It’s done! It’s FINALLY done! 

It comes in at 229,000 words over 737 double-spaced pages and I hit the final full stop at 12:02 am on Tuesday, September 30, 2014 in a hospedaje in Cuzco, PeruI offer some reflections on the duo-logy of Northern Fire, with its component parts, Harbinger and The Winter Wars. 

From Frozen Wasteland to Fertile Ground

As a single story, it took a long time to write. That’s because it simply sat on a shelf for a long time. I started it in, I think, 2001 or 2002. It’s so long ago now that frankly I’m not sure. I think it was just after having finished Gallows Gem, of which I managed to nail down a draft in 2000, so it wouldn’t have been too long thereafter. I didn’t get very far when I discovered that the carefully planned, plot-driven narrative adhering-to-a-strict-outline approach to novel writing also had its drawbacks.

Let me explain.

In the “Acknowledgements” part of Gallows Gem, I noted how that project came into being. It was a chaotic mess at the beginning and I wanted to avoid repeating that at all costs. So, for Northern Fire I drafted up a schematic of boxes representing chapters and inside the boxes I jotted down the key plot advances for each chapter, with one box leading neatly to the other. Away I went … only to discover that if the chaos of Gallows Gem forced me to sort out a storyline from a collection of disparate chunks of text, at least it had the virtue of being largely character driven. Perhaps people can write effectively “inside the boxes” but I clearly cannot. A character will sometimes speak to me and I will get carried off, narrative be damned. Frankly, this is the main reason the manuscript grew and grew and I found myself with nigh on 500 pages of text and I hadn’t even gotten to boxes representing what I had been considering the middle of the book (which led to Josée’s suggestion that I separate it into two component books).

All this gives a glimpse into my process, and I am sure most people frankly don’t care, but it’s important to me because the conflict between the boxes and what was calling out to me made me set aside the book for many years. I remember my good friend Barry Parkinson helping me out with verse back in 2004 when I took a bit of time off, supposedly to write. So, I must not have done much between 2001/02 and that spring/summer. When we packed up and went to Kenya in 2006, I think I had a hundred pages down and hoped the posting would give me time to finish it in draft form. I don’t think I touched it there. In fact, it was only really upon arriving in Colombia that the book took off, and it might not have done so if not for the encouragement of my wife, Josée, who has played a larger role in helping Northern Fire come together and who was the brain behind the idea of splitting it into two more manageable parts. Also, my good friend and fellow writer, Luke Sookocheff, invested a great deal of time and effort being a sounding board for me. His encouragement really pulled Northern Fire back from the wilderness. 

Thanks to them, and finally finding the discipline to knuckle down and do the actual work required, I managed to make great progress here in Bogotá. I arrived here with those 100 pages and managed to generate about 637 pages more over the past two years. It must be the altitude…

Opening Doors to a Post-Diplomatic Life:

Those of you who follow my Twitter account or who have read this website attentively will know that I am a diplomat. Representing Canada in Colombia is my day job and I write in evenings and on weekends, carving out opportunities when I can to immerse myself in my imagination. Well, I wasn’t completely sure I could become a writer until The Winter Wars gave me renewed belief. I now have no doubt that I can do something after my diplomatic career comes to a conclusion, perhaps in as little as a year and a bit.

Let me explain.

In the part above, I noted how Northern Fire took years and years to complete, mostly because I let it sit on a shelf for a long time. Frankly, I doubted whether or not my pipe dream of being a “writer” was just that, a pipe dream. How can one claim to be a writer if one cannot get the words to flow, and hence, takes a dozen years to write a book? And yet, in late 2012, Harbinger took off and, over the months that followed, got so long that my wife Josée convinced me to turn Northern Fire into a duo-logy and bring the first half of the project to a close. So, I remember sitting in a rented finca in the Eje Cafetero, the beautiful coffee-growing region of Colombia, during the visit of our dear friends Heather and Bill, and beginning Part One, Chapter One, as told by a new character, Marrakus the merchant. By February of 2014, despite some hick-ups (accidentally deleting my entire text!) I had a lot done. I had effectively written enough of The Winter Wars already to have the belief that I could, indeed, claim to call myself a writer.

Thinking like a Polgati, I offer you the following proof; over a little more than eleven months, I wrote the four-hundred pages of The Winter Wars while advancing other projects that go with being a credible writer (getting this website up and running, commissioning art work for Gallows Gem, planning and executing the launch of Gallows Gem, etc). I even managed a couple of (very) short stories within the context of being a guest writer invited to partake in a meeting of Bogota Writers, an English language writers’ group in the city where I currently live. So, when I typed the last line of the epilogue at the end of September in Cuzco, Peru, while on holiday, I knew that I could be the writer I had dreamed of being.

Tapping a Different Muse … And Perhaps Failing!

Another element of Northern Fire, and Harbinger in particular, that was tricky for me is verse. This will come to no surprise to anyone who follows this blog. Anyway, I deliberately set myself a challenge with this work to create verse. I figured I couldn’t have an oral culture existing without including some manifestations of it running through the book. I already noted above that Barry helped me with one piece with which I was having trouble. Thank you Barry.

Although I have the first draft of the book complete, I know that I need to return to much of the verse and review it carefully. The Lay of Redeeming, in particular, really needs work. All this to say that the jury is still out on whether inserting verse has been successful. I continue to have doubts…

Tapping the Same Muse … And Succeeding, I Think!

Those who read the “Acknowledgements” of Gallows Gem will be familiar with the fact that some of the principal characters emerged out of role playing gaming I had done with a group of friends back in Lethbridge. Well, the same holds up for Northern Fire (this was the “other project” I referred to at the end of Gallows Gem). So I must again thank Paul Martyna, Bryan Svrcek and Terence Kaplan. Paul helped think up the Fjordlander culture and contributed the name and personality to Cairn. Bryan, I apologized in Gallows Gem for not giving Ælsmane a more prominent role … well, what do you think of Elkor? Thank you for having done a lot of the initial thinking about who he was and how he was. I hope you enjoyed where I took him. This time I must now apologize to Terence. I frankly don’t remember the character you created for this campaign. Sorry. Thanks for being part of the gang that helped the northlands come to life.

My friend Michael Kaduck once responded to me when I questioned the wisdom of tapping into RPG characters for my novels by pointing out that over all the gaming sessions we enjoyed, we built up a very solid understanding of who each character was. He noted that we likely had put hundreds of hours into character development. He convinced me that day, and I think the strength of the characters in this work are a testament to that thinking. I enjoyed seeing the characters in this book take me to some unexpected places. 

A Muse who Deserves Belated Recognition:

Again, those of you who follow this blog will have detected my esteem for John Bottomley, a great, but little-known, Canadian folk singer-songwriter whose music helped provide me inspiration during the writing of Northern Fire. Like I said, the draft had sat stubbornly at about 110 pages for about seven or eight years, steadfastly resisting my periodic efforts to get beyond hewing trees with Monsfried. The damnable thing finally shifted itself, with the pace accelerating through 2013, and I realized that John’s music was very often playing as I typed. I had met John with Josée and my brother William one night in Victoria in 2008 and we shared a wonderful glass of wine together (see the flash fiction story I wrote about the evening here).

Alas, he will never know how he helped me. One night I decided to go to his website (http://www.johnbottomley.net) and send him an e-mail thanking him for his great music, for providing me inspiration via that music and encouraging him to keep writing songs. I got a message back from his common law wife, Angela Muellers, noting that John had tragically taken his own life. I exchanged a few e-mails with her and promised her I would make sure to acknowledge John’s impact upon me. Here it is and I will also ensure it gets into Harbinger. I miss John’s presence in this world, but his music exists for all to discover and from which anyone can draw meaning.

The Dearest Muses who Deserve the Most Recognition of All:

I already mentioned that Josée helped a great deal as a source of encouragement and as a sounding board for Northern Fire as it progressed. She also carved out space for me to ensure that I could write, everything from renting fincas for us for weekends away from the city to booking a cross-Peru train ride during our holidays rather than stick us into buses! She also tolerated (barely) the late night writing binges and the ensuing icicle that climbed into bed with her. In sum, I really must acknowledge the profound, enriching impact on me of having her as part of my life. How fun it is to share this grand adventure we all live with her! 

Then there is another who, every day of this book's writing, did her upmost best to ensure that my household was a happy one; Sanja, our lovely, strange, German Shepherd - supposedly Labrador mix. During the eleven months of writing The Winter Wars, her brother Pinot, to whose memory I have decided to dedicate partially, died after the dog hotel we put him in for a long weekend stupidly gave him a double dose of insulin. Thus 2014 was marked by a period of great sadness for our household, but certainly not for want of effort from Sanja. She proved resilient in the aftermath of his passing and never hesitated to share her joy for life with us. Thank you for being part of our family, Sanja. We hope you remain in it for a good long time to come.

And yes, if you're wondering, Mystic is largely modelled on her, albeit a much braver Sanja than really exists.

ian at ianmckinley dot com (written this way to guard against spam … you know how to interpret it) © Ian McKinley 2016