It’s always a thrill to make an unexpected  literary discovery. I experienced such a thrill last week on a visit to The Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

Whatever your views are on bankers and their (im)moral qualities, there is no doubt that Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) used some of  his wealth to create an impressive legacy in his private library, built to house an astonishing collection of books, manuscripts and artifacts. The building itself is beautiful, and the library within a bibliophile’s dream.

The Pierpont Morgan library, New York City. (image: themorgan.org)

The Pierpont Morgan library, New York City. (image: themorgan.org)

Shelf upon shelf of beautifully bound books and manuscripts line the walls of the main library, the upper tiers reached by means of two concealed spiral staircases. My first job as a teenager was as a ‘Saturday Book-Shelver’ at my local library; I envy the lucky soul who held this position at Mr Pierpont’s Manhattan library.

Nowadays, the books are kept safe behind locked gates; only the bound spines are visible to suggest what joys lie tantalizingly out of reach. There are at least five meters of bibles and prayer books, a large section of children’s literature, including an intriguing collection of miniature books, and a whole section devoted to Goethe. There are musical scores, medieval Books of Hours, and Trollopes galore.

The Morgan allows the visitor a peek at the treasures by displaying a small selection on a rotating basis. Several books lie open, Snow White-like, within glass cases, offering a glimpse of literary history to those of us who have only Billy bookcases lined with modern paperbacks at home.

One book in particular caught my attention and fired my imagination. Les Fleurs animées is a wonderful creation by J J Grandville. He was a nineteenth century caricaturist, made famous by Les Métamorphoses du jour,which comprised a series of scenes in which individuals with human bodies and animal faces were made to play human comedy. Grandville worked for various periodicals, whilst continuing to produce collections of lithographs, among which was Les Fleurs animées.

Les Fleurs is a compendium of poems, stories and vignettes about flowers, accompanied by beautiful, well-observed lithographs of ‘flowers’ – anthropomorphised depictions of each subject. The Morgan’s copy was open at the page occupied by La fleur de Thé and La fleur de Café.

Le the et le cafe par JJ Grandville

Le the et le cafe par JJ Grandville


In this charming tale, Le Café pays a visit to Le Thé in her native China. But all is not as it seems, because there is some disagreement (in fact, a millennial-long feud)  as to which flower is the most important. Unfortunately, the display case was made of anti-theft glass and I was unable to turn the page to find out how the argument ended. However, it did inspire me to do some research once back home and with what results!

Les fleurs animees, vol 1 & 2. By JJ Grandville

Les fleurs animees, vol 1 & 2. By JJ Grandville

It turns out that the edition on display at the Morgan was a copy of the second volume of Les Fleurs; the first contains tales and poems about flowers as varied as the rose, the violet and the chèvrefeuille (honeysuckle). L’immortelle (everlasting flower) and lavender each bemoan their lot in life: lavender laments that she is condemned to die a dry, parched death, whilst the everlasting flower wishes she could experience the first flush of a springtime youth again; never again will she be visited by a bee, or feel the brush of a butterfly’s wing.

Then there is Margueritte, the humble daisy.

The humble daisy.

The humble daisy.

To illustrate this flower, Taxile Delord, the author of the texts for both books, writes about a young girl called Anna. She, naturally enough, plucks the petals from a margueritte to discover whether ‘he loves me; he loves me not’. Anna is told a secret: namely that men play a similar game to find out whether they, in turn, are loved. ‘Young lady,’ Anna is told, ‘never answer. Men will reject you having deflowered you.’

There are also wonderful lithographs of the poppy spreading her hallucinogenic seeds,



and of Le perce-neige (snowdrop).

She laments that whilst it is she who calls on Spring to awaken, she is condemned never to feel the warm heat of the sun, to hear the sweet birdsong or to experience the joy of love, (unlike her lucky friend the primrose).

The snowdrop laments.

The snowdrop laments.

Volume two, of which tea and coffee are part, also depicts the Hawthorn (l’aubépine) and le Sécateur.

Watch those blades; they bite!

Watch those blades; they bite!

This story is more a warning from a mother hawthorn to her young; it tells of the terrors to be found on the edge of the woods; the cold bite of the sharp blade.

I could go on, but there are hundreds of pages of wonderful pictures and charming stories; too many by far for this blog post. I encourage you to seek out a copy of this delightful find (paperbacks are available, I believe). I am now hankering after an original copy, like the one I saw in the Morgan. Sadly, I think the only way I’ll get my hands on a first edition is by smashing that display case. Which is, of course, highly disrespectful; not to mention illegal. But it would grace my Billy so well…..

Incidentally, le thé and le café never do agree. They have what can only be described as a heated debate: “I reign in England’” says tea; “I in France,” replies coffee. “I inspired Walter Scott and Byron,” boasts tea; “and I Molière and Voltaire,” replies coffee. In the end, they take their dispute to a tribunal; the jury, goes the story, is still out.


(You can read – in french – the text of tea and coffee by clicking here.)

Don’t make me cry Argentina….I’m already melancholy.

A useful tool from within a writer’s box of tricks is to allow the emotion of a location or setting to spill over onto the page; even better, to transfer some of that emotion to a character and have them reflect their surroundings and react to the feelings that that place gives them. People, and therefore, characters, act differently according to their emotional state; they think differently, feel differently and speak differently. For example, if you want a character to feel down, depressed or simply show them low in spirits, it isn’t necessary to make something bad happen to them: try putting them in an atmosphere which can induce those feelings; it might help to make them think differently and ultimately act in a new or surprising way.

The potential that such a moment in time might have to change the way a character might feel and act occurred to me last week whilst enjoying a lunch in Buenos Aires.

La Biela is a popular and staunchly traditional cafetería in the well-healed area of the city called Recoleta. Home to designer labels, art galleries and the famous cemetery (famous mostly due to Eva Peròn’s ever-lasting presence) where former rich Porteños – as residents of Buenos Aires are known – lie in ornate family tombs, Recoleta remains a pleasant, if expensive, place to have lunch and while away the warmest hours of the day.

The cafetería is something of an institution, serving up an interesting mix of pastries for morning grazing (smeared with dulce de leche – thank you for that Argentina), snacks to nibble on with a refreshing cerveza, or more substantial meals – steak sandwiches, palm heart salads or plump, round omelettes – all of which may be enjoyed under a giant fig tree in the plaza outside (ten percent added for dining al fresco), or inside in the air conditioned, but slightly utilitarian dining room.

La Biela's 10% extra terrace. (image: nytimes.com)

La Biela’s 10% extra terrace. (image: nytimes.com)

Having sat and contemplated my surroundings for a few minutes, I became aware of a general feeling of melancholy sweeping over me. It wasn’t instant; rather a gradual bleeding of pensiveness, seeping slowly from the buildings, dropping  gently with the first curling leaves of late summer from the tree, oozing imperceptibly from the faces of the those around me.

Certainly the heat of the day played its part; but there was more. The waiters, always rather surly, certainly brusque, displayed a passive, world-weary acceptance of the run of things. These ageing professionals, waist-coated, aproned, go about their business as they no doubt have for decades; only now their smiles appear to be fading along with the grandeur of the art nouveau buildings around them.If they haven’t done it all, they have at least seen it all; people come, people go; good times come, just as certainly as good times go. Their faces bear the hallmarks of lives lived and love lost; it’s all served to the customer unknowingly as a side dish with his omelette and mixed salad.

Look beyond the confines of La Biela and its retinue of well-healed locals and dollar-rich tourists fresh from the cruise ships, and you catch a glimpse of a less fortunate city, a city down on its luck. A city which co-exists with its richer cousins. Frequently their paths cross.

The wealthy wander by, defiantly picking their way through pot-holed pavements, led by lapdogs on long leashes; or they sit at an adjacent cafe, idly tapping at laptops. Perhaps they are ordering lapdogs on their laptops. Channel-suited women clutch handbags with jewelled fingers; sharp-suited men clutch cigars with theirs, manicured to perfection. Meanwhile, unseen, lightening-quick fingers, snatch bags from shoulders, watches from wrists and dignity from the trusting. These are the desperate, the poor; the desperately poor. Feeding a habit? Perhaps. More likely a family.

There on the corner stands a lonely soul. He murmurs to passers by: “Change your dollars; best rates.” For this is also a city of markets: black market, blue market, free market in free fall. Money deals sealed with a whisper and a bunch of forged pesos.

A shoe-shine grabs at an already polished brogue: “No gracias!” Too late, he’s already started. “Five pesos for a clean windscreen señor?” “No gracias” “Too late; we already did it. Hand over the money.”

This might not be terminal, but, for the time being at least, the city’s in decline. And all played to the soundtrack of a lamenting accordion; its owner, a clown, squeezing what life is left in the dusty bellows.

Recoleta's accordion-playing clown (in a lighter mood). (Image: tripadvisor.au)

Recoleta’s accordion-playing clown (in a lighter mood). (Image: tripadvisor.au)

Clowns, by their nature, are melancholy souls; tears dripping from mournful eyes. But Recoleta’s busking clown is a half-clown; half made up with a red nose and half a smear of face paint.  And he plays with half an effort; the tune winding slowly from his instrument, catching on the afternoon breeze. It takes a moment to place it, like jazz muzak instrumentals which ruin forever a favourite song. ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina,’ he plays, ‘I kept my promise; don’t keep your distance.’

This clown, and his mournful accordion, personify more than anything else, Argentina’s current situation. The city’s Belle Époque heyday can be heard in those forlorn notes being squeezed out for a few pesos; but they are a mere echo of former times. Adiòs optimism and hola la tristeza. (Meanwhile the government, who, you might have thought had more pressing economic issues to deal with, threaten visiting cruise ships unless they lower their ensigns. Don’t make me laugh Argentina; the truth is, you’ve bigger problems.)

The city will survive; it has climbed higher mountains, and from  deeper troughs. But for the time being it drugs its visitors with this melancholic air. Do they notice? Perhaps. Will it change them? It might. Will they act differently, make unexpected decisions because of it? Maybe. The point is, in writing terms, anything could happen. Drop a character in the midst of melancholy and who knows what they’ll do? It might, just might, change them forever, and with it, the course of your story.


If you find yourself wanting more in-depth information about Argentina’s current and historic economic fortunes (and I admit, this post is light on detail), you could do worse than read this piece from The Economist.

And here you can read about the recent cruise ship incident.

Rejoicing vs. Rejection.

Good news is always worth waiting for. Nobody waits in for bad news to arrive.

Trouble is, for the aspiring writer, bad news is the more frequent of the two visitors.; and it’s not easy to shy away from it.

This bad news visitor generally arrives in the guise of an email announcing competition results. It lures the expectant entrant into opening the message with all the hope and positive anticipation they felt when submitting the work so very many months ago. The emails have to be opened because you might, just might, find your own name lurking somewhere, anywhere on the list.

Not in the top three? No problem, keep reading; there’s still the shortlist to go. Still the hope that all your efforts were worthwhile. Not on the shortlist? Nor the long list? Who cares? It is, as we all know, and let’s hold hands and repeat the mantra once again, THE TAKING PART THAT COUNTS.

Still, for all that, the sinking heart and  momentary stab of regret are hard to avoid. Thankfully, these feelings and the disappointment always become diluted and tend to result in a burst of renewed energy and vigour; a determination to return to the desk and try again. Try harder. Almost certainly fail again. But next time, fail better (Beckett said this: wise man).

Yesterday I received a results email. I metaphorically hid behind the sofa as I scrolled down, as if waiting for a Dr Who monster to burst from my kindle fire. I felt prepared to do battle with my sinking emotions. I am, after all, predisposed to tackle the setbacks, the blighted hopes. We all are. It comes with the territory. Naturally, I hadn’t prepared for the converse emotional response: the thrill, the joy, the sweet delight of actually winning something. The need for this is so infrequent, so rare, so very unlikely, that it never occurs to me to brace myself to seeing my name up there on the list of winners. Runners and riders yes; winners no.

But this time I’m in the winners’ enclosure. The results of the Words with Jam ‘Bigger’ short story competition 2013 are out and I placed in one category and made the short list in another. I have neither won anything, nor been published for such a long time, I’d forgotten how it feels. To be honest, I was numbed yesterday by jet lag and tiredness, having literally just returned from our holiday to California. This compounded my brain’s confusion and probably inhibited it’s ability to compute positive information of this nature; it certainly meant that I couldn’t contemplate toasting the glad tidings with anything more exciting than a mug of Horlicks.

This morning in the warm, glowing light of day (it’s not: it’s cold and windy), I can bask more easily in the knowledge of my small success.

Now I just have to make this feeling last….it might be some time before I find myself dusting off this emotion form the shelf again.

My second placed story “Sackcloth and Ashes” in the category for stories up to 1000 words can be found over at Words with Jam. It is also to be published in a winners’ anthology in due course. My short, short story which was short listed will also appear in the anthology.

Follow the links above to read my story and the other winning entries. They are all very good.

Words and Pictures/Sight and Sound

Flyingscribbler is on holiday. Which means I am also taking a break from my writing projects. Of course, I am still thinking about my writing projects; in fact, come to think of it, most days when I’m at my desk, writing and thinking about writing amount to pretty much the same thing.
Writers never stop thinking about their writing; even when they are at their day job (assuming the writing isn’t the day job of course – lucky you if it is), those projects continue to lurk in the brain, clamouring to be heard. And we must be constantly alert to the possibilities: inspirations are everywhere…a word, a sound, an event….anything can trigger the next idea.

With this in mind, I announced that on our holiday to Southern California, I would refrain from unnecessary snapping. Why take photos when looking with your own eyes offers so much more? Seeing a sunset through a smart phone screen hardly conveys the feeling and emotion it can fill you with. I have limited my photo taking so far to pictures which will simply work to trigger my appalling memory….a photo of some seaweed, an unusual bird…which might come in useful one day.

Last night, we wandered down a narrow path leading to a stunning viewpoint in Laguna Beach, just in time for the sunset. Carrying my mantra, ‘no photos, no photos’ in my head, I intended to put my feelings into words. And a very noble intention it was. But someone had got there first.

A local sculptor and public artist, Raymond Persinger, has installed these wonderful panels at the end of the lane. I thought about trying to find some words to convey the beauty of the moment, but really, I doubt I could have been as eloquent and poetic. The piece is called ‘Sound and Sight’.






Props in Writing: How do you use yours?

Sorting out an issue with a character in my ‘work-in-progress’ children’s’ story yesterday, I ended up giving them a prop to wear. Suddenly, everything clicked into place for her; hitherto I had been aware of the possibility of a glaring inconsistency which had the potential to stop my efforts in their tracks; but now, the way is clear to carry on with the story, safe in the knowledge that at least one discrepancy has been dealt with. (I am quite aware that many more lurk in the pages of draft number one; I’ll cross those bridges when they’ve been uncovered.)

The prop is question is a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Not über-trendy wrap-arounds or sci-fi chic, X-Men laser-eye protector shields (although mine do play a similar role, as it happens); rather, good, old-fashioned, aviator mirrored sunglasses. The sort sported so admirably by the lads from CHiPs back in the 70s.

CHiPs the The boys from California Highway Patrol modelling my new prop.

CHiPs. The boys from the California Highway Patrol modelling my new prop.

 Already, I’m beginning to see my character differently; she even has a new way of speaking. The glasses have lent her a confidence which was lacking previously; this is a good thing: she’s about to face a test of nerve and stamina. Already quite an unusual character, the glasses augment her traits; I hope she’ll turn out to be even more memorable than she would have been before.

 All this has got me thinking more generally about the way writers use props in their work: the role they play, how they can make a character more memorable – in some cases how the prop itself appears to become the character – and even how an entire work hinges on the presence of a prop.

 Take for instance Sherlock Holmes. Try imagining Conon Doyle’s creation sans  pipe; you can’t. It is absolutely synonymous with the detective, and it is nigh on impossible to even think about him without also seeing a pipe.

Holmes as we all know him now.

Holmes as we all know him now.

 That other literary detective, Hercule Poirot, is so intrinsically associated with his upwardly-curled moustache, pince-nez and patent leather shoes, that I doubt he would be recognised if he stepped out of his apartment without them. His shoes in particular serve to highlight the prissy and very particular aspect of Poirot’s nature.

M. Hercule Poirot demonstrates the effectiveness of a few well-utilized props.

M. Hercule Poirot demonstrates the effectiveness of a few well-utilized props.

 There is, of course, a danger here: it is all too easy to visualise these characters as they are depicted in popular film and TV adaptations. However, Poirot, as Agatha Christie saw him, does appear with these props intact, and Holmes was an inveterate pipe smoker (although the curved pipe was popularised, I think, by Basil Rathbone’s interpretation, and the deerstalker was never actually mentioned in the books).

 The Artful Dodger, my favourite character from Oliver Twist, sports his past-its-best top hat with singular style: it was “stuck on his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment.” artful dodgerDickens even gives his boy-thief a head twitch to keep his hat on; so here we have an example of a prop creating a character’s mannerisms. Dodger is the little boy in a big, bad world, who takes the smaller, frightened Oliver under his old-hand’s wing. With his hat, he stands just that bit taller, which is just how wants to be seen.

 Another character from Dickens wears her prop as a symbol of her lost love; as evidence of a mind consumed by grief, and a body sinking into decay and despair. Miss Havisham continues to wear her wedding dress years after being jilted; it is yellowed, withered and hangs loosely upon her body. It acts as a potent metaphor for her state of mind, and is an enduring image from Great Expectations, as indeed is the fire which consumes the dress – and Miss Havisham in it – turning it into “a black shower” of tinders falling around Pip and the unfortunate woman.

Miss Havisham. Great Expectations.

Miss Havisham. ‘Great Expectations’.

 Then there are the props without which a character couldn’t be who they are: Harry Potter’s wand for example. Harry only really appreciates for the first time that he is a wizard when taken to Ollivander’s wand shop, and his wand chooses him. Not to mention the fact that wizards need wands to operate: you try casting a spell without your phoenix-tail or dragon’s tendril wand.

 Other props in literature take on a significantly more central role. In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Piggy’s spectacles are so important to the story’s plot and message that they appear on the front cover of some editions; in my own copy, a 1980s school edition, they are the only thing on the cover.

'Lord of the Flies'. Educational Edition. 1985

‘Lord of the Flies’. Educational Edition. 1985

In the course of the story Piggy’s glasses become broken; eventually he loses them completely; finally he himself dies. Golding uses the glasses as a metaphor for the gradual breakdown of civilisation the marooned boys experience: with Piggy’s glasses, they can make fire; without them, they are lost. Piggy, and his glasses, were a last link to common sense and salvation; once gone, anarchy reigns supreme.

Hugh Edwards as Piggy in the 1963 film adaptation of 'Lord of the Flies'.

Hugh Edwards as Piggy in the 1963 film adaptation of ‘Lord of the Flies’.

 On a lighter literary note, we have Mary Poppins. P L Travers could have had the magical nanny arrive at 17 Cherry Tree Lane by any means available: on foot, by omnibus, by penny farthing. Instead, she has Ms Poppins parachuting in my means of an umbrella.

'Mary Poppins'. Illustrated by Mary Shepard.

‘Mary Poppins’. Illustrated by Mary Shepard.

The umbrella is a prop par excellance in that it irrefutably marks the character out as someone rather different, whilst at the same time creating the enduring image of the story; one which continues to be used to this day to market films, DVDs and the musical. In the days before every last penny was squeezed industrially out of a franchise, did Travers know what she was creating with that umbrella? Perhaps not; but I’ll bet she knew it would do the trick with her young audience in gripping them from the start with that wonderful image as they read her stories.

 Incidentally, Mary Poppins’ other favourite prop, her voluminous carpet bag, brings to mind another literary work in which the entire action of the piece rests singularly on a prop.

 Imagine Lady Bracknell’s reaction if ‘Ernest’ had been found hidden in something other than a handbag. “In a wooden crate?” “In a coal shovel?” “In a flour sack?” “In a crinoline underskirt?” They just don’t have the same ring to them, do they?

 Props, then, can make or break a story; they can help illustrate strengths or weaknesses; aid a character in their quest; fix a character more colourfully in the reader’s mind; or, more practically, assist the writer in sorting out a plot inconsistency.

 A note of caution however: unless you want your character to look like they’ve just had a field day in a flea market, go easy on the props. An umbrella and carpet bag were enough for Mary Poppins; that disintegrating, faded wedding dress was all Miss Haversham required; and Master Potter didn’t really use much else other than his trusty wand to defeat evil and save the world.

 I’m erecting a sign above the entrance to my own prop store: “Use Sparingly for Maximum Effect”, it says. As long as I remember my own advice, I should be fine.

Has the use of props in your writing helped you out of a difficult plot situation? Has a character suddenly flowered and grown by having them wear something new? Have you ever had a prop take over your story? I’d be very interested to know your experiences.

Story-telling begins with story-listening

Some people are natural story-tellers. They launch into a yarn at the drop of a hat; sometimes these stories are prompted; other times they spring forth apropos of nothing.

We met one such story-teller whilst out on a walk this morning. We passed him on a footpath leading up to the Fife Coastal Path, directly under the Forth Bridge (rail, not road). We exchanged greetings; I said hello to his spaniels. Then, he began telling us about the barrage balloons which flew above the bridge during World War II. The gentleman was qualified to do so, being, as he pointed out, 83 years old. He told us that we could find evidence of the balloons’ existence up on the path, as some had been tethered there. He also explained that remnants of a metal gate were to be found (we did find this, but not the metal rings from which the balloons flew) and that the gate was put in place by the Ministry of Defense to allow access to the cliffs. Apparently, this was a legal provision; the MoD were required to permit the public to walk through the land once a year, having taking it over for the duration of the war.

Our new friend then told us about the tradition of train passengers throwing pennies out of the windows as they crossed the bridge. This is a story with which I’m familiar. My other half’s grandfather was a pilot on the Forth, and in his early career was stationed in a cabin directly under the rail bridge; as his grandchildren grew up, he would regale them with tales of pennies falling from the sky. I think he also told them that morning rolls (a Scottish delicacy, which is basically a milk roll, dusted with flour) were thrown from trains as they were being delivered from Fife bakeries across the bridge.

The story-teller then went on to explain that American troop trains were the ones to watch out for: it wasn’t pennies, but crowns and sovereigns which rained down on North Queensferry residents when the boys from ‘over there’ crossed the bridge. Try telling a story of that kind in these days of hermetically sealed train carriages. (I can’t be the only one who has looked at the little red  hammer with which desperate passengers are supposed to effect escape from a burning carriage and thought, that’s never going to smash through glass that thick).

The man might only have been nine or ten when those barrage balloons were first launched, but the glint in his eye showed that he could see it all as if it were yesterday. In telling the story, he produced a similar effect on me. He gave me a perspective on my new home which is both surprising and exciting. Suddenly I see characters in my village living very different lives: army officers shouting orders as balloons are raised; girls rushing out of kitchens to catch coins thrown by American troops; boys dreaming of spitfires and bombing raids.

Our encounter spurred me to do a little research about the Firth of Forth and barrage balloons and I came up with this gem of a video  from 1940 about 992 Squadron. It’s 20 or so minutes, but worth the time.


The characters depicted are a tad clichéd: “Aye, this is the wash hoose,” says a local. To which the officers man, seeing the total linguistic confusion on his superiors face, says, “He means the laundry, sir.”

And there’s the canny Scottish housewife who, when told that her garden is to be used as a barrage balloon station, says with a wry smile, “I suppose we’ll get a wee bit of compensation for this.”

I suppose these caricatures of locals are excused by the period in which the film was made. To the majority of the UK, Scotland was as exotic as the Far East is today. The film merely reinforces that exoticism, whilst also affirming that we were all truly in it together.

Then I found this Pathe news reel on the same subject. There’s no sound, and for some reason it repeats, but watch out for the couple on their doorstep gazing up in awe.

I had no idea that there was a squadron specifically for the care, maintenance and provision of barrage balloons. I certainly didn’t know they flew from and around the bridge I look at every time I open my front door.

Further research led to me learn that barrage balloons were not a new feature in 1939. They were used over the Forth Bridge in the First World War too, as evidenced by these pictures, which form part of the Imperial War Museum collection.

The Forth Bridge, 1917 - Bluejackets Landing. Sir John Lavery

The Forth Bridge, 1917 – Bluejackets Landing. Sir John Lavery

The Forth Bridge, etching by William Walcot

The Forth Bridge, etching by William Walcot

Thank you sir, for taking the trouble to tell your story today. I’m glad that I took the trouble to listen. Who knows when it might inspire a story of my own? It might be today; it could be tomorrow; perhaps it won’t be until I’m 83. It doesn’t matter. The point is that story-tellers are also story-listeners. I’m very glad that this morning I was a listener; a listener with new material with which to tell a story.

Taking a Tip from Trollope

If you read my last post, you’ll know I’m working my way through Trollope’s Barsetshire series of novels. They are enjoyable on many levels, not least in the array of colourfully-named characters with which he populates his stories. Both Trollope and Dickens share a prediliction for comedic monikers; it’s one of the things which makes their work memorable.

Framley Parsonage, the fourth in the Barsetshire series, does not disappoint in this respect.

I’m only half way through the book, but so far I have encountered Mrs Letitia Quiverful, The Reverand Obadiah Slope, Mr Closerstil, Mr Buggins and most glorious of all, the Rev. Tobias Tickler. As with all Trollope’s novels, some, if not all, of these wonderful characters appear elsewhere in the series, with varying degrees of prominence.

"What did you you say your name was?" "Lucy Robarts, my Lord." "Oh dear. How very dull." *

“What did you you say your name was?”
“Lucy Robarts, my Lord.”
“Oh dear. How very dull.” *

Other intriguing names to appear in earlier Barsetshire novels include: Doctors Bumpwell and Fillgrave, who both appear in Barchester Towers along with Mr Lookaloft and Sir Omicron Pie; Dr Thorne gives us Sir Rickety Giggs, Mr Reddypalm, Sir Abraham Haphazzard, Mr Nearthewinde and, most memorably of all, a chap who goes by the name of Neversaye Die.

"If only Trollope had given us funnier names, we might have something to smile about." *

“If only Trollope had given us funnier names, we might have something to smile about.” *

This cast of characters are guaranteed to raise a smile, if only by their eccentric names alone. Naturally these names are no mere accidents, (Trollope was, after all, a skilled writer, a best seller in his own time); they frequently befit their owners to a tee, or, at least, are suggestive of traits in their personalities. And it’s not just people, Trollope frequently employs comedy for his minor place names: Creamclotted Hall in Devon for example. Subtle: not. Funny: oh yes.

"Oh why oh why couldn't I have lived at Creamclotted Hall!" *

“Oh why oh why couldn’t I have lived at Creamclotted Hall!” *

So far so good.

But wait. Having now read over 1,500 pages of Trollope, I’ve noticed that the above-named persons do not take centre stage in his stories. They shine, certainly, flitting around in the background, occasionally coming to the fore, but they are never central to the plot. The main characters, those with whom each novel is chiefly concerned, carry rather more prosaic names: Mr Harding (The Warden); The Proudies and Grantlys (Barchester Towers); Doctor Thorne and the Greshams (Doctor Thorne); and the Robarts and Luftons of Framley Parsonage.

"It's no use Miss Dunstable, however hard I try, I just can't make your name more interesting."*

“It’s no use Miss Dunstable, however hard I try, I just can’t make your name more interesting.”*

These are the people we are destined to remember; they are the ones Trollope fleshed out with substance and depth of character. We share their journeys, their triumphs and disasters; we see them succeed or fail, enjoy happiness or despair, we watch them learn or fail to understand. These are characters to be remembered for what they do or what they achieve; we love them for the things they say and for the lessons they learn. Trollope didn’t need to give these people amusing names; they are memorable enough without them. And there lies his skill: if a writer gives a character enough interest, taking them on a journey and investing them with spirit and emotion, they don’t need their name to support them. But by giving his cast of minor characters creative and comedic names, Trollope achieves something else: he builds a picture, a story, a history for them, without the need for pages of explanation. They act rather like scenery on a stage, supporting the main action and providing an extra layer of depth.

"Don't look now, but Tobias Tickler and Sir Rickey Giggs are just behind us." "Amusing names they might have; but we'll always be the principle characters in this story!"*

“Don’t look now, but Tobias Tickler and Sir Rickey Giggs are just behind us.”
“Amusing names they might have; but we’ll always be the principle characters in this story!”*

These are skills I’m getting to grips with in my own writing. I currently have a cast of principals and a supporting chorus of minor characters for my comedy adventure aimed at 8-12 year olds. The smaller roles I have filled with names which make me laugh (I hope they’ll make other people laugh one day). However, I’m not sure about my main characters. I want them to be memorable for the things they do, not just for their names; but then, I don’t particularly wish to burden them with bland titles either.

J K Rowling pitched her three principles’ names perfectly: Harry Potter (could be any one’s name, plucked from obscurity to achieve great things); Hermione Granger (just a bit unusual, sounds a bit clever, posh even); Ronald Weasley (again, not particularly memorable for the name alone, but sounds just a bit like he might get picked on, has no apparent brawn, but ends up a hero none the less).

That’s a skill I’ve yet to learn. I hope by the time I’ve reached the end of the first draft, my main characters will have either grown into the names I have already burdened them with, or they will have suggested a change themselves. Memorable for being interesting rather then for sounding interesting: that’s what I hope to achieve. Trollope does it; Rowling does too. My minor characters can prance about all they like with their odd-sounding, look-at-me names; they are the comic relief, the scene change, front-of-cloth distractions, to be enjoyed whilst the main cast reset themselves for the next chapter. A main cast which must stand (or fall) by their deeds alone.

So, back to work everyone. Quiet please in the chorus, settle down in the wings, spotlight centre-stage and action.

* Pictures by Millais from Cornhill Magazine. Words by flyingscribbler.