Non fiction and poetry are good and noble genres. However the fact is that, like I would imagine a majority of first time and unpublished authors, it was fiction I really wanted to write, and in particular, novels.
Twenty five years ago and fresh out of university I did try. I wrote one children's novel as a student teacher, and one in my first year as a teacher. With the blithe innocence of youth I bought my copy of Writers' and Artists' yearbook, and sent them off to a couple of publishers. The inevitable rejection letters followed, and that was that.
Actually the first one really was no great shakes - even I can admit that. I think you really need to actually write a novel in order to learn HOW to write a novel, and this can have the effect on that first attempt that you make. The second I have a lingering fondness for, although the typescript disappeared or was thrown out years ago. I did use it with a class in school once twenty years ago, and it seemed to go down quite well. Still , there we are.
Lets fast forward to 6 or 7 years ago. That was when I had the idea for the novel which eventually became my first to be published in ebook format, called "Ermine Stone and the Iron Spider". I wasn't looking to write a novel , and I wasn't looking for an idea. It just happened, and this is how it happened.
I read a wonderful book all about London Bridge, by Patricia Pearce. I loved this book so much that when I came to choose my subjects for Mastermind in 2007 I knew that I wanted to do London Bridge as my specialist subject for the final. Not long after I finished the book I had a very brief scenario , almost a vision really, come into my head, of a disgruntled magician having to undergo all the bureaucratic inconvenience of registering an apprentice with a union, or an association of magicians - who would have their headquarters on old London Bridge.
- Interesting - I thought to myself, and filed it away in my memory , and didn't think about it again.
The idea wouldn't completely die, though. Every now and then I'd keep coming back to it, and I began to do what led to me actually writing the story. I asked myself a question.
What kind of England would it have been in order for there to be a Society or Guild of Magicians openly practising on London Bridge ?
Well, if I didn't answer it, nobody else was going to. So without actually having a story, I began putting some ideas down on paper about how the guild would have worked. I thought I was writing this just for my own amusement, but without realising it I was actually starting to create the world in which the story could happen.
I enjoyed writing these background pieces very much, and when I started to plan the narrative it occured to me that I could use these in a very particular way. When I was 16 I read Frank Herbert's "Dune ". It knocked me out, I thought it was the finest science fiction novel I had ever read, and I still think its a remarkable piece of work. One stylistic feature of the book is the way that Herbert introduces each chapter with quotations from the literature of the universe he creates - some of which are very long indeed. This gives the book remarkable depth and texture. Now , I don't claim for one minute that my work is of anything like the same kind of scope as "Dune", but as a stylistic device I thought that using my background pieces in this way could be very effective.
Here's an extract from that first background piece that I wrote, all about the magicians' guilds and how they worked. In the novel it comes before the start of the narrative of Chapter five : -
"Chapter Five – Leaving for London
“Five English cities currently host a Guild of Magicians. These are London, York, Winchester, Durham and Chester. Both Canterbury and Carlisle also claim to have such guilds, but neither have had any members for over two centuries, and are therefore assumed to be defunct. The magician’s guild of Carlisle was unable to compete for members with York and Durham. To be a magician in Canterbury was to make oneself a social outcast, and to risk starvation in such a church city.
According to Sir James Tolley’s “The Ancient Canon Law, Common Law and Customs of England“
“ Only a member of a magicians guild may practice any form of magic within this land. If any person shall be found to have performed magic of any sort within the boundaries of England, or any land or lands which fall under its protection and jurisdiction, then that person shall be deemed a witch, and shall be prosecuted with all due haste. The penalty for witchcraft is death.”
In theory each guild polices the use of unlicensed magic. Each guild exercises authority over a considerable region of England. The guild of Winchester exercises authority over the west and south west of England, inclusive of the Duchy of Cornwall. The guild of Chester exercise authority over the whole of Wales, and that part of England commonly called the Middle Lands as far east as Warwickshire. The guild of Durham claims authority over the counties of Durham, Northumbria, Westmoreland and Cumberland.
So much is straightforward. However the two remaining guilds, of London and York, not only claim authority over part of their neighbours’ territories, but also pre-eminence over each other. It is true to say that York exercise authority over a greater area than London. Even without disputed areas in Westmoreland and Northumbria the York guild has effective authority for all of the Middle Lands east of Warwickshire, the three thrithings of Yorkshire, and the whole of Lincolnshire.
However London claims pre-eminence through being the oldest of the Magicians Guilds. Its own area of authority is by no means negligible either. Since the demise of the guild of Canterbury , London’s authority effectively extends throughout Kent and Sussex, the ancient kingdom of east Anglia, the University shires of Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, and all of the counties of South East England.
Needless to say, there is little love lost between the guilds of York and London.
Members of each guild take a justifiable pride in their own guild’s individuality. Chestermen, with the whole of Wales under their jurisdiction, boast of their skill in traditional Celtic magic, as do the men of Durham, who have strong Scottish and Pictish influence. The Winchestermen also point to the great magical traditions of Cornwall. Men of York boast of their strong Scandinavian traditions, but this is also just as true of the men of Durham. The men of London traditionally have a far more catholic approach to magic, although in the past they have drawn on magic from Gaul, and even Iberia.
Although each of the five guilds does possess its own unique character it is far easier to catalogue their similarities than their differences. As a rule the magicians guilds have strongest links with those guilds concerned with construction, for example the carpenters, joiners, masons and shipwrights. The magicians also have excellent links with the various metalsmiths and the cutlers. The guild of poets and the musicians have an understandable affinity with each of the five guilds, especially those of Chester and Durham. Of course, the magicians’ closest link is with the guild of Genealogists, and also the Most Worshipful Company of Scriveners, whose services are so vital to their own functioning.
Conversely there a traditional antipathy between the Guild of Magicians and the company of Apothecaries, and the Alchemists’ Guild. This is understandable, considering that the magicians’ skills can encroach upon their businesses. In bygone years this was a cause of much strife between the guilds, which was only resolved by the far sighted fifth master of the London Guild of Magicians, Gilbert Wace. Wace introduced what we would now call a code of conduct for magicians, clearly setting out what a magician might reasonably do in the course of his trade, and what he should not do in case it encroached upon the province of brother guilds. The Deed of Wace was not only adopted by the London guild, but also by each of the other magicians’ guilds in England, seeing how the prestige and status of the London magicians were enhanced through this selfless act. Eventually this led to the election of Gilbert Wace as Lord Mayor of London during the final year of his tenure as master of the Guild of Magicians. To date he is the only master of the Guild of Magicians ever to rise to this exalted position. He is also the only member of the guild to be buried in St. Paul’s cathedral.
This is not to say that there is now never any hostility between magicians, apothecaries and alchemists, but it rarely erupts into open warfare.
Wace also instituted the court system, to bring the guild in line with the other worshipful companies of the City. He decreed that the guild would be presided over by a master, elected for a period of three years. At the same time three officials with wide ranging powers and authority would also be elected, called the Upper, Middle and Lower Wardens. After the three year tenure of the Master is complete, then only the Wardens may stand for election as master. If only one candidate stands then there is no need for an election, but in practice this rarely tends to happen. Once a magician reaches the rank of warden he knows that the next election is his only realistic chance of becoming the master.
In the next rank below the wardens are the court assistants. The guild may elect as few as three or as many as ten assistants, depending on the number of eligible candidates. Once the three year tenure is over the court assistants may stand for election to position of warden. These elections tend to be hot blooded affairs, where ill feeling can lead to illegal use of magic, which results in expulsion from the guild. Once a magician has completed a tenure as court assistant, unless elected as a warden he may not stand again for election for the next six years. Once a magician has been master, he may never stand for election again.
Once again, where Wace and London led, the other guilds followed, despite what they may claim. The other four guilds have almost identical hierarchical structures to London, and only the titles that they use are different.
Each of the five guilds has established suitably impressive premises in which to operate. York led the way, establishing a fine hall in the Coppergate, the Viking quarter of the city. The men of Durham built an impressive stone hall, almost adjoining the castle, much to the annoyance of the cathedral authorities. A similar building was built by the men of Winchester. The Chestermen built a good and serviceable edifice around the Wolf’s gate in the city’s sturdy walls. The last to establish a new and permanent home was the London guild. However it is fair to say that the London guild’s Guildhall is the most impressive of all. Walter Newdigate, the seventh master of the London guild, persuaded the guild that their hall should be built in no other place than on London Bridge itself, between the drawbridge gate, and the Chapel of St. Thomas a Becket, the patron saint of the City of London.
One last noteworthy similarity between the five guilds is their strict conditions for acceptance and entry to the guild. The most important of these are the conditions of acceptance for an apprentice. This needs careful explanation. Becoming apprentice does not mean acceptance into the guild itself. However with a little diligence and application an apprentice will, in time, progress to guild membership on his qualification as a novice. Most novices attain the level of competence necessary to reach the rank of journeyman within a few years, and more skilled magicians achieve the rank of master magician. This is not to be confused with the rank of Master of the guild of magicians, of which there is only ever one.
A boy must be apprenticed within his twelfth year. He may only be apprenticed if he is sponsored by a member of one of the five guilds. Crucially he will not be accepted unless he can demonstrably prove that he comes from a family of at least three generations of magicians, which must take the form of a genealogy produced by a member of the scriveners’ guild, working to the instructions of a member of the worshipful company of genealogists. Finally the boy will be accepted, provided that he passes a test of magical competence.”
From “The English Cities and their Ancient and Honourable Guilds “ by William Tirrell" "
I also tried to weave London Bridge into parts of the story where possible, and this extract hopefully demonstrates this - it comes in the middle of Chapter Six-
"Robin Inkpen’s work was not an obvious forgery. What Justin Quilp saw was an aged document, as it should be , which showed the work of several scriveners, probably of different generations of the same family, which again was as it should have been. However , he could see that this was the work of northcountrymen, and although Justin Quilp had seen applications from men from all over the country at one time or another, it was sufficiently rare for him to feel a little more cautious than normal. So he decided to show the document to Old Tom.
Old Tom was so called because he was the oldest inhabitant of the Guildhall. This was because he was a stone statue which had been sculpted to adorn the exterior of the hall when it was first built in 1399 under the direction of Walter Newdigate. This made Old Tom 174 years old. He was actually a statue of St. Thomas a Becket, the only statue ever to adorn the exterior of the hall, and he had been carved upon the north side as a nod of respect towards the chapel.
In the year 1436, during the annual holiday for the anniversary of the birth of Gilbert Wace, the only member of the Magicians’ guild ever to become Lord Mayor of London, two of the guild magicians had rather too much to drink. To be honest they were both blind, roaring drunk. This is not a wise state to get yourself into when you are standing on a bridge. More than one magician had lost his life in the waters of the Thames as it swirled through the narrow arches. These two managed to keep well in the centre of the bridge street, but they had an idea which would never have occurred to them if they had been sober. They wove a spell of enchantment on the statue of St. Thomas , so that its head came to life. This would have been bad enough, for the statue was in a very prominent position on the side of the hall, facing the city. But it was worse than that. They enchanted the stone so that it would shout violent obscenities the moment that it saw anybody coming out of the chapel, especially if they were wearing the robes of a monk or a priest.
The next day a huge crowd gathered outside to watch the spectacle of the statue of St. Thomas screaming at Abbot Godefroi that he was a fat, ugly warthog. Two magicians shamefacedly confessed to their crime.
Of course the crowd were all for having the magicians leave the statue as it was, but this was never an option. To be fair the two perpetrators tried their best to remove the enchantment. They managed to make it stop swearing and cursing. But try as they might they never managed to send the head of the statue back to sleep again. So the guild court decided that the best thing would be to find a mason who would be prepared to hack the statue off the face of the building, whence it was taken into the Great Hall while decisions would be made as to what could actually be done with it. What happened to the two magicians who enchanted it in the first place, History does not record.
Sometimes it would take the guild court a long time to make a decision. 137 years later, in 1573, a final decision over the fate of the statue had still to be reached. To be honest nobody really saw the urgency of making the decision now. Over the years the men of the guild had become extremely fond of the statue, or Old Tom as he had now become known to one and all. Old Tom himself , although he could not move any part of himself except his head, had no wish to be put back to sleep himself either. Although he had been cured of the swearing sickness he was still quite prone to turning the air blue whenever the subject of standing outside in all weathers, and being used as a public lavatory by seagulls and pigeons was brought into the conversation.
Old Tom would tell anyone passing through the hall that one of the good things about being made of stone is that you never forget anything. Once a memory is held in stone, it is held forever. Of course, a stone mind doesn’t tend to work as fast as a flesh and blood one, so whenever people went to ask Old Tom something they might well be in for a long wait. But his memory was completely reliable, and his opinions and ideas, formed over so many decades of experience of guild business, were usually to be trusted.
So that's how the one basic idea for the book came about - the boy being taken to the guild of magicians on London Bridge - and that's how I started trying to create the world in which the story could happen. How I actually started to construct the narrative I'll explain in the next post.
Ermine Stone and the Iron Spider
is available on kindle through Amazon - just click on the link in My books and web pages on the right