Did I ever tell you that I love a good story dream?

Did I ever tell you that I love a good story dream?

Time was that I used to have lots of story dreams, some based on real events, some completely fantastical, usually episodic across consecutive nights. Of late though, I’ve been having fewer of these, and when I do, they haven’t been as memorable.

Last night though, I was attending a writer’s conference with all my old university cohort. Jon Scotcher was there and was trying to talk to me about eBooks but could never quite get to talk to me because some really annoying lady (who seemed to know me, but I had never met before) kept on pestering about me about her own experiences of being published.

I went to college in the middle of a Cheshire field, but for some reason the Creative Arts Reunion Writers Conference (I have no idea if that’s what it was called but it describes it quite well) was being held up the Queen Elizabeth Lecture Theatre – a surprisingly auspicious name for a temporarily constructed room erected prior to major campus redevelopment – which post-dated our time at College, and was in fact located in a now demolished building in the old two-story bit of Darcy Building at Oxford Brookes University. It didn’t seem to matter that we were existing in the same time and space as the new pubic plaza at the front of the new entrance…

After the plenary we broke out into discussion groups which seemed to bring in people who worked in the National Trust volunteer office, and I was very excited to see the new working holiday brochures with some of Emma and my wedding photographs from Craflwyn Hall.

We had been booked into one, massive hotel somewhere but we were being switched and I got a taxi with some of my course-mates to the new hotel on Above Bar street in Southampton…

…only at this point did it occur to me that this was some crazy, mixed up writers’ conference. Still, if you’re going to have a crazy, mixed up conference then it might as well be for crazy, mixed up writers.

Alphabetical: the story of the ox-house

Alphabetical: the story of the ox-house

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I have enjoyed dipping in an out of this book a chapter – or should I say a letter – at a time since Christmas. The history of, and the stories behind, words, letters, and languages are fascinating and this book is every bit as fascinating.

I never realised that, to take its actual, literal meaning, the alphabet is an ox-house! And there are so many other gems that its hard to single them out. Each chapter concerns the history and story of one letter, and then Michael goes on to use the letter to tell some other story about how language has evolved. He goes back to the earliest cyphers and rune markings right up through letterpress and mass publication to the 21st century texts and tweets of the digital age.

Next time you send a tweet, stop for a moment, and think of it as a telegram of old.

A dark tale, set in the dark, dark woods

A dark tale, set in the dark, dark woods

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This is the second in the Crowfield trilogy by Pat Walsh – a series of books that pitches religious beliefs with beliefs of magic and the fae world. Our hero is Will an orphan who finds himself under the guardianship of the monks of Crowfield Abbey, but his real, true companions are Shadlok – a fay trapped in this world and bound to Will for as long as he lives – and ‘the hob’whom we both met in the first book of the series.

It’s a dark tale, taking place in the woods (don’t all fairy tales take place in woods…) and the crumbling abbey, threatened by some dark magic. When the church collapses and monks die it is largely because they haven’t listened to Will when he talks of dark magic, as they prefer to have blinded faith in their God who does nothing to help them at their hour of need.

The language of the book is immediate and now, but in its tone succeeds in reflecting the darkness and senses of the medieval world.

Back to Basics

Back to Basics

Back in the day I learnt my photography on a secondhand Practica 35mm SLR camera. About the only automatic function that I had was a little lever to check the exposure, other than that it was all manual. I’m not saying that I ever completely grasped the business of f-stops and ISO settings but I at least was able to fiddle with them and see the difference happening actually inside the camera before my clicking my shutter to a shot that I had some degree of certainty in.

Digital is a different kind of skill, but related (or at least related in a forgotten kind of way). I want to not forget. I want to be able to learn how to use my DSLR camera in a way that means I can fiddle quickly with manual settings have more chance of getting the shot that was in my mind’s eye.

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And there’s the thing. Anyone with a half-decent digital camera can, come up with picture-perfect, stunning shots – the kind of shots that most of us would, year’s ago have dreamed of getting. But year’s ago (and by year’s, I mean actually, not that many years – 15 years maybe, tops, which is actually not that long…) film and developing were expensive and unless you were a photoholic like me you would only take one or maybe two shots of a subject.

Even so, now, if you have an idea in mind for a project – an illustration, brochure, or poster – and you need some source material to work from (and you can’t go and take it yourself) you’d be surprised at just how often when you look at the various online galleries and stockphoto websites there are lots and lots and lots of images that are all very much the same. Only the very few capture the idea that you dreamed up in your mind.

Which leaves me to think that whilst anyone, given some good kit and the opportunity can take a very, very, good photograph of something, only a very  few can take a truly unique photograph. Because that skill is in the mind, not the camera. That skill would be very nice, very nice indeed, to have.

 

The Mysteries that Shroud the old Green Knowe

The Mysteries that Shroud the old Green Knowe

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Lucy Boston’s first and original book, The Children of Green Knowe has long been a favourite of mine – a ghost story with a hint of fantasy set in the quietly mysterious Fens. Six years ago I visited the actual Green Knowe house and had a tour of the Norman manor house in Hemingford Grey by Lucy’s daughter, Diana Boston.

The second book in the series, The Chimneys of Green Knowe is a similarly fantastical time-shift story, but this third installment lacks for most of the story any of the ghost or fantasy elements of the story.

The story concerns a new set of children who are visiting the house for the summer, but it is a story that is for the most part less about Green Knowe but the river that surrounds it and concerned with the adventures, discoveries, and the people that the children meet whilst messing about on the river. Mrs Oldknowe, the old lady of the earlier stories, is mentioned only once in passing is not until the last short section that the house takes on its old, mysterious persona.

For all this it is absolutely beautifully and sumptuously written, and a delight to read, and makes me want to go back and explore the real gardens with its strange topiary that really could come to life upon a moonlit evening.

A Quest to find that Inspirational Teacher

A Quest to find that Inspirational Teacher

However much we either liked or hated school, we all have favourite teachers from our school days. And a lot of people – and probably all creative people – had inspirational teachers. I’ve had a few in my school days… Mr Butcher, Mrs Turley, Mr Goodwin, but the one who stands out for me as being someone to encourage my writing was Mrs Batterbee aka. Olivia Batterbee aka. OJB.

My first completed book, Ruins Of The Old, which I entered into both my A-Level Art and English as coursework (the words for English, and the illustrations/binding for my Art), was dedicated to those three initials: O.J.B.

I always vowed to dedicate my first properly published book to her too. After all, she encouraged my stories, even after I left middle school, and even kept me supplied in yellow exercise books in which to write them for a time. As it turned out when I came to publish The End Of All Worlds two years ago I dedicated my book to my wife Emma (after all she is the one who has for seven years put up with living with a writer so it seemed only fair to reward her in some way), but those initials O.J.B. did last on to close out the the acknowledgments section.

I’ve been meaning for years, and I mean years, to try and get back in contact with Mrs B, and having published my first novel, and had it read by people who don’t know me from Adam, it seemed kind of appropriate. But you know how it is, one thing drives out another, and I never did, until…

We were back in Suffolk at the end of November last year, and my Mum had managed to get hold of her address from some other teacher ex-colleagues and so I participated in a bit of drive-by letterboxing of my novel into her house in Lowestoft. I simply inscribed a copy of my book, included a short note with it, and tucked it into a jiffy bag. I sat back and waited for a response.

And waited, and waited… I figured in the end that I must have got the wrong house or she had moved. It never once crossed my mind that she might have thought I was some freaking weirdo. So anyway, last week I wrote a letter to her and posted it off. And this morning I got a response. Not the response I wanted, but encouraging that someone took the time to send my letter back.

It turns out Olivia (now Wood) sold the house in July 2013 and moved to be closer to her son. They also said that they had taken my book to her solicitors (and gave me their names) to forward on, as they didn’t have a forwarding address. If only I had been a bit quicker off the mark with my drive-by letterboxing!

The book that Jesse might have written

The book that Jesse might have written

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This is a fantastic, thoughtful, and insightful read about some not so likeable characters. That is not to say that it is impossible to like Jimmy, Chrissy, or their love story of a road trip as they cross America – just that you can see all to well how easy it would be for either of them to find reasons to dislike the other. In that I guess its all too much life. Which is why, although I wouldn’t want to be Jimmy, its also a really good read.This is Ethan Hawke’s second novel. More commonly known as an actor who found fame in Dead Poets Society and his role in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and it’s two sequels, which he also co-wrote – it is this last fact which is why I came to read Ash Wednesday.

In the Before Sunrise films, Hawke plays Jesse, a writer, and I felt greatly that this book could easily have been one of Jesse’s books with the way that he observes quite candidly the every day life of ordinary people. I’ll definitely be seeking out his first novel to read and any more that he comes out with.

The perfect beginner’s guide to the Norse gods

The perfect beginner's guide to the Norse gods

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Vikings have had a resurgence of popularity in the last few years, as have the interest in the old Norse legends – just witness the new exhibition about the Vikings at the British Museum. This book from 2002 serves as a brilliant beginners guide to the joys of the Norse legends and stories of Viking gods.

Although I have long been a fan of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s work and retellings of old myths, I hadn’t heard about this book until I stumbled upon it at my local library. It is immediately readable and entertaining series of individual short stories that have a common thread that runs through them, from the creation through to the end, or Ragnarok.

And, just as in Joanne Harris’ Runemarks books, you will not fail but love the trickster God, Loki by the end of him, and be ever so wary of Odinn.

An unexpected pleasure

An unexpected pleasure

The-Islands-of-Chaldea-UKThe Islands of Chaldea by  

The appearance of this book has been an unexpected pleasure for any Diana Wynne Jones fan, being the book that she was working on when she died, and for that you can forgive it if it is not the greatest Diana Wynne Jones story. Completed by Diana’s sister Ursula Jones, she admits in the afterword that at some point Diana’s story stopped dead with no notes…

I am pleased to say that you cannot tell where that join is, although in retrospect I do have an idea of where that might be. I’m not going to divulge my theories though as I wouldn’t want to affect any reading of the story.

There are elements of Charmed Life the story with Aileen discovering who she is, in a classic quest story that sees her travelling through the islands of Chaldea and meeting the guardians of the islands and representatives of each. And like the magic in the story, its all bound together in classic Diana Wynne Jones-style, and wit.

A story straight from daydreaming over rockpools

A story straight from daydreaming over rockpools

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By the author’s own admission she wrote this story because she had “a bee in my bonnet for ages about feeling I had the right to criticise the novels of other people when I’d never tried writing one myself”. What I found was an interesting idea of a story that hadn’t been fully worked out, and, where necessary paired down – there’s the old adage that less is more – and which had been Indie published without going through editing it, and editing it again (and again…) for not just objective typos, but subjective ways of telling the story. The different races in the story had tricky names that I didn’t know, or have any clue, as to how to pronounce and they kept on tripping me up and breaking the flow of my reading.

That said it is a really interesting idea. I can imagine the author spending hours if not day on the seashore, just a long the strandline, maybe rock-pooling, and imagining what lives the little creatures that live in this strip of sometimes-land and sometimes-sea might have. The book is teaming with beautifully written passages, never more so than when Seren is down in her cove.

This is a book I wanted to love, but had some awkwardness to it, that has stopped me from anything more than liking the idea, wanting more of the good, but just a lot more editing.

Interview with Alice Nuttall, author of ‘Spider Circus’

Interview with Alice Nuttall, author of 'Spider Circus'

spider-circusAlice Nuttall is a PhD student at the university where I work, and it was a colleague of mine who pointed me in the direction of her debut novel, Spider Circus. I am really glad that I was because I found her book gripping and thrilling from the beginning – you can read my review here. After chatting about her book over email and Twitter, I’m really excited that Alice has agreed to do an interview with me about it, her writing, and her influences.

TS: First off Alice, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we (always a good place I find). You’re at a party and you have to describe your book to a stranger. What would you tell them?

AN: Spider Circus started as a long series of ‘what ifs’. What if a circus didn’t just travel between towns, but between different worlds? What if a girl who’d lived an ordinary, boring life in an ordinary, boring village ran away and joined that circus? What kinds of things would she see? What dangers would she face? Spider Circus grew out of those thoughts, as well as some ideas that I’d already been working on. Out of all those different thoughts, I got the story of Lizzie, a girl who joins a circus that turns out to be even more magical than she’d expected.

TS: I loved the idea of *jumping* between different world’s and the circus that also moved between them. For me it reminded me so much of Diana Wynne Jones at her creative best. How do you feel about that comparison?

AN: I’m a huge fan of Diana Wynne Jones’ work, so being compared to her is a real compliment -her novels, especially the Chrestomanci series, have been such an inspiration to me.. In fact, I was a little worried that my work might be a little *too* like hers – I only read Homeward Bounders for the first time after I’d completed an early draft of Spider Circus, and I was scared people were going to think I was plagiarising! However, I realised that there are so many stories which explore the idea of parallel worlds (His Dark Materials, the Narnia books, the TV series Sliders, to name but a few) – I just had to make sure that my dimensionals’ journeys took them to different places than their predecessors.

TS: I really know what you mean about not wanting to be thought of as plagiarising. I’m writing a book that use Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer as a base and is inspired by Jones’ Fire & Hemlock but it is a different story. You’ve said that all your stories will be set in the same multi-verse – I like that! Did you want to elaborate on that? I assume the stories might be completely separate but with links…

AN: Basically, I want the best of both worlds – to be able to tell very different stories, but with a few subtle connections between them that people might pick up on. One of the less subtle connections is the village of Middlewick, where Lizzie lives; it’s also the location of my short stories, Free Gifts and Daisy’s Demons. I’ve got a few more stories that I’m planning to set there, and am currently working on another that reveals why strange things tend to happen in that particular village.

Characters are another connection; there are so many characters that I want to write about in greater depth. The sequel to Spider Circus will focus on Damien, and the third novel in the series will be about someone who’s currently a very minor character (although Lizzie’s still going to have a major role – she worked her way into the heart of this story, and she isn’t going anywhere any time soon!) I also really want to write a Doctor Scott story, I have a feeling it’d be a lot of fun.

TS: This all sounds like a lot of fun! And yes, I approve of having lots of inter-vaguely-conncted stories. Which brings me on to my next question… Just where do you get your ideas from, and how long do they sit in your head for brewing? What’s your weirdest idea for a story?

AN: I’m not always sure where I get my ideas from. Most of them just seem to filter in from the world around me – things I do, people I speak to, books I read, they’re all potential sources. Sometimes I get an idea and write the story immediately, in near-finished form -this happened with Free Gifts and Daisy’s Demons. Most of the time, though, the ideas sort of have to percolate in my head. I’ve had various ideas for the Shadows series kicking around since I was fourteen years old, and all that time of writing and rewriting hasn’t just helped me improve my style; it’s helped me sort out which of the ideas are worth hanging onto, which need changing, and which really, really needed to go.

As for the weirdest idea I’ve had… I’m kicking around the idea for a short story about a secret cloning project in Oxford, because I’ve noticed that so many of my friends from out of town seem to have Oxford doppelgangers. But I need to do a bit more scientific research before I can write that one.

TS: Interesting! I wonder what it is about Oxford as a place that makes so many writers create these alternate versions of it…? Lots of writers also create playlists for their novels now. Firstly, do you do this, and if so what might we find on the playlist for Spider Circus? Also, how does music inspire/effect your writing in general?

AN: I don’t make specific playlists, but there are various songs/bands I listen to when I’m writing. For action scenes, I listen to lots of melodramatic orchestral metal, like Nightwish. For serious/emotionally angsty scenes, I often listen to Dresden Dolls or various songs from musicals (my current favourite is “Let It Go” from Frozen). I have a pretty strange taste in music, my MP3 has everything from Disney songs and TV themes to metal and classical.

TS: Eclecticism is good in my book. An insight into the *real* Alice now. What little nugget would you like to reveal about yourself that your readers might not know. What makes Alice really tick?

AN: Ooh, that’s a tricky one… I’m a bit of an introvert (which is SHOCKING in a writer, I know), but, just to be contrary, my favourite hobby – other than writing – is going out and lindy-dancing with loads of people until the small hours of the morning. I’m very fond of debating things (not in the public, competitive sense, but in the “this is a really important social justice issue!” sense). And I like sitting in corners and loathe sitting with my back to a crowded room, which is probably a bit weird.

TS: I thought all a writer’s writing was the inner-extrovert of the introvert? And why would you want to sit with your back to a crowded room? Getting near the end now, and you’ve mentioned on Twitter previously that you and your uncle have been trolling each other for your entire life and that it his fault that I got kicked out of a wedding when you were two. What’s the story behind that?

AN: Hah, this is the story of my earliest memory. My uncle has always been a massive joker, and he particularly likes convincing people of silly things (for example, he once convinced my grandma that there were serious plans to lay the Millennium Eye down flat so people could use it as a roundabout). When I was two and about to go to this wedding, he told me that at weddings, people always shouted “SPEECH!” – but he didn’t tell me at what time (which I think was deliberate).

So, the wedding was underway, the bride had walked down the aisle, the vicar was about to start talking -and suddenly, two-year-old me starts yelling “SPEECH! SPEECH! SPEEEEEEEECH!” at the top of her voice. My grandma had to carry me out of the church because I simply would not stop.

TS: Great story! I hope you got your own back on your uncle… *grins* Not only content with writing your novels you’re also studying for a PhD aren’t you. How does the one effect the other?

AN: I study children’s literature and postcolonial literature – it both does and doesn’t affect my writing. I’m really interested in the representations of non-white characters in children’s literature, and read a lot of work by authors like Joseph Bruchac, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Malorie Blackman, bell hooks and others. That said, though, I didn’t sit down and think “I’m going to write a fantasy story with a black heroine!” – Lizzie just appeared in my head as she is in the book. I very rarely make decisions about my characters, they’re too strong-willed for that.

TS: I love it when characters tell *Me* what the story is! This has been a really interesting interview, and I hope you’ve enjoyed answering the questions as much as I have asking them. What one last thing would you say to someone who was thinking of reading Spider Circus (and they should)?

AN: Ooh, that’s a tough one…my stories are so much part of me that I always feel like anyone who reads them has had a brief wander around inside my head. So, I hope they find it an interesting and worthwhile journey!

Spider Circus by Alice Nuttall

After an argument with her mother, Lizzie McCoy runs away and joins a circus – but instead of travelling to different towns, she soon finds that this particular circus moves between worlds. In her new role as wiredancer, Lizzie sees magic, dragons and predatory horses, and finds that the Ringmaster Jack is running more than just a show…

Biography

Alice Nuttall is a tea-swilling, lindy-hopping, perpetual student who lives in an attic in Oxford. She has been writing since she could hold a pen, and currently divides her time between working on her novel, finishing her thesis, and unjamming photocopiers.

Connection on the tracks

Connection on the tracks

On Jack FM this morning, Caroline Verdon was talking about how she  as on a train at the weekend and over-hearing the conversation of two strangers nearby, and the obvious connection that at they had, but then the disapointment that she felt when, at Didcot, she got off the train without any exchange of telephone numbers.

Meeting on a train is the stuff of nightmares in real life. How many times have you sat in your seat and prayed that no one will talk to you and break into your personal space? And yet its also the stuff of story fantasy. Take my all time favourite film, the 1995 film Before Sunrise, for example, a film where they talk, talk some more, and talk until they maybe, possibly get together. Caroline’s report this morning reminded me of a real-life version of this film. We will never know now whether these two ever see each other again since their parting at Didcot…

You can form lasting friendships on trains though, as I myself have proved. Twenty-one years ago on a much-delayed British Railways Cross-Country train from Crewe to Norwich (so late that instead of reaching my onward destination of Lowestoft in time for tea, my mum and dad had to collect me from Norwich after midnight!) I met my friend Carole – she a strudent in Liverpool. We struck up a conversation, and became friends. We saw each other a couple of times after that and  have exchanged Christmas cards and letters every year since then. And now with Facebook we are more in contact.

So friendships formed on trains are not just the thing of storybooks or wish-fulfilment on the count of fellow-passengers Maybe this couple that Caroline saw will find themselves again. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they heard the story on the radio too and got in contact?!

Can one device really do everything?

Can one device really do everything?

Apparently, the end is nigh for Apple’s iPod. I find this surpring. Yes, I know that the modern smartphone is often not much smaller than a small tablet, it makes calls, plays music, and you can read books on them and take photos…

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But really, does the smartphone do all of things?

Again, really? Really?!? Apps and webserving? Yes, but do enough and you’ll soon find yourself wanting more. Books? Again, yes but the pages are small. Camera? Yes the quality is getting better and better but it still limits you with what you can, and so often with not even as much functionally as the old instamatic cameras of old. And they play your music too…

But here’s the thing. The largest, high-end, smartphone takes what 64GB tops. Most are much smaller, 16GB if you’re lucky or less, and that you have to keep all your apps, browsing cache, pictures, ringtones, documents… everything! Before you get to music storage.  My iPod takes 80GB of music and its pretty much full – my entire music collection. Unless you enjoy wrestling with the unweildy beast that is iTunes (and who does?) to decide what you might want to listen too and sync your music regularly then its simply not enough space.  And if you do like syncing your music daily, well, surely you might find i easier to go back to CDs. If I’m going to store my music on any device, then I want to store all my music on said device.

Some might counter this argument with saying, well you can store it in the cloud. Yes, yes you can, but that’s only going to work if you can get to the cloud. I’ve been using buses quite alot recently, and i’ve noticed that even when they offer free wifi in places itsnot seamless and straightforward and can cannot be replied upon for speed of access. Mobile internet too is, or can be, flaky at the best of times, and costly too.

And what of batteries. It may be nice to just carry one pocket-sized device with you but if you are using it intensively then the batteries going to be exhausted faster. And then what do you have? I like to have my dedicated devices: my camera, my tablet, my iPod, my phone, and my kindle (or actually, probably, more often than not, a book.

So for me, no the end is not nigh for my iPod. In fact I might need to uprade to a bigger one!