The joys of a Treasure Hunt

Once, these were the staple event of children’s birthday-party games.  Remember?  The simplest, youngest, versions took place in a sitting room, with an adult directing us:  ‘Hotter, hotter, no colder, freezing-colder … that’s better, warming up…’  I know it wasn’t just me who got excited, because that game was always followed by: ‘I think we need to calm down now.  Let’s play statues.’

It disappeared from the party menu long before pass-the-parcel or charades.  I suspect it was too stressful, both to organise and, to watch as the carefully tidied party-house was usually dismantled in the process.  Hide-and-seek was an easier replacement.  It was fun, but lacked the sense of story that a true treasure hunt has.

enid-blyton-illustration-famous-fiveI think the hours I spent with Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timmy gave me high expectations, because although I’ve never told anyone before, I’m ready to share my certainty that one day a treasure clue would come my way.  I wasn’t sure I’d be as clever and brave as the Famous Five, but I lived in expectation of adventure.

Long John Silver had shown me what a real treasure map looked like.  There was no sign of one in any of our books or boxes, and believe me, I looked.  So one summer afternoon my friend Jane and I created our own treasure map.

It took hours.  This was no casual project.  It was paced out, checked with a compass and taken through several drafts before we made our best copy.  There were landmarks, written clues, and a large scarlet X to mark the spot where we had buried a carefully wrapped ladybird book for our brothers to find.

The final document was drawn on a heavy fly-leaf that I ripped from an old book.  I hope it wasn’t anything precious, even then I don’t think I would have damaged a book unless it was already in a bad way.  But if I did, it was worth it.  I can still remember how impressive the finished article was.  We artistically ripped the edges, then aged it with cold coffee before rolling it up, tying it with a red ribbon, and hiding it in a jar.  Then we handed out the first clue.

Much later I created treasure hunts for my niece’s birthday parties.  Each one reminded me of that long summer afternoon.  I don’t know what we did with that first map.  Perhaps it’s still tucked amongst the paint pots in Dad’s shed.

pirates-of-the-caribeanThis year my grown-up nieces asked me to create another Treasure Hunt, for Boxing Day.  It was fun working it out.  This time the map was in my head: the clues were anagrams, puns, allusions and poems that I secreted along a footpath to a distant field, then back again.  While the family were out of sight, I snuck into the garden and set a final leg that led them round the house, to finish with a hoard of chocolate coins hidden near where they’d started.

And you know what?  It was a creative buzz.  In this story I had real characters to work with.  I’d set them a journey that I hoped they would be able to pull off, but I wasn’t sure.  I climbed up on the picnic table to watch for them.  Was it too easy?  Was it too hard?

Oh, the relief when they came into view.  Keeping out of sight, I watched them track the next clue, then gather to read and discuss it.  I sneaked closer, and eavesdropped. Even when I saw that it was working, I couldn’t walk away.  This was story, and I was in it too, a flawed, but omniscient narrator.

 

 

The deadline of Dead Lines is not always what it seems.

I wrote three-hundred and forty-two words on Wednesday, in a hurry to meet my self-imposed dead-line.  I know, that was one hundred and fifty-eight short of my stated target, but hey, who’s counting?  I set words on the page this week, that’s what matters.

facesThey were not good words, but they weren’t bad.  Taken individually, I used some lovely ones.  Yes, I have favourites…’seriously’, ‘draped’, ‘however’, ‘softly’, are some of my current ones.

Thursday morning, I took out all those favourites plus a few more, to see if I had the beginnings of a story.  My word count shrank to two hundred and ninety eight.

I’d love to tell you that I discovered something worthwhile, but my phrases lacked an essential for successful storytelling, plot. I had a static character drifting around a landscape.  Where was the tension?  Nowhere.  What was at stake? Nothing.

Pah, I thought, spinning the page onto my personal slush-heap, so much for deadlines.  It was time I returned to Middlemarch.  People to see, actions to judge, ideas to question: to hypothesize.  This writer sculpted layers with her words.

Time passes.  Time….passes. (Do you see that?  Do you get it?)  Words, love ’em.

Later, in the crow black, slow black night, I dreamt.  (Sorry, told you I have favourites.)

Dawn, rosy fingered warning of storms ahead (okay, a little bit of poetic exaggeration here) and inspiration, because I wake with a thought.  A fragment of story was lodged within those words from Wednesday, and now I know what is at stake.

Good old subconscious, world within worlds within us.  Keep throwing in the material, and who knows what will come out.

Leading Question: Why write a blog?

dscf5154There are, of course, any number of sociable benefits to having world-wide links.  The strands of the web have certainly re-drawn my idea of the globe.  So the quick answer to my question, ‘why do it?’, is another question: why not?

Perhaps that’s a bit glib, so here’s a more writerly reason for blogging: structure.  You don’t think I’m talking about shaping my writing…do you?  I could be.  Blogging has certainly taught me a lot about making my point, but no, it’s not top of my list of benefits.

The structuring that I’m talking about here is time-management.

Like so many other people intending to write, the main thing that hinders my creativity is settling to a writing schedule.  I have the best intentions, but there are so many calls on my time.  They belong on a sliding scale of importance, and in theory, writing is pretty close to the top.  Yet, I find that my own stories are the most flexible activity on my list – regularly getting shifted downwards.

Apart from a blip a year or two ago, when I fell by the wayside for a few months, the one piece of writing that bucks this trend, is my blog.  I’ve set myself a weekly deadline of Monday mornings, and mostly, I achieve that.

You’ll notice that I’ve been kind to myself, that there’s no precise time limit, though I aim for 09.20?  Some weeks I slip down that deadline and post late in the day, I can live with that. I can live with that?

I can learn from it, surely.  If I can put off tasks from that flexible list to make room for my blog, then it’s time I started doing the same for other writing.  So this week, as my teaching schedule eases off for Christmas, I’m looking at my diary and setting myself another deadline.  Five hundred words, rough as they come, by Wednesday teatime.

We should talk about this next week.

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Feedback sessions in a writing group.

Can enough ever be said about the value of thoughtful feedback?

The feedback that generally happens in my writing classes is based on the heard story.  The author reads their work and the group respond.  That’s pretty standard, and it’s a lovely, if initially scary, experience.

dog-paintingI hope I will always remember my own early experiences, when I rushed through the words that I had sweated over – usually the night before it was due to be read.  Terrified and exhilarated at the same time, I set off reading at such a pace that my tutor needed to pause me at the end of the first page, and remind me to breathe.

I credit my good friends Ruth and Lynda, who between them coached me through the ‘Story-telling’ module at University, with the fact that I can now read at a more measured pace (thanks pals).  But that’s another story altogether.

Crimson and gasping as I invariably was at the end of those early reading slots, I went back for more, week after week.  What drew me?  Well, aside from the joy of finding other people creating stories and poems in their spare time, and the stretching of my creative horizons that happened during writing exercises, I had an audience for writing that until then, I had mostly been doing in secret.

This was not family or best-friend feedback.  My fellow scribblers responded with constructive, impartial support.  I began to see where my writing worked, and how it could be improved, which both encouraged and challenged me to work harder.  I became more confident about my ability to put words together, and critical of what I was doing.

The next level of feedback is to look at the story, rather than listen.  That way, what happens on the page is the story.

Sounds obvious?  Well think about how much the ‘telling’ style directs us.  Delivery (the pauses, accents and intonations), plays a part in how we respond to the events being described.  It is one speaker’s interpretation of what those marks on the page mean.

So this week the aim is for no reading out-loud in my class.  Each writer will have a papertwo-diaries copy of the homework-writings to study and respond to.

This is a big step to take, but an interesting one.  To sit quietly and hear what someone else understands you to have said can be challenging, particularly if they’ve seen something you didn’t intend.  Does that mean they’ve missed the point, or, have you?

Perhaps you’ve not written that scene clearly enough: or is it that depths have made their way instinctively into the construction of your writing?  Sometimes, it takes a reader to see the writing road that you’ve side-stepped, and what better reader than another writer?

 

Photo from, 1952 film, The Importance of Being Earnest.  Dorothy Tutin and Joan Greenwood.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – research sources for writers.

I have a 1907 copy of the Harmsworth Self-Educator, volume 6.  It’s a battered old thing, that seems to have spent some time in places other than dry, safe, bookshelves. The cover is not so bad as the interior, which is not just stained, it has several damaged pages.

For non-fiction, I do appreciate a straight-forward title.  The Self-Educator is a collection of harmsworth-self-educatoressays exploring ‘life’ in Britain.  I don’t think it should be called an encyclopedia, because apart from not being in alphabetical order, these read like academic papers.  There are 29 groups of topics, dealing with the sciences; commercial activities; arts, crafts, languages and academic ideas and theories.

Who was it for?  I’m not sure.  It doesn’t seem child-friendly to me, but am I a good judge of what Edwardian children did, and liked?  I think of it as a paper forerunner to internet search engines, except that this one is all edited by one man…Arthur Mee (1875 – 1943).

It’s not a book I turn to regularly, but when I do, invariably I find something intriguing.  Do you know, for instance, how an Edwardian child should be dressed?  Dr A. T. Schofield can tell you:

There can be no doubt that a combination flannel undergarment is the most comfortable and healthy arrangement. The legs especially should be protected in this way, and not left bare, or with a single covering of cotton.  Over this, with girls, there should be a stout quilted bodice on which the lower garments can be buttoned, and then a plain dress over all.  The stockings, of course, are suspended.  A sailor costume is a capital one for girls, and very healthy.

unidentified-poss-claptonImagine getting strapped into that lot every morning.  No doubt such padding would have been useful in the winter, but Dr Schofield doesn’t offer a lighter selection for the summer.  Perhaps that’s why there are no smiles in this picture.

Children’s dress…should not leave any vital parts exposed.  Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten, and children are dressed in a fashion that their parents would not endure for a moment if applied to themselves.

photo-from-daily-mail-article-about-slum-childrenI wonder if he’s referring to the families struggling to survive?

It’s worth stating the obvious here, and remembering that in research, we should always find more than one source.  The clue to the Self Educator is in the title and sub-title.  It is an aspirational book, ‘A Golden Key to Success in Life’.  The only reference I’ve been able to track down about the original cost of the volume, was that one bookseller had marked it up for ten shillings and six pennies.

Given that in 1910 the Army and Navy Stores were selling a ‘maids’ dress for four shillings and one penny, and that an average income for a working class family would have been around twenty two shillings per week, it seems likely that only well-to-do households would have owned any of these volumes, let alone all eight.

However, Mr Mee does provide the kind of detail that makes me think that in a post-apocalyptic, google-less situation, these volumes might be useful.  In this copy alone are instructions on how to farm, build houses, make cheese, manufacture hats, weave cloth, lay out a sewerage system, run a bank, speak Esperanto, play a flute, sell postcards…  Is there anything else necessary to keep us safe, dry and entertained?

Actually, looking again at some of those stained pages, I wonder if this copy was kept in a workshop.  The worst damage does seem to be in some of the applied chemistry sections.

I feel a story forming.

 

Random ramblings that work – free-writing part 2

One of my all-time favourite songs probably says an awful lot about my approach to writing.  I can’t find any information about the way Guy Marks wrote this, but Loving You Has Made Me Bananas feels like it might have started out as a piece of free-writing.

 

 

Yes, it is a parody, but the absurd combination of images and malapropisms are what can happen when writing against the clock to a given trigger word or image.  The opening lines feel crafted,

From the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville
The Publican Broadcasting Company presents:
The Music of Pete DeAngelis and his Loyal Plunketvillevanians!
Here in the beautiful gold, yella, copper, steel, iron ballroom
of the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville,
Overlooking the uptown section of Downtown Pottstown!
Stay with us, won’t you, and enjoy the sweetest music
This side of the Monongahela River!

but, such combinations can emerge while practicing what some people call automatic-writing. In the rush to get my words on the page I could easily mis-write Hotel Streets as sheets.  And, when following the free-writing rules rigorously, even if I noticed, I would not be allowed to stop and correct it.

Learning to value this kind of experiment helps to ‘free’ us from the restriction of writing-rules.  Rules are good, rules are important.  Grammar, punctuation, all the theories about how writing and plot work, we need to know about, because then, when we break them, we can add dimension to our writing.

I don’t think the great experimental writers were accidentally creating marvellous writing.  When we read their essays or interviews, they usually talk about literary influences.  They knew/know the rules.

I’m not claiming all great writers practice free-writing.  But some did, and do.

Here’s me, rambling along as if you all know what I mean by free or automatic-writing.  For goodness sake, don’t google the second term, click on this free-writing-link, which will take you back to one of my earlier posts.  I just checked on-line descriptions for automatic writing which, according to them, is a psychic phenomena.

I’ll stick with free-writing.  In my version, this is an exercise in freeing us from self-critical thought.

It’s also prone to throw up all sorts of intriguing word and idea combinations.  With practice, it can allow us to write from that area of consciousness that I think of as the area between waking and sleeping: the realm of drifting into or out of dream*.  There, stories happen.  They may be muddled and confusing, but free-writing sets them on the page.  Then you can pick out words, phrases or ideas, and set yourself on a fresh route to creating stories.

The great thing about this exercise is that so long as you write without stopping to think, correct or workout what you want to say, you can’t go wrong.  Whatever you write is right.  Sometimes it will make sense, often it will not, unless you step sideways and take a slant view of it.

After that the choice is yours, whether to lift out fragments and work it into something rational and logical, or enjoy the bizarre aspects of it.  Who knows what you might come up with, a walrus and a carpenter, walking by the sea… or the chorus from Guy Marks’ medly:

Oh, your red scarf matches your eyes
You closed your cover before striking
Father had the shipfitter blues
Loving you has made me bananas.
Oh, you burned your fingers that evening
While my back was turned.
I asked the waiter for iodine
But I dined all alone

Sometimes, sense comes from non-sense.  Maybe loving this has made me bananas, because somehow, when combined with the music, these lyrics do seem to transport me back to wet Saturday afternoons spent watching re-runs of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosbie road movies.  Happy days….

bob-hope-and-bing-crosby

Here’s a Tip:

If you want to push yourself with this writing exercise, aim to get as many words down in the given time as is physically possible.  The faster you write, the less time there will be to form sentences.  This, after-all, is stream-of-consciousness writing.

 

* I know a few people who claim never to dream.  Scientists say that we all do, some of us just can’t remember them.

 

Taking a closer look at the magic of Star Wars

star wars 1Three months ago, when asked what he would like to do while he was staying for a long weekend, Brandon’s face lit up with hope. ‘Have you still got all the Star Wars movies?’  In the mayhem of settling him and his two sisters in, it wasn’t until the next morning that we discovered he’d forgotten his hay-fever tablets, and by then, he was suffering.

We bought some replacement tablets, but with the oilseed-rape in full bloom we could only encourage him to sit indoors, with the windows shut and wait for the antihistamine to work.  So it was hardly fair to make the usual ‘square eyes’ comments when Brandon opted for watching tv, rather than chasing around outside with Samantha and Breanna.  Anyway, it was supposed to be a fun, nag-free break.  Brandon pulled the curtains and settled for Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

By the next day Brandon’s hay-fever was under control, but he was in the grip of a tremendous force.  Although he emerged from his viewing-room for meals, and trips out, we weren’t convinced he’d left the world of the Jedi behind.

By the time he got to Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, four days later, the rest of us were with him, hooked by the fragments of story that we’d caught while checking he was okay.  We’d started with brief recaps: ‘So is this the one where they defrost Hans Solo?’, or ‘Isn’t Yodo in all of them, then?’  Soon we were talking about the plot.

‘What is it you like?’ I asked Brandon.  He couldn’t pin it down.  ‘Maybe it’s just nostalgia,’ said the fifteen-year-old.

‘Good versus evil,’ said his grandfather, ‘and heroes, action and technology.’

Star-Wars-Shared-Universe-MoviesIt’s worth a writer thinking about the formula though, if they’re looking for broad appeal.  We forgive the errors with plot, some anomalies, convenient lucky escapes (the First Order are frequently shockingly bad shots at crucial moments for The Resistance), and some incredibly clunky dialogue that at times suggests we’re too daft to figure out what is happening, or why.

It works, because although the good-guys have their backs to the wall, they are determined to fight the dark side.  The central characters are flawed, experience serious doubts, then comes a crisis.   Worlds are at stake. If the heroes fail, they lose everything. They take up the challenge, and we’re gripped. We expect them to win, but the odds against that are stacked so high it’s hard to foresee how that can come about.

Winning can’t be easy.  We want heroes who, when faced by an enemy of phenomenal power, get themselves out of trouble.  The Force is always there, we just don’t always understand how strong and clever we are until we face that blank page.

 

 

The ideal writing space

Faced with a cramped work space, and wondering how to organise clutter, or is that just me?  This week I’ve been trying to work out how I’ve accumulated so many oddments, or more specifically, if there are any I could ditch.  It’s not just the books, you see.

I don’t like to think of myself as a hoarder, but I’ll admit to a magpie instinct.  A lot of my early collections were gathered on walks…horseshoes, ancient bottles, pottery shards, attractive pebbles…things that don’t belong in the house, and so have found spaces in the shed that now doubles as my writing space.

Shelves have been added, and added, and over-filled…you get the story, don’t you? This week, I began to consider whether I needed an annex for my shed.

It was when I found myself measuring up a corner next to the greenhouse that I woke up to where I was heading.  If I continued to think like that, I would have a one woman business park instead of a garden.  So, jumping in the opposite direction, I tried to imagine myself a minimalist.

Where to start?  Well throw away something easy, like the heap of writing magazines. I could rip out any interesting and/or useful articles, and keep them in a folder.   George-Bernard-Sha_2071154iLike this picture of George Bernard Shaw’s writing shed.

Aha, I thought, tearing the page out, serendipity, I’ll pin this on my door, and it’ll help keep me focused.  After all, what more should one need than a chair, a level surface and writing materials?

GBS, as he was known, named his shed London, so that unwanted visitors could be simply misled into believing he was away from home, leaving GBS in peace to scribble.  His simple and austere box looks about the same size as my office, it’s just barer.  What was good enough for him…

I dropped the rest of the magazine into the waste paper bin, took up the next one, and found Roald Dahl’s writing hut.  My heart didn’t flip, but I had a moment of honest recognition.  roald Dahl's writing hut

It would take an awful lot of effort for me to achieve and maintain the kind of simplicity that suited GBS: energy and time that I would prefer to use for writing.  Dahl’s hut has been preserved for visitors to look at, I wonder if it was usually as tidy as this?

It’s a crammed space, with just room to get from the door to that chair with its lap-tray for writing on.  I could get lost in the details here, I could lead you on to look at the sheds, huts and summerhouses other writers have created or commandeered to work in.  They’re lovely to look at, to set us dreaming a little, but actually, they’re a luxury and a danger.

If we concentrate too much on what a writing space should look like, we might forget to settle down and write.  Famously, Hemmingway would plonk his typewriter on any available surface and type.

The reality for most of us is that we make do with a corner of the kitchen, spare bedroom, sitting-room, at quite times, or relocate to cafés or libraries.  Anywhere that allows us to close off the door to domestic chores, such as tidying, is a good space to concentrate on writing.

 

 

 

Fielding demonstrates how journeys can make a plot.

On Friday afternoon the reading group said goodbye to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  The narrator has been a remarkably good host: fun, informative and welcoming. I’m feeling a little lost, a little disorientated, now that I’ve got both feet firmly planted in the present.

But I’ve learned a lot.  Putting aside the insights this novel has given about English History and life in the Eighteenth Century, Fielding’s management of cast and content was, to use a cliché, masterly.

For a reading group, there’s masses to think and talk about.  Writer’s might like to look at some of the techniques he employs.  I want to draw your attention to the way Tom’s journey provides structure.

brown_last_of_england- Ford Madox BrownRoad-stories are a tradition that can be traced back through literary history.  Think, The Odyssey, jump forward to  Don Quixote, and then further forward, Three men in a Boat, The Remains of the Day, or even more recently, The Hundred-Year-Old Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.  And then there are the fantasy novels, just think about how many of those are based on journeys…

When characters have to move from one geographical location to another some of those important five Ws are instantly set in place:

  • Where from and to?
  • Why?
  • How?

Once you’ve set your character a reason for travelling, and a definite goal, you’ll need to figure out two more of those Ws: when & what will happen along the way?  The possibilities are endless.

And the great thing about journeys is that long or short fiction can put them to effective use.

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*Painting, The Last of England, by Ford Madox Brown

 

 

 

Prevarication, displacements and motivations.

This week, in an odd ten minutes when I went to my office to write, I began to tidy.  Yes, it was a displacement activity, but to be fair, my desk had disappeared beneath an avalanche of papers and books.

The papers had been dumped on my desk when we were expecting visitors earlier in the week, and I needed to clear them off the kitchen table.  What had started on Saturday as a couple of ideas about a lesson on the back of an envelope, had by Tuesday afternoon, multiplied into a phenomenal heap also containing grocery lists, outstanding jobs, appointment reminders, some junk-mail and a recipe book (so that was what I’d meant to do with those courgettes).

edward_collier still_lifeBecause time was short, and there were other aspects of tidying to be done, I weeded the recyclable portion of this heap straight into the recycle-bin, and put the rest on the only surface available in my tiny office, the desk.  In the next few days I added to that.  A couple of writing magazines arrived, then Nancy gave me four paperbacks she’d finished with and thought I might like, and there were several reference books I might need again.

So you must, mustn’t you, agree that the desk clearance was a necessity?  What’s not quite so certain is whether I can justify moving on to the collection of quotes pinned to the inside of my office door.

It’s true most of them are curling at the corners, but obviously that hasn’t bothered me…for years, judging by the way the paper had discoloured.  I twitched the nearest one down but instead of screwing it up, gave it a quick glance, and…

‘…and nobody could write about Danny the way I might if only I had the courage to fail.  Someone no doubt could write it all more perfectly, but no one can say what I have to say unless I say it myself.  It’s the doing that counts…’

Ann Netzke

…the reason I’d kept those words in the first place caught me squarely in mid-procrastination.  I’d stuck them at eye-level to my chair, and then looked above, below and to the side of them ever since.

I can’t remember who Ann Netzke is or was.  I’ve tried an internet search but only found a series of ancestry sites.  It doesn’t matter.  One of these days, now that I’ve remembered where to look, I’ll stumble across her, and think, aah, of course.

But if I don’t, her words are back on my door and this time, I’m keeping them in sight.

And, since I’ve cleared the top of my desk, I’ll need a different set of excuses for further procrastination.

 

*Illustration, Still Life, by Edward Collier 1699.