The Thin Places – Dark Tales short story competition success

For a while now I’ve been fascinated by the idea of time slips: those places where, some say, it is possible to step from one time or plane of existence, to another. It’s not so much that I believe it really happens (although, to be fair, I won’t completely discount anything science hasn’t yet disproved) but more the possibility, the what ifs of the idea.

There’s a street in Liverpool city centre, Bold Street, which has long been associated with time slips. Most of them concern contemporary individuals who reportedly found themselves whisked back to the 1960s. I’ve spent a lot of time on Bold Street over the years but, sadly, have no tale of my own to tell. Nevertheless, I’ve searched out all the accounts I can find to read and reread. I also found one about a policeman, in New Brighton, on the other side of the Mersey, who apparently experienced a time slip in the other direction: into the hostile environment of some cataclysmic event. It was after reading this that a story seeded itself in my mind.

Not far from Bold Street is what was once a large Anglican parish church, St Luke’s. Bombed in the Luftwaffe raids of spring 1941, it was reduced to a roofless, windowless shell. After the war, Liverpool City Council proposed demolishing the remains to make way for a ring road. Thankfully, this idea got nowhere and the grounds of the ruined church were developed into a peace garden. In later years, the ruin has become a centre for all kinds of community events. It is also now protected as a designated Grade II* listed building in the National Heritage List for England. However, given the rapacious nature of local politics in Liverpool for much of the latter half of the twentieth century, this could so easily not have been the outcome – and this gave me another element for my story.

I shrank the church, moved it downhill from its actual location and imagined what might have happened to it had it not been preserved after the war. Then I added a couple of characters – young girls in their late primary school years – and let them get on with it. The result is called “The Thin Places”, and it won the monthly competition at Dark Tales for March 2018. You can read it here for a limited period of time. Subsequently, I believe it will be appearing in an e-anthology.

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Loose Muse Winchester – Anthology

It’s a bit of cliche to say that writing is a solitary, often lonely occupation. And yet, the stereotypical banality of the phrase cannot hide the truth: most of us who write do so in semi-secret, snatching part of a lunch break on one day, forgoing several hours of sleep on another, plotting novels when we’re walking the dog, and planning poems while we shiver on the touchlines of a child’s Saturday morning sports club. There is always, it seems, something else to do that’s more worthy of one’s time. Indeed, all the secrecy and shuffling of commitments can make it easy to forget that writing is also something to be celebrated and shared.

This is not too difficult if you have a book deal or you’re a widely-read journalist – but it can seem like ascending Everest on skis if you’re anybody else. Fortunately, this is where events like Loose Muse can help.

The original Loose Muse, established by poet Agnes Meadows, is a London-based event, held at the Poetry Cafe. London’s only regular event for women writers, it still runs according to its original format: two women writers have 15-20 minutes to read from, and discuss, their work, and the rest of the time is devoted to an open mic session for audience members.

In 2015, Agnes asked poet Sue Wrinch to set up a Winchester branch of Loose Muse – and it’s thrived. Around two dozen regulars and many more occasional visitors have enjoyed readings by the likes of poets Liz Berry, Sarah Howe, Jo Bell, Helen Mort, Tania Hershman and Kim Moore, and authors Claire Fuller, Sarah Mussi and Claire Dyer.  The open mic is also always extremely popular. One of the best things about it is seeing all sorts of people grow in confidence as they share their work – poetry, flash fiction and, if time allows, the occasional short story – with the audience. It’s friendly, supportive and, if the cafe’s open, there’s even wine to help wash away any lingering nerves.

Sue has now taken Loose Muse Winchester to the next stage with the publication of an anthology featuring poems from many of those who’ve read in the open mic over the last three years. Supported by Winchester City Council, and edited by Sue and poet Abegail Morley, the anthology is a joy – and I’m very proud to have three of my favourite poems in it: In Birkenhead Park, Panthera Pardus and Moonwalk. In Birkenhead Park also features on Abegail Morley’s The Poetry Shed.

We celebrated the launch last night with champagne and readings. The anthology is available to buy from Sue at Loose Muse events. It’s also on sale at Winchester’s own independent bookstore, P&G Wells, and will be for sale at the forthcoming Winchester Poetry Festival.

100 voices for 100 years – my story

 

When I was eight, back in the eighties, women’s suffrage barely registered on my horizon. (I’m confident it wouldn’t have been a complete unknown, thanks to an avowedly feminist mother, who had me doing a school project on the Pankhursts before I was ten…..) However, one significant event in my life – being “matched” with my first and longest-lasting penpal – was indeed eventually to tie in with what is now the 100th anniversary of (some) British women receiving the right to vote.

Some would say that even in twenty-first century Britain, we still have some way to go. The gender pay gap, only now being raised to real public visibility as a consequence of new company reporting requirements, and the #MeToo movement are just two contemporary examples. Moreover, women still lack the visibility that is accorded to men almost as a birthright. All too frequently relegated to supporting (or sexual partner) roles in Hollywood films or forcibly retired from prime time television slots when male contemporaries are not, we are apparently supposed to find solace in our literary representation by male authors and rejoice as our small daughters are showered in unicorns, rainbow and glitter.

It was to address the dual goals of marking the centenary of women’s partial enfranchisement and raising the visibility of some of today’s women and girls that Miranda, a writer and performer from Hackney, set up 100 voices for 100 years. Over 100 days, 100 women share a short story from their lives. The stories are recorded orally, and listeners can hear a new one every day. (Transcripts are also available.)

My story – A Future in Mid-Flight – is here. It’s about that early and very dear friendship. For fifteen years, my friend and I wrote to each other, growing up together through our shared words, laughing, crying, planning and hoping together – and then she was gone. She’s now been gone for longer than I knew her; soon she’ll have been gone for longer than she was alive. I still have her words, though, and they’ve spurred me on. I hope they don’t stop until I do.

A writing retreat to West Bay with Retreat West

I didn’t get as much of my own writing done last year as I wanted. Instead, I was focused on building up my freelance writing business. And it was pretty successful, all things considered. The work now more or less falls into one of two categories: travel and legal, which makes planning my working life, and pitching for new jobs, much easier.

The legal work stems from my previous professional career and I enjoy it very much – far more than I could have imagined I would after I left my City job. It gives me an intellectual focus, tangible results that are not always forthcoming from creative pursuits, and the income necessary to help support the rest of my writing. Meanwhile, the bulk of the travel work is for airlines: yes, if you pick up one of those travel brochures from your seat pocket, you may find an article written by me. I apologise if your impression of the destination does not match with mine but, in case you’re wondering, I do try to stick to places I have personal experience of visiting. Writing about them is the next best thing to going there again.

However, towards the end of last year I had the chance to visit somewhere new, thanks to the lovely Amanda Saint and Retreat West. As I explained in my last blog post, my first completed short story in over a year won the Writers & Artists / Retreat West short story competition. Frankly, winning would have been reward enough but I was lucky enough to receive a four night writing retreat in beautiful West Bay, on the end of Dorset’s Chesil Beach, as a prize. And, although I live in a neighbouring county, Dorset is largely an unexplored mystery to me.

West Bay

Amanda founded Retreat West in 2012. Writing retreats are only part of what this fabulous organisation does but what a part they are! I had no idea what to expect – only ever having looked longingly at the promotional material for writers’ retreats in much the same way my husband does with the large televisions I tell him we don’t need – but I had plenty of time to ponder on the drive down.

The 70 miles between my home and West Bay took three hours to traverse late on a Friday afternoon. (My husband was right on that one.) And it was the sort of drive where there was two miles of single carriage A road followed by a roundabout. Not relaxing – and even with a satnav I may have made the odd error in my choice of exits at one or two of the roundabouts. However, there was a glorious sunset that felt only a little like driving into a witch’s cauldron and, when I arrived, there was a glass of wine and a room full of writers.

Who could fail to be inspired when sitting here?

The theme of the retreat was “Plotting”. There were three workshops, each three hours long. The first was run by Richard Skinner of the Faber Academy, and Amanda herself took the other two. Now, I have an MA in creative writing – and while I know some would say that qualifies me not to be a novelist, it also means I have a pretty good overview of what is currently perceived as how to write well. There’s a lot of hoo-hah about the pros and cons of creative writing MAs, which I don’t want to get into because I enjoyed mine immensely and don’t regret it one little bit. What I will say, though, is that, in my view, no course can tell you what to write. Of course it can tell you if something is commercial, hackneyed, unfashionable or whatever but it can’t give you the ideas in the first place or, indeed, the words, turns of phrases and sentence construction to make those ideas come alive. And, until my retreat to Dorset, I was also doubtful whether you could be taught how to plot.

A very specific sub-category of literary fiction aside, most novels live or die by their plot. Saggy middles, peculiar story arcs, plot holes, stories that start in the wrong place or are told by the wrong people are just some of the problems that can be traced back to plot, or lack of. I learned this the hard way. One of the agents who read my first novel said it wasn’t pacey enough. After thinking about this, I realised she was right. I rewrote the book, for my own satisfaction rather than with any intention of continuing to try to publish it, and moved on to novel number 2. I wouldn’t say I plotted this second novel in advance (fundamentally I am someone who has to write my way into a story) but when it came to drafts 2, 3, 4 and 5, I plotted the hell out of that book. In retrospect, maybe I went a little too far.  At times, I suspect, the characters say and do things for the benefit of the plot.

         

I’ll return to book 2 eventually. For now, I’m around 30,000 words into book 3. It’s why I never rewrote book 1 because it takes one of that first novel’s characters, the one who ought to have been the protagonist, and tells her story. I do, more or less, know what happens to her, but even if I didn’t, I can see how the plotting strategies I learned with Retreat West would help. I now think of my story arc as a series of waves, some bigger than others. The pattern and frequency of the waves are critical: too many huge ones will engulf and drown the reader, but too calm a sea will lull them to sleep (or to another book). Whether this new understanding helps me write a better book, I don’t yet know but I do know I am finding the process easier and a little less like scouring out my own soul.

Oh, and for anyone who’s wondering: aside from writing, there are plenty of other things to one of Retreat West’s writing retreats. There’s the food for one and the company for another, both enjoyed during long convivial lunches, dinners and afternoons in the pub. Then there’s the scenery. Fundamental to Retreat West is the idea of spending time somewhere beautiful and peaceful. I only had to look out of the window in West Bay to appreciate that. Of course, I did more than look: I walked up cliffs, creeping as close to the edge as I dared in order to peer at quarrelsome seabirds, and wandered along the beach, kicking at the stones and wondering what my dogs would make of it all. Finally, in a detour on the way home, I stopped at Lyme Regis, the heart of the Jurassic Coast, to play at being Meryl Streep on the Cobb. And I’ll go back to it all – soon, I hope. In the meantime, I feel the ink flow in my veins again, and there’s little that could make me happier.

In case you were in any doubt that this is the Jurassic Coast – street lights in Lyme Regis

Pretty pastel beach huts – Lyme Regis

      

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Cabbages and Wreckers – Writers & Artists Retreat West competition success

Last summer, I took my children to an overgrown path on the Wirral Peninsula that I remember playing on at about their age. It’s choked with bushes and saplings that die before they’re very old due to the lack of light, and a small stream runs along it. Getting our feet wet and our arms scratched, we followed this path from its starting point at Thurstaston Country Park, along the cliffs and down towards the Dee estuary. Once upon a time, it was a smugglers’ path, used by local villagers to spirit away illicit booty that was brought up the Dee, away from the Customs’ checks at nearby Birkenhead and Liverpool. I’ve also heard stories of wreckers who operated along the Wirral coastline, lighting bonfires on cliffs and beaches to confuse ships heading to or from Liverpool Bay. Apparently the cliffs and sandstone bluffs in this part of the Wirral are riddled with the caves and passages once used by these men.

Ever since that summer visit, an idea for a story ticked away in my mind. Being possibly slightly over-preoccupied with the current novel, I didn’t do anything about it until I saw a short story competition being run by Bloomsbury’s Writers & Artists, in conjunction with Retreat West. The story could embrace any genre but it had to use a beach for its setting. Well – it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. I wrote and I submitted, and then, a few weeks later, was rather surprised to see my name and story title on the short list. I’m lucky enough to have been short listed in several competitions in the past but have never gone any further – until Tuesday, that is, when an email pinged onto my screen, briefly obscuring the guide to HR law for SMEs I was writing. My story, “Of Cabbages and Wreckers” had won.

You can read it here, along with the two excellent runner-up entries by Mark Mayes and Alexis Wolfe.

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Smugglers Path – hidden by the vegetation to the right of the boardwalk path. The child in red is standing where the path comes out onto Thurstaston Beach.

The Sun-drenched Elsewhere – Into the Jungle Book

Autumn is in the air and, rather than tidying up my garden, painting the newly rebuilt porch

or – ahem – concentrating on work, I’m thinking about warmer places and other, earlier times.

 

*

 

When the rice and paneer with peas are reduced to scraped-out dishes, Pradeep, still in his forest guide greens, appears. ‘May I?’ He gestures at an empty chair.
‘Please.’
Sitting, he drinks with relief from his bottle of beer. I don’t blame him. Although it’s evening, and already dark, the air is still thick and hot enough to feel like a mugging about to happen.
‘Would you like to see some photographs?’
It’s quite a selection: tiger, antelope, birds of all kinds, even dhole, the elusive Indian wild dog. He’s keen to talk about f stops, ISO levels and shutter speeds, but this is far too technical to be interesting when set against the oranges and blacks of a tiger’s coat, and the wary glint in a chital’s eye.
Once we’re finished exclaiming over the photographs, he brushes away an errant grain of rice, and places a slim manila folder on the table. There’s a reverence to his movements and, when I see what’s inside, I see why. 
These are pen-and-ink drawings, and executed with such skill that I half expect each animal to stir itself, stretch, and step out of the paper. I pause over one: a tiger half-submerged in water, her tail curling up into the air, and her face wrinkled as if in joy. 
‘Ah, yes, Neelam.’ Pradeep could be her fond uncle. ‘Maybe, tomorrow, we’ll see her.’
Tomorrow, when it arrives, is cool enough to require a jacket, and still dark enough to set me fretting about what may pass by, unseen. However, once through the park gates, the air has lightened to purply-grey, and I can make out the humped shape of some animal making for the tree-line. The shape is familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it. 
‘Sloth bear. Baloo,’ Pradeep says, and laughs.
Baloo. Of course. These sal and bamboo forests are where Kipling set his Jungle Book. How fitting it seems to sight one of his most important characters. 
Further inside the park, the forest closes around us. I imagine the rustling of the leaves and scraping of branches to be the trees talking to each other, perhaps warning of our arrival. Pradeep has no time for such fancies. He’s listening for the alarm calls of monkeys, or birds. 
But no warning is given. Around a corner, past some large trees (‘duck!’ someone calls, as the branches skid over our heads), and there she is: Neelam, identifiable by her very large white ear spots. Amber eyes watch us and, as I look at her, it’s like meeting someone I already know. Her mouth opens, pink and toothed, and she calls: a sort of grumbly roar. Not to us, but to some concealed, not-to-be-known other.
Later, I buy her pen-and-ink portrait. I’ve no idea if she’s still alive but I pass her every time I come down the stairs. I know I’m anthropomorphising, but I feel we know each other well. She’s become a friend.

Photographs © Louise Taylor

(Clockwise from top: Tigress with two of four cubs in Bandhavgargh National Park; large male tiger in Kanha National Park; Langur monkeys in Sariska National Park; female sambar deer in Sariska National Park)

Friday Fictioneers – After Dark

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to write anything in response to any of the Friday Fictioneers’ prompts, as posted by the unflagging Rochelle Wisoffs-Fields. I’ve written several pieces in my head but, sadly, they’ve got no further. Now – hooray! – I have.

The following picture is the prompt. My 100-word story follows. If you’d like to read other people’s stories or to have a go yourself, click here.

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogersondale-rogerson4

 

He booked us into the only hotel in town. It was too late to take the road up-country, he said.

We sat outside, nursing sundowners long after night’s violet-blackness had overwhelmed the sky. In front of us, a hole in the ground yawned even blacker. That’ll be a swimming pool, he said, when the tourists come – because they will.

I was glad the swimming pool and the tourists were still only a hope. Better to pretend no-one else knew about this place.

Your husband not mind you coming out here, he asked, slunking more gin into our emptying glasses.