Crime and SF

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2016-06-27.] I’ve written about my children’s books in a post about The Foolish Hedgehog and a post about Quack, Quack, Quack. Give My Hat Back! but I haven’t really said much about my adult fiction, so I thought it was about time to write about my published fiction and a pending novel.

I’ve Heard the Mermaid Sing is a short story ebook (approximately 2,500 words) set in 1928 about a yegg (thief) from St Louis who’s fleeing to Europe on the RMS Aquitania after a jewellery shop heist turned to murder when an off-duty policeman happened to turn up to get a bracelet repaired at the wrong moment. The story is written in 1920s vernacular, but although I was aiming to reproduce the style of that era some slang doesn’t age well. There was one phrase in particular that I had to cut when my writing friends advised against it as they said it conjured up an inappropriate image, and it wasn’t the image I had intended. As much as I wanted an authentic feel, there’s no escaping the fact that anyone reading it is living in the twenty-first century.

The Private Enemy is my first published novel, although it isn’t the first novel that I wrote. The first draft dates back to the early 1990s (possibly 1992, although I can’t remember exactly) but I completely rewrote it after going on the online creative writing course I’ve previously mentioned and the first 10,000 words formed the majority of my portfolio for my later diploma in creative writing. It’s a crime/thriller story set in a technologically-regressed future where the world has been divided into numbered sectors, each with a governing city called Central City, which is located in roughly the geographical centre of the sector. The back story is that 32 years before the events in the first chapter, a fuel crisis triggered global anarchy that lasted for two years before order was restored. The aim of those restructuring the newly established peace was that by removing national identities wars could be averted, but human nature being what it is this merely papered over deep resentments and corruption. The regression in technology is publicly justified by the fuel limitations and the lobbying of anti-technology groups, but privately the restrictions on technology allows greater control over communications. This isn’t a whodunnit mystery, but a story about one person’s private quest to prove that murder has been committed and ensure that justice is done in an increasingly volatile world. The novel is approximately 136,000 words. The paperback (revised first) edition is 140mm (5.5in) wide by 216mm (8.5in) high with a 32mm (1.3in) spine. The text is 11pt on cream paper. It’s also available as an ebook which, without the hefty print costs, is a lot cheaper. [Update 2019-09-18: there’s now a second edition paperback.]

The Fourth Protectorate is actually the first novel that I wrote, although it has had many titles and undergone many revisions. I wrote the first version in the early 1980s when I was probably around eleven or twelve years old, and it was heavily influenced by science fiction stories I was reading at the time, in particular Doctor Who and the Cybermen. (Before the proliferation of videos, the novelisations were the only way to access those old Dr Who stories, and they had the added advantage of not suffering from low-budget props.) As I grew older, I became more interested in politics, so by the time I went to the University of Essex in my late teens, the science fiction elements of the story had been toned down, with a totalitarian government rather than futuristic machines as the antagonist. I put the story on the back burner and returned to a fantasy story that I had started when I was seventeen. My third novel was The Private Enemy. I wrote a few other stories after that and from time to time switched attention back to the earlier novels, but after I rewrote The Private Enemy, having improved my writing style on the creative writing course, I decided to revisit that first novel and I rewrote it from scratch. It still has a residual science fiction device echoing back to that first draft, and it still has a police state from that second draft, but (I hope) it’s much better written. (It also now has a supernatural element that wasn’t present in the earliest drafts.) The 1980s have been and gone, and the novel is now set in an alternate history from 1984 to 1995 that charts the rise of a Cromwell-style Protectorate in Britain that becomes a dictatorship. Britain in the real 1980s was fairly turbulent, with plenty of strikes and riots, but the alternative 1980s in the story notches this up. How does the Protectorate establish itself? Through a referendum. Hmm. Yes, seriously, I wrote that before the recent [2016] referendum was proposed.

On a side note, if you’re at all interested, I voted to remain last week. While I’m disappointed with the result, we need to move on or we may, like those sci-fi stories where attempts are made to change some past event, make a bad thing worse, but I hope that, at the very least, people will learn from it. However, recent events have taught me that I was wrong to think that just because my novel is set in an alternative history from 1984 to 1995 it can’t be affected by current events, so I’ve decided that I really ought to crack on and get it finished before life overtakes it. It’s currently around 133,000 words, so it will probably be around the same size as The Private Enemy. It’s going through the final tuning stages at the moment. Are there any plot holes? Does the topology of the world in the story make sense? (That is, if characters go from A to B, does their route make sense? A few rough sketches can help here.) Are any scenes too dialect heavy or too wordy? These things usually require an impartial reading by someone experienced in the art of creative writing. How much more work needs to be done will depend on the feedback. The final task is proof-reading to pick up any spelling mistakes or typos that have been missed in earlier readings.

A Little Duck with a Hat

(Contains spoilers!)

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2016-06-16 at the start of a giveaway of five signed copies of Quack, Quack, Quack. Give My Hat Back! this post describes the book and explains how the story came about. That giveaway has closed, but there is currently a Dickimaw Books giveaway of two signed copies this book that ends 2019-11-01.]

Little Duck lives on the side of the Amazon, and he likes to row his wooden dinghy on the river and loves his big, black top hat, but one day the naughty wind snatches the hat from the duck’s head and makes off with it. The duck chases after it and, one by one, meets up with his various friends who are out on the river, and they join in the chase. In the end, the duck gets his hat back, and they all celebrate with some ice cream. There’s a fair bit of repetition as each new character joins in the chase. The book is a saddle-stitch paperback. At the beginning, there’s an illustrated list of the major characters with a brief bit of information about them, which can be skipped. The last page of the book, after the end of the story, contains the names and images of some of the animals that appeared in the background (sunbittern, cormorant, seriema, giant river otter, cock-of-the-rock, frigatebird,¹ and heron). Within the actual story part of the book, the text is arranged at the top of each page, and a wide landscape image spans the double-page spread below. The book is intended as a ‘read it to small child(ren)’ story not a ‘learn to read’ book.

Now I ought to warn you at this point that a few of the words in the story contain more than two syllables. A teacher once criticised me on this. She said that small children don’t understand words like ‘yacht’ and ‘catamaran’. Personally, I think that children are intelligent enough to work it out by looking at the picture, especially if the adult reader could helpfully point to it. However, I realise that not everyone shares this view, so if you feel that children should only hear monosyllabic words, then this book isn’t for you. The full list of characters involved in the hat chase are: the duck (rowing a dinghy), the arara parrot (in a catamaran), the sloth (sailing a yacht), the caiman (punting a lily pad) and the capybara (paddling a coracle). At one point a school of piranhas try to eat the hat. The river dolphin rescues the hat.

Image of the author wearing a hat and a duck glove puppet.

Although I’m English, my mother was born in Brazil. Her father was English and her mother Belgian. It’s rather a long story involving shipwreck (on her paternal grandfather’s side) and war, occupation and supporting the Belgian resistance (on her mother’s family’s side). My grandfather decided to move back to England after he retired in 1963 to be near his widowed sister and also for health reasons (he had developed skin cancer). This turned out quite fortunate for me as otherwise my mother wouldn’t have met my father, and then I wouldn’t be here to tell you about my books. I still have family in Brazil (and Belgium and various other parts of the world), and in 1991 I went with one of my brothers to visit some of them. We took a long-winded route when travelling from one set of family to another and ended up in Manaus by the Amazon. The river (especially at that point) is much wider than Magdalene’s illustrations and she added far more colour to vegetation than actually appears there, but such artistic licence makes the pictures more interesting to small children. (Besides, realism is hardly a top priority in a story with anthropomorphic animals who aren’t viewing some of their friends as a tasty snack.) In addition to all my various relatives, I also have a friend, Paulo Cereda, who lives in Brazil. He likes ducks, and we both like hats. He also has a software tool called arara, which is the Brazilian name for a macaw parrot, and I’m on the development team. One day we were chatting about ducks and hats, and he produced an image of a yellow duck wearing a top hat. It sparked an idea in my head that eventually became ‘Quack, Quack, Quack. Give My Hat Back!’ He very kindly gave me a duck hand puppet, and he also gave Magdalene a macaw hand puppet, so we have some props when doing book readings.

There’s an audio extract from the start of the story (although I’m sorry there’s currently no audio version of the book).

¹It’s labelled ‘Frigatebird’ but it’s more specifically a ‘Magnificent Frigatebird’. The ‘Magnificent’ part was dropped because the page was getting a little cluttered.

Every Little Counts

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2016-04-15.] Some years ago I attended a seminar at the Norwich Writers’ Centre given by a literary agent. (Incidentally, if you are a writer living in or near Norwich, there are some great resources available. It is, after all, England’s first UNESCO City of Literature.) This is an excellent way of finding out about the publishing industry. I had previously been to a talk given by a panel of agents and publishers at the University of East Anglia, which was informative, but it was in one of the lecture theatres, and so was more formal. The seminar at the Writers’ Centre was much more like a small group tutorial followed by brief one-to-one discussions with the agent. When we signed up for the seminar, we all had to provide an extract of our work (the first five pages, A4, double-spaced) and the cover letter we intended to send with submissions to agents. In the individual meetings, the agent gave her advice and suggestions on how to improve our pitch.

My extract was from the start of The Private Enemy. I had previously done a diploma course in creative writing, and the first 10,000 words of this novel had formed the majority of my portfolio. I had also been on other writing courses and writing groups so, by this time, the beginning of my novel had been pretty much analysed to death. (The remainder was subsequently critiqued in private lessons with my writing tutor.) The agent only had two comments to make about my extract before moving on to my query letter.

Her first comment was that she didn’t like science fiction. Fair enough. There are some genres that I don’t like, and if I’d been sending in the query letter for real I would’ve selected an agent who accepted SF. (Some of my writing peers who critiqued my work also didn’t like it, so I was well aware that a writer can’t please everyone.) Her second comment was a suggestion to cut out the mention of an open window, since she felt it was an irrelevant detail, and this brings me on to the topic of this post.

When writing a novel, every little detail must count towards something. This is more formally known as conservation of detail. If an item is described, it must have some significance. For example, a Chekhov’s Gun or some implement that’s later used needs to be mentioned so that the reader doesn’t say, “Hey, where did that come from?” In a mystery, clues need to be seeded throughout the novel otherwise the reader will feel cheated. Red herrings are also useful if the writer wants some misdirection. The reader should be able to assume that the characters and the world of the novel are like reality unless otherwise indicated. This means that the writer doesn’t need to tell the reader that all the characters are human and living on Earth. However, the writer does need to mention if the characters are, say, multi-tentacled lifeforms in another galaxy.

It’s boring for readers to trawl through endless pages of description that catalogues every button and stitch of clothes or every leaf and blade of grass in the surroundings. This doesn’t mean that the opposite extreme is good. A total absence of description gives the impression of formless beings floating around in the ether. The reader can assume that the characters are wearing clothes as they walk around the city, but a few details (such as a pinstriped suit or a hoodie and ripped jeans) can help to form an image in the reader’s mind. The reader can assume that the city has roads and buildings, but a few pertinent details can help to form the world of the novel.

To return to the window example, what does an open window add to a story? There could be an unseen character behind it, eavesdropping. It could be used as an unorthodox method of entry. It could cause a draught that blows an important scrap of paper behind a piece of furniture. It could signify a need for ventilation that might not otherwise be taken for granted (for example, to show it’s stifling hot or to reduce smoke or gas inhalation). Alternatively, it could be just an open window. In which case it needs to be cut because it’s a little detail that doesn’t count.

Critiquing is a useful way of detecting these unnecessary details. (In case you’re not familiar with the writing process, book reviews are for the benefit of potential readers for works that have already been or are about to be published. Critiquing is a tool for writers to help improve a work in progress.) Feedback can highlight the need for pruning. The critiquer may simply flag instances, but another more interesting phenomenon may occur. If the critiquer knows that the writer is in the habit of applying conservation of detail, any accidental slips can sometimes be interpreted as significant. When this happens to me, it usually triggers one of two reactions: oops, better cut that or hmm, that’s given me an idea. The latter is like discovering some coins down the back of the sofa, which is rather fun.

If you have hours to spare and you don’t mind being sucked into the black hole of TV Tropes, you can read more about the Law of Conservation of Detail over there.


[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.


[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.


[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.