Showing posts with label Katherine Langrish. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Katherine Langrish. Show all posts

Saturday, 12 January 2013

A Year of Books by Ann Evans

What sort of books to you like reading? That's a question I often get asked when I'm doing a school visit. Usually I find myself waffling on a bit because I like all kinds of books – children's and adults and often have a few books on the go, so I can always find something to read that suits my mood.

Looking back over the last 12 months, I thought I'd pick out a dozen or so books that I've read and which have left a lasting impression one way or the other. I wonder, if you looked back over your reading list for the last year whether you'd discover one particular genre you tend to go for, or if like me, you jump randomly from one thing to another. 

My two most recent reads are Claimed by Vicky Lewis Thompson, and The Wedding Charade by Melanie Milburne - two saucy Mills & Boons. I've been trying to write a Mills & Boon for donkey's years. I've had some success with other romance stories but a M&B success still eludes me. So as well as enjoying these books, I'm also doing my research too.

Everybody Jam by Ali Lewis was another book read during 2012. A friend leant me this book because I needed to get the feel of Australian living and speech for a book I was working on for Penguin. Everybody Jam is written through the eyes of 13-year old Danny who lives on a cattle ranch in the Australian outback where the family are struggling to get over the death of another child. I hadn't expected to enjoy this book, but I did.

Firstborn, Karen King's delightful dragon fantasy adventure book was another really enjoyable read, and was one of the first ebooks I downloaded onto my new kindle at the beginning of 2012. 

Another great children's book which I absolutely loved was Katherine Langrish's Dark Angels, and what was so exciting was that I'd read the book without realising it had been written by our very own Sassie Katherine. For some unknown reason, I hadn't looked at the author's name until after I'd finished reading it – doh! It was such a lovely surprise!

Indie book The Survival of Thomas Ford by John A A Logan was another great read. John is a member of Authors Electric which I also belong to, and this was just one of the fantastic reads I've downloaded in e-form over the past year.

I bought Pincher Martin by William Golding at a second hand book sale held at our Coventry Writers' Group meeting for about 30p. It was first published in 1958 and is one of those books that sticks in your mind. The beginning hooked me straight away, the middle almost drove me mad with frustration at the repetition and difficulties the protagonist endured and twice I put it down deciding I couldn't read on. But read on I did and was blown away by the ending – so much so, that I will read this book again one day.

I'm a big fan of Stephen King books although I don't like horror! This year I've enjoyed two blockbuster novels of his. Under The Dome being one, and as soon as I'd finished that I started on 11.22.63. Desperate to get through them, while not really wanting them to end, it resulted in reading long into the wee small hours instead of getting a good night's sleep. 

Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold was a fascinating read. I'd not heard of it until I went to a quirky book 'speed dating' event at my local library. It had nothing to do with dating actually, but had that same format only instead of telling people about yourself, you chatted for two minutes about your favourite book. One person was raving about this title which is based around Charles Dickens and his wife, so, so I just had to bring it home with me.

At the same event I head about Fatherland by Robert Harris, which is all about the German SAS but it's fiction and its setting is Germany after winning the war. Incredibly thought provoking book that I would highly recommend. But certainly not a 'light' read.      

And now to Hilary Mantel. Her book Beyond Black was the first book of hers I had read – and loved this beautifully written story of troubled psychic Alison. I then read Giving up the Ghost – a memoir, again a fascinating insight into her life. I'd thought mistakenly that I would love anything that she wrote, but discovered this not to be so. The Giant O'Brien is about a poverty stricken Irish giant who goes to London to earn a living by appearing as a freak. I found it so depressing and was quite disappointed to learn I didn't like all her work. I also tried the multi award winning Wolf Hall which I found too confusing and gave up halfway through - sorry to everyone who loves it!

So, a year of varied reading. How about you, have you read any good books lately?

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Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Delicate Art of Book Recommendation - Lucy Coats

Tricky things, book recommendations.  I get asked for them a lot.  Mostly, it's people wanting something for their child to read, and that's fine, I can throw out a few excellent titles (old or new) at the drop of a hat for almost any age.  I've even put a starter library together for a young godchild, which I'm adding to as the years go by.  I try to keep up with the children's book industry - after all it is my job to know what's current, what's hot, what's good (not necessarily the same thing).

But what about when adults ask me for recommendations for them?  If they're friends, I generally know what their tastes are, so you'd think it would be easy.  But it isn't.  I've had enough spectacular failures with friends to know that.  "Oh! You didn't like it? I'm so sorry!" I say, in that very British way of apologising for something that isn't really my fault.  Tastes differ, as every author knows who has got a five star review on Amazon next to a one star. I'm quite wary about recommending titles to complete strangers at parties or on trains or planes (yes, I've been asked for bookish recommendations on both of those), although a chance to conduct a discreet interrogation on what people have enjoyed before is always a fun way to pass the time.

But what about me?  How do I find good adult books to read, ones which I might otherwise have missed? Well, there's the Twitterati route.  If there's a continuing buzz from the book bloggers around something I haven't heard of, I'll always take a look, and sometimes buy.  That happened with Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Erin Morgernstern's The Night Circus, both of which I found via Twitter and loved.  I also follow Amanda Craig's reviews very closely, as I know that she and I share similar tastes in fantasy. The other source of good recommendations for me is fellow children's book authors.  If they write kids' or YA books I like, I generally find that they'll read adult stuff I like too, even if it's something I had previously been resistant to.

Take the genre of science fiction, forinstance. I've always been pretty resistant to the majority of that (apart from a couple of titles) - which is strange for someone who loves fantasy so much.  They aren't that far apart in the realms of the imagination, but the idea of spaceships and machines and all that technology has never really appealed to me.  But then Kath Langrish, (author of the brilliant West of the Moon trilogy), suggested I read someone called Kage Baker.  Well, but...Kage Baker writes science fiction.  "You don't like science fiction," said one little voice in my head. "But you do trust Kath," said another.  To cut a long story short, I tried Kage Baker.  It was a lesson to me not to judge and dismiss a whole genre just because it is labelled a certain way, and I have certain preconceptions about it.  I enjoyed Kage's series of Company Novels more than anything I've read in a long time.  They're witty, complicated, intricate books of charm and complexity which made me laugh, think and cry (sometimes all at the same time).  They mix historical past, familiar present and scarily techo futures in a way that woke up my brain and set it dancing in whole new rhythms.   Because of that one recommendation from Kath (for books I'd never have considered otherwise), I think I might have to look at more science fiction now - as if my reading pile wasn't high enough already.  What next? Can anyone conquer my really truly visceral hatred of the adult horror novel? All recommendations welcome!

Lucy Coats's Greek Beasts and Heroes series is out now from Orion, and her new picture book, Bear's Best Friend, is coming from Bloomsbury in March 2013.
Lucy also blogs at Scribble City Central, where she is currently running the Fantabulous Fridays A-Z, a series of specially commissioned pieces from different childrens' and YA authors on mythical beasts and beings from all cultures.
Lucy's own website is here

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Research with a Notebook: Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish

I rediscovered an old notebook the other day.  There's been a recent discussion on Terri Windling's blog 'The Drawing Board' about using good old-fashioned notebooks for scribbling down ideas for books - the advantages: low tech, cheap, versatile, and can go with you anywhere.  This particular notebook of mine illustrates that point particularly well, as it went with me into the dark depths of an extremely cramped ancient mine.  No way would I have carted an expensive electronic notepad down there! 

I'd wanted an underground sequence for parts of my 12th century medieval fantasy, 'Dark Angels' - most accounts of fairyland in that period assumed it existed underground, in hidden caves - and I wanted my hero's experience to be authentic.  No magical lights or handy phosphorescence - just a candle, and - when the candle goes out - darkness.

So I went off to Ogof Llanymynech, a Shropshire cave, and crawled in on hands and knees, accompanied by my husband and a guide from a Shropshire Mining club.  Once a hundred yards or so inside, and just before the bit where you actually had to lie down and squirm, I let the others go on, switched off my helmet light and sat in the dark for a while before turning it back on and making in situ notes:

Muddy up and down crawls with sharp and extremely gritty mud.  cold and damp with dripping water - breath forms clouds.  lots of little white drops on the slanted rock ceiling - the knock and click and tumble of scattering rocks - low rumble of distant talk in another chamber -  a low throbbing - a lost fly buzzes past, startling - you could easily get lost as it has - the distant entrance only a fuzzy patch like a tuft of grey wool - another passage - a little tuck of darkness at the side of the floor

And, heading back for the entrance -

greenish light - irregular - glitter of light on stones, the flash of water dripping - the rich green of the outside.

Notes like these are casual, immediate, and work as touchstones for the memory, reviving the experience so I can tap into it when doing the 'serious' writing. On a second trip, we did some filming, and here's the result - my new book trailer which I hope will convery some of the sinister beauty of the Shropshire landscape and legends which I tried to capture in 'Dark Angels'.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Magical Rooms in Fiction - Katherine Langrish

The Children Of Green Knowe Ill. Lucy Boston
When I was twelve, my brother and I had a den in an unused outbuilding belonging to the house we lived in. We trod a narrow winding path through a deep bed of green nettles to get to the flaking, rickety door; we whitewashed the walls and found some old broken stools and chairs to furnish it. It was our private place. And we made a cardboard sign to hang on the door and ward off intruders: it read, in drippy red paint: Beware! 10,000 Volts!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Child is Father (Mother) to the Man (Woman) - by Katherine Langrish

Many of the stories I wrote as a child still survive.  At the time I was writing them I thought they were pretty good: and in fact I think children ought to believe their own creative work is good.  They always move on.  Anyone who has much to do with children knows the disdain with which a nine-year-old regards last year’s – or last term’s – paintings or drawings, even the ones which you, their mother or father, actually cherish and keep pinned on the fridge.  “It’s really bad,” they’ll say critically, “I can do much better now.”

I like that confidence.  It’s a great thing to believe that you’re only going to get better.  Most children up to the age of ten possess it, because, frankly, that is what experience has taught them.  Once they couldn’t tie their shoelaces, now they can.  Once they couldn’t ride a bike, now they can.  Once – long ago in kindergarten – they cried, babyishly.  Now they look forward to going off to school and meeting their friends.

When I was about ten, therefore, I saw no reason at all why I shouldn’t be a fantastic writer or poet – perhaps even as good as Shakespeare!  And so I wrote lots of stories based on whatever I happened to enjoy reading at the time.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I imitated away to the best of my ability.  (This too is healthy – for children, anyway.) I wrote a whole bookful of ‘Tales of Narnia’, to augment the Seven Chronicles C.S. Lewis had already written.  I did it only because I wanted to read more Narnia stories, and Lewis couldn’t oblige, being dead.  I became vaguely aware that my own stories didn’t provide the same kind of pleasure as Lewis’s.  For one thing, I knew what was going to happen – I was making the characters do things, I was in charge. But if it was a different kind of magic, it was magic nonetheless.  I was hooked on making stories as well as reading them.

Next after ‘Tales of Narnia’ came another volume of short stories I called ‘Mixed Magic’.  The best of them – the one that’s still possible to read with some enjoyment and without wincing – was about Peter Piper who picked the peck of pickled pepper, and was light-hearted and humorous: I was writing within my limits.  Still I yearned for high adventure and poetry, so the worst of these stories is called ‘Asgard’s Revenge’: Asgard was a white-maned sea horse, with a tendency to go on like this:

“My father is dead!” cried Asgard, wildly.  “Your lord is dead – dead – dead!  And he was killed by the accursed Lightnings!  Now will we crush the Lightnings and all their race!  Do you hear, O my people?  We will take the light from their eyes, the joy from their hearts!  Revenge!”  He stopped, overcome.

And well he might.  I’m blushing even now.  But – a couple of pages on, Asgard is given a horn to blow which will call up such a storm ‘as will touch heaven’s shimmering, glittering, star-interlaced web, and wash down the Pole Star.’  Overwritten, overwrought, derivative, maybe, but – for thirteen years old, which I was at the time - I don’t think I need to feel too ashamed. 

After 'Mixed Magic', under the influence this time of Mary Renault, I went on to try my hand at historical fiction.  I was at Ross on Wye Grammar School by now, and our Religious Studies lessons were much more along the lines of ‘archeology of the Bible Lands’. I read a bit in the textbook about Egypt of the Pharoahs, and wrote a full length book about Joseph and his brothers, told in the first person by Judah.  I did my thirteen year old best to research the thing, with the result that for about a decade afterwards I could recite the names of the Pharoahs and their dynasties in order (I can’t anymore). It runs to 158 handwritten pages and has a beginning, a middle and an end.  From this point on, I knew I had the stamina to complete a book.

Then I was blown away by Alan Garner’s 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' and 'The Moon of Gomrath'.  Off I went to read the Mabinogion, to get in touch with my Welsh roots (I had a Welsh grandmother) and, inevitably, to write a fantasy with a Celtic theme, about a young man pursued through wet woods by minions of the triple moon goddess, and encountering golden-faced indifferent elves dancing on old straight tracks.    And that one was followed by the first book I ever wrote which was all me, original, not really influenced by anyone much (except perhaps a touch of Walter de la Mare): a fantasy about a girl who walks into a picture of a Rousseau jungle and teams up with a monkey and a yellow bird and sets off on a quest. 

I sent that one off to an agent, but it came back.  And the next one was set in a modern (well, then modern) school, and involved bullying, psychological and physical, and a haunting, and wasn’t at all bad in places except that I had no idea where I was heading with the plot.  And the next one –

Well, the next one was 'Troll Fell'. It took me a very long time to write, as I’ve told elsewhere, but in the end it was published, and is the first part of my trilogy ‘West of the Moon’, republished this month in one volume.  Set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, it’s a historical fantasy which incorporates all sorts of folklore and fairytales.  It weaves together the elements I’ve been trying all my life to write about.  It’s romantic, dramatic: in places funny and in places tragic.  I owe so much to all the wonderful writers who’ve influenced me: yet this is mine, not theirs. 

Through practice, through admiration and imitation, through writing and writing and writing, I finally found something of my own to say, and knew who I was: and it turns out that I am still pretty much the exact same person who wrote ‘Asgard’s Revenge’ all those years ago – but it doesn’t embarrass me any more. That story was really bad, I know.

But I do it better now.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Serendipitous Oxfam - Katherine Langrish

A few weeks ago, Susan Hill launched an attack in the Spectator on Oxfam bookshops which she felt were posing unfair competition to independent new and second-hand bookshops.

I appreciate the sentiment, but I don't agree.  It seems to me that selling books for charity is no different from selling clothes for charity.  If I buy a skirt from an Oxfam shop, it’s always an extra, not something I’d set out to get.  It’s like beachcombing. You don’t go into an Oxfam bookshop looking for something specific: often you don’t even find anything you remotely want. But if you do find something, it’s totally serendipitous. You end up with a book you had never heard of, never dreamed existed, and could not possibly have found elsewhere. This – if you are like me, anyway – will not affect your other book-shopping activities.

Here’s an illustration. A few weeks ago, I noticed that Wantage Oxfam had a number of books about folklore displayed in the window. Of course I went in to look, because folklore is one of the subjects I’m passionate about, and I came out with a wonderful book by Duncan Emrich, published in 1972, called ‘Folklore on the American Land’ – which I blogged about here. (Do go and look, if only for the proverb about owl-shit.)

Besides this there were other titles which cried out to me and so I succumbed to a book of Japanese folktales, and a book called 'Patterns of Folkore' by Katharine Briggs, some Bantu myths, a scholarly two-volume set called ‘Peasant Customs and Savage Myths’, and a Norse saga I hadn’t come across before - and then, when I got them all home (hugging myself with glee) I noticed that some – by no means all, but several – of these books had the rather beautiful name Hélène La Rue inscribed on the flyleaf in elegant, sloping handwriting.

So I was curious. So I looked her up on Google. And this is what I found.

Hélène La Rue (born 1951 and died 13 July 2007), was a musician, musicologist, and curator of Oxford University’s Bate Collection – a wonderful collection of musical instruments dating from the medieval times down to the present. She was also a staff member of the famous Pitt Rivers Museum, the one dedicated to ethnography, full of curiosities. (This was the one my daughter, as a child, used to walk around with hands held up like blinkers to protect herself from the next appearance of a skull, mummy or shrunken head. I remember best the huge Pacific North-west totem pole, the models of ships and river craft: and the atmosphere, as of dusty Victorian collectors still hovering ghost-like in the wings.)

According an obituary written by her friend Mary Dejevsky, Hélène was a warm and delightful lady: “As a student, she appeared elegantly old-fashioned, and not only because she went up to Oxford in the aftermath of the wild Sixties. She retained a fondness for hearth and home that owed much to the intimacy of her French-Canadian background. And while she seemed quiet and shy, among friends she displayed a wicked sense of humour… cheerfully batting around ideas with the best of them, from current affairs and politics, through abstruse points of theology, to medieval music and the purpose of strange objects she thought just might once have served as musical instruments.”

Do the sum, and you can see she died tragically early. She sounds like a wonderful person, whom I would love to have met and talked with, though most likely, even though I live near Oxford, our paths would have never crossed. And at some point, some friend or family member had to perform the sad task that will have to be performed for all of us at some point – and dispose of the books that she had so lovingly collected. Oxfam must have seemed a good option and a good cause. And perhaps some person would buy and value them and love them.

I’m glad that person was me, and I’m glad that, though belatedly, I found out something about the owner. I hope she would be glad to think her books have found a good home. Viva Oxfam…

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Old Manuscripts - by Katherine Langrish

What do you do with old manuscripts?  I don’t mean crinkly old medieval manuscripts, I mean the manuscripts every writer owns, precious but useless piles of paper that represent months if not years of work – the forlorn not-dead-but-hardly-breathing remains of BOOKS THAT DID NOT MAKE IT.   I have at least six. 

I can’t bear to throw them out, yet there is absolutely zero chance of them ever being published.  Not only were they never good enough, they’re a stage of me which I’ve outgrown, like an old chrysalis, and I couldn’t fit back in.  On top of that, they’re too old-fashioned. 

Take a look at this:

An electric bell began to ring, violently, without stopping.  “Assembly!”
Another rush, this time for the classroom door.  No teachers about yet.  The corridor brimmed with people.  Tall arrogant prefects and groups of scruffy-looking blazer-clad boys.  First-form boys looking aggressive but clean, like choirboys playing rugger.  The little girls were being pushed aside in the rush: Linda caught sight of a frightened face near the wall. Noise and laughter echoed like sounds in a swimming pool, saturating the corridor clad in its dirty cream paint and pock-marked notice boards.
            The wide double doors to the hall were propped open: the flood surged in, slowed, broke into individuals who walked with more or less decorum to their places.
            Coughing: shuffling.  The slide of the khaki drugget underfoot.  Herringbone pattern of woodblocks showing through a split seam.  Mr Green, the music teacher, coming in talking over his shoulder to Miss Sykes: movement of interest among the girls.  Mr Green was popular: he was married but rumoured to be in love with Miss Sykes, and it made the older girls jealous.  He sat down at the organ, grinned at Mr Harvey who was up on the stage fixing hymn numbers, and made the organ groan breathily.  Then he made it squeak. Laughter interrupted the general chatter.
            The Head came in, wearing a black gown over his suit and banged for silence.  He was smiling with a rather forced cheerfulness.  The noise gradually faded into loud shushings from boys who knew the safe ways of being noisy. Precarious silence.

Yes, I wrote this – about thirty years ago.  It’s not badly written, and it was then a fairly accurate representation of the beginning of a new term at a completely ordinary grammar school.  Now – well, it’s just possible that some schools do still have blazers and prefects and electric bells, but I bet they’re not in the state sector; they won’t be holding quasi-religious assemblies for the whole school, the way it happened in my day; I don’t know when I last saw a ‘drugget’ (amazing word); and head teachers no longer wear gowns. 

So, sadly, even in the unlikely case that I do decide to write a new story with a school setting, I can never use this passage.  My personal memories and experiences of school are too out of date to be useful.  (A lot of amateur writers don’t realise this, and rely upon distant memories and – worse still – recollections of the sort of books they themselves read as children, and waste their time producing manuscripts that seem dusty and old-fashioned.  I’ve read manuscripts where it’s been quite obvious the only reason the action is set in 1975 is because that’s when the writer was a child. Unless there’s a valid plot-related reason to set your book in 1975, you had better not do so. )

All the same, I can’t bring myself to chuck the manuscript in the recycling.  (It was called ‘The Outsiders’, Reader, and was a supernatural thriller about an unpopular girl who attracts – erm – the wrong sort of friends.  The writing was good in parts, but the structure was a mess.)

Then there was the Alan Garner-y one about the children who meet a strange fugitive in the woods, who turns out to be on the run from the death-aspect of the Triple Moon Goddess (yes, her again) – and involved standing stones, unfriendly elves with golden faces, owls, ruins, and mazes.  And there was one about the girl who finds her way through a picture into a magical jungle.  I really loved this one for a few years, but looking at it now I see it’s appallingly overwritten.  The jungle found its way into my prose, and you could choke to death on the descriptive writing.  Only my mother could ever have had the patience to read it.  No one else will ever want to do so, nor would I wish it – so why can’t I throw the thing out?  Why?  Why?

There they sit, taking up much-needed space in the drawer, too embarrassing and poorly written to re-read myself, but once so worked over, so dearly beloved!  And so I ask again –

What do you do with old manuscripts?  What do you do? 

 Visit my website and my blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Hearing Voices - Katherine Langrish

If hearing voices is a form of saintliness or madness, all authors are mad saints. Creating characters means knowing them from the inside out and being able to ‘hear’ how they think and how they talk. An out-going, confident character will reflect that in his or her speech. A nervous character will sound diffident, hesitant, or perhaps more formal. The goal is to create a distinctive voice for each of the main characters. They should not all sound alike.

This is important even if you are writing in the first person. First person narratives can be in danger of sounding anonymous and samey. I’ve read a few first person teen novels which, apart from the names, you could be forgiven for assuming were all about the same heroine, a sort of generic ‘15/16 year old modern girl’. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s an expert at work:

You know that old film they always show on the telly at Christmas, the Wizard of Oz? I love it, especially the Wicked Witch of the West, with her cackle and her green face and all her special flying monkeys. I’d give anything to have a wicked winged monkey as an evil little pet. It could whiz through the sky, flapping its wings and sniffing the air for that awful stale instant-coffee-and-talcum powder teacher smell and then it would s-w-o-o-p straight onto Mrs Vomit Bagley and carry her away screaming.
(“The Dare Game”, Jacqueline Wilson, 2000)

And we know this girl. She’s exuberant, imaginative, funny, a rebel – Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Tracy Beaker’. It looks easy, but it’s not. It would be VERY easy to write something similar but far less engaging:

There’s an old film they often show on the telly at Christmas, the Wizard of Oz. I’ve always loved it, and my favourite character is the Wicked Witch of the West. I like the way she cackles, and her green face, and all her special flying monkeys. I’ve always wished I could have a wicked winged monkey for a pet…

This has lost all its energy and sounds written down, not spoken.

Then there’s the pitfall of dialects and regional accents. Here, a little goes a very long way. Unless you yourself are steeped in a dialect or accent, it’s easy to get it wrong and sound phony. Avoid “begorrah’s” and “eeh, by gum’s”; avoid too many dropped ‘h’s’ and rhyming slang. Of course, if you are really at home with an accent, it can add enormously to your writing. In this extract, an eighteenth century Yorkshire drummer boy walks out of a hill – and out of his own time:

“I wasn’t so long,” said the drummer. “But I niver found nowt. I isn’t t’first in yon spot; sithee, I found yon candle. Now I’s thruff yon angle, and it hasn’t taken so long, them bells is still dinging. It’s a moy night getting. But come on, or they’ll have the gate fast against us and we’ll not get our piggin of ale.”
“Who are you?” said Keith.
“I thought thou would ken that,” said the boy. “But mebbe thou isn’t t’fellow thou looks in t’dark.”

“Earthfasts” William Mayne, 1966

If you’re not this confident (and most of us aren’t), be sparing in your use of dialect words. The reader will be able to use a few subtle pointers to ‘fill in’ the accent from his or her own experience, and that’s better than getting it wrong. Slight changes to grammar will sometimes help. A nineteenth century servant girl might be likely to say, “What was you thinking of, talking to the missus like that?” rather than, “What were you thinking of?” Be consistent, though. If she starts out talking like this, she has to keep it up.

If you are writing historical fiction, it’s better for your dialogue to sound timelessly modern, than to wallow in a sea of what Robert Louis Stevenson used to call ‘tushery’: peppering your dialogue with phony “forsooth’s”, “tush-tushes” and “by my halidom’s”. Modern writers are less likely to make this mistake, but note that ‘timelessly’ means you cannot use modern colloquialisms. Cavaliers and Victorians cannot convincingly use 20th century idioms like ‘OK’. Check the Oxford Dictionary if you’re not sure. There are always surprises. ‘Kid’ for ‘child’ goes right back to the eighteenth century.

Then there’s a disease to which fantasy writers in particular are terribly prone. I call it ‘Wizard’s Waffle’, and it involves using grammatical inversions and a stilted, archaic vocabulary in an attempt to make your character sound wise (and sometimes to conceal the fact that neither you nor he actually have very much to say.) It’s partly Tolkien’s influence: he uses deliberately ‘high’ or heroic language when he wants to emphasise the importance of an event. At the end of “The Return of the King”, characters sound positively Biblical. Aragorn, accepting the crown of Gondor, says:

“By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head…for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory.”

It’s grand, but it’s dull: Aragorn’s character is completely submerged by the style. If he talked like this all the time, we would soon lose interest in him: fortunately, for most of the book, he doesn’t. But at least Tolkien, a Professor of Philology, knew how to handle archaic grammar and cadences. Many modern writers don’t – so if you are irresistibly tempted towards the ‘what-say-the-elves-on-this-matter’ type of dialogue, get the grammar right. The verb ‘to be’ used to be conjugated thus:

I am
Thou art (familiar singular)
Ye be/you are (polite singular)
He/she/it is
We are
You are (plural)
They are

This, of course, is why the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ with its thee’s and thou’s is actually the familiar way of speaking to God – not, as I used to think when I was little, a special dressed-up sort of way.

Two more often-misused verbs:

I have
Thou hast (familiar singular) 
You have (polite singular)
He/she/ it hath
We have 
You have (plural)
They have

I do
Thou dost (familiar singular)
You do (polite singular)
He/she/it doth
We do (plural)
You do (plural)
They do

Commit all this to memory and you will be preserved from Monty Pythonesque dialogue along the lines of, “Fair knight, I prithee tell me if ye art Sir Lancelot? For the omens doth foretell that only he canst save me.”

Mind you, in the right hands, all these rules can be creatively bent, twisted and broken. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld characters frequently say things like ‘OK’ and it doesn’t matter a bit, because Discworld is really our own world in a carnival mask – and Pratchett has wise and wonderful things to say about it.

When I was writing the Troll series, set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, I tried my best to make the characters sound fresh without being too obviously modern. Vocabulary was one way. It may sound obvious, but you can’t have ‘battleship grey’ at a time before there are any grey battleships, for example. Angry people may ‘shout’, but should not ‘explode’, centuries before any grenades or bombs. At one point I thought very hard before allowing myself to use the verb ‘corkscrewed’ to describe a twisting underground passage. Clearly, Vikings didn’t have corkscrews. But I decided that, in context, no image of an actual corkscrew would spring incongruously to mind. I don’t mind the occasional anachronism – so long as I know it’s there…

In my latest book “Dark Angels” (“The Shadow Hunt” in the USA), set in the 12th century, there’s one character who sounds more modern than the others. His name is Halewyn, and he is – or masquerades as – a wandering jongleur, a sort of intinerant juggler-cum-minstrel. The boy, Wolf, is angry because Halewyn has brought an unguarded flame into the stables where the mysterious elf-girl is kept.

Halewyn stood in the glimmering drizzle, hanging his head so extravagantly that the donkey-ears on his cap drooped.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. He pounded his thin chest. “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Anything you’d like me to do in penance? Turn a somersault? Do three cartwheels across the yard, dodging the puddles? Sing a song standing on my head?”
Wolf couldn’t help laughing. “No, it’s all right. Just remember, flames are dangerous in stables and barns.”
“Oh, I will. I’ll be very, very careful.” Halewyn perked up. “At least I saw her,” he said buoyantly. “And now, take me to your leader.”

‘Take me to your leader.’ Why would I put such an iconic modern phrase into the mouth of a 12th century character? And the answer is: Because Halewyn isn’t quite what he seems. He is  – well, I'd better not say, but he’s immortal – and being immortal, I think he can transcend time and speak ‘out of turn’ and out of his century.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Wild Hunt and the Flying Monk - Katherine Langrish

Because we are getting a new puppy (tarantara!) we recently drove over to Malmesbury, Wiltshire, to visit her.  Malmesbury is a sweet little hillside country town with the remains of a huge medieval abbey.  And I mean HUGE.  It was founded around 676, built and rebuilt, and by 1180 possessed a 431 foot spire, easily beating Salisbury Cathedral. So it was pretty catastrophic when, circa 1500, the spire was struck by lightning and collapsed; and then the west tower also fell down fifty years later and – well, what’s left is impressive but nothing compared to past glories.

For a small place, Malmesbury has a colourful past. A gravestone in the churchyard commemorates the death in 1703 of a barmaid called Hannah Twynnoy who was killed by a tiger: 

In bloom of Life
She’s snatched from hence
She had no room
To make defence
For Tyger fierce
Took life away
And here she lies in a bed of Clay
Until the Resurrection Day.

The tiger belonged to a travelling circus which parked in the inn yard.  Like Albert in ‘Albert and the Lion’, it seems that Hannah could not resist teasing the animal - with fatal consequences.

A luckier and much earlier Malmesbury character was described by the chronicler William of Malmesbury, a monk of the abbey who wrote several books including a history of the Kings of Britain up to the Conquest.  It is this book in which he details the magnificent escapade of the flying monk.  Some time in the early 1000’s, the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury flew something like a primitive hang glider off the top of one of the abbey towers:

“He had by some means, I hardly know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet, so that he might fly like Daedalus, and collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong (220 yards).  But, agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of the air… he fell, broke both his legs, and was lame ever after.”  Enthusiastic despite his injuries, Eilmer declared that he knew what had gone wrong: his glider needed a tail. He was probably right. And he wanted to have another go, but his abbot – who must have been a long-suffering and enlightened man to allow him to try in the first place – utterly forbade it. 

My book ‘Dark Angels’ (‘The Shadow Hunt’ in the USA) is set in the late 12th century, and I spent months researching the period.  I wanted to know as much as I could about ways of life in a monastery and in an (already old-fashioned) motte-and-bailey castle.  I wanted to immerse myself in the stories 12th century people told and sang, and the legends they believed in.  There was no better place to find this out than from the medieval chronicles themselves.  They are irresistible once you get going, full of colour and vigour and human emotions.  Take an example from the Peterborough version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the progressive year-by-year account of important events which was kept and copied up with some slightly different variants from 1042 to 1155.  The thing to remember is that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was written in the vernacular – in Old English, not in Latin. Hence the name. This meant that after the Norman Conquest, as far as newly appointed Norman French abbots were concerned, the Chronicle was effectively written in code.  These abbots could read Latin and French; they couldn’t read English.  So for the year 1127, the monk writing the chronicle is free to say exactly what he thinks about his new abbot, Henry of Poitou, who has been appointed by the King: 

“Thus miserably was the abbacy given, between Christmas and Candlemas, at London, and so he [Henry] went with the king to Winchester and from there he came to Peterborough, and there he stayed exactly as drones do in a hive.  All that the bees carry in, the drones eat and carry out, and so did he…”

So far, vivid enough – but this is merely the lead-in to a piece of vituperation which has become famous as an account of one of the earliest apparitions of the Wild Hunt in Britain!  Our anonymous but angry chronicler continues: 

“Let it not be thought remarkable when we tell the truth, because it was fully known all over the country, that as soon as he came… then soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting.  The hunters were big and black and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats.  This was seen in the very deerpark of the town of Peterborough… and the monks heard the horns blow that they were blowing at night…

“This,” our chronicler concludes darkly, “was his coming in – of his going out we can say nothing yet.  May God provide!”

In other words, the Peterborough account of the Wild Hunt is informed by the Peterborough monks’ hatred of their new, foreign, and greedy abbot.  It’s a splendid piece of mud-slinging, which has preserved an even more splendid bit of folklore – and yes, it did find its way into my book.   

For more stories visit my website at  or my blog: Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Friday, 15 January 2010

"The Fury of the Norsemen" - The Appeal of the Vikings - by Katherine Langrish

Three of the four books I’ve written so far are set in the Viking Age, and when I visit schools, children often want to know why. Well, obviously Vikings are great material for exciting and bloodthirsty narratives. If I ask the children themselves to describe what Vikings mean to them, hands shoot up, and they say things like: ‘bloodthirsty’, ‘raiders’, ‘killing people with axes’. And I say, ‘That’s all true, but did you know they were also farmers, sailors, discoverers, poets, and adventurers?’

As a writer I’m fascinated by the paradoxes of the Viking age. Here are these hugely energetic, independent, self-reliant people, bursting out of Scandinavia and sailing all over the world, to Byzantium, to Russia – raiding the British coast, discovering and colonising Iceland and Greenland, crossing to North America. Yet their appetite for adventure is intensely practical; it’s all about things we can understand – obtaining goods, winning land for farms, settling down in a new place to raise families.

The whole period is one of colour, excitement, change. Norway and Iceland didn’t adopt Christianity until around 1000. That’s incredibly late for Europe as a whole, so you get this tension between pagan and Christian ideas, sometimes with members of the same family holding different beliefs – amulets with the cross on one side and Thor’s hammer on the other so that people could hedge their bets. We’re so entirely used to post-Christian Europe that it’s really intriguing to peer into this mirror where things were different. (And this may be the reason why so many people vaguely assume that the Vikings are, er, sort of prehistoric. A couple of years ago, Waterstones in Oxford had their Viking books shelved under ‘Prehistory’…) Christianity, it seems to me, expends a great deal of ingenuity attempting to reconcile the notion of a loving God with the world as we see it. The Vikings accepted that their world was a violent and unfair place. Even the gods were not immune from destruction. The best thing was to earn the respect of gods and men. “Cattle die, kindred die: every man is mortal. One thing never dies: a man's good name.”

And we can share their admiration of those who did their best to live up to that motto, often with grim humour:

“Bury me on that headland I thought so suitable for a home,” says Thorvald Eiriksson (mortally wounded by an arrow, in the Greenland Saga). “I seem to have hit on the truth when I said I would settle there.”

In modern terms, Thorvald richly deserved his fate, having just massacred several Native Americans as they lay asleep. Iceland’s great poet, Egil Skallagrimsson, was just six years old when he deliberately killed a playmate with his axe. Violent, ruthless, canny, yet capable of great sensitivity and author of a heartbreaking poem on the death of his son who drowned at sea, he typifies the Viking Age hero – not a man you would be happy to have for a next-door neighbour. I was thinking of Egil when I wrote the character of Harald Silkenhair for ‘Troll Blood’ – whether it’s a gun, or a sword, how do we stand up to the threat of violence? What is it to be a hero? What is true bravery? These are questions the Vikings were deeply concerned with, and so are we, however different our answers may be.

Visit Katherine's website and her new blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Our Craft and Sullen Art - Katherine Langrish

'In My Craft or Sullen Art'  by Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

There was a time when I read more poetry than I do now. I was younger, of course. I got drunk on words, I learned poems easily; I muttered them under my breath while waiting for buses; I repeated them at night – poem after poem - to send myself sliding away on a raft of poetry down a river of dreams. Actually I still do all these things, except that I don’t read so much new poetry anymore, and I find it harder to memorise.

Dylan Thomas’s poems lent themselves to being declaimed aloud. Incantatory. (I suppose being Welsh he knew all about being a bard.) Anyhow, I used to chant them to myself on walks, and even though some of them were pretty obscure – like unutterably amazing crossword puzzle clues – they filled the mouth and rolled out like thunder:

“Altarwise by owl-light in the halfway house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies.”

What did it mean? Who cared? It sounded bloody good. And to be fair, there was plenty of obscure poetry about in the 1970’s when I was reading these things. Almost every glam-rock album could do the mysteriously evocative stuff. Look at early Genesis! I kind of stopped bothering about the meaning: I was listening to the music. I suppose even then I preferred those poems I could also make sense of – the luminous ‘Fern Hill’ or ‘Poem in October’: but meaning was – for me, then – secondary to music.

Nowadays, though I still love the music, I’m looking for meaning too. So revisiting ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’ is a moving experience for me. Perhaps I couldn’t have understood it, back then – is it really so long ago? – when, although of course I wrote, I hadn’t even begun to understand the demands of writing as a discipline. Well, this poem shows that Dylan Thomas did - of course he did! - and maybe, just maybe, I’ve lived enough to begin genuinely to understand some of his poems.

"My craft, or sullen art.” How honest that adjective is: ‘sullen’: because writing can be so hard, so difficult – so damned uncooperative! You try and you try, and it’s not good enough, still not good enough, but you keep trying.  You keep on trying because what you’re really aiming for, what you want most – and he’s right, he’s right – is not money, not ‘ambition or bread’, not fame: ‘the strut and trade of charms/On the ivory stages’. No.

Don’t write for the special cases, don't write for the critics.  Don't write (as most of us don't dare, though Thomas might have dared) with an eye on posterity and the hope of joining the ranks of ‘the towering dead with their nightingales and psalms’. Don’t write for fame. Don’t write for money. You probably won’t get much of either. Write for the lovers, for living and breathing human beings getting on with life, who have no idea about the effort that goes into writing and who couldn’t care less.

Employ your difficult, sullen craft for the common wages of the secret heart.

Visit Katherine's website or her blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Monday, 23 November 2009

Writing for children - is it difficult? - Katherine Langrish

I’ve been reading an essay by Peter Hunt, a well-known academic and former Professor of English at Cardiff University, author of a number of critical studies of children’s literature. The essay is in a new on-line periodical, Write4Children and begins provocatively:

“Writing for children is more difficult than writing for adults, just as reading children’s books (for adults) is much more difficult than reading adults’ books.”

I read this and blinked. While it’s nice to come across a corrective to the all-too-common view that writing for children is so simple that any celebrity can take a crack at it, this did seem to be rushing to the opposite extreme. Maybe he’s trying to redress the balance? Hunt continues:

“Somewhere in the equation is a child, or the idea of a child, or a group of children, or some amorphous mass defined as children, or a specific childhood, or the culture’s idea of childhood, or the publisher’s idea of childhood. Then there is our relationship with these various childhoods and our motives and our needs and their needs…

“All of these things have to be reflected in what we choose to write, and how we write it. It’s a complex business…”

Blimey! It’s enough to make you wonder how any of us ever manages to write a children’s book at all. The essay is a long and interesting one and deserves to be read in full, but I would like if I may to offer some personal reactions to Professor Hunt's opening salvos.

First off, I don’t find writing for children ‘more difficult’ than writing for adults. I’ve written very little for adults, perhaps a short story or two; and if I found writing for adults easier, I imagine I’d write for adults. And anyway, what does ‘easier’ mean? Hunt appears to suggest that the ‘difficulty’ he sees as inherent in writing for children has something to do with bridging the experiential gap between the child reader and the adult writer – so does he assume that writing for adults is in some way less effortful, involving less mediation and more shared assumptions? I’m not sure that’s a valid assumption. Adult readers are pretty diverse.

Second, I don’t find reading children’s books ‘more difficult’ than reading adults’ books. I love narrative and colour and a certain directness and unfussiness and clarity, and I love these things in literature wherever I find them, and children’s literature happens to be especially rich in these areas. But children’s literature can also be subtle and poetic and complex. I don’t analyse things as I read them – though I may analyse them later. When I read a book for the first time I read it, so far as I can tell, in pretty much the same way as when I was a child – with an open mind and an open heart and a desire to find out what happens…

Hunt’s essay makes it sound as though, before you write a book for children, you sit down and have a good think about who and what they are, how to reach them, what to include and exclude, and carefully examine one’s own motives for writing: ‘the good children’s book comes about from a respectful mutual negotiation of the ground between adult and child, taking into account needs and understandings’. I don’t see how this supposed process can be ‘mutual’ – children are not generally consulted in the writing of children’s books – and you would imagine on hearing this, that writing for children is as complicated as passing a resolution through the United Nations.

I never – consciously anyway – give any thought before writing, or while writing, to who my readers are. I don’t believe in any imperative to do so. It would get horribly in the way, and would feel irrelevant. While I’m writing, I’m focussed like every other writer on telling a particular story as well as I can. I have plenty of technical stuff to consider – how to make the writing sharp and focussed, deciding in what order things should happen, what episodes to include and which to cut – but I can honestly say that I’ve never, ever felt the fact that my readers will be (mainly) children as an added layer of difficulty. I’ve never modified my vocabulary, never worried about my ‘tone of voice’, never felt the need to censor anything. I write ‘for’ children merely because the stories I naturally write happen to appeal to them – as well as to some teens and adults.

It’s a good thing to recognise children’s literature as worthy of academic attention; it’s important to scrutinise what is being written for children and to distinguish the good from the mediocre, and to celebrate the best. Criticism has its place, the academic approach its interest, but Hunt’s account of the process of writing for children is so constructed, so dry and cerebral, so foreign to my own experience, that I have to wonder who are the people who would find it useful?

If I tried to do it his way, I’d end up like the centipede:

A centipede was happy quite,
Until a frog, in fun
Said ‘Pray, which leg moves after which?’
This raised her mind to such a pitch
She lay distracted in a ditch,
Not knowing how to run.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Value of Fantasy and Mythical Thinking - Katherine Langrish

Myths (so runs the myth) belong to past ages, when people were naïve enough to believe in them. Today, in scientific modern times, we’ve put away such childish things. So why bother with fantasy? Isn’t it just puerile escapism? Even children are expected to grow out of myths and fairytales, and surely any adult found reading or writing the stuff cannot expect to be taken seriously? Can fantasy really have anything meaningful to say?

These are interesting questions. Bear with me as I try to answer them in what may seem a round-about way. I’ll begin with an even bigger question:

What makes us human?

The answers to this one keep being refined. A special creation in the image of God – for centuries a popular and satisfying answer? Difficult to sustain as it became clear that we’re only one twig on the great branching tree of evolution. Language? Perhaps, but the more we study other animals and birds, the more we realise many of them communicate in quite sophisticated ways. Toolmaking? Not that distinctive, as chimpanzees and a variety of other animals employ twigs and stones as tools. Art? It depends what you mean by ‘art’ – if you think of bower-birds designing pretty nests to attract their mates, it seems clear that some animals do have an aesthetic capacity. So are we different from other animals at all?

Common sense says yes – at the very least, we have taken all these capabilities incomparably further than other animals – but is that really the best we can do for a definition? What was the point at which our ancestors became recognisably ‘us’, and in what does that recognition rest?

Innovation is one answer – the development and bettering of tools. Homo habilis and homo heidelbergensis lived with one basic design of hand axe for about a million years. When, on the other hand, we see signs of people messing about and tinkering and trying out new ideas, we recognise ourselves.

Related to this is another answer: symbolic thinking. Maybe some of our closest relatives are partially capable of it – a chimpanzee can recognise a drawing or a photograph, which means nothing to a dog. But wild chimps don’t indulge in representational art. Sometime, somewhere, somebody realised that lines of ochre or charcoal drawn on stone or wood could stand for a horse or a deer or an aurochs. That in itself is an amazing leap of cognition. On top of that, however, there had to be some fascination in the discovery, some reason to keep on doing it – some inherent, achieved meaning that had nothing directly to do with physical survival. What? Why?

Somewhere along the line, human beings became sufficiently self-aware to be troubled by death. When you truly understand that one day, you’ll die, the whole mystery of existence comes crashing down on you like the sky falling. Why are we here? What was before us? Where did we come from and where will we go?

The ‘mystery of existence’ is an artefact. We choose to ask an answerless question, and that question is at the core of our humanity. The before-and-after of life is a great darkness, and we build bonfires to keep it out, and warm ourselves and comfort ourselves. The bonfire is the bonfire of mythical thinking, of culture, stories, songs, music, poetry, religion, art. We don’t need it for our physical selves: homo heidelbergensis got on perfectly well without it: we need it for humanity’s supreme invention, the soul.

Karen Armstrong claims that religion is an art, and I agree with her. In her book ‘A Short History of Myth’ she examines the modern expectation that all truths shall be factually based. This is what religious fundamentalists and scientists like Richard Dawkins have, oddly, in common. A religious fundamentalist refuses to accept the theory of evolution because it appears to him or her to disprove the truth of Genesis, when what Genesis actually offers is not a factual but an emotional truth: a way of accounting for the existence of the world and the place of people in it with all their griefs and joys and sorrows. It’s – in other words – a story, a fantasy, a myth. It’s not trying to explain the world, like a scientist. It’s trying to reconcile us with the world. Early people were not naïve. The truth that you get from a story is different from the truth of a proven scientific fact.

Any work of art is a symbolic act. Any work of fiction is per se, a fantasy. In the broadest sense, you can see this must be so. They are all make-belief. Tolstoy’s Prince André and Tolkien’s Aragorn are equal in their non-existence. Realism in fiction is an illusion – just as representational art is a sleight of hand (and of the mind) that tricks us into believing lines and splashes of colour are ‘really’ horses or people or landscapes.

The question shouldn’t be ‘Is it true?’, because no story provides truth in the narrow factual sense. The questions to ask about any work of art should be like these: ‘Does it move me? Does it express something I always felt but didn’t know how to say? Has it given me something I never even knew I needed?’ As Karen Armstrong says, “Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever.” If that happens, you will know it. It makes no sense at all to ask, ‘Is it true?’

Fantasy still deserves to be taken seriously - read and written seriously - because there are things humanity needs to say that can only be said in symbols. Here’s the last verse of Bob Dylan’s song ‘The Gates of Eden’ (from ‘Bringing it All Back Home’):

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true:
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.

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Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Where Beth They Beforen Us Weren? - Katherine Langrish

I took a brisk walk out this morning to the Anglo-Saxon grave.

It was only discovered yesterday. We were out for an afternoon stroll in the mellow sunshine, taking a lane that runs out of the village towards the Downs in the distance, when we realised the wide, flat fields were full of widely separated, slowly walking figures (some women, but mostly men) with bowed heads, swinging long metal detectors like oddly shaped proboscises. Every so often one would stop and dig a little hole, pick something up, then wander on. The big farm was running a metal detectors’ rally, proceeds of the camping fees to cancer research.

We started talking to some of the men. One pulled out a wallet and showed us a medieval silver penny. Another had more pennies, Roman and medieval: and belt buckles: and buttons. ‘And over there,’ they all said, pointing towards the furthest field behind a belt of trees – ‘over there, that’s where they’ve found an Anglo Saxon grave!’

Everyone was alight with it. A huge gold brooch had been found, together with some bones. The police had been called immediately and had thrown a cordon around the site. The archeologists were already examining the brooch, which was over in the marquee beside the farm. We headed back to look for ourselves, on the way chatting to a group of three men who wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place at a Saxon chieftain’s burial. Big lads, with acres of tattoos. One had long black hair, another a shaved head. One wore an enormous plaited gold ring on his thick forefinger.

‘Any luck?’ we asked. They were friendly, shook their heads: ‘Nah. Only rubbish today. Here’s what we got, on this table over here, take a look if you like.’

‘If you want some, have some,’ added the black-haired man. ‘It’s rubbish. It’s all going in the bin otherwise. But have you heard about the gold brooch?’

On the table was a clutter of stuff. Bits of pottery, coins, harness buckles, buttons, crumpled tin and lead. ‘Take it! Take it all!’ exclaimed the black-haired man. He shovelled it all into a plastic container. It was heavy.

‘When you start this game,’ explained the man with the gold ring, ‘you’re really excited about a coin or two, but then you get ambitious. Tell them about that ring you found.’

‘18th century, with seven diamonds,’ said the man with the black hair.

‘We’ve all found rings, one time or another,’ said Gold Ring Man. He laughed. ‘Once you start this game, you get addicted.’

We went on down to the tent. The brooch was there on display. It was the size of a large jam-pot lid, with a white coral boss surrounded by an inlay of flat, square-cut, dark red garnets. Around that, a broad band of bright yellow gold, with four set garnets standing out from it. Then more coral. And around that, a ring of intricate silver filigree, now black and dirty. People pored over it, photographed it, stared at it with awe, excitement, and reverence.

‘There’ll be another one,’ the archaeologist was saying. ‘They always come in pairs.’ And he had a look at the ‘rubbish’ the big guys had let us take away. It included four Roman coins, a bit of a medieval ring brooch, some Roman pottery, a lead musket ball the size of a marble - cold and heavy in the hand - and an 18th century thimble. Just a tiny fraction of what still lies under the dusty ploughlands.

So this morning, as I was saying, I walked out to see the site of the grave. Our village is probably Anglo Saxon in origin. The site was about two miles out from the farm, along a flat and dusty track between the fields, tucked away behind a strip of woodland, with a view of the Downs three miles away. It was marked out with striped tape, like a crime scene, and guarded by police vehicles. One of the archeologists gave me a lift the last quarter mile.

‘We think it’s a high status chieftain,’ she said. ‘Seventh century.  We’ve found bones. We think it’ll be a major excavation.’

I stood there, in the sunshine and the light wind, looking at the place where, thirteen centuries ago, some Saxon warrior was laid to rest, and I had a lump in my throat.

Where beth they beforen us weren,
Houndes ladden and hawkes beren,
And hadden feld and wood?

I keep being told by my editor that there’s no market for historical children’s fiction; that it’s difficult to sell. Well, all I can say is, most of the people I met and talked to out on the fields yesterday were enthralled not merely by the idea of treasure hunting, but by the romance of the past. And well they might be, because this is England and the past is all around us. And surely children feel it too?

Where, asks the anonymous Middle English poet, are they who were here before us, who once led their hounds and carried their hawks and owned both field and wood?

Still here, it seems, is the answer.
They’re still here.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

On Arranging Books - Katherine Langrish

Many, many years ago I lost count of how many books I have. I only know that I don't have anything like enough bookshelves to keep them on. And of course I keep on acquiring the things. In only the last week, the tally runs something like this:

A secondhand copy of the Oxford Book of English Prose, which I couldn't resist and looks such a great book to keep in the car, for those little moments when I'm waiting in the Sainsbury carpark for my daughter to turn up.

A secondhand paperback Georgette Heyer, to relax with.

'The Crucible', 'Waiting for Godot', and Caryl Churchill's 'Top Girls', all from Oxfam.

'Blaze' by Stephen King, new from W.H.Smith's.

From the Red Cross Shop, a book called 'Silent Thunder: The Hidden Voice of Elephants', which looked too intriguing to pass over.

And a secondhand hardcover version of Susanna Clarke's 'The Ladies of Grace Adieu', even though I've already got the paperback, because, well, hey, it's Hardcover!

You see my problem. And I know you understand it, because I feel sure you have it too. Even though I do get rid of books - in driblets, in half-dozens, in great, wrenching pogroms - the tide keeps advancing.

I actually do have a system, and pretty well know where every book in the house is. I have a very good (through life-long training) visual and tactile memory for titles. I know, for example, that my copy of Siegfried Sassoon's 'The Weald of Youth' is a small, reddish-brown, cloth-bound hardcover and is going to be about halfway down the shelves to the right of the kitchen door. 'Count Belisarius' by Robert Graves is a Penguin paperback with a black and white photo of Graves himself on the front, spine cracked, losing pages, and will be found in a cramped location near the floor in the shelves underneath the staircase. And so on.

I try to have groupings of books. I have a history section, a science section, adult fiction, children's fiction, poetry, gardening, art etc. But it doesn't really quite work out. For example I'd like to keep the children's books together, all neatly arranged by author, but it's difficult because of the annoying way bookcases are designed, with the shelves at the top only large enough for paperbacks. I do have to use ALL the space, which means breaking up families of books when one hardback won't fit in next to its paperback brothers and sisters. I simply can't fit all my children's books into neat rows. They flow over into the adult novel bookcase, and get stacked up in piles. The shelves also get used as ledges where all sorts of other debris accumulates: combs, make-up (lots of my daughters' lipsticks rolling around), odd bits of rock, shells, photos, cameras, and small model cars.

It would be lovely to have a library, I sometimes think. A proper library with room for every book.

But then I visit some National Trust house and see a real country house library: ranks of uniformed books on parade, shut away behind tripwires and glass doors, read by nobody - and I realise that real booklovers haven't got time for arranging books.

We're too busy reading them.

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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Memorable Characters - Katherine Langrish

I was asked by a fantasy and science fiction survey what I thought were the weaknesses of the two genres. This is a bit like being asked in a job interview to identify your own personal weaknesses – one doesn’t want to admit to anything. But in the end I replied ‘Poor characterisation and an over-reliance on magical and scientific hardware.’ I don’t think this was unfair. As a teenager I gobbled up Isaac Asimov’s ‘Robot’ and ‘Foundation’ books, and Arthur C. Clarke’s many and various space odysseys, but what I loved was the vast sweep of the black canvas they both painted on – prickling with stars and smudged with dusty, embryonic galaxies. Against that background, the human characters in their books were unmemorable. I’m trying right now, and I can’t think of even one of their names.

As for fantasy, the same thing applies. The world is often more important than the characters. I don’t think I would recognise Colin and Susan from Alan Garner’s brilliant early fantasies, if I saw them in the street. Even in ‘Lord of the Rings’, characters are more often conveniently defined by their species (elf, dwarf, hobbit etc) than by personality. Could you pick Legolas from an identity parade of other elves, or Gimli from a line-up of other dwarfs?

You have several wonderfully memorable science-fiction/fantasy characters on the tip of your tongue at this very moment, I can tell, and you are burning to let me know. I can think of a notable exception myself: Mervyn Peake’s cast of eccentrics in the Gormenghast books. I’ll look forward to your comments... But moving swiftly on, I began to think about memorable characters in children’s fiction – which as a genre, like science fiction and fantasy, tends to be strong on narrative. Does children’s fiction in general, I wondered, have characters that walk off the page?

So here, in no particular order, is a partial list. Mr Toad. The Mole and the Water Rat. Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Tigger. William. Alice. The Red Queen. Oswald Bastable and Noel Bastable. Arrietty, Homily and Pod. Mrs Oldknowe. Dido Twite. Patrick Pennington. Mary Poppins. Mowgli. Long John Silver. Peter Pan. Ramona. Huck Finn. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy. Puddleglum. Pa, Ma, Laura and Mary. Stalky. Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden and the Hemulen...

All of these characters, I would argue, are so strongly drawn that once you have met them you will never forget them. I will bet that for each of the above names (so long as you’ve read the books) you knew instantaneously who I meant, and had a picture of them in your head and the ‘flavour’ of them in your mind, just as if they were real people. These characters have a life beyond the page: not only is it possible to imagine them doing other things besides what their authors have described, it’s almost impossible not to believe that in some sense they possess a sort of independent reality.

There are many good books in which characterisation is not very important. Fairytales have always relied on standard ‘types’: the foolish younger son whose good heart triumphs, the princess in rags, the cruel queen, the harsh stepmother, the weak father, the lucky lad whose courage carries him through. This is because fairytales are templates for experience, and they are short: we identify with the hero, and move on with the narrative. Fairytales are not about other people: they are about us.

But the crown of fiction is the creation of new, independent characters. Though Mr Toad may share some characteristics with the boastful, lucky lad of Grimm’s fairytale ‘The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs’, he is nevertheless gloriously and individually himself. Huck Finn is more than a poor peasant boy or a woodcutter’s son. Children’s fiction is a fertile ground in which such characters can flourish.

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Saturday, 11 July 2009

Clapping games and word play

About a week ago I was in a pub garden watching a little boy of about three trying to play Aunt Sally - a game rather like skittles which is popular in our bit of Oxfordshire. He was having difficulty, but eventually succeeded in hurling the heavy wooden baton (which is used instead of a ball) down the alley at the Sally, which is a single white skittle, and knocked her down. In great delight he went running back to his family chanting ‘Easy peasy lemon squeezy, easy peasy lemon squeezy!’

I was smiling and thinking to myself how much young children love rhymes and rhythms and wordplay. Many of them, in junior school, are natural poets. You’d think it would be dead easy to make readers out of them. What happens to the simple joys of having fun with words?

Here’s a rhyme my children used to chant at school. I wanted to show the stresses, but the blog won't let me. Come down heavily on the words 'my', 'your', 'lives', and 'street', and you'll get it:

My mother, your mother, lives across the street.
Eighteen, nineteen, Mulberry Street –
Every night they have a fight and this is what it sounded like:
Girls are sexy, made out of Pepsi
Boys are rotten, made out of cotton
Girls go to college to get more knowledge
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider
Criss, cross, apple sauce,

Chanted rapidly aloud, you can feel how infectious it is. Another one, which is also a clapping game, runs:

I went to the Chinese chip-shop
To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread,
They wrapped it up in a five pound note
And this is what they said, said, said:
My… name… is…
Elvis Presley
Girls are sexy
Sitting on the back seat
Drinking Pepsi
Had a baby
Named it Daisy
Had a twin
Put it in the bin
Wrapped it in -
Do me a favour and –

I suppose every junior school in the country has a version: chanted rapidly and punctuated with a flying, staccato pattern of handclaps, it’s extremely satisfying. I've heard teachers in schools get children to clap out the rhythms of poems 'so that they can hear it' - but never anything as complicated as these handclapping games children make up for themselves. No adults are involved. What unsung, anonymous geniuses between 8 and 12 invented these rhymes and sent them spinning around the world? Nobody analyses them, construes them, sets them as texts, or makes children learn them. They’re for fun. Nothing but fun.

Keats once said, ‘If poetry does not come as naturally as the leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all.’ I’m not sure he was totally right there (it may have been right for him) but I don’t believe there’s any essential difference between the contrapuntal patter of playground clapping games and the sonorous rhythms of:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should rave and rage at close of day.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light –

which I once declaimed theatrically in the living room to my ten year old nephew. He looked up startled.

“Wow!” he said.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Adults in the Playground - Katherine Langrish

Some quotes from Amazon reviews:

1) “Skulduggery Pleasant is a rarity among children’s books. For one it doesn’t talk down to its audience, two it has some very original characters…”

2) “Tunnels is one of those few books that can be enjoyed by kids, teens and adults…”

3) “Don’t be fooled into thinking this [Sabriel] is a children’s book… Nix doesn’t pull any punches… there’s no patronising and talking down to children in his prose…”

4) “Overall [Northern Lights] is a children’s adventure story with grown up overriding themes concerning the questioning of authority…”

I hope your blood is boiling? I got these from a quick trawl of Amazon, and I’m certain it would be easy to come up with many similar examples. Now, whatever the varying merits of the above four children’s books (they do vary wildly, Reader; but I’m not going down that path) they have one thing in common: they have all been bestsellers. And bestsellers attract some readers who never normally pick up a children’s book. Their attitude seems to be:

1) I never read children’s books because…
2) …I believe books for children are puerile, patronising and fluffy…
3) …and that is why I never read them. However…
4) …here is a high-profile children’s book which, unexpectedly, has merits. I have actually enjoyed it.
5) Therefore it cannot be a representative children’s book.

Breath-taking in their ignorant condescension, such readers appear to imagine they are paying a children’s author a compliment by – effectively – telling him or her that they have failed in their first endeavour. Garth Nix thought he was writing a book for children? No he wasn’t! Adults can enjoy it!

Dear God. Let’s say it once again, loud and clear. Children’s literature is exactly that – a branch of literature. There’s a massive spectrum available, from simple adventure stories all the way through to complex, subtle, life-enriching explorations of characters and worlds which will stay with a reader forever. There’s a cartoon someone once showed me of a literary cocktail party with two authors chatting. One says something like, ‘I write for adults. I write stories about bored wives in the Home Counties, and middle-aged men having affairs with younger women.’ The other says, ‘I write about life and death, and grief and hope and terror, and rising above every difficulty to change the course of your life. I write for children.’