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.

The power of reading aloud

Remember Me To The Bees launch photographer Pete GettinsThis month I’ll be doing readings at events in Cardiff and Bristol, sharing flash fictions pieces inspired by art, a short story based on the life of a lady aviator, and a tale prompted by superstition and the sea.

I love doing readings – it’s always somewhat terrifying, but at no other time do you receive such an instantaneous reaction to your work. I even enjoy reading out during sessions with the writing groups I attend. Somehow speaking the words I’ve written gives them life beyond the page, which is, in part, what every written word requires in one form or another.

With works in progress, it also helps me to hear where my writing would benefit from being tightened up or amended in some way. I sometimes wonder if the neighbours are ever puzzled to overhear me reading my latest story or chapter aloud, sometimes stopping mid-sentence as some previously unnoticed clunkiness or typos come to my attention.

If a sentence trips you as you speak it, something’s generally amiss. A few tweaks can smooth out the structure and rhythm, enrich each sentence, and get it closer to the flawless piece of prose or poetry you intended to construct in the first place.

If you haven’t tried it before, I definitely recommend giving it a go, even if it’s just you alone in a forest with an audience of trees. Even better, as one of my friends does, dictate your writing pieces into a Dictaphone or similar and play it back to yourself – you may find yourself cringing, but surely that will be worth it for the enhanced end result.

Time management for writers

quaffleToday’s guest post comes from writer Freya Morris, and offers some golden tips for managing your time and maintaining motivation to get the most from your urge to write.

Time’s a snitch. The golden type, that flies away from you in that awesome game that doesn’t exist – Quidditch.

Picture this: we writers are the seekers, up on our broom (which for the sake of this Harry Potter analogy, I’m going to say is the pen/laptop/whatever), squinting, trying to spot that tiny little glimmer of hope, find the time to write.

We just have to catch it.

Harry Potter golden snitch

I’ve been looking for the golden snitch for as long as I can remember. I stayed in my first full-time job for about three months before realising that I was nowhere near it. In fact, my head wasn’t even in the game. On my lunch breaks I read about playing, or caught up on the results of other writers who had caught the snitch hundreds of times before me. But this was getting me nowhere. So I worked out that if I went part-time, I could earn the same about doing an admin job and actually put pen to paper during the rest of my time. And so I did.

So you’d think that going part-time would be it, right? Game over. Snitch caught. We can all cheer. YAY! Go Gryffindor (or whatever your house of choice is).

Wrong.

Going part-time was like standing in the arena, broomless and without a clue how to play the game. I was in it, I caught glimpses of the snitch, but all I had really achieved by going part-time was space. By not grasping ahold of my broom and training, the arena soon filled with distractions: family, housework, chores, DIY and whatever. And in all this crap – the snitch could hide forever.

And it still does. Every day, it’s like playing a game of Quidditch and so many things get in the way of me catching that snitch – mostly, myself. Here are some things I’ve learnt in training along the way.

bludger

Beware the Bludgers

Rejections – they happen often, and most of the time you can dodge them and carry on. But the odd one here and there will smack you right in the face and throw you off your broom (ie – pen/laptop/whatever). But remember, it’s only temporary. The game is still playing, the snitch is still flying. You’re just floored for a bit. It might be a longer game than usual – days long – but someone has to catch the snitch before the game can finish. Make sure that it’s you.

This is where it’s probably good to get some Beaters on side, ‘Champions of You’ that can bat away any Bludgers coming your way. So stop playing Quidditch alone. Find your Beater today. They will greatly increase your odds of catching that pesky snitch.

Quaffing the Quaffle – scoring points and jumping through hoops

For me, this is all the stuff that I do that isn’t writing but supports my writing: social media, blogging, this very post, readings. Hit those Quaffles and score some points, but don’t forget to block some too when it’s stopping you from focusing on catching the snitch. The Quaffle gets you points, but ultimately, it doesn’t win you the game. Be your own Chaser, and your own Keeper.

Harry Potter brooms

Training 

Get on your broom regularly. Find out the best techniques for you. Find your heroes and read about them. Exercise – literally. Blood flow is good for the brain. Have specific goals, for now, next week, next year. (Listen to your own advice Freya.)

Once you catch that snitch, you’ll be thinking about the next game, and sometime you won’t catch it as often as you so desperately hope to. So if you want to survive being a writer, you got to know why you’re playing the game in the first place and enjoy it.

The hardest part for me is the first step, the shoe-tie, the picking up of the broom, the pressure on the pitch. And that… well I’m still learning to overcome. Any advice, especially HP related, do share!

Freya MorrisAbout the author

Freya Morris was named after the great explorer, Freya North, and lives up to her name by exploring other worlds in her imagination. For her flash fiction, she won the Yellow Room Flash Fiction Competition and came runner up in the Greenacre Writers Competition. Her short stories have been published in: Litro’s Friday Flash, Short Story Sunday, Nature’s Futures section, Popshot, and National Flash Fiction Day Anthology ‘Scraps’.

NB: Thanks to JK Rowling for providing the source material for Freya’s analogy. Freya has obtained permissions for all images used in this post.

How to write a short story collection

Knit graffiti in Arnos Vale cr Judy DarleyToday’s guest post comes from writer KM Elkes and offers an insight into the art of stringing a short story collection together.

Telling people you are working on a novel is easy enough. People ‘get’ novels. Even the least reader-ish person has probably read a couple, either because they were forced to at school or because they were part of Generation Harry Potter.

But a short story collection? Not so much.

Maybe that’s because short story collections are relatively unfamiliar – not so surprising when you consider bookshops force readers into an Indiana Jones-style quest to find them. They lurk unassumingly, a diaspora spread among distant bookcases, waiting for the day when someone has the bright idea to give them a shelf of their own.

But there’s a deeper issue too – even those in the biz, writers and publishers, are sometimes ignorant of what a short story collection really is. Which makes putting one together feel like a Sisyphean task.

Think about it. There’s plenty of advice out there on what makes a good novel – how to write it, pace it, plot it, sell it. But I’ve yet to Google a go-to guide on what constitutes a fantastic collection.

Most short story writers are busy just trying to make each story the best we can. The emotional investment is quick, deep and hard, the art tricky.  It’s only when you come to the point of putting your own collection together that you realise it’s not simply a matter of polishing up your bestest, nicest stories and pressing Send.

What does a short story collection involve? What does it need?

Well, in my opinion, many of the same things that characterise a good short story – unity of purpose and theme.

I’m not talking specifically about some clunky link (hey, watchya know, they’re all characters from the same street!) but something less obvious, spider silk thin at times, but there, somehow.

Runaway by Alice MunroLook at some wonderful collections – Alice Munro’s Runaway; Cathedral by Raymond Carver; Nathan Englander’s For The Relief of Unbearable Urges; Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan. Whether or not the author planned it, there is a thread that runs through these books, located in place, or in an overarching theme, in the kind of lives they tackle and in that most intangible thing: voice.

Regardless of point of view, tense, sympathetic or abhorrent characters, regardless of timeframe or timeline, great authors have a voice, a way of storytelling that leaves an imprint on their collection.

Think of George Saunders at the frayed edge of satire, or the rich gravy of Saul Bellow’s language, the wry humour of Kevin Barry and Edith Pearlman’s precise concision – all give a shape that is the author’s own.

What can those of us putting our debut collection learn from this?

Being ruthless is necessary, especially with our earlier work. Yes they might have won prizes or been shortlisted for decent competitions, but do these stories fit with our latest work, where a more individual voice is starting to form? Perhaps it’s time for that tricky chat: “Thanks guys, we had fun, but I’ve moved on. It’s not you, it’s me.”

Tough love is also needed for the stories that are up to scratch, but simply don’t fit in. That cracking three thousand worder, which someone said reminded them of Jorge Luis Borges, probably won’t fit if you are building a reputation as the Cheever of Milton Keynes.

Even then, this process throws up fresh dilemmas. How do you know when you’re done? How do you know that the next story you write won’t be the one to top out the collection, the crowning glory that will pull it all together?

This is particularly tricky for me, and, I suspect, many other short story writers because I don’t (I can’t) write with a collection in mind. Story writing for me is a weird alchemy, when character, voice, theme and tone come together through some process that has little to do with the analytical part of my brain.

So time is important, to allow things to accrete. Maybe the key to creating a short story collection is the key to all writing – keep going, get better at it, read stories by people who are better than you, learn from them, accept your failures, don’t get carried away with your successes, rinse and repeat.

Eventually you may begin to ‘feel’ a group of stories huddling together. You sense a deeper resonance coming through, common themes being explored. You think – and this is as important as anything else – of a title that makes things tick.

Good advice is hard to come by, but fresh perspectives (note the plural), might help you push to keep creating new material or re-think existing work.

All of this points towards a simple fact – creating a short story collection is also about growing up as a writer, reaching a maturity which enables you to fathom how stories hang together, the palette you work with, the themes which gnaw at you and how that is not such a ‘bad thing’.

And that’s about as much as I can tell you. For now.

Author KM ElkesAbout the author

KM Elkes is an author, journalist and travel writer. He has won the Fish Publishing flash prize, been shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize and was one of the winners of the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2014. He also won the Prolitzer short story prize in 2014 and wrote a winning entry for the Labello Press International Short Story Prize 2015. His work has appeared in various anthologies and won prizes at Words With Jam, Momaya Review, Writing WM, Bath Short Story Award, Lightship Publishing and Accenti in Canada. He blogs at www.kmelkes.co.uk and tweets via @mysmalltales.

KM Elkes will be sharing more of his writing expertise at free flash fiction workshops taking place at Bristol Central Library for National Flash Fiction Day (this Saturday!), along with NFFD director Calum Kerr and prize-winning author KM Elkes. The workshops take place from 1.30-4.30pm. KM is also taking part in An Evening of Flash Fiction, from 6pm at Foyles Bookstore Bristol, along with a number of other writers, including Zoe GilbertKevlin HenneySarah Hilary, Freya Morris, Grace Palmer, Jonathan Pinnock, and, well, me.

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!

Artificial-Anatomy-of-Parks-coverSynopsise!

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.

When metaphors come to life

Harriet's catAward-winning short story writer Harriet Kline tells us how and why she likes to use animals as metaphors in her fiction, but warns us that they sometimes they take on a life of their own. 

I talk a lot to my cat. I ask her if she’s having a lovely sleep, or if she knows how beautiful she is. I talk to other animals too. I’ve been known to greet butterflies, thank blackbirds for their songs, hurl insults at flies. Trees, recalcitrant computers, zippers also get comments aimed their way.  I know I’m not the only one. Plenty of people name their cars and tell hamsters not be scared when they lift them out of the cage. Once I heard a woman say to her dog, we’ve talked about this before.

For me, there’s a particular set of feelings that comes with addressing things that won’t reply: A sense of power perhaps, in knowing that my comments will not be contradicted. A sense of foolishness, especially if I’m overheard. And also a sense of creativity. There really is no significance in a fly buzzing at my window or a zip sticking on my favourite dress, but when I speak to these things I fill them up with meaning. I create a relationship with them, through my words. We all do. We gain a sense of ourselves, of where we are in the world by relating to the things around us.

This set of feelings also occurs when I’m writing short stories. I feel powerful, creative and foolish all at once. I believe the link is that as I create a narrative, I simultaneously fill it up with meaning. As the story unfolds, the deeper, metaphorical layer is revealed. So a story about a young woman who finds a ladybird caught in her blouse is really about how she finds a small but gritty determination to survive. A story where three siblings neglect their guinea pigs is really about their unwillingness to admit to any vulnerability in themselves.

Harriet's dog

How it feels to use metaphors in your writing

What really interests me is not simply that I use metaphor as a writer, (many of us do,) but what it actually feels like to do that. I am intrigued by the very moment when something becomes significant. That twinge of self consciousness when I catch myself in the act of appropriating meaning. The pause between addressing the animal and remembering that it definitely won’t reply.

It is this active interface with metaphor, that I wanted to examine in Familiars, my collection of short stories. I wanted to make that moment of self consciousness central to each narrative and explore its effects on a range of protagonists. In some stories the significant animal relationship allows a transformation: A young woman comparing a dog’s whining with her own, comes to accept her feelings of grief.

In others the protagonist resists the moment, refusing to see significance when it is clearly present: A teenage boy is horrified by his sister’s attempts to imbue a robot with character. He insists it can have no feelings because he would rather not to admit to his own. In some stories the moment is fleeting: A woman, unable to express herself honestly is struck by the hideous hawing of a donkey. In others it is stretched into something magical: A mother struggling with feelings of awkwardness transforms repeatedly into a hare.

I chose animals (and a few magically animated objects) for this exploration because I’m certain that the impulse to talk to animals is almost universal. I guessed that the interface between animal, human and meaning is something my readers would recognise. I also suspected that many of us have imagined how the animals might reply.

And it was here that I had the most fun with my writing. What would a cat say if it could speak its mind? How does a ghost dog feel when someone walks through it? I thought it would be difficult to put language into the minds of animals, but what I’ve learned through writing Familiars is that is even more difficult not to. When the cat walks across my notebook as I write, I can’t help imagining her thoughts: Hey, don’t look at the paper, look at me. Or when my friend’s dog brings me a ragged slipper in his jaws it’s impossible not to believe he’s thinking, love me, love me, go on, please. So it was almost a relief to give free rein to this impulse, and create whole narratives from the minds of animals. It was as if the metaphors I had chosen began to take on a life of their own.

And yet, I also wanted to show that this impulse to make meaning is really a human concern. It’s how we connect, how we love and learn, take our place in the world. So I decided that my talking cat would have no reverence for language and less for any moments of significance. Despite her abilities her priorities would still be the food bowl and a warm place to lie in the sun. And by doing this, I hope I was also able to suggest that for humans it is different. Language gives us a richer and more wonderful life. We thrive on stories and metaphors and I believe they are central to our humanity.

Harriet KlineAbout the author

Harriet Kline won the London Magazine Short Story Competition 2013 and the Hissac Short Story Competition 2012. She was highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize 2014 and has been shortlisted and longlisted elsewhere. Two of her short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Familiars as a collection is as yet unpublished. You can read Ghost at www.hissac.co.uk/Ghost and and Donkeys at shortstorysunday.comChest of Drawers appears in The London Magazine April/May 2014. Hares appears in Story.Book, Unbound Press and Spilling Ink Review. If you are interested in reading any of the other stories, contact Harriet through her website www.harrietkline.com “and we may be able to come to an arrangement.”

How to harness your demons

Hamlet of Sachs Harbour, NWT, April 1992This week’s guest post comes from Joan Mettauer, author of Diamonds in an Arctic Sky, and explores how you can tackle life’s most brutal challenges by using them in your fiction.

The course of your life can change in an instant. I know it can, because mine did.

When I was young, I took too many things for granted – like life itself. Happily married, with two wonderful young sons, my world was suddenly turned upside down one sunny August afternoon when my eldest son died in an accident. He was just three weeks away from his third birthday. I became a bereaved mother at age 32, and a divorced, single parent at age 33. Unfair? You bet.

Having lived in various northern communities in Canada, I soon leapt at the opportunity to move to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, which lies high above Canada’s Arctic Circle in the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun.’ We all know, or have heard, that people deal with their grief in different ways; some eventually become addicted to prescription drugs, alcohol, illegal drugs, or even sex. I was on the downward, slippery slope to becoming an alcoholic when I finally woke up one day and said, ‘That’s enough.’

The Hamlet of Grise Fiord, the place that never thaws, on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, 1976

The Hamlet of Grise Fiord, the place that never thaws. This is one of the coldest inhabited places in the world, 1160km north of the Arctic Circle. Visited on a supply trip, 1976.

The Compassionate Friends, a grief-support organisation for bereaved parents, encouraged me to keep a diary, and to write about my grief. I couldn’t do it though, as my feelings were just too raw at the time. Their suggestion was never far from my mind, though, and 25 years later I finally found the courage to put into words my most private thoughts and feelings. My first novel, Diamonds in an Arctic Sky, is the result of my determination to face grief head-on.

Write what you know

Diamonds in an Arctic Sky-JoanMettauer-CoverWhen I retired and decided to start writing full-time, it was quite natural for me to write about the things I knew best – living in the north, and surviving the death of a child. My books’ heroine is Andi Nowak, and her life mirrors my own. Through Andi’s eyes and emotions I was able to pour out my own story, without having to think twice about how Andi was feeling. I knew exactly how she was feeling at all times. The serenity and beauty of the north play a large role in healing Andi’s ravaged emotions, and helping her come to terms with her grief. I feel that having something, or someone, important in one’s life is an essential element in restoring peace and equilibrium.

Add some dazzle

While plotting out the storyline for Diamonds in an Arctic Sky, it quickly became apparent that I would have to add something ‘extra’ to make the story more intriguing and readable. Alas, my life, interesting as it was to me, needed some perking up! I thought it would be great to add mystery and suspense to the story, and at the same time tell my readers another little-known fact about Canada’s north – we have a flourishing diamond mining industry. So I created a fictitious diamond mine near Inuvik (the real mines are all closer to Yellowknife, near Great Slave Lake).

I have read quite a few ‘how to’ books for writers, and also realise that to make my characters more believable, they must have struggles, internal battles and low points in their lives. Andi’s battle with alcoholism seemed like a natural and believable fit into the story, and gave her another personal challenge to overcome.

In my case, turning the events of my life into a work of fiction proved to be remarkably easy. The basic theme of the story echoes my life in Inuvik. The wonderful people I met in Inuvik made a huge impact on my life, so it seemed natural that most of the characters in my book, with the exception of North, Andi’s friend and eventual lover, are based on people I knew or worked with. Fictitiously, of course!

Joan MettauerAbout the author

Joan Mettauer was born and raised in Alberta’s heartland in Canada. Her love affair with aviation was sparked at an early age, and she dedicated most of her working years to the flying business. Living in various Northern communities, including Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, she travelled throughout Canada’s Arctic. Her final years in the aviation industry were spent in Inuvik, N.W.T., from where she bid farewell to the North. Now retired, she resides on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, with her husband. Diamonds in an Arctic Sky is Joan’s first novel.