WIP blog Eight: Nearly There

WIP blog Eight: Nearly There

Hi all, and welcome to Wednesday and my work in progress update. When people ask me how long it takes to write a novel, I usually have no idea how to answer because by the time I get to release it, I’ve forgotten when I started it. This WIP blog has helped change that, and I can say that it has, so far, taken me eight weeks, and there is still a long way to go. Not so much in the first draft storytelling because I am now about to climax, if you’ll excuse the expression, but once that is done, and I have epilogued (excuse the made-up word), there is still a way to go.

A random photos of the model kits I like to build in my downtime.

Yesterday, I finished chapter 27 yesterday and made inroads into chapter 28. Last night, I was running through ideas for the climax with hubby Neil, because he makes a great sounding board, and I worked out I still had, probably, about, maybe… five scenes to go before the story will be concluded. That would put me at roughly 110,000 words, which is a nice ‘get your money’s worth’ length. After that, however, and after Christmas, comes the draft two-stage and the editing down, ‘bettering up’ and putting all things as right as I can before I can be happy with the finished product. After that comes the cover design, the proofreading, the layout and all that jazz, so we are still looking at February as a release month, all being well.

Sensible storage is important.

And a random photo of our main town.

As I write each chapter, I save it in a file that is automatically linked to me OneDrive just in case, and I give each one a number, of course. What I also do, however, is name the file with a piece of action; the more critical the action the better. This is so I can remember where certain things occurred, and can easily find them if I need to go back and change or check something. I just looked down my list of saved, individual chapters and thought you might like a small insight into what’s to come with ‘Agents of the truth.’ Some examples:

01 Newspaper announces ball

02 14th October threat one

08 18th Friday The Killhaddocks

16 Archer letter to James and 26th Sunday

20 After Newgate

27 D leaves London 3.15 at Larkspur

That should mean absolutely nothing to you, and that’s how I like it. All will be revealed in time.

Double-Check for accuracy

A vague attempt at a Christmas scene, our-house style.

Something that was revealed to me the other day has put a bit of a groan in my step. This novel runs to a timeline, as I like to do, with some chapters starting with the location and date. I checked the legitimacy of these dates with what I thought was a reliable online calendar. I.e ‘What day of the week was October 30th 1890?’ and from that, I drew my own calendar of days/dates. All well and good until I got to chapter 24 ’30th Wednesday Larkspur preparations’ and checked the news for that day in history with the British Newspaper Archives. There, in print from 131 years ago, I found the Morning Post, Telegraph and others were published on Thursday 30th October. So, when I go through draft two, I’m going to have to change all dates/days and double-check references to ‘three days to go’ kind of stuff and make sure things remain accurate. I guess I don’t need to add this authentic detail, but I like to do things properly. That is why, for example, in ‘Agents’ you’ll find the climax happens under a moon that was full two days previously, and the newspaper articles the characters read were actually published in those papers on those days. Background detail is fun!

Happy Christmas

Anyway, I must continue with chapter 28 and hopefully get into chapter 29. I don’t think I’ll be finished with draft one by midday on Christmas Eve as I hoped, but I’ll be close, and after taking the weekend off, I’ll be right back at it. Meanwhile, have yourself a lovely Christmas if you celebrate it, or holiday if you don’t, or weekend if you don’t take a holiday, and I will be back with you next Wednesday for WIP Nine.

Heading into Christmas on Symi

Heading into Christmas on Symi

This time next week it will be Christmas Day, so today, I thought I would bring you up to date on what’s been happening in my world, and what will be happening over the next couple of weeks. I doubt I shall be posting next Saturday, but I will bring you a Wednesday WIP next week, when, hopefully, I will announce I have completed the first draft of ‘Agents of the Truth’. It’s currently at 80,000 words, and I am about to launch into the crisis/climax and release all kinds of mayhem in the Clearwater world.

Meanwhile…

One of Neil’s stunning photos of Symi harbour taken the other day.

Christmas on Symi tends to be a quiet affair. Greek custom is to celebrate St Vasilis Day on January 1st, rather than Christmas Day, although the churches will be holding services. It’s on January 1st where families traditionally exchange gifts and gather together for a feast, but these days, more and more are also adopting the Westernised traditions of Christmas Day. For the last eighteen years, we have gone to our friend’s house for Christmas Day. If you follow me on Facebook, you might have already met Jenine who works now as my PA, well, she’s the friend in question, and she lives just up the lane from us. ‘Up the lane’ in Symi terms means she lives on the other side of the castle hill, up about 200 steps, and at the end of a winding path that leads through 19th-century ruins in the oldest part of the village. It’s a pleasant walk, but not when you’re carrying loads of presents, wine, games and other accoutrements, nor when it is raining, as it was last Christmas.

The main ‘road’ through our village.

On Christmas Eve, it’s become customary for Neil and I to call at her house and help prepare the next day’s lunch. (Gathering around the kitchen table, cooking, gossiping and laughing while preparing a feast is also traditionally Greek.) This usually involves me peeling vegetables, Neil and our oldest godson, Sam, making stuffing, Harry, our younger godson making pigs in blankets, and Jenine being the foreman, Mother Christmas. Wine is also involved. We spend the whole of Christmas Day with the god family, and they come to us on Boxing Day for leftovers, chill-out and films.

Before then, Neil has organised a charity Christmas concert at our local kafeneion (café/bar). This is to raise money for the orphanage on Rhodes. Someone else makes all the arrangements for this but is unable to do it this year, so Neil stepped in. I’m playing the piano (22 Christmas carols and songs) and there will be guitars, a flautist, a solo singer, and everyone else who wants to sing along.

Neil putting up our ancient tree.

We have put up our tree at last, and the village is decorated with strings of fairy lights and trees, while down in the harbour, there are other glamorous decorations. On Christmas Day, one of the local churches will plug in its outdoor speakers and blast out its old cassette tape of Greek family-favourite Christmas songs. The music hovers over the village like a celebratory fog for most of the morning, and woe betides anyone who thinks they will have a lie-in. Actually, the church bells usually start ringing at 4.00 am, which doesn’t bother us as Neil is always up by then and bounding around in his pyjamas, desperate to open presents.

Merry Christmas to all my readers.

Before any of that, however, I still have much work to do, not only wrapping the few gifts I was able to afford this year, but finishing the first draft of Larkspur 3, ‘Agents of the Truth’, and I’ve set myself Friday morning as the deadline for that. Check in on Wednesday to see how I’m doing, but if you can’t, I’ll wish you a merry Christmastime now, and look forward to seeing you in the New Year.

Jackson Marsh on Facebook

(Follow me as James on Facebook)

Winter Solstice and Christmasses Past, Present and Fictional

Winter Solstice and Christmasses Past, Present and Fictional

It occurred to me, as we approach Christmas that I’ve never written a Christmas story. I have come close with the final scene of ‘Fallen Splendour’ where we join the Christmas staff ball at Larkspur Hall in 1888, and I have also come close as James Collins, in my novel, ‘The Saddling.’ I say ‘close’, because, in Saddling, there is no Christmas because there is no Christian religion, not since the Blacklocks family took over the village in… I forget the year but before the witch trials of ‘The Witchling’ and sometime after the first return of ‘The Eastling’ in the 13th century.

Instead, Saddling, the village of the series, follows its own Lore based on nature and the turning of the seasons. The first in the series, ‘The Saddling’ opens on winter solstice night, 1292 when a great storm threatens the Romney Marshes with flooding. That is based on a real event, the great storm of 1287 where villages were washed away, and lives and livestock were lost.

Part of our harbour in flood this week.

As the winter solstice is only a couple of days away, I thought this was an appropriate time to talk about it and the Christmases of my youth on the Marsh, and now, here on the Greek island, Symi. Where, by the way, the approach of the solstice combining with an upcoming full moon, has resulted in our harbour already being slightly flooded.

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice, hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice, also known as midwinter, occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. It happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere. This year, it occurs at 10.02 UTC on Monday and marks the northern hemisphere’s shortest day, the first day of winter.

This year, according to The National Geographic, “… just head of Christmas, two of the solar system’s brightest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, [will] engage in a celestial dance that will bring them within planetary kissing distance in the evening sky.”

A bit flowery perhaps, but true. “The moment of closest approach arrives on 21st December—the winter solstice for those in the Northern Hemisphere and the start of summer for those in the Southern Hemisphere. The two planets will appear closer together than at any time in almost 400 years in an event known as a great conjunction.”

According to Astronomy.com, On 21st December, Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer in Earth’s night sky than they have since 1226 A.D. This event is being described as causing a ‘Christmas star’, which all seems nicely appropriate, and the date, 1226, gives me a very tenuous link back to ‘The Saddling.’

After the initial storm scene of ‘The Saddling’ which sets up the Lore that is to follow and the superstitions and rites of the village, the story cuts to 18th December 2012. It is 720 years after the great storm, and the central character, Tom Carey is struggling to keep his life together, obsessed with tracing his family tree in order to inherit a fortune from his last family member. By chapter eight, he has arrived in the village of Saddling and, as his car has broken down miles away, seeks a room at the inn, The Crow and Whiteback. It’s charmingly old-fashioned but shows no signs of Christmas, and when the landlady, Susan Vye appears through the floor from the cellar below, and he takes her by surprise, Tom comments, ‘Nice place, but not very Christmassy, Only four more shopping days to go.’ He laughed, she didn’t.

The story unfolds as Tom searches for clues to his family mystery, the storm clouds gather, he befriends two local lads who are preparing for their saddling, and he learns that the ceremony is to be held on the evening of the winter solstice. In our present world, this Monday.

The Saddling series plays on such natural events as this year’s ‘Christmas star’, the solstices and equinoxes, the natural birth, harvesting, dying and rebirth of the land, the relationships between man and nature, farming and festivals. Apart from finding it interesting to research, I used this natural flow of the earth as a background because I wanted to set the stories against the naturalness of change and difference. By which I mean, as Tom makes his way through book one, he comes to realise that like it or not, he is attracted to another man. As the series progresses, the villagers gradually come to accept that Tom and Barry’s ‘friendship’ is as natural as the changing seasons, the tide, the earth’s cycle, and that, underneath it all, is the message of the books.

Winters on Romney Marsh

Fairfiled, Romney Marsh and St Thomas Becket church – the inspiration for The Saddling. (The church features on the cover of all three Saddling books.)

I wasn’t aware of the solstice when I was growing up on the Marsh, but I was aware of Christmas. I didn’t have any particular interest in the fields and deeks (irrigation ditches/dykes that prevent the land from flooding) or the farming way of life, but I must have absorbed it. My best friend from nine to 12 years was the son of a farmer. I’d cycle over to his house about a mile away into the wide, flat landscape of the fields to play in the hay barn, make rafts on the wider deeks, help his dad deliver lambs at lambing (though more likely get in the way), and sit down to huge suppers of ‘lookers pie’ prepared by his classic farmer’s-wife mum.

[On the Marsh, a looker is a shepherd and lookers’ pie is shepherds’ pie made with chops not mince.]

The ruins of All Saints church, Hope

I have never been very good at sleeping, and in my teens, I would sometimes walk out onto the marsh at night. It has an atmosphere of its own, with nothing to hear but the cry of an owl, the breeze in the hawthorn bushes and the occasional plop of a frog leaping into a dyke. I walked to a place called Hope*, just outside New Romney, one of the villages that were washed away in the great storm and now nothing more than a ruined church wall, just to enjoy the peace and the smell of damp coarse-grass and sheep treddles.

[That’s a Kentish word for sheep poo, a smell that, when you’ve grown up with it, is more comforting than you might think!]

Later in my teens, one of my best friends was also the son of a farmer, and I’d visit his house too. As is the way of the Marsh, he lived next door (half a mile) from his cousin, my earlier bestie, the families farmed together, but in this case, I visited to play on his dad’s snooker table, and play music as we were in a swing band by then. His dad, by the way, is now in his 90s and still actively farming his land.

Christmases

The Romney Marshes before they were ‘inned’ (irrigated)

And then there were the Christmases. These, for me, were traditional family affairs. We were expected to attend Midnight Mass at the parish church where I ‘sang’ in the choir and learnt to play the organ. As my two brothers and I got older, we went under the bribe of being able to open a present when we returned home. Older still, this tradition ended up with my dad being the only one who attended church, me staying at home to watch concerts on TV and wait for my older brothers to return from the pub when we opened presents, often not going to bed until well after three in the morning.

If you were wondering where Romney Marsh is; it’s on the south coast of England.

Another big part of my teen years was music, as you might have gathered from my Jackson books like ‘The Blake Inheritance‘ and ‘Home From Nowhere.’ I started playing the piano aged six or seven and carried on throughout primary, prep and secondary school to finally rise to the complicated heights of grade eight in my early 20s. I was inspired in music by teachers at both prep school (where the music teacher took me to play the organ in Hythe church when I was 11, and from when I was transfixed by the musical ‘machines’). At secondary school, our music teacher arranged for us to attend concerts in Canterbury Cathedral and elsewhere at his own expense, encouraged me to stage musical revues and write songs for the junior years. He also saw a friend and me through our A-Level, arranging for Dominic (the only other A-Level music student) to be in a masterclass with Julian Lloyd Webber which I attended, and had a great knack of staging the Christmas concerts at the parish churches of New Romney and Lydd. Being a piano player, I wasn’t needed for the orchestra, but was dragged in to play the percussion (not as easy as it sounds) and sometimes ‘sing’ in the choir. I put ‘sing’ like that because I mouthed along more than sounded notes.

From Past to Present

Our tree this year.

All of these random reminiscences have a bearing on what I write now. The loneliness of the Marshes at night, the earthy, natural way of life, lambing, harvests, hay bales, hawthorn-lined, narrow roads and the deeks, the wide, flat landscape of the drained marshland and its rich history, the memories of cold legs in damp-smelling churches, the vibration of the organ in the last bars of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, and the present-giving by the fire… The older you get, the more you reminisce, but in my case, the more I put such reminiscences into my books, although often, from a different character’s perspective.

And now, the past not only influences what I write, but what we do at Christmas. This year may be slightly different, but we will still be able to be with our ‘logical’ family, our two godsons on the island and their mum as we have been for the last 17 out of 18 Christmases. It will be a day of fun, feasting and falling about laughing against an underscore of Annie Lennox and carols from Kings, godson #1 on his piano and, if we can drag him screaming from his Xbox, godson #2 on his guitar (he hasn’t got it yet, and I hope it arrives in time).

But before all that, we have Monday and the Winter Solstice, and it strikes me that if you’ve not already read it, you could get hold of a copy of The Saddling today, 19th, and start reading it, following the story day by day on the exact dates the story is set. You will reach the climax on Monday night, and if you are lucky enough to have a thunderstorm that night, you’ll get the full dramatic effect.

Whether you do that or not, have a peaceful solstice and seasonal feast or holy day, and I will be back with you on 2nd January with my next rambling blog post.

The Saddling is available to download now on Kindle and is available in Kindle Unlimited, and in paperback.

‘A Place Called Hope’ by Emma Batten

* A Place Called Hope is a novel by the daughter of my childhood piano teacher, and is very much worth reading, as are all of Emma Batten’s Romney Marsh, historical novels.