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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Inheritance tracts

This was not the blog post I intended to write this week (and it’s a little later than planned) but a visit to my parents had an unexpected outcome. My mum told me she had some books for me, this happens quite often; books she has read and thinks I will enjoy and lends me. Or more often these days, books she has decided she won’t read again. She has been doing this for over ten years, mostly because she still buys books and is picky about which get to stay. Last time I saw her, only two or three weeks ago she gave me Tom Bombadil and also Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood which I pointed out was actually my copy that she had refused to return as she enjoyed it so much. However I was not expecting her to give me these books:

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They have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can picture them on a shelf in the living room, although mostly I recall them on a shelf by her bed, where all her most treasured books or comfort reads were. Her excitement when she unwrapped Dunnett’s King Hereafter for a Christmas present in 1982 is also clear in my memory, even though she knew exactly what was in the parcel.

I must have taken these books down and looked at them many times; I remember that terrifying leopard so well and being annoyed that Checkmate’s glossy plastic cover did not match the beautiful matt paper of the others, and that its art work was far less imaginative and evocative (great, I was an aesthetic book snob before the age of ten) I also remember being bothered that there were only six books with their chess related titles – where was a bishop or rook one? They were among the only books in the house that I wasn’t encouraged to read, mum treasured them so much and said they were very densely written, and complex – those are compliments – and that they weren’t something to be read too soon. (I made that mistake with the Lord of the Rings, rushing onto it after the Hobbit and finding it very slow going and hiding my copy of Five go to Smuggler’s Top inside it so that mum wouldn’t know I wasn’t enjoying one of her favourite books – I’m not sure if this means I was reading Tolkien too soon, or Enid Blyton too late.)

It was a very odd moment when I was offered these books. Mum said that at nearly eighty she isn’t going to read them again. I haven’t felt such a pang when she’s said similar things about other books and she has been frank and wonderfully sensible about aging, knowing her limitations, not fighting it but adapting with grace and practicality. I just can’t imagine ever giving away my most treasured books like this (and she is of course still holding onto a lot and ordering books every week through the local library so she’s hardly giving up) I just associate these with her so strongly. They take me straight back to my early teens when my dad worked away from home mid-week and my sister and I took it in turns to be allowed to sleep in their double bed with mum; lying there in the morning looking at these magical books with their matt covers, gothic lettering and tantalising illustrations was like peeking into a treasure chest of jewels.

And now they are mine.

I just need a quiet few years to read them in….

I hadn’t realised how much fun I would have with a dictionary when I started this blog, nor just how atrocious my taste for puns and word play would be. This blog title is borrowed from BBC Radio Four’s Inheritance Tracks where a known public figure talks about one piece of music that they “inherited” or grew up with, and then nominates another piece to pass on. I frequently find the stories they tell about why the music means so much to them far more emotive than the music.

I was sure that tract referred to a written piece of work, as well as to an area of land – anyone who loves Monty Python will never be able to forget the allure of a Princess with “huge tracts of land” in the Holy Grail. I had also forgotten until I checked my dictionary that a tract can be a passage in the body – I love my mum but have no wish to inherit her digestive tract. The writerly tract is “a short treatise or discourse, especially on a religious subject” and I feel that at times my reverential approach to books is bordering on worship. I must also remember to look up the definition of short as well one of these days…

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Among other hand-me-down books are my mum’s copies of Winnie the Pooh. Published just after the war they are flimsy and battered but so loved, I have a hardback complete collection that I have been reading to my daughters and while the illustrations are fabulous in this large format, it’s a bugger of a book to read in bed. I have our original copies of the Narnia books – although we had to replace the Horse and His Boy before I was ten years old as I wore it out. Again, I am reading hardback copies to my girls, easier on my eyes and with quite frighteningly atmospheric covers, but I am more attached to the very loved and battered covers on the 1970s versions.

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And then there is mum’s Mrs Beeton. Anyone who visited my flat and was at all interested in the books on my shelves always commented on this one. Partly as it was at eye level but also because there aren’t many books almost as wide they are tall, they also loved the fact that it was called a new edition whilst being the oldest book in the house. I have never cooked anything from it, but again, it was a part of my mum’s bookshelves and something that defined “home” for me for years.

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These then are just some of the books I have physically inherited, there are others I have bought myself and would never have tried if mum, and occasionally dad (he’s only become more of a fiction reader after he retired) hadn’t recommended them and thus I think of them as inherited books. I hope at least one of my daughters loves reading as much as I do and I wonder if I will be able to pass on my mothers’ books to them; which I will allow out of the house in dribs and drabs, and which, to use a slightly morbid phrase, they will have to prise from my cold dead hand? I have a feeling these Dunnetts may be here a long time, alongside Diana Norman, John le Carré, Mary Renault and Raymond Chandler…but it will probably be quicker to list the books I don’t treasure. I’ve only been pondering this topic a few days so maybe I shall write another post if I am able to narrow my selection to one book I have inherited, and another to pass on to future generations. Do let me know any of your inheritance tracts.