Friday, November 25, 2011

Butchery and Lost Horses

Reading Tamerlane by Justin Marozzi, a biography of Timur. Later will come an actual review. Here's an excerpt:
Husayn's death, when it came, bordered on the farcical. Doubting Temur's promises of quarter, he first hid inside a minaret until he was discovered by a soldier who had climbed the tower in an effort to find his lost horse.
No, you're not going to find your horse up there. I suppose, if this had been slightly better phrased  I'd instead assume he was going to look out for his horse, but seriously? In the middle of a sack you're going to spot your horse from the tower, climb down and catch it? Here is an important mystery - what was the soldier doing in the tower? Clearly I will have to read on to find out.

Next, our author goes to Uzbekistan to visit Shakhrisabsz, site of Timur's palace and visits the market.
Butchers with huge cleavers chop away at cuts of meat that would be consigned to the rubbish bin in wealthier countries.
Has anyone ever told him what goes into sausages and burgers? Or, for that matter, has he ever been to a kitchen of a proper restaurant where the meat that can't be sold gets used for stock. Anyway, hoping for more mystery horses and butchery wrongness as I progress.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Novel: An Excerpt

 An excerpt from my still untitled novel, currently 33,000 words of slightly disjointed swearing, fighting and storytelling. This is the first draft, so may be changed at no notice and conceivably may be deleted entirely.
A week later we were well inside Dead Tiger Shi’s domain. My lady was taking advantage of the flat terrain to ride in her carriage. Lady Alixa and her brother took advantage of her being in the carriage to talk to one of the lower orders.
“Did he really spend five minutes praising her backside?”
Kell tried out his Stennish. “Hey! Listen up! Hear me talk about these buttocks of goodness, this fine looking rear end, this saddle cushion of loveliness.”
“Stop that.” I said. Alixa looked a little surprised at my tone. “Firstly, you’re telling Dead Tiger Shi’s men you speak Stennish. If they think you are ignorant of it, his court may speak more freely about you.”
They looked at me, impressed by this reasoning. “Secondly, you’re absolutely murdering the opening of their epics. Where did you hear that?”
“Graves and Heart Break Kau were talking three nights ago, and each began in the same way. Later I heard the bard saying the same thing.”
“What epic is that the opening to?” asked Alixa.
“All of them,” I said, “The Stennish are a very traditional people.”
“You’ve disappointed her. She wanted you to tell her a story.” She punched her brother in the shoulder.
I looked at them, then out at the large expanses of pasture and the small fields clustered around the ragged villages. Nothing to see for miles.
“A story. The Stennish are a strange people and their stories have a different shape to the ones we have and expect. So you may find this disappointing.
“Still, it will be good practice, and you may learn something of how they think.”

The Tale of Black Livered Ho and the Iron Men

Listen to me child, for I have something to say.
I will talk of the first steppe lords, the riders of the wind, the ancestors of the free men. Their names ring across the plains, are known along the curve of the world, will be remembered until time dies it’s long death. They were horse tamers, god hunters, man killers, arrow shooters, lance stabbers, net stranglers. It was the earliest age, the time when all was new, the days when men were what they were meant to be.
I will talk of Ho, Black Livered Ho, Strong Back Ho, Wolf Killer Ho. Ho who wrestled giants, hunted dragons, stole the secrets of the iron men. Ho, whose arrows would pass through three men and prick the flesh of a fourth. Ho, whose skin shed blows like water. Ho, whose lance made a hundred widows.
In their wanderings the iron men had come to a ford in the golden river. They settled there and built their tents of mud and wood, planted their grains and their greens. The free men came against them in the night to take their women and their goods and their lives. Their lances broke against the grey metal coats, their arrows bounced from the ferrous helms, and their horses blood slaked the thirst of the iron spears.
In his high summer camp by the holy mountain, Ho heard of this. “What is this?” he queried the taletellers. “Is the courage of the free men gone? Are the steppe lords broken men? The southerners are no true men, mere slave fodder before the nets and clubs of the riders of the wind. How do they now hold the ford on the golden river against all comers?”
“They have sorcery,” said the taletellers. “Their swords cut through our limbs like a spoon through mare’s milk. Blows struck on their harness simply bounce off. They stand as close together as bushes, and our horses cannot find a way through.”
Ho thought on this. The steppe was wide and long. A man could ride it his whole life, gathering wood and flint in the north in the summer, wintering in the south with his herds, and never need to cross the golden river. The iron men were no threat to him.
Three times the seasons made their circuit. Three times warlords took their followers against the iron men. Three times the iron men cut down the riders of the wind, spilling their blood, taking their horses. Any who wished to cross the golden river had to pay a tribute in gold or cattle or horses, and submit to being disarmed. Raiders had to cross at night, far upstream or down, and carry only what could be swum across. Ho heard of this and thought more.
The fifth spring came. The holymen, historyspeakers and clantallymen called for a meeting of the steppe lords, market and contest and prayer gathering. And they called for warlords to come and talk of the iron men who defied the free men and blocked them from the traditional raiding lands of the south.
Ho, Silent Thinker Ho, Black Livered Ho stayed with his herds in the north. His bondsmen who went to the gathering told him of the deeds that were done, the milk-beer that was drunk, the duels that were fought. They told him of the oaths that were sworn, the clans who sent warriors and the great warband of braves that went to fight the iron men, a warband of every tribe of the steppe. The hill men of the east sent lancers, the fish men of the west sent archers. Even the goat men, barely human, sent their axe men on their tiny ponies. 
The ford was taken. The mud fort cast down. The iron men were slain. The warband set off south, on a great raid.
The news came with the autumn rains. The iron men had come back. An army as numberless as the stalks of grass had risen from their stone camps and defeated the warband. The scattered remnants had fled to the steppe and the southerners had retaken the ford.
Ho thought more. At last he spoke. “The iron men desire the world. They will never stop. Like locusts or marmosets or dragons they will overrun the world and eat it, and shit out their burrows. They do not know the curve of the world was given to the free men. They do not respect the authority of the horse lords over mankind. The iron on their bodies is nothing to the iron of their minds, which has shut out the rightful order of things.”
He turned to his followers, retainers, bondsmen and kinsmen. “Who here will kill for me?” They all cheered their willingness. “Who here will die for me?” More cheers from the young men, grunts and shrugs of resignation from the veterans.”
“Who will give up their honour? Who will get down on their belly and cower like a dog? Who will surrender to my enemies, break oaths, rebel against their master, spy on my enemies?”
Silence swept across the camp. Then spoke up Rabbit Hat Moh, Wolf Killer Ho’s cousin. “All my honour comes from my lord. If he requires it I can only give it up with a glad heart that I have had the keeping of it for a time.”
So Rabbit Hat Moh was taken down to the ford in the golden river, and sold into slavery there. He laboured in the dark cave of the forge, shovelling the black rock, pumping the bellows, burning in the heat. All winter he dwelt in the dark heart of the enemy. In the spring Faithful Cousin Ho came for him. The guards were covered in metal from their head to their feet. Ho twisted off their heads. The guards had swords that could cut through necks. Ho struck them as they nodded in the dark of night. The guards were many. Ho fought them so silently that they never knew he was there.
Moh and Ho united in the forge. Moh broke his chains with the tools made to forge them. They plundered the forge, taking the smiths with them as they left.
In the domain to the north Moh found iron rock. He made the smiths teach them the secrets of their craft, until the spears of Ho and his horde gleamed like a forest when the sun comes out after a rainstorm.
Their lances struck the iron men and were not deflected. Their arrows found their targets. Iron armour protected their hearts and heads and horses. The ford on the golden river was opened again.
Black Livered Ho and Slave Killer Moh learnt all they could from the iron men smiths. Then remembering the deeds of Moh, they killed them all, and built a cairn that guards the ford on the golden river to this day, and all the days until time dies it’s long death.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Write What You Know: The Ends of the Earth

I started this before I began writing the novel and never finished. There are more Ends of the Earth - for a start I live within walking distance of the sea and you can see the continent from the coast. Here it is, unfinished.
Flee to the Ends of the Earth is one of my favourite phrases. Here's some places I've been that vaguely fit that definition.

- Port Arthur, Tasmania. It's on a peninsula in the South East of Tasmania. Many people who visit Australia miss Tasmania entirely because it's kind of small and not on the way to anywhere. Port Arthur was delibrately isolated from the rest of Tasmania as it was a penal colony.

Tasmania was intersting - temparate rather than the subtropical I'd been in Sydney. I went up Mount Wellington and it snowed; down the bottom it was raining, then the next day was showers and the day after was gorgeous warm sunshine. Almost like home, except with a huge mountain behind it and the enormous Southern Ocean swells. And all the Australians, obviously.

- The Orkney Islands. Here I've written about the weirdness that went down there as I was coming down with something nasty and here the stuff that went on in concensual reality. Also on my way there I went through John O'Groats, the least attractive tourist spot I've ever visited. If it weren't for the tacky rubbish it'd be an interesting little harbour though. A big hill and a castle and we've got a setting for an outpost at the edge of civilised lands - sounds good!

- Stewart Island, New Zealand. "Go to New Zealand. Head south to the end of South Island. On the road from Invercargill to Bluff is a ferry, which will take you 17 km south to Stewart Island." Following these instructions lead me to what the hostel manager in Invercargill claimed was the southernmost pub in the world. He may be right, but only because he's not counting any cantinas in Tierra Del Fuego as pubs, as is his right. South is onlt Antarctica[1]

Bluff is also an End of the Earth in that it has one of those signposts to everywhere and a novelty sculpture, in this case a big anchor chain to stop South island drifting away.

[1] In the Southland museum in Invercargill I learned about the sub-antarctic islands, which have no permanant inhabitants. One set of them was on the route from Australia to Cape Horn, and unsurprisingly people kept getting shipwrecked on them. In order to help them out the put sheep on the island, which lead to it becoming a nice closely trimmed lawn, and incidnetally wiping out most of the bird life. What with improvements in navigations and communication, the sheep have been removed[2] allowing the island's ecosystem to begin recovery.
[2] Well, some were removed as some of the characteristics they'd developed were of interest. The rest were shot.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Writing a Novel: 2 Weeks In

This is day 14 of my attempt at NaNoWriMo; a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days that I have talked about before I started here. What have I learnt so far?

1. The first 500 words of the day are easy (exception day 3, which went wrong for a variety of reasons, and the morning I had just the slightest edge of a hangover). I've typed more than the 1 666 ⅔ words that are the quota every day, although in some cases it's taken me from morning to evening to squeeze them out in hundred word bursts. In other words I can probably do this.

2. I am explicitly writing a first draft. In previous projects I've noted that something is wrong and gone back and fixed it. None of them have ever gone over 30 pages as I get bogged down rewriting the same broken scenes over and over until I am sick of them and abandon it. Not on this one! Instead I make a note, usually a simple "Fix in 2nd Draft". In this way I won't get sick of rewriting the same scenes! At least not in the first draft. Rather than 30 pages of broken fiction I'll have 100 pages of broken fiction to deal with.

3. I expected my poorly planned story to run to about 60,000 words, which would be 6 December according to the quota. I'm now anticipating 75,000 words, 12 December by current writing rate.

4. It has slowed down my reading. I've finished 4 books this month, rather than the 6-8 I normally would read in a fortnight. On a related note, writing 1700-2000 words a day doesn't seem to interfere with writing status updates and comments, but does make it difficult to write anything longer, like blog posts. Partly this is due to the time commitment, but there's also a strain to changing mental gears.

5. I have been describing my novel on facebook. It is all lies. Every day I describe a novel concept, either a bad idea that sounds like a good idea or a bad idea that sounds like a good idea. After 14 days, I may be running out of stupid novel ideas. This surprised me too. Here they are:

- What if Sherlock Holmes were a circus clown?
- What if Shakspeare's plays were written by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu?
Romeo and Juliet, but the Capulets are Robots and the Montagues are Dinosaurs.
- Gritty intrigue as two hatmakers feud in 18th Century London.
- A deep psychological exploration of the mind of an unemployed guy who spends his days writing a novel about magical rabbits who fight for truth and justice in roman empire that never was, but should have been.
- An undead coroner must investigate his own death. His best friend is a vampire parrot.
- An alternate history in which it is discovered that the Moon is actually made of cheese.[1]
- An amnesiac patient and his nurse fall in love, marry and adopt a houseful of wartime orphans. Then they discover that he was already married! Also he's Hitler.
- A mystery writer discovers that crimes based on her stories are being committed. She teams up with a romance writer who then discovers that someone is recreating the sex scenes from his novels.
- 6 couples from very different backgrounds meet for a dinner party, and while waiting for the 13th guest discover how their pasts have intersected. The thirteenth guest turns out to be Godzilla.
- Carstairs and Topper meet their nemesis, who is a philosophy professor with a smoking jacket, or perhaps a Prussian aristocrat with a monocle, or maybe an attractive young lady with a parasol, I don't know.
- A cheesemaker ignores the War of the Austrian Succession, despite all the most famous personages of the 18th century tramping through his workshop, in favour of his quest for the perfect Stilton.
- Moby Dick, but with less metaphor and powerful descriptions of sailing, and more chapters taken from a whaling manual. Also, rather than hunting whales, they're clubbing baby seals.
- A recipe notebook charts the decline of a marriage and the stuttering attempts to repair it.[2]

6. This I already knew, but have relearned over and over - the only way to find the problems is to write your way into them and then write your way out. I can plan cool bits, although sometimes it's better to let them emerge. Also constraints are your friend. Day 3's writing went wrong when I shifted away from my original point of view. The hell with that. Let's stick with one narrator (after all, I like his voice; he narrates a lot like me) and find ways to stick him into the action. As I already have people telling stories for a lot of the text, I'll stick a few more in of people telling him stuff when he can't be present.

7. Breaks are good. I'm something of an irregular break person. Hydration and caffination are both good for this. What with the slowly reducing daylight hours, it's good to get outside during the middle of the day, even if I haven't finished my quota of words for the day.

8. My subconscious (unconscious?) mind is my friend. Things that drag and seem hard to write fix themselves between closing the word processor in the afternoon and firing it up in the morning. Partly this is thinking them through and scribbling or sketching in my notebook[3], but a lot of it is sleeping on it.

There are other lessons, but I'm falling behind my typing schedule! I have scattered notes for some more of the Write What You Know series, and will dump them up here later, as well as other lessons that come to mind.

[1] Part One: Search for the Space Cow. Part 2: The Church of God-really-likes-cheese. Part 3: Dairygeddon
[2] This is not inherently a bad idea, which makes me wonder if it's a real book I've heard of but not read. Alternatively, it could very well be from a dream, especially if I'd been listening to Women's Hour on Radio 4 who regularly juxtapose recipes and books about marriage breakups.
[3] Yes, pen and paper. DON'T JUDGE ME!