Friday, January 20, 2017

The Antiquary and the Crocodile: M.R.James resources

As anyone who has read my blog before probably knows by now, I have been a big fan of the ghost story writer M.R.James since I was a child. I love the subtle and disturbing nature of his stories, expressed so restrainedly but often very gruesome when you look behind that elegant phrasing - face sucked off by tentacled creature, anyone?

One of MRJ's stories, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, was part of the inspiration for my novel The Glass Demon, which is about a set of haunted stained glass windows created by the same master craftsman who made the ones in MRJ's story. (MRJ's windows were real ones, however, from Steinfeld Abbey; mine are fictitious.)

I've also occasionally dabbled in Jamesian stories - Alberic de Mauleon, a prequel to Canon Alberic's Scrap-book, appeared in The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows 1, and The Third Time, a sequel to A Neighbour's Landmark, appeared in The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows 2. I have also written a completion to MRJ's unfinished tale The Game of Bear - it appeared in the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter and was later republished in my collection The Sea Change and Other Stories. So my love of MRJ's stories has been quite creatively stimulating for me.

What I never really envisaged was that I would also end up writing quite a lot of non-fiction articles about M.R.James! It came about because of an accident of geography. We moved to Germany in 2001 and found ourselves living very close to Steinfeld Abbey, so I visited it, and wrote an article about the ways in which the real-life abbey differs from the imagined version of it in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. This led me to visit some of MRJ's other foreign story locations, and write about those too. One thing led to another, and by 2008 I had eight published articles about MRJ and his work, all of which appeared in the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter.

A large proportion - but not all - of my articles are still available on the Ghosts and Scholars website, and some of them are available on my blog. However, I have long had it in mind that it would be a great idea to collect them all into one inexpensive eBook, so that anyone who shares my unreasonable passion for the ghost stories of M.R.James can read them easily and conveniently. I finally found time recently to do this, and the result is a kindle book, The Antiquary and the Crocodile

Although The Antiquary and the Crocodile is a collection of non-fiction articles, I took the decision to include as a "fiction extra" my completion of MRJ's The Game of Bear. The story first appeared in the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter, and was later reprinted in The Sea Change and Other Stories. It was also republished in Weird Tales in 2014. Periodically I receive enquiries from people who have a particular interest in MRJ and would like to read my completion of it out of curiosity, so it seemed a good idea to include it in the eBook. I also feel that in some ways the story belongs with my other writings about M.R.James, because writing it was the one occasion when I consciously tried to meld my literary style with MRJ's (a task which, frankly, seems a bit terrifyingly ambitious in retrospect!).

Anyway, I very much hope that The Antiquary and the Crocodile will prove interesting and useful to both scholars and fans of M.R.James's ghost stories. The crocodile on the front cover, by the way, is the actual stuffed crocodile hanging on the cathedral wall at St. Bertrand de Comminges, as described in Canon Alberic's Scrap-book. My father William Bond took the photograph when we visited Comminges.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In which I do the talking...

If you are part of a school, library, community or arts group, or any other organisation within Scotland who would like an author visit in 2017, I just thought I'd post a timely reminder of the Scottish Book Trust's fantastic Live Literature funding scheme.

Under the scheme, you can apply for a visit from any author on the Live Literature database (including me!), and if you are successful, the Scottish Book Trust will fund more than 50% of the cost, plus any travel and accommodation expenses. This makes an author event far more affordable as it limits your costs to £75.00 + VAT per session.

I can personally offer the following types of event:

  • Talks about writing - a popular one answers the question "Where do you get your ideas?" by talking about the scary and atmospheric locations I have visited (with photos!) and how they have inspired the plots of my books. It's not enough to have a thrilling setting - I talk about the nuts and bolts of how I turn that spooky feeling into an actual story. This talk is suitable for schools as it is very relevant for creative writing projects.
  • Ghost story writing workshops - I can tailor these to a school audience or an adult audience. Creating a good ghost story uses lots of writing skills - the aim is to send a shiver down the spine without straying into blood and guts territory. We cover things like setting, choosing the right words, and why creating rounded characters is important. 
  • A talk about the great classic ghost story writer M.R.James and specifically the real-life locations of some of his most famous stories, including Canon Alberic's Scrapbook and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. I have personally visited the locations covered in the talks and have an array of photographs to share! This talk is suitable for adults. 
  • A talk about Getting Published - useful resources, maximising your chances of success, whether to try for an agent first, what to expect once you have a book deal. Again, this talk is more suited to adults. 
Although my entry on the Live Literature database lists Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Perth & Kinross as the local authorities where I can usually work, I'm happy to travel further afield, so if you are outside those areas but would like me to come and speak, I'm very prepared to consider it.

Finally, the reason for posting this reminder on my blog is that the deadline for applications for events between April and December 2017 is coming up - it's Wednesday 25th January 2017 at 12 noon. So if you think your school, library or other group here in Scotland might be interested in an author visit this year, now's the time to think about applying! 

I hope to see you in 2017! 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Stepping back in time

I'm a little shocked to see that I haven't blogged since March! Time flies when you're having, er, fun. Over the last months I've been working very intensely on an extensive rewrite of my work-in-progress. I have to be honest and say: I don't much enjoy doing big rewrites. In my dreams, the final draft falls through a wormhole in space so I can make sure it's that version the first time round... Sadly, this has never yet happened.

Anyway, on Thursday the fateful moment finally arrived when I was able to type THE END on the current draft. I always "sleep on" manuscripts before sending them off to the agent who represents me, just in case I have a blinding midnight revelation that the plot should have worked out differently or something. But yesterday morning, Friday, I finally sent the book off for perusal. Then came the question: what to do with the rest of the day?

I suppose I probably should have cracked my knuckles, made another cup of tea and started on the next book. Or done all those jobs that have been neglected over recent months, such as clearing out the things growing in the back of the fridge, or taking all the glass to the recycling banks. However, when you've been working on one project for quite this long, it's hard to disengage from it and go straight on to something else. In short, I had the heebie jeebies and couldn't bear to stay indoors a minute longer. I've spent far too much time recently sitting in front of a computer screen, so I thought I'd have an old-fashioned day and stay offline altogether for a bit.

Out came the trusty bicycle, and I cycled over to the Library of Innerpeffray, a distance of about four and a half miles via country lanes. It was a gorgeous sunny morning and the verges at the side of the road were overgrown with buttercups, clouds of cow parsley and yellow gorse. When I got to the Library, I briefly stuck my nose into the beautiful new downstairs room, and then I went upstairs to the older reading rooms. In the smaller one, I found an interesting book called TYPES OF ANIMAL LIFE by St. George Mivart, F.R.S., published in 1894. It included a rather charming collection of illustrations of unusual creatures (well, unusual to St. George Mivart, anyway) such as ring tailed lemurs and manatees. I had a look at that for a while, and admired the view of the river from the reading room window.

 When I'd finished in the reading room, I went into the churchyard which belongs to the chapel adjoining the Library. I had an idle stroll about inside the chapel, which I have visited many times before, and admired the leper squint (a tiny window through which the local lepers were permitted to view the services going on inside the church without having to sit next to anyone. Hmmm....). Then I sat in the churchyard among the gravestones and had bread and cheese for lunch - it seemed the most fitting thing for a vintage kind of day; you can't really cycle about the lanes, read ancient books and then stuff your face with a pulled pork wrap - it's far too 21st century. I wish I'd had some ginger beer but made do with water instead. Then I cycled home again.

Later that day when the rest of the family got home, we drove over to Kenmore and swam in Loch Tay, which is very briskly fresh (ok: freezing cold) at this time of year (you can still see small patches of snow on the hills and I suspect meltwater is coming down into the loch). We shared our picnic with the rapacious ducks. Altogether, it was a very old-fashioned day - a bit like stepping back into 1930 or something. It took my mind off work very nicely. In fact, I'm rather sorry to be back in 2016...

Monday, March 28, 2016

Quis es iste qui venit? Ghosts, obviously...

Ghost stories are a favourite thing of mine. Love reading them, love writing them.

As well as my young adult novels, I've written quite a few supernatural short stories over the years, some of which were collected in The Sea Change and Other Stories (Swan River Press, 2013). I'm pleased to say that one of my latest ghost stories, The Watchmaker, is part of a new ghostly anthology from Shadows at the Door. Other contributors include Pete Alex Harris, Caitlin Marceau, Mark Cassell and K.B. Goddard.

As you may know, I'm a great fan of the ghost story writer M.R.James, and my previous work has included a completion of his unfinished story The Game of Bear. I don't write exclusively Jamesian or James-inspired stuff; past stories have included a tale set in the very modern world of scuba diving, and one inspired by Perthshire local history. The Watchmaker, however, was specifically inspired by James's story A View From a Hill. You don't need to have read M.R.James to read The Watchmaker; the story stands on its own. But if you are a fan of MRJ's stories, you may enjoy the fact that it is a kind of sequel to his tale - and you may quickly develop some ideas of your own about the "watchmaker" of the title... At any rate, I can promise you mystery, apparitions, disturbed graves and grim death. What's not to like?

The aim is to crowdfund the anthology through a Kickstarter project, which you can find here: Shadows at the Door anthology. We are aiming to raise £11,500 by 16th April, with contributions starting from as little as £1 and contributor rewards starting at £6 for a copy of the anthology in e-book format. Please do take a look and consider whether you might support this project! For a contribution of £25 for example, you would receive a copy of the illustrated hardback version of the anthology, a download of the audiobook version and your name on the acknowledgements page, so that you can, as editor Mark Nixon puts it, "live on in infamy"! Some of the small press anthologies to which I have previously contributed were priced at £30 per book, so this is a good value offer. Please do take a look!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Death by bus pass

The other day I had tea with a book blogging friend (very nice tea it was, too; accompanied by croissants). Going to visit anyone always requires a bit of planning on my part, because we have one car and I don't often have it. Public transport to and from my town is limited to buses (the train line closed down in 1964, alas), and the buses run a rather patchy service.

When I arrived at the friend's, this was very much on my mind, and I remarked that I missed the public transport network in Flanders, where we used to live. There was a really excellent local bus service that ran from the airport at Zaventem to the swimming pool in Overijse and passed right through our village; there was a connecting tram (the 44, pictured) which went straight into Brussels; and after that of course there was the Metro and the rail network. I used the buses a lot and I recalled that they ran very frequently (every half hour or so) until fairly late in the evening.
"Ah," said the friend, "I did wonder."
She had read all of my Forbidden Spaces books, which are set in Flanders, and had noticed that the heroine managed to catch buses home at hours that would be unthinkable in my corner of rural Perthshire. Was this really possible, or was it invention on my behalf?

When I was working on those books, I took a lot of care to make sure that everything in them was as factually accurate as possible. I used to travel about on many of the same routes that my heroine, Veerle De Keyser uses: the 830 De Lijn bus, the 44 tram, the Brussels Metro. So I was fairly familiar with the timetables to begin with, but I took care to double check all of them. I took especial care with the public transport in the city of Ghent, which is the setting of the second book, Demons of Ghent; there is a scene at the beginning in which someone wants to get up to no good in the mediaeval city centre, and I wanted to be sure that at the time the action took place, there was no chance of him being seen by a tram full of shocked tourists rattling past (NB there is no chance of it; the Ghent trams stop in the small hours).

Apart from a very few scenes in the trilogy - when the hero Kris Verstraeten borrows his cousin Jeroen's car, for example - Veerle and her friends travel around entirely by public transport. On the night when Veerle first encounters the Koekoeken, the secret community of urban explorers who appear in Silent Saturday, she is actually travelling about by bus; she looks out of the bus window and sees a light where there should be no light, and gets off to investigate. On other occasions, she and Kris travel to the places they intend to explore by bus or tram; they go to confront someone in the city of Brussels by a combination of bus, tram and Metro. Even in the dramatic denouements of Silent Saturday and the final book, Urban Legends, Veerle gets to her rendez-vous with the serial killer by public transport!

I have to say that it didn't really occur to me to move my characters around the locations in the book by any other means than public transport. Veerle is 17 in Silent Saturday after all, and still at school; she would be unlikely to have the means to run a car. Many of the buildings she and Kris visit are fairly local to Tervuren and the pair can get about more inconspicuously by bus and by foot than by parking a car outside them. So there are practical reasons why buses and trams are such a part of the narrative. But actually I mainly used public transport in the books because I could. When we lived in Flanders I found it a really good way of getting about. The buses really do run that late, and to all those places.

If I tried to set Forbidden Spaces in my current home town, I'd struggle. The buses from Perth, though not as frequent as the Flemish buses, do run until fairly late in the evening, but on some nights of the week you cannot get a bus back from Stirling much after 7.30pm. That would put a bit of a damper on any urban exploration requiring the cover of darkness.

There's one other problem, too; as my blogging friend's husband pointed out, if you live in an area with very infrequent buses, you'd probably be able to track the evil killer pretty easily by looking at the time of the murder and then at the bus timetable...

Buses: transport for the discerning heroine.