Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 4 – Life and Death

I recently attended a workshop with The Silent Eye about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part three of my account, parts one, two and three can be found here…

(Apologies for the slight delay between posts – I had a project that needed finishing and another that needed starting, so have been focusing on those for the past few days. However, let’s now head back to Derbyshire and the next stop on my journey…)

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear, another glorious day. I got up early, despite being tired from the previous afternoon’s events, as I’d arranged to meet Sue and Stu at 9am and wanted to take a quick look around Tideswell before doing so. Breakfast was downstairs in the small dining room, where I was watched over by a most curious onlooker. Hmmm.

Once I’d eaten, I headed out into the morning, taking the main street past the ancient (yet still venerated) spring, welling clear from a stone set there for the purpose. It was nice to see it marked in such a way when so many of the old springs and rivers have been lost or built over, all in the name of development. I continued past curving walls of grey stone, ending up outside the Church of St John the Baptist, which is known as the ‘cathedral of the Peak.’

It’s certainly a beautiful building – built between 1320 and 1400, it was thought to have replaced a smaller Norman church, and is a wonderful example of gothic architecture, with long windows and pointed arches, carved angels gesturing skywards. I stood and took it in for a moment, then recognised a couple of familiar figures emerging from a car nearby – Sue and Stu had apparently had the same idea I’d had, and so the three of us took the tree-lined avenue leading into the church.

I always enjoy looking around old churches (even the one in Eyam was interesting, despite the weight on my chest). I think about the layers of years in such places, the ceremonies of birth and life and death that have gone on beneath the vaulted ceilings, continuing a thread of human’s celebrating significant events that stretches long into our dim past.

The Church of St John the Baptist was a peaceful place, sun sparking through the stained-glass windows to scatter colour across the ancient stone floors, gilding the old carvings, and we spent a little while wandering around, taking it all in.

Both Sue and Stu were familiar with the building, and so were able to point out some of the more interesting details, such as a small dragon curled up above on one of the ceiling beams.

The richly carved pews, which put me in mind of some of the work at the Natural History Museum, featured green men and salamanders, flying foxes and even another small dragon, not the usual religious symbols you’d expect in such a place.

And, in front of the altar, a knight slept in effigy inside his tomb, pierced marble giving the viewer a peep into his eternal rest.

Then it was time to meet the others and head up towards the moors. We were going to a much older place of worship, one where an ancient tradition was still practiced today.

The Eagle Stone awaited…


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

Woken By Words #amediting

I was woken this morning by words. Not by my neighbour, although the sound of her workmen banging and drilling at 8am was enough to send sleep away. I was up well before then, the story I’m working on poking and prodding at my brain. ‘Come on!’ it said. ‘Let’s go! We need to sort out this first chapter structure and I think I know how to do it.’

I tried to ignore it, rolling over with the covers around my ears, eyes closed tight. But it was insistent, worming its way into my dozing dreams, flickers of silver and black. ‘Wake up! It’ll be fun.’

Sure. Fun.

I’m not a huge fan of editing. I know it’s necessary, I know it needs to be done over and over eleventy bajillion times before I can send a book baby out into the world, but I much prefer the fire and flow of writing. That feeling when the story just comes out, so many words gushing forth it’s hard to get them on the page. I love that. But, as is accepted lore among writers, the first draft is usually crap. Upon re-reading, a host of errors will make themselves apparent and then it’s time to get out the red pen, usually with a sigh.

And that’s where I am now. I actually quite like this first draft. There’s a lot of good in it, and the story holds up well. However, there are scenes in the wrong order and a few repetitive events that need to be either combined or excised altogether, so my brain has been working overtime to reassemble the scattered pieces into something that still holds the spontaneity of the first draft, but won’t make the reader go ‘huh?’ when they get to see the finished product.

Have I sorted it? Hmmm. Not sure. What seemed so clear at 6:30am isn’t quite so obvious now, although I have made progress. Still, it’s a good sign. It seems this story is quite keen to get out into the world and so is pushing me. I’ll go with it, for now.

How about you? Do your stories yell at you to finish them? Gently prod you awake in the middle of the night to write plot points? The life of a writer is strange indeed…


Oak and Mist, the first book in my Ambeth series, is on sale now until the end of January! Get your copy here.

 

 

 

Wednesday Wander – Plas Newydd, Llangollen

This week I’m wandering to a rather wonderful place tucked away on the hillside above Llangollen. This is Plas Newydd, once home to the famous ‘Ladies of Llangollen.’

The two ladies in question were Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler, who came from Ireland in 1778 to live in Llangollen, North Wales. Their story is a fascinating one. Both born to noble families, they met at school in 1768 when Sarah was 13 and Eleanor 29. Sarah was an orphan and ward of Sir William and Lady Fownes, while Eleanor came from the Ormonde family and lived at Kilkenny Castle. Lady Fownes was friends with Eleanor’s mother, and Eleanor was asked to keep an eye on Sarah while she was at school. The two became close friends, corresponding for several years until, both unhappy in their home lives, they decided to run away together. Eleanor was under pressure to enter a convent, while Sarah was enduring the unwelcome attentions of Sir William, who had decided she would make a perfect second wife (even though his first wife was still alive!).

The two women first attempted to escape in March 1778. Dressed in men’s clothing and armed with a pistol, they made it as far as Waterford before being apprehended and brought back to their families. Despite further pressure, Eleanor managed to escape again, running to Sarah. Faced with such devotion, their families finally relented and they were allowed to leave Ireland in May 1778 to start a new life together.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Manfred Heyde (own work)

They moved into Pen Y Maes cottage, as it was known then, in 1780, renaming it Plas Newydd (welsh for New Hall). They extended and renovated the cottage, including the addition of stained glass windows and extraordinary wood carvings on the interior and exterior of the building, many of which were salvaged from old churches and furniture. You aren’t allowed to take photographs of the interior, but I did manage to find this image of one of the staircases, just to give you an idea of what it looks like inside. The details around the exterior doors are also extraordinary, and it must have been a magical place to live. The Ladies lived there for almost fifty years, in what they called ‘a life of sweet and delicious retirement’, until Eleanor passed away in 1829, Sarah dying just two years later.

During their lifetime the ladies were figures of curiosity, well-regarded and attracting many famous visitors, including Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington, William Wordsworth (who composed a poem while staying with them) and Madame de Genlis. Their relationship was seen to embody romantic friendship, a high ideal much sought after at the time. The true nature of their relationship is still unclear – they shared a bedroom, sleeping together in the same bed, and referred to each other as ‘Beloved’. They also dressed in men’s clothing and powdered their hair, as can be seen in the few portraits that survive.

Whether The Ladies’ relationship was simply one of platonic love, or something more, doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that they were both strong enough to live their lives outside the conventions of the time – yes, they both came from privilege, but this was still a time when women were reduced to ‘wife of’ once they were married, no longer allowed to hold either property or their names. I love the story of the Ladies because it’s a story of love, of friendship, and the desire to live life as they pleased. The house in its in green gardens, ruined castle on the hill beyond, stands as a beautiful memorial to life, to the Ladies, and to love.

Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next time!


If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

What Are You Grateful For?

img_0938It’s Thanksgiving in the US this weekend, a time of year when, traditionally, families gather, vast amounts of food are consumed, and thanks given. Even though we don’t celebrate the festival here, I like the idea of expressing gratitude. Of just taking a moment to think about the things I’m thankful for. About a year and a half ago I was challenged by another blogger to take something called The Gratitude Challenge  -I recently re-visited the post and felt it still rang true.

As it seemed quite timely, I thought I might share it again:

I was tagged in a post by the lovely Dee the other day, challenging me to write about something for which I’m grateful.

I’m actually finding this quite difficult. I’m grateful for most things in my life, to be honest. Therefore, choosing one thing to focus on is tough🙂

And I suppose I should be grateful for that, too – that I have such an abundance in my life. Oh, I don’t mean financial or material abundance – though we’re more fortunate than many on this planet in that we have enough to eat and a roof over our heads. I try and see everything that happens to me as an opportunity to learn – when I had a job I hated, I still tried to learn as much as I could about the role, adding to my experience. I also learned which industries I didn’t want to work in, ever again. When a good friend turned her back on our friendship, I learned how wonderful my other friends were as they rallied around me for support. When I lost family members I tried to remember the joy we shared, rather than focusing on the times we would never have again – there was regret, of course there was, at years and opportunities wasted, but it taught me to value the moment and to make the most of it, to make the effort to keep up with family and friends, as you never know how long you might have with them.

Coming to a place in my life where I choose to be thankful for the things I do have, rather than regretting the things I don’t, has taken work. I’m far from perfect and still have my moments where I feel I let myself down. But if we choose to make a conscious process towards appreciating life, rather than shaking our fist at it, then that’s part of the battle won. I’ve had dear friends come into my life who have taught me to appreciate all that I have. These people came to me when I most needed them, even though I didn’t realise it at the time. If all I’d been focusing on was myself and my own sorrow, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed their arrival.

So I suppose I’m grateful to be alive. I’m grateful for my family and the love that surrounds me. I’m grateful for my friends, for the fact I get to express my creativity every day, for the fact that I can connect with people all around the world with the click of a mouse. I’m grateful I still have the capacity to learn and enjoy new experiences, wherever they may take me. And I’m grateful that I can appreciate it all.

So what are you grateful for?


If you enjoyed this post, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJ,  Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon.

A Wild Ride

IMG_0950I tried this whole planning thing. Honestly, I really did. I spent ages making little chart-y things and tables, planning my blog posts and work weeks and monthly goals. I tried writing out chapter lists and character arcs and tying them all together into some sort of marvellous grid that would become a whole big story.

But planning doesn’t work for me.

I’ve always been a kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants girl. The kind of person who’d rather say ‘I tried’ than ‘I wish I’d tried’, then jumps in and gives it a go. Sometimes this ends in failure. Sometimes it ends in triumph. Sometimes it leads to somewhere quite unexpected.

When I worked for other people I was very organised. The fast pace of advertising meant I had to be, starting the day with a list of things which, despite the amount of time I spent crossing them off, seemed longer by the time I went home. I’ve always worked hard, trying to learn something and take away a positive, no matter how negative the work experience (and some have been quite negative). I don’t like being late for things, I run my household pretty tightly, and I’m quite good at prioritising.

But planning isn’t really my thing.

img_0384I think about the future, of course I do. I have a child and a mortgage and an idea of where I’d like to end up. But I’ve learned that life can pick you up and shake you around like dice in a jar, tipping you out to land as fortune takes you. And so, while I squirrel away my hopes like nuts in case of winter, I’m aware that winter might come in quite a different form than I imagined, and so the only thing I can really be prepared for is change.

See? I can’t even plan this post. I had meant to write about the festoons of post-it notes that have replaced my carefully typed lists, the piles of paperwork and scraps of scribbled notes, all of which have a twisted sort of order in my own mind but nowhere else, a system only my brain can understand. I wanted to write about the fact that, when I tell a story, I can forget about planning any part of it other than the main events, as the characters will pull me along in their wake, typing as fast as I can to keep up with their actions. And that I love, absolutely love, the wild ride of it, the feeling of discovery as the story unfolds around me like the petals of a flower.

IMG_0806But instead my mind and tapping fingers have taken me outside the cluttered confines of my desk, pointing out that planning really isn’t something that’s worked out for me, in many aspects of my life. And that I can waste time formatting documents and printing up checklists all I want, but when the jar begins to shake again I’d better be ready for where I’m going to land. That life itself is wild and organic and that I am a dancing leaf on the wind – I can fight it, try and organise it into charts and boxes, or I can simply go along with it to wherever it takes me, bringing all that I have, all that I am, along for the ride.


Note: I wrote this post yesterday when I was still feeling a little shaken for several reasons. I’m not quite so fey as it sounds – I do work hard and focus on what I want to achieve. But setting concrete plans, beyond a couple of big things, is something that has never really worked for me – as soon as I do so the universe has a way of demonstrating that it has other plans for me…

Take The Scenic Route

IMG_2301There are a lot of articles around these days about “Life Hacks’. Ways to do things quickly, so you can move on to the next thing and not waste any precious time. Some of them are actually pretty cool and useful, but at the same time I feel that, as the pace of life grows ever faster, we are losing our capacity to wait for things, to work for things, to enjoy the reward that comes after time spent moving towards something. You see it in queues, in shops and restaurants, people getting frustrated when they can’t have what they want straight away, instant gratification, constant moving between this screen and that screen, updating emails, Instagram, Facebook. Hack, hackity, hack.

I’ve studied martial arts for many years and one of the basic tenets is that ‘The journey is the reward.’ That the years you spend training, improving your technique, working with other students, mastering breathing and focus and control and becoming the best person you can be, is the real reward. At the end of it, sure, you get a belt. A signifier of the journey taken, a signpost in the road. But black belt is only the beginning. There are levels above it requiring even more study and dedication. You can’t hack this stuff. And I believe that to be true of creative endeavours as well. Of course there are always going to be prodigies, people in whom talent shines so bright it is oozing from their pores at an early age, their lives dedicated to that one thing that fills them. But for most of us creativity grows and changes as we do – the things we write or create or dream a product of our experiences, of the journey we’ve been on. And writing a book is a journey in itself. Resting your manuscript is essential, it really is. For a minimum of six weeks. You can’t ‘hack’ this, there’s no way around it, you need to leave it alone.

I sometimes think about ‘what might have been.’ I think most of us do. About what would have happened if I’d chosen a different path. Sacha Black wrote a post the other day asking us why we write, and I responded by saying I wrote stories where characters explore choice and consequences, how one act or decision can change everything. This was actually a bit of an eye-opener to me. While I knew this already on a sub-conscious level, it was interesting to acknowledge it and put it into words. I suppose when they say, ‘write what you know,’ perhaps they mean ‘write what you want to explore.’

So, when I chose not to do the Creative Writing degree I was offered at eighteen, I set myself on a different path. But I don’t think I’d be the writer I am today if I hadn’t had the life I’ve had. That all the years in jobs I really didn’t love, the time spent travelling, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve experienced, have brought me to this point. I know that I’m fortunate to have had a lot of choice in life, and so I choose not to hack any of it. It’s far too much of a gift to fritter away.

I’ll end with a Douglas Adams quote I particularly enjoy: ‘I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.’

This is an updated version of a post first published in 2014, when my blog dwelt alone in a barren wasteland, and no-one ever came to visit. I’ve re-worked the first two paragraphs, but the rest is new.

 

Take The First Step

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It’s Monday. The start of another week. Thanks for stating the obvious, you might be thinking. But as I wandered along on my morning walk back from school, I pondered the idea of beginnings. Starting something – taking the first step, as it were – is often the most difficult part of any journey. Think about it. Walking into a new job or school. Starting a new sport. Beginning a diet. Making change in your life. Whatever the first step may be, it involves conscious choice and a will to proceed. It also can require courage, especially if you’re doing something you’ve never tried before.

I have a friend who is thinking of writing a book and she recently emailed me, saying she didn’t know where to start. This can be the hardest part about writing, I think. Starting. Sitting down and typing that first sentence, the pathway that leads you into the story. There are so many wonderful examples – Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again‘ and Jane Austen’ It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife‘ are two that come to mind straight away. And there are so many awful ones as well – there are even competitions to see who can come up with the absolute worst opening to a novel. The Edward Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is one to look at if you’re interested, named for the man who came up with the immortal ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’

I’d already been writing for many years when I decided to sit down and start the first draft of Oak and Mist. I remember clearly that it took me a while to get my head around the idea of writing a book. An actual book. I didn’t know whether I could do it, whether it would be any good, or whether I even had a complete story to tell. All I had was a starting point, three characters, and an idea of how they might work together.

My first draft ended up being a monster of over 160,000 words. I managed through successive edits to whittle it down to below 140,000, which I then split into two halves, Oak and Mist and No Quarter. But the cool thing, the thing that really kept me going, is that the story itself didn’t change, nor did the characters – it was the language and structure that needed work. I rewrote and changed the first three chapters so many times I lost count, before finally condensing them into a few short pages. But the beginning incident, the idea that started the whole journey, never changed.

So the important thing with any sort of journey is to start. As you can see, it took time for me to actually sit down and choose to write a book. Then it took even more time to get the beginning of the book the way I wanted it to read. But it didn’t stop me from writing, from continuing on with the story until it was told. For you can always go back. Until the work is published, there is always room to make changes. So don’t let fear hold you back. The story is there, waiting to be told. The journey, there to be taken. All you need to do is take the first step.

(This is an edited and amended version of a post first published in July 2014, when hardly anyone came to visit my blog. Thank you for coming to visit today)

PS I’ve been nominated in the Bloggers Bash Blogging Awards as Best Pal – yay! If you’d like to vote for me, (or even if you wouldn’t), head on over to Sacha’s blog and make your vote count!