The strangest thing happened to me as I turned to the Wyrde Woods in the 1940s for a new series in my fictional High Weald Setting. I decided to have one of the characters start off with a chapter in Brighton, as this would really set the wartime theme quickly. Starting to write, I realised I didn’t know a thing about Brighton in 1940 and I got in touch with some social media groups interested in the history of Brighton. I was overwhelmed with enthusiastic responses. So many that the first intended chapter grew to a novella and then to a Mid Grade novel in which Brighton features as the main setting. There is an outing to Rottingdean for cream tea (I was told the Brighton experience was incomplete without such an expedition) and only towards the end does the character finally ‘escape’ to the Wyrde Woods in the High Weald.
Researching all of this and visiting Sussex and Brighton in particular I have realised what a folly it was to see the High Weald as a separate entity, Sussex consists of the marsh, cliff country, Downs and Weald and to separate them is just plain silly.
None-the-less, I will try to return to the Wyrde Woods as much as possible after this prolonged outing in Brighton, though I have to admit Hastings is beginning to get its hooks in me too, I return there ever more frequently these days.
The new wartime Brighton tale has been published on Kindle and as paperback and is called: Will’s War in Brighton.
Doing research for a historical non-fiction article about England in 1215-1217 led me to the medieval Weald and one of England’s great heroes: William Cassingham, better known as Willikin of the Weald. Further exploration revealed a Weald culture with firm roots in pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon mythology and customs and the possibility that Cassingham may have harnessed expressions of that culture as a weapon. One day, I decided –typing frantically towards a magazine deadline at the time- I would return to this Weald and unleash some fiction on it.
When the first inklings of what would become Lord of the Wyrde Woods came to me in Kent and Somerset in the summer of ’14 I had no hesitation about the setting: I wanted Sussex for Cassingham’s culture was to feature in my novel and I liked having a contemporary counter to Hardy’s Wessex – where fiction and non-fiction is interwoven by the hands of a Wordmaster I admire.
I originally intended to use only existing locations but quickly discovered I would have to go to extraordinary lengths to explain why two penniless kids were able to afford travel from one end of Sussex to the other and back again. I was still puzzling over this during a visit to Herstmonceux in Sussex, and there, sitting on top of a field overlooking the castle, I realised the answer was right in front of me. Malheur Hall was born and then shifted to the northeast corner of a microcosm of Sussex: The Wyrde Woods.
Having released myself from the obligation to stick to actual places I was then able to transports bits and pieces of Sussex locations, legends and folktales to this microcosm. In this process I borrowed on a wider front; stealing from Cornwall the legend of the Owl Man (Mawnan) and from Ireland a suitable habitat for Ufmanna (Ango-Saxon for ‘owl man’). I took the legend of the Fairy Banner from Skye in Scotland and bits and pieces of woodlands from Kent, Somerset, Devon, Dorset and the Veluwe National Park in the Netherlands.
Regardless of these wider acquisitions I still see the Wyrde Woods as a celebration of Sussex. I’ve had a number of people correct me by telling me that Sussex is actually East Sussex and West Sussex but the ‘timelessness’ of my setting is achieved by a partial restitution of a far older political entity: The Kingdom of Sussex, or Suth Seaxna Lond. The characters who inhabit my Wyrde Woods all live in the here-and-now, but some hail from times long past. The critters who inhabit the Wyrde Woods have been there forever and longer and this is the reason I wanted my characters to visit different locations before I decided fiction would allow me to bring the locations together instead.
There is a trick Stephen King uses very cleverly. His supernatural horror is often outshone by the horrors of the everyday – people struck down mentally or physically by modern life. By rooting the fiction in the fact there is a sense of realism. I wanted to know if this could be done in a ‘fantasy,’ or Dream-time Tale as I have come to call it. Intertwine fiction with fact and hope to let them fuse at times. And ground the supernatural as well; not the cutified Victorian critters, not the marvellous Grimms imports and certainly nothing resembling disneyfication. Instead use what Sussex offered and this was plentiful.
Paranormal phenomena to fill books with, for starters. Many of the ones I’ve used are genuine native spirits which have been transplanted to the Wyrde Woods. Nowhere does Malheur Hall resemble Herstmonceux Castle as much as in the sightings they share. When the locals speak of them there is not a shred of doubt with regard to the existence of the spirit world, to the discomfort of some of the visitors. Some I have invented and appear – in a ghostly kind of way – to be secondary characters with their own sub-plots.
Knuckers (dragon-worms), as the main dish, served with a stew of the lesser Faere Folk. Knuckers aplenty and much of the material I used is authentic, though I changed one of the Dragon Slayer’s roles from a farm hand to a child and fictionalised the other, using the little known local Saint Lewinna and making her part of the Wyrde Woods. The names Heolstor and Drefan are fictional; respectively Anglo-Saxon for ‘dark’ and ‘trouble’.
As a dessert, of course, the Tall Ones, those of the Faere Folk who in outward appearance resemble Tolkien’s Elves; but who were shunned by the locals if possible. For the Tall Ones are dangerous, fickle in their intention and totally unconcerned about the side affects their trickery may have on human beings. Humans are fair game as far as most Faere Folk are concerned, with the exception of their own kin who have been placed in the human world as changelings. These are native English Faeries, such as the ones found in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; King Oberon and Queen Titania causing great havoc and stress in the world around them as they spread the joy of their marital crisis around a bit. Faeries with a cruel streak. I made them afraid of bees , my own invention to link Pook Hall (the generic Sussex name for the otherworldly Faery Realms) with a local rural custom. For one must always tell the bees. But Oberon and Titania appear as themselves; I sincerely hope Shakespeare will be flattered and not turn in his grave.
All these beings and critters are there, but not quite there in the two Lord of the Wyrde Woods books. There is a sense that they are lurking around the corner and could appear any minute – then again they could not. The Anglo-Saxons had a remedy for this, they would enact the part of mythical tales themselves; dressing up and acting out the roles. On May Day they would often go Robin Hooding. I believe they were not averse to playing out Herne’s Hunt either. Morris Dancing is likely to have its roots here too. The Green Man and the Red Queen would wed at special ceremonies, the fires would burn brightly at Beltane and Samhain. All this is in-cooperated into Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrd. Some in more detail than others and not always with explanations. The wedding of the Green Man and the Red Queen, for example, is not explained, it just happens without the background information being supplied; I rely on the archetypes to do their work for me here. Sometimes the cultural context is referenced only, a tell-tale sign that they have their own slots in the other planned novels.
Each part of the chronicle is to focus on something specific. Secrets of the Wyrde Woods will reveal more about Ufmanna and also revisit one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon tales ever. Shims of the Wyrde Woods will –as the title suggests – focus on the spirit world. Children of the Wyrde Woods will take us straight into Pook Hall itself. Much of that story will take place in realms which are in the Wyrde Woods while at the same time not quite being there, at least not in our version of reality. All this is possible because the Kingdom of Sussex has a cultural heritage which is as rich as those of the nations of the Celtic Fringe. Something which has been recognised by many storytellers before me, I am just the latest in line. All-along-o’ dat culture, dis be something to be middlin’ proud of , surelye.
In the process of writing a single novel called Lord of the Wyrde Woods things kind of exploded in a manic frenzy of creative inspiration; two novels – each slightly different in mood and tempo –developed: Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrd. In the process of re-writing the one original novel into two; peripheral images and possibilities beckoned on either side of the first concept. One concept turned to three and a combination of ideas then added a fourth. The latter had a spin-off even before it was started properly and a second spin-off developed into a fifth novel concept. Confused? I am.
An attempt to bring some order, here in chronological order:
THE FOOL’S FOLLY: Brainstorming
1889-1904. The story of Oscar Malheur and his daughter Priscilla.
WILL’S WAR: A STORY OF WARTIME BRIGHTON SYNOPSIS (Novella) STATUS: IN REVISION
June 1940. Will Maskall is twelve years old and up till now has more or less been enjoying the war. From his perspective it has brought about changes to his native seaside town of Brighton which are endlessly fascinating to explore: Spitfires, disrupted lessons, easy pennies, mutoscopic voyeurism, gun batteries on the seafront and the Luftwaffe freely distributing highly collectible shiny cannon shells when Messerschmitt 109s strafe Will and his best mate Jamie on the streets.
As the summer progresses however, Will discovers that war has its disadvantages too. Access to some of his favourite playgrounds is restricted, chocolate becomes inedible and confectionary stores are steadily running out of sweets. Trying to make sense of it all in an increasingly bewildering world Will is determined to face off the expected Nazi invasion. Protected by an oversized tin hat and armed with a fine blackthorn catapult and Class A Ammo he and Jamie prepare to fight on the beaches and conduct themselves with the manly valour expected of Englishmen. For the only thing Will is sure of is that Sussex wun’t be druv, not by London and certainly not by that madcap dictator in Berlin.
SECRET OF THE WYRDE WOODS SYNOPSIS (Two Series Novel) STATUS: IN PRODUCTION
BOOK ONE: 1940-1941 (temporary working title)
Joy Whitfield is different from the other kids at school. She pretends indifference to her isolation, finding solace in the Wyrde Woods with her owl Thallie. Then the war turns life in the Wyrde Woods upside down as many local men leave to join the army and evacuees from areas threatened by possible invasion or bombardments flood in. The first evacuee she meets; Maisy Robbins from London turns from stranger-to-friend-to-sister in the space it takes to sing a Great War Tommie song containing highly inappropriate language for twelve-year-olds. Then Will Maskall arrives from Brighton and the friendship that develops creates a whirlpool of energy which draws together a gang of children determined to defend the Wyrde Woods from invasion at all cost just as the impact of the war on rural areas is beginning to hit home. Like many similar gangs of kids at the time – determined to defend ‘their’ commons or whatever nearby terrain was their adult-less private kingdom – they armed themselves with bows and arrows and cunning traps. It was wartime; these children were determined to be warriors in defence of their homeland and dark clouds of danger loomed on the horizon.
BOOK TWO: 1942-1943 (temporary working title)
The cohesion of collective enthusiasm is rapidly waning. The threat of invasion has receded. Many of the gang have reached the age where poor kids are expected to start fending for themselves and priorities have changed – causing tensions in the group. The defence of the Wyrde Woods starts to slacken just as an unseen menace is about to unleash wicked plans to unleash an ancient terror on Sussex. Will the oaths sworn by Oak and Acorn be honoured? Or will the Wyrde Woods become tainted by an evil that lingers for a thousand years?
SHIMS OF THE WYRDE WOODS SYNOPSIS (NOVEL) STATUS: PRIMARY RESEARCH
Liz Pilbeame has a gift but it is one she would rather not have. She finds some solace in the Wyrde Woods where the gift is respected but elsewhere it condemns her to brutal disapproval. Increasingly sceptical about the well-trodden paths society offers her as a future she turns her back on that society to live a life of her own with the love of her life; Nyle Twyner. She will soon discover that her lifestyle is threatened by hostile authorities and the fragile peace of mind she discovered by the intentions of a Mortimer Malheur. A local aristocrat, Mortimer Malheur has slowly succumbed to madness and is stirring up trouble in places which will cast Liz into turmoil and require her to stand by the Guardians of the Wyrde Woods – led by Joy Whitfield and William Maskall- to defend the Wyrde Woods in a battle against the netherworld.
LORD OF THE WYRDE WOODS SYNOPSIS (Two Series Novel) STATUS: COMPLETED
BOOK ONE: ESCAPE FROM NEVERLAND (published in print)
Wendy Twyner is a cynical veteran of youth care institutions. Living in a last resort ‘Home’ situated in a run-down feral council estate, she is tough and resourceful but struggles with anger management issues. A series of events bring her to the Wyrde Woods which is only a handful of miles from the council estate where she lives but might as well be a different planet. She meets locals Joy Whitfield and Willick Maskall as well as a mysterious boy called Puck and is challenged in her perceptions and given reason to hope for a different future.
BOOK TWO: DANCE INTO THE WYRD (will be published spring 2015)
Wendy learns to know and love the Wyrde Woods as well as its inhabitants, who are all connected not only by their personal relations but also by the history of their ancestors. She slowly starts to become part of the stories of the Wyrde Woods but just as Wendy comes to the discovery that she has found a real home in the Wyrde Woods the whole existence of the woods comes under a monstrous threat and Wendy needs to make some very difficult choices in order to save the woods from destruction.
CHILDREN OF THE WYRDE WOODS SYNOPSIS (NOVEL) STATUS: I wrote the last paragraph.
Je-Je Malheur spent the first six years of her life growing up on a council estate and is delighted when her parents are offered the chance to move to the edge of the Wyrde Woods. There she finds a whole new world to explore, as well as friendship and magic. In this journey of discovery she learns things about her family which she would have never expected and lands in a situation which forces her to turn to a very unlikely source of help. Armed with knowledge and new allies Je-Je faces the biggest challenge of her life, one that could change the course of history.
The Notre Dame in Paris is magnificent in many ways. There is another haven of peace nearby though, one that is easier to overlook but one that fills me with the same awe the cathedral does. Across the Seine River, where the streets are swallowed up by the Latin Quarter, there is a small store seemingly tucked into a little corner of its own. This is Shakespeare and Company, a Parisian tradition and a Walhalla of English literature to be sure.
The first store was opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919. Writers such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford came here to discuss, argue, breathe and write literature. Joyce was well known for using the place as an alternative office, Beach was the first to publish his Ulysses. They were allowed to sleep and eat at the store, one of the reasons it became a haven for authors in transit. A number of these authors were known as the Lost Generation. The store is referred to or mentioned in some of Hemingway’s work (particularly A Movable Feast) and features in the movies Before Sunset and Midnight in Paris.
The store was closed by the Germans during the occupation.
Typically, Hemingway, a major in the US army, drove his tank straight to Shakespeare and Company to personally liberate Beach and the bookstore during the liberation of Paris in 1945. However the store stayed closed until 1962 when George Whitman reopened it at the current address, and the chance for penniless writers to live in it provided they read one book a day (the store still has 13 sleeping places in it). A new generation of writers lived or frequented the store, including Lawrence Durell, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin and William Burroughs. Contemporary authors attend the literary festivals organized there by Whitman’s daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman, such as Paul Aster, Siri Hustvedt, Jeanette Winterson, Jung Chang and Marjane Satrapi.
It is an incredible place, a literary shrine and unique in every sense of the word, I know no other place like it. I do know that it would be an ultimate achievement to have my books on display in such a store. This is one of the reasons why I am so pleased with the EBM edition of Escape to Neverland. The Ingram/Spark edition may have a much wider reach but the difference between a chain store and an independent store remains remarkable. Not only does a good independent bookshop have a unique character of its own but a customer simply knows that he or she is surrounded by book lovers there; people who love books and will happily talk about them. People willing to accept books on their own estimation of merit – rather than solely the decisions taken by faceless corporate Respectables who use their calculator to judge the merit of a book. ‘You might think you’ve stumbled on the winning formula, but we found a local loony with interesting things to say and are going to give that a shot.’
Escape to Neverland is available for print-on-demand in the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver Colorado and this, to me, is more of an achievement than a big chain. I remember walking into that store once – with four hours to go before I had to catch the Amtrak to San Francisco – and losing all sense of time so that I came very close to missing my train. Parts of it are a living room; you can curl up on a cosy chair by the fire place while sampling prospective buys or have a break in a coffee shop designed for comfort. It’s also worthwhile checking out all the events; there are readings, book signings and other aspects which breathe life into books so that reading can become a passion that can be shared.
The McNally Jackson Bookstore in Lower Manhattan, N.Y.C. is another store I am proud to be represented at. It’s down the block from the Puck Building. This historic building was the former home of the Puck Magazine, the Spy Magazine and the Pratt Institute. It is named after Shakespeare’s Puck just like my Puck is. The store recently had an amazing discount action; I think it was 10% if you came in and high fived one of the staff on a particular day. I do really like that sort of thing. The store aspires to be the centre of Manhattan’s literary culture and organizes events like the ones explained above as well as doing everything they can to make the customer feel at home. How could I not be proud that my book can be printed on demand in Manhattan’s literary centre? It’s just plain sexy.
The Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington D.C. is amazing too. All you have to do is look at their planned 2014 New Year’s Eve celebration to get a sense of the place. They co-sponsor the Bushboys and Poets in throwing a Remix of the Nerds party for the benefit of the Capital Area Food Bank and the Split This Rock’s DC Youth Slam Team! Feed the hungry and support young poets and all by attending an event with “one of DMV’s hottest DJ’s, live dancers compliments of Dance Place, music, games, food, drinks, interactive art, burlesque in the nerd, midnight countdown and more.” It really sounds like the place to be and if that is not possible it sounds like a great place to have a book available at.
Schuler Books in Grand Rapids Michigan also promotes interactivity between its customers and local authors by means of a variety of events and the promotion of the enjoyment of reading in general. There is interaction with the local community here which you simply don’t find in a chain. The Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse in Flintridge La Canada in L.A. County California is one of those places where the local community seems to be important as well and they have a very impressive list of local authors and seem keen to promote up and coming talent.
The support of local authors can be crucial as I have discovered myself. The publishing industry is changing fast and there is not much support for new authors who learn very fast to become wary of ‘publishers’ who are just out to make a fast buck at the expense of the authors. Independent book stores like the ones mentioned above but also the American Book Centers in the Hague and Amsterdam are taking a leading role in ensuring the original voice is not lost as the mainstream publishers focus on formulas and sales figures rather than authors. I’ve found a great deal of support at ABC Amsterdam and am very grateful for this. The recognition of being a ‘local author’ has done me a world of good. If you can, please support your local independent bookstore by shopping there so you too can help maintain that original creative voice in literature.
I never really understood the concept of a novella; why a short book when a long one will do too? Yet in the start-up of such a long one I came to the surprising discovery that I had written a novella as a sort of side-effect.
The new instalment of the Wyrde Woods Chronicles is to be the novel Secrets of the Wyrde Woods. This was partially due to the popularity of the secondary characters from the Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrd novels (the components of Lord of the Wyrde Woods): Joy Whitfield and Willick Maskall. I thought it might be interesting to visit them again and at a much younger age and wanted to combine that with some World War Two research I had been doing (see the post Origins of Secrets of the Wyrd Woods).
The ‘problem’ with Joy was that growing up in the Owlery in the Wyrde Woods meant it would take some time for her to notice the war. I therefore decided that Willick would be transformed into Will of Brighton and spent a first chapter there so I could establish that World War Two was definitely happening since Brighton was suddenly on the front line after the fall of France and had a first row seat with regard to the Battle of Britain. Will could then be suitably evacuated to the Wyrde Woods at some point.
In the meantime Joy would run into a London evacuee called Maisy. This was necessary because Joy was something of an oddity at school and she was bullied but I didn’t want to spend chapter upon chapter describing all the bully stuff. First of all most of us know what it is like to be bullied and secondly I didn’t want to push Joy in a victim’s role too much. Enter Maisy and a remarkable friendship. Initially I wanted to have Will step in to put up a fight for Joy at school in Wolfden but the girls weren’t having it, they said it was a typical male rescue fantasy and they were quite capable of handling the bully themselves. With Maisy came her grandfather Fred and I made him into a Maskall so that Will would have a place to go to and I wouldn’t have to describe too many family situations. Moreover, Joy and Willick’s popularity in Lord of the Wyrde Woods with older readers was partially because their kind (anyone over 21) often get a raw deal in YA books: Silly bumbling adults to laugh at a bit. Not so Joy and Willick. Now that these two were twelve years old again Fred would be a nice ‘replacement’ and I like him a great deal already and plan a hero’s role for him.
Writing in Broad Sussex has become a second nature and I didn’t have to consult my map as I returned to the Wyrde Woods, I know my way around their reasonably well now.
Brighton was a different situation altogether. I hadn’t thought about it before but a fictional setting like the Wyrde Woods is very handy when writing; if you need a suitable castle, for example, you just invent one and place it wherever you want. Not so a real city, moreover, a city I had only been to twice more than twenty years ago without doing any sightseeing back then. I tried to keep the city anonymous and faceless, it was just a city really and would serve no other purpose in the novel aside from helping me establish a war setting. There was another problem and that was that the timelessness of the Wyrde Woods is relatively easy to establish, but an English seaside town in 1940: I hadn’t a clue.
The solution was to keep the city anonymous and try and avoid as much historical representation as possible but that really broke with the strong setting I had established as a feature of the Wyrde Woods Chronicles. A fictional wood described in so much detail that readers ask me where they can find the place and then a real-life city in a different era without any detail would be too odd a contrast so I grudgingly set about conducting research. I soon discovered the daunting task which lay ahead of me because just about every other sentence required some research -if not a lot- if the wartime situation was to be described realistically.
It was at that point that I visited some Sussex history sites on Facebook and casually made some enquiries about any references people might have with regard to wartime Sussex and/or Brighton. I was totally overwhelmed by the response; I received scores of very useful links including the fascinating My Brighton and Hove website which serves as a digital centre of living history as well as the BBC’s My War series of eyewitness accounts. Apart from that I heard stories from people who had been children during the war or who recounted the experience of their parents, aunts and uncles or grandparents.
I had to scramble to make sense of it all and organise it into a reasonable narrative. I also had to change my timeline somewhat. The initial idea had been: Will lives in Brighton, war starts properly, he is bombed, he is evacuated. However, the actual sequence of events (Dunkirk to the Battle of Britain and then onwards) would require a much longer stay in Brighton.
So I created Will’s background: Where he lived, how he lived, which sweet shops he went to, where he drank milkshakes, who his best mate was, his gaffer’s favourite pub, which butcher his mum bought meat at when they could afford it etcetera.
For the wartime experiences I borrowed shamelessly from the sources mentioned above in order to make the story an authentic representation of the summer that was dominated by the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. That means a whole lot of experiences in the book really happened, though I have ascribed them all to Will.
To this I added the perspective of a twelve-year-old-boy and that was really easy as I more or less took myself at that age – and all the interests I had – and ascribed all that to Will too. I was delighted to discover Will could be a Sci-Fi fan, for example, and spent many hours watching 1930s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials because Will would have to transplant himself into the space boots of these gents on occasion when he wasn’t playing Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians or Robin Hood and Ivanhoe.
The story started rolling and suddenly I had over 30,000 words. What was meant to be one chapter in a book now covered about a third of that book, leaving much less room for adventures in the Wyrde Woods. It seemed a shame to cut into it, as it had become something of a ‘history’ so I decided to publish it as a novella instead. It’s a very different style from the Wyrde Woods so far, a much more straight forward boy’s adventure story but part of the Wyrde Woods Chronicles none-the-less as it provides a detailed background for William – aka Will – aka Willick Maskall. It has also become a Brighton story and I hope it stands as a testament to that summer in 1940.
I recently ran into a few interesting articles during research into England in 1940 as it was bracing itself for nazi invasion. One was about a group of kids who planned to defend their common against Nazi Parachutists. They had worked out strongpoints, locations for ambush, avenues of escape and whatnot. More importantly they had armed themselves with longbows and arrows. Home made ones, but most kids knew how to fashion a decent bow back then. A second article involved a group of kids elsewhere, ‘ambushing’ army convoys Robin Hood style. Surrounding it, armed with longbows and refusing to let the bemused Allied soldiers go until they had handed over all their chocolate.
Would these juvenile gangs have carried out their plans in the worst case scenario? I think they might have. Kids are notoriously dismissive of danger.The first group reports, almost casually, that they lost a few kids when they ‘excercised’ the Nazi invasion by racing accross the road as British army convoys passed. The ‘lost’ kids were run over and killed. A third group inadvertently wounded a Canadian soldier when they used an Allied convoy as target practice with their bows and arrows.
Moreover, we must remember that little known addition Winston Churchill added after his famous We Shall Fight on the Beaches speech: addressed to his neighbour in the House of Commons he muttered: “And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!”
The early Home Guard, the Local Defense Volunteers, were actually better armed than that. The kids would have been surrounded by adults who were arming themselves with the boarding pikes from the HMS Victory, brass cannon from museums and ‘conveniently’ shaped pieces of lead piping. They could hardly have failed to be inspired by the grim resolution around them as those butt ends of broken beer bottles were surpassed by make-do creativity.
If all those gangs were united into one, it’d make an interesting story, I remembered thinking. I recalled that when I finished revising Lord of the Wyrde Woods and found that I wasn’t ready to relinguish the Wyrde Woods yet. As setting it was simply too fun a place to play around in. What if I were to set that fused gang in the Wyrde Woods in 1940?
There were two characters in Lord of the Wyrde Woods who were just about a decade too young to have been the right age back then (Young enough to be kids, old enough to have the know-how to plan well organised misschief)
I decided that I was allowed the poetic license to conveniently ignore a decade, it would be much more fun revisiting some of the characters from Lord of the Wyrde Woods than invent new ones. Moreover, it allowed for connections, the essence of the Wyrd and therefore of the Wyrde Woods Chronicles, which will include at least four more novels.
It meant redrafting Lord of the Wyrd Woods to stick in references to new locations which play no part in that story and a few hints as to the events in the other books. It also meant I had to confer with the real “Joy Whitfield”, my friend Joyce whose words and actions I have often just blatantly copied to stick in my story, though her ‘past’ is one of my own invention based on my great-great-grandfather Adriaan Swank’s gallant rescue of an unfortunate house maid.
I met Joyce at a recent archery event where I was teamed up with her and confused matters greatly by calling her Joy half of the day. She was happy to feature in another adventure, and even happier to be taking on the Nazi foes: There were some old scores to settle there I think.
Anyhow, young Joy has an owl (of course) and Joyce chose the type of owl and the name: Another ‘scritch’ owl (barn owl) who will be called Thallie. I was pleased with her choice as barn owls have a varied ‘vocabulary’ which, as happens in Lord of the Wyrd Woods, allow for their occasional participation in conversations.
Looking into wartime Sussex I discovered exactly the type of circumstances which would suit the story well. Sticking to Wyrde Wood tradition I would also insert creatures from the old Anglo-Saxon lore, allowing me to unite two of England’s worst foes, a nightmarish alliance which Joy Whitfield and William Maskall will have to face and vanquish.
I had all I needed for a new adventure in the Wyrde Woods.
“Is it like Hunger Games?”; “Is it like Harry Potter?”; “Did you paraphrase the whole thing from Tolkien?”; “Any Game of Thrones in there?” The questions keep coming and I am pleased at the interest but suddenly discover a major neglect.
My mind is a fine one when it gets going but I am a slow starter. I observe, consume and digest. This can last anywhere from a day to a score of weeks after which a dozen old-fashioned light bulbs flicker into a dim existence. Some of these require new analysis and go back into the cooking pot to simmer, others I throw into the air without much warning. Occasionally with some hullabaloo as if to apologize for being an extreme introvert at times; accompanied by a possibly irritating need for some immediate attention because this feeds the light, you see. Constructive feedback and continued interest -if not active input- can make some of those light bulbs shine brightly. Deconstructive criticism sets me on DEFCON ONE alert; scrambling in cluttered drawers and cupboards for the keys with which to launch me some thermo-nuclear missiles; the bogeyman of my youth. I put those keys somewhere real good, that much I remember. Was it somewhere real obvious -like where organized people keep their keys? Or did I have a plan that was so cunning as to outcun baldrickensian cunningness? Like a place where nobody would ever think to look for it – including myself within 24 hours of hatching the ingenious hiding place. Probably the latter but it doesn’t matter anymore because by now I will have run into a catapult. Or a die-cast Spitfire. Or feel the need to wear a Russian gasmask in combination with a top hat for a few hours. New grazing for that mind of mine and the missiles are stood down again.
I am not sure if I am a real introvert because the above mental processes serve chaotically well in writing and working out ideas (unless you ask my magazine editors – some of whom would probably happily shoot me) but perform far less successfully in social interaction with people. I quite happily assume that when something is said it is fine for me to go think that over for a few weeks before giving a response, naively assuming the topic is still relevant or on the other person’s mind by then. Having noticed that this makes meaningful communication with me difficult for many people I am hesitant about that social interaction and enter withdrawn modus at times.
I try talking to my characters instead but remain true to my social handicap when they start talking back – while I ponder my reaction they start dictating the story. I had to sit shotgun during the development of all my main characters in the two Lord of the Wyrde Woods books; they did the driving in the end and in that drove much of the plot because I don’t do plot-plans. I write characters and occasionally throw interesting challenges in their direction to see how they cope with these. If you read any of the Wyrde Woods chronicles there may be moments of surprise. Assume that I was just as surprised as you were, if not more. Never saw it coming till the next morning would find me looking over rubbish spouted at night and discover that those independent-minded characters had totally ignored their creator’s plans and had done something completely different. Basically they were having their own back, throwing that challenge right back at me. They think much faster than I do.
Before I knew it I had something resembling a novel and threw this at various people in the hope of getting that constructive feedback I needed. That was the initial state of the manuscript when I impatiently Kindled it on Amazon, but hey, I think I charged 1,99 US Dollar for it. The final version, much more streamlined, is at their disposal in Kindle from now too, along with a small price increase for newcomers because 30 cents a book isn’t quite hacking it.
So how to sell the books? The voices of wisdom decree that this should be thought out first, along with target audience, genre etcetera. I did read all this, along with the advice to plan a plot but my supreme stubbornness allows me to yodel that I did it my way afterwards in a rare display of extrovert joy. When I do that I am well aware that I might have made my path smoother if I followed the advice but I am very attached to singing that duet with Frank Sinatra when no one is around to hear. Hacking a narrow path in the rock face within sight of an easily traversable highway is just about all I have to be proud of you see. So that’s what I did with the books too till I realized I would have to sell them too, not just write the buggers. That leads us -at long last- to those questions this ramble started with.
People wanted to know what kind of book it was, they were seeking a comparison which I did not have ready. I was stunned to discover that I could not describe my books – which I truly believe form a good story- and realized this was probably a wee problem in trying to sell them. None of the comparisons above sufficed, though I have been influenced by all of them. A new Hunger Games? Only in that I thoroughly enjoyed the books and admire the author a great deal for her story-telling skills. Sure, my characters shoot bows but the archery has been inspired by a number of great archers whom I count as my friends, not by Katniss, at least not consciously. Harry Potter? No, though Voldemort is evil personified and some of the events in the Potter books are quite dark my books are more sinister I think. This because the bad guys in my book are very much humans; they are not supernatural in any form, just driven by the darker human motives which taint our species. I do suspect that an older Potter audience will appreciate these stories of mine though; also because it’s a kind of a young adult book, not very suitable for younger children. I did allow my main character Wenn to be a habitual namer of people and places because I like the HP language Rowling created. Not sure if the readers will like it, because now they have to remember two names, the proper one and the one Wenn invented.
Game of Thrones? Those who read Dance into the Wyrd (book two) will have no hesitation in pointing out the exact moments I try to apply some of George Martin’s tricks. When I read his books; he stunned me into actually dropping them in complete surprise at times. If I can get anywhere near that I’d be happy. But that is a writing technique, not the story. What I have in common with Suzanne Collins, Jo Rowland and George Martin -i.e. what I learned from them- is that archetypes work well. These are very much present in the book.
As for Tolkien, though I remain a great fan, one of the intentions of the Wyrde Woods Chronicles is to take issue with his representation of the Elves. This is part of my effort to return to a form of genuine English folklore; ignoring the German and French influence with regard to Fairy Tales, the Victorian cutification of real faeries and Tolkien’s awe of the elves. My faeries, or Faere Folk as I prefer to call them, are traditional ones such as the ones taken into observation in the works of Shakespeare, Blake and Kipling. The more devious and nasty ones. These Faere Folk and other representatives of Anglo-Saxon culture form the core of the supernatural elements of my tales. I refer and defer to Tolkien, or rather my characters do, because any fantasy writer simply owes the man a debt of sorts- and I read his stories again and again (the biggest compliment I can think of). Other than that we have in common some Anglo-Saxon cultural features but I ignored his influence as much as possible because so many fantasy stories seem to be a rehash of his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Not a book setting I wanted to go to other than as a reader. I do share Tolkien’s ambition to give England a cultural heritage of its own though, one to be proud of – though I focused exclusively on Sussex as a microcosm of the England I know.
How to explain what the Wyrde Woods chronicles are then, if these comparisons don’t suffice? I had the long answers ready but these don’t form snappy selling points. There is a lot of Hardy in there. I admire Hardy’s creation of his very own Wessex a great deal –specifically the fusion of fact and imaginative realism required for such a task- and perhaps it is therefore no coincidence that I opted for a Sussex of my own and in my own time as a mirror to Hardy’s Victorian Wessex. Just about anybody from Sussex will like aspects of these books I hope, due to the very strong regional emphasis in which I go as far as to soak Sussex loose from England in a fashion. The two counties enfold my fictional Wyrde Woods which thus becomes a world within a world but my Sussex too forms a smaller world within the larger embrace of England. To do so I went back whole generations to find local folk as they would have been in Victorian times and plant them in the first years of the twenty-first century.
They convey an attitude towards ‘foreigners’ which is close to nationalistic. Something that hasn’t changed much in a way but back then the only real ‘natives’ had been born and bred in Sussex. The ‘foreigner’, or Sheere-folk, label was applied to anyone from beyond the Sussex borders. There was a grudging admittance that people in part of Kent were –well almost people- and I assume that referred to the Kentish Weald. Dutch and French fishermen were okay too along the coast. Men of the sea like the Sussex fishermen felt more kinship with these genuine seafaring foreigners than English people not from Sussex. That there was interaction was clear from the amount of Dutch and French words which became part of the remarkable Broad Sussex idiom. My favourites being ‘shim’ from the Dutch ‘schim’ and ‘quiddy’ from the French Que dis tu? . The interaction between the younger characters Wenn and Puck and these elders whom I conveniently time-travelled in from the nineteenth century was interesting and Wenn takes to her new nationality like a fish to water. This means that the rest of England is largely ignored in the books, barring a few derogatory digs about Lunnon because I know my London friends will grin at that.
Hardy’s magnificence in the personification of his setting is something I aspired to as well. Initial feedback has suggested that I succeeded in giving life to the Wyrde Woods up to the extent that the woods themselves become one of my main characters. Hardy’s frequent focus on coincidence is present as well though here I have been inspired by many others including C.J. Stone and Brian Bates and I take that coincidence back to the Anglo-Saxon Wyrd. Hardy wasn’t afraid of social criticism and there will be aspects of this in all of the Wyrde Woods Chronicles, though here too is a debt I owe to other writers such as George Orwell and C.J. Stone as well, both astute observers of the ills or collective madness of society.
I was kind of lazy and used a very cheap trick in the book; first make the reader love the Wyrde Woods as a symbol for the places where they built their childhood forts and played freely outside of adult supervision as well as a symbol for the survival of the delicate eco-systems which so grace our lives when we bother to notice them. Once everybody digs the woods I bring in the threat of complete destruction of this world. Nothing supernatural, just the national and local politicians and big companies at work. The sort of thing you read about in the paper without, perhaps, realising the full extent of destructive power these policies can have.
Is there a fairy tale element? Sure, in the form of the old English folklore and the Faere Folk and the love story is undoubtedly a bit of a fairy tale as well. But I would hesitate to call it a fairy tale just as I am wary of the word ‘fantasy’. Of course it’s a fantasy, any story is quintessentially an author’s fantasy but I do shy away from the standard components of fantasy: Namely that different world, be it there to begin with or reached by magic portals. The Wyrde Woods are a world of their own, but very much part of our own world. Anybody can go there, they are around the corner and every reader who has given feedback has mentioned that they remembered the Wyrde Woods as a place where they themselves used to play. It is for this reason that many older readers are quite taken by the story as well. This is more than a young adult fantasy formulated specifically at one group of people.
In the end I was saved by the review of somebody I had met only once at a Society for the Promotion of Traditional Archery shoot in Somerset. He not only managed to convey that the book worked for him in the manner that I intended but also managed to describe it far more accurately than I could.
The essence of that was: “…it manages to evoke the sense of timelessness that is the hallmark of the mythical. It’s a dream-time book, a gateway to the unconscious with Jungian archetypes brought vividly to life on every page. But above all it’s an enthralling tale…be prepared for some late nights.”
I could barely envisage a more lavish compliment. Combining it with other elements of what made the book work I arrived at the following description:
You don’t need time portals, magic wardrobes, rabbit holes or faery dust to experience a profoundly different world…all you need to do is walk into the Wyrde Woods. Chances are that they will appear familiar…we have all been there. That timeless semi-mythical dreamtime of our subconscious inhabited by archetypes where anybody can become the hero, especially those who consider themselves the least worthy. In short: A Dreamtime-Tale with a dark twist set in today’s Sussex, England.
And as such I have finally identified a genre for the Wyrde Woods Chronicles (I’ll find out later whether or not it actually exists, that seems irrelevant). The next time somebody asks me what kind of book it is I will answer: A Dream-time Tale. If I like them I’ll add that it has a scorpion’s tail. If not they’ll find out when that vicious tail strikes. An echo perhaps, of the thermo-nuclear missiles I intended to launch once upon a time.