Seen in a different light

Most things are worth a second glance, whether it’s a person, a place or an object. Looking again can reveal hidden beauty, or unexpected faults – and as I type this I realise how much this applies to re-reading one’s writing! I’m in the process of editing a manuscript and every time I open it I find another mistake, or I find a piece of dialogue or imagery that makes me think “did I really write that?” (and not always in horror.)

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Oops, that’s was a very early diversion down tangent alley. I’ll admit now that this blog post started as an excuse to post two photos of the same spot but it evolved in my mind into being more about how characters in our writing see things on a second glance, or more specifically, how they have interpreted phrases that can have a completely different meaning years later when more information, or life, has been accrued.

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These two phots were taken at Dolgoch Falls in Wales, the first in March and the second in August 4 years later. It wasn’t a conscious duplication, just a perfect spot to capture the twisted ancient woodland that enthralled me the first time I visited – to me, those moss covered trunks and corkscrew branches reaching up from a deep ravine full of thundering water are the perfect embodiment of all secret woodlands described in books like the Hobbit, the Narnia Chronicles, Arthurian Legend and of course Susan Cooper whose Grey King is largely set just a few miles from Dolgoch.

Apart from being shocked by the weird coincidence of standing in the same spot over four years later, what else do those pictures make me – or you – think? I long to capture the scene in Autumn, or in snow. They make me want to go back and explore the gorge and the river further, away from the easily marked footpaths; but I also want to just sit in that glade and look closer at the ivy and holly clad trees, I want to see if the grass is as soft as it looks, if some of those fallen branches are still there, or have they rotted back into the earth? And just which picture do I prefer? Logically the autumn one has more colour and depth and life, but it was the stark silvery grey silhouettes of the trees that first captured me and which draw me now more strongly.

Obviously the second glance, or the reassessing look is a common trope in romance – not just the cliché of how beautiful the spinster looks when she takes off her glasses and lets down her hair. I’m thinking of the fish out of water scene that often occurs, or the “this is going to be uncomfortable but actually we’re really turned on by the end of the evening” scene. How often do characters have to attend a ball or dress function, or a family meal with everyone on best behaviour? Or the boss and secretary end up in a casual situation and realise how different each looks out of the usual business suit. These are all familiar scenes or plots because it is often exactly at such moments that we see someone we had a fixed view of in a completely different light and have to reappraise our opinion of them; not just the surface looks, but a deeper understanding of their character. Modern romances are not simple enough to fall into a “clothes make the man/woman” cliché but a change of scene or situation can tell us a lot about both the character being seen in a new light, and the one doing the seeing.

I’ve blogged before with pictures of the same location in different seasons, that time I was trying to explore the way seemingly inconsequential memories can add depth to a character, how backstory can be given in fleeting glimpses rather than an info dump, or how the different things two characters see in a room can tell us about their background and expectations. Where I was planning to go this time was to reflect on my current manuscript where both protagonist have had their lives shaped by a key phrase – and by the end of the book they have come to see, or rather to hear, the words differently.

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This is of course something we writers try to do a lot, straightforward seeming conversations can be imbued with subtext for the other characters or for the reader who may already be party to a secret that one of the protagonists doesn’t yet know. I personally love it when a secret or something from the past is revealed and I go back to an earlier scene to reread it in the light of the new information and see a character’s reactions in a whole new light. It is again a crucial tool in giving insight into plot, conflict or motivation.

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I hope I handle it less clunkily than I am trying to explain it now. In my manuscript learning more about the background to the situation, or the people who said the words that shaped their lives is only the start of my character’s dilemma. How do they take that knowledge? If someone else’s words have been so important in shaping their lives, how will they now reshape themselves? A second glance, or fresh light on a familiar view can be refreshing, or terrifying if it reveals aspects we had no idea were there. Balancing the expected with the new, the known with the subtly altered is tricky enough in everyday life, let alone when it is with characters we have created and whose worlds we are turning upside down. But it is exhilarating and literally life changing for them.

Those last two pictures were taken on the same day, I came across them last week when I was looking for photos to illustrate the precise shade of green that I had been coughing up for weeks. I remember that mossy wall deep in Coed y Brenin forest and how the stones looked as soft and inviting as pillows. These were simply taken with different exposures or with and without flash, but they show two completely different scenes. In one the wall is as emerald as I remember it and the rest of the wood could be dressed in springtime. In the other the wall no longer catches your eye, it is the autumnal golds and russets that leap out at you, and the fairylike sparkles of rain caught in the camera’s glare. Each tells a different story, which would you rather read?

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Castles and ruins and interrupted stories

History, archaeology, myth, legend, inspiration and anything else you want them to be. That’s why I love castles. Especially ruined ones. In fact anything ruined. And hillforts or other ancient earthworks. And did I mention standing stones? Or stone circles? Burial sites, graveyards, the remains of abbeys, country houses that date back centuries. Where to stop? (& I won’t even start on the appeal of older men, that’s a whole other ruination…)

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Skenfrith Castle

I think it would be a challenge to find any UK based romantic writer or reader without a picture of a castle, or an ancient monument on their blog or twitter account. They are inspiring, intriguing, mysterious, imposing and unknown  – descriptions that fit many classic heroes. They can be gothic and brooding, or bright and well maintained; small and dangerously crumbly, or massive and easy to get lost in (definitely only talking about castles there.) They are an endless source of inspiration and not just for historical novelists. But my main feeling is always an awareness of a story being unfinished, or interrupted; we can research a castle’s past all we like, but we can’t know a fraction of the lives and stories that have happened within its walls and that thrills and saddens me all at once.

Anyone who tweets a picture of a castle has me at once, (beware of Ailish Sinclair and Louise Marley if you don’t want to lose half a day.) The images and stories capture all of my senses, but it’s much more than my love of the past (which led me to a degree in Ancient and Medieval History,) in fact it’s the opposite of that; the unknown, the things I can never read in a guide book or on a plaque on a crumbling stone wall. It’s the untold story; the tangible awareness of seeing a fragment of a vast story going back in time, and forward as well. How much of these immense edifices will be here long after I’m gone?

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Tintern Abbey

Sure, I love imagining what it must have been like to live there in a castle’s heyday and I’ve stood in roofless banqueting halls or sat in draughty windows and tried to imagine being a lady doing tapestry work by candlelight, or a knight preparing for battle or more likely being a serving wench lugging firewood up three stories of dark uneven stone spiral staircase or mucking out the stables. More than anything, I enjoy finding a quiet corner and just sitting, or standing, and absorbing the place; letting my imagination run riot. Not picturing any particular battle or siege or famous occupant, simply looking at the tiny details as well as the impressive ones. How many thousands of hands have worn that handrail so smooth? Was that hill I can see from this arrow slit wooded centuries ago? Did it always feel this cold? How many generations of swallows have hatched in that nest and where did they roost before this was a ruin?

I would always rather avoid a guided tour in favour of sitting outside with whichever book I am currently reading and letting the noise and presence of the place wash over me. It doesn’t matter what I’m reading, the fiction and the place lull me into a true (for me) appreciation of the past, present and future. People have lived and died – maybe violently – in these paces and somehow by stepping outside of it by reading or just looking and daydreaming it becomes more vivid for me. I suppose I’m trying to capture a fleeting feeling of what it was like to simply live there. Or maybe I’m just enjoying the warmth of sun drenched stones and peace and quiet among other bustling tourists or historians keen to unlock a castle’s secrets. Everyone has different ways to picture or experience the past, I like to sit and remember, both the building’s impermanence, and my own; and to celebrate, just for a moment, being an insignificant part of its ongoing story.

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Castell y Bere with Bird Rock in the distance

The first castles I remember visiting were Caernarfon and Conwy, huge, impressive, easy to get lost in. My main memory is of passageways deep in the walls that were barely wide enough to pass through. Then I visited Chepstow Castle (and Tintern Abbey in the same day) this was all at junior school at must have formed my love of ruins; when I discovered Raglan Castle that was my favourite for years (umm, doesn’t everyone have a favourite castle?) Then there was Castell y Bere; very little of the buildings remain but for location and the immense brooding presence of Bird Rock nearby it can’t be beaten (with the added delight of being where parts of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books were set – I’m so glad I didn’t re read the Grey King before I climbed Cadir Idris in a snow storm.)

Maybe part of why I love the more derelict castles is that sometimes it’s nice to step outside the preconceived notions of historians, archaeologists and other experts and allow ourselves to paint whatever we want onto what is left of the canvas before us. Such an attitude also explains my love of hillforts and stone circles and burial mounds. No one can truly say why they were built, although archaeology helps; but almost anyone who has read enough can make their own informed guess and no one can say they are categorically wrong. It was this (perhaps arrogant) view that made me choose the dark ages as one of my main periods to study.

Ruin is of course a loaded word. “Fallen or wrecked or impaired state,” ruination as a verb means to reduce and ruinous is “dilapidated, bringing ruin, disastrous.” It implies the place has been spoiled, or is decaying. To me it’s still growing, evolving; it may yet flourish anew. I’ve visited and been awed by many cathedrals, but none move me in any spiritual way as much as the remains of Tintern Abbey. If a castle hadn’t been abandoned and left to decay, it might still be occupied and modernised and unrecognisable from its original form.  I’m not trying to be critical, I’ve just puzzled a long time as to why the well preserved castles such as Powis and Conwy don’t enthral me the way the gaping keep at Skenfrith does, or that lonely wall still battling the winds at Dolwyddelan Castle.

 

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Dolwyddelan Castle

Do you have a favourite castle, or ancient site? Or do you prefer a well-kept manor house or country park to visit? Have you written about any, real or fictional? The first two books I wrote featured castles – one ruined, one still lived in. And in my current book the name of a castle looms large, even though everyone has forgotten where it is…