Worlds apart

World-building is something most obviously associated with authors of science fiction and fantasy. However it is also clearly relevant to history writers  – and I would argue almost any writer worth their salt. Even if you write contemporary social realism, you are still  investigating a culture.Especially if that culture is located elsewhere to that of the intended reader, you have to indicate it.  Google Earth doesn’t show attitudes.

For example,  we all know what an airport look like so you don’t need to describe it in great detail, but what aspects will be central to the people in your book? What will they pick up on? It’s the perspective that matters.

As part of the MA at West Dean, we looked at the opening sequence of ‘Robots’. Here an entire mechanical town is brought to life in seconds through minor characters before we get into the ‘real story’. A notable feature was that each little robot character had its own volition – they were all doing something for themselves ( not our benefit) that brought us into their world.

I’m reading Jackdaw Summer by David Almond at present. Here the introduction shows us the boys’ world very clearly through their eyes by the things that they do – again well before we encounter the ‘main ‘ story.

In each case the introduction is economical but effective. There is a profound sense of much more thought underpinning what we see. But the creation of culture, however intricate, isn’t enough. You don’t need to create languages and maps and dynasties of kings like Tolkien, wonderful though they are. His worlds work because they are illuminated by cracking good stories and characters we care about.

It’s similar to special effects in films – like fire,  CGI is a good servant but a poor master. We all know films that look wonderful yet feel empty. The same can occur with books – full of style but forgettable.

The point is that whatever we put in the book must move along the story or cast light upon the characters  – otherwise it’s so much window-dressing. Brian Froud’s fabulous parallel cultures of the Mystics and the Skeksis in ‘Dark Crystal’ are there because they matter to both the plot and the beings in the film.

There are  dangers in portraying another world too carefully, be it designer fashion or a space outpost. One one hand you can insult the reader’s intelligence, and on the other loose the things that matter in a welter of detail. This doesn’t mean you can neglect your homework, though. Aardman animations can get Gromit’s subtle expressions right because they put in the hard work in the first place.

So whatever your genre, take a leaf from the Old Masters. The second rate portrait artists were superb at showing lace and jewellery and sumptuous fabrics. The best left those aspects sketchy and put the most skill into the faces. You have to choose what really matters.


Truth and tradition

The Penny Farthing Post

I am indebted to the BBC news for this treasure – the wonderful Graham Eccles who collects and delivers post around Bude by penny-farthing bicycle ( video link here). Who could not admire his initiative? We all like active heroes and the rise in the price of stamps won’t harm his enterprise. But there’s more than just this.

Certainly there is the sheer visual charm – which cannot but delight tourists and locals alike – but he is carrying on the fine British tradition of eccentricity. He is also providing a service by putting a new spin on an old idea.

Carlin Sunday

This report I owe to the venerable yet lively Whitby Gazette (established 1854). It is the custom to serve carlin pease (a kind of medieval mushy pea) on Passion Sunday – and it is still done in some pubs in the North- East – report here. There are a variety of stories to account for this – in different ports in particular – a fine example of how folk tales evolve to explain customs. You can read more here.

I love how the much-neglected English Civil War crops up in this – reminding us of our shared history. The people of the British Isles should be proud of who they are. I don’t believe this excludes anybody – our much-settled isle has enough stories to share with the whole world.

 What relevance to the writer for young people?

These (and so many, many more) traditions go beyond quaint. I happily accept that quirkiness is to be cherished for its own sake but the observation of Pace Egg Rolling and Shrove Tuesday Skipping in Scarborough and the like is also a reply. The continuance of shared customs – through taking part and celebration in writing – is a counter-blast to the dominant celebrity ‘culture’.

It’s not corporate. it’s not blandly international like the wall art in hotel rooms, it’s ours.

Recently I  heard someone fear that books can be rejected for being ‘too British’. Well, pah to that.  Felicity Bryan at the Chichester Writing Festival ( see my reports here & here – and also  Liz Fenwick’s here) gave an excellent answer to that, which I paraphrase:

Don’t worry about a book’s appropriateness for a given market – if the story and the characters are universal, the rest won’t matter.


Being true to who you are, to the ways of your own background whatever that maybe , is essential to you as a person and as a writer. I’m not saying you must mention Morris Dancers in your next book ( though the wonderful Terry Pratchett has given them a boost) but be aware of your tradition.

I want to see more writers exploring and reinventing folklore. Tradition dies if it is not re-invigorated – like marriage has received a fillip from the influx of same-sex couples.

I’ll leave the last words to the marvellous Show of Hands:

Seed, bark, flower, fruit
They’re never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
They need roots 


Roots by Show of Hands

Writer for Sale or Rent

Vintage 1961 model in good working order

  •  includes brand new MA (Creative Writing)  from West Dean College
  • at home with Junior School children ( has previous as teacher)
  • however it would be fair to point out disturbing darker side to personality
  • addicted to anything maritime, the weirder aspects of folklore and ghost stories
  • excellent creator of imaginary worlds but definitely not streetwise
  • needs direction – middle grade, tweens or teens?
  • worryingly keen on dressing-up
  • grammar, punctuation & spelling in good condition
  • has demonstrated writing stamina
  • Yorkshire background – will work for tea and crumpets

All suggestions considered.


Mapping out the territory

Swaledale Barn by Andy Coulson

A few years ago, we went on a giant pub crawl around the Yorkshire Dales. There was lot of laughing, rain , sheep, quaffing, rain, sheep, drystone walls, scenery and rain. My part in this adventure ( Four Go Mad in Swaledale sort of thing) was to mark out the route. Continue reading

Poetry pleas

First off, let me beg you to buy some poetry. Don’t just download it, please. Poets have to eat, too.

Change from schoolmistressy voice to reflective.

Here are some poems  you might like to try or revisit  – the first few that sprang to mind which have a vague connection to the theme of home – and one of mine.

Might I suggest a little Gerard Manley Hopkins – “Inversnaid “? 

The heartfelt entreaty of  “What would the world be, once bereft/Of wet and of wilderness?” speaks to me of the moorland that I love in my Yorkshire homeland. I studied GMH out of sheer perversity ( ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ with Miss Grey at Wakefield Girls’ High School) – and grew to love him. The intensity of his feelings, the texture of his words, almost crunchy in their concentration, and the sheer weird beauty of sprung rhythm.

Secondly, John Donne: “The Sunne Rising”. Another passionate priest. Hear the power of romantic love contemptuous of anything that distracts  “Nor houres, dayes, months, which are the rags of time.” I like my Donne unfiltered, I hear him better through the original spelling: “saucy pedantique wretch”. Is there any  better distillation of ‘home’ than being in bed with the one you love?

I have no qualms about reproducing this one on the same theme – I think the copyright’s well and truly gone!

O Western Wind
Anon, 14th century

O Western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

Anon is a favourite poet – I cannot resist the bleakness of “The Lyke Wake Dirge” for one ( another bit of grim Northernness) – “Fire and fleet and candleleet and Christ receive thy soul”  .

Being inside in foul weather seems to be a theme: I love “Wind” by Ted Hughes. Who can beat the directness of “This house has been far out at sea all night” ? It’s the vigour of his work that gets me.  “The Remains of Elmet” with the haunting photographs by Fay Godwin is a much-loved book.

You will probably have guessed by now I like unsentimental nature poetry so George Mackay Brown, RS Thomas, John Clare and  DH Lawrence get an honourable mention but Edward Thomas never fails to move me. His works are as delicate and deep as the etchings of Robin Tanner. I immediately thought of “Tall Nettles” – Asquith’s farm behind my home in Wakefield had a machinery graveyard I loved.

And to end with – a poem that I wrote which was published in the same anthology as two by Simon Armitage, no less. Only because we both had a Huddersfield connection at the time, I have to confess. Author’s Note: Ellis Laithe is a place, not a person (laithe is a Viking word for a barn, and shippon is dialect for a cow house).

To Ellis Laithe – a Conversation

Which way did you go?

           Through a green gate sagging between stone pillars

           Like a drunk between his silent friends.

What was in the garden?

           Stacked slates drowning under nettle spires,

          Snow-and-sulphur tongued flags just linger,

          Like the crusted pear.

          Some outbuildings;

         Open mouthed coalscuttles,

         Gagged with rosebay willow herb.

Anything new?

         Only soaring thistles prickling the mothy air,

        And the gaudy burnet clustered on them.

        Some catpiss elders teem,

        And flittering tortoiseshells snap shut,

        On the hugely domed Fool’s Parsley.

Did you hear anything?

        Only the arguing spugs’ echo in the dustrailed shippon,

        And grit swilling down the gutter stone.

Who is in the house now?

         A grasping bramble had crossed the doorstep, no more.

Did you see aught of mine?

          In the kitchen, spiderstring nets cross the windowlight,

          Falling through a stalactite-papered ceiling,

         And in a mote-speckled spotlight lies

         One single laceless crumpled boot;

         A bleary sheen of mildew on the toe,

         And the dark slit of a peeling heel

         Distinguish it.

Goodbye old friend,

I’ll not visit there again,

Except in memory.

         It would be best.

Rosemary Tate … from ‘An Anthology of Local Poetry’, Huddersfield Polytechnic 1985

We don’t care if…


… it’s raining and the sky is inky black (Quentin Blake – The Duck Song from ‘All Join In’ – completely brilliant to read aloud)

In praise of rain.

Whilst I was a teacher, I remember a rather dated textbook in which one of the exercises was to write a poem against trees. My colleagues and I had steam coming outof our ears at the very idea. We changed the task to poems in praise of..  something photo by yaaaay on Flickrunexpected.

You will be relieved to know that I will not inflict you with poor scansion or cloth-eared rhymes.

But I will speak up for rain.

Coming from the frozen North,  I am well acquainted with rain, and her cousins drizzle and  mizzle. Walking to and from school, I particularly loved the colours in the sandstone flags that the rain darkened and intensified. Swirls of caramel, toffee and burnt sugar brown rose in the slightly dished surface of the worn causeway.

In a real good downpour, siling down as we say, the sets in roads would run with ripples of water like a snakeskin pulsating.

Some places still had proper granite gutters, and you could race the twigs that  canoed down the glittery channels. On the way home, damming streams was good fun, with water now the colour of milky coffee spurting out of the stones and branches and disintegrating mud. Wading through puddles was always good, and doing your own  “Singing in the Rain” routine out loud because everyone else has gone home can’t be beaten.

  Drizzle sPhoto by withrow on flickrtands on your woollies in  globules like the juice of on the leaves of a sundew or is held in the creased palms of Lady’s Mantle. It loads cobwebs with fancy chandelier drops and makes Yorkshire Fog  sag in silvery swathes.  You can leave an explorer’s trail in the long grass, and sometimes watch moss on the wall twist and swell in relief after a dry spell.

We also say’ teeming ‘ for really drenching rain. To ‘teem’ is to strain by using the lid of a pan or suchlike, a very apt image  when the heavens open.  I loved running home to real fire, chanting “hot chocolate, drinking chocolate” to keep up the pace, then towelling my hair into a silly frizz  and being so  glad to be inside when the weather was kept outside. Grand.

Or perhaps, the storm would go, having cleaned the sky to a blue more suited to Hawaii than the Pennines. The damp-blackened twigs would glint with unfallen drops darting to sparkle down if you touched them. I would hear the last movement of  Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ in my head  – or “Drip, drip, drip little April showers’  from ‘Bambi’ . And the scents: patchouli -like leafmould, garlicky ransoms and the sharpness of pines tingling in the nose.

There would be the hiss and shush of tyres spraying up any standing water  and the chuckle of torrents glugged down by the drains. Corrugated plastic sheeting really plocked, and then channelled the  rain into a spattering fringe. Really deep water  slowed and quietened the traffic.

Even down here, in the sunny South coast, the ducks rejoice to see their pond resurrected from crazed green mud. Right now, blackberries shine in jewelled clusters and the turning leaf colours glow without the dust. The ditches or rifes run again, saving the frogs and toads. Our pond fish seen to like it, and the pondweed doesn’t  which cheers my heat. Our rain butts are replenished and the courgettes flourish. I don’t have to stand like some fat  bored fountain nymph watering  the runner beans and our local cafes do good business.

And the best, the very best of all, is being snuggled up with a good book as the sound of sleet splatters against the dark windows.

 Now who says I’m too daft to come in out of the rain?  by t0msk on flickr