Mythical Maps

Sometimes, I leave Emily-the-sat-nav on, when I’m returning from my destination on a known route home, just to see if I can annoy her.  It’s purely in the interests of education, you understand.  I have a feeling she’s been repressed, and requires exposure to the frustrations of everyday modern life.

So, when she says, ‘Recalculating,’ I reply, ‘Please wait, while we try to connect you.’  She remains calm, despite my continued refusal to turn right at any of the several next junctions. 

I’ve never quite trusted her ability to maintain such calm.  Somewhere under that po-faced-tone is a sense of humour, I’m sure. If there is no personality, why has she been given a human name?  

The Urban Dictionary says that: 
A girl with the name Emily can be very shy at first, but she doesn’t show it. Once an Emily gets to know you, she may get a little crazy. An Emily is usually artistic. They tend to hide their emotions, they’re good problem solvers and very flexible with schedules.

Clearly, sat-nav-Emily needs encouragement to reach her full potential.  So, I keep a tatty old map book behind the seat, and periodically, I do Observation Reports on Emily’s navigation skills.  Her potential gradings are ‘Exceptional’, ‘Good’, ‘Requires Improvement,’ or ‘Inadequate.’  

Up to now, there’s been little change in my feedback:  While Emily is technically competent, she lacks zing or charm.  Accuracy is all very well, but her delivery is dry.  I’m not suggesting she needs to go so far as, ‘here be monsters,’ but a little colour might liven up a delivery that borders on monotony.  There have been times when Emily has failed to put her point across effectively, even at full volume.  Hence my grading is: Requires Improvement.

Suggested Actions: Emily should familiarise herself with some A-Zs, which are rumoured to contain jokes, and even some of the older maps, which demonstrate charm, imagination and artfulness while still maintaining their basic accuracy.

*Image taken from: No Mean Prospect: Ralph Sheldon’s Tapestry Maps, by Hilary L. Turner.

A room with a certain view.

MagpieThere’s no denying that a magpie is a handsome bird.  The trick to keeping that white shirt so pristine is a mystery that would be worth millions, if it could be translated to our laundry industry.  Imagine the sales pitch, ‘Chemical-free cleaning for a happy environment.’  How welcome would that be to soap manufacturers, I wonder?

As for that petrol-like gleam of blue on those black wings, hood and tail, it out-sheens any silk I’ve seen.  Up close, the birds have glamour.  Usually, around here, they’re seen from a distance, as a flash of monochrome, flitting out of the way of cars.  They are, after all, fine refuse collectors, and despite their handsome dinner-jackets, they relish road-kill.

magpie nestThis spring a pair of magpies have moved into a tree across the road.  They’ve constructed their twiggy des-res at the apex of the thin branches at the crown, it looks precarious, I get vertigo just thinking about sitting up there by the hour, but the design is clearly first rate.  Despite strong gusting winds during the last month, the nest remains firmly lodged, and Mrs Magpie seems to be brooding her eggs.

Mr Magpie flits back and forth, bringing home the groceries.  It’s a lot of work, searching out food for a growing family, which our Magpie couple must have factored in when they decided on this spot.  It is, after all, a prime location with several handy garden food stores.  He’s taken control of my bird-feeders, especially the inverted terracotta fat-feeder designed to favour acrobatic blue-tits.

Lacking the agility for swinging upside-down to feed, Mr Magpie paces along branches, assessing the problem from all right-way-up angles.  That’s when I have a chance to observe without being observed, to admire his elegance.  Any other time he keeps one eye always on the house, ready to depart at the twitch of a shadow, but this prize keeps his focus. He can reach the edge of the pot from a parallel branch, if only his beak would bend.

He’s not dainty, or delicate.  He drops onto the grass to eye the mush of fat and seed from below.  How solid he looks, as if he’s a regular at the gym. There’s no denying his qualities as a pin-up, but does that image tell the whole story?  I can feel the twitch of a smile, watching him pace, peering first this way, then that.  When he dives up, beak reaching, stabbing into the pot, gulping down fragments of plunder, I’m tempted to laugh and cheer.  He tries so hard to hover there, the effort is at odds with his usual economy of movement.

This fellow’s not sunny, or funny though. See how the other birds hurry out of his way?  They’re far from charmed by the sophisticated demeanour.  They know that Mr & Mrs Magpie are not ideal neighbours, that with their presence the garden has transformed from a gentle landscape of domestic intrigues into one laced with menace.

Here’s another reason for writers to like fairy stories.

This week, my friends Ruth and Annie, who run the Logie Steadings bookshop in Forres, Scotland, (please note, everyone, this is not just a shameless promotion for excellent purveyors of reading material, staffed by brilliant and welcoming staff -though if you’re in the area, do call in! – this post is a few thoughts about reading journeys) have been running a promotion for Ladybird books. Their on-line publicity featured one of the first books I was ever allowed to choose for myself, Puss in Boots, and that I read, quite literally to bits.

Ladybird puss in boots

I’ve no idea how it happened that our junior school gave each child a book, but I’m still grateful.  Until then, books materialised magically, opening unlooked for doors of my imagination.

One year though, was I six, seven or eight? I don’t know, what I remember is sunshine, and young leaves on the copper-beach tree, and mum handing back the glossy leaflet I’d brought home. ‘Which book would you like?’ she said, and when I opened that paper out, there were lists, and lists, of titles.  Each was numbered, accompanied by a little picture and a box to tick.

The decision was agony.  Even though I dismissed all the non-fiction titles instantly, that left many favourite stories.

So why Puss rather than one of the many gorgeous princesses?  Maybe because he was like our cat, not just in being tabby, but in having a jaunty stride and a knowing tilt to his head.  Look at him, staring right at us, surely he’s about to wink. Sometimes, when stories are illustrated, or dramatized, they become the definitive version.  Eric Winter’s illustrations caught me.

A couple of decades later, when I discovered Angela Carter’s reworked fairy tales, in The Bloody Chamber, I fell in love with Puss-in-Boots all over again. No matter that her feline, aptly named Figaro, was a marmalade tabby: his clothes, his demeanour, his attitude, were a grown-up version of that Ladybird book.

…oh, my goodness me, this little Figaro… a cat of the world, cosmopolitan, sophisticated… proud of his bird-entrancing eye and more than military whiskers; proud, to a fault, some say, of his fine, musical voice. All the windows in the square fly open when I break into impromptu song at the spectacle of the moon above Bergamo.

Innuendo laden Puss-in-Boots made me think again about that Ladybird book.  Other stories might have action, magic, anthropomorphic animals, but how many were as slyly audacious? He lies, he cheats, he steals and charms, those are the events of the story.

Most fairy-tale heroes are defined by their looks, white-as-snow, red-as-blood, fairest-in-the-land, beautiful and they’re always good.  Evil characters put them in jeopardy, and they must maintain their moral ground, resist temptations. Often, they’re not clever, just brave in the face of adversity, and so worthy of rich rewards.

Ladybird puss in boots.jpg 2Amongst all those passive Ladybird characters, Puss stood out partly, because he puzzled me.  What was the message?  Carter played up the ambiguity that had kept me returning to the story.

Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then, after I celebrate his generosity with a fresh obbligato the moon no fuller than my heart–whoops! I nimbly spring aside–down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native Bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr.

‘Merrrrrrrrrrrci!’

The machinations of Puss are not unique.  Go back to Grimm, Perrault, or some of the other folk & fairy story collectors and you’ll find many of those Ladybird characters showing their feisty side.  What might they say, given an opportunity?  You tell me.

I’d like to recommend Elizabeth Jane Howard.

elizabeth jane howardThe Long View is a novel told in reverse.  It begins with a portrait of the marriage of Antonia and Conrad Fleming in 1950, when their son is getting engaged, and then steps back through various key moments in the adult life of Antonia.  Hmm, I thought, turning the novel over, shall I: shan’t I?

Could I care about the domestic angst of an upper-middle-class, middle-aged woman in the 1950s?  I tried the first page, ‘This, then, was the situation.

I do like beginnings in media res, a technical term that translates to ‘into the middle of things’.  Clearly this is not a high-octane action sequence, it’s something much more juicy.  ‘Want a bit of gossip?’ the narrator is saying, leaning in close over our coffee cups.  ‘I’m going to share secrets.’

This, then, was the situation.  Eight people were to dine that evening in the house at Campden Hill Square.  Mrs Fleming had arranged the party (it was the kind of unoriginal thought expected of her, and she sank obediently to the occasion) to celebrate her son’s engagement to June Stoker.

Then there’s that lovely piece of subtlety, ‘she sank obediently to the occasion’.  Lovely, a narrator who will leave me room to work things out.  I was hooked. Time to step back from the stereotyping and residual prejudices, and see what a skilled writer can do with a domestic situation.

On arrival the men would be politely wrenched from their overcoats, their hats, umbrellas, evening papers, and any other more personal outdoor effects by the invaluable Dorothy, until reduced to the uniformity of their dinner jackets…

Remember I said this is a story told in reverse?  It isn’t flashback, with the narrator balancing the pressures and consequences of previous events against an on-going development, this is an exact reversal of time.  Once we have gathered what the situation is in 1950, that segment closes and we step into 1942.

That’s a tricky game to play.  In a novel I’m expecting some sense of continuity, of development.  There are five segments to this story, taking us back in uneven stages to 1926.  Each requires us to begin again with setting, situation and characters, and go forward for a while, getting to know a younger Antonia.  How will she do it, maintain my interest, my belief in the wholeness of this concept?

Well, one trick is repetition.  Here’s the beginning for 1942:

‘The situation is perfectly simple.  All you have to do is to meet me from the 7.38 at Euston.’

Thus Mr Fleming on a trunk call from the previous night from goodness knows where.  Indeed, put like that, what could be simpler?  With the world at war, meticulously grinding vast cities exceeding small; with such catastrophes as Singapore and Dunkirk behind one..’

Reassuringly the same tone, and style, but now neatly, economically, creating setting and, did you see it?  SITUATION.

Each of the other three sections open with a reference to situation, but with a fresh take, a subtle re-setting of tone.  All build up to a domestic event that will impact on Antonia, and in so doing, reveal other layers of story and backstory.

Gradually, my picture of Antonia is rounding out.  I learn something about why, at the outset, she is expected to be unoriginal, and why she might sink ‘obediently to the expectation’.  More importantly, I think I understand how this process has evolved.

Elizabeth Jane Howard 2Told chronologically, it’s a novel that might easily be defined as a saga.  Told in reverse, with economy, it becomes an intriguing and sophisticated exploration of character. Read this, and you might never make easy assumptions about a marriage again.

Read this, and you might be tempted to try out some of these strategies in your own writing.

You want to write? Dare to dream.

creating-charactersSitting on the decking at our Dartmoor holiday cottage, overlooking a verdant village, on a balmy September afternoon, I chatted across the fence with our temporary neighbour, Janet.  ‘You’ve got to enjoy your work,’ she said.  ‘I loved being a care assistant.  Going home at night knowing that you’d made at least one person smile that day.’

Janet’s a doer.  She’s just finished redecorating her hall, and is about to mow her lawn.  The garden is immaculate, and colourfully planted.  She’s always busy.  Tonight is quiz night, it’s, ‘a bit of a laugh, I go with my sister, she lives in the next village, so I pick her up.  She can’t get about much, with her hips.’

Janet’s a fiction, a character I’m putting together as I write.  She has a story I want to tell, but I don’t know it yet.  The things I do know are accumulating.  Some of them contradict what I thought I knew, and so I’m adapting my ideas.  For instance, her hair has fluffed out from short to long, from neat to artfully dyed and sculpted. Perhaps you think it doesn’t matter about something so superficial, and maybe I won’t be including that information in the final version of the story I write.  But I need to know it.

Janet is not a figment of my imagination, I’m dreaming her into existence.  I care about her, and the things that she cares about, and if I do this well, when I’m finished she may make you smile too.  This evening, when she comes out of the back door, in her black lace blouse, sharp black trousers and her neatly painted face, you will glance up from the Devon Life magazine you’ve been flicking through as you wait for your tea to barbecue, and wave.  ‘Good luck,’ you will call.

Janet will give a cheek-lifting smile, and hurry across the firm dry lawn to ask what’s cooking.  ‘Smell’s good,’ she’ll say, rising on tiptoes to look over the fence. ‘What are you planning for tomorrow?  Weather’s looking kind.’

She’s taking her granddaughter into Exeter in the morning, for a hearing test.  ‘But I expect I’ll see you in the evening.  Don’t get lost on the moor, or go shaking hands with any ghosts.’  Then she’ll adjust her hot pink pashmina around her shoulders and hurry down the garden to her honeysuckle covered car-port.  Her white blonde hair glows in the dusky shadows as she moves round to the drivers door.

From the decking we watch her drive out of the cul-de-sac and onto the narrow lane.

 

 

 

 

Getting to know a character.

The other day I woke up with a plot idea.  I jotted down the gist and then took the dogs for a walk.  Sometimes when I come back to such notes, I find they’ve lost their shine.  This time they hadn’t.  All they needed was the right character and something was sure to evolve.  It would be a woman, I knew that much, but who was she?

I could almost see her, just beyond my page, as a shadowy presence.  I had an idea about her size and colouring, but that’s not enough to shape a story.  I needed to know what she was really like.

photo(10)But where to start?  One way is to follow a questionnaire.   There are hundreds of variations to chose from, and they’re easy to get hold of – you can find one of mine here, or check out a search engine.  There are all sorts of formats: all kinds of lengths.

But, how do you know which one is best for you?

Well, I’d say that depends on how you use them.  Generally the format will be a numbered list of questions.  The tone often gets deeper as you move down the page.

I suppose the most important thing to remind you is that these are triggers, and while it’s a good idea to go with your first answer, you should also be prepared to revise details as you develop the profile.

So answering number 1, I gave her a name…Pippa.  But apart from a few celebrities, who goes through life with only one name?  We usually need at least a surname to balance that, so hello Pippa Phillips.

But then, instead of moving on to consider her age, I found myself wondering,  Pippa Phillips, Pippa Phillips…who gets a name like that?  How do they get a name like that?

Who better to ask than Pippa Phillips?  This is how my side of the conversation went:

Are you married?

What was your maiden name?

Ahh, so have you married a relation?  Interesting.

Have you children?

Who’s surname do they take?

How did you decide that?

You have a good relationship with your husband then? Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t make assumptions.

How did your families take that?

So, how long have you been together?

Cleary I’d moved off the questionnaire, but that shadowy presence I’d perceived was talking to me, and I like the idea that the story leads the writer. I knew that soon, Pippa would step out into the light and become a describable physical being, and not at all the person I’d first thought of.

DSCF5296Does it matter that I went off on a lateral line?  Just in case you think it does, let me ask how often you’ve been sent a survey that restricted you to an inapplicable set of assumptions?

Questionnaires are a general tool.  They make a great foundation for all sorts of exercises and stories.  But sometimes we need reminding that they’re not a formula, they’re a kick-off for creativity.

Shades and shadows.

Hi there, me again, posting another blog.  How long have we been meeting like this now?

Are you beginning to feel that you know me?  I hope so.  I’ve told you so much about what I think, do, like and dislike that I sometimes wonder if this blog looks like therapy.

I’ve been using the ‘me’ and ‘I’ approach, known (technically) as writing in the first person.  I’ve created a voice on the page, or perhaps I should say screen, that has its own idiosyncrasies, and hopefully convinced you that I’m a living, fully-rounded person, not just a flat fictional character.

Detail from Humphrey Newton's notebook, 1497

Detail from Humphrey Newton’s notebook, 1497

I’ve been confiding in you, and since I hope I haven’t offered you anything offensive or shocking, you’ve been inclined to believe me, haven’t you?  Might I even claim to have gained some degree of trust?

Well, of course, there was that lapse, last October when I abandoned blogging without warning, and disappeared for several months.  But let’s slide over that for the moment, and concentrate of content. That’s been sound, hasn’t it?

Tricky thing, pinpointing truth.  I was flicking through some old notebooks today, and came across one with some Dennis Potter quotes I’d copied out for a university project, and since one of them has been resonating, I thought I’d share it with you:

…apparently autobiographical forms are very powerful.  It’s…a method of appearing to inhabit one person’s head in a ‘truthful’ way.

The authenticity of the background and the surface detail is therefore guaranteed, as is the emotion, which gives me the licence to introduce and explore emotions that are not mine, that are fiction.

 

Keepsakes and Treasure Seekers

You see this box?DSCF6030It was a thank-you gift.

Someone who noticed how I like boxes thought I would appreciate it

I did.  It was not a big box, being shorter than a penguin paperback, but deeper.  If you look closely you’ll see that it’s made from good quality materials; that the surface has a linen-like texture and the edges are beveled.  I liked the solid design and the simplicity of the logo, though I didn’t know who Jo Malone was, or what they sold.  DSCF6031

What made it really special was that it was offered filled with mementos.   It told the story of a writing weekend, but here was a different view of where we’d been and what had happened.

DSCF6032

For nearly a year this box has been on the edge of my desk.  Sometimes I open it, but mostly I remember what is inside.

I haven’t put this with my other boxes, because this one does something different.  It doesn’t just transport me back to another time and place, it also paints a portrait of the person who selected the contents.