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.


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




Got a Writing Block?

writing book for childrenLook what I found amongst the books at the local fete.  Okay, it’s published as a children’s book, but we don’t have to notice that.  Look at the first paragraph:

Have you ever wondered how to start a story or what to write next?  This book will help you.

See that ‘you’ ?  It could include adults too.

‘That’s all very well,’ I hear you say, ‘if we’re writing for children.  I’m aiming for an adult audience.’

Don’t fool yourselves folks, if we’re all reading the same seven stories, (hello, is that another echo of Aristotle?) we’re all writing them too.

This book provides a series of busy people-pictures plus guided questions.  And yes, they are child-like illustrations, but what happens if you describe the events from an adult pov*?  The language you use, your understanding of events, and your responses, all affect the kind of story you will write.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling inhibited about making imaginative leaps, writing for children could provide you with a challenging stretch.  Think adventure, and the language of ‘let’s pretend’, then look at each picture as a frozen moment, and imagine what will happen next…

The golden rule is, no cutting corners, create your logic and follow it through to a feasible conclusion that doesn’t explain everything by saying, ‘and then he woke up’.


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.


Embracing the absurd.

I’ve just picked up on a challenge laid down for me a month ago, and read some of the absurdist stories of Daniil Kharms.   Thanks Mike, what a find, and how have I missed him before?

Literature is my favourite form of travel.  Think of the efficiency.  No hours on the road, or waiting around for connections.  Step between the lines of a story and I’m away.  The infernal combustion engines might transport us across the geographical world, but I’ve just travelled back in time, and got dunked into Russian culture.  No tourist destinations for me.


photo by Lucy Jansch

These Kharm stories read in a flash, resonate for hours.  They’re ridiculous, funny and dark.  Death slices through the lines of plot, taking out central character after central character.  The early twentieth century Russian landscape is grim, even bitter.  ‘Good people are not capable of getting a good foothold in life,‘  concludes Kharms, in his 1936 story, The Things.  I sense layers of suggestion, of anger, behind the flying dogs and missing legs, the drunken binges and vanishing brothers.  Like dreams, they sketch scenes, distort reality, break the rules.

These characters and their deeds twist my understanding of the world,  my sense of self and reality.  It’s brave, risk-taking writing, and I can’t predict the outcome of any piece.  They stop.

I think on, and see that sometimes writers need to be brave, and leap.

Clout Theatre 2013

Clout Theatre, 2013.   How a Man Crumbled.






Getting to know a character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you married?

What was your maiden name?

Ahh, so have you married a relation?  Interesting.

Have you children?

Who’s surname do they take?

How did you decide that?

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

How did your families take that?

So, how long have you been together?

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

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

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

Just when I think my book shelf is full…

Old Spike Milligan, that mixed bag of indulgence and genius, lands on my lap: another hand-me-down from a nostalgic neighbour.

Milligan Little Pot Boiler‘Never saw much in him at the time,’ my neighbour says. ‘But there’s some good stuff in there, all the same.’

Never turn away a book without a flick through, think I, accepting the poor old thing. ‘Thank you,’ I say.

My neighbour nods.  ‘I think you’ll like it,’ he says.  ‘There’s not many pages.  A useful book for keeping in the bathroom.’  I’m beginning to feel a bit Milligan myself, as I wave goodbye to my neighbour.

I put Spike down beside Middlemarch, the reading I’m supposed to be doing ready for my Autumn class. Six-hundred and eighty two pages versus ninety six.

As for the ink taken, well, no comparison between the densely printed Elliot and Milligan’s book.  Half of his pages are given to cartoons – one of which depends for its joke on facing a blank page, and many more are poems.

Judging by the state of my copy, Spike’s been company for a few baths since he was published in… 1963, would you believe?  The cover is battered, and the glue on the spine has got brittle: most of the pages are either loose, or hanging by a corner to the rest.  I can’t imagine passing this one on again.  What am I to do with it?

Do I like Spike Milligan?  I’ve never read him, though he seemed to be on the tv a lot when I was growing up.  Did I like him then?  I’m not sure.

I like my neighbour though, so I flick through the pages again.  The paper is yellow and brittle, but I find this:


Things that go “bump!” in the night,

Should not really give one a fright.

It’s the hole in each ear

That lets in the fear,

That, and the absence of light!

And this:

Spike Milligan

“Bet you can’t do this!”


I’m not sure whether I can do that.  But I know I’ve got more chance of something like it if I’ve got access to Spike’s writings and drawings.

So, that’s it, then.  No chance of slipping this one in amongst the recycling.  My neighbour may not be a reader, but he knows a keeper.

I am a home for tired books.


Psst, pass this on.

It is the responsibility of writers to listen to gossip and pass it on.  It is the way all storytellers learn about life.

Grace Paley

A dragon dragged past the window, tail flailing as Sam turned the pages of his bed-time book slowly, hanging out the moment of sleep in favour of chat, life, and narrative.  Sam DSCF5241was winging stories across the duvet.  Pictures came to life in his voice.

It’s months since the last time I was asked to mind him for the evening.  ‘He might decide to read to you,’ his mum had said, quietly, before she left.  Now, here we were with the chosen book, and my voice, for the first time, was stilled.

Sam read.  A few words we had to spell out together, and Sam paused to try it out, then he went back to the beginning of the sentence and read it again, with colour and feeling.  He was not just reading, he immersed himself in that story’s world.

When we had turned the last page of the book, and Sam was ready to sleep, I crept downstairs, hugging the memory of those moments.

A lesson from my nephew

Sam, who’s six, is an expert on Ninja turtles.  He’s seen all the animations, loves the comics, can name each character, give you their histories and play the stories out in Lego.

‘The sword of Tengu,’ he says, watching his father and I load the trailer with chainsaw, ropes, ladders and safety gear, ‘can cut through trees.’

I suggest that this must need good muscles.  Sam climbs off the gate, does an impressive spinning jump and as he lands has reached behind his shoulders with both hands and grabbed the two plastic swords that he has tucked down the back of his tee-shirt.  ‘Only Shredder can use the sword of Tengu,’ he says, ‘and he’s evil.’  He strikes a new pose with his twin swords and makes a series of lunges at the fence.

The other day, as I took a short cut, I glanced over the hedge, and there was Sam on his trampoline.  He bounced, did a forward roll, and as he recovered, reached back and pulled the twin swords out of his tee-shirt.  By the time he was upright, he was poised for action.

It was only then that I was struck by how dedicated a student Sam is.  Everything he sees and has to do is filtered by its reference to Ninja lore, and that’s been the way of things for at least a year now.

There was a time when I never left the house without putting a notebook and pen in my pocket, and since I often forgot to take them out again, this meant I generally carried several.  I made notes in queues, shops, fields and carparks, during intervals at the theatre and cinema or breathers on long walks.  But at some point, in an attempt to be more organised, my handy pocket-sized notepads got tidied away.  My Mslexia diary was designed to double as a notebook and I kept it in my bag, so it seemed efficient concentrate on that.

DSCF5518The thing is, I don’t take my diary everywhere in the same way.  Notebooks can be folded and crammed into pockets.  The best of mine are only one step on from being the back of an envelope, ideal for long walks, or tree-felling expeditions.

Inspiration belongs in a different sphere to the public spaces where I might need to check a date or jot down a reference or idea.  My notebooks are a licence to dream.  The efficiency they reflect is my commitment to writing.

‘Sam,’ I say, ‘Tell your Dad I’ll be back in a minute.  I’ve just remembered something else I need to bring.’




A. S. Byatt demonstrates the art of short story writing

The Story of the Eldest Princess, by A.S. Byatt is a fairytale.  Because the genre has been so successfully packaged for children for the past three hundred years, it is often forgotten that the original audience for these oral tales would have included adults, and that the tellers would have adapted their material to suit the circumstances of their listeners.

Yet writers have not forgotten.  Many of our best-loved fictions have fairytale characters and situations embedded in them.  Some are easily recognised, many are artfully reworked.

Occasionally writers celebrate the form openly.  Apart from their entertainment value, these stories provide us with an opportunity to study the craft.  Comparing and contrasting the approaches helps us expand our understanding of the endless writing possibilities.

DSCF4470 bSo, in this story A.S. Byatt  tells of what happens when the sky turns from the usual blues to a variety of shades of green.

In the early days the people stood in the streets and fields with their moths open, and said oh, and ah, in tones of admiration and wonder.

After a while though the novelty wears off, and the population look for someone to blame.  The buck stops, of course, with the King and Queen.  They consult with various minions, both ministers and witches and wizards, until finally someone thinks up a Quest.  Since it ‘was a positive action, which would please the people, and not disrupt the state’ that’s the solution they settle for.  The second princess volunteers, but:

The King said he thought it should be done in an orderly manner, and he rather believed the eldest Princess should go, since she was the first…Quite why that mattered so much, no one knew, but it seemed to, and the eldest Princess said she was quite happy to set out that day, if that was what the council believed was the right thing to do.

So she set out.  They gave her a sword, and an inexhaustible water-bottle someone had brought back from another Quest, and a package of bread and quails’ eggs and lettuce and pomegranates, which did not last very long.

At this point, the princess pauses, and does what all the best adventurous heroes in fairytales do, considers her situation.

 She began to think.  She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess.  This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests.  What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.

She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.

She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.

We, of course, are by nature reading writers, which means that we too have read a great many stories, hopefully many of them in the fairy genre, and so we too recognise this pattern.  This, we realize, is the moment when the narrative may break away from expectations, so that the questions of what, why and how can be freshened up.

Hmm, interesting, isn’t it?

Under the spell of imaginative people

Sometimes, words just get under my skin.  It may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, but IClywd theatre put it down to the power of poetry, and the sign of a good production, that even though it is some years since I read, saw or heard Under Milk Wood, while watching a matinee performance by the Clwyd Theatre Cymru on Thursday, I found myself not just anticipating most of the lines, but holding my breath for them.

Left to my own inclinations, I might have passed up on going to see the play again.  It’s been a busy month and I have a copy of the Richard Burton audio production that makes me weak-kneed.  Luckily, though, I have a friend who invited me to go with her.

Anyone who’s interested in imaginative writing should go along to see how a show that was written for the radio, that world-within-the-mind medium, can take place upon a stage.  It was a good reminder that nothing, or to put it in the colloquial, bugger-all, is impossible with fiction.

set photo by Catherine Ashmore

set photo by Catherine Ashmore

The whole geography and community of Llareggub was played out on the small stage of our theatre.  Within a curve of  space were included all of the long sloping streets, the huddles of houses, the hills, the sea, and its shore, and all the busy, lazy, cheating, peeping people who inhabit them.

Theatre, I believe, is magic.  Able to transport me not just into the world of other people, but into my past.  Holding my breath for the slow black, crow black, fishing boat bobbing sea, I not only followed the firm hold of the cast on their roles, but recalled different versions.  Does theatre happen only on the stage? No, it’s in my minds eye too.

I remembered again that school trip, was it in the third or fourth year?  Winter though, because it was dark as we gathered after tea-time to wait for the coach.  I must have been studying the text for literature, but seeing the play was what made me fall in love with it.  That was my first experience of minimal theatre.  Acting can work without scenery and props?  Wow.

The actors were in contemporary dress.  We were out of uniform.  Remember how that felt, to be of school, and yet at odds with it at the same time, and the teachers: in not quite front-of-class mode.  It was a moment of flux, when I experienced something that was outside of the ordinary and was aware of myself growing.  Late nights on a coach, those were the days.  Dusty seats, steamy windows and hushed voices before we stumbled down the steps and made our ways home.

We may have gone to somewhere quite close by, but it seemed to me like another world, and that was just how I felt on Thursday afternoon, walking out into the sunshine.  It took a moment to get into step with the outside, to master paying for parking tickets and head home.