- Gold or silver?
I found these notes in an old journal. I had been pondering the attributes, from a writer’s point of view, of gold and silver, and how whether as metal or colour, they are portrayed in literary works.
Gold is the colour of royalty, of quality, of the authorised, and acknowledged, of states and state, religions and churches and faiths, of the accepted and acceptable, of righteousness.
Gold is pure, incorruptible, reliable, ‘pure gold’, good, honest and forthright.
Gold is given in blessing and to enrich, it is security, savings and wealth. Gold is warm and appealing. It is masculine, and constant; the colour of the noonday sun, giving life to all and sight to all. The ‘gold standard’ indicates a status achieved, a level of existence and compliance, of regularity and trust, and a line by which all else is measured. Gold is laid up for the righteous, we are told.
But silver? No. Silver is ‘other’. Silver is secretive and fleeting, it is mercurial and unremarkable in nature, and always not quite good enough: doomed to be second best. It changes hands easily, each time serving or claiming a new master.
Silver works its arts by night, it is hard, feminine and bright and although it’s the colour of small change, ready money, the easily-obtained (for some people, anyway), it really is a confidence trickster: appearing cheap and easy to get, but actually constantly demanding more from us, just that little bit beyond our grasp.
It is the colour of the stars and the light of the moon, alluring, beautiful, cold. Silvery and secret, sinister and elusive, it dances through the sky, always out of reach, now hidden, now displayed. The thirty pieces of silver, the betrayer’s coin, the turner of hearts and souls, the illicit, the unauthorised, the denied, or the denier.
These gorgeous images from Steve Bidmead, Arek Socha, Kevin Schneider and Patricia Alexandre, all at Pixabay.com
- Working on the WIP
WIP stands for Work In Progress. What we really should call works in progress is WIFITDSE. I know that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, though. It stands for: Work I Frequently Interrupt To Do Something Else. I know I’m not the only guilty one here…
And what I’m talking about here is not wandering off and doing something totally different. I’m not talking about attending to long-forgotten chores to act as displacement activity, or your basic everyday procrastination. I’m talking about legitimate stuff that still somehow gets in the way. Research. Plotting. Blogging. And of course, everyone’s favourite: social media. (Because as we all know, networking and promo is soooo important, right?)
With my current WIP, oh it’s been so hard to just sit down and get on with it. There are a couple of reasons for this.
One is I’m a bit of an anti-planner. If I plan my book in detail, then something in me just throws its pen and paper down, folds its arms and says, ‘Well, I don’t wanna…’
I do plan—a bit—I know roughly who is going to get snuffed out, and I know roughly who will make that happen. With my Dottie Manderson series, I already know the vaguest outline of the next five books, even though I’m beginning to realise I won’t release some of them for another three years. I know the main theme of each book, the things that will happen to my main character, Dottie. That’s all there in my head. I just don’t have any details.
But some writers I know—quite a few actually—have a chart or a big page or something, all spread out and every chapter documented with who does what, who says what, what happened when they were all having breakfast, that kind of thing. Every page of every chapter is meticulously planned and positioned in the story. They use words like Story Arc and Resolution of Sub-plot.
I don’t do that.
I have a few snatches of conversation in my head, as if overheard from another room, and possibly a couple of facial expressions, and a random mental image of an object. This is all often scrawled on the back of an old fag packet or old envelope then stapled into a notebook. I have sticky notes all over the place, all different colours. But where some (organised, smart) people might have a different colour for a different kind of note, mine are completely random and it’s just a case of whatever I could put my hand on at the time I needed to make the note. During the course of the first draft I scribble a list of characters, their names, ages, occupations, and the only reason I do that is because I get confused by the ‘Mrs X said to Mr X, “I wonder if Mr X has seen Ms X?” I imagine you can see how that might get messy. But it’s my mess, and it’s how I work.
So I’m not really a planner.
And you don’t have to be either, if that’s not your bag, baby. One approach/size does not fit all. Find your method as well as your voice, and if it works for you, stick with it. This is my method, if it warrants such a name, I kicked against it, tried to fit into the popular writing systems and methods that works for thousands of others, and for me they did not work. So I am a big advocate of the ‘go your own way’ method: find the method that works for you. Stick with it, believe in yourself, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.
- I’ve heard that name before…
“That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet”
William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers. Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character? And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder. Without a character, you have no story.
Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me: Meredith Hardew from a story Miss Beckett Changes Her Mind. Amy Harper and Kym Morris from The Silent Woman. (Both novels still lying fallow!) These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story. I couldn’t even think of calling any of those people anything else. In fact this whole opening piece came to me in a flash, and I had to run to a stationer’s to buy a notebook to write it down before I forgot it. (Now I just put it into a note app on my phone! Ah technology, I love you so much.)
At forty-six, Meredith Hardew, with her handsome features, trim figure and excellent dress sense, was frequently taken for at least ten years younger than her true age. Not that she was in the habit of seeking out flattery, for she was one of those women who never thinks about herself, what she’s wearing or how she looks. She was far too busy running errands for someone or other.
But it doesn’t always work out like that. I can spend hours, days even, agonising over the right name for a character. There are times when I have delayed starting a new story because I can’t seem to find the right name for my protagonist. though equally, when I am writing a first draft, I sometimes can’t remember the names I’ve already given my characters. I have even written several thousand words with varying numbers of capital XXXXs to denote each character, just to avoid abandoning the story and messing up the flow’. But it can get confusing. In these circumstances I often have to write long explanatory notes to myself of who the person is, as well as the XXXXXXs. there’s usually a Mr XX, a Miss XXX and a Jeffrey X, so it gets a bit muddled. But it does help me keep writing.
However, I can’t always trust myself when a name does just spring into my head. Like the time I wanted to call my main character Ben, then I needed to give him a surname. Sherman. Hmm, I thought, Ben Sherman sounds really good. It’s as if those two names were meant to go together somehow. What a great, natural-sounding name for a character, I thought. It sounds just like a real person. Too often I hear people moan, ‘No one would be called that, it’s not a name anyone would really be called.’ So I told my daughter about my new hero Ben Sherman. She rolled her eyes heavenward in what can only be described as her ‘For God’s sake, Mother!” expression. Turns out there’s already a real person/ designer with that name. I was right, it did sound just like a real person. Oh well. Back to the book of baby names again.
Names can be absorbed by osmosis from society and culture and we don’t always know where they’ve come from. I usually check my friends’ names on Facebook or for authors on Amazon to be ‘on the safe side’. I had also written five chapters of the Miss Beckett story before I realised that two of the main characters were named Meredith and Edith. Edith had to become Sheila. You need to keep the names quite dissimilar to avoid confusion, unless that is germane to your plot. Never feature Jack Peters and a Peter Jackson in the same book. (I’ve known it happen, and the confusion accidentally created by the author seriously impacts on the enjoyment of the story! You can’t suspend belief if you’re trying to remember who is who.)
Names go through trends. So if you’re writing historical fiction, don’t give your character a modern name. If in doubt, turn to a census of the time for ‘in’ names or look to the royalty of the day. Equally if you’re writing modern stuff, don’t give young characters the names of your parents’ generation, few little ones these days or for the past 20 or 30 years have been called Barbara, Sandra, Hazel, Nigel, Richard, etc. They have a slightly ‘previous generation’ sound to them. However, go back a bit further to the grandparents’ generation and you’ll hit all the names that are now so ‘in’: Jack, Alice, Freddy, George, and so on. I hope in the next generation after this one, my name will be back in again!
When it came to creating character names, Dickens was a master. He used names to ridicule his characters, to reveal societal trends and attitudes, and to denote characteristics or personalities. Think of Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild in Hard Times, think of Uriah Heep, Mr Cheeryble, Squeers. He also used another technique that is still useful for writers today. He used to take names that were ordinary and just slightly change them, creating something different and yet somehow familiar. Thus Philip became Chilip.
Think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, think of Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale – the woman Offred was the ‘property’ of Fred. Also for fabulous names it is impossible to beat Alistair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice character, Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird. So don’t be afraid to play around with names and have fun. Changing one letter or the order of the letters can make a world of difference, and this works so well with Sci-fi or Fantasy character names. Maybe Isaac can become Istac or Casai, Sophie can be Phosie, Mary can become Maare, John could become Hjon, Dohn, Joon.
In creating fiction, you are creating a whole world, so a few names is not much more of a stretch. Just make sure they are not the names of a successful designer.
- My protagonist and me
There is a convention, some say a misconception, that writers base their main character–their protagonist–on themselves. Not me, of course.
I’m nothing like, for example, the main character in my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, Cressida Barker-Powell.
Nothing like her.
She lives in a massive house–we could justifiably call it a mansion, it cost millions, with a husband worth at least another couple of million. Cressida also has a lady who comes in and ‘does’, whilst I have to wash my own dishes, and heat up my own baked beans.
Cressida wears designer clothes, has accessories to match; she goes to dinner and cocktail-parties in smart restaurants; weekends in posh houses; pops off to London for a few days’ shopping, or nips to an exclusive spa for some ‘me time’. Whereas the highlight of my social calendar is going to the supermarket for the week’s groceries.
And–lest we forget–she kills people. Not just one. And not by accident. She deliberately plots and plans and obsesses over multiple murders in a vicious and calculating manner. I never so much as step on a woodlouse if I can avoid it. And if I do–well there are tears, self-blame, and a very charming funeral for all its friends.
And yet …
It was me who researched those murders. I put the ideas into her fictional head. I wrote the words that come from her perfectly-lipsticked mouth. I chose her designer outfits, her bags, her shoes. When she complains about people who annoy her in some way, her impatience is mine, her anger, even her acerbic wit is mine. I even placed her victims in their lives, specially to annoy her.
So when, in those rare and tender moments, she does something nice for a change, that’s me too, isn’t it? (It doesn’t happen often.)
I tried. I had hoped to succeed–at least in part–in making her so, so different to me. Some of her views and attitudes and certainly her experiences and lifestyle are different to mine. But differences can be positive as well as negative. I would never–I hope–kill anything or anyone, but part of me can’t help but admire her decisive (if somewhat ‘final’) method of dealing with things and people she is unhappy about, or her willingness to exact her cold revenge for the sake of people she cares about (those few, few people!) whereas I am very passive, and I agonise and fret and usually fail to act.
It’s quite cathartic sometimes to allow her to do those things I choose not to do. To be able to do the unthinkable, the immoral, to do exactly as she pleases. It’s the kind of vicarious pleasure we get from watching box-sets of evil people doing terrible things and willing them to get away with it.
But she’s nothing like me. Let’s be clear, she is a monster, but she is bold and decisive, and she takes action in ways I never could. She’s nothing like me. She’s not me.
She’s more like my big sister.
(warning: these books contain terribly naughty words and graphic scenes.)
- How to fail at book marketing
I’m trying something new this week. I’ve never reblogged a blog post before, and I’ve never had anyone else write for me before, but when I read this blog post on Emma’s site today, it exactly chimed with how I’ve been feeling this week about my own self-publishing and social media adventures.
Emma Baird is someone I count as a good friend – she writes completely different stuff to me, and it is really good stuff. If you love romance, humorous writing, quirky ideas and Scottish settings, then you should definitely read her books. NOW!
Writing and publishing is the gentle 5k run bit. Selling is the marathon. Scrap that, it’s an ultra marathon. That horrible hard one people run in the African desert where most participants drop out long before the finish.
Anyway, here are the bits of branding and marketing I’ve made a spectacular mess of…
Self-promotion via social media
It’s free! You can reach thousands, no tens of thousands of people.
In theory, yes, if you’ve managed to add tonnes of folks to your platforms. And your skin is thick enough not to cringe when you upload yet another self-promotional post. You guys!!!! So EXCITED for you!!!! My book is out next week. Pre-order now. You guys are the BEST. XXXX
And seeing as millions…
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- A bit of colour in your cheeks: 1930s make-up
Make-up in the 1930s was gradually moving away from the secretive, rather apologetic attitudes of the 1920s and earlier which kept make-up containers such as compacts small and discreet, in much the same way as women’s smoking accoutrements. Partly this new acceptance was to do with the trend for more a feminine look after the androgynous 20s, but it was also due to the burgeoning movie industry and the new passion for celebrity role models, and the aspiration to adopt Hollywood styles and trends as part of everyday life, even for those on low incomes. You might see a certain dress or hat in a film, and a week later your friend, sister, mother or yourself could have copied it at home to create your own variation to wear on your half-day out or the next time you went to the cinema.
The cosmetics companies lost no time in showing the everyday woman how to use their products to achieve the same looks, or an approximation of them, as the big screen icons such as Myrna Loy, Barabara Stanwyck, and Carole Lombard, whose glamour was so appealing to women – and of course to men, which was a big part of the thrill.
In 1937, Myrna Loy was featured by Photoplay magazine in a kind of cross-over promotion with Max Factor, sporting her face with a clever ad for her latest film Parnell, in which she appeared with Hollywood megastar Clark Gable, whilst her photograph lent authority and appeared to endorse the products being promoted, no doubt sending her fans out in droves to buy the make-up ‘used by Myrna’.
The typical look was for pale foundation, with pink ‘roses’ on the cheeks. Eyebrows were very arched, and plucked extremely thinly, or even completely removed then pencilled-in in a much higher bow than nature intended. The eyes were emphasised with deep colour–blues, greens and mauves were popular–on the lids and highlighter or shimmer on the under-brow area. Lips were painted in a range of tones, mainly deep pinks, reds and oranges.
It’s a surprisingly colourful palette, and the products were manufactured by many of the big brand names we still know today such as Revlon, Max Factor, Coty, Almay, and Maybelline, not forgetting our own dear Boots No. 7 which first appeared in 1935! Helena Rubenstein created the first waterproof mascara in 1939. Cream eye-shadows, lip ‘glosses’, and ‘pancake’ make-up also appeared in the 1930s. It was an exciting time to be a girl! Make-up like face creams and powders were mostly sold in glass or china pots, or for cheaper brands, or the lighter products such as eye-shadows and lip-sticks, in sturdy, decorated cardboard boxes or in tin or plastic.
Here’s an extract from the sales pitch for Max Factor: ‘Choose your colour harmony shade in Max Factor’s Face Powder and see how naturally the colour enlivens the beauty of your skin.’ It sounds so similar to the kind of advertising copy we read or hear today, doesn’t it?
Sales were booming. The new advances in chemicals and manufacturing processes helped to pave the way for a wider use of make-up, especially among younger women who worked in factories and had their own money. Prices came down and demand went up. Glamourdaze.com quotes the Daily Mail as asserting that ‘In 1931, 1,500 lipsticks were being sold to women for every 1 being sold in 1921.’ How true that is I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were fairly accurate. Affordability, economics, a decade of peace, industrial progress, and women having jobs, their own money and more autonomy all must have combined to create the perfect climate for a boom in make-up alongside other new consumer goods such as clothing, accessories, household appliances and even cars.
In the image above, you can see a lovely vintage Coty powder compact. The design was by Lalique, the famous glass guy. I sold one of these on eBay for a nice little sum a few years ago! Coty started in 1904 and Lalique set up his first glass ware and design business in 1921. This gorgeous powder puff motif is still highly collectable, though affordable, and is still in the very small size compact that was normal for the 1920s – a little over two inches in diameter. A tiny thing of great beauty. You can find them quite easily on the Internet, sometimes still with a little powder inside, and usually with an applicator or sponge. But beware, there are replicas about. They are easy to spot, being much larger–the kind of size we usually see now of about three and a half inches or more–plus shallower, and the design is more precise and detailed.
So make-up, then as now, really did depend on who you wanted to be, and just as in the fashion world, the designers followed trends very closely, with lower priced brands following after the big leagues, and with everyone keeping an eye on their favourite celebs.
- 1930s capsule wardrobe
Since I’ve ‘discovered’ Pinterest, I’ve also reaffirmed my love of the idea of the capsule wardrobe. I don’t know why I love these so much, maybe it’s just that my own clothing collection is rather hit-and-miss and I often find it hard to know what to put on. Whatever the reason, I love those graphics that show you 16 or 20 items of clothing with accessories, then show you how to combine and rearrange them to create 30 or 40 outfits. I note they are often in neutral colours especially beige, which is a colour I rarely wear, and I’m guessing that the neutral palette makes it easier to put together ‘a look’.
As I work from home and have no colleagues, apart from Mabel and Malcolm, that is, I usually schlep about in scruffy tops and aged comfy jeans. I’m a bit ashamed to admit my own shortcomings, because I not only enjoy the history of costume and fashion, but when I created my 1930s mystery series, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, I decided to make my main character a mannequin in a fashion warehouse, just so I could indulge my love of clothes. I regularly mention clothing and fabrics in the stories, which some readers–especially gentlemen–Stuart Aken, I’m looking at you–have found a bit trying, to say the least. Soz, guys.
All this got me to thinking, ‘What would Dottie wear?’ Being a 1930s mystery series featuring well-to-do families in between-the-wars England, there are a lot of visits and house parties. So what would a young woman need to take with her for, say, a weekend in the country in Summer? I’m leaving out tweeds, because a) I abhor shooting and hunting and so, consequently, does Dottie, and b) no woman looks good in tweeds. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Where’s the glamour in a tweed coat and skirt? Answer: there is none.
Here we go. Oh, and by the way, I’m taking the role of Dottie’s maid Janet for this trip, so I will do the packing.
Firstly, I will be packing nightwear in the form of a negligee and matching wrap. Dottie is 20ish so there’s no way this girl will be wearing a massive up-to-the-neck-down-to-the-floor cotton nightgown, she’s not 90! The negligee will be ankle-length, and made of something soft and sheer like artificial silk or crepe-de-chine, probably in soft blues or pinks, with lace edging in cream of a deeper cream/coffee colour and narrow ribbon in a matching colour to fasten. Women’s underwear came in the form of long bloomers, to the knee or just above the knee, in either a loose and light sheer fabric with lace trim, or in close-fitting, machine-knitted cotton. There were also teddies and camisoles, worn with a sense of modern naughtiness by the younger women and viewed with maternal concern by the older. Petticoats with supporting lace or embroidered cupped bodices. Bras as we know them today were still waiting in the future, but the complete lack of support of the well-named ‘flapper’ style of the twenties was no longer fashionable. Pantyhose was still to come, so stockings were worn with a suspender (garter) belt and no doubt thrilled men then as they do now. Stockings for day-wear would be sturdier than their evening-wear counterparts. I must remember to pack some silly little slippers just to keep Dottie’s feet warm in the bedroom, and the hallway to the bathroom and back.
There will be a day outfit in the form of a day dress or suit/costume. If we are travelling light, I think we might manage with one or two, but if we have a whole car to fill, we might take three or four outfits just for a two-day trip. The style for the 1930s was fairly straight but more feminine and less plain than the very straight, quite masculine styles of the 20s. Picture a dress with a very slight flair, an A-line skirt, or perhaps quite close-fitting to the knees then flaring out, gently for a day dress and more dramatically for an evening dress when the wearer might want to dance and feel the fabric swirl out about her. The length would reach to the mid-calf for day-wear with ankle-length or floor-length for evening. Shoes had quite high heels, say three inches or so, and were often buckle-fastening or laced. With the exception of tennis shoes and gumboots, shoes would have been made of leather.
Styles were plain in execution, but with a lot of embellishment such as bows or jabottes at the neck, functional or decorative buttons on pockets, sleeves and bodices. There were variations in lapel size and shape, from deep and wide, to small and standing up straight, from squared off, to drooping downward. Belts, cuffs, shoulder tabs and waistband tabs were very ‘in’. The zip was still a few years away from general fashion use, so buttons, hooks-and-eyes, and buckles were used far more than we do today. For day-wear necklines were quite high. Fabrics would be mainly cotton, linen or wool, although man-made fibres that laundered easily such as crepe-de-chine and artificial silk for blouses or light summer dresses were popular. And of course, no lady would go out without a little clutch purse, gloves, and a hat, even in summer.
Hat boxes could accommodate two or three hats depending on size and shape, so Dottie doesn’t need to worry about wearing the same hat all weekend! I’d suggest a neat little beret for going out in the day time, or perhaps a felt cloche hat with a rakish feather, some beading or ribbons, or if the weather is very warm and sunny, I think she’ll need a wide-brimmed straw hat to keep the sun off her face.
Then obviously she will be changing for dinner, so a long evening gown is a definite must. And a girl can’t wear the same frock two evenings in a row, so perhaps I’ll take two gowns. White was a popular colour for an evening dress for a young woman, although shades of red, brown and green were also worn. Older ladies tended to favour black too, though this was not usually seen on young women due to its funereal connotation. Gowns would be flaring, long, and low-cut, or with cut-out sections in the bodice, and were made from taffeta, satin, or silk mixes: silk-satin, silk-organdie, silk-crepe. The shoulders were often bare, or the gown might be more or less backless, and rather daring. No wonder the gentlemen flocked to light a lady’s cigarette. Smoking was gaining popularity amongst the young and it was more socially acceptable for women to smoke in public. Shoes for evening wear would be strappy and often silver or gold in colour, and perfect for dancing in, but affording little protection from a partner with two left feet. In case the apologetic gentleman should ask a young lady to step out on the veranda to look at the stars, a lady would also require a wrap, and I’m sorry to say these were very often animal fur, although silks, brocades, velvets and fine wools were also worn.
I think we have everything we need for a summertime weekend in the country. As a maid, of course, I will require only my uniform, a plain dress, sensible shoes and an overcoat. My main fashion pleasure will be confined to taking care of the precious garments of my mistress. I could never hope to own such things.
- Tips for boosting creativity
If, like me, you sometimes sit and stare at a blank page for an hour or more without writing a word then give up, you might want to give some of these tips a try. I’ve tried them all and found them useful at one time or another. Some are fairly conventional ideas for productivity, others are just things that have helped me.
Listen to music
You might listen to your usual favourites, let the would or the notes inspire you or conjure up images in your mind. If I’m really stuck, I like to try something completely new. I sit somewhere I don’t usually sit, or listen to music I don’t normally like, or something that’s new to me. I get out of my comfort zone. That’s a great way to boost creativity. When my kids were young, occasionally I used to sit in their rooms while they were at school, or listen to their music, just as a new experience to try and get the creative juices flowing. Or you might pull out something you haven’t listened to for a very long time: songs that were out when you were a kid, or maybe your parents.
Go for a walk
I know this is a commonly prescribed antidote to lack of creativity, but it does work. Go out in the pouring rain and release your inner savage, or go out and enjoy the wonders of nature, or walk along the city streets and visualise your gumshoe on the trail of a bad guy. Physical activity wakes up the body and gets the blood flowing to the brain. Even if you don’t come back from your walk full of ideas, at least you got away from your desk for a while and got some fresh air.
Eavesdrop on other peoples’ conversations
This is a great way to pick up ideas and hear dialogue ‘in action’. It’s also a great way to get punched on the nose if you’re too obvious about what you’re doing. Try not to let them see you making notes, and don’t get so absorbed in their conversation that you exclaim along with their friends. Snatches of conversation half-heard and half-remembered can provide great what-if moments. A writing tutor I had in Australia recommended mystery writers pick a person at the mall and trail them. Again, I cannot emphasise this too much, please don’t do this, it’s a terrible idea. You will get locked up or punched on the nose. (But hey, great stories, right? Do they have a self-publishing programme in prison?)
Visit a gallery or museum
I once attended a writing workshop at a museum where we were encouraged to write short pieces about some of the exhibits. These included Neolithic artefacts and a Victorian christening gown. It was not only a great idea but a memorable experience, plus really good to mingle with other writers. Go to an art gallery or a museum or country house with your trusty notebook and your camera/phone. Take a look at what lies behind the glass and imagine the people who touched, created, discovered, used or found a particular item. People those empty halls with characters: what do they say to one another? Make sketches. Write descriptions. Take photos, or buy post-cards from the gift shop.
Look through the images on Pixabay or Shutterstock or other image sites
See if anything intrigues you or inspires you to write a short story, a poem, a simple description or analyse your own feelings when you look at a picture. What does it make you think of and why? How do you feel? Check out Morgen Bailey’s story writing and poetry writing daily prompts too.
Do you collect anything? If not you, does someone close to you have a collection?
Spend some time writing about the first item in the collection and how it was acquired or obtained. Who did it belong to? What was the last item to join the collection? Why is it so important to the owner of the collection? What would happen if someone stole the collection? How would that make you feel if it was yours? How would you get it back? What would you do? How far would you go?
Sit somewhere different to your usual writing spot
This is a little bit like the music one. It’s about changing stale habits. I usually write at my desk, but sometimes I like to go out to a café or pub to write, or I could even write in a library. I could write outside if the weather is fine. In the past I have even sat in my son’s bedroom at his desk and written for hours. A change is as good as a rest, we are told, and a new ‘venue’ can help to get things flowing, and could offer a fresh perspective on your writing. You could also try using a different notebook or computer, a different pen or write at a different time of day. Try the middle of the night, or first thing in the morning. I’m right-handed, and I once wrote with my left hand for a couple of hours just to try and get inside the mind of the character, to see a different kind of script on my page, it was like reading someone else’s work.
Pick a story from your local newspaper
Write it in your own words; be an investigative journalist and try to think of a new outcome or a way of finding out more, or imagine you are interviewing someone featured in the newspaper, whether a sports’ personality or a victim of a crime. Find a new slant on the facts on the page. Or create mini-version of your own newspaper, with you writing all the features.
Go to the library
And have a rummage through the reference section or any section that interests you; poke through the periodicals and have a nosy at the noticeboard. Observe people. Listen to people. Try to see yourself from the outside, as if you were a stranger. Sit at one of the desks and read or write.
Visit a graveyard
Sounds a bit depressing, I know, but graveyard are wonderful places for atmosphere, and you know – they’re outside – so think of all the fresh air you’d be getting. Wander around and read a few headstones. Look at the style of the gravestones. Try to imagine the people buried there, the lives they lived and how they died, picture their families, their homes and workplaces. Sit in the church or graveyard for a while and try to imagine who might have sat there before you. How did they feel? Can you hear the whisper of an ancient mass? Or the sound of spirits lurking in the graveyard?
A little relaxing meditation could release some stress and pent-up anxiety in your life, enabling you to refresh yourself mentally. Sit comfortably on the floor, with a notepad and pen in front of you, turned to a fresh page. Close your eyes. Spend a few minutes breathing deeply and slowly until you feel you could almost doze off to sleep. Then without thinking about what you are doing, take up your pen and begin writing – something, anything, just don’t try to analyse or make sense of any thoughts, but let the words pour out of your pen as if there was nothing between your brain and your notebook. Music or candles and incense sometimes help with this process. I’ve often actually fallen asleep doing this, and woken to find myself still clutching my pen and notebook, but sometimes I’ve written and written and it was as if I was watching someone else doing it. It’s cathartic and intriguing.
All of us have times when we can’t seem to write the way we want to, or maybe not at all, or the words aren’t giving our inner self the satisfaction we need. Don’t worry about it too much but allow yourself the freedom to know when you need to rest and do something else, or when you need persist, and to try to help things along.
We all love sirens, don’t we? They usually travel in threes, like MacBeth’s witches. When I saw MacBeth at my local theatre a few years ago, the witches’ opening speeches came out of a swirling mist in the darkness, and sitting in the front row, I jumped half out of my skin, even though I knew what to expect. From the moment the play opens with the phrase, ‘When shall we three meet again?/In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ we have a shivering sense of it already being too late to escape.
Sirens do not always hunt in threes. Sometimes they hunt alone, like the Lorelei siren, singing irresistibly to lure sailors to their death on the rocks of the great river Rhine. Her very aloneness is her weapon. The victim, walking into her lair in confidence, feels invincible, and almost pities the siren about to devour him. I say ‘him’, as sirens are usually depicted as female, and their victims are generally male. Time for a gender swap, maybe?
The siren’s typical characteristics are: physical beauty that is often a mirage or façade to hide something hideous and unnatural. The beauty is used to seduce; song or music soothes the senses or even calls an unnatural slumber to fall upon their prey, or again, to seduce, arousing their victims with promises of love and physical fulfilment. The sirens lie in wait, endlessly patient, ready to snare the unwary, the naive, the innocent adventurer who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or any guy who thinks he can take advantage of a lucky situation. As in the mesmerising scene with the sirens in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? there is a pleasurable anticipation of what might happen. The three sirens wash their clothes in the river, the rhythmic slapping of cloth on stone and water providing the percussion for a seductive call to the watching man’s senses. He is trapped and cannot get away.
Sirens have mysterious powers, and they can bend a man to their will, no matter how good and chaste he may be, no matter how worldly-wise and ‘experienced’ in the ways of love. Maybe he’ll get ‘loved up and turned into a horny toad’, as the men in O Brother Where Art Thou fear will happen to them, but it’s a chance the unwitting victim is always, always prepared to take. Sirens are bringers of doom, of ruin. They are depicted as mercurial, evasive, changing and insubstantial, there one minute and gone the next. No victim will see their true self until his ruin is complete. No one can resist the lure of the siren when she has decided to call them.
But the siren is not the only one who owns this fatal attraction.
The innocent—pure or naive, chaste of body and mind, or merely without guile—this person is as alluring to the siren as she is to him. Evil craves purity. Wickedness pursues goodness to overtake and devour it. Monsters are always appeased—and always drawn in—by their need to consume maidens and the innocent. The dark always seeks the light, because in its own way the light has become the unknowable to those who live in darkness. The siren can never know or experience innocence, because that would mean a denial of her own essential nature—it would require purity and great sacrifice. To follow the way of the innocent is alien and impossible for the siren to achieve. She is forced by her very nature to live outside of society’s acceptance and rules, and must live by instinct alone. Thus, the innocent, completely oblivious of their power, draw the siren after them. The siren is doomed to flutter towards the candleflame of purity as a moth, and just as unable to save themselves.
Which one is the victim, which one is the hunter?
- Blue Sky Thinking: bringing the weather in.
October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Like a lot of Brits, and many writers, I’m a bit obsessed with the weather. I use the weather quite a lot in my writing. I might have my characters attending a funeral on a beautiful sunny day that seems the opposite of mourning. I might have weddings take place in the rain, surely not an omen for future happiness?
We are often told in writing to draw on all of our senses to bring reality and immediacy into our writing. This creates an almost tangible, believable world for our readers to step into in their imaginations.
The same is true of the weather. Painting the weather into your story works every bit as well as using sensory information: it helps you to capture a background, a stage or canvas, on which your characters can live out their lives. Weather often overlaps with sensory description – you make your reader feel the warmth of the sun on their skin, or the raindrops on their face, let them hear the thunder or feel the rising humidity or the biting of a north wind every time the cabin door opens and someone struggles to push it shut again.
Where you are writing about a specific time of year, remember that extremes of weather can be used to move a plot forward – an unseasonably warm spring day, or a summer downpour leading to flooding. In Judith Allnatt’s book “A Mile Of River”, the events of the story unfold in Britain’s long drought of 1976, to devastating effect. I can remember snow falling in July once in the 1980s when we lived in Aldershot. Later, five years of living in Queensland – even with its reputation for being damp – made me love grey skies and rain. One of the first people we met was a cab driver from Hull who had been in Aussie for 35 years. He told us he hated the sun and longed for drizzle. So weather can also be part and parcel of who we are, and affect our outlook on life.
I’ve always wanted to use that phrase so often featured in the Peanuts cartoons: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Originally used by a British writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830, it was ridiculed from the off for its ridiculous melodrama. So I haven’t used it. But it’s so tempting! I love storms. during a storm, it’s as if anything could happen and normal rules don’t apply. Likewise we usually think of spring as bright, happy, a time or hope and rebirth…
I have adorned a funeral with pouring rain in one book. It necessitated the use of a very large black umbrella. I always think a large black umbrella is full of possibilities for crime or romance. But sometimes, regardless of your misery and grief, the heavens refuse to open, and the sun shines, the birds sing, almost in mockery of your emotions. And this too, can produce a mood that works nicely on paper, inducing your character to take some form of action.
An unexpected change in weather can bring about a useful shift, a change in plot direction or the mood of your characters, leading to a new scene or to actions you hadn’t anticipated. Don’t forget too, the weather can be variable. In summer, it can be gloomy, cold and wet. In Britain, you might be surprised to know, we do sometimes have glorious summers. Sometimes we have mild, dry winters.
But don’t overdo it. You don’t need to update your readers on every other page unless it’s a book about climate change, or you’re engaged in rewriting Wuthering Heights. I’m sure they would all have lived happily ever after if they hadn’t lived in such a bleak and lowering spot.