Thursday, February 27, 2014

Room (now)

I stare up at my bedroom ceiling, high and wide and white, the smoothed-off icing of a wedding cake. Curly Victorian cornicing marks its borders, knotted squiggles in plaster. The centre has a moulding like a giant Marie biscuit painted over. From this hangs a light fitting with shell shades enclosing difficult-to-acquire bulbs. Red and black satin curtains caress two big sash windows, which look out into the branches of a lime tree. During springtime, blue and yellow finches nest at the same level at which I lie my head on the pillow; they chirp-chirp-chirp.

The opposite wall has a rectangular Dickens and Jones mirror brought from the flat. Built-in cupboards too shallow to hang much and reeking of invisible moth balls, flank either side of an 1865 ironwork fireplace, which, according to a local dealer, is unusually complete. On the stripped wooden floor is a camel hair rug bought on our first foreign holiday - to Egypt, 25 years ago. The rug’s coarseness against the bare soles of my feet helped me hold on. 

This is the room where dust gathers most, is permanently mid-air suspended. When we moved here, I climbed a stepladder and mounted a cherub ornament on the ceiling above our bed. Call it superstition. It was this infantile face that watched over me as I lay here all the years of my illness. At times the face jibed at my invalid state and our excited anticipation of a happy home, thrown aside. But otherwise it comforted. This room, my cell; house so admired, which became a prison. 

We marked the end of my suffering by having a deep clean, symbolically turning the mattress, and exposed a long dead mouse.  

by Bren Gosling

Words on Writing; Why your writing needs a service

I think there's something wrong with my car...

I'm writing this in the waiting room of a local garage while two mechanics service my car. There's nothing specific I can put my finger on, but I have an underlying suspicion that it's not driving as well as it used to.

... and I have similar feelings about my new book.

The car has been getting me where I need to go, and my writing has been doing the same, it's just that the journey doesn't feel quite right.

The problem

In England, I drove a Skoda. It had a loud diesel engine and a tape deck. Now I drive an American SUV which has a Bose stereo (natch), some kind of complicated noise reduction system which means I never hear the children fighting in the back seat, and a lot of buttons which I haven't yet dared to press. I was very fond of my English car, but the car salesman assured me that this one is better.

I was fond of my last novel too. We spent a lot of time together and I understood how it worked. I knew everything about my main characters, I'd found a 'writing voice' which created a seemingly authentic view of 1908 New York (to borrow from T.S.Eliot, 'He do the police in different voices'), and the structure felt balanced (to borrow from endless writing websites, it had a beginning, a middle and an end). This new novel is different. I'm still trying to catch the idiosyncracies of the main characters: a modern-day Mrs. Alcott, her philosophizing wastrel of a husband, and the illustrious chick-lit writing twenty-first century daughter, Louisa May Alcott. The words aren't coming easily, and the ending isn't quite clear.

And so, surrounded by car handbooks and posters, with the sounds of the hydraulic lift and car engines in the background, I have decided that the solution to my problem is to give my writing a full service.

  • Basic Mechanics

Good writing depends on good foundations.

(And I can already hear the dissenters citing examples of great books using bad grammar - 'Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo' - but my point is that the people who confidently craft writing which breaks the rules are able to do so because they know what the rules are in the first place.)

In the olden days, I was taught both grammar and penmanship by the formidable, iron-haired Miss Smith. In those days my father was able to service his own car: tinkering away for hours under the bonnet with a collection of spanners and rarely used swear words. Nowadays, everything is computerized. Right now, I imagine, my car's computer is being plugged into some mothership which will flag up any fundamental errors. And when I arrive home and type these words into the computer, the spelling mistakes will be highlighted and the computer will 'helpfully' put squiggly lines underneath bits of my grammar.

It's useful to have those tools, but I want to keep hold of the past as well. On my desk, I keep a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style; since arriving in the US I have used the Chicago Manual of Style for reference; and I often wonder what would happen to Miss Smith's eyebrows if I place the verb at the end of the sentence or include an exclamation mark too many.

According to the notice stuck to the side of the garage door, this process of checking and double-checking is called quality control. Despite the computerized element, I suspect it's not all that new.

  • A Little Va-Va-Voom

Good grammar, or even carefully chosen bad grammar, is not enough however. A good journey - a truly memorable journey - will always do more than merely carry you from A to B. According to Renault, we all need some Va-Va-Voom.

In relation to my new book, I have a sense of the journey I am about to make. I know where I want to go. The plot mirrors real-life events from the lives of the Alcotts, but they happen to fictional people about 150 years later. The Va-Va-Voom will come from the ways in which I bring the people and the setting to life, the pace I give to the plot, and the additional quirks and details I discover along the way. And there isn't any one handbook which will tell me how to do this.

For inspiration, I think nothing beats conversations with other writers - at conferences and retreats, through online fora and other virtual spaces. Sometimes it's about scaling back, sometimes it's about adding in. It's always about trying something new. You know all those extra buttons around my steering wheel? Well, if I work out what they do, I can decide whether I want to use them. Or not.

  • A bit of spit and polish 

I took part in a reality tv show last year which was aimed at discovering new talented writers. It was unfortunate (but became increasingly unsurprising as the fiasco unfurled) that the show was not talented enough to find a distributor. However, I learned many valuable lessons around how to present, and how not to present, my work. 

If one wants one's work to be published and to find an audience, it needs to look good from the outside as well as from inside the middle of chapter fourteen. There are conferences aimed at helping writers develop a pitch for their work, and many agencies also provide advice around the kind of pitch they would like to see. You might want to look at: 
One size will never fit all. The pitch is intended to fire the enthusiasm of the kind of person you think will enjoy reading your book. I'm looking at a picture of the Mazda MX5. It's great marketing, but I won't be asking for a test drive. I live in New England, it's winter, and when the snow finally melts we'll have two months of mud. The red sports car looks beautiful, but I'd never have the time or inclination to use it. I feel the same about Steampunk. 

  • And a bit of confidence and companionship
As a postscript to this rambling article, the mechanic interrupted my writing to tell me everything was fine with my car. He'd checked the basic mechanics, rotated the tires, changed the oil, and found nothing to worry about. He patted my hand, gave me my invoice, and told me it was always better to be safe than sorry. I believed him, but I checked out what he said with a friend who knows about cars as soon as I got home. 

And that is the same as my writing too. (I promise this metaphor is nearly finished now, and I can almost see the joining of Miss Smith's eyebrows as she frowns over the relentlessness of this comparison). 

The most valuable support I received while writing my first novel - and the reason it became something I was proud of having written - came from the confidence my friends and mentor gave me. That wasn't about proof-reading every word, highlighting chunky grammar, and correcting spelling mistakes. There are handbooks and word processing programs which can do that. My friends didn't over-analyze my novel's structure or ask to see any of my pitch letters. The best times were when they felt like travelling companions who had come along for the journey and were enjoying the ride. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Second Hand

It was impossible for Dad to buy himself new clothes. It was a while before we knew about this. A couple of years after Mum died, I suppose. And what could we do? Charity shops were his place for spending money and time.
My habits and my routines, they’re what keep me going, he would recite.
No use pointing out that there were shops that sold new clothes not far from the charity shops, same street, same car parks. That’s not the point, he’d reply. None of us ever asked what the point was.
He told us that it used to be jumble sales but after he stopped going to church he never knew when they were on, and anyway he couldn’t be sure to find what he wanted in amongst all the piles.  I just can’t believe that Mum let him go to those things: she certainly never let on to any of us about it.
He prefers the charity shops.
They do it properly, everything is sorted and organised so you can find your size. It’s all washed and ironed, you know.
Well, that’s a bit of luck then, I told him, at least you’re not bringing diseases into the house. We make sure he has his flu jab though, just in case.
And I like the people in the charity shops, there’re people who let me take my time.
He shouts this at me, as if that’ll make sure I believe him; tells me how more and more are opening up, replacing the proper shops.
They’re taking over the high street.
Even his high street, the one he can walk to from the house - he sounds surprised at this, as if our small town would be different from any other town, as if there isn’t just as much unemployment here, as if we’re a recession free zone.
I wouldn’t like you to think that because he has this thing about new clothes he‘s stupid. For instance, he knows about exercise and senility. That dementia thing, he insists on calling it.
I’m trying to keep it at bay, I don’t want to be a burden to any of you.
Then he launches into how Mr A from up the road has never been the same since Mrs A stripped naked on the bus. Well, I tell him, that’s one thing we won’t have worry about with you, clothes being your hobby, so to speak.

by Marilyn Hammick

Thursday, February 13, 2014


They were in a coffee shop when war was declared.  As the first brick drove a spider’s web of cracks across the window, Bob instinctively grabbed his granddaughter and pulled her beneath the table.  Under the continuing barrage, glass flew through the sunlit air, beautiful and lethal. Someone screamed and Bob turned to see blood trickling down a woman’s cheek.  Beside him, Maddie began to sob. 

Over the past couple of days, the news had been filled with reports of rioting in some of the more rundown parts of London, but no one had expected the heat wave of violence to spread to this affluent suburb.  Looking around, Bob could see that the customers in the café were paralysed, as much by the shock of discovering the myth of their middle class immunity, as by the missiles landing around them. He would have to act. 

With the help of the impassive barista, used no doubt to much worse aggression in his native Bosnia, Bob herded everyone to the storeroom at the back of the building. Behind the relative safety of the barricaded door, people recovered their voices and opinions about youth culture, social security scroungers and how it wasn’t like this in their day. Bob didn’t join in.

As he sat cradling Maddie, Bob recalled how it felt to be young and looking for a fight.  He knew all about the urge to rebel against your elders, to be part of a mob itching for action. He closed his eyes and remembered that journey to Brighton, the fur trim on his parka whipping up against his face as he clung onto the back of Freddie’s Lambretta.  His hand twitched as he felt once more the wooden bar prised from a deckchair which he’d swung as they swaggered towards the pier and the rockers.

A thump on the door announced the welcome arrival of the police. As Bob carried Maddie out into a wasteland of destruction, one of the policemen recognised him and saluted respectfully.

“I hope you’re both alright, Sir Robert? We’ve got it under control now and arrested about sixty thugs, so you’ll be busy when they come up before you.  They deserve everything they get.”

Bob didn’t reply as he picked a sliver of glass from Maddie’s hair and helped her over the debris into the street.

Karen Storey

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sumptuous Meadows

Mr. Beldorf’s armpits steamed underneath his black suit as he stood straight like a reed, umbrella stuck under his elbow. He watched the cumulus clouds form over the endless East Anglian fields, and he thought of Maud. He thought of how they had lain together in wet grass, watching the same clouds over the same fields; and how now she only ever gazed straight ahead at the pink curtain around her propped-up bed, and at the red roses her husband sent her once a week from Paris. Mr. Beldorf knew that Maud didn’t care for roses. She cared for clouds.

“Look! That one’s a sheep!” Maud had pointed. “A sheep with a huge dick!”

Her gurgle of a laugh had swept across the meadow, making the cows turn their heads.

None of the clouds had looked like a sheep with a big dick to him. They hadn’t looked like anything except clouds. Only with Maud had he ever found their meaning.

Mr. Beldorf clasped his pensioner’s bus pass as the bus pulled up, motor growling. At Sumptuous Meadows, he perched on his usual chair and cradled her unconcerned hand in his. He chatted about his day, about the weather, and about the clouds outside. Maud’s gaze remained on the pink curtain. He let go of her hand and bent over in his chair, clinging to his umbrella. When his eyes were blue and clear again, he stood up.
“Remember the sheep, Maud? The sheep with a huge dick?” he whispered.

 As he tugged at the curtain to leave, he heard her gurgle. He turned and caught the sun on her face; and for the first time in years, he laughed out loud.


by Walburga Appleseed

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Words on Writing: Keeping it real

What does truth mean in relation to our writing?

Can we write well without thinking about truth?

Stephen King, in his excellent On Writing, gives us a good place to start thinking about this:
So okay - there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You've blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all... as long as you tell the truth.
My first novel, Frogsbone, takes place among newly arrived immigrants in 1908. As I wrote this, I became increasingly aware of how much I would never know about that world. However much I researched, there were parts missing from the jigsaw: the shop window just beyond the photo's frame, the precise smell of the street after rainfall, the soundscape of early motorcars, horses' hooves and foreign voices reverberating from cobbles and brownstone buildings.

It's easy to become despondent about how little one knows and how much more there is to be learnt, but one of the breakthroughs in my writing was the realization that it was okay not to know everything. No-one knows everything. There can be no view from nowhere. Truth can come from attention to the smallest detail as surely as it might emerge from a bank of extensive knowledge.

Through my writing I seek to capture the truth of how the world would have seemed to my characters. As with any real person, their perspectives are partial, their experiences are finite, and their interpretations of what they think they see are shaped and moulded by what they already know.

Imagine, for example, that you are here with me now. Outside, the snow has been falling for several hours: small icy snowflakes which have already covered over where I dug out the sidewalk only an hour before. If you are from the UK, it might seem to be a lot of snow; if you are from Canada or the Midwest, you'll probably express surprise that the roads are empty and the schools have been shut: it's less than a foot of snow after all. Because it's nearly noon, you might want a bit of fresh air, some lunch, a coffee - whatever it is that you are desiring will affect your perceptions of the walk we take past the big house on the corner, down the hill, and onto Massachusetts Avenue. Maybe you've been here before: as a student at one of the many universities, attending conferences, or hanging out with friends? If you have, things probably seem familiar and bring back a clutch of memories. Perhaps your memories are so clear that you notice the large white clapboard church has been moved 20 feet to the south to make space for the university expansion. Of course, if you haven't been here before you won't notice that detail, and if I tell the English you about what they've done you might wonder why they made such a big deal trying to preserve a wooden church which is only a few hundred years old. If you're a travel junkie and you're needing a caffeine fix, you've probably already read about Simon's Coffeehouse and you'll tell me it's the best place for coffee in Cambridge (I'll agree); if you're a history buff, you'll recall that Paul Revere galloped along this road to tell the Minuteman that the English were coming; if you're my friend Sara, who is writing a book about Afghanistan, your attention will probably be drawn to the Afghani restaurant, while the antiques gurus among you will admire the Bauhaus inspired chair in the window of Abodeon (a bargain at only $2500).

My point here is that we all notice different things: that's one of the many things which make us unique. And when we write, whether we are writing biography or memoir or fiction, good writing demands we stay true to what our characters would know. (Hemingway would argue that capturing the truth meant being as attentive to what one omitted as to what one elected to include: but that is a discussion for another day).

In my previous role as an academic researcher, I was preoccupied with discovering the 'journalistic truth': combining research methods to establish the highest possible warrant of how things actually were. Each attempt to capture this kind of 'truth' abstracted it further from an individual human's experience and in this sense, I felt, reduced the humanity of the research. As Salman Rushie explains in this video clip, 'human truth' can be a very different thing from 'journalistic truth', and our interest in human truth is why we write literature.

For me, reading (and writing) provide an opportunity to see the world, to perceive the world, to live the world even, through another person's eyes. I crave that opportunity to be 'human', even if I have to look through a fictional character's eyes to obtain it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


"Ah, no; the years, the years 
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs" - Thomas Hardy

You made rubbings 
of the marks of death. 
easing them carefully 
onto the page

worn words rising 
from crumbling stone.

The strong hands of death 
ease you 
into the earth 
but your careful marks 
will outlive 

by Séamus Duggan

'Stone' was a winner of the Goodreads poetry competition 
and was written in response to the death of Séamus Heaney, in 2013. 

Introducing... the Cafe Aphra Poem of the Month!

Greetings, fellow Aphraites!

We have all very much enjoyed running our 'Beat the Monday Blues' poetry series here at Cafe Aphra - in particular our Poetry Editor, Yvonne, who has done a sterling job reading submissions and frequently offering helpful feedback on entries. 

However, after careful consideration we've decided to change the format this year. While we are still committed to publishing poetry on Cafe Aphra, we'd like to do so less often and thus be able to take more time over the selection process. We've therefore decided to transform our series from a weekly Monday Poem, to a "Poem of the Month". 

Poems will be published on the first Monday of each month. We continue to welcome submissions from poets both published and unpublished and the same guidelines apply as before. Send us your submissions with an accompanying image to:

Our first "Poem of the Month", for February, is 'Stone' by Séamus Duggan - a homage to the great Irish poet, Séamus Heaney.

We look forward to reading your work!

Happy writing in 2014.

The Cafe Aphra Baristas