Monday, 19 November 2018

Nosiest People In The World - Jan Edwards

One of the most frequently asked, and for me at least, one of the most frustrating, questions for a writer is: 'Where do you find your inspiration?' One of the answers I am always tempted to give with my horror audience, but not yet used, is ‘imagining what I shall do with the next person to ask that question.’ I dread having to field this one because for me at least there is no straight answer.
It may seem a logical query to the non-writer, but I strongly suspect that most of authors on being asked it seldom have a ready answer beyond watching the world around them and taking it all in by osmosis. The answer I have heard given most often is along the lines of 'it just arrives.' And in my experience that is as close to the truth as can be.  We steal a piece here and a hint there, and the hard works comes in drawing all of those tiny things into a mosaic that makes sense to our readers.
As a breed writers should be acknowledged as the nosiest people on earth;  or if you are being more generous then perhaps the most observant. The most boring of trips out into the wide world of people can provide such a lot of background material. 
This morning alone a quick trip into town to order new glasses handed me a handful without even trying.
First snippet was a young couple walking a short way ahead of us. My first impression, even before anything occurred, was that they were such an ill assorted pair. She was tall and elegant, despite her hair being scraped back in an Essex facelift, and the soft pump shoes on her feet that were totally inadequate for the weather. She seemed to be poised and alert, and intent on the very new baby in the buggy that she was pushing. Walking beside her was a girl of perhaps three years old. Well spoken and articulate and constantly asking mummy questions. With them also was a scruffy man in drooping trackie bottoms and an anorak that was several sized too large. He was skinny and bandy legged, with the kind of closely shorn head that made his ears seem to stick out like taxi cab doors. That, with his pinched features and hunched posture, gave him a furtive, almost feral, demeanour. I was thinking to myself that he was something of a walking cliche when his actions completed that image in a rather chilling fashion.
As we approached the woman suddenly turned the buggy around as if she was going to walk back up the hill. Her partner(?) grabbed her wrist and she shook him off at first, before he started to gesticulate, heading her off with and outstretched arm. His words came back to me quite clear and chilling. ‘Just get going, you. That way. Go on... I mean it.’  She turned back and walked on, but with the distance between the two widening by the second, until she was ten or twelve paces behind him. Meanwhile the young girl ran back and for between them like a sheep dog, obviously unsure of who she was with and clearly bewildered. The story behind that exchange may well be innocent but my fevered brain was imagining all sorts of things and all of them dark.
Stopping in Nero’s for a coffee I overheard two young women who had arrived separately but were plainly meeting up for coffee. One of them produced a card that apparently bore a message poking fun at the proposed recipient, their father judging by the comments. Then much rustling of paper and each showed the other their other purchases (I could not see what they were) and agreed that each had chosen a perfect gift. Story? There is a lucky father somewhere about to receive presents lovingly chosen by his daughters.
At the next table two older women had also met up for coffee and they had barely sat down when one of them proudly produced a photograph from her voluminous bag. She had just had it enlarged somewhere in town, a studio group portrait of four or five people in their later years. ‘It’s a good one of Geoff,’ she sighed. Her friend reached across the table without speaking to press her hand. A story of love and loss in that simple exchange.
All this while a young man (mid thirties) sat at the table closest to the window and tapped away at his laptop keys, now and then a slight smile crossing his face. Then he stopped typing and gazed into space for some minutes. He looked back at the screen, typed a few words and instantly deleted them (one space at a time – we all know that woodpecker gesture!) frowned, sighed, closed the laptop lid and. The pain and frustration of a fellow writer was evident, though whether of fiction or fact I could not tell. Story... well it would seem that is his to tell.
I took the bus home (its about a mile and almost all of it uphill which is hard work if you have shopping). At one of the stops in the hospital grounds a man in his early forties got on and made his way straight to the back of the bus. He had a Paddington Bear toy in his right hand and I automatically looked behind him; as he had got on in near the children’s unit I assumed that he would have a child or possibly grandchild with him. Other people got on at that stop, one of whom was a woman probably in her late seventies. She paid her fare and stood for a moment, a flurry of emotions passing over her features as she scanned the passengers, the last expression was one of slight panic until another of the passengers, plainly known to her, signalled toward the rear seats. 
The woman hurried past me and I heard her ask ‘Shall I put Paddington in my bag, dear?’ The reply was mumbled but her reaction was, ‘Well all right, you can carry him, but be careful when we get off. You don’t want to fall over.’ Plainly the bear-toting man was the child. He and his doting mother seemed happy enough but for how long? The story there is of a mother's devotion, and what will happen to her son when she grows too old to care for him.
All of those things will be filed away for future use, either as a short story or part of something larger. None of the details in the lives of anyone is ever entirely wasted. Not when there the nosiest beings in the world are watching every move.
Jan will be reading from her award-winning crime novel Winter Downs at Chester Lit Fest on 27th November.  
More about Jan Edwards can be found at:
Facebook: jan.coleborn.edwards
Twitter: @jancoledwards

Sunday, 18 November 2018

NaNoWriMo - help or hindrance -- Ava Manello

Having published two books since the summer, I had decided to take a couple of months off from writing with the intention of stepping up the marketing of my back catalogue as well as promoting the author services I offer.

Then I realised that NaNoWriMo was upon us. I've never taken part before, although it appears I created an account with them several years ago. The first dilemma was what to write. Should I go with a Christmas novella based on my most recent release or should I use one of the pre-made book covers in my growing collection? The novella wouldn't have hit the word count so I decided to start a book about a serial killer that I'd been thinking about for over a year. The first few days the words flowed smoothly and I found myself slightly ahead of target. Then life got in the way in the shape of a weekend away at a book signing and the associated travel. Add to this the fact that my beta readers have already sussed out the twist that wasn't supposed to appear until the end of the book, and now I'm falling behind.

I'm normally the first to admit that I work better with a deadline, it's amazing how much I can accomplish in those last few days as the deadline looms ever closer. It's the getting started I have an issue with. I'm pretty sure if they made procrastination an Olympic sport I'd be up there on the podium receiving a medal.

So here we are, closer to the end of the month than the beginning and despite the positive start I made, I'm now not sure I'll hit the target. Whilst NaNoWriMo was a good idea to help focus my attention I think that targets and deadlines should be flexible. There's nothing worse than forcing the words out, or hours spent staring at a blank word document hoping that inspiration will hit.

I've found that the last couple of books haven't followed my normal process. I usually have the broad outline of the plot in my head and break it down into a chapter plan with just one or two sentences indicating what the point of each chapter is. These last two books have veered away from the plan, let's be honest, they've veered away from the plot as well, but I think they're both better for it.

My characters have changed sides or surprised me with the direction they took, in some ways, it's as though they're directing the story these days instead of me. I've often seen authors write about the characters talking to them, and whilst I wouldn't say mine have gone quite that far, they've certainly ended up quite different on paper from that original loose idea in my head.

Whilst I know I'll try and play catch up, as long as the ideas are there, I also know that I'm not going to beat myself up if the first draft isn't complete for the end of the month. I probably should have allowed myself a month off from writing at least, and next, we're heading into the festive period with more calls on my time and imagination.

So I'm going to write when the words are there, and do something else when they're not. I'm not going to beat myself up about it, I'm going to allow myself a well earned break. Wrtiting a book is a hugely draining process, I put my heart and soul into those pages, and in order to make sure that sacrifice was worth while I need to make sure it's not forced.

There's no hard and fast rule about how long it takes to write a book, mine have taken between four weeks and two years depending on what has been happening in my real life. Some people take a lifetime, others can release a book every four weeks. Your book is unique to you, so only you can decide how long that process should be.

To everyone else taking a shot at NaNoWriMo I wish you well and hope you end up with a book you are proud of.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

The Problems of Updating and Translation, by Elizabeth Kay

These days, we can all update our online books, and customers will get the newest version free of charge. However, when do you do it? Those writing for young people probably have the hardest job, as slang changes year on year, and you can sound like the fustiest old has-been very quickly and a laughing-stock amongst the super-trendy. Do people still use the word trendy anyway? The other big issues are contemporary settings (remember when mobile phones looked like bricks?) and scientific discoveries. When I was a kid, no one thought for a moment that dinosaurs had feathers, or that women guards on the Underground should be paid the same as men.   

Climate change is going to present even more problems, I suspect. I haven’t actually updated any of my books, as I’ve always been very careful to make the date in which they’re set a bit ambiguous. This means stating that something costs the same as a four bedroom house in Surrey, rather than the £60,000 it would have cost thirty years ago. Borders change, too. Therefore it was a lot safer to invent an ex-Soviet republic for Beware of Men with Moustaches than it was to use a real one. And that brings me to the topic that started me thinking about all this in the first place.

I have just returned from a holiday in Uzbekistan, a place about which I now realise I knew very little before I went. As the daughter of Polish exile, my views on the USSR were formed very early, and not improved by visiting Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Romania or Latvia. What I hadn’t done was to holiday in one of the Stans. It’s been a revelation. My previous experiences universally slagged off the USSR for siting their dirty industries in satellite countries (Nova Huta in Poland, for example) or plundering their resources and art works and sending them to Russia. These were all countries that would not be described as third world, that already had strong infrastructures. Uzbekistan was different - a relatively poor country initially, but with an extraordinary heritage of architecture from the days of the Silk Road which was falling into disrepair. There has been a tradition of restoring these buildings from time to time – Tsarist Russia did quite a lot, but the USSR’s impact was phenomenal. Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand – one wow moment after another. Possibly the most beautiful buildings I have seen anywhere. They don’t go over-the-top with a dog’s dinner of colour – they are all harmonious, with blue, white and turquoise predominating. Uzbekistan has a climate of extremes, with baking hot summers and bitterly cold winters. These buildings are very cool in the summer, but as I went in September I can’t vouch for how they feel in the winter. But those extremes of temperature play havoc with man-made edifices.
          This then brings me to the restoration issue. I couldn’t tell what was original, what had been restored in historical times, and what had been done very recently. And I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. I’m as sure as I can be that the restorations are very close to the originals, but other cultures piece things together, such as pots, and leave the new pieces blank. When something is bowl-shaped, it’s easy to work out what shape the missing sections are. You then needed to imagine the pattern that had been inscribed. I started to wonder about restored manuscripts, and how close to the originals they were. When something was copied over and over again, things go wrong. Many years ago I was illustrating a natural history book, and I had to do a swordfish. What colour is it? Like most people, I assumed it was black on top, and silver underneath. It isn’t. It’s copper-coloured. The original illustrations were printed in black and white, and subsequent illustrators working in colour just looked at those, and not the source material.
            Translation, another form of copying, brings its own problems. I was fortunate enough to be friends with Vera Rich, who died nearly ten years ago. She was the foremost translator of Ukrainian and Belarussian poetry, and her work is held in high esteem as she always tried to reproduce the form as well as the meaning. Her recipe was as follows: go out for the evening with a native speaker who knows the poems, and discuss them over several bottles of wine. In the morning, write down what you remember…

 Different translations can vary wildly, and sometimes bear very little resemblance to the originals. An example of creative yet essentially truthful translations can be found in the names of the characters in the Asterix books. French (the original name for the Druid) Panoramix. English: Getafix. German: Miraculix. Afrikaans: Abracadabrix. English (USA) Magigimmix. Presumably, Magimix has been copyrighted as a trade name.
            Which brings me to my last point, for authors who have had their own books translated into other languages. How well do you think you were served by your translator? The names of the characters in The Divide always mean something. For the griffon Ironclaw the Dutch version of his name remains the same: Ironclaw. French – Serdacier. (Steeltalon) German: Eisenklaue (Ironclaw). Spanish: Pezuña de Hierro. (Iron Hoof). The Romanian edition comes with footnotes, to explain English linguistic jokes. How the Japanese and the Chinese handled it I have no idea!

            This has been rather a rambling post, probably because I just wanted an excuse to include some of my Uzbekistan photographs.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner or How to Write 1.2 Million Words a Year -- Jay Sennett

Erle Stanley Gardner
Erle Stanley Gardner, originator of the 20th century America’s favorite lawyer Perry Mason, wrote like a fiend on speed. His output as a writer boggles the mind. Every year he aimed to write 1.2 million words. You read that correctly. 1,200,000 words, which breaks down to 100,000 words a month or about 3,300 words a day.
He wrote those 3,300 words in addition to working as part of an active legal practice in Southern California. Gardner also devoted thousands of hours to "The Court of Last Resort.”  He and other lawyers , forensic experts and investigators used their experience and expertise to free men they believed had been wrongfully convicted because of poor legal representation, abuse, misinterpretation of forensic evidence, or careless or malicious actions of police or prosectors.
Gardner died in 1970, and at that time was the most published author in America during the 20th century. He wrote fiction under seven different pseudonyms plus his own name and pounded out short stories for pulp magazines and fiction books. His combined total is more than 600 published works. The Perry Mason series of novels provided him with the bulk of his income and notoriety. The television show based on the novels became a huge hit in the 1950s.
His output daunts even the most prolific authors working today. Workaholic that he was he needed to think about plot as little as possible in order to produce 1,000,000 words a year. To do this, he created one of the greatest plotting hacks in the history of detective fiction: four cardboard plotting wheels to keep the plots thick, heavy and exciting. 
Gardner crafted round pieces of cardboard with an arrow attached by a brass grommet in the center of the circle: the wheel of blind trials, the wheel of hostile minor characters, the wheel of solutions, and the wheel of complicating circumstances. He then spun the arrow on each wheel and out of chance arrived the plot for his next novel. 
The wheels work as plot generators for two reasons. Gardner understood the conventions of his genre. Perry
Perry Mason/Raymond Burr
Mason faced hostile characters like a hotel detective or a hick detective, but never nature or a horrifying monster. He also understood (and here I speculate) that plot tropes could be reused. Given the total number of options on the four wheels, he had 9,834,496 possible permutations for a novel. With the thinking about the plot out of the way Gardner freed himself to write productively.
His wheels got me so excited I wanted to write them down for my own novel writing endeavors. But when I increased the size of the photos housed at the University of Texas website, I found the images illegible and gave up. By chance I found the website of author Karen Woodward and the article she wrote describing all the points on the four wheels.  Call me thrilled. I quote them below.
For other genre writers here at Author’s Electric do you know any romance, fantasy or horror authors who created genre-specific wheels or other plotting hacks for their writing?

The Wheel Of Hostile Minor Characters Whose Function Is Making Complications For The Hero

These folks put obstacles in the hero's way, make it difficult for her to reach her goal.

1. Hick detective.
2. Attorney.
3. Newspaper reporter.
4. Detective.
5. Business rival.
6. Rival in love.
7. Father of heroine.
8. Blackmailer.
9. Gossip.
10. Meddlesome friend.
11. Suspicious servant.
12. Hostile dog.
13. Spy.
14. Incidental crook.
15. Hotel detective.
16. Thickheaded police.

B. Wheel Of Complicating Circumstances

1. Hero is betrayed to villain by spies.
2. Every move the hero makes takes him from the frying pan and puts him into the fire.
3. Heroine's maid is a spy.
4. Father of heroine is hostile to the hero.
5. Detective believes the hero is guilty and tries to arrest him/her at a critical time.
6. Hero commits an incidental crime. For example, he/she is caught speeding and is arrested.
7. Witness mistakes hero for villain.
8. Hero violates the law and is sought.
9. Heroine's mind is poisoned against the hero.
10. Some character is not as represented.
11. Rival in love tries to discredit the hero.
12. Zeal of hick cop upsets plans.

C. The Wheel of Blind Trials By Which The Hero Is Mislead or Confused

1. Witness lies.
2. A document is forged.
3. A witness is planted.
4. A client conceals something.
5. A client misrepresents something.
6. A friend pretends to betray the hero.
7. The villains assistant pretends to betray the hero.
8. A vital witness refuses to talk.
9. False confessions.
10. Genuine mistakes.
11. A witness takes flight.
12. A witness is kidnapped.
13. A witness commits suicide.
14. A witness sells out.
15. Planted clues.
16. Impossible statements.

D. Solution Wheel

How the hero surmounts the obstacles thrown in his way.

1. Gets villain to betray himself through greed.
2. Gets the villain , of his own free will, to plant additional evidence.
3. Plants fake evidence to confuse the villain.
4. Fakes circumstances so the villain will think he/she has been discovered.
5. Tricks the hero's accomplice into confessing.
6. Villain is hoist by his/her own petard.
7. Villain killed while he/she is trying to frame someone.
8. Gets villain to overreach himself/herself.
9. Meets trickery with horse-sense.
10. Squashes obstacles by sheer courage.
11. Turns villains against each other.
12. Traps [tricks?] villain into betraying a hiding place. Hero either a) creates a fake fire, or b) gives him/her something else to conceal, or c) makes it necessary for the villain to flee (and so must take something out of the hiding place).

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Dotting the 'I's ... an editor's role? - Alex Marchant

I’ve worked in publishing for a long time now in various capacities. My first job was as desk editor for a small press in Gloucestershire - back in the days when galley proofs were still a thing, and my first job was proofreading medieval city records in Latin (letter by letter...). The company was leading the way in computer typesetting, but overall little had changed since Gutenberg. 

Caxton's printing shop

After a spell back in archaeology, I moved briefly into medical, then management publishing – where I learnt numerous buzzwords and reluctantly retailed the bulls**t beloved of that sector. Being pushed towards management didn’t appeal – neither wrangling staff nor overseeing the editing of magazines – so I moved back to what first drew me to the industry – working directly with collections of words that other people had lovingly crafted.

Newly freelance, I targeted academic publishing companies as potential clients – that’s where I’d started and where I felt I could best use my skills. I’ve always written fiction and also briefly flirted with a move into fiction editing (an interview with Walker Books was spurned in favour of a sunny French archaeological dig), but for most of my freelance career I’ve worked for university presses and similar non-fiction publishers. My days are spent wrestling with the minutiae of referencing systems, polishing academics’ prose, spotting missing commas, framing queries and suggested rewordings as diplomatically as possible, and far too often being sidetracked into social media when googling what was a legitimate editorial query....

More recently, with the extension of my career into writing fiction for children, other opportunities are opening up for me, and sometimes I’ve wondered whether to offer my editing skills to fellow independent authors. After all, to an extent these skills are transferable to fiction and might well help to avoid the frequent criticism of some self-published books – that they are littered with silly typos and errors.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor Image may contain: one or more people
Two of my favourite typos (both spotted one day in a single project - not by an indie author), are cavalry substituted for Calvary and canons for cannons...
Yet, while I have on occasion edited fiction over the years, and yes, can spot stray punctuation, incorrect spelling, dodgy formatting and the like, I’m well aware that fiction copyediting is a very different beast from non-fiction. An author’s voice is such a subtle thing, and we all have our own personal ways of telling our stories. I suspect I would struggle to tread that apparently fine line between helpful, light-touch editing and – well, telling an author they’d used too many adverbs, or asking whether they really wanted their characters to do that!
I’ve had a flavour of the potential difficulties recently, having invited some fellow authors to contribute to an anthology of short fiction about our favourite king, Richard III, to sell as a fundraiser for Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A dozen kindly agreed, and a similar number who heard about it on the grapevine are keen to contribute to any future project. I’ve enjoyed the whole process, from reading the stories as they came in to the satisfaction of seeing everything come together and pressing that button for Amazon pre-order. And yet ... here are a disparate group of authors with a wide range of styles and views – all writing about a single man, who has – to say the least – a controversial reputation and a history that has been interpreted in myriad ways over the centuries. We’re all Ricardians – who believe the man was unjustly maligned after his death – but we still have many different approaches to his story.

A clutch of Ricardian authors, plotting an anthology, Alex, Marla Skidmore and J. P. Reedman, Bosworth 2018

I found myself adopting the lightest of light-touch approaches, pulling back from queries or changes that I might have made with hardly a thought in my day job. Afraid of imposing my views or my style. Would the Richard in my stories have said or done this or that? (Answer: it doesn’t matter – this Richard isn’t ‘mine’!) Might that comment be a tad controversial for some of our potential readership? (Hmmm, could be, but it has to stay...) Should I back away from any mention of the arguments over his reburial location? (Eek – the trouble that caused!) Alien abduction – hell, why not? An adverb here or there – no matter...
When all is said and done, these stories belong to the authors who wrote them. I may be named on the title-page as editor, but that just denotes my role as facilitator – doesn't it? I simply gathered the people and stories together, dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘T’s, checked the headings matched, chased up a well-known historical novelist to write the Foreword (yes! [punches fist in air] – we got her!), uploaded it all for sale. It’s not my job to tell anyone how or what they should write. Their names are on their stories: they’ll take the praise – or the flak.

Grant Me the Carving of My Name, now on pre-order!

Have I got the balance right? I hope so. I guess time will tell. My fellow contributors have been appreciative of what I’ve done, and pre-publication buzz is building – as are the pre-orders (currently we’re #4 in Amazon’s historical fiction short stories ranking and 170 in the overall chart – although as we are up against Wolf Hall and all three volumes of Lord of the Rings, I must admit I’m still bemused as to how those rankings work). The book includes a ‘call for contributors’ for a second anthology. If that goes ahead, will my editorial ‘policy’ be the same? Hmmm.....

Sources:; Lady Butler's painting Scotland Forever!;  Four canons with Sts Augustine and Jerome by an open grave, with the VisitationMaster of the Spes Nostra [nl] (active c. 1500–1520, Northern Netherlands)

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Escaping by Misha Herwin

Mass shootings in the USA, stabbings on the streets of London, the threat of Brexit, the overarching shadow of Trump, to say nothing of famine, drought, authoritarian governments and a rising tide of refugees and asylum seekers; there are times when the world seems such a fearful and threatening place that you want to run and find somewhere safe to hide, or stay in bed and pull the duvet over your head and pretend it’s nothing but a very bad dream.

Or, if you’re a writer, you can move away into a world that you’ve constructed; a world where you are in control of events and characters; a world which is both familiar and therefore comforting, but also magical, exciting and full of possibilities.

As the news grows more and more gloomy, the nights draw in and the days become colder, I find myself more and more engrossed in my city of secrets. This is an alternative Bristol to the city where I grew up. Something akin to Philip Pullman’s Oxford in his “Dark Materials” trilogy. 

The streets of my city do exist, but in the book they take on a more sinister quality. 

“The  apothecary’s shop was in a crooked house on the Christmas Steps. A rusty bell tinkled as Letty pushed open the door and stepped into the musty dimness. The back wall was lined with small wooden drawers, their contents inscribed in gold, some in letters Letty did not recognise. A stuffed owl glared from the top of a bookshelf full of ancient leather-bound volumes. Another shelf held vials of coloured liquids; some were red as newly spilled blood, others blue as the veins on a corpse, or green as the grass growing over a cesspit. A single candle burned on the counter. The girl, who stood behind it, was tall and thin; her head almost brushing the bunches of herbs that hung from the beams. Her skin was yellow as wax and her eyes were pinpricks of black in her gaunt face.”

Then there is Tobacco Wharf, where the sailing ships dock with their cargoes of sugar, rum and slaves. Now that part of the city is full of shops, restaurants and riverside apartments.

The Landogandcrow where Letty, Jeb and Mango eat their steak and kidney pies is just another Bristol pub, though a very ancient one and the Theatre Royal, where Bella de Vere, the Bristol Nightingale, sings for her devoted admirers has just undergone another re-vamp, though again as the Bristol Old Vic it is one of the oldest theatres in the country.

When I was a kid walking to the bus stop after school though streets of Georgian terraces, I would make up stories about who lived there and these have given rise to both “City of Secrets” and all the subsequent adventures of Letty Parker, as well as my novel “House of Shadows.”
Were they an escape from reality, imagination at play, or a way of keeping sane? Whichever they were, if I want a break from the news, all I have to do is go up to my office and switch on the computer…

If you’re interested, both "House of Shadows" is are available HERE
And “City of Secrets” HERE

And most other formats including Apple.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Origami for Authors | Karen Kao

The Amsterdam canal house is built of massive grey cornerstones and variegated red bricks. A clock gable stands on top with a hook sticking out. The hook is for hoisting pianos and wardrobes and king-sized beds. The doors are too narrow and the stairs so vertiginous for anything wider than a laundry basket to pass.

Bride at Nihon no Hanga. Photo credit: Karen Kao
Inside this house hides the private collection of Elise Wessels. For decades, she’s traveled to Japan, bringing woodblock prints back to Amsterdam. Her museum Nihon no hanga is a treasure house of Japanese art from the full suit of armor that sits menacingly in the entry hall to the bridal couple who adorn the mantelpiece upstairs.

But it’s the print collection we’ve come to see.

One Hundred Aspects Of The Moon


Yoshitoshi signature and seal. Photo credit: Karen Kao
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi was a master woodcut printmaker (1839-1892) widely acclaimed for his collection, One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. He depicts events from Japanese history, Chinese myth, Noh theater and daily life in Edo in the late 19th century.

In Moon above the Sea at Daimotsu Bay, the warrior-priest Musashibo Benkei stands at the helm of a ship in storm. He exorcises the demons and thus saves his master from shipwreck in the year 1185. 

I see the black mountain of water, the foaming clouds and the cleaving of the waves. Suddenly I’m no longer in a Japanese print museum but in a theater full of 6 year olds watching Kubo and the Two Strings, a 3D stop-motion animation film by Laika Studios.

Magical Origami

The movie opens with the same scene. The waves threaten to crush a woman and her child. But she is unafraid. She cuts the water with the music of her magical two-stringed samisen. And when her child Kubo grows up, he too learns to make magic. He can bring origami figures to life.

My origami always died. My cranes nose-dived or simply disemboweled themselves as soon as I let go of those tightly folded sheets. And the thing about origami paper: you’ve only got one chance to do it right.

Character Folding

Not so with characters, as Rebecca Makkai explains in her craft essay, The Delicate Art of Character Folding. You populate your novel with all the characters you think you need to prop up your plot. Then you discover to your horror that a cast of thousands now clutters the pages of your story. Or that some of them consist of cardboard rather than flesh and blood. In fiction as in real life, we want to connect with people who are authentic. Real human beings are inconsistent, as often cruel as kind, with surprisingly sharp edges and bruised hearts. Never fear. The author, Frankenstein-like, can transform the less-than-human characters into the man or woman you want (and need).

I thought about character folding when I was editing my first novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle (Linen Press 2017). I was lucky to have the guidance of Lynn Michell, who was both my publisher and editor. She had a keen ear for the false note and a generous hand with compliments. She also had an unfailing ability to find the spots where I could tease out the threads of my tale just a little more. It was a collaborative process that was delightful in all sorts of surprising ways, like when she asked me hard questions.


Dance hall manager. Image credit: He Youzhi
For example, I tell my story in a kaleidoscopic way that can be very demanding on the reader. The two main characters – the dancer Anyi and the gambler Cho – speak in first person present (“I think”). An omniscient narrator speaks for all the other characters in a sometimes distant third person past (“she said”). My publisher asked me: why the intimacy for some characters and not for all?

My reasons were varied and possibly not valid but here they are:

Workers like the rickshaw driver, the bouncer and the dance hall manager represented a much wider slice of Shanghai life than the dancers or gamblers (let alone the 30,000 odd Westerners) we tend to see in films and books about Shanghai set in the 1930’s. In The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I wanted to show Shanghai through the eyes of the “ordinary” Chinese. A grim rather than glamorous place to live and die.

I laid no claim, however, to the telling of truth. That is an essence virtually impossible to capture. The best I hoped for was a glimpse, a quicksilver that seared when grasped. In this novel, I chose to look sideways  in the hope of creating an image that pierced the eye.


So I kept all my characters, choosing not to fold them into composite shapes. I maintained as well the distinction between the characters in the spotlight and those who hovered in the shadows. What I did change was the number of characters with speaking roles.

For example, Beauregard is a black man from the American South who ends up a bouncer in a Shanghai casino. He never explains how he arrived in Shanghai. Instead, we watch him interact with the world around him. We witness his generosity of spirit, even when offered an easier way out. Intuitively, we understand the journey he’s taken.

A colour doesn’t need to be visible in order to be present. Not every character demands a speaking role. Reducing the number of POV characters feels like origami to me. Deepening the folds and adding new layers so that when I’m finished, my characters will take off and fly.

Note: Origami for Authors was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Go with the flow. Three days away by Julia Jones

Monday Oct 29th 2018: Peter Duck was on her mooring, lying to the flood. The wind was blowing in the opposite direction, straight down the river from the cold nor’ nor’-east. It was going to be impossible to hoist the mainsail as the full force of the wind would be bellying into it as soon as it was half way up the mast. I tried the foresail. It was flappy and excitable, offering only to sail us off at an angle which would put us directly on the mud. The channel is quite narrow here and there was little water as yet. I was impatient to set off.

my brother, Ned
 hoisting the  mizzen -
many years ago
I went aft and consulted the mizzen. This is my favourite sail. My friend George Jepps (who lends his name to a ‘Peter Duck’-ish character in forthcoming Pebble) once called it Peter Duck’s “rudder in the sky” The smallest child can raise or lower it and it’s a sail that will always try to help if you ask. Former PD owner Greg Palmer once gave it as his opinion that Arthur Ransome never got the best out of her sailing because he didn’t understand the mizzen. (I don’t think he got the measure of her bow either but that’s by the way.)

I hoisted this sweet, tractable, little sail and pinned it in tightly. Peter Duck turned willingly through 180 degrees and the mizzen held her there, facing directly into the wind as I heaved up the mainsail, keeping it sheeted in for as long as I could. Then I released them both, ran forward to raise the foresail again, held it aback, cast off the mooring and PD was away, turning almost in her own length as we went running down the river.

It was a day of sunshine and squalls, showers and rainbows, fluorescent against the charcoal sky. I would like to have taken photographs but my hands were too full. The river was channelling the wind so it was almost always dead astern, thus keeping PD on the point of gybe. This doesn't worry me as it used to do: I hold her mainsheet in my hand (instead of keeping it fastened round a cleat) and sail as if she were a dinghy. This makes it possible for me to  respond as soon as the airflow goes creeping round the wrong side of the canvas, when the boom twitches and lifts, ready to smash across. 

The marker on the right hand records 
the pressure at the beginning of the day.
 The left hand needle shows a 20mb drop. 
The strength of the wind varied and our progress against the spring flood was not fast. High water at the Deben bar was 1430. I knew that I probably needed to use the engine if I was to reach Felixstowe Ferry in good time to leave the river safely and take the last moments of the flood southwest down the coast. But the point of this brief holiday was to sail, not to scuttle about watching the clock as if I was on land. Let the conditions dictate: go with the flow...I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the river anyway. The forecast was grim and the barometer plummeting.

We reached the river mouth almost at the top of the tide. The sky darkened dramatically, the wind freshened further. If I were heading for the Orwell or the Walton Backwaters we’d be wind against tide all the way and foul weather when we got there. I didn't want to go to sea -- and I didn't have to.

Peter Duck was reluctant to turn back against the weight of wind -- even the mizzen couldn’t persuade her – so finally I asserted myself with a burst of engine.Then we were beating back up the Deben and the ebb was soon running against us. By tea time the light was failing and the intermittent showers had settled into steady rain. At the top of the Rocks anchorage I gave up. We drifted down to a favourite spot at the entrance to Kirton Creek and picked up a mooring. It was cold and I was glad to shut the cabin doors. By 5pm I was in my bunk with a hot water bottle and a book and by 6pm I was asleep.

The sun goes down over Kirton Creek

Tuesday Oct 30th: The following day offered no temptation to go anywhere as it rained and blew without ceasing. I stayed in the only warm place – my bunk – and read Robert Smith’s Crossing the Bar. Robert is the harbourmaster at Wells-next-to-the-sea. He was born there; learned about the life of the marshes and the longshoremen from his father and grandfather and from his own private adventures and narrow escapes. He worked as a bait-digger, a longshoreman, a docker, a member of the lifeboat crew and of the harbour commissioners. All his life he's been learning from direct experience, from other people and from his environment. Then, once he became harbour master and had access to the centuries of harbour records, he began to research the history of the port.

Not especially appealing
A better place to be
Peter Duck and I met Robert and his harbour colleagues in the summer of 2015; we were “Going Foreign” along the North Norfolk coast and were charmed by the welcome we received as we put into that pretty port.

Part of our delight was the relief at being there at all. Wells bar is a sand bank with a fearsome reputation. It’s a killer that makes our mounds of shingle at the Deben mouth seem almost tame by comparison. Even the flood tide hesitates before it comes in.

Available from
Wells Harbour commissioners
For six hours a bulge of water builds beyond Wells bar, the ridge of sand at the mouth of the harbour entrance until it surges from the North Sea towards the beach and town. As it flows it scours the channel, covers the sandbanks, tugs at the buoys marking the way and snatches at the anchors and chains of vessels. Where the channel meanders, the current races across from bank to bank, seeking the shortest course as if intent on completing an urgent mission. For a while the flow slackens but doesn’t entirely stop. Even when the water stops pouring over the bar it carries on flooding into the quayside for another twenty minutes, Flotsam and jetsam gently slow and drift along the shoreline at the channels edge, while in the middle the flood still races along…” (Crossing the Bar p 166)

Later in that summer of 2015 Peter Duck's engine had failed the wrong side of that Wells bar. A combination of lack of wind, tide imperatives, distance to any other port and responsibility to my crew made me glad to accept a tow back into harbour. Peter Duck was stranded there for several weeks and I learned more about the place and the practical kindness of its people. One particular image – apart from the bar itself, which can be watched all day by video cam from the harbour office – that has remained with me was the marker showing the height that the tide had reached in 2013, for higher than the floods of 1953 or the destructive surge of 1978.

In Crossing the Bar Robert Smith explains the enduring impact that the c18th marsh enclosures (when the major landlords extended their agricultural land) has had on the capacity of the marsh to act as reservoir, a sponge, soaking up the mass of water as it surges in under certain meteorological conditions in the North Sea. When the flood breached the walls in both 1978 and 2013, it was reclaiming its former channels, dammed almost three centuries earlier.  So why now? You'll have guessed at least part of the answer. Rising sea levels put much of the East Anglian coast at risk, and off the North Norfolk shore, dramatically increased dredging for aggregate (sand and gravel for construction work) may have significantly reduced the invisible protection provided by those outlying shoals. “During the 198os and early 1990s the quayside flooded once or twice every few years. By the late-1990s it was awash with floodwater more regularly and today its not unusual for it to happen six or seven times a year,” writes Smith.

After 1978 and again after 2013 Wells cleared up, refilled the breaches, built new and stronger walls. Crossing the Bar proposes that the town should look again at its history and make an accommodation with the flooding tide that will allow it, in extremis, to have its way. Divert the banks so it empties itself where it powerfully wishes to go – on the former Slade marsh and on some of that reclaimed agricultural land. Not ideal of course but very much better than watching the water pouring up the streets of the town, flooding properties and putting lives at risk. Smith  remembers himself as a younger man watching the 1978 flood as a spectacle but “now I’m harbour master there’s nothing I find exciting about a tidal surge”.

Smith has needed to overcome dyslexia to write this book. "I can become impatient with myself as I try to articulate the pictures in my head and the stories told to me into words on a page." (Many non-dyslexic writers will sympathise with this!) He sees this mental barrier as analogous with the physical challenge sailors face when they are crossing the bar (and you might like to reread his passage on the build-up of the flood tide as a metaphor for inspiration and writing compulsion). In Crossing the Bar Smith has produced a compelling account of human relationship with the forces of nature. I read it all day as the rain drummed on the cabin roof and Peter Duck jerked and snubbed against her mooring chain. When I finished my first reading, I began again.

Wednesday October 31st
Early morning Kirton Creek
The depression has gone
The quiet, chilly last morning of my three day holiday  A light mist covers the river, there's no wind yet and the tide's running steadily out. The barometer has risen as decisively as it fell. Later, when the flood returns I'm expecting a light breeze from the SSE. Perfect for our final sail of this season, back up the river where we began. 

I'd snatched those few days away as a reward for the effort it had taken to get Pebble (Strong Winds volume 6) to the printer. This week (Nov 8th) I've been putting copies into envelopes and boxes to send them out to readers. All I want to say in the light of this post is that when I'm writing these stories I always have the detailed local tide tables beside me -- and sunrise, sunset and (often) moon phase information as well. My plots may be preposterous but I don't muck about with nature.