Monthly Archives: May 2015

Preparing the Way

I didn’t know what to write this week (again!) and since I was editing The King in Darkness I got a bit energized about those characters again.  So I wrote this thing.  It’s kind of a prologue-y bit for the main story of the book, and although it really doesn’t give very much away, it should give you an idea of what the book will be like, and maybe it will whet your appetite a little.

It is also fairly rough, and has not had the attention of my wonderful editors, so forgive me for that, and do let me know what you think.

I hope you enjoy it.

———

The man and the woman met at her apartment, late in the evening. The man was slim, sturdy, and smiled rarely. The woman had, as always, carefully prepared both the setting and her person to receive him. Despite the artifice, and the hour, and the intimacy of the setting, the encounter was not romantic. They planned to talk, not of love, but of a book, an old man, and of death.

They exchanged no pleasantries. Neither had much time for them, in this context. They had preparations to make, and strictly limited time in which to complete their tasks. The woman drank a deep red wine during their conversation, but did not offer any to her visitor. The man would have said that this showed that she thought of him as a servant. If pressed, she probably would have described him as a useful ally, though not a friend, and as she spent so much of her public life being dishonest, she indulged in abandoning pretense at home, at least.

The man made his report, although it rankled him to think of it that way. Her questions, offered with languorous authority, bothered him even more. “Yes, it’s still in the house, goddamnit,” he insisted. There were things he was an expert at, that she was not. Observation was one of them.

“You’re sure? You saw it?”, She demanded. The woman had long practice in the trade of deception and tended to assume its presence. Besides, the old man’s options were decreasing, his vulnerability was growing, and moving the book might have seemed a sensible ploy.

“Yeah, I did. On the shelf like always.”, he replied. The house was filled with bookshelves in a jumble of styles, materials, and ages. Their eclectic nature was of a piece with the rest of the house’s contents. It was full of art and artifacts from what appeared to be every corner of the globe. Still, the man had persisted until he was certain the book was there.

“And the old man is dying.” It was not a question. Nor did the woman sound sad, or concerned. There was, perhaps, a tiny bit of amusement in her voice, if there was any feeling at all.

“Yeah, that’s what his neighbour said,” the man replied. The neighbour had given him extensive information about the book, the old man, and the house. The man was good at getting people to tell him things; it was another of his skills. “But I still couldn’t get in. The wards are still there.” The man said this with annoyance. He was tired of delays.

“Yes, they would be,” she said. “He created them when he was very strong. They’ll outlive him by a good deal.” She had learned respect for the old man over the years. His resources had always been limited, but he used them adeptly, like a chess player who had lost his queen and both rooks but does not concede the game.

“Great.” The man did not care much about the future of the house. He knew the woman liked to show off the breadth of her knowledge, but it was getting late and he was in no mood to feign interest, or admiration. There were things to do. Anything that didn’t directly affect them was irrelevant. He believed in prioritizing.

“Wait,” she said. “How do you know the sigils are still in place?” She suspected he had done something stupid. The woman liked people who did what they were told, and disapproved of most people acting on their own initiative. In her experience, in most cases their impulses were some combination of foolish, selfish, and disastrous.

“I told you,” he replied patiently, “that I couldn’t get in.” He flexed and relaxed the fingers of his right hand as he answered, as though it were numb, or painful. The man would have described himself as decisive. He felt he had come too far to be thwarted now by the house and its defences, or by caution.

“I didn’t tell you to try,” she shot back, the curtain of her languor falling for the first time.”What if you had been seen?” Their goal was close, almost within reach. It was idiotic to risk upsetting the course of events now.

“If I had been seen?” He chuckled. “Don’t you think I could have handled that? Come on, that’s nothing..” After all this time, she still didn’t really understand and respect the skills of others.

“I suppose,” she agreed reluctantly. “Still, it was unnecessary. And you might have been detected by other means.” The woman’s voice slid back into apparent boredom.

“I thought we had to have the book, no matter what?” The man demanded. He suspected he wasn’t told everything, and this was another matter that, quietly, annoyed him.

“Oh, we do,” she agreed, “but there’s time, yet. And we also know our opposition. He’ll have told no-one of the book’s importance because he’ll have been certain that he wouldn’t be believed, and he’s been a more than adequate guardian all this time. Now though, he has no choice. He won’t die and leave the book unprotected.”

“It’s protected in the house,” the man said. Could they really be denied all their goals so easily?

“Yes,” the woman agreed, “But he won’t depend on it staying there. Estates are broken up, houses are sold. He’ll want to see the book in safe hands. But he’s left it too late, and there’s only one person available for his purpose.” She looked over at her visitor and, for the first time, smiled.

***

Edmund Wicklow cursed quietly to himself as he wrestled the unfamiliar rental car around another curve in the driving rain. He had seen it rather late, but then he had only a general idea where he was headed and no-one with him to help navigate. Wicklow had been in Montreal, delivering an early version of a conference paper on Norse burial monuments to a dinner group at McGill University when he had received the phone call that sent him out onto the road to Ottawa in the middle of the night.

A friend was dying, and Edmund would have wanted to be at his bedside for that reason alone, but there was apparently something else. Some urgent matter that needed to be dealt with, or placed in his hands. Something that couldn’t be discussed over the telephone. So, Edmund had assured his friend that of course he would come, and right away. The helpful lady at the front desk of his Montreal hotel had assured him that the drive to Ottawa was perfectly straightforward, and it had been, more or less, until the storm clouds had abruptly boiled up over the horizon, lashing the road with rain and shadows.

***

“I have him in my mind, now,” the woman said, her voice even more distant than usual. She had turned off the apartment lights and the two sat at a table lit only by a single fat candle.

“You’re sure?” There was curiosity, and skepticism, in the man’s voice. He had seen a lot of surprising things, things he never would have imagined, but he wasn’t sure he believed, or wanted to believe, that the woman’s powers had grown to this extent. He had tried to learn something along those lines, had failed, and comforted himself in the belief that a bullet would always be a great leveller of playing fields.

“Oh yes,” she replied, with a little smile in the shadows. “It’s very clear.” She dipped her finger into her wine and licked it. The woman spoke often of the goals she worked for, but she had at last found work she loved as well.

“And you can do this without the others to help you?” The man asked, hoping to sound merely curious. In fact, he thought this was information he, and some of the others, should have. He started assembling a line of seemingly innocuous questions he might use to probe the woman’s limits. He knew he was good at it.

“Well,” she replied again. “Let’s see, shall we?” She laid both hands flat on the table, looked sharply at the man, in the dim light, and then closed her eyes to concentrate. The candle flame guttered once, then died.

***

Wicklow climbed out of the car and surveyed the damage. He thought he had drifted off the road slightly, onto the gravel shoulder, and then skidded into the ditch. Whatever had, precisely, gone wrong, it had done so very quickly, before he could really attempt to correct things. It had also left the car nose down in a reed-choked ditch in which the water level was rapidly rising. One headlight was immersed in the muddy flood, the other illuminated the far side of the ditch, a wire fence, and what looked like a corn field. One of the rear wheels was off the ground and Edmund was fairly sure of two things – one was that the car wasn’t going any further without significant assistance, and the other was that he would probably have substantial deductible to pay to the insurance company.

He stood and stared at the disaster his night had turned into for a few moments. There was not supposed to have been a storm, or any rain at all, tonight. He had watched the weather report with his continental breakfast that morning, and the skies had been clear when he left Montreal. Then, suddenly, the weather had been foul enough that he had considered finding a safe place to get off the road. But his errand was, evidently, very important, and it was, after all, only wind and rain. Finally, the the rain began to soak through his clothes, interrupted his thoughts, and spurred him back into action. He didn’t know specifically what it was that had his friend so concerned, but Edmund knew that there was only one category of problem that would get him so upset.

It was a category that contained the parts of old myths and tales most people didn’t tell, bits and pieces from the recesses and alcoves of the imagination most people chose not to visit. Even Edmund and his friend spoke of them rarely, and always quietly. It was a slimy, slithery underside of creation most people never saw, and would never know how grateful they should be for that. It was filled with knowledge best forgotten and things best left unfamiliar. And yet, once you had allowed your gaze to stray onto them, you could never look away again. So it was with Edmund Wicklow, and his friend, and so it was that Edmund knew the importance of the phone call, and his unexpected trip to Canada’s capital. Well, he had never yet been.

Edmund fished in his coat pocket for his cell phone, which hopefully would get reception out here, and in this weather. He also opened the driver’s door to turn off the engine. Again, he wasn’t going anywhere. If the car could be put back on the road he would need the gas, and he had a vague idea that he might cause damage by letting it run in this position. He would get some flares from the emergency kit in the trunk to mark the accident site for the tow truck and, probably, the police. Edmund reflected that he was going to be very late arriving in Ottawa and hoped that he might yet be in time. Edmund turned the key in the ignition, the engine juddered into silence and the lights went out.

At once there was a rustling, skittering noise from behind him, like small stones falling, he thought. Edmund didn’t have time to turn to investigate the sound, or consider how it came so clearly through the drumming of the rain, before his legs and lower back erupted in tendrils of agony. Whatever it was seared like being burned, and Edmund was down on the ground before he realized he was falling. The phone clattered from his hand, his last call never having been made. Edmund tried to grab onto the car, to haul himself upright, but his legs were held fast. He could feel his shoes and trousers and flesh being flensed away by whatever held him. He had one final impression, of being crawled over by the darkness, before the pain explored more of his body, and Edmund Wicklow knew nothing more in this life.

***

“Is it done?”, the man asked. He suspected it must be, having seen her shoulders give a little shiver and her lazy smile in the moon light through the window.

“Yes, my dear, it’s done,” the woman replied. She flexed her fingers against the polished wood of the table top, then reached for the bottle and topped up her wine glass.

“You enjoy it now, don’t you?” The man said it sharply, his usual ploy of showing her nothing but bland willingness forgotten.

“Oh, what if I do?” The woman asked, “What’s the good of all this if we can’t take satisfaction in what we achieve?”

“Sure, sometimes,” he allowed. ” But that’s not what this is about. You promised.” It had been clear. They had important goals. The man would never have done all that he did merely to fluff up the importance and ego of this woman, or anyone else. He was sure of it.

“Oh, dear, I keep all my promises. Haven’t I convinced you of that, yet?” The woman turned on the lights again so she could favour him with a calculated smile. They were effective on most people.

“Just don’t forget why we’re all doing this,” the man said flatly.

“I haven’t, and I won’t. Now then, it’s been a late night of solving your problems, so if you don’t mind?” The woman fluttered the fingers of one hand towards the door.

“It’s not exactly solved. The book is still in the house, where we can’t get it.” The man wasn’t sure what they had accomplished, aside from giving her a chance to play.

“Yes, and the old man will be dead by dawn and there will be no-one left but us who knows its importance.” the woman explained. “He has no reason to expect his friend won’t arrive, and no-one else to call on even if he did. He will die disappointed, and the book will be perfectly vulnerable. There will be ample opportunity to get what we need when it’s all being cleared out, don’t you think?”

“You’re probably right. I’ll keep an eye on things.” The man was getting tired, and tired of fencing with her. It was indeed likely that there would be a number of ways to get the book out of the house, if they were patient, and observant. Time should now be on their side.

“Yes, do,” she agreed, “and I’ll take care of our other preparations. The time grows close. The King awaits. We must be ready.”

“Some of us have been ready for a very long time,” the man said, as he left the apartment.

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Realism

This week I’m going to go back to something I wrote a couple weeks ago, about the movie Excalibur and how a ‘realistic’ version of the Arthur story would not be anywhere near as good as the wondrously fantastic version we got. A little later, I was listening to a Big Finish audio drama and in the extra comments, Tom Baker said something I thought was pretty interesting. He said (paraphrasing slightly) that you can tell the difference between literature and the real world because literature is the place where you know that good will conquer evil, in the end. Not so much for the real world.

Obviously (and I have no doubt that Mr. Baker is perfectly well aware of that) this isn’t true of all literature; there are lots of stories that don’t end up very well and go to dark places. However, authors do (as he pointed out in the interview) have the ability to arrange things so that they work out well in the end. That isn’t the arrangement that always gets chosen, I guess, and tales where things do not work out well seem to be especially popular these days. A lot of the more successful movies, TV shows and books in recent years are either about fairly awful characters, end up in fairly awful ways, or both.

Just as obviously, there’s a reason why these stories are popular. At least part of it, I think, is that we have the idea that these kinds of things are realistic, and I suppose to some extent that’s true. The real world is riven with flaws and we are surrounded by flawed people a lot of the time. It probably is fairly realistic to create tales of flawed people in flawed places, then, and if you do that a lot of times those stories will end up with less than perfect conclusions.

I’m not sure what it is that makes us (sometimes) think that a ‘realistic’ story must be a better story, but a lot of the time, it seems, we do. Perhaps it makes us feel more mature or intelligent to be trading with ‘reality’ rather than the fantastic. Maybe we feel that realism is close to truth, and the truth is something we are often inclined to embrace, and told to embrace. We often like solving a puzzle, and maybe uncovering the ‘real story’ behind something like the King Arthur stories satisfies in that fashion. Perhaps we’re avoiding the charge of ‘escapism’, which is often used to dismiss things as a waste of time. Thus, perhaps, we choose something ‘realistic’.

However, these aren’t the kind of stories I really like, these days. Just as I like the profoundly unrealistic (and ultimately positive, or at least redemptive) Excalibur much more than I could ever imagine enjoying a gritty, realistic tale of a real 9th century warrior (somewhere out there, perhaps a writer just went ‘Challenge Accepted’ to themselves, and if so I hope you prove me wrong), I like stories that aren’t afraid to have fundamentally good characters in them (along, of course, with some gleefully horrible ones) and end up in situations where, on some level, ‘things are better’.

Perhaps that’s the kind of story Tom Baker digs as well – I like to imagine so, at least – and that’s where I am, as a reader and writer, these days. I’m not really terribly concerned with what could or would really happen; I like a story that, whatever kind of journey it takes you on, ends in a place where you can say, on some level, that ‘things were better’. Basically, I enjoy a story where there are the ‘good guys’ (or at least, good people) and, on some level, they succeed in the end. At something. It doesn’t have to be unproblematic success, or even entirely unproblematic characters; there’s certainly room (in my picky little mind) for some shades of grey (perhaps not fifty of them, though) as long as it isn’t unremittingly darkness.

I lost about any interest I might have had in the new Batman/Superman movie after it became apparent that the grimdarkness dial had been cranked up to 11. (Yes, of course you can have a positive Batman story) Part of the reason I have liked the new Flash series is that it is just plain fun to watch, and has such a basically decent main character. Several people on my Twitter feed pointed out how nice it is to see, in the pictures for the upcoming Supergirl series, to see a hero who is, of all things, smiling, rather than scowling angrily at the world.

Now, none of this is to say that I can’t appreciate a dark story. I can, and I think if you had asked me about what kind of stories I enjoyed more a few years ago, I would have answered differently. To pick a reasonably recent example, Snowpiercer was about the bleakest movie I can remember watching in a very long time, although it was also immensely well done and a film I enjoyed – I just had to do a little counter-bleak palate-cleanse afterwards (with, I believe, Pirates of the Caribbean). I’m not sure what it says about me that the stories that I like to read and am most interested in writing, these days, are not ‘realistic’ and tend to be more of the type where at the end, things are better. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe this too will change.

At the moment, though, I feel like I get quite enough examples of things working out for the worse and the right side coming out second-best in the real world and in my real life. When I spend some time with a story, I’m really in the mood for a happy ending. You can dismiss that as ‘escapism’, I suppose, but to me that’s something stories have always been for – taking us out of the real world for a little while.

Thanks for reading again; I hope your plot takes a happy turn today.

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B. B. King

Today I woke up to the sad news that B.B. King has died.

I should say, before I write anything else, that I am far from an expert on music and not a music historian. But I do really dig the blues, and so this kind of hit hard.

I didn’t get into the blues until pretty late in life. I had a sort of vague idea that I might like them from a few individual songs I had heard here and there and pieces of movie soundtracks I had thought were cool. Finally one afternoon, and I don’t remember why, I decided to find out. I went to the library and checked out a CD (I suppose I could make myself sound even older by claiming it was a recording on a wax cylinder, but a compact disc it was) of blues classics, took it home and saw how it went.

I really, really liked it.

There were three artists in particular that grabbed me. One was Muddy Waters. One was Taj Mahal. And the other, of course, was B.B. King.

I don’t know enough about music to really talk about his technique on the guitar, although I know he did it very well. There’s emotion in his playing that you don’t have to be very well musically-educated to hear. His voice, though – sometimes it sounds achingly tired and world-weary, sometimes it kicks tremendous ass, and sometimes it will make you smile even if you didn’t think you would. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to have an instrument like that, but it’s an amazing thing.

When I was a kid I didn’t understand why people would like the blues. I basically understood (or thought I did) that they were songs about sad things and I couldn’t get why you would want to listen to music that made you feel sad.

The thing is that they don’t, for some reason that I don’t completely understand. There is a lot of heartache in the blues, very ordinary kinds that are easy to identify with because we’ve experienced most of them. When there isn’t enough money. When your landlord is a jerk. When the person you love doesn’t love you. B. B. King said the blues were about people bleeding the same way he did, and I sure can’t improve on that.

Somehow listening to music about pain you can understand magically makes whatever troubles you’ve got in your life that little bit easier. Maybe it’s because it tells you you’re not alone. When the road gets hard, there are at least other people on it with you. And that helps.

There are, of course, songs that fall into the ‘blues’ category that are full of joy and happiness, ones that are more about anger than pain, and ones that are just fun. Somehow, and again you need a better educated guide than me to explain why, it all comes back to the core of tough times and surviving them in the end, though.

So I really do love the blues, listen to the music just about every day, and one of the first artists who I learned to love in the field was B.B. King. That he was, by all accounts, a wonderfully nice man, and a man who fought up from poverty and past narrow-minded bigots to become the King of Blues, only gives me more reasons to admire him. Heck of a dude. Heck of an artist.

Anyway, those are my thoughts today as a great blues man has left the stage for the last time. Thanks for sharing your talents with the world, Mr. King. It was something to behold.

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Inspiration

After spending several days hoping for an idea for this week’s blog entry to occur to me (without success) I decided to write a little bit about how that happens, or how I think it happens, anyway. I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me where my ideas come from, but it is perhaps the typical question to ask of a writer (or, I suppose, many different kinds of artist) so perhaps it’s worth writing about today. Where do my ideas come from?

The answer, of course, is that I steal them.

Well, to be a little fairer to myself, they come from the world around me. A lot of the stuff that goes into the things I write comes from things that I see or hear, both in the media and in my little meanderings around my daily business. Some I know what to do with immediately. Some get put into a little text file of fragments of ideas so I don’t lose them, waiting to get plugged into the right point of a story. (Yes, I have to remember to look at the text file. I know!)

I guess obviously there’s a bit of an ethical consideration here – it’s important to be careful about putting real people and bits of their lives into a fictional story. I take bits and pieces, not big recognizable chunks. There are parts of real people I have known in some of the characters I write, but put together in such a way that the result is its own (reasonably) unique thing. I know that I reveal a fair amount about myself in what I write, which is something I’m ok with (I guess one has to be) but revealing things about other people would not be good. I think the bits of the real world need to inspire what gets written, not just be what gets written, if that distinction makes any sense at all.

More interestingly, though, the other obvious consideration is that I need to have my writer’s radar on basically all the time, looking for those useful fragments. Some days it works better than others. It also helps, of course, to get out and give the Idea Detector a lot to work with; the next amazing story idea will probably not come from watching my cat sleep at the end of the couch.

The idea that formed the basis for The King in Darkness came, originally, from a Guardian Science Weekly podcast discussing planets that drift around in the space between stars. That was such a striking image to me that it seemed like it had to become a story, somehow. I guess it did. My current project was one of those strange thoughts that come to you just as you’re falling asleep, that I managed to hang onto, but also really comes from a lecture I had given on storytelling earlier that week.

Last week’s blog came from a conversation with a friend. We are all awash, every day, in images and snippets of dialogue and little mundane happenings that can get used (with care!) to make a story breathe. We just have to be looking.

This past week or so just my cursory attention to the media has come up with an out-of-control Russian spacecraft crashing to earth, “genetic astrology”, a man with one eye filled with a virulent disease, mysterious bright lights on a distant moon, and a “pollen tsunami”.

Now, most of those things are much more mundane than they may sound at first, but the great thing is for a writer, they don’t have to be. You can take things like that and make them just as wonderfully strange and amazing as they seem they should be. You can make use (carefully) of moments in the real world around you to make your pretend one.

That’s where my ideas come from. Honestly, I’m not sure from where else they could possibly arrive!

—–

At the moment, I’m trying to take inspiration from some of the very productive artists that I know or follow around on the digital world. For a variety of reasons this hasn’t been the best month or so on my end of things, and the ideas have not been flowing as I would like them to. It’s been useful to both try to hitch hike on the excitement of people Getting Things Done as well as to see that I am not the only person fighting their craft, from time to time.

The ideas, and the inspiration, is out there. It will come in its time.

That’s what I have for you this week; I do hope that next week I’ll be able to tell you all about the immense amounts of progress I have made with the new project.

—-

Some ideas you just know would never have been yours. An example – my friends at Renaissance Press have just launched a Kickstarter for what will be the first offering in their line of games: A Jane Austen strategy game. (How’s that for a segue, eh? That’s a professional writer at work, that is)

Jane Austen.

Strategy game.

This is one of those ideas that you just know you would never have thought of on your own, in a lifetime of thinking, but as soon as you hear it, you immediately know to be a great idea. This is a wonderfully fun idea for a game that I think has an obvious audience who may not have known they wanted such a thing, but will now.

I’m happy to be able to support the project; if the idea intrigues you, follow the link below and consider throwing your support behind it as well.

fakebox

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Out of Order

Last week I had a talk with a friend about writing that I decided to expand into this blog entry. I think I’ve written a bit on some of this before but maybe not in very much detail. I’m a bit hesitant to give advice on writing because I’m far from a master of the craft but I feel all right sharing what has worked for me. Perhaps it will work for someone else as well.

As I know I have said at least a few times on here, I am a big proponent of writing things out of order, basically no matter what it is you happen to be writing. I see no particular need to start at the beginning and write through to the end and in fact, a lot of the time I think that’s detrimental. Start with the bit you’re excited to write, right now, and work from there.

For one thing, I find beginnings immensely hard. You don’t have to do very much research into ‘how to write’ to find lots of people expounding on the importance of your opening line and first few paragraphs (no matter what it is you’re writing, again) and that can be a lot of pressure right out of the gate. You can sit there trying to come up with something that is ‘just right’ for a very long time. Lots of writers have also commented on the intimidation of the blank page, so I think the important thing is to get something down. Break that inertia and get moving.

So I tend to write whatever parts of the piece I feel ready to write or excited about, and then fill in the holes later. I think I wrote the ending of The King in Darkness before I wrote anything else. I think this is, in general, the best way to get started with whatever it is you’re trying to write: if there’s a scene you know just what to do with, or an anecdote that you want to tell, or whatever it is, write that bit immediately. You can figure out how to get there, and where to go from there, afterwards.

Even if you just end up writing a piece of a story (or poem, or whatever else) that you don’t know what to do with, that ain’t bad. First of all, you wrote something, which is always good. I feel that every bit of writing you do makes you better at it. Second, even if you don’t know what to do with it now, you can tuck it away for now and perhaps discover a home for it down the road. For now, you got something down on paper, broke the inertia of not knowing how to get started, and gave yourself a chance to stretch those writing muscles a bit.

Now, not everyone will agree with this. There are many proponents of planning everything carefully before you start to write and writing in order from beginning to end. I know I horrified at least one faculty member when I was doing my PhD by mentioning that I was writing chapters of the thesis before doing the Introduction. They just couldn’t understand how it was possible to do it. I guess, internally, I had a vague idea of what would be in my Introduction, just as a I have a vague idea of what will go at the beginning of every story I start writing, but I wasn’t ready to write it yet, so I went ahead with a part that I was fired up about. They really looked alarmed when I said I would probably write the Introduction last.

Which I did.

In general I think the only way you make progress at writing and get better at it is to just do it. Get some words down on the page, whatever words are ready to come. Don’t kill yourself over the parts that aren’t flowing yet; you can do that later. But write. Write what you’re excited about and passionate about and what you think is cool. Have people whose opinions you respect read it and tell you what they think. That’s how you’ll get better at it. One of the wonderful things about writing in this electronic era is that you can always change it later. There’s (almost) no cost to going ahead and trying out what’s in your head. It may be great. It may need some work. It may end up being adaptable to some other purpose later. There’s one really good way to find out. Write it.

Writing out of order may not work at all for some people and so I don’t pretend to have found The Answer to writing. It does work for me. If you’re feeling intimidated with starting a project or struggling to know how and where to begin, though, perhaps give beginning anywhere a try. Just start. It gets rolling from there.

———–

I was saddened this weekend to see that the actor Nigel Terry had passed away. As I said on my Facebook page, I loved his Prince John in The Lion in Winter, an absolute delight of a movie that you absolutely should not watch the remake of. However, it was his King Arthur in Excalibur that I particularly have affection for; it is my favourite Arthurian film and one I never seem to get tired of watching.

Some of that is Nicol Williamson’s Merlin, which was a fantastic performance, but I truly do love the whole movie. The first time I watched it, in my teens, I didn’t quite – I thought it was a bit daft and silly in parts, although I liked it overall. However, what happened was that the more I learned about the Arthur stories, the more I liked it and the more I think Excalibur is about the perfect movie representation of them.

Of course it’s not the slightest bit ‘realistic’. Lancelot rides around in chrome armour, the sets are generally insane and there is a great deal of yelling. But, of course again, that’s exactly what the Arthur stories are like! They’re full of crazy things happening and over the top situations and absolute lunacy happening every thirty seconds. That’s why they’re wonderful.

No, of course knights (we’ll come back to this!) ‘in the time of King Arthur’ (whenever that was) would not have dressed anything like they do in the film – but in the stories they are armed and armoured and behave like 12th century knights, which is also completely mad, but no-one cared. I am completely convinced that medieval audiences were perfectly aware that people in the 9th century didn’t act or dress like they did, but it was an awesome story that (to them) also taught important lessons and so they didn’t worry about it.

That’s essentially what I think we need to do with the Arthur tales as well. The idea of telling the ‘real’ story or a ‘realistic’ take on Arthur is, to me, completely wrong-headed. It’s not what we want. I haven’t researched the question extensively, but from the reading I have done it seems relatively likely that there is, somewhere, a kernel of truth at the core of the Arthur stories. If you could somehow sift down through all of it, there probably was, at some time, a real leader in war who inspired the tales that have been rewritten and expanded and revised ever since, down through the centuries. Maybe it would even be a warlord from 9th century Britain, although maybe not entirely, if the Celtic mythological connections hold water.

The thing is that even if we found this figure, it wouldn’t be what we’re looking for, not really. There wouldn’t be ‘knights’ in the sense we think of them – that’s at least 200 years away. There wouldn’t be Lancelot, who was a 12th century addition. There would be no Grail quest, which also came in during the 12th century renaissance. It simply wouldn’t be the story we love, although as a historian I don’t doubt it would be interesting in its own right.

But the Arthur stories as most of us today love them are gloriously anachronistic, full of absolutely bonkers events like cannibal giants and blows that lay waste to huge swaths of countryside and invisible knights. It’s not realistic. Not even a little. But it’s wonderful. Just enjoy it.

That’s what they did when they made Excalibur; they just embraced the wonderful craziness of the Arthur stories and threw it up on the screen. It doesn’t actually have a cannibal giant or an invisible knight but it has Excalibur cleaving through steel and shapeshifting and Patrick Stewart screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s glorious. Nigel Terry did a great job as a (I feel) slightly baffled King Arthur and the whole thing works perfectly to me. I love the film for not caring in the slightest about what is realistic, but caring what made a spectacular tale. So thank you, Mr. Terry, for your contribution in bringing that to life.

May all our tales be just as amazing and spectacular.

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Meanwhile personally I am breaking the ice on my new project by taking my own advice from the start of this entry and writing the bits of it that I’m ready to write and not flailing away at the part I’m finding difficult. This means I have made some progress, but doesn’t get me any closer to the next piece being ready for Eager Volunteers. Hopefully it’ll be worth it in the end.

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