Archive for July, 2012

Housework rules! picture source:

No. It doesn’t.
[picture source:

I’m currently having a slight crisis of confidence in the protagonist of my work in progress, Kikimora.

Very loosely based on Slavic folklore, the story is set in 17th century Hungary and follows the life of a girl created by a grumpy magician for the sole purpose of terrorising the local miners and driving them away from his mountain home.

During the course of the story, Kikimora comes to empathise with the miners and question her duty to the magician, whom she thinks of as her father.

So far, so good. The problem I’m having is that for the first half of the book, Kikimora’s defining characteristic seems to be a great willingness to do all kinds of housework :-/ Rest assured, she has far more interesting things to do in the second half – but I’m worried my readers may have abandoned her in disgust by then.

This is in fact just one aspect of a greater dilemma I’ve been having regarding realism versus telling a good story.

While researching what would occupy the days of my 17th century characters I began to fully appreciate quite what a big deal housekeeping was in the days before fridges, vacuum cleaners, electric ovens, gas stoves, irons, washing machines, indoor plumbing, disinfectant, rubber gloves, antiseptic… You can read about the daily toil here.

Floors needed scrubbing. Pots needed scrubbing. Many households produced their own preserves, beer, cured meats. They kept livestock, which would need daily attention. Vermin were a constant nuisance, and had to be kept from the food stores. Much of the clothing would be homemade; holes would be darned; clothes which grew too tight would be let out. Firewood would be needed for cooking and heating the home.

My protagonist, Kikimora does not shun all this drudgery housework. She embraces it. Partly this is due to the folklore the story is based on – the original Slavic Kikimora was a household spirit, assisting respectful housewives in their daily tasks, and playing tricks on those who angered her. That’s the author reason. But the character’s reason for embracing housework is because it is the exact opposite of what she is supposed to do. She was created to be a monster. Her duty is to terrorise. But she’s really not that keen on her duty.

The heroine of my all time favourite book, Howl’s Moving Castle was also quite enthusiastic about housework, and I didn’t think any less of her for it. Personally I detest housework.* It is the quickest way I know to get sweaty, bad tempered and bring back to roaring life all the aches and pains my yoga, pilates, hot showers and regular (self administered) neck massage barely keeps at bay.

During the course of the story Kikimora makes up her own mind about what she believes and what she will fight for.

Ultimately I think I’m content with the feminist credentials of my protagonist. But what do you think? Am I over-thinking it? Is it even an issue? I’d love some opinions on the matter.

* I don’t count cooking as housework – though I know many people do. Cooking is creative. Cooking is enjoyable. Cooking garners praise, wonder and gratitude. None of these things are true of housework (especially gratitude, for some reason).

I must have been feeling pretty arrogant confident the day I decided to write a novel set four centuries ago in a country I have never visited, and largely concerning an industry about which I know little – either in the present time, or how it was practised in the past.

My work in progress, Kikimora, has required a LOT of research. And every time I think I’ve done enough and can get back on with the story, I immediately butt up against another detail I’m not quite sure about…

Shane MacGowan of the Pogues

Shane MacGowan of the Pogues
[picture source:]

18 months in I reached a turning point when I realised that making it too realistic would spoil the story.

Life was pretty miserable in the 17th century. It was squalid, rough, and disease-ridden. Justice and equality had far less meaning or import than class. Life was cheap, and none more so than peasant life.

Modern sensibilities do not sit easily on that foundation. We have to prettify it a little in order to connect with the characters. We would struggle to empathise with romantic leads who in their eventual clinch bring together sore lips, blackened teeth and foul breath; who are unaware of the concepts of tooth cleaning and deodorant; who might perhaps take a bath once a month, at best.

It’s good to bring in a taste of realism, of course. A certain grittiness is pleasant to read about as we sit in comfy, padded chairs in heated rooms, sipping hot drinks and nibbling chocolate biscuits. But too much realism would be overwhelming.

This is just one area in which reading has the advantage over watching films. Film-makers create their exact vision of the characters, sets, costumes, etc, and we the viewers see those characters and sets exactly the same way the creator did, and exactly the same way all the other viewers will.

But when we read a book there is a veil between what the author wrote and what we visualise in our minds. We might all read ‘dimpled cheeks’ or ‘kind eyes’, but the character I picture in my mind will be different to the character you see – and both will be different to the author’s vision.

Similarly, it is easy to ignore unpleasant details (so long as the author isn’t constantly bashing you over the head with them). You might know objectively that the historical protagonists will almost certainly have rotten teeth by their age, but since you can’t see it, and if the author doesn’t mention it, then it’s quite simple to picture them with beautiful white smiles. Most of the time I doubt we’re even aware that we’re censoring realism for a more pleasant storytelling experience.

It is far more glaring to watch a historically-set film but notice the heroine’s immaculately sculpted eyebrows, hairless armpits, carefully applied make-up, and perfectly straight, white, teeth.

A late update to this (April 2015)

I actually love Joe Abercrombie’s recent work, Half the World, and the grimy, awkward sex his protagonists eventually enjoy – all sour breath and uncertainty, but none the less passionate for it.

I have been so busy promoting Darklands, that I haven’t had much chance to work on my new novel, Kikimora recently. The first draft was completed some months ago, but I’m still in the middle of a large edit and rewrite.

This is the first chapter:

Anatoly took a card from the pile, sighed, and laid it back down on the table. “They have trampled a road all the way across the lower slopes and up to their infernal workings,” he said. “Once the river ran cold and clear. Now it is bitter with sulphur. The Rusalka have been driven from their home. It is bad, my friends, bad indeed.”

“But what is to be done?” asked Leshy, picking fretfully at the dried leaves caught in his beard.

The North Wind puffed out his ruddy cheeks, and roared, “They need teaching a lesson! They’re getting too big for their boots.”

“Another dozen trees felled today,” said Leshy. “That makes-” He paused, bringing short, hairy toes up to the table to assist his counting. But finding that he was still far short of the necessary digits, threw his hands up in the air. “Too many! Too many of my trees hacked down and burned. And not a single token or sacrifice left in exchange. My time is done. I may as well lay down and die right now.”

Leshy’s gloom made the North Wind chuckle, and his wheezy gusts blew the playing cards from the table so that they fell all in disarray upon the flagstones. Leshy complained that he’d just built a good hand, but that it was now lost – as all his endeavours seemed doomed to failure and insignificance.

That made the North Wind laugh even more, so that spiders fell from the roof beams down onto the dresser, and one fell into Leshy’s hair. But Leshy didn’t notice, and the spider seemed quite content there.

Anatoly said nothing, but drummed his long fingers on the table top. It was dark with grease, and splashed with tallow drips from countless candles. The squalor of it irked him all of a sudden. He found himself imagining Yevgenia’s pretty nose wrinkling in distaste, and he determined that tomorrow he would take the time to clean the kitchen – perhaps the entire house. And then he fell to thinking about all the other parts of Yevgenia, just as pretty as her nose, and for a time he forgot all about the problem of the mine, and the men and the road and the town…

“Life is too easy,” said the North Wind. “That is the problem. They have no hardships, and so they are free to poke and meddle and delve and steal. In the olden times-” Here, Anatoly rolled his eyes, and Leshy gave a discreet little sigh. “In the olden times, they had no time for such nonsense. They were too busy fending off lions. Finding bison to hunt. Discovering which berries were good to eat and which would turn their guts to slop. All the time fearing that the sky might fall on their heads. I had only to whip up a little thunderstorm and they ran whimpering to their caves! Now they are idle. That’s the nub of it. They are bored. And so they breed mischief.”

“So,” said Anatoly. “What you’re saying is that they need some distraction? If some calamity were to befall them, they might be too busy to come plundering my mountain and Leshy’s forest?” He drained his glass thoughtfully, only grimacing a little at the harsh taste of the vodka. He distilled it himself from turnip peelings and sorghum, and the flavour was highly distinctive.

“But I have set traps. I have raised fires. I have confounded and befuddled them. Still they come back. More and more of them, like ants from a woodpile.” He glanced at the North Wind, a little fearfully, a little hopefully. “Perhaps if you were to-?”

“Oh!” The North Wind’s sigh rattled the pans hanging in the pantry, and toppled a platter from the dresser. “I would love to help, of course,” he said. “But my time is barely my own. You know how hard it is for me to even find the leisure for our card games every now and again. There is not a town in the world I don’t visit. Not an hour of the day I can rest. My duties are endless.”

“Then it is over,” lamented Leshy. “Before long we shall be driven from our homes, like the poor Rusalka. Cast friendless and alone into an uncaring world…”

“You are not without talents, though?” The North Wind’s voice was soft now, but still it sent a cold breeze down the back of Anatoly’s neck. “I have heard your skill in artifice is without compare.”

“Well,” said Anatoly, blushing and smiling, and trying not to smile. “I have studied the moon, the sun and the stars. I have studied the movements of beasts, and the flights of birds. I have learned the language of flowing water and what the trees whisper to one another through the long, cold winters.”

“I understand the trees and the beasts,” Leshy interjected. “They tell me all their problems – whether I wish it or not. You can’t imagine how birds prattle on. And the insects are as bad…”

“Fine accomplishments,” nodded the North Wind. He thought for a moment, then continued, “Tell me, when the men come to fell your trees, what do they use?”

“An axe,” said Leshy unhappily.

“And when you want to turn a field, ready for planting, what do you use?”

“An iron plough,” said Anatoly, and, “Oxen,” replied Leshy.

“And when you distil your vodka, what do you use then?” the North Wind asked Anatoly, who gestured to the large brass kettle hanging from the rafters with his other pans.

“You use a tool appropriate to the task. So, finding yourselves unequal to the task of driving the men from your mountain, what tool do you suppose might assist you?”

Anatoly was silent a while, pondering this. Then a sudden brightness flared in his eyes. He looked up at the North Wind and answered, “A monster. We need a monster to do what we cannot.”

The North Wind nodded thoughtfully. “I expect someone of your dexterity could create a monster the like of which had never before been seen or imagined.” His voice dropped lower, but it whistled around the eaves of the house, quick and cold as a knife. “I expect someone of your learning could create a monster of pure malevolence; cold, unforgiving, incorruptible. I expect such a monster could drive these men far from your mountain, and from Leshy’s forest. You would both be left in peace. The Rusalka could return to their streams and pools. And you could resume your studies, undisturbed by their endless hammering, blasting and grinding.”

Anatoly glanced at Leshy, who nodded encouragingly.

“I suppose…” answered Anatoly. “I suppose it could be done…”


Save Wootton Fields LibraryYesterday I visited Caroline Chisholm School in Northampton, a modern school incorporating primary and secondary. After giving a talk to the creative writing students, I was given a tour, and dropped into the library (Wootton Fields) to donate a couple of copies of Darklands.

It’s an excellent, large, well stocked library, serving both the school and the public. Whilst chatting to the librarians it transpired that they are under notice of being closed down within a couple of months, as a cost saving exercise. The large book stock will be replaced by a temporary mobile library.

Really? This is what the council wants to save money on? One large library serving the public, a secondary school and a primary school? Which was shortlisted for Library of the Year by the Bookseller Industry Awards 2012? Which as well as the usual library services also provides many events and activities throughout the year?

Astonishing. And utterly depressing. Surely no one doubts that childrens education is one of the last places cuts should be made? And surely no one doubts that a library is absolutely crucial to providing education?

Libraries matter – and none more so than school libraries. One of the campaign’s supporters told me yesterday,

“The library is used by people of all ages – all members of the community. Families use it together.”

Wootton Fields Library only has a few weeks to make its case. They’d really appreciate anyone helping out any way they can. You can find them on Facebook, and on Twitter, @woottonlibrary.

A rally is planned outside the library building for Sunday July 8 at 2pm. I won’t be able to go, as I’ve returned home to Derbyshire now. I hope it doesn’t rain on them :-S

*UPDATE: 80 supporters turned up for the rally on sunday afternoon, despite the weather AND the tennis!*

Many dozens of authors have already given their support to the campaign to save Wootton Fields Library, including Anne Fine, Julia Golding, Malorie Blackman, Meg Rosoff, and Marcus Sedgwick.

You can add your support by signing the e-petition here.

You can also contact members of the County Council to register your unhappiness about the proposed closure:

Councillor Heather Smith (Cabinet Member responsible for Libraries)
Councillor Joan Kirkbride (Deputy Leader of the Council)
Countillor Phil Larratt (County Councillor for our ward)

Or you could contact the local press in Northampton to tell them how you feel about the proposed closure. Contacts below:

The Northampton Chronicle & Echo, Callum Jones,
Anglia TV news. Katrina Rattigan, Please also CC in
BBC Radio Northampton, Willy Gilder, Please also CC in
BBC Look East TV news,

Thanks for any help.

Today I’ve been to visit a creative writing group at Caroline Chisholm School, Northampton.

I had prepared plenty of material in advance. I wrote myself crib notes on index cards. I found a short passage to read from Darklands. But I had no idea how long it would actually take me to deliver it all. Well, that’s not entirely true. The one thing I knew for sure was that my reading took three and a half minutes. I did a lot of timed readings when I was preparing for my talk on the radio a few weeks back.

I was given an hour, just before lunch. I had fifteen cards filled with subject headings and cryptic notes. A sample index card:

Writers & Artists Yearbook
Listings. Articles. Publishers > Slush pile > Agents (short cut?)
Agents > slush pile! But get help.
Submission criteria.

I knew that the length of time I could talk would very much depend on how much I relaxed into my role and became garrulous. It might take an hour – or maybe I’ll whizz through it all in ten minutes with a terrified rictus grin frozen onto my face?

After a slightly shaky start, I relaxed sufficiently to discuss most of the stuff on my cards. Though I somehow managed to miss out the whole slush pile bit from the card quoted above.

In the end I spoke for about 35 minutes, then invited questions. The teachers had primed the kids well and they had plenty to ask. What’s your favourite book? Do you find it hard to get ideas? Did you always want to be a writer? Nice easy stuff.

The scariest bit was right at the end. With ten minutes to spare I was invited to mingle and chat with the kids. Freestyle? Off-piste?? Unscripted???

*The cold, cold fear*

Some of the kids showed me stories they had written – a surprising number had written horror stories about killer clowns, one of which had ‘mouldy looking teeth.’ A nice detail, I thought.

I’ve also donated two copies of Darklands to the school library – which is in danger of being closed down by the local authorities.

Really?? Schools don’t need libraries now? (You can find out how to help their cause by visiting their facebook page)

One of the kids asked if I’d had any bad reviews, and I said that I hadn’t, but kind of wished I had. “It doesn’t seem like you’re a real writer until you’ve been absolutely slated.” Hmm, that sounds dangerously like an invitation, doesn’t it? I wonder if I’ll come to regret it..? :-S