Character is fascinating. When I’m writing fiction I can get lost in the people I’m writing, even begin to dream their dreams. The mysteriousness and opaqueness of others is intriguing, but so to is their context. Who we are, the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us, arise from a matrix of particular factors, amongst them time and place.
Where we are is who we are
In This is the End of the Story, Cassie comes of age in 1970s Teesside and her context helps to shape her. The industrial landscape, the decline of employment, the cultural expectations of a class, time and place, are issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.
Cassie shares my own background, though fictionalised. But memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research — songs I thought I’d heard; fashions and news items. Despite that, there was a familiarity of place that informed me and gave the writing a significant grounding. When it came to Toledo, though, another major setting in the novel, I was on very different territory.
There was no way to visit eleventh century Toledo so I had to rely on archival material and a novel I’d read as a child, Casilda of the Rising Moon. Books and the Internet were invaluable, but it was only after I travelled to Toledo that I felt confident of this part of the writing.
When I stood in a tiny mosque that Casilda might have stood in 900 years earlier, or visited a tenth century Islamic cave-house, I felt a sense of place that I couldn’t experienced from books.
One of Cinnamon Press’s novelists, Landeg White. who passed away at the end of 2017, was someone who knew a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place. He remarked that going to a place to do in situ research was ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola at the time, and admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of making it all up.
I’ve always found the Novel an easier framework than shorter pieces. I tip my (metaphorical) hat to those who can write ‘Flash’ fiction effectively, and even the thought of writing a pithy, graphic Haiku brings me out in a cold sweat of panic. Maybe I’m just an unrepentant windbag …
The 80,000++ word count format of a Novel is more my style. When I write for children, I tend to aim for a maximum word count of about 50,000, as a younger reader is likely to have a shorter attention span: for the Adult market this would likely be classed as “Novella” length.
Every November I enjoy the challenge of National Novel Writing Month, and to date I’ve achieved the target each time. Two of my published novels started life as NaNoWriMo entries, which I expanded to word counts of c. 90,000++ at a later date.
My first Adult Novel was based on research into my own family history. Nobody was more surprised than myself when the publisher, Whimsical Publications [Florida, USA] listed it in their Romance section, as I hadn’t considered it as a Romance while writing it.
However, there was so much interesting historical background in the Clan records. Written records date back to the early 1300s and a further 500 years of ‘Oral Tradition’ predate them. I realised very early on there was too much material to condense into a single volume. The Trilogy was inevitable before I was halfway through writing the first book, decided by the wealth of Celtic myths and legend I found in the written records. The Clan McDermott were one of the seven Royal Families of Ireland. The Ancient Kingdom of Tara covered most of modern day Roscommon and Meath. Oral History claims the honour title of Ard Rhi, High King of the Seven Realms of Ireland, and kinship with Brian Boru.
When you have such extensive historical material to work with, the only real problem is deciding what to include and what to omit (or possibly ‘save’ for later introduction). Reaching the target 80,000 word count isn’t really a problem! For the record: Volume One The Chapel of Her Dreams has sold reasonably well since publication, and I intend to release Volume Two The Island of Her Dreams later this year. And yes, the Chapel and the Lake are real locations, on Lough Key in co. Roscommon!
The often-heard advice, write about the People and Places you know holds good. In one way, this is especially true when writing for children.
My first attempt at writing for younger readers was a humorous yarn about a crew of fairly incompetent Pirates, sailing out of Liverpool in a deliberately ‘vague’ time setting. There’s plenty of room for fantasy, a touch of magic, talking animals and ‘time slip’ scenes which taps into the reader’s imagination. One (published) book of about 47,000 words led to a planned series. Book 2 is complete, currently being prepared for release and I’m working on Book 3. These all use the same central Characters.
Locations are another guide for a series. I’m working on a second series of childrens’ books, each one a ‘stand alone’ book set in one of Liverpool’s parks, using the geography and history of each park which (hopefully!) the reader will recognise as somewhere they have visited and played in.
One of my Adult books is a 13th Century Historical thriller, which leads naturally to a Sequel, another of my Works in Progress. At the moment I’m not sure if this will expand into a Trilogy, I’ll have to let the Plot decide that while I’m writing.
I’ve written another historical fantasy, 11th Century this time, about a troubadour with a magic lute. This will also be published later this year, and a Sequel is under way – but I’m fairly sure there won’t be a third book in this series. Time will tell …
Novel writing is great fun! There are hundreds of opportunities to dig deep into your imagination and combine historical Fact with your own creative skills. Basic research is very rewarding. I’m constantly amazed at what I discover about how we used to live. I really couldn’t imagine writing ‘to order’ with an imposed ‘word limit’ of e.g. 2000 words of ‘Short Story’ for a magazine or Anthology. I’ve had work accepted for these markets as well, but I wouldn’t be comfortable working with these limitations every day.
I’ve tried a number of genres, including poetry and writing scripts. I’ve enjoyed these forms of writing too, although my poems frequently become the lyrics to songs (I dabble in writing music as well). Some of the scripts I’ve cobbled together have also been performed on stage, mostly in the form of pantomimes with a Liverpool “twist” to them.
I always seem to return to the Novel as my preferred format. I don’t suppose I’ll ever ‘invent’ a James Bond or Jack Reacher character who will be the inspiration for an unending series of best-sellers, but two books or a Trilogy is a comfortable target to aim for.
It’s the first book in a trilogy — a novel that raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty. About the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us. Belief is Cassie’s gift, and for some time she believes others when they tell her who she is. But Cassie reaches her own resolution about who she is and how she wants to live.
What really happened was that I was slow to learn. Belief wasn’t so much my gift as my curse.
Cassie is more resourceful than those who try to tell her who to be realise.
A remedy for all things
In A Remedy for All Things, my protagonist, Cassie (who now uses her full name — Catherine) has come a long way. This is how the book blurb puts it:
Belief is Catherine’s gift. Or it was once.
After a miscarriage and marital breakdown, her life is on course. Her new relationship with Simon is flourishing and she has a commission to research a novel about the poet, Attila József.
But when Catherine arrives in Budapest in winter 1993, she begins dreaming the life of a young woman, Selene Virág. Imprisoned after the 1956 Uprising, Selene finds she is dreaming Catherine’s life in turn.
Obsessed, Catherine abandons her research to find out who Selene was. Why does Selene believe Attila József was the father of her daughter, Miriam, when Attila died in 1937? And what became of Selene?
Most importantly, how do the lives of Catherine, Selene and Attila fit together?
Disquieting and compelling, A Remedy for All Things challenges our ideas of time and identity, as truth, fiction and political realities collide.
When Catherine meets Simon, she appears to be in a new phase of her life. She’s a confident writer and editor, about to undertake a trip to Budapest to research the life and death of the 1930s poet, Attila József.
But once in Budapest, during one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine finds herself disturbed by dreams. In them she relives the life of a woman imprisoned at the end of the 1950s after the Hungarian uprising, Selene Virág. As Catherine begins to investigate the woman, she becomes more drawn into this other life; one that has a strange a connection to Attila József.
As the month progresses, tracking the last days of József’s life and Selene’s imprisonment, Catherine again begins to question her own identity.
The questions of perception and identity become more intense when Simon, Catherine’s new partner, joins her is Budapest. And as the date of József’s suicide approaches, the tension mounts.
Will this be the end of the story?
I hope you will read on at Medium and also take a look at the book offer on A Remedy for All Things and This is the End of the Story.
One of the things I’m involved in as an editor at an indie press is adjudicating fiction in our competitions. This year we’ve amalgamated the fiction prizes into one so that people can submit across prose genres — short stories, novels and novellas.
Every year there are pieces of fiction that jump out as strong contenders but trip themselves up along the way. What is it that Cinnamon Press is looking for in a story? a young friend recently asked me. What makes a good story?
Don’t tell me…
It’s often easier to start from what doesn’t work.
The stories that tell me what is happening (sometimes several times to make sure I get it) but which don’t ‘show’ me anything so I am never drawn in rarely work. Telling has its place in bridging passages, in some forms of first person narrative, but for the most part I’m with Chekhov on this:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Other stories fail because they drown in adjectives or (even worse) adverbs. Descriptive passages can sing off the page, sometimes with a rich seasoning of adjectives thrown in, but only if every word has earned its place. And some words never earn a place — really, just, suddenly, somehow… As says Ursula Le Guin in her invaluable guide to prose writing, Sailing the Craft:
Nothing happens somehow
Please read on on Medium – this is a post particularly for writers and if you have a novel or short stories that would be eligible for our fiction prize, take a look at that too – thank you for reading.
One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.
Ursula K Le Guin
Narrative and meaning go hand in hand. We all need stories that make sense of experience, particular and universal. But if the language functions to exclude our experience then how do we find this meaning?
Language is an urgent question not only for writers, but for anyone who engages in any kind of meaningful exchange — take a look at the rest of the post on Medium and please clap there if you’d like to support the writing. Thank you.
At any given moment, life is a mess of contradiction. It seems to be true that it’s always the best of times and the worst times. A new baby is born and a good friend is facing appalling illness. A loved one is celebrating, yet the political landscape looks grim.
In the midst of joy and loss, I’m also in the midst of a trilogy of novels. finished a novel. The first book in the sequence has been simmering in me for over 30 years. The actual writing was more recent, but some of the events that informed it and later became reshaped and fictionalised have very deep roots.
In a world crying out for global solutions, what business have we writing stories and poems? There are so many reasons why writing, or any art, is vital, no matter how uncertain the times. It has many functions, including:
I hope you’ll read further on Medium and if you enjoy the post, please clap the little hands symbol 50 times 🙂
It’s depressing as both an editor and a writer when I hear writers (or more usually aspiring writers) saying they don’t read. Getting books out into the world is difficult. It’s a huge amount of work for both publishers and writers and the only way it’s possible is if there are people out there who read. If you are a writer who doesn’t read the work of others, what would make you imagine that others would want to read your book?
Writers have to read:
1. Because reading is your world
Imagine a chef who hates to eat, an artist who’s never been to a gallery. It’s not credible — neither is a writer who doesn’t read.
2. Influence is good
Sometimes writers tell me they don’t read because they don’t want to influence their work. This is the height of arrogance and flawed thinking. No one creates ex nihilo. No one is that original. Of course you shouldn’t be copying others or never finding your own voice, but what has gone before you is a treasure trove. Tradition and inspiration are all around you in books. You can learn structure, technique and so much more by reading. We become innovative by building on the past, not by writing it off.
3. For the love of language
Great writers are those who have found wonderful ways to use language Their language might be supple or taut and honed. It might be rich or lyrical. It might be rhythmic or urgent. You will discover an infinite kaleidoscope of vocabulary and style in the pages of books written by others.
4. To encourage imagination
I hope you’d like to read on and support the blog post on Medium
When I was home educating four children, other parents were often aghast at how ‘brave’ this was. They would tell me that if their children weren’t in school and ‘made to study’, they would learn nothing. To me, the idea of children who were not full of questions and hungry to learn every second of the day seemed extraordinary.
Our different views of children and how learning works came from different experiences. What I observed was that by respecting children’s autonomy, their intrinsic motivation stayed in tact. In a supportive environment, children could choose their learning. Knowledge and skills flowed when the learner was in control. Their confidence and competence levels rose as a result.
More recently I’ve been thinking about what it takes to create a life of value through work. And once again I’ve returned to thinking about intrinsic motivation. I’ve been reading Cal Newton’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which led me to researching Self Determination Theory:
Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.
When we having autonomy over aspects of our lives; when we are skillful and connected, then the motivation doesn’t have to applied from outside. This is as true of our work as it is of children learning.
And whether it’s the life of a scientist or a writer, work that motivates us and in which we find value and meaning is a great goal. We all desire this kind of work. We want creativity, control and the possibility of making a difference through what we do. Such work is something to feel passionate about.
So what’s wrong with finding our passion and following those dreams?
As I write I’m sitting in a cottage in North Wales looking out on a sunlit winter hillside. The trees are bare, bracken a deep swathe of rust across the vivid green. The silence is deep and the distractions few.
I’ve been working with a group of writers who I or one of our Cinnamon Press authors has mentored over the last year. This is the only slot in the three day intensive timetable that I have some down time. There rest is writing workshops, one-to-one sessions, cooking for the group, evenings reading back work with them.
But the energy here has been extraordinary and I’ve been jotting down ideas for new blog posts or journalling in every gap or early in the morning.
I’ve got another of these writing residentials at the end of next week and I expect it to be as intense and exhausting. I also expect it to be as creative, energising and idea-filled.
Bringing together a group of people who’ve invested in their writing and who are passionate and committed to their craft is part of the magic. The buzz of ideas is thrilling.
And we’ve enhanced this by getting people away from their normal environments. When we shift environments so many creative things happen. …
Dear List Members
I’m currently putting some effort into building up a presence on the blogging platform, Medium. I’m hoping to use this later down the line to deliver writing courses and mentoring and building my way towards this.
If you have a a few minutes to read on with the post above please click here. The posts on Medium t will be out every Tuesday and Friday and this is the latest.
You can sign up to Medium fairly painlessly (either directly or via a Twitter or Facebook account) and can then ‘clap’ the post. You can press the little hand symbol up to 50 times and 50 claps makes a huge difference in getting the posts noticed.
Thank you very much and hope you enjoy the rest of this article
Writers are people who walk around with their senses open, determined to stay awake in a world where so many people seem to be half asleep.
Writers are those with imagination and insight.
They are people who reflect an extraordinary world within that can transform the world without.
Writers are not those who go with the flow.
People may claim to often that a book is ‘life-changing’ but nonetheless every time we read, there is the possibility of a new perspective and growth.
And if the written word is so transformative then the chances are that writers have power and responsibility.
2. Writers are witnesses
When Geoff Dyer asked John Berger what he saw as the ‘job of his life’, replied:
Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.
For Berger, this sense of being a witness involved total immersion and openness to other people and other places.
The notion of the writer as witness is a lot to live up to, yet it is compelling. In The Artist’s WayJulia Cameron challenges writers to become witnesses. There are countless novels that are a testimony not only inward states, human emotion and condition, but also to events.
Books like Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man witness to the legacy of the Holocaust, so that it becomes part of common consciousness.
The film Hiroshima mon amor, from the book by Marguerite Dumas, witnesses to the existential crisis of lovers who need to cling to one another after horror.
The South African poet, Mongane Wally Serote witnesses to the events of apartheid:
I want to look at what happened,
As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil
I look at what happened…
When knives creep in and out of people
As day and night into time.
And the list could go on.
Extraordinary writing witnesses not only to historical or political events, but also to emotional states and human relationships.
3. Writers reconstitute the world
As people who bear witness to the human condition; witness to stories that would otherwise go unheard and to the possibilities that lie ahead, writers deal with how much we can achieve.
As Adrienne Rich puts it:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
This requires belief in freedom. By opening up new horizons through writing, writers take on enormous responsibility. Our writing shifts the perspective of readers and widens their choices as a result. Thought is a powerful thing.
4. Writers shape reality
What do we believe about reality? How do we conceive the nature of our existence and freedom?
None of us can transcend the facts of existence: we exist in a universe of physical laws and principles. Environment, language and culture shape us in complex ways. And to some extent we never become aware of all these influences or shake free of them.
But we are not reducible to those influences. Neither are we the roles we adopt; none of us is only a writer, a mother, a daughter, a musician. Only objects or deities (if they figure in your world view) are wholly one thing. God is God. A table is a table.
Human beings are complex and changeable. We are conscious, or should be if we are brave enough to stay awake in the world.
Humans can transcend certain ‘givens’ –
the class we’re born into
the racial stereotypes projected onto us
the social expectations around us are not who we are.
As Sartre claims, we have the ability to negate these expectations and to become anything.
And it’s not only philosophers who think like this. Increasingly, research suggests not only that we have plastic brains that can adapt and change, but also that our biology is more fluid than we conceived previously. (Studies in epigenetics are rapidly expanding our understanding of this, for example. Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution)
This amount of freedom is terrifying and wonderful. It means that authentic living requires that we take our autonomy seriously.
It means that I am never identical with my current ‘self’, yet always responsible for sustaining, challenging and growing it.
It means I can’t hide behind phrases like ‘ this is the way I am’ or ‘it’s in my genes/my past experiences…’
If I choose to remain a certain way, it is a choice, and there is no lying to myself about that. Quoting Sartre:
You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.
The inner world is a powerful place that changes how we experience the outer world.
Stories, poems and articles make their way into our subconscious and transform how we interact with the world and impact on it.
By being writers who take this seriously we open up a world of new thinking and new ways of being, for ourselves and for those who engage with our writing.
Writing is an awesome thing to do and we do it best when we become people who take our freedom and imagination seriously.
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