Psychology, Spirituality and Family Relationships – a Volatile Mix

On 4th September, on the fourth day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, blogger Susan Hampson hosted a guest post from me on her blog Books From Dusk till Dawn.Springboard

This is part of a series in which I reblog my articles from that blog tour.  So today’s post is the article Susan first published online, called:

Psychology, Spirituality and Family Relationships – a Volatile Mix

In books on the craft of writing fiction, one of the key areas to which a writer must pay attention is high emotional charge. And if the new writer is in doubt about whose point of view to take – in other words, whose story is this? –  the main question to ask is, Who has the highest emotional stakes in the outcome of the plot?
I’ve also read that when the author is building conflict into the plot, and setting up a protagonist and an antagonist / villain, a sure way to increase depth and high emotional stakes is to make the antagonist / villain a close family member.
When we write fiction we all draw upon our own life experiences. And for many of us, our greatest challenge in life, after the challenge of self-knowledge, is how we handle our closest relationships.
In my psychological suspense novel Mystical Circles I drew upon my observations and personal experiences of many people and relationships throughout my life. But family relationships do rank highly; father and son; two sisters; two twin brothers; mother and son.  I have of course transposed real relationships into fictional situations. When we use real people to create fictional characters the wisest strategy is to employ a composite of different individuals within one person. So we can never say, this character is based on X or Y whom I know personally. But the fact remains that some fictional characters do contain a greater proportion of certain individuals.
I have drawn upon those for whom I have a strong affection and also those whom I’ve found challenging. But beyond all this I think it’s true to say that there’s probably a little bit of me in all the characters.
One of the greatest joys of reading fiction is to enter into the heart and mind of someone else to share their joys and sorrows, and to understand how they think. How can this be so unless the writer incorporates part of their own psyche into those characters? I know this is certainly true for Mystical Circles.
I also believe this principle applies to the creation of a villain, who in order to be compelling, must be a complex mixture of influences, memories, desires, wounds, compulsions, longings and choices.
In life often the ultimate villain is hidden, shadowy, the manipulator behind the scenes.
And so it is in Mystical Circles. I’ll leave my readers to work out who that might be, but hope that this particular plot-spoiler will never appear in the reviews!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Art and Inexact Science of a Good Ending to a Novel

On 3rd September on the third day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, blogger Rosie Amber hosted a guest post from me on her blog.On a journey (2)

This is part of a series in which I reblog the articles from that blog tour. So today’s post is the article Rosie Amber first published online, called:

On the Art and Inexact Science of a Good Ending to a Novel

Recently a fellow blogger piqued my interest with a piece about online book reviews. Amongst the observations she made, she referred to the attitude authors take to their reviews. She noted that many people have different interpretations of the star-ratings. Specifically she mentioned that she had experienced some asking her to take down three star reviews which they interpreted as negative.

As an author and reviewer myself, I review every book I read on Amazon and Goodreads. I will give a book 5 stars only if it hooked me, kept me enthralled, made me want to read on, answered the questions the author posed, AND delivered a strong, satisfying end. If all those things above are present, but the end does not satisfy, I will downgrade a star rating. I think you can in some way define an author’s theme, worldview, mindset (at the time of writing, anyway) from the way they choose to end a novel.

But having said this, I will admit to a challenge when I came to write the end of my novel Mystical Circles (out in a new edition with a new cover on 5 September). Ideally I would have liked to give two alternative endings, as John Fowles did in his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

I don’t like an ending which ties up all the loose strands, and which is unequivocally happy or sad. My ideal ending is bittersweet. As in life, I believe that when all our dreams are fulfilled there will always be other aspects of the situation which have the potential to cause disruption in the future. One of my favourite endings is that to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudicebecause although the central story question is answered positively, it is also bristling with ironic little hints that life is not necessarily going to run smoothly for the main protagonist hereafter.

How I chose to end Mystical Circles was full of challenges because the raison d’etre of the story – a hothouse community called Wheel of Love who have gathered around a charismatic leader to learn how to achieve an ideal existence – derives all its emotional charge and dangerous dynamics from the psychological instability of the group members – and its leader.  The situation I outline in the novel – the attempt by a young woman journalist to rescue her younger sister from a mystical cult – could have a number of outcomes.

I think the key to a successful ending is that it must satisfy, whether it is happy, sad, tragic or bittersweet. I am conscious, too, that an unsatisfying end can undo much of the good work of an author.  As novelists the best we can do is to remain true to ourselves, to what we are trying to say within our stories. Though I admit we often don’t even know what we’re trying to say, until we’ve said it!

And back to reviews again; I love reviews of any star-rating where the reader has clearly read the book thoughtfully, and has genuine opinions to offer about plot, characterisation, theme. On Amazon the healthiest star-rating profile is a triangle with its broad side at the top. I am afraid I feel suspicious of books that have only five stars. Also I am often attracted to the one star reviews. I want to know, “What is the worst that can be said about this novel?” And, quixotically, some of the things said by the one star reviewers make me want to read the book. Human opinions are incredibly diverse, especially about books, and we must all respect that.

Forging Our Own Paths and Surviving the Internet Sirens

On 1st September at the beginning of my Mystical Circles blog tour, author and blogger Sacha Black hosted a guest post from me on her blog.  Print

In my next few posts I shall be re-blogging my posts and auhor interviews on that blog tour. So today’s post is the article Sacha first published, called “How To Survive the Internet Sirens.”

I’ve just returned from ScotsWrite, a Society of Authors Conference in Scotland. And one of the speakers at the conference was a lady who I might include under the category of internet sirens though I will admit she said some very interesting things and I will be taking up some of her ideas! So there’s always a few exceptions to a general rule…

How To Survive the Internet Sirens

In the writing and publishing world these days we are often told that it is no longer sufficient to be just an author. No, you have to be a promoter as well, and a self-publicist, and a PR specialist. You have to master the art of the press release, learn how to write appealing advertising copy, know how to pitch yourself to someone in a single sentence in a lift, and master numerous pieces of software in order to orchestrate them all skilfully with one end in mind – to sell your product, i.e. your new book.

This all begs the question of how you should manage your time so you can actually fit in writing the next book.

One way of going about it is to be a multi-tasker. Accomplish several different tasks a day by juggling them all and keeping them all in the air. Or if you are a list person, try to achieve a sense of control over your life by surrounding yourself with typed-up To Do Lists.  Or perhaps you might work with a noticeboard covered with Post It Notes.
Lest we forget, what started all this was a desire to create fiction, to bring people to life who never existed, to dream up worlds for them to inhabit, and sometimes to find that ‘they come alive. They are capable of the surprising act or word. They stand outside the plot, unconditioned by it’. And then there are other characters ‘who have to be pushed around…. have the obstinacy of nonexistence…..are inextricably bound to the plot… whose only importance is to… help to furnish the scene in which a living character moves and speaks,” as Graham Greene explained so eloquently in his novel The End of the Affair.One thing’s for sure; you will need to try to Mystical Circles Front Cover Final Version4hold onto your sanity, so you may need your drug of choice – whether that be herbal calming tablets, or numerous infusions of caffeine, or glasses of wine, or, probably the least advisable substance of all, cakes and biscuits, to keep you going. For you will also have to master how to put out Facebook ads, and how to drive people to your mailing list sign-up forms, and monitor the response you get, and adjust your ads accordingly.

In this quote, Graham Greene expresses the strange feeling authors can sometimes get about their characters, when the lines blur between the real world and the fictional world of their own creation. Sometimes we do indeed feel like characters forced here and there by an unseen hand, without any free will. I fear that in today’s climate we as authors can feel like that, when voices ‘out there’ are constantly telling us what to do to make ourselves visible, to get readers to pay attention to us, to direct the searchlight of attention upon us, notice our books, and buy them.

It feels as if we are drifting, boats upon the current, into that region of the ocean where we may hear siren voices luring us onto the rocks. Maybe the only answer is to do as Odysseus did in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, during his voyage home after the Trojan War, when he tied himself to the mast, and stopped up all the ears of the sailors on the ship, so they might sail safely past and out of the range of the siren voices.

Surely this isn’t the way it should be for creative people?

 

And yet, perhaps I have misunderstood; for when we study the biographies of past authors, we cannot help noticing that they had their own struggles, though maybe slightly different, conditioned by the culture of their time. Were we ever intended to exist in an ivory tower, as we write our books?

I think of a wonderful quote from JK Rowling, who said in a 2003 interview with Jeremy Paxman: I imagined being a famous writer would be like being Jane Austen. Being able to sit at home in the parsonage and your books would be very famous and occasionally you would correspond with the Prince of Wales’ secretary. You know I didn’t think they’d rake through my bins, I didn’t expect to be photographed on the beach through long lenses.’

Every individual creative person has their own struggles, though I grant that JK Rowling’s struggles at that point were probably different from ours right now, as we try to make some kind of impact upon the world with our stories.

Each novel that we write has to some extent emerged from our own lives, our own personal experiences, our own take upon the world, and so it feels as if we are giving from deep within ourselves. That is certainly the case with my novel Mystical Circles (out in a new edition on 5 September).  Much of the novel has arisen from my own personal experience.

But I feel we can take heart from these words of Sir Winston Churchill who although he eventually became such an iconic figure, suffered many setbacks and failures in his life. He was addressing an audience of school pupils who had gathered to hear words of wisdom from the great man. He said, “I only have 5 words to give you. They are Never, never, never give up.

The links for my recently re-released novel Mystical Circles may be found here:

AmazonCOM

AmazonUK

Book Blurb:

“Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds. Massive change of plan. I’m in love. Craig’s gorgeous, sexy, intelligent. Paradise here. Staying forever.”

Juliet, concerned that her younger sister has fallen in love with the charismatic Craig, leader of the Wheel of Love, sets off for the Cotswolds to investigate, fearful that Zoe has become entangled with a religious cult.

She arrives at Craig’s community hoping to rescue Zoe. But  intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle, and despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love… with completely unforeseen consequences.

 

 

 

 

Mountains, Castles and Inspiration in Bavaria

We are just back from Bavaria where we were inspired by King Ludwig II’s castles,

view of Neuschwanstein Castle

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delighted by glorious mountain views, view from the summit of Wallbergapple strudel in Panorama Restaurant at the top of Wallbergenjoyed delicious apple strudels

and slipped into Austria where we had a lot of fun on the Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg.The Original Panorama Tours Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg

But the most outstanding feature of our holiday was our discovery of a truly intriguing character: King Ludwig II. Ludwig was a dreamer and visionary whose image is now ever-present in Bavaria.The young Ludwig II

Whilst visiting his three castles – the castle on an island in a lake, Herrenchiemzee, the fairy-tale like apparition high on a mountain crag, Neuschwanstein, and the exquisite vision in a valley, Linderhof, I was fascinated by his romantic idealism, his passionate devotion to the idea of being “an absolute king” dwelling in Castle Perilous, his love of immensely rich and precious interior decoration, his total disregard of the practical implications of his various passions, and his intense relationship with the great composer Richard Wagner.  His story was often tragic, and his end terribly sad – he was declared mad and killed – yet Bavaria thrives on his legacy today.

There were several aspects of Ludwig which inspired me for a major character in my WIP.  So this visit to Bavaria came at just the right time as I’m about to embark on the second draft. With such a complex character, I cannot be entirely sure whether his passion, intensity and commitment to a world of the imagination will infuse my villain, hero or anti-hero. That is yet to be determined…

 

Fun and Excitement with Fantasy Authors at the UK Games Expo 2017

The UK Games Expo had not been on my radar until Richard Denning one of the Games Expo directors and a historical and fantasy novelist, kindly offered me space on the Authors Stand in the Birmingham NEC during the weekend Friday 2 – Sunday 4 June 2017.10

So there I was for three days, sharing a stand in a huge venue with some very popular and successful authors, as I displayed and sold copies of my three books, Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path.

This was a fabulous opportunity. The gaming world is one that I haven’t paid too much attention to in the past, but the whole weekend was a revelation. The atmosphere was vibrant; colourful characters and a dazzling variety of games and gaming accessories abounded, all contributing to the fun and good humour which was evident among the exhibitors and visitors.

I met and learned from other authors on the stand:

Jonathan Green 4who writes sci fi, fantasy and adventure gamebooks;and Gareth Baker, children’s writer. 3

I also met Ian Livingstone, fantasy author and entrepreneur, and co-founder of the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks.6

He came to do a signing and long queues formed as his fans flocked to the stand to have their books signed and to chat to him.8

 

 

 

I had the chance to exchange ideas and learn better ways to promote myself as an author, and there was a great sense of camaraderie among all those exhibiting their books on the stand.

Meanwhile, many cosplay enthusiasts strolled past in wonderful costumes.20

Transformation was the name of the game as so many took on the personnas of multifarious game characters and archetypes.31.jpg

We also had a photo opportunity with a Dalek, who passed by the Authors stand and demanded, “What is A Passionate Spirit?” IMG_7839.JPG

The gaming world is one in which a vast number of “tropes”  flourish: adventure, quests, danger, violence, fantasy, history, steampunk, sci fi…

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I gained some new insights into how my own WIP is indeed using some of the gaming tropes, for instance, the predicament of the main protagonist as she finds herself in a deadly situation from which she must escape – hidden chambers and secret passageways and dark rooms all find their place in my novel, and these elements are very popular in the gaming world.  17

Also the Gothic genre – which I now work within – has a close relationship with the gaming world. So there was an unexpected connection for me, together with the fact that I’m using paranormal and supernatural elements more and more in my fiction, and also would like to move more into fantasy in the future.

Perhaps I have inspired you to try the UK Games Expo yourself next year!33

The Full Monty and What it Says About Not Being Controlled by Your Circumstances

Recently I watched the 1997 British comedy drama film  “The Full Monty” again. The Full Monty film posterThe reason why I love it is that it’s about “little” people deciding not to be controlled by their circumstances. Six men who in their different ways are suffering during the decline of the Sheffield steel industry, decide to do something nobody believes they can deliver on.

If you haven’t seen this wonderful film then I highly recommend it; read about it here. Somehow that message of hope is encapsulated in one of the outstanding elements of the film: the faces of the audience members in the club at the end. They express joy, laughter, fun and delight. Their reaction is a natural response to “local lads” demonstrating that if we choose, we can all have the courage to:

  1. compete with those who seem to be hugely successful “out there”
  2. get up on stage and run the risk of making fools of ourselves
  3. demonstrate that we will not allow ourselves to be controlled by our circumstances.

This is a universal message, relevant in so many different ways in today’s society. This is why “The Full Monty” is an inspiration to its audiences and why, using humour, it delivers a powerful truth, relevant to all our lives.

That’s Life – in the Eyes of Noel Coward

I’ve loved the work of Noel Coward since I first saw one of his comedies, in my teens. Noel CowardAmong many different archetypal character-types which I hold in my mind, is that of an indolent Noel Coward male lead, lounging against a mantelpiece wearing a silk brocade smoking jacket, elegant, mannered, and dispensing witticisms with the greatest of ease: the sort of individual who would instantly impress in a social setting; but what’s really going on behind that stylish, confident exterior? I had this image in mind when I created the character James in my novel Mystical Circles (and James reappears in A Passionate Spirit).

In Coward’s play Present Laughter, the male lead, Gary, a successful comic actor, lives out of the image of himself he projects on stage.

He is the focus of everyone else’s obsession.

Gary is a poser – he throws tantrums, acts in a theatrical manner, and hates it when others accuse him of “over-acting” – which he, of course, does all the time. Only his secretary and his supposedly-estranged wife see him in a plain unvarnished way.

Meanwhile, a strange, intense young aspiring playwright, Mr Maule, is obsessed with him and latches onto him and challenges him.

Gary want to get rid of them all, yet cannot see he himself is a magnet for them.

In this play, we see yet again the beloved Noel Coward tropes:

  1. A flouncing self-important male lead;
  2. A sullen fag-smoking housekeeper;
  3. A strange insecure subsidiary character who has a major effect upon the action;
  4. A femme fatale triple-crossing vamp married to the MC’s best friend, having an affair with the MC’s other friend, and with the MC himself.

In this play, the women who spend the night with Gary, and have to explain themselves to visitors in the morning, always:

  1. appear for breakfast wearing Gary’s dressing gown and his black silk pyjamas;
  2. say they had forgotten their latch-key, which was why they had to stay the night; and
  3. claim they slept in the spare room.

Just so do so many of us feel compelled to behave in predictable patterns, so that we might as well be following a script that’s been written for us.

It’s comedy, farce, satire … but isn’t it often just like life? Comedy is a wonderful vehicle for communicating truths. Don’t we find sometimes – especially in this society, and on the current political scene – that people behave as if they were characters in a farce, acting out a parody of themselves?

This is the human comedy.  And comedians only need to tweak real life a very little: just a slight exaggeration – for us to see how absurd this all is.

I think this is why, in moments of insight, we instinctively respond to good observational comedy, especially when it is delivered with warmth – for there are occasions when we recognise ourselves reflected back in the wit of the comedian. And when that is so, we might see opportunities to try and interrupt this pre-determined script, and start acting as if we genuinely do have free will, instead of behaving like characters pushed hither and thither by the plot…

The Fatal Flaw in Human Nature, Castles in the Air, and Dreams and Visions

My recent visit to an English Heritage castle, Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire, stirred up some reflections on life.20170501_124937-1

A visit to a medieval castle cannot help remind you that this great pile represents in stone the major themes in human nature: war, power, wealth, moral and economic hierarchies, social injustice and religion.

Of course what we choose to focus on when we visit a castle is conditioned by the story we attach to it; and when I visit my nearest EH castle at Kenilworth my mind is usually full of the intriguing romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, because that’s the angle English Heritage love to take.

However at Goodrich Castle, several different images whirled around my mind: a chapel in a gatehouse with arrow slits in it, murder holes, double portcullis, double gates, two drawbridges, luxury accommodation and all the contemporary mod cons for the aristocratic family and their friends, and the reminder that the 200 servants would have just dossed down anywhere they could find that was as warm and comfortable as possible.20170501_112727

I found myself thinking about three things:

First, social justice.

We’re very conscious of it now in our society, only because our eyes have been opened to it; perceptions have changed. To modern Christian eyes social justice has always been at the heart of the gospel. But has it? For many centuries the most dedicated Christians were oblivious to it. So has it always been there, and they were just wilfully blind? Or is it only there because we’ve formed a political agenda for it?

Second, religion and violence.

They were pious Christians with rich Chapels and they had all the arrangements in place to hurl boiling oil on people and shoot arrows at them through slits in the walls of their chapel even as they were worshipping. But can we ever judge those who lived in a different age by our own values and standards in very different times? Many who oppose the Christian faith now cite its history as evidence that it is sheer folly. To what extent can we judge the truth of a system of thought/ a religion/philosophy/worldview by its human history?

Third, human nature.

In church recently someone said to me, “He who expects nothing is never disappointed. My view is that human nature is fatally flawed. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there could be some improvement.” This reminded me that the teachings of Jesus go against human nature. You cannot actually follow through the logical implications of Jesus’ teaching without battling human nature.

What is human nature anyway? With the benefit of hindsight we see the behaviour of medieval castle inhabitants as folly, and it all seems very black and white to us. Future generations looking back will see and think exactly the same about our behaviour now, in 2017, down in our very own microcosm.

Many of our own “dreams” are foolish, vain things – “wishful thinking, ” “pipe dreams”, “castles in the air”. They are not worthy of being fulfilled and are not designed to be fulfilled, but are destined to dissipate in the desert air.

All we can do is take little steps forward according to what seems right, or helpful, or appropriate to us at the time.

We always have to see our “dreams” in this context, of failed, fatally flawed, human nature. And to realise that we’re down here in the microcosm and can only see through a glass darkly, notwithstanding all our little dreams and visions.

 

 

Joan of Arc: Mystical Experiences and Empowerment

The other day I saw an encore screening of George Bernard Shaw’s play “St Joan” from National Theatre Live.St Joan National Theatre Live I studied this play at university. Then, as in my recent viewing, I was entranced by the character of Joan herself, and by the words Shaw puts into her mouth.

Joan has  special resonance for me because when I was young, as a member of a children’s choir, I sang in a performance of Honneger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake” – an oratorio with words by Paul Claudel, a Catholic poet. The performance was at the Royal Albert Hall; Mia Farrow played Joan, and Andre Previn conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. We sang the part of the children of Lorraine.

The character of Joan had a strong impact upon me. I remember several words from “Joan of Arc at the Stake” and they are largely from Joan herself, in which she described her visions and her mystical inspiration, in terms that totally encompassed their reality.

To me the central thing about Joan of Arc was “empowerment”.

Joan was an illiterate peasant girl who claimed she heard a trio of saints speaking to her; and on the basis of this she believed God wanted her to lead the French army to fight and defeat the English, and place Charles II on the throne of France. In 1431, when she was nineteen years old, the English led by the Earl of Warwick tried her on numerous charges, one of which was blasphemy, and sentenced her to be burnt at the stake. The part of the saints were sung by soloists in the music drama; and I felt that Paul Claudel  handled the whole work from the viewpoint that Joan’s experiences were real.  The work has been accused by critics of being several things, including weird, bizarre, sentimental and heavily Roman Catholic, but I loved it, just as I love Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, another musical work which has in the past had the same accusations levelled against it.

When I reflect upon Joan and the fascination she holds for me, I see her as someone who was marginalised, who had religious experiences which empowered her, and who refused to be controlled by her circumstances:

  1. Whether or not a postmodern assessment concludes that her ‘voices’ may be accounted for by mental illness – perhaps schizophrenia, or psychosis –  she definitely had profound religious experiences.
  2. She acted upon these experiences.
  3. She derived from them courage, strength and vision to prevail again huge male-dominated interests in Church, State and Army. Both Shaw and Claudel show her as clear sighted, strong and single minded against her powerful interrogators.

I think of similar cases of young girls and women who have had profound religious experiences which then impact the future course of their lives and the lives of many others:  Bernadette of Lourdes, St Therese of Lisieux and Julian of Norwich.

Part of the fascination of these individuals to me is that between them they usually demonstrate one of a number of recurring features, which tend to marginalise: these elements include being young, female, poor / of peasant background or illiterate; and suffering from serious illness, whether bodily or mental. Another element that often appears is the gift of healing. There are many other examples, of whom a good proportion have had visions or extraordinary powers of insight, on the basis of which they have gained enormous influence, and have captured the imagination of future generations.

What do you think? Can you offer other examples of young female visionaries who have had a big impact on the world and may have captured your imagination?

 

The Laborious Art of Book Writing

I love this post by Lucy Mills and it echoes my own thoughts about the process of writing a book. Lucy is writing an inspirational book, not a novel, but she describes an experience common to all those who throw themselves heart and soul into writing a full-length work for publication. Lucy refers to the revision process; but I can testify that even getting that first draft written presents the same challenges. It can be compared to an artist, covering the canvas before they can begin to work on the details. Do read and comment on Lucy’s post.

Lucy Mills

“Reading through…I think it’s OK…so hard to tell when have seen it so much…but it might be OK, after all…If I can fix a few things and fill a few holes, I might even be pleased, in the end…”

I wrote those words on a recent Instagram post.

I’m still writing the book, balancing it with other editing work, which is proving an exercise in drawing lines, even more so than I already do.  Deadlines do have a tendency to congregate and with every new demand in my editing job, I have to take a deep breath and not panic.

Panic is the worst thing for creativity, for me, at least.

Undivided Heart is developing its personality and it won’t be taken lightly, taking me into deep questions of identity and meaning. I only hope it manages to balance the ‘depth’ with readability.  I continue to plug away at it…

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