What’s on Your Desk

A few weeks ago Alternative Read invited me to share my desk. This is that post.

So…say a few words about your routine, they said. If only I had one! I’ve tried various regimens.

Write until I’m exhausted, never a great plan. Stick to a minimum number of words able to walk away self-satisfied and smug because I’ve got at least that amount of work accomplished. Or write as the muse dictates. Truth is, there is no correct choice. It’s a question of finding what works, and like all designs, sometimes life gets in the way and a change is necessary.

I used to like to write first thing in the morning. I came to struggle with that because I always worried I neglected something, maybe an important email. I try to quickly check email and do a pass through some type of social media early now, so at least it’s not nagging at me. So distracting!

If I have the opportunity I try to write a couple of hours in the morning and a couple early afternoon. If not, then I’ll write when and where necessary. I can work if there’s a television on in the room as long as it’s not a show I’m interested in, but I don’t tend to cope well with music playing. I’ve written during a journey or while visiting relatives. I’ve written for ten minutes or ten hours. Routine…it’s a wonderful dream.

My desk does not look interesting, though I can lower it or raise it as I want so I can choose to sit or stand, a better option then being glued to the seat facing a deadline. It’s not always as bare as it looks in the picture mostly because ‘hubby’ puts papers on there for filing or attention. If I’m peeved, I may throw these underneath on the floor. Don’t worry, I’m joking…partly. I really do chuck some papers into a pile by my feet. Course, I’m always hoping the little guys to the right will help with the filing if not the writing. Hasn’t worked yet.

The pictures above are for enjoyment only. Although always a fan, I didn’t realise how much I’d come to adore Terry Pratchett’s work until I heard of his illness and, subsequently, his death. All but one of these pictures are official (and the odd one for my pleasure only, added because I loved it so much). This is a new house, a fresh start, and I drove my other half crazy getting him to hang these as I wanted.

Death, Rincewind, Errol, Greebo, The Librarian and The Death of Rats all look down from around the Discworld while I work. These and the overcrowded bookshelves at my back are part of a world I love so much. They’re the part of me who loved The Beast because he gave Belle a library.


I write in many genres and I’m pleased to say the latest upcoming titles in the multi-authored Lethbridge-Stewart series (The Brigadier of Doctor Who fame) will include my book, A Very Private Haunting.

http://www.candy-jar.co.uk/books/lethbridgestewarthome.html
My first foray into this universe is available now on Kindle in the short story, The Wishing Bazaar.

The Grimm Truth

I wrote this article for a West Country community newsletter that I used to contribute to regularly. Subsequently, this piece was also accepted for publication by Gothic Fairy Tales. However, little was I to know that its publication in a small Devon paper would result in my receiving fan mail…all the way from South Africa! A North Devon ‘maid’ (as they are often referred to) had moved all that way but continued to pay for and receive local news as a reminder of her true home and the place where her heart lies. She simply adored The Grimm Truth and wanted to thank me for writing it. No one could have been more surprised and delighted than I. Until I began writing novels this was my first instance of anyone outside of the UK reading my work. Who was to know that a simple article would travel such a long way?

*****

Take someone who has not only travelled abroad but also explored many counties in the United Kingdom. Couple this with an extensive interest in writing, and one cannot visit these places without gaining an awareness of the numerous tales and fables that exist, many unique to the areas. For a writer, it is impossible to ignore the tales of King Oberon’s epic battle on Dartmoor and the wealth of legends regarding fairies and pixies in Devon alone. These stories are born out of and are woven into the magic of legend and history. Yet, as adults, we segregate many of them to the realm of quaintness and childhood. Many of us fail fully to comprehend the extent early delights such as Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes are part of that wealth.

It may surprise many to know that the stories we now regard as created for and belonging to children were originally intended for adults only. They were often traditional folk tales with endings that were far more bloodthirsty than their modern-day counterparts. No one saved granny or the little girl in the red hood from the wolf’s ‘great big teeth’ and Sleeping Beauty was not awakened by a kiss, but impregnated by the prince, and even gave birth while still she slept. These stories speak of mysterious times and places, yet they are a tool to reflect incidences in our own lives and history. It was during the Victorian era that these stories began to be rewritten, printed, and delegated to the realm of children’s imagination. However, maybe in this they still serve their purpose for when read to children now, parents are unconsciously teaching their offspring that bad things happen in life, that we have to learn to deal with them, and that with a little luck and maybe perseverance the good guy can still win. Simply, these stories now teach us at an increasingly young age of the world in which we live, and they should not be regarded lightly or dismissed.

A well-known producer of collectable figurines clearly saw the potential of delving into these fantasies and tapping into the darker origins for adults. Consequently, a small series of figurines depicting these story characters combined with the macabre and Gothic, a soupcon of humour and eroticism hit the market as their response. Certainly not to everyone’s taste, a brief mention is not to publicise them, but to draw attention to the fact that these stories are still with us, and their influence remains as strong. In addition, these strange figures delved slightly out of the realm of fairy tales into the neighbouring text of nursery rhymes, these ditties that are regularly told to children of an even younger age. Indeed, some encyclopaedias classify them as verses for children.

Reminded of childhood reminiscences, I particularly recalled a book given to me by my grandmother containing works of the Brothers Grimm who collected stories as a study of their culture. Conversely, Hans Christian Anderson wrote his own stories, though he readily incorporated elements from the world around him. The Brothers were unhappy to find their work often referenced to children as they intended these tales for all. This was a contention they shared with Anderson, though their tales were sometimes considered coarse, while Anderson’s were often moralistic.

Knowing most fairy tales were not originally intended for younger audiences left the question of nursery verses and the origins and original intentions behind these short, entertaining rhymes. Choosing one for research purposes led to some interesting and equally entertaining information and equally if not more disturbing answers.

A few of us may be aware that Ring Around the Rosies was an account of the black plague and referred to the circles that occurred around the eyes; this ends unsurprisingly with people ‘falling down’ (dead). Conversely, how many of us remember Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater? How many of us would be content to read this to our children knowing that the origins are from America instead of Europe, though this may seem obvious since pumpkins were not readily available in England until recent years? Not much to concern anyone there even with the Pumpkin’s connotations of Halloween. Yet, how many of us would happily sit down to read this rhyme to children knowing what the verse actually meant. “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater had a wife and couldn’t keep her” translates into an unfaithful wife; hence, he couldn’t ‘keep’ her. He put her in a pumpkin shell (pumpkin shell in this instance meaning chastity belt) and there he kept her very well.

Incidentally, the face carved in the Pumpkin is to frighten bad spirits away: it is not a bad entity itself. Another frequent mistake: children are not meant to trick you if they do not give them a treat. They are meant to ask for you to give them a treat or for you to play a trick on them: more examples of where traditions have been twisted to suit this modern age. So adults enlightened, children beware!

The truth is many of the rhymes that we once laughed over at bedtime were written using fact, even politics. Many were folk songs or even prayers; many rhymes were direct digs at greed and taxation. Some may have traditional customs. They may also be categorised as lullabies, riddles and tongue twisters among others. All had individual use and intended audience (counting rhymes are an effective aid to learning). Many are synonymous with other cultures though they may appear in a different form or with a substitute character relevant to that country’s history.

Some do not hold up so well in today’s climate. The tale of Miss Muffet, supposedly based on the daughter of an entomologist named Muffet who was frightened by one of her father’s spiders surely helps to instil fear in children of arachnids. Likewise, Peter Pumpkin Eater is seen by some as a form of abuse and the vision of a blind woman running after three mice with a chopper in her hand would be a strange sight for most of us. However, surely it is important to keep these in the context they have been regarded for decades. Once heard as children they became part of our play, have remained constant companions and did us less harm than most images youngsters are subject to today. The sad truth is some of these rhymes have changed over time and may not reflect their original intention. Alas, some origins are lost to us completely and the creators, many of them anonymous, are no longer with us. Still, they should not be discarded. Not many of us look back on them with any emotion other than a fondness. They are an integrated part of our history and, most importantly, they teach us to play with words at an early age.

Incidentally, King Oberon was seriously injured, and Puck still searches for herbs to cure him. If anyone has any suggestions they could be in for some fairy luck, though Puck is not generally thought of as trustworthy.

© Sharon Maria Bidwell, all rights reserved.

Thanks for the memories, James

As it’s October I thought it suitable to mention a writer who has ‘been with me’ since my teens. True, one of the first horror books I ever read was by Stephen King. The book was Salem’s Lot if anyone is wondering. But for a long time, my favourite ‘horror writer’ was James Herbert. When I heard of his death, I experienced that jaw-dropping moment when one doesn’t want to believe the news and can remember the moment as though it happened this morning.

I place the term ‘horror writer’ in quotes because Herbert was never entirely happy with being categorised, and had his share of mixed reviews. He felt any violent or horror-related work met a certain brand of snobbery. It’s a problem I completely understand and why I label my own horror writing as Dark Fiction, precisely because many stories flank other topics and genres.

Some horror writers aren’t, truly, writing what I call horror even if there’s an element of that in the story. Some of Herbert’s work became blended with the paranormal (he said himself that his later works tended to lean to the supernatural), fantasy, and I have always felt a large part of his compositions contained humanitarian questions and shone an ugly reflection on society. In Herbert’s own words, some of what he had to say regarding his motivations and underlying themes might surprise many.

I recall one particular mention of the seemingly oversized rats in his books Rats, Lair, and Domain. The trilogy may have been inspired by a line in Dracula, but the description and size of the rodents came from the creatures he saw in the overrun areas of the East End of London in which he grew up. Having seen ‘Rodents of Unusual Size’ (some readers will know where I borrowed that from and it’s not Herbert), I’m prepared to believe. Some can look bigger or at least match the size of small dogs.

There’s also the issue of how much is too much? Yes, violence (and sex) can be gratuitous but I’ve also believed a writer should ‘write’ and not fear to show something as it is or would be. Herbert wasn’t a writer who feared to call a ‘spade a spade’ and preferred to give an honest portrayal of any scene. Of course, his writing, which was ignored or even banned when first published is thought of as more commonplace now. Books and films deemed once to be adult viewing can now be found in school libraries.

Some readers will be surprised that I read or even like the horror genre, despite my saying constantly that I read anything and everything. Truth is, I grew up on horror books. My teen years were romances (usually Mills & Boon because that was what my friends were reading), Herbert, King, and Steinbeck. I’m serious when I say my library is eclectic.

I suppose in a sense I also admired Herbert because he was a success story — well known and British. The young writer in me couldn’t help being a little envious. So much happened to me throughout those years. My life went through so many changes. What I read during that time is blended with all the other memories. Lately, I’ve felt the pull to return to those roots with my writing. Though to date, it’s been strictly short stories, I plan to try my first Dark Fiction novel soon and I’m sure I’ll be thinking of Herbert when I do.

My tribute will be a simple one: many, many thanks for the memories, James.

Experience something bitter, something intoxicating

2011? How was this 2011? Seems like yesterday and still one of my favourite stories because I got the writing and story just as I wanted. Thinking of including it in a collection.

I also remember sshhhing the husband while putting on the final polish.

My inspiration was the title of the anthology and the ‘Green Muse’ painting by French history painter and illustrator, Albert Pierre René Maignan.

***

Bitter and Intoxicating

Émile beheld the rough lines of age and labour in the hand before him. The network of passing years bisected by a scar and punctuated by torn cuticles threatened to entrap him in a labyrinth of wanting. If only he could capture the essence of that hand, the person it belonged to, in a drawing.

Not so loveable Groot

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favourite films. While I didn’t adore the second installment, I still found much to enjoy, but the trouble with any follow-up is the level of expectation and the pressure to surpass that first experience. It’s a problem every creative person understands too well.

That’s not the subject of this post. Most of us love Groot, but did you know he wasn’t always the adorable character you may think you know and love?

Bad Sex Award

Many have heard of the yearly Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which has been going since 1993 — the purpose to ‘honour’ an author for producing an ‘outstandingly’ bad sexual scene in what might otherwise be an excellent novel. The prize doesn’t include erotic fiction and mainly exists to throw light on often unnecessary sections of sex given a superficial treatment.

This is part of an old post where I drew attention to the 17th Annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award that went to author Jonathan Littell for some hilarious passages in his novel The Kindly Ones. However, some of the sentences aren’t as good/bad as they’ve been in some years and this is a translation from the French, which can affect some meanings. It’s also difficult judging for oneself when reading these lines out of context. Read more on the book and the award at BBC News.

Cringe worthy? Spiteful? Personally, I think it would be a fun award to win and, as they say, any publicity is good, although I’m not sure that’s always entirely true.

However, this I wish to put forward my own contender/winner even though it’s for a book published some years ago:

“She kept a secret spring surrounded by sweet moss, and there he was refreshed.”

And the winner is…

Stephen King for this line in his 5th Dark Tower novel ‘Wolves of the Calla’. It does read slightly better in context but made me roar with laughter so unless that was his intention (and even if it was) this has got to be a dodgy euphemism if ever I heard one. Otherwise, I love the Dark Tower series and finally got to read the whole series in one sitting. I love the character of Roland but my hero is Eddie.

I’m going to keep the award in mind when constructing such sentences.

Shakespeare’s Influence

Couldn’t resist sharing. Think you know Shakespeare? Or maybe you think you’ve never read him, never watched a play, and don’t care to. Maybe you think you don’t know any Shakespeare at all. Think again.

Love or loathe, Shakespeare influenced our language like no other writer. My personal tip is, if you can, visit The Globe (or any theatre) and watch a live performance. His work are plays and meant to be watched rather than read. The Merchant of Venice was one of the many fantastic performances I’ve seen, and yes, I was lucky enough to see it at The Globe on a balmy summer evening. Watch for a fast and fun whirlwind tour of how Shakespeare has influenced our lives:

Amazon Shenanigans

This week I’m simply highlighting some more Amazon Shenanigans. I, too, was fooled by cheap books in the beginning, but this steamroller is now out of control, and is no less damaging. Alas, some writers and even publishers have to rely on Amazon these days, but they’ve done nothing for writers or the book industry overall. I’m not telling anyone what to do, or where to buy, and in some cases there is literally ‘no choice’ but, please, open your eyes. Search online for more related articles.

Love for the Written Word

This week, I’m re-blogging a post I wrote for one of my publisher’s blog (when I was writing for Musa). I think it’s timely as the sale of printed books are on the increase.

I’m here to discuss a friend’s point of view — one that hadn’t occurred to me before. I’m going to wander a bit because I’m also talking books, but it all comes down to love for the written word.

Some people love e-books, some loathe them. I know some hate the term ‘e-book’ and I take that argument on board. A ‘book’ is a bound set of pages. Maybe it would be more accurate to call the electronic file of a book an e-novel or e-story because I don’t feel the presentation affects the content. The story ‘exists’ the moment the author penned it. When one used typewriters or even quills and ink, that didn’t make the story exist any less, although by no definition could hand written or typed pages be called ‘books’.

I’m not against electronic files of books, but I still love paper books. Always will. I admit there’s nothing like a physical book that can be held in the hand. It’s nostalgic. If a gift, we may recollect when we opened a brightly wrapped package, the moment we first set eyes on it, felt that fission of pleasure, and spare a moment’s thought for the person who gifted it. An electronic file, for the most part, lacks the personal touch. An old book, even when it deteriorates with time… Well, those creases in the spine and cover could have been put there over many years of handling and love. I don’t see a scruffy book as one that has necessarily been discarded or ill-used. Also, for someone like me who spends a great deal of time in front of computer screens, then the printed page is a departure from that, although e-readers are improving all the time and this may not always be an issue.

Saying that, there’s room for both formats in my life simply owing to practicality. For one thing, I write e-books and would be a total hypocrite to then say I hate them. I don’t hate them. I would love to live in the kind of library the Beast gave to Beauty in the Disney film — just push my bed and a chair and table into the middle, I’ll be fine — but so far I’ve yet to stumble across any enchanted castles even if I’ve found my Prince Charming. I love all sorts of books from the classics to children’s stories, fantasy and horror, and yes, some romances. I can be fussy about my romances more than any genre, I think, but I do read them along with all the other genres I love — to call my book collection eclectic is an understatement.

Unfortunately, I simply don’t have room for all the books I would love to read and own. I’m one of those readers, who, if I love a book, I struggle to part with it. I’ve relatives who don’t understand this. They feel a book once read or a film once seen is finished with. The story has been told; the reader/viewer knows what will happen, so why read/watch it again. I understand the point, but I disagree with it. A much-loved experience can be enjoyed again. It can be enjoyed more because often one can miss things on a first pass just as an author can during the writing process.

Among my many ‘wants’, I would love to own an entire library of classics. I’ve an abiding love for them. It amazes me when I hear someone say today that they’ve never read any of the literary greats. Black Beauty, Heidi, Pride and Prejudice, Gulliver’s Travels, Oliver Twist…all these books and more were among my childhood reads. I cannot even remember them being referred to as ‘classics’ — they were just books and they were adventures. They took me to different worlds and gave me experiences I would never have had otherwise. I read them alongside stories such as The Water Babies, What Katy Did, Ballet Shoes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I never differentiated. Now they are looked upon as stuffy, and dry, the language outdated. I cannot help feeling that people were better educated, more eloquent and literate when such books were read at a younger age. I was born at a time when almost all parents read to their children, where I was given books for older children than my age, and if I couldn’t read them right away, well I wanted to, and it made me strive to learn. If I didn’t know a word my parents handed me a dictionary and told me to look it up, and yes, I took the time to do so. So these books have remained with me, ingrained.

The electronic format has allowed me to revisit some of these classics I’ve lost through moves, through lack of space. I am grateful. They are adventures and memories revisited, and I can keep them in virtual ‘space’. Although I still often buy my favourite authors in print, I have branched out and discovered others owing to electronic formats. I would prefer a world where there wasn’t an argument for or against, but where all can live in support and cooperation. In an advanced society, life is about individual choice.

My thinking was personified when speaking with a friend of mine. This friend is in his seventies and he recently bought an e-reader…and adores it. His reason is simple — he has struggled to read a book for some time. His eyes aren’t quite as they used to be and there may be other factors in his health, but whatever the reason, he can ‘see’ the words better on his reader as opposed to looking at a printed page. He can also increase the font size if need be, or zoom in. His reader has made his whole reading experience come alive again, and where he had as good as given up reading, or took a long time to struggle through a single novel, he’s reading again…devouring books, and what I saw in his eyes as he told me all this was joy.

So I’m just putting this thought out there for those very much against. Maybe e-books and e-readers aren’t for everyone, and for some, they may never be, but I think this proves that it’s pointless to criticise the needs of another person and that none of us can know what we may one day need ourselves. Should there be anyone saying they’d rather give up reading than commit sacrilege and read electronic books, then I can only think nose, spite, face. I could never give up reading. I’ve never heard such venomous arguments over audio books, which many people enjoy who aren’t blind and who don’t have seeing difficulties. The argument may stem from fear — a dread that the production of printed books will one day cease, and I understand that emotion well. Without printed books, this would be a poorer world, but one cannot ignore the increase of electronic formats — something I knew would take off long before the first e-reader was even conceived. Simply, there may come a time where e-readers exist alongside things like audio books and are considered as commonplace, where they’re a lifeline for some, and — just as someone brought books into my life to enrich it — in my ‘book’ that makes their existence tolerable and even worthwhile.

Perfect sentences

The power of a single sentence can make a whole book not only memorable in the short term, but a forever favourite. The perfect sentence (or paragraph) can be humourous, insightful, frightening, heartbreaking, or a combination of these and many more. The right sequence of words can convey a thought process, the whole subtext of a novel, and/or make the reader look at the world a different way. I’ve kept some novels simply because I felt the book contained a perfect sentence, one that resonated. The writer cannot get too engrossed with creating the correct phrase, however, because he or she would never complete any work. Fortunately, for everyone, sometimes the magic happens anyway, but one sentence that means the world to one reader will be meaningless to another. All our experiences differ. As unique individuals what we appreciate and what has meaning varies as much as our personalities. Life would be boring if the situation were otherwise.

One such perfect sentence for me is toward the end of Poppy Z Brite’s, Drawing Blood. “The art was in learning to spend your life with someone, in having the courage to be creative with someone, to melt each other’s souls to molten temperatures and let them flow together into an alloy that could withstand the world.”

This is perfect to me because it reveals the human condition, of the struggle to withstand and sustain life, and includes a simple but well-presented explanation of why for many of us we find it important to create and to love. We may not need books, music, art etc., or even require companionship to exist, but we need them to ‘live’. The above sentence takes something fundamental to most of us and presents it in an untarnished, descriptive, and beautiful way.