Questions and requests related to Spear are beginning to trickle in on various platforms. If you have a question, drop a comment. Meanwhile here’s one from Facebook:
I loved Peretur’s detailed and concrete connection with the natural world (I loved that about Hild too) … I’d be very interested to hear about how you conceived thatStacey B, Facebook
Before I wrote a word of Hild I’d been dwelling in the world of seventh-century Britain for years—researching language and landscape, flora and fauna, weather and wyrd, metal-smithing and military hardware, cloth and culture—building the world Hild would be born into and so, inevitably, the world that had given birth to that world, that had come before: the sixth century. Peretur’s world. For years as I read and dreamed I wasn’t thinking about plot, and not much about character; I was building—one stream, tree, horizon, winter, and bird at a time—the worlds they would be born into, the worlds they would interact with and would shape and be shaped by.
Every novel I have ever written—and almost all my short fiction—begins outdoors. It’s just how I think, how I work, who I am as both a human being and a writer. I’m a creature of the body. And any major character I create will be, too. Add to that the fact that both Spear and Hild are set in early medieval Britain: after the industrialised agricultural production of the Roman occupation and before the literate proto-states that followed the Conversion Age. Both Peretur and Hild are born into worlds recovering from at least one major cataclysm—cultural, natural, political—and, unbeknownst to them, heading straight into another. It was a time of turmoil and change, a series of upheavals interspersed with moments of safety and respite. Those who survived lived close to nature: they had to. Guess wrong about planting or harvesting time, about when to take the flock upland, about when to coppice what part of the wood, and you starved. Pay attention or die.
So when you ask me to explain how I conceived of Hild’s and Peretur’s connections to nature, I’m not sure I can. With both Hild and Spear I sat down to write one day and the approach unfurled before me like a path through the glimmering wood. I didn’t stop and wonder whether it was a good path or the right, it was the path, the only path, and it would take me where I needed to go.
In both cases, then, the character’s connection to nature just…was. They live in nature, they swim in it, they breathe it. They are wholly immersed in the natural world and very much in tune with it. And they love it—and therefore love themselves because they feel absolutely part of the world around them. A sense of ownership and belonging. Obligation and gratitude. They might both say nature was their first teacher. They might both say that nature is magical and mystical, ineffable and illimitable. They both have an almost ecstatic relationship with the living landscape.
The big difference of course is that while Hild’s connection to nature appears to be preternatural it isn’t—whereas Peretur’s actually is. Hild is wholly mortal and wholly of this naturalistic, realistic world. Peretur is not wholly mortal but partly of the Overworld and the landscape she moves through runs with real magic. Both books start with Hild and Peretur as children, and by page two we can already make out the difference in how they learn from nature.
Here’s a short passage from the first page of Hild:
She lay at the edge of the hazel coppice, one cheek pressed to the moss that smelled of wormcast and the last of the sun, listening: to the wind in the elms, rushing away from the day, to the jackdaws changing their calls from ‘Outward! Outward!’ to ‘Home now! Home!’, to the rustle of the last frightened shrews scuttling under the layers of leaf fall before the owls began their hunt. From far away came the indignant honking of geese as the goosegirl herded them back inside the wattle fence, and the child knew, in the wordless way that three year-olds reckon time, that soon Onnen would come and find her and Cian and hurry them back.Hild, p1 (FSG, 2013)
Three year-old Hild feels absolutely at home in nature. She feels part of it, and safe. Living things to her have personalities. She is imagining what the jackdaws are saying, and when she hears the geese she knows Onnen will come soon—not because the geese are actually telling her so but because she’s already in tune with the human rhythms of her community: the goosegirl brings in the geese when the light starts to fail—which is also usually the point at which Onnen comes to find her and bring her home. In the way of smart children of any time and place she is learning to piece together disparate clues, build a pattern, and interpret the result.
Now here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Spear:
She roams the whole of Ystrad Tywi, the valley of the Tywi who fled Dyfed in the Long Ago. In this valley, where there is a tree she will climb it; it will shelter her; and the birds that nest there in spring will sing to her warning of any two-legged approach. In May, as the tree blossom falls and herbs in the understorey flower, she will know by the scent of each how it might taste with what meat, whether it might heal, who it could kill. From its nectar she will know which moths will come to drink, know too of the bats that catch the moths, and what nooks they return to where they hang wrapped in their leather shrouds as the summer sun climbs high, high enough to shine even into the centre of the thicket. Before harvest, when the bee hum spreads drowsy and heavy as honey she tastes in their busy drone a tale of the stream over which they skim, the falls down which the stream pours, the banks it winds past where reeds grow thick and the autumn bittern booms. And when the snow begins to fall once again, she catches a flake on her tongue and feels, lapping against her belly, the lake it was drawn from by summer sun, far away—a lake like a promise she will one day know.Spear, p2 (Tordotcom, 2022)
Peretur also feels absolutely at home in nature. She feels part of it and safe. Living things have personalities. The difference is that in Peretur’s world, living things do actually talk to Peretur and, as we find out later, she can talk back. In other words, while they both learn from nature, Hild’s learning is mediated by her reasoning, her thinking mind. Peretur’s, on the other hand, are visceral, unmediated, and direct.
Hild loves and feels at home in nature but her gift is the purely naturalistic ability to spot patterns and extrapolate. Peretur also loves and feels at home in nature but her gift is the preternatural ability of a not wholly-mortal being to communicate directly with all aspects of nature—to her everything is alive, not just trees and bats and bees but the wind, the water, the sun on her face.
Did I know all this before I sat down to write either of these books? No. But I knew it by page two of my first draft of each. I hope that answers your question.
Tomorrow: How I feel about narrating the audiobook.
3 thoughts on “Spear’s first year #1: Wild Magic”
This is something I love about your books, all of your books, how immersive they are; engaging all five senses, sometimes going beyond them. It’s always a sensual experience, giving the main character an extra level of depth in how she interacts with other people as well as her environment.
I’ve recorded many readers and many authors reading their own works, but I’ve rarely had the joy of hearing words that I’ve read in print come alive in the way your do when you read them. I can’t imagine them in any voice but yours.
I love the way you think!
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