Myself and I

From a child of five years until my late teens my home was Hillhead House in Bonnyrigg, a town close to Edinburgh. The name Hillhead House sounds grand; But it was not. Over two hundred years ago it had been a farmhouse with adjoining cottages. As time passed, it ceased to be a farm, and the expanding town enveloped the buildings. A family dispute sometime long ago had resulted in a haphazard subdivision of the interior. My dad had bought a property of flying freeholds, termite infestation and dry rot. None of that concerned me. The fifteen years I spent there were some of the happiest of my life.

Hillhead House, my childhood home, was the setting of my memoir Memory Spill and I was returning to make a nostalgic tour after over fifty years. The present owners, brothers Mike and Ian Strasser had read my book and invited to me to visit. Meeting Mike and Ian I soon realised they shared my feelings about the house; the abiding love and affection I have for my House of Memories. Any renovations and alterations they had carried out had respected the character of what they described as ‘the Old Lady’. Continue reading

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Using Technology when Writing a Novel

The content of this post is a short talk I will be giving to Otley Writers the creative writing group I am a member of. I will be sharing my personal experience of using technology when writing my novel.

***

I have written a novel. Whether it is good or bad is not the point of this session; what is important is that I managed to construct and complete a novel of 89,000 words. It is complicated by time shifts between 2016 and 1916.

My story began with four students, Tom a First World War British soldier and the central victim, a German soldier called Ernst. When I started writing I had no idea where the story would go. I had no idea Josh, one of the students, originally from Wakefield would evolve into a Canadian from Toronto. Or that his father was not a Yorkshire builder but an international lawyer based in Paris. It surprised me that the son of Ernst became a nasty Nazi war criminal who would commit an atrocity in Amsterdam involving Josh’s Jewish family.

In the epilogue, written half way through the writing process, Ben’s father Jack was dead; killed in the Gulf War. But I needed someone to kill Neo-Nazi Mattaus Kroeling (Ben’s biological father) and who better than a military explosives expert. Jack Shaw, bomb disposal expert was brought back to life albeit without a leg.

These are just a few examples of how my novel evolved. I wrote the novel in bits according to how I felt at the time. One day I might write about the gig at Bootleg Joe’s, then the next day I would describe Captain Machell calling on Maggie after Toms death.

Early on I realised I would need to use technology cope with this movable feast. The two main apps I found useful are Excel, Dropbox and SimpleMind +.

I write on an iPad Air and use my laptop for some formatting – for example: changing a name throughout a manuscript.

MICROSOFT 365

Microsoft 365 package includes Excel. I used a simple spreadsheet to enabled me to see the order of the chapters and a brief description of the content. When the Nazi atrocity in Amsterdam storyline developed I could see where it could be inserted. It also allowed me to keep a word count.

DROPBOX

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I use the free version. I can access it from anywhere with internet connection and allow others to read all or parts of my novel.

I stored my chapters in a sequence as T00 THIEPVAL Prologue, T01 THIEPVAL Chapter 1, T02 THIEPVAL Chapter 2 and so on. Numbering the chapters in this way keep the files in order and together in a block separate from other projects.

Initially I set out my chapters from T00 to T24. This allowed me to write parts of the novel at different times and file these parts in the appropriate file ready to assemble into a complete chapter.

I like the versatility of the iPad. Writing the Nazi atrocity scene in Amsterdam for chapter 3 ( T03 THIEPVAL Chapter 3) I could instantly search Pinterest WW1 images which I save as screen shots for reference which I file in chapter 3 Dropbox. Then I used Google to find information about troop transportation to France.

T03 THIEPVAL Chapter 3 now has images of soldiers at stations, harbour scenes, troops marching through French villages and historical data along with the chapter manuscript at variously stages.

SIMPLEMIND+

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This is an app I bought for £7.60. Mind mapping is a great way to build a picture of all the connections between the places and people in a novel. As my novel evolved I found it easy to add places and people and adjust the connections and interrelationships. My VARK learning style is Visual/Kinesthetic (Google VARK Questionnaire to find out yours) means I am more comfortable with diagrams than written lists.

Library theatrics

The theatre ticket fell from the book onto the table. I’m not sure why I didn’t ask Otley library to trace the previous lender and return the ticket. Greed I suppose; finders keepers and all that. I wish I had.
The aged passenger sitting opposite looked at me. ‘That’s very good,’ he said.
‘I’m not really a theatre goer,’ I muttered.
‘No, Sons and Lovers. I read it when I first left home,’ he said launching into an adolescent anecdote.
I was relieved when arrival at the station was announced. Closing the book I hurried down the swaying carriage.

The following Friday found me in the Grand Theatre wedged into a Victorian sized seat in the already oppressive heat. As the lights dimmed I became aware of a commotion; a woman making her way along the row to a chorus of tuts and muttering. She pushed down the seat next to me and perched on the edge. I felt her place a folded piece of paper on my lap. I turned to look but all I saw was her retreating back.

I unfolded and read the note. It requested money. Money I didn’t have in exchange for someone I didn’t know.

*

An Otley Writers writing exercise :  write a 200 word story that includes the title of a book that is meaningful to me. I am the aged passenger . I read Sons and Lovers when I left home for the first time, moving from Edinburgh to Leeds. 

The Killing Jar

Casper Hallewell described himself to friends and acquaintances, and to people he met on his travels, as a lepidopterist. It sounded grand, but his knowledge on the subject was scant. He simply enjoyed collecting butterflies from around the world. His wealth allowed Casper to indulge his hobby.

On this, his latest foray to South America, Casper drove along a rough and dusty road scraped through dense jungle. His heart fluttered with excitement. He risked a glance at the killing jar lying on the passenger seat. Through the clear glass the vivid colours of the butterfly’s wings captured his attention before the Jeep, performing a violent yaw, reminded him of how dangerous this remote road was. He refocused his eyes on negotiating the potholes while in his mind he replayed the thrill of chasing and netting this rare butterfly and how, when he arrived back at his hotel he would, with infinite care spread the wings and drive a pin through the insect’s thorax. He thought of adding this beautiful specimen to the display case standing in the bay window of his Marlow home.

While his eyes flitted over the road surface, he did not notice the load of builders’ materials stacked on the flatbed truck bouncing in front of him had become loose. When the truck lurched into a particularily severe crater a bundle of metal reinforcing rods fell from the truck and spilled across the road with a suddenness that surprised Casper. The open top jeep offered little protection as the rods scattered and cartwheeling in all directions.

Casper watched the rod, that in time would kill him, arc through the warm air like a javelin on school sports day.  On its downward trajectory it scraped the top edge of the windscreen frame before penetrating his chest and pinning him to the seat. Casper lost consciousness and control. The jeep swerved off the road and vanished into the glossy foliage of the jungle.

When Casper drifted back into consciousness, the engine roar drowned out the sounds of the jungle and the exhaust fumes stifled the smells. He tried to lift his foot off the accelerator but his limbs, his legs and arms, refused instructions. He tilted his head to see a rivulet of red blood running down his tanned skin where the rust coloured rod stuck out from the centre of his chest. A mob of insects had already gathered to enjoy this appetiser.

Almost two hours later with the fuel consumed the engine coughed and stalled. The shrieks, chatter and hum of the jungle filled the auditory void. Casper turned his head to see the killing jar had rolled into the footwell and smashed. He couldn’t see the butterfly amongst the shards of glass. Sighing he leant his head against the headrest and stared through the cracked windscreen.

The butterfly, its wings spread flat against the cracked glass looked back at him. Somewhere in the darkening jungle troop of chimpanzees whooped and barked. In Casper Hallewell’s dying mind it sounded like laughter.

Thiepval

 

Thiepval, France 1934

The Thiepval Memorial to The Somme Missing commemorates the 72,246 servicemen atomised by shellfire, buried in collapsed trenches or shredded by machine gun bullets during the Battles of the Somme from 1915 to 1918. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, construction began in 1928 and was completed four years later.
*
Maggie had travelled by bus from Albert to the village of Thiepval. She thanked the driver and stepped down from the bus and walked along the road towards monument in the early spring sunshine. An earlier shower of rain had released the herbal aroma of the grass, and the scent of the flowers that embroidered the healed landscape: yellow cowslip and primrose, the intense blue forget-me-nots, white daisies and battalions of tall poppies. Below the salient, a shroud of morning mist lay in the hollows. The signs directing her to the Thiepval Monument were unnecessary. Crouched on the ridge that had cost so many lives during the ebb and flow of the war, it was visible from miles around. The largest gravestone in human history.
She looked up at the soaring arch and felt cowed by the morose memorial and intimidated by the incalculable lists of names chiselled into the Portland stone. Maggie had hoped to feel a spiritual connection with her dead husband Thomas. A whispered word or a finger brushing her cheek. But, as she traced the carved letters of a random name, she felt nothing, an emptiness. Perhaps, she thought, he was lost in the throng of clamouring ghosts, unheard in the void between this world and the next.
“It is sad, is it not?” said a voice behind her, “seventy thousand young men dead. And for what? Then the living? Parents grieving a lost son, wives a husband, and children a father. Remnants like you and I. The sad leavings of this war.”
Maggie turned. She was not the callous temptress Maggie had imagined. Instead she was facing a lady of middle years, her eyes soft with sorrow and a kind smile.
“Madame Fournier?”
“Oui, Madame.”
Maggie stiffened. “Your son, is he here?”
“Marcel!” Madame Fournier called out.
A young boy of perhaps fifteen years appeared from behind one of the columns, dwarfed by the pale tablets of letters as he walked through the vast vaulted space.
“Marcel, voici Madame Henderson.”
“Bonjour Madame.” Said Marcel with adolescent coyness.
He had Thomas’s pale blue eyes, the slight quizzical tilt of his head and the lopsided upturn of his mouth when he had smiled at her. Smiled at her in happier times.
Maggie gasped and spread her fingers across her breastbone as if to hold her beating heart in place. This boy was her husband’s son.
“Thomas loved you so much. I am not the ‘femme fatale’ you think. We simply sought solace from the horrors of a terrible war. It was horror heaped upon horror.”
Maggie knew Madam Fournier was speaking the truth. Through his letters and poetry Thomas had tried to convey the brutal nature of the war, the horror she spoke of.
“I wanted inform you……..wanted you to know your daughter has a brother and Thomas had a son.”
Maggie still could not speak. Through the side arch she could see a lark rise, fluttering from the field of flowers to sing in the blue sky.
“I am so sorry that I have hurt you…I am sorry. Perhaps this has not been the correct thing to do, non?”
“No, you have done the correct thing.” Maggie whispered.

Poems of War

 


Home thoughts

Beneath black skies and scattered stars
The trenches weave like unhealed scars
The land between shell gouged and sown
With broken bodies of men unknown
Their souls held fast by cloying clay
Or wire’s barbed and coiled array
As we march forward to fight and die
The ghosts of the already dead sigh.
Wraiths watching us poor sods that live
With only our wretched lives to give

Comrades in death

We differ not, from the wrecked limbers
broken bodies or splintered copse timbers
That lie strewn over no man’s land
We differ not, we who can still stand
To shake a limb at a shrieking shell
Or crouch in terror in this unholy Hell
We differ not, as we curse the fates
That brought us to where death awaits
He seeks us out. The machine gun’s scythe,
Snipers bullet or shrapnel. We fall and writhe
In trench, shell hole or hung on barbed wire
For God, King and country we die under fire.

Remember Me

Ask not what happened or how did I die
It matters not where on this battlefield I lie
My soul will make the long march home
Along tree lined roads, across fields loam
And to our door walk through blossom scent
To hold you to me in sorrowful lament
And wipe the warm tears from your face
For you held me close in this heartless place
When in trembling terror I wept with fear
When the heat of battle my mind did sear
Hold in your memory the man you wed
Not the soldier in this war where virtue fled

*

I am working on a epistolary writing project and needed poems that the main character , a WW1 soldier, would have written. I composed these poems which I hope capture the tone and style of the time.

It cannot be

The package fell to the floor with an ominous thud. Miriam walked into the hall wrapping her dressing gown close against the cold. She turned the thermostat dial until she heard a click, picked up the package and walked through to the kitchen.
Miriam poured a mug of coffee, sat down at the kitchen table and turned the parcel in her hands examining the label. Untying the hemp string she folded back the brown paper to reveal a cigar box. Opening the lid she spread the contents on the table top: a letter, some old brittle documents, one looked like a birth certificate, and a faded photograph. There was a masculine aroma of tobacco. Apart from the letter, handwritten in English, everything appeared to be in German.

My dear Miriam

You were far too young to remember me. I have enclosed a photograph of your father. He looks quite glamorous in his uniform, do you not think? The birth certificate is yours. Of course, you had a different name then.
I will contact you by telephone. We must talk.

Kindest regards

Esther

Laying the letter on the table Miriam smoothed the paper with her cold finger tips, as if by doing so some deeper meaning could be deciphered. Outside a neighbour was cutting his lawn. On the wall next to her a radiator ticked, hot water coursing through the pipes, but Miriam felt chilled. She reached out and picked up the photograph. A handsome man smiled at her from some distant time. His peak hat, worn at a jaunty angle, was decorated with the insignia of the Waffen SS. Underneath the stylised eagle, claws gripping a swastika she could make out a skull and crossbones bright on the dark hatband. She turned the photograph over and stared at words written in faint pencil: Rudolph Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, 8 May 1944 – 18 January 1945.
She thought of the numbers tattooed on the papery skin of her grandfather’s left arm, remembered her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah the previous month. This is not possible. Could not be possible.
The buzz of her neighbour’s lawn mower stopped. In the silence the telephone in the hall began to ring.