Read all about it

I spent much of today in the rather delightful Book Nook in Hove. (I can recommend the rhubarb and ginger cake). It was good to hear a proper bookseller helping both adults and children find the right books for them with tact and knowledge.

I have to say how amused and impressed I was when a rather ambitious yummy mummy was steered ever so gently towards the concept of reading for pleasure – as opposed to reading to achieve. A triumph of manoeuvring.

The babble of babies and small children was a surprisingly pleasing background to editing tasks – perhaps reminding me of why I bother. I completed a major task – and then rewarded myself with a good browse.

What a pleasure it was to see the work of people I know at least by sight (in no particular order):

  • Dave Cousins
  • Lucy Christopher
  • Malorie Blackman
  • Meg Rossoff
  • Patrick Ness
  • Teri Terry
  • Jon Mayhew
  • Chris Riddell

The astute reader will have noticed how many of these are SCBWI folk. And there were more, I am certain. It gave me an interesting feeling of companionship to see them – and maybe a sense of pride. Pride that fellow children’s writers and illustrators made such lovely things.

I also felt a sense of achievement in knowing my genres, ages and stages much better these days. This is much to do with my reading for the lovely Vivienne da Costa at Serendipity Reviews. There is nothing like reading to give you a sense of the world of children’s literature – it’s just so broad and fascinating.

In the main , it’s good to see your friends and colleagues succeed – the world of writing for young readers is big enough for all of us. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit to the odd stab of pain when someone I know gets published – when I’ve just had another rejection. BUT it is only transient.

And if it’s a brilliant book, well, all the more for me to enjoy. That goes for authors and genres I didn’t know before, too.

Something to sing about.

Yet the very best thing is realising that I do have a distinctive voice emerging. I haven’t read anything quite like my work yet. Of course it might be that it’s uniquely weird – but that’s not necessarily a problem. Uniquely bad would be – but seriously, I know it isn’t that awful.

So I feel rather buoyed up by that – though a few quid lighter!

Who would have thought I’d buy books?

How about you – what does a bookshop browse do for you?

 

Wrong but romantic

I am in Devon as I write; overlooking glorious rolling countryside and listening to ducks, jackdaws and the trees rustling.

En route at Westbury station, I had a sudden thrill. A steam train passed through with all its noise and smoke and glamour. For one exhilarating moment,I felt I’d slipped back in time. My heart raced and I grinned like a loon.

I love that sense of history as a fluid thing. I have rarely been happier than at Oakwell hall years ago wandering around the candlelit hall in costume and listening to old carols sung live. For me there was the echo of a scene in The Children of Green Knowe where Tolly and his great grandmother hear a woman sing Lully Lullay – and a baby goes to sleep four hundred years ago. It still brings tears to my eyes.

I have a deep affection for many old things – and it’s not a product of my age. I loved brass rubbings in the Lower VI form, declared  that I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was nine and haunted castles and museums and churches happily all through my childhood and beyond.

Partly I am seduced by beauty. I find carefully handmade things be they ancient or modern, a joy, but there’s something even more special about an object that has been treasured for centuries.

In Hennock church somehow  an original painted rood screen from the Middle Ages has survived. It’s no masterpiece in many people’s view – but I found it rather moving. How did they keep it from the zealots of the Reformation or the Puritans in the Civil War era?

That’s the sort of story I respond to: where an object or a house or some such embodies the tale of survival against the odds. It’s not the thing itself that moves me – it’s the story beneath.

So I embrace the idea that my stories are far more likely to involve candlesticks, gargoyles or moorland crosses than mobile phones. In fact, I am unlikely to reference the 21st Century at all. Let my talented colleagues tackle that with their own passion and knowledge.

I will carry on being a ‘romancer’ in my own way.

Besides, whether they wear zips or calico buttons, trainers or hob-nailed boots, people are still endlessly fascinating.

 

Bobbing about

Not me – but just as exhilarating

I’ve just been for a refreshing swim in the Solent. Whilst I was splashing about and enjoying the waves, I thought about The House with No Name and our seaside retreats venture. How do I get it going?

I really don’t want to be a pushy, self-promoting twonk but I do want people to know about it. I had found that no-one knew in the village about my B&B – and even worse, if they had, they would have told visitors. I don’t want that to happen with this enterprise. I can’t afford it to.

And on the other side of the process, I have had such conflicting advice about running a B&B or guesthouse. I’ve also had a variety of experiences. How do I decide what to do for the best?

He looks thoughtful, too.

The only way as far as I can see to combine integrity with our coastal retreat business is a commitment to provide what our guests really want. A commitment to help, to nurture and to find out what truly works for them.

I was thrilled when Lynn Breeze commented:

involving us all in this way makes us feel a part of it too

That’s just what I want.

The same goes for the promotion of our seaside retreats. I can’t be like a barker in Leeds covered-in market bawling out her wares (much as I admire the brash energy of such an approach). To find the energy to keep putting our venture forward, I have to believe in what I’m doing. It has to be honest.

Partly, I am inspired by the lovely and very astute Deborah Dooley.( If you need a sojourn deep in the heart of the Devon countryside, I particularly recommend her ancient house for its welcoming atmosphere and delectable fire.)

Her approach to advertising Retreats for You is straightforward. She simply communicates what she’s been doing. It’s genuine and engaging and gives you a good sense of what’s she’s about. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and I hope she won’t mind me doing something similar.

So

  • I will jabber on enthusiastically about what I’m up to
  • I will ask questions – repeatedly
  • I will value any comments and suggestions from you lovely lot
  • PLEASE tell me what you want
Thank you for reading.
All shares and re-tweets are much appreciated.

 

 

Riches beyond the dreams of Avarice

Wednesday 21st August 2013 found me in Oxford. I had come for an event at Oxford Playhouse – of which more later – and decided to make much more of a trip of it by adding in two museums.

My head and my heart are now stuffed with treasure.

First off, I went to the Magical Books exhibition at the Old Bodleian library. For me this was akin to the veneration of saints’ relics: I found it deeply emotional to be in the same space as work by writers and artists I love.

For example, there was Tolkien’s lovingly created Fragments from the Book of Mazarbul {That’s the burnt bits the Company find in the mines of Moria which tells them of Balin’s fate for those non-Tolkien geeks reading}. You could see the marks his pipe had made.

There were maps by C.S. Lewis and folio sheets of Alan Garner’s beautiful handwriting. I thrilled to see Pauline Baynes’ exquisite artwork, and manuscripts by Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman.

Perhaps I hoped some of their magic would rub off on me?

Whatever the truth of that emotion, it reconfirmed that fantasy and magical realms are my first love, Faerie is where my Muse comes from.

So I was more than happy to see some of the artefacts that had stimulated my literary heroes. Ancient magical texts and arcane objects imbued with mystical power starred in the glass cases. Objects associated with alchemists, witches and magicians always fascinate.

In the evening I had a glorious writerly overload: Neil Gaiman talking to Philip Pullman at Oxford Playhouse. Despite both of them avowing atheism, it was interesting to note a perhaps spiritual element in their discussions about the Narrator. Whether literal or figurative, there was a definite mystical aspect to their talk.

So to today.

The Pitt Rivers Museum.

Wow.

Pitt Rivers Museum 09

If you ever short of ideas, just go there. The juxtaposition of objects from cultures from all over the world makes a wealth of extraordinary starting points.

Try these:

  • light-bulbs turned into oil lamps – in contemporary city slums
  • the tip of a tongue preserved to make a charm– in  the English countryside
  • a light waterproof cape fashioned from seal innards by Arctic people

Imagine who made these astonishing things and what their life was like.

If nothing else, the Victorian displays create an inspiring ambiance. And there are display cards with information about rituals and practices. Mash-up one with another and you have instant context for a drama.

I managed to spend four hours in there and only touched on the downstairs. There are two more galleries to go at.

I had to stop. My imaginative well was brimming and plashing down its moss- covered sides. Now that’s truly magical, whatever your beliefs.

Witch flask from Sussex

Where do you go for a top-up?

Now we’re cooking

I am currently enjoying a sojourn at Retreats for You in deepest Devon where my hostess Deborah cooks lovely food. This goes down well – and unsurprisingly led me to thinking about cookery and creativity.

I think editing can be something like refining a recipe – and I see genres as being cuisines. We can create our own take on a particular type – but we need to acknowledge the traditions associated with it.

So good old fish-and-chips frankly should have very little done to it. The freshness of the fish, the quality of the batter and the accompaniments are pretty much all there is to work on. This might be like a good whodunit. The reader knows what she wants and really expects it to be just so – no-one wants bouillabaisse or a sudden burst of Dickens.

But ‘Chinese’ is a much wider field. There are a markers we like (like a book cover) to entice us in – red lanterns, gilding and a fat and happy little god, perhaps. Yet upmarket restaurants might give the merest hint – just one calligraphy scroll – and perhaps play with these signifiers. There the food maybe less modified for Western tastes and the consumer expected to make more of an effort.

To me, this reflects less commercial fiction – it’s more immersive, less mediated. The reader is trusted to engage and figure out things for themselves. Nonetheless, there will be things the readership expects – comprehensible sentence structure, a plot, some degree of resolution. And the writer must provide.

I have a fundamental distrust of pubs and the like with far too wide a menu. I am almost certain it will be bought in from Brakes and microwaved.  Here, my writing analogy would be laziness, plagiarism and cultural appropriation. Harsh, perhaps, but poor quality on either account is an insult to the person you’re providing for.

I am not against ‘borrowing’.

Look at China Mieville’s splendidly odd ‘Railsea’. He used Herman Melville’s whaling and transformed it into the hunting of giant moles in his world. There’s nothing wrong with making a paella-style dish from local ingredients born out of what you know and where you are now . That’s how we got Jambalaya.

But just sprinkling a teaspoon of Schwartz Italian Herb Mix over a risotto doesn’t not make it authentically Veneziana. You can’t put a few Creole words in, refer to jazz on Bourbon Street and think you’ve recreated New Orleans. It needs depth and research and love.

Editing is the point at which you consider what you are serving up – and to whom. There is much to reflect on: has the stock of your ideas been simmered long enough? Is the story weighed down with blandness? Does it need a bit of pep – or is there too much going off at once?

You have to keep trying and testing. Eventually, the taste buds give up – and that’s where other opinions come in. (More of that in another post, I think.)

What cuisine would reflect your work?

 

 

Sniffing it out

This last weekend I was at Dunford House on a writing retreat with many of my fellow SCBWI-BI members. Amongst all the other joyful events, we had a workshop with the lovely, talented and far-too-young Lucy Christopher on Setting.

One aspect she dwelt upon was the role of the senses in engaging the reader – how they can transport the reader to the time and place we want them to experience. I have to say many of my favourite books are crammed full of sensory detail – I am seduced by authors who can handle these well – Joanne Harris immediately springs to mind.

For this post, I’m going to focus on just one – the sense of smell.

Here’s a selection that I find deeply evocative – and what they provoke for me

  • Fortune’s kippers in Whitby – Goths and impossibly dark and  romantic setting
  • coal tar works – it depended on where the wind blew – going homne up the motorway from Uni
  • the mixture of fried onions and candy floss you get at a fair – exciting
  • mildewed books, incense and damp stone in an unheated church – thrill of singing
  • melting tar on a hot August day when stuck in a traffic jam on the way to Scarborough – boredom , impatience
  • WD-40 – my house reeked of it with three motorbiking sons and a husband – irritation, amusement and sometimes fear
  • newly mown grass and white- lining smell on school sports day – anxiety
  • freshly sawn wood at the timber mill – my father was a builder and carpenter – anticipation  of a new building site
  • linseed oil putty – see above – my grandad’s patience – he worked with my dad too
  • coal fires – comfort on a winters’ day
  • post-Bonfire Night fireworks and ashes – often damp and a little sad – but with happy memories, reliving the delight of rockets and catherine wheels
  • flour and cooking margarine and eggs – cooking with my Nanna, happiness

I think it works best when the smell you choose is both specific to a location – and has an emotional resonance. I am terrible cynic – I use vanilla around our bed-and-breakfast to suggest ice-cream and innocent seaside holiday fun.

One extraordinary find from location research  really sticks in my olfactory memory – inside the roofs of Cathedrals, it smells like steam engines. Honestly. Perhaps 19th century air is still trapped in there.

I wonder which scents trigger a response in you, dear reader.

 

 

Past and present

Most of my writing thus far could be labelled ‘Historical Fantasy’, I would say. I have had lots of fun and inspiration from visiting the settings of my stories and looking around.  I try to get a sense of how that place came to be that way- the story before mine, how the geography evolved, the way it might have been governed – as much physical, political and social background as I can imagine.

But until relatively recently, I couldn’t really deal with the people. I’d go early morning or wait to catch shots without people in them . I avoided them a bit if I’m honest – be a bit shy or perhaps wary.

I had some idea that people then were different – different in a way I could only access through period images and accounts. And there’s clearly a great deal of validity in reading contemporary voices, and looking at what they saw – especially for ‘true’ historical writers.

But I take liberties.

I don’t think there were any selkie colonies between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay in the 60s nor a girl who could talk to stone on the south coast of Sussex in Jane Austen’s time. Yet there can be in my head – and through the page – in my readers’ heads.

Understanding this, and accepting that we can only imagine people through what we experience now, has made me much happier to move characters about in time. Years ago as a schoolgirl,  I remember seeing some of Holbein the Younger’s drawings. I’ve never been a fan of the Tudors – but those drawings fascinated me. They were  ‘just like real people in Tudor costumes!’ I recall thinking.

Mary, Lady Guildford, by Hans Holbein the Younger

So now, if I’m in Chichester and I see a huge bloke walking with his legs wide apart to accommodate the movement of his belly like draymen used to roll beer barrels to pub cellars – well, I think ‘you’d fit in well in Selchester’s less reputable streets’. Or I see a girl waiting, shifting her weight from one foot to another, making a pattern on the flagstones like choreography – I wonder if she might anticipate the quadrilles at the Solstice Ball if I slide her back to the winter season 1809.

I reckon it could work the other way too.

Could this woman fit in a contemporary drama?

Perhaps not – but how about this one?

(If you like this pair, there are more here on the Telegraph website – I am indebted to Caroline Lawrence and The History Girls for this)

So what do you think – am I right to mash-up people from different eras – or are people so shaped by the period they live in, it’s just plain wrong?

Principal Boys

Now I am something of a feminist in case you didn’t know, Dear Reader – but I do love a Principal Boy. I love a girl in britches. I always fancied the Prince in the Panto, and any story where the girl dresses up as a boy and gets away with it, gives me great pleasure.

What a pirate! ( Jacket from The Dark Angel)

There’s the irrepressible Linnet in The Children of Green Knowe playing at being a choirboy, Jo March acting in Little Women, Celia Rees’ Sovay – a highwaygirl and of course, most of the cast of Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment.

Sovay, Sovay all on a day
She dressed herself in man’s array

I never knew George out of The Famous Five books – but I would have loved her. Likewise Mulan and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna . I was a bit of a tomboy – having to be forcibly made to wear a frock, turfing my dolls out of their pram and using it to carry bricks, and jousting with the clothes pole.

I have to admit I was easily hoodwinked. I had no idea about the central character in The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler ( which I still love) and honestly, it came as a great and glorious surprise to me when Dernhelm took off ‘his’ helmet in The Lord of the Rings. It still moves me every time I read it.

I really don’t want contemporary girls to think they have to be boys in order to have autonomy.(See my previous post and this splendid one by Katherine Langrish). But in historical fiction and fantasy, it’s a way for our heroines to get out of the home – and it’s such great fun. There’s something about the sheer audaciousness of it.

And in my case, I identified more with Robin Hood or The Lone Ranger or Ivanhoe or my Dad than my stay-at-home Mum. That probably speaks volumes about me. I’ll end with Gandalf speaking about Eowyn to her brother Eomer:

but she, being born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours.

I think that’s it – spirit. Girls in britches embody courage for me.

Female Samurai courtesy of Retronaut

 

 

Rescuing the Heroine

This post has been partly inspired by the excellent Katherine Langrish and her post Fairytale Princesses: tougher than you think. I can only agree: what I  learned from traditional stories was that kindness and effort brought you more success than vanity and pride. So I don’t want to rescue any of those heroines myself – just the term.

That’s why I winced when I read Kate Mosse refer to ” female action heroes.” In fairness it was in a perfectly reasonable piece asking for more active central characters to be female. I am unlikely to disagree with that. (But oh, the irony – if you read the piece via Mail Online there is article after article defining women by their looks down the side bar.)

There needs to be equality. There needs to be a balance of protagonists who are girls or women. Have a look at picture books. Really look at them. The apparently gender neutral use of animals often masks the presumption that the lead is male.

Out of ten picture books reviewed, only two had female leads.

I think the word ‘hero’ does that – assumes male is the only important way to be.

Not books, I know, but in an idle moment at Budapest airport  I took a look at some toddler toys (British by the way). Lovely primary colours, diggers and dumpers tractors and so forth (some of my favourite things). Out of twenty named characters, three were female.

We seem to have end up back at the Smurfette Principle – if something is marketed at boys, or meant to be unisex, girls will have only a token representation. Girls are ghettoised. In pink.

You’re not supposed to create with this stuff.

And don’t get me started on pink Lego.

1981 Why have we gone backwards?

So it really is important that half our central characters are female – with lots of agency. I would also argue it’s important you make sure your secondary and minor characters are balanced too. I’ve found myself putting too many males.

But our heroines should not just be blokes with breasts.

Lara Croft won’t do. She’s just eye-candy for boys.

Katniss Everdeen is better. Though I wish the trilogy hadn’t dwindled to that defeatist ending – this is the Katniss I wanted:

(It gets me every time)

We will always need more Lyra Belacquas, more Jane Eyres, more Pippi Longstockings, more Tiffany Achings – and my colleagues provide some amazing female central characters. Some full of gusto and yet feminine.

A black belt in Arnis – Philipino Stick & Sword fighting

Just don’t call them ‘heroes’.

 

 

Ravens & Writing Desks

I have no good answer to Lewis Carroll’s riddle ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ – but I’ve always thought there must be some connection with trees.

I love trees. I am an unashamed tree-hugger. I have gazed in wonder at giant redwoods and stroked their strange fire-proof bark, stood enchanted by the mysterious Dragon Tree in Tenerife, ridden amongst the cork forests near Tarifa with delight and I hold an undying affection for the poor old Crouch Oak, Addlestone.

The Crouch Oak marked the boundary of Windsor Great Park and is said to date from the 11th Century

And in books – oh so many to treasure. The apple tree that grew immediately in the brand-new Narnia & made that wardrobe, The Whomping Willow, the Mallorns and all the wondrous Ents. I have wept for the fate of the Entwives.

So it’s not surprising that I can be moved by bonsai. A really well-executed one can take me into another world. The bonsai creator tries to mimic the natural beauty of the  yamadori – a tree shaped by its surroundings into a sculpture reflecting its struggle and survival. The ceation of bonsai is, of course, artifice: a simulation of effects that occur organically into a pleasing, portable form.

Like a book.

All writing is like that: reality shaped into a pleasing form, however minute or contorted. We might have to bend the truth to make it fit, snip and constrain to make the very best work – but our readership still responds to something like the yamadori. 

And I think there’s more to this analogy – it lies with the writers themselves. Writers need to put down roots, spread them out into the humus of our culture : we need to read, watch, listen. Some of us may have a tap-root of deep knowledge in one area, others may go in for a mat of widespread understanding – and every convoluted variant in-between.

J. R. R. Tolkien in his natural habitat?

We have to develop a trunk to support us – the heartwood of experience. In bonsai, the most damaged be can be the most resilient and the most prized. I believe that can be true of writers.

And then comes the crown, a canopy of photosynthesising leaves that nurtures us first before providing shelter and pleasure and food for others. Creativity takes the up-coming sap of ideas and dreams and magically turns it into new, beautiful things. How mysterious is that?

This bonsai was being trained when Charles I had his coronation in 1626

That’s my alternative to the much-used journey metaphor: growth. I think we each have to find the right place to thrive. Sometimes that might be barren and constricted – and what makes us fruitful.

It’s all to do with maturity – and that’s a wide-ranging thing. Trees vary – like us. Willows can be at their prime in their twenties, beeches barely begun at sixty and the yew is still adolescent at one hundred. But whatever their life story, trees never stop growing.

Bristlecone pines can be thousands of years old and still growing.

I am much encouraged that the ‘early ancient to senescent, or Veteran Stage’ :

for trees with a strong defense system such as oaks, … may be the longest life stage.

(Tree Care Primer – Christopher Roddick)

I take heart in that. My time for blossoming could be now. I may only get rooks and ravens hanging about in my branches – or be felled to make someone else’s writing desk – but thus far, I’m still growing.