Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Holding in Abeyance 2

It strikes me as odd, in some ways, but the first Holding in Abeyance post is one of this blog's most popular pieces. That's a bit of a cheat, really, and I almost feel bad about it. No, that's almost, that's not feel. For those who've never read Orson Scott Card's book on writing Sf and Fantasy, I might have given them a valuable pointer to a really good work on the subject by someone who (don't argue about this one, I'll find out where you live) knows what he's talking about.
But, to be honest, most of that post was about Brendan Earle and if you've never heard of him (join the rest of the world) that might not have helped you much.
Two paragraphs in and it's time to tell you that this post won't either. Sorry, but Shadowland (I'm going to do a post on the story of it's name and how I managed to not realise I was quoting one of my favourite singers - Steve Earle, but later. Hang on a bit.) doesn't have much of this. Brendan Earle did. By the bucket load.
Shadowland - OK, it's got sex in kilotonnes, so one of the possible titles was going to be, 'In a place of Shades', doesn't.
And then again, that's not true. Shadowland - it's really cool to have a title that you can't and don't need to shorten - makes a point of telling you that something is going on here that isn't what it should be. And it regularly tells you that what you see isn't all that it looks to be. Still and all, it tells the story of a 15-year-old who is in Devon, in a stately home during the first world war. And getting laid. A lot. (I'm a Brit, we do understatement. Massive understatement.)
You do have to hold the idea in abeyance that what you see is not what you are going to get, but sadly, that's it.
I think, and I described this all to my 12-year-old daughter tonight, that the reader will be happy to follow the story of Jack and his adventures (for those who aren't 12, read sexual conquests) up to the point where he understands what he is in, whereupon the whole story will start to zip back up with the parallel story that has been going on in plain sight all the while and the reader will understand why there have been so many anachronisms. (You think I'm going to tell you what they are just 'cos you read this blog? Hah, dream on kid.).
Long sentence that one, so let me recap. There is a story going on that you can read for fun. It's how Jack gets laid, Works for you? Great.
While you are reading it, you will become aware that something else is going on - the ghosts who comment on Jack's progress, state of health and general condition are a dead giveaway. You will know that there is something you are going to have to wait to find out. As I said with Brendan, I don't think that Agatha Christy ever felt the need to tell anyone that it was the butler what did it in the first chapter. You will NOT get the answer to what is happening until the end. Take my word for it, mind, I really love it. The only thing you can be sure of is that what seems to be happening, isn't.
I mean that. I really hope that when you get to the end of the story, I will have sent you in the wrong direction so completely that you'll still find yourself thinking, 'I didn't see that one coming.'
What can I tell you? I like stories that make you think and work for your fun, that's why I write them like that.
Anyway, after I told my (very, very smart) 12-year-old about this, she said, "That's really interesting Dad, but I'm tired and need to go to bed now."
You should feel free to do the same. 'Cos this post doesn't tell you much more about Holding the Reader in Abeyance than that. I think it is not just fine to do that, I think it is essential. If you have explained everything to your reader, they are in the position of a kid who knows what they are getting for Christmas. Things to look forward to? Uncheck that box, 'cos there's bugger all at the bottom of the sock. (I'm British, use Google if that doesn't mean anything to you.)
I tell my Academic Writing students that the thing to emulate is the GPS (I live in the UAE, you might call it the satnav - its a free world except where it isn't, so go ahead, live a little).
"In 1.5 kilometres, enter the roundabout and take the first exit.
Enter the roundabout and take the first exit." 
(If you are travelling in Dubai, this is usually followed by: 'Recalculating, recalculating.")
That's great if you are writing non-fiction, or if you want a job as a GPS. Should you be writing fiction, I think you need to get over this idea that your reader wants to know where they are going exactly. Your reader wants to look out of the windows and think, "Shit a brick, look at the scenery! (Really necessary exclamation mark.)
Your reader wants to know where they are going only in as far as they want to have brought their swimming costume with them. They might be OK with the idea that they are going to Atlantis, (If I've told you once to bring your swimming costume, I've bloody told you a million times - you need one in Atlantis. Go back, get it now and don't arse about in the future) but they'll be pissed off if you give them directions to the Atlantis HSBC (product placement there) ATM machine. Well, you'd be too, would you?
Your reader does not want and will not appreciate your telling them what is going on in detail every few seconds, pages or even, maybe, chapters. Your reader is into SF and so has a brain, has an appreciation of the fact that the world (this one, the one you are writing, all of the above and then some) is as lot more weird than they know or can imagine. AND THEY LIKE IT LIKE THAT!!! (Three really necessary exclamation marks.)
It's not like wanting to pee and not being able to find a toilet (why do Americans pee in the bath?)
It's like Tantric sex. (Do you know the joke about the Tantric position called the Plumber? You stay in all day and nobody comes.) It's fun. And maybe a bit kinky. Go for it.

Some reviews of the Shadowland sample

First YWO review.

Hi Bob. I liked your story very much. There are some things that bugged me and made it difficult to read but I gave you fives for Plots and Themes and Ideas. A haunted castle, a chap who's been close to death and all set in a calm English village with the carnage of the first world war across the channel sets the scene beautifully.

Some other things I noted as I read was:

Would they put Jack on the train by himself when he is so ill that he can't get off it on his own? Then in the afternoon he seems to have gotten a lot better as he is now going for a walk. Maybe you want to give him a couple of days of fresh country air and beef tea before sending him off out into the countryside.

The women in this story comes across as sex mad, and unless that is the kind of story you're looking to write, I think it takes something away from the actual story. I'm sure in 1915 there would not be that many tarty maids or Ladies for that matter.

The sentences are in my opinion too short and choppy and thus restricting the flow of the story. Some of the sentences are also unfinished. I expect that this has been done on purpose but please try to edit them so that they make some kind of sense.

(My comments on the following are in caps. I'm not shouting at you or trying to be horrible in any way, it's just that italics don't work.)

<Jacob climbed down from the carriage and helped Mrs Maguire steer Jack to a small, horse-drawn buggy. Has a name, thought Jack, one I know, but it hid in the fog.> WHAT HAS A NAME?


<If this wasn't his first kiss, then surely it claimed the best second place Jack had ever seen.> THIS IS A CONFUSING SENTENCE. Even if this wasn't Jacob's first kiss it would be etched on his memory forever. A keepsake to bring out when the muddy trenches and the fear that he may never return home threatens to overtake him.

All in all it's got the basis for a good story and I good luck with the editing.

Thank you for letting me read it.

Second YWO review.

I have to say the first read of this chapter was difficult for me. The authentic language threw me off a bit. After reading it a second time it's a true gem. The story/ plot is great! Though I can't imagine what happens next. The pace? Once I slowed down and enjoyed the content I found the pace just right. I loved the dialogue and the inner thoughts going on throughout. The setting was perfectly described. The surpriise ending to the chapter was great too, leaves one wondering if the two will mate later. The two ghosts, one man and one woman entering the castle scene ,"shone not on them but through them, and if one were watching they'd notice, nice! Great work!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Getting a bit naughty

These two scenes are a tiny bit out of order. I haven't yet written the scene where Deirdre comes into the story and I haven't got a link between them. They are both pivotal to the tale, though, and have been on my mind for a while. I'm not really sure how well I can write this material (yes, that does mean that comments would be appreciated). I do want to write up a post about the MENAWCA conference last weekend (in case you aren't sure - I don't believe for a nanosecond it will be as sexy as this even if this isn't sexy). I enjoyed it and it was interesting, even if very tiring.
Anyway, here goes.

The door opened and Deirdre (slinked, slank, slunk?) in. Gagging for it, said the voce in Jack’s head. Bollocks, thought Jack, she’s here to tease.  He was fast developing a strong dislike to this child. She might be physically older than him, but he’d met more mature nine-year-olds. He gave her a questioning look, making sure his face didn’t give any sign of his feelings.
“I saw your light. Wondered what you might be doing  up at this time of night.”
The top three buttons of her nightdress were undone. Warm tonight, he wondered, or unfastened just before she came through the door?
“Oh, I couldn’t sleep, so I’m reading Jane Austin, do you know this?”
He held up the book to show the cover. She undulated closer, playing with a lock of hair.
“A girl comes into your bedroom late at night and the only thing you can think of is talk to her about Jane Austin?” She tutted and sat down on the edge of his bed.
Jack closed the book, a finger inside to mark the page, and gave the matter a show of serious thought.
“A girl, with the top three buttons of her nightdress undone, comes into my room in the middle of the night. Can I think of anything," he paused and looked her in the eye, "Fun to do?”
A moment’s thought and then a nod.
“Yes, actually, I can think of a number of things.  They'd all be more fun.”  He opened the book again. “But I’m not going to do 'em. “
 “Scared, are you?”
He closed the book, the finger placemarking again, and considered the question.
“Of your mother… Umm, me caught in your room by her and yes, I'd be scared. I can picture your mother doing things with a horse whip if she caught me in your room at this time of night. Of course, since this is my room, I don’t think I’ve got so much to worry about if she hears voices and comes in to investigate. She’ll find me reading and you out of place.”
He leant forward.
“If I were the sort to look for my fun in the risk of being caught, I might, might try something inside the house, but I’d do it further from the bedrooms even then. Risk is one thing, you see, near certainty quite another. “
He looked her straight in the eyes.
“I’m the sort who regards getting caught as an interruption of the fun, not the cause. If naughtily inclined, I’d manage to accidentally run into a young lady of  similar mind somewhere out there.” He nodded out of the window. “Miles and bloody miles of Devon, full of quiet places where you can have lots of privacy, lots of time and no need to whisper at all. Yes, if I was naughtily inclined, that’s what I’d do.”
Deirdre didn't know how to take this, by her expression. She moved onto the defensive, wrong footed here.
“How?” she asked.
“Oh, depends on the young lady, really. I might have to follow her when she went out some time and catch her up in a spot where no one would find us. Or then again, just make an arrangement to find a place. She probably knowing more of 'em than me. Then we might see,” he looked her straight in the eye for the space of two heartbeats, “what we might see.”
He opened his book again. Deirdre hesitated. Jack had outflanked her. She hadn't expected the dance to go this way and now had either to make a virtual promise of…. Or back out and admit she wasn’t ready to go so far.
“In the meantime, of course, I’m going to discuss Jane Austin with you. Partly in case there's a third insomniac who might drop in on us, but also because she's so good. Do you know this story?”
She admitted she didn’t, glad of the change of subject.  Jack read her excerpts he particularly liked and was gratified when she laughed and began comparing the Bennets to families she knew in the area.  Deirdre’s stories confirmed Jack's own prejudice - rural Devon hadn't changed much since Austen’s time. The place only needed a decent chronicler and best-sellers would fall off the presses. The conversation went on for longer than he’d expected and both were laughing when the door opened and Miss Brampton entered.
Oh God, thought Jack, she’s been watching the villain in far  too many melodramas.
Deirdre froze, painfully aware she’d been caught in a boy’s bedroom after midnight and probably thinking of her mother and horse whips too. Miss Brampton stalked up to the bedside and pointed an imperative finger back towards the door, righteous indignation personified.
“To your room miss!” she hissed, “I will talk to you later and your mother will hear of this in the morning.”
Deirdre opened her mouth to protest, but her governess jerked the finger again. “Not a word. Go!”
Deirdre rose and scuttled out. Jack realized Brampton intended to stay and have a go at him. She’d enjoy her power, threaten and try to cow him. He'd no great fears of Lady Ambridge’s reaction. It was his room and he'd probably get her to believe they’d been innocently talking about literature. Umm, depending on how well she knew her daughter. He didn’t feel like it, though. Brampton rubbed him up the wrong way and needed taking down a peg or twelve.
As Deirdre ran out he rose from the bed, planting himself with care and as unobtrusively as possible between Brampton and the door. Cut her line of retreat.
“And where do you think you’re going young man?”
“Nowhere Miss Brampton, but it’s hardly mannerly for me to remain seated when a lady enters the room, is it?”
She smirked at him. She really has this coming.
“You don’t imagine that you can get around me by pretending to be a gentleman, do you?”
Jack shook his head.
“No, Miss Brampton, I don’t.”
He stepped forward and grasped her shoulders firmly then pushed with the left hand and pulled hard with the right, spinning her around. Before she had a chance to even gasp, he put his left hand over her mouth and the right into her solar plexus, preventing her from taking in enough of a breath to be able to scream. Her legs had crossed when she spun, making turning her towards the bed and pushing her face down simple. He pinned her to the blanket by lying on her back.
His arm partly under her trapped her right arm wile his elbow blocked her left from moving from her side. Her feet were off the ground and she couldn’t get leverage to push up with her knees. His hand and the bed sheets muffled any attempt to make a noise and his weight immobilised her. Miss Brampton could wriggle, and did, but couldn't escape. Jack gave her a second or two to appreciate the fact.
He spoke quietly and calmly into her ear. “I will apologise for this behavior in a moment Miss Brampton, but I really don’t believe you were going to give me a fair hearing. You took my options away and left me with only this choice. Now, what you walked in on might have been more appropriately done, I accept. Deirdre shouldn’t have been in my room at this time of night, but neither of us could sleep, she saw my light, came to ask me how I was and stayed to talk about Jane Austin. Nothing more untoward. I have to insist you believe me.  Please consider. You would have told Lady Ambridge about me holding a book, not Deirdre, and us holding a conversation, not an orgy.
Now, I want to take my hand away so we can talk, but I have to warn you against taking my options away again. Should you make any noise, I will raise the devil’s own row. I guarantee everyone in the house will wake. When they come in,  they'll find you and I,  on the bed, together, in a state of disarray. Deirdre will be gone and I’m sure she'll deny ever having been here. Of a certainty, I'll swear she wasn’t and that it was you who came to my room with bad intent. I’m not sure how you'll explain, but I don’t think it'll look at all good.”
He paused a moment to give her time to think. She froze beneath him and he decided she couldn’t see any positive way for the situation to be interpreted if it were her word against both of theirs. Jack’s tone told her she'd been promised not threatened. He’d do exactly what he said.
For her part, she had time to decide this boy would not have let her catch him doing anything wrong and that she’d been about to commit a terrible faux pas. A scene in which she denounced Deirdre to Lady Ambridge and Jack quite calmly proved her to be an hysterical fool seemed very, very  possible. 
“Forgive me for the rough treatment, but I’m going to take my hand away now. Can you promise me you won’t cause us all distress?”
She nodded. He removed his hand. She let out a shuddering breath.
“Please do believe me Miss Brampton, I have no intention of causing anyone any trouble, you included. If I did allow you to complain to Lady Ambridge, I think I'd come out of the row well. You…I don’t know. After all, what could you say other than you found us sitting on a bed talking? In my room, not hers. Deirdre could be in trouble, which she doesn’t really deserve, this time anyway. I might be wrong of course, and then I might be seen as having offended against a house which has offered me hospitality. I don’t do that anyway, but I've no intention of getting involved with Deirdre. Not to make too fine a point, but she isn’t my type. Having all of the above because of a misunderstanding would be a tragic error, so I apologise again, but I couldn’t allow it.”
There was a pause, a time when thought was clearly taken.
“No, I, I think, I think  I must be the one to apologise. I was about to do something silly and, and you have stopped me doing that. Deirdre… she can be…just sometimes, she is…”
“A royal pain in the arse, I’d imagine.” There was a sharp intake of breath at the vulgarity, followed by what sounded like a quickly suppressed snort of laughter. “She came here to tease, I’d swear. I can easily imagine her being a handful and taking pleasure in making your life difficult."As he said the words, Jack surprised himself with how true they must be. Deirdre probably gave Brampton hell. "I can’t blame you for coming to the wrong conclusion and I wouldn’t object to her being taken down a peg or two, but, there was nothing going on and I don’t want a scandal”
“Yes, yes I do appreciate that. She’s been quite awful since, well, always, but especially since my fiancĂ© left to join the Army. I think I’ve been rather on edge with her and, erm, perhaps, perhaps I owe you something of an apology. I feel I’ve been rather, erm, rather er, stiff with you since you arrived here. I, I..”
Bugger, thought Jack, just when you think you’ve got people pigeonholed… Brampton put up with Deirdre all of the time and had a fiancĂ© in the trenches. No wonder she was tense and tetchy.
“Um, would it be possible for you to let me up now?”
Jack realised they were still lying together, his arms around her, his mouth close to her ear, his nose tickled by a cascade of clean –smelling hair.
“Ah, yes, sorry.”
He wriggled a hand, which had been resting over her lower abdomen, low over her lower abdomen, out from under and rolled to one side. Miss Brampton sat up, straightened her hair and nightdress and put one hand in another, looking for something to say.
Before she found it she saw Jack’s crotch and a gasp escaped her.
“Ah, yes. I think you lit a small candle.” said Jack, discovering that lying on top of the governess, with his loins in direct contact with her buttocks, had provoked a reaction. He reached over to pick up a pillow and cover his erection.
“My apologies for him. Both he and I regard you as an attractive woman. He’s a touch uncouth about his way of expressing it, however.”
Miss Brampton’s hand covered her mouth and she blushed, finding it hard to suppress a giggle. Jack was so utterly casual and unashamed. She didn’t know where to look (was finding it hard not to stare at a candle which hadn’t seemed so small to her) or what to say. How was this boy so much more at home with this situation than her? His action with the pillow looked more a gesture of politeness to her than one of embarrassment for himself, while she felt hot to the tips of her ears. And more. She realized, to her mortification, there was more than a touch of dampness… down there. She was wet between her legs. Oh God. She needed to leave before anything showed.
“Um, well, er, perhaps I should, umm.”
“Yes, would be for the best. We don't want someone else coming in and starting this whole misunderstanding again, do we?”
Miss Brampton realized she was in a young man’s bedroom, in the middle of the night, in her nightgown, with her hair down and her nipples hardening. She decided to leave at once. Not being able to explain this to herself made her feel she’d have a poor chance of doing so to anyone else.
In an effort to take back control of the situation she stuck out a hand. Jack hesitated a beat, then took and shook it. She didn’t let go, nerves blocking control of her actions.
“Well, er, goodnight then. I, erm, I hope you sleep well, Jack.”
Jack nodded and was about to take his hand back when she stuttered out.
“Perhaps we can start again from tomorrow and, and. Well, I’d like us to be, er, friends.”
The word sat there looking improbable and unsure if it was dressed for the occasion. Can’t see that in a million years, thought Jack, but replied, “Yes, Miss Brampton, that would be nice.”
“Oh, please. Call me Fanny.”
“Of course. But I really think it’s time, now Miss.. Fanny.”
She left. It was far from being a triumphal march, but not quite Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow either. She was flustered, sure she could have handled the situation better and rather unsettled by her body’s reactions. She wanted a cold bath, but she settled for a wet flannel against her forehead, cheeks and neck. Her dreams that night were vague and suspended somewhere between embarrassing and very, very pleasant.
Jack peed into the chamber pot while his erection waned. Automatic reaction, he thought, though he had to admit, Fanny, with her hair out of those rope-like braids, was a good looking woman. She’d a good figure, too. One he hadn’t minded getting so much closer to. Bugger, where were the strange white shapes in the trees when you needed them for distraction?
 It took a while before he slept.

Jack munched his apple, looked at the water and thought, sod it. The chances of anyone seeing him were slim and he didn’t much care anyway. He was hot, the water was cool and he wanted to swim. He stripped, folded his clothes and put them under a bush, then slid into the water. There was the sharp chill and gasping shock as his overwarm body cooled too quickly, but then the water simply refreshed and re-awakened him.
He turned upriver, thinking it better to go further from the castle and enjoy the current on his return rather than fight it when tired. A gentle breast-stroke carried him slowly up the stream. There’d be places here where you might tickle trout, he thought, and decided to try later – Bridie might appreciate some fresh fish and it hardly counted as poaching.
A few strokes of front crawl persuaded him that he wasn’t in the mood for anything strenuous, so he floated on his back for a while, holding position by sculling. The sky was that perfect blue, the water sang in his ears and the world held him in a cradle. He’d enjoy his own company today and commune with his own thoughts. Sometime he’d love to get a rowboat from the boat-house and explore the length of the river. There’d be places for picnics… Nah. Who would he go on a picnic with?
A trace of melancholy waiting at the end of the thought. One he didn’t want to meet, and so turned over and swam away from. The river here wound in tight arcs, its bends hiding secluded nooks. He marked them as good spots to come read and enjoy shade and the sound of the water.
Tight around the next bend and…
“Oh, hello.”
There on the shore, five or six paces from him. Fanny Brampton, combing her hair, her feet dangling over the water. She’d taken off her stiff woolen dress and ankle boots and was clothed in…What would you call that, Jack wondered, female undergarments being a linguistic mystery. A one-pieced garment of… white cotton, he guessed, that covered her from opened neck to ankles. Looked like a summer dress, or the nightgown she'd been wearing in his room, though it was thinner, almost see-through. Wide skirt, just showing her calves, and loosened top, a hint of cleavage, demurely hinting.
She started a little on seeing him, clearly having been enjoying the same peace and quiet. Anyone else coming on her like this and she'd surely have screamed, or rushed to cover herself, or… or something. Jack, though… She didn’t get up or rush to her dress,  so he put his feet to the bed of the river and stood to talk. It seemed the thing to do. After all. He was covered to the navel and the water hid the fact he wasn’t covered beneath it.
“ Good morning, Jack.” She blushed just slightly, then stood up. Once up, however, she couldn’t think what else she wanted to do and went back to brushing her hair, her eyes on the river bank. The brushing, to Jack,  suggesting someone trying hard to be occupied with something else.
“Sorry to disturb you. I hadn’t expected to meet anyone else here.”
“No, nor I. It’s been so quiet here of late. One hardly ever sees another soul. It’s so hot today, I felt I could risk my underclothes without danger of interruption.”
“I can move on if you’d prefer, but I’m hardly dangerous.”
Fanny, memories of the night before still fresh, almost disagreed, but stifled the remark and almost stopped herself looking at him. Jack had strikingly wide shoulders and his stomach was flat with muscles lying across it like fish on a slab. She wanted to count them and wanted not to look anywhere near. She pulled her eyes away and they, disobedient children, snuck back. She brushed her hair more vigorously.
“The water looks rather cold, aren’t you worried about catching a chill?”
“No, it’s very refreshing. Perhaps you should come in?”
She laughed and tried to put the thought of herself in the water, and nearer him, out of her mind.
“Oh, I rather think not. A little too forward, I think.”
“Well, at least dip a toe in to test it.”
Fanny almost did. Then, worried she’d be exposing too much ankle, shook her head and brushed harder.
“Scaredy cat! Here.”
He flicked a handful of water at her. A few drops fell on her and she shrieked. The look she gave him shone with happy indignation, though, so he flicked more. She jumped back, slipped and fell against the slope of the bank. Jack caught a flash of legs as she went down and a laugh behind the shrieks and splashed more, soaking her.
Fanny regained her feet, dropped her hairbrush to the ground and ran into the water, fully intent on dunking him under. She slipped just as her hand caught his head, though, and barreled into him. They went down in a tangle of arms and legs. Jack, reflexively grabbing and pulling her towards him.
Neither knew later who started the kiss, but they were locked together in it as he got his feet back on the river bed and  pulled her, with her legs wrapped around his, up and even tighter in.
When drowning, they say, your whole life flashes before your eyes. Perhaps. And perhaps not. Certainly, you have time for thoughts, for thoughts happen with a speed like light's. Fanny, engrossed, overwhelmed and enraptured with being kissed, with kissing, with being held tight against a male body, with holding that body with her legs, between her legs, and feeling all of last night’s full orchestra of sensations starting again with a thunder like the 1812 overture; found, although she did not want it,  time for one.
This shouldn’t be happening.
She pulled her mouth away from his, gasping, “No. No, Jack. We must stop. We must stop!”

I would say that there is more, but that's not true yet. There will be. This scene isn't finished yet, but it's late, I'm tired an there is a lot of work to do on this yet. Till next time. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Becoming rich and famous

I would say that step one in this is to write your best-selling novel, but I haven't done that yet and I'm already pushing on to step two. Step two in my case is to get some feedback about it. Sending to friends is not the worst idea, since they might well read it whereas others might not, well, why should they? They don't know you from the unshampooed stalker that might be hanging around their front door, waiting to fall deeply in lust with them and wind up boiling their rabbit.
Friends might read for one of two reasons (there are more and I'll think of them soon and put them in later). One is some variation on them liking you. A variation being that they don't want you to stop liking them, which can be emotional blackmail on your part. I don't advise this. Not just because it is a BAD THING, but because people who read because of emotional blackmail are probably not going to have much common sense about what they are reading, might well start by viewing it as a chore and might, therefore, never get bowled over by the brilliance of your prose, the cunning of your plotting or the joke about the dragon, the Enfield Bullet and spandex psychedelic leggings.
Better are the friends who get chosen 'cos you know their tastes and are sure your writing is just what they'd love to curl up with. They will have some common sense about what you are writing, but they might not be ready to tell you, 'Yeah, I do love reading this kind of stuff, but not when written by you. This sucks.'
A way of getting round all that is to enlist strangers.
This post is about how, or at least, one how.
Youwrite on. com is a site for writers to get feedback on their work, samples of it at least, by other writers. Writers will do this in some cases because they have big, generous souls. YWO, sensibly, ignores that possibility and bribes them instead.
If you review another writer's work, you get a reading credit. You can then use this credit to get a review yourself. Each review has to give you marks on a number of features of your writing - the characters, the narrative voice, the settings etc. They have to write at least one hundred words of what they are urged to make constructive criticism and then they have to pass a test on the sample that you posted. That's the part that is most cynical and therefore my favourite bit. Some of those writers might get tempted to score you 3's for everything, say it wasn't bad and then pass on to spend their reading credit without ever going to the effort of reading your damn work. Can't do that if they don't pass the test, which you get to set.
After eight reviews the computer crunches the numbers of the scores you have been given, awards you an overall mark out of five and puts you up on the top ten chart.
Should you actually get into the top ten and stay there long enough, you can be read by expert punters from Random House. They'll probably tell you nice try, here's the first of your rejections, don't you feel like a real writer now? Should this happen, feel good about yourself, most don't get that far. (Oh, I've been here ten years and I'm still waiting for someone to spit in my face. They must think the sun shines out of your arse.)
Anyway, I've put up the first 6,000 words, or thereabouts, I've never been good with numbers, on YWO and am now waiting for people to comment.
I've done this before with Brendan, which once got up to equal twelfth. The run of good reviewers stopped there, however, and I was then subjected to a range of reviewers who either just didn't get it, didn't like reading other people's work, or had dropped the last of their medication down the back of the fridge and hadn't waited to get more before committing their hallucinations to print.It dropped down the charts and reached a level from which statistics meant it would never significantly rise. I gave up.
So why start again?
Well, Brendan was a very ambitious piece of work. A Science Fiction novel set in a children's fantasy world, courtesy of a Matrix-like computer simulation. It was narrated by two main, first person narrators and a squad of others, giving a lot of story-jumps, names to remember etc. One of the protagonists is a girl from 2020 who speaks a teenage argot that wasn't as hard to get the head around as Clockwork Orange's Nadsat, but which bent some people out of shape a good bit.
I was worried when I wrote it that it might fall a bit between a number of stools and not be quite enough for one group while being too much for another. Of those who've read and reviewed it half have been friends, who are blokes, Brits and people who do read the same kind of stuff as me - we've traded books for years. They've said they've liked it and I think they've meant that. The other group are book blog reviewers who've been strangers, female, American and (not 100% sure about this) probably don't read as much of the stuff I do - two said they've not seen anything like it before, which is an, 'Umm, yes there is.' Most said they really got gripped by the premise and the story, but had problems with the complexity and, in two cases, the dialect forms used. Both thought I'd made a lot of grammar mistakes. Bit mean I thought, Faulkner never had to put up with people saying, 'this guy's grammar sucks'. At least, not as far as I know.
Shadowlands isn't like that. One omniscient narrator, a story set in the First World War era (tick Downton Abbey fans), with the story being about a young boy who goes to a castle full of women - the men have all gone off to the war - and his sexual adventures there (tick dirty old men and maybe Shades of Grey fans, though my hero is a nice guy). From the beginning, you know that there are ghosts in this story (tick ghost story fans) and there is a question about what a boy called Jack is doing with a knife for killing in his bag and a surgeon's knowledge of how to use it in his head (tick Ripper/Slasher story fans, though they are going to be mostly disappointed - I have much better ideas about what my hero can do with sexy young women than stick knives in them). Later on there will be zombies (tick), but no vampires (tick, tick , tick) and maybe Nazis and Mexican bandits (no, I'm not kidding, it follows the logic of the story). All of this announces that it is a Science Fiction story from the beginning, so TICK SF fans.
I'm really wondering if I've missed anything (oh, there are some scenes of martial arts, even before we get to the Nazis, tick).
The only thing that is ambitious about this is the massive cheek of trying to cram all of that in, though I honestly think I can make it work and have a reader say, yeah, that does make sense. At least by the end. I'm going to bung the sample off to friends who might be able to tell me if they'd read on past the bit I give them. But the probable answer to that (see above) is yes.
That being the case, YWO is a good place to start. If I get positive reviews from there, it might be something to put into an approach to an agent, or a media kit for self-publishing and sending to book review blogs.

The blurb

It should be a young boy's paradise.  Yes, the Great War is raging, but that can't affect 15-year-old Jack. He's too young and anyway is recovering from scarlet fever. To recuperate, he's been sent by his soldier father to the country house of a friend. When Jack arrives in the West Country to stay in a castle full of lonely women where he is, 'the only thing you'd call a man that isn't long since decrepit in the whole area,' he thinks he looks like something that would cause Dr. Frankenstein  to burst into tears and take up dentistry.
The looks he's getting from young Abigail, the maid, however. .. And is the shy Italian artist, Eleonora, interested in him as more than just a model? Bridie the cook, Miss Brampton the governess, 17-year-old Deirdre and even her mother, the horse-riding Lady Charlotte, all perhaps overly concerned that he should recover his strength.  The stuff of a young man's fantasies?
Well, yes, but Jack is more than the sickly youth they think him to be. In fact, Jack is more than Jack believes himself to be. He isn't troubled by the ghosts who roam the castle and watch his recovery because he can't see them. That voice in the back of his head, though. Jack isn't entirely sure that it's his. And those things in the woods at night, what the hell are they?
Worst, though, is the knife in his bag. It's the kind made only for killing. So how come a fifteen-year-old has a surgeon's knowledge of how to use it? That can worry a boy with a name like his.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

This will be the You Write On sample

There is one other piece that I've written and will post up for people to see, but I won't be putting much more of the book up here. Anyone who reads to the end of this section should be able to work out why. I live in UAE and don't want a visit from the police.

The Castle.
The moon shone on the river and the castle. The day, June 3rd, 1915, had been unusually hot; the walls of the castle soaking up more sun than even they could easily absorb. Windows gaped wide to let the night's breezes cool the interior. Those asleep inside fell to more settled slumber as the walls breathed out heat and sweat dried from bodies.
Outside, the air turning cool and sweet, the moonlight glinted on the river in slow dancing patterns. Owls flew; small animals scuttled; trees moved like graceful, but forgetful women, not sure of where they'd meant to go next.
From out the trees, walking slow and unhurried on the gravel path to the castle entrance, came two figures. A watcher, though none did, would note things, odd things, about them. One a man, the other a woman – true, but no, not likely to be first remarked.  Wearing clothes not of their era - more obvious, though not as much as the fact the clothes were the silver white of the moonlight. Subtle, though somehow most certain to be first recognised, was that the moonlight shone not on these two, but through them.
At the edge of the gravel courtyard, both paused while the woman looked around at the scene.  The castle sat atop a small hill which rose from the river and gave a view reaching down to the bridge and distant mill. The hill formed a natural Amphitheatre, a grass-covered lap of earth leading away to the line of the woods they'd just left. A few sleeping sheep dotted the slope.
The woman nodded, pleased by the prospect. The man stood, arms akimbo, proprietorial pride written on him. He'd been on this hill before the building started, had ordered the design of the castle,  overseen its furnishing, been the force behind it becoming a beautiful stately home, watched as it acquired a patina of age and been well pleased with what he'd wrought.
He looked to the woman, made a slight bow and extended his hand in a gesture of formal invitation.  The woman gave him a smile, dropped a playful curtsy and walked on towards the entrance. By force of habit, both entered through the door. A less remarkable feat this, had they opened it first. Our imagined watcher might have enjoyed them passing through solid timbers; ghosts on a tour of their new habitation. Or perhaps not.
Inside, they climbed the stairs and surveyed the bedrooms. War had taken the men away and in the house were women and girls, peacefully sleeping, unaware of the spectral forms moving amongst them.
At length the two stopped. The woman nodded, pensive still, but content.
The man smiled. At his gesture, they faded into the air; the thin, thin air.

"Wentbridge, Wentbridge. All passengers for Wentbridge.  Excuse me; young  sir? You're getting off here, aren't you?"
Jack heard the voice and felt himself not so much awake as rise from the bottom of a black lake toward it. Exhaustion crushed him like a weight of water.  The surface an impossible distance above his head and him wanting nothing more than to sink back into the darkness, the voice came again, injecting unwanted buoyancy.
"Are you alright, sir? You're looking very peaky. You are getting off here, aren't you?"
A sudden banging beside his head. Glass. Knuckles on glass. Someone rapping their knuckles against the glass of a window. He'd been asleep with his head resting against the window and now someone was knocking on the glass. He started and his eyes twitched, lids almost parting.
"Jacob! Jacob! That one's mine darling. Can you be getting him up for me? I've to drive him to the house."
The voice was Irish, a woman's. Muffled by the glass, but still with a bubbling huskiness almost enough to make him open his eyes to see who owned it.
"Trying Mrs Maguire, but I've seen slaughtered sheep faster to move than this one. He alright, is he?"
"Ah, the poor love's been ill with the scarlet fever, so he has. Can you give him a hand up, darling?"
"For you Mrs Maguire, the very shirt off me back."
"A thousand thanks Jacob, but it's the boy I'm after and not your laundry. That one yer mammy can do for ye."
Someone chuckled and hands slipped under Jack's armpits from behind. His arm was raised and wrapped around skinny shoulders.
"Upsidaisy. Up you come now sir, can't be keeping Mrs Maguire waiting now, can we?"
Half lifted; he pushed legs like dead meat against the floor to help raise himself. His eyes fluttered open and colours danced for a moment before shapes coalesced. An old, old lady, clothed in something last fashionable when Victoria was single, sat on the seat facing.  She looked at him with concern.
"Can someone get this young gentleman a glass of water? He looks faint. I fear the heat has been too much for him."
Cut-glass accent. Home Counties? Jacob sounded West Country. Maguire Irish. Where was he? Jack, lost in fog, knew only he was on a train and had to get off. He reached out a free hand and grasped the seat top. Wood, solid, good to lean his weight on. Steadied between the seat and Jacob, he tried to pull his mind to the jobs at hand; standing first, walking next, getting off the train. Luggage? Did he have luggage? He couldn't cope with luggage.
"My bags?" His voice croaked with the rasp of a hinge never oiled and not used for far too long. His mouth was dry and he wanted water badly. "Where are my bags, please?"
"Oh, don't you go worrying yourself over them, sir. They're in the guard's van and Matthew will get them off for you. Now, can you just come this way?"
Jacob was Jack's height, but a skinny youth, and Jack's weight caused him to struggle. Jack, ashamed of his weakness, marshalled his will and directed legs to walk. They staggered instead, but, grasping for the support of the seat backs, he and Jacob lurched down the carriage to the door and the brightness of the sun beyond.  He half fell into the arms of Mrs Maguire. Like falling into a warm bed, fresh laundered linen brushed his face and calmed his nerves. The flesh beneath smelled of lemons and sweet, summer sweat.
Jacob climbed down from the carriage and helped Mrs Maguire steer Jack to a small, horse-drawn buggy. Has a name, thought Jack, one I know, but it hid in the fog. He tried to pull himself up to the buggy's passenger seat, but had to be wrestled aboard like a sack of onions. He slumped forward, elbows on knees, head in hands, fighting the fog and a wave of nausea. Why so sick? What had happened?
Like an actor responding to a cue, a voice came out of the back of his mind.
"You're very lucky to be alive and have no complications, young man. Scarlet fever is easier to treat nowadays with Dr. Moser's horse serum, but still drags most sufferers to an early grave. You'll need weeks to recover and somewhere better than this wen, but you'll heal in good time, have no fear."
Handlebar moustache; a beard to rival Darwin's; a face from another century. The stethoscope around his neck confirmed the bedside manner. A doctor. His name? Lost in the same fog. Finders? Something like. The face was familiar; known from early childhood perhaps, gruff voice, Lowlands Scot, an aura of competence – someone to trust.
"His father's message came just this morning, doctor. His friend will put Master Jack up for the summer at his place in Devon while he recovers. You'll stay at the castle and can roam the grounds until you are well.  It'll be an awful adventure for you. They say Wentbridge is a beautiful place. Quiet, but very lovely."
The woman, another familiar face, smiled at Jack. Accent's from the Hebrides, he thought, face from an angel's grandmother. Grey hair, tightly bunned, grey eyes, lightly smiling, covering, barely, a worry. Not a woman to fret, said instinct, but holding a concern over him. He'd been, and surely still was, worse than they wanted him to know.
"Marvellous Janet, marvellous. Arrangements have been made; I take, for his travel?"
"Indeed, Doctor Cameron. He'll go by the morning train and be met at the station."
"Excellent, excellent. So we'll see you when you get back then Jack."
The curtain of memory closed, leaving nothing else but fog until he'd woken on the train. Before? Injections, hospital beds, pain and confusion. Shards of a story he'd rather forget.
"That's right Mrs Maguire. Eighteen tomorrow."
She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Jacob blurted out.
"An' I'm joining the regiment on the weekend.  They wouldn't take me before. Knew me proper age, see, and told me the railways needed men too. Can't stop me now, though."
Jack caught, though Jacob missed, the  pain flashing across Maguire's face. She wiped it off almost before it registered, replacing it with a smile Jack thought looked like the sun rising over a nudist colony.  Odd image to come out of the fog, said the voice in his head. What does it even mean? Must be something he'd heard.
"And isn't my Fergus there as well? You must be looking out for him. Both in the same regiment, he'll look after you, sure an' he will. Tell him, when you see him, the odd letter will never be taken as an insult now, won't ye?"
"Well, I will if I do, but they're saying it won't last much longer now. Probably all.."
"Over at Christmas, I know. God willing it will."
Jacob's flushed face darkened a moment and Jack saw the question he was struggling to form. So did Maguire.
"Ah, but you'll look the very devil of a handsome young buck in your uniform, an' you will so. Sure an' the girls will all be after ye. Well, never let it be said Bridie Maguire got left at the back of that line. Come here an' give me a kiss now, for yer birthday an' going away an' all."
Jacob blushed red to the tips of his ears. He looked around; to note who was watching, Jack wondered, or for a place to run? A skinny, pimply, pasty-faced youth, the weight of rifle and pack would probably topple him. If this wasn't his first kiss, then surely it claimed the best second place Jack had ever seen.
Maguire, even through the fog, struck as a woman words like Junoesque, voluptuous and, well, others denoting ' well-built'  with a strong emphasis on the 'well',  had been coined to describe. She knew about fun, he thought, and how to have it.
She grabbed Jacob by the shoulders and pulled him to her. He stood like a beast about to be slaughtered, not sure where to put hands and face. Maguire looked him coolly in the eye.
"Now ye'll need to be taking more of a grip on things than that, me lad. Try like this."
She took his hands and slapped them to her generous rump. The boy's eyes widened further than Jack thought humanly possible, but before he'd the chance to say or do anything, Maguire had his face between her hands and had plastered his lips to hers.
A kiss, Jack thought, to pour lust into the loins of a bronze statue. If eyes on train or platform missed it, Jacob surely burned every one of the heartbeats it lasted into his memory forever.
Jack remembered reading of a Confederate soldier who survived a tremendous battlefield blast to find himself utterly unharmed, though stripped of every scrap of clothing. Jacob looked a successful audition for a theatre performance of the part.
Maguire released him with a hesitation, a near reluctance Jack suspected no part of an act. Husband at the war, came the voice from the back of his mind, hasn't in a while, I'll be bound.
"Woah, missus! I'll have a one o' them too an' you've got any to spare."
"Away wit ye," Maguire shouted to the driver, her grin one the devil'd buy at auction and keep for his Sunday best. "The lad's off to the wars and needs something to keep him warm of a night-time."
"Well, I'm off to Coventry tonight and I'm of the same mind. If you've done with him, can I have him back? I've a train to run and we're late already."
Jacob regained the train with a curiously crouched shuffle; Maguire the constant north to his compass's needle. She stayed on the platform to wave him off, give him a wink 'lascivious' stretched itself tight to describe and mouth something Jack thought said: 'Come back for more'.
A ticker tape of thought crossed and recrossed the youth's face, repeating and repeating the only important idea in his mind. Jack read it as the train pulled out. I did that, me. It was me did that, I did. They'd likely need iced water to get his mind to anything else for the rest of the day.
Maguire stayed on the platform, waving, till the train rounded a bend, her radiant smile fading as dark clouds moved across her mind. She walked to the buggy, hitched skirts and swung herself up with an athletic grace. She took the reins, shook the brown horse into movement and sank back into herself.
"That was kind."
She looked at him.
"I'm sorry young master, what was that?"
"He was going to ask about the fighting, wasn't he? You took his mind off it. That was kind."
She shrugged. "Ah, it's nothing. These boys are all after running off to the war, so they won't look like cowards. Jacob's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even he can read. He knows how many are coming back with bits shot off them, or not coming back at all. I pray it's over before he finishes the training and gets shipped off to France."
Jack nodded. Dates and figures and names of battlefields hid somewhere in the fog, but his impression of the Western Front was a maw chewing up young men and leaving them to fertilise the ground they battled over.
"And Fergus? He's your…?"
Jack'd heard the word pronounced with strong degrees of condemnation before, but never such as Maguire packed in. She'd slapped the appellation down like a fish full of lead weights on a filleting board.
"He's at the front?"
"Not yet, still at Aldershot going through his basic training."
"How long will that take?"
"Not sure. He's been gone a month and thinks he's eight weeks more before they'll ship to France, but they say it's a terrible mess and not one of them knows how to find his arse with both hands, ah, excuse my French. God willing they'll never see the trenches."
"Volunteered did he?"
Bridie laughed. "God bless you no, young sir. The magistrate did the necessary for him. Said if he had such a taste for fighting men in uniform, he'd accommodate him with pleasure. Catch Fergus Maguire volunteering for anything more than another man's whiskey, an' it'd only be 'cos he'd another man's whiskey already inside him."
Jack looked sideways at her and his eye caught on the smooth swell of a breast half released by the opening of her blouse's top buttons.
Dear lord, came the voice in his head, Moby Dick sighted on the starboard side.
Her eyes flicked sideways to his gaze and she smiled a small, but intensely knowing smile. The day Bridie stopped attracting men's attention she'd probably find herself secretly relieved. Until then, though, she'd lots of ways of making use of it. Her eyes flicked back to find him still looking, not sneakily or guiltily as a Jacob might have done, but with something of open appreciation.
"Sorry," he said, catching her eye on him, "but isn't a young man supposed to admire the beauty of the hills and dales when he comes to the countryside?"
She snorted with a laugh pitched midway between amusement and disparagement. She'd received smoother compliments in her time, but the boy had a cool head on him for one so young. She'd keep an eye on him. There'd been an awful tiredness in his voice, but nothing to suggest he thought himself on forbidden ground.
 Jack found the movement of the buggy lulling and had no argument with it pulling him back to sleep. His head sank to his chest. He was only dimly aware of the ride to the castle and missed the village entirely.
"Master Jack? Master Jack? Sorry darling, but we're here now and you're going to have to get down."
Jack opened his eyes, got his first view of Wentbridge Castle and liked it. Someone's stately home, of a certainty, but square built towers at each corner, crenulations atop the whole roof and the general air of a house giving injury if receiving insult. Later he'd wonder why such pugilistic architecture lived in Devon, but for now it gave him a solid sense of security.
His arrival had clearly been expected, a group of people coming out of the front entrance as he stood, swaying lightly. None of the faces were familiar to him, but he picked out the lady of the house instantly.  A handsome woman with an air of command, she looked him straight in the eye, shook his hand and welcomed him to the castle.
"Yes, you'll need time to recover from your journey, surely. The deck chairs are set up, so perhaps you'd like to take a rest in the fresh air until lunch.  You can meet the others properly later."
The others took their cue from this and disappeared back into the house. Jack was led around the side of the building to a walled area where two deck chairs looked the answer to a prayer. He slumped onto one of them and stammered out a half apology for his state. Bridie promised him a flask of beef tea and he drifted off in the silence when she left.
An indeterminate time later voices came back towards him, but he couldn't raise the energy to open eyes and engage in conversation, so didn't.
"Ah, sound again. He really is most desperately ill, Bridie. David knows the father from the Army, says William Fairbairn is quite the most dangerous man he's ever met. Scarred from face to feet from fighting with natives and knives, if you can believe such a thing. The family are Trade, but David says he's a good sort. Typical David. Apparently, the mother's dead and father's in the East. Singapore, he said, training troops, for goodness sake. The boy was at school when he fell sick and the father contacted David to ask for help, so… Oh, just leave the flask. He can have something when he wakes."
"Good looking young lad, he is ma'am, bright too from what I saw of him in the shay. Mind, that wasn't much. Slept most of the way, he did. He'll need building up if he's to even stay awake for the full day. To think he's neigh on the only thing you'd call a man not long since decrepit in the whole of the area now. Even the schoolboys is running off for being soldiers. I met Alice Buckland's eldest only this morning. He's finished with the railways and enlisting this weekend."
"Damn young fools. I know I shouldn't say it, but since they started using gas, I can't see any good end to this war. It's going to grind on until even fatuous idiots like French get tired. Why they can't end it all with a compromise I can't understand."
"How old is he ma'am?"
"Fifteen, David said. Looks older, but then… "
They drifted off, or he did, though his mind attached to what they'd said. Fairbairn, William E. Troops? No, he had been, but was with the police now, training the riot squad in self-defence. He tried to put a face to the name and biography, but could come up with nothing but a face in a photo. A slim man, bespectacled, clearly hard as nails. Memories of him? All his tired mind could muster were scenes that might as well have been from the cinema. They lacked accompanying music, but equally, lacked any feeling. He couldn't find himself in any of those scenes.
Drills in fighting. Playing with a knife. A slim, beautiful, vicious-looking knife. A thing forged in Hell and made for only dark things. He had the knife in his luggage. Did it come from him? Was that it? All he could find of a father – a knife for killing and a picture on a bedside dresser? Mother?  No, nothing at all. He'd been on his own for a long time, then. Well, never mind, he was used to it. A face, a woman's, pretty and concerned, floated into his mind, but then the fog rolled over him again and he slept.
Look at the cracks in the ceiling; at the patterns on the bathroom tiles; at a splash of water on a concrete path. There will be faces in the dots and lines; patches and splashes. Perhaps also dragons and demons, but always faces. Human minds find them in things human eyes observe. On the wall behind Jack, in the lichen covering and the cracks and crevices faceting, were two. One a man; the other a woman. The woman's, pretty and concerned, turned to the man's. 
"He looks like death!"
Jack slept, with nothing in his ears but distant soughing of wind in branches.
"As close as he's been, how else would he? He will heal, though. This place, these people, they will do that for him.  Rest assured, he'll get well here. A day, two, you won't recognise him. "
She knew it to be true. His opinion of the doctors of their time was low to non-existent. 'Blood-letting leeches treat a patient only to find how many of the next nine they'll kill with the same poison.' Yet he'd trusted the Scot. This place had ways to treat him their own time could not aspire to.  She nodded her head. A tear might have run down her face, but it's hard to tell with cracks in a wall.
The faces faded and only cracks and lichen remained.
Eleonora walked out to the deck chairs and looked at the young man.
" Quel povero raggaza." she murmured. The boy was handsome, she thought, but terribly ill. Something of the poet or warrior in the face. Dark hair, an expressive mouth. Young, but lean and shapely, unlike Rudolph. There was a beautiful confluence of line where his neck met his open collar and the swoop of the collar-bone. She wished she had her sketch pad with her to draw it. Her eye traced his shoulders. Wide, proportionate to his frame, probably excellent definition to the muscle there. He would make an beautiful study for a portrait. Perhaps she could draw him sometime. The line of the eyebrows and the lips… She pulled her eyes away. No better; now they caught a young man's flat stomach and slender waist. No, she did not wish to compare with Rudolph. Two months gone and every second of his absence a blessing – she hadn't felt his hands on her for that long.  This boy's hands… the fingers of a pianist, long, sensitive. She imagined them stroking the keys, she imagined them stroking…
Why? Why did this happen with almost every man who wasn't her fat pig of a husband? This boy, this sick, sick boy… She reached out a hand towards his face, but stopped herself before she touched him. No. No, not a good idea.  She took a step back, her foot inadvertently scraping the gravel. She flinched, waited to see if he would wake, wanting and not wanting him to.  The head moved, but the eyes didn't open. The lips parted and formed, perhaps, a name. They marked a line across her vision those lips, like charcoal marking paper, the shape of them captivating her. Imagining the pressure of charcoal stalk on paper, the pressure of finger onto skin…   A single bead of sweat stood at his temple and Eleonora's hand moved to wipe it, stopped, started, stopped again. Her hand wanted to touch… she caught herself, turned quickly and walked back to the house.
Jack had no idea how long he’d slept when he woke, throat leather dry. The sun was high now, but he couldn’t remember where it had been, so the knowledge didn’t help. On a small table beside the deck chair was a battered old flask. Something to drink. He opened it to a wonderful, warm, meaty smell. Bovril? Memories of football games in winter. Though no. This had something more to it. Bridie had said she’d made up some beef tea for him. He couldn’t remember ever having that, but knew it was recommended for invalids.  Recent history suggested he qualified, so he poured himself a cup of the still-warm brew and took a long swallow. As it went down his throat, he felt every cell of his body greeting it like a Royal procession, with clapping, cheering and ecstatic flag waving. What on earth had she put in this? Put hairs on your chest and part ‘em down the middle that would, said the voice in his head.
He couldn’t argue. He must have been dehydrated and was surely starving. He’d no memory of eating, not even of which day he last had or what he'd eaten. He drained the cup and poured himself another. This one he sipped whilst gazing at cloud galleries. Birds sang, the wind soughed, the clouds changed exhibits. Somewhere in the distance a cow passed a casual complaint to a friend.  A decent time later, after careful reflection, the friend replied. Bees passed over his head and commented on this latest gossip. At length, the cows passed more remarks on the gossiping bees, melodious birds and soughing leaves.  Perhaps this passed for a busy day here.

Somewhere there had to be other people in the world and they had to be doing things; important, noisy, difficult and dangerous things. They weren’t doing any of them here and nor was he. Peace, and beef tea, soaked into Jack like warm rain into dried soil. He felt life return. When had he last felt so relaxed? Who cares, sang the birds. Enjoy it while you can, soughed the leaves. He felt himself in a pool outside the world of clock-ticking time. And it was good. He floated, exulting. He had nowhere to go and nothing to do beyond drink beef tea and relax, so, like a man climbing back into warm water, lowered himself once more into restful sleep.
He heard the clicking of heels and swishing of skirts coming towards him, opened his eyes and sat up. That was easy. The girl coming towards him was young, dressed in something simple that said maid, casually pretty and, he'd swear on a stack of money, an outrageous flirt. Some things you just know, don't you?
"Oh, you'm awake sir. How you feeling now, then? Lady Ambridge said I's to ask you if you're well enough to take a bite for lunch with the family?"
Jack wasn't up for fighting dragons yet, but the prospect of lunch and meeting his hosts held no pain.
"Well, that case, I laid out a change of clothes in your room. You can wash up a bit 'fore it's time to eat."
He followed her into the house and up the stairs. The view from behind was pleasant and, he'd swear, twitching more than even generous nature intended. Farmer's daughter, he thought, knows what the bull is for and what tupping and covering mean.
She showed him into a room. Simple, but tastefully decorated with four blue walls, there was a change of clothing on the bed and a basin with a ewer of water on a small dresser near the window. He walked to the dresser and caught sight of himself in the mirror there.
The face was a stranger's and a sight to give pause. Those black-ringed, blood-shot, wasted eyes, the sunken cheeks and, God, was there a blood cell left in his body? A line from a poem rattled in his mind, 'A face something, something, ghostly, something, whiter shade of pale.' Where did that come from? If in doubt, said the voice in his head, say Shakespeare. You really should be better read.  Bram Stoker hadn't made Dracula so pallid.
"They'm saying you was sick with the scarlet fever, sir. My mum says 'at took two of her sisters when they was young 'uns. Must have been awful. You feeling better now? "
She was standing just a touch too close as she asked. Just a touch. Jack had a feeling she'd have been closer still, but for his obvious invalid status.
"Well, if Dr. Frankenstein'd found that on his slab," he gestured with a thumb at the mirror, "I think he'd have burst into tears and taken up dentistry, but, yes, I suppose so. The fever is over, so I can only get better now, can't I?"
She grinned. "That's the spirit sir. You'll like it here, I'm sure. Um, is there anything else I can get you?"
She twirled slightly as she stood, her skirts (petticoats under there?) moving and whispering. It's an excuse to stand there longer, Jack thought. I haven't had enough beef tea yet, Jack thought.
"Ah, no, thanks, not for now.  Though, sorry, what's your name, please?"
"Me sir? I'm Abigail, sir. Pleased to meet you, I'm sure."
She bobbed him a small curtsy, the smile on her face genuinely happy and happily saying, 'knew you'd be interested.'
"And I'm Jack. Delighted to meet you."
She grinned again, twirled that tiny twirl again and paused for just a second, before bursting into giggles.
"Oh, sorry sir, you'm waiting to get changed, amn't you? I'll come back in just a bit and show you the dining room, then?"
The dining table was Jack’s image of a stately home dining table. If Jesus had fed the five thousand here, they’d have mostly been seated. His hostess, Lady Charlotte, was largely what he thought the lady of the Manor would be: business-like, in control and, since the men were away, in total charge. The sort of woman you'd describe as handsome and elegant, Jack could imagine her fox hunting in the modern age, sharing a chariot with Boadicea in a previous one.
He’d expected more servants than Bridie and Abigail, but, with the butler and all the other men gone; he wasn’t surprised the family had found little need (and fewer opportunities) to replace them. He hadn’t expected a governess, because he hadn’t known the family had a daughter, Deidre, absent for reasons he didn’t catch, but expected back at the weekend. Finding one, he wasn't surprised. That too fitted his preconceptions. The governess, Miss Brompton, wore her blonde hair in strict and uncomfortable-looking fastened-up braids, her mouth in a permanent moue of disapproval and, Jack decided after entire seconds of forced conversation, her mind in a strait-jacket of rules and restrictions.
What Jack had not expected was the last member of the family. Eleonora Angela Ambridge, the Italian wife of Lord David’s younger brother, Rudolph. If Janet from the doctor’s office was the grandmother, this was surely the angel granddaughter. Every artist of the Renaissance, all of their apprentices, their relatives, their pets and their pet's fleas would have formed a queue to her door to beg, plead, and offer body parts in return for a chance to have her as a model.
Strange then, thought Jack, that a woman who could stun most men into adoration by simply looking up at them through her long eyelashes was surely the most timid, shy and twitchy of Heaven’s inhabitants to ever exit the Pearly Gates. Afraid of her own shadow, that one. Perhaps she'd stunned them from too early on, been too nice to talk to for too many, never learned how to deal with men as a result and now found herself scared even of him. And I know I'm nothing to be scared of.
Through the meal she avoided eye contact with him whilst always giving the impression she knew where his eyes were and when they were looking at her.  She didn't seem any happier if he was or wasn't looking. Jack gave up on trying or caring until he was stronger and concentrated his conversation on his hostess.
After the meal, Charlotte she took him to the library, suggesting he could find something interesting to read, then pointed out walks he could take from the room's windows. Apparently there was a holy well near the river, a pleasant walk to the mill, some places further upstream which were good for swimming from and a trail on the other side of the river which offered good views of the castle. Jack admitted to enjoying sketching and was sorted out with sketch pad and pencils along with a shoulder bag to carry them in.
He took a lie down for a while and then returned to the library to pick out a book. The first thing to catch his eye was a copy of Pride and Prejudice. A book he'd heard of, but never read. It saved him the energy he'd spend searching for anything else, so he dropped it in his bag and headed out.
The holy well, he decided, was fortunate in being on the way to somewhere else. People wouldn't be as disappointed in it as they'd be if they'd made a special trip. He continued to the bridge, crossed a stile and found himself on the road which lead up the hill to the village and which he must have been driven along earlier. The hill, he thought, he'd keep for another day. He crossed the river, turned back towards the castle and walked on a path that took him by a farm house, chicken houses and trees.  As the track entered the trees it split, one way leading to the river's edge, the other rising up and winding through the trees. Jack took to the higher ground, thinking he might get a better view from there.  The farm, the countryside around, the entire world seemed deserted. Half the population gone to the war and this a sleepy place anyway, so not odd. He doubted he'd meet anyone and so was surprised to catch sight of a woman seated by the side of the lower path. Seated? Or was she lying down? Had she fallen there? She was curled into herself in a posture which struck him as odd. There was a bag and what looked like another sketch pad on the ground beside her. Were her eyes closed? She seemed conscious, though, and her arm was moving slightly. Was that a moan?
Unsure as to what was going on, and hesitant to embarrass himself,  Jack moved closer, used a tree to give himself cover and peeked around it. The woman was Eleonora. Reclined against a rock, her skirts hitched up to allow her hand to reach between her legs, she was indeed curled into herself, her hand moving and yes, small moans starting to break from her. Not the only one expecting this place to be private, said his voice. Not a moment to interrupt, thought Jack, and definitely not one to be caught interrupting. Then his eye caught the sketch on the opened page of the pad lying on the ground. A face. Even at this distance, a recognisable face. His.
Jack moved back down the track using the utmost care not to step on anything that would crack, not to fall over and generally not to make a sound. Then he walked to the mill and spent the rest of the day sketching there. It gave him a tangible alibi for his whereabouts later.