About the Quill

One of the key elements in the story of The Scrivener’s Tale is a quill.  It erupted into the story because I was talking about scriveners and their role in medieval times.  I realised I knew very little about quills – I suppose I thought it was just a feather with a nib.  But as I began to research it, I became fascinated by the history of writing and especially this most humble of writing tools.

Communicating through semi permanent markings on a surface probably began as far back as 5000 years according to history when man began to make markings on stone and it perhaps took several more centuries before man first began to scratch the surface of moist clay tablets with a piece of bone.  Later, along came those cluey Egyptians who developed formal written communication through hieroglyphics on papyrus.

A stylus scraped on waxed tablets came next and took us through the Roman period into the Dark Ages and ultimately to around 1000AD when a shaped feather, sharpened at its end and dipped into ink could achieve letters onto parchment, because by then we were writing words that others could read and understand.

It is said that this form of writing emerged in Spain – who knows? – and because it was effective, but still rather cumbersome, only capital letters were used.

Some bright spark had the inspiration to attach a nib that could be dipped into ink, which incidentally can be traced back to around 1800BC and the wise Chinese who developed plant, animal and mineral inks.  I grew up with hearing the words ‘Indian ink’ and although it seemed perfectly natural to hear it called that I didn’t know what it meant.  South Indian scholars were writing with sharp needles and ink made of a variety of substances from tar to burned and moistened ground bones from at least 400BC it is believed.  Sticks of ink were imported from Asia and the Orient to liquefy with water and ‘indian ink’ possibly comes from this trade.

Ink kept developing and colours were pioneered – blue from fruits to begin with, brown from cuttlefish, I think.  So did writing implements keep developing in tandem and around the time of the 12th Century, ink was being used in Europe on parchment or vellum – the skin of a kid goat usually – and made from bark, boiled with water and wine and reduced until the liquid became black.

Quills were developing in sophistication too.  They are fashioned from a primary flight feather; it’s from these that it gets its strength, while at the same time having the flexibility required.  Being left or right handed affected which side of the bird the feather was chosen from and how it curved – clever eh?  So if you were right handed, for instance, the feather for your quill would come from the left side primary feather so it curves gently away from your writing side.

 

 

You can imagine that no two quills would produce the same shapes; some might allow the ink to flow easier, others may scratch more, their tips would wear quickly and break, needing constant trimming.  Just as I have favourite pens, I’m sure some scribes had favourite quills.

I have learned while writing this blog that the finest quills were from raven feathers – if that’s true then we have some lovely synergy at this blog, given that the last entry was about ravens.  However, when researching the novel I discovered that although feathers were selected from a variety of birds, the goose quill was perhaps the most popular but the swan was prized….. particularly for scholars or scribes in monasteries.

So Gabe’s quill in The Scrivener’s Tale, started out as an element that bound the modern day writer in Paris with the medieval scribe in Pearlis and I liked bringing the two worlds together through this bird’s feather.  I had no idea when I introduced it, that it would be such an important touchstone for Gabe or the vital clue for the Queen.

 

 

 

Ravens…and Merlin

For those of you familiar with my fantasy work, you’ll know that sooner or later a bird is going to crop up in the story.  I don’t know why this happened 12 years ago when I began my first novel.  I’m no lover of caged birds; for me it doesn’t matter how much pleasure that parrot or canary brings, it seems to mock the whole point of being a bird.  Anyway, when I began writing and needed a quiet space to work from, my husband converted an old shed at the bottom of the garden.  He made it look like a cottage, rendering it to look like stone with some lovely old windows he salvaged and an old door.  So now I can look up and down the garden from my office and it inevitably means that through the seasons I share the lives of the many birds and their young which live within the bounds of our property or visit our garden.  And our place has become a haven for so many birds in the neighbourhood as no cat dare cross an inch of our property for fear of a border collie or foxy terrier letting it know it’s trespassing.

I think it’s from this early time in my writing and sharing my writing space with everything from doves to crows that birds have infiltrated my imagination.

Add to this the fact my recurring dream that I can fly.  I have flown in my dreams throughout my life, so perhaps it’s predestined that birds sneak their way into my books.  They’re not always obvious;  Cloot was, in Trinity but Fynch in The Quickening less so until the reader realises his name mimics the bird; Pez reveals himself in Percheron, and of course, Ravan in Valisar.

 

 

 

 

Without any planning, without even being aware of him stealing up on me, Ravan found his way into The Scrivener’s Tale as well.  Anyone who has read Valisar will recognise his cameo appearance early on in the tale and for those who remember his role in Valisar, you’ll recall he could move in either a man’s or a bird form.  Be warned, it is a swift glimpse of this returning character and then he’s gone again.  It was quite a surprise for me to see him make his way onto the ‘stage’ but he had his role to play and I didn’t want to ignore his reason for arriving into the story.  (You see when you don’t plan the plot of a story, this sort of walk-in part occurs).

Ravens are easily my favourite birds in storytelling; they are ancient, carry the weight of legend on their shoulders and are often loathed because they signify the omen of death.  They are also the messengers of myth.  All of this amounts to the perfect creature to roam my fantasy stories.

They’re acrobatic flyers and can give the more sexy birds of prey, like hawks and falcons a run for their money. They may even be the most intelligent birds on the planet along with their cousins – crows and magpies.  A lot of people think of these birds as scavengers because they see them feeding on carrion, when in fact they’re smart enough to organise themselves to hunt in packs if the prey is too large for just one.

I like the generally held notion that these birds mate for life and raise their young together for quite some time.  They can live alone, or isolated in pairs but they’re more than capable of moving in family groups and are prepared to join bigger flocks, working together and roosting together.  It’s all about their intelligence and whatever suits their circumstances. These are really big birds too, who look like they’re wearing shaggy trousers and their feathers are a glossy black that in the right light go almost purpley-blue.  When in flight they have a wedge-shape to their tail feathers and those long, narrow ‘fingers’ shape the tips of their wings.  They’re all round more slender than crows and they are soot black throughout – even their eyes.  Beautiful!

They are northern hemisphere birds to my knowledge and in ancient times it was common to see ravens following groups of people on wagons, sleighs, or even hunting parties on horseback, ever the opportunists for easy food.  Isn’t it a parched raven in Aesop’s fable who solves the problem for how to drink from a small amount of water from a tall jug by systematically filling the jug with stones until the water reaches high enough for him to sip?  This is a wise bird species.

I met a raven this year called Merlin – one of the pampered few – living at the Tower of London and I’m not sure if everyone knows the story but ravens have been living at the Tower for hundreds of years.  Reaching back to medieval days, it was decided that The Tower must always have six ravens present (and these days they keep a spare!).  The superstition goes that these beautiful, glossy black birds of omen protect the Crown and should they ever leave, then the throne of England would topple and the nation would perish.  To read more about the Ravens in the Tower, there’s a good article on Wikipedia.

Ravens on Tower Green at The Tower of London (not taken by me)

I got to see Merlin up quite close and personal as I was fortunate enough to get behind the scenes at the Tower while researching for a new book for HarperCollins.  And even though I was focused on a different novel, as soon as I clapped eyes on Merlin I knew he looked exactly how I imagined Ravan when I crafted him for Valisar and again more recently for his appearance into Gabe Figaret’s life in The Scrivener’s Tale.

Merlin at the Tower of London in April 2011…note his little red ring around his right foot. Each of the six ravens and one spare are colour coded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How appropriate then, that a raven named after an infamous wizard of fantasy said hello to a fantasy writer gearing up for a new fantasy novel.  Serendipity perhaps?

 

 

Notre Dame Cathedral

I’ve been travelling regularly through Paris now for thirty years.  I think I said in an earlier blog that it’s my gateway of choice into Europe and often into Britain in days gone when I couldn’t face London Heathrow.  Anyway, certain rituals have developed, one of them is to pay a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral, each time I pass through the city; sometimes I go inside and sit down for a while, other occasions I just walk by or touch the building on my way through from the Right Bank to the Left Bank.  I never ignore it despite that it is also a hotspot for other tourists too and can often be ridiculously crowded in summer.

It sits on the Île de la Cité, an island on the Seine River and is a breathtaking example of French gothic.  My favourite aspects of its wonderful architecture are the fabulous flying buttresses and the gargoyles.  I didn’t know until relatively recently that those creatures were once painted.  Construction began in the 12th century. 

It has inspired many a creative person, especiallly storytellers – including me – and particularly one late autumn afternoon when I strolled in and a choral group gave an impromptu performance at the bottom of the great nave.  Could barely keep my eyes dry to hear those soaring voices in that beautiful space. 

Anyway, I have written about Notre Dame in travel articles and it features in two of my novels now, The Lavender Keeper and more recently, The Scrivener’s Tale.  In the first it’s part of the sumptuous backdrop of Paris that is taken for granted by its German occupiers in WWll and we see it through the eyes of one character in passing.  In Scrivener, however, it is a key location and a place of inspiration, awe and tremendous comfort for Gabe Figaret.  I’ve never been conscious of imbuing any aspects of myself into a character but I was genuine aware of giving Gabe his fascination for Notre Dame because of my own.  It becomes a touchstone for him – almost a magical place that can calm him or certainly reassure him, simply by him passing by.  In fact he is drawn to the city’s cathedral because since childhood he has been creating the architecture of a cathedral in his mind as his ‘safe place’.  Whenever Gabe is anxious – for example preparing for an exam and even while sitting that exam – he disappears into his mind and to his ‘cathedral’ he builds around himself.  The cathedral looks similar to Notre Dame but is clearly not the same church; he has never seen the cathedral anywhere other than in his mind and yet it is so detailed, so real for him, it is as though he’s reconstructed it from a photograph or a visit.

And it’s this cathedral of Gabe’s mind that forms his strength and one of the pillars of the story of The Scrivener’s Tale.  It is a channel for a special skill but also somewhere during the story that he must retreat to, as you’ll discover.  It’s a complex idea but it worked for me when I was crafting Gabe and gave him the slight strangeness I wanted – that sense of being a ‘fish out of water’ he gives off.  His isolated ways are at odds with his physical attractiveness that draws people to him.  Gabe wants the quiet life and we soon learn about the trauma that has shaped it and why he has been running away from himself for years, why the mind cathedral is so important to him – even now as an adult – and his previous occupation is exposed in the opening chapters.

Gabe lives close to Notre Dame Cathedral and whenever he must cross the Seine, which is rare, he walks across the Parisian bridge that will allow him to skirt the cathedral in each direction.

When I was doing the research for the book and walking across that same bridge – Pont de I’Archevêché  – the Archbishop’s Bridge – I noticed it had become a ‘lovelock’ bridge for visitors and was charmed to read all the lovely padlocks snapped into place by people from all over the world.

They must clear them each year – pity – because it was near enough empty when we snapped on our padlock. (photo from Wikipedia)

Of course I had to join in and went in search of a small padlock and realised that traders nearby, in and around the 5th arondissement, were doing a busy trade in padlocks and barely batted an eyelid when I walked into a cafe and said ‘do you sell padlocks?’  How weird is that?

A few euros later I had locked mine into place on the bridge declaring my love for husband and Paris!

I did have a lot more about Gabe’s Paris in the story but I’m afraid it had to be culled for all the right reasons because the book had become so huge.  Nevertheless, I hope you’ll still enjoy a strong sense of place when you walk around these streets with him.

 

 

The 6th

This neighbourhood – arguably the quintessential Paris – that borders the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, gathers into its embrace Saint-Germain des Prés, the truly exquisite Luxembourg Gardens and perhaps part of the Latin Quarter, the intellectual heartland of the city.

The Medici Fountain in the Jardins des Luxembourg

It is an area that has more than its fair share of history, beautiful boulevards, shops, galleries, small museums, amazing foodstores and bakeries, cafes and of course those gardens!  It also has a Pierre Hermé chocolate salon … need I say more?  The experience of buying a single macaron in the salon feels like buying jewellery anywhere else!  Hugely pretentious – ‘no photos!’ the coiffed assistant snarled – but oh, the snarl was worth it for that beautiful bag of goodies that you’ll need your credit card for.

This sales assistant did not want me photographing the macarons I was buying at Pierre Hermé

Two of the most famous cafes in all of Paris can be found neighbouring each other adjacent to the historic abbey of Saint-Germain des Prés on Boulevard Saint Germain where rich people in expensive cars drive around just to be seen.

Swanky cars are always cruising down the Boulevard Saint Germain

 

 

 

 

 

Les Deux Magots and Cafe de Flore have long been the haunts of writers, philosophers, artists, scholars.  Jean Paul Satre, Picasso, Hemingway were regulars.   When I visited Les Deux Magots it was the height of summer and the only available place to sit was a teeny space on the street and while everyone was throwing back chilled wine or soft drinks, I ordered a hot chocolate.  I know the waiter thought I was crazy but I had been told that the hot chocolate here is special…and it was.  A hungry sparrow joined our table and was surprised enough not to be shooed away that it near enough ate out of our hands, happily stealing snacks from the tiny and no doubt horribly expensive bowl that came with our drinks.

Our friendly Parisian sparrow, who joined us for drinks and a snack at Les Deux Magots

And while I sat there and planned that this cafe’s popularity with the Nazi hierarchy would suit a location for the novel I was writing that was set during WWll in Paris, I realised it was also an ideal stomping ground for my lead character in The Scrivener’s Tale.

I wanted Gabe Figaret, who feels so lost and disconnected in the world he lives, to feel that the neighbourhood of the 6th is his safety space.  He’s wealthy, he can afford an apartment in its quieter, manicured streets.  He feels secure jogging around the serene Luxembourg Gardens  - magnificent no matter which season and 24 acres of manicured beauty midst a busy metropolis.

Luxembourg Gardens…breathtaking in any season

He loves the Left Bank, the narrow lanes that emerge into hidden squares, cluttered with arty, fashionable stores and small, exotic restaurants.  Gabe does not like to cross the river onto the Right Bank but he does love Notre Dame Cathedral that dominates the central island, straddling the Seine and so near to where he lives.

A rooftop view over a typical street in the 6th

Gabe walks to work – it’s barely minutes from his apartment – and I couldn’t help but have him working in a bookstore; where better than Shakespeare and Co, the famous book shop on the Left Bank that stocks English language books?  I didn’t call it that, of course.  I don’t think I gave the shop a name.  And once I’d decided that he was running away from his ‘old life’ I knew he had to be someone who wanted to write a novel.   And this is fitting, given that the neighbourhood is often considered the home of the artistic quarter.

Sitting outside Shakespeare & Company on the Left Bank researching The Scrivener’s Tale

And so it’s within these salubrious streets that we enter Gabe’s world and get to know his small but privileged life that he lives in a few square kilometres of Paris.  And when we first meet Gabe, his life is about to change brutally, dramatically and his dreamscape turns out to be real … but so does his nightmare.   Enjoy!

Paris and Pearlis

These are my two major cities in The Scrivener’s Tale.

Fantasy stories don’t just come in series simply out of habit; for the most part these tales are epic in scale – with big stakes and a big cast – that require some room to move and develop worlds with all their history, culture, social set up, architecture, politics, spirituality, etc.  Then there’s the magic – a whole new beast to consider – how does it work, what are its rules, who can wield it and why…and when?  Then there are the characters, often a host of them and that cast keeps growing through the volumes, each member requiring backstories and lives with personalities to be developed.  Phew….no wonder fantasy authors need lots of pages.

So with that in mind once the decision was made to break my mould of the last dozen years and write a single volume fantasy, choosing to return to Morgravia was easy … it was always my favourite land and Pearlis a capital city that felt instantly familiar.   Most importantly, all of the features I’ve just described in terms of ‘world building’ were already done for me in The Quickening.

Readers familiar with the story would slip back into the land of Morgravia with ease and new readers wouldn’t find it challenging because it smacks so strongly of the world we know.  The real bonus for me, though, meant I could just hit the world running, so to speak, and I didn’t need to commit precious words to developing all of those components in a big story that had to fit into one book.

To add a twist to the tale from the start I wanted it to be a parallel world story where someone in our world finds a way through to Morgravia.   The challenge was working out how and in employing magical means, making that feel credible and in a way alarming enough that a reader would let it rip, go with it, trust it and be eager to find out why it occurred and what is going to happen to that character.

That’s the basis of all magic in essence.  It’s not a case of fooling the reader.  Not at all!  It’s winning your trust, craft the magic to feel effortless within the world and if as the writer I can earn that trust and promise not to break faith with it, then the magic works and readers don’t stop to question it because it feels seamless, it feels credible even though we all know it’s make believe.

Anyway, back to the landscapes.  Paris has been my gateway of choice into Europe since I moved to Australia more than three decades ago and coming out of the travel industry ten years ago meant I had been travelling regularly through Europe for most of those thirty years.  It’s a city that not only I love but the rest of the world loves too and even though it’s a familiar stomping ground I still wouldn’t say that I know it well.  It still surprises, challenges, delights … and I do feel like a tourist still and it’s impossible to get bored of because I learn more about it with each visit.  Paris is made up of neighbourhoods and although I have favourites there is something to love about all of them and they vary markedly.  When you walk Paris, rather than drive it, you can feel the change of pace or personality as you move between these neighbourhoods or arondissements as they are called. Although I’m originally English, for some reason Paris felt like the perfect choice for my ‘real world’ city where we meet the somewhat lonely Gabe Figaret in his Left Bank apartment and I’ll tell you more about his neighbourhood in another blog.

And fortunately for me, I was required to do intensive research on Paris for my novel The Lavender Keeper and that meant I could do side by side research for The Scrivener’s Tale and share the load out over all the costs.  Research is expensive, there’s no escaping it, but too valuable in terms of a book’s depth and richness to ignore and so I was lucky to be able to walk through all of the streets that Gabe does and get to know his stomping ground so that it felt easy to write those early chapters.

Pearlis, by contrast, I carry around in my head.  I can’t research it, I can’t walk the streets – other than in my imagination and I can’t smell it, or touch it, hear it or taste it.  Nevertheless, it is achingly familiar and real enough for me that I can engage my senses.  The trick, of course, is being able to engage yours by making Pearlis feel real enough to you too.

Pearlis is every inch a thriving metropolis that Paris is, except Pearlis is medieval and the city we enter when we meet Gabe is contemporary Paris.  And Pearlis too has an amazing cathedral that is visited annually by thousands of pilgrims…more on that aspect in another blog.   The inspiration for Pearlis originally came from a visit to Prague ten years ago.  I loved its famous Charles Bridge – built by King Charles lV – with all its statuaries of saints that line the huge bridge in imposing style and connects the royal palace with the Old Town.  It was indeed the bridge that captured my attention and inspired the city of Pearlis to start coming together in my mind for The Quickening trilogy.

Paris is a city of bridges as well, so I rather like that synchrony.  But while there are many aspects of the two cities that mirror each other – even their names sound similar –  there are just as many aspects that differ.  For instance, Paris is a city with feminine overtones because of that exquisitely beautiful architecture.  Pearlis is the opposite.  Its castle, Stoneheart, is dark, imposing stone and its sits heavily over the city…not brooding so much as empowering it.  Curiously, though, and it is coincidence or perhaps my sub-conscience had a whiff of returning to Pearlis all those years ago when I wrote The Quickening and teaming it up with Paris, because within the castle grounds are beautiful courtyards that surprise the visitor because of their obvious femininity couched within this masculine hulk of a castle.  There are formal courtyards of delicate herbs or peeps into magnificent orangeries.  Magnus, the King of Morgravia in The Quickening, loved growing flowers and so we get a sense of that legacy within these imposing walls.

I think both landscapes complement each other marvellously – they embrace at certain points and they dash away at others to opposing points…almost like a dance….and now that I reflect on it, perhaps Pearlis is how Paris, one of the great European cities, may have felt hundreds of years ago.

I should qualify that you will get a greater sense of Pearlis if you read The Quickening because I had more time to dwell on it.  In Scrivener, I move the characters all over Morgravia.  Anyway, here’s to you enjoying Paris and Pearlis!

Next blog:  Gabe’s neighbourhood – the 6th arondissement…Saint-Germain

Hooray…my first standalone fantasy for adults

Welcome to my new blog in the run up to the release of The Scrivener’s Tale in November; I’m writing from Tasmania, which is my favourite place to produce my stories from and most of Scrivener was written at my desk in the Huon Valley, where this photo was snapped.  Lovely isn’t it?  Which writer wouldn’t be inspired!  I am extremely lucky.

The view from my window

Well, this one was a surprise for me.  For a decade I’d maintained that I would never return to a story – and the truth is, technically I haven’t – but I also didn’t believe in my heart that I would return to a land I’d written about.  For me the best trilogies do come in threes :) That said, it doesn’t make me any less eager to read the latest from writers I admire enormously like George R R Martin or Robin Hobb who have given the world such amazing and ongoing stories from familiar landscapes.

However, while I have now crafted four big trilogies set in different lands, privately I always see them belonging to the same ‘world’ because the natural rules of the landscapes I use not only mimic our own world but they are in keeping with each other.  In other words I’m not a fantasy novelist who will add a moon or two, or necessarily change how time moves or water flows in the imaginary world.

Returning to my point, saying for years to readers that I would find it highly unlikely that I would return to a realm, I found myself being drawn back to Morgravia after a nine year sabbatical.  You see I wanted to write a single novel so that readers of fantasy – for a rare opportunity – could get a whole story in one hit.  For so long the fantasy genre has trained its readers to accept its storytelling in series.  I suppose we can blame Tolkien and CS Lewis et al, but I also agree that I have always enjoyed reading my fantasies in series and I certainly have enjoyed writing them in trilogies.

Anyway, now that I find myself writing across various genres and thoroughly enjoying the challenge of juggling romantic adventure in period settings together with fantasy for adults and also for children, and even some contemporary crime, I realised it made more logistical sense – in terms of my workload – to deliver stories in one wallop.  I don’t see it as the future for fantasy novels but I do think the readership across the globe appreciates the odd opportunity to get a whole story from one volume.  I have adored GGK’s single volume fantasies for instance – they have always left me wanting more.  If I can achieve that longing for more story, then I reckon I’ve done my job and entertained you.

But!  The reality of writing my new adult fantasy in one novel was tougher that I had anticipated.  After years of writing tales of magic in three big volumes, I had to change my whole mindset and approach but mercifully I’d had some recent practice with the release of the historical sagas. So I reassured myself when the panic began to electrify that it required me to not so much rewire my writing brain for Scrivener but to tap into the new approach that I’ve learned through the crime writing and the historical saga.

In essence I had to hit the main gallop of the story faster and develop the characters more immediately and bring them all together more promptly. I really love this story but it gave me some heartache wrestling it into one volume as there were tempting moments to take it veering off into new pathways – as I normally would – but I had to stay focused on the main thrust of the tale and not keep introducing a pile of new characters or sub plots as I traditionally do within my series.

I thank my lucky stars that Morgravia was waiting for me too.  I wouldn’t like to have had to focus on building a new realm with all of its social, political, spiritual and physical structure from scratch, while trying to power along this big tale.

So, I’m looking forward to welcoming you all back to Morgravia, the main realm that those of you who have read The Quickening will recall.  However, I must say up front that this is not a continuation of The Quickening.  I have deliberately set the story a few generations on from when we left it, so Scrivener could not only stand on its own feet but would feel fresh to new and familiar readers alike.

Thanks for being interested…in my next blog I’ll tell you more about the two landscapes I have used.  Until then.  Best, F