One woman’s clutter is another’s motivation

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What does this picture tell you? That someone treasures their pony books as much as their older fiction? That they have eclectic reading taste – Gothic, Ancient Greece, Medieval Britain, Hollywood noir, spies? What about other things on the shelves? The stash of Cadbury’s crème eggs, the clutter of perfume bottles, the envelopes of photographs – is this an historical picture? The small brick-like mobile phone and the audio cassettes suggest this is a pre-digital time, or is it a current photograph and this is where things go before they are thrown away? Or are they all precious? Pine cones and bits of stone?

This was my bedroom in my flat and everything on that bookcase was put there very lovingly when I set up my own home at last. I had lived for four years in a bedsit; one room, a tiny kitchen and freezing bathroom. A sofa bed. This is why I bought a super kingsize bed for one and would lie there every weekend morning feasting my eyes on beloved books and prized possessions that had lingered in boxes for years.

But many visitors or a burglar would have overlooked them. Why did I have these things on show?

  • The cat statuette that looks more like a fox painted black was a present for a University friend that I have lost touch with. I regret that and keep the ugly little figure as a reminder not to be so careless again.
  • The cut glass bottle was my gift from the bride and groom when I was maid of honour at my best friend’s wonderful wedding. Inside it is the toenail that got flipped off as I moved into the flat. A reminder of the day it was finally all mine and useful if I ever disappear and the police need some DNA for any reason.
  • They could also use the wisdom tooth on the top shelf, kept because I still can’t believe I had a root that big pulled out in my lunch hour.

There are three small pieces of red pumice stone, collected at the top of an extinct volcano in Iceland. After pocketing them I careened down snow clad slopes in a mild blizzard. The sight and feel of those lightweight rocks in my hand brings back the harsh beauty of the country, the blue of the glacier we crossed, the toilet with no door that looked over a lake, the five days of trekking across the island and how on our return we went to a karaoke bar as it was the only way to keep drinking all night. I remember watching my fifty-nine year old father singing along to Dancing Queen before stumbling down to the harbour in Reykjavik to watch the sun rise even though it had barely set and then standing outside a youth hostel drinking whisky from a hip flask and trying a cigar to celebrate having had my first shower in seven days.

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There are at least two bits of red pottery there. One from an archaeological dig in Hampshire where, again, I only showered once a week – slightly worrying theme developing here. The other is from Tiryns, a Mycenaean site in Greece. It was closed for refurbishment when we tried to visit and lots of small fragments of pottery had been dumped outside the gates as waste.

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These two horses date back to when I was seven or eight and my sister and I stayed for a few days with my step-grandmother in Bognor Regis. We’d only been away from our parents once before and it was both exciting and scary. Although she must have been in her late 60s or 70s she was full of life; she was a volunteer at “Hep the Aged” because she didn’t consider herself old at all, she swam in the sea every day and tried to teach us how to do underwater handstands. I remember her driving excitingly fast in her Mini around the town and taking us to visit a distant relation who lived in an Edwardian terraced house crammed full of dark antique furniture, dusty chandeliers and enormous mirrors. The pewter pony was bought in Bognor’s largest department store and the carved wooden foal in one of the charity shops that my granny helped out in. One evening, she walked us through the town park and as the shadows deepened under the trees and the roses turned to sepia, she taught us how to waltz in the deserted bandstand.

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So many memories that can be summoned back by a few simple trinkets, or dust magnets. And what of the bookcase itself? It used to belong to a library and you can still faintly see where years of sunlight on the etched glass signs have marked the shelves for Art and Sport. I paid only ten or twenty pounds for the shelves when the library had a reorganisation and got the complete Oxford History of Britain at the same time for about the same price.

I could go on with everything in sight.

  • The broken gold bell that is older than me and that I always hung on the Christmas tree near my presents so its clear chime sounded whenever I picked up a parcel and wondered what lay beneath its layers – it’s yellow bead clanger is still waiting to be reattached.
  • The hat-brush painted with the name and profile of the first pony I looked after at a riding school when I was nine.
  • The shell that I picked up at Agios Konstantinos, a small port on mainland Greece that a boyfriend and I reached after a night flight, a taxi driver who ripped us off and a dusty battered bus drive through endless Athens suburbs. It had not been a good start to a holiday and then we arrived at the port, bought tickets to Skopeleos and the sun came out. I found the shell as we waited for our ferry and knew that things were looking up.

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The reason for listing all this, apart from giving more background on me than anyone could ever want, is to show how one item can have a history and meaning for a character in a book that is far greater than its appearance or size. I wrote before how the ways each protagonist views a room tells us as much about them as it does the setting, and likewise the importance the person places on a seemingly insignificant object can reveal so much about their personality, or about their past. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as X picks something up and says “what’s this junk?” before Y tells all about a fascinating or traumatic incident in the past, but a writer can imagine that scene and then allude to its significance elsewhere.

I’ve spent plenty of time planning or describing the locations my characters inhabit and I feel that I know their back stories and motivation, but I’m always looking for new ways to convey that rather than introspection, information dumps or stilted conversations.  Far more interesting to have Y pick up the object and have X watch how their face and posture changes – in sadness, joy, regret, anger? X can ask why later, or Y can reflect on it alone, it gives a solid tangible sense to pure emotion and is hopefully showing, not telling.

When the idea for this post first came to me I tried to picture my current heroine’s bookcases and wondered what oddments she would have like this. I could think of none, couldn’t picture such a shelf. Then I realised that that was key. She has given up her own career twice for her family and not yet had a chance to rebuild a proper home. All such mementos are packaged away safely and that in itself tells me and the reader a lot that we need to know. Someone who has locked away precious memories and daren’t bring them out yet, who doesn’t feel at home anywhere, or not proud enough of herself to display her desires or achievements to anyone else. This is only very obliquely alluded to in the manuscript but it’s helped me a lot in having a rounded picture of my heroine and gave me the key to a later confrontation scene where things locked away in a bookcase are highly emotive.

I know that my next heroine has a large collection of art postcards but very little else, and I know why. And suddenly I wanted to give one of my Egyptian jackal heads to another heroine; making her have a passion for Egyptian history and archaeology has opened her up to me in ways I hadn’t thought of before.

What trinkets, junk or precious objects are on your characters’ shelves? Or what are the stories behind some of the treasures you look at every day?

Read of the year 458 BC

I always have such a huge TBR pile that I rarely read a book in the year it was published and am rather awed by people whose “best of the year” blogs are all about current favourites. However, even by my standards, my top read last year had been out there for a long while; two and a half millennia in fact.

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I think it says a lot about the events we lived through last year that so many books I read were either written centuries ago, or were about ancient history. The past seemed far safer, if only because we know who the heroes were who came along and got rid of tyrants, or which particular gods meted out their own brand of justice. My reading of ancient Greek plays was actually awakened at the end of 2015 but this was the year I finally read the Bacchae, the Oresteia trilogy and the Oedipus trilogy. They are all stories I thought I knew but I had never read the complete plays and was amazed by how much I didn’t know.

I’m also ashamed (due to how much I revere her books) at realising just how much of the ancient myths and texts Mary Renault seamlessly incorporated into her novels about ancient Greece. Now I know why Oedipus appeared in the Bull from the Sea. I long to go back and re read all of her books but have so far limited myself to The Praise Singer as being the one most closely associated with the days of Aeschylus.

Reading plays is not to everyone’s taste, and the skill of the translator can add – or detract – so much from the pleasure. I first read some Homer (a poem rather than a play – or of course a song given how we think they were performed) before I was ten years old. I’m ashamed (again) by how little of the complete plays I read when I got a degree in Ancient and Medieval History (it was too easy to just read the key passages that were quoted in lectures and text books.) In a way though, I’m quite glad. I’d’ve read them for the passages that proved an essay’s point rather than reading them for the love of the story or the language and I’ve lost count of the times I paused to marvel at the imagery they evoked and it was the Oresteia by Aeschylus, particularly Agamemnon that most delighted me.

Here are just a few examples:

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, P76, The Chorus

  • …., and feels
  • Pang and pulse of groin and gut,
  • Blood in riot, brain awhirl,

Do I love this because of my fondness/weakness for alliteration? Or was it reading Homer early on that gave my alliterative appreciation?

Aeschylus, The Choephori or The Libation-Bearers, P119, Just after Electra has said “O fierce flint-hearted mother” she goes on:

  • A husband laid unhonoured,
  • Unwept in a cruel bed.

And a few lines later:

  • And so my father perished;
  • And I, despised, unwanted,
  • Shoved to one side, and shunned
  • Like an ulcerous dog, let flow
  • Tears reckless and unstinted
  • As laughter, sobbing unseen.
  • Let this on your heart be printed
  • When you hear what grief can mean.

It’s always nice to find I’m not the only person to love “un” words.

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I do wish they hadn’t changed from the lovely matt black and gold cover to the glossy black one. Not least because of how hard they were to photograph together

Of the other books I read in 2016, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch was a favourite, and yet another source of bafflement (this post can only contain so much shame) that I hadn’t read them earlier in my life. Dr J recommended The Eagle of the Ninth a few years ago, it was one of the few books other than the Lord of the Rings that he read in his teenage years and directly led to his love of history and his choice of a degree and subsequent career – more proof of how important books are. I loved the Eagle when I read it a year or so ago and was both pleased and anxious to discover she wrote two “sequels.” Pleased because I had loved the book so much, anxious as sometimes an author seems to want to capitalise on a book’s success and spins out further adventures for characters who had the perfect character arc in book one and then have nowhere to go. The Eagle felt nicely rounded for me and so I was delighted to find that the Silver branch followed new characters only loosely linked to the first – in short it was a perfect sequel; adding and enriching the experience of the first book yet a stand-alone adventure that held me gripped with its plot but also her wonderful writing, here again were marvellously vivid descriptive phrases such as;

  • Salt-soaked timber
  • Smoke-blackened atrium
  • Storm-lashed woods
  • Smoke-dimmed sky

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Sparkling prose is of course one of the most famous things about Raymond Chandler’s books, the book covers boast famous descriptions that live in the memory long after the book is finished. He deserves a whole post of his own, how I only read him in recent years, long after reading other books or watching films that spoof his style of dialogue and hard-boiled detective; I’ve seen and been baffled by a few of the adaptations of his own books too but nothing prepares you for the joy of his imagery and characters and dialogue and the world weary jaded eye he casts over his world. If I’m honest, the Long Goodbye didn’t grip me as much as his previous books, I’m not sure I was in the right frame of mind for it and I look forward to a re-read when I’m not puzzling over the plot; but if nothing else, I can thank the book for introducing me to Gimlets. I have no need to worry about getting scurvy any time soon with all the lime juice I’ve consumed this year.

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The final books I shall mention are the Harlequin Romantic Suspenses that I read. I actually didn’t think I’d read as many as I had, because I read none after May when I became absorbed in finishing my own manuscript aimed at this line. I keep a record of all the ones I read with a brief review, purely for my own memory and to help me when working out why some books worked for me better than others and I’m pleased to say that all the ones I read last year scored highly with me. I have no intention of reviewing authors that I hope to be published alongside but I will single out Mel Sterling’s Latimer’s Law (they are arranged in the order I read them in the picture.) The first chapter of this book was entered in Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition in 2012 and it leapt out at me for its freshness, its voice and its complete unexpectedness. I entered my own first chapter on the same Romantic Suspense category but I knew from the moment I read Mel’s work that it was on a different level altogether – I said as much as well before voting had been counted and felt mildly smug when it was one of the 28 short listed chapters, and was proved right again when it became a top three finalist. I can at least spot brilliance, now to just achieve it in my own work…

And here’s to more excellent books (and drinks) in 2017.