I didn’t warm much to the Romans in history at school. Too much conquest and too many straight lines. And the historical fiction I read in those days reflected thinking that was left over from the days of the British Empire. I remember a Henry Treece with a Roman scolding a Briton for being miffed at being subjugated: it was really for his own good, he was told, to bring order and civilisation to his country. Teaching history as a Primary School teacher, I thawed slightly to the Romans as we admired relics like Samian ware pottery. There are so many shards of this about, that museums often let you handle it yourself, and it’s wonderfully smooth as well as being such a gorgeous colour.
This week I felt in need for a trip to London for a bit of space and culture, so I used the first chapter in “Walking London’s History: 2,000 years in 15 walks,” by Tim Potter.
In front of a section of the Roman wall of Londinium stands a statue that might be of Trajan. Apparently it was found in a rubbish tip in Southampton, and the head doesn’t match the body. I like the figures on his breasplate.
Under All Hallows by the Tower, a Roman tombstone. The wife’s head has been lost. (Those Romans weren’t very good at keeping their heads, were they?)
Temple of Mithras, near Cannon Street Station. They turn down the lights and play a soundtrack that might reflect what happened at a secret meeting. Also, some of that Samian ware.
The Roman Stone. Maybe a milestone? Later it became the place where apprentices and their masters signed contracts. Apparently, in 1450 the rebel Jack Cade struck his sword on it to mark his claim to be Lord of the City.
Roman amphitheatre, under the Guildhall. After the Romans left, it was used as a rubbish tip. What sort of ghosts lingered among the refuse, I wonder?
More wall, maybe the corner of a fort.
Across the road, Medieval towers that continued the wall, and an oasis of calm between contrasting eras of architecture. It’s minutes away from the thundering main road. London is full of surprises.
This week saw the publication of Mothers of Enchantment, an anthology of new tales of fairy godmothers, including my story “Returning the Favor”. (US press, US spelling.)
I identify more and more with the fairy godmothers of fairytales rather than the young protagonists as I get older. What about their own desires? We only see them helping others. So for my story, I took a lesser-known story called “The Iron Stove” (Grimm Brothers) in which a group of toads help a girl who’s lost her prince. In the Grimm story the toads, who are enchanted children of a king, are released from the spell at the end. I conflated the toads into just one, and changed the ending to give the fairy godmother toad agency: she’s actually chosen that shape. As I wrote it, I found I was weaving in another fairytale, a better-known one. See if you can spot what it is.
You can find out more in various places.
Here’s a link to see the various places you can buy a copy, paperback or ebook.
The blurb for this anthology describes these stories as “embody(ing) the disconnect beteween reality and the subconsious, the desire for meaning and the need for escape, the too-bue sky and the abyss.”
They are certainly surreal and strange – that’s what they all have in common, despite the differing lengths, some only flash-sized. That, and the beautiful command of language, sharp yet lush. Only two would I categorize as full horror.The rest are uncanny, occasionally baffling to me, but mostly consistent in their internal, otherwordly logic, their endings ranging from startling to satisfying and curiously uplifting.
Some that stood out for me were:
“Grimmer House” by Taylor Sykes. I adore atmospheric old houses, but I’ve been disappointed by so many novels that promise a gothic house experience, only to turn out to be bland and generic.This piece is packed with wonderful detail, obsession, conflict and secrets to be unpacked. It shows you can follow the template and still create something new and wonderful.
“Becoming Home” by Charlotte Bond. A woman wakes up to realise something very strange has happened to her. She is an animated doll, built for a woman whose daughter has died. As Lilian gradually works out who she is, she pushes against the role chosen for her. But what is her real purpose in life? It’s not preachy, but I think you could read the story in several ways, as it looks at how we measure up to other people’s expectations and how we balance our needs and those of the people around us.
“Girls’ Night Out” by Teika Marija Smits. A group of middle-aged women have a night off from their roles as caregivers and enjoy dinner and music. The mixture of fun and yearning will be very familiar to many of us, but half way through we realise these aren’t women we’d see in the local tandoori palace, or indeed in any restaurant or bar. Or if we have seen them, we were quite wrong about their true identity…
“The Night Parade” by Laura Mauro. A woman enjoying a cigarette on her balcony worries about a small child in the streets at night and, following, finds herself in a nightmarish world that’s part Japanese mythology, part Alice in Wonderland. For me, this was intriguingly fresh.
“Violet Green” by Rachel Knightley. Vi is both drawn to and fearful of going back to a house so full of memories of a student love affair, only to see the past – and the future – in a totally new light.
“To Pray at Your Temple” by Penny Jones. What seems to be about religious asceticism turns out to be something else entirely, but the parallels are fascinating.
Available the usual ways, but if you want to support the independent press that published it, find it on the Black Shuck Books website.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Are you a romantic? Or do you avoid social media for the day, rolling your eyes at its squishy, pink romance? Either way, love is hard to avoid. Society’s largely built on family, which often grows from the attraction of two individuals coming together. And while those couples migth squabble, and sometimes tear apart again, we continue to hope and believe in love.
No, I haven’t begun a romance novel. I’m announcing the cover reveal of an anthology in which I’m pleased to have a story. It’s called “Mothers of Enchantment”, edited by Katel Wolford and published by World Weaver Press. Each tale is a different riff on the theme of fairy godmothers, those kind-hearted folk who make our romantic dreams come true.
Hmm, aren’t they the rosy old women in drab hoods (Disney) or black cloaks (Ladybird books) that sing “Bippety Boppety Boo”? Not necessarily. Fairy godmothers come in many other shapes and forms. Mine, for instance, is a toad…More about that another time. But today, to spread the word about the anthology, I’m sharing an article I originally wrote for another anthology of fractured fairytales, a piece in which I ask if fairytales are actually romantic. They often end with weddings, but are they based on love?
Everyone knows what a fairytale wedding is. It’s frothy gowns and dewy gazes and promises of love ever after. But what about the actual fairytales? Can we actually call them romantic?
A romance is not just about kisses and lingering looks. It’s about characters we want to root for, speeches that pull on the heart strings, extravagant gestures, and a gorgeous setting, ideally with some beautiful gowns! Do we get that in the classic versions? I’m going to take Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, stories we’ve grown up with in film and retellings, and look at how they were told when they were first recorded.
I’m going to take Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, stories we’ve grown up with in film and retellings, and look at how they were told when they were first recorded.
Let’s start with a version by Giovanni Batiste Basile, who collected and retold Neopolitan tales in the 1600’s in a book called “Il Pentamerone,” the Tale of Tales.
Zezolla, as she is called before the stepsisters begin to mock her, is something of a shock. In Basile’s version she has not one but two step-mothers, one after another. Why? Because, encouraged by her governess, she actually murders the first step mother! Feisty? She’s no doormat. It doesn’t bring her peace, though, because the governess becomes the second step-mother and turns out to be nastier than the first, and she has not two but six daughters of her own. Zezolla certainly suffers after that, not least because her father turns from doting to neglectful. “She is not worthy of anyone’s notice,” he tells the king. She continues to fight, compelling her father to bring her magical gifts that clothe her for the ball. It depends on your viewpoint as to whether you want to root for this determined girl. The king (not prince) who sees her at the ball is no pushover either. He threatens to kick the servant that he sends to find Cinderella if the servant fails.
So much for the characters. How about their actual romance? Well, it’s the king who’s besotted.
“The king…on beholding Zezolla fell enamoured of her.”
He describes her as his “delight.” Rather than sending out a servant with the slipper, this lover invites everyone to a banquet. He recognises Zezolla instantly, but goes through a pretence, trying the slipper on every guest.
“But no sooner came he to Zezolla than the foot was caught by love like steel to the magnet; and the king surprised her by putting his arms around her, and seating her under the dais, and putting the crown on her head, commanded that all should do her obeisance as to their queen.”
Zezolla’s feelings are something of a mystery. She goes to the ball (festival, here) because she wants to get out of the house without her sisters knowing. Nowhere does Basile say she went to snare a rich husband or that she’s falling in love. The only indication that she might have feelings for him is that her slipper flies out of her carriage as she leaves in haste, suggesting she has lost track of time in the magic of the moment and is now in turmoil.
The setting is minimal. If you want details about her pretty dresses you will be disappointed. There is more detail about her transport – first a steed, later a golden carriage – and the number of retainers that go with her. There is no pumpkin and none of the servants have alternate lives as kitchen pests. The language, too, of the story (translated by Sir Richard Burton in the late 1800’s) is florid and old-fashioned, wrenching a moral out of this violent tale.
All in all? Nine out of ten for the king for extravagant gestures, but Zezolla is a calculating minx in my opinion. With his temper and her unscrupulous character, this might be a fiery coupling.
How about Perrault? We’ve all heard of him. He wrote later in the 1600s. How did he treat the tale?
His Cinderella is gentle and good, with a sense of humour. When the stepsisters tell her about the beautiful unkown at the ball she is “beside herself with delight”, as if hugging to herself the knowledge that they’ve unwittingly acknowledges her as a paragon of beauty, and asks one them, Jayotte, if she can borrow her everyday yellow gown and go to the ball herself, knowing full well that Jayotte will sneer and refuse. The prince here doesn’t have the temper of Basile’s king, but nor does he throw any extravagant gestures. He is at home while his men tour the country with the slipper. However, he’s clearly deeply smitten with her at the ball. His first encounter with her is when he hears an unknown grand princess has arrived, so he goes to greet her. This is a polite and politic move, but soon he’s enthralled:
“She danced with so much grace that everyone’s admiration increased. A very fine supper was served, but the prince could not eat anything because he was so wrapped up in watching her.”
After she drops her slipper he does “nothing but gaze at it during the remainder of the evening,” and when she’s brought to him at the end he “found her more beautiful than ever.” This Cinderella shows no more indication that she’s in love with him than Zezolla: again, her mission is to go to the ball, rather than find a royal match. The only suggestion that her priorities have changed is that on the second night (Perrault gives us two, not three balls) she “enjoyed herself so much that she forgot her godmother’s advice and was dumbfounded when the flock began to strike twelve.” She could just as well, however, be lost in the fun of the dancing.
Perrault’s setting is far more detailed than Basile’s. He not only gives her “garments of gold and silver dotted with jewels,” and glass slippers, he also has fun with the stepsisters’ clothes, detailing their ruffles, a red velvet dress, some English point-lace trimmings and some double-frilled caps, among others. And of course he gives us the pumpkin and the wonderful retinue magicked up from lizards, mice and a rat. The tone, too, is lighter than Basile’s, with two tongue-in-cheek morals at the end, the second saying that though it’s doubtless a benefit to be endowed with courage, wit, common sense and virtues, all of this is quite useless if you “neglect godfathers or godmothers.”
The Grimm brothers tell this tale too. They call it Ashenputtel, and instead of a fairy godmother Cinderella visits a little white bird in a tree planted on her mother’s grave – a scene told very lyrically. This Cinderella is good and pious. She clearly suffers a lot, with step-sisters who torment her and a father who, far from protecting her, tells the prince that she’s deformed. She stands by, however, as her pigeon friendss peck out the eyes of her step-sisters at the wedding. Like Basile’s and Perrault’s Cinderella, she shows no sign of falling for the prince, unless this is the reason she loses track of time. As for the prince, he won’t let go of her hand, and wants to go home with her, but he does seem to be pretty stupid: twice he rides off with the wrong girl (each stepsister tries to fool him, one by cutting off her toe, one her heel, to fit the slipper), only to be corrected by those pesky pigeons. He earns a few Hero Points for sweeping her onto his steed once he’s worked out who she is, but all in all, I’d say this telling is the loser in the race for Romance points.
In summary, Cinderella’s Prince is besotted but flawed, and Cinderella may not be in love with him at all.
Basile tells a tale called “The Young Slave,” that scholars see as an early version of Snow White. Here, the heroine, called Lisa, falls into a deep sleep after getting a comb stuck in her head, and is kept in seven crystal chests nested one inside the other, locked in a secret room. There is no mirror and no dwarves. She’s actually revived by her uncle’s wife, who has slipped into the room because she suspects the forbidden room hides a mistress for her husband. She then abuses Lisa, who becomes a Cinderella figure, tormented and humiliated before being rescued by her uncle and married off. The bridegroom is compensation for her suffering: we learn nothing about him apart from the fact that he is good and handsome. The setting of the story has its attraction: there’s an episode where Lisa’s mother takes part in a competition to jump over a rose bush, and some fairies help her out when she gives birth, but all in all the story falls well short of what we would expect in a Romance.
Perrault doesn’t retell this tale. Instead, let’s look at “Richilda,” a story by Musaus, writing at the end of the 1700s. This story is more recognisable as the Snow White we know, with a jealous stepmother, a magic mirror, several death attempts and devoted dwarves, although Bianca, as the heroine is called here, stays in a castle guarded by the dwarves and her maidens. The story is, in fact, far more about the step mother, Richilda, Countess of Brabant, than about Bianca, the young girl is merely characterised by being beautiful and innocent. She’s the object of her step mother’s hatred due to her superior looks, but remains naïve and trusting:
“When she heard the horses trotting up to the gates, [she] flew out to meet her mother, and received her with great respect and affection.”
In fact, the story focusses so much on Richilda that Bianca only appears on stage to be poisoned yet again. Bianca’s mate is Godfrey of Ardenne, who’s on a pilgrimage to get his father out of purgatory. He’s interested to see Bianca because he thinks he can revive her with a holy relic he’s collected on his journey. This is not a cold-blooded event; he’s charmed at the sight of the beautiful alabaster statue through the glass window. However, his method of reviving her – laying the relic on her heart – is not as romantic as a kiss, and there’s a lack of ardour in the way he tells her he’s finishing his pilgrimage first, then picking her up on his return. Nor is their conversation on his return to our modern tastes. She says
“…with a bashful and blushing countenance, ‘Take heed what you do, young man; question your heart whether it be upright, or a deceiver: if you abuse the confidence I repose in your, Heaven, be assured, will pursue you with its vengeance.’ The knight modestly replied, ‘I call the holy Virgin to witness the purity of my intentions; and may the curse of God overtake me, if one evil thought dwell in my soul!’ Thereupon Blanca mounted behind him in confidence.”
If you want passion, you need to look at her father, Gornbald, and her step-mother. Richilda sees him in her mirror and finds him quite a stunner:
“…his manly brown cheek, tinged with red, glowed with warmth and health; the gently rising upper-lip of his purple mouth seemed to advance for a thrilling kiss; his full calf was big with strength and manly vigour. As soon as the virgin perceived the noble form of the knight, the yet slumbering sensations of love awakened all at once in her soul; she drank deep of joy and rapture from his eyes, and made a solemn vow never to bestow her hand on any other man.”
Now that’s romance, isn’t it?
Musaus doesn’t think so. He shows the ardour breaking up Gornbald’s first marriage and burning out quite quickly after his second. However, where Musaus wins on the romance front is with his setting. The story’s set very firmly in the Middle Ages, during the time of the crusades, and is rich with fighting knights, monks and castles.
How does the Grimms’ version compare? Snow White is centre stage here. She may not be a very rounded character, but she has a little more life than Bianca, her fascination with combs, laces and pretty apples suggesting a touch of vanity as well as naivety. The prince is not given any characteristics other than his admiration for her, but that is powerful. He’s so impressed by his sight of her in the coffin that he offers to buy it for whatever price they name. When the dwarves won’t give it up he says:
“Then give it to me as a gift, for I can’t go on living without being able to see Snow White. I’ll honour her and cherish her as my dearly beloved.”
This may not be based on any first-hand experience of her character, but his passion is obvious. It’s disappointing, after this, to see that he doesn’t wake her with a kiss; that’s Disney’s addition to the story. Instead, she’s woken by a jolt to the coffin.
How about Snow White? She hasn’t had much chance to fall for the prince – she’s been asleep. When the prince proposes she “felt that he was sincere, so she went with him.” This is rather cool. Like Cinderella, the ardour of a rich bridegroom is compensation for her past suffering. The tale loses more romance points for its ending when you start to wonder who actually made the queen put on the red-hot slippers. If Snow White doesn’t instigate this act of vengeance, she makes no move to stop it, and the same can be said of her prince. But the setting is surely worth a few romance points – a threatening forest, a sinister mirror, a little house and a band of loyal dwarves.
To sum up, Snow White has had no chance to fall in love with her admiring prince, and both are complicit in the nasty death of the stepmother.
Basile’s version is notorious now. The setting is romantic enough – Talia, as he names her, is placed on a velvet throne under a dais of brocade. The king (not prince), however, falls far short of our standards of a romantic hero. His “blood courses hotly” and he has non-consensual sex with her which she sleeps through, and then goes back to his wife and forgets all about her for a while. Talia gives birth while still asleep and one of the twins, trying to nurse, sucks out the flax splinter in Talia’s finger that sent her to sleep originally. She longs to see her “light and joy,” as she sees the king. Unsurprisingly, the king’s wife is a little upset when she learns about Talia’s existence, and tries to kill her and the children, but the king saves them just on time.
Perrault takes this story and cleans it up. The king becomes an unmarried prince, who starts to love the princess as soon as he hears of her. As the trees and brambles open up for him, they close behind as well, so that his attendants cannot follow. It’s just him and the princess. On seeing her, he kneels in awe – he doesn’t even steal a kiss. This is when she wakes:
“…she bestowed on him a look more tender than a first glance might warrant. ‘Is it you, my prince?’ she said. ‘You have been long awaited.’ “
The hint is that she was dreaming of him. The prince is almost incoherent with love: “he hardly knew how to express his joy and gratitude.” Perrault does go on to relate the macabre incident of the threat to Beauty and the children of the marriage, but the jealous wife has been turned into a mother in law, a hungry ogre with a taste for tender flesh. The prince should lose some hero points for leaving his beloved wife and children with an ogre, but altogether it’s a much more charming story than Basile’s. I love the details Perrault adds: there are courtly details about the supper, for instance, some world-building when he describes the way the good fairy is sent for by a dwarf with seven league boots, and the little joke about the princess’s outdated fashion sense:
“Her gown was magnificent, but [the prince] took care not to tell her that she was attired like his grandmother, who also wore stand-up collars.”
The morals at the end are fun: first, he says no woman nowadays would be so patient as to wait one hundred years for the ideal man, and then he says he hasn’t the heart to preach at lovers who can’t wait to get married.
The Grimm brothers took this tale and put their own stamp on it. They cut out the ogre event altogether, and the story ends with the marriage. Here, the courtiers and palace staff all fall asleep straight away; the details are delightful: from the king and queen to the flies on the wall, everyone grows quiet, and the cook, who’s about to pull the kitchen boy’s hair, falls asleep too. The briar hedge grows by itself, and when the prince approaches they burst into bloom. This prince actually kisses the princess. Does the kiss wake her or the fact that a hundred years has now passed? It’s left a little mysterious, and here there’s no hint that she has been dreaming of him, but she does look at him “fondly.”
And the winner is..?
In summary, thanks to Perrault, who turns a rape story into a tale of innocent attraction and the Grimms, who dispense with the “other woman”, we finally have a romantic happy ever after – an adventurous, smitten prince, a princess who dreams of her prince, and true love’s kiss. The story might not win a lot of feminist points, but it will please a romantic.
So, what do we think? Are these fairy tales romantic? Yes and no. The characters in Basile and Grimm can be violent, spiteful and stupid, and two of the heroines don’t seem to be in love, but the princes are passionate and the settings charming. Luckily, the final version of Sleeping Beauty has the elements we’ve been questing for all this while.
This article, with a different opening, originally appeared in the Silver Petticoat Review.
Mat Osman, bassist for Swede and author of “The Ruins”, appeared at the Essex Book Festival last year and talked us through his writing process. One thing he found invaluable, he said, was the London Writers’ Salon, an hour of silent writing each morning, via Zoom.
I’d never heard of it, despite having sunk many hours of my life footling round the internet reading writerly articles, instead of producing stories. But a simple search found it for me. In fact, there’s a choice of four writing hours per weekday. Recently I was able to move my early morning students to later slots, freeing a regular time of day from the rush of shower and resource-finding, so I signed up for the 8am hour.
Then I spent a week finding reasons not to try it that day.
Silly reasons. Now that I’ve finally joined, I’ve found it a lovely community. About 250 people connect each morning, some on camera, some safely behind their profile pictures. Two facilitators welcome us and invite us to write our targets for the hour into the chat box, the facilitators read out a few, share some creative inspiration for the day, and then off we go. At 8.55 we share our achievements the same way, and the leaders invite a few writers to talk about what they’re working on.
So couldn’t we just write without Zoom, and save on our electricity bills? Well, I’ve been writing regularly for about a year now on my own, and yet I’ve been twice as productive this past week since I joined the Writers’ Hour. Setting and reviewing targets and being accountable – there’s always a chance someone will read what I’ve set! – is the perfect combination of nudge and reward, while knowing there are 250 other writers working at the same time is a big deterrent, for me, to checking social media “for just a few minutes”. If I feel I’m flagging, I click away from my document and look at the mosaic of writers’ videos, where face after face is deep in concentration. (Most of them look like it’s slightly painful! But I think that’s encouraging too. Writing isn’t effortless.)
One day a week there’s a chance to stay behind afterwards, and join breakout groups for a short chat. It was quite nerve-wracking waiting for the system to sort us out – three strangers, with no agenda except to talk. I found myself with an Australian who writes literary short stories, and an Indian who’s writing essays that explore when to push ourselves to become better people and when to accept ourselves as we are. I’m in the UK, working on a children’s historical fantasy. And yet in five minutes we’d found something in common – a consensus that bad news and a gloomy outlook dominate our media, and a yearning to push against that, to write things that uplift and inspire hope.
Writers’ Hour will celebrate its two-year anniversary in March. Yes, it launched with Covid lockdowns, as an initiative to support writers when virtual was the only way many of us could see people outside our own households. The geniuses who started it are Parul and Matt. The first day they had nine writers, and by day five there were thirty. And so it goes on!
So if you’re looking for a spur to write, give it a whirl. It’s free to join and the choices are 8am London time, Eastern Time, Pacific Time and Sydney time, or in other words 8am, 1pm, 4pm and 9pm London time. Yes, you can do all four if you feel like it!
Looking back at my writers’ notebook, I found my goal list for 2020, and was rather depressed to see I still hadn’t achieved some of the targets on it. So before I set up new goals for 2022, I decided to look at my achievements in 2021. Here they are.
I revised my first children’s historical fantasy, written the previous year, and puzzled over the fact that I liked it a lot but had no other ideas for children’s novels.
Returning to historical fiction for adults, my usual genre, I wrote a new version of “Penny Plain,” the novel I’ve been playing with for…erm, far too many years. I paid for feedback on the opening pages from published author Samantha Leirens aka Lizzie Page, and screenwriter Richard Curti, which was helpful, but when I re-read the novel after a pause, I hated it. Exhaustion at trying over and over to get this right, coupled with a realisation that it wasn’t going to fit into the current market at all and that I wanted to write in a different genre led me to abandon it, after boring everyone around me with my dilemma.
Meanwhile, I’d done some work on shorter pieces. A few grew out of workshops. For instance, “The Chair in the Ferns” came out of a short Zoom course run by the Essex Book Festival, looking at museum artifacts, while “Flowing with Milk and Honey” was written after a workshop/challenge, again Essex Book Festival, this time in person, to write a flash based on a specific area. I also took a course on ghost story writing thanks to the writers’ organisation Pen to Print and wrote a ghost story I’m quite pleased with. I submitted a range of my short stories 17 times, with one acceptance – “A Patchwork of Puddles“, in Enchanted Conversation, a magazine I’ve followed and admired for a long time. You can read it here (it won’t take long). A story submitted last year received an acceptance for but the anthology is yet to be published.
I also took a couple of workshops with the Essex Authors’ Day, which gave me some more insight into the world of small press. I continued to attend my Virtual Writing Group and paired up with another writer, Mike, to share work and ideas. And another highlight was when Teika Bellamy, who edited an anthology series I was lucky to be published in some years ago, and now works as commissioning editor for a small press, came my way to pick up a new desk and asked if I was free for a coffee. It was lovely to see her and I wish I had a novel to pitch to her!
Towards the end of the year I realised I now had several ideas for MG novels, chose one and began plotting, using the WritersHQ Plotstormers course.
So in terms of “achievements” this year hasn’t been particularly productive. But it has had a very different outcome. Last year I pottered around with too many genres, unable to pick a direction. Now I’m ready to commit to one. (Or two…or three. But no more than that, I promise!)
At the weekend, after much dithering, I decided to abandon the novel I’ve been writing, off and on, for over twenty-five years. It is a historical novel, set in 19th century Limehouse, and features the popular literature of the day, from penny dreadfuls to toy theatre (penny plain, twopence coloured). I was inspired by the 19c fiction I studied at uni, both the course on classic writers, which introduced me to the wisdom of Elizabeth Gaskell and the excitement of Wilkie Collins, and the one on melodrama, from cut-down versions of the Castle of Otranto to Sweeney Todd. Somewhere there, too, I discovered Mary Braddon, author of the wonderful Lady Audley’s Secret, the story of a man’s hunt to discover what his uncle’s beautiful new wife is hiding from the world.
My neverending novel became a bit of a joke in my family. To vindicate myself, I collected stories of writers who’d wrestled with rewrites. I don’t appear to have made any sensible record, so the list here is off the top of my head, but it includes Mercedes Lackay, Kathryn Stockett (The Help) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mocking Bird).
You can’t say I haven’t tried. My first version was completed in 1994. I made the most of the fact that postage was also a penny at the time, and wove together the reality of the rapidly developing postal system and the fiction of cheap literature, using a motif of failed communication. That makes it sound rather good, doesn’t it? It was certainly full of adventure – a pauper who dies on a stranger’s doorstep, a bitter young man swearing revenge on his mother’s grave, a woman waving a gun at a blackmailer’s head and later setting fire to a post-box. Unfortunately, it failed on two points. I’d written it as a Victorian penny dreadful, and it was far too purple for modern taste. And I’d used an epistolary form, and a friend pointed out to me that this form was out of vogue by the period of my novel.
Life changed. I left my job, went round the world with my husband and returned with a baby on the way. I brought up two wonderful but at the time rather exhausting children, started a new job and didn’t write much for a long time.
Eventually, I rewrote the novel from scratch, working hard on character details and language. I sought feedback. Much was good, but this scene here, said a friend, was totally unbelievable. The friend was right. Unfortunately this was the linchpin of the story. Without it, the whole thing fell apart.
For the next few years I wrote two more historical novels and a clutch of shorter pieces in a range of genres, some of which I was lucky enough to get published, but I kept circling back to this story. I would work out a new plan, only to find issues with it and have to start again. Characters grew older, younger, disappeared altogether, including, sadly, my snarling villain Ishmael Warner. Huge chunks of the plot were hurled out of the window, including the scene where Verity, my protagonist, sets fire to a postbox. I began a new version, changed my mind and started again. I set myself daily writing time and completed a new version, then, following advice, did something else for a while before coming back to it for revisions.
I read through what I’d written. I hated most of it. It was an effort to keep reading. I wanted to throw it out of the window, like Harper Lee did with To Kill a Mockingbird (into the snow, in her case). I agonised to my family and on Facebook – should I keep working at this, or stop flogging a dead horse? Everyone was kind and patient, and I got some very good advice about what to consider before making a decision.
My novel did get better after the middle. The last few pages weren’t too bad at all. When I’d finished, I listed what I needed to do next. The plot needed rejigging. The central scene needed to be something different altogether. The prose could be remedied by editing. Yes, I would save this novel.
But the next day I realised I just couldn’t face rewriting it yet again. I’d lost so much of what I’d enjoyed of the original, silly, sensational yarn. Most of the characters bored me. And I couldn’t see where the current version would fit with current genres. There wasn’t enough violence and profanity for it to be Vic Lit, and not enough mills or romance to be a Saga. It was time to let it go.
So it’s goodbye to Verity Patterson, the lover of penny dreadfuls and saviour of street urchins. She will set fire to no more postboxes. There may be a small role for her one day, because I think the side character Dan, who makes a living finding scrap metal in the old London sewers, and his friend Declan, lemonade-seller and heir to a rock in the middle of the Irish ocean, might take centre stage in a story at some point.
It’s not goodbye to writing, though. My short pieces showed me I really enjoy writing things that are slightly off-the-wall, in a world where magic slips through the cracks and history gets rewritten. I have ideas for longer pieces like this, and I feel that excitement about them that I’ve lost with the abandoned novel. Yes, I know I’ll get myself tied in knots over these, too, and I’ll re-read passages and hate them, but I’m going to be wiser about when to let go of a piece and move on to the next idea. And when to keep working on something to polish and finish it.
That’s how it feels at the moment with my WIP. Not a walk by moonlight on a gravelled road, but a stumble through the briars with a torch – or a flashlight if you’re American.
Historically, I’ve been a bit of a sucker for ‘how to’ books and plotting charts when it comes to writing. Last year I wrote myself into a dead end so many times that I resumed the quest for the perfect outline template, only to overwhelm myself with pages and pages of typing. Far from being a reassuring set of ideas ready for me to shape into prose, they’ve been a noise of detail that’s drowned out the tune of the story.
So I’m writing off an outline that fills less than a page of my notebook. I know where my heroine is going geographically and emotionally, I know some of the characters she’ll meet and some of the folklore and history I’m drawing on, I’ve made a few notes to carry me through to the next main plot point, but that’s it.
I’m no longer writing with the dread that this will be another thousand words that’ll be put in the bin. It’s progress towards feeling the shape of the story. It’s a weird process, though, because it feels like I’m taking a long walk in a night forest, guided by a torch with half-drained batteries.
Still, isn’t life like that in reality? Especially at the moment. The five year plan, the month by month plan, are all erased. We’re working out our lives a few days at a time.
New, smart, modern buildings mixed with pretty colonial bungalows behind fencing, grand buildings propped up with giant crates and vacant gaps. Attempts to use the gaps creatively – wall paintings and pop-up art installations – didn’t hide the devastation, and many of them had become temporary car parks.
The cathedrals were sad affairs. Fencing round the Anglican one, a hollow wreck, heaved the symmetry of the square off-balance, leaving room only for a horseshoe of fast-food caravans in the remaining space. The catholic one fared better, the angels on its parapet holding on grimly. The powers-that-be in each institution have puzzled for a long while over whether to demolish and start again or restore. Restore has been the decision for the Anglican, but that lies in the future.
The Arts Centre made a similar decision, while embracing the opportunity to modernise systems like the heating. Here, many studios are up and running. The restaurant where we’d marvelled over a nasturtium salad was still a hive of scaffolding and sawing, but we enjoyed the quirky café, newly furnished with oddities that harked back to its days of study and research.
We visited Quake City, a museum that charts the story of the earthquake and aftermath. Here, we followed a narrative showing the courage of victims and emergency workers and the cheerful work of student volunteers clearing up after. People we spoke to in the city told us of portaloos for weeks afterwards, of rents soaring as those made homeless looked for somewhere to stay, of insurance claims taking years to come through, of people sleeping in their cars, homeless even now. Sobering, too, was our visit to the east side of town. Their neighbourhood condemned now as unsuitable for buildings, homeowners had to leave their homes behind to be razed and grassed over. The area is like a curious parkland now. Straight lines of shrubs mark the boundaries of dismantled properties. Empty roads go nowhere. All you can hear is birdsong.
The area we’d lived in before was less affected, and suddenly I was recognising roads and strips of shops. Travel through the Port Hills has been affected, with one road blocked off permanently, but there are still plenty of opportunities for walking or driving, so we spent Christmas Eve exploring the Banks Peninsula. In search of Pigeon Bay, we found ourselves on a gravel road that twisted and turned, falling away sharply at one side. It was a relief to return to tarmac. At Diamond Harbour we explored the coves, then fuelled up in a café overlooking the cricket ground. Here was another prime example of a small town: as well as the eatery and sports field it boasted a playground, a hairdresser and a library.
And so on to our last stop, Auckland, a city we’d explored only once before, thirty years ago. We flew in on Christmas Day. Our chatty driver who ferried us to our hire car insisted we needed to visit the Night Market for its street food.
The biggest city in New Zealand, Auckland is much like many other Western cities, a mixture of old and new, grand and mundane, and plenty of retail therapy. While the young people emptied their purses in the shops, we oldies pursued more sedate activities. One day we explored the forested areas to the north of the city.
The next day we took the ferry to Devonport across the harbour, where the rich live and the less rich enjoy the bookshop and the views.
The Night Market, said Google, is held in a different location each night, across the city. This particular evening it was in Papatoetoe.
On arrival, it didn’t look promising. Apparently it was underground somewhere. Inside the shopping centre doors were closing and at a stall in the middle of the hall three young assistants dismantled a Christmas tree. There were a few people walking purposefully towards the escalator, so we followed them down. For a minute or two we thought we’d gone completely off-track: we’d descended to an underground car park. And then we saw the stalls, over on one side. Rows and rows of food stalls lit up the concrete dungeon offering every form of fatty food and neon-coloured drink your heart could desire – doughnuts and dumplings, hot dogs and hoi sin, burgers and bubblegum tea. For five or six dollars a diminutive stall owner – mostly Asian and a few Eastern European – will pack a polystyrene box with more food than you will ever be able to eat. It buzzed with families, friends and couples viewing, choosing or crowding onto the picnic tables that ranged one side. As the young folk disappeared again, to make their own choices, we found a vacant bench and tackled our mountains. A couple asked to share our bench and offered us doughnuts – she’d expected one for her money and had been given six! Half an hour later we’d made two new friends and agreed, laughingly, that we’d meet up again there on our next visit. And why not? Thanks to Facebook, we’ll be able to make the arrangements once we’ve saved all over again!
It was an unexpected and delightful way to end the adventure that both confirmed and refuted the saying that you can’t go back. We’d visited areas that had been favourites before and areas that were new to us, some changed, some much the same as they’d been before. We’d changed, too, in what we wanted out of a destination. Which places will we revisit on our next trip? It will be interesting to see if Christchurch, for instance, has chosen to leave the colonial days behind and build in a new style, one that looks forward rather than back.
Part 2 – in which we cross the Cook Straits to the South Island, visit a ghost town and find our travel plans disrupted by a landslide.
A ferry connects north and south of the country, sailing sedately out of Wellington and navigating the islands and inlets of Charlotte Sound. In Picton, where the ferry docks, we’d booked a luxury flat for a few nights, and were all agreed we’d have happily stayed longer. If our son really does become a millionaire, I’ll credit staying here gave him that taste of high life that spurred him on. The sun shone, the sky was blue. The only cloud was a gentle enquiry from a friend, via Facebook, asking whether we were OK. White Island had erupted, and a boatload of tourists were missing. We were many miles away, across the Cook Straits, but the news that unfolded each day was sobering.
It was time to head West, the road crossing and re-crossing the Buller River. Deep turquoise, it runs through rocky chasms and under wide bridges, and dawdles in wide beds between pebble pastures.
Our destination this time was the ghost town of Denniston.
I’ve mentioned Jenny Pattrick before. Her first novel, the one I bought on our previous visit, is ‘The Denniston Rose.’ I’d read it as we journeyed round, and when I’d finished it, I told Mr W about it.
“Oh, Denniston’s a real place,” he said. “We weren’t far from it last week.”
So Denniston was a must-visit this time.
A half hour drive out of Westport, it thrived on the coal industry between 1880 and 1967. Up on the Rochfort Plateau coal was loaded into wagons that then slid almost vertically down an incline of 518 metres to the bottom, where it was taken by train to the coast. It was illegal for people to ride it, but many risked it anyway.
A community formed round the miners. You could say life was bleak. On the rocky ground it was hard to grow fruit, vegetables or flowers. Coffins needed to be lowered on top of coal mines to be buried on lower, softer ground. Furniture had to be brought up via the coal wagons. But it’s interesting what their priorities were. Before a proper road was built, they’d established a hotel, a school, a police station and the School of Mines and Working Men’s Club. There was a strong ethos of education and socialism, and though girls were expected to look after the home, they were also encouraged to excel at school.
It always amazes me how quickly nature reclaims the ground. An earthquake a year after the closure covered part of the upper incline. Iron wheels and wagons litter the site, but of the homes there, little remains – half a wall here, a flight of angled steps there with nothing at the top. There are two homes further up the hill, set so far back from the historical area that they are quite out of sight unless you drive further up the mountain road.
From Westport we were headed for Wanaka. The coastal road winds through wild forests, dipping down to wet, empty beaches, where scattered homes watch the sea spray. Storms had brought down a landslip, blocking the second half of coastal road and sending us back east for a long detour that took us over Arthur’s Pass and the wonderful South Island Alps.
The hills of Otago look bleak and barren, but when you get up close you’ll see they’re covered in grassy tussocks, green in the centre, gold-tipped. Wanaka, our destination for the night, sparkled with light and lake. The journey had taken us twelve hours, and every twist of the road brought us a new vista of glory.
Wanaka is famous for a museum and a tree. The museum is Puzzle World, full of optical illusions 2D and 3D. Being a wordy woman, I was particularly intrigued by the ambigrams – to quote the museum information itself, “a typographical creation that presents two or more separate words within the same physical space.
Next stop, Queenstown.
The first time we visited this tourist destination, we’d travelled the coastal route. After days of tiny towns where Saturday lunchtime marked the start of the weekend and everything closed until Monday, Queenstown – full of bars and restaurants, lights and laughter – was a welcome break. It’s probably more a mark of my age than a change in the town, that now I found it loud and touristy. You can also spend a small fortune here on extreme sports. Most of the activity on offer involves throwing yourself off something – high wire, hang gliding, bunjee…Fortunately, there are also walking opportunities, whether up the mountain track (who needs a gondola?!) or round the lake.
You can also escape to Arrowtown, because this delightful little place a short drive away preserves many buildings from the Gold Rush era, including the tiny homes of Chinese gold miners.
When Jack Tewa, a Maori shearer, discovered gold in the Arrow River at the spot that became Arrowtown, his employer, William Rees, asked him to keep it a secret: Rees was keen to complete his shearing without the drama of a gold rush. Tewa kept his word but others made a similar discover and the news spread. By the end of the year 1,500 miners camped by the Arrow River, flooding in from all over the world. Men and women also flocked to offer services: the miners lived hard lives, but they needed to eat and they liked to drink.
One of the women was Julia Eichardt, born in Ireland, taken to Australia by her mother. Starting as a barmaid at the Queen’s Arms hotel, she married the owner and continued to run it after his death as Eichardt’s. A no-nonsense woman like many female New Zealanders, she seems to have been equally famous for throwing drunken customers into the ‘stone jug’ (a room, mercifully, not a receptacle for beer) and opening an extension fitted with electric lights – the first commercial premises in the world to do so – by hijacking the town’s water supply and running it through a pelton wheel. It makes sense to me that New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote for Parliamentary elections.
The next stage of our journey took us east once more, with scenic stops. Kawarau Bridge is THE place to bungee, but today the one person who’d paid up stood shivering and crying on the edge, and we felt like voyeurs watching, so we moved on. Roaring Meg is a stream that drives a hydroelectric power station as it merges into the Kawarau River. Pines on the slope above it have been condemned as wildings, like various other swathes of non-native timber. Once they were planted by colonials to remind themselves of home and provide materials for building or burning, but the birds and small creatures that had thrived on the local flora began falling in number. Sprayed with chemicals, the pines stand dead, waiting to fall and rot away – a ghost forest. The sun was out as we reached Lake Tekapo, with its photogenic chapel and fields of lupins.
We were bound now for Christchurch, our home in the 90s. As a couple, we’d arrived with two rucksacks and a lot of hope. Living in a former motel, a unit with shower, galley kitchen, living area and bedroom, we’d worked a variety of jobs to pay the rent. We were looked after by lovely friends from the church we went to on Sundays, and I was welcomed by the local writers group. Christchurch was designed to be the perfect English town, with its roads named after bishops and its gorgeous Gothic architecture. We were both fond of lingering in the town square, with the cathedral as backdrop. If you were lucky, the bagpiper, in full tartan regalia, was away. If you were really lucky, you could hear the famous Wizard with his soap-box oratories, proving that shopping causes wars or selling his maps of the world from the Kiwi point of view. Then it would be time to find coffee or lunch, maybe in the old university, converted into an arts centre. Here, Ernest Rutherford, first person in history to split the atom, experimented for his masters in the former cloakroom, because there was no formal physics laboratory.
If we needed to stretch our legs (and Mr W always needs to stretch his legs) we’d head the other way for the Port Hills, that brood over the town. At the start of the 20th century Harry Ell, aware of the declining population of native flora and fauna in the country, designed a series of resting places here to encourage others to explore and appreciate the area. As with many big projects, only a part was realised, but the houses that were built are splendid. At the foot of the hills sits the Sign of the Takahe, a Gothic wonder with stained glass windows, offering a restaurant and coffees. Higher up is the Sign of the Kiwi, a café with Tip-Top ice-cream, the best in the world. The Sign of the Bellbird and the Sign of the Packhorse offer simple shelter with no refreshments.
We’d been back since then, with our children, and spent a week revisiting all these wonders, though the Wizard and the bagpiper had retired. Not long after that the city was devastated by two earthquakes. We’d seen pictures on the news, and heard from our friends of the psychological impact. We weren’t sure what to expect on our return this time.
Tune in to Part 3 to read about post-earthquake Christchurch and Auckland’s night markets!