The first question I get after a new book has been out a little while is ‘What’s next?’ Usually the answer to that is clear- it will be the next book in the series interspersed with a shorter work along the lines of Spindrift or Bare Knuckle. This time I was certain it would be Yevgena’s book, and that once that’s done I’d figure out where to head next–a possible continuation of the series which is not really quite part of the series–it’s not as confusing as it sounds, it’s just how I ‘see’ it in my head. The writing right now is coming in drifts of imagery, or snatches of dialogue and nothing feels too cohesive yet. It’s not Yevgena who is talking to me just now though, it’s Kathleen strangely enough. I thought if any of the children were going to speak to me, narratively, it was mostly likely to be Conor, but thus far that’s not so.
What follows are a variety of ‘drifts and snippets’ of what I’m working on.
Daddy had taken her and her siblings to Gleann-na-neGault in the summer, and they’d all had a drink at the spring. The place had long been a site of pilgrimage for those whose heads weren’t quite right, though Kathleen wasn’t entirely certain what that meant. Tobar na neGault was over an hour away though, and she didn’t even know if there was a bus she could take to get near enough to it to walk the rest of the way. So for today, this wee spring would have to do. Legend had it that a queen had come here long ago for a cure, had arrived mad and left perfectly sane. She’d asked Daddy about it and he’d said there was likely some truth to it, and that legends and the places from which they’d sprung, often had a factual basis.
“It’s thought some springs have a special chemical compound, making it likely that drinking the water does have some medicinal benefit.”
The foliage was thick and heavy here, the small spring little more than a bubbling pool at the bottom of the incline. There was a large stone to kneel on and a few faded offerings of jewelry and bits of cloth, set adrift on the cold breeze which had suddenly sprung up. It had rained heavily the night before and the trail was mucky, causing her small canvas sneakers to sink and stick each time she took a step. There was garbage around the spring, empty bottles and a few cigarette butts. She knew some of the local teens came down here to drink sometimes, and do other things–what she didn’t know only that Conor had told her not to come down here alone. His voice echoed in her head, his face serious as he spoke.
“Don’t go down there alone again, Smidge, there’s rough sorts who hang about, an’ while they may not hurt ye, it’s best not to take the chance of it.”
Also Pamela has had some interesting things to say, which make me a little worried about where the story is headed if they do tell me enough to make their various threads become a cohesive story. So far most of what she’s saying, though, is merely observation, which allows me as a writer to ground myself into the scene and place, and to start to get some idea of what this project might turn out to be. Wherever this all leads, I’m always happy to spend time in their company and it has been a comfort to get back to writing, even if it is just drifts of words here and there. It’s hard to feel like I have much of worth to say in the times we’re currently living through, but it’s what I know how to do, so it’s what I’ll continue to do to the best of my ability.
The firelight and the flickering of the lantern, which Conor had left lit, cast a gossamer web of warmth and cozy security over the room. It lit upon the round of the blue bowls, making them glow like lapis lazuli, and turning the bottles of sloe gin, still upon the counter, to blooms of deep rose. It kindled the bright gold in the red of Kathleen’s hair, cast drifts of peony petals into the flush of Isabelle’s cheeks, and settled softly lambent over Conor’s eyelids which drooped slightly with exhaustion. Daniel was curled up on the floor at her side, fast asleep, the light only touching his edges and the sparks of blue and green in the whorls of his curls. Pru’s head was bent over Abby’s, as she encouraged her to eat her vegetables, the light turning mother and child into a painting, one without lines or borders, like they were wrapped in a fine veil of smoke-gold. Sfumato, the Italians called it, that fine blending of colours to create an image without edges, something elusive, which changed a little each time you viewed it, in the manner of smoke and mist. And then her eyes turned to the head of the table, where her husband sat. No sfumato there, but the clean, clear lines of chiascuro–light-dark, bold lines in bone and strength, dark of hair and eye, even his presence edged upon the air, as if someone had inked him in with a well-sharpened pen.
He looked up and smiled, aware of her regard. He looked weary, and she thought–judging by the lines at the corners of his eyes–he had one of his headaches too. There was a tincture she made for him, when the pain wasn’t quite so bad, but this one looked as though he might well need his pills or the rather more exotic medicine he sometimes took, provided by Aine.
I’ve been working a little too on a shorter piece– something novella-sized is the plan right now. The working title is City of Dreaming Spires, and it’s centred around a very young Jamie during his time at Oxford, when MI6 first makes their approach to recruit him as a spy.
“The boy has a fierce amount of energy to him, could be it would be a good thing for him, focus his mind, bleed off some of his mischief.”
“He’s also reckless at times, which is not a good quality in a spy.”
Mordecai tapped his fingers impatiently on the table. “Isn’t it? He’s brave but not stupid. The bottom line here, James is that if I don’t train him, Felix will–is that what you want?”
James sighed. There were times he forgot how wily Mordecai could be if he truly wanted something. And he clearly wanted Jamie for this business in Morocco. Jamie was a grown man, even if he would always–to some degree–be that beautiful little boy with the mind of fire to his grandfather. It wasn’t for him to say yes or no anyway, Jamie would have to decide for himself.
I’ve also been jotting down bits and pieces on Bare Knuckle 2.0 as I’m calling it for lack of a better title at present.
Pat shrugged. “He doesn’t love her though, Da. What if he moves to Texas with her an’ gets stuck there because of bein’ stubborn?”
“An’ how is it ye’re so certain he doesn’t love the girl?” Brian asked, turning from his task to face his son. Patrick’s words bothered him, because it was entirely possible that Casey’s stubbornness would carry him all the way to Texas out of sheer cussedness.
Pat shook his head, dark eyes serious in the thin face. “Because he doesn’t look at her right, an’ when he talks about her his face doesn’t look like someone who’s talkin’ about the girl he loves.”
“An’ just how should a man’s face look when he talks about the girl he loves?”
Pat looked at him steadily, the way the lad always did when he was about to dish out some honesty.
“The way yer face used to look when ye talked about Aibhlinn, that’s how.”
“Oh, I see,” Brian said, feeling like the boy had landed a solid blow to his middle. It was one of the things he loved best about his youngest–his no-holds-barred honesty, but when it was directed at his personal life, Brian found it a little harder to love.
“Why don’t ye see her anymore, Daddy?”
“Ah, that’ll be my private business,” Brian said, “a man has to have somethin’ he keeps to himself, no?” He kept his voice light but he could see his son wasn’t convinced in the least.
“Only I wondered, because ye don’t seem all that happy since ye stopped, that’s all.”
Brian swallowed back a splinter of pain in his throat. He ought to have known his boys would see the truth of it. He likely wasn’t hiding it as well as he’d believed he was either.
And last but never least, Yevgena’s story which I thought would be the narrative demanding to be told. However, the pandemic has really leached my creativity and I’m only starting to feel the stirrings of its return.
The deck was in a small velvet bag, tucked under all the blankets in the chest which formed a seat for the small table at which she took tea, and made her herbal potions. I slid the cards out, a shudder of revulsion running through me as the deck dropped into my hands. All the cards were disturbing but none more so than the Queen of Spades. She sat on a throne made of twisted rose briar, holding a spray of arrows in her hand, drops of blood falling from the tip of each finger. A rose cane grew up around her arm, and then wrapped around her throat, a drop of blood visible for every thorn. The dark queen, as old as time, she who stood at the crossroads of time, fate and chance, she who roamed in graveyards at night and ruled all men regardless of their power and passions on earth.
“Put the card at the door, Zhenya.”
A distinct tremor of fear rippled through me. To place the card at the door was to invite the Queen of Spades in, and while this might all be grand theatre on another night, tonight it seemed all too possible to summon a dark queen from the depths of this forest.
I put down the card, not looking at that chilling Queen of Spades with her black eyes and knife-edged sceptre. The card sat, small and flat, on the floor, and yet it seemed to pulse with a malign intent.
“You must put the chair by the door for her, or she won’t feel welcomed.”
“Zuza, I don’t think—”
“Zhenya, just do it,” she said, harshly, her dark eyes pinning me to her will.
I sighed, uncertain how far I should humour her. After a certain point I knew I was opening the door to darkness with this. Nevertheless, I pulled out the small camp chair which Zuza used by the fireside most nights. With each step in the ritual the hair on my neck rose a little higher.
“And now you must open the door.”
“I can’t open the door, Zuza, we’ll both freeze.”
“Just for a moment, that’s all she needs—just a moment to come in from the cold.” Zuza had pushed herself up onto her elbows, a look of desperation printed across the fine-lined face. “Open the door, little dove.”
The old endearment startled me. Zuza hadn’t used it since I’d married Mihai. I would open the door, but only for the briefest second, just enough so she could feel the cold on her face, and know I’d obeyed her.
The wind pushed the door in so swiftly that I had to jump back to avoid being hit. It was keening now, like a woman who’d lost the love of her life, and for a moment I thought I saw something in all that blowing snow and darkness—a form, a woman, tall and haggard, wrapped in a tattered shawl. I grabbed the door and pushed it back, creating an eddy of snow whirling down through the candlelight. Small, cold mice feet skittered down my spine, and I could not squelch the feeling that something had just slid past me into the vardo.
On the business side of things, I had an author coaching session with a literary agent (he doesn’t rep books anymore just coaches authors on how to find representation) which was interesting, though I don’t know that I came away with any big epiphanies. But sometimes it’s enough to have your thoughts on things confirmed. I’m writing commercial grade fiction (I knew that before), my sales figures are good enough to tell him there’s something organic going on with the spread of my books, and that he thinks it’s quite likely I should be able to find mainstream respresentation for my books. While that was encouraging, he also mentioned that if I make that leap and the books don’t sell any differently than they do now, I’d be losing a lot of money. It would be the difference between getting 70% of the profits and getting 5-10% of the profits. His summation was I’d need to sell really well to make the jump worth it. So that leaves me a little uncertain as to what’s next.
Here’s the thing, I’ve been cursed with a fair bit of ambition. I am always happy to sell books and I sell some every day–some days a lot and some days only ten or twelve, but still I sell every blessed day. I can’t help but wonder with a push from a professional marketing team, with reviews where people see and read them, just how far these books could go. I know every person who writes believes their book is a piece of magic, and when you create something it’s hard to extricate it from your heart and soul and to see it with any sort of objectivity. Frankly, I do not think we’re meant to view our own art with any objectivity, though. But I still feel like these books of mine could make the jump and become big sellers for some publishing house out there. Readers say it all the time, and people connected in other ways to the industry believe it too. The gatekeepers, however, have kept the door firmly locked to me and my work– why, I don’t know and some days that’s the most frustrating thing of all. Maybe I’m naïve, but I still believe in my books. I believe there’s a hell of a lot more people out there who could fall in love with Casey, Pamela, Jamie and company.
And on a more positive note for those who follow along here but maybe don’t follow me on my FB page, the books are under option right now with the hope to have it developed into a tv series. So cross your fingers for me!
All excerpts copyrighted 2020 Cindy Brandner Sea of Stars, City of Dreaming Spires, The Long Road and Bare Knuckle 2.0