Autumn


Walking the streets of London, I can now see that autumn is about to arrive. A curled brown leaf floated towards me and landed on the paving stone I was about to step on. On my way to work, I walk under an apple tree. It has now started to discard it’s fruit on the pavement. The nights are drawing in earlier and the heat of the summer seems to have left. There is a cooler breeze and my thoughts are turning to sweaters and longer socks.

Soon my diet of salads  and fruit granola will be giving way to hearty stews cooked in my slow cooker and spicy biscuits using autumnal flavours such as cinnamon and apple pie spice.

Autumn means the return to teaching, the Great British Bake Off, warm socks, sweaters, cooler days, mist and evenings of reading huddled up in a blanket. The leaves turn from green, to orange or red and then to brown. Mists rise up from the valley and the light changes. I start to plan my October trip.

Autumn leads to winter and the prospect of snow and Christmas lights. I hope that this year we have some snow in London as there is nothing better than waking up on a weekend morning to fresh crispy snow on the streets. Then, wrapped up well, going out to leave footprints and photograph the wonders of nature. Returning home to hot chocolate or coffee with cinnamon. Or, shopping with a mug of mulled wine in hand.

Winter leads to spring. A new awakening. Flowers raise their heads, the days become longer and warmer. It is a time for spring cleaning and starting afresh. In my case, hoping it continues as far into May as possible.

Summer is the season, I dislike the most. True it brings a break from work but the daylight comes too early and the heat is too strong. On the worst days, I long for autumn. Autumn is, after all, my favourite season.

 

Mapping out a novel


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I love maps. Whenever, I decide to visit a place I aim to get a printed map and study it carefully. The map speaks to me of the layout of the place and how it has developed. This helps me to get inside the place a little bit.

On my desk at the moment, are five maps which are connected to my novel, Weaver of Words, which is set partly in Czechia and partly in Poland. When I first arrived in Český Těšín I used the map to orientate myself. I had in my mind the railway station and the border with Poland. Looking at the map, I could see that the whole of the original town centre had two railway stations at opposite ends, with the border in the middle. It gives an understanding of how the modern town developed – one railway line served the Polish side and one the Czech side. Every municipal building of importance was situated with that boundary. The two halves of the town seem, on the map, to mirror each other. The town halls of both sides of the river are on the right hand side of the main street which runs from one railway line to another, straight over the bridge on the Olza. This is clearly visible from the map but might not be so obvious from the ground.When I visited the town, the map gave me a greater understanding of the layout and feel of it. It also allowed me to see how I could have my characters interact with the town.

My three maps of Prague date roughly from the same era – the 1980s. The largest one, gives the layout of the whole city including suburbs. I used it when I went to live in the Czech Republic to help me get around. It still has some of my markings on it. When visitors came, I used the second map, to explain the history of the buildings. This map came with a booklet giving the provenance of all the buildings in the centre of the city.  By looking at these maps it can be seen when the streets were constructed and in which order as the building number and street numbers are both written down. (The building number is the order of construction). This allows observers to locate a building in the archives. The map has the names of streets, buildings and metro stations as they were called in the Communist Era.There are such delights as the Square of Soviet Tanks, which has probably been renamed by now. This is the city as my characters would have experienced it. When I used the maps to walk the city, I photographed the buildings and then located them on the street map. Would my characters have noticed this? Would they have visited the shops? Which pubs would they have sat in? The ones nearest their hostel?

The smallest map, is a tourist street map showing the areas the Communist government thought tourists should be interested in. It is a snapshot of a view of the city at a particular time in it’s history. It has the pubs, cafés and restaurants marked which has helped me to accurately locate places from the time and give buildings the name they would have had in that period.

When I look at the maps I am instantly transported to a different place and a different time. I look at the street names and wonder who are what they celebrate. I look at the buildings and infrastructure to see how the town planners envisioned their town or city. What were the important buildings and places for them? I see the out-of-date names and am reminded of times past. I look at the length and width of streets and wonder at their destinations. In maps, I see a country and I see dreams. When I can, I walk the streets with my map in my hand and experience the place from the ground. Then, I come to know the place.

Dead Cold in the Canadian Winter


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Dead Cold is the second Armand Gamache novel by Louise Penny. It is, in fact, the first one I have read but it will not be the last (book 3 in the series is on its way to me).

On a boring afternoon, I decided to watch a catch-up programme on my tablet and came across a Three Pines mystery. Three Pines  is the village in which Louise Penny has set her novels. The programme details read as though it was a gentle murder mystery in the style of Murder she Wrote or the bookstore mysteries which sometimes grace the afternoon TV schedules. It had the elements I was looking for in a bit of escapism – a small village, lovely Canadian scenery, a bit of intrigue and some quirky characters. I settled down to watch.

It was a proper cosy mystery and  nice change from the heavy reading and viewing I have been doing lately. I was intrigued by the character of the Chief Inspector who seemed like a village bobby with access to some high tech computers. The poet, Ruth  Zardo, was also an interesting character – a brilliant poet and also a little bit off kilter. An artistic husband and wife who did a fair amount of bickering. And it was set in Canada so it was rather pretty. I hastened to find out more about the author.

Louise Penny, it seems, has had a career in broadcasting and has hit on a top formula. All the elements of a good cozy murder mystery are to be found within the covers of her books. Her fictional detective has more than a bit of the Brit about him, making him a little bit of an outsider and also a little bit less predictable. Despite the murders, I feel that Three Pines is a good place to live. I wanted to know more, so I order the next book in the series –  Dead Cold.

It is an excellent read. I think, I clocked up five hours on the sofa in total. So, what is good about it? Excellent location and cast of characters, for sure. In addition, the mystery is revealed little by little. There are clues thrown in but their significance is not clear until the end. Each chapter advances the story and deepens our understanding of the characters. At the end of the chapter the reader is left to wonder what it all means. Therefore, the need is to keep reading. This built up of tension, drawing of the characters and the odd clue, maker the reader do some work. Also, there is a character who was in the first book and was neither nice or competent. She turns up in book two but with some of her background explained. She is not likable but now understandable. Gamache, of course, is at odds with his superiors, so there is some personal tension and conflict.

Louise Penny held my interest to the very end. For that I award her *****. The novel is a model of “how to write a cozy murder mystery” and therefore a useful guide to the genre for trainee novelists. My copy was 408 pages long printed in size 12 pica. Not too long or too short. Louise Penny is, in my view, a worthy winner of all the crime writing awards she has won.

I have ordered book three of the series for a little weekend reading.

Her new book is out in August 2016.

The books which have inspired me as a writer and helped me learn my trade


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Years ago, when I was thinking of becoming a writer, I consulted a few how-to-books by well-known writers and then went on to read their novels to see how their ideas worked in practice.

One of my favourites back in the 1990s was Rita Mae Brown. I read her book Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual (1988), which contained lots of ideas for a beginner writer. And, of course, I read lots of Rita Mae’s own books. Back in those days it was harder to get information about publishers and so on, so this was a really useful manual.

I also owned Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1989) as well as several of her books.

Many years later, when the idea of fiction writing re-entered my head, I looked at other manuals for budding writers. A key text was The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery written by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick (1998). The large number of post-it notes inside the book shows how I used it to plot various novels. It is an excellent guide for anyone starting out as a mystery writer. The ideas for character development and plotting are extremely useful.

I have owned several different editions of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft (7th ed. 2006). This is a book which never fails to help and guide. The short stories and extracts demonstrate how the techniques work in practice. Her insights into the writing process are both profound and encouraging. She notes that “most of the time spent writing is not spent putting words on the page.” (2000: 13) So true. I recently spent an entire week flicking through the internet and reading articles about my topic before setting down to type.

Finally, in the list of writing manuals I must mention Derek Neale’s A Creative Writing Handbook (2009), which I have just pulled out of my backpack. What a wealth of information and ideas there are in this book! Like Burroway’s book, there are lots of extracts from successful writing to show you how it can be done.

The fiction books I have read are far too numerous to mention. I am sure that, in some way, practically everyone has had some influence of my writing. The novels which are currently finding their way into my hands time and time again are small classics. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is a masterpiece of condensed writing. I love the way she can convey information and atmosphere in such a controlled fashion. The short, sharp sentences say all that needs to be said. Stephen Isherwood’s writing in A Single Man is sparse but powerful. It is a masterpiece of writing. The film, I have to say, is a wonderful companion to the book.

I have been learning how to create characters from Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. This is a marvellous book set in a small town and dominated by one character. From Olive herself, and the people who have been affected by her, we learn about her as an individual. She may not be the nicest character you have read about but Strout presents all sides of her story so in the end you understand her. I read this book straight through so as not to miss any of the nuances. It is a lovely lovely thing.

Always behind the scenes are the novels of Carol Shields. I find myself referring back to her characterisation and storytelling time and time again. Her final novel, Unless, has been one of my favourites since it was published. The storyline is not an easy one to read but it is told so beautifully that I have to keep going back to it.

A thread on a web-forum has just alerted my to The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (1990). The extract I have read looks promising. I can see this book in my hands with a day or two. Why have I never heard of her before? I note that according to Wikipedia she has been influenced by Thoreau, Emerson and de Chardin. It seems to me that I have much to learn from this writer.

The search for inspiration and advice never ends. I read practically every newspaper or article I get my hands on about the writing process. I read books regularly. Some of the books I read are old favourites. Some are books new to me. Once discovered all books have enlightened me in some way whether they were, in my opinion, good or bad books. Not all the books I have read have held my interest to the end but I have admired the craft behind them. And I shall carry on reading and writing.

 

When was the last time you did something for the first time?


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Border crossing

The headline is a quote from leadership and  inspiration guru John C. Maxwell.

Here’s some more inspiration:

“Seven Steps to Success
1) Make a commitment to grow daily.
2) Value the process more than events.
3) Don’t wait for inspiration.
4) Be willing to sacrifice pleasure for opportunity.
5) Dream big.
6) Plan your priorities.
7) Give up to go up.”
John C. Maxwell

I guess I am following some of those steps right now. How?

  1. Interacting more with social media and using my Instagram and Tumblr accounts to promote my work and ideas.
  2. Checking social media more to see what other people are doing and to get inspiration.
  3. Updating my website with background images and text which really reflect my writing and photography. It is all about focus.
  4. I am dreaming big – I am going to format and publish my Riga novel and then approach some independent bookshops to see if they are will to stock a copy or two.
  5. Living in a changing world as we do, it is no longer enough to keep going with the flow and letting life wash over. It is time to be pro-active. I am going to start running my own writing workshops NOW!
  6. I am accepting that in order to move forward I have to give up on projects which are not working. So I am shelving that Estonian crime novel I keep coming back to until I have a really good idea.
  7. My upcoming trip to Belarus must lead to something not just a big adventure. Photobook? Guidebook? Travel video? Novel? Journal? Who knows?
  8. Decluttering. Without clutter I am free to think and dream and produce.
  9. Getting up and going first thing in the morning to take advantage of the peace and quiet in the house.

 

Image source:https://i.ytimg.com/vi/qDH3ddNUuaU/maxresdefault.jpg

Urban Walks 2


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This Urban Walk started in Český Těšín, a small town which straddles the Olza River on the Czech-Polish border. The purpose of the walk was to connect with the town of Havířov which is where I lived from the beginning of April 1991 to July 1992.

I began by taking the bus from the bus station in order to get to my destination point – the bus station at Havířov. The first impressions from the start of my trip were not great. 24 years ago Český Těšín  was not a desirable place to hang out and not a lot has changed in the intervening years. I always remembered it as being nothing more than a basic and functional bit of tarmac sitting beside the railway lines. It appears that the Urban Planners have not thought to update it in any visible way apart from an electronic timetable – the telephone box still sports an old style telephone, there bus shelters are bits of corrugated tin held up with rusting steel. The waiting area is a set of benches with a tin roof and is open to the weather. The bus, which was on time, was a Hungarian Karosa, which is basically a bit of tin and Formica. It rattled along as I sat on one of the faux-vinyl seats looking out of grimy windows.

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The bus rattled and shook its way along the winding road through small villages and rural settings. We passed a shop with a real tank sitting on a plinth outside it, some dead trees in a lake, the dam where the local water supply comes from and some nice family homes.

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We got to the top of Bludovice Hill, where I used to live. The shop where I did my grocery shopping, the bus stop where I waited for the bus downtown and the restaurant were still there and looking pretty much as they had done 24 – 25 years previously. Happy days. The small housing estate where I rented flats had not expanded further out – perhaps there is no more money now the coal mines and steel works have shut down. Then, it was down the hill to the modernised bus station.

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An urban walk around Havířov revealed small changes but the town looked much the same as it had done in the early 90s. The town is well-known among aficionados of neon lighting for the plentiful use on buildings. This is the one on the Lucina building. The architecture dates from the early days of the town’s construction (1955 to around 1970) when there was interest in town planning, architects were allowed to be as expansive as they liked and there were quality building materials available. These early buildings were kind of neo-classical in style, had large airy rooms and little touches such as wall friezes and archways. Then, the economic crisis of the 1970s hit and the preconstructed panel buildings began to take over.

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I had a coffee in a cafe I used to frequent 24 years ago. It had a shiny new coffee machine but that was all. It still sold cream cakes and open-face sandwiches. There were several little Tabacs selling cigarettes, newspapers and sweets. I bought a pair of shower shoes in a small shop in which everything was laid out on top of boxes. They were much cheaper than the equivalent in London. I took lots of photos of the buildings which still had their Soviet Era decor on them. The air was so clean it was hard to imagine what it had been like when the coal mines were pumping dust into the air. I missed the smell and taste of sulphur.

I walked down the familiar road taking in the artwork over doorways, the traditional Soviet-style shop signs which were still in evidence and the nice flowers for which the town was known during the Soviet Era. The long wide boulevard spanning from Bludovice Hill to the railway station was a delight to walk along. I noticed a couple of new pieces of art and noted the absence of the old Red Stars.

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My walk took me all the way down to the station. I noted that the big change was the presence of a Tesco supermarket to complement the Kaufland planted opposite the bus station. I have long admired the Socialist-Realist design of the Soviet Era train stations with their practical seating, mosaics featuring local customs and working traditions and practical shopping experiences. The one in Havířov  remains true to its design. I had a quick look in the pub and backed out quickly as it resembled more a gambling den rather than a pub and was the only disappointment of the walk. I waited until I returned to Český Těšín before taking a drink and would advise other travellers to do the same.

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I really enjoyed my trip down memory lane and am delighted at how well the town looks. All it needs now are more urban walkers to document the ongoing changes.