Being authentic, Writing about Christmas …

It’s snowing … when it snows here in the UK, we all get very excited … all morning, couples, groups, and families passed our front windows, hurrying towards the nearest green space (it’s fairly near), big smiles on their faces, and pom-pom hats on their heads … It’s kind of sweet and funny … All too soon the snow will melt into a brown slush, the slush will freeze to treacherous ice … but until then, it’s winter wonderland, all set for Christmas.P1060646.JPG

In my novel, The Labyrinth Year, I wrote two Christmas scenes: a magical carol service, and an up-beat celebration in a church, where the Vicar wore reindeer antlers … At the end of the service, as they leave,  Max, (the Dad) remarks how the congregation’s emotions were played on by the music … Although Mum Jenny accuses him of cynicism, he has a point …Christmas, St Margaret's

Christmas is a difficult time …A couple of weeks back, a Facebook friend and fellow writer posted that she ‘loathes’ Christmas … and she’s right, though loathing is a pretty strong word, it’s good to make us face up to this: Christmas is an utterly problematic time. I mean, it’s silly: in the middle of a dark, cold, depressing, season, everyone is required to shop till they drop, give and attend parties, perform plays, sing carols, travel across country (maybe continents) to be with family members, to send cards, give presents, be happy, and generally expend extra energy. And catch each other’s seasonal illnesses. Street decorations vie with one another for splendiferousness, and multiple decorated trees appear in the stores and on the pavements. Those vast tins of mixed biscuits appear in the supermarkets …IMG_2354

I want to cover my ears and my eyes: I want to escape …

Do you love it all? Or do you feel it makes a mockery of the (various) religious, and even secular, bases for this, by being a time of spend spend spend when people can run up debts, and when the really desperately poor and the homeless are thoughtlessly given the message that they are left out of all this ‘by circumstances’. It’s really (possibly unintentionally?) hammered home. Even if there is a tad more shelter, and with a Christmas lunch at Crisis, it’s not … well … it’s just not.

We are planning a very plain Christmas with moderate ‘feasting’, trying to be happy and friendly without the BIG stuff which obscures the bottom line reason why Christmas is there. Why indeed is it? In a secular society, the reasoning behind the gift-giving has lost its edge, the causes for celebration obscured. Not that we shouldn’t give and celebrate – but, let’s be honest, it’s come adrift from the story in those carols, hasn’t it?Crib scene knitted

Did you know that the ‘old fashioned Christmas’ was not a big festival as it is today? In Samuel Pepys’ day, 25 December wasn’t a public holiday. And even not so long ago, people (for example my grandfather) worked up to the end of Christmas Eve, or even worked a half day on Christmas Day itself. Families didn’t necessarily give big presents and a Tree wasn’t assumed to be bought every year.  A mid-winter festival is a chance for fun, but I truly believe this is not necessarily a time for every school to produce a play, and a carol concert, or for evangelising the population, or  to entice people into church with carols, candles, and mince pies… or for getting into debtP1120758

I remain a believer in the Christ who taught compassion, healing, wholeness, inclusiveness, justice for the poor, etc. – and if he was really born into poverty and greeted by angels and shepherds, that is wonderful. But, I feel a lot of empathy with everyone who ‘loathes’ what Christmas has become, and with those who look around and take offence at its public face … This is not a ‘Christian country’ (could such a country ever exist?  Faith isn’t about political boundaries – and if it’s about family, and friends, it’s about caring and sharing.xmas choc cake

Whether or not you attend the Carols by Candlelight, the Panto, the parties, the Midnight Mass, and watch the Queen’s Speech … whether or not you eat turkey and drink Prosecco, wearing a funny hat … whether or not it snows…

To read about Christmas, New Year, and a whole 1996-7 family experience, go to our website to find more about The Labyrinth Year … and the prequel, Baby, BabyBB & TLY covers photo

 

T is for Triggered

Poem, by my friend Vivienne, who rather than ranting, paints a delicate picture of the future …

Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking

Triggered

I’d expected the land to be silent,

For willows to weep and doves to mourn.

Yet larks sang, rising over acres

Of emerald green winter wheat

And bare fields sown with a million flints

Shattered by behemoth harrow and plough.

I’d expected rain, at the very least;

Tempestuous clouds letting rip

With a deluge to drown us all.

Yet the sky is merely grey and dull,

The usual March dampness to the air,

And the temperature hovering at mild.

I’d expected signs and portents

Speaking of grim days to come,

Harbingers of doom,warning us.

But only a confused owl hooted in a copse,

Awoken by smaller birds, squabbling,

Fighting for territory and for mates.

I’d expected the little river to be

Cloudy with mud and debris

From passing storms upstream,

Yet it flowed clear and fresh,

And I found myself expecting the kingfisher,

Sticklebacks and the elusive dipper.

When…

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The Post-Truth Era

After my twopence worth on living in dark times, here’s further take on the ‘post-truth’ era by my Facebook friend and ALLI fellow-member, Dr Carol Cooper …

Pills & Pillow-Talk

Everyone’s saying it, so it must be true. We live in a post-truth era, in which unsubstantiated statements are swallowed whole. The less palatable they are, the more easily they slip down.

Post-truth was made word of the year – the Oxford Dictionaries’ International Word of the Year, no less. Post-truth is of course instead of truth, not after it as in, say, post mortem or post-Apocalyptic.

As you see, even the term post-truth is lying through its teeth. But what does it matter?

old-books1Post-truth got some massive boosts this year with Brexit and the US Presidential Election. While Michael Gove didn’t actually start it, he did famously say that people in this country had “had enough of experts”.

Experts are now superfluous and fact-checkers obsolete. These days momentous decisions are made without anyone bothering with evidence.

That doesn’t just make me worried. It makes me deeply suspicious not just…

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What I Learned About Television Broadcasting from My Interview on That’s Oxfordshire TV

leo 2 days old   With thanks to Debbie, whose lovely blogpost says it all! The excuse: we’ve just become grandparents to the gorgeous Leo and our time is being stolen … hopefully not for too long though, I have a book to write … Includes video of our interview …

Debbie Young's Writing Life

Photo of Mari Howard reading before an audience My author friend Mari Howard reading her poetry at the first Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival last year
Picture by Clint Randall http://www.pixelprphotography.co.uk

A post about my recent appearance on That’s Oxfordshire TV

Just before I went away for my summer holidays, I had the pleasure of taking part in a television chat show for a local cable TV station That’s Oxfordshire, thanks to the kind invitation of my author friend Clare Weiner, who writes as Mari Howard.

I’ve known Clare/Mari for several years, we read and enjoy each other’s books, and she’s been a staunch supporter of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, where she’s spoken on panels and read from her novels and her poetry. We were therefore able to talk on the same wavelength (if you’ll excuse the broadcasting pun) when interviewed by presenter Eve Ahmed.

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I Swear I Didn’t Mean It… (with a Free New Short Story!)

Another blog post from my ALLi friend Debbie – I couldn’t put it better myself, so here’s  her thoughtful post on swearing in the fiction we write … which was a hot topic discussed at the Scargill writers’ weekend in June …

Debbie Young's Writing Life

A quick post to share the article I’ve just written for the ALLi Author Advice Centre on the use of bad language in fiction

Photo of Debbie reading in the Quaker Meeting House Already committed… (Thanks to fellow author Jacci Gooding for the photo)

Do you give a damn whether there is swearing in the stories you read?

Personally, I’m not keen on hearing the same bad language over and over again supposedly for the sake of realism, whether on television, in films or in books, and I don’t use it much either.

In fact, I’d always thought the language in my own fiction was pretty blameless. That is, until I started reading a new story, as yet unpublished, in the Quaker Meeting House as part of the Evesham Festival of Words last month. Eager to give a brand new, unpublished story, Drunk in Charge, an airing and get some feedback, I hadn’t really thought through the implications…

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Crime and Punishment in Life and Lit: as featured in The Archers

Happy Families: who sees?
Happy Families: who sees?
Excuse me, if you don’t live in the UK, for talking about a British soap opera, one which probably won’t appear, like Downton, on your TV screens.
I’ve always used The Archers as nice quiet lunch break entertainment.

But for the past 2 years it’s become instead a nail biting tension-raiser.  I’m not about to rant about that. I’m thinking about how we writers draw in our readers.

If you read crime novels, why do you love them? 

Most people seem to enjoy crime fiction for what offers in terms of ‘who (and how) dunnit?’ The crafty patterning. The pleasure of trying to beat the author in uncovering the answers to the detective’s questions. The skill in writing crime is similar to the skill of composing/solving a crossword puzzle. A classic crime story usually doesn’t spend time on deeply developing the characters, since the pleasure of reading, and the essence of page-turning, isn’t primarily rooted in, well, rooting for them. Though of course it can, if there is an element of  adventure, or if rather than focusing on the solving the crime the story involves ‘woman’ (or child, or even man) ‘in jeopardy’.

So what’s interesting and why?

 Here we have a quiet, jogging-along sort of serial story. The Archers suddenly builds up and pursues a storyline where there is a vile villain, a woman jeopardy, and a very real social situation.  Contrast readers’/hearers’ emotional involvement with typical crime stories and this tale’s use of already-developed, well-known characters.

Maybe you (follower or casual reader of the blog) don’t listen to The Archers. Or maybe you do. Maybe you liked Helen, Henry, and Helen’s parents and other relatives already. Or maybe you found Helen boring and slightly neurotic, and Henry a sickeningly drippy kid: the received wisdom has tended towards ‘the awful Henry’. Whichever, we who listen have been taken through the stages of domestic abuse over time with these characters, and far from standing back and studying the patterning of the storyline, we’ve been sucked right in. I found myself caring about Helen as if she was a friend. Willing her to wake up and smell the coffee – or rather, taste the the deception, savour the distastefulness, and perceive the whole false flattery and fantasy that horrible Rob has been throwing over her from the very start of his wooing.

The reader/listener as helpless friend

Why the hell, we think, didn’t she realise what marital rape was? Face up to that sex on the sofa which wasn’t romance, it was a deliberate attack. To ‘get her pregnant’. How can she not hate and long to be rid of the foetus she realises was planted by that act of rape? What makes her willingly/unwillingly submissive? Can she be feeling anything but fear of this man in her life, her house, her bed?

Evidently, yes. She does. Why else did she swear her brother and her friend to secrecy: and so land herself with no witnesses to the true awfulness of her life?

And why do we care – she’s only a voice on the radio, an actress in a studio, expertly using a script.

Writing and acting to a high standard – even though it’s a soap

But, we do care. Or we can. I have. Could feel my  heart beating, my blood pressure rising, as I listened this past few weeks. When Rob derided her. When he lured Henry increasingly into his foul net of lies and promises and deceits. When he separated Helen from her family and brought in his mother as replacement. And finally, when he mocked and derided her and bawled at Henry, after handing Helen a weapon to do the deed (did he hope she would wound him, and thus prove herself psychotic?). What were his plans for poor Henry, long term?

Helen, predictably, protectively, snapped and hit back when he began to abuse her child, and now she’s been arrested. I am caught. I care as if she were real. I am also horrified that a woman so abused and traumatised is being put through arrest and interrogation by the police. Does she deserve punishment? Doesn’t he?

Because I know this is being written as true to life as possible?

Not only that. 

Because I know what they don’t know: the  background to everything. I was there. They were not. I was a fly on the wall throughout.

A practical lesson in writing

 The characters have been carefully built up so we care. Each scene of Helen’s torture by Rob has been carefully crafted. Each declaration of his ‘love and caring’ with expensive presents. Each odd occurrence, for example that secret wedding replacing Helen’s plans. The time frame has been real, and the situations well researched.

The impact of  characterisation well done grips the listener/reader. As I wrote before, writing a series involves getting to really know your characters … and their developing over time…

May Love You to the Moon (the work in progress) grip like this!

It is also a warning

This is the face of ‘non-violent’ domestic abuse. The stuff of taunting, and control. It is also (to my mind) the reason why the whole idea of women’s being expected to be ‘submissive’ in a relationship is, and has always been, so wrong. The reason why ‘obey’ is now so rightly out of the Church of England marriage service, and hopefully all marriage ceremonies. In my opinion, anyway. Control has no place in intimate relationships.

P1120634
Happy Families: who sees?
AUTHOR EVENT:

Celebrate books and reading:

It will soon be time for the second  Hawkesbury LitFest … Saturday 23rd April, all dayat Hawkesbury Upton … author readings,talks, poetry, children’s activities … in a Cotswold Village setting 

 

 

 

The Valleys and Peaks of the Self-Publishing Life

Well worth a read on ‘self’ publishing and I recommend the books, too!

disappearinginplainsight

Looking out to Monument Valley - Bruce Witzel photo

I’ve learned that life will go through changes -up and down and up again. It’s what life does. (Ben Okri)

Ben Okri’s words resonate. You’re up, you’re down … such is life. Being a self-published author has definite peak and valley experiences. But, really, how could it be any other way? Self-publishing is akin to being the general contractor on a major construction job that never ends.

I write, I rewrite, edit and proofread. I format for publication and come up with cover design ideas. And after all of that, I try and promote my own work – times all that by four.

I’m not saying I don’t have help – I do my share of contracting out. From the early days of writing Disappearing in Plain Sight, I’ve had the joy to work with a fabulous editor who is willing to do conceptual and line-by-line editing. I’ve sought…

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Back to the Writing Life? (Or Towards the Desk: back to the writing life?)

So is it back to the writing life, or back to the writing life?

The Hawkesbury Indie Author’ Pop-up Readings (etc) is only a month away, time to re-discover the Writing Hat.

Gatekeeper, Hackney Wick Wood
Gatekeeper, Hackney Wick Wood

Before then, at last a ‘proper’ July post: the last guest has been waved off on her journey to Scotland, and the new lodger has moved in …Through June, and on into the holiday, I was taking walks and photographs of wild things to join in with the 30 Days Wild project, (see earlier blogpost featuring the wildlife of Wick Wood in Hackney, London,

(where we saw this lovely Gatekeeper butterfly on a beech tree,) and continued to discovered a few interesting things.

One, what we had assumed were caterpillars

of the Cabbage or large white butterfly, which cover our pink berbers bush every summer, and consume the leaves, are not. They are the lava of the Berberis Saw Fly.l

Large White Butterfly Caterpillar on Mullen
Large White Butterfly Caterpillar on Mullen

If you look carefully at the photos, you can see that also very similar, the beasts are distinguishable. We caught up with the caterpillars living and feeding a wild Mullen on the sandy cliffs above Sennen Beach, which they shared with several other creatures in kind of multi-occupied house arrangement.  (See right, e.g., green iridescent beetle)

On the same Sennen cove cliff ramble,

a lovely Skipper butterfly was resting on bracken. Notice its really strange, big black composite eye! skipper detail

 Many moons (well, probably only one, but it has felt a bit like many) have also passed, it feels, since we spotted large numbers of Moon (or common) Jellyfish at the cove, on beautiful Whitesands Beach..

moon or common jellysfish

Pity the poor Moon Jellyfish,

and its relatives: as I read on someone else’s blog, ‘they are 95%water, and have no brain’. The purple design inside the jelly bag is apparently its gonads … ‘I have sex therefore I am’?

So that was our summer holiday. Wonderfully, before the weather really slumped into cool and grey! On the way home, visiting a friend in Wells (Somerset), a swarm of bees was resting in the car park on a telegraph pole.swam of bels on tlegraph pole

Back home,

we were pleased to see again the day-flying moths: two Scarlet Tigers appeared dayflying moths 2resting together on Cranesbill Geranium leaves and for a few days afterwards these, and Five Spot Burnets (or narrow-bordered 5-spot Burnets) appeared doing courtship dances. Scarlet Tigers love nettles, and I’ve been allowing some to grow around the very edges of the garden the last couple years to encourage them.

I’ve also been watching the progress of a pair of swans who built a nest on the reed beds

nearby the canal.  Shortly before we went away, they appeared by the canal with their three Swans dad goes to join familycygnets. Lots of photos for another time, and I’m horrified to learn that ‘cygnets numbers are down by a third due to air guns’. How cruel and short-term some people’s thrills can be.

And this was a writing about writing blog? The desk has possibly begun to call at last …