#SecondThoughts: Writing a Family History when there’s cultural implications

The working title of my Family History is Indian Duty, Catholic Guilt, from which you’ll be able to gather there are significant cultural aspects to my family history. In addition to India, my family also lived in Nigeria and Bangladesh before we returned to the UK when I was 19 years old.

Once we got “home”, I felt like the proverbial fish out of water. I was surrounded by people who’d lived in the same area all their lives, who’d grown up in one community, who greeted (and were greeted by) people they’d known all there lives everywhere they went. In contrast, I had to work to make friends in the location my family had chosen for our “forever” home – I’d been at a boarding school elsewhere, and had spent most of my holidays in whatever country my parents were living at the time – whereas my peers in the local community had little experience of overseas life, let alone in countries of the third world where I’d spent my childhood.

Frivolously, I learned the beer was warm and bitter, you had to ask for ice in your drinks and were lucky to get more than a one piece. On a more serious note, I was brought up with servants and had a lot of practical stuff to learn. I taught myself to cook from cookbooks, and learned how to clean properly from a landlady who taught her tenants how she expected them to clean. While I gathered from fellow tenants that she had exceptionally high standards, I was simply grateful for the practical lesson.

While any tales I will share of my years growing up in India, Nigeria and Bangladesh will be authentically my own experience, and though there will be many a parallel with others who grew up in those countries as the children of expats – they will be different to the lives lived by Indians, Nigerians and Bangladeshis, regardless of caste or creed… and so there are cultural implications.

It’s been a while since I first started to ruminate on the spectrum of cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation. I love my Indian background, I love the impact living there for my first 10 years had on how I see the world. Equally, I love the lessons I learned from Africa – about humour, pride, independence and race. Returning to spend my final 2 years overseas in Bangladesh, I was amazed at how much was the same and how much was different between it and the country of my birth. I am grateful for having had the full spectrum of experiences, even though they included civil unrest and civil war.

For many many years, India was home in my heart. It was where I’d felt safe, and where my entire family had lived. The sights and smells and sounds were as familiar to me as my own family. My catholic God managed to co-exist comfortably alongside the gods of India’s multiple faiths; indeed I was more familiar with the mythology than with the bible. I ate Indian food by preference, using my hands rather than a spoon and fork. Before leaving India, I spoke English with a Bengali accent. Last, but most decidedly not least, my grandfather was Indian, his wife revoking her British passport to marry him.

If leaving India was a massive wrench, landing in Lagos airport was absolutely terrifying. The country was in the throes of civil war when we arrived and although the fighting wasn’t happening in the capital city, the place positively thronged with soldiers. My father, used to the polite deference of Indians, found the brusque nature of Nigerian soldiers hard to deal with. We did make it safely home – but the lesson I learned that day was not to pick a fight with a man carrying a gun. I was yet to have my 11th birthday. Soon, us children were spending term time at boarding school, returning home to the sunshine in between. It had started badly, but we had 6 happy years of outdoor life. Africa is a continent like no other – it has the ability to make me both laugh with joy and positively weep.

Bangladesh was a shock to the system. We expected something akin to India, but were surprised to find its capital city more akin to small Indian towns. It was easy for my parents to slip into the old ways, but Nigeria had changed me and made me notice more, even if I didn’t question aloud. We spent 3 years there, the final year of which I worked – for the British High Commission (a British girl didn’t just rock up and work anywhere, something Nigeria had made me notice). Even so, life was indolent and lazy, one of sitting around doing not much, of constant socialising, of drinking – a lot of drinking. Oh yes… and the government were overthrown twice during our 3 years. After that, my mother said “no more” and we returned ‘home’ to a place even more alien to my mother than to me.

My experience of those childhood years is undoubtedly one of white privilege, but I don’t seek to culturally appropriate any of those experiences when I admire and speak with affection of my time there. Not all my observations will be glossy, some not entirely complimentary, but so are my observations of where is now my home. Every one of those countries formed the person I am now; they were the building blocks upon which I grew – and grew up. I wouldn’t change those years and those experiences for the world – I feel incredibly lucky to have had them.

In short, I believe telling my own story is more cultural appreciation than cultural appropriation for I cannot tell the stories of India, Nigeria and Bangladesh like anyone else – I can only tell of my own experience. If you look at my Goodreads, it’s clear to see that I read many stories told by Indians, Nigerians and Bangladeshis about their lives and of their country – and I hope you will do likewise.

© Debra Carey, 2021

#SecondThoughts: Booker Prize Readathon

One of my long-held goals has been to read the Booker candidates along with the judges so, when the winner is announced, I’ve an opinion regardless which book is announced as the winner. I’ve made only two serious attempts to date – in 2015 & 2016 – and had absolutely no intention of giving it another try, until I noticed Amazon had discounted their Kindle prices for a fair few of the long-listed candidates. So without any forward planning, here I am, doing my third Booker Readathon.

I considered employing a number of possible methods in an attempt to maximise the success of its outcome but, in the end, I simply read whatever title appealed in the moment (as before). Let’s hope this isn’t an ill portent.

As to my credentials for spotting a Booker winner, I must make an admission – I’ve yet to make an accurate forecast. In past years, I’ve been convinced I’d read the winner, only for another book to gain the gong. Some of those winners I’d read and judged not as good (or not liked as much if I’m being entirely honest), others I’d not read till afterwards and had to admit to their obvious winning credentials. On then to my reviews, in the order I’ve read them.

No One Is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood

This is very much a book of two halves. The first is made up of snippets – intentionally so – as we’re getting to know a person who’s life is lived fully via social media. It takes some getting used to, but it is worth persevering for, when the change comes, it is all the more powerful for being placed against this background of shallowness. In the second, it’s a family tragedy which takes centre stage. The tragedy? That the central character’s sister is pregnant and suffering from Proteus syndrome – a rare disorder resulting in disproportionate growth. The strength of this second part is that at no point did it feel at all voyeuristic – instead it felt urgent, genuine, painful, uplifting and yet distressing all at the same time.

Its unusual style makes it a potential winning candidate.

Light Perpetual – Francis Spufford

Spufford’s tale is one of alternative history. It opens with an powerful description of the build up to a V-bomb hitting London’s east end, giving us little glimpses of five young children – all of whom are killed along with everyone else in the vicinity. But in subsequent chapters, she imagines the lives they might have led. Not a tale of cuteness, but one of real lives – some positive, some negative, some somewhere in the middle. A really enjoyable read.

As to winning potential, it rather depends what the judges are looking for this year – a good read, something more out of the ordinary, or a very literary piece of work. My personal suspicion is this won’t make it through to the shortlist.

Second Place – Rachel Cusk

I was uncertain if Jeffers was a therapist, friend, or simply an imaginary person to whom M is recounting her tale, and in the end it didn’t really matter. The only other person who is unnamed is L – the artist who M invites to visit, ostensibly because she wants him to paint her-but, of course, he decides to paint everyone but her. Despite this (or maybe because of it), she continues to seek out his company, finding their few exchanges emotional and deep, when they are actually distressing and disturbing. M is open throughout about her history of emotional self-flagellation, of almost needing criticism to exist. We never know what the oft referred to dark passage of her life consisted of, but rather like knowing who Jeffers was, it didn’t really matter in the end. An interesting examination of power, and of male and female roles.

Although I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it, the quality of the writing makes this a potential winning candidate, especially if the judges are after a literary piece of work.

Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead

At 600 pages, this felt even longer in places. A fascinating story of a pioneering female aviator who is lost on a grand round-the-world journey across both poles, weaved into a tale of the modern day actress chosen to play her. The latter aspect is useful, but a lot less interesting. Marion’s story – and those of the people in her life – is what’s truly fascinating. This is a story rich in detail, most of it set at a time when world events were life changing. Despite a wonderful and interesting supporting cast, Marion is a magnificent central character – independent and proud, driven and stubborn – and one who lives a truly full life.

I expect to see this on the shortlist, but as to its winning potential… I’m unsure.

An Island – Karen Jennings

This is a tale of lighthouse keeper Samuel, whose solitary life is disturbed when a body washes up on his beach. This is not the first body, but the problem is this body is still alive… and seeks refuge. Although unnamed, Samuel’s lighthouse is clearly on an island off an African country – one with the all too familiar tale of despots and dictators. Samuel is a decent man, but not a brave one, and he is also emotionally broken following his release from prison. On the island he finds sanctuary, and his fragile emotional equilibrium is disturbed by the man seeking refuge. With the trauma of Samuel’s past, his fear of having become elderly and vulnerable, even potentially of being near death, and without a shared language to prevent misunderstandings – the tension builds. A disturbing read, and an excellent depiction of paranoia.

I’d be surprised not to find this on the shortlist, and would say it has decidedly the right credentials to be a winner.

A Town called Solace – Mary Lawson

Ostensibly the tale of a young girl whose teenage sister runs away from home, her parents distraught with worry, no-one is paying much attention to Clara who becomes convinced she has to fulfil certain repetitive behaviours in order to ensure her sister returns safely. Before the disappearance, Clara’s elderly neighbour goes into hospital. Clara is a regular visitor next door and takes on the responsibility for caring for her cat. Her neighbour has a sad secret past which comes full circle when, after her death, a stranger pulls into her drive and unloads some boxes. This tale is about small town life, about people’s frailties, about wrong decisions made with the best of intentions, about unintended consequences.

A quietly enjoyable story, but a surprising appearance on this year’s Booker long-list and I’d not expect it to progress to the shortlist.

A Passage North Anuk Arudpragasam

Despite being a long-time Indophile, my knowledge of Sri Lanka is shamefully lacking. In this tale, told as a stream of consciousness of the protagonist, Krishnan, I learned a great deal, especially about the Tamil fight for independence. Containing some of the longest sentences I’ve encountered since reading Peter Carey’s Booker winning True History of the Kelly Gang, it made for beautiful reading. Indeed, I found many of them interesting enough to mark (on my Kindle) for later reference.

Although I’m yet to hand out my first fifth star, I suspect this could appear on the shortlist.

China Room – Sunjeev Sahota

An unabashed Indophile, I galloped through this one. Two tales weaved together – one of Mehar, the other of her great-grandson. Although key to the book’s title, the earlier tale of Mehar was less interesting to me – three wives, three husbands, the husbands all knowing how the wives were allocated, the wives left to guess – its outcome seeming inevitable and so unsurprising. The tale of Mehar’s grandson – visiting his uncle’s family in India in order to detox – is far more interesting, but less well developed. I’ve read subsequently that there are significant parallels between the author’s family history, which may explain why he has chosen to only offer small insights – little snippets if you like – into this portion of the tale.

I loved this and while I’d hope to see it on the shortlist, I don’t have high expectations.

With a little over 2 weeks remaining till the announcement of the shortlist and 5 books still to read, I’m well on track. As I’ve not read a book which I felt deemed five stars, there’s no obvious winner for me – so far. Do join me on October 31st when I wrap up my #SecondThoughts on attempting the Booker Prize Readathon, with my reviews on the remaining candidates and who I think will be a winner in 2021.

Have you read any of the candidates? Do you think any of them is a potential winner?

© Debra Carey, 2021

#SecondThoughts: Historically accurate female characters

I’ve been watching “Life on Mars” – the time travel (or is it) tale of a detective from the 2000s who finds himself back in 1973 after being hit by a car. Much is made of the changes in attitude between now and then – the everyday misogyny and racism for example, the casual violence and the “fit ‘em up” attitude of making sure the bad guys go down even if they aren’t guilty of the crime they’re being framed for. Of course, there’s also the use (or not) of science, forensics, and the (lack of) availability of databases for use in investigation, let alone the cars and the fashion.

I’d not seen it before, but remember all the chat at the time of Gene Hunt (the boss cop) being a popular character – full of banter and prejudice, cocky and loud-mouthed, on the take but basically decent. Indeed, it was so well loved, the actor even went to reprise the character in television advertisements.

In the 30 years between the 1970s and the 2000s, the contrast in attitude was marked. We’re now an additional 20 years on and we’ve not stood still – especially in the world of gender identity. Earlier this year, we had a nationwide census here in the UK where there was much discussion over whether the standard gender question would be expanded from the two traditional options. In the end, they included an optional additional question as a work-round, which probably pleased no-one. Regardless of the view you hold about gender identity, it is a major issue of the 2020s which could – even should – have been properly captured for posterity within the census.

When seeing the change in the area of gender within the last 50 years, what about the changes in the 20-30 years before that? The second world war brought many changes in this area. Women did men’s work while the men went to fight. When the men came back, some women were happy to return to their old lives, others were not, and the seeds of the women’s liberation movement were surely sown.

Our story, The November Deadline, is set in the late 1940s, when it was still a most different world to the one we live in now. In order to remain believable yet able to include a couple of strong female characters (one primary, one secondary), our task has been made easier by dint of their being from a different – matriarchal – culture.

Lady Michaela is skilled at navigating life with a foot in each world, while Juliet has yet to learn those skills. Michaela’s confident manner could be considered inappropriate or out of place were she not also the possessor of a title, but it remained important for us to demonstrate the practical means which would permit her to work in a traditionally male environment – engineering. Despite it being an area in which she is highly skilled, her financial independence is important, but it’s her friendship with Jack which provided her an out-of-sight workshop in which to pursue her passion.

Juliet (spoiler alert) is being trained to have a most unusual life – different in every way from that of the normal young woman in the late 1940s. She will have to learn quickly that not all men are like those who train her. Isaac, laid back and quietly spoken, will hopefully be able to teach her interpersonal skills alongside those of self-defence, armed and unarmed combat. Her hot temper will doubtless cause conflict with the more typical 1940s male she will encounter, and it will take the combined skills of all her trainers to fully prepare her to meet that task.

But what’s kept it real was David’s introduction of the minor character of Viv. Viv is a more typical female character of the time – a traditional stay at home mother who’s had to go out to work when her husband is posted as missing during the war – and through her we’ve been able to introduce some of the social history of the time. London – the east end in particular – has such a proud history from the war years that it would be a crime not to weave it into our tale in some way.

Our book is a work of fiction, but I believe that incorporating historical details, including those of social history, helps to keep it feeling real. Or maybe that’s just my excuse – for uncovering what was there then which isn’t now, has been a fascinating and most enjoyable work of research.

© Debra Carey, 2021

#SecondThoughts: Social Media Curation

I recently spotted an ad for TweetDelete – a service for cleaning up your Twitter history – and wondered how many people might make use of a service like it. It wasn’t of interest to me, as I came to Twitter relatively recently and with a clear idea of how I intended to participate. I knew I wanted to use it for professional reasons – to network, to market, to learn – with entertainment or amusement being not only entirely secondary, but a very low priority. As a result, I’ve been careful how I use it. I don’t post anything with the mistaken idea that it’s private, and I make considerable efforts to ensure I don’t go viral for the wrong reasons (not that I’ve ever gone viral for any reason) 😀

Of course, it helped that I was already reasonably familiar with the online world and various Social Media platforms ahead of joining Twitter. In my early days of social media use, I was relatively relaxed about what I put online – as long as it wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have said to someone face-to-face, I didn’t see a problem. I’m not unhappy with that earlier decision, but used what I learned from those years in formulating my policy for use of Twitter.

I’m amused to recall that when my mother first started to hear about Facebook, she was convinced it was the work of the devil. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration… but only slight. She learned about it at the time when the mainstream media was full of ‘the evils of social media’. I tried explaining that it was simply a tool, and that many of those evils resulted from people using it in ignorance or without thought. Despite all that is not right with social media, I still believe that applies for most (not high profile) users.

So… as the tools and services exist, should we curate our online presence?

A common refrain now is that employers check Facebook (and other platforms) as part of their recruitment process. I imagine a serious mis-match between LinkedIn profile and Facebook page has the potential to cause problems, but… I guess the question is what are you posting? Are you expressing extreme views? Is there photographic evidence of you acting unlawfully? Or is it simply a slightly unwise proliferation of drunken episodes when your employer is teetotal, or videos of you swearing colourfully when your employer is straight-laced or religious, for example?

Of course, one option is to opt for the highest of privacy settings, allowing no-one who isn’t already your friend access to your details. But maybe you don’t believe it’s OK to have your private life judged by your employer? So long as you meet their personal and professional standards while at work, is it any of their business?

But, I don’t believe there is one right answer, for there are too many variables. How bad is the content? Regardless of how bad, are you ashamed of it? Do you wish to remove evidence of a mis-spent youth? If the answer to these questions is ‘very’ and ‘yes’, then social media curation could be for you, and there’s clearly a growing market for it, as I saw a business pitch on Dragons Den for this very service.

As someone who has carried out some curation on their social media (while I was training to be a counsellor, believing in the importance of presenting a neutral public face, allowing any potential clients not to feel in danger of being judged, and so able to express themselves freely should they choose to work with me) my belief is that there’s a balance to be found. Those items I deleted were reminders of happy times, and they’re not been easy for me to retrieve.

One last thought – any form of social media curation leads me naturally to the subject of branding. Among multitudes of training courses landing in my in box are “author branding” offerings. But how much should be brand and how much should be authentic? Like many of us, I follow a number of successful authors on Twitter. I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that I don’t follow them because of their branding, I follow them for their authentic content.

Do you have any experience of curation or branding? Or do you vote for authenticity?

© Debra Carey, 2021

How to edit: Some #SecondThoughts

…today I thought it might be helpful to look at how to edit in terms in deploying various strategies to get into the text and tinker with the nuts and bolts of it.

Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing on which the #WritingCommunity can agree.  I suppose it’s a microcosm of the whole of life – there’ll always be at least two sides to an issue and a spectrum of possible positions which ever side of the fence you sit.  Assuming you’re not sitting on the fence itself of course.

Editing is one of those things that most writers seem to despise: you’ve got the first draft down on paper, it’s an incomplete mess, and now, somehow you’ve got to impose some kind of order.  I have a bad habit of editing on the fly rather than trying just to write and get everything down – but that’s another story…Under the right circumstances (time, quiet, space) I actually quite enjoy editing.  There’s something quite therapeutic about bringing order from chaos.  That said, there are different kinds of editing.  It’s tempting to think that it’s just about catching the typos, the split infinitives, and the fact that you’ve used a particular word three times in two pages (or even two paragraphs).  But editing can also be about making sure that the thread of the story is complete, that the story is well balanced, that you don’t change a character’s name halfway through.

So far, I’ve had three very positive experiences working with editors to revise texts.  The first was with Rachael Ritchie who helped enormously in getting ‘The Cave of Legix’ into shape for inclusion in The Crux Anthology.  The second was working with Cally Worden of Enigma Editorial: Cally was the first professional editor that I have worked with to review a story that I had a particular destination in mind for.  Whilst the story is yet to be published, that’s more down to me as I need to finish some extensive revisions, because Cally helped me to see where there were some significant flaws in the story.  Don’t get me wrong – Cally was incredibly supportive, and made me feel that the story was worthwhile working on.   Most recently, I’ve been working with Jaime and Liz of Cardigan Press to polish a short story for their debut anthology – they’re great at letting the writer’s individuality come through, but absolutely insistent that the writing is top quality.

I’ve previously mentioned that I sometimes use Hemingway Editor as part of an editing strategy, and Debs has done a great comparison of various routes to listening to what you’ve written. But today I thought it might be helpful to look at how to edit in terms in deploying various strategies to get into the text and tinker with the nuts and bolts of it.  In fact, thinking about your text as a piece of machinery is not a bad way to go.  We’re trying to get from the workshop, where there are wires that are the wrong length, redundant bits that were part of an initial concept, important bits that fall off because they’re not fixed down properly, to the sleek, elegant form that’s going to convince people to buy it.

Editing strategies are going to depend a little bit on how long the story is that you are trying to edit. Micro or flash fiction is obviously fairly easy to see what’s going on – your entire story might be less than one screen’s worth of words.  Once you are over a couple of thousand words though, and certainly when you are talking about novella and novel length stories, it’s seldom a good idea to begin with a complete read-through straight off.  Like any exercise, editing requires a warm up – whilst your writing muscles may be lovely and flexible from getting all the words down on the page, you will pull something if you try to dive straight into editing.  You will be using a different set of muscles now.

My warm up exercise for editing comes courtesy of Victoria Griffin and her ‘10 Red Flags‘.  I work through the list sequentially: using ‘find’ I look for every instance of a particular word and delete if it’s unnecessary or revise the text as appropriate.  This is also a handy way of dropping you into the narrative in random places and engaging with what you’ve written previously.  What might have seemed like a lovely piece of text when you wrote it can be shown to be a bit flabby or unhelpful when you look at it again.  Likewise, something that might have felt like you only put it in to fill a gap might be worth a second look.  In either case, seeing it out of immediate context can be helpful in exposing flaws.

An extension of this first step is to check and see if you have any ‘crutch’ words – words that you use repeatedly for whatever reason.  Last year we added Word Cloud to our list of Writer’s Resources, and I talked about how you might use it. It’s easy to generate a list of words and how many times they are used in the text.  Again, find is your friend.

At some point, you will need to read through the whole thing, and you will probably need to do this more than once.  Different people will have different takes on this, but, as an aside, I’m always surprised that people don’t turn on spelling and grammar features in their writing software of choice.  It won’t catch everything, and it might flag things that you need to ignore, but I’ve always found it useful for catching a significant number of issues.  Anyway, back to the read through.  There is a temptation to try and and hack through as much as possible as you can in one go.  This is rarely fruitful.  Like any exercise, no matter how much you train, there is a limit.  Whilst you might get over the finish line, do you really want to be figuratively (or perhaps literally?) vomiting because you’ve over done it?  If you try to do too much, there will come a point at which you’re not doing yourself or your manuscript any favours.  Depending on your style, concentration, and resolve, you might get through 500-1000 words in a session, but it might be better to think in terms of a scene, or even a time-limit.  Twenty minutes is a good session time, and you can always come back to it after a quick brain-break.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ve just noticed that I’ve used the same word five times in one paragraph, so I’m off to do some editing…

But what about you?  What are your top tips for editing?

©David Jesson, 2021


#SecondThoughts: Controversial Books

Last year was the 60th anniversary of the obscenity trial over the publication of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I’ve (still) not read it, for I’m afraid I found Sons & Lovers to be such dull fare that I refused to put myself through any more suffering.

Yet, some decades later, I did read The Satanic Verses which brought a fatwa down on Salman Rushdie’s head – and yes – I read it precisely because it was controversial, even reading it in a plain brown paper wrapper! Books are my thing. I want – in the past have even felt a need – to participate in what’s hot. These days my TBR is too huge and I have too many calls on my time for me to indulge the want and let it be regarded as a need. Yet there’s still a tug when something in the book world is being talked about.

Except …

When I looked at lists of famously controversial books, I discovered I may be mistaken in my belief that I’m drawn to a book because it’s controversial. Rushdie’s book called to me for precisely the reason that many of his book have since – I’m a child of India, I lived for a few years not far from Rushdie’s family home in Mumbai (or what we both still regard as Bombay), and even when the tales take place away from India, they bring to mind the sense of alienation I felt during my early years of living in England.

The Satanic Verses was unusual in that it caused outrage within the Muslim community, whereas most controversial books before that time had stirred up hornets within the Christian community. Many on the lists were controversial because they provided a platform to non-white and non-heterosexual voices, others challenged political beliefs, described trauma, or depicted experiences outside of societal norms (at the time of writing). All of which are – I believe – good reasons for reading them, especially when those experiences are not your own.

Looking at the lists of the famously controversial, there are books I know it’s unlikely I’ll ever read – and not just because of the perilous state of my TBR. Two are books where I saw the films first – Sophie’s Choice and A Clockwork Orange. Each left me emotionally wrung out and/or deeply distressed. Both films were chosen by someone else, and I attended without knowledge of their choice beforehand. If I’d followed my standard rule, I’d have read the book and not seen the films – but them’s the breaks. I simply don’t see myself revisiting those particular emotional traumas.

There’s too many on the lists I still haven’t read (exactly half). A small number of the unread are on my kindle awaiting their moment, but only 2-3 of the remaining will make their way there. Yes, time is against me, but I need to acknowledge – if only to myself – that the truth is I don’t actually read books because they’re controversial, I have to be either interested in or believe I will enjoy their story – and I’m afraid that there are still too many on the lists which fall into neither category.

So it turns out I’m not here to challenge anything or anyone with my reading choices. I’d so hoped to achieve rebel status about something in my life and truly believed books were likely to be my best option 😉

© Debra Carey, 2021

#SecondThoughts: Translations

As I’m sure you can imagine, sometimes the ideas for these posts come from odd places, and as I think I’ve mentioned before, sometimes it’s the collision of several ideas firing off a neuron or two.  Today’s post is brought to you by a recent reread of the Swiss Family Robinson, the Mutiny on the Bounty, #BlackLivesMatter, the King James Bible, and is fuelled by a healthy dose of pro-level procrastination – I should really be getting on with the text book I’m writing, a story for a competition, and several other writerly projects.  But today, as Henry Reed might have said, we have #SecondThoughts.

The bit about the Mutiny on the Bounty is actually prompted by one of the other bits of writing that I should be working on, in that Peter F. Hamilton returns Fletcher Christian to a sort of life in the Night’s Dawn Trilogy.  I suspect that PFH’s Christian doesn’t really bear any resemblance to the real man, but in that instance, it doesn’t really matter.  Procrastinating, again, I ended up looking up more information about Christian than I really needed for the article I was writing.  At this remove, it’s difficult to know the exact truth: the facts are that Bligh survived and provided testimony that led to Christian being convicted in absentia, but as Christian had already come to a sticky end, probably murdered by one of the other mutineers, it was moot.  This is a classic example of what everyone knows (a tyrannical captain, overcome by plucky underdogs fighting against the system), what really happened, and something of a mystery.  Bligh was actually quite an unusual officer of the time, and less harsh, by all accounts, than many of his contemporaries, not to mention that he was something of a mentor/patron/friend to Fletcher Christian.   There’s even a bit of conspiracy theory, that Fletcher Christian survived and returned to England under an assumed name.

Swiss Family Robinson was a great favourite when I was a child.  Initially I had the Ladybird version, heavily abridged and illustrated, but when I got to secondary school I borrowed a full version from the school library several times.  At this remove, I’m not now sure which version this would have been, a point only really brought home to me the other day, when I started to read a copy I downloaded from Project Gutenberg.  I think I must have read a newer translation when I was younger, but in any case, I’m reminded what a difficult job the translator has.  They need to convey the sense of what the writer intended, place it into the new language (which may not have an exact version of the word used, and avoid the temptation to tidy up the story as they go.  Certainly, in the case of the translation I’m reading at the moment, I would be extremely tempted to rewrite a lot of the story, not necessarily to improve the pacing, but to make certain passages clearer.

This in turn gave rise to two thoughts.  One, is that there will come a time, when the English language will have changed sufficiently that it will become necessary for a translator to modernise Charles Dickens, for example.  I think I can hear the mob outside the door!  It’s not such a heresy though, I think.  We already see smatterings of this with the Ladybird abridgements, and of course there are modern adaptations of Shakespeare.  The issue I think, is whether the text is intelligible without copious readers notes.  If you are studying a text, then the notes are inevitable, but as we move further and further from the point at which the story was written then certain nuances are lost – we share fewer experiences with the writer, words change meaning or become obsolete, the sense becomes not what the writer intended.

The second thing that I started to think about was translations as a weapon.  The King James Bible sprang to mind as an example of a weaponised translation.  As Dr Who fans, and those interested in the period, will know, King James had a bit of a bee in his bonnet about witches.  The translation, the third into English, was undertaken by a leading scholars of the day, but under the direction of James, and so his fingerprints are to be found all over the text.  There are numerous tweaks to the translation intended to bolster the idea of rule by divine right, and the injunction that ‘thou shall not suffer a witch to live’.  The witch hunts have been much parodied in the last few decades, but they must have been pretty frightening at the time.  There is much debate over how this should be translated.  The problem is muddied because of the distance from the time at which the original was written, cultural changes, and the influence of other texts.  King James probably wasn’t the first to use this meaning, but he clearly didn’t take the opportunity to set the record straight.  A contextual as well as linguistic translation might be that “thou shall not suffer a poisoner to live”, with the specific nuance that we are talking about a well-poisoner.  Such a person would be breaking multiple social taboos in a desert dwelling, community oriented, lifestyle, essentially carrying out a terrorist atrocity.  As we continue to study this period of history, and to improve our understanding of the development of languages, then a new, improved translation might become available.  Whether it will do anything with regard to the perception of witches is another matter.

One would have to be cut off in the extreme to have missed #BlackLivesMatter in the press.  2020 was a year of strange and difficult events, not least the presidential elections and their aftermath.  It can feel surprising that there is still such racial tension in the US that it leads to the discrimination against an important section of the community, and as a result a significantly higher judicial death rate.  But nowhere around the world can really hold it’s head up and say this is a problem that they’ve sorted.  There might not be the extremes that we see in some places, but every where there is some level of discrimination, and I’ve been particularly ashamed of the institutional racism observed in the UK, with various examples of the police using e.g. racial profiling.

One of the responses to #BlackLivesMatter has been to remove certain programmes from streaming services. Some TV shows of the 1960s and 1970s are particularly problematic.  In other instances, a disclaimer is shown at the beginning, telling us that the programme is of its time, and uses language or demonstrates ideas that would be considered offensive today.  This is a harder ask with books.  As readers, we need to be mindful that the books we reader are a link to the mind of the author.  The further we’re removed in time, the more different the ideas might seem.  There are some instances where a word has changed significantly, and the meaning of what they intended has changed too.  We must not instantly condemn a writer for their choice of words: we need to translate to a modern idiom, and sometimes that will need help.

In moving forward, there will be a need to draw a line under certain events.  Easy to say from a position of comfortable, white middleclass, but as the saying goes, when you take an eye for an eye everyone ends up blind.  But we will need to engage with history, and deal with uncomfortable truths.  It is proverbially easy for things to become lost in translation, and we need to make sure that we engage with interpreters, understand their influence, and look for the filters that have been applied.

© David Jesson, 2020

#SecondThoughts: What counts as Productivity for a Writer?

I was thinking about this today as I taking my daily walk. It’s something I’ve fallen out of the habit of doing in the last couple of weeks-ish and was reminded (for the nth time) just how important walking is to me. It’s not the exercise aspect, nor the access to fresh air, what matters is that I’m alone – no music, no podcast, no conversation – just me and my thoughts. Well, to be fair, there are times (more than I’d like to admit to be sure) when I talk to myself, but that hardly counts as a conversation.

The reason I decided to start my discussion on the subject of what constitutes productivity for a writer by speaking about my daily walk, is to demonstrate quite how important seemingly unrelated activities can be to the writing process. As someone who’s been suffering from a bit of a block of late, it’s taken a while to get to the bottom of it. Well, in fact what it took was for the weather to improve and for my knee to start hurting – all of which reminded me of the need to get physically moving again. Because ever since my return from said walk, the garden gate of writing has started to swing open, if not the floodgates quite yet.

While a great believer that writing must be treated as a job of work where you turn up and get on with it, there are aspects you may need to consider, including ensuring the mind and body are in good shape and ready for writing.

Now clearly writing productivity includes the actual writing, re-writing and editing, and I don’t believe anyone would argue that planning or plotting forms a key part of the writing process (at least for those who’re not pantsers) and who could argue about research being an intrinsic part likewise? But what counts as research? Is it specific, targeted investigation to establish facts around which you will write, is it background reading to get a feel of an era or a place, is it visiting museums to see how people lived, is it seeking out art or clothing or furnishings from a particular time or location, is it visiting period properties or certain geographical locations, does it involve learning a skill your character may have, or taking a journey they will take, can it be reading the work of other writers – whether or not they write in your particular genre, perhaps it’s simply living and being open to inspiration? I would suggest that it could be each and every one of these, and much more besides, as a writer never knows where or when inspiration will strike.

One more thing to be aware of – when I’m in the middle of writing something, I find it difficult to read fiction without the voice of what I’m reading leaching into what I’m writing. I know I’m not alone in this and, with luck, as I develop greater experience in the process of writing, that could change. But as doing without reading at all is simply too painful for me, in order to maintain my productivity, I also have to ensure there’s a good selection of non-fiction available on my TBR list for reading breaks when I’m writing.

I can’t write about the subject of writing productivity without talking about practice. In an ideal world, you sit down and you write. You pour out words into your current work-in-progress, and you don’t allow yourself to be diverted. But what about when you’re between WIPs, or when you hit a dead-end? Do you focus entirely on non-writing tasks? Shouldn’t you be flexing your writing muscles on a regular basis? I don’t believe everyone needs to write every day, but I do believe in the power of practising the craft regularly, even when it’s not on the project. A short story, a piece of flash fiction, an essay or opinion piece, something to keep your writing chops well oiled.

And there’s also the business aspect of writing – querying, pitching, marketing, cover design, networking, paying bills and doing taxes – and while none of these aspects will contribute to your daily word count, they’re all necessary. Now, you might be in a position where you can delegate some or all of those tasks, and you might not, but there’s no point writing a wonderful book if no-one ever gets to read it.

If you’d asked me this question even a year ago, I’d have probably given a very different answer. Then, I thought the only truly productive thing for a writer to do was to sit down and finish your manuscript. I believed anything else was entirely extraneous to writing… I know better now.

© Debra Carey, 2021

#Secondthoughts: Historical Fiction

Social media can be tricky to navigate, but every now and again something pops up that can be quite fun.  I think it was in April that Medieval-a-thon popped up in my time-line.  @hollyknece’s brain-child, Medieval-a-thon is a reading challenge, which sets out a number of prompts for choosing books to read.  Throughout the month, a few mini-challenges are provided, such as getting a book read by a particular date or getting through a number of pages in a certain amount of time.  I thought it would be fun to give it a go, although with no particular aspirations to get through the seven books required to reach the rank of Emperor, still less the 18 that would allow me to collect all the costumes, weapons, and ‘buddies’.  As it turned out, I slightly missed the mark with the prompts although I did manage to get Dragon armour, battle axe and shield, and a fox companion.

At some point, I’d got it into my head that I should be focusing on books with a medieval twist.  I kicked off with a re-read of one of my all time favourite books, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, but as I’ve noted before, time for physical reading is limited at the moment, and I had more success with audiobooks, managing to plough my way through five of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake books while I sorted out the garden, did the washing up, and generally did all the jobs that left my brain free whilst my hands were busy.  For anyone who has read a Shardlake novel, you will know that this is no mean feat – these are weighty tomes, 600+ pages each (earning me a virtual battle-axe for ‘a heavy book’).  But the narration is generally excellent, Shardlake is an interesting character and there is a lot to take in: I know that the world is not strictly a medieval, one – don’t @ me!

For those that have not read any of these novels, the very brief summary is that hunchbacked laywer Matthew Shardlake gets involved in various politically entangled murders during the reign of Henry VIII.

Reading (listening to) these books, it suddenly struck me that Sansom has a difficult line to walk.  I am no Tudor scholar, but the books seem to have been meticulously researched and the historical aspects incorporated well.  There are a couple of points that I think are  touch dubious, and one that I think might leave Sansom open to defamation of character charges if the events written about were more recent.  That aside, the key thing that occurred to me is that Sansom has had to create essentially a sealed story, that fits with the occurances of the time, but does not impact on them to cause ripples in what really happened.  It is a little like the Red Queen’s Race explanation for a time-travel mishap – nothing has changed because the time-travel is all part of the whole.

In some respects, Sansom has an easier task than Debs’ and I: our work occurs less than eighty years ago, and there are a lot more constraints on us in terms of knowledge of where and when certain things happened.  We’re not writing a work of historical fiction in the same way though, and whilst we’d like to get the flavour of the time right, we’re not too worried about where the King, or the Prime Minister, for example, happen to be at any particular time.  By contrast, Shardlake is tossed about on the poltical high seas, and so sometimes considerable periods pass between books, and indeed within the books, because certain people have to be in certain places at certain times.   And at the end of it all, the story must be wrapped up in such a way that there is a satisfying conclusion to Shardlake’s investigation, but so that there is no impact on where the great and the good will be next.  There is a particularly villainous character who the reader hopes will get his just desserts, but the historian knows will escape to become richer and more powerful.  It is of course no hardship to write this character some literary handcuffs to prevent him from retaliating to Shardlake’s investigations, but he is free to go about his recorded business, sadly.

Food for thought then:  there are a few people of historical record who are mentioned in passing in the story that Debs and I are working on.  I need to go and reread a chunk, having made the comment about defamation of character…I don’t think that I have said anything that has not already been said by others, but wise to double check such things.

On the otherhand, with the movements of more ‘normal’ people, not just the ‘great and the good’ on record in 1947, perhaps we should try and fold in a few more of these into the background of the story.

What do you think?  Which is more important in an historical setting?  The background location, or the people involved?

© David Jesson, 2020

#SecondThoughts: Writer’s Fuel

The famed writer’s fuel of old was alcohol. Male writers, in particular, were famed for being big boozers: Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Tennessee Williams, Edgar Allen Poe, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, Charles Bukowski, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce … the list is endless.  Boozing has long been regarded as a manly pursuit, and is too often regarded as somewhat sad or seedy when engaged in by women.

What with all these famous drinking authors, one could be forgiven for believing that alcohol somehow unlocks a certain access to creativity. But, can writers write whilst drinking, or drunk?

Truman Capote famously said of writing while drinking …

“its impossible, writing requires too much concentration. But after a long bout of concentration, it can be helpful to have a drink and loosen one’s mind a little bit.”

This view is shared by a recovering alcoholic of my acquaintance who used it to quiet his mind. Suffering from Aspergers, he found it difficult to concentrate, as his mind would be running up to a dozen trains of thought consecutively.

As most of us know, it is possible to write drunk, but even a text message can be troublesome after too much has been partaken. James Baldwin, another infamous drinker admitted …

“at the time I was high and writing, I knew that what I was putting down was my most brilliant work ever; in the morning, I reread my work and tore it to pieces, it was so awful.”

While these two famous authors might be the exception, it does seem to make sense that whilst authors do drink, that’s not what makes them writers. Nor does drinking turn on some recessive writing gene.

Currently, especially within the Twitter #WritingCommunity, coffee seems to be the rocket fuel which powers most writers. Sure, there’s a handful who – like me – drink tea instead. I morphed to tea drinking when coffee started to bite back after far too many years of drinking it too strong, too black and in too great a quantity. And while I do enjoy my tea (Earl grey, dash of milk to quote one Jean-Luc Picard), it doesn’t do what coffee used to do, which is to give me a firm kick up the backside and get me moving. Tea – for me anyway – is more of a multiple-cup, slow-burn kind of experience.

I tried decaffinated coffee for years, but it was tough finding one that didn’t taste of absolutely nothing. I did eventually find one – surprisingly, it was instant <gasp> called the Languid Bean. It was absolutely splendid, tasty with a wonderful aroma, doing absolutely no harm to the increasingly delicate insides, while also being more effective than tea in getting this writer moving. Then it disappeared totally from the shelves. Clearly there weren’t enough people wanting (or needing) decaffinated coffee, or perhaps I was ahead of the trend.

These days there are more options, with even Nespresso offering a wide range of decaffinated capsules – but they don’t seem to have any zing. So I’m still on the lookout for something – anything – other than the dreaded diet coke. 

As this light-hearted look at writer’s fuel brings an end to a challenging year, may I offer you all an end-of-year toast …

To 2021 - may we be safer, happier &amp; fulfil our dreams (3)


© Debra Carey, 2020