Wednesday, 22 May 2019

THE END IS NIGH!

If you’ve reached the point where you’ve needed to consider how to end your piece of writing then congratulations are in order; you’ve nearly finished that labour of love which has taken hours, weeks or sometimes even years to complete. Yet this seemingly rewarding part of the process can actually cause no end of trouble for writers as they struggle to find a ‘fitting’ end which is worthy of themselves, the characters and the readers. Why do we struggle so? Put simply, we’re artists aren’t we, and that last flourish of the brush upon the canvas needs to invoke thought and admiration in equal measure. However, if we revive the ‘author is dead’ argument then we can never be certain what effect, if any, has been left on the reader and we certainly can’t control it once the work has been disseminated. It is actually a small grace given that the misinterpretation of a writer’s intentions would be hugely frustrating and their confidence or pride may be dented as a result.

Traditional novel endings are concerned with resolving problems arising from the plot. This was a common feature of novels in the Victorian period as they would restore order to the chaos within the plot, much to the satisfaction of the readers. If you have spent a long period of time reading about the characters involved in the world of a novel then it may be upsetting to learn that an innocent child is not restored to prosperity.

The physical form of a novel is also a giveaway as to when the story will end as the reader can anticipate this judging by how many pages are left. A short story, despite it also being limited in its physical form, is not hindered in the same way. A short story is capable of picking up and ending a story, without even reaching a conclusion, at any point it so desires. So, today, we will consider a piece of my own writing which I have made available alongside this week’s blog; if you’ve not read it yet then now is the time to do so before proceeding further.

Click HERE to read The Test.

Back already? I hope you’ve enjoyed the story but how do you feel about the main characters? Do you feel the story is resolved and, if so, why? If not, what threatens your belief in that? If the story was to continue beyond its ending, what do you think would happen? Consider once more the final paragraph below:

‘An hour passed. Adrian sat alone in the grey room staring at his laptop, broken, his hand on the mouse. His index finger resting gently on the left button. He looked outside, the sound of rain now falling against the window seemingly compounding his misery. He thought of the lost image of Angeline and how happy he felt standing on that balcony, a whole other world within his grasp. One simple click and he could have everything, one simple click and he could lose it all. Closing the laptop, for now, he got up to grab another coffee. There would be another test this afternoon.’

The first issue to be addressed is of course the moral dilemma; Adrian has resisted the urge to send the email which no doubt restores order for a lot of people who may have been uncomfortable reading the full story and as a result did not wish to see him successful in his pursuit of Rosie. He agonizes over the decision but it could be argued that this action – or lack thereof – was chosen to satisfy readers. This is, however, juxtaposed by the bookending of the ‘grey room’ and miserable scenes seen through the windows as Adrian returns to the same unhappy state we find him in at the beginning of the tale. If empathy for a lost love is viewed only as a lost lust then that may not stir too many feelings of sadness in a reader, but, when you compound his misery by the daughter he had envisaged then it is clear that the whole scenario potentially had much deeper, intimate and genuine feelings associated with it.

There is a ‘whole other world within his grasp’. The whole other world does in fact refer to the dream sequence he has about his life with Rosie and Angeline, and acts as a macrocosm of his whole world which is encapsulated within the microcosm of these two girls. The dream sequence, if you do decide that is what it is, adds yet another layer. The vision Adrian has is perhaps a premonition much like Ebeneezer Scrooge's: an understanding that he has his fate in his own hands. The vision of a couple very much in love, a family even, challenges the closely held belief that Adrian’s actions in making the initial contact with Rosie are immoral. The sequence provides a premature ending to the story prior to the actual ending even though a time-shift has taken place, this provides the reader with an opportunity to choose for themselves how the story is resolved after Adrian closes his laptop. After all, the ‘whole other world’ is ‘within his grasp’, and one click of the mouse resting underneath that hand is all it will take to turn the fantasy into a reality. The hand that closes the laptop is still the hand that can open it once he returns for the afternoon session and send the email. And yet, there is still the test this afternoon. This is once again ambiguous as it could be a test of another group of candidates or a test of his own resolve. Even so, if the reader so chooses, it could be read as Adrian faces a similar ‘test’ every time he meets a new group of exam candidates and that he is the poor quality of character initially thought to be.

Ultimately, it is all for you as the reader to decide. As a writer I know what I intend for the characters but it is much more fun to offer something – an experience – to you. You may find your early impressions from the text shape your desired outcome, or it may be that your personal life experiences contribute somewhat to how you read and resolve the ending. Either way, a ‘whole other world’ of fiction was within my grasp and the only way to produce it as something to be shared was to begin the process of writing. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the short story and found this week’s blog intriguing.

Please feel free to post your own stories below. Happy writing!

A blog by Steve Marshall

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Resources / further reading:

Lodge, D. (2011) The Art of Fiction. London: Vintage. Pp. 3-8.
Marshall, S. (2019) The Test. Unpublished.
Mullan, J. (2006) How Novels Work. This edition published 2008. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 9-39.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

SYMBOLISM

Yet it was watching him, with its beautiful marred face and its cruel smile. Its bright hair gleamed in the early sunlight. Its blue eyes met his own. A sense of infinite pity, not for himself, but for the painted image of himself, came over him. It had altered already, and would alter more. Its gold would wither into grey. Its red and white roses would die. For every sin that he committed, a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness. 
 (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891, p. 89.)

The ‘it’ being referred to in the extract above is the portrait of Dorian Gray. It is of course referred to in the title and is hugely significant throughout the novel as the supernatural element upon which the plot hinges. Yet it remains that the painting means much more than that, it is a symbol utilised by Wilde for much of what he wanted to say. For those who have not read the novel, it is full of value in an aesthetic nature. If Wilde was against ‘art for arts sake’ then a painting of an individual, particularly one which is celebrating the artist at having excelled in his occupation, was a natural choice.
This work receives special praise, despite the painter not having taken any new approach. The acclaim is due to the image of Dorian, a subject of such beauty that it is tantamount to artistic inspiration. After being blessed or cursed the painting then begins to bear the marks of Dorian’s age not to mention the scars caused by his sins. The painting becomes a symbol of his conscience, hidden away from the world in a locked room high up in the building; the same could be said of his mental state, motivations and the truth behind his actions which are located solely within his own mind.

As the ‘blue eyes meet his own’ it could be that the painting / conscience acts as a mirror too. Many writers like to use their writing to hold a mirror up to society and in this sense it could be that Wilde is offering a criticism of the aesthetic nature of upper classes as being no better than other classes; that true beauty is located within the soul and the pursuit of betterment in every way possible, not just by the way of physical beauty or academic achievement. Finally, it may also offer a similar criticism to Roland Barthes in that the author is dead and that a text is autonomous. In the novel, the painting continues to change long after Basil has finished his masterpiece and continues to change further still even after his actual death. From a biographical standpoint, this may mean that Wilde was already preparing a defence for the arguments or, in this case, the evidence that was to be levelled against him in court.


Whether or not you agree with my own theories or have more of your own to offer is not of importance, what is undeniable is that the novel employs symbolism in the form of the painting. John Mullan suggests ‘Symbolism in a novel is risky because it presses meaning on the reader. It gestures beyond events to their greater significance, detecting what is essential or eternal in the particular’ (2006, 295). It can be a particularly effective tool adding more layers to the text as in the case above but only if their meaning is translated by the reader. Generally speaking, ‘you can spot the symbols because the characters themselves draw attention to them’ (Mullan, 2006, 295).


An example from contemporary literature can be taken in the form of a hair band in Chris Kinsey’s upcoming novel A Dish Best Served Cold? Before the lovers Sonny and Rhian part for what could be the last time, she ‘slipped a hair band onto his wrist, to leave something of her with him’ (2019, 122-3). This was touching yet subtle and was not too overt or crude in its placement at this stage of the novel. Unsurprisingly, but pleasingly, the hair band reappears later in the novel. Sonny visits his beau in hospital after she has been attacked by the very person hunting him down. As she was in a coma, Sonny needed to let her know that he'd been to visit her before trying to put an end to matters once and for all. How did he do this? Well, of course, ‘he took the hair band from his wrist and looped it twice around the wedding finger’ (2018, 152). David Lodge summarises symbolism neatly by stating ‘If a metaphor or simile consists of comparing A to B, a literary symbol is a B that suggests an A, or a number of A’s' (2011, 139). An inanimate object – in this case the hair band was present at the moment they both lost their virginity becoming a reminder of that tender memory, a commitment to each other and a promise of a future together. Furthermore, hair bands stretch until both ends are further away from each other but through their strength and resistance are able to return to their previous state. The word commitment here is also particularly important as it is Sonny’s commitment to his task, his education and his partner that ultimately sees him succeed over the course of the novel.

In the process of writing your short story, poem or novel try to spare some time to think about important symbols which would be relevant to the text. A relationship can be captured by an item shared between the couple, a memory can be captured by a photograph, a traumatic event can be evidenced with a scar. However, what really makes symbolism work is the journey or transition that the symbol itself makes throughout the plot. Taking the scar as an example, it could have originally been a reminder of a past event which prevents the protagonist from taking risks and is eventually corrected with cosmetic surgery and skin grafts. Later on, as their character and resolve becomes stronger, it could be that it becomes a symbol of strength and bravery and the individual then risks repeating the injury, or worse, in the climax of the plot. Think about the journey your main characters or antagonists are going on and explore some examples which highlight, mirror and compliment these arcs.
 

Happy writing and as always, if you have any questions we are here to help!
A blog by Steve Marshall

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Resources / further reading:

Kinsey, C. (2019) A Dish Best Served Cold? Cardiff: Candy Jar Books.
Lodge, D. (2011) The Art of Fiction. London: Vintage. Pp. 3-8.
Mullan, J. (2006) How Novels Work. This edition published 2008. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 9-39.
Wilde, O. (1891) The Picture of Dorian Gray. This edition published 2003. London: Penguin Classics.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

THE BEGINNING

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God,’ or so it seems according to John 1:1 of the King James Bible. If you were to read Genesis it states: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ Now, I am not a religious person but, nevertheless, this seems slightly contradictory to me. What actually came first, the Word or the creation of heaven and Earth? Does it depend on which text was produced first? I’m no doubt aware that the argument would be that God is the Word so therefore the creative acts by God constitute ‘the beginning’, but this still does not account for the fact that the first word is in fact ‘In’. Although, maybe I’m being pedantic...

Maybe another way of considering the beginning of a text is to think about it in terms of a slightly different question, such as when does your holiday begin? Is it the moment you get to wave your all-inclusive wristband at a bartender to order that first ice-cold San Miguel? Is it the instant you feel the jets roar as you begin take-off? Maybe it is when your suitcases are clamped shut, the daily ritual of the countdown each day in work, the final payment for the holiday? Go even further back and the adventure could begin when you book it, earlier still when you flick through the sun-kissed images of the brochures or even the conversation when you decide you need a holiday. Further still, it may be a holiday you’ve dreamed of for years ever since Dave and Sue (from next door, they’re always bloody going away) returned from theirs and couldn’t wait to show off their tans. The point here is that a journey of any sort whether it be taking a holiday or indeed writing a book has a starting point and it is certainly occurring before your pen reaches the paper.

So, what of the beginning of a novel? What is it that a writer must do to ensure that the reader stays the course? Numerous challenges are presented to readers which can be problematic as writers are unable to discern the literary ability of their readership. Readers are already presented with lots of new information regarding names of characters, social circles, family, personality traits (some of which are hidden); they also have the problem with getting used to a writer’s chosen style. As David Lodge argues: ‘However one defines it, the beginning of a novel is a threshold, separating the real world we inhabit from the world the novelist has imagined. It should therefore, as the phrase goes, “draw us in” '(2011, 4-5). Depending on the reader this may only allow for their interest to be maintained across the opening few chapters while some may read the first page before returning it to the book to the shelf.

Some writers are able to summarise a key theme within the first sentence alone. Jane Austen’s opening sentence to Pride and Prejudice (1813) begins: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’ (p. 5). The issues of women’s purpose in society at the time coupled with the popular institution of marriage, not least the desire for it, meant that this single sentence captured the tensions of all the events which followed thereafter. Presented as a statement, it also points out, rather ironically, that this is a truth as opposed to a socially constructed convention. Another example, cited in John Mullan’s How Novels Work (2006), reviews the example provided by George Orwell in Nineteen Eight-Four (1949) which is: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Mullan observes that ‘The statement is made as if it were natural and already we are made to inhabit the logic of dystopia’ (2008, 36). 
Such succinct sentences may not be appropriate for use in every novel, but a few lines or sometimes even the first page can provide guidance to the reader for what lies ahead. Read the opening paragraph to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1849, 33):

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’ name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

The first three words present a simple statement: ‘Marley was dead’. This is, after all, a ghost story so the reader is given the identity of the first ghost that they will later be introduced to. It is presented as fact, having been witnessed and signed to by a number of people who would have overseen the funeral, Scrooge himself was there to witness his old friend lying in the coffin. He was, as Dickens re-emphasises, ‘dead as a door-nail’. So why would a writer go to such lengths to insist on making this point? As the well-known story goes, this is a tale of the supernatural so Dickens was preparing his audience to set aside their grip of reality and lend their imagination to the story which lay in wait. Dickens, later on the same page, even overtly makes this point: ‘There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.’ He wants the readers to embark on the journey and suspend their beliefs. A secondary theory may be because Victorian society could have been shocked or outraged as they were at other Gothic tales; by reiterating the fact that it was simply a story – of community and goodwill – he not only represents the supernatural as entertainment but he is also able to continue offering a critique on the plight of the unfortunates living in London at such a time of festivity.

The essence of characters can also be captured in these opening lines. One good example is of the laissez-faire attitude of the – sort of – self-titled character in Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009) as if he couldn’t even be bothered to think of an original name, very clever indeed. The attitude of the character Jeff, who is a writer himself, is humorous and engaging from the beginning, but he is tired of writing about mundane topics and things which he does not find interesting. This defeatist and frustrated monologue is embodied by a single line he types out on an email to his editor and it simply reads: ‘I just can’t do this shit any more. Yrs J.A.’ Yes, he couldn’t even be bothered typing it out fully such was his contempt for the piece of writing which he had been commissioned to do. Furthermore, after mulling over whether to send it, he then deletes the draft and goes for a walk! This attitude towards other people and situations he finds himself in is consistent throughout the novel unless he finds something intriguing or exciting but, as a reader, you cannot help but appreciate that you’re reading about a writer who is writing about writer who doesn’t want to write. Alright?

Now that we’re past that tongue-twister we can have a look at the last example from Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall (2013) which focuses on narrative. I’ll review narratives properly another time but this example is certainly worth a look as it’s one I’ve always remembered, the opening lines read: ‘I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I’m not. So when it was my turn to cover my eyes and count to a hundred – I cheated’ (2013, 1). Does this first person self-evaluation mean that he is not a nice person? Not necessarily, but you would be led to believe that this is indeed the case. It’s also somewhat comically that the example he drew upon is cheating in hide and seek. What is important though is the reliability of the narrator and these opening sentences are for the reader’s attention so that they can think about these things as they move forward. Without wishing to spoil too much of the story I believe that these statements he makes are in fact true – to him – but his mental state is not one which can determine accurate events from his youth. He believes these things and relays them faithfully but that does not necessarily mean they are true. You’ll have to read the novel to find out more.

As a reader myself I once recall attempting We Need to Talk About Kevin (203) by Lionel Shriver and being blown away by a saturation of elevated language. My initial experience was not one that flowed so I was unable to get caught up in the text until a good four or five chapters in. The vocabulary was challenging so ‘Google define’ was my best friend, the epistolary to an absent reader was as yet unappreciated and I had not been able to warm to the narrator. I’m sure these challenges will come around again in future when I attempt a new author but - and I’m not ashamed to say it - I could have put the book down. I didn’t. It turned out to be one of my favourite of all time and I have recently found it in a classroom being taught to A level students which pleases me. How close was I to missing out on such an experience though?

The journey of every multi-selling novel out there is the same; in the beginning they start with just one reader: you. You are the words and, while you may not necessarily create them, you breathe life into them and create something in the process.

Happy writing.

A blog by Steve Marshall

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Resources / further reading:

Austen, J. (1813) Pride and Prejudice. This edition published 2003. London: Penguin Classics.
Dickens, C. (1843) ‘A Christmas Carol’ in A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings. This edition published 2003. London: Penguin Classics. Pp. 27-118.
Dyer, G. (2009) Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. This edition published 2015. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
Filer, N. (2013) The Shock of The Fall. This edition published 2014. London: The Borough Press. 
Lodge, D. (2011) The Art of Fiction. London: Vintage. Pp. 3-8.
Mullan, J. (2006) How Novels Work. This edition published 2008. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 9-39.
Shriver, L. (2003) We Need to Talk About Kevin. This edition published 2011. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

WHERE DOES A STORY BEGIN?

So far we’ve identified how to create a productive and supportive writing environment. We’ve also met the challenge of what to write about by utilising our often neglected experiences to help inspire our writing and call forth minute details from our lives which may be of benefit to the story in progress. Our final look at this little trilogy of complaints from students will focus on ‘where’ to start their story.


The word ‘where’ in this question can be interpreted in a number of ways: a physical place, a setting for the story and how to structure a story. In looking at the first problem we can consider the writing environments discussed in the blog two weeks prior. We may also look beyond that to the planning for writing, so exactly where is our starting point? It may be the first time we put pen to paper, the planning for our writing environment, a brainstorm for a character, a story board for the action, bullet points of the spine of the story, an idea you had on  your way to work or maybe it all comes back to a life experience which after years of waiting leaps forth with a refreshing point of view on something unchallenged. This may have echo back to the question of when writing begins, to which I agree, but where do these activities take place? Mobile phones are capable of documenting notes and short lists while any device with access to Word will enable you to start the story, or planning of it, in any manner of places. A note pad is equally effective if you have a half hour break at work but – personally – the best time for me to do most of my thinking is when I’m driving. When I’m sat in traffic for two hours a day I can drift off for a few minutes at a time, high above the cars queueing bumper to bumper on the A470 and far away from the daily monotony of ‘rush-hour’. Once you’ve reached your destination you can document any important notes on your phone to revisit at a time that suits you. With the technology that’s now available writer’s need not be chained to a desk or lock themselves away in a room of one’s own. Thinking about your writing, particularly in the early stages of development, can take place wherever you have freedom of thought.

The second and slightly more pertinent element of this question is where to stage the story. This comes down to one simple equation as to how much research you will need to engage with in order to be successful. If you grew up or lived in the place where you wish to set your story then you can draw from your own experiences (see last week’s blog) to add detail to the setting thus enhancing the reading experience for the reader. You may still wish to take photographs of the area and research some of the history but it will still be benefitting from your touch of warmth – or negativity  which accompanies each description. 

Another important consideration to account for is whether the chosen setting is relevant to the theme of your story. Notable examples from the past include the use of Venice for Othello, the Yorkshire Moors for Wuthering Heights and London for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The ‘where’ in this context means that the chosen setting should embody characteristics of the main protagonist or antagonist, or should emphasize key themes or sub-plots of the story. A shadowy tale of people not being true to themselves or others, holding secret meetings in dark alleys alongside some particular virtue being gradually worn away until it is sunken without trace, would certainly play out better in Venice than it would in – for argument’s sake – Marseille.

The final ‘where’ is concerned with how to structure a story and there are a variety of points which can introduce your reader to the action. Biographical or autobiographical novels generally start at the beginning of the main characters life or certainly pick up from their formative years. Other novels really can introduce the reader at any point the author wishes; novels such as Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary and Nathan Filer’s The Shock of The Fall focus very heavily on the main protagonist and open by subtly introducing the reader to some of the character’s main flaws through an introduction from the character themselves, often at a low point of embarrassment or tragedy. Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin starts its journey after the tragic events which hang ominously over any nature versus nurture debate carried out throughout the reading of this wonderful novel. Likewise, Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple both begin their narrative after the main event (e.g. murder / rape) have taken place. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a framing narrative which starts in the present day, Nelly Dean then relays the tale of the house and family’s history before returning once again to the present day. At this point I could reel off numerous examples of different author’s carefully chosen entry points to novels but it really does depend on what your story is and how you wish to tell it, basing your chosen structure on how best to relay the tale and which option would create the biggest effect on the reader. For example, a thriller may begin at a moment of high tension, just before the explosive ending, but may go back in time and relay the tale in a chronological order until it reaches, and then resolves, the mystery / tension from which it began. You’re the author so it is always your choice but you must at some point think of the effect on the reader.

At this point it is also useful to tie in any proposed storyline with a review of your character. As we have already discussed in an earlier blog, you can build your character from scratch and think about literally dozens of traits, such as their likes and dislikes, which will dictate their choices and provide a framework from which you can check for consistency as you move along. However, if you have decided upon your story and where it will begin you can work it in reverse order to shape your character. For example, if you had decided upon a failed bank robbery as the defining moment of your story then there are a number of questions you could think about in relation to your character: what has driven them to commit the crime, who they know who could assist them, the circles they move in, their experiences with weapons, what planted the seed of thought to do it, where else in their past they’ve displayed a failure to plan properly, and so on. You could continue asking yourself question after question and keep working it backwards until you find or create role models, shaping events and social circles which eventually lead your character to this moment. By building these layers you are – one would hope – left with a highly detailed background story filled with anecdotes or historical events which will also contribute to your novel or short story in their own way.

This blog, along with the two entries prior to it, were all pretty much the result of a number of conversations with students. As I write these blogs each week I always try to be flexible and embrace a wide range of questions or challenges that all new writers may face. I am now looking forward to returning to a little more technical analysis and will spend the next few weeks looking at a variety of approaches to the novel. Writing is a particularly individual endeavour so continue writing, continue challenging yourself and continue to have faith in your own ability. 

As always, please do feel free to leave any comments you have below. Happy writing!

A blog by Steve Marshall

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Wednesday, 17 April 2019

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, RIGHT?

Last week we discussed creating the right environment within which students can write creatively. I also documented two other concerns which students raised when faced with the challenge of writing creatively which was what to write about and where to start

What to write about is what I hope to address in this week’s blog. These concerns no doubt present themselves to writers across the spectrum of experience, but those who have been writing for a while have more experience in reading and writing which will aid them. The other big difference is that the more you write the more confident you will be at starting the process. For younger or less experienced writers the lack of reassurance and validation of their work can prevent them from committing to a task. As an advocate for various disciplines of English I always refer to reading as the key to unlocking or improving a variety of skills such as vocabulary, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Others may choose to disagree but what is without doubt is that reading - if coupled with proper analysis of literary techniques - can help students of writing to identify, mimic and even attempt to emulate a range of styles and approaches. Nevertheless, there are ways which we can help to get young writer’s brains whirring and their pens dancing across the page.

‘I don’t know what to write about.’ Not a problem. Let’s start with the basics which would be to write what you know. This could be a day at the seaside, a recent holiday or a concert that you attended. This is all well and good and if you were to ask a class to write about what they know the majority of the students would engage with the task, but simply reporting a series of events in detail would not get them thinking creatively, this is merely ‘reporting’. Maybe, in these circumstances, would be better to suggest the use of a sentence alongside their experiences, such as: ‘It all went horribly wrong when...’ or ‘But we had no idea what was just around the corner...’. The use of these sentences may generate creativity and prevent them from straying from a more factual path. You may still receive a few comments which state that they haven’t been on a day out, a holiday or to a concert so still have nothing to write about; in these instances I would suggest that they choose a destination or concert which they would like to visit or attend and write about that instead. Not only are these students actually thinking creatively about the task but if they need further support allow them to carry out research on their subject which is a valuable part of the process for creative writers. Some have lots of experiences to draw upon while others don’t – or claim they don’t – but I don’t see either as a problem. 

A further argument to ‘write what you know’ is provided by Nathan Englander, the critically acclaimed author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Englander says that “write what you know” is one of the best and most misunderstood pieces of advice, ever. It paralyzes aspiring authors into thinking that authenticity in fiction means thinly veiled autobiography. If you’re a drunken, brawling adventurer, like Hemingway, no problem. But Englander, who grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community of West Hempstead, New York, says he spent a lot of his childhood watching TV, playing videogames, and dreaming about being a writer. So if it doesn’t mean authenticity, what does the phrase mean? Englander goes on to suggest that what you know are in fact emotions. If you have felt love or loss, hatred or fear, or anything on life’s kaleidoscope of emotions then write about them and the readers will feel it. While I actually agree with this it still strikes me that the reader will be experiencing or sharing in something authentic unless these emotions are harnessed in order to produce something completely new.

Personally I think that everyone has a story to tell but this doesn’t mean that every person’s autobiography would be a thrilling read. What I do mean is that everyone has a number of life experiences which are unique to them and some of these have shaped the way that they have reflected on a particular event and their view of the wider world on an ongoing basis. Rather than write about ‘these’ places, people or scenarios they can simply provide the nucleus of an idea from which other stories can be told. If you’re writing about a night out in a foreign country it may be that you found your bar straight away but walked past an intriguing doorway from inside of which you could hear music thumping. For the purposes of your story you now suddenly recall these details as your character stumbles down some dark alleys in the vain pursuit of a particular person when upon locating them finds that they have entered this run-down underground club covered in graffiti with burly, somewhat sinister looking doormen outside, and yet when you got inside you quickly realised that this underground club was not one which welcomed you. It could be that you spent a night at a small gig and watched as one of the women in front of you was unable to take her eyes off the woman beside her. This observation can take on a life of its own as you imagine her ignored fixation as the woman beside her obliviously dances and talks to the woman standing in front of her. 

Rather than write about any of the things you actually witnessed in a matter of fact fashion, they may simply provide elements of your story. For example, you may recall details of the concert venue and use some of these features to create a setting for part of your story. The surroundings which you have witnessed first-hand then lend themselves to describing something in greater detail than you may perhaps have imagined. Equally, these same girls in front of you could inspire a whole new plot. The woman fixated on the other could be a psychopath or an old friend, or it could indeed be a scene of unrequited love. As always, these are simply random suggestions but the point I am making here is that small observations from real-life experiences can contribute to or help shape your story and characters.
 

If these glimpses of our past can contribute to the creation of stories then so too can TV programmes, inanimate objects and our general understanding of the world which we can thank our family, friends and enemies for. We all know someone ‘like that’ and we can all ‘remember when’ so let’s use every day we’ve had on this earth and create something new, something only you with your unique history and personality would be able to create. Rather than ‘write what you know’ maybe the phrase better employed for new creative writers is to ‘use what you know to inspire your writing’.

As always, happy writing!


A blog by Steve Marshall

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Resources:

Gots, J. (2012) ‘“Write what you know” – the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever.’ in Big Think. 1st March 2012. Accessed online at: https://bigthink.com/think-tank/write-what-you-know-nil-the-most-misunderstood-piece-of-good-advice-ever


Saturday, 13 April 2019

LUCY WILSON UP FOR SCRIBE AWARD!


Candy Jar Books is pleased to announce that The Lucy Wilson Mysteries: Curse of the Mirror Clowns by Chris Lynch has been nominated for the prestigious Scribe Awards.

The Scribe Awards, from the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, acknowledge and celebrate excellence in licensed tie-in novels and audio dramas based on TV shows, movies, and games.

The Lucy Wilson Mysteries is a licensed Doctor Who spin-off novel and features the granddaughter of the Doctor’s best friend, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Based in Ogmore-by-Sea these YA sci-fi books tackle prejudice against differences and promote diversity, self-confidence and acceptance for young people. 

Three books have already been published by Sue Hampton (Avatars of the Intelligence), Chris Lynch (Curse of the Mirror Clowns) and John Peel (The Midnight People), with two more on the way by Wink Taylor (The Bandril Invasion) and Tim Gambrell (The Brigadier and the Bledoe Cadets).

Curse of the Mirror Clowns by Cardiff-based film and comic writer Chris Lynch is fighting its corner against some of the biggest TV and film franchises in the world including Star Wars and Small Foot, as well the New York Times bestselling author, Jonathan Maberry. Chris says: “I was delighted to discover I’d been nominated for this award. I’m certainly in illustrious company! Hopefully my clowns are up to the challenge.”

Originally created by Shaun Russell and Andy Frankham-Allen, the first Lucy Wilson novel was brought to life by YA author Sue Hampton. Shaun says: “Sue’s instinct with the first book Avatars of the Intelligence was spot-on. She got the characters straight away and delivered a book reminiscent of the popular Sarah Jane Adventures, also based on Doctor Who.”

Sue really enjoyed working on the first book. She says: “Lucy is dauntless, loyal and whip-smart. She’s a modern girl with strong values and opinions, which means that she feels the injustices in the world even more strongly than most and always stands up for what’s right. I wish Chris good luck with the awards.”

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

CLASS ACT

The other day I found myself in a situation no doubt familiar to lots of tutors of creative writing who, when offering a group of students time to write something creative, was greeted with a chorus of ‘I don’t know what to write’. Rather than viewing this solely as a resistance to doing work or a lack of creativity I see it as a challenge to myself and as an opportunity to challenge them. So, what were their real concerns?

Firstly, the environment within which they were working – a secondary school – can, without making any apologies here, be more intimidating and less conducive to a supportive atmosphere giving genuine constructive feedback.

Secondly, students complained that they wouldn’t know what on earth to write about which, if you have read my very first blog, should not be a concern to anyone with any life experiences to call upon.

Finally, as some murmurs never made it to my ears, it was the difficulty of knowing where to start which made the task a little overwhelming. It is these very concerns along with the advice I gave them which I wish to reflect upon and I will tackle the first of these issues today.

The environment within which students produce writing and indeed share it is a pressing one. Students of literature and / or creative writing at A level or beyond will appreciate that sharing their creations with the rest of their group in order to obtain feedback is a valuable part of the process. The early days of creating the right environment to do this is a delicate process to manage so that nobody feels unable to share their work; this could be heavily influenced if the tutor sets class rules for feedback or sets the class the task of setting the ground rules themselves. Still, some pupils may be shy and may not wish to read their poetic lyrics aloud, so what then? A whole class approach could possibly be broken down into smaller groups or even, if it is the best way to build confidence, separating everyone into pairs which may seem less threatening. Yet another approach could be to set up a space within which students can upload their work and then students – if individual accounts are created – can provide feedback while taking responsibility for their responses. Ultimately, it may take a few weeks of positive feedback from a tutor before someone is willing to accept that they do in fact have talent, so a further step for the initial weeks with a group of new students may be one to one feedback. However, always be aware that the writing produced may be deeply personal so while the individual has drawn upon a real experience to inspire their writing it may be that they are not quite ready to share it with a wider audience just yet.

Creating a space that allows people to write is also of the highest importance; light, heat and writing resources must all be available as must the ability to work in peace for any period. This does not necessarily mean peace and quiet as some writers may find working to music or background noise easier so this also needs to be carefully considered. Although the process of writing and learning to improve one’s writing is a collaborative effort, the act of writing is a particularly individual process so an appreciation that one size does not fit all is required.

If you are a student reading this then I implore you to continue writing and to start, or continue, sharing your work without fear. There are a great many ways that you can improve your writing.

The first of which is to read; read a lot but, most importantly, read a variety of authors and genres. The various skills and techniques that can be found in one author may be different from another, you must also appreciate that to subvert a text or  genre you must first understand it’s ‘rules’ and that will not happen without reading.

Secondly, you must challenge yourself to write in a variety of voices, tenses, narration styles and genres as the only way you will be able to reflect on these skills is by reviewing what you have actually produced. In addition to this, writing in a variety of styles will enable you to put into practice many techniques that you have identified in other authors and will allow some of the greater influences to flow through your own work in your own inimitable way.

Finally, share your work with others even if it only starts with friends and family before including your lecturer and classmates. A word of warning though: you are likely to hear ‘good’ and ‘nice’ quite a lot. Your peers and particularly your lecturer will have considerably more experience in reading and creative writing so will be able to provide much more valuable feedback with which you can revisit your first drafts.

Receiving criticism – no matter how constructive - is a painful experience and the more of your soul that reaches the page the more painful it is to hear that is not a ready-made best seller; however, if you want it to be then you need this feedback. Not everyone will appreciate your style and not every reader will understand the deeper meaning of your text, but if you want to publish in your career then at some stage you will have to declare that last edit as final and send it off for the scrutiny of publishers. You may be surprised that your peers and college or university staff are just as supportive and hungry for you to succeed as you are for them to enjoy that very same success.

Read, write and share. Happy writing!

A blog by Steve Marshall

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Wednesday, 3 April 2019

FROM THE MOUTHS OF BABES

‘Heil Hitler,’ he said, which, he presumed, was another way of saying, ‘Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon’ (2007, 54).

Wow. That’s a brave opening even for me and yet a nine year-old boy had no trouble at all in uttering this phrase. Why? Well, put simply, he had been brought up to believe that such a phrase and the salute which accompanies it was actually polite. The boy in question is young Bruno from a fantastic novel which I have only just got around to reading John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and, at the time of me writing this, the film was showing on Netflix as well. While the film has received praise from all quarters we are of course here to discuss literature… and the book is far better anyway. What did intrigue me about this book were the various techniques used to display childhood innocence, which is the topic of today's blog.

Having worked with children for a number of years as well as having a child of my own I am forever amazed by the way that they see the world before they are influenced and, just like in this book, it would put many of us to shame. As we have seen from the example already provided, imitation is one way that children try to learn new things and fit in with their peers or seek approval from their guardians. This places a huge responsibility on the person(s) guiding these young minds, but unfortunately this can lead to the transferal of bad habits as well as good habits.

‘Yes, but they’re different aren’t they?’ said Shmuel.
‘No one’s ever given me an armband,’ said Bruno.
‘But I never asked to wear one,’ said Shmuel.
‘All the same,’ said Bruno, ‘I think I’d quite like one. I don’t know which one I’d prefer though, your one of Father’s' (2007, 127).

If we look at the extract above, Bruno does not actually commit to whether he would prefer the Star of David or a swastika on his armband. The simple reason for this is because the influences upon this decision are equally great. It would be an assumption to guess which one he would choose but it is safe to say that he is probably drawn to both due to the fondness for the two people who wear them. Choosing one would mean risking disappointing the other party.
Before Bruno, or any child, commits to a decision he may decide to ask questions first:

‘Can I ask you something?’ he added after a moment.
‘Yes,’ said Shmuel.
Bruno thought about it. He wanted to phrase the question just right.
‘Why are there so many people on that side of the fence?’ he asked. ‘And what are you all doing there?’ (2007, 115).

There are many other reasons why children ask questions (and don’t stop) but that is to satisfy their quest for knowledge about a particular subject and to enhance their understanding of the world around them. As a reader, we see through Bruno’s eyes as he looks through his bedroom window catching his first glimpse of the concentration camp. An education in history and our own understanding of the world means that we immediately comprehend the environment in which he now inhabits and the one which he observes, but we are in a unique position compared to the young narrator. The world in which he has been brought up in means that he has no concept of segregation and children simply while away the hours playing games together. The fence itself is alien to him as are the striped pyjamas and many other differences he is discovering between himself and Shmuel, highlighted even more so by the fact that they share the same birthday which, to Bruno, means they are almost identical.

One of the reasons for this lack of comprehension is because children are often sheltered from the truth. This is usually done to protect them from the corruption and harsh reality of the world while coupled with a belief that children are incapable of processing the truth; in light of the topic we are discussing it may well be that children may have been able to highlight just how absurd and inhumane the displayed behaviours actually were. Boyne recognises this and plays on this, this is seen in one instance when Bruno decides to keep Shmuel a secret from his family: ‘Bruno was of the opinion that when it came to parents, and especially when it came to sisters, what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them’ (2007, 132). 

Boyne also plays with the children’s lack of comprehension in terms of the language that they employ. Both Bruno and Gretel refer to Auschwitz as ‘Out-with’ and the Fuhrer as ‘The Fury’. As young children learn language they often go through a stage of word replacement for anything they can’t quite pronounce but these examples bring remarkable connotations with them; 'Out-with' could easily be read as comparable to the Nazi’s attempt at culling those of the Jewish faith (amongst others) while ‘The Fury’ brings to mind words such as ‘rage’ or ‘anger’ rather than the literal translation of ‘leader’.

In addition to making sense of language, children make sense of their surroundings by supposing upon what is going on around them. This is not unique to children and examples can be found in literature of ancient civilisations attempting to seek meaning and reason in the events of nature. In The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey there are a number of narratives which explain the world around them as acts of the Gods, the Romans and Pagans also sought to rationale their environment by relating events to acts of deities. There are further examples to be found in modern society and literature as scientists seek to discover, evidence and explain anything which remains a mystery while writers, such as Mary Shelley, play on scientific discovery through their writing, and in Shelley's case her most famous novel: Frankenstein.  

In attempting to explain away Shmuel’s father’s absence, Bruno says: ‘I imagine the men were taken to work in another town and they have to stay there for a few days until the work is done. And the post isn’t very good here anyway. I expect he’ll turn up one day soon’ (2007, 195). This response between adults would be seen as a mature response to make the other person feel better or, at best, blind optimism, but this example – viewed through Bruno’s eyes  – is a genuine rationalisation of the circumstances presented.

If you are in any doubt as to the differences between an innocent narrative compared to a world-weary response then look no further than the following example. This extract is taken from Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest and occurs when a solider describes a truck-load of bodies being ferried past a new set of prisoners when, unfortunately, some parts become visible:

'He said that about half a dozen of them half flopped out over the railboard; he said that it made him imagine a crew of ghosts being sick over a ship’s side. With their arms swinging. Not just any old corpses either. Starveling corpses. Covered in shit, and filth, and rags, and gore, and wounds, and boils. Smashed-up, forty-kilo corpses’ (2015, 37).

It doesn’t leave much to the imagination does it? Yet no-one questions it. Who were those people? Why are they dead? What will happen to them now? Are they dead? Will they go to hospital? The prisoners who witnessed this certainly knew what this scene meant for them which is why panic ensued.

The reason I have brought up this topic is to highlight that innocence is an equally powerful way of highlighting ignorance and horror. The graphic depiction above is most certainly effective but I would like you to consider the stories you are writing once more and consider these questions:

  • Are there characters who would inhabit these spaces who would have a completely different view of events than the one your narrator is sharing? 
  • If so, what would their understanding of events be and does that add anything to the text? 
  • Is it consistent with any of your themes to have an innocent yet unreliable narrator? 

These are all important things to think about, but I would suggest re-writing one scene from a short story or novel that you’ve produced through the eyes of someone slightly removed from the social sphere, level of intelligence or rank of the setting or characters in which it is taking place. Otherwise, simply read The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and see if that inspires you.  

Don't forget, we are all trying to make sense of the world around us. Happy writing!

A blog by Steve Marshall

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Further reading:

Amis, M. (2015) The Zone of Interest. London: Vintage.
Boyne, J. (2007) The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. London: Definitions.
Lodge, D. (1992) The Art of Fiction. London: Penguin Books.
Mullan, J. (2006) How Novels Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sebald, W.G. (2011) Austerlitz. London: Penguin Books.

Monday, 25 March 2019

STRONG FEMALE VOICES AT THE COMIC GURU: MEET THE AUTHORS!


Candy Jar Book shelf at The Comic Guru
As we approach the end of this turbulent decade strong female characters have begun to take centre stage across all film, comics and TV drama, most especially sci-fi. Both DC and Marvel have had enormous successes with Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel respectively.

One such organisation to embrace this change is the Comic Guru, now located in the Queen Street arcade.

And to celebrate this, the Comic Guru is partnering with another staple of Cardiff’s sci-fi scene, award-winning independent publisher Candy Jar Books.

To coincide with the recent release of Captain Marvel, the first woman-led instalment in Marvel’s cinematic universe, the Comic Guru is hosting its first collaborative event with Candy Jar, an author meet and greet showcasing just a few of Candy Jar’s strong female authors. Fans will get a chance to meet Alyson Leeds, an author from the Doctor Who spin-off Lethbridge-Stewart series, as well as children’s sci-fi authors Cherry Cobb and Michelle Briscombe.

Owner of the Comic Guru, Kristian Barry, says: “Both the DC and Marvel comic and film franchises have been at the catalyst of change. They have always embraced diversity and championed equal rights. Captain Marvel shows that women can be superheroes too. At the Comic Guru we want to celebrate this, and with Mother’s Day coming up we thought it was an ideal opportunity.”

Candy Jar’s range of titles spans everything from children’s fiction to war memoirs. It is perhaps best known, however, for its Lethbridge-Stewart series, a fully licensed collection of novels about the adventures of the classic Doctor Who character Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. As one of the only non-BBC official Doctor Who products out there, the series has attracted an international readership, and it is currently in its sixth series.

Michelle Briscombe’s novel, The House on March Lane, contains two brave female protagonists, one from the modern day and the other from the Victorian era. Both characters are free thinkers and despite being separated by one hundred years they become unlikely friends.


Cherry Cobb, author of Will’s War, a book about a boy who time travels back to World War Two London, focuses mainly on male characters. Cherry says: ”My dad was eleven when he was evacuated from Plymouth. He often used to tell me stories about how they lived and I think this is why it felt more natural to me to write about the experience of a boy. Although Will’s War has a lot of male characters, I did not aim it at boys, but as something to be enjoyed by everyone.”


Shaun Russell continues: “We’re proud of the stand sci-fi has been taking recently. We’ve tried to make our statement with our authors, as well as our Lethbridge-Stewart spinoff, The Lucy Wilson Mysteries. Sci-fi is for everyone, boys and girls, and this event has something for the whole family. Not to mention, as it takes place the day before Mother’s Day, it might be just be the perfect opportunity to pick up a last minute gift.”

Publishing Co-ordinator, Keren Williams, elaborates: “Alongside author meet and greets, there will be a chance to get your hands on some free books, and if you are interested in becoming an author yourself, Candy Jar’s team will be available to chat throughout the day.”

And just for balance, Terry Cooper, author of the sci-fi comedy Kangazang! Small Cosmos, and director of the Welsh independent film, Offworld, will also be signing at the Comic Guru. He says: “I have two daughters myself and do recognise the importance of strong role models for girls. Despite my book being a laddish adventure story, it is the female character that ultimately saves the day. Equally in Offworld it is the female spaceship Captain that takes centre stage in my story.”


Kristian Barry continues: “I’m really looking forward to welcoming this group of talented authors into my shop, it is sure to be a stupendous start to many more Comic Guru events.”


The event will take place on March the 30th beginning at eleven o’clock through to four thirty.
www.candyjarbooks.co.uk
For more information, please contact keren@candyjarbooks.co.uk

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

THINKING ABOUT FOOD


‘Look at our apples
Russet and dun,
Bob at our cherries,
Bite at our peaches,
Citrons and dates,
Grapes for the asking,
Pears red with basking
Out in the sun,
Plums on their twigs;
Pluck them and suck them, Pomegranates, figs.’
(Excerpt from Goblin Market, L 352-61)

Are you salivating yet? An abundance of fruit just inviting you to have a taste. Last week I gave you food for thought as we considered how, in writing, the act of eating can reflect status or social interactions. I now want us to think about food some more, focusing in particular on some of the figurative associations of eating.

Close read the extract above. What are you first thoughts? To suck, to lick; even saying these word aloud can engage your tongue and ignite your mind. What about the shapes of the fruits themselves, each bearing a resemblance to parts of the body? The goblins who are attempting to entice Laura to taste their goods are like the sirens who lure sailors to their doom.

Paying heed to Rossetti’s religious background, we can also read the poem as a fable of sorts. If we see the fruit which the goblins are trying so hard to sell as ‘forbidden fruit’, the goblins themselves as a snake and Laura as Eve, we are transported into the Garden of Eden. Laura ‘sucked and sucked and sucked the more / Fruits which that unknown orchard bore’ (L 134-5); could this passage in itself be referring to the tree of knowledge? Inferences could be made about the poem serving as a warning to women not to engage in sexual acts with men: sexual knowledge will bring their downfall.

There are many other explorations of the figurative significance of eating in literature. To take Bram Stoker’s Dracula as an example: there are many readings which centre around the act of the vampire feeding off of others. These readings highlight patriarchy, phallogocentrism, the contemporary practice of using blood transfusions to reduce madness caused by bad blood, taboo subjects such as menstruation and, yet again, sex. Yes, the act of phallic shaped incisors piercing a woman can be interpreted as an act of penetration. Likewise, early in the novel, Jonathan Harker watches in a trance-like state as no less than three of the Count’s mistresses attempt to feed on him. There are many sexual references to ‘red lips’ and ‘voluptuousness’, and a description of one of the women ‘on her knees… [arching] her neck… lower and lower went her head… then the skin of my throat began to tingle’ (1897, 45). The whole feeding frenzy reads as a scene not unlike that found in a romance novel, and yet it is describing a female vampire feeding on a human male.


Through the sexualisation of female vampires and their degeneration to an almost animalistic state, it could be argued that links with sex and religion can again be found. Lucy’s state is altered from each transaction – as it were – making her less and less wholesome. Indeed, her transformation from a respectable woman into a heinous devil-incarnate could be viewed as a warning to women: if left to ‘survive’, she would eventually act like the aforementioned female vampires we have just discussed. After a stakeout at the tomb, Lucy is now described somewhat differently: ‘The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness’. (1897, 225).

At the time of writing it is rapidly approaching Valentine’s Day, when food becomes the language of love. Nigella Lawson has made a career out of sexualising food, so let’s give it a go ourselves. Treating the food allegorically, try describing the act of eating. Use verbs in the present tense to engage the reader’s senses. Employ alliteration to emphasise the ‘mouthfeel’ of your words, rolling them round on your tongue before giving life to them. The aim, of course, is for your reader to salivate at the thought of the images you’ve conjured, whetting their appetite to read on.
Any more for any more? Happy writing.


A blog by Steve Marshall

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Further reading:

Lodge, D. (1992) The Art of Fiction. London: Penguin Books.
Mullan, J. (2006) How Novels Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rossetti, C. (1995) ‘Goblin Market’ in Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti. London: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
Stoker, B. (2003) Dracula. First published 1897. London: Penguin Classics.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Food for thought or, rather, let’s think about food. What I mean is that we should think about how food can add something to your writing. It may be the case that you’ve read many passages about a splendid banquet, arguments at the dinner table or lunch in a small café as an inconspicuous meeting place, but have you given any thought as to why these scenes have been included within the writing? I’ve no wish to patronise experienced readers and writers but in order to think about how we can use food or the practice of eating in our writing it is important to consider how those before us have employed it. In today’s blog we will have a look at Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) alongside a new novel by Alistair Moore entitled The Release (2018). 

The first and probably most obvious link to make is that eating is a social behaviour. As much as we all like to sit down with our dinner in front of the TV from time to time there is still something satisfying about a cooked meal at a dinner table where everyone is together and sharing the experience. For those of us who rarely partake in this habit it is fair to say that Christmas Day is such an occasion when we might buck the trend, we may actually refrain from locking ourselves in a dark room all day with nothing but a mobile phone and Netflix to pass the time and leave that for the other 364 days of the year. On such an occasion we could be the tight-knit family unit so often portrayed in films and on TV or could even be like the Cratchit’s who, despite their poor fortune, all pulled together:‘The compound in the jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle’ (1843, 81-2). It is not a mad rush to the dinner table to get a larger portion of food than their sibling that is being displayed here, but food preparation as a social activity: ‘Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce’ (1843, 80). It's scenes like these throughout the novel that really show the reader who the Cratchit's are. Indeed, this was a family portrayed as one that worked hard for each other, appreciated their lot in life and enjoyed their modest pleasures together.

The same could be said in relation to the use of food in texts and negative social interactions. In witnessing the phenomenon that was Marley’s ghost, Scrooge was understandably quick to dismiss it as a trick of the mind but did so by arguing 'You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!' (1843, 45). In The Release, Moore dedicates an entire page to his character’s disdain for using the shared kitchen in his bedsit by rather poignantly opening the passage by comparing it to the feeling of trespassing (2018, 81). The café where Bennie prefers to eat and spend time is the setting for a number of scenes; at first it provides a certain anonymity but as he becomes part of the furniture he – uncomfortably at first – communicates more with them, he even avoids frequenting the establishment too much for fear ‘of losing those warm associations’ (2018, 82). On this occasion he visits a different place to eat and finds that the atmosphere is more intrusive, even though he was privy to more information he ‘tuned out of the conversation’ (2018, 84). The negative environment and the lack of social interaction in this instance went hand in hand. Likewise, Sanders – the father of the deceased – in struggling to describe the premature and tragic loss of a child turns to food to illustrate his point: 'You’re never the same again. Nothing’s the same,' he says. 'Even food tastes different to how it used to. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.' In this respect, a link has been made between food and memory but, moreover, memories which are linked to relationships and social interactions or the lack thereof.

A final consideration of A Christmas Carol allows us to compare this with other Dickensian novels
which are all concerned with poverty and the division of the classes. This particular tale is no different and several examples can be found which promote sharing of wealth and providing for one’s fellow man; it is at the dinner table where further evidence can be found. It is fair to say that more wealth buys more food and larger sums of money can buy larger turkeys or more expensive birds (e.g. turkey as opposed to goose). Everything is relative and the Cratchits do not seem to mind but Bob Cratchit perhaps stretched his point by asking his family to toast the ‘Founder of the Feast’ aka Scrooge. At this point, Mrs Cratchit’s frustration boils over at the perceived injustice and imbalance of wealth, arguing that 'I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it' (1843, 83). At first it seems like an obvious use of food metaphors but it serves to draw attention to the very point I have been making about how the differences between poor and wealthy households could actually be found on the dining table.
 

In closing, John Mullan supports my argument by summarising as follows: ‘A meal is never just food. Novelists have long known what anthropologists discovered recently: social eating means something’ (2006, 204). Sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. The five senses are present in preparing, eating or even disposing of food. Whilst skilfully describing these things can make a particular piece of your writing create a scene I hope you are now considering your character and the characters that share their social space. An isolated person would invariably eat alone. A sense of loss can be compared by a family dinner scene both before and after the bereavement. If you are writing about a group of people who rarely come together then it may be that buffets at weddings or funerals are the only place to have them interact face to face (just don’t opt for four of one and only one of the other, it’s been done). 

This week try to write and share a short story, a story which is solely set at the dinner table. I thought of a number of directions to provide, but on this occasion I really am interested in what people produce as you can all draw on personal experience for this piece. As always, sharing is caring so please respect everyone else’s submissions and only provide constructive feedback. 
 

Happy writing, or maybe I should say, happy eating!

A blog by Steve Marshall

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Further reading:
Dickens, C. (2003) First published 1843. ‘A Christmas Carol’ in A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings. London: Penguin Books.
Lodge, D. (1992) The Art of Fiction. London: Penguin Books.
Moore, A. (2018) The Release. Candy Jar Books: Cardiff.
Mullan, J. (2006) How Novels Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

NB. You may purchase The Release on Candy Jar’s website by following this link!