The Milliner’s Tale

The last few weeks I’ve been alternating between two hats.  For my reading group, I’m wearing a morphing, anarchic design, that has me flying through The Once and Future King.

Steampunk_Hat_PNG_Clipart_PictureI’ve been enjoying the way White plays with history, rippling time so that events shift in and out of period, and juggles with our ideas about the characters who make up the Arthurian Legends.  I’m so comfortable with my head-gear that once donned, I forget I’m wearing it.

Like any extreme fashionista, I am a devoted follower of my latest mode.  So for a moment I’m taken aback when some of the group say that they find TH Ladies-Steampunk-Hats by tag hatsWhite’s use of anachronism distracting.

This gives us some interesting discussion on techniques for reading texts that challenge us, and sets me thinking about writing intentions.  The explanation White gave to his friend was:

I am trying to write of an imaginary world which was imagined in the 15th century. .. I state quite explicitly that we all know that Arthur, and not Edward, was on the throne in the latter half of the 15th century, at the beginning of my second vol. .. By that deliberate statement of an untruth I make it clear to any scholar who may read the book that I am writing, as I said before, of an imaginary world imagined in the 15th cent. .. I am taking 15th cent. as a provisional forward limit (except where magic or serious humour is concerned…

Malory and I are both dreaming. We care very little for exact dates, and he says I am to tell you I am after the spirit of Morte d’Arthur (just as he was after the spirit of those sources collected) seen through the eyes of 1939. He looked through 1489 .. and got a lot of 1489 muddled up with the sources. I am looking through 1939 at 1489 itself looking backwards.

Got that?

The idea that the past informs about the present can take a little getting used to, especially if you are someone who cares for exact dates.  When I put my Life-Writing-Hat on, I have to care, and yet, looking around, it seems to me that few of us live exactly within our time.  The things we use, wear, own and live with belong in variations to past days, weeks, months and years, even if we don’t live in historic houses.

It seems to me that reading history always requires some imaginative leaps.  Usually we do that from a present-day perspective.  What White does is to reverse this process, to comic effect, but also as an attempt at helping us understand something of what that past culture was like.  How do you set a story in medieval England without long explanations?  You translate every experience into a language children can recognise.

So I’m thinking of ways to translate dates and names into shareable texts, and what I see is that sometimes it takes an imaginative approach to explore truths.  After all, wouldn’t we all rather have a designer hat, that’s maybe a little shocking, than something mass-produced?hats


*Steam-punk hat photos from pin interest & Tag Hats.


Readers, narrators and authors.

That I’m reading a memoir this week is either a happy accident  or serendipity, depending on how you view the world. Friday morning, as I was heading for an appointment that was guaranteed to include a waiting room, I grabbed a book off my to-be-read shelf.

After three months of focused studying, I was looking forward to some simple pleasure-reading.  My course paperwork was finished, and ready to post, the new classes would not be starting until mid-April. The long Easter weekend could be given over to indulgence.

I don’t know how I missed knowing that Fever Pitch wasn’t a novel.  If I had, it would have been shelved with the other memoirs that I’ve been gathering as background for the Writing Family Histories course that is next on my list of classes to prepare, and perhaps I’d be writing this post next week.

fever pitchInstead, I was several pages in before my suspicions were roused.  That’s the thing with first person narration of course, when it’s done well, it should convince us that the character and their world is as real as we are, even when we know it’s a fiction.  The thing that tends to give memoir away is usually shaping.  It can be tricky to translate the random, scoincidental nature of life as most of us experience it, into a convincing novelistic form.

Nick Hornby has shaped his life around an obsession with football in such an entertaining way that I’m hooked.  I still couldn’t answer a pub quiz sport question, but he has helped me understand something about the need so many people have to cheer on a bunch of players chasing a ball around a cold, muddy field.  Before this, my most entertaining connection to the game was thanks to Sarah’s Knitted Footballer blog, which demonstrates another approach to expressing passionate interest in a sport.




A Writing Space

I’ve just gone mobile.  I’ve exchanged my hefty desktop computer for a laptop.  Scarily, this little machine is apparently equal in power and capacity to the big box that I’ve been giving up precious desk-space to for about ten years now.  Technology, huh?

It’s taken me most of the weekend to swop my files and my mindset over, but now here I am, slumped on the cushions in the conservatory, typing on my lap.  It’s probably not going to be good for my posture, but it has novelty value.

I’m considering the impact of this change on some wise words from one of my literary heroes, Virginia Woolf…(excuse me while I take a reverential pause)…regarding the significance of a woman needing A Room of One’s Own if she wants to be a writer.

Yes, it was and is a feminist polemic, but wait, because I’m not about to get political.  I’m thinking about finding space and time to write, and that’s the same for men and women, isn’t it?

Where do we write?  How do we do it?  What do we need, and I mean really need, in order to write?

I have a room of my own. It’s a small converted shed, in the garden.  It’s almost filled by the three bookcases, my desk and chair, and in winter, that vital piece of equipment, the heater.  Additionally, since I’m a bit of a magpie, I’ve crammed it, with books, papers, pens, pictures and shiny objects.

My office 2012Before that, my computer was set-up in the spare room, which was fine until we had visitors.  Then I had to find a temporary corner, one that was not only out-of-the-way, but also had enough space to house my desk and chair.

So was it easier when I worked on paper?  In the portable sense, yes.  This laptop is a move back to that flexibility.  But even then, perhaps especially then, I fantasized about having a space just for writing.  I tried to create it, seeking out unused corners to lay out my materials.  It was hardest to do in the days before I admitted publicly that I was aiming to be a writer.

I tried to not be tied, to write as I’d been told Jane Austen did, discreetly in a notebook that could be easily tucked out of sight.  Perhaps, if you are remarkably organized this would work for you.

I’m not.  I create heaps of notes on scraps of paper that teeter on the corner of my desk.  I stack reference books on shelves as I work, and stuff my pockets with notebooks and scraps of inspiration.  In anyone else’s eyes, it would definitely count as a muddle.

What I think, as I sit here, enjoying the change of view and contemplating the option of typing in the garden, the kitchen, who knows, maybe even the bathroom, is that it feels free.  I think now that the nomadic shifts of my desk around the house were partly me creating a new writing environment.

It’s taken me a long time to get my personal writing place, and I’ve no intention of giving up my shed in the garden.  It feels like an extension of my imagination, and I love it.  But this laptop has reminded me that the room I really value is the space in my mind that allows me to do something so daft as to write my thoughts out and then show them to other people.



Sunday: The Met office say it will be stormy tonight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing what we know

I’ve been looking for Arthur this week. King Arthur, that is.  At the moment, there are five books about him on my desk, and another four about Celtic myths.  I’ve also got some web-pages bookmarked and a lot of notes – paper and electronic, to work from, that I’ve been putting together over the summer.

I like research.  I’m not sure what that says about my personality, and if you know, please don’t tell me.  I’d rather not have my suspicions confirmed.  Besides, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re suffering from the same condition anyway.

The trNellieick with gathering background information is discipline.  The Arthur stuff is easy, because I’ve a course starting in November, so I’ve a deadline.  Take away the deadline and it’s a different story.

Two years ago I offered to put together a family history for my father.  Two of my uncles had already traced the family tree as far back as was feasible, but I was interested in combining that with a family photo album that dated from the 1870s onwards.  I gathered up materials, interviewed aunts, uncles and second cousins, then settled down to sort it out.

Six months later I had become a regular visitor to the local archives.  I learned how to use the micro-fiche, computer records and filing systems.

I added branches to the family tree.  I visited places where our ancestors lived and read between the lines of the records of their births, deaths, marriages and census forms.  Some of their lives became more than just patterns on paper, I got a feel for who they were and began to imagine what their lives were like.

But out of the alphabet of files and folders on my hard-drive I needed to create the book I had promised.  It was to be a small, family thing: a factual book of pictures with words rather that vice versa.  One day, I thought, I might write this saga.  Meanwhile, I visited a printer who set me my deadline.Frederick

It was hard cutting my trips to the archive, letting go of the stories I had glimpsed in the parish registers and workhouse records.  I knew that left to my own inclinations, I could have lost myself there, chasing names and following links.  The labyrinth of facts would have drawn me on to ever more obscure connections until I had forgotten where I started.

Often, when I’m starting to write fiction, I find myself needing to look things up, to check details.   There is a saying that we should write what we know, and I suppose in that case, the issue of research might not arise.  Except that somehow, even when I start out from a place I do know, I all too often find myself writing about places and things I don’t know, but can imagine, so for me, at any rate, research will always be an issue.