The Big Idea: Stephen Moore
Posted on August 13, 2015 Posted by John Scalzi 22 Comments
As a person with some infamous ancestors in his family tree (ever hear of John Wilkes Booth? Yeah, he’s an uncle), Stephen Moore’s Big Idea for Graynelore speaks to me in several ways. Read on to discover why.
When I talk about a big idea in relation to Graynelore I find myself looking back to the very start of the project. Not to the main themes, or the twisting plot. No. Rather, I want to tell you about the big idea that set the ball rolling, so to speak, and ultimately changed the very direction of my writing.
A few years ago I had a revealing conversation with my mother about her family roots and discovered something amazing: my ancestors include links to the infamous 16th Century Border Reivers.
Who? The Border Reivers were inhabitants of the English/Scottish Borderlands; family groups who considered theft, kidnap, blackmail, murder and deadly blood-feud as all part of their day job. While the crown heads of England and Scotland were engaged in an endless bloody conflict over sovereignty that reduced the borders to a virtual no-man’s-land, ordinary folk were effectively left to get by as best they could. And if that meant turning up on your neighbour’s doorstep and beating the hell out of them to take whatever little they possessed (up to and including their lives) then so be it! Reiving, as it became known, was very much a way of life for close on three hundred years. The Reivers even gifted the word bereaved to our dictionaries!
What’s my connection? My mother’s family name is Kerr, and they originally hailed from the Scottish Borders. Let’s be blunt. The Kerrs were notorious Reivers back in the day. Blood-feud a speciality! If one fact about them tickles me! Unusually, the Kerrs were left-handed. It meant they fought with their swords in their left hand and built their fortified tower houses with left-handed spirals to their staircases. It just so happens I’m also left handed. I like to think it’s in the blood.
I was instantly intrigued by my infamous ancestors. Right there and then, the big idea was born! What author worth their salt would not want to write about them? I only had to find the right tale to tell.
So, I took the historical world of the Border Reivers; their way of life, their society, their homes, their landscape, their goods and their chattels. In true Reiver fashion, I stole it all, misused and abused it and made it my own. (With my family links, I’m just a little bit proud of that.)
Mind you, if I’m claiming that as my big idea, there was an issue to overcome: I’m an author of fantasy, not historical fiction. To satisfy the writer-within-me I had to combine the two; fantasy with my own version of Reiver society the bedrock to stand it upon. I like to think of it as twisting history.
Where did my fantasy tale find its birth? I’ll tell you. One hot summer’s day I was sitting in a beautiful garden overlooking the Welsh coast. In the middle distance, out upon the sea, I could see the Isle of Lundy. There were warm currents of air rising off the sea, and as is the way on hot summer days, they slowly obscured the scene, until at last Lundy Isle disappeared. There was only the sea and the endless blue sky. Of course, it was a simple trick of the eye. But in that moment I knew I’d found the idea I was searching for. This wasn’t Lundy Isle at all, but the Faerie Isle. Sometimes there, sometimes not, ever moving…
And so began a long and winding journey of research and development that ultimately lead me to my novel, Graynelore. You might call it a Reiver faerie tale. But believe me, not a faerie tale as you know it.
At the outset I had to make one further inspired leap of faith. You see, up until this point, all of my books had been written for children; and I’ve been writing for almost twenty years! However, I knew that if I was going to write authentically about Reivers, the story might well be a faerie tale but it could not possibly be for children (for me, a big idea in itself!) A Reiver’s world is naturally brutal, sometimes cruel, and often graphically blunt. If I could pull it off, Graynelore had to be my first novel strictly for grown-ups. And so it is.
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site and his blog. Follow him on Twitter.
This is not a comment on this particular post, but I read your Lifehacker (by the way interesting) interview and am impressed by how much you can write.
Kudos to those who have the mental ability to write everyday.
Hey Stephen we could be related as my mother’s name was also Kerr. I didn’t know the bit about them being Reivers though so thanks for that. A few years ago my brother went to Scotland and brought back some Kerr clan memorabilia and I was struck by the clan motto “Late but in earnest”. I am adopting that as my excuse for being late.
How appropriate that Stephen Moore’s book is featured on National Left-Handers Day, since he is left-handed…….as a left-hander, I can appreciate how much fun it is watching right-handed people “adapt” to left-handed implements…..
The Reivers even gifted the word bereaved to our dictionaries!
Er–no, no they didn’t, actually. [Puts on obligatory linguistic pedant hat; there!] “bereafian,” meaning to “rob with violence,” is an Old English word, I think a Germanic cognate so one of the oldest in our language. It has since narrowed to “grief due to loss of life,” but that’s English for you: always up to something! [Removes hat.]
Not that it matters in terms of how fascinating the Reivers are–they seem a perfect fit for a fantasy/fairy tale novel, and I’m looking forward to reading what you’ve done with (to?) them!
Oooh, I have a last name associated with the Border Reivers too. How badass!
Uh-oh, looks like we feuded with the Kerrs!
Hi Mary Frances. I will consider myself lectured. Though I will blame my source (one of my favourite historians on the subject who shall remain nameless.) Then again, perhaps as a fantasy author I prefer to believe the folklore. Hey your definition of the word is spot on! Describes the Border Reivers perfectly!
Hey fuzznose how interesting that National Left Hander day was today? Hmmmm. Spooky. A left hander publishing on that very day. I like it!
jenfullmoon (great handle!) Indeed Rutherfords and Kerrs were at feud! But I forgive you. The Kerrs spent much of their time at feud with the Kers! (Spot the difference!) And one of my best friends growing up was a Rutherford long before I knew about Reivers…
Stephen, you need to read Dorothy Dunnett’s The disorderly knights (part of her Lymond series). Lots of historical figures, including Kerrs, and the Scott-Kerr feud figures into the plot.
Well hey this sounds like an great read, ticks a lot of boxes for me! You sir have made a sale today! :)
Hey Wendy Barker. Indeed we may be related. An interesting fact if you’re searching the Scottish borders for Kerrs… In Jedburgh you’ll find the Mary Queen of Scots Centre. Mary rented that house from… the Kerrs! By tradition, the Kerrs were left handed, and there you will find a left handed spiral staircase.
Thank you Luna. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Then again, perhaps as a fantasy author I prefer to believe the folklore.
Sounds good to me! That type of sounds-like-it-should-be-true-but-isn’t word history is actually called a “folk etymology,” and English has lots of them.
“folk etymology,” Very cool, Mary Frances… You can be my wordsmith.
George MacDonald Fraser (the Flashman guy) was a Borderer himself, and wrote a couple of books that might be relevant (and very readable!). “Quartered Safe Out Here” is his memoirs of fighting with the Border Regiment, one of two British infantry regiments recruited from the area, in Burma; they had retained, in his description, a lot of the old reiver spirit.
And “The Steel Bonnets” is his history of the reivers, which starts with a description of his surprise at realising he was seeing three reiver descendants on stage at a political rally together: President Richard Nixon, evangelist Billy Graham, and astronaut Neil Armstrong (all border surnames).
And my favourite reiver-related document: the Great Monition of Cursing of the Archbishop of Glasgow against the Border thieves (quoted in “The Steel Bonnets”).
“…I curse their heid and all the haris of thair heid; I curse thair face, thair ene, thair mouth, thair neise, thair tongue, thair teeth, thair crag, thair shoulderis, thair breist, thair hert, thair stomok, thair bak, thair wame, thair armes, thais leggis, thair handis, thair feit, and everilk part of thair body, frae the top of their heid to the soill of thair feet, befoir and behind, within and without.
I curse thaim gangand, and I curse them rydland; I curse thaim standand, and I curse thaim sittand; I curse thaim etand, I curse thaim drinkand; I curse thaim walkand, I curse thaim sleepand; I curse thaim risand, I curse thaim lyand; I curse thaim at hame, I curse thaim fra hame; I curse thaim within the house, I curse thaim without the house; I curse thair wiffis, thair barnis, and thair servandis participand with thaim in their deides…”
(there’s lots more)
Interesting that the author mentions ‘blackmail’ as the reivers created that word in the English language, though the ‘mail’ bit doesn’t relate to chainmail (as some authors maintain) but to ‘male’ a term for tribute. Also referred to as the ‘black rent’.
And I second the recommendation for Fraser’s book, an excellent work. As indeed are all his books that I’ve read. Chisholm’s series about Sir Robert Carey also deal with the marchers.
Hi ajay and Passing Stranger. I agree with you. Macdonald Fraser’s Steel Bonnet’s is a great read. (I also like some of the Flashman fiction series.) He did write a comic Reiver novel. (His very last book?) But it’s not one of his best I feel, bless him.
“you need to read Dorothy Dunnett’s The disorderly knights”
Thanks Eve, I haven’t come across this but the Kerr-Scott feud was a major sore! I’ll try to look her out sometime.
Thanks Stephen Moore. Admire your crafted words and picture-making. Long live personal discovery. Long live your GRAYNELORE and long live the Reivers!
Thank you Adam!
Hey, Mr John Scalzi I was tickled to see we both have skeletons in our closets. You, one rather large one! Me… er… what with those Reivers… half of my family, so it seems…!