Friday, 29 April 2011

Wedding Days

The unicorn has heard there’s a certain wedding on today… while my author is watching it and admiring The Dress, I thought I’d trot over here and tell you the secrets of her wedding to husband Jerry (ahem) 20 years ago:

Here she is looking radiant on the day:

And this is where it all happened - St Bridget’s church in the village of Bridstow, just across the field from their cottage. My author wanted to walk there, but it was February and muddy and she had white shoes, so she was driven there in a friend’s car decked out with ribbons for the occasion.

Here’s her walking out of the church with Jerry after the deed was done, followed by her brother Walter and Jerry’s sister Rebecca, who had her arm twisted to be bridesmaid.

After all that hard work, they enjoyed a hearty wedding roast with their families in their local pub The Red Lion at Sellack, and afterwards moved down to the village hall to celebrate with their friends at a ceilidh (“cay-lee”) - which, in case you've never been to one, is a wild night of dancing and drinking, as you can tell:

My author twisted some more arms and persuaded a brilliant band called All Blacked Up (and Nowhere to Go), part of infamous Morris dancing troupe the Ironmen and Severn Gilders, to come and play for them.

The band takes its name from the black faces of the men of the Border tradition morris. Today they wear make-up, but this used to be coal dust smeared over miners’ faces so their foremen wouldn’t recognize them when they went out dancing for extra cash on a Sunday. My author used to be in the women’s team The Severn Gilders, who fortunately didn’t have to black their faces. Here she is, caught dancing for beer money on the Ironbridge…

The wedding took place in February so they’d have an excuse to go skiing for their honeymoon, which almost ended in divorce when Jerry – who had not done quite as much skiing as my author – lost control on some ice and crashed into a tree. But all in all, it was an enjoyable wedding and the marriage did last a bit longer than the honeymoon… 14 years, in fact, before they went their separate ways.

The Muse wishes William and Kate a very happy day!

Friday, 22 April 2011

Friday Favourite - Women of Camelot by Mary Hoffman

(click here to see inside this book on amazon)

The Muse was sent this beautiful book by the lovely Mary Hoffman, because she knew my author is writing about King Arthur’s daughter. It contains nine stories, each by one of the heroines from the famous legends of King Arthur, fabulously illustrated by Christina Balit in full page colour.

Most of the stories are retellings of perhaps the most famous account of Arthurian legend - Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory - which was written in the fifteenth century. So you’ll find plenty of romantic chivalry in its pages, with knights in shining armour and damsels in distress, and a helpful family tree at the start explains the relationships of the heroines to King Arthur.

Although it’s a book with pictures, this is not a picture book aimed at young readers as such, because the stories have powerful adult themes. The Muse would call it an illustrated short story collection, though the stories also link together to give different views of the wider Arthurian legend, so maybe it should be called a novella in nine parts? Except it's a slim and unusually large paperback, so doesn't look much like a novella... it’s one of those books that’s difficult to shelve.

You won't find King Arthur’s daughter in this book – she is not in Malory's Morte D'Arthur or any of the other fifteenth century stories – but with these retellings written in Mary Hoffman’s elegant prose style, you can sit back and enjoy the stories of:

Igrayne – King Arthur’s mother, who married Uther Pendragon.
Queen Guinevere – King Arthur’s beautiful wife, who fell tragically in love with his champion knight Lancelot.
Nimue – the Lady of the Lake, who loved King Arthur’s enchanter, Merlin.
Lyonet – a fierce damsel, who rode to King Arthur’s court requesting a champion knight to rescue her sister.
Morgan Le Fay – the virgin enchantress, King Arthur’s sister and sworn enemy.
Lady Ragnell – a damsel under enchantment of ugliness who must make a knight love her before she can be beautiful again.
Elaine – who lived in the magical castle where the Grail was kept.

The Muse particularly enjoyed the lesser-known tale of Ragnell, the only story in this collection that comes from another source (the fifteenth century verse “The Marriage of Sir Gawaine”). This one addresses the powerful theme of inner vs. outer beauty, and hints at what it feels like to be a woman who hits middle age – though poor Ragnell is forced there prematurely by enchantments so can escape her curse at the end of the story.

If you’ve been paying attention (Muse: nine stories, seven damsels), two of our heroines get to tell more than one tale. The book ends with the dying King Arthur’s journey to the magical Isle of Avalon, where my author’s new series begins… which makes it doubly appropriate for the enchanted mists of this blog!

First published by Frances Lincoln in 2000, the Muse is not sure how "Women of Camelot" was marketed at the time, but since Katherine enjoyed the stories as an adult fantasy fan they should appeal to a wide readership. The illustrations add to the text and make this book something special to keep on your shelf and pick up to read when you have a romantic, magical moment – perhaps a good example of a book that would NOT work as an e-book!

It will be treasured forever. Thank you, Mary.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Agatha Christie’s Greenway – “the loveliest place in the world”

This Muse Monday is cheating a bit, because legendary crime author Agatha Christie can’t do a guest post on this blog to tell you about her muse. But visiting Greenway, her holiday home on the River Dart in Devon, you can see where she found inspiration for her best-selling books.

The beautiful gardens bordering the river have been open to the public for many years, but the house has only recently been restored by the National Trust and opened its doors in 2009. It’s a bit tricky to get to, because there is only one narrow lane as access through a local village, so Greenway (appropriately!) encourages green transport by giving a discounted ticket price to anyone who manages to get there by foot, bicycle or ferry. There’s also a cool vintage bus you can catch from Torquay or Paignton. (Muse: My author rode me there, of course, disguised as an old bicycle.)

The house you see above was built in 1792, replacing an earlier Tudor mansion on the site. Agatha Christie arrived in 1938, and it has been restored as a lovely holiday home with hats piled up on the hall table, just as if the family have stepped outside for a day’s gardening. There are no roped-off areas or “do not touch” signs, though you are asked nicely not to handle things as you walk around.

Each sun-filled room with its windows looking out over the river has a local guide happy to show you scrapbooks, talk about the family, or play the piano as the mood allows. The warm and comfortable bedroom feels as if Agatha herself has just climbed out of bed and popped across the landing to use the water closet – complete with wooden toilet seat and a cheeky green frog sitting in the hole! In the wardrobe you can see her fabulous dresses, still hanging on the rails.

Downstairs, the library has a wonderful frieze running around the top of the walls, and the shelves are stuffed with all the books Agatha’s family liked to read, including many children’s books. It feels a bit like browsing the shelves at Hay-on-Wye, with a real mixture of older titles. The Muse spied books on gardening, Buddhism, and adventure stories by H Rider Haggard, one of Katherine’s favourite childhood authors. And of course there's a (locked) cupboard full of Agatha's own first editions.

In the drawing room, a taped recording of Agatha Christie’s voice comments on the process of writing:
“The main job is working out the story,"  she says. “And worrying about it. Then you just have to find the time to write it…” Quite.

Fortunately, Agatha Christie found time to write quite a few stories, with 200 published books to her name including the famous Hercule Poirot mysteries and Miss Marple.

Christie was actually her first husband’s name, but she kept it for her books because she was an established author by then. Her second husband was an archaeologist, who excavated sites in Mesopotamia, and Agatha had a lesser-known life travelling to Iraq and helping him on his digs. One of the rooms at Greenway contains samples of cuneiform – the earliest form of writing made in clay with reed pens. No doubt all this material fed her plots. She was also a talented musician, and the house contains many collections of pottery and art from around the world, showing her wide range of interests and curious mind.

This sense of fun continues into the gardens, with paths winding down the hillside through camellia bushes and magnolia to the river, where you’ll find an old boathouse and plunge pool (complete with sleeping bats). Sitting on the quay watching the river traffic, you can imagine the family taking to the river in their boats for a day out in nearby Totnes or Dartmouth. Dotted around the garden are statues and fountains and outbuildings, including a fabulous restored peach house – the longest in Devon.

If it’s possible to have a house as a muse, then I think Greenway would be Agatha Christie’s. It’s certainly the sort of place where you might see a unicorn one day, because now my author has got her hands on a local resident’s pass she’s threatening to take me down there again this summer to seek inspiration for her new series about King Arthur’s daughter. Would Agatha Christie have approved? I think she might.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Muse Monday - A spaniel called Trudy by Miriam Halahmy

This week the unicorn is excited to welcome another animal muse to this blog. She might not have a glittery horn, but she does have four legs and a curly tail... and she belongs to the talented Miriam Halahmy, both poet and author, here to talk to you about her new book HIDDEN

Over to you, Miriam...

As soon as I started writing for children, I started putting dogs into the story. It was a chance to revisit an important part of my childhood. I grew up with dogs and I have not been able to keep pets in adult life. But I still have a strong affinity with dogs and cannot pass one without having a conversation and a pat.

My mother trained as a nurse in the Navy in WW2. Our dogs always came from rescue centres and she would nurse them back to full health. All the kids in the street would bring birds with broken wings and sick pets to my mum because they knew she had a magic way with animals.

My favourite dog was our blue roan cocker spaniel, Trudy. She was so ill when Mum rescued her, she had to be fed on raw egg and milk. But gradually she regained full health. Blue roans are so called because the mixture of black and white on their fur blends together to give a beautiful blue sheen. Trudy was a full pedigree so Mum had her Kennel Club registered and her pedigree name was Deborah Blue Angel. (Muse: That sounds almost like a unicorn’s name!)

When I started to write for children I found that spaniels were automatically finding their way into the story. In my first children’s book, "Peppermint Ward", a story of children with cancer, ten year old Sam has a golden haired spaniel called Mumbles.

Therefore in my first teenage novel, "Hidden" (Meadowside 2011), I decided that Trudy would have a starring part.

The main character in "Hidden" is Alix, a fourteen year old girl who lives down the bottom of Hayling Island, opposite the Isle of Wight. She is training for a local Marathon, so she and Trudy go running on the beach most days.

Alix’s home life is going through a dip and she feels that Trudy is the only person who really understands her:

Trudy looks up at me with her gorgeous spaniel eyes, puzzled at the loud voices and I whisper to her, “I have to do everything round her, it’s so not fair.” I bury my face in her soft coat and wonder how things got so bad. Trudy starts to lick my face and calms me like always.

Trudy is trotting at Alix’s side when she and her friend Samir see a man thrown into a wintry sea the next morning. When they rescue the man, Mohammed, an illegal immigrant who has been tortured in Iraq and refused asylum in England, it is Trudy who starts to lick his face and try to bring him back to life. Trudy trots to and fro from the little hut with Alix and Samir where they hide Mohammed to save him from immediate deportation, while they decide how to get help.

More and more people begin to find out or suspect something is going on, including Kim, Alix’s best friend. When she agrees to go with Alix to meet Mohammed she asks if Trudy is coming too:

“Of course, she’s chief refugee spotter!”
“Well let’s hope she doesn’t spot anymore,” says Kim grimly.

Alix has to dig very deep to find the courage to hide Mohammed. She has to lie to the police and her mum and she feels enormously guilty. Without Trudy by her side this would have been an impossible time for her. Alix’s Dad has run off with another woman, her beloved Grandpa is dead and Mum is helpless and needy. Samir also has a difficult story as an asylum seeker himself and then there is Mohammed’s terrifying experiences. Throughout Trudy remains faithful and true, comforting Alix when she is wet and cold and dispirited and sticking by her when she falls out with her Mum and the mean girls at school.

Trudy was a beautiful, calming and courageous muse for "Hidden". She races along the beaches with Alix and never lets her down. Every young person could do with a faithful dog like Trudy by their side to negotiate the tricky moral, emotional and physical paths towards growing up and becoming independent.

Miriam Halahmy has written fiction and poetry for children, teens and adults. She is a writing mentor with asylum seekers and refugees.

"Hidden" is the first novel in a cycle of three set on Hayling Island. A minor character in the previous novel becomes the major character in the next. The next two titles, "Illegal" and "Stuffed", will be published in 2012.

Thank you very much, Miriam! The unicorn is now off for a gallop along the beach, keeping an eye out for blue beach huts...

You can find out more about Miriam's books on her website and blog:

Friday, 8 April 2011

Anne McCaffrey Reading challenge – The White Dragon

This is my second review for the Anne McCaffrey Reading Challenge set by Portrait of a Woman. Last quarter, I reviewed a McCaffrey book that inspired my own writing The Crystal Singer, so this time I’m tackling one of my favourites from her famous Dragonriders of Pern series…


Young Jaxom has accidentally impressed (Muse: telepathically bonded with!) Ruth, a white dragon so small he could hardly break out of his shell without help. But as only son of a Lord Holder of Pern, Jaxom cannot become a proper Dragonrider and fly his dragon to fight the alien “Threads” that fall from the Red Star and attack organic matter. (Think acid rain with nasty spores.) But since a dragon, once impressed, cannot be impressed by anyone else, he is allowed to take Ruth back to his Hold, where the other boys – jealous – call his beloved dragon a runt who will never fly. Needless to say, they are wrong…

“The White Dragon” begins with Ruth’s first flight, proving that – although small – he is plenty strong enough to carry his rider. Freed from the hold by his dragon’s ability to fly between, Jaxom sets out to prove Ruth is a real dragon by secretly teaching him to chew firestone so he can flame Thread. To make time between his many duties as Lord Holder’s son, he and Ruth fly between to the distant past – one of his white dragon’s many talents (another being the ability to communicate with the little fire lizards the people of Pern keep as messengers and pets).

But while he is busy training Ruth, the Oldtimers (dragonriders brought forward in time to aid Pern at the start of the Red Star’s current pass) steal the queen egg from Benden Weyr and take it back to the Southern Continent, where they hide it somewhere in time, hoping for a young queen to mate with their dying dragons. Benden threaten to set dragon against dragon if the egg is not returned, and then the fire-lizards start giving Ruth disturbing images of him taking the egg! Jaxom knows he didn’t steal it, and decides that they must have seen Ruth RETURNING the egg to Benden Weyr… so he sets out on a secret journey between time to do just that, averting a terrible war.

Jaxom knows he must keep his part in the rescue a secret, since the Benden weyrleaders think the Oldtimers have returned the egg. But how long can he control his tongue when he comes down with a life-threatening Southern fever? And how deep do his feelings run for the Southern Lord Holder’s daughter Sharra, who nurses him through it? When the Oldtimers challenge Benden, he and Ruth are in danger of being found out – until a startling discovery on the Southern continent brings a peaceful solution to their problems.

This is the third book in Anne MacCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, which technically counts as science fiction since Pern is an alien planet. But the Dragonrider books have a definite feel of a fantasy about them with their glittering dragons, fierce fire-lizards, and medieval society, so you'll find few spaceships and gadgets here. Although the plot is quite complicated, you don’t have to read the first two books to understand the background because there’s a detailed summary of what has gone before at the front. Also, this is a new story about Jaxom and Ruth, whereas the first two books concentrated on different characters, so it reads well on its own.

Re-reading any book from a distance of 30 years is interesting, particularly since I am now an author myself and my Muse has developed a sharp critical horn. So it is a testament to Anne McCaffrey’s warm characters and imaginative storylines that sentences such as: “Resentment replaced the sense of loss as Jaxom found himself, loyal to Robinton’s precepts, trying to rationalize this wave of unpalatable reflection” melt seamlessly into the story, and I can honestly say I didn’t notice it when I devoured this book as a teenager!

At over 400 pages, this is not a short book. There is a rather long-winded section where Jaxom and his friends are exploring the Southern Continent and trying to solve the mystery of an erupted volcano, where in the Muse’s humble opinion about 100 pages could have been happily cut here without affecting the story. But this part is just as enjoyable to read as the rest, and worth it for the occasional gem such as when Jaxom finally gets it together with Sharra: “A warmth began in his belly, dispelling the cold… a warmth that had to do with Sharra’s lithe body against his, the scent of her long heavy hair in his nostrils as he kissed her, the pressure of her arms on the skin of his back. And her hands, flat against his waist, were not the hands of a healer but the hands of a lover…”

Originally published for adults, the Muse thinks this classic fantasy book would make a good read for the young adult market (which did not exist back then, would you believe?) Despite the example above, don’t expect too much in the way of actual snogging. But there’s plenty of adventure, atmosphere, and wonderful dragons to keep you happy, and Anne McCaffrey's typically strong scientific background should appeal to the more inquiring reader. If you haven’t read any of her Dragonrider books yet, give them a try! They're the original and the best.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Muse Monday - the Daemon of Susan Price

This week the Muse is delighted to welcome Carnegie award-winning fantasy author Susan Price to talk about her muse (which seems to be rather scary!) Over to you, Susan...

Susan Price - in conversation with her daemon?

Rudyard Kipling, in his autobiography Something of Myselfwrote:
Let us now consider the Personal Daemon of Aristotle and others… Most men, and some most unlikely, keep him under an alias which varies with their literary or scientific attainments. Mine came to me early when I sat bewildered among other notions, and said; ‘Take this and no other.’ I obeyed, and was rewarded....
After that I learned to lean upon him and recognise the sign of his approach... As an instance, many years later I wrote about a mediaeval artist, a monastery, and the premature discovery of the microscope. Again and again it went dead under my hand, and for the life of me I could not see why. I put it away and waited. Then said my Daemon—and I was meditating something else at the time—‘Treat it as an illuminated manuscript.’ I had ridden off on hard black-and-white decoration, instead of pumicing the whole thing ivory-smooth, and loading it with thick colour and gilt....
My Daemon was with me in the Jungle Books, Kim, and both Puck books, and good care I took to walk delicately, lest he should withdraw. I know that he did not, because when those books were finished they said so themselves with, almost, the water-hammer click of a tap turned off... When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey...

Whenever it was I first read this – probably in my mid to late 20s - I was already a published writer, and had written several books. This passage gave me a true jolt of recognition. I knew immediately that Kipling wasn't being fanciful, or poetic, but was describing the experience of writing as directly as he could, given the limitations of language. I knew, because I had a daemon too, though I had never mentioned it to anyone. Most men, and some most unlikely, keep him under an alias which varies with their literary or scientific attainments. Some women too, Rudyard.

As I had progressed from book to book, learning more and more of the craft, I had become aware of the daemon's presence. I had never given him/her/it a name. After reading the passage above, I called it/her/him 'the daemon', at least in my own mind. It was as good a name as any other, and I preferred it to 'muse' (with apologies to my host, the Reclusive Unicorn). 'Muse' seems too poetic for me and my creature, too Classical, too beautiful.

'Daemon' is Greek and Classical too, of course, but hasn't been used by centuries of poets in the same way. Its link to the modern 'demon' suggests some of the bloody-mindedness often demonstrated by daemons; and it also makes me think of witches' familiars and shamans' spirit-helpers. Though I in no way aspire to be a witch or a shaman, their more down-to-earth, farmyard associations, with their cures for sore-throats and curses on annoying neighbours, suit me and my daemon better. My daemon does not haunt Elysian Fields – though it may perhaps be found grubbing through the great junk-yard of lost and broken things that, according to the fairy-tale, the Four Winds have blown to the Ends of the Earth and there gathered in a heap.

Before I ever read about Kipling's daemon, I had learned that all that was best in my writing was not mine. I didn't invent it – rather it was put into my head. Indeed, I couldn't invent it – I had tried. Any plot or situation I invented was tired, trite, and petered out for lack of enthusiasm on my part. The best writing always came 'out of the blue'. Slowly I became aware of that Other, who sometimes seemed to be slightly behind me, leaning over my right shoulder.

'Then said my Daemon—and I was meditating something else at the time—' I had come to know that so well: the idea that came out of nowhere; the fresh twist that came when I hadn't given a thought to that particular story for months; the combining of disparate ideas in a way that would ever have occurred to me and took me by surprise. And more:- the perfect phrase that arrives, complete, with no need for polishing – a phrase that I didn't plan or, it seems to me, invent. The moment when a character refuses to act as I had planned, but instead acts in a way much more convincing and interesting.

I had worked on rewrites where I found sub-texts woven through what I'd written, and carefully set up and prepared for with repeated phrases and echoes – and I had been astonished because I was not conscious of ever having planned it.

When I wrote Ghost Drum it was as if someone had handed me a postcard of a very clear, bright picture – a palace from a Russian fairy-tale, with bright jewel colours, standing in a snow-field and set against a dark, cold, starry sky. ‘Take this and no other.’ Who handed me the picture and gave the order? My daemon.

I had learned too, from experience, that there was no arguing or bargaining with this Other. Again and again it went dead under my hand... I knew that feeling well too; and I knew it meant that the daemon wasn't with me any longer, or never had been with this piece of work. One certain way to drive away the Daemon was, I'd learned, to argue with It. If Its dictum was that a certain character should die, and I said, no, that's too sad, or too horrible, or I don't want to kill that person – then the Daemon stalked away and left me to do what I could on my own. Which was nothing good. Left to myself, it seemed, all I could produce was the most obvious, uninspired, dull verbiage. There was only one way to persuade the Daemon to return – give in to all Its demands. Find a way to make Its suggestions work, however outrageous, cruel, unlikely and difficult to research they were. Daemons, I learned, never argue or bargain. They simply leave.

I learned to work with It instead of fighting. When I needed an idea, I would appeal to the Daemon - “Give me something to work on!” When I was stuck in a story and didn't know how to proceed, I would run through what I had written in my mind, and outline where I was hoping the story might go, as if briefing the Daemon. Then I would say, 'Over to you. Sort something out and get back to me.'

This was embarrassing at first: I felt foolish, pretentious. But the results were so good that I soon overcame that. The more I trusted the Daemon, the more I gave It a free hand, the more quickly It returned to me with a solution. Very rarely did It fail. So when I read this account of Kipling's, I had already learned the truth of what he says: Resist the daemon, and it will kill your story and leave. Obey it, and it will help you.

'When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey...' I knew this for the simple truth too. I concluded, from experience, that the Daemon always knows the detail and construction of a piece It has decided you will work on, but It cannot tell you directly. Or chooses not to tell. You are guided by images and feelings, steered along the path it wants you to follow by nudges and hints. When we are 'stuck' in a story, we have simply wandered from the path. If we stop trying to find it, if we try not to think consciously, but wait and let our thoughts drift – then the Daemon will guide us back to the path with more hints and nudges. When we struggle to find the way ourselves, we fall into mires and thorns, we get further and further from where we want to be, and the story 'goes dead under our hand'.

But what does my Daemon look like, if it's not a classically draped Goddess, or a demon stinking of sulphur? While aware of its presence and its assistance, I've never examined it too closely before – just as I never argue with it any more. My host, the Unicorn, calls himself 'reclusive' but he's a proudly visible beast, galloping into full view, with sparkling horn pointing the way forward (Muse: ah, but does it always point in the right direction?)

My Daemon is more elusive – it skulks, it slinks. It peers briefly from the piles of lost things at the World's End, and ducks out of sight again. It isn't human or, at least, not wholly human. It's dark in colour, brindled, perhaps covered in fur. I glimpse pricked ears and a curve or hump of back. Is it an ape? Or are those the ears and back of some cat-like animal? But it moves less fluidly than a cat, and I see no tail, though perhaps it has a bobbed one, like a lynx. I don't know what it is – and I dare not be so presumptuous as to ask. I only hope that writing this piece hasn't offended it. I would never venture to thank it. That would certainly ensure I’d never hear from it again.

Fortunately, Susan Price’s daemon is still around... and she has this brand new collection of short stories out for Kindle to prove it:

You can find out more about Susan Price’s long career and her wonderful fantasy books at


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