Just over a week ago I asked y’all to give me your opinions on some draft book covers for The Jack Hansard Series – and your response was fantastic! Thank you for all of your messages on the blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Wattpad – we’ve been weighing up your comments and have come to our final decision…
Support was almost evenly split between options 1 and 3, with just a few shout-outs for option 2 – clearly the majority of you prefer a splash of colour! The lack of a clear favourite made our decision all the harder, but I’m proud to announce that we’ve firmly agreed on… cover 1!
‘Intrigue’ is the word that kept cropping up in your comments about this design and we heartily agree: it has the atmosphere of those mysterious, underhand dealings that define Jack Hansard. I’m a little bit sore to leave cover 3 behind (I can’t overstate how much I loved all of the options Dom presented me with) but who knows – future poster material, perhaps?
What happens now?
Dom’s job is to evolve this concept into the final polished cover, and mine is give the series a final edit to make it perfect for publication. Watch this space – we’ll keep you updated as we go.
Hit that big ol’ Follow button if you don’t want to miss anything. You can also watch out for sneak-peeks and other news via Facebook and Twitter!
Firstly: thank you for your amazing support! It means a lot that you’ve stuck with me (and Jack) throughout this weird journey. I’ve just recently finished editing Season 1, and so have turned my sights to self-publishing.
Joining me on this venture is artist Dominique Lane. She’s well overdue for a formal introduction (I’ve her to thank for the kick-ass landing page of this website) so I’ll be sure to set up a little ‘Meet the Artist’ feature next.
The focus of today’s post is a little more practical, and involves audience participation!
Dom’s been working hard on book cover concepts, and we’ve narrowed it down to three which I’d like to show you today. The following images are all drafts – we can expect the final product to look somewhat different with more colour and cleaner lines – but they represent the designs we are considering. And we’d love to know what YOU think of them! Take a look:
Which one do you prefer? Can you tell us why?
This is your chance to affect the final product. I’m not just asking because I can’t decide (although honestly, I really can’t; they’re all way better than I even hoped for!)
We really do value your input – because after all, this cover is for you. So it ought to be something that you like 😉
When writers consider publishing options there are two main routes that spring to mind: you either go traditional, or you go it alone. But the world of publishing isn’t as firmly divided as you might think. Among the host of options available to authors, crowdfunding is now one of them – and prospective publishers are beginning to take notice.
Unboundis one such publisher, and they’ve got a great twist on the crowdfunding trend. Like a traditional publishing house, you must first submit your book proposal for approval. If you are accepted, then the fun begins: you launch your crowdfunding campaign.
If you’re familiar with Kickstarter (and it seems most people are, these days) then you already have a good idea of what this entails. You pitch your book idea to potential readers and do your utmost to persuade them to pledge funds towards your book in return for rewards. Rewards usually include a digital or physical copy of the book, and the more creative authors offer things like exclusive artwork, manuscript tutelage – and in some cases a date with the author themselves!
If you manage to hit your target, Unbound step in to provide all the services you’d expect from a traditional publisher. Editing, graphic design, printing, distribution, and marketing is all covered by the Unbound team.
To find out more about this process I spoke with Erinna Mettler, an Unbound author who successfully met the crowdfunding target for her short story collection Fifteen Minutes, and is now in the editorial phase. She gives us an insight into her experiences so far:
Erinna, why did you choose to publish with Unbound?
“It’s extremely hard to find an agent or a publisher in the UK for short stories unless you are already a known writer. It’s a great shame really but agents simply won’t look at new collections and most publishers aren’t that keen either. ‘Come back when you’ve written a novel’ (preferably a crime thriller – with ‘girl’ in the title!) is the way most queries get answered.
I was sick of trying to get an agent. I think that short fiction writers have to work a lot harder than other writers to get published. We’ll try anything.
A fellow author told me about Unbound. I had a look at their website and was sold in minutes. They have a promo video explaining the way they work and it says something like ‘authors write the books they want to write and readers get to read real books that in a crowded, celebrity-obsessed marketplace wouldn’t normally get to see the light of day.’ I sent my manuscript in immediately.”
What was the toughest part of the process?
“Getting the pledges was definitely the hardest part. It took four months in all and it was a full-time job – or at least every spare minute was spent in the pursuit of pledges. At the same time you have to be mindful of bugging people too much. It’s a fine balance. You spend a lot of time explaining what crowdfunding is and why you can’t just publish the book without it.
Family and friends are your first point of contact and for the most part they were very accommodating. The generosity is astounding, you get pledges from people you don’t expect – but then you also get no response from people you think will be right behind you. Some people say they’ll pledge and don’t.
You have to learn not to take it personally. I only had one very rude reply from someone who was on a professional mailing list, telling me off for begging and hoping the project failed; needless to say it just made me more determined to succeed. One of out a few hundred isn’t so bad.”
How did you approach the challenge of reaching your funding target?
“I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. I have a lot of social media followers. I co-run The Brighton Prize for short stories and a spoken word group called Rattle Tales and we have a considerable mailing list. I’m also in a professional group in Brighton called The Beach Hut Writers. I’ve got a lot of contacts but after the second round of emails I was no-where near even half way, so I had to go all out.
I sent out press-releases and got on local radio and had a short film made about the project by Latest TV. I wrote articles for craft magazines and websites, did blog interviews, got short stories placed in literary journals. I called in any favour I could think of.
For me though, Twitter was the key. I’m a writing mentor and my biggest pledge options were for manuscript appraisals. A Twitter friend mentioned that I should be pushing these rather than the short story angle I’d been going for and after a day of constant tweeting I’d sold about £800 worth of mentoring. I carried on with what I’d been doing, but those big pledges are the ones that make the real difference to your percentages.”
Does a writer need to already have a strong fan base in order to be successful with Unbound?
“I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary but it helps. I had quite a good fan base but I still struggled, so if you are starting out from scratch it could be very soul destroying. My advice would be to start as soon as you can building a social media following, blog regularly, comment and converse, go to events, be bold.”
Fifteen Minutes is now in the editorial stage as Unbound prepares it for sale. What has it been like to work with Unbound through this process?
“It has been an incredible editorial experience. They give you a lot of encouragement if you ask for it at the early stages of the funding but don’t expect them to do the work for you, this is about you being able to raise the funds. Once the funding target was met I had a couple of weeks to submit because the manuscript was as ready as I could make it.
It’s been edited 3 times now, each one more in depth than the other. I’ve had two editors look at it. I agreed with most of the suggestions but not all. It’s a collaboration and the book is a million times better than it was before the edit. We have cut whole stories and changed POVs and the order is completely different. The book is at proof reading stage now but I haven’t seen any cover designs and I don’t know when it will be released yet.”
Your first book Starlings was produced by indie publisher Revenge Ink. Crowdfunding aside, how has your experience of publishing with Unbound differed, if at all?
“There’s not that much difference: both are indie publishers and both had a subversive take on publishing, their aims being to push boundaries and publish books that otherwise wouldn’t be.
In both cases things moved very fast. With big companies it takes over two years to get the book out, whereas both of mine will have taken less than a year. You need to be prepared – one minute you’re waiting for emails and the next your book is coming out next week.
The edit was less stringent for Starlings and Revenge Ink had very little money for publicity. I was so new to it all then: now I know that to make it work I’ll have to be responsible for my own marketing. Unless you are already a big name, most authors have to undertake their own marketing as budgets for new authors are almost non-existent.
I had a strong relationship with Amita, the MD of Revenge Ink, and she was nothing but supportive. The Unbound team are all very enthusiastic and really help you move forward with the project. I’m hoping the book will get a little bit more publicity this time.”
In the race to gain pledges, you’ve essentially done all of the sales work so far. How will Unbound help sell your book after publishing?
“Fifteen Minutes is an e-book so I’m currently teaching myself how to market an e-book. I have to wait until there’s a review copy available to send out to reviewers, journals, radio stations. It’s the usual dive-in strategy. There will be paperback copies available for events and signings. I’m hoping Unbound can help with contacts that might get the book seen.”
Is there a community of loyal Unbound readers? People who look out specifically for new and interesting Unbound projects, in the same way Kickstarter has a strong base of funders who are very attached to the platform itself?
“I went to the Unbound birthday party in November and they had invited their top pledgers to come along and meet their authors. It was great talking to them; they are completely committed to this kind of publishing. If you look in the back of the books the same names do keep coming up. Some people will only be drawn to the author they know, but I think more and more are going to be drawn to the crowdfunding concept and to the idea that this will be the place where interesting books are distributed from.
If you mention Unbound to anyone in publishing the praise is almost universal. The company is only five years old so it’s early days, but their sales are increasing year on year.”
Fifteen Minutes by Erinna Mettler is a collection of short stories about fame and how it affects ordinary people.
Often the famous have only a bit part in the tale of an ordinary individual, existing just outside the action but still influencing the outcome. From the story of a tramp in New York on the day John Lennon was shot, to a doctor remembering a childhood visit to a Muhammad Ali fight, and a woman’s obsession with Harry Potter following the death of a child. The collection is experimental, cinematic, moving and always thought provoking. You can support Erinna’s book by making a pledge through her Unbound page.
Now that Season 1 of Jack Hansard is complete, this seems like a good time to take a step back and reflect on the lessons I’ve learned over the past year and a bit. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and the beautiful thing about mistakes is that they cause you to evaluate the way you work and the way you write. And, crucially, they make you figure out how to do it better next time.
So I present to you the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned from them. Although Jack Hansard is only a free series I publish for fun, these same lessons are applicable to all kinds of serial or episodic writing. Whether you’re publishing webcomics, writing weekly articles for an online magazine, maintaining a daily blog, serialising your novel or working on a short story series, I hope you find some useful pointers here.
Give yourself enough time to write.
I gave myself two weeks to write each Jack Hansard episode. It was just enough time to fit in around my job. I know there are writers out there who seem to be able to churn out a thousand words a day on top of working 40 hours a week, but I’m not one of them. And that’s okay. The important thing is to know your limits, and my limit is one Jack Hansard episode – or about 4000 words – per fortnight. Any more than your limit, and you run the risk of burning out.
You should also consider the quality of your work. Two weeks is the minimum I needed to write an episode, with full proof read and some minimal editing before it was published. And no matter how hard I tried, it was never, ever perfect. Because of course it’s not. For a perfect short story, ideally you want to leave it a few days, and then come back and re-do the whole shebang. The question is how important ‘perfect’ is to you.
At first, I was okay with imperfect – Hansard’s journey was intended as more of a training exercise from my perspective, a challenge to write consistently and meet deadlines. But as the story and characters grew, I grew endlessly attached to them and wanted to do them greater justice. I have made countless edits to the Jack Hansard stories – cleaning up the little niggles, polishing here and there – but it still frustrates me that I can’t pull it all down and piece it back together so that’s it becomes even better. If I were to rewind, I would give myself at least a month to write each episode, and I’d spend more time working out how they all intertwined in the wider scheme of things.
So before you set off on your episodic journey, before you publish anything and set the clock ticking, take some time to work out how long each episode, article, or strip will take you to produce – and make peace with the schedule you set yourself, because later on you’re gunna have a lot of fights with that bastard.
Once you’ve worked out your time-table, stick to it.
I’m quite proud that I met my fortnightly deadline most of the time, even if it did result in a few episodes I wished I’d spent more time on. It proved to me that I really could work under pressure and still produce something of a decent quality.
I found my biggest set-backs came when I took some time off. Now, sometimes this is very necessary – in my case there was a funeral to attend, there was a massive adventure in Belgium, and there was Christmas reserved for friends and family. There’s no reason not to take these times off – if anything, I’d recommend that you build a holiday into your timetable so that you don’t burn out during periods you know you’ll be too busy to fully commit. But where I went wrong was in not setting a proper ‘return-to-work’ date. Particularly after Christmas, this was a deep holiday hole I fell down where a long stint away from writing the series left me very complacent and lacking enthusiasm.
My key advice would be to keep your holidays short. And just because you’re having time away from the series, doesn’t mean you should have time away from writing altogether. Try using the time to pursue other projects, or enjoy writing just for the sake of it – anything to keep your eye in.
And how can you make your brief holidays easier on both yourself and your readers?
Get started before you start.
Before I launched An Inspired Mess and Jack Hansard, I’d already written the first two episodes to give myself a head start. And, even more cunningly, I’d written two future stories (which became Episodes 11 and 16, both sparking their own sub-plots lasting several very fun installments).
These future episodes were there to give me breathing space, to cover my ass if I couldn’t finish the time-tabled episode in time, in case a family emergency came up, and to provide content during my planned ‘holiday’ in the middle of the series.
All very good in theory. My mistake: I didn’t use my breathing space. I should have kept at least one episode ahead, but I didn’t. If I had, there wouldn’t have been month-long gaps in the summer and winter where nothing was uploaded.
So make sure you have several stories or articles written before you publish the first one, and save one or two for those unexpected gaps that will undoubtedly crop up.
On the subject of planning . . .
Other people might say ‘make plans’, but I say that’s up to you. Best-laid plans work for some, and the advantages of knowing the plot in advance are obvious. But I’m someone who prefers to plan off the cuff – I’ve the rough plot for the next three episodes, and a vague sense of the overarching story, but I don’t want to be hemmed in by details. The brilliant thing about a short story series is that some very unexpected details can unfold if you just go with the flow and allow the series to take a different direction from time to time.
But if you don’t write plans, write notes. These are those unfolding details that might become very important later. So you just introduced a side-character who you whimsically gave a sense of humour that revolves entirely around fish puns . . . five stories later a joke about a haddock might end up the turning point of the whole plot. Or perhaps it’s the colour of his eyes? Her eyes? Damn, where did our main character meet this person again?
Going over these little details can also help you in times of Writer’s Block, as well as in tightening your overarching storyline. If you’d forgotten that one particular character loved fish puns, reading over the notes could spark that very turning point in the plot.
I was a lousy note-taker, and I wish I’d created a binder full of them for easy reference. Instead I found myself leafing through the hand-written drafts and scanning the published episodes for references to personality quirks and physical descriptions I couldn’t quite recall. In particular, the way Ang speaks – I was constantly referring to the Coblyn’s previous dialogue to refresh my memory. Character profiles: wish I’d bothered.
If your episodic writing is more non-fiction based, I would still suggest keeping notes of the subjects you’ve covered. Say you blog about a different 80s glam metal album cover each week – you probably want to keep a record of what you’ve featured so far, and a list of your favourite words for describing fabulous hair.
And finally . . .
Remember to believe in yourself, and the fact that your work isn’t as terrible as you sometimes think it is. Show it to your friends and family and believe them when they tell you they like it. If they don’t – take on board their advice, it’ll only make you stronger. And it’ll make them more invested in helping you; they’ll care aboutyour work when you show that you care about their opinion.
I wouldn’t have got this far without my fiancé nagging me in the background. Even though my genre isn’t really his cup of tea, he’s dutifully proof read and mercilessly criticised all of the Jack Hansard series for me (and half of these blog posts, too). He gave me the push (shove) I needed to get that final episode done when I was suffering from prolonged Christmas/New Year’s/Springtime/GotANewJob blues (read: excuses).
So find someone, or a group of someones, who you can rely on to give you that extra little push when you’ve lost your mojo, and remember that a bit of tough love and self-discipline will get you further than you expect.
If you have any tips of your own I’d love to hear them – just leave a comment below. Take care y’all.
I suppose we should have a quick retrospective. An Inspired Mess and the Jack Hansard Series launched way back in January 2015. I published one episode roughly every two weeks – sure, I took a short holiday in the middle, and the beginning of this year suffered a blip as I got engaged and started a new job – but broadly speaking I’ve accomplished what I set out to do: finish what I started. I said I’d get to 20 Episodes, and I have. Suck it, stage fright.
Through Jack’s ridiculous misadventures we’ve encountered monsters in abundance, magic aplenty, mayhem galore . . . and we’ve topped it off with an epic showdown between gods, humans, and one quiet-eyed femme fatale. And, of course, the little Welsh coblyn.
What the future holds, I’m not quite sure yet. Do I continue on into Season 2? Do I adapt the existing stories into a different format? Do I continue staring at my laptop saying ‘What do I do?’
Whatever the case, Hansard is too big in my head to just go back to sleep. There’s a definite future out there, and I’m looking forward to exploring it.
As for you guys . . . the main thing I want to say is thanks. Thanks for sticking with me, and making this a worthwhile endeavour. I hope Hansard has been as entertaining for you as he has for me. If you like what you’ve read of the series, or have some thoughts on what I should do next, leave me a comment – you’ll undoubtedly influence my decision in some way or other. And I’d be just utterly chuffed to hear from you.
If you want to keep updated on what happens next, give that big old ‘Follow’ button a click. Or if you prefer, hit me up on Facebook. I hope we see each other again. Take care!
The Jack Hansard Series is now up to Episode 18, and I’m feeling like a proud mother in the weeks leading up to graduation. Better yet, I feel like the student who knows their long slog of essays and deadlines is finally drawing to an end. Bit of relief, bit of pride, a bit of last minute nerves and anticipation.
There are just two more installments to go this year: Episode 20 in December will bring to a close what I’ve affectionately come to call Season 1. When I started writing in January, I didn’t know if I’d get this far. I’ve been testing myself the whole way, daring myself to fail and let not just myself down, but all those who’ve helped to push me, encourage me along.
I know I’ve not got much of an audience – I’m not kidding myself with illusions of grandeur here – but I hope that what audience I do have is enjoying what I have to offer. Ultimately, that’s what really concerns me: not how wide my readership is, but whether I can entertain and amuse you in the same tradition of countless authors who have brought bursts of colour to my life. I want to pass the parcel on; the best thing is seeing the smile on the person who gets to unwrap the next layer. The worst thing is seeing them disappointed by the shitty plastic whistle inside.
So, small and silent as you are, I don’t want to disappoint you with some shitty ending (I can at least promise it won’t be a plastic whistle). I hope you’ve been enjoying the ride as much as me, and I’ll try and make our shared finale as explosively colourful as possible.
Peggy’s face lit up. I don’t think she gets enough opportunity to show off all that knowledge she stores up from being around books all day. “Well, the phoenix is a mythical regenerating bird that is said to live forever. Or rather, it begets a new phoenix from the remains of the old, sort of asexually reproducing. Most commonly it’s thought to die in a burst of flame and then be reborn anew in the ashes. Tales about the phoenix range across the world and through the ages: there’s the Greek historian Herodotus who suggests the phoenix is native to Arabia but flies to Egypt to be reborn; Pliny the Elder catalogues a possible live specimen sent to the Roman Emperor Claudius (but that one’s probably a fake); it crops up in all sorts of medieval bestiaries, and of course in religious imagery and symbolism, you know how popular the idea of rebirth is–”
“Myffical, ye said,” Ang pointed out flatly.
“That’s the interesting part,” I interposed. “Despite all the stories, general consensus is that the thing doesn’t exist. You’d think it’d have turned up on the Black Market by now, if it did.”
It looks like Hansard’s been tasked with finding the legendary regenerating firebird, the phoenix. I bet you could give me the low-down on this one yourself. The phoenix lives forever, it ‘dies’ in a burst of flames, and it’s reborn from its own ashes. Just like the lovable Fawkes from Harry Potter. Right?
Right. Well, sort of.
The above clip, Peggy’s explanation from Episode 17, gives you the bare bones of some of the earliest accounts of the mythical phoenix. Travelling historian Herodotus ranks the phoenix among the sacred animals of the Eyptians (we’re talking 5th century B.C. here), though he takes care to mention he’s never seen the bird himself and he’s just retelling what the locals told him. According to his report, the phoenix has gold and red feathers and is about the size of an eagle. It apparently lives in Arabia and flies to a specific Egyptian temple (the temple of the Sun in Heliopolis) once every five hundred years. It makes this journey in order to rebirth its parent – the phoenix makes a shell out of myrrh and puts its parent inside, then carries it to the temple of the Sun. That’s all Herodotus says on the matter.
The implication seems to be that the old parent bird will be born anew from the egg of myrrh. The fact that this happens every five hundred years suggests the lifespan of the phoenix could be one millennium. (Think about it: the new bird hatches and flies back to Arabia – it brings its parent back to the temple in five hundred years; then five hundred years later the original phoenix is brought by its child to the temple.)
So far, no explicit mention of immortality, and certainly no flames or rising from the ashes involved.
It’s through this link with Egypt – and Heliopolis in particular – that we might find the deeper origins of the phoenix story. Heliopolis (or ‘City of the Sun’) was a big center of worship for the Egyptian sun-god Ra. The Egyptians had a sacred bird called the Bennu, a divine being that formed part of the soul of Ra. Predictably, the Bennu is associated with themes of creation and rebirth and may have been worshipped at Heliopolis as well. Seems probable that this strong link to the sun is what could have later led to the fiery nature of the phoenix. The Bennu bird looks more like a purple heron than the majestic, eagle-like form of the traditional phoenix, but I reckon it’s not too big a leap if you squint.
Back to the actual phoenix. Sorry, tangents. Can you tell I studied Ancient History? Totally putting that degree to good use.
In the clip above Peggy also mentions Pliny the Elder, another contemporary historian who records a ‘real’ phoenix presented to Roman Emperor Claudius (knocking around in the 1st century A.D.) but he rejects this ‘live specimen’ as an obvious fake. He gives us some more hearsay on the bird though, describing it as gold and purple over the body, with a long blue tail and a crest on the throat and neck. He tells us it has a sacred link to the sun (hello, Bennu origins?) and that when it’s time to die the phoenix will build a nest out of spices and perfumes, then lay down and die on it. From the nest a small worm emerges; the worm becomes a small bird, and then a full-grown phoenix. Still no fire.
Fast-forwarding a little to medieval Europe the story has morphed to include flames, and the echoes of both the Greek phoenix and the Egyptian Bennu run through it. Take this entry from the Aberdeen Bestiary (c. 1200 A.D.) as a prime example:
“The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, so called either because its colouring is Phoenician purple, or because there is only one of its kind in the whole world.
It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the flames for itself and is consumed in the fire.”
By this point in time the phoenix had become a popular symbol of rebirth across the world and in Christian and Jewish symbolism. Can’t tell you when fire became such a huge part of the story, though. Would be great if I could point at a specific record and go, “that one, guv”. Anyone out there got any leads on the subject?
Our snippet ends here, because if I go on any longer it’ll become an essay rather than a snippet. If you want to read more, there’s this book available through google.books preview that seems pretty interesting.
Thanks for reading; here’s hoping I managed to tell you something you didn’t already know 😛
(Warning! Spoilers ahead for Episode 14 of The Jack Hansard Series.)
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these Folklore Snippets, but I suppose Hansard hasn’t run into many beasties lately – or at least, no beasties inspired by our own, real world folklore. Hansard’s adventures have begun to take a darker turn and I’ve relished the opportunity to flex my horror muscles. Episode 14: Lament of the Lake features a monster of particularly macabre origins: the lake-dwelling, child-murdering kelpie.
This aquatic terror hales from the high peaks and ice cold waters of Scotland. Like many mythological water-dwellers, the kelpie has the ability to shape-shift and often appears in human form. But if you catch one in its natural guise, kelpies take the shape of a wild horse.
Usually, the human form of a kelpie is male – in most of the tales which were written down in the nineteenth century, at least. Later on, artists began painting kelpies as scantily clad maidens reclining on the rocks, much like the sirens of Greek mythology. You can put this down to either innocent misinterpretation of the stories, or the perversion of renowned artistes and their rich audiences. I know which one my money’s on.
Kelpies sometimes retain their hooves when in human form: a dead give-away to look out for if you’re in the habit of being chatted up by handsome lakeside strangers. Also watch out for water weeds and sand in their hair. Being Scottish, it’s natural that the kelpie inhabits lakes and rivers rather than the coastline. I suppose that makes it a freshwater monster. And monster it certainly is: a common theme to kelpie stories is the drowning of children.
One tactic favoured by the kelpie is to appear at the water’s edge as a beautiful horse; imagine a glossy coat and a shimmering mane. It entices both adults and children to ride on its back, and as soon as you are aboard the kelpie gallops into the depths. It may then eat its hapless victims, allowing their entrails – a lone lung or liver – to wash up on shore afterwards.
Sometimes, the kelpie’s trick is simply to let you stroke it. Who can resist a noble horsey gently nuzzling your hand? But then, much like what happens to Toby Everest’s poor son, your hand sticks fast to the horse’s coat and the kelpie drags you into the water. If you’re quick-witted, you might manage to save yourself from a watery grave by cutting your fingers off – and in some tales this is how the victim survives. But usually the kelpie claims many lives: the kelpie of Sunart is said to have taken nine children. This, and many more tales of tragedy attributed to a water-horse superstition, are compiled in John Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Thankfully, cutting off your fingers isn’t the only defence against a kelpie. There are a whole range of options for the monster hunters out there. You can outright kill one of the beasts by shooting it with a silver bullet, or, if one tale about a blacksmith is to be believed, merely poking them with hot iron will do the trick. If you can get the kelpie to appear in horse-form and find it to be wearing tack – that’s a bridle, saddle and other riding accoutrements to us non-horsey folk – remove the tack, and you’ve effectively disabled the kelpie, robbing it of its strength. Plus, that tack might have some nifty magic powers, such as turning humans into horses (or turning yourself half-kelpie, with the gift of second sight!). But what if your kelpie isn’t wearing a bridle? Have no fear – stick one on it! This would apparently capture the kelpie for your own amusement, trapping the creature in its horse shape and forcing it to obey your commands.
So what inspired the inception of this aquatic horror in the first place? The answer, I suspect, is so obvious it’s almost not worth pointing out. When you live in a place like Scotland, a landscape riddled with deep, unforgiving pools, it quickly becomes necessary to scare the bejeezus out of your children to keep them from playing too close to the water’s edge. Careless travellers who go for an ill-fated swim in a nearby lake get sucked into the rich body of folklore, and seeing as there is never a shortage of idiots, and Scotland certainly has no shortage of lakes, it’s a story that writes itself time after time and again.
So let that be a lesson to you, too: in all your wanderings, tread carefully by the lakeside, and be mindful of slippery rocks and treacherous weeds. And never, ever pet a strange horse by the water’s edge.
Moved into new house: Check.
Switched utility suppliers: Check.
Found new internet provider: Check.
Castrated unhelpful TalkTalk employees: Check.
Finally uploaded Episode 13 of the Hansard Series: Freakin’ CHECK!
I know it’s taken a long time, but it’s finally here. That was a ridiculous cliffhanger to be left on, wasn’t it? Everyone’s stranded in the Nether, Ang’s dying, Hansard and Jo are in mortal peril, something BIG is about to happen . . . sorry for the wait. The upside is that because Episode 13 was sitting on my laptop for so long, I’ve been tinkering with it for ages and it just kept growing – so it’s a good 2000 words longer than a normal episode. And it’s a fairly tasty installment: we get the first real insight to part of Hansard’s past; we finally find out what happened to Ang; and could it be that Baines and Grayle are involved somehow?
Furthermore, to help make up for the month-long silence, I’ve got some extra doo-dads to show you on the blog, including some bonus short stories and an interview with an author-friend of mine.
The world is full of thunder, though there isn’t a rain cloud in sight. You see the cannons before you hear them: a silent plume of fire and smoke, followed by the booming shock wave that sweeps across the battlefield, travels up my legs and rattles the shako on my head.
Behind us, our own guns return fire.
One of the Korporals has delighted in telling me, over and over, “Y’don’t see a battle. Y’hear it.” A sentiment which I understand to have originated from an officer of the 95th. And now I understand what it means. The white smoke drifts across the field like a thick fog. It passes in font of our battalion and for solid minutes we cannot see more than six feet ahead, let alone the French soldiers lined up on their ridge.
“Here comes Nosey!” shouts our Feldwebel. We turn smartly and stand to attention as Wellington rides by. Rumour has it that Bony was sighted holding afternoon tea on the other side of the field. Will we catch a glimpse of him before the day is out? He’s out there somewhere, hiding in those lines of French. Over two thousand of them, all lined up on their ridge, and us on ours, and all the while our guns are firing.
When the smoke thins there is no longer a line, but a column of French, at least ten ranks deep and advancing towards us in marching step.
Our boys ready their muskets and the order to fire is given. The sound is a crack through the air, and it cascades down the line in a rolling surge of smoke and flame. Another volley is called. Crack. Another, and another, and still the cannons boom behind us, and still the French advance.
The smoke thickens again – I am surprised to find it smells heavily of eggs. It clings to my throat, makes the very air feel heavy and grey. High above, fantastic smoke rings curl lazily against the sky, while on the ground the clouds crawl sluggishly around us.
And out of the clouds come the French.
“Fix bayonets!” comes the desperate call.
The lines clash in a riot of colour and noise and metal. French blue against the black of the Brunswickers to the right, and against the reds and greens of the Highlanders holding firm on the left.
We hang back with the supply wagon, distanced from the fray but hardly out of it. I risk a glance to my right. The same scenes are being played out as the battlefield stretches on, blocks of red fending off blocks of blue, cavalry diving in and out of the melee. The farms of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont are surrounded; my prayers go to the boys inside.
A shout and sudden chaos: a French horseman has broken through the line and advances towards us, alone. Is he insane?
I dive behind the cart – I am unarmed, but what French would care? Our bodyguard hastily draw their swords and surround us. The horseman isn’t mad after all; perhaps he’s just now realised he’s left his company behind. He turns tail and breaks back through to his own men.
The lines have separated now, the French retreat. Our volleys go into their backs. It’s time to advance.
I’m in position by one of the limbs of the cart, braced and ready. “Auf!” is the command I’m waiting for. We hoist up the cart and drag it forwards, ploughing through the waist-deep grass. It is like wading through prickly mud. Ahead, the army leaves a trampled void of flattened stalks where it passes. It will be easier through there.
At least, it is easier until we reach the bottom of our hill; now we start the climb up the next ridge.
“Halt!” shouts the Feldwebel. He is panting, and so are we. The black uniforms are hot and heavy, and the cloying smoke is still in my lungs. It’s nauseating. As I take a swig from my canteen, I spy the surgeon running towards us. His apron is bloody, and he holds an armful of empty canteens.
We can barely hear him over the roar of the guns, but his mouth frames the word: “Water.” We work as fast as we can, hauling the great jugs off the cart and refilling canteens as fast as possible. Any moment now we’ll be called to advance again, and we can’t afford to be left behind.
There is an almighty crack right beside us, and for just a second the world goes eerily silent save for the ringing tone in my left ear. As sound filters back I spy the culprit, a rifleman dealing with a misfire behind the lines. My muscles relax where they had tensed for flight.
As the surgeon withdraws, he is replaced by a lanky Brunswick Jäger. He doesn’t bother to salute, just opens his cartridge pouch and says with a grin, “Ammo please!” This is a job for the Quartermaster General – even with all that gold braid weighing him down, he’s a practical man to have on the field – the strongbox is unlocked, the black powder cartridges rapidly unloaded, and the Jäger sent on his way.
No sooner has he disappeared into the smoke another officer approaches. We have orders to resupply the Gordon Highlanders to our front and the 42nd to our left. Our relatively quiet corner of the battlefield is suddenly a squall of activity: we can’t pour water fast enough nor assign cartridges with enough speed. We hear that some of the men are completely out of ammunition. We can’t keep up!
And suddenly we are advancing again. With aching muscles we haul ourselves and our cargo up the slope, manoeuvring around bodies of French dead. It is chilling to think that I am walking across a graveyard. The sky overhead has turned an ugly grey.
Peering ahead, I can see a column of French backing away, huddled in on itself, harassed by cavalry and gradually being swallowed by the Highlanders. The Brunswickers advance on, over the ridge and to victory. The French are fleeing.
Our Brunswick motto rings in my ears: Nunquam Retrorsum. Sieg oder Tod.
Never Retreat. Victory or Death.
I look back, and see that we have walked a quarter of a mile from where we began. La Haye Saint lies in ruins; Hougoumont a burning wreck.
I cast my eye over the assembled dead. One of the bodies sits up, and takes a photograph.
The smoke is clearing, the booms and cracks have died away, save for the occasional puff of smoke as someone rids their gun of its last charge. We are approached by a group of weary French soldiers – Imperial Guard, I think – they wear ecstatic grins where terrified faces should be. We offer them some water: it is a long march back to camp, after all.
Bonaparte himself walks by us.
“They’ve left me behind!” he says, comically.
The night is drawing in by the time we leave the battlefield. I won’t reach my tent until midnight, and when I do I shall hit my pillow and sleep like the dead until dawn.
And then tomorrow night, we shall do this all over again.
And that, folks, is how I spent my holiday in Belgium – the reason I postponed the next Hansard episode. If you missed the news, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, portrayed with around 5000 re-enactors – I’m telling you, it was huge. I didn’t even have to exaggerate most of what is written above. The only real embellishments are the burning of Hougoumont (which happened in real life, but not during this re-enactment) and the order that some of the stuff happens in. It was loud, it was at times terrifying, and it was also awesome in the truest sense of the word.
The sheer sense of chaos is what I will treasure most. There were moments when my commanding officers were practically screaming at us to run into the middle of a square of Allied soldiers because French cavalry appeared to be flanking – because if there’s anything that a small, undefended unit dragging a cart don’t want to face, it’s any kind of cavalry. It was genuinely hard work, but it’s an experience I want to keep logged in my brain in as much detail as possible for future reference. As I was breathing in that strangely egg-flavoured black powder smoke, there was a big portion of my mind thinking, ‘I’ve got to remember how this feels so that if I ever want to write about a big battle with guns I know how to write it . . . ‘
But although that’s the closest I will ever come to experiencing what a real battle might feel like, I am very aware of how vanilla our experiences were – we were spared the gore and the shrieks of pain and the wreckage of a landscape. Most people were wearing a great big grin, like they couldn’t believe they were really there. I couldn’t believe I was really there.
And I couldn’t believe how many people died here, two hundred years ago. I looked out at the massed ranks of both Allied and French soldiers spread out before me, and knocked sections of them down in my head. Boom. You’re dead. Boom. You’re dead.
And at one point I realised: there are only about 5000 of us here. The historic battle suffered over 40,000 dead. I looked at this field filled with people and saw them all littering the ground; every one of us would be dead men. I’m not a praying kind of gal, but I gave my own private homage to the fallen. And of course there was the laying of wreaths and singing of hymns and other little rituals done by each regiment. I’m sure every individual had some little ritual of their own.
I don’t know what those soldiers would have thought of us here in the future, play-acting at what was probably the worst event in their lives. Grim thoughts like that can spoil this hobby, if you let them. The important thing is to temper our fun with respect, and to temper the spectacle with compassion.