Building Worton | Keeping the Faith

One of the key questions a writer should ask themselves when creating any character is what their religion is. Are they Christian? Are they Jewish or Hindu or Islamic? Do they, in fact, have no religion at all? Are they an atheist? The answer depends on the context,  a Buddhist in Anglo Saxon England is going to be a bit out of place, to use an example, but it is important to answer the question nevertheless as it will inform the character’s actions and how those actions impact on the story.

Dark Legend, being set in the modern, mostly secular world, means that religion doesn’t play that big a part in the main story. That doesn’t mean that the characters don’t have any kind of faith or belief system though. Between them they have a whole mixed bag of faiths and beliefs and this affects them and the story in different ways.

Will is an Atheist, as Harris mocks him for at one point: ‘Christmas? You don’t believe in Christianity, Jesus or God Fleming…’ As Will then rebuffs, he believes in Christmas as well as peace on earth for that one day each year. So he does have some, limited sort of belief and that, I think, is solely down to the society he lives in. Without any God to guide him, Will knows that there isn’t going to be any miracle or salvation coming. He knows that the only thing stopping humanity from going over the edge is humanity itself. For Will, death is the end and when he loses his friends he’s lost them forever. For him there is no happy reunion in the sky. Thanks also to him bottling up his emotions, this means he gets more cut up about those deaths than anybody else- He often blames himself.

Not having to worry about sin and damnation also means that his morality is somewhat dubious. He’ll sleep around and not care. He’ll blow up buildings and not care. Only when people get hurt or injured or damaged does he care, he has that much morality at least.

In terms of faith Will is interesting because his Mother’s family were Jewish. This means, under Jewish law, that Will is also Jewish. If you told him this, however, he would tell you that he isn’t because he doesn’t have any religion. It adds a nice slant to his childhood Christmases where he would go around to his friend Zac’s for the day, Zac also being Jewish. His dad’s family, going back three generations, are atheists. Max, Anna and Mable are the last three to have any kind of solid religion, in their case Christianity.

Contrast Will with Hailey. Like Will, Hailey is also an atheist but one who was brought up in the throngs of Catholicism. Her parents were both Catholic and when we first meet her she’s a pupil at a Catholic boarding school run by nuns. (Why is it always nuns? Errr… Because nuns are funnier than regular teachers?) Though an atheist, she has a great many superstitions and is incredibly open to ideas surrounding the supernatural. This is emphasised in Sting where she comes to believe that there is something behind the walls of the gate. Dast doesn’t believe her, although she is partially right. Later on she mentions that she heard it speaking to her as well, to which Will responds by asking ‘did those nuns never teach you to ignore voices in your head?’ I won’t spoil what Hailey’s answer is.

By far the character who is most visibly impacted by religion is Dast. Though, like many of the other characters, he’s an atheist, his story is wrapped up in his mixed Islamic/Hindu background. Being gay, he appalled his dyed in the wool father and was thrown from the house, running away to Worton, where we first meet him some years afterwards. Without that incident, an incident which originates from Hassan Sayeff’s strong beliefs, Dast would not be in the right place to take part in the story. Like Hailey, he still has some remnants of belief and this shows up from time to time.

I also imagine that Gertie Barnes is a regular churchgoer, dragging her reluctant nephew along with her. I imagine she dresses up for it as well. That would certainly fit with her character.

Religion itself crops up now and again in the story itself, like in Sting where Will, Doug and Joe take shelter in an abandoned church. This gives rise to Will telling a story about a hypocritical priest. Earlier, in the first book, we visit St Felicity’s church, where according to Doug (wrongly,) Greg went for the purposes of being touched up- There’s also a bit of an Easter egg somewhere in that bit by the way, just so you know. There’s also Muriel Fisher, who, to the couch-bound Will’s irritation, watches religious programmes on a Sunday despite not being religious. Dast also briefly mentions how the Mersey is as sacred as the Ganges in Stop The Cavalry– A fact which is actually true.

At the end of this year I’ll be releasing a four part Christmas story that exists a little outside the main narrative. It features Eliza, Dan, Doug and Amanda (with a few appearances by Will and Harper and a cameo from Randy.) Being a Christmas story religion plays a massive role and all I will say is that accusations of blasphemy occur more than once within it.

Religion is a necessary part of fiction, especially if you want your writing to have life and a grounding of realism. Dark Legend is not a book about religion, but because it is set in our world, in the real world, religion has to play its part in the character’s lives, even if its influence is only passive.

Building Worton is a series of posts going behind and beyond the scenes of the Dark Legend books (Spawn, Swarm, Stop the Cavalry and Sting) and the Morfaverse at large. Everything is available from Amazon in various formats.


The Barricade

I’m increasingly becoming of the opinion that literary agencies are more a hindrance to getting properly published than a help, especially in my case. I’ve long suspected that one of the reasons I’m being rejected because I don’t fit into their conservative, middle class mould but I’m getting the impression, sometimes, that my work isn’t even being read at all, let alone read by the right people. I feel like I’m not even being given a fair chance.

You’d suspect, for example, that a book which is becoming more and more socially relevant by the day would peak somebody’s interest, but it hasn’t. I just get the same standard ‘it’s good but there’s no place for this in the current market.’ (See above for what that basically means!) There should always be room for socially relevant books in the market, but in this case I’m just being fobbed off.

So what do I do? Keep trying to break through their impenetrable barricade? Or do I try and find a way around that barricade?

On the independent road I am getting somewhere right now. In a few places some big fish are starting to sit up and take notice. Some of this year’s promotional pushes are yielding results too, though not all. The new paperbacks have been a massive boon as well. That isn’t going to sustain me forever though. Forgetting that my mental health won’t allow it, it’s also never going to get me into a position where I can make an actual difference, a proper impact on an industry that is crying out for radical new ideas. I HAVE to get over the barricade.

Publishers do not accept author requests, however. Soliciting directly is definitely out of the question. They REQUIRE people to go through an agent. This is understandable, they have better things to do than read through one hundred trash manuscripts a day. From what I’ve read the agencies have a bad enough job themselves. They’re struggling to cope by wave after wave of people thinking, for some reason, that writing is an easy job.  Perhaps that’s another reason why I’m not getting through- My stuff is just being drowned in a noise of other attempts. But as of right now there is no other option but to join in with those masses.

The main problem with the current route to publication, I think, lies with the gatekeepers. It lies with the agencies and the first hurdle. There is a widespread problem in that they’re definitely not doing enough to promote a vibrant and diverse literary scene. There is so much written on the internet about how certain people, certain ethnic and cultural groups and certain areas of society are underrepresented in fiction and the tendency is to blame the publishers. I don’t think so, not entirely anyway. It could well be that the underrepresented just aren’t getting through to the agencies, that like myself they aren’t even being considered because they don’t fit a certain mould.

In Britain, for example, working class fiction and the working class author used to be a huge thing. Now it has all but vanished. The authorial landscape is increasingly homogeneous to fifty-sixty year old white, middle class men (often with slicked back grey hair and a degree in English literature) writing low quality thrillers (or in one case, fodder for teenage girls written in what I can only describe as a disturbingly fetishistic way) or white, upper-middle class, middle aged women writing things for their own social niche. Quite often they aren’t very challenging Anybody outside those areas (like, say, anyone who is in their mid twenties and working class) doesn’t stand a chance. There is a place for those books, everybody deserves and NEEDS to be represented, but currently that is not happening outside these areas.

There has to be a solution and a way over the barricade, for both myself and all the others who are being undeservedly ignored because they don’t fit in. What that may be eludes me right now, however.

Sorry if this came across as a bit of a rant. I just needed to let my feelings out.

Building Worton | Could it Ever Happen?

A mutant plague is all well and good within the context of science fiction, but what about here in the real world? Could something like the Dark Legend series ever actually happen? Could a gene altering parasite really be created in a lab and unleash hell? The answer is that it might be able to happen, given the right set of circumstances.

Every day scientists are making leaps and bounds in the name of genome manipulation. There will, soon, be such a thing as designer babies. Parents with the money to do so will soon be able to choose their baby’s sex or eye colour or hair colour or whether it has big ears. They’ll be able to make sure that it never gets any inherited diseases… But hey, why stop there? DNA contains every bit of information we need to survive, and more, so why not go with six fingers? An extra toe? You could even genetically graft a duck bill onto your baby if you really wanted to. My point is that DNA is no longer the fixed thing that it was once was. We now have the ability to change it, to alter it, before a child is born. Very soon we’ll be able to change our DNA whenever we want, when we’re twenty or forty or eighty. Already we’re able to select the traits we want through IVF and manipulation and genome editing is only a few steps beyond that.

Altering DNA, adding to it or taking something away, relies on a process called CRISPR. This is a very recent scientific discovery, only from the last decade, but already it is changing the whole study of genetics. It uses enzymes, specifically one by the name of cas9, to cut out a specific strand of DNA. CRISPR can also be used to add to DNA, giving your baby that longed for and beautiful duck bill. It’s already been used to create the Spider-Goat… A goat that can produce silk, like a spider. So far CRISPR has only been achieved at a single celled level and not on a fully grown, adult human but I would say that it is only a matter of time. There is also ZFN and TALEN which do similar things. CRISPR is the latest and best of these processes.

So, if Dark Legend were to happen, there would have to be a parasite or a creature which naturally secreted a CRISPR like enzyme, an enzyme that destroyed a person’s DNA as happens in the books. Thank goodness one of those doesn’t exist… Yet! For years the dream of scientists the world over has been to create life and they are getting incredibly close. In fact, they are practically there. Earlier this year scientists created their first synthetic life form. So far they’ve only managed to make microscopic bacteria but their eventual goal is to make a full, organic life form. We’re not talking spider-goats or duck billed babies here, we’re talking new never before seen animals and creatures and yes, maybe even parasites. We’re talking about playing God.

It could start of simply and innocently enough- Some scientist builds a parasite in order to provide a ‘natural’ alternative to the CRISPR process… It goes wrong. It doesn’t work the way it should. Instead of targeting the specific genes it targets everything. It breeds, it spreads… Oh boy, we’re doomed!

But if it corrupted our DNA so much wouldn’t that just kill us? In one scenario, yes. There is, however, another possibility. DNA is not simple. It isn’t just the stuff that keeps us alive… There is also a whole heap of inactive junk hiding in there, some of which could be dangerous. Estimates vary but it has been guessed that as much of 97% of our DNA is junk This includes ancient diseases, genetic back alleys and heaven only knows what else. All it would take was the activation of one of these strands of junk DNA, say by way of man made parasite, and a person could potentially become in-human. They could devolve. They could, in theory, mutate.

Science fiction is brilliant at championing our worst fears. It has done ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Dark Legend does exactly the same, albeit unintentionally I’ll admit. Scientists are already looking at manipulating DNA, they are trying to create life and both of these investigations could go incredibly wrong.  If the information got into the wrong hands it could be deadly. The plague may not be exactly as Dark Legend, it could be something radically different, but it is possible to some extent.

All together now: Spider Goat, Spider Goat… Does whatever a Spider Goat Does… Actually the image is not of a Spider Goat… It’s from Delamere Dairy.



The Destruction of Braich-y-Dinas

Anyone who has driven the A55 will have likely come face to face with Penmaenmawr. Coming from the west you drive around the outside of it, the road balancing precariously between the sea and the shored up, granite cliff face. Come from the east and you’ll mostly drive underneath it but before you get there you’ll see it rising up in front of you, blocking the road ahead. When you get close you’ll see it scarred by scree slopes and criss-crossed with wire fences. It looks uninviting, unwelcoming, but it does not look all that threatening. It is hard to believe, driving past it today, that this was once regarded as one of the most dangerous headlands in Britain. In order to get around it people used to brave the mudflats of the Lavan sands at low tide. That mountain genuinely terrified people. The Romans had the better idea of diverting their road behind it. Over the course of the twentieth century the mountain was decimated, stripped of its terror, first by way of intensive quarrying and the reduction of its size from 1550 feet to just over 1000, and then by the building of the A55 dual carriageway around and under it. The quarrying in particular is both a travesty and a tragedy for not only has it has stripped Britain of one of its coastal wonders, it has completely destroyed what was, potentially, one of the most important archaeological sites in the region, the hill fort of Braich-y-Dinas.

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Building Worton | A Family History

Central to the Morfaverse is, naturally, the Morfasson family. It’s hard to believe it’s almost been fourteen years since I began writing their story… Actually it’s thirteen years, eleven months and one day- exactly. Here in the real world, as I’ve made no secret, they evolved out of one character being the son of the Roman god Mars. This idea was, thankfully, dropped. That character was Marcus. Then another previously created set of characters became his ancestors instead- Monty and his seven children (Edward, Seamus, Arthur, Fletcher, Erasmus, Tiberius and Ernest. You might know them better as the children from the Aunt Mable stories.) There was Monty’s wife Alice and there was her sister Jezzebelle (later the Countess of Nuneaton) Monty’s second wife Marian and then finally came their son, Harry. When I started I had no intention of going any further into the family history or adding any more members. It was just that lot. Marco then ended up with a twin brother, Will. I expanded on the missing generation between Will/Marco and Harry, leading to the introduction of Otto and Claire. I went further back to Monty’s parents- Max and Anna. At one stage I had a family tree with about fifty members on it. The current official version has a much more comfortable (if we’re to go by Cythry’s right of occupation, as expressed in Aunt Mable & The Evacuees, of born into the family+ spouses and all children, regardless of surname, down three generations) thirty two. The more or less spoiler free version below only has twenty five.

But that’s reality. What about in universe? Where do they come from? Who are they? Are they really, as has been suggested, the children of Mars?

No. They aren’t, though they are quite ancient. They’re so old that the family themselves don’t really know. The whole ‘son of Mars’ schtick was only invented in the eighteenth century and even then there are at least three other theories about where the name comes from. Most scholars think that it is a Cambro-Danish hybrid- Morfa being the Welsh for Marsh. Their earliest supposed ancestor is Filius Pallus, a Roman soldier under the auspices of Caracalla, and others through time have included the likes of Rhodri ap Myrfa and Eldrick, a seventeenth century adventurer and pirate.

Over the years they’ve developed a bit of a reputation. Firstly, as explained in Max and Anna, this is due to their medieval ancestors tendency to involve themselves in every minor scrap and skirmish between England and Wales, in particular during the conquest of 1282 where they attempted to play both sides for profit. Henry IV had them stripped of most of their lands and some of them sided with Glyndwr during the revolt. Those who didn’t were given back some of their land as a gift for their loyalty to the crown but they were still not trusted by the aristocratic elite. The most recent divide came in the eighteen hundreds when Albert Morfasson refused to build a memorial to Prince Albert. Queen Victoria took against the family as a result, a dislike that wasn’t helped by their long standing rivalry with the aristocratic Douglas-Pennants of Penrhyn and their die-hard Welshness at a time when the Welsh people were regarded as barbaric and uncivilised. By the seventies relations with the royal family were again cordial. This was down to Monty’s work during the Second World War- He worked closely with both the war office and the security services. One story has it that the family even stole a horse for Princess Anne… He was called Sniffles and was kept at Windsor.

Secondly, as regards to how they developed their reputation, is their family organisation. Stemming from their activities in the medieval period, they began to act as a dynastic mercenary operation. By the seventeenth century this had evolved into a fully fledged business, a money-making outfit tendering exclusive espionage related services. Initially the company was known as NITIDUS, but in the nineties this was renamed CHWEDL. The organisation has caused some to label the family as protectors of the nation but because they are not government controlled, because they act for themselves and in their own interests, they have also been called gangsters. The best description of them is that they are gangster-spies. Owing to an occasional disregard for the law, especially during the sixties and seventies when Edward and Seamus were running the show, this is actually accurate.

As you can well guess, they have a lot of money. How much is debatable, but it’s a lot. Every year the taxman gets a lucrative cut but that barely scratches the surface. Through various loopholes their true fortune is kept well under wraps behind the walls of numerous Swiss bank accounts. During their teenage years Will and Marcus had access to a hefty trust fund, large enough for Will to live by his own means, including being able to purchase a sports car on the cheap (even if it isn’t a very good sports car.) This trust fund was a drop in the ocean as far as the family finances were concerned. There are rumours of a gold vault under Cythry but those rumours are nonsense. All the gold is in Switzerland.

Cythry, their home (pronounced Cuff-Ree,) is a partially ruined castle in the middle of the Welsh mountains, a short walk off the A5 somewhere between Llyn Ogwen and Capel Curig. There has been a settlement on this site since the Bronze Age and underneath the castle there is evidence of mining activity. Presumably, like at Ffynnon Caseg on the opposite side of Carnedd Llewelyn, the mining was for copper. The Romans were here, coins have been found in the grounds, and at its oldest point the present surviving structure dates back to the century before the conquest. The site was doubtless chosen for its isolation but also for its commanding views of the Ogwen valley. Most of the keep was remodelled in the Georgian period, with electricity and indoor plumbing put in by Max at the end of the nineteenth century. In recent years it has again been refurbished to suit the tastes of the current generation and is now one of the swankiest residences in Snowdonia. Despite there being no gold vault, the basement has been home to stolen paintings, a weapons store, a junk room and in the early sixties a huge chunk of it was carved up into a garage to house the extensive family motor car collection. Vehicles in there include a modified E-type Jaguar (The ‘Super-Jag,’) a Doble steam car, a Morris Oxford (or twenty) and an Ice Cream van.

Naturally, the family have made enemies. The BNP, UKIP and the right wing press have all campaigned against them. In the past some fervent journalists have tried to bring them down but have always failed in the end- Though Edward and Seamus, through their scheming, did almost help them to succeed. Their biggest enemies, and the most successful, have been SHEMBLE- A totalitarian cult with designs on a pseudo-fascist led society. Most of the twentieth century was spent combating them and in both the sixties and eighties they did come close to destroying the family completely. They didn’t quite manage it though. No matter how low things get, the Morfasson always bounce back.

Public knowledge of the Morfasson family is varied. Stories of their activities, their adventures, have filtered through over the years and in some cases have been heavily distorted. There are said to be several variants of the story of how Otto met Claire, for example. As such some regard them as purely made up, a fantasy made up to sell papers and impress children. Reprints of their adventures (of dubious quality) can often be found in second hand book stores, most of them for children. There are others who believe whole heartedly- There are some, like Greg in Dark Legend, who become obsessed with them, of the idea of them, in the same way that people become obsessed with Arthur and Robin Hood. There are others who know they’re definitely real but don’t become obsessed. To them they are just a family like any other.

To detail their whole history, the stories of everyone from Filius Pallus through to Marcus, would be the work of a lifetime. I am giving it my best shot though.

Building Worton is a series of posts going behind and beyond the scenes of the Dark Legend books and every once in a while the Morfaverse in general. Links can be found at the top of the page. And yeah… For those pedantic sorts, I know there’s a minor mistake on the tree. Most people won’t even know it is a mistake though.

Living Wild in the Carneddau

Tired of the noises and the dirt and the slime of civilisation, for a long time now I’ve been seeking somewhere I can retreat to. The answer as to where I can retreat to is obvious, those mountains to the west of me, in the far north of Wales, between Ogwen and the sea… The Carneddau. There’s no mountain range I love more. Don’t worry. This isn’t another pining for home essay sort of thing… But it came about because I was and am pining right now. Those mountains, I know for a fact, are solitude and peace and serenity. That is actually what I need right now. I actually thought about running away to them, living out there as a hermit, living off the land. This was a foolish idea because I wouldn’t even last three days. I don’t know the first thing about living off the land. I can’t trap, I can’t hunt, I can’t fish. I’ve no idea what plants are safe to eat and what aren’t. In short, Bear Grylls I am not.

This is all thanks to the fact that I live in an urbanised society and have grown up amongst cars and concrete instead of flowers and nature. Despite half-hearted attempts at being taught about nature in school, attemps which amounted to ‘look… That plant. Give plant water… Plant grow,’ I never got to learn about different types of wild flowers or birds. I can identify the basics thanks to the fact that the urban wilderness isn’t entirely nature free, but beyond that I’m hopeless.

Would it though, were I to know how to survive out there, be at all possible to live wild in the Carneddau?

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Building Worton | Based On Reality

So you’ve got a fictional town. It has a name, Worton, great. It has districts- Too many at first but they’re eventually cut down to a manageable level. It is still, however, the size of Bolton and any town that size is going to need a rough geography at the bare minimum. If you just throw things in as and when you need them you’re going to end up with a continuity nightmare. A good geography provides a framework for your characters and plot to bounce around inside, it constrains them and stops them getting out of hand, it directs them and influences them. It also gives the reader something to latch onto, something to help them better imagine the story.

How did I create my own geography then? How did I actually lay the foundations for Worton?

I used reality. I used the town I grew up in and places I knew, places I passed on a daily basis, for inspiration.

The story starts off in the Serpent’s fall hotel, a derelict, abandoned building in the town centre. We later learn that this is where all of the problems began, in a roundabout sort of way, and I return to it several times over the course of the story. It was based on a similarly derelict old pub in the town centre- They’ve spruced it up a bit now, though it still looks a bit dodgy. Police Tower, a bit further down the road, was based on something I once saw in the local paper. Someone was actually planning to build a skyscraper, though it never got off the ground. In Worton the opposite happened… They built the damn thing and it was an eyesore. Lupus Tower, meanwhile, is based on a a particular office block I used to pass by.

The park in Beiderbecke, right down to the supermarket opposite, is real and I practically relocated it wholesale into Worton, right down to the abandoned railway bridge in the middle (Where Will and Harris have their duel in the first book) and the pathway where the fight happens after Will blows up the nest in the second segment of the first book. The nest does exist (or it did) but it is nowhere near the real park. It is, in fact, on the other side of town. The hostel at the end of the park is completely made up but it is based on a stereotypical, gothic asylum on the outside and a seventies hospital on the inside.

Beiderbecke College was based on quite a few places, mostly the schools I went to. The exterior is based on my own sixth form college- The front and side entrances and the two main buildings, one of which is used for younger students in the books (though they didn’t exist in prior versions). They weren’t connected by the kitchens and canteen in reality. The auditorium is a near dead ringer for the auditorium of my high school, the only differences being that my high school auditorium didn’t have any permanent seating and the windows were only on one side, not two. There was no store-room at the back either. The assembly hall was based on the main hall at Bangor University and the rest is a cobbled together mish-mash of generic school rooms that you can  find anywhere.

Other real places include the town square, though the real one is much less appealing, the two cemeteries (Cemetery Hill and Yogi fields), Beiderbecke Labs (the real one is much less scary and is actually an apartment block) the reservoir & the entirety of the Hood council estate.

Mender Vale Forest, now to the north of Worton though originally I placed it somewhere south, is based on Delamere Forest in Cheshire, which is where Amanda also gets her surname from. Consciously, however, I had to make it darker and thicker and more overgrown- The first time we actually see inside it the forestry commission has been out of action for a year so it kind of had to be. I added an overlook point as well, Witch’s Rock, which I don’t think exists in reality.

But of course, it isn’t enough to just pull in bits and pieces from real places. You’ve got to make up your own stuff too, use your imagination. Reality gives you a grounding but without imagination you might as well just use somewhere real. Crest, for example, is completely made up although I did have the tenement slums of Edinburgh and Glasgow in mind when it came to creating it. Will’s old school, Worton Grammar, is a generic Victorian, inner city school and wasn’t based on anywhere in particular. Will’s two houses were originally quite generic before I fleshed them out, though the ginnel at the back of the first was based on a place I used to know. It’s similar to some that can be found in Bangor and in some other towns. Most interiors are a complete fantasy, from my own head, as is China-Town and most of the Cornfields district.

However, every reader is going to have their own idea of what Worton looks like based on their own imaginations and their own experiences and their own interpretation of the books. I have my image of Worton (which is, seeing as it is my town, the most correct) but it isn’t definitive. It might help me to write everything, but at the end of the day mine is the view that matters least in the grand scheme of things.

Building Worton is a series of posts going behind and beyond the scenes of the Dark Legend books- Spawn, Swarm, Stop The Cavalry and Sting. All are available from Amazon (including in paperback) and other eBook retailers.