A trail of breadcrumbs

We’ve got family staying this Easter, which means making an effort.  Not just blitz the house of muddles and dirt, but find places to visit, things to do and see, locally.

Is it just us who don’t really know what’s on their doorstep?  We do have days out, but my attempts to be a good hostess reveal how restricted our household’s range of entertainments are.  We tend to chose places that need no more preparation that to change our clothes and set off.

That’s sheer laziness, and after they’ve spent three and a half hours getting here, we want our visitors to get the most from their stay.  The most what?  Well, fun, of course.

DSCF5233Doesn’t the same thing apply to reading?  How often when we’re writing do we just go with the first idea we have?  Of course, inspiration is great, and we all hope it continues to happen for us.  But I think inspiration is the starting point.  It’s a trigger to explore, to push myself to think beyond where I’m comfortable, even if that means spending some time considering alternative scenarios.

Because sometimes research brings unexpected rewards.  Some years ago we took our visitors to an adventure playground.  Everyone had an amazing time, so we began to plan all visits based on a day out at the giant swings and slides.  We came to know the routes and rides so well we didn’t need a map.

For the children, the adventure is all about anticipation.  Each ride is a precursor to the next excitement.

This year though, the adults said, ‘We’ve done that, can we do something else, please?’

So after a moment of blankness, when it felt as if we’d been given an impossible task: what could equal those giant activities? I began to see that we weren’t being asked for something along the same lines, this was a chance to think laterally.

Think about your audience then.  Put aside your natural modesty and let’s admit that we write not just for ourselves, but for other people too.  They probably are just like us, so perhaps it would help if rather than think about what we like to read, we think about what we don’t like in fiction.

For me, a predictable ending (baddy – antagonist – caught by goody – protagonist) is fine so long as the route by which they get there is not obvious.  On the other hand, I like to be kept guessing, but I don’t want to feel tricked.

For our visitors, the answer turned out to be the local sculpture trail in the forest.  Because even though we were following a map, with numbered artifacts to look out for, each turn of the track brought a new landscape.  Space to run, to ramble, amble and think, to look, explore and imagine, and nothing prepared us for our reactions when we entered a designed glade.






Theatre Reveiw – The Royal Shakespeare Company Christmas Show

Okay, so it’s nearly the end of January now, and your thoughts have left the festive season behind, but I was a bit late booking for Wendy and Peter Pan.  Here’s a tip.  If you’re interested in getting seats for a small group to see a show at the RSC during the holidays, and want to learn by my mistake, you should start organising before the end of November.

Although now that we’ve done this late the once, I’m tempted to say I’d repeat it.  It was good to gather the family together again, post festivities.

The observant amongst you may have wondered if I’ve got a bit muddled about the title of Peter_Pan_1915_coverthe play we saw.  No, it’s not a typing error.  This is an adaptation of JM Barrie’s, Peter Pan and Wendy.  Ella Hickson has reversed the order of the two names to reflect the changes she’s made to the story (don’t worry, she’s not so much fiddled with the plot as shifted the focus to include more of Wendy).    If you’re interested, you can read more about that, and a whole lot more other information on the RSC website.

Okay, it’s their show: they’re bound to rave.

What did our party think?  Fab.  That’s all of us, from the youngest (who is five, two years younger than the recommended age, but he didn’t want to be left out) to the oldest (not me, Granny).

Settling down before the show

Settling down before the show

The set and costumes were amazing, and full of surprises.  The scenes shifted seamlessly. The underground home of the lost-boys opened up out of the stage floor as if it were the top of a clam-shell, looking brilliantly den like; Captain Hook and his crew sailed the Jolly Roger back and forth across the lagoon, pursued by the ticking crocodile, and the cast bounced effortlessly off the ground, the walls, the furniture and the rafters.

In addition though, the story had enough depth to be delivering entertainment on all our levels. This version is not just about boys being able to run wild, it opens up questions about what part girls do, and should have, in that.  Hickson’s version of the play is a fusion.  The setting, and a lot of the references are Edwardian England, but the twenty-first century keeps seeping in.

‘Come on girls, we’re going to up and at ’em,‘ shouts Tinkerbell, clumping heavily out of the den to lead the battle charge, in her off-pink frilly dress and sturdy leather boots.

Tradition has been updated.  All around me the audience drew in a collective breath as Peter appealed for us to save Tink.  ‘Could we help?’

‘Yes,’ called a child’s voice, and then there were others, not just one or two voices, the answer echoed across the auditorium.

Theatre, huh?  When it comes right down to it, there’s something magical about watching a drama played out on a stage.  The engagement of the imagination; that act of suspending disbelief is such a special experience, and sometimes, thanks to this oh so realistic digital society, we forget that there are other ways of discovering truths about ourselves and the world around us.

My wish is that every child could have the opportunity to visit a show like this.  If nothing else, it’s got to be good for them to see grown-ups who can let go and imagine.  But on so many other levels too, theatre seems to me to broaden our horizons.

You don’t need to have children to enjoy this show.  There were unaccompanied adults in the audience too, looking just as dazed as the children when the lights went up and we had to step back into the mundane business of going home.

If you’re anywhere near Stratford-upon-Avon, this show is on until March 2nd and in case you haven’t realised, I’m thoroughly recommending it.

What do I know?

I’m back to thinking about weather again.  You might remember that’s how I started out last week, but I quickly moved on to other things.

So let’s try again.  Remember September?  I notice in the diary I’m about to put away that for the first five days of that month I wrote, ‘hot’.  This week I am, as I type, toasting next to a well-stoked woodburner, and my old Fahrenheit thermometer in the corner reads seventy.  So this room also, you might say, is hot and perhaps that covers the subject adequately.  After all, we’ve all experienced all kinds of temperatures and the writing rule these days is less is more, especially with descriptions.

We could be satisfied with memory and perhaps some photographs or pictures to trigger them.  That’s good, it’s what imaginations are for.  We take what we know and embellish it, recreate our own versions of events, scenarios, situations according to our own designs.  But, and there is a but, beware the chances of falling into cliché.  I’m not talking of language now, rather I’m thinking about how far the things that remain with us are universal.  Take summer time as a topic, for instance.

summer holidaysLet’s think about writing a description of a British family beach holiday.  You might include the sensations of being dried with a sandy towel, or the texture of gritty ice-cream, the call of seagulls, the sounds of fairground rides and the smell of fish and chips.  They’re all good, valid approaches, but what makes them specific, applicable to one particular place in time and space?  More importantly, how do you make the description your own?

Okay, you could just tell us, this is Bournemouth, Barmouth, Tenby, Yarmouth, Brighton or Blackpool.  Then again, perhaps the geography doesn’t matter.  If you’re writing a nostalgic piece, perhaps you are looking for common experiences. Fine, but surely you still want lively writing.  You want to intrigue your reader, to engage their attention.

Small children know the trick of that.  It’s the unusual, perhaps even the outrageous behaviour, that causes adults to turn from their conversations to what the child is up to.  That’s a good principle to remember when writing, because unless they’re related to us, most readers do have to be won over, by the power of our words to transport them from the present into another world.

I am on a beach.  I don’t know where – Southwold perhaps.  I am very small and wearing a blue ruched swimming costume, which scratches the tops of my legs and fills with bubbles of water when I go in the sea.  But I’m not in the sea.  I’m sitting on a big striped towel, shivering.  My dad is sitting beside me and I’m thinking how hairy his legs are, like gorilla’s legs.

So writes Leslie Glaister, from memory, in an essay for The Creative Writing Coursebook.  I don’t know about you, I’m hooked.  I both identify with this image, this moment, and am intrigued by the way she gathers together these so specific images to make them clearly only hers.

Sometimes, our recall can be precise enough for us to create something as specific as this.  Or as lyrical as Katherine Mansfield’s, At The Bay.

Very early morning.  The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist.  The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered.  You could not see where they ended and the paddocks began.  The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea.  A heavy dew had fallen.  The grass was blue.

I’ve never been to New Zealand, and yet the precision of these details makes me feel that I might have.  It also reminds me of other early morning views.

In both of these pieces specific, telling, details create convincing prose worlds.  It may be that you also are able to evoke a sense of specific place in your writing without too much effort.  How does it happen?  I think it’s through having an eye for detail, and here’s the bit where I link my train of thought back to the start.

I think I could write about a hot week in September, not because my memory is special, or my creative ability any better than the next person’s.  The notes made as I waited in a car outside a Portsmouth house on a Sunday afternoon are enough for me to recall the affects of that unexpected heatwave.  For a moment I forget the woodburner, and that it is evening.

It’s not important that I’ve identified a specific date, what worked was the process of keeping a writers diary.  It focuses my attention.  I observe my surroundings more closely, and instead of passing on, I’ve learned to record it.

My notes are rarely lifted word for word from the diary into a text, they’re a draft to be worked on.  What they give me are ideas and inspiration to translate into stories, or blog entries.

And that’s it.  Here endeth the lesson on Writers Diary keeping.  If you’ve not started one yet, I hope this might have helped convince you to sit down now and start by writing about the weather, whatever manifestation it appears in.

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.

Are you thinking of writing something for Halloween?


Detail from 'The pit and The pendulum', by Arthur Rackham

Detail from ‘The pit and The pendulum’, by Arthur Rackham

In my early teens I went through a craze for reading ghost stories by torch light under the bed covers, long after the rest of the family had fallen asleep.  I don’t remember much about those short stories now, what I remember is the effect of them, and how when I was alone in the house, or baby-sitting on dark nights, the atmosphere of them would creep up on me until I had to rush for light switches.  Then, even after I had closed the curtains and checked the locks, how I would be straining not to hear the noises you only notice when you are alone.

The stories that I have not forgotten are two of the older ones,The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs and The Amorous Ghost, by Enid Bagnold.  What’s interesting about them, from the writing point of view, is how little ‘ghosting’ they actually contain.

Take, The Monkey’s Paw.  Strictly speaking, this is as much horror as ghost, but it’s often anthologised in ghost collections, so who am I to be picky?  What I’m interested in is why this 1902 story has endured.  Rereading it I’m always surprised by the events described.  It turns out to be, largely, a domestic story.

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

There are few graphic descriptions of the supernatural to make our flesh creep.  Here, instead, is a character study.  The horror evolves naturally when the dynamics of a close family are tested.

Jacobs opens with the classic, ‘dark and stormy night’.  That’s a tricky one to carry off successfully, but he does it economically, neatly demonstrating what is meant by show don’t tell.

After that, tension is raised gradually.  We are not left room to disbelieve, but the characters are:

“Morris said the things happened so naturally,” said his father, “that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”

There are no coincidences in this story.  Every event builds on from the previous one, apparently naturally.  From the moment the three wishes are mentioned, our sense of the inevitability of their journey towards darkness is established.  One wish leads to another, despite the warnings about interfering with fate, and despite the examples of what happened to the previous owners who ignored them.

This is good story telling.  Dialogue and description, action and report are interwoven so neatly that the story races along.  My mind shouts no, don’t, but they do, and I turn the page, and then another.  And the real horror?  It’s not in the writing at all, its in my mind.

The ending is the final touch of genius with this story.  I dare you to read it and not be affected.

On the other hand (no pun intended), once you begin to look at how the structure works, doesn’t it make you feel that it might be fun to try and write one for Halloween?  There should just be time to come up with something suitable for a candle-lit reading.

The Ice Breaker

Picture this: day-one at the Imaginative Writing BA.  It’s a mid-September morning, there’s a slight mist, but it’s warm.  I follow my A-Z to a quiet street of big old terraced houses three turnings behind the Cultural Studies school.  Up five stone steps and through a narrow pair of doors are glass fire-doors.  Ahead of me are two narrow staircases.  The left set goes up, the right down.  Because they are fitted into a tight corner of the hall they turn shortly, both seem dark.

I hesitate, reading the numbers on the two ground floor doors and am crowded.  People appear from every direction, greeting each other extravagantly, laughing, chatting or looking confused.  I’m fairly sure they’re all students, some because they are so young, others because of their clothes or their confusion as they check their handbooks and look on the building plan for room numbers.

The noise levels increase, a piano starts up somewhere below us, playing a bright, nippy run of scales and a nice baritone follows the lead.  I hear a round of applause, and laughter.  This is the drama school, then.  Seems more like a TV show.  Can this really be where I’m meant to be?

I’m not sure, but it’s too late to change my mind.  I’ve rented a room, given up my job, signed the enrollment forms and have just heard a woman ask for directions to the same class as me.  I follow her past the stairs and along a narrow blue corridor.

We gather, sixteen of us, in a room with no windows, dim lighting and a sloping wooden floor, that was not a result of subsidence, it was designed that way, and yes, there was a reason, but I’ve forgotten it now.  The centre of the room is empty.  There are no tables, only stacks of metal framed chairs around the painted-brick walls.

Small groups form around the edges of the room.  Most of the class are in the same halls and have spent freshers week together.  They chatter about parties and shops and wonder if they’ve come to the right place.  Good, I think, it’s not just me.DSCF5124

It’s not.  In a moment the door opens again, and Edmund comes in.  ‘Welcome to Imaginative Writing,’ he says.  ‘Sorry about the accommodation.  We’ll be moving in a week or so.’  He takes an orange out of his bag. ‘Meanwhile, I think we’ll start by getting to know each other.  Catch the orange, say your name and throw it to someone else.’

The orange did the rounds, two or three times, then we unstacked chairs and did a class.

You’re thinking that as ice-breakers go, this doesn’t sound so bad, aren’t you?  In fact, as tasks go, this one probably seems quite fun.

Lesson two.

Round one:    ‘Catch the orange and say the name of the person who has just thrown it.’

Round two:     ‘Call out a name and throw the orange to that person.’

I loathed that game.  It seemed designed to prove to me and my classmates how bad I was at remembering names.

‘As soon as we have a hundred percent success, we’ll stop playing,’ Edmund said.

We never were sure if it was the same orange that came back for that second lesson.  Perhaps we would have been able to work it out if we’d needed it for the third.  It certainly looked like it had been around for a while.  When we asked Edmund about it later, he said that he’d got the idea from a book about business management.  They specified a tennis ball.  Edmund hadn’t got a tennis ball.

Over the next few weeks he set us more bizarre tasks.  Edmund had innovative ideas about what Imaginative Writing meant.  The title of the course was not accidental, he assured us, he meant us to use our imaginations in order to discover creativity for ourselves.

More than a decade later, I look back to that orange with affection.   It did force us to learn each other’s names in a short space of time.  It also got us talking, outside of the group, and became part of the story of our three years together.  I bet, if you were to mention oranges to any one from that group, and probably every other group that came after, they would soon be reminiscing about their time as IW students with Edmund Cusick.

And no, I never repeat the orange in my teaching.  It was an Edmund thing.   But having experienced it made me appreciate how useful a tool the icebreaker task can be.  I’ve invented my own sets of devious and twisted exercises for getting to know classes.

Stories That Matter

…every story that matters to a reader – every story that hums with a meaning greater that the sum of its words – was once little more than a risky act of faith for the writer.

Alison Macleod, Writing and Risk-taking,

From, Short Circuit, a guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt 2009)

I think there are as many kinds of short story as there are writers.  So when I’m feeling insecure about spending so much of my life writing stories, and trying to get them published, somewhere, and the words won’t flow, I read.

Out of the reading I’ve been doing this week it’s not a story that stands out, though I’ve read a few good ones, it’s an essay by Alison Macleod.  Sometimes, I need to be reminded about how stories matter, and to think about my approach to writing them.  Discovering what other writers say about their processes is one way I do that.

“…the short story, though obviously short, is big.” says Alison, which is about the most succinct summing up of what a writer might aspire to that I’ve come across.  I like it so much that I’ve added it to the post-it quotes I keep on the door by my desk.  Yes, I think, those are the stories that matter, the ones that are so much bigger than their words that they stay with me.  And those are the ones we long to write, aren’t they?

I don’t care if you’re writing realism or fantasy, the principle is the same.  Listen, our words imply, I’ve got something to make you laugh, cry, think, feel…to forget for a few minutes where you are and what is around you.  That’s good.  I even feel I may be a little noble to aim so modestly.

The thing is, my modesty’s not strictly true.  What I, and I therefore assume we, hope for – secretly or blatantly – is to be noted: better yet, discovered.  I don’t want to be writing disposable prose, I  want someone to be intrigued enough by a story of mine to look for more of them.  That’s my reading pattern, after all.

Stories that matterNow that’s a big ambition: an inhibiting ambition.  I can no more write when I’ve one eye on that than I can read when I’m keeping a check on the time.  The type of stories that keep me in the chair when Rusty is ready for his walk need adjectives like ‘engaging’, ‘surprising’, ‘intriguing’.  How can I possibly set my imagination free if I’m continually questioning the value of every word and action?

I can’t.  What I need to focus on is ‘the risky act of faith‘.  Alison Macleod is not just talking faith in self, she’s advocating RISK.  Writers, she reminds us have to let the story lead us.  Writers, she says, ‘need to move beyond polite conversation.‘  Yes, I think, that’s what so often pulls me up, when I’m writing, ‘What will my mother/father/neighbour think if the story does that?’

Risk is hot: it’s action and excitement. It’s not writing for effect, shocking or safe, it’s about allowing the story events to play out naturally, even if that means letting go of the idea I began with.

Write What You Know.

‘It’s just like Tetrus, really,’ my eldest niece, Fi, said, turning a straw bale sideways and fitting it into the gap that I’d just decided I would have to leave.DSCF5043

I had to smile.  Who would have thought that an electronic game would apply to something as mundane as stacking bales in a barn, a job I’ve been helping with all my life, and never managed to master.  Set me on a trailer and I’ll square the load up, or throw the bales off, according to need.  Neither job requires too much thought, or even, believe it or not, much muscle.  That side of the job is about stamina, and lifting techniques.  I’m just happy to slog along, settling into a rhythm of work that tones up my muscles in the fresh air while setting my mind free to roam.

Building a stack in the barn that will stay square, and be safe enough for someone to clamber about taking bales away from over several months without needing to wear a safety harness, that’s a skill.  Perhaps the reason I never mastered it was because it meant concentrating on each bale, and really I’ve never been keen on building, even with lego blocks.

The kit I owned as a child was for a bungalow.  I remember seeing it completed once, but I don’t think it was me who did it.  I generally got distracted before I reached the roof stage.  In fact, the most distinct memory I have is of discovering that most of the tiles had gone missing the one time I achieved gutter height.  I expect my younger brother, who had all my share of interest in lego, had incorporated it into one of the massive projects he was always building.  The aircraft that he constructed bore no relation to any kit I’ve seen, then or since.  How he managed to make squared blocks into cylindrical bodies is still beyond me.  But that’s another story.

Generally, I tended to try for so many windows in each wall of my bungalow that the brickwork could only be constructed as pillars, which always bowed out before I’d got them finished.  I faced up early to the fact that I was never going to be a bricklayer, and was not disappointed.  I left the lego indoors and returned to climbing amongst the bales where it always smelled like June and August.

I love haymaking and harvest time.  I could give you a lyrical turn of memories about sunsets, trailer rides, the camaraderie and the joys of an icy beer after a long day, that spans back several decades. But the thing is, for something like that all my senses go into overdrive.  My need to paint the picture accurately overtakes all else, especially that thing I’m always aspiring to, economy, and generally that’s not good for story.write what you know

So I prefer to take my nostalgia and apply it to a character, a fully rounded personality with their own set of drives and desires and responses in their own setting.  The scent of mown grass; the way the leveret squealed when Fi picked him up from amongst the bales and carried him to the hedge; the dry heat in the top of the barn and the sight of the children running to catch a lift on the empty trailer, these things I can transfer to another time and place with a little imagination and a willingness to let go of some of what I remember.

As for Fi, despite being good with lego, and Design Technology, she’s not planning to be bricklayer either, just another casual volunteer for the fun side of farm work.


Brave Worlds

best new sci fiI’ve been reading of other worlds for the last two weeks, dipping into The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 15.  For those in the know, that means I’ve actually been looking back, as the fifteenth Annual Collection was published in 2002.

It was a second-hand impulse buy that I regretted as soon as I got home, because there was no shelf space for it – at 702 pages, this really is a mammoth book. Something needed to be read if I wasn’t going to start heaping books on the floor.

Given the technological advances of the last eleven years, I assumed that most of the twenty-six stories would seem dated.  This meant firstly, that my new book was not something to leave sitting around on a shelf much longer, and secondly, that it would probably mean a speedy skim reading, so I could recycle it straight back to the bookshop and solve my space dilemma.

What was I thinking?  Well probably of something much simpler than this selection of writing.  Stories, perhaps, predicting how science will advance.

Remember 1983?  No, that’s not a typo, I mean the year.  I’m thinking back to how we anticipated the convergence of reality with the fictional world George Orwell created for Nineteen eighty-four.  There was even a new film of the book made, released in 1984.  As we headed for December 31st 1983, didn’t we get a little bit caught-up in that analysis of what had come true and how far from an Orwellian world we were?  Phew, we thought, at least we haven’t turned out like that: at least we still have some freedoms, and aren’t we lucky, really?

Because the thing I always forget about sci-fi, is that the science is just the icing.  The real body, the ingredients of the cake, are the characters we identify with.  A science fiction does not necessarily need masses of technology.  What most of the stories in my Mammoth book offered were the eternal stories of love, loss and hope.  They came in unfamiliar shapes and often bleak landscapes but they played out familiar human scenarios.

new scientistSo were they dated?  No.  Perhaps in another ten years some of the ideas will seem far-fetched, but I’m not sure that matters.  I’m still re-reading HG Wells and John Wyndam, and they’re playing on our TVs and radios every so often, despite having been overtaken by many advances.

So what makes a successful Science Fiction story?  Perhaps it would pay us to remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory about the suspension of disbelief.  He suggested two key ingredients for tellers of fantastic tales,  ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’. It seems to me that most of the stories in my Mammoth book were about semblances of truth, most of them hard, and dark.  Warnings perhaps not of the dangers of technology, but of our own natures.

These are not just stories for teenage geeks, they’re something we might all benefit from trying out once in a while, as readers and as writers, because they epitomize that fundamental question of the fiction writer, What if..?  Perhaps, for those who long to write of injustices, social or otherwise, it might be worth thinking about describing the world to come if you really want us to notice the here and now.

As to the Mammoth book, I think I will pass it on, but I’m going to look out for another one, so I’d better get reading a space onto my shelf after-all.  It’s just one difficult decision after another here.

Beyond Words.

My reading group and I have just been discussing  ‘An Indiscreet Journey’ by Katherine Mansfield.  It’s a bright, breezily narrated tale describing the journey a young woman makes across France to visit her lover, just behind the front-line.

WWI postcardLike so much of Mansfield’s fiction, the story is a pen-portrait of an actual event, and in this case, written soon after the visit took place, in 1915.  But why should we need to know that?  A story, surely, stands alone.  That the word world created should convince, as well as engage us, whether it is contemporarily familiar, or set in an environment distanced by space or time, isn’t that the real test?

This one passed.  We agreed unanimously.  We don’t always agree, of course.  I wouldn’t expect us too.  In this case though, there seemed to be something in the writing for every taste.  Comic character studies, poetic descriptions and a clever digression from the apparent plot all combined to provide a comprehensive entertainment and some enjoyable discussion.

Several of the group had not come across Mansfield before, and so we discussed a little of her background – mostly the more sensational aspects, of course.  Pooling our knowledge on the author and the era, brought me back to the text.

In it, there is a description of an old woman reading a letter from her soldier son, the first one she’d received in months.  When I was putting my ideas together at home, I had spent some time wondering about it.  The only detail Mansfield gives us out of the letter is a request for string and handkerchiefs.  What could it mean?  I came up with two possibilities, neither strong, but there seemed nothing more to go on.  There was so much more to investigate in the text that I moved on.

It was at the class, while we were discussing the soldier with weeping eyes, from later in the story, that the solution came.  Mansfield never directly states it, but we concluded that this soldier has been caught in a gas attack. When she was writing this story, Mansfield was staying at a flat in Paris, near to a hospital treating injured soldiers, many of whom had been caught in gas attacks.

When chemical weapons were first deployed, the armies were not prepared, and soldiers improvised gas masks with pads of urine soaked linen. ‘Yes,’ said one of the group, ‘they tied string to each corner of the material and looped it around their ears.’

For me, it was a eureka moment.  I saw beyond the words, to the implications of the way the mother reads her letter:

‘Slowly, slowly she sipped a sentence, and then looked up and out of the window, her lips trembling a little, and then another sentence, and again the old face turned to the light, tasting it…’

The story opened out again, as if Mansfield’s words were only a window onto a much bigger and more complex view of the war.  How terrible a letter it must have been for a mother to receive, and how discreetly Mansfield has conveyed this contrast between our narrator and the landscape she travels through.

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I don’t think of Mansfield as an easy read.  In some ways, this is one of her more accessible pieces.  The narrator’s journey provides structure.  The cameo portraits flesh it out and provide colour, and we could skip past the references that don’t have apparent meaning.  This was, after all, written ninety-eight years ago. On some level, isn’t story always a piece of social history, directly or indirectly, that we can choose to explore or ignore?

I think yes, and certainly not every story is worth digging into.  But to spend a little time on this one is to see what was happening in the wider world at that moment.  Once I started to find the patterns, even the title, An Indiscreet Journey began to acquire additional implications.

WWI postcardSo if you’re looking for a story to re-read, pick this one.  If you’re looking for a story to read with a reading group, ditto.  If any story can demonstrate the merits of what a reading group achieves, this is it.  As we head for the hundred year anniversary of the start of The Great War, there is certain to be a lot of re-discovery going on with literature.  Here’s a suggestion for an early start you might make.