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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Writing Review of the Year

Everyone does one, and my annual summary makes me no exception.  So, how has my writing gone this year?
I’ve not had any new publications – my first barren year in that regard since 2010.  That doesn’t mean nothing has happened, though:
  • ‘Snuff’ was accepted by Damnation Books.  It’s a brutal horror about a couple of women who are kidnapped and forced to take part in snuff movies.  It’s outside my usual subject area and comfort zone, and because of the violent content it took me a very long to get it to the ‘feel’ I wanted.  I’m very pleased with the end result, though.  I’ve had contact with my editor and look forward to working with him;
  • ‘Footholder’ was accepted by Rebel ePublishers.  This is a retelling of a traditional Welsh story about a king who has to keep a maiden’s foot in his lap, or he will die.  Despite the unpromising premise it’s a wonderful story of love, war, power and betrayal and is my all-time favourite Celtic story.  I can only hope my retelling does the tale justice.  The title is to be confirmed;
  • ‘Eton Mess’ was accepted by Keith Publications.  It’s an erotic novelette and follows Kerry-Jane and Amy’s visit to a Greek restaurant, where they indulge in the contents of the sweet trolley a little too enthusiastically.  Although not a sequel to ‘Art Class’, my other Keith publication, it does ‘star’ the same main characters;
  • Last, but certainly not least, I finally met fellow writer Carole Ann Moleti nearly ten years after we first started exchanging critiques.  Meeting Carole and her family was 2014’s highlight.  Here we are at a restaurant in Salisbury: photo

So, what is there to look forward to in 2015?  Here’s what I’m working on at the moment:
  • Hopefully, the above three works will be published.  If not, they should be pretty close to it by the end of 2015.
  • ‘Dana’s Children’, accepted by Wild Child Publishing in 2013, is being edited at the moment.  It’s a splatter about a group of archaeologists who come across an unfriendly legendary tribe while exploring underground;
  • ‘Trench’ is dark science fiction, which is a bit of a departure for me.  The novel features an archaeological dig of a World War One bunker, which reveals skeletons from much more recent times.  I’m very pleased with it and I’m quietly confident someone will want to publish it;
  • I’m thinking of taking on another traditional Welsh story.  This one is about a man who takes a fairy wife.  Like ‘Footholder’ the original story is a bit bare and one of the attractions is being able to make up any backstory I like.  It also has the advantage of being set up the road from the family’s usual holiday destination so I know the setting well;
  • A couple of sequels to ‘Art Class’ and ‘Eton Mess’.  Well, not quite sequels, but stories with the same characters and similar erotic themes;
  • Two or three novellas and short novels of variable quality which I may or may not persevere with.
Finally, thank you to all those who have helped my writing during 2014, whether by critiquing my work on Critters or offline, or by providing encouragement, or by editing my work, or generally just being there when I’ve needed a shoulder or advice.  Particular mention, as usual, to Carole and Phil.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Archaeological Lifestyle

Regular readers of my books or blog will know my characters are often archaeologists who I describe as ‘living the archaeological lifestyle’.  That’s an awful phrase – I know editors would demand changes if it appeared in a novel.  So, this post will describe what I mean.  It’s also timely, as two of my forthcoming books – ‘Snuff’ and ‘Dana’s Children’ are at least partially set on digs.

I’ve been a member of archaeology societies and worked on local sites at weekends.  My first (and sadly only) experience of a big, large-scale excavation was during my undergraduate course, where I had the pleasure of helping uncover Whithorn in southern Scotland. This dig is the one mirrored in my work.  Out of respect for ex-colleagues I’ve never written anything auto/biographical, although I have been tempted to do something with my ‘solo adventure’ that led to a lifelong fear of cows!
So, what is a dig like?

Well, first of all, the physical discomfort. Most digs are on the tightest possible budget, meaning luxury is out of the question. I assume my dig was broadly typical, in that it rented empty houses and invited diggers to bring their own bedding and sleep too many to a room, even up to relatively senior level. The ‘home comfort’ was a couple of tatty sofas which couldn’t hold everyone, so there were a lot of sore knees and rumps from sitting on bare floorboards.

Food was generally stew thrown together by whichever couple of undergraduates were on cooking rota, which made the quality  ‘variable’.  Meals probably wouldn’t pass today’s Health and Safety laws, but I don’t remember any food poisoning.  I’d never cooked anything in my life - fortunately my fellow chef was both competent and patient.

Our remote farmhouse was off mains so there was never enough hot water.  I can’t begin to imagine the aroma we must have taken into ‘The Grapes’ with us!

But, the good atmosphere more than made up.  I don’t remember anyone complaining about the conditions – even me, and I particularly like my comforts.

The work itself probably goes without saying.  I knew enough about archaeology to be aware of what I was letting myself in for, although the proportion of time doing manual labour like lugging wheelbarrows full of earth, as opposed to digging up treasure hoards (I exaggerate) became a bit of a surprise.  But, that’s part of the learning process.  However, there was no work pressure at all at ‘digger’ level, which added to the relaxed atmosphere.

I suppose the most important element of ‘the archaeological lifestyle’ – or indeed any lifestyle - is culture.  Archaeology undergraduate courses often insist students spend at least two weeks on a dig, so big excavations tend to be full of transitory students who move on after a fortnight.  (I was unusual in throwing myself in at the deep end by volunteering for longer.)  That results in short, sharp and shallow but intense friendships.  Goodbyes are often emotional and genuine with bear hugs and handshakes, which demonstrates how close people became in only a couple of weeks.

Although I spent a lot of time with my fellow diggers, I rarely got to know much more than their name, university, and home town.  I didn’t have much idea who had boy/girlfriends for example.  No-one asked me anything personal either – in the tight-knit environment everything external seemed to get left behind.  That didn’t matter because being stuck with people twenty-four hours a day means everyone makes an effort to get on and muck in – which leads to a good, friendly atmosphere.  I also think in the house I stayed in, we were particularly lucky with the personalities. 

A mix of youngsters with free evenings and no formal rules could be an explosive one, but with everyone needing to fit in the rules necessarily became unwritten ‘social norms’ (as the family anthropologist calls them) and were generally followed.  The few who strayed from the boundaries stood out like a sore thumb and generally found the dig an unhappy experience, I think.  They also give the writer a source of conflict.

The constant comings and goings lead to short term relationships, so there is more than a splattering of casual sex (and drugs) on offer.  This darker element provides obvious fiction possibilities.  Neither have ever been my scene and I kept both at arm’s length, but my ego allows me to report turning down an offer from a cute brunette. (What was I thinking?  I was unattached and turned down a cute brunette!)

With mobile phones and social media, isolation is less of an issue now.  Whithorn is remote, and the only communication beyond the village was the single telephone box.  This added to the inward-looking intensity and focus on the dig environment.  I think readily-available communications probably take something away from the modern archaeologist’s experience.

Inevitably, with so many people involved, things go wrong and emotions spill over.  With no real friends or experienced advice it’s possible for youngsters – and even the older heads - to flounder.  From the writer’s viewpoint that provides yet more possibilities for writers.  Problems don’t happen often though, and field archaeologists in my stories run away with their emotions, have crises, and break the ‘social norms’ more than is usual on a real life dig!

Anyway, I got home feeling I’d experienced the good, the bad and the ugly, and that I’d lived a lifetime’s worth of every possible emotion.  And boy, was I desperate to do it again next year! 
So, I hope I’ve given an outline of what some of my characters experience, and so a little of what shapes them.  I also hope my affection for field archaeology and its culture comes over in my writing. 

Acknowledgement: Thank you for loads of good times to those I stayed at Palmallet farmhouse with.