Towers of Words.

Flying Scribbler eschewed flying last week and took to the waves for a trip to Arran.received_641117452708841.jpeg

In years to come, memories of this holiday will, like all memories, fade away. Traces will remain of the walks, the cheese, the whisky; even the hare which sat for a second outside our rental cottage, before leaping away into the long grass. But one memory will linger, persisting in my mind far loner than any other.

Pebbles.

I adore pebbles.

I would always prefer to spend time on a pebble beach than on sand. img_20160518_210818128_hdr.jpg

Pebbles have so much to offer: they are things of beauty; they are tactile; they can be skimmed on the surface of a sunset-drenched sea; and they can be balanced, one-by-one, to create centre-of-gravity-defying, teetering towers.received_641117662708820.jpeg Sedimentary upon metamorphic upon igneous constructions,  growing from the beach, playing chicken with the evening breeze.

The attraction for me is in creating something so temporary out of something as permanent as the rock of the earth. These towers can’t last: even those built away from the reach of the highest tides won’t survive a storm, or the flap of an oyster catcher’s wing. Whilst those built as the waves lap at their very bases will be re-consigned to their horizontal plane in mere moments.

I wonder if by writing, I am constructing something as temporary as the pebble towers, or as permanent as the pebbles themselves?

The paper my words are printed on will, in time, degrade and decay to dust.  If I become published, even the copies of my book held in the permanent collections where all books are destined to be stored, even these will disappear given enough time. The memory of the words I write can only ever be as permanent as the memory of the last person to have read them.

Stories have a finite life. It may be a long life in the case of Homer’s Odyssey, the Norse myths or the Bible. But even these will fade from memory in the millenia to come.

And although those pebbles rolling and frolicking in the surf on Arran, will themselves be reduced by friction and attrition to tiny particles, they will endure far longer than words. They will endure until Earth’s final moment.

So in writing my stories I am creating my own, temporary, pebble towers.

The trick is to build them on solid, even ground, away from the elements, to give them the best chance of standing tall for as long as possible.

As I write, word upon word, line upon line, page upon page, I’ll keep in mind those towers on a beach in Arran, and build the best stories I can.

Second-hand Perks

One of the perks of my job, (besides the obvious: nights out of bed, permanent jet-lag, cleaning up vomit), is the chance to visit some truly wonderful bookshops around the world.

I’ve not taken the opportunity to blog about them before, and I’m certainly not the first to do so, but this being no reason at all not to, let me tell you about Brattle Book Shop in Boston.

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Tucked down a sunless side street just off Boston Common, Brattle Book Shop claims to be one of the oldest and largest used book shops in America.
There are three stories of books inside, including a rare and antiquated section (where I once found a first edition of Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood), but outside is where the most fun is to be had.
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Here, along shelves attached to the brick, or on wooden trollies, are the cheaper books…$5, $3 or $1 will bag you a bargain to send you home with a bibliophile smile, and a couple of kilo’s extra baggage.

There is little order to arrangement outside…Dewey decimal does not deliver here. Instead, fiction squeezes alongside non fiction. Poetry tickles prose. History nuzzles German cookery.
On one trolly I witnessed ‘Advanced Mathematics’ for Christians’ bivouacked with a biography of Lincoln.
So, the keen book-hunter must keep their wits at the ready and scan the shelves with an open mind (which I imagine you would need for that tome on mathematics).
Otherwise, how to explain these three gems which will accompany me home to Scotland?
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Eclectic? Perhaps.
There’s the ‘worthy’ read…Bede’s History of the English Church and People.
There’s the one to add to my other Isherwoods.
And there’s the joker in the pack. How could I refuse the cries (or was it whale song?) of Frances Diane Robotti’s book? This was written in a time before whales were regarded as in any way vital to the planet. To quote from the dust jacket..whaling was early America’s “most romantic and picturesque industry”. I chose it mainly because you never know….inspiration can come from anything.
And indeed, a story immediately presents itself when the book is opened…this was hiding inside:
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Come on, be honest… don’t you want to know what these two discussed either before 11pm or over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows.
Like I said, inspiration and stories everywhere….

Location, Location, Location.

From shoes abandoned in a shoe museum in my previous post, to an entire village abandoned to time and fate this week.

The ‘ghost’ village of Pollphail near Portavadie on the Cowal peninsula (Argyll & Bute), has never been lived in. Its original purpose: to house oil rig construction workers during the North Sea Oil Boom of the 70s; the developers didn’t foresee the lack of demand for concrete platforms and before a single key was turned in a shiny new lock, the place was given over to the elements. Its current purpose: to whisper secrets; to tell untold stories of lives never lived; to inspire artists (Agents of Change graffiti artists were given access in 2009); to create the emryo of a story yet-to-be; to hold out in its decayed glory until the money men inevitably move in to cleanse, anaesthetise and expunge.

To stand amidst the crumbling concrete, broken glass and rusting metal, is to hear the voices of the hundreds of human residents who never were. But also to witness the march of more successful, if non-paying, tenants: bats and sheep both call this place home, as do countless types of flora.

This writer wasn’t necesarily searching for a setting for an unwritten story ….but he might just have found one. See what you think as you step through the wire fence with me. Oh, and watch those open drains as you go.img_20160330_172658656_hdr.jpgimg_20160330_173552524_hdr.jpgimg_20160330_173421707.jpgimg_20160330_173304064.jpgimg_20160330_173238113_hdr.jpgimg_20160330_173154768_hdr.jpgimg_20160330_173004086_hdr.jpgimg_20160330_172938743_hdr.jpgimg_20160330_172859991_hdr.jpgimg_20160330_172817725_hdr.jpgimg_20160330_172805725_hdr.jpgimg_20160330_172652937_hdr.jpgimg_20160330_172735358_hdr.jpg

If shoes could talk…

Shoes. They tell stories.

To listen to some of these tales you could do worse than take a trip to the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

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Here, shoes from around the world and through the ages recount their histories: who wore them and why they were worn.

Out of many intriguing tales, these three piqued my imagination. All worn by very different people for very different purposes.

Firstly, a shoe with only one aim in life: to crush, smash and pulverise. Seen out of context, this beast of a shoe is the stuff of nightmares; an instrument of torture conceived by a twisted mind.

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It’s actual raison d’être is more prosaic: this is a worker’s clog, worn, yes, to crush, smash and pulverise… the humble chestnut.
If you were born into a nineteenth century chestnut farming family in the Haute Ardeche of France, this would be your footwear of  choice come harvest time. These shoes tell a story of unmechanised hard labouring. As fun as it might be to try them on and wobble around, I’m guessing that chestnut farmer couldn’t wait to get them off their feet at the end of a long day.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shoe created for quite such a specific purpose.

From another corner of the planet comes example number two. This is a nineteenth century paduka from India.

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Worn by placing the toe knob between your big toe and the next, much like a flip flop, these particular examples had a rather more elaborate function.
The small button on the heel, when pressed, would send a spray of lotus-infused water over the wearer’s foot, thereby cleansing and purifying on-the-go.
Originally, these paduka would have been decorated with a lotus flower             (important in both Hindu and Buddhist religions) on the toe knob; a fancy stepping out indeed for the devout. These shoes tell a tale of the search for enlightenment, the quest for reincarnation.
I wonder if that chestnut farmer had similar thoughts in mind as they stepped out of a morning?

Finally, a story of rank, privilege and power.

Here, in all his splendour and finery is Louis XIV.

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Of note here are his dandyish shoes, and more specifically, those daring, red heels. In the Versailles of this Louis, only the most valued and most important courtier had the right of sporting scarlet heels bestowed on them. One wonders how hard you had to work to reach that point; how low you had to bow. The grovelling, the flattering, the scheming: all for the right to totter along the hall of mirrors in a pair of heels! You couldn’t exactly wear them to pick up your baguette for lunch; which, I suppose, was the point. Still, what fun to have been a mouche on a wall in Versailles…those shoes were made for talking.

Three pairs of shoes; three stories; three very different lives.

If your shoes could talk, what story would they tell.

Escape from Inferno…in a barrel.

I’m taking a week long writing break just now. I’m away from my laptop and flying instead. This is time I’ve come to use for thinking…of ideas for new characters, stories, plots; thinking, too, about a possible rewrite for my completed MS: having been given some pointers as to how I can go about this, I am now in full thinking mode! Taking an enforced break from writing is perfect timing for that.

This week the flying brings me to Toronto. Unusually, I have two nights here, so took the opportunity to go to Niagara.

Like many literary characters, this is a place with two faces. It is a place which tells two very different stories. And it’s a place where some folk choose to tell their own stories, or create a story to be told.

Of course, the falls are spectacular. Even (maybe especially) on an overcast day, they are awe-inspiring. The volume and speed of the water was most impressive. That, and the wonderful wolf-eye blue of the falling water.

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But my canny ability to frame a picture hides the true horror of Niagara Falls, the town.

On the one hand, the force of nature tells its tale of erosion over time. It bears witness to the powerful strength of water, the weaknesses of solid rock.
It offers the chance to stand and think about life, death, the passing of time.

And then you turn to witness a different tale told. A tale of the erosion of sensibilities. A tale of the powerful strength of commerce, and of the weakness of humanity in the face of it.

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Dante no doubt had Niagara Falls in mind for his Inferno.

Niagara Falls has fallen. It has fallen to the same place as British seaside towns. But where these places, faded memories of Victorian grandeur, now wear their irony all over their piers, Niagara Falls appears quite sincere in its brash disregard for the grandeur of the natural wonder just round the corner.
The story told by the town is a melancholy one. Lost opportunities; lost dreams of low-wage fast food servers; lost expectations of eager travellers.

And so to those folk who created stories of their own. The inspired, intrepid, insane collection of people who dared to duel with nature. Some lost the encounter; others fared better.

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Quite why these marvellous people thought riding the falls in a barrel was a good idea is beyond me. No doubt they wanted to create a sensation. To make a story. To write history.
Or perhaps they had a vision of what Niagara Falls would become and couldn’t cope with the sheer horror.

Stories of nature; stories of humanity. They are as varied as they are beautiful. As different as they are monstrous.

All of them fuel to a writer’s fire.

Bridging the Gaps

I’m in the mood for a gratuitous metaphor….

We walked to South Queensferry the other day which, for us here in North Queensferry, invloves crossing the Forth Road Bridge. It’s a familiar route: driven over (often), cycled over (rarely), and run over fairly regularly. Walking it though, offers a different perspective. There’s time to watch the waves, birds and boats do their things. Time too, to stop and survey the progress being made with the new Forth bridge: The Queensferry Crossing.

The view across from the current bridge offers a zoomed-in peek at the process; it’s like every playmobil fan’s biggest fantasy. At night, these towers, with their arm-like roads growing sideways, take on the appearance of oil rigs or Thunderbirds-style International Rescue HQ’s.

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From further off, down in South Queensferry itself, a wide-screen view is available. The entire scene of construction becomes visible. Finally, you can see how this is going to work. This is how to build a bridge. Or, at least, how to build this particular bridge.

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Taking in the sight of these three looming towers, with their harp-string tendons fanning gracefully down to the road sections, is awe-inspiring. Then it occured to me that the method chosen to build this bridge is rather like that I chose to write my current story. The Queensferry Crossing isn’t being constructed from one side to the other; nor have they started at either end to join somewhere in the middle…always a risky endeavor as they speculated widely with the building of the Channel Tunnel. I think the general view back then was, “what if the French aren’t in the right place when we get to them?” Like they’d been digging towards Denmark by mistake, or something.

With this build, they began at multiple points. The towers rose slowly from the water. Simultaneously, the road began to reach out to meet them from either side of the firth.

Likewise, with my curent work-in-progress, I had my starting point. I also knew exactly where I wanted the story to end. More vitally, I also knew the main turning points my main character was going to go through along the way. If you like, I had the main pillars of my story. They were fairly solid in my mind – I even had some sketched out ready. My work has been to join them up coherently, and, I hope, entertainingly (this is middle grade comedy adventure!), so that each section joins up with the next.

Now, I’m happy to report that I am way ahead of the bridge construction. My road sections are all bolted together, I think in alignement. I’m sure once the bridge is whole, there will be weeks, if not months, of safety checks. Rivets will be checked for their integrity. Nuts will be triple stress-tested. Those beautiful radiating supports will be analysed. In much the same way, I’ll be drafting and re-drafting. My crit group will be critiquing. My beta readers will be reading to help me make it better. I’ll be stress-testing and  probably just stressing.

Finally, as the bridge is given a pre-opening sweep, I will be polishing the final draft until it shines.

The Queensferry Crossing is due to open later in the year. I might as well give myself the same deadline.

Bridge building and book writing: they’ve more in common than you might think.

Jet-lag Vs. Writing. This is war.

Jet-lag.
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For the past twenty or so years I have advanced, sometimes danced, less frequently pranced through life, hand-in-hand with this most unwelcome guest.

It’s been there, hiding in the pews, through weddings. It’s accompanied me, silently perhaps, but definitely there, to Christmas celebrations. It’s joined me, albeit uninvited, on nights out. It’s even had the audacity to come to bed with me on more occasions than is decent.

It has discovered a penchant for hiding out in my writing space, where it crouches, unseen, unheard, unwanted, ready to attack. It scares away my muse, who, to be honest, doesn’t exactly visit THAT often.

So far, its attempts to get into my writing have been unsuccesful.

It might just be a matter of time.

The one question I’m asked by passengers more than any other (well, the one interesting question I’m asked) is “how do you cope with jet-lag?”

My answer: “I don’t”.

Actually, I never have. I have just brushed it aside with youthful abandon. Ignored it with the arrogance befitting someone in their twenties. Through my thirties I pretended it wasn’t there, wishing away the ever-darkening circles beneath my eyes. Now, in my forties, I still attempt to pretend it doesn’t affect me.

But it does.

Truth be told; it always has.

And now when asked the BIG question, I answer honestly. I do not cope with jet-lag. It has a hold on me at times and can no longer be ignored.

It makes me tired in the middle of the day.

It keeps me awake in the middle of the night.

In the middle of my life it threatens to derail me from my writing ambitions.

I took a holiday last week to California. It was wonderful. The sun shone. The wine flowed. The whales migrated past our rented terrace, spouting and fluking as they went. I went to bed early; rose from bed early, aided, in part, by the time change to the West Coast. By the end of the week, thoroughly rested, I promised myself, this was how it was going to be: bed early, rise early.

Write early.

And then my working life intervenes and I have to fly east. Eight hours east. Having been eight hours west with the whales and the wine and the wonderful rest only days previously, this equated to a sixteen (count them, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16) time change.

Result: no sleep. Plenty tossing. More turning. Tossing and turning physically and mentally. I turned ideas over in my sleepless mind; tossed them together, spat some out, kept some in to chew over.

And yet I am unable to write them. The ideas remain locked away by this time lag. It’s like my muse has been incarcerated with no visiting rights.

This folks is the mean face of jet-lag. It fells me without notice. It offers unwanted, and untimely, bursts of short-lived energy. It sneaks onto my desk and leaves blank pages blank. Or worse: it snakes into my pencil and forces me to leave wriggles of gibberish on the paper. I might as well be writing in parseltongue. That’s how much sense my words can make.

With the passing years, and accumulated miles, the jet-lag gets worse; less managable; more debilitating. A case in point: I hoped to be at my desk in good time today. Like many writers, the earlier hours are for me, more productive. I like to get the words down before lunch if possible. The other stuff, blogging, tweeting, subbing to agents, I leave until later. My day’s reality has been somewhat different: awake between the hours of 3.30am and five. Desperately-grabbed sleep between five and ten. Breakfast. Tea. Shower. Laundry. Desk at ten past twelve.

Oh, and the fridge was empty, so I had to factor in a trip to the shops.

Jet-lag is for me what children are to other writers: a preventative measure!

It stops me getting on. It slows me down. It holds me up.

Unlike with children, there’s not a lot to show for the effort. Jet-lag isn’t going to heap love on me and come to visit when I’m old and unable to hold a pencil.

And yet….

This can go one of two ways:

I can succumb. Surrender. Submerge beneath the waves of tiredness.

Or….

I can ride the wave. Not give in. Fight my foe. Because you see, I am guilty. Guilty of placing jet-lag in the procrastination file. I use it as an excuse: I’m too tired to write; It’s not worth it for half an hour; my ideas will be rubbish.

So, they might be. But then, many ideas produced in my non-jet-lagged hours are rubbish too. It doesn’t stop me coming up with THEM. I just filter out the crap at a later stage. There might be more crap to filter from the jet-lagged ideas, but one or two good ones might remain. Those migrating whales don’t stop to pick out only the edible from the mouthfuls of ocean floor they sweep up; they filter the goodness and discard the rest.

Yes, I need to heed my body’s cries for sleep, be they made at midnight or midday. Likewise I must listen when my muse cries out from his jet-lagged state, muffled, indistinct and almost defeated. Be it for ten minutes or ten hours (anything is possible with jet-lag), I must write if I can. If I only feel the tiniest inkling, I must not give in to this most insidious of enemies.

I shall fight it.

Fight it.

And write it.