Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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.


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, 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.


“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.”

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.

Why is it so utterly impossible and infuriating and time-devouring to write a synopsis for your novel?

Since I’m currently taking a hiatus from Kikimora‘s editing, I thought I should have another go at a decent synopsis. Days later, I emerge, blinking and disoriented. I’ve done it! I’ve written 137 words that I only kind of hate a bit… :-S

This is my umpteenth attempt at Kikimora’s synopsis. There have been three or four major versions – all quite different, yet all equally true to the story. How is that possible?

My first attempt was perhaps a little high on whimsy and low on hook:

Raised in isolation by a brooding magician and his learned cat, Kikimora has almost come of age – and that means she has a destiny to fulfil. For Kikimora is no ordinary girl, but a monster spun from the breath of an ice wyvern and the crocodile tears of a killer, and her purpose is to wreak vengeance on mankind.

But Kikimora’s nature is not harsh or cruel. Sent out into the human world alone, she will need all of her ingenuity and resourcefulness to overcome the destiny laid out for her, and perhaps find her own path to happiness.

It clearly wasn’t good enough, so I sought some advice, courtesy of Mike Wells. With a formula* in hand, I had another go:

crazy bacteria stuff growing in thermal pools

I choose to express my feelings on synopsis writing in an abstract manner.

Since her creation, Kikimora has been raised to believe that humans are a blight upon the planet; greedy, stupid and unreasonable. Commissioned to bring about the ruination of a mining community, she wants to prove herself a good and dutiful monster.

But Kikimora finds that cruelty and spite do not come easily to her. Nor had she anticipated falling in love with the very worst of the men, the gunpowder master.

When a rockfall traps the miners deep underground and the caverns slowly fill with water, will Kikimora betray her master and upbringing to rescue the miners – even if it means sacrificing everything?

Meh. I get the need for a hook, but I don’t want to sound like a (bad) Hollywood thriller. Forgetting all about the formula, I took a fresh approach:

Korsakov forest is changing. Where carefree Rusalka once swam in golden pools, now sulphurous run-off from the mines has clouded and poisoned the waters. Where impenetrable forest stretched across the horizon, now ancient trees are felled and burnt.

But the inhabitants of the forest have a plan; a simple, ruthless plan. From the breath of an ice wyvern and the crocodile tears of a killer is spun a strange creature: half child, half nightmare. Schooled in cruelty, Kikimora’s sole purpose is to terrorise the encroaching humans and drive them away.

But Kikimora finds herself strangely unprepared for the realities of the human world. As she learns more about humans, she begins to question her upbringing and her purpose.

When disaster strikes the humans, Kikimora must decide where her loyalties lie: with the guardians of the forest or the humans she has sworn to destroy.

There are some elements of that which I like, but it still sounds stilted and clunky (they all do, I know!) Finally I’ve attempted a mash up with the above and the formula version, and I think it’s the best I’ve got so far. But I’ll probably have rewritten it by tomorrow…

When mining pollution threatens to destroy their home, the spirits of Korsakov forest enlist the help of the world’s greatest sorcerer to create a monster. Spun from the breath of an ice wyvern and the crocodile tears of a killer, Kikimora’s purpose is to terrorise the miners and drive them from the forest for ever.

But Kikimora discovers there is much her guardians neglected to teach her about humans: important things like music and friendship and love. Drawn into their lives, their hopes and fears, Kikimora’s heart rebels against her duty, and she begins to question her purpose.

When disaster strikes the miners, she must decide where her loyalties lie: with the guardians of the forest or with the humans she has sworn to destroy.

But defying her destiny could mean sacrificing everything – even her life.

Thoughts, anyone? I feel like I’ve bludgeoned the story to death, and there is no charm or life left in it. But that’s probably (hopefully) over-familiarity breeding contempt. Does anything about this synopsis intrigue or invite, or should I go back to the drawing board again? (or throw my computer out of the window?)

Who else has trouble writing synopses? Anyone got any great tips or advice?

* visit the site for the full version, but the essence is:
Hero + situation should = goal; unless villian causes it to = disaster.

A proud moment today. My old school requested a signed copy of Darklands for the school library.

When I was young I wanted to be lots of things: a pirate, James Bond, a mad scientist with sticky up white hair, Tarzan, a painter, an explorer… I also kind of liked writing stories. But I remember quite distinctly at the age of 13 realising that writing was the one; the real one. That’s what I was going to do with my life.

And I have, more or less. It doesn’t yet pay the bills, so something else has to, but I have been writing stories on and off for over quarter of a century. It takes me a while, and if something isn’t quite working I set it aside for a year or two. Or ten.

But I got there in the end, publishing my first novel, Darklands, in 2011.

When my old school requested a signed copy it made me think of the time in Mr Hannam’s English class when the idea took hold in my mind that I would be a writer. I don’t recall specifically what sparked it; but I knew that I loved words; I loved stories. And whatever magic made printed words sweep you up and take you on incredible journeys – I wanted to do that.

As an indie author it’s easy to get demoralised and to feel that you’re shouting into a void, but today I’ll take a moment to feel proud. I made a decision at the age of 13; I worked towards it in my spare time, I persevered when I felt discouraged, I made sacrifices of time and earnings – and 25 years later I achieved what I’d set out to. I published my first novel.

Signed copy of Darklands going to Anthony Gell School

Signed copy of Darklands going to Anthony Gell School

me sulking, at school, circa 1989

me sulking looking brooding and pensive at school, circa 1989
(picture courtesy of Alice Lockett)

I’ve been invited to give a talk about writing at a school next week. Fantastic! But also – seven hells, what on earth will I talk about?

Luckily I made copious notes when I went to a very good talk by Paula Rawsthorne and Dan Tunstall a few weeks ago – about the kinds of things they discussed, and how they approached it. So using that as a starting point, I sat down yesterday to come up with some ideas.

Four hours later I looked up from my laptop, stretched my cramped hands, and realised the dog was overdue his walkies. Apparently I have quite a lot to say. My problem has rapidly changed from ‘what shall I say?’ to ‘what shall I leave out?’ 🙂

Of course, remembering any of my witty and incisive anecdotes while staring down a ravening pack of 14 year olds is another matter… :-S

But one thing I’ve learnt from my occasional (and much hated) task of having to train clients at work is that no matter what goes wrong (and stuff always does) DO NOT let them sense your terror. The same is doubly true of teenagers. Though they fill me with bowel-loosening horror, I will endeavour to maintain a calm and carefree exterior.

The other thing I’ve learnt is that it all goes a lot better, and the things that go wrong won’t matter half so much if the first thing you do is establish some rapport*. Paula Rawsthorne did this very well – asking the teen members of the audience about what books they like and what they don’t like (I nearly cheered myself when she said, ‘Oh good, I’m so glad you don’t like Twilight!’). She also told a very funny (and gross) story about being puked on by a child.

Unfortunately I’ve never had that honour. I’ll have to think up some other way to make myself amusing and gently self-deprecating. Suggestions..?

* Although this doesn’t always work exactly as planned. The very first time I had to deliver training at work this is what happened: The clients arrived, I went to greet them, held out my hand, and the guy said, “I’m sorry. I don’t shake hands with women.”
Oooooookay. Where the hell do you go from there?
As it happens, the only way from there is up. And interestingly, the same guy offered me a crisp later, so I guess he wasn’t afraid of catching girl cooties.

Dead tree in yellowstone national park

(last year’s holiday to Yellowstone National Park is proving a great source of atmospheric photos)

I am terrible at writing blurbs for my novels. I agonise over it for hours – weeks – months – years. In the end I reach a level of snowblindness where the words kind of lose all meaning and are just wierd noises.

I now hate the blurb I wrote for Darklands, but have been unable to come up with anything better, so it stays. In any case, there’s probably nothing wrong with it – except my extreme over-familiarity with every damned word of it.

Having read a pretty good post on synopsis writing last week, I’ve been trying to rewrite the blurb for Kikimora. This was the original blurb I came up with last year:

Raised in isolation by a brooding magician and his learned cat, Kikimora has almost come of age – and that means she has a destiny to fulfil. For Kikimora is no ordinary girl, but a monster spun from the breath of an ice wyvern and the crocodile tears of a killer, and her purpose is to wreak vengeance on mankind.

But Kikimora’s nature is not harsh or cruel. Sent out into the human world alone, she will need all of her ingenuity and resourcefulness to overcome the destiny laid out for her, and perhaps find her own path to happiness.

I quite liked this at the time. It captures the fairy tale quality at the heart of the story. But, as a writer friend pointed out, there’s no catch. No hook. No question to be answered.

When I tried to come up with a new blurb using the formula outlined in the post on synopsis writing, I surprised myself by the themes I revealed about my story. I hadn’t actually realised the central dilemma was between love and duty. I’ve been painstakingly re-ordering words for some hours now, and this is what I’ve come up with:

The spirits of Korsakov forest are unhappy, their home under threat from mining pollution. So they enlist the help of the magician, Anatoly, to create for them a fearsome monster.

Spun from the breath of an ice wyvern and the crocodile tears of a killer, Kikimora’s sole purpose is to terrorise the miners and drive them from the forest for ever.

But Anatoly made a mistake, and gave his monster a brave and loving heart.

Kikimora finds that cruelty does not come easily to her. Instead she sees the good in everyone – even the very worst of the miners, the gunpowder master. And the longer she spends trying to torment him, the more her heart rebels against her duty.

When disaster strikes the miners, Kikimora must decide whose side she is on; the men or Anatoly. But saving the miners will mean sacrificing everything – perhaps even her life.

I am not at all sure about this new blurb yet. Odd as it may sound, most of my reluctance stems from it sounding *too much* like a hollywood film trailer :-/ I’d love to hear some opinons. Is it good? Is it bad? Does it give too much away? Does it sound cheesy?

I am currently enjoying/struggling through the second draft of Kikimora. Some days it goes great. Other days I struggle to complete my word count (1000)*. So I’ve come up with a new incentive to goad me on those tough days: the line of the day.

I’m also kind of curious how accurate (or random) a picture of the novel will emerge from several months worth of Lines of the Day…

This is the sentence I am most pleased with today, 19 April 2012:

The afternoon passed slowly and mostly in silence.

It’s a small line, but well formed, and I think nicely sums up the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene.

For good measure, I have retrospectively decided on last thursday’s line of the day, 12 April:

Her limbs were very agile, and capable of bending in ways that perhaps a humans might not.

and last friday’s, 13 April**:

He had fled the oppressive old house the first chance he got, leaving Yana to cope alone with the oppressive old man.

I’ll add more each week. But I’m already curious how many of these ‘best lines’ will make it to the final cut. I learned during the editing of Darklands the value of that cruel advice, ‘Kill your darlings’…

* I realise a word quota is not always appropriate during editing, but I decided on a deal of restructuring during my first draft read through, and consequently have a lot of new sections to add in.

** I work part time, and generally write on Thursdays and Fridays.

Line of the day, 20 April

After all, she was a thing of the cold, and she drew strength from it.

Line of the day, 21 April

Kikimora had never had a mother, had never heard a lullaby, and had never felt its lack until now.