TOUCHSTONE TUESDAYS: A writer finds inspiration in objects

ImageHello, my long-suffering followers. And welcome any lured by my tags. The newcomers will learn from those who’ve suffered – I am an inconsistent blogger. I have promised to be better, to post at least once a week. I’ve barely made once a month.

No Longer! Because I have hit upon a way of getting myself to my desk for the purpose: I have made it about telling stories which, let’s face it, is what I love to do. So I am initiating TOUCHSTONE TUESDAYS. And on that day every week I will write about one object that I keep near me in my writing space – the amazing cedar octagon in the forest where I do my work. These have been collected over the years and for years rested in boxes as I vagabonded my way about the world. But at last I found a place to lay them out, pin them up, drape them, lean them. At last, when words run out, or I merely need a jolt of inspiration, I can rise from my desk, seek one out, touch it, remember the story… and now tell it to you.

I shall take photos and make them available across all platforms. I shall set up a Pinterest board. Soon perhaps, inspired by my twelve year old son who already has his own channel, I will record some and put them on You Tube.

To begin: hutHere is my hut and a link to an article the Globe and Mail – Canada’s national newspaper – ran a few years back, part of a series about authors and their writing places.


In the background are several of the touchstones I will be bringing forward. In my lap is my cat, Dickon – who will be worth a spot in himself, so tightly is he involved with my creativity. (He sleeps near me as I write this, on a little bed on my desk, as he ever does).

Are all the touchstones connected to my writing? Yes, because I draw from every aspect of my life in that writing. Everything I’ve done, everyone I’ve met, every place I’ve been or dreamed I have. It always surprises me when I open one of my books and read almost any paragraph because I can tell the source behind the fictionalization; the part of my sensual experience that I have transformed into words. I can see the genesis behind the shroudings of story.

One more word about the hut. It lives. I kid you not. I never truly believed in the spirit of a place until I came into this one. It will talk to me, in various ways. It always feels like a privilege to work here. As if I’ve been admitted to some sacred space. Which I have.

So here’s the first of my touchstones…THE SLING SHOT

Caleb slingshotHere I am – as Caleb, the Jewish Zealot who becomes Rome’s top gladiator, in the 1985 Biblical Roman epic, ‘AD – Anno Domini’. It is worth about a quarter of any autobiography I may write, the journey that took me from London to Hollywood via ten months in Tunisia. But for now I’ll focus on the sling shot I’m holding.

Early on in the process of filming I was told I’d need to become reasonable proficient in the use of this most ancient of weapons. One was made by the stunt co-ordinator, the extraordinary Bill Weston – former army officer, former Congo mercenary turned Buddhist – who, after running me through commando exercises for an hour from 6am on a beach in Monastir would leave me to practice the sling shot alone. I hadn’t a clue – and didn’t know enough to recognize that the sling he’d fashioned with its plastic cup and its nylon ropes, was next to useless. Fortunately one beautiful morning at 7am with the world still asleep, the man who ran the beach camel concession came along with his mum and baby camel. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked in French. (I was close enough at the time to my school days to still speak it reasonably). ‘Uh, I’m with the movie.’ ‘Yes, but what are you doing with that?’ He pointed at the slingshot. ‘Um, trying to learn how it works.’ He eyed me. ‘I know how it works,’ he said. ‘As a boy, I used to hunt with this. Boys here still do.’ ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Care to show me?’ He shrugged. ‘Why not?’

He descended from his camel and, for the next hour, I had a one-on-one seminar with an expert. He took it apart, shortened the strings, showed me the correct stance. How to take it from around my neck, load it, have it taut and swinging in a few silent seconds, as if I’d stumbled on some prey for my pot and had but a moment. He found me good stones – not completely round, but flat and a little bit round, the type that’s best for skimming. I practiced, got better, for the next weeks practiced more – and used all those new skills in the desert near Tozeur in what they still call Star Wars Valley (in the first film Luke races there) – and put six stones in six takes through a small bush about forty metres away.

But not with the practice slingshot. I’d seen the one the props man had – a proper version of this essentially simplest of weapons – an oval sheep-hide pouch stitched around real twined rope. A knot at the end of one strand. A loop at the end of the other to slip your fingers in. You twirl the sling above your head. The stone’s weight and the centrifugal force keep the shot centred. When you are ready, you site on the target – and then you throw the knot at it.

I was proud of my skill. Years later, when I became a writer and working at least partly on the theory of ‘write what you know’ (I prefer ‘write what you love’ but this combines both) I discovered two of my characters used slingshots – Tza, the semi-feral 16th century shepherdess in VENDETTA, the second book in my Runestone Saga; and Gregoras, the nose-less mercenary in A PLACE CALLED ARMAGEDDON, my novel on the fall of Constantinople 1453. (Click on either title to read more about them.)

At the end of the shoot, I kept the slingshot. When I became a writer I’d take it into schools and demo it using a teacher as target – students love that! But eventually the old one fell apart – so I had to make a new one, with the aid of my then nine year old son.

This one.

New one with old one below.

New one with old one below.

As I said, it is truly the simplest of weapons. The difficulty was finding enough genuine twined rope, because you have to split the twine into its four strands, run two either side of the leather pouch, fold the edges of leather over and stitch them down. Luckily for me a friend had access to a theatre’s props department and found me the rope. A somewhat bemused Chinese cobbler in Vancouver cut the leather oval and did the stitching. I tied the knot and loop myself.

It works well. It is the only weapon I possess (apart from swords, more of them in future posts). I am reasonably confident that, come the Zombie Apocalypse, I could defend me and mine for a little while. Until the shoulder tires or the stones run out anyway.

So there we have Touchstone Number One. I’ve enjoyed talking about it. If you have enjoyed reading it, follow me on any of the platforms. There’s more to come. Much more. Next week, for example, it will be the perfect shell – snorkelled off a beach in Almeria, Southern Spain in 1975.

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