31 January 2011


Write about what you know.

This is good advice but can be taken too far. How many of us have actually been abruptly transported to an alien world and forced to fend for ourselves?

I cannot emphasise enough the value of proper research.  It can help create a piece that has freshness and vitality instead of my regurgitation of someone else's experience.

With this in mind my two sons and I decided to embark on an exciting camping trip together. The idea was to research the realities of living in a forest remote from any form of civilisation.

We were inspired by my SF novel 'Technical Difficulties' where the main protagonist finds himself far from any human contact with only a pile of camping gear for company. As I am in the process of rewriting, it seemed an excellent opportunity for me to get the feel of the real thing and reflect that authenticity in my script.

I imported a big box of military rations from America, MRE's, Meals Ready to Eat. These come in cardboard sleeves containing nutritional information and a khaki metallised pouch with the meal inside. These can be heated in a fire, boiled in water or put on the hot areas of an engine block. We took enough to feed a platoon of marines for several months, just to be on the safe side.

Our accomodation was the subject of some debate.  Three of us in the same tent seemed the best idea, but it was also suggested that a tent each might be better.  We considered the matter at some length, reasoning that my character was alone and having a tent each would more closely mirror this.  There was also the question of availability, none of us actually had one.  In the end, I decided that I would buy a quick erect three man tent and we would all use that.

Having been on many camping trips before, the common factor being my inability to pitch the tent properly, I decided to try out the new tent well in advance.  It practically flew out of the circular bag when I unzipped it and assumed a satisfying tent shape in an instant.  Half a dozen tent pegs needed bashing into the ground and it was ready for occupation.  Brilliant!  Perfect!

Unfortunately, the tent resisted all my efforts to put it back in its bag.  Even the combined efforts of several burly assistants failed to return it to its original state.

Our attention turned to the best piece of wilderness to carry out our research.  The Black Mountains on the Welsh border appeared to have the right quantity of bleakness.  Scotland seemed a good bet as it consists almost entirely of wild moorland.  In the end, we pored over maps and decided that somewhere just South of Birmingham would be best as this was equidistant for all three of us.

It was also unanimously decided that we would book the first of our two nights in a hotel in order to avoid having to find a site and pitch the tent in the dark.  We would meet up on Friday evening and plan our research over a nice meal and a few beers.

Just in case, we also booked the second night in the hotel.  This was to allow for mishaps and bad weather (August in Stratford on Avon can be unpredictable).  As things turned out this was a good thing.  There were showers!  Lucky we didn't take the tent.

At the moment, I am researching trigeminal neuralgia but I wouldn't wish it on the worst of my characters.

16 January 2011

Loose Women and Life Enhancement

Ah, the prospect of those contextual ads still mesmerises me.

Whisper it softly (out of their earshot).  Today's blog is entitled "loose tea and life enhancement." Not as snappy, perhaps, but this way you get a blog about something interesting with the added possibility of a racy ad or two. Also, it occurs to me, I might get a wider audience from people searching for non-writing related entertainment.

So? Loose tea? Life enhancing?

You can still buy loose tea in most supermarkets. I didn't used to, not for many years. The easy option of one teabag per cup, quick and easy, held me in thrall until very recently. I have escaped and I really need to tell you how good this feels.

In some far off places, like China, the making of tea has long been considered a process involving careful ritual and deep contemplation. They may well have the right idea.

Here are my top five reasons for making tea thoughtfully.

1. Loose tea is much nicer than teabag tea. Teabag tea is ground up floor sweepings mixed with brown mud (I hope it's mud) designed to produce instantaneous results. Loose tea comes in lots of different varieties, it can be powerful, smooth, fragrant, gentle, subtle and lots of other adjectives, sometimes all of them at the same time.

2. Loose tea has to be brewed in a teapot. It takes time. Believe it or not, this is a good thing. While the tea is brewing there is an opportunity to reflect, to do other things. Allowing tea to brew can keep you away from the TV for a few extra seconds. This is valuable.

3. A teapot will provide several cups of extremely high quality from one spoonful of tea and one kettle of water. Using a tea cosy will keep the tea warm and drinkable for an hour or so. This saves tea, water, electricity, money, time, effort, and provides a market for Vicki, my son's wife, who sells the very best quality tea cosies on eBay. I expect a contextual ad to pop up and tell you exactly where, but, if not, I'll let you know.

4. Using a teapot means that you will have the opportunity to put the milk in the cup before the tea. This is important. You have to take my word for this, after all I am a chemist so I outrank you in matters like this. Using a teabag means the milk goes in afterwards, which is bad. It heats the milk up too quickly. When you add tea to milk it gets heated in a more gentle manner. This improves the taste. It really does.

5.  Making tea is a reflection of life. If you want it to be quick, tasteless and shoddy then fine. It's your life after all.

13 January 2011

Kitchen Worktops

Amazing contextual ads keep appearing on this blog. I am trying not to let them influence the things I say but it's not easy. In the 'Biscuits with Jam' blog I did a very short piece in a kitchen and immediately below it appeared an ad for kitchen worktops. I suppose people who read about biscuits and jam will need a worktop on which to place said items, but I remain very impressed and a little scared.

The temptation is growing to mention things like chainsaws, M16 automatic rifles, lingerie, wolfhounds and gold plated cadillacs just to see what will happen.

But no, this is a blog about writing, not about advertising, so I'll resist my most outlandish urges and leave it at that.

Check out the adverts below, though. They might be fun.

10 January 2011

Biscuits with Jam

Something occurred to me about writing as I was having a biscuit a couple of seconds ago. It involves the amount of information I need to give my reader. Someone once said that " Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action" (actually that someone was Kurt Vonnegut but I suppose you don't really need to know that in order for me to make my point).
Anyway, that's what I'm talking about here, what biscuits, what jam? Does it reveal character or advance the action if I tell you?
OK, there's precious little action in a blog. The most interesting thing you might ever read in a blog might be the best kind of jam for a particular biscuit, but I'm making a story writing point rather than a blog writing point. You can get away with any old crap in a blog, people expect very little. But a story involves more complex issues. The jam could get in the way, the fact that jam was used at all might be irrelevant or, even more interesting, the jam could be there as a ploy, a device, a red herring, a means of diverting attention.

An example:

Jenny's gaze falls on the two McVities Rich Tea biscuits lying side by side on the kitchen worktop. Next to them stands an open pot of Robinson's Plum Jam, spoon gently resting on its scarlet surface. The brown speckled white formica stretches all the way from the kitchen door to the back door, interrupted only by the dark gash of the cooker hob. The door flies open and his face contorts with hatred as he recognises her.

Or, is this better?

Jenny looks desperately around the kitchen for something that might help. Two plain looking biscuits and a pot of jam are the only items in view. The door flies open and his face contorts with hatred as he recognises her.

It's hard to decide, except in full context, I suppose.

Still it's the sort of fun thing that I have to contend with when I go into edit mode. Getting the character from A to B is one job, but there has to be something for them to see on the way. My tendency is to whizz them along too quickly for a sense of place to be properly established. So I feel the need to read the name on the jam pot from time to time.

For the record, the only biscuits that can be enhanced satisfactorily with jam are Rich Tea. The very best jam to use is plum which has a nice firm sticky consistency. Strawberry is good but tends to ooze out of the sides when the biscuits are put together. Avoid Blackcurrent, it is much too lumpy and the top biscuit tends to take on a bit of a lean which makes for an untidy looking product.