A New Mantra is Born

Flash Fiction is not my forte.  I struggle to get my ideas out in less than 500,000 words much less 500.  The following is an account of something marvelous which happened during my run this morning.  Hints of American Election subtext are totally intentional.  As always feedback is appreciated as I will probably try to submit this somewhere soon.  Enjoy.

 

This girl can.  No.  This woman can.  This large and out of breath and middle-aged woman can.  Can.  Can.  Can.

I match the rhythm of my running mantra to the beat of my new, electric orange trainers.  ‘All running shoes should be orange,’ proclaimed the gentleman who sold them to me.  But amidst the woodland trail of my local park, the neon orange reminds me of hunting jackets, prison fatigues and pumpkins.

I am not a pum14963401_10154660846558659_7698905646507313732_npkin.  Not a pumpkin. Pump.  KinPump.  Kin.  Pump.  Kin.

A new mantra is born.

My pumpkin/hunter/prison trainers percuss happily as I dodge patches of damp leaves carpeting the path.  The azure, autumn sky provides a perfect canvas for the gold-capped, russet-coated trees overhead.  A perfect day to run.

Struggling up a steep hill, I pass a man jogging opposite, his pace made easy by the downward slope currently giving me difficulty.  I look forward to this later leg of my run, though he doesn’t appear to be enjoying it.  His feet fall swiftly, rather lazily, assisted by gravity, but his face looks grim, irritable, dissatisfied.

Perhaps he needs orange trainers, I giggle inwardly.

Just below the crest of the hill, silhouetted against the blue/gold/russet skyscape, stands an elderly woman; her white hair escaping beneath the blue hood of the puffy coat she wears to defend against October’s chill.  In each hand, she grips a walking stick—not a pair of orthopaedic crutches, nor the smartly polished accessories I’ve seen older woman in town wield like status symbols.  These are walking sticks of action forged from space-age metal, sporting rubber grips and wicked tips, purchased with Everest in mind.

She calls out to me and I shift aside my right headphone, the better to hear her.

‘Did you see that man running past?’  She nods down in the direction of the dissatisfied jogger.

‘Yes,’ I pant, looking back with her, though neither of us can see the man in question who is long gone.

‘He ran behind me so quietly for an age,’ explains the white-haired, blue-hooded woman of action.  ‘Finally, he passed me so close.  I said to him: “you’re lucky you didn’t get this in the shin”.’

She lifts then waves the right-hand Everest stick in a threatening manner.  The space-age metal tip catches a spark of bright sun.  I step back involuntarily.

‘You’re a dangerous woman,’ I chuckle.

‘I am!’ she agrees, matching my chuckle then raising it to a victorious cackle.

‘Good for you,’ I beam encouragingly.

‘We should all be,’ she proclaims with a mischievous grin.

‘Too right,’ I add perfunctorily, running in place.  I’m enjoying our conversation, but I don’t want to lose my momentum so near the top.

My dangerous companion must be eager to enjoy her downhill lap, however.  Deftly manoeuvring her sticks, she strides down the path with surprising speed and agility.  I turn and run on.

I am a dangerous woman.  Dangerous woman.  Dangerous woman.  I am dangerous.   

A new running mantra is born.

 

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Burnsall on the River Wharfe: A setting for Burrs Water in Burly-the-Wath

Not for nothing do the proud inhabitants of Yorkshire call their county “God’s Own Country”.  Where I grew up in central Illinois, landscape variation meant swapping cornfields for soybean, so I never grow tired of the beautiful countryside of my adopted homeland.  I find it particularly inspiring as a writer.

For my first novel A Circle of Lost Sisters, I gave my pack of werewolf girls a vast moorland to run around in, based mostly on the North York Moors.  The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes is also based in Yorkshire, but I have placed my fictional community of Burly-the-Wath in more of a Dales type setting.  In particular the village of Burnsall on the River Wharfe.

In the first chapter of the book, Flora attempts to re-create an Ophelia-esque suicide, only to be defeated by poor aesthetics.

wharfeFor several moments, Floretta Deliverance Hughes froze in the midst of Burrs Water eyes tightly closed, face lifted beatifically to heaven.  Nothing happened.  Her brows knitted.  Still nothing.  Her eyes blinked open on the pale green undersides of willow leaves, bobbing pink cherry blossoms and hazy purple dawn.  It would be another clear and glorious spring day; another day of no rain.  No rain for some time now.

Flora looked down.  Burrs Water rippled jovially over her ankles, bubbled up to tickle the gooseflesh on her legs, but rose no further.  The river was not deep enough.  Not deep enough to carry her gracefully along its current—certainly not deep enough to drown her.  Perhaps, if she submerged face-down she might—  No!  Drowning in such a manner was artistically unacceptable.  Sigh.

*

burnsall2

‘Oh, honestly!  Why do I bother at all?’  She slammed the uncooperative book closed on her inadequate prose.  A nearby sheep bleated its protest to this sudden noise so early in the morning.  ‘Even you think I’m a nuisance,’ sighed Flora at the sheep.

Flora lay back on the woollen cloak and let despair engulf her as the river would not.  In this she was once again thwarted by charming weather.  The morning sun shone brightly through the branches of the flowering cherry tree making dappled patterns on the grassy banks, the bubbling river and the lacy layers of her voluminous dress.  Again she sighed. 

‘All the forces of God and man and nature are against me.’

*

wharfe2 Flora gave attention to every aesthetic aspect of death.  Her deceased mother’s wedding dress seemed perfect from a symbolic point of view.   Practical as well—the sleeves alone would have soaked up the entire river and dragged her swiftly into Burrs Water’s deathly depths.  If only Burrs Water had any depths.

Practical for drowning perhaps but not practical for walking through the surrounding grove of trees, over several fields and across bordering hedgerows.  Even trickier would be making her way home without being spotted by someone tending flocks or fields.  Fortunately, the vicar’s youngest daughter knew many secret paths.  By the time she reached the vicarage,  Flora’s legs and feet had collected grasses and flowers and all manner of countryside detritus.  The wedding dress survived mostly unscathed, though Flora had at one point nearly pulled it all the way over her head to protect the fine fabric.  She would hate to ruin her most precious death accessory. 

selected extracts from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, a work in progress by Katharine Elmer

The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes

It’s been far too long!  My writing life has been on hold for the last few months giving me time to direct my Sixth Form Drama students in their final performances and guide my GCSE students through their final exam.  But with the school year winding down now, I can return my creative attention to the page and pen…or screen and keyboard.

 A Circle of Lost Sisters continues the quest to howl her way into the heart of a publisher.  I have received some very complimentary rejections so far, which is encouraging considering it was my first novel.  The Vampire’s Gardener waits on the reading pile of The British Fantasy Society short story competition, which does not close for another month.  In the meantime, I have a new project in development: a ghost story.

Tentatively titled The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, this new novel is also a Young Adult/Crossover Fantasy.  Like Lost Sisters, I have chosen to set the novel in a fictional Yorkshire community and most of it takes place in a school.  I have a feeling this might be a recurring theme of my work but what else is a High School Drama teacher genre geek supposed to write about?

The story begins in 1870 in the village of Burly the Wath (working name) somewhere in Yorkshire.  Floretta Deliverance Hughes is the youngest daughter of the village vicar.  Though I have a decent working knowledge of Victorian life, I am researching my little heart out to try and breathe real life into this character–before I kill her off.

As part of my research, I made a little day trip around my in-law’s stomping grounds of Newark and Lincolnshire looking for churches and vicarages and schools.  The first of many no doubt.

All Saints Churchweb

All Saints in Beckingham is a marvelous old church, complete with gargoyles, a spiky tower and a rather marvelous door decorated with icons of wolves, Tudor roses and (weirdly) something than looks like a Green Man.

Graveyard All Saintsweb

Surrounding the church is a very spooky graveyard, though perhaps not shown off to atmospheric advantage on a bright spring day.  I love this old sarcophagus in particular, with it’s strong iron gate.  Beside it, the cross fallen from its plinth, is a grave surrounded by heavy iron chains.  Why the chains?  Why the gate?  It’s as if the dead need to be restrained.  And the two are so close together, lying side by side.  Who tried to keep these two souls apart, even in death?

Vicarage All SaintswebOpposite the cemetery, the vicarage of All Saints is virtually hidden behind gates, trees and hedges.  The barely glimpsed lawn is immaculate, sweeping up to the flat and rather plain facade of the house. Is is merely privacy the reverend requires?  Separation from the riff raff of the village?  Protection from the spirits who haunt the graveyard?

This is the world of Floretta Deliverance Hughes.  A world she longs to escape.  A world in which she lives her life as if she were already a ghost in her own home among her own family.

The Role of Kirk Moor Played by Ilkley

Early in the process of writing A Circle of Lost Sisters I faced what should have been a difficult choice: where to set the book.  I knew my novel would not exist  in an imagined land.  I suspect my skills at world building are questionable and I wanted to stand on sure ground for my first novel.  But the real question was which side of the Atlantic.

I grew up in the American Midwest but I have lived in Yorkshire for fourteen years, teaching students for eleven of those fourteen.  I am not a native of Yorkshire but when I close my eyes I do not hear American voices, particularly not young American voices.  I should have set my book in the cornfields of Iowa but in my honest heart I knew I could not pull it off.  The only way for me to craft American dialogue would be to mimic from television and that felt false.  I listen to real Yorkshire kids every day; I’m surrounded by them.  My difficult choice was not really a choice at all.

And so The Fells was born.

My werewolves needed a big moorland landscape in which to roam.  Rather than choose an existing area of Yorkshire I decided to invent one, that way nobody could contradict me about geographical details and I could freely construct a single setting which was an amalgamation of many beautiful places I have visited in this vast county.  In the end, I did not give my werewolves one moor to frolic on, I gave them four fells, two rivers, a coastline and a forest.

In the first chapter, an unnamed boy and girl hike to a stone circle at the crest of Kirk Moor, the largest of my imaginary hills.  My inspiration came from Ilkley Moor.  Ingrid finds herself at the same stone circle in her sixth chapter.

moorland newimprovedwebAs Ingrid ran the landscape sloped more and more steeply up-wards whilst also becoming more barren.  Only the odd sheep broke up the endless expanse of what Ingrid knew would be green if her eyes could see it.   

She was up on The Moors. 

She had run five miles uphill in ten minutes!  The shock of this realisation cut through her wild panic and she slowed down.  Forceful gusts of fell wind made her fake (for now) blonde locks flap irritatingly around her falsely (for now) bronzed face.

rocky stuff improvedwebIngrid had to get her bearings.  She was up on The Moors—but where? 

The Fells included vast expanses of moorland broken up by small villages, stone walls and sheep. 

A vague structure materialised in the distance and Ingrid knew where she was: The Stone Circle at the summit of Kirk Moor.

circle 2 colour arty blog sizeThe Circle of the Lost Sister consisted of seven standing stones.  Six stones stood in a wide but even formation which followed the roughly circular perimeter of the fell top.  They varied in height as time and the forces of nature impacted each slightly differently.  The largest was slightly over six feet high and the shortest was just shy of four foot. 

Set far apart from the others outside the formation was a seventh standing stone: “The Lost Sister”.  The final stone was larger than the others: over seven feet high and wider than an ancient oak.  No doubt Historians, Archaeologists and Pagan Nutters had all sorts of theories as to why and how “The Lost Sister” became Lost.  But Ingrid was not interested in contemplating the mysteries and meanings of the Stone Circle.  At this moment it only meant death and blood and horror at her hands.  She collapsed at the base of the Lost Sister.

shadow moorweb‘Ingrid?’ 

Freya placed a steadying hand on her shoulder.  Ingrid gripped the older girl’s wrist, pressing her hand more firmly against her own skin to gain the most comfort from Freya’s touch.  Ingrid’s breathing became more even, her limbs stilled and her head cleared. 

‘I’m sorry,’ Ingrid whispered. 

‘I know,’ Freya replied.

A Novel is Not a Sock

I read an interview once with Terry Pratchett—he was the subject of the interview not my reading partner.   The journalist asked what advice Sir Terry would give aspiring writers.  “Write something,” was the author’s two word response.   “And show it to people,” added Sir Terry.

I remember being quite annoyed by this advice.  Easy for him to say—him with a hundred published works to his name.  “Write something and show it to people?”  What a useless bloody comment, Sir.  Just Write Something.  That’s up there with Just Say No or Just Do It—the two most useless catch phrases in the history of ink.

Of course, it isn’t bad advice at all.  It’s brilliant advice actually.  But perhaps I am only saying that because I followed it and it changed my life.

Cheers, Sir Terry!

I have been a writer since childhood.  I can do other things, but not as well as I can write.  For ten years I have been a teacher and I am not bad but there are many other teachers who are much better.  I’m an OK parent, not an outstanding one and I have stopped trying to be.  I sing, but that is the minimum musical requirement in my absurdly talented circle of family and friends.  I bake well but have neither the skill nor patience to be as good as my Aunt Margaret or my friend Jo.   I can’t program a computer, do math, navigate, draw recognisable pictures or DIY anything the way many of my blood and chosen beloveds can.

I can craft good sentences.  I know when to start a new paragraph and use punctuation with fair dexterity.  I write better than I do anything else.  I work hard at my writing.  I practise daily, am never satisfied with first choices of language and enjoy playing around with structure.  This brings me to another bad piece of advice for writers, one which never ceases to irritate me.  Actually, it’s not so much advice as a myth—a really irritating myth.

“Everyone has a novel in them.”

Perhaps this myth exists to encourage latent creativity—to dispel the idea that writing is an activity of the privileged.  I am all in favour of de-mystifying artistic labour but I can’t help finding this idea insulting.  Everyone has a novel in them.  As if writing were simply a missing sock which, if you found it, could unlock your magic potential.  By this argument, maybe everyone has a symphony in them—even those who cannot read music, understand orchestrations or know about key signatures. Maybe I have a sculpture in me, though my spatial awareness sucks, I have no experience with shaping materials and never held a chisel in my life.

I resent the idea that “everyone has a novel in them.”  It makes what I do seem cheap.  Art takes time, practise and discipline.  YoYo Ma did not just pick up a cello one day and become a great player.  Michaelangelo did not make David the first time he faced a block of marble.  Dancers train for years in hopes of being good enough just to audition for the Royal Ballet.

Art is work.

Why should writing be any different than these art forms?  Writers read widely to understand how different forms work; we experiment with language and practise our craft over and over again to get it right.  A novel is not a sock—it’s the sheep you breed to make the wool you card, spin then knit into something which might be someday be fit to warm somebody.

Authorial Intent: a rock song

(You have to imagine a loud electric guitar—something Joan Jett or Chilli Peppers.)

Staring down the barrel of 40

Had a lousy day at work

Satisfact’ry just ain’t good enough

Think I’ll go and write me a book.

 (Here’s the chorus bit where even the drummer who can’t sing joins in)

I think I’ll write a book.

Maybe write a book…

Could I just write a book?

Done some poetries and some essays,

Even wrote some daily news

After thirty years of killing pens

Reckon that I’ve paid my dues.

I could write a book…

Why not just write a book?

Wanna write a book.

 (This is the bridge which may or may not be rapped)

 JK in her cafe

EL and her porn

Meyer got a movie deal

Why am I even torn?

I could be Prachett

I could be Gaimon

Gimme half a chance

Bet I sell a ton.

(This final chorus repeats a capella with the audience clapping while the lead singer pans a microphone around the crowd)

If I just write a book.

Wanna write a book.

Gonna write a book.

Shut up and write that book!

(lead singer screams this final line at the mosh pit before leaping into it)