Thursday, 30 June 2022

ONE BOOK LEADS TO ANOTHER... by Patricia Cleveland-Peck

    It began when I discovered The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon written over a thousand years ago.She was a witty, caustic lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court of Heian-Kyo, modern day Kyoto in Japan and her book is a sort of commonplace book containing poems, lists and descriptions of Heian life. This pointed me towards the vast Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, the first novel written by a woman. Murasaki also served at the same court and the two were rivals. Murasaki's novel, most of which concerns the loves of Prince Genji, also gives a viviid picture of aristocratic life but in a long, rambling story. Ivan Morris's meticulously researched non-fiction volume The World of the Shining Prince then provided me with a very full and readable explanation of this strange, rigid but colourful world so different from anything we know today. A society in which women blackened their teeth in the name of beauty, wore robes of so many layers that they could not walk and communicated by daily exchange of poems - poetry was their social medium.

     It wasn't surprising then that when given a travel writing assignment in Kyoto, I should set off in search of traces of Heian life, It must be said very little of it remains. Of the huge old Imperial Palace only Shinsen-en, a tiny scrap of garden is left. Nevertheless armed with a bus pass and map I set off determined to find it.

     It was already early evening when I got there and as I was hungry I was delighted to fins a restaurant on the site. It was completely empty but two kimono-clad girls ushered me, bowing deeply,  into a dark, rather mysterious room and when they understood that I wanted a meal, they brought a gas burner, a vast post of broth and little dishes containing fish, dumplings, asparagus and other unfamiliar vegetables. All these they cooked in the broth and served to me. It was a most delicious meal and afterwards I took a walk around the garden, There was a little boat moored at the side of a pond which was spanned by a vermillion bridge. There was no one else about and as I looked up at the rising moon I thought how Heian ladies had enjoyed their moon-watching parties here a thousand years ago, gazing at the same moon.

     Later on this trip I visited a house, Ninjō-Jinya which although from a later date had the atmosphere of the shoguns and their ninja spies. It was here I first experienced a nightingale floor although I had read about them in Heian literature. A nightingale floor is  one specially constructed to squeak when walked on and so warn the inhabitants of intruders. In Ninjō-Jinya there were also secret passageways, false walls, trapdoors, concealed rope ladders, disguised staircases, dead ends and other devices for escape.

     It was much later that I came across the book Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. Intrigued by the title I bought it and so embarked on a delightful reading spree of the whole series of  The Tales of the Otori. Set in medieval Japan this series first marketed as y/a but later unclassified, is about love and magic but does not flinch from the brutality of medieval society. It follows the story of Takeo and Kaede, first as young lovers and later with their children as they struggle to rule their lands peacefully in a world replete with feuds, murder, spies and intrigue. The ruthlessness is somewhat balanced by the compassion and spirituality found in the shrines and monasteries where the protagonists seek peace and solace- but even so there is an awful lot of killing.

   The main characters are convincingly human, they have faults and make mistakes but they gain our sympathy. My one caveat is that I became confused by the enormous cast of unfamiliarly-named lesser characters, my own fault really as each book has family trees and descriptions.

    Hearn has been criticised for being a Westerner who writes about a foreign culture and various trifling inaccuracies. These critics are missing the point. The books are speculative fiction which, incorporating subtle slivers of magic from time to time, conveys the very atmosphere and otherness of old Japan. Every detail; the birds, the flowers, the gardens, the scents, the sounds, the clothing, the lavish interiors, the swords, the calligraphy and even the horses, seems utterly right. If this is not enough for some critics it is for me and the thousands of readers in 36 countries who delight in Lian Hearn's Japanese world.

     It is a great pleasure to escape into this world from time to time.

Patricia Cleveland-Peck         www.patriciaclevelandpeck.com



  

     

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Influences by Nick Garlick

‘Who are your influences?’ Jimmy Rabbitte demands in The Commitments, when he’s setting up his band in Dublin. And so, for what it’s worth, here are mine when it comes to writing.

 


The first time I was aware of style, of what a writer could do with words to create a rhythm and an atmosphere and images in my mind, was Laurie Lee. Even though it’s decades since I read Cider with Rosie, I can still remember a description of his uncles – those huge remote men… reeking of leather and horses - and the way the words seemed to sing and dance right out of the pages.

 

After that it was Raymond Chandler. When I was 18, I read every single one of his books, captivated not just by his private eye plots – which I loved – but by the language, the words evoking character and place, like this moment from The Big Sleep, as Philip Marlowe steps into an orchid house.


The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal colour, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. 

 

Then there was Harlan Ellison, a fantasy writer with a startling imagination and the ability to throw words around like hand grenades: they’d explode in directions you’d never dreamed existed. 

 

There are five hundred buildings in the United States whose elevators go deeper than the basement. When you have pressed the basement button and reached bottom, you must press the basement button twice more. The elevator doors will close and you will hear the sound of special relays being thrown, and the elevator will descend. Into the caverns.


That’s from one of the fragments in From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet (in Strange Wine) and while the language is more restrained than was often the case with Ellison, it’s a good example of his unsettling imagination. Here’s the thing though: As much as I loved his books when I was in my 20s, I find a lot of his work hard going now. The style overwhelms the content to the point where I think, All right. I get it. Could we please just go on with the story? 

 

I have other favourites these days – Joe Lansdale and Alan Bennett, Shirley Jackson and Robert Aickman, Louis Sachar and Frank Cottrell Boyce and Bill Bryson - but the three I’ve written about above were the three whose work made me realise what magic you could weave with words and started me thinking:

I’d like to do that too!

Tuesday, 28 June 2022

The Twisty Turn-y Journey of a Series Over 20 Years! by Kelly McKain

 

It's a strange and exciting day today for me! I am writing the first book in a new series, Katie in Fairyland. It's a companion series to The Fairy House, which first published in the UK in 2004. 

Katie, the creative only child of an artist, moves into a new house and leaves her dolls' house out under an oak tree on a scrap of land (the Almost Meadow) behind her garden overnight. In the morning, she's very surprised to find that four feisty fairies have moved in! She shrinks to fairy size and plays with them in the house, and they have all kinds of adventures, and save the oak (which is actually a magic portal) from the bulldozers of a local property developer, securing the connection between earth and fairyland forever.

 

So there I was, writing the first Fairy House book seventeen years ago, at a friends' house, who is an artist. I started working on the characters and the storylines while I was staying there, to distract myself from a break up with my boyfriend at the time (we were then together for 15 years, got married and had two kids, just in case you're interested!). My friend, Kirsty, got out all her clothes and we worked out what kinds of things the fairies might wear, and the colours they would like. I remember, during this bit of authorly hard work, her saying, 'Why have I never been a hippy? I should be a hippy' as we looked at the dreamy, sunny outfits for Daisy the summer fairy.

The main character, Katie, was based (among other inspirations and plenty of imagination!) on my friend Jill's daughter, and she was seven when the first book was published. It feels amazing that I'm sitting here writing the first in a brand new follow-on series, Katie in Fairyland, and her wedding invitation is on my desk! She's all grown up now, with a gorgeous child, a son, of her own. That beautiful girl who used to make me play teachers and pupils, and dress up, and with whom I once had a hysterical time playing with Weebles (the Virgin Mary in a speedboat, anyone?) is living on in a character, in her very own new series, where she gets to actually go up to Fairyland this time! Which, yep, means I get to go up to Fairyland too! Woohoooooooo! 

Last October I got the joy of getting into the world of The Fairy House again, as I worked out the synopses for the news series in the fabulous Coffee #1. No, I don't do my own illustration LOL!




The Fairy House series had one of those long, arduous and interesting publishing journeys over many years (I'm sure the authors reading this can relate!). Eight books out of the planned twelve were published in the UK - despite a strong start, the series faced tough competition and the last four books were never commissioned. I was really keen to finish Katie and the fairies' story, and was thrilled when the Japanese editions quietly came out year after year and did really well, all the way to me writing the last four books and getting to finish the series! And then... wonderful surprise and massive bonus... all the way to me getting to write a brand NEW series!

So I've written these characters now for twenty years - or they have written themselves via me, more like! Bluebell is as bossy and inventive as ever, Daisy as dreamy and kind, Rosehip as creative and gifted with animals, and Snowdrop, the little winter fairy, as keen a reader and writer as ever. 

As for me, I am much older, and hopefully a little bit wiser but still playful enough to be keen to welcome enchantment into my life when the fairies come knocking to tell another story. Katie has grown into a kind, beautiful, thoughtful woman and Mum. Publishing is full of twists and turns and surprises, and sometimes what seems to be the end of the road for a series is just a pause before a fabulous new chapter begins. So heres to all the stories that we set sail in, and that set sail in us! Enjoy every moment!

by Kelly McKain

www.kellymckain.co.uk

https://kellymckain.co.uk/authors-hour-of-power/

The first book in Kelly's new series The Feeling Good Club, a middle grade mindfulness series, is out on 4th August and available now to pre-order! 




Monday, 27 June 2022

How to Write as Little as Possible by Hazel Hitchins (with Claire Fayers)

 Recently, I attended a workshop on writing flash fiction run by my friend Hazel Hitchins, who writes ghost stories and has a talent for making your hair stand up in just two sentences.

 I’m used to spending 50,000+ words on a story so telling a story in 250 words was a challenge, and it was great fun to try. So much fun, in fact, that I asked Hazel to take over my blog post today and summarise her advice (in as few words as possible, of course.)

 Over to Hazel…


 It’s been called my “economy with language”, it’s been called “writing like I’m taxed on each word”, but either way it turns out that writing with brevity is my superpower. It’s not always a good thing - it made padding out the word count of various academic essays really quite tricky - but concise writing can be the perfect antidote to over-flowery prose that can detract from an otherwise cracking story (Mr. Dickens, Mr. Tolkien, I’m talking to you!).

What’s more, anyone can do it. All it takes is training, a strong constitution and a willingness to be brutal with the red pen. Don’t believe me? Try these tips and see how much you can streamline your work:

 

THE PARTY RULE: ARRIVE LATE, LEAVE EARLY

Consider how much detail you need to give to get the audience to the point where the action starts, for example: do they really need to know your character's full backstory? Is it relevant to the story you’re telling now? No? Take it out. Do they need paragraphs of explanatory text to explain the events leading up to the action? Not necessarily. In my short story “Scarecrow”, I start with the sentence:

 “In the days that followed the storm, the village licked its wounds.”

Job done. The reader is given a clear sense of the situation, and the setting, the atmosphere without the need for further exposition.

 

THE COMPROMISE RULE

You know how I just told you to cut the backstory? Here’s the kicker - you still need developed characters and it is still important that YOU know your characters’ backstory and motivation, regardless of how much makes it onto the page.

Going back to “The Scarecrow”, for example, I know the main character and his wife didn’t have much money and I know that their wedding was a simple affair. I translated this to:

“Him in his too-tight Sunday suit. Penny in a borrowed dress.”

 

 LANGUAGE PLEASE

Words are wonderful and we have so many of them at our disposal. My final tip is to choose your words carefully. You want to create a series of strong images in the mind of your reader that will linger long after the final page is turned. To this end, be precise. For example, does your reader see “flowers at a funeral” or “lilies on a grave”? Do they “walk carefully along the uneven path” or do they “pick their way across the cobbles”?

 This is also where your skills at “show, don’t tell” come into play. In the example above, I show the comparative poverty of the characters through their clothes. This creates a strong image for the reader and means I don’t have to waste words explaining it. And as an added bonus, it furthers character development - triple whammy.

 

FLASH FICTION EXERCISE 1

 Choose any 500 word scene from your work in progress and cut it down to 250 words. Think about the details you can lose without losing the sense of the story.

 

FLASH FICTION EXERCISE 2

 Write a 250 word story on one of the following:

  •  An Unusual Birthday
  • Midnight Train
  • Borrowed Shoes

 Now cut the story to 100 words.

  

So, there you have it. My brief guide to brevity.

And now it’s over to you. Be brave, uncap that red pen and have at it…all you’ve got to lose is words.

  

Hazel Hitchins lives in south Wales with her husband, two children and nefarious cat. When she’s not writing children’s fiction about angry fairies or haunted houses, she writes fiction (usually with a supernatural twist) for an older audience under the name of Siwan Freeman. You can find her on Twitter as @writerandcat1 or Facebook.com/writerandcat. Her book, The Missed Appointment (as Siwan Freeman), is available on Amazon.

 


Sunday, 26 June 2022

Sit still, and they will come to you... Sue Purkiss

 I live on a hill in Somerset - one of the Mendips - and often walk our dog there. I tend to amble along slowly, throwing the ball for Nessie (because after all, tht is the entire purpose of a walk), and gazing round, taking in what's going on - what's changed, what's appeared - and taking the occasional photograph.

Thistles, which bees and everything else seem to love.

At the moment, the limestone hill is covered in a thick profusion of all kinds of wild flowers. I used to think that spring, with its bluebells, cowslips, and early pink orchids, was the best time - and it is very special, coming as it does after a long, dull winter; but spring looks positively sparse compared with what's going on now. There are yellow rock roses, pink centaury, yellow and amber bird's foot trefoil, purple thistles, large white daisies, bright mauve thyme, and many others whose names I do not know - plus many different kinds of flowering grasses with their delicately etched heads that droop and sway in the breeze. Looking up from the ground, there are pink and white wild roses and blackberry blossoms.


And because there are all these flowers, there are also masses of insects and butterflies, particularly when it's sunny, as it has been over the past few days. I'm not at all good on the names of moths and butterflies. Last week, I noticed lots of little chocolate coloured butterflies darting around among the grasses, and wondered what they were. It was impossible to get a photo - very inconsiderately, they just wouldn't stay still, and I only had my phone. I do have a camera with a reasonable zoom, but it's so fiddly to focus that by the time I've sorted it out, even if a butterfly had settled, it would be long gone before I managed to get a picture.

More in hope than expectation, I put a picture of the flowers on Instagram and asked if anyone knew what my chocolate butterflies might be. There's someone on there called the Early Birder, who takes truly beautiful photographs and can identify just about anything - but even he said regretfully that without a picture, there was no chance.


Hm, I thought. Perhaps a video? The other day, I went up again. This time, the chocolate ones were joined by masses of medium sized white ones, with beautiful black marbled markings (am tentatively guessing Marbled Whites?) They were even worse for never settling. I have a video, but all it shows is a small white speck flitting happily through the grasses, moving further and further away.

As I walked on, I puzzled as to how I could get this elusive picture. And then I remembered something my husband had told me a few days before. He's a keen birdwatcher, and volnteers for the RSPB on a reserve on the Somerset Levels, where he's got to know a friend, John, who practically lives down there, is incredibly knowledgeable, and takes wonderful pictures of birds. John doesn't spend hours walking round the reserve. He stays put: he stays still. "Sit still," he says, "and they will come to you."

So I think that's what I need to do. Go up on the hill, sit still, wait for the butterflies to come - and just watch them.

And that thought led to another one. My writing - of books, I mean - has pretty much stalled at the moment. There are a number of reasons for this. I can't do very much about most of them, and I know all too well that there are many things which are infinitely more important than whether I write another book or not. But all the same, I hate it when I'm not writing. I try not to think about it too much, but it's an itch I can't scratch, a stone I keep stubbing my toe on.

There are all sorts of things you can do to try and kickstart your writing, I know that. People have written about them recently on this blog, and come up with some really useful strategies.

But maybe sometimes, you just have to sit still and be quiet. And hope the ideas will come to you, fluttering through the long grass, beautiful but elusive.

Well, it's a thought. I'll keep you posted.

NB - I have a blog, A Fool on a Hill, where I post book reviews and some of the occasional thoughts I get while ambling about on - yes - the hill. It would be lovely if you felt like popping in from time to time.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

My Big Book of TRANSPORT, written by Moira Butterfield and illustrated by Bryony Clarkson

 This wonderful handsome big hardback book is exactly what it says it is; a big book of transport. From trucks to tractors, cars to cranes, moving day to mending roads, and a good old 'Plug for the Planet' cheer for electric vehicles, here are thirty colourful, fun spreads full of interest.

My not quite two year old grandson loves this book, but I can imagine children well into primary school age getting absorbed, having fun, and learning lots. It even gives you a chance to drive a tractor!











And there's so much more ....! 

Monday, 20 June 2022

Non-fiction - A Dance or a Poem? by Joan Lennon

A while back, I posted a blog here on how writing non-fiction is a bit like a dance. But lately, as I get further on in my non-fiction writing career*, I've started to think it's maybe more like a poem. In a poem every word has to work hard. You have to pare everything down and say what you're trying to say in as tight, concise and vivid a way as you possibly can. There are boundaries. Constraints.

Wordsworth wrote a lot - there's no arguing about that - and not everything he wrote was perfection on a stick. But in amongst the pearls and the not-so-pearls is a poem about the constraints of writing a sonnet, which begins 'Nuns fret not':

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.


Ever since I first read that poem many, many decades ago, I have OFTEN muttered the words 'Nuns fret not' followed by 'I bet they bleep bleep bleep do!' I have never been a nun but, sonnets or not, writers ALWAYS work within constraints. Fret as much as you like, it's still going to be the case. Fiction, poetry, non-fiction - if my experience is anything to go on, we're unlikely to suffer from too much liberty. 

And I'm sure that's a good thing. 

Right?


Talking History: 150 Years of Speakers and Speeches written by Joan Haig and Joan Lennon, illustrated by Andre Ducci.



Or, if you prefer your non-fiction in Spanish, Hablemos de Historia: Discursos Que Cambiaron el Mundo, translated by Victoria Porro.



*The book I'm working on now is only the second children's non-fiction I've ever been involved with - does that count as a career? Am I speaking with admirable self-affirming positivity, or just jinxing myself? Time will tell ...

Joan Lennon website
Joan Lennon Instagram