Thievery

I’m honoured and delighted to have contributed a post to Kirsty Logan‘s long-running series of story inspirations, Thievery. It’s entirely possible to drown yourself in the wealth of stories Kirsty has curated, and I thoroughly recommend you do.

For my post, I confessed about a novel I abandoned at 50,000 words, because I no longer knew what it was about. One day, it will be reborn as The Year Of The Whale.

Here’s the story so far: Northern Lights / The Year Of The Whale.

The Sprint Mill Sessions

I love this: my friend Dom has been filming the grassroots Cumbrian folk scene. Last summer he gathered dozens of people for a campfire session at Sprint Mill, and this was the result – young musicians, sharing their songs by firelight. The sessions so far can be found right here, but I’ll leave you with Paddy Rogan and The Way You Used To Do…

Islands

Islands are everything. Each of us lives on an island, and moves between them constantly. Your island might be called London, or Northumberland, or Withington. Or it might called the office, the supermarket, the bus. For a little while, your island might be as big as a cinema screen, and the population is the audience around you. Sometimes, it’s an island of three – my wife, and my daughter and me, drinking tea by the stove. Sometimes it’s an island of one, contained within the covers of a book. You know the shores of your island entirely, and you look beyond them often. All of life is an archipelago.

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A sealskin coat

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Painting by Jessica Shirley http://jessicashirley.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/selkie-girl.html

The Visitors is a little bit about selkies. Selkies are seals, and they are also people. They have a fur coat that allows them to take the form of a seal. When they step out of the coat, they become human. Selkies can be men or women, but they are always extraordinarily beautiful.

There are a multitude of selkie stories, but the most common starts with a selkie woman removing her coat and dancing on the shore. A young man – usually a fisherman or crofter – spies her dancing, and steals the coat. With her fur held hostage, the selkie has no choice but to marry the man. They live together for a while, but then the selkie finds her skin and escapes back into the sea. The man is left to nurse a broken heart. Often, the couple have children. In some stories, it is a child that finds the coat, and returns it to the mother. Sometimes the selkie takes her children back into the ocean, and sometimes they are left behind. In that version of the story, the mother and children meet in the surf to play.

In the other typical selkie story, an island woman cries seven tears into the sea to attract a selkie mate. Selkie men give children to barren women.

db44_SelkieI love the idea of selkies, but I struggle with some aspects of these traditional stories. They crush female independence. In the first, the selkie is kidnapped and loses years of her life to captivity. The man takes what he wants, and is punished only by the accident of her escape. In the second story, the male selkie is a god, and the woman summons him on bended knee. Either human men dominate supernatural women, or supernatural men dominate human women. Both men and women mean more to me than that. When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted something different from selkie stories. I wanted equality. That’s been my guiding light for the novel, from start to finish. John and Izzy share traditional tales, but Ailsa and Flora question the validity of that tradition, and take a closer look at what it means to be a selkie.

Selkies are special. I watched the seals hunting in the bay at Grogport, and saw them bask and splash in Portnahaven harbour. There is life and knowledge in their eyes. When you look at them, they look back. On Kintyre, we walked the coast around Skipness on a grey, steely day, and we were followed by a seal. For half a mile or more, as we skirted the coast, the seal stayed twenty or thirty yards away from us. It seemed to move without locomotion, so that dark snub head simply kept pace with us, looking towards the shore. We sat on old stones to eat our lunch, and the seal bobbed and ducked at one end of the headland. It didn’t move away until we struck back inland, and then it vanished in a wink. I looked back to seek it out, but the seal had gone.

I asked my friends about seals and selkies, and they swamped me with stories. Chris gave his first pocket money to Save The Seals. Tom talked to the seals in a sealife centre, and the seals talked back. Dan’s friend confused swallows for seals in a dream, so he drew her a picture of a swallow with a seal’s head. Kirstin’s father whistled to the seals in Shetland, and they popped to the surface to see what all the fuss was about. Jon was kissed by a sealion. Sakina can’t shake the tale of the seal maiden. Ross works in Copenhagen, and daydreams that commuters with sealskin coats are modern-day selkies. Amy holidayed on Mull when she was seven, and spent the summer playing with a selkie called Della.

Why do we give seals such humanity? They are manifestly foreign to us, but the connection is overwhelming.

When I was 25 or 26, I spent a year working and backpacking in Australia. I remember snorkelling on Ningaloo Reef, diving as far down as I could go. I looked up exactly as the sun dropped behind a cloud. The water turned suddenly cold and pressed against me, and I felt very afraid, scared of the deep and the dark and the cold and the blue. When I think of selkies, they are underwater, floating with perfect neutral buoyancy, and shafts of sunlight sway woozy on the surface above. The darkness drops away behind them, and the selkie exists in two places: as a seal, utterly unafraid, and as a human, drawn against the current, compelled to the surface. Selkies live in thresholds. The selkie woman, when she escapes, returns to embrace her children in the surf. The shoreline, changing always with the tide, is where seals and people meet as selkies. It is a nowhere place, and yet it is all they have.

Faroese_stamp_580_the_seal_womanA hunter doesn’t know his wife is a selkie. While hunting, he sees her as a seal, and harpoons her. She becomes human, and dies in his arms.

The crofter is left heartbroken on the shore, and his selkie wife returns by stealth to see her children.

This selkie is allowed only one night of the year to be human.

Two lovers share a single skin, so that they can never be together in the same form; always one as a seal, and one as a human.

Selkies are born from the souls of drowned sailors.

Selkies are cousins to the muc-sheilche, the kelpie, the nokken, the finfolk. Those creatures are killers and enemies to men. So what makes the seal a victim? A romance? A tragedy?

When we visited Islay, we drove out to Portnhaven. We clambered across the rocks to the weedy edge of the harbour, and we watched the seals. Half a stone’s throw across the water, they gathered to sunbathe by the dozen. They winked as though the Atlantic was a hot tub. They flickered in the water, phantoms bound in straps of kelp. They came so close that I found myself laughing aloud – laughing in wonder, joy and disbelief.

When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted to explore that connection with the seals, that projection of knowledge, and emotion, and empathy. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I’ve fallen more in love with seals and selkies.

My wife found this picture of a seal. It was taken in California, rather than Coll, but it’s the way I see a selkie. Curious and cautious, incredibly close, and impossibly distant.

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A love letter to an island

P1050513The idea for The Visitors fell into my head almost fully formed while on holiday in Grogport, a tiny hamlet on the east coast of the Kintyre peninsula. It’s connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, and it feels like an island. The beaches are sandy and studded with pebbles. Hills rise steeply from the shore and narrow roads wind around the coast, ducking inland to skirt the inlets. To the east, Arran lurks like a beached whale, and Gigha is smudge in the haze on the horizon to the west. Abandoned crofts explode with rowans, and in places the ferns fall into the road, wet and green.

P1050459My daughter was three months old, and the long drive from Cumbria had unsettled her. She started waking early – around five in the morning – and wouldn’t go back to sleep. My wife and I made coffee and watched the sun rise over Arran, casting blue light on the millpond Kilbrannan Sound. From the kitchen window, we saw herons stalk the surf, lashing down on crabs or minnows. Seals hunted in the bay every evening, and an otter dismembered fish on the shoreline. The garden thronged with little birds, and at one point I saw a kestrel sitting on the washing line, no more than five yards from the house. When we walked around the island, there were butterflies in the gorse, spiders on the sand, bees in the grass, gulls wheeling on the updrafts. I was shaken, at times, by how much life was around me, living as it always had, as though the land itself was alive and conscious. In so many places, it looked as though people, civilisation, had simply given up and moved elsewhere. It felt as though the land was waking after centuries of slumber, and just beginning to stretch.

On the third or fourth morning, watching a seal swim like quicksilver in the bay, the spark of a story flared brightly inside me. It caught fast, and began to smoulder. That story became The Visitors. Selkies, living in Grogport. A murder mystery. A young girl, desperate to leave an island. And it would be an island, I decided; the Kintyre peninsula was beautiful, but didn’t do everything I wanted for the story. I started drafting a sense of what the island looked like. I called it Bancree. As I began to write the story, the island evolved too, morphing into something real enough to touch.

P1050458Bancree is a scrapbook of my Scotland. I grew up in Inverness, where I could see Ben Wyvis from my bedroom window. We walked our dogs on the shingle beach at Ardersier and through the sodden plantations of Culloden. I’ve been canoeing and camping on Loch Maree in torrential rain, and climbed the boulder fields of Torridon and Glen Nevis. I’ve been to the top of Schiehallion, and walked on the clifftops of Dumfries, and fallen out of bars on Tobermory, and seen friends crash cars by the shore of Loch Ness. I’ve taken the train from Edinburgh to Inverness so many times that the journey is engrained in my memory. From the top of Glen Affric, with June snowmelt still feeding the burns, I’ve seen both coasts glitter in the sun. Scotland has a hundred landscapes that sing to me, and I collected something from each of them to build Bancree.

P1050526The island is my love letter to Islay, Jura, Gigha, Mull, Iona, Ullapool, the Highlands, the Black Isle, Moray and the Great Glen – to the landscapes I grew up in, the landscapes I love. I’ve never tried to sketch Bancree or make a map. I know what it looks like, and where to find Grogport, and Tighna, and Izzy’s hut, and the windfarm on the Ben. But more importantly, I can drive the road around Bancree simply by closing my eyes. I can feel the scrunch of shingle underfoot, and the batter and bluster of the Atlantic coast. There is dew sagging on spiderwebs, spun between the thorns of gorse, and rafts of flotsam hefted on the beaches. Dead, empty crabs still scuttle on the breeze. The twiggy scratch of heather, the rivulets of water in the bracken. Titanic clouds, dark and warm and scudding low enough to touch. The fluttering machair, alive with bees. Fog that swallows the tops of trees and telegraph poles. The water in the bog pools, dark with peat, staining all the world around, pouring brown from every tap. Sands that hiss and sing as the wind rolls across the beach in waves.

Bancree is as real as a dream to me. It is vivid and bursting with life. I can feel the rub of sand between my fingers, but there is no map to go there.

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The robin

For the last week or so, Dora has been waking earlier than usual – around 6.15 or 6.30. We’re used to her getting up at 7, and that half hour is making a difference. This morning, I was woken by her bellowing, ‘Look, there’s a robin, a robin,’ over and over again. Assuming this was not actually true, I trudged up the stairs, bleary with sleep, to see what the fuss was all about. ‘Look, daddy,’ she said.

There was a robin on the floor.

At first glance, I thought he was dead, but when I stooped to pick him up, I realised he was still alive, paralysed with shock or injury. As gently as I could, I gathered him up. He was warm in my hands. His pulse beat madly, a thrum of terror, a flutter in my palm. He made weak movements, but made no effort to escape. I went downstairs and into the garden, walking from one end to the other, wondering what to do. I didn’t know if he needed the space to recover, or whether he was in pain and I should twist his neck. The neighbourhood was shrouded in fog. For long minutes, I stood in the garden in my dressing gown, struggling with sadness and indecision, making soothing noises. The robin began to die. He convulsed and straightened in my hands, spasming quickly, quickly, then slower, slower. His twig legs grasped at nothing. After a last kick, he fell entirely limp. His eyelids, stubbled with tiny white feathers, rolled up, and those beautiful, shiny beetle eyes closed for the last time. For a moment, I thought he was still alive, still moving, but then I realised my hands were shaking. He died in my hands.

I dug a hole beneath the willow and buried him. It was indescribably sad to lay him down and shovel black mud across his redbreast. When I went back inside, Dora asked me where the robin had gone. She said she wanted to make him feel better. She wanted to give him a sticky plaster. I wish the world was as simple at thirty-three years old as it is at two.

I love our cats, but I can barely look at them today. It’s really shaken me. I’m trying to tell myself that at least the robin didn’t die alone. I was there, and I talked to him, and maybe that’s something. If it hadn’t been our cats, death would have found him in another form, as it finds us all. But that’s the closest I’ve been to the threshold of death. Watching the robin slide away from life was hard. He did not go easy. He fought it, kicking to his last, until the thrumming of his tiny heart faded to a sigh.

I have a dozen pieces of admin to do, and wood to cut, and essays to mark, and stories to write. But right now I feel like all I can do is stare at the screen and fail to write about a robin.

Drowned villages

I’m a little ashamed to say that I nearly didn’t post this. It’s probably the most amazing writing competition I’ve ever seen, and I’m so hungry for it that a purely selfish part of me doesn’t want anyone else to know about it. But that’s not how a writing community functions, and I’d rather the prize-winner was the best possible piece of work. So take a look at this: a brand new poetry competition where the top prize is having your work soundtracked by Mogwai.

In case you missed that, I’ll say it again.

THE TOP PRIZE IS HAVING YOUR WORK SOUNDTRACKED BY MOGWAI.

I’ve written about Mogwai before (here and here). They recorded my favourite ever album, Come On Die Young, and they’ve been one of my favourite bands for well over a decade. It’s no exaggeration to say that they have soundtracked around half my writing output. Although I don’t really count myself a poet, this is too good an opportunity to miss. What’s more, the theme is tight and thrilling: the judges are seeking poems about drowned villages, and this is where the competition gets really interesting. There’s a submerged village in Lanarkshire in Scotland; another in Cumbria in England; and a third in Gwynedd in Wales. The competition is only open to library members of those specific regions. By happy coincidence, I’ve been a member of Cumbria Libraries for years.

The judges are Scottish Makar Liz Lochhead, top poet Ian McMillan and Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire. I’ve never known a catchment so small for such an intriguing competition, such big judges and such an amazing prize. The theme really sings to me; I’ve written before about my love of French mystery drama The Returned (also soundtracked by Mogwai) which features a drowned village, and I’ve often been haunted by the thought of steeples emerging from Haweswater.

By weird coincidence, I also have the makings of a poem that fits the theme. A year or so ago, I started work on a piece about the landscapes of the Lakes. While I was pleased with the language and form, I couldn’t find a hook to hang it on, and abandoned it unfinished. This competition gives me the hook.

I’ve spent most of today working on the poem, writing and redrafting and always reading – reading it to myself, reading it to the cats – trying new forms, new phrases. I’m pleased with it, as far as it goes, but I’m really unsure about my poetry, and I don’t know how it will fare against stiff competition. I’m going to revisit several more times over the rest of the month, and submit only when it’s as tight as possible.

Soundtracked by Mogwai. A man can dream…

UPDATE – If you want to see my thoughts on the winning poems, mosey over here.

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The Blog Tour – answers

I was delighted when Elizabeth Stott invited me to follow her on the blog tour. I’m a fan of Elizabeth’s writing – I bought her short story Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers from Nightjar Press last year, and was engrossed in the tense, almost existential body horror she conjured in a few short pages. A lot of Elizabeth’s work generates that sense of claustrophobia – another of her stories, Mrs Wetherby, delivers simmering sexual tension amongst uptight ex-pats in the setting of a baking Gulf. Have a read – highly recommended.

Many thanks to Elizabeth for the invitation – here are her answers to the blog tour questions – and here are mine:

What am I working on?

More than I can handle! Foremost is new novel Grisleymires. Whenever possible, I’m trying to guide my rare writing days towards this; it’s the story of a man who loses his memories, and the woman who goes to find them. It’s set in a huge swamp, which is great fun to write, and I’m really excited by the characters and how they’re evolving. The issue is finding time to write around my other projects. I’ve been working on a novella called The Year Of The Whale for about five years (though I haven’t touched it for the last two). That’s about a whale beached in Morecambe Bay. It’s about 20,000 words finished, with only another 5 or 10k to go, but novels are taking precedence. I’d love to finish it soon, though – my partner Monica wants to make a series of linocut prints to illustrate it, and I think that could look fantastic – something like Alex Garland’s novella The Coma.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to my first flash fiction collection, Marrow, and starting to draft the second, which might be called Real Life. Around all this, I’m periodically developing my future novels – I already have plans for another four or five after Grisleymires. I’d love to write more often, but I struggle for time around my teaching and film jobs.

The final thing I’m working on is the copy edit of my first novel, The Visitors. The editor’s notes are due back next week, and I’ll need to go through those slowly and carefully (and with flagons of cider, according to Ali Shaw).

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

This is a difficult question to answer, as I believe all writers differ from others – that’s part of the wonderful polyphony of writing. As soon as a writer begins to speak in the first words of their own voice, they’re different. Genres are useful for sifting and gathering – I use genre far more as a reader than a writer.

That said, I guess I’m moving increasingly towards low fantasy. That’s where I can best tell the stories I want to tell. If my stories are in any way unique, it’s because of the themes I work in and the juxtapositions I explore. When I walk through woodlands, I worry about velociraptors. When I visit London, I imagine minotaurs haunt the Underground, dodging Tube trains as they roam beneath the city. There are doppelgängers watching from rooftops, waiting to make the switch. There are secret societies of pigeon fanciers that keep the internet alive, and kelpies working for the local council. I try to infuse my work with the same sense of magic I find in the world. I think every writer tries to do that. I’m interested in memories, and walking, and the idea of threshold spaces. I’m interested in myths and especially in folk tales. I’m interested in the breakdown in gender and what it is to be alive. Ultimately, though, lots of writers are interested in those things. What makes my work different is that it’s mine.

Why do I write what I do?

Writing brings me comfort through escapism, I suppose. I’m an army brat – we didn’t settle in one place until I started secondary school in Inverness, and I’ve often struggled to feel at home. Books and stories have been havens for as long as I can remember, and it was probably only a matter of time before I tried to create my own. As for the actual topics I write about – that’s evolved wildly over the six or seven years that I’ve been writing fiction. I started with experimental, deliberately obscure literary pieces, aping the styles of challenging writers like Hubert Selby Jnr and William S. Burroughs. After finishing my first attempt at a novel, which took me to some personally unpleasant places, I started to rediscover my love of stories that took me on adventures, rather than stories that were flayed to the bone. I reread David Mitchell and Sarah Waters and Jasper Fforde and Neil Gaiman – and I realised that those were the worlds that sang loudest to me. And so I started again, near enough, finding new ways to tell my stories. The more I’ve worked in this vein, the more I’ve enjoyed my writing.

How does my writing process work?

My ideas tend to arrive as acorns – I stumble upon them everywhere, buried in mud or blown into gutters. Some of those ideas never escape my notebook – and others explode, branching and sprouting into completely new directions. I can’t explain how an idea arrives already fully formed, but my best stories are already bristling with life. They evolve as I write. I know I’m working with strong characters when they start doing things I don’t expect; when it becomes inevitable, no matter what I’ve planned, that they’re going to do something else.

Landscape and place are important to the way I work – I like those strong characters to be in landscapes that I care about, so the air fills my lungs and I can feel the ground beneath my feet. In good locations, the story is a drop of water, taking the most organic route to ground. Place is as important to me as character, plot and emotion – when I write, I try to keep all those strands of story entwined together. Writing is a holistic process, following disparate elements all at once. That’s one of the things that makes extensive redrafting so hard. It’s easy for the fabric of the story to become tangled. When my stories are in a muddle, so am I.

Because I have so little time to work, I tend to write in fierce bursts. If I’m on a roll, I can manage more than 10,000 words a day, but that’s rare. A good writing day is 2,000-3,000 words I’m really pleased with. When I’m not writing, I think about my work constantly. I’m often awake at night, staring into darkness, tracing my way through story strands, trying to work out where they run to, where they meet. More often than not, I fall asleep without working it out – but sometimes I have to turn the light back on and write them down.

I’m also an helpless tinkerer. I can’t let go of my stories, and I return to them obsessively – even years after they’ve been published – to develop the story and tweak the prose. My flash fiction collection Marrow is typical of this – of the 28 pieces, around half have been published elsewhere – but in preparing the collected manuscript, I’ve spent months compulsively redrafting them. Some no longer bear any relation to the original. I can’t help myself. That tweaking and revising comes into first drafts, too. My stories are probably one third writing, two-thirds editing.

Another of the keys to my workflow is reading aloud – as I write, I constantly read, lips moving, shaping the phrases to find the most organic flow, and then reworking it on the page. On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, that’s my first suggestion. Nothing has done as much for developing my work as reading aloud. My second suggestion is to carry a notebook. You never know when those acorns will tumble from the sky.

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So there we have it. If anyone’s still reading, these are some of the things that go into my work. I’m now passing the baton on to David Hartley and Iain Maloney, who’ll publish their blog tour answers on Monday 3rd February. In their own words, they’re a bit like this:

David Hartley is a story botherer and blog tickler based in Manchester whose debut collection of flash fiction ‘Threshold’ was published by Gumbo Press precisely a year ago. He is one fifth of the writing collective Flashtag and can be regularly seen haunting the open mic stages of the North West. He blogs at http://davidhartleywriter.blogspot.co.uk/ and tweets at @DHartleyWriter

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and now lives in Komaki, Japan. A widely published writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, his debut novel, First Time Solo, a story of World War 2 RAF pilots and jazz, will be published be Freight Books in June 2014. He blogs at http://iainmaloney.wordpress.com
Thanks for reading.

Fenland wyrdly

I’ve lived in England for thirteen years, on and off, with stints in Edinburgh, Inverness and Australia. Aside from Cumbria, which is the closest thing to home I’ve felt in my adult life, and London, which is a bubble, I often feel a stranger here. Despite moving around so often, there are big chunks of the country I’ve never seen. East Anglia is one of them. We spent this weekend exploring the area as research for my next novel, which is called Grisleymires. On Friday we drove down a smart diagonal sweep across the country from Burneside in Cumbria to Kirby Cross, almost on the Naze, and stayed the night with friends. On Saturday morning we jagged back up to Wisbech, stopping at Wicken and Ely. For the first time, I’ve been to the Fens.

Grisleymires has been in the back of my head for a while. From the beginning, I knew that it was set in a swamp – the earliest incarnation of the story was essentially Time Bandits with bog bodies. It’s evolved massively since then, but the marsh has been a constant: I want to write about mud and water. I’m now quite secure in the plot, but the location has been troubling me. Location is crucial to the way I write, and I didn’t feel confident in my knowledge of any British bogs. I picked the Fens on instinct, and decided to find out more from there.

The first person I spoke to about Fenland felt so negatively about it that he could only laugh hysterically. He’s one of the most articulate people I’ve ever met, and he simply couldn’t formulate words to describe how powerfully it repelled him. That was exactly the sort of start I was hoping for. Since then, people have told me that the Fens are creepy, strange, powerful and weird. Everyone talks about ‘big skies’. Now that I’ve driven through them, I can understand why. It’s the flattest landscape I’ve ever seen. The horizon is broader, the perspective unnerving, the sky an impossible bowl. There are miles at a time without undulation – miles without trees. Ditches run in straight lines to vanishing points. In places, roads run lower than canals, with dykes and bridges guiding the contours. It’s especially strange near the coast, where the horizon is curtailed by the shore.

We stopped at Wicken Fen, where I stood in the blustering wind and stared into the winter sun. Tall grass became an ocean and hissed at me in waves. I never expected so much noise from emptiness. The sun turned orange, and the dusk turned blue, and pylons hung like giants against the scraps of cirrus. At one point, we drove along beneath a dyke for a mile or more. The road turned sharply up the bank and at the top, blinded by sunset, the world opened up like Noah’s flood – the entire horizon drowned in water, withered trees and battered shrubs emerging in silhouette against the sun. That was the road to Wisbech, submerged in wetlands.

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We drove the alternative route to Wisbech on undulating single track roads lined with Nissen huts and broken hedgerows, tumbledown houses and gigantic piles of sugar beet, surrounded all the while by thousands upon thousands of acres of thick, turned loam.

Wisbech was a strange town. The B&B was huge and empty. When we went to look for food, we found ourselves in what seemed to be a red light district. Drunken Polish men yelled at each other across the street, while girls on corners danced to techno on CD stereos. On Friday night, above the Naze, the stars were clearer than I’d seen in years; on Saturday, the sky was full of murk. On Sunday morning, we drove on Droves – lumpy roads, arrow straight for five miles or more, then zigzagging madly to meet the next. They separate broad strips of industrial agriculture, riven with canals, ditches and soakaways. All the trees wear killing coats of ivy. For the most part, we drove in silence, occasionally pointing things out to each other. The landscape was relentless without becoming monotonous.

The Fens is witchcraft and weak bridges; rotten thatch and revolution; gallows and windmills. At one point, we passed a narrowboat moored beneath a sickly weeping willow. It looked like it was about to break in half and sink. It was small, and covered with lichen, but I could still make out the name: it was called Icarus.

I don’t know if the Fens are creepy, but they are profoundly strange. We felt edgy all the time. We’re used to the cradle of the mountains, a constant presence in our peripheral vision. It’s incredibly strange to be without that subconscious company. Mon pointed out that the sheer amount of space makes you feel exposed – vulnerable. We didn’t find it creepy, so much as missing. It’s an absence, a nothing, a void. It felt like a sort of purgatory; fields unfolding endlessly, stretching on forever.

I went on this trip hoping for a sort of Green Venice, but that’s not what the Fens are about. They aren’t what I expected, or what I wanted, but maybe this trip has been exactly what I need, and here’s why:

I invented Bancree for The Visitors. It’s an amalgam of Islay, Jura, Gigha, Kintyre and the Black Isle, plus a host of other Scottish spots; and I’m already planning a novel set in a fictional city, based around my short story Vanishings. The point is this: I thought nothing of creating an island, and I can’t wait to write a city. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to consider inventing a Fenland of my own. Writing a new region into an existing geography feels more daunting than something as self-contained as an island, but that would give me the perfect environment for Grisleymires.

I’ve only started considering this today, but it’s already gathering weight. It would let me combine the heat and life of Green Venice with the sodden bogs of Islay and the upland Cumbrian basin mires with the Fens and Norfolk Broads. I could do as I pleased with accents and geography and culture, and that’s a real magnet for me. I’d be sad to leave or even dilute the Fenland folklore, though – I’ve grown attached to Tiddy Mun and Old Shuck.

As a research trip, it’s thrown up more questions than it’s answered. But that, in itself, is part of the journey.

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