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Monday, December 29, 2008

PROGRESS REPORT #47: THE DEADLINE APPROACHES!

View From My Window

This is the exact view I have from where I sit at the computer. These days I've been spending a lot of time here, working to deadline to complete Part VI of SHADOW OF THE LION.
I have reached the "Interlude" of this section and although some of it was previously written, I have to fill in the details before it's complete. Yesterday I spend several hours just making notes. Today I've had a late start, decided to sleep in and cancel my plans to go downtown shopping due to the deluge of rain and slushy streets. And here it is almost 1 p.m. and I haven't started writing yet!

I had projected a goal to finish the whole novel by the end of 2008, however due to seasonal distractions (and my own expert ability to procrastinate and find other things to do instead of writing -- checking my emails a dozen times a day, for instance), I am behind and instead want to finish Part VI before the end of the year. Not much time left. I'd best be getting busy!

So far, this massive manuscript (which I edit and workshop as I am going along, is pretty nearly 'final draft'. I will have a lot of cutting to do though, once it's done, as it is much too long to be accepted. I'm not too worried about that part though, as I find editing quick and fairly easy.
My critique group has been a big help as well, because sometimes you just can't see for yourself what is okay and what needs to be eliminated or improved upon.

Writing a novel doesn't happen by osmosis. Some people think it will only take them months to write, and some types of books do take months. But a complicated historical fiction novel, written from a historic plot , requires a lot of research. And this particular story has been made more complicated by using multiple points of view and trying to stick as close to 'facts' as possible, in the political sense of what was happening at that time in history, and the reasons why it ended of Alexander the Great's dynasty.

It's been a long journey, but an enjoyable and educational one. And I've been lucky enough to have contact with Classical scholars and to see many of the sites I've described in the story.
The characters have become part of my world and it is difficult to say goodbye to them when the time comes. To me, they are real and we have developed a relationship as I grew to know them intimately. Most of the characters in the story actually lived at that time. There are only a few of them who are fictional, and they are just as dear to me as they are my own creations.

The novel will been written in seven parts, although when the final cutting is done I think it will be shortened to just three or four. Each 'part' has an Interlude (which I may change to "Epitasis" (Greek for: "increased intensity"), the part of a play (Greek drama) developing the main action and leading ot the catastrophe (and that's a Greek word too!). I'll then change the "Parts" to "Acts" as in a drama, because this story is very much a Greek tragedy.

So, now I'd better get back to work. The Interlude is set in Alexandria, Egypt and Pergamon, Asia Minor. (I can't be in Chile, Cuba or Mexico with my friends right now, so this is my 'escape' to an exotic place.)

The following is an excerpt from the final chapter of Part VI taking place after Iskander (Alexander's 7 yr old son) his Soghdian mother Roxana and his grandmother, Olympias have been trapped all winter in the sea-coast fortress at Pydna (located on the north east coast of Greece, south of today's Thessaloniki.) Spitama is the half-breed Scythian horse master who is a friend of young Iskander. "Tempest" is Iskander's horse.


Winter Sunset

In the pale light before the dawn Iskander slipped past the dozing guards and made his way out to the barracks yard. The compound was deserted and the low-roofed stables empty save for a few horses. Most of horses had been eaten during that bleak winter; only royal steeds had been left unharmed though they were half-starved. Spitama had kept them groomed and rubbed down, still their coats were dull, their skin stretched over protruding bones.

He found Spitama sprawled on the hay still asleep. Tempest was tethered nearby and neighed when the child approached. “Shh Tempest...” The horse's ears went up at the sound of his voice. “Quiet, boy...You’ll wake the guards...”

Tempest nudged him, the breath from his nostrils warm against the child’s cheek. Iskander stroked the horse’s nuzzle. “I have nothing to give you, boy . There weren’t even crumbs to bring.” Tempest dipped his head so his forelock fell between his limpid dark eyes. Iskander ran his hand along the horse’s neck. He felt safe now that he was in the stable with Spitama and Tempest.

The horse snuffed the child’s hair and gave a soft whinny. Spitama woke to the sound. He sat up, looking surprised to see the child. He sucked in his breath through his lower teeth. “Tsss! Poh poh...little Captain...you should not be here...”

“You must go away now before all the guards are at their posts,” Iskander urged him. “You will die if you stay here.”

Spitama scrambled to his feet. He looked thin and pale, shivering in his tattered cloak and soiled clothing. He peered at the child sharply, “ What do you mean go? I can not leave you. And where would I go even if I could leave?”

“Go to Thessaly to your father‘s people. Take Tempest...”

Spitama studied him, frowning. ‘Leave ? How can I?”

“You must!” Iskander insisted. “Ride away now. Fast! Fly! Fly from here...Or they will kill you. Don’t you know that?”

“Fuck them all,” Spitama burst out. “I’ll not leave you, little Captain.”

Iskander was trembling. His voice shook even though he tried to sound brave. “If I order you to go, then you must.”

From that day long ago when Spitama had rescued him on the path at the sea camp in Thrace, he had counted the Scythian like an uncle or older brother.

“Here” He took off the luck charm he wore around his neck, the cartouche his Uncle Ptolemy had given him that bore the inscription of Alexander’s name. “If anyone tries to stop you, tell them you have been sent by Alexander, son of Alexander.” When he spoke the name of his father, he felt full of pride. Alexander, son of Alexander! No longer was he Iskander, Ashabal, the little Captain.. He was Alexander.

His command struck Spitama speechless. “Well...”Spitama stammered. “So you are! But as the gods are my witness, I will not abandon you willingly. And if I go, I promise it will be only to seek some help. Perhaps I can rally my father’s kinsmen...”

“Just go!” urged the child. “Tell the gate guards you’re going to Pella with a message for Kassandros...Tell them Alexander commanded you...When they see you are riding my horse they will let you pass.”

“I will take you with me.”

“No. You must go alone. I can not leave my mother.” Iskander reached up to stroke Tempest’s neck and felt a sudden pang of anguish. “Gods speed, good friend...”
Tempest’s nostrils flared and his black eye rolled sidelong. He gave a whinny, as if in farewell.

Spitama’s face was sombre. “When you are king, little Captain, you will avenge all these wrongs that have been done here. The base and wicked will die; the brave and just will triumph.” He reached out and drew the child against him. “Your father was a great man and you will be too. Perhaps all that has come to pass was meant to be, your moira, the shape of your Fate that will let you be strong , so that when your appointed time comes, you will be as great a hero and as beloved as your father was. You must not be afraid, or give up hope. For the gods will show you the way and protect you.”

“How will I know my moira?” Iskander asked.

“By an oracle, or some prophecy being fulfilled -- some sign. Then you will know the task that the gods have allotted you. And you will reap the glory.”

Melancholy filled the child, cold as winter snow. He did not speak, but laid his head against Spitama’s breast.

“Don’t forget that, little Al’skander.” Spitama bent to kiss him, then took the reins from the child’s hands and mounted the horse.

“Swear me an oath that you’ll not come back lest it’s with an army.” The child’s voice trembled with emotion though he tried hard not to cry.

“I swear...I will remember you and do what I can to help you. May the gods protect you, little Captain.” Spitama spurred Tempest lightly with his heels and rode out into the barracks yard.

Iskander bit his lip to keep himself from bursting into tears. “Send me word, if you can. May you live long...”

Outside, dawn was breaking touching the snow peaks of Mount Olympus with a pink glow. Iskander stood by the stable door and watched as Spitama rode Tempest toward the citadel gate. He heard the sentry cry out and worried that the guards would not allow him to pass. At the gate, Spitama wheeled Tempest around and looked back, lifting his hand in a salute. The sentries opened the gate. Spitama dug his heels into Tempest’s flank and galloped away.

A flood of tears coursed down the child’s cheeks. He stood awhile trying to compose himself, then crossed the barracks yard, stopping at the fountain to splash water on his face so his mother wouldn’t see he had been crying.



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Sunday, December 21, 2008

A SALUTE TO THE WINTER SOLSTICE

HAPPY SOLSTICE DAY!

DECEMBER 21, the winter solstice. It's been snowing all day here on the Coast. There must be at least a new foot of the white stuff. I've been hunkered down all day in my apartment with the fireplace blazing and the Christmas lights aglow, listening to Christmas and Hanukah music while I did my housework and later, my writing.

I had an idea that as a salute to the solstice, I should revisit Olwen's story, DRAGONS IN THE SKY: A Celtic Tale, which I began long ago, then shelved in favor of writing Alexander's story. When I started work on SHADOW OF THE LION, I had no idea it was going to take literally years to write. But now I am almost at the end, and recently I was looking in my archives box, and there was the unfinished manuscript of DRAGONS. I am now anxious to get back to work on it, because it is a unique and important tale, one that I have written by channeling the 'voice' of a young girl, Olwen. The story is written in first person and the reason I set it aside was because my writing instructor at the time kept insisting I should be writing it third person. So I tried, and messed it up. And later realized that no, this is Olwen's story, and it has to be told in her voice, in her own words, first person.


Now, in honor of the winter solstice, which was an important time of year for the Celts, I will post some of the first Chapter of DRAGONS. And in doing so, something exciting happened. When I was researching this story, back in the late '70's and during the '80's when I lived in Greece, I didn't have access to a computer. I did go on some field trips to sites in England and researched at libraries, read a lot of books, made lots of notes too. But tonight when I went to find photos to accompany my posting, I was delighted to find so much information, including pictures, so I know when I revisit Olwen's story it will be much easier to access details.

One exciting thing that happened when I was first researching, I visited Stonehenge, and later while I was waiting at the bus stop in Salisbury I noted a brochure that said there was an Iron Age hillfort a few kilometers out of town. Something urged me to go there. And when I did, I had the most fantastic deja-vu experience. I KNEW this was where Olwen's story took place. On another trip to England I went back there and again, I could visualize it exactly as it was back when she lived there (the site has been occupied since the Bronze Age and my story takes place in the 4thC BC

In the story, I mention (because she told me) that her father had come from a holy place in Wales known as Senghenydd. Later on I had my Welsh father read the text to see if I was achieving the lilt of Olwen's voice. He told me that his grandfather had been killed in a mining explosiON in the town of Senghenydd. (In my research it stated that town had been a sacred place during the time of the ancient Celts.)



This is the hillfort of Old Sarum, where Olwen's story takes place.

The following excerpt is from my work-in-progress DRAGONS IN THE SKY, written in "Stanzas" and Bardic verse. This is "Stanza Two", a first person narrative in the voice of Olwen, a 13 year old acolyte of the Raven cult.

The God speaks and says:
Blood red is the snow,
as blood red as the ragged
leaves of the elder trees.

In Ruis, the Elder month, we made sacrifices to the Sun God at the winter solstice. The Druid slaughtered a white roebuck and divined the omens in the blood-splattered snow. But the gods were not appeased, and Boreas, the North Wind, blew down freezing blizzards across the Plain, burying our village in drifts that reached higher than the edges of the roof thatch.

We huddled in our huts around peat fires, wrapped in furs like hibernating animals, until finally some of us tunneled out through the drifts to snare winter hares and track white stag in the forest. Supplies of smoked meat and fish dwindled with each passing storm, and rafters that had been heavy with drying fruit and roots, were bare. While we counted out the last of the bundles of food and herbs, we muttered oaths ot the gods. It seemed that year we were not in their favour.

My guardian, Essylt, was a medicine woman and high priestess of our cult. She was small and bright-eyed, lively as a sparrow; but that winter seemed to tire her, and she began to look grey and care-worn. As the wind howled outside our wattled hut she brooded and I saw her watching the flames of the heart fire, staring silently as though her thoughts had drifted off to other worlds. She kept me busy taking votive offerings to the woodland shrine. The snow as too deep on the trail for her to struggle through, but I made a child's game of it, and kept the pathway trampled clear, carrying offerings of things like dried berries, cups of grain and sometimes a sprig of mistletoe.

The winter's cold took its toll. Almost every day Essylt went out to administer medicines, or to say some words of enchantment against the Raven of Death. We could not wait for the Spring thaw to lay our dead in their barrows, so the bodies were burned on pyres outside the palisade. Most of the victims of the raw weather were the old ones, but once a little child wandered out into a storm and froze, buried in a snowbank. I saw them carrying him home, like a stiff little pup, wrapped in a wolfskin. It grieved me for days, and in spite of the wind and the drifts that reached above my knees, I struggled to the woodland shrine, bringing the last sprigs of vervain to make a supplication to the Mother Goddess.

It was my thirteenth year with the Druids. I had learned all the incantations of magic before I was ten years old. Essylt, being a sorceress and diviner of the auguries, was both my guardian and my teacher. I called her modryh, my Auintie, because she had nursed me in infancy as though she were my natural mother. The Druid said my real mother died in childbirth. I would have been exposed for the wolves if someone had not brought me to the Great Stone Circle on the Plain.

Listen to my song:
I am an honored child.
I am Olwen,
daughter of the Earth Mother,
Child of the Raven.




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Thursday, December 18, 2008

THE BEST LAID PLANS...

THE PET SITTER

Well, I think I over-shot my mark a bit when I declared that I'd have my novel finished by the end of December. One thing after another has come up to create diversions so there were several days I was unable to write at all and therefore fell far behind my goal and schedule. First, I was doggie-sitting for my friend's cute little toy Pom, Niki, who'd had a leg operation so was a bit of an invalid and took a great deal more care than usual. Cheeky bird tried to help by keeping doggie company (not that doggie was amused!) Meanwhile I also had to sort out files as I got a new filing cabinet, empty boxes of papers and stuff from my storage closet just in case Santa brings the new shelves I asked him for, and had a couple of appointments and pre-Christmas events to attend.

MY WRITER'S GROUP, 'THE SCRIBBLERS'

One event was a Christmas party for my Brock House people and then there was the annual Christmas party for Scribblers that includes writing an anonymous story which we all guess who the author was. We also exchange gifts anonymously too. Always a lot of fun and great food for the pot-luck!

This week there were two more pre-Christmas events. My grad class ladies were invited to a very elegant lunch at the home of one of our group and that same evening I attended a Greek dinner with another group of writer women who only meet at Christmastime.


BLOEDEL CONSERVATORY POINSETTIA DISPLAY

Somewhere in between, I made a little field trip to the Bloedel Conservatory Tropical Gardens one afternoon because it was free. Enjoyed an hour or so walking around under the humid dome, looking at the floral displays, tropical plants and beautiful tropical birds that fly about in there including some amazing parrots who greet you and call out to one another. I was doing a little piece for the Planet Eye website to go along with some other Christmas events I have been posting there as Vancouver Expert. This doesn't take up too much of my writing time and it pays well. Except now we have been told that due to the financial crunch from January we are being cut back and will have to make it up according to how many hits our stories gets. So please, folks, try and read my articles once in awhile as it will help the Poor Writer's Survival Fund.( www.planeteye.com )

At the same time, fortunately, I was offered two new 'jobs' with the school board instructing children's writing programs on Saturday mornings. This is a real bonus and I'm pretty excited about it. They are children from 7 - 12 and I've done a bit of work with these age groups before when I was in the Off the Page program for the Federation of B.C. Writers. So it will really expand my writer's resume. And the fact that I was told I 'came highly recommended' is truly a nice pat on the back. We all need our writer's egos boosted now and then.

Well, as for the novel, now that my place is decorated, most of the Christmas shopping done and pre-Christmas parties over, I am back at work on Shadow of the Lion. I realize I may not reach my goal to finish it to THE END by December 31, but I will at least finish Part VI and get a start on the last part some of which is already written. The bottle of champagne is still chilling in the fridge and the wrap party is all planned.

I'm also very anxious to finish because when I was sorting out boxes I found the unfinished manuscript of my Celtic tale and I'm dying to return to it. As well, I think the time has come to write up the Life Below the Acropolis memoirs. That day when I went through my boxes, I found the old manuscript of a mystery novel I had been paid to write from a badly written but intriguing 80 page plot outline, way back in 1984 when I lived in Greece. The guy took the copy I had given him to check over, (first draft) and wouldn't return it. I told him it was only first draft and needed lots of work. He went and sent it to a publisher, and it was rejected of course. Little did he realize I had the carbon copy of it. So the other day I was researching Christmas in Greece and found an article by this guy (he writes like he is writing off brochures). I decided to google him, and guess what came up? The title of the book that I had written for him which he has published in 2000. I am not sure if he has plagiarized any of my original work, but I have ordered the book from Amazon and intend to go through it and see. Likely he's changed it a bit, maybe even got someone else to write it for him. So that was a surprising and rather bizarre discovery adding to the excitement of the holiday season.

Oh yes, more writer's news. I recently had coffee with an actor friend of mine who asked about my Sappho play and requested the script to read over. He's the second actor friend who made this request (I haven't heard back from the first one yet). Anyway, House of the Muses is out there being critiqued. I know I have to do some major rewrites on it, but I still think it's a brilliant idea. So I will wait with bated breath to hear what the actors have to say.

Looks like my work is cut out for me in 2009. Another reason to finish off the novel as quickly as I can so I can get on with the new projects.

I hope you're all enjoying the holiday season. We are snowed in here at the moment, but that's okay. I'm dreamin' of a white Christmas!

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

PROGRESS REPORT # 46: PUTTING A FACE ON THE VICTIM


THE RAGE OF ACHILLES

The first two lines of the Iliad read:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί' Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε' ἔθηκεν,
Sing Goddess of the rage, of Peleus' son Achilles
the accursed rage that brought pain to thousands of the Achaeans.

Achilles is the only mortal to experience consuming rage (menis). His anger is at some times wavering, but at other times he cannot be cooled. The humanization of Achilles by the events of the war is an important theme of the narrative. (courtesy Wikipedia)

In writing fiction it's helpful to be able to impose the persona of a real person onto your character (or a composite of real characters) in order to help 'fix' them in your mind so that when you write character descriptions and action details (body language, interaction between characters etc) you have a more realistic perspective. Most of my characters in Shadow of the Lion have been 'tagged' in this way by real people I've seen or met or visualize as my characters (such as certain movie actors who would play their roles should the book be made into a movie)

I've spent lots of time while in Greece, for instance, taking down notes of people I've observed who are similar to my characters. Once I spent a lot of time and visits to the post office in Asprovalta observing a man who was identical to my character of General Perdikkas. And when I saw the tall, handsome Middle-eastern man walk into the Latin Quarter one night, I knew instantly he was my "Nabarzanes" the Persian, a fictional character in the novel. Sure enough, he wasn't Persian but from Iraq (a "Sumerian" he says) but most importantly he was actually from Baghdad which is the modern location near ancient Babylon. So, "the Babylonian" and I because good friends and my character came alive.

Lately I've been writing some violent scenes and having to dispose of some of the characters who I've grown very attached too. Whether they were particularly lovable or not doesn't matter when you have been following them around for years and writing their lives. So when the moment comes when you have to kill them off, it's a really tough call. But I found a solution of sorts. Put someone's face on them who you have had a bad experience with, then start chucking the stones or flashing the knife. You'll be able to do it with relish, trust me!

A couple of examples here: This past week there's been a serious run-in with a person who has sent extremely rude, insulting messages to me and my friends. This person has been acting the bitch for quite some time now and though we've tried mostly to ignore it, this last barrage of sheer vitriol and poison was more than we could take. Without responding in kind and lowering myself to this obviously bitter, nasty person's level, when it came to the latest "execution" that I'd been avoiding for awhile, I found it much easier to do the deed when I transposed that harpy's face onto that of my character (who, by the way, though she was also an imperious bitch had a great deal more class and grandeur and was in fact quite likeable. A tough cookie!).

I previously used the same tactics when I had to violently kill of a rather likable Athenian senator. At the time I was writing about him I met a Greek man who resembled the character exactly as I'd described him and in fact was also from Athens. I dated this guy a few times and thought he was nice, and then he showed his true colors -- a real jerk, what we'd call in Greece a "kamaki" who ended up treating me disrespectfully and rudely. How to get my revenge? Pretend it was him in the senator's place when I had to commit the murder. It worked. And I might add, it's a good way to get rid of your anger without hurting anyone or causing a scene. In both cases I was able to walk away knowing that these hurtful, mean characters no longer exist in my space and at the same put my characters to rest. I don't know if anyone else has tried this tactic. But it works!




THE TRIUMPH OF ACHILLES