Who Has Lost This Small Pure Heart?


It is tear-stained too. Fallen on the field path among the pignut flowers, a plant also known as Earth Chestnut, because its tubers were once grubbed up and relished by country children.  And as for the heart? Eglantine. Sweet Briar. Dog Rose. Rosa canina.

If this image inspires anyone to a bit of storytelling in whatever form, and short as you like; then leave a link here so I can read it. I won’t be back in blog world until Saturday, so no rush.


Taking the slow road ~ tarrying not typing(#mywritingprocess)


On the road at #mywritingprocess with thanks to Tiny at tinylessonsblog.com


As others on this writerly blog tour have said, some writers are the bees’ knees at doing anything but write. I would be one of them. When the time comes to sit down at the desk there is the sudden compulsion to go somewhere else – anywhere else. This morning I left the computer to scrub the grout between the bathroom tiles. (So absorbing). Later I mooned over pots of recently sown runner beans, and what? Waited for them to grow? Of course. No writing skills needed in Beanstalk Land, only nifty footwork to elude man-eating giants. (Hm. And I could pick up a golden harp while I was there; learn to play, might inspire me to…) You get the picture.

So what is this doing something else all about? OCDD – obsessive compulsive displacement disorder? Why do we put ourselves through this? It was the first question I asked myself when Helen Kuusela aka Tiny at www.tinylessonsblog.com invited me to join this blog tour. I was so busy asking it, I forgot to thank her. So thank you again, Tiny, and hello to everyone on this fascinating writing safari. I forgive you, one and serially, for putting me on the spot.

As to the OCDD, I have a theory, one based on extensive personal observation. When procrastination sets in, and especially after an early full-of-promise burst, your inner truth-teller is trying to make contact with your writing brain. Something is not quite adding up. This is the moment for some pointed self-examination: are you writing yourself into a dead end? Have you started in the right place? Do the voice/situation/setting ring true? Is your plot/concept/premise sound, and does it truly have sufficient substance and energy to become the story/novel/poem you envisaged? Are you writing from within, or only from the surface?

These can be very painful questions and, rather than rolling them around your mind, I find asking them outright and OUT LOUD has better results. The inner truth-teller seems to respond better to vocalized interrogation. Also, the process of outlining the work to an audience, and by that I mean a willing listener who does not interrupt, can reveal both the intrinsic problems and the possible solutions. As you talk, the remedies to stuckness will likely pop out of your mouth. Listen out for them. A passive listening post is thus an essential aid. Your dog, cat or canary would be a good choice. Successful children’s writer, Michael Morpurgo, says he first outlines his stories to his sheep. And as I write this, I’m thinking that a Dictaphone could be a good idea too. If anyone has other notions on this, please tell me.

And now for THE questions:

1) What am I working on right now? In my head, filing cabinets and paper piles I have many works in various stages of creation: picture book scripts, teen novels, a grandiose scheme (possibly two novels for adults) set in colonial East Africa. This last project I’ve been working on for several years – stalled at various points by doubt; then by the annoying tick that says I need to do more research. (This can be another OCDD trap, so it’s wise to keep checking). I am heartened, though, when I hear writers such as Barbara Kingsolver say that it took her nearly thirty years to acquire the wisdom to write the magnificent Poisonwood Bible, or that Tolkein found himself stuck in the Mines of Moria for a whole year, wondering how to write his way out. Such admissions remind me (once I have checked back with myself AGAIN) that the time it takes to finish a piece of work, is the time it takes to finish it. Not everyone can write a book a year. And now I think of it, I’m sure I read  that the marvellous short story writer, Alice Munro, takes eighteen months to write a single story. And when you read her, you know why. She distils whole novels into her short form.

For now, I’m recycling my ‘back catalogue’ of published short stories, creating new editions as Kindle e-books. I have just kindled Losing Kui, a novella originally published by Cicada Magazine in the U.S. a few years ago. On one level it is a tragi-comedic view of everyday life in a fictitious East African country during the late ‘90s. On another, you might call it an allegory, but I leave it to readers to decide what I mean by that.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? I am truly not a fan of categories, although I know marketing persons insist on them. What matters to me as a reader and writer is a well-crafted story, whether it is a 300-word picture book, Hilary Mantel’s Booker winning Wolf Hall or a Lee Child thriller. Most of my published work comprises short stories/novellas that are accessible to both adults and teens, and so I suppose you could call them crossover literature. Books for young people are anyway not so hide-bound, and may combine several so-called genres: real-life and historical narrative inter-threading with fantasy/magic realism. I find myself increasingly attracted to this combination.

3) Why do I write what I do? I had always meant to be a writer, but it was only when I went to live in Africa during the 1990s that I found a REASON to become one. In Kenya I was confronted with big landscapes and big human issues in which my own country had long played a questionable part. Suddenly I had a viewpoint and a focus and a territory. I was incensed too, by the wholesale imposition of western ‘values’ that left young Africans thinking it uncivilised that their forebears lived in mud and thatch homes. That’s one of the things that spurred me to write contemporary fiction for African young people. See (Latest books).

Some 14 years after returning to the UK, I’m still teasing out stories begun in Africa. I keep meaning to head for other lands, and one of my Ransom quick-reads for teens, Stone Robbers, is set in Guatemala. I suppose I am driven by the desire to tell stories about people who do not have a voice in the wider world, or who live in ways that are fast disappearing. In the margins between tradition and consumer modernity there are the kinds of drama and conflict that every story needs to make it work.

4) How does my writing process work? My people always arrive first. Even if I can’t clearly visualise them, I have a strong sense of them and their particular dilemma. After nearly 20 years of writing I have amassed quite a crowd, all waiting for their stories to happen/move on/finish. To discover what their stories may be, I always do a lot of research – too much probably. But without fail, the ‘what happens’ always emerges from this reading. In that sense, I do not make things up. How the works come together thereafter depends on finding some sort of imperative. This could be a writing competition deadline, or a publisher’s call for a certain kind of work. As Tiny says in her post, you do need deadlines. And perhaps, to come full circle, a lot of writer’s OCDD is also down to not knowing who will want to read/publish the work once it is done. While it remains unfinished, both failure and success are forever postponed. Keeping to your chosen path is hard to do, and I’ve written more on this HERE. But now please meet Celestine Nudana from Ghana, West Africa. clip_image002 She will be heading out on the next leg of  the #mywritingprocess tour (26 May).  She has been blogging at Reading Pleasure since 2012: http://readinpleasure.wordpress.com/  and believe me it is always a pleasure to visit her there. 

Celestine is Senior Assistant Registrar at the University of Professional Studies, Accra, Ghana. She is married and has three boys. She attended the University of Ghana, Legon, where she read English and Theatre Arts, majoring in play writing. She also has a Masters in International Affairs. As well as being a passionate reader and book reviewer, she has also developed a special talent for writing haiku, although she says she is still at the learning stage. Even so, her work has been included in two recent anthologies: Western Haiku: A Collection, and Ballads, bothproduced by Dagda Publishing UK, an  independent publisher who aims to show-case the freshest poetry and literature by new writers from around the world. The works are available as e-books. She has also had her flash fiction published in1 Photo 50 Authors 100 Words edited by Madison Woods.

She says of herself, “I am a romantic at heart, and love a good romance story, though I shy away from erotica. Almost all my poems focus on love, or aspects of it.” Celestine has written romantic fiction for serialization in several Ghanaian newspapers, and deployed her play writing skills to produce radio serial dramas that deal with topics including child health and female sexual reproductive health. So here is a woman who writes on many fronts. I’m looking forward to hearing what she has to say about her writing life.


Now here is my second writer introduction. She was a bit held up, so this is a last minute addition. I’ll let her speak for herself:


Hello! My name is Vashti Quiroz-Vega. I’m a writer of Suspense, Fantasy and Horror. I also enjoy mixing in some Humour and Romance into my stories. From the time I was a young kid, writing has been my passion. I’ve always been a writer; I just didn’t know it until  much later. For me, it is easier to express my thoughts on paper than with the spoken word. I enjoy making people feel an array of emotions with my writing. I like my audience to laugh one moment, cry the next and clench their jaws after that. My love of animals and nature are often incorporated in my stories. You’ll read intriguing things about various animals, nature and natural disasters commingled with my character-driven novels. I love to read almost as much as I love to write. Some of my favourite authors are Stephen King, M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, J. R. R. Tolkein, J. K. Rowling and Dan Brown.

Vashti's Web Photo (361x640)




This fiction writer’s path: five things learned along the way

Writing tips: Knowing your place

Errant muse? There’s still life at the allotment


This fiction writer’s path: five things learned along the way




1) Swimming not drowning: there will be (many) false starts

I associate intending to be a writer with learning to swim. I was ten, in my last year of primary school, when I told Mr. Williams, my very Welsh head teacher, that I meant to be a writer. I said it with great certainty, and he listened in all seriousness. He was someone I trusted implicitly. He was also the person who taught me to swim, and to me, decades later, the way he did it still seems a little miracle.

There were several non-swimmers in the senior class and one day Mr. Williams decided to remedy this life-threatening deficiency. Once a week for several weeks he drove us to the swimming pool in the school minibus. He made no concession to the occasion and still wore his smart grey headmasterly suit. Looking back, he probably did this on purpose. It showed he meant business and we were not there to play. The suit’s material had a soft metallic sheen and probably went by the name of Tricel. It somehow had a part to play.

After a couple of trips to the pool I had fully grasped the mechanics of swimming, but was unwilling to give up my rubber ring. Mr. Williams, however, was determined. He told me to walk twenty paces into the pool’s shallow end. He told me to take off the rubber ring. Then standing at the pool’s edge, he squatted down so low that his trousers strained across his knees and shone like silver. His eyes levelled with mine as I stood there – in the water – shivering – without my protecting ring. He told me to swim but I kept standing and staring at his knees, feeling silly and helpless. Then suddenly out flew his arms in a welcoming embrace. ‘Come on,’ he cried. ‘Swim to me. YOU.CAN.DO.IT.’ And such was his look of unconditional expectation that I took to the water and swam.

And the point of this story? Becoming a writer/maker/artist means learning to  grow and nurture your inner Mr. Williams. Along the creative path there may be few external expressions of encouragement. But without the deep-down core of self-belief you will not have the resilience to stay the course, bear the disappointments, handle the rejection slips, or to toil and toil alone for the days, months and years it will take to learn your craft. All of which is not to discourage, but to say that you really have to want to do this.

2) Having formed your intention, do NOT wait for inspiration to strike: you can wait till the crack of doom

Of course learning to swim is not the same as being a good swimmer who can swim fifty lengths with ease and feel quite at home in the water. To become a skilled artisan of any kind, there is the long haul of apprenticeship, probably one that will never end. I, though, and like many would-be writers, went for years, carrying in my head the apparently foregone conclusion that one day inspiration would strike and I would begin to write my own stories instead of reading other people’s.

It rarely, if ever happens this way. Besides which, inspiration is only the starting point, the ‘ah-ha’ moment when your attention fixes on an overheard conversation, or collides with a character on a bus, or gets hooked on some bizarre news event that starts you asking the kind of questions that kick off the story-making process. Mostly, though, you need to seek it out. Because the fact is, even if you are not actually writing, you must be doing the internal work, mentally exploring the stories that you might one day tell, gathering material, keeping watch, feeding that tiny flame of an inkling that says ‘I do have a story to tell’. ‘I do have something important to say.’

Inspiration, then, does not arrive ‘out of blue’ or occur in a vacuum; it needs one, two or several things to rub together. You could say it’s a bit like the slow-going process of rubbing dry sticks together, and trialling likely bits of kindling to get a fire started. In that initial whoosh of a blaze taking hold all is very exciting, but it is only the start. Now the hard work really begins – keeping the fire going, finding suitable material that will burn well – fast or slowly or long enough to cook your dinner. In other words, flash-in-the-pan, quick-fire notions (inspiration) are the easy part. Thereafter comes the sourcing of materials, planning, construction and general project management. You can only truly learn how to do this by doing it. So how to begin?

3) Do not fall into the trap of thinking that reading other writers will drown out your own small voice before you even start: read, read, read…

As an adult, my writing work was largely academic: dissertations, reports, preparing educational materials in various museums. Somewhere along the line I stopped reading fiction; I feared that to do so would distract me from finding my own inspiration, my own voice, my own stories. I have met other beginner writers who said they did the same thing, and especially when it came to books that they thought might ‘compete’ with their own ideas. Yet not to read widely is another form of writer’s self-sabotage. Writers need to read anything and everything they can, and across all genres, and they need to read with attention and discernment. For instance, you can learn a huge amount about story construction by studying an infant’s picture book that contains only around 30 words (Pat Hutchins Rosie’s Walk).

In fact some of the best-crafted storytelling on the planet is for young people – and here I’m thinking of writers such as Richard Peck, Sharon Creech, Robert Cormier, Kate di Camillo, Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Pullman, Jennifer Donnelly, David Almond. Reading good books with all senses attuned is akin to having mental conversations with other writers; far from swamping your own style/voice/subject matter, listening carefully to what they say and how they say it can help release your very own form of creative expression. This is not about copying ; it is about finding your own truthful response to other writers’ work. Writing a book or a story or a poem is not a contest with anyone else. It is your book, story, poem. Only you can write it. And if in doubt, think ‘Mr. Williams’. At some point you have to get in there and swim.

But of course, having joined the fray, then comes the endurance testing and training, the honing of skills, and goal setting.

4) Being a good writer is not the same as being a good storyteller

Some people are natural storytellers, and especially so when they come from families or cultures where oral storytelling is still practised. Even so, and no matter how you treat them later, it helps to learn the storytelling basics: the beginnings, middles and ends of a story, their possibilities, the ways to build tension and interest, how to manage revelation, crisis and resolution, what it takes to create believable worlds (real-life or science fiction), to breathe life into characters who will then ‘speak’ to readers, to make effective and affective use of language.

All these skills can be learned to some extent by much well-directed reading, including studying a few how-to-write books on the way. But taking out a subscription to a good creative writing magazine or attending a class are the more interactive and less lonely options. The disciplines of entering magazine contests or doing class exercises – reading others’ work with interest rather than envy, writing to deadlines, word counts and prescribed themes are all worth cultivating. They all build the kind of writing muscles you need to best deliver ‘the what’ of the creative process – the  story.

5) Writing fiction does not mean ‘making things up’; it is all about building convincing worlds.

This is something that is easily misunderstood, and it took me some time to grasp explicitly. Fiction reveals imagined worlds and their inhabitants in ways that are truthful in. Integrity and authenticity are key objectives. The setting may be a medieval Russian monastery, a London secondary school, or a planet with two suns, but it must ring true for the reader. Its special characteristics will add depth and texture to the narrative, but above all, they will be dynamic – informing, shaping, adding drama to the characters’ behaviour/situation/dilemmas. This requires considerable research and construction work by the writer, but with the caveat that, at the end of the process, only the writer ever needs to know all this stuff. The reader wants only the most telling details, the ones that, like literary hyperlinks, will take them straight into that special place and engage them wholeheartedly with the characters’ lives. (A fine example of this is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where she uses historical, social and political contexts to reveal the life and times of Thomas Cromwell.)

To achieve this level of ‘reality’ requires the writer to have strong reasons for telling a particular story. As I’ve said, creating a story from start to finish requires drive and stamina. Passion, pain, compassion and anger are great spurs, but their energy needs to be channelled judiciously. (No ranting or heavy-handed moralizing required and the writer’s self should keep well out of the way). The research part of the project may also demand a whole new reading schedule (encyclopaedias, atlases, internet content, telephone directories, newspapers etc) and, where possible, physically immersing yourself in the places where the story is set.

This is all about knowing your territory as an expert guide would know it. Only then can the alchemy begin. Or perhaps shape-shifting is a better analogy. Because this is one of the most important of all the things I have come to learn from the practise of being a writer: the writing must come from the inside out; writers must inhabit their character’s minds, shoes and underpants; whatever it takes to get inside their skin. For me, this usually means starting with the feet rather than the knickers department. When I wrote about a street girl called Jessicah, she was conjured by a ‘feeling’ in the balls of my feet as she tramped in thin-soled shoes through the African highlands. Years later I can still summon that particular sensation and know it is Jessicah, and start seeing the world again through her eyes. All of which is very strange when you think about it, and probably the reasons why most writers keep writing. For the final truth is that even well-published writers struggle to make a living from book sales alone. Writing then, first and foremost and anyway, has to be done for the love of the thing.

© 2014 Tish Farrell


Tish Farrell writes short fiction to entice unkeen teen readers to read in the Shades series at Ransom Publishing. She also writes for Heinemann Junior African Writers, Zimbabwe Publishing House and Phoenix Publishers East Africa. Her short story Flight came third in last year’s International Bath Short Story Award.


Writerly Reflections

Anthology Baobab: African Story Tree




“Knowledge is like a baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot encompass it.”

Ghanaian proverb

South Luangwa - mighty poachers' baobab 2

This baobab in Zambia’s South Luangwa was used as a poachers’ look-out


At the moment I’m working on a short story that includes a large and very ancient Adansonia digitata – in other words, a mighty baobab tree. These extraordinary trees have a way of finding their way into my stories (Mantrap, A Hare Who Would Not Be King amongst others). In fact, with so many legends about them, baobabs are nothing if not arboreal storybooks.

They are also like no other tree I can think of, although they are related to kapok trees. They grow in the hot lowlands of Africa and Madagascar and also in Vietnam and Australia. Their capacity to store vast quantities of water in their trunks has earned them the name Tree of Life.  A single tree can hold up to 4,500 litres /1,189 gallons.

In my story, however, the baobab has no such mundane function. It is a place of ritual – a spirit home on the Swahili coast, for here, as in other parts of Africa, it is believed that baobabs harbour the souls of the dead. And that is all I am revealing of my story  except to say that it also involves murder, unquiet spirits and unrequited love.


As for the trees, in real life they have a mass of practical, medicinal and nutritional uses – for humans and wildlife alike. It all begins with the pollination of these oddly striking flowers.


For nine months of the year, the baobab has no foliage. When the leaves come they are eaten like spinach by humans and browsed by both domestic and wild animals. The flowers, too, are short-lived. The bloom first at night, their pungent smelling nectar attracting bush babies and fruit bats which then pollinate the flowers. Bees also feed on the nectar, and farmers often hang their barrel beehives up in the branches of a baobab. Photo: Tuli Lodge, Botswana


The resulting woody capsules enclose many seeds within an edible pulp. Both seeds and pulp are high in potassium, calcium and magnesium and are ideal foods for pregnant and breast-feeding women. The pulp is also rich in vitamin C, thiamine and antioxidants. Being high in pectin, it is useful for jam making and creating refreshing drinks. The seeds produce a fine oil that is used by the cosmetics industry. They can also be ground to make a coffee substitute. And so with all these attributes, the baobab has been classified as a superfood. Its many by-products are now sold worldwide. Photo: http://www.ifood.tv/blog/the-latest-superfood-from-africa-baobab






The growing world-wide demand for the baobab’s phyto-nutrients mean that seed harvesting has become a valuable source of income for many African families. This is one man’s story:

“My name is Andrew Mbaimbai and I am 63 years old. I live in Mtimbuka, a village in southern Malawi, with my wife, four daughters and eight grandchildren. In 2005, I heard that a new company was buying baobab and I knew this was a good opportunity for me.

“I collect and process baobab in my spare time because I also have a job as a cook. After gathering the fruit, I go to the processing centre, crack the shells and separate the fruit powder from the seeds. Then I sell it.

“I use the money to pay for my grandchildren’s school fees and to buy clothes for my family. Sometimes if a family member falls ill, I use the money to pay hospital bills. Without the money from selling baobab, I would not be able to meet all my family’s needs.”


As a consequence of ethically managed initiatives like the Eden Project’s programme in Malawi you will now find many baobab-derived products on line and in your local health food shops. Here is one of them. It can be added to anything and everything, creating, apparently, a  zesty flavour.

Baobab Fruit Powder Pouch

The Eden Project’s baobab powder.


Then there are the baobab bark products. The trunk of the baobab is very fibrous and can be processed into cloth, twine and ropes. Kenyan women are famous for their kiondo bags which they make both from baobab and (increasingly) sisal string. You will see women walking along the road weaving these lovely baskets, and I can attest that they last for decades. I have at least four. In time the leather handles might need replacing,  but the baskets endure, becoming more beautiful as their pigment dyes fade.


Photos: africablogs


A Kenyan kiondo woven from baobab fibre.


Baobabs can of course grow to massive proportions  and into the oddest shapes. They may be thousands of years old.

The Legend of the Upside-down Tree

Photo: Eco Products

With age, many become hollow, creating large spaces within that are variously used as barns, churches, places to give birth, and for the burial of griots as in West Africa. In Botswana one was once used as a jail, the adjoining trunks for male and female prisoners.


Kasane, Botswana, now has a new prison but the architect ensured that the original one was preserved: http://www.ofm.co.za/article/67788/Voices

Big Baobab

Sunland Baobab


At Sunland Farm, Limpopo, South Africa, this baobab is used as a bar and wine cellar. It is believed to be the largest example in the world. It is 47 metres around (154 feet) and has a carbon date of around 6,000 years.  Below  are four of us trying to surround a much younger Kenyan baobab. This one is at Maweni on Tiwi Beach, South Mombasa.



And now for some of those baobab legends I mentioned. There are many variations of these tales throughout Africa.


When Creator was busy creating the world, the animals came to him and asked if they could help him finish his work. Creator was doubtful and said there were only the trees left to make. But the animals persisted, so Creator handed out specific seed types to each animal species, and they went away and planted them. Finally, only the baobab seeds remained, and these Creator handed to the hyenas. The outcome, of course, was to be expected, given the stupidity of hyenas. They planted the seeds upside down, and that is why the baobab always looks as if it has its roots in the air.


Long, long ago the very first baobab sprouted up beside a small lake. When it saw the other trees with their tall, smooth trunks and bright flowers and large leaves, it thought how beautiful they were. Then one day, when the lake surface was smooth as glass, the baobab caught sight of itself, and oh, what a shock. Its flowers were so pale, and its leaves so small. But worst of all, it was appallingly fat, and its skin looked like the wrinkling hide of an old elephant.

The baobab cried out to Creator, complaining of its lot. Creator in turn was huffy. Many things had been made that were not quite perfect, he said. He retreated behind a cloud. But the baobab did not stop whining and whingeing. Finally, Creator grew so cross that he leaned out of the sky, and yanking the baobab from the ground, replanted the tree upside down. And so ever since, the baobab has lived on in silence, unable to see its reflection in the lake, but making up for its transgression by doing many good deeds for humankind.


And if these baobab tales have not quite cheered you up, here are some clips from the life-enhancing Orchestra Baobab. This band from Senegal has had two lives, one back in the ‘70s, and now the current reprise which includes many of the original line-up, among them the Togolese guitarist, Barthélémy Attisso, who in the interim went away to become a lawyer. If you get the chance to see them live, go for  it.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Frizztext’s ‘A’ Challenge

Onwards and upwards…the big New Year ‘do-over’

IMG_0453 - Copy

“Encompassed by a world of tangible, visible things – animals, plants, and stars –  mankind has from time immemorial perceived that deep within these beings and things dwells something powerful, yet indescribable, that gives them life.”

Cosmic view of the Fulani people of West Africa


I took this photo last spring, in March when we were plunged into a sudden and unexpected winter. In seemed  that the tulips were burning their way through the snow – biological imperative incarnate: come hell or high water, these tulips will BECOME.

In some ways, though, I find the image  disturbing, especially the bud just breaking through the snow, and the dark little shadow at the centre top where another seems to be welling just beneath the surface like a bruise. Is the earth bleeding?

Of course, in no time my mind flies to that wintery scene with the good queen, Snow White’s mother. There she sits with her embroidery at the castle window. There she pricks her finger as she sews, the blood drops falling on the snowy whiteness. And there she makes the pledge that calls into being a beautiful child, but in the process brings about her own end.

The queen pricks her finger. Snow White illustrated by Charles Santore 1997


And so by degrees I start thinking of the creative process, that is to say, my creative process or seeming lack of same. And while I am sure that many creative people (which is all of us) will be facing the New Year with renewed vigour and hopefulness at the journey ahead, there are others of us who remain intent on endlessly hunting round the same old  circles that take us nowhere. We are of course woozle hunting and A.A. Milne sums up the entire predicament perfectly.


  ‘One fine winter’s day when Piglet was brushing away the snow in front of his house, he happened to look up, and there was Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh was walking round and round in a circle, thinking of something else, and when Piglet called to him, he just went on walking.

      “Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”
“Hunting,” said Pooh.
“Hunting what?”
“Tracking something,” said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.
“Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer
“That’s just what I ask myself. I ask myself, What?”
“What do you think you’ll answer?”
“I shall have to wait until I catch up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.”

 Winnie-the-Pooh 1926, A A Milne, illustrated by E H Shepard


Next then comes the question of how, creatively speaking, does one get off the treadmill of woozle hunting (which can of course become perversely absorbing despite the fruitlessness of the quest) and lift off into the stratosphere with the high-octane thrust of tulips breaking bounds?

Perhaps to begin to answer this, it is first important to know that human creativity has its cycles in much the same way as the natural world, or indeed tulips. In her audio compilation The Creative Fire, poet, storyteller and Jungian psycho-analyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estés puts it this way:

“Creativity goes through many different cycles: of birth, rising energy, reaching a zenith, declining, further entropy, death, incubation, quickening, rebirth…”

She then elaborates on this process by retelling two versions of the Persephone story , the Greek myth that, among other things, explains the origins of winter and spring.

In other words, a period of dying down, gathering in resources, dormancy, are all essential before strong new growth can occur. The tulips, after all, had some nine months of dying down and re-growing their bulbs.

CPE  has other words of wisdom too:

“The main struggle that people have with creativity is that they stop themselves from doing what comes naturally.”


“We all cover miles and miles of territory looking for the starting line when it’s inside of our minds the entire time.”

She also deals with the deep-rooted fear that most of us have: that our creative impulse/spirit/inspiration has died or deserted us. She likens it to la chispa, the hearth ember that seems quite dead until you breathe upon it, fanning the flames so that once more it bursts into a blazing fire. If we feel stifled and blocked she suggests that the causes are probably fear, the lies  that people have told us about our creativity, and the fact that we have paid way too much attention to our internal critic.

“The creative function,” she concludes, “ is the centre of the soul and the psyche; it can never be destroyed.”

So there we have it. Less woozle hunting, and more blowing on dead wood. Also listen to your internal wisdom, then make like a tulip. Who knows what it will lead it.

Or as the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe said:

 “Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.”

There are no rules and regulations on the number of times that we must re-do a piece of work before we have made it to our liking. The only rule is to give yourself a break, then go to it.


Wishing you all a happy and floriferous 2014


Weekly photo challenge: beginning: go here for more Daily Post beginnings

© 2014 Tish Farrell

National Poetry Day

Today in Britain it is National Poetry Day, and this year’s theme is a quote from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: “Water, water everywhere…”


And since it is pouring in the UK, I thought I’d post a rainy-day poem written while  I was in Kenya. It was originally published in Cicada Magazine  March/April 2000, along with the picture above for which there was no attribution.

Long Rains

Rain days in Africa – roads run

rivers, mud blood red; and careless,

grey-dog skies shake out

their fill on ill-clad souls who

shuffle close in supermarket doors,

and moon-eyed in the drip and drip,

the backslap seep in thin-soled shoes,

no longer see the draggled flocks

of street boys perched in car park trees,

all glue-pot fused, nor show surprise

when sleek Mercedes cruise

the roads-turned-lakes and ditch their wake

on citizens whose only keep is

listless hope: that sometime soon –

the rains will stop…


And for all those interested in good reading and writing Cicada Magazine is part of the Cricket group of magazines published by Carus in the US. Each of their magazines – Babybug, Ladybug, Spider, Cricket and Cicada caters for a specific age group, from babes to teens and up. The house-style is literary rather than comic book, and with a strong multicultural element. Every story, poem or article in every edition is accompanied by specially commissioned artwork. The publishers accept submissions from both new and established writers and artists, but the emphasis is on quality.


© 2013 Tish Farrell

No way back from Africa: the road to Hunter’s Lodge


The road from the Range Station to Kiboko


I can pretty much bank on it. Once you have been in Africa you will never be the same. Nowhere else will you feel so alive, or so in love, or so entranced or indeed, afraid. In the physical sense, your blood and guts may well bear traces of the diseases and parasites you encounter there for years to come. Certainly the psyche will be forever afflicted by acute withdrawal symptoms, the loss of sensation, the no-longer-state of being always in the present – the only way to live back there.

In elemental ways too, standing, for instance, in East Africa’s Rift Valley, you could well find yourself confronting your genetic heritage for the very first time: the dazzling revelation that this is the land where your ancestors stood up on their apes’ hind legs and marched onwards to the age of technological development that we like to call civilization. It is the moment that you understand that you and this landmass are intimately connected through every pore, cell and bone.

And the reason I can say this, daring such unbridled presumption, is because it happened to me, and to G, and to all who know us and visited us there. Africa gets under your skin and, to quote a dear old friend “up your nose and into your soul.”


Kilimanjaro caught from the Mombasa highway just south of Kiboko


For me the journey into Africa began, with auspicious timing, on the 14th February 1992. This was the day I ran away – to Kenya to be precise, leaving home, possessions, accountant spouse and several labradors in order to travel with a roving entomologist who had no home, no possessions – neither in Africa nor in England. He had recently been in Mexico researching the habits of the Larger Grain Borer (LGB), a small maize-eating beetle that ravages stored crops. Before this he had worked for two years in Tabora, Tanzania, as a volunteer Agricultural Extension worker, also advising farmers about LGB. (See earlier post On Kenya’s Farms)

In the 1980s this pest had arrived  in Africa (where it has no known natural predators), introduced on consignments of food aid from the Americas. In 1992, then, G was on a new LGB mission: to monitor the beetle’s spread from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to Nairobi in the Kenya’s central highlands. For the next nine months we would lead a nomadic life, travelling up and down the Mombasa highway, which back then was little more than a ribbon of ragged tarmac running through the bush.

The road was fraught with dangers – from gargantuan potholes to car-jackers lurking in the thorn scrub. There were also successions of stranded trucks left where you least expected them, and the possibility of some belligerent buffalo insisting on a standoff in the middle of the highway; and then there were policemen flagging us down for lifts, or to give us speeding tickets when we had not been speeding.


Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko


During these nine months we stayed in roadside hotels, safari lodges, beach cottages, a Danish development workers’ guesthouse, and, best of all, at Hunter’s Lodge where we were usually to be found for three or four days each week. This one-time home and small hotel was begun by Great White Hunter, John Hunter, at a small place called Kiboko, some hundred miles south of Nairobi. The place had once been a regular resort for expatriates taking a weekend break from the capital, or a convenient overnight stop en route for Mombasa beach. This was in the days when the road was still an un-metalled cart track, and it took all day to get there (needless to say, covered head to toe in red plains’ dust). The coast was a further 200 mile-drive, including the long stretch of desolate Taru thorn scrub south of Voi.

Kiboko, then, was in every way an oasis. John Hunter had long had his eye on the location before he moved there in his retirement in 1958. He had arrived in British East Africa in 1908 in the wake of the first European settlers, and made a career of clearing unwanted game: first lions from the Uganda railway that ran nearby and later, on behalf of the colonial game department, elephant from settler farms, and marauding hyena from the African native reserves.

He also ran private safaris for counts and maharajas, and therefore rubbed shoulders with the likes of Karen Blixen’s white hunter husband, Bror Blixen, and her lover, Denys Finch Hatton (Out of Africa). In his time, Hunter was personally responsible for despatching over 1,400 elephants, and nearly as many rhinoceros. Local myth had it that Hunter gave up repairing the hotel sign which a vengeful rhino was intent on flattening. Besides, in those days, everyone who was anyone knew where Hunter’s Lodge was.

Graham and peacock 1992

Afternoon tea with the sugar-stealing peacock


The reason Hunter chose Kiboko to settle was because it had fresh water: a volcanic spring, and the only one for miles around. In the old days he had often watched elephant coming there at sundown to drink. He, however, set about damming the stream to make a small lake, this surrounded by a grove of graceful fever trees and wild figs. Given the general aridity of the surrounding bush country, it truly is a beautiful place, a resort not only for human travellers, but for some three hundred species of bird. When we were there, there was also talk that a leopard haunted the upper reaches of the pool, but we never saw it: only baboons and vervet monkeys, a bushbaby and a monitor lizard.

The bridge

The bridge to the vegetable shamba


And the reason that we often stayed there was because the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute had a small research station and laboratory just behind the lodge. On starting his job, Graham was gravely entrusted with a key to the back garden gate, so that at 7.30 am he could walk to work, and then walk back again for lunch at noon. The lab employed a dozen technicians, all working on the LGB project.


Graham's team at Kiboko Lab - the last day

Kiboko lab and staff


In 1992 Hunter’s Lodge rarely had many overnight guests. Sometimes G’s boss would be stay; sometimes a travelling salesman; sometimes an aid worker or two. Once, an Intermediate Technology N.G.O held a two-day seminar there. Once, a large group of Nairobi Asians came for a weekend party. The main trade, however, comprised passing travellers who dropped in throughout the day for snacks and drinks. These were served by smart bow-tied waiters on the bar terrace where you would be stalked by a bedraggled peacock, which sorely depressed since its mate had been swallowed by a python, sought pleasure in raiding the sugar bowl whenever it had the chance. It was a sad old bird.

The menu was limited: cheese sandwiches, steak and chips and omelettes. But the cook did prepare an amazing fresh lemon juice made from the lodge garden’s own lemons. It was sour enough to curl your teeth, but extraordinarily sweet too. We also soon took to carrying a plastic tea strainer around with us – to sieve the skin out of the milk, both from the breakfast wheatie flakes, and before we poured it into our tea.

The milk was brought daily by Maasai women and their donkies, and boiled within an inch of its life. Even so, it still tasted of the ash-scrubbed gourds that it was delivered in. This milk, coupled with the sulphurous water from the spring, made afternoon tea a daily strange experience. Only the lack of other things to do when G came home from work at five o’clock made us persist with it. Going for tea on the terrace was, after all, an outing – a different experience from the lunch and supper outing to exactly the same spot, or to the breakfast outing which was to the lodge dining room with its strange ogival doorways.


Looking toward the Lodge dining room


The best pursuit of the day, so long as there had been a calor gas delivery, was at sundown  to resort to the shower in our room. The shower fittings went under the manufacturer’s name of Steamy Steamy. After a dusty drive up or down the Mombasa highway, a good Steamy Steamy was the only thing we could think of.

Then by seven when it was quite dark, and we were duly steamed and dressed, the next treat would be to sit on our veranda and wait for the firefly display up and down the garden lake. This was followed by a trip to the bar and a couple of Tusker beers. If John, the young Maasai barman, was on duty, then we were in for some good conversation. He had opinions on everything. The local Akamba waiters would stand about and gaze at him in awe, whether he was talking to us or to them. He told us he owned 150 cattle, and had two wives. He had not wanted to marry a second time, he explained, but his parents had urged him because his mother had kidney disease and needed more household help. He had accepted the situation philosophically.

Once, John offered to take me on the back of his bicycle into the bush to his family’s ‘enkang and to see a female circumcision ceremony. I wished I’d had the guts to accept. He told me his home was only two hours away, as if I would manage the ride over bush tracks quite easily, me who had never ever balanced myself on a bicycle parcel rack.


Caught red-handed, a vervet raider eating our bananas


While G was at work, I wrote letters and read. But mostly I watched. I soon realized that the Lodge was run, not for guests, but for the benefit of its staff. Their daily routine of cleaning and tending went on whether or not there were any guests. The garden staff wore brown overalls. They mowed the lawn, and worked in the vegetable shamba across the lake. Around ten in the morning a bell rang and everyone disappeared for a tea-break. The manager wore a smart khaki Kaunda suit, and marched hither and thither, but to no apparent purpose.

Then there was Joyce, the chambermaid. Her husband worked down at Kibwezi and was a forestry officer. She lived with her two little boys in the staff bandas at the bottom of the garden. On her days off she went home to the family farm. She told me that I should learn Ki-Swahili since it was very easy. I agreed, but only learned a smattering. The hello, how are you: jambo, habari yako?

Between the gentle staff activity, there was only the wildlife to observe, vervet monkeys planning raids on our room, pied kingfishers diving, yellow weavers endlessly weaving, herons clattering their bills in the thorn tree heronry, marabou storks lurking like spectres on the lawn, hadada ibis winking out grubs with their curvy bills. And over all, the high-tension whine of crickets that could drive you mad when you were not feeling well.

Joyce our chambermaid



One of the features of Kiboko, I soon discovered, was the wood carvers’ stalls opposite the Lodge. Sometimes I took my clothes down to Esther who ran such a stall, and traded them for Akamba carvings. She struck a hard deal, and I was a simpleton when it came to haggling. G was nonetheless impressed since it lightened the contents of my two bags.

Scan-130429-0155 (3)

Esther at her stall with son, Tom


And so it was that Hunter’s Lodge became a home of sorts. Whichever way we approached it on the Mombasa highway, my eyes would fix on the green grove of fever trees, and my spirits would lift as we turned off the road. There was Steamy Steamy to look forward to, the smoky taste of the tea, Reuben the breakfast waiter who always asked us if we were having eggs though we never did. Only later did we discover that we had paid for a full breakfast in with our room rate. There was the birdlife to watch, and the sleepy routine of the hotel staff to keep tabs on; there were the steaks that our weak teeth found impossible to process, the fireflies and the vervets, and there were the brief African sunsets as the light turned through lavender and orange to black, black night. There was irony too, for it was of course the metalled road that turned Hunter’s Lodge from oasis to backwater, making the coast accessible in a single day: an unintended consequence of progress. 

I remember the long nights I lay awake, listening to the whine of insects, the drone of trucks on the Mombasa highway, the hoot of the train on Uganda railway. We are in Africa, I would tell myself. And even when I was there, so very much present in every sense, it still seemed like a dream. Perhaps this land was the original Garden of Eden. When we left it, we took our self-regarding selves to material greatness. Maybe the price for this knowledge was the loss of wisdom. Even now, so many years on, I still travel the road to Kiboko, at least in spirit,  and ponder this conundrum. The great safari continues…


Letter from Kathleen Collins Howell, illustrator and best friend

Daily Prompt: on the road

© 2013 Tish Farrell

Meet Joe Sabuni P.I. aka Joe Soap


Perhaps it is Jonas Kilimani’s choice of alias that makes things go so badly wrong in Mbogo sub-location. Or maybe he’s just not cut out to be a sleuth. Or it could even be his bad choice in suits. But whatever the cause, everyone is running rings round ‘Joe Sabuni’, and it all starts when his Uncle Micah sends him upcountry to track down a man who owes him money. It’s not much of a job, but Jonas is desperate to impress. He has college loans to pay back, and rich girlfriend, Keziah, to keep happy. And if he pleases Uncle Micah, maybe the man will give him a real job, as he’d long ago promised…

Cover artwork: Bob Harvey


Okay, I am taking advantage of Frizztext’s JJJ-challenge for another piece of self-publicity. Also I think Jonas Kilimani deserves to be better known. He’s a really nice guy, and I’m glad I created him. He actually began life as a tiny notion while I was out on Kenya’s farms surveying smut-infected grass with the Team Leader. (For  more about smut see earlier post HERE). It’s amazing how one thing leads to another, and all apparently unrelated. There is no smut in Joe Sabuni by the way. Or maybe just a smidgeon – involving the dreadful Keziah of course.

I began writing stories for the African children’s literature market while we were living in Kenya in the 1990s. I think it was fury that started me off. There had been an article in the local press about children’s books, and the lack of locally written ones. It included a quote from a school girl saying she did not know there were stories with African heroes and heroines.

My first reaction was bewilderment. (The fury came later.) I began to look along the shelves of Nairobi’s bookshops. I could see that the girl had a point. Most of the locally produced fiction comprised folk tales, which I, as an outsider, had until then been more than happy to see and buy.

Now I began to regard them with fresh eyes. If I were six or nine or thirteen years old what would I think about such books? The design was often minimal, the paper quality poor, the stories wholly unrelated to modern day living, since the texts had mostly remained frozen in some colonial time when an avid ethnographer had recorded them. And so by comparison with these dry looking tales, would not the imported British and American paperbacks seem infinitely more glamorous and slick?

And yes, for sure, there would be no African kids featured in the rows of Enid Blytons or the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, or in the Ladybird versions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. For these, I discovered, were at that time the mainstay of the children’s section. Even the school curriculum  English literature texts were books like Gogol’s Government Inspector or Dickens.

In fact, given the era when all these books were written, there would be no dark faces in them at all. That the stories were written in times long past would not necessarily be apparent to young Kenyan readers. I remember a ten-year old girl telling me that her dream was to ride her bicycle on country lanes and go wherever she pleased just as the Famous Five did. It was hard to know what to say to this. It seemed such a lovely dream.

Anyway, all this started me wondering what it might be like to only read books about children who were nothing like me AT ALL. How would that make me feel about myself: that I wasn’t cut out for hero-dom?

Of course the reason for all the imported revamped  titles was because they were far cheaper than mainstream market books, and parents were more likely to be able to afford them. There is anyway a resistance to buying fiction, since stories are considered an unnecessary luxury when parents have to spend so much on school textbooks every year.

And so we start getting to the heart of the problem. Kenyan publishers, like many others across the continent, struggle along producing textbooks, often in collaboration with British publishers like Oxford University Press, Macmillan and Longman. They can’t afford to produce much fiction, and that means there are not many local fiction writers. Classic authors like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi are few and far between, and Ngugi has anyway long lived abroad in America. The best Kenyan writing, then, is mostly to be found in the country’s excellent newspapers, and they are aimed at adults not children.

As a writer, though, I learned a lot from the late Wahome Mutahi and his hilarious Whispers column, and also from the trenchant political analysis of John Githongo. The end result was Joe Sabuni P.I., a humorous teen short novel set in the fictitious city of Greenvale, somewhere in East Africa. It is published in the Heinemann Junior African Writers Series, now a Pearson imprint.

One of my best moments came a few years ago when I learned that the book was also to be used in Zambian schools, and not only in English, but translated into 6 Zambian languages. This I gather was funded by the World Bank. Someone had the surprising idea that people learn to read best in their own language. I wonder how they came to think such a breath-taking thought.

Because that’s another thing, most African children who go to school do not learn in their vernacular, but in the language of whichever colonial power once ruled them. In Kenya the curriculum is conducted in English and the East African lingua franca, Ki-Swahili, although the vernacular may appear in the study of arcane oral literature texts.

I think this is what Ngugi wa Thiong’o means by ‘colonization of the mind.’

Of course you could say what on earth is an English woman doing writing for African kids in their second or third language? It’s a good question. As I said it was fury that drove me. I wanted to tell contemporary stories that showed Kenyan kids their own wonderful selves, and in situations they might recognize. That these stories have also proved popular in other English-speaking countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe is a bonus. A couple have won prizes of which I am inordinately proud.

You can read a sample of Joe Sabuni P.I. on Google HERE. Please forgive the fact that Google copywriters can’t spell the word ‘rotten’. And nor can Amazon.

© 2013 Tish Farrell


…of a domestic goddess

Domestic Goddess by Wren Miller

Domestic Goddess by Wren Miller

Women (men too if you like), why not wear our sieves with pride? Who knows what forms of household transcendence it could lead to.  In fact it is clear to me that this particular  manifestation of the Domestic Goddess (Wren Miller’s tribute to International Women’s Day) has much to teach us. But more of that in a moment. First a little about her creator, fellow Shropshire-dweller and eco artist, Wren Miller.  Wren is a specialist in large-scale sculptures (i.e. bigger than this one which is a domestic piece in more ways that one). Her materials are found things, or donated possessions such as books or even old trainers. They are not altered in any way, but ‘compiled’ into witty and spirit-raising structures somewhere on a landscape near you (if you’re lucky). She also creates art works in Mali, West Africa. The resultant creations are usually temporary, with the aim of sending the component parts on to a good home. For instance, Wren’s children’s book sculptures have later been shipped off to Mali where many children would otherwise never see a story book, let alone get to hold one in their own two hands. Through her ‘Send a Book to Mali’ scheme she collects books in both English and French. For more about Wren and her creations go to: http://www.wrenmillerart.co.uk/

Now to get back to to why Wren’s domestic goddess so took my fancy. Well quite apart from the fact she is beautiful and made me laugh, which are two good reasons for sharing her, it seemed to me that there were  several points of congruence with my ‘womanplace’ posts.  As is often the way with goddesses, this one gave me a whole new slant on things. She made me look at what I had written, but this time in relation to my own usually negative attitudes towards housework. For isn’t it an irony that in the industrialised world where we have more labour-saving, domestic gadgets than time or spare hands to use them, we generally consider doing housework an act of drudgery that makes us both ratty and resentful? We see the whole thing as an imposition that denies us the leisure time we believe we are owed.  So when we see women in non-technologised rural communities filling every waking hour with heavy manual labour we are appalled. We identify with their plight, in our minds multiplying our own sense of oppression several times over. It is a concerned/outraged/kindly response: the  ‘why should they still live like that?’

Now this is in no way to deny that millions of rural women work grindingly hard. But along with their labours they also take great pride in their domestic practices and skills. This may seem perverse to many of us, but an African woman might well be offended if a man offered to carry her heavy load of firewood; she might take it as a slight that she is not capable of doing her work properly. Indeed research has shown that African women carry loads on their heads that should not, at least in theory, be physically possible in relation to the deemed weight-bearing capacity of their spinal columns and their often poor levels of nutrition. Yet in the face of all the scientific data that tell them they can’t, carry those loads they do.

Here’s another instance. By our standards we might think it unquestionably good that village women are saved long trips to fetch water from the river by  constructing a well near their homes. But again, this might not be wholly true. A good friend in development agriculture once told me how, in a village where he worked, the women were very put out by the provision of a new well. It meant they could no longer justify spending hours away from home, time they spent meaningfully with other women as they drew water, or did the washing, or bathed their children. How could they discuss all the personal matters they usually discussed, and at the length they discussed them, in the middle of the village with all the men around? All of which boils down to being careful how we think other people’s problems can best be fixed.

Of course once we realise this, there is also a possible payoff, at least for us, the housework haters. In fact we could well learn something of great utility from the women we feel sorry for. It’s obvious really, but if we honour the fact of doing our ironing in the way a Maasai woman honours the building and maintainence of her home, or take pride in the hoovering of carpets in the way a Kikuyu farmwife scrupulously sweeps her compound, we might well find ourselves on the path to domestic deification; at the very least we’d feel happier in the doing of such work: ‘our day’s career’ as Faith Waithera says in my Power-play poem (…of womanplace). So as I said at the beginning, let’s wear our sieves with pride, but before I go here’s another image of transcendent womanhood:

Maasai womanphoto: Creative Commons: javic (www.flickr.com/photos/javic)

Maasai woman
photo: Creative Commons: javic (www.flickr.com/photos/javic)

text: copyright Tish Farrell 2013

…of knowing your place

Or how to start creating good settings in fiction – read other people’s.


So far I’ve not included writing advice in my blog, but since the posts are about writing and a sense of place, perhaps it’s time to look at the ‘where and when’ of story, otherwise known as ‘setting’. In fact, when I think about it, setting is not an inspiring term when it comes to story making; to me it suggests the rigid immobility of hardened concrete, or the strict placement of cutlery for formal dining. It conveys the kind of feeling you get when a writer (possibly me) churns out paragraphs of leaden description in the hopes that ‘more’ equals ‘more believable’. It doesn’t of course. In fact somewhat oddly too much detail obscures rather than illuminates.

Perhaps ‘world building’ is a more creative way of thinking about scene setting. This term is most commonly applied to the mechanics of science fiction and fantasy writing wherein the writers create speculative worlds that operate in ways outside our common experience. I’m thinking now of Tolkein’s Hobbiton in The Hobbit or Le Guin’s planet of perpetual winter, Gethen, In the Left Hand of Darkness. These are extraordinary places, intrinsically and comprehensively imagined. And to give such worlds existence, the breath of authenticity, the writer must journey there endlessly – in mind and spirit. Much like a pioneer in uncharted territory, they must map, document, and experience all they find there through every sense, compile their own Rough Guide if you like. Only then can they begin to bring their world to life in narrative form.

Of course the great advantage of speculative fiction is that writers can put what they like in their worlds so long as they can make it seem true in some sense. By contrast, and somewhat paradoxically, the created worlds of realistic fiction can be far trickier to construct; readers may well have knowledge of, or at least an opinion on what would or would not be present in, for example, Thomas Cromwell’s bedchamber (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall), Jack London’s Arctic (White Fang) or Ian McEwan’s Venice (The Comfort of Strangers). Here the writer must rely on personal, concentrated experience and/or on scrupulous research in order to construct their story’s setting with acceptable faithfulness.

Having just re-read Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife in the Dark Materials Trilogy I am struck by the obvious analogy between writers creating believable fictional worlds (whether of fantasy, realism or something in between), and Pullman’s mystical knife that can open windows from one parallel universe to another. Creating your story’s world is much like this. It is like finding a door to a room in your mind that wasn’t there before. Once you open that door you begin to furnish and populate the space you find behind it. If you happen to open the door on a shipwrecked boy drifting at sea with a Bengal tiger in tow (Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi), you will have to do some pretty nifty conjuring (as Martel indeed does) to take the reader with you every wave tossed mile and on so perilous a voyage.

But in the end, having said all this, setting is perhaps rather less about physical qualities – the obsidian tower on the hilltop or the crimson flock wallpaper in the Chinese take-away, and more about the sensation, mood and resonance that these details can evoke. The best stories aim for an intricate interplay between place, characters and action. The knack of successful world building, then, is to know everything you need to know to make the story fly, but reveal only those details that will whisk the reader away with it, all their senses firing. It’s a hard skill to learn: not to overload the kite. It takes a million words of practice.

Here are some examples of story beginnings that I think work well, luring you straight into the character’s landscape, and making you want to know more. The first is from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”

So it is, with the mounting gloom of these few sentences, that Poe starts building suspense, the repeated ‘d’ consonant like a hammer blow or a tolling bell, foreshadowing the horror to come.

kT LindSAy
Photo: kT LindSay flikr Creative Commons

By contrast, the start of Neil M Gunn’s Morning Tide has quite a different mood:

“The boy’s eyes opened in wonder at the quantity of sea-tangle, at the breadth of the swath which curved with the curving beach on either hand. The tide was at a low ebb and the sea quiet except for a restless seeking among the dark boulders.”

Here we are instantly transported to the sea shore, the ‘breadth of the swath’ and the ‘curved with the curving beach’ sweeping our gaze out along the bay, while the ‘restless seeking’ of the sea among the rocks invites us to seek too. It makes us want to know: what is this place we have come to and who is this child whose wide eyes we are now looking through?

In both these openings, description of place is used to set the tone and introduce the characters. We know nothing about these people, but their circumstances are fascinating enough to make us want to find out more.

But setting can do more than this. In the following extract from Going Down River Road, Meja Mwangi uses description of place to tell us more about his protagonist. This is how he describes the Nairobi building site where Ben Wachira is working as a casual labourer:

“Work was just underway. Dark cement dust rose from the giant concrete mixer accompanied by loud squeaking and rattling and the old truck’s incessant whining. A ragged, dusty figure wrestled with the mixer’s monstrous wheel. Another scarecrow dangled in a bucket on the fourth floor and nailed wooden planks to the concrete wall. The sound of the hammer carried pathetically weak through the din below.

Ben looked up at the craggy building and shook his head. They had raised the building by four floors in eight months. They still had another sixteen to build. And the damned thing was already too high for comfort.”

Photo: Felix Masi     http://felixmasi.wordpress.com/

At first sight, this passage is only about the hazards of working on a construction site. But something else is suggested by Ben’s detached view of the one scarecrow fighting with the cement mixer, and the other dangling in a bucket from the fourth floor, and then his reaction to the prospect of a further sixteen floors. There is resignation here, the lot of poor men who have no choice but work in this place. But as the passage proceeds, this situation is amplified, and we soon see that Ben is not so pliant as his work mates. He might be anxious about working four floors up, but he is furious when he goes to the site clerk and finds he is again assigned ground duties. Through his angry response we learn more about the building site, only this time it’s personal.

Ground duties included manning the antique concrete mixer and eating half the dust on the site. One’s eyes and nose got plugged with the dust while the noisy looping machine slowly drove him uncomfortably close to insanity. Besides, one was always in sight of Yussuf, the drug-crazed foreman, and in this July smog the man could be bad tempered.
‘I am not doing ground again,’ Ben said.”

And now, for the sake of a complete contrast and another change of continent, let’s look at Colette’s Ripening Seed, first published in 1923. This short novel is set in Brittany where Vinca’s and Philippe’s families have long spent their summer vacations together. The two young people are on the brink of adult love, and their formerly easy childhood relationship has become fraught with unexpected moods and misunderstanding. Then suddenly into their self-absorbed midst that sees all adults as Shades, comes the mysterious Mme. Dalleray. She is beautiful, and she asks Philippe to visit her at her villa, and he finds he cannot resist. In the following scene Colette briefly evokes the scent and juiciness of carefully prepared fruit to show precisely what the older woman intends.

“Mme. Dalleray was not expecting him, or so it seemed, for he found her reading. He felt assured of his welcome, however, when he saw the studied half-light in the salon and noticed the almost invisible table from which rose a pervasive aroma of slow-ripening peaches, of red cantaloupe melon cut in slices the shape of crescent moons, and of black coffee poured over crushed ice.”

Who else but Colette could write such a scene of calculated seduction? Elsewhere in the book she is not always so economical. Ever the sensualist, she conjures her intimate knowledge of the wild Breton coast to echo Vinca’s and Phil’s turbulent feelings. It is often overblown, just as the emotions of adolescence are often overblown.

Paul Gaugin Rocks on the Breton Coast

As summer heads towards autumn when the couple must separate, so the pain, regret, jealousy and disillusionment of growing self-knowledge creeps in with the mists and the chillier nights. In this next extract Phil, despite his betrayal of her, seeks out Vinca, the sudden spell of bad weather reflecting his guilt and acute awareness:

“A fine impalpable sea-mist drifted through the air and clung to his skin without wetting it. A yellow aspen-leaf detached from its branch, hovered for an instant with intentional grace in front of Philippe’s eyes…He cocked one ear and listened to the winter sound of coal being shovelled into the kitchen furnace. From another room rose a shrill protest from little Lisette that ended in a whimper.
‘Lisette,’ he called. ‘Lisette, where’s your sister?’
‘I don’t know,’ wailed a small voice blurred with tears.
A gust of blustery wind whipped a slate off the roof and hurled it crashing at his feet, where Philippe stared at it in stupefaction, as if before his very eyes fate had smashed to smithereens the mirror that brings seven years bad luck.”

And finally, and fittingly for this writer on the Edge, I come home and finish this piece by turning to a writer who once lived in my town, and indeed in a house on Wenlock Edge. People have mixed feelings about Mary Webb and often dismiss her as a writer of romantic fiction. But there is far more to her work than this, although it is true that her prose is often overwrought for current tastes. Her settings, however, always have the ring of truth, and passionately too. Here are the opening paragraphs from her short story of elder love, Caer Cariad:

“In the Red Valley were only two houses – that of Zedekiah Tudor, ferociously scarlet, and that of his God, coldly grey. The valley, bird-scorned since Zedekiah had lopped the trees and pleached the hedges, would have been mute but for the dark music of the weir, lamenting.

It was a bitter night when Zedekiah stood with Dinah, his wife, in the graveyard. They were hidden, except for the greenish moonlight, in inky gloom. When the moon tore suddenly through the driving wrack, the shadows of the graves seemed to Dinah to spring at her like creatures out of an ambush. The wind drove down the valley, howling, and Zedekiah spoke even more loudly than usual.
‘Woman, confess yer sin, by the chyild’s gave!’”

And do not tell me that you don’t want to know what happens next.

Gizmo Bunny 1
Mary Webb territory, The Stiperstones Photo: Gizmo Bunny flikr Creative Commons

Now it’s your turn. Here’s a writing work-out.

World building: where to start

Consider the images on this page and choose one or more that particularly strike you. Take time to explore them, then for ten minutes scribble down your first thoughts about the place/situation. Review what you have written, and if a character, or narrative thread is starting to emerge, then brainstorm each of these in the same way. You now have the raw materials for world building. Next come musing, dreaming and constant interrogation of all you have gathered. This can take time. Lots of time. For now you need to fathom all the nooks, crannies and potential layers of this provisional setting, and work out how circumstance and character will interact with it. If, however, you find that a character has emerged far more strongly than either setting or circumstance, then start interrogating them. Do this in a situation where you are relaxed, like a meditation. Ask the character what they are looking at and how they feel about it, and what they are about to do, and where they are going, and what kind of place it is, and who else will be there – on and on – till your story-scape starts coming into sharper focus. Then it’s up to your creation what happens next.

Happy journeying.


text©Tish Farrell 2013