Monthly Archives: May 2014

New novel – Day 1

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I’ve been putting this off for a couple of weeks now -the start of a new novel. I finished my last one a few months go, left it for a while, did a final edit and sent it off into the ether, where it has remained. Since then, I’ve concentrated on non-fiction for a change, possibly out of emotional laziness. To write an article, I just have to research the facts and write them up in an interesting way. There is no real emotional engagement, and no sitting in front of a blank screen for hours wondering what my characters should do next. And they are quick wins. At the end of a working day I can look back on a completed piece of work. With a novel, there is a substantial investment of time, with no guarantee that anything productive will emerge.

So this morning I switched on my trusty laptop, opened a template and wrote the first actions of my female character. I was surprisingly nervous. With writing nothing but non-fiction lately, I wondered if I’d lost my fiction-writing voice. Would my characters be bland and lifeless on the page? Would my descriptive passages read like something from a DIY manual?  I wonder how many other writers who juggle fiction and non-fiction feel the same sense of trepidation when switching disciplines.

After a morning’s work, I only have 500 words to show for my efforts. I wrote, erased, wrote, edited, wrote…to say that the words didn’t flow easily would be something of an understatement. But they did flow, or rather drip, steadily, lines of text marching slowly across one page, then another. In full flow, I can write 4000 words a day – a satisfying number, and something to get my teeth into in the next day’s editing session. But I can’t complain – it’s a start. I’ll probably scrap today’s work when I get into the swing of this particular novel, but that doesn’t matter. When I sit down at my desk tomorrow morning, I won’t have to face the newness of an unformed character. Those first brief words have breathed life into her. She is real now, with a personality that is uniquely hers. She will inform what I write and how I write it. She will be my constant companion until I write ‘The End’, heave a sigh of mixed relief and sadness, and bid her farewell.

But that moment is a long way off. Until then, I have her company, and the excitement of her developing story, with its twists and turns, its frustrations and surprises. Let the journey begin.

In memory of a soldier

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lawerharrysgt.This is a picture of my Great Uncle Harry Lawer. Almost 96 years ago, in the final weeks of World War I, he was killed in action at Havrincourt, during the Battle of the Canal du Nord, and is buried at Sanders Keep Military Cemetery along with 150 of his comrades.  He held the rank of sergeant in the Coldstream Guards and had been awarded the Military Medal and bar in previous actions. He died unmarried and without children. His brother, William, was in the Lancashire Fusiliers, and survived the war.

These are the only facts I know about my Great Uncle. When I was a young girl, I remember my Grandmother taking me to see the war memorial where his name had been carved. It was in a beautiful setting – rolling parkland, with the Lancashire hills rising behind it. There were roses and sunshine, birds singing and a palpable sense of peace about the place.  I like to think that if the spirits of the dead ever revisit our mortal plane, that small garden of remembrance is where Harry will come, not to the wasteland of  a French battlefield, but to the familiar hills of the home he died to protect.

Some years ago, I drove down through France, taking back roads to avoid traffic. I crossed the Somme, and passed through villages where military cemeteries took up more space than the surrounding homes. The sheer numbers of beautifully tended rows of white crosses honour the fallen and stand as a terrible indictment of the war that claimed them.  I saw no old trees, no ancient woodlands, just rolling fields of corn ripening to the colour of honey in the sun. They say there are still bones turned up by the rhythm of the plough.

I think about Harry more than any other ancestor I know about. I think this is because he died so young and without issue. I wonder what he would have thought of his brother’s family. I am an only child of an only child, but with my children and grandchildren the family numbers are expanding at last. Like the new French trees, perhaps we will grow into a substantial woodland one day.

I’ve heard it said that no-one really dies while someone remembers their name. It occurred to me that by writing this post I could perpetuate his memory, bring him back to life in an age of instant communication that he couldn’t have even dreamed was possible. That I can write these, or any other words that can be viewed publicly; that I can express my thoughts honestly, without fear; that I have freedoms and rights that are an integral part of my life; all this tracks back to Harry and all the other soldiers who have ever taken up arms in the name of freedom. That’s not a political statement, it’s a personal one. I look at Harry’s photograph and I see a young, idealistic man, fulfilling the most basic of imperatives – the need to protect the people and the way of life he loved. He didn’t just give up his life – he sacrificed his could-have-been family, the wife who never knew his soft looks and the touch of his hands, the children he never rocked to sleep or watched with pride in his eyes as they grew to adulthood.

War is a terrible thing. We look back on the war to end all wars and see that it was only a prelude to other wars, other horrors. We see the futility of so many deaths, on both sides. But looking into Harry’s eyes in that fading sepia photograph, I see life and courage and pride, and I will be forever grateful for his sacrifice. I hope, wherever he is now, he still feels that pride when he looks at the world he tried to save, the freedoms he fought for.  Stand easy, Harry. Stand easy.

Why blog?

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I started this blog a couple of months ago, for a specific reason. Received wisdom suggested that I needed to ‘build a platform’ as a writer. So I opened a Facebook account and started to blog with WordPress. My expectations were that the whole online thing would be something of a chore, part of the business side of writing that I needed to do for the future. Enjoyment didn’t come into it. I should say at this point that, although I’m fairly proficient with word processing and some other stuff, like many people of my generation, I have gaping holes in my IT knowledge. So it was with some trepidation that I started on this journey.

Having signed up for the blog, I decided I would learn one small part of the blogging process each day until I could at least post a blog, with the odd picture, without too much trouble. That was easier than I anticipated so, with the initial technical bit out of the way, I went into panic mode about what to blog about. I’d already decided to try to publish at least two posts a week. I figured this would be good discipline, adding to my regular writing regime. I’ve always worked better with a few short term goals to work towards, rather than a single, bigger target lost in the mists of a distant future.

To be honest, I struggled through the first few posts. Then I started to realise that this is the only writing I produce that doesn’t have to conform to editorial requirements. I can please myself what I write and how I write it. There is no required word count, or tone, or necessity for research. I can express opinions, rant, muse, or just ramble on as the mood takes me. Post by post I find I am developing a voice that is truly mine, unmediated by the need to please anyone but myself. I find that incredibly liberating.

Far from being a chore, blogging has become a delight; so enjoyable that is has taken on the attributes of a secret pleasure, like a bar of chocolate and a black-and-white movie in the middle of the day when I should be working.

And that’s why I blog. What about you? Why do you blog, and how do you feel about it? Feel free to share!

Why Aren’t Kids Reading?

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I can’t imagine a home without books. In our house they are always within reach. Perhaps minimalist decor doesn’t have room for books, or they are hidden away to keep things tidy. Perhaps changing tastes will redress this. I hope so.

Quoth The Wordsmith

Child_with_red_hair_reading There’s been a lot of talk lately about the lack of kids reading for pleasure. It seems that the statistical numbers are dropping, and less children are finding solace in the written word. If you simply do a google search on the subject, a plethora of articles will appear with opinions and suggestions and discussions from all over the world. I’ll give you yet another.

I don’t remember ever despising books. I seem to have always savoured them, even as a very small child. However, I don’t think that this would be the case had I not been encouraged to read. It’s not like I come from a super rich family that could afford all of the new toys and gadgets. I am the product of a single mother who lived in her childhood home (with her parents and three brothers) for the first three years of my life. One…

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Universal numbers

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Now and then, just for a moment, I’ll have a flash of insight that seems (to me) to be so profound it’s almost heart-stopping. It’s there, and then it’s gone. The brevity of the moment is excruciating. Afterwards, I try to recall all that happened in my head in that brief time, but it never really works. All I get is a memory, a reflection, an echo of perfection. For that’s what it is – a tiny shard of perfect vision, when everything lines up in harmony and totality. Last night I was watching a science documentary about the earth’s core and electro-magnetic fields.

Aurora Australis, courtesy of NASA

Aurora Australis, courtesy of NASA

Before sustainable life could develop on earth, so many factors had to be just right. From the materials in the core, to the size of the planet, distance from the sun….the list is long and complex. But somehow it happened.

That in itself was remarkable, wondrous, but when you consider how infinitesimally small our little planet is against the magnitude of just our galaxy, never mind the known universe, it is mind-blowing.

The numbers are astonishing. They are so large that to repeat them would be meaningless, because to most of us they are beyond comprehension. The distances between stars, the sheer size of galaxies – the numbers don’t compute in my brain. How many zeros do you add to a number before one or ten or a hundred more zeros don’t matter in human terms?

Stella Spine in the Eagle Nebula, 9.5 light-years high. Courtesy of NASA

Stella Spine in the Eagle Nebula, 9.5 light-years high. Courtesy of NASA

Trying to simply comprehend our place in this grand sweep of stars is humbling, to say the least. That sounds like a religious thought, but it isn’t. It’s mathematics. It’s putting things in perspective, measuring earth against the solar system, the galaxy, the universe, and realising how insignificant, and at the same time how unique, it is. Space exploration is starting to identify similar worlds to ours, or at least the possibility that there are some out there, somewhere.  But it’s doubtful that any of them will be anything like earth. Just one element different, one process not quite the same and another planet might be unrecognisable as somewhere we could call home, like small DNA differences producing radically different animals.

So, as if all this wasn’t enough to get my head round on a Tuesday evening, I started thinking about life spans rather than miles and light-years; time rather than distance. In the lifetime of the universe, life on earth from the first amino acids to the almighty mess we’re in today isn’t even a blink of a stellar eye. That’s what my insight was last night – that and so much more I could never put into words. Down and down the chain it goes, from life on earth, the life of mammals, the emergence of man, the dawn of recorded history. Pick a slice, any slice – the more you refine the selection, the smaller the significance in cosmic time. Until you get down to a single life, a year, an hour, a moment. Does a lifetime hold more value than the time it takes to draw a single breath? And drawing that breath, we look up at the night sky and see the light of a star that died billions of years ago, reaching us only now, impinging on our tiny, miraculous retinas until we blink and the star is gone. We are all star stuff.

 

 

 

Apocalyptic meanderings

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I love disaster movies. Give me an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it plot, and a plucky hero/heroine who saves us all at the last minute, and I’m a happy bunny. I don’t care how improbable the plot, how ridiculous the science, how terrible the acting. I love them all.

hot-1435048-sSolar flares and coronal mass ejections are quite popular. The plots are fairly similar – after all, there’s only one way for this scenario to end, disaster-wise. The earth has a few hours/days to avoid crisping up like burnt toast. Fortunately, there’s a hero on hand to save the earth and the woman he loves (who has usually decided prior to the disaster that she’s had enough of him, but hey – he’s a hero now). Meteor strikes are good for Extinction Level Events, and there’s a certain irony in the earth striking back when we’ve messed about with it so much we’ve triggered earthquakes or a chain reaction of volcanoes. (With proposed large-scale fracking this may soon be in the realm of documentary rather than disaster fiction.)

I loved 2012, although it was panned by the critics. Now there was a chance to start over in grand style. No saving the remnants of Western civilization in that one. The surviving arks pitched up on the coast of Africa (which had remarkably lifted up several thousand feet, thus escaping the flood). I wonder what the indigenous people thought about that.

snowstorm-4-432043-sThe Day After Tomorrow has proved to be a little bit closer to reality after last winter in the US.  In fact, with extreme weather becoming more prevalent round the world, a lot of disaster movies seem quite prophetic a few years on.

The real fascination for me can be summed up in a single question. What happens next? The movie usually ends with a group of relieved people, eyes raised skywards, counting their blessings. The world hasn’t ended after all. Life goes on. But with devastated infrastructure, large parts of the globe uninhabitable, homes and economic structures in ruin, just how does life go on? The struggle to start again, to rebuild a different world, a better world; this is the really  interesting story.

I wonder how I would fare in a post-apocalyptic world. I like to think I have enough common sense and enough basic skills to be able to survive. I can light a fire, skin a rabbit and build a shelter. Wouldn’t that be enough to start with? Or would I be so shocked and disoriented by events that I would be paralysed with fear and disbelief, unable to help myself or others?

I don’t like the current crop of zombie apocalypse movies. I said at the start I don’t mind bad science in films, but zombies stretch the suspension of disbelief past breaking point for me. There’s bad science – then there’s zombies. I like my disasters to have a definite start and end. Once the threat has been dealt with, society, or what’s left of it, can get back to the process of living. Throw a few zombies in the mix and that isn’t going to happen any time soon. I suppose I like to think that humanity will prevail, given basic resources to rebuild and sustain life. But what sort of life would it be? Certainly not the idyllic log cabin in the woods somewhere, with vegetables in the garden and widlife scampering through the trees. It’s more likely to be a violent, disease-ridden, cultural wasteland.

After the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War in Europe in the 14th Century, there was a belief that the End of Days was nigh. Medieval Europeans lived through their apocalypse somehow, with religious fervour, and a belief that the devil moved among them, part of their everyday existence.

Is the modern appeal of the disaster movie a reflection of an old reaction to the feeling that the world and its machinations are beyond our control? World economies are fragile, we rely on technolgy that could be wiped out by a single electro-magnetic pulse, and climate change that will affect all our lives is looking increasingly like a given.  In popular culture we look to science to save us, look for a hero to rise – a scientific hero, with an answer to impending doom.  As the survivors look skywards at clearing storm clouds, we too heave a sigh of relief that disaster has been averted. Just for a moment, we share the glory, share the feeling that we will live to fight another day. It is a reflection of our survival instinct, our need to believe in the continuity of life, even when, in reality, that continuity is looking ever more fragile.

 

Ghostly inspiration.

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Yesterday I picked up a copy of Susan Hill’s ghost story The Small Hand, from a second-hand book stall. I fancied a light, quick read, and I love ghost stories. Her prose is so matter-of-fact, so lean, and yet from the outset I was immersed not only in the story but in the sense of place she created. The gardens of the White House were so well drawn, the observations so precise, I could smell the grass and feel the chill in the shadows of the yew hedges. It makes me want to rip up every word I’ve ever written and start again from scratch.