Friday, 4 November 2011

Kindled Spirit

I'm coming round to it... Before we left for South America husband fulfilled his threat and bought a Kindle. I rolled my eyes and muttered something about making himself a target as a robbable gringo in a third world country and about not being able to share books nicely.
"But there 'll be extra room in my rucksack..." He raised his eyebrows at the pile of books I'd not managed to squeeze into my pack. 
 I nodded grudgingly and insisted he download South America on a Shoestring. I already had a paper copy scribbled in post-it noted and corners folded and I was sort of glad to not have to share it. It would only have caused squabbles. 

But now, having spent a couple of months with Kenny Kindle it hurts a bit to admit it but he is pretty good. He's not amazing to read from, no better than normal paper and lacks the subtleties of books that I love. But slowly... slowly... I´m seeing a few benefits. When the Manbooker was announced I mentioned in passing how I would love to read the winning novel when I got home. Five minutes later Kenny slipped himself into my unsuspecting hands with Julian Barnes´s ´The Sense of an Ending´ flashing innocently up at me. Apt. I thought, as I read warming to the plastic casing in my hands and the nonchalant page turns with their mildly satisfying thumb click.

And, wonderfully, I was able to download ´Quickies: Short Stories for Adults´ produced by the brilliant collective #Flashtag featuring some of my most favourite writers. Had I not been travelling I would have gone to the book launch to hear readings back in September. So being able to read the book was fab. In this saucy tongue-in-cheek... or elsewhere... collection of flash fictions the writers have created saucepot stories that they probably wouldn´t want their nans to read. They´re fabulously varied. Think Anais Nin-Jilly Cooper fusions with the smutty pages that fall open in public library books... My favourite tales are David Gaffney`s ´What Happened to the Girl´ and Kim McGowan´s ´Tuffnell´s Toffees´. Definitely a book to buy in whatever format tickles your fancy. 

The only sad thing, and I know I´m harping on a bit, is that in its digital format I can`t book swap it in a hostal for someone to find. I like to think who it might have been. A foreign student wanting to learn the finer points of english usage tempted in by the seeming innocence of the short stories, or a kid on a gap year who thought they knew it all... 

So, yes. I admit it. Kenny is growing in my estimations. and I´m using his clever brainbox to download relevant books for each country I end up in. Rusty Young´s ´Marching Powder´ for Bolivia, `Don´t Sleep there are Snakes´and ´Lost City of Z´ for Brazil, some Mario Vargas Llosa for Peru... and while I sit reading them, in the corner of my eye I see husband twiddling his thumbs. His expression as he glances longingly at Kenny is somewhere between annoyance and vindication.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

South America: Argentina and Chile.

I'm taking four months out to travel around South America. This, honestly, is purely for story researching purposes...

I won't go on about it, I promise. Having read some vomit inducing blogs about spiritual journeys whinging about how hard travelling is and transversely some amazingly articulate and fascinating travel blogs ( you know who you are...) I've decided I can compete with neither. So I've simply broken the first month away into a series of concise statistics as follows.

  • Countries travelled through: 2. Argentina and Chile.

  • Baby-sized Argentinian steaks eaten: 11

  • Hours spent on buses: 64

  • Hours spent asleep on buses: 10

  • Books read: 5

  • Spanish speaking fails: Countless. Actually, I quite enjoy muddling through - it speeds up learning. However, one waitress in San Telmo, Buenos Aires seemed to relish asking questions we didn't stand a chance of grasping, then bringing a variety of unasked for extras we were sure we'd never consented to. On one occasion "Dos cafe con leches, por favor..." yeilded three croissants, one orange juice, one milky coffee, one espresso, a cheese and tomato sandwich and what can only be described as a smirk from our waitress.  

  • Churches / cathedrals / graveyards visited: 7. Anyone else inherit this tic from childhood family holidays? From being dragged around places of foreign ceremony and death as a child now I can't stop myself. The favourite so far? Cementeria Recoleta in Buenos Aires. Visitors wander between the mighty tombs for hours looking for Evita's grave which turns out to be as underwhelming as the wooden chalice chosen by Indiana  in Raiders of the Lost Arc. The cemetry is an incredible place, arranged in rows and blocks much like the city it is set in. Each sarcophagos has windows through which you can peep morbidly at the coffins stacked and draped with lace cloths inside. Cats stroll disarmingly between these blocks, rubbing up against the enormous weeping angels, horses, ships and urns.

  • Narrowly avoided volcano eruptions: 1. passing over the Andes on the Argentina-Chile border the eruption from the Caulle geofield is still smoking. Whole towns including Bariloche, Valdivia and Puerto Montt are caked in thick ash from the eruption in June. In some places entire forests are submerged in the stuff. The dust sticks in your throat and resettles just minutes after being wiped from surfaces.  My first reaction was sympathy for the areas affected. Although no one died in the eruption, it caused massive disruption. Then a Chilean friend pointed out that the ash will make the ground incredibly fertile in a few years time. So actually, good stuff.

  • Stories written: None. There is too much to see and experience. I'm struggling to focus on any one close idea. But I'm sucking it all up. Hopefully there will be lots that will prove fertile when the dust settles. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

...One Giant Leap...

Recently, I took up a challenge to write a story in response to the work of Polish Science Fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. This was for an anthology, 'Lemistry', celebrating his work and featuring new translations of his stories, alongside other established writers responding to his work.

I have read an embarrassingly tiny amount of Sci Fi, maybe residually due to the very acid opinion of a bookshop colleague years ago referring to the science fiction section as 'sweaty books for boys'. I resented this critique of an entire genre, but a reluctance to delve in remained. I thought Sci Fi required knowledge of technological or scientific stuff. I thought to read, or indeed write, science fiction you'd need to know all the 'rules'. But as I read Lem's work I realised my preconceptions couldn't be further from the truth. There are so many books and films that came to mind that seem to have been inspired by him. And as a writer responding to his work, I could go literally anywhere and put anyone (human, robot or alien) there, too.

I also realised through the process how challenging it is to write well in this genre. There is much that needs explaining in creating unknown complete worlds and it requires discernment as to how much you can leave out and what to include without being heavy handed or breaking the old show don't tell. I don't think I got everything right in my story 'Traces Remain', but I had a really good go at it. And I am immensely grateful to the editor Ra Page for his astute and brilliant guidance. I would be mortified if people read my early malformed drafts. And although there are probably aspects in the final cut that Sci Fi aficionados may roll their eyes at, I am pleased with the end result. Forgive me - it was a little bit like learning to write all over again.

I'm really excited to read what other contributors have done with Lem's inspiration. And thrilled to be appearing in an anthology that features brilliant well established writers. For more information about the project and to pre order copies of Lemistry see Commapress

Thursday, 4 August 2011

'Keeping Mum...' with Woman's Weekly

Woman's Weekly 9th August 2011

I'm chuffed to bits to see my first story in Woman's Weekly. I sent my story 'Keeping Mum at No. 32' not sure whether it would be right for them and was delighted when they liked and accepted it. It seems they are absolutely true to their word that they're looking for edgier or more experimental stories. A pleasure to write and delightful to see it in print. 

Monday, 1 August 2011

Review of Dogs Chase Cars by Mark Porter

   ©  Eric Uhlich 2011
I've been doing a spot of reviewing for the fabulous Lancashire Writing Hub. Read my review of Mark Porter's fantastic novel Dogs Chase Cars on the LWH website here. I first heard an extract of the book at Word Soup in Preston, where Mark gave a reading. It was one of those readings where I would have happily sat and listened indefinitely. More about Mark Porter's novel, and other projects, here.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Storey Forum in Lancaster

I can't wait for this fantastic event at the Novel Cafe, New Street, Lancaster. Amazing writers and performers on the bill (and somehow I managed to sneak on there with them!) Organised by Mollie Baxter with profits going towards printing costs of 'Back and Beyond'; the newest arts publication for Lancaster, Morecambe and beyond! For more details see the Back and Beyond website. 

Back and Beyond

There's that old adage - "You don't get 'out for nought"... I beg to differ!

Back & Beyond is a new FREE arts publication that promotes the arts, culture and heritage in Lancaster, Morecambe and beyond. Its aim is to make people more aware of the enormous wealth of creativity in the area, to bring new and established work to light, helping local artists and practitioners to showcase their work to reach a wider audience. 

It is lovely! 

I feel very excited to be part of it, alongside some brilliant writers and contributors. The paper is available in various outlets throughout the area... if you're quick. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

A Short Story for a Long Day

Photo courtesy of Paul Wilkinson on Flickr

The Addict 

by Sarah Schofield 

He was addicted to tobacco and sulked like a child over the lollipops that his doctor offered as a poor cigarette substitute. The satellite navigation in his Mercedes helped him find the confectioners he’d looked up on the internet.

“What did you like, when you were little?” the woman in the saccharine-lined shop asked.

“I cannot recall,” he said. A pink sugar mouse peeped from under the counter. He rattled the cash in his pocket.

“Coltsfoot rock and liquorice, that’s your sort,” she said and patted him on the hand. His eyes softened at her understanding.

Standing in the shower he looked at the remnants of rose soap his wife had left dissolving in the porcelain dish and sucked coltsfoot out of his molars. He cancelled his afternoon appointments.

“More liquorice?” she asked, as he walked into the shop, shaking her fringe out of her eyes.

“How about dinner?” he said.

The restaurant was beige. She sat opposite him. He was used to seeing her framed in multicoloured fudge and Uncle Joe’s and jelly babies.

But she had brought the aromas with her; candy floss and cola pips. Her earrings dangled like sherbet drops.

“Marzipan fruits are my favourite,” she said, picking at her bread.

He watched her longingly and started to salivate.

“Fisherman’s friends,” he said.

She pushed the asparagus tips round her plate with the fork. He imagined that if he sucked her fingers they would taste sweet, from trailing through the candy jars all day. If he breathed her in, he might head rush, like that first cigarette he’d stolen from his father all those years ago.

The restaurant was starting to empty, and he felt the familiar pull of panic. The mildly frantic gnawing at his thoughts as he glanced round.

He took her hand and asked her to come home with him. She smiled. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Object of my Affections...

Don't we all just love stuff. Things, tat, tut, flotsam... Whatever we call it... human nature has an obsession with objects. They don't have to be worth much in monetary value (although sometimes they are...) We are intrigued by archeological digs. We adorn the walls of pubs with items that have long since lost their purpose. We carry useless things around in our pockets, handbags, dangling from our keyrings. We obsess over museum artefacts... 

We hoard. Old bits of this and that. My friend kept the condom wrapper from her first sexual encounter. I inexplicably keep a ticket from a Canon and Ball gig that I found carefully preserved under the carpet when I moved into my house. 

This handbag was something found in a second hand warehouse, Bygone Times. It is too fragile to use, so therefore is useless. But the lipstick marks and curious perfumed scent inside, the hints of past owners, are too intriguing to disregard. It has been well used and I keep it because I hope perhaps in some way it will reveal its secrets to me... or at least suggest them for stories.
And this might look like a plop. But actually it's the first thing I ever whittled when my dad bought me a pen knife and taught me how to use it safely. Incase you're wondering, it's a mouse, sans ears or tail; they take a whole lot more years of whittling to master. The mouse fits perfectly in my palm. I've carried to every house I've ever lived in.

On one of those Channel 4 documentaries, that's really a freak show, a man of noble gentrified descent had had to sell his country manor and most of the content. The few old possessions he'd saved, he put into a storage unit. These possessions included a tupperware box containing dust and hair balls gathered from around the parquet floors. To him this stuff was precious. Significant in a way that was hard to quantify.

This obsession with objects was discussed in a short story workshop with writer Carys Davies recently, looking at its function in fiction. Her workshop inspired me to write 'Still Life' which made it into Writer's Forum, about a nodding dog. And if you think of almost any story / film / poem there's often highly significant objects that weave themselves into the narrative. Think Snow White and the apple and her stepmother's sycophantic mirror, think Dorian Gray with that portrait in the attic, think Donoghue's 'Room' where many of the objects take on special potency.

Roselle Angwin, writing in her Mslexia column Writing Your Self: The secret life of objects says 'Humans have known forever the power of objects... sometimes it's to do with the whole concept of the numerous human lives that have passed across the surface of that object, or created it..."

This was the aspect I was keen to capture in a 'Write on the Night' evening I organised this week at the Ormskirk's Owls Writers Group using the objects shown in the top image as a stimulus to creative writing. I asked the writers to select one to spark the first inklings of a story. The Owls writing Group is positively bulging with creative talent. Many members are widely published. And all have original voices and styles. It didn't take long before the fledglings of eleven fantastic stories were hatched. It was an exciting process. I'm looking forward to hearing where these stories go in the next few months.

The story I started, based around an old locked leather diary, will unfortunately have to go on the back burner. I've got a rewrite of a story for People's Friend that needs some serious editing and the Guardian short story competition deadline is looming. The story for this is behaving like a cat that doesn't want to go in its vet box. I'll keep wrestling and treat my scars with alcohol when it's done. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Flashing Good Fun

So! It was nowhere near as bad as I'd thought. Actually it was lovely. 

This time last week I was feeling decidedly pukey at the thought of reading my flash fiction at the Flash Mob, Flash Fiction Competition as part of the Chorlton Arts Festival 2011.

But it wasn't scary at all.

The Flash Mob Team worked so hard to make it a great event. From lining up a great programme of fun, non-stuffy readings from themselves, the prince of Flash Nick Perring, who read from his collection 'Not So Perfect' and from all of the shortlisted writers. The evening was broadcast live on Chorlton FM (no swearing please...)

I read first, which was a blessed relief. People clapped kindly when I stopped reading. Also a blessed relief.

There were twelve pieces on the shortlist. Unsurprisingly, my flash didn't get further than the shortlist. But I was delighted to be beaten to the top positions by three incredible pieces of writing. Third place with 'The Dryer Monkey' was Sal Page, second place, with 'Marked' was Michael D Conley, and first place was Socrates Adams with 'Water Pressure'. Three brilliantly varied pieces of work. The whole twelve shortlisted flashes are included in a downloadable myebook. Definitely well worth a read. 

My actual personal favourite was the second placed entry - 'Marked' by Michael D Conley, in which, one day, alphabet letters fall from the sky. It appealed to my fascination with obscure supernatural events occurring in a otherwise measured and understood setting. Lovely. It made me wonder what incriminating words would appear on my skin after an alphabet shower. It stayed with me, which is what I reckon a good flash fiction should do. Each word has a far more powerful resonance than in a longer piece. 'Marked' is full of gorgeous ideas and images, without feeling heavy or overly condensed.   

Many thanks to the superb Flashmob organising team, the Dulcimer for hosting such a great event and all who read. I'm already looking forward to next year's do! 

On a course recently, I mentioned flash fiction in passing during the coffee break. A bloke took me to one side and asked me what flash fiction was. "Tell me..." he asked with a blush and a little smile some might have called salacious... "Has it got anything to do with... erotic fiction?"  

How tempted I was to say; "Well, actually yes. It's designed for the gentleman with a penchant for displaying his wears in public... a story of similar intimate brevity, and an equivalent size..." But I worried he would take me seriously and felt for the poor judges of flash fiction competitions everywhere... so put him straight. And gave him a wide girth... I mean berth for the rest of the day.  

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Reading Out Loud

I am paralysed with fear today and have done no writing whatsoever… I am doing a very short reading at the Flash Mob Flash Fiction writing competition event at Dulcimer in Chorlton. It is part of the Chorlton Arts Festival. The prospect of standing up and reading makes me feel like I’m actually going to throw up.

Probably most people’s first ‘reading out loud’ scenario would be school assembly. There’s the awful lining up outside the hall, all clutching sweaty bits of paper with a few lines on to read out about something no one really cares about but you have been rehearsing for weeks. There may even be the worrying prospect of singing multi-faith-relevant songs (I went to a right-on primary school…) the feeling of possibility to fail epically rumbles from this time like a troublesome appendix. Back then in the 80’s primary school hall, staring at the hypnotic orange print curtains, trying to remember what you are supposed to do, desperately needing a wee, under the eyes of your peers, the school bully and the lad in the top class who you've sent a Valentine card to for the last three years and think he might suspect… to actually open your mouth and say actual words feels like the most alien prospect in the world.  

Today I feel those same familiar rumblings. Minus the Valentine sending, and I’m sure there won’t be bullies in Chorlton… and I’ve no idea what the Dulcimer’s décor is like… but that permanent needing a wee feeling… 

It’s because I look up to and massively rate the other people that will be at the event. The ones I know a little about and have read their work, are brilliant, and those that I don’t I imagine are also uber cool, street, hip, with it, effortlessly stylish, totally not fazed, and ultimately will spot me as a wannabe writer who doesn’t really know what she’s doing.

One strategy I use to deal with situations that frighten me is to think, like that well loved fizzy drink, what’s the worst that could happen… I have made a list, in no particular order…

1. Loss of some sort of bodily fluid (vomit, wee etc…) while everyone stares on not quite knowing what to do or say... think Alan Partridge after he impaled his foot…

2. Swearing by mistake… saying the C word by accident is one of my worst social phobias. Words I try to avoid in readings would include constable, continued, incontinent, vacant…

3. Falling over. I trip and / or fall over quite easily as it is, which mostly is funny but usually I can pretend it’s because I've drunk too much. Walking across a room to do a reading on the couple I've done before suddenly my legs become Bambi like and wobbly, and my feet grow extra snagging corners that catch on the finest carpet pile.

4. Reading the wrong piece of writing. I panic, thinking perhaps I have printed the wrong story off or have got the wrong end of the stick, where everyone knows what they’re doing and I don't and will only embarrass myself… 

So these are possible strategies I could employ:

1. Don’t go. But this is spineless and I’m really looking forward to hearing everyone else read…

2. Have a very lot to drink before hand. However this will increase the chances of most of the worst case scenarios above.

3. Pretend to be someone else, a writer I respect and admire… restricting this to my own head of course. Instead of 'What Would Jesus Do?', the adage of Christians everywhere, perhaps it could be 'What would Rushdie / Atwood / Donoghue / insert other/ Do?'   

Right. I’m off to man up. And decide on a writerly outfit. Can’t wait to get there and hear everyone else's stories. Hopefully everyone will be at the bar ordering drinks when it comes to my turn.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Slippery Business of Snake Keeping

My husband owns an incredible snake… yes, yes. Let’s get all the juvenile giggles out and over with now.

It’s a Corn Snake called Geoff (after Buckley and a favourite science teacher from years ago) Geoff slithered into my life one day under a strict premise. “We’re just minding him for the weekend," husband, the science teacher, muttered. "He’s for school... live vertebrate specimen… he’s only a baby.” 

Geoff looked whimsically, some might say hypnotically, into my eyes as both he and husband played on my very vague maternal urges towards anything small and orphaned and I agreed he could stay in the spare room. He’s only quite little, we will just not feed him too much, I thought. 
Geoff having his tea.
As Geoff grew on his diet of pinkies (dead baby mice that look worryingly like the nicest of the jelly baby packet) we came to an understanding. He was very beautiful to look at but I really wasn't interested in handling him. (yes… that’s nearly a line if your playing innuendo bingo) People popped over just to see him. If he really liked you he would leave a little mouse-scented poo in your shirt pocket. At parties, people would ask after him in polite conversation as though he were perhaps a toddler who was too young or rambunctious to attend. “Eating well? Getting big now?” He liked sitting on his rock or curling under the lid of his box. His box that incidentally husband found on a skip. Lidless. The lid he designed was a couple of sheets of glass over the top. This, perhaps, is where everything went wrong.

Geoff escaped. 

I would have been Very Very Cross. But husband stood at the top of the stairs nearly in tears and I found myself patting him gently as we peeped under the loose floorboards. “Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll turn up,” I said. “We’ll waft a dead mouse around and it’ll tempt him out.”  

It didn’t. There was no sign of Geoff. We spent a forlorn few days prising up carpets and setting up complicated mouse-and-heater apparatus in order to spread the smell of brained rodent into as wide a radius as possible. I worried a bit about him finding his way through the pipes and turning up, horror movie style, in next door's toilet pan. Or wrapping himself around their child’s throat while they peacefully slept. We didn’t mention his escape to the neighbours. We felt it might harm our defence…

Six months later, I felt it was time we put the rubbish, lidless snake box on ebay, and someone else with a desire to loose their snake bought it. But that very same day Alfie, our one eyed cat, grew intensely interested in certain areas of the house. He spent hours staring into a corner, then under the dishwasher. A while later, I happened to wander into the garden through the open kitchen door. Alfie was patting a piece of rope under the garden table. “Where did you find that bungee cord?” I asked him. He didn’t reply, just gave me a withering, one-eyed look and I realized it wasn’t a bungee cord, but Geoff. Looking a bit thin (yes, really) and startled by all the attention.

With Geoff safely tucked into his transport box at home we hurried to the pet shop for a new extra secure vivarium and freezer-ready mice for our hungry snake. I was holding it together quite well – despite being surrounded by a desert’s worth of reptiles all bulgy eyes and flicky tongues on me in a very confined upper salesroom. Then, in walks a man with an enormous pet python draped scarflike around his shoulders. They stood in the narrow doorway blocking the light and the exit, like they were about to audition with some horrific act in the first round of Britain’s Got Talent.

“Oh,” I said. Or something along those lines. Geoff suddenly seemed tapeworm sized in comparison. This man’s python was several feet longer than me. Thigh-wide and not overly friendly looking. The crickets in their Happy Meal boxes started leaping. I looked for an open window to jump from.
“We just came for his rats,” the man said, tickling his snake friend under where his chin would be if he had one.  “Don’t worry. He’s very sociable. I take him out with me all the time.”

I muttered something about public health and safety.

“People are more likely to get bitten by a dog,” he said. It sounded like he’d had this argument before. 

Well, yes, I reasoned. That would be more likely, because no one else is stupid enough to take their snake out shopping with them. The snake, incidentally, was big enough to easily eat a ten pound baby, ready-dislocated jaw and strike distance permitting. I had a notion that if the python did decide to veer off his usual rat and chicken diet amidst the rich pickings of our Lancashire town progeny, the owner seemed like he would be as effective as Rod Hull trying to restrain Emu. It made me reflect that although we had been a bit rubbish about allowing Geoff to escape, we were perhaps not so irresponsible as to own a pet that could actually eat small children.

But pythons aside, I'm surprised by how pleased I feel that Geoff is back! And how attached we all get to our pets.

It made me think about the dog on the fells I wrote about last time. And hope that he did make it home. And also gave me a prompt to get on with writing his story. I did promise and instead I’ve been writing about canapés. So this week I will leave the pre dinner nibbles for now and chew over my dog story instead. He will definitely not be a baby eating pet. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A Purple View from the Bridge.

 I recently went to see Arthur Miller's “A View From The Bridge’ at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick.

I had picked up the tickets thinking it would be a great thing to blog about. And, indeed, it would have been. Miller’s story, about Eddie Carbone, an Italian American Dock Worker who lives with his wife Beatrice and orphaned niece Catherine, seems so relevant (probably why so many theatres are returning to this play, unless I’ve missed some significant anniversary or something) because of its exploration of immigration issues, which are so pertinent to today’s society. I wanted to talk about how fantastic the acting was. How the accents were downplayed just enough to avoid corny distraction. I wanted to talk about the fantastic revolving set design... But during the performance there was something equally fascinating, and dare I say less quantifiable, going on in the auditorium... 

Apparently when you get past a certain age, it is de riguer to attend theatre matinees. Did everyone except me know this? We took our seats (the bar stool ones to the left within the actor's spit range) and watched the auditorium fill. It slowly dawned on me that in a room with maybe two hundred people, we were a minority group. ‘We’ being anyone under the age of seventy. I counted five of us. Fair play, I thought. Husband leaned over on his perch and whispered, “A prize for spotting who was a hotty back in their day.” I scoffed, disgusted at his blatant ageism, and then noticed a rather dapper looking gent in jeans and shirt, with a sweep of carefully coiffed silver hair. “Four rows back next to the lady in the turquoise,” I muttered, hating myself a little. “What about you?”

But just then, the lights began to fade, and we dutifully sat back and shut up.  Ambient lighting filled the stage, and a cast of Brooklyn residents set the scene. But my eyes were drawn away from the action, back at the audience where there seemed to be a general consensus that they were entitled to finish their indepth and long winded conversations before entering into the spirit of quiet observant theatre goers. It was tempting to shush loudly. A reflex response. But everyone knows you can only shush people younger than yourself. Which left precious few options.

If this were the only misdemeanour, it would be forgivable. But next, began the great toffee unwrapping. As a child, I was only permitted non wrapped sweets in an uncrackly packet at the theatre or cinema. And if crackly-packeted was the only option, then I would have to wait until a moment of clapping or loud dynamic action to dive in and quickly unwrap. I knew the consequences… Apparently this octogenarian audience didn't - had never had such an education - and rustled their toffee papers with gay abandon. I’m not exaggerating, the auditorium positively crackled like TV static with the mass unwrapping of Werther's and Chocolate Limes. (Funny how some older people refer to all brand of sweets, whether fruit based, chocolate or caramel, as toffees - gross generalisation, I know... and more senior readers, feel free to put me straight on it!) But rustling abounded. Do I sound precious? Even husband, who never had the non-wrapped toffee rule enforced, found it distracting.

And it didn’t end there. The performance was punctuated with inappropriate laughing, comments and exclamations. Saucy moments were deemed raucous beyond the chortle it mustered from me, leaving me wondering if there was some generation specific joke that had evaded me. Other moments inspired ooohs and tuts and giggles like they were watching a Carry On. Here and there someone would call out some witty rebuff about the action. The actors battled on. I bit my tongue.

The crunch came at the end. Eddie was in the throes of his climactic dramatic death. (Sorry if this is a spoiler...) I sat with bated breath. But in the dramatic pause before the narrator stepped forward to complete the play, several audience members decided that that was enough of an ending for them and upped and left, before an applause could even vaguely start. Well, they’d seen him cark it, so why wait?

Do you think I’m being too harsh? I don’t. This blog is heading in the direction of a badly told anecdote and it's tempting to end weakly with that old line “you had to be there.” I had felt temporarily disgruntled by their bad behaviour. Until I thought about it a bit and brought to mind the poem by Jenny Joseph Warning which begins 'When I am an old woman I shall wear purple'. This audience all had their ‘purple’ on. They were having a ball. They enjoyed themselves and responded to the play with emotional honesty. It reminded me of a time I took a group of young people to see a production of Romeo and Juliet. Juliet was wearing an ill judged length of skirt for a raked stage, which the boys in the group openly perved up. At the end when Juliet, sorry to spoil it again, died (à la Primary School murder-in-the-dark) it was met by open laughter and cheers. I did my best to quell the baying audience. But in all fairness it had been a dire performance and I concurred with the general reaction.

So I have resolved, based on observance of the old and the young, that I need to get over myself and that I, too, should become a miscreant theatre goer. I will book cheap, last-minute seats to performances and leave all my reserve with the ushers at the doors. I will laugh when I think it’s funny, even if no one else does. I will chew, suck and chomp toffees loudly and rattle the packet as I pass it along the row to vaguely grateful strangers. If I need a wee / walk around / drink in the middle of the act I will just get up and go. I will be a purple wearing theatre goer before my time. I will not be a passive watcher, but become part of the action. Isn't that so much better?       

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A (Camp) Site for Sore Eyes

Having spent the last few months hunched over the laptop until my hands resembled claws and my pallor turned the sickly yellow of Birds Custard I stepped blinking and squinting into the sunshine and decided to go camping. A writing research trip. I promise. Tent - check. Sleeping bag - check. Cool box crammed with chocolate and beers - check.

We are working our way through the Cool Camping book, a brilliant compilation of the most exciting camping locations throughout the UK, including yurts, pods and teepee sites. And we’ve made a commitment, that I think we are soon to break, never to go back to the same place until we’ve tried them all.

This time we found ourselves at Syke Farm in Buttermere, Cumbria. It is testament to the fact that I’ve spent too much time online recently, because it was a real stumbling block not to read Syke Farm as Skype Farm. This in itself was reason enough to go. And secretly, I was hoping it would inspire some fresh story ideas. 

By some fluke of nature the weather was incredible. Hot sun, very light breeze – exactly what you would book for camping if you had access to climatic authorities. The Syke Farm camp site nestles along the Newlands Valley. A little stream babbles agreeably through the camp site. It is surrounded by a horseshoe of trees that in the daytime twitter and rattle with chaffinches and woodpeckers and at dusk releases skitters of pipistrelles. 

A walk around Buttermere felt worthy and challenging enough to justify sitting with a beer afterwards before a brief stroll down to the pub. 

I included a visit to Keswick Museum and The Theatre on the Lake Matinee for cultural content. More on those in future posts.

So this trip, with its spectacular scenery and glorious weather quickly stirred a few story ideas. Definitely a setting to inspire some late summer, or autumn themed stories, which is what the women’s magazines are buying at the moment. 

But then, as I walked back to the tent one afternoon, feeling sun soaked and peaceful and like the world was a good place to be, I found a poster for a missing dog. He had disappeared whilst he and his owners were walking the fells the day before. The dog in the photo was handsomely shaggy and black, with heartmelting eyes. “He’s probably fallen and impaled himself on a cliff branch or something,” husband helpfully said. I shook my head and glanced up the valley, hoping to see a blur of black bounding over the bracken. I tried not to cry. I will probably never find out if he made it home or not. So this will be the story I will write next. Written in that dog's honour. And I don’t care if you think it’s unrealistic, but it will have a happy ending. If I'd wanted to write factually I would have gone into journalism... Then again... 

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Stirring Stuff

Close your eyes. What noise does it make when you stir a Cuppa Soup? How is it different from stirring tea? What sounds do you associate with being in a loft? You hear rustling of some old letters. Can you sense the type of paper, and how old they might be?

Today I’m all about sound effects and storytelling through the medium of the radio play.

I am a radio play geek. If I can’t listen to them live, I put them on the BBC iPlayer, one after another for hours, shushing anyone who tries to talk to me. It makes me feel a bit sick afterwards – like a child who ate all their sweets at once. It also makes me hungry to write my own.  

This weekend I attended a brilliant Radio Play Writing Workshop led by Zosia Wand. Zosia is a prolific writer and an inspirational teacher. I dutifully turned up on the day with my homework -  a five minute radio play with carefully laid out sound FX and scene directions. Group members acted out each others work, to hear how they sounded.

My play was about a young couple about to move to Australia. They're getting rid of the last of their possessions. For him, a collection of Fleetwood Mac vinyls from a previous relationship, and for her, a box of old love letters stashed in the loft. I wanted to explore the emotional attachment we have to stuff. I wanted the tone to be fairly serious. This is where we came unstuck. None of us were professional actors and without time to prepare and read through in advance it was hard to gauge the hoped-for tone of each other’s work. Some serious pieces came out as comedy farces and vice versa. 

I wonder which is worse; to find humour where the writer wanted contemplative sobriety, or to remain po-faced and stricken through what they thought were killer gags. I had, like others in the group, tried it out on husband before the workshop. But he started reading the male characters lines with the strangest, most strident Lancashire accent I’ve ever heard, including  “t‘loft”, “ayes” and “nay lass”. How bizarre. It wasn’t written like that. Husband said he was trying to “get into character”. (It makes me think we should never resort to roleplay in the years to come.) But it turns out that acting is a Very Hard thing to do. When my piece was read in the workshop, the girl’s part came across exactly as I’d imagined, but unfortunately the male character was read out like lines from a BBC family-time sitcom. It created an interesting effect.  Probably not one I’d want to repeat. But it got the lines across and I learnt a lot from my own and others’ scripts (some parts read by me, I must add, equally as badly) about what to cut and what to keep.

There were the usual gags about coconut shell horses hooves and owl hoots to represent all things dark and spooky, but it got us thinking about where words could be replaced with particular sounds for greater effect, and the power of a character not speaking, and careful use of relevant sound effects. And effective careful scripting. Creating a believable world - where the sounds and effects listeners hear enable them to fill in the gaps is an art different to any other. 

I was struck by the collaborative nature of the radio play. The script writer puts the words down on paper. The producer, director and actors are equal parts of the process. It is a massive leap from the fiction writing I feel comfortable with; sort of starker, and less containable. But isn’t that an exciting thing?

So I’m working on a full length piece, based around the canals where I live. The BBC writersroom is invaluable for this. They have example scripts on there, as well as other great tools, resources and opportunities for writers to explore. 

Oh, and after extensive research, I conclude that the sound created by stirring a cuppa soup is dependent on brand and dried matter content. But a slimmer soup is virtually indistinguishable to tea. Until you taste it. 

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Shutter Speed

Husband and I have spent the last week in a contented, navel-gazing bubble. Our wedding album arrived. No one is allowed to touch it without first washing their hands, blowing their nose, donning archivist gloves... I want nothing to sully our beautiful album.

We struck gold when we found our wedding photographer. We had already seen a couple of photographers, one of whom addressed everything to husband and said nasty things about his 'other brides'. And another who also did pet portraits. I was momentarily tempted by the images of pitbulls and kittens.

But then we met Stewart, at Randallphotography. He showed us a slideshow of spectacular images over an Elbow song we had already claimed as ‘ours’. He is an amazing photographer and I feel more smug than I am comfortable admitting every time I look through our photos. He even managed to make my slightly ill-thought-through meringue dress look good. A feat in itself.

Wedding photography must be the most terrifying job in the world. Perhaps only surpassed by a career as a fighter pilot or soldier. Although I'm not sure how much difference there is between a raging insurgent and a soon-to-be bridezilla. I think I managed to keep my nuptial-monster under wraps, although things did nearly come to blows over the choice of napkin bands. 

Not only is photography (good photography; the arty sort that turns people monosyllabic) Very Hard, this is surely magnified under the pressure of being at a couple's wedding, where, let's be honest, there’s always potential for weirdness – a unique mix of personalities, lots of hymn singing and bubbly early in the day and a bride who is constantly reminded this is supposed to be the 'best day of her life’. The pressure to capture the moments as they unfold on camera must be intense. I think if I was a wedding photographer I would have recurring anxiety dreams about forgetting my film/memory cards, or mistaking the wrong woman for the bride’s mother and snapping reportage style shots of an unraveling affair. Hats off (large flowery ones, or feathered fascinators) to brave wedding photographers everywhere. Especially Randallphotography who truly captured our day perfectly.

To justify the procrastination, I’m treating our wedding album as research. It has inspired a few story ideas that I’m now developing. Some are blurred and badly framed (see where I’m going with this…?) others are flashes of brilliance.

I also love old photos. I stumbled across Found Films, a fascinating website showing photographs from reels forgotten about for years in old cameras. I’m not sure about the speculative captions under some of this website's images, but the photographs themselves are intriguing. I'm sometimes sad that digital photography has taken away the mystery of those undeveloped films that used to gather fluff in the back of drawers.

Today, I’m working on a story called ‘Shutter Speed’ which plays with this idea of lost film and the important role photos play in our lives. For research purposes, I’d better just go and have another look at my wedding album…

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Ten Things I Hate About eReaders

When I go into a bookshop and see the eReader promotional stand, I want to kick it. Hard. I make loud declarations, like, “These are evil devices. Stealing the soul of literature…” and  “Only pretentious people use eReaders. They’re not really reading. They’re just standing there posing.” 

Husband ducks away from me down the nearest aisle, nervously flicking through anything to hand, be it the Aga Cookery Book or The Guide to Organic Baby Birthing for Vegans until I’ve finished my little rant.

Recently he’s taken to suggesting that perhaps he might like an eReader, but I know he’s only doing it to start a debate; we like to discuss such things loudly and forthrightly on long car journeys. 

So here is my list. Ten things I hate about eReaders. The list has been substantially edited, to preserve sanity; some of my reasons were, if I’m completely honest, bordering on petty. But the ones that remain, I feel, are totally valid.

1. E-readers don’t smell like books.

2. If you leave your eReader on the bus, you will feel very upset and spend hours on the travel hotline trying to get through to lost property. If you leave a book on the bus, you feel mildy annoyed but hope someone deserving will pick it up and read it.

3. You can’t borrow eReaders from the library and return them with curious little pencilled notes down the margin for the next borrower to puzzle over.

4. You can’t visit the home of an eReader advocate and make random, wild assumptions about their personality by looking at the books on their shelves. You would have to pinch their digitized library for that.

5. eReaders give nothing away about the journey you’ve taken with a book. No dog ears, smells or smudges. They don’t express a life shared with a story. In the future, people won’t lovingly pass on the battered books they read repeatedly as kids.

6. eReaders threaten the survival of our little buddy the humble Silverfish, who survives on polysaccharides, paper and glue.

7. eReaders are expensive and perpetuate the advantage of those with money over those without and are being dallied as an catalyst to speed up cuts to library services. A politician interviewed on the radio recently suggested that libraries would become redundant as more people took to eReaders, using this to justify their closures. He failed to see that the whole point of libraries is free access to texts, learning and technology for all. He had the cheek to suggest libraries could be run by volunteers. However well-intentioned and eager, volunteers will never replace our brilliant librarians. I wish I had noted the politician’s name. I would write a twisted little story with his name thinly disguised as the baddy who comes to a slow, sticky end, probably involving a swarm of bees, and stoning with faulty eReaders.

8a. An eReader will break if my cat sits on it.

8b. If I drop an eReader in the bath it won’t be fixed by a couple of hours wrinkling dry on a radiator.

9. You can’t browse for books with an eReader. Yes, I know They say you can. But I like to get off my bum and go to an actual shop and explore shelves of actual, tangible books and I like to actually open their actual pages, and smell and feel...

 10. They rely on a battery which is bad for the environment, and impractical for camping / far flung travel / power cuts / if you forget to charge it. And to be honest, I struggle to remember to charge my phone.

However, because writing is supposed to be ‘What I do now…’ I ought to be able to see the other side of the (electronically distributed) story. What if, for example, I have a character who is heavily into tech? And in her hi-spec airport-scattered flat she had replaced all her books with a large projected digital bookcase. She never leaves home without her eReader; she wouldn’t dream of it and doesn’t know how she lived before. How on earth could she read words off an actual bit of paper, placed there in actual printed ink. How did she manage before when she couldn’t change text font to her exact preference? Could I stop my sneering disregard for eReaders from sneaking, commando style, into the text?

So, let’s see if I can present the other side of the argument.

Things that aren’t so bad about eReaders:

1. They save on shelf space.

2. They are shiny and make you feel superior and cool (a bit like that kid at school in the 90’s who got a Gameboy before everyone else.)

3. They don’t melt in the sun and fall apart.

4. They don’t require as many trees to be cut down to make them.

5. Unlike your favourite book, you won’t lend your eReader to a friend (why would you?) then spend the next few years wondering how you can ask for it back without sounding rude and petty, or stealthily sneaking through their book case.

So, they have their place. And I’m going to have to suck it up because I'll probably get given one for Christmas when they get cheaper. I’ll mutter darkly about it, whilst secretly enjoying the eNote-scribble facility or authentic page-turning soundFX.
And, ultimately, if someone published me, and I ended up on an eReader, I wouldn’t be that cross. In fact, I’d probably kiss them. Everyone has their price.  

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Christmas, Chutney and Dead Chicks

And would you believe it… January is over. I won’t go on about how this month has flown by. I reserve that sort of banter for church coffee mornings and jumble sales. Instead I’m looking briefly back over one shoulder, then squinting forward into the near future.

Christmas was a beautiful thing. For several reasons.

I was thrilled to do a reading at the National Short Story Day in Manchester. This was the first of a fantastic UK wide event, held annually on 21st December - the shortest day of the year. See what they did there? It promised to be ‘a celebration of prose’s short-yet-perfectly-crafted form’ and it was. Comma Press hosted the event at MaDlab in the Northern Quarter; a quirky gem of a venue which required eagle eyes and a secret knock to gain access - only the coolest literary types, or the most determined wannabes (i.e. me) got in. There were two other fantastic writers: flash fiction master and novelist David Gaffney and poet, writer and accomplished performer Michelle Green. I read second, after David’s brilliant PowerPoint flash fiction and before Michelle’s evocative and moving story extract. I like to think I was a suspicious, untested filling in an otherwise delectable sandwich (think own-brand squeezy cheese on ciabatta roll – uncertain, but it could just work) People clapped at the end which is always a good sign (unless it’s slow and menacing) and I was totally thrilled to be appearing with two great, established writers and to have the opportunity to read my work. And the Gluhwein was delicious. It was a superb event and one to watch out for next December.
What else made Christmas? Singing our annual rendition of Fairytale of New York with my brother and sister-in-law until the neighbours complained. We were delighted to see them (brother and sis, not neighbours, although they’re very nice, too) as they’d flown in on a pause from their sailing trip, currently stationed in Sicily on their beautiful boat, Planet. My sister-in-law is also a writer, so we had lots of time to rant about semicolon abuse; and plot how we would both bombard Mslexia magazine with submissions until they caved in and accepted our work.

Finally, it wouldn’t have been Christmas without mass chutney making.
Every year I make chutney and gift it to anyone who I think is too polite to decline it. Every year I have the same anxiety dream that I have somehow bred botulism in the sterilised jars and wake in a cold sweat. I then go downstairs and make a large cheese and chutney sandwich, eat it and sit nervously waiting for signs of paralysis. All clear this year.

Now, looking forward to the weeks ahead, I will be developing a themed short fiction collection, and flinging stories out, until something sticks. And applying for Come Dine With Me.

Today, I’m working on a short story that features, briefly, the decomposing carcasses of garden birds. It’s an unsavoury little tale. Uncertain how long it would take for the flesh of a small bird to entirely disappear, and in the name of research, I googled for images of ‘decaying sparrows’ and ‘rotting starlings’. No doubt the googlegods in their silicon e-tower have my card marked. At least I wasn’t looking up dead chicks. I think that’s a different thing entirely.