Arabia – Exotic and Distant in My Childhood Memories

Note: In the wake of what happened in London recently this post, which was inspired by a holiday I have just returned from, seems all the more fitting, if only because the imbecile who killed people because of his corrupted view of life is and never will be representative of the majority of people who call themselves Muslims and practice Islam. I do not identify with any organized religion but I do identify with other people; I follow a more humanist path.

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Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi. United Arab Emirates.

Despite being entranced by 1001 Arabian Nights and the tales of Sinbad the Sailor as a child I cannot say that Arabia was ever a place that interested me particularly. Even after reading T. E. Lawrence’s ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ and seeing David Lean’s epic movie Arabia held no particular fascination for me, but I ended up going there all the same.

To be fair it was my wife’s fault. She works as a hospice nurse and her experiences have led her to pursue the living of life with a vengeance, also, she is an impressive hunter of bargains. Late last year she suggested that we go on an early summer holiday, in February to be precise, and added weight to her argument by pointing out that our first grandchild is due this June and we did not want to be away for that event did we? That was, of course, a rhetorical question.

Looking into the details it became apparent that she had found a very good deal, practically half-price with a drinks package included as well, for a round cruise from Dubai on the Thomson Celebration. The ‘Cities of Gold’ itinerary would take in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Manama in Bahrain, then both Muscat and Khasab in Oman, before returning to UAE for Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Well, it looked warmer than England anyway!

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The past and the present trying survive together in Arabia

I am both a fan of history and a modernist. I like looking both to the past and the future. I found Dubai to be something of a soulless city, lots of steel and glass skyscrapers but little else. This is not surprising when you stop to consider that the wealth from oil is only a little more than 50 years old and that there was precious little else in the region prior to the discovery of the black gold. I do not wish to be too harsh on Dubai but it just did not do anything for me. Yes, it looks modern and the wealth is obvious, perhaps a little too obvious, but there seemed to be no sense of community or shared identity.

Manama in Bahrain appeared to be carbon copy of Dubai, it certainly shares the ambition to be tall and modern, but it least it has more of a history and there’s plenty of the old town still present, although I got the impression that it is being encroached upon and will most likely be built over in the next decade or so.

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Entrance to the Sultan’s Palace, Muscat, Oman.

It was in Muscat that I actually felt that we had come to somewhere different. This is an ancient place with a real history and, perhaps more importantly, with a vision of the future that is built upon the past. Building is controlled in Muscat and there is a real desire to retain the culture of the inhabitants. You will not see any skyscrapers here but you do not have to go tall to be impressive, the Sultan’s Palace is a beautiful place to visit and the peace and tranquillity a real antidote to the speed of Dubai and Manama.

Unfortunately we could not explore Khasab due to the fact that it rained all day! Yes, it rains in Arabia as well, at least along the coast it does. Our next stop was Abu Dhabi, another modern city but one that is also trying to retain its past. We spend more time exploring Abu Dhabi than anywhere else as it turned out. I liked the place, it felt like it had a direction about it, a vision like Muscat where both the past and future have a presence.

One of the things that was unavoidable before we went on this cruise was a general and

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Down in a traditional souk

undefined fear of the Muslim world expressed by family and friends alike. This was quite sad but, I suppose, understandable. The media in the west seem obsessed with reporting only negative stories about the world and the middle-east in particular. Wherever we went in our short tour of Arabia the Arab people themselves were consistently polite and friendly. English is spoken widely; even the road signs are repeated in English and look almost identical to ours. At no time did we feel threatened, resented, or our presence unwanted. This particular area of Arabia is well aware of the finite nature of the resource that has built their wealth and they are already looking to encourage tourism for future prosperity. Ostentatiousness does not do it for me but clearly many people like what they see in Dubai, but then there are places like Muscat for anyone who prefers more culture.

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Doing a tourist thing in Arabia

I am not sure that I will return to Arabia after this visit but that is not because of any negative connotations, my experiences there were wholly positive, it is just that the visit did not capture my imagination. This has nothing to do with the Arab people or Islam, it is just me, but I am glad that we went all the same.

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Are You Pedantic if You Stick to Your Standards?

FB Post

I saw the above statement on Facebook. I posted a reply pointing out the grammatical errors and in response I was accused of being pedantic! Now, to me being pedantic means being excessively concerned with minor details. In consideration I do not think that my criticism was pedantic and I will explain why.

When it comes to forum posts I am not overly concerned with obvious typographical errors. We all make them, often as a result of rushing to respond, and if they do not in any way alter, subvert, or make the meaning of the text difficult to understand then I rarely, if ever, point them out to the person who made them. That said, when participating in a public forum, like Facebook, I do expect a certain standard of written English from other users. The key word here is ‘standard’ because that is the basis of my criticism for the above statement.

Someone went to the trouble of getting a picture and over-typing it with the statement, putting it into a 30 second video, and then publishing it. Quite a bit of effort was involved on one or more person’s part, but they failed to do a spell and grammar check on what they had written.To some people this might seem a little thing, and in the great scheme of things it is, but some people also have standards that they set for themselves and, invariably, measure other people’s work by. Is not that the reason why we usually try our best? Is it really too much to ask for someone to follow the basic rules of the written English language when putting their work into the public domain? In what other areas do we accept less and not comment on it? When a scholar translates a piece of literature from one language into another does the editor tell them not to worry too much about the accuracy? When scientists report their latest discovery do they opt for text-speak because it is quicker than writing in the more formal style of an academic paper?

Clarity is an essential consideration of good communication. If you have something important to say to the rest of the world then the onus is on you, the originator, to achieve clarity. It is not the responsibility of the prospective audience to constantly lower their standards and make allowances for basic mistakes that could be avoided, especially when there are others out there who are constantly trying to raise theirs.

Of course the internet is awash with such pieces as the one at the top of this page and maybe, just maybe, the originator was being a bit clever, perhaps they thought that by getting the grammar wrong they would get more attention? That, however,begs the question, did they want to make a positive impact in helping people achieve their heart’s desire or did they just want 15 seconds of fame?

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70K and Counting

As well as writing I also paint and draw and one of the things that I have learned with regards to visual creativity is that it can be difficult to know when to stop, to step back and look at a picture and say ‘that’s it!’. Indeed, I, like many other artists I imagine, have ruined a picture in the belief that I can make it just that little bit better. With writing it does not seem to work that way.

WWbc 3.0I can remember when working on my first novel, ‘The War Wolf’, wondering when it was going to end. The book seemed to acquire a life of its own and I just kept on writing and writing, thoroughly enjoying it, but I was also looking for a natural end point. With a painting the end point is also not always easy to see, which is why so often I have gone past it and ended up with something that was not as good as it should have been. When writing the end point can be just as difficult to spot but rarely does it result in the book being over-worked.

If anything I think that writing can lead to a book being under-worked. It is so tempting when you think that you have finished to push that version of your manuscript out. Partly I believe that this is because what comes next is rather boring; the editing! Proof-reading and manuscript amendments are boring because they are not creative but they are necessary; they are part of the honing process. Very few people, I believe, are capable of producing a finished work in the first draft, simply because a novel is a complex work. The average novel runs to approximately 70,000+ words, which is an awful lot of work. It is built around the framework of the plot, has themes, character development, and contains the exploration of ideas, or at least it should. There is a vast capacity to make mistakes in this medium.

As I have mentioned before I rarely complete a first draft before moving onto the second draft, which is, to all intents and purposes, a rewrite. For this reason I do not worry about putting too much detail in the first draft, I just try to capture ideas and develop the plot. It is in the second draft that I begin building the actual book. Another aspect that sets the two draft versions apart for me is that with the first I have no particular target in terms of word count but in the second I find that I need something to aim at; the 70K.

There are some authors who argue that the word count is immaterial, that the novel should be as long as it takes to tell the story, and they have a point. I do not see any value in setting a specific goal to achieve when I am writing but I do find having an approximate goal very useful; it tells me when I am near the point of finishing the book.

I have just reached the 70K word target for my latest novel, ‘The Blade’s Fell Blow’, whichBFBCoverslider01 means that I am close to completing it. Reaching this point does not mean that the book is finished, however. Following a recent read through of the current manuscript I identified a lot of work that still needs doing. I would say that approximately two-thirds of the manuscript is good, or even very good, but that leaves one third that needs some serious attention. I am okay with this. The fact that I can stand back and review my work and see where it still needs a bit of polishing is good, both creatively and practically. I know that as a reader I do not like to find as I approach the end of the book that the author has rushed their work and lowered their standards, even unintentionally, as a result. It is so dissatisfying, disappointing and leaves, generally, a very negative impression of that particular writer.

Grace Flag 01.4For this reason I always look to produce the best that I can and avoid rushing the manuscript into print until I am entirely happy with it. My last novel, ‘Eugenica’ probably went through the most work in this respect than the two that preceded it. There are parts of that book that I rewrote several times simply because I knew it could be better. I wanted it to be better. To date people who have read it and talked to me say that it is a very good book, a part of that is because I did not stop when I reached my target but went beyond it, the extra yard, a little bit more, crossed all the ‘T’s’ and dotted all the ‘I’s’. In a painting this would probably have ruined the work, in a book it helps to produce only the best of your work.

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The Challenge of Dialogue

One aspect of my written work that I think has changed since I published ‘The War Wolf’ in 2013 is the dialogue. It is not a dramatic change and I am not talking about just grammar or spelling or punctuation, it is more a question of style, I first noticed this when I was writing ‘Eugenica’ in 2016. That, of course, is a very different kind of book, heavily influenced by film noir, a genre I particularly enjoy.

With ‘The War Wolf’ I was keen for the characters to appear historical by having them speak in a way that is subtly different to what we do today, I used ‘mayhap’ for ‘perhaps’ for example and framed sentences slightly differently. I think that in ‘The War Wolf’ my intent forced the style of the dialogue but I was pleasantly surprised when a reviewer stated that the book had a poetic style that gave it a unique character of its own. I think that this poetic style was influenced by use of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wanderer’ just before the Battle of Fulford Gate. At the time it had seemed like a good device to help me set out the feelings of various main characters but now I feel that it had a far greater impact than I had realised.

My approach with ‘Eugenica’ was very different. I took the trouble to research slang and

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My femme fatale, Helene Monroe from Eugenica

common phrases from the 1930′, people did not get you back for an unkindness then, they paid you out, but that was par for the course as far as I was concerned. In this book I had a femme fatale, well of a sorts, in Helene Monroe. She is a confident, beautiful, capable woman in a very make dominated world; politics. I wanted her character to be reflected in the way she speaks to people and, like most real people, it changes with the status of the other person. When dealing with people who work for her she is authoritarian, with her superiors she is mindful, and with everyone else she likes a little verbal sparring. I very much enjoyed writing her dialogue but I quickly found that I had to discipline myself and stop giving the reader to many ‘she said’ and ‘he said’ descriptions at the end of each sentence.

Playwrights do not have this problem of course; they leave it to the interpretation of the actors and directors. When reading plays the dialogue always moves so much more quickly as a result. I tried this with my work. I attempted to set the scene so that the reader would know who was present and in which order they were talking. This was crucial when there were more than two characters. My intention was to let the reader infer as much from the dialogue as they could without me providing too many clues in the way of ‘she said scathingly’ for example. I found this approach very engaging and quite often the conversations would go off in an unexpected direction as ideas occurred and I sought to explore them. Not all of these verbal tangents survived the editing process but they were fun at the time.

Returning to 1066 with ‘The Blade’s Fell Blow’ I approached the dialogue with more confidence. Although I still wanted to couch it in an authentic sounding way I tried to be minimal in my description either of the character’s intonation, expression, and anything else that, in my opinion, just slowed the reading down unnecessarily. I am also using this approach in my next project, ‘The Queen of the Mountain’. In a way it feels like I am exploring the power of dialogue to give energy to the storytelling, I suppose that is what actors enjoy from a well written part. In fact I am pretty sure that it is. It is also enjoyable for me as a writer, as well as something of a challenge, which is good. I do not want to be the kind of writer who discovers a formula and sticks to it, that would be so boring! I know that in some situations this makes perfect commercial success but I do not think that it would inspire me at all. More than that, I am not really genre writer at all, that is, I have written three books that are historical fiction but I do not consider myself as a historical fiction writer only. ‘Eugenica’ is an alternate history dystopian novel and, therefore, very different, and ‘The Queen of the Mountain’ is definitely a fantasy novel. I have more projects planned that include science fiction, crime, and general fiction. If I am to achieve these projects then it seems to me that challenging myself as a writer, with dialogue for example, is the best way to go.

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Fantasy is not an easy option

My son is a big fan of ‘Game of Thrones’, not just the television series, he reads the books as well. He had hoped that I would enjoy the series with him but after the first season I just lost interest. The fact is that I am bored with medieval based fantasy. When I told him this he replied; “well why don’t you write one of your own then?”

Challenge accepted!

Now it might seem a bit strange to be starting a new project in a totally different genre when I am still finishing off a previous novel based in historical fiction. ‘The Blade’s Fell Blow’ is actually coming along very nicely with the second draft approaching 70,000 words. I am not creating any new characters or plot devices. I am polishing the work and filling in the gaps, not to mention completing the research. This is all necessary but it is not quite creative and it is the creative act that I enjoy most about writing. I should also mention the fact that I seem able to compartmentalize things, like two different books I am writing, without any trouble whatsoever.

I have done this previously when I was finishing ‘For Rapture of Ravens’ and started work on ‘Eugenica’. Again these were different books and at the time I felt that I needed to get away for a short while from 1066 so hopped over to an alternate version of 1932. I thoroughly enjoyed the process, the second volume of ‘The Sorrow Song Trilogy’ was published and I felt driven to finish the third after ‘Eugenica’ was completed.

Writing four books that are set in the past, even an alternate one for ‘Eugenica’, required a lot of research, but I expected my new project not to be so demanding. In this I was both wrong and right. A good fantasy is rooted in the real world, that is, there are points of references that are common both here in this reality and also in the new fantasy world. You can see this in the ‘Harry Potter’ series where even mundane aspects of everyday life take on a new lustre when imbued with the magic of wizards and witches. Accepting this meant finding such points of references and then adhering to them. This was not too difficult, it just took a bit of thinking on my part.

The next stage was the same as with all my previous books; the story. I write a first draft that is very rough, no chapters or anything, just a mad dash to get as many ideas down as I can. When I am happy with this I start the second draft, which is the one that will, hopefully, become the final manuscript. It became clear as the second draft progressed that although there was very little in the way of research required there was an entirely new aspect to writing for me to master; the creation of an entirely new world populated with diverse peoples living in unique cultures. I had to create everything, the geography, the history, the societies, religions, cultural clashes and an awful lot more that, as an historical author, I simply looked up before.

It seems to me that with a work as speculative and imaginative as a fantasy novel creating a world that feels authentic, or at least believable, to the reader is paramount. I know that as a reader myself I have sometimes found such worlds to be shallow and unconvincing and I lose interest as a result. In my own opinion many fantasy authors have just taken J.R.R. Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ and copied it! I can see why, Tolkein got it right so why do the hard-work over again? Well, Tolkein also wanted people, artists of every kind, to use his work as a springboard of inspiration but it seems few authors have taken it that way. I think that this is one, if not the biggest, reason why I am bored with medieval based fantasy. I also think that my son was perfectly right to challenge me to create something new.

I have given my project the preliminary title ‘Queen of the Mountain’, chosen a particular period in history, which is not medieval, to base it on, and started drawing maps, writing notes on all the cultural aspects that a new world needs, and all the usual writer’s legwork; back-stories for main characters, style-sheet (perhaps even more crucial when inventing names for almost everything), plot developments, etc. The second draft has now reached 40,000+ words, which I am very pleased with. It is still very rough and there is a lot of work on the background material to do but I am happy with the way it is going. When I finally complete ‘The Blade’s Fell Blow’ I will spending all of my time on ‘Queen of the Mountain’ and I may actually see two books bearing my name published in the same year, or is that another fantasy?

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Can too much knowledge spoil your entertainment?

I surprised a friend recently by admitting that I did not like the Vikings television show. I had tried watching the first series, or season as they say in America, and just could not get into it. The same was true for the Musketeers, which was aired here on the BBC, despite the fact that Alexander Dumas’ book is one of my favourites. My friend could not understand why I did not like these shows seeing as I was such a fan of history but that was actually the problem; I know too much history!

I was quite looking forward to the airing of ‘The Last Kingdom’ based on Bernard Cornwell’s books, again by the BBC, but I lost interest the moment that the Saxons went into battle against the Vikings carrying rectangular wooden shields!

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That guy on the left is thinking: square shields?!

Now I am aware that I could be accused of being excessively pedantic in this matter, after all, a suspension of disbelief is necessary for enjoying film and television. I mean, I can quite happily watch Luke Skywalker zipping through the universe in his little X-Wing, dashing from one solar system to another without any firm reference to how space ships bend the laws of physics. Perhaps that is the point; there is a difference between reality and fantasy. The more a fantasy moves away from reality the less demanding it becomes on your intellect. When I watch the Lord of the Rings movies I have no problem whatsoever seeing Saxons fighting on horses because they are the men of Rohan and the Saxon heritage was Tolkien’s point of inspiration for his story. It is a fantasy and therefore they can fight however the author wants them to.

It is a question of authenticity I suppose. In the historical genre authenticity is actually valued. I have touched on this subject previously but it is worth repeating I think. Just setting a novel in a particular period, such as 1066 for example, does not make it a valid example of the historical fiction genre; that comes from the detail woven into the text by the author. Readers of historical fiction like their books to be accurate, at least to a reasonable degree, and there is logic to this, it helps create a world in the reader’s imagination that is believable, satisfying, and engaging. Too many historical inaccuracies become bothersome, they suggest that the writer did not do their homework, or, perhaps even worse, that they do not even care.

I know that when someone who makes movies attempts to transfer a book to that medium that the process demands changes, I accept this as long as the film-maker makes every effort to both limit those changes and, just as importantly, make the changes credible. Peter Jackson was, I think, largely successful in doing this with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and woefully poor with the Hobbit afterwards. When someone makes and adaptation change for changes-sake is a bad thing. It usually means that the adaptor does not have that much respect for the source material and that they are also trying to push themselves in front of the originator. Bernard Cornwell honestly admits to taking the money and running when it comes to adaptations of his work, and he is entitled to do so. He has explained how he feels that getting involved with the adaptation and the arguments that this inevitably gives rise to is, in his opinion, a waste of his time. J. K. Rowling took another approach and I would say that the adaptations of her work have been far more successful, both artistically and commercially.

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Saxons or Vikings? Only they would know.

Of course no one has offered to make movies out of my books and I do not know how I would feel about such a thing yet. I do know that I have invested a lot of time and work in learning about the culture of 1066 and that I would not be happy to see a film or television version of The War Wolf in which the Saxons took to the field of Fulford Gate looking like they had stepped out of a Warcraft game. It would feel like I had abandoned my creative integrity, which actually means something to me. Of course that is the very reason why I cannot enjoy historical films and television shows that claim to be authentic and prove not to be so. I suppose you cannot have it both ways? That is probably why I watch ‘Once Upon a Time’ instead!

 

 

 

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It’s Not a Big Thing but…

One of the great things about the internet is, in my opinion, the fact that it can give us access to open debate in so many different areas. I have joined quite a few forums covering most of the subjects that interest me and I’ve had my battles with people of a different opinion; it’s inevitable. In fact I would say that crossing debating swords with others has been a very important learning experience.

Of course you do come across the trolls, people who just seem to exist to provoke online confrontation, who attack the poster and not the post. They are a regrettable part of going into public forums hosted on the internet. If you have had any experience at all of posting online, either in Facebook or a more specialist group, you will probably have come across at least one example of a troll. It always seems to me that trolls, for some reason, often escape being banned, whether it is because they are clever with the language that they use, which I don’t think they are, or because the people who run forums, the admins and such, actually allow them because it is believed to promote traffic. It certainly can seem like it takes a lot to get a troll banned.

For my part I have never been interested in trolling. I like debating, testing my ideas, trying to find out new things, and that often means accepting that sometimes you are wrong. Internet trolls never admit that they are wrong. No, trolling was not for me, so I was somewhat surprised when I discovered that I had been banned from an internet site after posting a comment?!

Now the site in question is run by the Local World, a large publisher of regional newspapers, and the particular site is for the Hull Daily Mail newspaper. I often used to read this site simply because I am from Hull and I support Hull City Football Club. Many years ago I opened an account with them so that I could comment on stories that interested me, which sometimes led into a kind of debate, especially with other Hull City fans over the Allam family ownership of the football club, but that was not what got me banned. Commenting on this story is what brought down such a heavy censure:

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That is, I think you would admit, a pretty grim story to be reporting, but my comment had little to do with the actual story, more to do with the headline; ‘Danny Allen threatened to slit mum’s throat’. When I first read it I inferred that this man had intended to kill his mother! This was wrong, however, the threat was aimed at his former partner or common-law wife; not his mother.

I love the English language, that is probably one reason why I write, I like working with words. Journalists, I had always presumed, like with working with words also and because they are relating factual stories they probably have a sense of getting things right. Okay, I know that that can seem a little naïve in this cynical world but nevertheless even if the story is true I would expect a professional writer to at least construct a sentence properly. The headline is ambiguous, it does not refer to the accused’s mother but to a woman who once lived with him and who is also the mother of his children. It seems to me to be somewhat lazy writing to only be able to reduce a reference to another person in a news story to the fact that they gave birth to children! This woman, who is not named in the story, is someone’s daughter who went to school and harboured dreams and ambitions of her own. She might be a sister to someone, a friend more than likely, even have had work colleagues. In other words she is an individual, a person, and probably a little bit more than just a ‘mum’. I am not suggesting that the status of ‘mum’ is not a worthy one, it is, I had one too and my wife is one to our children, but she’s also a lot more than that, as I think are most women who become mothers.

My crime was to post this opinion in the comments section of the newspaper’s website, albeit in a much briefer way. I simply pointed out that the headline suggested one thing while the story reported another and that clarity should be a consideration in writing about such things. The next time I tried to log onto the website I was met by this:

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My account had been disabled and no reason was forthcoming. As my comment had disappeared from the published story, which I could still read, then I presumed that was what had provoked the site admin to ban me. I followed up on their suggestion to contact them for more information but after three attempts that failed to elicit a response I gave up. I did peruse the published guidelines for using the website but the only clue that they gave me was that my comment had upset someone; Simon Bristow, the author of the piece perhaps? I don’t know.

Ultimately this is not a great event, I just find it a little annoying. I believe that if you are going to put something into the public arena, whether it be an article in an online newspaper or a book or a work of art or scholarly piece, then you should be prepared for a certain degree of criticism. As I mentioned earlier I am not into trolling, I do not attack the person, and in this instance I did not, I only commented on the headline of an article, but someone took exception and, despite suggesting otherwise, they will not explain themselves. No, this is just petty but I am glad that I got it out of my system because it was also annoying.

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