Saturday, 23 September 2017

Hiraeth by Steve Gladwin

This month, to celebrate my two year anniversary as an abba blogger, (I know. Doesn’t it?) I’ve decided to do something different. For once I’m not going to waffle on but invite you, the reader, to use what follows as a reflection space. I hope that in doing so you will be able to find just a little bit of quiet in your every day and it might then encourage you to do more of the same and grab a few more opportunities than you usually do.

Before I do that however,  I need to talk about the Welsh concept of Hiraeth.
Hiraeth is one of those indefinable words – impossible to actually pin down and yet we know its essence when the word is both spoken and described to us. It is variously - longing, yearning, seeking or wishing to recapture someone or something which has gone. There are correlations with similar words and definitions in other languages, but being more of an instinctive person than a wikipedia one, I prefer to leave it to the individual. 

My own first experience of Hiraeth was rather an odd one. A few months before I moved from Somerset to Wales, I attended a friend’s book launch in Glastonbury. I bought a copy of his book and made like a fan so he could sign it. What he wrote in it was this.

‘Lift high the cup of Hiraeth.’

He doesn’t remember writing it, or where the inspiration to do so came from, but long before I knew the word, those few words of John's had managed to convey and even predict the future I would have when I moved here to Meifod and the beautiful Vyrnwy Valley – an ever changing web of inspiration and sadness, beauty and loss.

I love Wales and especially the place I live, but it is often hard. Sometimes that’s just how it is – the places we love are those that most challenge us. I remember standing by the bridge when I first arrived and wondering where the sadness I was feeling was coming from. When I found out about the concept of Hiraeth, it all began to make sense.

The myths and stories of Wales are full of sadness of course. In one of the most famous, the story of Branwen, Daughter of Lir, the second ‘branch’ of the collection called the Mabinogi, there is a famous sequence involving a singing head. Essentially, Bran’s disembodied head keeps the only seven survivors of a great battle both entertained and enchanted for over eighty years, until one of them Heiliyn Gwyn, opens the door to the West. In doing so he lets in not just the natural elements but the power and sadness of all the terrible memories that the enchantment has so far held at bay.

Perhaps there is nothing quite so sad as a good spell that has been prematurely broken, especially if the reasons for casting it in the first place have been kindly and therapeutic. We cannot unmake the past and our sadness no matter how much we might wish to. Only the arts are able to do this and perhaps in doing so, gift us with a therapeutic base on which to build our future. Literature is full of sadness and occasionally there are places where the sad and those not quite healed of their griefs and the horrors and traumas they have witnessed, can go. I wonder whether Tolkien was aware of the concept of Hiraeth because in The Grey Havens he surely provided a place where the ring bearers, as well as the retiring elves, might be able to escape from it.

And so much of music too, in all its forms and varieties, is about sadness, about relationships failing and unrequited love. At the beginning of the film of Nick Hornby’s, High Fidelity, Rob, the main character played by John Cusack, reflects on whether parents ever really understand just how dangerous it might be to allow their children to listen to all that stuff about love and death. The answer, I suppose, is that of course they do, as they probably did the same thing themselves.

Maybe there is something to be said for such a form of therapeutic sadness, exposing us all to the ideas from an early age through the eyes and minds of others, so that by the time we come to realise it for ourselves, we will be that much readier. And of course that's what you find in so many fairy and traditional tales, and why it is all the more vital that children continue to read and engage with them.

This time last year I posted about my partner and her on-going struggles and about how this connected with the futurelearn course I was doing on mental health in literature. I was very moved by the many responses, but even gladder to share people’s recommendations for poetry which reflected the many aspects of this, and how they felt. It was the power of poetry which on that one occasion most helped Rosie and which, I have read - time and time again – has done the same for others.

So here are a few pictures of the place where I live in Wales, and where the gift of Hiraeth is sometimes overwhelming.  Perhaps you can think of some lines of poetry which any of these images remind you of, or you might simply take the space to reflect on the idea of Hiraeth and maybe with it the places, people or memories which particularly tug at you.

Of course it might also encourage you to dig through your own photo collection and find the ones which most evoke such feelings and maybe some poetry which goes with it.  Thanks everyone for the last two years and I'm looking forward to more.

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Naming of Characters, by Dan Metcalf

The naming of characters, as TS Eliot almost said, is a serious matter. Characters demand to be named correctly and aptly. Anyone who has had children knows that the agony over choosing a name for your sprog starts shortly after conception and continues until shortly after labour – or longer. This process takes a mere nine months of course, but authors have it much harder. Novels can take years to write, even longer to plan and conceive, so the poor writer is left grappling with monikers for the whole time.

Writing manuals will tell you how to name your creation – if it is a strong character, give them a strong name. If they are weak, name them so. A baby is a cinch to name in comparison to your character; you can give them any old name, as you have no idea what sort of person they will turn into. Your literary creation will usually come with strengths and flaws already built in, so their name will have to reflect that.

Authors take different routes to naming. The writers of the film Witness needed Harrison Ford's character to be a straight down the line, no nonsense hero, and so named him simply John Book, the least amount of syllables possible. Charles Dickens preferred onomatopoeic monikers like Mr Bumble or Ebenezer Scrooge. George RR Martin skillfully crafts names never before heard in the world for his Game of Thrones series, although I have since met several of his creations on school visits; two Aryas, a Sansa and at least one Khalesi. There is a school of thought that says you should pick the most down-to-earth name available in order for your audience to project themselves onto your character. This certainly worked for Ian Fleming, who picked the most boring name he could find from a book about birdspotting – James Bond.

My own forays into fiction have provided hours of joy/pain when naming the people on the page. My first, unpublished, novel was littered with names I had noted down in my journeys driving around Wiltshire and the surrounding areas. I came across place names that screamed 'WRITE ME!'. Characters included Ashton Kenyes (near Swindon), Frampton Cotterell (near Bristol) and Sandy Lane (near Chippenham). After that I wrote the story Pyro (which I'm currently posting on Wattpad as a little experiment) and named my characters with the help of baby name websites. Aide, the protagonist, apparently means 'fire'. Kenver, his dad, means 'chief'. Rainer, the antagonist, means 'strong army' while the town in which they reside, Port Tanow, is the Cornish for 'fire'.

Lately I have leaned towards aliteration with Lottie Lipton and Jamie Jones, but in my current book Codebusters, I dived into the internet to find apt names for my gaggle of geeks. Their surnames are Hilbert, Zhang, Babbage, Turing and Newton. Anyone spot the theme? Anyone?

Ten points to Hufflepuff if you identified them as famous mathematicians. And as the book is a nod to adventure books like those of Enid Blyton's, it only seemed fitting that their headteacher is named Mr Kirrin, after the original Famous Five.

How do you name your characters? Met any other schoolkids with amazing handles? Let me know in the comments.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Inspiration from afar by Anne Booth

My own children are now in their late teens or early twenties, and I miss daily interactions with little ones. That is one reason why school visits are so great, not only to publicise and sell books I have already written, but just to be in the company of small children and chat and talk to them. I love it when they tell me what they think about friends, or animals, or random other pieces of news which have nothing to do with my presentation but need to be urgently shared! I always come home full of ideas for new books, and a sense of the level I should pitch them at.

But at the moment, I am busy working at home editing some books and writing others to deadlines, and I won't make a school visit for a while. However, I still want to jot down ideas for new picture books, even though I won't be in the company of actual small children very much for a bit. So, in the absence of the actual company of small children, where will I get my new ideas from, and how will I know whether I am getting it right?

I think that most writers of children's books choose to do it because they don't feel that far removed from the child they were anyway, so the first things I can draw on are imagination and memory of things from my or my children's or my husband's or my parents' childhoods. I find I can easily remember the feelings I had when I was 4, or 5, or 6, so that definitely helps.

I can also take a well known (or less well known) fairy tale and play around with it, and tell that child within me, a story.

I can read books, look at magazines and newspapers for inspiration. I can read tweets linking to articles about animals having empathy, for example, and see if I can write a story to illustrate that.

But I was born in 1965, and my children from 1996-1999, so it does help to know a bit about children growing up in 2017. And for this, if I can't get to an actual school or nursery, I find watching them on television can be very helpful. Sometimes it is just reminding me of the obvious - just how small, for example, reception children are and what sort of things they do in their day. I really enjoyed a series on a year or so back about the psychological development of children, and it inspired my picture book 'I want a friend' and two subsequent books which are not yet published. That series was aimed at adults, (the Secret Life of Four Year olds) but today I found  a great series on BBC iplayer  which was made for CBeebies. It is about children starting school and is made for children to watch, but I am so enjoying watching it as a writer. Watching the children on the programme starting school has reminded me of the stages of their development and made it easier for me to imagine stories to tell them.  They are so gorgeous and it really motivates me to write the best books I can for them.

I intend to pop in to my local nursery soon and read some stories out to real children, but until then I am going to enjoy watching Cbeebies' 'Time for School' in my tea breaks - and here is the link if you write picture books or early readers and need a lovely reminder of your readership:

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

National Gibberish Day - Joan Lennon

Yes, you heard me correctly.  20 September is National Gibberish* Day.  Why?  Who decides these things?  He gnews?  Jet Pum!**  And to celebrate I give you ...


Not just the words, but two performances that make me chortle in joy:


So, readers and writers and ABBAers of every description, here's to gibberish - and, if you possibly can, shove some into a conversation today.  Fo jensonsicaxar!  Vaxako Rowis Caxallerr pleud!!*** 

* aka Jibber-Jabber

** Who knows?  Not I!  (translations courtesy of My Big Monkey Gibberish Translator - hours of entertainment!)

*** Be nonsensical!  Make Lewis Carroll proud!

P.S.  I love the way the Muppets drew on John Tenniel's original 1871 illustrations for Jabberwocky - so bizarre - so clever!

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Two sides to every story - by Lu Hersey

There are a lot of classic children's books I never read as a child, many of them American. My mother had an irrational dislike of Americans (always referring to them as 'Yanks'), and all things American. American literature was banned from the house, along with peanut butter and bubblegum. (Fortunately her dislike didn't extend to films - though I never asked why, just in case.)

The ban lasted throughout my childhood, and included reading matter ranging from Charlotte's Web through to the Marvel comics I craved to read as a teenager. I even remember hiding The Great Gatsby under the bedcovers to avoid any possible argument. Over the years I came to understand that her illogical dislike was entirely based on the American assertion that they'd won the war (which of course they had, but my mother seemed to think Churchill did it single handedly). 

Anyway, the book ban is my excuse for never having read The Little House on the Prairie
 until last month. 

Reading classic children's books as an adult is an interesting experience. Immediately I recognise the beauty of the writing, and why the romance of the pioneer lifestyle was - and is - so appealing to readers. The book (and series) is fascinating historically on many levels, as Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing from her own experience. She actually travelled in a covered wagon, just like in the old Westerns, and helped her father build a log cabin (she gives so much detail, you could probably build one yourself once you've read the book). 
covered wagon
Laura Ingalls Wilder
But there's an underlying dark side to the story. The attitude to the First Nation peoples, reflective of the time, makes you want to weep. From the outset, when the family build their cabin just three miles into Indian territory (so why build it that side of the boundary in the first place?) to the attitude of their settler neighbours ('the only good Injun is a dead Injun'), your heart aches for the native population, especially when you know what the future holds for them. Even Laura's more positive childish view of them centres mainly on how much she wants to own a real squaw baby in a papoose. 

Yet at the same time, the glimpses we catch of the native population through Laura's eyes are compelling - always describing them as 'naked' when they're obviously wearing something (particularly liked the visit to the house by two silent Indians wearing freshly culled skunk skins - Laura's family think these 'Injuns' don't notice the awful smell, when I strongly suspect they actually had a great sense of humour and did it deliberately). 

Also the Indian camps they visit (only after the tribe has moved on) show how well native people chose sites out of the wind, nestled in havens of wild flowers and surrounded by plenty of animals. In contrast the settlers all built their cabins too close to the creek and ended up with malaria. The story of these pioneer children, in their ridiculous buttoned up clothing and stifling lifestyle (especially the women and girls), makes you yearn to know how the native population saw them.

Laura's buttoned up family

And this is exactly what we find out in The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (thanks to SF Said for directing me to this fantastic series of books). Erdrich provides a compelling, beautifully written account of life as a girl in the Ojibwe tribe, living in the Minnesota region in the mid nineteenth century. It's historical fiction, but based on accounts from Erdrich's own Ojibwe family heritage and her experience of living in the lands her family once inhabited. Filled with just as much detail as the Little House on the Prairie, here we see the other side of life in America - that of the original inhabitants. 

From the moment the book starts, with the protagonist, Omakayas, (which translates as Little Frog) being rescued as a baby from a village where everyone has died from smallpox, this is a totally absorbing read. Despite the outside pressures of the white man (chimookoman) coming ever closer into the lives of Omakayas's Ojibwe community, eventually pushing them away from their homelands, the Birchbark House series gives an uplifting and magical account of tribal life, well researched and written from the heart. In Erdrich's own words, her books are 'in the truest sense, labours of love for my characters, my children, my ancestors, and my people.'

If you have to make a choice whether to read Little House on the Prairie or The Birchbark House, I'd strongly recommend the latter - but maybe that's just based on personal preference and a lifelong interest in First Nation culture. 

Your best bet is to read both, and get two sides to a story that was repeated across America. You won't regret it.

Lu Hersey
twitter: @LuWrites
blog: Lu Writes 
Book: Deep Water