Heat, laziness, mildly exciting activity

This week has felt like summer, specifically a hot summer, one which I imagine occurs on a regular basis in the South but thankfully not here. It’s been (for a few hours) too hot to drink tea, which is frankly unacceptable. On Tuesday the temperature reached 84 degrees (Fahrenheit, obviously. In Celsius I think that’s ‘very hot’) and on Wednesday I went to bed much later than intended as I couldn’t tear myself away from the quiet storm raging over the valley. Like being under a giant faulty striplight.

Picturesque and interesting as it’s been, it’s also been (for me at least) uncomfortable, oppressive, and absolutely not conducive to getting any writing done. The energy required to hold a pen hasn’t really been there. The idea of being in close proximity to a laptop generating heat has not been an attractive one. I went to the library one lunchbreak during the week and sat idly in a patch of sunlight from a high window, revelling in the feeling of bare yet warm arms resting on the wooden table. I didn’t do much writing though.

In theory, I’m hard at work on my piece for the Ilkley Writers fringe performance in October, but what’s actually happening is I’m writing down disjointed ideas and pretending they’re fermenting and producing something useful. The looming deadline for a draft will no doubt galvanise me into action. I have been writing some book reviews – there’s a new one due at Luna Station Quarterly in a couple of weeks, and I may be reviewing elsewhere soon (details here as soon as it’s certain), and partly related to that I’ve been to the library twice in the last 2 days and now have a stack of books so high I seriously doubt I can read it all in 3 weeks (even without the inconvenience of the day job cutting down my reading and writing time).

That said, I’ll take my leave now and get some proper writing done. Or I might return to the slightly silly but highly entertaining interactive fiction (like those Choose Your Own Adventure books which may or may not still exist) detective story I’ve been writing with OneMonkey this weekend. As I go, I tip my battered straw hat to all of you who live in warmer climes and yet somehow manage to function on a daily basis, and even write stuff.

National Flash Fiction Day and starting afresh

It was yesterday, but don’t let that worry you because FlashFlood posted new stories every ten minutes so plenty of people are no doubt still catching up on their free reading. One of those stories was my own Guilt by Association (known in these parts as ‘Are you still with Malcolm? No, we none of us are, are we’. Titles don’t always seem to stick to stories, but that’s a subject for another day) which obviously I recommend you wander along and read.

I haven’t been submitting stories much this year, so it was great to see something of mine out there. Earlier in the year I was concentrating on the storytelling for York Festival of Ideas, now I’m working on a monologue for Ilkley Writers’ event at the Ilkley Literature Festival fringe. In between that I’ve finally finished the first draft of a crime story I’ve been picking at for a couple of years (which needs much more work before it goes anywhere), and I’m trying to finish a story I started last year when I was doing a creative writing MOOC. The novella about a teenager searching for a half-sibling who may or may not exist has been put on hold for a while.

Consequently it feels a bit weird to start a new story from scratch, I haven’t done that for ages. I mean not deliberately constrained flash or hint fiction, but a full-blown short story that has a couple of thousand words or more to play out and do its thing. I’ve spent a couple of hours (more, probably) this weekend looking through my bits and pieces file, the place I write down every stray line, wild idea and resonant character name, where all my 5 minute free-writing gets copied in case it’s holding a partially-obscured gem. I was agonising over what to use, so many possibilities (though this is for a non-genre short story competition and lots of my ideas are SF or crime) so I read a few out to OneMonkey and got shrugs or Not really my kind of thing but…, until one I wasn’t sure about but felt it had potential. Yes, write that one he said. But write it well.

Beside the Seaside: Stories set around the Yorkshire Coast (edited by Scott Harrison)

How could I resist this short story collection when I spotted it in the library a few days after my east coast jaunt? Particularly with its old train poster on the cover. Add to that the promise of ‘A collection of thriller, science fiction, & horror to stimulate the mind and invigorate the senses’ (despite being on the general fiction shelves) and I was looking forward to finishing the novel I was reading at the time so that I could dive in.

The stories (by a Doctor Who novelist and other established writers as well as some less well-known) are:
That’s the way to do it, by Alison Littlewood (chilling fantasy set in Scarborough, involving a sinister Punch and Judy man); Landlady Interface by Lee Harris (Robin Hood’s Bay, far in the future in a guest house run by an outmoded AI named Ivy); Scarborough in July by Sadie Miller (A day in the lives of four loosely-connected people, neither thriller, nor science fiction, nor horror); The Woman in the Sand by Trevor Baxendale (Kate and her 7 year old son have an unsettling encounter with a sand sculptor); She Who Waits by Gary McMahon (mild horror/ghost story about a grieving widower and the legend of a local haunting); Scarborough Warning by Sue Wilsea (a secret holiday in Scarborough that doesn’t stay secret for long enough. Well-written, but more mainstream fiction than any of the quoted genres).

The stand-out stories for me were The Last Train to Whitby by Scott Harrison (a gripping 1950s secret agent story with just enough of a light touch to stop it being grim. Quite 39 Steps with its railway compartments and codenames, double-crossing and paranoia, and made good use of the setting) and The Girl on the Suicide Bridge by JA Mains (powerful dark fantasy about the all-consuming love of a teenage girl for her troubled older brother, in a town where the nearby bridge is a national suicide-magnet. Hard to say much about it without spoilers, but it will stay with me for a long time I think).

Unfortunately, the whole book was riddled with typos and felt like it hadn’t been proof-read, which was a shame as it looked enticing and professional, and the intro from David Nobbs (he of Reggie Perrin fame) persuaded me of its quality when I picked it off the shelf. The mistakes were only mildly irritating until I got to Sadie Miller’s story, and by the end of it I felt quite sorry for her as they’d started to overshadow her writing a bit (for this grouchy pedant, anyway), for instance ‘The water was icy cold and she submerged herself, as fast as soon could, which always seem to help.’

There was an interesting mix of styles and approaches to the theme, with some stories making full use of their setting and others (like Landlady Interface) feeling like they were more about the characters. Personally, I would have liked more of a mix of settings, as all but 2 were based in Scarborough (my least favourite part of the coast), but you can’t have everything. Maybe there’s just not much drama to be had from Filey. I would recommend if you’re drawn to the darker side, read this then go to the Yorkshire Coast yourself to soak up the atmosphere (and if you’re a writer, start work on something that might fit in a follow-up volume. Preferably set in Filey or Brid…)

Today York, tomorrow… Ilkley

This is probably the last time I’ll mention the storytelling evening at this year’s York Festival of Ideas, but I wanted to convey a tiny bit of the buzz we got from the evening. OneMonkey (who was ably assisting with the technical gubbins) took a couple of action shots (with no flash so as not to disrupt us) so here is my friend Alice Courvoisier in her off the cuff storytelling groove:

Alice Courvoisier storytelling with JY Saville, York Festival of Ideasand here is me reading from the marvellous book I made for the purpose:

JY Saville reading at York Festival of Ideas, with Alice CourvoisierFor those that know me (too) well, yes I have had that shirt since 1994 and it’s wearing fine, thank you.

We told stories from around the world, in a variety of genres, all linked by the theme of secrets and discoveries. Two were stories that I’d written (one set in the past about Luddites, one set in the near future about the dangers of scientific discoveries in the wrong hands) and I’d hoped to record them so you could listen to them here, but unfortunately the computer’s built-in microphone made it sound like I was reading from the bottom of the garden in a storm, and the tablet sounded like I’d been recording with a sock over it (which I’m fairly sure wasn’t the case). However, should I find myself in a situation where I can record them more clearly I’ll do so and post them somewhere in this vicinity.

It seems like I’m going on about this event, I know, but we had such a great time putting it together, rehearsing, and then finally performing it to a (pretty full) audience, almost all of whom were complete strangers. One of those strangers, rather wonderfully, described the evening as ‘random, mad & fab‘ which Alice and I are quite happy with as our first review. I say ‘first’ because we’d quite like to do this again sometime, and other people have also expressed an interest in us doing so.

In the meantime, Ilkley Writers (which, as regulars here will know, includes me) this week kicked off their preparations for a second appearance at the Ilkley Literature Festival. Clear your diaries for the first week of October, we’re going to be fab.

Preparations prior to performance

The storytelling evening at York Festival of Ideas is almost here, 24 hours from now I will probably be finishing a post-event drink en route to the train home. Most of you reading this will be nowhere near York, but just so you don’t feel left out here is the booklet of stories I’ve made for the evening, with a tantalising glimpse of my second original story of the night (paper courtesy friend T as usual):

handmade storybook of JY Savillehandmade storybook of JY Saville

Scandinavian crime: Camilla Läckberg

As with Karin Fossum, Camilla Läckberg was on my dad’s useful list of Scandinavian women who write crime, and I was fortunate to find her first three novels in one ebook from the library (though I only read 2 before the loan expired). The Ice Princess and The Preacher were both gripping novels set in and around the small Swedish coastal town of Fjällbacka. Again, as in Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, there is that sense of small-town interconnectedness, the potential for gossip and everyone knowing everyone else’s family background. However, there is no isolation here: Fjällbacka is a summer tourist destination, there are residents who’ve moved to the city (and some who’ve returned), and we occasionally follow characters to Gothenburg or Stockholm.

Having, as I said, only read the first two novels from a dozen or so years ago (and synopses of some more recent ones) it seems that the first volume, The Ice Princess, follows a different format. While the series as a whole seems to be referred to as the Patrik Hedström books, it’s hard to say who is the central character in The Ice Princess, and Patrik doesn’t appear for quite a while. We mainly follow the amateur investigations of Erica, a moderately successful non-fiction author who is temporarily in town sorting out her parents’ house after their recent deaths. When her childhood friend Alex’s body is found, apparently as the result of suicide, Alex’s parents ask Erica to write an article about Alex’s life. Speaking to Alex’s friends and family, and dredging up her own memories and photographs, Erica begins to feel that something isn’t right.

In The Preacher, the murder of a tourist seems to be connected to two twenty-five year old disappearances, and a divided local family. With the fresh death occurring at the height of the tourist season that most of the town depends on, the police are under pressure to clear it up as quickly as they can. If they don’t melt in the heatwave, first.

With The Preacher, there is an explicit connection to 1979 (including flashbacks to events of that time), but the death in The Ice Princess also has its roots in past events, and according to my dad the third novel, The Stone Cutter, delves into the 1920s. This put me in mind of Robert Goddard and his novels based around family secrets, with the key to the present being obtainable only by solving a puzzle from the past, so the series may appeal to his readers.

Camilla Läckberg draws out the human side of the Tanumshede police force, whether it’s Mellberg (the chief) with his comb-over, or young Martin’s disastrous love life, we’re reminded that they are people too. Patrik has his doubts and insecurities, mistakes are made and laziness creeps in with the summer heat. Because of that human side, there is a degree of natural humour in the books (in a similar way to Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels) and though there are descriptions of gruesome situations, the books are by no means bloody and grim.

Perhaps one of the things that initially drew me in to The Ice Princess when I began to read it was the herring connection. The book I’d finished reading the day before was Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor, set in North Shields and partly about the decline of the herring catch. In the early part of The Ice Princess, Läckberg talks about the decline of the herring catch in Fjällbacka (which I was delighted to discover is a real place) and how that changed the town, so it was interesting to see that mirrored on both sides of the North Sea. While I appreciate that not everyone will have such a niche interest, I think this series will have wide appeal with its engaging characters and well thought out thriller plots.

A lack of poetry in the spoken word

I was thinking of going all high tech and using voice recognition on the tablet we have at home but after watching OneMonkey try it for an email I wondered if it was a bad idea. However, in the spirit of scientific enquiry I gave it a go. Punctuation seems a tad tricky but otherwise it’s quite impressive. Except when it randomly misses words out. OneMonkey managed to create accidental poetry and I was anticipating some serendipitous arrangements of mismatched words and phrases, but sadly it didn’t really turn out that way.

This is what it produced:
I was thinking of going all high tech and using voice recognition on the tablet we have at home but after watching one monkey try it for an e-mail I wondered if it was a bad idea however in the Spirit of scientific enquiry I gave it a go. Punctuation seems a tad tricky. impressive. Except when it randomly misses words out. 11 keep manage to create accidental poetry and I wasn’t anticipating some serendipitous arrangements of mismatch words and phrases but sadly it didn’t really turn out that way.