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Writing in the Wild

This Week’s Bit of String: Faux cave paintings and hilltop views

“So what sorts of things do you write?”

Do you dread this question like I do? I’ve learned to summarise individual novels I’m writing, to develop extra-short hooks and elevator pitches. But describing my entire work, from plays to novels to flash fiction, from speculative fiction to mythology-based to contemporary settings—that’s hard.

I find myself saying, “Oh, I sort of focus on people, family relationships… life, really.”

Paintings and pages and sketches laid out over the tables at the Arts Centre
All our work on display at the Arts Centre

Last Friday I joined an Art-Making Walk around the nearby town of Wotton-Under-Edge, kindly invited by the sculptor Martin Clarke, co-chair of Under the Edge Arts. Three miles in the hills, 6 stops along the way. At each stop, participants got fifteen minutes to create a piece of art.

The walkers were primarily artists, rendering scenes in pencil or paint, a couple venturing into brief verse. The first person I met was local artist Nicky Hill, who’s come out with her own illustrated children’s book boasting loads of vibrant animal characters. Check out her page to see her wonderful paintings.

For this event, I didn’t trust my brain to kick into gear six separate times inventing new scenarios for each location. So I’d invented a character, devised some backstory, and brought her along with me. It would be easier, surely, to make each stop an episode in her story.

Sign commemorating the trees on Wotton Hill.
Site 1: Wotton Hill

Our first location was a windy hill crowned by a fenced cluster of trees—the originals were planted to commemorate Waterloo. We all found those first fifteen minutes too quick. For me, I barely got my characters started. But the limitations forced us to be efficient.

En route to the next stop, an older lady with a felt flower on her hat posed The Question to me. I embellished my standard answer with, “Some of my stories are more far-fetched than others.”

Charcoal sketches of sun and wild animals on the rock face
Quarry art: Site 2

“Well, people are quite far-fetched,” she observed. “So of course their stories will be.”

Clearly I was in the right sort of crowd.

The second stop was a quarry,  one of the only sites I’d seen before. Quarry visitors, probably youths, had used charred sticks to decorate the rock face, not just with the usual pentagrams and melodramatic song lyrics, but also with cave painting-style art. I pictured one loner, maybe a somewhat dorky teen separating herself from the pack to create them. That previously gained image was instrumental in forming my character ahead of time.

Wild garlic lining the woodland path
Trekking to Site 3.

We hiked through the woods, surrounded by wild garlic blooms like fallen stars, to our third site. That’s where the fifteen-minute stops, surprisingly, started to get too long. I would jot down the bare bones of my character’s encounter or revelation for that setting, and have a few minutes left, so I’d keep waffling, wishing instead it was enough time to properly edit what I’d done.

The third stop was also where I met Edna. She was perhaps the eldest of our group, with the most difficulty walking—which only proved she was the most determined. She was very self-critical, but I liked her painting of the forest trees; their straight dark trunks criss-crossed with dashes of green leaves.

Materials arranged for work during our session in the clearing
Site 3: Coneygres

“I like how you captured the haphazardness of it,” I said.

She was pleased. “It’s encouraging when someone recognises what I’m trying to do. And it is haphazard, the springtime, isn’t it? That’s a good word. I think it’s absolutely delicious, all these greens.”

Delicious. I thought she’d hit on rather a good word, too. We journeyed to a new hillside lookout for our fourth stop, above a slope still bearing the terraces where monks tended vineyards centuries ago. Now, velvety-looking black cows and calves amble there.

Terraced hillsides
Site 4: Coombe Hill

One group member was primarily a photographer. I asked her how she got on at this stop. “Well,” she replied, “We’ve already done hilltop views, so I decided to take pictures of snails on cowpats, since it’s not something we usually think of.”

Makes sense to me.

Old stone house with rows of hedge garden
Site 5: Coombe House

Our fifth stop was a fine stone home with gardens in ‘shelves,’ as its artist owner described it. I sat with Edna and she asked, “What’s your story about? Is it sad?”

“It’s got sad bits, but it’s not all sad. It’s about life, you know?”

“Yeah.” The old woman nodded wisely. “It’s shit, isn’t it?”

I thought I must have misheard, but she clarified. “I mean, even if you’re filthy rich, I reckon life is a bit shit.”

There’s an excuse for “dark” writing, if anyone needs one.

Pony
Site 6: Holywell Leaze

Our final stop brought us to a picnicking area with neighbouring ponies sulky for attention. My character’s journey ended with the walk. I’d thought of a pivotal moment for each stop, taking my protagonist from preschool, to teen years (at the Quarry, of course), to university, engagement, the failing health of a parent, and then motherhood. The story might not be worth polishing, but it did make a complete first draft with a few salvageable parts.

Display of paintings and pages
Final installment of today’s story

I’d like to try the same sort of thing with maybe a better backstory or character; visiting select locations to represent different points in the plot. It’s a useful device, and I recommend it.

The writing, in the end, was rather like how we’d described people and spring and life throughout the day: sometimes far-fetched, sometimes haphazard and sad, and sometimes, yes, a bit shit. It’s not just me, is it?

Joys of a ‘Little’ Festival

This Week’s Bit of String: Voices from the back of the bus

When I’m late for the more pleasant 65 bus home from work, I have to take the 61. Along with having a less scenic route, the 61 tends to attract drunk men. It’s a popular mode of transport with students as well, which doesn’t bother me—but seems to offend the aforementioned drunk men.

One evening on the 61, I read my book while the young adults from the special needs college laughed loudly and exchanged jibes in the back. Suddenly the man in front of me, so drenched in spirits he smelled medicinal, started shouting at them.

‘Shut your mouths! Didn’t your mums teach you to keep quiet on buses?’

I can’t imagine what he expected quiet for; it was five in the afternoon, not exactly bedtime, and he didn’t appear to be revising for a PhD or anything. The kids were subdued and rather frightened by his tirade, and I guess I was too, because I couldn’t bring myself to say anything in their defence. No one else did either.

Fast forward a month, add the resurgence of an old middle-of-the-night idea, and my turbulent brain managed to toss ashore a short story about a similar bus incident, this time witnessed by a retired woman who then recruits her friends to counteract such unmannerly behaviour using surprising and rather humorous methods.

The nice thing about being a writer is that even though we have shy and retiring moments, our voices surface later. And sometimes, eventually, they even get heard. I had fortunately been invited by John Holland, curator of Stroud Short Stories, to participate in a short story panel at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on the 21st of April. It would be the perfect opportunity to remedy (if in a delayed and fictional sense) my shameful silence on the 61.

Giving Voice
Chalk directions into the schoolhouse for the Festival.
I loved the chalk signs welcoming us to the Festival.

Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival—known as HULitFest—is remarkable for recognising voices which other Festivals brush over. For example, last year its founder, Debbie Young, hosted a super-relevant talk on writing about disability and illness, by people with firsthand experience. I blogged about it here.

This year, I attended more panels, populated by independent and self-published authors who might be ignored at larger events. One was ‘Writing Your Passion,’ made up of six writers on subject matter unyielding to broader market demands. Yet their devotion to their work and the originality of their concepts had me pretty convinced.

Peter Lay cowrote a book on life lessons and philosophy, with a Chinese friend. The beautiful book they created is printed with English and Chinese on each page. Bill Fairney has written several volumes on his varied but very specific interests. One example is his fabulously titled Fifty Shades of Yarg, the story of the Cornish cheese (written as Will Fenn). Lynne Pardoe’s books are based on her unique experiences as a social worker. She was determined to show the happy endings she got to see as well as the hard realities. Jann Tracy wrote a painstakingly researched biography of Marie Corelli, a bestselling 19th century novelist who was pivotal in preserving Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon—but is largely forgotten now.

Books purchased from Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.
Haul from HULitFest–so far! More to be purchased in time. Love the bags they give out, too.

The final member of this panel, Jacci Gooding, writes primarily horror stories, which isn’t usually my genre, but she spoke with such fantastic wit that I became an instant fan. She observed, ‘People are weird. We like weird. Takes us out of our day jobs.’

For me, these quirky stories make HULitFest special. There’s no charge for the talks or readings; they want you to buy the authors’ books instead. Not many festivals or bookshops offer stories about cheese, about forgotten female figures, or from authors like Gooding who describes inspiration for one of her scary book covers thus: ‘I was looking at my hen, and I thought, “If I lay down in front of her, she’d eat me.”’

Really, other booksellers should give all these a go. What’s not to like?

Showcasing the Whole Writer

Another unique strength of HULitFest is its art exhibit. Most of the pieces displayed in the town’s Methodist Church as part of the Festival were drawn, stitched, photographed or otherwise created by the very authors featured in the talks and selling their books in the school gymnasium.

Stained glass window in a wedge of ceiling
Window in the Methodist Church, where the Art Exhibit is held.

In addition to showcasing formidable talents, the art exhibit gives festival goers additional insight to the writing mind. What inspires, calms, or haunts the authors, conveyed here in different form. Ellie Stevenson, another writer on the short story panel, displayed gorgeous photographs. Not surprising, perhaps, that the author of such original tales as ‘Watching Charlotte Bronte Die’ has a great eye for snapshots. But it is an aspect we don’t always get to see about writers.

Finally, the smaller (but popular and growing!) size of HULitFest allows festivalgoers to mingle with the authors; while we buy their books, picnic together, wander the town. If you have timid moments as I sometimes do, it’s quite motivating to experience this accessibility. And I did enjoy airing my tale that originated on the 61 bus, and seeing the audience enjoy the imaginary outcome. Maybe next time I’ll have more confidence to make that fiction real.

Do you use stories to make up for lost chances or stifled moments? What events have you encountered that help bring out unheard voices?

Short Stuff

This Week’s Bit of String: Though she be little…

When I was a teaching assistant, most of my students were taller than I was. During my first year, I supported a particularly boisterous Year 9 class, and as I was trying to settle them one day, a very tall boy who later got expelled for bringing brass knuckles to school loomed over me with a grin. ‘Miss, you’re small.’

‘Yes—but mighty. Sit down!’ And would you believe it, he did. For a little while.

Statue of a 'Muse' from Roman times.
Also at the Louvre: Roman statue of a Muse. Finally found her!

Any fans of art and literature will know decreased size doesn’t detract from power. At the Louvre, I was struck by how small the Mona Lisa was—seemingly no bigger than a standard A4 sheet of paper. Meanwhile, on the opposite wall hung a massive depiction of the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle. Which does everyone remember? By creating a small portrait, Da Vinci drew focus to just one figure, and the nuances of her expression. With large-scale pictures of entire scenes, it’s hard for viewers to settle their attention.

Beginning, Middle, and End

So it can be with short stories versus novels. I’ve written previously about the implications of each literary form, but I’ve been doing more short story research lately. I covered Raymond Carver and Alice Munro, since they’re seen as greats in the genre, and I read a volume by Annie Proulx, because I loved The Shipping News. As someone always seeking story ideas (knowing that many of those ideas will turn only into notes, snapshots, or vignettes rather than actual stories), I enjoyed studying these works and wondering, What was the starting point for this story? How did the writer make it work?

Certainly the hardest thing for me in turning an idea into a story is ensuring development; pinpointing a beginning, middle, and end. The short story is more flexible than the novel. Equal attention need not be paid to beginning, middle, and end—one or more can merely be implied. Munro likes starting stories with a little anecdote that happens later, or with someone looking back to a seemingly random detail. And a few of Carver’s and Proulx’s stories left the endings ambiguous.

Mountainside view of the Swift Diamond River, bordered by pines, in New Hampshire
Ah, the mountains, rivers, and woods of home…

My favourites were a couple of Carver’s stories, “Cathedral” and “A Small Good Thing,” both stories that realistically but surprisingly diffused tension between very different characters with warmth. I also loved Annie Proulx’s “The Unclouded Day,” not just for its great title and the description of my native New England wild places. There was its completeness, and humour with just enough insight into the protagonist to sense good intentions. Again, there was warmth in this story.

That’s my personal taste: a story can narrate a bleak event (for example, the death of a child, as in “A Small Good Thing”), so long as there’s an element of kindness between at least a couple of the characters. And yes, I do like a decent arc, no matter how short: you don’t have to give me the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but I’d jolly well like an idea of where the colours lead.

Short Story Round-Up

On Twitter, I asked about other writers’ favourite short stories, and their own criteria for a great one. Stephen Tuffin, who recently judged and hosted a fabulous new event, The Squat Pen Rests championship in short fiction, provided a thorough endorsement of Truman Capote. I have to agree; his “A Christmas Memory” is my absolute favourite in the festive season.

Stephen also tweeted about what makes a great story: ‘A great short has to leave me with an afterglow. As if I’ve been gifted something meaningful and relevant. Great shorts need more reader input but the effort is rewarding and leaves me feeling I’ve been shown another world, different but the same as my own.’

The short story volumes on my bookshelves
Shelfie from my short stories section

Fantasy author Grace Crandall recommends Ray Bradbury’s stories. I had actually read “The Foghorn” just the other week, when a friend at a discussion group provided it as an example of a great, atmospheric tale. Grace says, ‘‘‘The Rocket” and “The Beggar of O’Connell Bridge” are two of my favorites of his. I think a big key to short stories is having a conclusive emotional arc, and he’s such an expert at delving into human nature and feelings.’

Science fiction writer Madd_Fictional, curator of celebrated writing hashtag #SlapDashSat, recommends Harlan Ellison: ‘Nothing like a good speculative fiction short story that presents a left-of-center theme, laced with poignant social commentary that usually features protagonists who are morally ambiguous.’ Sounds good to me!

Finally, Laurie Garrison of the invaluable Women Writers School pointed me toward Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” because it portrays ‘a whirlwind of emotion in just a few hundred words. And there’s such brilliant irony to it.’ It’s another perfect little complete tale.

What are your favourite short stories, and have you encountered any particular challenges in reading or writing them?

Are We Having Fun Yet?

This Week’s Bit of String: Solitary bowling

Last week my office had a bowling night out. While we cheered our mostly lacklustre shots over cheesy chips and a vast range of alcoholic beverages, an older couple set up a few lanes along.

Only the woman bowled. She wore a bright pink skirt, a lycra team t-shirt, and a grave expression. She’d brought wristbands and kneestraps. Her husband recorded her work with a handheld, flip-out camera, I assume so she could critique herself later.

Before each play she communed briefly with the ball, hugging it to her chest, contemplating the long lonely expanse she was about to cast it into. I’m not sure what goes down between a bowler and the ball in those split seconds. My workmates and I tried mantras like, ‘I am one with the ball and the ball is with me,’ none of which worked any magic.

The pink-skirted woman threw fast, powerful shots and toppled most if not all her pins. But her expression never changed. Though her dedication and force impressed me, I couldn’t shake the feeling she’d leave the alley deeply dissatisfied.

It’s great to pursue a sport or a hobby, whatever it is, any avenue of self-improvement. Probably for those of you reading this blog, writing qualifies as such a pursuit.

And chances are, like me, you’re not exactly earning a living from it. It’s the beast you feed your spare time to, before going to the office and after the kids are in bed. Those precious slices of our day get devoured by building word count on new projects, editing older pieces, managing a social media network, critiquing friends’ work, researching agents and publications, promoting our gigs and releases, reading and research.

It’s a bit like having a second full-time job, isn’t it?

Work, Hobby, or Talent?

To check how it is for others, I polled Twitter on which term best describes writing in the respondents’ lives: work, hobby, or talent. (I included a disclaimer: I understand these words aren’t mutually exclusive, but I wanted to see what other writers viewed as most accurate.)Twitter poll results: 34% work, 52 % hobby, 14% talent.

A much larger percentage chose hobby to describe writing. A fair few selected work, and only a small number said talent, which is understandable. We may have talent for writing but the term is insufficiently indicative of the conscious effort required.

Looking at the etymology of these terms, the word hobby derives from the word hobbyhorse, and the use in Morris dancing. This affiliation with pretending to do something puts me off a little; it links a hobby with a substitute; something not fully real or functional.

Rocking horse and doll's house in an antique shop Christmas window display
Even better than the real thing?

Regardless of what your hobby is, it’s real to you and it does serve a function, even if that function is to escape reality. Articles such as this one from Very Well Mind abound on the importance of hobbies to cut down on stress—and, where necessary, to provide eustress, ‘the healthy kind of stress that we all need to remain feeling excited about life.’

We can probably agree there is stress involved in writing. Even for those not wishing to publish or share, I imagine they still struggle with developing their stories or poems enough to please themselves. The challenges involved here, I believe (admittedly without absence of bias), equip us with resilience and empathy in other areas of our lives.

Partly because of this stress, I join those categorising it as work, if not the most profitable kind and certainly not the most unpleasant. By treating writing as another job, this legitimises time spent on it and shields us from some (certainly not all) encroachments. It keeps our morsels of time out of other greedy mouths.

Consider the definitions of work, which according to etymonline.com all date back to old English, around the start of the thirteenth century.

  • “To perform physical labor:” Well, mental labour certainly. And a bit of wrist strain on those rare occasions when the words are really flying over the keyboard.
  • “To ply one’s trade:” Yes, somewhat. Possibly many of us consider ourselves writers above whatever we happen to do to earn the bulk of our income.
  • “To exert creative power, be a creator.” Undoubtedly.
  • Finally, my favourite: the transitive sense “manipulate (physical substances) into a desired state or form.” Disregard the parenthetical and you bet your boots we manipulate, we manipulate words into desired form.
For the Love of Art
Writing in a cafe.
Weapons of choice.

Writing is also, of course, an art. I deliberately withheld that option from the Twitter poll, but I imagine most would agree. And art is perhaps a more encompassing term than hobby. Did you know the word’s Latin root artem/ars is related to arma, the Latin word for weapons?

We are bearers of weapons, folks.

As we go into battle, as we get down to work, as we utilise our talents and pour time into our hobbies aiming for self-betterment, let’s make sure we still love it. Let’s make sure our faces don’t sag into chronic frowns as we hammer out plots and contemplate rejection letters. I keep thinking of the woman in the bowling alley and how joyless she looked. If you worry about burnout, here are some links to previous inspiring posts:

So what do you think? Work, hobby, talent, art?

 

 

Animals are Characters, Too

This Week’s Bit of String: Crying over cats

‘Miss?’ the Year Eleven boy asked me, tossing his carefully sleeked hair without looking up from the doodled serpents invading his Science BTEC exercise book. ‘Do you ever start randomly crying while you’re petting your cat, because you wish so much they could talk to you?’

I don’t think it’s ever brought me to tears, even when I was sixteen myself, but I definitely used to look in pet cats’ eyes and sense much present in them that we, their humans, missed.

The boy’s question brought to mind a passage from Muriel Barberry’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Renee refers to her ‘appreciation’ for her tenants’ cocker spaniel as: ‘that state of grace attained when one’s feelings are immediately accessible another creatures.’

Guinea pig terminally dissatisfied by food dish.
‘Here goes nothing.’

We now have only guinea pigs as pets, but their feelings are pretty darn accessible. They’re an important if timid part of our family, an affectionate interest uniting us as our son gets older. And if anyone doubts that animals are sentient, I defy them to look at a guinea pig, any guinea pig, and not be struck by the chronic consternation on their faces. It’s as if they’re constantly in dire need of food but always expecting to be disappointed.

Since animals cause us to reflect on what makes us alive, what makes us sentient (to use a rather unattractive, clinical-sounding word), and they bring us joy and unity—isn’t it right they should feature in literature?

Animal Voices

It’s easy to find animals in the fantasy genre. The dragons of Pern, the owls and thestrals of Hogwarts, the daemons of Lyra’s Oxford, the Noisy animals of New World in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series (oh, Manchee!)

So too they should be present in mainstream literature, sincewhen we write we attempt to reflect and learn from real life. Certainly animals have served as set pieces and symbols in literature since Homer told of Circe’s pigs and Polyphemus’ sheep. But in using them only as such, do we devalue their contributions to our lives?

Pictures in Warner Bros Leavesden studios paying tribute to animal actors in the Harry Potter series
Unsung heroes of the Harry Potter films.

There’s the pigeon offering occasional commentary in Pigeon English, and the freed parrot in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. The parrot gets a chapter of his own: one long, continuous sentence. His thoughts fly free as he leaves the home he knew for decades, after his owner’s death. It’s nice to get these extra, imagined perspectives, but by making animal characters simply witnesses to the humans’ folly, they remain a little flat.

A great example of using animals realistically yet appreciatively is Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans. Her novel about immigrants in the UK encompasses many points of view, including a dog. Different characters rate each other based on their respective reactions to Dog, and he leaps in to save the day at the end.

The novel also features scenes in a chicken-packing factory, which convinced me to buy only free-range products ever after. Her depiction linked callous attitudes about animals to abuse and exploitation of migrant workers. It should hardly have been surprising, but it had a somewhat revelatory effect on me.

Animal Roles
Cat posing in line with flowerpots.
Catmouflage: They see all and know all.

Although these authors have gone to great imaginary lengths to use animals as characters and assign voices to them, there are other ways to integrate our furry (or feathery or scaly) friends. Why is it so rare to encounter human characters who own pets? Allusions to a pet can serve as useful shortcuts establishing character. Are they a dog person, a cat person, a horse person, maybe something more unusual like a snake person?

In my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds, treatment of a dog catalyses the action. Pets are a central part of characters’ lives. Introducing one of the protagonists, Lydia, I described her car:

‘The cluttered Fiesta—Mabel—smelled of takeaway curry and chips, cat litter bought in bulk, and hand sanitiser.’

Beyond representing personality traits of their owners, including pets in stories gives humans opportunity for insight. Lydia is self-aware enough to know that she needs her cat, Slim Shady, more than he needs her. She recognises his purr doesn’t always convey happiness, but sometimes cloaks fear. The purr indicates to her:

‘You only get away with this because I in my benevolence allow it.’

Animals at the Beginning

In my current novel, about Eve and the (presumed) first family of humans, animals have an even bigger role. As much as Eve and Adam’s lives changed on their expulsion from Eden, think what it meant for the animals! Through no fault of their own, they had to leave paradise as well, and were thence forward seen as fair game. Literally.

Surely humans didn’t go straight from discovering wildlife wonders in Eden, to wearing animal hides and eating meat outside its walls. The sudden need to provide for themselves would change things, but it would not be a comfortable adjustment. Tension grows between Eve and Adam when he starts out eating fish:

‘What’s next, killing cows? Lions, lambs? You could roast one of the angels.’
‘Don’t speak to me like that, woman! I’m not the one who ever sought something I wasn’t supposed to take.’

The way each character relates to animals represents and colours the way they relate to others. Adam tells himself he has dominion over the animals, but in God’s curse on Eve, she’s been told her husband will have dominion over her. Does that make her equal to the animals? This is just one reason she has a keen interest in how he treats them.

Further, they have to wonder about God’s purpose in creating themselves and the animals (which, for this work, I’m imagining He did; see my previous post on working with incredible premises). If God is willing for them to dispatch with the animals so easily, what does this say about their own mortality?

It’s like Sirius Black said (somewhat ironically, given his later treatment of his own house-elf) in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ‘If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.’

Kindling Magic

This Week’s Bit of String: Phoenixes and falcons

Last weekend we took my son and his girlfriend, wearing Hogwarts t-shirts, on the Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros’ Leavesden studio. Several younger kids in the queue sported head-to-toe Gryffindor robes, one boy of maybe seven years old wearing Harry-style glasses as well, and humming John Williams’ Hedwig’s Theme on repeat.

Among fans, then. I was tickled too by a couple in their fifties, scampering around the outdoor sets and giggling while they waited their turn for photo ops. ‘Look at that,’ marvelled the man, peering through the back door of the Knight Bus. ‘You can see the beds, and all!’

Inside the creature workshop, the woman squealed and pointed at the display case where Fawkes stands regally. ‘It’s that falcon! From the headteacher’s office.’Fawkes the phoenix in his display case

So I got the impression these two fans hadn’t read the books. But they were no less enchanted by the story, perhaps enticed by the added celebrity sparkle of the film studio.

What’s the precise magic of a franchise that enlivens so many people, whether encountered on page, on screen, or in a bright-plumed animatronic bird? Different factors might appeal more to one fan than the next, but I believe even we non-fantasy writers can replicate some of this alchemy.

Harry Potter and the Approval of Twitter

I checked in with Twitter about the boy wizard’s appeal. Susan Macdonald cites the series’ ‘good characters.’ Definitely; they’re vivid, varied, and complete with fully-drawn, engaging background.

I posed with the trolley going through the wall at Platform 9 and 3/4.
‘Best take it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous.’

Lia, who tweets as @LiaTheBookBat, loves the parallel universe JK Rowling illustrates, and the possibility of ‘impossible things fuelled by magic.’ I agree the juxtaposition is intriguing: relatable characters and specific, just slightly altered details make the wizarding world seem ever so close.

Thriller writer LV Matthews (@LV_Matthews) notes that the ‘good overcoming evil story’ is especially relevant ‘in this crazy world.’ Certainly, Rowling pulls off this epic theme very well, examining different reasons people are attracted to good or evil, confronting friction between different members of the ‘good’ side, and even forcing the protagonist to question whether he himself might have evil tendencies.

Harry Potter and the Recipe for Enchantment

Personally, I was struck by how walking around the full model of Hogwarts felt like coming home. The first view of those turrets and spires, and I might have been Harry or Hagrid or even Tom Riddle, recognising a beloved place.

Hogwarts model
My son reckons this model is about 1/8 the size of the ‘real’ Hogwarts. It was truly stunning.

Strong emotion passed on from characters to readers: that’s the real magic here. Such deep empathy, whether for fictional or nonfictional people—that’s magic, and a mighty, unifying force.

Anyone following this blog since its launch in the wake of the USA’s 2016 presidential election will know creating that kind of magic is my favourite part of writing and reading. But there’s a lot involved in achieving this. All the factors above were instrumental in JK Rowling’s success with it, plus one more overarching element.

Even more than Hogwarts, the part of the tour that moved me most was Platform 9 and 3/4. Toward the back of the train, a car was open to show two different scenes. One end depicted Harry’s first ride on the Hogwarts Express, while the other showed the series’ final scene, ‘Nineteen Years Later.’

At its roots the Harry Potter series is a Cinderella story, Hagrid showing up on Harry’s eleventh birthday like a Hairy Godmother. (Or something.) Watching Harry’s journey, painful though it is at times, gives us hope, as referenced by my Twitter acquaintances.Dummies of Harry and Ron in the Hogwarts Express with various goodies from the trolley.Dummies of Ginny, Harry, Hermione, and Ron, 19 years later.His story lets us believe that however ordinary-looking, however put down we may be even by the very people meant to care for us, it’s not out of the question that in some alternate realm we are renowned, and we may prove ourselves worthy. Hope liberates our empathy—right or wrong, it’s easier to feel for someone who has an inkling of a chance.

(Side note: JK Rowling didn’t achieve the same heights with The Casual Vacancy, maybe because this essential ingredient was omitted. The characters were wide-ranging and believably flawed, but offered very little hope.)

So we are drawn in, enticed by clever touches like owls and wands, encouraged by The Boy Who Lived until we’ve fallen as hard as if we’ve eaten a box of Romilda Vane’s chocolates. In our own writing, it’s worth remembering the mixture of minor detail, promise of redemption, and characters that inspire deep, true feeling. What would you add to the potion?Quote from the Marauders Map on the walls of the studio entryway.

 

Playing God

This Week’s Bit of String: Tidying up the building materials

Once when my son was about six years old, I looked in on him during his evening tidy-up to see him gloomily tossing his Lego into their bucket, punctuating their impact with sighs. ‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I’m just…angry at God.’

He explained his grievance to me: ‘While we were eating dinner, I asked God really nicely if he would please tidy up my room for me.’ Another sigh. ‘But He didn’t.’

I’d seen him in a similar predicament with the magic wand he’d received for his birthday. And when he was a toddler, just learning his manners, there were those agonised epiphanies that saying please—‘the magic word’—won’t get you extra sweets or a later bedtime.

So it didn’t seem the time to put God’s existence under review, anymore than I would tell him there’s no such thing as magic. ‘Sorry, mate. I don’t think He works that way; He likes to make sure we know how to do things for ourselves.’

Losing My (Bias Against) Religion

Religion—and, well, not relying too exclusively on it—has enmeshed itself into a few of my stories. In Artefacts, the first novel I wrote, talking about God embarrasses the protagonist, ‘like talking about someone and suddenly realising they stood behind you.’

I feel that way, a bit, penning scenes with God in my current novel. As it’s Eve’s story, though, and her family’s, He plays a prominent role. I guess it’s the first time I’ve written about a recognisable figure, an entity Who might (who knows?) actually exist. That changes things, doesn’t it?

Carvings of God on His throne
Above the door at Notre Dame Cathedral. Can omnipotence and love really go hand in hand?

Last week I wrote about reimagining the first humans in the Bible, as well as the angels, trying to de-stigmatise as far as possible. These days, at least in our fast-paced, ‘enlightened’ society, it seems God too has become somewhat stigmatised, the focus of blame and skepticism rather than adoration. I don’t want to get caught up in that, even while sympathising with Eve and other characters He punished.

One has to wonder, if God does exist, and is by definition omnipotent and eternal, do all our pleas and tirades sound to Him like a child not wanting to pick up his own toys? I’m trying not to be restricted by pro-human bias in my view.

He’s Got the Look

So far I’ve not gone into great detail about God’s appearance. That’s not the done thing, is it? In our art we tend to come at physical description obliquely, if at all. Likewise with my re-invented angels, apart from the odd mention of their scales, wings, and fire. The humans in the story accept these beings and have no reason to overtly describe them.

Flaming orange sunrise over a hilltop
Like this, maybe. I’m just throwing around ideas here.

There’s mention of God’s immense size, and lack of clear outline. I mean, He’s God. We can be justified in thinking he has humanoid aspects (or commonly manifests them), because He does say He’s made people in His image. But I don’t think He’s just a muscly older man with a flowing white beard, the way Michelangelo depicted Him.

For one thing, He’s not going to have a corporeal body. He’s energy, and why He would choose to generally have a human form, I don’t know. I suppose it has its uses, a certain organisation and compactness. But in my work there’s a glow to Him and a deep, shifting substance that defies boundary. His eyes can turn into oceans, His smile into sunrise.

The King (of King)’s Speech

What I have God say in the book is far more important than how He looks. And I haven’t a whole lot of source material to base it on. I’m not on board with the whole divine scriptures idea. Sorry, I’m a writer myself. I know how easy it is to make stuff up and then it feels like canon in my mind. That doesn’t mean it is. That’s possibly my human bias talking, but for the purposes of this project, I’m going with it.

I’m drawing the line at accepting God’s actual words as relayed in Genesis—but weeding out ideas that are merely imputed to Him.

For example, when He punishes Cain for killing Abel, He says Cain is exiled and will lose his knack for growing crops. He never says Cain is banished from His presence (that would be admitting some limitation to His power). It’s Cain who moans that he’ll be out of God’s sight, and then the narrative picks it up.

Granted, He issues curses at key moments, but He doesn’t just pronounce judgment. He questions those involved, giving them a chance to explain themselves or at least ‘fess up—all the while opening Himself to even more disappointment as they flounder around pretending they didn’t do that thing they really weren’t supposed to do.

He strikes me as part Albus Dumbledore, part Atticus Finch, giving people space and a bit of prodding to see if they’ll figure things out for themselves. Here, Eve’s daughter Ana recounts to Cain how God encouraged her to start her own family, while admitting she too would carry her mother’s curse.

So I told Him: “I think You are a brutal Master.”’
Cain gave me one of his rare, full-on looks, allowing me to see the Mark. ‘Then what?’
‘He said, “Well, at least you believe I’m your Master.”
“What choice do I have?” I asked. ‘You gave my parents life out of dust and bone.’
“You have every choice, Ana. You and all your future children and grandchildren, you have a choice.” And His glow seemed to dim slightly. I almost felt sorry for him.

After all, I feel a certain sympathy with Him, too. Creating people, letting them bumble off on their way doing what they like, forcing You to spring up obstacles in their path to slow them down and get them to look about themselves for once…Ahem. Yes. Perhaps God and us writers have a thing or two in common. What do you think?

 

Getting the Picture

This Week’s Bit of String: Racial bias in a dancing competition?

In December 2016, Ore Oduba won the glitter ball on Strictly Come Dancing. My son was quite excited about this, and admittedly I was too, enchanted by Ore and Joanne’s jive in Week 4.

But my son had been anxious as the final drew near. Historically, celebrities of colour get fewer votes from the audience, judging by the frequency they are in the bottom two. Often they dance perfectly well. They just don’t get the audience votes, and have to be ‘saved’ by the judges.

So every year there are concerned murmurs about whether the dancing show itself is racist, and then the requisite backlash from white people offended by the very suggestion.

Here’s the thing: there are more white people than not in this country, and there are probably more white people than not watching Strictly Come Dancing. Humans gravitate toward the familiar, the reflective, so the many white viewers may well vote for a white celebrity. Amongst very talented candidates, that tiny blip of recognition on the subconscious radars of thousands wields some influence.

It’s not overt racism, I think (I hope), but innate bias. We need to be aware of it. To probe our decisions a little, rather than huffily dismiss concerns others have about it.

I notice our gravitation toward the recognisable in other areas. My name, for example. People glance at it and assume it’s Natasha, although they’re neglecting an s and slapping an h in willy-nilly. People see what they’ve seen before.

Studies also show that babies are drawn to certain types of faces—after a few months. There’s an interesting article on that in Slate, here. As we develop (or supposedly develop), we suffer from ‘perceptual narrowing,’ as if our senses get stuck in a rut. If we’re not exposed to a broad range of sights, we will stop looking for them.

Re-Visualising History

With these biases and predilections in mind, I’ve been trying to get the right mental image for the protagonists in my novel about Eve.

Usually when we write a story, it plays vividly in our imaginations, a cinema multiplex in our brains open 24/7. The same is true for me now, but because this story has its basis in something other than my imagination, I have a distinct unease that the imagery is not my own.

Recall every classical painting or children’s Bible illustration you might have happened upon that depicts Adam and Eve. Flowing gold locks—maybe sometimes brown hair, but always porcelain skin, right? God would have been cruel to form such pasty creatures and pop them down under the Middle Eastern sun.

Selection of National Geographic magazines
I’ve been trawling through my best sources for portraits resembling early peoples of Southern Iraq/ North of the Persian Gulf.

Anthropology traces the first humans back to Africa. At some point we probably all had dark skin as a clever, preferable adaptation. One day that feature may well win out evolutionally again. For my work-in-progress I’m using a less scientific source, but even the Bible says Adam was created of the earth’s dust, and then Eve was formed of Adam— probably not lily white, then.

It might be unfair to say racism is behind all the whitewashing that Adam and Eve underwent over the centuries. But plenty of people have twisted passages from early Genesis to support racist ideologies.

For example, after Eve’s son Cain (also a major character in the book I’m working on, and quite fascinating to me) is ‘marked’ by God for committing fratricide, certain factions have said that mark was black skin. A curse justifying slavery and other cruel practices against millions of people. However, God marked Cain not as a curse, but a sign of guardianship, to show He would wreak vengeance upon anyone who, in turn, harmed Cain. In my book I’ve put it on Cain’s upper cheek, figuring it would have to be quite visible:

Against his dark skin it was blanched white as if God had seared through to his very bones.

It’s still hard to conjure up the right image in my head. Not just because I’ve had years of the wrong images, but also because I’ve never known many people of Middle Eastern origin. I’ve unwittingly had my own perceptual narrowing of sorts.

I guess, though, that I don’t always see my characters when I’m writing a story. Most often I see scenes through the protagonists’ eyes: their surroundings, their loved ones and interests.

And I hear the voices. Dialogue—external and internal—scrolls constantly through my head, with or without a precise picture of who’s speaking the lines.

Here Be Dragons
Stitched emblem of a Chinese-style red and black dragon
Oh hey, Gabriel.

It’s been less challenging to picture Eden, the punishing land around it, and the angels charged with keeping the two separate. I decided a while back that our ideas of angels suffered a major perceptual narrowing.

Why are they always portrayed as looking human? There’s no indication they’d resemble us at all. The creation story says God made people ‘in His own image,’ which to me implies the angels weren’t made that way. Besides, if Lucifer, himself an angel, was the tempter in the Garden, he’s also described as a serpent. A serpent with arms and legs, that is, which in his case were struck off as punishment for that fruit episode.

So angels are serpents with arms and legs…how about they breathe fire, too? Yeah, I decided dragons are actually angels. Handy critters to know when outside the Garden Adam and Eve have to keep warm and cook food.

I’ve had Gabriel describe it thus:

‘The man and woman went forth and multiplied. That was the Boss’s only command they followed unerringly, although their kind bred division over the years, too. Their descendants assumed we, the Boss’s messengers, should be shaped like men, often slaying us when we appeared.’

So this book idea evolves to challenge old perceptions: white ancestors, humanoid angels…What will it take on next? Well, there’s God, obviously. Tune in next week to find out how He’ll look and sound.

What steps do you take to fight perceptual narrowing in your creative endeavours?

Love and Other Questions

This Week’s Bit of String: Saying good night at Grandma’s house

During a visit when I was eight, my Grandma came to tuck my sister and me in. She was a pre-school teacher, and as a matter of strict policy, she made a great deal of time for us and never got cross.

Granddad was different. He blustered rather than spoke, worked long past retirement rather than played. We were a bit scared of him. I’d watched Grandma sweetly placate him for my whole life, and it stumped me.

‘Grandma,’ I whispered as she kissed me goodnight, ‘Do you really love Granddad?’

How much choice do we have over who we open our hearts to?

She just laughed and left the room. Minutes later, Granddad himself appeared, giving his version of a chuckle, which still sounded blustery. ‘So you think your grandmother doesn’t love me?’

Like any of us, over the years I learned much more about the inexplicable, often unwelcome persistence of love. I watched Granddad lose Grandma to lung cancer a month before their golden wedding anniversary, and there was no mistaking she was loved in return. I’ve seen that reciprocation is often enough; that we can make ourselves settle when we choose to.

But I still wonder about it. Why do we love who we love? How is love sustained and and to what extent can it be manipulated or cajoled or banished entirely? Again, I suspect I’m not alone in wondering these things.

Opening Questions

When we start planning a novel, we’re told to start with a question, a predicament. That’s handy, as I’m writing about Eve and there’s a lot to question in the Biblical story of creation, of Eden and the fall and the alleged first generations of humanity.

Example: Adam and Eve have two boys, Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel and gets exiled. At this point the Bible has named only 3 still-living humans on the entire planet.

Then it says Cain’s wife got pregnant (presumably a sister too lowly to be named) and has a son called Enoch. So now we have five people on the planet. Maybe a few other girls who the Author couldn’t be bothered to bring up.

THEN it says, when speaking of Enoch’s birth, ‘Cain was building a city at this time, and named the city for Enoch.’

Wait, what? Building a city for whom? Angels? Demons? Animals? Aliens?

Plenty of scope for the imagination, then. More questions in last week’s post about believing what we read. More questions, many questions.

The Overarching Question

But the one that interests me most of all in this story is love. Did Adam and Eve love each other? Can you truly love someone when there’s no other person in existence, so you haven’t chosen them as such? How can you keep loving each other after together, you brought curses down on all future generations?

I guess to me, these are the questions that matter most—more, as I discussed last week, than whether any of it is true or not. I suppose it’s because these are the questions that pop into my head in real life, and they’re the ones that led me to my first line of this story, and it spiralled from there:

‘You must understand, I was made to love your father. For that reason, I sometimes hate him.’

At the moment, I’m writing in first/second person point of view, as Eve addresses her lost favourite daughter—exiled with Cain. If we work with the scenario that Adam and Eve were the first and only humans, they’d have had to have quite a few kids, and to play matchmaker, convincing them to breed.

(Or maybe there would have been little persuasion required. Humans aren’t always fussy about that sort of thing, but let’s not go there for now.)

Given Eve’s own background—unnamed for the first 3 chapters of Genesis, so often referred to as simply ‘the woman’ or ‘Adam’s wife,’ how might she have felt about these pairings, and her role in orchestrating them?
So my novel’s overarching question is incorporated with the first line and the point of view.

Cosmic Questions

Beyond being reflected in the relationships of her children and other descendants, Eve’s feelings for Adam also, I think, are tangled up with spiritual questions.

Pondering the purposes of humans and angels

After everything, could Eve and God love each other? I’ve just written my first scene in which God appears—quite a challenge, playing God, which I’ll elaborate on in a later post. There’s the guilt over letting Him down in Eden—but also the struggle to understand why He allowed her to in the first place.

And she must have wondered, before any of us came along to wonder the same exact thing for centuries: What the hell are we for? For Eve, who knew God as her creator and as an actual physical presence, she must have wondered why He made her and Adam. Just to serve Him, like the angels did? Were they given free will so they could choose to love Him and therefore make their elective devotion more meaningful? I think she’d have mixed feelings on that theory, given everything she went through and all she lost.

Have you come to any conclusions on these matters? How do you set up characters to love each other, without making it look like a setup?

Believing What We Read

This Week’s Bit of String: Dinner with the minister

Quite a few years ago we had dinner at a Southern Baptist pastor’s house. I’d met his family at a New England playground when our son was little, and as they’d recently arrived from South Carolina attempting to reform us heathen Yankees, they were very friendly and keen to get our kids together.

‘He’s a pastor,’ I informed my British husband before introducing him. ‘Just bear that in mind.’

During the meal, the two men chatted merrily. The minister asked my husband about his physics studies, and eventually followed up with, ‘So do you believe in evolution?’

My husband laughed, leaning back in his chair. ‘Well, I don’t know anyone who believes in creation!’

‘Ah do,’ drawled the pastor calmly.

‘Do you?’ my husband asked me, visibly shaken to his core.

I shrugged. I was raised to, certainly, but in the midst of all the other issues and debates raging through life, I’d never found that one to be a battle worth fighting.

Old Premise, New Ideas

Is it so very important where we come from? I mean, to an extent it is. There’s a lot to learn about more recent history (post-Big Bang or Creation or what have you) that better informs our view of the world and of humanity. But I bumble along in my explorations happily resigned to uncertainty regarding the world’s origin story.

On a mental level, I see the logic of the Big Bang Theory. But the creation story still fascinates me.

Sculpture of a woman embracing a globe
Mother of all…

I’m working on a new novel, starring and told by Eve—‘mother of all the living.’ What would it be like, acting as the prototype for 50% of an entire species? How would she learn to be a woman when no other women were around (and not many men either)?

I’m scribbling the early chapters, as well as researching at the moment. I haven’t read a lot around this issue. I’m planning to read Paradise Lost, and look at the Apocrypha as well. So far, I just keep reading the first chapters of Genesis. And honestly, it’s intriguing.

I’m sure to many, the Biblical idea of Intelligent Design sounds overbearing and rigid. But each verse poses huge questions and leaves much to the imagination.

For example, after Eve and Adam took the forbidden fruit, God clothed them in animal skins. How? Was this the first animal slaughter? Could it, further, have been an animal they’d loved in that place of peace?

Eve is never named in that account until after being cursed by God and exiled from Eden. She’s called ‘the woman,’ or ‘Adam’s wife’ up till then. That’s cold. Why?

Then again, considering Adam’s name simply means man, and according to the story there were no other men or women around, I guess they wouldn’t have needed to call each other anything else.

Factual Truth Versus Character Truth

So I’m researching, and questioning, and daydreaming. Not because I intend to find out exactly what happened in the first days of earth, but because it’s fun to imagine.

Isn’t it, in a way, more exciting not to know or worry about whether a book’s premise is true? Hogwarts probably doesn’t exist, and when you think about it, a ring holding dominion over all Middle Earth is somewhat bizarre. But we love finding out how characters—people rather like us—might react in such inventive scenarios.

Bristol Cathedral interior
And we can marvel at the beauty of something without sharing in the faith it represents.

It’s not exactly difficult to imagine a woman breaking a rule—she’s sure she’s only bending it a little—in order to gain some equal footing. So what if it takes place in a garden paradise that’s just appeared out of nowhere, with angels strolling and demons lurking? I feel I can still inject plausibility into her plight.

I think there’s a vital difference between believing a book and believing in a book. It’s the difference between veracity and value; the hierarchical inferiority of situation to character. Aren’t we capable of savouring a protagonist’s authenticity without completely swallowing their circumstances?

I keep going back to this quote from Yann Martel’s eponymous character in Life of Pi: ‘If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?’

I’m not putting my trust in the words of Genesis. But it draws me in and I accept its story, the same way I accept a John Irving story or a Joanne Harris one. Fiction writers tell the truth of their characters, and I’m prepared to believe them. Tell me a character, Biblical or otherwise, did such-and-such: fine, I’ll play along. I’ll ponder why, and to what effect.

Do you find it necessary to establish the complete veracity of a book in order to get involved? What makes a story more or less believable—how happy are you to fill in the gaps?