Kurtzhau and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Beowulf

This summer we went to the British Museum for the Viking exhibition. After drooling over the real longship, the weapons, the rare shields, wallowing in pagan relics, and wowing over executed Viking skeletons (with authentic defensive wounds) we had coffee and split down gender lines to see different highlights. Morgenstern and K went off to look at Egyptians. Kurtzhau — 10 — and I marched upstairs to see the new(ish) Dark Age gallery.

I lost track of my son for a few minutes then found him staring at the Sutton Hoo helmet:

Kurtzhau and Sutton Hoo

Last time he was this transfixed, it was four years ago, a Summer evening on the Isle of Mull. Mesmerised by the dark waves lapping the rocky shore,  he waded into the cold water still wearing his shoes. The West Coast being somewhat damp, the shoes took a week to dry. Sometime during those seven days, I read him Rosemary Sutcliff’s Beowulf which helped to kick off his love of the Dark AgesHe was 6, so this was legend without spoilers. Here’s the old LJ entry:

* * *

The wind howls outside the holiday cottage, and Beowulf nails Grendel’s arm to Heriot’s roof beam.

As the hero makes his way home across the foam-flecked whale-road, all to the soundtrack of Jethro Tull’s “Broadsword” album (on to drown out Morgenstern’s War Against Sleep in the next room, rather than to provide mood), Kurtzhau bbecomesrestive:

“I’m bored Daddy.”

“Oh. OK. I’ll stop for now,” I say, closing Rosemary Sutcliff‘s “Beowulf”.

Like the original poem, it’s a work of genius. She’s done what I would do for the Battle Abbey Sword; pared away the Christian accretions and given us back the authentic original. In this slim volume, a pagan Beowulf bestrides a pre-Christian north, invoking the All Father and Wyrd more fittingly than he would ever have invoked a deity of Mediterranean origins.

Shorn of a more civilized viewpoint character – her usual gambit – Sutcliff still manages to capture the unremitting otherness of the milieu, and carve out a tale of mighty-thewed warriors that would sit well between the best of Robert E Howard and Harold Lamb – a hell of an achievement, given she was a wheelchair-bound Telegraph reading English lady, trained to paint miniatures, rather than a Texan brawler, or a real-life Indiana Jones.

(It’s also a book I recognize. I must have read it – but when?)

However, the language is rich and difficult, and Kurtzhau is only six and –

“No, Daddy. I don’t mean stop. I just mean I Want To Play while you read.”

“OK.” I’d rather he didn’t because it seems disrespectful, and “I am not a TV”, but he seems to follow whatever I read and parrot it back with unerring accuracy if I spot check.

Before he can leave the bed, I start the next chapter and the narrative skims 50 raiding seasons and suddenly Beowulf is an old king and a dragon stalks the land.

The rain hammers the window, loud enough to be heard over Jethro Tull.

Kurtzhau stops with one foot on the floor. “What happens next, Daddy? Does he kill the dragon? Does he survive?”

I smile. “You only get to hear this story for the first time, once. So, I’m not telling.”

He squirms, but he knows the rule. Me, I’m envious. Imagine experiencing Welch’s “Sun of York” and not knowing how Tewkesbury will turn out? Or, his “Knight Crusader” and not knowing whether anybody will survive Arsuf, given how badly the Horns of Hattin went?

And the finale of Beowulf, in all its forms, packs a punch on the first reading, and Kurtzhau somehow can’t quite make it to the floor where his Playmobil knights and galloglasses are at war.

The white-bearded king dons his ringmail war-sark and his boar-crested helmet and prepares to go alone to what will be his final battle. As they arm him, he sings his death song. Kurtzhau huddles closer—

–and just then the track changes to “Broadsword“.

Bring me my broadsword and clear understanding.
Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.

The story resonates with the song’s theme of fighting for hearth and home, and – damn me – now there’s a lump in my throat and I struggle to read on.

The two of us together live through the dragon fight, the flight of Beowulf’s thanes, all except Wiglaf who tips the balance in his lord’s favor. Now Beowulf lies dying, poisoned by dragon venom.

Kurtzhau and I both hold each other, sharing a blast of emotions from our ancestors’ cold Dark Ages.

Abruptly, Kurtzhau slips off the bed and rummages with his plastic figures.

“Oh well,” I think. “He’s done pretty well for a—”

He bounces back to join me and thrusts a Playmobil barbarian at me. “This guy can be Wiglaf from now on. Now read the end!”

Afterwards, he’s outraged that the story is so short, and we talk about how lucky we are to have the story at all, and about bards and praise singers, and the irony that the two episodes of Beowulf’s life to come down to us are the ones that emphatically did not happen.

“What happened to Wiglaf?”

I shrug. “Was there a theory he lead a Germanic tribe to Britain? Sorry – I can’t remember and we’ve no Internet access here. But if there were any poems about him, they’re lost.”

Kurtzhau considers. “Somebody ought to write a sequel.”


Outline of Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Somebody suggested I do a basic story outline of a familiar tale, so here it is:

Goldilocks goes for a walk but is lost and hungry.

Goldilocks finds a house but it’s empty.

It’s somebody else’s house, but hunger makes her go inside.

She finds porridge, but it’s not hers.

She shouldn’t but hunger makes her sample the first bowl.

She tries the first bowl but it’s too hot.

She tries the second bowl, but it’s too salty.

She tries the third bowl with low expectations, but it’s perfect and she eats it all up.

She’s no longer hungry, but now she’s sleepy.

It’s not her house, but the owners haven’t returned so she goes upstairs.

She tries the first bed but it’s too hard.

She tries the second bed but it’s too soft.

She tries the third bed with low expectations, but it’s perfect and she falls asleep.

Now she’s no longer sleep deprived, but she wakes up to three angry bears….

Plenty of buts in that one! The odd thing about fairy tales is that they are almost outlines anyway…



Had a blast at Loncon3, though was a very small fish in a very large literary pond.

A couple that geeks together...

A couple that geeks together…

Got to hang out with Joshua Palmatier after knowing him online for years, and spend quality time with Peadar Ó Guilín, another LJ veteran.

Made some new friends, including Darusha Wehm who is almost as forthright as I, and the couple behind Bundoran Press and a gamer from Belfast (whose card scrap of paper) I’ve lost.

I also got to see some of my literary heroes on stage, and watch a good friend get their Hugo.

Best of all — thanks to my folks looking after our kids for days on end – I got to go to the con with my wife.

A couple that geeks together…


At Loncon 3!

We’re shortly off to Loncon 3. A lot of my heroes will be there, but hopefully I can avoid any embarrassing fanboy moments like at World Fantasy Con last year:

Charlie: Martin. Look behind you…. Hello Joe.

Me: What..? (leaps to feet) HOLY SHIT! Joe Haldeman!!!

Mostly I’m hoping to get the lie of the land, enjoy a rare chance to share geek space with my wife and muse, and meet a few friends from my livejournal days, including Joshua Palmatier who once wrote an amazing Fantasy novel I’d describe as Honor Harrington does Sim City.

We’ll also be attending a friend’s 50th birthday party while there — a bit scary how time flies.

Watch this space.


Using Scapple to plan a dungeon (or a mystery)

I’m experimenting with ways to use diagrams as a creativity tool when planning a Mystery.

My tool of choice is Scapple (from the same people who brought us Scrivener). This is really simple but intuitively usable diagramming software. It’s very much a creativity aid, rather than a display tool which explains its… optimised functionality. The limited range is actually a good discipline.

The system I hit on uses a format like this:

Mystery Diagram

In the above Murder Mystery, yellow post-its indicate clues etc, clouds, conclusions. However, this isn’t nearly layered enough. Will the system work on a more complex Mystery?

Since my WIP has a dungeon in it, and since the Fate: Core System talks in passing about how good dungeons are all about the unfolding mystery, I thought I’d have a go creating a dungeon…

First step, do the usual creative brain dump. This isn’t an intellectual exercise. This is arm waving and visualising captured on screen.

Dungeon 1


I’m still using post-its to capture factoids, clues and entities. Arrows indicate how one leads to another physically and/or intellectually.

Second step, flesh it out with attention to what’s cool, and what’s a logical requirement.

Dungeon 2

The clouds indicate thoughts, conclusions and theories arising from the clues.

Third and final step, make all this matter to the story.

Dungeon 3


Colour coding indicates where thoughts etc point to things that matter to the players. For example, goblins are notorious for their traps. It follows that knowing goblin contractors built the tomb might make you aware of the possibility of a lethal trap, hence the green thought and thing.

* * *

The next task is to try this in earnest with my Work in Progress. Eventually, I’ll tidy up the terminology and add it to my Storyteller Tools


Conflict Diagram for Die Hard

A reader said it would be useful if I did some diagrams of movies, so here’s a conflict diagram of the classic 1988 Die Hard. (You can read a full synopsis here.)

Die Hard Conflict Diagram

I’ve used green to show McClane’s team, red to show the forces ranged against them.

  • The Good Cop has a sub plotcan he use his gun in anger? I suspect the hostages also have their own sub plots.
  • The Building & Hostages have a mixed effect on JM’s Survival. The building provides both a survival-friendly environment and a  dangerous prison. However, the hostages are merely a liability.
  • Wife’s Safety is both a Bone of Contention and a force that works against JM’s Survival while at the same time motivating him to survive.
  • I’ve left out thematic forces since I’d have to rewatch the film to snag them with confidence. However i suspect McCane’s team all represent Rugged Individualism, while the others represent Corrupt Power or something similar.

Looking at the diagram, I can see that it’s quite a complex film, albeit an unsubtle one. Perhaps this explains its longevity?

Take a look at Storyteller Tools, my book on outlining and plotting! It shows you how to use Conflict Diagrams and other tools to work up your novel idea into a writable outline, and then to blitz through it in record time.


The opening rarely survives contact with the completed draft but here it is

As the dirigible hurtled up the darkened pass, something glittering rose above the black lip of the mountains.

Stomach fluttering, Jascinda leaned forward against the gondola’s rail. The word dragon filled her mind.

Beside her, Captain Ulreo laughed. “Just moon rise, princess,” he said.

Jascinda flushed. Of course. She was just seeing the lights of the dwarvish cities blazing away on the nighttime surface of the moon.

The buzz of the ship’s engines reflected back from the valley sides setting her teeth on edge. How could the mercenary flier seem so calm when any moment the dragon would hear and know they were coming?


LJ cross posting broken – now doing it via twitter

Ugh. Can’t seem to get the LJ cross posting done. However, my blog entries now automatically feed into twitter, which LJ grabs. Best I can do right now :(


WIP: Assault on the Sky Tomb of the Earth Kin

What with Kurtzhau underfoot with Miskatonic Adonisitis or something like that, I’ve had to pause my novels and focus on something shorter, in this case a short story I’ve had on my to-do list for  a while.

As always I started off with some odd ideas — flying city, zombie dragon, zeppelins, air pirates, princess… stuff — and wrangled them around until I came up with something that screams at me to write it.

This was my first stab:

First stab

After two weeks of head banging in between looking after Kurtzhau, I got this:

Assault on the Sky Tomb of the Earth Kin


Tomorrow is a good day to draft :)


Tonight it flowed!

Just Dave the Unspellable and myself for Study Group tonight.

In the last month, thanks to the Big German, we tweaked three of our Meisterhaus — the Master Strikes — so that they actually work without opening you up to get whacked.

Suddenly the blades interact in ways that take us to all the techniques we’ve drilled over the years but not really used and, in our heads at least, Dave and I are fighting like a pair of 15th century Germans (but with darker hair).

This is why I train.