During the Covid-19 Pandemic and throughout the three lockdowns in the UK, many have sought the consolation of escape – into books or films. Every so often I return to one of my top favourites – The Adventures of TinTin: the Secret of the Unicorn. To my mind this film exemplifies classic story structure; but above all it centres upon a likeable, engaging young hero. Each time I watch it I know again why I loved TinTin so much on TV during my teenage years.
The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn (directed by Peter Jackson & Steven Spielberg) was released in 2011. So it’s been out a while. But I write blog posts when something inspires or excites or moves me, and haunts me at night. And that’s what this TinTin story did.
I asked myself again, exactly what is the appeal of TinTin? He’s a totally beguiling hero. He’s Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Spiderman all rolled into one fresh-faced boy hero – and of course his intrepid dog Snowy (originally named Milou by his creator, Herge).
As a child I loved adventure stories. I started with Enid Blyton and later I moved onto King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard, and Prester John by John Buchan and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. These stories have everything – at their best they not only excite and thrill, but also they move, and they teach you about this life, and they convey archetypal truths about human nature.
You can draw parallels with your own life, even if you don’t do exactly the same dangerous things. You can use the action hero’s experiences as a metaphor to help you clarify what has happened to you, and what attitude to take. This is the power of a great story.
Take the archetypal villain, who pursues his obsession to its bitter end.
There are people who live their lives like this. They’re all around us. They express it in their relationships. People who have never learned the art of letting go.
Their obsession leads to such things as ‘unfinished business’ when family members die; ‘skeletons’ that stay in cupboards for generations; vendettas that last decades, family members who don’t talk to each other for years.
The lesson the archetypal villain and his fate teaches is this: ‘People matter more than things’.
In this life, what matters most of all, above ‘due recompense’, above ‘getting satisfaction’, above ‘being right’, is human relationships – and of course this is the lesson the archetypal villain never learns, and which the hero instinctively honours, or the story wouldn’t satisfy us.
A hero learns, and changes. A villain never learns, and never changes.
TinTin is a hero who’s open to all that life has for him; he’s never held back by self-limiting beliefs; he’s ready to live on his wits, yet has an unerring instinct for a just cause, personified by a character who is flawed, but whose heart’s in the right place; then he throws in all his gifts on that character’s side.
Does this excite, inspire and move you, as it does me?
I loved what Hilary said about the process of writing. It seems that she does not subscribe to the belief that we must create a structure beforehand, and plan out our work in detail. In regard to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the idea she caught was the notion that the truth behind an apparently “evil” character in English history may be far more complex. And then her curiosity and her love of historical research took her on a long and compelling journey. She talks of catching ideas, and of writing scenes and chapters out of order, and I loved it.
In the past I have indeed tried to create a structure beforehand, and I found it not at all helpful. So personal experience has taught me that Hilary Mantel’s way of writing is more to my taste.
When you begin to write a novel, it can often be impossible to say from which source the inspiration has come – and how far back in the past that inspiration had its source.
Now my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire has been published, I am getting back to work on my next novel Standing Ovation.
Thsi is the second in a magical realist series starring Dylan Rafferty, young musically gifted rebel.
The first book, Director’s Cut, sees Dylan tackling a very troubled family in a large house in south London haunted by a family curse.
Dylan seeks to escape the overwhelming influence of his own family and the conventional path they want him to follow through education and his future career. He discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion. He sets off, eager to crash the set and meet her. He succeeds; and she’s delighted by this unusual, intense, talented boy. But Dylan discovers a deeply dysfunctional family who believe themselves afflicted by an inter-generational curse. The house is haunted by ghosts of previous generations. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save these people through the power of his own musical genius As he plunges deeper into the spiritual and psychic deadlock in the house, he encounters a supernatural being, and finds that he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.
The story awaits further editing, and I’d also welcome any willing beta readers!
Meanwhile I’m completing the sequel.
In Standing Ovation, Dylan has moved forward from the position he was in at the end of Directors Cut, but he now seeks a quantum leap in his career.
He’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, staying with his friend Xavier, a stage manager at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Then he lands a post as personal assistant to his idol, Konstantin Kosoff, mentally and physically fragile concert pianist, currently controlled by his two highly dubious brothers. Dylan enters another highly dysfunctional and dangerous household and plunges into a position only vacant because the two previous post-holders died in mysterious circumstances.
There are several people who might inspire me for some aspect of my fictional great pianist. I already have in mind the central inspiration; but that may change as I continue the novel, because when writing we may find elements entering the story from the subconscious. I won’t be able to tell how strong a part any of these elements may play until the story decides for itself, and reaches completion.
Do you other writers out there find Hilary Mantel’s approach rings a bell for you? Or do you rely on creating structure beforehand, and planning out the novel in detail? I’d love to know your own creative practice!
So says William Shakespeare, through the lips of Antigonus in Act 3 Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale.
Did Shakespeare believe in ghosts and spirits? Opinions are divided; Herbert, Shakespearean actor, who led us around Stratford-upon-Avon one evening on the town ghost tour, maintained that Shakespeare did; whereas a distinguished Cambridge professor, examining the Bard’s use of paranormal manifestations throughout his plays, concluded that he believed these are all ‘emanations from the mind.’
We cannot say for sure what Shakespeare believed; but his works are full of ghosts and spirits. It is known that he himself played the part of his most famous and loquacious ghost, the spirit of Hamlet’s father, many times, and it was the top of his performance as an actor, according to his first biographer. This is the ghost of whom Hamlet says:
The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape.
And yet throughout the play Hamlet continues to explore and agonise over the true nature of the spirit he has seen, with the input of his sceptical friend Horatio; and he reaches different conclusions according to the state of his mind.
Whether because they made excellent dramatic devices, or because their presence in Shakespeare’s plays denotes something much deeper, more complex and hidden within the recesses of his own heart, it is true his county, Warwickshire, is saturated even today in strange events for which there is no scientific explanation.
I’ve lived in Warwickshire for twenty-five years, at the time of writing. I’ve grown to love and feel a deep connection with some of this county’s most iconic locations: castles, houses, and churches; and also some of its less familiar ones.
All of these places have rich and complex stories to tell which span the full range of the emotional, moral and spiritual spectrum, as befits the county of Shakespeare.
But the stories here acknowledge that energy lingers in many places other than manor houses, abbeys and castles. They also tell of ordinary people going about their business in a very familiar, even mundane environment. It’s about shop owners and sales staff, families in terraced houses and busy commuters on a railway platform. Some of the stories you will find here are those that people kept to themselves, for a long time, for fear of being ridiculed.
Our task here is simply to listen to the stories that people tell, and, like Hamlet, to explore the nature of these strange experiences both with our hearts and our minds, and reach our own conclusions.
I studied this text in school as part of my GCE ‘O’ level English Literature syllabus. Ironically, although I found Virginia Woolf’s novels quite challenging to read (although I loved Orlando), that is not the case for this essay. That’s probably because it was originally a talk given at a girls school in Sevenoaks in 1926. I still remember the impact Virginia’s words had on me. The essay is very accessible, and Virginia writes with passion on her subject.
One of her observations appeals to me: “you haven’t read a book properly until you’ve talked about it”. Brilliant! How that makes the heart of an author sing. Nowadays of course authors often look for their readers to “talk about” their books, either in book clubs, or by personal recommendation, or by posting an Amazon or Goodreads review online.
Authors and publishers also, of course, value professional reviews in the major periodicals and newspapers; and these reviews are often quoted at length in the front matter of very popular books. Personally, I prefer not to know the details of what other people think until I’ve read the book – or at least until I’m halfway through. I want to make my own response to the book.
But these are the days when everyday readers – all those out there who love reading books – have power, with their opinions and feelings. Every response to a book is valid. I remember my creative writing teacher at Lancaster University saying:
“Once you’ve written your book, and it’s published, and out in the world, it doesn’t belong to you any more. It becomes a Thing on the Table, for anybody to make what they want of it.”
This view is echoed by Philip Pullman , the author of His Dark Materials trilogy, who, in a recent very enjoyable Society of Authors webinar, said that while you are writing a book, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. You write what you like and you don’t worry what anybody else thinks: they can mind their own business. When it’s published it’s a different matter. It’s not yours any more. The world can then make what it likes of your book.
Passion for reading, for the different worlds you may enter and explore when you are a voracious reader, shines out from Virginia’s essay.
Here is one quote from Virginia Woolf which many readers have seized upon, as it confirms the joy and the richness of being a great reader. I quote this near the end of my author talk on The Power of Story – for one of my goals is to enhance or re-awaken a love of reading.
“I have sometimes dreamt … that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”
It was a very exciting moment when I received my box of books.
Here’s an early review from fellow author and blogger Ritu Bhathal, who received an advance review copy:
A fantastic book filled with tales of ghostly sightings across the county of Warwickshire. SC Skillman has found some intriguing stories and researched their background and possible origins. The results are fascinating and eye-opening. I especially loved the accompanying photographs, old and new, showing the different castles and buildings where these events are said to have taken place. Warwickshire was where I grew up, and we regularly visited places like Warwick Castle, Kenilworth Castle, Stratford-Upon-Avon and Leamington Spa, so this book held an extra special interest for me. Thank you to the author for providing me with an arc, for an honest review.
Thank you Ritu and I’m so glad you enjoyed the book!
Thank you so much to the author for entrusting me with an advanced readers copy for an honest review.
I have always been fascinated by the paranormal and have had a far few ghostly and strange experiences myself, so this book by S. C. Skillman caught and kept my attention throughout.
It’s a well-researched, detailed and beautifully photographed book. Some of the images within are by S.C. Skillman herself.
If you like tales of haunted castles, churches, theatres, hotels, manor houses and many more locations beside, (a ghost can hang out anywhere they feel drawn to,) this is for you!
The collection begins in Warwick and moves on to various locations in Warwickshire: Kenilworth, Stratford-upon-Avon, Lapworth, Alcester, Rugby, Nuneaton (Birthplace of George Eliot,) and Leamington Spa.
Some of my favourite tales within included ghostly tales from theatres: in Stratford-upon-Avon, Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The ‘grey lady’ ‘is thought by by many to be the spirit of Elisabeth Scott, and is one of the theatre’s most well-known ghosts.’ ‘She appears so real she is often mistaken for a lost theatregoer.’ ‘It seems that many who have loved this theatre in their lifetimes cannot turn away from this magical and evocative place.’
And in Rugby Theatre: ‘One of the stories told here is of a woman seen floating down the stairs. It is thought she was an usherette in former times…’
It’s an interesting collection and one that will encourage you to explore the paranormal. After reading, you will want to visit these locations first hand to see if you experience the haunting visitations described within. Who knows, you might even want to become a paranormal investigator!
Thank you Marje for your review. And for all who’d like to visit Marje’s blog, it’s here.
And if you’d like the chance to hear me reading from the book and answering questions from those who came to my Facebook Live launch event, do check it out here: https://www.facebook.com/scskillman
You can buy the book on all major online retail sites, and order it from your local bookshop.
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon is known as Shakespeare’s Church, because the Bard was baptised there, and because he is buried there. The story of his association with this church, and the presence of several clues that he may have drawn direct inspiration from the church and its graveyard for his literary works, makes this church a place of pilgrimage for those who love Shakespeare.
The church is located beside the River Avon beyond the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and it has strong spiritual resonance, for many reasons beside the fact that it is a place of worship, and has been a centre of holiness for centuries.
Speculating about Shakespeare’s own faith, and his position on matters of religion, has long been a fruitful area of debate and enquiry among Shakespeare scholars, and it is fascinating to hunt for evidence of his own beliefs within his works – and to draw our own conclusions from this.
Since he lived in times of great religious turbulence, it has been speculated that his own father had true Catholic sympathies (despite the fact that at the reformation, he was forced to whitewash over the medieval splendour on the walls of the Guild Chapel). It is known, too, that during Shakespeare’s period of schooling, the young boy destined for literary greatness would have come under the influence of a schoolmaster who was a strong Catholic.
As in matters of politics, so in matters of religion – and since they were inextricably bound up with one another, Shakespeare would have needed to tread a delicate tightrope as he wrote his plays. What he wrote cannot be seen in isolation from the pressures that would have been placed upon him by Elizabeth I and James I. And yet his originality of thought, his humanity and profound insight into human nature shone through all this.
One of the most often-told tales of this church concerns the inscription upon Shakespeare’s grave.
Discover more about the intriguing history, the curious anecdotes, and the many poignant associations with Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.
My visits to Nuneaton have uncovered some truly astonishing stories. Nuneaton is strongly associated with the great novelist George Eliot, who lived there during the first part of her life, before she moved to London. She was inspired by the working people of Nuneaton and surrounding area. Her father was a land agent at Arbury Hall. She accompanied him on his business journeys to the hall and around the area, and she gained extraordinary insight into the hearts and minds of the working people as well as the aristocrats who lived in Arbury Hall.
George Eliot is considered among the greatest of all novelists. I love her books: Middlemarch is one of my all-time favourites.
Several curious tales are associated with one of the locations she would have visited: The Griffin Inn, just down the road from her former home.
The most compelling stories emerge from among the working people in whom George Eliot was so interested: in this case, those who worked for decades in very unassuming commercial premises in Queens Road.
In fact I regard the anecdotes that emerge from the business owners and employees at 62 Queens Road as one of the most convincing paranormal sagas I’ve ever come across: simply because there have been so many individual witnesses, experiencing similar things quite independently of each other, over a number of decades.
This is the first of a series giving you a few tasters from my book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be released by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
Warwickshire is a county steeped in the supernatural, as befits the county of Shakespeare and the many ghosts and spirits that he conjured up in his works. In Paranormal Warwickshire I investigate the rich supernatural heritage of this county at the heart of England in places both grand and everyday, including Guy’s Cliffe, the Saxon Mill, Kenilworth Castle, Warwick Castle, Stoneleigh Abbey, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as well as in the towns of Rugby, Nuneaton and Leamington Spa.
Shakespeare’s plays are full of these supernatural encounters and characters. In Julius Caesar, Brutus, tormented by guilt, is haunted by the ghost of murdered Caesar.
In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, grief-stricken and betrayed, agonises over whether or not he is visited by the spirit of his father.
In Macbeth , the king of Scotland (whose name many actors are too superstitious to mention), cannot believe he is the only person who sees Banquo’s spirit at the feast…
Alongside those who witness the apparitions, we have some wonderful sceptical foils or sounding boards. Cassius in Julius Caesar is convinced Brutus’s vision was just the power of his imagination. In Hamlet, Horatio tells his troubled friend that it is but a fantasy. Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale says he has heard but not believed the spirits of the dead may walk again.
And as for spirits, either they are serving the will of the magician Prospero in The Tempest…
But in the end, are they but airy nothing, to which the poet’s pen gives a local habitation and a name?
Whether they are purely dramatic devices, or whether Shakespeare himself believed in ghosts and spirits, we cannot definitively say. Scholars and Shakespearean actors and lovers of the Bard differ in their views. But one thing we can say for sure; they fired Shakespeare’s imagination to the highest degree, and he lavished upon them great poetry, humour, playfulness and mischief, the heights of powerful drama, the depths of despair, guilt and existential angst, and his most discerning observations of mental distress.
Throughout my book Paranormal Warwickshire I have used quotes from Shakespeare. In every case I found a quote which I believe resonates with how I feel about the place.
Perhaps Shakespeare would have been surprised to know that four hundred and twenty years into the future, a belief in ghosts and spirits would prevail with such strength in our society. Or perhaps he wouldn’t. He reached to the heart of the human condition, and the emotions and dilemmas he presents are fresh and vivid and relevant to us today. So I confirmed when I toured many places in his county, Warwickshire, and found not only spiritual resonance from the rich stories associated with these places, but many people who have tales to recount, of experiences for which they can find no scientific explanation.
Check out some of my previous posts on the subject of Shakespeare:
Like the fussy angel played by Michael Sheen in the deliciously funny and clever ‘Good Omens’ by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett?
More, perhaps like this angel depicted by Vincent Van Gogh?
or maybe like the powerful and moving Knife Angel that appeared at Coventry Cathedral in 2019?
Or perhaps even, the guardian angel Clarence.
We met him in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.
In the TV sitcom Rev, the main character Adam Smallbone (played by Tom Hollander) reaches a point where he has been betrayed, lost his church, his self-respect, and his vocation, and feels he has failed all those who believed in and depended on him.
In a state of despair, he goes up a hill carrying the cross intended for the Easter Sunday service. At the top of the hill he meets a homeless man (played by Liam Neeson) who dances and sings with him, knows and understands what’s going on for him, and offers consolation and hope. He transforms how Adam feels about his situation. Then he disappears.
This kind of encounter takes on the shape of what I would call an angel encounter.
This I would define as: a situation where you are in personal crisis of some kind, and you are helped in a timely manner by a person who appears unexpectedly, transforms your situation, and then disappears quietly. Throughout the encounter, this stranger seems surrounded by an aura of graciousness, gentleness and kindness.
I’m starting a new series of occasional posts here on my blog, entitled:
I know many people hold on to belief in angels – whether they be guardians, guides, or protectors – even in this supposedly secular, materialistic society in which we live here in the UK.
In this book Peter Stanford gives a history of humankind’s belief in angels, beginning long before the historical origins of the Christian faith, and continuing right up to the present day, with the interest in angels ever popular through folk religion and other spiritual outlooks.
Peter Stanford uncovers much intriguing material, and also includes an examination of the appearance of angels in great art. Throughout he maintains an objective, academic approach which he combines with his own views.
Today, many of those who believe in angels see them as ‘independent agents’, outside traditional faith structures.
As Stanford says, People have… believed in angels for millennia… the only difference today is that this reliance on angels as dwellers in time and space is happening outside of organised religion… Angels once… largely belonged in religious narratives and institutions… but… have somehow detached themselves from the declining institutions and are now thriving on their own.
At the end of the book Stanford remarks: I have lost count while researching and writing the book of how many times I have been asked if I “believe” in angels.
Many other authors too have written on the subject of angels, from a wide variety of viewpoints. A popular author on the subject is Theresa Cheung and I blogged about her book Angel On My Shoulder on 28 February 2017
The book is full of authentic first-person accounts. Several things fascinated me about these:
1) I could identify with a number of them from my own experience, though I’ve tended to think of them as synchronicity; 2) Each one had a distinct element of the supernatural; 3) Far than being sentimental, they all demonstrate strength and simplicity.
Several describe sudden and shocking bereavement. In each case the narrator of the story has experienced a compelling supernatural intervention which has totally changed their attitude to the tragedy and to death itself, and has provided the sort of comfort and reassurance that others might achieve only through long-term counselling or psychotherapy.
The author’s stance in relating the stories is measured and balanced. She fully accepts those who take a “reductionist” view of these events and prefer a rational explanation, and she invites us to make up our own minds.
I found the whole book very convincing, not least because of the cumulative effect of so many testimonies from different people unknown to each other, who have all had similar experiences. It had the same effect upon me as another book I’ve reviewed calledMiracles by Eric Metaxas.
In her summing up, Teresa Cheung refers to organised religion no longer providing the structure and certainty that it used to (maybe because so many feel it doesn’t meet their needs, and appears irrelevant to their lives). The stories in this book suggest, to one way of thinking, that many may be connecting with “the divine” totally outside the confines of “church” – through angels.
This, interestingly, is the same conclusion that Peter Stanford comes to.
In this occasional series on my blog, I’ll consider modern-day angel encounters.
I’ve written about angels and supernatural experiences before on this blog. Check out these posts:
When you saw that title what did you imagine? A scene from Alice through the Looking Glass?
One of those high speed reverse sequences in a magical fantasy film, when everything rewinds? Or perhaps a time-slip scenario?
Or simply an image of mirror writing?
Would it be wonderful if we could indeed start at the end and then proceed to the beginning? Or would it rather be a nightmare? Of course, TS Eliot encapsulated this idea when he wrote: The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
In one of the chapters of my book Perilous Path I looked at the seemingly paradoxical idea of writing a book in reverse. In many ways this idea appeals to me. After all, when we consider the obstacles a writer confronts during the creation of a novel, it seems that all the problems are wrapped up in the tyranny of time. The journey of a novel is often about getting to know your characters and allowing them to reveal to us what we’re writing about.
Robert McKee in his excellent book Story says every story has a controlling idea; and the controlling idea is embedded in the final climax of the story. In fiction, controlling ideas are below the surface. So in one sense the process of writing a story does indeed involve travelling backwards, on an unconscious level. You will find more about this in my chapters in Perilous Path inspired by the theories of Carl Jung.
Our controlling idea, I believe, may not necessarily be fully worked out on a conscious level. It is hidden deep in the unconscious and the act of writing a work of fiction may simply be the working out of this, and the process of bringing it to the surface, and out into the light. Thus on an unconscious level we do indeed write backwards.
Some novelists start a first draft with their characters, and begin telling the story, and go where their characters take them. Finally the controlling idea is revealed. Then we might say they go into reverse, moving back again, and imposing structure in subsequent drafts. Others plan the novel out in detail using the 3-act structure, plotting out the story points before they begin writing. Perhaps, for them, the controlling idea is already out in the light and clearly defined.
Examples of controlling ideas include: ‘Goodness triumphs when we outwit evil’ (The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike). ‘Justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals.’ (The Firm by John Grisham).’To love with integrity requires personal worldview transformation’ (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen). Here are some very helpful blogs upon the subject of The Controlling Idea by Shawn Coyne and Steven Pressfield.
My writers guide Perilous Path may also be helpful; signed copies are available and may be ordered from this website.