Risingshadow has the honour of publishing Geoffrey Gudgion's guest post.
Geoffrey Gudgion lives with his wife in the Chiltern Hills between London and Oxford. When not writing or consulting, he's also a keen horseman and a very bad pianist. Both of these passions have been known to creep into his writing.
Geoffrey Gudgion is the author of Saxon's Bane.
Click here to visit the author's official website.
FROM TOLKIEN NERD TO SAXON'S BANE BY GEOFFREY GUDGION
Confession time. I was the kind of irritating schoolboy who actually enjoyed English homework if it involved an essay. What’s more I was a Tolkien kid, the nerd who’d rather lose himself in Lord of the Rings than play football, a dreamer who could turn quieter corners of the English countryside into a mental backdrop for some heroic deed of the Little Folk.
“What inspired you?” asked Seregil, whose name itself evokes an elven hero of Middle Earth. “What drove you to write Saxon’s Bane?”
Well, I suppose some of that Tolkein-esque wonder never left me. Did you ever stand still and close your eyes in one of England’s ancient woodlands, the kind whose soil has never known a plough? In their mossy depths you can inhale a mighty peace. Sometimes you can catch the scent of an otherness, and almost imagine that the land itself is aware; passive, perhaps, in a sleeping-giant sort of way, but still sentient.
So, apart from JRR, my first inspiration was the English countryside. Not as the setting for epic fantasy, despite the millennia of history written on its face, but more the inspiration for mystery. Have you ever run your hand across an ancient standing-stone, and wondered, as the lichen crumbles under your fingers, about the beliefs of the people that put it there?
Then there was The Professor. Imagine a crusty Cambridge don, lightly dusted with chalk and trailing a whiff of college port, a man who who was probably inspiring undergraduates with his Historical Geography lectures even before the old king died. He regarded us with benevolent amusement, but he knew how to light fires in our minds. “Allingley,” he might have said, waving a black-gowned arm as he dissected English place-names. “Saxon settlement! From -leah, a woodland clearing, and –ingas, the people of, and Aegl or Egil, a chieftain who chose this spot to ground his spear and plant his generations. The clearing of Aegl’s folk. Allingley.”
Now wasn’t there a Saxon legend about a warrior of that name, who made an epic quest in search of his wife Olrun, the Swan Maiden? And why is Allingley’s stream called the Swanbourne? The seed of an idea was planted, and it grew into a the outline of a story that would bring the Saxon past to life in the present day.
Any story that blends the past and the present into the same plot is likely to have a supernatural twist, but I wanted the connection to be ambiguous. I like the kind of ghost story where a plausible explanation hovers in the background, where there’s just a trace of sulphur amongst the roses, but the reader doesn’t have to suspend their disbelief. I like plot links that set up questions rather than feed the answers; a speeding car, for example, that crashes as it swerves to avoid a stag, and the peat-preserved body of a Saxon warrior that is uncovered nearby with a stag tattoo still visible on his forehead. A crash survivor who doesn’t know whether what he saw at the edge of death was real or a product of his own traumatised mind.
I’m told that every first novel is to some extent autobiographical. You write about stuff you know, and feel passionately about. Most of it is thrown out in early drafts when you realise it doesn’t contribute much to the plot, but some of it stays, and grows, and shapes the story. Music tried to join the fun (I’m a very bad pianist) and was edited back to being grace-notes on the underlying melody, but horses cantered into Saxon’s Bane and stayed. Some time after my daughter introduced me to the adrenalin rush as you surge and soar over a jump, I also noticed how a horse’s empathy can unlock something deep within us. Instinctively, I knew that I could use the idea of horse-as-healer as part of the character arc of the crash survivor who, in his first contact with a horse, ‘found the touch unexpectedly comforting, like a distant echo of childhood, as if he was once again a hurt infant who had found a soothing presence that was large and gentle and warm.’ That combination worked.
I find that an author can be inspired by his own characters, once they have taken shape. There’s a young pagan woman in Saxon’s Bane, a bright-eyed, fresh-faced earth mother who anchors much of the plot. I named her with the Anglo Saxon words for ‘little princess’ and ‘keeper of horses’, and I think I was a little in love with her by the time I finished the book. She is the counter-balance for the archaeologist, who is an intense, intelligent woman struggling to reconcile her academic discipline with her growing, preternatural understanding of her own excavation, and which makes her doubt her own sanity.
Then there’s the crash survivor, a man who has touched the shadow world and found his way back, and who is exhibiting symptoms that some might label ‘Post Traumatic Stress’. He’s vulnerable, emotionally incontinent, and stubborn, but he fights. Even when the only weapon left to him is a bloody-minded refusal to let go, he fights. Because when the past comes crashing into the present, and he and the archaeologist seem destined to share the Saxon’s fate, it will be too late to run.
For two years these characters became intensely real to me; I shared their pain and joys, laughed with them and sometimes wept with them. They became close friends, and it was hard to leave them behind when I started the next project. I’m told that they hang in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished, which is hugely flattering. If that’s so, I’ve done my job as a writer.