Sterkarm Cuisine: a starter

A (suspiciously clean and tidy) medieval kitchen
          One part of the Sterkarm books that people often tell me they enjoyed and remember, is the meal  the 21st century executive, Windsor, is forced to endure at the Sterkarm Tower.
          So I bring to you The Sterkarm Dinner Party.  In the privacy and safety of your own home, you too can threaten your friends with Sterkarm cuisine.
          In the book, Windsor is hoping for ‘fresh oysters, salmon so recently caught it was still swimming, roast haunch of venison, wild strawberries…’  What he gets is groats, pronounced something like ‘gr-r-rewts.’
          This is how you make it.
Aa ancient cow. Or reasonable facsimile of same.
          Take two and three quarter cups of sour cream, and simmer in a closed pan for about fifteen minutes.
          No messing about with ‘low-fat’ now.  It’s got to be the full-fat stuff.  As cattle farmers first and foremost, the Sterkarms drank a lot of milk and cream.  They had skimmed milk, as a side-product of cheese and butter making, and valued butter-milk as a refreshing drink, but they had none of our worries about fat and calories.  Their lives were too active and food too hard to come by for them to get fat, and their lives were comparatively short anyway.  Even if they’d known that their diet was furring their arteries, I doubt they’d have let it worry them.
          Simmering a pan of cream would have been much harder for a Sterkarm cook than for us.  The ‘closed pan’ would have been of iron, with three little legs, so it could sit in burning peats.  A large amount would have been hung, in a cauldron, above a fire, but that much would more likely have been made with milk or water.
          The small pan of cream would either have sat at the edge of a larger fire, or would have been cooked on a stove – a brazier of burning peats, either free-standing or built into a stone bench.
          The only way of regulating the heat would have been to move the pan closer to or further away from the fire’s hottest part.  I’ve never done this (I’m glad to say) but I imagine it would have required even closer attention by the scorched and sweating cook than it does today.
          While your cream is simmering on the peats, take one and a quarter cups  of oat-flour.  This can be pin-head oatmeal, or porridge oats ground very fine.  The grain the Sterkarm used would nearly always have been oatmeal.  They were semi-nomadic cattle-herders rather than farmers, and ate a very high-protein diet: meat, milk, cheese, eggs (when they could get them) and fish.  They made great use of wild food, such as nuts, berries, sorrel, cress and mushrooms, but farming came second to cattle, and they grew little in the way of arable crops. Oats grew better in rocky northern fields than wheat.  Wheaten bread was a luxury, rarely seen and eaten by few. (Fife only became 'the bread-basket of Britain' after the Agricultural Revolution and great changes in farming methods.)
          How the Sterkarm cook judged when the cream had simmered for fifteen minutes, I’ve no idea,  I doubt they had any way of telling the time.  This is why I never have them speak of minutes or seconds: they say, ‘in an eye-blink’.  Cathedrals had great public clocks, but most people still regulated their day by the sun, rising at first light, going to bed when it was dark. In between, they did what they had to do, regardless of the hour.  Perhaps the cooks had sand-glasses of different sizes – or perhaps they judged the heat of the cream from experience, as smiths judged the heat of iron by its colour.
          Anyway, when the cream has simmered, sieve into it about a third of the flour.  Continue to simmer until the butter-fat begins to separate.  Skim off the fat, and save it in a bowl.
          Sift the remaining flour into the pan, and bring to the boil.  Then simmer until it is the desired thickness.  Whisk to make smooth.  Add salt to taste.
          Serve with the fat you skimmed off poured over the groats. Accompany with raw dried meat, such as smoked ham or lamb, or tongue, or dried fish.
          I’ve eaten this and it’s tasty.  It looks quite forbidding, granted – ‘a smooth paste’ with ‘pools and rivulets of yellow liquid’ running through it - but tastes good.
          This is your Sterkarm starter, the first in a series of download and keep recipes, which you can put in an easy wipe-clean folder, and consult when you have guests you don’t like - but to the Sterkarms, this was a delicacy and a treat, expensive both in terms of what it took from their stores, and the time it took to make, and if they’d known that their guests were revolted by it, they would have been puzzled and hurt. And it's probably best not to hurt their feelings.

The End of the Sterkarms

     I’ve worked hard on Sterkarm 3 for three years and until a couple of days ago, never knew how it would end.
     I had a vague idea, a mood – but nothing more.
     I’ve asked myself many times: How do I want it to end?  And also, How do my readers want it to end?
     This hasn’t been a lot of help.  For myself, I drew a blank.  I didn’t know.  I wanted it to end right – that’s all I could say.  And, of course, that’s subjective. What I feel is the right ending, someone else will think wrong.
     Much as I appreciate my readers – and I do – I suspected that many of them wanted S3 to end with a big wedding for Per and Andrea and ‘happy ever after’.  And all their dogs and horses happy ever after too.  And it’s not that I’m against this, so much as it never felt right. The Sterkarms’ world was violent and unsympathetic. They wouldn’t know what to do with happy ever after.
     Wouldn’t it be easer to just give my readers what they want anyway?
     No! Because if I didn’t feel it was right, I couldn’t write it.  Its lack of rightness would nag at me with every word.  It would be like trying to swim the Channel in a meringue wedding-dress (and I’m not a good swimmer anyway.)
     But where could I find the right ending?  Will those shops that stock ideas sell it?  Will they deliver?
     I considered story arc. I looked at twists and turns – I think ‘reversals’ is the fancy term.  I constructed coloured diagrams and looked hard at them, noting how the colours parted and joined.  I consulted the runes.
     It did help. I mentioned the difficulties with the time-line last week.  Although I’d been aware that the time sequence of the book was perhaps, well – a bit approximate – it was the mapping that made it apparent how and where.
     None of this helped capture an ending. 
     So I was watching stupid-telly the other night when my hand reached for a note-book and my favourite fast, scribbly pen.  (A pentel energel, recommended by Davy, which floats over the paper and gets thoughts down almost as fast as you can think them.)  The daemon had tapped my shoulder and I started writing almost without stopping to think.
     I scribbled down what I thought the first book in the series, The Sterkarm Handshake, was about.  Not what happens in it, which is mere plot, but what it was about.
     I think it’s about treachery and betrayal.  The Sterkarm badge, the Handshake, is an emblem of their treachery – but they are treacherous because they see themselves as alone in a hostile world.
     The Company makes what seems an honest deal with the Sterkarms, but knows it is selling them short – indeed, as a capitalist business, it must, to make a profit.
     Joe, the 21st Century homeless man, has been betrayed by his society – but finds a home with the treacherous Sterkarms, who see him as one of their own, and, like the Devil, they look after their own.
     And A Sterkarm Kiss? – Treachery and betrayal again.  Andrea thinks she will be returning to her love affair with Per, but finds herself betrayed both by the Company and her own fantasies – and, in leaving the 21st for ever, betrays the loving partner she leaves behind.
     The Company broker an alliance and a marriage between the feudal enemies, the Sterkarms and Grannams – but it is all a huge, deliberate deceit which leads to murder.  (Pure fantasy, of course: this kind of political manipulation never happens in the real world outside of conspiracy theory.)
     Marriage, murder, deceit, treachery - as I scribbled, the ending of Sterkarm 3 leaped into my head.  Calloo!  Callay!  Glasses of   Festival Ale all round!  Boil a haggis!
     Of course, I’m not going to tell you the ending; but I will give you this assurance – No dogs or horses were harmed in the concluding of this novel.

You wouldn't lose your place on a Kindle, Blott!

The Sterkarm Relativity

The Sterkarm books by Susan Price
          I’ve finished summarising every scene in Sterkarm 3, in different coloured inks, with emoticons, and many notes to self.
          It has been very useful: and has made clear that the time-scale, in places, is impossible.
          I have different parties heading off in different directions to roam the soggy, midge-ridden hills while having varied adventures, before finally meeting up again… but the timing just doesn’t work.  Everything that happens to Party B just couldn’t be crammed into the time that elapses before they join Party A again.
          I have to admit that I haven’t worked out in enough detail where the places in the story are in relation to each other, how far apart, and what the terrain between them is like.  And, most importantly, how long it would take my characters to get from one place to another, do what I want them to do, and get back again.
          I have to do this for six different groups of characters, who’re all in different places, doing different things.  Trying to kill each other, mostly.
           The ‘terrain’ option on Google Maps has allowed me to hover over Sterkarm country, looking down on all the burns and waters, the fells and laws.  I could decide where to site the towers and the Time Tube.  So many streams!  It brought back memories of tramping those hills, meeting deer in the twilight.  I could hear the burns splashing down the hillsides and smell the heather; could hear skylarks and whaups as I hunched over my laptop.
          Some of my characters are riding the tough, strong, sure-footed little reiver horses – but how fast could they travel?  I’ve read that rievers could cover 40 miles in a night, but surely that was only in desperation?  Or would they, as Davy suggested, take spare horses with them?  Would 20 miles be more usual?
          The riders were ‘light cavalry’, but would have worn helmets and heavy leather ‘jakkes’ stitched with pieces of metal, and carried lances and swords.  Other equipment too: blankets, food, bows, arrows, axes.  And the country was difficult – steep slopes, boulders, scree, thickets and many streams and rivers.  Come on, Karen (aka madwippit) and Kath Roberts, those expert riders– and any other expert riders out there - what’s your opinion?  (And Kath - wow! I like your website's new look!)
         Another party’s on foot.  If they were all fit, strong men, I could use the yomping experience of my ex-army acquaintance, but some of my characters are ill, or unfit - and they’re not all suitably dressed for scrambling over border hills either.  (One is dressed like a 16th century lady, in clothes that would hamper you walking across a room. I should add, this character is a 16th century lady. I've no doubt the rievers had their cross-dressers, but that's for another book.) My guess is that, under the circumstances, they’d be lucky to cover much more than six or seven miles in a day, if that. Walking that country is hard work.
          So, can I cut some of the events?  I’ve read through them with a hard eye, while asking those damning questions: Is this scene introducing or developing a character?  Is it introducing or developing something important to the plot?  Is it necessary?  Even so, it’s hard to see what I can lose.  Maybe I just need a good editor.
          Can I reduce events by combining  them?  Kill two Sterkarms with one arrow, so to speak.  I’ve already divided the parties differently, so one character doesn’t have to go to and fro so much.
          Time, distance, speed - I’m beginning to see what Einstein was on about.
          Davy, unable to put his cup down because of my sketch maps scribbled in coloured inks, my laptop open on a satellite scene of empty moors, my index cards and beat-sheets, said, “I dunno why you’re doing all this, getting yourself all of a fash.  You can bet other writers don’t bother.”
          Tell him, people, tell him.

          And to get you in the Border reiver mood, here's the wonderful June Tabor, from her album An Echo of Hooves -           

And here's Blott:

I Want To Write!

          On Saturday, the floor of my bedroom collapsed and tipped me and the bed sidelong – I saw the mattress rising up above me, pointing at the ceiling, as I slid down into the hole.
          I’d been lying peacefully in bed, awake, but eyes closed, planning my day.  I opened my eyes to begin it – and the world turned upside down.
          I clutched wildly at the mattress as the bed reversed and tipped up the other way.  Then it whirled in circles like a carousel before wallowing sickeningly, like a small boat in a rough sea, leaving me sicker than I’ve ever felt when on a boat.
          By this time I’d realised that the bed wasn’t actually moving.  I was enjoying my first experience of vertigo.
          The fun continued when I sat up.  The whole room folded into origami and flipped and flopped about until I didn’t know which way was Norwich, and fell over on the bed like a rag doll.
          My renegade left ear had upped its game again.
          My right ear you’d like.  It’s a modest, respectable ear that does all that’s required of it without feeling the need to draw attention to itself.  In the whole of my life I doubt I’ve spent as much as an hour thinking of my right ear, or even being aware of it.  Qualities I appreciate in an ear.
          I feel now that I haven’t appreciated it enough – have even mistreated it by having holes punched through it and inserting metalware.
          But not for my left ear a life of blameless obscurity.  It wasn’t going to settle for being ignored while hands and feet, and mouth and hair – useless hair! – got all the attention.  So, about twenty years ago, it turned on me.
          At first, it was merely irritating.  It would feel as if someone was pressing their thumb against the outside of the ear.  For hours.  Annoying, but easily ignored.
          So the ear upped the ante.  Imagine a tiny balloon being blown up inside your ear-canal, so it pressed lightly on all sides.  Not painful, but a bit more than annoying.  It would make me shake my head and rub at my ear, as if whatever it was could be dislodged.
          Imagine that balloon being steadily inflated, so the pressure grow and grows.  At some point it passes beyond annoying and becomes painful. And then more painful, and more. The ear wins.  It has my complete attention.  It’s impossible to think about anything else.
          Still it plays games.  Years go by without the slightest trouble.  More years pass without it ever going beyond the ‘annoying.’  Still, the slightest grumble from it has me instantly on edge because it can accelerate faster than a Ferrari, from tiny grumble to howling at the moon in minutes.  It can then continue for a fortnight, or stop after five minutes.  I never know which.  And now I’m always going to be waiting for the world to start spinning as well.
         So there’s been no work done on the Sterkarms this week.  Not much done at all.  It’s very frustrating, because I don’t feel too bad until I try to do something – when I rapidly become sick and dizzy and have to give up.  ‘So you’re forced to lie on the sofa and watch old films,’ said my brother unsympathetically.  And I have.
          But I want to write!

So What Do You Do In Schools Anyway?

In full story-telling flow: 'Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum!'
          A friend asked me this the other day.  It’s not the first time I’ve been asked it.  My friends seem deeply puzzled by the amount of time I spend in schools.
          I can understand, I suppose.  After all, unlike many other writers, I’ve never been a teacher.  I have no qualifications.  I know lots of little bits of odd things, but I can’t claim to be an expert in any one subject.
          My partner, Davy, who phoned while I was writing this blog, insists that I put in here that my education came from ‘voracious reading’ (his words.)  He insists that I add this, with his usual relentless Scottish persistence, in case people think that I’m "thick and only managed to write a book by a fluke. You shouldn’t keep telling people you’re unqualified, you should stop that now."
          Sixty-odd books, Davy?  Some fluke.  But now, when he reads this (and he will read it, just to check, I ken the cheukster) here is his correction, [almost] as dictated over the phone.
          Despite being thick and flukish, I’m always telling friends that I’m off to some school in Yorkshire, or South Wales, or Scotland.  I’ve even been into schools in Germany, where one boy asked me breathlessly (in beautiful English) whether I’d met the Queen.  He and his classmates gasped with shock when I replied, “No: and I don’t want to. I think Britain should be a Republic.”  Seeing astonished expressions on all sides, I added, “Not everybody in Britain adores the monarchy.”
Soon to be available for download
          The head thanked me later, saying that was exactly why he wanted British visitors – to counter the impression of Britain that his pupils received from television and magazines. (The ever protective and vigilant Davy doesn’t like this part either.  He thinks I’ll lose my monarchist readership: as if I ever had one.  Honestly, love the man, but if I listened to him, I’d never open my mouth or write a word. And when Davy reads this, he will cry – his constant refrain – ‘Suzzie, you never do as you’re told, Suzzie!’)
         Countering impressions received… That’s pretty much the answer to my friends’ question.  As a writer in school, I – and other writers, such as my SAS friends – are giant teaching aids. There are thousands of children who’ve never given much thought to where books come from, or who think they’re only written by – well, by people like the Queen, perhaps: distant, rich people with private educations and plummy accents. And then I turn up – an ordinary woman, with a Black Country accent, and read from the books I’ve written.
Tales of the Underworld on Amazon
          It makes writing a book suddenly seem like something ordinary people can do - something that living people you can talk to can do.  I tell them about the slum I was born in, and the council estate I was raised on, the comprehensive I attended.
          I tell stories, which I love – and because I read an exciting story aloud from one of my own books – well, suddenly, books are exciting and worth investigating.
          And that’s what writers are doing in schools near you.

          Here, you'll find SAS members, including me, reading from their books.  And I daresay one or two might two might pop up in the comments.

          Blott's come down from the roof....