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.

Course of Mirrors; an Odyssey. By Ashen Venema

Ana’s is a sheltered, privileged, life, but all is not well. Her parents live in separate mansions, on opposite sides of a river gorge. Ana, as go between, must carry their messages across the bridge that connects them.

I cannot recall when I first sensed the unspoken thing that mother kept from me, like an ache she passively resigned herself to. I thought my existence was to blame. The secret’s dark spell imprisoned me more than the walls surrounding Katun Court and mother’s mansion.

In fiction, a secret is a promise. Having planted it, Ana moves away, shows us scenes from her childhood in her fractured family, and tells us about the kingdom they live in. There are lyrical descriptions where personalities are developed and put into context:

…we travelled in all seasons. During winter months, the northern horizon of Kars and Estan was rimmed by snow caps resembling a parade of porcelain elephants…

I was strapped onto a pony so I could ride with him next to mother’s carriage along unbending roads through the rocky terrain of Kars. And onwards through the flatlands of Estan straight and gridded like a chessboard…

Mother was tense and irritable on these journeys. She preferred Nimrich, where narrow tracks circled copses ad lakes and riddled the ancient woodlands.

We are in an alternative reality. As the summary on the back of the novel puts it, the setting is mythical. Since myth includes all kinds of mystery the unfolding story is limitless, as Ana soon proves to be.

The formative years are soon past, and for her nineteenth birthday, Ana’s cousins arrive with an invite, ‘”Let’s climb the Gazal…” Among the mountains behind us, the Gazal was the most daunting…’ This will be her first adventure, demonstrating to herself, and us, her potential to face challenges and dangers.

After that, it’s only a matter of time before her dreams and questions lead to rebellion:

Something in me snapped. a force beyond caring compelled me to confront my father.

Ana sets out on her ‘odyssey’.

There are progressions and set-backs, some bleakly dark. The lone road is a place where Ana learns to distinguish between allies and foes, and to explore the meanings of love, friendship and betrayal.

This is a bildungsroman story, in other words, a journey that mirrors the ‘psychological and moral growth of the protagonist’. It would be tricky to tell you more of the way Ana’s story unfolds without presenting ‘spoilers’, so I’ll leave you with the Cambridge Dictionary definition for Odyssey: a long trip or period involving a lot of different and exciting activities, especially while searching for something.

Ashen says that she was inspired by 1001 Nights, and Ursula le Guin, and I can see how that has worked. There were moments when I recognised the influence of both, and more moments that were entirely Ashen Venema’s. It made an interesting and entertaining journey.

Ashen Venema is a poet, philosopher, writer, therapist, photographer. If you’d like to learn more about her, you might drop by her interesting blog, that is also called, Course of Mirrors, where she reflects on her experiences.

Ghost stories on the radio, and the page.

I listened to three ghost stories on BBC Radio 4 last week. A new decade was beginning, and I was tuned in to three fifteen minute stories that were over a hundred years old. They may have been the best bit of my radio week.

This wasn’t just about the excellence of the stories, or of the actor reading, it was a clever piece of programming that began in the Radio 4 soap opera, called The Archers. The edges of this fictional village have often blurred and blended into the real world. In its early years, this was deliberate.

The soap was developed in collaboration with The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Then, it was billed as an everyday story of country folk.

These days The Archers is billed as, a contemporary drama in a rural setting. It’s set in a fictional village called Ambridge, in a fictional county called Borsetshire, which is somewhere near Birmingham. The story plays out in fifteen minutes slots on weekdays, with an omnibus on Sunday mornings.

As autumn 2019 drew to a close, several Ambridge residents began to ask who would volunteer to organise the village panto. Several characters were approached, but – ‘Oh no, they wouldn’t.’

Tension in the village, and amongst the listeners, mounted. Ambridge theatricals have often been broadcast by Radio 4 as a spin-off, over Christmas. Surely this tradition wasn’t going to be cut?

Not so much cut, as transformed, thanks to a Halloween episode. Jim Lloyd, a retired university lecturer, seriously spooked Robert Snell, another character, by repeating a Victorian ghost story he knew, as they were sitting in an isolated bird-watching hide. By December Jim had been persuaded to tell similar stories to a bigger audience as a Christmas Show.

We listened to fragments of the rehearsals in his performance place, the attic of a local stately home. He clashed first with his stage manager, then his artistic director. While they thrashed out artistic differences, for this listener, the surroundings became clear, even tangible.

It would be almost dark. The attic debris has been cleared to the side of the room, and seats added. It’s a place of shadows, of objects laid aside for decades: random and the once valued. Above are rafters, dusty and cobwebbed. The floor is bare boards. Jim is seated in an armchair, with his book, facing his audience.

On opening night tension mounted. Curtain-up time approached and only four people had arrived. Maybe the premise was too unusual, the setting too odd… Jim was talking of calling it off, when a busload of listeners trooped in.

The show was, of course, a smash hit, a sell out. Other characters discussed it, raved about it, regretted failing to get a ticket.

I now know what they missed, because Jim’s tales went out in that separate slot on the schedule. The first one, broadcast on December 30th, was The Room in the Tower, by E.F. Benson. It’s a 1912 story. Lost Hearts, the 1895 story by M.R. James went out the next day, and The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, published in 1902, on New Years Day.

The long cold nights of winter are, of course, the ideal time for ghost stories. I first read tales like these in traditional teenage fashion, under the bed-covers, with a torch, when I was supposed to be asleep. I can still recall being aware of every sound, as the house cooled and settled into silence, and menace.

John Rowe, the actor who plays Jim Lloyd, paced his reading carefully, convincingly. His was the voice of someone recalling something they are still struggling to understand, it was perfectly suited to the confessional tone of these beautifully designed story openings: ‘It was when I was about 16...’; ‘It was in September of the year 1811…’; ‘Without, the night was cold and wet...’.

Many turn-of-the-century authors wrote as if their story were being spoken. Some actually described the family and friends at a fireside. We imagine the flickering of the gas or candle-light, turned down so that it fails to quite reach the corners of the room. Notice how those shadows are inclined to dance…

The broadcast stories needed no sound effects. They were abridged, by Jeremy Osbourne and Jeremy Howe.

John Rowe, an actor, playing a character who is taking on the voice of another fictional character, read all of the necessary voices beautifully – chillingly.

Seasonal rantings & a short pause.

As I write this, a flurry of last-minute gift ideas is descending into my in-box. Every one of them smacks of desperation. Am I tempted? I’m not.

No, not me, why would I be? Do I seem so disorganized?

How do they know, these smart-alec sales-people, that I haven’t been stockpiling gifts since the autumn? Actually, scratch that thought, perhaps I started my shopping last January. I might have a drawer full of choices. Maybe I’m so well prepared they’re all wrapped and labelled, too.

Am I so lacking in imagination that the best I can manage is a bar of chilli-chocolate; a jar of seasonally decorated brandy-butter, or a packet of cranberry and orange fudge? All, of course, offered with festively-inflated last-minute price tags.

Perhaps the producers of these specialised goodies have one week to sell them in, and the profits have to keep them afloat for the other eleven and a half months of the year. It’s probably only cynics who believe that those marketeers are marketing wizards, cashing in on our desire to celebrate with ever increasing pizzazz.

On the plus side, Dan, our postman, tells me that he’s happy to be working extra shifts this Christmas. ‘It’s all the parcels,’ he says. ‘We’re struggling to get on top of it all. So many people do their shopping on line, these days.’

I can feel Mr Scrooge hovering at my shoulder, pre-transformation, whispering, ‘This rampant consumerism is the disease of your time.’

I’ve checked, and while Mr Scrooge has a point, some believe that the roots of our Christmas celebrations are found in ancient Rome’s celebration of Saturnalia. For centuries, the gifts given in December celebrations were sweets, fruit and small homemade objects. It may be that, in Britain, we can blame the industrial revolution (nineteenth century) for changing our spending patterns. Yahay, it’s not our fault!

Albert Chevallier, 1911

Excuse me while I go off to look in some bookshops, in the High Street, because the reality is that I am a last-minute shopper looking for inspiration, and what better gift could I give? Hmm, perhaps a gift to charity?

I hope you have a lovely festive season and a Happy New Year. I’m taking a festive break from blogging, and will be back on 6th January 2020. ✨🍷🌲💖❇🌐🥳✨✨❇

Marcel Rieder, 1898

My Life in Books, 2019

Over on Annabookbel’s blog, this week, I discovered a quirky approach to summing up my year of reading. The idea is to finish fourteen sentences using some of the titles of books I’ve read during the past twelve months.

Apparently this challenge has been circulating since at least 2009. I’ve never been adept at keeping pace with any kind of fashion, but even so, ten years late is probably a record for me.

So here I am. Are you ready? Who knows what these add up to…

In high school I was The Day of The Triffids (John Wyndham)

People might be surprised by The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

I will never be The Power of The Dog (Thomas Savage)

My fantasy job is Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss)

At the end of a long day I need Bluebeard’s Egg (Margaret Attwood)

I hate The End of The Affair (Graham Greene)

I wish I had Our Man in Havana (Graham Greene)

My family reunions are The Blush and other stories (Elizabeth Taylor)

At a party you’d find me with Resurrection Men (Ian Rankin)

I’ve never been to The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan)

A happy day includes Essential Stories (VS Pritchett)

The motto I live by, I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)

On my bucket list is, The Public Image (Muriel Spark)

In my next life, I want to have My Cousin Rachel (Daphne du Maurier)

A buswoman's holiday

What I often end up doing, on my days off paperwork or teaching, is housework. Sadly, it’s the thing that is at the bottom of a my chosen-occupations list.

At the top of my favourite list, the one titled, What I Would Buy if I Won the Lottery, is, ‘hire a house-keeper’. I have in mind a Mary Poppins type character, but I’d settle for a Mrs Danvers, just so long as I never again had my attention caught by the state of the kitchen floor. As I don’t even do the lottery this is clearly fantasy. I’ve more hope of teaching Rusty how to wipe his feet before he bounds in.

Which reminds me, an old but useful tip, regarding missing homework (school or domestic) is, blame the dog. It got me past many a potential detention in my delinquent school-days.

Yes, it is an ancient cliche, but here’s the thing, while I don’t believe anyone has actually, ever, believed it, it tends to raise a smile. It’s a cold soul that hands out a heavy punishment when they’re appreciating your wit. On the other hand, if I could step back in time with some good advice to my younger self, I’d tell her to make the effort, and just do her homework.

Now I’m an adult, of course, I’ve reversed my aversion to lessons to the extent that on Saturday, I used one of my precious free-days to sign up for a day-school: ‘Free Verse – or playing tennis without a net?’ with the Clevedon Adult Study Association (CASA).

Who cares about that kitchen floor, anyway? (Actually, as a seasoned multi-tasker, I’m fitting it in between paragraphs as I write this.)

‘Really?’ said my niece, Cecily, when I told her what I had planned for the weekend. ‘Isn’t that what you teach, though?’ I was giving her a lift home from her part-time job in a shoe-shop, where she had, she’d told me, spent four hours measuring feet. ‘So boring, but it’s good having money of my own.’

‘I teach stories,’ I said, ‘this is about a particular style of poems. I get to relax, learn, and let someone else keep watch on the clock, and work out what comes next.’

‘Okay,’ said Cecily. ‘It’s not what I’d want to do.’

Cecily, choosing subjects for A-levels, had dropped literature, like a hot potato. When I told her it was the only school subject that had kept my attention she said, ‘Maybe they taught it differently, then.’

I was reminded of her supposition as we reached the end of our time ‘unpacking’ poems, on Saturday. Poet, Phillip Lyons, our guide through the labyrinths of alliterations, consonance, cadence, metaphors, similes, enjambments etc… was winding up our day with some reflection. ‘What,’ he wondered, ‘were our individual responses to free-verse poetry? What thoughts would we take away with us?’

‘I wish someone had taught us poetry in this way at school,’ Paula said. There were murmured agreements from around the room.

‘How did they make it so boring?’ Tim said.

‘On behalf of all retired English teachers,’ Sheila said, ‘I apologise. We did our best.’

‘My teacher was amazing,’ said Pauline. ‘Inspiring.’

My teachers, too, I thought. There’d been two for me. Had I been particularly lucky? Maybe. English-classes were an oasis in the desert that was my secondary school. It’s so much easier to share an interest than to instill an interest where none exists in the first place – ask any of my maths teachers…

There are times when I can’t avoid seeing how lucky I am. Saturday was one of them.

What had I got? Introductions to some poems I might not have found on my own; a chance to discuss them, in detail, with people who were as curious about them as I was; added insights from someone who looked at them with a poet’s eye, and an opportunity to share his enthusiasm for his subject.

Where Lorna Doone meets The Godfather, & The War of the Worlds.

Go on, admit it, my title has intrigued you, at least a little, hasn’t it?

No, this isn’t a review of a new ‘mash-up’ novel, though I’d be quite interested to see how ‘girt* Jan Ridd’ and his family would measure up to an alien invasion. I’ve not been impressed by his dealings with the Doone ‘gang’, who have been robbing, raping and pillaging the Exmoor neighbourhood for decades, while everyone shrugs and says, ‘Well, what do you expect? Poor things, loosing that rich estate in Scotland, then being banished by the King, it’s not surprising they’re bitter.’

Several of my reading groups have seen parallels with Francis Ford Coppola’s, The Godfather. Sir Ensor, the patriarch of the Doones, like Vito Corleone, is a traditionalist who demands respect and is supported by a crooked lawyer, in this case, his son, ‘The Councillor’.

The Councillor’s son, Carver, is evil. He’s the distillation of all the bitterness in Sir Ensor and The Councillor. Of course, we only see any of these characters through the eyes of our narrator, John (aka Jan) Ridd, who is competing with Carver for Lorna. Despite John’s repeated assurances about his own honesty, I can’t help feeling that there may be some bias in the story he’s telling.

Carver, as his nickname might suggest, lacks the subtlety or charm of Michael Corleone. What he has in spades, is muscle and ambition, oh, and wives. Yes, your read me right, it turns out that Carver has so far strayed from the path of respectability that when the den of thieves finally is challenged, he is discovered to be keeping ‘ten or a dozen‘ wives – so many in fact, John can’t be exact. As for the children, there’s no attempt to count them!

In suggesting these parallels I’m not claiming that Mario Puzo once read Lorna Doone, though I wish I could have asked him. These are outlaw stories, and it could be argued that both rely on stereotypes. I do, however, wonder if Puzo ever saw one of the film versions. His novel, The Godfather, was published in 1969. Four of the six Lorna Doone films had been made by then, and one of the two series for the BBC.

I’ve seen extracts of all except the 1912 and 1963 versions, which don’t seem to exist any more. The rest seem, to me, to say as much about the decade they have been produced in as they do about the original they draw from. That’s not so surprising. To convey all of the events and nuances of this hefty novel would take more hours than have yet been given to it.

Lorna Doone has also been adapted for stage and radio. As has, HG Wells’ novel, The War of The Worlds.

I’ve been watching the latest screen version of that, on the BBC (it finished last night), for the last three weeks. The selling point, for yet another remake, was the claim that it kept closer to the book than others had.

I’m not so sure that’s true, but I’ve enjoyed it. As I have every other version I’ve watched, despite (or maybe because of) the liberties taken.

Wikipedia lists 10 direct screen adaptations, and 14 for radio (including the famous 1938 Orson Welles version). Add to that the musical interpretations (Jeff Wayne’s was not the only one), plus numerous comic books and sequels, that’s a lot of inspiring.

There was no implied criticism in wondering why the story was getting another incarnation, only curiosity. I was reminded that someone funded the 2000 Lorna Doone film only ten years after the previous version had been made. Even in these fast moving times, that surely counts as being within living memory. So,why?

Well, I have a theory. I think both novels foreground plot rather than character. Maybe those kinds of stories leave more room for the adapter, or even the well-known actors.

* Girt: dialect version of great – meaning ‘large’ or ‘very big’.

Stories within stories.

‘So how long should a short story be?’ says Natalie. It’s week two with a new class, and a glance around shows me eleven faces expecting some neat definition.

‘As long as is necessary,’ I say, failing to recall if there was one particular writer I could attribute this to. That sounds flippant, so I add. ‘The rule, if there is one, is that you should use only as many words as convey your meaning, and no more.’ Was that paraphrasing Katherine Mansfield, or HE Bates? Dare I offer one of them, as ballast for my claim? It might be Hemmingway, so many truisms are attributed to him.

I’m not even sure when I read it, but I have, several times. Besides, the words are said, now.

How much easier these conversations are when I’m building them on paper, and can break off to check my facts, or better still, cut the tricky reference bit out altogether.

Natalie is frowning. I don’t think she’s disagreeing, this looks like another question forming.

I jump in quickly. ‘The shortest story is often said to be, For sale, baby shoes, never worn.’ I repeat the six words, slowly.

Bill says, ‘Is that really a story?’

I draw a theatrically deep breath, and say, ‘Well, it’s got the key elements, a situation that raises a question in the mind of the reader, the suggestion of something unexpected happening… There are a raft of possibilities lying behind this sentence. For instance, who is selling the shoes?’ I pause, to let that fester. ‘Possibly the bigger question is, why have the shoes never been worn?’

There is a moment while most of us contemplate the bleak answer to this. Then Bill says, ‘Perhaps they’re just the wrong size.’

Penny says, ‘Or there was a baby shower, and everyone bought shoes, so the baby’s wardrobe looked like it belonged to Imelda Marcos.’

‘What about,’ says Natalie, ‘everyone thought the baby would be a boy, but the scan turned out to be wrong.’

‘Can six words really count as a short story?’ says Reta.

It’s a good question.

‘It depends on how much more you expect from a short story,’ I say. ‘You, the writer, have to decide how much characterisation, setting, dialogue or action it takes to convey your idea.’ How vague this all sounds.

‘It’s time for pens,’ I tell the group. ‘Think about those six words.’

There’s silence. Some have shut their eyes.

‘Write a description of the shoes,’ I say, ‘in detail.’

‘Now, imagine this: No one has answered the advert. After all, it’s not the best wording to produce a sale. Eventually, the owner gives them to a charity shop. There no one knows anything about them, or their history. Picture the shelf, in the shop. That’s the background. Now write about what happens next.’

I set my five-minute timer, and we do that thing that always amazes me: we write.

Given a whole afternoon and a blank page, I might string together six words that I’m happy with. Set me in a group, with an unlikely trigger subject, and a deadline, and ideas fly from the nib of my pen.

When I call time, and we read back, we’ve produced twelve narratives with only one thing in common: the shop. Some of the stories have reached conclusions, others are the beginnings of something longer. Between us, we provide a range of genres and emotions. They’re raw, first drafts, but we listeners are hooked, intrigued.

‘Most stories,’ I say, ‘are distillations. What I’ve found, when I read about writers, is that few complete their story in one sitting. What they’ve done is capture the impulse. Some bits might need expanding, others cutting. The story is still immature. Sometimes it will get pared down, until it feels distilled. Other times, it will need rounding out. That decision lies with the author.’

I tell them that the six word shoe story may have been written by Ernest Hemmingway. If it was, he might have known about one of two articles in American newspapers

The first was a news story published when Hemmingway was about seven years old. The headline was, Tragedy of Baby’s Death is Revealed in Sale of Clothes.

About seven years later, an editor wrote an article in which he explained how a journalist might write about a similar situation. The title he suggested for such a story was, Little Shoes, Never Worn.’

Chickens, eggs, and travelling through time with RD Blackmore.

Seventeenth century Exmoor has been my virtual home for around seven weeks now, and I feel that my feet are comfortably settled under John Ridd’s table. He’s been an entertaining host, though as a twenty-first century woman, to begin with, I did have some problems adjusting.

It’s hardly my first time in Restoration Britain. I have vivid memories of skating along the frozen River Thames with Virginia Woolf’s, Orlando; and wandering the Welsh hills with Lucy Walter and the young prince who would be crowned as Charles II, in The Child From The Sea, by Elizabeth Goudge.

Antonia Frazer, Jean Plaidy and Margaret Irwin introduced me to some of the key political characters and events for this period. However, apart from Orlando, the main characters in those and other novels, have tended to be strong females.

I’ve been asking myself, ‘do I love history because of historical fiction, or historical fiction because I love history?’ Maybe I might also ask, ‘did those adventures distort my idea of history?’

Although I knew that most women, in those times, were constrained, contained and restricted, I was usually too busy cheering on the rebels to think about what day-to-day life was like for the majority. RD Blackmore’s novel forced me to think of them in domestic spheres.

Women are ideally soft, submissive, and lovely to look at. John describes his sister, Annie, as:

…of a pleasing face, and very gentle manner, almost like a lady, some people said; but without any airs whatever, only trying to give satisfaction.

She’s also a paragon, keeping the kitchen immaculate and constantly cooking up massive delicious meals for the family and all visitors.

Lorna Doone, the woman of John’s dreams, lacks practical skills, but then, she’s a lady.

I could not but behold her manner, as she went before me, all her grace, and lovely sweetness, and her sense of what she was.

She was a different being; not woman enough to do anything bad, yet enough of a woman for man to adore.

I could have grown tired of all these characters, if I hadn’t begun to notice that there was an interesting gap between what John said, and what the women were doing. While they could not be described as active, in a modern sense, it became apparent that they were often at odds with John’s ideals.

John’s mother, for example, when her husband is murdered, walks into the hideout where the criminals are living to ‘speak her mind’ to them.

Now, after all, what right had she, a common farmer’s widow, to take it amiss that men of birth thought fit to kill her husband? And the Doones were of very high birth, as all we clods of Exmoor knew; and we had enough of good teaching… to feel that all we had belonged of right to those above us. therefore my mother was half-ashamed, that she could not help complaining.

It’s a moment that holds a key to so much of this story. A great wrong has been committed, in a time when rights are with the strongest. There is no police-force to turn to, there is only class. The society described is close to feudal. Everyone should know their place. And yet, here is Sarah Ridd, approaching her betters to tell them that she, and her children, have been harmed by their actions.

We’re left to decide whether she’s brave or foolhardy, in making herself vulnerable to a gang well known for rapine, pillage and murder. She may never do anything so outrageous again, but the potential of all women for acts of bravery has been presented.

It may be more than I should expect from a book that was written a hundred and fifty years ago, set in a time a hundred and ninety years before that. Perhaps it signals the beginning of a pattern.

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.