Monday, 24 April 2017

Those nitty-gritty details - Jo Carroll

I'm known as a travel writer. So writing a novel - and then having the temerity to publish it - has been a bit of a learning curve.

As a travel writer I try to bring the tiniest details to life: the harrumph of a hippo or the strength of the tiniest dung beetle. Deafening tropical rain. Equally essential are personal reflections on daily challenges that may be so very different from those I find at home, such as night buses and street food. And then there are the minutiae that I don't write about, like the toilets.

Which is the link (believe it or not) to my novel, The Planter's Daughter. Sara left Ireland during the famine, to live with an aunt in Liverpool. From there she headed for Australia, ending up in Hokitika - a gold town in New Zealand. These are the bones of the story - a bit like the bones of a travel book. But I needed to know more about the homes she lived in, the food she ate, how she kept clean. Okay, not much of that ended up in the novel, but it was still something I needed to know.

And the aspect that exercised me most was ... toilets. Especially in New Zealand, where she lived in an old fisherman's hut on the beach. No doubt the old fisherman widdled in the sea. But I could hardly have her lifting her ladylike skirts among the crabs and seagulls.

These days, we don't shy away from most bodily functions. It's ok to write about hernias and menstruation. Scenes in public toilets are used as a way of two characters sharing information with each other and the viewer or reader without anyone else knowing. But the rest of it ... well, it's not really a story, is it. The trouble is, when I'm watching a film, I can't help wondering about the heroine who is stuck on a ledge fighting off the bag guys for five hours. How come she never says, 'Hang on a minute, I'm just nipping off for a pee.'

You might wonder if there is anything interesting to say about toilets. And it may be my background as a travel writer (all travellers have toilet stories) that leaves me wondering about something so mundane.

How did I solve Sara's toilet challenge in New Zealand? If you really want to know, you'll have to read the book! (Here it is on Amazon.)

And yes, I do know that 'nitty' (in the title if this post) is Geordie for toilet.

If you want to know more about me and my writing, you can find it here -

Sunday, 23 April 2017

On the Architecture of Gardens by Lev Butts

My mother wanted me to be an architect when I was kid because I liked drawing and had what she called an "eye for detail" since I had once included every board of our hardwood floor when I drew our living-room. I'm not sure why she decided on an architect for my profession instead of an artist, but I am assuming it was because architects make decent money and most artists do not.

Much to her chagrin (I assume) I became a writer and a teacher (and thus doubly cursed to make less-than-decent money). While I'm not entirely sure when I decided to be a teacher (I always wanted to be a writer), I remember distinctly when I chose not to be an architect: As soon as I realized there was math involved and a whole shit-ton of work.

Pictured: My mother's ideal son.
Don't get me wrong: I have no problem at all working long and hard at something I care about. I just didn't care about designing buildings.

I just wanted to draw stuff.

I am reminded of my mother's dashed hopes and dreams for me because I spent a goodly portion of this past week talking with four authors (Michael Pitre, Scott Thompson, Richard Monaco, and Cherie Priest) about our writing processes and a quote by George R. R. Martin:

This conversation began when my school hosted Pitre as our resident author for this month. While he and I were talking in my office, this came up and we discussed what kind of writers we were. Pitre sees himself as an architect. He planned out his novel from the start: figuring out how many words it would take him to tell his story, then how many chapters he'd need, how many words per chapter, and even the chapter titles, before he ever put pen to paper with his story.

Scott Thompson, too, considers himself an architect. He plans "carefully" before he writes, generating "thousands of words of notes for each novel" before he begins typing.

I, on the other, hand see myself as much more of a gardener.

Don't laugh. Gardeners are brave, steadfast, and true.
Just ask Sam
I see myself as doing very little planning beyond a basic plot idea or character note. I rarely outline beyond rough notes that are almost immediately discarded. I like this kind of writing because it gets me to the fun stuff, the actual writing, sooner. It also makes it much easier for me to allow my characters to dictate the plot development. I don't have to feel like I'm herding cats when the story goes in a completely different direction than I imagined.

Richard Monaco, too, is a gardener. For him the story isn't even his story; it's his characters'. "I'm just the amanuensis for my characters," he claims. "They tell me where they want to go and I write it all down."

And some writers, such as Cherie Priest, do not have a preferred writing method and may flip back and forth between the two. "It depends on the project," she explains, "because some require more structural pre-planning than others."

In truth, I suspect most writers agree with Priest: writing technique depends on the project.

Architectural gardeners, or maybe gardening architects.
However, there is a third category of writers, that need discussing. This type of writer believes that he or she is a gardener, and too often looks patronizingly upon architects. These people often sneer at the architects copious notes and outlines and drafts and maps. They claim that planning a book drains creativity, that they need to just free-write and let their creativity flow and not worry about confining their art in outlines and rules.

However, this is idiotic advice.

Like architecture, gardening takes planning. You have to know where and when to plant corn and soybeans and melons and tomatoes. Floral gardens require knowledge of when particular flowers bloom and what color they will be. The gardener needs to arrange these seeds in specific places so that when they bloom they will be pleasing to the eye.

These third writers are not gardeners no matter how often how loud they claim to be. They are random strewers. Artistic beauty does not generally arise by happenstance.

The effects of gardening (left) vs. the effects of random strewing (right)
Proponents of random strewing almost always fall back on the idea that the sole purpose of writing is to express yourself. This is more purely the realm of journaling, however.

Yes, there is a certain amount of self-expression in any writing, but it is not the purpose. In truth, no one buys a book by an author they do not know because they are curious about how this stranger expresses him/herself. The purpose of writing (at least for an audience) is to tell a good story well. Even poetry, perhaps the most expressionistic form of creative writing we have, is not ultimately about self expression as much as it is about using an experience (preferably one common to most readers) to express universal truths or ideas.

In short, if your experience is not applicable to the stranger reading your work, you are not writing for an audience. If the purpose of a piece is solely self-expression, it is not, in fact, writing; it is instead narcissism.

This is not to say you cannot begin from a place of self-expression. You can, and most writers do, I suspect. However, you cannot stop there. Planning and organizing, drafting and revising, are the processes by which we take our own personal concerns and make them applicable to others. They are the necessary components of that take narcissistic self-expression and transform it into universal comprehension.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Name Game: short stories need good titles too.

Ali Bacon
 writes and performs short stories
Much ink is expended and tears shed over choosing the title of a novel – that perfect hook to grab you more customers – or any customers. But what about a short story? I used to think those weird and wordy titles appearing in the shortlists of writing competitions were a bit of an affectation. Do we need the title to be almost as long as the thing itself?

However, having read submissions for a number of short story events and as co-judge of a local short story competition (yes, I am knee deep in short stories!) I am revising my opinion. A short story, by definition, has to pack a punch in a restricted number of words – in the case of flash fiction even fewer words. Not using the title to contribute to that punch seems like a wasted opportunity and although I haven’t ruled out any story because of its title (yet!) I’ve been disappointed by the number of short stories that fall short in this respect.

Still available!
But what makes a good short story title? I’m not sure but I always know when I’ve found the right one. Conversely, if I feel there’s something wrong with my story title, it’s often a signal there’s something wrong with the story.
I’ve been trying to firm up my opinions and have looked at a couple of short story collections in my possession (our own Flash in the Pen 2 and A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed, published last year for National Flash Fiction Day) as well as my own ‘oeuvre’ (!) to see if there are any rules about what works for me. I haven’t added author names here but do investigate each of these anthologies for some brilliant writing.

So what about the titles?
Single word/concept titles are risky, but of course it all depends on the word. The Interview works, I think because it’s an emotive concept and one which puts questions in the reader’s mind – what kind of interview? – are we going to hear about the interviewer or the interviewee? The Jumper is also quite intriguing, and Sunday Morning can evoke such a variety of scenes and emotions I’m interested to explore. Park Bench with all its potential for an interesting meeting or interaction also works for me. But a single word can sound merely descriptive of the plot, telling too much about what’s going to happen – answering its own question if you like. Using a single Christian name or X’s Story also feels like a cop-out unless it’s a name with a great sound (see below) or special resonance.
An unexpected combination of words is a good plan, and I was pretty happy with my Mouse Years (the age of a mouse and the period of time when it lived with the human protagonists). Serious Music is also good, but beware of having something that jars too much or in an effort to be eye-catching just fails to make sense.
An action as title will have its own dynamism – I like Preparing for Winter and The Door Closes or When She Was Good - which of course is part of a well-known saying. It’s fine to use memorable phrases and quotations, as long as they fit the bill and assuming there is a degree of ambiguity or irony in what follows. Beware of puns or wordplay that might give away the plot, although I admit I do like Fears of a Clown in the way it turns the usual saying on its head. 
And of course you can simply steal your title from an existing song, book or poem as titles are not covered by copyright except in some very particular circumstances. But be careful not to disappoint on your 'version' of  someone else's favourite.
Final point for now is that titles should sound good, which is why I like I Go on the Morrow to Murder the King, or A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture – rhythmical and surprising. I’ve just written a story called The Children of Osipovici simply because I liked the sound of it and wanted it to be the title of something!

Great title!
Looking at these fairly obvious suggestions, it seems to me that giving a name to a story is not so different from naming a novel. The title needs to be memorable and can do this by posing a question, suggesting an ambiguity, or playing on a familiar phrase or concept - some do all of these at once. And try to make it easy on the ear. In short it must call to the reader  - and then of course, it has to follow up on its promise!

Next time you write a short story, imagine it as a book, lying on the bookshop table.  What would you like to see on the cover? A good short story takes a lot of effort to write. Don’t sell it short by skimping on the title.

Ali Bacon's story Silver Harvest has just been published in the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize Anthology. You can see the titles of some of her other stories on her website here and here. 

Friday, 21 April 2017

The Secret History of Genghis Khan - Katherine Roberts

I love secret histories - the sort of history that doesn't get taught in schools.

About ten years ago, following a divorce and house move, I began writing a rather strange spiritual/historical novel based on a 13th-century Mongolian prose poem called The Secret History of the Mongols. Subtitled 'The Origin of Chingis Khan', this is a fantastic account of the young Genghis Khan, his childhood sweetheart Borta, and his blood brother Jamukha. It ends when the great Khan, who throughout the story is known by his boyhood name of Temujin, takes the title 'Genghis' and becomes Khan of all "the people who live in felt tents" (in other words, yurts - or, to give them their proper Mongolian name, gers). This makes it ideal YA material, since the characters are of the right age and most of Genghis Khan's bloodbaths and empire building are still in the future. A couple of YA publishers and agents looked at the result, suggested various changes to make it more marketable, but in the end decided it wasn't commercial enough for them to take on.

The book had a challenging structure, which I dutifully changed several times - once on the advice of a well-meaning editor, who suggested making the story linear to appeal to young readers; and a few years later on the advice of an equally well-meaning agent, who suggested putting in more romance and concentrating on Borta's viewpoint in an attempt to sell it to the YA paranormal romance crowd (mostly girls). Since my book includes a Mongolian version of a werewolf, as well as shamanic journeys into the animal kingdom, both of these seemed perfectly sensible suggestions that might well have made the book more appealing to YA readers. But both were ultimately, as I can see now, doomed.

The linear approach would have made the story more accessible for young readers, yes, but it destroyed the one thing that made my book unique - its three viewpoint structure. The romance angle would no doubt have given the story more girl appeal, but it meant losing the fighting and brotherhood that was an essential part of the young Genghis Khan's life. But at the time, increasingly panicky about income and the possibility of having wasted two years writing a long book requiring careful historical research that it seemed nobody wanted, I turned a blind eye to the damage these changes were doing to my story, and wasted yet more years struggling to fit my triangular novel into a rectangular hole so that it could sit on the teen/YA shelf in a bookstore, when in fact my book really wanted to be floating in the mist of Mongolian myth, somewhere between the folklore category where you can find King Arthur, the adult historical category where you'll find Conn Iggulden's epic series about Genghis Khan, the romance category where you'll come across all those rugged half-naked Highlanders (the Scottish version of Genghis Khan), the YA section where eternal war rages between packs of werewolves and vampires, and perhaps even the literary section where the clever books with prizes lurk, only they don't as a rule give out prizes to borderline genre books by little-known children's authors. In other words, I'd written something a bit too clever for younger readers with no obvious market that hadn't a hope of winning a literary prize to lift sales, and I was whistling in the Mongolian wind if I thought anyone was going to publish it for me and get it into bookshops in sufficient quantities to satisfy their shareholders... so, once ebooks came along and made such things possible, I decided to tackle its publication myself.

First, though, I had to heal my book.

The original text was long gone, lost on an old computer my brother brought back with him from Hong Kong that got broken during a house move of a mere 100 miles or so across the same country - though thankfully I had backups of several stages of my rewrites. I now needed to find the best of these rewritten failures, break the story up into small pieces, and then restructure the text into something similar to the original three-viewpoint format I'd started with ten years ago, and which had been inspired by a drama series on TV at the time, showing a different character's viewpoint of the same story in three separate episodes that, when taken together at the end of the series, totally changed the way the viewer thought about the characters and the plot (if anyone can remember the title of this series, I'd love to know what it was... about the only thing I know is that it wasn't about Genghis Khan!) On my way through this book-healing process, I used a surprising number of the changes I'd made during my 'failed' rewrites to tighten the plot, doing away with some long-winded repetition from my first draft, so as it turned out not all the work I did during those torturous rewrites was wasted effort, and would probably have had to be done anyway during an edit.

This reduced the novel to about 90,000 words from its original epic proportions, and if I had been planning to sell it in shops where books are displayed spine-out in the traditional way, I'd probably have kept the story as a single novel with an internal triptych structure. But ebooks have no such length restrictions, so I decided to publish my story as a trilogy of ebook novellas, each about 30,000 words long, under a series title The Legend of Genghis Khan (chosen over my original title Red Moon for clarity's sake, and also with an eye to our new friend, Search Engine Optimisation). If anyone is interested, the novella titles come from the Secret History, where Temujin and his gang of brothers are often referred to as wolves, and the covers were inspired by Mongolian portraits of Temujin's family.

Book 1 - Prince of Wolves - Temujin's story, the young Genghis Khan.
Book 2 - Bride of Wolves - Borta's story, Temujin's childhood sweetheart.
Book 3 - Blood of Wolves - Jamukha's story, Temujin's blood brother.

Up until now, these three short books have been lurking in Kindle Select, meaning that Amazon Prime members can read them for free, and if people do actually read the books (as opposed to simply downloading them), then Amazon pay me a few pence per page read out of their global Select fund for that month. The downside is that, while they are in Select, the ebooks cannot also be made available in epub format for readers to download from other stores such as Apple or Kobo, or sold from any other website. But that is about to change. Books 2 and 3 are already out of the program, with only Book 1 Prince of Wolves still available for free reads by Amazon Prime members until May. After that, all three ebooks will be on sale in the normal way, with a print edition coming soon.

Authors Electric blog readers get special treatment! In advance of these changes, Book 1 Prince of Wolves is on its final Select free promotion for the next five days. You don't have to be in Amazon Prime to take advantage of this free download, just click the link below.

Download The Legend of Genghis Khan Book 1 - PRINCE OF WOLVES free* from

(*offer ends Tuesday 25th April 2017, also available from other participating amazon stores, please check price is zero before downloading.)


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers with a focus on legend and myth. She also writes historical fiction with a touch of romance for older readers under the name 'Katherine A Roberts'. For more details, visit

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Desperation and Inspiration by Sandra Horn

It’s week 16 of the 52 poems challenge (write a poem a week for a year). ‘How’s it going?’I hear you cry. A bit mixed, if I’m honest.

The idea is to spend AT LEAST an hour a week reading poetry (no hardship!) and at least an hour writing. I also had what I thought was the bright idea of keeping a week ahead to allow for unforeseen spanners in the works. I still think it is a good idea, except that it makes me panic if I can’t keep it up. Not so good. Each week, there is a theme, a writing prompt and some illustrative works – ie poems on the given theme by established poets – all to get the juices flowing. Sometimes the illustration poem is so good that it’s hard not to get discouraged from the start, but I’ve been trying to counter that by heading off in as different a direction as I can. So, for the ‘Weather’ poem (Ted Hughes ‘Wind, Anon ‘Westron Wynd’, John Donne ‘The Sunne Rising’) mine is a first person comment from a snowflake. I have no idea whether it’s good, bad or indifferent (it is flakey, though), but it’s MINE and the best I could do, which I think is the salient point.

So there I was, happily immersing myself in the tasks, enjoying reading lots of poetry, when the phone rang. A friend telling me that someone needed his book proof-read and she’d told him to contact me. ‘Fine,’ I said, ‘of course I will,’ I said. Didn’t think to ask anything about it. It came. It’s the size of a breeze block. It’s repetitive and full of typos and dates. Many, many dates: ‘On Wednesday April 23rd, X happened. Two days later, on Friday April 25th, Y...’

There was nothing to do but get on with it. I had made a reasonable start when the typesetter contacted me and said she didn’t like the way the dates were set out in the original MS. Could I change them from Month-Day-Year to Day-Month-Year? I started again... The problem was, the more work I did on it, the more my brain seized up! I was befogged. No space in my head for creativity.
I have now,  finally,  finished the proof-reading, apart from a couple of queries I need to sort out with the author, but by the home stretch my poems were deteriorating into desperate doggerel as I tried not to get behind with the schedule, thinking I’d never catch up if I let things slip. I realised, too, that I’d been reading others’ poems without actually taking anything in – much too fast and all of a dither. The trouble with losing the plot like that is not being sure that you can ever get it back. Despair set in, which only made it all worse.
Then I remembered the poet M.R. (Meg) Peacocke mourning the fact that when she’d been unwell and hadn’t been able to go out for walks, it had adversely affected her writing. She found the rhythm of walking conducive – or necessary, perhaps - to producing her poems. She had also said that in order to write creatively, one needs to be able to access the space in the brain where daydreams arise. Walking and letting the mind drift pleasantly, leaving space for something to appear and settle; those were the precursors. It was time to put her wise words into practice.

We live in Southampton, a busy city port, which is never still, never quiet. We’re opposite a large and very pleasant Common, which is always crowded with joggers and dogs. The upside – and it’s  a very big up – is that we’re very close to some gorgeous countryside and seaside.  Yesterday, after I’d  closed the breezeblock and put it aside, we drove to Keyhaven  and walked along the sea wall between the sea and the salt marsh.  It was sunny, with high scudding clouds. Gorse was pumping out its lovely warm coconutty scent. A heron fished in the shallows. Waders probed the mudflats. A poem started to form. No doggerel this time.  It’ll do. 

The  book covers are taken from my poetry shelves - some favourite poets

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Book Launch Hell

I am in the middle of house selling/buying hell, and now is the best time I could choose to launch a book?

Short answer is no; it just seems to have happened that way. If those were the only things on my list life would be a tad quieter but I've the second crime novel and three short stories to finish before mid June, and a couple of ‘promised’ guest blogs. The less said about all of those the better right now. (My Authors Electric blogging deadline is an absolute. Short it may be – but I’m here!)

I shall be floundering around in book launch madness for my forthcoming crime novel Winter Downs until3rd June, and all other matters are barely registering in my rapidly addling brain so please excuse all obsessional ravings until further notice.

The story so far?

Securing the services of City Central Library, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, on 3rd June for the launch was just the start. If anything it prompted a few dozen new slots on my to-do list.

This week, for example, I spent a few happy hours scouring Dagfields, a local crafts and antiques venue, for tiered cake stands to use at my 1940s styles ‘Tea and Cakes’ launch. A successful trip! (Yes, I could have bought them on ebay – but where is the fun in that?)

I have used ebay to source some Union Jack bunting and suitable WW2 clothing to emulate Bunch, my Land Army sleuth, for those readings. I still need to source a few chintzy table cloths (from charity shops) and suitable background music (Amazon).

Fellow Penkhull author Jem Shaw, who by co-incidence also has a WW2 themed book later this year, came up with the idea of "Letters From Home" to be read at the launch along with other guest readings and an extract from Winter Downs itself. Letters From Home is an exchange of letters between and imagined pilot, Terry, 'somewhere in France', and his wife Muriel, waiting for him back home.

Yes, it is adding to that word count needed to be fulfilled by July, but it is rather fun to collaborate on a writing project instead of ploughing on alone. Mad? Perhaps I am but it has to be done.

I am blessed with having the Penkhull Press team behind me, but somehow the launch of one’s book always feels positively Sisyphean. (If anybody has any further suggestions to make, however, feel free to shout! I am – as the saying goes - all ears!)

Still to do on my list, and without doubt looming the largest of them all, is the book tour to finalise and all those wonderful bloggers to contact with my arc.

This is always the tough part for me. Those who know me might think me loud and possibly even opinionated – but it’s all carefully constructed disguise. Behind all of that noise I am excruciatingly shy with people I don’t know. The process of approaching strangers and asking them to review/promote Winter Downs is a very real torture far harder than writing and editing Winter Downs in the first place.

In the middle of all this I have to find a new home and pack up the old one. Fortunately that is a deadline as yet to be set as a firm date on the calendar, so I shall just juggle it in with the rest and hope it all slots into place. If I last that long...


Jan's crime novel Winter Downs will be launched at 11.30 am on 3rd June 2017 in the Tolkien Room at CityCentral Library, Hanley, Stoke on Trent.  All welcome! For those who can't be there it will be available through the usual online sources in both paper and ebook formats and there will be an online launch to follow.

*Go to Jan’s blog page and sign up for her newsletter before the launch for a chance to win a copy of Winter Downs.*

Jan Edwards can be found on:
Twitter: @jancoledwards

Other Jan Edwards titles in print (all available in print and eformats) Fables and Fabrications;  Sussex Tales;  Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

An unwanted break from writing by Tara Lyons

Getting the work/life balance right during the
school holidays can be difficult for everyone
So, today – Tuesday 18th April – marks the end of the Easter holidays and my son returns to pre-school. Although I’ve just written the date, I have no real clue what day it is, why I’m sitting at my laptop and who the characters in my current work in progress are.

You see, I think I’m a very lucky person to be able to work from home. It means a can choose the hours that suit me and I can work around my son’s part-time school rota. However, the downside to that is, I’ve found I’ve just had two weeks off work… two weeks I didn’t actually want off, and I’m feeling extremely guilty.

Before my son finished nursery, I had just hit the half-way mark with my work in progress. My protagonist, DI Hamilton, was talking to me and telling me where he wanted the story to go and another influential character was coming up against some deadly threats. I was in a good place with the story. I’m usually quite good at getting the work/life balance right and if I can’t work during the day, I’ll write at night after my son has gone to bed. However, it seems the Easter holidays have run away with me; busy all day with various activities and outings and visiting family/friends. So, even by the evenings, I was shattered to the point where I’ve felt no brain power for creativity. Having less time to write, I thought it can’t all be bad because it’ll mean I’ll get loads of reading done, which can sometimes be just as useful. Sadly no, I managed to finish only one book, and the other one I started last week, I’ve only reached 30%.

On a positive note, I did spend one whole day writing. I managed to get just under 5,000 words written in those few hours. Now, none of it has been edited, so I’m hoping it reads as well as I think I’ve written it. Plus, I’ve made notes galore – in notebooks, as well as on my phone – that I can comb through now I’m back to “normal” and make the necessary changes that have come to mind mid-mini golf or feeding at the farm. There is also another positivity that’s come from the Easter holidays – the break freed my mind and actually gave me some space from my work in progress. It meant I had the chance to think of other story ideas I’ve been wanting to focus on, and I now have the foundations for my first standalone book, which I’ll concentrate on next year. It’s been something I’ve wanted to start for a while, but only had the smallest niggle of an idea – well, I now have the premise of the story and the protagonist is clear in my mind.

So, while I still feel guilty for not getting my usual 1,000-1,500 words a day written throughout the Easter holidays, perhaps I need to think more long term. The unwanted break I’ve just had from writing might well have been exactly what I needed to grow the idea of a future book.  

Tara Lyons is a crime/psychological author from London. She self-published her debut novel, In The Shadows, in March 2016 and was signed by Bloodhound Books in August 2016 who have since published the second book in the DI Hamilton series, No Safe Home. To find out more about Tara and her books, visit her Amazon page here.

Tara is also on social media via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, just search @Taralyonsauthor

Monday, 17 April 2017

Using Objects You Find Around You, by Elizabeth Kay

Jinx on the Drivide
Pitcher Plant
There have been many times that I’ve needed something for a particular purpose in a book, and when it’s something you can look at, touch, smell or rattle it makes a huge different to the way in which you write about it.
     In the third book of the DivideTrilogy, I invented a malign magical object called a jinx box, which was a shape shifter. Once opened, it starts to cause mischief and it manifests itself in many different guises, simultaneously appearing to one person as one thing, and to another person as something else entirely. I did use photographs as well, but they were ones I’d taken myself, so I knew what the original was like. The jinx box first appears as a pitcher plant. When I was in Borneo I saw the largest one of all,Nepenthes rajah, if I remember correctly. As plants go, it’s pretty unpleasant. Most pitcher plants catch insects – I have one in my conservatory, Sarracenia purpurea, which attracts flies. But Nepenthes rajah has been known to prey on rats, mice, lizards, frogs – and, in particular, tree shrews. The shrews need to mark out their territory, providing the plant with nitrogen, but they frequently fall in and drown in over three litres of water and two and a half litres of digestive fluid – and are then, effectively, eaten. When you’re looking for something really  nasty, the natural world has it in abundance. After I described that I used all sorts of other things, from a glasses case and a jewellery box to a bongo drum (the bangihard, from the book).

“Wow,” said Rhino, wiping his greasy fingers on his tunic. “A laptop. Fancy bringing that with you.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” said Fuzzy. “It’s a really smooth bangithard, with built-in echo. I’ve been dying to have a go on one.”

“Your eyesight’s not back to normal yet, Fuzzy,” said Ironclaw. “It’s a maths book from the other world, it has to be. Fermat’s Last Theorem. How exciting.”
“It’s a jinx box,” said Felix.
“Oh,” said Ironclaw, sounding disappointed.
“What a pity,” said Fuzzy.
“What’s a jinx box?” asked Rhino.

“A storage facility,” said Felix, glancing quickly at Betony. “It was in the brandee’s lamp. It looks like whatever you want it to look like. Except when it’s playing a practical joke. It’s got a sense of humour, apparently.”
“You’re having a laugh,” said Rhino. “It’s a laptop.” He leaned across, slid the catch to one side, and opened it. He did it so quickly that Felix didn’t have time to stop him.

Betony’s hand went to her mouth in an involuntary expression of dismay, and Fuzzy said, “Fangs and talons. That was a pretty craggy thing to do, Rhino.”
“Hi, everyone,” said the jinx box cheerfully. “Nice to meet you all. Don’t shut my lid just yet – I have information each one of you wants, one way and another.”

In Beware of Men with Moustaches, I relied on some extravagant shoes I bought in Ukraine, and in Ice Feathers I used all sorts of things that I had around the house, from walnut bowls to goatskin rugs and wooden salad tongs.

Ice Feathers by Elizabeth Kay
The first cabin she entered took up the full width of the ship, and was full of the most amazingly luxurious things. A bench ran down either side of it, covered with cushions made of fabrics that felt soft and shiny and very smooth, all embroidered with glowing jewel-like colours. The skins of some very strange creatures indeed were neatly folded in a pile in a corner, along with some woven coverlets. There was a table, with a lidded inkwell set right into it, on which were laid some charts. On the walls there were some panels made from the wood of what must have once been immense trees, painted with images of extraordinary creatures that could only have come from the imagination of a madman. She went through a doorway into a narrow corridor. More doors. She opened the first one, and found a sort of storeroom, full of cupboards containing dried fish and flour and nuts and crocks of honey. There were strings of strong-smelling vegetables which she’d never seen before, suspended from the ceiling, and pear-shaped mugs hanging on hooks, made of some beautifully-grained and completely unfamiliar wood. Matching bowls were stacked in yet another cupboard, along with jugs and fancy foreign eating-prongs.

             Researching things on the Internet or from books is all very well, but they don’t have the immediacy of an object in front of you, or even a photograph of something you took yourself and remember with senses other than sight. And just a walk around your kitchen can give you all sorts of good ideas – remember Roald Dahl’s story, Lamb to the Slaughter? I wonder when it occurred to him to use a frozen leg of lamb as a murder weapon. The touch of genius, of course, is when he gets the investigating officers to eat it…

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Libraries Transform - We Need Them by Wendy H. Jones

SoAiS Committee Members

I am on the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland, and some of us are in the picture above. SoAiS are supporting CILIPS, Libraries Matter Campaign because we all believe that libraries truly do matter. We are having our meeting in the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.

Scotland has always been a proud supporter of education and reading. Scottish philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie believed in them so much he built and supported a total of 2,509 libraries worldwide, starting in 1883. In Scotland, 56 local authorities were given money to build libraries. Several of these built more than one, including Dundee, where I grew up. My local library was one of these. However, Dundee has an even older library. Lochee library and baths, which was built in 1895. Scotland has always believed in the value of reading and the way in which it can transform lives. 

Coldside Library, Dundee

These libraries ensured that everyone had access to books for both pleasure and learning. Regardless of your status in life you could borrow books free. When I first started it was 1 book at a time. Now you can borrow 10 books at a time. A treasure trove of excitement awaits inside the door of every library. 

According to CILIPS website, 60% of the country , that country being Scotland, use them and they welcome 28 million visits a year. 20 million books are borrowed every year, more than are sold.

Those figures are staggering but true. However, libraries are now closing at an unprecedented rate, as Government support is withdrawn. This means that many of Scotland's readers will have their main source of reading removed. In a time when many families struggle to pay bills, books will not be the main priority. This does not just apply to Scotland, but to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has been proven, over and over, that reading can help improve intelligence. Reading books with children helps develop their language skills. It also helps them to learn what words mean. 

In this pile of books from the library there are cookbooks, audio books, travel books, romance and crime. You can get all these, and so much more in a library, and all free. No matter what you want to research, ready or study, your library, and the librarians, will come up trumps. Libraries are about so much more than reading. They run a number of other activities such as

  • Writing groups
  • Sing and Rhyme
  • Talks on many diverse subjects
  • Host authors
  • Computer lessons
  • Lego clubs
  • Rent meeting rooms
  • Run book groups 
This is just a small selection of the top of my head. I am sure you can add many more. But all of these are why libraries matter and libraries transform. 

If you would like to know more about the campaign visit CILIPS

Add your voice and fight tooth and nail to save our libraries. They are a part of our heritage and deserve to be a part of our future. 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Cold Comfort Farm by Jan Needle (no relation)

Where’s this ruddy spring, that’s what I want to know. It’s been a long, gruelling winter what with one thing and three others, and I’ve had just about enough of it. Packed the grandkids and their ma n pa off to some damn theme park or another today, and it’s so cold out (Pennines/Lancashire/Yorkshire border) that they’d have been better off staying in bed.

Not that they’ll think that, of course. I can remember days at Alton Towers (not where they’re going; apparently they charge £20 a day for the use of a wheelchair, which sadly now is needed for one of
Spring is sprung? Come to't sunny north!
the party) when it rained so hard the waterproofing of my skin gave up and I filled me wellies from the inside by osmosis. Honest! You ask Donald Trump.

And the children? They never noticed it. Just demanded more ice cream…

Talking of wellies, my darling Mac rendered it as ‘willies’ both the first time I typed it, then again just then (which is poetry of a sort, n’est-ce pas?). Correcting the self-correcting facility. Well, it passes the time, doesn’t it?

It also rendered ‘gruelling’ in the first paragraph as ‘grueling’. Probably another presidential influence. Did you read about the woman who was bumped off her Airbnb booking an hour before she arrived in California for her holiday?

She asked the people why, in a text, and they actually replied: ‘One word – Asian. We have Donald Trump now.’ Had she been on United Airlines they’d have tossed her out of the window, one imagines.

In case you think that I’m obsessing, let me get to the nitty gritty. Which is that I’m actually so cold (one jumper, two jackets) that I can’t get me brain to spark up on all four cylinders. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve got four left anymore.

And I’m very busy, I promise you. Me and a mate called Andy Lynch, who with whom I used to work on Brookside, have got a couple of cracking ideas (we think so, so please don’t bring me down; leave that to the telly companies) which I should be working on.

I’ve tried (to spark the brain cells) but without too much success, and then I saw the date. April 12. Significant only in the fact I have my blog to do for the fifteenth. What should I do? Panic, or go back to bed? (It’s two minutes short of midday, which would make it pretty shameful, though.)

Aha, thinks I! Too cold to knock out pitching-docs for TV execs to blow their noses on, or worse. Too depressed by the hell-in-a-handcart world to turn on the radio in case I hear the news. Too idle to go downstairs and make meself a cup of instant coffee. No milk, anyway. Much too cold to drive downhill and get some from the Co-op.

So here you are, sensation-seekers! A day in the life of  Ijan Whatsisfaceovich! Fulfilling, exciting, illuminating!

And another thing, as well as changing my English words to American – up until yesterday, if I wanted to find a word anywhere in a document, I clicked Control and F, and a box dropped down the left hand side. I’d type in the word, and it would appear, and I could change it where it was, or replace it with another word throughout the whole shebang.

Lots o' lovely lasses - and all the sarsaparilla you can drink!
And yesterday? I click C and F – and nothing. Oh ’eck, I think, me computer’s knackered. Presumably Apple guessed I’d panic and rush out and buy a new one willy-nilly, but I didn’t. I’m not stupid, am I?*

What I’ve got to do these days, I discovered (another son, another phone call) is go up to a lickle window in the right hand corner, and type in replace or summat – and the box drops down just like it used to. Progress, no doubt. Bloody progress. Have they never heard of the greatest engineering principle ever devised?

If it works, don’t fix it!

Ooh, I feel much better now. I think another coat on, and a stroll down to the pub. And bugger Bognor, into the bargain.

Pip pip!

*Answers on a postcard please; and I’ll sue.