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Early Words
Category: Writing
Tags: Writers Abroad writing ex-pat writers first books

Following on from Sue’s excellent post last week about what inspired us to write, I decided to look at our first reading experiences. I’m guessing that we all learned to read – or were read to – before we learned to write? That was certainly my experience.

I owe my early love of books and reading to my mother, who was an avid reader herself. Every night, when I was tucked up in bed, she read me a story. That was one of my favourite moments of the day. Like all children, I especially liked the stories I already knew by heart and I would say the words out loud when she came to them. (‘“Pooh,” said Sir Guy of Gisbourne.’)

It’s too far back for me to remember the very early picture books. My earliest memories are of the Ladybird books. They were little hardback books, both fiction and non-fiction. All were written as an illustrated story. The ones I particularly remember are the classic fairy tales, the Crusades, Robin Hood, What to Look for in Winter and What to Look for in Summer.

I was delighted to learn that the Ladybird books are still published under the Penguin imprint. But they are no longer in their original format. The company was founded in 1867 by Henry Wills when he opened a bookshop in Loughborough. In 1914, the company first published its range of children’s books, using a ladybird logo. The first ladybird with open wings was replaced by the classic closed-wing Ladybird logo in the 1950s.

You can see some of the old-style covers on this website, which is dedicated to the Ladybird books. 

I graduated from those to a set of Newnes Encyclopaedias with red leather binding and gold-tooled lettering. My favourite volume contained the Greek, Roman and Norse myths, to which I returned time and again. And, joy of joy, I discovered dinosaurs, an abiding passion during my childhood.

From there, my tastes veered towards the supernatural. I loved the idea of a parallel world to ours, peopled by strange, and sometimes menacing beings. Books that greatly influenced me included:

  • The Borrowers, tiny people who lived in the wainscot and “borrowed” things like empty cotton reels to make stools;
  • The Forest of Boland Light Railway, by a mysterious “B.B.”, in which a community of elves living in a forest construct a railway line to transport them from their village to their silver mines; and
  • Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.

I must have been a rather whimsical child, but oh to recapture that “land of lost content.”

What were your first reading experiences?    

 

Words Good Enough to Eat
Category: Writing
Tags: Writers Abroad ex-pat writers food writing

 

"Food, like sex, is a writer’s great opportunity. It offers material that is both universal and intensely personal." (Choice Cuts by Mark Kurlansky, about the history of food writing).

Eating is an essential function, but food is also one of life's pleasures. Equally, if you were a Roman emperor or an enemy of the Borgias, eating could be a hazardous enterprise. Food, or lack of it, has been the cause of wars, social change (the Irish famine) and political upheaval (the Russian Revolution). Plenty of scope here for writers.

The early food writers associated food with a wider philosophy. The Chinese wrote about its uses in medicine and healthy lifestyle. The Greek philosopher Epicurus linked it with his theory that good comes from pleasure and evil from pain. Later on, the French savant Brillat-Savarin devised a social theory around diet: "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are."

The best writers about food, whether fiction or non-fiction, have the ability to stir up not only tastes, textures and scents, but also a sense of time, place and setting (not just place-setting). Like all writing, it's about showing rather than telling; making the reader experience what is around the plate as well as on it.

I plan to use food more in my historical fiction, since it can say so much about a character's background and the prevailing social and cultural situation.

One of my favourite non-fiction food books is Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, first published in 1960. My well-thumbed copy is shown at the top. Britain had emerged from the throes of post-war rationing only a few years before, and food was plain and unadventurous.

David's book burst onto the culinary scene, with its wonderful descriptions of meals in off-the-beaten-track French auberges, composed of colourful and exotic (then) ingredients. French Provincial Cooking is much more than a recipe book: it's packed full of erudite musings on food and literary anecdotes. 

Nineteenth-century novels are particularly rich in food description. Emile Zola's Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) takes place in and around les Halles in Paris, the sprawling food market, which, sadly, has moved to the suburbs. His extensive descriptions of the food stalls are a metaphor for the contrast between plenty and the poverty of many of Paris' inhabitants.

Some fiction writers have used food as an integral part of the story. Joanne Harris' Chocolat is an obvious one. Her description of a birthday meal near the end of the novel has me salivating each time I read it. In Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, the food that the main character, Tita, cooks is imbued with whatever emotion she feels while preparing it. Her dishes can move people to tears or ecstasy.

Here is a list of novels that focus on food. 

And if you want to try your fictional food writing skills, the annual Mogford Food & Drink Short Story Prize opens for entries on 5th November 2018 and offers a very tasty prize of £10,000.  

Which writers do you think cook up evocative descriptions of food?

Are you a poet and you didn't know it? Tags: Writers Abroad writing ex-pat writers poetry

Some members of Writers Abroad write poetry. Some of us don’t. If I’m honest, I am always slightly uncomfortable critiquing a poem, since I don’t feel qualified in the technical aspects. I often read the winning poems in Writing Magazine competitions, but I skip over the accompanying critique.

The leader of our writing group suggested recently that we look at using poetry to sharpen our prose.

“Let’s all try writing a Haiku for homework,” she said.

I wondered if I could plead a prior engagement for our next meeting. I’ve heard of Haikus (Japanese poem of 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 non-rhyming syllables), but this will be my first attempt at writing poetry since I was a child. And that was pretty turgid stuff.

When I read the material she circulated about using poetic techniques in writing prose, my interest was pricked. Poets use words to present an image or an idea, often in a very economical way. I learned that the first line of a poem is crucial in challenging or surprising the reader and setting up the idea. The last line is equally important in rounding off the theme. The two provide a unity that the lines in between develop. Try applying this to one of your favourite poems.

I tried this with John Donne, one of my poets of choice.

1st line: No man is an island entire of itself

Last line: And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

In between: development of the theme of our common humanity.

Sounds familiar? You can apply this to the first and last lines of a short story or a novel. Is the theme clear from the start? Have you taken the reader on a journey from a problem or a challenge to a destination? Does what happens in between develop that journey?

The use of individual words or phrases is also significant. To keep the reader’s interest, poets have to find new ways of presenting emotions or describing images without falling back into cliché. The novelist Helen Dunmore was a poet. The language in her novels shines. She sometimes used words that made you sit up, but when you thought about it, you knew they were exactly right.

Have a look at one of your works in progress, identify any clichéd language or emotion and try to come up with more original turns of phrase. Focus particularly on the first paragraph or two.

Now I am off to tackle the biggest writing challenge of the year so far: composing a Haiku.

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The House at Zaronza
tagged: writers, abroad, vanessa, couchman, historical, and fiction
Love is All You Need: Ten tales of love from The Sophie King Prize
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Out of Control
tagged: writers, abroad, nina, croft, members, and publications
The Duke's Shadow
tagged: the, duke-s, shadow, louise, charles, debut, and novel
Foreign & Far Away
tagged: writers, abroad, amanda, hodkinson, books, charity, anthology, 2013...
Losing Control
tagged: writers, abroad, nina, and croft
Enchantment
tagged: nina, croft, writes, and abroad
Conversations with S. Teri O'Type
tagged: writers, abroad, christopher, and allen
Break Out
tagged: writers, abroad, ninca, and croft
Deadly Pursuit
tagged: writers, abroad, nina, and croft
The Calling
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Big Book of New Short Horror
tagged: featuring, wa, member, alyson, and hillbourne
Tiger of Talmare
tagged: writers, abroad, nina, and croft

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