Author Interview – Paul Nelson, author of young adult fantasy, mystery and other genres

As we continue to rack our brains for something to do at home, this week I thought it would be nice to showcase the work of an Indie author and reshare a short interview from two and a half years ago!

Paul Nelson is the author of the Susquehanna series of books for both young adults and adults. The first book of this series is Burning Bridges Along The Susquehanna, which I highly recommend for a pacy and unusual read. Paul has also written Saving Worms After The Rain, and the Fisher’s Autism Trilogy. Paul is an advocate of autism and his main characters are autistic. It is Paul’s desire to open up the eyes of all of us to what it is to be autistic and to break through the preconceptions about autism and the way autistic people are treated. I can highly recommend these very original books, as they are warm, funny and very human. In addition, I love the period detail and the settings of these books, as they are steeped in local history and folklore.

Now, over to Paul:

Thanks for agreeing to be tortured in this way, Paul, I have a few basic questions for you, if you don’t mind. Hopefully these will help people to see the man behind the books!

Q1. What kind of books do you write?

I write fiction that includes those with disabilities, especially autism. Saving Worms After the Rain is an adult mystery with historical elements, and the Fisher’s Autism Trilogy are aimed at young adults and are mainly fantasy.

Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?

Reading was hard for me as a child. I think I have ADHD. When I got older, I read lots of short stories by Truman Capote in school. I also love John Steinbeck and Anne Rice.  I read a lot about spirituality…Richard Rohr and Buddhism.

Q3. What are you working on at the moment? What can we look forward to in the future from you?

I’m working on a novel about a young woman with an autistic brother. (Spoiler alert, that’s the Susquehanna series, people, buy it now here) It’s historical and fantasy combined. They find a time portal and travel back in time. It’s about the Susquehanna River Valley, where I live.

Q4. What are your favourite authors? What are you reading now?

Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Richard Rohr, Anne Rice. I’m not reading too much right now. I’m trying to spend most of my time writing. 

I know what you mean, I don’t read much when I’m writing either, it seems too much of a distraction, and I’m worried about bringing other authors’ voices and styles into my work. Plus I just don’t have the mental energy!

Now on to Q5. What do you do when you’re not reading?

My autistic son needs a lot of my time. I make sure I walk for at least 40 minutes a day. It’s good for the body and the spirit and mind. I do a lot of writing in my head when I walk. I also love movies. I wrote a screenplay of my first book. My son and I go to movies quite a bit. (Caron adds: let’s hope we can all get back to that soon.)

Q6. What is your writing process?

I like to write in my head first. When I sit down to start writing a rough draft, I imagine what I want to write as a movie scene. It’s like storyboarding in my head. After I write all the scenes, I go back and embellish, add descriptive passages and link the scenes together. I’m a very visual person.

That’s an interesting approach – I find it difficult to write until I’ve created a book cover – I need that visual stimulus to bring my story alive in my head, but I don’t do the full on storyboarding. Maybe I should try that.

Thank you so much for sharing your writing process with us. I’m really looking forward to your new book – and all your subsequent books out there in the big wide world.

About the Author:

Paul Nelson is a former music teacher who has written a trilogy of fantasy fiction books inspired by his 19-year-old son Michael, who was born with autism. Michael has a hard time communicating on his own, but Paul knows his son has a story to tell. Paul wants to show the world that people with autism are not ‘badly raised and in need of spanking’ nor are they ‘stupid and lazy’, but are creative, intelligent, compassionate people with something to say and who deserve the same respect everyone else should get. On top of that, his books are a breath of fresh air. The books are available as a set in one volume called FISHER’S AUTISM TRILOGY, or as individual volumes, entitled: Through Fisher’s Eyes, Dark Spectrum and A Problem With The Moon.  In addition to this trilogy, there is also a novel for adults, Saving Worms After The Rain, which Paul describes as a mixture of mystery and the history of central Pennsylvania. You can follow Paul on his author page on Amazon.com or on Twitter.

***

Anyone for Mock Turtle soup?

So in these weird times, when we are told to keep three feet away from everyone or to stay at home, and your dodgy neighbours down the road have now acquired two years’ supply of toilet paper, I thought it would be appropriate to see how an earlier generation dealt with this kind of upheaval.

I immediately started thinking about the rationing our parents/grandparents endured during the war years. This week, even the Queen has announced that she will ‘do her bit’ and has urged everyone to adopt a ‘blitz spirit’ of the usual muddling through that we do so well in this country.

My German pen-friend’s dad, when I was 17 (going back into the mists of time, more than forty years ago) told me proudly that they survived war-time rationing by eating daisies from the lawn. I told him that my grandparents had eaten dandelions in salad. It felt a bit like a competition as to who had it the hardest. If I’d known a bit more about it, or had the guts to stand up to this guy, I’d have said that people dug up their lawns to plant vegetables. But it didn’t seem a good idea to have a Germans versus Brits conversation about the war. (He brought it up!) I’m guessing it was a terrible time for everyone, whichever side of the channel you happened to have been born on.

But leaving aside the actual trauma of death, injury, destruction, and uncertainty, there was, it can’t be denied, a sense of ‘all pulling together’ which only conflict with an outside enemy can bring, no matter where you are geographically.

So it’s not surprising that many older people look back with almost fond memories of the war, hopelessly idealised, of course, with dance band music, dreary clothes and an urgent sense of seizing the moment that we just don’t experience today. We hear about our grandparents or great grandparents meeting and marrying within weeks instead of months and years, of 48-hour pass honeymoons in Brixham or Bognor rather than the Algarve, and the uncertainty of ever seeing one another again after that. Is it any wonder that wartime romance, of all things, stands out as a bright moment, like a jewel on a dirty piece of string?

I have a number of reference books about ‘life during the second world war’. Here are a couple of the most interesting, bought from the shop at Cosford Air Museum: If you enjoy browsing through reproductions of the actual information supplied to people’s homes, then these are for you as they contain dozens if not hundreds of ads, advice booklets and articles.

Above right is the back of a railway ticket – with the usual warning to not gasbag in public. And I think most of us have heard the ‘coughs and sneezes’ slogan (probably courtesy of Tony Hancock) featured on my favourite item: this post card (top). I blame footballers for the fact that these days everyone thinks it’s okay to spit on the ground – a revolting habit once punishable by a hefty fine for the way it (possibly) contributed to the spread of viruses and bacteria.

When we think of roughing it during the war, the main thing that comes to mind has to be rationing. Now kind of back in force at the moment in an attempt to stop greedy or panicking people from buying far more than they need, let’s hope the current rationing doesn’t continue for too long.

Here is a reproduction of a ration book: with the name and address of the recipient of the ration on the cover, and inside, the name of the specific merchants who were to provide the family with their food or other items.

If you were going to stay with someone out of your area, your auntie for example, or future mother-in-law, you had to take your ration book with you – or they wouldn’t be able to feed you. Not legally anyway! This is the kind of detail I love that crops up all the time in Agatha Christie’s books, and others of that era.

The government produced thousands of leaflets at that time to explain to people how to make their food ration last, and how to make sure family members got enough nutritional value from the diet to be healthy.

This tiny booklet contains a number of ‘healthy’ or ‘economical’ recipes for the housewife to use. But don’t expect anything exciting! A quick glance through will show you a heavy dependency on potatoes and for desserts or baking, dried fruit especially dates. I can only imagine the excitement people would experience of some ‘exotic’ food such as tinned fruit, or dairy products, or biscuits and chocolate. In many ways, it is a healthy diet – I’m pretty sure if I worked on the land five or six days a week and ate Ministry food, I’d be half my weight – definitely a good thing. But remember, rationing in Britain didn’t end until July 1954! Can you imagine eating this way, living this way for fourteen years? It must have been incredibly difficult, until after a while, it just became normal. I think many people would have been quite slow to go back to buying whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted once the rationing of food ended.

Some of the recipes make me feel so grateful I didn’t live through that time. Many of us today eat a very different diet to those of that of most Brits in the 1940s. Tripe and Liver Hot Pot? Eww! And as for the Mock Turtle Soup I’ve read about in various novels of the era… surely mock turtle soup has to be morally and gastronomically superior to actual turtle soup??? It must have been a very desperate person who decided to try eating a turtle. (Turtle soup: to prepare, first catch your turtle…)

In Eat For Victory there are also recipes for Potato and Cheese Flan (potato, cheese, celery and onion), Potato Stew (potato, onion and a tiny smidge of bacon), Potato in Curry Sauce (potato, apple, ‘one small tomato’, and the inevitable onion), Potato Sandwich Spread (??????????), Potato and Bacon cakes (patties I think they mean, there’s no icing on this guy), Irish Potato Cakes (same as above but without the bacon), Potato Soup (essentially just a potato, boiled but not drained…), Potato and Watercress soup (pretty that’s grass) (or dandelions).

So I’m guessing things got a bit mundane. No wonder everyone smoke and drank so much. I think I would have too. Try drawing a straight stocking seam up the back of your leg after a dinner consisting of potato soup and two glasses of 1930s cooking sherry.

But now I’ve whetted your appetite, here are two versions the famous Mock Turtle Soup, not at all a recipe for wartime deprivation as I imagined, but very heavy on meat and grossness and originating in the 18th century. Feel free to share.  And here is a brief history of that soup. 😦 I would definitely rather eat daisies or dandelions. Or Sainsburys’ Petit Pois and Ham, with a very buttery slice of toast – om nom nom.

Take care people and share your loo rolls, please.

***

Roadworthy: more on driving in the 1930s

These days we put a destination into our satnav, drive to the garage, fill up with diesel/unleaded petrol, stock up on in-journey catering (M & S vegan Percy Pigs, HIGHLY recommended, or failing that, a couple of rolls of those chewy mints, plus a bottle of water), find Heart fm or Absolute Radio and off we go, singing happily along from one traffic jam to another until we reach our goal.

If we break down, we can, variously, call our mate Steve who has a truck, call our Mum who has a credit card, or if we are very organised, we call our breakdown service of choice, usually one of three in the UK, the first two being, the AA and the RAC, the third being Green Flag. There are no doubt others, but I think these are the most common ones.

And what else do we do? We call everyone we know – or rather text them. ‘OMG can’t believe I blew a tyre and now I’m stuck at the side of the road, LOL, face plant emoji, yawning emoji, emoji of a little car with smoke coming out of the front.’ (I made that last one up, though there may well be one of these. If there isn’t, there should be.)

It’s not a big deal. These days the majority of breakdowns and delays are relatively minor.

In the 1930s, even though people had been driving engine-propelled vehicles for pleasure and work for thirty or forty years, there was, I imagine, still an element of the unknown, of setting out a great voyage of discovery and possibly great personal risk.

So you definitely had to let people know where you were going, what time (or day!) you would be arriving, and the approximate route you were taking.

In the ’30s, there were no motorway services every five miles. Nor in fact, motorways. There was no breakdown – oh wait, what’s this? RAC and AA? In the ’30s? Wow!

I think I thought everything started in the 60s, when I myself ‘started’. So I was quite surprised when I discovered that there was already a very strong AA and RAC presence in this country in the 1930s. If I asked you who came first, which way would you jump? RAC? Or AA? I had vaguely thought it was the AA. No idea why. But I was wrong. It was the RAC. And they began an incredibly long time ago, or so it seemed to me, having been founded in 1897, with the AA not appearing until 1905. (more about that)

As for comfort breaks, well I suppose if you were caught between posh hotels or at a pinch a country pub, you’d have to wait until you were in a secluded area then nip behind an obliging bush or tree. There were campaigns for more public toilets, but these tended to be part of wider issues than merely a place to relieve yourself on a journey.

So I think as my main character Dottie pops out in the car, she will need:

a warm rug,

a map, or book of maps, because even in this day of equality, I think we all know women can’t fold maps.

a flask of tea/coffee (she likes both), maybe a bar of chocolate just in case she breaks down and has a long wait for help to arrive.

The tommy is the plain bar – who knew????

She will want a snuggly car coat, specially cut to reach to the hips, so you don’t strangle yourself when you sit on the ends of your coat…we’ve all done it.

There will no doubt be a can of spare petrol in the back of the car, if not two. And, according to the owner’s manual of the morris minor car (stating that their cars are ‘the very acme of economical motoring’.) come with a tool box under the near-side passenger seat which contains the following: a jack with folding handle, tyre pump and wheel brace, three tubular box spanners and tommy (what on earth is a tommy?), three double-ended spanners, a cold chisel (a shout-out here to the Australian band!), a half-round file with handle, 9 inch adjusting spanner, 6 inch steel punch (why????), a screwdriver, an ignition spanner, a high-pressure lubricating pump for chassis oiling system, a pair of pliers, a hammer (because if something isn’t working, you whack it with a hammer, right?), a carburetter spanner, a sparking plug box spanner, a cylinder head box spanner, a tappet spanner with feeler gauge, (thank goodness, we wouldn’t want to be without our feeler gauge), a tyre lever, and last but by no means least, an oil can.

the feeler gauge is that fan-shaped thingy

Dottie might also want a nice hat, because you need a proper travelling hat, don’t you? I notice that the early hats resembled those leather helmets World War I flying bods used to have. The main reason I want her to have a hat is to restore my own equilibrium after that bewildering range of tools in the tool box. If I had been driving in the ’30s, probably the most worrying thing for me if I broke down would be which spanner did what.

On the whole, it’s probably a good thing that driving and cars have moved on a good deal since then. I know we complain about our satnavs taking us the wrong way or leaving us in the middle of nowhere with a triumphant ‘You have reached your destination’. But it really does sound quite tricky, doesn’t it, getting from A to B with only a tommy and a feeler gauge to help you if things went wrong.

The Aussie Band, Cold Chisel

***

Maid or Chef?

This is definitely what I look like in my kitchen!

If you were rich, if you suddenly acquired somehow a fortune, who would you hire first? A Maid? Or a chef?

Now I’m not judging here, I’m not worried about all the possibly spurious ways you might amass this fortune. I’m just saying, if you bumped off someone and got away with it, and you inherited their millions, it would mean a change in lifestyle wouldn’t it? I mean, when people win the lottery they say it won’t change them, but it always does, I’m sure. How couldn’t it?

Housework is so medieval, isn’t it?

What do you most hate doing? The cleaning? Yes I get that. The endless pointless dusting – only to have to do it again a few days (weeks/months) later. Why bother? Almost immediately the clutter and grime you so carefully removed begins to make a stealthy return. In my house, I empty the rubbish bin. And within mere hours, there is stuff in there again. Nothing makes me crosser than to spot something in my freshly-emptied bin. Yet I know (deep down) that is the purpose of the bin. So????

And don’t get me started on meal prep. Once upon a time, I used to enjoy cooking. Then I had a family and had to do it EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I mean – meals, right??????? And no one ever wants the same thing. AND, one wants something healthy and someone else wants something naughty. The relentless cycle of chopping, dicing, cooking, washing dishes, putting dishes away, then chopping, dicing… Sometimes I want a chef more than chocolate, and that’s saying something.

Those of you with younger children, pre-teen or teen, would doubtless prefer a chauffeur to take them to all their after-school social commitments. But mine children are grown-and-flown, and more often than not are the ones doing the chauffeuring. So that’s not a problem I have.

And I only iron about twice a year, so again, that’s not an issue for me, though when the children were younger, and when my husband had to wear formal shirts to work, I had a lot more ironing to do and therefore would have killed for someone to come in and do that horrid chore for me. My mum used to iron everything, including underwear, table and bed linen, and even towels. She spent the whole of Sunday evening ironing. You won’t be surprised to hear that I iron only one or two smart shirts, that’s it. Everything else is dried, folded, and that’s it.

But would I really want a complete stranger, someone I don’t know, coming into my home several times a week to clean, or every day to cook meals for me and my family?

Hell yes! Then I could get back to doing what I’m good at. Sudoku and those Codewords puzzles. And reading. And drinking coffee and eating biscuits. Would I have a maid or a chef? It’s so hard to choose. Really I’d have to have both. Plus a gardener, and a chauffeur, and a resident handyman. And someone to answer the door and the phone. Ideally then, I need a full complement of household staff. Something like this, from a photo I took at Calke Abbey last Spring/Summer. I think I aspire to be a Duchess , or something.

***

 

On The Road in the 1930s

In the most recent book in my cozy mystery series set in the 1930s, The Thief of St Martins, I gave Dottie Manderson a car. I thought as she was almost 21, it was time she had her own car. She’s a busy girl with a life to get on with, and a career. So she needed a car. I ‘gave’ her a 1931 Morris Minor in a stunning blue. She loves it!

Some of the scenes I wrote made me need to carry out research. I needed to know, did cars in the 1930s have a rear view mirror? I needed it for the many sneaky glances Dottie and William sent in each other’s direction at the end of the book, and I’m sad to say that even though William is a police inspector, his mind really wasn’t on the road:

(BTW in case you didn’t know, Dottie is sitting in the back of the car, and in the front William is in the driving seat with Dottie’s mother beside him.)

His eyes flicked up to the mirror again and met hers. He slowly winked at her. Such a small thing, but it made her heart sing. They were still friends! She beamed at him.

If her mother had not been in the car, Dottie would have liked to touch the back of his neck. Unless she looked in the mirror, that was all she could see of him. There was a gap of perhaps two inches between the top of his collar and the start of his hair, very short and very fair at the nape. She wanted to put her fingers there, stroke the skin, feel the bristles of the short hairs against her fingertips. Perhaps push her hand up a bit so that her fingers could really tangle in his hair, draw him in closer to her, close enough to…

There was a muffled curse as the car suddenly veered wide and he had to bring it back to the right side of the road. He mumbled an apology, just as her mother said sharply, ‘Really, William, dear!’

So you can see how important rear view mirrors are! I also needed to discover if the doors of cars in those days locked with a key like they do now (ish) and as far as I could tell, they didn’t. But I did quite a lot of research about cars and driving in general for that era.

A few ‘firsts’ to do with roads, driving and traffic.

First driving test:

Driving tests were first introduced in Britain in June 1935. I imagine a lot of people tried to quickly learn to drive before that! We used to have a family friend who had a license even though he had never taken or passed a driving test. He was granted a license for driving a motorised cart on a farm, and when it was renewed at the post office ‘back in’t day’ the clerk missed off the T from ‘cart’ and – hey presto! Shh – don’t tell anyone! (It’s okay he’s been dead for years so they can’t touch him for it…)

First traffic lights:

There were a few attempts at creating a traffic light system in Britain. You can judge for yourself how successful this one was:

This was London, 1868 – far earlier than I’d imagined. You can read a bit more about it here: 

I can’t help wondering if this was inspiration for H G Wells, as a newspaper at the time carried this caricature of the new technology, and naming it ‘the terrific apparition’.

 

As you can probably guess, these were created by a Nottingham railway engineer by the name of J P Knight. The problem with these, apart from the war-of-the-worlds look, was that they had to be operated by hand, and were a bit unreliable. This one exploded due to a leaking gas pipe and the policeman operating it was injured.

But the modern traffic light as we know it today was not available until the early 1900s. A red and green traffic light was installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914, and we never looked back. In Britain, it was Piccadillly Circus in London and Wolverhampton in the West Midlands who got the first all-singing, all-dancing red and green automatic traffic light in 1926-27.

First zebra crossing:

I was a bit surprised by this. Although pedestrian crossings had been marked by iron studs in the road and later, flashing Belisha beacons at the sides of the road, it wasn’t until 1949 that the government began to introduce ‘Zebra’ crossings, first trying out blue and white, then red and white stripes before finally in 1951 sticking with the black and white stripes we know and love today. The first one was in Slough. And to help people learn how to use these odd inventions, there was a public service film which you can view here, to make sure your zebra-crossing-usage is fully up to date. Who knows, maybe you’ve been doing it wrong all these years.

First traffic wardens:

The first traffic wardens hit Britain’s streets in 1960. Did you know there’s a dedicated website to British Parking? Me either. But here you can read a bit about the introduction of traffic wardens, and see some great pics.

First speed limit:

Our flirtation with speed has been a chequered affair (pun fully intended). To begin with, in the 1860s, any road vehicles were only allowed to travel at the whopping speed of 4 mph in the countryside, and 2 mph in urban areas. And, like the first trains, a man had to walk in front with a flag, to let everyone for miles around know that a beast of engineering was approaching and that they should clear the way.

I’m guessing that a) people very quickly got hooked on the thrill of speed, and b) it took a while for people to understand the stopping distances and braking speeds of road vehicles, just as it did when trains first came along. legislation quickly began to move with the times and the demand for road vehicles.

First the flag was done away with (clearly due to a national flag shortage???), then the man walking in front was dispensed with (or run over???), then speeds gradually increased across the nation, always faster in the countryside than in the city, due to the denser populations. Loads of inquiries were instigated to find out why so many people died each year, and reports were issued, with the resultant changes in the law. By 1934, the normal limit in urban areas was 30 mph. Speedometers were not compulsory until 1937.

First speeding offence:

The first speeding conviction was that of Walter Arnold of East Peckham, Kent, in 1896. Walter was the owner and driver of a horseless carriage, and was caught travelling at a speed of 8 mph in a 2 mph area! It just had to be a guy from my native Kent, didn’t it?

First drink/driving conviction:

From the Licensing Act of 1872 onwards, drivers of any kind of vehicle on the road were always expected to be sober and in full control of the vehicle. But legal limits on alcohol intake were not established in Britain until 1967.

Actual news report concerning one of my ancestors, Alfred Mercer. It sounds as though he was lucky to get away with such light injuries. This report appeared in the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay herald, Sat 8th Nov 1873.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little step back into the early days of motoring. Next week, I plan to share a few more ‘gems’ about one of our favourite pastimes.

***

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am STUCK… my ideas about Writers Block.

I am a self-doubter and a self-regulator. I am not confident in my own abilities but contrarily I do trust my own instincts. I know a good story idea when I see it, it’s just that I doubt my ability to execute it to its finest, best, most beautiful incarnation, which makes me depressed. And I constantly question myself about whether I’m doing my best, or if I am lacking some vital skill or technique, or indeed, if I actually have any skill or talent at all.

A long while ago I read a post on LinkedIn where someone said they had no patience with writer’s block, that it didn’t really exist, not in the case of ‘real’ writers, because ‘real’ writers ignore such collywobbles and just get on with it. Oh yes, said all their friends, absolutely, that’s so true, Writer’s block just isn’t a real thing, it’s simply a poor excuse used by wannabes for being rubbish at writing.

I say that’s poo! (Not what I really said, but I’m trying to stay calm and be polite) Of course it’s real! Maybe these so-called ‘real’ writers have simply learned techniques to help them overcome or cope with self-doubt and plough on?

But many, many very ‘real’, very talented writers–and people in other creative worlds–struggle with issues of self-doubt and have difficulty getting started, or continuing or concluding a project. They (I should say ‘I’ really) might get stuck in the middle of their book, bogged down by the weight of bringing together so many narrative strands to create a satisfactory conclusion. Or they might be stuck trying to move on to a new project after finishing something. Or they might be unsure which of several possible endings is the best one to go with. Or ideas might dissipate like a summer mist ten thousand words into a novel. There are many reasons why a story won’t progress to order, and may leave a writer stranded on the rocks.

So how do you cope? Or stay calm and get on with your work? There’s no perfect solution. Sorry. And there’s no universal fix that suits everyone.

Just know:

a) Real writers do get lost with their projects and struggle. Don’t listen to those ‘experts’ who say real writers don’t cry, I mean, get blocked.

b) It’s ok to struggle, and not see your way forward with a particular work.

c) There are ways you can learn to cope with a lack of progress.

d) You will come out of this and move on to be your wonderful creative self again.

Here are some of the things I recommend. They’ve helped me from time to time.

Take a break. Maybe you’re just mentally and emotionally exhausted? We can so often pout ourselves under so much pressure. it’s wonderful when readers say ‘Loved it, can’t wait for the next one!’ but that can’t be your driving force. Readers are voracious and though we love them, they want far more than we can give them, like baby birds. Take a week off and look after yourself. Have fun, eat well, sleep well, forget about the book. Enjoy your life.

If I’m stuck in the middle of a book, and can’t see my way forward, I put on my editing head and go back to the beginning. I start reading/tidying up until I find I have recaptured the vision, the direction I wanted to go. This can work quite well if you’re a pantser and haven’t really got much in the way of notes to lean on.

If I have a number of alternative plot choices and I’m not sure which is best, I turn to my friends who know me and my work. I discuss my problem in depth with them and see what comes out of that. Sometimes just talking ideas through will help a choice to gel in your mind and get you back on track. If you can’t do that, you can join an online forum and ask them. You might not get the answer you hoped for, but hopefully you will find someone on your wavelength you can open up to and have a proper chat with. But bide your time and get to know people first. Otherwise, I guarantee you will get your heart trampled on by jumping in too quickly and confiding in the wrong person. Or you could just wait and see. Quite often, a situation will resolve itself as the book goes on, just because your various alternatives fall away when they no longer fit with what you’ve written.

Write something else. I can guarantee that the minute I lose interest in a project and start writing something else, is the minute a fresh, new and amazing idea comes to me for my ‘stuck’ book.

In a previous blog, I’ve also put together these ‘top tips’ on how to keep going with your writing. Some of these ideas may help you.

But above all, remember, getting stuck is not a sign that you’re faking it, and yes, ‘real’ writers DO get blocked. Hang in there.

***

Dreams and journals

Dreams.

Dreams often provide inspiration for creative projects. I don’t mean dreams in the sense of goals or aspirations but in the sense of the crazy movies that go through our heads as we sleep.

Remembering them long enough to write about them can be a challenge, but sometimes dreams are so vivid, you just can’t forget them, even if you wanted to. I have quite a lot of vivid dreams. I don’t usually have the appearing-in-public-naked kind of dreams. Mine are, more often than not, mysterious, complex and emotional. And I’ve used dreams to create two complete works: one is a novel that I haven’t (yet) published, though that might happen one day. The other is a short story that I plan to publish, possibly next year, and possibly in a collection of short stories, or as a freebie direct from this website.

A lot of my dreams are centred around my anxieties. So I’ve had a lot of dreams about a place I worked many years ago before our children were born. It was an incredibly stressful job, and the hours were quite long. I dreamt about that place for at least twenty years after I left it. Any time I got stressed, I would dream ‘the dream’. I would picture myself back in that office with a large number of people clamouring for my help, and there would be a rush to get everything done in time, and a lot of noise, confusion and abuse. Even now, 34 years after I left that place of work, I still very occasionally dream about it if I’m really stressed about something. That must be the very definition of a toxic working environment: if it makes you have bad dreams thirty years after you left!

Other dreams are centred around other anxieties, usually relating to my children. I imagine many parents, especially of not-yet-born or very young children, have dreams about them. When my children were very small, I often worried something awful would happen to them. In one particular dream, the dream-of-the-book, I was myself a child, and I was sitting on top of a perilously high and very narrowly tapered craggy rock. I was holding a doll wrapped in a shawl or a blanket. But I was also standing beside the rock, as an adult, looking at myself, the child with the doll. Of course, I dropped the doll and it fell and smashed on the ground, being one of those old-fashioned doles with the porcelain arms and head. I-the-adult and I-the-child simultaneously screamed and scrambled for the doll, knowing it was too late. When I picked the doll up, it was transformed into my baby, and I said in a plaintive wail, ‘I’ve broken my dolly!’ Then I woke up.

Dolls, like clowns, have become incredibly sinister in the modern view!

It takes a while, doesn’t it, to shake off the horror of a nightmare and to realise that it isn’t real. I know now that it was borne out of my own sense of inadequacy and immaturity as a mother. It was a long time before I could talk about it. However, I could write about it, and so I did, writing a novel about a severely mentally disturbed woman who is always looking for her lost dolly, that she fears might be broken. I called the story–inevitably–Dolly. Although these days I refer to it as Baby Girl, to avoid confusion with my Dottie Manderson series. Who knows, one day I may polish it and publish it. It’s quite far down on my to-do list.

It can be cathartic to write about dreams, hopes, fears and everything else. Writing is often used as therapy. In prisons and mental health institutions, writing is used to help people to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and private environment. If you take any kind of anger management course, or any active therapy, even if you just go on a supervised diet or fitness regime, they tell you to write it all down in a journal: how you’re felling, what you want to get out of your current situation, what is wrong with it, what is grinding your gears, that kind of thing. You are taught how to analyse yourself by reading back over what you’ve written and attempting to view it objectively.

So it can be a huge help to write about your dreams, and to examine your fears through writing about them.

More recently, I had a dream that I based the other story on, that I mentioned above. It’s a short story, featuring Dottie Manderson and William Hardy, and Dottie’s sister Flora and her husband George. I’m still umming and ahhing about publishing yet because it contains spoilers for the main series. That’s why I say it might not be until next year that I bring it out of total obscurity into relatively light obscurity 🙂

This is the Artsy Bee image I’m thinking of using for my Dottie short story.

As a writer, I’m continually asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ So a discussion about dreams in part explains that, too. I have often trawled through Pixabay and other stock photo/image sites, looking for images for book covers, for my blog posts etc. And I love the images one contributor Artsy Bee has on Pixabay. A series of those gave me one idea. And watching an old film gave me another. And I got yet another idea from reading something factual about the second world war, and this all led to the dream in which those elements came together. Sometimes even a horrid dream is just your subconscious or your imagination, whatever, fitting together all the elements to try to create something whole and well-rounded.

Dreams then are a very useful mechanism for exploring your own interior world, and for creativity. You can deal with your hang-ups and fears, and at the same time, if you can remember the dream, get a great idea for a story.

Goodnight. Sweet dreams!

***

A World Of Their Own: the character universe

When I was a child, I thought that the characters who appeared in the stories I read and loved all knew each other. More recently, I read (somewhere…can’t remember where) that it’s common for small children to think that way.

I thought Winnie-the-Pooh knew Ratty and Moley, who were in turn good friends with Timmy the Dog from the Famous Five. I didn’t understand why Snow White and Cinderella couldn’t join forces, the two of them together easily defeating all the wicked witches, sinister stepmothers and evil queens in the world.

As we grow older, in a way it’s sad that we come to realise none of these characters are real, that they exist only in a little pretend-world snapshot. If we found our way into their worlds through a magic mirror or a gateway in a stone circle, or by any other mysterious means, we would not find ourselves face to face with the story-world. I can remember carefully examining the back of my wardrobe. But no, to my disgust there was no Narnia hidden away. I’d put on my anorak and wellies for nothing.

Yet we–whether author or reader or both–people our world with fictional characters. I’d love to know the psychology behind that.

Some say storytelling is to do with conveying history or traditional or moral values to a younger generation. Some say it is purely for entertainment, keeping the kids quiet in the back of the cave whilst they wait for their dinosaur steaks. Some say it is to explore concepts and ideas beyond our own direct experience, or to combat loneliness, or to relieve stress.

Whatever the reason, we love our stories. We love our imaginary worlds and the characters who live a life that we cannot.

Heroes–storybook people–don’t age. I mean, writers can make them age, but the writers are in complete control and it isn’t inevitable. Sometimes heroes just are ageless, forever young. And characters suffer, yes, but only within the realms of the story. They don’t live their whole lives with unanswered questions, or with serious flaws of their personalities. We don’t watch them decline into old age. (Usually, though. I’m thinking of Wallander.) They remain perpetually young and golden.

This way you can read their story when you are yourself young, and again and again over the long passage of years, then again when you are old and changed, experienced and maybe a little bit cynical. But their bright outlook and determined hopefulness  remains unchanged. They walk through our lives beside us. They are there before we are born, and will continue long after we are gone. They are eternally young, preserved in the pages of memory and written and spoken works.

But we long for them to meet one another, to bring their own strengths and successes to benefit the lives of others.

And with creative works, we can do that. So we have superheroes popping up in each other’s stories. We have mash-ups, mix-ups and collaborations. It’s always interesting to see how this works. Maybe Inspector Barnaby should pop out to the Caribbean for a holiday and help out the Saint Marie police force in a Death In Paradise/Midsomer Murders extravaganza?

And spin-offs are popular: capturing and extending the audience for each side. Morse leads to Lewis and then to Endeavour. We love our characters to work together; we love to see their lives played out; we want to meet all their family and friends. Miss Fisher’s niece arrives on the scene to carry the torch forward in Miss Fisher’s Modern mysteries.

I was interested this week to see that authors Lee Strauss and Beth Byers have come together to produce a crossover work featuring their respective main characters, Ginger Gold and Violet Carlyle, in a new short work Mystery on Valentine’s Day (due out on 11 February this year). I’m intrigued. I will definitely buy that book!

And also on the wonderful internet, I came across a number of books that are ‘about’ books, or an authors work, being a guide to the author’s books, best reading sequence and all the characters. I was astonished to discover there’s a market for that!

With invented realities, the possibilities are endless. Fans of different series welcome the meeting of their favourite characters, I’m sure. It must be the next best thing to meeting a character yourself, to read about or watch a character you love being met by another character you love, and so setting in motion a whole new series of stories in the bookiverse.

***

Shakespeare’s English?

Sometimes people say annoying things like, ‘There’s no point in studying Shakespeare–it’s completely out of date and has nothing to do with life in the twenty-first century. It’s a relic, dead and dusty. It’s a waste of time.’

If you’ve been living on Mars for your whole life, you might not know this, but Shakespeare (Bill to his friends) lived from 1564 to 1616(ish). So yes, it was a long time ago. But I firmly believe his work is still relevant today.

Why? Well, many movies and books, and other creative arts continue to be based upon or inspired by the plays or poems of William Shakespeare. More than that, so many words he created are part of our everyday language. Although experts continue to disagree about just how many words he actually ‘invented’, whether it’s 1000 words and phrases, or 3000, (or whether all his plays were in fact, his plays), there is an even greater number of words and phrases that you and I use in our ordinary speech which were commonplace in those days but were not recorded in written English until Shakespeare first put them down on the parchment.

Not that Shakespeare was the first person to write in what we call ‘modern’ English–there were many writers in the  hundreds of years before who wrote in the English language: the language of the poor, and working classes, whilst the wealthy well-educated spoke Latin, then French. But I’d argue that Shakespeare was the first to really use the language in a vitally creative way, adapting it to his audience and the form he was writing in.

A quick comment: English is a relatively new language. It’s a mixed up thing, using elements from many other languages. Its words were ‘borrowed’ (but we won’t be giving them back, so it’s more like theft) from the Celts, the Romans, the Greeks, the Norse, Old German, Old French, Latin, Japanese, Yiddish, Native American languages, Chinese languages, Indian dialects, Arabic dialects, Dutch, Icelandic… or all of the above, English as a language is something living and breathing, it evolves, changes, it has trends, adaptations and corruptions. Igloo. Veranda. Wanderlust. Safari. Samovar. Loot. Cookie. Anonymous. Ketchup. Avatar. Telescope. Doppelganger. Genre. Cafe. Lingerie. Kindergarten. Rucksack. Glitz. Schmooze. Guerilla. Macho. Patio. Chocolate. Moccasin. Karaoke. Karate. Typhoon. Moped. Paparazzi. Siesta. Gherkin. Quartz. Horde. Schmuck. And many more…

You only have to compare Englishes around the world to see the changes that have occurred to the ‘common’ language. If it wasn’t so, you wouldn’t need dictionaries of American English and British English, to explain us to one another. Pants and pants. One is underwear, one is trousers (outer wear). And now, it’s a word meaning bad or terrible, as in: ‘My morning at work was completely pants.’

If someone said, ‘Yeah, baby, that’s out of this world, it’s fabulous, man,’ you’d know they were giving you a crash course in 1960s idioms. Once upon a time, if we were satisfied with the way things were, we said things were cool. Then we started saying people should chill out. How quickly words are assimilated into our language these days. They are often not new words at all, but simply known, ordinary words being applied in a new way. Which brings me back to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was a genius at taking words we already used and using them in a new context. For example, he often used nouns as verbs. These conjured up vivid mental images, making his plays, for example, colourful and immediate. In a play, already heavily leaning on words for context and meaning, to use words in different way was to bring the spoken word to life.

Here’s a little list of words and phrases, either new or adapted, that can be found in Shakespeare’s work:

Bandit (Henry VI, Part 2)

Critic (Love’s Labour Lost)

Dauntless (Henry VI, Part 3. 1616)

Dwindle (Henry IV, Part 1)

Elbow (the noun used as a verb, King Lear)

Friend (the noun used as a verb, Hamlet)

Green-Eyed (The Merchant of Venice) to describe jealousy; previously or commonly, jealousy was considered to be orange! (Much Ado About Nothing: ‘The Count is neither sad nor sick, nor merry, nor well;/But civil Count–civil (play on the word Seville) as an orange,/And something of that jealous complexion.)

Lacklustre (As You Like It)

Lonely (Coriolanus)

Skim-milk (Henry IV, Part 1)

Swagger (Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Unaware (poem: Venus & Adonis)

Uncomfortable (Romeo & Juliet)

Undress (Taming of the Shrew)

Unearthly (A Winter’s Tale)

Unreal (Macbeth.)

 

Maybe it’s time to bring a bit more Shakespeare back into our everyday language? There is nothing the Bard did so well as a good insult. Try these out at the pub:

Villain, I have done thy mother (sounds surprisingly modern – and completely validates my point!)

Thou Painted Maypole (for a tall woman)

Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish

Thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows

Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon

Poisonous bunch-backed toad

I am sick when I do look on thee

The tartness of his face sours grapes

I was searching for a fool when I found you (my favourite!)

I do desire we may be better strangers

He has not so much brain as ear-wax.

You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness

Her face is not worth sunburning

Thou hateful wither’d hag!

Thou art unfit for any place but hell

Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain

You are now sailed into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard (Of which I think we can all agree, the best response is, ‘What?’)

***

Welcome 2020

‘I can hardly believe it’s about to be 2020!’

That’s what everyone is saying. I suppose it feels like a big number. Certainly it’s one of those futuristic-sounding dates from the sci-fi we used to watch and read years ago. Someone in my family said ‘We’re back to the 20s.’

Will they be the roaring twenties? Flappers from one hundred years ago may have been delirious with excitement at the arrival of peace and the relief that gave to countries around the world.

Let’s hope 2020 will be a year of peace, happiness, compassion, generosity, givingness and mutual care and support.

Have a lovely New Year, everyone, and I hope you and your families thrive in 2020.

***