Thursday, 25 April 2019

Notebooks? -- Nah. Susan Price

Here, a beautiful notebook. Only a tenner.
Earlier this month my Authors Electric colleague, Lynne Garner,asked us what we like to write with.

She mentioned that she had 'many, many notebooks' which she preferred to use when writing poetry. A writer she said, could not have too many notebooks, especially if they were lovely.

Lynne is far from alone in thinking this. Over the years, I've heard dozens of writers sing the praises of their notebooks: the moleskin ones, the leather bound ones, the ones with lovely floral or shiny covers. I've heard many writers say that they keep special notebooks to write down ideas in, and many say that they can't start a new book until they find that special notebook which is just perfect for that particular idea.

This all makes me feel quite left out as in my entire writing career of nearly fifty years I have never, ever given a single spit about any notebook. I buy 'em cheap, treat 'em mean and discard 'em without a thought.

I'm not trying to say that I am right in this and everyone else is wrong -- not at all.


Find it here
I've always thought that writers should adopt whatever method helps them to get the words written (short of GBH or murder.) And if beautiful notebooks do it for you, then stack them high. Put aside money to buy them. If you need a particuarly beautiful notebook in order to get the idea down on paper, then you need it and there's nothing more to be said.

But I feel there may be those like me who, indifferent to the allure of notebooks, are asking themselves: Can I really be a writer at all, if I don't have a notebook habit? 


I want to reach out to those writers and assure them that, yes, there is writing without beautiful notebooks.

I have what I think many would feel is a depressingly pragmatic approach to writing, as to most other things in life. Easy and cheap, that's all I ask.

I used to write by hand a lot before PCs happened. Not because of any spiritual feeling of closer contact with the ideas that flow from my heart to my hand (as I've heard some writers put it.) No: it was simply that it was slightly easier than using a big, heavy, clumsy typewriter.

I used to write so much, for so long that I had the most impressive writers' cramp I've ever seen. Not just an achy hand -- not just a trembling hand. My right hand used to go into such violent spasms that it jerked up as high as my shoulder and threw the pen across the room. Which is one way of saying: I've had enough!

That's when I found that I could write almost as well with my left hand as with my right, especially if I turned the paper sideways (a tip from my left-handed aunt.) Not as legibly, but good enough. Several members of my family are left-handed but I'd never had a problem with using my right and had never tried writing left-handed until I wore my right hand out.

For a while I wrote with a typewriter. I never liked it much, but the electric one made it slightly quicker and easier than writing by hand, most of the time. As soon as I could get a computer, I started writing directly onto a computer almost all the time: rough drafts, rewrites, fiction, non-fiction, it doesn't matter. Because it's easier. That's the whole of it. No matter how beautiful the notebook is, I can't grab a whole paragraph and shift it to elsewhere on the page, as I can with a computer. I can't over-write in a notebook. I can't easily add a lot of notes to the end of a day's writing, in different colours and fonts -- and then, next day, shift them around until I decide on the strongest idea and then over-write.

I do sometimes do a pubowrimo -- that is, when I'm not getting any writing done, I take a notepad and pen to a pub and write there. But it's the change of scene that's important, the break in routine, not the notepad.

I always use the biggest, cheapest writing pads I can find. And I write from margin to margin, side to side and top to bottom. I think this comes from having been raised in a household where money was scarce, but almost everyone drew and wrote. Drawing and writing pads were jealously guarded and often hidden (since an artist will scribble sketches on the nearest available paper. You have to watch artists.) When I write in a notepad, the idea of leaving wide margins or blank pages to add revisions is against every instinct I learned as a child.

Basic Mathematics
While writing on holiday, I have used notepads, simply because it's more convenient than lugging some electronic device around. I've gone to the local store on some small Hebridean or Greek island  and bought the cheapest writing pad they have, of whatever kind -- school exercise types or 'reporter' notebooks. I scribble in it, type up what I've written when I get home, and probably never look at the writing pad again. (Except I am currently using an old reporter type to do hard sums in as I work through Mathematics: A Complete Introduction. I decided to stop being 'bad at maths.' (Or, at least, not as bad.)

I've never kept a notepad of ideas because I know that I would never look back at what I'd written. I've always believed that, if I have a good idea, I'll remember it. I may forget it for a while, but it will eventually come back, bringing friends with it. I think a notepad -- even if I looked at it often, which I wouldn't -- would tend to fix the idea as a first thought, whereas I want it to stay fluid. This may not be the case with others but I know all too well how literal and single-tracked my mind can be. I don't need to encourage that tendency.

As for finding a new, lovely notebook for every new book I write... Nah. I dither about starting something new as much as anyone. I may even do a pubowrimo to get into it. But the pad I write in will be some big, lined, supermarket cheapie. Probably one I've already scribbled other stuff into.

There is no romanticism in my writing soul. I once amused my editor at Faber, Phyllis Hunt, when she asked me if I was writing anything. I said I had 'a couple of things up on the stocks.' "Oh, they're boats?" she said.

I thought about it and said, "They're something that I'm hammering together out of bits of old orange crates and scrap." I admit, it does faintly annoy me when writers (such as Dickens) compare their books to babies or children. I hammer my stuff together. I tear it down and rebuild it. I clear the site and make good. Children aren't allowed on building sites. I've no doubt that this 'hard-hatted worker on a building site' metaphor is found intensely annoying and posey by many, but for me, it chimes better with my attitude to my work. I don't wipe my stories' noses.

Pens, though. That's different.


I don't care much about the paper, but difficult pens infuriate me. Lynne said she dislikes biros and fountain pens, and I agree. Both were banes of my school days. Fountain pens, as Lynne observes, spread ink everywhere except where you wanted it.  Biros were uncomfortable to hold and their ink was always turning sticky and blobby, making writing difficult.

uniball vision elite pens
My pen has to be a roller-ball and not just any one. It has to move fast and freely over the paper, in the right or left hand. Not all 'rollerball' pens are made equal. Some catch and scratch and they are quickly discarded. The ones I'm using at the moment are called 'uniball vision elite' and they're very smooth, fast and scribbly.

Just as in my childhood, I find I have to hide good pens. I am beseiged by artists and crossword and sudoki addicts. If I don't hide my best pens and deny that I have them, they are filched to make quick sketches or fill in 3 Down. I will never see that pen again. I've learned, if asked to lend them that pen I was using earlier, to say that I lost it, left it in the cafe, dropped it overboard in the Pentland Firth. Or, cunningly, to have an inferior biro to hand that I can lend them.

If there's a moral to this blog, it's simply that you can be a writer without adding beautiful, expensive notebooks to your shopping list -- although if they seem to help you write, then fill your trolley.

But fast, scribbly pens are essential. 


You should always have a few packets of such pens hidden about the place. Never tell an artist or a sudoku addict where they are. Artists and sudoku addicts have no morals when it comes to paper and pens. They will take your last notebook and -- far worse -- your last pen.


Wednesday, 24 April 2019

I remember when ... Jo Carroll

My eldest grandson is twelve today.

I'm sure those of us with grandchildren all remember where we were when we heard they had been born. Those nail-biting days beforehand. That overwhelming joy to know that mother and baby were fine ... or more serious nail-biting if all is not as we'd hoped.

But this grandson's arrival was a bit different for me. I was over half way through my Grown-up Gap Year. My daughter had told me she was pregnant three weeks before I set off - and a week before she returned to her job in Caracas.

The original plan was for her to have the baby in Venezuela and I would go out to help when she went back to work - my travels would be completed by then. But Chavez was already in power and threatening to refuse exit visas to any child born in the country until he or she reached 18. (It was an attempt to stop the trade in beautiful brown babies to childless couples in America). And so she decided to return to the UK for the birth. (As things have turned out, he's 'British-Venezuelan' and not 'Venezuelan-British' which makes his position in this country more secure.)

So ... would I carry on travelling and catch up with them six months later, or go home to meet him?

My daughter was wheeled into the delivery room as I boarded the plane in Singapore. By the time I changed planes in Amsterdam I was a grandmother. I spent a week at home, consumed by those early baby days, and then headed back to Heathrow, with tears in my eyes and my (now-battered) rucksack on my back. Five weeks later, my daughter and grandson returned to Caracas. They are now, for those who are worried, safely back in the UK.

What if ...

  • The baby news had led me to change all my plans and fly out to Caracas to support her for the last few months of her pregnancy and early baby days.
  • she had decided to have the baby in Venezuela, settled there, and been caught in the current political upheavals
  • I had stuck to my original plans ... how would she and I have felt about that?
  • the baby hadn't had all his fingers and toes and faced weeks in special care? 
As a writer, I could, if I chose, play with these events and grow a story that bore no resemblance to what really happened. Surely that's one of the joys of being a writer. I'm sure you, too, have family tales that could evolve into something totally different?

If you want to read more about my travels, you can find them here.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Lev Butts Remembers Richard Monaco

As many of you know, my great friend and mentor, Richard Monaco, passed away on June 13, 2017. It has been almost two years now, and I still miss him. I miss our weekly phone calls where we would discuss the finer points of writing, critique each others work (he'd do more of that because I rarely saw anything worth changing in his), talk about good shows to watch on Netflix, or just bitch about the Braves and the Yankees.

Me and Richard the night I first met him in person in NYC
I loved that man like he was a second father, and in many ways, he was. Nobody took as much interest in developing my writing as he did, and he was just as happy for both my writing and personal achievements as any parent. He was always interested in everything about my life and family. He was always genuinely interested in my wife's job and her graduate school experiences, my son's schooling, and my dog. He never shied away from offering parenting advice: "Stay out of their way unless they're gonna kill themselves. Teenagers eventually figure it out, and they will ask for help when they need it."

Anyway, today would have been his 79th birthday, and I thought I would interrupt my list of fantastic self-published books and take a moment to remember him. What follows is the afterword I wrote to his last published book, a collection of memoirs titled No Time Like the Past:

For the ancient Greeks, the gods were all too tangible. While no one had ever truly seen them, everyone knew where to go to find them: right over there to Mt. Olympus. If you were particularly daring, you could even climb to the top and meet Zeus and Hera, Athena and Ares, all of them. That no one had ever come back from the mountain with tales of sipping ambrosia with Demeter and Apollo, did nothing to diminish the tangibility of the gods. Of course, no one had ever returned. They either angered the gods with their presumption and were immediately put to death, or they were honored for their bravery and allowed to stay.

Richard's favorite picture of himself,
from the dust jacket of The Grail War
And once you were allowed to remain on Olympus with Dionysus, who in their right mind would ever choose to come back?

Besides while you yourself may not have seen a god personally, your village likely had some who claimed personal knowledge of the gods. Perhaps the local cocksman insisted he spent a lovely night alone with Aphrodite. Or everyone knew the child of Hypatia was fathered by Zeus disguised as a beggar when he found her alone in the woods. Maybe that beggar you helped out was Poseidon in disguise; who knows?

As mankind grew, however, and became more enlightened, our gods grew farther and farther from us. They grew fewer in number, and their travels in the world grew more and more distant from our time. Sure God took the form of a man and walked the world preaching peace and healing the sick. Sure He died for man’s sins and rose again. But that was long ago and far away.

Today, celebrities are the closest things most of us have to tangible gods. We know where they live. We see and covet the miraculous talent they have. Since most of us will never come any closer to a real, living, breathing celebrity than perhaps a desk’s length at a signing, or maybe front-row tickets at a concert, their very existence becomes mythic. We allow them their foibles, for when a celebrity falls, a celebrity falls grandly, and in a manner no mere mortal could ever survive.

Of course, as with the ancients, this view of our deities is complete and utter claptrap. Celebrities are no more divine than gods are mortal. And this realization is equally as refreshing for us mere mortals as our initial hero-worship. For if we can understand that our heroes are just people no better or worse than ourselves, then the possibility exists that we, too, may one day reach the same level of celebrity/godhead.
My favorite picture of Richard,
on the roof of his apartment building
demonstrating the proper use of a katana

Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs serve this purpose for us. Most of us will never meet our heroes. Without them, they may as well remain as distant from us and our lives as Mount Olympus.

I have always loved reading nonfiction accounts of people I admire. As a teenager, my shelves were filled with fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels, yes, but there was also a significant section of biography and autobiography, too. I particularly enjoyed accounts of John Lennon, the Beatles, Bob Geldof[1], and Nick Cave. But I also had biographies and memoirs of writers: Stephen King, Arthur Conan Doyle, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller.

The best part of these books for me wasn’t the parts about how my favorite albums or novels came to be. That was interesting of course, but the best parts, the parts I kept coming back to again and again, were the bits from before they were famous. The parts that could just as easily been about me or my friends.

That is the magic of biography. They make the fantastic seem achievable.

If, like me, you grew up reading Richard Monaco’s Parsival series and fell in love with it, hopefully the book you have just read did the same thing. Richard’s account of growing up in New York and its environs, I’m sure, is applicable to anyone growing up in NYC, Atlanta, Chicago, or any other city large enough to have its own boroughs. Sure you may not have hitchhiked across America to not meet Faulkner, but you probably pulled similarly foolhardy stunts, the stories of which you still relive with your high school buddies or use to bore your children.

from Richard's very short stint
as the fifth Beatle.
For me, Richard’s memoirs are all this and more. Yes, there is the same fascination with the oddly normal childhood that bears so many similarities with my own. For a Yankee, Richard had an oddly Southern upbringing (or for a Southerner, I had an oddly Yankee one). His close-knit Italian-American family and community reminds me very much of my own Southern upbringing where aunts and uncles carried as much authority over me as my parents, and cousins were secondary siblings. We were also both the sons of policemen, and grew up as much in the stationhouse as we did in the neighborhood. Richard’s accounts of his father remind me in equal parts of my own dad.

However, unlike the other celebrities whose biographies rest on my shelf, I actually know Richard. I’ve written elsewhere on how I first came across Richard’s Parsival in a used bookstore as a teenager and carried it in my satchel everywhere I went in case I decided on the spur of the moment to read it again. I’ve also told the story of how I came to meet Richard through Facebook six years ago and how I had the chance of a lifetime to edit his fifth Parsival novel, The Quest for Avalon, and to help him self-publish it. Since then he has published one more new novel, Dead Blossoms: The Third Geisha; re-released his fourth Parsival novel as a new paperback; and, more recently, had his entire back catalog optioned by Venture Press for reissue as new ebooks.

Since then, he and I have become close. He has helped foster my own writing in ways that I can never completely catalog. I published my first collection of short fiction, Emily’sStitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway about the same time Richard published The Quest for Avalon, and the first two volumes of Guns of theWaste Land, my own reinterpretation of the Arthurian legends, has recently been published as an ebook by Venture Press as well, after Richard suggested they look at it when he was discussing his own work with them. In many ways, whatever small success I enjoy as a writer, I owe to Richard Monaco.

But that is not why I love these memoirs.

One of the last pictures taken of Richard
Richard has become family. We’ve been friends for over half a decade now. We speak about once a week on the phone and email or Facebook message almost daily. He knows my family, and I know his. I try to visit him regularly, once even pitching a tent and camping on the roof of his apartment building. Along with my high school friend and fellow novelist, Scott Thompson, we have begun an online literary journal, The Grand Central Review (conceived of and created during the aforementioned urban camping trip). Richard Monaco, over the last six years, has become more than an idol; he has become a mentor, a colleague, and, more importantly, a friend.

But that is not why I love these memoirs, either. It’s part of it, but not the whole of it.

I love these memoirs for the same reason that I love my father’s stories about his own life and I see how they helped shape the man he became. It’s the same feeling I get when I read letters from my grandfather to my grandmother written throughout their lives, not just when they were courting, but when he was dying, too. They give me a fuller picture of a man I adore, admire, and respect, not in the way you adore, admire, and respect, say Kurt Vonnegut or Nick Cave, but in the way you do family.

Thank you, Richard, for asking me to write the afterword.

And thank you for everything else, too.

July 8, 2016

1 Geldof’s autobiography Is That It? is still one of my favorites, and highly recommended.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Not just a Flash in the Pan: Ali Bacon looks at the onward march of 'novella in flash'

It’s a year since In the Blink of an Eye came out and nearly 18 months since I talked here about the changing shape of ‘long form’ fiction, in particular the appearance of novels which, like mine, looked increasingly like collections of linked short stories. In fact right now I’m reading Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, published to acclaim in  2011 and described on the jacket as a ‘novel in stories’ so apparently I didn’t invent this genre after all!

Poet and flash fiction writer Michael Loveday
However since then something else has come along. Just as Linen Press and I were doing final edits to In the Blink of an Eye, I noticed a competition run by Ad Hoc fiction for a ‘novella in flash. I could immediately relate to the concept of an overarching narrative composed of stand-alone stories - albeit very short short stories – and even considered the possibility of a ruthless edit in order to enter! 

Time did not allow for that, but soon after I read my first ever novella in flash, Three Men on the Edge by Michael Loveday (reviewed here) and later bought a copy of the three shortlisted entries in the Ad Hoc competition, named after the winner, How to Make a Window Snake  which I devoured with gusto. These are an excellent introduction to the different styles this genre can throw up as yo can see from my review on Ad Hoc Fiction

Three very different novellas
I suppose up to this point I considered the novella in flash an intriguing prospect but something of a minority interest – i.e. unlikely to make headlines outside a group of aficionados. 

But what’s this I see?  The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist includes Bottled Goods, Sophie van Llewyn’s ambitious and accomplished novella about life in communist Romania. I read it last week and loved it. And yes, it is told in a series of stories (some of them masquerading as lists or instructions) which are definitely flash fictions.

Longlisted - Women's Fiction Prize

So it looks as if both ‘novels in stories’ and 'novella in flash’ are making it into the world of mainstream writing and reading which I think will delight those readers who give it a go. 

Meanwhile I’ve just been alerted to this one by Maria Romasco Moore, ‘Brief, crystalline stories combine with vintage photographs,’ described by the New York Times (no less) as ‘profoundly unsettling in its familiarity’. Flash fiction and photography sounds like a no-brainer for me. And I think we can say novella in flash has come rapidly of age. 

In the Blink of an Eye, Ali Bacon's 'novel-in stories' is available in paperback and e-book from Linen Pressonline stores and all good bookshops. 

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Why the Easter moon is pink - Katherine Roberts

I've always been a bit confused by Easter. Why does the date keep moving so that some years it falls at the end of March, and other years (such as this year) it's almost at the end of April? Surely the crucifixion happened on a certain date? Well, apparently that's still in contention, but it seems there are two possible accepted dates of Friday April 7th AD30, or Friday April 3rd AD 33. Good Friday commemorates the day that Jesus died on the cross, and Christians celebrate his resurrection two days later on Easter Sunday. So why isn't Easter always celebrated in the first week of April to coincide with the crucifixion?

Turns out that's the moon's fault.

Easter falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. It's simple when you know how. The equinox - "equal night" in Latin - is when day and night are the same length, and in the northern hemisphere the spring equinox falls on or around March 21st (sometimes as early as March 19th, but for the Easter calculation most churches use 21st every year). This means Easter Sunday can fall as early as March 22nd, or as late as April 25th (March 21st, plus a lunar month of 28 days, plus a week of 7 days to allow for all possible combinations).

Lunar eclipse by Alfredo Garcia, CC BY-SA 2.0
This year, the first full moon following the equinox occurred two days ago, on Good Friday, and is known as the Pink Moon (although it does not really appear pink). It's named after a spring-flowering North American wildflower, and is also sometimes known as the Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon (Easter eggs maybe?), or the Fish Moon. The next full moon is called the Flower Moon, and apparently we have the Native Americans to thank for these names. For the full list, see

Being a fantasy author, I love these romantic moon names - and sometimes the moon actually does change colour in the sky.

When the moon is low in the sky near the horizon, it appears yellow or orange because the light must pass through more of the earth's atmosphere, rather like the rising or setting sun. And during a lunar eclipse, which happens when the earth casts a shadow on the moon, it can appear blood red as in the picture.

I used this blood moon in my historical fantasy novel about Genghis Khan's rise to power, which I linked to the Mongolian 'Red Circle Day' - an important festival in Genghis Khan's time, according to the Secret History of the Mongols. How often this festival took place is not certain, but the red moon seemed an appropriate symbol for my book - and a crimson moon against the Khan's black war banner made a striking cover.

The Legend of Genghis Khan

"Once in a Blue Moon" is a well known saying meaning "very rarely", and a modern definition claims the Blue Moon is a second full moon in the same month, which occurs once every 32 months, i.e. approximately once every three years. Sometimes, however, the moon really does appear blue when there is a lot of smoke in the sky, such as from a major volcanic eruption, and this is likely where the saying originally came from.

Do you know of any other moon names? Or seen any other moon colours? Feel free to add them to the comments below.

Meanwhile, Happy Easter!

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers. For more details of her books visit

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Poetry and a rant by Sandra Horn

I’m a little shrinking violet, really. Avoiding conflict at all costs, not showing off (‘drawing attention to yourself’always disapproved of mightily at home), but here goes: I’m going to show off and be controversial, all in the one blog, so there.

First, the showing off. I’ve already Facebooked and Twittered this, but I haven’t finished yet: I have three poems in the current issue of The Blue Nib! Yes! The editor commented, ‘I like these plangent poems and the acute way you deal sensitively with what can often be very clich├ęd issues.’  Cor blimey! (that’s me, not the Editor). I’m blushing as I write, but only a little bit. 

Now the controversy, which is about poetry – or not-poetry and not-art and not-music. William Carlos Williams started it with his note about eating the plums from the fridge. That’s what it is, a note left for his wife telling her that he’d eaten the plums. It’s been anthologised all over the place. Is it a poem? And who am I to question such a famous writer anyway? I’m a reader, that’s who. An avid, hungry consumer of words of all kinds, but poetry in particular. I have a completely crammed book-case, spilling over with poetry books, a tottering pile by my bed. Alice Oswald is coming to a local(ish) venue next month and if I don’t get a ticket I might just explode*. It doesn’t make me an informed critic, I know – I lack the right kind of education – but there is so much joy in the well-crafted work even for those like me.  

I was encouraged by Shirley Bell’s editorial in The Blue Nib (Woops! Have I mentioned it again?) in which she makes a strong case for poetry that has been ‘edited and honed... and with every line break, comma and full stop earning its place’. She quotes Rebecca Watts,** who, with no holds barred, has slated the ‘cohort of young female poets’ who are being praised for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – ‘buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of the craft that characterises their work.’ Phew! I wonder what she makes of WCW’s plums?
I feel the same kind of thing about minimalist music, but I’ve found myself in the middle of angry arguments about it before now, having written that repeating the same four bars without modulation or development ad vomitum is not music.

It’s not just a question of whether it’s a pleasing noise to me, a lot of Wagner passes me by but I recognise the genius at work. And then there’s ‘art’ – nailing a fried egg to a table (Sarah Lucas) may be fun for the nailer, and in T. Emin’s terms, if the perpetrator calls it art, it is art, but for me it’s cheap lazy rubbish as it was not researched and crafted and honed, just flung together in a few minutes.
Perhaps I’m just a dinosaur, aged and ignorant, banging on about – ‘I don’t know much but I know what I like.’ Yep, that’s probably it.
Over and out.
T. Rex.

 * I got a ticket! 
** in February 2018 PN Review

Friday, 19 April 2019

In Her Defence -- Jane Edwards

In Her Defence : Bunch Courtney Investigation #2

 has hit the stores at last!

There is only so much one can say about a book launch. 

We have all been there with the drinks and cakes - in this case it was tea and homemade cakes. We went with the alcohol free as the launch was in the City Central Library, Hanley on a Saturday lunchtime, plus tea and cakes rather fitted the WW2 ethos of a tea party.
Books were bought and signed and much chatter occurs. I gave a short reading and then a Q&A session, which was interesting in that many of the questions revolved around my research - how much did I do, was it online or in hard copy etc.  
The reading was a little over ten minutes but the questions and answers went on for almost half an hour. But it was great fun.
The blog tour on the other hand was more tiring in many ways.  Fielding contacts across various platforms every day was a full time occupation!
So here it is – In Her Defence in all its glory.  Now to finish writing book three!
You can read more about Jan and her books on her blog HERE
In Her Defence is available through most leading booksellers in print and digital formats.
WORDERY /  Waterstones  /  Foyles
Barnes & Noble  / Baker and Taylor 
Digital sources:
Kindle  US / UK / AU/   Apple/  Barnes and Noble Nook  /
Kobo  /  Biblioteca /Overdrive / Playster / Scribd / Tolino / 24 Symbol

Winter Downs  Amazon (paper and kindle)  US  / UK/  /  AU 
Indie Bound /Book Depository /Wordery

Digital sources:
Biblioteca  /Kobo / Kindle

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

The Ups and Downs of Wildlife, by Elizabeth Kay

I have frequently plundered my wildlife observations for characters. From The Wind in the Willows to Watership Down, it’s been a staple fare for so many authors as it’s direct observation that informs the writing, rather than second-hand information. That’s the way that errors creep in. Many years ago I was illustrating a natural history book, and one of the items required was a swordfish. Like most people, I imagine, I assumed a swordfish was black on top, and silver beneath. Random house, the publisher, sent me a lot of information from the National Institute of Oceanography at Southampton, and to my surprise I discovered they were copper-coloured. The first books to illustrate fish were printed in black and white, and what happened subsequently was that illustrators relied on these pictures, made assumptions based on other big fish like tuna, and got it wrong. (Actually, even tuna have a yellowish stripe down the side.)  
            I am fortunate that I live in Leatherhead, where my garden is visited by a variety of birds and there are many opportunities for country walks. A few years ago we even had badgers trotting down the road outside, and we get a lot of foxes. But it’s not all sweetness and light. The natural world has its dramas and tragedies, as well as its triumphs and delights. Two years ago, blue tits nested in our camera box for the first time. All went well to start with. Mr Blue tit fed Mrs Blue tit with choice caterpillars whilst she was incubating the eggs – and then he disappeared. Mrs Blue tit carried on incubating, and when the eggs hatched it was up to her alone to feed them, which she did assiduously for the first week. And then she disappeared as well, round about midday. We watched with growing trepidation as dusk fell, and she didn’t come back. But we’re lucky – we live five minutes away from Wildlife Aid, so I rang them up and they asked us to bring in the entire nest box. They are very experienced, and they raised all the chicks to adulthood in little knitted nests, and then into the aviary.

Last year we didn’t even notice that the great tits had set up home in the one nest box without a camera, until I heard the babies tweeting. Both parents stayed the course, but unfortunately we were away on the day the chicks all fledged, although we did see mum feeding them afterwards. This year we had a great tit sleeping in out camera box every night, and popping in from time to time during the day – and then she, too, disappeared. We do have sparrowhawks that occasionally visit, and one of them ate a collared dove beneath the bay tree. We’ve seen a crow kill a starling, as well.
There are amusing episodes, of course. The jackdaws that played volleyball with a fat ball. The long-tailed tit that was convinced its reflection in a door-handle was a rival. The magpie that mischievously tweaked the tail of a feeding crow. The squirrels that regard any new bird feeder as an intelligence test – and usually win. The cleverest incident was when our resident genius, Einstein, realised that he could detach the entire feeder so that it fell on the grass and became accessible by turning it round and round so that it unscrewed itself.
We’ve had some unusual visitors from time to time. Eight years ago we had a flock of waxwings which hung around for a couple of weeks, and this year the redpolls have been back for the first time in ages. We’ve had a pheasant, a heron, blackcaps, two varieties of woodpeckers and ever increasing numbers of ring-necked parakeets. Peregrine falcons have been nesting down the road on an old water tower, but were sadly absent last year. Usually, they raised two chicks, but one year they managed four, which was when we realised that they are the only birds capable of catching parakeets. Fast food!
On the common we get rabbits, roe deer, lizards, grass snakes and adders. We’ve been watching the adders for several years, and learning a lot about them. The females seem to be territorial, but the males are harder to spot despite being brighter in colour. We get many frogs in our pond, and a lot of frogspawn every year. And once you start looking at the smaller things, there is a wealth of wildlife at your fingertips. Butterflies – brimstones, red admirals, peacocks, commas. And then there’s the wasp spider, the white crab spider, bush crickets, shield bugs. I could ramble on like this indefinitely. But what are the direct writing benefits I’ve obtained? Inventing the Lesser Spotted Tease after a day’s frustrating birdwatching. Basing a character’s appearance on a heron…
Tansy always reminds me of a stabber-bird, thought Betony, with her long nose and her snaky neck.
In Back to the Divide, there’s a spell which turns living things to marble, and anything that touches one of them turns to marble itself. It occurred to me that the first things to be affected were the little things…
The fly was now solid marble. There were other marble creatures down there, as well. A couple of ants, a mosquito, and a woodlouse. They were strangely beautiful, their tiny bodies white and lustrous.
Even the demanding behaviour of baby birds came in useful when the griffon Thornbeak laid an egg…
 Thornbeak was sitting at the edge of the shallow depression in the middle, and watching the egg intently. It wobbled slightly, and a brief staccato of tapping issued from within.
“It’s hatching,” she said softly.
Turpsik had a feeling that a baby brazzle wouldn’t be the most endearing of infants. It would be practically bald, squawk a lot, and peck at anything within range.

Einstein, relaxing after hard day of thought experiments.

I’ve had even more fun with the animals I’ve encountered abroad, but this has really been about the wildlife we have around us. How a bit of patience, a good camera, and remembering to write things down – even when their use isn’t immediately apparent – can reap benefits in the end. 

White crab spider
wasp spider