My last post detailed the prequel planned for Forest Brothers. I can also report that there is also a planned sequel, currently untitled. The story will feature Juhan being recruited to catch Godfrey, now a fugitive in the north of Scotland. Teamed up with a British agent, he follows the trail as the web unravels into something much bigger than was imagined. he is aided by his parents, also Jan and the crew of his Shetland Bus.
Currently though, I have begun to prepare another novel for publication. ‘The Promise’ is a story of a young man forced to flee from his rural mining village near Aberystwyth. Set in the late Victorian period, it relates his struggle to find his place in the blossoming railway trade and his hopes to rediscover his family. The Promise won a prize at the 2012 Aber Valley Arts festival in the ‘Welsh novel’ category.
More information will follow…!
Once Forest Brothers was completed, I was asked what I would do next. The story was written as a one off, but there were a few people out there wanting to know more. I had moved on to my next project, a different setting, a different time period. I had started the writing process and my creative mind was elsewhere. But after a while, the desire began to gather within me to create more of the story, to find out for myself more of the Estonian tale.
This time I chose to create a back story. I knew that when i chose the time period of 1944 for Forest Brothers, I had picked a time of turmoil in Estonia. I also knew that they had suffered greatly for the previous 4 years as two armies coveted the land. Historically, Estonia suffered an earlier torment in 1940, after Von Ribbentrop and Molotov had carved up the East between their nations. First Stalin annexed the country, before Hitler felt strong enough to beat them back. This was a moment in Estonian history which my Estonian characters would have lived through. I wanted to explore what happened to them and how they became the people they were in Forest Brothers. I also wanted to give some of the lesser characters a chance to come to life. Finnish Boys was born.
The story begins in 1940 on the eve of the Red Terror. In that one night, 10,000 people were rounded up from all across Estonia and shipped by trains to Siberian camps. Military, police, teachers, but also anyone potentially capable of organising any shred of resistance. Names were drawn up and the Soviet plan to break down society went forward. On this evening, Mart is warned he is on the list. The bearer of the news gives him a chance to escape, by taking her and her English boyfriend to the North coast and an escape to Finland. He agrees, but only if he can warn his estranged wife, Maarja, first. The lives of Mart, Maarja, Juhan are brought to life once more, as their flight is swept up into the events when two foreign armies fight over a sovereign nation and loyalty and trust are used and abused. Peetr, Raio and Sven – the cameo figures in Forest Brothers are also brought to life and you get a glimpse of their journey, especially the melancholic Peetr. You also get to meet Liisbet a young red, turned rebel to save her English Lover, known as Monty.
I am expecting Finnish Boys to be ready at the end of this year and will of course, publish updates.
The Finnish Boys were a unit of Estonians who had escaped Soviet occupation to fight for the Finnish Army. Although allied with Germany in the fight against Stalin, the unit ended up repelling an attempt at liquidation to allow 2,000 refugees to escape from the forests of Kautla. In a conflict where both armies were guilty of atrocities, this action stands out as one of humanitarian action.
The problem now I have is have i chosen the right title? The repetition of using a title of two words beginning F and B, makes it harder for the prequel, which I have just finished its first draft!
There will be further news about another writing project soon. I have another project set in Edwardian Mid Wales. Stay tuned!
This week’s blog is slightly dfferent. I have an exclusive interview with me old mucker, Rod duncan. I’ve known Rod for a year or 45 and have always been admiring of his work. Rod established himself with his “Riot Trilogy”, each of which examine the same riot, on one day in Leicester, from the experience of a different character.
Rod has now moved into the mystical world of Steampunk. His first novel ‘The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter’ was nominated for the prestigious (2014) Philip K Dick award. ‘The Custodian of Marvels’, is the third book in the ‘Gas-lit empire’ series,’ and will be released in February.
Writing is a very personal process and there is no set path for achieving your creation. I asked Rod how he prepared and wrote his novels and this is our conversation below:
Where do your ideas come from?
I’m a curious person. Some people might call me nosy. But that’s probably not any different from most novelists. When I see things that interest me, I investigate. And then – after a period of time – an idea will pop into my head. I might not at first be able to tell where it came from. It’s like a dream, in that way. I have to really think about it before I realise what the spark was. It might have been something I saw a month ago. A year ago. Sometimes the inspiration goes right back to my childhood.
If I had to give one moment of inspiration for the novels of the Gas-Lit Empire, it would be a small street in Leicester where the road surface had been broken up by the frost. The Tarmac had come away, giving a glimpse of the cobbled road surface below. That started me thinking about the Victorian world and the contemporary world both being present at the same time. And that gave rise to the idea behind the alternate history that underpins the novels.
How do you plan the novel?
I come up with an idea for the main beats of the story – a starting point, a couple of the main transitions and an ending point. On that basis, I start to write. My hope is that I discover a few new things about the story each time I sit down to write. But I don’t have a detailed idea of what is going to happen. Not until I’m almost at the end.
How do you carry out your research?
Since this is a fantastical alternate history, I am at liberty to make stuff up. Having said that, all this is based on things that happened and historical processes, so I do need to read as well. But the story will come from knowledge I’ve acquired over the years. I tend to do research to fill in gaps or to get a more sensory experience of the thing that I’m describing.
A lot of that is on the Internet these days. But there’s nothing to beat direct experience. The characters in my latest novel, The Custodian of Marvels, were picking locks. So I had to go at it myself.
Do you visit places or read about them?
It’s surprisingly how much you can do without visiting a place. Google Street View is a wonderful tool. So is Google’s image search. But they won’t give you the sounds and smells and textures. So visiting the place is always the best thing to do if you can.
Do you write in a linear way (ie start to finish) or do you write some pieces stand alone?
I like to write in a linear way. But later on in a series of books, plotting can become quite complicated. You end up with a lot of different story threads to work with. And The Custodian of Marvels is built around a heist story. That is a technical challenge in itself. So with this novel I did end up writing some things out of sequence.
Do you think your characters have traits based on real people?
I’m not aware of giving my characters that traits of people I know. But the subconscious mind is a strange thing, so who knows? There might be a little bit of you in there somewhere. And certainly a little bit of me.
Have you ever taken an event from your life and adapted it?
Yes. But the relationship with the real event is always very tenuous. Reality provides the spark. The imagination burns where it will.
What is your editing process?
I edit as I go along. I wouldn’t advise other people to do this. If I could break the habit, I would. It makes my writing very slow. And I on occasion written a chapter and spent time polishing it, only later to discover that it didn’t have a place in the novel.
When I’m editing, I read everything aloud to myself many times, listening for how it sounds. I would certainly recommend that approach.
How do you judge success?
That’s a very good question. An insightful question. The first criteria of success is my own judgement. Do I think that I’ve written a better book than my last one? The second is the reaction of other writers, who I share my work with at an early stage. If they like it, I feel successful. And then, of course, there is the judgement of the wider world. Publication, reviews and maybe shortlisting for an award or two.
But it’s wise not to get too focused on all that glitter. A couple of weeks ago a reader who I’d never met emailed to thank me for writing one of my novels, saying it had been significant to her in a particular way. For me, that is the highest standard of success – to touch someone’s life in a positive way.
What advice would you give to new novelists?
If you have the urge to write, don’t hold back. Writing a novel is an extraordinary process. It will change you. Through it, you will learn to see the world with greater intensity. You’ll learn about yourself and about other people. Perhaps you’ll make it big and get into the bestseller lists. But if that becomes your focus, it will always feel like a struggle. Even when you are bestseller. So, focus instead on being a little bit better at it each day. And enjoy the ride.
Will we see more books about the Gas-lit empire?
With the Custodian of Marvels, the first series is complete. But yes, there will be more to come in the Gas Lit Empire. And you will see more of Elizabeth, the protagonist.
I dug this up the other day, it won a runner up prize at BBC Radio Northampton in 2007. i got to record it at the BBC, butnever got to hear it. Ho hum. The piece was set out as a prologue for a longer piece of work that may happen in the future. After 3 years of being locked out of their workplace, the strike at the Penrhyn slate quarry in Bethesda has collapsed and the men return to work. It was a terrible chapter of history in the region, one that ruined a community and its people. On that day, many people tried to stand tall above the ruins, but many were dying inside.
It’s a crisp morning, there’s dew on the grass already and my breath steams in the air as I slip out of the house. No lamps, I don’t want to be seen, let alone caught by those who would do me harm. I don’t need light where I’m going anyhow, I’ve trod that path for so many years I could do it blind.
Was that a noise? I stop to listen to the rustle in a bush. Then the sound of padded feet, claws clicking on the road ahead. A fox more than likely, looking for scraps. He’ll have a hard time, there’s not much spare around these days.
Must move on, get there in time. It’s bad enough hiding from your former friends, but without your own son knowing, that hurts. Not that he’ll notice much, he’s not spoken to me since I took that cursed sovereign. All for nothing in the end, more fool I.
Have to be careful now, there’s always police on the prowl these days. There to protect me, I’m told, but we’re all Welsh scum to them anyhow.
The mountain draws me. I need to climb above the quarry. Then I’ll be ready, where they can all see me and be happy with it. Shame those who have brought us to this misery won’t be there, but they wouldn’t dare come within a mile on a day such as this.
They won’t bother me now. Too stupid not to think that someone would go this way.
Thought I had a problem at first, the moon came out and the town was all awash with silver light. I had to move fast to find the shadows but I saw no-one, heard no-one. Doesn’t matter, I’m away from them all now.
It’s a steep path to take and my body is working hard. Even though I could afford more than bread and tea, my body is weak and I am desperate to cough out the muck from my lungs. I breathe through my nose, short sharp breaths. The urge gets stronger and I move fast, hand over mouth. Finally, I reach a quiet spot and spit out. I crouch there for ages waiting, there’s still no noise.
I’m up the hill now and over the fence, no-one knows this way in. I reach my spot and I lie there waiting. The grass is damp, the ground cold, but it feels good. I catch a sob in my throat, God made this earth so beautiful and all we can do back is to tear it apart, tearing ourselves in two in the bargain.
I’ve been up here before, many times in fact. Always to catch the morning and watch the sun break as it lights up the land in a golden glow. The light begins to brighten and I can make out the grey clouds in the morning sky, it matches our lives. I raise my head and look, resting my hands under my chin. I want to see this day begin, I want to see this one morning more than ever before. The sun breaks through the clouds, bringing the valley to life. What a picture! Tears fall down my face, for it’s so beautiful. I wish Mair was with me to see it, but there it is. Wishes don’t pay your bills.
I watch as the day gets brighter and the quarry opens. I see the gates open and the men slowly trudge in, weak from the years of strike. They prepare once more to face the hardships of this damned hole. All the while, the light grows brighter and the land around unlocks its beauty in the sunshine. A group of men are singing a hymn. The music faintly reaches me, though I cannot make out the words. Some are obviously trying to raise the spirits of their brethren, to try and fill their hearts with hope for the future and make light of such a stark defeat, for defeat it is. Three years, three long years of suffering, of turning the town into a den of hatred. For what, I ask you? What was gained? Nothing! What was lost? Everything!
The sun’s warmth on my back makes me feel sleepy. I could doze here in the glow, with the faint breeze caressing my head, but I know its not possible. I’m here for a reason, I need to put an end to all that’s happened. It feels like hours that I lie there for, but finally I sit up.
There’s a shout, perhaps someone has seen me? Better if they do, then they’ll know. I left the sign in the window as I left the house. Nid oes BRADWYR yn y ty hwn. No traitors in this house. There won’t be, because I’m not going back. The boy’s better off without me and well, there’s no-one else to worry about.
I stand close to the edge, it’s a fair drop, perhaps I should take a run at it. Perhaps I would drop further down the galleries that way? No, here is fine. There’s a shout, I can’t hear the words, but it may as well be ‘jump, you bastard!’. That’s what they feel after all and I agree with them. It’s gone on far too long, now’s the time to have an end to it.
I look across the land once more, the green fields beyond Bethesda. So beautiful they are. Why do I have to leave them? Why does it have to end this way? What the hell did I do to get here in the first place? I take a deep breath and my mouth tightens. My throat is dry and my heart races. I can hear it beating in my ears.
Then I realise, there are footsteps behind me, soft but rapid ones. I feel the breath on my back and the hand on my shoulder. I feel the pressure making my body lurch forward and I begin to fall…
There’s a question. Does anybody recognise themselves – or others? Do writers go out of their way to write about people they know? The music world had ‘You’re so vain’ and spent decades trying to get Carly Simon to explain who it was – it turned out to be at least three people and I am sure they weren’t joined at the hip.
I must admit having read Malcolm Pryce’s film-noir novels about Aberystwyth, I have stopped and thought ‘I know that character’. I am of the same age group, give or take a year or so, and the same town. I do recognise some familiar traits in people who appear in the books, but are they true mannequins of the flesh and blood individuals? I don’t think so.
For me, when writing, I like to feel the emotion of a character. This did stop me writing a novel set in the Penrhyn Quarry strike once, as it made me feel too down!
Many of my scenes are set in a time or an event that I cannot compare notes on, so I have to use what I have felt in past times. I’ve never been in a train crash (God willing), but I have had the misfortune to suffer a crash in the back of a car that rolled to a standstill. I remember the helplessness, the slow motion and falling into shock. It’s all useful for a scene.
I have also found that real life can sometimes offer better plot directions when adapted to your stories. I’m not thinking Darwin Awards here, let’s face it, some realities are just plain bizarre. No, there have been sometimes experiences in life that have helped generate scenes. Conversations that have stuck in the memory. In the Forest Brothers novel, there is a scene at the Hill of Crosses on Hiiumaa. I do describe what I felt on my own personal visit there.
Sometimes events in the newspapers of the past that have helped form the nucleus of a storyline. Long lost mini dramas that can add to the plot. The witness reports of the shelling of Talinn is an example.
They do say the protagonist in your first written novel is yourself. I don’t recognise it in the story (Forest Brothers was my fifth written work, by the way), others might. Everything’s subjective. I think my characters are all made up. I don’t think I’ve ever met them.Or at least not completely. I may have borrowed a scene or two, a conversation may be adapted. In all of my 53.5 years, I have had millions of conversations, scenes, events. Even then, most times, the story is still reliant on what I can create purely from my imagination.
So have you appeared in one of my novels? Sadly not. Does a situation look familiar? Possibly, but only for a moment. Do the stories feature any fiction created by myself? Of course. My novels do have a historical background, that much is set in stone, the human story is always woven around those constraints.
“I feel an immense sadness but above all anger. We can argue over liberty, but when we’re in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never. These victims are martyrs, and I shall pray for them with all my heart.”
Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of Drancy, Paris
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.
Martin Luther King
“Judge people by their best, not their worst.”
Henry van Dyke
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”
― Robert Fulghum
“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”
― Paulo Coelho
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
― Anne Frank
Forest Brothers has them. Life has them. What makes a hero? what makes a villain? Is it purely an audience point of view? Does it depend on your background, your origin, your life experience?
I have been traveling recently, a week’s break to Limburg. The hilly part of Holland. It’s a very relaxed area and I like to go to a city like Maastricht, to chill in the city centre in one of the street cafes in the town square. In October, it gets on with life without appearing to be hurried or stressed. I like Holland. We as a nation tend to like the Dutch, but centuries ago they were not allies, but enemies. Rival seafaring nations carving their fortunes along the coasts of the Americas and Pacific. Mutually colonising other nations, whose culture we dismissed, rather than acknowledged as different. Anyway, the Dutch have always been good to me. Dark beer, vla, malted biscuits are welcome, so is an ability to master English that puts our language inadequacies to shame.
We stayed a kilometre from the German city of Aachen. It is so beautiful in its medieval quarter, the centre piece being the magnificent cathedral. Again, we like the place for its calmness and the fact you can walk around without hassle. The cafe culture, with rugs for people to cover their laps and legs on the cooler days. Very civilised. I posted some photos of the interior of the cathedral (its absolutely stunning), the marble walls and gold leaf in the light streaming through stained glass. One comment I received was ‘what did they do to deserve that?’ A back-handed admiration, I think, but for most of my life, my country has always obsessed about the last world war. So, consign a whole nation to the role of villains in perpetuity? Seems a bit harsh. I am not going to condone the former leaders of Germany and the events they created in the 20th Century, but tar a whole nation? Did you know that Wellington’s army at the Battle of Waterloo was a multi-national force, the chief contingents of which were German, Netherlanders and Irish? What about Albert Einstein?
Russian politicians will sound bite from time to time about Baltic ‘fascists’. Anyone who opposed Stalin’s army was by definition with the Germans and consequently dumped in the same category. Estonia’s awful experience in the second world war was a direct consequence of two large nations and their bloody empire-building ambitions. Men joined both sides. Who were the villains and who felt they wanted to defend their homeland? Men were pressed into service by both sides, what was their choice?. The Stalin regime commited heinous crimes and certainly embraced fascism in all but word, but does that make every Russian culpable – past and present? Some of our media here would try and imply that Russia’s activities today mark the return of the darker days. Then they also fawn over Russian dancers who grace our TV screens every Saturday night…Then there’s Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Nuryev – what was their legacy?
As we drove home through Belgium, we stopped at the town of Poperinge. Very close to Ypres, it holds a poignant reminder of the 1914-1918 war. On the way there, I was so struck by the flatness of the landscape that I queried how men were expected to survive on the ‘over the top’ assaults in the trenches? Where was the cover? It seemed impossible that someone could cast aside life so cheaply. At Poperinge, we visited Talbot House or ‘Toc H’, an establishment set up by a British padre during that time. The large three story building was turned over to be a servicemans club. Soldiers blessed with leave there could visit a place where rank was forgotten. No alcohol, but plenty of tea. A piano, a library and games room all were available there, or people could just chill in the garden. It was a beautiful sunny day when we arrived and the place felt so serene. All thanks to the idea and work of the Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton, all those years ago.
On two occasions on our daily visit to the swimming pool, my young son managed to befriend a playmate. One was a Russian boy at the numerous visits to the flume, the other was a German boy in a ‘who can tip who off the float in the swimming pool’ game. The mutual language appeared to be only giggles. It reminded me how we are not born with our own prejudices, they are inherited along life’s journey.
Heroes and villains, they are everywhere. They appear within every nation, every culture. You can judge a person by their nation and your conceptions of it or make your own decision on an individual by their own actions. It was good of my son to remind me that.
I have realised that the year has slipped by and the blog posts stopped.
I have moved to a new day job. There hasn’t been much to say. That’s a lie. The year has been quite busy, at times interesting and I just haven’t created time to post.
The prequel is at draft stage. Ready to hit that important desk. It is a back story that takes you from the time of the ‘red terror’ deportations in Estonia to the beginning of the novel ‘Forest Brothers’. I am still hopeful it will move forward to publication in the near future, but alas, no timescales. It’s a shame, as the story does answer a few questions created by Forest Brothers and I think, with a hint of bias, it’s a good story. 🙂
To while away the hours that time allows, I started a sequel. I didn’t have a story to start with, then it became a desire to give Juhan some more exposure. Then some old characters began to knock on the door. then some very old characters and a very feisty new character. Before you knew it… I was away on a new adventure. The story begins around the start of 1945 and I suppose VE day is not too far away. What next?
All nice stuff, wish i could tell you what will happen next! I’m off to give a talk to the Womens Institute tomorrow about the novel!
For those who very kindly drop by from time to time, you may have felt I had dropped off the planet, I am still ticking over down here in what is now, sunny, Mid Wales. Time has flown and things have moved on. It has been definitely interesting times, but some people have it worse, so I won’t wring my hands too much.
I have changed jobs. Yes, authors need to work too! I now work for the Vale of Rheidol Railway. In truth, it is like a breath of fresh air and very enjoyable. The down side is, it has sapped my creativity – at least for the short term. Apart from the day to day running and ongoing development of the line (oh boy, there is loads of that!), there are also some pet projects of mine within that seem to take up my creativity. Creative writing has had to be parked.
The Finnish Boys is finished, reviewed, re-reviewed, re-re-reviewed. I am now waiting to see if my current publisher will take it on or if I need to start working on plan B-Z (delete where applicable). I am using the interim to brush up my ‘railway’ novel, set in Mid Wales. It won a prize a year or so back, so I think it has potential. I also begin to cast my mind out on the sequel to Forest Brothers. At the moment, Juhan is somewhere on the North Sea. I should really do him a favour and find a welcoming port soon.
This is of course when time allows. I’m not too worried, last time I changed jobs it did cause a brief hiatus. Then one night, I was stuck on a rural station for an hour and a half. Cold October mists hung in the air and no refreshments were available. I found a pen and a leaflet with the most open space on it and started writing again. Huw began paddling his kayak to the Estonian shore and the adventure had begun.
Hoping you all enjoy the year as it progresses and thanks for reading this!