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A Long Road (Part 1)

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

"It's been a long road/Gettin' from there to here/It's been a long time/But my time is finally near"

Free copy of the print version of Three Kinds of North for the first person to identify where those lines come from* (as long as you don't mind giving me your postal address). Drop me an email and we'll take it from there. I'm trusting you not to just Google it!

I must confess, without giving the answer away, that I never really cared for the song, but those lines do express what I feel now Three Kinds of North is finally out in the wild. It has been a long road.

Originally I wrote one lengthy novel (c140,000 words), which I called (you guessed) The Shattered Moon. I wrote the final line of the first complete draft on 10th December 2017. Yes, I made a note. I even made a note of what I was listening to at the time (Close to the Edge).

Even then it had been a long time in the making. It was already more than twenty years, possibly nearer thirty, since I wrote what would become the opening chapter of Three Kinds of North. I had no idea then that it would take so long to come to fruition.

A lot has happened since. You can get an idea of the overall shape of things from the 'Long Version' bio on the website. As I say there, 'All through these years I still had stories bubbling away in my mind, and would write in whatever spare time I could find.'

But how did it all begin?

If you're looking for answers to the perennial question, "Where do you get your ideas from?", prepare to be disappointed. It's a question every author gets, and I suspect most dread. Like many others, I have no simple answer. However, I do have some thoughts about things in my life, and in my reading, which have probably ended up in the mix somewhere.

I guess my own University years had something to do with the idea of the Dawnsingers' College. Ironically, I spent those years at an all-male college (St John's, Cambridge); in that sense, at least, the antithesis of the Dawnsingers' College. Feel free to suggest that the idea of populating a similar environment with females began as wish-fulfilment!

The Dawnsingers' College doesn't look much like this… but here's a secret. The plan of the College which I roughed out to help in writing was based on the layout of St John's.

My relationship with my College, like Jerya's with hers, was ambiguous. Sometimes I felt like I'd found an ideal place; sometimes I felt I hardly fit in at all. Short of trying to psychoanalyse myself, I can't say a lot more. But one thought just popped into my head: I and my friends did like seeking out pubs which weren't totally student-dominated. Perhaps there's a trace of that in Jerya's forays to the tavern to visit Rodal. Also, memories of intense alcohol-enhanced sessions of 'putting the world to rights' in someone's room are surely reflected in one particular chapter.

And then there's reading. I devoured books of all genres from an early age, but was hooked on science fiction since I found the likes of Andre Norton, James Blish, and Patrick Moore in the local Children's Library. I rapidly graduated to adult titles, at a time when the 'big three' were Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.

I soon found that I was particularly fascinated by stories that explored the ways people can live (and live together) rather than ones that were tech-heavy, or were just war/horror stories with a different backdrop. Of course, much of what I was reading then looks pretty dubious through 21st-century eyes. There are lots of big ideas in Asimov's original Foundation trilogy, but where are all the women? Similarly, I was riveted by Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, but re-reading TMIAHM a few years ago was quite a shock. How did I not see…?

And then I picked up a book that (I suspect) permanently rearranged my head. It certainly shook up the way I thought about science fiction, and about writing in general, and gave me a favourite author for life. That book was The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin, published in 1969. I''ve more to say about this and some of my other favourite books in another post, so I'll be brief here.

LHOD nailed, once and for all, the myth that SF doesn't do character; it focused on sociological rather than technological themes; and it the ice-cap trek with its wonderful descriptions of landscape was guaranteed to resonate with me. Above all it, famously, plays with gender roles through the Gethenian people, who are both asexual and genderless, except in their intervals of kemmer. Again, you could psychoanalyse me on this if you want; all I can say is that I was fascinated.

Somewhere around this time, I read two other books which explored, in very different ways, the idea of a society (in one case an entire world) composed entirely of women: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland and Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet. Though much older (1915 vs 1959) I'd suggest Herland stands the test of time rather better. You can judge Virgin Planet by the unquestioned assumption that a man—just an average, random, man—would automatically be "the biggest, strongest, human on the planet", even though some of that planet's women are trained hunters or fighters cloned from a specially selected ancestor. I'm happy to say I could see the fallacy even as a young reader close on 50 years ago.

I took Virgin Planet's basic premise—lone male castaway on all-female world—for one of my early attempts at a novel. Whatever else was good or bad about it, I made sure not to fall into the 'biggest, strongest' trap. There are two people in the world who've read it, and it's likely to stay that way.

I'm sure there are many more things—in life, in books, on film and on TV—that have fed into the world of The Shattered Moon. Maybe a few will find a mention in later newsletters. I'll certainly be saying more about books that have made an impression on me; I might even reveal where I stand on the 'Star Trek or Star Wars' debate. For now, just one more note.

If you've read Three Kinds of North, or at least the first few chapters, you could be forgiven for wondering if you're actually reading a fantasy novel. Well, here's the thing: when I started writing it, I wasn't sure whether or not I was writing one. Obviously, I came to a decision eventually, but I've kept that ambiguity—I might prefer to say 'openness'—unresolved until well on into the book. The tension between what people believe, and what's actually true, is central to the story. I wish I could say I planned it that way all along.

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