The logic behind Tangent Alley

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In my blog post of May 13 where I assured people that I could indeed spell tangentially, I wrote a little about why this blog is called Tangent Alley – my natural verbosity and willingness to be diverted by any aside, no matter how irrelevant. I had decided to name the blog rather than call it FirstnameLastnameWriter on the grounds that I plan to use a pseudonym and have not yet finalised one.

I would have liked to call the blog the Long Way Round, as an acknowledgement of my circuitous writing and as a nod to some of the walks and photos I plan to post and blog about, however that name has been used for the motor biking adventures of Messrs. McGregor and Boorman and that’s not something I ought to get confused with.

“Where was I?” would be a good name. It’s a frequent comment in emails and anecdotes to friends as I try to find my way back to the point I was trying to make. It’s used to devastating and hilarious or heart-breaking effect in the radio 4 drama series “How Does That Make You Feel?” and I’m not sure I want people to make too many assumptions about just how much I might benefit from therapy

I could have called it “Oh look, a squirrel” in reference to a Bill Bailey sketch about how easy it is to be distracted. I find it impossible not to point out these cute creatures (yes I know they are just rats with good PR) and once cried “squirrel!” so loudly that the poor creature fell out of its tree. Oops

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Tangent Alley is a phrase my best friend and I have used frequently over the years whenever one of us has wandered off topic during an email. I was 99% sure I was the first to use it and she graciously said she didn’t object to my utilising it as my blog title. However, when I checked our email archive I found I had actually modified it from a Drop the Dead Donkey quote where the verbose boss, Gus Hedges, had the nerve to say: “I sense we may be straying down Tangent Boulevard here.” (I am counting myself lucky that I wasn’t inspired by other classic phrases from him such as “we’ve got to downsize our sloppiness overload” or “this is a rather regrettable gonads-in-the-guillotine situation.”)

My rather battered Oxford dictionary gives the definition of tangent as: diverge impetuously from matter in hand or from normal line of thought or conduct. Whilst an alley is a walk, passage or narrow street – one that I always picture to be full of twists and turns so that when you enter the alley you have no way of knowing what your destination will be.

For that reason, my first choice of photo above is perfect. It was taken on the Greek island of Symi. I think all Greek islands I have visited have old lanes that twist and turn and where it is easy to get lost (ok, so do most British towns and cities). I am sure I have read that on Symi, in the old town, or Chorio as it is called, it is deliberate. In the days when pirates or sea raiders were common in the Aegean, the lanes that seemed to double back on themselves could take an age to penetrate by which time the locals had had time to hide valuables or make their escape. There is a museum high up in the Chorio and it took several attempts to find it, and then almost as long to find my way back down – you’d think just heading downhill all the time would be the answer but it’s almost possible to circumnavigate the hill and still not escape.

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My other pictures are of a classic Welsh alley running behind a row of miners cottages in Abergynolwyn, and of a medieval street in Albarracín in Spain – a town made up entirely of twisting alleys between buildings three stories high which almost meet at their eaves overhanging the paths.

To return to that dictionary definition – as a writer, what could be better than to diverge from the normal or expected line of thought? Especially when writing romantic suspense. My sub heading for the blog, where a writer goes off-piste, is I suppose saying the same thing as Tangent Alley – oh dear, not only am I long winded, I am very guilty of repetition, especially when I think that dressing it up in fancier imagery makes it a different thought. Double oops.

Off-piste, as a skiing term, contours up images of speed and hidden challenges and dangers, not sticking the safe path or rules. When I added it to the blog I meant it to refer to the blog rather than my writing for publication; that I wouldn’t just post stuff about my writing or research, that it would cover reading, random photos or snippets of history that have inspired me along the way.

I also liked that it had, for me, espionage links. But on looking for dictionary definitions and conformation of this I drew a blank and wondered if I’d imagined it. I liked the idea because for many years I focussed my writing on espionage based romantic suspense and I adore the work of John le Carré.

The definitions I found said that off-piste to a skier means to go away from the prepared or designated ski-runs, and in general parlance to go off-piste means to deviate from what is conventional, usual, or expected. It is apparently a fairly recent phrase and peculiarly British, partly as American’s don’t refer to ski runs as pistes. Off the beaten track (or off the beaten path) are suggested as similar phrases, or describing a person or their activities as being off base.

I clearly remember it being used in an early episode of Spooks (called MI5 outside the UK) where a couple of intelligence officers were pretending to be a married couple and had a fixed cover story or legend. The “wife” elaborated a little extra detail during a conversation (I think it was about collecting china frogs) and was chastised by her “husband,” yes it added colour to her character but it wasn’t something he knew and he could have blown their cover. He told her not to go off-piste again. On doing a search for off-piste and spooks several instances came up, including an article about the most recent James Bond film so I’m not imaging the espionage link at all, hurrah. Its usage suggests that it’s often used to describe an intelligence operative going so far from an arranged plan that it jeopardises an operation, or suggests they may be a rogue agent.

But to end with, I shall post some pictures showing a more basic definition of going off-piste.

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Maybe I should just have called the blog Susan Booker writer rather than worrying about all these deviations…

Edited to add: I’ve been thinking about this since I posted it a day and a half ago and realised that as well as being a waffley explanation of my blog title and an excuse to post some nice holiday pictures, it does actually have a writerly point! I am horrifically guilty of writing the same thing in five different ways throughout my manuscripts, you know, just making sure the reader really does understand what I’m saying. Saying someone has gone down Tangent Alley, and then saying they have gone off-piste seems to imply the same thing – they have diverged from the normal or safe path. But to go off at a tangent implies an accidental action, and I certainly always try to return to the point I was making – where was I? To go off-piste suggests a more decisive and deliberate action, it needs skill and knowledge – of one’s ability and the mountainside – and will get one to a possibly different location, at greater speed and with possible danger.

To go off-piste with one’s writing could mean making bold and unusual choices, in word choice or in character action and plot. Knowledge of the writing rules and tropes would be essential before veering away from them. To go down Tangent Alley in a conversation or blog can be amusing and enlightening but needs to be handled carefully in a novel. Nothing annoys a reader like too many seemingly pointless digressions and they will soon learn to skip ahead; but an occasionally expanded scene or anecdote that quickly returns to the original point and makes a character or reader view it from another angle is always welcome. I wrote an accidental aside recently and then realised the imagery and story could come back to haunt the heroine a few chapters later. It actually made me cry at the emotion it stirred in my characters and it couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had that little trip down Tangent Alley.

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