How to play with time creatively

Victoria Park cr Judy DarleyIn today’s guest post, author Kat Gordon talks us through how she went about weaving together different time periods in one narrative for her debut novel The Artificial Anatomy of Parks.

At its heart, my book The Artificial Anatomy of Parks is about family secrets and the damage they cause, and is told through interweaving narratives in the past and the present. The Parks are a larger-than-life, eccentric family, and Tallie – the protagonist – begins the novel as a young woman already estranged from them.She hears of her father’s heart attack, and visits him in hospital where she runs into other family members and is gradually drawn back into their world.

The more time she spends with them, the more she remembers her childhood, and teenage years, and the reason behind her estrangement, until she makes the decision to uncover what she sees as the biggest secret her family have been keeping from her: everything that happened the day her mother died, and how her mysterious Uncle Jack was involved.

Here are a few of the things I learned as I was writing the novel.

Innocence versus experience creates humour as well as poignancy

I knew from the start I wanted to depict Tallie, my protagonist, both as a child and an adult. When you’re writing from the perspective of children, you can have them say or do almost anything, because they don’t have the same sense of social niceties.

Most of the lightness in the novel comes from the dramatic irony of the adult Tallie recounting the younger Tallie’s actions and reactions with the benefit of hindsight and maturity. I think this distance is where the humour lies, and I really wanted that element in the novel, which covers some fairly dark territory at times. Weaving the two storylines together rather than having a more straightforwardly-linear narrative also allowed me to juxtapose Tallie’s happy childhood memories with her present day experience, lending poignancy to the narrative.

Victoria Park1 cr Judy Darley

You need to balance your timelines

On the other hand, when you’re writing adult characters they can analyse events better, and think about what’s happening around them in a more complex way, which is also very satisfying for the writer. On top of that, their actions can take on an added level of significance, either positive, or destructive, because they understand the concept of consequence, and that was very important for the pacing of the present-day narrative.

The narrative in the past follows Tallie from age five right up to twenty-one, five weeks before the novel starts, so it was always going to have a sense of progression and momentum, because we see her change so dramatically. The present-day narrative takes place over a period of roughly one week, so it could have felt too quick, or, given Tallie’s passive mindset at the start (she’s come to accept her lack of friends and family, and her unfulfilling job), it could have felt too slow. From the beginning, I was conscious of the fact that at some point in the present-day timeline she had to make a decision to become more active (knowing full well the risks and consequences involved), and that would be when the book kicked up a gear. It’s her decision to find Uncle Jack, who set everything in motion when he suddenly appeared all those years ago, that drives the book towards the big reveal at the end.

While I was doing the synopsising (more on that below), it also became obvious that I needed more of the present day (it was originally set over only three days), and that I needed to emphasise that arc so that it gained more of an equal weighting with the past (younger Tallie goes from happy, trusting and affectionate to unhappy and isolated; present day Tallie moves from brittle and damaged towards reconciliation, but that was getting lost).

You don’t want your readers to skip over one of the storylines to get to the other because they’re not as fully invested in it.

The form can help create suspense

Adult Tallie is able to drop hints about significant events – accidents, strangers arriving unannounced – in the past of which her younger self is blissfully unaware at the time. But also switching between the different time periods creates cliff-hangers, as the action in either the past or the present is interrupted for the other storyline.

These interruptions were something I could play up (for instance, by having adult Tallie comment directly on what’s just been happening in the past before the switch), or play down as I liked; in the middle section, just before Tallie starts trying to find Uncle Jack, I had a succession of very short scenes that switched rapidly between the two timelines, and that was meant to suggest her fractured, unsettled emotional state. So the form is really very useful on many levels!


Rather than writing the two narratives separately, I wrote The Artificial Anatomy of Parks as it reads, alternating between the younger and older Tallie’s perspectives. When I’d finished, I wrote detailed synopses of each scene on flash cards, and laid them all out on the floor (it took up a lot of space!). This really helped me concentrate on the pacing and allowed me to work out whether the revelations were happening at the right points; if something seemed to be happening out of sequence, I moved the cards around until it felt right.

If you’re setting the scene for a big reveal at the end (in my case, the big family secret), you have to make sure it’s ‘foregrounded’ throughout the novel, but subtly (you want to pique the reader’s interest, but not let them understand everything until the very last moment).

So although it can be time-consuming and nowhere near as fun as writing, synopsising is definitely something I’d recommend if at any point you’re worried about structure and pacing. In fact, for someone who is so terrible at timekeeping and organisation in real life, I’ve come to realise just how essential those two factors are in writing!

Kat GordonAuthor bio

Kat Gordon was born in London in 1984. She attended Camden School for Girls, read English at Somerville College, Oxford, and received a distinction in her creative writing masters from Royal Holloway. In between, Kat has been a gymnastics coach, a theatre usher, a piano accompanist, a nanny, a researcher and worked at Time Out. She has spent a lot of time travelling, primarily in Africa. Kat lives in London with her boyfriend and their terrifying cat, Maggie. The Artificial Anatomy of Parks will be published by Legend Press on 1st July 2015.

Iceland dusk with Catherine Knight

Hrisey, 12.26, oil on board cr Catherine KnightThere’s a certain kind of view that seems to me to resonate. It’s to do with time of day, and the air against your skin, but also the stillness that seems to resonate from a very tightly wound place at the heart of the scene.

Certain artists have the power to capture that sensation – set it on paper or canvas or board so you can stare at it whenever you need to sink into a moment’s stillness, then emerge and carry on.

It’s a power that Catherine Knight’s works hold, not least her stunning series of Hrisey paintings completed while on a residency in Iceland.

Hrisey, 12.36, watercolour on paper cr Catherine Knight

Hrisey, 12.36, watercolour on paper © Catherine Knight

“I have always loved painting and looking at paintings,” she says. “I read the biographical details of artists who I admired and try to work out how I could do what they have done, in particular, the lives of female artists. I am currently reading the biography of Tove Jansson and am inspired by her novels and the landscapes in which they are set. I read whenever I can and think that the escapism of a novel mirrors that of painting.”

It’s an interesting thought, but gaze at any of her works and you can lose yourself in it, if only for a few seconds.

In pursuit of this goal, Catherine studied Fine Art to Masters level at Bath Spa University, “which honed my practice,” and since then has had a studio at BV Studios in Bristol. “I work alongside other painters and support my practice with part-time teaching. Seeing other artists work always inspires me and drives me on, making me want to continue painting.”

Catherine draws inspiration from old family photographs, “in particular those taken by my paternal Grandmother. She was born in 1907 in Germany and led a fascinating life, studying zoology in Munich in the 1930s before having to flee to Glasgow after marrying my grandfather, a Jewish man. She photographed the landscapes of her youth in Germany and later Scotland as well as interiors and the people in her life. I am drawn to the nostalgia and longing present in the images and the sense of leaving something behind.”

Wanderer, oil on canvas, cr Catherine Knight

Wanderer, oil on canvas © Catherine Knight

These photos have led to paintings such as Wanderer, which makes me think of the slightly frightening, entrancing fairytales I loved as a child.

Catherine’s residency in Iceland was the culmination of years of daydreams for the artist. “I imagined small houses in vast, open landscapes,” she says. “I applied for many residencies and finally got to go the Old School Arthouse in December 2013 to the island of Hrisey. A tiny tear-drop shaped island off the north coast of Iceland, Hrisey lived up to all my expectations and more.”

Hrisey, 12.25, oil on board cr Catherine Knight

Hrisey, 12.25, oil on board © Catherine Knight

She says that the tiny amount of light present each day had a huge impact on the work she came up with there. “It created a constantly changing light and the snowy landscapes were stunning. I took thousands of photos and have been making work based on them ever since. They have a similar feel to my previous work but also present new ideas.”

After working from black and white photographs and “inventing the colour”, Iceland’s dramatic saturated hues presented Catherine with the opportunity to challenge herself in new ways. “Previously I had been using the black and white photo as a kind of starting point whereas the Iceland work was a more direct translation into paint. On the island, I was drawn to the contrast between the strange, shifting natural light and the cosy, artificial lights of the dwellings.”

Colour, she says, remains an enduring fascination in her work. “It’s the most exciting thing – as an artist I want the colours in my paintings to surprise and excite as well as evoke certain feelings. I use it in an instinctive way that’s second nature to me.”

She adds: “Someone hanging my work on their wall and enjoying it for years to come is very satisfying and I like the idea of my work ending up in lots of different places, being part of people’s lives, in a small way. I hope to paint until I am 100 years old!”

Find more examples of Catherine’s work and information about upcoming exhibitions at

Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on Give me a shout at judy(at)

Writing prompt – treasure

Finns Beach Club in Bali, Indonesia

Finn’s Beach Club in Bali, Indonesia

As a freelance journalist I receive an awful lot of press releases, the majority of which are irrelevant to my fields of interest.

However, recently I received one which not only caught my attention, but also my imagination, plus it made me smile. I think it would make a great writing prompt.

Here’s the story.

Roxy Walsh, a guest at Finn’s Beach Club in Bali, Indonesia, went snorkelling and while admiring the tropical fish flocking around her found something unexpected – a ring engraved with the words: “Darling Joe Happy 70th Birthday 2009 Love Jenny.”

How intriguing! I think this could be the start of an amazing work of fiction. Who is Joe? How could Roxy find out? Would she be able to return the ring to him. Oh, and of course, does the ring happen to have any magical powers?!

Back in the real world, Roxy did track Joe down, thanks to the marvels of social media, launching a campaign that was shared over 250,000 times across all corners of the globe. A Facebook user shared the post with her friends, one of which recognised the ring as belonging to her grandfather.

After nine months of thinking it lost forever, Joe Langley was reunited with his ring.

Actually, there is another part to this tale that piqued my interest, as Jo commented on his amazement that Roxy went for a snorkel in the same spot where he’d swum “gets swept by the same rip onto the same rocks and finds my ring.”

What other extraordinary losses and finds could a rip like that result in?

If you create something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket With your permission, I’d love to share it on

Colm Tóibín’s truth in fiction, and fiction in truth

Colm Toibin credit Brigitte Lacombe

Colm Toibin © Brigitte Lacombe

I first discovered Colm Tóibín through his voice, listening to him read one of his stories on some literary podcast. Of course, I fell at once in love – that cadence, that accent paired with his humour and intellect! Who could resist?

He visited my home town last week, appearing at Watershed for Bristol’s Festival of Ideas, to talk about Nora Webster, a novel drawn from his own childhood experiences, yet told from the point of view of a woman loosely based on his mother.

This is not memoir – but it is deeply wound in with Colm’s own memories, and his desire to capture the feel of the time and place he grew up in as well as the feelings he witnessed his mother go through following the death of her father.

He’s an extraordinary man – as comfortable with an audience’s gaze as he is with the quiet he must seek out to actually write. He speaks with wry amusement and a seductive generosity. Even those he finds baffling he regards with interest rather than anything like scorn.

He is uncommonly candid about his thoughts on almost any matter, from his susceptibility to suggestions of places to visit, which he blames for the fact he’s lived and loved so many places, to his time as a journalist “causing trouble in Ireland” by gleefully asking GPs for prescriptions for condoms (“it’s a young man’s game”) to the referendum taking place in Ireland the day after his Bristol visit, which will decide whether the constitution should be amended to allow gay marriage.

He describes a novel as “a thousand details”, and it’s a trait I’ve noticed in his short fiction too – layering telling details gently around his characters so that the world they move through becomes real, and their thoughts and behaviour becomes real.

Nora Webster coverWhen asked why he wrote Nora Webster from the point of view of the mother rather than the young boy based on himself, he says it’s because he didn’t want to write “one of those sad Irish stories, where a sad boy walks home from school and looks at a puddle and thinks it looks sad…”

The excerpt he reads from the novel is actually very funny, relaying the moment when the grieving mother decides to get her hair dyed and instantly, even before she leaves the hairdresser’s, regrets it. He talks of this being his way of capturing the beginnings of change in a small Irish town during the 1960s. They may not have had the fashions or rock and roll, but “the way women dealt with their hair changed.”

The book took him 14 years to write, which he puts down to the fact that “Putting shape on things that actually happened is very difficult. Every year I would add something, put in another scene, then step away.”

One of these scenes sowed the seeds that would become his bestselling novel Brooklyn, soon to be released as a film, so those 14 years weren’t solely devoted to the mulling and dithering required for Nora Webster.

He speaks of the time after his father died, explaining how he and his brother were constantly watching and listening, trying to figure out “how things would be now.” It meant he soaked up a mass of moments which seemed unnaturally heightened, and which crop up throughout Nora Webster. As a result the book is shored up by truths that offer up the  impression of real life unfolding on the page, though he does admit to one rather wonderful, entirely fictional, flourish. “I needed to lift her out of it,” he says of her despondency, “It couldn’t just carry on, page after page, so I got her to sing. And that never actually happened. I just needed it for the story.”

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín is available to buy from Amazon.

Writing as therapy

Southbank cr Tom GreenThe idea of therapeutic writing certainly isn’t new. Done for yourself it can help you to understand what you’re experiencing on an emotional level and find coping strategies. Done well, and engaging imagination and narrative, it can result in a publishable work. This week’s guest post comes from Will Green, the author of Default Setting, an unflinching fictional account of a nervous breakdown. He tells us how his own mental health issues drove him to write the novel.

Mental health issues affect one in four people. I have experienced such issues since I was a teenager; namely Clinical Depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Taking regular medication kept me on a level playing field for a while but during my 20s things took a turn for the worse; I self-harmed, abused drugs, and drank excessively. That was how I dealt with my feelings and it went on for years before writing found me.

A lifeline to sanity

Writing became a form of therapy for me. It was something I did to help me process what I was feeling. An emotional blowhole through which I maintained a lifeline to sanity during some of my darkest days. In fact, it was a psychiatrist at my local hospital that first suggested I should try writing things down.

So I did. I kept a notebook to write down little stories about how I felt. Sometimes it was the laying bare of autobiographical facts, and sometimes I would twist the story to fit my own acceptable version of reality. It was all just part of a coping strategy. I never had the intention of writing a novel. I wrote for myself and I wrote to let go.

Will Green cr Tom Green

But as anyone who has suffered any form of mental illness will tell you, there are up days and down days and as such my actual creative output was sporadic and usually in short bursts. Sometimes I would go weeks and even months without putting pen to paper but there would be something that always dragged me back to it.

It was my brother Tom who first believed I could write, and he encouraged me to make something of it. Looking back, that was the first step I took towards writing Default Setting.

Mile End Hospital cr Tom Green

Don’t expect a miracle cure

Writing was by no means a miracle cure to end all of my mental health problems. It was one of many factors, along with family and friends, regular medication, counselling, hospitalisation and support sessions that helped me get better, and continue to get better. But I cannot overstate how having this outlet gave me a bit of purpose. Something to focus on. I started looking at situations differently, imagining how I could write about them.

It detached me from the overtly emotional response I was having to my life. I got so into it that I even started to carry a notepad around with me everywhere I went. As my interest in it grew it became more important for me to make it as good as I could. I felt that if I could actually do this and turn all my negative energy, heartache and depression into something good it would make sense of it. Of all of it.

And that’s something I held onto. The shift in my mindset from scribbling down notes to producing a full novel allowed me to start to let go of some of the things in my past.

The completion and subsequent release of Default Setting allowed me to finally lay to rest a particularly dark part of my life. I clearly remember how I felt as I watched promotional shots being taken of the book. It was like I could finally let go.

Mile End Tube station cr Tom Green

Default Setting chronicles a period of the protagonist, Edward Staten’s, life as he descends into alcoholism, drug abuse, self-harm and ultimately a nervous breakdown. Those of you who are familiar with London you will recognise places and details as you follow Edward’s journey.

Opening up can be scary

Default Setting front coverI think the toughest part of the process was actually telling people about it and making it available to read.

When I got the call to say that it was now available online at iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Kobo it felt like I was coming out – sharing something with the wider public as I never had before. Very unnerving. I remember the anxiety I felt just before posting the status update on Facebook and Twitter that informed all my friends and family in cyberspace that Default Setting existed.

It was like handing over all the skeletons in my closet to anyone that was interested and packaging it as one neatly presented download. However, the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive with it currently having an average 5-star rating on Amazon. People are describing Edward as being engaging and easy to connect with. Reading reviews like this mean so much to me as Edward Staten is a character that has helped me deal with deep seeded psychological issues. His experiences reflect mine and hearing that so many people can identify with him made me feel that I wasn’t isolated and freakish. Everyone, to a degree, can associate with feeling down and trying to deal with bad things that happen to them.

The response to Default Setting has shown me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my illness, but proud that I have come through it. I am truly grateful to everyone who has supported this project.  I hope that publishing it makes the issues it focuses on less stigmatic. Remember, the stats say one in four right? So if you don’t suffer yourself you will almost certainly know someone who does….

About the Author

Will Green lives in London, which is the backdrop for his debut novel Default Setting. With 1 in 4 people suffering from some kind of mental health problem and suicide remaining the biggest killer of men under 50, this work of contemporary fiction, based on his own experiences, is both relevant and topical. It is available through a distribution deal with Help For Writers as a download for £2.99 on iTunesAmazonGoogle Play and Kobo. Will has committed to making a donation to a mental health charity from some of the profits made on the sale of the book.

Windswept art with Julia Cooper

Ferry by Julia Cooper, mixed media

Ferry by Julia Cooper

Cornwall-based artist Julia Cooper has a knack for evoking the landscapes and seascapes she lives among. In the stillness of her mixed media abstracts she conjures a sense of wind buffeting coastal tracks, of rain running down windows and the deep comfort instilled by the sound of weather squalling around a solitary loft.

For Julia, it all began with a desire to pursue and explore the colours reflected around her. “I look out of the window across the harbour and see the millions of greens in the water and want to gather them all together.”

Today that urge is usually the beginning of a mixed media painting, but in the past she harnessed it in other ways and using other mediums. It began when she was a child loving drawing and colouring in, and developed into a passion for sewing and patchwork, including a City & Guilds in Design, before she retrained as an Interior Designer. “The National Trust have 97 holiday cottages. I’d already been making huge drapes for them, and when I became a freelance interior designer I worked on three or four of the cottages a year for four years.”

When the National Trust moved the centre of these projects from Cornwall to Wiltshire, Julia took the opportunity to focus on art full time.

“I’m very lucky, I know that,” she says.

Meander by Julia Cooper

Meander by Julia Cooper

The goal for Julia is simple, to continuously improve her skills and better achieve on the page (or canvas or panel) what she sees in her head. “I feel I’m still learning to paint well,” she says. “Not just technically, but physically placing the paint on canvas.”

Cumin by Julia Cooper

Cumin by Julia Cooper

Some of my favourite works by Julia include her figurative paintings of jugs and other objects, which exude a wonderful impression of solidity I find really appealing. Julia, however, says these pieces don’t offer “the wide field to experiment and play with colour” that’s she’s after. Currently she’s working on such large-scale semi-abstract paintings, forever striving to improve, and even painting over old ones in her ambition to achieve “a really good painting.”

Pickle by Julia Cooper

Pickle by Julia Cooper

Inspirations include “moss on granite. The weathered paintwork and weed strewn docks around the harbour. Greens flitting across the water. Greys on the horizon. Walking along the beach looking at muddy sand. Old, faded fabric.”

She says she “sucks it all in, and it has to burst out somewhere. It’s getting it into a decipherable image that’s the challenge.”

Texture is an important part of this, and as well as working on found timber, often provided by a local boat yard when renovating old vessels, she also creates her own canvasses, using “heavy cotton with a really rough surface.”

But it’s the surface of Fowey Harbour that draws her attention most, sitting in her studio at the very top of her house. “It’s a busy working port, so there’s something happening all the time. My studio has big windows and a skylight so I’m right up in the weather, looking through the mist to the other side, and noticing all the colours on the way.”

Find Julia’s work at

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on Get in touch at judydarley (at) I’m also happy to receive reviews of books, exhibitions, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Midweek writing prompt – handover

Shoebox cr Judy Darley

Imagine this. You’re walking down the street deep in thought and a stranger shoves something towards you. Instinctively you accept it, and before you have time to react, they’re gone, lost in the crowd. They’ve passed you a battered cardboard box – large and heavy enough that you need to hold it with both hands.

Why has it been given to you? What’s inside? That’s up to you.

If you create something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket With your permission, I’d love to share it on

Flash fiction – On The Rocks

Child, beach cr Judy DarleyA piece of my flash fiction has been published by the lovely folks at Gambling The Aisle (not Isle, as I keep wanting to type!) It’s called On The Rocks and is a perfect beach read at only 171 words. You can click here to read it: The editors commented “It embodies the risk-taking that Gambling the Aisle prides itself on.” Thank you kindly!

They’re currently on the lookout for fiction, non-fiction, poetry, interviews and visual art too, so do swing by if you fancy submitting something.

Scattered stories – Redcliffe Future Way story walk

Future Way Grace, Toby, Judy, DavidLast week I had the uncommon pleasure of walking a story trail I’d contributed to. Two of the other writers who’d written pieces featured in the Redcliffe Future Way story walk, plus Toby who’d set the whole thing up, met outside St Mary Redcliffe and took a wander, pausing to pick up snippets of site-specific stories along the way.

We had a brilliant time. Toby had cunningly picked out intriguing lines from each section of our tales to tempt passersby into scanning the QR codes with their smart phones.

Judy Darley_UnderTheSurface

Here I am beside the first part of my story Under The Surface, which reimagines this area of Bristol deluged by water. Toby chose the line “its only parishioners are fish and eels”.

Grace Palmer’s story Redcliffe Mornings comprises four sections evocatively connected by the sense of smell. The one pictured below is from the POV of a fox and features the line “He smells man”.

Grace Palmer by He Smells Man

The brief was to set each work of fiction in the future, and David J Rodger’s tale, Redcliffe Requiem, takes you right to the brink of the end of the world. You can find the final part of his story in front of one of my favourite Bristol sculptures.

David J Rodger_Redcliffe Requiem

The goal of the trail is to make you experience this part of the city in a new and thought-provoking way – weaving together real, physical places with fantastical imaginings. It’s also a fun and unusual way to share fiction. Highly recommended both as a user and participant.

The organisers describe the venture as “an amazing first-of-its-kind, art project collaborating with published authors, budding writers, artists, architects and community groups to challenge the way we view our city.” The featured stories each explore, in their own way, how these streets will look in years to come.

To find trail points, check out the Future Way Map and visit

Brilliant hues with Zandra Rhodes

ZandraRhodes cr CoatsEarly this year I interviewed the inimitable Zandra Rhodes for Simply Sewing magazine, and it was an absolute pleasure. The piece has been published in issue 3 of the mag.

I began the feature with the paragraphs:

It’s 1973, 6am in the Red Centre of Australia. In the desert chill a young woman sits sketching Uluru, the sandstone monolith then better known as Ayers Rock. Her hair is bright green, but within a few years it will be shocking pink, and will remain that colour well into her seventies.

“I sat there very early in the morning in the freezing cold light and waited for the sunrise,” says designer Zandra Rhodes, now aged 75. “Then I drew the way the shadows laced over that rock.”

Zandra Rhodes Ayers Rock sketches from 1973

Zandra Rhodes’ Ayers Rock sketches from 1973

Decades later those early sketches have become a series of fabric designs for Coats, which was the reason the interview took place, but it was fabulous to delve into a mind with so much creative energy, to gain an insight into her celeb clientele, but, even more fun, chat about her trademark meandering wiggles.

Zandra Rhodes Lace Mountain

Zandra Rhodes’ Lace Mountain fabrics cr Coats

“All my things have wiggly lines!” she exclaims, seeming amused by this. “When I fill in a background it’s far more likely to have wiggly lines than be plain.” She hesitates then adds: “Wiggles are friendly. Prints have the power to make you happy. They supply extra depth to what you’re thinking about. You put the thing on and the print supplies a jolly face for the day.”

There’s an awful lot more to this interview – and lots more images too. Find the full piece in Simply Sewing issue 3, available from