Strikes me that I should give a bit of an update on my own doings, as well as those of my characters! Yes, most authors do this at the beginning of the year, but where’s the originality in that? 😀
I won’t kid you – the loss of Samhain Publishing was a huge blow. All things considered, my Samhain backlist – five books now; Driftwood, The Salisbury Key, Scrap Metal, Brothers of the Wild North Sea and Cold Fusion – provides about a third of our monthly income. Samhain is handling the wind-down with professionalism and grace, and all those books will continue to be available and marketed for the next few months at least. But after that, I’ll have quite a gap to fill, and my first emergency measure is the rather hair-raising decision to write two books at the same time. Not quite doubling my daily word count, but certainly adding 500-750 per day to my usual 1K. Doesn’t sound like much if you say it fast, but so far the 1K has been my ceiling, and the new regime is a challenge to say the least.
It helps that my two works-in-progress are wildly divergent, so I get a break in terms of tone, pace and setting at least. The first lacks a title, so for now we’ll call it Nameless Beast, and is set post-World War 2. Rufus Denby, a doctor of archaeology who went to war for reasons of conscience, has returned shell-shocked and amnesiac. Fate (and a flea-bitten mongrel dog he’s rescued from a bombsite) leads him down to the village of Droyton Parva in rural Sussex, where he meets the Reverend Archibald Thorne, a most unconventional vicar, who tends to the needs of his parish from the back of a Norton motorcycle. Sounds interesting? I hope so – there’s an excerpt at the end of this post if you’d like a taste of Rufus and Archie’s adventures.
Now, with a full-length novel like this one, normally I’d take it to a publishing house and try to sell it on proposal, ie three-chapter partial and synopsis. My problem – and it’s not normally a problem I’d permit myself to have – is the damn synopsis. If you’re going to sell on proposal, you absolutely have to have one, and in the past I’ve found it beneficial, agony though the wretched things are to write. You’ve got your scaffold for the book, your publisher knows what they’re buying, and there is no finer motivation for keeping to schedule than a legally binding deadline. I have never before found myself unable to do it.
I don’t know what’s going on with Nameless Beast. That is, I do – I have an overarching plot, and the dynamics and character development/interaction make good sense to me. For some reason, despite multiple attempts, I cannot hammer down my ideas into the cut-and-dried (yet hopefully elegant) format of a synopsis. I’ve stopped and tried again at the end of every chapter, and failed, and we’re now past Chapter Ten, and I’ve surrendered. For the first time ever, I’m finding that all the really crucial developments – the stuff that belongs in the synopsis – aren’t growing until I’ve given them the soil of a preceding chapter in which to gestate. For the first time I’m faced with the choice between writing the synopsis and actually writing the damn book – for once, I can’t do both.
So, as a choice, it’s a no-brainer. But I have to say it’s bad timing. Publishers have long lead times these days, and it’s good to know that you’ve “booked your place”, as it were, in their schedule. To be able to plan, career-wise and financially, that far. This time it really looks as though I’ll have to wait until I have a completed book before I can take it to market. It’s a pain. Still, the up-side is that I’m loving the process of writing Nameless Beast. For the first time in many years, I’m organic, not conforming to pre-laid plot, letting the sinewy ivy shoots grab for the light and clamber away.
I have to be careful, though. The time I’d hoped to buy myself with Cold Fusion is now dramatically reduced. (In the past, it’s been my happy experience that my Samhain books do well for me for years, and whilst I’m not sitting on the chaise-longue eating bonbons here, the bills have been getting paid.) I don’t know if/when I’ll be able to sell Nameless Beast, although I aim to be done with the writing by June at the latest, and if I can’t find the right publisher to take it, I’ll put it out through FoxTales (which will at least be quick).
Hence Plan B, the Secondary Project, the backup book! Nameless Beast has much humour, but in essence it’s pretty serious, the struggle of two decent men to assimilate the horrors of a global conflict. So I thought that I’d go lighter and shorter for Plan B, and indulge not only my endless love of the Cornish coast but my fascination with the mermaid legends that haunt them. Only, you know, this is M/M Me, so the maids are naturally men. Well, one of ’em is, and don’t expect too wild or romantic a merman in my sea-dwelling protag – I’m not sure I’ve ever written a more earthy character. I’m enjoying him very much, and his new land-bound best friend, Priddy. This book does have a title – Priddy’s Tale – and every time I write it, I have to check I haven’t spelled it Priddy’s Tail instead. I’ll be blogging with an excerpt from this one soon.
I’m finding the hybrid-trad author model is working well for me. If I can sell a book to a publisher, not only does that publisher have a far wider market reach than anything FoxTales can hope to attain, but I build up the audience for my next self-pubbed project. (As a side benefit, I make myself a little more bomb-proof, too, and – although it’s not something I want to make a habit of – the loss of a publishing house isn’t as devastating as it would be otherwise.) So Priddy’s Tale will coming to you via FoxTales, and sooner rather than later – I hope I’m not being too optimistic if I casually mention May. (*panics and climbs tree to join cat, swaying in the wind and eating all my finger and toenails in stress*…)
It’ll ALL be fine. 😀
Now, allow me to introduce you to Rufus Denby and the (sometimes not very) Reverend Archibald Thorne! Archie has been struggling to look after an eccentric parishioner, who has taken to dashing about the countryside naked on full-moon nights…
Rufus pushed the sash up as soundlessly as he could. Archie froze. “Rufus!” he whispered hoarsely. “You’re awake.”
“Can I help you, Reverend?”
“Please. There’s nobody else I can trust.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“It’s a little hard to explain from here.”
Rufus drew the window back down. He pushed his feet into his boots and laced them tight, not wanting to take the time but aware of how badly falling down Mrs Trigg’s stairs would complicate matters just now. He let himself out into the corridor. Every floorboard and stair tried to creak as he made his way to the front door. His landlady wasn’t one to encourage nocturnal adventures: it was barricaded on the inside with a mortice lock, two bolts and a chain. Remembering dank air blowing through the house from the scullery where he’d been sent to feed his dog, he padded through the shadows and into the kitchen. Yes, there was a back door, less ferociously guarded. Heavier than he’d expected, too – as soon as he’d pulled back the Yale and stepped outside, it swung closed as if glad to be rid of him, clicking smugly shut.
There went his chances of a discreet return. It didn’t matter. Nothing did, by comparison with Archie’s summons. There’s nobody else I can trust… He set off down the lane at the side of the inn, and almost ran into Archie, emerging from the yard. “Here I am.”
Archie steadied him. “That was fast!”
“I was already dressed.”
“That’s more than can be said for poor Drusilla Hazelgrove. She’s on the run again. If I tell Winborn, he really will have her hauled off to the funny farm this time.”
“Where is she now?”
“On the crags on the far side of the river. I tried to catch up with her on the bike, but she went tearing off through the fields. She got across the river at the ford, and I could just see her in the distance, starting to climb.”
“Come on, then. Did I hear your bike a few minutes ago?”
“Yes. I left it at the top of the lane so as not to wake up the whole village. This way.”
He set off at a run. Rufus darted after him, across the moonlit main street with its darkened shop windows and tightly curtained house-fronts, round the corner and into the leafy hush of Pilgrim Lane. By the time they reached the Norton, propped on its kickstand under an oak, Archie was winded, breath rasping and catching in his lungs. He seemed too lean and fit a man to get breathless after such a short run. Rufus didn’t get another moment to worry about it. Archie grabbed the bike, jumped astride and brought her roaring into the middle of the lane. He patted the pillion seat behind him. “Come on!”
This time Rufus didn’t hesitate to wrap his arms round him and hang on. The acceleration would have knocked him straight off the back otherwise. Thorne was a fearless and skilful rider when he had a mission to fulfil. The blacksmith’s house whipped by, then the orchard and the rectory gardens. Rufus dipped his head, allowed himself to rest his brow on one satin-clad shoulder. Archie must have thrown on his shirt and waistcoat from the evening before. Beneath it he was bony and warm, his shoulder blade like the root of a wing against Rufus’s cheek. He half-expected the Norton to take flight as Archie gunned her down the lane. In moonlit flashes, he saw the dried mud of the track narrow down between green verges, the stripe of turf in the centre spreading out to meet them. They passed the turn-off for the church. Trees sprang up around them as the lane began to peter out. Archie revved the bike as hard as he could over a thickening tangle of undergrowth and rocks, then jerked her to a stop before her front wheel could sink into mud. “This is as far as I can get her. We’ll have to go on by foot.”
“All right. Where’s the ford?”
“Half a mile through the woods here. Then we’ll have to double back along the far bank, and… Oh, no.”
His gaze had fixed on a distant point through the trees. Reluctantly letting go of him, Rufus dismounted. He shielded his eyes against the disorienting ripple of moonlight through the oak leaves overhead and focussed on the cliffs that rose beyond the river, where a female figure had just broached the skyline. All he could make out was pale skin and a cloud of dark hair. “Is that her?”
“God, I hope so. I can’t cope with more than one.”
“Are those rocks safe? They look hollowed out underneath, where the river’s eroding them.”
“They are. We don’t have time to go round by the ford.”
Rufus put out a hand and helped him scramble off the bike. “What are we waiting for, then?”
They set off full pelt through the trees. Archie’s long stride bore him ahead of Rufus for the first minute or so, but then his breathing began to hitch and catch again and they drew level. Even so, he was a formidable runner, unhesitatingly choosing the best gap between rocks and through brambles, leaping exposed roots with a steeplechaser’s grace. Rufus had to give it his all to keep up with him. Where had a vicar learned such good cross-country skills? Together they broke through the willows that lined the riverbank and emerged onto the shore, water-tumbled rocks sliding out from under their feet. “Drusilla,” Archie called to the woman poised on the cliffs above them. “It’s just me – Reverend Thorne. You know I’m not going to hurt you.”
She didn’t seem concerned. She was planted solidly, feet hip-width apart, arms raised above her head in two passionate arcs. By an odd trick of perspective, from where Rufus stood she’d caught the moon in her embrace. Her head was tipped back. Over the wash of the river a low rich chanting reached him. He heard something about the beauty of the green earth, the stars, the mystery of the waters, and then the breeze bore her voice away. “What is she doing?”
“I don’t know, but it’s something to do with the full moon. She’s like this for three nights, and then she’s practically catatonic again.” Archie bent over, propped his hands on his knees and coughed painfully. “We’ve got to get her down from there. Drusilla? Step back, for God’s sake, just a little. You’re standing on a hollow ledge.”
“Will I scare her if I swim over?”
“I doubt she’ll notice. You can’t, though – not on your own. The current’s too strong.”
Yes. Rufus could see it, just as he’d learned to read other hazards in the landscape. Memories flashed up at him of the woods outside Fort Vaux, of trying to assess the terrain in front of him for the safety of the men under his command. But he hadn’t made it to the woods, had he? As he’d told the brigadier back in London, a stray chunk of shrapnel had taken him out of action before the real battle had begun. He couldn’t trust any vision that arose from that amnesiac swamp. The river was important, nothing else: the water with its current like an eel or a concealed muscle, curving around beneath the cliffs, slowing to an eddy between an outcrop of rocks. He bent down and tugged his bootlaces undone, stepping out of Archie’s restraining reach. “I have to try.”
“Then I’m trying with you.”
“No. You told me yourself your lungs are bad. Stay here and – ”
The woman’s voice sliced through their tussle. Both looked up. “Priest,” she called again, plaintively this time. Her arms fell to her sides. “Why can’t I draw her down on me? Have you forbidden it?”
“Drusilla – I’ve told you before, I’m just a vicar. And I don’t forbid anything except standing about on crumbling bloody rocks. Please come down.”
For a moment, Rufus thought Archie had persuaded her. The tensions dissolved from her body, leaving it middle-aged, ordinary. Then an attitude of crushing despair overcame her. She closed her eyes, took two blind steps forward and dropped.
She hit the water like a stone and immediately vanished. Archie cried out in shock. He darted to the river’s edge and, before Rufus could draw a breath to stop him, leapt in.
Rufus crushed his instinct to follow. That would just put three people at the mercy of the eel-muscle current. He kicked off his boots and ran downstream, stumbling on the rounded stones. The outcrop was further away than he’d thought. By the time he reached the point on the bank where the waters slowed, he was gasping, the soles of his feet bruised and raw. The surface heaved and fragmented and Archie was there, Drusilla clutched in one arm, swimming valiantly with the other. Rufus had perhaps ten seconds to put himself in their way. The riverbank rose up here into a little mud cliff. That would do. He grabbed a breath, charged up the bank as hard as he could to gain momentum, raised his arms and dived.
The water consumed him in one cold bite. Even on this May night, it shocked the air from his lungs, turned his guts and marrow into copper fire. His first few swimming strokes were convulsive, barely voluntary. Silvery reeds and bubbles swept across his field of vision. He found a rhythm – strong thrust of shoulders and arms, legs propelling him on. He met the current with all his strength: used it, once he was out in midstream, to swing round towards the outcrop. He scrabbled for purchase, found a grip on one jagged crest and hung on. “Archie! Over here!”
The river delivered both of them to him, so hard that he almost lost them a heartbeat later. Archie sailed first into his outstretched arm. He shouted in fear and relief and clutched him tight, denying the water its prize. Not this man, no, not this living miracle of flesh and bone. Archie broke into half-drowned laughter and hung on. “Can you… Can you grab Drusilla for a second?”
Rufus got an arm around her waist. She was clay-cold, her face an unconscious blank behind streaming hair. He swung round so that his back was to the rock, the current pinning him into place. That way he didn’t have to relinquish his hold on Archie’s shirt. “What are you doing?”
“Taking my belt off. Hang on a minute, then I’ll want yours too.” He pulled the glimmering strip of leather out of the water. “Let me get this round her wrist. Right, I’ve got her. Can you give me yours?”
The idea was a good one. Rufus saw it, and quickly slipped his belt free of its loops. “Here,” he said, thrusting the buckle end at Archie. “Hang on to that, and pay her out as far as you can on yours. I’ll let you go as far as I can too, and the current ought to carry you both…”
“Yes, over there into the shallows. But I’ll stay here and be the anchor, not you.”
“The truth is, I’m a little done in, old fellow. She’ll need help out of the water.”
“So will you.”
“I know. But you’ll think of something.” Before Rufus could protest again, Archie had fought his way upstream. The force of the river pressed them briefly together against the rock, sending a hot shudder through Rufus in spite of his fear. He tried to keep his grip on the outcrop, but Archie dislodged him, half-lifting him out into the stream. “I’ve got you,” he gasped. “Swim for shore with her, Rufus. Please!”
The current pulled Drusilla under. Rufus dived to save her: hauled her back by the belt wrapped round her wrist, got her into a tow-hold and rolled onto his back, keeping her face clear of the water. His die was cast now. Silently damning the vicar and his heroics, he clung to the anchoring line till he felt the river’s grip slacken around him, then let go the belt and sculled strongly for the bank with his free arm. The stony bed surged up to meet his efforts, painfully nudging his spine. He flipped over, got a precarious foothold and hoisted the woman by her armpits, relieved when she began to fight. “That’s it. Get your feet under you. Just a few steps more.”
He deposited her on the bank. She was shivering violently, and he stripped out of his shirt and wrapped it round her, not sure why he was making the gesture but anxious to shelter her in any way he could. Then he whipped round and scanned the roiling surface for Archie.
The outcrop was empty. Sick fear tightened Rufus’s throat. He ran back to the water’s edge, ploughed in thigh-deep and looked around again. This time he caught a darkness more vivid and solid than the moonless troughs between waves: Archie, surfacing briefly, hair gleaming like an otter’s pelt. He’d almost made it to the place where the current eased but was plainly exhausted, losing his fight.