Thursday, 29 July 2021

The Research Demon

I wish I liked research. 

I do try. I really do. One of the stories I’m working on is set in Texas in the Great Depression. And to help me with it, I’ve accumulated several tomes to provide me with background details about everything from the Dust Bowl to carnivals to riding the rails, as well as various collections of photographs taken in the 1930s.

But whenever I take them out, determined to get down to work and learn about the subject, it isn’t long before my eyes glaze over and I’m looking at the dust that’s accumulated on a knickknack beside my PC and deciding that that really has to be taken of. Right now!


 Worse still, if I do manage to concentrate for more than a few minutes and take notes about interesting details, I can guarantee that I’ll forget just about everything I’ve learned. Yes, it’ll all be there in the notes, and in the books I took the notes from, but whenever I open up either it’ll be as if I’d never seen them before. ‘That’s interesting,’ I’ll think to myself. And then promptly forget it all.


Or almost all. There will always be one little nugget, one strange details that sticks in my mind. And which when I put it into a story lights it up like a candle in a darkened cellar. To give just one example from my Texas research, I learned that people without refrigerators – let alone the electricity to power them – would dig a hole in the floor of their cabin and store food in jars in its cool, dry darkness. It’s a detail that all my friends who’ve read a draft remember. They say it really brought the time to life.

So I’ll keep on researching. I know it has benefits. But I do wish I liked it.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

A Sea Full of Selkies by Steve Gladwin and Co - "I Speak Animal" - with storyteller Sharon Jacksties.




I hope everyone has enjoyed this series of blogs on the theme of Selkies as much as I have, but I think I've saved the best until last. Sharon Jacksties is a Somerset based storyteller, pratitioner, teacher and writer, who - along with her partner Jem Dick I have known for a number of years, beginning on the famous Ty Newydd storytelling retreats and leading to a collaboration with them both on 'Spintales' double CD adaptation of John Matthews marvellous collection of stories 'The Song of Taliesin' (many copies of which are still available from my garage!). Sharon is an active community storyteller who also runs workshops and residentials. She has recently been made English Ambasssador for FEST, (the Federation of European Storytelling Organisations), where her role involves promoting oral storytelling and networking between organisations. Her books, 'Somerset Folk Tales', 'Somerset Folk Tales for Children' and 'Animal Tales of Britain and Ireland' are all published by 'The History Press'.

Sharon was an obvious person to talk to about selkies, but in a wide-ranging chat I was haunted by one particular anecdote of hers. Before this extract from the interview we were laughing about Sharon's love of David Thompson's famous book about seals, 'The People of the Sea, which Sharon thinks of as her bible

 'If you cut me', 'I would bleed that book.'

Then we moved on to her love of swimming and her need to find a place to swim wherever she could.

Jem and I used to go to Cornwall quite a lot. If I can continue to be swimming around in the water, I will. So there I was in Cornwall and Cornwall's very cold for me to swim in. I'm very spoilt. So it was really cold, and the day had turned and I thought I'm not going to swim. I'm not going to sunbathe. I'm going to get a soggy English day, get dressed and go back to the car.

And then - I don't know what drew my attention- I looked back and it wasn't even a bay. It was a gully. A gully on the beath that reached into the sea. There was a huge bull-seal, really massive, swimming with a man and they were playing together. And I thought, if he could do it, I could do it. It's like this thing of people swimming with dolphins. I'd love to swim with dolphins, but I have always had this thing about swimming with seals.

So, I tore my clothes off. Getting into the water was an ordeal. Because it was a gully and not an open beach. It was really horrible to get into the water and ten-foot deep, like slimy tentacles, you know. And that's normally the sort of thing I'd tolerate for about two and half seconds, but I thought it's now or never, Sharon. This is your chance. So, I did get in the water and the man came out. Jem, (Sharon's partner) - not a water person- was walking along the rocks towards the seal. I swam I would say maybe within fifteen feet of the seal and - we played together, and yet he would only let me get so close. 




And then Jem started whistling to the seal and the seal swam up to the rocks - and you have to remember these huge whiskers, because this was a huge male seal - quite walrus-like, and they started this conversation and the seal was sort of making these whistling sounds through his whiskers and Jem was whistling, I mean, he's a flautist. (NB I'm also a flautist, so I know the skill of both blowing deep into the flute, as well as across the top, which is more likely to be the sound that Jem was making!)  And I had this encounter and I played with the seal for a bit longer and eventually I had to get out because I was so cold. And I went to the car-park and in the car-park was the man who had been playing with him originally. And he was egg-shaped. He was like an egg-shaped person. He had these huge brown eyes and his hair was just plastered to his head. I mean, yours and mine have got texture. But his was just plastered to his head and feet were like in that shape on the ground, (Sharon indicates splayed feet).

I said "Are you the person who was swimming with the seal" and he sort of looked at me and said. "Oh, yes, I swim with him every day". And he told me how the seal is always there and -it's not a beach there, it's more like rocks - and he comes to swim with the seal every day. And then he kind of waddled into his car and I thought who was that. (Laughs)

How extraordinary.

I thought you'd like that.



So reflectively then, when you got back home and were able to look back on all that, what did you think was going on.

I think that he was like me. He has a thing about seals and the sea. I, I don't know what was going on for him?

That's what I was wondering. I mean what did he see when he saw you, for example?

You mean swimming in the sea.

No, I mean in the-park. When you saw him you thought of him as having that anthropomorphic shape. But what did he see when he saw you? Did he perhaps see you as kin of that type? It's an interesting thought.

Mm. I, I don't know! There was some quality. When he spoke! It seemed to come from a long way away. Not in the way it sounded, but from deep inside itself. It wasn't - There was something otherworldly about our conversation.

There's something that's quite eerie about it - hearing you tell it - and I'd imagine it would be something which would really stay with you.

Well it has! Because this was years ago, and at the time I thought this was so wonderful because this had happened in a car-park. I mean what could be more mundane than a car-park. That magic, that can survive in that environment.

There are so many aspects to that encounter and one of them is Jem the flute player. He's almost adding his own very distinctive non-swimmer but air thread to your encounter and he'd obviously at the same time communicating with the seal in a completely different way.

I'm so glad you said that, Steve, because we have all the elements there. I mean the air, and blowing through his whiskers and it was such a conversation. Creatures from outer space could have recognised that as a conversation. I was doing it physically through playing with that distance between us.

I tell you what I didn't do!  I was too scared to do. And this is again a little bit selkie-ish. I don't know whether you know this, but when you dive you can quite often swim more quickly underwater. I was very tempted to dive and swim up to him underwater. But I was too frightened to because I would be totally in his element. I didn't know how to react to that. I didn't know whether he would see that as a threat because, you know, I speak animal. I'm good with animals and I didn't know if that would become something else for him. I would have to have done it on his terms. I mean you would never put yourself in a position where a seal would feel threatened by you. I mean one bite and you're gone!

You've sort of brought all the elements together for me, because we've got the air, we've got the water, we've got the rocks for the earth. And the fire I think is the communication. The awen!

Thank you, Sharon. That is an amazing story.

My pleasure!

Everything else that Sharon and I talked about will be included in the book 'Land in Mind'. 

This is the end of this series of blogs on the figure of the selkie, and I'd like to thank Sharon, Sophia Carr-Gomm, Kath Langrish, and especially Kevin Crossley-Holland, without whom I would never have discovered the selkies!

In the next 'Land in Mind' interview on 8th August, I will be chatting with historian, expert in paganism and TV personality, (although he'd probably hate that!), Professor Ronald Hutton. See you then.

You can find all three of Sharon's books on amazon and the usual places and more details of the latest and a whole lot more on this website.


Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Promises, Promises by Claire Fayers

 Last week was hot. Not just normally hot but "throw all your clothes off, sit in a bath carved of pure ice and still feel yourself sweating" kind of hot.

I began to gaze longingly at the weather forecast, the little icons of storm clouds across the weekend. When the forecast was confirmed, I jumped for joy (and then had to sit down because I was sweating again.)

On Friday evening, I passed a pair of friendly ladies on a walk. "It will rain tonight," we all said, and smiled. I went to bed, looking forward to waking to the sound of thunder.

It didn't happen. 

I woke at 4am, feeling as if my bed was on oven and I was slowly roasting. By 6am, the sky was grey and obstinately dry. Furious was an understatement. 

It wasn't so much the ongoing heat, as the broken promise. The weather people had promised rain and they'd failed to deliver.

Promises are the currency of fiction. 

As writers, we're constantly making promises. Promises about the kind of book it is, a promise that it will be worth reading, that secrets will be revealed, the murderer will be found, the dragon will be slain, and, in the words of Oscar Wilde, the good will end happily and the bad unhappily for that is what fiction means. As readers, we are trained to spot these promises and, boy, do we get annoyed when the author fails to delivery.

A promise can be undermined, turned on its head, used to set an expectation in order to smash it with something far better, but once given, it cannot be ignored. Think of George R.R. Martin famously breaking the implied promise of fiction that the main character is not going to die before the book ends. Ironically, by breaking that promise, Martin established new ones - that nobody was safe and the body-count would be high.

Lloyd Alexander in The Iron Ring said 'Behind one truth there is always yet another'. That's true of promises in fiction too. If you break one, you better do it deliberately, and have another waiting to take its place.

I promised myself I'd keep this post short today because it's too hot to do much. So, before I retreat back to my bath of ice, I'm going to get out my new work in progress and ask myself: what promises am I making to the reader, and how do I intend keeping them?

Happy writing! (And please, somebody send rain!)

Claire Fayers writes fantasy adventures which promise magic, mystery and laughter.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Writing filmically, by Holly Race

When I'm not slaving over first drafts or edits, I can usually be found either watching TV or films, or reading scripts. About ten years ago I started working in film and TV development. Development encompasses a variety of jobs, but it’s essentially about finding new ideas and new writers, and working with writers from the inception of an idea right through pitching it to broadcasters or investors, then being a sounding board and editor when they’re writing the script.

In this other life as a script editor, I spend a lot of time thinking about how much crossover there is between the skills of writing novels and writing scripts (if I externalised my scream anytime someone says 'Oh, writing scripts is just about writing dialogue', I would have lost my voice by now).

One of the elements I think we can learn from as novel-writers is the way in which directors and cinematographers use camera angles. Here are a handful of angles commonly used on screen:

Close up!

- Close up & extreme close up – these give us a level of detail into a scene or a character’s expression.

- Montage – this is a sequence of shots that are usually made cohesive by music or a voiceover, and they can be used to give an impression of time passing or to show us what's happening at the same time in multiple settings.

Quick cuts
- Quick cuts – I've popped a shot from Mad Max: Fury Road here because that’s one film where the director uses lots of very fast cuts both to disorientate the audience and to create a frenetic pace. You can equally use the opposite – very long scenes or slow fades between shots to slow the pace and create a smoother storytelling experience.

Zooming in

- Zoom in/ out – This is the smooth transition from a longer shot to a close-up or vice versa. Depending on how quickly you do it, you can create different effects. In this classic shot from Jaws, we get a very fast zoom, which visualises the character’s sudden panic and realisation.

- Long shot (below) is fairly self-explanatory – it gives you an impression of a vast landscape and is used a lot in fantasy.

Long shot

From below
- Shots seen from above and below have very different effects. When the camera is placed above, it can be used to make the characters it looks down on appear small and vulnerable, or it can work in the same way that an omniscient narrator works in prose. When the camera is below, looking up, it makes the audience feel small or threatened.

- Point of view shot is where the audience sees ‘through’ a character’s eyes. It’s the most literal equivalent to a first-person present voice.

- Pan across/ up/ down – this is a great shot for injecting a feeling of movement and momentum. It can be used as a transition – sometimes you pan the camera up to the sky and when you pan it down the scenery has changed a little to denote the passing of time, for example. Sometimes it’s simply used to follow someone as they move.

As novelists, we have complete control of what we can show to our readers, and there can be a temptation to get a bit lost in describing everything that we see in our head. If you’ve spent a lot of time working out exactly where your characters are standing, exactly what movements they’re making at any given moment or the full layout of the room they’re in, it’s easy to want to convey all of that to your reader in minute detail. But it’s not necessarily serving the story.

Watch any scene from your favourite film or TV show, and note how sparing and deliberate the camera angles are in most of them. Can you imagine how those scenes would come across if the director panned right the way around the space, picking out absolutely every object the art department had put in there? If they had done close-up shots of every character’s blink or cough or hand movement? What do you think that would do to the momentum and pace? Would it make the story clearer? Would it give us any more insight into the characters? I think we can all agree that the answer is: no! It would be confusing and disorientating.

We can apply similar methods to our prose writing. Think very carefully about what you need to convey for the purposes of your story. To have a level of detail in your head about how a scene looks is great, but you don’t need to put all of that down on the page. As writers, we are the camera, and where we place it can make all the difference to the readers' enjoyment and comprehension of our stories.


Holly Race worked for many years as a script editor in film and television, before becoming a writer.

Her YA urban fantasies, Midnight's Twins and A Gathering Midnight, are published by Hot Key Books.

Saturday, 24 July 2021


Summer was never my favourite season when I was a kid. That was winter, with its Christmas celebrations, trips to the theatre and long baking sessions with my grandma. I also liked spring, the perfect time of year for nature rambles when I'd fill entire notebooks with notes about the local flora and fauna. 

But summer? In the med? For three endless months? Nope, not for me the blinding sunshine, the intense heat that melted the tarmac on the roads and, worst of all, the trauma of being forced to expose my wobbly tummy on the beach. 

The only good thing about summer as far as I was concerned was the time I could spend reading.  I had no access to a public library, so I begged, borrowed and, yes, stole books whenever I got the chance. The house next door to us was rented to British servicemen with large families. They always moved on to Cyprus or Hong Kong and their kids introduced me to British authors I might never had have discovered otherwise: Malcom Saville, Arthur Ransome, John Aiken, Ursula LeGuin. The list is endless.

There were some books I returned to every year and some of those have shaped the writer I became. Some of those stories I still treasure to this very day. Here' my top three.

TREASURE ISLAND, by R.L. Stevenson  was the perfect summer story. It featured pirates and ships. It told of the sea but not as a benign entity lapping gently against a sandy beach packed with idle holiday makers. In Stevenson's story it was a path to dangerous adventure, a link to an outside world I always dreamt of exploring. I fell in love with Long John Silver, who I much preferred to the pompous Dr. Livesey who reminded me of all the respectable men in our village. (PS. I didn't beg, steal or borrow my copy of this book. It was an end of year prize in Year 4.)

THE SILVER SWORD, by Ian Serallier. I borrowed this from my elder brother who was studying it at school. The version I read was part of the Windmill Classics series so it might have been abridged. Nevertheless, I loved travelling with Ruth, Edik and Bronia as they tried to meet up with their parents at the end of World War II. They befriend a mysterious street boy called Jan who you're never sure if he is on their side or not. He has a little wooden box in which he keeps a secret collection of objects. I still have a similar box, which I show to children during school visits. It's filled with little objects that feature in my own books.

TIME AND THE CONWAYS, by J.B. Priestley. This isn't strictly a book, and certainly not a children's story. It's one of Priestlye's Time Plays. I have no idea where I found a Cassell edition of the script but I devoured it in one afternoon. Most of the themes must have gone right over my head but I was gripped by the story of a snobbish family and what happens to them over the years.  What got me most of all was Priestley's manipulation of the time sequence to make his points. Act 1 takes place during a birthday party in 1919. We meed the young Conways and their friends and learn about their hopes for the future. Act 2 takes place twenty years later and we discover what became of the family. Act 3 goes back to the moment it left off in Act 1, forcing us to witness the Conway's actions in a completely different light.  The idea blew my mind.  It was perhaps one of the reading experiences that wanted me to write my own plays.

Saviour Pirotta's Wolfsong series is set in the Neolithic. The final book, The Wolf's Song comes out in January 2022. Follow him on twitter

Friday, 23 July 2021

Postcards from Devon (and Cornwall) - Sue Purkiss

 Not the usual bookish fare this month: I’m lucky enough to be on a family holiday in Devon in the hottest week of the year. (Phew, though!) Here are some pictures. 

The view from the house where we’re staying. Each evening a barn owl flies out of the building on the left, and does a sweep in front of the trees, pale and ghostly, its wings spread wide. We’ve all seen it at least once. 

This is the path down to the Strangles beach. It’s long and steep, but is illuminated by bright purple heather, golden coltsfoot and pink cuckoo pint. At the bottom is a beautiful cove, good for swimming and almost empty. Just a pity about the climb back up - especially in this heatwave. 

Instow, the Torridge estuary, and a great deal of sand. 

Two grandsons. 

And finally, Sandymouth, which has pretty much everything: miles of sand, a gentle aquamarine sea which advances slowly, and rock pools. 

Normal service will be resumed next month!

Thursday, 22 July 2021

A Match for a Mermaid, written by Eleanor Cullen and illustrated by David Roberts, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

I'm sure that many of you will be aware of the 'Stories To Make A Difference' project being run by POP UP Projects who do so much to bring books and authors and illustrators to children. This latest project can be read about here -

But I just want to show off something of the wonderful artwork by David Roberts in the book I opted to get when I contributed to their crowdfunding. It strikes me as a collector's item in the making! Beautiful, profound, fun, and SO stylish.

The rhyming text by Eleanor Cullen tells of a mermaid, now eighteen, needing to choose her king. So the mermen suitors come in all shapes and sizes and characters, but none are suitable ... because, she realises, she's actually already in love with the right person for her, and that person happens to be another mermaid. She and her new wife will rule as two queens.

I'm not going to say more, but just let you enjoy these images -

- and tell you that I will be looking out for the other nine Stories To Make A Difference.