Category Archives: Strong Female Characters

How to Make a Reader: Ten Books that have Shaped Me

So. As many of you have probably guessed, I read all the damn time. I read everywhere – in bed, on the train, while cleaning my teeth, while going down stairs (not recommended), while helping my dad paint a fence and while eating my dinner, which explains why so many of my books are covered in paint flecks and curry stains.

But not all books are created equal. The vast majority of the books I’ve read I’ve forgotten about, or disliked, or experienced that special kind of apathy which is way worse than actually hating something. But there are some books I’ll always remember. Sometimes I will look back over my long history as a reader and see distinct ‘before’ and ‘after’ phases in the way I think and the type of things I seek out. Some books leave marks.

These are mine.

 

  1. The Witches by Roald Dahl

This was my favourite book when I was about six years old and the most goffik little child you ever saw. It was the first ‘scary’ book I can really remember enjoying, and I’m not really sure why – for some reason, the idea of seemingly-normal women ripping off wigs and gloves and masks to reveal their terrifying faces was kind of amazing to me, instead of horrifying. I had it on tape, read by a man with a very sinister British voice who may or may not have been Richard E. Grant. All I’m sure of is that even now, nearly twenty years after throwing that tape away, I can still remember the way the narrator says “Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next.”

 

  1. Awful Egyptians by Terry Deary

This was another book I read at the age of about six or seven, and it sparked a lifelong love of history. For those of you who aren’t aware, this is part of the Horrible Histories series – a series of short history books aimed at kids that highlight all the really gross bits of history. This was the first one I read, and for years afterwards I was obsessed with ‘The Curse of the Mummy’, even though the book went to great lengths to make it clear that it wasn’t real. Horrible Histories was a hugely important part of my childhood, and I read them all until I was well into my teens. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t picked up Awful Egyptians, I wouldn’t have ended up doing my history degree.

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Me paying back my student loans. (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Greek Myths, Retold and Illustrated by Marcia Williams

Another childhood favourite. This was the first book of myths and legends I remember reading. It was a fairly sanitised version of the classical Greek myths, illustrated with silly little cartoons which I can still picture really clearly. I don’t remember much about the way the actual stories were told, unfortunately, as I was really small when I first read this one. However, after I read this book I spent the rest of my primary school years reading all the books of myths, legends and fairy tales that I could get my hands on. To this day I’m still really interested in folklore and mythology, and I can trace it all back to this book.

 

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

I’ve already touched on my love of the Harry Potter series before, so I won’t go into it in too much detail here. Suffice to say that I read it as a slightly older child and continued well into my teens, and it completely dominated my childhood. My relationship with the series has changed as I’ve got older, and I don’t see it in quite the same way as I did, but there’s no denying it was a hugely important part of my life.

 

  1. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Picture this. It’s the mid-2000s and my snotty teenage self is having a crisis: I’m on holiday, but I’ve read all the books I brought with me. The only solution is to drive my family mad. In desperation, my dad finds an English-language bookstore, grabs a Terry Pratchett book (“No, you’ll like it”) and presses it into my hands. I loved it, and I never looked back. This was the moment that ‘proper’ fantasy as a genre unfolded for me – at this point I’d already read Lord of the Rings and had felt kind of shut out by it. I read this book and a door unlocked. It’s not my favourite Pratchett book now, but it is one of the most sentimental, because I can still remember the moment it all fell into place when I was reading it.

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I’ve just got something in my eye… (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Dracula by Bram Stoker

This is another teenage darling of mine. Growing up I wasn’t really allowed to read horror – I got nightmares really easily and my parents didn’t want to make it worse. Obviously, this ended up triggering a massive secret horror phase, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I persuaded them to let me read Dracula because it was a ‘serious’ book, and read it on holiday at the age of about thirteen. I was completely spellbound – and to be honest, I still am. There’s something about the novel which keeps pulling me back, and I find the idea of an ageless, immortal being adrift from his own time utterly fascinating. My copy is falling to bits and still smells a bit like chlorine and suncream, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

 

  1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

This book taught me the value of the slow burn. Again, I read this one as an impatient teenager, and I found the book incredibly frustrating until I was about halfway through. Then, it got weird. When the twist was revealed, I saw the entire book in a completely different light. It completely blew my mind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this book changed the way I read. Without it, I never would’ve looked at half the books I now consider favourites.

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Before, I used to read like this. (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I really love this book. This was another novel that took a while for me to get into it, as I read it when I was a bit too young to appreciate the set-up of the first part. But as I got older, and read it again and again, it kind of blossomed for me. The more I read it, the more I discovered. Over the years it’s become a book I really lean on when I’m finding things difficult, and I’ve really grown to appreciate its bittersweet mix of hope and despair. I’ve listened to the audiobook when I was writing my dissertation, and in the aftermath of a very sudden death in the family, and every single time it’s an incredible source of comfort for me.

 

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This is one of those rare books that I have to cuddle after I finish, it breaks my heart so exquisitely. I don’t usually go in for stuff set around the Second World War, as it’s not one of my favourite periods of history – I often find war fiction either very depressing or far too simplistic. But The Book Thief paints a vivid picture of life in Nazi Germany and the ways people resisted it, and in a way that isn’t exploitative or sensationalist. It stomps all over my feelings every time and I still keep coming back for more.

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I don’t know why I enjoy so many books that basically put my feelings in a headlock. (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I absolutely loathe this book, as I have repeatedly made clear. But there’s no denying it had a massive impact on me. I first read it at the height of the Twilight craze, and the first time I breezed through it in a few days and enjoyed it. But then, I read it again – and this time, I slowed down and actually thought about what I was reading. And I hated it. This was the first book that made me stop and look at things critically and engage with the text on a deeper level. I’ve never looked back! My experience of Twilight was by no means positive, but it encouraged me to be a critical reader and actually think about the mechanics of plotting and prose. Credit where credit’s due: I never would’ve started up this blog if it wasn’t for Stephenie Meyer.

 

 

And there you have it! It was really hard keeping this list down to ten books, but I managed it without crying once. It’s by no means set in stone. Ask me again in ten years and it’ll be completely different – but that’s one of the best parts about reading.

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Reading Roundup: Audio Edition

A while ago I made a short list of some of the books I’d been reading lately. I’m going to do the same thing again, but with a slight twist: everything on this list will be an audiobook.

I haven’t really talked about this before, but I absolutely love audiobooks and always have done. They were a huge part of my childhood, mainly thanks to Stephen Fry’s excellent reading of the Harry Potter series (I listened to them so often that to this day, when I read them myself I can only hear the words in his voice). There’s just something really relaxing about having an audiobook read to you, and a good performance can really make all the difference.

So! Here’s what I’ve been listening to that has really stood out:

 

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image: amazon.com

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, by Arthur Conan Doyle – read by Stephen Fry 

This is exactly what it sounds like. Stephen Fry reads the entire works of Sherlock Holmes (apart from the apocrypha) and it’s great. The full recording is about three days long and took me the best part of a month to get through, but it was totally worth it. Fry does an excellent job of creating the right atmosphere for each story and there’s also a short introduction to each of the main collections where we find out more about the Sherlock Holmes canon and how Fry discovered it.

I really liked this one. Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t always my favourite, as a lot of them tend to rely on forcing their characters into pretty restrictive boxes, but Fry’s performance made me forget about that. It was a little strange hearing him do all the accents, as I’m just so used to him having the most English voice in the world, but he got the voices right. My only complaint is that I still don’t know how to pronounce Inspector Lestrade’s name right, as he used both ‘Le-straahhhd’ and ‘Le-strayed’ and now I don’t know how to speak. But all in all a really great collection.

 

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image: audioeditions.com

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee – read by Sally Darling

This one has a special place in my heart. The first time I came across this particular recording was when I was writing my dissertation. I didn’t work very well in the university library, but needed to use lots of books on short-term loans, so what I would do was to take out a bunch of books, transcribe as many direct quotes from the useful passages onto my laptop and then take them all back three days later. My eyes hurt so much it felt like all the moisture had been systematically removed from each eyeball with a syringe. Do not do this.

Anyway. When I wanted to take a break, I needed to close my eyes. But I wasn’t sleepy – I just needed to not be staring at screens or tiny print for a while. So I was idly scrolling along when I came across this audiobook, and decided to listen for a while just to see if I liked the performance.

And it was perfect.

Sally Darling got the pace, the accent and the tone spot on for me. It was exactly like an older Scout had plonked herself down in my chair and was just telling me about her life. I was completely transported. Years later, after a death in the family, I’d listen to this audiobook again, and it was exactly what I needed: comforting, bittersweet and rich, without shying away from all the nasty things in life. After all that, no other performance can compare.

 

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image: amazon.co.uk

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson – read by Richard Armitage

I got this one as part of The Monster Collection, which is a three-in-one audiobook of Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein and Dracula. All three stories are read by different actors but it was Jekyll that really stood out. (For what it’s worth, Greg Wise and Rachel Atkins did quite a good job on Dracula, but I didn’t really think much of Dan Stevens reading Frankenstein – the voice he went with was a bit too woeful for my tastes, even though I can see why he made that choice.)

Damn, Richard Armitage. Damn. This man can really read a book. His performance was genuinely electrifying. He has the perfect voice for scary stories, managing to get just the right kind of slow-build menace in the scene-setting, but the really stand-out part was when he was reading Jekyll’s confession right at the end. As he was describing his transformation his voice started slowly changing, becoming low and scratchy as Jekyll transformed into Hyde – he did an amazing job of showing the transformation through his performance.

 

image: denofgeek.com
image: denofgeek.com

Discworld series, by Terry Pratchett – read by Stephen Briggs

I’m cheating slightly by listing a series, but it’s my blog and I don’t care. You didn’t think we’d make it this far without me raving about Discworld some more, did you?

There’s actually three different narrators for the Discworld audiobooks, but for me Stephen Briggs is the one that ready stands out. Nigel Planer reads the earlier unabridged ones, and he does a decent job, although some are better than others. Tony Robinson reads all the abridged audiobooks, and while he’s probably the better performer I am 100% not here for abridged audiobooks – don’t give me that nonsense, I don’t care that it takes a day to read it through, don’t cut out the story.

Sorry. Anyway, Stephen Briggs reads the later unabridged ones, and for me these are the best of the lot. He gets the voices and the tone just right, no matter which character he’s reading for, and best of all he seems to have a really intuitive understanding of the Discworld universe, which really makes a difference. It’s little things, like making sure all the dwarves in his Discworld audiobooks speak with a similar accent, that really gives his readings the edge.

 

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image: amazon.co.uk

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak – read by Allan Corduner

I really don’t know why I bought this one. I love The Book Thief, even though every time I read it, it punches me in the face. So far, it is the only book I feel the need to cuddle after I’ve finished reading it. I don’t know why this is.

I was kind of sceptical about this one at first. I just love the book so much, and there’s nothing worse than having a narrator ruin your favourite book by getting the voices all wrong. But I’m happy to say I was proved wrong. Allan Corduner does a great job on the accents and the tone for each character, and he can really carry the emotional weight through his narration. I haven’t finished this one yet, but I know that I’m going to cry.

 

And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve listened to that I’ve liked. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. Apart from Frankenstein. It’s been out for two hundred years, it’s a little late for spoiler warnings now.

 

Harry Potter and the Passage of Time

About a month ago, my friends and I went up to Edinburgh.

I had the best time. By some miracle the weather was amazing and we had glorious sunshine for all our trips to Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat and the Palace of Holyrood – which was just as well, as a lot of the museums we visited were crammedwith very creepy mannequins and I couldn’t have dealt with it in the dark. But it was a pretty hilly city, and we had to regularly refuel with tea and cake.

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I am British, after all. (image: giphy.com)

One of the places we went to was The Elephant House.

The Elephant House is a small café just opposite the National Museum of Scotland. It’s a little small, a little crowded, and the back room is filled with an eclectic assortment of chairs and tables, in a way that reminded me of going round someone’s house to see they’ve set up for a barbecue or something. I had a hot chocolate and my friends had some tea, and because we’re all used to London prices (a.k.a. “re-mortgage your house if you want another slice of cake” prices) we were all pretty happy with it.

But that wasn’t why we went. We went to The Elephant House because that is the place where JK Rowling wrote some of the early chapters of the Harry Potter series.

We had a full geek-out. We sat in the back room, by a window overlooking Edinburgh Castle, which was apparently the very place where the first draft of Harry Potter was actually written omigod you guys one of us could be sitting on the same chair as JK – and we were totally calm and mature adults about the whole thing. We didn’t even cry.

But the really nice thing was that we weren’t the only ones doing this. Our table was an old desk with working drawers. I pulled one open and found that it was crammed with letters, all written by visitors saying how much they loved Harry Potter. And that wasn’t all we found. Even the loos had been turned into a kind of shrine:

Harry Potter was a huge part of my childhood. I read all the books. I had the audiobooks too, and listened to them so often that to this day I can only hear the words in Stephen Fry’s voice. I’ve seen the movies, I’ve bought the merchandise, I’ve written fanfiction which (thankfully) is now dead and buried. But visiting The Elephant House really brought home the fact that it wasn’t just me. I got oddly emotional in those toilets, because it was so clear that people from all over the world had come to see the birthplace of Harry Potter in just the same way that I had done.

But Harry Potter wasn’t just a huge part of my childhood. It has also been a pretty constant feature of my adult life, and these experiences haven’t been quite so nice. The seventh book wasn’t the end of the franchise, though perhaps it should have been. Rowling’s efforts to continue the world of Hogwarts beyond that haven’t gone down so well. Her expansion of the wizarding world has been met with accusations of cultural appropriation. The follow-up play, The Cursed Child, was an incredible spectacle but, plot-wise, left a lot to be desired. And most disappointingly of all, Rowling has continued to support the casting of Johnny Depp in her Fantastic Beasts movie series: a man who tacitly admitted to domestic abuse in his official statement of separation from his now ex-wife, Amber Heard.

All of these things have changed the way I view JK Rowling and her series. Now, I’m much more sceptical of any new Harry Potter development. I’m less inclined to support a project just because it has Rowling’s involvement. Part of me wonders if, when I reminisce about the series, it’s not the books I’m nostalgic for but the way I felt when I first read them. They were an important part of my childhood, that’s true – but now, I am no longer a child.

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Actual footage of me ageing. (image: giphy.com)

Does this mean I don’t enjoy the series any more? If you mean the expanded HP universe, well, kinda. If you mean the original books, it’s a solid no. I still love those books. They were such an important part of my life that it would be kind of hard not to. Changing my mind about them would be almost like suddenly despising a childhood teddy. But it has made me look at them in a different light. Now I’m not afraid to look at them critically, or to share my (copious) opinions about them. I still enjoy them, but I can acknowledge that they have flaws, and that the author holds views that she and I don’t share. Despite everything that has happened since the final book was published, it was a formative series for me and I still appreciate having had it in my life.

And then, I left the toilets.

So if you’re ever in Edinburgh and want a cup of tea and a muse about children’s books, I can recommend popping along to The Elephant House. Perhaps you’ll pull a JK and inspiration will strike, and there’ll be different graffiti in the toilets the next time I go. Or maybe you’ll just sit at a table in the back room, pull open a drawer that you didn’t know was there, and you’ll find this:

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Tales as Old as Time: How Stories Age

Picture this. You’ve just picked up a copy of a classic book. It’s the kind of thing that people study in English lessons or write dissertations on. People you know can quote one or two of the lines off the cuff. There’s about seventy million adaptations of this thing, usually featuring Hollywood’s latest chiselled British darling as the leading man. Cultured and intelligent people read this book in tweed jackets and discuss it over port, and now that you have finally got a copy, you’ll be able to talk to them about it instead of sitting in the corner and hoarding all the cheese.

So, you read it. And it’s kind of disappointing.

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Apart from the chiselled British darlings. They never disappoint. (image: pinterest.com)

This has happened to me too many times to count – especially the part where I eat cheese in a corner instead of joining in a conversation. I’ve read quite a few classic books and it’s very rare that they live up to the hype. Part of this is probably because hype is kind of everywhere now, and when you’re in the middle of a constant cycle of “This feels-wrenching drama will stop your heart and set your soul on fire” -style advertising, it can be very difficult to go into stuff believing that this heart-stopping, soul-searing experience is actually going to happen to you.

But it did also get me thinking. On my Strong Female Characters series, one of the things that came up most often for classic books was that when they were originally written, their characters were ground-breaking. Now that time has passed, they’re not. The way that we receive and interpret stories depends entirely on the context in which they are read, and this includes time and place. Meanings get lost over time. The definitions of words change over the years, and implications that might have been obvious to a historical reader are lost on a modern one. Similarly, readers bring new interpretations to historical texts because we are looking at those texts having grown up with ideas that hadn’t been conceived when they were first written. Context is everything.

Plots and clichés are an excellent example of how stories have changed over time. Modern readers expect different things from the things readers expected fifty years ago, let alone a hundred years ago. Ideas that were original and unsettling when they were first introduced have been used so often that the shine wears off and they become clichés.

The perfect example of this is that classic trope, ‘The Butler Did It’.

We’ve all seen this cliché before – in fact, I had a lot of fun with it in one of my Book Recipe posts. A bunch of people are invited to a mysterious old house, there’s probably a murder or two, and our plucky detective eventually discovers that the culprit was the butler all along! What shock. What horror.

But it’s worth remembering that when this trope was first introduced, it wasactually shocking. Servants were not just people who came to a rich person’s house, sloshed some bleach in the toilet and then went home. They lived with them. They washed and dried their clothes. They cooked their food. They made their beds. They helped them dress. They helped them wash, sometimes, or helped them clean their teeth. It was incredibly difficult to have secrets from a servant, because you had to depend on them for so many things. The idea that the person who cleaned the lipstick off the collar of your shirt, who swept up the pieces of your mother’s favourite vase, who saw how many cigarette butts you left in the bottom of your ashtray could also be plotting your death – it’s kind of horrifying.

It’s not just clichés. What is acceptable in terms of plot has completely changed. This is something that dates way beyond the invention of the novel. In the original epic fantasies – stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf– storytellers would often take time out to send their heroes off on interesting little sidequests because they were fun and exciting. Sometimes these are pertinent to the plot, sometimes they’re completely irrelevant. Then, with the gradual move away from storytelling as a spoken form, there’s a trend to keep the plots more linear. You’ll still get little anecdotes off to one side sometimes, but generally these all serve a purpose for the story as a whole (probably because by this point editors had been invented). And then, later still, you have the move towards modernist fiction. In modernist fiction the idea of a plot can go completely out the window if that’s what the author wants. There’s more of a focus on mood, style and ideas, and most of the time that makes my head hurt a bit. We’ve come to expect different things from stories, and so we’ve rolled them out into new shapes.

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Like this, but hopefully with less ruining cookies. (image: giphy.com)

This shifting definition of what is and what is not acceptable for a plot also affects characters too. Over the past few years there’s been a move towards stories that are more character-driven than plot-driven, and this changes what people expect from a protagonist. Stories where a character gets sent on a quest because of ~*Destiny*~ are slowly being replaced by stories where a character goes on a quest because they’ve decided to do it. It’s no good to have a protagonist who just sits around waiting for the plot to happen – much more compelling are protagonists who go and makethe plot happen for themselves. The classic example of this is the characters in fairy tales. When the stories were originally told the characters weren’t really much more than archetypes. You had your handsome prince, your wicked witch, your pure and beautiful girl, and that was about it. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of detail about the characters’ personalities. But when you look at modern adaptations of fairy tales, the characters tend to be a lot more fleshed out. Writers will make a lot more effort to give them goals, preferences and personalities so that they can move away from the archetype. The perfect example of this is Belle’s character in Beauty and the Beast. The Disney film went out of its way to establish Belle as a bookworm who felt isolated by having an interest that nobody in her village shared – something which is completely absent from the original fairy tale.

But this cuts both ways. As expectations move forward, some characters are going to get left behind. Details about characters are lost because modern readers aren’t reading literature in the same context as it was written. Take, for example, the first mention we have of Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. We’re told that when he was seen about town he was wearing a blue coat, and we don’t get any more detail than that. For the modern reader, this illustrates the gossipy nature of Mrs Bennet and not much else. But for the Regency reader this was a pertinent detail. Blue dye was expensive and not many people wore it. The coat itself is a piece of outerwear and worn in the daytime, so it wouldn’t be the fanciest piece in Mr Bingley’s wardrobe. The fact that Mr Bingley’s coat he wears for slouching about town is blue would have spoken volumes to the Regency reader – it’s signalling that he has mad stacks of cash.

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Holla holla get that dollar. (image: giphy.com)

But it’s not just the minor details that get lost in translation. What constituted a radical and ground-breaking character a few centuries ago is now seen as old hat. This is particularly obvious in female characters, as the social and political capital of women has changed so much over the past few hundred years. When she was first introduced to readers, Lizzie Bennet was radical by anybody’s standards. She was cheeky, she got her clothes dirty, she turned down a marriage proposal from a man she didn’t love. But two hundred years on these things aren’t radical any more. They’re normal. Modern readers go into Pride and Prejudiceexpecting a character who’s radical and game-changing, and meet someone who is pretty conventional by today’s standards. It’s not hard to see why some people might find this disappointing.

So the big question is this: how do you make a story that lasts? Well, luckily for you I have the answer right here in my new book, How to Write an Epic that lasts for One Billion Years, very reasonably priced at $99.99 per chapter…

…I’m kidding. But it is a question that’s worth asking. How come some stories have lasted for centuries while others have been forgotten?

I don’t have a definite answer, but this is what I think. Let’s jump back to fairy tales for a moment. Yes, they’re vague, and yes, the characters are basically fill-in-the-blanks exercises. In this case, that’s what works in their favour. As the detail just isn’t there, this means the reader, listener or writer can fill it in themselves. It’s easy to make a new adaptation of a fairy tale because the basic shape of the story isn’t tethered to time, place or the personality of its characters. Cinderella can be a cyborg, Snow White can be a vampire, Red Riding Hood can be a werewolf (and yes, all those stories do exist). These are stories that have got legs.

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Goddammit, Baba Yaga, that’s not what I meant. (image: everything.wikia.com)

More complex stories are harder to preserve because so much of a story’s meaning is enmeshed in a social and cultural context. I talked about this briefly in my worldbuilding post so do look there for more detail, but what’s important to remember is this: what informs a setting also informs its characters. This applies as much to historical fiction as it does to fantasy epics. Stories written hundreds of years ago are caught up in a framework of cultural norms and societal beliefs that probably isn’t there any more. This is why editions of Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen novels so often come with big wodges of footnotes at the back – they’re crammed with references that modern audiences just wouldn’t get without some serious background reading. Going in blind would be like showing a doge meme to someone from the 1500s and expecting to get a laugh. At best, you’d get a ‘sayest thou what?’ and at worst, you’d get burned as a witch.

But obviously, more complex stories do last. We’ve got Shakespeare’s plays, we’ve got The Iliad, we’ve got The Journey to the West. Countless stories have outlived their authors and gone on to become beloved classics for generations of readers. There’s no hard and fast reason as to why this is. It isn’t just good writing, compelling characters and an interesting plot that makes a story get remembered. You’ll still need all those things, but there’s always something else in the mix as well – some mysterious alchemy that lets good mature into great. I don’t know what this is. If I did, I’d probably have my own island or something.

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Or just this. (image: giphy.com)

Context is everything. Unless the details of a time and place are meticulously preserved, as Shakespearean scholars have done, then modern readers will miss something and the original meaning will slip away. But modern readers bring their own contexts too, and can shed new light on old stories. Adaptations aren’t always a way for an author or a movie studio to make a quick buck: done right they can be a thoughtful and compelling examination of something we thought we knew. Readers and audiences have new opportunities to see familiar stories with fresh eyes, and that’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps that’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the impact of these stories when they really were new.

Stories that have lasted have something in them that speaks to people regardless of time and place. It can be anything from a feeling to a turn of phrase. Maybe it’s Shakespeare’s description of loss in MacDuff’s speech from Macbeththat speaks to you, or maybe it’s Cinderella’s message that no matter how bad things may get, things will, one day, turn out all right. Whichever classic you pick, there’s something there that has spoken to hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. And whether you like or dislike the actual story, it’s always worth acknowledging that that is truly extraordinary.

A World of Your Imagination: On Worldbuilding

There’s nothing quite like a good setting. Previously on this blog I’ve talked about characters and clichés, and that hasn’t really left a lot of time to talk about the other elements of a good story. Setting is one of them. It’s easy to forget that the right setting for a novel can transform it, elevating the events of the plot into something really special. Rebecca would be nothing without the vast, chilly halls of Manderley. Dracula would not be nearly so frightening if the Count’s castle was a three-room flat in east Croydon.

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Although those London house prices are pretty terrifying. (image: giphy.com)

Setting is a hugely important part of writing. In fantasy and sci-fi, the term gets all fancy and becomes ‘worldbuilding’, although it’s essentially the same concept. There’s just more of it, because instead of telling the reader where your characters are, you also have to tell the reader why they’re all holding laser swords and why it was a bad idea for them to steal the unicorn’s bouquet on a full moon. Worldbuilding can be one of the most memorable things about fiction. It can take on a life of its own, allowing the setting to be examined and discussed apart from the characters who inhabit it.

The basic elements of setting and worldbuilding are pretty similar. No matter what genre you’re writing in, you still need to know where your characters are standing. Broadly speaking this can cover a lot of different elements – culture, geography, climate and the physical layout of the scene would all come under this umbrella. These elements make a story convincing regardless of its genre. They get included in most stories that aren’t about two characters having conversations in featureless white rooms. Of course, rather than just having big lumps of description sitting around uselessly these can then be used to reflect mood and create atmosphere within the story. As a general rule of thumb this is true of both setting and worldbuilding – the only real difference between the two is that in worldbuilding, the author tends to make more of it up.

So – how do you actually go about creating a rich and compelling setting? Description. While it can get quite frustrating to pause the action and set the scene, it’s impossible to have a complex and detailed setting without settling in for a paragraph of description every now and then. But when it’s done well it doesn’t feel like a pause. In some of the best fantasy settings – like Middle Earth, Discworld and Hogwarts – this scene-setting feels more like an opportunity to explore than something that has to be skimmed over.

Real talk: this is super hard.

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But I don’t wanna… (image: giphy.com)

Obviously writing is pretty tricky to begin with, but worldbuilding is a whole other level. Setting a scene can be difficult, but if it is set in some variation of the real world it’s easier for the reader to make assumptions based on the details of the scene. For example, if a writer describes a group of people all in black heading for a church, the reader is likely to assume that they’re heading to a funeral. It doesn’t always have to be the case – in fact, turning assumptions on their heads is one of the most fun things an author can do – but the assumptions have to be there for that to happen, and details from the setting is what plant such ideas in the readers’ minds. You have none of those connections to rely on if you’re building a fictional world. If writing is like learning a new language, then putting a fictional world together is like making up your own language from scratch.

There’s a couple of forms this tends to take.

 

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image: buzzfeed.com

The Pocket Universe

These are fictional universes that have their bases in the real world in some capacity. This is where you’d find stories that diverged from the real-world timeline – where the Titanic never sank, or where the Germans won the Second World War. This is also where you’d find stories about worlds within the normal world, such as Harry Potter – stories about unusual societies that have been kept secret and are stumbled across by some hapless protagonist.

Pocket universes have a lot of benefits. As they are rooted in the real world, it’s easy for the writer to draw on a lot of common cultural touchpoints, which requires less explaining to the reader. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time making up fictional animals for your characters to eat, or describing the odd clothes they wear, you don’t have to – you can cut straight to the plot. However, they’ve got a lot of drawbacks as well. Rooting your pocket universe in the real world will usually mean that at some point, you’ll have to deal with all the boring parts of reality. This pops up a lot in the Harry Potter universe, when everybody wonders why wizards don’t have formal education for their kids before the age of eleven. In alternate histories pocket universes present another problem – the vast amounts of research a writer has to do to make them convincing. It’s not enough for an author to say that the Germans won the war: readers will want to know how, and when, and who is alive now and who isn’t, and whether the Sixties still got to happen. Don’t write one of these unless you’re prepared to hit the books.

 

A Whole New World

image: denofgeek.com
image: denofgeek.com

This is the other kind of worldbuilding and it’s exactly what it sounds like. These are the fictional universes that have no link to the real world whatsoever. They can be inspired by real-world societies, and often a lot of them are, but they are emphatically not on Planet Earth in any kind of capacity. This is where you’d find a lot of fantasy stories – anything from Game of Thrones to Discworld to the entire works of Tolkien – and some sci-fi stuff as well.

Starting from scratch also has its own particular set of benefits. As an author you have complete creative freedom: anything goes. Terry Pratchett proved this when he created the Discworld – the planet is a giant flat disc, supported by four massive elephants all standing on the back of a cosmic turtle swimming through space. As I said, anything goes. It’s also easier to suspend disbelief. The lack of cultural touchpoints works in your favour here, as the reader isn’t automatically comparing it to things they’re already familiar with. However, these also have drawbacks. Making up a fictional world from scratch is so much work. You have to come up with vast amounts of detail, most of which may never make it into the finished book but you just need to know they’re there. You’ve got to establish your own cultural touchpoints and make these clear to the reader, but you’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t seem stilted or weird. And you’ve got to make all of this completely watertight, because there is nothing readers (and editors) love more than poking holes in things.

 

So. Which is better? That depends: on your preferences, on the story you’re trying to tell, on the kind of readers you’re writing for. These things would also affect the level of detail you go into when setting the scene. But no matter which one you choose, the most important thing to remember is this: it doesn’t stop at description.

One of my favourite kinds of worldbuilding is when an author can do it through their characters. It’s a lovely way of integrating scene-setting with character development. Characters are products of their worlds, therefore their thoughts, actions and beliefs are a part of worldbuilding. This is particularly important in historical fiction. Choice of language can make or break both the scene-setting and the character’s internal monologue – if an author picks a phrase that sounds too modern, it can completely smash the readers’ suspension of disbelief. In historical fiction this presents its own set of problems as of course, modern and historical thoughts and beliefs are wildly divergent.

One of the easiest ways to illustrate this is the way that historical fiction treats corsets. I was talking about this with my colleague the other day (thanks, Cat) as we’ve both worked on historical fiction before. Corsets in fiction have become more symbolic than anything else. They’re something for the feisty heroine to cast aside before she becomes a pirate or rides off into the sunset. But this wouldn’t work in reality. Corsets were structural underwear and all the rest of a woman’s clothes were designed on the assumption that a corset would be worn. They make you stand and move differently and if you’d worn one all your life, taking it off would feel really strange. Casting the corset aside is a nice piece of authorial shorthand – look at how emancipated our female lead is! – but without it all the seams of her clothes are in the wrong places, everything is scratchy and she’s going to get terrible back pain from having to use underdeveloped muscles all of a sudden.

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Actual footage of post-corset muscle deterioration. (image: giphy.com)

My point is this: clothes are worldbuilding. The way characters think about clothes is worldbuilding. The way they care for their clothes is worldbuilding, and so is what the clothes are made of. Worldbuilding is not just about describing landscape and weather – it’s about clothes, food, slang, morality, social norms, marriage, relationships – I could go on. In short it’s about how characters fit into a setting as a context, and how that context affects them. Take, for example, Terry Pratchett’s description of the dwarves of Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett’s dwarves only acknowledge one gender, and thus most of the dwarves in the Discworld series present as male. When one of them decides she wants to present as female, it causes a massive cultural uproar, going against centuries of dwarf lore and tradition which go on to affect later books in the series. This introduces the reader to a whole new section of Discworld society, the factions within it, the conflict this brings about and how this manifests to other characters. This is very detailed worldbuilding, and it’s all done without a landscape in sight.

Worldbuilding is incredibly hard. It requires a lot of work, careful thought and research, all of which can really get in the way when you just want to jump to the plot. But it also helps make better stories. When the characters and the setting work in tandem, that’s when the setting feels the most vivid and a book really comes alive. It makes for rich and rewarding stories that a reader will remember. Despite all the hard work, I think it’s always worth it.

My Top Ten Favourite Female Characters

So most of you already know about my Strong Female Characters series. That’s over and done with now, and it was a lot of fun, but the series had its drawbacks. The ten-question formula was helpful but didn’t cover everything, and often encouraged me to be a bit on the harsh side. I often wound up being quite harsh about characters I really like in the interest of putting out some sensible criticism.

Well, no more of that! These are the ten female characters I just really like. There’s no real criticism going on here, I just think they’re great.

 

  1. Miss Phryne Fisher
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image: fanpop.com

A.k.a. the female James Bond, Phryne Fisher is the lead character in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian series about a lady detective in the 1920s. It’s a long-running series of books which was made into a TV series a few years ago and she is just great. There is nothing she can’t do – whether that’s burlesque, directing a movie or being a racecar driver for a little bit. In all honesty she’s probably a Mary Sue but I like her so much I just don’t care. It’s really refreshing to see a female character who can turn her hand to anything in the same vein as male super-spies – with the added bonus that she is so clearly having a great time doing it.

 

 

  1. Marion Ravenwood
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image: pinterest.com

I’ll try and be brief as she’s had a proper blog post. Even though she didn’t pass my test I still love Marion. She certainly has her flaws but that’s never stopped me from liking her as a character. She’s crass and full of life, and when things don’t work out for her she keeps trying anyway. Full credit to Karen Allen for her performance – she provides a lot of Marion’s charm and it wouldn’t be the same without her.

 

 

  1. Granny Weatherwax
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image: wikipedia.org

Surely this one shouldn’t come as surprise. Blog post is here for more detail but the crux of the matter is this: I love seeing a crabby old woman save the day on a regular basis. Granny is sharp, spiky and judgemental, but, y’know, in a really good way. She’s the best and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.

 

 

  1. The Other Mother
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image: behindthevoiceactors.com

I never did a post on the Other Mother – I dressed up as her instead. For the uninitiated: she is the villain in Coraline, where she spends most of the novel trying to persuade a little girl to sew buttons over her eyes. I would’ve liked to have done a blog post on her but I quickly realised it just wasn’t possible – we just don’t know anything about her, apart from the fact that she’s an eldritch abomination. But for me the mystery is part of her charm. What is she? Where did she come from? I want Neil Gaiman to tell me, but not in a way that’s too scary or I’ll get nightmares.

 

 

  1. Toph Beifong
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image: avatar.wikia.com

Hands down my favourite Avatar character. I did a blog post on her – do look if you’re interested, as I’ll be keeping this one brief. Toph is loud, rude, boisterous and over-confident and it’s just great. She’s one of the most powerful characters in the series and she knows it, and she’s also consistently hilarious into the bargain.

 

 

  1. Sailor Jupiter
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image: zerochan.net

The best Sailor Scout, hands down. In some ways she’s very traditional: she’s a great cook, cleans and organises her home herself, and wants to get married and open a cake and flower shop when she’s older. But she’s also a badass warrior with electricity powers, a great martial artist and one of the most physically strong characters on the show. She’s a really interesting combination of masculine and feminine traits, which is what I really like about Sailor Moon – being girly doesn’t mean you can’t be strong.

 

 

  1. April Ludgate
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image: popsugar.com

April is one of my favourite characters on Parks and Recreation because she’s just so weird. She’s almost like the missing member of the Addams family – quirky, morbid and immature, which makes her moments of sincerity something really special. I really love how playful she can be while at the same time being really odd. Also, Janet Snakehole and Burt Macklin is the best couple’s costume ever, hands down.

 

 

  1. Bridget Jones
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image: pinterest.com

I’ve done a blog post on our Bridget so I’ll try and keep it brief. Long story short I really identify with her particular brand of cringing embarrassment, especially when flirting. She’s the kind of everywoman I can really get behind, which is to say one that’s based on common experiences rather than common traits. As a young woman working in publishing, I relate to her on a molecular level.

 

  

  1. Baby Jane Hudson
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image: pinterest.com

The creepier female lead in the 1960s classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson is a former child star caring for her wheelchair-bound sister, who went on to become a much bigger movie star before getting in a car accident. There’s all sorts of interesting stuff going on in the movie about sisterhood, Hollywood and femininity but the crux of it all comes down to Jane. Her decision to try and restart her career – reviving her old Shirley-Temple-style act when she’s in her fifties or sixties – is a fascinating look at what the pressures of fame can do to someone, and what happens when women get boxed into a particular kind of femininity that they can’t shake off.

  

 

  1. Leslie Knope
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image: parksandrecreation.wikia.com

The best politician in America. Again, I did a blog post so I’ll be brief, but I just think Leslie is great. She’s enthusiastic, competitive, wholesome in a way that I don’t find irritating – I just love her.

 

 

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image: marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com

BONUS: Shuri

I was originally going to keep this list to ten characters but then I went to see Black Panther. AND IT WAS GREAT. Shuri, Wakanda’s irreverent tech genius, is my favourite character, hands down, but all the female characters in the film are interesting, well-developed and compelling. But Shuri’s the best one. Obviously.

 

 

 

And there you have it! A short list of my favourite female characters – and frankly, it was really difficult to keep it short. There’s just so many to choose from!

Reading Roundup!

I spend a lot of time talking about fiction on this blog but it’s just occurred to me that I don’t actually say much about what I’m reading.

Time to fix that!

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That’ll do it. (image: giphy.com)

A quick note about my reading habits before we jump in. As some of you may know I work in publishing, so I end up having to read a lot of books and submissions as a part of my job. Sometimes this feels like work, and sometimes it doesn’t. I read during my commute (public transport FTW), evenings and weekends, but I also listen to audiobooks a lot too, so I’m often following the thread of a story while I’m cleaning, cooking or writing up my Russian notes. I’ll read most kinds of fiction but for non-fiction, I tend to stick to popular history.

Basically, I eat books.

So here’s a short list of some books that have really stuck with me over the past few months. There’s no real timeframe because I’m a dangerous maverick. Here’s what I’ve been eating recently:

 

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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image: waterstones.com

Set in Medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, a young girl who can see the creatures of Russian folklore. A couple of strange figures watch over her as she grows up, and while she gets into a few scrapes this is by and large fine until a priest shows up. With a sinister being in the forest starting to wake up, and with the priest telling the villagers not to believe in superstition, the tension ratchets up until it all comes crashing together.

Holy Hell, do I love this book.

The scene-setting is fantastic. There’s so many little details that bring the setting to life, from the food the characters eat to the names they call each other. It’s a retelling of a traditional Russian fairy tale which pulls off a very difficult balancing act: keeping the elements of a fairy tale while giving its characters distinct personality. Also, it has some really interesting stuff to say about gender roles and the clash between traditional beliefs and organised religion, and I am 100% here for all of them. I’ve also read the sequel, but as that only came out at the end of last month I’m trying not to spoil it, even though I’m holding in a lot of feelings and a really excellent joke.

 

The Good People by Hannah Kent

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image: panmacmillan.com

This one is set in pre-Famine Ireland, and it tells the story of three women in a remote Irish village who is suspected of being a changeling. There’s Nora, the child’s recently-widowed grandmother, who can’t come to terms with her husband’s recent death or her grandson’s behaviour. There’s Mary, a young maidservant very far from home. And there’s Nance, a wise woman who lives at the edge of the woods, who the villagers believe can cure illness and perform magic.

Now I haven’t finished this one yet, but I absolutely love it. Again, the scene-setting is great – Kent does an excellent job of modifying her characters’ speech patterns to make it clear that they’re speaking Irish, not English. Apparently it’s also based on a true story, but I haven’t looked this up yet because I’m trying to avoid two hundred-year-old spoilers. It’s brilliantly creepy and very well-written – just what you want on a cold winter’s night.

 

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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image: goodreads.com

If We Were Villains kicks off when a former theatre kid – Oliver Marks – is released from prison, after serving time for a murder he might or might not have committed. We then flash back to Oliver’s time at an elite university, where we meet his theatre kid friends, including the one who’s eventually going to get murdered. Tensions rise and there’s a mysterious incident that leaves one of Oliver’s friends dead. Only one question remains – was it murder?

I’m not sure if this one is technically cheating because this is something I had to read for work BUT I LOVE IT YOU GUYS. It’s just great. I love the way the author incorporates plays into the text and the characterisation is excellent. I didn’t go to a fancy theatre school but I’m pretty sure that I’ve met every single one of Oliver’s theatre crew. I’ve read this book three times now and it won’t be long before the fourth.

 

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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image: amazon.com

This is another one I had to read for work but damn is it good. Set in a fictional analogue of Weimar-era Germany, the plot follows three people – Cyril, a spy, Ari, a nightclub singer/smuggler and Cordelia, a stripper – as they try to navigate their way through life amidst the rise of what are basically Nazis. The rising tide of fascism threatens to engulf them all (particularly Ari and Cyril, who are in a gay relationship) and each character is forced to make a difficult choice – co-operation or sabotage.

This one took a while to get going. For the first half to two-thirds I was enjoying it, but not raving about it to all my friends. Then the last one hundred pages happened and I was swept away on a tide of feelings because I JUST WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY DAMMIT and now I’m counting off the days until the sequel is released. Also, it was really refreshing to read a novel where homosexual and polyamorous relationships are just an ordinary feature of life, rather than A Thing That Must Be Explained To The Reader.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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image: goodreads.com

What can I say about The Power that hasn’t already been said? Not much. It’s great. Since this book has been everywhere for most of last year I won’t go into detail on the plot, but for those of you that haven’t read it it’s set in a world where women suddenly develop the power to electrocute people.

This is a really excellent book. I could not put it down and there were some moments where I meant that literally. There was more than one moment where I was reading on a platform and ended up missing a train. It’s very well-written, has all kinds of interesting stuff to say about gender and all the characters have distinct voices. A couple of plot points really stuck with me. I read one scene and went to bed, thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, woke up at 3am thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, and was still thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’ the next morning. It was incredible.

 

And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve read recently that has stayed with me for one reason or another. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. I’m only halfway through The Good People.