I recently reposted a blog from Sarah Menary, a fellow member of the Rugby Association of Fictioneers. Her quote “A great teacher once told me that there are two types of writers: those that tell themselves a story, and have a great time doing it, and those that write for an audience, and don’t always enjoy it so much” and her question, “Ask yourself what kind of writer you are? Are you fighting to tell a great story? Or are you really telling your own story?” made me realise that most of the fun I get from writing is when I am not writing for an audience, but I am telling myself a story. Some of my difficulties recently have been because I’ve been wrenching apart and rewriting short stories to make them ‘suitable for publication’, and feeling that the stories have lost something – passion? heart? – as a result. But when I have an idea and it develops until I have an intense desire to put it onto paper and then read it back to myself – then it is (almost) the best feeling in the world! And it doesn’t matter if no-one else reads it, when I have it for myself.
Why are you writing? Are you struggling to produce something wonderful for others to read or are you happily telling yourself good stories?
We were given a task when we met, to write 500 to 1000 words ‘flash fiction’ purely for our own pleasure. Which reminded me of the first novel I started writing which is intensely personal, totally unpublishable, will probably never be finished and, if so, will only be published over my dead and lifeless corpse because no-one is allowed to read the whole story except me! So I had a fun time writing a bit of it.
You probably won’t enjoy it.
All you need to know is it is set in the 1500s, that the protagonist is trying to get to Rome to find the man she loves, that she has been helped by a strange lady called Madame Cantonne and a horse called Orlando, and that she has a talisman called a ‘heartstone’ in a pouch round her neck….
The climb over the pass into Italy was far higher, far steeper and had taken far longer than I expected. Dark shadowy bars stretched over the setting sun. A wind was rising and sweeping heavy black clouds across the sky. I shivered, and pulled my cloak around me. The narrowing path had crested a shoulder of rock between two soaring, craggy peaks, still white with the remains of winter snow. I peered through the deepening gloom down the long desolate valley, trying to see the inn that Madame Cantonne had described. Below me sheets of hail whitened the path and the boulder-strewn valley sides. I could see no people, no trees, no walled fields or even cow-byres, just rocks and patches of snow and frost-scorched grass. The hail was moving towards me. I turned, but the steep path behind me had had no shelter and it would take me several hours to scramble down it to the tree line. It would be night soon, and I would risk falling, losing the path, perhaps worse. I cursed the smirking villager at the crossroads who must have thought it amusing to send a young, lonely traveller up the wrong pass.
A gust of fierce wind crashed into me. I staggered, swivelled round to face into it, and saw, through breaks in the hail, a glimpse of a low solid-looking building almost a mile down the valley. It was grey stone, wide, tiled, and as I peered and squinted through the torrents of hail and snow to see it, I could make out dark, shuttered windows. Thank God, I breathed, hoisted my pack higher, pulled my hood as far over my head as I could, and fought my way, face down, against the gale and stinging hailstones towards it.
By the time I reached the building the wind was bitter, howling and lashing at me. The hail had turned into gusts of heavy snowflakes that swirled into my face and blinded my eyes. It was cold; deep, harsh cold; that ran icy fingers under my cloak and through my clothes, tracing sharp pangs along my skin. The sky was a furious blue-black heap of cloud and shadow. In the gathering gloom I staggered towards shelter. My hands and feet were numb, my breath came in shuddering gasps that drew freezing air into my heart and thickened the ice around it. I shook with hunger, exhaustion, cold, and as I drew nearer, with fear. The shutters were dark, the door closed. No gleams of light, no smoke gusting from the chimney and being hurled sideways by the gale. In the furious howls and skirls of the wind I did not expect to hear many voices from inside, but there was nothing. It was not a friendly, rescuing inn but merely a small, empty farmhouse or perhaps a shepherd’s hut. I fell on my knees. I wanted to sob and wail, but I forced myself to crawl to the door then forced my unfeeling, stiff fingers to open the latch. Thank God it was not locked.
Inside was empty. I pushed the door closed and lay on the stone floor, shivering, gasping, weeping. There was nothing. No fire, no people, no food, no warmth. Only rough stone walls, crude wooden shutters, a vacant grate, a bare table, a bench, a faint smell of dung and damp stone, and outside the relentless howling of the storm.
The remains of the light faded. It became utterly dark. I crept to a corner, huddled against the walls, pulled the sodden cloak around me and gnawed at my last piece of bread. Warmth was leaching away and I trembled so much I could barely get the bread to my mouth. Exhaustion overwhelmed me. My eyes closed for a moment, then I jerked them open. “Don’t sleep,” I muttered. “Don’t go to sleep. You will never wake up. The cold will kill you and you will never see Joshua again.” Tears like icicles scored furrows down my cheeks. I rose unsteadily to my feet and slowly paced around the room, running my hands along the gritty stone walls. Even though I had my flint and tinder, there was no firewood. Not even a few straws on the floor that I could burn. I walked as long as I could, then sank to my knees. Just a moment’s rest, my body pleaded. Despite the icy air, the throbbing weariness, the aching chill in my blood and bones, I could not fight against the urge to shut my eyes, let my head fall forward, let the last vestiges of warmth be pulled from me. As all feeling drained away my thoughts shrank to a single yearning for sleep. The last thing I remembered before the freezing dark enveloped me was taking the heartstone from the pouch around my neck and wrapping my hand around it.
In my dreams, Madame Cantonne stood on an ice-floe, surrounded by sleek black seals, and her words to me as I left, echoed across the green seas, “You will not be safe from pain or disgrace or injury. I promise you no safety. Only hope.” A pale shape moved across meadows of waving flowers. “Orlando?” I whispered. It neighed, and knelt by me, but it was not Orlando. It bore a great spike of twisted, glimmering silver on its forehead. “No…” I said. I knew the legends. “I’m not – not pure. I’m not. You should leave me.” But it pushed its warm, velvet-soft nuzzle against my hand. Damp, warm, as soft as my green velvet cloak back in England, as comforting as a mother’s arms.
I opened my eyes. Shards of light sliced the edges of the shutters and cast bright bars along the flagstones. The storm had stopped. In the silence I heard rooks and eagles calling. I drew in a deep breath. I was alive. Strange heat flooded me from my hand, as if the unicorn was breathing fiery air through me. But it was the heartstone. It was in my hand, radiating heat into my skin, my fingers, my blood. I stroked its faintly glistening surface and held it to my cheeks. It did not seem as rough to the touch as at first, and the tiny gleams of silver were bigger. Strange, I thought.
Suddenly I realised I was wrapped in a seal fur mantle and was lying on the thick pelt of some great bear or deer. I ran my fingers in wonder through the coarse hair under me, and over the fine, smooth fur of the heavy mantle. They must have kept me alive, that and the heartstone’s warmth. I looked around and saw, by the fireplace, a pile of logs and kindling, a jar, a bowl of apples, a large loaf and a hunk of yellow cheese. Had Madame Cantonne or Orlando come in the night? I opened the door. The empty valley was filled with sparkling snow and pale early morning sunlight like a glass of champagne, but the snow around the house was unmarked by footprints or hoof prints and no-one was in sight.