Grenfell: a poem

I live not far from Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, and it has been so heartening to see the incredible support from so many in our community for the survivors over the last few days. Amidst such a tragic and preventable event, a great sense of care, concern and neighbourliness has shown through.

Late last night, I was reflecting on everything that had happened when a few words came to my mind. After a couple of hours, I ended up writing a poem about the tragedy, putting my thoughts on paper.

Here it is:

Grenfell

In a North Kensington tower block the hour was late
As a tinder box of humanity awaited its fate.
Some were asleep
Others less keen to join the slumber,
Still up wondering if it was time to pray;
Exams to worry about the next day.
Friends chatting long after the party had ceased
Or sitting up late for the Ramadan feast.
A late night snack, a flickering of the light
The long standing rhythms of a working night.
The thing started somewhere,
I don’t know where;
A spark, an explosion, a crackling that spread.
It started small; it always does
But it spread, and spread;
It should not have.
The first hints of smoke, “What is that smell?”
Someone rushing into the corridors, a slamming door.
What do we do? Stay put, they always say so well!
Yet the fire and its smoke grew thicker and stronger
Spread their wings and tore through the tower.
They had much to help them on their way:
The cladding like a combustible suit of armour to beware;
The sprinklers that just were not there.
I do not hope to imagine
The desperate cries for a friend to help
The tweet or the message too hard to send
The sense of the world closing in, of impending doom
Or an agonised scream in a smoke filled room.
Nor the soot, the ash, the blackened walls
The sound of neighbours pounding on doors.
“Get out, get out!” they called in voices hoarse.
A crowd grew on the stairwell as it tried to flee;
Mothers with their sleepy children
Fear in their hearts lest one should fall.
The brother and the sister, hand in hand
Ran with the gentleman already choking
Past the man who from the Syrian war had to flee
Now once again a refugee.
A phone call had been made
Minutes later, sirens blared.
The men in blue unrolled their pipes
At the scene from hell on a summer’s night:
The anguish, the missing, the fear, the dread
The sound of the helicopters overhead.
The babe who found safety in a stranger’s arms
And those wondering just where were those alarms.
Then came the crashing down of doors
The clamour of footsteps and urgent calls.
Though they saw much to turn their thoughts sour
Back inside went the heroes of Grenfell Tower.
The survivors they brought out from each flaming cell
But what they felt is not for my words to tell.
Dawn began to break, the sun rose bright and proud
On a charred building, a homeless crowd
Firefighters wiping away the sweat
Yet still as keen to take on the threat.
Though there was much that those angry flames did take:
Lives and homes shattered in burns and despair
The spirit of the people it could not shake
And the sound of community filled the North Kensington air.
There was no want of a place to stay
A bite to eat or a phone call to a friend.
Just when it seemed like hope had run away
A hundred helping hands came to ease the day.
The clink and crackle of cans and bottles
Cuddly toys and food-filled parcels.
Soon there were aisles with no more room to fill
In all the churches of Notting Hill.
Then came anger, the righteous clamour
The urgent demand for people power.
Who had been so utterly pig-headed
To let so many a warning go unheeded?
Why was there so much to cry over;
Why was a selfie now a missing persons poster?
At the wall of condolence, the messages grew
While the flowers gathered, row by row.
A group of young friends take in the sight;
A hug, a tear, a quiet prayer
But glad that they still stand together.
For we are the people of North Kensington
Communities undivided.
Lives lost, we remember
Those shattered, we rebuild
Explanations, we demand.

Dyslexia Scotland talk

A couple of weeks ago, as part of National Dyslexia Awareness Week in Scotland, I was invited by Dyslexia Scotland to give a talk to two Primary 7 classes at Oxgangs Library in Edinburgh. I planned a 45 minute presentation to introduce the children to what dyslexia is and how it can affect those who live with the condition. I’d originally wanted to weave in examples from Jennifer Brown, but in the end decided to keep things simpler and focus on dyslexia itself and give as many real world examples as I could.

I took the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Edinburgh. I enjoy travelling by train generally, and even though it’s sometimes a little exhausting, it’s nice both to have the time all to yourself and be able to watch the country as it rolls by.

I arrived in Edinburgh early in the morning, several hours before I was due to give my talk. It was a few days before Remembrance Sunday, and there were poppy sellers all around. I had a stroll down the Royal Mile, buying my poppy and taking a moment in the Garden of Remembrance. I then went to a coffee shop and spent an hour or so just reviewing my talk and practising (in my mind…!) what I was going to say. You can never prepare too much, in my opinion.

I tend to avoid buses wherever I travel, for the simple reason that it’s (a) not clear how you’re meant to buy the ticket, and (b) it’s not easy to tell where they’re actually going to take you! Or maybe it’s just me, who knows. Anyway, my talk was at Oxgangs Library, down in the suburbs of Edinburgh, so walking there was definitely out of the question! In the end, I decided it would be best to just get a taxi.

There was still over an hour to go when I arrived near the library, so I bought a few snacks from a nearby shop and took a little wander. The area reminded me in many ways of where I grew up–a small town in central Scotland. Places like this still (by and large) have a sense of community that, sadly, has tended to wither away in many other parts of the country. I could somehow still get a feel for that as I walked around, even in the mostly quiet streets. After all, it was a Monday afternoon and most people would be at work.

It was finally time to go to the library. After the various introductions, we began setting up the chairs, stands, and hooking up my laptop to the TV screen (keeping fingers crossed that the tech would just work!).

The children arrived with their teachers, and everyone began to settle down. After briefly introducing myself (cringe!), I moved on to a little chat about words and all the places where we can find them, and how important they are to helping us understand the human world around us.

When addressing an audience, especially children, I always find myself paying keen attention to whether what I’m saying is holding their interest or not, or if I need to adjust in order to keep them with me. When they’re completely silent, it’s sometimes hard to decide whether they’re bored or spellbound (or at least more the latter than the former!).

The talk continued onto an overview of what dyslexia is, and its different symptoms. The parts the children (and I!) really enjoyed were the exercises that helped them gain some understanding of the kinds of difficulties that dyslexic people can face. I had prepared two reading exercises and several writing exercises. The reading ones involved switching the regular sounds of the alphabet to totally different ones, and then trying to read a sentence written out in the new ‘alphabet’. The difficulty in trying to individually remember what sound each is supposed to make gives a good idea of what some of the symptoms of dyslexia.

Before starting, I asked if any of the children were dyslexic themselves, as I thought the exercises would be double trouble for them! I was a little surprised that none of the pupils (out of a class of 30 or more) were dyslexic, but it might be that the children simply didn’t feel like putting their hands up in front of everyone. Perhaps all the more reason for more events such as this to remove some of the myths of dyslexia.

The writing exercises created the most commotion while the staff and I handed out paper and pencils to the children. The first task was to try and write their name using the ‘new’ alphabet from the previous exercise. Next, to try and write their name as if they were looking at it in a mirror.

Next, I got them to try writing their name with their opposing hand. Finally, to make things really hard, and build up the frustration, I asked them to combine both tasks, i.e. to try and write their name in mirror writing using their opposing hand!

The rest of the talk gave a summary of some of the other symptoms of dyslexia, but also to a bit of ‘myth busting’. I also shared my own memories of being at school, and of one or two children who may well have been dyslexic but didn’t receive all the support they might have. As I’ve tried to show in Jennifer Brown, dyslexia doesn’t just stop at reading and writing. The problems caused at school can often have knock-on effects in so many other areas of life, and, if left unchecked, can seriously affect confidence and self-esteem.

Afterwards, I did a short reading from the first chapter of Jennifer Brown and the Dagger. When I finished, the children all lined up to get my…autograph! 😮 I found it so sweet how they all waited patiently for their turn.

It’s always so satisfying to come away from a school or library visit with the feeling that you’ve not only given the children a bit of a fun time and a break from regular lessons, but also contributed to raising their awareness and understanding of something they may not have known so much about. It certainly made the long journey back to King’s Cross a whole lot more bearable!

Visit to Coston Primary School

Earlier this year, I had an author visit to a school I’d been to before. No, not one where I’d gone before any time recently. Instead, I’d attended Coston Primary School in Greenford, London when my family had been living there for a year and a half back in the early 90s. Yes, it’s been a while! This visit was the first time I’d stepped back into that school ever since we’d left London all those years ago.

As I got on the Underground for the journey to Greenford, I began wondering if I’d recognise anything from the school. I remembered the outdoor ‘huts’ where some classes were held. I remembered the Y2 form group I’d been in, the Swallows! I also remembered the assembly hall, where I’d once been ‘named and shamed’ as one of the naughty pupils of the month! Most of all, however, I remembered the teachers. There were two that sprang to mind. My main class teacher, whose name I don’t recall, and another teacher, who took our class once or twice a week, called Mrs Brown. I always looked forward to her visits because for some reason I didn’t seem to get into trouble with her so much, and the lessons felt like a relief. At least, that’s how I remember things. Childhood memories, as with all memories, do have a habit of behaving like a deck of cards sometimes.

Now, if the name Brown rings a bell (a certain Jennifer, perhaps?), you might wonder if I named my character after that teacher. Truth is, I don’t know. I didn’t consciously, though the unconscious mind does have a way of making its presence felt.

Arriving at the school, I was greeted by the head of English and taken to the assembly hall. I was very touched and pleasantly surprised to see that my photo had been put up on one of the corridor walls along with various recent historical figures who had lived in Greenford! Somehow I’d turned into a local celebrity!

The assembly hall looked so much smaller than how I remembered it. Then again, perhaps the fact that I wasn’t about to be punished had something to do with it as well!

It was the start of Reading Week at Coston, and I’d prepared a short talk on the importance of reading and all the benefits it can have. I was then asked to spend time with two Y4 classes. In the first one, I spotted some posters the children had made about myths and legends, and what these were. I decided to do a little workshop on how legends start. This turned out to be great fun, and the children joined in enthusiastically. It’s always great when this sort of thing works out!

During breaktime, I had coffee in the staffroom and chatted to a few of the teachers. I took the opportunity to ask if anyone remembered Mrs Brown, and sure enough, a few of the teachers said they’d heard of her. Clearly, she’d left long since. However, one teacher did say that she had apparently been very strict, which I found intriguing. Totally at odds with what I remembered about her!

In the second class, I did an author Q&A, followed by a group exercise on creating a story. This involved getting the children to come up with ideas on characters, setting and plot. Oh, my, this was fascinating! We settled on the main character being a little girl who is generally nice and quiet, and doesn’t ever get into trouble at school. When I asked if she had any brothers or sisters, someone suggested that she had an older brother…the next suggestion was that this older brother was an, er, gangster!

I decided to go with the flow and see where this would lead. Well I never cease to be amazed at the tales that children will come up with! Bit by bit, a really interesting story developed: the girl was struggling with her lessons and worried that she wouldn’t pass her exam. So, she gets her older brother (the gangster) to break into the school and steal the exam papers. The brother is caught red-handed.

At this point, I asked the class how they thought the little girl felt about the situation. I asked them to bear in mind the personality they had chosen for her, namely someone who is a nice person. The answer I expected was that she’d be feeling upset or guilty about what had happened.

Well, that was never going to happen. Instead, one eager girl put up her hand and said, without any hint of sarcasm:

“Well, she realises that you can’t always be nice and kind…!”

Goes to show the unexpected ways in which different people, of different ages, can think about these situations. Given the same scene, we can derive different conclusions. Still, it was great fun working with the children on this. I stayed for a while longer, helping them with their poem writing lesson. When my time was drawing to a close and the head of English arrived to say goodbye, I was almost sorry to leave. Some of the children were saying “Please sir, don’t go…!”

Remembering my own days at school, I understood. It always made a nice change to have another adult in the classroom, such as another teacher, a visiting student, or a speaker. Little did I ever think that one day it would be me!

Writing about Work

Work and workplaces make for some of the best story material. The reason is quite simple: workplaces have an ample supply of the essential ingredients for a good story: conflict and character. Most workplaces are full of book-worthy characters: the lazy worker, the boss, the scrounger, the guy who wants a rise and will do anything to get it, the new employee eager to make an impression, the spy, the thief, the embezzler, the dirty dog, etc. Then conflict: a potential take-over, hostility between colleagues, two people after the same job, gossip, suspicion, stealing secrets, hacking into the network, and last but certainly not least, love affairs.

The list goes on and on.

Some professions have more conflict than others, which is why so many books and films have been written and made about lawyers, doctors, police officers and detectives. These professions have intrinsic conflict. However, it’s important to understand that you can write about any profession, as long as you have a good setting (the office, the warehouse, etc.) and the characters, i.e. a group of colleagues. Imagine writing about a hairdressers or a computer store. Again, remember that it’s characters that make books. At first glance, you might think that a book about a computer store might be boring, but that would be superficial. Imagine someone is stealing goods from the suppliers and then selling them on to the boss’s business rival. Imagine that this business rival is having an affair with the boss’s daughter or wife. Imagine a new recruit unknowingly becoming an accomplice to the crime, while having a family to support.

Well, all of a sudden it’s not so boring.

People love reading about work. After all, that’s what a good portion of our waking hours are devoted to. So next time you’re stuck for an idea for a novel, think about the humble workplace.

Drafts

How many drafts should you do for a novel? In my opinion, three (as with many things, it seems) is the magic number. However, each draft has a specific purpose and is not just about vague ‘revision’ or ‘improvement.’

Let’s start with the first draft. This is when you are sitting down to write your story for the first time. Here, things like grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and even style ought to be the last things on your mind. Don’t ignore them completely if you can, but don’t make them your number one priority. The first draft is about getting the story done. Period. This draft belongs to your untamed muse, who wants to fill blank pages with reams of words telling the tale you have in your mind. Let your characters come alive and tell you their story. Write down what you want, without feeling guilty about your repeated use of words or bad grammar. You will improve with time, anyway.

One important point is not to let anyone read your first draft while you are writing it; otherwise you might get derailed by the feedback. At this point, you must have the utmost concentration on writing, and on writing what you want, not what someone else thinks might work better.

After the first draft is done, print it out and put it away on a dusty shelf for a couple of weeks, a month is best. Sometimes (and I know this from experience) you can be itching to start revising and improving, but it’s best to start with a clear head. The only way to do that is to put aside your work for a while. In the meantime, write something different. A short story, perhaps, unrelated to your main work, or even a few poems. Basically, take your mind off that novel.

Once the rest and recovery period is up, get the printed copy first draft from the dusty shelf and start revising with a vengeance. Don’t be kind to your writing. If you see entire paragraphs or pages that seem unnecessary, cross them out without mercy. Drivel is the worst enemy of good writing. You can fix grammar and punctuation, rearrange paragraphs for better effect, decide to insert whole new sections of narrative, or change part of a scene. There will be many, many changes to the second draft, so be prepared for them. Try to get the revision done as quickly as you can, otherwise you will be tempted to keep revising and could end up in the trap of ‘death by editing.’

In the meantime, you might want to give a copy of your first draft to a few trusted friends for some constructive feedback. Don’t cringe on their every word, but see how you can make use of their suggestions. It’s especially helpful if you get members of your target readership to ‘test run’ your book, e.g. children, teenagers, young men/women etc.

Once the second draft is complete, leave it again for a few weeks. The third (and hopefully, final) draft is about doing another revision to make sure your story is consistent, the characters believable, the setting well described etc. In general, the first and third drafts are mainly about story, whilst the second draft is about prose, style and narrative.

In practice (cruel reality!?), there may well be a fourth draft to correct any mistakes that may have crept in during the third.

Once the final draft is complete, you can pat yourself on the back and buy a bottle of champagne. Yes, that was a joke…now comes the hard work of actually getting it out there and into the hands of your readers.

On dyslexia

My recently published novel, Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, is about a girl with reading difficulties who discovers she has a connection with the world of the fairies, and who goes on a dangerous journey with little time to spare. Fairies, dyslexia, and the great outdoors are the three big themes of the story. In this post, I’d like to talk a bit about the second.

When, many years ago, I first had the idea for the story, the main character, Jennifer, wasn’t even the main character. Rather, she was one of three relatively equal characters (Amy, her sister, and Simon, her cousin—both still in the story). However, by the mysterious laws (or anarchy?) of character development, Jennifer seemed to grow and grow until she not only became the main character of the story but also took over the narrative point of view.

Around this time, my mother had begun working as a teaching assistant at a special needs school. I remember one day noticing a book that she had left on our dining room table about the topic of dyslexia. Idle curiosity (or perhaps the Muses of old, who knows?), prompted me to pick up the book and leaf through it. I’d heard about dyslexia before, but didn’t really know in detail about what it was or who it affected.

I wish I remembered the name of that book—I only remember the yellow cover, and that it was relatively old, published in the early 80s. Reading it, I found myself intrigued. Dyslexia is a condition apparently caused by certain issues with brain development that causes difficulties with learning to read and write. People with dyslexia will tend to perform these tasks relatively slowly, often confuse the order of letters in words, struggle (to varying degrees) to absorb written information, and also find it harder than most to follow an exact sequence of instructions.

However, what I found fascinating is that many famous people in history have been dyslexic. In this amazing list are people as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci (his mirror handwriting, remember!), Pablo Picasso, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill. The condition of dyslexia itself may not necessarily have been known about while some of these individuals were alive, but with hindsight, it is clear that many of the difficulties they expressed regarding reading and writing would today be recognised as obvious symptoms.

It is also very strange that so many modern day artists and actors are dyslexic. There seems to be some kind of link between the condition of dyslexia and a high degree of creativity. It is almost as if the same brain development pathways that cause difficulties with reading and writing also enable an individual to sharpen their creative thinking. In fact, many dyslexics will say how much more comfortable they are with images rather than words. Perhaps this is why they will tend to seek out activities that don’t require so much focus on the written word.

Indeed, there is one school of thought that regards dyslexia as a ‘gift’ or blessing in disguise, enabling a person to think in a much more holistic way, using the power of images rather than letters and words. Perhaps, in some sense, there is a dyslexic in all of us. How often have we heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”? We are all able to ‘think in pictures’. It’s just that dyslexics have the capacity (or power, if you like) to take it that one step further.

I think it’s important to state, if it isn’t already obvious, that dyslexia does not affect intelligence or actual capacity to learn. In that sense, it is very unlike autism (which can share some symptoms with dyslexia), with which it is sometimes incorrectly linked (as they are both classified as special educational needs). More specifically, according to NHS England, dyslexia is classified as a “specific learning difficulty”, rather than a “learning disability.”

I should say here that I’m not dyslexic myself. Perhaps, since I always been such a passionate reader, I had my interest piqued by a condition that causes natural difficulties with something I enjoyed so much. By the time I’d finished that yellow book, I’d made up my mind—Jennifer Brown was going to be dyslexic. I hadn’t realised just how profoundly that would alter the story as I continued to churn through the plot. In the final book, her difficulty with reading and writing is as central as it can be to the story, and her desire to overcome her problems and to find a way to be ‘just as good as everyone else’ is one of her great motivators.

Jennifer, in the second and third instalments in the Fairyhand trilogy, will begin to learn to read and write (yes, I’m giving a little tease of what’s to come!). Although there is no ‘cure’ (it is a lifelong condition), there are plenty of excellent teaching methods and support strategies that can be used to help dyslexics learn to read and write, and perhaps some of those may make their way into the books to come.

I like to think, by combining the ‘fairy’ and the ‘dyslexic’, I have in some small way created a character that helps show the condition in its best light, while highlighting the real-world issues that dyslexic people inevitably face.

The Hero’s Journey

In 1949, the American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell published a seminal work called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he described how many of the world’s mythical stories seem to follow the same basic pattern, or are composed of the same elements. He summarised this pattern as the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey is a sort of blueprint for stories: it says what the different stages of a story are and how they unfold. It’s been especially used in Hollywood for making blockbuster movies like Titanic, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and the Matrix. The Hero’s Journey doesn’t map perfectly to every story but the concepts are great. So here are the stages in the journey – as you’re reading them, think about how they map to your favourite film or book. You’ll be surprised!

(1) The Ordinary World – here, the hero is presented in their normal, everyday life. A good place to introduce internal, emotional or personal conflicts. Note that ‘ordinary’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘dull and boring’. For example, for a police officer in a high crime area, an ‘ordinary’ day might involve a pursuit of an armed criminal. On the flip side, the ‘ordinary world’ for a drug addict might mean committing a crime to get money to buy their fix for the day.

(2) Call to Adventure – something happens that makes the hero have to leave their ordinary life and take up a challenge. This is usually because something is threatening their ordinary world and they must do something quickly before it collapses.

(3) Refusal of the Call – the hero is reluctant to take up the challenge and needs some external factor to seal his commitment.

(4) Meeting with the Mentor – the hero meets their mentor, usually an older person, who advises the hero on what they need to do in the adventure.

(5) Crossing the First Threshold – the hero takes the first step into the unknown, adventure world. Note that this could be an emotional journey as well as a physical one.

(6) Trials, Allies, Enemies – the hero undergoes a series of small, but gradually harder trials during which he makes a number of friends and enemies. This tends to be the ‘middle’ of a story, or Act II in a film or play.

(7) Approaching the Inmost Cave – the hero prepares to go to the heart of the adventure world and make the final confrontation.

(8) Ordeal – the hero undergoes a tough test during which their commitment is tested and the success of the adventure is at stake. In an action movie, this is typically where the hero is captured by the ‘bad guy’ and has to escape.

(9) Reward – having successfully passed the ordeal, the hero reaps the rewards of the adventure they set out on. This is usually the first climax of the story.

(10) The Road Back – having completed the bulk of the adventure, the hero makes their way back to their ordinary world, but not without troubles.

(11) Resurrection – the hero performs the final deed that completes the adventure, often involving the resolution of a personal conflict. This tends to be the second climax.

(12) Return with the Elixir – the hero returns to their ordinary world and at peace – all external and internal conflicts are resolved.

In later posts, I’ll start talking about in depth about the character arc and the different types of characters in the Hero’s Journey and in what stages they appear (Hero, Anti-Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Shadow etc.).

Adjectives and Adverbs

When writing fiction, it is important to be as concise as possible and to make every word count. Adjectives and adverbs can be useful at times, but when can wreak havoc with prose when misused.

Let’s recap some grammar. An adjective is a word used to describe a noun, e.g. “the dark forest” or “the young man.” Similarly, an adverb is a word that describes a verb, e.g. “he ran quickly,” or “she screamed loudly.”

There are two cases where adjectives and adverbs can be misused. The first is when the adjective or adverb can be discarded without losing any information. The second case is where the adjective/noun or adverb/verb combination can be replaced with a single noun or verb that conveys the intended meaning more accurately.

Let’s look at the first case. Suppose we have the sentence “The bear roared loudly.” The adverb “loudly” is superfluous (excuse the fancy word!) and can be removed, since “roaring” is by definition “loud.” We don’t need to patronise the reader by reminding them that “roaring” is loud. A similar example that involves an adjective is “The sight of the red blood made him shriek.” Everyone knows that blood is red.

Onto the second case. Suppose we have the sentence “The man ran quickly to the door.” Instead of saying “ran quickly,” we could try “rushed”, “hurried”, “bolted” or “scrambled.” Any one of these single words can replace the adverb+verb combination. “The man scrambled to the door,” reads and sounds better. Another example is “Heavy rain had started.” This can be replaced with “A downpour had started.”

One more example: “The strong wind blew away the woman’s red umbrella.” This can be replaced with “The gust blew away the woman’s umbrella.” Notice the word red was removed, since the fact that the umbrella is red is not relevant in this sentence. If this fact was important to the story, then it would have to be introduced elsewhere, in its own sentence. For example: “The gust blew away the woman’s umbrella. Helen noticed that it was red, reminding her of the blood that she had just seen.”

The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty was one of the folk stories gathered by the Brothers Grimm when they were preparing their famous collection of fairy tales. Many of these have deep symbolic meanings that go far beyond their common perception as simple bedtime stories for young children.

Let’s recap the tale. When the young Princess Aurora is born, she is cursed by the witched fairy/witch who had not been invited to the christening. The curse is that at a certain young age (seventeen, say?) she would prick her finger on a spindle and fall asleep for a hundred years until she was awoken by her true love. Of course, the King and Queen outlawed all spindles and made sure that her daughter could never go near one. Curses being what they are, the witched fairy made sure that the prophecy came true and sure enough, the Princess and the whole castle fell asleep. They remained asleep for a hundred years until a young prince, who had heard of the story of the “sleeping beauty” made his way through the thick forest that had surrounded the castle and succeeded in waking the Princess.

Of course, they all lived happily ever after.

What is the hidden meaning, here? I’m going to set my imagination loose! One can think of the story as essentially about the search for a hidden woman or a hidden beauty that has lain dormant and out of sight. It characterizes every man’s search for the woman of his dreams, who may be far away from him both in space (hidden in the forest) and in time (the Prince is not yet born when Aurora falls asleep). To a certain extent, it is also slightly sexist in nature, as it portrays Aurora as helpless and unable to avoid her destiny and can only be saved by a man who chooses to love her. In the story, it is the Prince who makes the choice to go into the forest and seek the sleeping Princess.

Dreams play an important role in this story. Aurora has grown up with the shadow of the prophecy surrounding her all the time and dreams to be free from it. The Prince dreams of finding the Princess and achieving glory. Last but not least, one cannot fall asleep for a hundred years without having many dreams. What did Aurora dream about while she was asleep? Did she dream at all? What about nightmares? If she did dream, then most likely what she dreamt about was her Prince and saviour. All that is now needed is to write the word “saviour” in capitals as “Saviour,” and the religious connotations become clear. The story of the sleeping beauty parallels the story of Christ saving humanity. The castle and Princess (humanity) lie in an eternal nightmare, unable to wake up and save themselves, condemned by the wicked fairy (Satan). The brave Prince (Christ) comes along and breaks the spell and brings the Princess and castle back into the light (salvation).

It is amazing how subconscious thoughts and ideas can infiltrate the stories that people write and tell without them even knowing about it. I personally know this from the stories I’ve written. In Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, the main character, Jennifer, is constantly trying to increase her confidence and to prove herself. The quest is to find the magical weapon that can help defeat the sorcerer and free the Fairy Queen and her castle, an almost striking parallel to the story of the Sleeping Beauty. The difference in this case, however, is that the “Prince” is now Jennifer herself, a girl.

I don’t for one minute recall planning to base my story on the Sleeping Beauty…

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…