The Underpainting of Pain

The dictionary defines underpainting as ‘paint subsequently overlaid with another layer or with a finishing coat.’ For me, this has become a very apt metaphor for chronic pain. For the last five weeks or so, I’ve been on a bit of a journey, all because of an ad I saw on Facebook. The ad was for an app called Curable, and as it was a slow, grey Saturday when I stumbled across it, I didn’t scroll past with my usual rapid FB perusal. I clicked on the link to go find out more about what it was. It might be one of the smartest (albeit unknowing) clicks I’ve ever made.

At first I wasn’t certain what I thought about the app, it seemed a little too airy-fairy to me to be something that would actually be useful. You see, I’ve had chronic pain for a little over three years now. Even before that, going back many years, I had it on and off. On the rare day when I wasn’t experiencing some level of pain, I would feel ‘off’ and it would take a bit to realize it was because I had no pain. It’s amazing what we get used to, and what becomes our ‘normal’. Recently though, it had gotten to a place where I couldn’t manage more than ten minutes in my chair in front of the computer before I had to get up and try to find a way to bring the level of pain down. I was beginning to fear I’d never be able to finish my work-in-progress- book five of the Exit Unicorns series. Fear is a small word actually for how I was feeling- I was terrified. Because I love writing, I cannot fathom my life without it. Just the thought that I might not be able to write loomed like a big dark pit in front of me.

Over the years I had tried everything, and I should probably pause here and clarify- my pain was in my back but had migrated around the front of my ribs to the extent that my doctor was doing all sorts of tests on my liver, wondering if there was something dreadfully wrong with it. As I said, I’d tried everything- yoga, stretching, wheels, therapeutic massage, chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, pain patches etc. It had gotten to the place where anything I did, including massage, was only providing temporary relief- as in a few days, and then the pain was back (no pun intended) with a vengeance.

Anyone who experiences chronic pain can tell you that it grinds you down, and it starts to really limit your life. I was starting to weigh activities based on how much I was going to pay for it in pain dollars a few hours down the line. I’m fifty, and the thought of what my body might be like at eighty was scaring the tar out of me. Pain grinds you down mentally as well, so that depression- when it’s not setting up house in your head, is at the very least, hovering at your elbow making tea and planning on a lengthy visit. So, when I read the testimonials about Curable, I figured I had very little to lose, other than the money for the app.

Curable is really based around changing your ways of thinking around pain, and building neural pathways in your brain around dealing with that pain. One of the ‘education’ sessions (the lessons are divided into ‘Education, Meditation, Expressive Writing and Brain Training) led me to a book called ‘Mind Over Back Pain’. As I read it I began to think I now understood what was behind my back pain, and it wasn’t the car accident I’d had years ago (a four car pile up in four lanes of Vancouver traffic, and my seat belt didn’t catch until my face was about a half inch from the dash) nor was it the bad fall I took on ice years ago. It was something called TMS- Tension Myositis Syndrome. As much as this seemed a little crazy to me, I saw a lot of my symptoms in the stories the doctor who wrote the book related. This is all about the mind body connection and how emotions that we don’t deal with (even from years ago) can cause us very real physical pain. It’s how the mind protects us from all those messy emotions, it gives us physical pain as a distraction- and wow, is that an effective system. Really rather miserable, but effective.

There were two things the first lesson on the Curable app taught me, which have become a bit of a mantra for me. The first was ‘recovery is not a straight line’, which I remind myself of when I’m having a bad day- because when your body’s default setting is a high level of pain, it wants to go there every chance it gets. The second thing is, ‘the pain is not your fault’. There is always a level of blame that comes with back pain that doesn’t have an actual structural abnormality as one of its components- that somehow you’re doing something wrong- wrong chair, too many hours in front of the computer, bad posture, wrong shoes, bad attitude, you name it, because the list is endless, and I’ve had pretty much every item on it directed at me over the years of seeking help. If you start from that place, it turns out there’s no good destination, other than a lot of money spent on a fruitless search for a better chair- I even sat on one of those dang exercise balls for several weeks, only to learn that bouncing like a manic Tigger is not conducive to getting a lot of writing done.

I’m a fairly emotional being, so the idea that I wasn’t dealing with my emotions was rather startling to me. But, I think I was dealing with them on a very superficial level, and then rushing on without really accomplishing anything. As it turns out meditation (not something I’ve ever been good at, the staying still in one spot or the trying to create a blank canvas in my mind) is super effective for making you deal with your emotional detritus. It’s a little like opening a closet filled with years of junk, most of which you thought you’d lost somewhere along the way, and others that you’d forgotten you ever had at all. And it falls on your head, basically, sometimes one item at a time, and sometimes a bunch at once.

I will be honest, this has been the toughest route on the pain path that I’ve ever trod. But it’s (like all the hard things) the most effective. I’ve had two full weeks with minimal pain, and my Advil consumption has gone way down. Not every day is great, and there are days I do NOT want to deal with yet another level of anger/shame/guilt/sadness but I’m always glad that I took the time later- it might be two days later, but I’m glad I did it. I’ve even taken up talking to my brain in a stern fashion, and checking in to see which emotion is topmost when the pain starts  up- and it attempts to start up every blessed day. Sometimes just internally lecturing my brain does the trick, I just have to catch the pain before it gets over that first hurdle.

Now, I think of pain as the topmost painting, the one the world sees (though to be honest, if you met up with me, you wouldn’t know because I don’t talk about it a lot, because really I felt there was no point, it’s not like talking about it ever relieved it) and this painting is in some pretty dark colours- slashes of red, showers of black, glints of iron, corroded edges of copper. The underpainting though is the emotion, all the years of it shunted to the side, not dealt with as I kept moving through life- because of course you can’t do that work everyday- there are children who need attention, houses that need cleaning and an artist’s work to be done. But I’d finally hit that wall where the pain was bad enough that it forced me to look deeper. I’m pretty damn glad that I did, even though I know this path is going to be rocky and that it will sometimes turn back on itself, and I’ll lose sight of the destination.

For now each day, I’ll remind myself that recovery is not a straight line, and that the pain is not my fault.

The one exercise I haven’t done yet- expressive writing- go figure. 🙂

The image below is a rather beautiful example of underpainting, and that’s my aim- to have that emotional tapestry below the surface become a beautiful thing, even if I’m the only witness to it.

 

underpainting

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The Truth in the Tale

I’m not sure how the creative process works for other people. I mean, I’ve read about other writers, painters, etc and how their process works, (and always find it fascinating) but it’s one thing to read about something and quite another to actually understand how that works. Heck, I am not sure how my own works if I’m asked to put it down in writing. Creativity and inspiration are strange beasts, they seem rather like quixotic friends who love you one minute and aren’t speaking to you the next. On the days during which they aren’t communing with you, you do the grunt work—editing, rewriting, constructing the fiddly bits which connect one paragraph to the next. My mode of writing might best be described as flibbertigibbet-y and so I end up doing a lot of work with those fiddly bits.

I don’t outline, and other than the history of the various places in which my books are set I don’t feel that I need an outline. I let the characters tell the story to me as they like, and in their own time—Mr. Kirkpatrick often takes great advantage of this. Still, especially this late in the game, I usually have a fair idea of where things are headed. As the series winds down, I have to draw all the threads together and tie them off, if not neatly, then at least in a fashion which will make the readers happy, or this being a tale about Ireland, happy-ish.  So, I thought I had a fairly good idea of where the current installment is headed, the front end is written after all, and I feel no need to change that. I had a prologue mostly written, and thought I understood what it was trying to tell me, and where that would ultimately take the series, and how the entire story would bow out, so to speak. Then last week I had one of those odd days, where I was working on something else entirely (‘Bare Knuckle’) for those of you who follow what I’m up to at the moment, and I had a sentence which kept insisting itself, though it clearly did not belong in what I was working on. So I switched screens and wrote the sentence down, more to get it out of my head than anything and then I wrote another sentence and another, and then several paragraphs. I realized once I was done that I was looking at a prologue, one that was insisting itself. This doesn’t happen all that often but when it happens it’s often a bit troublesome because it usually means the characters are throwing me a huge curveball. The last chapter of ‘Shadows’ for instance which insisted itself from about six months into the writing of that book, until I wrote it down and it completely changed the course of the rest of the series. This new prologue threatens to do exactly that—I’m not entirely sure who is talking to me through the prologue, it’s either Jamie or Casey, but I don’t quite know which one yet. Their voices are very different but as this is in the form of a letter, it’s a little harder to tell which one is speaking. Normally, it’s very clear which POV I’m in, they think and feel differently, though they clearly have some commonalities. Sometimes it’s obvious because of their surroundings, but in this case that’s not giving me a clue at all, it’s not a house with which I’m familiar- the house where the person is sitting writing said letter.

Writing each of them is always very different, Casey presents easily, solid,  very ‘there’ and talking. Jamie is much more fluid and harder to capture on paper, so normally that would also be a tell. Alas, when Jamie writes letters or journal entries, he does so very easily, so the letter writer could well be him. If the prologue writer is Casey, then the series ends a little differently than I thought, but it’s not earth shatteringprologueletter, if it’s Jamie, it changes pretty much everything I thought I knew about how this series ends. And it might require another book in the series to let it play out. This will make my husband smug, of course, because he’s always believed there are six books in this series not five. I’ll just have to wait and see what they feed out to me over this next while, and what it means for their lives, and the telling of said lives. I’m not even sure I’m okay with what the letter writer seems to be telling me, but I do believe in telling the tale they want to tell, not the one I might prefer, because it just comes down to the truth of the tale and the integrity within the story because of it.

Ultimately, though this is, in part, what I love about writing, it’s always about the journey rather than the destination, and the characters keep it endlessly interesting.

 

This Is Why #MeToo

When the #MeToo movement broke a few weeks back, when women starting stepping up and telling their truths, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of utter exhaustion. It’s an exhaustion I’m familiar with, and that I’ve felt for a long time. I could have posted #MeToo many times over, and I even wanted to, but found I couldn’t. I actually felt physically ill and I simply couldn’t do it, though if you’d asked me why I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer. Maybe it’s just that we women are so used to keeping other people’s dirty secrets, that it’s a really hard habit to break. I know it was really hard for a lot of women to make that hashtag and to post it, because to step up and say ‘Yes, this happened to me too,’ makes you feel like a bug exposed on a sheet of paper. We’re all very well acquainted with what happens to women who tell unpopular truths.

This morning though, as I see the pendulum start to swing the other way again, with too many people (oh so many of them women) saying ‘It’s ridiculous, it’s too much, this can’t have happened to this many women,’ I just found myself really really angry.  Well, sister, I’m here to tell you a hard truth—what you’ve seen in these last few weeks is the tip of the iceberg, it’s only the first wave in a tsunami of pain and darkness and terrible truths. If it hasn’t happened to you, count yourself blessed, but maybe be willing to listen to those who have gone through it. I don’t know all that many women who are unscathed by sexual harassment, abuse and violence.

So here’s my laundry list. And it’s by no means complete. And let me just say this up front—I’ve always been a pretty quiet soul, dressed fairly conservatively, just because I’m more comfortable that way and not because I stand in judgement of anyone who doesn’t. Women deserve to feel beautiful and to dress in whichever way makes them feel so.

-molested at the age of four by someone I should have been able to trust

-molested at the age of five by someone I should have been able to trust

-molested at the age of seven by someone I should have been able to trust

-at the age of nine my friend’s father killed her mother because she wouldn’t come back to him, then he killed himself and orphaned their children

-harassed at ten by a boy three years my senior, who was over six feet tall, while I weighed about 65 pounds at the time. I was terrified of this boy. He would corner me on the playground and put his hands down my shirt and up my skirt, etc. He was immensely stronger than me. I told a teacher, and was told to avoid him. At that age, I loved to swim—I mean I loved it with my whole self. It was my great joy to head to the pool every day in the summer after my chores were done. I was like a little seal and felt totally free in the water. I was a good, strong swimmer. But then that same boy started coming to the pool every afternoon too, and my time there became a nightmare. He’d undo the straps of my swimming top and try to pull down my bottoms under the water. He’d put his fingers inside my swimming bottoms. He almost drowned me one afternoon, which I remember with great vividness. I cannot tell you how terrified I was of this boy, I still can feel it in my chest talking about it now, forty years later. A lifeguard had to pull me out of the pool with a pole, as I vomited up water.

What finally stopped this boy, was another boy, his age and his size, saw what was happening in the pool one afternoon and came over and told him to stop or he’d beat the shit out of him. He waited for him outside the pool that afternoon, and told him if he ever saw him touching me again, he’d make sure he regretted it and then he walked me home. I never told my parents, because I had already internalized the idea that somehow, in some way, it was my fault. That I had done something to draw that attention, that apparently other girls weren’t doing. I know now though that other girls were keeping their secrets too. Odds were I didn’t have the language then to articulate what was happening to me—hell I was still playing with my barbies, and watching the ‘Donny and Marie’ show on Friday nights like it was a religion. There was no way to process what had been done to me, or to know I’d carry the fear with me into my life as an adult.

-at eleven I was followed home by a young man who lived on the other side of duplex a friend lived in. He followed me right into my yard, he’d actually run after me most of the way, because I was on a bike. To my horror my parents had gone out for a walk when I was gone, and I couldn’t get in the house. I did not know this person, and he was a good ten years older than me. I have no idea what he intended to do to me but he was about two feet away from me when my dog came around the corner and attacked him. My parents had arrived home in the nick of time. When my dad confronted him about what he was doing in our yard, he ran.

-at thirteen an older boy (he was eighteen) became obsessed with me. He would come swim at the lake where I lived, and where I swam after school. He was constantly rough housing me, picking me up and hurling me into the water, grabbing at my breasts etc. Again this boy was much older, and he was big and really strong. I weighed about one hundred lbs. soaking wet at this point. He took great pleasure in my fear and in my pleading with him to leave me alone. I stopped swimming after school. I hid from him. It’s what girls do, it’s what women do, we learn to behave like prey—we hide, we avoid, we make nice so that we won’t get hurt. The problem is we are hurting that entire time. The weight of all this crap is piling up on us year after year, incident by incident. And we internalize it all, because it’s too dangerous to tell the truth. We’ve been taught all our lives not to anger men, not to make a fuss, not to rock the boat. Be nice, look pretty and don’t ever ever get angry—because then you’re just one of those angry feminazi bitches.

-during all this time, I watched my cousin go through two abusive marriages, and took her to the hospital with burn marks, bruises around her throat and needing stitches in her face. All this done by a man who ‘loved’ her. And me knowing the entire time she would go back to him, and I felt quite certain, would eventually be killed by him. She wasn’t,but frankly that was a miracle.

– at seventeen I was chased across a walking bridge by a group of older boys threatening to find out if my pubic hair was the same colour as the hair on my head. I was terrified I was about to be raped. They stood behind me laughing after I managed to get off the bridge ahead of them. Why someone’s terror is so amusing to some people, I will never ever know.

-by eighteen I’d been called a whore, a slut, a cock tease, a bitch, etc. Most women have been called all those things, long before we’re even sexually active.

-at eighteen I was groped by a professor I’d gone to for hypnosis therapy. Extensively groped. I told a male friend and he said I must be imagining it (yeah, because every eighteen-year-old girl dreams of being groped by a man old enough to be her grandfather- literally in this case) but he liked the professor and insisted he was a good guy who would ‘never do such a thing’. I told a counsellor, and while she made it rather clear I wasn’t the first to complain, she also made it clear nothing would be done about it and maybe I should just not go to his office anymore, and you know, keep quiet about it too.

-at eighteen I was told by a man (ten years older than me) while I was stuck in a car with him, that he’d rape me if he thought he could get away with it. He also told me he could snap my neck without much effort. He could have too, he was big and also did enough drugs to be entirely unstable. I was completely terrified of him. He was related to me at the time through my cousin’s marriage. I never told anyone, because at that point, I no longer saw the point of telling people. They’d just tell me he’d never really do it, even if he’d said it. He was a good guy, don’t ya know.

-at eighteen I had a gun held to my head by a boy I thought I loved, because I had the nerve to break up with him. He said he’d rather I was dead if he couldn’t have me. I simply stood up, blank with utter panic and left the room, waiting to feel a bullet in my back or head. I made it out of that room, that house, that relationship, but I am all too aware that many girls and women don’t.

-in my 30s I was basically terrorized for some years by a neighbour. It got to the point where I told friends if I disappeared to tell the police to look in his back yard first. I said it jokingly but I meant it as well. My great sin? I’d talked back to him when he’d been rude and nasty to me one day when I was outside. He made my life a living hell until we finally sold our house and moved. Even then he showed up outside the new house we moved to that very first night. I talked to the police a few times, and they basically said I should avoid him if I could—which considering there was a driveway between us and nothing else, was a little difficult. After a conversation with his wife, during which she told me  that he’d gone on a rant after we put our house on the market, and told her he knew we couldn’t afford to move, and that I wasn’t going to escape him that way, I knew we had to go no matter what. Why he thought he knew what our finances were remains a mystery to me. I had made the mistake of angering him, and he really was determined to make me pay the price for that.

And then, of course, there are the every day things women know only too well—the men who tell you you’d be so much prettier if you’d just smile (I’ve never understood why some stranger thinks I should smile for them, so they can find me more attractive- that’s a real WTAF for me). The men who comment on your weight, your body, your face. The men who get really angry and abusive because you had the temerity to say no to them when they asked you out. For women, our bodies are public property from a very young age, and men of all ages feel free to make lewd and nasty comments from the minute we start to get breasts and hips, and suddenly that body which we took such joy in because it could run, and bike and swim and dance, is an embarrassment, becomes a tool for others to shame us and frighten us. We take all that inside and it becomes an unbearable weight. It becomes like a dark sludge you can’t ever quite wash away. And having said all of this, I am fully and starkly aware, that I have gotten off lightly compared to a lot of women. Women that I know and women that I don’t. So many women, who were once little girls who loved their bodies and all they could do with them.

When I said my list is nowhere near complete, I meant it. In truth you get so used to it as a female, that you don’t remember all of it because it would be too much to carry with you every day, everywhere. Because we know for the most part, people don’t want to hear it or will assume right out of the gate that we’re just another lying whore. If my language makes you uncomfortable, oh well, I’ve been called that a few times, and for no good reason other than saying no to a boy or a man. Because it’s not easy to say this shit—no one feels good about having this happen to them. We’ve all spent so much of our lives appeasing  angry males that it’s habit and self-preservation. And because I KNOW someone  is going to say it, I’ll save you the trouble, yes I know #notallmen and #ithappenstomentoo—there, you’re covered, you don’t need to say it, I said it for you.

So here’s me telling my truth. I don’t know if this will ease the weight I carry, or alleviate some of the exhaustion I’ve long felt around all of it. But hey, #MeToo.

Of Golden Moons and Firelight

 

If a forest is a metaphor for the unknown, a drawing is the stroke-by-stroke journey through the unknown: a laying this in, a wiping that out, all the time watching for the image to take shape and lead you into its very specific story. The image begins to give itself to you; you follow it, you serve it. Hence the kinship of making and prayer manifests, with each evoking and shaping the other, creating images which walk right out of the emptiness which has contained them. – Meinrad Craighead

 

This is the season of retreat, of the turning in to spirit and to healing in the quiet and the long nights. This is the time I ebb away from the regular world into my interior space, that hut in the woods where the fire—smelling of the dark honey of peat—burns brightly through the long nights. This is the space into which I go as the Winter Crone breathes her frosted breath upon my windows, and knocks at my door with her ancient, wrinkled hands. By this fire I pick up my stitchery (not of the physical sort, I am without talent in that area) the knitting, crocheting, the sewing together of blocks to make a full quilt, decorated with pearls and ivy leaves, with barley sheaves and moonlight. Each stitch a word, a row a sentence, a block a paragraph, the end of a ball of wool—a scene entire. I feel like the characters draw close to the fire as well, sit down, and tell me their stories on a deeper level, threads of both black and gold, bright jewelled bits of detail scattered here and there. Pamela with a hot cup of tea and a shawl— because she is never warm in winter, Yevgena whose tea smells of plum brandy, and whose eyes could tell you the history of the world from before the first light. Jamie, quiet, reflective, but with a glimmer in his eyes which informs you that a wonderful tale is lurking in the near future. Casey with his hands in the air, as he describes something in detail—a house, a fairy tale castle, a cottage he repaired where an old woman lives hidden in the forest. And all around the sound of children breathing and dreaming in the depths of night and firelight.

In some ways a series is different than the construction of a single book. While there is still the unknown at the beginning of each segment, it’s more like one of those books with hollow pages, where with the turn of each leaf a little more of the final page—the full scene—is revealed. With this series I am nearing the end of that lovely book, turning the last few pages to see the full picture revealed. This book has a strange feel to it, both one of ending and beginning (still not entirely sure it’s the last book, but it’s the penultimate one at the very least). I’ve said before that each book is an element for me, and if spring was an element, that’s what this one would be. And then, of course, there is Yevgena’s story, which is truly a caravan traveling along a neverending and windy road—sometimes a brilliantly coloured road—all reds and purples and vivid greens, sometimes so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face, nor the traces of your spirit.

I always thought it would be wonderful to be a painter. My dad painted when I was little, and linseed oil is still one of my favourite scents in the whole world. I love how paint feels and the way it builds slowly, slowly into something so much bigger than its component parts. Writing is not so different though, one just uses words rather than paint to layer, to create detail, to make a world entire where one did not exist before. Finding those images which walk out of the emptiness, and people a landscape we didn’t know before.

In the winter I think it is natural for all creatures—including humans—to turn inward, to go underground as it were, to turn our faces from the busy, roaring world and find peace, find rest, find the fire that burns inside but needs quiet for its heat to be felt. This is the hearth upon which creative forces are built to last out the rest of the year. It is the season written in darkness and the ink of pearls, which shines with a luminous subtlety. We need slowness, thoughtfulness, meditation to see something both hidden and pale in its beauty.

This is the season when my book will go from pieces, chapters, chunks into something more streamlined—I know because I feel the exact bulk of where it is now at— and it will begin to actually resemble a cohesive book that someone will one day be able to read, and hopefully love. And so I will retreat, turn my face away, go underground and sit by the fire in that cottage in the forest, and find those images which walk out of emptiness, to people a world entire.

Sometimes it feels like all the magic is gone from the world, there is so much strife and pain that it’s easy to feel helpless and small in the presence of so much that is heartbreaking. I ask myself at times what I can do in the face of all this, and in truth there are a lot of small things I can do and one is to make a little escape for people, give them a refuge where they can hole up for a few days, before facing the world again. And some days, that is enough—to provide that escape.

Winter with her great frosted moons, her brilliance, her quiet, her utter stillness reminds me that there are old enchantments lurking at the edges of our vision, but we need to awaken them and bring them back full and breathing, so they can remind us that we are magic, that life itself is magic. It is a part of my job, to walk those edge places, be they hedgerow or heath, forest or tide line, and find the still, small enchantments that wait there, and make them into quilt blocks, and word paintings, travel-weary caravans and the conversation of friends around an ancient fire. It is a liminal space, both haunted and visceral, this territory of the storyteller.

The vardo was warm when I went back in, but I was chilled and got into the bed swiftly, relishing the rough linen of the blankets and the luxurious warmth of the quilt. I was tired but could not settle, and it seemed Zuza sensed my restlessness for she spoke then. 

   “Would you like me to tell you a story?” 

   “I’m not a baby,” I said, a little indignant, though there was part of me which longed for a story from this woman’s lips. 

   “Child, a body is never too old for a story. I love a story, if it is told right. Now, would you like a story?” 

cottage_in_the_woods_by_bellefoto-d4swy17

   When she began, her voice changed and became something other, like an ephemeral body with a foot in this world, and the other in the world of the tale. It was a trait I found in every gifted storyteller I ran across in my life, this ability to inhabit two places at once.’

Fr. The Long Road copyright 2017 Cindy Brandner

 

 

 

 

 

The Hedge Dweller

 

   There is an old woman who lives on the edge of the forest, both the forest you can see and the one which lives in your mind and heart. You’ve always known her, even when you were a little girl, she walked near to you, a shadow glimpsed from eyes that weren’t yet veiled by the ways of the world.

I’ve always been drawn to this woman who lingers near the edge places of the world, the one with moss in her hair and the green and black of plant and soil upon her thumbs. Yesterday a friend came over for lunch and we got to talking about Jungian archetypes, and I told her about how drawn I am to the old woman in the hedge (or forest) and her response was ‘Well, that’s what you do, bring back tales from the other side of the hedge to share with people here.’ It struck a chord with me, because I suppose, it is what I do. I take down those glimpses I’m given ‘over the hedge’ and then transcribe them as best as I am able to. But I also feel it goes deeper than that, for me and for all women. Because we all know that woman in the hedge.

She is that old woman, the one you sense, the one that flits in the corner of your eye, more shadow than substance, or so it seems when you are young and cannot quite grasp the notion of being old, of having bent limbs and aching joints. She lives deep in the woods, in those Jungian forests of the primitive brain, the one which speaks loudest in times of fear and pain. She’s always just beyond the hedgerow, over the briars of wild rose and hawthorne, which both represent protected, undisturbed sleep. But this hedge dweller, this crone does not sleep, for she is busy spinning the fates of the world in her small cottage, hidden in the leaf flicker of the primeval forest. It is she who knows the words to speak to plants to release their full potency, she who knows the nine woods- which burn hot, which smoke out ghosts, which heal the invisible sicknesses. She knows the nine herbs too- those that are strewn upon ground and floor to make a bed for the midsummer gods to lie upon. It is she who sits by the fire, rocking, until her soul slips up the chimney, taking her to other dimensions where the view is both bigger and smaller, both universal and microbial.

I always glimpse her more easily this time of year, feel her wild nature shadowing my own. Perhaps it’s because this is a numinous time of year. You can feel the old gods rise as the sap does in the trees, as the shoots break the earth, as the flowers open and the birds hatch their young. You can feel that old woman- the one who has had so many names—Gaia, Isis, Durga, Freya, the Snake Woman, Danu, Artemis— rise from her roots, once again clothed in the green of youth. This feeling becomes more pronounced as the solstice approaches, and you know, or you remember in some primitive part of you, why people danced, why they went hand in hand off into the forest, to lie beneath a hazel tree away from prying eyes. You know why the fires were lit, and why you can feel the very earth hum beneath your feet, why the feminine was sacred— because she- this earth, this Gaia- was and is alive to the very last cell. This time of year is a rushing, it is being swept up with the ecstasy of the season- apparent in every budding flower and creeping vine, in every bursting tree and rising river. It’s in the beetle sleeping between rose petals, the bee drunk on pollen, the taste of lilac wine upon your tongue. It is the Mother in all her lush abundance.

The Goddess in her youth is represented by a birch, in motherhood by a hazel, and in the crone years by an alder. The ground beneath the alder was considered best suited for the psychic experience of the world of the dead. It takes the old woman of the hedgerow to straddle the boundary between worlds, to talk to the spirits and cut the ties of the world for them when it’s time. She is the wise woman, the crone, the hag.  The Germanic Hagadise or hagdusse– means ‘hedge-sitter’- and from that comes the English ‘hag’.  A hag  sat in the hedgerow between nature and culture, between the world of the spirits and that of humans. She brought knowledge from over the hedge—that of time and medicine, of the sacred and the profane, of body and spirit. She knows and tells the stories of what was and what will be.

She is the woman who knows the herbs to banish ghosts (St. John’s Wort, in case you’re wondering), those to render a woman more fertile, or less depending on her needs. In darker times she was called a witch, and in the original sense of the word, she was just that. For the old words from which witch derived—wik and wid—merely meant to prophesy, to consecrate, to bend and fold, to be wise and to share that wisdom.

The woman who sits in the hedge has ears that prick like those of a wolf, and her shadow has four feet and pads silently along the forest pathways under a quarter moon, sharp as a slice of metal. She lives in her instincts, her wisdom that of blood and bone, of loss and rage. She is immanent in all of nature, there at birth, there at death. She is Hecate, guarding the crossroads of life and death. She lives both backwards and forwards in time, for it is no more than a river to her, where currents run both ways.

The old woman of the forest, she who sees both sides of the hedge, comes to us in dreams, in instinct, in our fear and anger at an unjust world. She comes in healing hands when we care for the broken wing of a crow, or heed the cries of an abandoned kitten. She is at the heart of every fairy tale, waiting in her hut in the woods for us to come to her, seeking wisdom. It is easy enough, because that old woman who lingers near the hedgerow, who lives deep in the forest with the knowledge of herbs and animals and life in her hands and blood, is you, is me, is all of us. It think it’s possible that we have never needed her wisdom more than we do right now.

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The Process- Grains

‘In writing poetry, one is always aided and even carried away by the rhythm of exterior things; for the lyric cadence is that of nature: of the waters, the wind, the night.  But to write rhythmic prose one must go deep into oneself and find the anonymous and multiple rhythm of the blood. Prose needs to be built like a cathedral; there one is truly without a name, without ambition, without help: on scaffoldings, alone with one’s consciousness.’ –Rainer Maria Rilke

In the early stages of writing a new book, the process really is much like what’s described in the lovely Rilke quote. I will have a vague idea of what the book is about, but it’s all sort of lovely airy-fairy misty stuff, with nothing concrete—until the words start going down and become sentences, and then become paragraphs and chapters and parts. Usually I get what I call ‘grains’ some small thing from a few words to several paragraphs, which will be the centre around which a chapter will form. If a book is going to be any good though, and touch the reader in the way that it should—live and breathe for the reader—then I need to be able to find that ‘rhythm of the blood’ and also the heart of each book. For me that rhythm of the blood comes most naturally in the form of ‘grains’.

Often these grains will take the story in a totally unexpected direction- which is one of the things I love best about writing—never knowing where the journey might lead. So I’m just going to use a few as an example of how the process works for me.

(all these pieces are copyrighted 2017 Cindy Brandner).

Grain number one

This one came to me while I was out walking, I usually get my best ideas while I’m walking or when I’m soaking in the tub—water seems to be a natural conduit for those creative whispers from the universe. And yes, I do think the universe does whisper, in an infinite variety of ways. I truly never know where inspiration is going to come from.

a cold perfume…— yes, that’s all there is to this particular grain, just three words. I don’t know who it belongs to, or even which story it belongs to. I jot down the phrase and let it stew for a day or two, and then suddently the fragment enlarges a little to this—  “It’s like a cold perfume on the air, a scent that chills you to the bone and yet is inevitable at the same time.” I realize it’s being said, rather than thought, and I know it’s Yevgena who is saying it as soon as I hear the words in my head. Once I’m centred in her head, I can look out through her eyes and see what she’s seeing, and maybe then know what it is she’s talking about. She’s standing at the top of a hill, looking down over it- there’s something coming, something that worries her- that premonition is her cold perfume. It has something to do with a woman, not one she knows but one she will soon encounter—and that’s as far as the grain of sand has gone thus far. But it’s enough to get started with and I know the story will slowly gather itself, one grain upon the next, until hopefully there is a complete and glowing pearl when it’s done.

Grain number two

The small valley below was mysterious with shadow, the firelit hollow glowing like a fiery chrysanthemum in a pool of dusk. Longing seized her as well as fear—she wanted to go as she hadn’t ever wanted anything, but she dreaded it in almost equal measure. Something, some small voice she was becoming more and more aware of lately, whispered that tonight her life would change and that she might not like all the things that change brought with it.’ 

I knew this was Yevgena even as I started because that’s what I was working on- a short story featuring her. I was writing a bit where she’s in Ireland, after the war and her release from the concentration camp. But when I got inside her head for this, I sensed someone very young, still naïve, quite sheltered, not the woman I am used to dealing with who has a great deal of scar tissue in her heart. This is a young girl who has no idea what’s ahead of her just yet. I also know, just by looking through her eyes, that this is not an Irish landscape laid out before her, it’s a Russian one- thick with conifers, bigger in scope- this makes sense because Russia is where she grew up, until she married her Roma husband and took to life on the road. She’s looking over a valley she’s never seen before, and yet I know it’s not terribly far from her home. She longs to enter it- why? She also dreads it- why? These are questions that will need to be answered as the piece develops.  I know it’s going to be a night of great importance to her, but I don’t quite know why yet. Once the story unfolds in its entirety, I’ll have the answer to that.

Grain number three

All I had to start this was one line- ‘It was like a drowned mosaic…’ well, it’s a phrase really. It just kept a beat in my head for a few days, on and off, so I jotted it down and returned to it later, mostly to stare and wonder just what it was that was like a drowned mosaic. It sat like that for a few days, staring back at me like a phlegmatic frog, until suddenly it stretched itself out and took a small leap, giving me an idea of what it was about.pearlonsand So here’s the stretched out version-  ‘It was like a drowned mosaic, one of those ones sometimes found in Britain, sunk into an underground stream, the beautiful tiled floors with leopards and roses which the Romans had put in their bathhouses. The places where the tile had risen to the surface, and where the water was clearest were those moments—edged in crimson, leaved in gold—which were his life with Pamela and the children.’

So now I know it’s Casey and it’s his own thinking around his memory loss, and it’s clear he’s regaining bits and pieces but there’s still stuff in the dark. I need a sense of where this fits in the overall structure of the book though, and I don’t yet know. So if those are the bright bits of the mosaic, what are the darker bits?

The darker bits where the water was murky, were other things—things that were crucial to him, for he could not rejoin his old life fully if he didn’t know what had happened to him. He thought until he knew, until it all—even the dark and fear—came back to him, he would not be able to settle in, he would not be a full part of his family again. The doctors in New York had been of the opinion that he’d blocked it in part because of the trauma and that it might re-emerge when his brain felt safe enough to release those particular pieces of information. Either that, they’d said, or a sharp shock might do it.

So then I naturally wondered just what a sharp shock might be? Apparently Casey was wondering too.

When he’d enquired as to just what might be considered a ‘sharp shock’, he’d been told that running into whomever had done this—indicating his head—might just bring back his memory of what had happened. How one ran into a man, or men, who’d tried to kill you, without knowing who they were, was the question. There were old haunts of his in Belfast, places he remembered or about which Patrick had told him with concern in his face for just what Casey might want with such information. He hadn’t yet gone into the city during daylight hours, only a few times at night or near to it, the dusk hiding his face, his turned up collar, beard and low-brimmed cap, keeping his face hidden from those he passed. His size was a problem, not many men were as tall or broad of shoulder as he was. Still, he’d managed to pass unnoticed, if one didn’t count those that crossed the street to avoid him. With the beard, the cap, and the general nature of his presence (Eddy had once called him a forbidding bastard) people did tend to avoid him.

   So what did a man do then, if he felt he needed that sharp shock in order to see the other pieces of the mosaic—the dark parts, which would give him the full truth. Casey took a deep breath and watched the sun slip further through the branches of the oak. Aye, a sharp shock was likely what was necessary, a walk right into the heart of the maelstrom, otherwise known as republican Belfast. He only hoped the act wouldn’t get him killed. 

Now I have a solid start on a chapter, and also the lead-in to the four or five chapters which follow, which ends up being a solid anchor for that section of the book. Clearly, the top end will have to be worked on- he’s outside obviously (where he goes to do most of his thinking) and so I’ll need to situate him and have some sort of preamble to his thinking, possibly grounding it a bit with whatever is taking place in his life at this point. You see how those few words though became something much larger and how it became clear to me just where in the book this bit belonged. It’s rare I start any chapter at the beginning, I usually have to go back and ‘fill-in’ the top end of said chapter. The same goes for books, I generally have to go back and write the first few chapters once I’m done most of the book, though this book is presenting itself in a more chronological fashion than my norm.

One last grain…

She looked over at Jamie, his presence steadying her and banishing the vision of the workhouse back to that nightmare plane on which it lived. The fire left half his face in shadow and the other half touched with flickers of gold and red, painting him light-dark against the rough plaster wall behind him. She wished she could sketch him, could capture this moment with him and Kathleen, as if drawing the two of them would distill the moment and hold it, golden as honey, somewhere in time’s bottle.’   

An entire chapter grew out of this simple glimpse (and it was a glimpse in my head, looking at Jamie and knowing I was seeing him through Pamela’s eyes) at a quiet moment the two of them are having with their very new daughter. I’m not going to post any more of it here, because it’s too spoiler-y in nature, but this small piece ended up about two-thirds of the way through the chapter—so it grew in both directions, up and down. Sometimes a grain will grow quickly, other times it might sit fallow for months before I return to it and suddenly see what it’s meant to become. Sometimes I fret with it (like an oyster) on and off until finally it takes form.

I see the grains as that ‘rhythm of the blood’ because they are the naturally occurring bits of the story which give it life and make the characters breathe. It’s where the characters speak to me, in essence, and these are the building blocks of my particular ‘cathedral’.

In the following weeks—or maybe months considering how slow I am about getting blog posts together—I am hoping to write a few posts on various aspects of writing. I find it a bit hard to ‘tell’ how I write, (a natural teacher I am not) as I usually am so lost in the process that I don’t necessarily pay close attention to how I’m doing things. Maybe I’ll give myself some insight through writing these posts and hopefully you’ll enjoy them too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Season of Mist and Reflection

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“At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

 

It is officially autumn where I live, and for me the absolute best time of year. I’m not a huge fan of summer, I’m not even sure why, it just kind of dogs me down. This past summer was a season of loss for our family too—we lost three family members, a couple of friends and one of our beloved cats. I am not sad to shut the door on summer any year, but this year I am really ready for it to be done. I was diagnosed with anemia too, which has made me see everything through a scrim of exhaustion for the last few months (it’s a temporary condition and I’m starting to pull out of that funk, I think).

In part I love the fall because it’s such a porous season. It’s like a beautiful person approaching old age and you can see through the flesh to the beauty of the bones, to the very essence of them. The trees turn golden and crimson and yet you can see the winter there in the boughs, waiting. It’s a bittersweet feeling and all the more poignant for the knowledge that it is the most fleeting of seasons. Earth’s jeweller is hard at work this time of year- in the ruby of rowan berries and rose hips, the gold of birch leaves, in the pale silver mist rising from cooling ponds and streams and the strung diamonds of dewy spider webs. These are the most priceless of jewels, and they lend a richness to the heart which no ring or choker can match.

This morning I was walking in the park that edges my neighbourhood. There’s a pond there where a few years ago I watched a flock of geese come in to land. I could actually feel the air swooshing past my ears as they used their wings to brake. It was one of those moments that freeze frame in your heart, and you can pull out to look at later when you most need it. The geese are gone already, though they seemed to abandon the pond partway through the summer. I count them each year and know that less and less of them return. It is one of those things I notice but wish I didn’t understand. I wonder at times, if there will come a year when there simply aren’t any. As I said, it’s a porous season and the reflections are not always happy ones.

Creativity returns for me in the fall, I feel a surge and a tingle in my fingers and an absolute need to write. It’s as if the characters know it’s the thin time of year and so they come closer, speak a little louder and allow me to simply inhabit their world more fully.

We can feel the touch of those who have departed in the fall. They too can come closer and linger, and we can feel them across the divide the way we can’t in other seasons. The Celts knew this, it was what Samhain was all about. Welcoming home the dead, and keeping council with them for a night. The year, to the ancient Celts, had two hinges and Samhain was the door to the dark half of it. They considered winter the season of ghosts and Samhain was the night those ghosts rose from the Underworld. On Samhain, time became meaningless and past, present and future were all one.

As I listened to geese going overhead the other night, under the light of a full harvest moon, I thought of how the Irish once believed those lonely calls were that of the Wild Hunt, the cavalcade of fairies who came abroad on those nights to gather the spirits of the dead who were lost and roaming untethered by either hearth or family. I love that idea, that there is someone to gather the spirits of those departed from us, always too soon, no matter their years, it’s always too soon.

This porous season is a time of harvest and reflection before the dark half the year sets in. Autumn is the season I wish I could breathe in so deeply that I could taste it in the depths of winter. It is the season of staying, of harvesting, of gathering in and turning toward spirit. And so I will listen to the ghosts who linger near, and hear what they have to say to me. After all, they are my own.

I began with Rilke, and so I will end with him as well.

 

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,

as if orchards were dying high in space.

Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling

away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.

And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands

infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

The Next Book

The reaction to the newest book in the Exit Unicorns series- In the Country of Shadows- has been very gratifying. I’ve never had a book received with such enthusiasm and emotion. It has been lovely, and the fulfilment of some long ago dreams I had while writing little snatches of things at my kitchen table each afternoon when my girls were small. The idea of actually completing a novel was almost beyond me then, never mind four sizeable ones.

So, of course, the inevitable question which always arises with a book readers love- when will the next one be done?  This one is not quite two weeks in the world, mind you, but I think people new to the series may not realize that. When I tell people it takes four years for me to write one of these books, they tend to be a little aghast. So I thought I’d lay out a little of just why it takes me that long.

I am a slow writer, I’ll just be honest about that. The books I write are dense, filled with detail, with stories inside of stories, history (which is as accurate as I can make it, I do my research both through books and on-line archives and through on-the-ground talks with people and interviews with those who have lived through the history I write about) and several on-going story lines which get- hopefully- richer but also more complex as time goes by. That complexity slows the process down, but I would rather keep the complexity and take longer, than sacrifice the depth of the overall story. The truth is I wouldn’t be happy with something less than the best I can do, and neither would the readers.

My audience has grown a LOT since Flights of Angels came out four years ago, and so I felt I owed it to my readers to give them a release date for Shadows somewhere along the line. Because I’m an indie author I’d never had to do this before. I had always simply released the book when it was ready and let my fan-base know about it about two weeks beforehand. The deadline made me buckle down though, as I knew it would. I had to work really hard from August through to beginning of December simply to get Shadows done. This often meant I spent 12-16 hours at my desk each day, including weekends, in order to get the book done with enough time to spare for several rounds of edits and then handing it off on deadline to the formatting people at 52 Novels (who did a bang up job and are just all around terrific people to work with, in case you ever need formatting services). The production phase from completed manuscript to ‘real’ book was four months, and that is tight when you are dealing with all the details yourself. Every decision ultimately comes down to me- even though I do bounce everything off my husband first.

Something else that factors in to how quickly I write (or don’t) is how ready and willing the characters are to talk to me. I remember at the end of Mermaid I had a vision in my mind of Casey giving me one of his looks and simply shutting the door of their wee farmhouse in my face. The message was clear, ‘We’ll be back when we’re back, an’ only when we’re good an’ ready.’ This time is a bit different because there is no time gap between the books being that the first chapter of the fifth book will begin a few days after the last one of Shadows (and yes, that chapter is partly written.)

Some days the writing flows really well, other days- well, other days I gaze out the window a lot and hope the muse shows up for at least a few decent sentences. For me, as a writer, the quality only comes with the time and space needed for the book to breathe and grow and become what it is meant to be. Writing is a very organic process for me and so each story unfolds in its own time—rather like a seed sprouting under the sun rather than being forced under a hothouse lamp.

I usually try to make at least one trip to Ireland during the writing of each book. Being there always re-fills my creative well. If you have read Shadows then you’ll know part seven of the book (which takes place in Wicklow) is a bit of a love song about the Irish countryside. I never would have been able to write that as I did, had I not written it while in Wicklow. There is something about Ireland that is magical, and I always feel like my writing is just that little bit better while I’m there. Last time I spent a month there and I hope to do the same during the writing of book five.

Research is time consuming, but it adds the details that make the whole book come to life in a variety of ways. Even simple things like perusing dresses on Pinterest until I find one that is just right for Pamela to wear to a beautiful party in Paris, can take up a few hours. Or Gypsy caravans for instance-which as most of you know I have a bit of an obsession with- I like to know how they are built, how they are heated, and the practicalities of living in them every day. For the tarot card scene at the end of part three I did a reading myself, with a deck of cards that I find a little spooky, but which were the cards that ‘felt’ right for that scene. I did the reading and then wrote it out so that the reading Yevgena gives Pamela in that scene, was an actual reading. Writing that scene took several days, and that was without going back and filling in the details and fixing the mistakes. I did a lot of research on Native American culture for this book too. Most of what I read didn’t make it into the book, but I think the ‘ghost’ of it does infuse the book in the details that do make it and adds to the overall feeling and mood of the individual chapters in which Eddy appears. Which leads to the topic of secondary characters- they all come with their own histories and enough of their history has to be included so that they too become fully-fleshed people who live and breathe for the readers.

My creativity tends to be cyclical with the seasons, which isn’t probably all that rare with writers or artists of any stripe. I produce better in late fall, winter and spring. Summer is a bit of a dead zone for me for some reason.

I don’t do any of the things they tell you to do as an indie author- I don’t write several books a year, I don’t write short books that can be read in one sitting (well I suppose you could, technically, but I think your back might protest). I don’t write erotica or thrillers or romance. I realize this might mean I’ll never sell millions of copies of my books but I can’t write anything that doesn’t come from my heart—again this goes against the advice of what indies are meant to do, you’re supposed to approach writing as a business and conduct your career accordingly. However, I refuse to give less than one hundred percent to my writing and to these characters. I owe them and myself that much, and I feel I owe that to the readers too. If I ever ‘phone it in’ the readers will be the first to notice. I want to bring the same passion and commitment to each book, as it is one more section in the overall tapestry of the whole story of Pamela, Jamie, Casey, Patrick and company. And you know, I am pretty fond of them, and want to do them justice even when the things they do might make the readers want to smack them a little. And listening to them, and then crafting good sentences and captivating story lines from what they tell me, does take time.

There’s also the time taken to market the books- again, I am a one woman band here and I have had to figure out how to get the ball rolling so people would buy the books. I have to keep looking at new ways to market or new ways to perk up my ads to make them attractive- some stuff works and some stuff does not, but it all takes up time that, to be honest, I would rather use to write. 🙂

Also, I do like to respond to every letter or message I get from readers. For a long time I didn’t know whether I would ever find a sizeable audience. I have though, and I’m honestly grateful to each and every person who either took a chance on a complete unknown or who spreads the word about these books to their friends and family. It’s a pleasure for me to hear from readers because writing can be a fairly isolating profession, as I’m sure you can imagine. Also because it’s always nice to hear how my books have affected someone in their life, sometimes in ways that truly surprise and humble me.

Then there’s just life- cleaning the house, doing laundry, walking the dogs, paying the bills, getting the flu occasionally, and when he’s lucky, presenting my husband with a home cooked meal.

Now, about that ending…

The final chapter of every book usually comes to me fairly early in the process of writing each book. I don’t know why, they just always do. The last chapter of Mermaid was mostly written while sitting on the roof of a cottage on Cape Cod, where I was doing research for said book, which was mostly unwritten at the time. Suddenly, it was just ‘there’ in the way chapters sometimes are. The final chapter of Shadows showed up about six months into the process of writing the book. As I told someone recently, I left it to stew in the creative cauldron in the back of my head and went on with writing other bits of the book. I wasn’t sure it was right, so I wanted to make certain of it because it threw a lot of what I thought I knew about the book right out the window. Six months later it was still stubbornly persisting, so I allowed it out of the cauldron and wrote it and it felt right. Even though it meant I had to change my perceptions of what the book was about quite a lot. A great deal of writing (for me, I don’t claim to understand how the process works for others) is instinctual. I know when something feels right and when it doesn’t. This ending felt right, though I understand some readers found it frustrating. Plus, I had to stop while you all could still actually lift the book. 🙂

I come from a line of women who cleaned other people’s rooms and homes for a living, despite being some of the smartest, wittiest and funniest women you could hope to know. Not that there is any shame in that profession, it’s just that they wanted more from life but didn’t have the opportunity to do other things, but they in part made sure that I did. book stack_smallThey are the ones that told me stories and gave me a love of reading that led to my being a writer. I credit them with my innate stubbornness that has kept me at this writing gig when everything in the universe seemed to be telling me it was time to give it up- I’ve never been good at taking no for an answer.  I owe those women the best I can produce too, because I feel them at times, reading over my shoulder while I write.

All that being said, I am working on the fifth book and I have a side project that I am also working on which I hope to release some time between books four and five- it fuels my creativity to have something else on the go besides the main project. I’ll let you know when to look for that. In the meantime there are re-reads and of course, lots of fantastic authors on the shelves of both book stores and libraries.

 

 

How Casey Riordan Was Meant to Be a Secondary Character.

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Yes, it’s true, I foolishly believed that Casey was a minor character who was there as a foil and little else. I also thought Exit Unicorns was a one off book and had no clue until I was about two thirds of the way through it that it was meant to be a wee bit longer than that.

Casey, in his own charming and fairly forceful way made it clear he was no one’s secondary anything and the story completely changed around his presence. To this day, he is the one that ‘speaks’ to me with the most ease. It’s seriously like sitting down next to a lovely peat fire, with a pot of tea to drink and some whiskey to cheer it and having a long chat with a very dear friend. I only wish all the characters made my life so easy. He tends to be the character around whom events are set in motion, for good or bad. I had never intended to have a love triangle in my books, but one day Casey showed up in his brother’s kitchen and met Pamela and that was that. He knocked her for a complete loop, immediately. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Well, this is a complication.’

Casey turned, dark eyes friendly yet guarded and she realized she’d been staring and he’d felt the stamp of her eyes on his face.

“Welcome home,” she said, the words slipping from her mouth before she even heard them in her head.

“Thank ye,” he held her gaze until she, completely flustered, jumped up from the table and announced in a voice that seemed too loud and foreign to her own ears that she really must be going.

“I’ll see ye tomorrow then,” Pat said helping her on with her coat and looping her bag over her shoulder.

“Nice to have met ye,” his brother’s voice was polite but nothing more.

She walked all the way home, too hot to be confined to a bus, pausing halfway up the tree-lined drive of Jamie’s house to watch in wonderment the moon sitting like a Christmas angel on top of a cypress, a silver crayon cutout against the pale evening sky. Without warning it looped upside down and she had to step back to avoid falling. She blinked trying to fend dizziness off and put one hot hand to her forehead. She’d best go straight to bed, she seemed to be developing a raging fever.

 Of course he just took centre stage from there on, and I could no more resist following where he went than Miss Pamela could. He’s led me on a very merry dance, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. He’s turned out to be a very fine family man now, which wasn’t evident right from the get go.

Pamela- She has been harder to get to know than Casey, as she is just more naturally reticent. She’s shocked me a few times with the things she has been willing to do for the sake of those she loves. I’m getting much better acquainted with her during the writing of the current book. She showed up in my imagination at the same time as Jamie did. The two of them have been in residence there since I was in my late teens. It just took me awhile to get around to putting their story down. She was a little naïve (something that was cured rather quickly for her in Northern Ireland) and wide-eyed and in love with a man she didn’t entirely understand. Being that I’m an outsider to Northern Ireland myself, Pamela is my window through which I view that world. She and I get our shocks together. She’s incredibly honest, she’s kind, and she’s far tougher than I thought she was to begin with, she’s been showing me just how tough in the work in progress. But looking back I realize she has always been fierce and strong. The people around her tend to underestimate her because of the way she looks.

“Men think they understand love, but they don’t.” Her eyes were fixed on some point beyond him, words uttered with a strange ferocity that only deepened the chill he felt. “Men will die for freedom, they’ll sacrifice their last breath for something that’s only a theory, but they won’t do it for love. Men look at women and see soft creatures, but do you really think anyone who’s been a mother is soft? The first time you hold your child in your arms, you suddenly understand the darkness you’re capable of. Life becomes very black and white. You know you’d kill and do it without a second thought should someone even threaten your child. And sometimes if you’re lucky, you love the father of that child enough to do the same for him.”

“Lucky? You call that lucky?”

“Cursed or blessed, when it comes to love I think you’ll find it’s the same thing.” She sighed. “Why waste your morals on a man who’d kill you for merely crossing him once, even if you never intended to?”

 Jamie- My quicksilver, difficult, temperamental, self-destructive boy. He has the mind I wish I had, (well, I’d like to take a pass on the darkness he has to go through, but I love the other parts of it). When we first meet him, he’s emotionally locked away from the world due to the loss of his three sons, uses alcohol to numb himself, falls most unsuitably in love with a girl from his past who ends up falling for another man. He leads a dangerous triple life that he must keep secret from the world. He is also bipolar and doesn’t like to take his meds for a variety of reasons- this creates some rather highwire without a net moments in his life. His greatest strength comes from caring for others, though he has yet to learn how to look after himself properly. He is, however, very well loved by a large variety of friends and family. It is his saving grace many times. He’s also a damn difficult bastard to write. It’s why I think of him as quicksilver- here and then gone, and heaven help me if I don’t put everything aside the minute he deigns to show his face and let me have two minutes of his time. In ‘Angels’ however, he really showed himself to me through the vehicle of his journals. He hasn’t bothered to do that again. He’s the character that gives me the most heartache.

There are ghosts in my head tonight, dreadful, rattling things with the wind singing laments through their bones. That poem by Sorley McLean is brought sharply to mind—

Who is this, who is this in the night of the heart?
It is the thing that is not reached,
the ghost seen by the soul…

That is so exact, the ghost seen by the soul—elusive, yet I am never able to rid myself of it. When the days are especially sharp and bright and the very air tastes like wine, I know I will soon see that ghost. I can hear the faint echo of its chains rattle most clearly when my mind is fire bright and I can write without sleep or sustenance for days.

Tonight, however, is not a firelit one, and I can see the outlines of that ghost clearly, and how very dark and nasty is his shape, his visage that of hell itself. The shade of him is on the wall, flickering in my peripheral vision but not to be seen face on. He is too clever for that, this dark slitherer that infests my brain at will.

Tomorrow morning I may well wake up in another world, another universe even. I will be able to see the old one from my vantage point, but I will not be able to touch it nor find my way back to it. For there are holes between this world and that, fractured panes of glass through which one can view events and people though the broken glass always distorts them, shapes all interactions oddly, changes the light and the sound so that voices come from a great distance yet are overly loud and grating—as though every word slaps my skin and flicks at my nerves. But there are no maps for this dark planet.

Sometimes I really do believe the dead can walk. Because there are nights I’m certain I’m one of them.

Patrick- I’ll just say it, the boy is my favourite (though since writing ‘Spindrift’ he’s tied with his father, Brian). Easy to write, lovely character who has grown into a wonderful man (I envy Miss Kate sometimes). His morals and the way he looks at the world are closest to my own. I tend to be quiet and observe before acting, just as he does. He’s stubborn though never to a fault. He’s got his head on right. I am happy with the direction he’s decided to move in life. And yes, they make the decisions, I just hear about it after, as I’m taking down dictation for them.

TOMAS EGAN, ESQ. HAD NOT BEEN TERRIBLY KEEN to take on a young untried barrister for a twelve-month pupillage. Tomas Egan, Esq. in point of fact, had told Patrick Riordan sans Esquire to ‘Feck off, yerself an’ the horse you rode in on, boy.’ Patrick Riordan, a man of no small stubbornness himself, merely waited out the old buzzard, which was how he thought of this fearsome man of law. This man who had once had three separate test cases against the British Government pending in front of the European Commission on Human Rights, this man who, it was said, told the British Prime Minister that he could go shag himself seven ways from Sunday when he proposed sending yet more troops into Tomas’ embattled hometown. He was possessed of a roaring intellect, a gift of oratory and a fierce sense of justice. He might have been, some said, anything he had chosen to be—council to kings and prime ministers, a judge for the Privy Council, or even the leader of the country entire. But he had one love beyond that of justice, and that was whiskey. Ultimately whiskey won, and the once fiery young barrister found himself in a seedy office with flies on the windowsills, taking on cases that no one else would touch. There had been other firms to choose from, but Patrick had decided himself weeks before, it was Tomas Egan or bust. And so he merely stood his ground (partly because there was no chair on which to sit) in the rundown office, where piles of papers covered every conceivable surface, and dust lay thick as velvet over most of them.  And there he stayed, all six foot two of him, stubborn to his final inch. He was a Riordan, and Riordans stood their ground, particularly with crusty old barristers, even if said old buzzard had once been lauded as a judicial genius.

   “Ye need the help, I’d say,” Pat said, in response to a needling query on what the feck he thought he was doing barging into a man’s office, unannounced. Pat knew that this was not a man that needed flattery or finessing, he would recognize it for what it was. Blunt honesty seemed his only course. “Ye don’t even have a secretary.”

   “Don’t need one,” the man said, “not enough for her to do here, not many calls to field an’ no dictation to take. An’ I’ve certainly no need for some wet-nosed pup who imagines himself a barrister.”

   “Well, that’s the point, I’m not a barrister yet. I need yer help with that.”

   “And why is it you think I should be interested in helping you?”

   “Because I asked ye to. I’ve not got anything else in my favour, only that I need to do a pupillage under someone an’ yer my first choice.”

   The man leaned across his desk, blue eyes suddenly sharp as the edge of a new-minted knife. “How desperate are you, son, that an old shambling alcoholic is yer first choice?”

  “Yer the best at what ye do, an’ I would learn from the best. It’s that simple. I could have gone elsewhere, but I came here first. And I’m bringin’ a case with me, that I think ye might find interestin’.”

   There was a spark of interest in the old man’s face, though it was swiftly veiled.

  “Ye’ve got a case? Well, why the feck would ye need me then?”

  Pat took a breath, appealed to his own particular saint and answered the man  politely.

   “Because clearly I can’t try it, but you can.”

   The old man laughed, and laughed, until Pat, clearing a space on a stool he’d spotted under a pile of files three feet deep, sat down to wait him out. Patrick, unlike most of the men in his ancestry, had the patience of a saint, or as his father used to say the stubborn will of an obdurate bulldog.

David- An officer and a gentleman. He was lovely to write about and he brought a different perspective to the books, because he was the enemy and yet an entirely decent man, as the enemy often is. He was also a hero, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for someone he loved. I have missed his presence as I write this book. I enjoyed everything I wrote from his perspective. The war in Northern Ireland was a dirty war, but it was also painted in about a thousand shades of grey. David allowed me to explore some of the corruption of the conflict and how no one is ever all good or all bad. His character served to show what a conflict without a clear result can do to a man, and how someone’s perspective can shift hugely by getting to know the enemy as a human being. He also caused some problems for all the main characters, except maybe Jamie, being that he was on sabbatical in Russia for a bit.

He had chosen this spot after the original meeting with Casey that Billy had demanded. Casey was well versed in the treachery of his own country and used the isolated spot for a reason. David saw the wisdom of this, as long as one could be certain one wasn’t followed to such remote sites. For such a small country, Ireland had plenty of these cottages, long abandoned and swallowed up by feral nature. Home only to ghosts and the occasional badger, they were ideal for the drop off and retrieval of information that had to be kept secret. David liked to come here sometimes when the small, bloody city became more than he could manage and he needed somewhere quiet to think, or not think, depending on the day and its particular horrors. Besides, he was comfortable with ghosts, having been one himself in great part for a long time now. He felt like one more often than not. There were only pockets in his life now when he was certain he was fully human and not something near to invisible, drifting through the edges of life as others knew it.

He turned the stone over to find a wedge of paper, folded as his informant always folded such things, in a sharp-edged triangle.

He opened it and the world fell in, rendering his vision black for a moment as his heart raced out of control. He was on his knees without understanding that his legs had given way, the sharp edge of a stone cutting into the bony ridge of his kneecap.

A name, moved up, as the man who had been designated for the hit could not be found. A name common enough in this country, but not so common at all. Riordan. David swore. Which one? Which—for the love of Christ—one?

 Lawrence- He was fun and tragic all at the same time. Damaged, yet he sure had Casey’s number right from the get go. He was still capable of love and trust, though it took a bit. He forced both Casey and Pamela to grow up that final bit as well. I loved his mouthiness, his contrariness and particularly his relationship with Casey. He knew a man he could trust when he found one. I have never cried so hard whilst writing as I did when he decided to make his exit. I still miss him.

CASEY AWOKE TO THE SOUND of voices downstairs. He frowned, reaching down for the pants he’d shucked off in exhaustion the previous night. He could hear Pamela moving about the kitchen and smelled the heady aroma of frying ham drifting up the stairs. He eyed the clock, then blinked and looked again. It was only five o’clock. Who on earth could be here at such an unholy hour, looking for a bite?

He pulled his pants on and then grabbed a shirt, shrugging into it on his way down the stairs. He padded barefoot and yawning into the kitchen, only to stop abruptly halfway through the yawn to exclaim, “Jaysus Murphy, what the hell are you doin’ here? An’ in my wife’s bathrobe no less!”

Flip, having just bitten off half a slice of toast was saved from answering. Pamela turned from forking ham onto a plate and said, “He showed up late last night, you were dead to the world and he was half-drowned and frozen from the rain. So I invited him to stay.”

“Have ye completely lost yer mind, woman?” Casey demanded, “Ye don’t know this child from Adam, we could have been murdered in our bed!”

“Well we weren’t and he’s not deaf, so I suggest you keep your lecture for later.” Having said her piece, she proceeded to heap ham on the boy’s plate and re-fill his glass with milk. “More toast Lawrence?” she asked, as though it were an everyday occurrence to take in total strangers and feed them.

“Lawrence?” Casey queried, feeling like Alice stumbling into the midst of the mad tea party.

“’Tis my name,” Flip said equably, nodding his thanks to Pamela for a second helping of toast. “Named after the meteor shower, ye know—the Tears of Saint Lawrence. Bit of a joke on God mind, me bein’ named after a Saint. ‘Course the story goes that Lawrence was grilled on a spit by that Roman Emperor, Dy—Dee—”

“Decius,” Pamela supplied helpfully from her position by the kettle.

The Baddies

I admit it, I tend to fall a little in love with my bad guys. They are fun to write and I like exploring their back stories, and why they ended up as they did. I remember when Robin showed up in that first scene in ‘Mermaid’ where he kills the Scots soldiers. That was a real historical happening, and I wrote it in part to place the story back in Northern Ireland and its events at the time and because I was haunted by those poor boys who were lured out of a pub one night by the promises of a night of fun, and ended up dead in a ditch. It was so representative of Northern Ireland and how little the British Army prepared those soldiers for what life there was like. It was the world’s worst killing ground for a British soldier in the world at the time. Their hands were tied there, as N. Ireland was part of the UK, which meant they operated very differently there than they would have elsewhere. Several months into the writing, there was a scene where Casey goes into a pub for a drink and ends up playing cards. At the end of the game, I realized he had known Robin for a long time and then their history literally just rushed in at me like a dam had broken.

Love Hagerty, who also made his appearance in ‘Mermaid’ was an amalgamation of two real people—the notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger and his brother Billy, who was a politician. I liked the idea of combining the two personas into one, a politician who only had a thin veneer between the murderous mobster and his slick dealings in the world. I didn’t fall in love with him, mind you, but he was a whole lot of fun to write.

The Reverend Lucien Broughton- He’s a strange one, and I only sprinkle him into the story here and there. He is like an absence rather than a presence. He’s so cold, I just see a blank white in my head when I write him. He’s very opaque and I don’t exactly like trying to get into his head. I have to write a few chapters from his POV in this book, and I keep putting it off. I’m not comfortable in his skin, whereas I am with the other antagonists.

The bad guy in ‘Shadows’ is probably the most complex one I’ve ever written, and I absolutely love writing him. I hope, when you meet him, you’ll enjoy reading about him too.

And last but never least, Ireland. In some ways Ireland is the main character of all my books and she is always present even when my characters are thousands of miles away from her, she shapes their actions, their thoughts, and most of all, their hearts.

We fly through the night until a thin line forms on the distant horizon and we feel the relief of homecoming after such a very long voyage over the faceless, undulating ocean. And so we arrive at the edge of a country of limestone cliffs, soft-faced with moss and nesting gulls. In we fly across a patchwork quilt of a thousand shades of green and low stone walls with sheep dotting the dawn’s landscape. But do not let this enchantment fool you, for this is a land that has known much pain, whose fields are watered well and deep with blood. This is an old land, and our people have lived here long, some saying we were the small dark ones that dwelt in the trees before the coming of the Celts—but we are older even than they. We knew this land before man, before God, before light.

Now we wheel North, which in this land is spelled with a capital ‘N’, defined by political lines rather than geographical. Here lie the cities of industry with musical names like Londonderry, Ballymena, Magherafelt, Newtownabbey and last—the city of our concern—Belfast, meaning ‘sandy fort at the river’s mouth’. A fitting name, for it is a city built on red clay, with politics girded in ropes of sand and lives that dissipate as quickly through the hourglass of time and chance.

(All pieces of work are copyrighted 2015 Cindy Brandner)

Balance

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I have been slowly working my way through the first thirteen chapters of book four (not to worry I have far more written than these chapters, they just happen to comprise Part One of the book) and as I’ve been doing it I’ve considered all the things I look for as I make the first sweep through. One of the big things is balance, and this is something I look for with each sweep (and I will do many). By balance I mean that instinctive knowledge that one develops as a writer about what the flow of the book should feel like, how much weight to give certain events, which stories to tell, and which to merely refer to, or cover in a flashback. Here are some of the things I look for as I go through, fixing grammar and punctuation before I hand it off to Editor Number One(she deserves all those capital letters). I look for the amount of action- is there too much or too little? If there’s too much, I have to decide how I’m going to break that up at little. It’s important to give readers breathing space, particularly in books as large as the ones I write. The quieter more domestic sort of chapters often provide this, or a descriptive passage. If there’s too little, I have to decide how to pick up the pace. With each book this issue of balance becomes somewhat more complex- how much back story to include, without inundating long time readers with stories they already know, but give enough detail so that first time readers, who may pick up this book without realizing it’s part of a larger series, won’t be completely lost. The amount of dialogue needs to be balanced with narrative drive, the characters have to be described again to bring them to life for readers once more, and to give them flesh for those new readers. I add in tiny descriptive details that may have been overlooked in the first draft, just to enrich the scene a little. This is my chance to bring up the bones of the story, so that the underlying structure is felt but not seen, if that makes sense.

Here’s an example of one of those tiny descriptive details- originally I just had the character bending over the basket to look at the baby, and then the dialogue took over, but then I added in one small sentence, the bit with the baby’s hand. It’s not much but it adds something to the overall scene. To me this is comparable to painting, where the artist goes back and adds in or refines the small details, the things that your eye is naturally drawn to if you give the painting more than a cursory glance.

He bent over the basket where Isabelle slumbered on. He laughed as one tiny hand shot out in sleep, the fingers curling slowly under, like rose-pink fronds of sea anemone.

Reminding readers how a character looks is always a tricky business, after all they have a fairly good and very personal image in their head. If I’m lucky you’ve already been travelling with these characters for three books, so it’s a matter of keeping the detail down but giving enough to refresh the reading memory. Usually this is accomplished by the characters seeing each other after an absence, or meeting one another for the first time.

This is Jamie seeing Patrick for the first time in three years:

Pat sat on the sofa, his tensile strength resounding in the air. His presence was quieter than that of his brother, but still very definite, he was a man that one could not ignore, he would never blend into the background. Right now there was a great exhaustion emanating off him, however, which was of course, to be expected.

Just a short paragraph but it conveys the sense of him and that something big is going on with him. This is filled out a bit more in the chapter.

Originally, part one clocked in at sixteen chapters, but as I read through it I realized it felt too weighty, and there was definitely too much going on with those extra three chapters. So I moved them to part three, as the book alternates between two different story lines. I had to rework the end of chapter thirteen, because if the last line of a chapter matters then you can well imagine how important the last line of an entire part is. I like it to feel just right, and it will make me uneasy until I find the right way to close that part out. Fortunately, I did find what I was looking for.

I always consider what I want each part to accomplish as well. In this particular book, I have a new character who has been mentioned in previous books, but we haven’t met him until this one. He’s a major player throughout this entire book so I needed to introduce him quickly so readers have a strong sense of him from the get go. I also have all the main players to re-introduce, etc. There’s no time lapse really between the end of ‘Angels’ and this book, so that simplified things for me. I had the sense I wanted to ease the readers back into the characters’ lives a little, because a lot happens in this book, and I thought there was a need for people to settle back into this world before they get hit with all the events that occur as the story unfolds.

I consider each book as having its own element— ‘Exit Unicorns’ was earth, ‘Mermaid’ was water, ‘Angels’ was air, though arguably there was a very strong theme of fire running through ‘Angels’ as well. When it comes to ‘Shadows’ it’s not so much an element, unless you consider blood an element. There is a very strong undercurrent of blood running thematically through the book (there’s almost a pun there but not quite). The time period covered in the book- the fall of 1975 through to the fall of 1978, was a fairly dark time in Northern Ireland. There weren’t quite so many of the big events, historically speaking, but there was a lot of internecine fighting, a lot of collusion between the Army, the security forces, the police and the paramilitary organizations. So there was plenty of fodder for the book, but not one of those big events as a lynchpin for the entire thing- the way the civil rights movement was for the first book, and internment and Bloody Sunday were for the second. So structurally that makes it a different book, just as ‘Angels’ was. I found ‘Angels’ spine with Jamie’s journal entries, with ‘Shadows’ it’s a series of events, like putting rather dark pearls on a silver string. It’s a more straightforward book than ‘Angels’ was, which has made it somewhat easier to write.

Sometimes the process, when I get to this stage, where I am really backing up and looking at the big picture can get a little overwhelming- there are so many things to consider and of course, always wanting to make it the best book I possibly can and wanting it to be as good, if not better than the last book.

So that is a peek inside just one of the processes of writing. Now I need to get back to work on the book. 🙂

(The little snippets are from ‘In The Country of Shadows’ copyright 2015 Cindy Brandner).