Thursday, 29 June 2017

Questing your Plot

I've been writing for the Open College of the Arts Creative Writing Degree again.

This time, I've been looking at plotting stories.

Plots are sometimes defined as quests, but you can invert that; your first quest is to find your plot.

All good quests need a map, and so do you. Not just any map, either – a treasure map, which will hide the plot secrets, lay the clues, and guide your reader through the dangers and dramas of their journey to a wealth of satisfaction at the end.

I have a foremost tip in the quest for the next plot idea…

But you'll have to read the original blog to find out what that tip is, and the other practical, questing suggestions I've found useful myself, such as wall charts…

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Midsummer Solstice at Gors Fawr Stone Circle

Gors Fawr

We met at Gors Fawr stone circle in time on midsummer’s day. The views that confronted us were magnificent. The summer solstice, June 21st this year, was a clear, hot, bright day – the hottest in 40 years – and being there was powerfully invigorating.

 We were in a bleak, but strikingly beautiful place – a moorland full of gorse and reeds and sheep, lying quite flat for a mile or more until the hills suddenly loom up as a backdrop. We’d come to hold a ritual at the very place in Pembrokeshire where Neolithic worshipers also gathered, to watch the sunrise on the solstice. 

We were at Gors Fawr Stone Circle.

Bedd Arther
Gors Fawrs dates from the Neolithic. It is part of a surprisingly large and active sacred landscape at the foot of the Preseli Hills called the Glandy Cross. This is an area rich in Neolithic burial chambers, Bronze age settlements, barrows, standing stones and a chambered tomb. There were once three stone circles, but one is lost. The smaller of the remaining two, Bedd Arthur (Arthur’s Bed), is a small, boat-shaped horseshoe of stones high in the hills, while at the foot of the hills on the flat plateau of moorland is the larger circle – Gors Fawr, whose name translates as 'great wasteland'. 

The inner bluestones against the
Stonehenge Trilithons
The circle has a very special atmosphere. It consists of 16 small remaining stones about 22 metres in diameter. They are small stones, unprepossessing on the north side of the circle, but getting bigger towards the south until they’re about a metre in height. Eight of the stones are composed of local glacial erratic boulders, but, very excitingly, the other eight stones in this circle are bluestones, the same stone as the smaller stone arc inside that far more famous circle…Stonehenge. 

We were here to hold a ritual on the summer solstice, which is called Alban Hefin by Druids and Litha by Wiccans. The solstice is the peak of the power and radiance of the sun. It’s union with the earth at its zenith. Over the last week, the sun had shone above us, strongly and brightly.

It had been so hot, records were being broken. In fact, the 21st became, the hottest day since 1976. I recall that summer very well, as I was pregnant with my first child, so ‘hot’ was what I remained most of the time.

Carn Meini, the Dragon's Back
As we prepared the circle, and met up with the people who had been here for the sun’s rising in the very early morning, I looked up to the hills above us. I could see a  short area of jagged rocks running along the ridgeway of the Preseli's. This is the Dragon’s Back –  the peak of Carn Meini, a natural outcrop of Blue Spotted Dolerite – the place where the Stonehenge bluestones originated.

Carn Meini has a very strong radiant quality. On some level it feels like the yang counterpart to the Yin Gors Fawr. It’s not surprising the bluestone found there was used and loved so much in the Neolithic. As well as being used for the building of an early stage at Stonehenge, ‘crystal-sized’ pieces have been found in Neolithic burial chambers around the Salisbury Plain area, as if people kept these beautiful stones close as talismans, perhaps for healing. I constantly find it amazing that bluestones found their way from a very powerful and ancient site in Pembrokeshire to another very ancient and powerful site a couple of hundred or so miles away. How they were moved is still debated, but around Pembrokeshire, the story goes that in ancient times, the ceremonial route of the bluestones from Carn Meini to Stonehenge followed the streams down the hill and past Gors Fawr. 

The two Outliers
There are two outlying stones to the north-east of the Gors Fawr circle. These align to the sunrise on the summer solstice. As you walk towards them from the stone circle, the first you meet is about five feet high, much larger than the stones in the circle, and this makes one think it must have been of importance. The larger of these, a few metres on, is around six feet in height, and is known as "The Dreaming Stone". Some accounts suggest that they were originally part of an avenue leading off from the circle. The dreaming stone has been shown to be strongly magnetic, especially where one’s head would rest if one sat on the little seat. And the seat itself does not look inviting – one imagines one would slide off, but once there, it’s wonderfully comfy, and I have sat there for twenty minutes and more.

We gathered outside the circle. Some of us had been there all night, to wait until the dawn came up on the solstice day, while other of us had arrived for this ceremony.

As everyone walked towards it, the Spirit of the Stones came towards us, and challenged us…what was our purpose here? This is how our Herald replied…Spirit of  this place! We come in peace at this time of the summer solstice, to honour the spirit of these stones and to honour the spirits of our ancestors. We come to work in peace and love.” 

The Spirit of the Stones replied. “Then know this –  as you step beyond the boundary of this circle, you will enter the magic of Gors Fawr, where time itself has no meaning and experience is unlimited, for this realm is full of spirit and is interconnected in every direction. These stones wash a blessing over each being who works within it. So  enter this place in peace, and you shall leave renewed and refreshed.”

Once we’d set up our ritual circle, and passed an oaken branch around to each talk about how we felt about this time of the year, we called upon the Lady of the Land, who represented the landscape itself. She spoke  thus; 
“All ancient circles like this one have a fay presence which is a lovely summer bonus, but do not forget how careful you need to be when dealing with faeries; they need to be given due respect or they can play tricks. Here in my basket I have the blossoms of the Elder Tree. Celtic lore indicates that if you stand near an elder tree at Midsummer's Eve the land of the fairies will be revealed to your searching eyes. The blossom of the elder protects from fay trickery yet helps those who use it wisely to come closer to the world of Celtic faerie lands. It can also induce vivid dreams, particularly of the Faerie realms; why not take your spray to the dreaming stone and see what happens. “

The Lady of the Land then walked around the circle of people, handing out the sprays. Everyone had brought something to entertain us with, pipes to play, poems to read, and stories they wanted to tell. By the time we took our circle of ritual and celebration down, we were all starving and laid out our picnics in the circle to share. 

The sun stayed hot, but luckily the breeze coming from the coast kept us cool. Even so, after eating, some of us lay in the circle and closed our eyes. But we had to take care not to fall to sleep, as it is said that if you fall asleep inside a stone circle, you will wake to find yourself in Fairyland, and none of us wanted to drive home still enchanted by the fay…

If you live in West Wales, you can find Gors Fawr Stone Circle just outside the village of Mynachlog-ddu, Pembrokeshire,  OS Map Ref SN135294
OS Maps - Landranger 145 (Cardigan & Mynydd Preseli), Explorer OL35 (North Pembrokeshire)

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Holiday Poems

Did you notice I'd been away? I've just got back from France, nicely tanned and full of thoughts on poetry. Holidays are such a good excuse for writing a poem – loads of new things to see, feel, taste, hear, and think about…plus all that extra time on your hands with nothing better to do than sit in the sun and write. Here are a few of the poems I have written as I holidayed around the UK and Europe. I hope you enjoy them, and that they inspire, or re-inspire you to write your own holiday poems.

Snowdon, Wales

When we set off
The sun was settled hot over the castle ruins
And the lake, agate-thin, had a rhinestone surface.
Halfway up, 

Not fluffy cotton wool puffs,
Just unrelenting mist.
 We saw no more than
The crumbling path
 And our worn walking boots.
The peak arose, unexpected, 
Catching us short – shocked – 
A final scramble. We reached the summit.
I put my hand out to touch the cairn – yes!

The terminal made us weep fog-tears. 
   Tiny trains lifted their sardine loads, 
Shedding them straight into the concrete caf.
We were wet through to our aching thighs
Starved for the sandwiches  
Crushed and damp from their momentous journey,
But the staff stalk between the plastic tables
Alert for contravention of cafe rules.
We bought thin coffees,
 Gobbed our illicit food
With jerking eyes,
 Like mountain birds.

Mediterranean Storm

All night, the silent storm 
Has flickered across the horizon,
Silhouetting the perfect geometry of the earth.
Lightening running in lines and sheets, 
Proving the world is round.

All night the storm is an on and off parade,
Flickering like a silent film with erratic highlights
Or the boy with a torch under bedclothes that promise glossy dreams of breasts.
The slashing of heaven, the deadly spear of a fierce god sent crashing down, 
To puncture the sea as he will, when he chooses.

All night it persists,
Clouds tossing war at each other, 
Hurling insults as quiet as white noise,
While above, the stars blink,
Tiny statements of unaffected continuity.

All night – will it never stop?
Somewhere, thunder deafens ears and children scream their fear. 
Waves take the fishing boats until they are mountain goats, 
All hands to secure their harvest of ancient things,
The men shiny with rain in their scale skins.

But here, the storm is soundless,
A punctuated brilliance that illuminates the clouds
That dance like grey ghosts,
Phantoms that change their shape, 
Conjoin as they please, become one, or many,
Unravel or thicken or slide away, silent like the storm.

I watch until dawn.
I sit silent in my tower by the sea until the sky pales, 
The slow expansion of light sucks away the noiseless force, 
Until, diminished by the day, the flash is no brighter than the flicker of an oiled wick.
Blinded by the sun, 
It is gone.

In the Dublin Museum, Ireland

In the Dublin Museum,
Among the cornucopia of treasures,
The late Neolithic spear-head,
Honed to perfection,
Carved with utmost care.
Each flint dislodged to form
Lethal edges of symmetrical
And a polished point
Bitter as a needle.
When the knapper stood back
To examine his work…
Elegance combined with utility,
Speed combined with precision…
Did he fear the first beads of molten ore
As they ran together and set hard?
Did he long to own the newest feats of engineering – 
The golden torc,
The bronze axe – 
Or did he lament the passing of this craft 
As the relentless pulse of technology move on.
Did he join with others of his trade
And protest the disappearance of their trade?
When did the last apprentice graduate
In the benign skill of 
Knapping flint?

Skara Brae, Orkney Isles

Whether I am in the hills
Hunting boar,
Or on the sea
Hunting fish
Or in the fields
With the barley or the beasts,
When the sun moves down,
I begin to think of Cadd,
Too heavy now with our second child
To stray far from the house.
I think about how the fire will be blazing

Before I reach the outer wall,
How, as we crouch to share out the shellfish catch
She will be heating the water and tearing herbs.

The day has been cloudless across the sea.
My face is burnt with sun and wind
My hands chilled as stone.
I stride through the passageway and Nitta comes running,
Grasps my knee, hugs and giggles.
She is the one that swells my heart.

When I went to find a stone for my mattock,
Nitta followed, singing to the flowers,
Gathering purple, yellow and white.
Cadd sat with her and named their gifts –
Which plants ease pain, which brings up a fever.
She spoke them after, like an echo of the cliffs,
With such clear intent 
It brought more water to my eyes
Than the passing of the Old One
Five moons ago.

The sun will go down red tonight,
As if bleeding into the hills.
After the fish is baked on the stones of the fire
And we are warm and replete,
I will take Cadd out.
We will lie on the soft heather and stare at the sky.
I will tell her the stars 
Are like the flowers of the land.
Both are scattered and purposeful and named.
And when she speaks them in her voice,
High as a bone pipe,
I will not mind if water comes again to my eyes

Spanish Song

 Heat virgin olive oil in a heavy pan,
Chop onion and gently fry
Crush garlic, but add later in case it might burn.
Heat the grill for the sweet peppers to sear…

 To sear in thirty degrees, 
Lay out the tropical towels 
Smear with factor ten in case we might burn
Add four thin bodies to the heat-swirled beach.

Add four thin pork boneless steaks to the pan.
Seal juices while peeling red peppers
Once they have blistered. Slice finely. 
Grind in black pepper, oregano seasoning…

Season for the murmurs of summer, 
For the glitter of the wide sea,
The screech and splash as the children leap,
For the sleepy Spanish tongue; those sun-dried sounds…

Drain and slice a jar of sun-dried tomatoes
Toss into pan the tomatoes and the peppers. 
Cover and simmer for twenty minutes
After which add twenty olives to salt the dish…

Salt in your hair and the feel of sand
Where the bar of your flip-flops grinds between your toes
Coming up the hill from the beach, stepping over wild thyme
Under the acacia trees into the marble chill of Los Arcos.

Chill the wine in the marble cooler,
As you lay out the ceramic you bought in Valencia.
Sweet pepper skins lift; gift-wrapped in scarlet tissue 
Spoon out the cerdo espanol and fluff up the rice

Long evenings, filled with fast guitars,
Smells of ceno from the next apartamento 
Twirl round the table to Flamenco,

Fast guitars and Spanish song.

Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland

Out of the flat, black sea
Strides Fionn Mac Cumhail
His massive head 
Rises from the waves,
His vast shoulders
Shine with sea-brine.
In his one hand, he carries the sword of his people.
In his other, the spear.
Taller than two men, he is, 
As he emerges from the ocean 
And takes long steps across the Causeway,
Each hexagonal pillar lightly taking the ball of his foot.

It is said that he left his boot 
On the shore strand,
And his eye on the cliff,
But I think that Fionn lost his head 
At the Giant’s Causeway.

Only an old fool in love 
Would dream that
The fairest maid in all Ireland
Might choose him,
For all his wealth, prestige, power
And might on the field of battle,
Above Dairmuid,
The young upstart bound by geis and honour.

So, Finn reaches the cliff and 
Roars his displeasure on his land,
Scanning the horizon.
But the lovers have vanished,
And already sleep on their stony bed.

Faro Island, Portugal

She said; 
It’s a long road, straight, you can’t miss it once you’ve turned the roundabout.

She said;
Go over the bridge. That’s what makes it an island. 

 She said;
You’ll see where to park. You can buy an ice cream.

She said; 
 No one stays long.

She didn’t say;
Walk along the leeward side, facing the mainland, you won’t see a soul all the way.

She didn’t say; 
Climb over the brackeny dunes and walk back along the beach with an Atlantic wind in your     hair.

She didn’t say;
The moored boats are like jewels and the birds are wishes that can fly.

She didn’t say; 
You’ll think the little houses are shuttered against the winter until someone cries ‘Carlos! Comida!’

 She said to tell her what we thought of Faro island.

 We told her we liked the ice cream.