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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
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
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:
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.
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
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.”
This evening I poured myself a glass of wine, put on some music, and pulled a book off the shelf. I chose, not quite at random, the first volume of Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’, since I wanted to see what the wartime leader and amateur historian had to say about the dawn of the English. It’s one of those books that are too finely bound or significant to be thrown away, but which somehow sit there yellowing and undisturbed for years. It was written in the 1930’s, and re-edited before publication in 1956, but it is stunning to see how how profoundly have styles changed in just 60 or 80 years. Here he is on the Arthurian legend:
‘If we could see what exactly happened [the reality behind the myth of Arthur] we should find ourselves in the presence of a theme as well founded, as inspired, and as inalienable from the inheritance of mankind as the Odyssey or the Old Testament. It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides. And wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre, for freedom, law, and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls round. Let us then declare that King Arthur and his noble knights, guarding the Sacred Flame of Christianity and the theme of a world order, sustained by valour, physical strength, and good horses and armour, slaughtered innumerable hosts of foul barbarians and set decent folk an example for all time.’
Rousing stuff. For a moment my study filled with the scent of a thundering good cigar. Better historians than I might challenge Churchill’s academic rigour, but then he had an angle, in the same way that Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had an angle. There may even be a touch of self-aggrandisement there. But for those who have a taste for history that is robust, muscular, and heroic, he can’t be beaten.
When I reached for my glass, I was mildly surprised to find a humble red rather than a fine brandy.
Perhaps 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.
Before I started writing, I imagined authors staring into space as they dreamed up the next best seller, spending a few creative hours scribbling, and then quaffing wine at book launches while they signed books for an adoring public. It was a good vision to hold in my mind as I crawled through the concrete canyons during the morning ‘rush’ hour, because one day, I thought, I’m going to write that book. Now I know the slog, the insecurity, the bruising rejections, and the small-change royalties, I ask myself ‘why do we do this?’ Perhaps even more, ‘why, when other careers are open to us, would we not do anything else?’
I persuaded Jacquie Watts to sit in the hot seat. Jacquie pinged me last month in the ‘meet my character’ blog hop, and I discovered that she read English at Somerville College, Oxford. She’s 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. She was brave enough to answer some fairly hard questions:
GG: You’re an Oxford graduate. You could do lots of things. Why write?
JSW: Oxford graduates don’t have all the fun, you know, but the very simple and direct answer is because I want to. I have actually done a lot of things since graduating from Oxford, including spending over 25 years in British education, but my passion has always been writing. I’ve written stories and poems for almost as long as I can remember. As a child, I even wrote plays that I forced friends and family to act out. Okay, as an eight year old I also coerced friends into a rather ridiculous pop group that fortunately came to nothing, but that’s just proof that the thing that really, really mattered to me, writing, was the thing that I pursued and persevered with.
GG: In the literary field you’re a published poet, a published author, and a reviewer. How do you answer when someone asks ‘what do you do?’
JSW: I usually say I’m a writer and then, if the person’s interested, they can ask what I write. If I say poet, it seems to preclude writing anything other than poetry. If I say author, then people assume I only write novels. Sometimes if the situation demands it, I will say poet and author, but mostly I refer to myself as a writer as that seems to sum it up nicely and is how I see myself.
GG: I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) your short story in the June/July Plasma Frequency Magazine. Its main character is a woman whose memory has been erased. Your book ‘A Darker Moon’ has a protagonist who can’t remember his past. Why do you return to this theme?
JSW: Mmm… good question and I’m really pleased you enjoyed ‘e-razored’. Now you’ve got me thinking about it, I’ve written other stories where memory (or lack of it) plays a key role, for example the short story ‘Jenny’.
The theme of memory attracts me for a variety of reasons. On one level I like the dichotomy between the known and the unknown and when memory is involved it’s possible for me as a writer to keep everyone in the dark for longer, including the main character.
My fascination with memory goes beyond that, though. I think there is a fundamental question to be asked and it is an increasingly important one as more and more of us live into advanced old age and experience the impact of conditions such as Alzheimer’s. The primal question for me is, who are we? Are we more than the sum of our memories? If you take away memory, the recollection of where we have been, what we have done and how we have felt about it, what are you left with? I know that as an individual I have changed over the years because of what I have achieved (and failed to achieve), what I have experienced and felt. If my memory of that goes, what do I have left? I also pride myself on having a good memory. I would hate to lose it. It would be like losing a key part of me. Having said that, I recognise I do not remember everything in perfect detail, so my memories are selective rather than complete. Some people have memories they yearn to forget, that make their lives worse not better. Like everything in life, memory per se is neither good nor bad, but it’s what we humans have. Ultimately, I have no real answer to the question of memory and self, just my gut response, so I come back to it because it fascinates me.
GG: In the past few days I’ve come across an impressive variety works by you that include a psychological fantasy novel (A Darker Moon), a sci-fi short story (e-razored), some delightfully witty poetry (Songs of Steelyard Sue) and another, prize-winning, literary short story on Radio 4 (Jenny). You seem to be covering a lot of bases. Where’s your heart?
JSW: I think my heart is multi-faceted. I like classical music and heavy rock. I like literary fiction and genre fiction. I like poetry and prose. I like variety and I don’t have a problem with liking lots of contrasting things simultaneously.
Having said that, much of my writing does contain elements of what many would call speculative fiction: sci-fi, fantasy, magic-realism, the supernatural, myth and fairy story. My first full poetry collection, ‘Cats and Other Myths’ aimed to explore myth and legend through modern life and visa versa. I believe the stories we make up from scratch, the ones written on a totally blank page, contain a good deal of ourselves. We pour in our anxieties and interests, the questions we want answering or are pondering. It’s a way of exploring our humanity and, if I go delving after my elusive heart, I guess a fundamental fascination with what makes ‘us humans’ tick lies at the bottom of most things I have written. ‘Songs of Steelyard Sue’ is first and foremost a sequence of poems exploring the life and times of an everyman character (or, in Sue’s case, an everymechanoidfemale character) and the point of an everyman is that he’s supposed to stand for all of us. I can’t comment on whether Steelyard Sue achieves this, but I do know that amongst the humour (and the sadness) I have tried, in my own clumsy way, to explore the human condition and the myths that drive us.
GG: Like other poets I could mention, you write clean, evocative prose that’s better than many genre best-sellers. Does the lack of recognition frustrate you?
JSW: Thank you for the very kind words. It doesn’t frustrate me, as such. As a writer, and especially a writer of poetry, I’ve come to expect it. I’d love to be able to say I write only for the love of it and lack of recognition doesn’t matter at all, but that would be lying. I do write for the love of it, but I also want my stories and poems to connect with people. Writing is communication and the more people read my books, the more I am communicating. Finding someone who likes what I have written or is moved by it is tremendously rewarding. Also, I have a cat to feed and a mortgage to pay, so earning money from my writing doesn’t go amiss either. I should love my writing to earn praise and gold alike, but failing that I remain motivated by the writing itself. At least if I’m writing I can cling to the forlorn hope that one day recognition will catch up with me. My second novel, ‘Witchlight’ is due out sometime in the next twelve months (publication schedules permitting), I’m writing the third novel and am working on my next poetry collection, so at least there’s some hope that one day recognition might come calling, if not with the current book, then the next one.
GG: Jacquie, thank you so much for participating. I echo many of your thoughts, especially the need to engage with people, and the reward of finding that people like what you’ve written. I shall watch for ‘Witchlight’ with huge interest. Good luck.