Trying Something New

Fountain PenSo, this week I did what it says in the title – I tried something new.  I have never been part of a general creative writing group.  I enjoy writing for children and when, in the course of my MA, I had that work critiqued by writers of stories for grown-ups, I was uncomfortable.  I felt they didn’t have a grasp of the differences required in writing for a younger audience.  However, there is a long-established writing group that meets at my local library, so I thought I would pay their next meeting a visit.  I’m so glad I did.

They are a small group with a fluid membership – at this meeting there were four established members, two visitors from another library who were thinking about setting up a similar group in their area, and a group leader.  The regular members and group leader all shared their writing on ‘The Secret of Happiness’.  Who would have thought such a simple idea would produce such a diverse group of work – or that one piece would bring me to the edge of tears?

The rest of the session was spent writing and sharing short pieces from prompts provided by the group leader.  I have added my efforts (unedited) to my ‘Writing’ pages.  I was surprised to find I didn’t head to my default children’s writing, but ended up with something for an older audience – and I enjoyed it.

The theme for next month is ‘The Sound of Silence’.  I’m having to work hard to steer myself away from Simon & Garfunkel, but who knows where the prompt will take me.  I look forward to sharing whatever comes out of my pen with the rest of the group in February.

Welcome to 2018 – Zero Draft

Holly leaves and berriesThis is where I should be wishing you all a very happy new year and listing all of my good intentions for 2018. Sorry – not happening.  Not today.  You see, despite reading lots of lovely inspirational posts on my social media and really believing this was going to be the start of a great year, it hasn’t started out like that.

I was determined that this year I would make more of an effort: be kinder; be positive; be supportive; be less judgmental; get fitter; write more often… you know the kind of thing.  And I really meant it when I thought it.  I still do. But, after a long night of trying to settle dogs made hysterical by fireworks, then being woken at irregular intervals by drunken revellers slur-singing their way home, I was a bit grouchy when I got up this morning.  My mood wasn’t improved by almost falling on my face when I stood up and found my knee was swollen and very painful.  Even then, I was determined to try harder and do my best.

Two small dogsIf the dogs and I had taken a different route on our walk, I may still have clung on to all my good intentions but, when we reached our destination, the footpath was blocked – by Park Runners.  Now, I know that keeping fit and socialising are great things.  Making active and regular use of public spaces helps stop them being built on.  But it’s a MONDAY.  That’s not Park Run day.  And that’s when all my good intentions went out of the window.  I watched the sea of lycra and exposed flesh jostling their way down the footpath and my chest was a seething knot of resentment.

Perhaps I should explain that, over the years, the dogs and I have had some rather unpleasant experiences with Park Runners.  The majority of them, I’m sure, are lovely people but there are some who are so intent on shaving a millionth of a second off their best time that they think nothing of barging, kicking, spitting and swearing at other park users.  For this reason, we usually avoid that particular park on a Saturday, as do many other dog walkers.

As we waited for a chance to get on the path and continue our walk, sweaty people I don’t know smiled at me and wished me a happy new year.  Did I smile back and return the greeting?  Did I heck as like.  I snarled and grunted and glared.  When I spotted a gap we leapt onto the path, walking against the tide of runners and I almost wanted someone to knock into us or shove us out the way so I could vent my spleen.  Not good.

I couldn’t shake the pent-up Grinch feelings, even when we were free of the runners and striding over the soggy grass into the public orchard – definitely not helped by spotting the remains of a firework display someone had set up on the Old Common and not bothered to remove when they had finished.  Even when we were nearly back to the safety of home, I was still seething.  You may know that I have a pathological dislike of litter.  Whenever we go for our walks I pick up as much as I can and drop it into the bins in the parks.  Today, just a few doors up from our house I spotted an empty Budweiser bottle, abandoned by the aforementioned revellers.  Did I pick it up and bring it home?  No.  I growled at it and said “Why should I?”

Some of my writing friends say the first version of a story they write isn’t the first draft – it’s the Zero Draft.  All the ideas they’ve been mulling over in their minds spewed out onto the page, just to get it out of their head.  That’s how I feel about today.  It’s the start of 2018 – Draft Zero.  So, please ignore me today.  Tomorrow I fully intend to smile as I wish total strangers a Happy New Year.  It can’t be that hard, can it?

 

Fairy Tales

Turnip Princess

Some time ago I received this book as a gift.  As with so many of the books in my To Be Read heap, it has taken a while to get to it.  I am finding it to be an intriguing read.  Many of the tales are familiar, but some have a bit of a twist and some I’ve not read before.

I am also finding it fairly frustrating.  This is a collection of fairy tales collected in the 1850s by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth in northern Bavaria.  As with the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, they were spoken tales, recorded verbatim.  Unlike Grimm and Perrault, they have been left unvarnished and unpolished and this is the root of my frustration.  I want to know more!

I don’t know if it is the reader or the writer in me that is making me shout at the book.  Things like, “What was he called?”, “Why didn’t she…?” and “Why tell me all about the knife in the tree that will let the sister know if he is well or ill and then never mention it again?”

Sometimes the lack of logic or any source of motivation irritates me as reader.  Quite often I want to know more detail about the who, what, why, where, when and how of things.  I know that traditionally fairy tales are very bare-boned, but some of these tales are only a page and a half long and have plenty of room for more information.

On the other hand, I’m finding them quite inspirational.  All the questions I’m asking myself led onto more questions and, sometimes, answers.  And one or two of those answers may be the beginning of a new story or two.  I had already started working on a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin before I picked up The Turnip Princess.  Maybe there will be more fairy tale inspired stories in my writing future.  Watch this space?

Being Brave

At the beginning of the year, one of my crit groups decided to write down some things we wanted to achieve this year. One of mine was to be braver and put my writing out in the public eye. I have started to enter more competitions and had some small successes, but I have decided to go a step further. There is now a new page on my blog where I will put up some of the pieces I submitted for competition. That feels VERY brave to me!

Two Bureaux

When you live in an older house, you sometimes become aware of its previous life. It may be something substantial like removing a piece of board and finding a faded scrap of wallpaper chosen by a previous occupant, or lines inside a cupboard marking the passage of a child’s growth. Often it is more ephemeral. A glimpsed movement, seen from the corner of your eye, disappears as soon as your head is turned. The reek of boiled cabbage or the fragrant aroma of rich fruitcake, filling your nostrils with one breath and then leaving as you exhale, bears no relation to anything in your kitchen. Whispers, felt as vibration in the bone behind your ear rather than heard, convincing you that if you just tried a little harder you would know the speakers and, maybe, join their conversation.

Old things often carry their history with them. When they come into an older home, it is as if their stories blend with the spirit of the house to create something new. Adding more antiques to share their experiences makes the mix richer until, inevitably, they begin to make their presence known to the corporeal world.

In this old house where no children live, I saw a child. It was on the landing, its body angled away from me as it gazed through the open doorway adjacent to it. Soft blonde curls bounced lightly creating a halo around its head. It was perched on the edge of a small wooden chair in front of a half-sized desk.

Beyond the child in a small room I use as my study, sat the object of the child’s attention. The dappled light coming through the wisteria outside the window revealed few details, but I knew the person to be an adult woman by dint of her full skirts and swept up hair. The child was young, maybe four years old, dressed in old-fashioned rompers that gave no easy suggestion of gender. My subconscious said ‘her’ and told me the woman was the child’s mother. I believed it.

Mama – I was certain this woman had never been called Mum – had her head bent over the documents on her roll topped desk. Her hand moved across the pages, reached forward to dip a pen into an inkwell, then returned to the paper.

At her miniature desk, the child reached for a dark, wood framed board. A word from the stories of my youth leapt into my mind – a slate. In her other hand she grasped a piece of chalk. She watched her mother intently, copying her posture and, I was certain, imitating the expression of concentration on her face. When Mama dipped her pen, the child reached for a new chalk and continued to make marks on her board.

A breeze through the open window sent a floral scent toward me. Not the wisteria growing beyond but a smell that reminded me of grandmothers and face powder. Lilac? Lavender? No, Lilly-of-the-Valley.

Above the scratching of pen on paper and the squeak of chalk on slate, another sound came. The timeless peal of bells calling the faithful to Sunday worship. Mama raised her head and glanced out the window, a hand reaching for a cloth to clean her nib. With a sigh, she tidied her papers, closed the lid on the inkwell and rolled the lid of her desk shut. The snap of the lock closing was echoed by the clack of the child’s desk shutting.

Downstairs, the ting and ring of an old Bakelite telephone was followed by the claxon call of our modern handset. Irritated, I started for the top of the stairs. I glanced back, one hand on the banisters, but my visitors were gone.

IMG_0102Later I returned to the landing and examined the small desk and chair more closely. All the furniture was real. It had belonged to us in childhood or been purchased as a fitting addition to our home. I opened the desk lid, looking at the clutter that had accumulated over the years, then swivelled the little chair towards me. I had never sat on it, certain it would collapse under my weight. As it span beneath my hand, my finger snagged on a hidden catch. Surprised, I pulled back and the lid of the seat lifted with my hand to reveal a secret compartment. It was empty, apart from some childish scribble on the lid and, inscribed on the base, the names Susan and John. I wondered who they were. Was Susan the small child who had so recently sat on the chair’s battered burgundy cushion? Had a brother, John, been elsewhere, studying his Papa at work with the same intensity with which Susan had watched Mama?

I feel a responsibility to this family. They have given me a peek into their lives that I wish to repay. Maybe next time I visit a flea market or antique shop I should look for a new inkwell for Mama and a slate for Susan.

April 2017 Competition Results – Beverley Birch

I was absolutely delighted to receive a Highly Commended from Beverley Birch with my first entry into a Hampshire Writers Society competition. It’s the last story on the page, but please read all the others before you scroll down to my piece. There are some great stories here.  I have also added it to the Writing page of my blog, so you can look here if you would prefer.

Hampshire Writers' Society

Beverley Birch was shortlisted three times for the Branford Boase Award in recognition of the editor’s role in nurturing new talent and, as a prolific author, she was also nominated for the Carnegie medal. Hampshire Writers’ Society is most appreciative to Beverley, who graciously came to our rescue by agreeing to be our April adjudicator as well as our speaker. In return, our members managed to supply entries that made it difficult for her to choose the usual two highly commended places. The competition, ‘Write a children’s story, inspired by a well-known story for children’, meant that after choosing 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, Beverley was unable to decide and ended up choosing four additional pieces to praise.

1st Place: Cass Morgan – Mrs Bilious

2nd Place: Kristin Tridimas – A Koala Named Sydney

3rd Place: Matthew Cross – George and the Dragon

Highly Commended: Annie…

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On Trying to Feel Grateful

This week I have been feeling a bit grumpy.  It started last Saturday when, just as I was getting ready for bed, my wife discovered bulging walls and dripping water in the kitchen.  Cue late night telephone calls to insurance company and British Gas (who maintain our hot and cold water systems).  Also cue switching the off the water supply (after filling the kettle and a couple of buckets) and turning off the boiler.  The electrical controls were in the same wall as the leak, as was the plug for the fridge freezer.   Eleven o’clock saw two short, middle age women trying to re-position a large electrical appliance until the (surprisingly short) cable could go into another socket.

On Sunday the very nice man from Dyno-rod (on behalf of BG) came and found the source of the leak – the hot water tank in the airing cupboard.  He managed to isolate it and restore running cold water to some parts of the house – all appropriate places, thank heavens.  Since then we have had no central heating and only cold water from the taps.  Hence, me being in a grump.

My Name's Not Friday, Hardback This morning, lying in bed under a warm duvet with extra heat generated by two dogs and one of the cats, I finished reading ‘My Name’s Not Friday’ by Jon Walter.  It reminded me a little of ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northup, but with a lot less violence and a lot more religion.  It was a good read.  I put the book on my bedside cabinet and pulled my chilly hand back under the covers, tugging them up over my slightly icy nose, and had a serious word with myself.

I am not the first person not to have central heating.  We certainly didn’t have it when I was a child.  When I had my first home, heating was from a very dodgy gas fire and only in one room.  Later, we only put the heat on when we could afford it.  Now I am lucky enough to have the luxury of heat at the touch of a button and hot water whenever I turn the tap.  Samuel and Solomon would have been delighted to have any sort of soft mattress or warm blanket during most of their stories.  The idea of a full larder and a well stocked fridge-freezer would have been miraculous and heaven-sent.  The freedom to visit any of those wonderful things without permission was a prospect only to be dreamed of.

Daffodils in parkYou only have to turn on the news to see people who struggle to live their lives without things we in the western world consider to be basic – running water, fresh food, warm shelter.  I walk the dogs and have time to enjoy the spring bulbs showing their faces to the sun without scanning the sky for planes carrying bombs or searching behind every hedge for aggressors with guns or knives.

So today I have given myself a swift kick up the mental backside, thrown on an extra layer and got on with things.  It’s much easier to keep warm when you are doing something than when you are sat on your bum feeling sorry for yourself.  With luck, this time tomorrow we will have heat and hot water back on tap but, if we don’t, I’m determined not to let Grumpy Kim back in.