Category Archives: Creative Writing

The Tale of Roe

I’m in the “thinking it up” stage of writing my next Erling book. In the course thereof, I’m reading the Flatey Book in the handsome Norwegian translation published by Saga Bok Publishers in Norway (they were kind enough to send me the first three volumes as a goodwill gesture – a generous one). In St. Olav’s Saga I discovered an interesting story, not much known even to Viking buffs, because so few people have read Flatey. It’s called “The Tale of Roe.” The original story has several plot threads, but I’ve reduced it to the one thread I liked best. I offer my re-telling below.

There was once a merchant named Roe, who came from Denmark. He was an easy man to recognize, as his eyes were of two different colors – one was blue, the other black. He traveled to many lands, and had mixed luck with his business dealings.

One day he was in Upsala, and he met a man walking down the street. The man’s name was Tore, and he had only one eye. He stopped when he saw Roe, and said, “I know you. I saw you once in Denmark.”

Roe did not remember him, but could not deny that was possible.

“Not only that,” said Tore. “You robbed me! You got a wizard to magic my eye out of my head, and put it into yours. And there it sits! Anyone can see the blue one isn’t yours! I’m going to bring a case against you before the king when he sits in judgment tomorrow – and you should know the king and I are good friends. He trusts my word.”

Roe went on his way, troubled. After a while he met a very pretty girl, who smiled at him. He smiled back, but his smile was sad.

“What’s the matter?” the girl asked. “Why so down in the mouth?”

Roe told her about the accusation Tore the One-Eyed had made against him.

“You should talk to my father,” the girl said. “My name is Sigbjørg, and my father is Torgny Torgnisson, the lawspeaker of the Upsala Thing. They call him the wisest man in Sweden.”

“Would he help me?” Roe asked.

“Well,” said Sigbjørg, “Father doesn’t usually have much time for Danes. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Come to my house at sundown tonight, and stand outside where I tell you. I’ll go to my father’s bedchamber and ask him about your problem. You can listen through the wall and hear what he has to say.”

Roe agreed to do this. That night he met Sigbjørg at her house, and she told him where to stand under the eaves. He listened as she told her father about his problem, and asked him what he’d do in his place.

“Ah,” said Torgny. “That’s an interesting problem. He’s dealing with a treacherous man here, and treachery must be met with treachery. Here is what I’d do if I were he…”

After Torgny lay down to sleep, Sigbjørg went out to Roe and asked if what he’d heard had helped him. Roe said it had indeed helped, and he thanked her.

The next day Roe met Tore the One-Eyed at the king’s judgment seat, and Tore laid down his accusation. He demanded that his eye be returned to him, plus Roe’s entire cargo as compensation.

“This is a serious charge,” said the king. “Roe, what do you have to say in your defense?”

“I’d not be afraid to go through the iron ordeal to prove my honesty,” Roe replied. “But I have a simpler way we can learn the truth of the matter. Tore says my blue eye belongs to him. I think we can all agree that no two things are more alike than a man’s two eyes. So I suggest each of us have his blue eye removed, and you can weigh them both in a balance scale. If both eyes weigh the same, then Tore’s case is proven. If not, then I demand compensation.”

The king asked Tore the One-Eyed what he thought of the proposition, and Tore was not keen on the plan. He confessed at last that he’d lied.

The king had Tore hanged on a gallows, and gave Roe some of his property. Later on, Roe met Sigbjørg again, and he went to her father to ask for her hand. They were married, and many prominent people in Sweden are descended from them.

‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 3

Reconstructed longhouse at Lofotr Viking Museum. Photo 2008 by
Jörg Hempel

I raised my face to look at him. “Why have I never heard of this?” I asked. “I’d think Augvaldsness would be a place of pilgrimage for the whole north – for the English and the Franks as well.”

            “We’ve been chary of the great Roman church here in Rogaland,” said Baard. “They keep throwing that Arian thing you touched on in our faces, when they notice us at all. We’d as soon not have them looking too closely at our ways. We’ve learned that when the Romans look for error, they generally find it, whether it’s there or not.”

            “As an Irishman, I know what you mean,” I said.

            Baard slipped the cover back on the reliquary, and we went back out into the dark. You’d think that that revelation would be my chief memory of that night, but it pales in recollection, because of what followed.

            As we stepped back through the entry and into the hall, a figure filled my view, dark against the light, haloed like a saint in some eastern icon. She sidestepped right to let me pass, and I stepped left to let her pass, and so we did that foolish dance you do in narrow places, each trying to make way for the other. At last we both stopped and laughed, and by now I could see her face.

            It was the loveliest face I’d ever seen on human head. She was woman in her full bloom, but slender. A few strands of hair that peeked from under her headcloth were light brown, and her eyes – those eyes! I see them even now – large and blue under dark brows slightly curved. Her face was longer than an oval, rather triangular in shape to make room for those great eyes,   and her lips were full, but not to excess.

            At that very moment I felt my stomach lurch, as if I’d stepped down a well in the dark.

            I closed my eyes and shook my head, fearing I’d eaten something bad and was about to shame myself before this woman, through being sick. The feeling passed.

            Then I looked back in her eyes, and my stomach went whump again.

            I looked away. All was steady.

            I looked back at her.

            Whump.

            I was lost for words to say, but Baard moved up from behind me and broke the moment.

Continue reading ‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 3

‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 2

“I was always told that the Centurion was a Roman named Longinus,” I said.

            “You were told wrong. The centurion was a Norseman named Vidfarna. Maybe they called him Longinus in the army. I know not. And the proof of my story –ˮ he paused for a lick – “is the Nail.”

            “The nail…” I said.

            “Yes.”

            “A nail from the crucifixion?” I gaped.

            “None other.”

            I stood up from the bench. “This has gone far enough,” I said. “I know I’m a mere foreigner, an Irishman among the Norse and a butt for jokes, but I wasn’t born after breakfast today. I’ll give you this, though – you tell a good tale.” I’d been looking for the chance to take a walk anyway – I needed to drain off my bladder.

            Baard stood with me and tugged the sleeve of my robe, getting grease on it. “I’ve had priests tell me the same thing before. But I can show you.”

            “You have it with you?”

            “It’s over in the church.”

            I looked at him. “You’re serious,” I said.

            “Before God I am.”

Continue reading ‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 2

‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 1

Avaldsnes (Augvaldsness) today. This church did not exist in Erling Skjalgsson’s time.

Thought I’d do a snippet of the new novel tonight. Not sure how long it will take to publish it, but it’s essentially written. Probably going to my Publishing Gremlin tomorrow. lw

Part One: The Crying Stave

Chapter I

            I recall it as the night of two visions. One vision was for the land, the other for me. Together they marked a turning place.

            And neither was for the better.

           We were feasting at Augvaldsness. If God blessed our efforts, matters would now be less tangled in the land. Jarl Erik Haakonsson, with whom Erling Skjalgsson could never be at peace, had returned again to England to serve his lord, Prince Knut the Dane. This freed Erling to renew his friendship with Erik’s brother Jarl Svein, whom he rather liked. Svein sat now as lord of the north of the land, under Denmark. We were crowning their friendship by handfasting Erling’s son Aslak to Svein’s daughter Sigrid. The two were young, but such betrothals were common, and the young people liked each other well enough.

Baard Ossursson, steward of Augvaldsness, was a man who liked his boiled pork. It was his habit to take a chunk from the platter in his big hand, squeeze it so the fat ran out between his fingers, and slurp the greasy runnels off as they oozed out. He was playing at that as we sat side by side, just to Erling’s right at the high table in the hall.

            “This is an important place, Augvaldsness,” Baard said to me between slurps. “The man who controls the strait here at Kormt Island can stop traffic up and down the North Way like a plug in a jar. The kings of Augvaldsness in olden times were the mightiest along the North Way. You can run outside the island, take the sea way to the west, but the weather out there’s chancy.”

            “I’ve heard of King Augvald,” I said. “The one who worshipped his cow.”

Continue reading ‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 1

Book pitch: ‘Writing Speculative Fiction: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Teacher’s Ed.’ by Lelia Rose Foreman

Writing Speculative Fiction

My friend Lelia Rose Foreman has written a text book, Writing Speculative Fiction: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Teacher’s Ed. It is aimed especially at home schoolers teaching high schoolers. An excerpt from my novel Death’s Doors is incorporated, with my permission.

‘The War of Art,’ by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

Someone suggested to me that I might enjoy Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art (and yes, I caught the reversal on Sun Tsu’s The Art of War… eventually). I’ve been struggling with my work in progress (it’s coming, but I’m fighting for every inch of ground), and I thought, what could it hurt?

It’s a remarkable book. I’m still not entirely sure what to think about it, though.

It might save you the cost of purchase if I give you the basic message right here – the only way to succeed as a writer is to become a professional. Sit yourself down at your desk at the same time every day, and work at your craft. Don’t listen to the negative voices in your head. Especially don’t listen to the ones that say, “I’ll just skip it today.”

But the value of the book is (of course) in the reader’s journey. In polished, powerful prose Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and other bestselling books) analyses the writer’s problem (we have an enemy, which he calls “Resistance,” and we must learn to tread it under our feet). And he tells the story of his own evolution from a blocked, self-pitying wannabee to a fulfilled professional (anyone can do it, he says, which I think is an exaggeration. Not for me, of course, but for you other folks).

What troubles me about the book is its religious nature. When Pressfield talks about his Muse, he’s not being metaphorical. He lays out a whole theory of reality and consciousness (based on Jung), and says he believes that his muse actually exists. He prays to her each time he sits down to write.

On the negative side, he condemns all forms of Fundamentalism. “Fundamentalism and art,” he says, “are mutually exclusive.”

I take that kind of personally. I think you could call the medieval Roman Catholic Church fundamentalist, by his definition, and they did pretty well on the art front. The Puritans themselves gave us Milton and Bunyan.

So I’m uncomfortable with Pressfield’s religious statements. Speaking as a fundamentalist, I worry that he may have sold his soul to a devil, or be possessed in some way.

So I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The War of Art. As a motivational book, it’s excellent (I had a pretty good writing day the day I finished reading it). But spiritually I found it hazardous.

Also, cautions for language.

“Summary Execution”

(Just a bit of short, short fiction. I think the idea’s clever, but I’m expecting to learn that someone has done it before.)

“Into the alley, swine,” said Sergeant Adler. He kicked the manacled prisoner, who stumbled and fell forward onto his knees. Adler followed into the shadows with a nod to the patrolmen, who returned his nod and strolled away together.

“You think you will be taken into custody,” he said to the prisoner. “Consultation with a lawyer, arraignment, trial before a judge.”

“You don’t understand,” the prisoner stuttered. He was a foreigner. His German was bad.

“No, it is you who do not understand,” said Adler. “You do not understand that there are crimes that do not warrant the protections of the law. For such crimes – such crimes as you just attempted – we policemen deal with the criminal ourselves, saving the state the costs of your pointless defense.”

“No, listen –”

Adler aimed another kick at the prisoner, who fell on his side, whimpering.

“All that will be spent on such an animal as you is the price of one bullet,” said Adler, raising his service pistol.

“No! You’ve got to listen to me,” the prisoner whimpered. “That boy – he’s not just a boy! He’s – he’s a monster! If he’s allowed to live, millions will die. He’ll start a movement, become a dictator! The whole world will suffer! I’m not a German. I’m not even from this time in history. I’m a traveler from the future! I’ve come back to stop him! The boy’s name is A-”

Adler’s pistol barked. The prisoner jerked and went slack.

“If there’s one thing that cannot be endured in a civilized country,” said Adler, “it’s a child killer.”

What’s Under the Tree?

Pre-wrapped gifts are essential, or her little darling will pitch a fit.

She shoulders the door open, her arms stretched around sparkling presents, hoping this will be the last gift run of the year.

She hears a tiny voice singing by the fir tree, plucking each word, “You better watch out.”

Unloading her packages on the floor, she glances at her blotchy-faced, wild-eyed child, whose ruddy fingers like tentacles clutch the nearest branch, corrupting the evergreen with an insatiable, yellowing appetite, as the little darling jabs at gifts with a candy cane, shaking the tree with each word—mine, mine.

(Written for the Advent Ghost Story Fest)

Taking liberties with realism

Our friend Loren Eaton at I Saw Lightning Fall exegetes the ways the Daredevil series improves its storytelling by getting the real world wrong:

Here’s the interesting thing, though: While all these examples might falter on the ground of plausibility, they do yeoman’s work in developing both characters and plots, in advancing scenarios and revealing personal peculiarities. When Kingpin calls Vanessa on the carpet for concealed carry, viewers learn that she’s not some ingénue, but rather an empowered woman with her own ambitions: “We’ve been sitting here talking for hours, and you’re going to insult me like I have no idea what you really do? … I know you’re a dangerous man. That’s why I brought a gun to a dinner date.”

Read it all here.

‘Mary Sue the Barbarian’

Patheos Public Square has published an article by me. You can read it here.

It is Christians, after all, who (almost alone in our present age) recognize that “there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” Our confessions declare that we are not good people but evil people, saved not by our golden deeds and noble aspirations, but by the work of Someone Else. To look into our own hearts, recognize the evil there, and mine that material for dramatic ore ought to be no problem for us. We’ve seen our sin (presumably) and repented it. We are under no further illusions about our essential goodness. When a story calls for a monster, we ought to have plenty of models at hand. We ought to have Legions.

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

The bundle bounces against Hayk’s back as he dashes behind houses. Barely a mark on the shadows, he slips in through crack and out by door with another name scratched off his list. But what did he care for a list? He’d take anyone.

Whimpering cries tumble from his sack as he hurtles a fence.

“Back to Hayk’s mine!”

Crash!

He breaks against a snarling mastiff with dawn in his eyes, who grabs his leg and flings him into the trees, scattering children across the yard.

With guttural barks, the dog drives them, bruised and wailing, back to their homes.

(This is one of many 100-word stories offered for I Saw Lightening Fall’s Advent Ghosts 2015. Many more stories through the link, including Lars’ story earlier this month, and my past contributions can be found under the content tag “flash fiction.”)

Sir John Coleville’s Daring Fight Against the Fairies

Loren Eaton and I have collaborated on a fun story using the Legendary Author Battles format given to us by Simon Canton. You can listen to the tale above and get a written version on Simon’s site.

I hope you enjoy it. I had fun writing it in response to the terrific tone Loren set in his parts. Do tell us what you think about it.

You can listen to the other shared storytelling I did in this vein here.

Shared Storytelling: Author Battle

A few weeks ago, a couple guys invited me to participate in a Google+ group they called Legendary Author Battles (LAB). It’s a shared storytelling like we have discussed here in the past. One writer begins, the other continues, and back and forth until a conclusion. Then Simon Cantan makes a video of the authors reading their parts.

This is my first one, and even though I wish I could have taken my reading dramatics up several notches, I think the story itself is pretty good. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong.

The story is an urban fantasy which pits a telepathic librarian against an urban developer. The businessman wants to buy up the neighborhood, but the librarian and his neighbors won’t go along with him. That standard beginning doesn’t come anywhere near describing the whole story, so give it a listen and tell me what you think.

I shared this story with Dave Higgins, who has a new book out.

Holiday Shopping with a Smile

Libby’s famous smile flickers when she sees another woman smile from the opposite escalator with a wide, toothy grimace.

“A face only a mother would love,” she mutters, striding over to the next mall store with extended sales. She smiles at the cashier. He grins back, his ears vanishing behind a wall of gleaming teeth.

Forgetting everything now, she hurries back into a suddenly manic throng, passing from leer to leer as other shoppers direct her to the fire-lit house built with toys. Waifs grab her hands and pull her to an enormous, red man with a wide, open mouth.

(Written for Loren Eaton’s 2013 Advent Ghost Storytelling Fest)

Browsing

Scanning new sci-fi titles, I feel someone’s eyes on me, but I am alone in the aisle. The books near me begin beeping and flashing. Are these interactive novels? A metal hand grabs at my finger. Eyes on tentacles spring from the novels at my feet, a gurgling cry at my back! I dash out through waving space gloves.

Between the aisles, I catch my breath.

Maybe I can find something to read among the thrillers.