If I don’t hate peas, who am I?

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I’ve always hated peas, it’s part of my character. When I was young, in the seventies, it was Surprise dried peas, sold in a cardboard box, ready to be reconstituted in boiling water. To me the surprise was that anyone expected me to eat them. In pubs and restaurants, peas were tipped from their catering-sized can into a pot and simmered hard – possibly for many days. They appeared on every plate in a puddle of bitter juices that seeped into your chips and ruined their flavour and texture. Side salad was a rarity back then. ‘No peas, please’ was my mantra and I was quite firm with kitchens who sent the offending plate back with a smear where they had simply scraped the peas off into the bin (or back in the pot) and returned it without apology. I took to ordering whatever offering was served in a basket, because you can’t really serve sloppy peas in wicker.
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      Fast-forward to the eighties and frozen peas were everywhere, ‘sweet as the moment when the pod went pop’, according to Birds-Eye (http://youtu.be/v5_9CS1YKmA). It was too late. I was already firmly opposed. Not even freshly picked peas from the garden could tempt me. So I’ve been known among family and friends as someone who hates peas pretty much as long as any of us can remember. I would refuse any dish that contained them and, if I found them lurking unexpectedly in a vegetable soup, I had an uncanny ability to filter them out so that the dish would be emptied except for a small pile of the offending articles. I haven’t been unreasonable about it. Every year or so I would try a couple of peas, just to be sure. After all I had once turned my nose up at olives only to discover in my early twenties that my taste buds had changed and olives were the bees knees. But with peas, every time I tried I came to the same conclusion; nasty, starchy little bombs of yuck – get them away from me! I even went so far as to learn how to say, ‘I hate peas’ in Finnish, for a business trip a few years ago (En pida hernetta, if you’re interested). I’m not anti-vegetable. Among my favourites are: broad beans, asparagus, courgettes, aubergines, spinach, chard, fennel, runner beans and, oddly enough, mange-touts.
      Recently though, something has changed and it’s made me question my very identity. It began with a few little green balls in fried rice. I didn’t mind. There was a delicate pea puree on a set menu at a posh restaurant. I ate it up. Most recently, my fish and chips was served with crushed, minted peas and I found them quite palatable. It seems I don’t hate them any more. Have I lost something that defines me?
      When you’re creating a character in a story you can specify the interesting little quirks that make them distinctive and it’s also something we try to do with ourselves as teenagers; obscure favourite bands, extraordinary hair cuts, disastrously unflattering clothes, pet-hates. These choices become part of who we are. But we’re not consistent and neither should the characters in our stories be. They change their minds, act irrationally, behave badly and that is what makes them real. The critical thing is to know your characters inside and out so that the choices they make arise from real reactions and not a tick box of ‘she’s feisty’ or ‘he’s a wimp’. It’s a very dull story that’s filled with characters who are so one-note that they never step out from behind the single adjective you had in mind when creating them. They need to be so real that sometimes they refuse to do what you had intended them to in order to move the plot along. They start to think for themselves and to act how they want. They might know better than you. They’re in your subconscious after all.
      For me, it’s a time for self-reflection. If I don’t hate peas, what else might be up for consideration? I draw the line at religious observance or voting Conservative but is it still possible I could like hill-walking, heavy-metal, cable cars or beetroot? There’s only one way to find out.
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The unexpected diversions of research

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I’ve been writing a book over the past year. Inspired by my studies of creative writing and mythology with the Open University I decided to write a contemporary story with classical mythology at its heart. It seemed like a good route to take. After all, I had already done much of the research and preparation through my academic studies. These however, are the unexpected things I found myself researching:

How to transport a full-grown fighting bull (including customs regulations).
The layout of Victoria coach station.
Tauroctony and its place in Mithraic ritual.
Motorway networks in the south of England.
The ancient port of Ostia – a fantastic archaeological site.
How long it takes to sail by motor-boat from Arles in the South of France to Ostia.
Navigation by satellite and what does and doesn’t show up on radar.

In fact, there were so many interesting diversions it’s amazing I got any writing done at all! The fascinating thing about research for fiction is that very little of it actually gets referenced in the story. The point is, it’s there. So when your character runs into difficulties and dangers, you know they’re at least technically possible. (Except for the fantasy elements of course. With fantasy you just need consistency.) I’m told that young readers, in particular are turned off by obvious factual inaccuracies and with their ready access to Google and Wikkipedia, I can’t afford to take the risk of alienating my target readers. So, every time I place my main character in mortal (or immortal) danger, I at least need to make the surroundings as real as I possibly can.

The delicate art of incorporating feedback

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I asked for opinions on the first draft of my novel and they’ve started rolling in. One eagle-eyed reader spotted that I had left my hero’s hands tied in front of him and then, shortly after, had his arm forced up behind his back. This would be painful at the best of times but nigh-on impossible from his starting point. I had also described the colour of a suitcase when he was observing it in pitch-black. This is excellent stuff, just what I was hoping to hear. Minor niggles, easily fixed.

It’s much harder to hear someone say that they don’t believe one of your characters would do something. I nodded sagely and made a note in my little purple book and I didn’t say, ‘Yes he would. That’s how I wrote him!’ On reflection this feedback is just as useful. If the reader doesn’t believe the character would act like that, I haven’t made the character’s motivations clear enough. His scenes will have to be reviewed and reconsidered with that in mind.

All comments so far have been constructive and positive. I feel really lucky to have readers who are willing to take the time to really think about the story. They seem to like it and the surprises I wrote seem to have been suitably surprising. Digging deeper into the psyche of one of my characters is a small price to pay if it makes the story stronger. Of course, there are one or two points of feedback that I completely disagree on. It was bound to happen but I have to remember, it’s my book and it will stand or fall on what I’ve written.

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Waiting for the ‘Beta’ verdict

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It’s a strange, quiet, confusing time when your book is out there with’Beta Readers’. I hadn’t actually heard that term until quite recently. Someone suggested ‘Meta Readers’ was a more accurate term. After all, the question is ‘Does it work as a story?’ Nine months of scribbling away by myself, so close to this story that I thought about it while walking, showering, driving and even in my sleep, I always knew that someone would have to help with the editorial process. So out it went. A close family member – supportive always – gave positive feedback and that was nice. A teen who doesn’t know me at all gave positive feedback with reservations (some of which I fixed right away, some I disagreed with). The other readers are my oldest friend, two writers and one writer/tutor. While they have it, I can’t settle. I veer outrageously between an optimistic vision of my book on the shelf and a cataclysmic vision of a giant ‘delete’ button. Objectively I know that people will have quibbles. Some will dislike a character, a plot twist, a turn of phrase. Maybe one will love the bit that someone else hates. I expect honesty and constructive criticism. But it’s hard. I never entered my child in a beautiful baby competition. I know that everyone thinks their own baby is the best. Writing, however, is about putting your literary baby out there and asking people to comment on its shape, its style, its form and its content. It has to be done. The hard part is not letting the process damage you or your belief in what you wrote.

The book is a contemporary YA fantasy with elements of classical myth.

Time for migration

I’ve been humming and hawing (swithering, we call it in Scotland) about where to keep my blog-life. I started on blogger some time ago but left it behind when I was tempted by the prettier wordpress. So now it’s crunch time.

I want to start blogging more regularly and this seems to be the place to do it. If anyone is interested in what went before, my old blog can be found here: http://itstartedhereforkaren.blogspot.co.uk/ but I won’t be adding any more, It’s all clean lines and thoughtful posts from here on. Or maybe not…

Last Tango in Vaasa

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All cultures have dance. This is not a controversial statement. We know it as clearly as we know that everyone has language.Expressive movement  is a part of what it is to be human in every society from the simplest tribal gathering in darkest PNG to the Christmas performance of The Nutcracker at the Royal Ballet. If we don’t relate to the shine and sequins of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, we at least know how it feels to stand at the edge of the dance floor, Morrissey style and watch those who can dance. Even if we hate them for it.  We all have it. We all understand that it expresses something important to the human spirit. So, why do we attempt to stamp the joy out of it in Scotland by teaching it to every snivelling, under-confident, sweaty, spotty youth in the form of ‘torture by Scottish Country Dancing’?

If you haven’t experienced this, it’s difficult to explain just how dreadful it can be.  You don’t enjoy PE much anyway because you’re the wrong size, wrong shape. Hell, you’re shape-shifting.  Everything about you is changing back and forth from day to day, from angel to devil, from tadpole to frog from kid to teen.  Forget the gods in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, changing Daphne from beautiful girl into laurel tree, these are much crueller.  Or think of Kafka.  How would you like to wake as a cockroach one morning and then have to spend an hour in the school gym, shuffling round the floor with a boy, a whole foot shorter than you who smells like a hamster-cage in need of a good clean.  If you’re lucky!  If you’re not lucky, you will sit on the low benches, staring at the floor while the boys make an unseemly rush for the pretty girls, before dragging their feet in your direction when ‘sir’ tells them that yes, they have to pick someone, anyone.

There are some advantages to this hellish experience which clouds the Scottish school child from just after the October holiday until the Christmas party.  We may have loathed the whole experience, but put us in a Ceilidh as adults and we’ll all attempt to kill each other by means of Strip the Willow (a vicious twirling dance that usually ends with bruises from wrist to elbow). It’s a common cultural experience and it does bring us together.

I tried to recall this experience and how it feels to sit and wait for someone to ask you to dance when I visited Vaasa on the western shore of Finland.  The purpose of the visit was educational exchange and my colleagues were from six other countries including France, Spain, Iceland and Estonia.  We didn’t have much in common on the face of it.  Male and female, a wide range of ages, different backgrounds, home towns, tastes and sensibilities

We bonded over a number of days.  We exchanged foods, tried each others’ traditional drinks. I vaguely remember an evening that included aquavit, schnapps, red wine and fine malt whisky (very vaguely).  We found common ground over meals and on one memorable night took turns to sing a traditional song from home.  I dragged Flower of Scotland from memory and sang it to a group of fifteen in a corner of a Finnish pub.  The Estonian lady nodded wisely at the end and said, ‘Is good song, Karen, is very powerful.’

The night that really brought us together was when our hosts decided to give us a taste of Finnish culture that went beyond the expected sauna night and cold plunge into the river.  They took us to the local tango cub.  It was ladies choice.  The club was dark, the music compelling.  I had no idea tango was so big in Finland and, had I been wholly sober, I probably would have remembered the explanation of why it was, no matter. Trust me it’s big.  On this particular night, the men sat somewhat morosely around the fringes of the club, in dark corners, nursing hideously expensive pints of strong lager.  They watched and waited, perking up when a woman looked in their direction, slumping back when their handsomer neighbour was selected.

I took my courage in both hands and asked the husband of one of our hosts if he would like to dance.  He accepted gracefully and we took to the floor.  I don’t know how many of you know how it feels to dance with someone much taller than you, who knows how to lead.  I don’t know how to tango.  I certainly didn’t learn it in the school gym, but whirling almost gracefully around the floor with Martin orchestrating the steps and turns, the dips and switches and sweeping me along with him, was the kind of experience that almost makes you forget. Forget the horror of dancing the Gay Gordons with someone who is struggling with the fact that yesterday he was three inches shorter and thought he had some idea of how to control his limbs.  I wonder if he ever recovered the joy of dancing?

Who hates shops?

When was it that the retailers decided en masse that what customers really want is for every shop assistant they encounter to ask them about their plans for the day?  If you’re buying a litre of cheap wine and a giant bag of crisps (for sharing) the chances are you’re not preparing for a sophisticated dinner party.  ‘Yes, I’m glad you asked me.  I was planning to get completely smashed and end the evening hoovering up industrial quanities of deep fried carbohydrate in an orgy of self-hatred.  How about you?’  Nothing against people who work in shops, by the way.  Been there, done that, squeezed into the unflattering t-shirt.  I do know what it feels like when customers try to complete the whole transaction without any eye contact or the slightest acknowledgement that they’ve been served by a fellow human being.  On the other hand, I don’t need someone I’ve never met before commenting on my purchases, ‘That’s a lovely colour,’ they say, regardless of whether the item is a vibrant green, reminiscent of afternoons spent lying in a hammock in the shade of an ancient oak, squinting at the sun through the leaves and waiting for that third mojito to arrive, or a peculiar shade of keech brown.   I particularly don’t need someone to hold up the pair of trousers I’ve selected and stretch their little arms as far as they can go to pull the waistband out to its full width and then, peering round the side of a leg they could comfortably camp in for a week, tell me how they nearly bought these themselves.  ‘What, planning a music festival were you?  Looking for a beer tent?’  Honestly if they think that’s customer service they need to look at it from the POV of the real customer.  The one who hates shopping for its fundamental sadness and spirit-crushing disappointment.