Aurora: or, what the photographs cannot tell you

This evening, my husband’s email subscription alert warned us that solar activity levels were at ‘amber’, meaning a possible chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Ever since moving to Scotland, we’d had hopes of seeing them, but the closest we had previously got was a faint smudge on the horizon back when we lived in Crail, on the south side of a gently but significantly undulating outcrop of land, which obscured most of the northern horizon. “It’s just a cloud,” I said at the time, stamping my feet for warmth.

Well, this evening we saw a very, very big cloud. Before going out, a news search for Aurora sightings had led me to this timely article. In it, the author complained that – contrary to expectations built by aurora photography – the sight which greeted her eyes in Tromsø, Norway was fairly drab and colourless.

dscf3829

Standing on the top of the Hill of Row in Perthshire, Scotland, I also found that the reality was quite different from the photographs. I attempted to take a few of my own, resulting in a few grainy images which, yes, captured far more colours than the rods of my night-time eyes were able to. (For a genuinely fracking stunning photograph of the aurora, I refer you all to the work of my extremely talented brother). Then, realising the futility of struggling with an uncooperative camera in the dark when the bloody Aurora was there on the other side of the lens, I stepped back, and let my eyes adjust to the dark.

At about that moment, the great cloud arcing over the northern horizon started to move. In Scottish Gaelic, the Aurora is known as fir-chlis, or the ‘merry dancers’. It seemed to me that the famous curtain of light suddenly shredded, revealing just those dancers, their feet – the brightest, lowest spots of the Aurora – just mincing across the dark hills behind them. The movement was, well, exactly as the Gaelic would have it – merry, a fiddled waltz at an informal ceilidh.

The reason why photographs of the Aurora look so different from the reality is not only because the camera can capture colours that the human eye, in the midst of darkness, cannot see: it is also because they are taken over the course of several seconds, freezing in a single image the light as it moves across multiple points in the sky. This can result in wonderfully shapely images, but they also – ironically – make it seem as if the Aurora is still. What I saw, for maybe sixty remarkable seconds, was a dance that no high ISO or long exposure could ever capture.

I always thought that if it came, my delight in the Aurora would be in taking a stunning, boast-worthy shot which would enable me to look deeper into its colours and movements than my poor eyes ever could. In the end, my sole memento (this time…) is a noisy, poor photo, but I am oddly glad of it. For I can look at it and just see the tips of the toes of the merry dancers, and shut my eyes to see them move again.

Tastes Like Home

Every summer during my childhood, my family would go on a caravanning holiday somewhere in the British Isles. I still remember the whistling of the kettle, the faint smell of Calor gas as the hob was lit, and the soft click of cards as my parents conducted their annual cribbage tournament. I also remember the water. It was the one, grating detail in the midst of my holiday excitement: I didn’t like the way the water tasted different from that which came out of the tap at home.

With the benefit of hindsight and a more extensive store of mundane, adult knowledge, it is no longer surprising to me that water tastes different in different parts of the country. Water is provided by different companies in different places, most likely with different processes for purifying and filtering, and most crucially drawn from different sources. Boreholes in London; reservoirs in the Lake District.

Before getting in the car to go on holiday, I would fill up several bottles of normal, proper tap-water from Suffolk, and would sigh when it ran out or went stale around the second or third day of the holiday. We visited Buxton, Harrogate, places so famous for their springs that their water has become its own brand name: I still didn’t like it. I decided I could never live outside of Suffolk because I would always be thirsty.

Now, after four years living in Scotland, I have come to think that a place becomes home when its water becomes your own personal, normative H20. Today, it is the Suffolk tap-water which tastes strange to me; a holiday sensation, rather than a resource so daily that I forget it tastes of anything.

In the Spirit of Lent?

During the 3-year course of my PhD, I undertook NaNoWriMo – the bonkers, worldwide project for writers everywhere to produce 50,000 words of a novel in a single month – twice. Having submitted my thesis a month ago, you’d think November 2016 would be the ideal time to delve back into the world of intensive novel-writing.

Regretfully, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is, in fact, not the ideal time. I am currently in the midst of setting myself up as a freelancer – a process which is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating – and whilst I very much hope for that to include a lot of creative writing in the future, right now my focus is on getting to grips with sites like People Per Hour for proofreading and copywriting, and building up my client-base (!) for the university skills workshops I hope to deliver.

nanowrimozero

So this year I’ve decided to set myself the target not of writing 50,000 words but instead of trying to work on my writing in the spirit of NaNoWriMo. I like to think of it as being a bit like giving something up for Lent without necessarily believing in the religious associations behind it. Many atheists or agnostics take advantage of those forty days in the Christian calendar to test their self-resolve, or to attempt to develop healthier habits. I intend to participate in NaNoWriMo 2016 in much the same way.

So, on the first day of this writer’s Lent, I set myself a list of targets for the next four weeks. The first was to re-read the 50,000 words I wrote last year. The next was to plan the remainder of that half-finished novel, and the final was to start writing the words for it, hopefully kick-starting a process that might just see me with a finished manuscript by Christmas. It might not be the high-paced, one-month adventure that NaNoWriMo usually is, but it might just kick-start some brand new, healthy writing habits for the start of this new stage in my life.

Not Dead Yet

It’s somewhat ironic that, since my last posting on the benefits of staying still, I have discovered that I’m going to be on the move again very soon. The fantastic Mr. Scribetur has achieved the, if not impossible, at least incredibly unlikely feat of landing a permanent academic job. He followed me north for my PhD, and now it’s his turn to take the geographic lead.

It is a wrench, leaving the place we’re in now: the sea, the sea, the sea. For a while it hurt to look out of the window at the view I loved so much; how could I enjoy it knowing I’d soon be leaving? But what’s even harder is thinking of saying goodbye to the community of people that we’ve become a part of here.

This weekend, we were signed up to help out at a local festival, but we got the times of our shifts mixed up and completely missed one. Later that day, we had a knock on the door, and one of our fellow volunteers was there. He said he’d thought it had been out of character for us to not turn up, so he just wanted to come by to make sure we were alright.

I’ve decided, upon reflection, that the best ambition you can have of a place is that over time you’ll find people in it who’ll come round just to check that you’re still alive.

Not all who wander…

That quote from Tolkien, so often overlaid against dreamy images of wooded footpaths, striding boots, or sunrises over mountain tops, often comes to mind when I get to thinking about home. The quote is from a poem Bilbo Baggins wrote about Aragorn, and opens with the two immortally quotable lines:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost…

In contemporary culture, it is often used to allude to a sense of wanderlust, to those whose chosen experience of the world is one that involves living in and loving in and moving through a vast range of places, in all corners of the globe.

There is nothing wrong with wandering when that is the way you feel most at home, most fulfilled and most alive, and Tolkien (or Bilbo) was quite right: this life suits some, maybe even many people. Not all who wander are lost. But… some, if they took to wandering, would be. I think I am one of these people.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy travelling – I love drinking up the flavours and colours and textures of hitherto unknown places, whether China or Orkney (I have visited both, and relished both visits, albeit in different ways). But I will never be the type of person who can say that home is where I hang my hat: I must always have a familiar, permanent peg somewhere to return to after my weeks away, or else I feel adrift.
Not all who wander
I think there is sometimes a certain sense that ‘settlers’, rather than wanderers, are a bit square, a bit boring, that we’ll never experience the same adventures that our fellow-humans infected by wanderlust will. And maybe that’s true, but I’ve also come to believe that there is something unique to be experienced through the very opposite of wandering. My boring dream for my life is to find a quiet, rural village somewhere and start growing my roots deep into its soil. I want to see a thousand sunsets and sunrises from the same window, over the same fields or seashore, and every one will be different in its own way. I want to live in the same place for a decade, for twenty years, for fifty, and to see how it changes over time. I want to become part of the scenery, to wave good morning to neighbours old and new. I will amost certainly never take off for a year to explore the world, making my home wherever I sleep and absorbing a panapoly of different cultures and landscapes. I will never experience what it is to wander more often than stay still, because the stuff I’m made of just isn’t designed for me to be happy doing that.

And yet, maybe I will see and experience a few things that you can only get by staying still for a very long time.

NaNoWriMo and self-kindness

As I write this, the clock has just ticked over from the seventh day of NaNoWriMo to the eighth. I started writing on a happy, productive Saturday just over a week ago: I think I wrote 5,000 words that first day. However, as my word count graph demonstrates, that progress has gradually slowed down, to the point that at my current rate the NaNo algorithm predicts I will hit 50,000 bang on the deadline of November 30th, when a few days ago it was suggesting the heartening date of November 20th. (I started with the target of trying to write a full draft of my novel – which I anticipate will be between 60,000 and 70,000 – within November, if possible).

The seventh day of NaNoWriMo was a busy one for me. I am currently Down South visiting my folks, and I had a fantastic afternoon catching up with my oldest friend. I returned home to find my Dad had spent the afternoon straining peaches to make bellinis (as you do). A word to the wise, WriMo-ers: fizzy cocktails on an empty stomach before fulfilling your day’s writing quota is not the best route towards productivity, certainly not if they have the habit of making you a bit sleepy and dozy, as they do me. By the time I had played a few games with Mr Scribetur and my parents (I can at least put ‘winning Scrabble’ down on my list of achievements for the day!), had a cup of tea, and clawed my way back to writing-appropriate awareness, the 7th had almost worn away, and so in spite of writing around 600 words in the past couple of hours, I only managed to add around 100 of them to my word count on the NaNoWriMo website before the calendar clicked over, resulting in the sadly flat-looking moment in the graph above. 600 words is also well below what I’d like to write in a single session, but I’d quite like to get to my bed.

However, I’m doing my best to assure myself that This Is Ok. I think NaNoWriMo is a fantastic, motivating scheme and I’m so excited to be part of it. However, I think that it can also encourage the obsessives in us – at least, the obsessive in me. Thinking “I must write at least 1,667 words per day without making allowances for the fact that some days I’ll be free and able to write 5,000 words, and other days I’ll be spending valuable time playing MarioKart with a friend and arguing over Scrabble words with my parents, can bring out the worst in my inner dialogue. It is all too easy for me to set upon my writing as another thing to harangue myself about. However, NaNoWriMo isn’t about self-flagellation, it’s about resolutions. So maybe I should make a resolution to be a little kinder to myself over the remaining almost-three-weeks of November. For better or worse, I am the only person who is going to write this particular novel – so I might as well treat myself to the carrot rather than the stick!

Na-No-Wri-Oh-Dear-Me-Mo

I don’t know if this is something that other writers have experienced, but I really, really hate talking about my writing with other people. In particular, I find it very hard to talk about my ‘big’ projects – I have this irrational but quite fixed superstition that speaking about them stymies the writing of them somehow. I have finally got to a point after three years of marriage that I can bring myself to talk about my novels-in-progress with Mr Scribetur.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself chatting about my writing at a party a week or so ago. A friend was asking me about my post-PhD plans, and I was saying I would quite like to take a ‘year out’ from academia to try to do more (non-academic!) writing. They asked what kind of writing, I mumbled all-sorts-but-ideally-novels. They then asked if I’d ever written any novels. I was forced to admit that (whilst I’ve certainly been almost constantly in the process of writing a novel) I hadn’t actually completed a novel since the age of fifteen. I then heard myself giving a brief summary of the novel idea I’m currently spending most of my writing time on, and uttered the words: “I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo this year to try to get a draft done, though.”

This was something of a surprise to me. I did NaNoWriMo (a mad scheme in which writers around the world attempt to write 50,000 words or more across the mont of November) for the first time two years ago and just threw myself straight in without a net, or, in writing terms, a plan. As I’ve been making quite detailed chapter plans for my current project, I had been toying with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo again this year, but I certainly hadn’t come to a decision. At least, I thought I hadn’t.

But, whilst speaking about writing can – for me – feel a little scary and uncomfortable, it can also be a useful way to commit yourself to actually getting the writing done. I don’t want to make a liar of myself – so, starting tomorrow, November 1st, those plans are going to start becoming fully-fledged chapters. Here goes…!

Fading Photographs

Today I got to thinking about a family holiday I went on as a small child. In my mind’s eye, the colours of the memory are muted, just like the product of the point-and-shoot film cameras that would have recorded the holiday at the time. It made me wonder – will the children of today, in twenty years’ time, remember their childhood holidays as if they were tinted with an Instagram filter? Is the past remembered through the lens of its own particular technologies, or are all childhood memories, when flicked through as an adult (the plastic thwunk-thwunk of one of those vertical photo albums…) just a little bit browny-green?

Reading for Writing: The Four Marys

Four MarysTaking a break from fantasy and tales of the high seas, these past few days I’ve been getting lost in the pages of Jean Rafferty’s The Four Marys: A Quartet of Contemporary Folk Tales. The slim volume with its haunting cover in fact containes four novellas, all playing different variations on the theme of motherhood. They are also, as the title suggest, darkly flavoured with various magics of Scottish folklore. These posts aren’t intended to be traditional reviews, but I do want to say here and now that my goodness, this is a remarkable book. But the question these posts are designed to ask is, what about the writing makes it so?

Four movements to a concerto…

My first thought when I read the blurb of The Four Marys was that I should buy it because the structure of the book would take me out of my comfort zone. I tend to default towards novels for my pleasure-reading, but as I want to work more on my short-story writing it only makes sense that I should, well, read some short stories. The Four Marys, featuring as it does a series of pretty lengthy short stories, seemed a reasonable bridge.

More than the length of the individual stories, however, enable Rafferty to achieve a ‘quartet’ that, at times, really feels like one novel. To take up the musical analogy of the title, it seemed to me as I read that the four stories were like four movements of a single concerto; playing on the same themes, repeating the same motifs but with different variations. The seal, the sea, water, are all central features of the opening story, and are threaded throughout the following three. And, of course, the ‘four Marys’ (Mhairi, Mara, Mercedes, Mariana) of the four stories all represent different overlapping, conflicting facets of the character of motherhood and womanhood. These are not merely four thematically-related stories, collected together: they belong together and they inform one another. It’s not something I’ve personally encountered before, but I really like it.

Characterisation in a short story

Just a short one, as the (dreich!) evening is drawing in. I find I struggle with efficient characterisation, which is obviously key to good short story-writing. The entire book – and the extent to which I felt for each of the four Marys after so short an acquaintance – is a testament to Rafferty’s skills in this direction, but one sentence, about a supporting character in the fourth story, really stood out for me:

‘Gosh, it’s a bit cheesy,’ mumbles Alice, embarrassed as always by anything she sees as over the top.

I felt, as I read that, that I could see exactly the kind of person Alice was – a little shy, a little socially awkward, the sort of person who experiences agonies of embarrassment on behalf of other people who don’t mind at all what people think of them, the sort of person who is nice but a bit too self-conscious, and can’t bear to be seen around silliness unless people judge her for her mere proximity to it. But look at how many words I took to say that! And, indeed, my five lines of elaboration may be totally different from the author’s original intention, or the interpretation of other readers. But, it’s the fact that those few words above prompted such a detailed image in my mind that matters.

Reading for Writing: Bloody Jack

Bloody JackLast weekend I was visiting my parent’s house and calculated that the book I had brought with me (Fool’s Quest) was not going to last me the train journey home, it being quite a long way between Suffolk and Scotland. So I decided to raid a box of my childhood books, and came out with Bloody Jack: Being An Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary Jacky Faber, Ship’s Boy by L.A. Meyer. I had read the book at least twice over as a child, and remembered it as striking just the right note for train entertainment. It tells the story of an orphaned street girl who disguises herself as a boy and goes to sea onboard the HMS Dolphin. It is a very fun read, but what pointers or ideas can I take from it as a writer?

A first person voice… with an accent

The story is told in the first person, from Jacky’s perspective, but what I love is that it is written as if Jacky is speaking, with all of the verbal tics that a London street-urchin-turned-ship’s-boy might have. Just read the first line:

Rooster Charlie allows as how today he’s goin’ to see Dr. Graves himself, the bloke what sends Muck around to pick up dead orphans for the di-seck-shun and for the good of science and all, to see if Charlie his ownself can get paid for his body before he goes croakers so’s he can have the pleasure of it himself, like.

I think it’s a great example of matching the narrative voice with the character. Obviously, not all first-person narrators will call for ‘accents’: in the case of the Tawny Man trilogy (and all the other Fitz-narrated books) it makes sense for the educated (bastard) son of a prince to write in a grammatical and elegant style. But, I think it’s harder to prevent a voice like Jacky’s from jarring with readers who are generally accustomed not to reading contractions and out-of-the-ordinary grammatical constructions. L.A. Meyer pulls it off, and he does something else which I think is just great, too – Jacky’s ‘accent’ changes as the story progresses and she grows older and acquires (a little bit of!) polish. As a writer I think I tend to default to fairly RP first person voices, but this has made me think about experimenting more.

Writing outside your direct experience

When I came to write this blog post, and so did a little bit of research on Bloody Jack, I encountered two surprises. The first is this: L.A. Meyer was (he sadly died last year) a middle-aged man. When I read Bloody Jack as a child I had always assumed that the author was female, because a big element of the story is Jacky coming to terms with the various trials and tribulations of growing into a woman – breasts, periods, and all. Of course, I’m not saying that a male author can’t write about periods, but I think it’s impressive when they do so and cause a teenage girl to go “yeah, that’s exactly what it’s like!”.

I think what that says to me is that it’s well worth it and entirely possible as an author to write about things that are outside of your direct personal experience. I tend to feel a bit shy about presuming to write for groups of people to whom I do not myself belong, but then that means that my characters can sometimes default to a certain and not very diverse type. But, of course, this is a bit of silly assumption on my part: to return to the example, L.A. Meyer never experienced being a woman himself, but he was married to one, and presumably knew many others. I guess it’s about looking outside yourself and, perhaps, being willing to ask questions to help you better understand the types of experiences you might want to write about.

Not over-priming a sequel

My second surprise when researching the book this week: it has a sequel. In fact, it has eleven sequels. I really, really loved Bloody Jack when I read it as a child and remember sighing as I reached the end, and wishing I could find out what happened to Jacky after that last page. But, I also felt that feeling of contentment, even if tinged with wistfulness, when you come to the end of a story that, for all you wish it could continue, has been complete and perfect in and of itself. Before the days of second-nature Googling I may have looked for further L.A. Meyer books in the library or bookshop but, not seeing them, assumed that my impression of completeness was correct.

On the one hand, I feel a little exasperated with myself that I didn’t read the entire series as a teenager (I intend to read them now, and am sure I will thoroughly enjoy them, but I suspect my 14 year-old self would have enjoyed them even more). On the other, I think it says something very interesting that the first book in a series gave me that sense of satisfaction.

Especially coming on top of racing through the eight extant Fitz books, it has made me think about the different ways to construct the ending to a book or story that will have a sequel. Robin Hobb succeeds in crafting endings that leave this reader, at least, almost physically desperate to read the next instalment. In Bloody Jack, Meyer crafted an ending that left me wondering and imagining for quite literally years what might have happened next, but which tied up a distinct stage in his main character’s life, and thus felt complete in and of itself. Both are totally valid results, but I think both require a quite different approach to plotting the preceding chapters and the series as a whole. Certainly something to think on.