Inside a writer’s mind

A few years back, a blog called ‘Universal Historicals’ interviewed me and asked some of the most interesting questions I’ve ever been asked. Some excerpts:

What’s the one thing that keeps you going back and writing?

Well, there are stories to be told. If I have been procrastinating too long, they shake me by the shoulders and tell me to get on with things. My stories are in a way my muses – I keep going back to them and talking to them and cajoling them and yelling at them and threatening dire action if they don’t do exactly as I say. They rarely do.

The stories are my friends, and a collective nemesis, and they demand that I tell them. What can I do but obey? They need my mind and my hand to release themselves out into the world. So I lend them. Willingly. Often. Again and again.

 

Why did you base your novel “The Secrets of Jin-shei” on a fictional China instead of making it a pure fantasy setting, as you did in, say, “Changer of Days”?China photo

The first inkling I had of the story which became “The Secrets of Jin-shei” was a page of ten character sketches, each a short paragraph long – the characters were nameless and faceless at that point.

I knew that they were going to be Oriental but not that they were to be specifically Chinese-inspired. Then I received a newspaper clipping about a dying language, a written women’s language taught from mother to daughter in China – and of how the last woman who had learned it organically in this way was dying and would take the living language with her. My ten character sketches sat up and became people, and after that China was inevitable.

With the fantasy duology, “Hidden Queen”/”Changer of Days”, it was more of a pure joyous storytelling, something that came from absolutely nowhere but my own imagination. It was tied to nothing and nobody in the “real”, our world.

Every book is different. Look at just these two examples – one purely imaginary, the other researched and rooted in an actual historical and geographical setting but still fantasy, a China-that-never-was. Another of my novels “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, is set in a cafe called Spanish Gardens, a place which existed once, exactly as I described it.

A story chooses its context – at least, my stories do. Stories are like semi-sentient jewels, seeking for the setting that best shows them off. And they know best.

What are some of your favorite resources for research? Do you purchase the books you need, or find them at the library?

I buy them, I borrow them, I cadge them from friends if they have what I need, I use whatever means necessary.

And let me put in a plug here for used bookstores. The used books stores in the town in which I live are fantastic. They are stuffed with treasures, some which you never knew you needed until you tripped over them in a bottom shelf somewhere. I’ve found gems of obscure biographies in these stores, books long out of print, which contained precisely the context I needed for a scene or a chapter or a character. I’ve found coffee table books full of pictures, some of which gave birth to spectacular settings in my novels.

Old outdated encyclopedias can be invaluable resources (as in, “Good GRIEF – they actually believed THAT?”)

Memoirs, letters, even old creaky out of print novels by writers you’ve never heard of which happen to be set in the world which you are researching. As always, caveat emptor – you have to do ENOUGH research to know what’s true and what’s pure malarkey – you have to know the real rules before you are allowed to break them. But anything can be grist to the mill.

Research can be intoxicating and dizzying and it may be difficult to know just when to STOP. But while you’re doing it, it’s amazing, it’s like riding a wild horse without tack, and you never quite know where you’re going to end up. And sometimes that final destination is quite, quite different from the one you thought you were aiming at. Good research will do that – redirect you to Wonderful, instead of just This Will Do.

What scene do you like the most? Is there anything a character did that surprised you? 

I’m going to answer this one as pertains to “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”.

There are a dozen scenes in this book which I love. The scenes that bookend the book – my narrator Olivia’s thoughts on the café as she first approaches it, after so many years have passed since her last visit, and her thoughts about the place in the aftermath of the whole story that takes place between the covers of this book. The scene where another character finds out about… but that would be a spoiler… but it is one of the most powerful scenes in the book. The scene where another character meets her partner’s family at their wedding. Almost every scene with Ariel, the bartender around whom strange things happen.

The thing about scenes, for me, is that they have never been something that stands out as and of themselves. I know some writers literally use them as building blocks for a novel, working scene by scene, building up a story that way – whereas I tend to tell the story and then be surprised when it breaks up into discrete scenes afterwards. I am a most organic writer, and to me the value is in the whole, not the scenes. That said… YOU, the reader, might find individual scenes, which matter more than others. If anyone out there wants to let me know which, I would be fascinated to hear it.

And as for my characters doing things to surprise me… EVERYTHING my characters do surprises me. My best characters are very much in charge of their own stories. I have learned the hard way that my characters are not TAME characters – they are not hawks trained to jesses and hood. I set them free, and then I follow where they lead me. Everyone is happier that way.

My characters, my lovely ever surprising characters, are real people who live and breathe, they are someone you just haven’t met yet, but they exist. And if they walked out of the book, off the page, and stuck out their hand for you to shake it, you’d recognise them even if you have never formally met. Yes, they surprise me. I’ve been known to weep at some of the things my characters have chosen to do. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There was a lot more to this Q&A and if you would like to read the rest, you can find it HERE

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
– Orson Scott Card

More from Wired HERE

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The art of rewriting

The art of rewriting photoPhoto by Matthew Payne at Unsplash

First drafts are supposed to be awful.

That’s what they are for. You simply give yourself the permission necessary to write badly if you have to, for the purpose of getting the bones of the story down on the page. There will be time for fix-ups later.

So you do this thing, and the story comes out, and there it is, staring at you. And yea, verily, in your mind’s eye it was ever beautiful – and it’s still marginally lovely – but now that it is outside of you it begins to be glimpsed in its true shape.

And there…are..imperfections.

Let’s see. This can be tweaked. That can be fixed. This other thing needs to go, really. Something else needs to be written, and added in, to add clarity.

You know the drill.

For most of us, the architecture of the town of First Draft is familiar, and I have no real doubt that we’d probably recognize one another’s FirstDraftTowns fairly easily. But a strange thing happens when each individual writer leaves the city limits, en route for the wilds of SecondDraftia. It’s a dimensional portal that sends everybody to a different place, unique to themselves, full or peculiar traps and difficulties that are never quite found in the same shape or form in any other writer’s world.

i.e. All first drafts are rotten in a similar way. Every second draft has its own unique problems.

Different writers react to the art and the craft (and it is both) of rewriting in their own peculiar ways. Some tell me that they enjoy the act of rewriting and editing far more than they enjoy the actual storytelling – because for them the telling of the story is the hard part, and now that they have that, in however awful a shape, for them the real fun begins, and that is actually chiseling this raw and barely recognizable slab of marble into a real Michelangelo’s David, chipping away one tiny flake of marble at a time until it is all perfect and polished.

Others, – and oh dear GOD I fall into this category – want to tear their hair out at the roots at this point. Because the story, you see, has been told, and yes we who feel this way can see that it isn’t without flaw, nothing ever is, but in some senses it is perfect, it has a shape and a form and a balance inside our heads, and changing anything tends to have consequences everywhere, and you are faced with continuity issues from hell itself, and AAAARGH.

It’s the difference in tone – having a character say something as simple as “I’m sorry” in a different tone of voice, an inflection that might change it from an empty phrase of cold indifference (I’m sorry but I couldn’t care less really) to a genuine and sincere sympathy. It changes that character. And it changes the way other people respond to that character. And that changes other conversations. And that changes what people might have known, and when they might have known it. And that changes the flow of the story. And that…

Well, you get the idea.

Before too long, you pull out one thread and you realize that it’s all falling apart around you and you’re scrambling to hold together in a coherent whole something that looked perfectly solid just a moment before. It’s like the cement holding the story together suddenly turns to jello on you and the edifice starts tottering precariously and oops, there goes a piece you really didn’t want to lose but argh it doesn’t fit any more, and dammit, there’s all those words on the cutting room floor and wasn’t there something important there that you absolutely need to salvage – or rephrase – or do something constructive with…

Pardon the mess.

And you know what the worst of it is? It’s that if you’re good enough you’ll end up with a seamless piece of prose that doesn’t look like it’s been tinkered with, that looks like it’s always been perfect, that it was born this way. A reader who never saw the original will never know.

And they shouldn’t, that’s part of the point, but while you’re in the throes of working as hard as you know how, trying your damndest to change your beloved tale from passable to good or maybe even from good to great, you know that this part of your job is always going to be done alone and in the dark and without reward. It’s just a hard slog. Yes, knowing that there is something worthwhile at the end of it all helps but in the meantime you’re working on your own in the dark with a flashlight held between your teeth and with the right tools always just out of reach in the shadows.

I’ve just started writing a new novel now, a story that excites me and could be even be something transcendent, an eagle, soaring high and powerful up there in the open skies.

It’s not even a first draft yet, but all too soon it will be. And then the dreaded rewriting starts all over again.

However much of a mess that first draft is going to be, the basic good story will be there. In the rewriting I will have to make it better, and it can always be better, I know that.

But still – it is one of those things that I will be glad to have done even though I will be far from happy doing it. With luck, those of you who might read it one day will never know what I changed, how I tweaked, what I had to lose and what it was necessary to graft on.

And please, for the the sake of everybody involved… if you should happen to see a little dust, or a stray broken bit of a past imperfection littering the floor at the feet of the completed story statue, be merciful, and forgive. And kick it discreetly someplace out of sight.

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Easy. Just touch the match to
– Ursula K. Le Guin

More from Wired HERE

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It’s a matter of consent

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

The difference

I just spent an evening – together with several other women – trying desperately to explain to a man why #metoo matters and why he was wrong to obstinately insist, “yeah yeah yeah but MEN, let’s talk about the men” in between snippets of “and I’m an ally, look at what I said HERE and HERE and HERE.’

One thing he simply couldn’t get. There are many kinds of men. Some are with us and some are against us – but we don’t know which are which. It is often really hard to tell because it isn’t what they say that matters; in the end, it’s what they do.

Let me tell you two stories, about two different men.

Story #1

The flight I was supposed to be on was leaving from Belgrade and we had all been herded into this single small room and left there to stew while the flight was delayed and delayed and delayed again.

There was an agent podium in the room but no agent at it. When one finally arrived, I took it upon myself – because I spoke Serb and most of the others didn’t – to go up there and demand, unsuccessfully as it turned out, an update and explanation.

When the fllght finally boarded after a several hours (still unexplained) delay, I found my seat. A small dark man sat down next to me and informed me that he had paid the hostess to change his seat so that could sit beside me because he had watched me deal with the agent at the gate and “loved feisty women.”

As we taxied out, he showed me pictures of a lovely house he owned in Cyprus.

He then asked me to marry him.

As a Muslim he was allowed four wives, he explained. He assured me that his senior wife wouldn’t mind and told me that I could have the Cyprus house for my own (and he’d just come and visit me there, I suppose…) I told him I had no plans to get married. He took the book I was reading and wrote his name and phone number on the front cover — in case I ever changed my mind.

It was a short hop, but it was the longest flight of my life. I waited for him to leave, pretending to be busy with my possessions. I left the book – which I had not finished, but which I really didn’t want to own any more – in the seat pocket when I finally left the plane. I sneaked out of the airport looking over my shoulder, hoping that he hadn’t hung around to accost me, hoping he wouldn’t see me catch a cab, follow me elsewhere.

Story #2, about quite a different kind of man.

I was in Heathrow airport, and once again the flight I was supposed to be catching to Cape Town was delayed and delayed and delayed.

There came a time when I had read everything I had to read, even the small print on the back of my ticket (for once in my life I knew all the terms and conditions of my carriage on this plane.) I finally gave up the struggle and dragged my baggage to the concession store. I found a new novel by a writer I quite liked – but all I had left of the local currency was a pocketful of loose change. And what I had wouldn’t stretch to the price of the book. I turned my coins over and over in my hands but they obstinately refused to come out to the right amount.

Finally this amused male voice behind me said, “Okay, how much do you need?

Twenty bloody P,” I snarled, and a hand came snaking over my shoulder with the required coinage.

Please take it,” the voice said, “I can’t bear to watch.

I took it, and bought the book. I ended up not reading it, because I struck up a conversation with this guy. We sat chatting for another two hours before the flight got off the ground, and because we’d got on so well we made plans to try and swap out seats with people next to us when on the plane so that we could sit together and continue talking.

When I claimed my assigned seat, I realized I couldn’t do anything about this because I was in a family knot – two parents and three children, and me in the last seat that made up those two rows. But then I saw him waving at me across the plane, and I picked up my stuff and made my way over there.

He informed me triumphantly that he had just arranged for us to do what we had planned… and then his face fell when he realized that he had made this arrangement not with the passenger sitting next to him but with one sitting in the equivalent seat in the row BEHIND him.

The woman who was sitting in the seat that we needed was sufficiently entertained by the fiasco to volunteer without being asked to swap rows, and so there we were, my new friend and I, finally ensconced next to each other, laughing and in a breathlessly good mood not often found on long flights.

Turned out he was “in diamonds”, and he inspected the ones I wore on my hands and told me fascinating stuff about their caratage and quality and how diamonds were rated and made and valued. We talked for hours about that and all sorts of other things. And then I began to yawn and squirm in my seat trying to get comfortable – an impossibility because I have never been able to become comfortable in economy class seats on long flights. He watched for a moment and then lifted an arm, patting his shoulder with his other hand. It was a wordless invitation – not an entitlement, not an expectation, just this: if you need a shoulder to lean on as a pillow, here I am.

So I did. And he held me, in security and comfort and trust – because he ASKED, and I CHOSE TO ACCEPT, this was the ultimate code of consent.

It might have been the best night’s sleep I ever had on a long uncomfortable flight. If he felt stiff or cramped he never said a word, and when I woke and sat up he released me, and we had breakfast, and then the plane landed, eventually, in Johannesburg, which was a transit stop, and the place where he got off. He gathered his stuff together, we smiled and said goodbye. He walked down the airplane aisle, his briefcase in one hand, his coat folded over his other arm.

Then he stopped, turned, and came back. He leaned down and kissed me, gently, lightly, just a brush of lips. He smiled again, a smile of farewell. And was gone.

I have tried very hard to forget that first guy. I have never had any trouble remembering the second one.

It was all wrapped in consent, that second encounter; it was a man who was being a friend, an ally, someone I could trust who never once did a single thing to abuse that trust. He held a stranger for hours while she slept, and protected her, and kept her safe and completely secure. I think that when he turned, as he left, if he had seen anything on my face that gave him the impression that I was done with him, he would have walked on. But I was still watching him, and I was smiling. He understood that at face value He knew he was entitled to claim no more than that light kiss, but he claimed it. And I freely gave it. He DESERVED it.

For anyone who wants to understand… there it is. The difference between a #metoo story and a cherished memory. If you are a man and you ever want to know what you can do, how you can help… take what lessons you can from these two stories.

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ? – Neil Gaiman

More from Wired HERE

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‘Young Adult’, what’s that?

When I was a little girl, my home town library h?d only two sections – children’s, which I blew through in a spectacular fashion, and adult.

We had no such thing as a “young adult” section or concept.

OK to read Young Adult signYou read the kiddies books until you realized that you were past them and then you went on to read the adult books, those that caught your interest and held your attention. I was reading Howard Spring and Pearl Buck novels (in English translation) before I was ten. And poetry.

When I went moved to Africa and learned English, I read the unabridged John Galsworthy “Forsyte Saga” novels by the time I was thirteen.

The story was the thing that mattered. I read for the story, not for the story that was considered to be ‘appropriate’ for me by some stranger in the publishing industry who had never met me.

Teenagers are a modern phenomenon. In the olden days, a teenager was an adult. Period.

In the middle ages, girls were married at 12 or 13 and became mothers by 14 or 15. Many of them died in childbirth as their young and not fully formed bodies failed to measure up to the stress of giving birth to a real life-size infant. Boys did a man’s work by the time they were fifteen. There was no mollycoddling and no extended coming-of-age as we know it today. The culture of the adolescent, so absolutely prevalent and accepted today, did not exist.

What was perhaps the tipping point into the concept of YA literature came as late as the 1950s and 1960s, specifically after the groundbreaking “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton. It had none of the patina of nostalgia that often characterized books about young characters before this time, books written by adults who were reflecting back on a long-past youth. No, this was a novel about the here-and-now – written BY an author who was technically a Young Adult herself, about people LIKE herself, and the immediacy and verisimilitude – not to mention a distinct darkening of theme and ideas – was obvious.

Publishers began to see this segment of readership as a distinct – and new and lucrative – market. YA sections began to appear in bookstores and libraries, for books distinct from books considered to be “children’s books” and distinct from stuff that was considered appropriate for an adult audience.

The range of these books spread across genre – but the contemporary YA novels began to tackle topics that were faced by actual YA readers in their own lives. Topics such as rape, suicide, parental death, murder, drinking, sexuality (both straight and gay), drugs, identity, beauty, and teen pregnancy.

Young Adult fiction, particularly the kind that librarians and booksellers liked to describe as “edgy”, portrayed young-adult protagonists, teens, who were depicted as having to confront social and cultural issues which the readers of such books frequently faced in their own real lives.

The distinctions between works of literature deemed to be ‘children’s lit’, ‘YA’, or ‘adult literature’ have been notoriously fluid and flexible. The fracture lines have deepened, more recently by the introduction of ‘middle grade’ – novels which fall between blatant kiddie books and the threshold of what is considered YA, often assumed to fall somewhere between the ages of 9 – 12.

Worldweavers coversThe Young Adult Library Services (YALSA) branch of the American Library Association, the ALA, defines a young adult in the readership sense as a person between the ages of twelve and eighteen. But once again the borders are arbitrary and flexible, because authors and readers routinely estimate readership ages to start as low as 10, and as high as 25.

I recently wrote the conclusion of what was originally marketed as a fantasy YA trilogy, my Worldweavers books. In the three original books – “Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam” and “Cybermage” – my young wizard, who is in her mid-teens, has to meet the challenges of growing up, growing into her gifts.

In the last installment, “Dawn of Magic”, she is 16, and to all intents and purposes, an adult.

Who is my audience…?

I am writing for people like the girl who I myself once was, readers who read for STORY rather than on the basis of which section of the library or bookstore the book was shelved in.

I was allowed to find my own reading level while growing up and read whatever I was comfortable with. My audience is those readers, One of my most cherished compliments came from a book buyer of the acclaimed New York children’s bookstore, Books of Wonder, who told me that I wrote for “readers who already know how to think”.

My books are deep and nuanced – and, for all that they are fantasy, more real. So I am writing for kids like the kid that I was, the kids who are bored with the stuff that accepted wisdom maintains that they are supposed to be reading, who are crying out for stories that are not written “down” to them, stories that are honest, stories that will be just as readable when they are in their thirties without them having to cringe and hide them in brown paper wrappers. It is my highest standard of achievement to write that kind of story, and I have a cadre of readers who are telling me that I have got there with my “younger” stuff.

I am writing for everyone who loves to read – for precocious ten-year-olds like the one I used to be, for fourteen-year-olds who might recognize aspects of themselves, for thirty- and forty-somethings who may smile as they remember something from back when they too were counted in the ranks of those whose chronological age ended in that ‘teen’, to even older readers who may be starting to see signs of a grandchild generation that is starting to blossom into reading and for whom my stories may, in turn, become something that can be treasured.

I am writing for readers. Not for genres.

A story is a story is a story and belongs to whoever chooses to claim it, and live happily ever after…

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Lie detector eyeglasses perfected: Civilization collapses.
– Richard Powers

More from Wired HERE

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The Belgian Refugees of WW1

One of the contributors to my anthology, Children of A Different Sky, tells how she came to write her moving short story.

They came by the thousands

By Jacey Bedford

When Alma asked if I’d be interested in writing a story for her upcoming refugees anthology, Children of A Different Sky, I jumped at the chance. There are so many refugee crises in the world right now that a writer is almost spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing a setting for a story, and all of them are worth writing about, but I wanted to step back from 2017. I chose a little-remembered refugee crisis, something that happened way back in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War.

Thomas Bennett in uniformWe’re in the middle of a strange time period, wondering whether to commemorate or celebrate the centenary of the First World War. Instead of celebrating something so tragic we do well to remember it, and try not to repeat it, while paying our respects to those who fought and died as well as to those who were displaced. My own grandfather, Tommy Bennett, fought in that conflict. He was a British infantry soldier who took part in one of those famous football matches on Christmas Eve in 1914. He survived Ypres and the Somme, and was invalided out at Passchendaele in 1917 with half his calf shot away. I mention this only because I learned about the First World War directly from someone who’d been in it.

Dorothy Una Ratcliffe photoI only knew about the Belgian refugees, however, because a few years ago I did some biographical research on a minor Yorkshire poet called Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. Dorothy was a member of Yorkshire society.

She married into the Ratcliffe/Brotherton family. Her husband, Charles Ratcliffe, was the nephew of, and heir to, Edward Allan Brotherton, self-made chemical magnate and—in 1913-14—Lord Mayor of Leeds. (Later MP for Wakefield and made a peer of the realm as Lord Brotherton of Wakefield.)

Being a widower and having no closer female relative, Brotherton asked Dorothy to be his Lady Mayoress and so, at the outbreak of World War One, Dorothy, age twenty-six, was firmly in the hot seat.

On 1st August 1914 the German Army invaded Belgium, seeking an easy passage to France. The Belgians didn’t oblige them. They fought back, but they didn’t withstand the might of Germany. The Germans shelled and sacked cities, and slaughtered civilians. For those who could reach the coast, Britain offered safety. The Belgians came in their thousands. In all as many as 250,000 escaped to Britain. On October 14 1914 alone, sixteen thousand Belgians arrived at Folkestone, Kent.

And we took them in without question.

Let me say that again…

We took them in.

It was the largest influx of refugees that Britain has ever seen. The War Refugees Committee appealed for accommodation and over 100,000 offers flooded in. Some to the South West, others to South Wales. Refugees were sent north by train, and that’s where Dorothy Una Ratcliffe comes back into the story.

Because she was a fluent French speaker (having been to finishing school in Paris before the war), Dorothy headed a committee of ladies welcoming the Belgian refugees arriving in Leeds by train.

And that’s the opening scene for my story. Dorothy even appears in it herself, but I’ve told everything through the eyes of her secretary. Did she have a secretary? Almost certainly she did. (I met one of her secretaries many years later.)

My story starts wide and focuses down to what’s left of one small, shattered Flemish family. A barely grown young man and his deeply disturbed sister are helped by a young Yorkshire woman. It’s a story that must have been repeated time and time again as the Belgians came and settled.

Yet they were not to stay. After the war they vanished almost without trace.
In early 1919, after the close of hostilities, the British government in its infinite wisdom decided that enough was enough. British soldiers were being demobbed and needed homes and jobs. The Belgians were offered free passage home, with a strict time limit. Basically the government said: Go home now or pay your own fare. The Belgians were quick to take a hint. Within a few months of the end of the First World War ninety percent of Belgians had gone back home to rebuild, and within a very short space of time their presence here faded from memory.

Writing this story for Children of a Different Sky led me to do more research on the Belgians, and from there to the First World War, in particular the Leeds Pals, a volunteer regiment raised in Leeds and equipped by Edward Allen Brotherton with the aid of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, the only female on the committee. That led to another short story, Make Me Immortal with a Kiss, soon to appear in Second Round – Tales from the Ur-Bar, edited by Joshua Palmatier, and I feel a third First World War story coming on because three is a nice round number. Alma Alexander, you’ve really started something.

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Jacey Bedford photoJacey Bedford is a British writer whose short stories have been published in an odd assortment of languages including Estonian, Galician and Polish. Her latest book is NIMBUS, the third in a trilogy in which a bunch of renegade Psi-Techs (humans implanted with telepath technology) come up against the might of the Megacorporations.

You can keep up with Jacey in several different ways:
· Facebook
· Twitter: @jaceybedford
· Pinterest
· Or via her writing website which includes a link to her mailing list.

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

It cost too much, staying human.” ~ Bruce Sterling

More from Wired HERE

~~~~~
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Lying for a living

What is fiction for?

Why on earth do we read fiction?

One of my husband’s favorite “writer” stories concerns an author with a very Southern mother whom he called to tell her that his novel was being published. After a pause, the mother asked, a little desperately, “But do they KNOW it’s a LIE?” When he said yes, his mother sighed, “I will NEVER understand that.”

That’s what writers labor under – coming up with stories that you and I and those who pay us money to publish us and to read us KNOW are absolute filthy lies, made up to a word, sometimes literally impossible or unimaginable given the known rules of physics and biology in the world as we know it.

werewolf in front of full moon illustrationScience Fiction and Fantasy are particularly guilty of this, because we lie egregiously about the possibility of faster-than-light interstellar travel, or the existence of vampires, werewolves, angels or fairies at the bottom of your garden.

And you, the reader, know that we are making it up as we go along. And you are willing to follow us on that journey. Few readers who read a fairy tale about brownies in the home will then go on to start leaving milk and cookies on the hearth from then on or wander off to the bottom of that garden with a flashlight and a magnifying glass to look for those fairies. Instead, you close the book with a happy sigh, and you go on with your own mundane everyday existence, secure in the knowledge, however wistfully,  that no brownie will wash the dinner dishes.

And then you come back, and you pick up another book. Of fiction. Of lies.

Yes, we all read non-fiction too – news, a travel guide, a history book, instruction manuals, textbooks for school, and political manifestos. But when it comes to many of these things, we are already armored with a set of opinions and attitudes, and reading items which challenge those opinions and attitudes are generally greeted with skepticism if not outright hostility – because how DARE those other people try to shove their silly, ludicrous, ridiculous, astonishing, and dammit downright dangerous ideas down our throats?!

But here’s the thing. People WILL read about those “other” ideas in fiction – sugarcoated as they are in the “lie”. Kids who are being bullied or otherwise mistreated because they are different in whatever way from their tormentors – because they are gay, or black, or Jewish, or [insert quality of choice here] – might take heart from a novel which tells of a teen who is being bullied because he is a blue-skinned singleton on a planet full of orange-skinned people and looks DIFFERENT – and somehow overcomes this in the story.

Yes, we all know it’s all a lie.  But fiction is an incredibly important medium for getting the truth out there – even when you pretend that it only happens to other people, or to people who cannot exist or will never be real. A generation of readers breathlessly followed the growing up and the growing wise of a young wizard named Harry Potter without EVER doing a single magic spell themselves. A girl called Scout learned about discrimination and courage in a NOVEL and a different generation of readers learned about those things with her. The list goes on.

The best books, the ones that we instinctively keep, the ones we go back to again and again – they succeed as entertainment, yes, and they can be riveting – but they leave you knowing more and feeling more deeply than you had been capable of before you read that book. They leave you empowered. They might have lied to you about the context and the circumstances – but the truth that lies within those false parameters is nonetheless the real truth and some part of you knows this, recognizes it, values it. People say about certain books, “This book changed my life”. Sometimes, they even mean it.

And that’s the power of fiction.

THAT is what it’s all for.

~~~~~

A few years ago I was interviewed by V.M. Simandan. She had several discerning questions, including this one:

VMS: The Secrets of Jin-shei, your saga set in medieval China, is a powerful story of a group women from different social classes. How much research did you do before you started writing this novel?

Alma at 'The Secrets of Jin-shei' signing

Alma at ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei’ signing

AA: Short answer: HEAPS. I have a double shelf of books relating to the history, philosophy, geography, anthropology, culture and literature of China.

But I was consciously NOT writing a book that was directly about Imperial China, but it owed everything to that country and that general era in the way that I build up my own country, my own world.

The idea of research, as I see it, is to inform the imagination, rather than strangle it – which is why I like writing things with an fantastical edge, it gives me a little bit of wiggle room to tell a good story and not be constrained by “THIS happened THEN” with no way to work around it. In Jin-shei, for instance, one of the things that astonished and delighted me was the alchemy aspect of it – because what I knew about alchemy as a subject owed a lot to the Western ideas on the subject, but when I went to do a bit of research on it I discovered that there was an entire body of knowledge alchemical which was very much rooted in the Eastern and Oriental tradition, and this was wonderfully helpful with building my own version of it in my own world. I believe in research, in trying to be true to an idea, a time, a place. But it should not be a fetter. It should be an unfolding of wings, allowing you to fly over everything and see all things anew from a high vantage point up in the sky. You would be surprised how much good research can actually shape and drive a story.

Read the whole interview HERE

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Travel to places where stories come alive

Walking the Word Worlds

There are real places on this earth which resonate with the stories written about them.

A few years ago, my husband and I went on an Alaska Inside Passage cruise, the last of that season. They were shutting doors behind us all the way as the ship left, battening down the hatches for the winter (this is Alaska. Winter is a serious thing here.)

Our trip included visits to several different destinations – Juneau, Ketchikan, Glacier Bay, and more. Most of them were just names to me, new places which I had not been to before that were beautiful, fascinating, incredibly photogenic – oh, I fell in love with Alaska.

Gold rush SkagwayPhoto of Skagway todayBut one place we made a stop at was not a new place for me, even though I had never been there before either. Not physically. But oh, I HAD been there before. I had walked those streets in the shadow of the hard men who came for the gold. I had walked here before, beside a magnificent dog named Buck, watching him through the eyes of a writer by the name of Jack London.

The novel “Call of the Wild” may or may not have had scenes set in the exact Skagway streets I now walked – but the Gold Rush began in these streets, this is where the men thronged, this is where they drank and whored, this is the place from which they gathered their belongings together in a ratty backpack and went off into the wilderness of the Klondike, some never to return.

Call of the Wild's Buck illustrationOne scene from that book haunted me as I stepped on the shore from a five-star cruise ship, into a highly touristified town, in September and not the dead of winter. Nothing at all was the same as that frozen moment, outside a bar where a half-drunk man made an impossible bet on how his dog could move an unspeakable load on a sled frozen in place on the cold cruel winter street. How the bet was accepted.

How the man sobered up fast when he saw the sled, and the fact that it could not be moved by any effort of man or beast without bursting their heart. How there was no way back, no way out. How the man knelt on the ice, beside the dog in the sled harness, his heart breaking because he knew that he might have killed this animal by his rash act, how he put his arms around the dog’s neck and wept and whispered against the cold fur, “As you love me, Buck. As you love me.”

And then the dog pulled. And nothing happened. And the dog pulled again. And nothing happened. And the dog pulled again… and love moved the frozen load that could not be moved by man or beast alone, and pulled it the required distance, and stopped.

And the man who knelt sobbing by the big hearted dog who had done this miracle, being shaken by the shoulders by rich men offering him a king’s ransom for the dog – the man, looking up fiercely, hugging the dog close, his heart beating against the dog’s, and saying, “This dog is not for sale, sir..”

It was not the Gold Rush. It was not winter. There were no betting men, no flawed protagonists making the wrong choices, no whiskey flowing like water, no snow, no frozen sled. But I walked down the streets of Skagway, and in my ear, a whisper, like a ghost: “As you love me, Buck. As you love me.

The book – the words on a page – changed this place for me, changed my entire experience of it. That is the power of story.

Little mermaid statue photoMany years before that, I had ended up with a day and a half to spare in Copenhagen. It is a glorious city, with its architecture and its cobbled streets and its air of casual elegance and its bikes and its brittle sunshine. But I made my way – as all do, who come here, probably – to a place where a particular little statue lives, smaller than you thought it would be, almost incongruous, perched on a boulder above slate gray waters. A statue to a creature that could not exist, did not exist, was only ever a part of a great storyteller’s imagination – the Little Mermaid.

When I was young and reading fairy tales, it was Hans Christian Andersen who held my soul. It was his stories of love and loss, of empathy, of  cruelty, of foolishness and of wisdom, which enthralled me – and remember, this was back in the days when children were considered to be wise enough to deal with the real fairy tales, the original ones, the harsh ones, before Disney poured syrup into them and make them “safe for the children.”

The story of the Little Mermaid which I inhaled as a girl was the original luminous tale – the mermaid who sold her beautiful voice for her legs, whose every step was pain, whose only salvation was to gain the love of her prince… or else, or else, or else, on the day he married another she would die and become sea foam.

He married another. The mermaid’s sisters came for her, on the ship where her prince and his bride slept in their cabin, and told the mermaid that they had sold their hair to the witch who had taken the mermaid’s voice and in return she had given them a dagger. “Pierce his heart with the dagger,” the sisters begged, “and let his blood fall on your feet – and they will become a tail again, and you can come home to us…”

And she takes the dagger, and goes into the cabin where the lovers sleep and hesitates over their bodies… and then bends over, gives the prince she loves a kiss of farewell on the brow, throws the dearly-bought knife and its salvation into the ocean, and waits to die.

If you haven’t read the real story, the original fairy tale, she doesn’t. She becomes something else entirely. Go read the original version.

But there she sits, immortalized in bronze, the luminous creature from one of the fairy tales  that shaped my life.

No, she isn’t real – not even as possibly real as a dog named Buck might have been.

But as you love me, little mermaid. As you love me. You were and you always will be real in my heart. And being here, on this shore, right beside the statue they raised to your memory, I mourn you as I would mourn anyone whom I loved.

The story made you live. And the streets of this city remember your name, given by the hand of a man who wrote your story, who made you immortal.

There are many places on this earth where you can walk in the footsteps of a character you loved, or hated, or simply once knew; where you can step into a world which once lived between the pages of a book you held between your two hands.

Find them. Walk the word worlds. Live the stories that still breathe softly inside of you.

~~~~~

Lonely Planet has explored 10 places that bring children’s literature to life, from a walk through King Arthur country, to digging on Treasure Island. Take a look HERE

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