#4 Banging my head against…a childhood passion

The memory is so clear to me, now. I must have been four years old and was on my usual summer holiday break at my Nana and Granddads house. I was stood in the kitchen, eagerly awaiting my choice of Kelloggs cereals, because my Nana always bought the exciting variety packs for me. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, almost as an afterthought my Nana reached back up into the kitchen cupboard and said, ‘I almost forgot. I’ve been saving these for you…’

She passed me a set of small cards that smelled of the familiar boxes of PG Tipps tea, some grainy with tea fragments and dappled with brown speckles. That was the moment that I discovered there might be more to this planet than I had previously thought. That was when I discovered monsters.

The Unexplained Mysteries of the World Brooke Bond collection cards held two images that I will never forget. The first was the Doc Sheils photograph of Nessie, a now widely reported hoax known as the ‘Loch Ness Muppet’, which shows the strikingly clear image of what looks like a dinosaur neck coming up out of the water, mouth open and grinning. For my four year old, dinosaur obsessed brain this was utterly mind blowing. And of course at that age, if something is published, on print in front of your very eyes, how can it be anything other than real? Without the internet access that all youngsters have available to them now (it will have been about 1987), I was completely innocent, drawn into this world of magic and wonder where it might be possible to see the impossible. The other image that blew my mind was the card that showed stills from the Patterson Gimlin female Bigfoot footage. These images, on cards that my Nana had saved for me and almost forgot to give me, started something inside me that I’ve never really shaken off.

And I’m pleased to say I’ve been using it in my writing ever since.

Cryptozoology, the study of hidden animals, isn’t just about Yetis and sea serpents. If you go to any zoo you will see an okapi, a beautiful animal that resembles a mixture of a giraffe, a donkey and a zebra.  For years word of this creature was dismissed as something born of fantasy, scientists suggesting that the natives who described it were ignorantly mixing three real animals together. When the duckbilled platypus was first reported and sketched people found the idea so preposterous they even dismissed a corpse that was presented to them as being a number of animals sewn together! Even the mountain gorilla was once dismissed as legend. Regularly in the news you hear of new species being discovered in remote parts of the world. And it’s not just a fascinating subject, scientists also have fun with it, too. Just this year scientists have discovered a new type of mushroom and named it Spongebob Squarepants. It’s official. There is also a trilobite called Han Solo and a protein called Sonic Hedgehog. Who says science can’t be fun? And cryptozoology is science, whether people like it or not.

But then there’s the snag. The bit people can’t get their heads around. The Bigfoots and the Nessies and the Chupacabras. The ‘monsters’.

The idea of something magical, something that brings wonderment, is often laughed at and scorned in our society. Whilst I understand now that we cannot look at an image of something unexplainable and accept it as the truth, is it so wrong to dismiss that little flicker of excitement? That little voice that says, ‘Well, what if…?’

The feeling I get when I discover a new video of a possible cryptid is akin to the flicker of awe in my gut that I get when I start to write; a wonderful spark that spells endless possibilities and anticipation that something amazing might just be about to happen. When I marry the two together, I just can’t beat that feeling. That’s what happened when I wrote my first successful story, The Bunyip Hunter.

The Bunyip Hunter is about a plucky little girl living in Australia in the 1800s at the time of the Ned Kelly gang. She overhears her father and uncle discussing a danger at the swamp, sightings of a strange creature that could be dangerous. Her father dismisses it as being one of the Kelly gang in hiding, but our heroine knows better. She knows it must be a bunyip, and she’s determined to find it to prove to the boys at school that they are no better than girls. After a long day trudging through the swamp, she is about to turn back when she hears something in the water…

I wrote the story after reading about a short story competition based around Australian history. What did I know about Australian history? I racked my brains, looked on the internet, jotted down idea after idea, but nothing rang true. Then it dawned on me: I did know something about Australian history after all. I found one of my well-thumbed books on cryptozoology and flipped to the chapter about the bunyip, a dog-like swamp creature that had been reported in Australia since the eighteen hundreds. When I started writing it was easy to put all of the hopes and anticipation I had felt as a young girl onto my main character, and the story won me a place in The Stringybark Australian History prize. It was the first short story I had entered into a competition, and my first official published work.

I am currently working on a novel based around characters who study cryptozoology, their lives fraught with exciting adventures, tragedy and secrets. I hope that my childhood passion is ringing true in my characters there, too. I don’t know if the book will catch on. Who knows what the future holds for our tentative scribblings and hours slogged away at the computer? But Grahame Greene said, ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in’. I think, for me, one of those moments was that instant my Nana made a decision to save me some PG Tipps cards. And I’m so very glad she did.

#3 Banging my head against…a moths nest

My favourite writing help book is Margaret Geraghty’s The Five Minute Writer. It is full of quick tips and exercises to get your ideas flowing and she weaves it through with interesting anecdotes and examples along the way. I used one of her chapters ‘If fate hands you a rattlesnake, make a handbag’ this year and it resulted in two relatively successful stories. The idea behind the exercise is taking something bad that has happened to you, or something just plain annoying in your life, and using it as a positive by putting it into one of your stories. In her chapter she talks of a man called Dale Carnegie and his dreams of owning a fruit farm in Florida. He bought his land and moved excitedly to it in the hopes of running a successful farm, only to discover that he had been duped – the land was barren and colonised by rattlesnakes. Instead of throwing his hands up and selling on at a loss, Dan set up a rattlesnake farm, selling skin to handbag and shoe firms and venom to those working on antidotes. Needless to say, he quickly turned around his fortune.

When I read this chapter earlier in the year our household was in the midst of a moth invasion. We have two iguanas, and their body temperature requires regulation by UV lighting and hefty bulbs that have to remain on continually. Not so good for our electricity bills – heaven for a colony of moths, whose reproductive cycle is sped up 100 fold when under direct heat. Within two weeks I went from being proud of the personality trait, ‘She wouldn’t hurt a fly’, running around with a glass and catching every single moth to throw outside to safety, to getting a glazed look in my eye at every hint of a flutter of wings and reaching for the nearest shoe. They drove me to the point of insanity. So I decided to write about moths.

In ‘The Lure of the French Bandit’, which is published in Terrine de Mots, available from the WriteFrance website, my main female protagonist is married to a horrible slobbish brute who treats her appallingly. His favourite hobby? Collecting moths, of course. When Claude Du Valle, the notorious French bandit who wooed hundreds of well-to-do ladies in the 1600s, steals from their carriage, Anna is completely taken in by his gentlemanly treatment of her in comparison to her treatment by her own husband. Du Valle assures her that she is a butterfly and should not allow herself to be so oppressed. In the end of the story Anna sneaks into her husband’s study and kills him;

As she walked away a moth crunched into the rug under her shoe. She peered down at the crushed remains with disinterest. She had no interest in moths. She was a butterfly after all.

It was her time to fly.

I enjoyed the fact that my hatred for the moths in our house was easily transposed onto my feelings for Howard, the nasty husband. It gave me a motif for the story – butterfly vs moth, and allowed me to thread a theme through the story that I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for our infestation at the time.

Another story I came up with using the same theme was Infestation, and I was proud that this story was short listed for the Multi Story competition, although it did not place in the end. I switched moths to ants this time, and before I began to write I drew a spider diagram linked to the reasons someone might have an infestation of ants, coming up with quite a dark idea. The story begins with my character being utterly confused by why the infestation has begun, blaming the infestation for the fact that he may be losing his mind. It starts like this:

It was the ants that drove me mad.

They started coming one day, little rows of black, from a distance like shoelace sweets draped around my kitchen. When I got closer I realised what it was: an infestation. A thousand tiny black armoured bodies circling the lino.

The first time I killed one I picked up a discarded trainer and raised it high before smashing it down, sole first, on top of the nearest ant. I caught the corner of my nail on the laces and bent it back, a crescent of dark blood blooming up under the lifted nail. I took that as a sign.

I wasn’t allowed to kill them.

So they grew and grew in number, marching one by one, pincers flailing wildly in front of shiny black faces with hidden eyes and hidden sneers. I know they mock me as they pass. Sometimes they climb up onto my clothes and over my skin. When they do I have to keep perfectly still or they nip me, pincers cutting tiny stencils into my skin.

I wasn’t mad until the ants came.

I’m sure I wasn’t.

The story then goes back in time to talk about his job as a salesman, and a new recruit who begins to pinch his sales. In the end, it turns out that the infestation of ants has come about because the salesman has killed his rival, leaving his body in the kitchen:

I got it wrong after all. The ants, they came later. When Jeremy’s body began to fester, pools of liquid drifting from under his body like the tea he spilled on my desk.

The ants only filled my kitchen when the stench of rotting flesh consumed my flat.

It wasn’t the ants that drove me mad.

It was Jeremy, all along.

So Geraghty knows what she’s talking about. I personally find it difficult to write about really bad situations that have happened to me, the emotions surrounding the event acting as a block. For example, one day a few years ago a dog attacked me in the street, out of the blue. It was one of those huge white Alsatian types and it made a pretty big mess of my knee before the owner managed to grab it and pull it off. I can’t imagine ever writing about it in a story, simply because it’s too messy. The multitude of feelings linked to something like that are too much to narrow down and place on a character in a coherent way. Plus, I don’t really like to think about it too much. In a number of writing books I’ve read it states that you can’t be a truly good writer until you can write about the bad things you’ve experienced…but I disagree. I believe that sometimes being bogged down in a negative memory and forcing yourself to try and write about it is like trying to run up a waterfall.

So, if you’re like me, it might be best to try Geraghty’s exercise using the little things. The annoyances in our lives. The drain that keeps blocking. The broken cupboard handle. The neighbour on my street who pushes everyone’s car mirrors in every Saturday night on the way home from the pub (fact. Annoying.) Or a colony of moths who will not leave.

Because no matter how small, I believe a good story can come from anywhere. I suppose, through gritted teeth, I have the moths to thank for that.

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#2 Banging my head against…A book about art

I have decided to try something new today and it is quite random so bear with me! In the quest to come up with ideas to break the writer’s block blues I’m hoping to prove that we can get ideas from pretty much everything around us, and so today I’ve fallen upon a book entitled 10,000 Years of Art. It’s quite a neat little compendium, showing the history of art starting with cave hand stencils from 8000BC all the way up to the Roden Crater by James Turrell. My thinking today is that I can open a page at random and try and come up with some ideas about the people in the picture I fall upon. It beats banging my head against this book, right? It’s quite thick after all…

So I’ve chosen a random page and it’s Ball at the Moulin de la Galette by Renoir (see below).

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It’s a delightful impressionist painting from 1876 set at the Pleasure Garden in Montmartre, Paris, showing Renoir’s friends enjoying Parisian finery. At that point in time the frequenting ladies of the night popular at that time and place are notable by their absence, (or are they? Remember, we can come up with whatever we like!) The picture draws me in by showing a table of people chatting and then takes me to the left of the image where a couple (to me) seem to have stopped dead or slowed down in the middle of an unconvincing looking tango, evidently watching the table closely.

For this ‘exercise’ I’m going to bring our players forward to 1950s Chicago and make the setting a seedy jazz bar. The people sat around the table are big-shots in the area, and the young man with his back to us has a large price on his head. In come our two dancers, watching closely as the woman who is standing over the table distracts the man, giving the lady in the blue striped dress (now of course a sharply cut Coco Chanel skirt suit) chance to slip something into his drink. The two dancers watch in anticipation as the man lifts the drink to his lips…

This scenario gives us a lot to work on in terms of the final scene of the story, but how did they get to that stage? That’s where piece-mealing a story working backwards can sometimes cause us to get stuck.

If we wanted to begin our story using inspiration from the painting, I am drawn straight away to how sad the dancers look as opposed to the cheery comfort shown on the faces of those at the table. The two dancers look to me as though they are both staring at their lost loves who have moved on, which in this case are the gentleman with his back to us and the lady in the blue stripes. Why have the two dancers got together, then? Perhaps they are settling for each other. Maybe it’s an ‘if we aren’t married by the time we’re forty we’ll either marry each other or throw ourselves of a cliff’ type situation. From the looks of their faces I’d say the latter might be the next possibility for them! In this event the story could be told from the sad lovers’ point of view, each of them noticing how the other can’t stop staring at their ex. How is their conversation as they dance? Stilted, I’d bet. Perhaps the woman is in fact in love with the man she is dancing with , but can’t get him to feel the same? She is staring sadly at the woman she can’t compete with, holding tightly to the man she desperately wants to impress.

Taking it to a modern setting, perhaps our protagonists are sat at a café in a busy London courtyard. This is the beginning of the story, where all the friends are meeting up and preparing for a day of shopping and drinking and general mischievous time-wasting. In this setting we can surmise that the couple approaching won’t be dancing down the square Fred and Ginger-style, but perhaps they are tangled up together play-fighting or hunched over in laughter. Then what happens? A horde of zombies could come tearing through the square, turning tables and chomping on brains; an explosion could rock a building to their right or a man could step out with a machine gun and prepare to fire. These are quite far-fetched and silly ideas, but I like the way that looking at a Renoir masterpiece depicting the height of Parisian living could be reinvented in such a dramatic way. I came up with at least five main characters in each scenario using the most prominent figures in the picture, and the Parisian pleasure garden morphed from a 50s Chicago setting to a London marketplace in an instant. Napoleon said, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ and I guess this exercise has shown that when we’re stuck, a picture can go some way toward getting us that elusive thousand words we need to break through and begin our stories.  

Think of Tracey Chevalier and her hugely successful, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. She used her love of a painting to delve deeper into the story behind it – who the girl was and what Vermeer had done to make her look at him like that.

However you choose to gain inspiration from the painting you turn to, just go with it. The characters of your next great success might be waiting on the page for you to find them.      

#1 – Banging your head against…A homemade vase named Maybelline

This morning as I looked around the room for inspiration in the form of things I could quite happily bash my head against, my eye fell on a vase on the windowsill of my little office room. It has sat there for the last seven years without getting much attention other than the odd dusting and the frantic footfalls of a  couple of spiders who have fallen in and failed to get out again, their little bodies curled up like lit barbeque paper.

Thinking about Maybelline, as the vase is called (did I say I like make-up? Incidentally I also named a blackbird family that lived in our garden last year Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet and Zinfandel, but that’s another story…) I am struck by how many memories reside in such an insignificant object. Because I made Maybelline in an evening pottery class, all those years ago. In terms of writing, I am surprised by how many ideas just thinking about that one period of evening classes dredges up, and I will be interested to see if inspiration strikes.

The classes were held in Dallam, and anyone who has made the drive from Lancaster to Dallam will know it is a peculiar mixture of motorway and winding country roads which were made all the more atmospheric and treacherous given the fact that the courses took place during quite a harsh winter. I remember being in the car as the wind shook us, rain and dislodged leaves battering the window pane, the wipers working hard to give any semblance of vision through the tumult. We set off on those drives with an air of anxiety, and to distract us we listened to Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails. It was then that I learned that it was Trent Reznor, not Johnny Cash who had written the beautiful song ‘Hurt’, the thrashing piano and heart wrenching lyrics distracting me from the ominous, ill-lit road ahead.

The pottery class was held in a brightly lit room that smelled of clay dust and the thick inks from the row of screen printing equipment that lined the far wall. If I remember correctly, my first few efforts at pot making were shambolic, my fingers pinching too hard, my unsteady hands incapable of smoothing straight lines and solid bases. Then my knowledge grew and in time I knew how to make slicks to link pieces together, cross hatching the clay edges with little plastic tools and mixing clay and water to make a ‘glue’ to hold the pieces together. It was so satisfying to see them emerge from the formidable man-sized kiln to find that nothing had fallen apart, in spite of the gentle warnings from our tutor. Then there came the delectable task of choosing a glaze; the hit and miss application that might run or crack or lose colour. Pottery was like Russian roulette in the way that one false move could destroy a fairly fine evening.

During that period I also took a Tai Chi class in the same area, just down the road in a little town hall that had a sign outside – a red triangle surrounding a black image on white, warning motorists that an animal could cross the road at any time. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t a deer or a cow that threatened to leap in front of our car, but a frog. Every year at a certain point in time the road outside the town hall would become awash with frogs, another emotive image I had all but forgotten. The woman who ran the Tai Chi class had just come back from a private meeting with a martial art expert in China who had taught her a jaw-dropping sequence with a sword. As we sat and watched her demonstrate, leaping in controlled bounds, the sword held high and catching the strip lighting, then thrusting down and slashing from side to side, we all felt privileged to be watching such skill. It is astonishing that I had disregarded that moment until today.

So Maybelline became my final piece, and she turned out surprisingly well. David Shaner said of pottery, “If you’re enthused about what you’re doing, it’s going to show,” and I believe in the case of Maybelline he could have been right. I recall how satisfying the slope of her cheeks was to build, the clay drying and itchy at my fingertips. That awful moment of anticipation when she emerged from the steaming kiln and we all breathed a sigh of relief that her nose hadn’t fallen off.

I was filled with the heady thrill of learning something new, and when I heard there was a lack of kiln availability in the area for budding potters I had grand visions of buying one and setting up a business in my garage – ‘The Hire & Fire’. Upon looking into the price of kilns that idea soon went by the wayside, naturally, but who is to say one of my characters might not succeed where my idea was abandoned?

So it would be a terrible shame if I banged my head against Maybelline and broke her. Instead, I will write today about ideas that have come to mind simply by thinking for a moment about the story of how the vase came to be and what I was doing at the time. I have images of dark, wind-swept, winding winter roads and moody rock music that soothed the nerves. I have a woman who travelled to China and had a private lesson with a legend, bringing back with her the ability to swordfight like Zatoichi. I have frogs flooding a road and preventing cars from passing, and I have a woman who found a battered old kiln in a dead relatives store room and ended up setting up a small business called ‘The Hire and Fire’. So often I hear the advice write what you know and think, ‘I’m screwed, I know nothing’, but I think this just proves that sometimes we know a lot more from a single period in time than we allow ourselves to admit.

And today, when I’m taking a coffee break and looking out of the window, I might also lower my gaze to the sill and take a moment to appreciate for the first time in seven years a vase I made a long time ago.

Jumping on the Blog wagon

Becoming a successful writer must be one of the trickiest achievements mankind has ever attempted. Those that wish to climb Everest have access to ice axes, oxygen tanks, hefty thermal undies and a Sherpa or two, not to mention a good deal of altitude training beforehand. People who wish to write for a living have only their brain and the mad musings it produces to guide them. This can be a disaster.

So, I’ve decided to blog about that most dreaded of foes for the budding literary star – writers block (aka: procrastination, self-doubt, lack of time or that neighbour’s incessant need to drum along to Motörhead just at the precise moment you’ve allocated to beginning your next masterpiece).

Whenever I feel like banging my head against something after hours of deleting sentences, switching character names/hair colour/stockings etc, all in the name of procrastination, I will focus on that something I have chosen to bang my head against and will use it to produce something hopefully half decent. Using all the tricks in writing guidance books and Creative Writing course guides, I will turn what would be a dull headache and a dent in my forehead into something written on a page. A beginning. A start.

And, lord knows, sometimes that’s all it takes.

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