Thursday, 19 December 2013

Chasing Stars with a Butterfly Net

[As this is my last blog post until January 2nd, I'm putting up more than a snippet this week. This is a short story written earlier this year for a competition on the theme of 'Stars'. I hope you enjoy it. May I wish everyone a joyous holiday, whatever you celebrate, and a peaceful New Year. See you in 2014.] 
After the funeral, Amy’s grandparents took her to live with them on the farm. Clambering down from the back of the battered, muddy Land Rover, her gaze was drawn to the wide patch of light making a path from her feet, across the yard and through the field towards the horizon where a creamy cratered moon stared down on her.  She leaned backwards against the vehicle and gasped as she slowly took in the display above her head. Orion’s Belt, the Plough, the Great Bear plus many others she couldn’t name; and threading through them all, the glowing arch of the Milky Way. As a well-educated teenager with an interest in science, she recognised these phenomena from the books she’d read and the television programmes she’d watched with her parents. But as a city girl visiting the Devon countryside for the first time in many years, this was a whole new experience. 

"Do you think they’re up there somewhere, Gramps?” she asked, her voice breaking and the tears she’d held back on the long drive from London finally beginning to slide down her cheeks. Her grandfather sighed and stood for a long time with his arm around her shoulder before speaking. She was beginning to think he hadn’t heard her question.

“I don’t know, poppet,” he said finally, “maybe they are. You know, in ancient times,” he continued, “they used to believe that every person on earth is represented by a star. When Fate decides your time is up, she snips the thread anchoring the star in place in the heavens.”

“And the star goes out?”
“Well, maybe, but only after making its way spectacularly to the afterlife.” He squeezed her shoulders and bent to wipe the tears from her cheeks. “Come child, let’s go in. Tomorrow night, I’ll take you to watch their final journey.”
“Nanny, are you sure you don’t want to come with us,” Amy said the next evening as she and her grandfather collected together blankets, torches and a flask of hot chocolate.
“Good gracious no, child,” laughed her grandmother, “My star-gazing days are over. I’ll just settle down with my new Dick Francis until you get back.”

The young girl and the old man walked across the field and threw down their blankets on a clear piece of grass next to the pond. Switching off the torches, they lay flat on their backs and waited for the show to begin.

Amy knew shooting stars were really meteors, small particles of debris burning up as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere. But right now, she didn’t need the science or the truth. She needed a way to connect with her parents, snatched from her suddenly, shockingly, by a careless driver, while she was at a friend’s birthday party.

“They go so quickly,” she whispered. “If only I could hold on to one of them.”

As the Perseids meteor shower fizzed and crackled above her head, she tried closing her eyes, capturing the images, but although the stars flickered briefly against her closed lids, they soon disappeared.
“The Greeks believed a shooting star was good luck,” said her grandfather.        

“Maybe we should see if we could track one, see where it falls.”
“Or better still, catch it in mid-flight,” laughed Amy. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright. “Gramps, I’ve got an idea! Can we come back tomorrow?”
When the pair left the farmyard for their starry theatre the next evening, Amy had an old butterfly net tucked under her arm. As they lay watching the display, she tried to wrap the net around each of the fiery trails. Her head told her it was an impossibility, but part of her still had to keep trying; the part of her that wanted to believe if she could catch her parents’ stars she would be able to keep them with her a bit longer.
“No, that was someone else,” she would whisper each time she missed. “When
it’s you, I’ll know.”
Amy didn’t catch her shooting star that night, nor any night that week. As August gave way to September, she started at her new school and star-gazing was replaced, at her grandmother’s insistence, with homework and early nights. As time passed, the hurt became less of a sharp knife in her stomach and more like a dull ache that could be ignored most of the time. 
Every year, in the middle of August, Amy and Gramps would cross the field and lie staring at the stars. She never really gave up the hope that she would catch a star, but as she grew older, she swapped the butterfly net for a camera. Even when she left the farm to travel the world, taking pictures of other places, other constellations, she still tried to return in August, to share a week of star-gazing with the old man, especially after her grandmother passed away.

But this year, it was too late. She’d got the call while she was on a photo shoot in Kenya. A heart attack, a short, sharp shock and it was all over. Standing at the graveside where her beloved Gramps was now reunited with his wife, Amy smiled through her tears.

“I guess you’ll have a ringside seat at the show this year Gramps,” she said, “and no doubt Nanny will be keeping you company once more. But don’t worry, I won’t be alone either. I’ve brought someone with me; I think you’d like him.” Then, dropping her flowers on the grave, she turned away to where her new boyfriend, Ian, stood waiting for her. He was an astronomer; they’d met when she’d attended a lecture he’d given on The Myths and Realities of Shooting Stars.

Late that night, Amy and Ian left the farm she now owned, carrying blankets, torches and hot chocolate. They crossed the field to lie under the stars and say farewell to Gramps. And for one last time, Amy had a butterfly net tucked under her arm.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Banishing the Demon: Reflections on NaNoWriMo

As someone with a science education, working for thirty plus years in a highly technical industry, nano has always had a specific meaning: Used primarily in the metric system, it is the prefix denoting a billionth, a factor of ten to the minus nine or 0.000000001. In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about nanoscience and nanotechnology, the study and application of extremely small things.
But for the past few years, it has had a very different meaning to me and many other writers — and this time it’s big, very big — and it’s written differently. NaNo is short for NaNoWriMo, which itself is short for National Novel Writing Month. In 1999, founder Chris Baty and 21 other writers set themselves a challenge: to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Six of them completed the challenge. Over the years, the number of participants has grown and this year 320,671 took part. I was one of them - and for the first time in three attempts, I completed the challenge.
“I kill people for a living” is the way author Chris Nickson describes his crime-writing; descriptions based on other genres might be “I am a serial matchmaker”, “I put people in dangerous situations and then watch them struggle to get free,” or “I invent new worlds and new species”. Writers are a real mixed bunch, but we have one thing in common: we are all insecure about our work. I suspect there isn’t a writer now or in the past who hasn’t thought at some point this is rubbish; no-one’s going to read it.
When I first started to write fiction, a good friend told me it would ruin the pleasure of reading for me. She told me about the little demon who would sit on my shoulder, critiquing everything I read, examining the structure, the use of language, the characterisation, rather than letting me just concentrate on the story. She was right; members of the my book group often tell me I read differently from the rest of them.
But my friend didn’t warn me that the little demon would be even more vocal when I am writing than when I am reading. Sometimes it's difficult to concentrate for the voice of derision shouting in my ear. But not in November! During NaNo, I sent that demon on holiday and just wrote; it was an exercise in creativity, in pure quantity not quality. And it was such good fun. I’d given myself permission to write complete rubbish; I didn’t need to edit it in any way (that will come later).
I didn’t want to start a new novel; I’m still working on the one which began life as 6,000 words written during my first NaNo attempt in 2006. So I decided to use my word quota to write short stories, to build up my work-in-progress file for 2014 competitions, submissions and anthologies.  I aimed for 25 at 2,000 words each. The scientist in me knew I needed a structure to work with, so in the weeks leading up to 1st November, while colleagues were thinking up plot structures and jotting down notes on characters (planning is allowed, pre-writing isn’t), I made up three bags full of slips of paper: characters, locations and behaviours. Each time I finished a story, I pulled another slip from each bag, spent a few hours thinking about the ideas, and then went for it.
Over the course of the month, I wrote about a prudent teacher on a village green; a relentless student in a doctor’s surgery; a lustful chimney sweep on a bus; a hopeful shop assistant at an archaeological dig — and many more. I wrote twenty-three stories, well twenty two and a half, really. On 28th November, I hit 50,022 words — and stopped. Not actually mid-sentence, but certainly mid-story. This last one is a bit different; it’s a murder mystery in the style of Midsomer and it’s certainly way too long for a short story. Perhaps I did start a second novel after all. Maybe I’ll finish it in the New Year — or maybe I’ll hold it over until next November and write the rest of it then.
It’s now more than two weeks since NaNo finished and I’ve had time to reflect on what I got out of it. There’s the obvious sense of satisfaction of completing the task; I’m sure my Facebook and Twitter friends will excuse me displaying the ‘winner’ logo for just a little while longer. There’s a good stock of story drafts waiting for me to edit and polish in January. There’s the sense of camaraderie from knowing that so many other writers are doing the same thing at the same time all around the world. There’s the fun in watching the graph on the NaNo site grow each time the word count is updated  On the downside, there’s the stiff neck and sore back from sitting at the laptop so long every day (but they went after a couple of hot baths).
Most of all, there is the joy of just writing, without judgement, without criticism, without any sense of guilt at not producing perfect prose first time around. And that’s one benefit that I’m hoping to keep hold of until the same time next year. 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Looking and Seeing

[Back in September, I wrote about a day spent with Chudleigh Writers' Circle in the garden of one of the members. Then it was all about the bigger picture, snapshots and the memories they invoked. This week's snippet came from an exercise in looking at one particular spot.]

From a distance, we see the shape; it is short compared to its neighbours, the overshadowing firs. The trunk is dark and straight; its branches splay out in all directions — yes, that’s right — exactly like Sideshow Bob, although his hair is red and those branches are green.

Walk closer with me, but take care for the ground is uneven. From here, the trunk is shorter, overshadowed and overgrown by the branches. And most point downwards and out to the side. They remind me of that photo of water dropping into a puddle, the splashes frozen in time. And the colour is no longer uniform; splashes of paler green and red appear among the dark forest hue of the leaves.

And now, as we move closer still, standing at eye-level with the tree, the trunk is no more than a shadow, a dark impression coated in robes of jungle green and red, like legs glimpsed through summer skirts in sunlight. The branches now divide into a chorus line supporting just one star that, centre-stage, takes its bow before this eager audience. A spiky, shiny skirt on silver limbs gives way to apple gingham, reds and greens both pale and dark.
But wait, our vision blurs and jumps in fear as a striped defender inspects the visitors. Keep still and feel the merest touch, as the guard checks us out, decides we will not harm her tree, and flies off to other business.
And finally, we reach the centre-point, the mid-point, the whole point of this journey. We looked at a tree, but now we see instead a different shape, a different colour, a pale apple green and rosy blushing fruit that is the point of everything.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Elizabeth Chats with...Simon Hall

[My guest this month is a broadcaster, a reporter, a novelist, a speaker and an all-round nice guy. I've seen Simon Hall present heart-rending reports on BBC Spotlight; enthuse school children to be junior reporters; and make an audience crack up with his tales of frozen road-kill and talking to the WI. I found him utterly believable in each situation.]

Simon Hall in his beloved Exeter
Good Morning Simon and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Let's start by finding out: if you had to escape from a fire, what three things would you take with you?
My notebooks with all my ideas for books, stories, characters and teaching. My hedgehog, Bert – he’s been with me since university and is a great companion. And lastly, my wonderful collection of awful ties.
A collection of which Simon is justifiably proud...

Yes, I've seen some of those ties; I guess that's why Bert wears sunglasses. Now, where is your favourite place on earth — and why?
Colleton Crescent, Exeter – because it’s so symbolic of my home city, with wonderful views of the river – a fantastic place to stop for a few minutes and reflect, or just to enjoy the spectacle.
How do you relax?
Running around the River Exe, which I’m fortunate to have flowing near my home. I watch the geese, ducks, swans and cormorants go about their pantomime of life and think my way through the writing projects I’m working on.
The view from Colleton Crescent at dusk
If you knew you only had 24 hours left, how would you spend them?
Telling all my friends and family how much they meant, and all they did for me.
Describe your ideal menu — and where would you like to eat it?
Mexican food, in a traditional pub setting. Spicy cuisine and real ale; an all round winner for me.
What would be in your ‘Room 101’?
Being forced to eat semolina at a great height.
If you could meet one person from history, who would it be — and why?
George Orwell, my writing hero. I’d like to know – how do you do it so deceptively simply, yet so damned well?
What would you have printed on the front of your T-shirt?
I’m not as strange as I look.
Bert the Hedgehog may not agree...
Would you describe yourself as left-brain (analytical), right-brain (intuitive) or a mix of both?
Both, luckily. It’s a quiet gift (and rare) but a very precious one.
Simon, I’ve set the earlier questions; now it’s your turn: Write the last question yourself and use it to tell us something about yourself, your life or your work.
My question is: Who’s your biggest influence in life?
And my answer: My father. For his gentleness, his wit and humour, his warmth, his principles and most of all, his love. He set me out in the world so very well, taught me so much and I shall miss him always.
Simon, many thanks for talking to us today.
If you want to read more from, and about, Simon Hall, you will find his website here.  Details of his TV Detective novels can be found here.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Peace is Not at Home

[For the past 20 years, I have been lucky enough to visit Russia many times and my experiences and impressions colour much of my writing. This piece was written after a visit to Yekaterinburg.]
Screams rise from the earth and walls bleed pain; memories of children dying for their parents’ deeds. 
She pauses with her hand on the door, wondering if she should leave, but all is silent now and her feet draw her onwards, inwards. She had come here to think, maybe to find peace.  Away from the streets with its souvenir stalls and milling crowds.  Too early for guided tours, too late for the morning service, she is temporarily alone. 
Unlike other Orthodox churches — dark, with smoke-blackened wood, ancient icons, incense and melodic voices — this is built in honey-coloured stone and seems warm, without the draughts she has come to expect.  Sunlight through the windows in the cupola illuminates the murals and mosaics, colours bursting from the walls.  The altar screen is delicately carved.  There is no singing; just a reverential hush.
This should be a haven of peace and tranquillity.    People come in groups to share the joy of weddings and christenings, the solemnity of a funeral.  They come alone to pray or meditate; no-one bothers them as they stand in contemplation.
But she shivers as the echo of horror and violence bathes her once more in waves of frigid air.  This ‘Church on the Blood’ was once the Ipatiev House where five children were shot and bayoneted in atonement for their parents’ excesses. A family born to privilege and power, surrounded by controversy and finally overtaken by history.  Their bodies, burnt with acid and thrown into a pit in the forest, had lain unknown for more than half a century. They are now the object of pilgrimage for thousands.
As she crosses the open space below the huge dome, she hears their shades calling to her once more.  In a small alcove behind the altar, a photograph of the Romanov family sits on a pillar at the epicentre of the terror. She sees and smells the blood, feels the fear, hears the screams.  Whatever else she might find here, peace is not at home. 
She heads for the doorway and fresh air, passing other early morning visitors.  She wonders how they can be so calm and at peace.  Don’t they hear the echoes of the past?

Monday, 2 December 2013

Business of Writing: Sources of Advice

[No sooner has November (and NaNoWriMo) faded into history than we are in December and the long, slow run up to Christmas. Except that it's not slow at all. In my town, as in many others, the season started with the Advent Service yesterday and swings into full action with the Christmas Fayre and lights switch-on this Thursday, an event with which I'm heavily involved and which is taking up rather a lot of time at present. So I hope you will forgive a slight rehash this week, especially as this is a topic of great importance to many writers (and other small business owners as well).]

All businesses, whether limited companies, partnerships or sole traders need legal advice on occasion, for example when we are setting up our business, signing contracts or drafting our wills. The obvious option, and one that many businesses will use, is to engage a lawyer.

However, that is not a low-cost solution and there are alternatives that can be explored. There is the Business Link helpline which provides a quick response service for simple questions about starting or running a business or a more in-depth service for complex enquiries. There is the Citizens’ Advice Bureau which would be able to provide support to individuals, but probably not to limited companies. Or there are business support organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses which provides members with legal and financial advice. As writers, we have our own support via the Society of Authors which can help members with queries relating to the business of writing. Services include the confidential, individual vetting of contracts, and help with professional disputes.   

I’ve often found the answer to a query on the HMRC website, but there are also helplines that deal with specific questions, such as the New Employers Helpline, the New Self Employed Helpline, the Self Assessment Helpline and the VAT Helpline. These numbers can be found via a quick internet search.
So whatever our query or problem, there will be someone who can help us, either for free or as a paid service, depending on the circumstances. It’s worth being aware of all these services, so we can call on them rapidly if we need them.

What sources of advice do you find most useful? What would be your first port of call if you have a legal query?