The large pond at our local Nature Reserve, a photo of the resting and waiting which sums up winter. I’m so glad Christmas and New Year are gone now, and we begin looking up towards the longer days and the creeping up of new shoots and signs of spring!
A few days ago, some writer friends were talking about writing for Christmas in the summer months – I am trying to write about summer as nature is lying low under frost (and hopefully not more snow!) and low cloud. It’s cold, damp, and horrible here: the pond surrounded by thick, dark, mud, the trees bare except for the clinging ivy, the reeds broken, brown and collapsed.
Meanwhile, the volunteers who care for the reserve have (and are) running work parties to cut, prune, and plant … out there in warm clothing, hats, boots, gloves … And their work will encourage birds (already just beginning to practice their mating songs), butterflies (maybe there are crysalis/pupa hiding cosily amongst the apparently dead vegetation, or the piles of lopped-down logs), I know there are eggs of a particular butterfly somewhere in there, safely waiting … It’s all poised, even as we hurry by, nipped by a north wind and frozen by the incredible damp of living between several rivers …
Yesterday afternoon I walked through the sticky mud, under the low, grey sky, along a waterside path … and yes, this swan couple are back to dating, having driven away last year’s teenage brood … signs of spring, fertility, and the return of warmth to the sun, and colour to life!
So glad I am writing about my characters in summer … the long, damp summer of 2007 … when there is mystery, distress, and growing up to be done …
One of those conversations appeared on Facebook today: the ones between writers wheresomeone suggests (or puts up someone else’s blog suggesting) that we must ‘write something every day, in order to keep up/improve your writing skills.’ …’
Another version is ‘morning pages’: upon waking, or as soon as possible after (take the kids to school, feed the cat, walk the dog …etc, but do not forget you’re a writer) seize your notebook and write solidly for ten to twenty minutes. Not stopping, and even if what you write is rubbish. This will improve your skills, keep you writing …
There was some disagreement: is this helpful, or even wise? One person puts a new poem on her blog everyday. Another swears by deadlines, rather than daily practice. You get idea.
In practice, I don’t write every day, but I’m living in the gaps in between. Between my physical life and the life in my creative brain, where a scene can rest for days before there is space (between the realities) to write. And when that arrives, the scene may improve (vastly) on its sketchy beginnings.
The last scene I wrote, I’d only imagined in advance that Jenny (a research scientist and a mum two teenage girls) would at some point, at home, be discussing with her daughters what the family would all do at half term. When the scene arrived on the laptop, it brought along its own vivid details: (here’s an edited extract…)
‘How about,’ Zoe says, as she sidles into our study, bringing a tray with two mugs of mug of hot chocolate laced with vanilla, and the cinnamon biscuits she’s been making, ‘How about – it’s very boring for anyone who’s in a single parent family. When their Mum has to go to work. And they’ve just been told that if they bring a book along, they can read quietly in the St Hildie’s library…’
I shut down the rather peculiar e-mail I’ve been reading, and slide my arm around Zoe. ‘Zo-zo, this smells like heaven, darling. Have seat.’
‘Shall I move these?’
‘Careful. Can you dump those files on the window seat? I’ll need them tomorrow.’
… Then, head on one side, ‘Mummy, I thought, maybe we could ask Annalise to come with us to Granny’s house at Sennen?’
Mmm, I think. Daze will be there, with Rothko. Rothko, aged eight, is hardly a companion for a thirteen year old, slightly geeky, girl. Where would we all sleep? ‘I’ll think about it.’
‘For how long? Will you think?’
‘As long as it takes?’We could, I realise, take a tent and pitch it in the garden. We have a family-sized tent, in the attic. Annalise and Stacey are, however, not really my kind of person. What is it with children, when they make friends with people you’d never hang out with? ……
‘Yes, Zo-zo.’ (She’s been reading one of the undergraduate scripts, something I shouldn’t let her do.) ‘Okay, … I’m wondering if Granny and Des would be okay with us pitching our tent in their garden, and some of us – maybe you and Annalise – could use it to sleep in? Because it’s hardly an elastic house, and Daze will be staying, with Rothko.’
‘Yes!’ Zoe punches the air. ‘And that’ll keep Rothko out of our things. I’ll take a padlock, zip up the tent and padlock it: during the day of course.’
‘I hope that’s just an idea, not something you’re planning?’
‘Rothko can be a pain…Shall I phone Annalise?’
Hot choc with vanilla, cinnamon biscuits, undergraduate examination papers, and Zoe’s sudden request to bring a particular friend whom Jenny isn’t keen on … that all arrived and the scene came alive – and did I add,it takes place in a twilight room with Jenny;s desk illuminated by just a small lamp? I had better …
Today a further scene forms in my mind: they have arrived at Jenny’s old home in West Cornwall, the holiday venue. Jenny’s partner (Max, a GP) is putting up the tent in the garden for Zoe and Annalise to sleep in. Possibly, it is raining or there is a sea mist: I don’t yet know which will arrive. Or, maybe, a wonderful golden Cornish seascape sunset… Max hears Jenny and stepsister Daze arguing inside the house… Where and when will he ask Daze to ‘lay off Jenny, she’s got a lot on her mind. A rather upsetting thing happened at work…’ and Daze counters with ‘You’re assuming I’ve got not problems in my life right now?’ (And will she, as she used to in a previous book, add a few choice bits of colourful language, or has she left that behind? Does she still smoke? Where are the kids? Who’s listening?)
It will reveal itself as I type – but the essence is stored already. It cooks gently in small gaps between the realities of the day.Both cats had routine health checks. The jasmine (fastest growing fragrant shrub I know!) got pruned so the plants living its shade could see the sky. We went blackberry picking: the warmer drier weather earlier means fruits are ripening earlier. The bramble blushes were covered with more berries than I’ve ever seen, shiny black ripe ones, red ones coming on, a few still tightly green.
There were rabbits bounding about, bees on the late thistle flowers, and a huge gorse bush covered in yellow blooms. A kestrel watching in the sky.
The berries (several kilos of them) will become jam.
Seems to me we fiction writers live two lives in tandem: words and events, words and events. Keeping the writing flowing along may not rely only on writing every day but on living creatively in the gaps in between.
Oh, but I did write yesterday, didn’t I? I hand wrote a long letter, to a friend I keep up with now she’s moved away… The pleasure to scribble away by hand, not typing a keyboard …
Today I happened to read a survey for writers. “How much time do you spend outdoors and not sitting down?” It asked. Interesting? Writing has in the past few years sent me back into the outdoors, to walk and observe the natural world. Writing also sent me back to painting a few years ago. Writing, engaging the brain while sitting at a computer, seems to almost demand that human beings return to the practical, the hands on, and use the old skills. The open air calls to be breathed. Many people who work in an office all day are taking up crafts such as knitting, baking, cake decorating as well as painting and drawing in order to satisfy the need to create in three dimensions, and to use their hands rather than simply their “digits” or fingers.
So why those pigs, huh?
We have been away recently to West Cornwall, the inspiration for my novel Baby Baby. Cornwall is a county of contrasts – you wake to sea mist, then in a few hours there is a blue sky and the hot sunny day. See mists wraps the place in the chilly gloom making Midsummer look very much like November, (see photo above, taken 6th July this year!) Contrast the craggy cliffs and deep ” zawns” with the flat of the moors, or the poverty of tumbledown abandoned cottages and Pound Shops on the high Street with the sleek cars bringing surfers to the coast. Or the life of the Newlyn artists’ colony with the lives of their models, the fishing community, vulnerable to whatever the weather threw at them. The villages are dotted with chapels from revival times, a witness perhaps to reliance thrown upon God in an uncertain world.
Ah, the bit about writing … and the paintings …
This year’s holiday in Pendeen village, in far West Cornwall, was a timely reminder, as following on to The Labyrinth Year I am writing the third story in the Mullins family sagaseries. Part of the story will involve how Jenny and Daze face the possible end of Des and Caro’s marriage and selling of Chapel house, their childhood home. Will Jenny decide that she has grown away from her Cornish roots or will her return to confront her mother and stepfather reactivate the pull of memories and landscape? Meanwhile another more serious question hovers in the background of Jenny and Max’s life, as friends from their past reappear, but will they see what is coming? A tragedy involving Jenny’s workplace engages her mind as she tries to help Shaz through a difficult time. While Daze and her story escape notice.
All this is planned, and now the writer in me must reluctantly be seated at the computer, while the call of the wild remains as memories of time spent walking in the Cornish landscape, or at the beach.
Oh, and Pigs to Paintings was the day when we began by walking up onto the moorland, in the mist, and came upon the allotments and the pigs, and ended it by viewing Stanhope Forbes’s wonderful paintings at the Penlee Gallery, with sunshine, blue sky, and tea outdoors at the gallery cafe. Cornish holidays …
Being ‘too busy’ is bad for creativity: I awarded myself a writer’s Retreat. A retreat from writing. To re-group the creative mind: to paint, bake cakes, encourage the garden.
Book Reviews are on hold.I’ve joined the 30 Days Wild project (http://www.mywildlife.org.uk/30dayswild/)… as anyone who’s read Baby, Baby or The Labyrinth Year will know, Jenny and Daze investigated wildlife as children, and so did I …
Probably un-clubbable like most writers, I do actually believe in joined-up-ness. As in joined-up projects, community activities, and making creative connections. It’s fiction-writerly thing: joined-up-ness yields plot. Getting back to really looking at nature is joined-upness with my childhood, having once been a child!
And after giving my computer an upgrade … coulduse another retreat from that techie, not writerly, project. After several days working on, and adjusting to, the upgrade, I’m back with the Wildlife.
The MyWildLife Project – 2 walks and what’s in the garden
The idea is that as many of us as possible get outdoors studying and relating with the natural world. They suggest many ways and your own choice: own choice for me is being out there to record what I see photographically, then do a bit of research to find out more.
Here’s the results for the past week: be prepared for creepy, crawly, things …
Oxford Evening Field Walk:
Fields and wooded paths run along the back of the University Parks, Lady Margaret Hall, The Dragon School, and Wolfson College, towards Marston Ferry Road. The paths run beside sports fields and a farm, and are edged with a huge variety of wildflowers and grasses.
Slugs:I was photographing a bee on comfrey, and nearby sat a large black slug. Our
garden slugs are usually tiny grey/white (British, and dangerous to plant life) or big and brown/orange (continental recent-ish newcomers, less of a pest). Joined-up-ness: I decided to take more than a destructive interest in our black slug and looked up Latin name and details (see right under photo).
Their vile mucus (quote Wikipedia, It is somewhat difficult to wash off) as well as helping them move along, is a defence. Apparently it stinks and tastes so horrible that they have few predators, and unlike snails, have never been added to the human menu, though hedgehogs well eat them. Bring back the humble hedgehog … we used to see them around here.
The wooded path home, lined with sycamores, filled in a knowledge gap from when I was a kid and observed how susceptible sycamore leaves are to an acne-like rash of small scarlet pustules. I used to find these creepy and never researched them. Joined-up-ness:
this time I’ve looked them up and discovered they’re “galls’” caused by a mite (official name Aceria cephaloneus). The females lay their eggs inside: the developing mites live inside them. (So what exactly is a mite? A bit like a tiny tiny spider which bites? Mites: ‘small arthropods belonging to the subclass Acari and the class Arachnida’ (Wikipedia)
Masses of wild flowers are out in June. Ragged Robin was a great find, I haven’t seen it around
Bracket Fungi were found on the trees.
East London Afternoon walk:
This was in Wick Wood, Hackney, a wood planted about 20 years ago on what used to be playing fields to provide a wildlife habitat, right beside a raised section of the A12. Two gatekeeper butterflies were flying around and settling on beech leaves.
The undergrowth – blackberry bushes – are flowering and come July/August anyone in the know will be able to pick berries and make jam.
Here’s a bee in one of the flowers: sadly not a worker making honey but some species of ‘bumble’ either solitary or maybe, as we found on another walk in Oxfordshire, a member of a ground-based colony living in a hole (possibly abandoned by rabbits or dug by a dog).
A clearing had been cut in the wood, and a hedge woven from branches. It’s probably part of a schools project. In Oxford it would’ve been made from the willows which grow everywhere here, but I’m not sure what had been used for this one.
Wild flowers were woodland types such as these blue comfreys which grew at the wood exit. The trees were mostly beech, there was an avenue of planes (good London trees): as this isn’t a natural wood, these trees were probably selected to grow happily in a polluted environment.
Yesterday’s observation and more to come …
(made seated on the grass as suggested in the Notes, and while eating a bun):
A large green, iridescent, beetle, busy eating the nectar in a rose… This seems to be a Rose Chafer, well known to eat petals and nectar. The larvae live on rotting wood and compost (maybe in our compost bin?)