Sunday, 18 May 2014

Memories of Mary Stewart

I heard today (from reading that Mary Stewart has died, aged 97.

Her books were an important part of my reading life as I was growing up. I discovered The Crystal Cave series first, and I can still remember the images that her writing conjured up the first time I read them - Merlin's mother weaving the wrong colour on the loom as she got disturbing news that the young boy didn't understand (but the reader did), a drunken wasp dying on poisoned fruit in the orchard, little details that made the Dark Age world come to life.
Her writing also gave me an important lesson - as Merlin is growing up, he learns to seek knowledge wherever it may be found, rather than sticking to a single religious tradition. When I read that, I was strongly influenced by a childhood of Sunday school attendance and a Church of England junior school to seek religious knowledge in one place only - the Anglican tradition - but Merlin's quest for knowledge encouraged me to open my mind to other traditions. Over the years, I've read about Buddhism and the Sufi tradition and Wicca and Druidry, and all sorts of other things, and found value in all of them somewhere.

Later, I discovered her romantic mysteries, and searched out as many as I could. The Moonspinners introduced me to a magical modern Greece (I was already devouring as many of Mary Renault's books about Ancient Greece as I could get my hands on), and there were books set in France, and even Scotland, in Touch Not the Cat. Again it was the little details that made the stories come alive - in one it was the blue flowers that a dying girl had loved, which proved that she was not the missing girl that the heroine was seeking, who had been colour-blind and unable to see the colour blue. Or it was the nightingale singing near the taverna where the heroine was staying in the Moonspinners, giving her an alibi to be out at night when the villain of the piece finds her there.

What a pity her work wasn't better served on screen! The Disney film of the Moonspinners has little more than the title in common with the book - and the plot makes little sense. I could forgive the switch from the aunt collecting wild flowers to her collecting folk songs for the screen - Greek villagers singing into her tape recorder was far more photogenic than picking a few flowers. But how did the young man who was skin-diving get the money for his trip to Greece and all the equipment if he had been ruined and lost his job because of whatever the bad guys had done in England? And then there was the woman on the yacht, with the leopard....

The BBC were no better, when they serialised The Crystal Cave one Christmas. Some of the scenes were word for word straight from the book, but others.... I have never forgiven them for the scene where Merlin leads everyone to the cave under the castle that keeps falling down (an old Roman mine working, causing subsidence). In the book, he has a genuine vision, of the red and white dragons fighting - and wakes up a couple of days later feeling awful and asking "What did I say?" In the series, it was all a trick, and he only pretended to have a vision.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Women Warriors - The Lovely Sergeant

I was chatting to a friend who has a huge interest in military matters, and the conversation came round to women who have fought in battles.
"Oh, yes - The Lovely Sergeant!" he said.

Her name was Flora Sandes, and she was the only Western woman to fight in the First World War - for the Serbian army!
She started off, fairly conventionally, as a nurse, and she worked her way from a military hospital near Belgrade to a field ambulance unit, and while out with the army she got the approval of her commanding officer to enlist as a private. By 1916, she had won the Star of Karageorge, the Serbian army's highest award for bravery under fire, in an action where she was badly wounded by a grenade. She was also promoted to sergeant-major. At the end of the war (she served until 1922) she was promoted again, to Captain.
She stayed in Serbia after the war - and was still there at the beginning of the Second World War. She and her husband, a White Russian general in exile called Yudi Yudenitch, were recalled to military service, but the German invasion was over before they could do anything. They were briefly interned by the Germans, and Yudi died.
Flora lived until 1956, though, and moved back to England after the War.
She wrote a book, An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army, in 1916, to raise funds for the Serbian army, and went on lecture tours after the war. The Lovely Sergeant was her biography, by Alan Burgess.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Shape-changers and Serendipity

I love doing research, especially when things fall so neatly into place as they did the other day.
I needed the name of a castle, preferably French or Burgundian, for a small fortress some of my characters were visiting. A bit of footling around on Google and I found a rather nice little castle called Brancion. Which would do nicely. The description of it said that it had been held by the Garoux family - and that is such a wonderful example of serendipity!
Loup-garoux is French for werewolf, and another character in the story is a shape-changer who leads a wolf pack. I had intended him to be a different nationality, but it only needed a very slight change to make him Yves Garoux, the master of Brancion castle, and to have the Garoux family coat of arms (black and silver stripes) as the flag flying from the gatehouse.

Friday, 9 May 2014

A Rejection Letter

I was doing a bit of de-cluttering the other night, and I came across a rejection letter I'd got when I sent off my first ever novel to an agent.
It was a very kind rejection letter, pointing out that I'd improved no end since I'd first submitted the story - which finally became Like Father, Like Daughter, when I decided I couldn't improve it any further, so I'd throw it out into the cruel world to see if anyone else would like to read it!
However, the suggestions the agent made for improving it further seemed to hinge on turning it into a contemporary story where the central theme was about a teenager choosing between her divorced parents. The agent didn't think that the fantasy world was necessary to the story I was telling.
Having Arian making the choice between her parents is important to the story I wanted to tell - but like Joy Chant, who wrote Red Moon and Black Mountain, when I write, it's fantasy that comes out. I have no interest in contemporary, 'real-life' situations when I'm writing - and I'm not sure how I could take out the fantasy elements of Like Father, Like Daughter to make it into something set entirely in this world. They're kind of integral to the plot.
At one point, very early in the writing process, I did have the vague idea that Arian's father Mal could be imagining all the alternative world situations, but I really didn't have the skill to pull that off - anyway, I wanted the fantasy world to be real, and not delusional - and I didn't want to send poor Mal mad. He had enough problems to deal with already.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Women Warriors: the Cuban Revolution

Here's an extract from Marianas in Combat, a book about the Mariana Grajales Brigade during the revolution in Cuba in the 1950s. It's by Tete Puebla, who was fifteen when she joined the revolutionary forces, and rose to be a Brigadier General in the Revolutionary Armed Forces, including a period serving in the Mariana Grajales Brigade.

"We had already proved that women could do just about everything. We withstood the bombings, delivered weapons, and were in the places where fighting was taking place. But we were still not allowed to fight.

“If women have to take part in all the duties of the revolution,” we said, “why can´t we fight for the revolution in the same way as our men fight?”

After the army´s offensive had been defeated, we asked our commander in chief to allow us to fight arms in hand. He agreed. Fidel said yes, women had won the right to fight with a rifle face to face with the enemy....

There was a discussion at this roundtable meeting that lasted more than seven hours. Fidel had a very big argument there. There were still not enough weapons for everyone, and the men were saying, “How can we give rifles to women when there are so many men who are unarmed?”

Fidel answered: “Because they´re better soldiers than you are. They´re more disciplined.”

“In any event,” he said, “I´m going to put together the squad, and I´m going to teach them how to shoot.”"

There were only 14 members of the Mariana Grajales Brigade, named after an earlier Cuban heroine, but many other women were involved in the revolution.

There are some who say that Celia Sanchez was the one who made the important decisions that Fidel Castro went along with, for instance. I'd never heard of her until I started doing a bit of research, but she seems to have worked closely with Fidel Castro until her death in 1980, including fighting alongside him during the Cuban Revolution. In fact, Fidel Castro was in prison when she launched the Revolution, and she saved him and Che Guevara, and ten other men of the eighty or so who returned to the island and were mostly instantly captured by the Batista regime.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Finding some good insults!

My story writing has been pretty much on the back burner for a while, but I'm having a lazy weekend at the moment - which could be useful writing time! So I had a clear-out of my "in-tray" where I keep my scribbled notes, and found a good scene to start myself off again.
One of my characters is having her mind controlled by one of the bad guys, and I wanted her to fight it off by using her superior knowledge of old SF TV shows. After all, SF characters have to deal with this sort of thing all the time!
At first, I thought of the classic Star Trek episode What Are Little Girls Made Of?, where a clone of Kirk is sent back from the planet to take control of the ship, and the original Kirk makes sure he implants an insult to Spock which will alert Spock to the imposter: "Mind your own business, Mr Spock. I'm sick of your half-breed interference."
That wasn't quite right if I was thinking of mind control, though.
This Side of Paradise not only has Spock being mind controlled by an alien plant, but also a string of deliciously insulting dialogue from Kirk as he tries to make Spock snap out of it by goading him to anger. I can throw in a few lines about Jedi mind tricks - and possibly "Eldrad must live" from Sarah Jane's last Doctor Who story, but "mutinous, disloyal, computerised half-breed" has got to be at the heart of the scene!

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Two Views of Venice

I've been listening to some of the Eighth Doctor's adventures from Big Finish recently, and one of those was The Stones of Venice, with India Fisher as the Doctor's Companion Charley Pollard. Venice in the 24th century is about to sink beneath the waves, and the Doctor has brought Charley there to see it happen. It was written by Paul Magrs.
Now, I can write what I know about Venice on the back of a postcard, but there were one or two things about this story that bothered me. The Duke, for instance. Things may have changed by the 24th century, but La Serenissima historically was ruled by a Doge, who was some sort of elected official. I also found it odd that works of art were being allowed to drown along with the city. Surely, even today, the Italian government would make some sort of rescue attempt, and in the future possibly a world government would want to save works of art for posterity. So these things niggled at me, and I didn't enjoy the story as much as I might have done, even though the web-footed amphibious gondoliers were quite fun.

For contrast, after I'd listened to the story, I watched a video called Venice through Canaletto's Eyes, made by the National Gallery. It's quite impressive to see the pictures alongside the buildings and canals today, even though there are views that Canaletto could not possibly have seen, and places where he combined two different viewpoints to make one picture. He moved buildings around, too. His pictures are so good, though, that it doesn't matter if he heightens the drama of the surroundings - he captured what Venice was like, and you can still go and see something of that today. Hopefully before it sinks into the lagoon.