We started the blog because we wanted to practice writing stories, and to talk about what writing (and reading) means to us. Over the last few years we’ve showcased a number of short stories of different lengths, genres, voices, and you can find these via the Index.
We run a monthly prompt for #FlashFiction (used here in both senses: a short story that can be read quickly, and one that is written within a short period of time). We like to go with quirky prompts (again, have a look at the Index!), and we mix in a few photoprompts together with one of our USPs, the Gutenberg Prompt – have a look out for these. We’d love to get more people involved with these, so do spread the word.
We post every Sunday, following a regular schedule. As of January 2020, we’ve revamped this slightly. We’re still presenting our stories, and one of our other USPs, #SecondThoughts, but we’ll be adding some features on the items on our Resources page, together with a new series of articles written by guests on how their chosen genre is entwined with their normal life.
If you’d like to find out more/get involved, please do take a look at the About page. Or you can send us a message via the Contact page or our Twitter handles (above).
Our (revised) regular schedule
1st Sunday #FF Prompt – submission deadline the next Sunday @ 8 am GMT
(or use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page if the deadline is too tight)
2nd Sunday #FF stories
3rd and 4th Sundays
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!).
A focus on one of the resources on our resource page, or on something else of writerly interest.
Occasionally a short story from one or another of us.
Exactly what turns up will depend on what we’ve been doing, and what is going on in the wider world.
5th Sunday On the occasion when these occur, we’ll be posting our guests’ musings on the intersections between their life and their chosen genre. (Do get in touch if you’re interested in writing one yourself). The post that kicked it all off is here.
I’ve been pondering the subject of star ratings for a year or two now, but it jumped back up to the top of my list after a recent discussion with David. Mentioning he’d read books 1 & 2 of Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy and was looking forward to the final part, he added the throwaway comment “but I know it’s not your thing”. That brought me up short, for I didn’t remember not liking it.
Looking back, I’d given 3 stars to the first book. Naturally we went on to discuss it, during which I stated I’d probably stand by that rating, while admitting the story had stayed with me longer than I’d expected it to at the time – not something I can always say about a book I’d given 3 stars.
Broadly speaking, I apply stars on the following principle – I liked it (3 stars), I liked it very much (4 stars) I absolutely loved it (5 stars). For me, 2 stars equates only an OK read, and would include a disappointing offering from an established author, while 1 star would indicate that I really didn’t like it. Most of what I read appears in the middle category and it can range from a decent read (enjoyable with a well-put together story line) to a good read (well-written, well-crafted and absorbing) – all of which makes it a pretty wide spectrum. I’ve always felt hampered by the inability to give this particular category more depth and, for a long while, believed what I’d really like is to have 10 stars at my disposal. But I’ve since had a bit of a re-think.
The problem is we all hand out ratings in different ways. I’m pretty tough in that I hand out 5 stars to very few books. I’m a bit (but only a bit) more generous with handing out the 4th star, yet I know others take a different approach. I recently felt moved to tell a distraught writer on Twitter that I believe a 3 star rating isn’t anything to doom & gloom over. Indeed, should I receive 3 star ratings when I have something published, I’d be entirely satisfied, and put it down as a job well done. Don’t get me wrong, as a writer I’d love a 4 or 5 star rating, but I’d expect them to be rare, because as a reader I only rarely hand them out.
But to return to Rotherweird as it’s a good example of how the star rating system can fail. Fantasy is not my preferred genre. I dip in and out of it as a change of pace from my usual fare (literary fiction). I admire the world-building skills involved, as well as the feats of imagination, but it would be rare for a work of fantasy to receive the top rating from me. And that’s OK, for I’m not the author’s ideal audience – while David is. Therefore, his review and his rating would be a far better reflection of the book to fellow fantasy fiction readers. Unfortunately, no-one appears yet to have found an algorithm which successfully applies such a nuanced weighting.
Indeed, although I use Goodreads to keep a record of my reading, I find their recommendations absolutely useless. It took a while, but I’ve now hunted out a couple of readers whose preference is literary fiction, and where there is a decent overlap in past books read and reviews/ratings given. As a result, I give considerable weight to their opinion, and always read their reviews with great interest.
For star ratings are simply a method of categorising reviews and building a buzz. Just because someone who absolutely loves fantasy or science fiction gives a book 5 stars, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a 5 star read for a literary fiction fan like me – and the reverse applies equally.
In reading, as in much else – finding your tribe is to be recommended.
Cancel Culture is not new, it’s just a new name for people turning on others. It’s not even that the social aspect is new, although social media does provide a new dimension.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV
Every now and again, Debs and I find the time to have a chat about the state of our joint project(s). We set up Fiction Can Be Fun a few years ago to get into a writing practice, and to encourage people to have a go at writing themselves. In both regards we’ve met with mixed success. Squeezing in writing around day jobs and all the other distractions remains as challenging as ever, and a regular routine remains elusive; we’ve made some great friends through a shared love of writing, but we’ve not reached the hoped for numbers joining in with the monthly writing prompts.
When we had our last catch up, one of the things we talked about was how to catch people’s attention – what blogger doesn’t dream of a post going viral? By far and away the post that has had the most number of reads is one that Debs wrote on the fact and fiction of The Eagle Has Landed. I know, with reasonable confidence, when the film has been on somewhere in the world, because there is a spike in hits on the site: when I check the details, it’s always that post that has been looked at. Even so, it’s not a viral post as most people would understand it.
A lot of people who’ve had posts go viral talk about their five-year overnight success, or about being in the right place at the right time. Can you ever really plan a viral post? Sometimes the advice is to write about something controversial, something divisive: we’ve all seen the kind of posts that have lots of comments for and against.
But all of that said, it’s not really our style – we’re not so fussed about chasing the numbers that we’re going to write to be objectionable. Our aim is a muscular, moderate position, which avoids the splinters of sitting on the fence by finding a positive place between the extremes.
Cancel culture has been on my mind recently. I had a post in mind to write, but in mulling it over I decided that it would be jumping on the band wagon and not particularly helpful. The conversation with Debs, and particularly the point about trying to avoid extremes put me on a new track though. For a start, Cancel Culture is not new, it’s just a new name for people turning on others. It’s not even that the social aspect is new, although social media does provide a new dimension. (By social, I mean that there is an aspect that goes beyond simple community pressures). One only has to look at the McCarthy Witch-hunts to see how mass media exacerbates issues. The particular problem with social media is that it is difficult to have a nuanced discussion.
It’s easy to wish that complex moral questions simply boil down to some kind of binary answer: right/wrong; yes/no; up/down; left/right; black/white… Opponents of complexity point to grey as being morally ambiguous, neither one thing nor the other: there is suspicion of those who promote neutrality. In the UK, perhaps we are burdened with the failure of Neville Chamberlain and the spectre of Appeasement. Appeasement is one of the worst aspects of neutrality. But perhaps we should be suspicious of grey. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t be part of our palette, but there are a lot of other colours out there to choose from too. 254 shades of grey between black and white may give a richness to grey-scale pictures, but there are thousands of colours to choose from.
A year ago I wrote a #SecondThoughts piece where I discussed the problem of trying to deconvolute the things that we find admirable in our heroes (I use the term in a broad sense, encompassing artists, writers, friends, colleagues) with the things that we find objectionable. (You can find that article here). Where we have to be careful is in vilifying someone who has expressed an opinion that we find objectionable – in modern parlance, ‘cancelling them’. It perhaps requires greater subtlety than can be achieved by social media, but surely one of the great things about being human is that we have the wherewithall to interrogate complex issues.
In my day job, I have been known to ask students which is more important: Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, or the General Theory. My argument is that it is the General Theory: the special theory can only deal with a very specific case. When I roll out this example I’m usually trying to encourage my students to think about the limitations of the work they have done so far, and what needs to be done to make their work more widely applicable. The reverse of this, is that even the most objectionable people are not wrong all the time.
I’m in a very difficult position. There is a book sitting by my bedside, that I think I’m going to return unread to the person who loaned it to me. There are multiple reasons for this, but the key one is that the author has said something objectionable, and I’m trying to disentangle from their work. I can’t unread the stuff that I’ve already ready, but I don’t have to read any more. That said, the author has been subjected to an unjustified level of vitriol. There is a debate to be had…no, that’s not quite right. At the heart of so many issues, there is a truth. The problem is the layers of obfuscation and the unwarranted certainty of the truth. The world would be a happier place if people took the time to reflect and engage in a dialogue to find the boundaries around an issue. Latching on to an extreme example should not set the tone for the whole dialogue, and it should not lead to a single answer.
Writers can find themselves in a difficult position: we are reflecting on what we see around us, and perhaps presenting an exaggeration for the benefit of a story. Midsomer, St Mary Mead, and other homes to famous detectives are notorious for their unrealistically high rates of murder. Is the writer advocating crime? No, this is just what the reader wants…but if the murderer is following a particular agenda, particularly a controversial one, then the question might be asked “why is the author giving this opinion air time?”
It’s easy to suggest that perhaps we should just not read authors who air unsavoury opinions in public, or even just opinions that we don’t agree with. The danger with that is that we end up in an echo chamber, only reading the things that we agree with, and failing to understand why people hold the views they do. Those views don’t exist in isolation, there will be something that has led to them. Right or wrong, the holder of those views is a person and we should be spare the time to see what their views, and our reaction to them, mean for our lives. Just ignoring them won’t make them go away, and reacting aggressively will just make the person become more entrenched. And if they’re a writer, you’ll probably end up as an unflattering cameo.
Scapegoats come and go: there is nothing new under the sun. But as responsible readers, perhaps we need to engage more, but less vociferously, with what we are reading and the community that builds up around the books we read.
The train was pulling in just as he’d reached the platform. Thinking he’d finally caught a break, Seth hopped on the end carriage. The rest of the platform was absolutely rammed – he could see them pushing and shoving to get through the doors. He didn’t have a seat, but he did have a pole to hang on to – for there were some pretty mean bends on the long run to the next stop.
Deep in thought, Seth had mused how it had not only been one of those days, but a right pig of a day. He’d slept through his alarm, the milk in the fridge had gone off ahead of it’s best before date and, as he hated drinking black coffee, he’d arrived at work in the foulest of moods. Work had been it’s usual demanding and miserable self and, just before going home time, Morty had rung. Knowing he needed the money, Morty had persuaded him into an after-hours gig – some teen’s birthday bash where the waiting staff were required to be in costume. Deciding on the rabbit costume as his safest bet – as no-one could see his face – he’d rapidly come to regret it.
For some reason, those girls went wild for him. Whenever they wanted drinks, they’d call out in chorus “here bunny, bunny, bunny …” and they’d pulled on his fluffy tail so much, it had come off. He was run ragged while the rest of the waiting staff stood round chatting. It had really been the cream on the rubbish cake of his day when his take home pay had been no more than theirs.
So when he’d discovered his peg empty, he’d made quite the scene truth be told – but it was his work suit, and he didn’t have the sort of money to replace it easily. In the end, one of the girls had sheepishly slid into the room, handed him a bag, and mumbled some sort of apology. Checking everything was there, he’d had to dash before changing, for he was close to missing the last train. He didn’t care if he got the odd stare, and the girl of his dreams wasn’t usually on the train this late.
Sure enough, he’d got the stares – considerably more than he’d expected. People on the last train were usually too drunk or too sleepy to pay much attention, that or their heads were bowed reading a newpaper or a book so wouldn’t notice if an alien walked by. But, tonight – there were not only stares, but mutters. Seth had decided he wasn’t going to rise to it, so he’d kept his gaze down in an attempt to ignore them.
Even more surprising, had been a mass exodus at the next stop. As Seth had moved to take one of the empty seats, he’d noticed the photo on the front page of a discarded newspaper. Someone in a rabbit costume – worryingly like the one he had on – except the rabbit in the photo carried some serious hardware. As he’d sunk into a seat, Seth read the headline – “cop killer on the loose”.
That’s when he’d heard her voice enquiring if he was OK. What had he said to himself about the girls of his dreams? Yup – it was her. She was looking at him with a decided twitch at one side of her mouth and he’d briefly wondered if she was about to have some sort of fit. Then she’d smiled – and it had been as gorgeous as he’d remembered. She’d checked first his bag, then her watch, then instructed him to strip. She’d handed him items of clothing from his bag – in the right order – so at least he was dressed when they’d come for him.
For they did – they’d burst in through the doors at the next stop. She’d also instructed him to stand and put his hands behind his head, so there’d been no doubt he was giving himself up. Last, she’d tucked a piece of paper into his top pocket as she’d watched – with that gorgeous smile – as they’d taken him away in handcuffs.
Those days in the cells had been rough, but eventually they’d caught the right guy. First thing he’d done on being released was ring that number she’d slipped into his top pocket. These days he told the story of that day as one of the best days in his life … as she looked on with that smile.
Peter glanced at his watch for the third time as he shuffled along with crowds heading towards the platform. Warm air whuffed up the tunnel and there was as much of a surge as a shoal of sardines could manage in these confines as commuters sensed the imminent arrival of the train and tried to get to the platform. But there was no where for people to go, and as Boyle would tell you, increase the temperature and decrease the volume, and you were heading for some serious pressure. Still, this bunch were far from being an ideal gas.
He could hear irate voices coming up the tunnel. People were trying to get off the newly arrived train, onto a platform that was already fuller than could be imagined. Further pressure was generated, but eventually the mass of people in the tunnel made progress as people were able to exit and another tranche made their way into the carriages. Further delays ensued as another entitled jerk tried to force their way onto the train that was trying to depart, and wouldn’t accept that they and there expensive backpack were just fouling the doors. Peter wasn’t sure if the situation was resolved by the people on the train being made even more uncomfortable or whether Backpack had given up the struggle. Why didn’t they operate a one way system? The platforms, built at a time when the population was a tenth of what it was now, weren’t really designed for it, Peter supposed.
He’d managed to reach the top of the last flight of stairs down to the platform with the relief created by that last train, but it took him another 15 minutes to actually get into a carriage himself. His phone pinged in his pocket a couple of times, whilst he was in the crowd, but there was too much of a crush to even think of getting it out. Maybe, he should think about getting one of those new Google watches. Maybe not.
He was so tired. You’d think a giant rabbit would get more respect, but no, he was left standing, desperately trying not to fall asleep as he held on to the upright. Harvey had a lot to answer for. The flip side of having taken so long to get to the platform was that the passengers had thinned out a bit and there was actually room to breathe, and the air quality wasn’t quite as bad. It was pretty bad, but it could have been worse. Peter remembered his phone and pulled it out. Text messages. One from Alice, saying that she had a giant problem, one from his buddy – a photo, little more than a smile, suggesting that perhaps he’d got the cream, and one from a colleague letting him know that the boss was on the warpath and threatening physical violence. Same old, same old.
Peter checked his watch again, and sighed. There was no doubt about it. He was late. Late, late, late. Late, in fact, for a very important date. Life in the big city really wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Groupday. It’s an opportunity to talk about doubts and fears you have conquered. To discuss your struggles and triumphs and to offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.
October 7 question: When you think of the term working writer, what does that look like to you? What do you think it is supposed to look like? Do you see yourself as a working writer or aspiring or hobbyist, and if latter two, what does that look like?
Aarrgghh! My first instinct was to say that a working writer is one who writes for a living, but when re-visiting the dictionary definition of “work”, it is simply an activity that is done to achieve a purpose or result – no mention whatsoever of monetary reward. So, if a working writing is one who writes for a purpose or to achieve an end result – I’m a working writer.
I also know that I have two jobs. One I class as my day job because it pays the bills. The second being a developing business as an NLP Coach which I intend will become my primary income stream as soon as is possible. If I’m honest, the writing has to get fitted in around those two.
I’m also a hobbyist photographer. Now, I’ve no problem at all categorising myself as hobbyist there, because I don’t have any hope or expectation of earning a living via photography, so I do it simply for enjoyment. I don’t describe my writing thus, as I have a purpose in writing, which is to achieve both publication and receive a monetary reward. Of course I enjoy writing, but I also have dreams.
In truth, there’s no simple black & white about this question, for so much of it is down to the perception of not only the writer themselves, but of those around them, and of society in general. As always an interesting question – and I’m much looking forward to the responses of my fellow #IWSG members.
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 – you retain the copyright.
One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.
Since 1991, International Day of Older Persons has taken place on the 1st of October (next week). As a person no longer in middle age – my 60th birthday being firmly in the rear view mirror – it seemed a good time to take a moment and consider the depiction of older people in fiction.
My perception is that those currently in their older years are generally relegated to the smaller supporting roles – the doting grandparent for example – and even when an older person is the central character, the focus is often on looking back over the past. While that can be a glorious reading experience, as it was in Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, it is not the story of an older person’s current experience of living and of life.
Something I found especially refreshing about Joanna Cannon’s Three Things about Elsie, is that it’s unashamedly a tale of old age – about physical frailty, the potential loss of mental sharpness, of confusion, about loss and death. And yet I remember it with a smile, with affection, and with enjoyment.
Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman is Barry Walker – grandfather and closet gay, an Antiguan living in Hackney – a character to both adore and want to smack. Yes, bits of the story are told looking backwards, but the bulk is told in the here and now. Irascible, charming, infuriating and a total dandy – Barry is a main character to treasure.
Pere Goriot, Honore de Balzac’s re-working of the King Lear tale is another unflinching portrait of an older person. It’s a long time since I read it, but while it may have been the sad tale of an old man and his daughters, my standout memory of the experience is being absolutely blown away by the beauty of the writing.
Another delightful depiction of an older person is Daniel from Ali Smith’s Autumn. When the book opens, Elizabeth is an adult and Daniel is assumed to be dying. Elizabeth has known Daniel since she was a child and, even then, he was an elderly man. In an amusing twist of thinking, while Daniel is undeniably old, Elizabeth’s mother assumes he is also gay and therefore safe for Elizabeth to spend so much time with as a child. What she doesn’t expect is that he’ll encourage Elizabeth to think, to examine and to question, for Daniel is a mentally vibrant man, even when his body is letting the side down.
I read at least 50 books every year, and despite these examples, there are strikingly few examples of older people in a central role. Yet I cannot recall any single depiction of an older person in a central role which left me feeling meh – so why don’t we see this happening more? As writers, do we shy away from old age with its potential for death? Do younger authors not feel able to accurately capture the experience of old age? Do older authors only want to re-visit their youth? Or is it that readers genuinely do not want to read older characters – unless they’re of the implausibly fit variety? Has there been some form of reaction against the proliferation of Miss Marple tales from the pen of Agatha Christie, and multiple episodes of Angela Lansbury playing Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote?
One reason I love the tales I’ve mentioned is there’s none of that nonsense you find when old film or TV stars play the action hero, despite being past (long past) their ability to physically do so. Yet the latter type of tale abounds, whereas beautifully observed tales of older people depicting a genuine experience of old age are rare things – and dare I say it, all the more beautiful for it.
Censorship is a touchy subject, and rightly so. No one wants to wake up and discover that they are living in 1984, and that they’ve committed seventeen thought crimes before breakfast. No one wants to wake up and find that the firemen have come to burn your books. No one – well, maybe recent events suggest that there are those who would like to move in one totalitarian direction or another, that they would quite like to give up free thought and just do what they are told.
I don’t know about you, but for me a mix of books is essential in order for different ideas to collide, for inspiration to spark when two concepts get short circuited by adjacent neurons in my brain. The best ideas come from the bringing together of widely different precursors, like the BFG mixing dreams. On that basis, reading different kinds of books is crucial.
But is there ever a case for banning a book? Anne Fadiman mentions in one of her essays that her father turned a book around on the shelf because he didn’t want her reading it – which of course gave the book added glamour and allure. Parental censorship has a time-bound quality to it: once you are of age, if you still have the will you can look up anything that your parents stopped you from reading when you were younger. And of course, teenage rebellion will see to it that a ban is defied. This is writ large when the State assumes that parental authority and decides that it is in the public interest for a book to be banned.
Some people have played the system: James Branch Cabell’s sales went up dramatically when he was taken to court on obscenity charges by the League for the Suppression of Vice. On the other hand, Banned Books Week is an international effort to raise attention to the practice of censorship that is going on around the world at this time.
But I return to the question, is it ever justifiable to ban a book? Last year I read the amazing ‘Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire’ trilogy, by Rod Duncan (which, incidentally, I cannot recommend highly enough). At the heart of the story is the International Patent Office, which is suppressing knowledge and stifling invention, for reasons that only really become clear towards the end of the trilogy. One of the things that can be said as a criticism of this suppression is that it leaves social change almost completely stagnant. Imagine if, living today, women didn’t have the vote, indentured service was still a very real possibility for those not paying their debts, and anyone who doesn’t conform with the societal norms of two to three hundred years ago is a pariah at best. But a justification can be made.
As a younger man, I would have said that there was never a reason to ban a book, but now older, and more appreciative of nuance, I begin to wonder if there can be a case for banning a book. This new view is perhaps informed by the changes that we have seen in how experts are viewed. Back in 2016, Michael Gove declared that the public had had enough of experts, in part because no economist would back his view of Brexit. It’s the kind of meme-worthy idea that has taken root, but it is not always clear when it is being used ironically.
I’ve seen a couple of books recently that have the potential to be quite harmful. The worst part is that they come from people who are positioning themselves as experts, but have no authority for these expertise (except the ‘University of Life’) and provide no literature for the support of their views. I feel that there is a case to be made for banning them – but perhaps the better stance is to ignore them, to promote the good books.
What’s your view? Is censorship ever justifiable? Who gets to decide? Are there any books you would ban?
It was somewhere we went from time-to-time. Nowhere exciting, just a place to stretch the legs, to take a snapshot or two, and to get a breath of fresh air – a breath of sea as it came up the mouth of the river, but without having to endure the crowds at the beach. We visited in all seasons, in all weathers except pouring rain, and nothing exceptional ever happened – until our trip to catch sunset.
We’d gone with the intention of capturing the sun setting over the airport, for it’s a gorgeous Art Deco building, and the fading light meant the outlines of the modern aircraft wouldn’t spoil those gorgeous strong curved outlines. We got there early – it wouldn’t do to be ill-prepared, and scouted the area, crossing back and forth over the bridge to check out the best vantage point. Eventually, we left the bridge and walked along the riverbank closest to the airport, taking our shots as the sun made it’s magnificent progress across the airfield. The setting sun blazed against the turquoises and pinks of the sky, and as the windsock gently fluttered in the breeze and as the light faded, it was all too easy to picture the black and white hues of an old film – men and women walking across the tarmac having dressed formally for travel, their outlines showing off the hats which were de rigueur at the time, and although It wasn’t possible to see, you just knew the women were wearing gloves and carried those big structured handbags over their arms.
As the photographic possibilities of the airport were exhausted, we started to walk back. As we strolled, light escaped via those windows with undrawn curtains in the houses on the opposite bank, the striking reflections they created in the water catching my eye. Giving the appearance of hundreds of fairy lanterns, as the movement of the water in the gentle evening breeze caused the reflections to flicker. Snapping off a few more quick shots, I took a moment to stop, to just look around and to listen.
The bridge itself formed a stark outline against the darkening sky for there were no houses to backlight it. The old timbers taking on a somewhat sinister appearance in the darkness. Worrying about the uneven path back to the car, I called out that I was starting to walk back. A wave acknowledged I’d been heard, but seeing the tripod being set up, I realised he’d be awhile yet. Deciding it would be wise to retrieve the big torch from the car and return, I drudged off, lighting up the path ahead using my phone.
Approaching the car, I could just make out the outline of the cable telegraph signpost it was parked beneath – although I could barely see it, it was so familiar to me, I could all but see the strands of ivy curling around its once bright paint, now faded and rusting. Packing away my camera, I collected the torch, switching it on to ensure it worked. No trouble there – it threw great pools of light ahead of me, picking out details in the darkness. The skeleton of that wrecked old wooden boat alongside the bridge gave a ghostly feel in the torchlight, the seed heads lining the bridge doing likewise as they swayed gently in the breeze.
Without cyclists, dogs and walkers there to distract me, my thoughts drifted to the memorial on the bridge, placed there for those who’d lost their lives in the plane crash a few years before. Earlier that afternoon, we’d visited the new memorial on the other side of the bridge – a reflection of the many wooden boat skeletons, it had been fashioned in highly polished steel, engraved along the ribs with messages from the loved ones of those who’d died that day.
For the first time, it became clear why the bridge had been selected as the location for the memorial. Not only was it where people regularly walked, but in the quiet and dark, I could easily imagine hearing the voices of the recently lost, as they joined in with the voices of those lost over time – perhaps from those old wrecked boats. Although the rapidly fading light and stark outlines would normally cause me a sense of unease, I was surprised to feel in good company, as I picked my way back along the riverbank to where the darkness was about to totally engulf him and his tripod.
The Detective Inspector shifted in her seat slightly but overruled the temptation to look at the DC r s sense the waves of confusion directed at her, and made a note to do a proper debrief afterwards. Normally she would have let the constable ask some questions, but the interview had gone in an unexpected direction and so she kept the reins to herself.
“Right. I think I’ve got this straight, but I’d like to check a couple of details.” Opposite her, the young lady who’d been in party clothes a matter of hours before, sat dejectedly in paper coveralls. She gulped, nodded, and went back to staring at the dried blood that crusted her nails.
Alexa hated her name. The teasing at school had been mercilessly, with a grinding barrage of requests from the banal to the kind of lewdness that is peculiar to 16-year olds. She’d had the opportunity to reinvent herself, and had tried the casual ‘Lexi’ and a couple of other variants before settling on the uncompromising ‘Alexandra’. As she had chosen the name, so the name had shaped her; her mannerisms and mode of speech became more appropriate to an Alexandra, and her circle of friends changed too.
She’d been coming home from a night out clubbing, walking familiar, well-lit streets, although with less directionality than if she’d been entirely sober. She’d meandered towards her shared digs having got separated from her housemates at some point in the evening. If she’d had a few more drinks then what happened might not have happened at all.
The fresh air was, well, refreshing, but only the liver and kidneys can make you sober again. Thinks started to go wrong for Alexandra when she entered the Market Square. This was definitely not on the direct route home. She’d started to feel uneasy, but for no particular reason. It was a full moon, and very bright, causing all sorts of shadows that you wouldn’t get at any other time. The exit she should have taken made her more uneasy, the one that would lead her further off course somehow seemed to be the right one.
On and on, into the night. Error compounded error, as unease blocked her from going home. Buildings seemed to loom over her like a headmaster towering over a child sent for correction. Deep shadows held nightmare creatures. And so she’d reached the courtyard. She’d never been there before, and the alleyway she’d taken to get there was one she would never normally have taken drunk or sober, especially at that time of night. But her she was, and as she emerged, something came at her and instinctively she pushed it away. Anxiety had given way to fear, fear to terror: the selection of ‘the right path’ had done nothing to assuage this. Somewhere, unarticulated, buried beneath the haze of alcohol, obscured by the staccato drumbeat of her pulse, was the feeling that she was being herded. Terror lent her a strength she didn’t know she had and the lurching figure went stumbling backwards, tripped over a doorstep, and hit the cobbles far too hard. Alexandra screamed at that point and timidly went to check on the prone figure. The hand that she put down to support herself as she kneeled found a sticky pool, and she realised it was blood seeping from the figure’s head. She screamed again. Lights came on in the windows overlooking the courtyard.
In daylight, the detectives tried to follow the route that Alexandra must have taken from the nightclub to the scene of the…incident. Some of the choices she’d made, turning off one street and onto another, taking this exit from a square or small park rather than that one, seemed completely bizarre. The Detective inspector tried to block out all the noise and hubbub of normal life, all the thoughts trampling around in her head, and just take in the surroundings.
But the effects felt by Alexandra were not to be found by daylight, nor even simply by moonlight. The streets themselves awoke only rarely, begetting fear and terror on those few capable of feeling the consequences of the way the architecture of this part of town had been moulded. And with the blood sacrifice, the shaper was propitiated. For a time.
No, that tree isn’t a whomping willow come to life to try and kill you, and no, the street isn’t turning into some sort of cthonic entity!
Psychogeography is the interaction between psychology and geography. I’m not going to put it any more strongly than that, but if you want more detail, then you should check out this explanation by fabulous folklorist @icysedgwick.
So for this month – our fourth anniversary – the prompt is to imagine yourself taking a walk – it could be somewhere you are very familiar with, it could be a place you want to go, it could be somewhere you found on Google Maps. Bonus points though if it is the first place that sprang into your mind when you started reading this post. The story can be any genre you like, but usual caveat of not NSFW.
500-1000 words please by 8am GMT – Sunday 13th September.
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’.
Keith Willis is someone, like many in the #writingcommunity, that I’ve met online, usually via Twitter. The writing community on Twitter is amazingly supportive, but in this respect Keith is a prince amongst men – a veritable elder statesman in his kindness, especially to those finding their feet on Twitter, at the writing game, or at life. If I were tempted to get a tattoo, I might very well go for “Be more Keith”. But his kindness, humour, and wisdom aside, Keith is a perfect guest for our ‘Now with added…’ slot. As you’ll know by now, if you’ve been following along for a while, we invite writers who we’ve found to be particularly associated with a specific genre. Keith is the author of the Knights of Kilbourne series, and he’s going to tell us a bit about how knights and dragons intersect with his life in upstate New York…
Thank you, David and Debs, for extending the invitation for me to participate in “Now with added…” But I have to say, this examination of the intersection of life and fiction has caused me a great deal of rumination, agita, and head pounding. As a writer of fantasy fiction, I don’t really deal in the niggling details of “real” life and thus wasn’t even sure where to begin.
So how does my fantasy world intersect my life? When I was wrestling with this dragon, David prompted me by asking, “Would you visit/live in the world you’ve created?” And when I thought about it, my answer was, “In a heartbeat.”
I love the world I’ve created, and I think it would be a marvelous place to live. Kilbourne is (call me a traditionalist) a fairly idyllic placed, based on an amalgam of Scotland and Wales and set in a rather Renaissance era. Books exist in my world. So do clocks. But no gunpowder-based weapons; my heroes and villains battle with barbed words, edged swords, or fists.
Kilbourne is a world not so very unlike our own. It’s a world of gallant chivalry and base cupidity. Of loyalty and honor, and duplicity and deception. Of politics and intrigue, of romance and wonder. In my fantasy world, while there are no megalomaniacal overlords out to subjugate the masses, there are certainly despots seeking power through conquest. Set against those, there’s no long awaited Chosen One, but simply people trying (and often failing) to do the right thing.
It’s a world of—and here’s the “added” bit—magic and dragons. And this is why I want to live there. Our own mundane world is seriously lacking in both categories and, it might be argued, would benefit from a bit of both (Game of Thrones not-withstanding). I long for a world where magic does indeed work, and where majestic dragons soar the skies.
I think that’s why so many readers gravitate to fantastical fiction. It’s that subtle “What if?” that allows us to view the world as it might be, if things were just a bit different, had that little “added…”
And yet, in a small way, my life does actually intersect my fantasy world, by way of the Renaissance Faires I attend each year. There, for the space of a weekend, I can be immersed in jousters and jesters, royals and rogues, wizards and witches, brigands, bards, and barmaids. I can soak up the magic that fuels my stories. I can also engage with the folks for whom I write them. Because they, like me, are seeking a piece of the magic. And so I get an earful of what they like (and don’t like) about fantasy. And because I have to be in character, I can magically become someone I’m not—the gregarious, garrulous scribe known as Friar Keith. I can tell awful jokes and get away with it (“I used to be a Friar, but I got so plump the Abbot made me a roaster…” bah dum tsss). I can shamelessly flirt with a wanton gypsy gal (if only because she happens to be my wife).
One thing I’ve come to realize over the (relatively short) course of my writing career is that all fiction is, in fact, fantasy of a sort. We writers make it all up as we go along (except for the memoir folks, and I’ve often wondered if even some of their work may be more conveniently contrived than factual). But while all fiction is fantasy (small “f”), not all fiction is Fantasy (capital “F”). Those of us who write Fantasy add that little bit extra—the magic that make our worlds go round.