Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

Introducing a thing: the Tuesday Teaser

If you follow me on the Book of Face, you may have noticed I’ve been teasing you, somewhat erratically, with snippets from a chapter of THE DRAGON HOUSE.

Usually, I am hopelessly undisciplined when it comes to things like regular blog posts and refreshing my social media with new content, so I am making an effort to correct this. I am officially making these snippets A Thing, which I am calling the Tuesday Teaser. Each Tuesday, I will post a new snippet from this chapter on my Facebook page, and for the non-Facebook-isti among you, here on my website, where it will build over time into a complete chapter.

Hopefully this will encourage me to keep up the momentum finishing this edit/rewrite/partial do-over/grinding-out of the finale to the Wild Hunt Quartet. I also hope it will whet your appetite for when this damn thing becomes an actual book.

In the fullness of time I’ll tell you all about why it’s taken so long to get there. It’s a rather depressing story I really don’t want to dwell on just now, when things are moving along kinda nicely. In the meantime, I’m so sorry for keeping you all waiting.

blue_sunflr_unedit-tif

Of magic and medicine

This post originally appeared at the Booksworn.com writers’ collective. I thought it deserved another airing.

***

Some years ago, I attended a series of night classes entitled “Myth, Magic and Mystery” at a local high school. Sigilization, Kirlian photography, odd exercises in dimly-lit rooms with candles and mirrors – it was Wicca-lite crossed with Fringe, off-the-scale bonkers and hugely fascinating all at the same time.

One session we paired up and attempted to sense each other’s aura. When it came to my turn, I swear I could feel something, a . . . resistance about an inch away from my partner’s head, like that thick sense of potential you get just before the static electricity goes zip and lifts the hairs on the back of your arm. As I moved my hands around there was a definite temperature drop in one area, and my study partner told me that she had a headache there. Make of that what you will, but it occurred to me recently that this was where I got some of my ideas for how Healing works in The Wild Hunt series.

Your average secondary-world fantasy usually incorporates some kind of restorative technique, be that overtly magical, like in the Wheel of Time series, or through the use of arcane herb-lore – kingsfoil, anyone?

Now I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the throw-some-herbs-at-it approach, as there are often injuries being sustained, especially battle wounds, where a few stitches and a smelly poultice just won’t suffice. Equally, I roll my eyes at the idea that a spell – kapow! – can fix a suppurating infection or treat someone who’s been poisoned. That’s unrealistic to me. I don’t care if the magic breaks the Laws of Thermodynamics or otherwise doesn’t make sense, the medicine should.*

Iranian bottle

Iranian bottle, Walters Art Museum [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

One of my characters, Tanith, is a master Healer, but she uses her magic the way she uses her surgical tools, and relies on drugs as much as either.

When the reader first encounters her, Gair has just been clouted round the head in the training yard. She cleans the damaged skin with a topical antiseptic, picks out splinters with tweezers, then sends him away with the secondary-world equivalent of a couple of aspirin. Another patient, who has a broken rib, she treats with the Song to start the bone fusing.**

So the core of all Healing with the Song is to harness the human body’s astonishing ability to mend itself, given enough time, by stimulating the natural process. Bruises fade, cuts close, pain recedes. Where circumstances such as uncontrolled bleeding dictate that immediate action is required, the Healer steps in to clamp and stitch and bandage in pretty much the same way as a surgeon does today.

For example, in THE RAVEN’S SHADOW, Tanith sets a displaced femoral fracture with traction and manipulation, using her magic instead of X-rays:

Gathering the Song again, she plunged her senses into the torn muscle, seeking the bone fragments and visualising their positions in the patterns of pain she saw in her mind.

‘I can save this,’ she murmured, then to the surgeon, ‘Take his foot and straighten the ankle.’

He did as she asked, meaty hands surprisingly gentle. She laid her own hands either side of Beck’s thigh, aligning them carefully, mapping the normal positions of muscle and bone in her mind.

Later she relieves the pressure of an acute subdural haematoma by trephination:

The instrument placed in her hand was still warm from being boiled. Carefully, she measured the distance above and behind the orbital process of [spoiler!]’s skull with the last joint of her index finger and set the toothed head of the trephine in place.

As she explains to the army surgeon assisting her, she can stop the bleeding with her power, but she can’t simply magic away the blood that’s already pressing on the patient’s brain.

So Tanith’s competent, she understands about sepsis and basic (by our standards) infection control, and her knowledge of anatomy is approximately equivalent to that of an early 19th Century surgeon. However, she’s not invincible. Whatever her skill and access to potent analgesics, she can’t perform certain kinds of surgery, such as those that would require artificial respiration. Her world is not sufficiently technologically advanced, and using handwavy magic there fails the “medicine needs to make sense” rule for me.

Of course, that rule has consequences. At the end of SONGS OF THE EARTH, a character receives major abdominal injuries. With no surgical tools or equipment to hand Tanith has only her Song and it’s not enough: the character bleeds out. Throughout the series she is haunted by the ones she couldn’t save – she calls it the shadow cast by the light of her gift, because she knows that she can’t have one without the other.

And that, to me, makes more sense than just allowing the magic to fix everything so that the characters go home in one piece. Some of them will be maimed or changed beyond recognition, and some of them won’t go home at all.

* Although I gave myself a pass on neuroscience – nobody really understands how thought and memory work and besides, MAGIC.

** He would be pain-free in only a few days, and anyone who’s had a broken rib knows it usually takes quite a bit longer than that before you stop popping the Advil.

 

Featured image credit: By Igore1913 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Yellow maple leaf over blue sky

Writing weather

I’ve always been the kind of person whose mood is influenced by the weather. Not in some New Age in-touch-with-nature sort of a way, I just notice things. Rainy days make me melancholy. Strong winds give me the fidgets. And sometimes I notice the seasons change.

Ever since I was small, too young to feel the relentless march of the calendar pages turning the way an adult would, I’ve associated autumn with crows. I say crows, but really I mean all the corvids we got where I grew up: rooks, jackdaws and carrion crows (no ravens or hoodies in the north east of England). In early September, they got restless, swirling across the sky in great raucous flocks before settling back into the tall trees next to my parents’ house. It always meant summer was ending for another year.

I went into the garden this morning and the first thing I heard was the rooks. The sky was still blue and patterned with housemartins, the air still warm, but that dolorous cawing made me feel change was afoot.

Now the clouds are blowing in. A fretful wind is tossing the jackdaws around, and the trees are hissing like surf over shingle beaches. It feels like autumn. That means it’s writing weather.

Featured image © Illreality | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Photo of straw bales in a field

Season’s End

Tomato seedlings in pots

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I was very small, my favourite place in the world was Dad’s greenhouse. It was an old-fashioned, timber-framed Alton, and I remember it as a place of endless dry warmth, with the cat asleep under the cucumber plants, and air that smelled of paraffin and Jeyes Fluid and long drowsy days.

In the greenhouse were rattling canes and balls of twine, a resident spider, dusty jam-jars full of plant labels and pencils that did double-duty as makeshift dibbers. Thompson & Morgan seed packets, sacks of John Innes No. 3, stacks of seed trays that it was my job to rinse out with the hose at the end of each season so they could be used again next year.

Under the potting bench lived big clay pots that were too heavy for me to lift but if Dad turned one upside-down for me, made a perfect stool from which to watch, with that grave solemnity possessed of four year old girls, the gardener at work.

It’s from Dad that I get my love of growing things. I was helping him plant seed potatoes, onion sets and runner beans before I went to school. He taught me the difference between male and female flowers on the cucumbers, how to remove the side-shoots from tomato plants, and, when I was old enough to be trusted with the small, rusty but still very sharp greenhouse scissors, how to tie the plants in to the canes.

Afterwards we’d troop back to the house for tea with my fingers all yellow and smelling of tom-cats (if you’ve ever grown tomatoes, you’ll know exactly what I mean). That tea often included home-grown new potatoes, carrots, peas or string beans from the vegetable patch: plant to pan in maybe 10 minutes – take that, Bird’s Eye! On the table would be a vase containing sweetpeas, or heady roses, and after dinner the peelings and spent flowers would be taken to the compost heap at the bottom of the garden to start the cycle all over again. Dad was an organic gardener long before it became fashionable.

Tomatoes on the vine

Image courtesy of zdiviv at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I got a bit bigger he’d sit me on the tall stool at the potting bench and get me to prick out seedlings to pot up. In those days he grew everything except the cucumbers from seed: tomatoes, bedding plants, trays and trays of them that I’d water and patiently inspect each day for the first green shoots. Alyssum and marigolds for the borders, salvias, lobelia and petunias for the hanging baskets and planters.

Looking back, I can understand why he got me to do it: my Dad has hands like two pounds of butcher’s finest sausages – you’d never think he was quite a pianist when he was younger – so my small, nimble fingers were able to handle the tiniest plants with ease, and I had a strong young back and patience to spare.

In the autumn I’d help to harvest the apples – old English varieties, like James Grieve and Cox’s Improved – and then Mum and I would make batches of apple sauce, and crumbles and Eve’s pudding. Autumn was also the time of the chrysanthemums; whenever I smell that woody, spicy scent, I know that summer is over for another year.

Every child should get earth under their fingernails from time to time, and understand where their food comes from. Not out of a packet, or a cellophane-wrapped tray from Sainsbury’s, but out of the ground, off a plant. Some of my favourite memories are from Dad’s garden: leaning on the handle of a fork to lever up a potato plant and seeing the earth crumble around the pale pink-eyed King Edwards underneath; picking raspberries off the cane and cramming them into my mouth, warm and unwashed, with the taste of summer bursting on my tongue.

Apple blossom photo

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The apple and plum trees are long gone now, as are the roses. Dad’s getting on in years as well, and can’t manage the heavy digging for potatoes and the like, but he’s on his third greenhouse, and still carpets his garden with colour every year – though these days he buys micro-plants in vast trays and grows them on, rather than nurturing them from seed. He still grows his beloved chrysanthemums, and every other year or so sends me onto the internet to source just the right kind of greaseproof paper bags he needs to tie over the developing buds on the outdoor varieties to protect them from the rain.

I’ve never had the time or the land to have a vegetable patch or a greenhouse of my own, and lately my poor health has made it unlikely that I ever will. I can’t express how much I regret that. I miss those quiet hours of just me and Dad and the simple pleasure of things that grow. I miss them with a sharp sad pain that they’re gone and will never come again.

Or maybe I just miss being a kid, when we had proper summers that lasted forever and I had all the time in the world to enjoy them.

Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore — Virgil

Featured image © Daniel Gilbey | Dreamstime Stock Photos

(Mis)direct marketing

Picture of mailboxYou’re probably going to think I’m making something out of nothing, but this bugged me enough to write a post, so . . .

I get quite a few emails from strangers – readers asking when the next book’s out (I’m working on it, I promise!), moms who want to know if my stories are an age-appropriate gift for their 12-year-old’s birthday, and even a few from schoolkids who have to write to an author for their class project.

So far, so unremarkable.

The one that inspired this post was different. It was a message was from a new author, independently published by a digital-only small press, wanting me to do her a favour and tweet some links to her first book. Perfectly pleasant, with a short, well-polished pitch for her work.

BUT.

This author is a complete stranger to me, someone I’ve never interacted with, who doesn’t follow me on social media (as far as I have been able to determine) and doesn’t appear to know anything about me or my books.

Our audiences don’t overlap much, if at all. She writes contemporary romance; I write epic fantasy.

She is asking me to asking me to take time away from my own work and write a tweet just for her. The effort is minor, but it’s still an interruption, an imposition on my day.

She gave me no reason why I might be moved to help her out, and no incentive to do so. Twitter works best when users network and interact, not when they just scream into the void “BUY MY BOOK!”. Yes, I know Sam Sykes likes to do just that, but he makes it amusing; others, with less imagination, become just noise.

So why pick me? It’s not like I’m John Scalzi or Neil Gaiman who command an audience of tens of thousands – or, in Gaiman’s case, 2.26 million – for their every utterance. And this isn’t even a one-click RT request for a worthy cause, which those authors field with grace on a daily basis. I’ve got less than 1,800 followers, and as already noted, write in a totally different genre, so she’s not only expecting effort on her behalf from a stranger, it’s likely to be a waste of time in any case.

“But it’s just a quick tweet; what harm could it do?”

Am I supposed to be flattered by the attention? That I’ve been noticed? I’d like to think she’s seen me on the Twitters and thinks I’m approachable. What I actually think is that I’m just one more entry on a list of people who got a scattergun form email from an author who thinks they’re entitled to someone else’s time and effort.

Which does not make me inclined to want to help them out.

Now I’m sure there’s people saying “But it’s just a quick tweet; what harm could it do?” and the answer is “None”. But that’s the thing with these types of requests. Once you’ve agreed to do it for one random stranger, it becomes very hard to say no to the next one who asks. And the one after that. And . . . you get the picture.

I’m also sure there’s going to be people saying “Typical trad-pub snob, thinks she’s too good to help out a fellow author!” To which I say, “Clearly you don’t know me any better than Ms Contemporary Romance does”. Yes, I’m traditionally published. No, I’m not a snob; I’m probably going to go hybrid at some point in the future, when I try my hand at some not-quite-so-long-form fiction, so I’m hardly likely to sneer at authors who’ve chosen to go the self/indie route from the start.

But here’s the other thing that I am.

I am so far behind on my fourth book it’s not even funny. I’m so far behind that I jealously guard every single minute I have that could possibly be spent finishing it. In fact, I’m so far behind that this blog post has actually taken me a couple of months to put together because I felt so guilty about taking any time away from my WIP. So the chances of me sparing a couple of minutes to Tweet – and by so doing, tacitly endorse – some unknown-to-me author’s unknown-to-me book, are nil.

I’m sorry, Ms Contemporary Romance. I wish you well; you’ve got a nice pitch and your book sounds like it might be a fun summer read, but I am not your market, nor your marketing department.

 

Image courtesy of bplanet at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

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