Which Books Would You Take With You if the House Burnt Down?

A dramatic title, isn’t it? Inspired by a wonderful post I came across this morning from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings blog, entitled The Burning House: What People Would Take if the House Was on Fire, it wasn’t so much the eye-catching title which caught my attention so much as the photographs: images of people’s treasured possessions, from camera lenses and photographs to pets, cigars and underwear! One six year old boy added a Lego helicopter, a great choice. What I found intriguing was the inclusion of many books in people’s in people’s collections. A literature teacher from Germany had included her Great Aunt’s violin, along with two letters, a journal, a New American Standard Bible, Rilke’s Book of Hours and T.S. Elliot’s Collected Poems. Popova’s own collection includes a 1935 edition of Ulysses with sketches by Henri Matisse, and a 1993 edition of Gertrude Stein’s 1938 children’s book, The World Is Round. It made me wonder which books I would take with me if I had to leave in a hurry. In an age of eBooks many of us still treasure rare or familiar paperbacks and hardbacks, books with inscriptions or notes, books with illustrations and photographs. I have compiled a collection of books:

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It’s quite a mix of authors, fiction and non-fiction. Each book has its own reason for sitting on the pile, each book its own place in memory.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was the first book I couldn’t put down. I had finally found a book which kept me up at night until I had read the last page. Originally published in 1915, this spy thriller is set in the wild mores of Scottish, a place which holds great memories and partly the reason for the story’s resonance. I’m sure you’re familiar with the plot: On the eve of World War I we meet Richard Hannay, bored with his London life until he finds a body in his flat. Before long, Hannay finds himself in possession of a little black book that holds the key to the conspiracy, and on the run from the police. The books has inspired many films and plays since, including Alfred Hitchcock’s classic adaptation. Read it!

The Alchemist holds its place in my mind for the very reason that my husband read it to me on our honeymoon. This is not a regular occurrence but it is a memory I treasure. Set in the exotic locations of Spain and the Egyptian desert, Coelho tells the magical story of Santiago, a shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world to seek treasure. The otherworldliness of this story, with its magical realism and folklore, inspires you to dream and to think beyond the boundaries we create in our lives.

“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories was given to me by a dear friend with an inscription in the front. It is a 1964 reprint. Hemmingway’s short stories are raw and sharply observed.  I think that’s all I need to say.

Samson Agonistes might seem an unlikely choice, but this battered version has been on my bookshelf since my schooldays. Milton was taught with great enthusiasm by my English teacher, and at a point where I began to understand the many layers within a text. My copy is full of notes in a variety of colours with underlining and asterisks. I will hold on to this one.

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W.B. Yeats Selected Poetry forms a part of my long history of collecting poetry. I have been fascinated by poetry since childhood, and Yeats is a writer whose work I enjoy because it is mystical, melancholic and full of questioning. The first line of To A Young Beauty is a great example of his style:

“Dear fellow-artist, why so free

With every sort of company,

With every Jack and Jill?”

W.H Auden Poems selected by John Fuller is here for the same reason, although he is possibly my favourite poet. Most notable for Funeral Blues, beginning with Stop the clocks, his lesser known works are just as lyrical and beautifully crafted. I really enjoy the wit and irony which runs through much of his writing. Epitaph on a Tyrant is scathing and applicable to any dictator you choose to name.

“Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.”

Love and Freedom is a book I have mentioned in a previous post, so I will just say that I am so glad it is back in print. A rare gem that was originally used for research and has become one to keep. This memoir set in post-war Prague is electric; a beautiful, honest account of a life lived under communism.

The Essential Tales of Chekhov was also a gift and has an inscription in the front. I am a big fan of Chekhov’s stories. They need no explanation but this collection is really good. Edited by Richard Ford, is comes with a lengthy introduction on Why We Like Chekhov.

George Orwell Essays has been added to a list which is reasonably filled with non-fiction as well as fiction. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I almost prefer his essays to his famed 1984 and Animal Farm, to hear his unfiltered thoughts, than through the lenses of dystopia or allegory. I haven’t yet read his other fiction novels, so I should reserve judgement. His essay, Why I Write, might appeal to writers. He has also written on Kipling, Yeats, Tolstoy and Wodehouse, which I found interesting. He has bravely covered many political topics, although I think he would rather call it honesty.

Letters From Father Christmas is a wonderful find. I discovered it whilst searching for Christmas presents last year. It is a collection of letters written and illustrated by J. R. R. Tolkien between 1920 and 1942 for his children. They were released posthumously and received a warm response from critics. It has been suggested that elements of the stories inspired parts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The stories include descriptions of the massive fireworks that create the northern lights and the illustrations are inspirational. 

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The Chemistry Between Writer and Reader

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This is a guest post by Trish Nicholson. I first discovered Trish because of her blog posts on writing and the connection between the reader and writer. Her love of travel resonated with me and her approach is unique. Writing has always been an important part of her life, contributing to columns and features in national media, and books on management, and anthropology. Several of her short stories have won prizes in international competitions and been published in anthologies.

Trish is a social anthropologist and a keen photographer who has worked and travelled in over 20 countries, including extensive treks in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. She has an MA in Anthropology and an MSc in Rural Development. In 1997 she was awarded a PhD from the University of the Philippines for research on culture and tourism in Mogpog, Marinduque Island. Her work has taken her from the UK and Europe to Vietnam, Austrailia and the Philippines where she researched indigenous communities and worked in the Philippines with Voluntary Service Overseas, and on to Papua New Guinea with the World Bank Development Project.

Now settled in New Zealand and writing full-time, Trish combines her passions for anthropology, stories, travel and photography by writing creative non-fiction, which she describes as: “professional research and experience narrated by a storyteller, whispering in the reader’s ear as they walk beside me.”  Thank you for your post, today, Trish:

Each piece we write is a creative expression from a specific moment and place within us, a unique presence, and I suppose we shouldn’t have favourites but most of us do. While writing Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, the chapter that brought me the most pleasure, and the greatest challenge, was Voice, Language and Dialogue. Although the whole book explores in various ways the relationship between writer and reader, this chapter stretched me to explain how that chemistry works through their distinctive voices.

Voice in literature is a fascinating subject rarely written about in depth, perhaps because it is one of the most elusive concepts in writing technique, so I am happy to accept C. F. Malby’s invitation to share with you how I visualise that relationship.

Everyone has a voice – the expression of who we are, our persona – but it’s not quite as simple as that because we are complex beings. We present ourselves differently to the various people we relate to – spouse, sibling, colleague, local librarian – not only in the things we talk about, but the words we choose and the gestures we use. We have a multiplicity of voices – what I have called a ‘chorus’, a personal ‘madrigal choir’.

Our writer’s voice is expressed most distinctly in the style of writing and the kind of stories we write, but also in the characters we create. We choose which of our voices to use for a particular piece, but for our characters, we have to become sufficiently familiar with them to write consistently in their voices – represented not only in dialogue, but in thoughts, actions and body language because these are all parts of voice.

Developing a character’s voice is a deliberate and careful act for which we draw on our own chorus as well as on our observations and general experience. None the less, both character voice and writer’s voice are partly subconscious and reveal aspects of the author’s persona; a feature picked up by a reader who brings his or her own ‘madrigal choir’ to the relationship and creates an individual interpretation of the story.

Among our friends and acquaintances, even people met for the first time, we recognise that we enjoy listening and talking with some more than with others, and we appreciate them in different ways. We may find what they say more, or less, interesting, but their ‘voice’ as we perceive it, also indicates their attitude towards us. Some people call this personal ‘vibes’. They can influence our thinking and even our feelings about ourselves in a similar way to a story that relates to our own experience.

Perhaps because of the permanency of the written word, this effect seems even stronger in the relationship between a reader and a writer when they meet in a story. Each reader responds emotionally in a different way, both to the author and to the characters, especially when an author allows readers to use their imagination rather than feed them with every detail.

But when I read a novel, I want to identify with the characters, not with the author. This is the crux of what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’. By showing character through all the aspects of character voice – thoughts, dialogue, gestures and actions – a reader can engage with them; if we are told these things directly, the author’s voice predominates and gets in the way.

Whether a work is fiction or non-fiction, readers react to an author, and create their own interpretation of a story, with the voices they bring to the reading. In Inside Stories I discuss this and other aspects of creative writing in greater depth, using short stories as illustrations because the voices are often louder and clearer in the intensity of literary short fiction.

As writers, we choose the voices we use to create a particular story, as readers we complete it through our own voices – and in each cases, it is achieved both consciously and subconsciously. This chemistry between writer and reader arising from prose is at the heart of writing, whatever the genre.

inside storiesInside Stories for Writers and Readers looks at the creative process for readers and writers and offers a unique insight into the different themes of writing and reading novels, short stories, fiction and non fiction.

You can connect with Trish via twitter or her website and find her other books here.

So When Are You Going To Write A Proper Book, Then?

I am pleased to welcome the Director of National Flash Fiction Day, Calum Kerr, for a guest post on the short fiction form. His new collection, Lost Property, brings together four brand new pamphlets of flash fiction, featuring Singsong, Soaring, Burning and Citadel. The collection contains 83 stories that move from the hilarious to the sinister and demonstrates the unique nature of ultra-short fiction.

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If you are a writer of flash-fiction, short-stories, possibly poetry and maybe even non-fiction, this is a question which may be familiar to you. The person posing the question might be a complete stranger, maybe at some reading or signing event, but is more likely to be a friend or even a relative. You proudly show them your collection of stories or poems, or your book on how to knit cartoon characters, learn economics or install a Linux system on your PC, and they glance through it, nod appreciatively, and then they work their way towards the question.

“So. Well done. This looks good, doesn’t it?” is the opening move.

“Yes. I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s come out very nicely,” is your response.

“Must have been a lot of work.”

“Yes. But enjoyable. Apart from the editing, ha ha…”

“Ha ha, yes.” They nod and look through the book again, then up at you. “So…” they start, and this is where you should stop them, because you know what’s coming next.

“It is a proper book. It has a cover. It has loads of words in it. I did research and everything. People will buy and read it – okay, not in JK Rowling numbers, maybe, but some of them. It has an ISBN number and can be bought from Amazon and those funny old places that people used to go into. You know, bookshops.” Is what you want to say. But you don’t. Instead you let them continue.

“So… when are you going to write a proper book, then?” they ask, and you somehow restrain yourself from swinging for them.

Because, of course, they don’t mean to say that your collection or non-fiction opus is not a ‘proper’ book. They mean ‘when are you going to write a novel’. That’s what it’s all about, after all, isn’t it? Collections of things are nice, but they’re just little stories or poems, not a good chunky page-turner. Non-fiction books are useful, but you don’t settle down on the sofa on an autumnal afternoon to read them. They live on shelves until you have occasion to reach for them. No, they’re talking about the All-Powerful Novel and the place it holds in the public imagination as the pinnacle of writing and the thing that every writer is surely aiming for.

And this is the problem for writers, especially of flash-fiction or short stories. Because each of the small parts looks inconsequential; trivial. There might be many of them, and they might make up a 200 page collection containing 60-70,000 words, but still, you can see the joins; you can see where the writer started and stopped. Not like the seamless flow of a novel (which was surely written in a single, sleepless week of endless typing). And, of course, you are writing prose fiction, so surely you must be working your way up from these little things to try and join the big boys with their ‘proper’ books.

Now, don’t get me wrong, many flash-fiction and short story writers do have aspirations to be novelists, or at least have found an idea coming to them which is too big to cover in just a few hundred or few thousand words, and so are working towards a much longer piece. But that does not mean that they have finally, in some indefinable way, graduated to the big leagues. They have not left behind their childish play with those tiny tales and taken the brave step to write longer. They are simply following their muse where it takes them, and sometimes your muse takes you longer.

But all of those same flash-fiction and short story writers who are dabbling in the world of novels, at least those I know, still love and respect the short form. They are not what we write because we can’t manage the long things. They are the things we write because there is a value to a short story or a flash-fiction, an intensity, a chance at experimentation, and a specific purpose that you simply can’t achieve in the novel.

We don’t write stories because we are waiting for our turn to write a ‘proper’ book. We write stories because they need to be written, and because we love what they can do that all of your ‘proper’ books can’t.

So next time someone looks at your collection of flashes, poems, or your non-fiction work and seems about to ask that fateful question, stop them, point to the cover and ask them: “So, when are you going to read a proper book, then?”

calum-200x180   Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife – the writer, Kath Kerr – their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Amazon, or direct from the publisher, Cinder House.

Fact and Fiction: How to Weave Both Elements into a Good Book

English: A panorama of a research room taken a...

While the general categories of fiction and non-fiction are distinct book categories in the publishing world, there is good reason to tie the two together in your novels. It will technically still be classed as fiction, but a combination of the two can be really powerful. My debut novel, Take Me to the Castle,  was a fictional story, written within the framework of communist Eastern Europe, and the resulting secret police activity and fractured family relationships. I wanted to use my research skills to bring the facts to life through the eyes of a young girl, Jana.

Mixing fact and fiction is no easy task because, while you have all the facts to hand after months or maybe years of research, you have to be careful not run the risk of any of the following temptations:

Information dump. Too many facts and the reader will switch off.

Twisting the facts. Inaccuracies will water down your plot and make the story less believable.

Lose your creativity. If you feel the need to stick too tightly to the facts, the plot risks being underdeveloped. You don’t want to become fenced in by tight constraints if you are writing fiction.

What is the best way to weave the two together?

It is important to make outlines after your research so that you have a clear idea of where you are going with the plot. If you begin to write before entering into the research you will end up doing a lot of painful rewrites. It’s best to avoid unnecessary rewriting if possible.

Strike a balance between the two, erring on the side of fiction rather than fact. Too much factual information, and you will end up writing non-fiction, which is fine as long as you are clear about defining your work.

Be creative and don’t be afraid to play with the facts. Use your imagination to fill in the gaps and show the reader your interpretation of the events from a unique angle.

Why will this work?

Given the constraints, you may wonder whether it is worth bringing fact into the arena of fiction at all. I would argue that there are many periods throughout history, and many key events in life, which need to be recorded and written down, and I believe this can be done really effectively through fiction.

Think of The Paris Wife and it’s subject, the first wife of Ernest Hemmingway. What has made the book so successful has been the fact that it gives you a window into the life a famous writer at at time that we know little about.

Magda has just been released in March, and tells the story of Magda Goebells in chilling reality but it is, in part, a fictional representation of the facts. It’s fascination lies in the fact that it covers the difficulties of mother/daughter relationships and the horrific period that was Nazi Germany. It gives an inside view into the life of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebells.

Two of my blog readers and fellow writers also wrote their books based on periods in history:

Tom Gething wrote Under a False Flag based on the overthrow of Marxist president, Salvador Allende, in Chile in 1973. The books is based on a series of recently declassified documents from the period and includes a wealth of historical research.

Marianne Wheelaghan published The Blue Suitcase in 2011, telling the story of her Grandmother, Antonia, through her diary as she grows up in Germany during and in the aftermath of World War II. 

Have you read any other good examples that you can add to the list? Many of these are political. Can you think of other examples?

The Best Characters Are Broken

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‘The best characters are broken.’

I came across this quote yesterday and it has stayed with me. I started to think about why this is the case and how the reader identifies with broken characters. The quote was a little nugget in a much longer article by writer Faith Hunter. She writes in the fantasy/thriller genre but this concept travels across all genres of fiction and, I should add, non-fiction.

Why? 

Psychologists suggest there is a part in many of us that is broken and often hidden from the world, a part of us which we are afraid to reveal for fear of other people’s reactions. As children we have no qualms about crying or screaming if something is wrong, or throwing ourselves onto the floor and lying prostrate with fists pounding the carpet. Anyone seen this? Yes, well. Somewhere along the line, though, we are told to temper our responses with phrases like –  ‘don’t cry,’ ‘try to behave,’ ‘big girls/boys don’t shout.’

While this helps to create a society which is relatively restrained (most of the time), it also teaches us to suppress our fears or pain. It tells us that emotions should be dealt with quietly and privately, and not in public. It pushes us into corners where we have to wrestle and fight against feelings of fear, inadequacy, rejection, pain and even phobias. It’s not unlike snake charming gone awry. These are just a few of the murky areas of our lives which we have been taught to just sit on and ignore, in the hope that they will just vanish.

Why do readers need this in a story?

Why do we read books at all? For a vast majority it is a means of escape, a way of entering into an imaginary world where the rules have changed and events are happening to other people, events which stir up emotions in the reader and trigger memories of their own fears. We need to feel that we are not alone and books can provide an intense range of emotions in the reader. The level of which is down to the craftsmanship of the writer.

In a good novel we are taken on a journey with a roller coaster of emotions which vary in intensity throughout the pages. The journey can be frightening and it can be comforting, it call tell us that our fears are universal, it can navigate us through the choppy waters of disbelief, it can heal the deeper parts of our soul and can remind us that all of humanity lives with these bundles of hidden thoughts, and all in the safety and privacy of a collection of words, neatly bound in a cover without us having to leave the house or to communicate these fears.

How can we find the ideas?

As writers we have fears which need to be exploited to form a convincing plot, fears which will leave the reader turning page after page. Some of these fears begin in childhood, others might be more recent, but they are there and they need to be dug up, excavated and displayed in the pages of your books. Readers connect with writers who artfully pull at these strings – strings of challenge, of hopelessness, of a fear of change. Whatever the issues with your key characters, you need to delve into the murky waters surrounding an event and pull out the rawness of the emotions.

If there is no tension or emotion in your story it won’t fly.

Open up the corridors of your inner world and pull out all that lurks in the darkness. You will help your readers to relate to the characters and bring a believable plot to life.