Sunday, 29 January 2017

Get the Soundtrack of your Novel in Your Head


“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” 

Walter Pater’s said that. It’s a famous quote of his, more famous than he is. When I first heard it, I checked him out, to find he was a nineteenth-century art critic and literary theorist who was born in the East End of London.

Some think that this quote is bunkum, and that art doesn’t move towards being music, but the idea resonates with me. Why else would Leonard Cohen have moved his writing sideways from prose and poetry to lyrics (oh! the money, maybe…).  Music often enhances reading; I played Bob Marley all the time when I was consumed by A Brief History of Seven Killings 

When I write, I’m always aware that certain scenes make a sort of music in my head. My characters, right from before I had anything published, always listened to music, often (this is possibly why these stories weren't published!) for long, closely-described scenes.

Then I read the critically acclaimed Teddy Wayne, and heard about how he created a ‘soundtrack’ to his most recent novel Loner, an unsettling story of obsessive desire. In his article, Wayne says…A great deal of pop songs are also about romantic obsession and loneliness (often in the same breath), and many ostensible love songs, when you examine the lyrics, are really avowals of stalker-like pursuit or thoughts of the object of desire; the British seem to have a particular fondness for this kind of ballad

Wayne chose ten tracks that informed his portrayal of his protagonist. I’m writing book four of the Shaman Mysteries, Flood Gate, and I'm doing the same thing. My chosen tracks each represent a character, and I’m finding wonderful inspiration from listening to these songs. Follow the links to hear the music.

In order of appearance:

Larry Waish is a small-time poultry farmer who recently lost all his hens in one of the many floods that plague the Somerset Levels. What he’s discovered, is that his neighbour is to blame for his loss, and he’s hopping mad. Larry really loves Country and Western and plays The Eagles Heartache Tonight  a lot, while he’s trying to cope with what happened between him and Jack Spicer at Harper’s Coombe 

Jack Spicer, who’s real name is John, farms 200 acres of Somerset land, as his family has for generations. He's recently lost his daughter, and is helping bring up her daughter, baby Olivia. He knows he's been driven to do wrong, and t’s tormenting him. He's a bit of a classical buff, and listening to the slightly sinister tones of Shostakovich’s first piano concerto helped me build his character. By the end of chapter one, Jack is dead.

Sabbie Dare is a young shamanic practitioner and therapist who knows it is her destiny to be of service to people on the very edge of life. The victims of evil…the perpetrators of it.  Sabbie’s mad about Pet Shop Boys and pagan music which can vary from folksy to rocking, and includes groups like Incubus Sucubus, Dahm the Bard and The Dolmen 

Kelly King was 28 when she threw herself off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. She’d never really recovered from her life in The Willows, a local authority children’s home where Kelly, Sabbie and Debs Hitchings all lived when they were children. Kelly was depressed, directionless, and addicted to chocolate cookies. In her last days, she plugged into the music of her childhood, such as Pink’s There you go.

Debs Hitchings is a beautician who wanders from boyfriend to boyfriend and job to job. Debs turned up at the very end of In the Moors, (Book One) where she cuts Sabbie’s tortured hair, and has a small part in Unraveled Visions. In this book Debs, and the story of her past, takes centre stage. She’s known for cracking out Beyoncés Crazy in Love 
at the top of her voice as her heels skittered across nighttime pavements.

https://www.milesdavis.com

Quentin Lachapelle is a thirty-five year old photographer with a nice studio, a pretty wife, and a flourishing career. He meets Sabbie and Debs at Kelly King's funeral, where he offers to take some glamour shots of Debs, although he finds Sabbie’s dark skin tones and angled face interesting. There is more to Quentin that meets the eye…or the lens of his cameras. Quentin is a Miles Davis fan, of course. 

DI Reynard Buckely. Fans of the Shaman Mysteries will be delighted to hear that and Rey and Sabbie are still an item. In fact, things hot up between them considerably! Rey made his musical preferences clear in In the Moors, so there’s only one group I could play, and that’s the Stones

Fenella Waish is Larry’s sister. Now in her forties, but still living in their childhood home, Fen seeks help from Sabbie for longterm Ornithophobia, her paralysing fear of birds which prevents her going anywhere near Larry’s poultry shed. Fenella loves her laptop, which is her window on the world. Scared to be Lonely might bring tears to her eyes, but she plays it again and again.

Tara Yorkman. Before she died, Kelly was fruitlessly searching for her friend Tara, who lived at The Willows from when she was little. Kelly, in need of someone to care for, always looked out for Tara, until she was a teenager. Then she disappeared. When Kelly’s spirit comes to Sabbie in a dream, she feels indebted to continue the quest for the missing girl. I listen to Taylor Swift and other noughties music to get in touch with Tara.

Victor Doyle is a successful Bristol business man, a builder of local housing. Now 55, he's loaded, charming and still handsome in a chiselled way, although he’s put on a bit of weight. In the community, he’s a well-loved philanthropist, but underneath, the man is pure, unadulterated evil. I think he’d be rivitted by Pretty Women from Sweeny Todd.

If you're writing a novel, or a series of short stories, try finding and playing the soundtrack that perfectly accompanies the story and the characters. It can make a tremendous difference to the outcome. 

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Secrets of Orkney's Ancient Capital


Secrets of Orkney's Ancient Capital




Anyone who watched the BBC mini-series, Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney
will have had their imaginations captured by the mind-blowing discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar.  Presenters Andy Torbet, Chris Packham, Neil Oliver and Shini Somara investigated the archaeological dig unlocking Orkney’s archaeological secrets.

Archaeologists started uncovering this new discovery in a 2010 dig, and were so amazed at what they’d exposed, that they are still there, seven years later. Brick by brick, bone by bone, they are
Artists impression of the ancient site
revealing a 5500-year-old temple in that could be earlier, and more important, than Stonehenge.

The excavation used geophysics technology to get started,  revealing that there are 100 buildings on the Ness altogether, forming a kind of temple precinct. Some of the buildings are 800 years older than the trilithons at Stonehenge. The entire complex was surrounded by a 10-foot high wall. The Ness has produced decorated and painted stone work unlike any other site. On the walls of the buildings, they’ve found painted symbols; they’d use paint formed by rubbing stone into dust, mostly hematite that creates a lovely red colour. The symbols were zigzag lines, and so these are going to be some of the oldest artworks ever found. It has revealed a well-preserved and sophisticated complex of monumental stone buildings enclosed by walls that are 6 metres thick. Its architecture is unique and it shows evidence for stone-tiled roofing never previously understood.

The team has also found ritually deposited artefacts, including pottery representations of humans, and the remains of a massive feast of BBQ’d beef for perhaps tens of thousands of people...to celebrate, it seemed, the pulling down of the final temple.


http://www.orkneyjar.com/archaeology/nessofbrodgar/2016/08/dig-diary-thursday-august-4-2016/
The full era of the various temples was as long as the whole of the middle ages at least - some were pulled down and new ones built. The doorways into the buildings were twisted and concealed...all of this does suggest that magic was a major part of the world-view of the Neolithic communities, as the sort of worship that might have gone on in the temples suggest a certain ritual element. This only confirms for me personally, that working with ritual magic nowadays is something that is locked into our DNA and only needs to be re-discovered.

Amazingly…frustratingly, I went to Orkney with Jim, my husband, in 2009. We missed the dig by one year. Even so, ours was a quest to learn more about the ancient pre-history of the islands. 

Our first trip, once we’d unpacked in our Orkney croft, was a drive to the very bottom of South Ronaldsay, to the Tomb of the Eagles, also featured on the BBC programme. This passage grave contained evidence that the burials in the tomb included the bones and feathers of the sea eagle, a bird that was thought extinct in Britain but is now coming back to us.

Set at the edge of the raging sea at a place called Isbister, it’s a remarkable site. The passage grave had been discovered by the farmer of that land while moving stones to use for walling. Suddenly, he was staring at a line of skulls and realised he’d discovered something unique. This was in 1950 – right away, he informed the Ministry of Works. Twenty-five years later, he rang them again, to ask when they were going to come and even look at the remains, let alone excavate the tomb. They said they wouldn’t be long…but ten years later Ronald Simison gave up hope of seeing them and asked a team of student archaeologists if they’d like the job.

Because of this anomaly, the tomb, and the bronze age site discovered later, still belong to Ronald Simison, and he is generous with his discovery. There is a small museum, where visitors are allowed to handle the artefacts. The tomb was packed with grave gifts – bowls, buttons and pins, some food, but mostly remains of sea eagles. We held an eagle’s talon – 5,000 years old and as thick as a toddler’s finger .

Half a mile up the wild coast, under its fur coat of grass, is the tomb itself. To get into the tomb, we had to lie on a modified skateboard and scoot our way in on our stomachs!  In one of the chambers,
four of the skulls are laid out behind a Perspex screen, giving us some idea of the shock Ronald must have had as he harvested stone all those years ago. 25 separate sets of bones (none complete) were found in the tomb, which was used for over 600 years.

The Ness of Brodgar, the thin spit of land where the dig is taking place, links two of the stone circles we saw when we were in Orkney. In the centre of the Stones of Stenness is a square defined by kerbstones. To the east side of the circle is a small ‘cove’ – three waist-high stones. I had no idea what these inclusions are, but then neither did the guide, pontificating to the little crowd of people he’d brought to the site. But he told them (I was lying on my back in the centre square at the time, looking up at the intense blue of the sky), that one night, unable to sleep, he’d come here in heavy mist. He’d got out of the car and become quite disorientated in the mist, not even able to see the stones until up close to them. But when he lay in the square in the centre and gazed up, the stars were clearly visible above him. 

The Neolithic Ring of Brogdar in Orkney 
CREDIT: ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
At the other end of the Ness is the Ring of Brodgar. Originally, 60 massive sandstone monoliths stood in a vast circle between two lochs, surrounded by tumuli. There are still enough standing stones to make the heart skip a beat as one walks slowly round, touching them, listening to them. The centre is filled with the purple of heather and dreamy puffs of cotton grass. Each stone is taller than two men, and have slanting tops as if pointing towards the sky, although this is the natural way the stone breaks, apparently. The sandstone is quarried very thin and has the appearance of wafer biscuits.

All of this is also not far away from Maes Howe, the burial chamber that predates the stone rings, and the stone-built Neolithic village of Skara Brae – you know – the one that has cavity walls, stone beds and even a stone Welsh Dresser! I won’t try to describe Skara Brae physically – everyone’s seen the pictures. Instead, I tried to express what I felt in a poem:

Whether I am in the hills
Hunting boar,
Or on the sea
Hunting fish
Or in the fields
With the barley or the beasts,
When the sun moves down,
I begin to think of Cadd,
Too heavy now with our second child
To stray far from the house.
I think about how the fire will be blazing
Before I reach the outer wall,
How, as we crouch to share out the shellfish catch
She will be heating the water and tearing herbs.

The day has been cloudless across the sea.
My face is burnt with sun and wind
My hands chilled as stone.
I stride through the passageway and Nitta comes running,
Grasps my knee, hugs and giggles.
She is the one that swells my heart.

When I went to find a stone for my mattock,
Nitta followed, singing to the flowers,
Gathering purple, yellow and white.
Cadd sat with her and named their gifts –
Which plants ease pain, which brings up a fever.
She spoke them after, like an echo of the cliffs,
With such clear intent 
It brought more water to my eyes
Than the passing of the Old One
Five moons ago.

The sun will go down red tonight,
As if bleeding into the hills.
After the fish is baked on the stones of the fire
And we are warm and replete,
I will take Cadd out.
We will lie on the soft heather and stare at the sky.
I will tell her the stars 
Are like the flowers of the land.
Both are scattered and purposeful and named.
And when she speaks them in her voice,
High as a bone pipe,
I will not mind if water comes again to my eyes

The Dig will go on, and every year amazing and exciting artefacts are revealed, and our understanding of early man widens. But excavation on this scale is expensive. Each season in the field costs over £100,000. You can donate here,

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Books are the Thing that Makes Us

Until I was four, we lived near a big red brick library which was in the centre of a park; St George's Park in Bristol. My father was the one that would take me into the library, rather than just to the swings and duck pond, and I can recall  the way the high bookcases loomed over my head, and the smell of the place, which I believed was the scent of bookworm. Dad would let me chose my own books from the children's section because he’d be busy picking his selection from the grown-up fiction. He loved authors like  Howard Spring, Neville Shute, George Orwell and John Steinbeck. I liked Milly Molly Mandy, the tales of Little Grey Rabbit and anything by Beatrice Potter. When we got home, he’d read the books to me. 

When I look back, the strangest, most obscure stories have left the biggest impression. One of the most loved books I actually owned was called Unicorn Island. My father read to me when I was little, but very soon I’d learned to read on my own and then I reread it a million times afterward. A coastal village of disparate animals are in fear of the offshore island, where white flashes of the dangerous unicorn can be seen circumnavigating the mountain.When the hero’s little brother falls dangerously ill, he and his friends take it upon themselves to brave the island and come back with a healing herb. They discover all manner of wonderful things there, and the unicorn turns out to be the most marvellous of all. There is a slightly sinister atmosphere to the story and a gravity you don’t often find in picture books now…a precursor (but with a far longer story) of Where the Wild things Are.

Not long after I’d started to read on my own, I realized I wanted to be a writer.

My first infant school teacher, Mrs Marsden, read a story to the class. It might have been the fable 'The Mouse and the Lion', but I can't really remember.

Mrs Marsden finished reading aloud and then asked the class to write a story themselves. It was then that I had my early epiphany. I was dumbfounded. For the first time, I realized that the books I loved had actually been written by real human beings. Before that, I thought they must have fallen from some sort of story heaven. It was a revelation. I haven't looked back.
It was Mrs Marsden that turned me onto full-length fiction. I was going to borrow yet another Milly Molly Mandy from the class bookshelf when she accosted me, grabbed a thick volume from the shelf above and said, “You’re past all these baby books. Try this that one, Nina.” She handed me Mary Poppins, which I can remember taking to bed because I could not put it down. Maybe I read it too young, though, for when I read it aloud to my children thirty years later, the only things that rang a bell was the marvellously flavoured medicine and a strange man on a ceiling.

I was often in bed with asthma, when I was small, and liked a stack of books beside my bed. There were books I’d return to time and again as a small child. The Adventures of Manly Mouse was one – Manly lived in a world where mice who went about their human-like endeavours in a little mousy town. Manly was a deliciously flawed character, often losing his job or breaking with good friends. He drove a dilapidated car and was easily duped by more suave mice. A phrase our family uses to this day came from the lips of one of Manly’s posh employers who had put Manly to work cleaning his posh car (he turned out to be a poor mouse in scam disguise)…and when I say shine, I don’t mean shine, I mean gleam. And when I say gleam, I don’t mean gleam, I mean glitter

I can’t pretend I didn’t grow up on Enid Blyton, but the works that made the most impression were the magical Narnia stories, the weird adventures of Alice and the tiny world of The Borrowers. By the time I was twelve, I’d read all of the Anne of Green Gables series. I loved the way Anne hurtled through life. Her ‘modular’ way of learning (by making every mistake in the book – literally) suits me to this day. But, as the books watched her grow into a woman, I also (creep!) loved her commitment to duty and her attitude to life, which reminds me of that quote from Man for all Seasons, when Richard Rich asks… 'If I was, (a teacher) who would know it?' And Thomas Moore replies…'You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that…’
I wrote my first novel at the age of fifteen. Well, okay I started to write a novel which I never finished. I wrote it by longhand and asked my friend to type it out. She was doing exams in typing at the time, so she was quite pleased. Every evening, I wrote in one corner of the room, while she typed at the table. Blissful silence until Maggie looked up and said, 'it is a bit old-fashioned, but it's really nice.'

'Thanks,' I simpered. I'm hoping people will enjoy it.'

'Nina,' she said, 'I was talking about my new dress. I've been talking about my new dress for the last five minutes.'
I do believe I've got better since then, both at writing and listening to criticism! I can remember bursting with pride when I received the first copies of the first book I had published; a children's novel with HarperCollins (still available from Amazon).

As a children’s writer, I am bound to be influenced by the books I read as a child.I’ve even tried to rewrite some of their ideas into my own work, although that has rarely worked, and most of those early stories were never published. They were my apprenticeship, I guess, and although almost all of them are gone from my hands, I will never forget their stories and characters.

In some ways, the books I read made me the person I am. They were probably more influential than my textbooks or my teachers…or even my parents.

I think that’s true of a lot of people. Books are the things that make us, when we are young. Finding ourselves inside those marvellous adventures gives us hope, fires our dreams and helps us cope with the things life throws at us. 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Queue Here for the Best New Novels for 2017!



I’ll let you into a little secret. I’ve just sent a complete draft of the next Shaman Mystery to my agent…and she loved it. So now I’m polishing it up with a rag, some spittle and a tin of beeswax, in the hope that, sometime in 2017, FLOOD GATE, will start to become a book.

In the meantime, I wanted to know which great writers already have a book in the new year pipeline, and can reveal that the news is exciting.

I did enjoy The Girl on the Train, even though I knew there were flaws in the plot, because I firmly believed in the main character and her descent into alcohol hell. Paula Hawkins’ new book Into the Water, is out in 2017, and I wish her all success with it. She’s  sticking to the psychological thriller genre, using, I hear, themes of truth and family secrets. Definitely one to try. 

It always puzzles me, why some first-time authors with huge success, don’t write a second book, while some churn out one every year. I loved Arundhati Roy’s Booker winner, The God of Small Things when I read it in 1997, and now, 20 years after its publication, her 2nd book, The Ministry of Utmostherppiness (Hamish Hamilton) is due out. The one thing I now know, is that she’s still good at titles! I do hope it’s worth the long wait.

Colm Toibin only came to my attention when someone recommended Testament of Mary. I was impressed with his take on a New Testament character, and also with his ability to get deeply into the female mind. In May 2017, he’s releasing House of Names, telling the story of how Agamemnon orders the sacrifice of his daughter, to gain good omens for the Trojan war. When he sails home victorious at last, he’s faced with a family filled with hate and the need for vengance. The last book I read about the Illiad was THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller, which won the 2012 Orange Prize. I loved that book, and I hope that this one proves as exciting. 

One of my favourite writers, Neil Gaiman, has also chosen to weave mythology and legend into modern storytelling in his latest offering, Norse Mythology, due out in February. Gaiman’s ability with words, and his subtle understanding of how to use symbol and allegory, will surely promise this to be a great read.

Right this moment I’m reading Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, a book of essays about reading and writing, but he’s most  famous for Wonder Boys, one of my favourite books and also a great movie staring Michael Douglas as a washed-up author who discovers the next wunderkind
in his creative writing class. I’ve always had a theory about Wonder Boys; surely it started life as one of those writing exercises where you take various crazy items and have to work them into a story – in this case – Marilyn Monroe’s jacket, a dead dog, a tuba-paying transvestite and a squashed boa constrictor. Will Moonglow, (Fourth Estate) be as inventive and funny as Wonder Boys? I sincerely hope so.

Later in the year, lovers of William Boyd will have a treat with The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth. Last summer, I read his story of an early female photographer, Sweet Caress, and I’m ready for more.

I’m ‘into’ The Hogarth Shakespeare Project at the moment, which is asking bestselling novelists to retell Shakespeare's works. "Hogarth" was launched in October last year, with Jeanette Winterson's take on The Winter’s Tale. I’ve just finished Margaret
Atwood’s Hag-Seed and loved it – laughed all the way through, while marvelling at her brilliantly woven analysis of The Tempest. Read a full review of the book hereSince reading it, I’ve watched Helen Mirren as Prospera in the DVD of Julie Taymor’s version of The Tempest, and have booked up to see the Royal Shakespeare version which is on now in Stratford on Avon.  


I can hardly wait for the 
next book in the project’s series, written by Tracy Chevalier, famous for Girl with a Pearl Earring. She has rewritten Othello. In New Boy, the story of Othello is set in a Washington school, with 11-year-old friends Osei, Dee, Ian and Mimi being the key players in the tragedy.

And finally, I’m looking forward to Tessa Hadley's next book of short stories. She was my tutor on my creative writing master’s degree, and I’ve admired her work every since. Brilliantly observant of the human condition, and a lyrical writer, she’s particularly great at the tricky form of short fiction. In Bad Dreams, the stories focus in on crucial moments of transition, and the blurb is enticing me to put my pre-order inreal things that happen to people, the accidents that befall them, are every bit as mysterious as their longings and their dreams.



In the meantime, while we’re still waiting for these books to arrive from Amazon, or at our chosen bookshops, I’ll wish you a very happy, prosperous and healthy 2017, and get back to putting the finishing touches to my latest novel, in which I delve into some shocking secrets that Sabbie Dare discovers in her past…