On your marks… NaNoWriMo!

Painted desert, Colorado cr Judy DarleyIt’s less than a day until the start of NaNoWriMo 2018 on 1st November. Are you taking part? I love the concept of this word-packed month, with ardent writers across the world hunched over laptops sweating out every last drop of inspiration..

I know plenty of writers this enforced period of productivity really suits. For some folks it seems to be the ideal way to stoke up ideas and get them to catch alight on the page.

For me, the beginning stages of novel-writing are all about thinking ahead, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do some speedy planning even as you begin to write. After all, what else are you going to do when waiting for buses, in post office queues and doing the washing up?

Here are my top five preparation tips to ensure you make the most of this exceptional month.

1. Form a vision of the story you’ll be aiming to tell, with the beginning already shaped in your mind. If possible, do the same for the ending. Having an idea of the finale you’re working towards will mean you’re far less likely to veer off track!

2. Spend some time considering your characters – working out who they are, how they think, what their goals are, how they might help or hinder each other.

3. Know your setting. This is one of my favourites, particularly if it offers a valid excuse to meander in a much loved wilderness or similar.

4. Pick out a few dramatic moments your plot will cover and brainstorm them, then set them aside. Whenever your enthusiasm wanes over the intensive NaNoWriMo period, treat yourself by delving into one of those to reinvigorate your writing energy.

5. Finally, make sure you have plenty of sustenance to hand. For me, the essentials are coffee and chocolate. What are yours?

In 2017 more than 26,000 people took part in National Novel Writing Month. If you’re signing up, I raise a glass (or rather, a mug of coffee) to you. Good luck!

Writing prompt – found

Goblin by Judy DarleyImagine, a small stone goblin appears in a forest.

Where did it come from? Did someone leave it there? If so, why?

Imagine, one day the goblin disappears as mysteriously as it arrived.

Where did it go? Did someone take it? If so why?

What happens in the time these two events? What will happen next?

Puzzle out the answers to each of these questions, even if you don’t intend to share them all with your readers. Just knowing them will help to give your writing clarity and depth.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

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Exploring faith in fiction

Sea Mosque in Jaffa by Ariel KahnAriel Kahn, the author of Raising Sparks, explains how fiction became his medium for pursuing Kabbalistic cats, prayer trees, and speaking silences, and how ideas about faith can weave depth into your stories.

Raising Sparks by Ariel KahnMy novel Raising Sparks is a magical realist love story, suffused with spiritual longing and Kabbalistic imagery. It began in a Suffolk garden. Our second child was due in a month, and my wife and I were on a writing retreat in a little cottage. Sitting in the garden under an apple tree, I watched a cat walk along the wall. It stared over its shoulder, as if daring me to follow. I had the sudden image of a teenage girl following a cat through the busy food market in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem. Who was she, and why was she following the cat? I had no idea.

Jerusalem means a lot to me. I come from an Orthodox Jewish family, and was supposed to be a rabbi. I studied in rabbinical school for three years between high school and university, ultimately deciding that it wasn’t for me, though it left me with a deep love of mystical texts. As the brother of four sisters, these spoke to me because they seemed deeply feminist, with a key motif being that the world was broken because the female element of the Divine, the Shekhinah, had been exiled – it was our responsibility to return her to her Beloved, through being present to the possibility of meaning in each moment. Such a sense of being present would enable us to “Raise the Sparks”, making us co-creators, responsible for healing the world within and around us. Whilst studying in Israel, I set up a writing group at the rabbinical school with my fellow student, Matt Eisenfeld. Matt and his Fiancé Sara Duker were tragically killed in a bus bombing during the first intifada. l was determined that their love and vision would not perish with them. The love story at the heart of Raising Sparks is partly inspired by this couple, and represents my attempt to raise the sparks of loss and love I still feel for these amazing people, a way of sharing them.

Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem by Roxanne Desgagnes on Unsplash

Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem by Roxanne Desgagnes on Unsplash

Understand language as the tool for creation

Another intriguing strand for me as an aspiring writer was the focus on language as a tool for creation. Kabbalistic texts like the Zohar suggested that the world itself was God’s Language made visible, and that if only we opened ourselves to it, we could hear and experience this language, and even participate in it. My wife is Israeli, and I was brought up speaking Hebrew. The way a Biblical language had been adapted for modern use fascinated me – Amos Oz once said that writing in Hebrew was like playing the piano in the Grand Canyon. For instance, the word Kabbalah, the name for mystical texts, literally means something you receive or are gifted with. In Modern Hebrew, it is the word for a till receipt. This gap between the original resonance of a word and its modern usage fascinated me. Another example is the Hebrew word for electricity, Chashmal. Taken from Ezekiel’s vision of the energy that sustains the universe, it resonates with supressed energy – it literally means the speaking silence. What if someone could tap into that energy, liberate it?

Which brings me back to the young girl following the cat. I decided to go back to Israel for a research trip. My sister in law lives right next to Yotam Ottolenghi’s parents, and her garden, overlooking the Jerusalem hills, is a deeply creative space for me. We stayed over there, and I had a dream in which I was the young girl I’d glimpsed in Suffolk. She was standing before the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and all of the paper prayers people had pressed into the cracks between the stones were pulsing like hearts, or sea anemones, crying aloud the prayers written on them. I woke with a strong sense of who she was. Her name was Malka, which meant queen – a nod to the missing Shekhinah, as she would embody the power and potential so often lost in patriarchal societies, and identify articulate those voices that are so often silenced in our society – of the marginalised. She was a secret mystic, able to hear and even manipulate that original Divine creative language. The cat she was following belonged to a legendary mystic. As I wandered the narrow streets of the old city of Jerusalem, which press in so you feel you are still inside, I realised that she would have to escape this narrow and confining world. Where would an aspiring mystic run?

Jerusalem Old City. Photo by Arial Kahn

Jerusalem Old City. Photo by Arial Kahn

Weave your stories together

The answer seemed obvious. The mystical city of Safed, near the Sea of Galilee, has been drawing kabbalists for hundreds of years. One of the greatest of these was Isaac Luria, the Mozart of the kabbalah, who blazed a deeply individual, hugely influential trail and died young. Luria, also known as the Ari, or Lion, left his family home in Jerusalem in the seventeenth century to study Kabbalah in Safed; he commanded that all doors, which could be portals between one world and another, be painted sky blue.

Blue door, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Blue door, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

This is still the case today. He proposed the notion of raising sparks I mentioned earlier, and also spoke of the relationship between the two aspects of the Divine within and around us in shockingly erotic terms. One of his students, Solomon Alkabetz, penned a love song to the Sabbath Queen, another name for the Shekhina, in which God “rejoiced with her as a bridegroom does with his bride n his wedding night.” His community would dance down out of the city to the surrounding fields, singing this song, to welcome the Shekhina and the Sabbath. Even today, throughout the world, Jewish communities sing this same song, the Lecha Dodi (come my beloved) to welcome the Sabbath. I decided that Malka’s family name would be Sabbatto, a variant on the Sabbath, linking her to the Sabbath Queen more deeply.

In Safed, I visited the ancient synagogue in which Luria prayed. On the ceiling were trees. Many Trees. As I looked up at them, they seemed to spin in place. The Tree of Life is a key symbol in Jewish mysticism, suggesting the relationship between the human and the Divine; a tree has its roots on earth but reaches up to heaven, drawing sustenance from both. The Kabballah sometimes describes an inverted tree, the heavenly twin of this one, with its roots in heaven, its branches reaching down towards earth. Malka would see this tree, and variations of it throughout the novel, charting her development and growing self-confidence. I thought about Malka coming to Safed. Where would she go? I saw the way tourism had appropriated the creative energy of the original kabbalists, and domesticated it. What if she were to fall in with a cult, in which these erotic texts were manipulated to take advantage of the cult members? That word for electricity, Chashmal, is seen as hugely dangerous in the Talmud and mystical texts – if you speak it the wrong way, you might get burned up. Could Malka use this word, and what would happen if she did?

Western Wall, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Western Wall, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Use your fiction to examine questions

My literary quest was becoming a series of questions I wanted my writing to answer. If she were to go on the run again after Safed, I thought she would follow the blue all the way to the sea. This time, she would be running from the sense of her own power she had uncovered in the cult. She should go to Jaffa, the port where Jonah fled God’s word, and where Andromeda was chained to the rock in need of rescue.

Jaffa is fascinating, a deeply Arab city that is often attached to its larger neighbour, Tel Aviv, granting it a secondary status, though it is ancient and complex. It is full of symbols of the mingling of voices and cultures, like the Arab-owned Abulafia bakery which was closed on all Jewish festivals, and popular with people of every background and ethnicity. Abulafia was also the name of a famous Spanish Kabbalist of the thirteenth century. Was it a coincidence? Kabbalists themselves often argued that there was no such thing as coincidence, only singns we needed to learn how to read. My wife and I ate at a fish restaurant in Tel Aviv called Lilith, which trained Jewish and Arab street children to work in restaurants, much like Jamie Oliver’s Thirteen. I thought of the wonderful herb garden owned by Yotam Ottolelghi’s family, and of his eponymous restaurant, set up with Sami Tami, his Palestinian business partner. I imagined Malka sleeping rough on Jaffa beach, and getting picked up to work in a similar restaurant.

As I walked through the streets of old Jaffa, I suddenly saw an orange tree floating in the air just ahead of me. I checked that my wife could see it too. It turned out to be an artist’s installation by environmental artist Ran Morin. It felt like another sign. What would this symbol mean to Malka and her fellow trainees? Perhaps, suspended between past and present, they would find new ways of being and seeing, connecting across class and culture.

Ariel KahnAbout the author

Debut novelist Ariel Kahn is a prize-winning writer and academic. He initially trained to be a rabbi in Israel, where he discovered a love of mystical texts such as the Zohar. He has won the Bloomsbury New Voices competition, the London Writing Competition, and came runner-up in the national Pulp Idol Fiction competition in 2017. Ariel has an MA in African and Indian literature and a PhD in Creative Writing and currently lives in North London. Raising Sparks, published by Bluemoose, is his first novel. Buy it from your favourite bookshop, online from Amazon, or from Book Depository.

Read my review of Raising Sparks by Ariel Kahn.

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Ariel Kahn.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to judydarley@iCloud.com.

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How to handle a multi-person narrative

Image2 by Ewa DoddIn today’s guest post, debut author Ewa Dodd talks us through the challenges, and delights, of tackling a multi-person narrative in your fiction writing.

The idea for The Walls Came Down came to me quite suddenly when reading a Polish magazine article one idle summer afternoon in Warsaw. A grainy photograph of a crowd at a football game caught my eye. The poor quality shot looked like it has been enlarged many times, and the editor had placed a red ring around something in the far right hand corner of the image.

I peered at it closely. It looked like two people, one much smaller than the other, walking to the exit hand in hand. It was possible that the larger one had grey hair, or was wearing a grey-coloured hat, but I couldn’t make out any further details. To my surprise, the article revealed that this still from the footage of a 1987 football game formed a key part of the evidence of a child’s abduction. The child (now an adult), had miraculously been found more than fifteen years after she’d disappeared and had lived a seemingly uneventful life in another part of the country with people she believed to be her parents.

I read the article out to my grandmother. ‘That would make for a very interesting novel,’ she said, before getting back to peeling the potatoes. Later that evening, I opened my laptop and began to write. I changed the setting of the event and the gender of the missing child, but the premise remained the same. Of course, a great story is nothing without a good narrator and for the weeks that followed, I puzzled over the protagonist. Should it be the missing person? Somebody involved in the search? A casual observer loosely linked to the incident? After much internal debate, I ended up with three distinct voices.

But how do you handle a multi-person narrative? Read on to find out.

Image by Ewa DoddEnsure each small story feeds into a larger whole

Each of my protagonists has their own unique story to tell, but I had to be careful to ensure that they all furthered the broader narrative. I frequently checked that every chapter left the reader guessing about how the different pieces slotted together.

We meet Joanna for the first time in 1988 in Warsaw, when she is four years old. She discovers that her twin brother Adam has gone missing in the crowds during a protest that they have both attended with their mother. At first, she firmly believes that he will come home, but days, weeks and months pass and there is no news of him. She refuses to give up the search and uses her job as a journalist to keep the story in the public eye.

Matty is a young city slicker, set on a route to becoming a successful investment banker with a six figure salary and a mansion in one of the posher suburbs of London. On the surface he has everything, and is envied by most of his friends. But there’s something that gnaws away at his subconscious, never allowing him to fully relax into his success. An unusual news story about a plane crash in Russia spirals off a chain of events, which leads him to question who he is and where he has come from.

We first meet Tom when he gets a diagnosis of liver cancer by his doctor, having noticed some worrying symptoms, including huge weight loss. Tom has recently retired from forty years of hard labour, and the unfairness of the situation hits him with full force. Lacking any immediate family to look after him, he goes to nursing home, to live out the last months of his life amongst other people suffering from terminal illnesses.

It’s fairly apparent from the outset how Joanna and Matty’s narratives tie together, but my aim with Tom was to keep the reader guessing for longer.

Image1 Ewa Dodd

Make each voice distinct, and work out a backstory

I realised early on that in order for the three protagonists to be believable, they would each need a highly unique voice. Before I properly began writing, I wrote a rough backstory for each character and even sketched out what they looked like.

Joanna shares many of the traits of determined and successful young women that I know, but she has additional, almost super-human resolve to continue pursuing what she believes, whilst everything implies that she should give up.

Matty was a complex character to create, as he is so multi-dimensional. Superficially, he is cocky, confident and not always likeable. But on another level, he is burdened with a deep anxiety about having lost his true identity. When writing his sections, I based his narrative on the experiences of people who have lost their memory and the heart-wrenching emotions associated with slowly regaining these.

I found Tom’s character very difficult to bring to life, as I’d never previously written from the point of view of somebody both male and of a very different age to my own. What was most challenging was convincingly conveying the pain, fear and devastation that come with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, and here, I am deeply indebted to a number of brilliant and talented people who were brave enough to write about their experiences of exactly this, including the wonderful Kate Gross.

Ewa DoddAbout the author

The daughter of a bookseller, Ewa Dodd has been writing since she was young, starting small with short self-illustrated books for children. More recently, she has delved into novel-writing, and is particularly interested in literature based in Poland, where her family is from. The Walls Came Down is her first published novel, for which she was shortlisted for the Virginia Prize for Fiction. Buy it from Amazon or from Aurora Metro.

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Ewa Dodd.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to JudyDarley@icloud.com.

How to confound categories

The winding mechanism on a lock gate by Kate Dunn

As authors we’re often asked to define our writing genre, but is this always the right option? Today’s guest post author, Kate Dunn, thinks not.

An article in the Kirkus Review about my new novel The Dragonfly mentioned that it is difficult to categorise, something that I was rather pleased about as I was keen not to bend the integrity of the story to fit into a particular niche.  It is an unusual tale.  Its two central character are a middle-aged man, Colin, and his nine-year-old French granddaughter Delphine, who are thrown together after the death of Delphine’s mother Charlotte.

To divert her from her sorrows, Colin decides to take her on an extended trip on his little day boat, the Dragonfly. Having these two protagonists at the heart of the novel already creates certain tensions – they come from different generations, genders and countries; they don’t even share a common language, so there is plenty of scope for conflict here and therefore the potential for drama.

Locate the emotional truth

I set myself more challenges than perhaps I meant to with these two. Neither Colin nor Delphine come from worlds which particularly chime with my own and I find it very difficult to account for their origins and evolution: they made themselves known to me.

What I’m trying to do in creating characters is to locate the emotional truth in each of them. That seems to dictate how they speak, how they think, how they behave and I guess there is a certain universality in the emotions all of us feel – the author’s job is to make these individual and particular to each of her characters. I’m slightly superstitious about analysing whatever it is that happens during this process, in case it stops working!

The book has two different locations: firstly, the achingly beautiful canals which wind through the Burgundy countryside in France. My husband and I are lucky enough to have a little river boat which we keep on the French waterways.

We have had rather more adventures then I would like: it turns out that as a sailor I have a very low threshold of panic and an over-active imagination – not good for boating but quite productive in terms of writing fiction, and I have certainly drawn upon some of our scrapes when plotting The Dragonfly.

Colin’s boat is based on one we saw moored in a marina – it was absolutely tiny and a middle-aged man and his granddaughter had been sailing on it together for thirty-six days.  That got me thinking…

The boat that inspired The Dragonfly by Kate Dunn

The boat that inspired The Dragonfly

Draw from unconventional experiences

The sub plot of the story takes place within the four walls of a prison cell in Paris where Colin’s son Michael is awaiting trial for the murder of Delphine’s mother, living in close proximity to his villainous cellmate Laroche while attempting to come to terms with recent tragic events.

One of my first jobs was working as a solicitor’s clerk and occasionally I had to visit prisoners on remand in Brixton prison – seeing the conditions back then had a huge impact on me and certainly informed the writing of these scenes.

My years spent in a particularly grim English boarding school helped as well: the place was spartan and institutional and the iron bedsteads (complete with horsehair mattresses) had Kent Summer Prison stencilled on them. It was a brutalising regime and left an indelible impression on me, which I think also may have influenced my portrayal of the dynamics at play in my Paris prison.

The Dragonfly by Kate DunnI wanted Colin and Delphine to begin their adventure together from opposite poles in order to create enough space for them to reach out to one another.  To increase their stress levels, I decided to place all of my characters in situations where space is the one thing that isn’t available to them:  Colin and Delphine are on a small boat, and Michael and Laroche are confined to a cell.

My hope was that in setting up these polarities within the story and putting my characters in a pressure-cooker situation, I would maximise the opportunities for narrative tension: there is plenty of warp and weft in the novel. There are all kinds of contrasts at play that might not have been available to me if I had confined myself strictly to one genre.  A thread of domestic violence runs through the book, posing some tricky questions: can a victim ever be complicit in what happens to them? Does the fact that somebody commits a violent act preclude them from being otherwise decent and well meaning?

These are issues I wanted to explore, without necessarily coming up with answers – I’ve left that to the reader to decide.  Although the central theme is serious, there is lots of humour in The Dragonfly, which provides another source of structural tension.  The fact that the story straddles different genres and can be read as a mystery or thriller, a family drama, a love story, an adventure full of mishap and misjudgement or even a road trip, is an expression of all the contrasts and contradictions that define it.

Kate-Dunn-writer-authorAbout the author

Kate Dunn comes from a long line of writers and actors: her great-great-grandfather Hugh Williams was a Welsh chartist who published revolutionary poetry, her grandfather, another Hugh Williams, was a celebrated film star and playwright, and she is the niece of the poet Hugo Williams and the actor Simon Williams.

Kate has had six books published, including novels Rebecca’s Children and The Line Between Us, and non-fiction books Always and Always – the Wartime Letters of Hugh and Margaret Williams and Exit Through the Fireplace. Her novel The Dragonfly was shortlisted for The Virginia Prize for Fiction.

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Kate Dunn.

Read my review of The Dragonfly by Kate Dunn.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.