Dreaming of dinner parties.

Is your social life suffering? Are you looking for a solution to Covid lockdown blues? Put aside the commercial and political arguments about the rights and wrongs of the situation; forget Zoom, for a moment, and follow me.

I’ve been inspired by a BBC Radio 4 programme called My Dream Dinner Party. In each episode a host invites a selection of their long-time dead heroes to join them for dinner. The menus have been varied, and occasionally worrying.

Here’s a tip though, in case you are ever invited to feast with Jack Whitehall: stick to liquids and avoid the solids. As a barman, he sounds spot on, but the malfunctions in his kitchen included a cavalier attitude to mould on food.

All of the hosts are skilled conversation starters. This week Shappi Khorsandi invited Maya Angelou, Kenny Everett, Richard Burton, Dr Edith Summerskill and Amy Winehouse to a Persian feast.

‘I’d love to do that,’ I thought. I could create a virtual feast. The technicalities of cutting and splicing sound clips, however, is far beyond my technical abilities.

It only took a little lateral thinking to connect this series to Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play, Top Girls, where Marlene’s dinner guests are real and fictional women from history. No technology necessary.

But, there are so many fascinating historical characters I’d like to meet. Churchill had a purpose, an agenda. I needed to find mine. It didn’t take long, though narrowing that down needed a lot more thought.

I’ve sent my invitations into some fictional worlds. There really are so many characters I’d like to spend time with, but eventually I came up with a theme that helped me to narrow my list down.

Tristram Shandy’s reply arrived first.

Madam, it would be a delight to partake of the fine company and good victuals you describe.

Permit me, as a humble guest, to supplement your table with some choice delicacies that I happen to have at hand. In short, I can supply a fine keg of claret, and several prodigious pies garnished with a ponderous mass of judicious trimmings, richly baked this last sennight.

Madam’s most obedient,

and most devoted,

and most humble servant,

Tristram Shandy.

Dora Chance sent back a very old postcard of Big Ben, with an out of date stamp on it. I paid the extra postage, though she seemed to have written it in khol, and a lot of the words were smudged. In between some of the smeared hieroglyphics I thought I could just make out, ‘Got bubbly, ducky?’ I presume that means she will be appearing, but it’s possible she’s sent me the wrong reply. We’ll just keep our fingers crossed that she hasn’t received a better offer.

Nellie Dean’s reply covered two pages of fullscap, and she’d crossed it. It took me a couple of hours to decipher all of the content. A lot of it was domestic, and seemed to be concerned with Joseph’s refusal to wipe his boots before entering the back kitchen. Though there were also two sides about Cathy and Hareton. It seems they are still billing and cooing like a pair of doves. She finished, ‘You’d never think that they are about to become grandparents. But I believe they can now safely be left in charge, so I’ll be glad to repair to another region for a short time.’

Rebecca de Winter’s reply came in a thick cream-coloured envelope. Inside was a single heavy sheet of mono-graphed notepaper. Her handwriting would have brought a smile to a calligrapher’s face. It said, ‘I should be delighted to accept your kind invitation. With kind regards, R. dW.’

Piscine Molitor Patel phoned me to get directions. “Could you name me a few notable landmarks? I don’t have much faith in technology.”

I promised to meet him at the railway station.

“How will we know each other?”

I told him the station was not so very big that we could make a mistake, but he said he’d learned to take precautions when travelling. “We’ll both wear carnations, and I’ll carry a rolled up beach mat. Who else will be there?”

I told him.

He said, “You don’t expect anyone to believe this, do you?”

“I know,” I said. “Brilliant, isn’t it?”

Piscine Molitor by Getfunky Paris – Flickr: Plongée urbex, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Fear of The Maddening Crowds: a classic, re-imagined for our situation.

A continuation of my glimpse into modern-day Wessex.

Chapter 2 Where is that Maddening Crowd? by Thomas Hiding

It was Frannie, who had been barmaid at The Malthouse through the reign of three previous landlords, who figured out the practicalities of re-opening as a take-away. William stood back and watched her carry a table into the doorway, set out the blackboard on the deserted pavement and write in huge letters, Beer, bring your own container.

‘If it doesn’t work, you needn’t pay me,’ she’d said, as if she’d no idea that William had already decided that she wouldn’t fit with his plans for the refurbishment. She’d seen what his Sheffield pub was like when she Googled him, and had gone out to shop for a plain white shirt in the New Year sales. That was three weeks before he arrived for the takeover.

She’d tried it out in the privacy of her bedroom, in the flat above the saloon bar, with the grumble of tv news reports seeping up through the floor boards.

‘Hey, I can rock this,’ she’d thought, as she zipped up the black skirt from the back of the wardrobe. It had to be four or five years since she’d bought it, and she’d worn it only once, for a Halloween fancy dress night. But it was okay, it still fitted.

It was okay, wasn’t it? She’d turned, and turned, before her mirror, knowing that this was a low wattage-bulb illusion. She opened the door to let the light in from the hall, then fetched a lamp, plugged it in by the mirror and took the shade off it.

The stranger in the mirror remained even when she hunted through her makeup box for colours she’d never worn, stuff that should have been thrown away years before. She’d worry about consequences tomorrow. Who knew if it was even true, about the bacteria and infections? She patted and shaded, blended and outlined, then rubbed it off and started again, and again.

Who was she kidding?

The shirt was stained. She’d washed it before taking it, and the skirt, to the charity shop, but there were still smudges of foundation on the collar. Frannie had felt like a reverse shop-lifter as she handed the bagged clothes over.

Observation and isolation.

Have we become more observant since lockdown?

That’s one of the claims I keep hearing in the media. The evidence offered is that many of us have been getting a lot closer to the natural environment. In Britain, it is said, more people are going for walks, cycling and gardening than ever before.

The sudden loss of mechanical noises certainly allowed nature’s voice to be heard more clearly, and like many people, I’ve been fascinated to see the range of creatures reclaiming spaces they are usually pushed out of by crowds of humans. Internationally, my favourite photo, so far, has been a dolphin swimming into pristine waters in Venice. True or not, that image is now embedded in my mind. But the wonder of what’s on our own doorstep is not easily dismissed.

Ah, climate change, my favourite band-wagon. ‘Surely,’ hope says, ‘now that we’ve seen how quickly the damage we cause can be turned around, we’re going to make some changes.’ That was certainly the supposition of the interviewee on a radio programme, early in the week.

Meanwhile, this talk of our improved powers of observation has set me thinking. Some of my favourite pieces of poetry and prose depend on an adept use of detail.

Take Wuthering Heights, for instance. Emily Bronte conveys setting and climate in a sentence.

Pure bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.

Later, when Cathy is raving, she pulls feathers from her pillow and identifies the birds they came from: turkeys ducks, pigeons, moorcocks and lapwings. These are what are called ‘telling’ detail. They not only demonstrate the state of Cathy’s mind, they provide a glimpse back to her childhood. They link to a specific moment when she and Heathcliff were roaming the moors together.

Emily Bronte, I feel confident in asserting, didn’t just take note of her environment, she thought about it. We know that she, too, spent a lot of time walking.

You might say that she practiced isolation. How did that work? I think it provided thinking time, and that’s the other way I read this statement about our powers of observation. Many of us have been forced to stop rushing after a busy schedule, and maybe for the first time, have given extra time to noticing our home environment.

In Emily Bronte’s case, doing this resulted in a piece of fiction that has endured for one hundred and seventy two years. No pressure, of course, but I do like to think there will be more than one positive outcome from this strange moment we’re living through.

Re-booting my creativity #writingworkshop, #Dahliabooks, #Homeby10.

The temperature here dropped a few degrees in the last week of August, a reminder (or warning) that autumn is just around the corner. This time of year Ray, Rusty and I would normally be taking a week away somewhere. Since that’s out of the question, my thoughts have turned to classes (not my own, those plans are already shaping up nicely). I’ve been looking at what else is available.

Most years I spend a lot of time browsing lit-fest brochures, highlighting things that I know I won’t get to. Travel, time and accommodation always defeat me equally.

Not any more. The upside of the continuing restrictions on public meetings is that many events have moved on-line. It has finally dawned on me that I can go anywhere in this virtual country.

Saturday morning I found Short Story September organised by Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Books, in Leicester. I’d missed the first session, but there was a masterclass on Imagery and Structure in Short Fiction with Farhana Khalique & Anita Goveas that afternoon. A few clicks later and I was booked on it.

From ten-to-three we began to gather in our virtual classroom. Introductions were made, a few ground-rules laid, and then we were off, reading samples of stories, thinking about them, and trying out ideas of our own. Ink flowed. We broke away into small groups and compared notes, then got back together and wrote more.

Both tutors bubbled with infectious enthusiasm. That’s energizing. They delivered an hour-long session each, which provided contrasting and complementary approaches to the subject.

At the finish, I had rough drafts for several stories. This is the physical evidence of a good writing session.

As after any well-designed workout, I realised I was tired, but not drained. I’d been encouraged to stretch, but not strain, my creativity.

Later, having drawn breath and reflected, I felt freshened. I love seeing the literary world through the prism of another writer’s viewpoint. In addition to that, I’d been introduced to some stories I might not have discovered on my own, and I had five pages of new story ideas. That’s what I call a useful session.

Patterns

Our neighbours gardens are bursting with bright flowers, sometimes forming unlikely harmonies: the purple smoke bush fronted by bright yellow evening primroses, or delicate crimson sweet peas next to blowsy orange dahlias. These glorious pallets of colour are a credit to the time and care that have gone into them.

In contrast, we’re still favouring the wild look. Thanks to a few strategic rainstorms between heatwaves, green is still our predominant colour. We are a garden of textures and tones, with only a few dots of colour from the hardiest types of independent blooms. The yellow-hot pokers have been stars, and so are those rampant volunteers, the orange marigolds.

Luckily, the results of this abandonment are not so obvious from a distance, so we’ve not had to deal with comments about harbouring an invasion force. This week though, my conscience was triggered when returning from a trip to collect our clicked groceries.

I didn’t notice them on the way out, because I was concentrating on reversing. We have a tricky gateway.

Driving in, I couldn’t avoid noticing the very tall and vigorous hog weed plant leaning, triffid-like, over the bonnet of the car, heavy with ripening seeds.

Tall as it is, luckily it’s not Giant Hogweed, which is a notifiable weed. Still, I was certain my neighbours wouldn’t be pleased to see it. Something would have to be done.

I’ve a fascination with the patterns of seed-heads. So, once I’d seen one seeding plant, my eye was in for spotting the others.

What is it I like? The symmetry.

Anyone who knows me well would be able to explain how paradoxical that answer is. I am hopeless at mathematics. Show me a number and my brain stalls. At school I failed to understand anything beyond the basic, practical levels.

I can still name a few geometric shapes: isosceles triangle, equilateral triangle, the parallelogram… Could I describe them? Please don’t test me.

Perhaps, if they’d been presented as nature notes I might have made an Archemedian exclamation. Give me maths with a story attached, and things like measuring volume make sense. Eurika!

Stories are patterns. The ones I love best are a puzzle to be unraveled. They can be seen quickly, and enjoyed in passing. Some can be studied, over and over again. Look closely and each time they will reveal a fresh pattern of meaning, of symbols, words or images. Perhaps this is the same principle as someone colouring mandalas in one of those mindfulness books.

To look at a dandelion seed-head before I use it to count time, is to lose time. So imagine my fascination with the salsify seed heads, three times the size of a dandelion. They’ve been popping up in this garden for years. These are the grandfather clocks of nature’s timekeepers. The stems can be up to five foot tall.

Then there are teasels, another of my unconventional garden residents. These have their seeding shape before the flowers are showing. They’re pretty spectacular from a distance, but look down at them and another pattern shows.

Patterns like these lead me to think I might manage to understand the equations behind polyhedrons, or maybe, even, The Golden Ratio. First, though, I’d better find my loppers, and cut down that hogweed, before it scatters its way into the gardens of all my neighbours.

A classic, updated and re-imagined for our situation.

This post carries an apology, in the first place to Thomas Hardy, and in the second to fans of his writing.

I deliver it with an excuse, and lay the blame for these trespasses on a much loved classic to two fellow bloggers: Ola, at Re-enchant Of The World, drew my attention to the ‘What my favourite characters would be doing in lockdown’ tag, and Chris, at Calmgrove, ‘updated’ some classic titles. When I admired them, he challenged me to create one of my own, and add a review.

Instead, I present an extract from: Fear of the Maddening Crowds, by Thomas Hiding.

Chapter one: Description of Gabriel Oak – An Incident.

The singular winning thing about Gabriel Oak, historian, was his enthusiasm. It had been the defeat of all his students, even the most resistant, throughout his twenty years teaching at the local Further Education college.

He was a man of average looks, not generally drawing notice, when walking into a room. For work he wore neat, but plain, clothes, carelessly chosen from the middle-ranges of his local Marks & Spencer department, and on first sight, particularly when seen at a distance, was often assumed to be ten years older than his actual age.

But many of those who experienced his lectures on The Children’s Crusades of 1212, or The Role of Women in The Rise of Nazi Germany, found it a trans-formative experience. Then, his blue eyes took on a warm lustre, the animation of his features could raise the senses, and his voice assumed a new and confiding pitch. In short he grew taller, straighter, and more charismatic. He glowed with an enthusiasm that sent many a pulse racing. More than one student left his classroom dazzled.

Gabriel had risen, gradually, to become head of the history department, and was assumed by many to be comfortably in place for the step-up to Education Programme Co-ordinator. His had been a steady career, once he’d found the bottom rung to it.

When he left school at sixteen, Gabriel’s one GCSE had launched him only as far as assistant janitor in a printers. It was there, though, that boredom had driven him to browse through some of the remaindered stock during his breaks. Had there been anyone else of his own age in the building, he might have found other ways to amuse himself. Instead, he stumbled upon a History of Constantinople.

After that, his ears were open and his mind receptive when, first, evening classes were mention, later, the Open University, and finally, teacher training. It was, his mother said after his graduation ceremony, what she had always known he was capable of, if only he’d listened more at school.

Becoming Head of Department made Gabriel responsible for three other tutors. The college was not so very big, after all. More importantly, it promoted him to an office all on his own.

Room 101a was significantly smaller than the large, shared history office. His desk took up most of the space, though it was only just big enough for the large desk-top computer. But it was his alone. He could heap books and papers on the floor, and shut his door on distractions. There was no one to note how much work he did, or when. If the sun shone, he was free to lean back on his chair until his head rested on the bookshelves, and bask.

His eyelids were closed, and he was not quite snoring, on the bright mid-March afternoon when Bathsheba Everdine discovered him. She paused on the threshold, rearranging the heap of plastic encased essay papers that were trying to escape what had been a firm grasp, until she opened the door, and took in the sunlit vision before her.

Quite how long she had stood there, Gabriel never knew. Room 101a was at the dead-end of a corridor, far from the bustle of tutorials and meetings.

When he opened his eyes and saw her, he sat straighter, and said, ‘Yes?’ in a way that assumed she had just stepped through the door.

‘I’ve brought your essays,’ Bathsheba said, offering the slippery heap, and looking round for a space to place them.

Gabriel frowned. ‘My what?’

Bathsheba said, ‘It looks like you’ll have plenty of work to do during lock-down, anyway. We’re just sorting out the archived ones for you now, I’ll be back up with them in a jiffy.’

Gabriel frowned. ‘A jiffy? Yes, umm, look, ah… I’m sorry, what’s your name?’

‘I’m Bathsheba,’ said Bathsheba. She grinned. ‘I know, it’s my gran’s fault.’ She held out the heap of papers, again, fumbling them slightly, as they began to slide. ‘I’m covering for a maternity leave,’ she said, ‘at least that was the pre-covid plan. Who knows what happens now.’

‘Okay, right,’ said Gabriel, ‘Bathsheba. I’m not expecting any marking…’

‘Really?’ Bathsheba looked down at the top paper. ‘Not even on global heat, and latitudinal variations in energy?’

‘No. I’m…’

‘They said you might try to avoid them.’

‘They’re not mine.’

‘They’ve got your name on: George Heart, room 201.’

‘All the 200s are up there,’ said Gabriel, pointing at his ceiling. ‘This is floor is the100s.’

Bathsheba’s eyes opened wide. ‘Oh, what a fool,’ she said, turning to back out of the room. ‘You must think I can’t even read,’ she said, turning to look at the door, and as she did so, the heap of papers slipping from her grasp. ‘Oh.’

Gabriel knelt down beside her and began to help gather pages. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘this door doesn’t have a number. Some say it’s a space that shouldn’t exist, that it’s like history, both a truth and untruth at the same time.’

Bathsheba leaned back on her heels and studied him, her mouth curving into a wide smile. ‘Don’t you like history, then?’

‘Love it,’ he said. ‘Bloody love it, Bathsheba of the oath.’

Side by side they gathered the scattered pages from under the desk and chair. ‘I don’t suppose we should even be this close, really,’ said Bathsheba, ‘who knows what the risks are…’

Advice for fiction writers…

In 2010 Elmore Leonard published a book called, Ten Rules for Writing. Since he had already earned accolades like, ‘the doyen of hardboiled fiction‘ for his novels, short stories and screen-writing, a lot of us took a look.

I’ve liked the list enough to still be recommending it to others. Reduced to a minimal form, as in the illustration on the left, it makes a useful discussion starter.

I assume that Leonard was nodding back to the Golden Age of crime writing. It was in 1928, that the American writer, S.S. Van Dine came up with “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories“. On this side of the Atlantic, in 1929, Ronald Knox compiled Ten Commandments for detective fiction writers. A year later his list became part of the oath sworn by members of the newly formed Detection Club.

Many of those rules were designed to encourage strong plotting, and reduce the use of trick endings. They required the fictional detective to be in a fair competition with the reader.

Later, Raymond Chandler produced his Ten Commandments for The Detective Novel. The words, ‘rules‘, and ‘commandments‘ hold out such promise. If writing is a formula, then all I need do is follow, or apply, the ten points and I’ll soon be writing successful fiction.

Back in 2010, when Leonard’s book was published, The Guardian newspaper decided to ask a collection of well-known writers for their rules. The points they came up with covered a range of styles and ideas that make an interesting supplement to Leonard’s, and they didn’t all produce ten. The are one hundred and thirteen to think about, though.

I’m sharing seven of my favourites – this week:

Roddy Doyle: Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.

Ann Enright: Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.

Geoff Dyer: Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.

Richard Ford: Don’t drink and write at the same time.

Elmore Leonard: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And to finish, two, from A. L Kennedy:

Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.

 Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.

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.

Notes on nature: stories of fear.

For the last month, it seems, queen bees and wasps have been sneaking into our house just so that they can bumble against our windows. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve returned outdoors.

Maybe it’s just the same one or two, irritated to find themselves trapped in a glass tumbler, then ushered out. Perhaps, after that, they lurk nearby, watching for their moment to fly back in.

I thought the first two or three I caught might have hibernated somewhere inside, in a fold of the curtain, perhaps, all winter. After day four, though, that seemed less likely. I may be a bit of a casual cleaner, but the house isn’t that big. Besides, we’ve had the wood-burner stoked pretty warm at times this winter, if the trigger is temperature they should have shown themselves much earlier in the year.

It seems, therefore, that we live in an insect des-res. I’m not sure what that says about us.

At any rate, Rusty would prefer us not to. An unfortunate early encounter with buzzing insects has given him a powerful aversion. He’ll even quit the settee to avoid being in the same room with that threat. Very often, the first indicator of a winged squatter is Rusty hurrying in from another room to snuggle behind my knees.

‘Aren’t you supposed to protect me?’ I ask, as I gather my improvised humane insect trap and go to investigate.

It’s the bumble-bees I like best. I know that wasps are a useful part of the ecosystem, and do not exist just to get mean-drunk on fruit juice in the autumn, but still, I give them more respect than affection.

Queen bumble-bees are, sort of, cute. Apart from the name, there’s all that fur. It makes them so improbably big, and clumsy looking, that the idea that they should fly, borders on comic.

So, I evict, but I find them all fascinating, even the hornet that visited last year. While the bees and wasps seem indifferent to my presence, I had the impression that the hornet watched me. It was a hot day, but her size, and slow entry, was chilling.

I followed Rusty’s rapid exit, slamming the door behind us. Once we were safe, he began to bark with excitement. I leaned against the door, thinking in cliches of fear.

It took several deep breaths before I could convince myself to dash back in and open the other two windows. Then I waited, outside, watching the hornet reverse my glass trick.

She circled calmly, investigating every corner and object. Once, she landed on the window in front of me, and crawled slowly across it. I stepped back, ready to run, but she wasn’t ready to leave.

Presenting the past, on the page.

Because I tend to live in the moment, I forget that everything moves on, that change is inevitable, until something happens to make me realise I’ve been left behind.  I’m not talking about technology here, though I’m always running to catch up with that.  This time, I’m thinking about how we use words.

Okay, so that’s pretty much what my job is.  Even when reading for relaxation, I find myself noting interesting phrasing. In particular, I love colloquialisms.

Growing up, I’m not sure I realised they existed.  When inviting friends round, I’d say, ‘We’re having Mary for tea.’ with no comic intention.  Maybe I was slow on the uptake, but it was years before I realised the correct reply to that was, ‘Roasted, boiled or fried?’

Oh, I knew that language had adapted, over time.  The books I inherited, a wide selection of old poetry, novels and plays, were sometimes waded through with more determination than enjoyment.

“When will your hounds be going out again think ye, Mr Benjamin?” inquired Samuel Strong, a country servant of all work, lately arrived at Hanley Cross, as they sat round the saddle-room fire of the “Dragon Inn” yard, in company with the persons hereafter enumerated, the day after the run described in the last chapter.”

The humour of Handley Cross, by RS Surtees was far beyond me.  It was not because the vocabulary was tricky, I understood most of the individual meanings, it was the syntax: the way the sentences were constructed.  I have kept the book, and will try it again, one day.

john-donne-hires-croppedThe love poems of John Donne, 1572 – 1631, on the other hand, I went back to time after time.  To read them was to be bathed in warmth.  These scenes involved me. Sometimes through the use of familiar imagery:

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Or because he described emotion with such power that I was drawn to the idea of it.  Passion oozed between his words, along with joy.  What a wonder his love was, more powerful than sunbeams:

I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;

I found the language both archaic and invisible.  We’ve ditched the ‘how dost thou?’ form of address, but the sun still rises, and love still happens, in blinding all absorbing beautiful moments that eclipse the universe. Did he imagine his words would not only be quoted, three hundred and eighty-five years later, but retain their ability to melt the reader or listener? I doubt it.

The trick is, that the readers every writer addresses are those in their present. To do that, it pays to use language that fits them.  How many contemporary readers will be drawn in by a novel that begins:

My Lord of Tressain, his Majesty’s Seneschall of Dauphiny, sat at his ease, his purple doublet all undone, to yield greater freedom to his vast bulk, a yellow silken under-garment visible through the gap, as is visible the flesh of some fruit that, swollen with over-ripeness, has burst its skin.

st martin's summerYet in 1909, when Rafael Sabatini wrote St Martin’s Summer, this wordiness was the accepted mode.  His first chapter is littered with archaic words and phrases yonder, pish, quoth he, nevertheless and several people are ‘sent to the devil’, just in case we forget we’re in the seventeenth century. Today, we’re more likely to find this in parody.

Which isn’t such a bad thing.  If you look at parody from the other side, isn’t it a form of compliment?

What’s my point with this ramble? Well, it occurs to me that one of the things I look for, when redrafting, is falling back into that antiquated way with sentences. I know I’m not alone in this, because there is a specific term for this tendency: it’s called overwriting.

My theory?  It happens when I’m most self-conscious about the blankness of the page and thinking myself a writer.  What I should be doing is following John Donne’s lead, and immersing myself in the story I want to share.