I knew I’d not be posting much over the summer holidays, but I didn’t plan to disappear so suddenly; I even had a couple of posts half written. But then one weekend morning, after looking at my phone for a bit – probably twitter, or the news, or texting a friend – I realised that my vision was a little – odd. Off to one side, low down, not exactly out of focus, not blurred or blacked out, just distorted.
I lay in bed, looking at my vision, staring at the area, closing one eye then another. It seemed to be on the left side and left eye, but even when that one was closed I could see the distortion in my right eye’s field of view. It was as if I was looking through shifting lights, like watching sunlight dancing on moving water and then when you look away the rippling lights are still there over what should be solid.
I knew enough to suspect a migraine and even though my head felt fine I took a pre-emptive painkiller and waited for half an hour as the shimmering lights moved up and over all I could see, fortunately never covering more than a quarter of my vision at a time. And when they had finally passed? Then the searing nauseous headache and nothing for it but to lie in a darkened room for three hours and to wince at bright lights for the next few days.
I didn’t panic too much. I knew I was overdue an eye test and that my reading glasses were no longer strong enough. I maybe look at my phone too often, and at this laptop. Dr J pointed out that the weather at that time was very oppressive and muggy. Many possible reasons. I’ve had a doctor’s appointment and am awaiting test results but I delayed writing this, partly because it seems like tempting fate – as soon as I say it was a one off a month ago, number two will come along.
But there it is, an unexpected reason for not blogging and for being absent on twitter. It may have done me some good to have a break – although nothing can shield one from the horror of global news lately. I haven’t read much either, in case that strained my eyes further; thank goodness for audio books and radio 4 and 4 extra dramas and comedy. I apologise if anyone has missed me, or if anyone is sorry to see me return. The end of the holidays approach and I hope to return to full reading, writing and blogging – health permitting. In the meantime, as these recent pictures of sunlight on water show, it hasn’t been a totally lost summer and maybe a little break from electronic light will benefit more than just my eyes.
Back to Wales and one of my favourite places – well several favourite places – but after Castell y Bere, Tywyn, Ynys-Hir, Pennal and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of Corris in the sunshine, I got back to Dolgoch Falls. (OK, maybe it’s sunny in Corris more often than I think, but I always picture it in mist and/or rain. Or low cloud. Seeing it in under blazing blue skies was weird.)
Last time I posted this glade I tried to tie it in to my writingwriting and the way different people, or different information can cloud, or illuminate something we thought we knew. This time I think I’ll let the pictures and the beauty of the seasons speak for themselves.
Dolgoch falls on 25 March 2008, 22 April 2017 and 28 August 2012.
That’s winter, spring and summer captured. Just to get autumn and snow…
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
It is the little moments, sometimes almost unnoticed as they wiz by, that make up a life. And a year. Globally 2016 wasn’t the greatest (nor the worst) but I wanted to remember the positives that happened personally. When I worked in Oxford I had many commutes over the years; but whether walking, sitting in a traffic jam or waiting at a bus stop, the day could be immeasurably brightened by the smallest or silliest of things. The easiest was a squirrel, anytime, anywhere, even rooting through a bin. When you walk the same streets twice a day you can see the infinitesimal changes in gardens and trees, tracking the growth of furry magnolia buds in spring, or hearing the scuffling of your feet get louder every day as more leaves fall in autumn. I’ve been very lucky to work in places where I can walk through parks or have to cross a river to get to work; the sight of tiny brown ducklings makes me smile just remembering it. Little positives are everywhere and finding the ones that lift your spirit every day, is, I think, one of the secrets of life.
So, after a classic Tangent Alley overlong opening paragraph, here are a few of the things that I had almost forgotten made 2016 sparkle amid the tears and fears. (Quite a few of which are illustrated here in my what we did on our holidays post.)
Climbing the first Welsh One Hundred for a few years. My partner Dr J has a book about the highest one hundred mountains in Wales, and in our first year of dating we added several more to his list of those achieved. Small children have hindered such adventurous walks and climbs for a while so this was a great achievement, especially as our 6 year old walked all the way herself (the 2 and a half year old was in a back pack much of the way.)
Lots of days on beaches –I think of this as mostly for the kids but I had far too much fun building, and destroying, dams on beaches this year.
Many ice creams, even ones that make your tongue go blue.
Many picnics, in woods, up mountains, in the garden. Everything tastes better outdoors and this was the year I finally got to appreciate tuna mayonnaise.
When we gave the girls the choice of what to do on a day out our eldest said “Mummy likes castles and waterfalls best.” I am lucky to have a generous daughter with a great memory – but then I do go on about it a lot I suspect. This year has indeed been very rich in castles.
As for waterfalls, I was treated to a wonderful wet walk at Nantcol in Wales, where I fell in a bog and got filthy feet and loved every minute. I looked at the pictures recently and wondered why I was grinning like a fool in every picture, then I remembered, I was having such a perfect day and wanted to be sure the family knew it. It’s a little alarming to realise my happiest face looks so deranged, but hey, they seem to love me anyway.
Having other people be happy is of course one of the very best things that can happen, that’s partly why I think of picnics as being such a highlight of the year; the glee on a small child’s face when you show them you brought their favourite snack is an utter joy. Who knew scotch eggs and pickled onion flavoured crisps were so valuable?
Sadly this year hasn’t featured as much reading as I would like. It started well with my passion for ancient Greek dram still in full flow, but then I realised those precious two hours when my youngest slept would be better used to write rather than read. As I said, you have to give up something for writing and this year it was my reading. I don’t regret it, but I do miss my books and am determined to find some more reading time (tv watching has already gone by the wayside so I think it will have to be bath time, I don’t like showers but they are a bit quicker – or else I have to get used to reading in the bath again. Since I needed reading glasses the steaming up problem and condensation running down my nose has meant it’s not as easy to lose myself in a book while the bath water goes cold.) Oops, this is supposed to be a positive look back at the year, luckily for me, the few books I did read were excellent and I plan to blog about them later this month.
Speaking of reading though, this was the year I discovered Gimlets, all due to Raymond Chandler. I enjoyed rather more than I should have on sunny evenings, and actually, having just bemoaned the lack of reading time (I think my memory is biased because I’m still reading two books I started in the summer holidays, I know I’m a slow reader but this is ridiculous) I did have a golden patch of reading in the dusky evenings after tea. One memorable night I had to turn on the outside lights as it was so dark but still warm in the garden – sadly the rustling noses by the door when I went in for a top up of my drink put me off staying out too late; mice and gin don’t mix.
A highlight of any year is a trip to London to see my best friend and visit the theatre. This year even more people will envy me when I confess that I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, all due to the organisational skill and generosity of my friend gemmaw700. That trip also deserves its own post, partly due to my first visit to the revamped Foyles where I could have happily spent the day, but also because I have only once before heard an entire theatre gasp in such shock as they did at one line of dialogue and I can’t remember the last time I cried so much with laughter as I did at one scene – the fact it involved a library was just an added bonus.
A few other moments that I have been reminded of when looking for photos to accompany this:
How many people ever actually have the cliché happen to them of a crab nibbling their toes? I did!
And I saw a snow leopard! (Not at the same time as the crab, that would be quite a dream. The leopard was at Dudley Zoo, awaiting a mate, and looking beautifully healthy and content.)
I went back to Avebury, one of my favourite places in the world.
One major thing which has brought me pleasure, (and occasionally stress when I’m late, like this week, oops) has been finally starting a blog. OK, so I’m ten years behind other aspiring writers I mixed with back then, most of whom are now published. But the time was right for me in 2016; back then it would just have been another thing to distract me from writing and to then feel guilty and stressed about when it dwindled into nothingness. I haven’t quite stuck to my Thursday posting each week, but I’m still enjoying it and planning to continue.
The main personal achievement last year, and cause of a great amount of happiness and inner glowing, was that I finished writing a book. OK, the first draft. I have completed books before but this one has been written and – especially the last half – finished with such delight and a drive to get the story out there. It still needs work and I’m not happy with all of it, but the overall story and the characters and what they have to go through still move and excite me (rather than the “oh god I don’t know how to finish this book and can’t wait to see the back of these dammed people” feeling which did rather haunt the ending of a couple of previous manuscripts. These are people I want to revisit in editing and make sure I’m doing their story justice, every time I think of the final scene I feel full of trepidatious (is that not a word? It should be) hope and happiness.
None of these miniscule moments of happiness are meant to in any way diminish the things that went wrong in 2016 or the fact that so many people (individually and as nations) are facing an uncertain future. I’m just trying to remember for myself the little moments that make day to day life brighter and better and that give us hope. It’s why authors are continuing to write; because we all want those moments of escape, and the promise of love helping people to thrive. We’re all looking for our daily squirrel.