Twice Upon a Time in Oxford

Recently, I went to two writing-reading-story-wonderfulness events in Oxford. The first was a talk held at Blackwell’s, the only shop I’ve ever been in that feels less ‘shop’ and more ‘home’. The talk was called How To Write YA Fiction, and featured two of my favourite authors, Melinda Salisbury and Kiran Millwood Hargrave. The third speaker was Samantha Shannon, who I can’t claim as a fave yet because I haven’t read any of her books – but she’s next on my list, and I’m sure I’m going to love her work as much as everyone else in the room. I won’t recap the talk too much, because it’s brilliantly broken down in the blog I linked above, but (even with an annoying bout of anxiety getting in the way) I can confirm that it was a fantastic evening. It was wonderful to sit there and soak up the thoughts and insights from three incredibly talented authors, all of whom have an unmistakable passion not only for writing, but for the whole world around it.

The second event was the total opposite of the first – OxCon. Instead of soaking up a writing atmosphere, I, along with my bestie and Footloose co-conspirator Emily Brady, were in creator-mode for the whole weekend, selling comics and talking to our fellow geeks about our work (as well as a whole load of other topics). The con didn’t seem to be as well-attended as last year, and there were a lot of very slow moments – but there were also some absolutely wonderful highlights. The best was when a young reader who’d bought some of our comics last year came up specifically to find us so that she could read some more – it was brilliant chatting to her and her mum about the story and hearing how much she loved it. We also sold a set of our ‘character archetype’ badges to two members of an improv team who were planning to use them for a game that they’d come up with on the spot – and, towards the end of the last day, we also got to chat with the Sixth Doctor himself, Colin Baker.

Story World is a hugely varied world, that works in ways far beyond the act of just sitting down and writing, but I wouldn’t trade being in that world for anything. Even if I do need about three flasks of coffee to get through a small local con.

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Brave, Kind and Real: Teenage girls in Broadchurch

(This blog contains minor spoilers for Series 3 of Broadchurch)

I watched the final episode of Broadchurch last night. The three series have been compelling, with strongly-written mysteries and, mostly, interesting characters (the third series could have lost Mark and Beth Latimer without any significant change to the plot). Some of the most interesting and best-written of these characters were the three I’m going to talk about in this blog – Broadchurch‘s three teenage girls, Daisy, Chloe, and Leah.

Outside of YA novels, teenage girls often get terrible representation; we’ve all seen them portrayed as shallow, giggly, and stroppy, more likely to roll their eyes or scream “It’s not fair!” than be given any kind of character depth. Broadchurch could easily have fallen into this trap, and made its three significant teen girl characters stick to the stereotypes. Instead, though, it gave us three strongly-written individuals with the same kind of nuance as the rest of Broadchurch‘s cast.

Leah Winterman, whose mother Trish is brutally raped in an attack that forms the central plot of series 3, is shown as supportive and mature, being there for her mother during her darkest moments and mediating between her bickering parents even while she herself is still hurting from their separation. Even so, Leah isn’t written as ‘wise beyond her years’, but instead like many of the teenage girls I know – caring, kind, and strong even when vulnerable.

These traits are also apparent in Chloe Latimer. Still adjusting to life after the death of her brother Danny at the beginning of series 1, Chloe demonstrates an incredible level of unselfishness and empathy. Like Leah, she supports parents going through trauma, and does her best to hold her family together; she also steps up for others, helping Daisy Hardy in her time of need. Chloe’s strength doesn’t stop her from showing vulnerability; instead, her wavers and dips are a part of her strength, showing how she’s affected by the terrible things she’s suffered and how, nonetheless, she keeps on going.

Daisy initially seems closer to the mainstream media teen girl stereotype; her interactions with her father, DI Hardy, often seem antagonistic and petty. As series 3 goes on, however, we learn that Daisy isn’t being stroppy just for stroppiness’ sake; instead, she’s awkward, unhappy, and going through some traumatic experiences of her own – in this case, dealing with the aftermath of having private photos stolen and shared by boys at her school. The series not only refuses to victim-blame Daisy, placing responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the thieves themselves – it also shows her reaction as realistic, understandable, and sympathetic. If I could make a change to the series, I would have shown Daisy choosing to stay in Broadchurch for herself, instead of being made to stay by her father; however, the fact that Daisy isn’t demonised for any of the choices she makes is refreshing.

The teen girls in Broadchurch are given a freedom to be individuals, and a nuanced range of portrayals, that we don’t normally see in mainstream TV. On top of this, they’re set up alongside a cast of well-written and believable women; brave and cowardly, kind and cruel, funny and dour, the women and girls in the series are very different and very real. Broadchurch‘s girls and women sidestep the trap of the Strong Female Character, and instead show us women and girls as people, as flawed and individual as the series’ boys and men.

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Aliens and Wine: A short story

This short story was written for the WineTourismSpain short story contest, with the brief of ‘how might aliens discover earth through wine?’

 

Tempranillo Smile

It was another rainy day in Oxford, and Julie was leaning on the wine shop counter. Next to her was a chalk board – today’s offer, a nice Tempranillo – and she flicked it with her fingernail in time with the ticking of the clock.

No-one had been in for the last half hour. She was fairly sure she could have curled up and fallen asleep under the counter, and no-one would have been any the wiser.

Julie glanced out of the window. The sun was shining weakly through the clouds. An ordinary April day. She would have given anything to be somewhere else.

She looked at the bottles of Tempranillo. Like Spain. She hadn’t been there for ten years, not since she was a teenager, but she could remember. Seventeen, sitting on the beach, with a stolen bottle and a warm breeze. And a smile in a tanned face that she’d never forgotten.

A smile twitched the corners of Julie’s mouth. David hadn’t been her first crush, but he’d been the star that shone out of her teenage years. He’d been on holiday, like her – she guessed with his parents, although she’d never seen them. He’d been the one who’d stolen the bottle of red. She remembered how he’d laughed as he’d taken the first sip, holding the glass up to the setting sun and staring at the colours.

The bell on the door rang. Julie looked up, straightened up, then stopped.

David. But it couldn’t be. A young man had walked through the door, his face exactly the same as the one she’d just been remembering. Exactly the same. The ten years that had changed her had had no effect on this face.

So it couldn’t be David. But the boy was identical. A son? No. A younger brother, maybe.

“Hello.” The boy was already smiling, but as he saw her, the smile grew wider. “Julie?”

No. Julie realised her mouth was hanging open, and shook her head. “How do you-?”

“I remember you.” The David who couldn’t be David stepped forwards, leaning on the other side of the counter. “You remember me too, don’t you?”

“But – you can’t be-” Julie shook her head again. “You’re too young.”

David frowned. “How old should I be?”

“My age!”

“Oh.” He stepped back. “Excuse me.”

Walking back across the room, he pushed open the door and stepped outside. Julie stared after him as the bell rang once, and then again, as David stepped back in.

Julie grabbed the counter. Her legs nearly buckled. Now David was the way he should have been; ten years older, even more handsome.

“Hello, Julie,” he said, with that same familiar smile. “Is this better?”

“It’s…what…” Julie stared at him. “What are you? Why are you here?”

For a moment, the smile flickered. Then it was back, as strong as ever.

“I’m a visitor,” David said. “And…well, I’m here for the wine.”

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A Step Back: Visiting Chawton House

Some people spend their gap years trekking in Peru or Thailand, but not me. I’ve always been an enormous book geek, and so, instead of heading halfway round the world, I stayed a little closer to home, and did a volunteer stint at Chawton House.

Chawton used to be the home of Jane Austen’s brother (who was adopted by a very rich local family and became Edward Knight. Sounds dashing, but I think I’d rather be an Austen). Nowadays, it’s home to a research library and exhibitions, all focused around early women writers. Needless to say, like The Story Museum in Oxford, it’s one of those places where I immediately feel at home. Aged eighteen, I spent a chunk of my summer in the pre-opened Chawton House Library. I put together copy for the website, typed up photocopies of 18th century novels (many of which, I have to admit, weren’t quite up to Ms Austen’s standard), and generally wallowed in stories. (Metaphorically, of course. Most of the books were too old and delicate for literal wallowing).

Last weekend, I went back for a visit – my first since I was eighteen, unless you count a brief pop-in with a uni class when I was at Southampton, which I don’t, because the narrative works better that way. In many ways, it had changed beyond recognition – now open to the public, with a gift shop and a café, all the rooms restored – but it was still like going back in time; not to Austen’s era, but to my time as a volunteer. The place was just as friendly, homey and interesting as it was back then, and seeing all the books (especially the ones on Gothic literature) made me want to go back and study.

Not everything was familiar, though – I saw one new thing about Chawton that I’d had no idea was there, and which sent the story-writing part of my brain into overdrive:

photo.jpg

A CREEPY WELL. What old manor house is complete without a creepy well? While the head gardener (who fixed the mechanism himself, with a little help from Google) showed us how it worked, I was staring down into the depths and planning potential stories about imprisoning someone down there, and how you might break out…

If you get the chance to go to Chawton House, definitely give it a visit – as well as feeling like you’re in an Austen novel, you’ll get the chance to learn about other early women writers and see one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever visited. Just don’t fall down the well.

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Banal, Brutal and Bad: Stories of snobbery and children’s literature

There’s been a one-two punch in the news this week against children’s books. First, The Guardian posted an article from an author who thought children’s books were ’embarrassing’ until she tried to write one. She discussed how she’d banned her students from writing children’s fiction in order to give them ‘fresh and complex experiences’, which apparently you can’t get from writing or studying kidlit. The author did have a slight change of heart; she admitted that ‘Writing children’s fiction has made me understand how it can be worthy of study’, but still insisted that ‘good children’s fiction often does bad things’ – bad things that the super-serious field of adult literature, apparently, does not.

Then the second punch landed, this time from The Times, which featured a headteacher who had removed certain books – including the Alex Rider and Percy Jackson series – from his school’s reading list for being ‘simplistic, brutal [and] banal’. (Funnily enough, the simplicity of some of the replacement books, like the Just William series, wasn’t mentioned). He made a strange and baffling argument that reading “bad books” leads a person to develop less empathy than those who read “good books”, and claimed that he had chosen his replacements because they were ‘not just plot, plot, plot, but a slow opening-up of characters and their relationships, their arguments and how they resolve them. All the things that happen in real life, as opposed to decapitating zombies or staking vampires: those things do not happen’.

Well, no shit. But as anyone who’s read even a little bit of fantasy, sci-fi, or children’s literature knows, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The best made-up worlds have believable and relatable characters; a racing plot can push the protagonist to their limit and expose everything about their psyche; and zombies and vampires are a cultural barometer measuring the fears and concerns of whatever era spawned them.

I hate snobbery about children’s literature, to the point where I take it altogether too personally. I once left a conversation at a party without another word after the man I was speaking to told me that my PhD in kidlit was “literally a Noddy degree”. I write, read, study and teach children’s stories; they’ve become the way I process and interpret the world, and I can tell you for sure that while they certainly can be brutal, and sometimes simplistic, they’re anything but banal.

The children’s book I’m currently writing, Sigyn, has taken me three years to get right. In writing it, I’ve had to get my head around not only Norse myth and Viking history, but complex interpersonal relationships – there’s a toxic family situation, and a sister-sister bond that’s built on equal parts love and jealousy. I’ve read and listened to genderfluid people’s experiences, and attempted to learn how to (and how not to) represent trans people in fiction (something I am certain I will make mistakes on, and will always need to learn more about). I’ve considered and built up years of backstory and context for the fantasy world I’ve created. And I’ve also put in fart jokes, fighting, and a giant werewolf attacking a castle.

When I started writing Sigyn, I was also working on my PhD in children’s literature. I analysed representations (stereotypical and counter-stereotypical) of Native American characters in young adult fantasy. This led me to look at the Gothic, queer theory, postcolonialism, Native American literary criticism, feminist theory, and at various social and political movements. The books I was looking at? Teen romances featuring vampires and werewolves (and yes, that included Twilight).

Books contain worlds, and children’s books are no exception. A book may contain shorter words or less convoluted plots (and I say may, because there are many incredibly complex children’s books, and many incredibly simply-written adult ones). It may be about wizards or monsters instead of realistic people doing realistic things (but then again, realism is just as strong in kidlit as fantasy). It can still explore humanity, morality, politics, art, psychology and truth and freedom and justice and any number of Big Important Concepts. It can also just be a fun, entertaining read. It can even – brace yourselves for this, naysayers – be both.

The popular children’s books being targeted in these two stories aren’t “simplistic” or “banal”; they don’t do “bad things”, and they certainly don’t hamper a child reader’s ability to develop empathy. They’re loved, and it’s easy to see why. Firstly, they’re exciting; ‘plot, plot, plot’, when it’s done well, grips the reader and pulls them into a story that can become desperately important to them. And why is that a good thing? Oh, so many reasons. Look at the outpourings of fanfiction and fanart by young readers. Popular books spark so much creativity – and trust me when I tell you that a child who gets creative about someone else’s stories is almost certainly going to start scribbling their own.

By the age of eleven, most people have figured out that vampires and zombies don’t exist – at least, not literally. But there are other kinds of threats out there. The Spectre of Seriousness is a constant, looming presence when it comes to children’s books, sucking joy instead of blood, devouring curiosity in lieu of brains, and if we want to keep children reading, writing, creating and enjoying, we need to stake that monster good and hard.

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Colin Dexter

Yesterday, the author Colin Dexter, creator of the Morse series (and hundreds of thousands of crossword clues) died aged 86.

Hearing about his death hit me harder than I would have expected. I’m currently in the middle of a binge-rewatch of the TV series, so Colin Dexter’s work is at the forefront of my mind, but this isn’t the only reason.

As well as being a fantastic writer and responsible for some of my favourite books and TV, Colin Dexter was someone I saw now and then around Oxford, the city where I was born and where I’ve lived for seven years. You’d occasionally spot him from the bus, or around and about on the street. He would turn up at the Oxford Literary Festival and at concerts – on my eighteenth birthday, he was watching the same performance as me and my family, and had a bit of my birthday cake.

I was lucky enough to see two different talks by Colin Dexter – one on the filming of the Morse series, one on crime fiction in general. (That second talk got me reading Agatha Christie, which in turn has made me want to write detective stories – so, either yay or boo for Colin Dexter, depending on how good they turn out to be). Both times, he was engaging, interesting, and incredibly funny. He told brilliant anecdotes, including one from the days before Google about a woman who had written to him to ask him to settle an argument between her and her husband; she thought he was still alive, her husband was convinced that he was dead. Sadly, she didn’t include her return address, so the husband probably won that argument.

The thing I will remember best about Colin Dexter is how he treated people like me, who loved his books and were a little overwhelmed and scared of being gushy or embarrassing. Whenever you met him, he reacted as if you were the person in the world he was most looking forward to seeing. He was always kind, always interested, always ready to talk. And he wrote a damn good detective story.

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Giving Up: Part One

(Content note: Discussion of weight loss, dieting and calorie-counting)

The decision that prompted this post wasn’t actually meant to be seasonal, because, for some reason, Pancake Day and Lent always creep up on me. But, I thought today would be a fitting day to talk about something I’m giving up – not just for Lent, but for good.

Lots of people use Lent to make healthy choices, and my decision is no different, although on the surface, it might seem a little contradictory. Two days ago, I decided that I needed to give up trying to lose weight.

Like many people, I’ve been trying to lose weight for nearly all of my life. It’s been a long and ultimately thankless struggle (thanks to PCOS, my body hangs on to every last calorie like a dragon guarding its hoard). I’ve dieted, and taken those diets to unhealthy extremes at times; I’ve exercised; I’ve tracked calories and food and movement so thoroughly that historians of the future could reconstruct my daily life with unerring accuracy. Despite all this, I’ve rarely lost any weight at all.

A few days ago, I saw this image and read the accompanying tweet:

I can’t begin to overstate the impact that this awesome woman’s pictures and decision had on me. I had been feeling like a failure for failing to lose weight, when weight should never have been the goal in the first place. The time I’d spent on tracking calories and portions could have been spent writing, or reading, or talking to friends. The emotional energy I’d spent on feeling down about numbers on a scale and lumps and bumps on my body could have gone towards something positive, something that would have made me happy.

So, I’m giving up. I’m giving up the app I use to track everything I eat; I’m giving up the tape measure and the scales. I’m giving up treating myself like a bag of flour and using my weight to determine my worth.

I can already hear the concern trolls and body-shamers revving up, so, first of all, go and have a long hard look in the mirror, and second of all, realise that this is a positive decision, not a negative one. I’m giving up treating myself badly and focusing my health, happiness and self-image around a set of numbers.

In giving this up, I’m actually prioritising my health – both mental and physical. As the fantastic Melissa McEwan of Shakesville said, no-one is motivated to take care of a body they hate – so I’m giving myself the space and freedom to learn to love my body. I’m still going to exercise, but I’ve shifted my goals; I’m no longer going to the gym in order to drop a few pounds, but to learn how to do press-ups and get to the point where I can run a 5K, two things I’ve wanted to be able to do for a while now. I’m reframing my perception of my body to focus on what it can do for me, not what I need to do to make it an appropriate ornament. I’m still going to eat my fruits and veggies, because I like them and I enjoy the healthy feeling I get from a balanced diet – I’m just not going to beat myself up if I also fancy a croissant.

I do want to stress that I’m not saying that this new way I’m trying is the right way for everyone. We all need to work out our own requirements for healthiness (again, mental and physical) and happiness. These just happen to be mine.

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