Literary tourism

It’s a hundred and fifty years since RD Blackmore’s novel, Lorna Doone was first published. So, this autumn, I’ve been discussing it with some of my Creative-Reading groups.

It’s been an interesting journey, and a rewarding one. Not least, because part of my preparation included three days touring around Exmoor, tracking down identifiable locations. Comparing the spaces that inspired with the story was intriguing. Here are a few of my favourite locations.

The story opens in 1673, when the narrator, John Ridd is twelve years old. He’s studying at Blundell’s school, in Tiverton, and gives a brief history of the school, as he describes his last days there.

The building he knew is now called ‘Old Blunell’s’, as the school moved to a bigger premises in 1882. I didn’t go inside. The interior has now been divided into flats, but the exterior is as it’s described in the novel. Since Blackmore was a scholar there himself, it’s probable that the customs John Ridd describes are authentic, from singeing night-caps to learning to swim in the Lowman River.

Oare village, where the Ridds farmed is still tiny, and a long way down from the coast road. While my photo gives an idea of the scale of the landscape, it is unlikely that Blackmore would recognise the large fields, or the extent that they now stretch to. Much of Exmoor was cleared, and ‘improved’ from the mid nineteenth century on.

The debate about which of the village buildings might have been the model for Plovers Barrow, the farm of the Ridds, has been going on since soon after the novel was published. Many readers refused to accept that Blackmore imaginatively ‘rearranged’ the geography to suit his story.

We stayed near a farm that claimed to be the original. However, it had recently been taken apart and completely re-built. Lovely as it is, it didn’t seem to resemble the farm Blackmore describes.

Oare church, however, did seem identical. It is just visible in my photo of the village, above. The white painted porch is to the left side of the main clump of buildings.

Here’s the interior, with its box pews, and stone font.

Robber Bridge is mentioned several times in the story. The long narrow road leading to it had a timeless feel, despite the tarmac, and occasional car or tractor.

Tarr Steps, was worth a visit. Although, it’s only mentioned in passing, as being near the cave where Mother Melldrum had her summer home. My photo fails to convey just how huge these steps are, or how atmospheric this river is,

Mother Melldrum’s winter home, which John visits, is in the Valley of the Rocks, near Linton.

Finally, there’s Dunster. It’s another passing mention in the novel, but I couldn’t miss the timber-framed Yarn Market. It was rebuilt in 1647, and despite all of the twenty-first century trimmings surrounding it, standing under that roof felt close to stepping back through time.

I haven’t mentioned the countryside itself, because in the uncleared parts, it doesn’t seem to have changed much since Blackmore published the novel. If you want to know how it felt, looked or sounded as we lingered in the lane by Robbers Bridge, read some of John Ridd’s lyrical descriptions. Thomas Hardy said that those passages showed him something of what was possible in writing about ‘place’.

Blackmore’s novel is not an easy read. His style leans towards archaic, and has some interesting sentence structures. What impressed me, was the way he shaped his material, and how John Ridd’s narration works.

Lorna Doone will be going back on my shelf, and I think I might have to return to Exmoor for a longer visit, soon.

Six degrees of separation: Alice inspires a literary treasure-hunt.

It was a particularly soggy Saturday afternoon, and the heat from the wood-burner was beginning to make me drowsy. “November is such a very predictably weather-full month,” I muttered to Rusty, who had taken possession of the hearth-rug, in a somewhat Elinor Glyn style. “I can’t think of anything better to do than leap into a literary rabbit hole, can you?”

At the word ‘rabbit’, Rusty had opened one eye. He watched me for a moment, then sighed and closed it again.

When outside he’s as keen as Mr McGregor on chasing the little carrot-nibblers. Merely naming that rodent sets him in search of a scent.

Rusty’s nose is phenomenal. Certainly as discerning as Jean-Baptist Grenouille’s. Though I don’t remember Patrick Suskind mentioning its dewy nature, I wonder if that was the secret of Jean-Baptist’s dubiously employed skills.

Unlike Rusty, Jean-Baptiste was not an attractive character, even without mention of a wet nose. I can still remember how I was held by his story, though, both fascinated and horrified. Rather like Ripley, now I come to think of it.

I’ve followed his journey more than once, trying to figure out not just what he is, but who, as he sheds friends and adopts new identities. In some ways, Ripley is the reverse of Jason Bourne, who is trying to remember his real identity.

Glancing across at my DVDs, I realised that the same actor played both rolls, and there was an interesting angle that ought to be pursued.

I’ve never been too good with doing what I ought to. I was already thinking about Fanny Logan, who tried pursuing love, but was frequently to be found in the airing cupboard, with her cousins, because the enormous mansion they lived in was incredibly drafty.

I’d worried over this since first reading Nancy Mitford’s novels, as a teenager. Drafty houses I understood, because we didn’t have central heating or double-glazing at that time, either. But Fanny would have needed to curl herself around the water cylinder on a narrow shelf full of folded laundry, to fit our airing cupboard.

Since then, when visiting stately homes or castles, I’ve taken special note of the airing facilities, trying to estimate how many Mitfords could comfortably gather within them. The girls have refused to materialise.

Rusty watched, without interest, as I went to check my airing cupboard. Three well-bred faces glared out from behind the heaps of sheets and pillowcases. There was a horrible silence, then in a “U” accent, one of them asked, “Are you an Hon?”

“We’re moving away from using titles,” I said.

“How too awful,” replied the one I thought might be Linda. She exchanged glances with the other two, then smiled sweetly and added, “I say, would you be a perfect darling and shut the door?”

“Look here,” said another voice, as I was beginning to comply. “You won’t believe what I’ve found at the back. Isn’t it too frightful?” She was waving a dusty pyjama top that I hadn’t seen for years.

There was a burst of sneering laughter.

“Barely a rag,” cried Lynda.

“Counter-Hon, without a doubt.”

“I just knew it.”

I threw the door open. “That’s an old favourite, if you don’t mind,” I said, making a grab for the brushed-cotton.

“Don’t snatch,” admonished Lynda.

Then came a loud, “Halloo,” and a bunched-up hand-towel was launched at my head.

A duster followed.

Someone yelled, “Death to the horrible Counter-Hon.” In moments, the contents of my shelves were raining down on me. If it hadn’t been for Rusty, arriving with his lead, who knows what might have happened then…

I struggled out from under the heap and noted that the world beyond the window looked a little less grey and cold than it had earlier.

“Good idea,” I said to Rusty, “I think we both need some fresh air. As for you three…” The Mitfords hung their heads, and began to look like any other teenage delinquents. “I expect that laundry to be just the way you found it, by the time we get back.”

Thanks to Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and I hope she doesn’t mind my taking liberties with her excellent six-degrees-of-separation meme. Alice was a temptation I couldn’t resist.

Novel revision advice from Damyanti Biswas.

As we move rapidly towards NaNoWriMo sign-up time again, I’ve noticed many of us are preparing schedules and/or plans to write for 30 days. Judging by previous years, this will result in lots of lovely new manuscripts. Experienced writers will know exactly what their next steps (after December 1st) should be, but many of us will be wondering…

Wonder no more. Last week I reviewed the novel, You Beneath Your Skin, by Damyanti Biswas. This week, I bring you Damyanti’s five suggestions for getting your manuscript to publishable standard:

When you finish that first draft of a novel, it feels like reaching the top of a mountain, and it is. The first draft is a huge achievement, especially if it is of your first ever novel!

As anyone who writes on a professional level will tell you though, this is just reaching base camp–many other peaks loom ahead before a book goes to press. To get the story working right, we need revisions, rewrites, and several drafts.

Here’s how to revise your way to a novel that holds your reader’s attention:

1. Done with the first draft? What is your story about?

Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, a first draft gives you a sense of what you really want to say–who the story is about and what is the arc. To get an objective perspective, let the draft lie for a while as you relax and celebrate (or, if you’re like me, dive into short fiction for a while). After a break, when you look at the novel, you’ll find things that need fixing to give your story its shape. I sometimes use Index cards to plot my first draft. Before moving on to the second draft, I change the index cards that I feel make for a cleaner story, and follow the beats of the novel. This is useful to rewrite/ replace scenes that were not working in the first draft.

2. Make various passes: I learned this the hard way, but trying to revise your novel at one go is a hard, unproductive process (It might work for you–if it does, stick with your process!) What do I do instead? The first thing I check is the character arcs–whether they make sense—and whether the character transforms through the story in a plausible way. Then the plot arc–how does the character motivations affect what happens? If the character and the plot arcs mesh well, the story makes organic sense.

To complicate things, there’s point of view, and sometimes the plot does not work because I’m using the wrong point of view. This leads to a bit of heartbreak, but then POV is my Achilles heel and it might not be yours.

Once all of these are fixed, I go scene by scene, questioning if each scene contributes to the arc. I cannot remember the number of times I have thrown out scenes in You Beneath Your Skin–some of the last scenes to be thrown out got tossed 4 years after I first started writing. It is important to learn the three-act and five-act plot structures, and check your manuscript against them. I use Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to evaluate the plot at this point.

3. Get beta readers–Once I’m reasonably convinced the story structure and the characters and the POV are what I want then to be, I send the book to beta readers. I start with one of two very trusted readers, then move on to try to get in as wide a spectrum as I can, so I have a good idea of how the story appears to others. While I wait for feedback, I again cool my heels or work on another manuscript or short fiction.

4. Check on the feedback, work on it, get an editor: No matter how many stories I’ve written, the feedback still takes time to sink in. I go through every point that has been raised, resolve them depending on whether they chime in with what I want to do with the story. then, an editor.

I’ve been trad published by Simon & Schuster, so my agent was my first editor, followed by my publisher’s editor. If I self-publish, I’ll be sure to hire one, because I think they’re essential to the process. At what stage you decide to get one is completely up to you, but no book should go to press without a professional edit.

5. Get into the nitty-gritties: The final pass is the hardest. I’m convinced You Beneath Your Skin was breeding typos like mosquitoes in a tropical water-clogged pool. I was so blind to the text after many years of editing and revisions, that the only way to read it as it really was on the page was to go at it back to front, and read aloud All of it.

Like with everything else with writing, I’d recommend each of us follow what works for us. In the past, I’ve read about the revision process of other authors, and some of the above is cobbled together after listening to advice picking what works for me.

What works for you during revisions? What is the hardest revision challenge you have faced? Do you agree or disagree with the points above?

Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and works with Delhi’s underprivileged children as part of Project Why, a charity that promotes education and social enhancement in underprivileged communities. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. You can find her on her blog and twitter.

All the author proceeds will go to Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks.  

Book links:        Outside India: https://buff.ly/2LSv3vw

India: https://buff.ly/2KMXlXN

Social media and site links:

  1. Project WHY: https://projectwhy.org/
  2. Chhanv Foundation: https://www.chhanv.org/  (Their social media name is StopAcidAttacks)
  3. Author website: https://www.damyantiwrites.com/

Many thanks, Damyanti, for this useful list.

Recent release: You Beneath Your Skin, by Damyanti Biswas.

This week, thanks to Damyanti’s new novel, I’ve visited Delhi. Unlike the average tourist trip, this one included glimpses of family life, walks through some of the seamier areas, plus a ghetto.

I’ve had several guides. First was Anjali Morgan, an American born psychiatrist who has lived in the city with her autistic son, Nikhil, for twelve years, and is about to help investigate a horrific crime.

The story opens with a crisis. Nikhil has jumped out of Anjali’s car, as they were driving away from the shopping mal, because he was not allowed to buy an extra toy.

A worried mother, trapped in a queue of moving traffic and confronted by guards who do not understand the significance of Nikhil’s condition and vulnerability, is a strong story hook. It also allows a great deal of information to be conveyed, economically.

We have setting, colour and context, in the dialogue:

Madamji.‘ A short Nepali guard in a beige uniform hurried up the slope towards her, his whistle shrieking. ‘Yahan parking allowed yihin hai.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Anjali tried to remember the Hindi words, but they’d fled, along with her composure. ‘My son has run away.’

She speaks Hindi as a second language, but as the opening makes clear, to the guard and his supervisor, she is an outsider.

The sight of a light skinned, blond-haired woman, taller and broader than him…

Partial-outsiders, in stories, make excellent guides for a reader trying to settle themselves in unfamiliar territory. They move through the everyday details comfortably, but include things that locals might take for granted. There are, however, some things that an outsider will miss completely, or could be expected to drift off into long explanations.

Damyanti provides us with Several ‘insider’ perspectives. There is an official, and male, view of the action from Jatin Bhatt, Special Commissioner of Crime with the Delhi Police. His side of the story opens in a meeting with his father-in-law, Commissioner Mehra.

Jatin stared at the badge on Mehra’s shoulder… that marked Delhi’s Chief of Police. He wanted it when Mehra retired next year.

A female perspective is presented by his sister, Maya. She’s both traditional and modern. Her role as private detective brings into contrast the modes and methods of the official police-force. Her friendship with Anjali and Nikhil is a key component to the action and outcome of the story.

But there are several other voices too, all providing fresh perspectives on a variety of issues around the crime and the society of Delhi. It’s been an interesting trip, raising lots of questions, even as it resolved the criminal case.

All the proceeds from this novel go to project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks. To find out more, check in with Damyantiwrites.com

First impressions

One of the benefits of researching for my creative-reading groups is finding new authors, and mostly that only means new to me. Recently, for instance, while googling for background information on Lorna Doone, the tome I’m sharing with five groups this autumn, I wandered off route.

I was looking for a concise summary of the reigns of Charles II and James II. Maybe I accidentally miss-typed the date, because I found myself reading about their distant relatives, who took over the British throne two steps on down the line. I’d wanted Stuarts, but found Hanoverians (that’s the kings, Georges I to IV, and William IV).

The problem with having so many Georges at once is that they tend to become blurred and to be known vaguely as the four Georges, or any old man in a wig. How to tell the Georges apart is something of a problem.

This, I thought, is the kind of history teacher I would have appreciated at school. Despite it being of no use what-so-ever for my Lorna Doone research, I read to the end of the extract.

George the first was the one who couldn’t speak English, and didn’t try. …He was brought over by the commercial interests and reigned until 1727 without the least notion of what anyone was talking about.

During this time there was no Queen of England. George the first kept his wife in prison because he believed that she was no better than he was.

What I like, when I’m trawling around for quotes to throw to my students, is something succinct, and challenging. This writer, I thought, would surely have something interesting to say about Charles II or James II. So I checked the title. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, by Will Cuppy. It was first published in 1950, but – oh joy! – there was a copy in one of our local libraries. I put a request in.

‘It sounds wonderful,’ said the librarian. ‘I might borrow it after you.’

This week I picked up my copy. A handy little paperback, with attractive illustrations on the cover. It looked promising.

Imagine my disappointment on finding not a chronological history book, but a random dipping-in approach to history.

Let me qualify that. The essays were delightful. Witty, concise pen portraits that gave me a glimpse of characters and times drawn in absurdist style. But neither Charles II nor James II featured.

…Menes, King of Upper Egypt… in 3400 BC… is said to have been devoured by a hippopotamus, a rather unlikely story, since this animal is graminivorous and has never been known to eat anybody else. Modern scholars, therefore, were inclined to regard Menes as a myth until recently, when it was pointed out that a slight error in feeding habits of the hippopotamus does not necessarily prove that Menes never existed.

Cuppy’s subject choices are varied and intriguing. I enjoyed them all, and feel that I might now manage to sound quite knowledgeable, in an irreverent sense, about Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Lady Godiva, Lucrezia Borgia and Philip the Sap, amongst others.

To say the least, I now know that graminivorous means an animal that eats grass and/or grass seeds. Which seems so much more precise than using herbivore.

As for Lorna, and the last of the Stuart kings, I’m consulting elsewhere.

Seven ‘Bookish’ deadly sins

Having boasted of my ‘bookish’ virtues last week – I do love an oxymoron – this week I thought I ought to even up the scales.

I’ve tracked back through a few blogs to see if I should be crediting this tag to someone, but it seems that the originator has either been lost in the mist, or they decided to remain anonymous. Given how much we reveal in answering these seven questions, to ourselves, as much as anyone else, maybe they wisely preferred to disappear.

So, deep breath, and before I change my mind.

GREED
What is the most expensive book you own? Which is the least expensive?

I’ve just treated myself to The Writer’s Map, which cost nearly thirty pounds, and think myself very extravagant.

The least expensive? There have been so many bargain books, and the ones I didn’t value haven’t stayed with me… Recently, I bought The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, for fifty pence, in a charity shop. Whether you measure that in pages or weight, that’s a lot of book for the money.

GLUTTONY
What book or books have you shamelessly devoured many times?

Where do I begin? Probably with my earliest memories, ‘See Jane, Spot, see Jane run.’ Those were The Happy Venture Readers books. I was still returning to them after becoming hooked on the Famous Five, Secret Seven and The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse. Was it for the sake of the illustrations, I wonder?

I’ve just looked them up on a bookseller site, and if only I hadn’t read mine into bits, I might have used it for my GREED answer.

Lets fast-forward to adult reading, and some of the ones that I turn to most often. The short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, oh, and Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Then, there’s Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, The Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon, any Jane Austen novel… all the writings of Angela Carter – yes everything, because all of her writing feels fearless and exciting.

LUST
What attributes do you find most attractive in your characters?

Curiosity.

ENVY
What books would you most like to receive as a gift?

Something that is one or more of the following: witty, challenging, thought-provoking, beautiful, exotic, poetic, prosaic, magical, exciting, shocking, hard-hitting, atmospheric, minimalist, heartfelt, hilarious, relevant, life-affirming, emotive, complicated, surprising, relaxing, warming…

Have I missed something? That’s the book I really want.

PRIDE
What book or books do you bring up when you want to sound like an intellectual reader?

How honest must I be? I want to claim that I don’t try to sound like an intellectual reader, but I used to boast about how many books I’d read. Luckily, no one ever challenged that, or they’d soon have discovered that most of my list was light or pulp fiction.

SLOTH
What book or series have you neglected out of sheer laziness?

I started The Odyssey around a year ago, and do want to finish it, but somehow I keep picking up other books instead. Maybe it’s because I already know the outcomes.

WRATH
What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?

I’m trying to think of a writer I find offensive, and yet read. I can’t. I stopped wasting valuable reading time on fiction that didn’t work for me years ago, once I’d realised reading wasn’t a test of endurance or a competitive sport, and that I’d completely missed the true meaning of ‘being well-read’.

But, an author I have mixed feelings about is DH Lawrence. I love most of his short stories and poems. Through them, he covers many on the list of wishes I made under the ENVY heading above. His short writing is often layered, complex and surprising.

His novels, on the other hand, leave me mostly cold. I’ve tried, and tried again, to see them as something other than interesting examples of techniques. I always fail.

You may have noticed I’ve not been tagged. I’ve done that thing my dad advises me is best avoided, I volunteered.

If you’d like to see where the idea came from, you might start with Re-enchantment of the World, or Calmgrove, and work back.

Seven ‘bookish’ heavenly virtues.

This week I’ve been reading more lists, though you might call them expanded. Re-enchantment of the World came up with the idea of connecting our reading experiences to ‘ideas of moral excellence’, and created seven questions that allow us to explore the positive aspects of reading. So thank you, Ola and Piotrek, it’s been fascinating seeing your answers, and tracking down some of the others.

So fascinating, I can’t resist claiming my space.

Chastity
Which author, book or series do you wish you’d never read?

This is tricky. There have been plenty of books I haven’t enjoyed, and several I’ve not finished. But they all showed me something. I like thinking about how or why a book didn’t work for me.

There have been books that offended me, and one I was so disgusted by that I threw it in the fire. I can’t remember who wrote it, or the title. All I remember is that it romanticised rape.

Temperance
Which book or series did you find so good that you didn’t want to read it all at once, and you read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. I read it over seven weeks, in equal sections, with my autumn reading groups, last year. I’d decided not to pre-prepare in the summer, because I wanted to discover the story alongside the group. It took a lot of will-power to resist finishing it ahead of the schedule. I re-read it again, right after the course finished.

Charity
Which book, series or author do you tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

The short stories of Elizabeth Taylor (1912 – 1975). Kingsley Amis called her ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century’. I like her novels, but the short stories are stunning.

They’re subtle, and subversive. Approach them with the idea that she had hidden depths, and you’ll find layer upon layer of meaning. I could go on, and on, but I won’t – here.

Diligence
Which series or author do you follow no matter what happens and how long you have to wait?

I love trilogies, but add another title to that, and I tend to drift. So, not a series.

Author’s, on the other hand, I’ll wait for. I’ve been collection Jeffery Farnol novels for decades. They’re tatty old hardbacks dating from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I haven’t wanted to read them for years, but I continue looking out for them, because one day he will be just what I need.

Patience
Is there an author, book or series you’ve read that improved with time the most, starting out unpromising but ultimately proving rewarding?

I was a teenager when I read my first Henry James, it was Portrait of a Lady, and I was determined not to be beaten. After that, I avoided him.

Then, I wanted a book to put with Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, for a reading group, and What Maisie Knew, was the best match. It was a revelation. I’ve read more of his shorter fiction since then, and his essays are fascinating. When I have enough time in hand, I’m going back to try Portrait, again.

Kindness
Which fictitious character would you consider your role model in the hassle of everyday life?

That varies, day-by-day, depending on what I’m reading. I can’t think of a single model. I do frequently wish I was as feisty as Lisbeth Salander, but I’d prefer not to have had the kind of experiences that seem to have caused her to develop those attributes.

Humility
Which book, series or author do you find most under-rated?

If only I hadn’t already mentioned Elizabeth Taylor… I don’t like to repeat myself, so looking back a little further in time, how about Arnold Bennett?

He was prolific and popular, in his day. But saying you write for profit, and letting people know that you have a rigid routine bothers some critics, especially if your books sell well.

The Grand Babylon Hotel was written in a month. I’ve read it, and while it didn’t strike me as being ‘great literature’, it was a lovely time-slip into Edwardian England.

The Old Wives Tale, which took him about seven months, has more power, and ambition. It hooked all four reading groups I shared it with, two years ago.

Virginia Woolf played a part in crippling Bennett’s reputation, in a 1924 lecture called Mr Bennett and Mr Brown. I suppose she had to. Though if she’d read his work closely she might have recognised some of his techniques.

On my bookshelf, Mr Bennett and Mrs Woolf sit side-by-side.

Make a list, why don’t you?

I recently stumbled across this interesting and thoughtful list constructed by the Reverend Sydney Smith, in early 1820.

To Lady Georgiana Morpeth

(c) National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done – so I feel for you. 

1st  Live as well as you dare.

2nd  Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.

3rd  Amusing books.

4th  Short views of human life – not further than dinner or tea.

5th   Be as busy as you can.

6th   See as much as you can of those friends who you respect and like you.

7th   And of those acquaintances who amuse you.

8th   Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk to them freely – they are always worse for dignified concealment.

9th   Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.

10th  Compare your lot with that of other people.

11th  Don’t expect too much from human life – a sorry business at the best.

12th  Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.

13th  Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.

14th  Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.

15th  Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.

16th  Struggle by little and little against idleness.

17th  Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.

18th  Keep good blazing fires.

19th  Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

20th  Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana.

Very truly yours,

Sydney Smith.

It is, I think, a beautiful list. It says a lot about both the giver and the receiver, and despite being nearly 200 years old, there aren’t many of the suggestions that feel especially dated.

I also like the brevity of it. So I thought I might try something similar, but shorter, on a different theme.

Dear Secret Writer,

Please, do dare. There are stories only you can tell, and we would like to read them. Are you really going to leave all those fascinating ideas buried in a file on your hard-drive?

1st Visit a good play, and dare to dream.

2nd Write long letters to old friends.

3rd Join a writing group

4th Read everything – even cereal boxes, small-ads on the local notice-board and the fly-posters on lamp-posts and hoardings.

5th Sit in cafes, with a notebook and pen, and imagine what you would do next, if you were, indeed, a writer.

6th Read one new poem, every day, slowly.

7th Listen, really carefully, when other people are speaking, for at least a minute at the time.

8th Join a reading group.

9th Practice telling jokes.

10th Practice saying, ‘No, thank you. I’m not available for an hour on those days.’

Just published: The Quest for Home

Stories of early humans have always fascinated me. I love history. I’ve also struggled with measuring time in thousands of years, rather than hundreds. How easy understanding the past must be for believers in ‘intelligent design’.

I’ve fantasized about what the lives of our early ancestors might have been like. The junior-school history books with their simple stone-age-man summaries and pictures only tantalized. So often early human’s were summed up by the words, primitive, or caveman.

Jacqui Murray’s Crossroads trilogy, set 850,000 years ago, challenges those concepts. The characters in, The Quest for Home, the second of her three novels, are tribal, but they’re far from primitive. They don’t merely hunt and gather, they must adapt to changes in their circumstances, as they’re displaced from their homeland.

There’s some intriguing background about the research that went into building an authentic world, in the foreword. However, if that kind of thing is not for you, don’t worry. This is primarily, a well-written story driven by a set of strong central characters. The historical notes are supplemental, rather than essential. I only read them afterwards.

It is Jacqui’s choices of a few key details that make the world she’s created feel authentic.

He stepped close enough she could smell his sweat, the pond plants stuck in his hair, and the sourness telling her he hadn’t eaten in a while.

From the beginning, we are reminded of the skills early tribes would have needed. Jacqui’s background notes tell us that:

Homo erectus, the star of Crossroads, is a highly intelligent prehistoric hunter-gatherer who outlasted every other species of man and was the first to spread throughout the Old World of Europe and Asia.

Xhosa, the female leader of ‘our’ tribe, is a new kind of woman. Not only has she trained to become a skilled fighter, she is also quick-witted and resourceful.

When her father died, both Xhosa and Nightshade stood ready to accept the responsibilities of Leader and engaged in a series of contests that tested their cunning, strength, planning, and battle skills. If Nightshade had won, he would now be Leader, she content to serve as his Lead Warrior…

Nightshade is a ferocious fighter. But:

In the fullness of the challenge, Nightshade’s brilliance as a warrior failed to defeat Xhosa’s cunning but if strength were the deciding factor, it would be Nightshade.

So, Nightshade, Xhosa’s childhood friend, becomes her Lead Warrior. As the story opens the group have been washed up on an unknown shore. Many are missing, but the rest gather together. They mourn their losses and prepare to go in search of a homebase, a safe place that only Seeker knows the route to.

It only takes a little extra stress on the group dynamics to raise opposition, overt and covert. The tribe must cross unknown territories, owned by foreign tribes. Luckily, Xhosa has loyal supporters in the group gathering round her. These are the ingredients that give this story a fine pace.

Key characters are a mentor, a girl with the ability to foresee big events, and a boy called Seeker.

What made Seeker especially valuable, and why Xhosa didn’t want to lose him, was that he assured her he could find their new homebase. How he would do that had something to do with the movement of the stars. That made no sense to Xhosa but it had guided Seeker, Zvi, and Spirit for more than two handfuls of Moons.

This, then, is a story of refugees. Xhosa’s people are pushed on not just by Seeker’s ability to read the stars, but also by the inhabitants of the lands they cross. The arguments about boundaries and economics have echoes in our own times.

Although The Quest for Home is book two of a trilogy, you don’t need to have read book one, Survival of the Fittest, to follow and enjoy this stage of the story. You might though, find that the temptation to back-track to part one is pretty strong. That’s where I’m going next, anyway.

Available at: Kindle US   Kindle UK   Kindle CA   Kindle AU

Author bio:

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for  NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, In the Footsteps of Giants, Winter 2020, the final chapter in the Crossroads Trilogy.

Amazon Author Page:  https://www.amazon.com/Jacqui-Murray/e/B002E78CQQ/ Blog: https://worddreams.wordpress.com Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jacquimurraywriter/ LinkedIn: http://linkedin.com/in/jacquimurray Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/askatechteacher Twitter: http://twitter.com/worddreams Website:  https://jacquimurray.net

Have I said enough? I aimed to be brief…

This week, while checking back through an old diary, I found a quote I’d like to share. It comes from the Scottish poet, Liz Lochhead, and seems as valuable and applicable to prose as poetry.

A poet has to trust the readers’ intuition and intelligence…

Woman Reading a Novel, 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Trusting the reader is both important and difficult. It’s not just about avoiding over-explaining things, it’s also about ensuring we say enough to make our meaning clear. While I like to think that I’m able to make that judgement, I’m aware that, especially when I’m writing up to a deadline, I have blind spots.

There are some tried and tested solutions to this problem. One, is the thing so many writers find tricky, to put your first draft away for several weeks as soon as you think it’s finished. If you go on to write on other topics, then that theory says that by the time you return to your first piece you’ll view it through fresh eyes.

If time is shorter, and in my experience it so often is, you might try reading it aloud to yourself. Alternatively, you can give your writing to someone you trust and let them tell you what they think… what they really think. Because, the other aspect of this quote that interests me is that when she says, trust the reader’s intuition and intelligence… Liz Lochhead seems to echo a suggestion I picked up from Stephen King’s autobiography, On Writing.

In it, he talks about having a group of ideal readers who check the first drafts of his manuscripts. These people represent the readers he expects to buy his novels. He suggests that he writes with an idea not just about his story, but about the style of telling that will suit the audience he’s aiming for.

Print by Alberto Manrique

Whether we’re aware of this or not, I think we all write with a reader in mind. It may be that we can’t visualize that audience, but we surely know something about the intuition and intelligence we expect from them. I suspect they’re mostly people like us, or they’re the ‘beings’ we’d like to be.

Finding readers who understand who you are, and what you aspire to, can be tricky. l’m lucky in having two trusted readers. They’re both people I know well, and who know me well.

I don’t say I write for them, my writing is something completely selfish. But when I’ve finished, and I’m checking the draft, I do find myself thinking about how Ray or Ruth will perceive my words.

And later, if either says, ‘I don’t get why/what/how...’ then no matter how much I might want to protest, I know that I’ve got to think about making changes to my writing.

Woman Reading a Novel, painting by Vincent van Gogh.