Friday, 5 February 2016

Rectangular Memories – Mind Mapping for Writers

image by K. Jasven

The concept of mind mapping may have evolved from the mathematical spider diagram, but, not being a mathematician, I wouldn’t know about that. What I do know is that by placing a single concept, in the shape of a word, phrase, or image, in the centre of a piece of paper, and using word representations, associations and memories to expand outwards, answers fall into place.
This technique prevents you from losing those tiny peripheral thoughts that may be the nub of creativity, and encourages new ideas to drop from the muses.
I use a mind map at the start of each new story I write. I’ve also used it to help poems along. I start by drawing a circle in the centre of my paper. Inside it I put an image, phrase or word, something core to my initial idea. Alternatively a random word or image can produce quite amazing results.
This week, I'm guest blogging again for and I'm talking about mind mapping because one of my OCA students has recently written an unusual poem, right at the start of her Degree Pathway, in her first assignment. To read the poem and the rest of my blogpost, go to rectangular memories at We are OCA.

…I feel quite privileged that you chose to use my mind maps as an example! : ) Thanks! Kat Jasven, OCA Art Student

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Marlon James, Owen Sheers and Emma Donoghue – Marmite Fiction?

On their Writers Read page. 

What have I been reading

Really interesting books...Marmite books.  

Marmite is the UK’s favourite yeast extract spread, and it is said that people either love or hate it. Some books gain a similar response from readers, and here are the ones that I loved reading in 2015, but some others hated. As a writer of crime, I’ve chosen three books that can broadly be described as ‘crime novels’. 

I'm reviewing:

A Brief History of Seven Killings 
by Marlon James

I Saw a Man 
by Owen Sheers

Elizabeth is Missing 
by Emma Donoghue

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Mabinogion Poems: The fair maids of ancient Wales


Yesterday, I spent a time out of time. I was in the National Library of Wales, where some of the oldest manuscripts are kept safe. 

This includes the Black Book of Carmarthen,  One of the earliest surviving manuscripts written solely in the Welsh language, full of handwritten poetry and amazing little doodles in the margins. And, for me, even more wonderful, they also have the original, White Book of Rhydderch
which is the earliest compendium of prose texts in the Welsh language, written by monks at an abbey only an hour's drive from us here, Stratta Florida. The White Book includes the earliest version of the Mabinogi, a wonderful four-part myth that seems to me as old as Wales itself. 
One of the things I like about the Mabninogi, is the feisty women portrayed between its pages. These stories, written down in the 14th Century but which are most likely centuries older, show that women were often ignored, slandered, wrongly punished and often abused by the more powerful sex, but even so they are portrayed with a power that is palpable. 
I was able to hold facimilies of these books in my hand and read through them – clearly, I can't read old Welsh (can't properly speak modern Welsh, yet), but I got a buzz when I recognized words in the text that I'd read in my English language copy of The Mabinogion, which is wonderfully illustrated by Alan Lee.
It inspired me to write some poems about the women, using some archaic poetic forms.


Rhannon by Alan Lee

When did I know your pedigree was forged?
After battle, the great feast of victory,
Toasts of mead and plates of boar our gathering      gorged

Your watchet eyes a valedictory, 
Even the gold-tipped merlin-feathered crown
Hinted at departure, contradictory.

When did I first hatch my plan? My baffled frown 
Took me to my cousin, Queen of Annwvyn
 –You seem distracted, sweet, have you felt down?

Her pale cheeks warmed like apples in the sun
 – He’s been distracted. Not for one full year 
Has he touched me. But, darling coz, I swoon...

Her breath was sweet, her lips soft on my ear
 –Last night was...rapture! Her smile told me all. 
The veiled and hidden secret became clear.

My head buzzed with my singing birds whose call
Shoos time away. My heart fluttered like wings.
My thighs wet with desire. Him, I’ll enthral.

I straddled my white mare, encircling 
The mound of wonders, miracles and harm.
In dreams he sat, saw this sweet fay appearing 

And rose, pulled to me by my whispering charm.
Enchanted hoofs restrained his mortal reach, 
His face the colour of a farrier’s arm. 

My lady, will you rein in and have speech! 
I would, sir, for your horse’s better health.
For we are well-matched, therefore must well meet

I choose a man for character, not wealth,
Star fortune and star cross as my birds sing,
Will more befall? Our fates emerge with stealth...


Three Tests of my White Breast;

I am struck in the cook’s bad temper
My belly shrivels from the smell of dead things,
My heart suppurates on my sacking at night.

Three Greetings to my Brother;

The starling flaps its wing like a postcard.
Innocent as a babe held over fire
But, dearest brother – do not blame the bird.

Three things to beware:

Grain sacks,
Irish guile. 


Slats of red sun blush our linen,
Her eyes are lined with story,
She’s seen so much;
The cunning breach of promise.
The fairy boy who slipped from between her warm breasts 
And the wall;
Her pleasure in the horsey penance. 
Her stories prick my finger...blood on the sun-stained linen.        


Enchantment never gains. 
It spangles you; casts mists upon your eyes;
Can make you laugh, gasp, hoot, act like a fool.
Give you advantage, promptly supply your wish;
But permanence is not a feature.
Magic never lasts.

She took her fairy son and vanished. 
The world drew in.
The people left 
Crops failed.
Clouds dark’d the land and fled
Leaving the earth as dust.
The linen was rust-brown from my blood.

Look for the unexplained.
The tiny mouse who limps
The holy man with money in his purse
Keep firm your nerve. 
Do not weep like a woman might 
Or howl with loss of your man
The secret’s in the spell,
In its unravelling.


Men and their vile wands cause war and rape; 
A misshape child – hidden well –
Stitching up of all my flaws,
Chance for me to touch the stars.

In women’s wombs every child of the world;
Lies unfurled. A whispering, mild ,
Cell, to grow, or be expelled...
Miss; expect to be reviled.

Men and their wands leave me cold. I possess 
A veiled caress, protective fold,
Hidden power, uncontrolled
Not cheapened or undersold.

Locked in a tower, do not quake, weep or wail,
Spun in a wheel do not break:
Look to the stars and partake
Of the moon’s beams, ride their wake. 


No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
They fashioned a frock of floral gauze
And stood me ‘fore the sun
Legs up to my elbows, quivering like a fawn.

Christopher Williams 1930
No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
Crushed petals bursting from the crystal trap 
He, too stood before the sun
The halo burning round him blurred his face.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
Slipping from the banquet hall, face aflush,
How you doing, Petal? 
A willowy sylph in a dress of flowers.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
If he was tiring of my primrose laugh.
If my own gaze slipped or
If my pistils swelled as the fine gauze slid.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
Conspired assassination of a Prince – 
Were you both so desperate?
Swift punishment; brutal, mocking, timeless.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
How you doing, feather? 
Flight against the white moon,
Warm flesh swallowed whole. Soft love in the trees. 

 You can learn more about the stories of the Mabinogi at this site

Saturday, 2 January 2016


Established crime writer Nina Milton is launching the third book in her Shamanic Mystery Series in the centre of Glastonbury and you are cordially invited to attend.                                                                                Beneath the Tor features young Somerset shaman, Sabbie Dare, who enlists the help of the spirit world to fight the dark side of humanity.                    
All the Shaman Mysteries are set in the beautiful, but sometimes eerie landscape of the Somerset Levels, and Beneath the Tor opens on Midsummer Eve at the top of Glastonbury Tor, where beautiful Alys Hollingberry dies suddenly after dancing the night away. The book has its own cast of Glastonbury characters and examines many of the myths and legends of this mystical town.

Ronald Hutton with Nina Milton
The launch will take place at The Avalon Rooms at the Glastonbury Experience  (Post code BA6 9DU) at 2pm on Saturday 27th February and all Milton’s books will be available at a special launch price.

Ronald Hutton, professor of history at Bristol University, will give a talk on shamanism today, and Nina Milton will give readings of her work and sign copies of her books. 

Arthur Billington
Complimentary refreshments will be served and blues guitarist Arthur Billington will provide acoustic music. All book lovers are invited, and admission is free.

Born in Bristol, Nina Milton is a Druid with shamanic training, who began her writing career when she was awarded the Wells Festival of Literature Short Story Prize. She returned to the prize-giving in 2015 to talk about what can happen after winning.

Beneath the Tor has already received acclaim from reviewers and readers alike:

This third mystery of the series hits the ground running. I read the book straight through with only some sleep in between. It's not necessary to have read the first two to read this one. Wonderful mix of modern grit and ancient magicChesapeake Reader review, December 2, 2015

Milton puts an intriguing New Age spin on the traditional English mystery…Publisher’s Weekly

Nina Milton has created a unique fictional world in her Shaman Mystery Series, featuring Sabbie Dare as a young shaman. With Beneath the Tor she has become a mistress of plot-weaving, and above all, she pulls off the trick of setting the totally fantastic amid the totally everyday and making the two fit together with pace and excitement…Ronald Hutton, author of Pagan Britain and The Triumph of the Moon.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Sarah Hilary: The Shadow-side of Writing

copyright Linda Nylind, photographer

Sarah Hilary admits she thinks of dark things. ‘I do have a dark mind…’ she’s quoted as saying, ‘a friend of mine pushed me into crime writing, saying…‘your mind is in a dark place already, you should make some money from it’.’
I love dark minds. I have one myself, especially when I’m asleep. My dreams are a deep recess full of images and actions useful to a writer.  I dream of torture, of lost babies, of running at night from beasts, of hiding from men with guns. One morning I woke to discover I’d scribbled something at three am, before falling back to sleep. The words ran down the page like oozing blood – death and mayhem all night long.
So Sarah Hilary’s first novel, Someone Else’s Skin – a brilliantly apt title, by the way – was right up my dark alley, absolutely my cup of hemlock. Everything about the story leads to darkness. The symbols are disturbing; a woman blinded by an acid attack, a hand severed by a scimitar, a victim chained, waiting for torture. The themes explore hate, violence, misogyny, and sadism. Her characters are women fighting for some peace – some justice from men who have attacked them – but they all have inner demons to contend with. Even Hilary’s fiercely intelligent investigator, DI, Marnie Rome, has memories of a violent family event, and losses she’s trying to forget while she’s doing her dark, dark, job. Her partner, DS Noah Jake, is black and gay, which isn’t a problem to anyone except dyed-in-the-wool homophobe, DS Carling. However this is not a formulaic police procedural. KTW readers will know how I love my crime novels (read and written!) to be about why crime is committed, and what affect that has on victims, investigators, bystanders and even the perpetrators.
On the WH Smith Blog, Hilary says: ‘Marnie Rome walked fully formed into a story I was writing two years ago. She was undercover, in biker boots and a black wig, but she was unquestionably Marnie. I recognised her at once. Later, I came to realise how many secrets she was hiding.’
According to C G Jung everyone has a ‘shadow aspect’. This is a repressed area of the unconscious reflecting the side of us we don’t see in our conscious selves. He wrote: The less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is I don’t know Sarah Hilary well, but she looks a lovely cheery person in her photos – slightly quixotic, in fact, rather ethereal. If, like, me, she’s fundamentally a sunshiney person, it stands to reason your shadow aspect is going to be a cold sweat of despair and agony. 
Jung believed that we should endeavour to be aware of our shadow aspect, so that we grow into balanced people, and I have a theory that writers have a way of gaining that balance, even without knowing it. They draw out their shadow aspect in their writing. That might explain why nice people end up writing about the worse sides of human nature. Ann Cleeves, a crime novelist and judge of the 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, which Hilary won with Someone Else’s Skin, said… ‘she has this dreadful sense of horror, but it is done delicately and subtly. It always stops just as your imagination takes over.’
Rome and Jake want to interview a resident of a women’s shelter in Finchley, Ayana Mirza. They want her to testify against her own brothers, who have driven her to the shelter with violent intimidation.  But as the detectives arrive they witness a stabbing. A husband has sneaked in, bringing flowers for his wife, and now lies bleeding on the floor. In that moment, the book gains its delightful complexity, because Rome and Jake thought they had one, cut-and-dried crime to investigate, and now they also have a mystery. Was the knife inside the flowers? Has Hope Proctor just saved her own life, or did she always plan to attack the husband she’s been hiding from? The answers to those questions are dark and twisted, and the story will spiral out of the detective’s control before they’re answered. As Simone, another woman who has sought refuge remembers in the book…‘He thought he'd broken her in a thousand pieces, but sometimes... when you are broken... You mend hard.’
No Other Darkness is available from Amazon
Domestic violence has often been lumped under ‘misery memoirs’ and it’s refreshing to see someone take the subject and create both a complex, crime novel and serious examination of the problem, without descending into cliché. Hilary writes with understatement. She doesn’t shout out her messages, but when she wants to describe violence, she does it with such power…Mum's bread knife, its steel teeth full of tattered red skin…Despite its subtlety, Someone Else’s Skin has its terrifying moments, the sort you have to hide behind the sofa to read. I read this book on Kindle, and right now it's only 99p on Kindle if you click here.
Since its publication in 2014, Hilary has published the second Marnie Rome novel, No Other Darkness, and I believe she’s ready to publish the third. I can’t wait to read them – I have my sofa all prepared to hide behind as I do so.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Beneath the Tor is out in paperback today!

Beneath the Tor is out in paperback today!
For US readers, the book you’ve been waiting for with bated breath is out today. If you pre-ordered it, it might already be with you!
Sabbie Dare is a shaman and therapist who works with the otherworld to fight off the dark side of this world…
On Midsummer night on the Glastonbury Tor, Alys Hollingberry suddenly dies. Sabbie Dare is in shock over the news, and when Alys's shamanic guru confesses that she may have unwittingly taken drugs during his ritual, Sabbie's shock turns into horror.
After receiving sinister, anonymous emails about Alys, her grieving husband Brice approaches Sabbie for help. She turns to the spirit world for guidance but receives only conflicting and enigmatic answers. She tries seeking help from her boyfriend, Detective Inspector Rey Buckley, but he is embroiled in problems of his own. As she starts to piece together the truth about Alys's death, a deranged killer is planning a final killing, and both are closer to Sabbie than she knows.
I'm already in love with Midnight Ink's choice of cover for this book, the classy, monotone photograph of Glastonbury Tor is enigmatic, and yet tells you immediately what's inside. And I'm delighted with the reviews I'm already getting, from professional writers, avid readers and the book magazines:
Ronald Hutton and Nina Milton
 at Foyles Bookshop
RONALD HUTTON, AUTHOR OF THE TRIUMPH OF THE MOON, SHAMANS, AND PAGAN BRITAIN"[Milton] has become a mistress of plot-weaving, and above all, she pulls off the trick of setting the totally fantastic amid the totally everyday and making the two fit together with pace and excitement.”—

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
RivettingThis third mystery of the series hits the ground running. I read the book straight through with only some sleep in between. It's not necessary to have read the first two to read this one. Wonderful mix of modern grit and ancient magic.

Publisher's Weekly
At the start of British author Milton’s unsettling third Shaman mystery (after 2014’s Unraveled Visions), a group of 10 people, all “keen to explore shamanism,” climb to the top of Glastonbury Tor to celebrate Midsummer Eve. When Alys Hollingberry, who has been dancing nonstop, suddenly collapses, Sabbie Dare phones emergency services. Another participant says it’s too late (“I saw her spirit go”). On the day of the inquest, Alys’s grieving husband, Brice, receives a strange email (“The Tor needs no sacrifice. The utter waste of blessed life signals doomsday”). It’s signed Morgan le Fay. Since Brice doesn’t want the police involved, he asks Sabbie’s help in identifying Morgan le Fay and figuring out this person’s connection to Alys. Meanwhile, a priest alleges that Alys took drugs during the celebration on the tor that may have led to her death. Milton puts an intriguing New Age spin on the traditional English mystery. 

Sorry, UK readers, you will have to wait an entire month to read my book, if you want to gloriously hold the paperback in your hands that is. But you can pre-order the book from Amazon now.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Coping With Rejection

Nina Milton is guesting at the Open College of the Arts blogsite again, this week, with a blog about coping with rejection. Lots of intersting comments coming through on this subject, which is close to every writer's heart.

I can clearly remember my first rejection. It was as if someone had released a little valve on me. The sort of little valve that beach balls have so you can blow them up. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to write again...

Go to 

to read the entire article. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Naxalites: fictions about the Indian uprising

Talk about buses, coming along in pairs. 

Two books, published recently, both examined the Maoist uprising in India. Now, I didn’t even know that there had been a Maoist uprising in India, so two novels in close succession felt like more than coincidence. But it's probably no more than a good example of Jung's collective consciousness at work. 

In both books, a young man is drawn into a radical far-left movement called Naxalism, its name derived from Naxalbari, a tiny village to the north of Calcutta where impoverished peasants rose up against the police and landlords in 1967, sparking off dreams of a nationwide insurgency that would replicate Mao’s earlier revolution in China.

I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland first, and this was my introduction the the Naxalites, a movement I’d never heard of  before. I love learning new things from the fiction I read, however, at the end of the book, I still didn’t know anything about the uprising. That story is skirted and what is examined instead is disappearance, the not knowing. 

Subhash’s younger brother, Udayan, has gone without trace, and he’s missed by all the people who care for very much for him in a multitude of different ways  Lahiri explores these lives – lives lived with a blankness where a person should be. What Lahari is saying, it seems to me, is that disappearance is more poignant than death, for there is no closure when someone vanishes off the face of the earth. Udayan's family are trapped in the unkowning. How differently would have been their lives if that disappearance hadn’t happened? How different are their lives  because of that mysterious gap appearing in the centre of the family.

As I was reading Lowlands, I fell in love, once again, with Lahari’s  erratic, dancing prose and the power of her characters, who feel and believe and with such passion and depth. But her short stories are more lucid than this longer book. The writer is far better at getting under the skin of characters 
 like this, exploring their dreams, fears, failures and secrets,  than she is describing settings or actions. Rather than demonstrating any overarching narrative drive, Lahari’s Indian family seem to live in the clouds, if not in the Cloud. But at the end of the book, I could truly say I'd loved it, because the ending is exqusiite. It both explains the beginning and takes us in a circle back to it. It’s because of this one little device, which I had to wait  432 pages for, that Lowlands stays with me,

In direct contrast, The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee does not try to 
skirt around the issue of the Naxal 
uprising. We learn how punishing was the regime the idealistic students set for themselves, in their attempts to emulate Chinese Communism, and we also see in graphic detail the way the police and state dealt with their beliefs. 

The structure Muckherjee has chosen takes us alternately from the Ghosh Family (and their long-standing business empire) and their teenage son, Supratik. The family - or at least Supratik's mother - is struggling, as in Lowland, to come to terms with the disappearance. Their lives, in contrast to the starving peasants Supratik is now starving alongside, are rich and charmed, to the point they simply cannot imagine any other life. As with Lowlands, we watch several generations, this time mostly in flashback back from the starting point of 1967, to learn how much the family members truly hate each other. 

While Lowlands had a problem with getting to grips with setting, this book seems to not bother with properly introducing characters. Constantly I got lost and frequently I was grateful for both the glossary and the Ghosh family tree, printed at the front of the book.

I found the chapters focused on Supratik grueling but easy to read. It was the Ghosh chapter I found troublesome. I seemed to constantly be waiting for characters and their situations to be introduced and explained, while trying to figure out what was happening and what had happened to this unpleasant family. I almost gave up several times, as I wondered where this book was going. But when the writer gets to grips with a scene, he's wonderfully colourful and imaginative.

The Lives of Others seemed to be telling and showing me far less than I thought I'd need to understand the story, yet, when when I’d finished it, and pondered upon it, I realized that somehow I’d gained a complete picture and could see the romance and direction of its narrative perfectly. 
If you like to discover new information while reading fiction, or love books that tackle large issues, you'd probably enjoy either of these. Lowland was short-listed last year: The Lives of Others won the prize the year after. Why not read both and decide for yourself if the Booker judges made the right choices.