One woman’s clutter is another’s motivation

img_0086-765x1024

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.

img_0086-pottery-735x337

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.

img_0086-horses-832x472

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.

img_1897-1024x730

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.

img_0086-bell-and-pumice-1024x240

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?

Advertisements

The logic behind Tangent Alley

IMG_4119 (853x1280)

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

DSC01581 (1280x853)

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.

IMG_8433 (960x1280)

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.

IMG_3751 (2)

IMG_3752 (2)

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.

Q&A

I’m not sure how much you can ever get to know a writer through their blog, website or other social media – or indeed, how much you should want to (writers who have put me off their work, or captivated me with their online persona is a whole other blog post). But I have always enjoyed reading the Q&As that Mills & Boon and Harlequin have asked new authors to complete and I’ve also often pondered my answers to those questions in preparation for when I get published… However it’s taken me so long that Harlequin now have a completely different Q&A that they use on their SOLD blog at their So You Think You Can Write site.

Here are my answers to their old Q&A as far as I can remember them, I do hope I’m not infringing anyone’s rights in using them.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?

Creating complex character in perfect places – and then messing them all up as much as possible.

And being able to work from bed.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE LOCALE OR SETTING FOR YOUR NOVELS? WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT YOUR FAVOURITE ?

As a reader my first “autobuy” books were those set in Greece and I still long to set one there. The countryside always featured strongly in my manuscripts, I love describing nature, sometimes too much (does a love scene need three paragraphs on the colours in the autumn trees?) Then my enjoyment of small town American books with cowboy heroes was combined with frequent trips to the mountains and castles of Wales. It fired a desire to create stories set against breath taking mountains, hidden valleys and secret ruins with close-knit communities of men and women as rugged, resourceful and romantic as the landscape.

WHAT ARE YOUR FIVE ALL-TIME FAVOURITE BOOKS?

  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • The Magus by John Fowles
  • These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer
  • A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré, or maybe The Honourable Schoolboy
  • The Morning Gift by Diana Norman

IMG_0532

DESCRIBE THE ULTIMATE ROMANTIC MEAL.

The most romantic “meal” was with a friend in Cuba. We arrived in Havana after a troublesome internal flight, my friend was poorly, the hotel wasn’t quite as we had hoped – and then we stepped out into Havana and found a tiny restaurant serving the most basic meal of the entire holiday. We sat in an historic square by the light of a full moon, beautiful architecture and history all around us, cheap rough local wine, black beans and rice, and lobster. My friend had to ask me to tone it down as I was moaning in ecstasy after every mouthful and gesturing around me at the perfect setting, lighting and food. Basically I made Meg Ryan look restrained in the restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally.

But the most “romantic” meal was cold roast chicken and salad sandwiches eaten inside a plastic orange bothy during a hailstorm in the Black Mountains in Wales. The sandwiches tasted amazing, as does pretty much anything when you’ve just climbed a 2,500 ft. high mountain, so did the thermos of warm coffee and the Green and Black chocolate. What made it so perfect was partly the location and the exertion, but mostly the person I was with whom I had loved on and off for years and never expected to be climbing a mountain with again. But there I was. And we’re still climbing mountains together, and occasionally building snowmen.

looking back from craig pwllfa to snow shower on twyn du (853x1280)
Looking down on the hailstorm we had to shelter from

One day I hope to combine the two and go back to Cuba, such a romantic place, with my partner. Although as he’s allergic to shell fish I guess a different menu wold be a good idea.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE ROMANTIC MOVIE?

Bride and Prejudice, or The Philadelphia Story. And Romancing The Stone. Oh and Persuasion.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE ROMANTIC SONG OR COMPOSITION?

Fantasy by Earth Wind and Fire or Could It Be Magic by Barry Manilow, or even the Take That Version as it takes me back to a time when I was falling in love for the first time without even realising it.

Or Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations in a lush, over the top, tears to your eyes romantic sense.

WHAT IS THE MOST ROMANTIC GESTURE OR GIFT YOU HAVE RECEIVED?

My partner giving up his dream house so that together we could buy the countryside one I’d fallen in love with.

WHERE IS THE MOST ROMANTIC PLACE YOU’VE EVER TRAVELLED?

See the meal answer – Cuba was amazing, but my spirit soars whenever I see Welsh mountains in the distance (as long as I’m travelling towards them!) And Greece, it’s impossible not to fall in love there

WHAT IS THE SECRET OF ROMANCE

Lust, trust and respect. And keeping those alive by knowing when to give each other space and when to be there for them whilst never taking them for granted.

When my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary we asked them the secret and my mum said it was having separate interests or hobbies so that you always have something to talk about in the evening. They’ve just celebrated 56 years of marriage so something is working.

BESIDE WRITING, WHAT OTHER TALENT WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO HAVE?

Anything musical, I seem to have dated many talented musicians and have no skill myself at all

WHO IS SOMEONE YOU ADMIRE AND WHY?

Sir David Attenborough for so many years of educating and entertaining the world.

I wrote that instinctively a couple of weeks ago, and then recently the comedian, writer, actress, songwriter and all round genius Victoria Wood died. I’m still processing the fact she was taken too young and so suddenly, grief for her and her family is combined with the selfish feeling of having been robbed of all the work she had yet to share. Her ability to make you laugh and cry, often at the same time in comic sketches, dramas and brilliant songs was peerless.

SHARE ONE OF YOUR FAVOURTIE INDULGENCES WITH US.

Just one? After years of living happily alone I do sometimes find family life overwhelming so any alone time is precious and I love every minute of it – and it does make me appreciate the family when they return, mostly… Long baths with a good book and an occasional glass of chilled wine are heaven too.

Oh, and theatre trips to London to see my best friend are indulgent and expensive but essential at least twice a year.

WHAT QUALITY DO YOU MOST ADMIRE IN A MAN?

Broad shoulders and a sexy back are hard to beat.

But more seriously  –  honesty, integrity and knowing you can trust him with your heart. And a similar sense of humour is essential.

WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO, BUT NEVER HAD THE COURAGE TO TRY?

I’d love to have the nerve and talent to sing in public. But would prefer to try hang gliding or parachuting, less scary.

IF YOU WERENT A WRITER WHAT WOULD YOU BE?

Even more frustrated than I am now.

I guess in reality I’d be what I was, a University Administrator. Ideally I’d be an archive conservationist or a dry stone waller.

WHAT QUOTE DO YOU LIVE BY? WHO SAID IT?

A day without laughter is a day wasted.

Charlie Chaplin gets the credit a lot, and occasionally Groucho Marx, but an 18th Century French Writer Nicolas Chamfort expressed it first (& possibly better, my French isn’t that great) La plus perdue de toutes les journées est celle où l’on n’a pas ri.

snowy (853x1280)
The tiny snowman we made out of hailstones and Green & Black’s chocolate