Judging a book by its cover – the book as art and artefact

I have always been fascinated by old books and their tooled and gilded bindings.  Years ago, when I worked at an academic library in Cambridge, a favourite part of my job was to carefully rub a special kind of polish into the leather covers to keep them fed and supple.  I would fetch the key to the climate-controlled, fireproof strong room in which the ‘special’ books were stored, select a volume which looked in need of attention, and get to work with a soft cloth.  As I worked, I would marvel at the intricate designs, and above all at the antiquity of these objects – we held books dating back to less than a century after Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention of printing with moveable type, most of them in their original bindings.  Whose hands had touched these covers and turned these pages before me?

Recently I was able to visit a remarkable exhibition at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.  Entitled Beautiful Books, the exhibition consists of twenty-two books and an accompanying film which show the bookbinding process.  Perhaps counterintuitively for a library, the emphasis is not on the content of the books, but on their bindings.  Created between 1849 and 1993, the books showcase the talents of remarkable bookbinders whose work goes far beyond simply making covers to protect the words within.

Colour photograph of the binding of Houses of Leaves, poems by Dafydd ap Gwylim, binding by Julian Thomas.  Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales.
Houses of Leaves, poems by Dafydd ap Gwylim. Binding by Julian Thomas. Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales

For a few years, I subscribed to the Folio Society, and a number of attractively-bound limited edition volumes were added to my bookshelves.  Apart from that, I have had little exposure to modern binding, and this exhibition was therefore quite an eye-opener for me.  As I worked my way around the glass cabinets, a number of themes emerged.

These bindings are works of art, and not just in the way one says of something impressive, ‘wow, that’s a work of art!’  These fine bindings create pictures, images, in way that is reminiscent of textile art.  They use of blocks and lines of colour, gilding, texture, and motifs which respond to the subject of the book, combine to make artworks which stand in their own right.

Stylistically, they are very much of their time.  For example, the binding by Elizabeth Greenhill for Louis MacNeice’s The Burning Perch (1963) put me in mind of a tapestry by Graham Sutherland, and would not have looked out of place scaled up on the wall of a brutalist concrete building on the South Bank in London. 

In many cases, it really is possible to judge the book by its cover, as the binding gives a hint or preview of the contents.  For example, the cover created by Julian Thomas for Houses of Leaves, a translation of the work of fourteenth-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwylim by Rachel Bromwich, published in 1993, takes its inspiration from the book’s title, and features lines based on the outlines of leaves and the tendrils of foliage which ornament medieval manuscripts.  And with the binding for Across the Straights by Kyffin Williams, Thomas’ collaboration with arguably Wales’ most famous artist results in Williams’ essential simplification of landscape being transferred to the book’s cover.

Colour photograph of the binding of Across the Straits by Kyffin Williams, binding by Julian Thomas.  Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales
Across the Straits by Kyffin Williams, binding by Julian Thomas. Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales

As a writer, it is a strange experience for me to be looking at books as artefacts as well as texts (or indeed as artefacts instead of texts – with the exhibits contained within glass cases, it is of course not possible to interact with the printed words within).  This has made me muse about the books I own.  Are some of these, too, artefacts rather than just texts?  Do I choose to have them because they symbolise my aspirations to be knowledgeable, cultured, or well-read (whether or not I’ve actually read them)?  Do some of them earn their place on the shelves because of the tactile quality of their bindings, or their attractive cover designs?  There are certainly some books I have bought because I was entranced by their covers, and others where I have been pleasantly surprised when their plain, worthy covers prove, on actually reading the book, to belie the fascinating content.  Book covers matter.

The exhibition Beautiful Books continues at the National Library of Wales until 9 December 2022- more details here: https://www.library.wales/visit/things-to-do/exhibitions/beautiful-books

Just upstairs from this exhibition is another, which also caused me to think about the significance of books.  Beibl i Bawb (A Bible for All) celebrates the four hundredth anniversary of the publication, in 1620, of the translation that became the standard text of the bible in Welsh until the 1980s.  The significance of the Welsh bible goes far beyond religion – as with many languages, the standard translation defined the language, providing a benchmark for written Welsh and a foundation for cultural and literary life to the present day.

Colour photograph of Mary Jones' bible.  Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bible Society
Mary Jones’ bible. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bible Society

Here, too, I am brought face to face with the book as artefact.  In this case, it is the bible owned by Mary Jones.  Her barefoot journey across North Wales in 1800 to buy her own copy of the bible in her own language has become a story that is told across the world.  This object – dark with use and age – is more than a book.  It connects us to an individual, a real person who held it and turned its pages, and also to a whole history of a language and the people who speak it.  And it tells the story of reading – at that time, Wales had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world thanks to the ‘circulating schools’ pioneered by Griffith Jones and his successors, which would come to a district for a while and teach people of all ages and genders to read, the aim being that they would be able to read the bible for themselves.  Literacy was perceived as what we still know it to be today – the gateway to knowledge and independent learning that can change lives.  Mary Jones’ bible is symbolic of the world of words and ideas that was opened up to her when she learned to read.  There can be few greater gifts than the ability to read.

The exhibition Beibl i Bawb (A Bible for All) is on until 2 April 2022 – more details here: https://www.library.wales/visit/things-to-do/beibl-i-bawb

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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In other words – writing, reading and literary translation

I have recently been working on a translation into English of a short story in Dutch.  It’s part of an ongoing project, and I am finding the process fascinating.  As a writer who is also a translator, there are a number of things going on at the same time when I undertake literary translation, and although the temptation is to say that much of it is instinctive, in fact there are layers of practice at work which I find it helpful to analyse and articulate.

Any translation has elements of decoding meaning from the source language (which in my case is Dutch) and encoding it in the target language (in my case, English).  Sound straightforward enough?  Well, not really, because the differences between how languages work, the building blocks that make up meaning – things like word order – mean that it’s not simply a case of grabbing a dictionary and swapping one word for another.  Also, you can’t just translate expressions and idioms literally, because the same idea may be expressed completely differently in the two languages.  For example, iets kennen als zijn broekzak literally translates as ‘knowing something like his trouser pocket’ – which makes no sense whatsoever in English.  The equivalent idiom in English would be ‘knowing something like the back of his hand’.

But what if the meaning of the text is made up, not only of dictionary words, or even idioms and colloquial phrases, but of subtle nuances of tone, sound, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, pace, and so on.  This is most obvious in translating poetry, of course, but any literary text is more than the sum of its words, and my challenge is to extract a sense of those extra layers of meaning and to convey that into English.  It is my job to write the short story in English which the original author would have written if they had been a native speaker of English.

This is, of course, impossible, but the best translations get so close to this ideal that the reader forgets that they are reading a translation.  This is what I am aiming for.  I need to identify and isolate the quirks, style and individual voice of the author and find a way of distilling that into an equivalent voice in English.  If the story reads as if I wrote it, then I’ve failed.

Ironically, I believe that it is the fact that I am a writer which equips me to do literary translation.  Finding my own voice, using all those tools of tone, sound, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, pace, and so on in my own writing, enables me to put that toolbox at the disposal of the author whose words I am translating.  Because I am a writer, I am well-placed to see the workings behind the scenes of the original text, to recognise what the author is doing, and to do what is necessary to create the corresponding effect in English.

It can be a slow process.  This is not like translating an online article about a new archaeological discovery, or even like translating a piece of academic writing.  Those kinds of texts are mainly about conveying the content.  The voice of the original author is rarely the main feature of the translation, and the task is to convey the information in appropriate, equivalent English.  It may take time to do the necessary research to find that appropriate equivalence – especially where there is specialised vocabulary involved – but it is not an especially lengthy process.  With literary translation, by contrast, I need to live with the text for a while before attempting to start translating it.  In the case of this short story, I first read it more than six months ago, and have gone back to it many times since.  I have it read straight through; read it for structure; for style; for vocabulary; for geographically-specific references (the author is Flemish, and the story is set in Antwerp).  I have marked up ‘problems’, passages where it is not immediately apparent how I should translate the text.  One particular phrase occupied me for a long time – in the end I decided to take a risk and move quite a long way from the literal meaning of the original Dutch word in order to create the same shock-value and controversy in English.  Re-reading my translation now, I am really pleased with the ‘solution’ to that particular ‘problem’.

There is a campaign ongoing in the translation and publishing industries at the moment to put ‘translators on the cover’ – in the vast majority of cases, literary translators are not named on the covers of the books they translate, even when these translations go on to win major book  prizes.  Often – in Anglophone markets, anyway – it is hard to know that the book you are reading is a translation.  At best, you might find the translator mentioned on the title page, but usually they will merely get a credit tucked away on the copyright page, which only the most nerdy amongst readers ever actually reads (I do – but I’m an ex-librarian and back in the day, when cataloguing was done manually, this was where you found the information you needed in order to catalogue a book).  If you live in an English-speaking country, you have probably read the work of literary translators without even realising it.  It is my hope that, having read this post, you may seek out the work of literary translators and enjoy the results of the process that I have described.  There is a whole world of books out there, and literary translators are the people who make it possible for you to read them in your own language.

Photograph of part of a page from a Dutch/English dictionary, showing the entries for 'vertalen' (to translate), 'vertaler' (translator) and 'vertaling' (translation).

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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2021 – My Year In Books

2021 – My Year In Books

New Year’s Eve has come upon me suddenly – in the limbo between the public festivals of Christmas and New Year, the days seem to merge into each other, especially this year when the grey skies touch the ground (alternating occasionally with thick fog) and it never seems to get properly light.  There have been a lot of ‘best books of 2021’ posted on social media over the past few weeks, and it set me thinking about what I have read this year.  Some I have reviewed on this blog or in other publications, but others I have read simply for pleasure or out of curiosity.  Here, in roughly chronological order, are my top 10 books of 2021.

Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem.  I originally bought this for my beachcombing mother-in-law, but it looked so interesting that I got a copy for myself too.  The author posts prolifically on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, so the book is very much a starting point for an ongoing engagement with the finds that emerge from the Thames, and the stories and history behind them.  Maiklem moves down the river, from the tidal head at Teddington to the estuary at Southend-on-Sea, telling the story of the riverbank, the characters who inhabit(ed) it, and her own experience of mudlarking along the shore and the artefacts she has discovered.  The book sits between travel writing, social history, and memoir, and is accompanied by photographs of some of the finds she refers to.  I am always entranced by the humble objects, sometimes lost for centuries, which give a glimpse into people’s everyday lives, so for me this book was a treasure trove.

Ghost Town: a Liverpool Shadowplay, by Jeff Young was another book which was originally a gift which I ended up reading myself.  This had a personal resonance for me, as the streets which Young describes so evocatively were trodden by my own father, half a century earlier.  Many of the places are familiar to me from tracing my family history.  In Young’s luminous memoir, he walks through his ‘ghost town’, and explores themes of metamorphosis – his own, and that of the city of Liverpool –and loss, remembering and mis-remembering.  A compelling narrative, highly recommended for anyone interested in place writing.

Next up was The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy.  I read this just a few days before the swifts arrived from Africa, perfect timing for this love song to the marvel of nature that is the swift.  Born of a passion bordering on the obsessional, Foster’s book describes the bird’s life-cycle, its mind-boggling feats of aerobatics and endurance, its biology, and the history of humans’ relationship with the species.  I wrote a full review on this blog here.

Where? Life and death in the Shropshire hills by Simon Moreton was a new departure for me – I have no experience of the graphic novel/zine genre which Moreton specializes in, and this innovative book combines text with illustration and collage in a way I’ve not seen done before.  Where? is a memoir, in which Moreton juxtaposes the narrative of his father’s illness and death with memories of a childhood in rural Shropshire, in a landscape dominated by the presence of Titterstone Clee which looms over the surrounding countryside, and near the summit of which is a radar station where Moreton’s father worked.  Again, this is place writing about somewhere I know slightly, and I enjoyed reading it, admiring the weaving together of the two strands.  I am aware, though, that there were aspects I didn’t ‘get’ because I don’t have the visual lexicon to understand the artwork which is such a large component of this book.

A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George.  I have followed Josie George on Twitter for a long time, and pre-ordered this book when she announced its publication.  However, it took me a long time to summon up the courage to read it.  In a year where so many themes were dark and hopeless, it seemed perverse to read an account of disability and chronic illness.  I was wrong.  George’s account of her life with a condition which long defied diagnosis and which continues to deliver twists and turns of challenge and disability, is full of light, hope and love.  Not that there is any false cheeriness here – she pulls no punches about the pain and hardships of her situation – nor is there any of the ‘disabled person as an inspiration to us all’ nonsense.  This is an exceptional person, taking life one moment at a time, doing what she can, not doing what she can’t, refusing to get frustrated, determined to continue loving, convinced that the world is good, that life is good, that being alive is the most amazingly wonderful thing, to be savoured and celebrated in whatever way we can in that moment.  It is heartwarming, not in an It’s A Wonderful Life kind of way, but in a way that stays with you, challenging the way you look at the world, at each small moment of our small lives.

The Long Field by Pamela Petro is again memoir/place writing about somewhere I know – in this case, Petro’s love affair with rural Wales started in Lampeter, at the university we both attended.  I reviewed The Long Field here.

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton was initially quite a challenging read (I don’t do philosophy, which dominates the opening chapters) but my persistence was rewarded by an insightful exploration of how language and culture influence and shape each other.  Barton tells of her experiences as an English teacher in Japan, and the fifty sounds of the title (which form the chapter headings) are onomatopoeic words in Japanese which she unpacks in her journey into Japanese language and culture, and into her own personality.  I wrote a full review for the Cardiff Review.

You will have noticed that all the titles in this list are non-fiction.  I have struggled with reading fiction since the beginning of the pandemic, but The Listeners by Edward Parnell may have rehabilitated me.  This clever, taut, beautifully written delight gave me more reading pleasure than anything else this year, and I reviewed it joyfully here on this blog.

Finally, two books which I am still reading.  Light Rains Sometimes Fall: a British Year Through Japan’s 72 Seasons by Lev Parikian is arranged in short chapters covering 5 or six days each, in which Parikian closely observes the natural world around him, partly through pandemic lockdowns, noticing details of the changing seasons.  I am a big fan of Parikian’s nature writing, and as I’m consciously attempting to live more in the present (rather than the past or the future) I liked the idea of reading this in ‘real time’, a chapter at a time for a whole year.  The current ‘season’ is called ‘Storms Sometimes Blow,’ which seems about right! 

As an utter map nerd, and a fan of his other writing, it was inevitable that I would eventually read Map Addict by Mike Parker.  At the time of writing, I am halfway through this blend of memoir, cartographical history, and celebration of the glorious Ordnance Survey map, and it’s so nice to connect with a fellow map addict! (I’ve written about the origins of my own map obsession here).

And, on this last day of 2021, I bring you good news – I have a whole lot more books lined up to read in 2022!  My ‘To Be Read’ pile includes poetry, a lot of exciting non-fiction, and even (tentatively) a bit of fiction.  I can’t wait!

Wishing you a Happy New Year.

Photograph of the books referred to in this blog post.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Belated book review – The Listeners by Edward Parnell

It grieves me that it took so long for me to get round to reading this book.  I know Ed Parnell, and have read his non-fiction Ghostland, so I knew his debut novel would be good.  But the arrival of my signed copy of The Listeners was followed closely by the arrival of Covid and the first lockdown, and I suddenly found it impossible to read fiction.  It was as if the surreality of real life, with everything we took for granted suddenly swept away into an unknowable and dystopian future, seemed to make my brain incapable of coping with imagined realities.  I had a large ‘to be read’ pile which included a number of fiction books by authors I knew I liked, but each one was closed and put aside after only a few pages.  I just couldn’t hack fiction. 

For a year and a half I read only non-fiction.  Then, last summer, I started re-reading the Golden Age crime fiction collection on my Kindle (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham).  These were safe, generally not graphically violent, with structures that were familiar and worlds which trundled along on their predictable tracks.  All very comforting.  Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, too.  But it has taken until last week for me to feel up to tacking new, more challenging fiction.  It was time to open The Listeners.

I love this book.  I’m sad I’ve finished it – I eked out the last few chapters over several days, to put off the moment when it would be over.  It is a treat, a gem, a perfectly-formed little treasure, like a beautifully crafted piece of work by a skilled artisan.  It is utterly beguiling.  And yes, I know that sounds hyperbolical, but I mean every word.

The Listeners is set in the wartime years of the 1940s in rural Norfolk – in an area near to where I used to live, so I recognize the descriptions of landscape and wildlife that provide the staging for the events of the book.  It is not so much the events that carry the reader forward, as the voices of the various narrators who take turns to give their perspectives.  It takes quite a while to work out which, if any, of the narrators are reliable.  Much of the action is in the shadow of events up to a generation earlier, events which are only hinted at.  The way those past events, and their implications for the present and the future, are gradually and subtly revealed to us is a masterclass in understated writing.  At several points in the narrative, I had a sudden, nauseating jolt as I realized what was actually being referred to, what it was that had happened and was not being talked about, or what was, with a sickening inevitability, going to happen next.

It is, in many ways, a dark book.  Anyone who has read Ghostland will know that Edward Parnell is an aficionado of the dark, the weird, of things hinted from the shadows.  The Listeners, which predates Ghostland, should really be depressing – I can’t tell you about all the motifs because it would spoil the plot for you, but let’s say that most kinds of violence, abuse, betrayal and grief feature in it – but the writing is so beautiful and the characters so deftly painted that it glows with chiaroscuro like the work of an Old Master.

The pace is measured – a pace appropriate to country folk who are, despite the upheavals of WWII, simply getting on with the necessary cycle of the agricultural year and domestic life – but the book never drags.  The change of voice with each chapter shifts our viewpoint, keeps the reader on their toes (and often doubting everything they’ve just read in the previous chapter).  And the ending – with the reader now knowing something which the protagonists do not – is genius.

The Listeners (the title is borrowed from the poem by Walter de la Mare, for reasons which will be come apparent) won the Rethink New Novels Competition in 2014 – this is another reason why I am calling this a ‘belated’ review.  The good news for those of us who are late to the party is that it is still available to buy (direct from the author at https://edwardparnell.com/buy-signed-copies/, or from Amazon as a print-on-demand book or on Kindle).  I have reviewed a lot of books this year which I have very much enjoyed but, for me, this is my book of 2021.  I just wish I could un-read it so that I could have the joy of reading it again for the first time.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Book review – The Long Field by Pamela Petro

First, a confession.  Reading Pamela Petro’s The Long Field was an exercise in nostalgia for me.  I followed Petro to the university at Lampeter in West Wales (‘Probably the smallest university in the world,’ as the T-shirts in the Students’ Union shop proclaimed, Carlsberg advert-style) just four years later.  All her descriptions ring so very true for me, were part of the landscape of my own young life.  Even the cottage she lived in is well known to me, as a friend of mine rented it in my first year – I can picture myself back in that kitchen, drinking tea, watching my friend making jelly for dessert.  My challenge in writing this review has been to come to the book from the outside, as it were, rather than from that place of shared experience.

The Long Field is, fundamentally, about hiraeth, a complex Welsh word which encompasses elements of longing, nostalgia, distance, absence, homesickness.  It is famously untranslatable into English.  But the book is also a love story.  A love story on several levels, most obviously Petro’s sudden, unexpected, and deep passion for the landscape of rural Wales – again, something which resonates with me.  But it is also about her relationships with her partner and with her parents, and an exploration of the complexities of those relationships.  Perhaps it is an acknowledgement that love stories more nuanced than ‘boy meets girl and they live happily ever after’ are part of the lived experience of queer writers.

Although Petro is passionate about Wales – her Wales – she manages to stop short of being entirely rose-tinted about it.  She acknowledges some of the nuanced complexity of Welsh identity and history, some of the ways in which her adopted homeland’s sense of itself as a colonial victim of English occupation can hold it back.  As someone who has lived in Wales for a significant part of my adult life, it seems to me that Petro’s analysis of Wales is predominantly rural – the Wales of Ceredigion and the Cambrian Mountains – and intellectual and cultural.  She does nod at the life of the Valleys, especially as she was in Wales in 1984 during the miners’ strike, but the industrial and post-industrial conurbations of South and North-East Wales, the product of migration from within Wales and beyond, are not the Wales that she knows and loves.  Her Wales is that of the past etched into the landscape of the present.  Of people connected, umbilically, to the places that shaped the generations before them.  Of story made tangible in the land.  Landscape – not only the fields, the mountains, the hills, but also the cultural echoes, the resonance that they have – is what Petro loves.  Her inexplicable feeling of having ‘come home’ to that landscape when she, an American with no Welsh antecedents, arrived in Lampeter in 1983 is the starting point for the experiences that have shaped this book.

The Long Field is a remarkable book.  Although it self-identifies on the cover as ‘A Memoir,’ it draws together strands of history, travelogue, a whistle-stop tour of Welsh literary heritage, place writing, pronunciation notes for the Welsh place names, linguistic detours, a coming-out narrative, family saga, and an exploration of identity.  It is this last element, I think, which is the most important.  Can someone identify with a place which they are not ‘from’ but where they nevertheless felt a shock of recognition when they first encountered it?  Yes, says Petro – but is she is not claiming Welshness.  Rather like entering into a relationship with a lover from a different culture who speaks a different language, she seeks – respectfully, gently – to learn, to understand, to value what the beloved values.  What Petro found when she found her Wales filled a profound void in her psyche, provided a connectedness between the people of the present and the past which her upbringing in suburban America had not.  In an era when more people than ever are living where we are not from, The Long Field has much to say about place, identity, past, present – and future.

The Long Field by Pamela Petro is published by Little Toller Books.  ISBN 9781908213853

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Guest blog post by Liza Achilles: 3 Lessons I Learned From Writing a Historical Novel

I am delighted to welcome Liza Achilles, a blogger based in Washington DC, USA, who has written a guest post for The Three Hares Blog.

Writing a historical novel was one of the most interesting activities I have done in my life. Unlike many other types of novel writing, historical novel writing requires a large amount of research. That research comes in several forms, as I will explain in this article. Below are 3 lessons I learned about writing a historical novel during my novel-writing journey. Perhaps these tips will help you if you tackle a historical novel project of your own.

#1 The Value of Visiting University Libraries

When I began researching my historical novel, I considered any book on my topic to be relevant. I stocked up on books from local bookstores and libraries. But I quickly discovered that not every book is of the same quality. Some books contain errors, unfair stereotyping, or generalities that gloss over key points. The books available at local bookstores and libraries were good for a cursory introduction to my subject; but to go deeper, I needed a university library.

I was fortunate that my husband (at the time) was affiliated (at the time) with first one university library and then another. Spouses were given, as a perk, a library card. I imagine that for some spouses, that wasn’t much of a boon. For me, it was a golden ticket to the stacks! (Many university libraries allow you to get a library card for a nominal fee if you don’t have a connection to the library.)

The excitement of browsing the stacks – there’s nothing like it. I would look up a subject on a computer and find a few call numbers. I would venture into some dark and crowded corner of some tower, and locate my book. I would then browse all of the nearby books, looking for something new and interesting. Often the book I took home would not be the book whose call number I found, but a book nearby in the stacks.

It was only with the help of these university books that I was able to correct errors, debunk stereotypes, and dig into important nitpicky details. All of this information was essential to crafting a novel that was as faithful as possible to the reality of what happened during my target time period.

#2 The Value of Visiting Historical Sites

No book about a location can replace a visit to that location. Books can and should supplement a visit. But there’s something powerful and special about experiencing a location in person – even if your visit does, of necessity, occur tens or hundreds of years after your target historical time.

Many historical sites have museums, plaques, monuments, grounds, or reenactments whereby you can immerse yourself in the history of the place. You can view some of the actual objects used by people during the historical period and walk on the actual terrain that was walked on back then. You can also talk with historical experts and read the extensive information provided at such sites.

I found immense value in visiting not just the site where my novel takes place, but also nearby and related sites. It’s always instructive to compare and contrast sites, to take in what is the same and consider what is different, and thus to better home in on your target historical location.

I also recommend touring public lands that aren’t part of any museum. Every place has its own flora and fauna, its own terrain and aura. Soak in the feel of the place, while being careful to distinguish between how things were during the historical time and how things are now. For example, invasive species might now inhabit the area, while other species might have gone extinct. Water levels and the climate might be different. (You can find this information through books and the Internet.)

#3 The Value of Using Primary and Secondary Sources

When researching a historical period, it’s important to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are writings done by people during the target time period. Secondary sources are writings done by people who came later, who wrote about the primary sources (or about other secondary sources).

Primary sources are a must-read because these are the people who were present when the action was happening. They are closest to your targeted time period and thus can be considered, in a way, most reliable. However, in another way, their reliability must be evaluated carefully, since being close to the action can result in all-too-human biases, mistakes, and sometimes even lies. This is where secondary sources come in.

Secondary sources are a must-read because these are the people who have carefully evaluated the quality of the primary sources and drawn conclusions not obvious in the primary sources. When well written, secondary sources are extremely reliable, and they may correct any factual errors, biases, or lies in the primary sources. However, when not well written, they may perpetuate errors, biases, or lies, or introduce new ones.

The bottom line is, dig into both primary and secondary sources, but read them critically and evaluate their reliability.

Conclusion

Research for a historical novel comes in several different forms. You might spend time visiting university libraries, touring historical sites, and consulting primary and secondary source materials. These activities helped me immensely while crafting my historical novel.

Are you working on a historical novel? What lessons are you learning from the experience?

Liza Achilles is a writer, editor, poet, and coach based in the Washington, D.C., area of the USA. She blogs about seeking wisdom through books and elsewhere at lizaachilles.com.

The fallacy of the binary, or why BOTH/AND is better than EITHER/OR

If I am this, then I am not that.  If I am a writer, I am not an artist.  If I am to go on to do this, then I must leave that behind.

This is a common enough view, but it is, I believe, a fallacy.  All of our experiences enrich our lives, and each other.  Also, different perspectives enable us to see things in new ways.  Because I studied history, I see a landscape in a particular way.  Because I am obsessed with maps – including historical maps – I see landscapes in a particular way.  Because I am an artist – and specifically a textile artist, engaged with colour and texture, form and function, techniques and materials, symbols and metaphors – I see a landscape in a particular way.  Because I am a historian, a map addict AND a textile artist, I see the landscape in a way which is uniquely informed by all those lenses – more complex, more nuanced, more sophisticated and more original that if I were solely a writer, a historian, a map addict, a textile artist – a way that is greater than the sum of those parts.

In our culture, we are encouraged to focus on a few things in life.  It starts early, in our education system, where by our mid teens we have to select those subjects which are to be taken forward to public examinations.  If we reach university, our mental paradigms are narrowed still further to one, two, or at the most three subjects.  By postgraduate study, the focus is on one small aspect of one subject, and the emphasis is on depth, not breadth.  There is still the expectation that we will stay in the same job – or at least the same type of work – for the whole of our working lives, as our parents and grandparents did before us.  But we live longer lives than ever before, and this expectation should be obsolete.  More and more of us (myself included) are making one or more career changes – reflecting the massive changes in society and the economy during the half-century and more of our working lives, which have caused entire industries to disappear and others to be invented, but also reflecting the change, growth and development in ourselves as people over that time.  Sure, there are things that don’t change – for example, my love of history was formed young and continues unabated.  But we do develop, change emphasis, change our outlooks.  It would be sad if we stagnated, with our life, work and worldview the same at seventy as it was at twenty – that would imply that we hadn’t lived, hadn’t experienced anything, hadn’t learned or adapted or evolved.

To my mind, there is a close correlation between openness to change and creativity.  Creativity, by its very nature, is the antithesis of the ‘but we’ve always done it this way’ school of thought.  You cannot make a new thing by doing everything the old way.  This is not to value innovation at all costs – that way lies a senseless waste of heritage, skills, knowledge and resources – but to be wedded to habit can only stifle new growth.

It seems perverse, therefore, for me to acquiesce with the cultural notion that we can only be one thing – a writer, an artist, a teacher, whatever – and cannot, should not, also be something else;  that it is a cause for surprise, and somehow unsettling, to find that the local street sweeper is also an award-winning poet, for example, or that the sheep-farmer is a best-selling author*.  The idea that if you are this, then you are not that.

For a while now I have been finding it frustrating that, in order to focus on writing, I have felt that I have to turn my back on my art practice – to say no, I’m not an artist, I am a writer.  But as well as being frustrating, I feel this could weaken the quality of my writing – deliberately excluding the perspectives and insights of the artist me has, I would argue, risked making my writing unnecessarily one-dimensional.  As a writer, I write because of who I am, with experiences, perspectives and insights from all the aspects – relationships, careers, interests, study, skills, identities – which make up my life.  And my best writing is always when I allow one of those things which makes me ‘me’ to play on the page.  When I write ‘as a writer’ I am sometimes disappointed by how flat the resulting work is.  When I write because I can’t help myself, because I am so passionate or fascinated or curious or entranced that I just have to write, it’s then that the magic happens.

Textile art by Lisa Tulfer - an abstract composition in shades of plum, pink and ochre.  Wet process felt, 100% sheep's wool. Image copyright Lisa Tulfer 2012.

A few days ago, a number of factors came together – quite randomly, in that serendipitous way which so often births the best things in life – and I had an idea for a book.  A book that would reflect on landscape and place, and would engage with history and maps and identity and all the things I get excited about.  A book, moreover, which only I can write – because I am a textile artist AND a writer.  BOTH/AND, not EITHER/OR.

It is not unlike the way I am not British OR Dutch, but both – I feel that by embracing a multiplicity of identities my life is enriched by the diversity of experiences, perspectives and insights.  To be one thing to the exclusion of the other feels like a limitation, an impoverishment of my life and, by extension, my writing.  Wilfully to narrow my world-view, limit my sensory and intellectual input, and put large parts of my life into a box labelled (like on the steamships of yore) ‘Not Needed On Voyage’ feels wrong – and, if I am striving for the best writing I am capable of, counter-productive.

So – I am embracing this new book project, which requires me to be the artist me quite as much as the writer me.  It’s scary, it fits into no known genre of writing, and selling the idea to an agent or publisher is going to be a challenge – but I know that I have to write it, because only the BOTH/AND not EITHER/OR that I am can write it.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

* Both these examples are genuine.

Book Review – The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

This book arrived three days before the swifts returned to the skies above Somerset.  When I unwrapped the tissue-packed parcel, I was captivated by the cover – Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are so evocative of the drama and vertiginous speed of these remarkable, ancient birds.

The Screaming Sky is a book born of an obsession.  On his own admission, Charles Foster is obsessed with swifts – where others might be content to watch them in the skies over Oxford, and be blessed by their occupation of nest sites in the roof of his house, Foster travels on pilgrimage to see them in Spain, Greece and Israel, as well as in the tropical heat and humidity of their African winter homes.  He tracks the progress of their migrations via other obsessives on the internet, and the swifts’ presence or absence in the air above him is mirrored in the highs and lows of his mood.  It is as if he cannot live without them.

This gorgeously tactile little book is divided into monthly chapters, January to December.  In each chapter, Foster explores what the swifts are doing that month, and where, as well as delving into the history, biology and statistics of these enigmatic creatures.  We know quite a bit about Apus apus, the Common Swift.  For example, they spend most of their lives on the wing, landing only to breed and occasionally when encountering very bad weather during migration.  They sleep while flying – the two halves of the brain take it in turns to sleep.  Following the cornucopia of insect life (what Foster refers to as aerial plankton or krill), they migrate inconceivable distances – the swifts breeding in Foster’s summertime Oxford spend the winter months 6,000 miles south in Mozambique.   They lay up to four eggs, but the fourth hatchling (if there is one) never survives.  Young swifts set off for their winter homes within weeks, sometimes days, of fledging. 

We know that swifts are truly ancient, having evolved over 30 million years ago. Swifts are also long-lived – they can have a lifespan of 20+ years.  They return to the place where they were hatched, spending their first couple of summers screaming around the sky with their companions and generally, it seems, having a ball, maybe even tentatively pairing up, before scoping out a potential nest site for the serious business of claiming a nest and breeding.  We know that most of the birds which travel to western Europe for the summer breeding season spend a while over Liberia, gorging on the insect soup swirling in the air after the rains.  From there, the swifts I see in Somerset will have travelled some 3,100 miles, in as little as five days.

However, there is so much we don’t know about swifts.  There are myriad theories, for example, about how they navigate over these immense distances, how they decide that the time is right to start their migration, how they re-unite with their mate, and what accounts for the wide variations in how long it takes individual birds to make the journey.

Foster explores the place of the swift in literature, the emphasis on the bird’s speed (the clue is in the name) and its totemic role as the essence of the northern European summer.  He also rails against the appropriation of the swift as somehow the possession of the observer.  Swifts, he says, are not ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ or ‘his’.  They are their own selves, untameable, masters of the sky in a way that we can only dream of, and in no way reciprocating the sense of connectedness we feel with the swifts who condescend to make fleeting use of our roof-eaves and insect supplies.  It is this unconquerable wildness which, for Foster (and for me) makes swifts so compelling.

Perhaps more than anything, though, he is full of admiration for their mastery of their environment, the sky: ‘they inhabit the air as fish inhabit the sea’.  Their speed and seemingly effortless command of the tides of the air is not only functional (hunting insects) but also seems to have a powerful element of fun and joy: ‘not everything is about the algorithms of survival’ and the screaming parties of swifts hurtling through the sky are ‘colossal fun’.

I love this book.  The blend of facts and personal enthusiasm for the subject makes it an engaging read, and Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are perfect.  Of course, I loved it all the more – and was so excited when I heard that Little Toller Books were going to be publishing it – because of how I feel about swifts.  The sight of those exuberant little black sickles slicing through the late spring sky at the end of their epic migration is viscerally energising.  Shrieking squadrons, skimming just over my head between the red-brick cliffs of the town houses, sound so intensely full of life that they make me feel alive, too.  And the day in August when suddenly the sky is silent, empty of little black sickles as they follow the call of their African winter home, is the day the year turns towards winter for me, too.

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy, is published by (and available from) Little Toller Books, 2021.  ISBN 9781908213846

Photograph of the front cover of The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

Don’t go there – imagination, the weird, and why I haven’t written fiction

Recently, I have tentatively started writing short fiction again.  Apart from occasional poetry, most of what I write is nonfiction, often around history and place.  This is partly because nonfiction is my preferred genre (both as a reader and as a writer) but also because of something that happened when I was seventeen.

I have written before on this blog about the creative writing A level I did in the 1980s, which included both poetry and short fiction.  The poetry element was fine – I enjoyed it, was good at it (so much so that my work was published in a volume of examples by the examinations board) and I got a lot out of workshops with poets including Gillian Clarke.  Fiction, however, was another matter altogether.

Like most children, I had always written stories.  I was also an avid reader, often of books well beyond my age group.  The town where I was at school at the time also housed the county library, and I spent a lot of time browsing the shelves, often discovering books which had not seen the light of day for many years.  One particular find was a volume of ghost stories by M.R. James, which according to the date stamp had last been issued in the 1950s.  James was a revelation – obviously, I’d come across ghost stories before, but what I particularly liked about his work was the ambiguity.  His stories did not have tidy endings, they did not provide explanations for what the characters had experienced, they left possibilities open for the mind of the reader to pursue.

Fresh from reading M.R. James, then, I took on the challenge to write a short story for my portfolio.  My English class had recently gone on a field trip to the graveyard of a local chapel, which had resulted in my writing a poem (‘Churchyard on the Hill at Salem’).  It also gave me an idea for the end of my story.

I no longer have the manuscript, but the story went something like this.  Told in the first person, it concerns a teenage girl who is gradually losing her ability to judge what is reality and what is her imagination.  Strange things appear to happen to her in her ordinary life of home and school.  She thinks that a procession of men visit her mother when her father is away on business, but as she becomes increasingly detached from her own life, she wonders how much she can trust her own judgment.  She plays truant, and find herself wandering through the churchyard.  Finding herself drawn to one particular headstone, she brushes away the ivy with her hand to reveal the inscription.  It is her own name, and the date of death is the following day.

Black and white photograph of an old headstone, carved with a winged skull at Felbrigg Hall (National Trust) Norfolk. Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2020
Headstone at Felbrigg Hall (National Trust), Norfolk. Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2020

I was rather pleased with this story.  I felt I had managed to evoke a mood of dreamy unreality, create an unreliable narrator, and write an ending with supernatural overtones but with, to me, pleasing ambiguity.  I submitted it to my English teacher for comment.

Two days later, my teacher kept me behind after the lesson.  She had ‘concerns’, she said.  She had spoken to the deputy head with responsibility for student welfare, and they had decided to speak to me before referring the matter to the Social Services department of the County Council.   Was the story, she wanted to know, in any way autobiographical?  Was I having suicidal thoughts?  Was I living in a household that was, effectively, a brothel?

After a few seconds of stunned silence, my first reaction was to laugh – the idea was hilarious.  My mother had always made it quite clear that she didn’t like sex, that it was a necessary evil which had to be endured to have children, and that once the menopause precluded me having any siblings, sex was something she was relieved no longer to have to do.  The idea that she would have more sex than was essential for procreation was, frankly, hysterically funny.  I tried to explain this to my teacher, as delicately as possible.  She looked doubtful, but accepted my response.  My second reaction, though, was bewilderment.  The assignment was to write a short work of fiction.  I was using my imagination – both in terms of the home scenario, so different from my own, and also the supernatural element.  I was juxtaposing the mundane contexts of home and school, and weaving a story from the results of letting my brain freewheel.  Surely that was the nature of fiction – that it wasn’t a true story?  So why were they – the teachers – assuming that it was autobiographical?  Why did they think that my brain wouldn’t be capable of making that jump from what is to what might be?  Why was I getting into trouble for doing what I had been asked to do – using my imagination to create a fictional world with fictional characters and events?

Evidently what I said reassured the teachers, because Social Services were not brought in.  But the remaining short fiction I wrote for my portfolio was anodyne, tame, safe.  I made sure I didn’t give any cause for concern about my safety or my mental health.  A family goes on a daytrip to the beach, eats sandwiches, plays ball, swims, comes home.  Someone goes for a walk in the woods, sees some animal tracks and wonders what has made them.  The stories I wanted to write were very different – a family goes on a daytrip to the beach, and play with a lone child in an old-fashioned style swimming costume.  When the family swim, the child disappears.  They summon the lifeguard, there is a search.  The child isn’t found.  Cut to an Edwardian newspaper report of a drowned child on that very beach.  Or, someone goes for a walk in the woods.  They see animal tracks, and follow them.  Gradually the tracks morph into human footprints.  In a clearing, they come face to face with the creature they have been following.  But I didn’t write those stories – I played it safe.  Got a good grade.  The teachers stopped watching me.  I had learned that to write fiction that explored the possible, the unexplained, the dark places where the mundane meets the unthinkable, was a Bad Idea and would Get Me Into Trouble.  I never wrote fiction again.

Until this year.  Perhaps because I have felt unable to read fiction in the dystopian reality of Covid 19, I have started to think about writing it again.  I am dipping my toe into the dark pool of my imagination and am writing short stories set in the everyday, about the past, death, the unexplained, with supernatural elements and enigmatic endings.  What I didn’t know, aged seventeen in my provincial small-town school, was that an entire genre of weird writing has been around since the Victorian era – there is even a ‘thing’ called women’s weird – which nowadays is celebrated.  Three decades and more later, I know that having an imagination that enables me to dream up weird writing doesn’t make me weird, and this time round I hope that exploring my imagination will not Get Me Into Trouble.

Tools of my trade – techniques and technology for non-fiction writing

What image pops into your head when you think of a writer?  For many people, I gather it’s an image of a solitary figure, toiling for long hours in a shed or an attic, maybe even still writing in longhand or using a typewriter, surrounded by books and dust, and forgetting to eat.

Well, in my case, the image would be almost totally wrong.  Only almost, because I do actually work in the attic, or more accurately the top floor of an Edwardian town house (it’s not as grand as it sounds – the first occupants were glove makers, working from home, but more about that another time).  In my previous post, I write about the view from the windows.  But I am not solitary – my partner, who is a postgraduate researcher, and I share a study, with our desks facing each other across the floor of the room.  I do have quite a few books, but very little dust.  And I am keen on cooking and even more keen on eating.

Longstanding readers of this blog will know about my notebook habit, and I do write in longhand in my notebooks.  Often this is where initial ideas – or notes jotted down from reading or visits which may morph into a piece of writing later on – are recorded.  I have a general notebook, one for business-related notes, one each for the writing projects I am currently working on or planning, and one for courses I participate in.  Since I discovered the Pentel 1.3mm propelling pencil, most of my notes are written with that as I find it gentler on the hands than a pen.

If I am making notes from books – generally when I am researching historical topics, and referencing academic books – or from online sources, I use a narrow-ruled A4 student pad.  This makes it easier for me to file my notes in a ring binder if I need them for future reference.

For the actual writing, I use my ancient laptop (I really must upgrade it sometime, as it’s getting slower and slower) which I back up regularly.  Mindful of the importance of an ergonomic workstation, I use a separate keyboard and mouse, and my chair and desk are at the right height for me.   I loathe conventional office chairs, so my chair is an early 20th-century ‘smoker’s bow’ which originated in Pembroke College, Oxford, until it was sold off when one of their buildings was re-built.  It has a pleasing patina of age and use, and is built for comfort.  And to celebrate my move to Somerset, I recently treated myself to a new desk, made from reclaimed timber by Pegasus Furniture.

Picture of a desk with laptop, keyboard, diary, pens and books.

Planning a new piece of work – and the steps involved in making it happen – is done in two stages.  The first involves a large sheet of paper, a lot of lovely coloured pens, and often my partner to act as scribe and to challenge my thinking and provide research tips.  The ensuing mind map is then transferred to Trello (my planning tool of choice) as a series of colour-coded lists.  The book I am currently writing has an introduction and 12 chapters.  Each has a Trello list, with the structure, visits, research, reading, interviews, photography etc required for each chapter listed, with notes to myself where appropriate.  I find that working with Trello helps me to keep on top of the various strands of research, and allows me to have an easy overview of what needs to be done – geographically, for example, while I am visiting Hadrian’s Wall to do research for one chapter, it makes sense on the same trip to schedule a visit to Lindisfarne for another chapter; and I see that three chapters will require expertise from the British Museum – maybe I can cover all three on one visit to London?

For each chapter, I first sketch out where I see the chapter going – what I want to include, what angle I am taking, why this chapter is in the book, who are the key people to interview and why, and insights from previous visits where relevant.  Then I do the research, do the site visits and interviews, take photographs were possible, and take lots of notes and voice recordings of my impressions.  Later, these are all collated and, once I have created a detailed structural plan of the chapter, written up into the first draft.  It’s a slow process but it allows for rigorous background research and fact checking, as well as giving me time for ideas to develop as I reflect on, and respond to, what I have experienced.

It may come as a surprise to some people that the actual writing is a relatively small part of the process.  Bear in mind that I write non-fiction, so although what I write is filtered through the lens of my own personal perspective, experience and personality, it is based on something external.  Most of what I write about involves history or place, or both, and therefore writing about it requires close reference to the place, object, event or person that is my subject, and to what is known about it.  For example, my personal reflections on the music of Benjamin Britten in a recent piece for Issue 5 of The Pilgrim are informed and enriched by studying his life and work, as well as by experiencing for myself the sights and sounds of the beach at Aldeburgh which is the setting for his opera Peter Grimes.

No two writers – not even two non-fiction writers – will approach their work in the same way, or use the same tools and technology in their writing, but this is how I work.  The process evolves, too – prior to my discovery of Trello, I used whiteboards and a lot of coloured maker pens and sticky notes.  Trello is essentially a digital version of this, which has the advantage of leaving my walls free for inspiring art!

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com