Sunday, 28 September 2014

Delicious Dahl

So, you may or may not be aware that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It got me thinking, and not just about chocolate. I love Roald Dahl, he was a one-of-a-kind writer, the likes of which we'll never enjoy again (David Walliams you can try, but you can't come close). So it's incredible that his books are so timeless. It's incredible to think that even in this day and age of techno-wonder, Dahl can still captivate children and adult readers from half a century away.

I have a problem choosing my favourite Dahl. My earliest Dahl memory is The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me. Oh those sweets! (There were Gumywizzlers and Fizzwinkles from China, Frothblowers and Spitsizzlers from Africa, Tummyticklers and Gobwangles from the Fiji Islands and Liplickers and Plushnuggets from the Land of the Midnight Sun... I can remember quite especially the Giant Wangdoodles from Australia, every one with a huge ripe red strawberry hidden inside its crispy chocolate crust... and the Electric Fizzcocklers that made every hair on your head stand straight up as soon as you popped one into your mouth.. and there were Nishnobblers and Gumglotters and Blue Bubblers and Sherbert Slurpers and Tongue Rakers and as well as all this, there was a whole lot of splendid stuff from the great Wonka factory itself..)

Quentin Blake's illustrations brought the pages to life as much as the words (for me Roald Dahl is synonymous with Quentin Blake. It's not a real Roald Dahl book without Blake's illustrations), and of course the wonderful rhymes, made up words and larger than life characters.

I love Matilda mainly for the descriptions of Matilda discovering another world inside books: She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her room in an English village.

But also for the myriad of characters. Mrs Trunchball - absolutely unforgettable, Miss Honey and of course Matilda's own parents. I love the supernatural aspect of the telekinesis - I used to sit for ages trying to make my pens move with my eyes.

I love The BFG. For snozzcumbers and frobscottle, for dreams in bottles, for the BFG's enormous ears, for the description of the BFG striding across the world:

The Giant ran on and on. But now a curious change took place in his way of running. He seemed suddenly to go into a higher gear. Faster and faster he went and soon he was travelling at such a speed that the landscape blurred. The wind stung Sophie's cheeks. It made her eyes water. It whipped her head back and whistled in her ears. She could no longer feel the Giant's feet touching the ground. She had a weird sensation they were flying. It was impossible to tell whether they were over land or sea. This Giant had some sort of magic in his legs...Was it really possible they were crossing oceans?'

And The Witches is surely a rite of passage - has there ever been a more graphic and terrifying description of Witches in all of literature? Is there any build up more terrifying than the chapter in which the Grand High Witch asks the 'RSPCCC' ladies to 'rrree-moof your gloves...rrree-mmof your shoes...rrree-moof your vigs!' and bit by bit the awful truth becomes apparent that we are trapped in a room full of witches? Has the cigar smoking matter of fact Norwegian grandmother ever been bettered?

The Dog in the Dark, Dreams and Shadows, and The Witches
That face of hers was the most frightful and frightening thing I have ever seen...It was so crumpled and wizened, so shrunken and shrivelled...There was something terribly wrong with it, something foul and putrid and decayed. It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks, I could see the skin all cankered and worm-eaten, as though maggots were working away in there.

But I also love Roald Dah's autobiographies, Boy and Going Solo. Going Solo in particular. Dahl brings to life a world disappeared, the age of Empire or British eccentrics. I remember my teacher reading it to the class in the last year of Primary School and being utterly captivated by it. He read Boy too and I will never forget the description of the canings:

I was frightened of that cane. There was no small boy in the world who wouldn't be. it wasn't simply an instrument for beating you. It was a weapon for wounding. It lacerated the skin. It caused severe black and scarlet bruising that took three weeks to disappear, and all the time during those three weeks, you could feel your heart beating along the wounds.

But it's Going Solo that stuck in my mind. From the Green Mamba in Africa to the plane crash in the Western Desert, it is perfect storytelling.

The snake-man was standing absolutely still just inside the door of the living room...I couldn't see the snake. I didn't think the snake-man had seen it yet either.
A minute went by...two minutes... three... four... five. Nobody moved. There was death in that room. The air was heavy with death and the snake-man stood as motionless as a pillar of stone, with the long rod held out in front of him.
And still he waited. Another minute...and another... and another...
...A moment later I caught sight of the snake. It was lying full-length along the skirting of the right-hand wall, but hidden from the snake-man's view by the back of the sofa. It lay there like a long, beautiful, deadly shaft of green glass...

I've heard since that Roald Dahl wasn't always truthful in his biographies but I've never wanted to know the true stories or find out the falsehoods. I believe in the world he created and the things he told me and that's enough for me.

So what makes Dahl so timeless? It's hard to say. Perhaps it is the sheer absence of technology that make them so adaptable. They describe a life and time that are almost fantastical to children now, and they accept it without question because of the surety and confidence of his writing. Who doesn't envy Danny and his dad living in the caravan, even if they are poor and live off toast and hot chocolate? It's a world full of love and so, always appealing. The Magic Finger, The Witches, George's Marvellous Medicine also exist in a separate world, not quite fantasy, not quite here and now but also not the distant past. The bright bubbling characters make the stories relevant and contemporary. Perhaps it is the lack of detail in the settings that allow the stories to continue to thrive. The stories live and breath through the characters and the plot and so it does not matter when or where it is really set.

And of course, no matter what happens in the story the thread that binds it all together is the enduring and overwhelming love that exists in the worlds Dahl creates. Whether it be between Sophie and the BFG, a boy and his Granny, Matilda and Miss Honey, A fox and his family, a man and his inventions, Charlie Bucket and his poor but loving family, the Giraffe, the Pelly and the Monkey, the burgeoning love between two tortoise owners;  Dahl's books are full of characters caring for each other or for their world. In The Twits, Mr and Mrs Twit may not have a lot of love to exist on, but it can be found in the delight Dahl describes their bitter relationship with, and of course in the way the birds band together to ensure the Twits get their comeuppance and rescue the poor monkeys. There is always love  to be found for lost and lonely children, or safe havens for children to experiment and explore in (The Magic Finger, Georges Marvellous Medicine), there is always humour, there is always danger and endless invention, but there is always always a sense of home and of belonging.

Danny, the Champion of the World and his father. This limited edition ...
I really loved it in that gipsy caravan. I loved it especially in the evenings when I was tucked up in my bunk and my father was telling me stories. The paraffin lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove and wonderful it was to be lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room. Most wonderful of all was the feeling that when I went to sleep, my father would still be there, very close to me, sitting in his chair by the fire, or lying in the bunk above my own.

'We have tears in our eyes
As we wave our goodbyes,
We so loved being with you, we three.
So do please now and then
Come and see us again
The Giraffe and the Pelly and me.
All you do is look
At a page in this book
Because that's where we always will be.
No book ever ends
When its full of your friends
The Giraffe and the Pelly and me.'

Friday, 27 June 2014

#FF - There are wolves

This is the beginning of a longer story and for the first time I'm going to post sections on here each time I write a bit. This is the beginning of something and I am not yet sure where it is going or what will happen, only that it is ready to begin slowly unfolding.
I often get a spark of inspiration from a line in a song, and this scene has its origins in a song by The Accidental called Wolves. The lyric that caught my attention was the opening one:

There were wolves lying in the dark as she was raining sparks into the room like that
she was dancing in a neon cave with a tilted smile and a lovers laugh
embossed upon her in the darkness like a light at the edge of night beside her

and later in the song:
There are wolves hiding in the woods and they can smell the blood on the summer air and they run beneath a million stars
I highly recommend checking the song out, it's on YouTube here

There are Wolves
Image from naturepunk - click to follow link
In the stench of darkness she lies in wait. Around her the hot wasted bodies press closer. She can smell the rancid air of their breath and feel the fast ticking of their hearts. She clings to the earth, feeling the grit and scratch of earth under her fingernails, tasting the damp moss in every lungful of night.
            Wolf Princess, Savage Girl, Wild Woman. She’s known by all these and more but she knows herself simply as Edon. She has a scar across her right shoulder. It runs deep into her flesh and into her bones. The wolves did not give it to her, though they have given her others. The scar runs over the bony knob of shoulder and down across her chest, ending above her heart. It aches in the cold and throbs in the heat.
           Edon has hair that she cuts short with the flint daggers she makes from the loose stone in the caves. Her eyes are silver like moonlight and when she smiles her lips are blood red, her teeth too white for comfort. Whatever colour her skin once was, it has taken on the ashy hue of the ground she keeps close to and she melds into stone and earth if she chooses to. She wears wolf skin like a coat. The head sits atop her own, her arms stretch into the front legs, her thin legs into the back. It fastens at the front with thick knots of leather. She runs on all fours. She howls at the moon. She eats the warm beating flesh of fresh kill. But she is not a wolf and she knows it. She can read the words in the loose leaf sheets that she sleeps on. She can scratch her name in the rocks. She speaks human when she has a need to. But not tonight. 
          Tonight she lies with her belly pressed close to the ground, the dirt in her nostrils and her ears reaching out across the vast wind-swept plains of the territories.
          The Old Grey female is close to Edon, she twitches her head, tilts an eye in her direction and Edon pulls back her bloody lips to bare teeth in agreement. Her heart is heavy and her scar throbs against it. She pulls back onto her haunches, sits for a moment and her lightning eyes are turned in the direction of the settlement. She feels a strange sensation in the pit of her stomach and takes a moment to assess it. A wolf moment. Calm, calculating. It is fear. She looks back towards the Old Grey and gives a low rumble. The other wolves ease away from her.
          Edon takes another wolf moment and then with the long loping grace of the pack she straightens herself onto two legs. The wolves move away, small whines and growls rise and fall. Her legs are stiff and awkward, but it is best to begin now and practise. With a last keen glance out across the plains she catches the scent once more. The unmistakeable scent of fresh bood and violence. The sharp edge of gun powder. She pushes her wolf’s head from her own so that it falls uselessly against her back and then she turns and begins the slow unsteady walk back to the humans. Behind her the wolves press in close together. Their bellies to the ground, their ears pricked forward and the moonlight glancing off their bared fangs.
 To be continued....


Friday, 23 May 2014

#FridayFlash - A night for darkness

The house seems bigger tonight; the dark pushing itself up against the windows. I roll down the blind, but I have to look away from my reflection as I do. I don’t know why, it’s just this feeling I have at night – that a face will appear against the inkiness and it won’t be mine.
            With the blinds down the kitchen clock ticks louder, and the table and chairs seem to take up more space than usual. I flick off the light and step into the living room, shutting the door tight.  Everything is as it was five minutes ago – the throw over the chair is rucked up around the cushions, the tv guide is thrown on the floor and the Sky box is flashing where it’s recording a program for dad. But everything has changed too.
            A silence hangs over the room; it’s a heavy, late night sort of silence that makes you keep checking behind you to see what’s there. It’s a silence that makes goose-bumps rise on your arms.
            I should have gone to bed earlier. I promised mum that I would. I do this every week. It’s the one night they leave me alone. I feel fine when I’m heating up the pizza, and watching telly. It’s only when everything’s off, when the house is quietly breathing and I’m standing in the living room trying to find the courage to open the door to the stairs; it’s only then that I hear the moving upstairs.
         Creaks at first. The house settling, I think. I put my hand on the doorlatch. All I have to do is click my thumb down and I’ll open the door on the yawning darkness. But I don’t.
Then I hear the footsteps. On the landing above. Knocking noises as things are moved about, dragged across the floor. My mouth is dry, but my palms are sweaty. I glance over my shoulder again to check the living room. The sofa looks back at me. I look away.
My heart is beating faster. I put pressure on my thumb and the latch lifts up. I pause, straining my ears to listen, hearing the pounding in my head. I suck in my breath and then yank open the door. Blackness tumbles out and my hand is scrabbling around on the wall for the light switch. The dim glow of an energy bulb reveals the worn carpet of the stairs. And nothing else.
            I take a breath again and start climbing up. I leave the living room light on for mum and dad. And it means I don’t have to run to the other side of the room and turn it off. I go up with my back to the wall so that I can see the top and bottom of the stairs. And my wild heartbeat is back. The skin on my arms prickles. The landing is lit and I can see the gaping doorway to my room. Why do I never think to leave my light on?
            The moving is coming from downstairs now. The chinking sound of the springs in the chair as somebody sits down, the clunk of a mug set on the table, of plates clinking together in the sink. Five more steps to the top.
Footsteps across the room towards the stairs.
The latch clacking.
            I run the last two and throw myself into my room, slamming the door shut and flipping on my light switch. I wait for the blood to stop racing around my head, for my breathing to slow down.
            I imagine a weight against the other side of the door, of being flung aside of... of what? Ghosts? Maniacs? Darkness?
            I change into my pyjamas, my senses heightened to every noise of the house. I climb into bed and pull my duvet up so it almost covers my head. I lay awake watching the door. Light from the landing pokes in around the edges. I would be able to tell if those gaps widened even slightly. I watch the handle. I’ll see straight away if anyone begins to turn it.
            The crunch of gravel outside and light floods into my room with the whirring noise of a car engine. Light and sound are abruptly cut off as the car engine dies. There are thunks as car doors are closed. My mum laughing.
            I let out a long breath, feel my body slowly relax.  I roll over and close my eyes.
            And of course, that's when it takes me.

           I am in the room when my parents peek on me and I can hear the first anxious beats of their hearts as their voices call my name. But the weight of me is fading and I am spreading, spreading, stretching my long darkness into the house, consuming the light. Darkness becomes me, and I become darkness as beneath me my parents roll back the duvet, staring at only at the faintest impression of where I lay moments before. I expect my sheets are still warm. Darkness is cold, and darkness is hungry and I drift out into the embrace of it, into the stillness of it. Watching. Waiting. Hunting for the shining silence of lonely houses to fill the greed.

Friday, 16 May 2014

#FridayFlash - Poker Face

            There was no electricity in the shed. Dan said this created 'atmosphere' - just seemed dark and gloomy to me. We couldn’t see each other properly. Ruth had brought candles and she lit them with my lighter, melting wax onto the wobbly old table and lodging them upright. Shadow and light flickered across her face. The candles seemed to make the shed darker, it lit the area where we all sat balanced on stacks of unwanted books or hunched on old boxes and crates, but behind us the darkness deepened.
            ‘How’d you find this place anyway?’ Moggy asked, her rich Scottish accent warming the shadows.
            Dan shrugged.
            ‘It’s Grandad’s,’ I said, earning a sharp look from Dan for breaking his air of mystery. ‘Or was,’ I added. ‘No-one’s been here since he died. He grew potatoes in the plot. Couldn’t grow anything else.’
            ‘Alright Simon,’ Dan said, smacking my arm a little harder than playful. ‘They don’t want our life story.’
            Moggy took the lighter from Ruth and began playing with it, flicking it on and off. She smiled at me through the glow. Maybe Dan was right. No electricity was good.
            ‘What now?’ Ruth asked. ‘We’re just going to sit in the dark and stare at each other?’
            Dan shook his head.
            ‘Course not, I came prepared.’ He bent down and rummaged about in the plastic bag at his feet. ‘Ta da!’ he waved a large bottle of cider in the air.
            The girls rolled their eyes simultaneously and shared a glance.
            ‘Classy,’ Ruth muttered.
            Dan’s face hardened and I could tell he was on the brink of losing his good humour. That’s Dan for you. He’s fine as long as everyone thinks he’s brilliant, but as soon as he thinks you’re laughing at him, you’d better watch out.
            ‘There should be some cards somewhere,’ I said, before he could ruin everything. It had taken ages to persuade the girls to come up here alone with us. What was the point of all that sweet talking if he was just going to lose his cool and get moody on them? I don’t think girls like that moody act as much as he thinks they do. ‘Let’s play poker.’
            Moggy’s face lit up instantly.
            ‘Strip poker,’ Dan suggested.
           ‘Yeah, Dan, in a grubby shed, in the middle of November.' Ruth sighed and shook her head. 'You sure know how to show us a good time.’
            Moggy giggled and tucked her chin into the collar of her coat.
            ‘Come on then Si,’ she said to me, kicking me lightly on the shin, ‘get the damn cards. And Dan, pour the cider, I could do with warming up.’
            Dan frowned as he stared at the bottle in his hand.
            ‘I didn’t bring cups,’ he said at last. ‘We’ll have to swig from the bottle.’
            ‘Better and better,’ Ruth muttered, but she reached for the bottle anyway and Dan’s face cleared as he unscrewed the top and gave it to her.
            I turned away, my stomach squirming slightly with excitement. Ok, so this wasn’t exactly the most romantic place in the world. And maybe letting Dan sort the drink wasn’t the best move. But the girls were still here and they were laughing and joking and they seemed kind of keyed up too. I could feel Moggy’s bright eyes on me and my stomach squirmed again. I took a deep breath and began rummaging around in the boxes where Granddad had stored his supply of cigarettes, drink and cards. Empty bottles clinked, whispery things brushed my hand, my fingertips slithered over the layer of dirt and sludge at the bottom. Finally I felt the wooden edge of the box he kept his poker cards in. Clutching it tightly I turned back to the group. Moggy was drinking from the bottle, her mouth twisting at the taste as she passed it back to Dan.
            ‘Here.’ I set the wooden box down on the table. It was a faded, plain box with a rusty metal latch to keep it closed, but the dancing candle light threw patterns across the worn surface and I remembered Granddad snatching it out of my hands when I was younger.
            ‘It’s not for playing with,’ he’d yelled, his bloodshot eyes bulging slightly while Dan and I slunk away from him. ‘I told yer to leave it be.’
            Dan was looking at the box with a strangely sombre expression on his face. Was he remembering that same moment? Grandad was always an intimidating figure. Stinking of cigarette smoke and stale whisky. His eyes were yellow, and his skin seemed yellow too. He said it was jaundice from the jungles when he’d lived abroad... fought abroad. We were terrified of him, but he impressed us. He was tall and he kept his army figure right up until he died.
            Moggy reached for the box. I grabbed her wrist.
            ‘Nothing... I just-’ How could I say I had a bad feeling about opening the box? It was just a box.
            She smiled, her lips soft and kind. She twisted her wrist so that we were palm to palm. My hand tingled.
            ‘Sure,’ she said, ‘he was your granddad.’ She drew her hand away and gave a small nod. ‘Go on then, you do the honours.’
            There was no other choice. I reached for the box. My fingers seemed to curl away from it, but I made them wrap around the solid shape. It felt warm. I drew it in close to my chest.
            ‘Grandad never let us use them,’ I said. ‘He said, they weren’t for playing with.’ I felt stupid as I spoke. Like a small child.
            ‘Come on,’ Dan snapped. ‘Grandad’s dead and the cider’s running out.’ He took another swig.
            ‘He wanted the shed burnt down after he died,’ I said, still staring at the box. ‘He left a letter to mum, said he wanted everything in it turned to ashes. She wouldn’t do it though.’
            ‘Simon.’ Dan leaned in close. ‘You’re kind of killing the mood here. Grandad was out of his head. He wanted to burn himself with it as well, if you remember - that’s why they sent him to the home. Now, either open that damn box and cheer up a bit, or give it to me and bugger off.’
            The box was still warm in my hand and for a moment I swear it shuddered in my grip. I almost dropped it, but as I looked up I saw Moggy’s large eyes watching me. I must look mad to her. She’d never let me talk her into coming up here without Ruth at this rate. I swallowed down the anxiety that was starting to bubble inside me and turned my attention back to the box.
            I unlatched the clasp. Lifted the lid and...
            A tired looking pack of cards sat inside.
            ‘These are well old,’ Dan said, reaching past me and grabbing the pack out of the box. ‘The old git picked them up from Vietnam, or Cambodia or China or somewhere like that.’
            ‘Cool,’ Ruth took them from him. She slid the cards out of the cardboard pack and fanned them out.
            I grabbed the cider and took a long deep drink, barely tasting it as it slid down my throat and into my stomach. My heart was beating madly and I had no idea why. My gaze was on the cards in Ruth’s hands, I couldn’t look away.
            Ruth’s face twisted slightly.
            ‘Ugh,’ she said, ‘these are creepy.’
            Moggy peered over her shoulder at them, her nose wrinkled.
            ‘What are these?’ she asked.
            Ruth turned them so that they faced us. Dan and I both leaned in. I frowned, squinting in the light to make them out. There were no usual images of queens, or jacks, or kings, or aces. Instead there were photos of people. Some were Asian in green khaki uniform, some were western with big perms and hanging hoop earrings, some were older with white hair and creased faces. All them wore a look of terror – their mouths twisted in silent screams, or grimaces of pain, their eyes stretched with fear.
            ‘I don’t want to play with them,’ Moggy said, drawing away and pulling her coat tighter about herself. A shock of wind made the candle flames flicker.
            ‘Look,’ Ruth said, pulling a card out of the deck. ‘This one’s normal.’ She held up a jack. The usual sort of jack you’d find in any pack of cards. My heart seemed to freeze for a moment.
            ‘Ruth,’ I said, and I knew as I spoke that it was too late. ‘I think you should put the card down.’
            Ruth turned to look at me. As she did so the card twisted in her hand. Not like cardboard. Like a living thing. Ruth let out a small cry of horror and tried to drop it. We all leapt back. The card wrapped itself around Ruth’s wrist, was slowly twisting up her arm.
            ‘Oh my god!’ Ruth was scrambling away from us, shaking her arm. ‘Get it off, get it off, get it off.’ Her face was stricken with terror.
            Moggy and I lurched towards her at the same time. Moggy wrapped her arms about her.
            ‘Simon,’ she yelled, ‘pull that bloody thing off her.’
            The card was like a red and white snake, entwining itself about Ruth’s arm. Her skin was turning an awful grey colour wherever it was touched.  Ruth’s eyes were wide, her breath coming in convulsive gulps, unable to utter any words. The thing wound up higher towards her neck.
            I grabbed at it. It was thick and muscled beneath my touch. And hot. Burning. I let out a cry of pain, snatching my hands back. Ruth staggered, her arm flailing wildly, knocking Moggy aside.
            The thing was up her neck, under her chin, curling up and over her face.
            I could hear Moggy’s terrified sobbing, behind me Dan was cowered against the wall. The thing now covered Ruth’s entire upper body and was working downwards. Waist, hips, thighs...
            One moment she was there, a heaving mass of white and red. The next there was nothing.
            I staggered back, knocking against our table. The candles toppled off. Silence fell with the darkness.
            ‘R-Ruth?’ Moggy’s voice filled the shed. ‘Ruth?’
            I fumbled for a candle.
            ‘Moggy,’ I whispered, ‘do you have my lighter?’
            I heard her moving over to me, her touch trembled on my arm, she pressed the lighter into my palm. It took me a couple of tries to get the spark to ignite. Each time Moggy’s face flared pale and sweaty in the brief illumination. Finally I lit the candle. The flame wobbled. Daniel was still pressed against the wall, his face stricken.  Moggy stood beside me, her breathing ragged.
Ruth was gone. I stood up and moved forward, to where she had stood a moment before. A playing card lay in the dust at my feet.
            I bent down and picked it up. I turned it over.
            Ruth’s face stared up at me, frozen in a look of terror.         

Monday, 5 May 2014

Paper butterflies and silent stories

Well, you can tell the Easter Holidays are over and I'm back at work, because suddenly the desire/time to blog, tweet and write mysteriously disappears!

This is a blog post that I've been meaning to do for ages but have only just found the time and motivation to sit down and write it.

At the beginning of April I was part of the Golden Egg Social that travelled to London to meet, drink and be merry (and creative!) It was a lovely day, so nice to spend time with people happy to talk about story plots and characters and who are all so generous at sharing their ideas and suggestions. That day fired me up to start writing after a fairly lengthy hiatus and so a big Thank You to Emma Greenwood who organised it all.

Emma was fantastic not only for organising the day but also because one of the best bits of that day was a Scrawl Crawl around WC1 with Emma as our muse and guide. Emma led us through the streets of London pointing out the various interesting nooks and crannies and hidden faces that we might not usually see and she set us off on writing tasks to get our creative juices flowing. I thought I would share with you some of the free writing that I did on that day - I've left them exactly as I wrote them then.

The Silent Watchers
The Outer Temple, Lloyds Bank, Law Courts Branch

Heads bowed, stone bones creaking, muscles groaning and necks aching. Nostrils full of the smog and smoke of life, eyes cloyed, lips rimmed with age. But they Breathe. Their stony abdomens expand millimetre by millimetre, draw back in. Inhaling the sweat and rush and hurry as they remain stoic, poised, heads down, dreaming of the otherworld, of the space they were dreamt from, of the place where they were not real but were only light and air and thought and nothing but ideas.

The Paper Butterflies

Shiver of wind against the paper membrane, shocking to the very core. The rise and fall of human buzz and the thick odour of cloying beer and chips. 

They rest briefly, their bright light colours like boiled sweets against the grimy stone building. They feel the hum of the city through their crease and folds. A spot of sunlight, a snick of wind and they rise again, dancing and twirling up above the rooftops, away over London's skyline.

These are not the actual butterflies we saw that day, but I think those, like the ones pictured here, were part of Free Art Friday

The final stop of the day was the national portrait gallery where we were tasked with finding a portrait and consider it as a character to inspire some writing. I didn't quite get round to that exercise as I was too absorbed by some of the paintings I came across.

One was a portrait of Mary English, Nee Ballard, Greenup who lived from 1789 - 1846. I'm really interested in Victorian explorers, particularly women explorers and have been writing a story about a Victorian girl who gets caught up with a Victorian female explorer. I've started to do some research into this area, and Mary English seems to be a good place to start as she certainly seems to have had a colourful life!

Finally I was arrested particularly by a portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo - the earliest known portrait of a freed slave. Beside the portrait was a poem entitled 'Diallo's Testament' by Ben Okri. It's a moving and beautiful poem and demonstrates how inspiration can be sparked by a face drawn in oils on canvas and that stories hide behind so much around us. My favourite lines of the poem are below and you can hear Ben reading the rest here

'Behind me are silent stories
Like a storm. I have worn 
History around my neck like chains.'

Thank you Emma for a wonderful day!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Writers Process Blog Tour

Thanks to Ellis Kerkhoven for tagging me into the chain for the writer's process blog tour. It's been fascinating reading writers' processes and seeing how people manage to articulate why they write and how they write.

For anyone who hasn't heard of it, the Writers Process Blog Tour is 'simply a weekly insight into and sharing of people's writing process.' So here goes...

What am I working on?
I have a lot of different stories at different stages of development, but the one that I'm concentrating on at the moment is called The Burning. 

I've been writing this novel for children aged 10+ for about seven years now. I've written draft after draft and seen my writing evolve and develop with each one. I've restarted about four times and the current reincarnation is vastly different from the others (working titles include Master Juggler, WordWeaver, The Storyseeker). It's a story about storytelling and the importance of having the freedom to create and to imagine. Culture and society is founded on our ability to communicate ideas through writing, art and song and I am intrigued by what happens when you take this freedom away or try to annihilate culture. 

I travelled to Cambodia around the time I started writing this story and learnt a lot about the Khmer Rouge, about how Pol Pot wanted to take the country back to year zero and start again,obliterating its past and history. When the regime began taking over the people they went after were the intellectuals, the masters of their arts. Now a new generation is growing up with gaps in their history. People are relearning their traditions and its hard work because there are so few people left that remember or have the skills to teach what is lost.

My three (well, ok, it's actually four) line breakdown is: 

Romy is a storymaker in a world where storymaking is forbidden and the only tales you can hear are Emperor approved propaganda. When Romy’s identity is discovered her home is burned, her mother taken and she is left alone with only a raggedy juggler boy to help her. Determined to save her mother and with the help of Mister and the travellers who can tell Romy more about her past, Romy does her best to survive and find her mother without being caught. As she travels through the country towards the City of Lies, her stories begin to ripple about her, perhaps paving the way for a new way of life for everyone.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
My genre is usually fantasy or magical realism and I like to try and turn usual expectations inside out. During University I wrote a story about a world that existed behind this world and it was run by fairies and elves and goblins. However, the fairies were huge, like giants, the elves were strange creatures with four legs, they were green all over and grew moss like fur and they were very down to earth and practical, also the goblins were not the bad guys - I like to have a different slant on things if I can.

Aside from that though, I don't know if my work is that vastly different from others, I'm just trying to engage readers in a world that feels real and in the lives of empathetic, believable characters with strong story lines to follow. I think that what makes it different is that it is written by me. My way of seeing things, of writing things down onto the page is my way and that will always make it different from someone else's.

Why do I write what I do?
Looking over things that I have written, I suppose it would  be fair to say that I write what interests me, what captures my imagination, I write to explore ideas and possibilities. But I don't ever sit down and think today I am going to write about such and such. Something triggers a scene, or a line of dialogue in my mind and I go on from there.

 Sometimes it feels like an addiction. I don't know why I have the compulsion to write, I don't know why certain characters or scenarios or ideas take shape and become stories or poems. They just do. It's all part of the mysterious make-up of the Universe. It's a kind of magic. 

How does my writing process work?
I very much admired Candy Gourlay's and Vashti Hardy's descriptions of their writing processes and would like to be able to be as eloquent as them. For me writing is a process that happens in fits and starts, that means bouncing off the walls one minute and then slinking off to hibernate the next. I'll try to break it down.

Most story ideas I have tend to be triggered by me being somewhere and seeing something. In my book The Burning my main character, the storymaker, has to be surrounded by people, by experience and by life in order to be able to tell stories. Life seeps into her, ideas recharge her, she learns and thinks and words take shape within her that she releases into stories. I feel writing is much the same - you need to fill yourself with experiences and ideas gleaned from being around people, or walking through a city, or sitting in the sun, or browsing an art gallery, or reading books, or listening to music, or watching films, or travelling to a land you've never been to before and breathing it all in. I collect postcards and objects that have the tingle of story about them and I use them as story starts. See my earlier blog post about this here or my feature for Words and Pics here).

The current story that I'm writing was triggered many years ago when I was in Belgium eating waffles in one of the main squares - all of a sudden there was a juggler there. He was wearing stilts and he began juggling and then there were hundreds of people all juggling. Here my memory gets a little hazy because I have written that as a scene in my story so many times that I can no longer remember how much of it is real and how much I have made up. But in my note book that day I wrote: 'Juggling Master at the Grand Palace dressed in red, girl apprenticed, the drumming of the clubs, cries and shouts, heat of the sun, sticky chocolate, stripey socks, red wagon.' This somehow combined with a memory of a trip to St Ives in Cornwall and sitting on the beach eating chips in the dark listening to the sound of the waves rolling in and seeing the humps of the fishing boats left stranded on the sand when the tide came out.  An image arose in my head of a girl seeking shelter in an upturned boat and meeting an extraordinary boy, a juggler, who tells stories. And the story in its first carnation was born. 
A couple of scenes I drew out for BackWorld
I write feverishly when I have story to write -  I can spend hours and hours in front of the keyboard not even noticing when it's time to eat or drink. My waking hours are spent thinking about my characters, about the story. I wake up with lines of dialogue in my head and plot problems solved. I'm not an artist but I try to draw out scenes and characters, I write back stories for the world I'm creating and all the characters. 
I search out pictures of my characters.
I map out the country, the terrain I'm writing about, I search out pictures of characters or places and I display them all around me.

 Then there's a lull. Everything goes quiet and I begin consuming books. I read, read, read. Preferably books that I've never read before, a mix of genres, and age range. Recently I've switched between reading Longbourn by Jo Baker, Alice in Wonderland and Generation Kill by Evan Wright. 

 I watch films and I think and I don't write a single word. Then I'll make myself write something, anything. I have a trashy romance story that I keep going as a way to get me writing again. This story allows me to write anything without self editing. I write without self-consciousness like I did when I was a teenager. I write without inhibition or rules. Then that dries up too and that's generally when I'm ready to continue with the story that went into hibernation.

 Once the first draft is done I send it out to those people I trust to give critical, useful feedback and then I start working on something else until I feel ready to start editing. I try not to edit as I write, which is hard because I love editing as much as I love writing. But as Fletcher Moss tweeted recently in his series of 52 things he's learnt since The Poison Boy was published: 'A slightly crappy finished novel is ten-times better than a brilliant first five chapters. Whatever you do - finish it! #pb52s'
So as you can see it's a muddle. I don't have word limits, writing days or any real structure to my writing and sometimes I wish I did but every time I've tried it's just felt forced and difficult. 

 I was asked recently what would I do if I never got published, would I still write? For me the answer is that there isn't really a choice. Yes, I would still write. I write because I have the compulsion to do so and I love it. It would be a dream come true to have my stories read and loved, treasured by readers for generations and yes, that's what I hope for. But it's not why I write. I write because the stories form inside me and so I write them out as best that I can. Besides, never is a long time and by the time you get to the end of it... well I don't expect you'll worry about things too much then!

For the next link in the chain I pass you on, appropriately enough, to a storyteller - Charlotte Comley. 

Charlotte Comley is a creative writing group organiser and now self-employed writer of educational resources, blog content and articles. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing for Children at Winchester University. She is a member of SCWBI and regularly blogs at