A Tale of Salt and Wave

Of Edgelands and Imagination

We live around 12 kilometres, or 7.5 miles, from the ocean. Here, as I have mentioned, the ground begins to fold and hills rise around us, stretching above crinkled, complicated valleys, all the way down to the Serra de Monchique.

Hills to the south, rolling cork oak pastureland and fields to the east, plains all the way north, and the vast, rolling waters of the Atlantic to the west.

There are mornings where a fresh wind from the west brings the scent of the sea; hike to the crest of the first hills in that direction and you can see the haze of the salt spray spreading out below you, all the way to the coast. It is barely a stretch of the imagination to imagine a 16th century farmer watching as Barbary Corsairs destroyed the village of Vila Nova de Milfontes, taking away the inhabitants, condemned to a life of slavery. There is a reason there are so few old settlements along this coast, and that reason was piracy.

When I look at a landscape, I tie it to my imagination and what I know from history, archaeology, and reading. Sometimes, this is unconscious thought, ideas and ghosts of stories flickering across my mind; at other times I deliberately wonder what the young Alex would see if transplanted to this place and time. He would undoubtedly have read the tales of the pirates and made up fables of his own. There are deep caves here, tunnels from the mines which date back many centuries. Now, they are important for the local bats but, perhaps, young Alex would have been convinced some contained pirate treasure. He would definitely have climbed up and down the crumbling cliffs, leaping across fissures here, ignoring the drop and possibility of injury, flush with the fearlessness of the young and invincible.

When I inhale the scent of the early morning, watering the plants on the small balcony, catching the familiar salty tendrils on the breeze, I am reminded of other early mornings near the sea. I still recall the first time I awoke in Stromness, the way the air tasted utterly different from what was then called South Humberside. It left a deep sense of magic, which has not faded with time.

The sea is within me, in a way almost impossible to describe for those who did not grow beside her, have never sampled her moods and tasted her fury, and this creeps into my writing.

Eventually, everything does.

Hello

This has been a month of more communication than usual. I hope you have found my messages interesting. This particular one is an eclectic mixture.

As you know, I’ve been taking part in a free book group promotion on Bookcave, still available until the end of the month of May, here. If you haven’t already, do check it out — there’s also a chance to win a $20 voucher for your favourite ebook seller.

Share Not A Travel Writer

I am new to marketing. It is not something that comes naturally to me. I am slowly learning I need to move along from a rather quiet whisper of ‘Err, hey, I have written a few stories, each of which has a bonus tale, and the first novella is also entirely free. Maybe you’d like them. Sorry for bothering you.’

I can’t help this. BUT, I am beginning to realise that these stories are actually really, really good and I should be telling people. If you like fantasy tales, if you like complex characters, if you like imagery which will stick with you, then you will like them. They are well-crafted and it has taken me a long time to be able to say this out-loud but, you know what? I’m really a rather good writer. (I can write this now, but that doesn’t mean it comes naturally — I’m currently resisting the urge to cut this paragraph.)

I think my experience as Reddit’s Fantasy Writer of the Day went well. As Aurélie pointed out, this type of engagement — the digital AMA (Ask Me Anything) — is perfect for me. I really hate talking on the phone, for example, and the idea of doing a face-to-face book tour makes me want to run away to the wilderness again. However, get a bunch of people firing text queries at me on a forum, and I’m in my element. If you want to know how I came up with the geography of the world of The Lesser Evil, or what my favourite piece of Orkney mythology is, for example, you can find the thread here.

In the coming months, I shall be marketing more, especially once the next tale is released. Then I’ll have two products to sell, along with the permafree Only One Death. As mentioned in April, I intend to talk more about numbers, statistics, percentages, etcetera. I told you how I had no new subscribers to this newsletter in over two months (February the 21st until the 1st of May) but, now, as we near the end of May, I’ve almost tripled that readership and I’m very pleased with this.

Writing

In my last ‘normal’ missive, back at the end of April, I mentioned how I had hoped to release the third novella in my series during May. This has not happened. Regular readers, and those who actually know me, will not find this surprising.

The principal reason for this is that this novella is now firmly outwith the wordcount which would enable it to be called so. In short, it’s a novel. A short novel, yes, but a novel, nevertheless.

This story is about a woman named Flin. She is a singer, a storyteller, she leads dances and plays instruments. The novel weaves two threads from Flin’s life, separated by time and place and joined by motherhood. It is a tale of loss, a tale of hope, a tale of a constant journey to find something, a journey and search Flin has never given up on. It is also a study in fear.

I think, out of Only One Death, Death and Taxes, and this novel, this is my favourite.

A third thread is explored in the bonus story, a thread which also introduces another character who will return in the longer planned work. A character who is also a favourite of mine. This bonus story is, essentially, a monster hunt, set on an island city hugging the flanks of an active volcano.

Both the novel and the bonus read fast. This fits Flin’s tale well, the sense of constant movement, the underlying feeling of loss and almost-submerged dread that she will never find what she looks for.

I’m going to say that this will be released in June, and I’m going to try very hard to stick to this statement. Let’s see, shall we?

Watching

I have failed to catch you up with the things I have recently seen. Sorry.

Currently, Dispatches from Elsewhere is the evening watch. So far, I’m up to episode seven and I love it. I really hope it keeps being this good, keeps asking questions of our human condition, and answering them by showing what a wonder life actually can be. I want to talk more about this, but I shall wait until I’ve finished the series.

Before this, we watched the final season of Le Bureau des Legendes. Oomph. The whole showed spies and spying in a far closer fashion to what I imagine to be the truth. It is a tough watch at times, but it feels real. Well worth a watch.

La Casa de Papel (AKA Money Heist) is something I’d definitely recommend. It is superbly refreshing to see a heist narrated by a woman, and to see a show picked up and internationally successful when it exhibits such a strong Spanish identity. As with Le Bureau, it is want-to-watch-the-next-episode-immediately good.

One other thing I would like to mention is that I recently watched The Godfather for the very first time (yeah, I know, shush). I enjoyed it. I knew much of the story from popular culture, and the following evening we watched the second in the series, You’ve Got Mail (note: this is not REALLY the second, in case you are confused…).

Nora Ephron was an amazing, multi-talented writer, and the way she weaves The Godfather into this film is a prime example of this.

Listening

Recently, I’ve been listening to more music. I’m now more-or-less permanently standing to work, which means I am alone in the bedroom, able to play music using a small bluetooth speaker without bothering Aurélie, who prefers silence to work.

I alternate between wildly differing styles of music, as I have for most of my life. To draft and to edit, I find it best to either listen to something I know incredibly well, or something which fits certain moods, long, flowing mixes rather than individual, differing tracks. These mixes are nearly always high tempo, bass, drum, repetitive beats. Some days it is early 90s techno or acid, others dark forest psytrance, or afro tribal deep minimal tech house. Sometimes I want to listen to something a little more sinister, and seek out industrial aggrotech dark techno cyberpunk.

That these sub-genres exist is not surprising to me, people love to define, to split things into precisely the right category and, after being irritated by this in my youth, I made my peace with this years ago. What is surprising, however, is that I can match writing mood to genre quickly, finding a mix with just the right bpm or the right level of minimal interference with my brain. I have actually, somehow, begun to understand what these tiny subdivisions mean and actually appreciate them.

I find I move more with this music, sometimes essentially dancing whilst typing. It is meditative, hypnotic, fluid. Ideas and connections flow better when I am in this mindstate, things appear clearer, move obvious. The same can be said for playing albums I know excessively well, the rhythms and melodies guide and lead me to where I need to be. Sometimes, it is easy to know what music demands to be heard on one day, others, it can be a difficult, drawn-out process and, even when I think I’ve settled on a mix or an album, I then change my mind.

I used to think this type of music listening was somehow wrong but then I realised this was due to others describing it as “music in the background”. This, for me, is incorrect. It is not in the background, but in the fore, the beats pull and my consciousness glides, words tip-tapped faster and faster, the subconscious playing with my thinking brain, guided by rhythm, all those ideas I’ve thought about before committing to a written piece, all those notes I’ve taken — literally and mentally — they all slot together, just where they need to be.

At this precise moment, I am listening to one of my favourite albums, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left (note: all three of his albums are favourites, it’s impossible to choose just one). If you do not know his music, you really should have a listen.

Nature

The storks have not reared any young. This is not for a lack of trying. Recently, we went for a drive, out along the coast and back, passing several stork nests with small storklings poking out the top. Interestingly, the pair are still mating and still return to guard their nest, especially at lunchtime, when the skies fill with silent gliding competitors and the sound of the pair clattering an aural defence, beaks moving swiftly, wings arranged and bodies bent.

The landscape’s coat of flowers has been changed, several times, the principal base colour moving from a rich dark green, through lighter shades, to the greenish-brown she currently wears. I am determined to start to learn all these new friends. I’m doing well with birds, adding several new-to-me species (Iberian grey shrike! Montagu’s harrier! Bonelli’s eagle [today, at lunchtime!] Azure-winged magpie! Black-winged kite!), learning their names (first in French and their Linnaean classification, then English. Sometimes also Portuguese), their habits, why they are here. Next, I should add the flowers.

The richness of this area, the sheer variety and abundance, is something I doubt I will ever take for granted. Yes, there are relatively dead areas, as in most places — in this case, the plantations of Eucalyptus but, on the whole, these are more than made up for by the other places.

Our walks always invariably show something new. Here, a rich stand of wild apple-mint, there feral nasturtium showing where a garden once was tended. Pausing and looking closely always brings rewards.

Insect life flourishes. It a bedrock of a food pyramid stretching high above me, all those tiny tiny thunderflies (or Thrips or, ultra-locally from the Isle of Axholme, Men of Wroot), all those minute spiderlings on silken threads — these are all snatched up and eaten in their millions. Then the eaters are eaten, and so on, and so forth.

I could — and want to — write reams about the nature here. And I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. Sometimes, I wish I had more hours in the day.

Finally

I am aware that this newsletter has crept upward in word-count and shall keep this part brief. I always have so much to share and find myself enjoying the process. At various times, I have kept a journal or a blog and, I think, this serves exactly that purpose for this moment. These words are a distillation of thought, they are notes and ideas turned into paragraphs. Sketches transformed into paintings. I still keep notes, many of them, but this process — of transformation — is different, engaging a different side of my brain.

Thank you for reading — and welcome, new people! I hope you like what you see.

I should also add this — many algorithms on book selling sites rely on reviews to boost visibility. This is something all writers know, but it can come as a surprise to learn that many readers do not. In short, if you downloaded Only One Death, or Death and Taxes, and enjoyed it/them, if you can, please take a few minutes to leave a review. It doesn’t need to be epic literature, even a star rating helps, but the more reviews, the better — not just so others can see my book, but so they know what they are getting. If you are a member of Goodreads, a review there is also very much appreciated — I am extremely grateful when someone takes the time to do this, and I want to take this opportunity to say thank you.

P.S.

In relation to the opening paragraph, here is an excerpt — set in Stromness, Orkney — from The Care Industry, the first novel of The Greater Good. This poor book has been worked on, shelved, edited, shelved, rewritten, shelved, over and over, for several years now. However, once I have finished and published the fourth tale of The Lesser Evil, it will get the treatment it deserves. As such, consider this a draft. There will be considerable editing — I know I am a much better writer than when I crafted this:

John opened the window by the kitchen, while he waited for the grill to warm so he could make cheese on toast for his breakfast. He moved from window to window, mug of tea in hand, watching the town waking from its slumber. He could still smell the sea.

The salt of the ocean is a powerful thing. It serves as a metaphor. If you are child by the sea, it is forever in your blood. The longer you are away, the less potent the magic of the salt. The cravings for the ocean become greater and greater, malady with no known cause grows and you are drawn back to the coastline, to replenish the salt, transfuse and infuse your blood. John knew this.

The example he had discussed with Sally, when he had tried to explain the concept, had been of a beach pebble. He had patiently explained how someone walks along the tide-line, moving up and down the beach with the waves, their eyes drawn to the water, then the land, then the sky. Looking down they see a pebble, freshly cleaned by the ocean and shining. It holds mystery, beauty, magic. Where did it originate? How many years has it taken to wear? How long to arrive at this particular geographical point? Why is it different from all the other stones?

The beachcomber picks up the stone and places it in their pocket. It is only later they realise the magic has gone, as they themselves left the beach behind. The pebble, once bright, glistening and shiny, is now dull, the bands and colours muted, a sad reflection of the stone which originally arrested such attention. It looks drab on its own, with no other rocks it is out of place, no background to focus the gaze, no waves to polish.

Only by returning the pebble to the beach, to the caress of the waves, can the magic return, the touch of the sea restoring the life which captured the beachcomber's original interest.

It had taken several attempts to explain this to Sally, but he had finally made her understand why he missed the sea and felt a return to Orkney would help him recover his own magic. She had laughed at his explanations and he smiled at the memory, finished his tea, and put the bread under the grill.

Join me on Reddit (and Free Books, Still!)

Which is a long and unwieldy title, sorry.

Hello

It is Sunday. A glorious Sunday, where all I want to do is go and play outside, but instead I’m stuck inside doing homework. Namely writing this, building a couple of web pages, and some social media promotion. Do you remember those days, when glorious Sundays were always bittersweet, especially if you, like me, had not finished your school homework and spent much of Sunday cursing past-you for not doing it on Friday evening or Saturday morning, when it was raining and cold?

Bookcave Promotion

In my last note, I talked about being a part of a group promotion on Bookcave, promoting my free novella (and added free short story), Only One Death. This promotion runs for the whole of May, so do please have a look, there are over fifty free books to choose from. Thirty of you are new here, directly as a result of being a part of this promotion, so it certainly works. Hi, new friends, welcome!*

Reddit

I also mentioned that I am Reddit’s Fantasy Writer of the Day. This is tomorrow, Monday the 18th of May. I’ll be posting an introduction to me and my work and answering any questions that may come my way. If you are part of Reddit, or even if you aren’t and fancy joining, do pop in and say hello. As a classic introvert who also understands the importance of promotion and marketing, I’m not quite sure what will be worse — lots of people asking things, or nobody showing up at all.

According to the FAQ, it is best for my initial post to go up at 1500 (3pm) my time (Western European Time), so join me around then!

Reddit is a place I love — I’ve lurked there for a long time, but have never truly been involved in the writing/reading community. I had an old account some years ago, where I was more active in the bushcraft and wilderness skills subreddit but, honestly, I have far too an addictive nature and, as such, I need to regulate my internet and social media time.

Finally

I shall keep this message short (for me) and leave it here. I’ll be sending out at least one other newsletter this month (the ‘normal’ one), so I don’t want you to get Not A Travel Writer fatigue. Besides, I need to transplant some baby lettuce and a rosemary, and it’s far too beautiful a day to be stuck indoors. In true teenage-Alex fashion, I can always do my homework on the morning it is due…†

Footnotes

(I really should avoid these, as I have a habit of writing far too many.)

*You’ll find all manner of things in these messages, talk of my work, true, but also nature notes, discussion of travels, places, and cultures, observations on film, TV, music, literature and more, and pretty photos I’ve taken. The only tangible link is me — this newsletter essentially serves as a writer’s notebook, showing the reader all those tiny details that are recorded, filed, ruminated-over, polished and repurposed into my fiction and other written work. There is just so much wonder in this world,‡ it only seems fair to share it.

† This is not a good example to set. Sorry. And, for those of you who don’t already know, I am living in Portugal, where our lockdown is no longer as fierce as it once was and we’re encouraged to get out into nature. The photos accompanying this piece are all from local areas. I especially love the gateway and graffiti, recently discussing and sharing it on my Instagram.

‡ Yes, I am, of course, aware of the bad side of life, of suffering and pain, but I think there are already plenty of others who share these things, sometimes forgetting kindness and the marvel that is life.

Free Books!

And a note on my birthday.

Hello,

I did say there would be more newsletters this month, didn’t I?

This newsletter is primarily for two things, a bit of personal news, and a bit of marketing — a shiny, all-free, group promotion to be precise.

Today, the eleventh of May, is my birthday. This point is actual the second of the two. I am telling you this now to segue neatly into the first point, and return to this fact later.

This month I am increasing my marketing for my stories. Back in February, I began with soft launches for Only One Death and Death & Taxes, with only minor fanfare. There are a number of reasons for this choice, such as the fact we were living in a camper van, traversing France, Spain, and Portugal, in search of a new home. That takes time. In the near future, I shall be talking more about my Plan, with a capital P, what comes next, what comes soon, what comes in a few years.

Only One Death, and Death & Taxes also have bonus tales, available to anyone who has a copy of either, simply by clicking a link. I did a lot of research into the best place to host these bonus tales, their home on the internet, and Bookcave came out as my favourite.

Not only is the hosting exactly what I needed, but I also appreciated the possibility of extra marketing tools, such as the ability to have my books featured, whether individually, or in a group.

And this is my first point. This month, I am part of a group promotion, entitled Brave New Worlds. If you follow the link, you can find a range of books — all of which are free, all of which fall into the deliciously-varied category of Sci-fi and Fantasy. All you need to do is select which book you want and click on it, then follow the simple instructions.

You also have a chance to win a $20 gift card for your favourite ebook seller.

Needless to say, Only One Death is a part of this promotion.

I’m rather analytical when it comes to marketing, choosing what I like and what works, discarding what does not fit my needs or fails to deliver. So far, however, I have to say this group promotion seems to be working and I am pleased with the number of new newsletter subscribers (hello and welcome! Expect this place to be full of all the little things that make up a writer’s notebook).

I shall send another message or two this month, also discussing promotion and marketing but, as a short heads-up, I’m Reddit’s Fantasy Writer of the Day on Monday the 18th of May. If you use Reddit and want to know, well anything, really, save the date and join in. I’ll send more details soon, but as the name suggests, it’ll be on r/Fantasy.

Right. Yes. Birthday. This message, like all the recent missives, comes to you from Alentejo, in the south west of Portugal, where I’ve been living for all of lockdown, all seven hundred and twenty-three years, give or take. A year ago, although rent was paid in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I actually woke up on the France/Switzerland border, hopped over to Geneva and caught a train through the mountains to Grenoble, to eat far too much sushi. The year before, I woke up within Sherwood Forest, really not too far from the Major Oak, an outlaw challenge awaiting me. Three years ago, I was on a plane, watching a bright and fierce dawn, somewhere above Burma, as I set out on adventures.

Imagine that? Travel! I am sure there will come a time when the world is once more open but, in the meantime, we can furnish our minds with memories and derive joy from these.

Share Not A Travel Writer

Birthdays, like all anniversaries, be they shared or personal, are a time for reflection. I generally utilise the whole of the month of May for this, rather than just one day. I like to ponder all that has passed, and all that might come to pass in the year (and years) ahead. As such, my thought process is incomplete. I have ideas about what will happen in the next twelve months, and I have musings about what has happened in the last twelve, but this is not the time to share them. My very first post here, still stands as a “what’s happening” list, as does this missive, with more details of the stories themselves. There’s more, of course, but until I write another, it still serves.

One thing I will mention, however, is that on my last birthday, I had no newsletter. The process of setting this up and sharing thoughts, observations, snippets and snappets, rambles, joys, and hopes, has been one I have learnt from, and continue to learn from. I hope you enjoy reading these words, and I hope you continue to do so.

Finally, if you want to send a birthday present of sorts, check out the group promotion, or maybe download Only One Death , Une Seule Mort, or Death & Taxes, see what you think to my fiction. And do please remember — if you know someone who would also enjoy this newsletter, send a copy their way.

Share

One last thing, on the subject of reflection and thinking about what was and what might be. May might be my birthday month, but September marks two very important personal anniversaries. Firstly, it shall be twenty-five years since I left Orkney, as a fresh-faced eighteen year old, bound for university (the first time), and all manner of experiences. Secondly, it shall be ten years since I left my last “proper” job and quit the city I had called home for nearly ten years, catching a train or three, to then walk out into the wilderness, where I would spend the following three months, alone, thinking, living in a shelter I built myself, gathering food, fuel, and water. And writing, pondering the direction I wanted my life to take.

I am thinking hard about how to mark these anniversaries. I know I should do something, but what? I am, as yet, unsure. Watch this space.

Light and Dark

But mostly light.

My local world is bounded by windmills. Round hilltop towers, now shorn of their sails, some falling back to nature, others repurposed into circular homes. Many of the taller hilltops near this village are capped with a windmill, their curves juxtaposing with the angles of the distant line of pylons stepping southward in great cable-linked, invasive metallic strides.

Throughout the day, from the first light until the last, these stunted sentinels act as giant sundials, barometers against the azure or beneath the grey, sometimes vanishing for hours at a time, only to reappear in evening brilliance, all between us bejewelled by fresh spring rain and the low angle of the sun.

I live beside ancient hills, just where the flat plain rises to my back, to the south, the east and, for a short distance, the west. The dawn is swift and the sun stays in the sky, no cover once the day breaks. The dusk, however, is the opposite, a ballet of light and shadow, as the sun slips behind a hill, to usher in night, only to suddenly reappear, before repeating this dance, forest-clad hills skirted, and the patchwork of fields and white of the buildings lit again.

Throughout the evening, the windmills are points in this play, bright pinnacles, gnomon, casting long fingers of shadow. As the sun moves into hiding I swear the world begins to whisper, only to regain its voice as the daylight returns once more; birds sing, dogs bark, the sheep reassure one another, as a wave of technicolor rolls towards my position, at a speed which serves to reminds me how fast our planet spins, making me feel a little dizzy.

I wonder whether the missing sails once cast corkscrewing shadows of their own. Whether they were broad and slow enough to add to this marvel, or whether the miller had always locked them by the time the sun was setting. I wonder who else gazed from this village to this interplay of light and dark, what they thought at the end of a long day in the fields, or working with the local iron. You can find slag from the smelting here, dating back to the time of the Romans, or earlier, when the Miróbrigenses spoke the now long-extinct Tartessian. Names, an alphabet, lumps of melted rock, all surviving long after their makers are dust.

All those days spinning into years, those years into centuries and millennia, time adding layers to this place, sunset after sunset, no two ever alike. The windmills watch, as do I, one day both to return to dust, as the hills themselves are worn away as the world turns. I find this oddly reassuring.

Hello

I have now lived in Portugal for nearly two months. I am taking the definition of “lived” as having been in the apartment, not the time spent on the road in February, exploring. This is a decent stretch of time to begin to draw some conclusions about a place, albeit with the caveat of lockdown and life being a little different in this day and age. It is, for example, very difficult to find friends or a community without the ability to move around.

Share

I originally started this section in long-form, writing paragraphs and explanations about each item on my list. However, as I am wont to do, it turned into a giant essay. I am sure a list is more palatable, so here we are, bulleted points for your perusal:

  • Clouds, oh the clouds, the colours, the shapes, the movement.

  • The wind — an old, close friend, and how I have missed it.

  • Changing weather.

  • Warm sun and lots of it.

  • The quality of the light, indoors and out. I was spoilt by this, growing up in Orkney and living in Caithness — but have missed it in Chiang Mai and SE Asia — here is similar to the north of Scotland, there’s just something about the air. Which leads to…

  • The air quality. It is so fresh, so pure, it is a joy and my lungs are so very thankful. The ocean winds keep it moving.

  • Unheated (other than a fireplace) homes, wearing woollen clothes inside, the evenings scented by woodsmoke.

  • The wealth of insect life, that crucial building block for a healthy ecosystem.

  • Birds everywhere. Their song a constant soundtrack to the day. The clattering of the storks, screaming swifts and squabbling sparrows just some of them.

  • Wildflowers in an abundance and variety I do not believe I have ever actually witnessed (the Machair in South Uist comes close for spectacle, but there are more species here). Makes me ashamed of the relative desert some parts of the UK have become.

  • The smell of the place — whether the eucalyptus plantations, the dry burnt scent of the pine trees, the woody deep smell of the cork oaks, the labdanum oleoresin of the brown-eyed rockrose, or the many different tendrils of flower perfume.

  • Portuguese blended coffee is surprisingly good. Really, very good.

  • The wine is an astonishing revelation. So much depth and flavour.

  • The wine labels are just as delicious, beautiful artwork featuring local nature.

  • The unexpected joy at watching a roof being taken down and a new one put back up, using techniques I doubt have changed in a long, long time (chainsaw excepted!).

  • Also unexpected — a 13 Euro electricity bill for the whole of March.

  • The beauty of the night sky, the stars sharp and bright, our position and a lack of bright night lights enhancing this.

  • Fresh citrus, especially oranges and lemons.

  • Cutting down on food-miles — most of what we buy is produced very, very locally.

For now, this list will suffice; there is more, which I shall, no doubt, share over time.

Writing

Much of my time this month has been taken with the redrafting and edits of my third novella. I really want this to be released in May, for a number of reasons, but it is taking longer than I would like. It has also grown in the redrafting and can almost be called a novel. As yet I do not know what it is to be called (but it will have the word “death” in it, yes).

This story features the introduction of a key character in the longer fantasy epic to come, at two times in her life, the stories weaving across time, showing how the years in between have changed this character, how she has grown and what she has lost. It is also an attempt to capture fear, to keep the reader breathless, through both tales, with little time for rest — this is not the easiest thing to do; pacing issues are often taken for granted when they work but, when they don’t, they really stand out. I am still hopeful you will be able to get this story very soon — it will also come with a bonus tale, which is essentially a monster hunt, featuring the same character and set in between the two stories detailed in the novella.

Nature

The swifts came back to Portugal much earlier than I am used to in the UK. Which is not really a surprise, given how much warmer it is, and how close to Africa. What is a surprise, is how swiftly (sorry) they got to work repairing their nests and getting on with the process of creating another generation. I suspect they may also leave earlier than I am used to.

I am also surprised that our resident pair of storks aren’t sitting yet. I keep thinking they will be, any day now, but then off they both fly for an hour or two. They are certainly mating, increasingly, with considerable clattering afterwards, the male’s wings outstretched and folded like origami, swaying from side to side. I will keep you informed.

As with all forms of nature study, if I put in more time, I get better results. I am trying to ensure I look outside more, for a period of minutes, rather than a brief glimpse. This affords wonderful results, with the smaller birds, which dart and hide so quickly, often appearing when I look — there are more here than I know, and I am often consulting my guide (it’s in French, so I then have to search online for the English name — this serves to lock new species into my brain, in a remarkably useful manner).

As an example, I looked outside after this paragraph, for two minutes. I saw swifts, barn swallows, red-rumped swallows, house martins, a great tit, a white stork, a blackbird, a short-toed treecreeper, house sparrows stealing water from a dog’s bowl, and a black redstart flitting to its nest. In two minutes, from a window on the fourth floor, without binoculars. I am well aware how lucky I am.

Finally, for this section, I have to mention owls. Specifically, barn owls. For some time now, I’ve been hearing them both screech and hiss as I read in bed and I suspect they may be nesting in the church tower. As we got ready to head to bed the other night, Aurélie called me into the spare bedroom/gym although, seeing as she was looking out the skylight window whilst brushing her teeth, it was difficult to work out what she was saying.

It turned out a barn owl had flown just above the window — we suspect it may have been sitting on our roof, which explains the hissing and nearby screeching. I looked out the window with her and, despite her pointing and urgent words, it took me a while to see the owl — or owls. There were two and they seemed to be dancing together, ghosts at night, above the sleeping village, their white feathers catching the light from below, appearing and disappearing as they twisted and turned. As I have said before, sometimes, when you witness a moment of nature, you just know it will stay with you — and this was one of those moments, pure pleasure and an unforgettable treat.

Exercise Bore and Saving The World

In the past I have, on several occasions, threatened to discuss exercise, fitness and movement. This threat has never really come to pass, however. For me, exercise is best done alone. I tried a gym, once upon a time, ooh, ten or more years ago, but it did not work for me. I’m too much of an introvert, too terrified of what others think, that they watch and judge, that I’m somehow doing something wrong. Better, then, to work out at home.

When we moved here I came equipped with a kettlebell, my gymnastic rings, a homemade punch-ball, and an exercise band. I have been working out consistently over the past seven weeks, trying to develop a decent routine, to fix the niggling aches and pains, revert the anterior pelvic tilt of too long spent sitting at a desk, and generally feel good in my body.

I also have some specific goals, but I’m not ready to discuss or share these just yet. There’s a reason this passage is entitled “exercise bore” — I do not want to become one of those people who see the need to evangelise about exercise, there’s no point. It’s an individual thing, as far as I’m concerned, you have to commit to no one but yourself.

Instead, I write this to touch upon a thought which flashed through my mind the other night. Who are we? Are we our bodies? Are we our minds? I lean towards the body merely being a vessel for the brain, for the mind and I cannot help but consider how has this vessel altered across my life.

I wonder what a teenage me would make of forty-something Alex? He would be dismayed that the pure vision he enjoyed was slowly worn away by a decade of office work, artificial lights, lack of daylight and excess computer glare doing their thing. He would note that I stand taller now, the fear of being seen which encouraged me to hunch as soon as I grew no longer present, back muscle work pulling me tighter and more upright. I suspect he’d probably also be surprised by the muscle size and definition — goodness knows I am now; it is a validation of the work I’ve put in, yes, but not one I take for granted. Sometimes I catch sight of myself in a mirror and wonder who is staring back.

I am stronger now than at any time in my life. I may not be at my heaviest but I am at my healthy-heaviest, adding over a kilo of muscle in the time I’ve been in this apartment.

For a long time, I got away with doing little or no exercise, trading on the foundation of an active childhood, not too worried by the years of smoking or drinking but, as I got older, I realised I could no longer do that, no longer rely on good genetics and the past alone.

The big change came when I understood that the person best placed to manage my chronic issues, whether physical or mental, was myself. No one else would do it for me. I started researching, reading, watching videos, working out what was best at that time, then later. And I kept at it.

Now I enjoy strengthening what is weak, working on damage: repair, revitalise, repeat. I like that I know exercise helps me mentally; it is a tool in a box of tools, it is a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole.

Recently, I’ve begun to consider the world in a similar way. To begin to consider a possibility of change through specific action.

It is hard not to imagine a better world. When the Berlin wall fell, I remember feeling things might actually change. I remember wondering what shape a world without division may take, but of course all that youthful optimism was removed, piece by piece, over the following decade or two.

(Incidentally, I have never had a better explanation behind this shift than the Adam Curtis documentary The Power of Nightmares. Well worth a watch.)

However, seeing as I taught myself to regain that youthful optimism, I find myself thinking, what if…?

We could alter things. Really alter them. Replace the intolerable inequality of rampant, late-stage capitalism with something new (of course, there are economists who suggest this is already happening and is inevitable).

We could seriously look into the idea of a universal basic income.

We could reconsider our cities, the size of the pavements, replace car-centric infrastructure with bike-safe lanes, for example.

We could stop killing the National Health Service (in the UK) and look at a system that isn’t so cruel (in the US). Invest in doctors, nurses, pay carers a decent wage, thin out those fat cats, the bankers, the city-types, those who make money with money for no reason other than the love of money. Stir things up a bit, share out what remains.

We could treat nature as the crucial system of support and care it is, rather than an inconvenience or resource. Pause and reconsider how best to use this one planet we currently have. How to share, again.

We could perhaps start to shout about positive news, about those things which show what an incredible species we are, our best achievements, rather than concentrate on our worst qualities. The media here is culpable, true, but the problem is not just them — they only provide what is craved. Switch the craving, make us want good news, then serve it.

We could actually address climate change. Not treat it like an inconvenience which needs lip service, but realise it represents something far worse. Then turn our minds to how best to help our world.

There are many other things we could do, many things I would like to see — fairly paying artists, writers, and musicians, for example — but will they come to pass? I do not know.

I do know, however, that this represents an opportunity almost sacred — we talk to each other in ways we now take for granted but, in reality, only occurred in a bare handful or two of years. We adapt so quickly. This communication is key — the more of us who talk about these things (and we are doing), the more chance there is of those with the power to do something listening. Maybe. Let’s see.

If I can do it to myself, a slightly-damaged, slightly-worn, once-jaded-now-content forty-something, perhaps there’s hope for the world yet?

Finally

You should expect more messages in May. I have signed up for a couple of marketing/promotion ideas, to see what may work to build the growth of this newsletter and to sell more books. I will be talking about this over the next month, recounting figures, the cold, hard data, what it means, and how I try not be discouraged (e.g. it can be tough when no one new has signed up here in over two months, but hey, that’s all part and parcel of the game and, honestly, I know my own lack of marketing has something [everything?!] to do with this). Watch this space.

If you like reading this newsletter and think you know someone who may also enjoy it, by all means do please pass the link along or give me a boost on social media (and thank you for those of you who do — I really appreciate it).

Share Not A Travel Writer

Stories of Life

Also featuring stories of drafts and edits.

Outside the window, the world warms, stories of life everywhere.

Swirls of storks climb invisible spirals. Beneath, strata of swallows manoeuvre, twist, brake and snatch, manoeuvre, twist, brake and snatch. Lower still, plummeting sparrows, falling from our eaves to the orange grove below, a constant squabble. Beyond the storks rises a bird of prey, perhaps a buzzard, perhaps something else, I do not have my binoculars to confirm and the angle is off. Three crows mob and give chase, an explosion of collared doves below, flashing from thicket to thicket. Earlier, two ravens headed west, scaring the same doves and a brace of wood pigeon, a cycle which continues throughout the day.

The shepherd is moving the sheep from the field with the olives to the one with the holm oak shade. His dog, at this distance, could be a hunting wolf. Further, a field of brown and well-fed cattle move along the edge in single file, a solitary dark horse in the field between, geese, chickens, and vegetable gardens closer still. Dusty tree-lined trails mark boundaries, arteries to the wilder places beyond this village.

Here, the trees and bushes are mostly green, with the others in blossom or still awaiting their moment, to burst into leaf once more. This is a reversal from the land I grew up within, where the verdancy of holly or ivy was welcome in the winter, whilst all else slept, drained of colour, a monochrome hibernation. The cork oaks, the oranges and lemons, the satsumas, the eucalyptus, the holm oaks and others I am still trying to identify: this is a rolling land of green winters and blue, blue, azul skies. It is a land of surprisingly cold winds and reassuringly warm sun, sudden dawn and swift sunset, a land chiming with the church bell, toll unchanged through centuries. Sleek cats cross the village on terracotta clay tiles, a highway in the sky, a stratum of their own. Below, the dogs bark at their scent and the ink shadow of a returning stork brushes across shining paper-white walls, today’s approach to the nest directly parallel to our kitchen window.

The local Grandmothers hush the dogs, shoo the hens and sit for a spell, short woollen cloaks over their shoulders, sun seeping into leathery tanned skin, heating old bones, mimicking the lizards in the grass. Warmed, they move fast, determined: sweeping, hanging laundry, cooking on braziers, moving heavy wooden furniture outside to clean. Another pause and an animated discussion with neighbours, arms are raised, fingers pointed, chins are jutted. World affairs on a tiny, mostly-unchanged street; these cobbles heard tell of other diseases, of wars, of births and deaths, of love. Countless stories of life. If I were to open the window I would hear their words, drifting upward to me and to the stork nest to the left, as the fragrance of the blossom fills the room and the rising warmth of spring flows into the kitchen.

Stories of life, lives forming stories, constantly.

Hi.

In a recent note, I mentioned that we had a new home in the Alentejo (keen-eyed readers may also have noticed I accidentally missed a photograph out of that newsletter, sorry!). This home is roughly 15km (9 miles) from Vila Nova de Milfontes, which is from where the February newsletter was sent. In this, I did say it felt like a potential home and we were right; this is a good place to live, a good place to pause and catch-up, and a good place to watch the world.

In an earlier draft of this note, I started with a previously-threatened discussion of how we found our new home, catching you up on the adventure. Unfortunately, this turned into a bit of an epic and, as such, I’ve decided to hang on to those words and polish and share them on my website at some point instead. It is time to start writing more there too, I feel a touch sorry for it and it would also be nice to be able to share links with you here.

Before we go any further, I’ll address the proverbial viral elephant in the room, with this excellent caveat:

“The diagnostic tool is straightforward: Do you want every glorious weirdo you’ve ever followed to morph into the same obsessive faux public health expert? YOU DO NOT!” Robin Sloan (more from him later).

It is a rare thing to have current affairs bring the world together, especially whilst simultaneously physically distancing, yet here we are. I recently finished Agency, by William Gibson. In this book, and its predecessor, The Peripheral, he talks about The Jackpot — a series of events which leaves humankind depleted, damaged, dying — a long-drawn-out apocalypse, as it were. In the books there is mention of the pandemics (plural) as a part of this, each chipping away at the whole. Needless to say, after this book, I chose something a little more light-hearted to read, something less close to home.

However, despite the potential of this pandemic, and the accompanying horror, I think it is important to also look at ways in which it could be harnessed, humankind set on a different path. We could feasibly use this as a reset, as the big warning which finally unites and galvanises us to make the changes we — and the world — need. The problem of climate change, for example, is that for many it is easy to dismiss. This pandemic is harder to ignore, even if certain world leaders would like to do just that.

Here’s a thing you may or may not know about me. For many years I was a natural cynic, a pessimist of the highest order; it just seemed logical. Then, once upon a time, I made a deliberate choice to alter this — primarily as a way to help combat depression, but I was also simply fed up with feeling like the worst would happen all the time. Even now, there’s a temptation to say that we as a species will not heed this big warning, this incredible chance to hit restart — but, instead, I’m going to try and remain positive. Although I will say, to move forward, now and in the years to come, we are going to need leaders — if there’s one thing we’re seeing right now, it’s how a lack of leadership can have terrible results. I do think those leaders are out there — and I think they are going to come from younger generations.

I am also well aware how lucky we are. We chose a country wisely, located an area we liked the look of, found a home just in time, and even filled our larder and stores before there was any worry about panic buying or hint of lockdown. Of course, it could be better. We could be out there, finding a community, locating our people — but that can wait and, in the meantime, there are a million and one things to do: lists of lists, checkbox after checkbox to tick off.

I am pleased that I caught myself in time and stopped my slide towards refreshing the news for a constant trickle of sadness. Instead, I limit social media and the news websites and generally get stuff done. Including a regular workout schedule, which I am delighted about.

Finally, for this portion, here’s another quote from Robin Sloan’s newsletter:

“There’s a world waiting on the other side of this crisis, and that world wants your strange, personal video game; your cleverly-designed fanny pack; your email newslet—

Scratch that. There’s a world right here, right now, and THIS world wants those things! Even more, it wants, it NEEDS, signs of their production: the light in the (browser) window, the (digital) curl of smoke from the chimney.

For me, a reliably potent antidote to anxiety and uncertainty is evidence that there are people out there who are okay; people who are quietly working.

I’m out here. I’m okay. I’m working.”

And so am I.

Writing.

But what, pray tell, am I working on? What am I getting done?

Well, apart from trying to catch up on hours missed for the social media management work I do — hours spent on the road and exploring this nation, hours spent moving in, resupplying, equipping, polishing and putting things in their place — apart from this, I have been trying to reintroduce good habits.

I have written about my drafting process before, about what works for me with my personal writing.* Lately, several things have slipped; packing up and moving continents, being ill over Christmas and New Year and then finding a new home in a new country will do that — but I am making an effort to reintroduce my good habits, easing in again to my process, speed things up a little, actually start and finish things.

To summarise the post mentioned, over the years I have learnt that the best way for me to draft is to do so in bursts, thirty-minute bursts, to be precise. I set a timer and go. Those thirty minutes are not long, but I average 900 words in that time, sometimes more, sometimes less. As long as I hit 500 new words, I am happy. If I hit 1000 or more in those thirty minutes, that’s a good day. Sometimes, I do two blocks of thirty, but these days this is rare.

This is a draft. It is awful, full of typos, ideas that go nowhere and are abandoned mid-sentence, sometimes mid-wor.., terrible grammar, woeful dialogue, descriptive pieces that quite frankly make me cringe. BUT the important thing is this — once I have a draft, I can redraft. I can then edit, and edit some more.

Which brings me to the next point. I have a list of things to redraft and edit, extending to roughly 250 000 words. A quarter of a million, folks. Roughly. Maybe a few more. However, this includes an already edited and relatively well-polished novel, which will not take as long to edit as, for example, the next two novellas and their bonuses.

Why add more?

The simple fact of the matter is I do not always manage to keep a flow of new words coming and, for me and, indeed, others, a key part of editing is leaving words alone — for as long as possible. Come back with fresh eyes and it is far easier to see flaws, better ways to do things, even simple fixes like the aforementioned typos jump out when left alone.

My current new words are another novel. The Lesser Evil novel, which comes after the novellas, to be precise.** I have crafted a few thousand words of this already, mostly stunted beginnings and sketches of scenes and ideas. It proves tricky to reintroduce characters I already know so well but who will prove shiny and new to a suspected majority of readers. It is a fine line to tread, not to make these reintroductions too boring for those who’ve read my shorter fiction but to provide enough detail for those who are new. Similarly, with the scenes — I want to launch directly into the main plot, without too much of the often, dare I say, boring exposition that can be the bane of many an otherwise-good novel, but I also have to introduce ideas, places, and a thousand other snippets which all come together later on. Tricky indeed; if this were easy, everyone would do it.

I try and edit a thousand words minimum per day. Rather than a thirty-minute burst, a figure like this works better. Some days it is more, considerably more. Getting the first messy draft to a state where I can chop bits out, move things around, add new words, then repeat, is an exciting point. I used to hate editing but, as I grew older and more experienced, I came to accept this is where the magic actually happens. True, there are those days where my drafts (typos, etcetera notwithstanding) are inspired, where whole paragraphs and scenes make it into the final product with barely any alteration — but those days are rare and, as I think it was Neil Gaiman who said (and here I paraphrase): once the book is finished, no one else will know which bits were a hard slog, redrafted and edited over and over and which bits were easy to write. Often, even the writer won’t be able to remember.

*As I mention in the linked blog post, I also try and share details of “wordcountability”, posting a screenshot of my daily total to my website. This is something I have yet to reintroduce, but it is a good habit and one which will reappear shortly.

** I can let you into a little secret — this novel will NOT be a three-word title with the word “death” as one of those words. This is a fun thing for the novellas, forcing me to really, really think, but this novel is a different beast entirely.

Reading and watching.

Normally, I’d try and share details of what I have recently been enjoying — or not— in the world of literature and moving pictures (does anyone actually call them moving pictures any more?). However, this month I’m going to leave this section relatively blank. I sent out the “On Books” piece recently and I think that should suffice for now.

Next month, I shall hopefully include the things I read and the things I watched since February’s newsletter — some better than others (which is a problem for me, as I do not want to be too negative here).

I will say, however, we recently rewatched Knives Out and it is definitely my favourite movie of last year; that script, the acting, the sets, everything about it is delicious.

Nature.

One thing the guidebooks rarely mention is the shadow of a large bird, in this case, the white stork (Ciconia ciconia) — how it plays across a landscape, adding another different dimension to the view. There is a dichotomy about the stork; one moment it shines, bright and flashing in the sun, then it is higher and dark, a silhouette gliding on and on. As the birds leave the nest, or approach on their flightpath to land, they have a counterpart — the shadow stork. This darker bird, a twin of the silhouette, flits from white building to clay tiled roof and back again, crossing cobbled street and azure-painted detailing in between, rippling across the world below, silent, leaving not a trace, other than a brief absence of the warmth and light from the sun.

I am learning much about storks. Although, at the time of writing, we have not seen “our” storks on their nest for a day or so. I really hope they haven’t abandoned it (EDIT: One of the birds is on the nest, right now, as I queue this for sending, which makes us happy — I wonder if they hid from the rainstorms?)

As detailed in the opening vignette, I am also learning about the strata of this village — being mostly inside of late (yes, the elephant again) means I do ensure I take the time to look out. The views on both sides of our apartment are wonderful and, if I take the right amount of time, they reveal the secrets of the local nature.

Admittedly, the idea of being able to walk and cycle and explore free in the countryside around is playing on my mind. I’m looking forward to the things we’ll see, the signs we’ll find — a feather here, a bone there, a string of tracks or a hair caught in the bark. However, signs can also come to me. Today, something kindly deposited part of a bone on our balcony. I think it is probably from a lamb, but I may be wrong. I have found several websites with details of local wildlife and nature, such as here and here, if you are interested (Great Bustard! Iberian Pond Turtle! Iberian Mongoose! Rüppell's Griffon!)?

Ending of Sorts.

One final thing, also on the subject of nature — I am thrilled to once again have a view which is split between the land and the sky. It has been a while since I have lived somewhere with such a view available at all times and I did not realise how much I have missed a lively sky. Being so close to the ocean means there are clouds skipping here, slowing there. There are mornings where I look outside and the flatter plain to the north is hidden beneath a blanket of mist. Sometimes, the hills to the south disappear and it rains — we are in the cloud and all is water. The wind is another feature I love, places with wind feel like home to me. Orkney did that without my noticing — and I do not take it for granted.

There is a power to the sky, a power to the water and the winds; elemental life is something too easily taken for granted and I acknowledge this and pause, listen to what the world tells me, find the stories, wait for others.

(All the photos above are of our views, with the exception of this lemon and clematis, which is just around the corner.)

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