Thursday, 28 July 2011

Portals to Another World

Yesterday I wrote about letters as a window on the past. That seems to be the theme of the week, because today I'm going to obsess about my visit to Hereford Cathedral.

Hereford Cathedral is notable for all sorts of reasons, but I went there to see the Mappa Mundi, a medieval map of the world. Drawn on vellum in vividly colored inks, it places Jesus and Jerusalem at the centre of the world and peoples the three continents (Australia and the Americas being as yet unknown) with minotaurs and cannibals, rocked by the twelve winds. It's a work of art and an outstanding piece of propaganda. And it's a portal to another world.

The medieval world seems very distant to me. It's a tapestry of cold-hearted high born ladies and tortured knights, crusades and wars, religious mystics and machiavellian royalty, brought to me in black and white by history books, biographies and novels. The treasures of Hereford animated that image, exploding in glorious technicolor across my imagination. I could see a world still echoing with the remnants of the Roman empire, where the carpet of christianity lay lightly over an ancient foundation of pagan mythology and the interconnectedness of the East and the West was clearly evident. The power dynamics of that world are outlined in vivid crimson and poison green, the scope and imagination of those long-dead ancestors whose learning was far broader than I had truly appreciated.

The Chained Library at Hereford hammers that point home. I had never heard of book chaining, a wide spread practice from the middle ages through to the 18th century which ensured rare and precious books could be made available to scholars for study. The chained library at Hereford isn't a museum, it's a working library. The books are shelved in touching distance, chains intact. You can smell them. If you're a scholar, you can study them. Illustrations of ripening apples compete with translations of the bibles. Manuscripts are available dating back to the 8th Century. It is amazing, a vellum bound tardis that transports you back to an era where learning was held in the hands of a very few and before the world-changing genius of the printing press brought the gift of reading to the masses.

It gave me cause for reflection, that image of a richly colored medieval world, stamped onto vellum and pinned to a board and that library, where learning sat in chains, accessible to just a few.

We are so lucky to be able to hold books in our hands (or kindles, or ipads) and to soak up knowledge from across the globe in mere seconds. It also made me appreciate the importance of guarding these signposts to our past. They halt our complacency in its tracks, help us to see the wonders of our world but also its weaknesses and show us that civilisations past were every bit as ingenious and sophisticated as we are today.

They are Portals to the Another World - and mirrors of our own.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Finding Yourself in letters from the Past

My lovely big sister Kate is relocating to the enthralling environs of Berlin. Jealous, moi?

In the process of clearing her already immaculate house, she unearthed a cache of letters from bygone years, including a number written by me and my little sister. It made me realise how much memory distorts the past, or how it builds layers of interpretation onto recalled events. The letters brought back that younger me with startling clarity, the things I loved and which occupied me. And curiously enough, I haven't changed not really. Or rather, I have become once again much closer to the person I was back then - and who I enjoyed being. I'm where I should be, doing what I always loved. It's a nice feeling.

So here's me, age 12 (I have no recollection of referring to my mum as 'mother' -I suspect I was heavily influenced by my reading matter!):

"My health is very well. I am reading a wealth of Georgette Heyer. I have read Arabella (well actually still reading it). And I actually read Frederica recently. I started Bath Tangle but decided to wait till later since the script was harder to follow. In the dining room Mother has cleared out the junk, toy and mess cupboard into 3 shelves, one for me, one for Pete and one for Gilly. They are for homework but I have filled mine with Georgette Heyer books."

And better still, a fictional tongue in cheek account of my brother's proposal to his then fiancee (they have now been married more than twenty years). I must have been about ten. I'd like to think my writing has improved, but frankly, I'm not sure that it has:


As Ben watched the sun go down behind the hazy blue hills he clenched his fist. The sun looked red, almost as red as his throbbing heart. He turned towards the great white house in which only one window was lighted, it was Alison’s. He walked into the corridor through the green door. It was dark but he saw a slit of light in Alison’s door. He walked up the stairs and knocked at the door. “Yes”, said Alison’s sweet voice, “Come in”. Ben’s fingers quivered on the door knob as he opened the door. At first they talked about their jobs, the weather and fashion. Then Alison said, “what have you really come for?”. Ben fell on one knee. “Alison, will you marry me?” Ben said. Alison, trembling, flung her arms around him. Ben felt tears on his cheeks. “Its like a dream” he thought. They knew they were to be together. "

And lastly, a touch of realism:

A letter dated Oct 1988, which is illustrated by a drawing of mouldy carrots, reads:
“There are some mouldy carrots at the bottom of the back kitchen fridge slowly rotting away, they look like this...horrible.”

It has always been possible to uncover dodgy vegetation of some sort in my parents' fridge, the most famous being The Everlasting Fruit Salad which fizzes. Only ever consumed by unwary potential in-laws, I'm certain its gut-gripping powers are the secret of my Dad's eternal youth and appalling bowel problems.

I miss letters. We have so much floating about in the public domain, held by an invisible net in the all powerful ether but so few tangible records of our daily lives. My daughter will probably never stumble across letters from me, or have that intimate window on my past. More's the pity.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

RWA Contests... useful?

A while ago I mentioned I was going to enter my first ever RWA Contest. And I did.

Borne aloft on a tide of post-first revision euphoria, I submitted the first fifty pages to the Heart of Denver Unpublished Molly Contest. It was, shall we say, premature. After I submitted to the Mollies, my poor beleagured Merely Players has undergone something like seven further revisions, with the first three chapters being rewritten extensively. And it's still not done (no one ever told me that writing your first novel actually the 13th Labour of Hercules, but now I know).

Anyhow, excesses of enthusiasm aside, I was of course curious to see how my rough cut novel fared. In the brutal world of anonymous judging, would I rise to the top or sink to the bottom?

Here's the weird thing - I did both.

Two judges read my work, both authors who have published either a short story or a reference work. One really liked it... and one hated it.

I read the latter first. Judge 1 was utterly perplexed by the story, couldn't work out who the hero or heroine was, thought the period setting was clear but full of name dropping and wordy cliches, the dialogue and narrative unbalanced and most crushingly:

"All aspects of the style and voice were weak. The point of view and the direction of the plot are all over the place".

In fact, judge 1 didn't have one positive thing to say.


It was with trepidation that I opened the comments of Judge 2. Imagine my surprise to read the following:

"Very compelling and original storyline. It’s the only one of my judging package that stuck with me for several days after my first read. I think this story has a lot of potential!"

"Loved the strong heroine. She has a strong sense of self and doesn’t cow-tow to her father. She seems to take the world for what it is, rather than live in some isolated cocoon like many romance heroines."

"Very compelling beginning that drops the reader into the story. The tension and anxiety Rachel feels is gripping and immediately relatable as a reader. Very nice job."

Furthermore I got top scores for having "a unique or fresh and interesting voice."

Say what?

Judge 2 marked me down most strongly on punctuation and the hero being a bit angsty, both issues that I'm aware of and have been working on since I submitted to this contest (phew!). Weirdly, Judge 1 had given me good marks for punctuation, commenting, "The mechanical aspects of the manuscript are fine."

In fact, in almost every single category judge 1 and 2 gave me opposing marks. If judge 1 marked it high, judge 2 marked it low and vice versa. The score that judge 2 gave me was twice what judge 1 gave me!

So what am I to take from this?

I'm still not entirely sure. Writing is a craft and one which I'm constantly striving to improve. I have two critique partners and a couple of first readers and regularly get feedback on my work. I'm not precious about it. I revise my writing constantly and read up on technique, craftsmanship and tools on a pretty much daily basis. I want honesty and I'm happy to hear advice and moreover, to implement it. I'm practicing all the time.

I know that there is a hell of a lot I need to learn and I'm always searching for people to learn from - and luckily, thanks to the talent, skill and generosity of writers I have come in contact with over the last year, there's no shortage of them.

I'm not sure what to make of RWA contests... the encouragement from judge 2 was lovely to read, but as it's contradicted by judge 1, I'm inclined to take it with a pinch of salt. What I had hoped for were some common points between the two. That would have helped me to prioritise the areas that I really need to work on - which was, for me, the point in entering.

So hey ho. I'm not drawing a line under contests - it's always interesting to read reactions to my work and there is always something to learn.

But as a failsafe guide to self improvement... I'm not so sure.

I leave you with two excellent points from my super talented friend Laura Ward:

1. "A bit of negative critique tends to spur me on. The good stuff is a relief."

2. "I figure if there are people in the world who don't like cheddar cheese or James McAvoy, you can't please them all."

Thank you, Laura.

One last point: to anyone judging RWA contests, a kindly 'keep trying' is always appreciated, even if there is little about the manuscript itself you can appreciate. Show us aspiring writers the love! We will love you for it.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Sisyphus Diaries: Launched Today!

READ ALL ABOUT IT! Launched today: the Sisyphus Diaries. Excerpts from the memoirs of the ancient world's craftiest, wickedest and most impious rogue.

In his own words....


I did some bad things in my time. I broke the laws of Xenia, slaughtered a few wealthy guests, seduced my niece and tried once, twice or a thousand times to kick my upstart little brother off the throne of Thessaly. My throne. I married a nymph, betrayed her and tricked her.

My bad, OK?

But the gods could handle that. No biggie. Until I started straying onto their patch.

It was unfair really. I wasn’t being a bad lad. You might even have called it a kind act. I just told a river god where Zeus had holed up his kidnapped daughter. It wasn’t like the randy old goat didn’t have a half a dozen other maidens stuffed away in caves, fountains and Zeus only knows where else. Would it have really mattered to give just one back?

No good deed goes unpunished, as they say. Zeus didn’t like that, didn’t like that at all. Next thing I know, Thanatos is coming the heavy with me and dragging me down to Tartartus in chains. Shame he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. All I had to do was flutter my mortal eyelashes and ask big ole Thannie how those nasty looking chains worked and hey presto! The God of Death is chained and yours truly is free as a bird. Shame. For him.

Unfortunately, that got me in the crap with Ares. No God of Death: no one dying. The God of War’s battles were ditchwater dull. And Ares didn’t like dull. So the shithead freed Thanatos and turned me over to him. Goodbye King Sisyphus, hello death.

I was onto that though. I told the wife to throw my body into the square and she did. Alright, Merope might have smiled to see me bloody and disfigured but we won’t dwell on that. The point is, soft-hearted Persephone bought my sob story about being dishonoured and let me back up to give my errant wife a row. I was free again.

But not for long.

This time it was Hermes who dragged me down below. It’s fair to say the gods don’t much like humans who challenge their authority. Next thing I knew I had my shoulder to a boulder and that was it. Hard labour for the next three millennia.

Until Hecate came with an offer… but that’s another story.

It’s been over three millennia since my adventures started and no bard has picked up the story. Blind Homer passed me over with barely a reference, Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus - not a glance.

Like I say, if you want something done - you got to do it yourself.

So I have.

These are my memoirs. I got a little bit of help from this lady, but you know, she’s just channelling my muse and all that. Pay no attention to her.

Okay, okay, so I've been writing a bit about character journaling, using flash fiction to get to know my characters and to develop their narrative voice. The Sisyphus Diaries is about doing just that. Getting to know the main man, finding out his insecurities, his obsessions, his fears and his triumphs; working out his history, his fans and his enemies. All that and then some.

Plus it's a blast to write and makes me polish up on my classics. Roll out the OCD (Oxford Classical Dictionary, not Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and let the mythological mayhem commence! Don't forget to pop by to have a read about Sisyphus gaining Ephyra, seducing Tyro and It All Going Wrong. The first three posts from the Sisyphus Diaries, ready and waiting for you now.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

#7Sins Blog Challenge: LUST - the finale!

Bless me Father for I have sinned,

It has been [an unmentionable amount of time] since my last confession. This week I have spent time with all seven of the deadly sins and I am ashamed to say I've enjoyed it thoroughly. It's all that Lady Antimony's fault. She started it. She's a bad influence, I tell you. It's not just me that did it, all these other people did too:

Bryce Daniels, Halli Gomez, Rebecca Clare Smith, Braindaze, Glitterword, Rosie Lane, Heather M Gardner, David A Ludwig, Jeffrey Hollar, Surfing (also known as Faith), Zade Forrest, The Gorm, Jessica and not forgetting Lady Antimony herself. And then some (if I missed you, tell me).

You should read theirs, they're REALLY wicked.

But as for me, I'm done with sin. Well except for today. It's the last day after all and I'm not quite done with sinning yet. Nearly, but not quite. Until midnight tonight I'm all about...


“You sold my soul to the devil?”

She glances through a veil of dark silk, mysterious as midnight. “Yep.”

“My soul. Not yours.” Her skin is marzipan smooth, lickable. I reach out with trembling fingers, but the TV cackles. Jerking back, I flush. “Can you even do that?”

Plump lips spread in a luscious smile. She nods, hair falling across full breasts.

“And was it worth it?” I am shaking, sweat beading my skin. The air is heavy with sulphur. Clip clop. Hooves outside the room, the whisk of pointed tail. “What do you get to have?”

She laughs.


Now seven Hail Marys folks and a life of unstained virtue.

I hope you've enjoyed the #7Sins Blog Challenge and all the excellent flashes of fiction that it's spawned across a whole range of different writers. We have poetry, we have cats, we have murder and we have mayhem. Not to mention lemon tart and werewolves. Check them out at the links above.

And with big thanks to Lady Antimony for coming up with the idea and kicking it all off. Cheers Your Ladyship, you're a star!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

#7Sins Blog Challenge: PRIDE

I'm sad! I'm nearly at the end of a fantastic week of sinful snippets composed in honour of Lady Antimony's wickedly wonderful #7Sins Blog Challenge. However, before the challenge is over I have two more sins to share with you.

And today's sin is...


A harsh wind scraped her skin, bringing the familiar stench of the fens. Cordelia raised her worn face, inhaling deeply. In 1561 the Montleighs extended Vane House to host Elizabeth I, in 1650 they had slaughtered fifty roundheads to hold it for the crown. The lifeblood of England drenched its overgrown gardens, dampened the dusty corridors.

Vane House had but one defender now, but she knew her duty. Her wrinkled hand trembled as she watched the tourist coach grind across the gravel, spilling gaping yokels into the grounds. Invaders. She raised the rocket-launcher to her tweed clad shoulder and smiled.

If you enjoyed PRIDE, you might want to check out SLOTH, GLUTTONY, ENVY, WRATH and GREED. You can find them by clicking on #7sins stories.

And a big shout out to these writers who have been entertaining me all week with their bite-size badness. It's been a riot getting to know them and their work. Read about the seven sins of: Bryce Daniels, Halli Gomez, Rebecca Clare Smith, Braindaze, Glitterword, Rosie Lane, Heather M Gardner, David A Ludwig, Jeffrey Hollar, Surfing (also known as Faith), Zade Forrest, The Gorm, Jessica and not forgetting Lady Antimony herself.

Plot Development.... Thinking out loud

I'm something of an extrovert. By which I don't mean that I bounce off the walls, perform live on stage and talk to a trillion people all at one (well sometimes that last one is true). I mean that my energy from things outside of me. And I tend to do my thinking out loud.

So big thanks to David and Anne-Mhairi for their generosity yesterday in sharing some of their thoughts on what I can do with Sisyphus. It really got my creative juices flowing and thinking. I've got a nucleus of a plot forming and a couple of characters to build it around. First there's Sisyphus - you met him yesterday. Then there's Helen, who for the purposes of my story is going to be the equivalent of a School Prefect for the Gods. A saucily packaged snitch, whose job is to keep an eye on Sisyphus and make sure there's no funny business.

And how do they get her to comply? Well, here's how (first draft, hot off the keyboard).

Introducing Helen

It was like being saturated in liquid gold. As though the sun had exploded in her body, transforming her veins into rivulets of molten amber. Her limbs were feather-light, her tongue drenched in sweetness. The world was masked by a rose-scented, shimmering mist that transformed it into a harmonious, rainbow tapestry. She felt good. She felt beautiful. It was the only time she did.

“She’s eaten too much ambrosia again.” Hera’s voice, dry as tinder. She wanted to put her hands over her ears, drown it out, but her bones were liquid, swirling. It was impossible to move. “Pathetic. This is what comes of indulging an old man’s folly. And he thought to make her a Goddess! Her!”

“Have a care! Zeus -”

“You think I’m afraid of my husband, Artemis? He knows well my views on his half-breed spawn. It’s revolting, the way he chased after that light-skirt Leda. A swan! I suppose we can count ourselves fortunate that his brat doesn’t have webbed feet as well as being a dribbling imbecile nine tenths of the time.”

I’m not. Please, I’m not.


“Swooning, dribbling – what difference? Look at her! Doesn’t it turn your stomach? And men fought wars over that... legs akimbo like a dockside whore, hair all over the place.”

Please stop.

“In that case why...?”

“Because she’ll do anything, that’s why - anything to get back here to satisfy her pathetic mortal craving to taste what we taste. She’ll whore herself, kill, trick and deceive to clamber the greasy pole back to Mount Olympus now she’s tasted it. Look at her, look at her eyes - black as Hecate’s cauldron.”

I hate you. The words danced through her mind but they had no meaning. Not when her whole body was sunk in slumberous ecstasy, not when the scent of ambrosia still clung to her skin, her hair, her tongue. A dark shape loomed through the iridescent mist, a face coming close to hers. She could feel hot, sweet breath on her skin, the heavy perfume of pure divinity cloying in her nostrils.

"You love it, don’t you Helen?” Hera’s words were low, inviting. “Imagine being cast down there again, to those ravening dogs of men. You’re ambrosia to them, aren’t you darling? Don’t they all hunger for a taste of you?”
She whimpered, stirring against her will. Go away. “It’s that little trace of God-head... like catnip to a mere mortal man. How many men died to get a piece of your sweet body, Helen of Troy?”

Not Troy. Never Troy.

“But you’re safe here aren’t you, lovely? Just an ordinary girl... and it tastes good doesn’t it?” A finger traced across her lips, trailing droplets sweeter than honey, richer than wine. Her tongue flickered, desperate. More. “You want it don’t you, little Helen?”

Hera’s laughter was cold as starlight, slicing through Helen’s reverie like hailstones in summer. The shadowy shape disappeared, the taste of ambrosia was gone. She moaned, her sense of loss palpable.

“You see Artemis? Pathetic. She’ll do anything to get back here... and she’ll keep him in check. As soon as he sees her, he’ll want her. They all do. Sisyphus might think he’s clever but he’s as led by his cock as any man.”

A pause, a hesitant rustle beside her. “Possibly. She’s Zeus’ child though. He’ll-“

“Zeus lost interest in her more than three millennia ago,” Hera’s voice snapped, whiplash sharp.” She was an entertaining toy when we had the Trojans to play with, but once that war was over... he has so many of them you see.” The words drifted through the air, delicate as poison, deadly as a cuckold’s kiss. Silence fell between them, settled over her like a soothing blanket. Then Hera spoke again, and Helen heard the unspoken laugh. “She’s expendable.”

So what now?

Now I'm thinking about a mission. There's a thing Sisyphus needs to get, a thing the Goddesses need him to do. A person. And it needs to be a secret. For some reason, the Goddesses don't want Zeus knowing anything about it. Why? I don't know yet. But I expect they'll tell me soon.

This is how stories start for me... with a scene or a character and it grows from there, different ideas colliding and clashing until suddenly one of the clashes turns into FUSION.

How does it come to you?

Monday, 11 July 2011

Writing Mythology: Sisyphus my hero

This week has been a GREAT movie viewing week. I've been tucked up on the sofa with my daughter introducing her to the wonders of Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans (the original) and Sinbad.

Now it's no secret to anyone who knows me that Clash of the Titans has played a defining role in my life. It was due to the dual education provided by the Kingfisher Book of Myths and Legends and the Harry Hamlyn/Ursula Andress Clash of the Titans that I leapt on Classical Civilisations as an A-Level. Whilst studying Euripides, Homer and Virgil, I simultaneously gobbled up Henry Treece, Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Renault. By the time I got to twenty I was busy finishing a masters dissertation on Euripides' Medea.

Yep, I love me a bit of Greek mythology.

So where has it all gone? Well, it hasn't gone away. It's all lurking in there somewhere, waiting for an opening. And I want to give it an opening, I really do. I even have an idea. The sizzling spark of a story that is flickering in the damp barbecue of my imagination is about SISYPHUS.

He wasn't a pleasant soul. A wily, unscrupulous bastard who tricked the gods not once, but several times. Who managed to hook up with one of the Pleiades and then embarassed her so much with his impious antics, she gave him a kind of celestial divorce and hid her face for all eternity. Who seduced his niece in an effort to dethrone his brother (EW).

But I kind of like him. It takes one hell of an ambitious fella to take on a pantheon and he didn't do too badly. He even tricked death - once at least. Unfortunately that little episode earned him the punishment of pushing a boulder up a hill for all eternity.

And that's where my spark of a story starts....


The heat was unbearable. He tried to take a breath but his lungs seemed to burst within his rib cage and the air hissed in his throat. He was suffocating. Sweat streamed down his body, making his skin dangerously slick. His muscles burned with strain as he launched himself once more against the massive boulder, his shoulder slipping into the natural dent worn into the rock. His mind blazed with agony; every nerve ending echoing with pain at his effort.

One more time.

The words danced before his eyes mocking him and he cursed the kernel of hope that had tortured him for millennia.

“Sisyphus.” It was an illusion, it had to be. No one had spoken to him in centuries. He had heard nothing but the cackle of the Furies and the screams of that poor bastard Ixion. Not since Prometheus had gotten out of here. The boulder slipped against his shoulder and he lost ground, his feet scrabbling against the damp earth. Shit. Two inches lost. He swallowed and deliberately blanked his mind. Illusions were a cruelty he didn’t need.

“Sisyphus!” Cool hands touched his back and suddenly the weight was gone and in its place was a void, sweet dark air streaming past his face like the caress of Aphrodite herself. He fell forward onto the slope, his arms spreading like wings against the stony ground. He smelled the mustiness of soil beneath him and memories came rushing back: the fields of Ephyra at harvest time; burying his hands in the tilled fields and praying to Demeter to bless the land.

“Human weakling.” A voice muttered in disapproval. “When you have quite finished lying about, I need to speak to you,” it said more loudly. Something cold and wet pushed at his neck, licking the sweat from his skin. He dimly registered the smell of animal. Dog. Dog meant... Hecate. With excruciating slowness he rolled over onto his back, feeling his muscles snap at the alien motion. He didn’t remember the last time he had lain flat. Was it five thousand years ago? Six thousand? He stared up into eyes of fathomless black and a face of sculpted marble beauty, as remote and unearthly as the moon. Two black dogs sat back on their haunches by her side, tongues lolling incongruously.

“Hecate.” His voice was rusty with disuse. He licked his lips. They were dry and cracked; they had probably been that way for centuries.

Her smile was derisive. “That would be the famed intelligence the legends speak of. I won’t ask you how you are Sisyphus – it is quite obvious.” Her eyes drifted up the hill. “Still not made it to the top with that boulder? For shame.”
He watched her through half-closed eyes. Silence could be a weapon - or at least a defence. She looked down at him. “Nothing to say for yourself? I suppose it’s pleasant to take a break isn’t it?”

No answer. If he answered he might disgrace himself. He might clutch her knees and beg the sarcastic bitch for assistance – and putting himself at the mercy of a Goddess was worse than a death sentence.

Now I just need to find a plot. Any ideas?

#7Sins Blog Challenge: Sloth

So if you've stumbled across this blog recently, you'll know I'm participating in the Lady Antimony's #7Sins blog challenge, writing a 100 word piece of flash fiction every day for seven days featuring one of the seven deadly sins.

Today's piece doesn't feature death, transvetitism or even theft. You might almost say it's autobiographical... I bring you SLOTH:


Wild music shrieking in the wind, pulsing beat throbbing in the ground. A hundred thousand sun-flushed bodies, an overgrown forest of sweat-streaked arms.

My mind drifts, remembering. “You’ve got to be there... the atmosphere!” Passion tightened his voice, his eyes bulged with urgency. I blinked at him, my mouth slack with disinterest. Atmosphere. Yeah.

Snuggling deeper in the red plush of my sofa, I drag my lambswool blanket up to my chin and wonder where he is now. Snoring under cider-stinking canvas, or borne aloft by the swelling crowd.

I reach for the control. Glastonbury live. Rock on.

If you enjoyed SLOTH, you might want to check out GLUTTONY, ENVY, WRATH and GREED. You can find them by clicking on #7sins stories.

For other sinful suggestions, check out these excellent writers all taking part in the challenge: Bryce Daniels, Halli Gomez, Rebecca Clare Smith, Braindaze, Glitterword, Rosie Lane, Heather M Gardner, David A Ludwig, Jeffrey Hollar, Surfing (also known as Faith), Zade Forrest, The Gorm, Jessica and not forgetting Lady Antimony herself.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Writing a hero's past: formative moments

Yesterday I wrote about using flash fiction to delve into a character's past. I wanted to get to know my hero better, understand his motivations and formative moments so I can hone his voice and get more authenticity in his scenes. David A Ludwig described this akin to dialectical journalling, a technique of which I had never heard.

In my work in progress Merely Players, Ghis (one of the two main protagonists) has been very influenced by his relationship with his parents and her subsequent death. This scene marks the "dark moment" in his relationship with his father which led to their ultimate enstrangement:

His breath steamed the bulbous, green-tinged glass, masking the sweeping driveway from his view. The great house was terrifyingly still, as though the servants were gliding spectres in its austere corridors, their hushed tones whispering through the shadows. Ghislain knew why, knew that a curse had been carried to Aysford Hall by one his father’s silk-clad guests. Embracing the woman, his mother had breathed in pestilence masked by a cloud of perfume and now the fever was killing her in a huddle of sweat-soaked sheets and laudanum. His father it had passed by, as though the Marquess had been daubed in lamb’s blood and pronounced one of God’s own.

The angel of death was here sliding along the darkened doorways its pale hands extending to grasp his mother’s fragile soul. Even now the physician sliced his mother’s delicate blue vein and let her precious blood drip into a bowl muzzling her intelligence with sickly-sweet opiates. Tears stung Ghis' eyes and he dashed them away, skin hot with mortification. What kind of son left his mother to face that alone?

Turning, he ran up the stairs two at a time, his blood hammering in his ears. The door was ajar, candlelight casting a dull golden finger across the shadowed corridor. He lifted his shaking hands to the polished wood, pushed the door open.

A hand gripped his shoulder, pincer hard. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The words were cannon fire, a harsh boom echoing in the still air. Without looking, he knew that his father’s face would be mottled with anger, his cheeks solid slabs of red beef. “I told you, you’re forbidden from entering your mother’s chamber.”

“Let me go!” He tried to squirm away, held pinioned like a butterfly under glass by his noble father’s implacable strength. The stench of brandy, horses and raw earth overwhelmed him; his father’s smell, born of the ancient earth of this aristocratic tomb. “I want to see her.”

“And I told you that you could not. She hasn’t the strength for your nonsense, boy. She needs rest.”

“She needs me!” He could barely see his father’s eyes, deep-set and hooded as they were, shadowed by eyebrows as ominous as a gathering storm. He caught a glimpse of darkness, flat and hard as granite. The Marquess’ lips thinned and twisted, grim as death itself.
“Godsteeth, boy! I swear I’ll whip your insolence from you. You will obey me. Be gone from here, lest I have you locked away.”

A faint moan froze them both in a stricken tableau. Then he stumbled as father released him, pushing away from the door. “Get gone, Ghislain. Say prayers for your mother if you must, compose some damned milksop verse if it pleases you but stay away from this room. Am I understood?”

Their eyes met. Injustice swelled in his throat, a burning coal, choking him. Hatred burned his stomach.

“Am I understood?” The roar rolled across the stricken household, a thunderclap tearing the clinging air.

“Yes sir.” Ghislain left his mother to die.

#7Sins Blog Challenge: Gluttony

Day four of Lady Antimony's #7Sins blog challenge and I bring you... GLUTTONY!


He died from eating jelly babies. Ten thousand jelly babies, crammed into one squirming, gelatinous, sugar-dusted nursery of a stomach. Blunt, blank faces and round heads, jostling for space in his over-crowded stomach. They said his blood sugar levels were insane; that they found him lying in a pool of syrupy drool outside the cornershop.

Lucifer poked him, his trident leaving dents in the smooth, white flesh. A tormented moan escaped his new soul’s grey lips. Luc grinned. The poor sod’s mind was replaying his last living moment; the bright glare of the shop sign above him: Sweet Temptation.

It's funny where inspiration comes from. Sometimes I have a character in mind, sometimes a plot twist. With this short piece, I had the description of jelly babies humming in my head and I really wanted to use it.

If you enjoyed GLUTTONY, you might want to check out ENVY, WRATH and GREED. You can find them by clicking on #7sins stories.

For other sinful suggestions, check out these excellent writers all taking part in the challenge: Bryce Daniels, Halli Gomez, Rebecca Clare Smith, Braindaze, Glitterword, Rosie Lane, Heather M Gardner, David A Ludwig, Jeffrey Hollar, Surfing (also known as Faith), Zade Forrest, The Gorm, Jessica and not forgetting Lady Antimony herself.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Characters: how do you get to know yours?

A State of Conscious Incompetence...

The more I write, the more I realise how much more I have to learn, in order for me to be the writer I want to be. Participating in the #7Sins Flash Fiction Blog challenge has been a fascinating journey so far. It makes me realise that every word, every phrase and every nuance counts. Or it should do, if I'm writing the way I want to write.

When I look at my work in progress I can see bland sentences, lazy writing and clunky phrasing littering my work. I want to transform it into the emotional, deep-reaching romance I know it can be.

One thing I've concluded is that I don't know my characters well enough. I've worked a lot on getting inside my heroine's head, but I feel like I haven't given my hero the same level of consideration. I want to think a lot more about giving him an authentic voice, building his character through gesture and behaviour and so on.

What to do oh what to do?

To get this authenticity, I thought I might experiment with pulling out his scenes and reading/revising them as one narrative to try to get the voice consistent throughout the whole.

I also thought I might try and flesh out his relationships, his background and motivations - not in the novel, but in my own head. To that end, I decided to use the Flash Fiction technique to visualise out some key moments from his life.

Here is the moment my hero, Ghis Warwick, first sees Ana Cherbonne who becomes his long-term mistress before their relations becomes a stale business partnership, Ana strays and Ghis falls in love with my heroine Rachel. This moment won't appear in the book, but is a critical piece of back story; it shows the moment Ghis parts from Sarah, Rachel's sister and gives a taste of how strong his infatuation with Ana was:

La Sirene Noire

Watching her, he thought of the nabob’s tale of the cobra. Her hips swayed as she walked across the stage, the dark veil of her hair swinging and glistening in the gas-light. He thought of the shrill undulation of the snake-charmer’s pipe, long brown fingers dancing across its narrow stem; the mesmeric gleam of the snake’s fathomless eyes, the slow dance of its flat head. He thought of the baking heat, the stench of dust and fear choking his lungs, of the compulsion to edge closer, to enter the creature’s deadly sphere, the terror-tinged curiosity to test the snake-charmer’s mastery. To risk its poison.

She turned as though she felt his eyes upon him. Her smile was liquid, spreading scarlet across her luscious lips and her eyes were like twilight, hiding a thousand secrets; the sighs of lovers in the night-scented garden. Her scent lingered in the wings, sweet as opium.

Lust twisted in his gut, insidious as a serpent in Eden and his blood roared in his ears, drowning the rapid hammer of his pulse. He raised his hand in a salute and his fingers trembled. Knowledge slammed into him with burning clarity. This was a woman he had to immortalise; the woman could personify his words.

From the corner of his eye he saw a flash of silver-gilt hair, as the theatre’s leading lady entered the stage. He forced himself to tear his eyes from the dark siren to nod at Sal Stornaway, the exquisite actress who had made him famous. He should cast thirty pieces of silver in her path, for he knew with absolute certainty that he was about to betray her. His dark siren beckoned; he could work with no other.

Friday, 8 July 2011

#7Sins Blog Challenge: ENVY

Three days into the #7sins Blog Challenge and I'm onto ENVY. If you haven't already got familiar with the rules, the challenge posed by Lady Antimony was: 7 Sins in 7 Days, starting 7/7 - 100 words max in each story.

I've been LOVING reading everyone else's entries (see below for links), ranging from dark fairytale to heart-clenching poetry to understated pathos. Some really wonderful and inspiring bite-size work. There's a lot of talent out there in the world, folks.


Her perfume lingers, musk-heavy. I trace the mirror with trembling fingers. She looked in here just moments ago, dragged red lipstick over her pursed mouth. My lipstick. I picked out the same one just yesterday. On me, it looks like a caricature.

The wardrobe stands open behind me, a yawning mouth puking bright silks across the thick carpet. Tiny dresses, child-size almost; tailored to cling to size 6 non-curves.

Bile burns my throat, hatred. I couldn’t get my shoulders into her loosest top. My size 11 feet would crush her teetering stilettos. My wife: the woman I want to be.

If you enjoyed ENVY, you might want to check out WRATH and GREED. You can find them by clicking on #7sins stories.

For other sinful writers, check out these marvelous bloggers all taking part in the challenge: Bryce Daniels, Halli Gomez, Rebecca Clare Smith, Braindaze, Glitterword, Rosie Lane, Heather M Gardner, David A Ludwig, Jeffrey Hollar, Surfing (also known as Faith), Zade Forrest, The Gorm, Jessica and not forgetting Lady Antimony herself.

#7Sins Blog Challenge: Wrath

WRATH is the second in my series of seven deadly sins flash fiction pieces. For a reminder of the rules take a look at my earlier explanation #7sins flash fiction challenge or pop on over the Lady Antimony's wonderful blog, Thoughts, Musings and Broken Promises.


“Don’t get mad, get tidy,” my mother always said. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” I watched as she scrubbed the skirting board with a ragged toothbrush; as she pinned up laminated prayer cards on the corkboard, gilded with little messages of self abnegation. I watched her sigh, stare into space with red-rimmed eyes.

Keep me my Lord from Stain of Sin.

I look down at the damp pad in my hands, dense, tangled and smeared with Brasso. The door knocker gleams. I smile. His fingers always used to smudge the brass.

But his scalp brings it up a treat.

Want to read more flashes of sin-stained fiction? Check out my other #7sins stories.

For other sinful writers, check out these marvelous bloggers all taking part in the challenge: Bryce Daniels, Halli Gomez, Rebecca Clare Smith, Braindaze, Glitterword, Rosie Lane, Heather M Gardner, David A Ludwig, Jeffrey Hollar, Surfing (also known as Faith), Zade Forrest, The Gorm, Jessica and not forgetting Lady Antimony herself.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

#7Sins Blog Challenge: Greed

A couple of weeks ago, Lady Antimony launched her #7Sins blog challenge: 7 stories in 7 days on the 7 deadly sins, to start on the 7 July. So here we are! And we're kicking off with Greed:

He had to have it. It winked at him through the window, shining bright as hope through the murky twilight. He just needed one more. That one. Then his collection was perfect, complete. It should have been his in the first place.

The glass broke easily beneath his eager hands, falling in a muffled tinkle. He ignored the lacerations, the crimson drip on the carpet. He was nearly there, nearly touching it. His breathing quickened, pulse beating. He lifted it to the light.

He didn’t hear the door creak. “Grandad – what are you doing with my Thomas?”

Check out some other #7Sins works of flash fiction:

Raw and powerful WRATH by Bryce Daniels (I defy you not to be moved by this!)
Murderous GREED by Lady Antimony
Coffee-tinged LUST by Glitterword
An interesting take on fairy cake inspired GLUTTONY by Rebecca Clare Smith
Poignant, understated and entirely human GREED by Halli Gomez

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Shopping like Marie Antoinette

I've long known Etsy to be a fabulous repository for the unusual and the hand-crafted. Want a paper doll circus freak? Done. Want a bronze steampunk octogirl pendant? Done.

But I didn't realise it was an focus point for Marie-Antoinette aficionados. If you want to beautify yourself like Marie-Antoinette, I refer you to this fabulous post on the late lamented Queen of France's gossip guide blog. But if you want to stuff you house and your jewelry box full of Marie-Antoinette foolishness look no further than Etsy.

You can find altered image bottle stops, gift tags and my favorite of all - a Marie Antoinette ring! So whilst you're eating cake settle down and have a browse....

Monday, 4 July 2011

Conflict, Language, Action: Using Scrivener for Revision

I've been in a writing drought for the last couple of weeks. Tiredness has been high, time limited and brain function correspondingly addled. I've been traveling (see post about Belgravia), running three different events and turning the august age of 33. When I try to switch on my laptop, I stare blankly at the screen. Twitter is about the only thing I have the concentration span for.

But enough is enough. I need to write and I need to critique. I just need a little bit of focus.

Some time ago, I exported Merely Players from Scrivener into Word. It's been through four revisions and is slowly becoming more polished. Unfortunately, it still needs more work.

Areas for Improvement

1. Scenes
I need to analyse every single scene to see if it's working. I'm going to judge it on the following criteria:

  • Goal

  • Conflict

  • Disaster


  • Reaction

  • Dilemma

  • Decision

There's a great, if terrifying, essay on analysing and writing scenes on Randy Ingermanson's Advanced Fiction Writing site. I intend to put it to good use.

The problem is, Merely Players is an overwhelming sea of 98,000 words. I need to break it down. Enter Scrivener, stage left. I'm going to re-import my novel into Scrivener scene by scene, writing a short summary for each - a little like the afore mentioned Randy's snowflake method - but in reverse.

2. Tension and Conflict
I need to tighten and intensify the tension and conflict in the story. Those black moments need to get darker. I want them to be midnight hued and edge of the seat gut-clenching. I've had some great advice from Andrea on that - on how I could challenge my protagonists more. Somewhere along the way I wimped out a bit. I glossed over some scenes in my rush to reach to the end. If I spend a bit of time on this, I think I could achieve some real emotional depth. Some recent posts tension include: The Alchemy of Scrawl, A Memory Theatre and Writing Fiction Right.

3. Language
I love prose which has a touch of poetry; rolling sentences adorned with richly evocative images and expressed with elegant precision. When I've written a sentence like that, I know it. It's as satisfying as sticky toffee pudding and vanilla ice cream. I salivate, I sigh. I love writers who are good at doing this (e.g. Elizabeth Goudge, Laura Kinsale). I want to be one of them. But it's so easy to get lazy and to fall back onto well used tropes. I want my characterisation to be bone deep; for every description and action to reflect the subject. So I am going to rake through my words and reassemble them. I'm going to think.

Breaking it down into Scrivener should help. I can tackle each scene to make it more precise, more conflict ridden and much much richer. I can set myself a scene a day and then perhaps, it won't be so challenging. Only 90 or so scenes to go!

How do you improve your writing? How do you motivate yourself? And when do you lay down your pen and stop revising?

Friday, 1 July 2011

Silken Ghosts: A Walk through Belgravia

"Lord Grosvenor has built a new and elegant town on the site of fields of no healthy aspect, thus connecting London and Chelsea, and improving the western entrance to the metropolis, at a great expense." - writer, 1831

Yesterday, I was loitering in Belgravia. The sun was shining and the person I was meeting was running late, so I had a good chance to populate the street with the daring regency maidens of my imagination, to see link boys and carriages and debonair men swinging canes. The only thing is, I didn't have to try terribly hard.

Belgravia was built by the Grosvenor family as a playground for the super-rich. Its grand stucco-fronted mansions, shady squares and sweeping terraces were steeped in exclusivity and conspicuous wealth. They still are.

Crested carriages have given way to dark-windowed limousines and the blue-blooded English have been supplanted by wealthy Arab families and Russian oligarchs but the area shimmers with wealth and entitlement. It isn't difficult to imagine crowds of link-boys gathered in the mews, or glossy flanked horses trotting across the road into Hyde Park. It isn't difficult to imagine the windows alight with the glitter of candlelit chandeliers or nannies pushing creaking prams into the dappled gardens.

A single bedroom flat in Belgravia will cost over £800,000 to buy. A mansion like this one will cost upward of £30 million. Not a cheap buy then.

It wasn't always so salubrious however. Before the 1820s, when the Grosvenor family drained the land and began to build, it had a considerably more humble visage. In 1878, Edward Walford writes:

"Where now rise Belgrave and Eaton Squares, the most fashionable in the metropolis, there was, down to about the year above mentioned, an open and rural space, known as the "Five Fields." It was infested, as recently as the beginning of the present century, by footpads and robbers."

"In the Regency, when Belgrave Square was a ground for hanging out clothes, all the space between Westminster and Vauxhall Bridge was known as 'Tothill Fields,' or 'The Downs.'"

The surrounding areas were not much better:

"It was a dreary tract of stunted, dusty, trodden grass, beloved by bull-baiters, badger-drawers, and dog-fighters. Beyond this Campus Martius of prize-fighting days loomed a garden region of cabbage-beds, stagnant ditches fringed with pollard withes. There was then no Penitentiary at Millbank, no Vauxhall Bridge, but a haunted house half-way to Chelsea, and a halfpenny hatch, that led through a cabbage-plot to a tavern known by the agreeable name of 'The Monster.' Beyond this came an embankment called the Willow Walk (a convenient place for quiet murder); and at one end of this lived that eminent public character, Mr. William Aberfield, generally known to the sporting peers, thieves, and dog-fanciers of the Regency as 'Slender Billy."

Belgravia's history is populated with a variety of colourful events and establishments. It was home to St George's Hospital and to Tattersall's the auctioneers, "so renowned through all the breadth and length of horse-loving, horse-breeding, horse-racing Europe."

In 1784, 'Five Fields' the site of Belgrave square also so the famous balloon ascent by the Frenchman Monsieur De Moret:

"Whether M. Moret ever really intended to attempt an ascent in such an unwieldy machine, has never been clearly ascertained. … However, having collected a considerable sum of money, he was preparing for his ascent, on the 10th of August in that year, when his machine caught fire and was burnt; the unruly mob avenging their disappointment by destroying the adjoining property. The adventurer himself made a timely escape; and a caricature of the day represents him flying off to Ostend with a bag of British guineas, leaving the Stockwell Ghost, the Bottle Conjurer, Elizabeth Canning, Mary Toft, and other cheats, enveloped in the smoke of his burning balloon." Book of Days, Chambers.

Sadly, modern Belgravia lacks some of the seemier colour of its distant past but for someone with a passion for Georgian England, it's a must-see destination.

Just make sure you're armed with Edward Walford's Old and New London, Volume 5 (1878), so that your imaginings of silk-clad ghosts are tempered with the grinning face of Slender Billy and the smell of cabbages.

Further Reading

For more on the history of Belgravia see the utterly wonderful British History Online, an incredibly detailed repository of knowledge.

To explore magnificent mansions for sale, see the property pages of Country Life magazine.