Saturday, 21 May 2016

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - The Finest English Novel

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me …

Dressed in an oriental robe and a white skin-suit scribbled all over with the predictions of a medieval English magician, I cried out those lines in a fit of madness. 

I was playing Vinculus, a character in the amazing, intriguing and compelling book called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. A group of 10 of us, all lovers of this 1000 page (if you include the copious footnotes) work of magical fiction, had gathered together to enact, discuss and explore this amazing achievement. Acting out a huge piece of fantasy is not as daunting as it may seem; the same group of people have acted out Tolkien’s work and all of Homer’s, using a three day period to do so. In that time, we eat, dress and sleep the book in question. 

 Susanna Clarke writes about her invented world with such ease; it’s easy to believe England could really be like this – filled with magic and romance. It has been described as  'Harry Potter for grownups’ but that really does not do this eloquent and momentous work justice, although adults who adored Harry Potter will be impressed with the rich characterization and the great finale to the story.

Clarke has a flair for language, utilising the right words at all the right moments. She chose for her style an emulation of Jane Austin, (including archaic spellings). Some passages made me laugh aloud – Austin was funny, and here is another layer spread upon that ironic wit. 

I’m not alone in loving the book; Neil Gaiman said,  Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years. It's funny, moving, scary, otherworldly, practical and magical...

This was Clarke's first book, although she’d prepared the ground by writing some short stories set in her parallel universe – a world that has the same history as our own, except for the fact that England was once filled with magic and magicians, and the North of England was ruled separately, by the Raven King – John Uskglass – a man who had been spirited away to fairyland as a child and returned full of fairy magic.

Ready to dance till dawn
 at the Fairy Ball in the kingdom of Lost Hope
But all that was centuries ago. When the book starts in1806, England is struggling with the Napoleonic war, and practical magic has faded into the nation's past – now magic is only studied ‘theoretically’.  But two of these students discover that Mr Norrell can really do magic. He’s studied the books all his life, and his displays of magic lead him, and his mysterious servant, John Childermass, from the north of the country to the bustling city of London. After he successfully brings a beautiful woman back from the dead and  terrifies the French army with a fleet of ghostly ships, he is taken to the bosom of the rich and fashionable. Gilbert Norrell is dedicated to book-learning and he's trying desperately to ignore and forget that in raising Lady Pole from the dead, he has awaken an amoral fairy king, who is now strutting around our world, enchanting people. When Jonathan Strange, the 2nd magician in the prophecy emerges, a dangerous battle of wills begins. Strange is young, dashing and daring, and not at all interested in only learning magic from books. While Norell,  a reclusive and cautious man,  is trying to get rid of any taint of dangerous fairy magic, Strange is actively bringing it back. He has no idea what a menace the fairy king posses, especially to his own lovely wife.

I was soon hooked on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell the first time I read it, even though you need to get through at least the first 200 pages to even begin to see where the plot is going. Reading it again for the weekend event made me love it even more. All its depth and humour and the true cleverness of the carefully crafted plot became even more clear. One thing I really loved was the vast history of magic Clarke invents for England. Long after I finished it, I was still thinking about the menacing settings,  the wonderful characters, the brilliant narrative development and the history she creates.

Of course, I also watched the TV series, now available both in the UK and the US to watch again.  Bertie Carvel who plays Jonathan Strange so well, said; I read it years ago and loved it … They've preserved the scale and majesty of the story … So you have credible, fully imagined characters recognisably of the same world we inhabit.  Paul Kaye, who played my chosen character in the film said, I read the book and loved it. It sort of obsessed me for a while and I felt an affinity with what turned out to be my character, Vinculus. I found the footnotes addictive! If there wasn't one on the next page I would be disappointed

You can watch the TV adaptation at:


Monday, 9 May 2016

How NOT to Write the Novel of a Lifetime


I once had a young student in a local workshop, who told me (eyes shining)…I want my first book to contain everything that’s important in the world…

I knew how he felt. Once you realise you are destined to be a writer, the next step is to want to write about things that will influence society. You want your work to last a lifetime – longer – to become a literary classic. You want to be seen to take on the big questions, the crucial arguments of your time. You’ll want to say new, controversial and exciting things and get reviews that promise great things for you. 

But please don’t be in too much of a hurry to get on with this ‘idea of a lifetime’ – don’t start trying to get everything that’s important in the world into your first book – for at least for the reasons below:
Only known color photograph
 of the author, 
Leo Tolstoy,
in 1908 by
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky
  • Tolstoy has already written War and Peace. Proust has already written Remembrance of Things Past. 
  • It took Proust 14 years to write the 7 volumes of his novel.
  • War and Peace is filled with seriously big-league subjects and has hundreds of characters, but Tolstoy didn’t consider it to be a novel, so much as a work of philosophy. 
  • People are drawn to the small things in life. This is where fiction often gains supremacy over non-fiction. By keeping things local, personal, focused and tight you gain the reader’s attention, their empathy and identity. By concentrating on the particular, you can, by symbol, example and theme, subtly examine the larger issues. After all, Remembrance of Things Past focuses on a biscuit dipped in tea.
  • Maybe you are destined to write this ‘idea of your lifetime’. But if you actively seek it out and attempt to write it at the first stage of your writing life, it will not be the achievement it might become if you begin by honing your skills as a published writer. 
  • First writings are the ones that are most likely not to be published…or even publishable. Most new writers have pushed many ideas, half-written and unfinished, into a bottom drawer before they see their name on a contract.
  • Proust himself said… The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes…It is quite likely that your ‘idea of a lifetime’ may actually be discovered when you are writing the inconsequential, the everyday, the ordinary. The trick is to see these things with ‘new eyes’.
As a writer, I suggest that using big, political or social themes as the building bricks of your novel is the wrong way round. Focusing on characters, their lives and how they are affected by internal and external events, will allow those significant themes to be drawn out of the writing, rather than stuffed in.

When I began writing about my central character in The Shaman Mysteries, I knew I wanted to create a character that people would love, and feel strongly about, so that when she got into deep hot water – which she always does, of course! – they would want her to to use her wits and courage to end up safe and well. On Goodreads, a reviewer says of In the Moors

That’s exactly what I want to hear, because while writing the book, I concentrated on Sabbie’s story, using my experience of shamanism, because it was something I felt strongly about, to enrich that story. The big themes emerged in a natural, organic way – I was writing about metaphysics, abuse, trust, madness, and how we cope with childhood trauma. Recently John A contacted me on Facebook to say; 

I am right now in the middle of your first novel! I like the main character and her inner fights (about relationship,money charging,…), even if she is a woman!  No, its very insightful and I am learning with every page something new: Great!! 

It's perfectly fine to write about the mundane actions of life. Sabbie loves her vegetable garden and her hens, and readers find
that absorbing and enjoyable. But it often leads me to the point where I can engage in larger issues. Here’s a little excerpt from my latest book Beneath the Tor. Sabbie has just arrived back from the funeral of a friend;

I went out into the garden with the hens’ breakfast. I stood in the rain, letting it trickle over my face. I wanted something to soothe me, cool me. Alys’ death was a heartache. I touched my neck, half expecting to feel an open sore, my throat felt so raw.
The cock, Kaiser, didn’t come near me as I checked the nesting boxes. He sat on his favourite post, watching his flock get under my feet. There were three eggs, still warm. Suddenly, my appetite was back. Scrambled eggs, maybe with one of my greenhouse-ripened tomatoes. I just loved this time of year in my vegetable plot – there was food sprouting in every direction. Even if the therapy business I ran from my front room went a bit slow, I knew I’d eat dinner.
Only three eggs from six layers. The two old Warrens, Ginger and Melissa, didn’t lay so often, but Jessie, Emili, Rihanna and Florence were still young and–
I stopped. Florence was not under my feet. She was not anywhere at all.
“Florence,” I called, even though she had no idea that was her name, “Flo, where are you? Chuck-chuck?”
Panic welled up. I didn’t understand this; none of the other hens were missing. They didn’t even seem perturbed, which they would have been, if a fox had come near them. I’d already experienced a fox in the night. It had wreaked havoc. Blood and feathers everywhere. I thought of other, more stealthy predators. A polecat, even a sparrowhawk, might have snatched her away if she’d escaped from the run.
I worked around the perimeter of the garden, chuck-chucking. 
Florence was my secret favourite. She was a curious hen, bright eyed and comical. I’d had her and her siblings for over a year; a farmer had given me a recently-hatched clutch of Sussex hens and they’d been productive and so beautiful to look at.  
 I went into the lane at the back of my garden. My house was on the edge of a sixty-year old estate. Behind the lane was a patch of scrubland. I half slid down the slope to the stream that was almost a drain, filled with rubbish and old bikes. I clambered back up, still calling, over and over. “Florence? Flo? Chuck-chuck-chuck?” Florence wouldn’t go missing by choice. As soon as dusk fell, my hens took themselves off to bed.
“Damn. Damn!” I kicked at the water-butt, making it slosh and spill. It seemed a shitty thing to happen, as if the spirit world was reminding me that the loss of a hen was not to be compared with the loss of a partner. Brice must feel a hundred times worse; a million times more heartsick.
There in my garden, I sobbed for the deaths of Florence and Alys.

The real voyage of discovery…having new eyes…
Start with something about as mundane as you can get; The Kitchen Drawer.
  • Go to your kitchen drawer. If you have many, chose the one most in need of a tidy! If you can’t use a kitchen drawer, chose something that is filled with a jumble of haphazard, random items…office desk, old vase, glove compartment.
  • Take out every item. Look through them, and chose one that draws your attention. 
  • Make a list of the practical uses this item might be used for. 
  • Make a list of things this item could be no practical use for whatsoever. 
  • Put your first list to one side and concentrate on the second. Chose one impractical use from your list.  For instance, from a desk drawer, a paperclip cannot be used as a boat.
  • Think about a way this item could actually be employed in any of the items on the second list. 
  • Let freewriting take your imagination take you on a spree as you put this item to an ingenious use – let you over. For instance, you could straighten the paper clip, stick a square of paper through it and push it into a piece of cork. This could be used a child’s toy boat.
Finish one draft of this exercise, and, before you start the next part of it:

  • Okay, you’ve got the implausible and impossible out of the way. And you’ve had some fun
  • Now return to the first list. 
  • Remembering how you had to stretch your mind to ‘see’ that second list and write about it, choose an item on the first list
  • Try to follow Proust’s advice and… have new eyes…as you work on this idea

(At this point, you might like to give the empty drawer a good clean – repetitive work of this kind can empty your mind and get your juices flowing. It gets the drawer clean too.)

Back at the workshop, I hope I managed to convince my erstwhile student that she could, one day ‘write a book that contained everything important in the world’, but to do so, she should turn round by 180 degrees and look, not at the big, big issues, but the people they effect. Find your characters. Fall in love with them. Even if they are plain, ordinary members of society, with dull jobs and a perfect family, once you start to write about them, I am sure that they will come face-to-face with the challenges and obstacles that built the tension in a story, and as they do so, you will discover your themes, and be able to explore those significant issues you are longing to write about. 

The Shaman Mysteries are availabe from Amazon or from Midnight Ink Books

Monday, 2 May 2016

TV or Radio? The Great Debate


The great debate. 

The crew of Journey into Space
In 1953, an adventure series called Journey into Space became the last evening radio programme to command a bigger audience than an evening TV programme. ‘A watershed in national life,’ is how that moment has been described, and it begs the question people have been asking ever since: ‘how does radio survive - indeed, prosper - in the age of television?’

Although no single radio programme can out-perform the best loved TV programmes for viewing/listening figures, radio still has a massive overall Share of the Ear. This little phrase is built from statistics covering all man-made sound devises which reach the nation’s ears...CDs, downloads, various radio sources and TV included. In fact, radio’s Share of the Ear is an impressive massive 83% overall (60% for under 35’s). 
I read these statistics with interest because, for a high proportion of my adult life (about 83% of it, probably!) I’ve been a non-TV owner. In other words, my household generally had no television anywhere within it. Or, to quote my daughter’s friend when she came home from primary school for tea with Becki; ‘what, no telly? How am going to watch my cartoons?’
We knew we were in the minority - less than 10% of the population watch no TV within each week of their lives (and well done to those who own a telly and choose not to watch it every single day). I know that, as the kids were growing, they missed being part of the TV playground culture. The answer my children came up with was to make sure they knew enough about each programme that was a hot topic with their have watched it once at least in someone’s house, so that they didn’t look ‘uncool’. But with no TV and only very early computers, I think they had great childhoods, doing the sorts of things that kids today are being encouraged to return to. 
Having no TV in the house is a freedom and a joy. It allows you to plan your day without interference from a head full of soap characters. It means you look for a variety of evening entertainments that, in our house, include playing games, studying, writing, reading, taking walks, chatting on the phone and making music as well as listening to it. 
We opted for no TV the day we moved into our first house. We both agreed that watching telly was a banal occupation and waste of our time. We were already hooked on Radio Four, which we thought then (and it’s still true today, in my opinion) had the best current affairs and general interest programmes, and that the drama and book readings were superior to all the TV dramas, because you see the pictures in your head. In any case, Radio Four has the very best of all soaps...The Archers

Helen and her Archer's husband,
 the scary Rob Titchener
Radio keeps your spirits up in difficult times. The Shipping Forcast has always been not only the saviour of the fishing industry, but the insomniac, too. While in Britain, Aung San Suu Kyi met up with Dave Lee Travis, specifically to tell him how she listened to his BBC World Service programme, A Jolly Good Show. During her long incarceration under house arrest, his banter and music had lifted her spirits, and, apparently, allowed her a link with real people that the news items could not. It’s not just that radio has the best pictures...TV is never as interactive as radio can be, with its phone-ins and request shows. 
The trouble with TV - a trouble radio listening does not share - is that it is addictive. It’s easier than winking to flick the remote and switch it on. And once on, something holds the mind in a sort of thick, warm, sweet soup, as if ones’ thinking facility has gone into melt-down. Despite the fact that there are really good TV programmes, especially on BBC 2 & 4, the difficulty with actually owning a TV is stopping the watching when there’s really nothing on the box. On the otherhand, I can download my favourite radio programmes, such as Open Book and Poetry Please, and Woman's Hour, of course, and listen as a passenger when on the move or just whenever I want.
We knew that radio was the best listening ear 30 years ago, when we were bringing up our kids sans television. I know it for sure now, because we can compare. At last, we do own a TV. We made the decision during the process of moving. Among the big discussion points that arise when you’re on the move; what will we do with all our extra furniture? When will the solicitor pull out their fingers? How can we get the vendor to bring down their price? Where is that certificate from the council they’re asking for...a Most Important Question arose...will we have a telly in the new house? Our old house wasn’t wired for TV reception, although we had taken to watching DVDs, to save cinema costs. Then Becki left us her HD TV when she went off to France. We took it with us in the move and set it up in our new lounge...and switched it on. 
Instant entertainment.  And, to Jim’s delight, instant 24hour news.  So now I know absolutely just how addictive the TV is. We tried to have TV one evening a week, for instance...but we’re breaking them; by 8pm we are so brain-dead that a little TV viewing feels like the only thing we’re capable’s just too tempting to sink into the warm, sweet soup. I guess I have learnt new things from some of the TV I’ve watched over the last year. But certainly no more than I learnt in any year listening to the radio. 

Radio remains one of the best ways for new scriptwriters in the UK to find an audience, for two reasons. Radio Four comminsions and produces more new drama then almost any TV channel. There are 15 minute, 30 minute, 45 minute, 60 minute and 90  drama slots for new writers in every genre, especially comedy, and an entire website dedicated to helping new writers get on the radio; bbc radio 4 writers room
In the meantime, I continue to love the radio, and  Radio Four, Three, Two, Radio Wales and Classic FM fill my days and most of my evenings. And I'm not alone. Read about Josh Spero's love affair with Radio 4 here.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Walking the Rainbow Path

This week, I'm delighted to be the guest blogger on the Druidlife blogsite with an article about shamanism. 
Druidlife is an excellent site for pagans, with reflections from Nimue Brown, a writer and author. Her blog is full of…life, community, inspiration, health, hope and radical change…and I'm honoured to be part of that.

A guest blog, by Nina Milton
One sunny autumn morning, fifteen years ago, I shipped up in Bath, to attend an introductory workshop on shamanism. As a druid, I was used to enjoying guided visualisations and wanted to know more about what happens when you stop being ‘guided’ and sink deeply into a trance that takes you away from everything around you. I’d started reading about shamanism; books like The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda, Cave and Cosmos, by Michael Harner and Your Shamanic Path, by Leo Rutherford, showed me that shamanism was a historic world-wide phenomenon, but also that it still thrives today.
I’m an OBOD a druid, so it was British shamanism I was most attracted to. It uses archetypes I already knew from the Celtic myths, comforting symbols such as cauldrons and oak trees, and did not depend on mind-altering drugs to attain a state of trance…

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

10/10 and a new cover design for In the Moors

A big thanks to Deborah Riccio's Wordbird Blogsite for a thoughtful and amazing review of the first of the Shaman Mysteries - In the Moors. 

Deborah writes: 

Never having had dealings with a Shaman in my life, in my head they’ve always been a kind of witchy-pagan-flowing maxi dress-with-beads-and-flowered headdress-wearing hippy-type person who goes around humming and hugging trees and chatting to woodland creatures.  Because it’s a nice thing to do and wouldn’t we all do it if we could get away with it?
So I was more than a little happy to discover that our heroine, Sabbie Dare, is – although a little like my fluffy idea – a proper down-to-earth completely accessible human being with worries and hang ups and urges and no aversion to profanities and my goodness I warmed to her. Immediately.
Having had In the Moors in her bookcase for 2 years before reading it (something I often do as well), she awarded it 10/10, descrbing the first Shaman Mystery as fast-paced, believable and totally absorbing. Even better, she's designed the book a new cover as well…taking her design from the descriptions of Brokeltuft Cottage, which Sabbie Dare first visits in a shamanic journey:

 The overhanging branches met above my head, winter bare and black. The lane was so gloomy, I had to peer to make out the silhouette of a cottage against the cloud-covered sky.
I knew we were close to the grim little room where I’d seen the sack of hair. I willed myself towards the building until I was standing outside a door, the sort of door country dwellings had in the olden days, with wide, ornate hinges, rusting at their edges. The door was peeling its black paint and smeared with mud as if someone had kicked at it. The name of the house was prominently displayed on an iron plate. ‘Brokeltuft Cottage’.
I put my hand on the round knob of the iron handle. It was as cold as a summer drink. When I turned it, I heard the clang of a latch lifting inside. The door swung open. Carpetless wooden stairs rose up before me. A passageway led past them, into a kitchen that hadn’t been replaced since the fifties. I could see the gas cooker, and the kettle steaming on its hob. 
“What…what shall I do, Trendle?”
“Go on.” The otter lay along my arm. His coat still dripped from the journey, although I felt bone dry. His voice was in my head. “We have to put fear to one side and probe this world, if we want answers.” He twitched his whiskers and water drops flew from them.
Step by step I advanced along the passage. I remembered the menacing presence standing close behind me in the little room with the sack of hair. Would I find that presence in the kitchen? The whistle of the kettle became shrill. A girl stepped out of the shadows and switched off the gas.
“Want a cuppa?” she asked me.
I almost sobbed with relief.

Later, she finds the cottage deep in Somerset countryside, and in this excerpt, tries to find a way in:

          The black paint of the front door was entirely gone. The iron nameplate was missing, the screw-holes where it had once lived torn and rotting. It looked as if it might crumble if I touched it. Although touch it was the last thing I wanted to do. 
I walked up the short front path. I laid my gloved hand in the centre of the door and pushed. It was not locked or bolted from inside. It screeched over a stone tiled floor then stopped. I leaned my shoulder on it, then my back against it, but the gap, just enough for me to get my hand round, would widen no further. I put an eye to the opening. I could see grey light, like a fog that hangs around in abandoned places.
Some time ago, someone had come here with planks and nails and a pot of paint. The downstairs windows had been boarded up and the words DANGER – KEEP OUT painted across the boarding. Whatever was in the way of the front door must have been there at that time, as they hadn’t bothered to board that up. I stared at the words for a moment or two, waiting to see how they affected the more rule-abiding side of my nature, then shrugged and traced the path around the side of the house.
I had to scrunch through a wasteland wilderness. Brambles were the predominant feature, but the thorns couldn’t get a purchase on my coat – it was like wearing steel plating. The high swathes of nettles had more success. They seemed to lean forward and deliberately brush the thin sliver of skin that showed between my coat cuffs and my gloves. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and took steady step by steady step. A smell of fungus rose as I walked, as if the pathway had become mouldy with lack of use.

I turned the corner of the house. I was in the back garden. I pushed through the thigh-high weeds until I reached an ancient back door. You could see the plank work in it. This door did not budge at all. It was bolted from the inside.

What a nice surprise; a great review of the first in the series, three years after it was published. I do hope Deborah enjoys the rest of the Shaman Mysteries. In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend her blogsite Wordbird, which has many great pages to browse, including her book reviews and the fascinating Memory Mondays! You can read the complete review, check out her version of the cover and surf the Wordbird blogsite by clicking here;  Deborah Riccio's review of In the Moors 

Monday, 11 April 2016

Meeting the Glastonbury Pagan Moot

I was honoured and delighted to be asked to talk to the Glastonbury Moot about Shamanism, but I was a bit worried – wouldn’t it be like teaching my grandmother to suck eggs? Or – more accurately – like teaching a load of pagans to walk between the worlds?

So I talked about my own shamanic journey through the years, and what I do with my shamanism now, so that we could open up a debate and share our shamanic experiences. 

I starting with how I became a druid, in 1987, after being a long time Rosicrucian. I knew that something was missing for me in those teachings…an honouring of the land and local ancient deities. I became interested in how the ancient druids divined the future and used oracles, and joined an introductory workshop on British shamanism to find out more.

There we were, thirty of us, sitting on floor cushions in a circle in Bath, listening to John Matthews, famous writer on shamanism and the legends of King Arthur. He looked ordinary, sitting cross-legged among us, and he opened the workshop in a quiet, almost muted voice.  “I’d better warn you now,” he said, without drama. “Shamanism will alter your life.” Although I was keen - really keen – I’d paid money to be here – I couldn’t help thinking...yeah, right.

But John knew what he meant. For me, things were never the same again.

John and his wife Caitlin are among the most respected practicing shamans in this country, and over the course of the next few years, I took Caitlin’s practitioner courses, which prepare people to practice Shamanism as therapists. 

pages from my shamanic journal 2001 to now
Shamanism can be a spiritual path, but, from its very early beginnings, it has been a tool – a method of getting close to another world – the world of spirits. I had brought some of the tools I use to “cross over the rainbow bridge”, including my drum my rattle, an eye mask and some oracle cards, but also my shamanic journal, which I’ve been keeping since 2001. 

I passed this round, so that people could see the sorts of things I write down when I return from a trance. I was delighted when this resonated with the mooters – some were able to talk about their own experiences in front of the moot, and others spoke to me personally, afterwards. I told the story of my relationship with my two main guardians on the spirit plane, Esmerelda and The Golden Boy, archetypes who advise, and often offer me gifts. 

We talked about the methods of entering a trance so that we could journey into the otherworld. As well the drum beat, the rattle or the rhythm of a fast dance, I described journeying by digeridoo, played by the amazing Sika at the UK Shamanic Gathering. Others spoke about their own methods, including ‘just making a singing noise’, something my original mentor, Caitlin Matthews, has advocated for years. 

I did want to cover safety in my talk – shamanism is a wonderful tool, but there are guidelines. It should not be used if you have a serious mental health issue, and you should always start out from  a ‘safe haven’ – a place you grow use to seeing and exploring. You should never leave that place without the guidance of an animal ally. I told the story of how my first animal guide, a mole, came to me, and it struck a cord with mooters – some had had very similar experiences to mine.

A shaman can help people with deep problems which might present as something physical, but a lot of clients of shamanic therapists have had a long journey…consultations with doctors, psychiatrists and complimentary therapists, before seeing a shaman. Between us, the moot came up with a lot of other aspects of shamanic practice too; using shamanism with animals, connecting to the land, personal development and – more prosaically – finding lost items. The Moot co-ordinator, Oak, asked me about soul midwifing, which is something that was close to my heart, as I used to be a hospice nurse. After death – moments, hours or sometimes days – the soul separates from the body, and passes into a more subtle existence. I was often the only person in the room with a patient when they died, and keeping a loving vigil to help that person on their journey was something I could do at that moment.

But as a writer, I soon discovered I could also use these techniques to explore story so that my ideas almost ‘wrote themselves’ before I even got to a keyboard. And at that point, a character arrived in my life - a zesty twenty-something therapeutic shaman called Sabbie Dare, who kept telling me that I should write about her. “I see a lot of clients,” she told me, “who don’t really know what’s wrong with them. They’re on the edge.  They bring me some very difficult problems.”

I write the Shaman Mysteries for pagans and crime fiction lovers alike, so I have to be careful to walk a line between the truth of my own spiritual path, and the fictions I create. I don’t want to suggest that shamans can ‘solve crime’. And as the series progresses I am trying to introduce some of the aspects of shamanism and paganism that might enlighten the ‘muggle reader’. Book one, In the Moors, introduces the shamanic journey and Sabbie’s animal ally, an otter called Trendle. In the second book, I developed Sabbie’s ritual life, and otherworld associations, especially her guardian, a river goddess who she doesn’t yet quite trust. Book three, Beneath the Tor, uses a theme of transformation, including shapeshifting.This book is set in Glastonbury, and it was my great delight to be able to use some of the legends of the Vale of Avalon In book four, which I'm writing, I'm going to look at the Lower Realms, and introduce Sabbie's father, who is also a shaman.

We ran right out of time (I am hard to shut up, but they finally managed it!). I’m delighted to say that Oak
Good Friday Sunrise by Kev Pearson
has invited me back, sometime in the future. There were so many aspects to living with shamanism that we didn’t cover, and I’d love to have that opportunity. The Glastonbury Moot, which meets on Wednesday evenings at the Mitre Inn, is a welcoming gathering, and I’d recommend it if you are looking for like-minded friends and live in that area.

I was lucky enough to be able to stay the night with two kindly members of the moot, who have recently moved to Glastonbury. Kev is photographer, and (isn’t the universe strange?) I’d only that previous week discovered his wonderful images on the net. Check out his stunning photos, especially of the Tor at 

Further information about shamanism can be found at

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Can I pass the Bechdel Test?

What is the Bechdel Test? Can I pass it?

Last year, I had never heard of the Bechdel Test. Then, sometime in 2016, I came across a comic strip by cartoonist Alison Bechdel; Dykes To Watch Out For. It seemed just the sort of thing I’d love – as a writer who portrays the Somerset Levels in their books I’m always interested in any sort of small watercourse...

Bechdel credits a friend for the idea, and also gives a nod to Virginia Woolf, in particular the 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, where Woolf says about fictional women…almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. In 1929, that might be expected, but almost one hundred years have now passed…surely things have got considerably better?

Bechdel’s test wasn’t much more than a quip, but it has moved into mainstream, especially being applied to the world of film scripts. To pass the test, a film must contain the following: (1) At least two female characters, preferably named, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than the men in their lives.

For film, the test has narrower goalposts than even I first thought. Let’s take some standard female leads: Clarice Starling, Erin Brochovitch, Catherine Tramell (in Basic Instinct) and both Thelma and Louise. Turns out a lot of the time these strong women are talking to, or about, men. However, some of my favorite films do get a clear pass. 

Helen Hunt as Carol
In As Good as it Gets, Helen Hunt’s character Carol has a long, wonderful conversation with her mother about childcare (oops...and about getting a man....), while The Children of Men, as well as featuring the lead male in flip-flops, has a strong female cast (Clare-Hope Ashitey, Julianne Moore and Pam Ferris), who talk about the dystopian issues in hand,  rather than their love-lives. Sideways, a great film about wine, has Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen talking about…wine…(for at least 30 seconds before returning to the subject of their men). And I don’t want to leave out Mulholland Drive, where Naomi Watts and Laura Harring spend a lot of time talking about a missing person, and each other.

Surely, in the world of literature, many conversations have been written between women without the slightest whisper of romantic chatter? Way before Woolf, came intellectual giants such as both Bronte sisters, George Sands, Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austin. I could clearly recall both the Bennet and the Dashwood sisters having long, interesting conversations with each other. But Part 3 of the test is the sticking point. When I checked back…yep, they were talking about men. Getting married informed their lives – of course they were talking about it.

In today’s literature, surely, so long as we steer clear of chick lit, we’ll find good pass marks. And we do. Books ranging from The Hunger Games to The Handmaid’s Tale are passes, as is my recent favourite, The Help.

So now I have to ask myself about The Shaman Mysteries. Does my crime fiction series pass the Bechdel test in its entirety? I am so pleased to announce that it does - all three books. Sabbie Dare actually has very few conversations about her lovelife with other women. Here are three conversations from the three books to prove this:

From Book One: In the Moors  With a Dutch client called Marianne Winne:

 In the Moors  
“How’s work going, now you’re back?” I asked.
“Things are all right. I feel sometimes ‘wobbly’.”
“But you manage.”
Marianne nodded. I wouldn’t have noticed in normal lighting, but in the flickering glow of the candle I could see that her cheeks were covered with a fine layer of perspiration. “I get through the day.”
“Have you heard anything further about the redundancies?”
“Rumours are still flying around the building.” She examined her delicately pinked nails. “I don’t know why I took it that bad. No one else on the list had such a reaction. I did not know how pathetic I could be.”
“Rubbish. You come across as a strong person.”
“No longer. When they re-interview the posts, going off sick like that will count against me.” Marianne sat on the lounger with her hands folded like tidy napkins in her lap. They didn’t fidget, those hands, ever. They exuded utter composure.
“We are going to discover what this is about. Then you can walk into work like the old Marianne and knock ’em flat.”
She shook her head. “I lost my nerve. You should never lose your nerve. At Simpson and Grouche, if you lose your nerve, you are as good as dead.”
“In the water, as they say. Washed up.”
“Marianne, could you describe your office to me?”
She didn’t even blink at my sudden change of direction. She’d got used to my often bizarre questions. “Oh, it
is good. Very light, you know. We grow plants in the windows.

I beat a tattoo with my pen on the paper. “Remind me who phoned you that afternoon?”
“My line manager. Will Clyde. He is a nice guy. He sent me flowers when I was off.”
“Can you remember his exact words?”
Marianne shook her head. “I can’t remember much about what happened, Sabbie. I sort of…”
“Yes. I remember you saying. You were in shock–”
“Fit. It was like a fit.”
“You collapsed.”
“I could not move. Like Lot’s wife.”
I cast my mind back to my years with Gloria. She’d had a strict Pentecostal upbringing and was always quoting things from the bible. “Like a pillar of salt?” I hazarded. “Like you’d been petrified?”
“Petrified is a good word,” Marianne agreed.
“You don’t recall anything?”
“No. Strange, that is, as I have a good memory.”
I placed the write-up of my last shamanic journey in her lap. “Just look at the words in capital letters.”
She glanced down. Almost instantly, she gave a sort of hiccough, as though forcing back tears.
“Do the words make you feel a particular way?” 
“The same.” Her breath was scraping through her throat as if it were closing over. “The very same, Sabbie. The words he used…the list for re-interviewing…that is what he said, more or less.”
“Phones are funny things, sometimes,” I said.  “You can’t see the person. It’s easy to muddle voices or mix one turn of phrase with another. In the end, it’s the words that will have an effect.”
She trained her gaze on me. The only indication that I’d rattled her was the way the paper quivered in her hand. “What do you mean, Sabbie?”
“I just want you to consider the possibility that you didn’t have that dreadful reaction because your job was on the line. Maybe, some time in the past, you heard a similar voice, or similar words that really were a threat. To your life, even.”
“But, I know that cannot be so.”
I was sipping away at my boiling tea, as if I wanted to be in sympathetic pain with my client. “It’s not your office, in my shamanic journey. It belongs in the fifties, or even before. I’ve been wondering if the reason you can’t remember these words is because they didn’t happen in this lifetime.”
I watched her mouth fall open in slow motion. I’d waited for her to reject my suggestion out of hand, but she was thinking about it, in her usual unruffled manner. 
“You are saying I lost my job in a previous life?”
“No, Marianne. I'm saying that you lost your life.”
“How would I ever know?” she asked. “How would I ever remember such a thing?”
“You don’t remember. Maybe you never will. But if a voice said the exact words to you for a second time, that might have made you feel as dreadful…as petrified…as it did the first time.”

From Book Two: Unraveled Visions  With a Polish émigré called Kate; 
 Unraveled Visions  

“At that moment,” said Kate, “I had nothing. In England, money goes faster than in Poland.”
“I bet that’s true.”
“I needed food for my child. I needed the fare home.”
I didn’t think there could be much that is more scary that being broke and alone in a foreign country. 
Kate shook her head, and her hair swung. She lifted a pale hand and brushed it from her face. The action rang a bell; a thing Rey had told me. The way his DS Gary Abbott had gone a little crazy over that first dead woman’s body.
“Did Gary…did he ever talk to you about the murder, the woman they found in the summer, that turned up in–”
“Yes. Please – I know this. It is this that I want to tell you about.”
I looked at the chestnut shine of her hair. “She reminded him, didn’t she?” 
“He had pestered the doctor. The woman who had done the autopsy. What is she called? Path…”
“Pathologist,” I said, wondering where this was taking us.
“The woman’s stomach, it was all opened, when they found her. You know?”
“Sort of. No, I don’t.”
“Gary said…that it wasn’t fishes. He told the woman, but she didn’t listen, I don’t think. Now, he is dead, and another woman is dead!” 
Slashings. The police are looking for a Ripper.”
 Her face was as white as paper. Even her lips were white. “I have been reading. Everything in the papers.”
Waves of assumptions suddenly formed into a single solution. 
“DS Abbott knew who killed that woman, didn’t he? He knew who was going to kill Kizzy, even before she died.”
“Perhaps. I don’t know. Not a name, or a thing like that. But one thing is sure. The person who killed the girls. They killed Gary. They shot him.”
Neither of us spoke. I shivered, the cold of the open window getting to me. “How do you know?” I asked, at last.
“Because…I survived.”
“You? You encountered the murderer?”
“Yes. I encountered. But I didn’t see them. I didn’t see anything much.”
Kate turned from where we were standing beside her table full of cooling Bulgarian food. She closed the kitchen window. She worked at the plastic string and the roller blind cascaded down. It was rose pink, with a scalloped edge, trimmed with lace. She pulled it right to the sill. She moved to the kitchen door, and shut that tight too.
I felt a tremor on my lips. I sucked them in to stop it showing. She shook her head, as if it was too difficult to tell. She wanted me to draw her story out of her. “How did you get away, Kate?”

 Beneath the Tor 
From Book Three: Beneath the Tor  With a friend called Shell:

“Alys and I met at school, did I say? So I know her better that any other friend; better than Brice. Do you follow? I know things Brice does not.”
I gave a nod.
“We were doing our exams when she started seeing this older bloke. A specific older bloke, actually. A teacher.”
“This chap was new in the Humanities department and to be honest, we wouldn’t think of him as old at all now, I guess he was two, three years out of university. He was a fantastic looker and Alys wasn’t the only girl with a crush on him, a gaggle of sixth-formers used to follow him around, on the pretext of their history studies. It was Alys who got him in the end.” Shell smiled. “She wasn’t especially pretty or anything, but back then she had a big, cheeky personality. She knew what she wanted and usually got it.”
“So she got this teacher.”
“It was the worse thing that could have happened. She fell so heavily. It couldn’t end in anything but disaster, could it? She got pregnant and he paid for her to have an abortion in a private clinic, in the hope of keeping it quiet. In fact he put a lot of pressure on her to have the abortion, although I don’t suppose she had many other options. She’d left it late telling him, so by the time she went in, she had to have the drip and everything and it went horribly wrong.The bleeding wouldn’t stop and she was rushed into the general hospital. Naturally, it all came out at school. Alys was sixteen, over the age of consent, but the bloke got the sack. She never heard from him again. She messed up her exams and we didn’t see her all summer holidays because she refused to come out with the rest of us.”
“She was probably depressed,” I said.
“And how. At the start of the sixth form she looked a wreck. That cheeky personality was in bits. The weight had fallen off her and she still wasn’t eating. I was scared for her, Sabbie. I’d been a rubbish friend too; all summer we’d gone off partying and do you know what she’d done? She’d joined a sort of club called the 100 Day Fast.”
For some reason, although I’d never heard the term before, it made my skin go cold.
“For one hundred days, you drink only water.”
“What? That’s crazy. Dangerous.”
“Yes, it was horrible. She was still doing it, and trying re-take her GCSE’s and start her A levels all at the same time. I thought she was going to break down and end up in hospital, but I rallied the gang round and we gentled her back into eating. By the end of the school year, she was okay. Not eating well – to be honest she’s never eaten well since – but she’d put on half a stone.”
“Poor Alys,” I said. 
“Why did you mention drugs?”
“Oh, nothing. No reason.”

I feel  proud of myself, but not at all surprised. I never intended to concentrate on romance in my books. Yes, there are relationships, but the theme has always been how Sabbie Dare uses her understanding of Shamanism to help solve the villainy she encounters – and she certainly does encounter villainy – make no mistake, she will continue to do so!