Friday, 23 September 2016

The Writer and the Shoreline Ape

One midnight recently I was beguiled by a pair of radio programmes by David Attenborough about the controversial Waterside Ape Theory. (I instantly transposed it in my head to the Shoreline Ape Theory which I like better and I will use here.) These programmes challenged the received and scientifically respectable theory that man evolved from a hair covered quadruped to a smoother skinned bi-ped by surviving on the dry plains of the African Savannah in the end rearing up onto two legs as he went about hunting prey and making bloody scraps available for the less skilled females and children so they could survive into the next generation.

But now the ‘rather suspect’ Shoreline Ape theory has emerged in the last thirty years, supported by the discovery by palaeontologists of fossil remains of hominid bi-peds on the lake and sea shorelines of Africa.

The thought is that here on the shoreline the apelike quadrupeds evolved  into upright ape-like bipeds  supplemented their resources on the lake and sea shorelines by  diving in the shallow waters, harvesting and eating the freely available shellfish from the rocks.  There is logic in this. Standing up on two legs was much easier in the water; finding food to survive in this way reduced the life risks and the hard labour of hunting for food by chasing and killing animals across the threatening savannah.

For the hunter gatherer this easier less physical work meant that as part of this stage of evolution he- or she (now it was very commonly a she) became accustomed to holding their breaths for long periods as they dived for their prey underwater. They developed tiny bones to protect their eardrums, not unlike those developed by modern deep sea divers.

It seems that the shoreline ape-like bipeds, unlike their land based hunting ape cousins, are the only species that has a layer subcutaneous fat under their skins. (Protects them from the cold in the water of course.) Modern women too have this helpful layer of fat.  In this perhaps the shoreline apes were more like their seagoing mammalian cousins, the whale and the dolphin.  This gives us an image of the females buoyed up by water. Even while heavy or pregnant the females could hunt and swim for food to provide for their families on a more than equal footing with the males.

This element of evolutionary theory hints that there is another narrative about how we all evolved. This theory tells us that at least alongside the master-hunter male 'Tarzan' figures of the African Savannah we are also indebted to the much less macho shoreline ape for the fundamentals of our human identity.

This is on my mind now because here I am in the sun on the shores of a sea-lake that leads to the Mediterranean. After that, Africa! In all my life I have taken every opportunity to spend time by the sea, or within sight of other kinds of water such as lakes and rivers. I feel at home there. I have an intense affinity with water.

It so happens that I’ve just published my new novel, The Bad Child, where water and swimming is very significant. In order to get the details of my story right as well as all this palaeontology, I’ve researched our human relationship with swimming, reading in particular contemporary sources which refer to the increasingly popular culture of Wild Swimming where people swim in ponds, lakes and in the sea, seem to find it a deeply satisfying way to spend their time
The literature of Wild Swimming is obsessive, poetic, and even euphoric. Some writers allude to pre-memory memories of water being not just there around and above them but as their natural habitat.

So sitting here by the shoreline I am feeling natural affinity with Dee, my heroine. And my million times grandmother the Shoreline Ape. 

Friday, 2 September 2016

Narratives and Magnetic Ideas.

My new novel The Bad Child is  at last out there now strutting her stuff  (I hope you're taking a look at her...) And I've just about completed my creative contribution to the fascinating Damselfly Books Website.  

And now, like other professional writers I find there's this nagging question in my ear. So what next, Wendy. What next? The usually cluttered storytelling attic that is my head is disturbingly empty. But the truth is that the creative nature abhors a vacuum and ideas are beginning to settle in up there, coming into a new life. There they are, swirling about, making patterns in the air.

It seems to me that once an idea has settled there firmly in  my attic  head, it begins to attract fragments of memory and the urge to make notes, read books and absorb further inspiration. These things are like iron filings dancing around in the dusty air, making shapes around the intensely powerful magnet that is the new story idea. The shapes are not fixed. They can change with every movement of the magnet. The iron filings may consist of historical sources, images, artefacts, songs, stories, maps, photographs  and actual landscapes.

This was very much the case  with my Celtic/Roman novel The Pathfinder. The first
The Book
The Kindle
fragment settling clinging to a wall in the attic was an article I read about what are called  Lines of Desire.  Then, somehow, I kept bumping into elements of  this idea in different books, articles in the press and on the Internet.

The term Lines of Desire refers to the facts that, for several thousands of years, straight  roads and pathways were naturally formed by the foot-tread and the wheel marks of generations of men, women and children making their way - not just through Britain -  but throughout Europe and even further afield. These pathways were established as travellers and traders, families and individuals, made their way through the landscape, going about their business of their daily life.

Lines of Desire is still referred to today in urban planning to describe the roads that are made on new ground as people find their own straight way usually the shortest distance between two points in a landscape.

Of course, this ie very efficient,  as the Romans demonstrated this merely two thousand years ago, when they used many of the old straight British paths as the basis for  their straight roads throughout Britain. Of course the business the Romans were going about was the conquest of the then known world. Their roads were certainly their own lines of desire.

In the beginning my novel The Pathfinder was actually entitled Lines of Desire. But as I moved the magnet again around my attic as the story grew, I began to think that title ambiguous, too off-piste

I was becoming fascinated by the complex and interesting lives of the original Pathfinders, often left in the shadow of the powerful Roman definitions of early British history. One more shake of the magnet and out stepped my heroine   Elen,  a great Pathfinder, daughter of another Pathfinder, a powerful British tribal trading king, in in the land we now call Wales.   

At last I could see that my job as a writer was to use my imagination to bring to life this landscape, these people those times, these forefathers of my readers, these unique people. My prose has to allow my readers to experience the reality of Elen’s world, her powerful father, her artistic mother, he warrior brothers; the brother who was a poet and a song-maker. I had  to breathe life into her the man who became her husband, husband a Roman general, and trace their joint pathway through the history of their times. to trace their impact on history,

And now at last I have come to the end of another two years and finished the next
Book and Kindle
 entirely different story The Bad Child. I have spent a year or so in the modern world alongside the rebellious Dee Belasis who has decided not to speak. But she can draw. Boy can she draw!  

But the magnet does its magic again. I was halfway through the novel - still inside  Dee’s un-speaking head - when by accident I heard a Radio 4 programme about drawing and the making of meaning and idea which fitted my story like a glove. It gave another player to the whole narrative.

It’s a funny way to make a living isn’t it?  Playing iron filings and magnets to make my stories swing into real life,.  

And what, you may say, is the next Magnetic Idea ?
I was just asking that myself.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Time and the Writer

We all have a lifetime’s training in time and waiting. 

On Amazon PB 
On Amazon Kindle 
Waiting to start school. Waiting for exam results. Waiting to meet The One. Waiting for medical news. Waiting in vain for someone to turn up. Waiting to give birth. Waiting for your child to start school. Waiting for your article to be in the paper. Waiting for your publisher to make a decision.

This lifetime’s training in waiting and time is useful to a writer.

 ‘How long does it take to write a novel? A short story?’ is a regular question when meet people in talks or workshops. I resist saying how long is a piece of string? I do mention that Barbara Cartland wrote dozens of novels a year and JK Rowling apparently took five years to write the first Harry Potter novel. 

My own answer is that it takes about eighteen months for me to research and write each novel. I can only conclude that because I’m looking back at quite a few.

A big part of the novelist’s toolkit is the management of time. I was reminded of this recently when editing my latest novel The Bad Child.

Questions of time for the editing process 
      How does time feature in lives of the characters for the duration of the novel?  A day? (See Ian McKewan’s Saturday)  A month? (See JL Carr’s A Month in the Country.) My own new one  takes place over a year in the life of twelve year old Dee. A generation? Almost any saga of families of high or low estate. Of course embedded within these novels – such is the magic of fiction – is the whole of the lives of the characters within them.

·    A most important time question in the editing process is how does the narrative deal with time? Does it jump backwards or forwards in invigorating leaps? Does it run forward smoothly, almost unnoticed? Most importantly how will this work for the reader?

·    Then there’s an important question regarding the timescale of the background of the narrative. War campaign? A political campaign?  The duration of a strike? (See my novel Lizza.) A day of festivities such as Bonfire Night or the Coronation? Your decision is whether you mark this element of time as a distinctive aspect of your novel or let it act as an unobtrusive background, perhaps making the story more generic, more universal.
     Importance of time in the editing process.If you have let the novel grow organically as I tend to, it’s really only at the editing stage that you realise just what you’ve done and how you’ve done it. This is when you make sure that it will work for the reader. It’s something like   fiddling with the innards of a clock to make sure it will tick away accurately on the background of your life. Once the job is finished, you don’t need to see the works of a clock to feel that time is significant in your life. The reader doesn’t need cues and clues to notice the passing of time in a novel unless the background is essential to the way the narrative works.

Stop Press:shiny copies of my new novel The Bad Child have just arrived. Early readers have commented that it ‘races along’. I was not so conscious of that when I was writing it. My preoccupation with the passing of time must have bitten deep into my soul and the pace of this novel – one year in a child’s life - is at the level of writer’s intuition, which is where it should be.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Floating Free after Finishing The Bad Child,

 I’ve just completed my newest novel The Bad Child, about twelve year old Dee, the misfit in her family, who decides not to speak at all. 

Now I’m floating free! Now I’m breathing great sighs of relief and satisfaction. This novel has been a joy to write. To know it is truly finished I have to be pleased with it and very sure it’s as perfect as I can make it.

The writing life is cyclic, offering different writing, emotional, inventive challenges at each point in the cycle. Writing a novel is an organic process, born of a glimpse, a thought, a new insight perhaps a year or two before.

 This could be a line from a book or a newspaper, an overheard
conversation, an image that fixes in the mind, a linked memory from childhood. When I have embraced this core idea I cast around and start to think, talk, scribble, and dream stories around this core idea in both my waking and sleeping life until it becomes a solid reality in my mind.

At last, into this mass of notes, ideas, research and story-telling, walks a distinctive character with a mind of her own.Then another. And another. These characters begin speaking to each other in different tones and accents, with different agendas and priorities in their lives. At one point I wake up with their conversations in my head.

And somehow out of this inchoate mass of stuff emerges a sense of a beginning, Eventually I manage to write a beginning that locks
these characters into  their certain time, their certain place, with their certain preoccupations. With my imagination now fully charged, the novel insinuates itself into my daily life, somewhere near the centre. And I write. And write.

Now and then, as I write on, I have to slow down just to check that the story I’m writing today has grown properly out of my yesterday’s prose, and that of the day before, and the week and even the year before.

So, after working for a year or so in this way I find that this self-willed creation begins to move towards  its close and I find myself
looking for a sense of an ending. Now is the time to  slow down again, to make the best ending that for this particular the story. If - as I do - you write close to real life, then ending a novel is not easy. The ending has to fit the narrative logic bedded in this story’s organic growth. As well as this, the ending has to imply a new logic, a new organic possibility, a spurt of new life – life beyond the story.

With The Bad Child I changed the ending four times before I thought it worked.

Once the end has been written, it’s time to put on my cap and gown and be my own editor – to check every word, every line, every paragraph for correct meaning, syntax, and spelling. I must check that time, place and characterisation serve the consistency and the dynamism of the story. At this point I usually read the prose out loud to check its that the sound flows.

Now the manuscript is as perfect as I can make it.

In the end, like any intelligent writer, I understand that my novel just cannot be perfect. The story has its own existence inside of me and I am not sufficiently objective to catch every flaw. 

And, like any intelligent writer, I know that my story needs a skilled, outside editor and proof-reader (not a ‘friendly reader’) before it can go out there into the cold world. This wizard of a person will inevitably pick up snags and flaws that I, with the narrative events printed on my soul, will have missed.

I discovered my own eagle-eyed editor/proof-reader  CliveJohnson two books ago. Since then I’ve realised that once the manuscript been through his capable hands I can proceed with confidence to the further challenges of designing the cover and going through the process onto publication.

Then the book will be published and my characters walk out there in the world.

Oh joy!  The time has come for me to start floating free again in the outside world, catching gossamer words and images in my mind that will eventually provide me with an organic core for an exciting new novel which will keep me alive and kicking, thinking, imagining and writing for the next eighteen months.

I am realising now that the nature of my floating-free process ensures that each novel is distinct from the others; a different species perhaps. This difference keeps me fascinated and- I hope – my valued readers intrigued.

Below you can see samples of  initial  art Work in Progress for the cover of    The Bad Child who  will be out there in the world walking alone in late August with a launch in early September.


You can observe these differences on my Amazon collection.  As you see, every novel is different. That's part of the fun

Writing at the Maison Bleue Contemporary novel set in the Languedoc On Kindle: and In Paperback  

Historical novel set in the cross-piece of Celtic Society and Roman occupation of Britain)

Clive Johnson Editor/Proofreader

Saturday, 9 July 2016

WIP What Dee Sees From her Deck

Clouds sitting on  the horizon
Flushes of greenery halfway up the slopes. 
Sunshine on one fell, shadows on the next
Rocks a rainbow of slate colours: 
blue, grey, brown, white, furred with lichen. 
(Look up lichen on your tablet, Dee
The wake of a passing boat rippling towards the shore. 
Shining on the surface as though someone has 
blown a bubble of lake. The trees lean over, 
preening in their reflection. 
The sun slashes a green path towards the lake 
that  widens like a smile.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Marseillan Family Retrospective: Meaning in Photographs

I was tempted to call this 'The Sixth Postcard from Marseillan'. But that would be cheating. 

I'm home again and going through the last ritual of unpacking - sorting through the photographs.
For you, here is a selection of Sean and my photographs. (His are the good ones...)

Every picture tells a story  of a time, a place, and great warm relationships. To complete the story scroll back to Postcards 1-5.




Wish you'd been there


Monday, 27 June 2016

Postcard 4 Poems, Morning and Sounds on the Lagoon,


Bright silver
morning sun crashing
onto the lagoon
breaking into
shards of
diamond light that shoal together
before breaking onto
the shore

Sounds on the Lagoon

The buzz of the coffee machine
The tap of a joiner’s hammer
The murmur of
considered conversations
Ducks quacking after their ducklings
The murderous shriek of seagulls,
loudest before it
The clanging of a ship’s bell
The click of masts chiming
The whine of wind driving
through a hundred spinnakers
The boom of a boat’s engine
ploughing through the water
the shush of its wake as
it streams through the water
leaving a creamy line
on its pulsing surface
The chirp and chatter
of children in ten  tiny boats,
being towed in a line,
like ducklings in a row.


Au Revoir

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Postcard 3, The Strawberry Moon and the EU Referendum

We watched for the ‘Strawberry Moon’ on Midsummer Night. This appears as the full moon coincides with Midsummer’s Eve, which only happens once in 47 years. Apparently it’s pink because it reflects at this time the sands of the Sahara. (How small is our world…)

I was thinking that 'primitve' people would - many times forty seven years ago - would have seen in as a great portent for the world. We watched as the moon rose, a delicate pale pink with its reflection in the waters of the lagoon.
I was thrilled to witness this phenomenon and there was much talk about it on the balcony. It has also almost superseded the talk about the Referendum.*. (‘Remain’ is winning all round....)
And then yesterday – the following evening – sitting on the balcony we watched the fullish moon rise in a deeper and even more distinctive rosy hue. In time its colour faded to butter yellow, then cream. But this time it started out even more strawberry pink than the night before. 
A perfect piece of holiday magic.
A propos. The youngest member our company  had us watching a brilliant University of Liverpool video were EU law expert  Professor Michael Dougan makes the soundest and impressively logical argument for us to remain in Europe. 

Apparently this video has gone viral. I hope everyone who votes today has listened to this coherent and unbiased discussion, Article HERE   

Two strawberry moons will, I hope, be a symbol for our more vibrant presence in Europe and good times ahead.

Au revoir

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Postcard 2 from Marseillan: Two Towns

Marseillan and Agde

We are staying in Marseillan, a small seaport between the larger Agde and the even larger Sête. Here, boats, surfboarders,  sailors anf holiday makers promenade on the newly laid shoreline path. 

To my left is a large-masted boat, apparently permanently docked. To my right is a large residential boat evolved from a barge – holiday accommodation of some kind. Yesterday we saw a chef in whites go aboard. There’s posh. And beyond that is a web of tinkling, small masted vessels clicking in the morning sun. Round the corner cafes line the quayside, each different in style and flavour. Such easy walking distance for that early morning cafe et croissant. 

Something near to Heaven perhaps.

With #lickedspoon in charge the wonderful food in the apartment is de rigeur, of course. And the talk has been good, referring to brilliant food writers – Ruth Reichl is a new discovery for me. We’ve also been reading the subtle Helen Simpson, the sharp-eyed   Alice Munro, the spiky Nell Zink – another new discovery for me.
We have ironic Muriel Spark as well as the sublime Norah Ephron who defines the creative process – in journalism, fiction and film – with finesse, political insight and humour. Re-reading her pieces is a refreshing writer’s education. And in crime we have Stephen Leather and James Craig. And – appropriate for the Football fest – John Cross’s biography of Arsene Wenger.

As usual S is winning for the annual ‘reading race’ - for reading the most books. His Kindle could be his secret weapon.

Recently we visited nearby Agde. This town is where we first
experienced the peculiar magic of the Languedoc - for several years renting a slice of a medieval fortress in the centre of the this very ancient market town, with its layers of history going back to the time when the Languedoc was not even part of France. It was always a port, welcoming traders from the the North, the East and the middle East – rich enough to be a target for pirates and invaders, and making a valuable access the mainland Europe.

With its feeling of a medieval market, this flourishing and crowded space is pure theatre.  Many of the customers are local, comingto the same place as their fathers and grandfathers   both to buy and to sell. 

All kinds of goods are for sale - from scarves and shirts to shoes and cheese, from bread and fruit to meat and soap.Essentially local, it provides a vibrant backdrop us people passing through. The sprinkling of visitors sit in the cafes and relish the distinctive drama.

 The town of Agde inspired a popular novel of mine called An Englishwoman in France, where the past and the present are curiously intermingled . It is also the focus of my novel Writing at The Maison Bleue. And in its ancient form it also plays a role in The Pathfinder. See if you can recognise it in that one. 

Did I tell you this place is inspiring for writers?

had coffee in the Plazza Cafe the Market Square then I filtered down the narrow old streets with their vague sense of threat, to the Cafe Capitaine on the quayside for a welcome glass of the rose wine of  the Languedoce

Needless to say I did a bit of scribbling…
Au revoir 


Saturday, 18 June 2016

Postcard 1 from Marseillan. Arrivé

A dark challenging winter meant that  for me this  holiday has been the most welcome ever.

As the plane landed in Montpellier I knew I could finally breathe out.  S. drove us through the  yellow and ochre landscape of South West  France, wiping out the memory of the lush green lanes of Yorkshire as we drove from County Durham to the airport.

Well, we got here. Nous arrivons. My dear sister was worried that we might be caught up in the ‘football riots.’ No worries. Wrong place.

Of course - three of four of us being football fans - we settled down to watch some matches on TV – no talking heads, just football, a accompanied by the soothing sub-murmur of the French commentary. Even I enjoyed it.

This apartment overlooks the Etang de Thau, the huge lagoon that sits alongside the Mediterranean. People drift by on the road below our balcony  – sun-tanned sailing types, couples hand in hand, smooth haired teenagers, mature cyclists, a small boy on skates and a little girl on a tiny scooter.

At the next table in the market café yesterday was a cluster of brown whipcord-fit middle aged cyclists, laughing and preparing for their ride. Couples pass by – the men middle-aged, solid and fit, the women smart in pedal pushers and leather sandals.

Our favourite companion here is Barney, silent in the flush of conversation, wise in his silence. His  French is improving, although he hasn't managed to lose his aversion to French bulldogs. He can sense them round the corner, one floor down, before they bustle into sight.

The apartment is elegant, pale walls, pale furniture,  natural wood,  with vast windows looking out in the étang, overcast now with streaming clouds. Yachts of all sizes turn to make their way into the harbour. 

The company is first class - as well as Barney we have the witty gourmet  lickedspoon, the problem- solving techno wizard and the English gentleman. And me. All Francophiles.

I never felt more European. And I voted to stay in, to live on in history alongside the engaging, down-to-earth French

Au revoir


PS And then there are the books we're reading, But that will take another postcard...


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