fiction

I made it to podcast episode 2

An awful lot of podcasters apparently give up after the first episode. Tried it and didn’t like it, perhaps, or became discouraged by the tumbleweed that greeted their first offering. Well, because I like to be different, I’ve persevered to make the second episode of my sitcom Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays. It was released on Friday and as before, you can listen to it on Spotify or Apple podcasts, or at https://anchor.fm/jysaville where you should be able to play it in a browser without logging in to anything. And if I’ve embedded it properly, you can listen to both episodes right here:

Lee-Ann gets roped in by Gina to help get a book signed by the author. It’s hardly Lee-Ann’s fault she’s involved in a minor incident en route.
  1. Episode 2: Book-signing
  2. Episode 1: Sourdough Starter

Before you listen, you may want to know what this podcast is about. It’s about Lee-Ann who’s been moved on to a four-day week and wants to spend more time with her cat and research the history of the Yorkshire village she lives in. Unfortunately she has the sort of interfering and organised older sister (Gina) who doesn’t think those are worthy enough pursuits, and she spends most of Friday trying to get Gina off her case. She also has a dry, laid-back Scottish neighbour called Douglas, and a portly black and white cat named Lord Salisbury. It’s structured like a sitcom, but told as a monologue from Lee-Ann’s point of view. I’m not saying you’re going to learn anything from Lee-Ann, but she does drop real history in now and then (like sourdough bread being around in ancient Egypt).

Lord Salisbury leapt on to Douglas’s knee to show Gina that he’s not standoffish, he just doesn’t like her. Douglas said he was sure he’d regret asking, but why was my cat called Lord Salisbury?

episode 2, Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays by JY Saville

Lord Salisbury (as I’m sure you all know) was a Tory prime minister of the late nineteenth century, and according to HCG Matthew in my Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, ‘the last Prime Minister to wear a beard’. There is no deep meaning behind my choosing the name, it is simply an improbable name for a cat (and turned out not to be the name of a cat who used to live round the corner from me, but that’s another story).

Richard Oastler, who gets a mention in episode two, was another nineteenth-century Tory, this time from Yorkshire. Best known for being instrumental in the Ten Hour Act (1847) which limited the amount of time in a day that children could work, there is a statue in Bradford of him accompanied by sorry-looking children. It’s not that far from the statue to William Forster (not a Tory), whose 1870 Education Act gets a passing mention.

Robert Owen, also mentioned in the second episode, was a Welsh mill-owner and famous socialist. Similar to Titus Salt in Yorkshire or the Cadbury family in the Midlands, he had a village for his workers at New Lanark in Scotland and was attempting to improve their health, morals, and general wellbeing. We learnt about him at school, and then presumably because it was a lot closer to get to, went for a day trip to Quarry Bank mill instead.

As a bonus historical fun fact, pilates (which crops up in both episodes, actually) was called Contrology until its inventor (Mr Pilates) died in 1967. I have a feeling if it was still called that, Lee-Ann wouldn’t be quite so set against it.

If you enjoyed either episode of Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays and want to support me as I make episode three, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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My reading list for 2022 was eclectic

I read more books in 2022 than I had in a few years, which is good. I also read or re-read huge chunks of books as background for my Hexham book festival commission, but they don’t count in my list because it’s only complete books.

A few of the books I read in 2022

I read a lot of ebooks, and some I borrowed from the Library of Mum & Dad, and some I’ve given to charity shops since, so the picture’s a bit sparse but I think you’ll agree it’s wide-ranging. If we add in the fact that I read a couple of Celia Imrie novels, some local history and Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, it becomes even more so. I wrote about Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (good for dipping a toe into nature topics) and The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald (excellent slice of noir, borrowed from my dad) in January but nothing since, leaving it looking like I was only planning to review authors named Macdonald and ran out of steam. I had computer problems that stopped the blog for a few months and then I was too busy getting back into reading after a patchy couple of years to stop and write reviews of anything. I did mention The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola and GM Trevelyan’s Illustrated English Social History in a post about historical echoes. I’ll try and rattle through a few recommendations now.

Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain by Pen Vogler was interesting and I enjoyed it but I was left wanting more (despite it being a hefty book). Rather than chronological, the book is arranged by topic. What you get therefore is effectively an article about a meal or foodstuff, which is loosely related to the other articles in that section, with little room for depth or cross-referencing. I learnt lots of fascinating things, but I think I’ll have to delve into the extensive bibliography to answer all the follow-up questions I was left with.

Farmer’s Glory by AG Street must have been mentioned by Cumbrian farmer-author James Rebanks at some point (in fact he wrote the introduction to the edition I’ve got). The author worked on his father’s farm somewhere in the south of England in the early years of the twentieth century, then went to work on a Canadian farm in 1911. If you’re interested in man’s changing relationship with nature, or the history of farming itself, it’s a sad but enjoyable comparison of two very different farms, and also the pre- and post-war farm in England.

Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian I highly recommend if you’ve dipped a toe with Helen Macdonald and you’re eager for more of the nature stuff. He writes some of the Country Diary for the Guardian, and judging by both the humour and the use of footnotes in this book, is probably a reader of Douglas Adams and/or Terry Pratchett. He has a Bill Bryson-ish air of being interested but not an expert (even though he knows an awful lot about birds) and his enthusiasm is contagious – he’s also worth following on twitter. It is a book about nature, but also about how the average Briton (whoever that may be) experiences nature, so there are urban street/park/garden excursions as well as the grounds of museums, and nature reserves and the like. From memory, there is nowhere he visits that isn’t accessible to the general public, though that does include an isolated holiday destination on an island of birds.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty is extremely long but quite readable and it didn’t take me that long to get through. To be honest I think a massive chunk of it is graphs (which take up a lot of space) and end-notes (which I didn’t read because the BorrowBox app didn’t seem to allow easy return to where you were reading). I found it really interesting but a) I’m pretty left-wing so I’m predisposed to e.g. recommendations of wealth tax, and b) though I’m not really up on economics, I do enjoy reading economic histories full of coal production graphs. For reference, I have never read Das Kapital which sounded incredibly dull. I think if you’re interested in how we got in this mess (2008 financial crisis etc) and how tax and wealth have been handled in a few of the major economies in the last couple of centuries, it’s worth a try. I think it’s designed to be dippable, or at least skippable if you don’t want the detail.

I can’t remember the detail of most novels I read last year, like Hestia by CJ Cherryh or Ayala’s Angel by Anthony Trollope but The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley has stuck with me. It’s a wonderful blend of nineteenth-century adventure story and fantasy novel, set in (from memory) the 1860s and following a chap from Cornwall to Peru in the footsteps of his grandfather. Thinking about it, there’s another connection to my nature-reading here – the core of it is about collecting specimens of exotic trees, but there’s a lot about the properties of trees, and rock, and landscape, and it’s richly described (I can still picture various locations or scenes, months after reading it). I reviewed her novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street a few years ago and a character from that book also makes a cameo appearance, as it were.

Even more nature-related was The Woodcock by Richard Smyth, which I recommended on Twitter after reading, as follows: If you like novels set in Yorkshire and/or the 1920s and would like to be deeply immersed in a fictional coastal town such that you feel you could become a visitor guide I recommend The Woodcock by @RSmythFreelance. Lots of bird & rockpool action, plus love, philosophy & sadness. Not to mention a theatrical American with a vision of Coney Island adjacent to the North Sea.

When I was really struggling to read anything and I just wanted something to immerse myself in, I turned to the library app on my phone and flicked through any available novels that weren’t crime or thriller. It didn’t leave a lot of choice and I ended up with Not Quite Nice, and Sail Away, both by Celia Imrie. I’m not going to claim they were literary triumphs, and yes they probably wouldn’t have been published if she wasn’t already famous, but the name helped me choose from the list and they made me laugh and they were easy to follow. And they obviously sparked something because they did get me back on a reading track, and I continued with a couple more random library ebooks before I went back to my To Read shelf.

One of them was Bunny by Mona Awad which was about friendship, belonging and loneliness, at its heart. It involved a small group of young women studying creative writing at a prestigious American university, and the cliques and bitchiness and rivalry. But, it also had a weird layer of gothic fairytale (and some gory bits so bear that in mind if you’re squeamish like me). I loved it, and I’d never have read it if I’d read a review or run across it in a bookshop. Sometimes a bit of randomness is just what your reading list needs.

I also read a Guardian article about non-Eurocentric fantasy novels, which added a few books to my To Read list, two of which I read towards the end of 2022. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard mainly involves fallen angels in an alternative Paris; they live in rival Houses and there are long-running intrigues and complex goings-on, lots of celestial politics behind the scenes. However, one of the characters caught up in the events of the novel is originally from Vietnam and has a whole different framework of magic and religion to draw on, which brings a different perspective. The other one I read was The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin and good grief it’s good. It’s about the end of the world, but beyond that there’s not much to say without spoilers. I loved the conversational narrative voice, the fact that one strand is written in second person, the way the world feels whole and different (like Dune or similar). Just read it if you like epic fantasy, you’ll thank me later.

Books I’m reading now and next

In a break from tradition I’ll end with a look ahead. I suspect 2023 is going to be an equally weird mix. I’m reading The Obelisk Gate (the sequel to The Fifth Season) at the moment, and then there’s book 3 The Stone Sky. However I’m also reading Counting Sheep by Philip Walling, about British sheep breeds and their impact on history, and I was given Jeremy Clarkson’s book about his farm (Diddly Squat) for Christmas. I must say I’m intrigued to know how a man like Clarkson got along with farming, I think James Rebanks said he had at least got a conversation going among people who wouldn’t normally care about agriculture. My dad has pressed Never Had It So Good by Dominic Sandbrook on me – it’s two inches thick in this paperback edition and covers a seven-year period so I think it might take me a bit of a run-up. Northerners by Brian Groom and Black Gold by Jeremy Paxman were my post-Christmas treats. That lot will probably take me till March and that’s without adding any new books into the mix (or the Vaseem Khan novel that’s waiting on my kobo).

Feel free to tell me what you’ve been reading or are looking forward to reading, either in the comments or on Twitter @JYSaville.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Longlisted for the CWIP short story prize!

My entry to the inaugural Comedy Women in Print short story prize has made the longlist! There are no links to anyone’s websites or social media (yet) so we can’t all check out their work but I do recognise a couple of names on there and I’m happy to be in such company.

JY Saville author photo
Author photo of a comedy woman in print

Sadly you don’t get to read my highly amusing longlisted story, You Can’t Get There From Here, but here are a few other things I’ve written in the last couple of years that are intended to make you laugh:

  • Episode 1 of my one-woman (+1 cat) sitcom Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays is available wherever you get your podcasts (listen-in-browser or find the appropriate links here)
  • I Could Murder a Custard Cream, a short film by Slackline Productions starring Susannah May and directed by Callie Nestleroth is available here
  • Or if you prefer something to read, Silver-Topped Cane is a short story at Funny Pearls

If you enjoy any of them, you can always buy me a cuppa. Excuse me while I go off and dance…

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So, I wrote a sitcom podcast

Remember how I did James Cary‘s sitcom course last year? And then realised that writing a radio sitcom was a daft idea because you’re either competing for Radio 4 or you have to do your own podcast? Well, I’ve done my own podcast. It’s called Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays and you can listen to it on Spotify or Apple podcasts, or at https://anchor.fm/jysaville where you should be able to play it in a browser without logging in to anything. And if I’ve embedded it properly, you can listen right here:

Episode 2: Book-signing Lee-Ann's Spare Fridays

Lee-Ann gets roped in by Gina to help get a book signed by the author. It’s hardly Lee-Ann’s fault she’s involved in a minor incident en route.
  1. Episode 2: Book-signing
  2. Episode 1: Sourdough Starter

I had a pilot script for a sitcom that I was working on during the course (until I got diverted by an idea for a historical sitcom, which I still can’t quite get right). It was about a woman who’s been moved on to a four-day week and wants to spend more time with her cat and research local history – can you tell she’s partly inspired by me? Unfortunately she has the sort of interfering and organised older sister* who doesn’t think those are worthy enough pursuits, and she spends her entire Friday trying to get her sister off her case so she can have a free Friday.

*I should point out that although I have two older sisters, neither of them are remotely like Gina. Though Sister Number One did once say that I spent too much time reading about life instead of experiencing it, and she’s not that keen on cats either.

I wasn’t sure I’d quite got the script right – I remember having a conversation with James about how to ensure Lee-Ann wasn’t simply reacting to her sister Gina, and how to make her a funny character in her own right (I hope I solved that one in the end). Even after the diversion into the historical sitcom though, I kept coming back to Lee-Ann. I liked the entangled but antagonistic relationship with Gina, and I liked her dry, laid-back neighbour Douglas. Was it likely to bump Ed Reardon from a Radio 4 slot? Probably not. Did I want to make it? Of course I did. I wasn’t owed any favours by actors though, so I shelved the podcast idea.

And then I remembered how much I enjoyed reading my stories aloud, and how I’d written well-received comedy monologues before. I set about adapting the script to be told entirely from Lee-Ann’s point of view, but still with the odd scene-setting sound effect, and with scene-breaks. So it has the length and structure of a half-hour radio sitcom episode, but it’s all in one voice (except for Lord Salisbury the cat who is expertly played by Parkin, one of my cats).

So if a monologue sitcom about two sisters needling each other in a Yorkshire village sounds like it might be your bag, scroll back up and give it a go. If you enjoy it, subscribe so you hear about episode 2 then tell your friends, and if you’re grabbed by the Christmas spirit you could even buy me a cuppa…

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Long time no waffle

You may have noticed – possibly to your relief – that it’s been a bit quiet around here. I managed one excited post about my Hexham Book Festival commission, but that was typed laboriously on my phone (yes, I got a smartphone. Wonders will never cease). Manageable in a fix, but not something I’d choose to do. The problem is, I make do. I make things last, get my money’s worth (and beyond), and my laptop having already given up on video, got so that it couldn’t handle the new WordPress interface. I remember having a conversation 5 years ago at the Penguin WriteNow day about my laptop and its tendency to colour everything cyan unless you got the angle of the screen spot on, and how I’d have to shell out for a new one soon. Its long goodbye is reminiscent of those aunts that spend longer perched on the arm of the settee with their coat on, turning down offers of further refreshment with ‘no, I must go’, than they do sat comfortably in the armchair. It’s still here, with its intermittent wi-fi and preference for cyan, but I’ve also been given a desktop computer that has a passing familiarity with the modern world. I mean, it’s about the same age as my laptop but it’s a higher spec and has lasted better so I’m back on WordPress without one-fingered typing on a tiny screen. Did you miss me?

You may well have missed the Hexham commission, so let me put that right. Hexham Book Festival commissioned 3 writers and an illustrator to celebrate “the diverse and fascinating county of Northumberland, its inhabitants, its agricultural Heritage and historical connections with particular emphasis on Hadrian’s Wall and its upcoming celebration of 1900 years”. Beyond that, we all developed our work in isolation and yet when we got together in June we realised there were common themes: the colour red, thin patches in time, modern-day walkers alongside the Wall. You can read the patchwork pieces from me (Walking the Wall) and Bridget Hamilton (This Next Hill), the children’s story from Garry Lyons (Lupa, inspired by a mountain rescue dog who was present at our reading in June) and the illustrated booklet from Deborah Snell at https://www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk/writing-commissions. My favourite of Deborah’s illustrations is the stoat at the end (I think it’s a stoat. As my dad always says, Weasels are weasely recognised whereas stoats are stoatally different).

Deborah Snell, JY Saville, Susie Troup, Garry Lyons, Bridget Hamilton at Hexham Book Festival June 2022

Months and months ago I mentioned in passing that I was a winner in the Script Yorkshire radio drama competition 2020, but obviously there was a delay in recording the programmes due to the small matter of the pandemic. Well, this Spring they finally got made and made well. It was such a thrill to hear the finished recording of mine (Playing With My Heart), it had been so long since I wrote it that it almost felt like it was by someone else. The theme of the competition was ‘vision’ and it was supposed to be on the radio in January 2021 so I set it in January as someone’s putting their Christmas decorations back in the loft. You will notice that the title refers to the theme song by the Eurythmics, which refers to the subject matter (angels playing with your heart). It’s got time-slips in again, like Walking the Wall. Chapel FM put out an interesting programme about the making of the four winning dramas, in which each of them was played out in full (they were each less than 10 minutes long), but if you want to go directly to listen to mine you can hear it on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/user-803061228/playing-with-my-heart (promise me you’ll go listen to the others when you have time though, they’re good).

For the first time in a long time I’ve also had flash fiction out there. A dreamy little flash called Hair Spread Like Sea Fronds is free to read at Ellipsis Zine: “The way she remembers it can’t be the way it happened, but it’s the way it creeps into her dreams, soundless and in filtered blue-green light…” It mentions an Indian silver anklet of elephants, which was inspired by my mum’s constant wearing of jangly silver anklets, though I don’t remember if any had elephants on.

I’d love to know what you thought of this year’s writing so far, and as ever if you enjoyed any of it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Rediscovering Maigret

The only Maigret paperback I have ever owned

This year after not reading any of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels for years I’ve read three as ebooks from the library: Maigret and the Man on the Bench, Maigret Takes a Room, and Maigret’s Mistake. I’d forgotten how gently melancholy they could be, as Maigret sits and ponders in cafes or his office, smoking his pipe. Rather than running around chasing people he seems to potter around Paris asking questions, slotting pieces of the puzzle together, occasionally sending his assistant Janvier off to track someone down. When they do corner the villain, Maigret is usually more disappointed than angry, particularly if they are young. I hadn’t picked up on his underlying sadness at never having children, before, but it is mentioned in all three books I think.

I used to read Maigret as a child, probably even before I started on Agatha Christie at eleven or so. My dad borrowed them from the library and before I had my own adult borrower’s card I would read some of them too before he returned them. I dare say the racier themes passed me by but the atmosphere and the central characters stayed with me, and when Michael Gambon starred in the TV adaptation in the early 90s my dad and I watched them together. For years, it was Gambon who portrayed Jules Maigret in my head when I read the books, but this year he was replaced by Rowan Atkinson’s kind paternalism. That change made me realise how wonderfully Atkinson had portrayed Maigret in the ITV adaptations a few years ago. We watched them at the time with OneMonkey’s parents, as I recall, and now OneMonkey’s dad has started reading the novels on my recommendation.

I turned to Maigret as a literary comfort blanket, an easy throwback to childhood without going the full Paddington. It worked on that level but I also enjoyed the story on its own terms, hence returning for more. They’re not cosy crime, the three I’ve read this year date from the 1950s and have sordid and grubby elements, hunger and desperation. It’s Maigret’s attitude, his understanding, that makes them in any way comforting. In these days of paperback door-stoppers the Maigret novels are refreshingly short, a wet weekend read that I can immerse myself in. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered Simenon’s Maigret. Thankfully he wrote more than seventy novels in the series so there are plenty more for me to revisit.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite detective, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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New weird fiction: Brought to bed with a good book

I have a new flash fiction out at Janus Literary this week, which I’m excited about. Partly because Janus is fast becoming known for interesting and varied flash of quality, and partly because this story’s been four years in the pipeline. Janus didn’t even exist when I submitted this story for the twelfth and what I thought might be the last time. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to the casual reader and encouraging to the new writer of short fiction to hear the story behind the story, and I know that Janice Leagra of Janus appreciates openness so here goes.

It sometimes feels like writers have to pretend the magazine/journal/website their story ended up in was their first choice. In some cases this might be true – accepted on the first submission, or maybe venue A and venue B are equally thrilling and appropriate but A is closed to submissions so you try B, get rejected, try A eventually and get in. On the other hand, a casual glance through writing-Twitter reveals constant tales of rejection, and if you pay attention you’ll also spot the tales of acceptances on the twenty-fifth try. It strikes me that it must be rare for a story submitted on spec (as opposed to invited or commissioned) to end up in the place you originally hoped it would. Or indeed wrote it for.

I wrote Brought to bed with a good book for a body-themed issue of a magazine that no longer exists, in June 2017. I have an idea that I’d heard someone talking about how pregnancy made their body unrecognisable, so one of the first lines I wrote down was, “Veins darkening, ropes thickening like the vines decorating an illuminated manuscript” (which eventually became, “veins darkening until I looked tattooed, calves twined with vines from the borders of an illuminated manuscript”). Combine that with the idea of going to bed with a good book, and there you have it. The title plays on that, with the old-fashioned phrase of being brought to bed with a child i.e. giving birth.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Looking at the revision control on the document, I started typing in it on June 8th after mulling the idea over for a while, and on June 9th I submitted the final, polished piece. I think I’ve tweaked a couple of words since then but essentially the final published version that’s at Janus was written in a day, four years ago. Clearly it didn’t get selected for that magazine back then, though I genuinely don’t know why since all the feedback was enthusiastic. I’m sure I tweeted at the time about getting a rejection that included the phrase ‘best flash I’ve read this year’ and wondering if that was actually worse than just a bald ‘no’. When you get constructive criticism in a rejection it gives you something to work on, a way of potentially improving the piece so it might get somewhere on the next try. ‘This is great but we’re not using it’ makes it all feel bafflingly random. Which of course it often is.

It’s easy to think, when you get a form rejection (by which I mean, a standard paragraph with nothing specific to your story) that the story’s not good enough, or it was a barmy idea, or the ending needs more work. It might be fine and it all came down to personal taste, or fit with the other pieces in the issue, but you don’t know that so you put the piece aside and let it stew for a while and tinker with it and don’t send it back out for months. Or at least I do. This time, however, I had outside confirmation that it worked and kind of did what I meant it to, so I sent it to five more places in 2017, and got a form rejection every time. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was too weird for the mainstream and too mainstream for the SFF mags, nevertheless I sent it out four times in 2018. And got four form rejections. I tried a competition in 2019, and didn’t longlist, and I gave it one last try at the start of 2020. I’d resigned myself to yet another story I was pleased with and proud of, being consigned to the electronic bottom drawer and never being read by anyone other than OneMonkey and a handful of editors. And then Janus Literary appeared, and I soon realised they might be just the people to try. I was right, they liked it, and in June 2021 Brought to bed with a good book was finally released into the wild. Never give up – if you’re sure the story is working.

If you’d like to read Brought to bed with a good book, you can find it at https://www.janusliterary.com/2021/06/30/jacqueline-saville-brought-to-bed-with-a-good-book/ and I recommend you explore the rest of the issue as it’s full of good stuff for varied tastes. Max Hipp’s Dream Baby has a similarly odd and unsettling vibe, if that’s your bag.

Like many online mags, Janus Literary is all done for the love of it so no money changes hands. If you enjoyed Brought to bed with a good book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Offhand, I can’t think of any spy thrillers I’ve read before. Obviously I’ve seen The Ipcress File, and the Le Carre adaptations starring Alec Guinness, but I haven’t actually sat down and read any of the books behind them. I have my dad to thank for nudging me towards Mick Herron’s Slough House series, of which Slow Horses is the first volume.

About a year ago I started listening to the American spy comedy podcast Mission Rejected, and since I’d taken to calling my parents daily during lockdown and was somewhat lacking in conversation topics, I told my dad about it. He suggested I give Mick Herron’s novels a go, if inept spies were what I was after. Dark satire, rather than comedy, but most enjoyable. They weren’t available via the library ebook service, and pandemic restrictions have meant the Library of Mum and Dad has been off-limits for 18 months, plus of course if you’ve been here before you’ll know I’ve been trying to read the overlooked books on my shelves during lockdown. However, I read a Guardian interview with Mick Herron earlier this year and it prompted me to buy the first book in the series (as an ebook, to limit clutter).

“Plotting is pretty much secondary to me,” he says. “What really interests me is the characters and getting to grips with them, and them getting to grips with each other.”

Charlotte Higgins interview with Mick Herron, The Guardian, 15 Jan 2021

As you might guess from that quote, the mission is not the important bit, or rather, it doesn’t matter that much what it’s about. It’s all in the context of the War on Terror, with some stereotypical far-right nutcases kicking about. The meat of the book though is the relationships between the has-beens (or never-weres) at Slough House, and between Slough House as a whole and the ‘proper’ spies at Regent’s Park. None of whom bear any resemblance to the old-fashioned gentlemen in the Alec Guinness dramas. Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, is very much the Andy Dalziel of MI5 – crude, abrasive, but underestimate him at your peril. There’s also a walk-on part for Peter Judd, a right-wing politician described as a buffoon with floppy hair and a bicycle. Can’t think who he reminds me of…

Herron is good at sleight of hand, and there were a few places where I was misdirected and had to flick back a few pages to work out why. I also enjoyed his use of ‘if a passenger on the bus were to glance through the window, this is what they’d see’ kind of thing, rather than it all being from one character’s point of view. I doubt it’s a realistic picture of life in the modern secret service, but it’s full of interesting characters and I’m looking forward to working my way through the remaining six novels plus a few novellas.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Miniaturiste - Jessie Burton - Babelio

This 2014 debut novel is set in late 17th century Amsterdam (October 1686-January 1687, to be precise) and since I like good immersive historical fiction I’d been contemplating reading it since I first started spotting it in charity shops several years ago. It had been actually written on my To Read list for at least a couple of years, and I finally borrowed it recently as an ebook from the library. It seems to have flipped my fiction switch – I romped through it, and once I’d finished I was yearning for another novel (I’m on the spy novel Slow Horses by Mick Herron now, review probably to follow in due course).

Nella Oortman has come from the country to be the new teenage wife of a successful Amsterdam merchant twice her age. He buys her a dolls’ house version of their own house as an amusing distraction from his perpetual absence on business. Nella finds a mysterious miniaturist to craft the furnishings she requires, as she tries to settle in with her new sister-in-law and the surprisingly forward servants.

The miniaturist and the cabinet house are the least satisfying elements of the story, to my mind. The essence of the book is bound up in the intrigue, the performative piety, and the things that are not as they seem. The hypocrisy of a society which is so puritanical and yet their fortunes rest on sugar (indulgence) and slavery. It was wonderful on detail and catering for all senses – the smells from the canal and the kitchen, the tastes of the food they’re eating, as well as the usual sights and sounds. Including the occasional reminder that in the evening with only a couple of candles burning, there are lots of shadows for a young girl to jump at.

Even after reading the whole novel and re-reading the first few pages I still don’t quite understand the prologue and it didn’t feel like it fit, to me. However, given the enormous success of this novel I’m probably in a minority (or, given that I loved the novel anyway, maybe it doesn’t matter). If you enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier you will love this, maybe Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy will have set you up to be well-disposed towards it too.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Ironopolis by Glen James Brown

I loved this novel set on Teesside and I wish I hadn’t tried to read it when I’m struggling to read fiction. It took me two months to get through and by the time I was near the end I couldn’t quite remember details from the start. However, I do know I was hooked by the second page and I recommend it without hesitation. There’s a housing estate being gradually knocked down and replaced, in or near Middlesbrough. We learn of the interconnected stories of a handful of its inhabitants from a variety of viewpoints, and through it all is woven the local legend of Peg Powler.

It’s not as simple as a novel written as a continuous narrative, but neither is it a collection of stories. It begins with a series of letters from the 1990s, but includes journal entries from the 1980s, transcripts of interviews in 2015 and 2016, as well as what you might call straightforward narrative. Through the different points of view and their memories and flashbacks the interlocking stories of the main characters build up in layers, from the 1950s to 2016. It has some pretty dark threads but also humour, love, belonging. It is excellent on the complicated nature of family relationships and the feelings people have for the place they grew up. It is full of the ordinariness of everyday life, wrapped up with some fairly extraordinary goings-on.

Overall it is a pretty bleak tale I guess, but maybe that made the moments of beauty or hope all the more precious. I thought it was brilliantly constructed, though Peg (or her story) didn’t appear as much as I’d expected. Imagine if one of the Angry Young Men of the 1960s had written a novel after getting really into dark folktales – now if that sounds appealing, go read Ironopolis. And if you’re not sure, read it anyway.

A dark fairytale, The Crows Remember

I have a dark fairytale up at Crow & Cross Keys this weekend. It’s called The Crows Remember, and it’s a reprint of a story I wrote for the 52 Crows project from the illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins in August 2018. Here’s what I said about the story in my blog post that week:

The Crows Remember is a sad story, as pretty much everyone who’s read it so far has pointed out, but I was going for fairytale/folktale and there’s often an undercurrent of sadness or something dark at the core of those so I think I found the tone I was looking for. It’s set (though I didn’t specify in the story) in Swaledale, which to me is a mysterious place populated by the shades of my ancestors, and some sheep – all of 30 miles and a couple of dales away from where I live, but when you don’t drive it’s not an easy place to visit. Unless maybe you’re fitter than I am and own a bicycle.

It’s great to have this story out in the world again, it seems to have been getting some love on Twitter already – thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to read it. Here’s the excerpt Crow & Cross Keys chose to share on their tweets:

Next morning as she swept she saw something flutter past the open doorway, and when she went to look there was a velvet ribbon the colour of fresh blood lying on the flags. She stepped out and looked around but there was only a crow watching her, head cocked.

The Crows Remember by JY Saville
Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

If you’d like a short excursion to a dale haunted by the beauty of the past, where wildflowers still bloom, go to https://crowcrosskeys.com/2021/04/24/the-crows-remember-jy-saville/ and if you enjoy it, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Short amusing fiction

I have a new story up this week, Silver-Topped Cane at Funny Pearls. They referred to it as ‘bona fide comedy’, so if that sounds enticing, go and have a read. It’s the story of Barry, his flamboyant dream of a more adventurous and creative life, and cruel reality.

This is an actual silver-topped cane I found for sale online

I say it’s a new story – this version is new. I dusted it off recently and rewrote it, but it must be 3 years since I took an earlier, longer incarnation along to an Ilkley Writers critique night in the pub, and it wasn’t new then. I didn’t really know what to do with a funny story. So many places want thought-provoking stories, poetic language, the serious and dark. I write plenty of dark things but now and then I need a laugh. We all do, particularly mid-pandemic if we can manage it. So hurrah for Funny Pearls, a site for humour by women, which has enough short humour to keep you going for a while. Because it’s free to read the writers don’t get paid for their work, so if you enjoy a story consider supporting the writer – that can be as simple as saying you liked it on social media. You never know when the word of mouth chain will lead to paying work.

I’ll give you a brief bit of background and a quote, then you can wander off and read it for yourself. Barry is called Barry because it’s a very Victoria Wood character name, and I’m a great admirer of her. His alter ego J Orpington Spadina was inspired by my flatmates at university twenty-odd years ago: one was from Toronto, near the Spadina subway station. The other thought this was such a pleasing name that in the unlikely event of them writing a novel it would be under the name Spadina – I forget the forename they chose so I made up one with a nice rhythm. It turns out (I looked it up yesterday) that Orpington is actually a place near London. Go figure, as the Toronto flatmate would have said.

If anyone asked – and they were sure to, for what was a silver-topped cane if not a conversational gambit – he would claim to be a poet.

Silver-Topped Cane by JY Saville

If you enjoy Silver-Topped Cane you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Light reading for the new year

I’m determined to write more book reviews and recommendations this year. I’ve persuaded myself that they needn’t be full-on 600 word reviews with references to previous works and links to where to buy them. I still might help someone find a good book to try, by writing a paragraph or two about why I did or didn’t enjoy it, and who it might appeal to. So here we go for the first two books I read in 2021, both of which were short and (to a greater or lesser degree) humourous: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos and Tales From the Folly by Ben Aaronovitch.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was on my To Read list because of the Backlisted podcast about it. I jotted down after listening last year that ‘apparently it’s quite PG Wodehouse’ and what with it being set (and indeed written) in the 1920s I was looking forward to reading it. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the Marilyn Monroe film of the same name but I only have vague recollections of a long-distance boat trip, I certainly don’t think the film follows the story of the book closely. While it has some laugh out loud moments and some flashes of great satire, this novel is not in shouting distance of the same league as PG Wodehouse. It’s written as a diary by dim-but-scheming gold-digger Lorelei, who has the ability to wrap any man around her little finger and make even the meanest English aristocrat dip into his wallet to procure her some expensive trinkets. I found her writing style tiresome after a while – beginning most sentences with ‘so’, scattering ‘I mean’ everywhere, and spelling the odd word wrong e.g. landguage. Lorelei and her wise-cracking friend Dorothy leave New York for an adventure in Europe, financed by a gentleman of Lorelei’s acquaintance, naturally. A series of amusing escapades follow, and Lorelei somehow manages to get out of all the scrapes she gets herself into. Readable enough, short, and very much of its time. I think if you enjoy the Mapp and Lucia books (which I didn’t) you’ll enjoy it more than I did. There is a sequel, I believe, but I’m not about to seek it out.

Tales From the Folly is a Rivers of London short story collection from 2020 and is strictly for the fans. As I understand it, this is a gathering up of all the short stories that Ben Aaronovitch has written for special editions of his novels and novellas. Each one has a short (paragraph-long) introduction saying when it’s set and what prompted it. The first half of the book is stories from the point of view of the main character Peter Grant, and the rest of the stories are centred on other characters. I’ve read all the Rivers of London novels except the latest one, plus one of the novellas, and I still had trouble remembering what some bits referred to. There was a whole first-person story from a minor character’s point of view, and I spent most of it trying to work out who the character was (no name being mentioned for a long time) and then trying to remember where that name had cropped up in the novels. That said, if you are already familiar with Rivers of London you’ll enjoy these extras and there are some good stories and interesting ideas here. I thought the Peter Grant stories worked better than the other characters, on the whole.

It’s no coincidence that I chose short, light-hearted fiction to start the year. I’ve seen people setting themselves reading challenges for 2021, and declaring that they’ll be reading outside their comfort zone, reading difficult books, reading a certain proportion of books by this or that category of author. I didn’t read as many books as I expected last year. I started a few and gave up, I took weeks to get through some, I had long periods when I didn’t seem to be able to read at all. Some of that is the lack of commuting (which is where I did most of my reading for the preceding 2 years) but the disruption and worry that lasted through most of 2020 played its part. I generally read for pleasure. I don’t want to read ‘difficult’ fiction now I’m in my forties, though I might have thought I was ‘supposed to’ when I was younger. Even if I pick up non-fiction, I choose books I think I’ll enjoy if I’m intending to read the whole thing rather than dipping in here and there for research. So my declaration of intent for 2021 is to read whatever the hell I fancy, and if that means sticking mainly within SF and crime (or SF-crime, like Rivers of London) then so be it. My dad tells me that fantastic fiction is useful for finding similar authors, if you’ve exhausted the back catalogue of your favourites.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Lost knowledge as the start of a story

In a wooden box in my flat, with the birth, marriage and death certificates of my Nana’s parents, plus assorted ration books and the like, is a leaflet on the benefits of tripe. I haven’t investigated it thoroughly, as a long-term vegetarian frankly I don’t want to know, but I’ve left it there on the basis that it’s where my Nana put it and there must have been a reason.

I thought about that last week when I was searching through a tin of brooches. Mostly cheap trinkets from my childhood – a leather elephant, an enamel cat, a fimo Christmas pudding a friend made me – but there are a few I inherited from my Nana. Most of them are cheap trinkets too, but I guess she kept them for sentimental reasons so in the twenty-two years since her death they’ve been in my tin. Some of them may have been made by my mum, she did make jewellery before I was born, and I’m guessing the thistle emblem’s from a holiday in Scotland but I don’t know or at least can’t remember if Nana told me. And now there’s no-one to ask, my mum’s dementia having made her an even more unreliable witness than she used to be.

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A random selection of my brooches

The tripe leaflet looks like it was distributed to post-war housewives. It was probably on the kitchen table when Nana last had the rest of the paperwork out of the box and got shuffled into the pile by accident, stowed away for forty years until I unpacked it and wondered at its significance. But because I don’t know (will never know), I keep it. Just in case. If I was curious enough I could research its origins, see if it was indeed released the month that Nana’s mum died, but I’m not so I haven’t. It just sits there, along with a pencil that presumably suffered a similar fate.

As a person who lives in a smallish flat with belongings stretching back five generations – and thank heavens my 3xgreat grandma only left one book that was a prize from the temperance society, unlike my great-uncle’s bungalow-filling library that’s split between my dad and I – I curse these accidental inheritances of unknown provenance. I’d love to be able to clear out with a clean conscience. As a writer, on the other hand, they’re great inspiration.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick, which I reviewed at the Bookbag when it came out, is all about researching the history behind a mysterious object that is unexplainable after someone’s death. In this case it’s a charm bracelet belonging to Arthur’s wife, and through it he makes connections with people, and finds out about parts of his wife’s life that he never knew about. There’s so much scope for stories in that kind of situation: an incongruous object that you can’t quite marry up with your memory of its owner; an object you feel you ought to have seen but never have; an object that could change your opinion of them. Certainly an object you wish you could question them about.

While Phaedra Patrick got a whole novel out of it due to each charm on the bracelet having a separate history, short stories might be easier to sustain. Flash fiction lends itself particularly to focus on a single object, its significance and maybe a dance of dialogue around it. Think about who a character might ask about this object – could it help bridge a longstanding rift or reconnect them to a distant cousin? Does the character immediately know what the object is? Is it the object itself or where it appears to have come from (maybe where your character assumes it has come from)? Is there a deeper secret behind it like a relative that’s never mentioned, or is it more face-value like the dead person was once a member of an orchestra and your character never knew? Is the truth of the object uncovered or does it remain a mystery but allow your character to do something/meet someone in the meantime? Do they decide that after all, the leaflet about tripe was just a leaflet about tripe?

I wrote a short story a few years ago called Letters From the Past (which you can still read online for free) which used a similar idea, but discovering letters hands a bit more of the story to you – it’s usually much more about the secret and the fallout, the re-evaluation of the past, rather than working out what the discovery is or means. I think it’s a much more interesting and original exercise to use an object that tells you nothing, so go away and try that and see what you come up with. Not tripe, I hope.

If you enjoyed Letters From the Past or just want to help me brace myself for a good declutter you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Two topical stories released this month

Two of my short fictions have been published this month, Evidently Lovestruck in the first issue of Truffle Magazine, and Twelve Weeks’ Rest in volume 2 of the first issue of Untitled:Voices.

I felt a twinge that might not have been indigestion. There was a chance I was believing my own fairytale.

Evidently Lovestruck is flash fiction (about 300 words) which originated from a word-list challenge from a couple of years back – you know how I love them! I think it was a list of words that President Trump had (or was rumoured to have?) banned so it’s an eclectic mix and took me in unusual directions. Given that I’ve spent the bulk of the last 24 years on one university campus or another, it’s no surprise that it’s set at a university, and as my background’s in physics the tongue-in-cheek jibes at love across the STEM/Arts divide are probably not that surprising either. It came out at the beginning of June, which people keep telling me is Pride Month. When I was an undergraduate and first starting (unsuccessfully) to submit stories to competitions in the late nineties, I think having a gay couple at the heart of a story like this would have been seen as political, potentially controversial – what point are you trying to make by having them be the same sex? As it happens my first submitted story was about a same-sex couple (female, since you ask), but then I was trying to make a point. Whereas when I wrote this quirky little campus romance, the two characters that popped into my head both happened to be male and I liked the way they went together. It never crossed my mind that this was anything out of the ordinary (which indeed it isn’t now, thankfully), until I thought back on how far we’d come.

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The other story that came out this week is Twelve Weeks’ Rest, which was written during (and is about) lockdown, and is much longer (nearly 2000 words). It’s about trying to look after your health when the management see you as a human resource, not a person. It’s about hidden key-workers, the ones in warehouses that people forget are at the other end of their online order when they’re shopping for essentials. It’s also about sisters looking out for each other. It’s dedicated to (and sadly inspired by) Sister Number One. I was angry when I wrote it and I think that comes through, but I hope a bit of humour sneaks through too.

She says it like she’s disappointed in me, which she probably is. A loyal employee would tell the government to stick its shielding programme and carry on working.

You can read Evidently Lovestruck for free online at Truffle magazine. For Twelve Weeks’ Rest you can either read it on the website (be aware that it’s 4 pages long so you have to keep going back to the top to move on) or download both volumes of Issue 1 at the main Untitled:Voices page – they are free, but Untitled are asking for donations to the Stephen Lawrence Trust.

Very specific commissions

Five Dials are holding another of their Very Specific Commission flash fiction competitions (deadline 5th May 2020), and as the name suggests they are prescriptive about setting, main character, and a line of dialogue to be included, which forces you to be extra-inventive I think. This time it’s about an infectious disease expert, but I took part a few years ago when it was about a climate scientist, and it was great fun. They even quoted part of my story in Five Dials issue 42.

The criteria for the one I entered was as follows:

about a scientist who smuggles out crucial climate change facts under the iron fist of a censorial government.

Scientist’s name must be Rowena.

Story must contain the line of dialogue: ‘Some things you just don’t see coming.’

Here’s what I wrote in response, it might spur some of you on to respond to the latest one…

Recipe for Rebellion

by JY Saville

Rowena tensed at a noise from the corridor. She swallowed, fanned her face with the minutes of the environmental science regulatory committee and willed the printer to work faster.

Five minutes later she was on her way out with a freshly-printed recipe for pea soup folded in her bag. Government employees weren’t supposed to print personal items at work, but that was the least of her problems. If anyone tried making the soup they’d find it inedible.

“Mark?”

She knocked on the locked door of the bookshop. Like the library, it was closed until the government had decided what citizens could safely read.

“You shouldn’t come to the front door,” Mark said as he opened it.

“I’m visiting a friend, I don’t want it to look like I’m sneaking.”

Mark held his hand out and Rowena passed him the print-out.

“Pea soup?”

“It’s humidity data,” she said. “It made me think of fog, pea-soupers.”

He tucked it inside a second-hand comic novel in a cardboard box, Rowena assumed it was the latest order from one of a network of climate scientists overseas. The government had banned publication of climate change data, officially dismissing it as nonsense but in reality knowing they had the only access to a crucial piece of the jigsaw. There were many government officials with links to companies that would benefit from being ahead of the game. They thought withholding the data would only damage their foreign rivals, not their own chances of survival.

“I should have got out before the travel ban,” she said.

“Some things you just don’t see coming.”

The door crashed open and two men pointed guns at them.

“Police!” one barked. “What are all these books doing here?”

“This used to be a bookshop,” said Mark. “It’s old stock, strictly for export.”

The government had no objections to corrupting other countries’ citizens.

“Liar, she’s here to read.”

Rowena moved closer to Mark and put her hand on his arm.

“I’m just here for sex, honestly.”

To her surprise, Mark fished a condom from his jeans pocket and held it up as proof. She looked at him and he shrugged.

The policemen looked uncertainly at each other, made a show of checking a few box-labels, and left.

Shakily, Rowena sat on a table.

“Could you fit me in one of your book shipments?” she said. “I can’t do this any more.”

Somebody’s filming my words

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Remember how I was stuck for a monologue? Well I wrote one, featuring custard creams, and Slackline Productions are making it week 5 of their fabulous Slackline Cyberstories, next week! They haven’t announced yet who will be acting it but I’m so looking forward to seeing what they make of it. This will be a new experience, seeing someone else interpreting my words. Thrilling, but maybe also a bit nail-bitey.

You can watch weeks 1-4 at their YouTube channel, and if you’re in the mood for monologues in lockdown, you can also try Coronavirus Theatre Club and Buglight.

I’ve been adding a few old recordings, mainly stories I’ve read on the radio, to Chirbit so you can now hear Viv’s 64th (a popular one from The Little Book of Northern Women, which started life as an Alan Bennett style monologue for my mum’s 64th birthday), Guilt By Association (part of National Flash Fiction Day Flash Flood 2015), Can’t Stop the Rock (comic fantasy about reanimating dead rock stars) and The Library of Forgotten Dreams (a short piece of whimsy I wrote for an Ilkley Writers programme on Chapel FM in 2017). There were already a few recordings up there, including another of my monologues which I didn’t end up using for the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe in 2015, as we changed theme.

Enjoy. Stay safe. Check back here next week for a link to the finished film.

Monologue for the socially distant blues

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So here I am with writing time on my hands and although I’ve got a major project or two to be getting on with, everyone knows I’ve got a butterfly mind. I skim through Twitter and the BBC Writersroom looking for opportunities to submit to, a challenge, something to get the brain exercised, and everyone is asking for monologues.

It makes sense, if you think about it – they want to record them quick and stick them on the internet to entertain a bored nation stuck at home, and what with all the actors being stuck at home as well, the best way is to make it short and make it for one person, and they can read it out in their own bedroom and nobody has to meet anyone else. Great, I think, I can do monologues, I’ve done monologues before, I did the one for the Ilkley Writers river project, I did Viv’s 64th that always went down well (I must put a new recording of that up, the Chapel FM one isn’t available any more), even Pat’s part in Lavender Ink started as a monologue in isolation.

So you’d think, wouldn’t you, that with all that experience and a copy of Talking Heads to hand, not to mention the Mslexia guide to Writing for Radio (even though these aren’t for radio), I’d be laughing. Slackline Cyberstories even want strong female characters over 35, and anyone who’s read The Little Book of Northern Women knows I can write them, I bloody love writing them. But it won’t come. I’m sat at the keyboard waiting for an outpouring of monologue in the voice of a northern matriarch, preferably one with some curbed liberties so I can try the Popelei Seed Commission, and all I want to write is scripts full of silliness featuring as many characters as possible. It’s no good, I must’ve got the socially distant blues.

Twine and interactive fiction

Readers of a certain age may recall the Choose Your Own Adventure books for children, that were popular a few decades ago.

Ahead of you, Robin Hood is captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men. As the remaining member of his band at large in the forest it’s up to you to rescue Maid Marian. Do you run back the way you came, to talk to the woodcutter (turn to page 7) or follow the Sheriff’s men as they lead Robin away (turn to page 8)?

That kind of thing. Basically it was a thrilling short novel in which the reader made the decisions, usually after reading only a page or two of text, and thus could read the same book multiple times, having slightly different experiences, and feeling like they were in the middle of the action. I came across a couple of essentially novelty versions for adults in the late nineties but on the whole I’d only heard of the format being used for children’s books.

Having also grown up on text-based computer adventure games (because graphics were a luxury thirty years ago) and sharing a love of noir, it was perhaps inevitable that OneMonkey and I would drift into entertaining ourselves by starting to write a detective story on the computer, with the intention that the plot could pan out in different ways depending on the decisions made at each turn.

Four and a half years ago during a hot, lazy summer we started fooling around with the tale of an unnamed private detective who lived above a chip shop somewhere near Middlesbrough, and what happened when he came home from a poetry recital one evening to find the body of one of his clients sprawled on his kitchen lino:

Yet here she was in the fringes of suburbia, sprawled on my beige and orange linoleum. She’d only been looking for a missing spaniel when she pitched up at my office last week, and wherever the dog was it wouldn’t be in my kitchen. My cat would never allow it.

Instead of the typical second person narrative (you go into the kitchen…) we opted for the traditional noir first person (I stepped over the threshold…) with the reader acting as the detective’s conscience, inner voice, or maybe guiding deity (Should I call the police or slip out the back door?).

Because we both have programming backgrounds and because it probably didn’t cross our minds that anyone else would be daft enough to do stuff like this, we used our markup facility of choice (txt2tags) and made a simple html version so you could read a passage of text, click on one of the links and move to the next passage. The only trouble was, the way we were keeping track of the interconnectedness was to draw decision trees on paper and magnet them to the side of the filing cabinet, and we were running out of filing cabinet. Fun as it had been, we were getting tangled in our own storylines and we shelved the poor detective a couple of years ago.

Fast forward to the Christmas holidays 2019, when I was formatting a radio script to send to the BBC Script Room. OneMonkey, convinced there must be specialist script software that would stop me swearing so much (and indeed, I’ve downloaded a demo of Fade In but I haven’t tried it yet), was trawling the web. He found a nifty thing called Twine, which wouldn’t help with the radio script but was just the thing we needed to get our detective back into his favourite thinking-chair.

Twine is open source (did I ever mention I use Linux? And LibreOffice, and Vim, and…) and is also incredibly simple to use. I find it just visual enough to be helpful without being overwhelming, and at its simplest you can use the default set-up and make simple text passages with simple links (like we were doing in html before), and be up and running straight away. Within an hour we’d downloaded Twine, learnt enough to get started, copied across our existing story and were examining the incomplete pathways.

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The layout of our story in Twine, which makes me think of international flight-paths

We set up a couple of tags to add colour-coding, so we know which ones are still only headings, with no text added, and which ones are end-points. OneMonkey got enthusiastic on the coding front and added an inventory (represented here by the disconnected set of items on the left-hand side) so at any time we know what our hero has in his pockets, but this is very much an optional extra.

Since our adoption of this new software approach, all we’ve done is untangle a couple of threads, add an inventory, work out where we’d got to, and sketch out a couple of scenes to be used later (the disconnected items on the right-hand side). It’s not often we’ve both got the time (or maybe I mean energy) to sit down and work on this together, but Twine certainly seems to be a useful way to do it. You can do a test run through the ‘game’ (I can’t figure out what terminology to use for this venture, I would naturally say interactive fiction but they get referred to as games) to see how it’s going so far, or you can sit in storyboard mode (as shown in the screenshot above) and edit the passages, add links etc.

As I understand it, you can get even more advanced by adding images, sounds (say you want to have a distinctive door-opening hum every time the character goes through a door), and we’ve used conditionals in a couple of places already. By ‘conditionals’ I mean the text shown, and/or the decisions available are conditional on what’s already happened – if the detective has visited the bathroom already then he will behave in a different way when he enters the bedroom, for instance. In our detective’s case he’s looking for clues and deciding what to do next based on them, so if he encounters things in a different order then he might jump to different conclusions. If you’re a programming beginner, you might want to stick to basic building blocks of narrative at first and only bring this sort of nuance in once you feel more confident.

As with anything of this nature, a quick search for how-to articles, or YouTube tutorials should turn up helpful pointers. If you want some inspiration there’s a community site with links to interactive fiction that people have constructed, you can even search for ones made using Twine.

We may never guide our detective through all the twists of his fishy plot but at least Twine has given us a way to progress, and if Above a Chip Shop in Teesside is ever available to the public, I’ll let you know.

Why aren’t there more illustrations in fiction?

Ten years ago this week I made up International Illustrator Appreciation Day, so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about illustrations.

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Three very different illustrated novels

I’m halfway through The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, and though I didn’t realise they were there when I bought the book, I’ve been enjoying the illustrations that mark each new chapter:

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Illustration by Yoco Nagamiya

They set the scene in some way for the chapter to come, and unlike the cover art they depict the cat, Nana, as he’s described in the text. The wash style fits beautifully with the whimsy of this Japanese novel.

Not long ago I read Wyntertide, the second book in Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy. That, being a fantasy novel which also has a map, is the sort of territory you might expect illustrations, and indeed there are full-page pictures dotted through the book:

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Illustration by Sasha Laika

To me, these ones are reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book, complete with a quote beneath, to show which part of the text they go with.

The ones that were delightfully unexpected and seemed a bit odd at first are these:

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Mid-text illustration by..?

This is from the Reginald Hill novel The Roar of the Butterflies, the final book in his Joe Sixsmith private detective series. Sadly it’s the only one of the series that I’ve got in this style (I bought them all second-hand), but OneMonkey particularly loved it. They’re not quite comedies but they’re light touch, and Joe is an easy-going central character so once you accept these drawings they work really well. I’m not altogether sure who drew them as I can’t find a direct reference, only that the cover art was by Christopher Burke.

Three different styles of novel, three genres, three different ways of arranging the illustrations (in among the text, full page within a chapter, chapter headings only). The only commonality being that these are all aimed at adults. In children’s books we often encounter illustrations like this but (maps in fantasy novels aside) rarely once we’re adults. Perhaps there’s an idea that they’re only for kids, and of course it adds an extra collaborator in to complicate deadlines and share the takings with, but I think they add something to the novel. Not everyone likes graphic novels, not all books lend themselves to that treatment, but surely there are lots of readers who’d appreciate a sprinkling of art in their books. We’re not demanding it because unless we’re reminded by books like these how nice it was to read text with illustrations when we were younger, we’ve forgotten what it is we’re missing out on.