Imagination

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2016-04-06.] One of the most common questions that I’m asked about my writing is “Where do you get your imagination from?” I always find this difficult to answer as it sounds like asking “How do you daydream?” My question is “How do you stop daydreaming?” as this can be a major issue for me. Ooh, look at that smudge. It’s shaped a bit like a dragon. Hmm, dragons… Sorry, what were we talking about?

Imagination is shaped by our senses. Since pre-history, our ancestors have observed the world, and these observations spark ideas that can lead to stories (or scientific discoveries). For some reason, I seem to have a blind spot for things that most people notice, such as a friend’s new clothes or haircut (the most notable occasion being when I walked right past a bucket full of roses that my husband had bought for our first wedding anniversary — I’ll never live that one down¹) but little things of no consequence can trigger musings that can follow such a labyrinthine path that I forget the original observation that set off my thoughts. The same observation can lead to different ideas for different people. For example, if I see a crow pecking at roadkill it leads to a children’s story about road safety and stranger-danger (The Foolish Hedgehog), but for someone else it might lead to a horror story.

When I was a child, there was plenty to stimulate my imagination, some of which I’ve already mentioned. At this point I’m going to shamelessly plug my brother’s book Into the Lion’s Den: A Biographical History of the Talbots of Malahide, which was reviewed by the Irish Independent because imagination can thrive when the family grapevine includes rumours of alleged spies and, centuries earlier, a rather blatant breach of sacred hospitality involving murder at breakfast. Most of the holidays that I can remember involved visiting relatives which, to me, was far more interesting than theme parks or hot, sandy beaches, as some of them had big, old houses. One that particularly stands out in my mind is the place where one of my father’s aunts used to live. (It was certainly big from the point of view of a six year old who lived in a small terraced house.) My two older brothers and I slept in attic rooms when we visited (my next sibling down was only a baby at the time) with sloping ceilings and dark corners. The views consisted of a kitchen garden in the rear with a scarecrow and a field in the front with a scarecrow. I’m not sure how the crows felt about them, but they certainly spooked me. On top of the hill beyond the field was a castle which, naturally, my brothers informed me was haunted. It is, after all, obligatory that older children tell the younger ones ghost stories.

When I moved up from primary school to a nearby local private school (where I was a day-girl) I was told by older girls about the phantom goalie who apparently haunted one of the lacrosse goalposts. It’s easy enough to dismiss such stories as a wind-up if you’re safely inside a populated building, but as a first former² whose classroom is in a hut on the boarder of said lacrosse pitch, it certainly stimulates the imagination. Especially in the winter during prep, which entailed walking from the main building after tea, down an unlit path, past the tennis courts, open-air swimming pool, high hedge and the pavilion that smelt of muddy boots and linseed oil, and then sitting in silence doing homework from 4:30 to 6pm. (First years got off earlier at 6pm. The older girls didn’t finish until 6:20pm.) If memory serves me well, there were only eleven of us in the class back then. It was even more entertaining when gales rattled the hut or when the foghorn was in action.

Everything around us can trigger ideas, if we are receptive to them. Sometimes I can definitively say what inspired a particular part of my stories (and close family or friends may be able to spot them, especially in my novel The Private Enemy), but sometimes I can’t pinpoint the source. The essence of long-forgotten memories can seep through the layers of detritus that have accumulated over the years, merge with other memories and blend into the imagination, inspiring stories, characters and places. Memories can be unreliable. Something that seemed large and spooky as a child, can turn out to be small and ordinary as an adult, but the distorted memory is more interesting to the story-teller. Look at the world, for a moment, from the eyes of a child and forget mundane reasoning.

However, I think that most of all, the imagination is fed by stories (regardless of whether they are novels, plays, films or relatives spinning a yarn) because most of the things I see that set me daydreaming are things that remind me of something I’ve read or heard or watched. Stories are built on imagination, but they also feed the imagination. If, after you put down a book, you find yourself thinking about the characters and the world they inhabit, then don’t ask me where I got my imagination from, because you’ve got one as well.

Daydreaming is easy. The hard part is converting those thoughts into words that can hook readers and, in turn, stimulate their imagination.


¹In all fairness, he had cunningly hidden them behind a bicycle as he’d bought them the day before. My absent-mindedness at least meant that the surprise wasn’t spoilt.

²First form in secondary school is now Year 7 these days.

The Hippochette

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2016-03-10.] A couple of months ago [early 2016] my husband presented me with this beautiful musical instrument for our nineteenth wedding anniversary. It’s a pochette or pocket violin. He does wood carving and makes musical instruments as a hobby, and this took him four years to make. It was intended for an earlier anniversary, but he wanted it to be a surprise. Since I work from home, this made it rather tricky for him, so he was mostly restricted to working on it during wood-carving and musical-instrument-making lessons. He was also able to work on it at home during school half-terms and holidays when I take our son off on the train to visit relatives who all live too far away to meet more frequently.

For those of you who are wondering, a pocket violin was exactly as described: a violin short and narrow enough to fit into the deep coat pocket of the dancing masters who used them as accompaniment for their pupils. This one is based on the plans of Owen Morse-Brown but adapted to make it the length of a normal violin and the scroll replaced with a hippo’s head. Why a hippo? (I’m frequently asked.) There was once a trend for replacing scrolls with something fancy, such as a dragon’s head or a horse’s head, so why not a cute cheerful hippo? If you can’t guess, this is why my husband named this pochette “hippochette”.

Image of hippo headpiece (pegbox)

I used to play the violin a long time ago. I still have my violin, but the problem with not practising daily is that your playing starts to deteriorate. Whilst a well-played violin can sound great, a poorly-played violin can grate the nerves and drive people mad. I’m quite conscious of this, and it puts me off practising because I know I can’t play as well as I used to. The hippochette was my husband’s solution to the problem. It’s much quieter than a normal violin because the sound box is narrower and it doesn’t have any metal strings. It’s also too beautiful an instrument for me to ignore, which also encourages me to practice.

It’s actually quite a bit harder to play than a regular violin. I’ve made a shoulder pad from some scrap material, but the bridge is a lot shallower, which means that I need to hold the bow at just the right angle. My fingers are a lot stiffer than they used to be, but at least they seem to remember where they’re supposed to go.

Image of tailpiece

The interlocking inlaid hearts on the tail piece are holly. (If you strip off the outer green bark, holly is a white wood that’s often used as a substitute for ivory.) Even if I never become proficient, it’s an amazing work of art and a reminder of a four-year labour of love. I’m not usually one for excessive sentiment, but this is an exception.

Incidentally, I’m often asked what I got him in return. People seem quite disappointed when I tell them his present from me was a book. The hippochette was a surprise. I got him what we usually get each other. The closest I can do in return is give him one of my books, but he’s already got them, and they don’t really compare with something so gob-smackingly awesome.

Update 2019-10-22: The hippochette now has a case (made by Kingham) and a bow (made by David van Edwards).

Image of hippochette and its bow in a case lined with dark velvet.

For those who have asked what the hippochette sounds like, there are some videos available.

Beginnings

[Previously published on Facebook 2015-12-14.] It was a dark and stormy night, and the hailstones came down like a fistful of clichés flung by a thunder-god. Yes, dear writer, the start of a novel is a perilous place. What path will you take? Choose wisely or suffer the dread curse from the reader. Will you take the scenic route that meanders like a lazy river through the lowland plains, the sunlight glinting off its ripples? The narrator, a tour guide. On your left, there’s the protagonist. Do you see that baggage she’s carrying? All her emotional and relationship issues and back story will be explained in full detail later, but, since we have all the time in the world and a patient reader, let’s have a summary now. Over there on your right, there’s the protagonist’s best friend. At various times, the friend will listen to an account of the plot so far and ponder over possible actions. Alas, this isn’t a read-your-own-adventure, and the reader won’t be able to select the quick option to terminate the story. Yonder, is the ditzy character with a goldfish-memory and head stuck so firmly in the clouds that all the other characters have to say, “Honestly, don’t you know that! Everyone knows that 〈insert info dump〉.” Ahead, we have the 〈insert minority group〉 characters, who will immediately use stock phrases and actions so that the reader can easily identify them as 〈insert minority group〉 and be reassured straight away that this is an inclusive novel, without the awful suspense of having to get to know them as the story progresses.

But what of the other route? The short cut that takes the readers by the scruff of the neck and throws them into the thick of it (in medias res, if you prefer the technical term). Let the reader find out for themselves what the characters are like by seeing how they deal with events. Add a dash of detail that sparks that amazing — and often forgotten gift — the reader’s imagination. Writing a murder mystery? Before the end of the first chapter I want to find either a corpse or someone whose enemy count is incrementing faster than a travelling salesman’s odometer.

Sadly, it’s easier to parody bad prose than it is to write a cracking great first sentence. I’m still searching for that elusive gem to adorn my work in progress. I hope that one day I’ll find it.

Modern Communication

[Previously posted on Facebook 2015-06-07.] During February 2013, thieves stole the phone cables that ran underground between Saxlingham Nethergate and Hempnall. This left the village without landline or Internet for about a week. We have again been without landline and Internet for nearly two weeks [June 2015], but this time it was due to a fault somewhere on the network. Thankfully it finally seems to have been fixed. I sometimes read cries of “we’re in the twenty-first century!” in a variety of contexts from responses to requests for plain text alternatives to HTML through to creative writing guides that ridicule the idea of any character in a modern novel being without some form of modern communication.

So what’s the problem? Doesn’t everyone have a mobile phone these days? Well, yes, most of us do, but the problem with mobile phones is that they require a signal to operate and that signal is unfortunately mostly absent in our village. I can sometimes get one bar from our upstairs windows. There’s sometimes a blip of reception around three o’clock in the morning and any text messages sent to me that day will finally reach my phone and alert me of their arrival. I’m told that it’s sometimes possible to get a signal from the village hall car park. I expect it might be possible to get reception from the top of the church tower, although I don’t know of anyone who’s tried and I don’t fancy volunteering. One of our neighbours apparently has one of those gadgets that can boost the signal to his mobile phone, but it requires the phone cable to be present and operational.

This means that if we lose the landline, we’re without any practical form of electronic communication. How much of a problem is this in our technologically advanced twenty-first century? For me it means I have to close my on-line book store, because without an Internet [connection] I can’t find out when a customer has placed an order and so I can’t process it. (Which means driving somewhere where I can access the Internet in order to close the store.) For others, it means they can’t do any on-line shopping. We have no shops in the village. Anyone who doesn’t have a car is reliant on the two-hourly bus service to do their shopping if they can’t get it delivered. But that’s a mere inconvenience compared to other problems.

We share a GP with Newton Flotman, but the Saxlingham Nethergate surgery closed down a few years ago, so we now either have to travel to the Newton Flotman surgery or register with a surgery in another village further away. When we used to have a surgery, the non-housebound with repeat prescriptions could walk to it when they needed to request new medication. Now you either have to drive to the surgery or phone. There’s no scheduled bus service that goes between Saxlingham Nethergate and Newton Flotman. You can, however, use the dial-a-ride Borderhoppa to transport you. You might perhaps be able to guess from the name how you go about booking it. The energetic amongst you might suggest walking. It’s about a mile and a half along a country lane with blind corners and little to no verges and no pavement until you reached the A140. It’s mostly national speed limit along that lane. If you like the adrenalin rush of extreme sports, you might enjoy walking along it. What type of people mostly need the surgery? The infirm, the sick, pregnant women who need regular check-ups, babies who need regular check-ups. But if they don’t have a car, maybe they can find a volunteer in the village to take them. Unfortunately for the housebound, their only method of asking their neighbours for help may be the telephone.

The biggest problem is what happens if there’s an emergency? How do we dial 999 without a working telephone? The village has a defibrillator but it requires a phone call to the ambulance service to access it. What happens if someone has a stroke, a heart attack, falls off a ladder, etc? We have to run around the village waving our mobile phones in the air or jump in the car and drive until we can find a signal. The ambulance service usually requires you to be near the patient so they can give advice on immediate aid or ask questions about the patient’s state. This can’t be done if you’re dangling out of an upstairs window or have had to drive several miles away.

We’re only eight miles from Norwich. We’re not off the map where there be dragons (or perhaps we are, sat navs certainly can’t seem to find us) but sometimes we’re without phones and Internet, and sometimes we’re without electricity. Forty or fifty years ago, villages didn’t have life-saving devices like defibrillators, but villagers generally knew who to run to in the event of an accident. Back then a village would typically have had a doctor or a nurse or a constable, and there would’ve been a general store where people could buy groceries. We do have some backup plans. We have a storm kettle and one of our wood burners has a flat top on which we were able to heat a pan of beans during a power cut. Power cuts seemed a fact of life in my childhood growing up in a seaside town during the seventies. The problem with the twenty-first century is that when technology fails we can be in a worse state than we might’ve been in when that technology didn’t exist or only existed in a primitive state.

And that, of course, is the basis of post-apocalyptic dystopian stories.

First Drafts

[Previously published on Facebook 2015-05-21.] I prefer writing first drafts (or complete rewrites) using a pen. There are too many distractions on the computer: email notifications, the spell checker, hitting the wrong key on the keyboard (an increasing issue over recent years). I find writing the first draft hard. It’s easier to edit it later once the ideas are on the page. The characters, places and situations develop in my mind, frothing, fermenting and expanding until they fill up inside my head and it seems like there’s no room for anything else. Writing these ideas down is like a mental trepanning. It’s tough trying to drill through but once the flow starts it builds up momentum and becomes faster. Interruptions break that flow and trip the momentum. So I switch off the computer, leave the answerphone on, select an album on my mp3 player and wedge in the ear plugs.

My handwriting is verging on illegible to most people. In my haste to write down the ideas before they evaporate I miss out small words, drop syllables, or spell phonetically, but it’s enough to trap the ideas on the page before they vanish, and I can later type them up on the computer. Once the first draft is done, then the editing will smooth out the rough edges.

So if I don’t seem to be around online or I’m not answering the phone, don’t take it personally. I’m just writing or thinking. It’s not you I’m avoiding, it’s the Person from Porlock.

Exploring

[Previously published on Facebook 2015-09-25.] Trundling along an unknown narrow country lane where you don’t know what’s round the next corner isn’t being lost: it’s exploring. I’ve been doing some exploring this week. I discovered a level crossing in the middle of nowhere where I had to wait for two intercity trains to pass (which was jolly exciting). I stopped to ask a dog walker for directions only to recognise him as a parent of kids who used to go to my son’s primary school way back when. I came across a bus stop like the Foxhole one that has a “no services currently operate in this area” sign. (This has added to my growing suspicion that one of Norfolk’s quaint and endearing peculiarities is to put up bus stop signs in lanes where you wouldn’t possibly expect a bus to fit and then announce that no buses stop there.) A pessimist might claim that my quest was a failure, since I didn’t actually find what I was looking for, but my knowledge of the area around Tasburgh, Hapton, Flordon and Newton Flotman has been enhanced and the scenery was lovely.

Plural Pronouns

[Originally published on Facebook 2015-09-12.] When I was a child I was taught that when conversing in French with any of my adult Belgian relatives I had to use the plural form “vous” when addressing them (rather than the singular “tu”) since the plural form has to be used in formal contexts. Not many people realise this, but English had the same rule. The second person singular is “thou” and the plural is “you”. The plural form was used in formal contexts. Prayer books used the informal singular form to denote the closeness encouraged by instructions such as “call God Father” and the symbolic tearing of the temple veil.

Living languages have an interesting fluidity. They evolve with the people who continually use them. The English language is often criticised for its many exceptions to rules. Some of this is caused by the blending of the different languages that have contributed to its evolution, but some of it comes from so many people breaking a rule that the broken rule becomes standard. (How many use “awful” to mean “full of awe”?) Over time, people began to use the formal “you” in increasingly informal contexts to the point where “thou” was considered old-fashioned. Additionally, its retention in prayer books and the change in attitudes towards religion made “thou” seem stuffy and formal.

This use of the plural form in singular contexts to indicate formality can also be seen in the so-called “royal we”. When the Queen addresses the nation, she refers to herself in a formal context using the plural “we”. Over the past decade or so, more and more non-fiction writers are using the plural third person “they” in a singular context. This is done to avoid the reference to gender and has attracted some criticism from people who feel it’s breaking the language rules, but it actually follows the old linguistic tradition of using the plural instead of the singular in a formal context. So, if you abhor the use of “they” in a singular context, perhaps thou shouldst consider thy use of “you” when addressing only one individual.

World Book Day 2016

[Originally posted on Goodreads on 2016-03-03 to coincide with World Book Day.]

World Book Day has come around again and, as always, it’s got me wondering what’s my all-time favourite book. My tastes have changed over the years. Once I might’ve said Great Expectations, but I went off Dickens in my twenties. Then I probably would’ve said Pride and Prejudice, but I think I prefer Northanger Abbey now. Pride and Prejudice is fun, but the plot remains firmly rooted in that era. These days, Lizzie Bennett would likely be a high-flying career woman. Lydia Bennett might still go off the rails, but it’s less likely that her actions would prove quite so catastrophic to the rest of her family. Northanger Abbey, on the other hand, moves with the times. John Thorpe would now be a bore droning on about his car and his sister Isabella would be posting selfies and gossiping on social media. Northanger Abbey (if it hasn’t been converted into a hotel or housing estate) would still be an old building that’s been thoroughly modernised.

On the other hand, my favourite novel might actually be The Big Sleep. Raymond Chandler’s wise-cracking Philip Marlowe lifts the story and propels it along. Or is it, perhaps, Ice Station Zebra that tops my list? Forget the film, the novel is fast-paced with an unreliable narrator:

“This time you believe my story?”

“This time I believe your story.”

I was pleased about that, I almost believed it myself.

The Lord of the Rings is another favourite that I’ve read countless times but, then again, I also like the gentle humour of The Little World of Don Camillo.

One of the great things about Goodreads is that it’s reminded me of long-forgotten books that have grown dusty on our numerous shelves. I like the site’s recommendation system. There are, of course, such systems in on-line stores, based on purchasing history, but there are plenty of books that I’ve bought from second-hand bookshops or book stalls or that have been given to me, and there are those I’ve borrowed from the library. There are also books from the on-line stores that I’ve purchased as presents that don’t reflect my reading tastes. This skews the data used by the software for recommendations, whereas on Goodreads the data is more representative and the recommendations make more sense.

It’s been fun adding all the books I can remember reading. It’s triggered memories of story-fragments. What book was that? When did I read it? Was it a library book or was it one of mine that was lost or given away?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a number one favourite book, but there are books in various genres that I love reading and re-reading. Wit, pacing and well-formed characters transcend genre.

The best thing about World Book Day? In an age where I so often hear “I’d rather watch the film”, it’s a great reminder that books are still loved.

The Tale of The Foolish Hedgehog

[Originally published on Goodreads 2016-02-10, two days before a giveaway for five signed copies of the illustrated children’s book The Foolish Hedgehog.] This is the story of how I came to write The Foolish Hedgehog given that my primary emphasis has been on writing text books and adult crime/thriller/speculative fiction rather than children’s books.

I have always loved reading and writing and as a child my favourite genre was adventure stories. In fact, that’s still true today. However, I also loved mathematics and hated pulling books apart in English Literature, so when it came to choosing my path through higher education, I opted for the maths route and kept writing as a hobby.

Life often doesn’t pan out the way you imagine and at some point I found that I had switched tracks from being a mathematician to being a computer programmer with an interest in typesetting, specifically TeX. As a result of my work in that area, I was interviewed by the TeX User Group (TUG) for their interview corner. Dave Walden, the interviewer, put the idea of self-publishing into my head. Although I was confident about my typesetting abilities, I wasn’t so confident about my writing skills.

A friend of mine, who’s also a writer, suggested I try a writing course. She had already been on the diploma creative writing course at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and thoroughly recommended it. At first I thought it would be too inconvenient. I had given up full-time work to care for my son and we live out in a village with infrequent bus services, but I discovered there was an online writing course taught by Caroline Gilfillan at UEA, which overcame these obstacles. It was only a three-month course for beginners, but I thoroughly recommend it for enthusiastic writers with a busy lifestyle. (This particular course has stopped, but the Writers’ Centre, Norwich now has some writing courses.)

The course included a section on Vladimir Propp who studied folklore. The Wikipedia article on Propp gives a lot more detail, but he essentially broke fairy tales up into sections and listed a sequence of functions (tropes) that fairy tales employ in their narrative. One of our assignments was to write a story that followed this scheme. After toying with the usual princes, princesses, young apprentice/farmer-turned-heroes, I saw some roadkill and “The Foolish Hedgehog” came into being.

The principle functions this story follows are: interdiction (warning not to go somewhere), violation of interdiction (disobeying the warning), trickery (the villain attempts to deceive the protagonist), guidance (protagonist is led to a vital location), liquidation (issue resolved) and return (protagonist returns home).

After I had set up my imprint to publish my text books, I decided that I may as well publish the story (mostly for the fun of it and to try out the different style of typesetting required for illustrated children’s books). The story was greatly enhanced with the inclusion of the illustrations provided by my friend and Norfolk artist Magdalene Pritchett. (If you go to any of the South Norfolk art exhibitions, such as in Poringland, Kirstead or Hempnell, you will likely see her paintings. She’s also exhibited paintings at Eye in Suffolk.)

The story is about a little hedgehog who lives with his grandmother. He promises that he won’t go near the wasteland (the road) where the dragons (vehicles) live, but one day he’s tempted onto the road by a hungry crow. It can be used to introduce children to the concept of road safety and stranger-danger. Here’s an extract from the start of the story:

There once was a little hedgehog who lived with his grandmother.

Every evening when the little hedgehog went out to play, his grandmother would always say:

“Don’t ever go onto the hard wasteland. There are dragons there. Great giant creatures, with eyes shining brighter than the moon. Their roar is deafening, and their breath is poisonous. They have no claws, but their round feet will trample you.”

Every evening the hedgehog promised his grandmother he wouldn’t go near the wasteland.

But one day, as he played with some fallen leaves, he heard the roaring of the dragons. He wanted to see if they really were as big as his grandmother said.

“I’ll just have a peek, that’s all,” he thought. “I won’t step on the wasteland.”

Walking

[Originally posted on Facebook 2015-05-12] When I was a child, my family used to go out for walks at the weekend, usually after Sunday lunch. Seaford Head, Hope Gap, the Cuckmere, Friston Forest and on the other side towards Newhaven, the Tide Mills. I resisted such activity as it interrupted my reading, writing or guiding my plastic figures and animals on their adventures. (It may seem odd for sheep, pigs and cows to go on adventures — especially normal farm animals rather than the anthropomorphic cartoon variety — but these were fleeing from some evil villain or oppressor and had to brave the mountainous terrain up the radiator, down the wardrobe and across the chest of drawers.) However, despite my opposition to these outings, I benefited not only from the physical exercise but also the clearing out of mental cobwebs and the stimulus of my surroundings. My thoughts went to the wreckers who had lured unfortunate sailors onto the rocks, the smugglers who lurked in the Cuckmere estuary and, as a child, the abandoned Tide Mills sent shivers down my spine. The Seaford to Brighton trains may well pass through there during the day, but surely there were midnight ghost trains that stopped at the disused station! I miss the eerie call of the foghorn, I miss the sea and I miss inspecting the world of the rock pools. Although my knees don’t miss the downland ascents!

I always have excuses for not getting up and going outside, but it’s bad for me to sit in front of my desk all day long, so I’m trying make the effort to go out for walks. It drops the mundane clutter from my mind and helps to re-order and re-focus ideas. Norfolk has its own share of wonders, both natural and man-made. Ruins and oddities that whisper of a long forgotten age with forgotten people who were once born, lived and died, in essence no different from ourselves. We are brief dwellers in this place, but we cause ripples in the stream of time and leave our footprints on its banks.