“Mommy, I’m Bandit!” Biff hops toward me with his bear held high. “And this is Snowman! We gotta go to Texarkana County for cookies!” He runs in place, revving noises loud and strong, and then bolts down the hallway to my room, where there is no trace of cookies or Texas.
Bo sits at the table with his latest P.J. O’Rourke book, tea in hand. He’s trying to look innocent, but it’s not MY doing that the soundtrack for Smokey and the Bandit has been on for HOURS. Biff didn’t find that CD downstairs on his own, oh no. That little bugger had help.
“At least he’s not talking about bootleg beer,” Bo says.
“EW, beer is GROSS!” Biff hollers from my cookie-free room. “I’m on the run for bootleg cookies, not Coors!”
Bo hides behind his book.
“Eastbound and Down” starts up for the 3,511th time.
Must. Go. Outside.
Blondie and Bash are in a fit of camaraderie, which I’ll take over the previous fit of racing and grabbing at each other’s hoods and yanking each other to the ground. The two are blowing bubbles and talking up a storm over their new Comfie Club, choosing with of their stuffed animals will be in charge and whether or not Biff will even be invited.
The last bit, I admit, hurt. Biff’s the middle kid, just like me, and I was often left out of my brothers’ games when we were kids.
“Watch out, Snowman, here comes Smokey!” Biff tears by the window, “horn” blaring as his bear shakes frantically above his head. “We gotta jump the bridge, look out! Aaaaaaaah!”
I watch that boy and his bear leap from couch to chair and back as the banjo strums on. He’s reveling in an adventure all his own. Who am I to force him out of his imagination and into another’s?
We all need our passage out of reality once in a while. Thankfully, Wyrd and Wonder provides the perfect opportunity to escape the humdrum for something new.
Perhaps, like Biff, you wish to escape via the roads. Weeeeell they ain’t exactly paved in Fantasyland.
ROADS in Fantasyland are not good. Tourists have frequent cause to complain. There are several types of Road, each with its characteristic inconvenience.
Ancient magical ways, normally engineered from some black rocklike substance imperviousto wear. These are so old that only short stretches remain. The rest has been torn up or buried in some ancient CATACLYSM. This can be exasperating. You are just beginning to make some decent mileage on this tarmaclike surface when it stops, and you are back to a snail’s pace again.
ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS. These are wider than an eight-lane highway, dead straight, and made of cobbles that preternaturally show no sign of aging. Though hardly ever used today—they are characterized by windswept emptiness—they were clearly built to allow a traffic of horse-drawn carts, four lanes in each direction, travelling at seventy miles per hour.
Old trade routes. These are long-disused and normally serve to do little more than point you in the right direction. If you try to follow them you are quite likely to get lost when the route peters out into pathless moorland or even MARSHES. If the route is obvious, you will find no shelter along it, and no WATER.
Unpaved roads. These are the norm. They are always muddy and full of deep ruts from the passage of MERCHANTS and previous Tours. They lead through dangerous WOODS and abound in rocky defiles ideal for AMBUSH. Nobody ever maintains these, despite frequent representations to the Management, and you have to use them because they are the only way to get about. Some Tourists lose patience and ride across country, but this is not recommended because it is the surest way to get attacked by APELIKE CANNIBALS.
Hmmm. Maybe roads aren’t the best way to go with those cannibals and ambushing bandits hiding all over. What about the mountains?
MOUNTAINS are always high and mostly snow-capped. There seems to have been no ice age in Fantasyland, so the Mountains rise tens of thousands of feet into pointed, jagged peaks, which have evidently never suffered erosion. They are full of rocky defiles and paths so steep you have to dismount and lead the HORSES. Almost certainly there will be at some stage a ledge along a cliff that is only a few feet wide with an immense drop the other side. This will be covered with ice. Snow will be xweeping across it. The Rule is that you always in a hurry at this stage.
MOUNTAIN PASS, BLOCKED. The Rule is that any time you need to get from one side of the MOUNTAINS to the other, the pass across is blocked. The pass will be a narrow rift high in the Mountains, and by the time you have climbed up there, either with the forces of the DARK LORD hard behind you, or knowing you have only so long to get to the other side before the forces of Darkness get there first, you will find the pass…impassable. Usually the Management applies this Rule by prudently sending you off in winter, so that the pass is snowbound; on occasion, though, the blockage can be a landslide or a fall of rocks. In some cases, you can go down and round the long way, but mostly you just have to bash on through. Somehow. See also HARDSHIP and HYPOTHERMIA.
Oh yeah, hypothermia…never mind! Well I do like my rivers. My town’s on a river, my state’s on a river. Heck, did you know that Wisconsin is home to 26,767 miles of streams and rivers? That’s enough to circle around the entire globe and THEN some! (I learned that while digging up facts about Wisconsin for the kids to copy for handwriting. Ain’t that neat?) So, let’s try a river.
RIVERS in Fantasyland are often very peculiar. Some even flow uphill. Setting aside normal features such as the fact that neither WITCHES nor the forces of the Dark are able to cross RIVERS, , we are left with the unaccountable way that each bank of a given RIVER is liable to be different, and even more unaccountable way the local inhabitants ignore this oddity. The reason seems to be that the left bank of a River (face downstream) is often Highly Magical and full of Hidden Dangers, so that the dwellers are unable to see that side of the River at all. Heaven knows what they think they see instead, or the reason for the difference between the two banks.
BRIDGES. The inhabitants of Fantasyland seem to have a distrust of Bridges, maybe because they provide an easy way for an invading ARMY to cross to a VILLAGE on the other side of the RIVER. This is a great inconvenience to the Tourist. The Rule is that, when being pursued by the forces of the Dark, you are going to need to cross a Bridge, and there will be no Bridge. While the Tour is waiting to find a way across, the forces of the Dark have time to catch up. Even if there is supposed to be a Bridge on the route, you are likely to arrive to find it broken–whereupon the forces of the Dark gain steadily again. The only Bridges sure to be still in place are ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS, and they will be huge, with, as soon as you get to the middle, a tendency to develop a small but impassable gap right at the apex.
Well, how on earth can we get anywhere when the mountains are blocked, the roads are awful, and the bridges on the verge of collapse? I guess we’ll have to stop at a river’s town and socialize with the townsfolk therein…tomorrow. x
Soooooo my puppet plans for the day went so-so. Each kid had a snit at some point: Blondie in making the puppets, Bash in writing his play, and Biff in performing for his family. Still, the kids had TONS of fun at various points of the day creating their robots, rockets, and superheroes. We also took breaks to watch the ultimate puppet show, The Muppet Show. The episode with John Cleese is always a favorite!
I also had a lovely chat with long-time friend, Anne Clare. It always lifts the spirit to connect with an old friend and fellow creative who adventures with teaching and parenting at home as I do. Be sure to stop by her site and say hello!
This week we also found the library that contained the last book to Blondie’s current fav series: Last Dogs by Christopher Holt. She’s found a lot of escape in this series, and I didn’t want to cut off her escape time by missing one of the books.
Escape is very important in times like this, and I hope you each have found that beloved book to transport you out of the current chaos (feel free to share it in the comments below!). I’m excited the stories I’ve written have helped others escape; nothing helps me reset like escaping into my fantasy writing. Diana Wynne Jones also considered fantasy stories to be a delightful bit of escape and adventure for children, but she also reminds writers that fantasy is much more than that for children. Through fantasy, children discover how to be their best selves.
…many writers, not only those who say imagination drives you mad, get the wrong idea. They assume that because a thing is “made up” it is unreal or untrue (disregarding the fact that any kind of story except the most factual biography is always “made up”). They see a child reading a fairy story, or constructing his or her own fantasy, and they at once conclude that the child is retreating into make-believe simply to get comfort in a melancholy situation.
Fantasy certainly does provide comfort–and who is not entitled to a little comfort if they can get it? For those who need that, it is the mind’s perfect safety valve. But a child reading, say, a fairy story is doing a great deal more. Most fairy stories are practically perfect examples of narratives that fit the pattern of the ind at work. They state a problem as a “what if” from the outset. “What if there were this wicked uncle? That evil stepmother who is a witch? This loathsome monster?” Stated in this way, the problem (parent? bully?) is posed for the widest possible number of people, but posed in a way that enables the reader to walk all around it and see the tights and wrongs of it. This uncle, witch or monster is a vile being behaving vilely. As these beings will invariably match with an actual person: parent, sibling, schoolfellow, what a child gains thereby is a sort of blueprint of society. Reading the story, he or she is constructing a mental map–in bold colors or stark black and white–of right and wrong and life as it should be. Turning to the cruel parent or schoolfellow, where right and wrong are apt to be very blurred, this child will now have the mental map for guidance.
An important part of this mental map is that the story should usually have a happy ending–or at least an ending where justice is seen to be done to villains and heroes alike. This is again part of life as it should be. The mind, as I have said, is programmed to tackle problems, joyfully, with a view to solving them…it is important that the blueprint instructs them to aim as high as possible.
If you bear in mind these responsibilities as you write, you need have no fear that any child will mistake the blueprint for the actual world. Children recognize the proper workings of the imagination when they are allowed to see it and may quite well remember your story, joyfully and gratefully, for the rest of their lives.
As you all continue on your adventures through the fantastic, I hope you’ll take a moment to remember the authors who inspired you with their monsters and warriors, and how those stories brought you here, to your Wyrd and Wonderful place, to create a new world of monsters and warriors to inspire a new generation of readers drawing up their own blueprints to becoming their best, their brightest, their most unique selves.
SMELLS are everywhere and strong, and, except for those of ENCHANTRESSES and INCENSE, unpleasant. Even DANGER has a Smell–the REEK OF WRONGNESS. There is somethingin the chemistry of the land that makes Smells. It is probably a fallout effect of MAGIC, but see also SOCKS and TROUSERS.
While it’s true that springtime in Wisconsin has some unpleasant odors–fertilizer, anyone?–there are also the gorgeous smells of budding fruit trees and daffodils, fresh-cut grass and firepits.
Nothing gets my mouth watering like the smell of a meat over a fire, be it a grill or a firepit. Blondie, too, is always happy to see Bo cooking hot dogs outside, or to have a weenie roast with my mom. The twins…well, like me they enjoy setting marshmallows on fire. Unlike me, they don’t eat them in a s’mores, the weirdos.
Since yesterday’s schooling time was…um…not great, let’s consider the contented joy of cooking night fires preparing our favorite savories and sweets…and how those in Fantasyland so rarely seem to have either. Then I’m going to share a couple slow cooker recipes that Bo and I have enjoyed here because, well, being in lockdown and unable to go camping, we need to bring the taste of s’mores in SOMEhow.
FOOD. See STEW, SCURVY, STEW, WAYBREAD (also known as Journey Cake) and STEW–though there are occasional BIRDS, FISH, RABBITS and pieces of cheese. Generally the diet is an unvaried one, although MARSH DWELLERS can work wonders with ROOTS. Puddings are unknown except occasionally in the Courts of KINGS. Tourists who suffer from diabetes should be quite safe.
WAYBREAD OR JOURNEY CAKE is a flat cake, infinitely nutritious and weighing almost nothing, on which Tourists may sustain themselves for long periods. In appearance, it seems to be halfway between a ricecake and a ship’s biscuit, and in substance, it is truly remarkable since those eating it are never hungry and absolutely never suffer from any deficiency disease (see SCURVY). In some areas there is also a kind of grass capable of being eaten instead of Waybread, but this seems to grow only when your Waybread has run out. It is strange that the inhabitants, given the remarkable properties of Waybread and grass, do not choose to live entirely on one or the other. The reason must be that neither tastes of anything very much. After a month of eating them you will even be glad of STEW.
WATER. You may drink or wash in any Water, however scummy, while on the Tour, except in the MARSHES, where it is full of wriggly things. Water in Fantasyland does not harbour germs. The only other Water it is unwise to touch will be either near the home of an ENCHANTRESS or on the trail left by a WIZARD. This may turn you into things or show you disturbing pictures.
STEW (in which thick and savoury translate as “viscous” and “dark brown”) is the staple FOOD in Fantasyland, so be warned. You may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out. Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time. Given the disturbed nature of life in this land, where in CAMP you are likely to be attacked without warning (but see BATH), and in an INN prone to be the centre of a TAVERN BRAWL, Stew seems to be an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak. But it is clear the inhabitants have not yet discovered fast food. The exact recipe for Stew is of course a Management secret, but it is thought to contain meat of some kind and perhaps even vegetables. Do not expect a salad on the side.
While the following casserole isn’t exactly fast food, either–or easily transportable–it is quite yummy with its hint of Thanksgiving. Plus it’s a great way to utilize stuff likely sitting in your pantry and freezer. I got it from Fix-It and Forget-It: 5 Ingredient Favorites, a book that’s been a big help in slimming down our grocery list.
Ingredients: * 1lb lean ground turkey * 2 cups frozen mixed veg * 1/4 cup Italian dressing * 1tsp steak sauce optional (I’ve yet to use it) * 16oz can wholeberry cranberry sauce * 6oz pkg. stuffing mix for turkey
Combine ground turkey, veg, Italian dressing, and steak sauce (if using) in the slow cooker.
Pour cranberry sauce over top. Sprinkle with dry stuffing mix. I also slice up 3 tablespoons of butter to spread across the stuffing, too.
Cover and cook on low 6-8 hours or on High 3-4 hours.
Honestly, I burned a firewood-scented candle while eating my helping of s’mores cake. I love love LOVE the smell of campfires, and the Fix-It and Forget-It: Slow Cooker Dump Dinners and Desserts book gave me a chance to transport myself to that beloved setting while the kids ran around the house in a sugar rush. Yes, this dessert is SUPER sweet, so take it in small doses. 🙂
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
My YA Fantasy Novel Fallen Princeborn: Stolenwill be just 99 cents during Memorial Day weekend (May 22-25). If your neighborhood’s still on lockdown like mine is, let’s escape together in the hidden farmlands where magical portals await…
Desperate, they crossed over The Wall to hunt Humans. But they made one mistake. They took Charlotte’s sister.
In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shapeshifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.
Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte runs away. She takes her bratty younger sister Anna with her, swearing to protect her. However, when their bus breaks down by a creepy old farm, the inconceivable happens—Anna is wiped from human memory.
But something inside Charlotte remembers. So she goes over the Wall in a frantic rescue attempt, accidentally awakening a once cruel but still dangerous prince, and gaining control of a powerful weapon, his magic dagger.
Charlotte’s only chance to save Anna hinges on her courage and an uneasy alliance with some of the very monsters that feed on humanity.
Welcome to River Vine, a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shifters feed, and where the seed of love sets root among the ashes of the dying.
Whew! I think that’ll do it for today. I’ve planned a puppet-themed school morning for the kiddos, so we’ll see if this goes gloriously well or gloriously awry…
Anybody else have to do laundry on Mother’s Day? I did my best setting the twins off to put away clothes while Blondie helped me fold. The job got done…eventually. Bo grilled despite the snow/rain outside, so our tummies were warm and full by the end of the day. 🙂
There are many world-building curiosities DWJ clearly had fun poking at in her book, attire being one of them.
CLOTHING. Although this varies from place to place, there are two absolute rules:
Apart from ROBES, no garment thicker than a SHIRT ever has sleeves.
No one ever wears SOCKS. See also CLOAKS, COSTUME, and KNITTING.
COSTUME. It is a curious fact that, in Fantasyland, the usual Rules for CLOTHING are reversed. Here, the colder the climate, the fewer the garments worn. In the SNOWBOUND NORTH, the BARBARIAN HORDES wear little more than a fur loincloth and copper wristguards (see CHILBLAINS and HYPOTHERMIA). However, as one progresses south to reach the ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS, one finds VESTS and BOOTS added to this costume. Further south still, the inhabitants of the VESTIGIAL EMPIRE wear short SKIRTS and singlets and add to this a voluminous wrapper on cold days. Thereafter, clothing steadily increases in thickness and quantity, until one finds the DESERT NOMADS in the tropics muffled to the eyebrows in layers of ROBES (see HEATSTROKE).
UNDERWEAR is optional and largely nonexistent. It is believed that some form of loincloth or drawers is sometimes permitted, but the Management is naturally coy on this subject. Bras are certainly unknown, but in the case of dancing girls may be replaced by sequined things with tassels.
SOCKS are never worn in Fantasyland. People thrust their feet, usually unwashed, straight into BOOTS.
BOOTS. In Fantasyland these are remarkable in that they seldom or never wear out and are suitable for riding or walking in without the need of SOCKS. Boots never pinch, rub, or get stones in them; nor do nails stick upwards into the feet from the soles. They are customarily mid-calf length or knee-high, slip on and off easily, and never smell of feet. Unfortunately, the formula for making this splendid footwear is a closely guarded secret, possibly derived from nonhumans (see DWARFS, ELVES, and GNOMES).
Ah, sharing Diana Wynne Jones always brings a smile to m’face. We’ll see how the antics with our schooling at home help me choose tomorrow’s selection. In the meantime, stay healthy and keep on walkin’!
To all Moms and Those Who Mother: A Blessed Mother’s Day to You!
So you may think that as a mother, I would spend this post gushing about my kids.
I talk about those little hoodlums enough. Besides, Blondie turns 10 in a few weeks, and I’m bound to get her on around then to talk about fantasy adventures she loves.
So let’s shove the kids into a room with trucks, dragons, and “cutelys” (Biff’s latest stuffie animal crew, of which he’s the zookeeper and it’s all undeniably adorable) so that you and I can take a moment to realize it’s the month of Wyrd and Wonder. Huzzah!
Nnnnope! Time to visit the Queen of the Fantastic. Not with Charmed Life–I don’t need the boys accusing Blondie of draining their life force (or vice versa). And no, I didn’t take them to Howl’s castle. I’ll share an analysis of the chosen story later this month. 🙂
In the meantime, I thought it’d be fun to celebrate Wyrd and Wonder with favorite snippets of Jones that highlight her craft and humor. I love love LOVE Reflections on the Magic of Writing and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, so I’ll be sharing highlights from these books every day over the next…hmmm…let’s say for twenty days or until I finish the chosen story with my kids, whichever comes first. Shall we start with a fitting entry for Mother’s Day? Indeed! Yes, one that instructs Tourists of Fantasyland to be wary of those mothers of fantastical nations, the Queens.
Queens ruling in their own right are rare, but they do occur. When they do they are:
Totally useless because dominated by a male lover or COUNCILLORS, or both.
GOOD, but incapacitated by MAGIC or scruples or both, in the most extreme cases, this Queen will sit on her throne perpetually in a state of blanched preservation. Tourists requiring favours of her will need only one look to know that here is something else they have to put right before they can get on with the real business of the Tour. When rescued such Queens can put things in order with commendable briskness.
Good. This Queen will be a MAGIC USER and terribly conscientious. In her case the Tour will reveal something highly amiss with either her COUNTRY or the whole continent. The Queen will often have to join the Tour to put this right (see SAVING THE WORLD). You will have to spend the Tour worrying about the Queen’s safety.
Old-fashioned bad. This kind of Queen is totally in control. She has everybody terrified of her, possibly through Magic. And, again possibly through Magic, she will be beautiful…Her Country will be the most abject and oppressed of any on the Tour. Since she is very cruel, this will not bother her at all.
A bad mother. This Queen is really ruling for her young son (see CHILDREN), but she will be so anxious to go on ruling that she will be bringing the lad up to be wholly dependent on her. This Queen is a dangerous sentimental bitch, because she will claim that everything she does is for the sake of her Child. She will try to POISON anyone who gets in her way. Only a powerful AMULET will help you here. Naturally no Tourist will want to have anything to do with this Queen, but it will usually be necessary to release the young KING from her clutches before you can proceed on the Tour. The local God may well insist on it.
Oh, it is going to be sooooooo fun sharing these! I hope you find Jones’ words a source of fun and inspiration as you create your own story-worlds.
Speaking of story-worlds, I’ve thrown my own tales into the Wyrd and Wonder celebration!
Night’s Tooth is about as about as gritty a story as you can get and Jean Lee is just the woman to deliver it. Her world building and sense of timing deliver a heightened sense of tension and you’ll find yourself holding your breath page after page. For those with a low suspense threshold, I recommend reading Night’s Tooth with all the lights on!
Thanks for the awesome review, P.J. Lazos! * * * *
I typically read any kind of genre if the writing flows. But my favorite tends to be the YA fantasy and YA paranormal. Because of what I do for a living (oncology nurse), it is refreshing to read something that takes me far from this reality and into an alternate, believable time and place.
The heroine, Charlotte Aegir, is perfectly flawed. So, while the storyline and the world-building is so creative and imaginative, and steeped in faerie, Charlotte’s flaws and rough edges are also so true and…well, real, giving this dark fantasy novel a genuine emotional core—a beating heart—that we humans can relate to.
Thanks so much for reading this slapdash post written while Bo and the boys race along with Bandit down the highway with Smokey on their tails. I hope you’ll come back for the upcoming journey through craft and Fantasyland–be sure to share your own celebration of all things fantastic in the comments below, too. Let’s spread the word that spring’s the time for Wyrd and Wonder!
Yet another spring day of sunshine, robins, aaaaaaaaaaaand that s’mores cake just sitting in the fridge, callin’ my name…
How are you, Friends? I’m not quite as grumpy as I was last week, but honestly, I’m still feeling pretty downtrodden. The extension doesn’t allow for nonessential travel, and…gosh, can’t time outside’n’elsewhere be considered essential? Please?
Escape through photography is one thing–there are plenty of amazing nature photographers out there capturing intimate moments in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, we can’t just take my family on a walk through the park. Parks have playgrounds, and playgrounds are still off-limits. This led to Bo and I brainstorming our day-trip to the graveyards–four, to be exact. We visited the graves of grandparents and parents buried in dilapidated Catholic plots, forgotten farmland sites, suburban stone-less grids, and MANSIONS!
Doesn’t that look like a mansion? It’s got this huge church in it, and castle-like sitting room, and crypts, and statues, and a Hall of Presidents, and I’ll stop rambling so you can just see for yourself in the gallery on their page. The kids actually had quite a bit of fun on this graveyard run, looking for the really old graves, checking out all the unique names in the mausoleums, admiring the veteran statues, and simply loving the warm, windy day.
Brighter days have led to Biff’s pleas being answered at last: I got the bikes down. After a couple of weeks with training wheels, Biff’s soaring off on his two-wheeler…
Bash is so, so close to Biff as far as speed and balance, but once again anxiety has been rearing its ugly head, and Bash panics the moment I let go of him and falls. He’s made his feelings quite clear on the subject.
Bash’s teacher sent a phone book’s pile of worksheets to be completed this month, while Biff’s teacher simply emptied the boy’s desk into a plastic bag aaaand that’s it. So…is Biff done, but not his brother? Oh, Biff’s expected to keep doing stuff online. Soooo is Bash. Then do we both with these worksheets or not?!?!
The school crap’s getting old, people. I’m not going to just throw in the towel like a professor with just one first-grader, but the utter disconnect between expectations from the boys’ teachers is frustrating. I’ve tweaked the school schedule yet again to try and get through as much of their work in the morning as possible, with Bible History, Math, Reading, and Writing as our daily core and then ending on a special, like Science, Geography, Art, or History. I overlap whenever possible–drawing maps, for instance, or building something like people did in the olden days (they want to build a fort like a cathedral now–thanks, Nova!)
But because the boys each have such different things they’re supposed to do for each subject, even these few things take time with the play breaks they need throughout the morning. It’s all I can do to keep up with them while, yes, once again Blondie has to tend to herself. Thankfully, this doesn’t perturb her too much; she chats with her friends online via the school computer while completing assignments. Any connection to friends beats fighting with little brothers any day, yes? I’m also impressed with a theme in her writing over the spring involving these dog/dragon/ghost folk building their own planet for alien tourism.
Now I just need to get her back to her Alley Heroes, am I right? 🙂
Speaking of writing: yes, I’m doing my best. I’ve submitted a short story to my university’s literary journal, and I’m still writing another I hope to share with you. The idea came from a very vile looking park bench and a pair of towns I’ve passed through many times in my life; Ashippun, and Old Ashippun. Two communities, very near one another, and yet they have very different feels about them. The idea of a town starting in one place only to be abandoned for the sake of progress stuck with me, and I hope to put that sense of (dis)place into my WIP, “Hungry Mother.”
Nicole carefully places the Bella Café sticker over the tell-tale yellow arches. “My coffee,” she tells the child. “Want some?” Please don’t want some, Christ your teeth look like rocks.
The girl tucks a few greasy strands of hair behind her ear, revealing the rest of her lopsided face. No doctor could save that face. “Nah. I’m waiting for the water.” She points to the old water pump in the middle of the park.
Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of arborvitaes is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes, and that yes is due any minute.
“Don’t you have water at home?” Nicole can’t imagine allowing her own daughter to play in this rundown park, let alone drink water from some forsaken pump. Carl and his skank Sandra probably would. I bet they don’t even follow my rules for brushing her hair.
The child plucks a centipede off Nicole’s bench. With all the bird-crap and graffiti littering the park’s picnic shelter, Nicole had been forced to pick a bench out among the tired, mushroom-eaten pines, and even this bench has quite a few cuts and words scrawled on it. “It’s not the same,” the child says, watching the bug travel from one muddy hand to another.
Nicole brings her Serenity Cloth to her face as though to dab a drop of coffee, but really she just needs to breathe the lavender oil and think, Christ kid stop touching that thing and take a bath. Where is your mother? “Would anyone across the street be able to help?” Not that there’s much to look at across any street in Old Sanctuary. Crawling vines of small red flowers cover almost every building surrounding the central park—post office, gas station, all of it. Only the trailer park sign looks new:
THERE’S NEW LIFE AT OLD SANCTUARY ESTATES! JOIN US TODAY!
New life. What a joke.
Two people stand by the sign in casual conversation: an old man as grimy as the child, and a woman around Nicole’s age…clean, that’s all Nicole knows without seeing the woman’s face. The dress looks like some over-bleached 90s relic cut and sewn for a slightly better fit. A woman like that’ll value her dollars, will try to take care of things herself, won’t bother with big names telling her what to do, like stores or doctors. Perfect.
The child releases the centipede on the bench. It crawls over the words MY PRETTY GIRL IN RED AND CURLS and stops next to Nicole’s left thigh.
Nicole sweeps herself up, dress spinning as she grabs her ___ bag and laughs nervously. “Well you have fun with…” she almost points to the centipede, then spots CURLS. “Say, maybe your momma can put your hair in curls today. Won’t that be pretty?”
The child shakes her head. “It’s talking about you.” The child hobbles over to the broken swings and flops forward to lay her stomach on the seat, her legs and arms dangling like a spider from a thread.
Hopefully I can keep this piece under 1.5K so it fits more easily with magazine submission guidelines. In the meantime, I’ve pulled Middler’s Pride off of Channillo and hope to revamp it for an ebook later this year…or 2021. I should probably be realistic with my timeline here, as I, too, am going to be in school.
I’m going back to school.
In order to make myself look more awesome for a full-time gig, I’m going back for another Masters degree, this time in instructional design. It’s an accelerated track, which means I’ll be in the crunch for eighteen months or thereabouts. I’m praying this won’t hinder my ability to blog too much, buuuuuuut I better be realistic with myself here.
Still. This academic journey doesn’t start until June, so we have some time to edit a novel. Write a story. Email a friend. Discover new music. Hug a child. Trade fart jokes. Wash a chalk-covered stuffie. Steal Easter candy. Read a book. Drink coffee. Savor tea.
Take one day at a time, and pray for things to change for the better.
It’s high time I share something from something I’ve read, wouldn’t you say? ‘Tis the month of Wyrd and Wonder, after all!
Or perhaps we shall return to that Star Wars swamp. We’ll see what the kids allow me to do. x
I have a feeling I’m not the only one sharing in this sentiment.
Under the original 30-day lockdown, restrictions would have been lifted enough for my kids to return to school today. With the governor’s edict extending the lockdown until late May, though, this hope was dashed. Yes, I get it’s for a good reason, but I hope you can forgive that in the midst of working at home while also teaching at home while also parenting at home while also writing at home while also EVERYTHING at home…sometimes, this whole “life at home” brings out the grumps in adults and kids alike.
We have to fight back those grumps and create reasons to smile, and there’s no weapon quite like music. Even maniacal little villains like Plankton can’t resist the lure of a good song!
Sometimes that smile comes from a return to the classics. Bo loves watching the Marx Brothers with the three Bs. Of course, all their favorite parts involve Harpo.
I dug through my old CDs and gave the kiddos my albums from the oddball 90s show Cartoon Planet, a mix of sketches and songs featuring characters out of the 60s Hanna Barbara cartoon Space Ghost. One of their songs would be pretty catchy in today’s environment, methinks…
But we don’t want to laugh so often we go, you know, nuts. It’s important to have music that inspires us to move even when the world has bolted its doors and shuttered its windows. We’ve got to revel in the rhythm of spring and remember that life must move forward, if not in the way we are used to.
Music takes us out of the Here and into a New-There far away from our walls and windows. Scores like Philip Glass’ latest can re-focus the mind’s eye on a land like or unlike our own, a place eerily familiar save for that one strange, fantastical, unearthly, supernatural, magical, unreal thing.
Music is also a powerful weapon in the endless war for mental health. Anxiety grinds, but music lifts. It hugs the heart. It revives our hope.
And then comes the rare moment, be it in the early morning or late evening, when peace settles upon the mind. Such is the time perfect for connecting with you, fellow kindred spirits. You are the tireless Calcifer to my exhausted Howl. You are the warm hearth in this cold dark world.
We must not lose our music to the silence of uncertainty, Friends. Keep hunting for that inspiration to smile, hope, and create so you may help bring others one step closer to a brighter world.
Yes, I did take my kids to a bunch of cemeteries, and yes, I’ll share more about that next week. You can also see what my three little Bs are up to as I revise our schedule YET AGAIN to get through their final month of school…while I begin an academic journey all my own.
And let’s not even talk about the parents that spend the day graveyard-hopping with their kids (post forthcoming).
For those of us confined to a house of snits and snaps and other plastic mayhem, the hope for peace and quiet and magic feels all but gone, especially when lockdowns are extended, when schools are closed for the year, when jobs are furloughed until further notice.
Oh, I cried when Wisconsin’s governor extended the lockdown. Even though all the rational parts of me knew this was coming, I still cried. I had hoped my mother could finish her teaching tenure with her students. I had hoped my sons could continue their Occupational Therapy. I had hoped my daughter could return to her friends. I had hoped for a little time for myself, too.
But none of this is meant to be, dammit, so here we are, fearful of the outside world while driven mad by the inside one.
How do we counter this?
Perhaps you find it in an old story, as I did. “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer” began with a photo spotted in the fall of 2018.
Something about the old woman reaching for that apple…it was like she was reaching for, for something else. For me? N-no, but something about the urgency in her manner, the aggressiveness. She needed that fruit. But why? I mean, it’s not like people’s lives depend on a single apple.
Uuuuunless they did.
And from here came the crack and thunder of magic gone wrong. People’s lives did depend on this apple, if that apple was needed in order to stop a Happening from, well, happening.
But what was Happening?
Why, a story, of course.
But sometimes even an inspiring photo isn’t enough. We need to look beyond the photo’s perimeters. What does the traffic sound like on the street? How high do the buildings tower over others? Are we in a world of electronics, or some sort of yesteryear? And smells, don’t forget smells.
In order to build upon that initial inspiration, we’ve got to put our sense-memory to use. After spotting the wee shop in the background named “Meatball Obsession,” I focused on my first date with Bo when he cooked me spaghetti. He loves making his own sauce, a day-long endeavor that fills the house with a rich, spicy, meatiness that makes you think the very air is edible. And suddenly I’m imagining people walking about nibbling on saucy meatballs since apples were for magic and not eating.
Hmmm. Sounds a bit silly.
Eh, why not? It’s my story, dammit. At the time I wasn’t looking for serious fare. To help me stay lighthearted, I even put on the soundtrack to Midsomer Murders while I wrote, Parker’s themes for mystery in rural life the perfect balance of spooky and delightful. The mix of smell, sounds, and sights helped me focus on building a story about a woman—no, not just a woman. Look at that hat and coat. Come on. Surely this is a Madame, one of status and prestige…even if no one else agrees. But Madame who? Hmmm…say, isn’t that my Midsomer CD over there?
(Yes, that is occasionally how things come into my stories. If something’s in my eyeline, then iiiiiiiiiiin it goes! So when in doubt, look around you.)
And one apple seems so paltry. Surely Madame Midsomer would insist on purchasing not just one apple but a dozen, certain she could stop the mayhem of her own doing from destroying the entire town. The seller, however, doesn’t like her, refuses to help, and the magical authorities take her away and everything’s fine and life is happy the end.
After posting the story on my free fiction page, I decided to send it off to an online magazine. They didn’t take it, citing the need for more developed worldbuilding and consistent tone.
Well, poop. I liked it, so the story stayed as is…until this past March.
Something Or Other Publishing reached out with information regarding their latest anthology project and inquiring whether or not I’d like to submit.
Um, sure? Except my current short fic WIP wasn’t close to being ready, and SOOP’s deadline was just a few days. What to send, what to send…
I passed “Tampering” off to another fantasy reader to get feedback. While he liked a lot of things, he just couldn’t wrap his head around the meatballs.
But. I. LIKE THEM!
Maybe in this confinement, when we’re so ready for ANYthing to break us out of the rutted dread, I was hoping for those meatballs to just come a’ rainin’ down, blessed by the wind.
A fresh challenge comes when we remove that presumed Thing from the worldbuilding. To us, that Thing embodied so much of the story, like the meatballs representing the out-there zaniness of my setting. In focusing on that zaniness, though, I forgot to give the setting any sort of history, or rules, or heck, even a name. When we over-prioritize the gimmicky Thing instead of characters or plot, is it any wonder readers question the story’s logic or tone?
This calls for serious inspiration.
I didn’t want this urban fantasy to feel too dated, but I did want it to feel different. It hit me I wanted magic to be a normal thing in this society; at first this was to be through the meatballs, but now, I wanted a calmer presence, something akin to Ingary in Howl’s Moving Castle. Witches and wizards were simply a part of life there. One went to a wizard for spells or potions to protect a voyage, help a crop, etc.
Why not let magic be as natural as a flower from the ground?
*gasp* Or the fruits of the trees?
So many possibilities opened in that moment. A quaint farming community, a town proud of its home-grown magic…because it was unique?
Or because it was dated because the rest of the world had moved on to more modern methods?
Imagine magic factory-made and shipped to big box stores, as pleasantly packaged as a box of cookies, consistently good. Not as good as home-made, mind you, but still, you know, good.
Now this story wasn’t just about a sorceress angrily fighting with a fruit seller. This story was about a community struggling under the weight of a pompous magic-wielder. A town proud of its natural magic and fed up with those who misuse it.
At last, I’d found the world built.
And its name was Pips Row.
“Hullo, Seller!” Madame clacked her way down the walk with the straightest of spines and the most pointed of chins. It made no difference to her that the Seller was addressing a small group of whiny school children and their frazzled teacher on the importance of fruit in Workings and other Spells. “So, just as there’s a fruit for every season, there’s a magic for every fruit. Why, if not for lemons, you’d never have fireworks. If not for holly berries, you’d never have snow for Christmas.”
“Isn’t that fascinating, children?” the teacher said with as much enthusiasm as a slug in a salt shaker. “While most communities import their magic from the capital’s factories, little places like Pips Row carry on the old-fashioned way.”
Old-fashioned, indeed! Madame Midsomer had half a mind to show this frumpish excuse of human being just how “old-fashioned” a Regional Sorceress could be. “Excuse me, Seller?”
“Why don’t people here buy by their magic from Merlin’s Mart like everything else?” One gap-toothed girl asked while licking sprinkles from her fingers.
The teacher opened her mouth to speak, but Madame Midsomer brushed her aside. “Manufactured powders don’t hold a snuff to the real thing, child. Now out of my way. I have urgent business to discuss with Seller.”
Out of the corner of Seller’s eye, he could see the tower of Madame Midsomer’s residence shudder ever so slightly, sending a cloud of pollen from the flowers of her creeping vines into the air. The wind coughed—an unsettling sound to any native of Pips Row.
Seller gave a tight-lipped smile to the teacher behind the little mob. “If you’ll excuse me.”
But this school group was not of Pips Row, and had so far only learned they can throw sweets without consequence. “No! The hag can shut up so you can show us real magic!” the girl said, and the lot of them pitched fistfuls of sprinkles at Madame Midsomer.
This was unwise.
Dear writing friends, do not look upon this time of lockdown as a creative drought. Peruse old works for new potential. Tap the dust off favorite reads for new lessons. Lose yourself in the emotions of music. Look upon the world outside your window, and ask:
Happy Saturday, one and all! I’m reveling in the last bit of springtime sunshine before rain and snow slush their way through Wisconsin in the next 48 hours. I can only imagine how fun it would be to hide the kids’ eggs in the snow…
(No, I’m not evil, but I may be driven to that evil if the kids can’t stop fighting for %^@$&# minutes.)
Yeah, it’s been a rough week. I had hoped to update everyone on Wednesday, but between teaching my kids and teaching my own university students, the time to write you wasn’t there.
Plenty of time to ponder, though, especially as I cleaned Biff’s puke out of the car. (No, he’s not sick. Apparently the string cheese from one of the community lunches must have been bad, because he puked two minutes after eating it and was totally fine afterwards. I’ve smelled a lot of puke in my days, but cheese puke is right up there as one of the worst.)
Anyway. As one who sits on both sides of the educator’s desk–
–we gotta talk.
Teachers EVERYWHERE are overwhelmed and frustrated. Unless you’ve been trained to teach online and have a class structure that functions online, you are flying by the seat of your pants to make what were paper assignments doable online. You’re having parents take pictures of homework in the paper packets you had to send home because many of your kids don’t have the technology or Internet capabilities to submit anything online. So many of your lesson plans depended on in-person classroom time, and now you have to learn how to mediate an online meeting with kids who may or may not have any other person in the same room with them, which can make it impossible to reign in behavioral issues.
And even if you ARE one of the lucky ones who is already trained to teach online in a well-established online classroom, you’re STILL dealing with students not logging in, not reaching out, not submitting work. And for all you know these students are sick, or have loved ones suffering, or simply don’t care. Without any communication, you have no idea. And that terrifies you.
Parents EVERYWHERE are overwhelmed and frustrated. It’s like the teachers assume parents can just pick up the lesson plans where teachers left off. They expect students to accomplish 6-8 subjects in a day with or without any meeting via phone or chat. They expect parents to create picture-perfect photos of completed work, and God forbid the kid uses a pencil like she’s supposed to because the pencil never shows up in the photos. And even though you hear from teachers not to push the kids too hard, they assign several daily tasks to be completed online–you know, on the computer YOU are supposed to be using for YOUR job if you still have one. Not tiny tasks, either–30 minutes on this program, 30 minutes on that program. Make sure they take this quiz, read this book, complete X squares of Phy Ed. Bingo and show, SHOW they completed those squares by videotaping them, and don’t forget creativity! Make this chalk! Make these toilet paper tube animals! Make this clay!
And this is all assuming your teachers are on the same page. God help you if you have twins with different teachers, who despite teaching the same grade in the same school assign COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THINGS. One has to spend time on Program A while the other’s supposed to check out Program Q and fill in a story diagram, but the one needs to go to Program H and learn this song and sing it back while the other has to recite poetry from Program T and identify diaphrams and ENOUGH.
We gotta take a moment, and we gotta breathe.
While I am desperate to create school days that keep my three Bs engaged and excited to learn, I know I am not the same as any of their teachers. Even my three do not fit into any sort of one-size-fits-all learning mentality; while Blondie and Biff can both self-motivate to accomplish school jobs, Bash constantly struggles to focus his ideas, all of them brilliant, but always “too much work” to put down. He sees his brother and sister make it all look so easy, and he gets even more stuck in how he’s not yet done. He’s not done yet because he must be stupid. He IS stupid. He’s always stupid.
Anxiety’s not the only emotional struggle, either. Blondie keeps hearing the boys on their programs and asks why SHE doesn’t get to do any fun computer games like they do. Biff sees how short his work list is and complains I’m making him do extra stuff–though all I’m doing is having him follow the same work schedule as Bash.
All the while I fear that if I don’t push them at least a little, that if I solely leave them to whatever the teachers have dumped into my inbox, that they will lose the learning stamina they’d slowly gained over the school year.
Surely there is a calm somewhere in this storm.
So far, I’ve found success–small, but consistent–with establishing themes for their school day. No matter what the teachers assign, we will gather to read a little, write a little, and explore a little. I will have them practice handwriting with cool facts about outer space, go on a virtual field trip with an astronaut or to facilities like Boeing via Discovery Education, and then do a space-related experiment through Mystery Science. We’ll read a couple bug books together, write neat bug facts, watch an episode of Monster Bug Wars, then check out bugs with Blondie’s microscope. We’ll listen to the birdsong outside and try to spot who’s chirping and draw the birds for science, then read about nests and write bird facts. We’ll tour Washington DC, read about a president, and then design our own monument for the capital. We’ll visit the Lego House in Denmark, write facts about Lego, and then experiment with building Lego boats.
You may see that in all my themes there is one task running throughout: handwriting. No computer game, video, etc. is going to make a kid work on his handwriting, such a vital fine motor skill that could easily atrophy if left out of the plan.
Am I overloading the day? I probably ain’t helping it much. But I know that school should be more than just a bunch of computer games and worksheets. Even one hour of these themed activities sprinkled throughout the day gives the kids a chance to feel like they’re together learning something. And any learning community is better than no community at all.
Click hereand herefor a mix of online and printed resources I’ve been using to keep the homeschooling humming along.
So parents and teachers–take a sec to breathe. We’re all of us overwhelmed. We’re all of us scared. We’re all of us praying our children’s futures aren’t lost to the lock-down. So long as we show our students of all ages that yes, we care, yes, we want to see them succeed, and yes, we can only do our best until things change for the better, then just maybe we can keep that spark of curiosity alive while the school windows remain dark.
A blessed Easter to you all! May your day be one of peace and hope and not, well, this…
The whole cartoon is here, in case you’re in the mood. 🙂
Darnit, I almost forgot! The whole “Write at Home” thing and how that’s coming…weeeeell it’s slow. Very, very slow, but it’s there. Fellow teacher, mom, and indie author Anne Clare recommended keeping the goals in easy reach; unlike many writers on social media who speak of how much writing time they now have because of the lock-down, we parents in the crowd are all–
–so yeah. No “I can write my whole novel at last!” going on here, let alone a bunkerin’ down at Camp NaNoWriMo.
Writers, there’s always SO much we want to do, but if we don’t pace ourselves our eyes’ll never stop twitching.
I’ve narrowed myself down to three projects–not to complete, per say, but to at least develop.
Fallen Princeborn Series Arc. YES, yes, I still want to make progress on that series despite all that’s happened after the first book came out. The problem is that I still don’t like how the series itself wraps up. Until I create a series synopsis with milestone events that both fit the characters and my vision, then I can at least finish the edits for the second book.
Academic article. Creative writing is nice and all, but universities want to see professional writing from its teachers, too. My department chair has said in no uncertain terms that if I want to advance my career, I must publish something for academia, sooooo I need to get that started.
Short Story Submission. I already have one short piece out for consideration, and I’d like to complete one more before spring is over.
Speaking of short stories, thank you to all who’ve voted for my revamped “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer”!
If you haven’t had a chance to vote yet, please do so–every tally counts in increasing the story’s chances for acceptance into a local anthology. Click here to vote!
Unsure what you’re voting for?
In a few days I will share the worldbuilding process of this story with you, showing that even when confined to one’s home, there are entire lands of magic and mayhem just outside one’s window.
Later on, I’ll recommend some of the books that the three Bs and I have enjoyed reading together. I also want to tune you in to some amazing music (har har) to help you escape those same ol’ four walls and find yourself in a blissful Other-Where.
Greetings, one and all! After a rough week schooling the kiddos at home (stay tuned for THAT post), it’s high time we celebrate Indie April with an interview with an AMAZING writer and reader, Chris Hall.
Let’s begin with the niceties. Tell us a little about yourself, please!
Nice to be here, Jean!
I was born, grew up, lived and worked in the UK until 10 years ago, when childless, in our forties and fed up with our jobs, my husband, Cliff and I upped sticks and emigrated to South Africa. We’d already met people here through a school exchange programme which Cliff was involved in, visited numerous times, and finally decided to come to a new country and do something different.
We’ve settled in a town about 30 miles from Cape Town, where we can almost see the ocean from our house. Our cat, Luna (after whom my blog is named) emigrated with us and loves it here. We inherited some chickens along with the house, all of which have since gone to chicken heaven at a ripe old age, but now we have two large brown hens which usually means lots of lovely eggs, although it’s a bit hot for laying at the moment they tell me.
Since I moved out here I’ve done various voluntary work, been employed as an administrator in a guesthouse and an art gallery, and now I’ve turned freelance doing copywriting, ghost-blogging and social media stuff for other creative people who lack the time/patience to do for themselves. In my spare time I write a lot and read a lot (when I’m not chasing hens off the veg-patch or catering to Luna’s little whims). It’s all a far cry from the 24 years working in risk management which I left behind in the UK.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Two of my favourite authors have written about the craft of writing. On Writing by Stephen King and Steering the Craft by Ursula K. le Guin, have both had a positive impact on the way I write. Their words are wise.
But also, when you read any book with the eye of a writer, your experience is a whole lot richer. Considering the way that other authors construct their books and frame their words makes me think that little bit harder about my own writing.
What is your favorite childhood book?
This is difficult! I’ve wrestled a bit with this, but having roamed my bookshelves, it has to be Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series – and if forced to choose one, it would be The Little House on the Prairie. For the whole of my first high school year (aged 11-12), I totally lost myself in Laura’s world. The daily chores, the struggles and adventures of pioneering life, within the context of this close-knit family, enthralled me. I always had one of her books in my school bag. I’d take it out at every opportunity before and between lessons and bury my head in the pages. The covers are little battered and the pages yellowed, but I still have them all.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
My ‘stand out’ visits were to the homes of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. I fell in love with his poetry when I was studying advanced level Spanish, prior to a series of visits to Spanish-speaking countries back in the early noughties (that’s another story).
Neruda has three houses in Chile: in Santiago, Valparaiso, and Isla Negra. I visited all three over the course of two trips to Chile, and I found all three utterly stunning: true reflections of the man and his poetry. The ultimate is the house at Isla Negra, located right on the beach in a tiny, remote town. Getting there on a local bus was an adventure in itself, but the sprawling, single storey property and its surroundings are jam-packed with mad collections of ships mastheads and bottles, shells and ship’s bells and all manner of things. I especially liked Neruda’s writing room which looks out onto the ocean. He made his desk from a piece of driftwood which he waded in and rescued from the waves.
Blogging has been a very happy accident. When I began with my website, I really had no idea that there was this big, friendly and supportive world of writers (and others) out there. What a revelation!
The support and the feedback from the people in our little corner of blog-land has been a tremendous encouragement, which I hope I reciprocate adequately. Keeping up the blog has helped me with the discipline of writing something almost every day, although I don’t post all that I write. Some things are remaining under wraps.
A blog gives you a presence as an author (indie or otherwise). It gives you a chance to get out there, show off you books and share a little about yourself. My Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn accounts are all connected to my blog, and more recently I’ve added Instagram too. So now I can be found and so can my books, should anyone care to look. Whether this had as much impact on the sales of my books, I’m not so sure, but it forms a foundation.
Blogging has been, and still is, a journey for me. What I put out on my blog now is all my own work or about my work: stories, installments, reviews, a bit about my successes (and failures) in trying to promote my books and occasionally, a bit about my writing life.
And I don’t think there’s anything I wish I’d done differently at the start. As in many things, I’m still learning and growing. Change is good; development is better. I’m planning to set up a separate author website under my actual name; it’s something I’ll ‘get around to’.
You chose to publish your first book, The Silver Locket (2012), under a pen name. May I ask what your reasoning was for using a pen name then and not now?
I have to admit that it was out of a lack of confidence. I was a ‘secret’ writer then. I hardly told anyone about the book when I first published it on Amazon, much less publicized it. But little by little, as people I knew downloaded it – even bought paperback copies from me – then read it and told me that they enjoyed it, my mindset started to alter. I could actually bring myself to tell people that I was an author!
Then I had a couple of short pieces published in online magazines and I joined Medium and started publishing on there, all under my own name, so it seemed logical to continue. I now wish that I’d written under my own name from the start. Holly Atkins will remain a one book wonder.
Your next publication, A Sextet of Shorts (2018), takes reader through a variety of quick adventures both personal and fantastical. Can you take us through the process of how you choose to craft a story as short fiction and other stories as novels?
The six short stories I published in that slim volume were ones I’d written way before I started working on The Silver Locket. They were the stories which I’d written for the creative writing classes which I attended for a couple years before we left the UK. I’d had good feedback from the writing tutors and members of the associated writing groups, and I was pleased with them.
Two years ago, I decided to dust them off and publish them to use for a bit of local publicity. With my bio and blog details on the back cover, there are copies in waiting rooms, doctors’ surgeries and hair salons around my home town. A couple of them are quite well-thumbed now!
Since writing them, and although I continue to enjoy writing the many, many micro- and flash-fiction pieces I’ve put on my blog and flung out around social media, I’ve discovered how satisfying working on a novel is. There’s so much more time and space to get to know the characters, immerse myself in their lives and watch what they get up to. And that comes back to finding my Happy Place.
You’ve published TWO novels in 2019! The first, You’ll Never Walk Alone, takes readers back to the 1980s in a location quite different from your own! What inspired you to set the story in Liverpool, and in that particular decade?
My former life in Liverpool has been an enormously important part of my personal history. I moved there in 1981 to attend University, and You’ll Never Walk Alone is set in that city at that time. I was in my early twenties and those were truly my formative years, when away from where I grew up, I started to make my own way in the world. Very little of any of that is in the book, but Gina and Lucy would have been my contemporaries, and the house in which they live is based on one of the large, converted old buildings where I had a flat, even down to the Chinese landlord. The locations in which the novel is set would be very recognizable to anyone who knew the city then, but everything else is pure fantasy!
The novel was a long time in the making. Gina, Lucy and Cynthia were born out of a short story I’d written more than 10 years earlier. That’s a long time for a character to be hanging about in The Well of Lost Plots (Jasper Fforde, 2003), but now they have a book of their own, and they’ve told the world they want another. One day, ladies!
Considering your experience writing fiction set in the past, how would you describe your research process in taking care the historical context is accurate? What would you consider to be the ethics of writing about historical figures?
Can I say how scary it is to think that the eighties are historical now?! But I do always check my facts so far as I can, mostly via our friend, Mr Google. Even though I lived through the times and events which form the backdrop to You’ll Never Walk Alone and The Silver Locket, (circa 1983 and 1989 respectively), I covered the research ground as wanted to make sure there were no glaring errors.
When writing Following the Green Rabbit, I was even more conscious of the two time periods in which the narrative is set. I researched what people would have worn, what they would have eaten and drank, what herbs would have grown in England in the early 17th century and so on. I deliberately left the earlier date vague and avoided mentioning any identifiable historical figures for the very reason of avoiding any dilemma about portraying real people.
Your latest, Following the Green Rabbit, features some heroic children in an Alice in Wonderland-esque adventure. What would you consider to be the biggest challenge in writing a Middle-Grade adventure, and how did you see yourself through that challenge?
First if all, let me correct any misconception that despite the tropish title, the story has anything in common with the Lewis Carroll fantasy story. It may be sub-titled a ‘fantastical adventure’, but that’s to do with the girls’ inexplicable transition to ‘past-times’. There are no mythical creatures or size-changing potions; the children find themselves in a place and time where the dangers are very human and very real.
As for the challenge of writing for a MG audience, I hope I made the story page-turning enough, I hope there were sufficient cliff-hangers and there was adequate suspense and enough alarm. But I suppose I fell back on telling a story which I would have wanted to have read, with characters with whom the much-younger me would have identified.
Time and feedback will tell me to whether I pulled it off as a MG adventure, but I’ve described it as a ‘novel for adventurers everywhere, from 9 to 90 years’, partly based on the fact that my 90 year old mother said she ‘really enjoyed it and didn’t want it to end’. My mother is not one to hand out compliments lightly, so I consider that to be praise indeed!
Out of aaaaaall the fiction you’ve written through the decades, what would you consider to be the most difficult scene you ever had to write? What made it so hard, and how did you overcome it!
Ah, this is where sex rears its ugly head!!
Both of my adult novels required sex scenes. None is gratuitous; each is an integral part of the story. The ways in which each of the scenes play out tell the reader something more about the characters involved, and after all, people in their 20s who are attracted to each other will inevitably end up in bed.
There is no doubt that sex scenes are difficult. You don’t want to be too cheesy and you don’t want to be too anatomical, and I believe that cutting to ‘waves washing over a beach’ is a cop out. The scenes must feel real.
Basically, they all involved a large number of rewrites to hit the right tone. I haven’t written anything especially graphic, although I did end up toning down the one at the start of Chapter 10 in You’ll Never Walk Alone during my final, final edit.
Well, yes, I was indeed busy with a new book during NaNo. I guess I’m almost half way through the first draft now. It has been semi-parked through December, but now we’re in the final days of the holidays, I’m ready to get stuck in again.
I decided to write a novel firmly rooted in South Africa this time. The story is set in the present day, in a fictional small town on our West Coast and the overarching theme is the lack of water which is a serious and on-going concern for us here. The narrative combines a slightly romanticized tale of everyday folk with a large dollop of magical realism and myth thrown into the mix. I have assembled an eclectic cast, some of whom people might recognise from some of my stories last year. All but one of them is contributing nicely to the story, but I can’t quite get under this one’s skin yet.
It’s a more ambitious project than any I’ve worked on before, but for the moment I’m just going with the flow. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull all the strands together, but that’s all part of the fun. I’m hoping to complete the first draft by mid-2020, so who knows, maybe it’ll be ready for release towards the end of this year. No promises though!
Last question, I promise! (Hee hee!) Does writing energize or exhaust you?
When I’m deep inside a story, crafting that story energizes and excites me; there’s a little shot of adrenaline too. That’s when it’s going well.
Ah, but when it isn’t! It’s frustrating, it’s unnerving, it’s heart-thumping for all the wrong reasons. I question what I’ve written. Is this a story? Is it going anywhere? I guess some of that might not happen if I planned properly. But that’s not how I write.
I go through a whole gamut of emotions. Not every day, not all the time, but enough.
Many, many thanks, Chris! I can’t wait to see how your writing blossoms in the months to come.
Inspired by street photography and fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer” takes readers to the town of Pips Row, where magic grows as sweet as the fruit of the trees. In the wrong hands, however, magic becomes as rotten as the sorceress who wields it, and no one is more rotten than the fearsome Madame Midsomer. Today, the people of Pips Row have had enough.
The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer
Stay tuned! Gah, I gotta vent a little about teachers NOT used to distance learning having out-of-whack expectations of little kids. I’d also some lesson ideas for you to use with your children, and then some music to escape the home and discover writing inspiration.