Just a very quick update from me today. It’s now a month almost to the day since I finished my first novel, The Heartland of the Winter (you can read an extract here on this very blog). Having set it aside for a while to allow the beta readers time to get through it, and myself time to gain a little bit of distance, I’m now almost ready to start the final edit before sending it off to an agent (eek!). After a gentle nudge last week, my betas have assured me they’ll have some feedback by Thursday so I can start editing this weekend. Even if they’re a little late with getting back to me, I think I’ll have plenty to be getting on with – my own thoughts for minor tweaks, a few suggestions from my husband, and of course, thinking about the sequel. And I’m sure there will be a whole load more typos to correct – I swear those things breed when you’re not looking. I’m just hoping I won’t need to make a really major change (or two) which will require extensive re-writes. But if I do, I guess I’ll just have to get on with it with as good a spirit as I can muster. I’ve spent too long agonising over this book to want to send it out the door in any state less than perfection – or as close to perfection as I can possibly achieve.

While The Heartland of the Winter has been in beta-read, I haven’t been idle; I’ve written three stories for competitions. Here’s a brief extract from one of them, written for for Writing Magazine’s ‘fairy story for adults’ competition. It’s called ‘Amanita’. Enjoy:

It was a beautiful crisp autumn day, a carpet of fallen leaves underfoot, a multi-coloured canopy overhead. The forest was quiet around them but for the sounds of squirrels and birds. Valerie walked on ahead with a firm stride, basket hanging snugly over her shoulder, grey hair tied back in a pony tail, purple velvet skirt sweeping almost to the ground. Sarah followed, constantly shifting her own basket around to try to get it in a position which was comfortable to carry. She wanted to pause and look around her, absorb the tranquillity of the scene, but Valerie kept pushing on.

‘Can’t take too long,’ she said, ‘they say an awful lot of strange things about this wood. I don’t believe any of them, of course, but still, I’d rather not be stuck out after dark.’

‘Why? What sort of things do they say?’

‘Oh, you know, spirits, witches, the fae folk, all that rubbish. We’re not interested in any of that, we’re only here for the mushrooms. Still, if you see an empty fairy ring, don’t go inside. No point taking chances.’

‘An empty fairy ring? What are you talking about?’

‘A fairy ring is what they call a circle of mushrooms. They grow like that sometimes, it’s perfectly natural, nothing to be afraid of. But there are a few stories about them, from times when people didn’t understand them. One story goes that you should never step inside an empty fairy ring – one which doesn’t have a tree in the middle, that is – or else the fae folk will come and take you away.’

‘Take you away where?’

‘Nobody knows, because nobody ever comes back.’

A general update and an excerpt from new story, ‘Amanita’.

Reflections from Swanwick

So, it’s very nearly a fortnight since I last posted on this blog, getting perilously close to my self-imposed time limit. Well, stuff happens. Real life takes me away from my desk. I feel I should be able to make sense of events through the medium of writing, but sometimes it’s just too soon for that to work. Sometimes, you need a little time to pass before you’re ready to write. And so, today I have decided, two months after the fact, to share some of my thoughts about the Writers’ School this August.

The writers’ summer school at Swanwick, Derbyshire, has been going for sixty-four years, with many people returning year after year. It’s a week-long residential event which includes longer courses, shorter courses, one-off lectures, evening speakers, and a whole load of other activities like a poetry slam and freestyle dancing. One of the great things about it is that, with the exception of one-to-one meetings with writers and agents which have to be pre-booked, you don’t have to decide about anything in advance. You just book yourself into the whole school, turn up on the Saturday, and see what takes your fancy for the rest of the week. Found the first class in the series boring? Heard a different speaker was a great laugh? Skip the first class, show up at the second. Some people skive off nearly everything and just treat it at a writers’ retreat.

It’s possible to go along as a ‘day girl’, and, given that I live very close to the venue, I was tempted to do just that, but everyone says that you don’t get the proper experience unless you’re a boarder. So I signed up for the full monty and I’m very glad I did. Because the other thing everyone says about Swanwick is that you get just as much from the people you meet there as you do from the actual classes. And of course you see so much more of everyone if you’re around in the evenings. Also, the slightly odd school-dinner system of serving meals, where the person at the top of the table has to play mother and dish out the grub, definitely encourages you to bond with your fellow diners. So if you can stomach the stodge-fest, it’s well worth staying for dinner.

I met lots of interesting people at Swanwick, and heard a lot of different views on writing, the publishing business, and life in general. Every single conversation was an eye-opener. Quite a few of the people I met were totally bonkers. But that’s all right, I think to be a decent writer you have to be at least a little bit bonkers, because it’s that slanted perspective which gives you a unique angle, and something new to say. It’s also very refreshing to be able to sit down at a table with some complete strangers and start with the ice breaker ‘So what are you writing?’ At the end of the week, I could safely say that I hadn’t had a single boring conversation. How often does that happen?

One thing I hadn’t been adequately warned about was how tiring it would be, and how much of an information overload. By Friday morning, I felt like a) I needed another week off to recover; and b) I had a huge funnel on my head, full of new knowledge and ideas which were slowly dripping through to my poor overwhelmed brain. Having to go back to interacting with ‘normal’ people again, and back to the office, was a real shock to the system. Next year, I am definitely clearing the diary for the following week.

Swanwick was enriching, exhausting, intriguing, inspiring, infuriating… sometimes all at the same time. It’s taken me at least six weeks to digest it (and not just the stodgy food). But two things are for sure: it has turned me into a writer in a way I simply wasn’t before, and I’ll be back again next year for a second helping.

This is the first 500ish words of my young adult/crossover fantasy novel, The Heartland of the Winter. Enjoy.

The first snowflakes were fluttering through the trees, gently, like tiny feathers. It was a beautiful but ominous sight; for, as those who saw it well knew, while each flake taken separately might be insignificant – a barely noticed moment of cold on the skin – taken all together they could be lethal. For now, each one was melting away to nothing as soon as it landed on the hard ground, as if it had never been. But soon – all too soon – they would start to come thicker and faster, and they would start to settle, and soon the delicate flurry would become a blizzard, and soon after that the forest path would be lost beneath the blanket of white and travel would be impossible. Shenaisa knew all this, and she knew what that would mean for her and her younger sister.

‘Hurry up!’ she called anxiously.

‘I’m coming! I’m tired, can’t we rest for a bit?’ whined back Mardia, who came trotting up behind, red-faced and panting. She was shorter and more stockily built than Shenaisa, and struggled to keep up with her on long walks.

‘No, Mardia, you know we can’t rest, we have to get there before the storm closes in or we’ll be trapped here all night,’ Shenaisa snapped, and then added sarcastically, ‘Do you want to sleep in a snow cave?’

‘No,’ Mardia replied sullenly, ‘but my feet hurt… can’t we stop for a short while?’

‘No we can’t.’ Shenaisa walked on faster than before. It was not a response that brooked any argument; the deep woods of the Greylands at the sharp end of autumn were not a place for casual conversation. Already the snow was falling more thickly and gathering in small patches wherever there was a break in the tree cover.

The two girls knew the path well, having walked it many times before. Even so, they had to keep pausing to check their bearings, looking for signs of human passage, or trying to make out the direction of the sun through the tangled branches and the thick cover of cloud. In some places the path was edged with stones, or there were arrows carved on tree trunks to show the way, but elsewhere it petered out and they had to guess which way to go. Several times they guessed wrongly and then had to back-track, the snow falling steadily around them all the time and gradually obscuring the ground. They picked their way over rocks and twisted roots, crossed frozen streams by bridges made of single unhewn logs, climbed over banks and ditches covered with fallen leaves and waded through patches of thorny undergrowth. Always they kept on going, moving relentlessly through the unchanging and unyielding landscape. Around them the wood was silent, the snow and cloud and cold seeming to muffle all sounds. There was no sign of any other living thing but them, two young girls with unwieldy backpacks trekking alone through trees which stretched endlessly in every direction,  with only their woollen caps, rough green clothes and brown leather boots as protection against the immensity of the forest.

If you enjoyed this extract, please follow this blog/me on Twitter for further updates as the novel progresses towards final completion and (fingers crossed) publication. Thank you.

The Heartland of the Winter – extract

Champagne Sunrise

Sometimes the best part of a celebration is the aftermath, the spilling out of the last few revellers, long after anybody sensible has gone to bed, into the early dawn of a midsummer morning. The garden has a lingering warmth and fragrance from the stifling evening, but now also a freshness which enlivens them. They joke and drink the last champagne and swear to never forget each other: friends and lovers even if they never met before this night. There is nothing like sharing a liquid breakfast at the wrong end of a good eight hours’ sleep to bring people together.

And underlying it all a feeling of instant nostalgia, an ache for times gone by before they have even gone, an anxiety to capture and remember every sensory input before they slip away forever. The sweet smells of jasmine and honeysuckle; the soothing feel of dew-damp grass between tired toes; the heaviness in the shoulders which is the only tangible evidence of a sleepless night; the taste of champagne, the sound of birdsong, impossibly loud in the early morning quiet, and most of all the sights: the summer sunlight seen at an unaccustomed angle, the expensive clothes, now rumpled, in some cases by design: is there anyone left alive who can wear an undone bow tie unselfconsciously? The tired but happy faces which will look so painfully young in photographs. This is the apex, the culmination: but like all culminations it leaves a sense of emptiness in its wake.

Welcome to my blog

I’m a fantasy writer based in Derby, UK. I’ve just finished my first novel, The Heartland of the Winter, a young adult/crossover novel set in a land with extreme weather. It’s a coming-of-age story which explores the impact of the harsh climate on society, and the sacrifices people are willing to make for their loved ones. While it’s definitely a fantasy novel, I’ve tried to steer clear of the elves-and-dragons angle in favour of a story driven by recognisably human characters. It’s currently being read by my wonderful and dedicated beta readers, once they give their feedback I will polish it up and my aim is to get it out to at least one agent by the end of this year. In the meantime, I’m launching this blog to share with the world some of my short fiction and my thoughts on writing and any other topics which spring to mind. I’m going to try to update the blog at least once a fortnight (which might not sound terribly often, but I do work full-time as well as writing, and I like to set achievable goals) Your comments are very welcome. If you like my blog, why not follow me on Twitter @ruthdehaas