Posts Tagged ‘research’

The following is an edited transcript of an illustrated talk I gave at Inspired at Wirksworth Festival on Tuesday 19th September 2017.

I’m going to talk about a piece of art that was a very direct inspiration to me. But also about some of the other ideas and influences which fed into the creative process, and helped to shape what eventually became my second novel. I want to show the sometimes meandering route that inspiration can take, the seeming dead-ends, and the role chance can play in tying a lot of disparate ideas together.

Seven years ago, in October 2010, I’d recently published my first novel, Darklands, and I finally had time to think about what I was going to write next. I had it in my head I’d like to write a ghost story. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve always enjoyed the creepy and macabre.

I did some initial research. I took a field trip to an Elizabethan manor house, Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire, which boasts not one, but three, priest holes.

A priest hole is a small hidden room where Catholic priests could hide to avoid persecution during a time when it was illegal to practice Catholicism. This was because of various Catholic plots against the life of Elizabeth I. Catholicism was considered high treason, and punishments could include torture and death. When the authorities came round, a priest might have to hide in one of these cramped spaces in the dark for hours, or even days, before he could be safely released.

I’m sure you can imagine the creepy and sinister potential of a forgotten priest hole in a ghost story.

So I had a few ideas, and some atmospheric material from my field trip, but I didn’t yet have a story.

One day I was driving to work, and listening to the radio, as usual, and I heard Anatoly Lyadov’s tone poem, Kikimora.

Pleasant though it was, I can’t say it actually grabbed me that much at the time (though I’ve listened to it a lot since, and love it more each time). But what particularly struck me that day was after the music finished the presenter read out Lyadov’s program notes about Kikimora.

This is what he wrote.

“She grows up with a magician in the mountains. From dawn to sunset the magician’s cat regales Kikimora with fantastic tales of ancient times and faraway places, as Kikimora rocks in a cradle made of crystal. It takes her seven years to reach maturity, by which time her head is no larger than a thimble and her body no wider than a strand of straw. Kikimora spins flax from dusk to dawn, with evil intentions for the world.”

As soon as I heard those words it was a story I wanted to read. It conjures so much that is familiar from the kind of stories I loved when I was growing up, from fairy tales and folk tales.

Kikimora grows up with a magician – like so many iconic protagonists. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, like The Once and Future King, like many of Diana Wynne Jones’ books: Howl’s Moving Castle, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant.

The magician’s cat can speak – like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Like Aslan. And, again, there are many examples in Diana Wynne Jones’ books.

The cat tells endless stories – like Sherazade in 1001 nights.

Kikimora’s head is no larger than a thimble – bringing to mind classic fairy tales, like Thumbelina or Tom Thumb.

And like Rumpelstiltskin, she spins flax.

With just a few words Lyadov has summoned a storm of associations and memories – treasured memories from childhood, of the magical, fantastical stories I loved best, and that transported me to other lands and other lives.

But then right at the end, he gives it a twist: she has evil intentions for the world. So is she the heroine of this story, or is she the villain?

I wanted to find out. So I searched online for books about Kikimora – and I found nothing. She had a mention in a couple of books on Russian and Slavic folklore, and a wikipedia page, but I could find absolutely no fiction in English that mentioned her.

14-Kikimora

Kikimora, 1934 illustration by Ivan Bilibin

I found it incredible that seemingly no one had picked up on this gem of a story, when it seemed to me so ripe, so full of potential. I decided that I would write her story.

I read what little I could find on Kikimora. She’s a figure from Slavic folklore, a kind of household spirit. She often lives behind the stove, and helps good, respectable housewives who leave out offerings for her, but plays tricks on mean or slovenly households.

In reading about her, I found other fascinating figures from Slavic folklore, and they also found their way into my story. Such as Leshy. Leshy is a spirit or god of the forest. Like Kikimora he can be kind or troublesome, depending how he is treated. He can shape-shift, and can be very temperamental.

Leshy

Leshy, from a magazine cover, 1906. I’ve been unable to find the artist’s name.

Rusalkas also feature in my story. If you’re not familiar with Rusalkas, they’re basically a Slavic, fresh-water mermaid. They live in the water, are very beautiful, and lure unwary men to their death.

But again, they are not always seen as evil in early traditions. And I think this ambiguity in all these folklore characters is a large part of what appeals to me about them. They are largely reactive – they treat humans according to how humans treat them. And that seems a very obvious, but still very powerful way to view the natural world – which I think is essentially the purpose of a lot of folklore. In a pre-scientific and pre-industrial age, to try and make sense of the often cruel and capricious world around us.

These Slavic characters may well be unfamiliar to you, and you might wonder why I was so drawn to them and their stories. How could they mean anything to me?

But although their names are unfamiliar, there is much about them that is familiar. There is a universality in these characters which transcends their origin. The same tropes and archetypes are evident throughout British folklore, European fairy tales, and mythologies from all around the world.

Rusalkas have obvious parallels in mermaids, sirens, kelpies – our more local versions, Jenny Greenteeth or the grindylow.

In British folklore, we have our own versions of household spirits, like Hobs or brownies – or Dobby the house elf.

When I was growing up my family had our very own version: Icky. I’ve no idea where the name came from, but whenever something went missing or a mess was made that no one would own up to, we said it must have been Icky.

Even the very fact of being Russian seems kind of familiar. The Brothers Grimm collected their fairy tales from all over Europe – including Russia. And many of the most evocative and beautiful fairy tale illustrations have a Russian flavour to them. Such as the works of Jan Pienkowski or Edmund Dulac.

Fairy Tales, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski

Fairy Tales, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski

So I gathered a great amount of inspiration from these folk characters. I had Kikimora, my protagonist’s, origin story in the quote from Lyadov, and I had a sense of conflict or unease between humans and the natural world.

The inspiration that had eluded me when I was trying to write a ghost story came flooding in. I was very close to having a story. But one more ingredient came along which directed the course of the novel.

I mentioned at the beginning that it was October 2010. If you remember, it was during that time that 33 miners were trapped deep underground in a copper mine in Chile. By then the men had been trapped for two months. Their story gripped the public imagination, and it gripped me just as much as everyone else.

I have long had a mingled horror and fascination for underground spaces. There is something primal about being deep underground – think of the neolithic cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira.

cave paintings at Lascaux

cave paintings at Lascaux

The common interpretation of these paintings is that they serve some sort of spiritual or ritual purpose.

Think of hidden caverns where incredible, gigantic crystals grow, such as Naica cave in Mexico.

Naica Cave, Mexico.

Naica Cave, Mexico. Look at the size of these crystals. It’s like Superman’s fortress of solitude!

Underground places can be beautiful, awe-inspiring.

But they are also dangerous, and frightening on a very primal level. All that weight of earth and rock balanced above you. The fear of your only light being extinguished – of the utter, pitiless darkness. Of being trapped. Lost. Alone. Being unaware of anything happening outside the cave – say, torrential rain that could flood the caves before you know a thing about it.

When those Chilean miners were finally safely rescued it seemed the whole world breathed a sigh of relief.

All of these things fed into the story I eventually wrote.

And in the end, I did write a sort of ghost story, without realising it. My version of Kikimora creeps around someone else’s home, silent and invisible, doing mischief, throwing things on the floor and causing trouble. Just like a poltergeist.

I even used the idea of being trapped in the dark – albeit, being trapped underground, rather than the priest hole I was initially researching.

I used characters and tropes from folklore and fairy tales – but they are very much my own personal take on those characters.

I seasoned it with the mingled terror and awe I feel about underground spaces.

And of course, in any story there must be conflict. In this case, another of my preoccupations, the conflict between humans and nature, between technological advancement and the exploitation of the planet’s resources.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story about writing a story.

I include below a short excerpt from Kikimora.

To set the scene, Anatoly is a powerful magician. He lives in splendid isolation in the mountains of Korsakov forest. Every month he plays cards with his friends, Leshy and the North Wind, and they stay up very late, drinking lots of vodka and setting the world to rights, as men are inclined to do.

Between them they try to ensure the natural world is all in order, and things are kept in balance. But they are disturbed by the activities of some miners from the nearby town, who are encroaching on the forest, and don’t show the proper respect.

During one drunken night they hatch a plan to deal with the miners by creating a monster. This Anatoly does, but his plan goes awry from the start.

He names his monster Kikimora.

Excerpt from Kikimora

Kikimora gathered up her embroidery to finish in the pantry. It was cold in there, but that had never troubled her. She was a creature of the cold, and though she enjoyed the comfort of a crackling fire, her resilience to Korsakov’s bitter winters was remarkable. She had never owned a pair of shoes, nor felt their lack.

She was almost at the door, when the North Wind said, “Wait. How old are you now, girl?”

“Almost seven.”

Anatoly’s long fingers fumbled as he filled the glasses, which all clinked and rattled against one another.

“Has it been so long?” asked the North Wind in some surprise. “Surely it is time?”

Anatoly swallowed his vodka at a gulp. “There is still much I would teach her. Her reading is sorely neglected. She has not yet begun The Art of War-”

The North Wind snorted his disdain. “She might have completed all the reading even you could wish for years ago if you didn’t have her working as your skivvy all the day long! I heard your banshee wail,” he told Kikimora. “It wasn’t too bad. What else can you do? Can you sour the milk with an evil thought?”

Kikimora nodded.

“Can you hide from human eyes? Creep past men silent and unnoticed?” Two more nods.

“Can you send bad dreams to trouble the sleep of man, woman or child?”

She hesitated.

“Well?”

“I have no one on which to practice such a skill.”

The North Wind frowned and harrumphed. “What of that cat I’ve seen around the place? Surely you could disturb its sleep?”

Kikimora’s eyes grew wide at this suggestion, and Anatoly muttered that it was more than any of their lives were worth to interfere with the cat.

Leshy took a bite of cake, and exclaimed at its sweetness. Washing it down with a mouthful of vodka, he added that he’d never tasted finer spirit. Kikimora knew he was trying to cheer her up, and she summoned a smile to show she appreciated it.

“Congratulations,” the North Wind said sourly. “Your monster is a fine cook and house-keeper. How those men will tremble in their boots.”

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?

Embed from Getty Images

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.

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.

Housework rules! picture source: http://feministing.com

No. It doesn’t.
[picture source: http://feministing.com%5D

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: http://www.lemondrop.com]

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.