Going Back to Find Something New

FullSizeRender_3I’ve been coming to Glastonbury (the town not the festival, as I’ve explained a lot in the past few weeks) every year or so since I started writing Beltane six years ago.  It’s become a kind of spiritual second home and I love it for its quirkiness, its willingness to embrace the alternative and the sheer creative energy of the place.  My sister said to me a while back, “Why do you keep going back? Don’t you get bored?” I told her that there’s a joy in revisiting the places I’ve come to love.  And, as it’s been a very stressful and difficult six years, it’s relaxing to go back to somewhere I’m already familiar with.

When I was heading down the M1 for this visit, I expected it’d follow the same familiar path.  I’d go to the Chalice Well and enjoy the peace in the beautiful garden, I’d walk up the Tor, I’d sit in the silence of Magdalen Chapel, wander around the bookshops and drink green tea in The Hundred Monkey’s Café (by far the best place for tea and cake in Glastonbury, in my opinion).  Only it didn’t work out like that.  I didn’t do most of those things.  Instead I discovered new special places and I’ve now got a new favourite spot in Glastonbury.

FullSizeRenderThe Avalon Orchard is perched on the slope of the Tor.  If you come to the Tor by what I call the steep side (which is the side furthest from the centre of town) there’s a gate on the left of the path up the Tor, under an arch of greenery.  There is another way from the other side of the Tor through the woods. I came that way but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve got stout boots and are prepared to meet wild campers doing their mid-morning ablutions (yes, he had his pants around his ankles – most embarrassing!)

Few people seem to find the orchard.  It took a walk with a man who’s lived in Glastonbury all his life for me to discover it but it’s well worth a detour on a trip up and down the Tor.

FullSizeRender_2Now you might be wondering, what’s so special about a few apple trees?  They are lovely trees; old, gnarled, lichen covered.  Some of them are bent and twisted, others fallen to make seats or benches of living wood.  I arrived a few weeks too late for the blossom but I could see fruit forming, small bright green misshapen globes peeking out between the leaves.  On a sunny day, it’s a gorgeous spot.  There’s a lovely view across the Somerset Levels and it’s quiet. I was there on a very windy day when it was hard to stand even on the lower parts of the Tor but it was peaceful and sheltered in the orchard.

The National Trust take care of the orchard which is why there’s nice gates and carved name plaques but other than that it’s remarkably untouched.  I’m told they don’t know who planted the orchard or when or what varieties of apples grow there.  Glastonbury was once Avalon, the Isle of Apples and it’s lovely that there’s a reminder of that.

FullSizeRender_5I’ve found it so difficult while life has been tough to do new things.  It’s been much easier to cling to the old, even if it’s worn out and a bit tatty.  I’d thought, after the very hard few months I’d been through that I was going to Glastonbury to relax into what I knew.  Turns out I was wrong about that. I was ready to discover new places and to do new things and they were all, in different ways, as special as the beautiful Avalon Orchard.

If you’ve got a favourite place in Glastonbury or if you’ve recently discovered a wonderful new place then I’d love to hear about it. You can add a comment below, tweet me at @Alyswestyork or post on my Facebook page @alyswestwrites.

Ness of Brodgar – Uncovering #Orkney’s Neolithic past

dsc02070I’ve been fascinated by the Neolithic period in a very unscientific kind of way for years.  Stones circles are a bit of an obsession of mine and I’ve driven down many tiny lanes in search of sites that are marked on OS maps but don’t have a single sign post. I love the mystery of them, the sense of time and place that is beyond understanding and occasionally, the pulse of ancient energy in the stones.  A friend of mine, who is a proper archaeologist with a PhD and everything, refers to people like me as ‘stone botherers’.

It was the sheer wealth and variety of Neolithic sites (together with the stories of George Mackay Brown) that drew me to Orkney for the first time six years ago and I spent a very happy week visiting tombs, stone circles and the village of Skara Brae. Back in 2010 people were only just starting to talk about the amazing finds at the Ness of Brodgar.  Since then I’ve watched lovely Neil Oliver at the site, read about it in the National Geographic and seen updates on the internet.

dsc01966A couple of weeks ago I finally got to visit the site and, more by luck than judgement, turned up during one of the two site open days.  It was a dreich day, as they say on Orkney, which you can see from the pictures but it seemed like half of the population had turned out to see what was going on.  The Ness of Brodgar is on a narrow isthmus of land between the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness.  A short distance away on one side are the Stones of Stenness and, at the top of a small hill, on the other side is the Ring of Brodgar.  On a lovely day it is quite exceptionally beautiful.  This wasn’t a lovely day but wrapped up in waterproof, fleece and woolly hat I got to walk round the site, talk to the people working there and actually handle some of the finds.

Having seen so much about the dig over the years and read about the number of structures that have been found I’d expected it to be much larger.  Instead it fits into a surprisingly small space with a jumble of walls that the guides made sense of for us, pointing out the entrance to this structure or the walls of that structure.  The stone work is still, 4,000 to 5,000 years since it was built, immaculate.  They have a dry stone wall expert working at the site and he says that that we could learn a thing or two from the Neolithic builders.  However they did need a few lessons on foundations as when buildings went out of use they simply knocked them down and built over them.

dsc01972In a lot of places there are examples of ‘ritual and ceremonial use’ which our guide, a man who’s clearly not an archaeologist, said was archaeologist’s code for ‘we haven’t got a clue’! They do admit that the dig throws up more questions than it answers, that each season they’re rewriting the books on this period of history.

After we’d looked round the site we went to the local school where they had finds on display.  More incredibly we were allowed to hold some of them.  It was a bizarrely disconnected moment to stand in a modern school hall holding a stone hammer head made, maybe, 3,000 years ago.  But from the size and feel of it I could imagine the hands that had used it, the person who’d cherished it as their tool of choice.  I’m not the kind of person who spends much time using a hammer but the man next to me worked with wood and he said it was perfectly balanced.  And there was a sense in that of things echoing down the ages, of skills being timeless and some connections that don’t need words to be felt.

As well as trying to understand the past I was searching for a sense of connectedness with one of my characters. I’m currently working on Storm Witch, the second of the Spellworker Chronicles books, and without really thinking through the ramifications of this, have made one of my characters an archaeologist working at the Ness of Brodgar dig.  Having actually seen the dig in action has given me a better idea of what he’d be doing but it’s also highlighted to me the vast gaps in my knowledge about archaeology, the Neolithic and how digs actually work.  After all, I’d never have dreamed that they have stacks and stacks of tyres lying around ready to be used to cover over the site at the end of the season until they can start again next year.  I’ve a lot more research to do but at least I’ve got an image in my mind to fall back on now.  And if you read Storm Witch when it’s published don’t be surprised if it’s always a dreich day at the archaeological dig.

If you’d like to know proper historical fact about the Ness of Brodgar dig then you can find it at http://www.orkneyjar.com/archaeology/nessofbrodgar/  The BBC have been making a series of 3 programme about this site and the Links of Noltland on Westray called ‘Operation Orkney’ which will be shown in late autumn/early winter so Neil Oliver will be available to explain all of this far more competently than I ever could.

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Loch of Stenness at sunset

Remarkable machines, feisty heroines and tea – 5 reasons why I love #Steampunk

With the publication of my first Steampunk novel, The Dirigible King’s Daughter yesterday I’ve been thinking about what first drew me to write steampunk. Like many people I suspect I came to it via Gail Carriger and then realised that I’d already read some steampunk books like The Golden Compass.  I’d also been to Whitby GothFest (as a spectator, not a participant – one day I may be brave enough to actually dress up and take part) and become increasingly fascinated by the sheer possibilities and inventiveness of steampunk. IMG_1557

I’ve joked that it was my obsession with tea that drew me into writing steampunk.  Here was a world where the characters seemed to share my belief in the restorative powers of a pot of Earl Grey.  But there is rather more to it than that and, in no particular order, these are the things that I love most about the marvellous world of steampunk.

Feisty Heroines

I don’t know about you but I find a lot of heroines in modern women’s fiction a bit limp.  I could kind of relate to Bridget Jones but the heroines that I have come after her seem to have taken Bridget’s insecurities to a new level.  How do they hold down jobs (even if they do only ‘fanny around with press releases’ to quote Daniel Cleaver) or actually make a decision about anything more serious than which pair of shoes to buy next?  It seems that most of them are incapable of knowing their own minds which I find deeply tedious.  But this is not a problem I’ve ever found with steampunk heroines.  They’re strong, capable women, entirely able to fly a dirigible single handed (Elle in Liesel Schwarz’s The Chronicles of Light and Shadow) or perform sorcery at the Queen’s behest (Emma in Lilith Saintcrow’s Bannon and Clare books).  Harriet Hardy, the heroine of The Dirigible King’s Daughter has been described by author and blogger, Barb Taub, as ‘a kickass, pistol packing Victorian feminist’.  I’m pretty sure that means she also qualifies as feisty.

Remarkable Machines

DSC01962I’d be the first to admit that I’m not hugely technically minded and I needed some help to understand the internal workings of steam engines or how dirigibles take-off but I found that I do love steam powered machines.  This may be my father’s fault for dragging me around steam fairs at a young age and taking me to the National Railway Museum every holiday but there’s something about the majesty of steam that just gets to me.  I’m quite capable of welling up on sight of a steam engine and cried buckets watching the programme about the refurbishment of The Flying Scotsman.  The great thing about steampunk is that I could take that and play with it.  Ask what if it did this as well?  What if that was possible?  I’m not promising that all of the machines that I’ve created would actually have worked but I had fun dreaming them up.

Manners

Not all steampunk books operate in world where manners matter but I tend to like best the ones where they do.  One of the things I like best about Alexi Tarabotti (from The Parasol Protectorate) is that she doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour from anyone, be they vampire, werewolf or human and she’s always ready with a witty putdown if necessary.  Having read much Jane Austen and Victorian literature in my misspent youth (misspent because I spent it reading Jane Austen and Victorian literature rather than down the pub or at parties) that kind of dialogue seems quite familiar to me.  I also work in a world where there’s a lot of protocol and procedures and so I’m used to having conversations and correspondence where you have to be icy polite to the other person. When I was writing the book it was fascinating to have characters who couldn’t say what they really meant because of their social code. As Harriet and Charlie come from rather different worlds there was a clash when their values came into conflict which Harriet was sometimes willing to exploit but mainly fought against.

A better world?

shutterstock_278293358There’s a sense in steampunk that society lost something fundamental in the move from steam technology to the modern world of computers and electronics.  It’s not just nostalgia for a world that’s gone but a sense that things could have worked out so much better if technology had developed down a different route and we’d remained dependent on steam power. Fewer wars maybe, perhaps a more equal society.  Of course some of those changes started with steam. In Full Steam Ahead (essential research for future steampunk novels) they said that the changes brought in by the railways accelerated the pace of life which has, of course, continued to speed up.  But I can’t be the only person who hankers after a slower, more elegant pace of life.

Clothes

WaistcoatIt’s fair to say that I wasted a lot of time looking at pictures of frocks from the 1890s and calling it research.  I love the dresses but I’m very glad I don’t have to wear one of those corsets to get in one!  By the 1890s it was becoming more common for women to work and the fashions reflect that in the adoption of quite masculine styles and the introduction of the shirtwaist.  I still don’t understand how a woman was supposed to hold down a job while wearing an enormous hat with the same kind of circumference as a tea tray but maybe she was allowed to take it off while using one of those newfangled typewriters.  Of course, steampunk has its own fabulous fashions and I’ve allowed little touches of that into my characters clothes.  As a working woman in Whitby, Harriet was not going to be at the forefront of fashion and I like to think she would have worn something like this waistcoat.

The Dirigible King's Daughter by Alys WestThanks for taking the time to read my post.  What to you love about steampunk?  Which steampunk books do you like best? I’d love to hear from you.

If you’d like to find out more about The Dirigible King’s Daughter then please click here.  It’s now available to purchase as an ebook on Amazon here  You can also see my steampunk inspirations for the book (and lots of gorgeous frocks) on my Pinterest board.

A Small Celebration

Two weeks before Christmas I had a bit of a party to celebrate the launch of Beltane.  It was held in my local village hall which, with the help of my friends, was transformed into a Yuletide haven. So step inside and join the celebration…

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There was music from some of my extremely talented friends. Lovely Sarah Dean played her harp.

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Unfortunately the actual paperback wasn’t ready but a friend mocked up a fake book for me with blank pages and I asked everyone to sign it.  Reading them after the party was pretty emotional as people had  written some really lovely things.

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And there was cake! One of my friends made this amazing Beltane cake based on the book cover.  She was disappointed that she ran out of room to fit the title on the cake but everyone else thought it was completely amazing.

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Apparently it wouldn’t be a book launch party if the author didn’t do a reading so I read three short extracts from the book (can you tell that my hands are shaking?) and then did a bit of a speech to thank everyone who’d helped make the party so special.

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And I also want to thank all of you who’ve read my very intermittent blog posts this year.  I wish you a very Happy New Year and all the very best for a wonderful 2016.

Alys xx

If you’d like to find out more about Beltane please click here

 

 

My turn on the Lovely Blog Hop

I’ve been asked by my fabulous friend, Jessica Redland, to take part in the Lovely Blog Hop where writers talk about some of the things which have shaped their lives and their writing.  Jessica lives not far from me in Scarborough and we often meet up for cake and to talk about writing.  Her first novel, Searching for Steven, a charming romantic comedy set in a fictional town on the Yorkshire coast is out on 3rd June and is available for pre-order here.  You can read Julie’s blog here

Now as anyone who knows me well is aware I’m not all that good at sharing information about myself so the Lovely Blog Hop is a bit of tough one for me as it involves talking about myself. A lot.  I’ll do my best but if I wander off a bit then I apologise in advance!

First Memory

IMG_0780My first really clear memory is from when we moved to York when I was nearly 4.  The day we moved into the new house our new next door neighbour walked up through the garden and knocked on the back door.  It seemed like she was completely surrounded by girls and my Mum said ‘Are these all yours?’  Only two of them belonged to our neighbour.  The other six or seven lived around and about.  Our neighbour said, ‘does she want to come out to play?’ (I must have been too little for people to actually ask me a question) and Mum must have said ‘yes’ because that was it really.  My parents say that I really only came home for meals and to sleep for the next five years or so.  I spent the rest of my time out playing with the girls I met on that first day.

Books

I’ve always loved books and my parents said that I was never hard to entertain once I’d learned to read (that could also have been because I was hardly ever at home!) I read Enid Blyton, as many pony books as I could get my hands on and all of the Swallows & Amazons series.  My Dad still had his copies of those and they now stand proudly on my bookshelf waiting to be handed on to my nephew when he’s old enough. IMG_0782

In my twenties I read the classics and actually waded through War & Peace which took me almost a year.  I adore Jane Austen and Persuasion is one of my all time favourites.  These days I rarely have the energy for serious literature and read entirely for entertainment.  At the moment I’m reading Stoner by John Williams for my book club and Jeremy Poldark by Winston Graham for a bit of light relief.

Libraries

IMG_0781Mum and Dad took me to the library from a very early age and for a while in my teens I wanted to be a librarian.  Somewhat to my regret, I grew out of that idea but I still think it would be a lovely job.  The libraries in York have always been very good and have survived relatively unscathed from recent cuts.  I’m extremely grateful for the huge range of books that they’ve been able to lend me whilst I’ve been writing Beltane and Lughnasa.  From books about witchcraft and druids (which generated some interesting looks from the library assistants, I can tell you!) to tomes on the history of Glastonbury and the islands of Orkney they’ve hardly ever let me down.

What’s your passion?

Writing is my greatest passion but I’m going to talk about that later so I’ll have to find another one.  Would Ross Poldark sound too shallow?  Yes? Alright, I’ll try again…

Loch of Stenness at sunset
Loch of Stenness at sunset

I love folk music and going to folk gigs.  I’m pretty obsessed with Orkney at the moment, does that count?  Oh and I’m passionate about Yorkshire and will bang on about how amazing ‘God’s Own County’ is even though I’m not strictly speaking a true Yorkshire woman as I wasn’t actually born here.

Learning

I was a bit of a girly swot when I was younger.  I got decent O’ levels, rather embarrassingly good A’ levels and a competent degree.  I’ve always enjoyed learning and these days I get to impose my love of learning on students as I tutor at the university one day a week.  The thing I’m really loving at the moment is seeing how my nephew and godson learn about the world.  Nephew’s favourite word is currently ‘why’ and he simply will not give up.  If you answer a question and he’s not happy with the reply then he’ll say ‘why’ again and again until you come up with something better.  To be honest, he’s tougher to please than the undergraduates.  At least with them I’m allowed to tell them to go away and look it up for themselves!

Writing

IMG_0024 (2)I tried to write my first novel when I was eight.  It was a Famous Five type adventure with added ponies.  I’m absolutely sure it was terrible but it was the start of my desire to write and I’ve known since then that I wanted to be a writer.  I started writing seriously five years ago and I absolutely love it.  I’m a much happier person since then.  It’s a wonderful thing to have something in my life that I’m absolutely passionate about and makes me happy and it’s got me through some very testing times in the past few years.  I’m currently taking a break from my second novel, Lughnasa to write a steampunk novella set in Whitby.  With luck that will be ready to be published in the late summer.

This is the point where I’m supposed to hand over to another writer to take the Lovely Blog Hop forward but everyone I know has either already done it or is too busy.  Instead I’m going to suggest that you might like to read Sharon Booth’s turn on the Lovely Blog Hop which you can find here.  But if you’re reading this and thinking ‘I’d like a go at that Lovely Blog Hop’ then do please let me know and I’ll pass the (metaphorical) baton to you.

Fictional Yorkshire

sharon-cover-ebookI’ve just read a lovely novel set in ‘God’s Own County’ (which is what Yorkshire folk call the place where they live). It’s ‘There Must Be An Angel’ by Sharon Booth which is set in the fictional village of Kearton Bay which is based on Robin’s Hood Bay on the North Yorkshire coast.  For me there’s something wonderful about reading about somewhere I know.  It adds another dimension to a novel as I get to see somewhere familiar through someone else’s eyes.

Robin Hood’s Bay is a fabulous place, a village built on a ridiculously steep hill with a history of smuggling.  The name is apparently a bit misleading as they say Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest fame never went there.   Reading Sharon’s book I could imagine the village that I know filled with the wonderful cast of characters that she’s created.  They’re the kind of warm, interesting people that I like to think live in such a wonderful location.

Barley Hall Interior

Setting is really important to me when I read and when I write.  ‘Sovereign’ by CJ Sampson is set in York in 1541 when Henry the Eight visited the city.  I know some people found the historical details a bit heavy handed but I loved reading about places that are familiar to me now through the lens of historical fiction.  In the acknowledgements CJ Sampson talked about how visiting Barley Hall in York had helped his research.  I used to be a volunteer guide at Barley Hall and as I’d read the book I’d thought that the lawyer’s house seemed a bit familiar. It was great to know that Barley Hall had been his inspiration.

However if you’re going to use this city or county then you have to get it right.  I’ve read a couple of books where authors clearly don’t know York very well.  Alleys mysteriously appear where they don’t exist, characters walk down the wrong streets to get to where they’re going.  I’ve been known to put books down and never pick them up again for errors like that.  A friend stopped read Danny Wallace’s ‘Charlotte Street’ even though she was enjoying it because, as a regular visitor to Whitby, she knew there wasn’t a McDonald’s and couldn’t forgive that mistake.

Robin Hood's Bay
Robin Hood’s Bay

As I have a ridiculously overambitious tendency to write about places where I don’t live (so far Glastonbury and Orkney) in I’m very aware of the risks of making those kinds of mistakes.  You don’t want to jolt your reader out of your fictional world by getting something like that wrong.  I’m starting to think that Sharon’s approach is the right one and I may be fictionalising all my settings in the future.  But then, if I’d made up a place like Glastonbury, who’d have believed me?

You can buy ‘There Must Be An Angel’ by Sharon Booth here and read my Goodreads review here.

Knitted Together

Last weekend I went to the Unravel, Festival of Knitting in Farnham in Surrey.  I’m an occasional crocheter (I used to do a lot more before I started writing novels) and am just about competent with a pair of knitting needles.  I saw some amazing hand-crafted garments, beautiful wool and yarn in every possible shade and came home with lots of lovely ideas.

IMG_0673But the most inspiring thing was also the most unformed and random. It’s a project called ‘The Blue Jumper’ which has been put together by an artist called Sarah Filmer.

As you can tell it’s not actually a jumper at all but a community knitting project.  Knitters are invited to join in and knit as much or as little as they like.  There’s only two rules, you must use blue yarn and you have to knit directly onto the piece.

While I was adding my few rows there were a group of about six ladies doing the same.  When we’d finished Sarah Filmer took our names so that she’s got a record of everyone who’s been involved and gave us a blue badge.  So far over 700 people have knitted part of the Blue Jumper and it’s been to art exhibitions, festivals, care homes and community centres.

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Sarah’s put together a little book about the project which includes copies of notes that knitters have written after they’ve worked on the jumper.  Some of them are hugely moving as people tell how it got them knitting again after a bereavement or helped them make friends in a new area.

I was involved in a community knitting project last summer when I helped knit a bike (yes,really) to celebrate the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire.  As the whole county went cycling mad it was fabulous to be involved in a small way in the celebrations and to help create something special that was displayed in one of the parks in York.

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As we all know writing can be a lonely business. The Blue Jumper made me remember how important it is to do other creative things.  So I’ve made a resolution to get out from behind my laptop and meet other people to chat about yarn and life.  And who knows what incredible stories might come out of that?

You can find out more about the Blue Jumper here  and some fabulous photos of the York knitted bike here