A Collection of Cousins

Apologies for the delay in this week’s post, but I had to go to a funeral.

At least it gave me a subject to write about, not about the funeral as such, but some insights into families.

I also had plenty of time to think. It was a long journey, about 180 miles each way, including part of the M25. It took over four hours and we were one minute late, creeping in during the first verse of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. Others were later! Then it was back to the house to chat with relatives who we only manage to meet up with at funerals (and weddings – except no-one seems to bother getting married these days!)

My father was one of a family of five, three boys and two girls. Only one is still with us; the funeral was for another. It is now up to the next generation, the cousins, to keep the different branches of the family in touch, we send Christmas cards, and Facebook is bringing us closer.

This is a photograph, taken yesterday.

Ignoring the man, here are four women. Each is a daughter of one of those five brothers and sisters; the fifth sibling produced only boys – none was there for the funeral, probably coincidence, or do the women in a family make more of an effort?

We are a variety of sizes and shapes. Is there any resemblance between us? Possibly, but we each had another parent to dilute the family genes. We all married (some more than once), we all have children and some have grandchildren. We all get on, despite not meeting very often, or perhaps because of that. Are we any different from a random group of friends, or total strangers?

Someone (Harper Lee, I think) said “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family,” Bearing in mind the distance between us – we all live in the southern part of England, but as I found yesterday, too distant to pop in for a cup of tea – if we were friends we would have to make an effort to meet up. As it is we have to rely on the odd funeral to get together.

But they are still there, somewhere in the background, our family.

What is this to do with writing? A little while ago I wrote about mothers, how all characters must have had a mother. She must have had some influence, good or bad, that made them who they were. Cousins are different. They probably don’t have influence on you, but they are there, lurking in the background.

Several of my characters are orphans. My protagonist has no family; the book, the whole series, is about his feeling of loss, about his search for a family. Will he find them or will his friends become his family? Does he have cousins? It is something I will have to think about.

Cousins in novels are usually a device; the cousin in Australia who leaves a character a fortune that changes his life, the mysterious cousin murdering relatives because of some ancient feud.

In history, especially in a ruling family, cousins can be a problem (The Wars of the Roses has become known as “The Cousin’s War”.) or the means of continuing the dynasty, hopefully without bloodshed (James I after Elizabeth, those Germans after the Stuarts). In the Anglo-Saxon period, there was no rule that son followed father to the throne, the best person could be chosen from the “royal” family, barring Viking invasions. Did it cause problems between cousins?

But history is usually about male cousins. What about the women? They would be married off, sent to form a link with another country. Often we don’t even know her name. In more ordinary families, they would disappear, appear only as “wife of”. They would have children, boys would recognise their male cousins – they shared a name after all – but what about the girls? Did they become submerged in their “new” family or did they keep in touch? Did they meet at funerals, or communicate via whatever was the historical equivalent of the annual Christmas Card?

They are the invisible glue that keep families together.

 

And I did manage some editing last week, despite funerals, and Wimbledon. 11,884 edited, 890 lost. Think that is an improvement!

Editing, interrupted

I have started editing. I was quite enjoying it, until it was interrupted by a sudden realisation.

Book one was now in the hands of the publishers, I thought I could relax, at least for a time, before the pressure of trying to persuade people to actually buy it.

But they wanted more! I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about it before. There is more to a book than just the story.

There are the little things, like a dedication. No problem.

Byrhtnoth at Maldon “She said I did WHAT? Death to that Author!”

There are bigger things.

If you are writing a historical novel, you need Historical Notes. All that information telling your reader that your main character was a real person, giving them the facts about that character and then explaining that, actually, you had ignored all that and written something completely different, with absolutely no proof whatsoever!

All the explanation that this event happened, but a certain character may not have been there. Various places were invented, and a lot of the characters. Some were real people and I must apologise if I had turned a perfectly innocent person into a villain.

Since I am deep into editing book two, I also had to remember who was in the book and who hadn’t appeared yet!

Then there was the really big thing – the Acknowledgements! Who to thank? Who to mention? Who to leave out? Who would be terribly offended if I left them out, give me terrible reviews and blight my literary career before it even started? So, if your name isn’t there, it was because you were too special to mention and you will receive, in due course, a large bunch of flowers/bottle of something alcoholic (delete as applicable).

Should I have included a map? Not enough time. That will have to wait until the special, limited edition, hardback that will be produced, when I’m famous, by my grateful publishers.

And where is the list of place names, with the explanation of why I used one version over another? You’ll just have to look things up on Wikipedia – like  I do.

I managed to write something and sent it off. Did I check that fact? Did I spell someone’s name wrong? Too late now.

After that excitement, it was back to the editing. It started well; in the first chapter I got rid of over 100 words – I knew that scene was rubbish – it will probably be re-written many times.

Total for the week? 14,188 words checked, 142 removed. Only 1% cut! – Must do better next week.

Perceptions of Time.

Hasn’t it been hot this week? Far too hot to do anything. Since my brain shuts down when the temperature hits 25°C and dissolves and dribbles out my ears at 30°C, I have been doing very little this week. The only thing to do is find somewhere shady and read. As if I needed the excuse!

So it was lucky that I had decided it was time to read through the first draft of Book Two. I have just finished it and put it down with a contented sigh. At least the ending is good – not sure about the rest! Actually, it’s not that bad. Obviously there’s a lot of editing to do and I now know what needs tightening up, what needs more (or less) description, characters deleting or bringing to the fore.

There is one interesting thing that I have discovered and that is how the perception of time changes. Everyone knows that how you remember the past depends on how you experience it. When I was young, summers were always warm and sunny, September, and school, arrived far too quickly and Christmas took forever to arrive. I hadn’t realised it happens when you are writing.

I “knew” that when I reached the middle of the book,  I didn’t have much of the plot left. I know, I said, someone is going on a journey. I’ll pad that out with plenty of events along the way, delays because of weather, perhaps a fight, vivid descriptions of the scenery. That journey was going to take weeks, if not months. If I found plenty of plot at the end of the journey, I could just cut it out.

I ended up with 104,381 words (target 90k) so it appears there was more plot than I expected. No worries, I would cut the journey – except I couldn’t. It didn’t last nearly as long as I had thought, and every event was now vital to the plot. It seems that, because I had imagined every step of the journey, tramping through wind and rain beside my character, it had just seemed to have taken a long time. The reader was dependant just on what I had written, which was not a lot. Was it bad writing? Would the reader have become as bored as I had been and stopped reading?

I shall just have to lose words through good old editing. I know I am too wordy. There is a lot to get rid of. All those “He started to walk”s to cut to “He walked”. I spotted plenty as I read.

Perhaps one of those journey scenes; the bit where… but then that later scene doesn’t work. Too much of that and I’ll have too few words.

There’s a lot of work ahead, so I’d better get on with it. I just hope the heat doesn’t return and I’m forced into the garden again.

Just lie back and relax.

Back to work – turning a corner.

So, after all the excitement of a holiday and then the slog of sorting out photographs and posting about said holiday, it is back to writing.

Having reached the end of the first draft of Book Two, I have been worrying about how to measure my progress. Now I am editing, I cannot return to announcing my weekly word count. Should I have a minus word count? –  count how many words I have deleted from the book. When would I know how to stop?

While I was pondering this, something happened, something I never thought would happen.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my experiences at the Self-Publishing Conference. I said then that I would report my decision on how to publish. At the refreshments afterwards, my editor said “Why don’t you send your manuscript to The Book Guild, you’ve got nothing to lose.” She has such confidence in my writing!

Next day I had a look at their website. They deal with both traditional and partnership publishing , depending on whether they like your work and how much commercial potential they think it has. They publish both fiction and non-fiction and they say “We accept manuscripts direct from authors or via agents in all genres.” All they wanted was a word document – Bright Sword was sitting there, ready to go. I sent it off.

I received an acknowledgement. The website said “we…will reply within two to three weeks of submission with feedback.” I waited, time passed. I mentioned it to other writers – that’s unusual, they said, publishers usually make you wait months for a response. I was glad I had a holiday planned, I would be a nervous wreak otherwise. I returned from holiday, got on with life, started investigating self-publishing again.

Then, six weeks after my submission, I received an e-mail. I took a deep breath and opened it. Read it, read it again. They liked my book!!!

Not enough to publish it outright. They offered me a partnership publishing arrangement. I would have to contribute part of the costs. I thought about it, considered the options. Did I, a complete beginner really want to go through all the effort and stress of self-publishing? What would you do?

I accepted. I signed the contract (discovering in the process how to “sign”a pdf.) and paid the money. I have filled in an Author Promotion Questionnaire and read the Marketing and Promotion Guide.

Now I sit and wait for things to happen. It is going to be interesting and I will report my progress on this blog.

Meanwhile, I suppose I’d better get back to editing Book Two – just in case Book One is a success.

Review – Killer of Kings

I enjoy writing reviews of Matthew Harffy’s books. It is such an easy job with writing this good.

Killer of Kings is the fourth book in the Bernicia Chronicles series and Beobrand, recovered from his injuries, is on the road again. This time he is travelling to East Anglia. King Oswald has asked him to accompany a group of monks taking a present to King Sigeberht. They come across a village in flames. Beobrand tries to help, but he is outside his own king’s lands and is forced to leave. He rescues one girl, but already he suffers the guilt of leaving innocent people to die.

Reaching East Anglia they find the king has retired to a monastery and his relative Ecgric is king. Neither of them seem interested in defending their land from attack from King Penda’s Mercia and Beobrand realises he has been sent to support the East Anglian army.

The armies meet in a long and bloody battle. Beobrand narrowly escapes, but without his men and his horse. With an old friend he travels to Kent, meeting relatives for the first time since he left for Bernicia. In previous books one phrase has recurred – his mother’s dying words “You are not your father’s son”. Beobrand discovers the truth, but it is even worse than he suspected.

On the journey home he attempts to fulfil his vow to kill the man who defiled and killed his wife. Nothing goes as planned.

Meanwhile, back at Ubbanford, Reaghan worries, surrounded by  people who hate or despise her, what will happen to her if Beobrand doesn’t return?

Like the previous books, this volume is filled with blood and guts. The reader can have fun counting the different synonyms for blood, although I sometimes find it annoying.

Beobrand is developing as a character. He worries that he is unable to deal with the memories of the death he deals his enemies. The only way he seems to find peace is by more killing, but even revenge cannot sooth his soul. He feels the loss of his hearth companions deeply, they died because of him, he should not have survived. With the loss of his horse as well, I am starting to wonder if his mind can survive this sort of pressure. Where can the author take his character next? It will be interesting to find out.

I started reading the book one evening, I could have finished that night, but I forced myself to stop. I had things to do the next day, but I wanted to prolong the enjoyment. After all, I’ll have to wait many months to read the next instalment, to find out if Beobrand can find peace.

Definitely another five stars.

A Tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 5, Final Day

This was the day I had been looking forward to, the trip to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, including the world heritage sites of Maeshowe and Skara Brae and the Standing Stones of Brodgar and Stenness. These were the sites I had read about and seen on television. They were on my “must see” list of places to visit. I had already had one disappointment when we were told that the Ness of Brodgar excavations had not started yet and everything was still covered up for the winter. Never mind, there was plenty of other things to see, and it is the complete ritual landscape that is important.

First view of Maeshowe from the coach. Excitement builds.

It was not a good start, we were too early for the Maeshowe visitor centre, or they weren’t ready for us, so we went to the Standing Stones of Stenness first. It was perfect weather to view these tall stones (unless it is winter with dark skies and snow on the ground!)

Alan adds a sense of scale to the stones.

Stenness Stones. Tall but very thin. How did they get them there without breaking them?

Stenness Stones. Looking for alignments – surely those distant hills on Hoy are significant? Don’t know about the coach.

Looking in the opposite direction, towards Maeshowe. Another dip in the hills! The mound was visible from some parts of the circle but not others.

Distant view of the Ring of Brodgar from Stones of Stenness.

Rather than continuing across the causeway to Brodgar, we returned to the Maeshowe visitor centre, where we moved to smaller coaches and picked up guides. It was a short drive and then a walk along a path through the fields to Maeshowe itself.

Walking towards Maeshowe.

Coming through the tunnel…

…and leaving again.

I am sorry I have no pictures of the interior of Maeshowe, but photography was forbidden. Maeshowe is a megalithic chambered tomb, similar to the Tomb of the Eagles, that we had already visited, but bigger and with no skulls. It is famous for its mid-winter alignment when the setting sun shines along the passageway to light up the interior. When the tomb was opened, in 1861, the entrance was invisible, so it was entered by the top. The roof is a Victorian replacement, not nearly as accomplished as the original must have been. In earlier times, it must have been open as, in 1153, a group of Vikings took shelter there from a snow storm. Bored, they carved runes onto some of the stones in the chamber. It is now one of the biggest collection of runes in Europe.

Our guide was very knowledgeable, but was obviously under instructions to increase income for the visitor centre. As you would expect, someone asked what the runes said. We were told, “It’s in the guide-book.” I have checked the entry price. It is £6 for an adult; not bad for a short coach trip and a guided tour. I suppose they need to raise more money somehow, but, together with the prohibition of photography, it left a bad taste in the mouth.

After a stop in the shop (we did buy the book) it was back onto our coach. As we crossed the Ness of Brodgar, I looked out for the archaeological site. I glimpsed a farmyard with a pile of tyres, so I suppose that was it. We were soon out of the coach again and walking up a path to the Ring of Brodgar.  This was a spectacular site, on a sloping site. As you approach it, the view beyond is invisible. It seems the whole landscape had been manipulated, to hide and reveal different aspects at the correct time in whatever ritual was being performed. I would love to know how, and why, it was used. Like the stone circle we had seen on the first day and Stonehenge and Avebury, it probably meant different things at different periods. Religion must have changed drastically over five thousand years plus.

Like Avebury, the Ring of Brodgar is large, too large to photograph properly. The problem was made worse by the fact that part of it was roped off for conservation. That is the problem with popular sites. Too many visitors can destroy a place which they want to see because it is so special.

Approaching the Ring of Brodgar, through a field of dandelion clocks – literally walking through time.

Fencing around part of the Ring of Brodgar, plus another mound – and that view of the horizon.

View of ditch, stones and the loch behind.

Getting close to the stones – the urge to touch.

We were told there were runes carved on one of the stones. One of our party found them – would you have seen them?

View from the top of a small mound, just outside the ring of stones.

We made our way back to the coach and the trip to the last ancient site we were to visit today, Scara Brae. We first spent time in the visitor centre – most of us in the cafe, for a much needed lunch. We then wandered outside to explore a modern re-construction of one of the houses we were about to see.

Reconstruction of Scara Brae house – a maze of tunnels led to one house.

Entrance to the house

Inside the house, with hearth, beds and “dresser”

The reconstruction was a good idea. You could see everything from ground level, imagine sitting round the hearth on winter evenings. I discovered that the edge of the beds was just the right height to sit on. Apparently, when the reconstruction was built, the passages were made taller and wider than the originals – modern people are larger (or less nimble) that the inhabitants of the neolithic age.

Finally we were allowed to see the original, from above. The village was inhabited for at least 600 years, starting around 3000BC, so older houses went out of use, or were replaced by later ones. Then there was a sudden catastrophe. The whole site was covered in sand and never used again.

An early house. You can tell by the position of the beds, inset into the walls.

View showing position of the village, close to the beach.

Looking into one of the later houses. Note same arrangement as in reconstruction – dresser always faces the door!

Looking across the site towards Skaill House.

We didn’t have much time (about 10 minutes) to visit Skaill House, home of the local Laird, which was included in the entrance price. An interesting house, I would have liked to have spent longer there. It was back into the coach to visit another old house, not as old as Scara Brae, but perhaps older than Skaill house, although lived in until comparatively recently.

Corrigall Farm Museum was an addition to the schedule. It is a traditional ‘but and ben’ house that portrays a typical Orkney farmhouse and steading in the late 19th century. While we had been at Scara Brae we had been told to think about all the perishable objects that would have been found in the houses – wooden tools, woven baskets etc. This was an opportunity to see, in situ, all the possessions of a Victorian farm would have in their house. A lot less than we would own nowadays but not that different to a prehistoric farmer facing the same problems of daily life.

Corrigall Farm Museum. The farmhouse at the back, barns in front. Note the stone slabs roofs.

Inside the farmhouse.

Ancient mousetrap – wood and stone and highly lethal.

Our driver, John, surveying the farmyard.

It was here that the first of our group left. An American couple were due to fly back to Shetland, to join another tour – birds this time – I hope they saw some puffins. John was very helpful, arranging a taxi to pick them up at the farm. He also gave them a lot of advise on places to visit later in their holiday. I’m sure it was beyond his job description but was greatly appreciated by our foreign visitors.

For the rest of us, the day was not yet over. We made a brief stop in Stromness, for tea or coffee. We had a walk along the main street. There was a strange atmosphere, quiet but busy, if you know what I mean. We stared seeing people carrying musical instruments It was the start of the Orkney Folk Festival  held at the end of May each year. By the time we got on the coach again, singing was coming from outside a nearby pub.

Stromness harbour

Houses in the quiet part of town

Folk music in Stromness

On our way back to Kirkwall, we stopped at the cliffs at Yesnaby I don’t know if we were looking for puffins again, I don’t think so, there was no soil, only bare rock and a strong wind. Very dramatic.

Rocks

More rocks. No birds.

Dramatic photo of dramatic photographer, but no birds!

Finally there was the long trip back to Kirkwall, where we were to have dinner at the Ayre Hotel. It was a jolly event; the whole group on one long table – much better than the small tables we had experienced at other meals. Then it was back onto the coach for the short trip to the ferry. It was the same one we had arrived on two days before. There was a bit of a wait in the terminal, then we were onboard. After such a busy day, most of us went straight to our cabins.

Sunset from the Kirkwall ferry terminal.

We awoke next morning, back in Aberdeen. Some of the party left from there, others were dropped off at the airport, but the final few of us made the trip back to Edinburgh. Our car was still in the hotel car park, so we packed our luggage into the boot, and left. We had booked a few days in Yorkshire before the final trip home, but that will have to be described another time (perhaps)

So. how was the holiday? Was it up to expectations? Definitely. We saw places we expected to see and some we didn’t. There are many places that when they appear on TV history programs we can say “We were there.”

It was not a relaxing holiday, but we didn’t expect that. So much to see in only six days. It was very well organised, we always arrived when and where expected. Even the weather was good!

The other travellers were friendly and none caused problems, no-one was late at getting to the coach, in fact sometimes we left early.

Many thanks are due to Alan and John, who hadn’t met before the coach arrived in Edinburgh. They melded into an entertaining and informative team.

Thank you Brightwater Holidays for organising the trip. If you are interested in archaeology and/or Orkney and Shetland, I would recommend it highly. Just don’t expect it to be relaxing. But who wants to sit on a beach all day?

I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts. It will now be back to business. I haven’t had a chance to write properly for ages, but I have some exciting news to report very soon.

A Tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 4, Orkney

After out late night arrival at the Kirkwall Hotel, we were up bright and early next morning and heading south. It seems to be an indication of how far north we were that a lot of the time we were travelling south.

First stop today was the Churchill Barriers, created after the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in October 1939. Ships have been using the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow since man first learned to sail. Vikings anchored their ships there, but it became most famous as a naval base in WW1 and WW2. After their defeat in WW1 the German fleet was interned there pending a decision on their future and in 1919 the German officer in command gave the order to scuttle the fleet. 52 ships were sunk. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s many of the ships were raised for salvage. In WW2 Spapa Flow again became Britain’s main naval base, but when a German submarine the U-47, commanded by Günther Prien managed to penetrate the bay and torpedo HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of 833 men, it was decided to block the entrances. A series of causeways were built, connecting several islands and providing the main road to South Ronaldway.

View from coach on one of the Churchill Barriers of (partially) sunken ship.

Just over the first of the barriers, we stopped to visit the Italian Chapel. This was built by Italians at a prisoner of war camp set up to help build the barriers. They asked permission to build a chapel, which they did using two Nissen huts. All the work was done by the prisoners themselves, using materials “found” around the camp. It is interesting to consider that at a time when British POWs were using their ingenuity to escape captivity, Italians in the same position were creating a thing of beauty.

View of Churchill Barrier and Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel, interior

Italian Chapel, screen

Italian Chapel, altar

We then continued south, across the barriers. At this point, I should mention that all the roads were well maintained and there was little traffic. Although we did encounter one traffic jam.

Orkney traffic jam.

At what seemed like the end of the road, we arrived at the Tomb of the Eagles or the Isbister Chambered Cairn. The tomb dates from about 3,000 years BC and was found by farmer Ronnie Simison in 1958. There is an excellent display at the farm and we were given talks on the history of the area by members of the family. I real “hands on” experience as objects were handed round. Then came the bracing  one mile walk to the tomb. I had seen the tomb before, on television (I’m sure I remember Neil Oliver pulling himself inside on a little trolley) but nothing prepares you for the actual experience. I had imagined the tomb to be in the middle of a field , when in fact it is close to the edge of a very dramatic cliff. No wonder so many sea eagle bones were found mixed with the human bones. They must have been a common sight in the area at the time the tomb was in use. And no-one used the trolley!

The queue for the tomb.

Who wants the trolley?

Coming through!

Inside the Tomb of the Eagles. All the side chambers were empty…

…except one!

Back to the land of the living.

Walking back along the cliffs. If the rabbits were this size, how big were the eagles?

Back on the coach, it was a short drive to St Margaret’s Hope, for lunch etc. We sat and had an (Orkney) ice cream overlooking the harbour, before we returned to Kirkwall.

St Margaret’s Hope, boats

In the afternoon, we were free to explore the town of Kirkwall. Other Half visited the Wireless Museum, while I opted for the small but interesting Orkney Museum. We then met up to see St Magnus Cathedral and the nearby Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace (Yes, another castle built by Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney).

St Magnus Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral, nave. Hanging banners gave the impression the columns were leaning.

St Magnus Cathedral, arches upon arches.

Loved this monument to John Rae, the arctic explorer.

St Magnus Cathedral – Bishop’s Palace on left, Earl’s Palace behind railings on right.

Earl’s Palace.

Bishop’s Palace, interior. There are steps to the top of that ruined looking tower. Good views of the cathedral and town – if you can open your eyes!

Dinner that night was at the hotel and afterwards we had a walk beside the harbour.

Kirkwall Hotel, bathed in evening light.

The view from our window.

Two nights in one place! We had nearly manged to settle in, but suitcases had to be out the following morning (we braved the lift!). We had another day in Shetland, the highlight of our tour, but it was nearing the end.