Category Archives: Writing

Dystopia, and Other Maladies

The genesis of Novel Number One, The Butterfly & The Bull, involved a sandy shore on the Chesapeake Bay, a beach hut, and a man running down a ravine. The story grew from that image, extending backwards in time to a beginning and forwards to an end. Early on in the process, it developed a dystopian tinge. I needed a backdrop to explain why the man was on the run. The dissolution of democratic, financial and social structures worked well.

In Novel Number Two, I used the same cast of characters, and employed stage 2 dystopia (on a ten point scale). It seemed like a logical progression.

When I began Novel Number Three, I started with a clean slate (or so I thought). Dystopia begone, I thought. The plot gestated in my head for months. A young man sets out on a perilous journey, driven by his sense of curiosity, and his genetic tendencies. A young woman does the same.

In the beginning, the story was set in the Scottish West Coast, in the present day. Try as I might, I could not make it work. The world as it exists provided too many distractions, too many potential rescue and support structures, too little opportunity for challenge. Eventually, I gave in and set the story in a dark future, after the collapse of world societies, after the chaos, warfare, disease and destruction have reduced the human population to groups of people who have managed to survive. I imagined groups of people beginning to reconnect with others and come to terms with a world which contains little or nothing of what modern society has come to take for granted.

Compared with novels and short stories I have read in this genre, my story has one major difference. The darkness has passed, and the future is not as bleak as it might once have been. In addition, the human population left on the planet behaves in much the same way as people always have, the good and the not so good.

On he other hand, the contrasts with our present-day world are stark. There are no billionaires or millionaires, no corporations, no governments, no utilities, no telecommunications. The list of things that are not there is almost endless. One outcome of all this absence is a natural world which is beginning to emerge from one of the worst eras in its long history. With the real possibility of a return to natural abundance, the survival of the human race rests on the ability of individuals, groups and communities to carve out a new way of living, to work together for a common good, and to relearn the art of survival.

In that context, the malady becomes the cure.


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The Arcane Art of the Critique

Critique (noun): an act of criticizing; especially: a critical (see critical) estimate or discussion (a critique of the poet’s work; an honest critique of her art).

There is a body of thought that considers the act of submitting your work for a critique to be akin to requesting that you be flogged in public. That seems like a harsh judgement, but I understand the sentiment behind it. After all, the very essence of the critique is that it should involve your precious work being poured over, dissected in fine detail, and commented on. Faint of heart, please do not submit.

Many writers do, though. Submit, I mean. The reason for this apparent masochism is that having your work critiqued is one of the finest ways to gain the insight and inspiration needed to improve your writing. Assuming, of course, that you don’t instantly tear the critique into tiny pieces, and then resort to rending your garment in despair.

What follows is a personal and random collection of thoughts on the art of the critique. Health warning: these should not be relied upon as a blueprint for critiquing the work of others. Though I am sure that will become obvious as you read on.

Never critique someone’s work if they have not asked you to do so. This is especially the case in the US, where you always have to bear in mind that many citizens have access to guns.

Always try to provide at least one positive comment in your critique, which will allow the author to cling to the last vestiges of her or his self-respect. However, you should be aware that following this by three hundred negative comments will almost certainly undo any good you might have done.

Detailed comments in the margin of the MS should never start with phrases like “You must… ,” or “You need to ..,” or anything else which could be interpreted as an order barked in a strident voice. A gentler approach is more likely to evince a positive response. Use phrases like “I would … ,” “You might consider … ,” or “Have you thought of … .” It is also appropriate to rewrite a phrase, sentence or paragraph to illustrate your point. Do not, however, even consider rewriting the entire piece. This is the writing equivalent of eating peas with your knife in polite company.

Never be tempted to comment “LOL” when you see a spelling mistake or a word used wrongly. Also resist the desire to say “FFS Edit your damned work before you submit it,” or anything in a similar vein. If you find yourself in this frame of mind, I can recommend the application of a fine Scots malt whisky as a remedy.

Always be specific and constructive in your comments. Phrases like “This is rubbish,” “Get yourself a thesaurus before we all die of boredom,” and “If I see another dangling participle, I shall have to pay a visit to Mr Shredder, and we don’t want that, do we?” should be avoided wherever possible. In the same way, describing the author’s plot as “puerile,” or remarking that his main character “Lacks substance to the extent of being invisible to the reader,” is bound to lead to heartache.

If your critique is related to the activities of a writers’ group, then you may also have to provide verbal feedback. It is preferable that this follows the general thrust of your written feedback. However, do not be tempted to go through your detailed comments line by line. This will almost certainly have the effect of inducing terminal somnolence in the rest of the group.

Finally, if the author has requested specific feedback on some aspect or aspects of the piece, do not be tempted to do anything but ignore her or him. Everyone else will, and you do not want to be responsible for breaking this fine tradition, do you?

Happy critiquing!

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Reference Points, and Other Sharp Objects

Over this past week, Juli and I have been spending most of our days editing. Not my writing, this time. We are doing it as a favor for a friend. It has turned out to be a salutary reminder of the of the importance of reference points, which anchor the process of writing in a common framework. It is, as I often say, all very well bending the rules, but you have to know what the rules are before you can do that with any degree of success.

Many moons ago, when I first started to write in earnest, Juli was my main reference point. With an English degree and a lifetime of teaching experience to draw on, she has a fine ear for language, character development and plot. She still edits everything I write. However, I developed a second string to my writing bow—the art of the critique. Through attending writers’ groups, and later running a group myself, I have had to sharpen up my knowledge of the “rules.”

In one sense, this has never been easier. Want to know when it is best to use a semicolon? Google it. Having doubts about the number and location of those commas you just sprinkled on your story? Google it. The problem is, as with everything on the Internet, what is and what is not a reliable source?

We all have to seek our own solutions on this one. For me, it was to turn to a style manual. I did due diligence. I searched, read reviews, looked at samples of manuals by various authors (Thomas Bernstein, Bryan Garner), checked out the AP manual (strictly for journalists), and studied a copy of Strunk and White (for upmarket journalists). I came to the conclusion that the Chicago Manual of Style was the one for me. Paired with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it provides the answers I need. It also has the major advantage of being widely recognized. It is a hefty tome (there is an online version, if weight is an issue) and costs about $50. The online version is available for an annual subscription of $39.

Of course, for the impoverished writer supping gruel and mumbling on a crust in her or his garret, such sums may be the stuff of dreams. In which case, I recommend the following site, run by the Capital Community College Foundation. It is free (although they do suggest a donation might be in order), comprehensive, and fully searchable:

Next time: The Arcane Art of the Critique

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How To Write Better (Part 2): Fighting The Flab

Now that those tenses jump to your command, punctuation is under control, and syntax lined up and saluting, it’s time to move your writing to the next level. In this exciting episode, and in Part 3 (which, strange to relate, comes next), you will find guidelines to help you achieve that goal. These are not items that have bubbled, unbidden, to the surface of the minestrone soup that passes for my brain. They are the distillation of the best advice from professional editors, authors and academics.

Fighting The Flab is the easiest way to tighten up your writing and make it stronger. It involves deleting words or phrases that are not essential. However, you should resist any temptation to take the easy way out and do this at random. The results likely be disappointment (see what I mean?).

Adjectives and Adverbs
Writing which is very, very full of nifty, sparkling adjectives can become exhausting for the poor reader. A good policy is to use no more than one adjective per noun and to make a habit of using none as often as you can.
Adverbs are in a league of their own. Nasty, lily-livered creatures which will sap the zing right out of your prose and leave it gasping for life. Deal with them by putting “ly” in the Find box in Word. Ignore the “ly” words that are not adverbs, and make extensive use of the Delete key as you go through the document. There will be times when deleting the adverb won’t be possible without an impact on meaning. In that case, find an alternative form of words. If you can’t do that, then you may just have to put up with leaving the damn thing there, but that should be a rare occurrence. Here are a couple of examples from The Butterfly & The Bull, a novel which I wrote before I knew better.

“The rain eased slightly and the malls of Huntingtown appeared, materializing obscurely.” vs “The rain eased and the malls of Huntingtown materialized.”

“He got up as he spoke. The action was totally unlike the John I knew. It reminded me of a panther, readying itself for the hunt. I suddenly found myself staring down the barrel of what I assumed to be Povey’s pistol.” vs “He got up as he spoke. The action was unlike the John I knew. It reminded me of a panther, readying itself for the hunt. I found myself staring down the barrel of what I assumed to be Povey’s pistol.” (The paragraph needs further editing, but we’ll come to that later.)

Really, just don’t
There are words that seldom belong in story-writing, because of their tendency to dither or dilute. Top of the list are: some, somehow, somewhat, almost, quite, just, (as in “he had just come to the table), very, actually, really. Words that have become worn out by overuse should also be avoided: stunning, beautiful, awesome, ultimate, literally, arguably, for example. Use the Find function and the Delete key to great effect here, too.

This comes in various guises–repetition of words, repetition of effects (like two sentences describing the same thing, or two characters described in the same way), repetition of emotion (showing the emotion and telling the reader about it at the same time), and plot-related repetition (like having several characters all playing the same role in your hero’s life, when all you need is one). Please note the repeated repetition of repetition in the previous sentence.
Dealing with repetition can be a challenge. At the end of this series, we will analyze a piece of work which contains the full range of flab, and all may become clear at that point.

Trusting your readers
Writers (novices, in particular) often overwrite in other ways. A visceral urge to make sure that readers see every action in HD and Dolby Audio, leads to a muddle of detail which has the opposite effect.
“The phone rang. Ebenezer stood up, pushed his chair back, turned and walked over to the phone stand. He picked up the phone. ‘Hello,’ he said.” vs “The phone rang. ‘Hello,’ Ebenezer said.”

Repetition (see above) applies here, too. If you describe two characters facing one another across a bed and then write, “Gertrude gazed across the bed at Englebert,” then you’re telling us more than we need to know. “Gertrude gazed at Englebert,” will do fine.

In the same way, describing a character with clenched fists and then telling us that she spoke “angrily,” gives us a double dose of information.

The “rule” that applies here is: be merciless when it comes to self-editing your work. Better to pare to the bone and add in where needed, rather than leave your prose hanging in folds of flab from its waistband.

Next up: Is your syntax showing? Are you telling when you should be showing? Are you committing the sin of head hopping? It will all be there, in How to Write Better (Part 3).

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How to Write Gooder (Part 1)

Writing is an art (if you didn’t know that – get out of here!). Like others of its kind, it comes with basic skills which have to be grasped before you can get down to the real business of creating your masterpiece. This includes a solid understanding of the Rules of Grammar.

“But I like to break the rules,” I hear someone say (probably the guy at the back of the class who spends most of his time lost in his smart phone).
“Well,” I say, “That’s excellent. Some of the most famous authors in history are rule-breakers. However. Be warned. If you don’t really understand the rules in the first place, then breaking them is more likely to create a dog’s breakfast than a work of art.”

When I published my first novel, I leaped, with the consummate enthusiasm of a newbie, into a wild attempt to sell it to a wider audience (see previous post: Marketing and Other Forms of Death).
One of my early blunders was to sign up for a forum which indulged in an authorial version of the “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” approach, much beloved by males in teenage encounters. This involved reading (and I use the term loosely) a range of self-published novels and reviewing them on Amazon. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was traumatised by this process. However, I did learn a number of useful things.

  • NEVER agree to review someone’s novel in return for them reviewing yours.
  • A limited grasp of high school English is not required to self-publish a novel.
  • The potential for well-meaning people to create awful stories execrably told is very high.
  • Authors (especially new authors) are liable to be DEEPLY offended by anything less than a five-star review.

Later, I took a more measured approach to the review process and had more success, both in providing and in receiving reviews which were thoughtful and honest. The underlying problem of thousands upon thousands of badly-written self-published novels remains, but that’s a subject for another post.

There is, of course, no way of guaranteeing that you will be able to write a good novel (or short story, or memoir, or whatever). In the same way as there is no guarantee that you will be able to paint a fine picture, or play the violin like a virtuoso. There are, however, some basic guidelines which can help you in your quest to create that elusive best seller, killer short story, or sought-after memoir.

What’s What?
Can you spot a verb at fifty paces? Do nouns announce themselves to you? Can you tell your adjectives from your adverbs? Would you be able to spot the difference between a gerund and a weasel? (Okay, that last one was a trick question). If not, then you’re going to be toiling with that modern-day version of Anna Karenina you have in your head.

Tense? What Tense?
I once met an aspiring author who declared “I’m hopeless with tenses. I rely on the writers’ group to keep me right.” Aye, right (as we Scots would say). Your chances of becoming a decent writer are small to negligible if you can’t handle those tenses. Present, past, past perfect and on and on. You need to know ‘em all. Otherwise, it’s Grammar 101 for you. There is no escape.

Punct; tu? a-tion.
Writing afflictions associated with this include: the Gatling gun approach to positioning commas, addiction to one’s favorite punctuation device (ellipsis, semi-colon, exclamation mark etc.) and the dreaded comma splice (for which I recommend the use of a marlin spike).

Syntax, Schmyntax
Syntax (n.): the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.
Along with tense, the ability to handle word order and sentence structure is crucial to the task. Most people who have passed high school English can make a decent stab at this. On the other hand, a novel written in high school English is likely to be a dreary beast. Developing a mature and innovative approach to sentence and paragraph construction is one of the first steps towards becoming an author rather than a dabbler.

Those may, or may not, be all of the basics. In any case, I must stop here and get on with writing my best-seller. In Part 2, we’ll move on to the meat of the matter and look at the gravy that’s going to give your story that special flavor that no other author can achieve.




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Weak Eye Noises

A good writing prompt should poke a sharp stick at the creative process. At a recent Portland Writers’ Group meeting (An Evening To Write, hosted by the inimitable Cathryn Bonica), one of the prompts did just that. At first, I made the mistake of ignoring its insistent jabbings and got on with revising a piece of flash fiction I’d written several years previously. However, about half way through the hour-long writing time, I found that I could ignore it no longer. Its blatant surrealism called out for a response.

The prompt was a line from an E.E. Cummings poem My Girl’s Tall With Hard Long Eyes:
“… the weak noise of her eyes easily files my impatience to an edge…”

With thirty minutes of writing time to play with, the usual staring at a blank space and seeking inspiration isn’t likely to yield much. I find that the best approach in these circumstances is just to write the first thing that comes into one’s head and then take it from there. Here’s what I came up with (unedited, typos and all, to give it that sense of authenticity). It’s only 353 words long, and the poor thing has no title as yet.

I admit it. The deafness of the stair carpet got my day off to a bad start.There is no solution for such things. No hearing aid for floor coverings. It had ambushed me with a sly, turned up corner. Bad enough, but it refused to show remorse of any kind when I yelled abuse at it’s carelessness. Spread-eagled on my dignity, saved by the banister. The coffee mug hadn’t been so lucky.

She was in the kitchen. Munching on toast and Marmite; reading Dostoyevsky, or Ivan Ivanovitch or Abdul Abulbul Amir, for all I knew.

“Enjoy your trip?” she said, without looking up.

“You need a new script writer,” I said. “And, next time, pay him enough so that you don’t live your festering life in a swamp of clichés and homilies.”

“Cat got your tongue?” she said.

“Wrong fucking cliché,” I said and grabbed a mug from the table.

“A stitch in time,” she said, “saves the spilled milk.”

I took the mug to the coffee pot. “But is fuck all use for spilled coffee and broken pottery,” I snapped and felt the edges of my sanity curling and darkening like an overcooked pancake.

“Ah,” she said. “There’s no point in crying over a broken seismograph. I wondered what that was about.”

I sat down opposite her, flowing bathrobe and gaping pajamas my only defense. She settled her half-eaten toast on a plate. The Marmite was a dark betrayer, ready to slice opinions like a honed knife. She laid down her book (the poems of E. E. Cummings I now saw) and turned to look at me. In the perfect silence of the moment, I heard the tiny, feeble noise of her eyes swiveling in the sockets of her skull.

“You’re doing it again,” I said.


“That thing that you do.”

What thing?”

“That filing thing.”

The silence drifted, a rancidity in the space between us.

Her eyes glistened.

“Get on with your breakfast, or I’ll take a chain saw to
your impatience,” she said.

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Marketing, and Other Forms of Death

It was one of those dripping hot October days in 2011. The kind of day that Southern Marylanders take in their stride, but us outlanders find hard to handle. Something to do with an aversion to having our body cells turned to a fluid which then leaks out of our pores. In a house by the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, I found myself surprised to be a button press away from publishing a novel. A moment to be savored. And yet, gut-wrenching in its own inconsequential way. In the excitement of the moment, I had no notion of the learning curve ahead, of the wasted hours which awaited me, of the mind-numbing Twittering that would be required, of the endless twaddle I’d have to read and the extent to which I would have to sell my soul to the Devil That Is Amazon. Just as well.

Self-published authors exist in the vacuum left by the traditional publishing industry as it charges onwards to the gods know where. There are legions of us, all trying to carve that little niche for ourselves in the cliff face of the Readership. A couple of my fellow authors in MD had achieved some success in this endeavor, and I took advice. “Blog, blog, blog and blog,” they said. “Then blog some more.” So I did (ish). “Tweet, Tweet, Tweet and Tweet,” they said. “Then Retweet and keep doing that until your fingers bleed and your brains begin to ooze out of your ears.” So I did (very much so) and things transpired much as expected. I also started a Facebook Page (which failed to thrive due to lack of attention), interviewed authors on my blog, took part in blog tours, indulged in giveaways on Goodreads, and numerous other things that I have long since blanked out. On the positive side, I met lots of nice people (online) and I sold a few books (but not many).

However. All of this Huge Effort for Very Little Effect was totally eclipsed by the outcome of my pact with the Devil That Is Amazon. All I had to do was to sign up with them for ninety days in an exclusive, binding, handcuffing contract which promised that I would do no business with any other publishing entity during that time. In return, I could promote my book by giving it away free for up to five of those days. Such generosity! Unfortunately, it worked (clever people, these Amazonians). During the first three-day promotion, The Butterfly and the Bull was downloaded about 1400 times and it got into the top 100 free books. From then, until the time I stopped all marketing in 2013 and got my life back, I estimate about 5000 free copies were downloaded. Not bad. And I did manage to chalk up 22 reviews during that time.

The sequel to TBatB, Flight of the Butterfly, has had no marketing whatsoever. After a few early sales, it has languished unwanted and uncared for in the deep. dark depths of Amazon’s sales list. Until this week, when my good friend Mitch Sturgeon announced that he had finished reading it and was ready to give it a review on Amazon. Good man, Mitch. I am inspired to come up with a new marketing strategy for FotB. What is that going to be? I haven’t a clue. Something that involves being able to put my toe in the water without being siezed by the Alligator That Is Social Media, I think.

Watch this space.


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The Eagle Dares


Novel number three. I’m more surprised about this than you are. After two thrillers, I’m indulging myself by writing a literary novel. At one level, it’s an adventure, a coming of age story. At another, it’s about nationhood, community and the survival of the species. Nothing too ambitious, then. The working title is The Eagle Dares. What follows is the prologue. First draft. Comments welcome. As always. If you enjoy it, please share it.

Who can tell what the eagle dares,
her DNA unwinding instructions
to muscle, tendon and pinion;
bi-ocular certainty
scoping peaks
heaved from Hell’s gate;
ice-scoured tops and corries
marching down
to a tiny arc of bay?


 This day of all days, he rose to meet the morning before it came to meet him. This day when he might be a free man again; when he might become a father.
He came naked to it, a pre-dawn tumescence already shrivelling in the chill; regret at leaving the shared cocoon of their bed stilting his zeal. In the anonymous darkness, boards creaked; clothes murmured; Catriona breathed sleep for two, beached on her back, resting after a night punctuated by contractions.
Down the threadbare stair, he scooped barrelled water, frost bitten from snow-melt lochans; prised reluctant feet into stiff boots; scuffled with a wayward door; and went out into the remains of the plush night. Not yet released from its permafrost, the path threatened to betray each footfall; the gate swung easy on oiled hinges; the road was a dark blur of crazed asphalt.
Standing on the gravel arc of the bay, he let his stream rush into green-stained stones. The moleskin nap of the loch stretched taught in its broad canyon, the mountains of Knoydart unresolved as yet. A dinghy, upturned flotsam from a winter storm, provided a seat. He began to roll a cigarette. First of the day, last of his life. That child had a lot to answer for, and her not yet born.
The scrunch of boot on gravel gave notice that he was not alone. He put the rollie to his lips; hoicked his lighter from a waistcoat pocket.
“Looks like it’ll be a grand day, Iain.”
No one else it could be.
“Aye, Rab. Are ye well this mornin’?”
The lighter rasped; its flame painted a tenuous image of two men who might have been father and son.
“Just grand.”
“And Catriona?”
“She’s very close, I reckon. Agnes will be on her way from Glenelg in an hour. Just needs the bairn to make up its mind, now.”
Iain rubbed the side of his face.
“Give her my best, will ye? Tell her I’ll be up to wet the bairn’s head once it’s all over.”
Rab nodded.
“I’ll do that.”
They looked out over the loch. Dawn’s outriders were creeping in. Iain’s voice fell soft in the emerging landscape.
“Any word from London?”
“Not a squeak. Even with the state of the post, they’ve had plenty of time by now to reply.”
Iain turned to look at him.
“Still not answering their phone?”
Smoke dribbled from Rab’s lips and he blew it, clean and long.
“Nope. Nor are the lawyers.”
“I’m thinkin’ we’ve seen the last of the Crocket family.”
“I’m thinking you’re correct.”
The older man’s focus drifted. An otter barked sharp alarm across the water and brought him back to the moment.
“Peg and I were tryin’ to mind the last time they stayed at the Lodge. Must be more than two years now. Apart from the time Terence came by. Him wi’ his ego inflated wi’ hot air and yon suit that must have cost more than you and I spend on food in a decade.”
Rab nipped the rollie and put the dowt in his pocket.
“He was a disgrace, him. Sins of the father, in my opinion.”
He stood up.
“I’ll let you know if I hear anything. In any case, we need to get everyone together and decide where we go from here.”
Each man went his own way as the sun raised mountains around them. Rab  headed back to the house. Catriona was awake. He sat on the bed, put his hand on the mound of her belly.
“How’s the lass?”
A grin.
“He’s fine. Wanting to get out, is my impression.”
He leaned forward and kissed her.
“The sooner the better.”
The exigencies of the day took over. He wakened the old, black stove from its slumber; topped up the soon-to-be-simmering kettle; made porridge. Agnes Macfie arrived in a stout bustle of tweed coat, brown hodden dress and midwifely accoutrements.
“I’ll away up and see her,” she said. “You’ll have the hot water and clean cloths to hand when the time comes.”
Rab saluted.
“Right ye are, Mistress Macfie. And I’ll bring up the croissants and poached quails in a wee while.”
Agnes sniffed and heaved herself up the stairs. Rab went back to the kitchen, added more peat to the stove, made tea and refilled the kettle. Water pipes groaned and twanged.
“’Hot water,’ the wumman said and hot water she shall have,” he muttered.
The mugs of tea felt like a peace offering. Agnes was plumping pillows.
“How’s she doing?” he asked.
“Fine. And she’ll be better wi’out you hangin’ around like a long drink o’ watter.”
Rab and his wife shared a smile. Conspiratorial.
“Aye, well,” he said. “See and let me know if you need help.”
Agnes shooed him out, a cockerel that had strayed into a forbidden section of the hen house.  He clattered down the stairs, arms flapping, tongue clucking, laughing at the anachronism that was Agnes. Lucky to have her, though. Driving eighty-four miles to hospital in Inverness sans fuel was a tricky proposition.
A mug of tea drifted with him into the parlour. Furniture gathered around like old friends. He’d been there at the inception of every one. Oak and ash, alder and gean. He was the axe-wielder; intoner of the blessing; the man who cried “hup!” to the horses; half the saw pit team. Later, he shaped the planks and limbs to the beat of Catriona’s imagination with adze and plane and sanding block. She the artist and he the craftsman. Symbiosis. A metaphor for their love.
He rested his head on the chair back, the lilt of the tea still fresh on his tongue, and minded when they had met.
Rab Stewart and Catriona Gallagher in Tobermory. Him: bed-warm and rumpled from a night with Shona (or was it Marie?); reeking from whisky, an endless procession of rollies and, no doubt, sex. Her: fresh and long-necked, scrunched up hair the colour of wheat and a smile to stop a man in his onward rush to self destruction.
He came haring down Back Brae, bunnet at a devilish angle, waistcoat half buttoned, shirt tail flapping a truce behind; turned into Main Street, by the craft shop, and ran into her. A moment more intimate than either of them might have desired. The sense of her, shoulder and hip, was a ghostly burn on his skin for days. Later, she confessed that the smell of him was the stuff of nightmares. His flustered apology and her gracious acceptance was all that passed between them. Except, that is, for an invisible alchemy, a quantum entanglement of the soul, that worked on them while apart and drew them together again; the stay-at-home green-eyed sculptress and the dark-haired wandering woodworker. The hearth and the wind.
She went with him in his home on the sea; sailing from port to port, anchorage to anchorage. In the end, though, the hearth cannot flourish on water. It needs a place to rest, dry and secure, where its flame can be nourished. He knew this and that it would become a wormhole in the complex physics of their love. This love that was a new and wonderful thing to him. He sailed them into Loch Hourn, to the tiny village on the arc of bay under the mountain; sought out his old friend Iain McKenzie.
“Last time I was here, you mentioned a job.”
Iain looked at him, half smile, half frown.
“Aye. It’s still available. It’s not something that’ll be of interest to you, though.”
But it was. He presented his new employment to her, along with the tied cottage that came with it, as a present for their first anniversary.
Agnes was on the move. The creaking of floorboards traced out her purposeful meanderings. The idiocy of giving up the smokes on such a day hit. He stretched, yawned; held his fingers up. Trembling. Shit. Not to worry. He and Catriona had a pact. She would override Agnes when things hotted up. He relaxed; tried not to think about the itching in his fingers, the crawling in his blood. A vision of strangling Terence Crocket drifted without consequence. He brushed it aside. The Crocket family popped up and marched around in his head: a parcel of rogues, right enough. He and Catriona had only been six months in the cottage when old man Crocket sent the village a big man called Ormroyd with a face roughly hewn from a turnip, a Saville Row suit and an accent that came from darkest Barnsley. He introduced the two thugs that came with him as his “associates.” He talked a lot about tenancy agreements, diversification and financial leverage, but the bottom line was clearance. Empty the houses and turn the place into a holiday destination. On the basis of Rab’s performance at the first meeting, he was elected village spokesperson. Ormroyd hadn’t been best pleased.
“D’you mean to tell me,” he’d bellowed, “that I’ve come all this way t’ middle o’ fuckin’ nowhere and for me sins I get to talk wi’ a fuckin gyppo? Or tinker? Or itinerant or whatever damn name you people go by.”
“I’m as surprised as you are,” Rab had replied, rolling himself a cigarette, “but I have to say that flattery will get you nowhere.”
The relationship had gone downhill from there. Ormroyd and the Crockets had clever London lawyers and bottomless bags of swag from decades of fleecing the unsuspecting and indulging in arcane financial skulduggery. The villagers, to their utter amazement, had a Secret Weapon. She was called Brigit: mountain rambler; kayaker; Edinburgh Barrister. Brigit was a regular visitor to the village. She stayed with the Torrances, who had a low flying bed and breakfast thing going on. It turned out that Brigit was to London lawyers as Global Warming was to icebergs. The threat of eviction melted away and transmuted into the War of Attrition.
Now, all that was history. The Crockets and their ilk were getting what they deserved. The Pan World Capitalist Dreamliner, minus its undercarriage and finally out of fuel after almost four centuries, had crashed and was ablaze. One way or another, everyone was caught up in the wreck.
Agnes was on the move again. A door opened. She came half way down the stairs, arms folded.
“She wants ye. Kens fine I don’t approve of men bein’ around at the birth, but she’ll no listen.”
He went up and left the Crockets to the mercy of the furniture. Catriona was sitting up in bed, She looked cool, relaxed; held out her hand. He took it and sat down. In her eyes: soft moss by the burn’s edge; the tantalising gleam of gold.
“You have a grand face, Rab Stewart,” she said. “One of these days I’ll get you to sit for me.”
He felt the lightness of the moment, the relief from the weight of events.
“Now, where on earth did that thought come from?” he said.
She laughed.
“I was just wondering who the bairn would take after. He could do worse than look like his father.”
“Och, away,” he said. “The lassie won’t be thanking us if she ends up with my conk, for goodness’ sake.”
Her eyes clouded and she sucked air. A contraction took hold and she held tight to his hand.

Outside, the land began its wakening from winter hibernation and drew warmth from an uncertain sun. The eagle cleared the ridge and felt the first stir of a thermal. She stretched feathered fingers, circled slow and easy. Underneath her, the mountain slope fell away to clinging stands of naked trees. Far below, the arc of bay glittered. Senseless to the events of people, she spiralled to her own genetic imperative. A movement on the rockbound track of a rushing burn caught her eye and she began the well rehearsed descent towards her prey.


Filed under Literary novel, Writing

The Bear Necessities

I wrote this short story for the Writers By The Bay group down in Maryland. They were having one of their themed exercises and very kindly invited me, as a former member of the group, to make a contribution. Simple rules – no more than 1300 words; must be a complete story; must have at least four lines of dialogue. The theme was Someone knocks on the door in the middle of the night.

Gavin The Hunter crouched at his table, lost in Jack London. Close by, a kerosene lamp pulsed; a wood stove throbbed; Fred The Dog twitched dreams of warmer days.  Outside, the wind was a hooligan, a madness roaring in the trees. It plucked at shutters, riffled through shingles; conspired with gravid snowflakes to obliterate the world. Cold was a constant, silent enemy that aimed for the heart and longed for the soul. Only an incontinence of heat from the stove kept Gavin and Fred from its clutches.

“Hey, Fred. You’ll like this,” said Gavin.

Fred opened an eye; assessed the situation for food content; decided that it was a bust and went back to sleep. Gavin had picked up the book and turned to face his audience.

There was a knock at the door. It was the kind of knock which has a ringing, wood-splintering quality about it. A knock to be heard above even the unholy racket of the storm; a knock not to be ignored.

“Hell and damnation. Who can that be? It’s the middle of the night, for Chrissake.”

Gavin laid down the book and picked up his old revolver. It was always there, within reach; often tucked in his waistband. He used it in the Summer for frightening off deer and shooting cockroaches.  In the winter, it got rusty and cranky from lack of use.

‘’On guard, Fred. Stand by to repel boarders.”

Fred opened an eye, though not the same one as before. Straining muscles was all too easy without careful attention to such details. He watched Gavin doing his imitation of an FBI agent casing the joint. It failed on so many counts, including the fact that the man was wearing a heavy wool cardigan and a pair of disreputable canvas pants. At least this time he made it to the door without falling over his feet.

The opening of the door felt like a betrayal and Fred lifted his head.

“Shit!” said Gavin.

The doorway was filled with bear. Grizzly bear, male, ten foot tall and wearing epaulettes of snow.

“Not quite the welcome I was expecting from a neighbor,” said the            bear. “I was hoping more for an invitation into the warmth of your home.”

Gavin looked the bear up and down.

“You’re not selling something are you?” he said. “I hate salesmen.”

The bear spread his arms.

“Do I look as though I’m selling something? I mean, d’you think I have a vacuum cleaner stored up my butt? Get a grip, man! Apart from anything else, who comes selling things at night in the middle of fucking winter?”

Fred was beginning to feel he might have to intervene. The cold was sneaking round the bear and joyfully insinuating itself, unable to believe its luck. Gavin saved him the effort and stepped to one side. The bear ducked his head, shuffled in, closed the door.

“You can sit in that chair,” said Gavin, indicating a substantial piece of furniture. “It was built for my Dad in the last few years of his life. He must have weighed about the same as you.”

The bear grunted; sat down.

“Got a beer?” he said, holding his paws out to the glowing stove.

“Sure,” said Gavin. “And would you like a sandwich as well?”

“Absolutely,” said the bear. “I could eat an Elk, antlers first and without any mayonnaise, I’m so hungry.”

Gavin stomped to the fridge, muttering. Fred put his chin on his paws and closed his eyes again. No good could possibly come from over-exertion in such a situation, he thought.

“Anyway,” said Gavin, handing the bear an open bottle of local brew called Moose Piss and feeling relieved it wasn’t Bear Poop or some other name which might be considered inflammatory in the circumstances, “Aren’t you supposed to be hibernating?”

The bear took a long pull at the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of a huge paw.

“Yeah, well. I learned a lesson this year, I can tell you. Never rely on those cheap Walmart alarm clocks. The damn thing went off three months early, didn’t it? And there I was wide awake and with full-blown PHS.”

Gavin put down his beer and raised an eyebrow.


“Post Hibernation Syndrome. Characterised by excessive dry mouth, disorientation, devastating hunger and an overbearing urge to eviscerate anything that gets in your way.”

“Right,” said Gavin. “My last girlfriend used to get that all the time.”

“Harharhardehar,” said the bear. “Anyway, I bet she didn’t get as disoriented as me. Couldn’t find my way back to the cave. And here I am.”

The tableau of Man, Bear and Dog in Rustic Cabin in the Forest was beginning to fade. Gavin pumped up the pressure in the kerosene lamp. In its newly invigorated luminescence, dusty corners of the dwelling emerged as if from a fog. The bear found itself staring at the head of one of his kind, nicely mounted on an oak backing and hung just above head height. He blinked, twice, and then looked at Gavin.

“What did you say your occupation was, again?”

“I didn’t,” said Gavin. “I’m a hunter. You know, pelts, moose meat, that kind of thing.”

The silence which followed amplified the erratic timpani of the storm.

“Maybe you’re not aware of my Latin name,” said the bear.

Gavin looked blank: his default expression. Fred wondered if the moment was sufficiently grave to justify sitting up. The bear leaned forward.

Ursus Horribilis,” he roared, and sprang at Gavin in full PHS mode.

The evisceration was spectacular, both in its speed and its thoroughness. Within seconds, the room was festooned with digestive tract and internal organs and a great pool of blood was sending out feelers into the dusty depths of the cabin .

Fred was sitting up.

“That was a bit previous. If you’d waited a minute, I could have explained that the bear’s head on the wall is made from faux fur cunningly cut and sewn by an eccentric aunt of Gavin’s. It was the only thing she left him in her will.”

The bear slumped back into the chair.

“He said he was a hunter,” he growled. “I took him at his word.”

“Bad mistake. Mostly, he talks shit. In any case, he couldn’t hit a barn door at five paces with the wind in the right direction.”

The stove no longer glowed; cold seeped in round the edges of the cabin. The bear glowered.

“Get some fucking wood on that stove before we freeze our asses off, there’s a good boy.”

Fred lifted his front paw and looked at it.
“Unless you’ve developed an opposable claw, buddy, I think we’re stuffed as far as that’s concerned.”

The bear roared and lurched towards Fred on all fours. The dog was ready for him and, moving with a speed which would have stunned his master, he leaped onto the table, onto the bear’s back and sank his teeth into the great backbone, just below the neck. He bit down with a ferocity born of genetic diligence. The bear collapsed: grizzly monster to hairy rug in seconds. Fred stepped off; took a long drink of water from his bowl; licked blood from his fur. He sauntered to the wall of fire wood which was stacked at the back of the room, chose a log and took it to the stove. With a deft paw action, he opened the stove, pushed the log in and closed the door.

He lay down to await the return of comfort.

“Looks like nothing but bear meat on the menu till Spring,” he said, and closed his eyes.


Filed under Bears, Short story, Writing

In the Maine, Community Banks kick ass

I confess. It is eight months since my last post. I am a lapsed Prolific. Since then: I’ve been home to Scotland; decided (with my loyal wife and life companion Juli) to move from Southern Maryland to Maine – six hundred miles and a climatic climactic away. Now we are near to family, who can share the care needed for our almost ninety-year-old parents/parents-in-law. Even if we still have to do the bulk of it, at least we can see everyone most weeks and it doesn’t involve an eleven or twelve hour journey. Now we live in a house which is all on one level. We’re still in the woods, but we can see the trees. And New England has some pleasures for us that we hadn’t realized.

Here is one out of many.

All over the US, there are community banks which still focus on what banks ought to focus on – the needs of customers and the security of their money. These banks weathered the 2008 crisis and its aftermath with the consummate skill of the good sailor. No toxic loans for them. No silly selling of unwanted or undesirable financial products. Just good, solid, sensible business, with the customer at the forefront.

Here in Freeport, we found three local banks which have a long history in the area. We chose, mainly because it was closest by about half a mile, the Bath Savings Institution. The local branch is modern, friendly and competent. It offers everything the twenty-first century customer needs, plus you get personal service and the sense of being part of a family. But the thing that really sold it for me was the fact that they decorate the interior of their building with pictures of old sailing ships. Plus, wonder of wonders, our debit card has a tall ship as its background. What’s not to like?

Bank of America (and others), eat your sad, greedy heart out.

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Filed under Writing