Sunday, 30 May 2010

Strictly Limited Experience

Forgive me if I have a moan but...

...I took Mum to see Strictly the Professionals at Leicester’s De Montfort TangoHall the other afternoon. We both love Strictly Come Dancing and were looking forward to more of the same. We were hoping to see a selection of ballroom as well as Latin but it was mainly modern freestyle. The dancing was good but even the Waltz was jazzed up and the Quickstep never got a look in. The show was all about skimpy clothes and loud music – not exactly appropriate for an afternoon matinee where a large proportion of the audience were elderly. I’m willing to bet that they were all there for the ballroom too. What a shame.

I couldn’t even get to see Vincent Simone’s raised eyebrow properly, but then I suppose that’s the theatre experience. I blame television for raising my expectations. I’m so used to seeing close up shots of everything that I find it frustrating to have to squint from many rows back. A friend commented recently after taking her son to see his first live football match that he was disappointed when he didn’t get a close up of the free kick. I wonder if he was expecting an action replay too. I suppose what you lose in close ups you gain in atmosphere. There’s nothing like the buzz of being in a football crowd when a goal’s scored and there was certainly a friendly and warm atmosphere in the theatre that afternoon.

But I’m afraid there are more moans. I had booked our tickets well in advance and explained about Mum’s limited mobility and yet to reach our seats we had to go up two steep steps and shuffle along a row. In the end the entire line of seated people very kindly filed out to let Mum in. We were grateful but embarrassed and if any of them are reading this now then I would like to thank them very much. Once seated, we watched as other people struggled to reach their seats. It was reassuring to know that it wasn’t just Mum but worrying to think that one slip could mean a major incident.

When the show was over it took some time to get back down again as there was only one very small lift available. Mum has trouble standing for any length of time and so we had yet more problems when we finally reached ground floor level. There was nowhere for Mum to sit and wait with a view of the front door while I fetched the car for her and so she had to stand outside. I don’t think we’ll be going to the theatre again, well not that theatre anyway.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

My blog is carbon neutral

We put all our kitchen waste onto the compost heap and something akin to magic happens. It turns into fine, brown soil. Mr A. spreads it throughout the garden, especially on the vegetable plot and when his beans are read we eat beans at every meal, every single meal, and that’s good because I like beans. Really I do. But then I go to the supermarket and their shelves are full of vegetables that have been flown in from all over the world. Is that really necessary?

[This is one of our three compost heaps. It’s overflowing at the moment but Mr A. will soon be layering it and then the magic will begin.]

We’re always careful with our use of electricity. We turn lights off when we leave a room and we use low carbon bulbs where possible even though they’re not always the prettiest of choices. But then we go into the centre of Leicester of an evening and we are surrounded by brilliance. Do we need to have so many of the City’s historic buildings soaking up all those kilowatts?

I try to buy food from the corner shop so that I can support local business and leave my car at home… I try. When I was small there was a row of shops within easy reach for most people in Leicester. The shops sold fresh stuff because everyone used them regularly. These days it’s too easy to fill up our supermarket trolleys and we end up with out-of-date food that goes onto our compost heap... which shows that I’m even recycling my words because this is where my blog began.

I thought that keeping a blog couldn’t possibly harm the environment but Lorel Clayton at I’m Blogging Drowning Here has shown me otherwise. My blog has a carbon footprint. According to Alexander Wissner-Gross, PhD, physicist at Harvard University, the carbon dioxide emission of a typical blog is 8lbs a year. The carbon dioxide absorption of a tree is 11lbs a year, so that’s the answer. I need to plant a tree. I love trees but, as you can see in the photo above, we have no room for any more trees in our suburban back garden.

This is where Mach's grün! comes in. They are trying to raise people’s awareness of this issue and will plant a tree for every blog that explains their work... so there you have it. I’ve owned up to the fact that my blog has been adding to the world’s carbon dioxide overload. Many apologies for that, but many thanks to the people at Mach's grün! and thanks to Lorel for passing the information on to me. Click on the leaf below if you’d like to find out more about it and maybe you could get your blog carbon neutralised too.

Friday, 21 May 2010

We look but do we see?

We hear The Voice in our heads but do we obey?

...and what has this got to do with a visit from Salley Vickers?

How many times do we look at things without seeing them? I was in the garden the other day as it was getting dark. The lights were on in the house but the curtains were not yet drawn. I looked and thought, ‘What a lovely house.’
Yes, I know that Mr A. is always reminding me of this when I moan about things like windows that won’t open. It was because I was looking at the inside of our house from an unusual angle that I really saw it.

I was reminded of this last night when Salley Vickers visited the Leicester Writers’ Club. She told us how she often wanders through art galleries when she’s working on a novel. One day she found herself looking at Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. It was a painting she had looked at many times but this time she really saw it. The story it portrayed gave her the inspiration for The Other Side of Me.

Salley, who used to teach ancient literature, says that she finds reassurance in the grace and value of ancient stories. Miss Garnet’s Angel emerged from the story of Tobit. As a teenager she had accidentally discovered the Venetian Church with Tobit’s story told in a series of painted panels. Years later she taught the story to her students, revisited the Church and Miss Garnet appeared.

Salley is an author who never plans, has never been to a creative writing class and is quite sure that if she were to attend one, just talking about her novel before it was completed would make it disappear. Her talk last night was not so much an account of her writing life, but more a challenge to get us thinking.

Do we hear the author’s voice when we read or do we see the words and absorb the story that way?

When Salley reads a novel she has the author talking to her from the page. She enjoys the rhythm of the writing and delights at being surprised by the actions of the characters. Salley likes to write about those characters that we think we know... but we don’t really know if we know them until we get to know them better... and then we realise that we didn’t know them at all... or maybe we did know them all along. We just thought that we didn’t know them. [Sorry. I know what she means. I just couldn’t quite put it into words.]

Do we hear The Voice in our head?

In Salley’s current book, Dancing Backwards, one of the main characters is The Voice. She says that we all have The Voice in our heads. The Voice is that part of ourselves who knows what’s what and what we should do. The problem is we sometimes don’t listen. It can get us into all sorts of trouble. During the question and answer session at the end I wish now that I’d asked Salley if she can remember ignoring The Voice with interesting consequences. If you’re reading this, Salley, do please comment below and let us know. The same goes for the rest of you. Have you ever refused to listen to The Voice? And what happened as a consequence?

[If anyone has read Dancing Backwards please don’t let me know how it ends. I bought a copy last night and so have not yet read it!]

Monday, 17 May 2010

How to Make History Come to Life

Visit your Local Records Office

I once referred to myself as a Nosy Adam and I’m at it again, nosying into other people’s lives, except this time the people are long gone. I’ve been to the local Records Office and I’d forgotten just how much fun that can be. Old newspapers are fascinating. They printed reports on items that ranged from the banal to the unbelievable. If you’ve never been to your local Records Office then you really should give it a try. It’s free. You only need to get a reader’s card, which is no harder than getting a library ticket.

Using the equipment at the Records Office is an experience in itself. All the old newspapers are stored on reel-to-reel film. The machines are large, noisy and have masses of attitude. With a click and a clack, and sometimes a clunk, you thread the film through the viewer and fix the end to the empty reel. There’s a button to move the film forwards, another for reverse and, dangerously close to each, a fast forward and fast reverse. The room is generally quiet except for the occasional clatter of fast reverse, a mild curse from the user and then the click, clack, clunk of the film being threaded into the machine once more.

Last year I went to the Records Office to research my Jewish Voices book. It was a good job that my co-researcher, Judy, was with me. She kept me on track, nudging me each time I became absorbed in one of the more bazaar articles in the old copies of the Leicester Mercury. One 1940s report told how a woman had to wait many minutes to cross the road ‘as a result of continuous traffic’. Another told how a dog had knocked a man over but neither were hurt. A third report talked of the problems experienced by a certain surgeon who spent long hours operating and had trouble standing still. It would appear that they glued his shoes to the floor so that he could safely finish an operation.

This week I was looking for information about Leicester’s railways for an article I’m writing and I thought the research would nicely support my first short story for Merrilee’s Creativity Workshop. In both cases I found plenty of material plus lots of extra stuff for my writer’s notebook. From a local Victorian Journal I discovered that George Stephenson himself drove the first steam engine to depart from Leicester, a real news-worthy piece. Another report tells about a child playing around the railway trucks that night. He fell, was taken to the Infirmary and ‘there may be need for an amputation’ we are told. Further down the page we discover that a man on horseback chased the train into the Glenfield Tunnel and, taken by surprise by the sudden darkness, grazed himself on the tunnel wall. Banal in news terms but what a fascinating character for a story.

Visitors are only allowed to take a pencil and a notebook into the research room and I needed no more. My article is almost completed and my story for the Creativity Workshop just needs a few tweaks. I have ideas gleaned from 19th century people-watching in the newspapers and from 21st century people-watching in the room. I came away a happy writer.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Make ‘em laugh… or maybe not

I challenge you to make me laugh. Go on. Try it.


Mr A. is only too aware of how difficult this is. I have been known to sit through an entire comedy programme without even smiling while he is falling off his chair with hysterical laughter.

imageWhen someone says, ‘Have you heard the one about...?’ I feel an instant pang of anxiety and the minute they start to tell their little gem of a joke I start to worry in case I don’t ‘get it’.

clip_image001[4]I worry so much that I hardly listen to the joke and then I force myself to laugh because I don’t want to offend them. Not so long ago I laughed before my friend reached the punch line which turned out to be even more embarrassing than not ‘getting it’.

Apparently Stephen Merchant collates and treasures stories of ‘discomfort and embarrassment because it’s so human and there’s so much pathos and connection and empathy...’ I hate embarrassment. I hate to be embarrassed. I hate to think that I have embarrassed somebody and I hate watching other people be embarrassed. A lot of TV sitcom humour seems to rely on embarrassment as do most TV sketch shows. Is it any wonder I rarely laugh during an evening of TV viewing?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a misery, not all the time.

clip_image002Holding my new grandson makes me smile.

Watching kittens roll over and over play fighting makes me giggle.

clip_image005And I once asked the ice cream man for a large cornflake instead of a large cornet with a flake and I laughed so much that I had to sit on the pavement because I couldn’t breathe.

But put a ‘guaranteed to have you rolling in the aisles’ film on the TV and I barely manage a smile. I think it’s because they try too hard and it’s why I’ll never try to write comedy. If one of my stories elicits a smile then that’s a bonus but I believe that the best comedy happens by accident and I’m not talking about a banana skin accident.


Friday, 7 May 2010

Writing Styles and Writing Goals

After my indecisions of yesterday I’ve managed to choose some goals for Merrilee’s Creativity Workshop. I need to select three goals and each one will be central to a group of short stories. I would love to hear your views on the ones I've chosen.

My first is setting:
I usually set my stories in the present day or in one case in the future and yet I have a history degree and used to teach history so I’m going to try placing my first group of stories into a historical setting. I don’t often read historical novels and I know a lot of you do so what do you think makes a really good historical novel?

My second is point of view:
I love writing first person present tense and have never written from the third person omniscient point of view. (I double-checked the meaning and it’s when you look down on your characters as if you’re a cloud floating above them.) This is what I will be trying to do with my second group of stories. Before I became a writer I was often unaware of the point of view used in a novel. Are you aware of which point of view your favourite novels are written in and does it make a difference to your enjoyment of them? Which do you prefer, first person, third person or omniscient?

My third is the Main Character:
I have an admission to make. I quite often don’t like my main characters. I rather suspect they’re based on my view of me and that this is linked with my preference for writing in the first person. I much prefer and give the best lines to their friends. I am going to work on creating strong main characters who aren’t totally lovely because that would be ‘gooey-yuk’ but I want to create main characters who the reader cares about. What sort of Main characters are heart-stoppers for you?

And now all I'll have to do is to write the stories.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Decisions, decisions, decisions

Voting, shopping, writing... it’s never ending.

Today is Election Day in the UK (what do you mean you hadn’t noticed?!) and for the first time ever I haven’t yet decided who to vote for. I will vote. People died so we could have this privilege. I just haven’t quite yet made up my mind where to put my cross, but don't worry. This is not going to be a Brown v. Cameron v. Clegg blog. I want to talk about other (more important!?!) decisions.

I’m in the middle of a really busy week right now and I’m trying to decide whether to drive to the supermarket or ‘go’ Internet shopping.
‘Treat yourself to an Internet shop!’ I can hear you all shouting but is Internet shopping really that wonderful?

GOOD: I won’t have to drive to the shop, push a wobbly trolley, unload at the checkout, pack into bags and load up the car.
BAD: But I won’t get away from the house, get a change of view from the computer screen and (even worse) the kitchen and I won’t have a chat with the friends and neighbours who I invariably bump into.

GOOD: I’ll be able to work out how much I’m spending by the running total on the screen.
BAD: But it’s so easy to order extra items that I’ll end up spending more than usual.

GOOD: A repeat menu comes up on the screen which is a bit like having all my old shopping lists in my hand and so I don’t have to think so much.
BAD: But I won’t be able to check on the size of each item (I once ordered an apple pie for visitors and a tiny individual one arrived.) and I can’t pick out those really juicy pieces of fruit and vegetables.

GOOD: As I won’t have to carry the shopping home I can order in quantity.
BAD: But I don’t have enough cupboard space to store it all.

GOOD: I’ll save petrol and wear and tear.
BAD: But delivery costs between £4 and £6... what to do?

It seems that decisions in my writing life are no easier. I’m about to embark on a mammoth writing adventure with Merrilee’s Creativity Workshop, twelve short stories to be written in twelve weeks. (Yes! I know! I don't really have the time especially as I'm also doing the NaPiBoWriWee challenge of 7 picture books in 7 days but...) First I have to decide what my precise goals are going to be. So now I’m going to settle down and try to make yet more decisions...

...after I’ve been to cast my vote of course. Happy polling day!

Sunday, 2 May 2010

What I need is a Lifestyle Guru

How does anyone manage to work from home and stay motivated with no boss looking over their shoulder? I can do it for a short time but it only takes one week of distractions for the routine to fall apart. Friends and family tell me I’m being too hard on myself. They say that I can expect to fall behind a little especially as I have a husband who’s recovering from his latest whack of chemotherapy, a brand new grandson, a housebound mother and Josh-the-dog (who at the moment has a bucket on his head because of a fox bite that just won’t heal!). Nevertheless I decided to sign up to a couple of online self-help workshops.


For the Creativity Workshop I’ve been asked to list out my issues and post them on this blog. [You see, I always do as I’m told, Merrilee!] But while I was listing them out I decided that they’re not just relevant to my writing. They’re relevant to my life and I’m curious to know if that’s the same for both writers and non-writers, and especially those who are trying to work from home. So here are my issues:

  • Seeing projects through to the end: I have files bulging with half-finished stories, a bag that’s over-flowing with half-finished knitting, a dress that’s needed the bottom turning up since 1999 and still has the price tag attached... I could go on but I’m sure you’ve got the drift.

  • Not flitting from one task to another: This is closely related to the above issue. Since starting to write this post I’ve bathed the dog’s wound, tried to clean a pen mark off my beige leather bag (I love that bag - any suggestions anyone?), written my Day 2 Picture Book Story for Paula’s NaPiBoWriWee, loaded and run the dishwasher, washed the sheets and consumed coffee with a large piece of treacle tart.

  • Not being distracted by the family and home: In other words, I need to discover how to successfully work from home and be a caring wife, daughter, mother and dog owner. Tough huh!

If anyone can give me solutions to the above issues I have to say I’ll be amazed, grateful but amazed!