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It’s Christmas time… have a story…

This one I wrote a while ago, and it was snaffled up at the time in several different versions by various eccleisiastical markets who loved the Christmas angle and just wen crazy with it. It was perhaps not themost widely distributed short story I ever wrote, but it was certainly amongst the most widely sold ones (it was even broadcast on radio…) However, as I said, this was a good many years ago, and since I found it again knocking around my hard drive, and since it’s THAT time of the year again, I’d like to share it with all y’all. Consider it my Christmas gift. So, with no further ado – it’s on to…


Archangel Gabrielle


When the Virgin Mary came down with chickenpox the day before the Sunday School Nativity, there was a Christmas crisis at St. Michael’s. They had been short on cast anyway; they only had two girls in the class, and the other had been slated to play the Archangel Gabriel. Now perforce she had to slip into Mrs Anderson’s blue chiffon scarf and would be left holding the baby, so to speak. That left the key role of the Archangel vacant.

“But we have to have an angel,” fussed the Reverend. His glasses had quite misted up with emotion.

“Well, we can’t touch the Three Wise Men,” said Peter Wilcox practically. He was the new curate, and it was his daughter Melissa who’d stepped into the Virgin Mary’s shoes. They’d been with the community only just over a month; the gossips hinted at a tragedy, with the young Mrs Wilcox dying dreadfully in some sort of accident… or was it of some thoroughly romantic incurable disease?… and Peter had come here with his daughter to get away from the memories. “And we only have two shepherds as it is. Take one away, and the Archangel would have had a pretty useless job, coming down to warn a solitary shepherd of the great event.”

And that was the trouble. With Jeannie Garnet out of the running, there were only seven other kids in the Nativity – and they all seemed to be essential right where they were.

“Perhaps we should cancel it this year,” suggested Mrs Grace, the organist, morosely.

“Oh, no!” said the Reverend, starting up with shock, his eyes quite wide behind the spectacles. “Why, it would be like… like cancelling Christmas.”

“And the children, they’ll be so disappointed,” murmured Anne de la Harpe. In her Sunday guise she was the new Sunday School teacher, after her weekly stint in the classroom proper of the local primary. “They’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.”

“Well, I can’t see what else to do,” said Mrs Grace, determined as ever to put the most pessimistic face on things.

“But we must think of something,” said Anne.

“Well, dear, unless you play the angel…” began Mrs Grace.

Anne shot her a startled look. “I?” she said. “But it’s the children’s show. It’s silly. How can I possibly…”

“No, hang on,” said Peter slowly, “it’s not such a bad idea. It is the Sunday School Nativity, and you’re technically part of the Sunday School. And the kids would love it. And besides, it would give the Archangel the proper perspective as the messenger of God.”

Anne laughed self-consciously, her cheeks going scarlet. “No. No, I couldn’t possibly.”

“But you’d be saving the Nativity,” said the Reverend.

She shook her head. “No, really. What would I wear, for a start? The angel’s costume was made for someone a tad smaller than me.”

“That’s not a problem,” said Mrs Grace, going into an unexpected reverse. “I could run you up a simple white gown in a jiffy. And a bit of silver paint on cardboard… who’s to carp about wings at a time like this? Peter could do it. He painted my front door beautifully last weekend, he’s quite a master with the brush.”

“And whoever saw an archangel with a chignon?” muttered Anne as a last defence, and then clutched at the back of her head as Mrs Grace suddenly and artfully pulled out the master pin and she felt her long fair hair coming loose. “Or with hair streaming any which way like this?” she added, blushing, swiftly collecting it into a tight twist and sitting, undecided, with the thick mass of it held between her palms.

“I couldn’t even imagine an Archangel,” said Peter slowly, his eyes wide an bright, “until today.”

It was the first time any of them there had ever seen her hair in any state except its usual neat French twist at the nape of her neck. Mrs Grace seemed faintly startled by what she had unleashed, the Reverend glancing away as though embarrassed, but Peter looked at her as though she had been a revelation and Anne dropped her gaze onto the rope of hair she held over her shoulder in a sudden attack of shyness. But Peter had recovered his poise almost immediately.

“You’d be perfect,” he said, and it was back to his old practical tone which made Anne feel herself again. “And it would save the day.”

They were all looking at her, the Reverend expectantly, Mrs Grace with an I-told-you-so look looming which Anne suddenly itched to quash right there, and Peter with a gaze that was kind but curiously impersonal. She imagined the Nativity, with her poised over the hapless Sunday School class like some sort of giant, clad in what would probably be some kind of nightgown shift, cardboard wings and the tinsel halo lovingly made by Melissa Wilcox for her own angelic debut, and couldn’t help grinning. It would look ludicrous, totally silly… And yet…

“All right, then,” she heard herself saying. “It’s only for one night.”

Mrs Grace provided a gown which was almost good enough to wear in public, and the children were thrilled at the idea of their teacher playing the Archangel. They all pitched in to strap on the wings, which were indeed a small masterpiece; Melissa helped fix on the halo she had made for herself, stopping to shyly finger a strand of Anne’s thick fair hair.

“It’s so pretty,” she said. “I never knew you had really, really long hair.” She sounded faintly envious, her own dark shiny bob, underneath the chiffon scarf, swinging just below her ears.

“Shhh,” said Anne, maneuvering her into position. “I think we’re almost on.”

They had set up behind improvised curtains in the little side-chapel of the old church, and could hear the congregation cough and murmur in the main hall. They knew that the Reverend would introduce them with a few words, and then the makeshift curtain would be drawn aside.

There were to be two tableaux – first Anne, in her starring role, would be seen towering over the two shepherds, giving them the good news; and then the nativity proper, with the children grouped around one of Melissa’s favourite dolls in a little wooden cradle. But moments before they were due to go on, the curtain twitched and Peter Wilcox, in full ecclesiastical regalia, slipped inside.

“Sorry,” he hissed apologetically, “change of plans. Lighting’s gone all awry. Only one tableau; set it all up around the crib, Anne, and you say your piece over that. Kids, you go on as rehearsed, okay?”

“Peter!” Anne called in a panic, trying to shout in a whisper as he started to slip away again. But he was already gone. “Okay,” she said, guiding the ‘shepherds’ to the cradle through the thick straw strewn all over the floor of the chapel. “We’ll skip your words, Mickey and Robin. When they open the curtain, I’ll say what I have to, and then you carry on as we practised. All right?” And then they were out of time as the curtain slowly drew back and they were bathed in the one spotlight that still worked, a brilliant white light that suddenly blazed on Anne’s hair making of it a halo even greater than the puny tinsel gleam that nestled somewhere above her head. Her eyes dazzled by the light, blinded to the audience, Anne instinctively raised her hands… and could have sworn she heard the rustle of wings, real wings, as she did so.

The words that rose to her mouth were not the scaled-down ones they had culled for a child, but the sonorous, ringing phrases from the old Bibles where angels were still awesome and terrible – and yet the words rang with a simplicity all their own: “Behold, today was born unto you a Saviour in the City of David.” She spoke in a voice which was entirely unlike her own quiet one, a voice dark and smoky, very soft and yet intensely penetrating, and there wasn’t a soul there who did not hear every word that she said, and tremble at her words through some irrational and primeval awe which told everyone they were suddenly in the presence of the extraordinary. And when she had finished, there was somehow a sudden shadow behind her and into that she withdrew and vanished.

The Wise Child-Men came up with their gifts and the shepherds bowed deeply over their cardboard crooks in the direction of a Melissa lambent in blue over whom hovered protectively the six-year-old Joseph with a bright striped kitchen cloth wrapped Eastern-style around his head. The curtain had been meant to close again after they had finished, but every pair of hands was busy clapping, and so it was that the flushed and excited children ran straight off the straw-strewn “stage” into the waiting arms of their parents; Peter Wilcox, who manned the lights, had at least had the presence of mind to switch off the reflector, and when Anne emerged into the diminished, workaday church light it was as an ordinary mortal once again, her wings as firmly cardboard as when Peter had painted them the previous day. She couldn’t seem to decide whether to laugh or to cry, and was still so high from the rush that had shaken her that she was largely unaware of the bright-eyed, clapping congregation who had risen to their collective feet. Peter hurried over.

“Let me help you with those,” he said, reaching for the wings.

She smiled at him in a way that made his heart turn over, and shrugged obligingly out of the shoulder harness the wings had been attached to. In the process, her hymnbook and a battered old Bible slipped from her hand, and they both bent to retrieve them. She came up with the hymnbook, he with the Bible. There were faded initials embossed in the brown leather cover: A. G. H.

“A. G.?” he queried lightly, handing it back. “What does the G stand for?”

And then he suddenly smiled, knowing in the split second before she spoke what she was going to say. It was as inevitable as the future. He impulsively reached out and took her hand, and she did not withdraw it as she looked at him from within that wealth of golden hair.

“Gabrielle,” she said, very softly. “It stands for Gabrielle.”



Merry Christmas.

And if you want to put a little something under MY (virtual) tree, you may do so here


Midnight at Spanish Gardens

What If … ? What if you could make a different choice at a critical moment in your life? What if you had married someone else, turned right instead of left, had taken that job you rejected? What if you had been born a man instead of a woman?

My new novel, “Midnight at Spanish Gardens,” here explores this universal question. It is now AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER as an ebook directly from the publisher here

Take a look at the book trailer here

On Aug. 1, it will also be available at Amazon, and Smashwords. Details of the paperback edition will be announced later this year.

What it is all about: On the eve of the end of the world, Dec. 20, 2012, five friends meet in Spanish Gardens, the restaurant where they had celebrated their college graduation 20 years before. Over Irish coffees, they reminisce – and reveal long-held and disturbing secrets.

Each friend in turn is given a curious set of instructions by an enigmatic bartender named Ariel: “Your life is filled with crossroads and you are free to choose one road or another at any time. Stepping through this door takes away all choices except two — the choice to live a different life, or return to this one.”

All of them pass through the portal and into drastically changed lives. They change occupations and families; one changes gender; a woman falls in love — with another woman. In the end, four choose to return to their original lives.

One doesn’t.

Stories, stories everywhere

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One of the perennial items tossed at every living writer in almost every interview is “Where do you get your ideas?”

One well-known writer famously provided an address for an Ideas Shop in Schenectady (and had people TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY). I usually say that I have an Ideas Tree growing out back (and I’ve had people take THAT semi-seriously).

Most writers, though, when confronted with the Question, simply fling their arms up in resignation and say “EVERYWHERE!” And they are, of course, right. Look at the last week of news.

First we had the Fairy Tale – the dashing young man in the scarlet uniform, the blushing bride with the tiara, the Kiss on the Balcony. The fairy tale of marriage, enacted Grand Scale – the horses, the carriages, the gorgeous dresses (and the unbelievable hats), the pageant and the panoply. The couple roared off in an Aston Martin. This is the way stories are born, and built, and accreted to, tales like barnacles on hoary old original stories which are falling apart with age and antiquity. We add things, new things like the Aston Martin. But we still grow misty-eyed at young love, at the Prince and Princess on their wedding day, and we still spin fairy tales.

Then, days after the Wedding Story, we have the story of War, and Death, and Revenge. The so-called “mastermind” of the 9/11 tragedy – and I use the word advisedly, and I do not mean just the falling towers in New York – Osama bin Laden is reported dead. America dissolves into triumph. At last, the smear on American pride is avenged, and the man who dared to attack the Greatest Nation on Earth has met his end at American hands.

And was buried post-haste. The Internet spouts something about Muslim tradition… and a *sea burial.* Which is on the face of it ridiculous. There are backtrackings saying that there was a mis-speak somewhere that all anybody meant to say is that bin Laden was buried “within 24 hours, as per Muslim tradition”. Whatever the story, I don’t think there’s a body there to be seen, a death there to confirm. The conspiracy theorists can now start lining up, please, with various and increasingly outlandish reasons as to why this is all a whitewash and Osama isn’t REALLY dead, etc etc etc. The mundane details just get in the way of a good legend being born.

The ostensible reason for American wars being waged on the Afghanistan and Pakistan fronts was supposedly bin Laden (and man, it took them TEN YEARS TO FIND THE DUDE?…) One would think that now this is over the troops over there are going to be brought home post-haste. I wouldn’t hold my breath. There’s a story here that’s now greater than the sum of its parts. The holy war is going to be hard to rein in, particularly since even the gung-ho triumphalists parading about wrapped in flags and screaming “Mission REALLY accomplished!” are aware, have GOT to be aware on some fundamental level, that this is a head cut off a Hydra. At least until now the Americans KNEW who the enemy was; he was the bogeyman who flung the planes at the New York towers. But who’s going to take his place? OF COURSE America will have to remain in the back country of the ‘stans, until further notice, because they have to find out who the NEW Face of the Enemy is, track him down, and cut another head off the Hydra. But it never ends, and the thing about the Hydra of Greek Mythology, is that it tends to regrow its chopped-off heads on a regular basis. War without end. Amen.

You can make a story for that. A Story. There it is, lying there right at your feet, ripe for picking up.

What else has been happening in the world lately? Elections in Canada? Only a little further back in the timeline, the tsunami in Japan? Human beings, living every day. Dealing with death and taxes, weddings, tragedies and joys, triumph and revenge, hypocrisy, making mistakes, casting votes, traveling in airplanes, winning prizes, paying bills, cooking meals, burying loved ones or welcoming new ones into the world, falling down and picking themselves up and starting all over again.

Blogging, even.

Telling stories.

We’ll take that with us, when we take our first steps towards the stars. This capacity for making lives into legends, people into archetypes, history into myth.

We are a race that is built of Story. And there are stories… everywhere.

Talisman Books

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Alison Goodman defines a Talisman Book as “one of those novels that you read over and over again, a book that seems to resonate through you, that wards off the disappointments and insecurities of everyday life.”

My Talisman Books are the ones I’d rescue from a burning building. For example:

— My dogeared paperback copy of ‘Lord of the Rings’. This book – broken-spined, tattered, beloved – was probably one of the first thing that made me kneel at the altar of fantasy and begin SERIOUS worship there. Tolkien made me realise that the big epic dreams that crowded my imagination were FOR REAL, and were valuable. This book is the physical embodiment of that realization. It’s a talisman not just because of its identity but because of what it represents, the kind of hugeness and wonder and awe and the way it made me cognisant of my place in this world.

— ‘Tigana’ by Guy Gavriel Kay, because it’s one of the best BOOKS I’ve ever read. The writing and the story make this amazing for me and so does the visceral emotional connection I feel to the underlying themes of the book.

— ‘Nine Princes in Amber,’ the now out-of-print paperback edition that made Roger Zelazny lift his eyebrows in utter astonishment when I gave it to him to sign and ask me where on earth I’d got that copy because it had been out of print for YEARS.

– A volume of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, because all stories live inside that book, and I could read them and dream up the rest of a lost world by his tropes.

– And because it’s irreplaceable, a really ancient and ill-favored book with dull gray covers – a broken down book, loved well long before I had my hands on it, with scribbled commentary in the margins and on the bottom of the pages. This is the book that lived beside my grandfather’s bed, the book that he read and re-read and re-read, the scribbles in the margins are his thoughts, and in his hand. He’s been gone these twenty years. He’ll never speak to me again except through this book, and I WOULD go through fire to get it.

Those are Talisman Books in the purest and most glittering sense of the word. There are many many books that I love, and have adored over the years.

— But forgive me if I add another to my Talisman Book list, a book that I wrote. A hardcover edition of “Secrets of Jin Shei”, the book to remind me what I am, what the culmination is of all the gifts that all my other books have poured like gems into my waiting spirit. I’ll take a copy with me and show it to people if I lose the power of speech and they ask me who or what I am. Because that is what I am. Will always be. I am the creator of THIS THING, this book, this collection of words, this story… this Talisman.

There were the books which drew my tears – “Les Miserables”, Howard Spring’s “My Son, My Son”, Karl May’s “Winnetou” (although it took me YEARS to unlearn all the “facts” I though I knew about the American Indian culture in general and the Apache in particular after I finished reading his work), Jack London’s “Call of the Wild”, almost ANYTHING by Ursula le Guin, a book not many people reading this will have heard of but whose title translates as “The Time of Death” by a writer of my own tongue and tribe by the name of Dobrica Cosic and another book by one of my own, Ivo Andric’s “Bridge on the Drina”.

Lest you should think that I spent my entire reading life weeping, there are books that drew my laughter – Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”, T. H. White’s “Once and Future King”.

And there are the comfort books I return to because I know I can find solace there – “Song of Arbonne”, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, Mary Stewart’s Merlin books, “Shadow of the Moon” by M. M. Kaye or any fat historical novel by Sharon Penman (but particularly “Here Be Dragons”), Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible”, lots of stuff by Pearl Buck, books by Henryk Sienkiewicz, John Galsworthy, Boris Pasternak, Nikos Kazantzakis, Daphne du Maurier. Of more recent vintage, Catherynne Valente whose poetic vision enthralls me or Neil Gaiman whose dark and sardonically twisted tales and characters draw me in and China Mieville whose surgical command of the English language leaves me breathless and humbled.

So – what are YOUR Talisman Books?

Coming This Fall… RIVER, the Anthology

It begins. Somewhere. An insignificant trickle of water that grows and changes, gathers a history, becomes the River, and finally reaches the sea, and vanishes into its vastness.

The River. Full of life. Full of mystery. Full of stories.

Rivers have always been very important to humankind. They’ve been explored. They’ve been navigated. They’ve been called gods. They’ve been blessed and cursed and venerated and used and enjoyed and exploited and polluted since the beginning of recorded history. They’ve been sung about and dreamed about and followed on epic journeys of discovery. The capitals of empires have risen on banks of rivers – and so have a thousand fishing villages, and river landings, and water mills.

There is only one River. Really. And it’s all of them. Every river is different – and yet they’re all the same, vast and full of life and death and mystery and history and adventure and quiet dreams.

River, an anthology I am putting together for Dark Quest Books, will be out in the fall. Look for it.

What is it about writers and notebooks?

I’ve always been in love with notebooks. When I was younger it was hardcover notebooks in which I would write ENTIRE NOVELS, by hand, often in pencil. Later, especially when I graduated to the computer as a primary writing tool, they became smaller things I toted around in various purses and in which I scribbled quotes, ideas and half-finished poetry.

Some were set aside as dedicated “research journals” for particular projects, and are filled with scrawled notes culled from various research books read along the way, thoughts and ideas on applying facts discovered during research. As it got closer to the writing something, these notebooks often blossomed into colorful and chaotic proliferation of multi-hued Post-it tabs which guided me as to which bits belong in which chapter or section of the actual story I was trying to write.

I currently have a stash of these notebooks, bound in interesting textured covers, sitting in a small pile on a side table and waiting for their turn at glory. They don’t know yet what they are going to be, what they are going to build.

In a sense, this defines a writer. Scratch through a writer’s pockets or bags and you’ll always find these things, full of chicken scratches of half formed and barely coherent ideas, sometimes in shorthand which even the writer is hard-pressed to recognize a week or a month or a year after they had scritched it down for remembrance. If not a notebook, you’ll find old envelopes with scribbles on the back, napkins from fast-food restaurants, sale slips from stores which went out of business six months before but whose ghosts haunt the bottom of someone’s handbag because the back of of them contain the first inklings of a deathless idea.

I take my notebooks everywhere. I take them traveling and write down the things I see and hear and experience and taste. I write down the things that leave me gaping in awe and the things that make me laugh and the things that make me annoyed. I take them out to restaurants with friends, and scribble furtively in them when I happen to notice a strange character sitting at a table a little way away and am suddenly mugged by that person’s life story (or my version of it, anyway) which I just have to jot down and preserve because some day I might need a character JUST LIKE THAT for a story not yet born. I leave them lying by my bed when I go to sleep at night because who knows what dreams may come and need to be nailed down in ink on paper before they vanish like the ephemera that they are.

Blank journals represent a restless, exciting state of possibility and of Things To Come. They tremble with the yet-unborn spirits of stories still to be told. They whisper out of that inviting emptiness calling to me to come and fulfill them, to help them find their destinies, and along the way, pursue my own.

They are physical links to that place that lies Between, where the stories live and fly.

Seeing the story

write4kids Editor’s note: Audrey is a 13-year-old student from California who is currently working on her own novel between school, sports and choir. She’s also a Contributing Editor to Write4Kids, focusing on middle grade and YA literature.

AUDREY — I’ve interviewed Alma Alexander. Ms. Alexander has published the YA fantasy series Worldweavers from HarperTeen. She wrote a novel as a 14 year old, and she has been editing it and revising it on a website:

Your writing style is super evocative. Do you have any tips on making the story come to life? You seem to strike a good balance between description and action—how do you do it?

ALMA: I have this odd way of “seeing” things as I write, as if I was seeing a movie projected on the inside of my brain. There’s always a context to this – a setting – and I am detail-oriented enough to immerse myself in this completely. But it’s as though as the visual component of it is the last to fall into place in this sensurround projection that I’m plunged into. First I’ll smell the salt on the breeze, or step onto a stray seashell and crunch it underfoot, or hear the distant sound of breaking surf – and only then will I truly open my eyes and confirm that I am standing beside an ocean. You have more senses than just your sight – trust them to guide you, trust them to open sensations you may not have realized were there before you closed your eyes to the relentless pressure of what you can SEE.

On the other tentacle, just because something is present is no reason to shoehorn it into the story.

It’s important to know WHICH details are important. Not everything is. And this really comes with practice. It’s also important to know when to STOP describing, and focus on what a character in this detailed setting is about to DO – because now you’re writing the STORY. The story is a forward motion, with the character in the midst of action. Yes, defining the setting is part of the battle – but now you have to let the character go, and see what that character DOES with that setting.

Read the rest at: