Fairy inspirations

The following blog post was originally published on Tressa’s Wishful Endings book review site.

The UK has a long tradition of children’s stories, which gained a great deal of momentum in the nineteenth century. A big part of those stories are often the landscapes and countryside of the islands themselves, from the rugged Highlands of Scotland to the Welsh valleys and the rolling fields of southern England. An area particularly rich in heritage is the Yorkshire Dales–an area of outstanding natural beauty nestled in the heart of England.

While I was writing my debut novel, Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, I wanted to place part of the story somewhere out in the British countryside, away from the town life that the main character, Jennifer, is used to. As is so often the case, inspiration can come from the strangest and most unexpected of quarters. I’d once read a book about the curious idea that intelligent dinosaurs once roamed the earth–no, I’m not joking–and that ‘evidence’ for this could be found all over the world. Now even though I seriously doubt the scientific premise for this, I still found the possibility fascinating!

One of the places mentioned in that book were the large underground caverns that can be found throughout the Yorkshire Dales. These are full of stalactites and stalagmites–the large pointed pieces of rock that hang from the roof of a cave or jut up from the ground, formed over millions of years as calcium salts drip down with droplets of water. Apparently, this is where survivors of the intelligent dinosaurs might still be hiding out, based on reported sightings of strange creatures in the area.

As my novel is about the world of the fairies, the idea of a real place where mysterious creatures have supposedly been seen struck a chord, and I thought this would be an interesting location to use as a setting. Having made up my mind, I began to investigate to see if there was any actual local fairy folklore from the area that I might use for further inspiration.

Yorkshire was traditionally divided into three regions, or ‘ridings’: west, north and east (don’t ask me what happened to the south one–this is the UK, after all–it doesn’t have to make sense!). This part of the island has traditionally been one of the harshest and perhaps most isolated parts of England. The area also has a distinct Viking heritage, and this is reflected in many of the place names that originate from Nordic languages. The word ‘dale’ itself basically means ‘valley’, and is a reference to the rolling landscape. Throughout the Dales, you will find ‘fells’ (hills), ‘pots’ (ground holes), ‘crags’ (cliffs), and ‘fosses’ (waterfalls). Names such as Cautley Crags, Leck Fell, and White Scar Caves have a certain charm to them, if not a certain magical quality, being so different from everyday English.

I found out that belief in fairies was common here, and may even have continued into the twentieth century. Nowadays actual belief may be rare, but the stories are still told, and if you find yourself at night roaming an isolated, windswept hill, it may be very hard not to start thinking that there is indeed some supernatural creature lurking just around the bend!

Near the town of Buckden is a deep ravine that has been known by locals as the ‘Fairy Dell.’ (The word dell is just a variant on ‘dale’ and refers to a valley or ravine). Incidentally, there is another cave at the base of the ravine, something that appears again and again at sites with fairy traditions. It seems almost that the dark, mysterious places (and what is more dark and mysterious than a cave?) gives rise to these legends of strange creatures in the dark. The inhabitants of the Fairy Dell apparently had a certain aversion to churches (!) and were prone to playing tricks on people, again something that fairies seem prone to do.

Another Fairy Dell can be found at Beck Gill, where tradition has it that fairies live in the brook that flows through the dell.

The Hurtle Pot is a natural rocky hole in the ground near a village called Chapel-le-Dale. At the bottom of this hole is a pool of water that extends down to over 20 feet. The air around the pool is heavy and full of pungent odours from nearby planting, making the whole area feel a little bit gloomy. When it rains, the water splashing against the rocks causes a throbbing noise, almost as if someone is groaning underneath the pool. Legend has it that this ‘someone’ is a boggart, a nasty little fairy that likes to frighten people and sometimes play tricks on them.

Another area that has a fairy connection is Janet’s Foss near the village of Malham. The ‘foss’ refers to a waterfall, and the name ‘Janet’ is a reference to a fairy queen that was supposed to have lived in the area.

Of course, I couldn’t possibly do a post on fairies in Yorkshire without mentioning the famous (and perhaps infamous) case of the Cottingley fairies. Two cousins in the late 1910s, Elsie and Frances Griffiths, took photographs of what they claimed were real fairies near Cottingley Beck (a ‘beck’ is a stream—again notice how many legends around bodies of water). For many years, they insisted that these were genuine, though, eventually, they did reveal that they were in fact faked using cardboard cutouts. At the time, however, they attracted widespread public interest, which tied in with a general interest in spirituality and the paranormal that was present in the UK. The First World War was still fresh in people’s memory, and the loss of so many young men caused grieving relatives to find consolation in new ideas of things beyond this worldly realm. Most famously, the Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took great interest in the case and visited the girls to investigate personally.

So how did I use these tales of old in my own story? The Dales generally, of course, made it in, as well as a ‘foss’ (though I made up the name ‘Redfoss’). A large cove (‘Redfoss Cove’) and pothole (‘The Lady Jane’) also come in the story and serve as a special portal to, well…I’ll resist putting in a spoiler and let you read the book instead! Well beyond Yorkshire, the UK has a treasure trove of folklore and legends, and you can’t go far before walking past a site where a fairy–mischievous or otherwise–might just be waiting for you…

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Me fail English? That’s unpossible

Writing good English is still an important part of creating a good novel. Of course, this statement should be almost as obvious as the fact that cheddar is yellow and that finding an agent is like looking for an invisible needle in a very large haystack. There are three aspects to writing good English: spelling, grammar and style.

Spelling is making sure that your words are spelt correctly, i.e. in the acceptable way. Assuming you use Microsoft Word, make sure that automatic spell checking is turned on (you know, the red squiggles.) However, there is something you should be aware of. Word does not do contextual spell checking, so for instance if you spell “I always lose at chess” as “I always loose at chess,” then Word won’t detect the mistake. So there’s no excuse for not reading carefully through the manuscript to make sure that spelling mistakes are found. It’s always a good idea to give the manuscript to someone else to proofread before you submit it, as the eye can become so accustomed to words that it sees what it wants to see. This has happened to me on many occasions.

Next, comes grammar. Correct grammar means that your writing obeys the rules of the English language. Entire books and lives have been devoted to this subject so I won’t dwell over it. The best thing to do is to get a pocket-sized grammar book and to dip into it occasionally. Knowing the precise rules of English is vital for an author.

Finally, comes the killer: style. Style is to writing what hospitality is to a hotel. Even if your spelling and grammar is perfect, it won’t satisfy the reader if your writing lacks style. Style is all about knowing how to use words and sentences in such a way that the very writing itself is pleasing to the reader, which might actually mean breaking the odd grammar rule on occasion (after all, one of the beauties of English is that it is a very flexible language). The de facto standard book on this subject is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

Dialogue Packets

A dialogue packet is a way of avoiding all those repetitive “he said” and “she said”s that can quickly litter a page. Instead, you structure your paragraph in the following format:

Stimulus – something happens to the character, evident from the text
Internalisation – the character ‘internalises’ the event, perhaps by thinking about it or relating it to a previous event
Response – the character says or does something

For example:

Mark walked into the room and saw his sister leafing through his diary. He felt his whole world collapse around him. For months, he’d had a feeling this had been happening.
“Do you really have to do that, Karen?”

Here, the first sentence is the stimulus, i.e. what Mark sees happening. The next two sentences are the internalisation, which intensify the emotional response to the situation. Finally, the next paragraph gives the dialogue. Note that there was no need to add “Mark said” or “he said” after the dialogue, since it is evident from the context who is speaking. In some cases, internalization can be left out, for example:

A door slammed shut and the sound of footsteps came loud and clear from the hallway. Leah shuddered. “Who’s there?”

Sometimes, internalisation can slow things down, so in action-packed scenes, it’s best to limit it or leave it until the end of the scene or the next scene. I’ll talk more about scene structuring in a later post.

Leave it to the Imagination

The topic of my post today is the importance of leaving aspects of the events of a story to the reader’s own imagination. Some time ago, I was watching a TV show called The Greatest Scary Movies, which went through the top 50 scary films as chosen by viewers. At number three was Seven Deadly Sins, at number two was the Exorcist, and at number one was Alien. What nearly all the commentators said about these films is how, by leaving aspects of the crimes or creatures to the imagination, the viewer is actually forced to create their own, very personal image of what is happening. This image, created by the viewer according to their own personal fears, is so much more powerful than anything that could be accomplished visually by the filmmakers. For example, in Seven Deadly Sins, we are shown only the aftermath of the crimes and told how they happened through a vivid description given by the killer himself. Because the film doesn’t actually show us the killings, we are forced to create our own ‘mental movie’ of how it happened. This ‘mental movie’ is much more likely to be feared and remembered, because it was created by our own mind.

Similarly, in Alien, we are never shown the entire face and body of the creature. Instead, we see the effects it has on the crew of the spaceship. It is precisely because we never see it that we fear it so much. In fact, if you think about it for a moment, the things we fear the most are quite often the things we don’t see. The most frightening evil is one which has neither face nor shadow.

Now, how do we apply this principle to writing, the realm of words? Now, I’m not talking specifically about thrillers or horrors. The principle is that we allow, to a certain extent, the reader’s mind to ‘fill in the details’ of our story. We can start by not overdoing our descriptions or overloading with adjectives. For example, don’t feel the need to describe in detail how characters look. Readers will identify so much more with a character if they give him or her appearances of their own choosing. For example, if your character is a romantic hero in a novel aimed at women, imagine how much more a reader will care for the hero if she can feel free to picture him as a man that she knew, knows, or dreams of. I’m not saying don’t describe the physical appearance of your characters—in some cases it may be essential to the story—but just bear in mind that it’s your characters’ personalities, goals and conflicts which will ultimately linger on in the minds of your readers long after appearances have been forgotten.

The Negation of the Negation

There are lots of techniques to help with building good stories, and one of them works by looking at the general theme of the story. This technique is best used after most of the characters and plot have been developed, but some finishing touches are required. The reason is that the theme only becomes obvious after the plot is ready. It generally is not advisable to start with a theme – readers don’t want to be lectured, but entertained.

So let’s say the theme of our story is love. At some point in the story this emotion will figure in some way, for example by the guy and girl getting together. Now what we can do is look at the theme that is contrary to love. What’s contrary to love? Indifference. How can we use this in the story? Possibly the guy can start off by not caring about the girl in any way and ignoring her attention, or vice versa. Next up, what’s contradictory to love (i.e. what can you not easily have at the same time)? Hate, of course. So, after they fall in love, maybe the guy could (wrongly) suspect the girl of cheating, so he goes off and actually cheats himself on a drunken night out, comes back home with the girl he picked up and meets our girl. So they end up hating each other.

Finally, and this is the crunch, what is worse than hate? How about self-hate? The guy realises his mistake and blames himself for his stupidity. He becomes suicidal…at this point the story can have either a happy or sad ending, depending on the mood of the relevant author .

This worst possible case is called the negation of the negation, or worse than worse. In English, two negatives make a positive (e.g. I didn’t do nothing = I did something). The same goes in maths: (2 – (-2) = +4). Funnily enough, this isn’t the same in all languages. For example, in Italian, two negatives make a negative (e.g. ‘non ho fatto niente‘), which in some sense is more reflective of the way things tend to work in real life.

So what we have is:

POSITIVE -> CONTRARY -> CONTRADICTORY -> NEGATION OF THE NEGATION

Here are some other examples of themes – notice they all start with positives and go towards negatives:

Life -> Unconsciousness -> Death -> Damnation

Love -> Indifference -> Hate -> Self-Hate or Hate Disguised as Love

Loyalty -> Split Alliegance -> Betrayal -> Self-Betrayal

Justice -> Unfairness -> Injustice -> Tyranny

Wealthy -> Middle-class -> Poverty -> Wealthy but Suffering Pains of Poverty

Courage -> Weakness -> Cowardice -> Cowardice Percieved as Courage

Wisdom -> Ignorance -> Stupidity -> Stupidity Perceived as Wisdom

Freedom -> Restraint -> Slavery -> Slavery Perceived as Freedom

Success -> Compromise -> Failure -> Selling Out

Story Ideas

Stories are all about conflict and risk. And the best conflict and risk happens with the unexpected. This is the best way to generate an endless stream of story ideas: just take any everyday situation, think about what you would normally expect to happen (boring), and then think about something dramatically different and unexpected (exciting). Stories are born in that magical gap between the expected and the unexpected.

For example, a woman walks her dog every day in the same park. She enters the park at around 7:0pm at night, and leaves at 7:30pm to go back to dinner. This happens every day, until ONE DAY she can’t get out of the park…..

Another example: you brush your teeth every night before you go to sleep. You look in the mirror to make sure you’re brushing all the right parts. Then ONE DAY you look in the mirror and you see someone else’s face…..

One more (yes, I’m enjoying this): a man takes the train to work each day and always gets there on time. Then ONE DAY, the train just stops mid-way….

Get the hang of it? It doesn’t even have to be dramatic as such, as long as it’s UNEXPECTED. If it’s what you’d expect to happen, it isn’t interesting, even if its dramatic. If someone falls off a cliff, you’d expect them to die: that’s dramatic, but boring and predictable. BUT, let’s say someone falls off a cliff and their body is never discovered…well, hmm, now that’s more like it…

My New Blog

My name is Hamish, and I’m a part-time writer who has just published his first book, Jennifer Brown and the Dagger. I wrote this over many years, and finally succeeded in bring it to publication in December last year. Currently, I’m working on promoting this first book and already starting work on plotting the second novel in the Jennifer Brown trilogy (the ‘Fairyhand’ series).

I’ve started this blog with three goals in mind:

  • To share news about my own writing.
  • To share my thoughts, ideas and tips on writing techniques and story development.
  • To discuss topics relating to myths and legends, and how these tie in with story ideas.

I’m looking forward to writing more here in the weeks and months ahead.