TOUCHSTONE TUESDAY No. 2: The Shell

In which the author rambles on about the objects – touchstones  – that surround him in his writing hut.

Of the many touchstones I will write about on TOUCHSTONE TUESDAYS this one would definitely make Top Five in ‘Things I would grab in a fire’. Maybe Top Three.

Almeria. August 1975. My parents had moved to Southern Spain the year before on the no-doubt-reasonable premise that since I’d just turned 18 I could bloody well fend for myself! (They did invite me to go with them but since I’d decided to be in actor I thought I’d better stay in England and do some training. Also these were the days when kids still left home at 18, actually chose to. No living in the parents’ basement, ordering take out pizza and hitting the bong while playing Call of Duty at 37 for my generation!) But of course it did mean a wonderful place to visit often, cheap holidays in the sun, the Mediterranean to play in, and do one of the things I most love to do: drift around in the sea in an snorkel and mask and make like an octopus.

IMG_1020 (1)One hot day I spotted this shell, about ten feet beneath me. I dove for it, brought it up. Its occupant was gone but the two halves were still attached by gristle then. I admired its shape, its perfect symmetry. Like lines within a tree you can see the way the creature grew and grew, its tiny beginning, its evolving majesty as it fed. There’s the dark band about halfway down it. I can almost imagine the creature thinking: ‘That’s it, I’ll hunker down here and so end with a decorative flourish!’ But then something pushed it to go further – competition? Clam love? It went for another burst and completed the glorious shape that I found.

I took it home, even though I knew the fate of shells: to lose their fabulous shine and lustre as they dry out. To end up bleached and forgotten in some flower bed, or ignored on a bathroom shelf. Then I had an idea. I took my Mum’s hair lacquer (Yupp, that’s what mums used then) and sprayed the shell. Voila! It’s retained its sheen ever since. And though the gristle dried and disappeared and the two halves split, it is still perfect.

IMG_1028 (1)To me, from the side it looks like an angel who has folded her wings.

From above, the endless shells it was before it was complete.

Opened, a bath for a Botticelli maiden to rise from.IMG_1027 (1)

 

 

 

 

A grain of sand, digested, hardened, the first brick in the wall that was to be the creature’s shack, then hovel, then apartment, then house, then mansion.

I will look at it when I need to think of something pure and beautiful. When I need to remind myself that creation is a process, a layering, steadily growing from something as infinitesimal as a thought. That my struggles in writing – in life – are about building moment on moments, smoothing, hardening, accreting until the day something can be made complete. Even, dare I say, beautiful.

Next week’s Touchstone: probably Number One on the list of things to grab in the fire: my Shepherd’s Crook.

(Clarification: Before I end, a little clarification about last week’s post and the use of a Biblical sling shot. Someone pointed out that they still didn’t quite understand the mechanics of it and I realize I was unclear when I wrote ‘When you are ready, you site on the target – and then you throw the knot at it.’ To clarify: the knot is tied at the end of one of the ropes. You press that against the other end, which has a loop that you have put two fingers in. So when you get it whirling above your head, when you ‘throw’ the knot, those fingers keep the sling attached to your hand. The knot end shoots out and the whole weapon straightens, the pouch opens and the stone is hurled out. The knot is like the site on a rifle – if you hurl that where you want to hit, the stone should follow. e.g. (in the novel I will never write) ‘David sited on the Goliath’s forehead just above his nose – and hurled the knot at it.’

Clear as mud? I may have to put up a video!

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TOUCHSTONE TUESDAYS No. 1: 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.

http://tiny.cc/yeojby

 

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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Delivering the Dragon

Yesterday was one of those red letter days. I delivered a dragon.

This might need some explanation!

Five years ago my last young adult novel ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn‘ was published – the tale of Alice-Elayne, a 21st century Manhattan girl summoned by the unicorn Moonspill to Goloth, land of the fabulous beast and her adventures there. I went off after that on a variety of other exciting journeys: Shakespeare’s Rebel, Plague and the soon to be published Fire. But the characters from ‘Hunt’ still haunted me. Characters’ lives do not end just because a book does. I’d left Goloth on the verge of revolution. So I asked my favourite question: What happened next?

Fortunately I owed my wonderful editor – Amy Black at Doubleday in Toronto – a book. Doubly fortunate, she liked the idea of a loose sequel – for ‘Dragon’ can be read separately from the first novel. In this new one, Alice-Elayne is almost eighteen. So her story is darker, a little more on the adult end of ‘Young Adult’. Oh, and the villain this time is not a medieval tyrant…but a Dragon.

And so, The Hunt of the Dragon, was born.

I am so excited about this tale. It is exactly the book I wanted to write. It has a slightly old fashioned feel, in the best sense of that term: an epic journey, monsters, heroes, fabulous beasts and a climaxing battle to save a whole world! A little Narnia, a helping of Middle Earth, a touch of Beowulf.

And the delivery? It’s always hard to say when a book is finished. I usually only believe it is fully so when a member of the public buys and reads it. Then the circle is complete. Author and reader, the two people who make a book. But I know this – and I must admit to welling up when I read the last words. This is probably the last time I’ll read the book all the way through. The last time I’ll get to linger with these, my ‘imaginary friends’. They are all yours now.

(THE HUNT OF THE DRAGON will be published in Canada on October 18th 2016. Click HERE to pre-order.)

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FIRE! New Novel published in UK today!

LONDON 1666… AND THE DEVIL MUST HAVE HIS DUE

Hallo all! So sorry I’ve been missing so long. Shakespeare has sucked away all my time for so many weeks.

But now I can announce that my new novel FIRE has finally hit the shops – in the UK and most of the Commonwealth – Canadians you have to wait two months!

Final cover

Here’s the link to its PAGE. All info is there.

London’s a tinder box. Politically, sexually, religiously. Literally. It is about to burn.

I will be blogging a ot more about this book in the coming months. Watch this space!

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Shakespeare 400: My month of living Shakespeareanly

It’s nearly here. April 23rd will be the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

william-shakespeare-portrait11

 

And that day is one in my month of living Shakespeareanly.

(OK, I know its not a word. But he made up so many, aren’t I allowed one?)

 

 

 

Anyone who reads my books knows I am pretty obsessed with the Bard of Avon. All his works but especially Hamlet. My second play was ‘Glimpses of the Moon’ in which the ghost of a British actor, Benjy, walks out of a closet in Calgary in 1996. He’d just played Hamlet – badly – for the first time… in 1936. My first Young Adult book, The Fetch, opens with the same lines as the play: ‘Who’s there?’ (What a start I always think!) Then there’s the full fruit of my passion SHAKESPEARE’S REBEL, novel and play, where I attempt to answer the question: why Hamlet then? in a rip-roaring adventure tale of Will’s oldest friend, and fight arranger John Lawley. Shakespeare’s actually a character in that one which upset a few people. ‘You dared to put words into his mouth?’ they said. ‘Only fair,’ I replied. ‘He’s been doing it to me for years.’

And he will be doing it again this month. On the day itself, April 23rd, I and a fine band of actors are taking over the main theatre on Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada for SHAKESPEARE’S WAKE. We will conjure his spirit, and perform a selection of scenes, soliloquies, sonnets, songs… and one sword fight. It will by its nature be a Bard Greatest Hits night. But what hits! Come along if you get a chance. Click on the link!

But the 23rd is only the beginning of a mad Will week. I fly to Toronto on the 25th and on the 26th perform my one man show SHAKESPEARE 1600 at two Toronto libraries. This is the one with me in pantaloons and wielding my broadsword. Click above for a sneak preview video and a glimpse. And then go to APPEARANCES on my website for full details.

I then repeat the show at a high school the next day, fly to Boston, and perform it a final time at the Newburyport Literary Festival (Again, see Appearances). I will also be on a panel, part of which will be a mini debate on whether Will wrote Will. I might bring my sword. One of the great pleasures in life, surely, is skewering Oxfordians.

I wonder if at the end of all this my Shakespeare thirst will be slaked? Nah! Obsession doesn’t fade. It feeds upon itself and grows.

So perhaps I’ll see you for Shakespeare 500 in 2052 – the 500th anniversary of his birth. I’ll be 96. Just about ready for King Lear!

 

 

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They moved her bones: Thoughts on revisiting Anne Boleyn in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.

Now I would never claim to be a poet. I haven’t done the training and I apologise to all my poet friends who have, for simply putting stuff out there sometimes. But once in a while a work requires the form – a part of a novel or a play I am writing. Sometimes something moves me and lines leap into my head. That’s why it’s always vital to carry a notebook and a pen. Like a single image from a dream, remember that as a starting point and you can often remember the rest. If I write down the first couple of lines, the rest will spool from those.

The idea for the following struck me when I went to the Tower of London last week, went into the chapel of St Peter in Chains, heard how they’d moved Anne’s remains again. As some will know, I have a relationship with her. She was the starting point of my first novel, The French Executioner. And I dug up that same chapel floor to seek her bones in the opening of my second novel, Blood Ties.

So here, without further preamble, are the thoughts that came, then and later.

They moved her bones:

Thoughts on revisiting Anne Boleyn in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula –

She bewitched everyone

The Court, the Country

The King most of all

With her French sleeves, her small feet,

Her smile of secrets.

But in a palace of whispers

A white hare, hunted

There was no escape.

A keen sword cut her life

Her torn body tumbled

Into a chest to lie unmarked

Under this chapel floor.

 

They’ve moved her again now

Her bones and skull

Closer to the altar, away

From the other queens who jostle

Beneath those red-stained tiles.

But each May nineteenth

Will white roses still be placed

By unknown hand

Upon her shifting grave?

While in Norfolk, will that hare

Still run across the churchyard

In the one place she was happy for a time?

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SHAKESPEARE 1600: The One Man Show is here!

Humphreys 05

SHAKESPEARE 1600: The One Man Show!

I’m very excited! I’ve developed a one man show around my research for my novel ‘Shakespeare’s Rebel’… and I’ve even made a trailer for it!

Watch it here. Then book me to bring the full show to your community. Click Here to go to the page at my site.

 

 

 

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