Walpurgis night: goodbye winter

On this night, the 30th of April, we traditionally light a giant bonfire and set off crackers and fireworks. We celebrate that winter is finally over – there’s even a traditional song that begins “Winter has raged its last among the mountains” (roughly).

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Our personal little Walpurgis fire.

It’s almost like a second New Year – because now life truly starts again: trees are budding and the ground is thawing, and all those things that seemed impossible to do during the winter now take on a more alluring cast as the sunshine warms us again and we can maybe, maybe leave our jackets open.

Spring walk

Ants on a twig
Ants on a twig

I was only going to photograph the furry buds of this bush (osier?), but then the ants stole the show. They walked towards each other, stopped and high-fived (that’s what it looked like!) and then went on their way.

Last year’s grass

The water is cold. Very cold. But so beautiful.


This type of lichen is everywhere. It mostly hangs off half dead tree branches, and it looks like hair. We call it beard lichen.


These little darlings are practically the only spring flower we have. The rest come when it’s already summer. But since these are the first sign of spring, they spark a tiny explosion of sunshine in your heart when you see them.

How to make a starry vault in paint.net

To start with, choose one or several colours for your background. I chose two shades of purple as my primary and secondary colour (bottom left). Then I used the gradient tool to create the sky.

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I wasn’t happy with it, so I changed the hue.

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Then I used the paintbrush, 5 points white, to dot the sky with stars.

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Then I used free plugin Starglow to make the stars shine.

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You can tinker with the length etc of the “spikes”, and you can choose whether to add the diagonals (which I did).

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I fiddled a little with the Mini, Maxi and Radius. Don’t ask me what those mean. You can trial and error your way to a kind of star you like.

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And, um… done! 🙂

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How to make fiery letters in paint.net

Release fire större text röd eld

On all my Pax covers, I’ve used fire in both text and image. Over the top? Perhaps. But if you want to use the fiery idea to make your title or any other text more vivid/dynamic/eye-catching, this is how you do it.

First, you need a picture of fire. I took this one during an evening when hubby and me were grilling with friends.

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As you can see in the box to the right, I’ve added a new layer on top of the fire image. That’s where the text will go.

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I used the font One Fell Swoop, which is free and can be found here.

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Write the text anywhere you like, just remember that it’s what’s in the image underneath that will make up the letters once you copy it into a new document. Move it around if you’re not happy with the colours, or change the size.

Next, you use the magic wand to select the letters (still on the second layer, otherwise you select the fire instead).

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Then you switch to the Background layer again and copy your selection. What you’re doing now is, you’re using the text from the second layer as a template for what you want to copy from the fire image.

Create a new document and paste the copied fire text.

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If you’re not happy with the colours, remember you can go back and move the text around and copy new versions.

When you’ve chosen the best version, you can modify the colours and contrast by using Hue/saturation and Brightness/contrast.

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And now you’re ready to copy the text onto a new layer on the cover or whatever it is you’re making!

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If you want, you can change the orientation and size of the text by pulling on the bent arrow thingumajig that appears when you hover close to your selection.

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Done! 🙂

Of course you can use other images besides fire to make your text pop. In this one, for example, I used rainbow watercolours and changed the hue to mostly blue and green, in order to create the impression of a stream.

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Swirly floral background

An ode to Hal and the histories

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works (abridged) is one of the funniest things I’ve seen. The “histories football match” made me laugh until I almost threw up. I adore the histories, I wrote a nerdy sixth form college essay on Hal, and Henry V once gave me an inappropriate case of patriotism by proxy, but maybe that’s why the football match is so hilarious to me. They reduce eight plays to a three-minute tussle for the crown, and in many ways, that’s what the histories can seem to be, especially the Henry VI ones.

But they’re also intricate studies of character. Falstaff and Richard III may be the most famous ones, but there are so many other fantastic roles in there. For me, the young prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V, remains the most compelling character of the histories.

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Lookit! There’s my college nerd paper, complete with my fan girl drawing of Michael Maloney and Julian Glover on the cover page.

The reason I wrote that essay was that I’d read so many critics who painted him as a scheming turn-coat. I seem to have a thing for morally questionable Shakespeare characters (Coriolanus being another), so I set about to defend him against such slander.

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For this was in the days of dot matrix printing…

For me, he’s the teenage Everyman who has to leave his carefree youth behind and shoulder his adult responsibilities. I don’t really have any sympathy for the Falstaff-huggers, since in spite of his larger-than-life persona, he’s actually kind of an asshole. He may have been a surrogate father to Hal, because the king is a bit low on the touchy-feely-o-meter, but he also has no scruples about deriding him in public or lying about killing Hotspur, who was Hal’s grand prize in the war. Sure, the old man is witty and charismatic, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. Of course Hal has to leave him behind.

So much for the philosophy. Now on to the clothes. Adrian Noble’s fantastic 1991 production of the two parts of Henry IV didn’t just star Julian Glover and Michael Maloney, it also starred a costume designer named Deirdre Clancy (branded on my memory forever). Before seeing those clothes, I had no real appreciation for the texture of suede hose, the length of boots or the cut of shirts.

There are so many valid reasons to love Shakespeare, don’t you agree?

But back to the more cerebral stuff. The funny thing is that the histories aren’t very historical. For example, Henry IV says he wishes his infant son had been replaced with Hotspur:

O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

But at the time Hal was a baby, Hotspur was already grown up! And the histories are filled with inaccuracies like that – either because Shakespeare didn’t know any better, or because he didn’t care. I’m leaning towards the latter.

In the same vein, I’ve had the characters in Rival Poet speak in a modern way, because I didn’t want the action and the vibrance of the tale clouded by arcane language. Of course, this may be jarring to some readers, but I chose to do it because I wanted the story to feel as if it took place right now, out there in the street or at your local corner pub.

And now I’m comparing myself to old Willie himself to rationalise it…

I’ll end this rambling post with a film tip: The Hollow Crown. Especially Richard II with Ben Wishaw in the title role is absolutely magnificent. That play isn’t even among my favourites, but he does the king with such… I don’t even know. He brings him to life. Makes him understandable, even though he’s kind of weird.

In fact, I think I’ll try to persuade the husband to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday tonight by watching it in our cinema!

My love story with the Bard (abridged)

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

So yes, I’m going to be a snot all day and post/reblog oodles of Shakespeare and Marlowe stuff. If there’s one day of the year when your obsession looks normal, it’s today, right? Even the prating coxcombs on breakfast TV try to appear educated, so… no holds barred for the truly smitten.

My love story with Will began when I was ten. With… Troilus and Cressida. Unusual suspects, to be sure. But I’d been innoculated with opera for four years, so I was used to not understanding what the people on stage were on about. According to my parents, I “looked at the pictures” and I “understood everything”.

Since then, I’ve lost that level of scholarship.

Anyway, yes, Troilus was the first play I saw, with Anton Lesser and Juliet Stevenson. I remember him lounging on a pianola and, um, not much else actually. Oh yeah, a bunch of white-haired men discussing maps.

And yet I was hooked.

Or was it when I saw Midsummer Night’s Dream a few days later? That would be typically banal, wouldn’t it? But then we were in the first row, and I remember Hippolyta getting up from a sofa with an expression of disdain on her face when Theseus gave Hermia her punishment. I remember thinking, “How is it possible to act like that? How can someone convey something so lifelike when it’s all fake?”

As I see it written down, I realise that I was posing the exact same question as Hamlet when he heard the Hecuba speech.

So. A passion was born, and each summer after that, I was treated to the best of the best in both Stratford and London. I saw Sean Bean as Romeo (that bloody worked!), Antony Sher as Shylock and Jeremy Irons as Richard II before I had acne. I realise this puts me in the privileged-beyond-belief box, BUT we lived on Mother’s Pride the rest of the time, so swings and roundabouts, okay?

When I was fifteen, my father deemed it time to take my education to the next level. That summer, we were going to watch As You Like It, Richard III and King Lear (both with McKellen in the title role – feel free to gnash your teeth), and my father put a couple of Cliffs Notes in my hands. Making me go, “Whoa! You mean there’s more to it than pictures?”

Yep, there was more to it. A lot more. Before I knew it, I had graduated to the actual texts in Arden editions, and my obsession with language history was a fact.

To this day, I wonder how the actors do it. How they can make something so fake – and in verse, too! – look and sound so natural. You think Iain Glen shines in Game of Thrones? He filled a completely empty stage as Henry V, making me believe he really was a king. Oh, and on the subject of GoT, Owen Teale, who plays Ser Alliser Thorne, was Hotspur in the best production of Henry IV that will ever be made – the one that made me realise the importance of directors (and costume designers, but that’s for another post with slightly more nsfw flavour).

So yeah, I’m a bit of a Shakespeare nut. Not that I haven’t had my moments of doubt. Once, I tossed my Complete Works in a spring/depression cleaning gone haywire, but luckily I hadn’t inherited the Arden editions back then, and my stash is reupped by now. I understand how people can think it’s unbearably boring, and sometimes it is. I’m not a fan of the Olivier era, and so much acting is still over the top and yawnworthy. There are idiotic puns and long-winded speeches and pointless interpolations (I hope!), and if anyone can see the dramaturgic arc in the Henry VI’s, please let me know.

And yet I just can’t stay away. A few years back, my obsession metamorphosed (ha! see what I did there?) into an urge to write about him. Ever the enabler, my husband bought me the ultimate Christmas present: a trip to London for a week-long Shakespeare course. I took the opportunity to nip off to Stratford for a look at the Birthplace – which, weirdly enough, I’d never seen despite my many trips there. I spent hours in that house, interviewing the guides and taking notes and imbibing the atmosphere, so when I wrote the domestic scenes, I had a complete picture in my head of every single room.

Sadly, those scenes didn’t make it into the book, because in the end, it wasn’t Shakespeare’s story at all, but Marlowe’s. *sigh* Trouble-maker and quicksilver madcap, knavish sprite and prince of cats. He ruined and salvaged everything, and I’ve written about that whole mess here.

I guess writing about Shakespeare’s whole life was just too big a project. My version of his childhood and youth will always live on in my head, but the 200K megastory was just too unwieldy to publish. For the abnormally interested, I’ve posted some deleted scenes here.

All that remains (because I really should go help M plaster a wall now) is to raise a glass on this the 452nd birthday of the Bard, and in the words of Petruchio in The Shrew, “Be mad and merry or go hang yourselves!”

Did Shakespeare love his wife?

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

Of course, we can never know. We don’t know much about the man at all, except that he was born, he married, his wife had three children, he moved to London and acted in plays, dodged a few tax collectors, and died.

So why am I posing the question? Because Anne – or Agnes, as she was christened – tends to be shoved aside when we gather to adore her husband. Many interpret their marriage as solely motivated by her being pregnant (the ‘bed trick’), and Shakespeare’s subsequent move to London as proof that he wanted to get away from her.

Basic misogyny.

I have another take on it, but don’t read on if you don’t want your Rival Poet ruined by the complexity that is real life (or if you haven’t read it yet and don’t want ***spoilers***!).

So you’re reading on? Okay. Well, in my view, Shakespeare was bi, and possibly poly. Rival Poet, being a m/m romance, focuses on the biggest love of his life, Marlowe, but there’s a whole scrapped background from an unpublished bio novel that complicates the picture. My Shakespeare’s most prominent trait, apart from his phenomenal memory for words, is his ability to see things from several points of view. That was the first thing I decided when I started plotting his story: he should be both intellectual and materialistic, undecided when it came to religion, bisexual, equally at home in Stratford and London, and torn between wanting to be a poet and wanting to be an actor.

So yes, in my book (no pun intended… okay, yes, pun intended), Shakespeare did love his wife. In fact, he was besotted, but had a hard time convincing her that marrying a stripling like him was in any way sensible. She was pregnant with someone else’s child (I warned you about the spoilers!), and he jumped at the chance to save her from life as a social pariah. In the unpublished story about their marriage, he has to work really hard to get close to her, and the reward, in the end, came in the form of a pair of twins with Will’s DNA.

Rival Poet AReThat doesn’t negate his all-consuming love affair with Kit. That’s the most important thing in his life, after all. It’s what kickstarts his career after Agnes has persuaded him to go to London to try his luck among the publishing houses, and it’s also what spawns the great tragedies. Kit is his biggest passion, no doubt about it, because theirs is a ‘marriage of true minds’. Their love of words and their almost telepathic communication makes the attraction instantaneous and irrestistible.

But a life is a life, and not a romance. Will had a life before Kit, and parallel with Kit.

Revamped vampires and non-obscene wall colours

Last Communion

So today was a day for covers. My old Last Communion cover was a bit dull, so I reworked it. When I say dull, I mean too little colour. I may dress almost exclusively in black, but I want my surroundings to be vibrant.

When people come to our house, they tend to go, “Oh… this is colourful.” And then silence.


So anyway, something else I discovered is that I love texture. I’ve been studying covers that I love, and the things they have in common are the colours and the texture. When you just slap a title on a photo, it can look a bit flat.

Texture gold
My favourite texture

It doesn’t always, but one way to avoid flatness is to put a textured image as your bottom layer, and then work with layer properties as outlined in this post to make the main photo and thus the cover look a bit more alive.

Especially important when said cover sports a vampire, wouldn’t you agree?

Of course, everyone won’t love textures and colours. In fact, my bestselling short story is very sort of mild and just has a few shades of purple on it. I don’t know if it’s the cover or the blurb that does it, but it seems to draw attention. Personally, I’m not sure I would give it a second look, but there you have it. We’re all different.

Anatomy of a cover

RP guldtext gulare kille

So this is my new Rival Poet cover, and I just wanted to share how it came to be – because seeing the constituent parts of things fascinates me, so perhaps it also fascinates someone else.

Fair warning though, it’s the equivalent of telling people how a magic trick is done, or how a poem was put together. Some people hate that. They want the magic to stay intact.

But being an INTP (analytical, dreamy over-thinker extraordinaire), I think there’s a special kind of magic in knowing the nuts and bolts, because in the end, the sum is so much greater than the parts. (Not to toot my own horn… :P)

Anyway, the images that went into this cover were the following:

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Paper, quill, & ink lit by candleTouched by the soft window light

The red one is the wallpaper in my writing room, the second one is a mound of dirt in the basement (there’s a part of the house that hasn’t been “excavated”, so it’s basically mud), and the final two I bought from iStock. The software I use is paint.net, which is free and therefore not super advanced, but then neither am I, so we riff off each other pretty well.

Now, obviously I flipped the guy so he was facing the other way, and I cut the candle, but that’s not the interesting stuff. The interesting stuff is LAYERS. Ah, the beauty of layers. The things you can do! Also, metaphor. This time around, I wanted the cover to better convey a few things in the story, such as the theme of water. Thus the blue-green bits.

But none of the images are blue, are they? Well, that’s where both “hue/saturation” and “layer properties” come in. As you can see in the image below (of my finished, not-yet-flattened cover), there are tons of layers. I’ve never learned to do them from a tutorial, because I’m rubbish at following instructions, so I’ve trial-and-errored my way to a level of proficiency I’m happy with.

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I always work intuitively, too, so I don’t have much of a plan to start with. The reason I’m telling you that is that this is not a tutorial, since I have no idea what I did! I’m sure there are much easier ways of getting the same effect, but this is my method: import a load of images into the programme and play around with hues, contrast and layer properties.

So this text should rather be seen as some kind of inspirational post. Which I guess I should have said at the beginning, but the INTP is also the original “distracted professor” type, so why not let that show? (Actually, maybe this is the sort of scatterbrained tutorial I would personally be able to live with, so maybe there are other instruction-abhorring intuitive thinker types out there just gagging for a rambling post on paint.net, and this is actually the Holy Grail.)

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The image above shows that I used the “additive” layer property for the photo of my wallpaper (which I obviously also turned blue-green with the help of hue/saturation, shown below).

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For the basement mud (turned green), I randomly used the layer property “overlay”. I don’t really know what that means, but there you go. As long as it works, I’m happy.

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As you can also see from the images, some layers are cut, or rather they fade away. I did this when they interfered too much with some other image, mostly with the guy’s face. If there was too much dirt up in the right hand corner, he looked… well… dirty. And Kit might not be God’s best angel, but he’s not a slob. (Unless he’s in a bad mood, but look at him – if they’d had cameras back then, this would be him gazing in post coitus stupefaction at Will the photographer. He’s not in a bad mood.)

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This is what the background looks like without the guy:

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Brightness/contrast is also a fun thing to play around with. As you can see from the original photos, most of them were brighter than they ended up in the final picture. There’s a reason for that too, of course. I wanted half of Kit’s face (oh, and apologies to anyone who prefers to see the guy as Will – that’s fine!) to be shadowed, because he’s such a secretive character, with this hidden side to him, and obviously a literal double life. So. Contrast way up. (Not all the way up, or the picture will turn black and white, but you know. Use your judgment.)

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Finally, the lettering. I’ve been mooning forever over covers with gold relief text, thinking it’s really really hard to do, but then I remembered this:

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If you write the text in Word, you can make it gold with the click of a button! Then copy and paste onto a new layer in the paint.net document, twiddle for a bit with hue and contrast, and hey presto: olden times on tap.

So… I guess that’s all?

Oh, wait, a tip! I actually did watch a few tutorials by a fun guy on Youtube, and he was the main reason I was inspired to learn more about the programme, so a big warm round of applause for Yakobelt, please!