cuttlebone contours

Rising fifty five millimetres from the seabed, the cuttlebone cliffs drop away with little warning.

I made myself this little moonlit moonscape from a cuttlefish I found in Bournemouth.  As the old tourist guide promised, it was a strange town from the shore out.

I collected my cuttlefish cartography as I delivered my completed story to the Book Stormers reading group.  The process of writing to order – and, in this case, a chaotic bulk order – has been perilous.  I found myself walking on new terrain, over a line of brittle, chalky cliffs that gave way as I moved across them.

The group wanted a a riddle ridden, futuristic fantasy set in WW2 complete with talking mechanical animals.  How to pull this together into a story with integrity and heart?  Oh man.  What would China Miéville do?

But on Friday I returned to Dorset, with a little pamphlet of the story, The Sphinx, to a reading evening at Hamworthy Library.

Riffing on Poe’s story of the same name I decided to shift the group’s desire for a riddle-maker from actual Sphinx to the Sphinx genus.  Like many a writer before me, I stared for a little too long at the grim thorax of Acherontia atropos.

The result? A bioengineered Death’s Head Hawk Moth got itself all mixed up in the local legend of Old Harry, a devil who slept atop the chalky cliffs just off Studland.  Old Harry’s Rocks, like the cuttlebone craters above, are crumbling into the sea.  The monster who made his bed there is on the move.  And he’s tired.

As well as an ominous moth-monster, I heard the group’s requests and raised them a mechanical house cat (called Tigborg), passenger porpoises and, for good measure, partly set the action in the local ghost town of Tyneham which was commandeered by the War Office during WW2, never to be occupied again.

I tried to tick all the boxes.  But perhaps the boxes disintegrated in the process.  Perhaps all I have now is a load of flatpacked cardboard and a mess.

But whatever the result, writing for a known, expectant reader has applied a pressure to this project that I have not worked with before.  It set parameters on the scope of the story while at the same time demanded that I write myself into worlds where I’d have never, otherwise, ventured.  It has, overall, been a useful experience.

I speak for myself, but one Book Stormer’s mid-reading exclamation (“This is so AWESOME!”) leaves me confident it wasn’t just me who found this to be a rewarding exchange.

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