Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Tale Behind the Tale

This story begins a little more than 30 years ago. I was laying on a beach in St. Lucia, the sun burning into my skin, my mind drifting. A bird appeared in the tree beside me, cocked his head and started a conversation with me. He introduced me to an earnest man on a mission and a young girl who didn't know how to sail. They weren't real of course, but they stayed with me when I got back from holiday and I used them, and the place I met them, to teach a lesson on geography and mapping. I kept the map, filing it with my teaching notes for that unit. I thought about the bird, and the man, and the girl from time to time.

I was a different person back then. I was teaching public school, taking post graduate classes, fast tracking towards a role in education leadership. There wasn't a lot of time for hobbies but I was active in calligraphy, and quilting. My husband was fully engaged in building a successful career and he traveled a lot and I went with him as much as I could. The places I went started to work themselves into the story of the bird and the man and the girl. Not the complete places, but landforms I saw, trees, odd characters, phrases, expressions.  The story lived in my imagination, it never got transferred to paper. And then we plunged into parenthood and the river of life got more complicated and I forgot all about the bird, and the man, and the girl.

When we realized that the river of life was too deep and too turbulent and that we were in danger of drowning, we decided to make some changes. I quit teaching and, drawing on all I had learned from an intensive calligraphy course with Reggie Ezell, I started a calligraphy business specializing in invitation work. I lasted about a year at that but along the way I found work teaching in rubber stamp stores and for local calligraphy guilds. I designed a line of rubber stamps and taught more and further afield. And then in 2001 I published my first book, Simply Bound. Suddenly I was a writer!

One day in the midst of all of this I decided to clean out my filing cabinets to make room for current work. I hadn't had my teaching files open in years and the temptation was to just chuck it all without looking at it. The map I'd made so many years before caught my eye. I took it out to look at it and the story of the bird, and the man, and the girl came back to me. For the first time, I wrote it down. Just the story of how they met on the beach and how he taught her to sail and she introduced him to her father, the king. Not much more than that. There was no time for fiction, I had 'real' books to write.

When I took my creativity coaching training we were required to set creativity goals for ourselves. I realized then that I wanted to do more creative writing and not just focus on professional writing. A goal requires action and so I found myself a writing group and allowed myself some time to write just for the sake of writing. Not much time, just a little. Fiction writing seemed frivolous, did not pay its way like professional writing did. The story I'd begun in my head twenty years before started to grow, and grow. The world it was set in became more visible to me. It had its own flora and fauna, its own culture and craft, its own stories and legends. I began to write these other stories down, to enjoy the act of creating legend and myth. I didn't talk about it in public because as Robert Heinlein said "Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards."
Last year I decided to own my fiction writing in public. I started to talk about it openly. I chose to refocus my work days, to give this other world a larger portion of my attention. I'm going to be 60 in 2016 and I set a goal of finishing the story of the bird, the man and the girl before that big day. Of course the first book has turned into a trilogy while I wasn't paying attention and there is a sizable collection of accompanying myths compiling themselves into another volume and then there are conversations flowing around by the curators-in-my-head who are talking about building an exhibit of the artifacts I am drawn to create that come from this new world. I can't keep this simple. I'm going to have an exhibit ready to be shown at the time of the release of the books. All the roads I've ever taken, all the books I've ever read, all the skills I've ever acquired, seem to have been leading to this project. Which brings us to Fendrich.....

I wrote the Tale of Fendrich the Three Feathered a couple of years ago. I needed a back story for a character's name and one night in a dream Fendrich appeared to me. Not the whole story, just his face and his long hair with three feather growing amidst it. So I sat down to write about him and his tale began to take shape over the weeks and months that followed. That was Step One.

Step Two was deciding that I needed to develop a new alphabet. If I was going to write out his tale for the museum exhibit I want to have, it seemed important to have the work reference the culture that humans have evolved but that it also be different. There are sound reasons for this within the books but I'll choose to talk about that another time. I am forever grateful to Randy Hassan, Ewan Clayton, Georgia Angelopolous and Ruth Booth for agreeing to be my sounding boards during this process. They were generous enough to give of their time and expertise in ways that both encouraged and challenged me during the process. After much work and experimentation I came up with a monoline alphabet that would be rendered in graphite. It is legible, readible, but not easily so.

Step Three was to choose materials. I work on Japanese paper as much as I can and I found a paper that worked well with graphite and was also a little rough and more organic. The lettering is done in graphite, specifically a Palomino pencil, the one with the charcoal grey paint. The initial caps were used sparingly and are based on the alphabet I designed stirred together with crude versions of Celtic motifs. The caps and decoration are done with chalk pastels. The graphite and the ingredients for the chalk colours are things that have been used by artists since the beginning of recorded time on Earth.

Step Four was to do the writing. It took some time. I'm at the point where I can only do half hour stretches at my slanted desk. I really enjoyed working with the letters, getting into the rhythm of them, seeing them flow out and build the text blocks on each page. After I finished the basic text, I went back and designed the intial caps and did the work on them.

Step Five was binding. I had many different ideas for the binding as I worked on the book. Originally I had thought of wooden boards with the soutache bird attached. It became clear as I worked on the book that the bird was going to be too much, not appropriate for the lettering,  and would have to be used in a different way. The research I did into thin wooden board covers wasn't encouraging and I had visions of warping and cracking. I happened upon a roll of white rawhide that looked like crude, thick parchment. It was rolled tightly and wouldn't lay flat but I was told I could wet it and stretch it to get a flat piece again. I got lucky. Letting it relax over time and then placing it under weights for a week seemed to do the trick. I cut it and waited to see if it would roll up again and it didn't. The stitching is a bit different than a traditional binding but also very similar. I have used tacketing to hold each signature to vellum strips and then the strips are attached to the cover. The case is not in keeping with the simple book inside. I played off the fact that when medieval books were rebound in earlier days an elaborate and jeweled cover was created that was not in keeping with the original work. I went with that as my inspiration using more sophisticated papers (although still Japanese) and incorporating my jewelled, soutache bird motif on the cover.

Step Six is the hardest. I'll be honest, it scares me to death. Letting people read my legend is hard. With the novels there is more time to develop plots and settings. With a legend you don't have that luxury and it has to read like a tale that could be told around a campfire by a bard or to a child at bedtime.  I am writing in a genre that used to be called fantasy, but nowadays it apparently is called speculative fiction. Think the gengre of C.S. Lewis and Narnia, Tolkien and The Hobbit, Ursula Le Guin and The Wizard of those books. Reading speculative fiction and science fiction requires a willing suspension of disbelief. You just need to jump in and accept that the world is different and go along for the ride. Which makes it pretty much like being an artist... If you want to read the Tale of Fendrich the Three Feathered you will find it at It is free for now!

So this is the tale of how I got where I am today. I've told you a little bit about how a seed once planted can grow and flourish even after years of neglect. What seed do you need to tend to? What dream do you need to remember and follow? Get off the internet and get to it!


  1. Cherryl, I appreciate hearing of your creative journey to bring this legend to life! I'm enjoying reading it's~ and can't wait to see what happens!

  2. What a beautiful tale. Thank you so much for sharing.


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