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Thursday, 22 July 2010

Writer's journey through a lost landscape

A map of seventeenth century England.
If you click on it, it will open in a bigger window.
Note the little hunting horns dotted all over the map, these are forests. Notice how few roads there are and that none of these are straight lines, but seem to enclose the forests between their net.

If you were to ask the average English person for the names of a forest or two, he might come up with Sherwood Forest (legendary home of Robin Hood), or the New Forest (home to herds of wild ponies) or if pushed maybe the Forest of Dean or Epping Forest. But beyond that, it is hard to bring a single name to mind. Of course we have woods - but these are not the dense tracts of trees I mean.

For our forests have gone, and with them the truly wild places, and with them perhaps, the dark places of our imagination.
In 1658 the Royal Forest of Needwood in Staffordshire was 92,000 acres and contained 50,000 trees, not counting holly and underwood. Of this forest few trees remain, but this area would have been dwarfed by the forest of Hatfield Chase in West Yorkshire which was 180,000 acres. A chase was, as the name suggests, a place for hunting deer. In the seventeenth century England was essentially all forest.

In the book I am working on my 17th century characters make long journeys and it would be easy to forget that travelling would take them through acres and acres of dark woodland, within which lurked the wild beasts hunted by generations of kings and princes ; the classic five beasts of hart, hind, hare, boar and wolf.

Although records show wolves were extinct in England by the 15th century, they still roamed in Scottish forests until the 18th century, and by all accounts the fear of them in England lasted much longer than that. In Derbyshire there is a legend of a creature that is reported to resemble a normal wolf, but which moves at fantastic speeds and covers great distances in a single bound. It is unclear whether the wolf is a physical entity, but the nearby village of Wormhill (amongst many others) claims to be the location where the last wolf in England was killed in the sixteenth century. Even today Dendrophobia is a very common phobia surrounding the fear of trees or the forest.

The fear of getting lost was a major concern. My characters might have to pay a scout to show them the way, ride for miles on horseback seeing only the upright trunks of oak and ash, birch and willow. They would be canopied by a dense sky of moving leaves in the summer, rattling twigs in the winter. Each journey meant moving far away from human habitation into the land of the hunter and the hunted.

At night the dark would be complete.

For my travellers every journey would be fraught with uncertainty, a feeling of venturing into a silent wilderness. It is hard to imagine a world so afforested  "that a man could scarcely goe alone in the beaten paths," where outlaws may appear at every turn, and where it was not even safe to tread for fear of adders, the sudden savagery of nature made manifest.

Recently I heard an interview on Radio 4 by somebody investigating how some downtown areas of Chicago have been abandoned, and are now being reclaimed by nature into something like the wild forests of yesteryear. Inhabited by packs of feral dogs, these are the nearest a city dweller will get to a natural, rather than a man-made wildness on their doorstep.
But for a writer, the forest is still there, buried in the imagination, in folk tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, and in the work of other writers who have used its beauty, mystery and wildness to say something about the forest within.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

London Lunch

On Monday (12th July) I will be in London to sign books at Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court. Many famous names (and quite a few Macmillan New Writers) have been through their doors to put their name to their first editions. I will no doubt pause on the threshold to imagine the other more famous writers that have stood there before me. I will be really happy to have a chat with anyone who might come along, as being a northener, I know hardly a soul in London. I will be there from about 12.30 for an hour or so. Known as "the collector's bookshop" it is a lovely shop so well worth a browse. And what a good excuse I have to indulge my passion for proper bookshops. Nearest tube - Leicester Square.

Giveaway of The King's Mistress by Emma Campion

You can enter this giveaway free at Passages to the Past

Friday, 2 July 2010

Undressing a book

My post about covers and costume design can be found over here

Winchester Writers Conference

Imagine if you will, a massive exam hall, lofty, lit by fluorescent strip-lighting, and containing 60 small square desks set out in rows. Now put a nervous writer in front of each one, holding a sheaf of paper or a dog-eared manuscript. Behind each desk sits an agent, an editor or other industry professional. For fifteen minutes they talk - or should I say shout, before the chairs scrape back, the writers reluctantly leave and are replaced by another eager batch.

The noise is the first thing that strikes you, as exam halls are usually silent. The noise is deafening as everyone tries to make themselves heard against the other 59 conversations. Outside, there are a team of counsellors waiting, for those who get given a hard time by the agent they were sure would love their novel.

But this is a serious business, both for the writers and the agents. Books do find their way to publication here - since last year seven writers have been published. I talked to one man whose opening pages I had admired in a workshop, and he was delighted to report that an agent has asked for his complete script.

Over the weekend I met a lot of other writers and at least a third of the people I introduced myself to said they were working on an urban fantasy novel featuring vampires! I naturally thought that Stephanie Meyer must have something to do with it, but no, all claimed they were working on theirs since before Stephanie Meyer. I also met quite a few crime enthusiasts including one lady who told me the best way to cosh people is to use a few hundred pound coins swung in a sock. I met very few other historical novelists, which was a shame, but I did meet with Judith Allnatt who was lovely and gave me good advice about my second novel . Her book, A Mile of River is now on my bedside table.

The workshops I attended were excellent, and as a way of thanking those writers whose workshops I enjoyed. the illustrations here are of their books. The writers are Julia Bryant (Shape and sharpen your novel), Debby Holt (Character) and Alison Habens (Fairy Tale and Story) Even when you have been published there is still a lot to learn from other writers who have been at it longer than I have. My quote of the weekend (if I couldonly remember her exact words) is from Alison Habens, who said that writing has to be transparent, so that the reader looks through it to the real life behind.