Taking Short-Cuts

bear on bikeIt’s been a very long time since I worked – still as an office slave – in London and now, that I’m staying here for a few months, I recalled how back in the 1980s and 1990s I used to walk everywhere in London because of constant bomb threats from the IRA. Frequently, underground stations would be closed for several hours at a time, making you either hopelessly late for work in the morning or delaying you to such an extent that train services back to sunny Surrey, where I used to live, would practically pack up and go home for the night before one managed to get back to Waterloo Station.

MonkWalkingJust as slowly as a medieval traveller on ox cart or on foot in air-conditioned sandals, the trusted cudgel by one’s side (which in my case tended to be a brolly), I would creep through the little rat runs and shortcuts of Soho to get back to Leicester Square and from there to Embankment, pushing through the crowds, the noise and the litter. Walking felt so much safer to me than taking the underground, even if it meant taking a risk in London’s dingy side streets.

Intellectual Short-Cuts

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATaking short-cuts in children’s writing is much harder to do, because their understanding of the world is less developed than that of adults. This has really hit home with me over the last few days, while I’m putting the finishing touches to my first German language novel for adults. When writing for grown-ups one merely needs to mention stiletto heels and the click-y-de-clack they make on the pavement and an adult reader will picture the type of person doing the walking perfectly. Finding child-sized short-cuts, as it were, is much harder.

If the writer takes examples from kid’s movies…those examples will date quickly…if one takes examples from classic literature kids might not have read those books yet. Be too long winded in the thing you want to say and kids throw your book away and head for a short-cut into the garden to play footie or go online to play games.

Travelling safely

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMedieval travellers, it strikes me, would probably have avoided taking short-cuts in real life, but they were masters at using metaphors in their paintings, illuminated books and swirly scrolls. Travelling was far too risky and best done in large numbers on well frequented routes.

monk with fishIf you wanted to get from castle A to fortress B, you joined a throng of pilgrims, preferably one with a few knights attached to their party, and hobbled along. Any creature of the night that might be tempted to drag you off to hell would think twice about attacking, for the throng of pilgrims might easily scare attackers off with a few well-aimed Hallelujahs, a punch on the nose and handy crosses aimed at the ghoul. Intellectual travelling, on the other hand, involved side-stepping a great deal of moral scrutiny, mostly from church leaders but also from an educated person’s peers.

What better way to avoid detection than using a few nifty metaphors of which only you and your mates knew the true meaning? Several hundred years later intellectual travellers looking at medieval paintings or books need an expert guide to help them find their way through the incomprehensible maze. Here taking short-cuts would have preserved the necks of those who painted or wrote something that the ruling order of the day did not approve of.

Getting lost in the Here and Now

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANegotiating the short-cuts we take in our stories thankfully no longer means trying to hide from the ruling classes for most of us – unless you live in a dictatorship or other type of evil regime. However, our writing short-cuts will be just as incomprehensive to future readers, no matter what age, if we go with the trendy phrases, the metaphors of Hollywood or TV. Yes, trying to please the “ruling classes” of current readerships is just as oppressive. Be a rebel, avoid the trendy and stick to the timeless!

What does that mean?

book00021 history book closesWell, if you want to describe a character in your book as somebody who’s easily led and superficial you could use the metaphor of gadgets, mobile phones perhaps or tablets…but remember, in just a few years’ time, a new generation may no longer understand what you’re talking about because technology moves on so quickly. If you’re aiming to write a book that will stand the test of time, especially in children’s and YA markets, and allow future armchair travellers to enjoy it just as much as readers would today, your short-cuts should be recognisable as such by future generations of readers.

Sinister Village Life?

This blog is called Creatures of the Night and some of you might ask what does village life have to do with the theme of vampires?

Well, Willow the Vampire lives in a small village in the fictional county of Stinkforthshire. Stinkforthshire-upon-Avon has just 5,000 inhabitants – unlike the village I grew up in, which has around 10,000 souls during the winter months and around 300,000 during the summer, when holidaymakers flock to the Baltic Sea coast for their beachside frolics.

A recent blog post of one of my regular readers (yes, you Loonyliterature!) dealt with the problem of indulging in creative writing outdoors when the sun is shining, but being hampered by everything and everyone a village can muster to combat such frivolous outbursts of creativity.

Michelle’s blog post prompted me to explain, why my heroine Willow and her vampire family left the safe anonymity of the Big City for a rural life. As the novel progresses, the reasons behind this move from the streets of London to the fields of Stinkforthshire become clear, but it is my own particular obsession with the negative aspects of such enclosed communities that caused me to place my vampy family in a rural setting in the first place.

Blue plaque re Dorothy L Sayers on 23 & 24 Gt....

Blue plaque re Dorothy L Sayers on 23 & 24 Gt. James Street, WC1 See 1237424. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t remember, if it was Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Dorothy L. SayersLord Peter Wimsey who said that villages were sinister places. There are good reasons why Agatha Christie let so many of her murder mysteries play out in rural settings – Miss Marple’s village of St. Mary Mead is a micro-cosm of the evil world at large.

In towns and cities people live cheek by jowl, they notice things, they report to the police or at least to other neighbours; in villages the most heinous crimes go unreported because everybody closes their minds, eyes and ears to what is going on around them…mustn’t upset the status quo or the village won’t win the title of Best Flower Display again in the national competition!

In remote villages all manner of horrors can occur – think Salem! Bigots and ignorant people thrive in enclosed environments. While the religious fanatic might have carte blanche to pester anyone foolish enough to arrive too early at the bus stop, an outsider simply dressed in a more modern style becomes an outcast and object of ridicule for the entire village.

At night the hypocrite leaves his well maintained home, crosses his manicured lawn, throws a critical glance at his neighbours’ floral displays and slinks off to the village brothel to enjoy an enslaved young girl or two.

The curtain-twitcher, who during the day observes everybody’s comings and goings, sits down to her poison pen writing task at night to make sure her letters catch the early morning post.

The cleaner who comes to tidy up, polish and vacuum clean at dusk, has a quick rifle through the chest of drawers, the writing desk and opened letters to see what juicy blackmail material is offering the greatest earnings potential.

My first novel Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove served to set up the world in which Willow, her family and friends live. The follow up novel Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts will delve deeper into what it’s like to grow up in a village environment and what eccentric or plain horrid people live in such places (in the fictional county of Stinkforthshire and beyond).

My own experience of growing up in a village is one of suffocation – and, having lived in villages later in life as an adult, I found the village world even more suffocating and detrimental to my development as a writer and human being.

Village

Village (Photo credit: johnnysam)

I love nature, observing animals in their natural habitats and hiking or cycling through the countryside, but the lack of humanity that I experienced as a child and young adult in the enclosed village world has put me off for good and I cannot envisage ever living in a village again.

What about you? City slicker versus rural pumpkin?

 

A little Owl-Post for You

Deutsch: Ein Waldkauz (Strix aluco). English: ...

Image via Wikipedia

After my post about Otto the Snake one gentle reader pointed out there are quite a few people who are terrified of snakes…so today I’m writing about something a little fluffier, if not friendlier – owls!

Owls live pretty much everywhere on our planet, except for Antarctica. No vampire lore like Willow the Vampire & the Sacred Grove would be complete without a hooting owl or two to set the scene and get us in the mood for a bit of blood-curdling storytelling. If it weren’t for the biting, scratching, hair-pulling and morbid fascination vampires hold for me, I’d probably have made Willow an owl rather than a vampire child!

The Tawny Owl, a beautiful tortoiseshell coloured creature, is a resident of Europe, with a habitat stretching from Scandinavia in the north to Italy in the south. Tawny Owls prefer a woodland and open grassland habitat, where they can hunt small mammals like rodents, such as voles and mice. Owls have excellent night vision thanks to their enormous eyes.

The Snowy Owl lives in arctic climes and has a beautiful coat of white fluffy feathers that enable it to blend in and practically disappear from sight as it glides over the snow-covered landscape called the tundra. A large number of owl species hunts at night, relying almost entirely on the dark to hide and protect them from larger predators. Arctic summers, however, have very long days and thus the Snowy Owl is forced to hunt during daylight hours to find food. The snowy coat helps the owl to stay safe.

Owls may look quite cuddly but they are strong and silent killers which strike from above. An attacking owl swings its feet forward as it gets near its prey. Spreading its toes widely, the owl tries to grab its prey and trap it, so it cannot escape. The owl’s talons slash and pierce the prey’s skin, more often than not the victim dies straight away, but if it doesn’t, the owl will kill it with a nip to the neck bone.

The owl’s long tail feathers stabilize the airborne predator as it swoops down for the kill. Forward-looking, large eyes enable the owl to be a good judge of distances and its powerful legs help to cushion the impact of landing and crushing its prey to the ground.

Owls have acute hearing and the shape of their head enables them to hear a sound on one side of the head just a fraction of a second prior to catching the sound with the other ear. The reason for this amazing hearing is not that owls are nosy and want to listen in on their neighbours’ conversations – this acute hearing helps the owl to accurately pin point mice and voles in utter darkness by just the tiniest of sounds made by the prey’s movement in grass or undergrowth.

Vampires like Willow have very acute hearing, too. Their supernatural powers enable them to hunt for humans in total darkness; they just concentrate on the blood pulsating in human veins and the thumping of human hearts…well that and the fact that most humans reek of either sweat, aftershave, deodorant or perfume…and some of them stink of all of the above!

In Defence of Otto the Snake

English: Snake, boa constrictor guyana red tail

Image via Wikipedia

Indiana Jones might hate them, but snakes like Otto in Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove are not nearly as threatening as they seem and they are certainly not slimy either.

I shall be eternally grateful to my old school teacher at primary school who invited a variety of people into our school to introduce us to their unusual pets and small animals kept in zoos. Among them was a man who looked after a number of snakes. As a child I believed – like many people – snakes had slimy skin with which they slithered on the ground like a snail or slug.

When the nice gentleman from the zoo exhibited a variety of snakes in our classroom, the bravest among us were allowed to touch the snakes and, not wishing to appear a wimp, I volunteered to stroke the snake he offered us. Naturally, the snake’s skin wasn’t slimy at all and actually rather beautiful. Boa constrictor snakes like Otto have fine, granular scales. Scales on a snake are not separate things but are simply a thickened part of their skin and are therefore connected to it.

Some snakes have rather novel ideas about protecting themselves from being disturbed by intruders. I’m not sure what tactics Otto the snake usually employs when he wants to be left alone for a peaceful slumber by the hearth, but the European grass snake for example just rolls on its back with its mouth wide open and plays dead to prevent predators from taking a lively interest in its fleshy parts. Some snakes pretend to be nastier than their bite by mimicking the bright colours of really poisonous snakes.

Snakes don’t have legs, so they can’t just pick up their chins and run off. Their skeletons consist of little more than a skull and one very long backbone to which hundreds of curved ribs are joined. The snake’s jaw is loosely connected, which enables it to stretch enormously, when swallowing prey whole. When snakes go for a swim, they wriggle from side to side, propelling themselves forward in that way.

Among the 2,700 types of snakes only 300 of them can actually kill people. Less than a quarter of all snakes are poisonous, but some are really good wrestlers who can strangle their prey. Snakes live in all sorts of habitats, except where it’s really cold – think Otto and his place by the warm hearth!

Some snakes are tiny and would fit into the palm of my hand, while others – like Otto – can grow to lengths of 10 meters, large enough to eat a whole crocodile for breakfast. In fact, boas can eat prey 5 times their own diameter thanks to their kinetic jaws. Their teeth are curved and, by first moving prey to one side with their teeth and then to the other, the boa can eventually push large prey down into its throat.

Curiously, snakes don’t need to eat very often and can survive without breakfast, lunch or dinner for quite a number of months before they feel peckish again. Boas are arboreal, which means they live mostly in trees.

Boa constrictors like Otto can swallow a large rat whole, but they typically squeeze the life out of their victims first. Female snakes are usually bigger than male ones, so we’ll see if Otto meets his match in Willow’s forthcoming adventure (Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts).

 

Why Vampires?

Why did I make the heroine of my first novel, Willow Band, a vampire? I could have chosen for her to be a super hero with amazing powers. Instead, I created a little creature of the night that eats postmen for breakfast and bankers for supper.

One of the many regular questions a writer is being asked is where to your ideas come from? It’s a difficult question to answer and may be quite different for every writer out there. In my case – or rather in the case of Willow the vampire entering this world – it was the fact that there is a real little Willow alive and happy living in London…and she is a vegetarian! What started out as a joke to make Willow’s Mum laugh with a short story I had written about Willow and her family of vampires, became soon a full blown idea for a novel…indeed a whole series of books.

So why are we so mesmerised by the vampire genre? Ever since John Polidori’s The Vampyre was published,  soon followed by James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre, then later Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula at various stages of the nineteenth century, we’ve had a never ending thirst for more blood-curdling vampire stories or so it seems.

Many people believe that so many cultures in the West share the vampire myth because the idea of blood sucking fiends dates back to pre-historic times, perhaps even to the dawn of humanity. When food was very scarce and a clan’s very survival was at stake (pardon the pun), cannibalism was not unheard of among prehistoric peoples. Many cultures believed that drinking their slain enemies’ blood after battle would imbue them with their enemies’ strength, bravery and honour.

The Vikings, according to  Old Norse sagas, mention vampires and there were cults where high priestesses would collect the blood of human sacrifice victims to appease the gods. In the Balkans and throughout Eastern Europe the vampire is quite a different creature – mostly one that lives off the life force of a living being, but not a creature of the night that sucks blood.

Haven’t we all come into contact with people whom we’d perhaps like to describe as vampires? People who seem to drain us off our very energy, who are clingy, seemingly pitiful, but actually rather manipulating?

Known as vrykolakas in Greek and strigoi in Romanian folklore, the spread of vampire lore and their followers has been consistent since the 19th century, when the vampires stories mentioned above were supposedly expressing the “fears of an age”, the Victorian’s worries over sexuality, patriarchy and general loss of morals in an industrialised future. This seems rather too simplistic, given that the fear of dying is as old as humanity itself.

Vampires like Willow and her kin do have so many attractive advantages that it is hard to resist writing about them. I had never envisaged myself to be a “fantasy” writer, had in fact started writing a completely different, reality based novel for children, when Willow walked almost fully formed into my feverish brain and became the flawed heroine of a vampire book.

Perhaps my sadness to see the real Willow grow up so quickly and not being part of her every day progress had something to do with it? Maybe undergoing cancer treatment at the time and being more than usually preoccupied with morbid things caused me to choose the vampire genre?

In Western folklore the vampire is often depicted as a woman overpowering a man and draining the life force from him. Perhaps the idea that Willow should be a powerful being that can’t be pushed around by a male dominated society was at the bottom of my inspiration?

It is clear to me that inspiration for my writing comes from so many mysterious sources that it will be impossible to decide, which one was responsible for the creation of my fictional characters. Overheard snippets of conversation often find their way into my short stories, as do annoying habits displayed by those near and dear to me…where does your inspiration to write come from?

Surely a question impossible to answer for the majority of writers?

 

Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove takes a very different view of vampires. ..they are a life-force to be reckoned with!

Now out as a paperback novel, available at Amazon.com (ISBN-13  978-1468114683)

NB: Picture above Eduard Munch’s Vampire from wikipedia.org