Living By The Sea

For almost all of my life, I’ve lived close to the sea. It has a special place in my heart and has always been a part of my everyday life, whether viewing out of my window or wandering along its beaches or up its piers. The last year especially, I lived in a tiny little fishing village. The sea was a stone’s throw away; the harbour visible from my window. As much as last year was cruel to me, I will very much miss being that close to the sea as now I’m living far from it. So, for today’s post I have decided to write about what it’s like to live in a tiny seaside village.

Writing a story set somewhere like that? Here are some things that are obvious, and some things that aren’t.

 

The Good Side

 

It’s almost guaranteed to be somewhere beautiful. The sea is beautiful all by itself. Small fishing harbours, cliffs, beaches – they’re pretty hard to mess up. The setting is good for the soul. As a writer, even the bad weather can be fantastically atmospheric. You know in those old films, where the wild literally howls? That actually happens. It’s easy to dismiss as creative hyperbole but there were times where I wasn’t sure if it was the wind or real voices. Between the wind and the haars—thick, rolling fog that devours everything from sight—even the bad days can really put you in the mood to write. And, if you’re a writer writing one of these dark, spooky scenes, you can take solace in knowing that this isn’t the fancy of some old, overly purple prose. Between screaming winds, consuming fogs, misty rains, and every other type of weather you can think of, there’s plenty of scope to put your characters in whatever atmosphere you need.

Even the tiniest, least touristy places are probably going to have at least one great ice cream shop. And, if you’re anything like me, if you live somewhere like this long enough then you’re probably not going to just save it for the sunny days. There’s nothing unrealistic about your character going out for ice cream in the rain.

Not always applicable if the town is more cliff than anything, but there’s a good chance you’re going to have a beach right there. Depending on what route I was taking, I’d have to walk across it to get to the shops. I skipped across stepping stones that crossed the river right where it met the sea as I walked home from dentist. Seaside towns, especially old ones, have weird layouts.

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In the summer, it becomes dog central. Now, I’m actually pretty timid around dogs but I can appreciate how darn adorable they are. Where do people who can’t afford to take dogs abroad or don’t want to put them into kennels go? The seaside. If soaking in the ambience of strangers’ adorable furry friends sounds like a good time to you, get yourself to the seaside in the summertime. Want a little extra authenticity to your summer seaside scene? Dogs.

There are other critters who are here all year round. Crabs, cockles, fish, jellyfish, sea birds, non sea birds (birds don’t give a damn) – a lot of cool things hang out in and around the sea, including some things you wouldn’t expect. Most people don’t generally consider mallards to be sea birds but you’ll still find them bobbing about close to shore.

 

The Bad Side

 

Winter sucks. And that’s speaking as someone who normally prefers winter to summer. My particular town took the full brunt of the North Sea winds, right in the face. And of course, it was an old town, full of beautiful buildings – which were all listed. That means no insulation, no double glazing, and a very unlikely chance of having decent heaters. We spent as much on heating over the winter as we did on rent, and we were still cold all the time. We lived in one room, because there was no way we could have afforded heating more than that. I couldn’t feel my toes until the end of March.

Every now and then, you’ll wake up ready to face another day, expecting to be gently rocked awake by the soft light of morning. It’ll take you a moment to realise that something is wrong. You frown, confused, and go to open the window. For some reason, you really need to get some fresh air in here. Only when you do, it gets worse. That’s right. We all know it, people are just afraid to say it. Sometimes that great majestic and mysterious body known as the sea quite simply just smells like farts. Often it’s subtle. Other times? It’s not. Just occasionally, it’s so thick you can taste it, like you’re stuck in a lift with that person. The entire town stinks and there’s nothing you can do. You’ve just gotta ride it out.

Another one that is easy to forget amongst the romantic idealistic idea of living next to the sea is that, depending on the town’s layout, there are occasions when the main road and the sea are the same thing. You’ll look out the window and think “wow, the tide’s really in toda- oh.” Good luck catching that bus! Always fun if you really just want to mess with a character’s day.

As mentioned previously, it gets busy in the summer. There’s people everywhere and they’re all in holiday mode. That means they’re walking slowly, taking up the whole pavement, and getting really confused and annoyed when someone is actually trying to hurry somewhere – the same type of people who’d probably kick a granny out of the way to get onto the train on their way to work. Anyone who lives in a holiday destination will probably know this already – people who are on holiday have the amazing ability to forget than not everyone is on holiday. Why in such a hurry, they wonder as they eat their ice cream cone. I wonder whoever sold them it, since everyone is on holiday. If your character is in a hurry in the height of summer, even if it’s getting into the evening, they’re probably going to have crowds to contend with. The town might not even have that many tourists but let me tell you, the older it is, the less it’s going to be designed to accommodate a lot of people.

This brings me to my next point. In the summer, every night is Saturday night. If your character lives between any pubs or restaurants and somewhere people might be staying, they’ll get to enjoy listening to drunks every night. Admittedly, I did have the worst of this as I lived right next to a pub. It was a poor choice.

Your character has a car? Great! They’re going to spend a lot of time swearing and/or parking really illegally. My partner and I used to have a game counting how many illegally parked cars you could spot in one place. The best we got was eleven on one corner. As you can image, this makes getting around—both on foot and by car—more tricky.

 

gull

 

That’s right. These bastards. They sit on roofs and squak, swoop down and steal your food, sometimes they just stand in the way and refuse to move. It’s even more annoying than you’d think to walk around a stubborn seagull. Like sure, I’m probably sixty times your weight but I’ll walk around you, bird. Great.  Stories of seagulls aggressively swiping things out of your hands or just point blank ignoring you as you try to walk past it aren’t exaggerated. They’re used to people. They don’t fear you. They don’t fear your character. Not even that cold blooded assassin of yours. They’re watching. They’re waiting. And, if you’ve got a poke of chips, they’re coming for you.

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Day and Night

Another short from the writing classes. In this exercise, we were tasked with studying sound in two contrasting things.

 


 

When the sun is high, the world is full of the babble of laughter and voices. Cars rumble past in a persistent, growling stream. Little bells jangle as the shop doors on the street open and close, the crinkling of shopping bags constant.

Only twelve hours later and those sounds are gone. The babble is replaced by a cool silence to those who do not wish to hear the night. My steps are gentle footfalls on the concrete. A soft rustle to my right – just a cat inspecting a bin. At this time, my breaths are loud and the soft breeze whispers to me. Just as I feel peace in this serene nightscape, there are footsteps behind me. I turn quickly. But behind there is only empty space and the footsteps remain. When the sun is high, the world is loud and I am safe from the sound. But it isn’t.

It is dark and it is cold and still the footsteps remain.

 

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Aurora Borealis

A few weeks ago I promised that I’d start posting some of the flash fiction from my writing class exercises! So here is the first one. This came from an exercise about describing a setting with the senses, using a place from a childhood memory.

 


 

Icy air gusted softly by as we stood beneath the stars, staring upwards past the looming grey pillars of the hilltop monument and into the crisp night sky. Specks of silver glistened in the void above us, stiff bristles of heather rustling by our feet. A couple of snowflakes twirled on the salty air, the very first of the fall. It wouldn’t be long before the encroaching grey clouds obscured our view and snuffed out our chances.

Dad held his camera aloft, hoping for those eerie green lanterns to splash across the sky. They never did. Never on the nights we tried. But we always went. And tonight, deep between those twinkling dots of light in the sky, something moved. We both tensed, excited, my numb hands clenching tight. This was it, our time. The thing that moved did shimmer with emerald wonder but it did not spill across the night. It moved closer, growing larger. I held my breath, the crunching of my raincoat falling silent as I stood stock still. Drifting up high was a perfect viridian disk.

My mouth fell agape, breath misting on the air. I glanced at my dad, the camera clutched white knuckled in his chill burned fingers. His brow furrowed, disbelieving and almost annoyed by the object above. Whatever it was, it drew nearer, silent as the snowfall. The quiet drew out long enough that the gentle whispers of the wind became unnerving.

The sudden click of the camera startled me and the haunting thing rose so swiftly upwards it was a dot within a second. It became a pinprick among the starts and then it was gone. I stared a long while, just in case it returned, while Dad scowled at the little preview window of his camera. The display showed perfectly the eerie form of the green glowing UFO, proof that the incredible spectacle we’d witnessed was real. He muttered under his breath and shook his head.

“We’re never gonna see those bloody lights.”

A Ramble About My Writing Classes

A few weeks ago, I started attending an evening writing class. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time now but I’ve always lived too far out to go to any. Luckily and seemingly completely by chance, the tiny little town I live in now has one set right in the community centre! Never having any formal lessons on the craft is always something I’ve been self-conscious about, even though at this point I think I’m self-taught enough to have a fair idea of what I’m doing. Really I’m here for the reassurance and quite simply the fun of it, with the hope to learn some great stuff along the way.

Writing is one of those vast, nebulous things that has no definitive answer. There’s always ideas or theories or tricks that you don’t know, that you won’t have thought of or stumbled across on your way through the journey of discovering your voice. For instance, I had never heard of the “save the cat” method even though it’s actually found its way into the latest draft of Through the Black (scary, subterranean bat people count as cute little kitties, right?).

It’s also a really good feeling to meet with people face-to-face who are interested in writing. I’ve talked before in my posts about the workshops in the past about how lonely writing can feel. Even with the hugely supportive online community, you can feel very disconnected from the world around you. There’s something homely and reassuring about meeting with like minded people every once in a while – especially after so long flying solo. This class, unlike the one off workshops I’ve been to before, means actually getting to know people a little too, which is great.

The class I’m in is very small—there’s five of us on a good day—so there’s lots of room for discussions and input and no one gets left on the edges, which is both nice and terrifying for an introvert like me who normally hides on the edges intentionally. To add to the scary factor, and something I’ve never done before, it’s a common exercise to do a short period of “free writing” and then to read it aloud. Let me tell you, that is not easy. That said, it’s probably a good thing to get experience and practice of for later down the line.

So to sum up, there’s lots of new things to learn, new experiences to be had and new friends to be made! All in all, a success if you ask me (even if the reading out loud drives me to chocolate). If you’ve ever been thinking about trying out a writing class, even if you think you don’t “need” it, I’d definitely recommend trying it out. I’m having a great time with mine!

Snowflake and Characters

As you know, I’ve been working on a side project partially for fun but mainly to see if using the Snowflake Method of plotting would be beneficial for me in the future for serious projects. Work has been continuing slowly on that but it hasn’t been prioritised over other work – though it seems to want to get itself promoted to a serious project. My plate feels rather full at the minute but we’ll maybe see in the future.

Capture

I was making fairly quick progress through all the steps – until I got to stage seven. This part involves very in-depth character profiles, going into every little detail about the characters, and I am finally making some good progress on it. Before I was getting really distracted and skipping ahead to the next phase (I know I shouldn’t but I just love planning scenes) and just generally struggling to get in the rhythm of filling in the incredibly detailed sheets the template came with.

It’s very strange for me to go into so much detail with characters before I start writing. Normally I have to get started and let the characters grow from the page, emerging with the story and influenced by the situations they get put in. I’ll have a rough idea but I won’t really start to know them until I write. I won’t know how they speak or interact or even what they’ll do until I actually get them doing things. It means that in the early chapters of a rough draft they can come off as very dry – because they are. By the middle they’ll have some personality and background and I go back and fix the start during edits.

Using the Snowflake Method means I’m going to know my characters really well before I even think about the first scene. By the time I’m finished stage 7, for each of them I’ll know their histories, their speech patterns, influences and ideals. There’s sheets that probe into areas I wouldn’t have thought of looking at ever and even my ‘main’ minor characters will have comprehensive histories. It really gives the feel that my first draft will have far more robust and interesting characters and that this would lead to far more character driven stories. Now that they already have personalities and histories, they can’t be moulded to the story – it must be moulded to them.

I’m really excited to see how this effects the end result – the way the characters appear on the page. Will they be more rounded, relatable and all around enjoyable as a result? Or will they lose that natural and organic feeling? Honestly, I don’t know yet but there’s only one way to find out!

Snowflake So Far

You may remember me mentioning that I was going to try out the Snowflake method to see if it’s something I want to use in the future when plotting stories. So far, I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful tool. Already I’ve identified several major problem areas and managed to change them quickly, all before I’ve actually gotten to the point where I need to go back and alter other things. Let’s look at the list.

First, I found the character arcs really helpful. This is where a one paragraph synopsis is rewritten for each of the MCs. For one thing, I noticed that one of the MCs had basically no arc whatsoever. She was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl without being manic, pixish or a love interest, which was kinda impressive when you think about it. Noticing this now allowed me to really look at her and her story and make sure that she had goals and pursuits and a purpose other than holding up the other characters. I rewrote her paragraph and turned her into a fully-fledged story all herself. And I didn’t have to alter 70k words of prose to do it – a nice change from my usual method.

Next in Stage 4, the plot expansion step, I was able to combat another old nemesis of mine – the “things are too easy” problem. I make a bad habit of this one and it’s led to me having to insert entire arcs into already fully written manuscripts, and of course alter all the rest of the novel appropriately. Here I could tweak just a few sentences to make things more interesting and less predictable and it only took me an hour or so as opposed to a couple of months.

Stage 5 is very good for weaving all the characters’ stories together and finding ways to add depth and intrigue to use characters to their full potential. It made it easier to keep track of subplots as well, as it allows for slight tangents away from the overarching stories to look closely at each character. Doing half pages for minor characters is something I’ve never done before – I’ve never put much thought into them before the actual writing and always let them develop with the story. It feels very different and I’m interested in seeing how this effects the story and how my secondary characters feel.

I’m currently on Stage 8 – the outline stage. This feels like more familiar ground as it’s extremely rare for me to write without at least a rough scene-by-scene. Naturally, I like the idea of this stage but I found working in a spreadsheet pretty clunky. I’ve modified it a little and instead jumped into Scrivener, using the corkboard feature. This allows me to very easily move scenes around and also put notes and ideas into each document as I go. I’m just too addicted to being able to put extra info absolutely everywhere, and being able to rearrange with just a drag and drop is so convenient.

cofNeedless to say, this new project has become way more of a thing than I ever intended so whoops on that one. What can I say, I need something to distract me while TE1 is with the betas! That said, playing with this story is going to slow down considerably as TE2 has sat long enough. It’s time to work out those huge structural changes that I’m trying to prevent in future projects.

Wish me luck.

Comedy and the Happy Ending

An incredibly late post about the comedy writing workshop I went to for the Aye Write festival about a month and a half ago. Overall it was great fun, though there was this one point that I disagreed with. During the workshop endings were discussed and the author running the workshop said that comedies can only have happy endings, and almost everyone in the workshop agreed with her. For her specific genre, which was romantic comedies, what I’ve seen from publishers and readers shows this to be true but there’s a lot of scope for an “unhappy” ending in a comic story. Within context, the correct unhappy ending can either be a.) very fitting to a story or b.) hilarious in its own right.

The next contains spoilers for an old TV series and an old film so, uh, the 1980’s called and spoiler alert?

For my first point, perhaps the most memorable and most powerful example I can think of is the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Set in the WW1 trenches, you can imagine the scope for happy endings. The series comes to a close with the main characters going “over the top” in a suicidal charge infamous for devastating loss of troops. While the episode makes liberal use of extremely dark humour (for example, as the troops wait to go over and Darling exclaims “Oh , we’ve survived it, the Great War, from 1914 to 1917!”), it ends an on especially bleak note. The entire atmosphere of the program seems to flip with three simple words from the overly optimistic, nothing-can-bring-me-down George. “I’m scared, sir.” That’s when it hits. All the characters are going to die. The jokes keep coming but they are the characters’ last words. It’s over. And finally, it ends with Blackadder’s famous “good luck everyone” and they go over the top. The series ends.

It is dark, and unfunny, and brings people to tears. It is also perfect.

The second point, where the unhappy end can actually be a joke by itself, has a few good examples – in fact my favourite film is one of them. Evil Dead II is a comedy horror film, your classic “terrible things happen to young adults in a cabin in the woods” story. Everyone’s favourite one-handed, chainsaw wielding, shotgun-toting white trash asshole Ash Williams spends the film freaking out and killing demons. Just as he finally succeeds, as he triumphs over the horrors and is given perhaps a chance to return to his normal and safe life, he is transported back to 13th century England (it makes a little more sense in the film, though admittedly not much) where there’s an army waiting, expecting him to lead them in a great war against the demons. The film ends with this army chanting that he’s their deliverer, and with Ash stood on a plinth screaming in despair.

Trust me, it’s much funnier than it sounds.  Ash doesn’t get what he wants, in the most ridiculous way possible, and fits with the “what other terrible things can we do to this guy” humour that the film employs liberally.

So while the advice that certain genres of comedy require a certain type of ending, I definitely don’t believe it’s true for all. Yeah, you probably don’t want your rom-com to end with a tragic double murder, but a war setting has much more flexibility. Blackadder nailed it. Irvine Welsh’s Filth could never be disregarded as a comedy but at the same time really couldn’t have ended well. Wars? Corrupt police? End of the world? A family reunion? All these things have the potential for both comedy or tragedy but the two aren’t mutually exclusive, if you ask me. Over running the world with nightmare horrors can actually be pretty funny, but isn’t necessarily going to end breezy. The possibilities for dark endings in funny stories are limitless, within reason.

Remember the magic words: Context and audience.

Anything can be funny if you’re smart about it. Then again, maybe I’m a little twisted.