Tuesday, 17 July 2018

A place to write - Tracy Darnton

A woman must have a room of her own far away from the washing pile if she is to write fiction

I have a space in our house to write. Yes, I have to share it (‘hotdesking’ in officespeak) so must keep it clear and tidy but it’s mostly mine. But a succession of neighbours have undertaken major building work over the last couple of years – the kind with workmen with loud radios and lots of tile-cutting. And it turns out I’m not very good with noise so the quest has been on to find somewhere QUIET to work.

A major factor has to be cost, as in preferably none whatsoever. But our local library is in a state of run-down flux as new remodelling plans are underway. There are few working areas and, especially at exam time, it’s hard to find a spare seat to work. I’ve tried cafés but I tend to drink way too much coffee and eat all the biscuits.

So I checked out a trendy, new co-working hub.  I nearly fell over in shock at the cost of a small glass box in a corridor with no window of its own. I could apparently work more cheaply at the colourful beanbag and break-out area with ambient music, explained the hipster very young salesperson. He could not compute that I wanted to be anti-social and definitely didn’t want to network. I need to actually get some work done. In any case, I was getting the distinct impression that middle-aged women in cardigans hanging round the place would ruin the look they were going for. But anyway I found the office atmosphere, however trendy, completely uninspiring.

Because here’s the thing: I like to be surrounded by old books. Yellowed pages, leather bound, wooden bookshelves, library ladders; the whole caboodle. That is my best environment. It’s where I worked best as a student, both as a teenager and as a much older MA student. I yearn for a writers’ club full of book-lined rooms and nooks and crannies in which to sit for the day. The mustier the better.

So last week I found it. Sadly it’s a bit of a commute: at least four hours by car. The fantastic Morrab Library is in the Morrab Gardens in Penzance. 


It’s a two-hundred year old independent library with over 60,000 books spread across charming rooms with a scattering of desks and tables. There are views of sub-tropical plants and trees and out to Mount’s Bay. You can make your own cups of tea, use the Wi-Fi and get lost in writing. Perfect. 

There are book events, lectures, scholars doing research, locals borrowing books. I even spotted YA (including a Sassie) on display in the children’s room amidst the library ladders. Basically the ambience of a club for readers and writers. Just what I’ve been looking for. So how much is it? £30 per year. Or £3 per day for non-member visitors like me. Every town should have one. But until mine does, I’m back to the noise-cancelling headphones.

Do you have a writers’ club in your area?

Tracy Darnton's The Truth About Lies has just been published by Stripes. Follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton 

Monday, 16 July 2018

Fictional Gardens and Gardeners, Claire Fayers

The July heatwave has seen me at my allotment more often than usual, engaged in a battle to keep everything alive. This, naturally, has made me think of the many similarities between gardening and writing. Plenty of people have written on this topic before – the metaphor of planting seeds, tending the ground and waiting anxiously for ideas to sprout. So I thought I’d do something a little different today and talk about my favourite gardens and gardeners.

Samwise Gamgee – The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

I like Sam. He’s quiet, kind, unassuming. So much so that he successfully eavesdrops as Gandalf tells Frodo about the rings of power, and later he sits in on the secret council meeting in Rivendell and no one notices he’s there until he starts shouting. It’s fitting that, at the end of the book, he is given the task of replanting the Shire. Gardens are often used to symbolise growth and healing and Samwise is eminently suited to bring about both.

(There are several garden-lovers in Lord of the Rings. You may remember that the warrior, Eowyn, talks about putting aside her shield and starting a herb garden - a symbol that she has become healed and whole, as if killing the Nazgul king was just a tomboy phase she needed to grow out of. I like to think that within a month of conforming to gender stereotypes she’s bored stiff and she and Faramir ride off to become freelance adventurers.)

Mary Lennox - The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

In nurturing a garden, you nurture yourself. Unloved Mary is as thorny and sour as a neglected plant, but when she discovers a hidden garden in her uncle’s manor home and decides to bring it back to life, she also finds friendship and a new family. The garden even restores the health of Mary’s cousin, Collin. I’ve found that gardening is more likely to cause a bad back than cure it, but I do find my time at the allotment quite therapeutic, especially when life is busy. I like to think that Mary and her friends set up their own garden supplies and chutney shop and lived happily ever after.

The Rose Garden – The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The Little Prince has a single rose on his tiny asteroid home and he believes her to be unique. When he arrives on Earth he visits a garden full of identical roses and he is devastated that his rose isn't special after all. But then he meets a fox who teaches him a valuable lesson about friendship. It’s the time he’s put into caring for his rose that has made her special. She is unique to him because he loves her.

The Hydra's Teeth – Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

This one was suggested by my husband, and demonstrates why I love him. Who else, when asked to suggest a fictional garden, would think of King Aeëtes sowing the Hydra’s teeth and skeletal warriors burst from the ground? It is gardening of a kind, I suppose.

I watched this film every time it was on when I was a child, captivated by the perilous quest, the interaction of gods and heroes, and, of course, the walking skeletons, which stayed in my imagination until they strolled into my latest book.

The Night Gardener – Jonathan Auxier 

Orphans, Molly and Kip, are hoping for work and a place to stay at the Windsor manor. Instead they find a mysterious tree that can grant all your wishes, in exchange for… No, best not think about what the tree wants. Or about the mysterious gardener who roams the estate at night.

This children’s book is brilliantly creepy and features a strong pair of siblings characters, an ancient curse and a wonderful Gothic setting. There’s also a strong theme of stories saving the day.

The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge

Creepy trees don’t get creepier than the eponymous Lie Tree in Frances Hardinge’s Costa-winning novel. You feed it with lies and its fruit shows you the truth. It might even be the original tree of the knowledge of good and evil from the book of Genesis. Or maybe it’s just a weird plant with hallucinogenic fruit. I am pleased to say I do not have any lie trees on my allotment.

It looks like the sunny weather may continue a while longer, so please do share your gardening tips and your favourite books with gardens.

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates series and Mirror Magic. Website www.clairefayers.com Twitter @clairefayers

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Shocking the imagination awake (and other inspirational sources) by Rowena House

Freshly back from a holiday in France and Spain, this week I finally nailed the opening scene of the work-in-progress – another historical coming-of-age quest for teens, this time set in WW2 France – and, to my surprise, a first full draft of the synopsis emerged out of nowhere, too.

Yay for holidays, then.

But research definitely played its part in these breakthroughs as well. Not only did our travels take us into the High Pyrenees, where the WIP will end, I’d also been reading a superb if deeply disturbing history of the war, Norman Davies’ Europe at War 1939-1945 No Simple Victory.

For The Goose Road, it was taking Wilfred Owen’s WW1 poems to Étaples that unlocked the story for me. This time, it seems to have been the physical experience of the wild, wide, hot Pyrenees, coupled with the shock of discovering what the Soviet archives exposed about the horrors of the Eastern Front – archives which weren’t available in the West when I studied WW2 at the LSE in the late 1970s.

So, as a fiction writer, maybe that’s the trick: prime the imagination with preliminary reading, then give it a double whammy of emotionally-charged experiences: one research of the body, and the other research of the mind.

The third main type of research that Robert McKee identifies in Story – research of memory – has also been critical for the opening scene of the WIP.

It starts in the Place des Vosges in Paris, just around the corner from where I lived as a foreign correspondent, and plays out in a café I used to know well.

To be honest, I’m putting off returning to the city to research details for this part of the story because I’m afraid that my beautiful memories of the Marais district will be overlaid by current, less romantic realities.

That’s always sad, of course, but for the story I fear it might be fatal. So for now, I’ll just keep reading and imagining Paris.

Last month, I talked here and at the Winchester Writers’ Festival about researching place for historical fiction, but ran out of time and space to share my checklist of the varied sources I’ve used for information and inspiration.

So for anyone who, like me, finds research one of the best bits, here it is:

Written: fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, diaries, letters, biographies, academic journals (maybe behind paywalls but perhaps published in a collection or conference publication) bibliographies (great pointers to all of the above!)

Online: forums, expert blogs & websites, museum websites (many share extraordinary details about their collections). Government online archives (the French ministry of defence digitized every regimental record they hold). If it’s a period covered by the National Curriculum, BBC revision notes, but don’t take them at face value. E.g. House of Commons website was more detailed about Votes for Women than BBC. Try different search engines, too. Google is commercial. Firefox might be better. I got different results from the same search in France than I did in the UK. Go figure.

Sound archives: BBC, British Library. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows a good international sound archive.

Images: Pathe news footage (film and stills free to view online & also available to purchase). Google images. Pinterest. Art galleries. Posters in museums/online. Clothing ads. Picture books. Portraits. History magazines. Old films (if you can find them. Come on, Netflix!!!)

Historic Maps: Available in some specialist museums & online. Lydia Syson’s brilliant list of her resources for Liberty’s Fire included a link to an amazing US university which had digitized a vast collection of historic maps. Do check out her website www.lydiasyson.com to find it.  

Museums. Both their public and private collections. Ask the archivist if they still have one. St. Bart’s, London, forensic science collection is fabulously gothic if you can get in. A bunch of us from the MA at Bath Spa were allowed to handle Roman coins from a hidden hoard uncovered in Bath, including one struck to commemorate Octavian’s naval victory over Mark Antony & Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC! These days you seem to be able to take photos of exhibits, too, but I always ask just in case.

Specialist libraries: Museum of Witchcraft, IWM. Universities. Regimental libraries. Some you have to ask to visit. They can only say no!

Local history societies/re-enactment societies: check out websites for talks, collections, photos. The local church in Frevent still had a drawing of the WW1 railway station for a talk long since given. It was the proof there’d been a station there in 1916 I couldn’t find anywhere else.

Best of all…

Visiting the place itself. Battlefields, houses, ancient settlements, old towns & villages, industrial heritage sites. Steam trains. HMS Victory. Venice. Hampton Court on a January Monday at 9 am; the market in Fes, Morocco... Honestly, I don’t think there’s any substitute for breathing in for one’s self the places where history was made.

Please add your thoughts below about other – or unusual – sources you’ve found helpful. New approaches are always brilliant to hear about.

www.rowenahouse.com @houserowena (Twitter) @rowenahouse (Instagram) Rowena House Author Page (Facebook)





Saturday, 14 July 2018

Some Phenomenal P's by Lynne Benton

Today we have reached authors whose names begin with P.  Of these I have to start with one of my favourites.

PHILIPPA PEARCE wrote several books for children, but her most famous, and arguably her best, has to be her fantasy time-slip novel Tom’s Midnight Garden.  This is the story of Tom, who, while staying with his uncle and aunt in their small modern flat with an ugly back yard, discovers that at midnight the yard becomes a beautiful garden where a little girl lives.  The little girl grows older each time he visits the garden, and he becomes fascinated by her life which is so much more interesting than his own.   The book won the 1958 Carnegie Medal as the year's outstanding children's book by a British subject.  She was a commended runner-up for the Medal a further four times.   She was born in Cambridgeshire, where many of her books are set, including Minnow on the Say, The Way to Sattin Shore and A Dog so Small.  She died in 2006.

K. M. PEYTON is a British author of books for children and young adults.  Born in 1929, she has written more than fifty novels including the much loved Flambards series of stories which spanned the period before and after the First World War, for which she won both the 1969 Carnegie Medal and the 1970 Guardian Children’s Fiction prize.  In 1979 the trilogy was adapted by Yorkshire Television as a 13-part TV series, Flambards.  She had a great love of horses, so wrote a great number of other pony books, which became very popular.  She was awarded the MBE in 2014 for services to children’s literature.

BEATRIX POTTER needs no introduction.  Her wonderful children’s books featuring animals, such as Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher, Mrs. Tiggywinkle etc. have delighted children for over a hundred years.  Born in 1866, she was educated by governesses, and grew up isolated from other children, but she had numerous pets which she closely observed and painted.  During holidays in Scotland and the Lake District she also developed a love of landscape, flora, and fauna, and painted these too. In her thirties she self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which became highly successful, so she then began to write and illustrate children’s books full-time.  Her 23 children’s books still sell throughout the world in many languages, and her stories have been retold in song, film, ballet and animation.  Her life too was depicted in the film Miss Potter.  She died in 1943 in her home in the Lake District, by which time she had become a prosperous farmer and prize-winning sheep breeder, and she left almost all her property to the National Trust.  She is credited with preserving much of the land that now constitutes the Lake District National Park.

The PULLEIN-THOMPSON sisters – JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON MBE (3 April 1924 – 19 June 2014), DIANA PULLEIN-THOMPSON (1 October 1925 – 21 October 2015), and CHRISTINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON (1 October 1925 – 2 December 2005) – were British writers, known mainly for their pony books, mostly fictional, aimed at children and mostly popular with girls. They started at a very young age, initially writing collectively, and they were at their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, but their popularity has endured. They also wrote a collective autobiography Fair Girls and Grey Horses.

TERRY PRATCHETT once said he wrote most of his books for an imaginary fourteen-year-old boy called Kevin.   Born in 1948, he was an English author of fantasy novels, especially comical works (which would appeal to said Kevin!)  His first novel, The Carpet People, was published in 1971, but he is best known for his Discworld series of 41 novels, the first of which, The Colour of Magic, was published in 1983, after which he wrote two books a year on average.  The final one, The Shepherd’s Crown, was published in August 2015, five months after his death.  In 1998 he was awarded an OBE, and in 2009 he became a Knight of the British Empire.

PHILIP PULLMAN is an English novelist, the author of several best-selling books, including the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials.  In 2008 The Times named Pullman one of the "50 greatest British writers since 1945".  In a 2004 poll for the BBC, he was named the eleventh most influential person in British culture.  Northern Lights, the first book of His Dark Materials trilogy, won the 1995 Carnegie Medal for the year's outstanding English-language children's book. For the 70th anniversary of the Medal in 2007 it won the public vote for the all-time "Carnegie of Carnegies".  It was adapted as a film under its US title, The Golden Compass.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL) and was awarded a CBE in 2004.

SUSAN PRICE was born in Dudley, West Midlands, and has written many books for children and young adults, from fantasy, science fiction and ghost stories to historical novels, books about animals and everyday life.  She is also fascinated by folklore, and in 1987 she won the Carnegie Medal for her first Ghost World novel, The Ghost Drum, an original fairy tale using elements from Russian history and Russian folklore.  Another of her books, The Sterkarm Handshake won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 1998.  In this book and its sequel, A Sterkarm Kiss (2003), time travel brings together a young anthropologist from 21st century Britain and a young warrior from 16th century Scotland.   Susan still lives and writes in the Black Country.

I could come up with no authors whose surnames begin with Q, so unless anyone can tell me of any I've unaccountably forgotten, next time I will go on to the Rs.

Friday, 13 July 2018

That Charney Magic by Sheena Wilkinson

For the last six years I have spent four days every July at the Scattered Authors summer retreat at lovely Charney Manor in Oxfordshire. Often, in the last three years, I have wanted to blog about Charney, how special it is and what an important role it plays in my year, but I haven’t felt able to, for one crucial reason – along with friend and fellow-writer Lee Weatherly, I organised Charney from 2015-2017. I think the three Charneys we organised were enjoyable, varied and helpful, but it wouldn’t have been at all the thing for me to have said so in public.

This year, however, for the first time since 2014, I was able to attend Charney as a ‘normal’ punter, and – yay! That means I get to tell you how wonderful it was. I’ve often blogged here about the need for writers to retreat, and I’m lucky enough to have several great places where I can just disappear into my work for a few days or longer. I know that I would mot manage my freelance life so successfully without those times: sometimes they have kept me from feeling completely overloaded. This seems to be as much the case now when I am ‘writing fulltime’*, as when I was a teacher desperate for (and better able to afford!) time away. 

What I love about Charney is that it can be what you want it to be. There are sessions all day – a great mix of sessions, some based on knowledge and insight sharing, others purely creative. The evenings are fun, with, this year, a Desert Island Books session, a comedy workshop, and a fiendish quiz. And of course much chat.
The Solar doesn't look this quiet when its filled with Scattered Authors...

You don’t have to go to anything; some people do try to attend all the sessions, while others like to hide and write – it’s up to you; anything goes. Most people love Charney for the companionship of other writers in what can be a lonely business, and for me, often feeling a bit out of the loop over on Northern Ireland, that is a big part of its appeal. Some of my most supportive writer friends were met at Charney, and every year it attracts new people, which means new friends. It’s open to all Scattered Authors, and what I especially love is that it attracts people at very different stages of their careers, from shiny debuts to doyennes with a hundred books to their credit. 

This year, I’d had a very busy spring and early summer, and had struggled to make meaningful progress with my work-in-progress, an adult novel. I was very keen to get some sort of a rough draft bashed out by the end of July, because of beginning a commissioned teen historical novel in August, but this seemed less and less possible. But this year’s Charney came straight after three days at Gladstone’s Library, three days when it was so hot I couldn’t bear to go outdoors until after eight o’clock at night, which meant I wrote 4,500 words a day. (Something I have never managed before or since!) I was, at last, feeling so immersed in the story that I almost begrudged the array of fun-sounding sessions at Charney. Flash fiction? Iphone photography? Treasure hunt? Creative collage? All I wanted was words on the screen!

But it would be churlish, I thought, not to turn up at these sessions which had been so thoughtfully organised. Maybe a little flash fiction (with Jo Cotterill) would set me up for the day and get me in training for my ‘real’ writing. What happened was that Jo’s first prompt sent me straight into my story. I didn’t manage any flash fiction, but by eleven o’clock on the first morning I had several scenes that I’ve been able to use, and some insights into characters and plot that I wouldn’t have managed if I’d been sitting trying to get them.

That afternoon, fired with enthusiasm, I had my first experience of Jen Alexander’s famous creative collage workshop. I had thought it would be fun, because tearing and sticking and making pretty pictures is fun; what I hadn’t imagined was that the activity would solve a central story issue and give me a strong recurring leitmotif. 

My collage 

These two workshops, both fabulously enjoyable in their own right, each gave me gifts for my work in progress, gifts I didn’t know I needed, but that I made myself open to receive. That’s the magic of Charney. That’s why, however busy I am, I’ll always makes time for those four precious days in early July. And why, in the midst of worrying about word counts and targets, I’ll remember to play. 

Thanks so much to Jo Cotterill, Ruth Hatfield, John Dickinson and Kit Berry for organising such a wonderful Charney. And to any Scattered Author out there who hasn't yet been touched by the Charney magic -- do join us next year! 

* haha.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Ol’ Green Eyes is Back – by Ruth Hatfield

A bit of a tangent this month, but as ever I’ve spent more time mopping up earwax than sitting at my desk in the past few weeks. I’ve also been trying to explain to a child why it’s not good to get into the habit of being mean about other people, even if it’s because you’re worried about them. I dredged up that Roald Dahl line from The Twits: “If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.”

But while I was explaining what this meant, I thought about the dilemma of writers (to be fair this also applies to pretty much anyone in an insecure and solitary profession these days). We go around making contact with other writers and then keeping up with each other’s news on various forms of social media. Often a Twitter feed or a Facebook wall can seem like a string of everyone else’s successes and prizes. Rationally, we know it isn’t really so for all the other writers out there, but that doesn’t really matter. Feelings of jealousy and insecurity can creep in all the same. And that can lead to all sorts of things – trouble and fear in our own writing, ill-wishes towards people we hardly know, a tendency to assume that success in books is sometimes ‘bought’ by publishers with bigger marketing budgets than our own.

What do these feelings do to us and our work? Is it good to admit our jealousy to ourselves, or even to others? We’re authors, we’re supposed know about suffering – shouldn’t we just tell ourselves to be glad for other people?

Actually I think the pressure on writers to be generous and altruistic human beings is pretty unbearable, sometimes. I’m very much of the opinion that there’s no point in pretending we don’t feel the things we do – that way madness and a good deal of self-loathing lies.

But of course, it’s not healthy to allow bitterness to eat you up, particularly when you’re trying to write children’s books. Or to let feelings of insecurity cripple you. And while feeling insecure about the achievements of distant strangers who you might have met once at a conference might be allowed, it’s important to be able to celebrate the successes of friends with genuine joy in your heart – otherwise you really would turn into Dahl’s ugly person.

I think for me, possibly, the key is making a distinction between some people’s successes and some other people’s successes – I do rejoice in the wonderful books written by people I know and like, and I find it’s quite easy to feel good about the nice things that happen to them, as long as I allow myself to accept that I don’t have to feel happy when someone I maybe have met once, but might not really know, wins another prize or publishes another novel and it rattles through all my social media. In fact, in those cases, I’m positively allowed to have malevolent thoughts, and that doesn’t make me a bad person, just a human being.

I’m not sure how to explain that to a two-year-old who’s chanting at strangers in the street, however. But I’d be interested in others’ thoughts on this – do you allow annoyance to flow through you like a river? Or do you take yourselves firmly in hand and try to see the good in everybody’s work?

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Epic Fails, by Kelly McCaughrain

An English teacher once described me as ‘a mild-mannered megalomaniac’. I am the least likely Bond villain ever but I could see his point. I sat meekly at the back of each class never opening my mouth but when exam time came around I was fully ready to slash and burn anyone who might get a higher grade than me. (This was only in English, thankfully. I’d have been pretty depressed if I’d given a toss about any other subject.)

I’ve always known that when it comes to something I care about, I’m a perfectionist overachiever, and when it’s something I don’t, I disengage completely. But it never occurred to me that this might be linked to my gender until I watched this TED talk. And now it's got me thinking about my characters.

It’s very interesting and you should give it a listen, but the basic summary is that we teach girls to be perfect, and boys to be brave. In studies, girls and boys of equal ability are given maths tests etc. When the work gets hard the girls give up way before the boys, because they think if they can’t ace it, there’s no point trying. 

Even when the girls are of higher ability than the boys, they get poorer results because they quit while the boys struggle on. They reckon this is because girls are consistently rewarded for getting things right and discouraged from doing anything risky or where they might fail or embarrass themselves, while boys are rewarded for having a go and taking risks. With the end result that boys achieve more. 

It’s not just school either, we all know that women won’t even apply for jobs unless they meet 100% of the criteria, while men will happily blag their way into interviews with only 60%. 

This totally resonates with me. I don’t like the idea of failure, to the extent that I never told anyone I was writing a book, in case it failed. I don’t tell people when I’m struggling. I like to present my successes as a fait accompli and hide my failures in a psychological bottom drawer filled with half-novels, poems, dead plants, aborted knitting and other things no one ever knew existed. My husband just designed and built the most beautiful wooden greenhouse, having absolutely no experience of building at all (he watched a lot of YouTube videos), while I am reluctant to buy a pot plant before researching its ideal soil conditions in case I kill it.

It's like this, only better

Possibly this is just me, but if it is a gender thing, then what are the implications for our female characters?

The feisty, kick-ass heroine is everywhere these days, which is great. We have princesses rescuing princes all over the place. We have girls taking down dictators and becoming royal assassins and refusing to get married (Side note: isn’t it interesting that when you Google 'Feisty female characters in YA' you get 90% fantasy titles? Like they have to have super/unlikely powers and live in a dystopia to be strong? Discuss.) 

And all that is fantastic. Love it.


OK, they take a lot of risks, but did we ever really think Katniss Everdene was going to fall on her ass? They all succeed in the end, because that’s what happens in a children’s book. And I don’t see any way round that really. But then what are we saying? You have to have mad skills with a bow before you even start? You have to be one of those kick-ass, intense, lone-wolf, independent types or there’s just no point? (and btw, the reason they’re all lone-wolfs is that they couldn’t possibly be seen to have friendships with fluffy normal girls, but you can’t have two kick-ass girls in one story (that would be feminism gone mad), and as for boys, they just hover around the edges being handsome while the girl glares at them like try to take my lone-wolf independence and I will cut you, until called upon for kissing duty at the end).

This is probably why I don’t read a lot of fantasy. (And I’m fully aware that I’m probably being unfair to fantasy because I don’t read a lot of it, and actually I did really like The Hunger Games.)

Sorry, but I like realism. I like fluffy, ditsy, scatter-brained people and I like comedy because it’s more realistic. Life is hilarious (as long as it's happening to someone else). Fantasy doesn’t really do comedy because fantasy isn’t realistic. Fantasy books are about the real world in that they tend to take on big issues like fascism and racism and feminism and other isms. But the characters aren’t real. They’re idealised versions of the people we’d like to think we'd be if fascism came knocking on our doors. Great, but what use is that when you literally cannot conceive of a life beyond failing your GCSEs?

Yeah, we can all relate to this

I’d just like to see more wipe outs, more fails, less following your dream and more hideous embarrassment along the way. You don’t really get hideous embarrassment in fantasy either. 

Something I liked about Nat Luurtsema’s Lou out of Water was that it shows what happens when your dream doesn’t come true. In the opening pages Lou’s dreams of being an Olympic swimmer are dashed. And I spent the next few chapters expecting that by the end she’d have found a way to get into that swimming school but guess what? She doesn’t. She finds some other fun stuff to do instead. Which I thought was a hugely healthy message and very refreshing.

Possibly as escapism from my own fear of failure, I’ve always liked characters who aren’t naturally talented or super skilled but who succeed in their own weird way. Anne of Green Gables is probably the archetype of this character in kids lit and I loved those books as a child. I wonder if she was so popular because it was unusual to see a girl make such a mess of everything. It was fine for Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to go around getting into scrapes but a girl?

This I can relate to

Having strong female characters is all very well, but if all they are is strong, then they’re not realistic. I think a better reaction against the truly awful, helpless Mary Sues of the past is not ‘strong’ female characters, but realistic female characters. If they’re not as flawed as the men then they’re not really helping. Even in the grittiest realism for adults, with strong female leads, they’re less likely to have messy backgrounds, drinking problems, crap parenting skills, a weight issue, a bad attitude etc. They’re more likely to be moral compasses and they’re too busy fighting the patriarchy to have flaws. They’re very strong, yes, but they’re not very real. I didn’t watch The Bridge but people seemed to think it was ground breaking to have a female lead who was rude to people and had no social or relationship skills. Like um… nearly every hardboiled male detective ever.

I think the proof of this is in our most beloved female characters. Those Mary Sues don’t survive but we all still love the selfish, conniving Scarlet O’Hara, the judgemental and snarky Lizzie Bennet, the impetuous and hopeless Jo March, the downright mean Little My. The ones who make a mess of everything.

The original Mean Girl

I guess I’m thinking about all this because my current WIP features yet another hopeless case. But she’s a girl this time and I’m thinking a lot about the implications of her failing. Is it OK for her to fail? Is it OK for her to give up? Is it OK for her male friend to bail her out? These questions seem much more loaded than they would be if she was a boy. It feels like a betrayal of women to have your female character fail, give her a pat on the head and say, ‘at least you tried.’ But if girls are actively avoiding trying things they might fail at, maybe that’s a more important message than we realise.

And actually, what I love about her is the fact that she does try, when lesser mortals might baulk. She’s like walking Samuel Beckett merchandise. And you can’t get more literary than that.

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at weewideworld.blogspot.co.uk