Tag: The Wolf and His King

Word By Word

I’m currently working on line edits for The Wolf and His King, my ‘Bisclavret’ retelling. Line edits, for me, are a multi-faceted process of nitpicking absolutely everything. This includes the grammar and rhythm of sentences, and I’ll read the whole book aloud to check for accidental rhyme, awkward alliteration, and repetition, because the feel of the words in my mouth is at least as important as their literal meanings. It’s also the part of the process when I research a lot of the fine details. Some people prefer to do their research earlier in the process, but for these kinds of details, I find it’s only worth doing them once I know a scene or line is sticking around, and therefore whether it’s worth going down the rabbithole.

Several rabbits on a hill riddled with their tunnels. A white hunting animal, perhaps a dog, enters one of the tunnels. The two rabbit on top of the hill appear to be having a conversation. Marginal illustration from a psalter.
Medieval rabbitholes:
British Library, Additional MS 42130 (The Lutterell Psalter), folio 176v

But rabbitholes, there are many — and my general interest in medieval literature and the world of its characters means I’m not inclined to read only the bare minimum to grasp a concept, but have a tendency to learn a lot more than is strictly necessary. At one point, I wanted to refine a metaphor but I needed a better understanding of how medieval people understood the universe, so I read an entire book about medieval science for the sake of a handful of words about constellations. Currently, I’m reading a whole book on knightly education and the literate culture of medieval courts to make sure everybody in the book knows the correct amount of Latin for their status and role. You get the idea.

Then there are the briefer queries, like whether a plant is native to the area, which usually prompts a Wikipedia dive. Every time I mention an animal, I check medieval bestiaries to understand better how medieval people would have thought about it, and to give myself the option to include some of those weirder ideas in the book itself. (Weasels can raise the dead? Sure, why not.)

A major part of my nitpicking, however, revolves around language and etymology, and I’ve found myself bookmarking the online OED for faster reference. (The advantage of being both an author and a PhD student is that I get full access via my uni login; truly, the university library has enabled so much of my research.)

I had to set out my own rules before I embarked on this. My characters are not speaking modern English — they live in alternate-universe 12th century Brittany*, and so are probably speaking a mixture of medieval Breton, French, and Latin, depending on the context. As such, there’s no point being too fussy about exactly when a word was first attested in English. But my rule for myself is that I need the concept to exist, and etymology is usually the first step to discovering the answer to that, especially if I can find a solid Latin or Anglo-Norman root for a word or idea.

*It has a king. Brittany was a duchy in this period.

An early casualty of this process was the figurative use of “purgatory” (“the endless purgatory of waiting to be discovered”); turns out even the restricted theological use of purgatory is just ever so slightly too late for me, with our very own Marie de France probably being responsible for its use in Anglo-Norman French, c. 1190. This would probably have been fine, if I meant it in the purely theological sense; I’ve deliberately not pinned this novel to a specific year, even if in my brain it’s somewhere in the 1170s, and I figured a 20-year anachronism was no big deal. The figurative use, though, didn’t seem to enter French until the sixteenth century, and four centuries is an entirely different kettle of fish; after a lot of pondering, I swapped it for the simpler torment, with a flag to come back to the overall sentence to see if I could re-work it.

Then, a more recent challenge: focus. This one tested me. Of course medieval authors and audiences would have had a concept of directing your attention to a specific thing, or concentrating on it, but focus would have meant something quite different to them — its earliest use seems to have been a term for a hearth or fireplace. Its more scientific use as a fixed point at which point light or sound converges is a seventeenth century one, and therefore our modern use of the term was pretty significantly at odds with what it would have meant to a medieval audience.

Did that matter, though, given that the concept of “specific thing you are looking at” must have been around for as long as people were looking at specific things? This was difficult to answer, and it was while I was grumbling about this word and how many times I seemed to have used it (or variants) in one of my writing groups that somebody asked the crucial question, the one that helped me pin down why I was doing this in the first place: “Is there a reason this novel needs to be etymologically accurate?”

Slightly facetiously, I answered, “I want the book to be good and historical detail matters to me.” And this is true. I want it to be good, and historical detail does matter to me. I’m a pedant even when I try not to be, and have been repeatedly jarred out of historical fiction or TV shows by anachronisms.

But although those anachronisms sometimes relate to words, it’s not usually just about the attestation date: it’s usually about the social ideas and concepts that are being expressed by those words, and whether those existed. I got annoyed at Netflix’s Bodies for using the term “homosexual” in 1890, two years before it was coined in English, not primarily because the word was anachronistic but because the entire concept of homosexuality represented a massive shift in queer history and how what was previously ‘behaviour’ started to be understood as ‘identity’. As such, it wasn’t just a word that wasn’t around in English yet, but an understanding of the world and a specific theory of human nature. (They probably would’ve got away with it, except that I was re-reading Halperin’s 100 Years of Homosexuality the same week that I watched Bodies. Bad timing for them/my enjoyment of that strand of the show.)

And when I’ve grown frustrated with other medieval-set novels, it’s rarely the language that’s the problem, but the mindsets: the modern attitudes towards touch and intimacy; the lack of religion in the background (and foreground) of everyday life; the way ‘good’ characters are ‘progressive’ in ways that align with modern values but rarely make sense for their context; the attitude towards clothing — and by extension often to women’s work of weaving and sewing — that speaks to a modern fast fashion mindset and not a world in which every scrap of fabric represented hours of labour…

So I thought about it a little more, and I realised it wasn’t really historical accuracy in terminology that was important to me. What mattered was that the work of weeding out these linguistic anachronisms also served to weed out lazy cliches in figurative language where I’d fallen back on a set phrase that relied on a modern understanding of the world — an understanding my characters wouldn’t have had. What I actually wanted to do wasn’t to write a linguistically correct pastiche of the twelfth century, but to represent the viewpoint of my characters: their perspective of the world, their understanding of the plot, not a modern understanding of those same events.

I doubt I’ll ever fully succeed in this aim, both because I’m a long way removed from the twelfth century and because I hail from suburban London, which means I’ve spent much of my life somewhat distant from nature and the rhythm of the seasons and the land. Nor do I think a wholly medieval mindset would suit the story I’m trying to tell, which is, after all, intended for a modern audience, and is using medieval literature to think about concepts that trouble me as somebody living in the modern world. If it were purely a medieval text, there would be no point me writing it, because that text already exists, and Marie de France wrote it. The whole point of a retelling is that it’s doing something new with a story, and striking different resonances, some of which its original audience might not have heard.

But every time I find a word that relies too heavily on a modern concept, challenge it, and reword every sentence that it’s in, I think I’m untangling some of the assumptions that my characters will see the world the same way that I do, the same way that my readers do, and express it in ways that are familiar to us. I’m forcing myself to consider how my own mindset as a writer is shaped by modern science, as well as by the specific branch of Christianity that I grew up with — although I didn’t have a secular upbringing, it was a very twenty-first century low-church Protestant environment that would be completely alien to a twelfth century Christian, and as such, I keep accidentally being heretical.

(This will be the next stage of the historical nitpicking: the Heresy Read, in which I will consult my friend who works on medieval hagiography and generally knows more about medieval Christianity than I do, to check that any heresy in this book is there on purpose. Heresy, you see, can be present for valid plot or emotional reasons, but only when it’s done secure in the knowledge that it is heretical, and not just because I have to be periodically reminded that saints are a thing.)

And so every time I spot a word that looks a little too scientific, or relies on a modern understanding of emotions or relationships, or which otherwise rings the little bell in my head labelled “possible anachronism?”, I get out the OED, and I look it up, and I start my research journey: Meanings and uses. Etymology. Anglo-Norman and Latin roots. Alternative words that might be older. New ways in which I might get across this concept that are completely detached from this phrasing.

Just as I occasionally stop myself, think, “Is it feasible that people would go to a specific location to drink and socialise when brewing was, as far as I’m aware, more or less a home industry and ‘taverns’ as a concept aren’t really around yet?”, and then make a note to research history of brewing and social drinking for the sake of ensuring one scene takes place in a historically plausible location. Because I know that’s the exact kind of detail that would bug me if somebody else got it wrong, and therefore, in the interests of not being a hypocrite when I bitch to my friends about something I’m reading, I owe it to myself to do as much research as I can.

I will never catch everything. I am relying on my background as a medievalist to have correctly labelled those possible anachronism? bells, and it’s entirely possible some will not sound when they should. But every word I look up brings me a little closer to understanding how my characters might have experienced and expressed things, and that matters — just as every rabbithole I go down on the larger issues, like education, flags new things to include which I hadn’t even thought to look up. (My marginal notes now include several injunctions to ADD MORE MUSICIANS!)

It’s a slow process, but bit by bit, word by word, concept by concept, I am making something of this book that is more medieval, and by doing that, making it more creative, more challenging, and less reliant on cliches and borrowed turns of phrase. It is forcing me to be deliberate about the language I use, and it’s making me a better writer by doing so.

Or at least, I think it is. Eventually, I suppose, we’ll find out if you agree.

The Wolf and His King will be published by Gollancz in 2025, and is available to pre-order now.

Stitching The Details

There’s a phenomenon — I’m sure you’ve experienced it — where you’ll learn a word that you’re sure you’ve never heard before and will probably never hear again, and then almost as soon as you’ve learned it, you start seeing it everywhere. It’s like a conspiracy: the world knows you just learned that word, and now it’s in every newspaper article, every blog post, every conversation with friends, and you find yourself wondering how it is that it took you so long to learn it, when clearly it’s everywhere.

I would like to propose that a version of this phenomenon exists for research. You’ll embark on learning about a topic you knew nothing about before, and as soon as you’ve got a little bit of information about it, suddenly you’re noticing that information everywhere, and wondering how it is that you never paid attention to it before.

In my case, the topic is medieval fashion, and specifically, twelfth-century clothing. This is a period I work on as both an author and an academic, but as a literature-focused researcher rather than a historian, I rarely find myself worrying too much about concrete, material details. This is a weakness when I have my author hat on, though, and I suddenly find that material culture matters a lot and need to go figure out the architecture and what any of my characters are wearing before I can proceed.

I’m currently editing The Wolf and His King, a queer Bisclavret retelling I originally drafted in 2019. It’s quite literary in style (partially in second person and partially in verse, for starters), and focused a lot more on the metaphorical resonances of werewolfism (which I’m using partly to explore ideas about chronic pain/illness) than on the exact practicalities. Still, those who know ‘Bisclavret’, one of the lais of Marie de France, will know that clothing is a crucial part of the story: Bisclavret needs his clothes to transform back into a human, and when they’re stolen, he’s trapped in wolf form until they’re restored to him.

The centrality of clothing in the story meant I couldn’t brush over it as an inconsequential detail in my novel, though of course I did in the early drafts, because I never layer in the important details until way too late in the process. Clothes are not incidental: they are fundamental to the plot. And although Bisclavret, and by extension this novel, is not set in a very specific identifiable year — it seems to be set in a version of Brittany onto which Marie is projecting a lot of Anglo-Norman cultural details; for starters, it has a king — I wanted that clothing to be historically plausible, even if accurate is a rung further up the ladder that I’m not exactly on right now.

A manuscript image of a woman writing at a sloped desk. She holds a pen in one hand and a knife in the other (for erasing mistakes). She's wearing a simple veil to cover her hair, and a loose overtunic without sleeves, revealing the dark blue sleeves of her undertunic.
Marie de France, as pictured in BnF Ms. 3142 (late 13th century)

I started with YouTube videos by reenactors. While I don’t find videos a particularly useful way to learn most of the time, this is one area where they really shine. “Get ready with me, twelfth century edition!” will demonstrate far more clearly how many layers people are wearing, how they’re put on, how they’re fastened, and which parts of the clothing need a second person to help with them, than any lengthy treatise in text will do. As well as reenactors demonstrating their twelfth-century fashion, there were others digging into the manuscript images and sculptures to provide visual references to other reenactors to help them understand the styles of the time — references that any passing author might also find beneficial.

I knew, theoretically, that I would need manuscript images and other visual evidence, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea what manuscripts to look at, and with the loss of the British Library’s digitised collection, I wasn’t even sure where to start with looking for digital images, since I’m not very familiar with other libraries’ interfaces. So these videos were a great shortcut to understanding the resources I would need to work with, and giving me the basic information. From there, I was able to progress to books and other written descriptions — now that I had a picture in my head of what the terminology referred to, I could follow the descriptions in a way that I hadn’t been able to when they were all very abstract to me.

Since then, though, I’ve been seeing clothes everywhere. Every time I see a manuscript image, I find myself looking at the sleeves and the headgear, trying to guess what century it’s from before I read the caption. Scrolling on Tumblr, I ran across pictures of a reenactor showing off her latest outfit, and found myself going, “Ooh, those buttons look quite fourteenth century,” before checking the tags and determining that they were supposed to. And when reading a book that lavished descriptions on the character’s newfangled dress and its buttoned sleeves, I was able to side-eye it for being about a century early with those. Six weeks ago, I would not have noticed that, and I would not have cared.

14th Century buttoned sleeves on a men’s cotehardie, via Project Broad Axe

Or, most obviously, I was at the Fitzwilliam Museum with my mum earlier this week, and we were in the medieval art gallery. “Look,” I’d say, pointing to a manuscript image, “that looks a bit like the clothing I’ve been looking at, except slightly different hair and headgear.” Lo and behold, very early thirteenth century.

I suspect this newfound knowledge will make me very boring when reading historical fiction and watching TV/films — now I have a whole new thing to be annoyed about! As though grumbling about a TV show being two years early with the term homosexual in English wasn’t pedantic enough!* — but it’s also given me access to a whole new world of art history. While I’ll probably never be super invested in modern art history, as a non-visual person, I understand much better now what we can learn from pictures and sculptures, and I have something to look for when examining those artworks that allows me to understand them in more depth than just a casual “hehe funny medieval image”, or whatever I was doing before.

In fact, I so much can’t stop noticing the clothing on every medieval image I look at that I’m starting to wonder how on earth I managed to know nothing about medieval clothing until now — and how my vague guesswork when writing the early drafts of this book managed to be so far off the historical reality. (In my defence, though, I usually work on Ireland, and stories set in the very distant past, and in any case, trying to use Táin Bó Cúailnge to understand Irish clothing would have you thinking people often wore 27 shirts simultaneously.)

But it’s not just the visual depictions of clothing that I’ve found myself paying attention to — it’s also the descriptions in romances and stories. I was recently rereading Yvain, as you do, because Yvain is my favourite cat person, and I came across a scene in which he is dressed in fine clothes by a maiden, who fetches a needle and thread and sews his ‘shirt’.

Many of the terms I’d come to recognise from my clothing research were absent from the translation, which referred to a ‘shirt’ and ‘pants’. Fortunately, I happen to own a copy of Yvain in Old French (who doesn’t, amirite), so I could check the terms used in the original: chemise and braies. Ah, I thought. This was why I had mistakenly assumed everyone was wearing trousers and had forgotten we were in a tunic-dominated world. There’s nothing wrong with the translation of ‘braies’ as ‘pants’ — actually, I think it’s rather good, since it kind of works in both UK and US English, with braies in this period being somewhere between underpants and trousers. But the image that ‘shirt and pants’ created in my head was not one that resembled any of the manuscript images from this period.

A medieval manuscript image showing three men. The man on the left is wearing an orange tunic which has been tucked up into his belt, revealing light-coloured underwear tucked into green legwear that has been laced to the top of the underwear (fastenings not visible). He wears a light-coloured cap to cover his hair. In the middle is a man wearing a blue tunic, a light-coloured cap, and seemingly nothing on his legs. On the right is a man stripped only to his braies -- loose underwear rolled at the waist, falling to mid-calf, with the bottom hoiked up and attached to the waist. He is also wearing a cap, despite being shirtless and bare-legged.
Braies in the Morgan Bible (13th Century)

And as for the sewing…

I had never understood the sewing. I had skimmed straight past the reference to sewing, assuming vaguely that maybe there were some repairs or tailoring needed before he could wear this ‘shirt’. It didn’t occur to me that this could be part of putting the shirt on. But one of the things I learned during my research was that the tight sleeves of the nobility, in this world before buttons as fastenings or elasticated fabric, would be sewn every time they were worn. What I was seeing in this text, suddenly, was the material culture casually referenced in the literature in a way that I hadn’t previously had the knowledge to perceive.

Chrétien, of course, sees no reason to explain what this means. He’s not writing for an audience 900 years in the future; unlike a fantasy author trying to make sure their readers can follow the worldbuilding, he doesn’t need to say, “And then she sewed his sleeves in the tight fashion favoured by the nobility, demonstrating his high class and the regard in which she holds him,” or whatever, because he doesn’t need to. His audience would have understood that. I, until very recently, didn’t, and as such, the literary texts alone couldn’t teach me how clothing worked.

Back, then, to Bisclavret, and to The Wolf and His King. It became apparent that I would need to rewrite all of my clothing descriptions, but that should have been a simple edit, a mechanical change. Except, of course, that some of the clothing I was now looking at would have required a second person to help with it, and in several of these scenes, Bisclavret got dressed alone. Some would be easier to resolve than others, but it wasn’t the logistics that caught my attention about that — it was the symbolism.

In ‘Bisclavret’, as in some other French tales like Guillaume de Palerne, clothing is significant as the mechanism by which humanity — and sanity, with which it’s often conflated — is bestowed. Bisclavret is able to be human when his clothes are restored to him. Yvain, recovering from a period of madness in the woods, becomes conscious of his nakedness and clothing is needed to fully restore him to society. Guillaume and his beloved (I’m sorry, I don’t know her name in French, I only know her from the Irish Eachtra Uilliam, where she’s Melior — I assume it’s something similar) can be sewn into the skins of animals as a disguise (sewing again!) and therefore functionally become animals, temporarily, but their humanity is eventually perceived not because their skin becomes visible through gaps in the stitching, but because their human clothes are visible through the gaps.

A marginal illustration from a medieval manuscript, showing a deer with a person's face visible in its stomach and their human feet replacing the deer's back legs.
A person dressed as a deer. Roman d’Alexandre,
Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 70r (14th Century)

I knew this, which is why I knew that clothing was too significant in this story to be treated carelessly in my retelling of it. But I hadn’t thought about the implications of needing those clothes to be sewn by somebody else, or at least laced (potentially possible to do alone, but extremely difficult, especially if you’re not hypermobile like me and can’t bend your arms in weird directions). How this ensures that humanity and identity must always be granted by somebody else: created and validated by the observer. If humanity requires being dressed, and being dressed (for a high-class character) requires somebody else’s help, then humanity is also dependent on that other person to deem you worthy of it and participate in that act of recreation.

And when I put it like that it seems… well, obvious. In my own work on gender, I’ve explored how this is culturally contingent and dependent on external observers to recognise and validate behaviour and belonging. I think this is one of the reasons that the Cú Chulainn of Táin Bó Cúailnge has such a complicated and embattled masculinity: he’s alone (except for Láeg) for most of the text, defined by opposition rather than by community or society. In his case, this overlaps significantly with his humanity and the way he walks the boundaries of the monstrous. (If this interests you, I have an open-access article on the subject.)

So of course Bisclavret can’t be officially and fully human until he’s seen and recognised as human by others. I just hadn’t realised how much the act of getting dressed — not merely the act of being dressed — was a part of that.

As well as providing me with some potent fodder for angst, metaphors, and symbolism in my creative work on this story, it raises questions about the lai itself. In the early part of the tale, Bisclavret transforms in secret. How, then, is he getting dressed? Is he wearing lower-class clothing with loose sleeves and simple lacing, and therefore sacrificing some of his noble status to maintain secrecy in the act of becoming human? Is there an unnamed and unremarked servant who knows his secret, and helps him? (That could be a story in its own right.) Is his clothing, and therefore his humanity, always partial — does he return dishevelled with unsewn sleeves and wonky laces and need to have them discreetly fixed before he’s seen by anyone who matters? (Again, the unremarked servants come into play…) Is he, in fact, hypermobile and capable of managing his own fastenings, even the most awkwardly positioned ones? (I am in your medieval texts, diagnosing everyone with hEDS, muah ha ha ha.)** Or is Marie’s imagined Brittany and vague fantasy past an area in which everyday clothing logistics aren’t applicable?

I don’t have answers, and I also wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume I’m the first person to have thought of this. Unlike medieval Irish literature, where any deviation from a small list of well-covered topics will mean you can rapidly find yourself plumbing the bibliographic depths and emerging only with an obscure reference in a racist book from the 1880s, if you find anything at all, medieval French literature is abundant with scholars and readings of these tales from all sorts of directions. Quite possibly somebody has examined the lais from a ‘fashion history’ perspective, and drawn conclusions about what the characters must be wearing to make the story viable.

Even if they haven’t, having seen those references in Yvain to a maiden sewing Yvain’s clothing for him, references I skimmed straight past until I understood what was being described, it’s clear to me that these stories are describing, using, engaging with the material culture of their day and assuming that their readers know what they mean. Perhaps we were always supposed to assume that Bisclavret had somebody in his confidences who was helping him obtain his humanity — in which case his wife’s fear of him may also be betrayal, because he trusted somebody else with that knowledge and not her. Or perhaps we were always supposed to read into the types of clothing he might have been wearing to be able to manage alone, and how this in itself represents a subversion of the natural order because it isn’t what a baron and knight should have been wearing.

What I know for sure is that learning about medieval clothing for the purposes of writing fiction has revealed something about the stories themselves that enhances my academic understanding of them — once again, storytelling and scholarship work together. When I get inside the story and try to tell it from the inside, I understand better why it looks the way it does on the outside. I begin, temporarily, to wear the clothes of its authors, and to understand how the seams were sewn.

And I will be forevermore irritated by the anachronistic use of buttons in fiction. That too.

*Although in defence of my pedantry, the coining of the term homosexual and the shift to thinking of sexuality as an identity rather than a behaviour was actually pretty significant in the development of queer history, so having a character be accused of ‘homosexual’ activities in 1890 felt like a glaring anachronism. Bodies would probably have got away with it if I hadn’t been rereading Halperin’s 100 Years of Homosexuality that same week, though. [back]

**I don’t really believe in diagnosing fictional and historical figures with things but if I were going to, the fact that Cú Chulainn is notable for the way his knees bend backwards, he wakes up too quickly from sedation, and he needs a special hard bed or he can’t sleep… yeah that boy is hypermobile for sure. [back]

NB: Medieval clothing is, as we can see, a topic I’m new to. If there are any errors in this post, or you have any suggestions for further reading on the topic of how clothes are used in romances and lais, please let me know in the comments.

Storytelling and Scholarship

Today, I wanted to talk in more detail about something I tweeted last week:

Recently, I finished the first draft of new book. Provisionally titled The Animals We Became, it’s a literary fantasy retelling of Math fab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi — perhaps more familiar to most people as the story of Blodeuwedd.

My first exposure to this story was, not unusually, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which I read when I was probably eight or nine. I had a fever at the time and became utterly convinced that Blodeuwedd was inside my (flowery) curtains, since when the light shone through them — as it did during the day, something only somebody ill and home from school would have noticed — some of the flowers clustered to look like a person. This obviously had an irreversible effect on my psyche and I’ve had a particular affection for this story ever since.

Most of my engagement with the Fourth Branch has been creative rather than academic. In 2012, I was trying to write a steampunk retelling of it. In 2014, I had an owl carved into my harp and named the instrument Blodeuwedd. In 2019, I started exploring queer interpretations of certain elements and wrote a poem called “Gwydion” that first expressed some of the ideas I was working on this novel. I knew I wanted to write it as a novel (I still have all the messages I sent my friends yelling about it, and rereading them having written it was fascinating, because I absolutely did what 2019!me wanted me to do), but it wasn’t until recently that external factors prompted me to take the concepts I’d been playing with and get on with making a book out of them.

But although I have a non-academic love of this story, I’m always coming at it from the point of view of a medievalist and a Celticist who did study medieval Welsh at university and has written essays about the Four Branches. That background informs my writing — and my writing informs my academic approaches, and helps me better understand the source material.

I am not a medieval Welsh expert and would never claim to be. I have long joked that I write creatively about this story because I don’t feel qualified to express those same ideas in academic articles, and this is a different way of presenting my interpretations. But I have learned so much more about the Fourth Branch from writing Animals than I could have expected, and the conversations it has prompted with one of my closest friends (who is a medieval Welsh expert) have been incredibly rewarding.

This is not the first medieval retelling that I’ve written. Most similar to this one is my 2019 novel, The Wolf and His King, which has recently been languishing on submission: a queer literary fantasy retelling of Bisclavret, one of the lais of Marie de France. Before that, I drafted To Run With The Hound, a retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad from their training together until their final encounter. (This one has been waiting over four years for me to figure out how to edit it into something I like, and I think I’ve finally figured out a way of doing that, but lack the time to do so at present.)

These are all fairly ‘close’ retellings of their source material. They aren’t transplanting the story to a modern setting, but take place in a semi-fantastical pseudohistorical version of the real world (Ireland, Wales, Brittany), like the original tales. Generally speaking, I haven’t changed the plot. I have filled in gaps, expanded on details omitted or referenced only in passing, and dug deep into character emotions and motivations to change the emphasis placed on plot points, but I have kept the story itself almost the same as the original.*

I have written more creative retellings before — Bard, one of my YA projects that has been shelved and unshelved and re-shelved again multiple times,** is a sci-fi Arthurian retelling set in a former prison colony in space, and merges details from half a dozen different medieval stories rather than retelling any particular tale directly. I had fun planting Arthurian Easter eggs throughout it, some of which are reasonably obscure, but the plot is largely my own, albeit taking inspiration from broader Arthurian themes.

I really enjoy the creativity involved in transplanting those details in a ‘loose’ retelling like that. There’s something extremely rewarding about exploring how I can reference them within the setting and context so that they make sense but are identifiable for those who know the source material. But I don’t find it informs my academic interpretations in the same way, so I’m going to focus on the ‘close’ retellings today, and specifically, Animals and TRWTH.

(I think it’s funny how all of these retellings are very concerned with bodies and beasts, and their working titles give it away. It’s all just Creatures over here.)

I drafted TRWTH in late 2018, which meant it was only a few months after handing in my undergrad dissertation, which was on Táin Bó Cúailnge. As a result, I went into it fairly confident that I knew my source material about as well as I was ever going to know it, and certainly well enough to write the book.

But of course the book immediately starting asking me questions that I’d never had to worry about in my academic work. My academic focus wasn’t on dindshenchas (the lore of placenames), so I’d never had to worry too much about the geography; now I had to know where events took place, and how characters got from one to the other. I hadn’t been particularly concerned with the timeline of events, because I was looking at themes instead; now I needed to know how long everything lasted, and when it happened. I’d been looking at individuals; now I needed to know roughly how many people were in the armies, and that meant doing maths.

Practical questions, questions I’d never asked myself, but questions that taught me something about the scale of the story I was working with.

Then there were the character questions. I wanted Láeg to narrate most of the second half of the book, because he was the only viable candidate other than Cú Chulainn himself, and I wanted the slight distance from him. But I didn’t know anything about Láeg. I didn’t know where he was from. I didn’t know how he’d ended up being Cú Chulainn’s charioteer. I didn’t know how old he was, or whether he had any Otherworldly traits of his own, or what his relative status was…

As soon as I started writing Láeg, I needed to know those things about him. And once I started looking for answers, I realised they were a lot more complicated than I would have anticipated, and also that Láeg was a lot more fascinating than anybody seemed to have realised, given how little had been written about him. Which is how I ended up doing an MA about Láeg mac Riangabra, because, well, somebody had to do it.

A photo of Finn (a white person with a shaved head and orange tinted glasses) holding up their thesis in front of an ivy-covered wall.
That moment when you research a novel so hard, you end up with another degree.

With TRWTH, then, it was mostly a case of my needs as a writer requiring academic research to back them up. Yes, my writing certainly informed my academic work — I began to notice doubles and parallels I might not have paid attention to if I hadn’t been wondering how to make certain scenes less repetitive, and I had a much better sense of the text as a story rather than as disconnected parts to be used for analysis — but on the whole, the two threads remained reasonably separate.

The Animals We Became has been slightly different, but I’ve learned at least as much from it.

I knew a lot less about the Fourth Branch going in than I knew about Táin Bó Cúailnge (although there is also less to know, it being a much, much shorter text). I wanted to keep it that way to start with. One of the reasons I haven’t been able to edit TRWTH is because my academic feelings about the text have been interfering with my creative processes — I knew the pacing was wrong, but didn’t know how to fix it without deviating further from the source material than I wanted to; I knew certain interpretations were academically dubious, but I was resting a plot point on them and didn’t know how to change it, etc. So I decided to do things differently with Animals, and put my creative intentions first.

This meant that during all my planning, all the notes I was writing to myself about the themes I wanted to explore and the characters’ motivations and emotional arcs, I didn’t reread the story. And I didn’t read anything that any academics had said about it. I let my intentions guide me, and only when I knew what I wanted to achieve on a narrative level did I go back to the text itself, and start looking at the details.

But once I started looking at the details…

I mentioned above that I have a close friend who specialises in medieval Welsh. She’s also one of my beta readers, and generally gets live updates whenever I’m writing, well, anything, and this has meant I have been constantly in her DMs this past month Learning Things About The Fourth Branch. Fortunately for everybody involved, she has also been reading up on them recently for teaching purposes, and as such, we Learned Things simultaneously — and that turned out to be the best possible way of learning them.

A Discord message reading "hello I have a welsh question". It is the first message to be sent on 23 February 2023, showing that it's out of the blue.
It’s really useful to have nerdy friends who will explain grammatical mutations in Welsh on demand, I’ve gotta say.

For me, coming to the story from the point of view of somebody trying to write a book about it, my focus has been fairly broad, but often practical: how does this story work? Which aspects of its fundamental themes support the fundamental themes that I am exploring? How do I want to interpret [ambiguous element] in order for it to work, narratively, within this new context? The result is that I find myself paying attention to things that aren’t necessarily academically significant, and which I might not have noticed before, but which are going to be important to my retelling.

Some of these were on a macro level, looking at the structure of the story itself. My plans for this book developed in part out of an observation about the circularity of the story (Gwydion, a man who was punished by being turned into animals, is the one to punish Blodeuwedd with transformation into an owl) and from there I only noticed more circularity, more parallels, more events doubling back on themselves and repeating over and over again. It is a story where everything in it gives birth to everything else in it: consequences and doubles, all the way through.

Other observations were on a micro level, tiny details. The hair colour of a character, and what that implied about kinship. The fact that the only sentence in the entire story where we see what Lleu is thinking is when he is a small child, and we learn that he loves Gwydion, because he has nobody else. The importance of pigs. (Okay, honestly, this is a macro level thing, considering how pigs are one of the running themes in the Four Branches and they show up so much. I did not really notice the pigs before this. I now comprehend that the pigs are very important.)

Discord messages between two users whose usernames have been blacked out with coloured squares. Green user says: "i'm thinking about little baby lleu at court who loves gwydion more than anyone else because gwydion is the only person who acknowledges him and like. actually looks after him". Blue user says: "NOOOOOOO" with a sobbing emoji. Green user responds with the same sobbing emoji.
We might both be unduly emotional about this one.

And some were simply practical questions: what was the difference between two spellings of a character’s name? Where was a certain place? (This is where having a friend who knows the recent scholarship well is helpful — they can quickly tell you why some use Arianrhod and some Aranrhod, and what interpretations each of those spellings support, and then all I have to do is decide which one better suits my purposes.)

Breaking down a story into moving parts so that you can reconstruct it as a novel is a great way to notice what those moving parts are — details you might otherwise have dismissed, or ideas you hadn’t realised showed up more than once, or even new ways of interpreting plot points.

And when you know that your friend is building something academic out of those parts… well, many times this month I’ve brought a piece to my friend and said, “Hey, what would you do with this?” or “Would this support your argument that X is Y?” or “How does Z fit into everything?” and the resulting discussion has not only helped me decide how to write the book, but helped her with an article she’s planning, which has been awesome.

Screenshot of Discord messages reading "FUCK. FINN CAN I BORROW THAT. I WILL CITE YOU IN MY ARTICLE I PROMISE."
I very much look forward to this article’s existence.

Because that’s the joy of working creatively with a text that you also know academically. The creative work prompts you to break it down in ways you wouldn’t when analysing it, and put emphasis on things you would otherwise overlook, and in doing so, offers a brand new way of looking at it — one that isn’t counter to academic readings, but which helps inform them.

And that’s also the joy of collaboration: creative questions prompting academic answers, academic questions prompting creative answers, different perspectives on the same story resulting in breakthroughs in both directions.

Academically, I suppose what I do with texts is ask questions of them, and look for the answers within the text. Creatively, what I do is create the answers, and I’m not necessarily asking the same questions. But it’s part of the same process: it’s about trying to understand the story on a deeper level.

After drafting this book, I understand the Fourth Branch and its themes in a way that I would never have done without writing this book. I even have opinions about academic discussions of it that I wouldn’t have had if I were purely engaging with it as an academic. And I’ve been able, because I’ve been thinking about it creatively and almost coming at it sideways as a result, to offer new insights to friends focusing on it academically, connections they might not have drawn.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I know enough about medieval Welsh to write or collaborate on an article about it to present some of those insights academically, but I certainly feel like I understand it on the level of story in a way that I didn’t before. And the academic insights offered by friends have given depth to the book, too, allowing me to tease out connections and themes that would’ve been easily missed.

And that’s one of the reasons I love writing retellings: because it allows me to bring together my creative and academic identities, my medievalist interests and my writing experience, to enhance both. I don’t have to choose between them, because they are aspects of the same thing. They are both ways of understanding stories, of getting inside stories to figure out what makes them tick, of figuring out what makes them what they are. If there’s a difference, it’s that academic analysis goes from the outside in, and a retelling is more like working from the inside out.

Academic, creative, and transformative approaches: all of them are about breaking down a text into its moving parts, and then figuring out how to put them back together again.

And, yes, sometimes my creative work leaves me with deep-rooted though minimally supported textual interpretations that I will not budge on (for example: Gwydion is ginger). But frankly, I’ve read enough 19th century scholarship to know that people have made far wilder claims for far worse reasons, so I don’t intend to stop doing this any time soon, either.

I don’t know what the future holds for The Animals We Became — nor, indeed, for To Run With The Hound or The Wolf and His King — but I hope, one day, to share these stories with you, and in doing so, offer a new way of looking at these texts, this time from the inside out.

*One exception to this is that I chose to keep Gronw alive at the end of The Animals We Became, because it better served the themes of the story I was telling. This is the only actual plot change I made, although I made other additions, expanding on gaps in the narrative. [back]

**I haven’t decided if I’ll go back to this book. In some regards, it would make a good follow-up to TBA: it has its dark moments, but it’s a more hopeful book, and might provide a good bridge to lighter-hearted YA. But I don’t know if it’s where my passions lie these days, and it would require a LOT of editing. Only time will tell, on this front. [back]

You can find out more about my research on the ‘Research‘ page of my website, which includes links to any of my published articles that are available online. But if it’s my creative work you’re here for, you want the ‘Books‘ page. Neither The Butterfly Assassin nor The Hummingbird Killer have anything to do with medieval literature, but I still wrote them, so you might enjoy them.

What is YA, anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes a book YA. I write both YA and adult: in June, I was editing a YA book; now, I’m editing an adult book. I also read both YA and adult, but although I’ve stopped tracking my reading in any great detail and therefore don’t have stats to hand, I would suspect that I’ve been leaning more towards adult books in recent months.

This makes sense: I’m 25. I’m an adult. I’m worried about things like finding a job and being able to afford rent and the fact that I’ve hit the age where a bunch of my school friends are getting married and some of them are having babies — on purpose. The further I get from school and teenage hormones and so on, the less relevant YA would be to me… or so you’d think, anyway.

But there have been a fair few conversations recently about how that’s not necessarily the case, since there’s a huge adult readership for YA books. And again, this makes sense: people like a particular type of story, they enjoy the pacing and themes, they keep reading it. One of the side effects, as has been pointed out over and over again, is that since those adult readers have more money and buying power than the teens the books are written for, they end up being the people the publishers market to, and YA starts skewing older and older…

There have been a lot of discussions about how to “fix” that phenomenon. Breaking down YA into more categories, for example — because realistically, 13-year-olds and 18-year-olds aren’t looking for the same thing from fiction. These lower/upper YA divides exist, but they’re rarely labelled or demarcated. Others think the problem is that NA (New Adult) didn’t take off as a category — books about and aimed at the 18-25-ish age range — so those readers are looking to YA to fill the gap.

I’m not here to suggest any solutions, or to point out more problems. But I have been pondering what this means for my own work.

Most of my YA has always sat slightly uneasily within the category. It’s upper YA, aimed at older teenagers, and some of it would fit firmly into the “crossover” category, where you would expect it to appeal to an adult audience too. While I have some projects that I think are more firmly YA, I also have others where I’m not sure where they fit, and it gets harder once they’re speculative. The age of protagonists is often a good indicator, but while a book about seventeen-year-olds in a contemporary school setting is probably going to fit neatly into YA, a book about seventeen-year-olds in a fantasy society where that’s considered to be an adult might not.

Take To Run With The Hound, for example. This retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge that I drafted in 2018 has a young protagonist — in fact, both main characters are children at the start, and one is only 17 by the end (the other is 21). But nothing about it feels YA. The characters are that young mainly because that’s (roughly) the age they are in the original stories/myths, but what those ages mean in context is wildly different from what they mean to us in modern society. While the book might appeal to some teen readers, it’s not written for teen readers, and YA’s dominant themes of identity formation, “first” experiences, growing independence, and so on aren’t present/important in the story.

More difficult is the YA book I was editing last month. I know it’s YA, but I also know it fits neatly into the crossover space, and sometimes I find myself second-guessing elements of the teen characters. It’s a fairly dark book, with a lot of trauma and violence, and sometimes I wonder if I’m contributing to the whole “YA books that are really for adults” issue. And yet… I wrote the first draft of that book when I was eighteen. I created that character when I was sixteen. She has been shaped and reshaped and drastically rewritten in the years that have passed, to the point where it’s hard to see how much of that original character is still there, but when I reread the first draft I’m always struck by how much the “vibes” have stayed the same, despite nearly every plot point changing. And those were distinctly teenage vibes, because I was a teenager.

A selfie of me at eighteen. I'm side-on to the camera, sitting with my knees up. I have a slightly messy pixie cut and glasses with a red and black plastic frame. I'm wearing a blue and red blanket poncho over a long-sleeved shirt and jeans; I'm hugging my knees with one arm.
Me at 18. Although I will acknowledge that (a) I haven’t aged much and (b) I still wear that blanket poncho daily.

But most YA is written by adults, and in any case that book is as much the product of 20-something me than of teen me, so that can’t be the standard I judge it by. How can I tell what’s YA and what isn’t? How do I know if my teenage characters are realistic, or if I’m writing mini adults and simply claiming they’re sixteen? I often read books and think absolutely nothing would change about the plot or characterisation if a character were aged up by 10 years, and in fact it would probably make it more believable. I don’t want to write those kinds of teen characters, but I also know very few actual teens, and having been a weirdo even when I was a teenager myself can make it harder to judge what teen behaviour looks like…

The themes and messages of the book are, I think, a huge factor in determining where it stands in terms of age category, but even there it can be tricky. The novel mentioned above deals strongly with wanting to have control over your own body/life, rather than having adults/parents make decisions for you, which I think is something that a lot of teenagers can relate to. It’s certainly something that was born of my own experiences as a seventeen-year-old grappling with chronic pain and mental illness. The adult book I’m editing now, a retelling of Bisclavret, is also about wanting control over your own body/life, but from a very different angle. Similar theme, different vibes, and I’ve never thought of this book as anything other than adult. Why? What makes one different to the other? Some nebulous, hard-to-pin-down vibe? It can’t be the sex scenes, because I’ve read YA way more graphic than my poetic fade-to-blacks…

A few days ago I stumbled upon an outline I wrote this time last year for a possible future project. Not a completely new book, but an attempt to ‘rescue’ a shelved one — a book called The Knight Shift that I put aside c. 2016 after realising it was fundamentally flawed in a way that couldn’t be fixed. This new outline didn’t attempt to patch up the original storyline, but it took elements of it and wove a new plot around them, in a way that both fixed the original problem and made a much more interesting and socially relevant book.

I looked at it and thought, Oh, that’s quite good, actually. I should write that.

A selfie of me, holding a practice longsword with a white nylon blade. I'm wearing a grey long-sleeved top and I have short dark hair.
The Knight Shift revolved around a secret society of modern-day knights, so my brief adventures with HEMA in 2016 would have come in handy for accuracy in the fight scenes.

The book is, once again, an upper YA book. The main character is a fresher at university, so she’s 18 and probably turns 19 during the book. Her closest friends are 17/18 and 19/20. The themes include independence, trying to forge your own identity away from your parents, and figuring out which of the principles and beliefs you’ve inherited are ones you want to keep (or even fight for). Arguably, it also uses the YA cliché of “no adults believe that something’s wrong, so the teenage protagonist has to fix it themselves”.

But, since the book is set at university and not school and many of the characters are legally adults, I found myself interrogating my gut feeling that it was YA. Did it need to be? Was that the most useful category for it to be in?

I found myself coming back to a comment I’d made to a friend upon rereading the outline: “the one flaw in this plot is the idea that exposing corruption and violence would ever actually stop it … I feel like for a YA novel, you kind of have to pretend that it would, but in reality, would it?

Because here’s the thing. We have all these YA books in which plucky teens stand up to corrupt governments and dystopian regimes… and it works. And yet if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few years (and particularly the last 18 months), it’s that very often, exposing corruption and violence does absolutely nothing. “Plucky teens” stand up every day for gun control, climate action, clean water, justice, and so often nothing happens. Oh, the government’s selling weapons to regimes that enact human rights abuses? Nobody’s stopping them. Ministers are breaking the exact rules they themselves implement? They have a mildly embarrassing day on the internet and continue with their lives. It feels like there are no consequences.

But that would be a bleak book — and dare I say it, an adult book. A literary novel might say there is no hope. A military SF novel might say we can only hope to kill them before they kill us. A poignant historical novel might say, some tragedies are unavoidable.

A YA book… maybe a YA book should tell us that change is possible.

Tweet by Marcus Vance (@MarcusCVance) from July 4, 2021.

"Scifi books:

MG: My classmate is an alien!

YA: No adults believe this is an alien so I have to beat it alone

Hard SF: Let's learn from these dead aliens that aren't quite dead



This post was inspired at least partially by this breakdown of SF categories, and similar tweets.

I’m not saying that YA books should lie to their readers. Not everything in real life has a happy ending, and it would do teen readers a disservice to suggest that in a YA book, evil should always be defeated. When I was a teenager, patronising me was absolutely the way to make me put down a book and never pick it back up. There has to be nuance, and there is space on the YA shelves for sad endings, bittersweet endings, characters who don’t always succeed. And yet I also think YA fiction is about empowering younger readers and teaching them that the world can be changed — that they, through their actions and voices, can change the world.

The outline I wrote had a bold, brave, eighteen-year-old protagonist whose principles and love for her friends led to her changing the world for the better, because when nobody in authority seemed to be taking action, she did it herself. And that, I think, makes it a YA book. Because although I didn’t sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to write a novel that Empowers Teens™,” that is a huge part of what the genre does, particularly the more dystopian/fantasy/thriller end of the spectrum.

I could age that protagonist up and change the setting slightly, but I don’t think it would make the book an adult novel, because the themes and tone of it are firmly part of that YA “coming of age and standing up to authority” kind of genre.

In the end, I don’t think there’s always a clear line between age categories. Of course there isn’t. People mature at different speeds, and have different life experiences and perspectives. What might seem “precocious” or, conversely, “immature” for one character could be somebody’s reality — some eighteen-year-olds are working full time and living fully independently, while some twenty-five-year-olds live with their parents and still have to be home by a certain time at night to avoid worrying them. But what makes or breaks which category a book most belongs to is rarely the protagonist’s birthday, or whether or not they’re at school — it’s the themes, and the character’s place in society, and the approach the book takes to grappling with those.

So I don’t know if I’ll ever write the book that outline was for, although I think it would be interesting. But if I did, it would be as a YA book. And the process of figuring that out has been useful to me in working out what it is that makes some of my books YA and some of them adult, even when the ideas at the heart of them overlap. I still don’t know exactly what the difference is, but I know that it’s there, and I guess for every new book I write, I’ll just have to make that decision all over again.

Or, alternatively, I’ll keep writing weird nonsense that doesn’t neatly fit into a box (“genrequeer”, as I like to call it), and let beta readers/my agent/future editors decide what genre and category it belongs to. Because I’ll be honest with you: I am bad at labels and boxes and categories, and I absolutely 100% overthink all of them.

Still. If I didn’t overthink things, this blog probably wouldn’t exist. So here we are. Sorry / you’re welcome (delete as appropriate).

If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee.

This Year In Writing

For many people, 2020 hasn’t been a particularly productive year, which is entirely understandable. It’s hard to focus on anything when the world’s falling apart around you, and for those with kids suddenly at home 24/7… well, I’m not surprised to see a lot of writers tweeting about how many deadlines they’ve missed this year, and how difficult it’s been to get words on paper.

For me, it was a little different, and that’s not because I was having a great year (I wasn’t) — although I recognise that being furloughed with pay for several months and having no caring responsibilities did put me in a comparatively privileged position. For a few months there I had a taster of what it would be like to be a full-time writer, being paid to stay at home and work on books, and the result was that I wrote 236k in six weeks. But that wasn’t because I was lacking in anxiety — if anything, it’s because I was too anxious to stop. As long as I was writing, I wasn’t thinking, wasn’t checking the news, wasn’t seeing the Covid figures tick higher and higher, and it became my best method of preventing myself from endlessly doomscrolling on Twitter. So I just… wrote obsessively.

My seemingly productive coping mechanisms aren’t necessarily better ways of dealing with anything — avoidance can only take you so far, and I had a couple of months of doing nothing except lying in bed being a depression slug. (Because it turns out, after you’ve attended the livestreamed funeral of somebody less than a year older than you, it becomes a lot harder to pretend reality doesn’t exist anymore.) But they do look, from the outside, like I’m managing okay. I think that’s why I’ve been finding myself a little reluctant to talk about what I’ve achieved this year, in case it makes others think I’ve been unaffected by the chaos in the world, or gives off the impression that I’m looking down on those for whom quarantine wasn’t a productive experience.

Because I’m not. I’m well aware that everyone copes in their own way, and barring my summer of lying in bed doing nothing except feeling kinda sad and exhausted, this happened to be how I dealt with things. It worked for me, it wouldn’t necessarily work for anyone else, it is what it is.

So, I figured as a kind of recap, I’d tell you what I’ve been working on this year.

April-May 2020: Bard, draft 3

Bard is a YA sci-fi Arthurian retelling that I first wrote in 2016 and rewrote in 2018, set on a former prison colony in space. This third draft was a last-ditch attempt to see if it was salvageable, but after some thought, I’ve concluded that it probably isn’t. It clocked in at 134k and by the end of it, I just wanted it to be over. Don’t get me wrong — this book has potential. It has some characters that I love and some ideas that mean a lot to me, and I particularly enjoyed how strongly the pacifist vibes came through in this draft. But it would need a complete plot overhaul to be a functional book, it requires a level of worldbuilding I don’t think I’m capable of (I do not science), and frankly… I’m not sure I’m invested in it enough to put that work in. There are a lot of YA Arthurian retellings out there. I’m not sure the world needs mine enough to go to the effort of dismantling it and make it something functional. But I might raid parts of it for another book one day.

It’s about friendship and peace and very gentle revolutions and I wish I loved the book itself as much as I love the ideas in it.

May 2020: Moth 2, draft 3

At the start of May, I received an offer of representation for the first book in the Moth Trilogy, Butterfly of Night. During the two weeks that followed, as I attempted to keep my anxiety at bay while I waited for other agents to respond and so on, I wrote a very hasty redraft of its sequel, which I originally wrote in 2014 and haven’t touched since early 2015. It’s not that I thought I would need this any time soon — more that I wanted something to work on that would get my brain back in the right mindset to potentially tackle revisions of BoN. Mostly, this rewrite was intended to bring this sequel in line with book one in terms of continuity and worldbuilding, since major edits to the first book in the last five years meant that the existing draft made no sense. It still needs a bunch of work on a plot level, especially since some of those changes undermined the character motivations and weakened the existing arc, but it’s a vaguely book-shaped thing, and if nothing else, it was a good distraction.

Plus I enjoy this book solely for the fact that we have a deadly assassin working as a library assistant.

June 2020: concerto for two idiots, draft 1 [incomplete]

This is not this book’s actual title, but since it doesn’t have one, I’m referring to it by the joke title I gave its playlist. This book was my first attempt at a proper YA contemporary — a retelling of the story of Lancelot and Galehaut, set in a secondary school orchestra. While I loved writing these gay disasters and it was delightful to dip back into the musical world I inhabited as a teen, this book suffered from poor timing — as my depression got worse throughout June and into July, I found I wasn’t capable of writing what would otherwise have been the happiest book I’ve written so far, and eventually I stopped being able to write at all and put the book indefinitely on hold. I hope I can come back to it at some point, because writing contemporary was a new direction for me and I wanted to see where it could go, but I haven’t been in the right headspace for it. I think it also suffered from lack of planning — I jumped into it without really thinking it through, having already been writing nonstop for a couple of months. So, for now it’s 58k of a messy first draft.

By ‘messy’ I mean multiple characters are known only by initials and there’s a band called “Terrible Band Name”, but I had a lot of fun with it while it lasted.

September 2020: Butterfly of Night, draft 4096

Okay, it’s probably not draft 4096, it’s more like draft 8 (and 8×8 is 64 and 64×64 is 4096, so…). But after six years of working on this book, it feels like it! I revised Butterfly of Night during my 2-week quarantine after moving to Ireland, taking into account some feedback we’d received from editors as well as developing some ideas that would lay the groundwork for the rest of the trilogy. As I’ve said before, this book can stand alone and I’ve worked very hard to ensure that’s the case, but it’s always been a trilogy in my head, and the more I know about the later books, the more I can solidify the worldbuilding in book one to make sure the pieces are in place. These revisions involved changing the ending in a way that I haven’t done since I wrote the first draft in 2014, so that was wild, but now that I’ve done it, I can’t believe I let the old ending stand for so long. I did a subsequent round of line edits during October to smooth out some inconsistencies and tighten the prose, but the bulk of the writing happened in September.

Me attempting to plan my revisions: “Why does a book need a plot? Is it not enough for it to be about trauma recovery and friendship? And murder.”

November 2020: To A Candle Flame (Moth 3), draft 1

For NaNoWriMo this year, I wrote a draft of the final book in the Moth Trilogy. It’s a very self-indulgent project intended only for myself — it relies on the latest version of BoN, which only one person has read, and on a non-existent version of the second book, which I have yet to write and so exists only in my head. Which means I can’t ask anybody to read it through. Really, I just wanted to know how it ended, for the sake of my own curiosity. Having this on paper means I have a much clearer sense of the edits I need to do to make book 2 functional, though, and it was nice to write a first draft in this world for the first time since 2014. I did not, however, succeed in following through on this particular note from my planning, mostly because I forgot it existed:

So that’s a note for the next draft. Give Isabel a tiny cat.

(Also, I feel like the juxtaposition of moods in this screenshot really says a lot about how I plan books. It’s just a jumble of every thought and feeling I’ve had about the novel, and I talk to myself on paper until I figure out what I’m trying to say.)

November-December 2020: The Wolf and His King, draft 2

At the very end of November and going into December, I spontaneously decided to rewrite last year’s NaNoWriMo novel, a retelling of Bisclavret. This was in some ways a fairly superficial edit: I focused on prose, historical detail, and character development, and didn’t dig deep into plot or pacing. I’ve had some positive feedback from my beta readers and a couple of suggestions for improvements, and probably at some point there’ll be a third draft that involves pulling the book apart a bit more thoroughly, but mostly, I’m solidly proud of this one and it means a lot to me as a book because it feels very personal. It’s also a wildly different kind of book to the Moth Trilogy — it’s an adult literary novel with a strong romance element, so a sharp contrast to my YA thrillers with zero romance, but I like to keep things varied. I’m hoping 2021 will see this book taking a few steps further along the journey to publication, but we’ll have to see.

Beta reader feedback varied in style but I particularly enjoyed Charley’s approach of liveblogging her feelings at me.


I’ve also started writing poetry again. I used to write poems constantly and obsessively, but I’ve lost the knack of it these last few years. Most years I manage a small handful, separated by months, but I’ve written around 20 so far in 2020 and the majority of them since the end of October. I’ve started trying to write poems deliberately, following prompts, rather than just when I feel inspired, and I’ve entered a few into competitions, mainly to give me a reason to finish them. It’s been nice, re-learning how to write poems, and I’m enjoying playing around with language. I realised I was using a lot of the same imagery in my novels and I thought maybe if I practised with poems, I would learn to vary those descriptions a bit more.

There’s still some time left in 2020, but I’ve promised to take a break from creative writing for a while. In 2020 I wrote 564,336 words of fiction across those two projects, which doesn’t account for those scenes I wrote two or three times, all the planning and worldbuilding notes I wrote both on paper and in Word docs, or anything academic. (I also wrote the openings for various other projects, which I do quite often, but again, I don’t count those unless they develop into something.) I think I would be right in saying I haven’t done that since my wrist injury in 2013, and what’s even more remarkable is that almost all of those words were typed (not dictated) — a reminder that although during pain flare-ups it doesn’t feel like it, I have recovered a huge amount since then.

Shortest complete novel: 71k. Longest: 133k.

For the rest of the year, barring a couple of oneshots I told myself I’d write as Christmas gifts for friends, the only things I’ll be writing will be my assignments. But it’s nice to close out 2020 knowing that despite this terrible year, I made words. A somewhat alarming number of words. (If I broke down the exact number of days spent writing and tried to work out an average, I suspect it would be the kind of number that makes physiotherapists give me the “not mad, just disappointed” look.) And those words helped me to get through this.

And whether or not you made any words at all this year, I’m glad you, too, got through this, and I’d love to hear more about anything creative that might have come out of this for you.