Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Short - long. Stories are not a one size fits all

Most writers at some point in their lives write short stories for competitions. I have had some little success in this area, with the emphasis on little. But writing shorts is great training for the budding writer. A word limit forces you to be sparing, but you still must get every nuance and twist into the story while making sure your characters are not the literary parallel of cardboard cutouts and that everything holds together in a coherent whole.

I have many short stories in the relevant folder, most of them have not seen the light of day. Some did see the light of day only to be relegated to the computer equivalent of the back of a drawer. Some have shone. But there are always a few that live in your memory. I have three currently sitting idle. One in particular is a good story, logical, bit of a twist, a protagonist that I like and who I feel excites sympathy. So why is it still languishing in the darkness. Because, I realised yesterday morning, it is actually a novel, not a short. I can't tell you how quickly I woke up when that thought flashed into my brain.

Of course, it needs a lot of work, not to mention an extra 85 thousand words, but I'm now in that first flush of seeing the whole thing. In fact, I believe it could well make a vehicle for my early-music soprano detective, Georgia Pattison. And, what is so heartwarming, is that I don't have to work out where the story is going because I already know. At least that's the theory. When I actually get down to it, the whole thing will change because it always does and I know I can't write to a strict 'this is what happens next and then ...'. I know of many writers who make detailed chapter plans. The most I can do is write on a clear glass panel that used to be a shower door, now fixed to the office wall. A kind of mind map making connections. I stare at it, drink coffee and then adjust a few bits. So the most I know when I begin is where I am beginning and roughly where I want to end. The bit in between is as much a journey for me as it will be for the reader.

And that, dear friends, is one of the absolute joys of writing. Characters are not puppets for me to manipulate. They are themselves and act in character, which is why I will write something and then wonder where on earth that came from. It's a wonderful feeling. Why would I ever want to do anything else?

Monday, 22 August 2011

A sense of place

My home county by marriage is Yorkshire in the north east of England. During our turbulent history, the county has been subject to invasions from Celts, Vikings, Normans, Romans, you name it…

All this has resulted in some very weird place names, so just as a momentary diversion, here is a small sample of how some Yorkshire towns and villages came by their names.

Broadly speaking, ‘ing’, ‘ham’ and ‘ton’ are Saxon for hamlet or farm. If ‘ing’ is in the middle of the name, it means ‘belonging to’, so Bridlington, was the farm belonging to Beohrtel (Saxon).
‘Caster’ means site of a Roman fort – Tadcaster, was the land belonging to Tada on the site of a former fort.
Thwaite means meadow or hollow, so Yockenthwaite is the clearing belonging to Youghan.
Filey is thought to derive from ‘five’ and ‘lea’ or ‘meadow’, hence Five Meadows.
Fridaythorpe denotes a farm (Thorpe – Viking), belonging to one whose name had relevance to Freya, god of fertility and from whence we get the day name Friday. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Thank God it’s Friday, doesn’t it?
Esk is a Viking name denoting a river valley., so the Esk Valley near Whitby really means Valley Valley. (Incidentally, there is a hill near Plymouth in Devon called Torpenhow Hill. Tor = hill. Pen = hill. How = hill. So the proper name should be Hill Hill Hill Hill.)
Goodmanham is the home of Godmund and his people – once the most important pre-Christian pagan shrine in Deira (South Northumberland)
Arkengarthdale, a gorgeous name, simply means Arke’s enclosure in the valley.
The river Humber is interestingly named. A celtic rivername meaning ‘good well’, the river was a vital dividing line in the landscape, hence all the land north of it was called Northumberland.
Appleton literally means an apple farm. So Appleton Roebuck, was an apple farm belonging to Roebuck and Appleton Wiske was an apple farm on the river Wiske.
Hornsea lies on Hornsea Mere, meaning ‘pond or lake’. So the place name means land on the lake with horn-like corners.
Scarborough is also interesting. Documents can accurately place its origins to 966 or 967 AD. Allegedly, a Viking with a hare-lip or ‘scarthi’ made it his stronghold – borough or burg.

York has so much Viking history, it would take a whole blog to even scratch the surface. The city also has some very strange street names – usually with the suffix ‘gate’ meaning road or path. The most interesting of these is ‘Whipmawhopmagate’. Opinions vary, but one is that a snarling worthless dog or cur was called a whappet. Whappets were whipped in this street on St Luke’s day, which is also known as ‘dog-whipping day’.

Can’t top that last one.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Lessons from the past

A close friend lent us their house while they fled to the fastnesses of France recently. I have to say we didn’t do a lot, mainly because we wanted to rest and restore ourselves. However, when I am in London, Hampton Court Palace is always a must, so we duly spent a cracking morning there. The sun was out, the gardens looked fabulous, a game of real tennis was in progress and I managed to suss out a bit more of the geography of the Tudor palace for the Luke books. It retains a prime place in my heart. I waited 40 years to visit it and have been 7 times in the last two years.

Paul had never visited the Tower and I’m always up for a jaunt there, too. Of course, the queue for the Jewel House was very long, which I find strange because the crown jewels are incredibly boring. The only bauble that moves me at all is Queen Victoria’s little crown, incredibly sweet and designed to go over her widow’s cap. Much more interesting is the sense of place, the reality of looking over walls, imagining holding enemies at bay or being a prisoner and seeing how difficult escape would have been. The thing that always annoys me about the Tower is how they insist that Anne Boleyn was executed in front of St Peter ad Vincula, when historians have shown quite clearly that she met her end in front of what is now the Waterloo Barracks.

The highlight of the holiday, though, was a visit to the Downland and Weald Open Air Museum near Chichester. Houses from all periods – 12th century onwards – have been moved and restored. I was able to get a real sense of what Luke’s house might look like, how his rooms were arranged. I learned about herbs and herbal medicines and, the crowning glory – much more fascinating than the imperial jewels – a proper working Tudor kitchen.

We learned how to make butter. I was introduced to a couvre de feu, anglicised to ‘curfew’, used to bake small batches of bread when the cook didn’t want to light the bread oven, the rotation of beer-making so that the household never ran out, making cheese using rennet to split milk into curds and whey. The curds made a cheese a bit like mozzarella. They used the whey to help flavour bread. Tudor cooks used everything. (When the family pig was killed, the joke was that everything was used except the squeak, a custom that my grandfather practised into the 1930s with their family pig. Stains from salt dripping down his bureau from the hams and bacon hung over it are still visible.) Leftover ashes from the bread fire went under the beer cauldron ensuring that the yeast didn’t die. There was no waste. Perhaps in times like these, we could all learn a lesson from them.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Keep right on to the end of the road.

I have a confession to make. People think I’m organised. By profession, I’m a librarian. Trained to develop effective retrieval systems for all manner of information, so that when someone wants something, that something, should be quickly identified, located and brought to the enquirer.

When I worked for a pharmaceutical company, I was landed with the organisation of their scientific archives. Details of projects, experiments, tests etc. to support the company’s products. All these records had to be readily available to any regulatory authority, worldwide, at any time, so that checks could be made, claims confirmed and all the work done verified. By the time a regulatory authority came to visit, we had the average search and production of documentation time down from 20 minutes to 8. The system wasn’t foolproof, no system ever could be. But it worked.

So, please could someone tell me why, in my own personal filing, I can find a receipt for an insignificant item I bought in 2005, but I cannot track down my birth certificate? I can show you pictures of me from age 0 to the present day. I can even show you the original wedding certificates for my parents and both sets of grandparents. I have my great-great grandmother’s death certificate from 1884. But if you were to ask me to prove I was born and my birth name, all I would be able to do would be look in a mirror and assure you that the reflection was definitely me.

This is just the last in a long line of things not going as they should. Perhaps it’s the weather. Sunshine and showers – showers as I type this. Perhaps it is my turn for rough water. Perhaps as I see summer going by so fast, I’m beginning to dread the coming dark nights and cold weather. Perhaps my attitude of persistence, determination and pressing on is suffering more than a little hiccup.

But perhaps, just perhaps, this is the darkest hour before the dawn. And if I find the bloody birth certificate, that might perhaps be a sign. I’ll keep you posted.