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My childhood in books

My childhood in books

One of the questions I get asked a lot is what age my books are suitable for. I usually answer ‘twelve to one hundred and twelve’. Sometimes people follow up with a comment: ‘my daughter reads everything’, ‘he reads well above his age’, ‘she loves books by [adult author]’. And I smile, knowing my books will be going to a good home. Because that’s the sort of reader I was as a kid. One who loved intelligent, complex stories with layers of meaning. So of course those are the books I (hopefully) write.

My Dad was a copywriter and, eventually, a published author. I’ve talked before about how he was my writing inspiration. Words were his job, but also his love. And every Saturday he would take me to the library. And I read A LOT. So I worked my way through many different genres. Here’s a quick tour of my reading journey (in no particular order, because I can’t remember.)

Ghost stories

Cover of book 'The Ghost Belonged to Me'. Image shows a tram approaching a boy in pyjamas whilst a ghostly girl hovers in the sky overhead.

The little tingle of fear when you first see hints of something odd happening in the story… The slow build, waiting to see what form this haunting will take. A good story is like well-seasoned food – there’s not too much of the ghostly: just enough to flavour the atmosphere. And finally, the explanation, the reveal, the sad backstory. I devoured anthologies, I embraced Poe. Anything with a haunting. One of my favourites was ‘The Ghost Belonged to Me‘, by Richard Peck. A lost child, a mysterious (and damp!) dog and the exotic, faraway place of New Orleans. Delicious!

Asterix and Tintin

Cover of Asterix and the Golden Sickle. Asterix is pointing to a sign that says 'Lutece' whilst Obelix is behind him holding a menhir.

I can still picture exactly where these books were in the Hobart library, on a low shelf, near convenient cushioned seats. Being aspie, I couldn’t possibly read them out of order, so I was very inconvenienced if the next one was missing. My solution was to bounce between the pun-filled world of Asterix (the feasts! Dogmatix!) and the exotic, bejewelled adventures of Tintin. If the next Asterix was missing, it was time to read the next Tintin. When my kids were old enough to select their own library books, my eldest did the same thing, so it must be genetic!

Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books

gold fairy tale images embossed on 12 different coloured books
A rainbow of books. Two of my favourite things together.

As with other genres and authors, once I started on the (original!) rainbow fairy books, I couldn’t stop until I’d read them all. There were a lot of familiar fairy tales contained within the various ‘colours’, but also far less well known ones. Tracking them all down was a challenge, but I didn’t stop there – there were so many other fairy tale collections to discover, such as the beautiful, melancholic poetry of H.C. Andersen. At one point I discovered a book of modern fairy tales by a female author, and it still haunts me to this day because all I can remember is that they were marvelous – not the name of the author or the collection. Perhaps one day, with the good fortune of a secret fairy godmother, I will find those lost tales again.

Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl

My introduction to Roald Dahl was not through his children’s books, but through his adult short stories. Seeing how I had read my way through the entire children’s section at the Hobart library, one day my Dad took me to the adult stacks, and showed me these 2 authors. I was instantly hooked by the unexpected twists of their clever tales, and the way both could conjure so many images, ideas and emotions with so few words. I was transported to Mars and Mexico, shown conniving murderesses and deadly scorpions. It is because of these two writers that I began to aspire not just to be an author myself (that, after all was a decision I made at the age of 8) but to want to write well.

Libraries are hubs of magic.
Photo by Ivo Rainha from Pexels

Coincidentally, today I came across this quote from Ursula Le Guin: “To learn to write something well can take a whole lifetime, but it’s worth it.” The journey that began in the Hobart library many years ago is still ongoing. I hope one day I might be able to say I write well. All stories fall short of the dreamscapes in our heads. But reflecting on my childhood, I think my greatest hope is that my books might inspire young, avid readers who read above their age level. Because I am writing my tales for them.

Writing Inspiration: My Dad

Writing Inspiration: My Dad

It’s not every day that a goblin comes to your workplace – and has the same nose as you!

There can be all kinds of reasons why someone makes the fateful decision to become a writer. Or it may be no single thing – rather a number of them. One of the big influences for me was my Dad, Bob Larkins. I am thinking about family a lot at the moment. So let me introduce my Dad and tell you why he was such a key influence on me.

Dad’s London days

Bob Larkins lived a very interesting life. In his younger days he was passionate about acting, starting in repertory theatre in Hobart. He had great vocal versatility, which allowed him to move into voiceover work with 7HO radio. This was to open doors for him when he moved to London in the 1960s.

Timothy Dalton was the second James Bond Dad met. On Radio Caroline he interviewed Roger Moore. (Also seen here, Bill Collins.)

London was a place of great opportunity in those days. Dad took work in the office at the Mermaid Theatre, probably hoping to get into professional acting. However, it led in another direction. Through a friend he got the chance to move to Radio Caroline. This was a pirate radio ship moored in international waters. I love being able to legitimately say my Dad was a pirate!

Years later Dad would admit he fudged the truth to land the job. He told them he had worked as an announcer on 7HO. His job had actually been writing and voicing ads. The first interview he did for Caroline was with Alfred Hitchcock. Having fudged his way into the job, he was peeing himself. But he was passionate about movies, so he loved the chance Caroline gave him to meet big name stars.

Dreams on Hold

Once a family of four kids came along, Dad set aside his acting dreams, but not his love for movies and writing. Before I was born, my parents brought my brothers back to Hobart. Dad worked in copywriting there for many years, but did acting and film production on the side. Somehow, while also raising four kids and working full time, he also managed to write a Western novel. He was never successful in getting it published, but that didn’t stop him writing.

Dad’s love of words found another outlet though. Some of my early memories are of going to the library every week. We could pick out 2 fiction and 2 non-fiction books. I was a precocious reader so by the time I was in about grade 5 he started recommending books to me. Not your usual children’s books. I’d already read all those. No, Dad put me onto writers like Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl. It was pretty exciting to sneak in among the adult shelves at the library and pick out grown up books.

Word Games

Dad was thrilled to meet Sir Richard Attenborough, director of Ghandi. Dad met few people whose knowledge of movies paralleled his own, but Sir Richard was one of them and the conversation was very lively.

Dad also taught me that words were fun. After ballet class Dad would meet me and we would catch the bus home. One of our regular pastimes was to play word games as we waited. When he lived in England, Dad got to hear the ‘My Word’ radio quiz show. In the final round regulars Frank Muir and Denis Norden would be given a phrase such as ‘A stitch in time saves nine’. They would then spin a long tale to explain the origins of the phrase, but with a twist. For example, ‘Superacalifragilisticexpialidocious’ was explained as a shopping list: ‘soup, a cauli, fridge, elastic, eggs, pea, halitosis’.

Dad and I used to play our own version of this at that bus stop. I remember him telling a tale about a young Egyptian Pharoah who, after many obstacles, finally got to celebrate his birthday: ‘A Foo and his mummy, A Soon, partied’ (a fool and his money are soon parted). No doubt this sort of training is why I love writing filk and playing with words so much now.

Back to His Dreams

Long before IMDB was invented, Dad had an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies. He could tell you who was the gaffer on a 1960s Western, how many academy awards the director had won and all sorts of other obscure facts. For years he worked as a film reviewer for the Mercury (Hobart’s local paper), which meant we got free tickets to the movies all the time. Eventually he channeled this expertise into a book about the actor Chips Rafferty, which found a publisher (Macmillan), in 1986. This opened the door for a move to Sydney and work with Mr Movies himself, Bill Collins, as his researcher.

It was his dream job. Dad got to watch movies, write about movies and meet those involved with movies on a regular basis. Meeting Audrey Hepburn (left) was the highlight of his time at Channel 10. Later he moved to the ABC and undertook the same sort of film-based research work, his last job.

In 1999 Dad passed away from pancreatic cancer. His final writing passion project, a biography of soldier turned actor Audie Murphy, was published posthumously.

My Dad’s legacy to me was a love of words, wordplay, books and reading. He showed me being a published author was a possibility, not just a dream. There are two things that make me very sad though: that I never got to introduce him to his grandchildren, and never got to hand him a copy of Harlequin’s Riddle. It is, after all, dedicated to him.

Resilience and Oleanders

Resilience and Oleanders

Author AJ Collins

Today I’d like to introduce you to AJ Collins, a prize-winning, Melbourne-based fiction author. Previously a devotee of adrenaline sports (including bungee, skydiving, parasailing, sky-walking, sky-jumping, and volcano climbing), AJ is now happy to be settled at home with her hubby and two fur-kids, writing her adventures instead of living them. Perhaps her adventurous past has taught her the importance of resilience, a theme that resonates through her work.

At the beginning of March (which seems like a lifetime ago!) AJ released not one but two mature YA novels. The first, Oleanders are Poisonous, introduces sixteen-year-old Lauren, whose life is turned upside down by a devastating combination of circumstances. In its sequel, Magnolias don’t Die, Lauren has moved on and moved from the country to the city, but her past returns to upend her life again. You can find detailed descriptions and links to buy the books at AJ Collins’ website.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

In my era of childhood, I’d say most children were entranced by Enid Blyton. My Grade 3 primary school teacher introduced us to the bright yellow hardback version of The Magic Faraway Tree. I still have my 1971 edition marked 15 pence. It’s a bit crumbly and held together with papery cellotape, which just adds to its character. Nowadays, I’m a huge fan of Hannah Kent’s evocative writings. Although I don’t write historical fiction, I love learning history through story, whereas my high school history teacher used to put me to sleep.

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

Two reasons: 1. The joy of escapism. 2. Vicarious living. The first, I would apply to the ability of fiction to draw us into another world, encouraging us to temporarily leave behind our own worries or mundane lives. The second, I’d apply to creative non-fiction and its life lessons, allowing us to witness trauma, adventure or resilience from a safe distance.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

Emotional engagement. For my stories to work, I need to feel each character’s pain, joy and growth myself. Then I know I’m being truthful and will move the reader’s soul, leaving them with a sigh of satisfaction at the end.

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

The everyperson (formerly known as ‘everyman’). Ordinary, everyday people facing challenges they never dreamed they would encounter. I think most people can see themselves in this role, feeling unequipped to cope until they’re forced to discover their own strength.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

Resilience. Overcoming emotional trauma and physical danger. One of my uni tutors once said that authors always write the same story over and over, and I think she was right; I’m always inspired by characters fighting their way through barriers, real or imagined, to discover their true selves.


In these difficult times resilience is something that I’m sure resonates with all of us. Many writers make a living out of appearances, launches and teaching. If you can support writers like AJ Collins and myself, who have had book launches cancelled as a result of the disruptions, please do. And enjoy some great books at the same time!

You can follow AJ on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

My Mandala Journey

My Mandala Journey

When someone says to you ‘I’ve been looking for a writer’, you might be about to begin an intriguing journey. For me that journey took me into the heart of the mandala. My exploration was intriguing and deeply moving. Ultimately, it led to a beautiful book of which I’m very proud. It also led to an enduring friendship.

A Lucky Outing

A number of years ago I decided to follow the Dandenong Ranges Open Studios trail. Once a year, artists throughout the hills to the east of Melbourne open up their secret, sacred studio spaces. They invite errant adventurers to dive deep into creativity and imagination. For me this adventure opened the door to exploring the power of mandala art.

Karen created this mandala to celebrate our collaboration

Mandala Magic

Karen Scott (www.mandalamagic.com.au) had her Mandala Magic studio open that day. Karen has painted mandalas for over 30 years. Her deep exploration of these sacred circles has taken her all over the world. Along the way she has met the Dalai Lama and conducted mandala-themed tours in Asia and Europe. She has studied Jungian psychology, Buddhism and sacred mysticism.Suffice it to say, Karen is very in tune with her intuition. Luckily for me, the day I wandered into her studio, something prompted her to say ‘I’ve been looking for a writer’.

At that stage I wasn’t a published author, only an aspiring one with dreams. Maybe, as I fell into the stunning mandalas at Karen’s studio, my dream resonated with hers. Karen wanted to write a book encapsulating her wisdom, and her experience with this beautiful art form. Something told her I was the person to write it with her.

Beginning the Journey

Our book journey began with a number of long conversations. Karen told me about her personal mandala story, beginning with the first mandala she created as a teenager, before she even knew what they were. This process had a profound impact on her at a difficult time in her life, opening her eyes to the magic of mandalas. Creating and sharing mandalas became her life mission.

Karen also spoke about her experiences travelling the world learning about mandalas and the spiritual traditions they sit alongside. The depth of knowledge and wisdom she holds is extraordinary. She invited me to take part in a mandala workshop and I created my first ever mandala (below…).

Hearing Mandala Stories

For the next stage, Karen introduced me to her students. Karen has taught hundreds of people how to make personal mandalas. During a series of interviews, I was privileged to hear extraordinary stories of transformation and discovery. I learned about the magic of mandalas through these stories. Time and time again people spoke about how the mandala experience was a catalyst for change when they were struggling with life’s difficulties. Creating a mandala truly offers a meditative journey towards recovering your authentic self. These stories make fascinating reading.

Bringing it All Together

Once all the research was complete, the writing and editing process began. Karen selected many beautiful mandalas to illustrate the magical stories. Some were her own. Others were the powerful images created by her students. I taught myself In Design specifically to bring words and pictures together in one coherent design. It was finally done.

Now all that is left to do is to celebrate!

Mandala: Journeys within the Circle will be released by Publisher Obscura on 17 March 2020. It will retail for $24.95 (paperback). Pre-orders are available now: www.odysseybooks.com.au or via Amazon.

The book will be launched at Habitat, in Hawthorn (2 Minona St), on Saturday 18th April at 2pm. Mandalas from the book will be on display. We would love for you to celebrate with us.

Frankenstein and Steampunk

Frankenstein and Steampunk

In this blog post I interview author BG Hilton, whose debut novel is the Steampunk adventure Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys. This exciting steampunk adventure has just been released by Odyssey Books. With an abiding interest in Frankenstein, you can guarantee Hilton’s answers to my questions will intrigue.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

That’s a difficult one. It’s tempting to say Dr Seuss or Enid Blighton, who are the first authors whose names I was aware of. I suppose if I learned anything from those two it’s that a story can be as simple or as outrageous as you like, as long as it follows an internal logic. In school, I was into Elizabeth Scarborough, Victor Kelleher, Harry Harrison who I love in different ways, before I became a stereotypically cynical teenager and got into Robert Bloch in a big way.

My first ‘serious’ literary novel was Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and I loved how rambling it was. The plot is all over the place and at times Dickens just forgets it completely and has characters tell a fairytale or read a story in someone’s diary. It was a bit of a revelation having read so many stories that just march from beginning to conclusion to realize that there’s nothing wrong with a side trip – and there we are, back at Dr Seuss!

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

That’s a big question. People use stories as a way to make sense of the world around them. A novel, a banking ledger and a geology textbook are really all just different sorts of stories, in their ways. Stories are the way we impose order on the world. But they’re also the way we seek order, seek understanding. I think that’s especially important in a time like now, when nothing seems permanent or certain. There are always stories there, to help us when nothing else will.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

I think I’m good at making people laugh. Not everything I write is meant to be funny, but a lot of it is and there’s no critique I enjoy so much as someone saying ‘I loled. No seriously, I mean it.’ And it’s a tricky thing to do, writing comedy. When you’re telling a joke in person, you can see how your audience is reacting and you can change course or just bail on a joke if it isn’t getting a laugh. When you’re writing, your audience might be reading your joke years later on another continent. So I don’t get it right the first time, what can you do?

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

Does Frankenstein count? I’m going to assume so. I’ve always been fascinated with Frankenstein – the doctor as much as the monster. I suppose all writers are a little bit like Frankenstein, creating our characters out of a bit of this and a bit of that and sending them heedless out into the world. But there’s more to it than that. Frankenstein is such a deep metaphor, with so many possible meanings.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

I find I keep coming back to flawed heroes. I don’t mean stories with hardcore antiheroes or anything like that, but I like my characters to be people who try their best even when they’re not great people. One of my favourite of my characters is a semi-reformed supervillain whose attempts to help people, try as he might, keep bringing him back to building death rays. That’s the sort of thing I mean, characters who just do the best they can with what they have. Can’t get enough stories like that, so I end up writing them.

Tell us about Champagne Charlie….

Hungover aristocrat Edward “Charlie” Decharles awakens in the back of a steam-cab, only to discover that the driver has been murdered. Unused to feeling responsible for anything, he feels compelled to find the killer. As he investigates, he meets “The Amazing” Gladys Dunchurch, a stage magician’s assistant whose employer has disappeared – and not in a good way. They form an alliance – Charlie will help Gladys with his considerable resources and Gladys will help Charlie with her even more considerable brains.

To read more about this Steampunk adventure yarn, you can find Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys on Amazon or at Odyssey Books.

10 Sure-Fire Ways to Stop Procrastinating

10 Sure-Fire Ways to Stop Procrastinating

By an expert*

Procrastinating can be a real problem for writers. Faced with a blank page, the call of the wild twitter-verse can be an enduring temptation. Here are some tried and true techniques this alliterative writer has discovered for taming the monkey mind and getting things done.

* an expert at procrastinating, that is. Not so much at the stopping. So maybe don’t take this post too seriously?

Don’t buy a kitten.

First there’s the cuteness. Makes you want to stop whatever you are doing and pat them. Especially when they purr and get all smoochy. And before you know it they have put you into a kitten coma. You lose any will of your own and just keep patting. Just keep patting. I may be talking from experience here. Then there is the feral deconstruction of everything that you hold dear. Procrastinating is easy when you have to run around protecting everything you own from a fast, mobile monkey who wants to play with and kill it all.

Have children.

No seriously. I know this seems counter-intuitive. But there is nothing like only getting half an hour to yourself every day to make you fine tune your ability to drop everything and just get on with it when that magical time arrives. Having children makes you truly realise the value of your time. Because most of it is spent doing about twenty different things, some of which involve bodily fluids, and none of which you can actually remember a few hours later.

Get a water-proof notepad

All the best ideas come to you in the shower, right? So with the right equipment, you can start writing that story as you wash. There are definitely water-proof notepads available. I’m not making this up. Picture it: scrub behind the ears, add a vigorous fight scene. Shampoo your hair, describe the revelatory moment when your heroine’s true identity is revealed. Sure you water bill might go up, but if you’re getting a lot more writing done, it might just be worth it.

Put your mobile phone in a blender.

Turn the blender on. Self-explanatory really.

Realise your plan for 10 points on procrastinating will take too much time and change it to 5 so you can get on with your writing

Writer Wisdom: Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks

Writer Wisdom: Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks

Over January I’ve been tidying my study and realised I have a LOT of books on writing. Some I’ve read (or skimmed), many I haven’t. I’ve done a Masters and PhD in creative writing as well as attending numerous classes and workshops over the years. But my preference outside of this training has been to find my writing style rather than reading what other writers say they do. Still, there’s always something to be learned when a writer talks about their process. So this year I’ve decided to work my way through these books and share the key nuggets of wisdom through reviews.

Sometimes the Magic Works

Terry Brooks is the author of the Shannara Chronicles, a popular book series (later TV series) featuring elves and humans. Compared to the Lord of the Rings, it was a bestseller from the beginning. Sometimes the Magic Works is part memoir and part writing guide. Although Brooks has been very successful, he speaks openly about book signings with few attendees. Not being a big fan, I skipped some of the anecdotes and sought out the nuggets of advice. There were some gems.

Advice on being a writer

Whilst Brooks trots out the old ‘write what you know’ adage, he also encourages you to ‘write what you observe’, advice I have also heard from John Marsden. Marsden pointed out that what you think you see and what’s actually there are two different things. For writers, paying attention is important for bringing your book to life in a way that feels real. But, as Brooks says, some of your ‘deep background’, the really detailed world building that makes it come to life, should never appear in the book.

Brooks explores ways writing allows you to think deeply. He talks about the puzzle-solving aspects of it, and how stepping from the real world into the world of imagination allows you to gain new perspective. By chronicling the human condition, he says, we can find answers to current problems in what might be. This is particularly relevant in the difficult times we face.

Characterisation

Some of the most useful advice about the mechanics of writing relate to characterisation. The key take out points are:

  • Characters are revealed through their words and actions, not what you as the writer say about them. They need to behave rationally and consistently – or, if they don’t, there needs to be a reason why.
  • Every character must have a reason for being in the story and their characteristics must be relevant to the story too.
  • A character needs to keep moving (physically, psychologically, or emotionally) in order to grow. Growth leads to change and transformation; they discover truths about themselves or others, or come to terms with some aspect of their lives. Without change nothing is happening.
  • The strength of your protagonist is measured by the threat of the antagonist (whether person, monster, weather, mountain, disease…). This threat might be immediate or there might be potential consequences. Facing these shows the courage, resolve and strength of your main character.

This quote from the book resonated so much. In writing the Tales of Tarya series I loved my characters and my world so much I wanted to stay with them. As I neared the end of the series I found myself writing more and more slowly.

Advice on being an author

As a recently published author I found the real gold was in the discussion of how to survive. Most books focus on ‘how to write a book’ or ‘how to get published’. But once you are published you begin a rollercoaster ride that requires real resilience. Brooks identifies important qualities that help: determination (be patient and committed), instinct (trust you know which way to go) and passion (be fearless). He encourages writers to be grateful for the chance to create magical worlds.

I loved Brooks’ idea that the point of book signings is to create a link between readers and books – and not necessarily YOUR books. He encourages authors to use these opportunities to make readers so enthusiastic about books they can’t wait to buy more. The key, he suggests, is to make a connection rather than a sale. Remain cheerful, so people remember a good experience, be thankful that organisers/publishers have taken a chance on you, and be anxious to chat, and ready to answer questions.

Inspiring last words…

Finally, I love the idea Brooks put forward that writing creates a writer’s identity. If, as he suggests, you come to be the sum of your words, then the more fantastical stories I create, the more I will evolve into a magical being!

Dystopian Words: An Interview with Clare Rhoden

Dystopian Words: An Interview with Clare Rhoden

Clare Rhoden is an academic and author with an abiding interest in how stories shape our world. Her animal-centred dystopian novels explore the future we might end up with if our fascination with technology continues. At the same time it delves into the question of outsiders and refugees. With fascinating world building and an array of unusual characters, the two books (so far) in the series offer “a thought-provoking read reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984… about what it truly means to be human” (~ Elizabeth Foster, author, Esme’s Wish, Goodreads). For more information on Clare click here to go to her website.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

Thanks for having me, Rachel! I have to confess that I had a pretty traditional diet of books as a child, and that I’m forever grateful to my mother who was a bibliophile and started me reading at the age of three. The first book I stayed up all night to finish (with a torch under the blankets) was ‘Black Beauty’ by Anna Sewell. I think I was about eight years old. I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I’ve rarely been able to put down any book since!

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

Stories have been around as long as people have been able to speak. Stories are essential to our humanity. I think stories help us to make sense of our lives, especially stories which include characters or situations we can relate to. We can also admire the courage and persistence of the protagonist, and aim to employ some of those qualities in our own lives.

Stories with magic in them offer us the potential to break out of our usual thinking patterns and look at the world with fresh eyes. We can step out of the everyday and blink away our limitations. Even the most simple of stories will do this for us.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

I don’t usually think of myself as being very magical, and have spent far too long trying to prioritise my practical self. I would have to say that my imagination is my strongest magical ability, because it appears to be a power completely separate from my ordinary rational thinking. Therefore it must be magic! The incantation that brings this power into play starts like this: “Imagine what would happen if …”

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

I kind of like werewolf stories – now that’s something I don’t tell everyone! My favourite magical character is the shape-shifter, especially one who can fully enter the animal world (shape-shifters who can assume other human bodies are really scary). I think that shifting into another body is the epitome of seeing through another’s eyes, and that’s the key to empathy.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

The interaction between humans and animals is a common theme in my writing, and most of my stories feature animals as characters or as important members of the community. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that doesn’t have at least one mention of a furry critter (who may just be a enchanted cat, or a lost unicorn, or an everyday wise old dog).

The whole notion of what love is, in its many guises, is also something I find myself exploring quite often. So another question I ask myself is, “what would love do?”. Then I let imagination get in there and play with the storyline. I find that my ‘difficult’ characters tend towards selfishness, while others show quite a lot of compassion. Mind you, it can be fun writing those self-absorbed folk. I have an idea for a story in which a wicked wizard is so absorbed in magically perfecting his face in the mirror that he forgets to breathe and falls down dead, much to the delight of his long-suffering cat. Maybe I’ll call it ‘Wizard-face Yoga Pose’…

* * * * * *

If you love dystopian fantasy, book one, The Pale, and book two, Broad Plain Darkening are available now from Odyssey Books and the usual online outlets. The Stars in the Night, Clare’s WWI family saga, is also available for pre-order now.

Why we need fantasy

Why we need fantasy

One of the uncomfortable aspects of being a published fantasy author has been learning that some people take great delight in saying with disdain ‘I don’t read fantasy’. I’ve been attacked in a public forum by someone who felt anyone over the age of 40 who reads anything other than feminist literary fiction has something wrong with them. Fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction are often dismissed as ‘childish’ or ‘only entertainment’ or worst of all, ‘escapism’ for those people who can’t face reality.

Clearly I don’t hold that opinion. From where I stand, fantasy actively requires readers to stretch their imagination muscles. From imagination comes the ability to put yourself in others shoes, and to see other ways the world could be. Both of these are sorely needed in the present climate.

Luck has a hand in life

When I was a social worker working at a cancer hospital, I had a client who was no longer able to work because of his cancer. On the surface he was wealthy, with multiple houses, cars and employees, but it was all dependent on him continuing to work. Now it was crumbling before him because of circumstances beyond his control. He couldn’t stop the cancer or will away the need to have treatment. Spending money wouldn’t get rid of the terrible side effects of medication. What shocked him the most, he said, was that he had judged others who were poor, thinking it was all their fault for not working hard. To discover that the course of his life was now out of his control was a terrible awakening. He was unlucky to get cancer, but there was nothing he could do about it.

This is the reality of life – the smallest twist of fate can change everything. If you have enough income to feed your family and pay your bills, you are lucky. If you have the money to travel and buy expensive things, you are very lucky. Others are not so lucky. But many can’t see this – they think others deserve the life they have. They’ve never experienced an abusive parent, or poverty, or any of the myriad other disadvantages that derail life. And they can’t put themselves into others’ shoes to understand how these things impact on opportunities.

Lack of imagination and empathy

Being able to put yourself in another’s shoes is crucial to developing empathy. When we can imagine what another person is experiencing, we feel compassion for them. In Buddhist terms, compassion is the wish to free others from suffering. We live in a world with increasing levels of narcissism. Everyone wants to be heard, but few seem to want to listen. People can’t imagine what others are going through. This lack of imagination results in lack of empathy. Many only come to understand others if they suffer some setback themselves. But there is a less painful way.

Books let us immerse ourselves in someone else’s life for a while. They take us deep inside another person’s experiences and possibly even into their mind and emotions. For the duration of the book you can become a homeless young person, and understand that they were forced to leave home to flee abuse. You can become a refugee and realise why making a dangerous journey is better than living under occupation. This sort of immersion can show us that sometimes there is no choice.

Why fantasy?

Fantasy requires the imagination muscles to work harder. If you are reading about someone who lives a life very similar to your own, in a place similar to where you live, connecting with them is easy. Empathy comes more readily. If they live in a very different time or world, or if they are very different to you, what you are connecting to is not surface similarity. It is the spark of humanity that lies deeper within. It helps you see the underlying similarities that are there even when what is difference seems enormous.

Fantasy is also good at asking ‘what if’? The rule of fantasy is that its world needs to be consistent with itself. But it doesn’t need to follow the rules of our world. As long as readers find some things they connect with, fantasy can show readers other ways of living. Social conventions can be challenged. Alternative ways of being in the world can be brought to life.

We need to imagine a better future. To do so, we need to stretch our imagination muscles. Go read a fantasy book!

** If you want something a bit more in-depth about this topic, you can read my thesis, Re-Storying the Earth: Writing a New Meta-Narrative Through Eco-Fiction.

Reflect or correct: What is the role of the author?

Reflect or correct: What is the role of the author?

I’ve been reflecting recently on a book review that was critical. The reviewer argued that I was irresponsible for the way I’d handled a particular scene. This made me think about the role of the author in writing difficult things. Should they reflect the world as it is, with its ugliness and chaos and lack of resolution? Or should they correct the problems of the world, perfecting them? The answer, of course, is complex, and depends very much on all sorts of factors, including genre. I could write a whole paper on this, but in the interests of keeping things short, I’ll address a few key points.

The power to change the world

I think the reason a lot of writers write is so they can change the world. They want to correct the problems they see around them. These might be personal experiences that they wish had happened differently, or broad social issues they want to address. A good area for authors to ‘correct’ is in diversity. For too long books have not reflected the real world, in terms of race, disability, gender and other differences. Authors can use their power to ensure it is not only middle class white people (generally men) in stories who have autonomy. They can create characters of all kinds, without stereotypes. Even in a genre like fantasy, places and people can be written as complex and nuanced, like the real world. To correct in this way is definitely worthwhile and important.

When it comes to events within a story though, there are some risks in over-correcting. Stories aren’t true. But they need to seem true. So the world in your book needs to seem convincing. It needs to reflect the real world to some extent. Even if it’s fantasy. Bad things do happen to good people and sometimes those people, or the people around them, don’t respond in the best ways. Writing a good character means giving them complexity. Writing a good plot means you don’t solve a problem straight away. If your villain immediately faces consequences for his actions, he’s not a very good villain. If you pose a problem, and immediately resolve it, there’s no tension in your story. If your character is always strong and demands justice, they’re not a real person, they’re a superhero.

Politics or story telling?

Why do people pick up a novel? Kafka says “a book should be an axe for the frozen sea within us”. He was talking about writing books to awaken emotional responses, not to enlighten us politically. In novels, readers connect with characters, not political ideas. As a writer my aim is to write scenes that will make readers feel something, not scenes that will politicise them. Books are great for creating empathy. But to create an emotional response you need to connect with the reader. This won’t happen if your scenes aren’t realistic. The scene in my book is true to life, and true to the characters involved. If I were to write it differently in order to responsibly reflect how this sort of thing should play out, I wouldn’t be writing a novel, I’d be writing a training manual. 

Trust the author

My final point is that it is important to trust the author. Writing a novel is about selection. As a writer you decide what to include and what to leave out. And what is included is there for a reason, if you know what you are doing. The reader doesn’t always have the full picture until the end. This is particularly true of a trilogy. Not everything will be resolved, or even revealed, in the first book. And even more true of a mystery.  A mystery has hints and clues that may look irrelevant, but may be very important later on. Look at the way JK Rowling revealed Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem in one of the early Harry Potter books. It seemed like an aside, a meaningless incident, but it wasn’t. Sometimes if you wait, you learn not everything is as it seems…