THE TERKEL — Storkwrite

Last year around this time I shared a Christmas short story I’d written.  This year I’d like to share a touching short story written by a blogging friend of mine, Michael Bruton.  His story has atmosphere, magic and the kind of sentiment I associate with this time of year.  Please visit and enjoy the story!

Lizzy stood at the window; she smiled through the tears that now trickled freely down her cheek. She watched her young son, Gavin, her only child, as he ventured out along the garden path into the snowy Ceredigion morning. The sky was a deep winter blue, and the fresh, chilly wind blew the few stubborn […]

Read the full story here: via THE TERKEL — Storkwrite

Lost and found

In spring, time moves quickly.  Mornings have lightened then become darker once more with the winding forwards of the clocks.  The dawn chorus seeps through my open window each day and wakes me half an hour before my alarm.  The park at the end of the road has had its first mowing, and the scent of cut grass soaks the air.  A woodpecker has begun to frequent the trees.  I hear him drumming out his territory and sometimes glimpse red feathers glimmering in the sun.

In this most mercurial season, nature is a show-off, throwing everything at us to demonstrate what she can do.  One day, she paints the leaden sky with a thick, bright rainbow.  On the next, she sends snow.  Just when I’ve begun to forget the cold, I’m walking in soaking flakes, grass coated white, bushes laden.  Bulrush heads are like soggy sticks of candy floss dusted with icing.

The snow soon melts and days of mist follow, but it doesn’t stop the industry of the birds.  A great tit calls loudly from the maple, sparrows hop and chitter in the privet, starlings mewl and pigeons forage.  There is no sign of life from the smallest maple in the park, the harbinger of autumn that I had feared dead.  But a new tree has appeared from nowhere.  The label tells me it was planted officially, but with trees there is always the possibility of enchantment.  I feel responsible for it, such a small sapling among mature neighbours.  I fear vandalism.  But it seems strong, is already full of buds.  I hope it makes it.

In my last post, I wrote about giving up on a story.  My elderly protagonist is still enjoying an early retirement, but I found myself thinking about what happens to all those ideas when they don’t get used.  And as the spring snow was falling around me, I happened upon a curious place….

The garden of lost ideas by Andrea Stephenson

There is no path to the garden of lost ideas. You will never find your way here accidentally, except perhaps in dreams. It is cloistered by briars an eternity thick. Its walls are far too high to climb. If there is a gate, it is not a gate that can be seen.

There are no seasons in this garden, and there is every season at once. Its gardeners are enigmatic creatures, born of leaf and twig, fur and horn.

Seeds drift across the garden like pollen, an infinity of golden floss that gilds the foliage. The gardeners sieve and sift, capture seeds in spindly fingers. They plant them in rich dark loam, and tend each one with care and patience. An unfinished painting here, an untold story there, forgotten thoughts, abandoned sketches, lost notebooks and torn canvases. All find their way here eventually. This is a garden of second chances and its gardeners are the shepherds of lost ideas.

The flowers that bloom here are fragile. Stalks as thin as thread, petals as sheer as gossamer. No one flower like another. The garden overflows with delicate beauties that shimmer in the moonlight. The gardener never knows which will successfully bloom and which will wither; which will sprout and which will remain soil-bound, perhaps forever. So she tends each frail bloom, charming them with lilting whispers.

Sometimes, those fragile blooms will burst. Their colours will grow more vibrant, their petals more substantial. And then the gardener knows her work is done. Somewhere in the world outside the garden the idea has found its purpose once more. The flower grows not only in the garden, but in someone’s imagination. A tale has been told. A picture has been painted. The idea is no longer lost, but has been found.

Blogger book of the month: Britt Skrabanek – Nola Fran Evie

Britt Skrabanek is an enthusiastic, positive and energetic blogger, currently experimenting with creative memoir on her blog.  I’ve enjoyed all of her engaging and unique books: Everything is Not Bigger is a story of identify and self-discovery, Beneath the Satin Gloves is a time slip spy story.  But I think her third book Nola Fran Evie is the best she has written yet. The true story behind this book is as fascinating as the book itself – a vintage handbag, found by the author, containing baseball tickets from 1954, a voting receipt and a shopping list.  From these finds, Britt has woven a wonderful story of the lives of four women. Nola, Fran and Evie meet when they play baseball for the All American Girls Professional Baseball league during the 40s and 50s. When the league folds in 1954, their lives take them in different directions, until one fateful day they’re brought back together again. Their stories take in love, loss, disappointment, jazz and the civil rights movement. And interwoven with the stories of these women from the past is the present-day story of Jacks, who will also have a role to play in continuing their story. This book is a fantastic read. The characters come to life on the page and at turns, you root for each of them. It is funny, moving, nostalgic and fast-paced.  Britt’s books have just been published as paperbacks and are also available as ebooks.  You can visit Britt’s blog here, and her Amazon author page here.

A gift of dreams – a short story for Christmas

My food ran out days ago and there’s no prospect of rescue up here at the top of the world. I try to put up my tent, but the arctic wind bludgeons and tears at the fabric. My compass is gone, my GPS is behaving strangely and the whiteout obliterates the stars. I no longer know which direction to walk in. The next time I fall, I stay there, slumped in the snow, ready to give in to sleep at last.

I drift, watching flurries of snow dart past my goggles. The snowstorm cancels out any differences in the landscape. When my eyes close it’s darker, but that’s the only difference, it seems, between being awake or asleep.

There is something tugging me. Something rough and insistent. I try to shrug it off but it gives me no rest. I open my eyes to a blur of dark movement. It takes a moment to focus. There is a small figure pulling at my arms. At first, I think it’s an animal, it is wrapped so tightly in furs, but no, there are two arms, two legs, and the shape is distinctly human. The storm is too loud for speech, but the figure is clearly attempting to pull me up. I’m resentful at the inconvenience but something tells me I should follow its lead.

There shouldn’t be any settlements this far north, so I can’t imagine where this person has come from. It’s random luck that they’ve come across me in all this whiteness. But the figure is strong and determined, clutching my hand. A child? Surely too strong for that. I stumble to my feet and follow.

Trees appear where no trees should be. Is it possible I’ve drifted south in the storm? But trees were days and days ago, I couldn’t have re-traced my steps that far. The figure pulls me into a clutch of pines and immediately there is calm. The whiteout is gone, replaced by gently drifting snow. There is a soft, subdued light akin to twilight, a relief after the glare of the tundra. This is not some small bunch of straggling trees, it’s a forest. The green is a shock to my scoured eyes. Among the trees, there’s time and space to relax from the effort of survival. I pull off my goggles and my hood. It’s hardly warm, but the absence of the blizzard makes it seem so. The frenzied, maddening wind is gone, replaced by the muffled silence of a snow-clad forest.

I look down at my helper. The figure pulls back its own hood and loosens the fur around its throat. Wisps of grey hair cloud the face. But I can tell it’s a woman, neither very young nor very old, with burnished skin and fierce green eyes.

‘Come,’ she says, beckoning me forward.

‘Where are we?’ I ask. She shakes her head and moves off, confident I’ll follow. The walking is easy, though if this is a path it has long been covered in snow. My energy has returned, despite lack of food and rest. The scent of the pines is intoxicating. I’ve smelt nothing but my own sweat for weeks.

Soon, I see light at the edge of the twilit forest. Lanterns hang from branches, not LED lights these, but candles cupped in glass. They dance, casting amber shadows on the snow. And there are shapes between the trees, I think, circular structures of wood, peaked roofs covered in moss. I stop, because there are other scents now flooding my nostrils: woodsmoke and cinnamon and cooked meat. There is the faint sound of music, the soft tinkle of bells. After the nothing out there, this is too much stimulation, too much colour. I have to steady myself on the nearest tree. The woods are coming to life around me, but how can that be?

There are paths between the trees, narrow curving paths. I see now that the wooden structures must be dwellings. They have lighted windows that hint at warmth and frivolity inside. I glimpse Christmas trees and rustic garlands. Lanterns deck the trees along the paths. This place is filled with dancing light. It’s the middle of June, but here, it seems, it’s Christmas.

I don’t see any other people, but I sense them. As though they wait and watch just out of sight, holding a collective breath. More than once, I glance behind me, expecting to see a huddle of followers. We walk endless paths, twisting and turning into the village, if that’s what this is, until we come to a clearing. In its centre is a spruce, much larger than the others and trickling with lanterns. There are things tied to the branches: pieces of cloth, small bells, trinkets of wood and glass. Some are frayed and battered, some so ancient they’re covered in lichen. A Christmas tree, but like no Christmas tree I’ve seen before.

I sink to my knees before it. Overwhelmed by all the remembered scents of Christmas. By a medley of echoing carols. I sense the roots of this tree stretching for miles beneath snow and soil. And a sound, half-way between hum and heartbeat. This is a tree that goes beyond Christmas, beyond time itself perhaps. It has always been here and always will be. I have nothing to offer, but I’m compelled to offer something. I tear a fragment of fabric from the inside of my pocket and carefully tie it to the end of a branch. The leaves caress me like a comforting hand.

The woman beckons me on. I don’t want to go, but she’s determined, dragging me forward. We follow a wider path until we reach a building different to the simple roundhouses I’ve seen before. It has the same foundation but it is bigger, with makeshift extensions so it looks like some strange confection of timber, moss and glass. The door is enormous and decorated with an intricate garland of evergreens. It opens the moment we reach it.

The light that spills out is diffuse and silver. There’s a figure silhouetted in the doorway. I think my companion bows and fades away, but I’m not sure because I can’t look away from the man on the threshold. Tall and portly, with acres of white hair and a beard that falls almost to his feet. He wears a robe the colour of the pines, edged in fur. His face is dark and weather-beaten, his eyes the shade of the forest lanterns.

‘Well,’ he says in a voice that is loud but gentle. ‘You must be Annie. We’ve been expecting you.’

I move towards him without thinking to ask how he knows my name. I want to walk into his embrace and tell him everything there is to know about me. A sudden memory comes, of my father hoisting me onto his back and dancing around the room as I cling to him laughing and squealing. For a moment, I’m caught up in the memory, unwilling to shatter it, but I feel a hand on my arm and I’m guided into a room warm with wood, cluttered with knick-knacks and lit by a crackling fire. The room is decorated with evergreens and a large Christmas tree stands by the hearth. But it isn’t Christmas, I remind myself, not in the world I’ve come from.

A woman stands in front of the grate. She is as tall as he is, broad and strong. She also has white hair to her feet and a face creased with lines. When she moves, she has a sinuous grace in contrast to the man’s bulk. She takes my gloved hands in hers.

‘Welcome Annie,’ she says.

She leads me to a simple room, containing a bed with a patchwork cover. A robe of pale green is laid out on it. She leaves me to change. I’m relieved to take off the suit I’ve worn for weeks, to get rid of my boots and sodden socks, to be able to wash and change into something that is warm and soft against my skin. All changed, I sit on the bed to catch my breath. It seems like years since I was out in the blizzard, ready to give in to a sleep I wouldn’t have woken from. Perhaps I’m dreaming, because how else could I be here in this strange, unexpected place, where it seems I was expected. I’m unusually shy as I open the door, but a loud voice greets me.

‘Come and join us, my dear.’

The couple have moved to a table, laden with food – simple soups and stews, vegetables and bread. My stomach tilts at the sight. I haven’t eaten for days and even then I was eating survival rations. I’ve had nothing fresh for weeks. ‘Tuck in,’ the woman says and I don’t need to be asked again. Any curiosity I have about them or this place is curtailed by the desire to eat. My manners desert me as I load up my plate and waffle it all down, until, sated, I sit back and remember where I am. I should be exhausted, but I’m wide awake. I scan the room and my hosts. They watch me. Carefully. Silently.

‘Thank you,’ I say. They both nod and it seems I’m watching them in slow motion.

There’s a tension that I’m loathe to break because it might undo all my ideas of what is true. But I can’t wait any longer.

‘Where is this place? Who are you?’ I ask.

‘Oh my dear,’ says the woman. ‘Don’t you already know?’

I think I do, but I’m reluctant to say it. It’s ridiculous. But they’re waiting. There is expectation in the silence. These are the questions they’ve been waiting for me to ask.

‘You’re….Father Christmas.’ I blurt.

The man laughs, nodding. ‘But you can call me Santa!’

‘And this is my wife, Frija – or Mrs Claus.’

I shake my head, more to clear it than in denial.

‘You don’t believe it?’ he says.

I ponder the question. Of course I don’t believe it. I haven’t believed in Santa since I was a child. But here I am and I somehow knew it from the moment I saw the big tree and there doesn’t seem to be another explanation that I’m happy with.

‘I believe it. Right now I believe it. But how? I know there aren’t any settlements up here. This place can’t exist. You can’t exist.’

They both laugh then. Mrs Claus leans forward and her face is suddenly serious.
‘This is a world between worlds,’ she says. ‘It’s not a place you can touch from the outside. And not a place that just anyone can visit – or even see. Call it a dream, call it a mirage, whatever you like, but it’s as real as the world you come from.’

‘So I’m not dreaming then? I’m not still out there in the storm?’ She doesn’t answer, only smiles.

Santa pushes his chair back suddenly and claps his hands. ‘You’ll be wanting a tour,’ he says. Mrs Claus rises too and they wait for me to follow. They lead me through convoluted passageways, up and down stairs, past bedrooms, sitting areas, studies and kitchens, but nothing I see is what I imagine Santa’s village to be. This is just a house, if an eccentric one.

In the end I blurt it out: ‘Where are the workshops…where are the…elves?’ I shrug apologetically. This still seems ridiculous.

‘Ahhh,’ he says. ‘You want to see where the magic happens.’

Mrs Claus nudges him playfully. ‘Of course she does.’

He nods. We’re standing in front of an arched door. He sweeps it open and I peer in. Not another bedroom or living room this time, but a tunnel. Narrow and smooth and carved from the earth itself. I can see soil and roots and worms. Like everything in this world it twists and turns, but finally we reach another door, labelled ‘workshop’. I take a deep breath as Santa turns the handle.

This is like no workshop I’ve ever seen – or imagined. There are no work-benches. No tools. No piles of toys. The room is huge, circular, sloping up to a skylight. Every wall is lined with shelves and on every shelf there are rows of books. There are piles of books on the floor too, some in stacks, some lying open. And between them, figures roam – small figures with pointed ears.

‘But this is a library!’ I say.

‘Of a sort,’ Mrs Claus says. ‘Come and see.’

I follow them further into the room. The elves are engrossed in their work, but I’m not sure what work that is. They gesture and dance, sing and sway, shout and mutter. I realise that the room, which seemed silent when we entered, is a blur of noise and movement. And when I look more closely, I see the pictures. Suspended in the air. Transparent, moving images. Like holograms, though I suspect Santa’s village isn’t computerised. There are dozens of them. Mirages. I gasp and stutter, swinging my head from side to side to try to grasp what it is I’m seeing.

‘This isn’t what you expected.’ Says Santa.

‘No.’ I tear my eyes away from the kaleidoscope and focus on Santa.

‘I expected workshops full of elves making toys for you to deliver on Christmas Eve.’

‘I don’t deliver toys,’ he says.

I stop in shock. ‘But you do! You’re Santa. That’s what you do.’

‘Is it?’ he says.

I nod my head vehemently and Santa smiles.

‘It’s true,’ he says. ‘There was a time I loaded my sack with toys and delivered them around the globe. You could be sure there would be a gift from Father Christmas under your tree.’ He looks a little sad.

‘And now?’

He spreads out his arms in a big shrug. ‘Nobody needs toys from Santa anymore. They have quite enough under the tree as it is.’

I’m stunned into silence for a moment. ‘But…but surely that’s not true. You’re still needed. Not every child has toys.’

He nods. ‘And I still have something up my sleeve for those boys and girls.’

‘But on Christmas Eve, what do you do…have you retired?’

He laughs. ‘I do what I’ve always done. I get in my sleigh and I travel the world.’ He walks through the workshop and I follow.

‘But you said…what’s the point?’

‘Do you know what the elves are doing here?’ he says.

I shake my head.

‘They’re conjuring dreams.’


‘My purpose was never to deliver toys,’ Santa says. ‘It was to deliver dreams!’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘You had a dream once,’ Santa says. ‘To go to the North Pole and visit Father Christmas. That’s why you’re here. Do you remember?’

I shake my head. ‘All children dream of that.’

‘Mm, that’s true. But not all of them end up on a North Pole expedition. All the years of training, the fund-raising, the sacrifices…’

‘But that wasn’t to see you. That was to see the arctic, to test myself, to see if I could do it.’

He’s silent, watching me question myself. ‘That’s what it is now,’ he says. ‘But in here…’ he rests a hand over my heart. ‘In here you never stopped seeking the magic.’

Warmth spreads through my chest at the touch of his hand. Suddenly, I’m not the woman pursuing a determined quest for the arctic, but the child wishing for Santa Claus. I am a girl again, standing vigil at the window on Christmas Eve, desperate to hear the tinkle of bells and to see the sweep of a sleigh across the rooftops. I nursed the wish to meet Father Christmas long after other children had discarded it and perhaps somehow I knew that I would have to come here to do it.

‘Come,’ Mrs Claus says. She leads me to a bay of shelves and with a small push, the wall opens. I gasp. Stretching away into the heart of the earth is a catacomb of sorts. But not filled with death or bodies, filled with books. Some look new, some are crumbling, and each is labelled with a name. She takes one off the shelf and opens it. Immediately the pages begin to dance with shapes and colours and letters and faint images. It crackles in her hands.

‘A book of dreams,’ she says.

‘Every child has one. It’s the elves job to create the possibility of the dream. Elves are masters of magic you know; they conjure dreams out of nothing. They can build toys too, of course, but their skill and their purpose is much greater than that. Santa’s job is to get each dream to the right child – that’s his gift.’

‘But not everyone has dreams.’

Santa nods. ‘Oh but they do.’

‘Some get lost along the way,’ says Mrs Claus. ‘Some don’t have the opportunity to fulfil them.’ She is sad. ‘But they remain. We hold them in trust. You might call me the librarian of the North Pole,’ she laughs. ‘It’s my job to keep them safe. Dreams never go away, do they?’ she says softly. ‘Not really. And that magic you feel on Christmas night – even if only for a short while – that vein of hope and anticipation, it’s a reminder to everyone that dreams are still possible.’

I turn back to the workshop. Step into the chaotic flurry of the elves’ work. I reach out a hand. Just beyond is the image of a child on horseback, galloping along a shore. When I touch it, it has no substance, but for a moment there is joy, movement, the sense of wind tugging my hair. I step back quickly to find myself looking into the face of a young elf. He’s smiling at me.

‘Good?’ he says.

I look around me. The room has gone silent. The elves are still. The air is full of dreams, paused, waiting for their conjurers. I nod.

‘Exquisite,’ I say. I bow and step away, back to Santa and Mrs Claus. The cacophony starts up again.

‘Now.’ Mrs Claus says, ‘It’s time for you to go and fulfil your dream. You’re almost there you know.’ She takes my hand and squeezes it. Then Santa takes the other. I see myself looking out of the window on a frost-filled Christmas many years ago, hoping to see Santa, wishing I might visit him in his village one day. I hear a faint laugh.

I wake smiling. My eyes are filled with orange. Not the soft amber of lanterns, but the garish fabric of my tent. All is calm and still. I feel rested. There is no hunger in my belly. The despair of knowing that I’m not going to make it is gone. You’re nearly there….I sit up suddenly. A moment ago – surely it was only a moment – I was with Santa and Mrs Claus. Wasn’t I? I look outside my tent and there is only white. Was it a dream then? But my tent is up, my belly is full and in the corner there are new supplies, enough to keep me going for days. A dream, yes, but not the kind you have when you sleep. I don’t know what day it is, but somehow I know I’m on time. I’ll reach the pole when I’m supposed to. My support team will be waiting for me.

I pack up my things with renewed enthusiasm. The sled is light. My muscles are strong. The landscape is little more than a wash of white, with a faint blue tinge in the sky. But I know now that somewhere in this wilderness is a world between worlds that only a handful of lucky dreamers get to see. My most treasured dream is almost over, but somewhere, in a magical library tended by the most diligent librarian, there is a book with my name on it in which other dreams wait.

The Return of the Courtesan: a guest post by Victoria Blake

The Venice of my imagination is a mysterious place.  A place of watery reflections, swirling fog and twisting canal-ways.  I have visited twice, both times in summer, and I didn’t find this Venice.  But fortunately, there are other versions of the city, more like those of my dreams.  One of these is the Venice of Victoria Blake.  Victoria’s novel: The Return of the Courtesan (published previously in hardback as Titian’s Boatman) has just been published in paperback.  The story weaves together the lives of an intriguing array of characters in 16th Century Venice, modern day New York and London.  The Venice depicted here drips with atmosphere: plague-ridden but opulent, beautiful but corrupt. Its characters are as well-drawn and evocative as the city.   I can’t recommend this book highly enough and encourage you to read it.  If you like history, art, Venice or just a good story well told, this book offers it.  So I’m very pleased to welcome Victoria Blake with a taster to whet your appetite. 

Now over to Victoria to introduce the courtesan of the title…

In the sixteenth century, Venice was notorious for its courtesans. So notorious that when Shakespeare had Othello say to Desdemona, “ I took you for that cunning whore of Venice,” everyone, from the groundlings up, would have understood the allusion. In the early part of the century there were said to be roughly 11,000 prostitutes in a city of 100,000 people and the writers of the time were obsessed with them. Here is Tomaso Garzoni in 1585: ‘More menacing than a lightning bolt, more horrifying than an earthquake, more venomous than a snake …’ That’s an immense amount of power to hand over to a working woman! But it also clearly shows male fear of women’s ‘unbridled’ sexuality.

My courtesan Tullia Buffo is modeled on the real life courtesan Veronica Franco. She was a woman who single-handedly supported three children, a large extended family and a household of servants. She was a respected poet and member of one of the leading literary salons of the day. She was a great supporter of other women and she tried to encourage the authorities to set up a refuge for women fallen on hard times. She was a cortigiana onesta an “honoured courtesan”. Thus the source of her income was arranging to have sex for a high fee with the elite of Venice and the many kinds of people who passed through the city which included a king, Henry III of France.

The fact that she could read or write at all was in itself remarkable. In Venice in the 1580s literacy amongst women was only 10-12 percent. Her intellectual life began by being privately tutored with her brothers and then continued when she was taken up by the patrician and celebrated patron of letters, Domenico Venier, who ran a literary salon at his palace, Ca’ Venier. He not only encouraged her he also published her and by her mid twenties she was well known as a poet.

Her prominence however generated great jealously from Venier’s nephew Maffio, who in 1575 wrote a series of misogynistic verses, mocking her: ‘Your mouth is as foul as rotten mud…your breasts hang low enough to row a boat on the canal…Your eyes bulge out of your head as if a priest were exorcising you of all your sins…’

Oh, Maffio, really!

But Franco refused to be shamed or silenced. These outrageous slurs spurred her on and she came out all guns blazing, challenging him to a poetic duel. “I now challenge you to single combat: gird yourself with weapons and valour. I’ll show you how far the female sex excels your own. Arm yourself however you please and take good heed for your survival …”

What a wonderful response! This is not a woman who would have been driven off twitter by trolls.

In the aftermath of the plague of 1575-1577 she was put on trial by the Inquisition. She survived – just, but her reputation was damaged. She died at the age of 44 in a poorer part of Venice. But through her poetry and her letters she comes down to us, dignified, combative, witty and flirtatious. In an era where women in the public eye are often vilified for how they look there is a lot we can learn from Franco’s verses.   I like to think she would have been out there taking part in the Women’s March earlier this year, proudly wearing a pink pussy hat.

Although I used Franco as the basis for Tullia Buffo, the courtesan in my book, I give Buffo a much happier ending. One of the rewards of fiction is having the ability to re-write history. I wasn’t going to have Tullia die in a poor part of the city. I hope Franco would approve. And I very much hope you enjoy reading my book. @VM_Blake


Thank you for your visit Victoria.  The Return of the Courtesan is easily available to buy on Amazon, including Amazon UK here and Amazon USA here and you can visit Victoria at the links above.


Time to create


“The worst of it is the certainty that I will die, not someday or sometime in the future, but today.  This is the day of my death.”

Reckoning – Andrea Stephenson


When I was young, I had time to write, time to draw, time to create.  The hours passed slowly, bending to fit the things I wanted to do.  There was no urgency or purpose – no deadlines, no pursuit of success.  Creativity was a pastime, not a goal.

Now, time is precious and passes quickly.  There is less of it in my day, my week, my year.  Now, uninterrupted time makes me procrastinate.  There are so many things I could do with a day that I often fritter it away, undecided.


We all know that our time is limited, but it’s a concept that is difficult to grasp until it runs out.  I recently realised that the years I have left may now be fewer than those I’ve already lived.  I’m often surprised that ‘twenty years ago’ doesn’t refer to the seventies, but to the nineties.  People I think of as contemporaries are actually a couple of decades younger than I am.  We try to control time with bucket lists and life plans.  But time is nobody’s servant.  It follows its own sweet path and we can stumble off it without warning.

Sometimes, I worry that there won’t be enough time to fulfil the creative dreams I have for myself.  And yet, time isn’t always a barrier to success.  You can write a story in a day, a novel in a month and publish a piece of writing in seconds.  Creativity isn’t dependent on youth.  The passing of time only enhances the depth and breadth of creative work and writing is not a profession you have to retire from.

And ultimately, how much time is enough?  If you knew exactly when you would die, would this make a difference to the way you lived your life?  That was the question I asked myself when I wrote my short story Reckoning.  You can find out what conclusion I came to because it’s just been published in the latest issue of Popshot, a literary magazine distributed to 18 countries.  I’m thrilled that my story was chosen for the ‘time’ issue and has its own dedicated illustration.  You can buy the magazine by clicking on the cover above.


October’s Guest Storyteller, Andrea Stephenson

This week you can read my first piece of flash fiction over at Sarah Potter Writes. Sarah writes speculative fiction, sci-fi and fantasy, but her blog is an eclectic delight of fiction, haiku, photographs and more. Thanks so much to Sarah for inviting me to be her October guest storyteller. Please let me know what you think of the story and check out some of Sarah’s other posts.

Sarah Potter Writes

Andrea StephensonAndrea Stephenson writes fiction, including short stories and The skin of a selkie, her first (as yet unpublished) novel. She finds inspiration in nature, the coastline and the turn of the seasons. During the day, Andrea is a libraries manager, but by night she is a writer, artist and witch. 

Her story below is inspired by the activities of the Order of the White Feather, an organisation active in World War One, with the purpose of shaming men into enlisting by encouraging women to present them with a white feather.



Her friends giggled as they nudged her forward so that she could present him with the feather.  He accepted it as if it were a gift, blushing and looking at the ground.  Her friends couldn’t know about the balmy days that they’d shared as children.  They couldn’t know that as a young woman she’d cherished his…

View original post 213 more words

The characters that call me

I’ve given a lot of thought to what happens to my characters when I’ve finished with them, but less so to where they come from.  There is a host of advice available to writers on how to create and develop characters, but I must confess to ignoring it.  I’ve only ever written the most rudimentary character profiles.  Unless it’s particularly relevant to a story, I couldn’t tell you what my characters like to eat, what type of music they listen to or their favourite colour.  I don’t create idendikits of my characters, instead, they seem to emerge almost fully formed.


As I described in my writing process blog hop post, I see characters visually, attached to a particular location and moment in time.  Their appearance and many of their characteristics are set, then I add layers, as their back story and their future emerges.  But I have wondered, if I don’t exactly create these characters, then where do they come from?  There’s a great video of author Elizabeth Gilbert doing the rounds at the moment, in which she talks about the ancient Roman meaning of ‘genius’ as an aspect of the soul or spirit through which our creativity comes.  From this perspective, the stories are already there, waiting for us to channel them.  So what’s interesting to me is whether these characters already exist in the ether and each one of us is predisposed to find those that are right for us.


Of course, if this is the case, then you might expect the writing process would be easier than it often is.  And if they do already exist, what is their purpose?  Are there stories each individual is ‘meant’ to tell because they help that individual on their journey or because they are the right person to share them with the world?  I do believe that spirits (those Genii again, in Roman terms) are all around us – that each place, each thing, has it’s own spark.  So perhaps the characters I tap into are an aspect of those spirits of place.  Then again, maybe the whole process is much more mundane and my imagination is just quick to ascribe a type of character to a particular place.  Ultimately, it’s not something I really want to know the answer to.  Writing is a kind of magic and it makes sense that there’s a little mystery to how that magic happens.


My thoughts about where characters come from were prompted by being tagged by two bloggers to take part in blog hops.  Sheri de Grom passed on the baton for the writing process blog hop and Evelyne Holingue for the meet my characters blog hop.

Evelyne Holingue was born in Normandy but has lived in the US for more than twenty years.  She writes in both French and English on her blog and I’m often surprised that English isn’t her first language, as her prose has a rich, sensual flow to it that I love.  She writes on a wide range of subjects, including writing and life.  Her young adult novel ‘Trapped in Paris’ is available from Amazon.

Sheri de Grom is another woman with a rich personal history.  She has worked as a military attorney and book buyer for Barnes and Noble, and many of her most touching and powerful posts concern her role as a mental health advocate, as a result of caring for her husband who has been diagnosed as bipolar.

I hope you’ll take a little detour to visit both Sheri and Evelyne.  I’ve already written about my writing process in a previous post here, so in this post, I’ll talk about some of my characters.

I’d like to introduce you to a mother and daughter: Alice and Bethan.  Both are fictional characters who stepped out of the sea fret when I considered the location and the story I wanted to tell.    Their story is set in the present on a small island in the north sea, reached by a causeway from the mainland.  The island is dominated by a lighthouse and an inn, which the women run.  It’s an enchanted place, where the human inhabitants live alongside ghosts and selkies, a race of beings who live their lives as seals, but, on the night of the winter solstice take human form and dance all night.  The island is a real place, pictured above.  It has a rich and interesting history, elements of which are incorporated into the story.  There is no inn here now, but there was in years gone by.  I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the ghosts and the selkies are real or fictional…
Bethan is her island.  From the moment she is born, she is part of it, as much at home in the sea as on the land.  Alice, on the other hand, seems to hate the island and is cold towards her daughter.  But both are harbouring secrets that ultimately tear them apart.  When her sister drowns in strange circumstances, Bethan, depressed and suicidal, is sent away by her mother, first to an institution, then to live in the city with her dad, far away from her childhood home.  There, she forgets the enchantments of the island.  Just before her dad dies, he tells Bethan that he isn’t her real father and that she should go home.  Bethan returns, twenty years after she left, to find out who she really is.
The novel is called The skin of a selkie.   As for when it will be published, who knows?  I want to try the traditional route first and I’m currently at the query stage and waiting for replies from agents.
And now for those I want to introduce you to, who will hopefully take on the baton to continue the meet my character blog hop:
Cecilia Carelse writes about the craft of writing.  She is in the process of writing her third novel, while her second is in the query process.  She covers a range of subjects about the craft of writing and keeping going through doubt and procrastination.
Sarah Potter writes speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy.  On her blog, she also shares her haiku and tanka poetry, photos, thoughts and interviews with other writers.  Sarah has recently nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award.
Chris Edgar has written and produced the animated musical web series ‘Steve’s Quest’, of which episode 1 has been released.  It has won a ‘best short’ award and been selected for showings at a couple of film festivals.  He has also recently released an album, ‘Slow Burn’, which is available on iTunes.
Britt Skrabanek is a life enthusiast and indie author who shares inspiring posts on a wide range of subjects as well as introducing us to other life enthusiasts.  Her books ‘Beneath the satin gloves’ and ‘Everything’s not bigger’ are available on Amazon.  She is currently completing her third novel.
Last but certainly not least, I’d like to introduce you to another kind of selkie, as she recently nominated me for an award.  New England Selkie is an animal health professional and marine mammal volunteer who lives in Maine and loves Scotland.  Given the subject of my novel, it was inevitable that I’d be drawn to the Selkie’s blog and I was pleased to find beautiful writing on nature, the sea and many other things.


The life of a novel


The stories we write travel with us, becoming part of who we are.  We live in many worlds and as many people, creating lives that are ours and yet not ours.  These stories accompany us on our journeys, changing as we change, and altering us in turn.


I’ve finished my novel for the second time.  I don’t remember when I first started writing it exactly, but it must have been almost twenty years ago.  It was born out of the sea, forged out of the history and atmosphere of a small island just off the coast.  This is the place I feel most myself, where my mind is free to drift and dream. And it was born out of my love for myth and magic, based as it is on the legends of the selkies.  If I didn’t love this place, hadn’t spent so much time here over the years, learned about it and absorbed it, the novel wouldn’t exist.


This book is redolent with all of my memories of the island: picnics on the rocks with my parents, climbing the steps of the lighthouse, long walks along the coast as a teenager, ending up here, full of angst and tears.  And within it too, are memories that are not mine, but those of the characters I’ve populated it with.  The place is evocative enough on its own not to need romanticising, so I had only to write what I saw. Yet the island I describe in the novel is not the island you would see.  I view it through the eyes of my experience, as you would your own.


But the life of my novel doesn’t begin and end here on this island.  It followed me, half-formed, to the city, where I began my career.  The ambiguity I felt about that and being so far from my beloved sea, is traced in the arc of one of the characters, who finds herself exiled from the island.


The novel lived with me, changing and evolving over the years I was writing it.  It accompanied me as I fell in love and set up home with my partner.  It followed as we moved back to the town of my birth, close, once more, to the place it began.  It showed me that I could finish a novel, that I had what it took to be a writer.


This was the first piece of writing I submitted for professional feedback.  I did it when my mother was dying.  It gave me something to hope for at a time when I was at my most vulnerable and a purpose that wasn’t all about preparing for my mother’s death.  The feedback made me cry, because after years of wondering whether or not I could write, here was some kind of proof that I could.  By this time, all my energy was consumed by my mother, so the novel lay dormant as life took over.  But life influenced fiction once more, as my experiences added richness to the mother daughter relationship that is at the heart of the story.


On returning to writing, I won prizes in two competitions within months of each another.  I began to blog, which gave me discipline, stoked my inspiration and connected me to other creative people.  It seemed it was time to take my writing seriously.  But still, though I made the decision to finally revise the novel, I found it surprisingly difficult to do so.  In the end, I decided to enter it in a competition, so that the deadline would force me to get it done.  And so I’ve finished my novel for the second time.  Although I would love to win the competition, it doesn’t matter if I don’t, because it’s served its purpose.


When I began this novel, I was starting out in life.  Now, I’m older, with an abundance of experiences and memories in between.  This novel is inextricably linked to who I am and where I’ve been.  It will always be the novel that lived my life with me.  So I send it out into the world and hope that somewhere it will find a life of its own.


SAMSUNG CSCSummer is slowly fading in the forest.  Though the foliage appears as lush as it was at midsummer, everywhere there are small signs of transformation.  The meadow is no longer dense with summer flowers and the sumptuous blossoms of the rhododendrons are gone.  Instead, there are dried seed heads where blooms would have been.  The birds are muted and difficult to see.  The bats are invisible.  The opulent red berries of the rowan punctuate the greenery, while lilac heather blooms in clumps beneath the trees.  A squirrel that inhabits the trees above our cabin obsessively gathers beech nuts, showering the verandah with shells like hailstones.  Sun still washes the forest and during the day the sky is baby blue and cloudless.  But the clear, star-speckled nights are chilled and silent.


Flowers have a flighty, exaggerated beauty: lavish, unruly and destined to be short-lived.  But there is a different kind of allure to the burnt browns and pearly silvers of the seed heads.  They are slender and skeletal, or brittle and gnarled, poised to crumble to dust in your fingers.  Behind the visible transformations, there is a sense that there are hidden labours taking place within the forest, secret preparations for the autumn and winter to come.


To me, September has always been a time of transformation.  Perhaps there is something instinctual about this, a sense memory of the change of the season and the transition to winter.  But more prosaically, it’s a recollection of the return to school after the long summer holidays, when there was always an opportunity to return transformed, a different person to the one that left in July.  Classmates would grow and change during the summer and we would all go back with new clothes, new supplies, new hope for the school year to come.  And though I no longer get those luxuriously long holidays, September still seems like the time when change arrives.  It’s an end to the blowsy exhibitionism of summer and a turning inwards to the snug serenity of autumn.  I feel the shift within, a murmur of relief after the immodesty of summer.


I’ve always been attracted to the concept of transformation.  Transformation is the thing I love about stories.  Whatever the genre, the one thing that makes a story satisfying for me is to watch the metamorphosis of the characters within it.  I’ll never enjoy a purely plot-driven narrative in the same way as a more intricate character-based tale.  This is the joy of reading.  To read about other people so that we can learn about other ways of being.  And it’s the joy of creation.  To witness the ways in which we transform our characters on the page.


Nature offers us spectacular transformations.  The brutal annihilation of the caterpillar, turned to pulp in its chrysalis to emerge as a butterfly.  The glorious eruption of the autumn leaves, before they wither and crumble beneath our feet.  But for us, the transformation is often quieter.  We may not realise we’re going through the process of change until it’s over and then we’re amazed at how different our lives have become.  When we’re younger, we can’t wait for transformation: to become older, to grow more independent.  When we’re older, we often resist it.  We may say we want to change, but don’t want to experience the discomfort of discarding the parts of us we no longer need and forging new ones.


But change is inevitable and reading or writing about it allows us to experience it with only temporary discomfort.  We can try out different lives, different adventures and immerse ourselves in all of the diverse things that are possible (or impossible, depending on the genre) within the safety of our imaginations.  So that when we do decide to transform ourselves, or when transformation comes unbidden, we know that there is a path to follow, or we have the confidence to create our own.

Three go off to camp

When I was small, I would plead with my mother to set up the clothes horse in the back garden.  She would drape a sheet over the rectangular frame and it would become my own miniature den.  I still have a vivid picture of the small ‘tent’ set up against the russet brick of the house, though I have no memory of what I actually did in there.


I always wanted a tent.  I never owned one of my own and went camping only once for a single night on a school trip away.  A friend of mine had a tent and occasionally, she would put it up in her garden and we would ‘camp’ out during the day.  But I never had the romantic experience of camping I wished for.  I wanted to snuggle under canvas, in the shaded light, ideally with rain beating down above me.  I wanted to sit by a camp fire and listen to ghost stories.  I wanted to eat sausages cooked on a stove and drink tea out of a tin mug.  I’ve tried to understand what it is about camping that so attracted me.  Perhaps it was a sense of adventure instilled by reading too many Enid Blyton stories as a child – the type of adventure that if it ever existed, was beyond my means and experience.  Maybe it was that sense of being protected, but close to the elements.  Or maybe that part of me that longs for a nomadic lifestyle, with nothing to hold me back from pitching a tent anywhere.  Perhaps it was just to have a cosy space of my own at an age went that wasn’t yet possible.


Is it a fiction writer’s curse to be able to build such an intense vision of what an experience will be like before having it?  We’re used to creating worlds that don’t really exist, to inventing scenes and scenarios that aren’t real but could be, to visualising imaginary things in such detail that they take on a life of their own.  To imagine each experience before it happens and to imbue it with a meaning that it can’t possibly live up to?


Of course my real experience of camping wasn’t quite like my imagined version.  In my vision, we would be somewhere in the wilds, in a forest clearing perhaps, or on the edge of a shore.  In reality, we decided on the sensible approach, easing ourselves in gently at a well-maintained camp site.  And so we set off on our journey, my partner, my dog and I, three intrepid adventurers in search of an adventure.  The first image to be demolished was that of us as nomads, travelling light.  The car was loaded to the rafters with stuff – tent, airbed, sleeping bags, equipment, food.  I had my first guilty second thoughts – wondering why people bothered with all this effort, when it was just as easy to find a hotel or a cabin to hole up in.


We watched the weather fretfully as the day warned of gale force winds and heavy rain.  The sky seemed to clear as we headed north, until, closer to our destination, it turned deep grey and it began to rain.  We watched the trees anxiously to see how badly they swayed in the wind, which howled fiercely through the car windows.  But when we arrived, it was dull but calm.  The campsite’s location was idyllic: castles and coastline visible to both north and south, sheep grazing on a tumulus shaped hill to the west, trees and hedgerows surrounding us.  Despite not being entirely sure of what we were doing, the tent went up efficiently and without any tantrums.  We unpacked and arranged our belongings.  And then…what?  We had our den but what to do with it?  We had our stove, but it took forever to boil enough water to make a hot drink.  Fantasies of savouring cups of coffee in the open air began to fade, as it became clear how much effort it would take to make them.  I wondered how exactly the Famous Five could rustle up hunks of fried bread, bacon and tomatoes enough for all of them on a small camping stove…


There was to be no sitting around the campfire telling stories – open fires weren’t allowed on the campsite and people, though friendly enough, kept to themselves.  Between the lighted pathways and the full moon, there was little rural darkness to be enjoyed.  I discovered the frustrations of trying to sleep in an oversized sleeping bag, with a slippery shell, which seemed to deny all efforts to stay put on the bed.  The night was so cold that an icy breeze cooled my head and the dog was content to stay curled happily cocooned within a sleeping bag.


In the morning, the tent dripped with condensation.   Outside, the weather was warming up to an extremely hot day.  I’d had one of those sleepless nights that, despite your fatigue, you just want to end, but I was so tired, I was useless for the rest of the day.  The heat inside the tent was thick and stifling.  Outside, there was no shelter and I worried our dog would catch sunstroke.  We’d camped for two days, between extremes of weather and it wasn’t quite what I’d imagined it to be.  I did sleep under canvas, accompanied by the sounds of birds and sheep.  I did eat sausages cooked on a camping stove and drink tea out of a tin mug.  I watched hares leaping around the campsite in the early morning and absorbed wonderful views.  But ultimately, the experience was, dare I say it…a little boring.


Our next camping trip is already planned.  In September, we’ll be camping at a festival where scores of Border Terriers and their people gather together.  This first trip was just practice for that bigger adventure.  But my fiction writer’s perspective will be tempered by reality when I think of the trip to come, so perhaps it will be an adventure after all.