New Worlds, No Maps

Stepping into that strange liminal space of thinking about a new book.  Exciting, certainly.  Scary too.  Strange connections are made as the universe, or the unconscious, recognises what you’re doing, pulling things out of the aether and thrusting them under your nose.  Images, music, places, people, dreams, serendipitous discoveries, all have a part to play.

I might document a few here, without comment.  Will it be possible to see where I’m heading from outside my head?  That would be interesting to know.  Perhaps there really is more clarity from that objective viewpoint.

I have an idea of the *kind* of book I want to write, but that’s about all the restrictions I’m placing on myself.  The general direction.  North by northwest.  But no destination is in mind.  I like the thrill of setting out for the horizon and seeing where I finally roll up.  It has to be new.  I’m not interested in repeating what I’ve done before.  I want to discover things, for myself as well as for the people who read my books.

Reports from the journey may pop up on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, Pinterest, on Jack of Ravens and Posterous.  Interested parties should look for the tag #oneiroi

Finding Fantasy In The Past – The People

There are ethical problems wrapped up in writing historical fiction. Should you use a real, once-living person as a character in your fiction? Their lives reduced to nothing more than plot points and themes? In essence, a human being’s existence shackled to the pursuit of the writer’s own ego?

Would you want some future author to make you the bad guy in their little story, the walk-on joke, the mumbling idiot, the obstacle?

And let’s face it, we don’t even know what the people around us are truly like, never mind those who existed hundreds of years ago. In those cases, we often only have a few scraps of paper to sketch out the things they did, with little hint to their motivation.

This becomes even more of an issue in fantasy, where the historical characters are divorced from the realities of their lives. It’s something I’ve certainly struggled with while writing the Swords of Albion books, which utilise a host of real people from the Elizabethan age. To be honest, even after writing I find it hard to decide if it was the right thing to do. I justified it to myself by my attempts to make the historical figures as true to how contemporary accounts described them, but that still leaves a great deal of psychological gap-filling.

The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men are set around the Court and Government of Queen Elizabeth, but she plays only a secondary role. I have less interest in the cosseted lives of Kings and Queens than I do in the men and women who do their bidding.

The stories concern spies, who had, for the first time, become a powerful weapon of the state in this era. And so in the first book one of the central characters is the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, a dour, puritanical man who suffered much personal misery in his life, but who gave his all in service to the Queen. His successor in The Scar-Crow Men is Sir Robert Cecil, a clever, cunning politician who battled against prejudice and mockery for his hunchback and short stature – the Queen called him her ‘Little Elf’. These two men represent different approaches to power and control, one quite honorable, the other self-serving. They act as counterpoints to the flawed, vacillating central character, the spy Will Swyfte.

Swyfte’s friend is the acclaimed playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote Dr Faustus and Tamburlaine among other plays. He was something of a rising celebrity at the time. He may have been a spy (there is some evidence); he may have been gay. In the books, Marlowe is another counterpoint to Swyfte, a man slowly being destroyed by the dark business of spying and the demands placed upon him by service to the state. Marlowe allows the reader to see Swyfte’s strengths and flaws more easily.

Despite my antipathy towards the lives of Royalty, the fact that important people play important roles is inescapable in this era. The common man was mainly concerned with simple economic survival. And so, as Swyfte travels the known world in his spying, we encounter James VI of Scotland (and future James I of England), Philip II of Spain and Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV of France. Each one responds – and responded – in different ways to their regal status, and again, each one allows us to see Swyfte in a different light.

Dr John Dee is a key figure in both books, and the third, to come, and he really is the link between the history and the fantasy. Dee, who tutored the young Elizabeth, was both a scientist and an occultist, an inventor and mathematician who communed with angels and cast magic circles. Many of the themes I’m tackling have Dee at their centre.

There are others – Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, the Earls of Leicester and Essex, the master criminal Laurence Pickering, the King of Cutpurses, who may or may not have been an invention of the Elizabethan equivalent of the tabloids. Each one was chosen carefully for what they said about Will Swyfte, in the same way that any writer chooses supporting fictional characters.

I hope I did them justice, but know in my heart I didn’t. No writer could.

Finding Fantasy In the Past – The World

When I decided I was going to write an historical fantasy, the attractions of the Elizabethan era were many. It was, for one, a time very much like our own, when society was going through massive changes – a rapid increase in new technology changing the way people lived their lives, foreign wars over resources and in pursuit of power, religious intolerance and religiously-motivated acts against the state funded by foreign powers, heightened surveillance at home, a fear of foreigners among the common man, rising wealth for a few but near-poverty for many, and massive leaps forward in art, literature and music. Not only would we understand the Elizabethan man and woman, there were stark resonances with our own age that would add a nice layer of complexity to any story.

Spain was the sixteenth century equivalent of the US, a global superpower influencing geo-politics at many levels. Under King Philip, the country ruthlessly pursued power and wealth, invading Portugal and putting pressure on France and the Low Countries while exploiting the New World’s resources of gold and silver. Though a devout man, Philip was not averse to using religion as a cover for some of Spain’s more aggressive actions and thereby keeping his subjects firmly behind him.

Beside Spain, England was a small nation with ambition and pluck, but little real power and no great wealth. Thanks to Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church, the nation lived in a near-constant state of fear of either retribution from the Catholic powers of Europe or insurrection within from Catholic agitators. Young priests were being trained in foreign seminaries and sent to England to foment revolution and to spy. The Government feared Philip’s expansionist policy and rumours of an invasion of England began long before the Armada set sail.

This was a dark time of terror and sweat and deceit. Yet in a sequence of stories that were essentially about duality, I could also look to the other, more positive face of the time. This, too, was the English Renaissance, with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and other writers blazing a trail, alongside composers like Tallis and Taverner, and architects like Inigo Jones. There was a great deal of enlightenment after long centuries of moral repression. Brothels were tolerated, including one composed entirely of young men. London was growing at an astonishing rate – faster than it could truly cope – and had become one of the great cities of Europe. So it was an exciting, vibrant time too.

The stories were to be about the point where fantasy collided with reality, but the more I researched, the more comparable and contextual collisions I found – socially, culturally, religious, political. Any fantasy – any story – needs a rich world and plenty of innate conflict. It was all here.

And while England was increasingly embracing what would come to be science, it still had the supernatural fears of past centuries at its back. The Elizabethan era was really the point where the country was caught between reason and unreason, hope and fear, past and future.

With the idea of a country trying to move forward while held back by the hooks of a superstitious past came the opening for my antagonists, the otherworldly Unseelie Court. Their existence was encoded in every myth and legend and folktale; the English had always lived in fear of the Fair Folk. But under Queen Elizabeth, England wanted to break free of their shackles and move into a new, brighter age.

Next time I’ll look at some of the historical characters who populate The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men and why I chose them.

Finding Fantasy In The Past

The Scar-Crow Men, the second of my Elizabethan fantasy novels, is out soon in the US and UK. It’s fantasy noir, renaissance punk, historical fantasy, sword and sorcery, historical urban fantasy or one of half a dozen other labels, depending on who’s speaking. Like some of my other work, the story exists at the point where the fantastic smashes up hard against reality, only in this sequence that reality is in the past, five hundred years gone, among well-documented, pivotal events.

Writing historical fantasy – to adopt the broadest label – has its own peculiar demands. We’re talking about an alien world here, with its own customs, clothes, politics, transport, weapons, social classes, art, music and economy and every aspect needs to be fully realized for the reader to settle into it.

To say this entails a massive amount of research, doesn’t begin to do the job justice. The writer needs to understand everything, both as its own thing and in context within the time period. This involves more than the invention of a secondary world fantasy, more than looking out of the window or Googling or location research for a contemporary fantasy (both of which I’ve written in the past).

Our knowledge of history degrades the further back we go. Characters walk on stage and then disappear. Our understanding of events is based on often-biased accounts. And sometimes there are vast parts of life that are simply missing in contemporary accounts.

The Elizabethan Age is reasonably well-documented, particularly with regard to affairs of state. The lives of the common men and women are there too, but the information is scattered widely. While writing this sequence, I sometimes had to embark on three different strands of research for a single sentence.

The Scar-Crow Men unfolds in the shadow of the murder of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a killing that has all the mystery and intrigue of the JFK assassination. The previous volume, The Sword of Albion (or The Silver Skull in the US), is set at the time of the Armada and the Spanish invasion of England.

Over a few posts here I’m going to be writing about what goes into creating these historical fantasies, looking at the places, the people, the milieu, not only setting the context but also underlining the basic premise that the more reality you get, the more effective the fantasy.

The Age of Misrule/Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol Interface

From Princeton University:

“Beyond its revolutionary technological applications and scientific impact, the evidence of an active role of consciousness in the establishment of physical reality holds profound implications for our view of ourselves, our relationships to others, and to the cosmos in which we exist. These, in turn, must inevitably impact our values, our priorities, our sense of responsibility, and our style of life. Our ability to acquire, or to generate tangible, measureable information independent of distance or time challenges the foundation of any reductionistic brain-based model of consciousness that may be invoked. The lack of notable correlations in the data with standard learning curves or other recognizable cognitive patterns, combined with the repeatable and distinct gender-related differences, suggest that these abilities may stem from a more fundamental source than heretofore suspected. Certainly, there is little doubt that integration of these changes in our understanding of ourselves can lead to a substantially superior human ethic, wherein the long-estranged siblings of science and spirit, of analysis and aesthetics, of intellect and intuition, and of many other subjective and objective aspects of human experience can be productively reunited.”

You know I’ve spent the last nine years writing about this stuff in Age of Misrule, The Dark Age and Kingdom of the Serpent, right?

And then Dan Brown goes and writes about it in The Lost Symbol and gets all the attention. Bastard.

It’s interesting and inspiring research and like Brown says in his book, has the potential to instigate a paradigm shift in scientific thinking.

Walking the Age of Misrule

Last week, UK newspaper The Guardian had a series of supplements detailing Great British Walks. The one which appeared on day five will be of particular interest to readers of this blog as it focuses on Lost Worlds and Legends-themed walks.

Several of the trails are linked to sites featured heavily in Age of Misrule – Stonehenge, Loch Ness, Thomas the Rhymer’s Hills, Tintagel – and are a great way to soak up the atmosphere and discover more about these evocative places.

You can buy the whole set of walks supplements for a tenner here.

One Of My Favourite Places

Tenby Harbour
Tenby Harbour

Next month, Destroyer of Worlds, Book 3 of Kingdom of the Serpent is published in the UK, the final volume of my sprawling fantasy series which began with World’s End, Age of Misrule Book 1, nearly ten years ago. When the final edit was complete, it seemed only right that I return to the place where I first dreamed up the story, sitting by the side of the sea on the Celtic fringes of the UK.

It’s not like I’ve been any stranger to Tenby in Pembrokeshire, South Wales – I’ve been going pretty much on an annual basis since I was about seven, sometimes for a few days, sometimes a couple of weeks. For me, the place is damned near perfect for a writer looking for inspiration: winding streets with odd little shadowy alleys, colourful houses, medieval walls, a nearby castle (which featured, like Tenby, in World’s End) the best beaches in this part of the world, and a history of mystery and mysticism. It’s always been a place artists have visited, for much the same reasons – check out the great museum and art gallery if you don’t believe me.

As it’s the start of the summer, I thought I’d give it a mention here, and in a couple of posts to follow. If you’re ever down there, take a look – you won’t be disappointed.

Lost Things # 1

This is the first in an occasional series of things that inspired me while creating a book. Any story is more than just a collection of words, and the pieces that go into the original making can be diverse and many – a fragment of conversation, a song heard on the radio late at night, an image viewed briefly from a train window… All those have been part of the strange and sometimes incomprehensible process of imagining that eventually results in one of my tales, long or short.

Many of these inspirations are not apparent in the finished product. Some are more overt, and in occasional cases designed as such to create resonances, for instance Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now and the long, difficult boat trip in the Far Lands in The Queen of Sinister.

A lot of influences went into the bubbling cauldron for my next book The Burning Man, but one of the most powerful was Songs from the Victorious City, a mysterious and evocative blend of Middle Eastern sounds and westernised constructions by Anne Dudley and former Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman. It’s a fantastically powerful musical poem about Cairo, and was an effective backdrop while I was writing a long sequence set in that city, even with the odd scratch and sizzle of my old vinyl version.

Worth a listen.