Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Russian Dolls – A Novel Structure

Recently I read the US/Turkish author Elif Shafak  (Viking 2010)  for the first time. The Forty Rules of Love is a complicated, multilayered and deliciously flawed story set both now and in the thirteenth century, and across several countries. I would describe its structure as Russian Doll.

Thanks to past links with Russia, I’ve got several of these gaudily painted Babushkas that nestle one inside the other, and I watched my children play with them when very small – the thrill of breaking them apart and the comforting certainty that they would all fit together perfectly in the end. That may be that’s why I’m intrigued by their literary equivalent. Readers of fiction have perennially loved the ‘Russian Doll’ structure – the tale that fits within the tale that fits within the tale.
How many layers does a story need before it can qualify for my classic Russian Doll shape? It must have onion-like layers; after all, there are never just two Russian dolls. 
So I’m not talking specifically about Mise en abyme, the French term for a ‘frame’. This literary device, with one story narrated or imbedded around a further story, includes Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where a party losing its sparkle turns into a ghost story told by a fire. And I'm excluding books that build a single story in a complex way, for instance by use of fractured perspective or flash-back. And – sorry, disagree if you might – I don't believe that stringing a set of shorter stories together count as ‘Russian Dolls’. 
Jennifer Egan's  A Visit from The Goon Squad  is very clever, as is the more recent Booker short-listed All that is Man Is by David Szalay, (Vintage 2016) a beautiful examination of the male mind and the seven+ ages of man. Both are worth a read, but their stories don't nestle, they move along, linking together in various ways. 
So what about Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, a gloriously surreal story about the hunt for a mysterious book? Mostly categorised under the post-modern definition of metafiction because the story plays with self-awareness and the writing conventions of authorship. Certainly, the story is complex and layered. It begins with a reader (the reader...), opening Italo Calvino's latest novel, If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, only to have the story cut short. Turns out it was a defective copy, with another book's pages inside. As the reader tries to find out what book the defective pages belong to, he meets Ludmilla, a fellow reader who also received a defective book. Calvino's novel broke ground and created a storm in fiction, but I don't think it qualifies for the Russian Doll structure – but then, it doesn't need to do anything it doesn't want to do – it's a marvellous read.

Cloud Atlas,(Sceptre, 2004) by David Mitchell, begins with a rollicking story of Victorian exploration and missionary zeal.  It consists of six interlocking, stylistically distinct novellas spanning 500 years and begins in 1850 with extracts fromThe Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. The narrative breaks off suddenly on page 39 at the half-way point with no warning, and we’re in the1930s, where a new character arrives solely via his intimate letters to a certain Sixsmith, and onwards, into the future and the centre of the novel, a four further tales later, to find connections and learn outcomes. Mitchell has a delight in creating puzzles in his novels and Cloud Atlas  bends time, structure and genre. Mitchell trusts us to keep reading although each narrative is unfinished, using links such as birthmarks and documents, to complete each individual story and the novel itself. This builds up a satisfying narrative structure that shifts across genres and styles, and the distinct voices of many protagonists… I do recommend the book, but I haven’t seen the film, so I’m not entirely sure how these Russian dolls are slotted together for cinema. David Mitchell tells the tale of how he was skyping with Hollywood executives at his home in Ireland. "I kept a pretty straight face while I was skyping and then I ran downstairs and told my wife, 'Hanks has said yes! Can you believe it?' I did Maori victory dances around the house." Mitchell never imagined his book could be adapted for the screen, and neither can I, loving the narrative and the voice on the page too much.  Halfway through the book, the goatherd stumbles across the ruins of a defunct civilisation and reaches the novel's climax, after which each story is resolved one by one.

I snowed a hid cave by Mauka waterfall an’ to here it was I took us for what’d be Meronym’s final night on Big Isle if ev’rythin’ worked as planned. I’d hoped Wolt or Kobbery or ‘mother goatherd may o’ scaped an’ be hidin’ there but, nay, it was empty, just some blanket and what we goatherds stashed for sleepin’… pg 317

This kind of structure is reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights, where  Scheherazad tells a story, then breaks off and begins again at a later time…to save her own life, of course…but the structure of Cloud Atlas is more complex, perhaps best described as ‘reflecting mirrors’. It well suited not only Mitchell’s characters and plots, but one of his reoccurring premises, the circular and rippling nature of history.This was, for a novelist  in his mid-30s, an astoundingly accomplished performance. But I don't think it's a Russian Doll, although you can disagree with me if you like. So if I’m not talking about any of these different, and equally complicated stories, what am I on about? Do I even know myself?
I’m searching for ways in which multiple narratives might nest within each other. The intent, or story, is then peeled away by layers. Short stories can employ in this format, and certain kinds of memoir are perfect for this slow revealing of their core.
Also described as Chinese Box, this structure is found in the 1984 film version of the story by Angela Carter, The Company of Wolves, screenplay by Carter and the director, Neil Jordan. You can watch the film here online; and the original short story can be found in Carter’s 1979 collection of magical realism, The Bloody Chamber (Gollanz). 
There is a Russian Doll plot in the almost impossible House of Leaves by Mark Z Daneilewski, and you can try gently pulling the next Babushka out of the bigger one right to the end of  Philip K Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, where every character interacts with a book that seems to tell an alternative story parallel to their own. 
Margaret Atwood's novel The Blind Assassin is a novel-within-a-novel within a novel. Iris, now an old woman, recounts how she and her sister Laura grew up motherless in Ontario. Within this story we encounter excerpts from a novel attributed to Laura but published by Iris. Embedded in this novel is a science fiction story, Blind Assassin.  As Atwood unfolds The Blind Assassin we learn pivotal events of Iris and Laura's lives in the ‘40s, and understand that the novel-within-a-novel is inspired by real events. Before the end, Iris dies, leaving her granddaughter to discover the twists of truth in an unpublished autobiography. Another novel that use this shape became a great cult hit across the world in the noughties. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (translated into English by Lucia Graves and first published in English in 2001 by Penguin Books) begins with a young boy being asked to choose any book from the Library of Secrets. The novel he takes away haunts his childhood, and as he grows into adult he begins his search for the author. The investigation leads to the telling of many tales, including his own and that of his small, Spanish town. Finally, he confronts the truth, which turns out to be more dramatic than the original childhood book.
Published in 2006, Diane Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale handles the Russian Doll structure masterfully. The themes of the book; truth, secrets and the making of myths, weave their way through the stories like a golden thread. Margaret Lea is a biographer, who works in her father’s rather arcane bookshop. She is summoned to write the life story of Vida Winter, an author who is infamous for weaving a fiction out of her own past every time she is interviewed about a new novel. She tells Margaret that, now she is dying, she really does want to tell her true life story, a darkly gothic tale that echoes unsettlingly in Margaret’s own past.

Which brings me back to Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love, where two parallel narratives, contemporary fiction and an account of a real thirteenth century Dervish mystic, dive further and further into an original understanding and philosophy. This is a Russian Doll novel with many layers. The story starts with Ella, an unhappily married 40-something, whose first assignment with a literary agency is to read Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written Aziz Zahara. Like Ella, I became mesmerized by the tale of a whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz and his relationship with a Persian poet called Rumi, Ella is also taken with Shams’ rules, which offer insight into an ancient philosophy based on the unity of all people and religions, creating a further layer. What I didn’t realize, until I Googled them, is that both Shams and Rumi were real people, living in Persia 800 years ago. Ella feels driven to contact the writer of the book she's appraising, and discovers that he strangely mirrors Shams in looks and philosophy. He tells her his story, she tells him hers, that the connection sets her free.
I’ve described the classic Russian Doll tale as both deliciously flawed and nesting imperfectly. This, for me is a crucial part of the structure, and the major reason such books often take on cult status, and become loved across the globe. We recognise in them our own, complex, horribly layered lives, of which we are trying, but mostly failing, to make sense. Sometimes, it’s reassuring to read fiction that is tightly plotted – in which every strand is tied by the end. But it can be equally illuminating and heartening to know that other people’s lives are disparate, random and full of stories that don’t quite end or make perfect sense. 

I’d be interested to hear what other readers and writers think about this; do leave a comment about your favourite Russian Doll novel or tell me if you disagree with either my interpretations above or my theory of the Russian Doll structure. And if you’re in the middle of writing a Russian Doll story, do tell us about it; if you have the strength!

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Dumb and Dumber...a Moving Experience

We first saw the cottage we bought in West Wales in a snowstorm, and fell in love with it instantly A solitary sheep grazed in a small field. We could see miles of white countryside and the house was built of local pink and yellow stone with black slate. There was room enough to keep hens and grow food. We made an offer and started packing our things. 
Even so, everyone we knew was very dubious. "Won't it be lonely," they asked. "So far from your friends?" 
And, even more worrying, "The Welsh don't like the English. They won't talk to you, unless they're ripping you off."
This concerned us, and, just to get going, we made sure we used an English furninture removal firm to get our belongings from English A to Welsh B. Two skinny boys successfully loaded the contents of our last house into their van and taken it into storage. They seemed okay, but it turned out they were two of the biggest nincompoops known in the trade.
We went ahead to repaint the interior, and lay some flooring, and once we were ready for our furniture to arrive. We rang up and the boys…let’s call them Dumb and Dumber, because I wouldn’t like to reveal their true names…and asked for delivery. ‘Is seven am is okay to arrive,” they asked. “Because once we’ve finished the job, we’ve finished for the day; the earlier the better.”
Our new home
We said that was fine, but did they realise it was a three-hour drive from the depot to our new house? “You’ll have to leave before the sun is up,” I told them. 
“No problem,” came the cheerful reply.
Rather over-optimistically, we set the alarm for half six but after waiting an hour, we were taking bets on when they’d arrive. At ten to nine they rang to say they were just driving out of the depot; they’d had a few jars the night was a bank holiday, after all... 
Our hens
Our next call was at midday. They were in the small town just fifteen minutes drive away, where their van was more or less stuck in the side roads.”Don't use the weak bridge!" I yelled down the line. "Why aren't you on the bypass? Why did your satnav send you into the town?”
Sheepishly, they explained their satnav was on their mobile and, (probably because of the few jars the night before) they’d forgotten to charge it up. I gave them the simple directions; thirty minutes later we had a call from two (rather beautiful, it transpired)  young Welsh girls out in their car. Hopelessly lost, Dumb and Dumber had stopped them to ask directions. The girls knew the area well and steered them in. Thus, our whacking removal lorry finally arrived behind a small, red mini. The lads jumped out and instantly asked where they could buy fish and chips; after a night on the tiles and a long drive, they were famished. We offered to get food for them if they would finally start work.
The first thing that had to be unloaded was the garden equipment, and we suggested they backed towards the field gate and took everything for the garden into the field. This, they managed without incident, but they had chosen to drive into the field and when they attempted to reverse out again...they discovered the van had gouged itself into the dry soil. They were stuck. Soon, they couldn't move forward, either. We put grit, then blankets and finally, in desperation, large planks of wood under the wheels. A smell of burning erupted from the rear tyres but the lorry didn’t budge. Dumb and Dumber were well and truly stuck. 
“Call the AA,” I said. But they blanched at the suggestion. The removal firm might find out just what they’d done!
Finally, I walked the 300 yards down the road to introduce myself to Denise and Dave, our nearest neighbours, and ask if anyone local had a tractor. 
 “Gino,” they suggested. “He’ll come out.”

The Italian Chapel, Henllan Ceredigion
I’d already heard of  Gino. He was the owner of a local restaurant, and of Italian descent. His father had been an Italian prisoner in Wales in the second world war, in a POW camp that was only 3 miles from our cottage. I've since been there, for it has the only Italian Chapel in the UK in which services are still performed, and it is beautiful. 
While they were happily sojourning in the Welsh countryside, quite a lot of the Italian soldiers fell for local girls and never went home, and Gino’s father was one of them. Like his dad before him, Gino farmed a dairy herd from which he made the most wonderful Italian ice cream (especially the pistachio). Jim drove off towards the restaurant which was half a mile from our home (half a mile that is a great walk when you’ve had a bottle of chianti) and in seconds, it seemed, was back with a short, heavily built man of around retirement age on a massive tractor. When I offered him a cuppa, he said, "Just a quick one, if you don’t mind, I’m about to start my dinner." Only a true (new) friend would come out as his dinner (cooked by Mama, as well!) was put on the table. I wanted him to talk on and on; I was fascinated by his accent which was English with a blend of Italian and Welsh. 

Gino hooked the lorry to his tractor and had it out in seconds. From then on, the move went smoothly. Our happy pair - Dumb and even Dumber - downed their fish and chips and went away with rather red faces (I hope), leaving us to fully understand just what a great place we’d shipped up in.  Our clothes were already on their hangers, the takeaway had been delicious, the Welsh sun was shining over the valley and the view from the garden was outstanding. Most important; we had already learnt that the neighbours were wonderfully friendly. Thanks to our Dumb and Dumber removal guys, the auspices for life in West Wales were perfect.
Our view

Monday, 24 April 2017

Dracula, or The Un-dead, by Bram Stoker

'Read Classic', an occasional series of posts from 
Kitchen Table Writers, looks at Bram Stoker's Dracula

I was holidaying in Whitby when I first realised that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a surprisingly modern novel. I’d watched the Hammer film versions of the book in my misspent youth and they left with the opinion that the book was a bit of late Victorian gothic horror, no where near good enough for me to need to wade through all that gore. But every Whitby bookshop had a copy of Dracula in its window, and naturally, I soon succumbed, reading it on the top of blowy cliffs and in the shelter of the beaches below. I took it on every walk, along with my butterfly identification book.

We did a lot of walking that holiday, passing the whaling arch on West Cliff, which Stoker would have passed too, with his family, when he holidayed here in June 1990. He stayed at Royal Crescent and it was there I discovered just how inspiring his time in Whitby must have been. Bram Stoker had found his inspiration. Standing in the crescent, you have a view of the North Sea, past sloping green cliff and grey sands. Across the river estuary are the imposing ruins of the Abbey, which must have been at least as gothic then as it is now.  The churchyard of St Mary lies below, the location of a vampiric attack in the second half of the story. As twilight falls, bats begin to swoop into view.

Mina, one of the two young female characters in Dracula, voices Stoker’s thoughts on the town: Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of "Marmion," where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows…

Bram Stoker also spent time at Whitby library – he made notes from 'An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’, in which he must have seen the name ‘Dracula’ for the first time. The fifteenth-century Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) was as bloodthirsty as his fictional counterpart, impaling his enemies on long spikes and nailing turbans to the scalps of foreign ambassadors. Stoker gives his reader the historical allusion that Count Dracula is the descendant of Vlad – in his Author’s Note he explains that the documents assembled in the novel are real. Even as I read this, before starting the novel, I was reminded of the hype around The Blair Witch Project, and saw how astute Stoker was as a writer. 

He’d called this story The Un-dead for all the time he was writing it. Just before publication, he changed his title to  the wonderfully charged-up name of the antagonis. This  may have changed its destiny, although ‘un-dead’ remains a popular trope today, especially in Young Adult literature.

I began my holiday read, and soon found that it was not at all like the Hammer Horror version…or for that matter like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) which I found almost unwatchably hammed up. Dracula contains elements of the conventions of gothic fiction…dark-shadowed, cobwebby castles juxtaposed with vast remote landscapes and vulnerable, virginal girls threatened by black-coated evil-doers… but Stoker contrasts his Transylvanian castle with parochial Whitby and the bustle of London in the 1990s.

Starting with that holiday in Whitby, Stoker used a wide range of research methods and a clear understanding of modern character development to write the story, but a stuck with the traditional gothic novel structure; diary entries, letters and newspaper cuttings etc. It opens with the most famous section of the book, Jonathan Harker's Journal, which recounts his visit to Transylvania as a lawyer helping the count through his London property transaction. Harker falls under the spell of the Brides of Dracula and succumbs to the vampire’s influence. This opening feels like it has an impossible resolution and I turned the pages as fast as any modern thriller, needing to know how he could possibly escape with his life. At that point, I had no idea how many other characters would not escape with theirs. The novel keeps twisting and surprising us, as Dracula, on his way to London aboard a ship (hidden in a coffin) is washed up in Whitby and escapes in the shape of a black dog, and we’re introduced to Renfield, who is incarcerated in  a mental asylum where he lives on a diet of flies and spiders.

Stoker's masterpiece was part of a fin-de-siècle literary culture obsessed with crime – this was the time that Jack the Ripper stalked Whitechapel – and sensationalism – these were the original ‘naughties’. The book strips away the layers of late Victorian anxiety such as loss of religious traditions,  colonialism, scientific advancement, plus a growing awareness of female sexuality and a continued fear of homosexuality.  The book is a mirror in which generations of readers have explored their own fantasies. 

Maurice Richardson described it as; a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match, and no one could argue with that (or prevent themselves from rushing to read such a book).

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Thank you so much,Indie Shaman for your kind and detailed review of In the Moors, the first book in the Shaman Mystery Series.
And, there's a Book Give-away alongside the review, with a copy of In the Moors up for grabs. To go Indie Shaman's Facebook Page for further details.
In the Moors is a dark thriller, dealing with chilling serial crime but, due to the skill of the author’s writing and the humour and engaging character of Sabbie Dare, it is also a highly enjoyable read that is very difficult to put down once you pick it up.
In fact the main issue for me was reaching the end of the book and wondering what I could read next that would match up to it. Fortunately there is a book two and three in the series (although I started the series by reading book three, so also can confirm you can read them in any order). And hopefully Milton will continue the series with a book four.
Very addictive and highly recommended!
To read the entire review click here
Or, why not read the this most recent issue of Indie Shaman, in which my article on 'The Red Lady of Paviland' features alongside other excellent articles? You can find out more here.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Very Hard Work of Getting Published

Once again, I'm delighted to say that a previous student has contacted me to say they’ve had a book accepted for publication. I get really excited when this happens; and hopefully, once the ‘wraps are off’ that writing friend of mine will be telling you about her success herself, in a guest post on this blogsite. In the meantime I have a message from her. It’s for all of those who read Kitchen Table Writers while writing your own first novel. 

“It’s bloody hard work.”

Every single student I’ve ever had, who got their contract in the end, would endorse that sentiment. I’d endorse that sentiment! 

You have to work very, very hard, and often for a very, very long time. No let up, and perhaps not even a glimmer of hope on the horizon to keep you going. 

When I started to write I had two small children and a part-time job. working nights so that their father could be there when I wasn’t. I didn’t have much time to write. Then, just as I got going, my mother developed severe dementia and came to live with us. That cut down my time even further. In fact, there was always something that could get in the way of writing regularly, and indeed, I didn’t always manage to write regularly, but I tried not to give up. I worked my way through my first children’s novel and found an agent. Eventually, that magical contract with HarperCollins appeared on my door mat (yes, it was the door mat, back in those days). People started to ask me what one needed to write successfully. And I kept telling them. 

“Bloody hard work.”

There are three main kinds of bloody hard work attached to the production of a novel. The first is the hard graft of the start. Have you filled three notebooks with ideas and snatches of prose which you’ve discarded, half used, or actually included? Have you yet thrown away half your novel and gone back to the beginning? Have you asked someone to look at the glimmerings and been slated on what you showed them? If not, you haven’t lived. And you certainly haven’t worked hard enough yet. Tossing out a lot of early work is part and parcel of the ‘first novel experience’. (Along with a lot of…yep…hard work.)

The second stage is completion. You’ve now actually got a draft that you’re pleased with. Heck, you might be actually proud of it, and so you should be; getting to this stage deserves huge congratulations from everyone who knows you. (It might also get huge sighs of relief, but that is a premature emotional reaction on their parts.) Believe me, this second stage is hard work. Mentally – you’re glued to a computer while you try, and try again, to formulate a synopsis that will do your novel justice, plus a covering letter that is neither too showy nor too dull. Physically, you need sheer grit and determination to go on when you realise that the synopsis and covering letter needs to be written, with slightly differing nuances, every time you send it out. Emotionally, it’s hard too, when back they bounce. Steadily, you work your way through the Writers and Artist’s Year Book, but no one wants you yet. Then, all at once, some one does want to see the entire book and you realise there may still be typos and other potholes. You need to go through it with a fine tooth comb. When the manuscript returns with a kind of ‘yee-ees…’ you discover that this agent or editor wants heaps more work done. 

Heaps. Of very, very hard work.

Finally, you reach the third stage. You’ve had the contract checked by the Writers’ Society
and you can proudly proclaim you’re to be a published writer. Just as you sit back with a sigh, a long list of ‘do’s’ will arrive from the publisher. Set up a website or blog. Write a good blurb. Contact everyone you know for an endorsement. Promote your book. Start booking engagements. Plan your launch. Do book readings. Be a presence on twitter. Start the next book.

It’s such bloody hard work being a writer!

At least, when you reach that stage, you, along with all other professional writers, can reassure the new guys that your novel didn’t just come out of the air. 

Please do this – don’t let them believe that you glibly typed away for a couple of hours a week and then success just happened without further effort. Please tell them that you:
  • Filled up notebooks 
  • Had times you didn’t believe in yourself
  • Wrote half a novel and dumped it
  • Had further times when you didn’t believe in yourself
  • Took two years of back-aching, sight-failing keyboard work.
  • Almost had to start again anyway.
  • And that you’re still working hard to this day.

At that point, you’ll also know, as my friend knows now, just how important it is that people they know buy their new book. That it took a long time to craft it into a readable novel, and that it’s really worth reading, and yet is priced lower than a cinema trip. 

Why not pop over to Amazon today where putting ‘Nina Milton’ into the search engine will bring up that very, very bloody hard work – all of which is now transformed into steamingly good reads!

And do watch this space for news of my ex-student’s success.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Writing Before You Start Writing

The writer’s greatest fear – the blank page or screen.  

You sit, ready to begin.

You really, really want to write. In fact, you’ve got a great idea, although it’s still a bit...unformed. So you stare at the screen, for a long time, before you finally start to tap. 

Five paragraphs (or even worse – five lines,) down, your head slumps forward. You’re pretty sure you’ve written rubbish, and now you’ve even run out of rubbish to write. You hand slides to the mouse and before you know it, you’re playing that stupid game someone on Facebook sent you.

What went wrong? You know that you really, really wanted to write. Why can't you write?

You’ve forgotten something hugely important:

Most writing, starts long before you sit in front of screen or paper. First of all, you  have to ‘imagine up’ your writing.

Story, novel, play, poem…any writing at all, begins in our heads. Most successful writers do huge amounts of imagining, thinking and planning before they touch keyboard or pen. For this, they visit a strange place in their heads, which becomes increasingly real, the more they go there.

These methods of enhancing the imaginative process are open to all, and intently useful to those who are about to embark on their first writing. 

If fact, you have already done this, many times; we all do it every day. At its least intense, it's called day dreaming. As it becomes more intense, you may find that you reach a level where you're taken far away from your surroundings. Although you are not asleep, you are not fully alert either. The pulse of your brain has slowed, becoming Alpha brain waves. It’s that common experience in the supermarket. Tin of beans in hand, your mind soars off on such a totally different tack that when a passing friend calls your name, you don’t hear them, and if they tap your shoulders, you jump, hopefully without dropping the beans on their foot. Then you apologize, saying, ‘I was somewhere else there, for a moment.’ The friend understands instantly. We all recognize this ‘losing of yourself’, but we don’t make use of it nearly enough. 

Entering this slower state of thinking allows you to take advantage of the relaxed, twilight world of the trance, where vivid imagery flashes into the mind’s eye and we become receptive to information (as in self-hypnosis) beyond our normal conscious awareness.

This trance state, is also called by may different names, and you might like to choose one that you’ll feel comfortable with:
  • Daydreaming
  • Reverie
  • Fantasizing
  • Introspection
  • Brown study 
  • Muse descending 
  • Deep listening
  • Slipping into a trance-like state
  • Visualization
  • Mental pictures
  • Head movies
  • Relaxed imagining
You might want to call this ‘meditating’, but a more accurate definition of meditation is that of emptying your mind by concentration on a single thing (such as your breath). However, you might find it beneficial to meditate prior to tapping your imagination, emptying out the normal ‘gabble of thoughts’ for a few minutes before letting your mind settle on what you next want to write. 

Once the process is underway, you can burrow deeper and deeper into your mind, until you reach the many voices of your self, unlocking something that you didn’t previously know was there. 

I discovered that dropping down into this world was hugely enjoyable. Like most other writers, I’m fascinated by the fact that plots, characters and entire scenes can drop into one’s mind from nowhere. For millennia people have asked whether such creations come from outside us, or deep within. The Greeks had it sown up, of course. The Nine Muses were goddesses who visited those ready to create works of art and dropped the inspiration into their minds.
Consider now if you have a special place or time or activity where you find yourself quite naturally thinking the words that will eventually turn up on the page. What are you doing when you write in your head? For me, it has to be walking alone. Once I’m underway, my feet seem to direct themselves, whether I’m heading to the nearest shopping centre or through a woodland, and my mind flies off on a journey into my project. Thoughts and memories are loosened and released and worlds of possibilities to open up. Your writing will be sharper, more present, more melodic. Your settings will have the tastes and colours and the subtlest background sounds all built in. You’ll be able to stand right beside your characters; you will see their freckles and dandruff, and where they cut themselves shaving. What’s more, they will regard you as their therapist, they will open their hearts and tell you everything that troubles them, from their first memories to their most hidden infamies.

Here is a list of special times where allowing yourself to concentrate on setting up ‘writing before writing’ can really work. For instance, if you already take the train to work each day, and find that you’re mind wanders as it moves steadily onward, then don’t forget to pack your notepad and pen. 
Study all the methods below and tick the ones you think would work for you, or already work for you. Add others that might better apply to you:

[] Walking alone
[] Repetitive tasks, such as housework
[] Gardening (especially weeding)
[] Lying half awake in bed
[] Listening to music
[] Sitting quietly (indoors or out) with eyes shut
[] A journey on train or bus

Look through your ticks. You can have a go at several of these or you can choose one method you could employ more frequently. For instance, if you like the idea of spending more time sitting with your eyes closed, try to do this on a regular basis, but rather than allowing your mind to wander without any structure, think in terms of the writing you are working on. When you don’t know what to write, the visualizations will send you in search of memories from your childhood or forgotten moments of passion. If you’re stuck at a point in a story, you can go to seek the clues to the puzzles of your plot.  You can become your character’s therapist, or watch them choose what they wear, drive, eat.  You will soon find that your mind is full of startling revelations and things jump out at you and demand to be written down. Very soon, scenes will play in your mind, characters will speak to each other, settings will become clear, and – perhaps most importantly for the moment you sit in front of a blank scene – you'll hear your narrative unfold in your head.

For some writers, this feels way too unstructured. Dropping the tight grip on the reigns of their writing feels scary. They find it hard to consider 'daydreaming' as part of 'the writing process'. If they're not actually writing, they're not writing at all. But your creative self could gallop at will if only you let it. After all, you can tighten the reigns again during the drafting process when you return to that blank screen, full of ideas. To start with, give your writing horse his head.

Naturally, translating these ‘visions’ onto the page is not always straightforward. Ideas can start to slip away, to fade as we try to describe them on paper. The feelings you had turn out to be difficult to translate into words. The key to this problem is to always have a notebook nearby – if you don’t record these thoughts quickly, they will float away, possibly never to bee seen again. Use your notebook to write down everything that comes to you – even if it feels unusable or incomprehensible or crazy at the time.

Your imagination is where your writing begins - using this technique, you can enter your creative world and roam around it at will. The writing that spills out as you sit up and grab a pen or laptop can become the foundation of your projects. You are recording words and images directly from the interior of your mind. 

 You are now writing directly from your own inspiration. Enjoy!

Monday, 27 March 2017


I’m a pagan, so people often ask me if I ‘do’ magic spells. The answer is – not often. As few as possible, in fact. There’s two main reasons for that. I’m not a discontent sort of person, I tend to be happy with my lot. Okay, an ocean-going yacht might be nice….but honestly, I suspect it would only be another thing to clean. The other reason I don’t do magic is that I believe that once a spell is cast, if the result isn’t as instantaneous as one was hoping, then that magic hasn’t worked. So I avoid doing lots and lots, on a weekly or monthly basis, so that I can heartily prove to myself that when I do some magic, it really has an effect.

I’ve experienced quite a few (definitely a high percentage) of successful spells in my time. The secret always seems to be desire (LOADS of it), strong intent (preparation and concentration are important) and then… pwuffff! allowing the wish to go…out into the ether, the astral, the spaces between particles…wherever you think wishes might go once you release them.

The letting go is last is the most essential part. Hanging onto hopes, desires and dreams doesn’t get you anywhere. In fact, it holds you back. Everyone knows someone who has spent most of their life pining after the thing they always wanted but never got. This makes a person shrivel up. It stops them loving the life that is actually out there for them.

At a druid gathering with my first lap harp
One of the earliest pieces of magic I remember physically compiling and releasing took place about twenty years ago. My friend had been given a beautiful harp,  with a sonorous tone and extraordinary carvings in beautiful wood.  Out of the blue, I found myself looking it over and fervently wishing for a harp like that. I stroked in lovingly, and was allowed to play it, for a few moments. Harps are very forgiving instruments, and instantly it made angelic sounds for me. But I said nothing. I knew that this harp had cost far more than I could ever afford – harps are very expensive.

The following week I was at a Druid Camp. It was high summer and there were tents all over a huge field in the West Country. The first workshop I went to was pretty arbitrary; Making a Mosaic Tile. I had no idea why I’d chosen it; I’m not good with my hands, or able to work with shape and colour with any panache. Quite quickly, among all the art-and-crafty types around me, I felt out of place and rather uncomfortable.

Then I had a flash of inspiration. I wouldn’t worry about art. I’d make a spell. I worked all through the morning, to create a mosaic tile with the picture of a harp. I put my deep yearning for a harp into every bit of ceramic I glued onto the base. 

Perhaps because I wasn’t concentrating on getting an artistic likeness (something I do find hard!) in the picture, it came out okay. It looked like a harp. People commended it. I left the workshop alone, and found a sunlit glade at the edge of the campsite. I lay the tile down and called to the spirits of the place to hear my call. I was asking for my very own harp. Then, I let the desire go…pwufff!

That was Saturday. The following day, the friend with the beatuful new harp turned up at the camp, to give a workshop herself. She pulled me to one side, as we shared a meal in the cafe tent. “Nina, you know I’ve got a new harp, don’t you?” I nodded, trying not to let my eyes show the envy I felt. “Well, it occurred to me – you could have my old lap harp!” She produced it from under a piece of black velvet. 

It wasn’t as glorious as her new, carved harp, but that didn’t matter. It was for me, to make my own music on.

“Jim told you about my mosaic, didn’t he?” I said. But she just looked puzzled. She’d had no idea I’d been doing harp magic. As she’d got ready for the camp, she’d passed the old harp and thought, “I’ll take that with me for Nina.” In my view, that was not a coincidence. My magic, which had materialised out of a strong, sudden yearning, and executed with care and intent all that previous morning, then let go, by dedicating my desire to the spirits of the place, had wafted up out out, until it reached my friend's generously-hearted mind.
Learning to play a harp isn’t easy. You have to hold your fingers in an odd position which I’ve never really mastered. But I could already play the piano a bit, and this was just a naked piano, wasn’t it? I discovered that I was fine, so long as I invented (I hesitate to say ‘composed’), little tunes of my own, often with little songs that half drowned out my early mistakes. And the lap harp was very portable; I could take it into the wild to play on my own or to other druids (druids are very forgiving!)

The following April, my birthday arrived At the druid grove that month I was given my birthday present from my family. It was a harp, carved into the shape of a swan, with a golden chain around her neck. She was already named, Yewberry. I was thrilled that my original magic had such a lasting effect. 

At the book launch for In the Moors
Since then, my connection to magic has mostly been part of other people creating their own magic, to stunning effect. But about six years ago, I an idea came to me, a story about a shamanic practitioner, Sabbie Dare. This book would be a thriller, in which Sabbie discovers that the people who come to her for help include those in deep trouble…people threatened by crime…people caught up in crime…people capable, even, of murder. She soon understands that it is her nature, through her connection with the spirit world, which draws these people to her. And, slowly, she learns that her ancestral past also has that link. i

t felt like a good idea, so I started writing. Once I’d sent a draft to my agent, I created a piece of magic to send it on its way. This, like the ceramic tile, was a physical act, which I hid in a small golden casket (that I found in a charity shop – not really gold, of course!). On that equally magical day when my agent rang to say that I’d been offered a three-book contract, I dismantled the items inside the golden casket. 
The first Shaman Mystery, available from Amazon

That work had been done…all I had to do now was write two more books!

Interested in magic? You can find every spell known (almost) in The Element Encyclopaedia of 500 Spells by Judoka Illes (Element Books). You can read more about British Shamanism in Singing the Soul Back Home by Caitlin Matthews (Connections Book Publishing) and more about the history of druidry in Blood and Mistletoe, by Ronald Hutton. Also try the website for the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids