Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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: http://rackham.artpassions.net/

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.

The woods above Cromford

The woods above Cromford

At any one time my reading table is piled high with about 20 books. Some are books I’m currently reading; some are books I intend to read soon. Some are books I think I ought to read, but somehow never get around to. And some are books that I dip into every now and then, slowly working through them a chapter here, another chapter three years later…

One of these reading table perennials is The Golden Bough by JG Frazer, which I have been reading on and off for over 20 years. For those who don’t know, it’s a huge, rambling, early 20th century study of magic, religion, superstition and mythology – and it is full of fascinating ideas, beliefs and practices.

I picked my copy up second-hand from Cromford’s world famous Scarthin Bookshop in 1991 (I know, because I wrote so inside the cover). It is not a particularly handsome or exciting edition, and I feel no compunction in underlining interesting passages or scrawling notes in the margins.*

The prose is quite dated and shows the prejudices of a privileged white male of what was still then a colonial super-power. But look beyond that, and The Golden Bough is a treasure trove of fascinating ideas. Barely a page goes by without me jotting something in the margins – though often it is only an exclamation mark. Over the years I have squirrelled away many little snippets and ideas, and every now and then I find the perfect place to make use of them.

Yesterday I had great fun writing a scene (for my work in progress, Kikimora) in which the inhabitants of my fictional town decide their gods aren’t pulling their weight and need reminding of their duties. They take the god’s statue from the market square and parade it through town, beating it, and calling insults at it. They then throw it in the icy river, and tell it it will stay there until the god answers their prayers and brings the long overdue Spring.

According to Frazer such practises occurred as recently as 1893. In drought-stricken Italy,

“saints were turned, like naughty children, with their faces to the walls. Others (were) stripped of their robes, exiled, threatened, grossly insulted, ducked in horse-ponds.”

“At Licata the patron saint, St Angelo … was put in irons and threatened with drowning or hanging. ‘Rain or the rope!’ roared the angry people at him, as they shook their fists in his face.”

This is wonderful, entertaining stuff. If I hadn’t read it here I would never have believed such things took place. I love the idea of gods having to prove themselves and pull their weight.

One of the enjoyable things about European heritage is the way that Pagan traditions have managed to coexist and insinuate themselves into newer Christian ideas. In many places it was common for people to go to church every Sunday, but still honour their household gods and spirits with little offerings and sacrifices. This interplay of Christian and Pagan ideas allows the development of fascinating hybrid customs which are a gift to a writer.

One of my earliest short stories borrowed ideas from Frazer in the competition between three brothers to become their villages new Rain King (after the old one was burnt alive for failing to bring the rains). It was a very cynical story in which the most ruthless and underhand brother won, and turned out to be just the leader the village needed. I have no idea what became of it, or if anyone but me ever read it.

Similarly, my first (unpublished) novel had a recurring motif based on Frazer’s idea of the King of the Wood – the concept of killing the king in order to become king.

It seems I owe Frazer quite a debt of inspiration.

I will continue to dip into The Golden Bough now and then, when the mood takes me. You never know what odd, horrific, or amusing thing will crop up next, or where I’ll be able to make use of it.

I’d be interested to hear if others have their special go-to inspirational texts? Where do you keep going back to?

* I am not precious about books. I know some people are. My sister used to berate me terribly for cracking the spines if I borrowed books off her. Seriously, how can you read a book without cracking the spine? Personally I think books are to be read and enjoyed, and a bit of wear and tear proves this has happened.

I’ve been greatly looking forward to the promised snow this week. Not for obvious reasons such as sledging or getting sent home from work. Not even for the hope of being snowed in with nothing to do but keep writing. The reason I’m so excited about the snow is that I want to take photos that I can use as the basis for Kikimora’s cover.

As discussed in a previous post, I have a pretty good idea of what I want on the cover, and snowy woods feature strongly.

It is therefore extremely inconvenient that I’ve come down with massive lurgy, and am unlikely to be going anywhere or doing anything this weekend. We don’t get that many good snowfalls in England, and if I miss this one there might not be another all year.

Fortunately, I did manage to get out for half an hour in my lunch break during the first snow earlier this week. I only had my phone with me, so the camera wasn’t brilliant. And, since it was still snowing at the time, the sky was grey and the light murky.The resulting photos aren’t that scintillating. However, I had always intended to monkey around with them, adding colours and textures and painterly effects so perhaps it wouldn’t matter too much?

Having already completed today’s 1000 words,* I decided to have a play around with a few pictures and see what I could do with them. These are only quick forays, trying out a few techniques, but I’m liking some of the effects I’m getting.

The snowy woods will be the background for a bright figure (possibly woodcut), so they don’t need to have much of a focal point themselves.

frozen lake

A frozen lake, much like the one where the Rusalka live

snowy branches

snowy branches

path through snowy woods

path through snowy woods

It’s also good to be able to witness a few snowfalls, since there are so many in my book. A bit of immediate, first-hand experience will tighten up my descriptions no end. All in all I’m making good use of the snow.

* And I’ve had great fun with the writing today. I’ve been reading The Golden Bough on and off for about 20 years, picking up fascinating little snippets and ideas, squirrelling them away – and every now and again finding the perfect place for them in some piece of writing.

Today I made use of an old custom of punishing gods that aren’t pulling their weight – by beating, berating and generally disgracing their statues.

Effectively, the people give their gods an ultimatum: If you want to be worshipped then you’d better start heeding our prayers. Otherwise you’ll be face down in the river, and you can stay there and think about what you’ve done!

I think this is a brilliant attitude towards religion. I wish more people had it.

You can read more about The Golden Bough here, as I decided it deserved a whole post of its own.

Further to last week’s moorland misadventure, I have to admit that the incident is still preying on my mind.

Each night as I go to bed my thoughts are filled with deep mud pools and fruitless flailing. As my mind replays the incident the bog is always deeper and more sucking, solid ground further away. The helplessness and lack of mobility recall those common childhood nightmares of trying to run through air that feels as thick and unyielding as treacle*.

I have tried to persuade myself that I was really not in as much danger as I thought. I have researched the subject a little. I even found a video of Bear Grylls purposefully wading into quicksand in order to demonstrate how to escape it. He made it look easy, of course. I struggled to visualise accomplishing the same manoeuvre in my situation last weekend – even if I had known or dared to lie horizontally on the surface.

When I mentioned the incident to a guy in my pilates class he said that he’d had a similar experience – sinking up to his chest in a bog (in the same location). A friend had to haul him out by his rucksack.

None of this reassures me.

But last night a new thing occured to me. If help had immediately come, if strangers had turned up and pulled me out of the mud, I am sure I would feel twice as troubled as I do. Although the memory of helplessness is what frightens me, I was not helpless. I did rescue myself. If someone had immediately pulled me out I wouldn’t know whether I had the power to do it myself. I wouldn’t know if I could keep calm and behave sensibly. The What ifs would be all the more powerful and insistent.

This has led me to wonder about the psychology of the rescued.

Orlando Furioso by Gustave Dore

Orlando Furioso by Gustave Dore, Angelica rescued from the Gryphon

It is of course a common trope in all kinds of fiction that a (young and beautiful) lady is in some terrible danger, but is rescued in the nick of time by a sword-wielding, wise-cracking, solid-jawed hero.

I have never before really considered what the victim/heroine’s feelings on that would be. Relief, of course. Gratitude, probably. But what about later? In the deepest, quietest hours of the night? Would she see again the dragon’s powerful teeth, smell its fetid breath? Would she struggle against the memory of those binding ropes, flinch from the licking flames?

Rather than marrying the hero and living happily ever after, I now wonder if she would go mad with post-traumatic anxiety? If she would become clingy and neurotic, never allowing her rescuing hero to leave her side for fear of some further calamity befalling her – a calamity she had no power to escape herself. Or, at least, no power that she knew of.

Surprisingly few fictional characters ever do suffer post-traumatic stress – despite the heroic amounts of trauma we subject them to. If they do, we quickly become impatient with their self-indulgent whining and moping.

As authors we want to retain the flavour of realism, while filtering out the tiresomeness. After all, our primary objective is to be entertaining; to tell a good story.

With hindsight, it seems I have something to be grateful for. I may have felt alone and forsaken as I stood dripping mud on the edge of that bog. But I have come to the conclusion that self-rescuing is far more satisfying and reassuring than being rescued. I just hope I don’t need to do it again any time soon.

* That wasn’t just me, right?