Creative writing in Witney – this autumn’s first guest speaker is Ben Jeapes

You’ll recall me mentioning the creative writing course I’m offering in Witney this autumn? Since I know from my own experience how valuable a range of perspectives and experience is for writers, I planned to include guest speakers from the outset.

The first of these will be Ben Jeapes. For those of you who don’t already know his work, do check out www.benjeapes.com

There’s an update on the Writers of Witney website here.

If you know any aspiring authors within striking distance of Witney, do please let them know 🙂

Cool things for a hot week plus a Newsletter question

It’s unusually hot here in the Cotswolds. The cats are unimpressed and I’m working in the garden as much as possible, thanks to the marvels of wifi. Moving on to the cool stuff.

If you have access to BBC programming don’t miss Artsnight on BBC tomorrow, Friday 22nd July.

“Is fiction the best way to access the truth? Award-winning Scottish crime writer Val McDermid explores the relationship between fiction, video games and real-life crime documentary. She talks to Ken MacLeod and Richard K Morgan, whose science fiction novels offer a commentary on current political events. She meets Malath Abbas, the designer of Killbox, a new game about the ethics of drone warfare, and Lucas Pope, whose Bafta-winning Papers Please examines the moral and political decisions faced by an immigration officer. McDermid discusses the importance and the pitfalls of covering real-life crime with veteran documentary maker and criminologist Roger Graef.”

Here’s a link to the BBC website though I suspect access will depend on your location.

For more outstanding SF, here’s an update from the SF Gateway

“Today, we direct your attention to one of the great forces for good in modern SF, the one and only Pat Cadigan.

Twice winner of the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award: in 1992 for Synners and then again in 1995 for Fools, Pat has also been shortlisted multiple times for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, BSFA, World Fantasy and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, among many others. In 2013, she won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for ‘The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi’.

Many are the good and great of the field who have lined up to praise her. Can Neil Gaiman, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling all be wrong? We think not. Nor could fellow Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Paul McAuley, who wrote an astute review of Fools in the early days of this very blog.

OK, we’re sure by now that you’re champing at the bit to sample some of Pat’s extraordinary work – but where to begin? We’re glad you asked!”

So click on through to find out how to get reading!

Apropos good reading, you may – or may not – be aware that I really don’t do Horror. I simply don’t get it. Whatever – that’s just me. I have a good many writerly pals among horror authors and find they have a lot of useful and interesting things to say about both the craft and the business of writing. One of those is Adam Nevill. Here’s the latest news from him, if horror’s remotely your sort of thing.

I’m offering a FREE full-length book, CRIES FROM THE CRYPT: SELECTED WRITINGS, for folks who take my monthly newsletter, and it’s now available to download from my homepage.
CRIES FROM THE CRYPT is a selection of uncollected short fiction, unpublished chapters from my novels, advice for writers, features on horror, and some favourite interviews that accompanied the publication of my books. I guess it’s a horror companion and weighs in at 70K words. Just register at my homepage and collect your free copy.

Click through for a full table of contents and other information on how this will work.

Now for my question. That news from Adam got me thinking about newsletters. Increasing numbers of authors I know are doing them and as a reader myself, I see why. Facebook, Twitter and other such social media are increasingly ‘curating’ their content with algorithms and such which ensure you see what they want you to see (and make money from) rather than what you necessarily want to see.

Okay, that’s commerce for you. But how to make sure you don’t miss the latest news from a favourite author? Do you want that landing in your inbox?

If you’d be interested in a newsletter from me, let me know in comments. I’m interested in whatever thoughts you may on the pros and cons. How often might you like to get such a thing – monthly, every two months, quarterly? What sort of thing would you be looking for? Snippets from work in progress? Bits of idle flash fiction?

Any and all observations welcome.

What we did on our holidays

We’re back from a much-needed break in the Lake District. It’s somewhere I’ve never been before, while my husband went several times in his teens, doing ‘Outward Bound’ with the school – sailing, canoeing, rock climbing and such. (He tells me the hills have inexplicably got steeper since then…)

The idea was to get away from work, his and mine, and as it turned out, from the utter chaos of UK politics at present. So we made good use of our National Trust and English Heritage memberships as well as enjoying the scenery and solitude.

Ullswater

On our first day we went into Kendal and had a bimble around the town, which turns out to have a very unusual layout going back to medieval times. It also has quite the most convoluted one-way traffic system we’ve ever come across, so if you’re up that way, be warned! Later in the week we climbed up the hill to the castle ruins and that vantage point helps make a bit more sense of it, when you can see the layout of the hills and the river, as well as other impressive views, so that’s a walk well worth doing.

We found the museum that first day, and that was very interesting, not least to see what today’s curators can do with a collection of bequests from the days of Empire when British naturalists mostly went abroad to shoot things to prove they existed… A real added bonus was an exhibition of art inspired by the works of Beatrix Potter, and as a huge fan of Bryan Talbot, I was thrilled to see original artwork from The Tale of One Bad Rat.

Since it’s the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth, there’s an awful lot going on to celebrate and promote her work. We visited Hill Top, the farm she brought with her own money after Peter Rabbit’s success and that was probably the most touristy place we went. It is well worth a visit, not least to learn how much more there was to her than writing little books about cute animals.

One thing in particular worth noting is her commitment to supporting the Lake District as a working, thriving community. It’s one of those parts of England where an important industrial heritage deserves to be remembered – and the consequences of its loss on the modern day population needs to be addressed. We visited the Stott Park Bobbin Mill which used to produce literally millions of bobbins and cotton reels for the textile mills of Lancashire and beyond in its heyday. And that was only one of more than seventy such factories. Highly recommended for anyone who’s interested in Victorian and earlier industry. If you can get there on one of the ‘in steam’ days, to see the machines at work as we did, so much the better.

Not that the Victorians were all about work and no play. We also visited the Claife Viewing Station, once an elegant assembly rooms for Georgian tourists come to admire Windermere. It’s ruinous now but there’s an Aeolian harp installed as there was in its heyday – and since we were there on a blustery day, that added a distinctively unusual note to our visit.

Windermere and the towns around that particular stretch of water were busy – which must be a good thing for the local economy which does look to be under some stress. Quite a lot of commercial property was vacant, everywhere we went, along with plenty of house for-sale signs to catch the eye. But you don’t have to go far to find peace and quiet and leisurely country walking. We spent a very pleasant day in the hills above Patterdale – being overtaken by enthusiasts in Gore-Tex and lycra as we ambled along, enjoying the views of Ullswater. And on the way back, we rounded a corner on a country road and both saw a red squirrel sitting on a tree in a patch of sunlight, waiting just long enough for us both to say ‘oh look!’ before it bounded off.

After a day of walking, we fancied a sitting-down expedition, so went over to Coniston for a boat tour of the lake. Since I spent my early years reading about sailing small boats rather than doing so like my husband, I was pleased to see places which I remembered from the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books which I adored. I’m seriously considering giving them a re-read.

We also visited Wray Castle which is a very curious place, built as a Victorian exercise in ego for a wealthy industrialist by an architect who really didn’t know what he was doing – and who apparently drank himself to death. Since then, the National Trust hasn’t really known what to do with it and at present, it’s given over to fun activities for children, which seems an ideal use of the place. So if you’re up that way with a young family, bear it in mind!

Sizergh Castle is much more of a proper castle, and home to the Strickland family for over 700 years. The history and evolution of the house, from fortified manor to elegant residence is fascinating, with a lot of original features still in situ including fabulous Elizabethan panelling and carving. The family history is just as intriguing, especially their involvement with Jacobean politics and the exiled Stuarts in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth centuries. Then there are the splendid gardens – complete with a very friendly and sociable black cat. Possibly because, as I discovered reading the guidebook over a cup of tea, the herbaceous border he was so comfortably ensconced in includes a generous planting of catmints.

So that was our holiday in summary, and very enjoyable it was too. While I was up there I did acquire some reading – a scholarly biography of Beatrix Potter and also a book by Christina Hardyment detailing her searches for the places and people who inspired Arthur Ransome’s books. Those will warrant a separate blog post.

And now we’re both back to work. And yes, I’ve been places and seen things which have given me ideas for the stories I’m working on at present, as well as for future projects.

A VATMOSS, politics and holiday update

If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t blogged in over a week, just look at the UK newspapers…

Given I’ve committed hundreds of hours, thousands of words and an incalculable amount of energy and concentration as part of the EU VAT Action team trying to secure meaningful reform of the 2015 EU digital VAT rules, you won’t be surprised to learn that was uppermost in my mind. Had this collectively disastrous referendum decision thrown all that hard work in the bin?

The short answer is no, for which I am profoundly thankful. Clare Josa and I went into London yesterday for a meeting with our Whitehall contacts to discuss the Brexit vote implications. We shot a quick update video in Green Park immediately afterwards, which you can find here. To summarise the key points arising, I’ll quote from the EU VAT Action site, which is where you should link to spread the word to other interested parties.

The UK is still in the EU and has the same rights and obligations as before, so EU Digital VAT continues to apply, worldwide, as before.

The EU Commission still intends to propose the promised legislation for a threshold and a simplified ‘soft landing’ area above that threshold, by the end of this year. This is a huge achievement, since a year ago they did not believe there was a need for either of these.

Another major achievement is confirmation that the Commissioner proposing the Digital Single Market legislation WILL include a provision to permit geoblocking for the purposes of reducing legitimate administrative burden, such as EU Digital VAT

The UK will continue to have a voice in the EU Digital VAT negotiations, whilst the UK is in the EU. However, once Article 50 is invoked and the formal leaving process has started, other Member States may choose to give less weight to our opinion

This is an issue because the UK has been the most vocal country over the new EU Digital VAT rules. So it is more important than ever for micro businesses outside of the UK to make sure their Finance Ministers, Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament are fully aware of the challenges you face with these rules. We are happy to help you get creative in making your voice heard, if traditional routes aren’t yet working for you. (See Action Challenge, below)

Whatever the outcome of the UK’s EU negotiations, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) trend is for more countries to implement similar place of supply rules to those from January 1st 2015 in the EU. This means that you need to keep taking actions to upgrade your business systems, so that you can prove where your customers are located.

Whilst the OECD recognises the need for thresholds and simplifications for the smallest businesses, it is imperative that we keep up the pressure on our shopping cart providers and payment processors, to supply us with the data that we need, to be able to comply.

The VATMOSS system in the UK will remain in operation for the duration of our negotiations. What will happen to it after that, no one knows. But please don’t make major business decisions based on guesswork, at this stage.

Next steps: we will continue to give you a voice within the UK government and the wider EU. The campaign has already achieved recognition in Whitehall, Brussels and at the OECD. Together, we have achieved the breakthrough that these decision-makers now understand that micro businesses – especially the smallest that are running on a laptop from a kitchen table – must be considered when changing legislation.

None of this could have been done without your support and the actions of the thousands who have supported the campaign. Thank you.

And here is the action we need you to take, please: And we need your support now, more than ever. We have been asked to put together a technical paper for the OECD Working Party on VAT, summarising the specific technical challenges that micro businesses have faced with complying with this legislation, over the past 18 months. So:

Please write to your Finance Minister, MEPs, Member of Parliament and copy to us (euvat @ clarejosa . com) to tell them:
Specifically why you cannot comply with the EU Digital VAT rules – or why it is difficult for you.

This will help to keep your problems top-of-mind, despite the background noise, and it will encourage Finance Ministers to vote to support the threshold and ‘soft landing’ legislation, when it is proposed.

So that’s the situation there. Phew.

As for the rest of it…

I didn’t think I could be more disgusted by Nigel Farage by now – but he managed it with his antics in the European Parliament. I’m thinking back to our VAT campaign visits to Brussels where I was able to see at first hand just how hard our MEPs and their teams of all parties – except UKIP who were an idle, know-nothing embarrassment to the entire UK delegation – have spent years working on so many vital issues in the interests of us all.

The Leave vote has thrown all that time, effort, passion and commitment from so many people into the bin for what’s already turned out to be a pack of lies.
Because Tory posh boys were more concerned with playing their power games than really thinking hard about the possible outcomes and the reality for the rest of us.

And now they are in absolute denial – or are totally oblivious – to the very real commercial damage this is doing from biggest to smallest businesses while the UK’s standing in Europe has already suffered more damage than we can hope to make up in a decade.

Meantime, the Parliamentary Labour Party has decided now’s the ideal time for a game of King of the Castle. When someone, anyone should be demanding answers from any and every Tory leadership candidate every hour on the hour to expose them for the charlatans they are. Yes, okay, I know it’s a lot more complicated than that – but honestly, the timing?!

Are there *any* politicians in England at the moment looking out for the national interest in the current crisis rather than serving their own narrow interests and ambitions?

I say England because Nicola Sturgeon and Scots MEP Alyn Smith have been showing how these things should be done!

What of the Greens? Plaid Cymru? LibDems? There’s talk of a progressive coalition. I would dearly love to see that gain some traction. And yes, I am in favour of proportional representation, even at the price of UKIP MPs. Having them in parliament would very rapidly expose the inadequacy of their position and skills for one thing.

Where do we go from here? As far as the big picture’s concerned, I honestly have no idea.

At the personal level, I’m going on holiday for a week with my husband, to the Lake District. We’ve been trying to arrange a break since March but what with one thing and another…

Anyway, I intend to have as much downtime as possible, especially from social media, and that’s why I’m disabling comments on this particular post.

When we get home I intend to get back to writing, and blogging about books, writing and the more usual aspects of my life!

Writers of Witney – I’m offering a ten week evening class this autumn.

One of the very first things I learned as a debut novelist nearly twenty years ago, is how generous established writers are, up to and including household names, with their practical advice, cautionary tales and other essential tips and tricks to help anyone and everyone write their best possible book.

Since then I’ve learned for myself how rewarding it is to share such things – and not just in some altruistic, let-me-polish-my-halo way. Discussing and working through different aspects of writing skills and challenges is an excellent way to realise something key to improving your own work-in-progress. That’s happened to me time and again.

I began teaching creative writing in 2003, stepping in to help out when a last minute crisis prevented the scheduled tutor from leading planned sessions at a science fiction convention. I was working with that original tutor’s teaching structure and all the feedback was very positive so that was clearly an effective approach. That said, it wasn’t my approach. So I started thinking about different ways to share the lessons which I was continuing to learn myself with writers who were as hopeful – but lacking essential insights – as I had once been.

Since then I have taught seminars and day courses at conventions and literary festivals, by no means only limited to talking about science fiction and fantasy. It’s the same skill set after all, whatever genre you may be writing in. I’ve been a guest lecturer for creative writing degree courses at Lancaster University, Edge Hill University, and Anglia Ruskin University, among others. I’ve also taught week-long courses, including one for the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. The next residential course I’ll be teaching is at Moniack Mhor this December.

When I’ve mentioned these various trips and classes to local pals, I’ve often provoked muted howls of frustration because the time, the place, the whatever simply didn’t work for them. So I’ve decided to offer an evening class in Witney this autumn, drawing on all the material I’ve gathered together, and tried and tested, over the past decade or so.

Full details of the class programme and on the venue can be found here – Writers of Witney and news on guest speakers and views about various aspects of creative writing will be forthcoming.

Spread the word!

Now out – Eve of War – my year of short stories continues!

I’ve mentioned before how grateful I am for the short story commissions that kept me writing (and sane!) through last year’s VAT campaigning. Well, those particular stories are now appearing for your reading pleasure.

Following on from Tales of Eve, Fox Spirit Books has just published Eve of War.

And following on from my very first foray into SF, in Tales of Eve, my contribution is another science fiction story, set on a space station in orbit around Titan…

“Sharp of mind and instinct; with poise and grace and power – Eve’s Daughters are a match for any opponent. Whether seeking out a worthy test or assailed by brave (but foolish) foes, she is determined and cunning, and will not fail.”

Here are fifteen tales from across the ages; full of prowess both martial and magical, from an array of unique voices.

Miranda’s Tempest by S.J. Higbee
The Devil’s Spoke by K.T. Davies
Himura the God Killer by Andrew Reid
The Bind that Tie by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Et Mortuum Esse Audivit by Alasdair Stuart
Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick by Juliet McKenna
A Veil of Blades by R.J. Davnall
In Amber by Rob Haines
Skating Away by Francis Knight
Ballad of Sighne by Rahne Sinclair
The Crossing by Paul Weimer
Lucille by Alec McQuay
Born by G Clark Hellery
Repo by Ren Warom
One Sssingular Sssenssation by Chloe Yates

Edited by Mahiri Simpson & Darren Pulsford
Cover Art by Vincent Holland-Keen

eve of war - small

Reflections on death and writing in the wake of recent, grim events.

Along with so many, I am profoundly troubled by the recent murders of gay clubbers in Orlando, Florida, and of Jo Cox MP in the UK. Consequently I am reposting a piece I wrote in 2011, as a guest for some website or other though alas, I have lost the details of precisely where. Because those of us who write about death for entertainment need to be very clear that what we are doing is the exploration of real world violence, not its exploitation.

I do not propose to add to the debates about the motivations, mental states or ideologies of these killers. Please do not make any comments along those lines here. Bluntly, you risk igniting the incandescent fury I currently feel for those who claim the right to take another’s life. If you wish to discuss those aspects of these atrocities, there are plenty of places to do so elsewhere on the Internet.

Meantime, I will fervently hope and work for a day when a post like this is no longer so horribly relevant.

Do you ever get writer’s block? No, but I do get stopped dead.

Writer’s block. It’s one of those questions we all get asked, those of us sitting up at the front on panels at conventions, libraries and literary festivals.

To be honest, no, I just don’t have time for writer’s block. With two teenage sons at school and college and a husband whose (very) full-time job keeps us all fed and sheltered, holding up my end of the family deal by running this household means my writing time is precious and I’m not about to waste any of it. Okay, there are days when the writing goes more smoothly than others but that’s different.

But some things stop me dead in my writing. Death. Real world death. There’s the personal. Last year my father in law died. In this past month two friends have died. Other years saw other losses. There will be more to come. I have learned that trying to set such things aside and apply myself to the book in progress simply doesn’t work. Sod the mandatory daily word count. I need to take the time to look squarely at such loss, to pay tribute to the departed through the rituals of such occurrences and with private recollection and appreciation of the part they played in my life. Then I can move on, knowing that I have given them their due.

Then there’s the kind of death that makes global headlines. Specifically the death wrought by human malice. Famine in Africa, the ongoing plagues of malaria and HIV, multiple fatalities in a Chinese train crash. These all give me pause for thought, and prompt donations to appeals as appropriate but they don’t stop me writing.

The Norway bomb and shootings stop me. The July 7th 2005 attacks in London. The Madrid train bombings 2004. The World Trade Centre 2001. The Admiral Duncan nail bombing 1999. Oklahoma City 1995. No, that’s not a comprehensive list but you know what I mean.

It’s not grief that stops me writing. Thanks to all the powers that be, I lost no one in any of these atrocities, though a couple of pals came frighteningly close. So claiming any sort of personal anguish is wholly inappropriate and frankly, in my opinion, insulting to those so appallingly bereaved and whose lives are truly changed. Those of us beyond the immediate impact can only offer sincere and honest condolence.

But every time, I have to stop and look at what has happened and then stop and look at my writing. Because I write about people killing each other, whether with swords or sorcery. Sometimes it’s up close and personal with a dagger or a wizardly duel. Then there’s the big-picture stuff when I sit down and draw up an order of battle, work out what twists deliver the outcome which I want and then calculate the losses on each side for the effect on the ongoing plot. Yes, really. I have the casualty numbers (killed/wounded) for every battle in ‘Blood in the Water,’ the second of the Lescari Revolution books. I’m currently looking at forthcoming events in ‘Darkening Skies,’ second of the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, and working out who will die amid the sort of violent magic which would blow a summer blockbuster movie’s sfx budget. Even Harry Potter.

And I’m doing all that for the sake of entertainment. I’m killing fictional people off, right, left and centre, in the service of a thrilling story. But real world death isn’t thrilling or entertaining. It’s heart-breaking, infuriating, frightening. It has real world implications for our security, our laws, our freedoms, for the abuse of ‘others’ by the prejudiced and the opportunist in this age of global media and social networking. This stuff matters.

So I need to know that my writing matters. I need to be certain that my characters suffer loss in a way that doesn’t belittle a real bereavement. That the effects persist as they do in real life – or if they don’t, I need to be clear why that might be. When high heroic deeds deliver triumphant outcomes, I must always make sure that I acknowledge the cost to those who had no choice or chance to opt out. Not to the detriment of the story overall but just using enough light and shade to paint a realistic picture.

When I’m creating a villain, whether a loner or a leader, I must know and I must show what drives a man or woman to such corrosive spite, treachery, brutality or murder. In the context of my story at least. I cannot hope to uncover any universal truths of the human psyche that might explain such headline-grabbing carnage.

Then maybe, just maybe, I can leave my readers with something to think on, once they’ve closed the book? Something to help their own understanding of entitlement, arrogance, hatred, bigotry, the myriad impulses and experiences that result in a mindset that sees violence as some sort of valid solution? Something to help inform their opinions and their actions when politicians and special interests try to use these abominations to advance their own agenda?

To help to show, to quote Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister “… that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naïveté. That is what we owe to the victims and to those they hold dear.”

Then I can start writing again.

Terri Windling’s Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature – links to podcast and video

You’ll recall me mentioning I went to this year’s Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford recently. The speaker was Terri Windling and she was reflecting on Tolkien’s Long Shadow.

Click through to the Pembroke MCR page for photographs and options on listening to the lecture yourself, via podcast or video, and there’s also a video of the Q&A.

It will be well worth your time, believe me!

You may also recall me mentioning that Terri explained a few things about the directions my fantasy writing is currently taking. She talks of her wish for less codified, more mysterious magic as well as a shift, even a loss, in fantasy fiction’s relationships with landscape.

As those of you who’ve read my various River Kingdom short stories will know, the magic there is very far from codified in any way the wizards of Hadrumal would recognise. At the moment, I’m shaping a novel set in this same milieu and I’m finding various people’s relationships with their particular landscape are coming through to shape events.

So I’ll get back to clearing the decks of a few other things, so I can get back to that. Meantime, you can go and enjoy Terri’s talk for yourselves.

The balance between basics and breaking new ground. An underlying principle common to aikido and to writing.

Here’s a thing that occurred to me this morning. However advanced and startling your new exploration of a craft may be, it must still abide by and satisfy the fundamental requirements of whatever you are doing.

Let me explain.

We’re teaching some advanced stuff in our aikido classes at the moment. It’s a small club currently, and with the youngest members off doing exams, we have two students working towards blue belt/2nd kyu and one working towards second level black belt/nidan. Since the other students in the class at the moment are also solidly experienced, we’re working way beyond the ‘stand here, move this foot, then that hand, move here’ level of teaching into refining and enhancing techniques everyone’s already familiar with, as well as using faster and more challenging styles of attack.

With varying degrees of success. Last night I found myself saying more than once, to more than one student, ‘the reason that didn’t work was you didn’t remember the fundamentals of that technique’. And then demonstrating what I meant. What was happening was the student was so focused on the new elements of the attack or some refinement of positioning that had just been explained, that they had cut short or even omitted some element of the actual technique. That allowed a gap to open up or closed up a gap they would need, not taking the attacker’s balance or allowing a recovery, that sort of thing.

The sort of thing we teach from the very start. Because a central aspect to understanding aikido is realising that the early stuff which you learn isn’t the baby steps. It isn’t stuff which you can master and then leave behind as you progress. What you learn at the outset forms the foundation for everything that follows.

Now let us consider books. I’m specifically casting my mind back to the two-hundred-plus books I read in my two years as a Clarke Award judge. Across that broad and varied span of writing, there were some very interesting new approaches and experiments in style, theme, genre-blurring, genre-crossing and more – which ultimately failed, certainly for me, and given their absence from subsequent, substantive discussion, I assume they didn’t make the grade for the other judges either.

Speaking purely for myself, those particular books failed because they were so focused on the new and different thing they were trying to do, that they forgot about the foundations of good writing. Compelling characterisation. Coherent plot progression. Rigorous internal logic. Vivid scene setting. Convincing dialogue. The list goes on. All those things which the reader shouldn’t actually notice happening but which are essential to draw you into a book and keep those pages turning because This Really Matters!

The books that won when I was on the judging panel? The Testament of Jessie Lamb, and Dark Eden? They both broke new ground at the same time as satisfying those fundamental tenets of good writing and thus, good reading.

All of which goes a long way to explain why I have no patience with book reviews that insist we must forgive some obvious shortcoming in a book like clunky prose or a plot hole or an unaccountable absence of anyone but middle-aged white men – again, the list could go on – because this particular special aspect is just so new and shiny!

No. In writing, as in aikido, there must always be balance. The unexpected, the breath-taking, the shocking, the ‘how the hell did that just happen?!’ will only be truly effective when it stems from a solid foundation of essential and well-honed skills.

That’s what I think, anyway.

“I Dream of Genie” Guest post by Lisa Tuttle, on searching for family history

Just at the moment, I’m thinking about the relationships between writers and a couple of things, one of which is the personal, oral, family history which we learn (proverbially and frequently literally) at our grandmother’s knee. When I’m up to date with current obligations, I plan on blogging accordingly.

Meantime, imagine my delight when I was interviewing Lisa Tuttle for the upcoming issue of Interzone, and conversation turned to this very topic. She’s very kindly expanded on this in a fascinating guest post.

(And do keep your eyes open for her forthcoming novel, ‘The Curious Case of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief’ (Jo Fletcher Books). It’s excellent!

I Dream of Genie – Lisa Tuttle

Young Mrs Clarke

To me, the experience of doing family history research falls somewhere between what it feels like to read a novel and writing one. These people were real, not fictional creations, but their stories have been lost….only scattered references, clues and hints, the occasional memory or newspaper references remain, so I must use my imagination to try to bring them back to life.

The figure who first caught my interest in this way was my great-grandmother, my father’s paternal grandmother, Eugenia Ash Tuttle – “Genie” – who died a couple of years before I was born. Here’s what my Aunt Gracia (my father’s older sister) remembered:

“She travelled all the time, all over the world, and crossed the Atlantic 17 times. When my father was a little boy, he lived in Paris, and spoke French before he spoke English. His mother had great E.S.P. and believed she was clairvoyant. She studied astrology in Egypt. After she divorced Mr Tuttle [this was her third divorce at a time when it was rare], Genie moved to California and starred in silent movies. Late in life, when she was down on her luck (like me) she went to live with her son in Birmingham, Michigan, but she could not stand the quiet, missed the excitement of her life in California, so back she went!”

Genie’s first husband – my great-grandfather — was Robert Elliott Clarke. He was ten years older than 20-year-old Eugenia, who had known him barely twenty-four hours when she married him in Chicago in 1886. He was the son of Irish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn, left school at fourteen, had worked as an actor and as a voice teacher. Their son, born in 1889, was years later adopted by his stepfather, Clarence Tuttle, and became Robert E. Tuttle.

My grandfather never saw his real father again after the age of about five, and I suspect any discussion of Clarke was verboten for at least as long as Mr Tuttle was around, but later he did some investigating of his own – the copy of his parents’ marriage license was my own starting point, decades later. The story that came down to me was that Clarke had been “physician to the Court of St James” at the time of Queen Victoria.

From a biography of Queen Victoria I learned she’d had a personal physician named Sir James Clark. Could this possibly be my ancestor? The dates did not fit, nor did his life – he never went to America, and nor did his son, who had no children.

My reading was too random to be classified as research. Only after the internet came along, and the wonders of searchable digitized archives and newspapers, did I make a real effort to unravel this old family mystery, and discovered this headline from Washington, D.C. in February 1891:

“Robert E. Clarke Disappears – He Left Many Checks, but No Bank Account”

He’d been selling bogus shares in property investment, and skipped town just in time to avoid arrest. Thanks to the many digitized records available through Ancestry.com, I was able to find out where he “disappeared” to: In March, he applied for a passport, to include his wife Eugenia and their little boy, at the American Embassy in Berlin. He claimed he was a “merchant” from New York.

What they did, how they survived, abroad for the next four years I don’t know. They moved around. They spent time in Paris (where my grandfather learned French) and in London. But I have no detailed evidence of their lives abroad, and that blank spot has inspired a curiosity, which has led to me a fascination with the period. I have read a lot about other people who lived in – and Americans who visited — London, Paris and Berlin in the early 1890s, developing a feel for the zeitgeist of the time. This led me to write fiction – not about my great-grandparents (I want to know them, not turn them into fictional creations) but set in that time, so I embarked on a series of detective stories….and the first novel in the series, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, set in London in October and November 1893.

Somnambulist

My grandfather returned to the U.S. – for good – with his parents in April 1895. They left Southampton on 4 April 1895, on the Manitoba, bound for New York. It was a single-class passenger liner and there were only 26 passengers on board for that voyage, so they would all have become acquainted during the 12-day journey – I imagine it a bit like a floating house-party. Among the passengers were three prominent members of the Theosophical Society – Dr Archibald Keightley (who had been responsible for bringing the founder of that group, Madame Blavatsky, to Britain from America, paid her bills and supervised the publication of her book The Secret Doctrine), his wife Julia (formerly Mrs Verplank) and their close friend Alice Leighton Cleather. I feel sure Genie would have been fascinated by Theosophy as she was by all such spiritual, esoteric subjects.

On the passenger list, Robert E. Clarke claimed his profession was “Physician.”

I’m guessing this reflected a new scam he’d developed to earn a living whilst in Europe. And he continued to call himself a doctor after he got back to New York, as per an article that appeared in the New York Herald, Monday, 16 December 1895:

MANY SEEKING G. ELLIOTT CLARK.

An Army of Creditors Call at His Former Residence To Find Him Gone

FAT PERSONS DISGRUNTLED

He Agreed to Cure Them Of Obesity, but Many Still Mourn Over Their Corpulency.

How He Made Men Taller.

The story beneath the interesting headlines says that he put the letters “M.D.” after his name on his card, although “he did not openly practice as a physician.” He sold bath salts that were supposed to aid in weight reduction, and special shoe inserts to make men taller. By the time he left – assumed to have returned to London – his wife had taken their son and gone back to her mother in D.C. She did not stay where he might have found her, but went to Chicago, divorced him, and – but the rest is a story for another time.