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Hello!  Thanks for stopping by!  Fiction Can Be Fun is a writing project run by David (@breakerofthings) and Debs (@debsdespatches).   We each post a piece of fiction every month, run a writing prompt once a month and are the originators of #secondthoughts. #secondthoughts are reflections on writing, responses to writing and…well, take a look and you’ll see!

If you’d like to find out more/get involved, please do take a look at the ‘About’ page.

 

Our regular schedule

1st Sunday : #FF Prompt – submission deadline the Friday following @ 2 pm GMT
(or use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page if the deadline is too tight)

2nd Sunday : An original Short story from David or Debs

3rd Sunday : A #SecondThoughts piece from David or Debs
(except for those occasions when we’ve been able to persuade a guest to write one for us!)

4th Sunday : Another Short Story from David or Debs

5th Sunday : on the occasion when these occur, we’ll provide details as early as possible (but typically we’d hope to host a guest post, so do get in touch if you could be interested!)

Hector

“I’m going to have to put Hector on ice.”

#####

Hattie had long thought there was something dubious about her friend’s father.  It wasn’t quite that she’d gone out of her way to maintain the friendship with Eneida, but in terms of parents who might be interesting for the wrong reasons – well, she forgave her friend the fixation with My Little Pony that had continued for longer than for anyone else they knew.

Her parents thought her intelligent, interesting, unconventional – unique, of course. Hattie’s parents had encouraged her to read all the stories that they had loved as children. She read widely. As happens, she mentioned how much she enjoyed certain books and suddenly everyone was getting her other volumes, or similar things that she might enjoy. Consequently, she fancied herself as Harriet the Spy, Anne and George, Hazel and Daisy, Nancy Drew, Lady Molly, and half a dozen others all rolled into one (good points only, of course).

The sleepover had been in the planning for a little over six weeks.  When it became obvious that they weren’t going to be able to meet up during half-term, Hattie and Eneida talked of a fun start to the summer.  The plans grew and grew until there were to be half a dozen meeting at Enieda’s straight after school on the last day of the summer term.  They didn’t quite plan things down to the number of kernels of corn to be popped for the snacks which they watched films and boxsets, but in other respects almost all the time was accounted for, including some spare activities in the (unlikely) event that the board-games under-ran.  Ice cream flavours were discussed: the three that made the final cut were “All the Chocolate”, “Salted Caramel Surprise”, and “Raspberry Pavlova”.  (Jessica’s dairy intolerance was catered for with mango sorbet).

It had been during the board games, early on the first evening, that she’d head the incriminating conversation.  She’d popped out of the Den (a second living room, given over to Eneida and her brothers, and placed firmly out of bounds to the latter for the weekend), to go to the loo.  The kitchen door was half open.  She was not sure who Eneida’s father was talking to, nor did she have any clue who Hector might be.  Eneida’s father spoke English with the lack of an accent that spoke of an expensive, or at least heavily invested in, second language: the casual way that he spoke of putting Hector “on ice” was almost as chilling as the statement itself.

Putting Hector on ice sounded like something that she should try and prevent.

She went back to the Den, mind whirling: who could she talk to about this? No one.  What could she do? No idea.

#####

She tried to pay attention, tried to have fun.   She’d tried to join in the excitement as Eneida talked about her family’s plans for the summer.  They were going to be going away for nearly a month.  There was a lot to do, much to prepare: they’d done a house swap with friends of friends who lived in Australia.  She’d spent the whole afternoon trying to think about how to save Hector and had taken in nothing of what was going on around her.  Which film had they even watched?  She couldn’t even remember the schedule that they’d spent so long perfecting.

Eneida’s father called them into the kitchen-diner for tea: originally, they’d planned to have takeaway pizza, but Eneida’s mother had insisted that they have home-made.  Hattie preferred thin crust, but Eneida’s father was a sour dough king and had made the dough for them.  He helped them to roll it out, and once they had assembled the pizzas from the selection of toppings that had been laid out, he skilfully slid the peel under them and then flicked them into the pizza oven that he’d set up on the patio.

Hattie’s was one of the last to be baked, not counting the ones that Eneida’s parents made for themselves.  Whilst she was waiting, Eneida’s mother came up and put her hand on her husband’s arm.

“Did you get rid of Hector?” she asked in a low voice.  Hattie’s ears pricked up and her tired mind was suddenly alert.

“As we discussed, my love.  I saved a bit in the freezer.”

Was Eneida’s mother in on this killing too?

#####

Hattie looked at her phone.  2.37 am.  From all around her, there was gentle snoring and the soft breathing of five people tucked up in sleeping bags.  Gently she unzipped her own bag, found her torch and her dressing gown and stole out of the room on tiptoe.  There was enough light coming through the big picture window that formed one side of the landing for her to be able to see that the way to the stairs was clear.  She shrugged on the dark red terry-cloth dressing grown and crept down the stairs, avoiding the third tread from the top, which she knew creaked.  As she descended to the ground floor, the light faded away until she reached the bottom, where it was pitch black.  She turned the tip of the torch (a miniature Maglite) until the bulb just flickered into life, and then cupped the light to reduce the light still further, to the barest minimum.  With this, she made her way to the kitchen.

Hattie opened the freezer draw.  She hadn’t been able to save Hector, but perhaps she could secure the evidence that would bring his killers to justice.  She couldn’t understand how Eneida’s father could be so brazen: not only had he kept a souvenir, but here it was in his own home freezer, carefully labelled with Hector’s name and the date.   Wasn’t he worried that Eneida might find it?

She opened the box to see what had been saved.  She was expecting a finger (for opening a biometric lock, perhaps).  Or perhaps an ear: ears were a classic souvenir.  What she was not expecting was a block of porridge-coloured – what? What on Earth was it?  It had clearly been some kind of liquid, with a certain amount of water, given that the block had conformed perfectly to the shape of the Tupperware, and there were little ice-crystals on the surface.

There was a click and the kitchen was bathed in lights: she froze as solid as whatever was in the Tupperware.  Eneida’s father stood in the doorway.

“What are you doing with Hector?” he asked, sleepily shocked.

He shuffled over.  Gently he took the Tupperware, closed it, and put it back in the freezer, closed the drawer, closed the door.

“If you wanted some sour dough starter, you only had to ask.”

© David Jesson, 2018

#FF – Conflict Resolution

Willoughby and the dragon

Willoughby was a final year at St George’s School for Knights.  His family was very much of the “with your shield or on it” persuasion, and in this respect, Willoughby was considered the black sheep of the family.  In the normal course of things, being a third son, he would have been destined for the church, which would have suited him down to the ground.  It was not so much that he was bookish, which the family could have tolerated, no, it was the continuous parade of animals large and small that were nursed back to health after being extracted from the jaws of a cat or dog, or found at the bottom of a tree with a broken wing, or – well the opportunities were endless really.

So, at the tender of age of eight, Willoughby was packed off to train to become a knight.  The chivalry bit came easily, and he was always near the top when it came to the theory – and always at the bottom when it came to the practical knighting (except for ‘Care of Your Horse’).

Willoughby looked out of the Library window and sighed.  He was completing an assignment for Heraldry, which he normally quite enjoyed; most of friends were off on a field trip for “Advanced Questing” though, and he was feeling quite blue.  (It wasn’t that he envied them the time away, but he’d all but failed the pre-requisite General Questing course, and this was a reminder of his general inadequacy as a knight).  He sighed again and then turned as first year coughed politely and said, in a piping treble:

“Excuse me, sir, but Sir Edric would like to see you.” The youngster turned away, and then turned back “Right away”, he added apologetically.

Sir Edric was Willoughby’s Personal Tutor, and the school’s Exams Officer.  He was relatively new to the school, having joined the teaching staff the year before (hence having been handed the less than plum job of Exams Officer).   Sir Edric was berry-brown from twenty years of crusades in hot climes; settling back into the damp weather of home had made him rather irascible.

“AH! Willoughby!” Sir Edric boomed. “Sit down, sit down, don’t stand on ceremony!”

Willoughby sat.

Not one for pleasantries, Sir Edric came straight to the point: “We have a problem, Willoughby.  Your overall exam grades mean that you can’t graduate, even if you ace your finals.”

“Oh…that’s certainly a problem for me, but I don’t see that it’s a problem for anyone else.”

“You’ve been here long enough to know that schools such as ours are reviewed every five years, if we want to keep our licence.  This year is a quinquennial, and it is also the centenary of the school: we are expecting the King to come and visit and perhaps even to present us with an ‘Honour’.

“That sounds like a great…honour?”

“It is indeed.  However, that will not happen if we don’t have a licence, and our licence will not be renewed if do not maintain certain standards.  Suffice it to say I have several difficult conversations to endure today, but yours is perhaps the most challenging.”

“I’m sorry to have put you to such trouble, Sir Edric.” Willoughby said this without a trace of irony or resentment, the old knight waved the comment away.

“Part of the problem is our completion rate, and you Willoughby put us just on the wrong side of the threshold.  Therefore, there are two options.  The first is that you leave the school, now, forever, and forsake the chilvaric arts; the second is that you undertake a quest of sufficient magnitude to allow us to compensate your grades in other courses.”

“Well, of course, I’d be very happy to oblige you if I could, but I don’t think my family would be very happy if I just left the school.”

“No, I don’t believe they would, and of course one of your uncles is on the Board of Governors – it would look bad for him if you left.”

“What sort of task will I have to do?”

“Well there’s a look-up table for this sort of thing.  Just review this for me would you and check that you agree as to the aggregate shortfall.  Shortfall did not actually do the underperformance in key areas due credit.  Long plunge might do better.  They looked at tables and subtables and tried to assess what would need to be done.  Clearly assisting a pilgrim across the road would not cut the mustard in this situation.  Sir Edric looked over his half-moon spectacles at the lad before him.

“Well Willoughby, it looks as though you’ll have to take on a dragon.  I’d let you do ten rounds with Fizzlewick, but it needs to be a category 3 beast, and the school mascot is definitely passed his best these days.”

Willoughby looked pale, but not actually sick.  Still a category 3 dragon for an untested, and, by his grades, poor knight was tantamount to murder.

“I suppose that if I fail, the school would still be off the hook?”

“Only if you die, or are so badly injured that you could not continue to attend the school” said the old knight, not unkindly.

At that moment the duty squire ran in and with a lack of decorum breathlessly spilled out his message:

“There’s a peasant in the courtyard, Sir Edric, he say’s that a huge dragon has settled on the slopes of Mount Orison!”

“Well!” Sir Edric rubbed his hands together.  “No time like the present!”

“No sir.”  The reply was less enthusiastic.

It takes a little time to get that sort of expedition together, but as quickly as they could the small cavalcade set out: Willoughby, the overeager first year as his squire, a couple of yeomen to do the heavy lifting, Sir Edric and a few others as observers.  They made good time to Mount Orison, set up a small camp at the base.  The next morning,  Willoughby and his squire set out.

Edric and his cronies knew that nothing would happen for a while, but the youngsters in the party kept their ears open, hoping to hear the sounds of battle joined.  It was something of a surprise then, when the squire came crashing back into camp in the late morning.

“What…what… was the…ex-act wording of the task?” he stammered breathlessly.

“What?” Sir Edric exploded.  “What’s that got to do with anything?  Isn’t one of them dead yet?”

“Please, Sir Edric,” the boy said, unapologetic in his excitement.  “Willoughby says it’s very important.”

Sir Edric pulled out the parchment, huffing as he did so, muttering.  “Hmmm…it says that the candidate needs to defeat a category 3 dragon.”

“That’s all it says, sir?  No caveats?”

“Defeat a dragon, I said, and defeat a dragon is what is written here!”

“Oh, that is good news!”  The squire ran off and rummaged in some saddle bags, and sprinted off back up the mountainside with something clutched in his hands.

“O, to be young again” Sir Edric said, to no one in particular.

Some of the younger knights wanted to see what was going on straight away, but more experienced heads prevailed, and they actually set off once luncheon had time to settle.  They walked cautiously up the wooded hillside, but a party of knights, squires and all the rest do not walk quietly, and so Willoughby’s assistant had ample warning of their arrival.  He met them, at the edge of a clearing and put his fingers to his lips.

“It’s a very delicate stage” he whispered, “two games each, one to play.”

They stared out into the clearing where a large, winged dragon lay sprawled on the ground, looking for all the world like a tapestry rendition of a hunting hound.  Close enough to feel the dragon’s exhalation from the cavernous nostrils, which, incidentally continually plumed thin tendrils of steam, Willoughby sat awkwardly in his armour.  Between the two combatants was a board.  A nine mens morris board.  Each contemplated a move, placed a stone and waited for the other.  occasionally a piece was knocked off the board.

“It was incredible, ” the first year exclaimed to Sir Edric, “Willoughby challenged the dragon, and then offered to parley.  The dragon agreed, said he’d not had a decent conversation in twenty years.  They chatted and the dragon said that he was an undefeated champion at stones, so I ran back to check about the wording.  They agreed to a five game tourney.  If Willoughby loses, the dragon eats him.  If the dragon loses, he has to come and be the new school mascot!”

Speechless, Sir Edric gaped at the scene, his jaw dropping even lower as the dragon suddenly rolled over its back, paws over its muzzle.  Willoughby got stiffly to his feet and started as he saw the crowd at the edge of the clearing.

“I’m not sure what your father would say, but you have completed the letter of the quest which you have undertaken, and that’s good enough for me.  Mind you, I’m not sure wha the Board of Governors will make of it either – that dragon is going to be a lot more expensive to feed than Fizzlewick.  It was at that moment, that they realised that several of the part were down on one knee.  They turned: the King had arrived unnoticed, and so they joined the rest of their group in obeisance.

The King’s clenched armoured fists bashed down on Willoughby’s pauldrons – first the right shoulder and then the left.  “Well done, Sir Willoughby” His Majesty said as he handed the new knight a sheathed sword.

© David Jesson, 2018


Coolio

It was killing me. My Ma had made me promise I’d not get into any fights, and I didn’t know what else I could do. Finally storming out, I threw dirty looks at them villans as I went, before slamming the door behind me. It still killed me for I knew they was doing wrong, and that poor kid … how must he’ve been feeling? Still steaming, I raged round the playground, kicking an old coke can as I went – but it didn’t help. Problem was, there was no pleading with my Ma that I’d good reason to defend a kid being bullied, she’d just tell me “there’s always another way Sean, now be off with you.”

Thing is, when I was smaller, I was that kid. Small, skinny, spotty – the only thing I was missing was a pair of specs. They’d picked on me mercilessly. There were no broken bones to point to, only a bit of pushing ‘n shoving and loads of tripping me up as I walked past – it was more what they said. They were pretty nasty. They made me feel an outcast, that nobody liked me. It was lonely and miserable, and I hated coming to school because of them. The thing I didn’t understand was that they weren’t secretive about it, most times they made sure they had an audience for their nasty work. And that’s what really hurt – ‘cos when nobody helps, when nobody stands up for you or beside you, then what’s a lad to believe other than they don’t like you? You don’t get they’re relieved they aren’t the target for the bullies and if they say anything at all, they’ll be next. It’s not nice, very not nice.

The teachers and the headmaster, they did nothing either, ‘cept shrug and say “chin up” or “you’ve got to stand up to bullies”. Yeah, loads of help that sort of advice. So I went to see my Uncle Stan. He runs a gym. I knew My Ma wouldn’t be happy but, what’s a lad to do? You can’t allow ’em to get away with it, can ya? He helped me get fit, build up some strength, get some muscles … then he taught me to box. It didn’t take long to put that lot flat on their backsides. They learned to leave me alone soon enough.

But there’s always another victim just waiting in the wings ain’t there, and soon they had another target for their nasty behaviour. ‘Course, I couldn’t stand by, could I? I had to weigh in, tell ’em to be off ‘n all that malarkey. They were grateful, the erstwhile victims, and soon they were all trooping into Uncle Stan’s gym too. Then the bullies upped their game by recruiting from the local gangs. That’s when the fights started … and they quickly got out of hand.

Those of us who was caught got suspended from school, and my Ma – well, she hit the roof. She’d never liked my Da’s brother Stan and now she banned me from going to the gym. I begged her – I’d no shame at all – I just all out begged. It took a good long while but by the time my suspension was over, I was allowed my gym visits. It’d cost the strict promise that I’d stop fighting and it didn’t take long for that to get round at school … so the bullies started up again. As my Uncle Stan would say “it’s enough to break a geezer’s bleedin’ heart”.

A week or so later and I’d almost decided to start bunking off school ‘cos I couldn’t stand watching the bullies wrecking havoc again, when Uncle Stan popped round. I’d spilled the beans to him about how not being able to do something about the bullying was doing my head in, and he’d had an idea. Much to my surprise, my Ma thought it was a good idea too – never been seen before, my Ma and Uncle Stan on the same side. They both went to see the headmaster and he’d agreed to give it a go. They wouldn’t tell me what it was, just persuaded me to give school another go from the next Monday.

Monday dawned and I saw the usual picking on smaller kids happening on the bus, so I got off and walked. Still couldn’t get away from it, ‘cos different bullies were pushing ‘n shoving kids on their bikes so that drivers were shouting at the kids too. By the time I got to class, I felt like my head was exploding. Doing the register was the usual zoo, so it took me a while to notice him. He was stood next to Mr D, wearing a good suit and a great watch. He didn’t smile, just his eyes went round the room, taking in all the nonsense that went on every day. As Mr D was asking for quiet to introduce him, he held his hand up and strode to the back of the classroom. It was then I noticed they had one of the littlest kids in the corner and that he was crying. “Enough!” He didn’t shout, but the classroom went silent immediately – even Mr D! “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked the bullies. “Think this makes you a big man do you?” A couple of them had the sense to look uncomfortable, the rest shrugged, but Moz – ever the ringleader – said “so, what of it?” The man drew the little kid to his side “come sit at the front by me” and “you!” pointing to Moz, “you’re going to be the first in my lesson.” He’d never raised his voice throughout, yet he’d sounded gentle to the little kid and deathly serious to Moz. That’s when he caught my eye “alright Sean?” and with a nod and a smile like you’d never believe you’d see from a hard geezer like him, he sat down. That’s when it hit me – he was Uncle Stan’s solution.

The rest of the morning passed peacefully. If Moz or any of his lot started with the smart remarks, one look from him was all it took to shut ’em up. We learned more in that half day than in weeks. In the last lesson before lunch, Mr D introduced our visitor “This is Charles and he’s here to talk to us about making choices.” Moz had started with his usual jabber when our visitor said “excellent, a volunteer, up you come then.” He then proceeded to tell us a story. A story about a young man who thought he was the business. A young man who was physically strong and learned that he could get his own way by using that strength. A young man who found the kind of people who wanted to be his mates were as he put it “the kind of geezers you wanted beside you in a fight”. This geezer made a good name for himself as a cage fighter and had lots of money to splash about. You could see Moz nodding – he liked the sound of that, even better, he thought Charles was telling him he could be just like that geezer. Till Charles told him how the day came when that geezer’s friends didn’t stand beside him. When he lost a fight ‘cos of too much hard living and not enough training, when he kept losing and had no money to splash about. His mates didn’t want to know no more. They wouldn’t even offer him their sofa for a night after he lost his place. Like he said, he could take care of himself on the street, but … what a come down, what a life, what a miserable existence.

Then one day, someone whose face he vaguely recognised from school spotted him huddled in a doorway. This guy took him home, ran him a hot bath, gave him some spare clothes and shared his evening meal with him. Then he gave him pillows, a duvet and blankets, even a spare pair of pyjamas and wished him a good night’s sleep on the sofa. And he’d had one. Probably the first one in ages. In the morning, the guy cooked breakfast for them both and then invited him to stay while he was out at work. Told him to help himself to food, to watch TV, to rest, to read, just asked that he leave his daughter’s room alone as she’d be staying at the weekend. Amazed, Charles had asked him “why?” to which the guy had answered “because you needed it.”

Charles stayed that day, then the weekend, watching his friend spend time with his young daughter, joining in when he felt it was right. The next Monday, he asked his friend if he could use his address to apply for some jobs. His friend had simply nodded and smiled. Clean and smart, he got the first job he applied for. It wasn’t anything special, but he’d done it to the best of his ability. He kept getting work, he gave his friend money for rent and food, and watched his friend put the money into a big pink pig moneybank. As time went on, it struck him that he liked knowing he was contributing to the future of his friend’s daughter. The jobs he was offered got better, for he was getting good references. He kept his nose clean, he worked hard, he listened and learned.

One day someone recognised him and offered him a fight. He said no. But he did return to a gym – my Uncle Stan’s gym – and he started to train. This time round he started to encourage the other gym users, to teach them what he knew. In no time at all, Stan saw he had the potential to become a coach and suggested he get proper qualifications. While he was looking at courses, he spotted some about self-development and life coaching. And he’d done those too.

He lived in his own small place now, but he still spent time with his friend, he still put money into that pink moneybank which his friend had accepted reluctantly, but now did with a smile. Then he met someone – a fiesty, intelligent woman – and they got married, having two children quickly. All this time, he was working as a coach – developing young people both physically and mentally. He started to give talks, to tell people about his life, and about the choices he’d made – both bad and good. These days he was what was called a Motivational Speaker. “And guess what?” he asked them, “I earn more money doing that than I ever did fighting.” The classroom was abuzz, before he made his closing remark “Make good choices. If you’re strong, help those who are not. If you have plenty, share with those who have nothing. Moz, the first lesson is yours, the rest of you, put your name on the sign up sheet.”

Someone from Moz’s gang raised their hand – a first – “what you going to teach us Sir?” He smiled that huge smile again “technically it’ll be martial arts, but you’ll also be learning discipline, hard work, patience … and how to make good choices.”

As we all filed out into the corridor, Moz sought me out “How come you never said you knew such a cool geezer?” I grinned. For there was no doubt that Charles had physical presence, but they were all listening because he was cool.

© Debra Carey, 2018

 

#FF Prompt: Conflict resolution

A good fight scene is a way of showing how boss a character is, especially if you have your MC take on multiple goons with ease, before the denouement is a large area of wrecked real estate from the difficult, free-ranging fight with the villain.  You can also have your incredibly intelligent MC manipulate events with a clever, timely quip or put down (“Don’t you think she looks tired…”).

But…I was looking at an anti-bullying campaign the other day (from a well-known fast food chain – you may have seen it, but if not, it’s here), and it got me thinking.   Fight-or-flight responses to stress are well-known, and NLP (neurolinguistic programming) type dialogue to ‘verbally disarm’ a wrong ‘un creeps into the literature now and again.  What you rarely see though is an attempt to stop bullies without resorting to violence (physical, emotional or intellectual).

On that note, Debs and David would very much like a story on conflict resolution, which can be from the point of view of the bully, the bullied, or a bystander, and leads to a win-win solution in the long-term.

Word count: 750-1,500
Deadline: Friday 12th October 2018, at 2pm GMT

 

 


A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line.  

Two caveats if you want to go down this route: if you want to retain the copyright, then you will need to state this, and this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

 

#NaNoWriMo

It’s that time of year when a young writer’s fancy turns to #NaNoWriMo…to be honest, a lot of veteran writers are starting to think about National Novel Writing Month too.  There’s something about trying to write 50,000 words in a month that appeals to lots of people.  It’s something that I thought sounded ‘fun’ the first time I heard about, but given how stressful April A2Z is, it’s not something that I’m going to be doing any time soon, I think.

There’s another Sean Bean meme that we can put in here too:

2iiip5

Everyone writes in a different way.  Some people say that you have to write everyday, others that it’s a good idea too; others splurge at the weekends when they have the time.  Some people write straight on to the computer, others write out a first draft longhand.  Some people plot, others pants.  Still, however you write, one doesn’t simply write 50,000 words.  1,667/day takes some thought, takes some level of planning, requires some preparation.

So are you #NaNoWriMo ready?

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Still, there is a flip side.

For the unsuppored writer, NaNoWriMo can be emotional dynamite. Whilst no less serious about their writing than others in the community, the message they receive from their nearest and dearest is their writing must not intrude on responsibilities and personal relationships. Their work will remain unread, there will be no offers of practical assistance to allow them writing time, there may even be eye-rolling, or worse. Watching others in the writing community being able to attempt this challenge can force them to face the reality of their situation.

People get caught up with #NaNoWriMo.  There is talk of winning, and if you can win, then by extension you can fail, and if you can fail, then there’s a good chance you’re going to feel like a failure – which you really, really shouldn’t.  Writing is hard enough at the best of times, and it is all too easy for life to intervene.  In some circles, Kipling’s not very popular at the moment, because he’s seen as jingoistic and racist, but this line from ‘If’ sums it up:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…”

If you can get some words down on paper, you’ve won, whether that’s during NaNoWriMo or at any other time.

But, be prepared for the fact that there are a lot more steps to come.


© 2018, David Jesson & Debs

The last tango

I love to dance.  I even took ballroom dancing lessons in my youth and though I spent most of them teetering around on high heels learning the steps, it was fun and great exercise – nothing that’ll come as a surprise in these days of Strictly being a big Saturday night TV hit.

But I’d never danced like that – not till I danced with him. He wasn’t what you’d consider typical sex symbol material either. Middle-aged, comfortably padded rather than rippling with muscles, and his hair had started to receed. But, my, could that man dance …

I’d always felt uncomfortably self-conscious doing the latin dances. But he taught me to tango properly, so it wasn’t about striding around looking silly. He did it by creating a mood – one where I felt sexy if not young, where I felt desired if not nubile, where I was dancing with him, for him – and him alone. And I was pretty good if I say so myself. I found my inner diva, and I lost myself to the music and to his arms.

But there’s no fool like an old fool is there? He’s dead now you see. He was dying all along, and teaching me to tango was his last hurrah.

I still dance, of course, just not the tango. I save that for my dreams.


© Debra Carey, 2018

#secondthoughts : Female characters

 

hidden figures 2

 

There’s no arguing with the fact that people are influenced by role models, young people especially. That influence can come from both real life and the made up one – you know, fiction, film, TV …

Whilst there are some excellent examples in the made up world, there does seem to be a preponderance of male characters, especially in terms of breath of character – strong or weak, kind or cruel, clever or stupid, successful or loser, straight, bi-sexual, trans-sexual or gay. Why aren’t we seeing the same reflected in female characters?

I believe there could be a rather big gap between indie and mainstream writers, for there are plentiful female – and varied – characters being written, but it’s rare they receive mainstream attention via traditional publishers and/or production on big or small screen.

One of the common reasons I’ve seen given for not depicting a similar quantity and range in female characters on the big or small screen is that art needs to reflect life, or it isn’t believable. Whilst there may be a tiny grain of truth somewhere in there, is it just me who feels it’s been used as an excuse? I’d find it more believable if writers admitted that they didn’t – personally – know enough examples of anything other than the limited range we see on screen, so didn’t know how to get it looking realistic. Before you think I’m defending that position, I said believable, not acceptable.

Let’s ponder on some of those extremes depicted in male characters.

Clever or stupid – unusually, the recent Oscar nomined film “Hidden Figures” had four central characters who were clever women. If it hadn’t been based on the true story of women working in NASA during the early years of the space race, would anyone have considered it believable enough to get it written, or published, or put on the screen?

Kind or cruel – whilst women are generally depicted both ways, they are expected to be kind. Because they give birth, their hormones are believed to make them better suited to the caring duties and professions – and when they don’t fit this stereotype, they’re often cast as cruel and unnatural.  In depicting this particular spectrum, is what we’re seeing real life … or societal stereotypes?

What about strong or weak? Strong female characters are rare (and if anyone suggests to me that Jane Eyre is a strong female character I may have to fall out with them), while strong and successful female characters are rarer still. Yet in the realms of the fantasy genre, they are a not infrequent scenario. It cannot be that all writers of such characters in fantasy are female (like Suzanne Collins of “Hunger Games” fame), so is there some reason why the usual excuse for the paucity of (and lack of variety in) female characters – that of art needing to reflect life – doesn’t apply in fantasy?

There’s a fair bit of noise about a current TV series on the BBC called “Bodyguard” where the central (male) character provides personal security to the (female) Home Secretary of the UK. Unusually, I’ve watched the first few episodes at the same time as the rest of the viewing public (I tend to be a box set watcher). Himself and I shared the same immediate impressions so, I was surprised to read the immediate response being an enthusiastic greeting over the number females appearing in traditionally male roles – railway police officer, police sniper, armed response team leader, head of police personal security section, head of police counter terrorism section, as well as the Home Secretary herself. And whilst that is pleasing – all but one of those characters are minor and their depictions largely just a sketch.

What is decidedly less pleasing is the plotline involving the Home Secretary – the second main character. The first episode sets her up as an ambitious, successful, determined (ball-busting even) professional woman, who’s taken a hardline over terrorism and deployment of the armed services. Then she gets a personal security officer who we’re told is good at what he does (more on that later) and she goes all gooey-eyed before leaping into bed with him. I don’t care how frightened she was to come under fire and get covered by the splattered brain matter that was once her chauffeur – she’s the Home Secretary – and a pat on the back/hug and a cup of tea/strong drink is the acceptable behaviour here. I don’t care if she’s single and has had a terrible shock, it just doesn’t ring true.

Even if we accept the presumption that sex sells, why didn’t the writer have her character simply use our bit of silent hot totty as a relief for the trauma, and then go back to ignoring him as normal? This isn’t the only aspect having me raise my eyebrows, there are plot holes a-plenty, but the only one relevant to this particular discussion is when the Home Secretary comes to the conclusion that the head of police counter terrorism caused the delay to the armed response unit coming to her aid … yet does nothing about it? Heads on pikes at the tower would be the right response.  You don’t get to be Home Secretary by being a fluffy-wuffy bunny.

I looked up the creator and head writer of the series and had to ask if he’s fulfilling that stereotypical male fantasy of a powerful woman needing a man to support her, preferably one of the strong silent type? For if we stick with the rationale of art imitating life, are we really going to suggest those senior female politicians (Home Secretaries included) we have had, went gooey-eyed and wobbly-kneed over their security officers? Whilst the press are trumpeting that it’s based on Amber Rudd (something she seems to be having a bit of fun with) even she states that although the relationship between principal and bodyguard is close, it’s not that close.

In a slight change of subject, that same day I read the account of a female author and writer of fantasy who was interviewed by readers at a recent ComicCon. Here are some of the questions asked of her by male readers – whether her husband helped with the writing, whether he verified her world building, if she’d had a predominantly male critique group to help her figure out how to write combat, and wasn’t her work really romance as that’s what women write? They also found it necessary to ask if she really did think up where her characters got their food from, where they got their lumber and clothing fibres, how they kept their water clean and how they managed sanitation. Really? Was she sure she didn’t need her husband to check that?

Now, I know that not all male writers and readers behave this way and my co-host here at Fiction Can Be Fun is an example of one who does not. Indeed, he created a strong and successful female character in our recent A-Z story, that of lady Michaela – engineer, inventor, gunsmith, clever, talented, and equal to her male cohorts.

I don’t believe that it’s entirely a gender-of-writer related issue. I believe David & I reflect what I see in the wider writing community. Neither of us feel the need to limit ourselves to writing about our own gender. We’re entirely comfortable writing strong women or weak men, and vice versa, depending upon the need of the storyline. That said, we both feel strongly that positive role models need to exist across both genders, and so do our best to provide them.

What we need is for mainstream publishers and producers to do likewise, rather than play to the current stereotypes surrounding women.


© Debra Carey, 2018

What happened here?!

Marion put her key in the lock, ruefully thinking of Mickey Flanagan.  She wasn’t sure whether she like the comedian or not, but she had been tickled by the ‘out out’ sketch that her daughter had shown her on YouTube.  It was perfectly apt for this moment.  She hadn’t meant to go ‘out out’, she had only popped out to take Phyllida, a couple of books and magazine articles, and then one thing had led to another.  Phyllida could be a bad influence like that.   They’d had a very lovely, spontaneous ‘ladies wot lunch’ kind of day.  She’d felt slightly guilty at leaving the newly retired Michael at home all day on his own, but she had texted to say that she and Phyllida were going in to town, and it wasn’t as though he couldn’t look after himself.  He’d probably just frittered the day away reading the paper and pottering around the garden.

She pushed the door open, and gave an involuntary gasp. Had there been an explosion?  Had they been burgled? Both?…Oh! Was Michael alright?  If there was a burglar, they might still be there.  Should she call the police?

Some details began to emerge from the mess: there was a certain pattern to things, it wasn’t just that coats and shoes and hats and scarves had been scattered everywhere.  Like some kind of magic-eye puzzle, she suddenly took in the form of a giant laid out on the hall floor. Had Michael gone potty?  She’d only been out for a day – what was the rest of his retirement going to be like?

She picked her way gingerly through the detritus to the living room.  For some reason the door was closed.  The door to the living room was never closed.  Curiouser and curiouser.  She tried to push the door open carefully, but something seemed to be behind it; she pushed more forcefully and whatever was behind the door moved, grudgingly, out of the way.  If she’d thought the hall was a scene of devastation, the living room was a set from some disaster movie, one which involved an aeroplane, a radioactive monster, an erupting volcano and a hurricane.  Thankfully, the tidal wave seemed to have been omitted.

The order emerged from the chaos and she realised that whilst all the books were scattered around, they were also the outer fortifications of a blanket fort.  All the toys in the box that they kept for the grandchildren were scattered around, although various stuffed toys were set up for a tea party, and the cars had been neatly parked up.  She came into the room and looking round the door she found that Michael was fast asleep on the sofa with a book spread-eagled on his chest.  Archie and Amelia were snuggled up into him, angelic (if slightly dribbly) in repose.

Marion left them to it and went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.

“Oh my God!”

*****

Later, after the children had gone home, Marion helped Michael put everything to rights, and she heard the whole story.  Not particularly coherently, to be sure, but all the essential details were there and she could piece it back together.  Shortly after Marion had gone to Phyllida’s, their daughter had arrived in a bit of flap: an emergency, she’d hoped Mum would look after the grandchildren for a couple of hours, but… No, no, Michael had assured his daughter, Mum’s only popped out, she’ll be back soon, I can cope until she gets back.  Except of course she’d gone out out and things had got out of hand.  The twins…well, if it wasn’t one it was the other – and frequently it was both.  They’d run rings around their grandfather, and being new to this game – some unexpected babysitting – he’d let them.  Hopefully lesson learned for next time, although Marion wasn’t hopeful.

“But why didn’t you ring or text me or something when I said that Phyllida and I were going into town?”

“Well at that point I thought that Judith was only leaving them here for a couple of hours, and I didn’t want to disturb you.  How was I to know that they’d end up here all day? Anyway, we coped.”

“Coped!  Have you seen the state of the house?  And I still don’t know why the kitchen looks like a bomb hit it if you only made them beans on toast for lunch.”

Michael, seeing the hole, wisely decided to keep quiet and stop digging.  Marion thought that Mickey Flanagan was playing nearby soon.  Perhaps she should get some tickets and go with Phyllida – they could have a laugh about Michael’s misadventure over pre-drinks.

© David Jesson, 2018

NB: If you’d like to see Mickey Flanagan in action, you can find the YouTube video that Judith probably showed Marion here.  I don’t know what the rest of his stuff is like, but this set conforms to the norms we try to maintain here at FCBF.