Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

Well, it may be a couple of years late, but I’ve finally come up with the perfect sales pitch for Kikimora.

While signing books in Cromford recently, I was asked numerous times, ‘So what’s this book about?’

Despite having done these things a few times now and always getting the same questions, I was no better prepared than usual. I floundered my way through a couple of vague explanations, before tiredly offering,

It’s basically Poldark with magic.

That got a response (although one punter astutely pointed out: that pitch will only work on women).

Demelza Carne

‘Scruffy, neglected waif’

It’s not a facetious or cynical pitch though. In a blog post from five years ago I mention reading the first couple of Poldark books as research into mining in the (approximate) era, and being pleasantly surprised by their pace and humour. But I was very aware it was an obscure reference, meaning little to anyone under 40 who didn’t remember the 1970s TV show.

By the time new Poldark became the Sunday night TV phenomenon, I’d moved on from promoting Kikimora, and forgotten all about it.

But Kikimora actually bears a few similarities with Poldark, notably in the relationship between the charismatic but troubled mine owner, and the scruffy, neglected waif who takes up residence with him; in the families of marriageable young ladies eager to make his acquaintance, and their bafflement at his reluctance. Then there is his very plain (and consequently pitied and scorned) sister (cousin in Poldark)…

I won’t say more, to avoid spoilers.

Of course, Kikimora has many other things going on as well, in the battle of wills between the miners and the spirits of the forest, in Kikimora’s troubled genesis, and her journey to find acceptance.

I’d be interested to know, do any of my readers see the similarity? Or is it just my own over-familiarity with the story that brings it to mind? Let me know in the comments?

My work in progress, Slinter Wood, is largely set in the late 1980s, mirroring my own school days. I’m currently doing a lot of research to get the right tone and detail for the period.

I’d love it if you could help me!

Tell me in the comments (or via social media) any details you remember about school life, fashions, fads, insults, and pop culture in the late 1980s. If I use your idea in Slinter Wood you’ll get a thank you in the book – and (if it’s really good, and I haven’t already thought of it) a free copy when it’s released! (Don’t hold your breath. Given my usual pace, it’ll be years yet…)

It’s not the big stuff I’m interested in, the world events, the politics, the disasters – that’s easy to research. It’s the small, inconsequential details of life circa 1988. Sometimes we forget how much life has changed, but once you start thinking about it, it was a very different world back then.

What do you remember about those days? I’ve already filled 50+ pages with my notes and memories, and I know it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I’m not looking for cliches and buzzwords from popular memes (Spangles! Boggle! Marathon!), but actual memories – it’s those minute, true details that give a story depth and richness.

Here are some of mine:

  • That stink of stale cigarette smoke every time I walked into any school toilets. Burn marks on the toilet seats, and the unfathomable mystery of the ancient, rusted ‘Bunny Incinerator’* on the wall
  • the breath-taking agony of getting a hockey stick whacked round my ankles on a frosty morning
  • the school bus: a narrow prison of torment, with no escape from those who would shout insults, pull your hair, kick your seat, whisper about you – just loud enough so you knew, even though you couldn’t hear what they were saying. The humiliation if you stumbled when the bus lurched to a halt; the hot, damp horror of all that laughter directed at you
  • watching Threads** in Humanities class at school, and the idea of nuclear war becoming a constant background fear. Waking in the early hours and hearing an aeroplane high overhead, convinced it was about to drop a nuclear bomb
  • owning only three video cassettes, but being a typical obsessive teen and wanting to hoard all my favourite things; having to make the painful decision of which much loved music video or comedy sketch to sacrifice when I needed to record something new.

I could go on, but I think that gives you an idea of what I’m after: snapshots, impressions, details that bring the period vividly back to you. I’d really appreciate it if you’d share any with me.

Thank you.

* Because I think that is going to confuse a lot of you, just as it confused me all those years ago, let me assure you it involves no cruelty to small furry creatures, but turns out to be some old-timey solution to the disposal of feminine hygiene products.

** Having just read the Wikipedia entry, it’s a wonder I ever slept again!

Today I am very pleased to recieve a couple of signed books from the delightful Krista D Ball.

Alongside her novels, Krista also researches and compiles authors guides. What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is an entertaining and informative look at how food works (or should work!) in fantasy novels. Drawing on historical sources, as well as some enthusiastic home experimentation, Krista presents a lively guide to all things mead, ale and roast boar related.

signed books from Krista D Ball

signed books from Krista D Ball

A month or so ago I won a competition to supply Krista with an interesting food related fact. Having watched many series of QI, I had no difficulty in recalling that an allergy to Brazil nuts can be triggered by sexual contact with someone who has eaten them; it is the only food allergy which can be triggered in quite this way.

I was not the only entrant to explore the strangeness of Brazil nuts, but was fortunate to be chosen the winner. For this I received not only a signed copy of What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank, but also Krista’s new writers’ guide: Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes, a Regency and Steampunk field guide.

Huzzah! I look forward very much to reading it. Thank you, Krista 😀

You can visit Krista’s blog here.
You can buy What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank here, and Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes here.

He could see Undine beneath the crystal vault

“He could see Undine beneath the crystal vault,” Arthur Rackham. Image source:

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally realised what Pinterest is for! (not least due to my pal, Emilly Ladybird’s Dark Fairytales board, which she created for her book, Steampunk Apothecary).

I’ve spent a pleasant morning putting together a board of all things Kikimora – for my own research, inspiration and motivation, but hopefully also to whet the appetite of potential readers and give them an indication of what to expect. It encompasses images of traditional fairy tales, snowy forests, little cabins in the woods, steepy mountains, churches with onion domes, snowflakes, and various mythological creatures, including: Rusalka, Leshy, and Baba Yaga.

I’m really pleased with it, and wish I’d collated it before I began the story. I will definitely do it for my next book. It’s a great way to keep together a scrap book of visual inspiration and aide memoirs.

Who else uses Pinterest as part of the writing process? I haven’t really heard of it that much, but I thoroughly recommend it.

Beside the river Trent, Beeston

Beside the river Trent, Beeston

Last week I took part in a psychology experiment looking at the impact of the natural world on mood and well being. Each evening I was asked to write down three good things I’d noticed in nature, just one sentence for each.

All I did throughout the week was go to work and back each day. There is a small nature reserve next to my office, and some leafy gardens to pass if I go to the shop. But many of my nature observations occured during my commute, while sitting in traffic jams. I found natural things to enjoy on the motorway, in a carpark, and even in my own car (I have car spiders. No, really).

We were not asked to make any particular effort regarding the quality of the three sentences submitted, but I found that I chose my words very carefully, to distill the essence of a sensation into one sentence. Below are a few of my observations.

Banks of pale purple rhododendrons overflowing a crumbling brick wall.

Tiny fish with two flashes of yellow along the sides, darting through murky water.

Hard rain bouncing off tarmac.

White rosebuds with a creamy, delicate scent.

A small hawk drifting low over the many lanes of M1’s junction 25.

Whether due to this exercise or not, I do seem to have been in a pretty good mood recently. The study has finished now, but I’m going to try and continue it, carrying a little notebook around with me, and jotting down small observations. I think there are several benefits to be had. It will encourage me to go out and get a bit of air at lunch time (instead of just reading a book in the office kitchen). It is an exercise in observation and in communication: how to express a sensation in a clear, succinct way.

If I keep it up for a reasonable period of time it will also serve as a useful record of natural reference throughout the year. Instead of having to ask google, when does wild garlic flower? Do ferns come out at the same time as bluebells? I can check my observations and find my own answers.

I’d be interested to hear if you have any regular writing exercises you like to do? I’ve never got on well with ones I’ve tried to do before because I found them boring, and my attention is easily diverted. But I find this particular exercise pleasing and useful.

Jamie Lee Curtis in Friday 13th

Jamie Lee Curtis in Friday 13th. One of the first films to scare the bejeezus out of me.

As a child I didn’t understand the words insomnia or paranoia. I thought it was normal to lie awake for a few hours every night before falling asleep – and to spend the time thinking about all the things in the world that might want to kill me.

During these hours of silent contemplation, I explored rudimentary philosophy (Is the universe infinite? Or does it have an edge? If it does have an edge what comes after it? What would it be like to be god? Wouldn’t it be really boring? What would you do for fun?), and took my first forays into story-telling, in order to keep myself entertained.

But what I also did a lot of was listening for creaking steps, and watching the shadows to make sure they didn’t move. I always wondered what I would do the time that I did hear the step upon the stair; when the shadows did move and form themselves into a long-taloned figure. Where would I go? I began to plan escape routes.

For most children, the answer would probably be that they bolt for their parents bedroom. Due to architectural strangeness, this wasn’t the most obvious option.

Although only a mid-terrace, 18th century mill-workers cottage, my childhood home is an extremely odd shape. It has two separate upstairs, which aren’t joined together. My sisters and I slept up one staircase; our parents and the bathroom were up the other staircase. This was ideal for covert midnight feasts; less good for escaping from psychopaths.

To get from my bedroom to my parents I had to: exit my room, go downstairs, cross the room, go up another flight of stairs, and cross another room. There was far too much scope in that journey for some other thing to get me. So I came up with alternate plans, most of which were some variety of getting out the window.

My bedroom had a sash window, which only opened about six inches – at the top of the window. Even if I could have squeezed out of that space, it wasn’t ideal that I would be on top of three feet of glass. So I thought I would smash the window to escape. But being an old house, the windows are leaded, the panes only about 4x6inches.

I was unsure as a child (and still am) how hard it is to smash lead (a quick google search has revealed nothing remotely relevant. No, I do not want lead-effect double glazing…) I was always unhappy about this area of uncertainty in my escape plan.

When I went to secondary school I became interested in pottery. I was pleased to install several large, hefty home-made pots on my window sill. I felt pretty confident that I could smash my way out of the window with one of those.

Whenever I stayed overnight at other places I looked for escape routes before I could relax sufficiently to sleep. It’s a habit that has never really gone away. I scrutinize the access from and to windows of any bedrooms I stay in. I try to visualise the route I would take in an emergency (not necessarily from axe-wielding maniacs, but perhaps from fire).

I was a little put out therefore to discover recently that one of my current escape routes is not as accessible as I thought.

Last week my partner and I had a key malfunction, and found ourselves locked out of the house. No problem, I though. We’ll borrow next door’s ladder, and I can climb through the little bathroom window. I have often thought that when a psychopath chases me through the house, the best bet would be to run for the bathroom, because it has a lock. That then allows me a few minutes grace to climb out the window before he smashes through the door.

I had never before tested how wide the window actually opens. It turns out, it doesn’t open very far.

I stood up the top of that ladder for a good five minutes, scrutinizing the lay of the land on the other side. I got as far as lifting my foot up through the window. I tried to envisage exactly how it was going to work, and where my weight would be at each moment. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was a doomed venture, likely to end in embarrassment, hospital and inability to get to work.

I called the locksmith (and a whole other adventure ensued there. Well, if you call it an adventure to sit on the driveway without any lunch, drink, or toilet for hours, and then some more hours…)

The sensible part of my brain is actually quite relieved to discover how hard it is to break in to our house. But I miss the (entirely unrealistic) comfort of having an escape route in mind. I think I’ll have to install something hefty beside the bedroom door, so that I can block it to buy myself sufficient time to climb out of that window…

I’m curious: is it just me? Or do others have similar preoccupations?

The close relationship between music and magic

First published December 2012 on The Speculative Salon.

At fifteen I was 5’8”, all knees and elbows, with a big mane of dyed red hair and army boots half way up my calf. I had started to learn the cello only a couple of years earlier. I was 12th (last) cello in the county youth orchestra, sandwiched awkwardly between the double basses and a gaggle of tiny eight year old cellists all far more accomplished players than me.

Consequently I felt ever so slightly conspicuous as I guessed at tuning my instrument, struggled to find my place in the score, and fudged my way through rehearsal after rehearsal. Despite a week’s intense practice I didn’t get much better, and my confidence plummeted. I was so worried about playing the wrong thing and ruining the piece, that when it came to the eventual performance at Buxton Opera House I mimed through most of it.

I gave up the cello shortly after that. I have grudgingly had to accept that I am just not a musical person. No one in my family is musical. Words are our thing. And food.

The Power To Mesmerise

Music seems a kind of magic to me. It has the power to mesmerise; to alter moods; to bring exultation or despair, or unlock hidden memories. It is wreathed in a strange coded language that I don’t understand. Allegro con molto means as much to me as Abracadabra.

Those who are musically gifted seem very mysterious. I view them with a mixture of admiration, envy, and a sort of distrust – they must be witches! How else could they control and harness that amazing power, and bend it to their will?

I feel it as a terrible loss in my life that I’m not musical. I love music – all kinds of music. But I don’t understand it in the least. What is a fugue? A partita? A canon? A gigue? What is the difference between a rhapsody and a fantasy? A concerto and a symphony? What makes something a prelude? Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun always confused me. I expected there to be a longer piece called ‘The Afternoon of a Faun.’ There isn’t.

When I used to sit at the back of the orchestra I couldn’t hear myself play. I had no idea how to pick my own sound out from the multitude of sounds around me. I had no idea if I was in tune, or if I was in time…

The ability to make music; to create one beautiful sound and then to weave it around other sounds, and to build a coherent, wonderful whole seems hardly less astonishing to me than the ability to move objects with the power of the mind.

Given this wonder and envy, it is perhaps not surprising that I have allied music with magic in much of my writing. In Darklands, Inkling is a powerful magician with a particular affinity for music. But he doesn’t play a violin, a flute or a piano. He plays the wind. He plays the dry grasses and the branches of trees. He sends the wind whistling around sculpted rocks, creating fluttering arpeggios. He conjures a soft, shushing rhythm from the treetops, and a mournful, clattering tune from living bamboo.

In my work in progress, a musician unwittingly exerts power over the ghostly protagonist, Kikimora. Her magical powers weaken whenever she hears him play, and she becomes visible to humans – which causes problems for them both.

His Inhuman Skill

Music has a long history of association with the uncanny, the fae, the devilish. One of the best known and most evocative examples must be the Pied Piper bewitching the children of Hamlin with his playing, and leading them astray. Celtic lore has fairies closely tied with musicians, particularly pipers. Musicians are far more likely than other mortals to be taken to fairy land.

Some, such as the blind 17th century harpist, Turlough O’Carolan, were said to acquire their musical prowess after spending a night on the fairy knoll.

This echoes the story of the violinist, Nicolo Paganini, widely believed to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his inhuman skill and virtuosity. Early Blues musician Robert Johnson was similarly said to have sold his soul to the Devil – down at the Crossroads.

Both of these musicians knew a good story when they heard one, and they played up the unearthly aspect of their personas – Paganini by growing long wings of hair, and dressing all in black, Robert Johnson by singing such songs as Hellhound on my Trail, Me and the Devil, and Crossroads Blues.

And let’s not forget the role music has played in religion down the ages, from Gregorian chants, via plainsong, liturgy and mass, to American gospel music and beyond. Would religion grip the hearts and souls of so many without the uncanny power of music in its arsenal?

To Muddle And Misplace

Some music is so evocative of a certain time, mood or place that just hearing a short passage transports you instantly back there. Much of our unconscious musical associations come from film and TV. There is a certain type of English romantic music (typified by Vaughn-Williams’ The Lark Ascending) which never fails to make me yearn for an idyllic rural past that probably never existed. This is thanks to its use in countless period dramas on TV: Tess of the D’urbervilles; the Mill on the Floss, Precious Bane.

Another well used piece is the thrillingly dramatic Carmina Burana, which conjures everything from King Arthur’s knights riding into battle (Excaliber) to demonic murder (The Omen) to sexual ecstacy (The Doors).

Powerful music has the ability to imprint a mood into your soul; a mood which can be instantly recalled by hearing the music again. On a more humdrum level this is demonstrated when we hear music from our youth and become misty eyed over all the memories and associations it brings back – even music you didn’t like at the time.

When I was sixteen Brit-pop was all the rage; everyone loved Oasis – but I thought they were boring and whiny and not a patch on Sonic Youth or Pixies. I hear Oasis now and I don’t remember how I used to complain about them and groan and roll my eyes. I remember how it felt to be sixteen, and think that the world was my oyster; to not wake up every morning with back ache; to be full of hope and dreams and chutzpah that hadn’t yet been tempered by dusty reality…

But hang on – is that really what it was like? Or is the music fooling me? Didn’t I spend much of my teenage years paranoid and miserable? Didn’t I spend long hours obsessing about my intense ugliness, the dullness of my life, and dreaming that one day things would be better?

Music can deceive. It can muddle and misplace, and convince you of things that never were.

It can also inspire. Artists of every sort find inspiration in music. Marcus Sedgwick has described how Midwinter Blood is based on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. My above-mentioned work in progress, Kikimora, was directly inspired by a ‘fairytale for orchestra’ of the same name by Anatoly Lyadov.


Music can be mind-altering, reality-altering. It can affect the listener mentally, physically and spiritually. It can transport you through time and space. It can unlock memories long forgotten; it can sometimes trick us into believing things that never happened.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

This post was first published in December 2012 on The Speculative Salon. I have reproduced it here as I have something to add.

Thanks to Howard Goodall’s excellent Story of Music I now do know the difference between a symphony and a concerto,* and much more besides! If you haven’t seen the six part BBC TV series, I thoroughly recommend looking it up. Goodall is excellent at explaining musical concepts. Admittedly some of it goes over my head a bit. But then, so do books about string theory and the quantum universe. I read them anyway, because each time I try to understand I get a bit closer to actually doing so.

Howard Goodall, I salute you!

* A concerto showcases one particular instrument with the rest of the orchestra as backup.