Sunday: The Met office say it will be stormy tonight

As I type the sun is shining on dusty cobwebs across my window and the sky is blue.  It is the twenty-ninth of December and the frost is melting.  The house is cluttered with Christmas debris and I’m thinking of ways to write about what I don’t know.

I got back to digging into the family history just before Christmas.  This time on the maternal side.  If I were just interested in dates, you could say that my research is going well.  I’ve found a line of births and marriages that takes me back to 1808 and have hopes that another visit to the archives should provide me with the generation before that one too.  So from the family tree point-of-view, I’m building up quite a branch structure.

I like this task.  It’s a treasure hunt.  That’s the kind of party game I have always loved best.  Each new discovery carries clues to a further clue.  Mostly the information is given up easily, and I fill in a whole new branch of the tree using two census returns, or I do a name search on the archive data base and turn up a court case.  Britain, it seems has been keen to document it’s population for a few centuries now, and here’s one plus on the reasons-for-it side of the argument, many of us are fascinated to find out where we’ve come from and glad to discover our ancestors on some kind of register.

I never set out to get this far.  I’d hopes that some of the family would turn up some old photos and I’d reconstruct the stories for each one, like I did for Dad’s family.  But the earliest pictures we have of Mum’s relatives are all from living memory.  So this album, I decided, would have to be more about the research, and that’s meant a new approach to the subject.

Without a selection of sepia portraits to give me structure, I’ve pushed back beyond the generation I’d planned to start with and the research bug has got me.  I’ll get stuck soon, I tell myself, as the record details become thinner.  Then I’ll have to let this go and get on with the writing.

Which brings me to thinking about what my purpose is with this project: who my readers are and what they might want.  This time, being family, I’ve a pretty good idea of how my audience approaches their reading, and it’s not helping.  There are so many differences amongst them.

I’ve been caught in the creative doldrums here, riddled with DOUBT.  What’s my best approach?   I could and shall hand over my notes, my lists of births, marriages, deaths and census records, as bare facts.  The sticklers for accuracy can make their own interpretations then, if they want to.

DSCF5197I’m drawn to create beyond that though, to impose my writer-self between the record-gaps and describe a scenario that seems logical to me.  Making stories is something that’s too ingrained to change now.  Take two facts and give me the gap between them, I’ll shape it.

Like this fragment of glass I picked up while walking the dogs.  It’s just another piece of someone’s rubbish, but I keep it by my desk and every so often I’m drawn to pick it up, turn it over and try to imagine what it was like when it was new.

I’ve been to the museum and looked at undamaged bottles of similar glass, matching their shapes to this base until I found one I believed in.  I’ve seen seen my bottle in old paintings of tavern scenes and got a clue to it’s context.

The story of my bottle builds.  It’s not authentic, but it’s mine, and has it’s own truth. I might never write a history for it, but the bottle has appeared in my stories.  Once, it even became a key part of a final draft.  The great thing about only owning this fragment of a base, of course, is that it has become infinitely flexible. I can build or break it and set it anywhere without feeling anchored to space or time.

For me research is about achieving a balance that works.  The trick I’ve needed to remind myself of since the archives closed for Christmas, is that there is not going to be a recognisable starting point.  It’s all too easy to keep accumulating ideas: to worry that I don’t know enough.  Those are just other ways of avoiding the writing.  I read as much to find out what I don’t know as to recognise what I do, so surely writing should carry something of the same principle.

Write a short story for radio

A rare and interesting opportunity. It’s got to be worth a try, hasn’t it?


short storyEver written for radio? If the answer’s no this opportunity is for you. The BBC Radio Drama Readings Unit are inviting submissions from writers who have never written for radio before for Opening Lines – BC Radio 4’s showcase for short stories.

You can only submit between January 6th – February 14th 2014 but you can start writing now. The three strongest stories will be broadcast and the successful writers invited to London for an afternoon in Broadcasting House to see their stories being recorded.

What are they looking for?
Original stories between 1,900 and 2,000 words in length to fill a 14 minute slot. Stories which work best being read out loud have a strong narrative and minimal  dialogue, character description or digressions into sub plots. They also need strong openings and resolutions. Remember that few people listen to the radio in the same way as they watch television…

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Thoughts about the pitfalls of writing plans at Christmas.

You’re rushing about preparing for Christmas, aren’t you?  No time to sit about writing.  Perhaps you’ve earmarked Boxing Day for settling into some serious writing time, or the day after.

That’s what I did last year, and the previous one too.  In fact, I’ve probably done it through all my writing years.  Once the rush is over, I tell myself, I’ll have time to myself.  You’ve already guessed that things never work out that way, haven’t you?

writers diary christmasSo this year I’m going to be less ambitious.  I’m going to treat myself to the truth.  I don’t want to miss out on Christmas.  The festivities are fun.  They’re a time to unwind and meet up with the friends and family I don’t make enough effort to see through the rest of the year.  I don’t want to have an ember of guilt burning a hole into my enjoyment if an unexpected invitation happens.

That’s why I’m not earmarking specific days or times to spend at my desk that week.  I might not visit my work area at all.  Because lately it’s occurred to me that I’ve got slack with one of the basics of a writing habit, The Writer’s Diary.

For the uninitiated I’m not thinking of a desk, pocket or other personal diary that we attempt to fill in according to the time spaces arbitrarily assigned by the printer. I don’t know about you, but I’ve a long and disastrous history with that kind of diary keeping.  I’ve always begun well, buoyed up no doubt by some new-year resolution, but by the middle of January my entries were usually lagging, tagged with the confession that I was filling in details from memory three days later than the page claimed.  After that entries were sporadic, marked by long gaps and filled with mundane details.

The writer’s diary is different.  For a start, it doesn’t have a specific form.  It can be any collection of blank pages that suit you.  My writers diaries have been made from beautiful notebooks, school exercise books, stapled scrap paper, reporters notebooks, and even, to completely mess up my original statement, ancient unused desk diaries.  The only rule is, there’s no right or wrong way to fill it in.

After a gap of a few days, or several months, you just carry on to the next empty line.  There are no reproachfully blank pages of weeks and months to give away how lax you’ve been.  In my case, no dates are given to indicate the distance crossed between entries.  I’m no longer forced to fill in spaces with descriptions of what I ate for breakfast, lunch or tea, unless I want to.  Instead I scribble down notes, ideas, thoughts, observations, quotes, plans and any moments of inspiration.  Or in other words, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, as Yul Brynner’s King of Siam liked to say.

Although these are usually private spaces where we can experiment with our writing, on the Imaginative Writing BA our writer’s diaries were part of our course-work in the first year.  I’ve thought a lot about how important that was to me.  For a few months I kept it because it was required.  I remember that at first it seemed like hard work.  I was finding my way with so much at that time, and there was no blueprint to show us how A Writer’s Diary should be done.  I know now that there could not be, that each has to be collated according to the individual.

All we had was Edmund’s advice to, ‘write something in it everyday’.

When we asked, ‘Write what?’ he said, ‘anything,’ and rattled through a similar list to the one I’ve given.  ‘Not finished pieces,’ he said.  ‘The workings-out, the notes, the wrong turns and right ones. Write anything.’

It was a valuable trick, a lesson we should all try to learn.  I’ve since found a quote that puts it beautifully,

The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you did not write.


Keeping that Writer’s Diary was good training on so many levels, but the fundamental one was the way it helped me to establish a regular writing habit.  It may have started as a chore, but once I’d gone through the first term and found that what had seemed a scrappy effort was indeed correct, I grew braver.

I learned to always have a notebook and pen to hand.  After all, like Cecily Cardew (The Importance of Being Earnest) you ‘ should always have something sensational to read on the train,’ and her diary seems to have been organised as a kind of Writer’s Diary.

Looking back through some of my old diaries, (yes I have kept them, and a tatty well-thumbed bunch they are too) is a form of time travel that is just as vivid as my conventional diary fragments.  Here are moments captured as they happened, not filtered at the end of a day, or week.  There are snippets of conversation overheard on a bus; fragments of encounters, real and imagined; the view across the Mersey from the top floor of the Dean Walters Building; the movement of the ferry crossing the Irish sea and a sketch of a story.  I’ve captured a kaleidoscope of sights, smells, sounds, tastes, textures, mood and emotions that sometimes launch off into fantasy.  It’s rough stuff.  But I’m glad I have it to skim through.

So, why call it a diary, rather than a notebook?  Because the aim is to put in something every day.  The dictionary definition of a diary, is ‘a book in which one keeps a daily record of events and experiences’.  Which sums it up nicely.  I do aim to record daily from this point on.  When I call my pages a notebook, they becomes less demanding.  I’ve a fraction less incentive to be rigorous, and these days I can’t afford that, can you?

Lexiphanic Cogitations *

You might guess, from my title, that I’ve just had a quick browse through a ‘Dictionary of Difficult Words’.  Be honest, were you a little concerned or even put off by my title?  Don’t go away, I promise I’ve stopped now.

Carl_Spitzweg, The Book worm

The Book Worm
by Karl Spitzweg

The thing is, I’ve had this book on my desk for a year or so, and I’ve never used it.  It came from a table-top sale, where it was priced so cheaply that it seemed ‘meant’ for me to take home.  I knew, even then, that I didn’t really want it, but it’s a reference book for goodness sake.

I’d already gathered up a nice selection of truly useful titles from the same seller, who was discounting as my heap grew.  Gullible, me?  How could you think so?  As she said, there’s always room for one more.

There’s not of course.  We learn that at nursery rhyme stage: “There were three in the bed and the little one said…” I don’t remember which book I discarded to make room on the shelf for this dictionary.  No doubt something equally beguiling but ultimately pointless.

I do like dictionaries, I have five, if you include the Scrabble Dictionary, which strictly speaking shouldn’t be called Dictionary, since it neither ‘explains’ nor ‘translates’ its alphabetically arranged words. ‘Explains’ and ‘Translates’ are the key words in the definition given by the on-line Oxford English Dictionary (OED), by the way.

As a quick aside, have you seen a Scrabble Dictionary?  There are combinations of letters in there I don’t want to believe in, especially after a long and painful game with a competitive companion who trawled through it round by round one dark and very long evening.  Since then we’ve laid down a few ground-rules about word-checking, should you be invited for a match here.

But I digress.  Most of my books earn their space on the shelf.  It may be that I open them once in a year, or less, but it’s usually with a purpose, whether that’s entertainment, information or inspiration.

These days I also use the computer to look up things.  Much as I love to turn a page, sometimes it’s either not possible or just takes too long.  My mind boggles at the thought of how many books I’d own if I’d bought all the information I’ve looked up in bound form.  At least when it’s electronically stored it only takes the space of a stick, or a corner of the hard-drive.

I can’t imagine what would get pushed off my bookshelf if I owned the bound volumes of the OED rather than had virtual access to them using my public library log-in.  Now they really would earn their place. Full of useful information about meaning, but then there’s all that additional stuff, the origins of the word, and the previous uses.  It’s not just for looking up something new, or obscure, I’m fascinated by the way word use changes over time, and the easiest place to trace that, is the OED.  If you don’t believe me, look up starve, or bless.

From the moment I was introduced to the OED in the University library, I’ve coveted them, and now, here they are in my bookmarks.  I can open them at any time, and yet fill the two feet of shelf space they should be using up with something, anything, else that catches my attention.

If I was ever cast up on a desert Island with only one book for company I would want it to be a volume of the OED.  I’m not picky, I can manage without the full set.  Any of them would keep me entertained.  Apart from the information, think about what we could do with all those quotes.

Take these four, drawn from starve and bless:

1647   in E. Nicholas Nicholas Papers (1886) I. 70   Were it not for an Irish Barber that was once my servaunt I might have sterved for want of bredd.

1600   P. Holland tr. Livy Rom. Hist. xxi. lviii. 427   Many a man and beast, and seven Elephants..were starved and perished [owing to the intolerable cold].

 c1440   Ywaine & Gaw. 3344   Folk..blissed the time that he was born.

1872   H. W. Longfellow John Endicott ii. ii, in Christus III. 24   Come, drink about! Remember Parson Melham, And bless the man who first invented flip!

I don’t know the originals of any of these, but I’ve ideas about each of them, I feel stories, brewing around them.  How about you?

*Lexiphanic: using many long words

Cogitations: consider seriously

I’d like to recommend…

…Roald Dahl.  He never seems to have gone out of favour in the children’s market, but when was the last time you tried one of his adult short stories?

Most of them were televised for the long-running Tales of the Unexpected (TOTU)show.  That series made quite an impact when it first aired, in 1979.

It wasn’t just the catchy tune, with its suggestion of sex, violence and the supernatural, the stories were, as the title makes clear, cleverly twisted.  They were a challenge, a tale that seemed to be moving towards an inevitable conclusion only to be turned on its head at the last moment.

It seemed like the whole country must have been tuning in for them.  ‘Did you see..?’ we asked each other in school, at work and on the street. ‘Did you work it out?’

We were fascinated, hooked by the package. What would happen; how could the character possibly overcome their crisis?  It was great entertainment.  For a while it seemed like we couldn’t get enough.  Series two and three followed.  At first they were all Dahl’s stories, but gradually other writers of the same vein were introduced.

In those early weeks some of us were so fascinated that we bought the books and read ahead.  Even when I knew the outcome I watched them.  It didn’t matter that the situations and settings seemed to be looking backwards, so much of what was on our TVs was doing that in less entertaining ways.

What worked for TOTU were the twists.  Even though we knew they were coming, most of the sudden reversals were neatly set up rather than tricks.  The clues were embedded in the early stages of the story as casual asides, snippets of information that seemed no more than added colour, until the conclusion was achieved.

Take Parson’s Pleasure, a story about Mr Boggis, an antique dealer who ‘always bought cheap, very very cheap, and sold very very dear.’  His clients are those who lived in, ‘comparatively isolated places…large farmhouses and …rather dilapidated country mansions’.  Because these sorts of people are a ‘suspicious lot’, Mr Boggis decides to disguise himself as a Parson.  He carries a business card:

                                      THE REVEREND

                            CYRIL WINNINGTON BOGGIS

President of the Society                                In association with

for the Preservation of                                      The Victoria and

Rare Furniture                                                     Albert Museum.

to give his story credibility and is careful never to park his large car where his victims might see it, as it wouldn’t fit the character of an impoverished and respectable Reverend.

The story begins with Mr Boggis driving along enjoying the beauty of the countryside.  His name, you’ll note, is remarkably close to the word ‘Bogus’.  He is full of optimism.  The weather is suggestive of a good summer to come, and the village he’s heading for is easily reconnoitered because it’s in a valley below the road he’s approaching it on.  From his high vantage point he can map out in advance which houses to try, and see the best place to park his car conveniently close but out of sight.  He has, it seems, an almost omniscient vantage point, and starts from a position of power, in that he is keyed up with his past successes.

While he can see only opportunity, we, the reader, are already anticipating a reversal.  It’s a beautifully layered opening.  Dahl has arranged all the information we need before us, neatly interspersing the necessary exposition (explanations) between segments of action so that the narration moves us forward in neat arcs of drama.  I won’t spoil the ending, if you don’t know the story.  Read it, or watch it.  You can do either on the internet.  I can give you the Youtube copy, but you’ll need to use a search engine if you want the text, as I can’t seem to upload it.

I hope you do read it.  Wonderful as the dramatized version is, the benefits for the writer come from looking at it in word form.  Only then can you fully appreciate Roald Dahl’s artistry.

The twist-in-the-tail story has a long and chequered history.  While several writers have excelled at them for a while, many have floundered.  I think this one is a fine example of what it takes to write them successfully, but be warned, write too many of the same strain and you’ll soon wear out the reader or viewer.

The TOTU series may have stretched over nine sets of series, but I suspect I was not the only viewer who was drifting away long before they were halfway through those years of shows.  Even the unpredictable becomes, in a sense, predictably unpredictable if the template isn’t varied occasionally.