12th September.
My wonderful publishers, Solaris, sent an Advance Review Copy of Saxon’s Bane to Christopher Fowler, the author of thirty published novels including the Bryant and May mysteries. Christopher commented:
‘Once there was a great classical tradition of rural British horror from MR James to The Wicker Man. Now Geoffrey Gudgion has revived the style and modernised it to great effect, proving there’s still nothing as creepy as the countryside.’
Thank you, Christopher! Definitely a quote for the cover.
Let me share the excitement of the cover for Saxon’s Bane, from the very talented artist Clint Langley and the team at Solaris.
Rather than enthuse about it myself, (well I would, wouldn’t I?) I’ll also share the observations from an online community of writers and agents, some of whom have been part of my own writing journey ever since Saxon’s Bane started to take shape.
‘Perfect! … dramatic and classy. There’s a sinister feel to it and an impression of today (from the road) and history.
Stirring, evocative, all the things a cover should be. I’d grab it if I saw it on the table!
It has a darkly beautiful feel … this absolutely would make me pick up and buy Saxon’s Bane. It says to me that it’s both historical and contemporary. Anglo-Saxon. Pagan. Powerful.
That’s fabulous I can’t wait to get my paws on a copy!
Very dramatic, and promises an intriguing combination of ancient and contemporary (just as the book delivers.)
I’d definitely pick it up. The cover puts a shiver down my spine and says modern/historical/edgy/scary mix.
Oh I like it. It says hardship and violence and a good story.
It’s very strong. It makes me think dark, dark things are afoot.’
Saxon’s Bane will be released in the UK and USA, in print and ebook formats, in September 2013.