Seeding unease into your writing

Birdcage Walk by Helen DunmoreHelen Dunmore will be sorely missed by her readers, and by the writing community. She was an expert in writing richly layered narratives in which the past gains a pulse and history breathes.

In Birdcage Walk she explores a particular period of unrest, the time of the French Revolution, and the uneasiness this upheaval nurtures in England. More than that though, she narrows the focus to a particular couple in Bristol, property developer Diner and his young wife, Lizzie.

In a beautifully written scene full of enticing textures, we go with Lizzie to meet a seamstress who has made a dress for Diner’s former wife, a French woman named Lucie. Through this encounter, sliver of ice is inserted into Lizzie’s understanding of her husband, through the dress his first wife never had the chance to wear.

“The dress was as tall as I was and the silk rippled as it might ripple when its wearer walked in it. The grey was very light, almost silvery in colour.”

The seamstress tries to persuade Lizzie to have the dress altered to fit her, but Lizzie is unnerved by the idea: this is a dress that had been fitted to Lucie, a woman she knows almost nothing about, other than that her husband adored her, and that she is dead.

“‘A tuck here and there. Your arms are longer than hers. I can let it out, or inset a lace cuff…’ Her fingers were coming after me, prodding me as she measured me by touch. I pulled myself free.”

The intrusiveness of the woman’s actions, coupled with the subtle evocation of Lucie’s presence in that very room three years before is almost suffocating. More unsettling than that is the realisation that Lucie had this special dress made for a particular occasion, yet had never collected it, despite having paid.

“‘The dress was ready for her by the Wednesday. I would have sent it round but I had no direction for her. I expected her all that day and the next but she never came.’”

Diner has told Lizzie that Lucie died while visiting family in France, but Lizzie can’t shake the feeling that to have left so abruptly, forgetting her dress and missing the engagement she’d had it made for, the pair must have quarrelled.

For who could possibly abandon such a dress otherwise?

The sensuality of that gown and its silk imbues the page as Lizzie reaches out to stroke it. “It sent a shiver through my flesh. How soft it was. The sheen was like the bloom on grapes, which might be rubbed away with careless handling.” These carefully chosen words seem to me to carry the faintest suggestion of a threat. “Lucie had touched it too, like this. She had thought of how she would wear it and be beautiful in it. We were not alike, because I would never wear such a dress. For the first time I felt no jealousy towards her. She had died instead and been put away six feet deep in the French soil.”

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore is published by Hutchinson, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is available to buy from Amazon.

What are you reading? Impressed by a particular scene? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews and comments on books, art, theatre and film. Please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Investigating authorial voice

Italian Alps pic cr Catherine McNamaraCatherine McNamara is the author of short story collection The Cartography of Others. In today’s guest post, she urges us to consider the moral implications of the voices we choose to assume for our fiction.

One of the first questions I was asked when my debut collection Pelt and Other Stories came out concerned the opening story Pelt.

Pelt is narrated by the feisty pregnant Ghanaian lover of a German man, who wants to keep him from falling back into the arms of his ex-wife. Kurt is wracked with guilt. His petite, commandeering wife is in town for a conference. I won’t tell you how that story panned out, but being asked with what permission I assumed the voice of a young pregnant Ghanaian woman made me feel a little uncomfortable.

Author Catherine McNamara

Whose story is it anyway?

It’s true I had lived in Ghana for nine years. The characters were influenced by people I’d lived with and come upon, and I’d thought that the young woman’s voice was the vehicle of a valid story that dealt with jealousy, guilt and sex. I’d also carried several children and been through marriage havoc. I knew the environment intimately, and all of these elements combined to produce a story I felt like telling. But I wasn’t a Ghanaian woman. So was it theft? Did I have a right to invent this woman’s story?

In my new collection The Cartography of Others, which I am currently funding with Unbound, similar situations with ‘voice’ crop up several times. In The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him, a South African advertising executive is sent up to Ghana to manage a local office, where he discovers, among other unsettling things, a corpse in an Elvis shirt and an American employee who sleeps with her dogs. In The Healing of Santo Boateng, a West African migrant is tossed off his bicycle while riding home from work in northern Italy. And ignored. In The Cliffs of Bandiagara, a West African photographer considers his craft, and the viability of the love story he has embarked upon with a European journalist.

Statue pic cr Catherine McNamara

Consider your motives

In all three cases, the thoughts of an African male are conveyed. Whether ‘voice’ is effective or not must be judged by the reader. But whether a ‘theft’ is involved must be addressed by the writer. Is the story designed to use the situation of the character, without authenticity and empathy? Has the author been responsible and written with respect?

These are tricky waters. In all stories, we writers impersonate others, steal from people we know, and from our own experiences. We use locations we know to carry our stories. We instil our inventions with real truths to make them resonate. When we fail, we write within clichés and our work feels borrowed or cheapened or exploited. When we succeed, our stories transcend categories and speak with clarity and allure.

Vineyard pic cr Catherine McNamara

In The Cartography of Others there is a raft of stories with voices from different countries and social environments. A Ukrainian woman is judged by an English woman, a boy reacts to a car accident in the north of France, a man’s violent upbringing is assuaged by a ballerina. We meet a man whose mother has been killed in the Italian Alps, and a young woman whose eggs are being harvested for her infertile aunt. While the locations used are often places that I know well, each character is an invention that must transport the reader into the realm of storytelling, and I hope that the voice of each story bears its own truth.

If you’re interested in reading more, do consider pre-ordering a copy of The Cartography of Others at unbound.com/books/the-cartography-of-others. Or come to Italy where I live for a writing retreat, a hike in the Dolomites, an opera night in Verona or a wander through Venice speaking about short stories.

Catherine McNamara portraitAbout the author

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and ran away to Paris to write but ended up in Ghana running a bar. Her collection Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. She was recently named in the Wigleaf Top 50 and was a finalist in the Royal Academy/Pin Drop Short Story Award, and shortlisted in the Hilary Mantel/Kingston University Short Story Competition and the Willesden Herald Short Story Competition, among others. Her work has been published widely. Catherine lives in Italy.

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Catherine McNamara.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

How to use myths in your writing

Sphinx, Egypt, by Justin NewlandIn today’s guest post, author Justin Newland talks us through the ancient stories that helped to inspire his novel Sources of the Genes of Isis.

I guess I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I wanted to explore our origins. Where did we come from? How did we get where we are today? I wanted to conceive a story that offered the discerning reader a different entry point to these age-old questions.

I began by looking through the glass darkly into the past. I quickly ended up in Ancient Greece, and eventually in Ancient Egypt, the earliest recorded historical culture.

The Ancient Egyptians also imagined their origins though creation myths, of which one is the myth of Osiris. He was king to Isis’ queen. But Set murders Osiris, dismembers him and distributes his body parts all over Egypt. Isis gathers them together, miraculously brings him back to life, and bears him a son, the hawk-headed Horus.

This is a story of life and death, procreation, rebirth and the struggle for power, all of them archetypal themes. And the basic ingredients of the myth are not a bad template for a novel: start, weave the threads, spread them far and wide, then collect them altogether, breathe new life into them for a pulsating climax.

That wasn’t all. Many great men have set their feet upon the path to Egypt: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte. It was the first and oldest civilisation, and therefore influenced everything that followed. The first in any field always does. In this respect, Egypt is the Mother and Father of all things.

That set me going. 

Fish Man Depicted on Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

Explore infinite possibilities

Next up, I discovered legends from other ancient cultures that mentioned cross-breeding between species, of mixed genetics, and hybrids. The apocryphal The Book of Enoch spoke of the Grigori, or ‘fallen angels’, who came to Earth and mated with ‘the daughters of men,’ spawning the Nephilim, an antediluvian race of giants. The Epic of Gilgamesh talked of strange beings such as fish-men, who came ashore for the day, and returned to the sea at night. Even today, you can see a stone carving of such a creature at the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut behind the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. (see above)

These and other sources fired my imagination. What if these ‘fallen angels’ manifested in human form and settled in Ancient Egypt? What if antediluvian genetics were unstable, in that the normal bindings that prevented the existence of crossbreeds had become loosened, spawning mixed genetic creatures and humans with the head of animals?

The germ of the idea for the novel was born: an alternative genesis of the human race.

Interwoven with these threads was esoteric information about such concepts as the astral light and the akashic record, referenced by the Theosophical Society and, more recently, the Emin Society. They conceived of the akashic record as a compendium of thoughts, events, and emotions encoded in a non-physical plane of existence.

This is where I derived the name for the novel’s heroine, Akasha, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘aether’ or atmosphere.

Also mooted was the astral body, a sort of personal spirit entity, which could leave a person (usually during sleep) and travel the astral light, there to explore the akashic record and so re-live any event or person from any time in history. This is what Edgar Cayce, an American mystic, claimed to have done. His profuse and profound writings speak of the time before the Flood.

All this nourished my fascination for the supernatural.

Doris Lessing’s Shikasta contained some original and interesting ideas about how humans may have lived in the times before recorded history.

I got the name Samlios, where the Akasha is born and where the initial action of the novel unfolds, from Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson.

Then the Flood. Where did that fit into the story? Now, think about it for a moment. If it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, how did all that water get up there in the first place?

What about this utterance from the Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts‘I shall cross the great lake in the sky and return home to my double on the sun.’

More recently, Old Mother Shipton, a Yorkshire prophetess, coined her answer: ‘Beneath the water, men shall walk. Shall ride, shall sleep, shall even talk.’

What if the waters were already up there in the sky, and the earth had shrunk like a dried prune, leaving the remaining oceans on narrow and shallow sea beds?

Another element of the world of The Genes of Isis was taking shape.

Egypt by Justin Newland

Build a narrative and characters

With two main sources, I needed two protagonists, one to speak for the humans, and the other for the angels, whom I called the Solarii. I envisaged the embryonic human race as blue-blooded, gentle folk, and kind. The Solarii on the other hand, were drawn as severe, powerful and dedicated.

A comparison of opposites yielded a girl and boy, young and old, Akasha and Horque. The main characters took shape.

The Genes of Isis cover by Justin NewlandThen in the novel, I twisted another Biblical weave: instead of having the Jews as slaves to the Egyptians, I conceived of them as willing helpers and servants.

When I started work on the novel, I began with the idea, a rough storyline, giving me the destination. Then the characters emerged out of the plot and suggested parts they could play. Sometimes I heard their voices when composing the dialogue. Sometimes my imagination revealed things about them, like what they carried in their pockets.

I found my characters crouching behind the plot lines, emerging out of the shadows of the narrative, and in the great halls of the unconscious (yes, even in dreams).

Looking so far back into pre-history, there was an abiding sense of peering into a dark timeless abyss, and where sometimes, as Nietzsche predicted, the abyss stared back. That was unnerving. Especially as most of what I was researching had no fixed points, no salient facts on which anyone agreed.

Then again, it did leave plenty of room for the imagination.

All this and more is in The Genes of Isis.

Justin NewlandAuthor bio

Justin Newland lives with his partner in plain sight of the Mendip Hills, in Somerset, England. His short stories published in anthologies: The Fool of Abbot’s Leigh in Hidden Bristol and Fisher of Men in North by Southwest. Vallum Hadriani is published in The Dark Half of the Year, a collection of ghost stories by the North Bristol Writers.

Justin’s debut novel, The Genes of Isis, is published by Silverwood Books. It’s set in Ancient Egypt, and draws on two main sources: the myth of Osiris and the story of the flood in the Book of Genesis. Find out more at www.thegenesofisis.com.

All images in this post were supplied by the author.

World building with Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma DonoghueYou’ve probably heard of Emma Donoghue’s extraordinarily successful novel Room. You may have seen the excellent screen adaptation, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and featuring Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as Jack.

But until you read the book and, effectively, enter Jack’s mind, you’re missing the opportunity for full immersion in one of the strangest, most complete worlds ever imagined.

It doesn’t sound like much. It isn’t on another planet, populated by peculiar creatures or governed by strange laws, but, and here’s the key, as far as Jack’s concerned it may as well be, except the magic of all these oddities is that they’re the ones he’s grown up with over the five years of his live.

Everything beyond the walls and ceiling of Room is, he believes, outer space.

Jack is an unwavering narrator. His understanding of the small space he and Ma are confined within is absolute. There are a thousand ways to have fun, and enough friends, from Meltedy Spoon to Rug, to keep him from ever being lonely.

Donoghue engages a number of subtle tricks to sweep Jack’s world over and around us. For one thing, apart from dialogue, the whole text is written in Jack’s language. It’s simple enough to understand, but his sentence construction is a little off, and some words are particular to him. Killers, for example, are the painkillers Ma takes for her rotten tooth, the sun is God’s Yellow Face, and sleeping is switching off.

The author builds up the rules slowly, seeding in clues that help us make sense around Jack’s limited understanding.

“Door’s made of shiny magic metal, he goes beep beep after nine when I’m meant to be switched off in Wardrobe,” Jack says, little knowing the horrifying truths he’s letting us in on.

It’s Jack lack of comprehension that keeps the worst elements of his life from being unbearable. To Jack, Room is a safe and magical place, and that makes this book an enjoyable rather than miserable read.

Seen through Jack’s eyes, his world is a place of infinite adventures and possibilities, and Donoghue’s deftness in getting us to swallow this, while allowing us to gradually unravel the darker truths of Jack’s existence, reveals a writer with firm control over her characters and setting. And when it comes to world building, those are the restrictions we need to set our imaginations free to fly.

Room by Emma Donoghue is published by Picador and is available to buy from Amazon.

What are you reading? Impressed by a particular scene or technique? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews and comments on books, art, theatre and film. Please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Exercise your creativity

Arnos Vale sky by Judy DarleyIn today’s guest post, writer Nina Wells urges us to get up off our backsides and dash out into the world to beat writer’s block.

Every author from Stephen King to Dan Brown has come nose-to-nose with writer’s block at some point in their career. Even casual writers know the frustration all too well; staring at a blank computer screen, feeling hopeless in progressing their work…

Susan Reynolds from Psychology Today explains that writer’s block is only a phenomenon that has existed since the early 19th century, where it was described by English Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as “indefinite indescribable horror.” Writers at the time believed it to be a reflection of a poor relationship with their deities. They literally felt cursed to struggle in their work.

While that explanation might be a bit outdated, people still struggle with writer’s block today. What’s an aspiring author to do? Sure, we could become caricatures of historical writers by turning to drugs and alcohol for encouragement, but what if you could get your fix of chemical-inspiration without the theatrics?

Reynolds explains that writer’s block is a result of mental exertion because of the immense amount of focus required to write for long periods of time, and that even simple activities like mowing the lawn or showering can help give writers’ a much-needed breakthrough. So, taking breaks to relax can help clear up writer’s block, but what else can be done to stimulate ideas?

Arnos Vale path by Judy Darley

For years, experts around the world have praised exercise as a means of mental stimulation, but just how much can your noggin benefit from working up a sweat?

When you exercise, your brain produces chemicals called endorphins, which provide relief from pain and boost a sense of contentment- colloquially referred to as the “runner’s high.” WebMD reports that regular exercise has been proven to: reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, improve self-esteem, and make you healthier all-around.

But what does this have to do with writer’s block?

A study from the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience has shown that regular exercise boosts creativity by improving “convergent” and “divergent” thought processes, which are responsible for creative thinking. Convergent thinking can be defined as thinking of a single, “correct” solution for a proposed issue, while divergent thinking is the ability to think of multiple solutions for a single problem.

In their study, researchers tested the convergent and divergent task-completing abilities of two groups of people; 48 being athletes, and another forty-eight being non-athletes. Both groups were subject to “intense physical exercise,” which yielded some interesting information.

As it turns out, the non-athlete group showed convergent impairment with exercise, while the athletic group showed “a benefit that approached significance.” According to the researchers, this is because the less-active group experienced a greater amount of “ego-depletion”, or in other words, they used up all of their will-power on the exertion. Meanwhile, the athletic group can capitalise on the cognitive benefits because their bodies are already accustomed to the exercise.

Arnos Vale leafy path by Judy Darley

Chapter four of the book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write by Alice Weaver Flaherty goes into detail discussing the neuroscientific reasons that people struggle with their writing. Flaherty breaks writer’s block into two groups: low-energy and high-energy. The former is pronounced by symptoms of depression and lethargy, while the latter is likened to anxiety.

According to Flaherty, depressed, low-energy writers who become sedentary to save energy, or anxious, high-energy writers turn to caffeine or other stimulants to stay on-task are both exacerbating their problems.

Both of these groups, however, benefit from regular physical activity. The endorphins that are released don’t only have an effect on your current mood, but also have the potential to treat long-term issues that can affect your entire outlook on life.

In short:

  • Writer’s block can emerge for a few reasons (all of which relate to your brain’s chemical processes)
  • Exercise and creative (convergent and divergent) thinking go hand-in-hand.
  • Writer’s block can be divided into two groups: high-energy and low-energy (anxious and depressed)
  • Regular exercise will help in both the short and the long term by activating endorphins, sparking creative thought processes, and giving relief from the paralyzing symptoms of depression and anxiety

Whether you write novels or blog posts, regular exercise will not only help you conquer writer’s block when it appears, but will also help you stay happier and healthier in general. Maybe now’s a good time to start running with a notepad, eh?

About the author

Nina WellsThis article was written by Nina Wells from Clearwells. She has more than 10 years of experience in writing health related topics and specializes in the health benefits of saunas and hydrotherapy.

I welcome guest posts. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find me on Twitter @JudyDarley, or send me an email at judy(at)SocketCreative.com

Create a setting for your story

Buddhist monks and offerings cr Dipika Mukherjee

Author Dipika Mukherjee tells us how she came to set an award-winning novel in Shambala Junction, India, and advises how we can make setting play a role in our own writing.

One of the nicest perks about being a writer is that it is a great excuse to travel, all in the guise of research. Although Shambala Junction is an imaginary place, writing the novel took me on lovely long train journeys through India.

Mine your own memories

Shambala Junction begins with a rather jinxed train journey for the protagonist, Iris, an Indian-American young woman visiting India with her new fiancée. I mined the memories of my own childhood, especially the wonderful nostalgia of long train journeys from New Delhi Station to Howrah in Kolkata, to write Iris’s wide-eyed enchantment with the ubiquitous details of Indian life.

Every summer, when the heat drove Delhiites to cooler cities, my family would board the Rajhdhani Express for a 24-hour journey with a long halt at Mughal Serai. Mughal Serai in my childhood had makeshift stalls selling colourful wooden dolls; although, it is almost impossible to find these artisans at railway stations anymore, Aman’s stall is inspired by my vivid memories:

He had an array of colorful wooden dolls spread out in front of him on a pushcart: there were dolls with turbans and flared coats playing flutes and dholaks; there were men riding horses with colorful stirrups and dazzling sword-sheaths; there were dancers dancing with the left leg slightly on tiptoe, caught in mid-swirl in the disarray of flouncing skirts.

Iris was enchanted. She had once owned a dancing doll just like that one, a beloved painted wooden thing with a crack in the veiled head, a gift from some unremembered relative in her childhood.

New Delhi cr Dipika Mukherjee

Start with a vein of truth

I started writing this novel after being enraged at the tone of an article about ‘baby shopping’ which was about international adoptions fuelling child-trafficking in India. This is a global problem, not just limited to India, and the trafficking moves from one impoverished country to another as the authorities start clamping down on severe irregularities I wanted the western world to realise that we are all complicit in this, especially by pretending that if poor children are placed in affluent homes it makes the world a better place.

I wrote the first draft in about three months in Amsterdam, then I edited this novel over four years, toning down the rage and making the characters blossom into real people. A novel like this taught me that there are far too many victims in these stories to be a novel about the East vs West or the Consumerist North vs Impoverished South. This story needed nuanced characters, and I was very aware of how easy it was for me, as an author, to have them climb onto soapboxes.

Use your imagination 

So this story shifted, from being based in New Delhi, to an imaginary Shambala Junction, loosely based on Gaya. Gaya is an ancient city and a deeply spiritual place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It has a real hill where the Buddha preached the Fire Sermon and a Mahabodhi temple, and these feature in the novel as well. At the same time, Gaya is also within the state of Bihar, which was at that time considered one of the most badly governed, lawless and corrupt states in India. I travelled to Gaya alone to get a sense of the place and visited the Mahabodhi temple, with its most international gathering of Buddhist pilgrims from all around the world alongside general tourists like me.

Buddha cr Dipika Mukherjee

I also visited the cave with an emaciated Buddha figure; an image rarely portrayed in Buddhist iconography, yet the rigors of attaining Nirvana would certainly have necessitated this condition. It was a startling image; a reminder of the frailty and mortality of all human condition.

The hill where Buddha preached the Fire Sermon was quite a trek, and in the novel, I transmute my experience into the voice of Emily, a Canadian woman wanting to adopt an Indian girl-child:

Emily raised her head. She could see the motley group of children heading for the next tourist bus pulling in. They had no time for play; it was work for them as long as tourists like her showed up. She felt her eyes prickle; so many children with miserable lives. Too many children who could not be adopted into better lives.

Beside a square white enclosure it was all brown on the hill. The rough-hewn rocks scattered on the dusty ground made room for brown shoots to limply wave in the wind. Her skin tingled with a tragic epiphany; on this hill, pregnant with religious history, she could see absolutely no signs of life.

Unlike Emily, I was left with a very happy memory by my trip to Gaya. During my visit to the Mahabodhi temple, as I sat under the Bodhi tree meditating with other people at the site where the Buddha had attained Nirvana, a stray leaf twirled down from the green canopy of the Bodhi Pallanka overhead and fell into my lap. That dried leaf is now framed and hangs in my home in Chicago; I like to think that the Buddha approved this story much before it found a publisher or won a prize!

Author Dipika MukherjeeAbout the author

Dipika Mukherjee’s debut novel was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, then published as Thunder Demons (Gyaana, 2011, South Asia) and Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016, World). Shambala Junction is her second novel and won the 2016 Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). She won the Gayatri GaMarsh Award for Literary Excellence (USA, 2015) and the Platform Flash Fiction Prize (India, 2009). Her short story collections include Rules of Desire (Fixi, Malaysia, 2015) and edited collections Champion Fellas (Word Works, 2016), Silverfish New Writing 6 (Silverfish, 2006) and The Merlion and Hibiscus (Penguin, 2002).

Read my review of Shambala Junction tomorrow.

Free up your creativity

Paledrips painting by Sara Easby

Paledrips by Sara Easby – www.sara-easby.com

I’m a great believer in the energy we can derive from creative mediums other than our own. My comfort zone is writing – spooling words together to create stories, narratives, or images in the mind. It fires me up and helps me make sense of the world.

Listening to music can influence this, while baking or any kind of physical activity, from running to dances, makes ideas pop in my mind like mustard seeds in a pan of hot oil. And art has been the starting point of many of my creative written works.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been moved to dabble in making my own art – splashing a bit of paint around or doodling scenes as they form in my head. I’ve begun attempting to draw the views in front of me, or focus on small still lives, in an attempt to get my body to wake up the muscle memory laid down when I drew and painted copiously as a teenager.

But it’s been so many years since I last took an art class. Or at least, it had been.

Last Tuesday I strolled over to the Grant Bradley Gallery in Bedminster to see Sara Easby‘s BRÆTT (MELT) exhibition, inspired by Iceland. The work was raw, elemental, and enthralling. I wanted to know how to capture emotions the page as she does.

Then I discovered that the very next morning she was due to teach an art class at the gallery. I sent her an email and she promised to squeeze me in.

What a wonderful experience. Two hours of freedom to ink, paint, glue, scrape and create.

Artwork by Judy Darley

It connected me to my emotions in a way that reached beyond words – such a liberating change! Creative writing cannot exist in a vacuum – we need to experience life and part of that is to experience art. As enjoyable and moving as it can be to view it, to make it is far more vigorously inspiring.

Blue and gold by Judy Darley

It doesn’t have to be visual art, of course. You could learn to play the drums, or take up ballet, join a stitch and bitch group or even enrol in a Spanish language class. All these things exercise parts of the creative mind that writing along cannot reach.

To get you started, Sara is co-hosting an Art and Writing Workshop on 10th December from 10am till 4pm with Nigel Gibbons. “This will be a chance to enjoy both creative forms, exploring these two ways of working, and allowing them to interact,” says Sara. “The aim will be to enjoy a space to be creative. No previous skills or experience necessary.”

There is a charge of £20, which includes some art materials. For more details, or to book a place, contact Sara on sara@sara-easby.com or Nigel on 077 40 200 991. The venue is Cotham Parish Church Hall, Cotham Road, Bristol, BS6 6DR.

Who knows what riches it will help you to unearth in your future literary works?

Invent your own interior

AzurArt Studio loungeWith things taking a turn for the worse recently, I’m increasing impelled to retreat into my own imagination and, frankly, pretend this isn’t happening. In my head I can surround myself with things I find beautiful and quietly edit out anything that scares me. I know it’s not real, but that doesn’t make it any less enticing.

Artist Nadia D Manning has come up with a rather more tangible solution. Okay, she can’t undo the judgements and votes of others, but she can make your surroundings far more appealing.

AzurArt Studio notebook

Working in collaboration with her aunt Svetlana Condé in Prague, as well as a creative array of artists and designers, Nadia’s aim is to dream up artwork that can brighten up every part of your life, home, and business, from gorgeous rugs and wallpapers to crockery and even clothing.

AzurArt Studio t-shirt

“At AzurArt Studio we would like to encourage every person to explore and discover their unique style of living, surrounded by art,” says Nadia. “Our spectrum of creative services is broad and our aim is to work with people to design the personalised living or work space which will best inspire their own creative potential.”

AzurArt Studio sneaker

Quite simply, every part of your living and working environment can be ‘made to measure’ your individual style. What a great way to ensure a positive mindset and give your ideas the space to run free! This is interior design in the most extreme sense of the term.

Find out more here www.azurartstudio.com/projects

AzurArt Studio bedroom

How to add drama to your writing

Gigi and The Cat by ColetteI recently read The Cat by French novelist Colette. Now, Colette was no slouch when it came to seeding her stories with escalating tension. Nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, Colette’s most renowned work is the novella Gigi, but for me The Cat far surpasses that tale.

It begins slowly enough with our introductions to Alain and his fiancée Camille; Alain’s beloved rescue cat Saha in the background. As the narrative progresses, Alain’s resentment of Camille’s position in his life deepens. The wedding takes place off-screen, hinting at how little significance this change in circumstance holds for Alain.

The newly weds move in together and muddle along relatively all right, until Alain brings Saha to share their temporary home.

The home, leant by a friend, is in a tall, skinny building the unhappy couple refers to as The Wedge. Their apartment is nine storeys up, and Saha quickly develops a tendency to sit “washing herself at length on the parapet” above the sheer drop.

Initially this behaviour terrifies Camille, but jealousy is a dark and unpredictable thing. Alain’s love-making is “hurried” and “peevish”, while he reserves all his warmth and affection for Saha.

In the first pages of chapter eight, Camille’s thwarted dreams of wedded bliss crack through to the surface. While Alain is out, she and Saha “were resting on the same parapet”, providing Colette with the perfect setting for a truly dramatic scene. “They exchanged a glance of sheer mutual investigation and Camille did not say a word to Saha.”

Instead, Camille behaves as if Saha is not there, perhaps pretending to herself that her “rival” truly does not exist. Yawning, stretching and pacing, she impels the cat to move endlessly, over and over, in the small space they inhabit high above the ground.

After a few near misses, “the cat was looking at Camille’s back and her breath came faster. She got up, turned two or three times on her own axis and looked questioningly at the closed door. Camille had not moved. Saha inflamed her nostrils and showed a distress that was almost like nausea. A long desolate mew escaped from her, the wretched reply to a silent, imminent threat. Camille faced round abruptly.”

As Camille strides to and fro, Saha has continually to dodge her feet to avoid being kicked, or trodden on. Rhythmically, the torture continues, with Camille feigning ignorance while forcing Saha to leap onto the parapet and back to the balcony floor to save herself, again and again.

And, as in any great drama, it is just as Camille is distracted and Saha has a chance to relax that the scene reaches its breathtaking climax.

My copy of The Cat by Colette is part of a volume published by Vintage in 2001, which also contains the novella Gigi. Buy it from Amazon.

What are you reading? Impressed by a particular scene? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews and comments on books, art, theatre and film. Please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Writing between the lines with Heidi Heilig

The Girl From Everywhere coverIn reading Heidi Heilig’s luminescent The Girl From Everywhere, I encountered an elegantly written scene that shows (rather than tells) you everything you need to know about how to portray emotion through what is left unsaid.

In the 2016 edition from Hot Key Books, it occurs 63 pages in. Kashmir, our narrator Nix’s closest friend and crewmate, has just given her a stolen necklace. It’s one of many “trinkets” (his words) he has stolen for her in the time they’ve known each other.

When Nix tries to give him the necklace back, he demurs, saying he enjoys it too much to stop “‘Bringing you treasures you care nothing for.’” And here the author gets Nix involved: “He spoke lightly, but his words were too flippant and behind his eyes was something I recognised: loneliness.” Three extra words add an infinite level of tension to the scene: “The moment stretched.”

Nix has to find a way to respond to their intensity, and does so by telling him that she does care, and lifting her hair – that subtly sensual movement – so that he can clasp the necklace around her throat, “His breath smelled of cloves, and his fingers were warm.” The word ‘throat’ is Heilig’s choice: so much more loaded than ‘neck.’

The atmosphere heightens as Nix tries “to remember the Persian phrase I’d found in an Iranian guidebook and tucked away in my head for a moment like this, ‘Takashor.’”

The fact she has made a mistake and Kashmir corrects her: “Tashakor”, only adds to the intimacy of the scene, as Nix thanks him again, this time in her own language, and “we both smiled like it didn’t mean anything.”

What are you reading? Impressed by a particular scene? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews and comments on books, art, theatre and film. Please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.