Lurgy Diaries, Volume One…

…or, what I’ve achieved in the last 48 hours, when all I should have been doing was manuscript edits, but have been too ill to manage.

Being a conscript sucks. I never asked to be here. I didn’t sign any joining-up papers. I never enlisted myself with my friends and marched off into the sunset through cheering crowds of nationalistic fervour.

And yet I find myself cowering under the iron-fist rule of Major Lurgy. And let me tell you: I’m doing exactly what he says. When Major Lurgy says “stay in bed”, I stay in bed. When Major Lurgy says “drink your body weight in water”, I drink it; all the way to the bathroom and back. When Major Lurgy says “wear as many clothes as you can regardless of the sweat levels”, I obey. And when Major Lurgy dictates that all I can swallow down my razor-lined throat is custard, then custard shall be my nourishment.(Did someone say ten-a-day? Hush now. My head is sore. And anyway, haven’t you heard of the custard apple? Thought not).

And so, finding myself unable to do a final read-through of my manuscript edits due to Major Lurgy’s insistence on only concentrating on things which need little, or no, concentration, I have had to look elsewhere to make use of the time I’d put by for the important stuff.

In between enforced naps (Major Lurgy has a way of making you comply when he says “get some sleep”), I have managed to enjoy – I think I enjoyed them; it’s hard to tell when you’re drugged up to the eyeballs –  the following cultural highlights:

  1. The Lego Movie.

How has this passed me by until now? It’s a hoot. And when you’re on an emotional and physical low, it’s amazing how much meaning can be found. President Business is Trump, right? I mean, he says he’s going to build walls…those folk at Lego Movie HQ either saw something coming, or it’s a conspiracy of some sort.

And The Lego Movie has given us one of the greatest film characters of all time…wp-1488364123240.jpeg

I give you Unikitty. After two days on the Beecham’s powders, I’m ready to leap into her Cloud Cuckoo Land, rainbow realness and party on down to her bubblegum sound.

Everyone should be prescribed a dose of Unikitty when they’re ill. The health benefits are, as yet, unfounded; but who cares? Look at her. Unikitty is great!

2. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

You know when you think you’ve read something, because you really ought to have read it by now, but in fact, you’re not sure if you have? That feeling.

I must have read Alice, because, you know, I write for children. And I know the story. I know the verses. I know the characters. But I don’t think I’ve ever read it through a Major Lurgy hazing. And it’s not the same story when you’re as high as, well, the caterpillar, on cold and flu medication. wp-1488364297584.jpeg

Ok, so I’m not smoking my paracetamol. Although who knows? They might be more effective inhaled through a Hooka.

It might not have been the closest reading of Alice, but I needed it on day one with the Major.

3. Fargo

Fargo has long been in my top five movies, and last night’s viewing changes nothing. I love the blackness of the humour, and the whiteness of the landscape. I love Frances McDormand’s character Marge Gunderson. I love the left-field whackiness of the Coen Brothers. But last night, the thing I loved most of all about Fargo, was the bowl of jelly* Marge selects from the all-you-can-eat buffet. wp-1488364885185.jpeg

How my virus-ravaged throat longed to feel that cool jelly wobble its way down.

Just as some nights, only a gin martini will do; other nights, it’s jelly.

There you have it. My lurgy-induced, cultural diary, volume one. I’m hoping there won’t be a volume two, as I’ve a ton of things to get done before going back to work. But the way Major Lurgy is looking at me from under the brim of his beret, I think he’s not finished with me yet.

I think I’d better investigate how to get hold of some jelly, without actually leaving the house.

And now, before I drag myself back to a dark place, padded with cushions, I’ll leave you with the Awesome Song, from the Lego Movie. Ironic, really, because being with Major Lurgy is anything but awesome.

 

* jelly, for my stateside readers, is JELL-O. Your jelly, is our jam.

 

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Conference Call!

I think it’s time for a positive blog post – my last was pessimistic in the extreme. And, after all, I have something upbeat to write about.

This weekend, I attended the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Winchester. This year’s theme: Cracking Characters.

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This was significant for two reasons: first, I was returning the county where I grew up; second, this was my initiation into the world of SCBWI conferences. Here’s the good news (I said this post would be upbeat)…I’ll be going again next year.

For anyone with even the faintest sense of fairness and equality, the past months have been a shock. Along with so many others, I’ve found it hard not to allow myself to be dragged down into the morass of gloom and hopelessness left behind like a dark, sticky slug’s trail by the year’s events. I think I’d stopped trying to get unstuck.

And then came Winchester.

From the moment conference started I felt a resurgent sense of purpose. The opening remarks set the tone for me; referencing the doom that is 2016, we were reminded that as writers, we have a role to play in forcing light into the dark. He Who Must Not Be Named need not succeed…we can all defeat the menace, one scribble at a time. And with that, I felt the weight of our collective annus horriblis lift ever so slightly.

And it continued to rise throughout the weekend. David Almond couldn’t help but inspire with his instinctive joy and enthusiasm for writing for children. And if learning that he can make sense of the apparent chaos of his notebook – turning it into award-winning, vital stories – doesn’t fill you with optimism, nothing will!

Volunteering on the merchandise stall at lunchtime was always going to give me a boost, in the way that volunteering does. As the wickedly loveable muppet puppets of Avenue Q sing…”when you help others, you can’t help helping yourself”.

(Please enjoy this musical interlude)

Plus, I got to resurrect my link-selling skills from my short-lived retail days at Body Shop…turning, “Would you like some conditioner to go with your hemp shampoo?” into “Why not buy a soft, cotton tote bag to wrap your SCBWI mug in?”. I particularly excelled when a fellow delegate asked if I had a pen he could use to fill in his raffle tickets. “Certainly,” I replied, “how about these lovely SCBWI pens? Just £1.50 each”.

Then came the moment which gave me the biggest lift of all. The ‘Hook’. I’d entered this “pitch your book to a panel of agents” event for the same reason I’d offered to volunteer and for the same reason I’d decided to go to conference at all: Why Not? I realised that I’d have nothing to lose…in fact, in this event, win or lose, the finalists’ pitches would all be heard by the agents and any one else in the audience. Yes, I was nervous (very); yes, I doubted myself (more than once); and yes, it was hard work preparing for (hours spent going over the pitch and recording myself).

It paid off and I won the event. My prize: a meeting with the agent of my choice from the panel. I chose Thérèse Coen, from Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency.

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Therese Coen and a very happy contestant.

She now gets to read my whole manuscript before we meet. This is such a huge opportunity, I can’t thank the organisers enough. And I couldn’t be more pleased with myself that I went for it. The sense of camaraderie between the five of us during, and after, the event, only added to the growing lightness of heart.

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The five ‘Hook’ finalists, some in cunning disguise.

Why did I put myself through this? Because, at the end of the day, I often put my heroes in a position where they have to choose whether to go for something, even if it’s terrifying, in order to advance or survive or save someone. Some role model I’d be to my characters if I didn’t do the same myself.

I suffered a slight dip on Sunday morning…well…people would keep buying me drinks the night before…but surged back after Sarah Davies (of The Greenhouse Literary Agency) delivered her keynote. Despite hearing how many millions (ok, thousands) of submissions she receives every year, I still came away feeling optimistic about my own writing and chances. Concept and craft are her focal points in a good manuscript…and give every writer something to aim for. Create a great concept, then write it well. It sounds simple, and I know it isn’t, because otherwise I’d be delivering a lecture to writers rather than sitting in the audience hanging off every word…but I’m determined to get both right.

Finally, the good folk at SCBWI British Isles weren’t going to let us get away without some good old-fashioned, blood, sweat and ink-stained fingers. Cliff McNish offered the chance to get our heroes shining and our villains sweating with a double dose of expertise. These were great sessions to end the conference and I was thrilled to have a light bulb moment when I realised I should turn one of my characters from parent to villain.

The sense of community I found at the conference was one of the most important aspects. I’d already had a sense of this from my home network in Scotland, and they helped make sure I made the best of my time at conference.

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SCBWI South East Scotland delegates. Plus photo-bomber.

And the wider community of SCBWI wrapped me in an even bigger embrace.

However, it’s the feeling of empowerment with which I left Winchester that most surprised me. To know that I haven’t been wasting my time with writing and that it can be appreciated…that’s empowering. To have learnt new skills and made important plot and character decisions…that’s empowering. To know that I’m part of a huge community of supportive and talented writers and illustrators…that’s empowering. And to know that my writing, all of our writing, might let some of the light back in…that really is empowering.

Over to you Leonard…

 

 

 

Tinker, Tweak it, or Let it Lie?

It’s the forgotten quandary in the writing process, creeping up on the writer, ready to blow a raspberry in your face just when you thought your work was ready. Ha! It laughs. Thought you were done with this manuscript didn’t you? But are you sure? Go on! It says. Have another look. Wouldn’t another word work better here? What about there? Or there?

Maybe this is your fourth or fifth draft. Sixth even. Or more. Doesn’t matter. Just when you think you are ready to send out to agents, to start the terrifying process of submissions and queries, a voice says: hold on a minute. Are you sure it’s absolutely ready?

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You’ve shared your work with your beta readers; workshopped it; had it critiqued. You’ve polished, buffed and flicked a duster over it. So what! The dust always settles and needs shifting again.

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You’ve cut, copied and pasted. You’ve examined every chapter, paragraph, line and word. You thought they were the best choices, but then the doubts creep in…maybe a tweak here…how about a quick tinker there…

The truth is, you could go on forever like this. There will always be a change you might have made; and it might have been for the better. Poets often rework their poems years later, even after they’ve been published.  But there has to come a time when you say, “That’s it. It’s done. It’s as good as I can make it just now.”

Because all this tinkering and tweaking and dusting and polishing and agonising is simply preventing you from moving on to the next project. That idea which is locked inside, straining at the leash to be let out on to the page…doesn’t it have rights too? How will it ever know the joy of running free if you keep on keeping on at the same novel?

The time has come to cut the cord and allow the completed work to flex its muscles out there. Maybe it will sink without trace; maybe it won’t .

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An agent might throw it a lifeline and reel it in.

In the meantime I think I’m going to release that new idea. I’m allowing it to unfurl its wings to see if it can fly.

The duster is shaken out and neatly folded. I’ll be using it again one day; but not right now.

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….

Award Night Schadenfreude or The Dangers of Facial Leakage

Funny things, award ceremonies. They exist to celebrate the best: the best written; the best sung; the best acted; the best designed. And we tune in in our millions to watch these ‘bests’ receive their prizes. It’s all, of course, tremendously exciting. Who, we wonder, will win? What will they say? Will they trip up the stairs? Will they remember to thank their Granny? All very important aspects of an awards ceremony I’m sure. But is that really why people tune in?

There are of course those awards – the Oscars, BAFTAS, Golden Globes – where it’s all about the dresses. At least it seems that way if the dreary output from our esteemed television networks is anything to go by. How low will they go? Who dares to go strapless? Will a single person this year wear yellow? In the rain. And I’m sure many viewers tune in just for the fashion chat. And why not? It’s often more exciting than the hours of dross to follow.

Amongst all the reasons for dropping everything to catch these ceremonies (or for remembering to catch it later on the internet) is the less obvious, and oh-so guilty pleasure of waiting for your favourite star to drop their ever-present smile. It’s that split-screen moment just before the winner is announced: six hopeful faces, still smiling their professional, ‘awards-night’ smile; still smiling their ‘God-I-hope-it’s-me’ smile; still smiling their ‘this-could-really-be-it smile’; still smiling their ‘the-world-is-watching-me smile’. Then we finally have our winner and the screen fills with the shocked/in denial/confused/delirious/ecstatic face of the newly crowned victor. The other contenders vanish; their moment is gone. But in the split second before they are cut from our view, we get the briefest of glimpses of their reaction to the news; their honest reaction before the pro in them kicks them back into line. It’s a rare and precious moment. Seconds later, as the victor climbs to the stage, the runners-up find cameras thrust into their faces, so they’d better be ready with a generous smile. Come on, let’s face it: we love to see them struggle; to see the pain behind the grimace; to see the festering resentment of ten nominations with no wins. It’s in the eyes. Unless they’ve opted for tinted eye wear, which just ruins the fun for the rest of us.

This is not something I spend much time thinking about. Honestly it isn’t. But, if you read my last post, you’ll know that I’m shortly up for a prize myself, the Kelpies Prize 2015, for children’s fiction. Admittedly, it’s on somewhat of a smaller scale than the Academy Awards, or the Booker, but it is nevertheless the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in. It’s the only prize ceremony I’ve ever been involved in (unless you count my sixth form prize night, where I was shocked to find myself walk off with the joint prize for French. I wasn’t even in contention, but I think my teacher felt obliged to give me something for improving from a predicted ‘E’ to an actual ‘A’).

As my nerves have been increasing, so too has the awareness that all eyes will be on me and the other two shortlisted writers. What if, like me, someone there enjoys the Schadenfreude of watching for the runners-up reaction? With this in mind I thought I’d better practice my split-screen moment: the before (Will I? Could I?); the after (OMG! It’s me! Or, Bravo! Well done!); and, yes, the momentary in-between face (Bugger! Not me!).

And I need to practice because I’ve been told that I suffer from ‘facial leakage’. The inability to fake an emotion.

So, judge for yourselves. Are these faces believable?

The Before Face:

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The After, OMG! It’s Me! Face:

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The After, Bravo! Well done! Face:

wpid-img_20150821_150642.jpgYes, it’s identical to my OMG! It’s me! face. This is the face I hope to be wearing whatever the outcome. It is, I think, a genuine-looking smile. It’s a smile that only hurts if you don’t mean it. Without it of course, there’s every danger that I could be wearing….

The Bugger! Not Me! face:

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Or the ‘No, really, I’m super happy for you, really’ face:

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Or, and this would be a personal disaster, the ‘I feel like killing you’ face:

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I think I’d be on safer ground with the ‘oh well, there’s always next year’ face:

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Naturally, on the night, there will be no hiding my genuine emotion; all the effort in the world won’t help me. I shall just have to trust my face to perform for me because I’ll be too busy being genuinely excited, terrified, expectant, hopeful, and most importantly, thrilled to be there at all. That’s the face I’ll be wearing: thrilled and excited and just happy to be part of it. And I don’t have a picture of that face, because I can’t fake it a week away from the event. And in any case, your mouth can be doing one thing, but it’s the eyes that have it. That’s where the true emotion hides. I’ll check in with you next week with some photos and you can judge for yourselves.

Whichever way it goes, I trust my eyes will be smiling brightly.

It’s Getting Drafty Here.

The lamentable abandonment of my blog of late has been entirely intentional; I apologise to my regular visitors.
It was an experiment: in the same way some people opt for giving up watching television; and others leave off Facebook for a while. I wanted to see if, by ceasing to plan and write blog posts, my other writing pursuits increased in productivity or quality.

I hoped to improve the speed at which I’m writing my novel for children.
I haven’t.
I thought it might improve my concentration on other projects.
It didn’t.
I fancied it might focus my mind; free me to think about other things.
It hasn’t.

Although my posts were always sporadic (at best), and sparingly read (definitely at best), I enjoyed the process of blogging. Finding a subject to blog about is always exciting; as is the research it inevitably leads to. Writing the posts is, let’s be honest, fun. I wouldn’t bother otherwise. It flexes the writing muscles, loosens the mind and offers the opportunity to use different styles than I otherwise employ. And then there’s the inevitable wait for responses……….sometimes a very long wait for a single response. Which turns out to be a ‘like’. Or just spam.

So, in addition to the discovery that I miss blogging, I also found that not blogging has no impact at all on my story writing output. It’s the same process which means that when I have say, a week off work, I get about as much writing done as when I have a scant 3 days available. It’s the concentration of time which concentrates the mind so well; much in the way that if you want something doing, you are supposed to ask a busy person.

However, there have been advances in the time I have been away from the blog.
I have progressed to a second draft of the novel; it finally takes shape. I know where it’s going and, most importantly, I know how to get it there.

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This, incidentally, is what one and half drafts of my story looks like. Thank the writing overlords for post-it notes.

I have made a further discovery; a true revelation: if given only 30 minutes of spare time, I can still write something. I can still contribute a sentence, an idea, or just a few words to the whole. These snippets add up. They will eventually lead to a whole.

Therefore, I will keep blogging. I already have an idea for another post. And I will do it with the knowledge that it is unlikely to have any impact on my other projects. And my novel will get written. It’s an organic process; like a plant growing in stages, it sometimes enters a dormant period before bursting back into full, unfettered growth.

So, on with the second draft. And on with the blogging.

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.