Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Beneath the Tor: A Shaman Mystery

 Thank you, Publisher's Weekly, for the great review of my new book!
Nina Milton. Midnight Ink (midnightinkbooks.com), $14.99 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-7387-4382-0
At the start of British author Milton’s unsettling third Shaman mystery (after 2014’s Unraveled Visions), a group of 10 people, all “keen to explore shamanism,” climb to the top of Glastonbury Tor to celebrate Midsummer Eve. When Alys Hollingberry, who has been dancing nonstop, suddenly collapses, Sabbie Dare phones emergency services. Another participant says it’s too late (“I saw her spirit go”). On the day of the inquest, Alys’s grieving husband, Brice, receives a strange email (“The Tor needs no sacrifice. The utter waste of blessed life signals doomsday”). It’s signed Morgan le Fay. Since Brice doesn’t want the police involved, he asks Sabbie’s help in identifying Morgan le Fay and figuring out this person’s connection to Alys. Meanwhile, a priest alleges that Alys took drugs during the celebration on the tor that may have led to her death.
 Milton puts an intriguing New Age spin on the traditional English mystery. 
Beneath the Tor is out in December if you live in the US; if you live in the UK you will have to wait until January 2016. But you can order your copy from Amazon now at the pre-order price.
And if you'd like to hear me read from all three of the trilogy, be at The Cellar Bar next Friday the 30th October at 8pm for Cellar Bards

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Diana Cambridge…Secrets of a Writer in Residence

What to wear? 
That shouldn’t be my first concern. But as I pack for my week as Writer In Residence to Sherborne Literary festival – that’s from Wednesday 14 to Sunday 18 October – it’s what I’m thinking. 

Diana Cambridge
The answer? Black! With yellow as an alternative.
Comfortable shoes are a must. So I put my heels in my bag and wear flats up the hill to the Digby Hall in Sherborne. I used to do this as a teenager, as I couldn’t totter to a pub but could nip into the Ladies before anyone saw me and change shoes there.

Princess Michael is one of the speakers at this prestige Litfest: also Victoria Hislop. I plan to squeeze into both of these – one of the lovely elements of WIR is that you can get into events free. The other fantastic bonus is choosing anything you like from their gorgeous café. Last year I’d eaten three hand made chocolate eclairs by 11.a.m most days. The café  - yes, they do wine - is run by Sue Adams, sister of the late author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My drop-in writing clinic is open each day. You can email work ahead- up to 2000 words – for a critique and make a booking if you want. The festival charge £5 for the one-to-one clinic consultations. It’s money well spent! Several of my previous clinic students have been published. Already I’m working my way through ten pieces of work already submitted. Topics range from spy thrillers to sci-fi to playscripts to nature writing and more.

 I try to avoid dealing with poetry, as I can never think of anything to say about it.

I’m always in awe of the gifted beginners, the talented writers who have never had any training, yet are intuitive about skilful management of words. Also the many writers who complete a whole work without any promise of publication; just relying on their own faith in their work and their market research.  This is one of the signals that mark out the real writer, I think – the discipline to keep going. To finish.

Many good writers succeed on the words side, but haven’t quite worked out the plot or the structure of their material. It’s structure which counts. Your words can be perectly fluent, your descriptive abilities exemplary – but if you haven’t a story, you’re clobbered.

Also basic “holes” in plots can trip you up. Like a daily newspaper journalist, you have to check every fact, ensure that situations are credible. I find that writers often don’t care for this bit. Some fall down on targeting their reader. Writing a novel that has no reader or niche is a bit like creating a product – let’s say edible bow ties at £50 - for a market that doesn’t exist. Maybe that’s not the best example.

My first task as WIR is to set up my room. Most Litfests are run by volunteers, and the more you can do to help them, the better. This includes setting up chairs, clearing space, putting up your posters, meeting and greeting. Although the clinic is billed at 15 minutes per person, most chats go on much longer – if there’s no one waiting I’m happy to do that.

I may have seen students work ahead – or they may really drop in, with ideas. Often what I do is confidence boosting. It’s so easy to lose heart when you’re a writer! Plus, it’s a lonely job and family aren’t often sincere about their interest. 

Dianna with Sue Adams
 sister of the late Doug ( Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
Go to  sherborne literary society for more details
I prepare handouts, booklists and critiques ahead ready for the students. I think it’s essential to have something “to take away” – if they’ve been nice enough to come to see me, I want to give them as much as I can in return.

The atmosphere at Sherborne is energetic (Director is the amazing Judith Spelman) and the talks inspiring. Most events are booked solid: the stage, IT and acoustics are very well organized, which isn’t always the case at some Litfests. 

Some of my drop-ins are returning students, many have achieved some success and need advice on the next step – or they may have hit a roadblock. Winning a big award and then not winning anything for ages can be hard, even lead to depression. It’s a bit like going from MD to office junior. All I can say is to keep trying – if you’ve been successful once, you will be again. That question “What am I doing wrong?” haunts all one-time winners whose success is followed by a long period of rejection. The answer is – you’re not doing anything wrong! “They” are!

Why do we always think it’s us?

I work right through the day and never turn anyone down – if I can’t fit them in instantly, I’ll make a slot for them later. It would be so depressing to drop in at a writing clinic and find there’s no room for you. The advice I give tends to be practical: I can’t bear writing advice that’s too precious. For example, the question: what IS a short story? followed by an hour of heavy academic theory. I sat through one of these once, longing for a Haribo.  

In the evening I may go to Litfest events, and do some work for the next day – I now have an Android. I absolutely love being invited out for a drink. And it’s wonderful not to have to put out the bin bags. Though I often forget anyway.

It's not to late to visit the Sherborne Literary festival
Wednesday 14 to Sunday 18 October.
And there's still time to mail Diana for an appointment.

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Secret Life of Characters…from the weareOCA blogpost

More writing advice from Nina Milton, tutor at the Open College of Arts, about characterization. If you're thinking about doing a writing course, do have a look at this writing blog:

 You want your readers to be driven by emotion as they read, and in fiction it’s the characters who engage that emotion. For this to happen, the reader has to be trapped in a sort of magic…temporarily, he must believe the character is real.

To read more, click on the link; weareoca - the-secret-life-of-characters

Monday, 5 October 2015

The UK Shamanic Gathering

I've been away from my desk. I've been away from my everyday life. I've been on a journey…to Somerset, to the spirit world, to an altered reality of love and light and fun...  

In Dundon, a small village on the Somerset Moors – regular readers will already know how I love those moors – there is a place called Earth Spirit, where an original long barn and farm outbuildings have been turned into a centre for spiritual growth. 
Doris (Rachel) and Nick Breeze Wood

Almost seventy shamans gathered here, to share their love of shamanism. They came from all corners of the UK and beyond, and from many shamanic cultures. Some were young and fresh-faced – some were grey-haired but still keen-witted.

The first thing I was asked to do, as I arrived on Monday afternoon, was sign a glittery homemade 80th birthday card for Leo Rutherford, one of the grand elders of shamanic practice in Britain, and founder of The Eagle’s Wing Centre.  Leo led us in drumming and chanting later on that week, and I had trouble keeping up with his energy levels.

Leo wasn't the only fit, active grizzle-bearded elder. John is still building and re-erecting stone circles (although he admitted he mostly gave directions nowadays), and offers labyrinth workshops too.

And so to our opening ceremony, which set the feel of the gathering wonderfully. First Nick Breeze Wood, the Welsh-based shaman who edits Sacred Hoop magazine, lit Grandfather Fire, calling down the spirits to protect and guide us through our gathering. This fire was kept alight, despite downpours, throughout the four days, and each morning, I’d go across the damp grass to give offerings to it. Grandfather Fire particularly like tobacco, chocolate and leaves soaked in vodka, but seemed also happy to accept scented herbs. We retuned to the barn, and Sika, a musician and artist, took us directly into an altered state of consciousness with the primordial sounds from his range of didjeridoos and other indigenous musical instruments. He played for what must have been hours, seemingly without breath, but it felt like no time…all time. By then it was late at night (for me, anyway!) and I fell into my bed and slept deeply, forgetting all my dreams as they passed by me.

The barn, with Sika
(background of the picture)
At breakfast, the long tables were full of chattering people. You might wonder what shamans talk about over cereal and boiled eggs, and the truth is…everything, of course. Although the shamans are well known for changing their conscious states so that they can enter ‘non ordinary’ reality, most believe it’s important to also keep their feet on the ground. Everyone wanted to communicate with everyone else, sharing and learning and laughing. Something struck me as I chatted to people – the confirmation that there are as many ways to approach this spiritual pathway as there are shaman. I mostly use my shamanic practice to dip into a trance state to find story and character for my writing. Others use it to heal themselves of difficult traumas, or to make sense of  life. Many at the gathering were practitioners; seeking healing and advice from compassionate spirits, on behalf of other people. Spiritual healing is complementary to modern medicine and other therapies and can be the answer to things in our lives that trouble us the most, but which would never respond to prescription pills. And some at the gathering were teachers of shamanic practice, including the organizers, Howard and Elsa, who I’d previously worked under.

Each person at the gathering will have their own favourite moments and memories, and for me, there are three – morning drumming, the Medicine Wheel Workshop and the Storytelling Evening. 

We’d most of us brought our drums, and right throughout the gathering, there was drumming, stomping, chanting and singing. What else would you expect from a bunch of shamans? When Nick Breeze Wood opened the start of that first full day with a burst of communal drumming, instantly, I found myself on a journey. As I drummed in the Earth Spirit Barn, I was also in my grove of trees, with my guardian, Esmeralda. She is an elder, a crone with wrinkled skin, but she is also a mother, who, in the 15 years I’ve worked with her, has constantly suckled a baby to her breast – a tiny, naked boy with golden skin. As I drummed, she plucked the baby from her breast and handed it to me. I was shocked – I didn’t know if I wanted responsibility for a spirit baby, but I guess after 15 years, she might have been a bit tired herself! Over the course of the four days, the Golden Boy grew, until he was, indeed, fifteen, and has become a spirit guide to me in his own right.

I had always wanted to learn more about the medicine wheel. I had a Celtic apprenticeship in shamanism with Caitlan Matthews, so most of the imagery and symbolism I encounter on my shamanic journeys is based around the beliefs of the Ancient Britons, and I wanted to know more about this Native American way of working. Carrie Jost is a healer who uses the medicine wheel in her work. She showed us how it can shift energy – ridding us of bad and shoring up good. She got us all working with these invisible but strongly felt energies. Carrie had created a circle on the barn floor, showing the 8 compass points. We were asked to walk around the outside of the circle, to find a comfortable place in the room. Everyone seemed to find that easy to do, but then we had to find a place of discomfort. I was dubious, but when I reached the south-east, I instantly felt shivery, that sensation one gets when one is about to incubate a cold. I hadn’t believed I would find such a place, but I was standing in it, and despite the fact that there were over 30 people in the group, I was the only person standing at this compass point. Carrie held us in these ‘uncomfortable places’, asking us to send energy around the circle in an 8-pointed star. When the people of the East sent their energy to me, I felt it as the colour of a carnelian crystal, with filled me with courage, and heard a low humming sound that vibrated right at the base of my spine. It warmed me wonderfully. 
Carrie Thomas, a horticulturist and speaker,
 with her crystals and flower essences

The other huge delight for me was the storytelling evening with Andrew Steed. I love myth, legend and fairy tales, and Andrew’s retelling of the story of Tuireann (Tyren), who was magically transformed by a jealous fairy-woman into a wolf-hound held us all spellbound. But it was his ‘reclaimed’ stories that hit the spot with me. No, these ‘reclaimed’ stories aren’t, as I expected, stories found in cobwebbed libraries, or scratched in pictures on the wall of ancient tombs, they are the stories of ourselves, that we hate other people retelling, because they make us blush and duck behind the sofa. To boost our self esteem, Andrew recommends we turn these ‘you’ll never guess what he did’ stories into something that can make our friends laugh with us, instead of at us. I have several reclaimed stories brewing, believe me!

It was a sad moment, on Thursday, when we scraped the ash from the still burning Grandfather Fire, and let him die. But, just as we were getting all pumped up with our grand closing ceremony, Doris arrived in our midst. Doris is a sacred clown. She’s got a bit of a lady-beard, and forgot to take the curlers out of her hair that morning, and was carrying a gaily painted watering can and a microphone that didn’t work (an ongoing joke during the gathering). She read us her rhyming account of the gathering. Sixty-plus shamans doubled up with laughter.Thank you Rachel; Doris successfully pricked our high-flying bubbles and brought us down to earth with a chuckle.

Churchyard Yew, Dundon
To quote Leo Rutherford from his book, Your Shamanic Path (2001, Piaktus)…The struggle to make sense of life in the third-dimensional spacesuit we call a body is as important today as at anytime. One could almost say even more so now that in the ‘developed’ part of the world we are polluting our home planet and upsetting the balance of nature and our atmosphere as never before. We desperately need a path that can bring us back into contact and communion with the primal elemental forces of life...

If you ever go to Dundon, do drop in on the churchyard, as I did, to see the magnificent yew, or walk the surrounding hills and find the iron-age hill-fort. And maybe spend a quiet hour in a nature reserve, listening to and watching the beauty that is our natural world.