Notes on nature: stories of fear.

For the last month, it seems, queen bees and wasps have been sneaking into our house just so that they can bumble against our windows. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve returned outdoors.

Maybe it’s just the same one or two, irritated to find themselves trapped in a glass tumbler, then ushered out. Perhaps, after that, they lurk nearby, watching for their moment to fly back in.

I thought the first two or three I caught might have hibernated somewhere inside, in a fold of the curtain, perhaps, all winter. After day four, though, that seemed less likely. I may be a bit of a casual cleaner, but the house isn’t that big. Besides, we’ve had the wood-burner stoked pretty warm at times this winter, if the trigger is temperature they should have shown themselves much earlier in the year.

It seems, therefore, that we live in an insect des-res. I’m not sure what that says about us.

At any rate, Rusty would prefer us not to. An unfortunate early encounter with buzzing insects has given him a powerful aversion. He’ll even quit the settee to avoid being in the same room with that threat. Very often, the first indicator of a winged squatter is Rusty hurrying in from another room to snuggle behind my knees.

‘Aren’t you supposed to protect me?’ I ask, as I gather my improvised humane insect trap and go to investigate.

It’s the bumble-bees I like best. I know that wasps are a useful part of the ecosystem, and do not exist just to get mean-drunk on fruit juice in the autumn, but still, I give them more respect than affection.

Queen bumble-bees are, sort of, cute. Apart from the name, there’s all that fur. It makes them so improbably big, and clumsy looking, that the idea that they should fly, borders on comic.

So, I evict, but I find them all fascinating, even the hornet that visited last year. While the bees and wasps seem indifferent to my presence, I had the impression that the hornet watched me. It was a hot day, but her size, and slow entry, was chilling.

I followed Rusty’s rapid exit, slamming the door behind us. Once we were safe, he began to bark with excitement. I leaned against the door, thinking in cliches of fear.

It took several deep breaths before I could convince myself to dash back in and open the other two windows. Then I waited, outside, watching the hornet reverse my glass trick.

She circled calmly, investigating every corner and object. Once, she landed on the window in front of me, and crawled slowly across it. I stepped back, ready to run, but she wasn’t ready to leave.

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You want to write? Dare to dream.

creating-charactersSitting on the decking at our Dartmoor holiday cottage, overlooking a verdant village, on a balmy September afternoon, I chatted across the fence with our temporary neighbour, Janet.  ‘You’ve got to enjoy your work,’ she said.  ‘I loved being a care assistant.  Going home at night knowing that you’d made at least one person smile that day.’

Janet’s a doer.  She’s just finished redecorating her hall, and is about to mow her lawn.  The garden is immaculate, and colourfully planted.  She’s always busy.  Tonight is quiz night, it’s, ‘a bit of a laugh, I go with my sister, she lives in the next village, so I pick her up.  She can’t get about much, with her hips.’

Janet’s a fiction, a character I’m putting together as I write.  She has a story I want to tell, but I don’t know it yet.  The things I do know are accumulating.  Some of them contradict what I thought I knew, and so I’m adapting my ideas.  For instance, her hair has fluffed out from short to long, from neat to artfully dyed and sculpted. Perhaps you think it doesn’t matter about something so superficial, and maybe I won’t be including that information in the final version of the story I write.  But I need to know it.

Janet is not a figment of my imagination, I’m dreaming her into existence.  I care about her, and the things that she cares about, and if I do this well, when I’m finished she may make you smile too.  This evening, when she comes out of the back door, in her black lace blouse, sharp black trousers and her neatly painted face, you will glance up from the Devon Life magazine you’ve been flicking through as you wait for your tea to barbecue, and wave.  ‘Good luck,’ you will call.

Janet will give a cheek-lifting smile, and hurry across the firm dry lawn to ask what’s cooking.  ‘Smell’s good,’ she’ll say, rising on tiptoes to look over the fence. ‘What are you planning for tomorrow?  Weather’s looking kind.’

She’s taking her granddaughter into Exeter in the morning, for a hearing test.  ‘But I expect I’ll see you in the evening.  Don’t get lost on the moor, or go shaking hands with any ghosts.’  Then she’ll adjust her hot pink pashmina around her shoulders and hurry down the garden to her honeysuckle covered car-port.  Her white blonde hair glows in the dusky shadows as she moves round to the drivers door.

From the decking we watch her drive out of the cul-de-sac and onto the narrow lane.

 

 

 

 

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

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.

 

 

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.

IMG_0212

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

 

 

 

Finding the end of the story.

Kitty, arrives at the class with three pages of writing.  She’s created a feisty main character with an interesting dilemma.  ‘I know exactly how it will end,’ says Kitty.  ‘I’ve just got to work out the bit in the middle.’

‘So,’ I say, ‘you’ll finish it for next session.’

Kitty fiddles with the pages of her notebook and looks away.  ‘Maybe not,’ she says.

street artBeneath her fingers are three other projects that she has started with great energy and abandoned at the half-way point.

‘Could it be,’ I suggest, ‘that you’re thinking too far ahead each time?’

I have two problems in pre-plotting endings.  The first is that my character might not decide to go in the direction I need them to, and so I am continually placing them in situations that haven’t evolved naturally.  The second is that because I’ve already worked the ending out there’s no sense of excitement about my writing.

This does not mean that planning is wrong.  It works for a lot of writers.  There are plenty of planning styles for big projects, ranging from the paper-based versions, such as postcards pinned to a wall or shuffled into order, to sophisticated computer programmes that can either lead you with prompts, or be used to store your ideas.

‘What if,’ I suggested to Kitty, ‘you write up that ending you’ve anticipated, and put it aside.  It can be your back-up, but also, because you’ve written it, you can let go of that idea.

Then you can pick up the story from the point it is at now and let your main character work out what happens next.  Don’t think about an ending.  Let it happen.’

‘I could try that,’ said Kitty.

I said, ‘What have you got to lose?’

 

 

*Photo by Leon Keer.

Snail, and The Simple Linear Plot.

DSCF5265Despite being an enthusiastic, if erratic gardener, I’ve always had a sneaking affection for snails.  It’s not just their shells, which are actually far more decorative and varied than seems necessary, I like the delicate elegance of their antenna, and I’m fascinated by the way they move about.

Out walking on damp mornings, I find them crossing the slick tarmac lane.  Sometimes I anthropomorphize them.  Why did the snail cross the road? Are they fearless, or just oblivious? I’ve often stopped to move them onto the verge.  It’s a quiet lane.  I wonder what I shall say if someone sees what I’m up to?

This is despite the fact that at this time of year, when I’m trying to raise a veg garden, the battle between me and the various gastropods turns epic.  In one night, a sneaky squadron of six slugs turned the leaves of my four young courgette plants to lace, and lacerated the stems either on the way to or from their feast. 

My tolerance doesn’t stretch that far.  I found them skulking under a potato plant nearby.  Don’t tell Dad, who tried to teach me that there’s no place for sentiment in gardening, but I launched them over the fence into the field.  There’s a lush headland of weeds there that ought to keep them happily fed, if they can overcome their homing instinct. 

Yes, snails do have one, (so I assume slugs share it) it was proved in the radio 4 great snail-expirement in 2010.  Apart from anything else, I was glad to discover that I’m not the only gardener who’s too soft-hearted to extinguish them.  Why else would someone have set out to prove that they return again and again?

My gran kept a giant slug in a pot on the garden wall, when I was little.  She called it George and said that he was the biggest she’d ever seen.  That could have been just for entertainment, or to teach us about gardens.  I like to think there was an element of affection involved, that eventually she released him into the wild, rather than ended his life in a salt bath.  It’s far too late to ask, but I thought of her when I turned the bathroom light on the other evening and discovered an uninvited visitor travelling across the window sill.

 After I’d taken a few pictures (well, it’s a talking point, isn’t it?), I un-suckered my mollusc from the tiles, took it out to the hedge and hurled it into that patch where the others had been sent. 

Next night Snail, the same one, surely, was back.  This time Snail had made it past the windowsill and was heading down the wall to the bath.  I’m too well versed in linear plotting to take this lightly.  In making a second attempt, after overcoming my first obstacle, Snail had achieved the status of PROTAGONIST.

Something big was required, something that would leapfrog the story to its third and climatic stage, and have an outcome that was good for me, the ANTAGONIST.  If Snail got the happy ending it was intent on, then one evening I might find tens of freshly hatched snails traversing my bathroom tiles.

So I took Snail on a hike to a woodland glade, about half a mile down the road.  It’s well supplied with tasty flowers and leaves, sunshine, dappled shade, and plenty of protective cover from predators.  It’s surely a snail des-res.

baby snailsI wonder if I’ll feature in the epic stories Snail will recount to all the hatchling snails as a benevolent giant, or an indomitable ogre…Either way, I didn’t give Snail chance to lay a trail of breadcrumbs or pebbles. 

I’ll be keeping close watch on that bathroom window, but I don’t think Snail will be back.  It’s occurred to me that travelling up a wall, a pane of glass and over the window-ledge could be counted as Snail’s first obstacle, and therefore all three plot points have been achieved.

 

 

The True story of Ethel & Ernest

In the process of building a bibliography for my Family History Writing Course I discovered this Raymond Briggs graphic novel.  What a find.Ethel and Ernest book cover

Beautifully drawn, gently humorous, it hooked me from the first picture.  Should I have said cartoon?  The story of Ethel and Ernest begins, as such a title should, with the meeting of the couple, on a Monday in 1928.

How about this for an opening?Ethel and Ernest page oneEthel and Ernest page 2

This story of a working-class couple covers most of the twentieth century.  Each frame concentrates on Ethel & Ernest, and shows us how one family faces and embraces change.

I like the way it keeps its focus, and includes social and political history as part of the plot.  For instance, in one of the 1930s domestic-evening frames, Ethel is doing the ironing as Ernest reads out from his paper: “It says ‘The average family needs £6 a week to keep it above the poverty line…”

Ethel says, “What’s the poverty line?”

“Dunno,’ says Ernest.  “I just wish I earned £6 a week.”

There is an elegant economy about the way Briggs tells his story that we prose writers can learn from.  It says no more than it needs to, and trusts us readers to fill in the rest.

Look again at those first two pages, and what you see is a young woman in a black dress, apron and cap dusting a table.  Her role is clear.  The house is implied by the richness of the curtains, and her feelings by the colour that comes and goes on her cheeks.  We can imagine the rest.  The young man is crouched over his handlebars, glances back, and waves his cap.  The street is no more than a shadowy outline of prosperity.  What matters is his wide grin and the cigarette clenched between his teeth.

 

Appreciating Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.

I heard Phil Jupitus talking about paintings to Susan Calman on Radio 4 this week.  Amongst other sensible and intriguing things, he said that there are some paintings he just has to stand and study, because the details ‘have made me laugh out loud with how brilliant they are.’

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

It struck a chord with me, because I’ve been having a similar experience reading Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.  Have I just been lucky in picking out the best of her writing from amongst the Complete Short Stories volume that we’re using for the reading group class?  Because so far, they’re providing masses of material for discussion.

Take The Letter-writers, which we discussed this week.  It’s about two people who, after ten years of exchanging letters, are meeting for the first time. Most assessments of the story will include the fact of Taylor’s letters to Robert Liddell, another novelist.

‘The correspondence between Elizabeth and me, begun in the autumn of 1948, was to become increasingly frequent and intimate, and it lasted to within a month of Elizabeth’s death, when she was no longer able to hold a pen.’

He lived in Cairo, Alexandria and then Athens, and it has been suggested that this story is a fictionalized account of their first meeting.

The Letter-writers was first published in 1958, and portrays a rural spinster living a quiet, contained life.  You could read it as that and enjoy the details of characterisation:

For years, Emily had looked into mirrors only to see if her hair were tidy or her petticoat showing below her dress.  This morning, she tried to take herself by surprise, to see herself as a stranger might, but failed.

and the descriptions,

The heat unsteadied the air, light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires and the flag on the church tower spreading out in a small breeze, then dropping, wavered against the sky, as if it were flapping under water.

However, if you work on the assumption that this is a carefully constructed story, and therefore every word has been deliberately chosen, then you have to look again at how the narration is operating.

Is it just the air that is unsteadied?  Why does the light ‘glance’ off the leaves and telegraph wires?  When I attack the text with my highlighter, tracing patterns, clues within the text, I begin to see an alternative, contrary reading.  I’m reading now from a new perspective, asking myself, why would it be a crisis for Emily to meet, ‘the person she knew best in all the world’?

The theory I’m shaping suggests something beautifully, elegantly, clever.  Can a writer really create something so subtle that it can have multiple, even contradictory meanings?

Consider how Taylor describes Emily’s approach to writing.

Emily, smiling to herself as she passed by, had thoughts so delightful that she began to tidy them into sentences to put in a letter to Edmund.

If you carry the idea of this apparently simple description on into the story, Edmund will tell us how carefully Emily ‘tidies’ her words:

In Emily’s letters, Mrs Waterlow had been funny; but she was not in real life and he wondered how Emily could suffer so much, before transforming it.

Words then are not simple tools.  Writers, like painters, arrange the details of the world they are portraying.  They decide which perspective to show us, arrange the light and shade, and order the components to create a specific effect.  Nothing in a good painting is chance, it is designed.  So I ask myself, was Taylor also transforming some thing, with her story about writing?

At first he thought her a novelist manqué, then he realized that letter-writing is an art by itself, a different kind of skill, though with perhaps a similar motive – and one at which Englishwomen have excelled.

 

 

Thinking about the benefits of reading groups for writers

The most confusing and repeated piece of advice that I was given during the years when I sat on the other side of the desk in Creative Writing classes, was to read, lots.  Not knowing how to fit more books into my days, I decided that my tutors must mean I should be more selective, so I cut back on the thrillers and romances, and looked out for novels that had literary reputations.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

It was an interesting and eclectic period in my reading history.  I didn’t mind whether a book was a classic or modern; so long as someone had considered it worth mentioning, I’d give it a try. Once I’d entered the first page of a novel I forgot all about my writing tutors.  Well, isn’t that how it should be with a good book?

Of course it is, and that’s fine.  But as I closed the covers on one book I was already checking the shelves for my next read.  What I hadn’t understood then was that having read for pleasure, I needed to take time to think about what I’d read, and how it worked…or what didn’t work, and why.

Some writers seem to pick that up early.  I didn’t get it until I became a mature student, studying Literature and Creative Writing.  Since then, my horizons have broadened with every read, whether that’s with a fresh text or one of those that I first read when in that voracious period.

I’m often asked if that doesn’t spoil the fun of reading.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

Actually, it opens up a text.  Yes, I can often see the workings, but I like that, because it offers another dimension of story to enjoy.  I like the process so much that I teach it, and the thing I’ve discovered is that this approach is as rewarding for readers as it is for writers. We get into some fascinating discussions about how writing works.

And most importantly, we share ideas on what a story was about.  Think you know something inside out?  Give it to a group of readers and then get into a discussion and see what is revealed, I’m continually finding that the exchanging of ideas opens up unexpected worlds beneath the surface of the words.

Thinking about how readers read has to be a useful thing for any writer, surely?