A Wake of Crows has a back story which dips into the history of the former GDR (East Germany). I have wanted to write about the GDR for some time because of a long term friendship I have with a woman from Dresden and because of visits to that city and Berlin in the 1980s and after. One thing I noticed soon after the Berlin Wall came down was that the years of communism were being glazed over. Especially in Dresden where it was like the history of the city jumped from Baroque glory to the present day. This is changing somewhat particularly in Berlin. When I was last there, a park was being built up around remnants of the wall and oral histories of the communist period.
However, I do think as humans we are good at forgetting.
Recently I have been reading various books exploring racism to help me examine my part in it. The one I am currently on with is Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch. She brings into sharp focus how racism is experienced by Black people in the UK and how white people in the UK have not even attempted to understand our history of slavery, prejudice and denigrating those who have been ‘othered’ and exploited because of the colour of their skin. We white people want to forget, because it is easier to do so. As Hirsch writes: ‘We want to be post-racial, without having ever admitted how racial a society we have been.’ (P125.)
Non-remembering is easier, but it means nothing changes.
There is a danger that the true visceral horror of the pandemic is being lost in the sprint to ‘get back to normal’. Plus, that the trauma and mistakes are not going to be springboards for a better way of doing things. We lurch, it seems to me, from one crises to another without any real vision. And we fall into the trap of silo-ing issues. An item on the news about climate change is quickly followed by another on ‘growth’ or holiday flights or problems with fuel deliveries. No link is made. No pause is taken to say, well maybe, because of climate change, we should be looking at things differently.
I certainly do not have any answers. But as a writer, I do think I have a role in keeping the collective memory alive. I have a role in pointing and saying, ‘There look’, even when it’s uncomfortable and upsetting. This is what I attempt to do, in a very small way, in my writing in general as well as in my novels.
Today I am delighted to welcome Adrienne Silcock to my blog https://www.adriennesilcock.co.uk/poetry/ She has recently published a collection of herbal poems with The High Window Press called Of Gardens and Witches. Below is one of the poems from her book, plus her thoughts on what inspired it and the whole collection. Enjoy!
Dill Anethum Graveolens
give seeds for luck to the bride to place in a shoe to the groom for the pocket
give seeds to protect the baby – a small bag in the crib – or to children during church to hush and stay their hunger
give leaves to the person who believes themselves bewitched
give tea for hiccups, swelling, insomnia and pain
infused by Neolithic chef and Pharaoh across Russia and Rome
consider the smallness of seeds
Adrienne writes about her collection:
Even before the Covid pandemic, many of us were beginning to turn towards the natural world for answers and for healing. Some had done so a long time ago. I think I’ve probably been one of the latter, but somehow societal issues seemed to be coming to a head. Climate change, continuing international conflict, people’s mental health issues (I was keenly aware of these, having worked in mental health for a large chunk of my working life)… I started to consider how people over the centuries have turned towards herbs for help.
I began to do the research. Society has had a very long relationship with Dill for instance. Ever since Neolithic times in fact. People used seeds to support superstition, to suppress hunger in times of starvation, to treat mental health issues (give leaves / to the person who believes / themselves bewitched), to treat insomnia or simple physical discomfort, such as hiccups! In a way we have learned to take herbs for granted. On the other hand we’ve forgotten about their magic, their taste, how they can be part of a healthy diet. Suddenly I found myself writing a herbal!
There are so many ways to talk about different herbs. Some of the poems in the collection engage with history and/or mythology, others reflect their usage in modern life, or in the case of Hyacinth (who knew that is considered a herb?) a symbolism for the brevity of life itself. Some are edible, others poisonous. Some have disappeared. I found man’s imprint on the planet and the world’s fragility appearing in my writing again and again. Some poems are light, others wistful and sad, some poems are written with form, others are free. And there are even notes for the curious at the back. I hope that there is something here for everyone.
Adrienne’s most recent publication is Of Gardens and Witches, a collection of herbal poems is from The High Window Press (September 2021). She has also published a poetry pamphlet Taking Responsibility for the Moon with the Mudfog Press (2014), has appeared in the independent press and various anthologies, including Chaos (Patrician Press, 2020), Geography is Irrelevant (Stairwell Books, 2020) and is a featured poet in Vindication (Arachne Press, 2018). She has published two novels, Vermin (Flambard, 2000) and The Kiss (on Kindle) and was shortlisted for the Virginia Prize 2009 for an unpublished novel Controlling Aphrodite.
I am sometimes asked: where do you get your ideas from? My response is: everywhere. To be creative, all we have to do is open up our bodies and our minds. Feast our eyes, our ears, our nose on the world around us, stick out our tongues to taste the day, be curious, reach and touch the varied textures (Covid restrictions may apply).
I was very happy to learn, therefore, that one of Britain’s greatest dead poets, Wilfred Owen, was also stirred by his environment, the town I now call home.
When I moved to Scarborough eighteen years ago, I found out that Wilfred Owen had been here just before he was sent back to the front near the end of World War One. In late 1917/early 1918 he was billeted at the Clarence Gardens Hotel, now the Clifton Hotel, on North Bay. Several years ago, I heard a talk by Dr Paul Elsam and John Oxley MBE FSA in which they discussed how this sojourn had fed into Owen’s poetry. I was overjoyed to find this talk expanded into six podcasts for the recent Big Ideas By the Sea festival. Each podcast takes a poem and explores the links with Scarborough. The series is accompanied by an art installation at the railway station.
I have always said graveyards are a great resource for writers. Half told stories adorn every grave, demanding: ‘What happened here?’ And ‘What if?’ In the current novel I am working on, Drowning Not Waving, DC Donna Morris walks through Dean Road cemetery, the dedications to fisherman giving her a new perspective on her investigation. The paths she walks, I have walked dozens of times. And, according to the podcast on the poem Strange Meeting, so did Wilfred Owen. He stood in front of a memorial which has always intrigued me and, perhaps, like me, it got him wondering.
I was very glad the podcast on the poem The Calls explained the background to it, as, at first, I was not taken by it. However, as I sit overlooking the South Bay, it comes back to me and I write.
The Calls, 25th July 2021 The drone of the speed boat. The excited prattling of the children paddling. A man arguing into his mobile phone. The (not quite) silent beat of the wing of a seagull gliding in to grab.
A winter visitor in 1918, he would not have noted these. Yet, a hundred or so years apart, we can share the shush-shus-shush-shoosh — the inexorably incoming tide.
Both Wilfred Owen and I have been inspired by Scarborough. Now his words have stimulated mine. That’s how writers roll, moved by our surroundings, but further stirred by the language of others who have also been inspired in this way. A never ending process, whirling on and on.
Now I invite you, dear reader, to use this blog post as a portal to the Wilfred Owen in Scarborough podcasts:
How Taljinder Met Tarlochan She pierced her ears at 11, punctured her nose at 13 and was ready to be married by 15. She had the colouring of light cha, a northerner living in the city of five rivers and she would breathe in its life; the musical sultry nights, powdered peacock holis, the cracked mud villages, the first monsoon of the season: the outpour of warm rain on her arms, her face, seeping into her clothes. The dry heat would burn through the night and into the next day, where she would lie in the blades of grass, until the world fell away.
And then she flew the sky, leaving the clouds, the fields, the mud and the rain. Landing in manicured pastures, she would discover a new tongue, faces met by arrangement, a new house, double glazed windows, instant mashed potato, brown bread, fish and chips, her bridal self and Tarlochan: whose mother and siblings would teach Taljinder that for a few decades her body was a planting pot for purple, yellow and green flowers to bloom under her skin.
She would understand from Tarlochan that sex is not love, sex is for babies, all four who would teach them the boundaries of respect and that the borderless state of love between them both is at first friendship, hardened by the lightning bolt of disappointment that would strike when their children defied religion and tradition. And yet, their strength would be found in the soft sigh of knowing that the ones who they gave the future to had found a loop hole: left open, a freshly painted door through which they too, could one day, walk through.
By Prea G Kaur First published in Mslexia March/April/May 2021 Issue 89
Reflections on writing the poem by Prea G Kaur
My writing explores generational trauma, it seeks to examine how my family’s traumas and the way they dealt with them can be passed on to their children, including myself. My parents are British Indians and landed in England in the 1980’s and fell straight into a society that was mostly hostile to migrants, and to an extent, it still is. How Taljinder Met Tarlochan is quite an intriguing poem, not only for readers but also for myself. I first wrote it in my third year as an undergraduate and back then it was a very different poem. The beginning was strong, but the ending was flat and so before I submitted it to Mslexia it underwent quite a rigorous editing. In fact, not only did the title and structure change but so did most of the poem. This change comes from growth, your views and opinions are always evolving, so I think it is always worthwhile revisiting a poem. When Debbie Taylor, the editor of Mslexia, informed me I was to be published, she also sent me a new version of my poem which Karen McCarthy Woolf had rearranged, and as a result it read much better. I agreed to the change in structure and so it was published in three more compact stanzas rather than the original longer ones I had submitted.
On a leave of absence, technically I am not supposed to write or work academically but I find this impossible, if not very damaging to not do. For me poetry is therapeutic, it allows me to express pain in a way in which it can be dealt with. So not only am I still writing, but I was also recently brought on as a voluntary poetry editor at a new online start up magazine founded by Isla Telford called Hencroft Hub. With Isla, I run online workshops where we breakdown the work of already published writers, so that participants can see where narratives work and where they don’t. I often find that the stories and poems which don’t quite work, are where the writer is too scared to express themselves and so hides behind language. I was once this writer and sometimes I still am, but I have learned that I can bypass hiding behind language if I pull on the heart of the poem: the thread of raw emotion. Emotion which lives in memory, people, places, and events and which should be weaved throughout the poem or story. This is how I build a poem and then I edit, edit, and edit, until I am happy with it. The job of poetry, and I suppose all writing, is to make comprehendible something that an individual may not understand. Narrative must arrest, interest, and overwhelm the reader’s attention. I try to connect to my readers through emotion, so that they can empathise or sympathise with my work, which as a result can lead to a stronger connection between characters and readers. Everyone has had different upbringings and experiences, but we can understand each other through the way in which we feel and empathise—this, I believe as humans, is our first and last connection to each other.
The poem follows my mothers’ journey from India to England, there isn’t one emotion here, there are sets which include love and pain. When I say sets of emotions, I mean to say that love is a feeling made up of emotions such as happiness, fear and surprise; which goes hand in hand with pain, made up of sadness, anger and disgust. And so, love and pain become a symptom of each other, and I think this is the base of my poem. It follows my mother’s life from beginning to its present; the unknowingness of leaving an environment where she is comfortable in India, to flying to England to get married. I hoped to convey the fear of leaving a place she knew and entering one she didn’t. Where after a while, British culture such as “fish and chips” and “double-glazed windows” are a part of her life, which are contrasted by the mud villages she once knew.
Arranged marriages are common in the Indian culture and this was very much the case with my mother. She left India to get married to my father who was already in England. Here, I wanted to portray a different sort of love. A love that is born through a lack of free will, chance and friendship rather than passion at first sight. A love that weathers hardship and mutual pain but also a love that is forced to follow the tradition of the Indian culture; one where the female must have children, be the angel in the house as well as work to earn a wage. The poem ends with the hope that the next generation will do better, that they will not have to conform to tradition or religion; that they and the generation before can live in the freedom that is allowed through choice. In many ways this poem skims the surface of the collection I am working on, there are so many stories and avenues in here that I am yet to explore and perhaps that is why I don’t love this poem, because I do not yet see it as complete—as a writer this is always the case, for the end is always unwritten.
Prea G Kaur, brief biography I am undertaking my PhD at Keele University but I am currently on a leave of absence; I think I can speak for most when I say it’s been a hard year. Among the death, despair, and endless stream of devastation in this pandemic, poetry has allowed me to keep seeking the joy in living. Faced with the possibility of non-existence, like many others, the pandemic made me realise that I was far from being content. I was despondent doing an English PhD up to the point that it made me very ill. Struggling with depression, an eating disorder and the pressure of a PhD that no longer reflected what I needed to tell the world, was just not how I wanted to live my life. So, I decided to take a leap of unknowingness and get some of my poetry published. I entered the Mslexia 2020 poetry competition with three poems. The one which I thought was my weakest, How Taljinger Met Tarlochan, was chosen by the judge, Karen McCarthy Woolf to be published and was awarded the unpublished poet prize.
During my undergraduate and Masters I took a few modules in creative writing. I was and still am a good writer, and I enjoy it with a wicked passion. But I chose to ignore my strength as a writer because still as it stands, creative writing is frowned upon by some academics and students. Yet I find this quite perplexing because most academics would not exist without creatives. The world needs more writers who choose to feel and reflect our humanity. I can’t quite explain what poetry means to me; it’s in my blood, every atom of my being, it’s akin to oxygen and I can’t see myself living without reading or writing it. Being published gave me the recognition I needed to believe in my voice and my writing. I am no longer doing an English PhD. Keele and the arts and humanities research council have allowed me to change the output of my project to creative writing; where I’m still exploring mental illness and trauma as I had originally planned, but it’s now more personal and, of course, poetic.
When I was nineteen, I completed writing my first novel (on a typewriter – not even an electric one). As I started to send it out to agents, I knew exactly what my book launch would be like. It would be in a crowded bookstore. I would confidently do my reading before answering questions and signing the many books I was going to sell.
As time passed, I had some pieces published and writing sometimes came into my work, however, I did not secure the dreamed-of contract for my novels which I was searching for. I can’t say publication became less important, it is just that the writing became more important. Through the years, writing has developed into a passion; a support; a way to understand myself and the world better; and a friend.
Scroll forwards thirty-seven years, and I finally have a contract with a traditional publisher, Constable/Little Brown, to write three crime novels based in Scarborough. The first, A Wake of Crows, was published on the 3rd of June 2021. And the question I kept being asked was, what about a launch?
My editor explained that the main promotion would be done around the paperback coming out next year. Plus, well, we live in a Covid-world, so the idea of organising anything seems complex. Yet, I did not want this landmark in what I could loosely call my writing career pass without celebration. So I positioned myself in one of Scarborough’s many green spaces (one which helpfully has a refreshments van that serves vegan hot chocolate) and invited friends to pass by if they could. Some did and many others sent lovely supportive messages. It was very special.
There is a mix of emotions with any ‘birth’ of a creative piece. I remain excited and proud. Though I have not been able to actually open my book (in case my eye falls on a sentence I could have written better) I enjoy holding it, feeling the weight of it and admiring the cover.
The other week I spent several days camping by Coniston Water.
I visited the Ruskin Museum (a treasure trove of stories for any writer): Ruskin Museum – Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901 It has a section on Donald Campbell. He appears to have been a driven man (no pun intended). Once he achieved one speed record, he was onto the next (even though he had no rivals snapping at his heels). I did wonder if publication by a traditional publisher would somehow be ‘not enough’ after all these years of pushing for it. The good news is that I feel content at reaching this particular milestone. I may not have had the launch I envisaged in my teens – all red carpet (tiaras optional) – but it has very much lived up to, and survived, my expectations.
A Wake of Crows is available as an ebook, as an audiobook and as a hardback from all the usual outlets (online or terrestrial). The paperback will be out in 2022. As will the second in the series, currently entitled Drowning Not Waving.
I subscribed to the Poetry Book Society (The book club for poetry lovers. (poetrybooks.co.uk) last year to widen my understanding of poetry and to introduce me to new writers. This it has done. And one of the poets I have been fortunate to discover is Isabelle Baafi. As soon as I read her poem ‘Plantain’, I wanted more, and ordered her pamphlet Ripe (ignitionpress, 2020). Here is a fizzing cornucopia of poetry in a fresh voice. The mundane is often used to explore emotional depth. The white space on the page is sometimes innovatively employed to underline what the words are expressing. It’s not always an easy read, but it is worth spending time to ponder over and reflect on. I found fascinating how the the first poem of hers I read, ‘Plantain’, took on a different flavour when nestled in the context of the others in the pamphlet.
How grateful am I, then, that Isabelle has agreed to allow me to reproduce here one of her poems and has graciously answered some questions (see below). Thank you Isabelle.
Finding my dad in a can of baked beans
In supermarket aisles, you teach me to need; stacking cans up to my chin—baked beans, corned beef, carrots, peas. I heave our trolley against the weight of a fear you have never unlearned.
At night, your prodigal car lights creep across my bedroom wall, and I add you to my list of things that come to us tightly sealed. On school runs, I plant tiny feet in the back of your driver’s seat—hoping you’ll feel something.
Beanstalk-tall and paraffin-scarred: Google Translate says your laugh means wandering echo And me—your youngest bean. If I knew the way back, I’d bury
scoops of me for you to find: in the Bantustan, near your mother’s house; the chirp of grasshoppers saturating the bush. In the tracks on sloping road, made by your father’s dusty Navara. In the belly of the mine that swallowed your brothers every night.
The first time I hear your language, it’s in the song of a baked beans ad. White families rush through drizzling streets to huddle in kitchens, fall into dining room chairs. Uniformed, backpacked kids drift home to the baritones of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
You’ve played that song on the stereo. I don’t know the words. But you say it’s about wise men, who cross the world looking for home in a man they have always hungered for.
At the table, I nudge beans around my plate, clustering stars; trying to navigate the miles between us. At the window, the sides of the curtains shine like the rim of a half-opened can. In the pauses between ads we chew on silence.
‘Finding my dad in a can of baked beans’ was first published in harana poetry. It also appears in Ripe, which can be bought from the ignitionpress website, here.
Photo of Isabelle Baafi by Sarah Kiki Nyanzi
Kate: Can you tell us something about your creative process? Isabelle: I write as often as I can, which is almost every day at this point. I recently started writing full time, and that has been such a rewarding experience. Normally, after going for a run, I’ll write in the morning until lunchtime. For me, writing often involves a lot of free writing, which has allowed me to explore the many associations, memories, random thoughts, and concepts that are trapped within my subconscious. But also, I often think about new things that I want to try, and experimentations with various forms and devices. In the afternoons, I’ll usually do some admin, or work on projects, and then in the evenings I read.
Kate: Looking back, how did you come to write poetry? Isabelle: The first time I wrote a poem, I was 14. I was very into the Brontës, and I came across the poem ‘High Waving Heather’ by Emily Brontë, and I loved it. So, I wrote a poem after it about a rainstorm. Over the next few years, I wrote more poems. But I didn’t get very far, and I suppose that I lost confidence in it, and I put all my energy into writing fiction and screenwriting. Then, in 2017, I read Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, which reignited my love of poetry. Warsan Shire’s writing is such a force. At the time, I was also writing flash fiction and sharing excerpts of stories online, and gradually the stories became shorter and shorter, and increasingly poetic, until eventually I realised that I was writing poems. I had always wanted to be a writer, and yet I never really pictured myself as a poet. But poetry is a great form. There is so much that only a poem can do, and so it’s a really cool genre to work with.
Kate: Where does the title ‘Ripe’ come from? Isabelle: At its core, Ripe is about the desires that propel us through life, control our actions, and define us as human beings. The pamphlet grapples with permutations of physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual curiosity, and relational need, and how they all overlap and inform each other. The poems explore pubescence, trauma, submission, reclamation, and self-discovery, and so, what I think the title captures is a sense of allure and temptation, and the sensation of existing on the verge: on the verge of knowledge, the verge of beauty, and the verge of destruction.
Kate: In many of your poems you use the white space and the placement of the words on the page in an innovative way. Can you explain how this came about and your thinking around this? Isabelle: For me, the form of a poem is as much a part of the poem as the words themselves. Also, I think one of the greatest things that literature can do is encourage empathy — and so, when I write a poem, I want the reader to feel what the speaker is feeling. For that reason, I will sometimes try to convey the speaker’s experience through the form. For instance, a poem in which the speaker feels trapped might have a justified alignment to convey a sense of rigidity and external control. However, it’s something that I try not to do too often – and only when it serves and enhances the poem. I think anything that you do too often can become predictable and gimmicky. But experimenting with form is something that I really enjoy doing.
Kate: What are your future plans? Isabelle: At the moment, I’m preparing to start a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford in September, and I’m also looking forward to some editing opportunities that I have lined up for later this year. Plus, I’m gradually writing towards my first collection, and I’m hoping to put that together next year.
Kate: The question you wish I’d asked? Isabelle: Your questions have been great, Kate! I suppose, one thing that I haven’t talked much about is how the pamphlet has changed my relationship with my work. Nowadays, whenever I write anything, I consider it as a piece of a puzzle, and I’ll think about its place within a body of work or larger narrative. Every choice that I make will take into account every other poem that I’ve written, as well as the end result that I have in mind; the ideological framework that I’m building. These days, I’m holding onto poems longer, and waiting for them to speak to each other before I send any of them out into the world.
Brief biog. Isabelle Baafi is a writer, poet, and critic from London. Her debut pamphlet, Ripe (ignitionpress, 2020), was the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Spring 2021. She was the winner of the 2019 Vincent Cooper Literary Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, the 2020 Bridport Prize for Poetry, and the 2019 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition. Her poems have been published in The Poetry Review, Magma, Anthropocene, Tentacular, and elsewhere. She is a Ledbury Poetry Critic, an Obsidian Foundation Fellow, and a Board Member at Magma. She is currently working on her debut poetry collection.
This last weekend, here in this small corner of the North Yorkshire coast we were experiencing wintery snow flurries and spring sunshine. Occasionally at the same time. As the plants and trees begin to unfurl, so we are stretching out of the most recent Covid pandemic lockdown. I greet this with a mix of excitement and anxiety. If I can remember back to the me of thirteen months ago, I think I pretty much knew and could accept the uncertainties and concerns I lived with. Now there is a skip-load more to contend with. But there is no doubt I want to take off, be with people, see new places. As with the weather, it is a duality I imagine many are experiencing.
Meanwhile, I am getting closer to the publication of my first novel for Constable/Little Brown, A Wake of Crows, due out on the 3rd of June. Once again there is eagerness mixed with nerves.
Quoted in the Daily Record, author of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, talked about when he has a new book coming out and ‘That horrible fear of social embarrassment that my mum’s going to read it, my friends are going to read it, my girlfriend’s going to read it. I think you have to have that sense that you’re going to be humiliated and dragged through the streets on stocks with rotten tomatoes being thrown at me. If you don’t have that it’s not going to work. You have to be incredibly uncomfortable and feel you’re going to die of social embarrassment when you put a book out otherwise it’s not going to work.’ (Online article 11th April 2021.)
It’s not entirely clear what the ‘it’ is in ‘it’s not going to work’. However, I have taken the meaning to be that unless you feel uncomfortable about your work going out there, you have not pushed it to the edge, you have not taken risks, you are not revealing something important about yourself or society (or both). I am, therefore, welcoming in the trepidation. I am sticking my head up like the crocuses and daffodils and, I guess, there is the possibility of being trampled on.
However, one of the things which is keeping me giddy is that this bookshop: Home | Goldsboro Books has asked for 50 signed copies!
Meanwhile, I am also editing my second novel in the DC Donna Morris series, Drowning Not Waving. All writers are different. I love the blank page and the first draft when it feels like anything goes. I know others dread it. I find the next stage of re-drafting and editing more difficult, whereas others relish it. For me, what makes it troublesome is that the reader comes into the picture.
However, some of Anna Davis’s advice does not entirely fit with me. It might be semantics, but it feels more like the drafting rather than the editing stage. I am quite happy to work non-sequentially in the drafting process, but when it comes to this editing stage, the main thing I need to know is that it works sequentially. It is in the drafting process that I am experimental and trying things out. Once I am editing, it is about the totality, it is about the audience.
Here is what I do. I put away what I have written for at least two weeks. I then attempt to come back to it with new eyes, with a reader’s eyes. I re-read the work (printed out) over several days. It has to be slowly enough for me to really pay attention. It has to be quickly enough for me to keep the whole narrative clearly in mind. I am making sure that it makes sense, of course, that the shape succeeds in terms of it sustaining pace and suspense. I know what my weaknesses in writing are, and I keep a check-list of them to ensure I am always alert to them. I am also reminding myself (as per my previous blog post on dialogue: Writer’s toolkit: dialogue | Scarborough Mysteries) I will want to read my novel out loud at some point.
Though I can read fiction while writing the first draft, at this point, I have to keep to non-fiction or I get too confused.
Drowning Not Waving has quite a history. First devised for a course I took with Curtis Brown 2016-2017, I got it to a point where I was able to send it to agents and publishers. When Constable/Little Brown took it on, we agreed I would introduce my DC Donna Morris character with a different story, A Wake of Crows. Drowning Not Waving would become the second in the series. This has already meant substantial re-writing, including changing both point-of-view characters, even to get it to this stage.
I am now at the point when I need some reaction to what I am writing. I could spend a lot of time re-writing and editing without actually being certain whether what I am creating is communicating at all. There’s a ‘golden’ moment for garnering critiques. It has to be far enough along for your embryonic notions to be sufficiently robust to stand up to what others might say; but not too far into the writing that you have invested too much to change anything. Once I am through this re-read and re-write, I will send it to my editor and her assistant for comments. Whatever we are writing, feedback from trusted others, is a crucial part of the creative process.
The other week I received an email from Constable/Little Brown, who are publishing my series of crime novels based in Scarborough. The first one, A Wake of Crows, is due out on the 3rd of June this year. A Wake of Crows by Kate Evans | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk) The email was to tell me that my novel will also be available as an audiobook. I am giddy with excitement.
With the email came extracts of my novel being read by two actors, so I could give my opinion. I have to say, it was unnerving to hear my words – so long only in my head – being spoken by someone else. Some of the characters sounded exactly as I had imagined them, others not so much. It was a bizarre experience.
Having my characters given ‘voice’ by someone else, brought me to thinking about writing dialogue.
In recent times, I have noticed a penchant amongst writers for direct speech in novels. Being a bit of a fan of indirect (or reported) speech in stories, I thought I might test the waters. In a completely unscientific poll on Facebook, I asked what other writers/readers thought. The overwhelming majority who responded said direct speech is the best. The main reasons given were it helps build the character voice and it gives pace.
The problem is, I still find pages and pages of direct speech dull. I think it actually slows down the pace because of this. Therefore, my first nugget of advice is get to love writing a mix of direct and indirect speech. Reported speech can still capture a character’s syntax and dropping in a phrase or two of direct speech can really focus the reader’s mind in on what is crucial. Useful in a crime novel, where the rule is ‘clues in plain sight’.
All writers should have big ears. Listen, listen, listen. Have a notebook at the ready to capture how people around you speak. Not only the words they use, but the rhythm and the pauses. Characters who come from a particular place and/or background, how would they speak? Research using the internet, if you can’t find a real person to ask. Don’t go for the cliché, but try and find the little something which distinguishes their turn of phrase.
When writing a dialogue, dive straight into it. In drafts, you may have to write about how the characters get together, about their initial small talk, but in later drafts, ask yourself, do I need all this? Edit, edit until you get to the bones of what the two people have to say to each other.
In real life, conversation has lots of purposes, one is to build relationships and help us to feel that we belong. This is why much of what we say is relatively superfluous to the action of our lives. In a novel, dialogue is a driver – for character building, for tension, for plot. If it’s not serving this function, then cut it or summarise it. Yes, when characters are getting to know each other, they may talk about all sorts of things, but the reader doesn’t need to know the detail.
We rarely speak in sentences. Dialogue should reflect this. The more taut the situation, the more jagged the dialogue. Short, unfinished phrases. Jumping from one speaker to the other. And don’t forget that body language forms part of human communication. It needs to be in the ‘dialogue’ too.
These are some of my thoughts. Here are some more:
I have to admit, hearing my characters on the extracts sent through for the audiobook, did make me wish I had followed the ‘rule’: speak you dialogue (or your writing in general) out loud). I will be doing more of that in the future.
When I was teaching creative writing for Hull University’s BA degree, I would suggest visualising plots as a washing line to hang scenes on. This might work for some. However, several years later on and into my second novel for Constable/Little Brown, I am revising my ideas.
With my hysterectomy in 2019, and the restrictions of lockdown since March 2020, jigsaw puzzles have come back into my life. I have discovered my husband hates doing them, and I have a knack for them. I am able to see the shape and content of a piece and how it fits into the whole, in a way that he can’t. Only goes to show, all our brains work differently.
Every jigsaw puzzle-ist has their own method. Mine is to do the outside edge first. Then I choose something substantial in the picture and pick out the pieces which appear to belong there. I put them together and work outwards.
As I was doing this one day, it occurred to me that creating a plot has parallels. Rather than working linearly, I create the borders for the story, then I focus on the important incidents, before working out how they link. This concept is helping me wrangle my current plot into some sort of shape, so I thought I would share it, in case it is useful to others.
Just as I was happily working this blog post into being, my dear friend, Jane Poulton, artist and writer Home (janepoulton.co.uk) sent me an email. She knows I enjoy doing collage, she also knew I was wrestling with the plot of my novel. She recommended a free workshop on collage and then said, ‘Writing is a bit like collage, isn’t it? A moveable feast until things fall into place and the whole feels settled, complete and “just right”.’
I realised this is an even more valuable insight than my one about jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaws have only one way in which they can fit together, they have the image on the lid which must be copied. A collage, however, has the same idea of pieces coming together – some large, some small, some (apparently) insignificant – into a whole which is likely to be only moderately pre-destined.
We all find our own ways of writing and thinking about our writing. We will be challenged by some aspects more than others. Sometimes the guidance of others can be supportive. Maybe, if you are finding plotting a trial, these musings on jigsaw puzzles and collages might begin an opening up. Go for what feels like the most substantial aspect and worry about the rest later. With perseverance and a fair wind, we end with the sense of ‘just right’-ness Jane envisages.
Several years have gone by since I tumbled over Anne Goodwin’s website annegoodwin.weebly.com and her thoughts on how therapy and therapists have been portrayed in fiction. Since I had been in therapy for some time and was training to be a psychotherapeutic counsellor, we had some enjoyable exchanges over fictionalised therapists – the good, the bad, the ugly and the just plain wrong.
I also read her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, which I found compelling and thought-provoking. Until the end of February, Anne is offering you a free e-book of Sugar and Snails. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize (given for works which best explore the LGBT experience). Just follow the link:
Meanwhile, I am happy to re-post a piece Anne wrote for my blog: ‘Why I’m Thanking My Therapist’ Here it is, Anne Goodwin writes:
About eighteen months into my therapy, the death of a relative almost rent me apart. We were talking about my tendency to prioritise caring for others above caring for myself, when That Woman (as she’s identified in the acknowledgements to my novel) said that I probably didn’t even know what I wanted for myself. In those early days, I was loath to contradict someone who was so unusually attentive to my needs, but this time I did. Yet I think I was as surprised as she was when I proclaimed that I wanted to be a writer, so successfully had I put my whispered youthful ambition out of mind.
I’d been scribbling stories on and off all my life, but my professional training and practice as a clinical psychologist had consumed most of my time and creativity. I’d vaguely planned to pick it up again on retirement, but That Woman nudged me to make space for what I wanted there and then. She helped me realise that I didn’t need to justify the time spent writing with prizes and publications (which was fortunate, given that it took much longer than I’d imagined for these to be forthcoming). It was extremely liberating to discover the world wouldn’t come to a halt if I indulged myself.
We didn’t discuss so much what I was writing at first. It was more a matter of tackling the barriers to taking my apprenticeship seriously, being picked up from the knocks and disappointments along the way. But the larger focus of our conversations wasn’t about my writing at all.
One of the themes of my therapy was my traumatic adolescence. I’d gone to That Woman thinking myself lacking for not having put the past behind me (as Diana is urged to do in Sugar and Snails). Now that I recognise the enormity of my experience, I see that as a ridiculous pressure to put upon myself, compounding the original trauma with the blame and shame of being unable to toss it to the side. Not that, outside the therapy room or wrapped in the arms of my husband, I showed any indication of not coping. I kept my wounds hidden from the wider world.
So perhaps it’s inevitable that my first published novel should feature another traumatic adolescence. I’d had other ideas, other novels begun and abandoned, one even getting as far as the second draft, but it was always Sugar and Snails to which I returned. Not that it was easy to write: from inception to publication, this novel consumed seven years of my life. My therapy has been equally epic, the successive transformations of my novel proceeding in parallel with my increasing understanding of myself. While each would feed into the other, That Woman helped me maintain the boundary between my own biography and that of my character. She also provided a container for my frustrations with the publication circus, that Kafka-ish world in which logic seems not to apply, and encouragement to claim my author authority as publication date approached.
I believe that my therapist has been of greater benefit to me as a writer than any of the industry experts I’ve consulted along the way. But, having paid my bills more or less on time, I don’t owe her anything, not even my gratitude. Yet I felt it would be dishonest not to include her in the acknowledgements for my novel, for my sake more than hers. Conscious that some writers are suspicious of therapy, I was anxious about this initially, but the support I received when I posted about this (thank you, Kate and others) convinced me I was doing the right thing.
It’s not easy to write about a therapy, partly because it’s such a private endeavour, partly (judging by the mistakes writers commonly make in creating a fictional therapist) because it’s so difficult to get to grips with from the outside. Maybe, on reading this, you’ll understand why I’m thanking my therapist, or maybe you’ll just have to take it on trust that this novel would never have got written, let alone published, without her. Yet because of the confidentiality inherent in the relationship, she can’t tell anyone else what part she played.