A Dreamtime-Tale with a Dark Twist

“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makes meaningful communication with me difficult for many people I am hesitant about that social interaction and enter withdrawn modus at times.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.

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