Tag Archives: fiction

#OcTBR report

This Twitter challenge asks you to take your To Be Read pile (in my case, shelf and ebook collection) and read as much of it as possible in October. I started the month with 33 books on my physical To Read shelf, and 4 on my Kindle. (And lots in my to-obtain shelf on Goodreads and my samples folder on the Kindle, but we won’t talk about those.) I read 28 books during the month – all 4 from my Kindle, 22 from my physical to-read shelf, one from the circulating library I belong to, and one which came out during the month. I now have one book on my Kindle (newly bought, the thing I’m now reading there), and 25 books on my physical to-read shelf, because of course I didn’t stop buying books or going to the library or accepting books my wife has read and recommended. 6 of them are books which were there at the beginning of October.

Before: my to-read shelf on 1st October 2021.
After: my to-read shelf on 31st October 2021. Books to the left of the yellow sunscreen bottle arrived after the beginning of October.

I read 16 fiction books, including 10 graphic novels and manga volumes. I read 11 non-fiction books, including 1 graphic novel. Those covered neuroscience, history, religion, LGBTQ+ topics, poetry, politics, and nature writing. The oldest book was first published in 1911 (although I read a recent reprint), and the newest was published this year.

I also did not finish some books. I had two books about Derrida on my to-read shelf which I had brought home from the office mid-pandemic, but I accepted that I am not actually going to read them at this time and moved them. I started the Journal of Katherine Mansfield, but I found it too bitty to follow without first knowing much more about her, so I stopped.

I can’t pick a favourite, but here are highlights in four categories.

Most fun graphic novel: Ms Marvel Team-UpEnjoyable superhero stories – I’m not a big fan of Spiderman but he wasn’t too annoying in this story (I see other reviewers on Goodreads called him out of character, and that’s also a plausible reading), and the Captain Marvel team-up was good.

New discovery in a novel: No Surrender. I made this category ‘new discovery’ because I couldn’t pick ‘best’ – I read a bunch of novels across very different genres and Gods Behaving Badly, Jane Unlimited, Sistersong, and Jacob’s Room are all excellent in very different ways. But I hadn’t read a Suffragette novel which was actually written during the campaign before, and it made for a very interesting read. 

Best academic book: Kenyan, Christian, QueerAgain, this was a difficult pick, and Empire of Guns is a very close second. Kenyan, Christian, Queer has a lot to offer both in terms of new content and good methodology, though, and I recommend it to anyone interested in LGBTQ+ experience, understanding Kenyan culture, or questions about fieldwork in religious studies.

Best popular nonfiction book: On the Red Hill. I really enjoyed the way that nature writing, historical and cultural exploration, and personal stories came together in this book. It was especially interesting as a follow-up to A Little Gay History of Wales, which I read earlier this year, and Queer As Fact’s episode on Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners – all tend to add nuance to the image of cities as accepting and rural life as rejecting LGBTQ+ people. 

Overall, I managed to do a lot of reading in October. I read more graphic novels than usual and fewer academic books, partly because I was doing a lot of teaching and partly because my wife reads graphic novels and then lends them to me. I read books from about 12 sources – four different library systems, Amazon, big bookshops, little bookshops, secondhand bookshops, bookstalls at museums.  I was well above my personal average (I usually read about 16 books a month). I don’t know whether I’ll keep it up next month, because November is NaNoWriMo – see next post! – but it was a pleasant challenge.

Fiction: From Long Barrow to Museum

(In a new departure for this blog, I thought I’d share this short story which explores time, change, wishes, and the uses of West Kennet Long Barrow. Content notes: death, burial, human remains.)

I was expecting to be visited. When my daughter moved my bones into this little side-chamber, after I’d been staring at the sky for a month while the red kites and the ravens took the flesh from my body, I was expecting that she, and her boyfriend, and my son and his wife and their children and hopefully one day their children’s children, would visit me in the way I visited my parents. I remember my father bringing the long bones of his family out from the tomb every year. His people are gathered together in a pile, in this same side-chamber with me, and because he brought them out to spend time with them every year their thigh bones and skulls are jumbled up with their arms bones and all their smaller bones have been lost to the cracks in the stone floor. 

They are still here, too, of course. They don’t talk much. My father used to talk about his mother and father by name, but further back than that he just called them ‘ancestors’, so now I’m here with them I don’t know what to call them. My father is here and sometimes I tell him that I expected my son and daughter to visit. “I didn’t expect you to arrive so soon,” he says to me, every time. I hoped I wouldn’t arrive so soon, either, but to be honest I worried about it from the moment I realised I was pregnant again. A woman with an almost adult son who carries another pregnancy… it’s always risky, you always get close to death when you give birth, in fact I thought I was going to go both times before, and this time I was right. 

My children did visit for a while. The ones who lived, that is. The baby is almost here. I never met her in life but I feel her next to me sometimes, or maybe she crawls around. I hear her crying. My father says, “Hello, baby,” when that happens. I’d like to comfort her but what can I do? The worst actually did happen. I can’t feed her, we don’t sleep. I’m not sure we’re really awake, either, though. To begin with the daylight would come down the passage on my right and my bones would be touched by it, not much but a little indirect light, and I’d remember that days and nights come and go. That was when my daughter would visit. But they stopped bringing everyone’s bones out, and my bones stayed mine, instead of mixing in with the other ancestors.

“You’ll join us soon,” my father says, but I won’t if my daughter doesn’t come and look after all her ancestors. 

The daylight doesn’t come in any more. I think they blocked up the entrance – there’s darkness, and no air movement, and no visitors. My bones are just resting here. My baby’s bones are next to me, but they’re almost gone, and my father’s bones and his ancestors’ bones are in the pile to my left. There are other chambers in the tomb, other families, but we have to shout to speak to them and there’s nothing to say. 

At first we heard ceremonies outside. The visiting stopped but the singing, the dancing, the fires, went on. I wasn’t the last in, either – they brought someone into one of the side chambers on the other side of the entrance – but it’s been a long time since then. I hoped it meant that nobody had died, that everyone was healthy and happy. But I think it means they buried them somewhere else. It’s been too long. 

It’s been much too long, actually. With no days and no movement, no sleep and no meals, time slips away from me unmarked, but I know it has passed. Soil has settled into all the gaps around the stone which blocks the entrance. Water seeps through when there’s a heavy rain, and sometimes the root of a plant or a little earthworm comes and goes, somewhere in between the huge stones of the roof. Nobody visits. I assume the sun rises and sets. I wonder if the stars still turn above us. Recently I started to hear humming – sometimes almost a buzzing or a whine, something a distant drone. Maybe it’s an insect, or some sort of music, far away.

Well, this makes for a change. I do get visitors now. I’m not sure where I am anymore, but most of my bones are still here and my baby’s bones beside me, and people come to see me. The lights seem very bright and the air is dry. I was in a stone-walled room, in the tomb, and the air was damp with the rain from above and the water in the chalk underneath. Here I’m in… I think it’s a large room, I can’t see it all, and there’s something strong and clear around me. Visitors who lean towards me can’t touch me. I haven’t been put in with the bones of my ancestors, although I sometimes hear them nearby. I hear my father asking where we are. 

At first I thought we were in another tomb. Maybe we are, but people have changed their ideas about death since our day. They have lights on around us, almost every day, and they’ve put a lot of our cooking pots and things in another box with a clear front where I can see them. That seems weird. They aren’t usually supposed to be in tombs. And there are things I don’t recognise – pots with odd designs. 

The people who come to visit carry odd things. They have shoes in interesting colours and clothes that rustle like no fabric I’ve ever known – more like the leaves in the trees in autumn. They have little boxes which glow on one side. I don’t understand what they say. I recognise the children, of course. Exploring, poking in the corners, staring at my bones wide-eyed. That’s normal. That’s how my eldest was, always wanting to go a few steps further than I’d like. She fell in the stream once. I thought of that the other day when a little one carrying a carved animal – teeth like a wolf but the skin had been painted greeny-brown, more like an adder – anyway, this little one with his strange toy wanted to touch everything. He couldn’t touch the pots, and he couldn’t touch my bones, and he couldn’t touch the stone knife they’ve displayed on the other side of me, and he wept bitterly over every one of those things. I thought of my daughter wanting to touch the water and falling in. I thought of her wanting to touch my bones, but the big old tomb being shut up, and my bones left separate with the family pile just over there.

I can’t touch them from here, either. My father and my ancestors are gathered within sight, but these clear boxes in this new tomb separate us.

A woman who came to visit was very sad to see me here. She didn’t want to look at my bones at first. She turned her back, looking at the pots again and again, but eventually she looked at my skull. When she did, she looked and looked. She looked at the little squiggles on the side of the clear box, where they all look to start with, and then she looked at my bones for a long time. I wondered if she wanted to touch them.

She used the glowing box she held to show a friend who was with her a picture. She held the picture over my box and I could see it – and I recognised it. The trees have changed but the outline of the hill and the tomb are much the same. It was the place I was buried. I could see the big stones at the entrance, the new ones which closed the tomb, and the curve of the soil which covers the tomb. You see it against the sky from some places, and that’s the picture this woman was showing to her friend.

They looked from the picture to me, mouths downturned. I realised what they thought. They don’t want to touch my bones. They want me to go back to the old tomb. They think I should stay where I was put.

They did look at the pile of bones of my ancestors, but I’m not sure they understood. The picture disappeared and didn’t come back. They spoke, but the language has changed so much and I don’t understand them. I wish my daughter could visit me. I wish someone would bring out my bones every year, the way my father did, and put them back in a jumble with the other ancestors. I don’t mind this new tomb – at least there are visitors – and I’m glad my baby is with me, but I miss the whispers of the rest of my family.

Writing: sometimes erratic and boring

From time to time, I resolve to share more about my writing process, to let people know what I’m working on. It should, in theory, help me build an audience of people who want to read the books I’m writing, and create a community of writers who are going through similar things.

Every time I make that resolution, though, I come up against twin problems. One is that some stages of my writing process are delicate. I don’t want to share the details too early, in case they change. Last year, for example, I mentioned on Twitter a Quakers-in-space sci-fi novel I was working on, or maybe at some level am still working on… but it got halfway into the first draft and stalled, so it may be some time. (But the one before that which stalled is now the one I’m working on, so I do sometimes come back to them in due course.)

The other is that quite a lot of stages of the writing and publishing process are boring. I work intensely on something for a while – months or years – and then there are long periods of waiting. Sometimes this is a good wait, the kind with a definite end: people who like my Quaker Quicks work can look forward to the publication of Hearing the Light in September 2021. (For those who are following the larger projects, this is the accessible version of the material I researched for Theology from Listening, Brill, 2020 – if you want the footnotes, that’s the one you need.) Sometimes this is a wait which, the longer it lasts, the worse the news is likely to be. In late 2019 I wrote a novel set in North Wales just after the Romans left; it has romance and adventure and religion and horses, and for almost exactly a year now I’ve been submitting it to one agent or publisher after another with no success. Not the good kind of waiting! 

It also doesn’t help that I am often working on more than one project at once. For example, sometimes someone asks me how my current project is coming, and I have to pause to remember whether they are a Fiction person or an Academic person before I answer, because the (possibly misguided) way I am apparently dealing with lockdown stress is by working on two books at once. My current theory – see above re. changes to details – is that one of them is a novel, set in Iron Age England, picking up hints from the Classical authors about multiple marriages in that society, and the other is an academic book, building on my previous work on multiple religious belonging and using Wittgensteinian approaches to create an entirely new way of thinking about what it is to participate in a religious tradition. But only the other day I threw out my entire previous chapter plan and started again with a new structure, so who knows what will happen between here and a finished manuscript, let alone whether it will ever see the light of day.

An elderly friend in one of my previous Quaker meetings used to ask whenever he saw me: are you still writing? He died some time ago but I remember his encouragement and, even if the day by day work of it isn’t exciting or easy to share, I can definitely say: yes I am.

Writing prehistory as sci-fi

I’m now working on my third novel manuscript set in the far past. The first was Between Boat and Shore, set in Neolithic Orkney, about 4000BCE. The second, currently called Enduring All Things and under consideration by a publisher, is set in North Wales in between the Romans leaving and the Saxons arriving, around 450CE. My current manuscript is set in the east of England, around the fens, soon after the start of the Iron Age (so, depending which source you read, perhaps around 700BCE). In some sense, these are historical novels – that’s the way we usually describe fiction set in the past. However, writing about prehistory has a different set of challenges to writing fiction set in more recent historical periods – lack of documentary evidence. 

For the Neolithic, we have only archaeology. From material remains (of which there are a lot at some places in Orkney, one of the reasons for my choice of location), I am trying to reconstruct, or actually build from very little, everything about the society I’m trying to understand – and so I used modern comparisons. Ethnographic comparisons with living communities who build with large stones or have comparable rituals for burying their dead are fairly common in the archaeological literature. I wanted a comparison with a living community who could provide a model for complex decision making, and (probably lazily!) I stayed close to home and used Quaker practices to fill in some of the gaps.

For the Iron Age, we have some archaeology – sometimes mysterious and intriguing artefacts, like the wooden figures, or evocative locations, like the Flag Fen platform – and a few comments from Roman authors. We have to choose how to interpret those, of course. I found it interesting that in Barry Cunliffe’s overview of the period, he’s happy to accept that Roman stories about human sacrifice could be true (p100 – with the body of the Lindow Man as archaeological evidence), but rejects as probably mistaken Julius Caesar’s report that British people of the time practice polygamy, with wives shared between groups of men (p83). I have chosen to assess that evidence differently – I was interested in the possibility of writing about a polyamorous society anyway – since the argument that Caesar misunderstood what he was told about British society only means we should take his words with a pinch of salt, not that we have to assume Iron Age Britain was more like our society than depicted in Caesar’s writing.

For the post-Roman period, a period previously known as the Dark Ages because of the lack of written material, and now called the Early Medieval (so early most books on the Early Medieval don’t cover it), we have… almost nothing. We have information about the wider world, but very little detail about Wales. I am lucky enough to have access to a university library, and in researching the book set in this period I looked for archaeological evidence – not much, mostly for the south of Wales where it does exist, and containing some odd gaps, like no coins and no pottery. There doesn’t seem to be an agreement about the extent to which people just kept using Roman coins (so we can’t tell archaeological apart from those dropped or buried earlier on) or reverted to a non-currency-using economy. In the novel, I mainly avoid this question by having characters rely on social situations to get what they need – a monarch can demand to be given food by a subject as a matter of right, and a traveller requests hospitality from a host on the understanding that, when at home, they would do the same for other travellers. And they use wooden plates and leather cups, materials which are plausible at a lot of periods and usually vanish from the archaeological record (unless you’re very lucky with a bog or desert). 

As a writer, though, I sometimes think this exercise is more like writing sci-fi than dealing with a later historical period. There are very few recorded facts – instead, I begin with the technologies and the ways of life it allows. I begin with the houses (stone, turf, wattle and daub, wheat thatch and reed thatch) and the tools, the sources of food (especially the state of farming at the time, from the woodland clearance suggested by changes in the pollen record in the Neolithic to the field systems with sheep pens which have been discovered on Iron Age sites), and build a society from there. The archaeology can tell me some things about what people did, but it also leaves a lot open – just as you can have an army or a science mission or a cult on a spaceship, there could be a warrior or a weaver (or both) living in a roundhouse. I try not to let my imagination be bounded by a view of the past which says we have made steady progress and everything must have been terrible and repressive back then – or a view which says that in the deep past everything was peaceful and matriarchal and wonderful! Instead, I think about societies and people I know today, and the many different ways individuals express themselves and communities can function, and try to include that diversity and realistic psychology in my fiction. 

Writers, how do you tackle this? Readers, what interests you about stories set in these periods?

Converting to Christianity

Converting to Christianity has been on my mind lately – not for me personally; I’m culturally Christian and happy in a complex and theologically inclusive faith community – but because I’m writing a story set in a time and place when we don’t know how many people had or hadn’t converted. Conversion in historical settings is often described as if it were of a whole community at once – and perhaps sometimes it is. Conversion in historical settings is also often measured by the recorded actions of the ruling class. This has two problems. One is that the people doing the recording, later on, were themselves almost always Christians. The other is that just because the leader of your community has converted, it doesn’t mean that everyone has. (Even if the leader has converted in terms of actions, there’s still the issue of what they actually believe, but we have even less access to that.)

In the case of Europe – my story is set in Wales – we can put down some markers for the groups of people surrounding the right time and place. We know a fair amount about the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, with Constantine accepting it in 312 and Theodosius 1 making (Nicene) Christianity the state religion in 380. We know a little bit about missions to the British Isles, with Ireland converted around 430 and the first Christian king of the English, Ethelbert, converting in 597. What isn’t clear is to what extent the British people in Wales had converted to Christianity, and what their beliefs were in the gap between the Romans leaving (around 383) and the Saxons arriving (from 446, but starting on the eastern side of England). Some of them would have been Christian (and those who were would mainly have been Pelagians – followers of the ideas of Pelegius, who was excommunicated in 418). Some would have followed the Roman religion, especially if they arrived through the extensive movement of Roman soldiers around the empire. And some might still be following a local religion, now mixed with Roman elements but also retaining Celtic ones.

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A stone Celtic cross, a symbol which emerged from this period of religious complexity. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

This ambiguity is attractive to me as a writer, because it gives me space to explore. I’m able to take a range of elements from the evidence – things which might have survived from the Roman period and things which might have begun by this time and be recorded later – to create a fictional society in which these multiple religious currents are meeting and mixing. Of course, historical fiction is always only partly about the past, and quite a lot about now. Finding a time in the past when multiple religions which interest me today where interacting in ways which were obviously complex and aren’t fully know also opens up a space for me to pose, in the past, the questions which I’m thinking about now.

For example, I’m interested in multiple religious belonging – why and how an individual might be part of more than one faith community – and in what it takes to be identified as part of a religion. When it is something the individual can identify for themselves, simply by stating it? When does it require community involvement, and what form does that take? Some religions have clear prescriptions about this, at least for some cases, but there are typically also cases of uncertainty as well. What are the actions which are considered characteristic of a faith in a particular time and place, and when does performing them mean you have joined or at least become associated with that religion? In this early period, baptism hadn’t yet taken up the role which it is given by later Christian communities, of acting as an entry ritual, determining who is and who is not part of the community. In exploring this complexity in fiction, characters can move in and out of different categories, with those around them – and perhaps even the characters themselves – unsure about where they fit.

Converting a person – and so even more a group of people – to Christianity can never have been simple. I’m not going to pass judgement on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to convert Britain to Christianity. There are later cases where it seems to me to be clearly bad, especially where Christianity was forced on people, used as an excuse to suppress local culture, and put to work to maintain oppressive social structures. There are other cases where people convert because they have found their right spiritual path, and that is, in general, obviously good. And there are lots of situations in between – where people convert because they think it will give them a better life, or because everyone around is converting, or because they are not so much moving from one faith to another as adding something to their religious lives. The extent to which pre-Christian British religion survived in Christianised forms is up for debate, but I think there’s enough evidence to say on the one hand that some pre-Christian British practises were adapted into Christian ones, and that this didn’t result in a long-standing, multi-generational Pagan tradition running alongside the public Christian religion.

One of the reasons I think the conversion of Britain isn’t directly comparable to some more recent cases of countries being converted is that Christianity didn’t arrive in Britain with an oppressive ruling class. It arrived through the Romans – who had invaded long ago by time they adopted Christianity, and who gave up trying to rule Britain soon afterwards. And it may also have arrived through independent routes; if Christianity came to some parts of Scotland, Wales, and England via Ireland, for example, that separates it from Roman involvement. It did pick up some Roman ways of structuring administration, and we have some evidence of bishops in Britain in the 300s (if Restitutus was indeed Bishop of London, for example). Instead, it seems that, in this period when few records were produced, that there would have been multiple religious traditions all common in the community, and people perhaps moving between them, combining them, and trying to work out what the relationships between them should be.

Fun times for writers who want also want to explore those things!

Review of ‘The Good Priest’

Tina Beattie’s novel, The Good Priest, is a gripping read with an engaging central character – John, the eponymous good priest – and an intriguing premise. In this review there will be some spoilers, although I’ll try and steer clear of the main plot. I won’t be discussing the murders, which are a significant feature of the novel, but I will talk about sex and sexual abuse.

It is a deeply Catholic book, as one might expect from the title and the author (Beattie is a well known Roman Catholic theologian), but I’m not a Catholic and it isn’t for me to assess the quality or impact of her description of the church. I did look to see whether others had already covered this in reviews, but didn’t find anything with a deep level of engagement – and some obvious venues, such as The Tablet, have yet to review it. It seems to me as an outside that it is deeply loving and equally critical – but perhaps this is an effect of her excellent writing rather than the content. I also think it might turn out to be a novel of the moment; in the same way that some twentieth-century writing is identifiable as ‘post Vatican II‘ or similar, in a few decade’s time this book might seem ‘post sex abuse scandal’. This doesn’t detract from it; indeed, it might make it all the more important to read it now. However, rather than going into this aspect in detail, I want to focus on what it might have to say to two audiences to which I do belong: Quaker readers and queer readers.

Queer readers, I think, may find it compelling, comforting, and disturbing, in various ways. The good priest of the title, John, is gay. He’s clear and straightforward about this even when it comes as a surprise to others – towards the end of the book, he says so plainly in public, on the street, and another character responses with a startled, “You’re wot?” She knows what he means, may even already have known this about him, but is not expecting a Catholic priest to be calm and open about this aspect of his personality. In this, she might serve as a stand-in for the reader, because the calmness and acceptance with which most characters throughout the book, including John himself, treat this fact is noticeable. Sometimes it is highlighted by the narrative, as when a dying parishioner makes a point of mentioning it, but often it is simply there. This is the comfort.

It is interwoven with other aspects of the narrative, though, inextricably so: I read a comment from someone on Twitter who wished Beattie hadn’t ‘made him gay’ – not an option, it is vital to this character’s interaction with the world and especially the church within which he lives and has his livelihood. This is, for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. Sexuality is not bolted on, but nor is it the main focus. Things would go equally badly wrong if he were straight and subject to similar temptations and stresses, but the details of what happens are intimately related to his sexuality (and to his intimate relationships, platonic as well as erotic). It is also related to the gendered structure of the social world within which he lives: both priests and the most ardent atheists are men, while women occupy a host of positions but are disempowered by their society, even though they often have agency within the narrative. In the same way, although a review in the Church Times suggests that the focus on sex is “verging on prurience”, I didn’t find this so at all. The sex is dealt with in mainly a factual way, and a way which brings out the conflicts, sometimes the horrors, associated with it. The only non-abusive, fully consensual sex is fade-to-black, so much so that I almost wondered whether it had actually taken place.

It is those horrors, faced directly and from both perspectives, which make the book disturbing, but are also one of the important parts of the narrative. John realises during the course of the novel that he has both abused and been abused, another example of the moral complexity which makes the novel compelling. Of course, by writing a gay character in this position, Beattie runs the risk of further associating homosexuality with abuse and continuing a pattern of false charges against the gay community as a whole. However, it could also work the other way: John’s horrified reactions to realising that he unknowingly had sex with a child, and his subsequent compassionate responses and adult, if difficult, relationship, subvert that frequently told story about the role of homosexuality in social life.

And what about reading from a Quaker perspective? Perhaps there is a temptation at first to feel smug about how much more equally Quakers treat LGBTQ+ members of our communities, even while acknowledging that we can always do more to be welcoming and to make sure everyone is treated justly. But Beattie is a Catholic and it is clear that she has a great deal of compassion for the situation John is in, and is critiquing the ways in which his church makes life more difficult for him. For those Quakers with little knowledge of the Roman Catholic tradition, too, the focus on the rituals of Lent and Holy Week – and especially confession, which is pivotal to the plot – may be difficult and alienating. However, I found that the way John’s perspective leads the reader into the rituals and their spiritual meanings was easier to deal with than much teaching on these topics. It didn’t make me want to go to confession, but I think it did help me see why some people might find it helpful. (And the novel doesn’t shy away from the practical and theological problems it creates, either.) It might be worth reading for that interfaith understanding.

It might also be worth Quakers reading for the reminder than there is significant disagreement within the Catholic church – not just on social questions, but also on theology. In the course of the novel, characters who doubt and lose their faith, characters whose faith takes on new forms, and characters who disagree about interpretations of theological questions are all treated as fully part of John’s community. I am told frequently by Quakers that it must all be easier in churches where they have creeds and everyone believes the same thing and there aren’t any doubters… but having a written creed, and all agreeing with it, and nobody doubting are three very different things. In this story, as in real churches, disagreement and lapsing flourish alongside co-operation and multiple patterns of engagement.

In conclusion, if you are interested in murder mysteries, novels with religious characters, and/or books which grapple with moral complexity, I highly recommend this book.

Stone Age Speech

My novel about Neolithic lesbians on Orkney, Between Boat and Shore, was published on Friday by Manifold Press – information and purchase links. In this post I want to explore one of the challenges of writing a novel set in the Neolithic period, about six or seven thousand years ago: namely, deciding what words to use. At times it felt more like writing fantasy or sci-fi – constructing a different, unknown world and working out how to translate it into our own – than writing something historical.

Warning: this post contains minor spoilers about the book, the setting and the characters, although not about any major events of the plot. 

Some things were actually easier. I think if I were writing a novel set a hundred years ago, I might be tempted to spend ages consulting timelines of slang and other resources, and write at least some of the dialogue in the language of the time. For the early Neolithic, this just isn’t possible – not even because it would need translating, but because we have very little idea what language was spoken anywhere in the world at that time. In Europe, it was probably whatever language became Proto-Indo-European, a language we don’t have in full but linguists can reconstruct in parts from the commonalities between later languages. I used Proto-Indo-European and its wide geographic spread in two ways: firstly, as a justification for characters who had travelled some distance around the coast of Europe being able to basically understand those in the new community where they had arrived; secondly, as inspiration for the names of characters. I applied a liberal amount of poetic license to adjust for ease of pronunciation etc., but almost every character in the book has a name based on a word calculated to have existed in Proto-Indo-European. For example, Trebbi is named from the root treb-, dwelling or settlement, which survived in the Celtic languages and will be familiar to map-readers in Cornwall and Wales as the prefix Tre-.

The low remains/reconstructions of a house built from wide, flat stones. In the front of the picture an entrance way is visible; in the middle there are the thick outer walls and single-stone inner walls of the house, including two hearth spaces; and in the background there's water, both the near and far shores of a loch. The sky above is grey and cloudy.

A house at Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement on Orkney, one of the inspirations for the novel.

Apart from that, I used casual, modern British English, including a set of neopronouns. Of the many options available for nonbinary pronouns, I tried to choose a set which would suit my characters, be clear enough not to need explicit discussion in the text, and also not introduce confusion. With that in mind, I used ey/em/eir. The parallel with the sort-of patterns of he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs seems close enough that readers won’t need it explaining, or have to re-read sentences to clear up confusion about plural/singular, and the sounds work with the sounds of the names I used. (It doesn’t work with Proto-Indo-European, which apparently didn’t have third person pronouns at all… I briefly considered taking that on as a writing challenge, but couldn’t face ‘this one’ and ‘that one’ for a whole novel!)

I also gave some thought to the question of swearing – what does a Neolithic person say when they want to be rude? I found N. K. Jemison’s blog post on Fantastic Swearing very helpful here, and essentially ran with her observation that scatological language is crude almost everywhere. I also adopted her position that there was no reason for my characters to treat sexual language as swearing – and extended that to not included swear words in my sex scenes. The descriptions there use plain but specific language: ‘vulva’ rather than ‘cunt’. (The Proto-Indo-European word was something like pisda or pisdeh, by the way.)

Other choices about language followed in a similar vein. They talk about doctors rather than healers, for example, choosing modern terms rather than trying create a ‘primitive’ atmosphere. Some of the choices about language for religion were shaped by my Quaker sources of inspiration, although I tried to steer clear of technical terms. The village has a leader rather than a priest or a king, and alert readers will recognise the functions of clerk and elder in the decision-making meetings of this pre-literate society. They have ideas about the ancestors, something implied by the way people of that time and place built tombs (I invented this specific village, but their tomb is real and archaeologists do think megalithic tombs went with territory and communities). They also talk about Goddess; not the Goddess, as it would usually be put in modern English, but Goddess as a fact of life the way some people are able to talk about God.

Another question which didn’t appear until I’d finished writing the novel is how to describe the characters and their relationships. The main story line is about two women who start a romantic and sexual relationship, but is it really a lesbian romance when the story is set three thousand years before Sappho was born? On reflection I think it is. There are sensible arguments against putting modern labels on historical figures (e.g. if you call Alexander the Great bisexual, you might be describing some things about him but missing a lot about how he and his contemporaries understood sexuality). However, I don’t think those apply in the same way to fictional characters, who are at least as much a product of my culture and imagination as of the Neolithic, and probably more. My characters can be lesbians (or bisexual or nonbinary or whatever) if both I and my readers are happy to say so.

See how these choices work out in a novel by reading Between Boat and Shore now. 🙂

Many thanks to Martel Reynolds who discussed these topics with me throughout the writing process. 

Heteronormativity and the Edges of Genres

A while ago I spoke to a student who was researching the effect Section 28 had on people who were students while it was in force. I thought of various effects it had on me – on the way homophobic bullying was treated in my school, on the sex education I received, and so on. One of things this sort of legislation aims to do is to reinforce heteronormativity, a picture of the world in which straightness is normal and other sexualities are deviant or perverted. Recently I’ve been thinking about a place where I still have some heteronormativity to root out: understandings of genre.

Romance fiction is a big field. Paranormal romance, sci-fi romance, historical romance… but if you asked me to describe a typical romance story, I’m pretty sure I’d give it a man and a woman as lead characters. I’m told human brains think about categories by having some core examples, the ones which are most typical, and some around the edge which are harder to say, and then some examples which are outside the category. For example, the category ‘fish’ might have a goldfish in the middle, and an eel near the edge, and a dolphin just outside. Genres probably work the same way – for ‘fantasy fiction’, Lord of the Rings might in the middle, Star Wars near the edge (and also on the edge of sci-fi, because genres can overlap), and James Bond novels just outside. (It’s not technically magic, but…)

When I first met romance stories which were not about straight couples, they weren’t called romance – I was in a fanfic community so they were called slash stories (or femslash if they involved women or lemon or something else; language on the internet is rarely stable for long). Because the characters involved had been created by someone else, and were often canonically (i.e. according to the creator) in heterosexual relationships or at least assumed to be straight because of the prevailing heteronormative culture, there was a sense of subversion about writing slash stories. It was a genre, but one you found online and not one you could look for in the library, or even on Amazon, which started to get big about the same time I was writing slash fanfic regularly.

Online shopping creates many problems, but one problem it solves is how to buy things you think won’t be stocked, or would be embarrassed to ask for, on your local high street. I remember ordering Swordspoint and some other, not quite so good, novels with gay or lesbian characters – things I knew weren’t in my local library, which I’d scoured for LBGT+ content as one of my responses to Section 28, but which were recommend by friends in the fanfic community. I don’t remember any of them being labelled as romance – Mel Keegan, for example, was called ‘gay adventure’, and other things didn’t even name LBGT+ content on the covers.

This has changed in recent years, and some forms of LBGT+ romance have their own subgenres on book recording sites like Goodreads. (Why MM and lesbian rather than other words, and in the absence of other categories? I don’t know. Probably history, cisnormativity, bi invisibility, and lack of standardisation across different sites all play a role.) It’s still taking me a while to internalise good language for describing this, though.

I got thinking about all this because I wrote a novel about a romance between two women, so it looks like I’ll get lots of chances to practice. How do you describe these genres? What do you think are the middles/edges/not-quites of genres?