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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

April A-Z: Yes!

I thought I'd take the opportunity to share some blogs I've read recently that've made me go "yes" - either in agreement, or simple appreciation of the writing. Some I've discovered through the A-Z challenge, others are by people I follow on Twitter, or whose blogs I already followed.

Firstly, Rebecca Brown's "Little Notepad" is a fabulous showcase for her writing. It was on her blog that I first heard of the A-Z Challenge. It's hard to pick just one, so I'm going to link to a couple of her posts (and I also want to show you the different kinds of stuff she does!)
Her P post - Pier Pressure - was an excellent short story.
Her Wedding Fever post was a lively reminiscence piece about her own wedding, prompted (of course) by yesterday's Royal Wedding.

Lucy Coat's Blog, Scribble City Central, is one I've followed for a while. Last week, over a series of three posts, she treated us to a fantastic set of "Royal Wedding Revelations", which were her memories of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981. She was actually there (being a schoolfriend of Diana's), which impressed my 7yr old no end!

A blog which I have discovered and enjoyed through this challenge is Shannon Lawrence's "The Warrior Muse", in which she posts mostly writing-related material. Her Y post focused on her plans for and achievements (so far!) this year.

Another discovery for the challenge is Sarah Makela's blog. She's another writer, who's used the challenge to present an alphabet's worth of mythological and legendary beasts. I particularly enjoyed S is for Selkie.

Finally, I'm offering you a blog of beauty. Joanna Cannon's blog provides beautiful and touching writing, mostly inspired by her day job as a doctor. The piece I'm linking to, A Beautiful Game, moved me to tears (and this is not a common thing - be warned), as did "Elephants" a couple of months ago. She deals with 'big' stories - birth, death, loss - but in a very understated and truly beautiful way.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

April A-Z: Xenophobia

Tough one today! When I plumped for 'xenophobia', I was thinking of exploring how traditional legends, particularly of human and near-human creatures like vampires, werewolves and so on can sometimes be seen as an expression of xenophobia via fear of 'the other'. I was thinking also of how these (and other) 'races' of creatures from fantasy novels - trolls, dwarves etc - have been used by Sir Terry Pratchett in some of his Discworld novels to represent human races and to therefore play out issues of racism and xenophobia. I am sure this device has been used in other books also, but Pratchett's is the example I am familiar with.
Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because -- what with trolls and dwarfs and so on -- speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.-- (Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad)
It occurred to me in preparing for this post, though, the xenophobia is perhaps more of a problem in the modern world, as we recognise diversity more and more, and live in increasingly mixed communities. This is perhaps why traditional beliefs and folklore show less obvious strands of xenophobia than more recently-occurring urban legends. In many developed countries, beliefs emerge about immigrants from poorer areas, often including some or all of the following:

  • they eat inappropriate animals (often pets)
  • they are unable to cope with technology
  • they refuse to learn the language or customs of the land they are in
  • they are incapable of appreciating the gifts of their host country, e.g. they are housed in a comfortable house but live only in one room, or wreck the house
  • they are unable to adopt manners seen as basic in their new country, such as eating with cutlery
  • they have poor hygiene
This xenophobia is also seen in national and racial stereotypes played out in jokes, and the use of a particular race in urban legends demonstrating extreme stupidity or incompetence - such as the one where someone assumes "cruise control" in their vehicle means they don't have to steer*.

*Of course, legends such as this might also feature other muted groups like a woman, a homosexual, an old person, a teenager, a transgendered person or someone in a job stereotypically believed to indicate low intelligence like a fast food worker or model.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

April A-Z: Walpurgisnacht

Walpurgisnacht bonfire 
The first time I heard of this festival was in reading Goethe's Faust. It seems to me to be a cross between May Day and Hallowe'en: it falls on the night of April 30th into May 1st and is when witches are 'abroad'. It's celebrated in various European countries including Germany, Finland and Sweden.

It's interesting (to me, at least) that in many places, this night is celebrated with a large bonfire, which also forms part of traditional Beltane (or May Day) celebrations. Walpurgisnacht bonfires seem to be about scaring away spirits and witches while the people celebrate, while the Beltane bonfires seem to be more a symbol of purity and of fertility. Cattle would be driven between two fires at Beltane to purify them, and newlyweds would jump over a bonfire to bless their union and make it fertile.

Another similarity is in the decoration of the house with greenery or fresh flowers. This is (or was) practised in some European Walpurgisnacht celebrations and is often part of Beltane practice. Of course, greenery is used in many pagan-originating festivals, as both these clearly are. It's also significant that the 'may', or hawthorn is usually blossoming at this time, and it seems natural that there is a sense of the world re-awakening with the spring. Clearly, such a feeling is manifest in the new-blossoming trees and hedgerows, so the use of such natural decorations isn't greatly surprising. In some parts of Sweden, it used to be common for the young people of the village to collect greenery to decorate the exteriors of all the village houses. In an interesting cross-over to another festival, the payment for this greenery-collection was eggs!

The big difference between these two festivals is the belief that the devil, and/or witches, and/or evil spirits wander the world on this night. This is part of the Walpurgisnacht tradition, but is not associated with Beltane. In the system that includes Beltane, this belief is clearly part of the festival of Samhain (Hallowe'en), Beltane's opposite (since they are six months apart, at opposite sides of the wheel of the year). In both cases, people traditionally dress up in scary costumes - possibly to confuse the real scary things into leaving them alone, or simply to celebrate the spookiness of the occasion.

Have you seen or taken part in any Walpurgisnacht celebrations?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

April A-Z: Variation

This letter had me stumped for most of today. For folklore, I thought: Vampires, I've nothing to add; Valkyries - Sarah Makela (sorry about the lack of umlauts!) did a lovely job on those already today. So I thought about writing and came up with virtue (an old-fashioned idea still prevalent in some kids' writing) and violence (how much in ok in kids' books?). THEN my 7 yr old wandered in to tell me how proud she was of herself for reading the bits that are 'said funny' in Stunt Bunny: Showbiz Sensation (which she's loving generally). The character in question has an accent - they are "ze best in ze world", that kind of thing. And then I knew what I could write about: Variation.

In my day job teaching English Language at A Level, the topic of 'Variation' is basically accent and dialect. The students need to be able to linguistically describe differences between different varieties of English (e.g. Geordie, West Country or US versus UK Standard varieties). It's a lot to ask of teenagers who frequently need to learn where these places are as well as what might be typical. It's no good teaching a class what's typically 'northern' or 'southern' in English accents if they think Norwich must be 'up north' and fail to realise that London is classed as southern! Anyway, all that aside, it's one of my favourite parts of the course. It's often the point where students realise the classist issues that we Brits have with accent, particularly since there are usually parts of their own usage that they've never realised are non-standard. For example, when I first started teaching in Nuneaton, I made the mistake of using the verb 'run' to teach the difference between the present perfective and simple past, not realising that 'I have ran' would be perfectly acceptable to most of the class. Issues like this help them to see how 'unfair' it is to make judgements about people based on usage, but also how ingrained it is for us to do that.

Anyway, I wanted to also link this to writing. Clearly, my little one was thrilled at being able to read and pronounce a non-standard accent, and it really helped the characterisation for her. This is exactly what using non-standard varieties in fiction should do: enhance characterisation. It shouldn't (I think) be a gimmick. I appreciate dialect literature as an attempt to strongly locate a story in a particular place, or as a way of validating non-standard speech. I know only too well that non-standard varieties are used because we value them as part of our identity. I don't appreciate the character who speaks in awkwardly-produced 'bumpkin' dialect that doesn't ring true to any particular place, used as a shorthand for 'uneducated' or 'simple'.

I think if you want to produce a piece of dialect literature, that's a specific undertaking, and worthwhile to preserve or raise the profile of a particular variety. Of course, you'd better get that dialect absolutely right!

On the other hand, giving just one character 'an accent' (i.e. spelling words phonetically only for them) often fails to ring true, or separates them markedly from everyone else. Sometimes, there's a reason for this - and if you are doing this, and know why, then fair enough. But dialect usage is arguably at least as effective when lightly drawn, i.e. the odd dialect word features, and Standard English words are spelt as standard. Or, as in the "Stunt Bunny" example above, you focus on one particular non-standard pronunciation and render only that phonetically.

Otherwise, to take things to their logical (if absurd) extreme, you'd need a different way of spelling 'grass' down South than up North. Grarss versus grass perhaps?

Monday, 25 April 2011

April A-Z: Unfinished Projects

All writers have unfinished work knocking around; it's an occupational hazard. Maybe something bigger or flashier whispered itself in the twilight, or maybe a project was deemed a 'no-go-er' by an agent, an editor, a crit partner. Or perhaps those unfinished pieces are more accurately unstarted pieces: fragments of ideas, brief jottings that haven't (yet) had their turn.

It's possible for these scraps to contribute to an evil time suck for the unwary procrastinating writer. Hours can be wasted in agonising over precisely which projects deserve the attention and nurturing which will develop them fully.

In fact, there are those who never actually finish any projects. "Oh, yeah, I was writing that book about (insert half-thought-through idea here) but it wasn't really going anywhere, so I started working on (half-thought-through idea B) instead." If this pattern continues ad infinitem, with nothing ever finished, this is not a writer. Perhaps worse (certainly for my sanity!) are those with half an idea but "no time" to write: "I'm going to write a book in the holidays/when I retire/if I win the lottery".  Trust me, if you wanted to do it, you'd find the time. Many of us who do write are really quite busy (again, I ask you to take my word for it); many published writers have a 'day job' as well. And, incidentally, it's quite rude to downplay our commitment like that, not to mention oh-so-safe to never actually take the risk and try producing a book...

Anyway, I digress. My point was intended to be this: the existence of unfinished projects (or some version of an 'ideas queue')  is pretty much a given if you are writing. The trick is not to get too bogged down in guilt for the occasional abandonment, as long as there are also finished projects in the mix. If you're never seeing anything through, ask yourself why. Are the ideas not fully developed before you start? Are you attempting to write in the wrong genre (e.g. are you aiming for novels with ideas that suit short stories more)? Are you more attracted to the idea of 'being a writer' than the actual writing?

Saturday, 23 April 2011

April A-Z: Taliesin

From TreeCarving.co.uk 
Just a quick thought today!

I have always found the story of Taliesin fascinating. I'm referring here to the all-knowing bard created by magic (as related in the Mabinogion), rather than the historical bard. People of legend are often more exciting than those of history, aren't they?

What I find interesting now is the part of the story where Ceridwen is pursuing Taliesin, and they're turning into different creatures to escape from or catch each other. It's a motif found elsewhere in British folklore - in ballads like "The Two Magicians" (Child ballad 44), folktales like the Grimms' Foundling-Bird (Aarne-Thompson type 313a). It is also used later in children's books such as T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone and Julia Donaldson's The Princess and the Wizard, although in the latter the Princess is allowed to transform in order to hide from the Wizard, while the Wizard doesn't transform and chase her - he just has to find her.

Friday, 22 April 2011

April A-Z: Succubus

The succubus is a female demon who visits men in the night and traps them in lurid dreams. In some versions of the myth, this is in order to gather semen, so that other demons (incubi) may use it to impregnate women, since demons are (obviously) sterile themselves. In other tellings, this temptation of men is an end in itself, or it may be a way of harvesting souls.

The succubus is a motif I've seen used in various ways. Sometimes the night time 'excitement' is enough to prevent a man from having normal relationships, or to destroy his existing relationship. Sometimes it's used as a kind of morality tale, leaving the man physically weak, due to his, er, energy being spent with the succubus. Clearly, succubi have been used as an excuse for wet dreams ('but the demon visited me ...'). On occasion, a man visited regularly by a succubus is being gradually killed.

Interestingly, there is a kabbalistic legend about Lilith (first wife of Adam) being a succubus who uses human men to reproduce (in some versions) or simply seeks to waste the seed of men. This legend, being so old, has diversified into different strands: Lilith may be a succubus and/or a vampire; she may seek to steal or kill children (especially boys); she consorts with demons/fallen angels; her offspring may be generic demons, succubi, djinns or other evil beings.

In searching for an image to accompany this post, I discovered an urban fantasy series featuring a succubus was Richelle Mead's first series. Book 1 is "Succubus Blues" - covers from two different US editions shown right. From her website:

Succubus (n) - An alluring, shape-shifting demon who seduces and pleasures mortal men.

Pathetic (adj.) - A succubus with 
great shoes and no social life. See: Georgina Kincaid.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

April A-Z: Romanticism and Folklore

Today's topic may seem a bit contrived, but please do bear with me! I find Romanticism very interesting, but it's clearly too big a topic to tackle in a single blog post. However, having turned to folklore and the theory of storytelling for several of these 'A to Z challenge' posts, I thought I'd look at how the Romantic drive to celebrate the simple, the pastoral and the 'natural' leads to a resurgence of interest in folk and oral tradition.

Our current knowledge of fairy and folk tales owes much to the Grimms' collection undertaken in the nineteenth century. True, this was an attempt to catalogue and characterise a living oral culture which, naturally, changed it in the process, but without the Grimms' work, much of our current understanding of folk and fairy tale wouldn't exist.  Perrault, of course, had begun this work almost two centuries earlier, but his work was more focused on using the existing tales to moralise, while the Grimms' concerns seem to have been more about preservation. Later, this cataloguing drive would manifest in Propp's narrative theory of folk tale, which has resonance with Campbell's 'monomyth' theory discussed in yesterday's "Quest" post.

Similarly, our repertoire of folk songs is largely due to Child's work in the same century: a cataloguing exercise which describes 'types' and 'variants' and identifies many familiar tropes in the traditional folk songs of Britain.

Without interest in such 'original' and 'natural' forms blossoming in the Romantic period, the essentially analytical, Enlightenment-style undertakings would not have been possible. The Romantic interest in 'folk' art is also apparent in music, with peasant dances influencing Romantic composers such as Dvorak and Liszt, while the first attention to traditional story - which would eventually lead to the Grimms' massive project - can be traced back to Goethe and Schiller in the Sturm und Drang pre-Romantic period.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

April A-Z: Quest

The quest is central to narrative. I nearly put 'most' narrative, or tried to qualify it with genre, but actually that's not true: good storytelling features the quest. We sometimes think of this as a fantasy trope (get the sword/ magic jewel/ amulet or defeat the wicked wizard/ giant/ faery queen), but it can be found in romance, crime, family saga, whatever.

Many writers on writing ask the following key questions:

  • what does your main character want?
  • who or what stands in their way?
  • what do they need to do to achieve their goal?

Surely this is just another version of the quest (or hero's journey)?

There is a wealth of material available on the hero's journey/quest structure online and in books for writers, so I won't rehash it all here. The version I follow is greatly simplified from the concept's very academic origins, but it is a working version for the material I'm working on:

  1. Hero's world is introduced
    • This is often very brief in writing for kids and YA, but it is important to gain some sense of the MC in their normal setting. 
  2. Call to adventure
    • This is the MC's first opportunity to act, to take on the quest or battle ahead. At this point, it is an option. 
  3. Hero ignores call
    • This step allows us to see the MC as normal (we wouldn't take up the quest either, probably!) and vulnerable. Often this refusal is due to self-doubt; that 'but what can I do about it?' moment.
  4. Hero crosses the threshold
    • At this point, something happens to force the MC's hand. Now we need to believe that there is no other way; the MC has to set forth on the adventure. Something needs to be at stake that is too big a risk for the MC to ignore.
  5. A mentor appears 
    • This doesn't always happen. In a folktale, we'd meet a magical character of some sort with a gift for the hero. Sometimes the mentor doubles as a romantic interest.
  6. Encounters with negative forces
    • At this stage, we don't always encounter the 'big bad', but perhaps their underlings. This can be quite a long stage, with many setbacks.
  7. Hero's self-doubt
    • This part is crucial. There must be a point where the MC almost gives up, or even almost joins the dark forces. 
  8. A sign
    • This is sometimes about a talisman or amulet which magically helps the MC to win a battle. It may also be a message they somehow receive which reassures them they're on the right path.
  9. Final battle
    • This needs to be inevitable, and is usually the MC's first chance to fight the Big Bad head-on.
  10. Return to normal world
    • This is another stage which is often shorter in kids' and YA fiction. In classical myth, the return home could take up a large part of the story, often with further encounters and dangers. In some more recent kids' books, this part includes characters piecing everything together and finally understanding how their separate experiences make sense as a whole (or Dumbledore explaining everything to Harry Potter, of course). There must be a sense that the MC's quest has made a difference in their normal world, not just to themselves.
If this is new to you and you want to read further, I'd recommend:
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (for a scholarly explanation of the 'monomyth' theory)
Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (for a discussion of how the monomyth concept can help writers)
James Scott Bell, [Write Great Fiction] Plot & Structure (for a more recent version giving many examples from books and films)

This blog series from Terell Mims explores each stage in a different post. His follow-up series on archetypes is well worth a read too.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

April A-Z: Protection

OK, in case you're all spooked out by some of yesterday's omens, here are some things you can use to protect yourself from evil:

  • crossed fingers
  • touching wood (or knocking on wood outside the UK) 
  • a horseshoe nailed outside your house (I believe pointing upwards, but some would say pointing down...)
  • salt - just sprinkle it around your house, or in the doorways and windows
  • hawthorn, holly or ivy planted around the home (there are many other protective plants and herbs too)
  • an amulet such as a rabbit's foot, a four-leaved clover or lucky coin
  • a witch's bottle: a glass or ceramic jar or bottle filled with various things, often including pins/needles and thread/string to trap evil and sometimes a drop of the owner's blood (or a sample of their urine) to make it their own

Monday, 18 April 2011

April A-Z: Omens

Good luck or bad?
Meaning has been ascribed to some pretty odd things over the years. We're adept at interpreting these signs: some people in dire terms, others in a more balanced way. Omens are usually seen as a negative, but there is such a thing as a good omen (and not just in the Pratchett/Gaiman world either!).  It's interesting that the adjective 'ominous', derived from 'omen' is (I would say) used specifically for things with a negative portent, though.

Traditional omens include sightings (or hearings) of birds and animals, bodily signs and found objects.  For example:

  • Magpies - "one for sorrow" etc (please note that exactly what a specific number of magpies seen might mean depends on where you're from, how old you are, and who you learnt the rhyme from)
  • An owl hooting has been seen as an omen of death (or as a sign a girl will lose her virginity that night)
  • Black cats may be seen as lucky or unlucky, depending on who you ask
  • An itchy palm may indicate money about to be found or lost (it may be left = leaving, right = arriving - but again, that depends on where you're from etc)
  • A burning ear is supposed to mean people are talking about you ("left for love, right for spite", but, again, your mileage may vary)
  • A found pin (or penny?) is likely to foretell good fortune ("see a pin/penny (and) pick it up; all day long you'll have good luck)
  • Finding a white feather means to some that an angel has been close by

Omens seem to be a very culture-specific thing, even more varied than many other superstitious or folkloric beliefs. It's perhaps surprising that there is such variation even within a relatively small country like England.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

West of the Moon by Katherine Langrish

Title: West of the Moon
Author: Katherine Langrish
Publisher: HarperCollins Children's
Published: 2011
Genre: Children's fantasy

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says...
It is a time of dark magic and fearsome creatures - a time of Vikings and heroes ...

Alone after his father's death, Peer Ulfsson struggles for survival against natural and supernatural enemies. Then he meets beautiful, adventurous Hilde, who tells him of a land that lies East of the sun and West of the moon.

When a dragonship visits at their village, Peer and Hilde seize the chance to set sail for this legendary country. But on board they hear whispers of ghosts, murder and witchcraft. What icy-hearted evil awaits them in the new land?

A dark, brooding and epic fantasy adventure.

My verdict: a rollicking fantasy with wonderful characters in an amazing setting.  Highly recommended for fantasy/adventure lovers of 9+
This book is a newly-produced (and rewritten) single-volume version of Langrish's earlier trilogy: Troll Fell, Troll Mill and Troll Blood (which I hadn't read, so can't compare).

The central character of this saga is Peer. When we meet him, his father has just died, which would probably be enough to help us warm to him as a character, together with his clear love and loyalty for his dog, Loki. However, Langrish makes absolutely sure; we are rapidly whisked away from the first scene into a situation that becomes Dahlesque (or fairy tale like) in its cruelty, guaranteeing our affection and admiration for Peer. Most of the novel is told from his perspective, although all is third-person narration.

Hilde's point of view is also presented at regular intervals, and we also build up respect and affection for her, although her vulnerability isn't as great. A hint of romance develops, and I particularly liked how this was handled. It was enough of a thread to enrich the action-focused plotlines and interest older teen readers, but not enough to alienate younger readers, or those more interested in the quest type narratives.

The setting of this book is crucial and adds depth. There are beautifully descriptive touches which evoke the landscape effectively, but never enough to slow the plot. The folklore of the lands evoked is also a key feature of West of the Moon. There are fabulous creatures (none of which are cute and cuddly - even the helpful ones are moody!) and I appreciated learning more about the established folklore Langrish was drawing on from her website. I also follow her blog - there is a wealth of myth, folklore and fairy tale information there. This area is clearly an interest for the author, and it has added a valuable additional layer to the story.

The only less-than-positive comment I have to make is about the blurb on the back cover. It relates largely to Part 3 of the novel (i.e. the third book in the trilogy), which I think is a shame. Obviously, I realise the author has no control over such things, and that blurbs often do contain some 'spoiler' elements, but I think it would have been fairly easy to base the blurb on Part 1. Clearly this is a very minor point, though!

Overall, I would strongly recommend you buy and read this - seriously, what are you waiting for! I will lend it to my 12 yr old (and am sure she will love it), and have promised the 7 yr old I will read it to her in a year or so (I think its length is a bit daunting for her now, and some of the danger sequences may be a bit too exciting at this point).

I won my copy from Lucy Coats' blog at Scribble City Central, during the author's blog tour. For more info on the book and the author, it's well worth checking out some of the posts from that tour.

This is my sixth review for the British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

April A-Z: Names

Names have power. We all instinctively know this. It's because of this power that, in some belief systems, deities may not be named.

This is of course why a cluster of taboo words in English euphemise the names of God, Jesus Christ and even Hell. Many curses and swear words in Early Modern English derive from this area, albeit sometimes obliquely, as shown in Shakespeare's writing:
  • Zounds (god's wounds - a reference to Christ)
  • Gadzooks (god's hooks - a reference to the nails from the cross) 
  • By Jove (the christian god could not be named on stage, so this Roman god was selected instead)
Words like heck and Sam Hill appear in later Englishes as variants of 'hell', showing a fear of naming that cursed place. This practice is made use of by Rowling in her treatment of Voldemort's name.

In more everyday contexts, our tradition for naming children formally at christenings or baptisms can be seen as a throwback to an older idea. Knowing someone's name gives you power over them, so it's safest to only reveal a child's full name once they've been ritually consecrated and placed under a god's protection.

Finally, this is also one reason that secret societies would re-name initiates: it acknowledges a new identity, but also cements a bond. Since only members of that group know your name and therefore wield that power over you, a high degree of trust is explicit within that group.

Friday, 15 April 2011

April A-Z: Magic

Fantasy writers of many kinds have an advantage, in that magic is available to use in their stories. That doesn't necessarily help as much as you might think, if you've never tried to write a story using magic. Magic must have rules; a logic of its own. In any invented world allowing it, magic becomes like a science, and it can never be used as a 'quick fix'.

A beginning children's fantasy writer could be forgiven for thinking you can just have the heroine remember a spell at the last minute to put everything right. After all, they won't have broken the 'rule' that adults mustn't bring about the resolution. But their child readers would be annoyed - they need the heroine to work for the Happy Ending, not just mutter some words, especially if this uses a skill or talent the writer hasn't already set up carefully. Of course, we needn't fear - such a story wouldn't get anywhere near any child readers, except for the author's longsuffering children.

Spells can't just go off willy-nilly.... 
As part of this 'magic has rules' thing, many writers set up consequences. Maybe it costs something to use magic, or maybe there's some sort of risk involved. These can be on the twee side - Magic Can Only Be Used For Good (or else unintended consequences occur) - or more straightforward - Magic is Tiring (so characters can only work so much magic per scene) - or (as in the Harry Potter books) they can be about the need for control, and the risk of non-magical folks discovering the secret.

Whatever system a book uses, it doesn't really matter, but there must be a system, or the magic will weaken the plot rather than strengthening it. Magic must never be a cop-out or an easy fix. It needs to add to the complexity of the plot and the conflict the characters face.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

April A-Z: Life Lessons

I think that one of the most important things we've taught our kids is how to use the technique of visualisation for calming and to help them sleep.  I didn't learn stress management techniques until I was at uni, and it does take practice to really be able to benefit from them.  Obviously, I'm not suggesting life is stressful for our kids (at least I certainly hope it isn't), but these simple techniques have helped with the normal round of things like school worries, bad dreams and so on.

We've been much more consistent about it with the little one (currently 7) than the older (currently 12), and it does show.  Littl'un is much more likely to catch herself getting worked up and steady her breath without prompting.  She's had a 'bubble' to sleep in since she was very small: imagining a bubble of light around her, protecting her and keeping her safe.  This was a part of the bedtime routine for years, and has dwindled a bit lately, although she does refer to it sometimes if she's particularly tired or has had an argument at school or something.

She always liked to tell me what colour the bubble would be.  I encouraged her not to use red (too energetic for bedtime) or black (seemed too negative), and she'd usually go for a blue or purple shade.  Interestingly, when she needed cheering up, she'd often choose yellow or orange, which does chime with some 'received wisdom' about colour meanings.  Other than suggesting that red and black aren't 'good' bubble colours, I didn't influence her choices, so her selections imply to me that these associations (blue with calming, yellow with cheering etc) do have some kind of resonance at an instinctive level.  Kind of like aspects of myth and folklore.  Amazing what kids can figure out for themselves, isn't it?

What 'life lessons' have you given your children? What do you think families should provide in the way of learning?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

April A-Z: Knockers

Following on somewhat from my iron post the other day, door knockers seemed a suitable topic for today. The tradition of having a knocker was clearly once simply a practical matter of enabling someone's arrival at your door to be heard easily. The decorative heads, animals and symbols are obviously a development that allowed people to combine a protective charm with a practical item.

The lion head knocker is a feature of 10 Downing St and has therefore come to be associated with status and power, but lions, gargoyles and fabulous creatures would once have been intended to repel evil spirits and witches. The fact they were frequently made of iron didn't hurt, either.

With the advent of electricity and doorbells that play (ahem) 'lovely' tunes, knockers were perhaps less popular for a while. But now that cheesy doorbells are less in vogue, knockers are enjoying something of a revival, as I discovered while searching for images for this post! Themed and quirky door knockers are fairly easy to find: various animal and character heads, 'amusing' anatomical designs (not sure who wants male genitalia displayed on their front door really, but there y'go...) and shapes such as pine cones (?), horseshoes (for luck of course) and garden trowels. Lovely - there's a knocker for everyone.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

April A-Z: Justice

Children have a well-developed sense of justice and fairness. This is an important thing for children's writers to remember: our stories must appeal to that sense, or they're doomed.

Lest you think I'm unaware of even the most basic tenets of writing, I am not proposing that children enjoy dull tales in which everyone is nice and kind and fair to everyone else all the time. Clearly, conflict is required. But stories must conclude with a sense of justice served, of Good overcoming Evil.

This does apply to teen readers as well, but their moral sense is a little more subtle than younger children's, and they are more likely to accept 'random' circumstances afflicting characters. Younger children tend to need more of a reason for things to happen (even if that's just 'Character X is bad so she hurt Character Y').

Amongst many many other benefits, children's and teens' fiction can allow readers to explore their own moral reasoning without risk. Many kids' books require characters to break rules (or even the law) in order to serve some greater good or higher purpose, allowing the reader to consider the dilemma for themselves. Child readers can see the benefits of being brave and standing up to authority time and time again, before most would ever be in a similar situation in their own life.

What are your favourite 'just desserts' in kids' books? Dahl was fabulous at dishing out justice to the wicked, but what more recent examples would you recommend?

Monday, 11 April 2011

April A-Z: Iron

I thought I'd meditate on the folklore surrounding iron for my 'i' post today. Iron is lucky, in that it repels faeries, witches and possibly the devil. Horseshoes are therefore lucky and protective (possibly doubly so, because of their moon-like shape), and that is why people nailed them to their walls - although in some cases, two strips of iron are nailed up as an equal-armed cross. This magical and protective power meant that blacksmiths, who could control and manipulate iron, were seen as practically magic workers themselves.

I vaguely remember reading once that all this power was ascribed to iron because it was metalworking which had allowed the Iron Age tribes to prosper when the Stone Age peoples perished. I'm not clear on exactly how, but this superior weaponry and tool-making skill became inherently associated with the iron itself, and the later belief that iron protects us from faeries and spirits is a kind of folk-memory deriving from this stage of human evolution.  

In doing a bit of research for this post, I discovered that some people think iron has these 'powers' because of its association to blood. There are also interesting theories about ley lines being related to iron deposits, and the iron  in our blood being what makes us sensitive to these lines - both of these ideas were new to me.

Finally, since I am speaking from the Hearthfire, it would be remiss of me not to talk about the importance of iron fireside tools. It is a tradition in some areas that an iron poker laid in front of a hearth will fix a poorly-burning fire, and some people still mark out a cross in the grate with the poker before laying a fire in a new house.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

April A-Z: Health and Happiness

Since I'm posting from my phone (again! Virgin Media to blame), this post will be a fairly simple account of what helps me retain my health and happiness - for the most part at least.

I did hesitate about posting on this topic, since I do have a bit of a stress thing going at the moment. However, since I'm managing that largely successfully and I do (like everyone else currently in UK Education) have an increased load in terms of stress at present, maybe my experience is worth sharing.

For me, walking the dog has been a great help. Exercise has long been known to improve health in many ways, but it can be very difficult to fit into the day when you're already feeling tired or low. Ironically, it's a key thing to improve mood and raise energy levels.

I suppose creative work of any kind will work - you just need to find your version of this. Personally, it's been crucial for me to include fiction writing into my routine. I was already doing a considerable amount of 'teacherly' writing and had shelved my kid lit ideas 'until I have time'. This was a mistake, and I've been doing a lot better since I realised this.

It's hard - but essential - to step back from work regularly. Took me a loooong time to learn this and I am now much better at it. I would argue I'm more effective at work too, rather than less, since I'm not a stresshead all the time these days.

April A-Z: Gender? Genre?

I've seen a few discussions online recently about the genre designation of women's writing.
The arguments go as follows:

  • Men are described as writing 'novels' while women are defined as writing 'chick lit' or 'hen lit' or 'mum lit'.
  • This is yet another example of women being defined by their reproductive function.

Although I would define myself as feminist, I'm not sure I can support this argument. I do agree that women are frequently defined by their sexual or reproductive function, but I'm not sure that's the complete story here. I have two main points to make here:

  1. 'Chick', 'hen' and 'mum' lit are genres, not merely books written by - or for - women of particular ages/types. There are therefore female authors writing 'novels'; I would not expect to see Angela Carter, Joanne Harris or Kate Mosse under 'chick', 'hen' or 'mum' lit.
  2. Equally, there are male authors defined by the genres they write in, e.g. as crime writers, sci fi writers or even writing 'lad lit'. Admittedly, there are fewer genres which are so gendered for male writers (lad lit is all I can think of), but there are also genres which are seen as more masculine such as westerns and military adventure.  

Overall, I would probably argue that this is more a case of anti-genre snobbery than a gender thing. I suppose if I were writing books designated as 'mum lit' for example, I might resent being written off as frivolous (as, of course, only literary fiction is serious ;-)). The gendered nature of that genre might feel like the worst aspect of it, but of course crime writers, thriller writers, sci-fi writers etc all face similar pigeonholing. And just try asking a children's writer when they're going to 'move on' to writing for adults!

So, what do you think? Gender or genre?

Blogging from my phone!

This is just a test. Since my home broadband has died, I'm at the library and I think have set up my blog so I can post from my phone. If this works, I'll be back later with G and H A-Z posts!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

April A-Z: Fenland Tales

The Fens are a fascinating part of England, with a folklore all their own, as well as an interesting history. The story of the Fens is a tale of constant struggle, as people seek to drain the land in order to reclaim it for farming. It remains a damp region, and this is reflected in its stories.

There is also a long history of suspicion between fenlanders and monks and several tales draw on this. For example, a ghostly barge drifts along the Little Ouse, piloted by chanting monks as they carry an open coffin. This is said to be the coffin of St Withburga, who founded a nunnery at East Dereham in 654 BCE. Her body was exhumed and removed to Ely in 974 AD in an attempt to attract more pilgrims. Such a dastardly plan was, of course, doomed to fail and a healing spring sprouted from her empty grave, bringing more pilgrims than ever.

The fenland city of Ely, which was an island before the marshland was drained, is said to be named after all the eels to be found in the surrounding waters. According to legend, St Dunstan transformed the island's monks into eels because of their shocking behaviour (many of them were married or living with women!).

Another anti-clergy story is that of the phantom bulldog. This tells of a bulldog which saved a young girl, and lost its life in the process. Naturally, the dog haunts the area - the Bulldog Bridge, between Shippea Hill and Littleport. The girl had been collecting mint and stopped to rest. While she was asleep, a passing friar accosted her and began to rip off her clothes. The valiant dog pulled the friar off the unlucky girl, and killed him, but unfortunately, the friar managed to stab the dog as he was dying.

Finally, a non-clergy-related legend is that of the Jack o' Lantern, also known as a Lantern Man or the Will O' the Wisp. These tales were prolific before the draining of the marshes, and feature strange wandering lights that lead the unwary off the dry land to their death in the bogland. People believed that whistling attracted these creatures, and that lying face down on the path would cause them to give up and go away.

In non-folklore tales, one of my favourite fenland-related novels is Graham Swift's Waterland, which I haven't read for years. It was an A-Level set text when I took English Lit (ahem) several years ago, and I enjoyed it so much, I've read all his novels since. This one focuses on the idea of history: the narrator is a history teacher who has a kind of breakdown and starts teaching a rather unconventional form of history, in telling his class about his own personal history and that of his family in the region. It's a lovely story, beautifully told and evokes the damp and somehow solid atmosphere of the fens very clearly. Another good fenland novel is Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, which I reviewed here; this crime novel picks up on some of the untrustworthy clergy ideas and is set in the 12th century.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

April A-Z: English Language

For today, I'm doing a teacherly post. Here's why I love teaching English Language at A Level:
This is not me!
  1. I'm a grammar nerd. Although I teach English, my degree's in Modern Languages, so I do enjoy what some find the 'dry' bit of Language: discussing the impact of different tenses, clause positions etc.
  2. A-Level Language is essentially a Social Science subject, so I get to chair lots of discussions about human behaviour and attitudes.
  3. More specifically, I get to teach 16-18 yr olds that feminism is a valid stance, and to openly challenge homophobia, racism and other prejudices. Even more excitingly, I get to show students how language contributes to such -isms, and to challenge the 'political correctness has gone mad' default position of many teens.
  4. The range of material we look at. Unlike courses with set texts, we could get anything in the exam: transcribed spontaneous speech, scripted speech, a series of tweets, a broadsheet article, travel writing - seriously, anything's fair game. Oh, and some of that material could stretch back as far as 1600, or be in a regional or social dialect.
  5. The range of general knowledge input: students need to understand the development of the English Language from 1600 to the present and into the future, so there's quite often a lot of broad-brush historical content (e.g. Shakespeare and Queen Victoria were not contemporaneous). We also need to discuss features of some UK English dialects, and of international varieties of English, which often involves revising (also known as learning) some geography. 
  6. Language (especially the A2 year of the course I teach - AQA A) is kind of anarchic, which is fun. Teaching teenagers to write academic essays in good Standard English arguing for people's rights to speak in dialect is a joy.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

April A-Z: Divination

Divination is the art of foretelling the future or gaining secret information preternaturally or supernaturally.

We're all familiar with divination tools such as tarot cards, runes and crystal balls. However, there is also a long tradition of divining using everyday items. Incidentally, I also think it's interesting that, although the noun 'divination' relates to this art generally, we tend to use the verb 'divining' to describe the practice of dowsing for water, particularly with rods.

Here are some everyday things that have been/are used in divinatory practices:

  • bones
  • water with another fluid floating on its surface, such as ink
  • bird flight patterns
  • clouds
  • coins
  • dominoes
  • dice
  • playing cards
  • a ring or pendant on a chain or string

Some of these require the user to ascribe meanings to different aspects, e.g. to different cards or dominoes, while others involve looking for patterns and images to emerge. Simply tossing a coin to decide something, or using lots (or the shortest straw) to choose someone, can be seen as a kind of divination - of letting the gods choose.

Some may believe that unseen powers control the outcome of our divinatory efforts.

Others, that it's just evidence of our human tendency to see patterns in things.

Others still believe these represent means of letting our unconscious or subconscious mind or higher self 'speak' to us.

Regardless of how it works, we remain fascinated with the possibility of gaining 'extra' knowledge, as evidenced by the increase in psychic fairs and similar events.

Monday, 4 April 2011

April A-Z: The Crone

The Crone is a key figure in folktale and myth around the world, and one which has proven fruitful for feminist analysts over the past fifty years. In folktales, crones or hags may be good or evil.

The Crone as featured in Charmed
Evil crones are wicked witches of the 'Hansel and Gretel' variety. Often keen to trap and eat children, these hags seem to have no motive beyond evil itself, or the acquisition of power and are highly dangerous.

Good crones on the other hand, are kindly old ladies providing help on a quest. Often they are actually beautiful and young, but disguise themselves as crones. This disguise usually functions as a kind of test, since quest heroes would of course be kind to beautiful ladies, but only the worthy are kind to hideous old crones. Sometimes, in the 'loathly lady' trope this test goes as far as requiring the seeker to kiss or marry the crone, at which point she transforms and rewards his inherent goodness with her beauty. In the oldest tales of this type, the woman symbolises the land and grants the knight sovereignty through marriage.

In the case of both good and bad crones, the old woman clearly wields power. Sadly, this (I think) is the reason that this archetype is not present in our current cultural consciousness. The scary predator has morphed into the shadowy paedophile, generally presumed to be a stranger tempting kids with the  modern equivalent of a gingerbread house. The loathly lady motif has disappeared altogether as far as I can see, probably because our society is unable to see past outward appearances, especially for women. Media representations of old women these days include the 'batty' (but harmless) and the victim, but none that wield power, while those who attempt to are seen as 'unnatural' and their femininity is questioned.

Can you think of any manifestations of the crone in our mainstream contemporary culture?

I know that Wicca and other Pagan belief systems offer reverence to crone or hag goddesses such as the Cailleach, the Morrigan, Hecate and the Badb. Some of these emphasise the wisdom of old age, while others associate the crone figure with war, revenge or death, although in this context death is not seen as inherently negative but simply as part of the natural cycle of things. The increase in popularity of such traditions may indicate a desire for many to move away from the shallowness of mainstream youth-obsessed and appearance-focused Western culture, but I am at a loss to come up with powerful or positive representations of the crone phase outside of this context.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

April A-Z: Black Shuck

The Black Shuck, a demonic dog, is my favourite bit of folklore from my East Anglian youth.

In the legend, the devil appeared in the form of an enormous, slathering black dog to the good people of Bungay, Suffolk, while they were in church.  This occurred during a storm on August 4, 1577.  The dog ran through the church, killed two people and caused the roof to collapse.  The claw marks he left on the church door can still be seen.  As the book cover to the left suggests, the fact that lightning was  also something that occurred that night may be relevant ...

This story is well-known locally and there are many 'black dog' pubs and other businesses in the area.  The legend of the Black Shuck continues to be told, and I clearly remember being told as a teenager in a Norfolk pub that anyone seeing the Shuck would die (I think within a year - you've got to have time to spread the word, haven't you...).

Of course, there are other similar stories worldwide, but I do find it interesting that in East Anglia there are several versions of this black demon dog tale, while other areas have their big cats and other phantom beasts. Shuck is said to come from the OE or Anglo-Saxon 'scucca' meaning demon.

Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay
The book cover at the top of this post is something I found in searching for a suitable image whose copyright I wouldn't be infringing (I usually assume authors want their covers seen).  I hadn't come across this book before, but was able to read the first chapter online and have now added it to my wishlist.  It's written jointly by a local historian and an anthropologist and has a blurb by no less than Ronald Hutton.  The book clearly explores the story as folklore, as myth, in terms of what it tells us about the area and its people, and seems like an interesting read.  So, I'm glad my husband suggested this topic or I wouldn't have come across this!

Friday, 1 April 2011

April A-Z: Attitude Adjustment

In these trying times, I thought I'd share a list of things that have lifted my spirits in the last week:
  • Students - it's almost a given that when I'm fed up, I'll have a great lesson or a student (usually not the one you'd expect) will suddenly 'get it' or say something lovely that really cheers me up.
  • Music - there's nothing like a rousing song or a blast from the past to perk me up on the train or bus.
  • Writing - finishing a draft and a couple of editing rounds of a young kid novel was a real boost. 
  • My lovely husband - encouraging me to take a day for myself and go to a couple of Cambridge Wordfest sessions.
  • Reading - starting Katherine Langrish's "West of the Moon" has given me some much-needed escapism.
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