The Big Idea: Mike Shevdon
Posted on August 27, 2010 Posted by Kate Baker 17 Comments
If you want to tell a story in a modern setting, you often have to look at the past to figure out how you got here and now — even if, in the here and now, you want to write a fantasy story. Mike Shevdon learned this in the course of writing Sixty-One Nails, in which a desire to tell a story set today meant he had to follow paths that lead to the past, in the process discovering, as Faulkner once memorably put it, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Here’s Shevdon to explain why.
When I started writing Sixty-One Nails, I wanted to write fantasy set in the real world – the world of shopping malls, CCTV cameras and mobile phones. I wanted to create a feeling that if you were quick and observant enough, you might see something quite extraordinary. I wanted magic in the now.
This is easy to say, but it immediately spawns a host of questions. Where is the magic? Who’s doing it and what are they using it for? Most of all, why don’t we know about it? After all, if people were able to do magic, it would be obvious, right? We’d be able to go into stores and buy it.
As I began researching the novel I realised how little people actually see. So much of modern life is about attracting your attention to adverts or warnings, that we routinely block out anything that isn’t shouting for our attention. It occurred to me, therefore, that it wouldn’t take very much to be completely unnoticed – not invisible, just not seen. I began to postulate that there could be another race of beings living alongside humanity, unseen by most people; the creatures of folk-tales and faerie stories. What if they existed and were part of our world, but we just didn’t notice them?
That spawned a whole new set of questions. If they exist, why aren’t there any records of them? Where are the fossil remains? Why has no-one photographed them? Why don’t they show up on CCTV or trigger burglar alarms? Where do they live? What do they eat?
I started reading and researching English folk-lore and discovered layers of stories like sedimentary rock, with the oldest stories often revealing more ominous themes. The Victorians gentrified fairies and gave them flower petal hats and mushroom houses to live in – Barbie for the nineteenth century – but before that there were other stories with a darker tone.
A number of themes emerged. The appearance and disappearance of creatures and people, often accompanied by a loss of time. Abduction and replacement of children with something older and not necessarily human is also frequent. Sex crops up, often as a single night of passion which seems like a dream once daylight returns. Deals and bargains occur, often to the benefit of the human party, only to fall apart when the human gets greedy or tries to take the source of the power for themselves. These themes fed into the imaginary world hidden beneath the surface of everyday life.
The questions became opportunities. Why are they so interested in sex, fertility and children? Don’t they have any children of their own? What if they live a very long time and therefore breed very slowly? What if they breed so slowly that a catastrophic failure in fertility goes unnoticed until it’s too late? What if they’re dying out? What if they’re the last of their kind? What happens when they discover that a union with humanity is fertile? What happens to the children of that union? Would the half-breeds be a welcome boon, the saving of a dying race? Or would they be gene pollution for an ancient and noble race?
What if it’s both?
As part of the research I started looking into the relationship between faerie-folk and iron. Its use as a talisman against magic is still present in today’s society, which is why horse-shoes hang over doorways and are used as symbols at weddings. It’s why you find iron nails embedded in the roof-beams of old houses and why blacksmiths are considered lucky.
While researching horse-shoes, I came across something unique. In London each year, in the Royal Courts of Justice, which is home to the Supreme Court, a ceremony is conducted as it has been since the year 1211. It’s the oldest legal ceremony in England barring the Coronation, and it involves the payment of two quit rents, a medieval mechanism allowing a person to ‘go quit’ and avoid an obligation to their baronial lord by making a payment or delivering a service in its stead.
The first of these quit rents is for wasteland called ‘The Moors’ in Shropshire, an area well-known for its ancient iron-workings, and it consists of two knives, one blunt and one sharp. The knives are made by a smith and presented to the Queen’s Remembrancer, an official who is also a senior master of the Royal Courts of Justice. The knives are tested in court to verify that the blunt knife will dent, but not cut, a hazel stick of one year’s new growth, and the sharp knife will cut clean through it.
The second Quit Rent is for a forge in Tweezers Alley, just off the Strand and not far from where the ceremony takes place. The forge is no longer there, but the rent is still paid. It consists of six iron horse-shoes and sixty-one nails, all of which are counted out each year in court. The horse shoes are massive, sized for a Flemmish war-horse, and are the oldest known to exist in England.
The ceremony takes place each autumn (I have been to several now) and next year will be the eight-hundredth anniversary. The question that occurred to me was why, after 800 years, though numerous different governments and changes of political system, an industrial revolution, a civil war and two world wars, was a ceremony involving horse-shoes and iron knives still being performed at the heart of the realm?
The answer to that question forms the core of Sixty-One Nails and inspired the title of the book. It is a tale of magic hidden in plain sight, of danger and darkness threading back through human history. It is the story of a man who has a heart attack on the London Underground and is revived by an old lady who tells him that the reason he is alive is that he is not entirely human. It is about his fight for survival, and his discovery of the magic hidden in the real world.
Sixty-One Nails: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt from the novel in .epub format. Here is the PDF.Visit Mike Shevdon’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
That quote by Faulkner is one of my favorite quotes ever. Once again, straight from The Big Idea to my TBR pile. Which is about to topple over, again…
This looks pretty good. Unfortunately it’s not in stock on Amazon UK right now. I’ll have to add it to the ‘buy’ list.
Anyone having trouble reading the epub format, there are a variety of free readers that will allow you to read epub. Calibre, for instance, should work on Windows, Linux, and Mac, and will allow you to both read epub and to convert into a variety of other formats.
Great blog post. Reading about the research for Sixty-One Nails was so interesting that I immediately read the excerpt. Now I’m distressed I have to wait four days to buy it.
Wow. On the list.
Ok, so now I want this one. Too. Dang…
Ooh, sounds like a good one. Already pre-ordered on Amazon.
Oh, *damn*. No matter how much I read about London, bits of fascinating stuff slip through the cracks — and now I’m sitting here cursing the fact that I didn’t uncover the history of the quit-rents already and use it in my own series. Mike, I am *green* with envy. (And itching to read your book, now. But if we meet at a con someday and I shake my fist at you, this is why.)
Minor nitpick, the various courts based at the Royal Courts of Justice (“RCJ”) are no longer referred to as the Supreme Court [of Judicature of England & Wales], because the title “the Supreme Court” passed to what was the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords under the provisions of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.
The courts which sit at the RCJ are now referred to as the Senior Courts of England & Wales. On this head Wikepedia is more up to date than the Court Service website, which continues to use the outdated format.
I stand corrected, PM, and thank you for that clarification. Thanks also to those who commented above.
For UK readers, stocks of Sixty-One Nails have just about sold out, though there are still the last few copies of this run to be had. I am reliably informed that new stocks should be arriving to replenish the shelves any day now. Stick with us.
This book sounds completely fascinating. I’ve been reccing it to everyone, and Amazon hasn’t even delivered my copy yet!
I also kind of want a shirt with that design on it.
Mike, I just finished 61 Nails. Literally a few minutes ago. The first Fanatasy book I’ver ever read (hardcore SF like RAH, Haldeman and Mr. Scalzi are my usual haunt) and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’m assuming we’ll see a sequel sometime in the hopefully near future?
Hi MVS, so glad you enjoyed the first instalment. The sequel is just out in the UK (today, coincidentally) and will be released in the US and Canada on 26th October, all being well.
Hope that’s not too long to wait.
Sheesh Mike, I was thinking it would be a year or so. Good for you, I’m very pleased (and rather inspired) by your energy and I’ll be sure to get it as soon as Amazon US offers it. BTW, what is the title?
LOL, A title would be useful, wouldn’t it?
The sequel is called The Road to Bedlam and begins about nine months after the end of Sixty-One Nails (for reasons that will be obvious when you think about it). It follows what happens when Niall’s daughter, Alex, comes into her power unexpectedly and tragically. Book three is currently in development.
Pre-ordered Kindle edition because of this excellent and intriguing writeup, read it straight through in “devour” mode.
LOVED IT. Great job, Mike, this one’s a real winner. Someday I will be able to visit London and see all these places. I predict the next ceremony will see a rather larger crowd than usual…
Very much looking forward to the next book!
I did send a copy of the book to the Chief Clerk to the Queen’s Remembrancer at the Royal Courts of Justice, who is retiring this year, to let them know that the attendance at this year’s ceremony might be significantly more than previous years. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.
Next year will be the really big one, though. Not often you get an 800th anniversary.